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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Zeal for Your House Will Consume Me

I read these words:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME” [John 2:13-17 NASB].
I closed my eyes to picture the scene. It was blurry and tentative, because I never went to the Passover in first-century Jerusalem. But I vaguely saw the back of Jesus walking amid the press of a crowd of black- and gray-headed, beige-clad pilgrims through the Beautiful Gate. I saw the vast and crowded plaza before the monumental facade of the temple. I saw Jesus with unobtrusive determination tying together a bunch of ropes to make a flail. I heard, like a huge flock of birds, the loud chatter of customers haggling with endless rows of livestock vendors and moneychangers.

Then I heard a big crash—a table fell over. A short, startled cry and a momentary, local hush. No, the table had been thrown over. The sound of a metallic shower of coins rippled through the air. Men hopped down fearfully to scoop the coins up, but they were suddenly flogged by Jesus on their buttocks, which scattered them. Another table fell and then another. I saw his hand grip the edges and throw them one by one. The crowd’s noise alternated between silence and uproar.

Then he reached the livestock. Clouds of pigeons burst into the air as their cages were smashed. Vendors fearfully clung to them before he could break them too, and his voice thundered, “Take them away—NOW.” He threw off the bolt fastening the sheep pen. With the snap of his whip, the sheep and goats were belched from their place; they rumbled by with manic bleating. Then Jesus reached the cattle pen. Uh-oh. With a rising, bellowing rumble a stampede surged forth as oxen, four abreast, lumbered through the courtyard, crushing under hoof anyone who failed to get out of the way.

No one knew what to do. Vendors wanted to scream at him, but apoplectic rage stopped in their throats. Panting, spear-brandishing guards wanted to seize him, but they were frozen where they stood. Twenty thousand eyes rested on Jesus, standing on top of a table, and twenty thousand ears heard him cry, “STOP MAKING MY FATHER’S HOUSE A PLACE OF BUSINESS!”

I opened my eyes. Then I closed them again.

I was in the cavernous, tinted-glass-enclosed atrium of a suburban megachurch during a break between sessions of a conference. Sunlight glowed off the neutral walls, softened by the gray carpet. I saw two parallel, almost endless rows of booths from one end of the enormous room to the other. Some of them belonged to Christian colleges; they bore facades with academic crests and photos of healthy blonde kids (with one black kid), and they were fronted by healthy, blazer-wearing admissions people. Some tables were for missions organizations; these were worked by homelier folks in logo-embroidered golf shirts and worn khakis (because donors are suspicious of missionaries who look too worldly). But most tables belonged to publishers and booksellers. These were covered with books, and the books were covered with pictures, many of them pictures of the people speaking in the eager auditorium at one end of the hall. A buzzing mass of humanity swarmed among the tables. Goods, bags, and folders were in everyone’s hand. Credit cards whipped through iPads in every direction.

I walked to the first table on the left. I said to the guy there, “You should move.” He looked at me funny, not knowing how to take it. I grabbed the back of his display and threw it over, just missing him. The light fixture on top sharply popped as the bulbs shattered. A surprised gasp burst from the clientele. I strode behind the table. With a heavy shove I tipped it and with a succession of loud thuds the books hit the floor. A cry of shock.

I went from table to table, wrecking all of them, sparing none. No one knew what to do. Anger, fear, alarm, or awe were on every face. People cleared out ahead of me. Security guards ran up; I ignored them, and for some reason they did not approach me. On every side ten phones recorded my every move. Some vendors stood in my way until I shoved them aside with their own falling displays. I could not hear any speech—was it because it was silent or because the furor was deafening?

I threw the merchandise off the last table and climbed onto it. “IT IS WRITTEN,” I cried to the crowd, “MY HOUSE WILL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER! BUT YOU HAVE MADE IT A DEN OF THIEVES!” I hopped down, punched the crash bar on the door at the end of the row and walked into the sunny afternoon.

I opened my eyes again. Lord, I said in awe, how did you do that? Weren’t you scared? Weren’t you afraid of being misunderstood? Wouldn’t they think that you were an insane crank or an enemy of the state? Wouldn’t you be arrested? Wouldn’t you lose all your audience, your friends distancing themselves from you, your family embarrassed by you? What message are people getting from what you did? The Passover requires a load of animals—God said so. They have to be supplied somehow, right? What did the vendor you beat have to do with it? He’s a regular Joe just trying to feed his family; he didn’t make the system. You knew his needs better than anyone else. Didn’t it matter to you what he thought of you?

The answer to all these questions was simple and obvious. Zeal for your house will consume me.

Lord, I said with a sob, I want that zeal. I want to be so obsessed with the purity of your house, your church, that I have no fear left. I want to be utterly unconcerned about being misunderstood, mislabeled, rejected. I am so afraid—I can’t picture myself doing that . . . except that I just did picture myself doing it. I don’t want to be arrested or sued. Even more, I don’t want to be hated. But if you tell me to destroy other people’s property for the sake of your house . . . (I’m so scared) . . . then I will.

St. Francis of Assisi publicly stripped off his clothes and disowned his father and then lived as a homeless beggar. John and Charles Wesley preached outdoors while mobs threw stones when churches refused them their pulpits. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched down a street and was cuffed and hauled away by police with dogs.

We revere these men; countless churches, schools, and even streets bear their names. We are the Pharisees: we build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous even though we are the children of their persecutors (Matt. 23:29-33).

We remember these men because they performed bold, infuriating, prophetic acts ready-made for misunderstanding and rebuke, even for arrest or being torn to pieces. They did these things for Jesus Christ, because he did these things.

It is hard to picture anyone doing anything like that today. We live in a skeptical age in which no one—at least no religious person—can make any moral statement without adding the caveat that “I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.” In this environment, every righteous utterance is assumed to be self-righteous, so prophetic authority is rare.

But once in a great while, God requires someone to do a righteous, bold, prophetic act like this—something that saves people but destroys life as people know it—something physical that people experience and interpret as violence, even if no one gets physically hurt . . . except for the person who does it.

I have not been ordered to do something like that . . . not yet. But I have not ruled out the possibility.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Was the Civil War Just?

This question is put to the test by Harry S. Stout in Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Penguin, 2006). The book was a game-changer for me; I do not know how a person can read it and not be affected.

Stout's intention is to provide the material that allows the reader to analyze the Civil War according to just war theory. He therefore retells the story of the Civil War in a way that brings to special prominence those events, decisions, policies, and (very importantly) administration and homefront rhetoric and rationale that are most relevant to that analysis. Stout spends fairly few pages propounding his own analysis, however, though the words he uses in the chronicle at times (like "bloodthirsty") give pretty strong hints about what he thinks. Nevertheless, the book is written in a way that allows the reader a good deal of latitude to draw their own conclusions from the story told.

This story is a gripping one, and I suspect that there are few people, including people quite knowledgable about the Civil War, who would not be surprised by it. I read of events I had never heard of before and encountered a large volume of homefront commentary, especially from clergy, that was entirely unfamiliar. Even events and decisions that were familiar to me took on a different light in Stout's portrayal.

One paragraph from this six-hundred-plus-page book sums up much of what struck me in it:
In a perverse jumble of conflicting agendas, the nation was convulsed by a war between a white, slaveholding Confederacy and a Northern Republican administration promoting emancipation to justify total war. For the administration, total war was the regrettable end and emancipation the means, while Democrats promoted conciliation with slavery and white supremacy as the end and peace the means. In a profound sense, white America was getting what it deserved [343].
Another theme that Stout persuasively lays out is his thesis that American civil religion was founded in the blood sacrifice of the Civil War. Although I am not convinced that there was no track laid to this destination through the blood sacrifice of the Revolution, I do believe that he basically proves his case. Paying attention to this tale Stout tells, one cannot escape a dawning realization of how un-Christian the national civil religion actually is, which makes it all the more pernicious since for many Americans there is no grasp that civil religion and Christianity are two different things, much less opposed to each other.

I do have a couple criticisms of Stout's book. One is that while he does a masterful job of providing the evidence by which one would judge whether there was jus in bello (justice in how the war was conducted), he shrugs off handling jus ad bellum (just cause), arguing that "secession is a moral issue with no moral criterion for a sure answer" (532). That seems to be a way of saying that we are not going to look at it because it is really tricky to figure out. But as Stout abundantly demonstrates, belief in the justice of the cause is the very thing that propelled both sides to commit all kinds of injustices. The matter cannot be blown off.

Secondly, Stout entirely ignores—does not even mention—the moral overtones of diverse approaches to Reconstruction 1863-65. This is a shame, because Reconstruction began while the war was still being fought, and crucial decisions pertaining to it were made by commanders in and around their campaigns. It also pertains to some of the very issues that Stout considers. One example of this consists of the moral and legal claims of enemy civilian property-holders versus the claim of a government to finance and supply its war effort versus the long-term social and material needs of freed slaves. Another example is whether it is moral (not to mention feasible) to annihilate a culture deliberately as a war aim when that culture is intimately bound to a socioeconomic immorality at the root of the origin of the war. I am not saying that these are easy questions; I am just saying that they are profoundly relevant.

These criticisms aside, however, this work is a triumph, especially if success is measured by how well it unsettles the reader. Last year on this blog I talked about the different ways and times that my posture has changed toward the Civil War. Reading Stout provoked the latest change on the list. Another paragraph by Stout neatly sums up why:
. . . in the process of writing this book it has become irrefutably clear to me that some moral judgments need to be made, judgments that most Americans have been reluctant to make. We have preferred a violent but glamorized and romantic Civil War. Military histories have focused on strategies and tactics and the sheer drama of battles in action. Political histories have focused—especially in the present—on slavery and emancipation, accounting the evil so complete and pervasive as to justify even murder. In this sense, Lincoln's war strategy was and remains genius. That does not make it right [535].
It is an awesome achievement that through the Civil War and its immediate aftermath slavery was abolished and African-Americans became acknowledged as Americans. But I can no longer consider the war to be just on either side nor ignore or sentimentalize the incinerated landscapes and streams of blood.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Reflections on a Boring Scandal; or, Death by Image and the Good News

[Note: This post was written in conversation with Ted Kluck. Ted's post on this subject is part one; this post by me is part two.]

As my friend Ted's post explained, apparently pastor/author/personality Mark Driscoll hired a marketing firm to buy a load of copies of his book in order to launch it onto multiple bestseller lists. That's about all I'm going to say about it, because there are many nutritious things all of us could be thinking about, and this is not one of them, so the less attention it gets the better. I feel icky even mentioning it.

I must mention it, however, in the course of reflecting on a blog post written by a pastor/author/non-personality (personality-in-the-making?) named Jared C. Wilson. I want to point out that I feel almost as icky doing that. The idea that it is worth your attention what one guy writes about what another guy wrote about what a third guy did—this is tied to the very mess I'm writing about today. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I agree with everything Wilson wrote in his post without exception. The heart of his rebuke of Driscoll's action (without mentioning Driscoll by name) is that it is dishonest, and Wilson incontestably demonstrates exactly how it is dishonest. Further, he gives prudent advice to the person who might be tempted to do this about how it can only hurt them and hamper their stated objective (namely, to "reach people with the gospel").

Wilson also demonstrates how this behavior is unfair to others. The need-to-read part of Wilson's post is at the end when he incisively goes after "the preacher[s] [who] got envious of the writer[s]." Some of these preachers "cannibalize the writer class" by employing ghostwriters to elevate their own platform at the expense of "real artists who are getting crowded out of the marketplace" (like Ted, I might add). This keeps these writers from making a living at their art, and it reinforces evangelical readers' taste for middling-fare-to-schlock.

Like I said, all these criticisms are on target, and Wilson helpfully notes that "at least" this many things are wrong with buying one's own book to inflate its prominence. That's a good admission to make, because the most important thing wrong with the behavior Wilson totally ignores.

Wilson writes as if to engage in this behavior for the sake of the gospel hinders the gospel. Hardly—in reality, this behavior voids the gospel. It is the antigospel. It is the bad news that stands diametrically opposed to the good news. It is not merely that someone tried to do the right thing in the wrong way. It is not merely that the method rendered itself ineffective. Rather, it is a manifestation of antichrist. It is Satanic.

Here's why. The bad news for the human race—one of multiple ways to describe it—is that we whom God created in his image stopped finding our glory in his image in us. Following the lead of the devil, who stopped finding his glory in God's image in him, we sought to craft our own images and assert them in God's image's place.

Ever since, we have vainly continued to try to craft our images and by persuasion or violence compel the world to acknowledge them. To the extent that we have held power over others we have endeavored to engrave on others the images we think ought to belong to them as well. In families, schools, workplaces, churches, and communities, we are locked in combat to secure the image of self, resisting others' image-impositions as we use words to impose on them their images as we see them. We kill and are killed by image, all the while killing ourselves.

Paul sums up this entire race-wide, age-old melee with the words "according to the flesh." Life according to the flesh is self-measurement and others-measurement by any and all observables other than sheer virtue. I look at your observables—including your reputed bestseller—and I know what and how much and how high you are, and what and how much and how high I am by comparison.

We have engraved images on our own flesh. Yet "all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass; the grass withers and the flower falls off" (1 Pet. 1:24). God brooks no rival from graven images and will soon destroy us with his incinerating breath.

This is the bad news to which the gospel is good news. The good news for the human race is that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God—he eternally is the image that we were created in. By Christ's incarnation the Father restamped his image on human flesh. By Christ's resurrection that stamp was made permanent and incorruptible.

Our salvation is that we may take our eyes off our flesh and the flesh of others, off the images of false gods—this is repentance—and by faith fix them on Christ, the Image of God. When we do, "we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18). Christ becomes our image. We get our glory back, which is not ours, but God's. And "[w]e know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is" (1 John 3:2). This is gospel.

But receiving this image requires that "from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh" (2 Cor. 5:16 NKJV)—including ourselves. Instead, we must now regard everyone according to the Spirit and ignore the flesh.

The reason that buying prominence is antigospel goes far beyond its mere dishonesty and lack of fair play. Yes, those features of the behavior show that it crosses an ethical line, as Wilson competently demonstrates. But though Wilson makes passing reference to "the celebrity culture pervading evangelicalism," he doesn't go to its root. This, right here, is the titanic problem—namely, that behavior like Driscoll's communes in a wicked system that revolves around the self-creation and self-projection of image, the iconography of the flesh. And in this respect it differs not in kind from the rest of the "Christian-industrial complex" but merely in degree. (Though many were scandalized by what Driscoll did, was anybody truly surprised?) From this point of view, how much difference is there really between "earning" attention to one's projected image and "buying" it?

Though this sin is as old as Adam and Eve, it used to be that only a few had the wherewithal to play the game beyond their parochial circle of acquaintances. But late-modern capitalism and technology put the power to make ourselves celebrities into the hands of everyone with a Facebook account (in theory). What Driscoll did is antigospel because no matter what is written on the pages of his book, the marketing impulse around it exalts the very bondage from which the gospel of Christ delivers us—poor, deluded, run-of-the-mill, voyeuristic self-pornographers that we are.

Nevertheless, one irony of how God chose to make salvation work is that the good news is passed from one person to another, one image-bearer to another. You're reading this on my blog with my face or on Ted's blog with Ted's face. Paul's letters were written by Paul, not by Anonymous. As long as we are who we are, we all project our flesh constantly for others to fix on or ignore as they choose, whether or not we've tried to impress or attract with it. And as long as we are in the body we cannot turn this off, including while we tell the good news.

But God provided a right way to do this that is bound up in Christ, his Image. "[W]e do not proclaim ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5). If you have to see my flesh, at least you can see it serving you as your slave. At least you can see it weak, plain, boring, ugly, suffering, despicable, or—perhaps most appalling of all—unsuccessful. At least you can see it as onlookers saw Jesus' form on the cross. And then, hopefully, though all you see is me, all you will see is him.

Even as I write this, I hear a bloodthirsty monster rattling its cage inside me, yearning for me to let it out. It growls to me fantasies that this post will go viral, that hundreds of thousands will bow down to it, that Ted and I will get offered a book deal, get invited to speak at conferences, maybe even get a welcome-to-the-big-time e-mail from John Piper or Andy Stanley. I can't escape the toxic atmosphere of idolatry, because it is my flesh's native habitat. I breathe it in so constantly and so naturally in our image-choked age that I only get hints of what life is like without it.

Those hints come when I stop staring at my image, stop shaping it, stop regarding others' images, stop making comparisons, stop trying to measure up, stop trying to win, and instead fix my eyes on Jesus Christ, the Image of God—my image, my life, my salvation. "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:24-25).

Don't Get Famous (Seriously, Don't)

[This is a guest post by my friend Ted Kluck. Ted's post is part one of a pair that we wrote in conversation with each other. My post, part two, is here.]

Everybody I know has a book deal.  In fact, when I meet someone who doesn’t have a book deal I now find them quirky and intriguing. That’s how pervasive the fame-grab has become.

I had that thought this morning as I was doing some obligatory research into the Emergent Church (rest its soul) because I stupidly agreed to do a radio interview about it, even though I haven’t really thought about it since I co-authored a book about it several years ago.

While doing my half-hearted research, I stumbled upon this week’s Online Argument of the Year, which was about the fact that superstar pastor Mark Driscoll apparently bought his way onto the New York Times bestseller list. Most bothersome (to me) was the fact that I was neither surprised nor especially bothered by it.

One of my buddies said, “I’m not defending Driscy, because he needs to try to spend at least 5-10 minutes per day NOT branding himself.” I laughed. He continued, saying, “I know there are certain things you do in the industry to get where you need to go. Most people don’t realize that all radio time for pop stars is purchased. That’s just the reality, so I don’t care. But the emphasis of a pastor may need to be a little more tempered. More guarded.”

I agree, primarily because the Bible is mum on the conduct of pop stars, but has a lot to say about pastors/teachers of the Word.

A little more halfhearted research revealed that the post-Emergent-social-media-sphere (which consists of Rachel Held-Evans and like three other guys) was predictably cranked up and indignant about Driscy.

When you’re Rachel Held-Evans, being cranked up about something and then Tweeting about it is a large part of what you do. It’s yielded her a certain low-level Christian fame. To be fair, being cranked up about the Emergent Church and writing about it yielded me a low-level Christian fame that I sometimes regret and have probably squandered.

“I’ve never heard of Rachel Held-Evans,” said another pastor friend, Cory Hartman. “It feels good to be somewhat out of touch.” To which I replied, “I would recommend staying out of touch. You’re not missing anything.”

Finally, somebody on Gospel Coalition wrote a post about 5 or 6 reasons why it was wrong to do what Driscy did. It was a great article in nearly every way, full of spot-on insights into our industry, but its subtext might have been, “By all means get famous, just make sure you’re doing it with integrity.”

What nobody is saying is this: Consider not getting famous at all.

Don’t get famous, because it will assault your character and dirty your motives in ways you can’t imagine. Ways that go beyond just being smug and self-satisfied and annoying on Twitter. Your friends won’t tell you how smug and annoying you’re being because they might be using you to get their own thing going. Such is the nature of fame.

Also, consider not getting famous because Jesus actually said a lot about this.

I recently submitted the following for (ironically) a book I’m doing:
We see this tension between worldly ambition and godly ambition in our publishing pursuits, but we also see it in Matthew 20 where there is some pretty serious family-related fame-maneuvering taking place. In verse 21, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus and asks, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Her sons, no doubt, implored her to make this request, which was aimed at elevating their fame above that of the other ten. As parents we can relate to this all too well—a desire for our own fame, and a desire to be known through the achievements of our children. On one hand (positive), they had a rock-solid belief that Jesus would be ushering in the kingdom. They had no doubt on that point. On the other hand (negative), they wanted to be co-Vice Presidents in the new venture.
Jesus puts her request into context, saying, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They replied in the affirmative, and they would both, indeed, suffer in their own lives, as James was the first of the twelve to die for his Lord, beheaded by Herod Agrippa I, and John was the last . . . suffering exile to the Island of Patmos. Their stories suggest that suffering and true identification with Jesus are inextricably linked. It may be impossible to have one without the other.

Jesus then explains that the privilege of sitting at his right and left “is not for me to grant.” And not surprisingly, when the other ten heard of this request, the text says that “they were indignant with the two brothers.” When fame is reached for—and even at some level attained—jealousy and strife often follows. I’ve seen this in my own life and career.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say that we shouldn’t be great. He doesn’t implore James and John to just shoot for mediocrity. Rather, Jesus closes the issue with a meditation on the true nature of greatness in verses 25-28, saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be the first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I also wrote this: “Publishing has been a great blessing to me . . . and also something of a curse at times. It’s launched some friendships and wrecked others. Go into it with your eyes open and your heart guarded. It probably won’t be what you want it to be, and if it is, that might actually be worse.”