Into the Fray: The negative responses to tragedy

Nothing for a month and then back to back whoppers. I guess I’ve got a lot I held back.

I’ve hesitated to write this post. I really have. But I don’t think I can be quiet about it. It needs to be said, and people need to stop being made to feel like idiots or heretics because they don’t fall in line with a specific, narrow interpretation. I’m trying not to sound angry, but I am a little bit. Not at the Bible and not at God, but at the way people twist God’s word.

Some people respond badly to tragedy. I don’t mean they fall down and break down and sink into a depression. That type of response is normal. It’s expected. It means we are people.

I believe the desire to cry out “why,” to weep, to yell, to get angry, to shake our fists at the sky, to pound them into the ground, to tell God “no” while simultaneously asking him to lift us up and hold us is all evidence of God’s fingerprints upon us.

It means we are God’s children.

Maybe it doesn’t make our theology “pretty” but it makes it genuine. We need a messy theology because life is messy and we don’t have it figured out.

But it’s the neat and tidy theology, the one that has it all figured out, the one that has a sure answer for any difficulty, this is the dangerous theology; not because it might be right, because of how wrong and damaging it can be. And how blind it can make us.

We are fragile.

Weak.

Emotional.

Irrational.

And we certainly aren’t sure.

So how can we claim to have it all figured out? How can the finite claim to even begin to fathom the infinite? We can’t.

But that doesn’t stop the assurances of some.

Some Background

Earlier this week, evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans reacted to what she saw as an insensitive tweet from Pastor John Piper. She reacted emotionally, but, at least on the whole, correctly. As it turns out, Piper hadn’t meant to send the verse that launched Evans reaction out of context and had actually tweeted two verses in succession. They are from Job. Here’s the first tweet:

“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19

That actually includes a bit of paraphrase from verse 18, but fair enough, there are 140 character limits. And the second

“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Job 1:20

Eventually Piper deleted the tweets because the first one held in isolation looks like a terrible condemnation on the people of Oklahoma, as if it says “you deserve this.” We can get into how imprudent it was to put the tweets out in this manner (without any indication of a multi-part tweet, and indeed, the appearance from the first one that this is the end; let’s just say an ellipsis could’ve saved a world of trouble), and Piper should have known better as this is not the first time he’s put his twitter foot in his beak. But nevertheless, at least this time, Piper hadn’t meant to be callous. In response to that, Evans issued an apology to her readers, acknowledging that she might have reacted imprudently as well. That’s all fine.

I’m not going to defend everything Evans says, in fact I think I disagree with a fair bit (that’s ok), nor am I going to discredit everything Piper says (Lord knows he has done some really good things). However, I would like to ask if this means that Piper’s previous responses to natural disaster, which Evans highlighted in her initial post, are somehow also excused? I don’t think they are.

The thing is, Piper has a history of blaming victims, telling them they deserved God’s wrath. On one level, yes it’s true, we all deserve God’s wrath. We all rebel actively and engage in open, and sometimes covert, warfare against our creator. But it is one thing to say we deserve God’s wrath, and quite another to imply, or explicitly state, that God is actively pouring out his wrath on people. That takes a level or either arrogance, callousness, or certainty (or all of the above) that I sincerely hope I’m not capable of. And certainly the relationship between Piper (and others) and Sovereign Grace ministries, which has a history of abusing children, something highlighted in Evans post, cannot be ignored. She has a very valid point and we ignore it to our detriment. Still, what I really want to talk about is the response that others have given to Evans.

Bad Theology breeds Contempt

On twitter and in blogs, a number of people rushed to Piper’s aid to condemn Evans, question her belief in Scriptures and God’s Word, and essentially tell her she was wrong. What struck me, though, was that the focus was not primarily upon the context of Piper’s tweets (though that was often mentioned), but rather to what Evans thought Piper was saying. The focus of Piper’s defendants has been that Evans is not wrong for misunderstanding Piper, but because she did understand him. Let me put it more plainly:

Most critics of Evans (this week) do so because they believe the people suffering loss right now deserved what happened and God sent the destruction. According to their theology: God didn’t just allow the tornado, he caused it because he was angry.

That’s not who I know God to be.

My God is patient, and faithful, and longsuffering. That’s what I read in the Bible

So where did their idea of God come from? It came from having it all figured out. This is the neo-Calvinist camp (the “young, restless and reformed” group). Now I may be painting with a bit of a broad brush, but not that broad. Their theology comes from a few key ideas.

1) The Bible is the complete revelation of God.

By this they don’t mean “complete” in the sense that the Bible points entirely to God (as I take it to mean), but that the Bible gives a complete picture of God. Wait a minute. The Bible itself seems to contradict that idea. What about John’s statement that he could not even hope to write down everything that Jesus did and its significance? What about the idea that God will reveal himself more fully when he returns, as it says in Revelation? What about Paul’s statement that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12)? God’s revelation isn’t complete in the Bible. It’s completeness is found elsewhere. It’s found in the historical person Jesus who was the incarnate Word of God and God himself. This revelation reached it’s height in the Resurrected Christ and there were glimpses of it at the transfiguration. But that kind of revelation is too deep for words, and we are still working it out, almost two millennia later. So how do the neo-Calvinists reconcile these types of Biblical statements with their theology? Simple

2) Only those passages that conform easily to their presupposed theology should be taken plainly, all others require some interpretive work.

Granted, we all do this to some extent. The difference is, and this is important, that most of us recognize we might not be right. We are resistant to other interpretations that contradict our own, but we are at least open to the possibility we could be wrong. Most neo-Calvinists, at least of the sort who follow Piper, will not admit to such an uncertainty. They are right and they are sure of it. The hermeneutical efforts that are made, though do not engage with literary genre or the culture of a particular part of the bible, at least not on a fundamental level. Instead they engage primarily with a particular view of Calvin that was articulated at the Synod of Dort (the five points or TULIP) and engage it in the form it comes in from Piper and Mohler and the like. In this form, all other voices must be silenced. Doubts are unacceptable. Why? Because to admit doubts is to give up ground to the secular culture, or to postmodernism (as if that term had meaning), or to liberals, or to atheists and agnostics. According to this sort of theology, Christians don’t doubt, or if they do they keep quiet about it because we can’t afford to show weakness. The result of this sort of thinking leads to the following:

3) The theology, which determines which passages are “literal” and which are not, is one that is systematic, direct, and simple.

I should probably explain what I mean by each of those last three terms.

First “systematic.” By this I mean their theology creates a system that informs all parts of their life, and all parts of their theology. The system goes together. If it falters on one point, the entire theology has to be scrubbed and reworked. It’s interconnected and linked.

It’s direct. It applies specifically and directly to everything in life. There is no uncertainty about a response. When something that would question a person’s faith comes up, there is a simple direct answer to it. No compromise.

It’s simple. I don’t mean that it’s naïve. I mean that it doesn’t allow for any “messiness.” It is applied in such an exacting way that emotion, that human nature, is taken completely out of the equation. It is entirely cerebral. In doing so, it often leads to callousness. Catastrophic events aren’t taken for the raw tragedies they are, but as pastoral problems to be solved. I recognize I have difficulty in not treating real tragedies and issues as problems to be solved, but when I worked with a hospital chaplaincy office I learned one thing very well. People aren’t problems to be solved. The things that happen to people are questions in need of answers. Some issues cannot be resolved before Jesus comes.

Simplicity is really a holdover idea from Platonism. Platonic, and Aristotelian, thinking guided advanced thought in the West (and mid-East) throughout the middle ages. It helped advance scientific understanding. Eventually, though, it had to be abandoned. It turns out planets don’t orbit in circles, nor are their elliptical orbits that perfect. It turns out that cells are pretty wild and unkempt. Yet what has been abandoned in the sciences has held steady in much Christian thought, particularly among neo-Calvinists. The idea that life is messy and often inexplicable is seen as an untenable compromise with the world outside of the church. So they build a tower and isolate themselves from a felt and a messy theology.

But God didn’t make the world as a machine. God made it alive and unpredictable. God doesn’t function like a robot, whose responses can be predicted and easily explained, but as a living, breathing God, an untamed lion, and infinite power who meets intimately with the finite. God understands our weakness, he sympathizes with our pain, he weeps at the grave of a friend. He does not say, “Well I guess old Lazarus deserved it, after all he was a terrible sinner. God must have killed him because he was rightly angry.” No. He weeps. Then he says that death does not have the last word. He violates the simplicity of our theology by offering alternatives we never even though possible. That’s what my God does. That’s who my God is. My God is the faithful one. The one who loves. The one who is slow to anger, abounding in love, long-suffering from generation to generation. That’s my God.

Empty Rhetoric

To garner support for their position, many neo-Calvinists garner the best rhetoric they can muster. If they run out of arguments they declare an honest seeker to be a heretic and wash their hands of them “fare well” is the cry. So sure of themselves are they that they cannot fathom being wrong. Often there is a resort to quick and pithy rhetoric that is entirely empty.

Such was the case with one particular blog post I want to address; think of it as a case study. One of the more notable critics of Rachel Held Evans’s recent blog post was Douglas Wilson, who is most well-known for his debates with the late Christopher Hitchens. Wilson quotes from G. K. Chesterton and then applies it to the recent hub-bub. The salient quotation from Chesterton is as follows:

If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat

Wilson goes on to say that Evans has, in effect, “denie[d] the cat.” As I said, rhetorically it sounds great, not to mention the air of smugness that seems to accompany it; the one that seem to say “I’ve got it figured out and you’re an idiot.” In the context of the blog, the rhetoric is such as to shame you away from questioning it (whether or not this was consciously done). But if we push past that and actually examine the argument we see that there is either a case of begging the question or a false dichotomy, depending on how you analyze it, both logical fallacies.

The post assumes, in this scenario, that either there is no God, or God is the cause of suffering. That is a false dichotomy. Incidentally, it’s the same false dichotomy set up by the atheist. Many in the neo-Calvinist camp seem content to say that God is the cause of suffering, and not in an indirect sort, but directly; because God is angry with us; and he is just in being so.

Then we have the callousness. Wilson says “The sovereignty of God is a hard shell case that carries and protects the tender heart.” See that. We’re supposed to be callous. We need it in order to be protected. After all, why would I want to be hurt by someone else’s suffering? There’s a selfishness behind such callousness, though we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by a theology that glorifies hedonism. But that’s not how “agape” works. Agape is, of necessity, self-sacrificing. It is altruistic. A theology built around hedonism assumes that God is selfish and we are selfish and those are good things because, somehow, they drive us close to each other. It’s no wonder there is a reluctance among many neo-Calvinists to help the poor, unless it be from duty (which is selfish after all), or to glorify the capitalism preached by noted atheist Ayn Rand. Again, I’m willing to remove the intellectual insulation from my heart to let it broken by what breaks the heart of God. Doing so, however, does not mean I deny that God is enthroned. God is still King of the cosmos, even when we weeps with us.

To see Wilson’s argument as begging the question we simply need to reframe the dichotomy. The option is either that there isn’t or there is a God. That is a valid dichotomy. The “begging the question” comes in when we say, as Wilson seems content to say, that if there is a God, then he must be the cause for suffering. Hang on a second. That’s exactly what is at issue here. I am under no obligation to accept that scenario. By refusing to accept I am not, as Wilson indicates, denying the reality of suffering (or “denying the cat”). I am simply saying there is another cause for the suffering. It might be the case that some suffering, maybe even most suffering, is indeed senseless. That doesn’t mean God isn’t sovereign or helpless or surprised. It does mean I don’t have it all figured out though.

And I don’t.

I don’t have it figured out.

And that’s ok. I’m still learning. I’ve got all of eternity to learn.

God teach me.

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Weep with those who Weep: Responding to tragedy

I’ve been radio silent. I announced it ahead of time, but still I feel like I should’ve said something. In the weeks since I’ve gone on hiatus several tragedies have happened. There was the Boston bombing, the plant explosion in the town of West, Texas, the factory collapse in Bangladesh, the huge surge in intentional violence in Iraq. Then there was this this:

AP photo

The tornadoes and storms that swept through the American Midwest, disproportionately affecting central Oklahoma. In all of these tragedies, this one seemed to hit closest to me. I went to school in Shawnee. My wife and I lived in Oklahoma City. I still have relatives and friends in the Moore/Oklahoma City area. Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s why I’ve been a little shaken. Then there’s also the fact that I could see no cause for it.

A friend of mine recently asked me to respond to the tragedy in extended form, preferably on this blog. I wasn’t sure that was needed at first. After all many people could respond to it. They could offer the explanations or the comfort needed. Ultimately, I thought, that comfort and the answers to the “why” should come from God. But I was reminded gently that all of us need signposts sometimes to show us the way, or a mirror because God can’t be looked at face to face in our present bodies. So I hope that I can serve as a signpost or a mirror. This is my effort at that.

My personal Response

Before I get too involved in arguments about evil and so forth, I first want to give my response (if you want to argue with me, skip this section, I’m not offering arguments here). Not only to the Oklahoma tragedy, but to all of these tragedies, and others, this is my response:

This is not the end.

This tragedy does not have the final say. It is not over yet. The end is much better, much more joyous, and will make all past wrongs become right. God is changing this world, and the wickedness and evil and tragedy of the present world will be revealed to have never been. They are real and true and genuine right now, but they won’t always be. God is changing that. There is something else I want to convey:

You are not alone.

Suffer. Weep. Wail and moan. But know that you do not do so alone. Whoever you are, wherever you are coming from, know that God weeps with us. The beauty and joy of Emmanuel is that God comes along side us. Recall that Jesus wept over the death of his friend and wept over the city of Jerusalem. Know now that he weeps over the loss of these tragedies, and weeps for the towns and cities of West, Boston, Shawnee, Oklahoma City, Moore, and others. God is with you, as are others. God has given us a desire for community because these communities help sustain us in the midst of tragedy. When you are lifted up by your neighbor, that is God helping you as well. Above all else, understand that a key message of the cross is that outrageous suffering and pain is not foreign to God, but is something with which God is intimately acquainted. Jesus cried out “Why have you forsaken me” before declaring “It is finished.” Suffering is not something just to be explained away, but is at the heart of the Christian message. Finally, let me say one more thing:

You are not being punished.

God doesn’t seek the death of children. Tragedy is not the result of divine retribution. That was the mistake of Job’s friends. Something we need to understand is that sometimes, quite often actually, senseless evil is just that, senseless. As Jesus said, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This isn’t a divine indictment, or punishment that’s been withheld until now. It just is. And it is tragic. And it is not right. But that doesn’t mean God is absent, and it doesn’t mean that this is the final word.

If you are in the midst of a tragedy, I hope that offers a word of encouragement and hope for you. The Christian hope is not just that things will get better, but that the past will be made right, and we will see God face to face.

My intellectual answer

We ask “why” in the midst of these tragedies because of an emotional need. But the answer to the why demands an intellectual response. That doesn’t mean the question isn’t valid, only to illustrate that our felt desire is for our mental questions to be answered. Know, however, that such an answer is unlikely to satisfy while we are still grieving. So grieve first, and then contemplate. Find comfort in God and friends and family.

With tragedies that are clearly man made, we can usually point to an argument that says freedom is so important that God allows us to make mistakes, or even people to intentionally or callously harm others without interfering. But what about something like a tornado? It may be tempting to argue, as some have, that this is the result of man made climate change and so, ultimately a question of free will again. While there may be some connection between the frequency and intensity of these sorts of disasters to such kinds of change, they can’t explain away all the tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis in the world. The thing is these things happen and will happen no matter how good of a steward we are of God’s creation. So we are seemingly confronted with this dichotomy:

Either God causes/approves of these natural disasters, or there is no God.

Many people, when faced with the idea of a God who, at the very least, approves of such horrendous activity, turn to atheism. But I’m going to offer another alternative. That is to say these aren’t the only two options. In order to understand what this alternative means, I’m going to get a little bit technical.

The Philosophical Side

In philosophy (and in quantum physics to a lesser degree) there is a concept known as ‘contingency.’ The term goes back at least to Aristotle, but it was really in the middle ages where it came into its own. Although Leibniz is often credited with advancing the concept of contingency, I consider his work with “possible worlds” to be a bit lacking. The basis for his work, and indeed the more robust interaction with the concept, can be found in the philosophy of John Duns Scotus.

Scotus argued that there are two categories under which everything falls: contingent and necessary. Primarily this is spoken of existing things. That is things like objects or actions, because to speak of necessary or contingent ideas, things that don’t have any real existence, seems bizarre. So we are talking about things with an ‘ontology’ or being or existence. Necessary things either necessarily exist, or necessarily don’t exist. If it necessarily exists, it always was, is, and has been. If it necessarily doesn’t exist, it never was, is, or will be. An example of the latter category would be a square circle, because by definition he two terms are mutually exclusive. In the former category we might put in certain mathematical concepts (though as I said, that gets trippy and into complex philosophy of mathematics), or, as Duns Scotus put it, God. Now I’m not going to argue that Scotus was correct on that point, or that Scotus wasn’t, that would take too much time and get very technical, and may be difficult to prove either way. What it does do, though, is illustrate that, for Scotus, there wasn’t a “possible world,” in Leibniz’s terms, where God doesn’t exist because God is a necessary being. It’s impossible for a necessary thing to ever not exist, thus there is no “possible world” without God.

If we now move to the contemporary engagement with the concepts of necessary and contingent, which takes place primarily in continental philosophy (the branch of philosophy with historical roots in Continental Europe and distinguished from Analytic philosophy with roots in Britain and America), we find some compelling arguments. These arguments relate to the necessity or contingency of certain objects or actions, but particularly things that have a causal influence upon the world (i.e. an impact beyond themselves).

If a causal influence, or an object/action that exhibits a causal influence, is necessary then the cause of that influence must also be necessary and the effects of that influence must likewise be necessary. This is because the necessary object/action that exhibits a causal influence must exist (there is no “possible world” where it doesn’t exist), so it’s causes and effects must likewise exist. This extends outward to the various other objects as well. In other words, it leads to a deterministic stream of events, at least if something is necessary by its ontos (existence) with respect to its causal influence.

Likewise if something is contingent (essentially “undetermined”) then all of its causes and effects are likewise contingent. This means that a contingent event is linked to all other events/objects upon which it has causal impact in that each event/object is likewise contingent. That leads to a string of contingent events.

When we talk about human freedom, at least how we usually think of it, this assumes something. It assumes that a person’s actions are non-trivial, that is they have a causal impact, that they are intended, as in non-random, and that they are contingent. (It should be noted that quantum physics uses contingency and randomness almost interchangeably and this is where it deviates from the philosophical concept.) So contingency, it turns out, is a prerequisite for human freedom.

In the context of what I’ve been arguing, then, if people are to be free, then that means everything that caused the existence of a person, as well as everything that a person does, must be contingent, or not necessary. It exists contingently. Further everything that affects a person as well as everything that a person affects causally must likewise be contingent. The result of this is inevitable:

Either everything in the created universe is contingent, or none of it is. Either certain events, like tornadoes, are random, or humans are not free. The cosmos is either entirely free or it is entirely bound and determined, and that necessarily so.

Admittedly I’ve simplified the argument a bit (we could get into the longer argument that speaks to things acting as wholes and so something cannot be necessary with respect to ‘x’ without being necessary with respect to every other aspect, but that would be much longer). If you want to get into the longer argument pick up some of the contemporary work on Duns Scotus, or some of the more recent German metaphysicians or non-Barthian theologians.

The Theological Side

Given that argument above (the bolded, italicized one), let’s move from philosophy to philosophical theology. The message of the bible is pretty clear on this point. The created universe must be contingent. If God created the world “in the beginning” then that means that the universe is contingent. If it were not, then God would be bound to create it and, therefore, not genuinely free. But even the most staunchly deterministic Calvinist will agree that God must be considered free if we are to believe that God is truly omnipotent.

Second, all will agree that God does not cause sin, and that, at the very least, the initial act of sin was a free act. If it was a free act then the entire universe must also be contingent. It’s too interconnected. This brings us to the crux of the argument, then.

If the universe is contingent, which the Bible says it is, then we can expect random events, like tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. to occur.

This may not help us understand why this or that disaster occurred, or even why it occurred in a specific way, but it does help us begin to understand why disasters of this sort occur at all. And that is a big step toward reconciling our faith with the reality of the world in which we live.

Why, though, did God not stop this particular disaster?

I’m afraid I don’t have any easy answer to this question. To offer such an answer would be to claim to know the mind of God, and I am finite while God is infinite. We have to acknowledge that while God didn’t cause the disaster, at the very least God didn’t intervene to stop it, at least not in any way of which we know. While I can see the appeal of Open Theism here, that God was just as surprised by the disaster as we are, I cannot affirm it, for I believe God is more sovereign than that. I can affirm a few things though.

At history’s end, God will make untrue every vile and wicked thing, everything that should be a lie will be shown to have always been just that.

God has already shown himself to be victorious in the resurrection.

Suffering and evil will be overcome and have already been overcome.

Terrible things happen. They will happen. That’s entailed in conscious existence. Just because they’re unnecessary, or without a point, doesn’t mean they won’t have a point. The pointless can be turned into purposeful things. If we take to heart the proclamation that we “are coworkers with God,” then we realize that a disaster is not merely a potential crisis of faith, but becomes a potential to partner with God in “making all things new.”

Act

How can we participate with God, “following God’s example” by “redeeming the time because the days are evil”? Suffering and pain don’t have the final say.

Here are some ways to get involved:

You can donate. Donate, time, money, food, yourself, whatever you are able. Here’s a list of ways/organizations to do that related to the tornado.

You can Pray. Never underestimate prayer. God still intervenes and still responds. God’s heart is moved by the cries of his creatures.

You can be available. Sometimes we just need someone to hold us up when our strength is gone. We need that physical touch also. Often the best thing we can do is just sit, listen, affirm, and hug.

Social Media Conference

A friend of a friend is hosting a virtual book tour next week on social media and ministry. He’s the webpastor at Community Bible Church in San Antonio. He has a book coming up entitled The Social Media Guide for Ministry and, since it is about having a web presence, he is hosting an online virtual book tour. It is free to attend, but registration is required (and there are three options each day for a time). For details click below:

http://nilssmith.com/tour/

 

Does God Care who wins the Superbowl?

Today’s Superbowl presents us with something of an interesting theological question: does God care who wins the Superbowl? On the one hand we are told that God knows the number of hairs on our head and cares about when birds fall. Now, obviously God is concerned with what matters to us, so in that sense, yes, I think God does care who wins the Superbowl. On the other hand, people who ask this question usually mean to ask “Does God have a vested interested in who wins the Superbowl?” By that we mean, does God have a favorite team, or does he respond to people who pray fervently enough, or does God want a particular team to win because of what else it means for history (a sort of long term effect on someone or something)? Here, I’d say maybe, but I don’t think so. But what do I know? What do you think?

Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross

This is somewhat an update to the Louie Giglio “drama”, about which I posted last week.

The ceremonial inauguration of President Obama’s second term occurred yesterday (the official one being on Sunday) without much in the way of scandal (sure the standard politicking occurred, but nothing major). A different pastor spoke, one more familiar personally with the President who actually does regularly attend church and, as best I can tell, hold a genuine, deep, and heart felt Christian faith despite any contrary opinions we

2013 Inauguration Ceremony. Photo by Farragutful via Wikimedia Commons

may or may not have politically (personally, I’m a bit more wary of the

increase in drone strikes, which have a much higher civilian casualty rate, than I am other issues, but yes, there are other disagreements).

But this is not intended as a political post. If you harbor ill will toward him, you should pray for him and yourself, that God change your heart and his. If you really like him, you should pray for him and yourself, that you not hold him in too high esteem (he is a human, and thus will make mistakes) and that he not believe all his own press (for the same reasons). But this is less about the president and our attitude toward him and not even really about Louie Giglio.

Yesterday, at Christianity Today’s website, they posted a piece on the state of Christian Preaching in America, though it could easily be applied to most other contexts. The substance of the article is that we have given up the scandal of the cross by focusing on the wrong things or pitching the gospel message in what we perceive to be a culturally palatable manner. In doing so, we have turned these other scandals into political fodder and not what they should be. As Christians we need to rediscover the scandal that is the cross.

Forgiveness offered unconditionally is scandalous to a culture that says we are all inherently good.

The cross is a scandal to a world where we are constantly trying to extend and improve our lifespan

The dead Christ who is therefore a king a scandal to a world that wants to cling onto the things of this world

The resurrected Christ is a scandal to people who fail to recognize they are dead already, but must die more truly.

If you have some time, I encourage to read the article in full (click the link at the end) and possibly leave your comments there and back over here.

Today we celebrate the second inauguration of President Obama, but we do so without the benediction of pastor Louie Giglio. In the controversy that erupted after his selection to and withdrawal from that honor, it became clear again how much the gospel has been sidelined, not in the culture, but in the church.

Continue Reading…

 

Is it right to be so focused, or do we risk losing something?

This post is about the Louie Giglio drama (and no I don’t mean Louie Giglio has come up with a play). I am not offering a political opinion (though I have some links in the post to some diametrically opposed ones). If you are unaware of the situation this is the gist of it:

Louie Giglio was invited to give the prayer at the inauguration of Barack Obama in his second term. The selection of an evangelical does not only follow the precedent of his first selection (of Rick Warren) four years ago, but was also a recognition of Giglio’s work against human trafficking.

“Think Progress” a more than left of center political group found a 20 year old sermon of his where he talks about the conflict of values between Christianity and “some” homosexuals. They  also mention that Giglio praised reparative therapy, a controversial treatment program where the goal is to remove homosexual desires, often attributing their cause to psychological trauma or (in rare instances) sin in the persons life.

As might be expected, there were protests regarding the invitation to Giglio.

Last week, Giglio withdrew his acceptance of the invitation to pray, suggesting the president pick someone else. His invitation was not revoked (though some media initially reported it that way), but the start came from Giglio

So that leads us to today.

In a post to the blog of his Church, Giglio reproduced the letter he sent the president and explained that he has now declined the invitation because the focus of the prayer would no longer be on God, on the prayer, or on his work against human trafficking, but on his position on gay marriage, something he decided not to make a big part of his ministry because, it seems, he thought there were other things of at least equal (if not greater) importance that needed to be addressed, and the gay marriage issue would have been too large a distraction from the rest of that. You can read that blog post here.

Yet despite his best efforts to steer clear of what amounts to a divisive political debate (at least in the way both sides are discussing it), the entire situation, and Giglio somewhat personally, has been used as political fodder to advance the political standing of both sides.

From the more liberal end, there is Think Progress and Americablog Gay (a Gay rights blog), both of whom are claiming a victory and that Giglio was actually ousted (though Think Progress changed their language when it became clear Giglio had actually withdrawn).

On the more politically conservative end, the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, and President of Southern Baptist Seminary Al Mohler both also claim he was forceably ousted by the current President (though, again, Al Mohler changed his language when it became clear Giglio had withdrawn).

The focus on both sides, it seems, is not really Giglio, certainly not his work against human trafficking or the gospel, and not even, it seems, really with the issue of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. The focus, it seems, is purely political. The focus is on the current administration, either as a “yay he’s for our side!” or a “do you see the kind of bozo we’ve elected?” kind of way.

For an interesting perspective, perhaps take a look at Rachel Held Evans’s Blog. I don’t agree with her on everything (generally or on that post specifically), but she does make some good points that might be worth considering.

I, for one, have always highly respected Louie Giglio, from when I was just in seventh grade and heard some of his sermons on cassette tape. And I think I still do. But, at this point, we have to ask the question: at what point does our focus become too narrow? Giglio said the reason he withdrew, and the reason he hasn’t made any definitive statements on the issue recently, is because he wants to focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and on ending human trafficking (clearly admirable goals). What I’d like to ask you is, was Giglio’s focus too narrow?

I mean on the one hand there is Paul, the Apostle, who is narrowly focused on the gospel. So much so, it seems, that while in Philemon he seems aching to say that slavery is wrong and that slaves should be our brothers and sisters and treated as equals, Paul refrains from going that far or being that clear, because it’s a battle he knew he couldn’t win at that point in history and he didn’t think he could afford the distraction. Countless workers for the gospel have taken this tact (and who, because of that, are largely nameless). The most recent of whom we might know is Billy Graham who, until very recently, withdrew from all politics and refused to make political statements lest they interfere with the Gospel.

On the other hand, though, there is Jesus Christ himself, who not only came to speak about this life saving kingdom, but enact it practically, seeming to have no bounds to his focus, the poor, the sick, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, and on and on. But was he different (i.e. the Christ, God incarnate, coming to transform the world) and so it doesn’t apply to us?

In between the two extremes (of one thing and everything) there are others in history, like William Wilberforce fighting to end the British Slave Trade, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Southern Baptist Pastor who sought to end segregation, and many others.

What is the right balance, then? Is Giglio’s focus too narrow (he should address other issues, like homosexuality)? Not narrow enough (he should only focus on the salvation of the gospel and not spend quite as much time fighting human trafficking, as terrible as that is, because of how important the gospel is)? Or is it right? Or is it something else? Add your thoughts below.

Quick word for the new year

Just a quick word of hope on this, the second day of the New Year.

In the words of John Calvin, “Post tenebras Lux

It translates “After darkness, light,” and though it appeared in various times throughout Church History, it was used most frequently and effectively by John (Jean) Calvin, before being adopted by most Protestants. The primary meaning is to give hope. Night is always followed by dawn. Since we think about new beginnings on the New Year, it may be helpful to just take this reminder:

Whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve neglected to do, what ever you’ve thought or said, whomever you think you are, God isn’t done with you, and after the darkness is light.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5a)

 

Hello 2013

What are you excited about this year? Do you have any plans or goals for this year? Are you going to try to read through the bible, or the New Testament? I’d love to hear it. I’ve got a few, mostly practical, such as finishing my degree and finding a job. The one less practical one is that I think I’ll try to start, in earnest, my own popular book.

What about you? God bless you.

Getting (sorta) political

Well last night was the final US presidential debate (no I didn’t watch it I’m out of the country voting absentee). And roughly 2% of the US population is still undecided. During this election time, I think it would be helpful for us to keep some things in mind about the role our faith plays. I’ve indicated before that I believe a separation of church in state is admirable, perhaps even biblically  and philosophically necessary in a republic like the US, but is not genuinely possible in the most absolute sense (i.e. you can’t exclude someone’s personal religious beliefs from every decision they make, even if you limit it). As people begin to “unfriend” or “hide” “friends” on facebook over politics, as vitriol begins to be poured out on both sides, as others simply refuse to vote for one of the major candidates because they vehemently disagree with both, and as everyone gets called an idiot by everyone else, remember this: you are a Christian first and eternally, you are a US citizen second and temporarily.

That means several things

  1. The US is not the kingdom of God (and if you think otherwise we’ve got some serious issues).
  2. Your duty is first to your brothers and sisters in Christ. This encompasses the universal church, regardless of whether you share all the same theology. You are to care for and love other Christians as brothers and sisters regardless of who they do or do not vote for.
  3. Your duty is next to those marginalized by society. The poor, the immigrant (alien), the lonely (widowed), those who have no voice or only their own voice. This duty is not primarily political, but personal. You don’t get out of it by voting a certain way.
  4. Your duty is also to the unity of the church before it is to any political party or nation. You have a stricter allegiance to Christians of another denomination on another continent than you do to a secular political party.
  5. You should not assume ill of people unless you have very good reason to do so. If you do have good reason to assume ill of them, you should pray for them, serve them and demonstrate overflowing love to them. It was Christ who did the same for you while been murdered in the most horrific fashion possible because of your ill actions.
  6. If you are genuinely trying to fulfill all of these duties, you cannot vilify those of a different political orientation. People don’t tend to vote a particular way or run for office because they are out to destroy a country. Such a position would be ridiculous. People tend to believe they are doing what is best for a country by their political actions (I acknowledge some people may vote for purely selfish reasons, but people don’t tend to run for office for entirely selfish reasons). We should be able to see things from the perspective of someone else. A Christian who votes for a Republican does not automatically support disregard for the environment or militaristic intervention. Likewise a Christian who votes for a Democrat does not automatically support the carrying out of abortions. Remember, these are your eternal brothers and sisters, not your enemies.

It may be good, even necessary, for Christians to engage with politics from time to time. However, when we do so, we need to be careful not to be dragged under by political rhetoric. Both sides will seek to do so, all of it should be resisted. You are a Christian first, and secular citizen second. God is ultimately sovereign, not you or me, and He knows what He’s doing, even when we don’t. Let’s keep our focus on Christ and his Church, not on the US and its flag. In doing so, let’s remember the words of that hymn “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

 

The Consumer Quandry: or What Would Jesus buy?

I’ve been thinking about Christian ethics quite a bit lately. Whether this is because I recently acted as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for an ethics class, or whether its because of the various ethical situations and morally ambiguous choices that seem to be put upon me, I don’t know. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the products we buy. Living in the “industrialized West” as we might call the countries that are made up of most of Western Europe, the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, and, of course, the United States (as well as other similar cultures) I’ve noticed that we are increasingly bombarded with people trying to sell us things.

This is nothing new, of course, but as information is more readily available, and advertisers begin to realize they need to be more creative (and more persistent) in their campaigns (sorry Madmen fans, advertisers can’t run a business the Don Draper way anymore), there seems to be an increased sense of need instilled in us. It’s no longer that it would be nice to have certain gadgets or clothing items, etc. It’s also no longer that we would want to have them. Currently, there is a culture being constructed for us that tells us we need to have the latest item.

When I was in High School, the campaign known as “What Would Jesus Do?” really began to gain traction. People everywhere were wearing cloth bracelets with the letters WWJD written on them. Of course, this wasn’t a perfect illustration; as more than one person pointed out, we should be asking “What would Jesus have me do?” Fair enough, but the sentiment was, nevertheless, a good one I believe, one that goes back certainly as far as Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and conceivably to some early Christian interpretations of the Levitical Command to “be holy as I am holy” or as Jesus put it “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” While we acknowledge it wasn’t entirely possible, it gave us a goal for which to strive. The problem is, though, that we liked the idea, so long as at it meant we could still live in our culture. We thought we should only ask the question when presented with an ethical dilemma, we didn’t want to actually change the overall picture of our lives. If Jesus really did live in our culture, I’ve thought, what would he do?

I seem to recall someone asking once “What car would Jesus drive?” They wanted to know if they should get a more environmentally friendly car, or an older inefficient one, or something else entirely.  I wondered if he would actually even drive a car. If Jesus needed to go farther than walking would take him (or more quickly) in our culture would he take the bus? or cycle? hitchhike? I just couldn’t see Jesus owning a car. As I thought back to that campaign, I wonder what it would look like in our consumerist mindset. What would Jesus buy? we might ask. Except, would he buy anything? Jesus seemed to live a beggar type lifestyle; not that he actually begged on the street, but that he relied upon other people to provide him with food an shelter as he acted the part of itinerant preacher. Was that a cultural thing? Clearly he was financially supported, so he wouldn’t be completely against having some assets. But still, how much is too much? I might flip the question and ask: would Jesus want me to make this purchase or use it elsewhere.

Where these thoughts are coming from is because I have had an ethical dilemma shoved into my face. As you are probably aware, the iPhone 5 just came out (like the previous iPhone but longer and lighter apparently). You may have also have heard about the (poorly timed from Apple’s perspective) riots that erupted at a Foxconn factory in China. Although that particular factory doesn’t manufacture parts for the iPhone 5, Apple does use the company to manufacture many of its parts and they had previously made news for their poor working conditions and instillation of “suicide prevention nets” to stop workers from killing themselves by jumping off the roofs of factories.

While it might be easy to condemn Apple in this situation. The fact is, they are far from the only company to use Foxconn. Other companies include Intel, Microsoft, Sony, Cisco, Dell. It seems that virtually all electronic companies either use Foxconn directly, or use parts that are made by other companies using Foxconn. So the computer I’m typing this on, the computer or phone or tablet that you’re reading this on, or the printer that this was printed out on (if that applies to anyone), probably features parts from Foxconn. This is an example of products that have a cost that exceeds their price, or so it seems. Would Jesus condone these purchases?

Here’s another kicker: Foxconn is primarily famous because its the biggest, not because its the worst of these companies. In fact, Foxconn plants have better employee treatment records and lower suicide rates than most manufacturing plants in China. The fact is that most of our consumer goods (not even just electronics) feature some part that is built in China, and likely in appalling working conditions. This is what happens when we accept a consumer culture that is built around imagined needs for things we want at lower costs, or when we want the next best status symbol to show others we are better than them (or at least on par with them). I’m as guilty of buying into this on occasion as anyone else. If someone handed me the keys and signed over the title to a Bugatti Veyron, I’m not so sure I’d be able to sell it for a more reasonable car and donate the remainder to charity (and even if I was, it probably wouldn’t be right away, I’d want to drive a little while first). But what do we do with the very real fact that virtually everything we buy is in someway connected to these poor working conditions. If we buy only fully American (or British, or French or whatever) made products, would that make things better or worse for the individual employees of these corporations? Would there be layoffs if we demanded they have better working conditions?

In Luke’s Gospel, the beatitudes look a little different than they do in Matthew’s Gospel. There, in what is known as the “sermon on the plain” (since it parallels many things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount recorded by Matthew), Jesus blesses those who are poor (the physical poor and physically hungry) and curses, or suggests trouble to come, for those who are wealthy. You can read it here. The problem is, someone at the poverty line in the US is rich relative to some of the factory workers in China. Those factory workers, too, are rich compared to those with no money or housing or medical help. It is very unlikely that you will find someone to whom you would appear rich (in some physical sense) in this life. Are we all under a curse or should prepare for “woe”?

It seems that it really comes down to an attitude. Elsewhere Jesus said you cannot serve God and mammon (usually translated money). Mammon is a little bit more ubiquitous than money. It refers to anything used for non-essential living. Anything that can be construed as a luxury item. So anything beyond the most basic of foods (say rice and lentils), the most basic clothing (nothing designer that’s for sure), the most basic housing (four walls, and a roof), and the most basic tools (if it’s electronic or gas powered its beyond basic) can be considered “mammon.” Yet these things are not forbidden outright. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of the heart. Do you give a thought for other people when you buy or consume “mammon”? Do you try to follow God’s commandment towards these your neighbors, particularly those who are “the least of these”? Or are you centered on yourself? Martin Luther described sin as being bent in toward one’s self. He, of course, had in mind these rams whose horns could, if not cut, grow into their skull, killing them. Is your obsession with self, the products you want, the status symbol you get, leading you to consume more and care less? It’s killing you slowly if it is (and you don’t even realize it). The solution would be to let Christ cut this obsession off of you. Yes it is painful, yes it hurts. Yes you lose something of yourself and can no longer display your grand horns to others, but it saves your life. In losing your life for the sake of others, in Christ and by dying with him, He will save it.