Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

FOMO and Pulling Triggers

August 3, 2019

After several weeks of preparation and contemplation, I just deleted my Facebook account.

Of course, few actions are immediately irreversible in the technology world.  I have 30 days to change my mind and reactivate my account (and access all of my posts, pictures, and other tidbits accumulated over the last 12 years).  But once that window passes – and I trust it will pass without inordinate temptation – I’d have to start from scratch with a new account.  Theoretically at least, Facebook will delete all of my data and information.  I downloaded a copy of it a few weeks ago in case I want to peruse it one day.

Not checking Facebook multiple times a day over the past month has been an amazingly simple experience.  Once I deleted all my friends, there was no content to tempt me back.  Facebook was, in the final analysis for me, not so much an avenue for self-expression as it was a means of lurking on the lives of others.  I doubt I’m unique in this, but I’m willing to admit it for what it was.

In our age of acronyms this is known as FOMO – fear of missing out.  What if everyone else has discovered something wonderful and I’m out of the loop?  What if I miss out on the latest meme?  What if I’m not on the cutting edge of current water cooler conversation?  What if, what if, what if…..

Having crested mid-life, FOMO has a diminishing pull on me.  All well and good because  having crested middle age I’m now largely irrelevant to the culture around me.  Old enough not to be swayed by the myriad  cries of the masses virtually or otherwise, to  be skeptical of the swaying needle of cultural opinion or fashion or celebrity or other metrics.   When I honestly admitted that lurking on the lives of people through Facebook I’m barely connected to otherwise in life was unhealthy for any number of reasons, cutting the cord was easy.  Being willing to admit that 99% of the people I was friends with on Facebook hardly fit that title by any reasonable definition was harder.

It’s like the much-maligned band Nickelback and their single Photograph.  I’ve thought for years it was simply a nostalgic trip down memory lane, when actually it’s a recognition that such strolls have to come to an end some day.  It’s not healthy or accurate to perpetuate the state of a relationship years or decades ago through a social media outlet if that’s the only connection that remains.  People I’ve worked with across multiple organizations and vocations, people I’ve gone to school with in various places across the decades, people associated with other groups or times of life – if  my only connection to them is watching what they post and liking it or visa versa, this isn’t really a relationship.  It becomes an obsession with the past rather than the present, an attempt to maintain the illusion of something deeper which died a long time ago, and barring some miracle of the Holy Spirit’s strange connectivity, will never live again.

Some of those Facebook friends I’ll keep touch with in other ways, but the vast majority I won’t.  That’s OK.  It’s not that I wish them ill, think any less of them, or  otherwise don’t care about them.  But I need to acknowledge that what Facebook helps create is the illusion that those relationships are still alive and active and to some degree unchanged.  As though liking a post or a photo  of someone I haven’t otherwise communicate with in 20 years is the same as the old  water cooler discussions or the old late night camaraderie.  It isn’t.  Those things have passed on.

That can be hard to acknowledge if there aren’t a set of new relationships to replace these old ones.  It can force us to acknowledge our actual isolation in the here and now.  But such honesty might also spur us to greater efforts to build new relationships.  When I first began serving as a pastor in this part of the world, I was told about a program specifically designed for new pastors  in the area to connect with one another and begin to build relationships with people right here rather than rely exclusively on past relationships (or even current but geographically distant ones) through social media.  That was a dozen years ago.  The program long ago died off, but the need it sought to address back  then is only more real now.

I don’t think social media is bad, per se.  There are unhealthy aspects to it, but there are also beautiful blessings it provides.  As with most tools, it’s how we use them that matters, and recognizing that technological tools also seek to use us.  I can pick up a hammer to hang a picture on the wall and put the hammer down and it won’t pursue me.  Social media can and does pursue.  In the last month since I quit checking Facebook I’ve started getting texts and e-mails from Facebook telling me that there are new posts and messages that I should check in and see.  Unlike a hammer, social media needs me every bit as much – or more likely more –  than I need it.  And when that’s the case we need to carefully discern what we’re providing compared to what we’re receiving.  Concerns about privacy and data breaches are as common as the air we breathe, and perhaps that’s the point – we get used to the idea that we don’t really have privacy, that we aren’t entitled not to be commercially objectified or exploited 24/7.

How people calculate these balances will differ.  For my, psychologically and emotionally it’s time to pull the trigger on Facebook.  I’ve realized I’m not missing out on anything, or perhaps more accurately, I’m still missing out on the same things whether I’m on Facebook or not.

Misplacing Shame

August 1, 2019

San Francisco is a big city with a big problem – people want to ride the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) for free.  A one-way ticket costs just shy of $4.00.  BART estimates  they lose between $1 million and $25 million a year due to people hopping over the turnstiles without paying.  That’s a large range.  A better handle on more accurate figures could assist in determining what – if anything – should be done to prevent people from free-loading more often.

What they’re currently testing is  not popular with a lot of people.

They’re installing chrome blades that shoot up out of the turnstiles if someone tries to push through without paying.  I’m sure they aren’t sharpened, but are designed to make it harder and slower for someone to circumvent the system.  This article describes the outrage these modification systems are raising.

The blades are cited as a danger to people in wheelchairs, though unless someone is bent over at a very awkward angle I’m not sure how that could be.  Others are cited are critical because they see this as an economic oppression of the lower classes.  Their solution is that BART should be free to low-income people.  An interesting proposition, though one that undoubtedly comes with a hefty price tag in terms of systems implementation, and still would not likely deter those who won’t bother to register and prefer to just hope the turnstiles.

But nowhere in the article is there any shame cast at those who are the problem – those people stealing free rides by jumping the turnstiles.  I’m not unsympathetic to an argument for a free or lower-cost rate for low-income people, but I find it problematic that nobody – other than BART – thinks that the real problem is people who  feel they should be able to ride for free while others pay.

Throughout the article, those people are never called out.  Never criticized.  Never shamed for their behavior, no matter how justified or necessary their situations may make it seem to be.  If theft isn’t shamed and called out as wrong, it won’t change.  Justifying the behavior just makes it that much more acceptable to a wider range of people.  It’s an endemic problem in our culture these days,  and it’s contributing to the deterioration of law and order on a wide scale.

Go ahead and be critical of a particular methodology aimed at curbing fare-theft.  But don’t forget to be critical of those stealing rides.  They contribute to lost operating revenues and the need for ever-increasing fares, which only makes the situation for low-income people as a whole (at least honest ones) worse.

 

We Are What We Are

July 31, 2019

I drive a 14-year old vehicle.  It’s been paid off now for a couple off years which helps make ends meet in our expensive little community, but it has the quirks and oddities of any mechanical device that old, let alone one as complex as an automobile.  Most recently, the retracting radio antennae no longer retracts, perhaps because it partially melted and fused into place during a recent sojourn  in Las Vegas for the world billiards tournament.

These things happen.  Things age.  You can’t expect a 14-year old car to function like a brand new one.  It would be foolish to think that somehow a vehicle – or any other thing – could remain independent of it’s actual age.  It’s a reality brought home to me more  and more, as some of my other possessions – particularly books – begin to show their age.  This was brand new when I bought it, but despite hardly being read, the pages are yellowing and the binding is cracking!  Duh.  I bought it brand new 30 years ago.  Things age because  they are what they are.

People are no different, though I think popular cultural mantras try to tell us otherwise.  There’s this idea – perhaps I shared it when I was younger – that we can objectively critique reality and ourselves and those around us.  We can isolate ourselves from what we are and objectively judge reality.

But the reality is that we can’t.  We are what we are, and part of what we are is a product of our time.  We may like that or not.  We may think about it or not.  But it’s true.

Since the radio antenna is stuck on, I turned on the radio today and sought out a station that would have made me shudder 30 years ago.  I turned on the 80’s station.  I hated 80’s  music when I was in the 80’s.  Mostly because it was popular and I saw myself at odds with everything popular and fashionable – mostly because I was neither.  But now, I seek out that station.  I hum along with Duran Duran and even Culture Club, despite hating them in the 80’s.  There is nostalgia there now, and comfort.  I’m a product of the 80’s,  when I came of age and became aware of the artistic culture around me.  I can’t change that.  I can be ashamed of it, I can embrace it, but I can’t divorce myself of it.  When I try, I end up sounding stupid.

Like this article.

I watched this show somewhat when it came out.  Growing up on reruns of the original Star  Trek series, I thought this basically did a good job of picking up the mantle and carrying on while trying to do so in original ways.  Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t.  Not all the episodes were great, but they were overall enjoyable.

So this article is annoying and naive.  It critiques the series by and large for aesthetic issues related to when the series was made – the late 80’s and early 90’s.  It presumes that somehow the series should have been able to create an atmosphere completely disassociated from current cultural norms and trends.  As though the show could be or represent something other than what it  was – a group of actors and writers and designers and producers who were influenced not only by the original series but by their culture at the time.

One can like or dislike aspects of the culture, but to critique the culture for being the culture at the time is ridiculous, and to presume that it is possible to create something completely new and unaffected by current cultural fashions or ideas is arrogant.  We are what we are, and part of what we are is products of our culture,  even if we’d rather not be.

Not being God, we can’t create ex nihilo, out of nothing.  We can simply recombine things that already exist into other things.  This can be done in surprising and impressive ways, but it remains an act of creating from raw materials already there, so there will always be residue of what materials were available or plentiful or desired at the time.  And while I can lament that I seek out music I grew up on even when I grew up hating it, I’m reminded that I am formed and shaped even by the things I reject, and sometimes there is  comfort to be found there.

I’m considerably older than my car.  I shouldn’t expect myself to feel or be otherwise.  Hopefully I find a way to appreciate and enjoy who  and what I am now as I grow in my understanding and appreciation of the One who not only created me ex nihilo, but continues to shape and form me.

Authority

July 29, 2019

We sit chatting at our Sunday night happy hour open house.  She’s  leaving this week for grad studies out of state and this will perhaps be the last time I see her.  She has an impossibly beautiful smile and a keen mind overlaying troubles and doubts and fears that walk with her through the rooms  of her life.  A friend has come along tonight.  He’s visited once or twice before, roommates with her boyfriend.  He asks me a curious question – what is a change you can think of in your theology?

The question strikes me as curious immediately.  What changes in my theology?  Is theology mine?  Am I free to change it?  Or is theology something I have received, that I can build upon and expand and grow in my depth of understanding and appreciation, but which I am not free to change outside of discarding error as I uncover it in myself?  A million thoughts flash through my mind.  What is he really getting at?  What changes has his theology undergone?  And what do you want to learn or know by asking a pastor about how his theology changes?

I bring up a theological doctrine of sorts  I was introduced to in Seminary that I have grown in my fondness for, even if I can’t substantiate it in this lifetime and may never even in eternity, touching as it does on the inner workings and relationships of the Trinity.  I talked about how amazed I was the first time it was suggested that Jesus did not perform signs and wonders within his own power and authority as the Second Person of the Trinity, but rather God the Holy Spirit performed signs and wonders through him by the directing of God the Father.  Essentially similar to how the apostles and other followers of Christ have performed miracles – not on their own power or authority but through the  power and authority of the Holy Spirit.  Though of course Jesus was the perfect conduit for such power in his perfect obedience to the will of God.

She brings up almost immediately how she still struggles with the role of women in the church.  It’s not relevant, but it’s on her mind.  She flashes her smile as I respond that her issue isn’t so much with the Church perhaps as it is with Scripture.  Heretic here, remember?  I’m the heretic.  She smiles again.  I know a bit of her story, raised Christian but with experiences and doubts that haven’t been addressed or remedied.  And now recently graduated from a local Christian university where, she admits next, she was taught to be a feminist.  The smile and the heresy comment are  meant to defuse and deflect.  No need to really grapple with what might be truth in this regard because we can just dance around the heretic term as though it doesn’t really mean anything.

I believe her assessment is accurate – she arrived at this Christian university with one set of ideas and understandings, and those were altered or added to during her four years there.  In part a good university should do this.  But in the realm of theology this becomes tricky, as I suppose it is in any realm.  But the ramifications of changes or additions in the realm of theology have potentially eternal consequences – something very unique to this realm.

I ponder as the conversation eventually trails off.  Raised for the first eighteen years of her life with one set of beliefs, she has now set those aside because of things she was presented with in four years of undergraduate schooling.  Because these things were presented as the intellectual, educated position, no doubt.  Because she was challenged I’m sure, to adopt these not just for herself but for her entire gender.

And so a person’s theology changes.  But doesn’t just change, in this instance.  Changes so that the source and foundation of that theology ceases to be the revealed, sacred text it derives from and becomes something else.  Something personally dictated.  Authority switches from the Word of God expressed in human language to the personal beliefs or preferences of an individual or a larger but transitory culture.

So perhaps her response was more on topic than I first assumed.

This has over and over and over again been the point of conflict and disagreement in theological discussions on Sunday night.  What or who is your authority?  And over and over and over again it has become very clear that even for professing Christians, the Word of God is not their authority.  It is their personal emotional concerns or worries.  It is the cultural expectations they are inculcated with, expectations of how you define things like equality.  And that if the Word of God doesn’t back their definitions or ideas or even directly contradicts them, they’re more apt to discard the Word of God – or at least that particular part of it – and hold on to their own feelings and ideas.

Now, to be sure we all do this in small ways, most likely.  There are aspects of God’s Word that confuse or frighten us, that we avoid thinking about and reading.  This is sinful, of course, but it is different than outright confronting these issues and seeking to faithfully adhere to God’s Word even if it means discarding our own ideas and preferences.  This trend that I see and hear so often now is very dangerous indeed.

And others recognize this as well.

The role of the Church is to teach and reinforce the faith, as conveyed to us through the Word of God, and as made sense of in both doctrine and practice.   The Church should equip men and women with these abilities so they in turn can instill them in their children, not simply as rote memorization but in an active and alive sense so that their children grow to be men and women who, assisted and strengthened by the Church, are able and willing to pass these things down to their children.

But this process has been disrupted  in our American Christian culture – or at least parts of it.  Christians are increasingly unfamiliar with the Word of God, resistant to doctrines and practices grounded in it, and increasingly willing to discard all of this in order to cobble together a set of beliefs and practices that better support their authority – themselves.

Here is just one recent example of another article saying exactly the same thing.

Note several paragraphs down how younger people are discarding organized orthodox religion (doctrine and practice) for a smorgasbord of other  concepts and practices, often drawn together from diverse and contradictory traditions.  Not that they necessarily believe any of this, it’s a matter of convenience, of serving the purpose of reinforcing their own authority.  If they find that it no longer does that, they can discard it without any feelings of guilt or any concerns about eternal ramifications.  None of that is real, anyways, right? is the basic gist here.  If there is anything greater than us out there, it probably likes us and isn’t very interested in what we do beyond wanting us to be nice and happy.  And if there’s nothing greater than us out there, well, might as well be the me I’d like to be, right?

She  leaves this week for graduate school and starting life in a new place.  She’s bright and beautiful and has a wonderful boyfriend and likely a future together with him.  I’ll pray for her and him and them.  Not simply for their relationship but for their authority, that it would be not  simply the faith of their fathers, so to speak, but the faith as revealed in the Word of God.  Even when they don’t like it or it feels restrictive or when it clashes with societal notions.  Even when their professors (at a Christian university) won’t back it or support it but put out their own ideas and their culturally formed notions instead.

Authority matters a great deal, and you can’t claim to be Christian if you reject the authority of the Word of God, just as you can’t claim to be a good Muslim if you reject the Quran.  We can have theological discussions or debates about interpretation to some level, and this is good and helpful.  But to skip that quest and grappling for truth  in favor of just ignoring the bits we don’t like so we can do and think and be the things we prefer, that is a big problem.  For the Church, for families, for the world, and possibly for eternity.

 

 

 

 

 

Voluntary Book Burnings

July 3, 2019

I’m a huge fan of Ray Bradbury, and while I’m  not sure I would agree that his most famous work, Fahrenheit 451 is his best work (or at least my favorite), it is hugely influential culturally for good reason.  But his warning against autocratic suppression and elimination of undesirable literature and eventually all books assumes the idea that such policies will be implemented by a hostile governing authority under rule of law.

I agree with Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that such warnings as Bradbury’s and George Orwell were good in inoculating us against fascism and communism, but powerless to prepare us for a reality where people  are primed primarily to amass unrelated trivia facts and focus on non-stop self-entertainment.  Rather, we should have also been pushed more  to consider the ramifications of another means of control, one of abdication of personal responsibility along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

So it is that books can be banned instead of burned.  Not as an official government policy but simply by merchants being pressured to not carry some books that some people  find offensive.  However when the merchant is Amazon, the impacts of such non-binding restrictions can be far more powerful than if individual brick and mortar bookshops were targeted and pressured.  And without most of the possible negative repercussions.  So it is that Amazon will quit selling certain books.  The nice thing is  that this has been noticed.  The scarier reality is that undoubtedly lots of decisions about what to carry or not carry are regularly made.

Online vendors (and traditional brick-and-mortar outfits) generally have the appearance of being objective.  They carry a variety of things they hope to sell, and selling is their primary motivation, we assume.  In reality, every person and therefore every organization is inclined towards what they are or aren’t willing to sell.  Objectivity is not completely possible, and factors beyond what the customer might want come into play.

You might want to think twice about what’s on your bookshelf and making sure that you save certain things.  They might not be available down the road.

Speaking Out

May 28, 2019

Good to hear that there is growing willingness to speak out against the atrocity of legalized abortion on demand in our country.  Though for some folks not so inclined on the topic, the source of some of those words of outrage will be troubling – none other than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Justice Thomas rightly notes the troubling ideological roots of legalized abortion both in our country and in other parts of the world (like Nazi Germany), and notes the devastating effect  abortion has disproportionately on minority children, mothers, families, and communities.

If you want to know how someone could possibly not see the words of a highly educated African-American man as relevant to this topic, here’s an alternate perspective.

Note the headline, which aims to garner far broader empathy and sympathy not for abortion itself (though this is clearly presumed) but rather for birth control.  Rather than seeing this as an effort to preserve life – all life, as opposed to the far more selective range of life envisioned by Margaret Sanger – it is repositioned as a racist attack against black women.  The idea seems to be (and I pray that this isn’t actually what somebody says, though in this day and age that’s undoubtedly wishful thinking) that bringing up the disproportionate number of abortions by minorities is a means of making minorities racist against themselves.

While  some rather odd individuals might make this case, it’s not one I’ve ever heard in any pro-life discussion.  The idea is not that minority women hate their children, but rather that they are lured into aborting them by an ideology that denies the humanity of the unborn child (unless of course you’re excited to be having a baby, in which case, it magically is a human being!) and posits quick, secretive, and free abortions as the solution to communities where minority family and community life have been devastated over generations by many of the programs purporting to help them.

The argument links higher abortion rates to reduced access to contraception, and then goes on to paint the picture that ultimately, contraception is going to be threatened for all women, therefore women should get involved now to defend abortion and nip all this lunacy in the bud.

The reality is that I don’t think contraception will ever be in danger of being outlawed.  The largest Christian group to teach that contraception is sinful is the Roman Catholic church, and most of their own folks don’t agree with this teaching, and even if they did the Catholic Church has been so marginalized via scandalous behaviors that it has effectively lost any voice it might have once had towards larger moral issues.  Most non-Catholic Christian groups don’t have a problem with contraception, even if they oppose abortion.  And while I tend to think this is a rather poor bit of theology and Biblical exegesis, that’s not likely to change or catch on.

The reality remains that an unborn baby is a human being.  The law can’t change this, it can only ignore it.  Considering our divisive this issue has been literally since the Roe v. Wade verdict was handed down, I find it interesting how dismissive people can be of any theology or philosophy (or science) that finds it reprehensible.  I have hopes that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, but I have no illusions that this will be the end of the discussion by a long shot.  So long as pro-life positions are characterized as right-wing religious nut-jobs, and the clear science on the matter is ignored out of convenience, there will be no long-standing fix to this issue.  The next version of Roe v. Wade will already be in the queue before the ink is dried on any rescinding of the original.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to work and pray for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but it’s a good reminder that, at least for Christians, the more important work is relationship to the people around us – including those on the other side of the ideological fence.  The Holy Spirit changes hearts, and when hearts are changed, it matters far less what the laws on the books say.  If abortion remains legal, fewer people will avail themselves of it.

Rebuilding What?

April 18, 2019

Like many of you I watched in horror as the images and live-feeds of Notre Dame de Paris engulfed in flame flickered across my computer screen.  I’d last been there in 2016, and that was my third visit in my lifetime.  It’s an amazingly beautiful architectural achievement.  The crowds are lamentable but, since I’m part of them, it’s hardly reasonable to complain.  Each visit I stood in increasingly long lines to march up the steps to the twin towers.  Last time I snapped a Facebook photo of one of the rose windows that miraculously survived the recent conflagration.

Now it has been grievously damaged by the fire, and will require substantial rebuilding.  But the question becomes whether it should be rebuilt as it was, the reflection of nearly 1000 years of changes and additions?  Or should it be made into something new, something representative not of its past but rather today or the future.  A reflection not of Christianity and the God of the Bible, but rather some undefined representation of a now mostly undefined French or even European culture.

It may sound strange that people would want to reimagine a Christian house of worship – particularly one so famous – into something not a Christian house of worship.  But there are those who are promoting exactly such an idea, as this article describes.

There would indeed be a bitter irony if this beautiful place of worship was recreated into something atheistic or secular.  While numbers have undoubtedly dwindled in recent times, worship is still something that occurred in Notre Dame each day, the last service about an hour before the fire broke out.  But with houses of worship – even great cathedrals  – falling into disuse and subsequent disrepair as the European exodus from the Christian faith nears completion, it’s hardly surprising that many people see them as nuisances rather than useful places for continued Christian worship.

 

 

Empty Empathy

April 17, 2019

A great article on the decline of empathy in our culture over recent decades.

While I’ve identified as an empath and described at empathic by many people throughout my life, I never really gave much thought as to the history of that term (which is relatively recent) or more technical usage of it.  To me it just meant the ability to understand and respond to something another person was feeling or going through.  It’s a handy enough definition, and it avoids some of the technical and clinical definitions or nuances that I might be more hesitant to agree with.

I immediately thought about empathy in light of the Christian faith.  The Bible doesn’t utilize εμπάθεια, the particular Greek word from which the English term derives.  And yet it seems as though empathy is very much an expected response to the Gospel.  At a basic level, we are to have empathy with others as creations of a loving God, but sinful creations in the midst of a broken creation.  Our shared circumstances, existentially speaking, drive us towards empathy from the Biblical perspective as opposed to away from it.  Others might argue the Biblical injunction to love your enemy or offer forgiveness freely make no sense apart from a certain amount of empathy.  While I’m not sure I’d say it’s required, empathy certainly might help the process of obedience.

It isn’t surprising in a clinical book and on the NPR website that there is no effort to mention a correlation between a decline in empathy and the decline of Christianity in our country.  But I can’t help but think that they are very much directly related.

Christianity calls the individual out of themselves,  placing them in a larger communal context in the past, present and future.  Everything in the  Christian faith is, Biblically speaking, a matter of community.  And this continuous outward direction of the life of faith will help develop empathy with others if it isn’t something that was present in the individual prior to conversion.

It seems to me declining rates of empathy are indeed unsurprising where this counterintuitive life of faith is not practiced.  It is far more natural to not be empathetic to people I disagree with, fear, or dislike.  It is precisely for this reason that the life of faith as described in Scripture must direct me towards and empathetic posture to those around me.  Despite Richard Dawkins’ attempts to argue that empathy and altruism could be attributed to natural selection, we seem to be witnessing a return to a more natural human state, the state unmitigated by faith and trust in a God who created all things, redeemed all things, and is bringing all things to a conclusion.  If there isn’t anything beyond myself, existentially speaking, why waste the time and effort to try and understsand others, especially if I don’t like them or disagree with them?  Life is short, eliminate the negative baggage, as social media continually reminds us.

The conclusions drawn by the author of the book on this subject seem very much on point.  A lack of empathy can only lead to deeper division and polarization, something fatal to democracy.  This is, historically, where we’ve come from, and it appears to be where we’re returning to.  Our experience of “civil society” as Fritz Breithaupt, the author, describes it, is one inextricably linked to being people of faith, and particularly I would argue people either explicitly and personally Christian, or who embrace Christian ideals for ease and simplicity.  This association has long been recognized and noted by people such as Alexis de Tocqueville.

But we’ve either forgotten it or choose to ignore it.  The results are devastating.

Breithaupt’s solution, the development of a selfish empathy, is equally doomed to failure.  As we discovered with the ruse of tolerance in the last 20 years, people don’t act in one manner very long if they believe in something very different.  If you believe that you’re right and someone else is wrong, eventually this is going to come out in the wash and tolerance gets swept aside.  Likewise, pretending to be empathetic may work for a short while but will get smashed apart as soon as someone gets hurt or is rejected or otherwise sees no personal gain to be gotten from it.

Unless we are obedient to a Creator that tells us we were designed to live together and for one another and Him  rather than just ourselves, we are left with the meaninglessness of materialism and evolutionary theory and atheism which says there is nothing greater, no purpose to any of this.  And as such, we might as well just enjoy ourselves as much as possible for the brief span of existence we enjoy.  While the rule of law will prevent some people from taking that mindset to an unhealthy extreme, it cannot foster the positive sense of empathy that requires a meaning and purpose beyond oneself.

 

Book Review: Death in the City

April 15, 2019

Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer

 

I was skeptical of this book just based on the title, but I’m very glad that I set skepticism aside to just read it.  Schaeffer ranks up with C.S. Lewis in my personal opinion for his ability to blend Biblical, theological and philosophical ideas in a compelling fashion for our time.  He considers this an integral aspect of four core books, three written by himself (Death in the City, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason) and one written by his wife Edith (The L’Abri Story ).  I’ve read all of them except Escape from Reason, so you can trust I’m going to acquire that one before long.

Death in the City is a series of lectures Schaeffer delivered in 1968 at Wheaton College.  From some of the things he says, you can already see how much has likely changed not just in our culture at large but even at a Christian university in the past 50 years.  Yet Schaeffer sees already in 1968 what the  larger church in America is only just now admitting – our culture is post-Christian.  Christianity and the Bible are no longer defining aspects of our culture and,  what’s more, they are viewed more and more as contrary and undesirable by our culture.  These lectures diagnose the cause of this situation and offer preliminary thoughts on what to do about it, hopefully leading towards “reformation, revival, and a constructive revolution in the orthodox, evangelical church”.  Towards this end Schaeffer draws on the prophet Jeremiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

First he calls us to diagnose the root cause of the massive cultural shift he identifies in 1968 and we are dealing with more openly in the early 21st century.  That cause is a turning away from the truth and reality of God, as per Romans 1:21-22.  This leads to an isolation from God, and the necessity of hearing the Law of God on this issue.  People need to be told that they have abandoned God and his Word and are bearing his judgment.  This message needs to be given not only to the increasingly pagan culture around us but to the Church as well.  The Church has failed to teach and preach God’s Word fully and faithfully which has in part led to this turning away from God’s reality and Word.  He argues – contrary to what the Church has assumed for many years – that this word of judgment needs to come first in evangelism.  That the message of grace and forgiveness means nothing if there is no awareness of true moral guilt and therefore judgment by a righteous and holy God.

He then goes on to diagnose the malaise affecting our culture, as witnessed in skyrocketing rates of depression and other mental illnesses as well as attempted and successful suicides.  Evolutionary theory and natural selection have reduced man to insignificance, the mere accidental byproduct of millions of years of accidental genetic variation.  We have no significance, and we have no moral compass.  Everything is up for grabs and is ultimately meaningless and arbitrary.  If all we are is a random collection of atoms, and our fate is just the dissipation of those same atoms, then everything in between is a sham construction, the work of manipulative genes seeking to determine their continued existence with no other end or purpose than moving on to the next generation.  It is a bleak and dismal reality, one that many materialists try to rally against but ultimately fail.  Either man is significant and has meaning, as per the Biblical account of creation, or man is accidental and meaningless.

Schaeffer paints a picture of these two very different positions and their corresponding outlook on reality in Chapter 9, The Universe and Two Chairs.  He reduces reality to a single room with no doors or windows.  There is a man sitting in the Materialist  chair and a man sitting in the Christian chair.  The materialist begins an investigation of  the room.  It is his life’s work, and he includes everything and  utilizes the scientific method and every branch of science to compile multiple tomes on the nature of the room.  The Christian is duly impressed by this, but responds after reading through it all that the materialist’s compilation is incomplete as it does not take into account those aspects of reality that the scientific method is insufficient for.  He takes out a Bible and says that this book describes more  of reality because it includes the things that the Materialist’s observations and experiments can’t touch.  The Bible does not invalidate science, but it does specify limits to what it can (and should) tell us, and itself provides additional information that scientific compendiums can’t.

Schaeffer then points out that far too many Christians operate in what he terms unfaith.  They function primarily in their outlook on life and how they live their lives as though they sit in the Materialist chair, even though they claim to sit in the Christian chair.  They affirm doctrines but don’t see how those doctrines apply to their lives.

This is a good book.  It is a challenge to the Church not to hold back from saying the hard things that God says in his Word.  To say them in love, but to say them unflinchingly as well.  Schaeffer is convinced – as I am – that only Christianity can offer an adequate alternative to the materialist world-view adopted so readily by Western Christianity over the last 150 years.  While some of Schaeffer’s other writings are at times difficult to make sense of, this is a very clear and lucid diagnosis of Christianity and Western culture.  Well worth the time  for this relatively short (130-ish pages) read.

 

 

 

 

 

Interpreting Authority

April 9, 2019

We had our monthly gathering of pastors in our denomination today.  We come together spanning a stretch of territory just shy of 100 miles in length, and we were at the far southern terminus of our area today.  The study we started briefly on had to do with proper pastoral authority.  What authority does the pastor have (and not have), and where does he derive it?  It’s a theological discussion with a rich tradition, but not one that I’ve had to have many conversations with lay people about.

But it coincided with some other thoughts on authority and how we interpret it.

Two out of the last three weeks I have worshiped in places that sing the song “Our God”  by Chris Tomlin.  It’s got a catchy rhythm and, while being somewhat vague on details, is a fun song to sing.  But both times it was used, the bridge got me thinking:

And if our God is for us then who could ever stop us

And if our God is with us then what could stand against.

Now these words are true, but I wondered how the people singing and swaying along to them interpreted them.  In both settings there was no further explanation of this very strong claims.  And barring interpretations, people are prone to filling in their own explanations.

The words  could easily be interpreted to mean that as followers of Christ we can’t suffer any setbacks, any failures, any disappointments, let alone any meaningful persecution or violation of the rights and privileges which we – as American Christians in particular – have come to enjoy and expect.

God is indeed for us and with us, and as such we are indeed conquerors in Christ.  But we need to remember that Christ conquered through his death, and his command to his followers was not to go out and dominate culture and society and politics but rather to pick up their crosses and follow him.  To expect the kind of suffering, even, that Jesus experienced and, perhaps, to even be killed for our confidence and faith in him.

That is a very real, very powerful victory indeed!  Satan cannot stand against us in any eternal sense.   Those  who cling to Christ may lose everything else – health, wealth, prestige, honor in the eyes of the world, even our lives – but we inherit so much vastly more.  It is a promise that has held Christians faithful on their way to the gallows or the shallow graves, in the face of guns and knives and fists and fire.

But is that how people today hear it?  And what if they seem to be stopped in their lives?  What if their jobs disappear or that promotion never materializes?  What if their family life is a struggle or they deal with the very real threat of sickness and disease?  Does this song support and encourage them to trust completely in Jesus and endure all things and all losses?   Or does this song leave them without a means of explaining their struggles?  Does it set up a false hope or point them to  the only true hope and definition of victory in Christ?

Only time will tell, I suppose.  But the rates at which people seem to be leaving their faith behind for the none category in survey after survey, the rate at which participation in worship continues to decline, I have to wonder if these kinds of songs – which can and should be so powerful and comforting when provided the proper interpretation – are leading people to a shallow, straw-man sort of faith in a god-djinni who grants wishes and offers protection rather than dies and rises again for them?

Those are the conversations I’d rather be having with my colleagues.  How do we equip our people to face real suffering and loss rather than letting their shallow roots wither and die in the blistering sun of an enemy?  Defending and explicating the proper role and use of pastoral  authority requires, after all, a congregation of people to explain it to and live  it out with.  That might require some more diligent preaching and teaching rather than letting them define their pop hooks by the world’s standards rather than God’s.