Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

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.

 

Living What We Believe

March 27, 2019

There’s a funny dichotomy at play in our culture today.  On the one hand, people  with alternative values and ideas about reality are expected not simply to believe these things but put them into practice to transform traditions and time-honored ways  of doing and thinking.  On the other hand, religious people (ie. Christians) and others who find value and meaning and purpose in tradition are told they can believe these things privately (for now) but are publicly castigated and punished if they attempt to live out their beliefs in the public sphere.

I love the headline on this article.  The Christian school is allegedly “denying education” to this young person, rather than simply denying them admittance to their particular school.  The sad thing is here at play are many actual members of the Catholic parish that runs the school, who think that the Roman Catholic teachings on sexuality are a “notion”  rather than a long-standing theological understanding of not only Christians but Jewish people before them.  The situation also highlights the importance of consistency, as making exceptions in one area can lead to the misunderstanding that exceptions are appropriate in all situations.

Two Cultures

February 26, 2019

I spend a lot of time thinking about the shape of the Church in the coming years.  As our culture continues to move away from any sort of consensus about much of anything, let alone an interpretation and understanding of reality and humanity that calls us to limit ourselves rather than indulging ourselves in every manner possible, what will the Church look like?  Will the Church be able to adapt?

I’m convinced that adaptation will mean the recreation of the Church from an institution that presumes everyone else agrees and should support it to one that acknowledges it is very much alone in a sea of competing ideas and beliefs.  In this regard it will be no different from the first century of the faith.  However there must first come a transition where the Church finally acknowledges that this is the case and begins to act like it.

A lot of congregations acknowledge the first part to one degree or another, but the second part – changing practice in response to this understanding – that’s a lot slower in coming.  The result is inevitably shrinking congregations and dying congregations.  Congregations that – if they can’t replenish their membership through births among their members – won’t be able to sustain their larger-scale church models in a time when congregational size overwhelmingly will be much smaller than ever before (with the obvious exception of a small percentage of mega-churches).

Part of making the second change, starting to act like we aren’t the default option, requires first an understanding.  I’ve talked with plenty of congregations in varying situations of comfort or distress.  All of them talk about mission, all of them talk about evangelism.  Most of them don’t really mean it.  Those that actually mean it are really talking about reaching out to disaffected or former church members of one denomination or another.  Their concept of evangelism basically boils down to fishing in an aquarium.  This isn’t bad, but it needs to be recognized.

Bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ who aren’t already Christian or formerly Christian to some degree requires a further awareness of what we think it looks like.  I think oftentimes when congregants talk about evangelism or bringing people to Christ, what they really imagine is bringing people to church.

Isn’t that the same thing you ask?  No, it’s not.  Bringing someone to faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who died and rose again in order to save our eternal lives is one thing.  That is the cultural shift from unbelief to belief, from faith in something or someone else to faith in the triune God of the Bible.  Many Christians assume this means bringing that same person into the Church.  Their church.  Their church culture.

Sharing the Gospel isn’t the same thing as sharing church.  Sharing the Gospel is much different from then presuming that new Christians will value your existing experience of the faith and expression of the faith.  Yes, new Christians become part of The Church, the gathering of all the saints past, present and future in Christ.  But that doesn’t require them to adopt our church culture.  The Christian Church around the world has many common features that look and feel very different based on the culture of the area and people.  This culture naturally influences Christian culture and church culture.  That influence can be good and beautiful or problematic, but it’s going to happen to some extent.

If people don’t have a churched background or mindset already, we have to recognize that when the Holy Spirit brings them to faith, they’re going to need to plug into a worshiping Christian community.  We call this a church, but that is now shorthand for a lot of things that aren’t necessarily part of being a Christian, but have come to be viewed that way by generations of Christians in a similar cultural context.  Oftentimes, the Christians in that shared cultural context expect that new additions to the body of Christ will assume those cultural contexts.  They’ll step in and keep things going the way they have been for generations and decades.  But this isn’t necessarily the case.  It is necessary for a particular congregational culture, but not necessary for the new Christian.  This isn’t a situation where we have to define one perspective as bad and the other good, but we ought to acknowledge that there might be significant differences.

If we want to talk about bringing people to Christ, about actively working with the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus with others, we need to be careful that this is what we’re sharing rather than our particular church culture.  One emphasizes the objective, historical reality of the incarnate Son of God.  The other tends to focus on programs, things to do, a community to be a part of.  These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are not the first thing.  Faith in Jesus first, then the other things.  And when it comes to the other things, it is possible that a new convert to Christianity will emphatically affirm their faith in Jesus, yet struggle to adapt to a particular church culture.

This presents opportunities to form new church cultures that preserve core aspects of the Christian life as lived by people over 2000 years – worship, study, fellowship, love and care for neighbors, etc.  But how these are accomplished might look very different.  How resources are allocated might look very different.  Still faithful to God, not not easily compatible with one another.

I think this is part of the disconnect many congregations are experiencing right now, why so many struggle.  They expect that people are just naturally going to understand and desire to be an active part of a church culture, when they may not, even if they have faith in Jesus Christ.   Being able to recognize the larger changing cultural landscape will ultimately be crucial to the adaptation of the body of Christ to new cultural values and perspectives.

Heir of the Dog

October 15, 2018

Here’s a good essay by well-respected author and academic Gene Veith.  He asks the question whether adults should still be held culpable – even prosecutable – for crimes they committed as minors.

His basic point, one that is reflected in many of our legal forms and procedures (such as – in general – treating minors accused or convicted of offenses differently than adults, including lighter punishments and the possibility of having their criminal records as minors expunged or sealed permanently), is that we generally understand that children are children and held to different standards of accountability.  We all did things as  children that, having attained some level of maturity or at least age, we wouldn’t repeat.  The why we wouldn’t repeat might be sketchier – is it just a better understanding of legal ramifications or actual recognition that words or actions once somehow judged appropriate never really are?  But barring some extreme situations, I don’t presume to judge the character of an adult based on some random fact about their childhood, especially if what I know of them as an adult outweighs that random incident.  Such as, say, eating glue in third grade.

There are also times when a minor commits one or more crimes so heinous that they are no longer treated as children but as adults, because the fundamentals at play ought to be understandable even by someone under the age of 18.  There’s a line between adulthood and being a minor, but it can be a permeable one, as well as an inconsistent or inaccurate one.

What interests me, tangentially to this conversation, is our obsession as a culture with beginning to rescind honors and accomplishments by individuals based on a later-discovered moral failing or flaw, perhaps an isolated incident but more typically of an ongoing nature.  I first wondered about this with Bill Cosby.

For example, his honorary degree from Penn University was revoked in February 2018 as the nagging rumors of sexual foul play finally materialized and were acted upon, leading to his conviction and a 3-10 year prison sentence.  Wikipedia claims Cosby has over 70 honorary degrees from various institutions.  Many rescinded those degrees once his misdoings were verified.  Other institutions did not revoke their degrees, such as Virginia Commonwealth University.  Other schools removed the names of prominent honorees from buildings because of either real or perceived transgressions.

Obviously Cosby’s sexual behavior is deplorable and deserves punishment.  However on the flip side, does  such behavior counteract or overwrite a person’s other achievements?  Is this a binary thing – where you are either an accomplished professional or a disgusting criminal?  Can you only be one or the other?

That is problematic to me, as I don’t know many binary people.  I know many people who have wonderful characteristics but also who have some characteristics I don’t like so much.  And of course in my vocation as pastor, I am called upon to hear confession from time to time.  Very personal and specific confessions of actual bad or even illegal things people have done in their past.  And I am then charged and privileged to declare the forgiveness of Jesus Christ to that person, and to mean it.  I’m not allowed to distance myself from that person afterwards because what they confessed was too heinous.

Yes, there is a difference between the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and potential  legal liability for one’s actions.  But again, this isn’t a  binary thing.  We’re all guilty of some infractions real or imagined, large or small.  Did we make a full stop at that stop sign?  How often are we going over the speed limit?  Yet we generally say that such things don’t negate the good things a person has done or accomplished in their life. Sure, you ran that stop sign, but we’re not going to take away your Nobel Peace Prize because of it. 

As a Biblical Christian, I hold the tension that says that each of us is capable of amazing acts of love and grace, and at the same time capable of amazingly hurtful, cruel, even criminal behaviors.  The person is the same, capable of both sides of the coin, and therefore not binary.  Perhaps for short periods of time, but when considering the work and span of a person’s life, only in rare cases (Hitler, duh?) can we say that a particular person was practically universally bad.  Or good.

St. Paul fleshes this out in his amazing words in Romans 7.  This reality that we all live with – that there is a continual battle within us between the sinful and evil me, and the holy and righteous me.  I’m not binary.  By putting my faith in Jesus Christ, both mes exist within me – for the moment.  Only one is going to last, however.  Eventually I will be binary – I will be completely and only perfect.  But until that day, when Jesus returns and ushers in a new creation, I remain both saint and sinner.  The traditional theological phrase is simul iustice et peccatorAt the same time righteous/just and a sinner.

What this should lead to is not a glossing over or ignoring of sin, but the recognition that someone might be capable of a great sin, and yet still capable of accomplishing something great and praiseworthy, either before or after the period of time when they perpetrated the great sin.  It allows me to condemn Mr. Cosby for his sexual violence against women while recognizing that he is a legitimately gifted comedian, actor, and even thinker.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  And just as the sin needs to be punished, the gift remains worthy of praise.

And such praise is necessary, every bit as necessary as the punishment of sin or illegality is.

If  we’re only going to acclaim the admirable works of perfect people, we have nothing left to praise.  Nothing at all.  Which means what remains would be to determine which sins or illegal actions would be severe enough to counteract not only whatever good someone may have done in the past, but any good they might achieve in the future.  (And, for the Lutherans reading, I’m using generic terms and not dealing with a theological argument about whether we on our own are capable of any good works!)

And who will determine what sins or illegal actions those are?  And on what basis?  And what happens when a sin that is at one point considered heinous is eventually not viewed as a sin at all?  Can we counteract not the punishment that was due, but also the praise that was scrubbed out?  I don’t think so.

Hopefully Mr. Cosby learns from his sins and their consequences.  Not only that, I hope that others in positions of power or influence or wealth learn that such behavior is wrong.  Always.  But his accolades and accomplishments need to remain in the public eye as well, as reminders of what is possible despite our shortcomings, our failures, our sins, and as encouragement to others that good can be accomplished even if they get off to the wrong start.

Slavery Is Bad – Unless It’s Good

October 8, 2018

The basic idea of feminism as I understand it:

Is that women and men are equal, but women haven’t been treated as equal.  They won’t be fully equal until they are emancipated from the economic and social constraints that have bound them through the years.  One of these constraints is the fact that, unfortunately, they are the bearers of children and, unfortunately, children need their mothers.  We don’t have a solution for that yet, but  we’re working on it.  In the meantime, women should be encouraged to work just like men work, and should be freed from the penalties of being out of the workplace to take care of their children until the children are old enough to be shipped off to early childhood care or preschool.  Motherhood and the constraints of child-bearing are part of the slavery imposed on women (by men, no doubt), but should be fought against and equalized in every way possible until  we figure out how to make men have babies.

So to free women from the slavery we allege child-bearing and child-rearing to be, our solution is to impose that exact slavery, the very slavery we are trying to free women from, on men.  We will force men to do what women have traditionally done but don’t want to do any more.   

In the name of equality.

There are undoubtedly spectrums and nuances to this and varying degrees of agreement and support.  But this is what gets published.

Literally.

The Wall Street Journal ran an essay a couple of weeks ago advocating for mandatory maternity leave for men, and arguing that this would ultimately be a good thing for the family.  They literally quote an executive:  “Bias plays such a clear role, we decided we are going to say, ‘It’s not an option.  You [men] have to take time off.'”

So in the interest of freeing women from a perceived form of slavery, the answer is to impose that same slavery on men and call it a good thing rather than a bad thing.  I understand the goal – the goal is that men and women are equally employed across all sectors earning equal amounts of money.  That all sounds rather fascinating and good – in and of itself.

What this article does not address at all – similar to a recent Time article on this topic in Sweden, is what’s best for the baby/child, and even what may be most desirable by the woman/mother.   The baby/child/family is treated ultimately as a secondary concern to personal vocational advancement.  The assumption is made that neither mother or father are really all that crucial to raising a healthy child – physically or emotionally (and of course we won’t even acknowledge the spiritual component).  Family is a distant second (or maybe even third) consideration.  What matters most of all is work.  Earning money.  Nothing is said about why or towards what end.  Earning money is the Holy Grail of feminism.  If you earn the same amount as a man, you’re finally equal.  No other metric will do.

I don’t consider it accidental that since the institutionalization of dual-income families the mental and emotional health of children seems to have declined precipitously.  Depression rates are apparently skyrocketing, and while some might chalk that up to better diagnoses, perhaps we also  should think about other more fundamental reasons why kids might be more depressed these days.  Factor in bullying by peers that no longer is restricted to school hours but can go on non-stop, 24/7 through the use of technology, and children seem to face a far more  hostile landscape than in previous generations.

Of course we can make all of this sound selfless.  After all, mom and dad are spending all their time and effort at work to make life better for you, Junior.  To ensure that you get the toys you want, live in the right school district, can attend the best universities, and in turn get the best jobs that will continue this cycle.

But what if kids really don’t need all of that?  What if kids really need their moms and dads?  What if emotional security and health begins with this rather than with school counselors and therapists and psychiatrists?   What if we’re killing ourselves for the wrong things, and equality is found in something other than a paycheck?  What if we  prioritized the family as the most important thing, and acknowledged men and women’s equally important and necessary and even unique roles in the family instead of treating them as interchangeable parts on an assembly line?

Radical thinking by today’s standards.  Just the sort of backwards, chauvinistic and misogynistic thinking to be expected of a man, I’m sure some might say.  But I’m willing to stand with what the Bible says – which is that our equality and value doesn’t come from what we do, but simply from the fact that we are.  That an employer or a paycheck doesn’t determine our worth, but rather the fact that God created us in the first place.

Of course this has a lot of implications on topics like abortion, euthanasia, family life, gender roles, and all manner of different things that certain groups in our society have decided they can arbitrarily change.  Even by natural selection and evolutionary standards though, the idea that we can arbitrarily redefine all of these evolved traits and characteristics is illogical.  Some might even call it arrogant.  But I guess if you decide you’re smarter than hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, you can make that argument.  I’m just not so sure you should trust that conclusion.

What makes you valuable?  Who makes you equal?  Nobody in this world – including yourself.  We dicker and fight about external means of  making people equal but I don’t know anyone who feels internally like they measure up, like they’re as good as everyone else or sometimes anyone else.  Those doubts and fears won’t be addressed by laws and business practices or more money in a paycheck.  Those issues can only be solved by God.  The God who created us equal in the first place, and who is re-establishing that equality through the voluntary death and resurrection of his Son.  Who insists that switching one form of slavery for another is no solution, and that nothing less than truly being free in Him will substitute.

I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a woman not because of her job or whether she earns more or less or the same as I do.  Just as I shouldn’t value or esteem her based on her looks.  But rather only on the fact that she is.  That God the Father created her, God the Son died for her, and God the Holy Spirit seeks to lead her back into a proper relationship with him that will reorder every other relationship in her life, including the one with herself.

Of course, I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a man for just the very same reason.  That sounds a lot more like equality than mandatory paternity leave does.

 

 

Book Review: The Daniel Dilemma

October 1, 2018

The Daniel Dilemma: How to Stand Firm and Love Well in a Culture of Compromise

by Chris Hodges

As a Lutheran, I’m a bit cursed.

That may have conjured a variety of thoughts for you, but I had a specific application in mind.  It comes to a basic difference in how to read Scripture.  Is it a story about us, an exhortation and encouragement and threat to constantly do better, live more faithfully, be more deserving of God’s grace and love, or is it a story about God and how good and faithful and persistent He is despite our constant rebelliousness, disinterest and apathy?

There are two caveats I need to acknowledge.  First off, I think most intelligent or mature Christians would be likely to say it’s the latter.  Lutherans aren’t unique in this.  Secondly, once everyone says this, many Christians (including a good number of Lutherans) proceed to gobble up books and instructions that place the emphasis squarely on what we should be doing, rather than emphasizing God’s grace.

To be fair, you aren’t going to sell many books by telling people to just focus on how loving and gracious and good God is to us and allow that to percolate through you and work itself out in a life of faith.  I just did it in one sentence.  Even by Twitter standards that’s pretty short.

On the other hand, you can write endless books interpreting Scripture as one long warning or encouragement to faithfulness, promising any number of fascinating rewards, from personal health and fitness to national renewal.  And since we all like good stuff, these books are constantly churned out.  Whereas the Bible – which tells us we’ve already gotten the good stuff in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God incarnate who lives and dies and rises again to convey his forgiveness and perfection to us – is, well, just one book.  And copyrighting it can be very complicated, I’m guessing.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t think about how to live our lives as Christians.  It isn’t, Lord knows, that we couldn’t be doing a better job of it.  But most books focus exclusively on this – what we call sanctification, the process of becoming more and more the holy and righteous person we will be on the day of Jesus’ return.  Most books pay lip service at best to the actual Gospel – that Jesus has done all of this for us already, and while this will certainly transform us in surprising ways, we are actually free.  Free to live out our lives in joyful response to God’s goodness.  Free to love others sacrificially.

Books that focus almost exclusively on our life of faith and almost not at all on God’s grace in Christ tend to enslave people though.  They give the impression – often well-intentioned or not intended at all – that if we don’t do better, God is probably going to love us less and we’ll miss out on all the cool stuff He wants to give us or do through us.

That’s a heavy load.

Lutherans balk at that load.  That’s not the Gospel, we say.  That’s transforming the grace and love of God into a work we have to earn, we say.  That’s not freedom, it’s just more chains and slavery, we complain.

The challenge is that there is a lot of room to talk about the life of Christian faith and our response to God’s love.  Lutherans may sometimes miss this or not talk about this out of fear that people will hear the Gospel being turned into Law, freedom into enslavement.  So it’s tricky.

Enter this book.

It’s a predictably engaging and affable book by a pastor of a huge church in the Southeastern US.  While I’m not personally familiar with him, I assume he’s earnest, kind, faithful and honest.  That these traits have enabled him to be very successful as a pastor and now also as an author and probably speaker.  So be it.  None of those things really matter to me, since I’m not his parishioner or in the same ministerial circles to be a brother pastor to/with him.  All I have is his book.

And his book is a lot of Law.

It’s not that, as the Law, it’s bad or wrong.  It’s just that it’s the Law.  And while he undoubtedly mentioned Jesus and love and grace and forgiveness a lot in the 250 or so pages, the much greater bulk of the book is aimed at trying to get Christians to actually live the way the Bible describes or prescribes.  He often uses italics at the end of chapters to drive his point home.

  • Have a good attitude.
  • Don’t wait until you have a breakdown.  Do it now.
  • The scales are waiting.
  • Don’t wait.  Don’t put it off.  Do it now.
  • The choice is yours.
  • Do what God wants, not what people want.

I get it.  You’re reading his book.  He has your attention for a few moments, and he wants to drive home the urgency of his message and he wants you to begin changing your life right now.  All well and good.  I’d argue it’s all well and good for a pastor to say to his congregation, whom he has a relationship with and a means of being in contact and follow-up with.  It’s a lot harder in a book.  In a book, it’s just a lot of pressure.  Failure to do these things, it is implied, is failing God.  And failing God either results in a less joyful life, or possibly eternal damnation.  Also true.  But again, a lot of pressure on the random reader who may have no other connection to Christian community or teaching.

The book allegedly utilizes the story of Daniel in the Biblical book of Daniel to provide insights into Christian living in a foreign culture.  Frankly, his use of Daniel is rather thin, and he goes long stretches without referencing him at all.  He utilizes a broad cross-section of Scripture otherwise along the way.  And his conclusions – none of which in and of themselves are bad – are appropriate in any context, not just in a culture that insists on compromise in belief and behavior.  Christians are to live out their lives of faith regardless of the particular cultural setting they find themselves in, just as they would live out their faith in essentially the same way regardless of whether they lived in Hawaii or Antarctica.

Throughout, he utilizes the Bible primarily to show us how we should be faithful.  Again, this is fine to a point.  But at other points it really seems to stretch this way of reading Scripture.

The most challenging, for me, came early on, in Part 1, starting around page 40.  Here Hodges relates Daniel 1:15-19, which describes how Daniel and a few other promising prisoners of war are put on the fast track to upward mobility in a foreign culture and government.  Part of the benefits of this are that they get the best of everything.  In fact, they eat the same stuff the king does.  Sounds like a great benefit, right?

Not if you have some very specific dietary restrictions.  Which the Israelites did (and faithful Jews today still do).  So Daniel’s response to this generosity is to ask – politely – permission to follow a diet more faithful to their faith, and if the results aren’t good enough in terms of their health and appearance, they’ll switch over to the king’s food.  At the end of the trial period, Daniel and his buddies who eat the alternate diet are stronger and better looking than any of the people eating from the king’s table.  So much so that the diets for all of the trainees are changed over to vegetables and water, just like Daniel and his buddies.

Hodges highlights this as an example of great faith on the part of Daniel and his buddies.  It’s an example of Daniel seizing an opportunity to test his faith, and being proved faithful in it.  It almost sounds as though Daniel’s faith was the cause of the turnout of the experiment.

First, I’d argue that rather than being an epic issue of faith, this is first and foremost an issue of training and therefore preference.  Having presumably been raised on a kosher diet and warnings against food prepared by outsiders who might not keep kosher or who might dedicate their foods to false gods, this would be the natural response for Daniel.  If you visited Vietnam (as I had the chance to a few years ago) and had the opportunity to eat dog, perhaps you would pass on this.  Our American culture finds that very inappropriate and disgusting.  Of course you’d ask for something else.

Secondly, if it is an act of heroic faith on Daniel’s part, it is God who gets the glory for both strengthening Daniel to stand firm in his faith and then blessing the outcome to vindicate Daniel’s faithfulness.  But these aspects are not mentioned at all.  The whole story becomes a moral model and encouragement for you and I to follow.  The emphasis is on Daniel, and therefore on you and I, rather than on God the Holy Spirit who is both the source of our faith and the promised presence of God with us in faith.

The rest of the book follows pretty much the same line.

Again, it isn’t that we all don’t need reminders and encouragements to deepen our faith.  But a book like this ultimately gives the impression that this is primarily our responsibility.  Biblically and anecdotally, I’d argue this is a false impression.  St. Paul sometimes has to clarify what behaviors are and aren’t appropriate for Christians, but he also clearly understands that whatever good there is in him to pursue those appropriate behaviors is not himself but rather Christ working in and through him.  This distinction is largely lost or ignored in this book.

Based on the title of his book, I think the best chapter in the whole book is the last one.  Ironically, it’s the chapter he begins with I hope you haven’t started with this chapter.  Yet this chapter reflects a more appropriate emphasis on the grace of God the Holy Spirit at work, and our chief tool in terms of prayer.  I wish more of this had permeated the rest of the book!

I read this because it sounded like an appropriate book for our times.  What I found was neither very deep exploration of Daniel and other of God’s people who lived in challenging times, nor anything very particular to challenging times.  If you proclaim Jesus as your Lord and Savior, live like it.  But remember even as you do this that it’s not really you doing it – once again it is God giving you the will and the strength and the power for you to put into use.  As such, you don’t get the glory when you succeed, or the right to look down on others who struggle more than you do.  And on the flip side, when you fail you rely on grace and forgiveness as an encouragement to get up and try again.

And in all of this, seek to live out the Reader’s Digest version of the Commandments – Love God, and Love Your Neighbor.  Whether they like you or not, whether they agree with you or not, and whether you really want to or not.

I think that last line was the sequel to my earlier book in this blog.  I’m on a roll.

 

 

 

 

Women’s Roles in the Church

September 27, 2018

The idea has been brought up in the last nine months that perhaps our congregation should have women Elders.  Our denomination traditionally has fought against this practice, although it is technically permissible through the careful wording of language in a congregation’s Constitution (which must be vetted and accepted by our polity in order for a congregation to be truly affiliated with the denomination.  So, as a pretty traditional and conservative Church body, we stand with the predominant Christian practice of the last nearly 2000 years and do not generally permit women Elders, and never women pastors.

There are exceptions, of course, to allowing women to be Elders and interestingly enough our two closest daughter congregations both allow it.  This is one of the reason some of my parishioners are asking about it.  Other reasons include some people growing up in other denominations that allow women pastors and Elders.  And of course our cultural climate for the last 50 years has really stressed that if women are to be considered equal to men, they must do identical things to men.  This is  not an option for strident feminists.  A woman should get a college education and join the workforce and stay in the workforce.  The maternal instinct should be shunted to the side as much as possible, and certainly a woman who truly upholds the equality of women should never opt to be a stay-at-home mom.  Equality requires that we be identical, our culture says, and our parishioners are hearing this message loud and clear and internalizing it.

So it was that I received a short note asking me why I didn’t think women were worthy to be Elders and bringing up two New Testament women who some think were not just Elders but perhaps even pastors – Priscilla  and Phoebe.  After clarifying that this is not an issue of worthiness or capability, but rather a matter of maintaining God’s Word to us that our value and worth is contingent not on what we do or don’t do but rather on the fact that God the Father created us, God the Son died for us, and God the Holy Spirit seeks after every last one of us, here is my quick treatment of Priscilla and Phoebe.

Priscilla – Our knowledge of Priscilla comes from four places:  Acts 18, Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and 2 Timothy 4:19.  These passages tell us she was married to a man named Aquila who were Jews and tentmakers like St. Paul, had been expelled with other Jews in Rome likely in association with the Emperor Claudius sometime between 41 and 54 AD (probably 51-52 based on the reference to the proconsul Gallio).  These events are referenced as well by several Roman historians.  They are Paul’s travel companions from Corinth (where he meets them in their exile) to Syria.  They remain in Ephesus while Paul continues his travels, and it is in Ephesus where they meet Apollos and expounded or proclaimed to him the Christian faith more fully.  They are also in Rome and are referred to by Paul as co-laborers or co-workers in Christ.  They are said to host a church in their home in Corinth.
What do we learn from this?  Aquila and Priscilla are valued and trusted friends and co-workers with St. Paul.  Together they are credited with laboring on behalf of Christ, including the further education of Apollos.  Priscilla is not singled out in any of these things, but is treated as a partner with Aquila.  The reference to them as co-workers in Romans 16:3 is not a theological or church term, but a common expression of someone working together.  It doesn’t mean that they were necessarily doing the same things, but that they worked together.  Paul makes it very clear that there are many ways to serve Christ in the church (1 Corinthians 12), and not all of them are the role of Elder or Pastor.  The fact that Aquila and Priscilla serve Christ does not mean they are doing the same things Paul is doing.  And the fact that they host a church in their home does *not* necessitate that they were the leaders of that church.  Paul nowhere makes that assertion, and I most frequently hear that interpretation of the texts by people who already have made up their mind that women ought to be pastors or Elders/leaders in the Church and go off looking for texts to support their point of view.  An objective reading of the verses about Priscilla do not, I believe, lend themselves to this interpretation.  Particularly when we recognize that nowhere else in Scripture are women understood to serve in official capacities within the priesthood or Church, and that Paul specifically cautions against this elsewhere.
Phoebe – She has only one mention in Scripture – Romans 16:1-2, where Paul greets her as a deacon in the Church and a sister in Christ.  He instructs the Roman Christians to receive her and to be of whatever assistance to her they can.  Some scholars presume that she might be the person carrying Paul’s letter to the or perhaps even reading it to them.  Once again, he clearly has respect and appreciation for her and her work on his behalf and Christ’s.  But once again, there is nothing specific in what Paul says about her or  her work that would lead us to assume – again especially in light of Paul’s other words on the topic of women in leadership – that she is a pastor or an Elder.  Deacon is a Greek term typically interpreted as servant.  Because of Paul’s usage of the word, it has come to have a more specific, Church meaning as some sort of professional Church worker.  I assume this is why some translations don’t use the word deacon in Romans 16:1 – to avoid some of the confusion that has evolved regarding the word vs. the church function.  The question then hinges on how Paul uses the word deacon, and whether we can or should interpret this to be strictly or even primarily any sort of pastoral or spiritual oversight role.
Paul uses the word deacon in six places:
  • Romans 16:1 – in reference to Phoebe without further clarification
  • Philippians 1:1 – mentioned along with the overseers of the congregation, implying perhaps that deacons – while serving an important role – are not the leaders/overseers of the church –
  • 1 Timothy 3:1-12 – Paul lays out the qualifications for overseers as well as deacons, indicating fairly clearly that their duties were not the same.  The qualifications of a good deacon are considerably fewer in number and scope than the qualifications to be an overseer.
Once again, a straightforward reading of these verses would not lead us to think deacons were the same as overseers/pastors/Elders, but rather serve another function within the Church that bears mentioning along with overseers/pastors/elders.  Again, most arguments that Phoebe was essentially a pastor or elder are made by people who seem to have their minds made up on the subject already, and who are also blatantly ignoring Paul’s other teachings on this topic (most notably, 1 Timothy 3:12).  Towards that end, there are a few other references that are often brought up such as Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3.  They are also acknowledged and praised and thanked by Paul as co-workers working closely with him in his ministry, but not said to be doing the same things he is.  Also frequently mentioned is Galatians 3:28.  But it is clear contextually that Paul doesn’t mean that these differences don’t exist.  There clearly are still men and women, still Jews and non-Jews, still those who are enslaved and those who are free.  His argument has to do with the freedom we have in Christ as opposed to the constraints often endured culturally or societally.
The argument that women were leaders in the early Church requires a backwards reading of today’s ideas of equality and feminism into Scripture.  The argument today is that equality means doing the same things – and this is never the Scriptural definition of equality.  The argument today is that if women are not doing the same thing as men, it is tantamount to oppression by men and a betrayal of their gender by women, neither of which is Biblical (or frankly even logical!) in the least.
Biblically, our value and worth come from the fact that we are creations of God the Father and bear his  image, not what we do.
For 2000 years the Church has tried to give witness to this Biblical truth.  We are created equal but different.  Oftentimes that message has been confused or warped by sinfulness.  It has certainly been used inappropriately as a tool for oppression or suppression of women by men.  But the fact that we misuse it sinfully sometimes does not deny the essential truth behind it.  Frankly, our misuse of it only further heightens the validity of the situation.  In Genesis 3 God tells Eve that part of the effects of sin in her life and the life of her gender will be a constant struggle with men for control, and that more often than not, women will lose that struggle.
It has nothing to do with ability.  Men and women are equal before God, and have equal and intrinsic value and worth.  They have different giftings and abilities as well.  I  know women who would be far better pastors than some guys I know!  But that doesn’t mean we are free to arbitrarily define or redefine Biblical reality.  Even if we don’t understand the reason, we are to remain faithful to God’s Word to the best of our ability.  Women voluntarily recognize this authority and submit to it – it is not a means for men to exert control over women.
The LC-MS acknowledges that, despite 2000 years of church history, sometimes congregations feel compelled to make women Elders.  We tend to resist this as the Elders traditionally carry authority similar to the Pastor, and so confusion can be started.  If women can be Elders, why not Pastors?  So the LC-MS has discouraged the use of women Elders.  Yes, there are LC-MS congregations (locally!) who have women Elders, and loopholes exist Synodically that allow this.  Does that mean we should do it?  The fact that a loophole exists does not mean that it must or even should be taken.  The larger question is how does our congregation sees herself in 2000 years of Christian history and practice, and what are the overwhelming arguments put forth that women should be Elders here?  Is it simply a matter of convenience?  Is that an adequate argument against a pretty strong and consistent Scriptural argument against such a practice?  Should we go ahead and permit women Pastors as well?  The LC-MS draws a very firm line on this one!  But if women are up helping distribute Communion, isn’t that similar to being a pastor?  The questions continue and flow out from there.
So, it is not a matter of capability or  worth, but an attempt to hear what God’s Word says.  There are some who will abuse God’s Word to make women inferior to men.  They are sinful and wrong who do this.  Women are every bit equal to men, but that very equality requires that women be women and men be men, rather than attempting to take on one another’s roles.

 

Contextualizing Advertising

September 20, 2018

Despite a much-delayed and oft-sidetracked undergraduate career spanning 13 years, I did eventually graduate from Arizona State University.  It’s an accomplishment I am proud enough of but typically stoic and realistic about.  Going back to university at nearly 30 to complete a degree you gave up on years earlier because of a lack of direction or motivation is difficult, and I acknowledge that.  But what credit there is to be taken for that lies in me (by the grace of God), and not so much my alma mater.  I know folks from my high school that are die-hard fans of the universities they graduated from, and constantly sport the clothes, tail-gate parties, and hand signs of those institutions.

I’m not one of those folks, and anyone who knows me probably isn’t very surprised by this.

To be fair, I don’t feel an unusual attachment to any other institution I’ve ever attended, whether primary, secondary, or graduate.  It’s just not in my genes.

But that doesn’t stop these institutions from sending me their magazines every quarter, hopeful no doubt that perhaps I’ve improved my situation in life markedly from my earlier years and am looking for a place to devote some of my wealth.

I’m not one of those folks either, sorry.

But as I was quickly flipping through my alma mater’s most recent magazine, the only thing that really caught my eye was the back page and an advertisement from Starbucks.  An attractive and undoubtedly upwardly-mobile-minded female barista smiles glowingly at the reader, hands on hips in a pose of confidence.  The tag line, which claims to be a quote from her, reads:

Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions.

But if news these days is to be believed, this is the fundamental problem  in our culture.  People pushing for what they want.  The news is decidedly anti-male these days, highlighting a cavalcade of men past and present who followed the above mantra fully and are now paying the consequences for it.  I doubt anyone would recognize this mantra as appropriate in the context of allegations about Brett Kavanaugh.  Or Bill Cosby.  Or Harvey Weinstein.  For that matter would people agree with this mantra in the context of Trump and his tariff policies, or Obama and his health-care reform?  Would liberals agree with this in terms of who gets confirmed as a Supreme Court judge?  For that matter would conservatives?

Our culture is in the throes of chaos precisely because of people who follow this mantra.

It doesn’t sound like a bad mantra though, does it?  Doesn’t it sound warm and glowing and awesome?  Isn’t it inspiring and confidence-building?  Doesn’t it reek of the go-get-it attitude that once characterized America?

Yet on the other hand, we could argue this mantra is destructive, evil, patently bad advice.

How can this be?

Because this mantra, this slogan – as with any mantra or slogan – needs a context.  It needs a larger background within which it fits, and which determines how it is  applied.  Only a fool would assume  that marketing companies and companies should be dictating human behavior in any given country, right?  That would be chaos, with norms and expectations and standards changing every time a new, more compelling slogan or mantra came out.

It’s terrifying to think that for many people this is exactly what is happening.

It isn’t that mantras and slogans are new.  They’ve been around for centuries, and we all can think about the most successful of them.  Be all that you can be.  Just do it.  Have a Coke and smile.  Have it your way.  There’s a common theme in them – they’re all applied to the individual and designed to encourage the individual to activity, engagement, and eventually or ultimately consumption of one form or another.

As marketing campaigns these were wildly successful.  But as rules for living your life?  Not so much.  And over and over again we are reminded that while it sounds like a good idea to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passionsin reality this isn’t something that we should always do.  By a long shot.  Or perhaps ever do.  Because society is going to determine what is acceptable to push for, what is acceptable to love, and what sorts of passions are acceptable.  It may decide these things in retrospect years down the road.  It may change its mind about them.

What these mantras and slogans need is a context.  An overarching understanding of how one is to live their lives that makes sense of these urges or prompts, determining when they are acceptable or appropriate and when they are not.  And I think this meta-context is what our culture has discarded in the last half-century.

I suggest that the meta-context that used to be in place was Biblically based and easy to remember.  Love your neighbor.  While not everyone might know or agree with the person this meta-context is associated with (Jesus), they understood the basic concept.  It’s a concept that – on its own and out of the fuller context of how He said it and what else He said – isn’t even strictly Judeo-Christian.  It could be argued that this idea is implicit in all of the great religions and even philosophies of the world.  Of course each will define the terms and parameters slightly (or radically) differently, the basic underlying idea remains.

So then I’m free to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions, as long as it doesn’t cause me to cease loving my neighbor.  As long as I’m anchored in this larger meta-context, I can apply the mantras and slogans of the day in a limited fashion.  And of course the meta-context also provided the criteria to know what was loving my neighbor and what wasn’t, since we all tend to define this in ways that are easier or more convenient for us.

It’s not a perfect system, of  course.  There will still be anomalies and violations.  But we could at least identify them as such and deal with them as such.

Now, it’s a lot harder.  Oftentimes it seems to come down to who yells the loudest as to what constitutes a proper or  improper application of the mantras and slogans around us.  There was an effort a few years ago to come up with a new meta-context for life in our culture – tolerance.  It didn’t work so well.  It continues to not work very well.  And now we’re being told that in some situations, tolerance is actually the equivalent of refusal – which anyone with half a brain would have recognized right away.

So be careful what advertising or marketing mantra or slogan you grab on to.  Be careful what you quote to your kids or grandkids as inspirational and life-guiding advice.  They might just listen.  And they might just discover that it’s really not very good advice.  Not without something deeper and more reliable behind it.  Something not prone to the whims and waves of public opinion at any given moment (driven so often by slogans and mantras as well).  Maybe you should consider passing on something much deeper, and more  reliable.

For that matter, maybe you ought to consider adopting it for yourself.