Archive for August, 2012

Sex That Shouldn’t Sell…But It Does

It may be a cliché, but it is most certainly true:  sex sells.  Just ask Barnes and Noble.  Jeffrey Trachtenberg of The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the quarterly sales of the last remaining brick and mortar chain bookstore giant and noted that the numbers of its retail stores were up – 2% to $1.1 billion.  Trachtenberg cites two reasons for this impressive growth.  First, Barnes and Noble is reaping the benefits of the recent bankruptcy and closure of Borders.  Apparently, many Borders’ customers have found their way to Barnes and Noble.  But the second cause has nothing to do with corporate competition.  Instead, it has everything to do with sexual infatuation.  E.L. James’ bestselling hotly erotic trilogy with its flagship novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, is cited by the company in a public report as “a key revenue driver at its retail stores.”[1]  A racy trilogy is singlehandedly driving sales at a major book retailer…way up.  And that book retailer explains in an official ccorporate report that a racy trilogy is driving its sales way up…gladly.

This report from Barnes and Noble is sadly indicative of the spirit of our society.  It is not just that we are fascinated by sex, it is that we are fascinated by that which has been traditionally sexually forbidden.  The racier and the raunchier something is, the more piqued our collective cultural curiosity becomes.

What is especially notable about Fifty Shades is that it is erotica aimed at women.   Traditionally, pornography has been marketed to men, with stunningly and sadly successful results.  Indeed, pornography addiction has been generally considered to be a male problem rather than a female one.   With the Fifty Shades trilogy, however, we learn that women seem to be just as vulnerable to the pornography industry, though instead of featuring lewd pictures, this pornography finds its hook in spicy storylines.

Now more than ever, Christian believers must stand up for a biblical sexual ethic – and not because we can self-righteously claim to be free from sexual sin, for Jesus makes it clear in His Sermon on the Mount that none of us are innocent of sexual immorality (cf. Matthew 5:27-28), but because the Christian sexual ethic tells the truth about human sexuality.  Contrary to the vulgar verbal voyeurism encouraged by explicit bestselling novels, sex is more than biological arousal and satisfaction.  Instead, it is meant to be an expression of fidelity and unity, blessing husbands and wives with the gift of not only pleasure, but children.  Sex is meant to be a valuable gift rather than a cheap thrill.  And it is supposed to honor human dignity rather than degrade it (cf. Romans 1:24).

Perhaps the heart and soul of the Bible’s sexual ethic is best summed up in a single verb:  “know.”  Time and time again, the Bible uses this verb as a euphemistic way to refer to sexual intimacy:

  • “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1).
  • “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Genesis 4:17).
  • “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her” (1 Samuel 1:19).

This verb reminds us that sex is meant for husbands and wives to know each other more deeply and connect to each other more intimately.  It is not meant for near strangers to grope each other in quest of some cut-rate erotic fantasy.  Sex is far more valuable than that.  And so are the people who engage in it.  Will you stand up for the value of sex and for the dignity of the people whom God has created as sexual beings?

[1] Jeffrey Trachtenberg, “‘Fifty Shades’ of Books” (The Wall Street Journal, 8.21.12).

August 27, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Is Cremation Okay?

From time to time, I receive questions concerning the practice of cremation.  After all, cremation certainly has its benefits:  it is less costly than a traditional burial and, if someone desires, he can keep a loved one’s ashes in his home rather than shipping them off to a cemetery.  But some people are reticent about the practice though, oddly enough, they often do not know why they have reservations.  When asked about cremation, I have heard more than one person say things like, “I heard the church doesn’t like cremation,” or, “Doesn’t the Bible teach against cremation?”  The responses to these statements are “no” and “no,” though these responses do come with some qualifications.

Cremation became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century because of a growing fear that one could be accidentally buried alive.  Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, writes about this phobia:

Newspapers regularly featured stories of individuals, given up for dead, waking up from trances just before being lowered underground.  And witnesses to exhumations testified repeatedly about finding corpses that had turned on their sides, gouged out their eyes, and even fractured their bones in what one medical encyclopedia termed “desperate struggle for escape.”[1]

The thinking went that it was better, if one was accidentally pronounced dead, to be quickly burned to death in a crematorium than to be slowly suffocated to death in a coffin.  Nevertheless, cremation, though widely touted in the secular society of the nineteenth century, was not universally embraced – especially by those in the church.

The Christian emperor Charlemagne elevated cremation to the level of a capital crime in 789 because it parroted the practices of ancient pagans.[2]  The Roman Catholic Church prohibited the practice in the 1917 Code of Canon Law which read, in part, “The bodies of the faithful must be buried, and cremation is reprobated. If anyone has in any manner ordered his body to be cremated, it shall be unlawful to execute his wish.”[3] In 1963, however, Pope Paul VI lifted this ban, noting:

There has been a change for the better in attitudes and in recent years more frequent and clearer situations impeding the practice of burial have developed. Consequently, the Holy See is receiving repeated requests for a relaxation of church disciplines relative to cremation. The procedure is clearly being advocated today, not out of hatred of the Church or Christian customs, but rather for reasons of health, economics, or other reasons involving private or public order.[4]

The prior ban on cremation by the Roman Catholic Church seemed to stem from a rationalistic rejection of the resurrection of the body on the Last Day by some heady antagonists and not from a theological objection to the practice per se.   There were some who used cremation as a way to defy Jesus, saying He could not raise a body from death upon His return if that body had been incinerated.  This is why even today, The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”[5]

Silly protestations against the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day aside, there is no demonstrable theological reason to reject cremation.  Scripture never explicitly addresses the practice and, for those who would be foolish enough to believe that Jesus could not raise a body burned to ash, they would do well remember God’s curse on Adam:  “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).  If God can raise Adam from death on the Last Day long after he has decomposed into dust, God can raise a cremated person from death on the Last Day long after he has been incinerated into dust.  And the Christian church has known this – and taught this – from her earliest days.  Felix, a Latin apologist from the second century, writes, “Every body, whether it is dried up into dust, or is dissolved into moisture, or is compressed into ashes, or is attenuated into smoke, is withdrawn from us, but it is reserved for God in the custody of the elements.”[6]  Even when our bodies return to the elements from which they were formed, Felix says, our God nevertheless retains custody over these elements and will reconstitute these elements into perfected and glorified bodies on the Last Day.

What is the upshot of all of this, then?  Each family must make their own decisions as to how to best honor a loved one after his or her passing.  Cremation is an option, as is a traditional burial.  There is no need to fret over either option theologically, for both are acceptable in God’s sight.  What God concerns Himself with is not how a person is buried, but how that person who believes will be ultimately raised to a life of eternal bliss with the Lord and with other believers.  And God’s concern should be our hope!

[1] Stephen Prothero, Purified by Fire:  A History of Cremation in America (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2001), 72.

[2] Cf. Lucy Bregman, Religion, Death, and Dying (Santa Barbara:  Praeger, 2010), 13.

[3] 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1203.

[4] Pope Paul VI, Piam et constantem, 3366.

[5] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2301.

[6] ANF 4:34.

August 20, 2012 at 5:15 am 3 comments

A Theological Look At Suicide

It’s never easy to lose a loved one.  Whether it’s an illness when someone is middle aged, a tragedy when someone is young, or even a so-called “natural” passing when someone is old, death brings tears and mourning.  People may sometimes quaintly call a funeral a “celebration,” but if it is, what a strange way to celebrate – with lowered heads and furrowed brows and muffled sobs.  Truth be told, death is sad.  And death is heartbreaking.

Death becomes especially heartbreaking when it is the result of suicide.  We will often speak of “preventable deaths” – those that could have been avoided if only he wouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel when he was drunk, or if only she would have gone to the doctor sooner after feeling a lump.  But suicide seems to be the ultimate example of a “preventable death.”  After all, the person who lost his life is the same person who took his life…voluntarily.  He held in his own hands the power to choose life or the power to choose death.  And he chose the unthinkable.

When suicide strikes, many questions inevitably arise.  People ask everything from, “How could he be so selfish?” to “Is killing oneself the unforgivable sin?”  Because of the many questions connected to suicide, I thought it would be worth it to take a look at suicide broadly from a theological perspective and seek to clear up some of the persistent misperceptions that surround this heartbreaking act.

In order to understand the Bible’s estimation suicide, we must begin a fundamental observation:  suicide is tragic.  Though this may seem self-evident to many, the reason this observation is necessary is because not everyone has believed this, nor does everyone now believe this.

The most famous suicide of the ancient world is that of Socrates.  After being convicted of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens by criticizing the city’s democratic government, the town’s officials sentenced Socrates to death by poisonous hemlock.  Plato, his close friend and pupil, recounts Socrates drinking the lethal cocktail:

[Socrates] took it, and very gently…without trembling or changing color or expression…Said Socrates, “But I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.” With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it.[1]

Notice how nobly, stoically, and even, as Plato says, “cheerfully,” Socrates drinks his poison, more in control of his life – and death – than those who handed down his capital sentence.  It is this stately picture of Socrates’ suicide that gave rise to the opinion of the ancients that it is perfectly acceptable to take one’s own life.  Seneca, a well-known Stoic philosopher, says of suicide, “The best thing which eternal law ever ordained was that it allowed to us one entrance in life, but many exits…This is one reason why we cannot complain of life; it keeps no one against his will….Live, if you so desire; if not, you may return to the place from whence you came.”[2]  More recently, suicide has made headlines because of those who support “Death with Dignity,” a movement which maintains that doctor assisted suicide, in cases of grave and terminal illness, is justified and, yes, even dignified.[3]  For some, suicide is moral and noble.  The Bible, however, paints a starkly different picture of suicide.  Suicide, according to the Bible, is unambiguously proscribed.  Consider the reasons why below.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in death.  Death is deeply evil.  Indeed, the apostle Paul calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26), ultimately to be defeated at Christ’s Second Coming.  Death is so evil because it is utterly incompatible with God’s original creative intent.  As we confess in the Nicene Creed, our God is “the Lord and giver of life.”  God is in the business of life, not death!  However, sin introduced what God never intended.  Therefore, we are to hate death rather than embracing it as suicide does.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in murder.  Most famously, murder is prohibited by the Fifth Commandment:  “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  But long before Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to Israel, murder was outlawed as a heinous ill.  Immediately following the great flood of Noah’s day, God commands, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6).  Notice the general nature of both of these prohibitions.  Moses’ prohibition against murder is a blanket one without so much as a direct object to specify who should not be murdered.  God’s prohibition to Noah does contain a direct object – “man” – but this direct object is a general one, referring to mankind.  The killing of humans by other humans, then, is clearly and consistently forbidden in the Scriptures.  Thus, even the killing of oneself breaks the command of God.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in abuse.  It is difficult to think of a more dire abuse of one’s body than the taking of one’s life.  Because God created our bodies, redeems our bodies through His Son Jesus Christ, and will raise our bodies on the Last Day, our bodies – and what we do with them – matter to God!  As Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Killing one’s body can hardly be considered an honorable way to treat one’s body.

It is important to note that honoring God with one’s body precludes not only suicide, but anything that damages the body.  There are many people who refuse to honor God with their bodies in countless ways and for countless reasons.  Some do not eat well.  Some do not exercise.  Some do not visit their physicians.  When these people sometimes die prematurely, they do so to everyone’s sorrow, but not necessarily to everyone’s shock.  After all, we know that abuse can eventually result in death.  So often, we confine our definition of “suicide” to a one-time act that ends in the loss of life.  But far too many people are willing to commit what I call “slow-motion suicide” by abusing their bodies over months, years, and decades.  This too is prohibited by Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 6.

Though the Bible flatly condemns suicide, even something as seemingly final as the taking of one’s life is not unsalvageable for the Christian.  People will sometimes refer to suicide as “the unforgivable sin.”  The thinking goes like this:  because a person who commits suicide cannot repent of his sin, he cannot be forgiven and will therefore be eternally damned.  This thinking, however, is flawed on two counts.  First, this thinking does not take into account the extenuating circumstances that often accompany suicide, for a person who takes his own life often does so during a moment of deep despair, depression, or even insanity.  This can hardly be considered to be a belligerent and unrepentant sin against God.  Rather, the person who takes his life in this kind of an instance may not even understand what he is doing.  Second, the thinking that calls suicide “unforgivable” assumes repentance is a cognitive act of sorrow that feels remorse over a specific sin and that this remorse is necessary to offset a sin’s damnable effect.  This, however, is not a true picture of biblical repentance.  For if a person had to feel cognitive remorse for every sin specifically, none could be saved, for we all commit sins that we either do not remember or do not even notice in the first place.  This is why the Psalmist pleads with God, “Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression” (Psalm 19:12-13).  Notice that the Psalmist makes a distinction between “hidden faults” and “willful sins.”  The “hidden faults” are those sins unknown to the Psalmist whereas the “willful sins” are those sins which the Psalmist has intentionally and knowingly committed.  The Psalmist believes that God will forgive both types of sins – both his known and unknown sins.

Martin Luther says of repentance, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Repent, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”[4]  Like the Psalmist, Luther believes that repentance is more than just specific remorse over a specific sin; rather, repentance is part and parcel of the posture of a Christian’s heart, for a repentant Christian continually believes that he is a person who continually sins and is thereby continually in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.  Thus, just because a person does not express remorse for committing suicide specifically does not mean that he is not living a life of repentance generally.

Some people may still ask, “But what about Judas?  Didn’t Judas commit suicide and didn’t he go to hell?”  Though it is true that Scripture implies Judas’ ultimate eternal damnation (cf. Acts 1:25), we must understand that Judas did not go to hell because he committed suicide, but because he refused to trust in Jesus to forgive his sin.  Matthew tells us, “When Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse” (Matthew 27:3).  The Greek word for “remorse” is metamelomai. Though there is some semantic overlap, this word is nevertheless distinct from the Greek word for “repentance,” which is metanoia.  Thus, even though Judas seems to experience some level of remorse over his terrible wickedness, he does not seem to repent of his sin and turn to Christ for forgiveness.  Tragically, Judas’ remorse leads only to despair which leads only to his eventual suicide.  The stain of human sin cannot be absolved by feeling bad about oneself through remorse.  It can only be absolved by turning to Jesus in repentance.

Finally, it is important that we support and encourage those who have lost loved ones to suicide and seek immediate help for those who may be considering suicide.  As Christians, we are called to remind everyone that, through faith in Christ, despair and death do not need to have the final say.  God’s plan of eternal, joyous life for us can ultimately prevail.  As the apostle Paul exclaims:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

Despair and death are no match for the victory and life that Jesus brings.  Of this we can be sure!  And in this we can take comfort.

[1] Plato, Phaedo 117b-117c.

[2] Seneca, Epistulae Morales 70.

[3] In 1994, Measure 16 established the state of Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act.”  This allows terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives by means of a doctor-assisted suicide.

[4] Martin Luther, “95 Thesis,” Thesis 1.

August 13, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

“For Thine Is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory” – Where Did That Come From?

“Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Heinrich Bloch

This past weekend in worship, we studied the most famous prayer of all time:  the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus offers this model prayer as part of His Sermon on the Mount:

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13)

Whenever I teach on the Lord’s Prayer, someone inevitably notices that, in Matthew’s account, the doxology often included in traditional versions of this prayer – “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and glory, forever and ever.  Amen” – is missing.  Where did it go?

Interestingly, the old King James Version includes the doxology because the Greek manuscripts from which the translators of that day were working incoporated it.  As biblical textual criticism has advanced over the past four hundred years, however, we have learned that the doxology is absent from the most ancient and significant manuscripts of the Bible, including Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both from the fourth century, and is also omitted in early patristic commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer including those of Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian.[1]  Thus, these words are not included in more modern translations with the understanding that they were probably not a part of the original biblical text.

It is important to understand that the exclusion of the doxology as part of the biblical text does not mean that it is errant or inappropriate to the prayer.  Quite the contrary.  It reflects the spirit of 1 Chronicles 29:11: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is Yours.”  Moreover, the doxology has been included as a liturgical strophe from the earliest days of the Christian Church.  The Didache, a manual of church practice from the turn of the second century, includes a truncated version of the doxology: “For Yours is the power and the glory for ever.”  The Didache goes on to encourage the faithful to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.[2]  Christians, then, were speaking these words from the earliest days of the church…a lot!

More than likely, this doxology began as a response of the people, gathered for worship, to the words of the Lord in this prayer.  It is much like, at the end of a Scripture lesson in worship today, the reader will sometimes conclude, “This is the Word of the Lord” and the people will sometimes respond, “Thanks be to God.”  The doxology, then, was a way for those assembled to praise God for the prayer His Son had given them.  With time, however, the liturgical function of this doxology was forgotten and people began to assume that the words were part of the prayer itself.

We, along with many others, continue to pray these words because, finally, they are a statement of faith in the heavenly Father to whom we are praying.  We believe that the reason He can bring His kingdom to pass, give us our daily bread, forgive our trespasses, and deliver us from the evil one is because the Kingdom, power, and glory are at His disposal to do with as He wishes.  And His wish, as we delightedly learn from the Lord’s Prayer, is to bless and save us.  And so, we continue to praise God with this doxology and pray as Christ has taught us.

[1] See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London:  United Bible Societies, 1971), 16-17.

[2] Didache, Chapter 8, “Concerning Fasting and Prayer.”

August 6, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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