Archive for January, 2015

Humans: Never for Sale

Credit:  texasgopvote.com

Credit: texasgopvote.com

Shortly before the new year, The New York Times published a short, heartbreaking article featuring stories from U.S. sex trafficking victims. Though there were only two stories, these were all that was needed to shock and grieve their reader. I share one of the two here:

Now 32, Genesis was offered her first hit of crack cocaine by her mother when she was 13. By 18, she had a criminal record. She spent her teenage years in and out of strip clubs before becoming the property of a violent pimp. By 21, Genesis had lost a baby and become addicted to drugs.

For years under a violent trafficker, Genesis said she was never allowed to leave his house. The rooms were bugged, the bathroom had no doors. She said her pimp used to tie her and other women he trafficked to a weight bench, beat them and starve them …

“I didn’t know I was in hell,” she said. “I thought it was just life. Over those years I was held hostage, shot at, beaten with a pistol. And somewhere in my sick mind I thought this is how life is supposed to be.”[1]

If only Genesis’ story was unique. But it’s not. Sex trafficking is a much broader problem. Though it’s hard to track because so many victims of sex trafficking do not report their experiences, the Department of Justice estimates that as many as 300,000 children may become victims of sexual exploitation each year.[2] Even if the numbers are lower, one case of sex trafficking is one too many.

The sadness of human exploitation struck me in a new way as I was reading Revelation 18 in my devotions this past week. John is describing the fall of Babylon, a city symbolic of the world’s evil. John describes the decimation of this world’s systemic sin once and for all:

“Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!” The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more – cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men. (Revelation 18:10-13)

John’s Babylon sold many things to enrich itself. But most tragically, it sold the “bodies and souls of men.”

John’s Babylon is not far from us. Every time a young lady is prostituted out to the darkest of men, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by pimps – just like in Babylon. Every time a woman performs simulated sex acts at a club for a gaggle of wide-eyed gawkers, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the adult entertainment industry – just like in Babylon. Every time a person sits hidden behind a flickering computer screen, staring at erotic images of the most carnal of acts, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the porn industry – just like in Babylon. Every time a scared woman is counseled and even cajoled to abort her baby even though everything inside of her is telling her not to, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the abortion industry – just like in Babylon.

How sick.

As heart-rending as human trafficking may be, John promises that, mercifully, this sick industry will meet its end. The “bodies and souls of men” will not be sold forever. Babylon will fall. And when Babylon does fall, the merchants who made their money off the pain of people will grieve their destruction and cry, “Woe” (Revelation 18:19)! But those who have been oppressed and sold will celebrate their liberation and shout, “Rejoice” (Revelation 18:20)!

May that day of rejoicing come quickly.

If you need help out of being trafficked, click here.

_______________________

[1] The Associated Press, “Sex Trafficking Shelter Filled With Survivor Tales,” The New York Times (12.29.2014).

[2] William Adams, Colleen Owens, and Kevonne Small, “Effects of Federal Legislation on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin (July 2010).

January 26, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Must Christianity Change or Die?

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Sometimes, it can feel as though the sky is falling and the bottom is dropping out all at the same time. It seems like I can go barely a day without reading a dire report on church attrition, especially among the younger generation. Between high school and turning 30, 43 percent of once-active young adults stop attending church.[1] As of 2012, almost one-third of young adults were unaffiliated with a religious institution.[2] In one survey, researchers found that nearly one-third of young adults left the Christian faith because of its “negative teachings” related to gays and lesbians.[3]

Such gloomy statistics lead to predictable calls to fix the Church by changing its teachings, lest the next generation, discontent with the Church’s antiquated morals, leave her altogether. Take, for instance, this call from popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans:

Young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people …

Young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness …

The evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and … millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt …

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.[4]

Evans’ last line is striking to me. In response to changing cultural norms, Evans maintains that the Church must change the substance of her message. In the words of the famed Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, “Christianity must change or die.”[5] How must Christianity change? Evans offers some suggestions:

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

Evans’ words here are fascinating – and confusing – to me because, understood one way, they are commendable, orthodox, and necessary. But understood another way, they are deeply troubling. For instance, if a “truce between science and faith” means understanding the respective spheres of each and welcoming scientific discovery while at the same time remaining faithful to Scripture’s narrative, I’m onboard. If, however, it means dumping the historicity of Scripture’s creation account, I’m troubled. If having “our LGBT friends feel truly welcome in our faith communities” means showing love, compassion, and going out of our way to listen and learn from the LGBT community, I’m more than all for it. If it means calling what is sinful, “just,” I’m troubled. Sadly, I can’t help but think that, all too often, it’s the latter understandings of these statements that are insinuated. Otherwise, it is feared, a whole generation of young people will leave the Church.

But is this really the case?

Take Rob Bell. Here is a man who has, at least in part, bought into Spong’s motto, “Christianity must change or die.” In his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell asks candidly, “Can God keep up with the modern world?”[6] He fought to build a community – Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids – that would lead the way in this new Christianity. Until he left. In an interview with Oprah, he says his Sunday mornings are now regularly filled with he and his 13-year-old son surfing.[7] Rob Bell was leading a changed church. But even a changed church wasn’t enough to keep Bell around. And he isn’t the only one.

For decades now, churches that have changed the substance of the Christian faith have not been gaining members, but losing members. And now, even as young people are leaving traditional churches, they are not joining these changed churches. They are leaving altogether.[8]

It would seem that if a church is willing to “get with the times,” so to speak, and embrace our culture’s zeitgeist, its pews should be filled to overflowing with the ranks of the enlightened, all breathing a collective sigh of relief that, finally, the offensive, narrow, bigoted Christianity of yesteryear has been relegated to the scrap heap of history. But this has not happened.

The problem with changing the faith of the Church – even the parts of the faith that are not particularly palpable to our modern ears – is that such changes inevitably displace Christianity’s eschatological hope with an evolutionary drum.

What do I mean?

Whether it’s the so-called “war” between science and faith, or the question of gay marriage, or the role of politics in faith, many Christians have simply traded one side of Rachel Held Evans’ despised culture war for the other. They desire to evolve beyond what they perceive as a restrictive, judgmental, intellectually archaic Christian faith. So they laugh at those who take Genesis’ creation account historically, or cry “bigotry” against those who express concern with gay marriage, or look down on those who argue for a more traditionally moral politics. These are old ways that must be done away with, they think.

But what happens is that they become so animated by grievances from the past and trying to right them right now that they forget about – or at least relegate to the background – any sort of ultimate hope for the future. They wind up fighting for a certain kind of culture rather than finding their hope in a different type of Kingdom. They become so obsessed with what’s next that they forget about what’s last.

When you dispel the Christian faith down to nothing more than a fight for this or that cause célèbre, more often than not, you end up with nothing – or at least with nothing that can’t be found elsewhere. And why would anyone go somewhere for something they can get anywhere? This is why changing Christianity’s substance doesn’t gain people; it only loses them.

So what course of action can a Christian take? In a world full of cultural convolution, Christianity’s answer is elegantly simple: “Stand firm in the faith … Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). Don’t change the faith. Love others. That’s it. And really, who can improve on that? Some things don’t need to change.

_____________________

[1] Melissa Stefan, “Have 8 Million Millennials Really Given Up on Christianity?Christianity Today (5.17.2013).

[2] Vern L. Bengtson, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 148.

[3]A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” Public Religion Research Institute (2.26.2014).

[4] Rachel Held Evans, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” cnn.com (7.27.2013).

[5] John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change Or Die (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999).

[6] Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 8.

[7]Super Soul Sunday: Oprah Goes Soul to Soul with Rob Bell,” Oprah.com.

[8] Rod Dreher, “The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism,” The American Conservative (7.25.2013).

January 19, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Leelah Alcorn: 1997-2014

Credit: NBC News

Credit: NBC News

It’s not easy being 17. I remember. And I’m sure it’s inconceivably harder when you’re a 17-year-old transgender girl whose parents cannot endorse your transgender self-identification because of their theological commitments. This is why Leelah Alcorn stepped out in front of a tractor-trailer on December 28, committing suicide.[1]

As a Christian, it probably comes as no surprise that I cannot in good conscience morally support the transgender lifestyle and movement. Indeed, I call Leelah, born as Joshua, “Leelah” not to endorse her lifestyle, but out of compassion for her as a person.

I find it fascinating that so many in our day and age reflexively use their emotional affections to define the core of their beings. In defining my identity, I define it first redemptively – I am a child of God, bought by Jesus’ blood – second, creationally – I am fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image – and third, vocationally – I am a husband to Melody, a father to Hope, and a pastor in Christ’s church. My emotions and desires simply do not enter into the way I define myself in any primary or particularly formative way.

But for Leelah, they did. And her emotions became a source of deep anguish for her. On her Tumblr page, she chronicled her agonizing journey in a heartbreaking note:

When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

Responding to your son or daughter if they come out as transgender the way Leelah’s parents responded to her – if this is, in fact, the way Leelah’s parents responded to her – is not the wisest way to proceed. I would also hope that Christian counselors would offer guidance that is more thoughtful than what Leelah characterizes her therapists’ guidance as being. By the same token, it is hard for Christians to say nothing when, according to Scripture, our created gender is part of our identity as God’s image bearers: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

What, then, can a Christian say?

In Acts 8, Philip is on his way to Gaza when he encounters “an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” (Acts 8:27). In this day and age, it was common to emasculate high-ranking public officials so they could devote themselves completely to their civic duties and be free from the concerns that marriage and family inevitably bring. Thus, this eunuch traded his identity creationally as a male for his identity vocationally as a public official.

Importantly, the very next line says, “This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship.” This man, it seems, was a believer in the God of Israel. But his worship at the temple would have created quite a stir, considering the injunction of Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.” My guess is, this man was turned away at the door. And yet, he did not turn away from his faith: “On his way home [he] was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet” (Acts 8:28). This is where Philip enters the picture:

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so He did not open His mouth. In his humiliation He was deprived of justice. Who can speak of His descendants? For His life was taken from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:30-35)

The passage the eunuch is reading is from Isaiah 53:7-8, a prophecy of the suffering and death of Christ. Interestingly, when Philip explains to the eunuch this passage of Scripture, he does not stop there, he only begins there – at least according to verse 35. Thus, as the two of them continued studying together, they would have eventually come to Isaiah 56:4-5:

This is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose what pleases Me and hold fast to My covenant – to them I will give within My temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”

Places in God’s kingdom, the prophet reminds us, are reserved even for those who alter their created gender identity. Because of what Jesus does in Isaiah 53, this eunuch is welcomed into God’s family in Isaiah 56.

Certainly, God created us male and female for His good purposes. And despising how God created us as male and female is sinful. But this does not mean God does not love people who are conflicted in their gender identity. Indeed, this is perhaps the saddest part of Leelah’s story. Leelah grounded her identity on something shifting: how she felt about who she was. When her emotions about her maleness became conflicted, and when she could not find the emotional endorsement she desperately desired from her parents, she sank into despair and took a terrible, irreversible, and heartbreaking course of action. Grounding our identities redemptively, however, can give us hope. For no matter how we may feel about ourselves, a redemptive identity reminds us we are loved by God. Period. God’s love does not shift like our emotions. Which is why His love is a great place – and a safe place – to find who we are.

I wish Leelah would have known this. It may have saved her life.

_________________

[1] Gillain Mohney, “Leelah Alcorn: Transgender Teen’s Reported Suicide Note Makes Dramatic Appeal,” ABC News (12.31.2014).

January 12, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Newsweek Takes On the Bible

Newsweek on the BibleIt’s frustrating, but sadly predictable. Just in time for a new year, Newsweek trots out an article full of old attacks on the Bible. Kurt Eichenwald, who became nationally known for chronicling a massive financial scandal at Prudential in 1995, has gotten into the business of faith, critiquing the Bible and its believers in a lengthy screed titled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.”[1]

The article has everything a pedantic diatribe against the Bible could ever hope to have, including a picture of picketers from Westboro “Baptist Church” (and yes, the quotation marks are intentional because they are neither Baptist nor are they a Church, at least in the theological sense of the terms) along with a cartoonish characterization of the average Christian in America:

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

Granted, I am only speaking for myself, but I have never waved my Bible at anyone while screaming condemnations of gay people. I have never worshiped at the base of a granite monument to the Ten Commandments. I do have a congregation I love with whom I worship, however. I have never appealed to God to save America from my political opponents. Indeed, if you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know I can be somewhat skeptical of the political process in general, fearing that some expect out of politics what only Christ can give. I have also never gathered in a football stadium to pray for my country’s salvation, though I have cheered from my stadium seat as I watched my Texas Longhorns put a hurtin’ on some Aggies. Again, I know I am speaking only from my own experience, but I have a feeling I’m not alone. It’s easy to make Christians sound really bad when you misrepresent what the majority of Christians do and believe.

Such a gross mischaracterization of Christians aside, the preponderance of Eichenwald’s jeremiad is reserved for the Bible itself. Eichenwald opines:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation – a translation of translations of translations of hand – copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament. (That’s the same amount of time between the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and today.) The first books of the Old Testament were written 1,000 years before that. In other words, some 1,500 years passed between the day the first biblical author put stick to clay and when the books that would become the New Testament were chosen.

I honestly have no idea where Eichenwald is getting his history. Modern translations of the Bible are not based “a translation of translations of translations.” Rather, they are based on the best available hand-written copies of Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament initial biblical manuscripts. And Eichenwald’s 400 year time frame from the writing of the New Testament text to its compilation is laughable. The Codex Sinaiticus, for instance, is a copy of both the Old and New Testaments dating to around AD 340. Assuming the last New Testament book was written around AD 90, that gives us a 250 year – not a 400 year – period between writing and compilation. But the period is actually much shorter than this. The Muratorian Fragment is a list of New Testament books from around AD 170. So now the time period between writing and compilation is reduced to 80 years. But even this misrepresents the situation. Paul’s letters circulated as a collection among Christian churches from the second century onward and the church father Justin Martyr developed, also in the second century, an influential harmony of the four Gospels known as the Diatessaron, demonstrating that the early church read the Gospels and Paul’s letters as a collection from the very beginning. In other words, the Church has always held the books we have in the New Testament to be worthy of our consideration and study. It did not take 400 years to compile the Bible.

But Eichenwald isn’t done yet. He continues:

In the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries. And what biblical scholars now know is that later versions of the books differ significantly from earlier ones.

So Eichenwald would have us believe that we have radically different variations of the books now in our Bible hidden somewhere in a colossal cache of ancient manuscripts. What do these radically different variations entail? “Most of those discrepancies are little more than the handwritten equivalent of a typo.” I’m confused. Which is it? Do we have significantly different versions of biblical books or minor discrepancies that amount to nothing more than handwritten “typos”? Not only is Eichenwald wrong on his historical facts, he isn’t even internally consistent.

Eichenwald also has fun with how scholars have translated the Bible. He cites Philippians 2:6, which says, in the King James Version, that Christ was “in the form of God,” and notes:

The Greek word for form could simply mean Jesus was in the image of God. But the publishers of some Bibles decided to insert their beliefs into translations that had nothing to do with the Greek. The Living Bible, for example, says Jesus “was God” – even though modern translators pretty much just invented the words.

I find it hard to believe that a journalist for Newsweek knows more about Greek and how words should be translated than degreed biblical scholars who actually study this stuff for a living. And just for the record, the Greek word for what Eichenwald says should be translated as “image” is morphe, which comes into Latin as forma and into English as, what do you know, “form.” Contrary to Eichenwald, reputable Bible translators generally do not just decide “to insert their beliefs into translations.”

There’s plenty more in Eichenwald’s article that could be critiqued. If you want to read some trenchant responses, you can find them herehere, and here. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that a major publication like Newsweek would publish something that looks more like a two-bit sensationalistic hit piece on the Bible than an honest piece of investigative journalism. This whole article seems to me to be little more than clickbait.

That being said, let me conclude with a passage from this article with which I actually agree. Granted, it’s not a long passage. There’s plenty around it that’s not true. In fact, I can’t even cite Eichenwald’s whole sentence. But this much is true: “If [Christians] … believe all people are sinners, then salvation is found in belief in Christ and the Resurrection. For everyone. There are no exceptions in the Bible for sins that evangelicals really don’t like.” For all that is not true in this article, this much is: Christ came to save sinners – all sinners – through faith in Him. This means that no matter what your sin, Jesus came to save you.

And even in an article that’s really bad, that’s still good news.

_______________________

[1] Kurt Eichenwald, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” Newsweek (12.23.2014).

January 5, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments


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