Archive for February, 2015

In Response to ISIS

Credit:  Christian Post

Credit: The Christian Post

The video was titled, “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” In it, 21 Egyptian Christians, dressed in orange jump suits, were gruesomely beheaded by ISIS militants along a beach in Tripoli. One of the final frames of the video zooms in on the waters of the Mediterranean, red with the blood of these martyrs.[1]

Christians aren’t the only targets of ISIS’ rage. Just last week, ISIS released images appearing to show gay men being thrown off buildings only to be stoned after they fell to the ground. A statement released by ISIS explained that the organization is “clamping down on sexual deviance.”[2]

The reaction to such savage killings has understandably been one of untempered ire. Egypt’s president pledged retaliation against ISIS for the slaughter of its Christians. Indeed, Muslims and Christians together are raising a unified chorus of disgust at ISIS’ actions. Andrea Zaki, vice president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, noted, “With their blood [these martyrs] are unifying Egypt.”[3]

Though the slaughter of Egypt’s Christians has gotten more press than ISIS’ heinous injustices against gay people, both demand a response in addition to whatever political or military responses may be offered in the national and international arenas. Here are two responses that, I believe, are appropriate and important for a moment such as this.

First, we need an anthropological response. After all, whether we are Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, we are all human. Indeed, as Christians, we know and believe that we are all created in God’s image, which affords us not only a shared humanity, but a necessary dignity. This collective humanity and dignity, in turn, involves certain shared hopes and desires. We all desire safety. We all desire respect. We all desire love. When these shared desires are so violently violated, as ISIS has done, basic empathy leads to visceral revulsion. Thus, we can join the world in condemning these acts, if for no other reason than that we are all human.

Second, we also need a theological response. This response is especially urgent because far too many in the broadly secularized West have refused to admit that there are theological drivers behind ISIS’ actions. Writing for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains:

We are misled … by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature … The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.[4]

I should point out that parts of Wood’s history of ISIS’ theological origins – especially his claim that ISIS’ theology is of a “medieval religious nature” – are questionable and, thankfully, have been appropriately critiqued. Nevertheless, his basic premise still stands. ISIS is acting in a way that is robustly and rigorously driven by a certain religious understanding. For ISIS, theology is no mere veneer to cover up some naked ambition for power.   Theology is at the heart of who they are. Thus, it does us no good, for the sake of some self-imposed, naïve political de rigueur, to pretend that at least some of ISIS’ drivers are not theological.

This is where Christians are in a unique position to lend their voices to the challenges and crises presented by ISIS. For we can offer a better theology than ISIS’ theology. We can rebuke a theology that allows the slaughtering of people with whom they religiously and culturally disagree, as Jesus did with His disciples when they wanted to destroy the Samaritans because they were a people with whom the disciples religiously and culturally disagreed. And when a theology leaves room for stoning those who live outside of traditional sexual ethics, we can say with Jesus, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7).

Blessedly, the parts of this “better theology” I outlined above are ones with which the majority of the Muslim world would agree – because even though this “better theology’s” origins are explicitly Christian, its implications are broadly ethical.   And even if ISIS’ understanding of Islamic theology is real, it is certainly not catholic. Plenty – and, in fact, the vast majority – of Muslims share our higher ethical aspirations. Indeed, perhaps what was once a Judeo-Christian ethic can expand into a Judeo-Muslim-Christian ethic.

Ultimately, of course, although theology includes ethics, it is more than just ethical. It is finally soteriological. And this is good. Because this means that even as ISIS continues its campaign of terror, it cannot thwart the promise of God that the faithful who have died at ISIS’ hands are now safe under heaven’s altar.  For this we can be thankful. And because of this we can continue to be hopeful.

______________________

[1] Leonardo Blair, “Heartbreaking: Egyptian Christians Were Calling for Jesus During Execution by ISIS in Libya,” The Christian Post (2.18.2015).

[2] Cassandra Vinograd, “ISIS Hurls Gay Men Off Buildings, Stones Them: Analysts,” NBC News (2.15.2015).

[3] Jayson Casper, “Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt’Christianity Today (2.18.2015)

[4] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic (March 2015).

February 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why Brian Williams Is Just Like You (And Vice Versa)

Brian WilliamsSix months. That’s how long NBC has suspended Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, in response to inaccurate statements he made about riding in a Chinook helicopter that was hit by an RPG while reporting from Iraq in 2003.[1]

Before I proceed any farther with this story, a bit of disclosure: I like Brian Williams. I have been watching Brian, and before him Tom Brokaw, on NBC Nightly News for years. I suspect I’m not the only one.

But this blog is not so much about the misdeeds and subsequent suspension of Brian Williams as it is about the public response to the misdeeds and subsequent suspension of Brian Williams. Two primary responses to this debacle seem to have emerged.

The first is that of antipathy. On Twitter, whole hashtags are devoted to ripping Williams for his sloppy retelling of his time in Iraq. The crush of critics reveling in what can only be described as a psychotic schadenfreude is unnerving to newsmen such as Bill O’Reilly, who told Jimmy Kimmel: “Anybody who is enjoying the destruction of this man — you got to look at yourself. And there’s a lot of people who seem to be real happy his career is going down the drain. That disturbs me.”[2] I couldn’t agree more. The prophet Obadiah warns, “You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over…people… in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble” (Obadiah 12). But this is exactly what some people are doing. They are filled with gleeful antipathy.

But this isn’t the only response to this sordid affair. There’s another, much more supportive response to the embattled reporter – that of sympathy. Some folks have rallied to Williams’ side, especially on the Facebook page for Nightly News. Again and again, supporters have commented, “Bring back Brian Williams!!!!!!” (Sometimes, their messages have included even more exclamation points). These people are willing to overlook Williams’ faux pas and offer their unreserved, untempered support. They feel bad for the news anchor and believe his actions should get a pass.

Honestly, I am not comfortable with either of these responses. The antipathy of some smacks of an arrogant judgmentalism while the sympathy of others seems to be little more than a sappy sentimentalism. As Christians, I believe the best thing we can offer Brian Williams – and others caught in similar transgressions – is our empathy.

Though the word “empathy” was coined only at the beginning of the twentieth century, it is an important and helpful term to describe the similarities between others and ourselves. When we understand how much we share in common with others, it helps us help others. This is part of what the preacher of Hebrews says constitutes the very heart of Jesus’ ministry: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus, through His incarnation, empathizes with us. He puts Himself in our place and knows exactly how we feel. He then helps us accordingly.

So what does it mean to empathize with Brian Williams? It means we need to admit that we, like he, are prone to yarn spinning. It means we need to be willing to say, to borrow a mantra from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, “Je suis Brian Williams.” Those who are highly antipathetic toward Brian Williams seem to have forgotten this. From their perch of righteous indignation, they throw stones, ignoring that their perch sits in a glass house. The apostle Paul’s words are especially apropos here: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1).

But true empathy goes farther than just identifying with another person. True empathy leads to helping that person. How can we help Brian Williams? In the same way Jesus helps us. He calls us to repentance. This is where folks highly sympathetic to Brian Williams go wrong. In their zeal to support the anchor, they have minimized and rationalized his sin.

I find it hopeful that in a statement released by Steve Burke, CEO and President of NBC Universal, Mr. Burke indicated that Brian “shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”[3] Remorse can be well and good, but not unless it is what Paul calls “Godly sorrow [that] brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). My prayer is that Brian Williams’ remorse is a Godly remorse.

Do you know what the best part of repentance for Brian Williams will be? At this point, Brian has no guarantee that his suspension will not ultimately become his termination. NBC has refused to guarantee his position. But even if NBC says, “You’re fired,” in repentance, Jesus says, “You’re forgiven.” And that’s better than any anchor chair. And that’s a promise good not only for a national news anchor, but for low-profile, everyday sinners like you and me.

_____________________________

[1] Roger Yu and Melanie Eversley, “NBC: Brian Williams suspended for six months,” USA Today (2.11.2015).

[2]Bill O’Reilly says Brian Williams ‘made a mistake,’ not sure he will keep job,” Fox News (2.10.2015).

[3] Erik Wemple, “How can NBC News’s Brian Williams ‘win back everyone’s trust’ from the beach?Washington Post (2.10.2015).

February 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Why Fifty Shades of Grey is Black and White

Movie TheatreComing to a theatre near you this Friday, just in time for Valentine’s Day: 110 minutes of expectation and titillation wrapped in the package of a movie based on a best-selling novel. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has been widely panned by literary critics. Jesse Kornbluth, writing for the Huffington Post, admits, “As a reading experience, Fifty Shades of Grey is a sad joke, puny of plot, padded with conversations that are repeated five or six times and email exchanges that are neither romantic nor witty.”[1] A quick tour through a few of the novel’s more infamous lines quickly reveals just how bad the writing really is:

  • His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel…or something.
  • My subconscious is furious, medusa-like in her anger, hair flying, her hands clenched around her face like Edvard Munch’s Scream.
  • Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose. I breathe.[2]

If you think the line, “Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose, I breathe” makes for a good novel, in the timeless words of the professor from Waterboy, “There’s something wrong with your medulla oblongata.” I’ve never read either of these authors, but something tells me E.L. James makes Danielle Steele look downright Shakespearean. Something also tells me that when James was writing her novel, clicks on Thesaurus.com went through the roof. Yet, over 10 million copies of this stilted, silly prose have been sold worldwide.

In all honesty, though the awful writing really does bother me, there is a much more sinister side to Fifty Shades of Grey – something that deserves serious theological reflection. This novel unashamedly, unabashedly revels in its sexual depravity. It is a sick foray into all sorts of sexual sin. Some reviewers have gone so far as to call it “mommy porn.”[3] The overarching plot line explores the sexually abusive relationship between a wealthy 27-year old entrepreneur named Christian Grey and a 21-year old college senior named Ana Steele. Christian warns Ana that he is not “a hearts and flowers kind of guy” and introduces her to his room full of BDSM toys. It is their masochistic sexual encounters that form the meat of the novel. Indeed, reports indicate that in the 110-minute movie version, over 20 minutes are devoted to sex scenes.[4] And people have worked themselves into a flurry of anxious anticipation to see them.

Let me cut through the grey and be black and white for a moment: You should not go see this movie. You should not read the book. That’s the bottom line of this blog. You don’t need to encounter the explicit contents of this book and movie firsthand to know its implications are evil.  Allow me to give you three reasons why I believe this.

1. Fifty Shades of Grey robs people – and especially women – of their dignity.

I myself do not know all the illicit details of the sexual encounters between Christian and Ana, nor do I care to. But I do know that BDSM – whether it be in a novel, in a movie, or in real life – is an affront to basic human dignity. Tying up another person and calling them all sorts of nasty names, as is common in these types of sexual encounters, cannot be anywhere near what God had in mind when He designed sex so “two [could] become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In fact, the description of the righteous woman in Proverbs 31 haunts me as I think about the relationship peddled by this book: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come” (Proverbs 31:25). Ana is robbed of both her strength and dignity in this story. May what is fiction never become what is reality.

One additional note on this topic: even if you are married and trust each other implicitly, BDSM still degrades the divine design for human sexuality. It simply does not square with what Paul writes concerning the marital relationship: “Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19). Sex and marriage need tenderness.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey portrays people as little more than the sum of their desires.

Somehow, we have bought into this myth that if we do not indulge whatever sexual desires, fantasies, dreams, or fetishes we might have, we are not being true to ourselves. We are repressing ourselves. First, allow me to say a word about our feckless use of the word “repression.” Repression is when a person pushes something – usually a memory – out of their conscious awareness as a defense mechanism against the pain it causes. Repression often requires psychological help. Suppression, on the other hand, is when a person consciously chooses not to indulge a particular appetite. Repression is almost always dangerous. Suppression, on the other hand, can often be good. For example, I have often desired to try to take out the 72-ounce steak at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, but I have suppressed myself. Why? Because there is no way that would be good for me. I also sometimes desire to sleep in rather than to get up early to work out. But I suppress my sleep and get up. Why? Because I know working out is good for me.

Just because we desire something doesn’t make it good or good for us. This is why the apostle Peter warns: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). You are more than the sum of your desires. And you are most true to yourself not when you’re following every whim and desire, but when you’re following Jesus.

3. Fifty Shades of Grey gives false hope for a happy ending.

Perhaps what disturbs me most about Fifty Shades of Grey is not its graphic descriptions of bizarre sexual encounters, but the arc of the broader plot line over the whole Fifty Shades trilogy. In volume two, Christian and Ana get married. By the end of volume three, the reader learns the couple has two children. Christian, it seems, has been tamed. And even though it’s left unspoken, the emotion of the ending is clear: “And they lived happily ever after.”

Here’s the problem with this ending: if the first part of the story is true, the last part cannot be. The Fifty Shades trilogy tells the story of light being born out of darkness. It tells the story of tender love emerging out of sadomasochism. In real life, however, this does not happen – at least not in the way Fifty Shades presents it. Evil does not wake up one morning and decide, “I’m going to birth something good.” No. Evil begets evil. If you don’t believe me, read up on the doctrine of original sin. The only way for good to emerge from evil is not by evil’s behest, but by evil’s demise. Jesus didn’t come and ask evil to be a little better. He came and nailed it to a cross. There’s where the hope for a “happily ever after” ending is. Not in some accidental stumbling of righteousness out of wickedness.

I hope this is enough – if you were thinking about seeing the movie or reading the book – to stop you. Researching the story and thinking through its repercussions is certainly enough for me.  And I also hope this is enough – if you’re trapped in a real-life abusive relationship – for you to get the help you need to get out. You’re too fearfully and wonderfully made not to.

_______________________________

[1] Jesse Kornbluth, “‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’: Is The Hottest-Selling Book In America Really Just ‘S&M For Dummies?’Huffington Post (3.12.2012)

[2] Brenton Dickieson, “50 Shades of Bad Writing,” A Pilgrim in Narnia (9.21.2012).

[3] Julie Bosman, “Discreetly Digital, Erotic Novel Sets American Women Abuzz,” The New York Times (3.9.2012).

[4] Jess Denham, “Fifty Shades of Grey movie banned in Malaysia for being ‘more like pornography than a film,’The Independent (2.5.2015).

February 9, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Following Jesus Day By Day

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve watched the scenario play out again and again. A young Christian man is climbing the ladder of success. But then something snaps. The trappings of success begin to strangle his heart. And he decides to give it all up. His job. His house. His source of income. Traditional means of supporting his family. He gives it all up and announces, “I am going to stop trying to manage, control, and plan for everything my life and just follow Jesus one day at a time.”

Now, on the one hand, I respect and admire this deeply. This kind of decision brings into crystal clarity the trappings of an affluent life. The truth is, we don’t need the stuff we have. And when we treat it like we do need it, we break the First Commandment. We turn the stuff we have into an idol we trust.

In his book Radical, David Platt paints a picture of an Asian house church that haunts me:

Despite its size, sixty believers have crammed into it. They are all ages from precious little girls to seventy-year-old men. They are sitting either on the floor or on small stools, lined shoulder to should, huddled together their Bibles in their laps. The roof is low, and one light bulb dangles from the middle of the ceiling as the sole source of illumination.

No sound system.

No band.

No guitar.

No entertainment.

No cushioned chairs.

No heated or air-conditioned building.

Nothing but the people of God and the Word of God.

And strangely, that’s enough.

God’s Word is enough for millions of believers who gather in house churches just like this one. His Word is enough for millions of other believers who huddle in African jungles, South American rain forests, and Middle Easter cities.

But is His Word enough for us?[1]

I sure do hope His Word is enough for us. Because if it’s not, the Church has lost her foundation, her purpose, her uniqueness, and her hope. God’s Word must be enough.

I say all this so that you do not misunderstand what I am about to write.

I have no inherent problem with people who want to follow Jesus day by day with nothing but the shirts on their backs. I am concerned, however, that the impetus for following Jesus in this way is sometimes based on a misreading of what Jesus actually says. When it comes to trusting Jesus day by day, Jesus explains:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. (Matthew 6:25-32)

Jesus is clear. We need not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

There is a difference, however, between worrying about tomorrow and planning for tomorrow. One is discouraged. The other is encouraged. Jesus tells a story about ten virgins who bring oil lamps waiting for a groom to show up for a wedding party. But five of the ten did bring enough oil for their lamps. Do you know what Jesus calls those five? “Foolish” (Matthew 25:3). Why? Because they did not plan. The book of Proverbs includes admonitions to plan (Proverbs 21:5; 24:27; 27:23-27) and God Himself plans (Jeremiah 29:11-13). Jesus’ ministry is intricately planned as can be seen from His passion predictions (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34; Luke 9:18-22, 9:44, 18:31-33) and His training of the disciples for the mission of the Church (Matthew 4:19). Thus, not worrying about tomorrow does not preclude planning for tomorrow.

So, to my friends who have jettisoned plans to follow Jesus day by day, I say, “Blessed are you.” But remember that a time may come when planning, once again, becomes salutary. And if you’re worried that your plans may somehow be out of step with God’s will, you do not need to be afraid. After all, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21).

If your plans go awry, the Lord will get you back on track. He has promised to. You can plan on it.

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[1] David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream (Colorado Spring: Multnomah Books, 2010), 26.

February 2, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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