Archive for May, 2016

The Baylor Scandal: Reflections on Human Sexuality

He manufactured one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of college football.  And now, he’s out of a job.

Art Briles began his career at Baylor in 2007 when the football program was the pitiable laughingstock of the Big 12.  But since 2011, Briles led the Bears to a 50-15 record.  The team went from being the doormats of the Big 12 to being the darlings.  But while he was winning games, Briles was also covering up sexual assaults by his players.

The details of Baylor University’s sexual assault scandal are shocking.  ESPN’s Outside the Lines reports that, in several instances:

School officials either failed to investigate, or failed to adequately investigate, allegations of sexual violence. In many cases, officials did not provide support to those who reported assaults, in apparent violation of Title IX federal law … Baylor did not investigate a sexual assault report made against football players Tre’Von Armstead and Shamycheal Chatman for more than two years, despite the school’s obligation to do so under federal law. They never faced charges.[1]

In another report, Outside the Lines told the story of a victim who, when she reported to university officials that she had been assaulted, was told, “There is nothing we can do, because the assault happened off campus.”[2]  In a particularly disturbing twist, it was also revealed that Baylor recruited defensive end Sam Ukwuachu, even though “officials either knew, or should have known, that Ukwuachu had a history of violent incidents at Boise State.”[3]

All this has led not only to Art Briles’ dismissal, but to Athletic Director Ian McCaw’s sanctioning and to University President Ken Starr’s demotion.  It seems as though a desire to win football games overshadowed the basic moral imperative to make sure the players of the team behaved nobly – both on and off the field.  Human dignity and decency was sacrificed at the altar of winning seasons and bids to bowl games.

It is a tragedy that the university administration did not address these horrific acts of sexual violence quickly and forcefully.  But it is an even deeper tragedy that such acts happened in the first place.  That any person is ever raped betrays the fact that our society fundamentally misunderstands and distorts sex.  It is time for us to remember what sex is and what it is for.  So let me state this as a clearly as I can:

Sex is meant and designed by God to be a servant.

All too often, sex is treated as an end to itself.  It is a pleasure to be chased.  It is a thrill to be had.  In the case of these Baylor football players, it seems as though it became a right to be demanded.  In the wake of the LGBT movement, sex has become a cornerstone of a person’s identity to be celebrated.  But sex is none of these things.

Sex is meant and designed by God to be a servant.

Sex was never designed by God to be an end all or a be all.  Instead, it was given to us by Him to serve other, greater purposes.  Here are three of those other, greater purposes.

1.  Sex is meant and designed by God to serve unity.

There is a reason why, when the apostle Paul warns against committing sexual immorality with prostitutes, he asks, “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body” (1 Corinthians 6:16)?  Paul asks this because he knows that sexual intimacy unites people in a powerful way.  Despising such unification by sleeping around before marriage or committing adultery while married does not empower people sexually.  It diminishes their dignity.

2.  Sex is meant and designed by God to serve procreation.

The biology of this statement is self-evident enough, as a bit of reflection on our very existence, in conjunction with a visit to the maternity ward of any hospital, will reveal.  But this biological reality has its roots in a divine creative arrangement.  When God creates men and women, He commands them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).  God gives sex, at least in part, for procreation.  And though sex does not always result in children, to casually reject sex’s procreative possibility altogether is to reject one of God’s goals for sex itself.

3.  Sex is meant and designed by God to serve your spouse.

This, finally, is why rape is so dreadful.  Rape is heinously and hideously selfish.  An intimacy that is meant to be a way to serve, honor, love, and cherish one’s spouse is taken as a way to engorge and indulge a lustful desire.  Such a use of sex is tragic – and evil.

Ultimately, the Baylor sexual assaults – along with their concealment – are only symptoms of a deeper problem.  Our culture’s view of human sexuality has turned selfish.  We don’t want to serve unity, so we have sex outside of marriage.  We don’t want to be bothered with children, so we go to extraordinary lengths to prevent – or even to terminate – pregnancy.  We don’t even want to serve the very person with whom we are being intimate, so we rape or, at the very least, engage in listless, loveless, mechanical sex.  This is where selfish sex has gotten us.

Baylor’s administration covered up sexual assault.  And now, many in that administration are forced to pay a steep price for their sins with their jobs, their reputations, and their futures.  Perhaps it is time for us, as a society, to stop making excuses for and covering up selfish sex before we too incur a steep price for our sins.  For selfish sex cannot only take a toll on our bodies in the forms of pain and disease, but on our souls in the forms of broken hearts and regret.

Sex is meant for better than that.  And we are in need of better than that.

________________________

[1] Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach, “Police records detail several more violence allegations against Baylor football players,” ESPN (5.19.2016).

[2] Paula Lavigne, “Baylor faces accusations of ignoring sex assault victims,” ESPN (2.2.2016).

[3] Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon, “Silence at Baylor,” Texas Monthly (8.20.2015).

May 30, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Venezuelan Victims

Venezuela Slum.jpg

As our national attention is riveted on a myriad of local stories, most of which are political in nature, the people of Venezuela are languishing.  In what is perhaps one of the most underreported stories of this year, Venezuelans are on the brink of staging an all out revolt.  Tensions are so high in this volatile South American nation that even the future of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is uncertain.

A confluence of calamities has brought the country to the brink of collapse. Plummeting crude oil prices have pilfered Venezuela’s economy and a severe drought has strained the nation’s hydroelectric power supply, forcing the government to enact rolling blackouts and enforce a two-day work week just to save power.  Along with these troubles, food is becoming scarce and medical care is becoming even poorer than it already was.  A headline from The New York Times says it all: “Dying Infants and No Medicine: Inside Venezuela’s Failing Hospitals.”

Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is something that deserves and demands our attention and thoughtfulness.  There are lessons to be learned here.

We can learn that corruption – no matter how powerful it may seem for a season – cannot stand.  Like Hugo Chavez before him, Mr. Maduro is a corrupt head of a corrupt government.  By one count, government officials there have stolen some $350 billion public tax dollars, using them to line their personal pockets.  Outside economic factors certainly play a roll in Venezuela’s high poverty rate, but the government isn’t helping matters.  Venezuela’s politicians are stealing from their own people, taxing them into poverty while they live in luxury.  And the people have had enough.  And they are revolting.

The apostle Paul reminds us that the government is “that which God has established” (Romans 13:1).  And this is certainly true.  God establishes governing authorities and we are to respect and pray for them.  But, to borrow a phrase from Job, “The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away” (Job 1:21).  If history is any indication, the Lord has no problem wresting power from governments that would misuse and abuse their authority against their own people.  And the Venezuelan government’s turn for downfall – with Mr. Maduro at its head – may be coming soon.

It is also important to point out that human crises, no matter how foreign or far away they may seem from our perspective, cry out for our compassion and attention. Scenes of cold incubators and critically wounded people in squalid conditions betray not only the incompetence and corruption of a government that demands our repudiation, but the pain and fear of a people who deserve our compassion.  Stories of people’s pain – even if they’re a hemisphere away – demand our engagement.

All this is to say that Venezuela needs a change.  What is happening there now cannot continue.  Americans, understandably, have not been all too friendly with the Venezuelan government.  And this is wise.  Cozying up to corruption, after all, only breeds and makes one complicit in further corruption.  Furthermore, sending relief to the Venezuelan people is complicated.  What we send often ends up in the wrong hands.  But even with these complicating factors, the Venezuelan people are hurting.  And as such, they deserve our notice – and our prayers.

May they find the relief, the resources, and the freedom they seek.

May 23, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Of Quibbles and Quarrels

Boxing Match

Last week, I had the privilege of having dinner with a well-known Christian author.  I talked to him about his career, what inspired him to get into writing, and what he’s thinking about these days.  I also talked to him about his most popular book, which was published several years ago.  In it, he addresses some of the challenging questions the Church needs to answer as our society continues to drift into a morally post-Christian morass.  As we were talking about his book and the challenges he raises in it, he shared that he had received plenty of hate mail when his book was first published, accusing him of everything from heresy to being a tool of the devil himself.  I couldn’t help but grimace.  I myself do not agree with everything this author has written, but I hardly think of him as a heretic or a spawn of Satan.  I simply process some of the challenges the Church is facing a little differently than he does.

Sadly, the ways we address differences in our society have become increasingly polemicized as our ability to have civil, thoughtful, and helpful conversations has become progressively nominalized.  This is especially true in politics, as any comments section on a political article or political Facebook post will indicate.  But it is also true in other areas that span from philosophy to morality to theology.  We are no longer able to respond measuredly to someone with whom we disagree.

It is useful to remember that there is a difference between a quibble and a quarrel.  A quibble is a point of concern that needs to be addressed.  A quarrel is spawned by a dangerous and damaging falsity that demands a repudiation.  People who are willing to quibble, rather than quarrel, with us are important because they serve to sharpen our thinking and hone our worldview.  Solomon explains the value of quibbling with a metaphor: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).  Quibbling can, at times, seem to be little more than nitpicking.  But when it is received graciously, it can be invaluably helpful.

The problem is that too many people are too quick to take quibbles and turn them into quarrels.  Among some Christians, for instance, heresy is no longer defined by teachings that fly in the face of the ecumenical creeds, but by whether a person uses a version of the Bible that is not King James or by whether a person believes that it’s okay for a congregation to be even selectively purpose-driven.  In these instances, we would do well to remember the words the apostle Paul: “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9).  In other words, don’t take quibbles and turn them into quarrels.

In the case of the author with whom I had dinner, most of the quarrels about his book centered around his critiques of the Church, in which he can seem to imply, at times, a decrease in the Church’s value.  Frankly, I too am concerned by any argument that would somehow diminish the Church.  The Church is, after all, the Bride of Christ.  I still don’t think, however, that this author is a spawn of Satan.  I also know, if the fruit of his career is any indication, that he loves the Church and seeks to serve the Church with everything in him, even as he critiques it.  Indeed, his love for the Church is probably why he critiques it.  So perhaps a robust discussion of the nuances of his ecclesiology is needed before we launch into accusations of heresy.

Ultimately, making a quarrel out of a quibble robs us of the opportunity sharpen each other because we’re too busy bludgeoning each other.  So if you aspire to serve the Lord, keep these words in mind:  “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” (2 Timothy 2:24).

The next time you disagree with someone, there’s a verse to remember – and practice.

May 16, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Price of Mercy

King DavidIf I was David, I would have been tempted to say, “The devil made me do it.”

When “Satan rises up against Israel and incites David to take a census of Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1), David can’t resist the opportunity to figure out just how big and powerful his empire really is.  David, it seems, has become more prone to glorifying his nation than he is to glorifying his God.  But the Lord is not pleased.  So “He punishes Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:7).

David may be easily conned by folly, but, in this instance, he is also a man of quick repentance:  “I have sinned greatly by doing this.  Now, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant.  I have done a very foolish thing” (1 Chronicles 21:8).  God answers by giving David three options for punishment.  Israel can (1) endure three years of famine; (2) endure three months of attacks from surrounding enemies; or (3) suffer three days of attacks by the Lord Himself against Israel.  David chooses option three, citing this reasoning: “Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for His mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands” (1 Chronicles 21:13).

God gets to work.  In a flash, 70,000 people die.  David’s census numbers must be amended.  God then sends His angel to destroy Jerusalem, but “as the angel was doing so, the LORD saw it and relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was destroying the people, ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand’” (1 Chronicles 21:15).  It is at this point that it becomes clear that what David has said about God is true of God:  His mercy really is very great.  Three days would have been more than enough time for God to destroy everything.  But instead, God preserves most things.

David, however, is not convinced that God’s tour of destruction has ended.  So he cries out to God, “Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I, the shepherd, have sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? LORD my God, let Your hand fall on me and my family, but do not let this plague remain on Your people” (1 Chronicles 21:17).  To a God who David has just called “merciful,” David offers his blood.  David may say God is merciful, but he doesn’t really seem to trust in His mercy.

But God does have mercy – even for David.  Indeed, God, mercifully, does not ask for David’s blood.  But He does ask for an altar and a sacrifice: “Then the angel of the LORD ordered Gad to tell David to go up and build an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (1 Chronicles 21:18).  So David goes to Araunah who offers both his land and all the materials needed as a gift to David so he can make his offering.  But David refuses Araunah’s gift: “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing” (1 Chronicles 21:24).  David deems it unacceptable to offer to God a sacrifice that costs him nothing.

But why?

Abraham didn’t seem to have any problem offering God a sacrifice that cost him nothing when, in place of his son Isaac, he offered a ram caught in the thicket – a ram that God Himself provided.  And the very sacrifice to end all sacrifices – the sacrifice of God’s Son – cost humanity nothing even as it cost God everything.  The best sacrifices, it seems, are the ones that come as gifts.

God acts mercifully toward David when He tells him to go the field of a man who will offer everything David needs to make a sacrifice, but David can’t quite bring himself to receive the gift.  He’d rather pay.  David may call God merciful, but again, he doesn’t really seem ready to rejoice in His mercy.

It is true that sacrifices can be costly for those who offer them.  Indeed, sometimes, sacrifices should be costly for those who offer them.  Such sacrifices can stretch us and help us grow in our faith.  But sacrifices can also come as free gifts.  And it’s not wise to despise a gift.

How often do we, like David, confess God to be merciful as a matter of doctrinal truth, but then refuse the very mercy that God tries to give?  We’d rather pay.

God received David’s sacrifice, even though David did not receive Araunah’s gift: “The LORD answered David with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering” (1 Chronicles 21:26).  But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if rather than saying to Araunah, “Let me pay!” David simply said, “Thank you.”  I can’t help but wonder if God would have been pleased with David’s sacrifice just the same.

The apostle Paul writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).  A holy and pleasing sacrifice does not require a payment from us.  Rather, a holy and pleasing sacrifice can simply flow from the mercy of God.

So the next time God is merciful to you (which should be in no time at all), remember to receive His mercy.  You don’t need to pay.  You can just say, “Thank you.”

May 9, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Target, Transgenderism, and Bathroom Brouhahas

Target

Two weeks ago, when Target announced it would continue “to stand for inclusivity” by welcoming “transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity,”[1] fuel was added to the fire of what was already a raging debate.  “More than 700,000 pledge to boycott Target over transgender bathroom policy,” a headline in USA Today thundered.  The Daily Beast countered the boycott with its headline: “All the Things You Can No Longer Buy if You’re Really Boycotting Trans-Friendly Businesses.”

It’s a bathroom brouhaha.  So where does this big story leave Christians?

In one way, the fight over bathrooms only serves to mask larger questions about gender and identity.  The transgender movement as a whole seems locked into a form of Platonic dualism.  According to this philosophy, each physical form has a corresponding higher non-corporeal ideal.  So, for instance, a chair here on earth corresponds to a perfect non-corporeal chair in a higher realm.  Key to understanding Plato’s theory of correspondence between the physical and the non-corporeal is that the higher non-corporeal form is always determinative of and better than the lower physical form.  This is why Platonism’s final goal is for a person to escape this realm of lower physical forms and ascend to the realm of higher non-corporeal ideals.  Thus, in Platonism, the non-corporeal is always given preference over the corporeal, even as it pertains to our very bodies.  As Socrates, Plato’s mentor, put it:

The soul is immortal, and ‘tis not possession of thine own, but of Providence; and after the body is wasted away, like a swift horse freed from its traces, it lightly leaps forward and mingles itself with the light air, loathing the spell of harsh and painful servitude which it has endured.[2]

For Socrates, the body is a prison of “harsh and painful servitude” to be loathed.  Why?  Because it is physical.  The soul, however, is non-corporeal.  Therefore, the soul is to be preferred to and determinative of the body.

Many in the transgender movement seem to Platonically privilege non-corporeal inclinations over at least some of the clearer markers of physical biology.  People who come out as transgender are, in essence, declaring, “There is another form of me gender-wise than what my biological sex indicates.  My biological sex has subjected me to a ‘harsh and painful servitude,’ above which I intend to rise.” Jane Clark Scharl, in an article for the National Review, puts it well when she writes:

The … rhetoric used to be about liberating us from the moral and cultural limits on bodies, so that we could do whatever we wanted with them. Presumably that didn’t make us happy, because today, it’s about liberating us from our bodies altogether, by telling us that we can define ourselves however we want regardless of our biology.[3]

Being liberated from the body and its biology is a quintessentially Platonic – and, I would add, theologically problematic – notion.

I do understand that certain biological anomalies – anomalies in the sense that they are statistically rare – can occur in certain individuals.  I am also aware that there are questions over whether there are subtle differences in a transgender person’s brain.  But these questions do not negate the fact that gender dysphoria, the oft-cited trigger of transgenderism, is regularly presented and thought of as a conflict between a person’s physical biology and a person’s non-corporeal gender identity.  To quote the Oxford Dictionary: gender dysphoria is “the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex.”  Notice how, according to this definition, gender dysphoria is rooted in “one’s emotional and psychological identity” being in conflict with one’s biological sex.  In other words, barring a worldview that reduces emotions and psychology to nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain, there is a conflict between the non-corporeal part of a person and the physical part of person who experiences gender dysphoria.  To state the matter simply, there is a conflict between what may be referred to as a person’s soul and one’s body. And many people in the transgender movement assume the soul should win this conflict. But the Bible reminds us that even the non-corporeal parts of us are deeply flawed and should not be blindly trusted.  The prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Jesus notes, “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder” (Mark 7:21).  Is it any wonder that the prophets, when addressing human corruption, say things like, “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13)?  For us to address any anxiety – whether it be in our gender, in our sexuality, or even in some medical ailment – we can’t just deal in the physical.  We must consider – and yes, even confront and be converted in – the non-corporeal.

It should be pointed out that it’s not just people in the transgender movement who assume a Platonic view of the physical.  Many Christians do too.  Ask the average Christian which part of a person is more important – the body or the soul – and he will more than likely respond, “The soul.”  But this is not the case, at least according to Scripture.  The fact that the bodies of those who are dead will be raised on the Last Day reminds us that both bodies and souls are important.  After all, both are created by God. The goal for the Christian, then, is never to somehow rise above the body or to let the non-corporeal determine the physical.  Rather, the hope of the Christian is to be eschatalogically redeemed in the body by the resurrection of all flesh.

It is important for Christians to defend and promote a telic view of the body – that the body is fundamental to who we are and is created with a purpose and point.  A person can either steward the body according to the purpose and point for which it was created or work against the purpose and point for which the body was created.  Working against the purpose and point of the body, however, comes with consequences.  Just ask those who suffer all sorts of health problems because they abuse their bodies with, let’s say, junk food rather than fueling their bodies with a balanced diet.  We should not despise our bodies.

This takes us back to Target’s restrooms.  One of the difficulties in demanding that a person use the restroom that matches his or her sex biologically is that there may be a person who identifies as and looks very much like a male going into a female restroom and person who identifies as and looks very much like a female going into a male restroom.  This is sure to make patrons uncomfortable.  On the other hand, stories have already surfaced of predators who are using policies like Target’s to take advantage of unknowing victims.  Depending on how common these horrifying incidents become, Target could find itself regularly grappling with basic issues of of customer safety.  In other words, no matter what restroom policy Target adopts and enforces, it will probably land the company in some kind of legal, cultural, and public relations battle.  Indeed, it seems like the only way to address the restroom needs of a culture where gender is increasingly presumed to be fluid may be to build banks of private unisex restrooms, which could prove terribly costly for businesses that currently offer larger public restrooms.

Though the debate over bathrooms is interesting, ultimately, as Christians, we are called to concern ourselves with how to love all our neighbors – including those who are transgender.  This is why our first questions in this bathroom battle should not be, “Is this policy good for me?”  Or, “How do I feel about transgender people being able to choose their bathroom?”  Instead, our first questions should be, “Is transgenderism good for people?”  And, “Is it good to deny a created physical order for the sake of what is perceived to be a higher non-corporeal understanding of one’s self?” If the answer to these questions is, “No,” we have more than just bathrooms to worry about.  We have people to worry about.

No matter what laws are enacted pertaining to who can use which bathrooms, there will be problems.  But if we devote ourselves to making a winsome, gentle, and truthful case for how God has lovingly, tenderly, and wisely created humanity as “male and female” (Genesis 1:27) that leads people to rejoice in God’s ordering of sex and gender, that strikes me as a better outcome than any restroom regulations could ever offer.

____________________________

[1]Continuing to Stand for Inclusivity,” A Bullseye View (4.19.2016).

[2] Socrates in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 75.

[3] Jane Clark Scharl, “The New Sexual Ideology Wins Another Skirmish,” National Review (4.22.2016).

May 2, 2016 at 5:15 am 4 comments


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