Posts tagged ‘Anthropology’

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

The Big Picture

Micro Macro 1I have often made the point, when teaching various Bible classes, that, in Christianity, theology and anthropology are inextricably intertwined.  You can’t really understand anthropology if you don’t understand theology and you can’t really understand theology if you don’t understand anthropology.

Here’s why.  Theology without anthropology undermines the gospel.  After all, the heart of the gospel is what God has done for us!  He sent Jesus to die and rise for us!  Without understanding the anthropological “for us” of the gospel, we are left with a system of theology that is more akin to Deism than it is to Christianity.  For without the gospel’s anthropological association, God is left distant and detached from the creation He formed.  Conversely, anthropology without theology also undermines the gospel.  It is theology, after all, that tells us who we are anthropologically and why we need Jesus.  And the verdict on who we are anthropologically is not good:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

Apart from an understanding of God’s verdict on us as sinners, we are all too readily tempted to think of ourselves as better, nobler, and loftier than we really are.  Thus, in order to truly understand the peril of our sinful state, we must understand what the Bible says theologically about our brokenness anthropologically.

I bring all of this up because I have been doing some thinking lately about the anthropological side of Christianity.  And what I have come to realize is that while Christian authors, pastors, and leaders will spend a lot of time addressing the anthropological side of Christianity on a micro scale, sometimes, macro anthropological concerns can get marginalized.

Here’s what I mean.  The Christian arena is replete with resources on marriage, addiction, finances, relationships and other personal, or micro, concerns.  And these resources are needed and, I would add, popular!  What is less popular in our day, however, are resources that address macro anthropological issues of cultural trends, power structures, injustice, and societally systemic sins as well as their broad historical and philosophic foundations.  Part of the reason I would guess these resources are less popular is because addressing macro anthropological issues is an inevitably more complex, convoluted, and academic exercise than addressing micro anthropological issues due to the sheer size and the extended historical timelines of these macro anthropological issues.  Furthermore, because it is the micro anthropological concerns that most directly and immediately affect us, it is easy to look at what only directly affects us right now than consider the broader concerns of our world over time.

But Christianity calls us to consider both ourselves and our world.  For Christianity, among other things, is a worldview.  And without understanding Christianity’s anthropological entailments on a macro scale and their insights into how we, knowingly or unknowingly, are shaped by the history, philosophy, and culture to which we are heirs and of which we are a part, we will inevitably have trouble, and ultimately be unsuccessful, in addressing and resolving our own micro concerns.  This is why so much of the language of the Bible is cosmic.  For God’s final promise is not only that He will only fix our personal problems, but that He will redeem our world.  In the words of the apostle John:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Make no mistake about it:  God cares about the micro.  He cares about your tears and your pain and your worries and your regrets.  But He will fix your micro concerns in His macro way: He will make everything new.  So perhaps we should spend a little more time thinking about “everything” that God will make new and a little less time thinking only about our micro concerns.

April 15, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Moving In Together…Or Whatever You Call It

Cohabitation 1“Now that we’ve come to some consensus on same-sex marriage, let’s move on to the next puzzle: what to call two people who act as if they are married but are not.”  So begins Elizabeth Weil in her New York Times article, “Unmarried Spouses Have a Way With Words.”[1]  Though I suppose I could quibble with whether or not judicial fiat or the vote of some states to legalize same-sex marriage really constitutes a “consensus” on this issue, that is beyond the aim of my thoughts here.  No, the aim of my thoughts here is to address Weil’s call for a new vocabulary to address the ever-increasing number of cohabitating couples.  Weil explains:

The faux spouse is a pretty ho-hum cultural specimen for such a gaping verbal lacuna. But none of the word choices are good.  Everyone agrees that partner sounds awful – too anodyne, empty, cold.  Lover may be worse – too sexualized, graphic, one-dimensional.  Boyfriend sounds too young.  Significant other sounds too ’80s.  Special friend or just friend (both favored by the 65-and-over crowd) are just too ridiculous.

When it comes to people who are living together and are playing the roles of husband and wife, albeit without all the cumbrous pledges, but who are not legally or ecclesiologically husband and wife, there is a yawning verbal vacuum.  Just what do you call these people?

The twentieth century French philosopher Jacques Derrida famously claimed, “There is nothing outside the text.”[2]  Though this famous phrase has been unfairly disparaged and mischaracterized as a wild assertion that nothing exists outside of words in and of themselves, the context of this quote reveals Derrida’s claim to be far more modest.  Derrida is countering a Rousseauian view of reality which see words as cracked and foggy lenses that inhibit and blur the experience of reality as it truly is.  This is why Rousseau, in his writings, yearns to return to a time before language, for he believes that only in a proto-linguistic and, I might add, ruggedly individualistic society can people experience the fullness of reality.[3]

In contradistinction to Rousseau, Derrida takes a much more positive view of language.  In his thinking, there is no such thing as an experience of reality which is somehow free from a person individual’s interpretation of it.  Language, Derrida continues, provides the framework for this interpretation and can even provide a good framework to do good interpretations of the human experience.  Words, therefore, have incredible formative power over our worldviews because words mediate and amalgamate our encounters and experiences with everything around us.

This leads us back to the vocabulary void that Elizabeth Weil decries.  From the perspective of a Christian worldview, the dearth of terms for Weil’s mate that can make Weil feel good about her status and her relationship may perhaps reveal that, when it comes to cohabitation, there is not much to feel good about!  For the vocabulary of marriage – terms like “husband,” “wife,” and “spouse” – grew up around marriage precisely because marriage between one man and one woman is a good and God-ordained institution that needed a full, rich, and positive cache of terms to describe it.  Cohabitation can make no such claim.  Thus, perhaps it is good for us to follow Derrida’s lead and let the vocabulary of one of society’s fundamental institutions inform the reality of our relationships.  Perhaps we would do well to leave behind the verbal vacuum of cohabitation behind for the rich vocabulary of marriage.  After all, words do matter.  And words do shape worldviews.  Why do you think Jesus came as the Word?

[1] Elizabeth Weil, “Unmarried Spouses Have a Way With Words,” New York Times (1.4.2013)

[2] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore:  The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 158.

[3] See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Essay on the Origin of Languages” (1781).

January 14, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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