Posts tagged ‘Faith’

Who Needs Friends When You Have God?

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A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that those who have a strong faith in God are often isolated from others.  Todd Chan, a doctoral student at the university, explains:

For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide.

This is an interesting hypothesis, but studies like these do not seem to provide consistent results.  W. Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has found that:

…religion generally fosters more happiness, greater stability, and a deeper sense of meaning in American family life, provided that family members – especially spouses – share a common faith.

In other words, contrary to what Mr. Chan found, faith in God can actually deepen and sustain relationships instead of serving as a substitute for relationships.

Certainly, there are people of deep faith who find themselves bereft of human companionship and, consequently, lonely.  The Bible admits as much, while also seeking to offer comfort and a promise of companionship to those in isolated situations:

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.  (Psalm 68:5-6)

God does indeed promise to be there for someone when they have no one.  But He doesn’t stop there.  He also “sets the lonely in families.”  In other words, He doesn’t just serve as a substitute for human companionship, He actually grants human companionship.

Christianity has always confessed a Triune God, in relationship with Himself from eternity, as the model for and the giver of deeper and better relationships with others.  This is part of the reason why Christianity first took root in the more densely populated urban areas and why it was initially less prevalent among more rural areas.  As Rodney Stark notes in his book The Triumph of Christianity:

The word pagan derives from the Latin word paganus, which originally meant “rural person,” or more colloquially “country hick.”  It came to have religious meaning because after Christianity had triumphed in the cities, most of the pagans were rural people.

Christianity first flourished in cities because those were where the largest communities of people were.  Christianity, it turns out, is irreducibly communal.

Jesus famously summarizes the whole of Old Testament law thusly:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Jesus is clear.  A relationship with God can and should lead to better relationships with others.  Regardless of what Mr. Chan’s study may assert sociologically, theologically, God is not a second-string substitute for human relationships.  Instead, a human, who had an intimate relationship with God and was Himself God, became our substitute on a cross so that we could have a relationship with God in spite of our sin.  God is not a last resort relationship when you’re lonely, but a first love relationship who promises never to leave you alone.  And there’s just no substitution for that.

September 10, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The U.S. Moves Its Embassy

This past week, a piece of legislation first passed in 1995 under President Clinton was finally implemented.  The Congress at that time passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which recognized Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel and made plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.  Since that time, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have delayed the move, citing national security concerns.  President Trump decided it was finally time to make the move.  So, a week ago Monday, the new U.S. embassy opened in Jerusalem.

While celebrations were taking place at the new embassy, only miles away, along Israel’s border at the Gaza Strip, members of Hamas were protesting the move, seeking to storm the border into Israel while flying incendiary kites across the border into Israel.  50 of these rioters were killed by Israeli forces.  Some other Palestinians were also killed, including an eight-month-old girl.

The antipathy between the Israelis and Palestinians is nothing new.  Both groups claim rights to this region and look suspiciously at the intentions and activities of the other.  The terrorist provocations of Hamas serve only to heighten tensions.

To some Christians, unalloyed support for the modern-day nation of Israel by the U.S. is a theological necessity, for they believe that anything less is a direct affront to the covenant that God made with Abraham to give him and his ancestors land in this region.  Other Christians, among whom I would include myself, do not see a one-to-one correlation between the ancient theocracy of the people of Israel and the modern democracy of the nation of Israel.  The true heirs of Abraham are not ethnic Jews living in a particular region of the world, but all those who, by faith, call on Abraham’s God – whether these people be ethnically Jewish or ethnically Gentile.  Abraham’s true heirs do not so much concern themselves with a particular piece of land in the Middle East as they do with an all-encompassing kingdom of God.

This second view does not mean, of course, that Christians should not be concerned with the events that are unfolding in the Middle East.  It is standard practice for sovereign nations to be able to name their own capitals and it is standard protocol for other nations to respect and recognize these capitals and place embassies in them, as the U.S. has now done with Israel.  Geopolitically, Israel’s status as a democracy in a region that is widely known for oppressive regimes is an important and stabilizing influence.  It is also essential to have a safe haven for ethnic Jews in an area of the world that has proven to be widely and often vociferously anti-Semitic.

At the same time, we cannot forget or overlook the struggle and suffering that many Palestinians face.  Living under Hamas has never been easy.  The small number of Christians in this region are doing yeoman’s work as they open their churches and homes to their Muslim neighbors who have been displaced by riots and bombings.  They are shining examples of Christ’s love in an area of our world that is regularly marked by hate and unrest.  These faithful people deserve our prayers and support.  They too need safe places to live and free communities in which to thrive.

The unrest and violence that has been sparked by the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a reminder of the volatility in civilization’s cradle and the fragility of human life.  Every U.S. president for the past 70 years has sought to broker peace in the Middle East and, sadly, every U.S. president has failed.  This is because, more than a president, we need a Prince – a Prince who knows how to bring peace.  He is the One in whom Israel once hoped.  He is the One who Palestinian Christians now proclaim.  And He is the One the whole world still needs.

Last week, a president kept a promise to move an embassy.  On the Last Day, a Prince will keep His promise to bring peace.  That’ll be a day to behold.

May 21, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Kilauea’s Fury and God’s Promise

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 4.08.46 PM.pngIt’s destruction in slow motion.

When Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano began erupting a week and a half ago, cracks in and around the volcano began to emerge, spewing molten lava and dangerous gas.  So far, 18 fissures have opened in the ground, 36 structures have been destroyed by creeping lava, and 2,000 residents have had to evacuate their homes.  And geologists have no idea how long these eruptions will continue.  Officials now worry that the lava lake in Kilauea’s crater will fall below the level of the groundwater, which could spark dangerous stream-driven explosions, spewing boulders – some weighing many tons – into the air.

The flow of lava is nearly impossible to stop.  Its temperature checks in at around 2,000 degrees, which makes dousing it with water ineffective.  Because the lava is so heavy, diversion channels also do not tend to work.  The lava will simply flow over them.  Residents can only stand by and watch in horror as melted, red-hot rock destroys everything it is path.  David Nail, who lives on the gentle slopes of Kilauea in Leilani Estates, had his home consumed by a 20-foot tall pile of lava.  “All we could do was sit there and cry,” he explained.

Natural disasters such as this raise a perennial question about faith: why, if there is a good God, would He allow such terrible disasters to happen?  Christianity is unique in its approach to this question because it not only seeks to grapple with this quandary philosophically, but to empathize with people who have to endure the pain wrought by natural disasters personally.

Christianity teaches that the overall sinfulness of humanity affects and infects every part of creation.  The sinfulness of humanity is why earthquakes topple communities and hurricanes flood them.  The sinfulness of humanity is why severe weather strikes the south and volcanoes erupt in the west.  Because of sin, creation, to borrow a memorable phrase from the apostle Paul, “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22).  In this regard, the natural disasters we experience are anything but natural.  Instead, they are a result of an alien sinfulness first thrust onto the world by our forbearers, Adam and Eve.  Thus, nature doesn’t like these disasters any more than we do.  Natural disasters are painful to nature, just as they are to us.

With all of this being said, Christianity also doesn’t just wag its finger ignominiously at the sinfulness in humanity for causing the suffering of humanity.  Christianity teaches that God is in the midst of suffering.  At the heart of Christianity is the cross – an agent not only of deep suffering, but of cruel torture.  Christianity teaches that God came into suffering through His Son and endured the ultimate suffering as He bore the sins of the world in His death.  Though we may not have all the answers to why God allows suffering, we do have a promise that God is deeply familiar with suffering.  He suffers with us.

When Moses receives the Ten Commandments on top Mount Sinai, the scene looks downright volcanic: “The mountain…blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness” (Deuteronomy 4:11).  The Israelites at the base of the mountain who saw what was happening on the mountain, understandably, “trembled with fear” (Exodus 20:18).  And yet, for all the fear Sinai’s violent eruption may have caused in the people who saw it, Deuteronomy also reminds us that “the LORD spoke…out of the fire” (Deuteronomy 4:12).  Sinai may have been spewing fire and ash, but God was there, speaking His words to His people.

Kilauea is not Sinai.  I highly doubt anyone will come striding down Kilauea after its eruption with a couple of stone tablets in hand.  And yet, just as God was present with the Israelites camping in the shadow Sinai, God is also present with the Hawaiians living in the shadow of Kilauea.  And the words that He spoke at Sinai to Israel, He still speaks to us today: “I am the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:2). God still invites us to be His people so He can love us as His children.  Of this, every Hawaiian – and every person – can be assured.

May 14, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Resurrection of Jesus in History

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Yesterday, Christians around the world gathered to celebrate the defining claim of their faith:  the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The apostle Paul is very frank in his estimation of the importance of Christ’s resurrection:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)

Paul places the full weight of Christianity’s reality and practicality on the resurrection’s actuality.  If the resurrection is not a historical fact, Paul declares, then the whole of the Christian faith is foolish.

But how can we decipher whether or not the resurrection happened historically?  N.T. Wright, in his seminal work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, notes that the empty tomb of Jesus combined with appearances from Jesus offers a compelling testimony to the historicity of the resurrection.  If only there was only an empty tomb, Christians would not have been able to claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  Likewise, if there were only phantasms of someone who looked like Jesus, Christians could not have claimed a resurrection.

Wright explains the power of this combination thusly:

An empty tomb without any meetings with Jesus would have been a distressing puzzle, but not a long-term problem.  It would have proved nothing; it would have suggested nothing, except the fairly common practice of grave-robbery … Tombs were often robbed in the ancient world, adding to grief both insult and injury.[1]

Indeed, grave robbery was so common in the ancient world that emperor of Rome shortly after the time of Jesus, Claudius, issued an edict meant to intimidate anyone who would consider pillaging tombs:

Ordinance of Caesar.  It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity … If any man lay information that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing or other stones, against such a one I order … the offender be sentenced to capital punishment.[2]

Apparently, the problem of grave robbery had become so pervasive that Claudius saw no other recourse to end it than to threaten capital punishment for it.  Wright consequently concludes:

Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question.[3]

Wright continues by noting that mere appearances of Jesus alone could also not make a case for a resurrection:

‘Meetings’ with Jesus, likewise, could by themselves have been interpreted in a variety of ways.  Most people in the ancient world … knew that visions and appearances of recently dead people occurred … The ancient world as well as the modern knew the difference between visions and things that happen in the ‘real’ world.[4] 

It is only the combination of an empty tomb along with multiple appearances of Christ that could have given rise to the idea that Christ had, in actuality, risen from the dead.  This is part of Paul’s point when he writes that Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).  Paul knows that one person can suffer a delusion of a resurrection.  It is much more difficult for 500 people to have the same delusion.  And in case anyone has any questions about what these 500 saw, Paul notes that most of them are still living.  People can simply go ask them.

With all of this being said, a primary objection to the historical veracity of the resurrection remains, which is this:  dead people tend to stay that way.  I have never – and I would guess that you also have never – seen a dead person come back to life.  So how can we accept something as fact in the past when we cannot repeat it in the present?

Again, N.T. Wright offers two helpful thoughts.  The first is that history, by its very nature, is the study of that which is unrepeatable:

History is the study, not of repeatable events as in physics and chemistry, but of unrepeatable events.[5]

In other words, just because we cannot – and, in many cases should not – repeat historical events – such as the crash of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Titanic, or the horrors of the Holocaust – does not mean that they did not happen.  To apply a standard of “repeatability” to the resurrection in order to accept its truthfulness is to apply a standard by which no other happening in history could be deemed true.

But second, and even more importantly, Wright explains that the early Christians themselves would agree that dead people stay dead!  This is what makes their claim that there was a dead person who did not stay that way all the more astounding:

The fact that dead people not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.  It is part of the claim itself.[6]

The early Christians fully understood that what they were claiming was radically unique.  But they claimed it anyway.  Whatever one may think of the historicity of the resurrection, one must at least admit that the biblical witnesses saw something and experienced something that they could explain in no other way than in a bodily resurrection from death.

These considerations, of course, do not constitute an airtight or empirically verifiable case that the resurrection did, in fact, happen.  But history rarely affords us such luxuries.  Nevertheless, these considerations do present us with a case that makes the resurrection, according to the normal canons of history, highly probable and worthy of our consideration and, perhaps, even our embrace.  There is enough evidence that we must at least ask ourselves:  has Christ risen?  And the answer of not only Scripture, but of history, can come back, with sobriety and credibility:  Christ is risen!

Which is why, 2,000 years later, Easter is still worth celebrating.

___________________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 688.
[2] Ibid., 708-709.
[3] Ibid., 689.
[4] Ibid., 689, 690.
[5] Ibid., 686.
[6] Ibid., 712.

April 2, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

In Memoriam: Billy Graham (1918-2018)

Billy Graham was 99 when he entered his rest with Jesus last Wednesday.  The man who was a pastor to presidents and plebeians alike leaves a legacy that is difficult to overestimate.  Reverend Graham accomplished many things over his long ministry.  He founded what has become the practically official periodical of evangelical Christianity, Christianity TodayHe served as the president of Youth for Christ and headed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  He steadfastly, but also humbly, confessed a traditional, broadly orthodox Christianity, defending such doctrines as justification by faith, the sufficiency of Christ as the world’s singular Savior, the reality of heaven and hell, and the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.  He declared these doctrines at a time when many churches, especially in the mid-twentieth-century, were drifting into modernism and began to deny these, along with many other, core tenets.  But Reverend Graham will perhaps be most remembered for his moving crusades, where he preached the gospel to stadiums chocked full of eager listeners and curious onlookers.  His association estimates that he preached the gospel to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries over the course of his ministry.

I remember attending one of Billy Graham’s crusades as a child.  His passion for the gospel was infectious as his preaching resonated sonorously through the stadium in which I was sitting.  At the end of the evening, as he always did, he invited people to trust in Christ and come forward to receive prayer.  Thousands walked down to the stage that night as strains of “Just As I Am” wafted across the hall.  To say the least, it was a moving experience.

Whenever I remember my experience at this Billy Graham crusade, I am reminded of a conversation that Jesus has with Martha shortly after her brother Lazarus has died of a devastating illness.  Martha, understandably, is distraught and politely registers her disappointment that Jesus was not around before her brother died to lend some help and, perhaps, a miraculous healing to him.  “Lord,” Martha complains, “if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).  Jesus, who never intended to heal Lazarus of the sickness that ailed him, but instead to raise Lazarus from the death that overtook him, responds, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26).  These words are some of the most famous in Scripture not only because they describe what Jesus would do for Lazarus, but because they reveal who Jesus is for everyone.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  What is less famous, however, is the question that Jesus asks Martha next: “Do you believe this” (John 11:26)?

This simple question was the question behind every Billy Graham crusade.  After Reverend Graham would proclaim Christ and His death for sinners, after he would declare that Christ’s resurrection can mean your resurrection, and after he would explain how Christ can bear your burdens and carry your cares, he would ask, “Do you believe this?”

When Jesus asks this question of Martha, she responds, “Yes, Lord” (John 11:27).  When Reverend Graham asked it of millions, they responded with a “yes” as well.

As one who is part of the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith, I have, over the years, heard many in my tradition criticize Reverend Graham for the way in which he often spoke of faith in terms of a “decision.”  His ministry even publishes a magazine titled DecisionIt is certainly true that Scripture does not speak of faith as a decision of the will, but as a gift from God.  The apostle Paul writes, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  Unfortunately, some in my tradition have become so concerned about the possibility of implying that faith is somehow an act of the will that they refuse to invite people to faith at all.  They forget to ask Jesus’ question: “Do you believe this?”

It is in this precious question of Christ that we can best come to understand and appreciate Reverend Graham’s legacy.  He was never afraid to ask this question.  And neither should we.  Sometimes, a simple invitation, because it is a reflection of Jesus’ invitation, bears the fruit of faith.  This is why this question is the question our world needs.  When was the last time you asked it?

Even without a sermon, a choir, and a stadium, when you ask this question, someone might just answer, “Yes.”  And all of heaven will rejoice (Luke 15:7) – including, with what I would guess might be an especially bright smile, Billy Graham.

February 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

God’s Presence in the Storm

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I took the above picture two years ago when I was out for one of my early morning walks, cup of coffee in hand, along the beach of Port Aransas.  Each summer, my family and I vacation in this charming Gulf town.  The pictures I have seen of Port Aransas after Hurricane Harvey, along with its surrounding communities of Rockport, Aransas Pass, Port O’ Connor, Refugio, and, of course, Corpus Christi, are devastating.  Homes have been flattened.  Businesses have been destroyed.  And now, our nation’s fourth most populous city is feeling Harvey’s wrath.  Houston has been deluged by than 20 inches of rainfall.  Forecasters predict that, by the time this is all said and done, some spots in Houston may receive in excess of 50 inches of rain.

None of this is easy to watch.  I have called Texas home for 21 years and have many friends who live in the affected communities.  To see places I know that are home to people I love be destroyed by nature’s worst is heartbreaking.

As Christians, we are never called to be idle in the face of devastation and distress.  Here are a few things to consider – and to do – as this tragedy continues to unfold.

Pray

One of the many wonderful things about prayer is that it operates both as a support from God and an encouragement to others.  When we cry out to God in prayer, He does hear and He does care.  But prayer is important not only because of the connection it affords us with God, but because of the reassurance it can give to others.  Not only praying for people, but letting people know that you’re praying for them is important in a situation like this.  Pick up the phone.  Send a text message.  Pray for those in the Coastal Bend and Houston and then tell them you are.  A note from you about your prayers for them could be just the boon their souls need in this troubled time.

Give

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine went through a disaster relief class being held by the Red Cross.  He said so many people are volunteering to help victims of Harvey that the Red Cross is overwhelmed.  What a great problem to have!  Of course, just because lots of people are volunteering doesn’t mean there’s not lots of work still to be done and lots of resources still to be provided.  You may want to consider giving to a reputable organization like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or the Disaster Relief Fund of the Texas District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

Trust

In Adult Bible Class this morning at the church where I work, we were studying the story of Joseph.  When Joseph is sold into slavery to the Egyptians, there is this interesting line: “The LORD was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2).  If Joseph looked only at his circumstances, it would have seemed not that the Lord was with him, but instead that the Lord had forsaken him.  But we must never confuse the sweetness of our circumstances with the reality of God’s presence.  The cross of Christ reveals that God’s presence is not ultimately indicated by the comforts in our lives, but by the compassion of His Son, who endured the worst of human suffering to see us through all of human suffering.  Christ is there with the people of the Coastal Bend.  And He is there with the people of Houston.  The same Savior who was with His disciples in a storm on the Sea of Galilee and who was with the children of Israel as they passed through the waters of the Red Sea is with the Texans who are being pummeled by this storm and trying to get through some very deep waters of some very big flooding.  Harvey may be catastrophic, but this storm is no match for our Savior.  He will see us through.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” (Isaiah 43:2)

August 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

Herod, John the Baptist, and Sharing Our Faith

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St. John the Baptist before Herod, by Mattia Pretti (1665)

In Mark 6, we are treated to a fascinating flashback.  The chapter opens with Jesus teaching and then quickly turns to Him sending out His twelve disciples to preach, drive out demons, and anoint the sick.  The chapter then shifts again, this time to a ruler named Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the ruler who tried to kill Jesus when He was just a toddler because he considered the lad a threat to his throne.  Herod Antipas, however, was not so hostile toward Jesus as he was curious about Him, especially when he heard a rumor that Jesus was “John the Baptist…raised from the dead” (Mark 6:14).  Cue Mark’s flashback.

In his flashback, Mark recounts how John the Baptist died.  It turns out that Herod Antipas had thrown John in prison because he had preached against Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias.  But it was not just Herod who was upset with John.  It was also his new wife, Herodias.  In fact, Mark says that she “nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him” (Mark 6:19).  And one day, she saw her opportunity.  When Herod was throwing a party, Herodias’s daughter came and danced for Herod and his inebriated guests.  Herod was so pleased by her performance that he offered this girl anything she wanted, including up to half his kingdom.  Prompted by her mother, the girl asked Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Interestingly enough, Herod, instead of being delighted that he would finally be able to get rid of this man who had preached against his marriage, was devastated.  Mark 6:26 explains that “the king was greatly distressed.”  The Greek word used for “distressed” is perilupos, a word that Jesus Himself uses the night before He goes to the cross when He says to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).  The Greek word used for “sorrow” is again perilupos.  Clearly, Herod was deeply grieved, even to the point of death, by this girl’s request.  But why?

As it turns out, Herod had what might be called a “love-hate relationship” with John.  Mark describes their relationship like this: “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20).  The same man who threw John in prison also protected him, because he knew there was something different about him.  He knew he had a righteousness and holiness that went beyond anything he had ever encountered before.  Moreover, he liked to listen to John, even though he had a hard time understanding what he was talking about and, obviously, did not always heed what he said.  Herod, even as he was offended by John, was also attracted to John.

Herod’s relationship with John can serve as a model for what the world’s relationship with us, as Christians, can look like.  When people watch you, do they see a righteousness and a holiness beyond anything they have ever encountered before because, instead of your righteousness and holiness being merely meritocratic, it is Christocentric?  And when you speak about your faith to others, even if they are puzzled by what you have to say, do you leave them wanting to hear more?

Just as Herodias hated John, there will be some who hate us simply because we are Christians.  But there will also be others who are intrigued by us.  May we never forget to engage these people, model Christ for these people, and speak the gospel to these people.  For what they are puzzled by today may just be the very thing they believe in tomorrow.

August 7, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Christianity ≠ Morality

One of the topics I address often on this blog is that of morality.  With a collapsing cultural consensus on what morality looks like around issues like human sexuality, childbearing, childrearing, gender, justice, and political discourse – to name only a few examples – offering a Christian perspective on what it means to be moral is, I believe, important and needed.

There is an implicit danger, however, in spending all of one’s energy arguing for a Christian morality in a secular society.  Far too often, when we, as Christians, do nothing more than argue for a Christian morality in the public square, it can begin to appear that Christianity itself is nothing more than a set of moral propositions on controversial questions.  Like in the 1980s, during the height of the Christian Moral Majority, Christianity can be perceived to be conterminous with a particular system of morality.

A couple of years ago, an op-ed piece appeared in the LA Times titled, “How secular family values stack up.”  In it, Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, argues that godless parents do a better job raising their children than do godly parents.  He writes:

Studies have found that secular teenagers are far less likely to care what the “cool kids” think, or express a need to fit in with them, than their religious peers. When these teens mature into “godless” adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.

Much of what these kids raised in secular homes grow up to be is good.  A resistance to peer pressure, an eschewing of racism, a willingness to forgive, a measured sobriety about the positives and negatives of one’s country, a desire to avoid violence, a willingness to serve instead of to command, and a charitable tolerance toward all people are certainly all noble traits.  Professor Zuckerman argues that since secular parenting has a statistically higher probability than does Christian parenting of producing children who act morally in these categories, Christian parenting serves no real purpose.  But it is here that he misunderstands the goal of Christian parenting.  The goal of Christian parenting is not to make your kids moral.  It is to share with your kids faith in Christ.  Morality is wonderful, but, in Christianity, faith comes first.

James, the brother of Jesus, describes the proper relationship between Christian morality and Christian faith when he writes:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  (James 2:14-18)

James here explains the absurdity of claiming to have faith apart from any sort of moral deeds.  He says that if someone claims to have faith and no moral deeds, he really has no faith at all.  He even goes so far as to challenge his readers to show him someone who has faith, but no moral deeds.  This, in James’ mind, is an impossibility.  Why?  Because James knows that faith inevitably produces some sort of moral action.  The real danger is not so much that someone will have faith and no moral action, but that someone will have plenty of moral action and no faith!  Indeed, this is the problem Jesus has with the religious leaders when He says of them, “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Matthew 15:8).  The religious leaders were supremely moral.  But they did not have faith in Christ.

In our crusade to argue for a Christian morality in the midst of a morally relativistic secular society, let us be careful not to spend so much time trying to make people moral that we forget to share with them faith in Christ.  For a Christianity that only makes people moral, ultimately, leads them the to same place that a secular moral relativism does – it leads to death.  Morality, no matter what type of morality it is, cannot offer life.  Only Christ can do that.

We are not here just to try to make people good.  We are here to show people the One who is perfectly good.  Let’s not forget what our real mission really is.

June 26, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Tenuous Time

Church Steeple

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  As Christianity faded from prominence in the West, a secularized culture was supposed to emerge to take its place that was more tolerant, more enlightened, more harmonious, and less politically polarized than any other society in the history of the world.  But as Peter Beinart explains in an excellent article for The Atlantic, what has emerged as Christianity’s western influence has waned is nothing of the sort:

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.[1]

Beinart goes on to explain how the traditional battle lines between conservatives and liberals have shifted in the wake of this irreligious surge.  Specifically, with regard to the spiritually skeptical alt-right, Beinart notes:

They tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation…

The alt-right is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age. Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. As a college student, the alt-right leader Richard Spencer was deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously hated Christianity. Radix, the journal Spencer founded, publishes articles with titles like “Why I Am a Pagan.” One essay notes that “critics of Christianity on the Alternative Right usually blame it for its universalism.”

It turns out that as faith allegiances have crumbled, a universal concern for others in the spirit of the Good Samaritan has too.  Christianity’s cross-ethnic, cross-cultural, and international appeal has proven too much for the self-interested – or, perhaps more accurately, self-obsessed – spirit of our age.

As Christians, we must think through this irreligious political surge and provide a faithful witness in the midst of it.  We also must be prepared to live in a very tricky tension because of this surge.  As Rod Dreher explains in his newly released book, The Benedict Option:

Faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian.  In a nation where “God and country” are so entwined, the idea that one’s citizenship might be at radical odds with one’s faith is a new one.[2]

Dreher’s analysis of the tension between being a citizen of a nation and being a child of God is true, but it is also somewhat amnesic.  He is right that there is indeed an increasing tension.  But he is wrong that this tension is anything new.  Tensions between God and government have been longstanding, even in our society.  And these tensions should not surprise us.  It was a Roman governmental official, after all, who approved the request for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Government has, for a great portion of history, had a problem with God, especially when people put Him before it.

The New Testament understands that this tension between God and government will never be fully resolved, at least on this side of the Last Day.  While we may give to Caesar what is his, God also demands what is His, and when what Caesar wants contradicts what God wants, conflict ensues.  Just ask Daniel, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or the apostles.  Our calling, as Christians, is to resist the urge to comfortably resolve this tension, whether that be by condemning this world and cloistering ourselves off from it or by compromising our faith for the lucrative perks of political power.  Our calling is to live in this tension both faithfully and evangelically – holding fast to what we confess while lovingly sharing with others what we believe.

Beinart concludes his article:

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.

Yes, indeed, it is worse – which is why we, as the Church, need to offer something better.  We need to offer something loving.  We need to over something hopeful.  We need to offer something reconciling.  We need to offer something that continually and conscientiously questions our nation’s nearsighted political orthodoxies for the sake of a time-tested theological orthodoxy.  We need to offer Jesus, unabashedly and unashamedly.  This is our mission.  I pray we are up to it.

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[1] Peter Beinart, “Breaking Faith,” The Atlantic (April 2017).

[2] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York:  Sentinel, 2017), 89.

April 3, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

God and Country in Order

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In his book, Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado writes about why the Christian claim that there is only one God was especially offensive to those in the ancient Roman world.  His analysis is worth quoting at length:

In the eyes of ancient pagans, the Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own, though often deemed bizarre and objectionable, was basically regarded as one, rather distinctive, example of national peculiarities… 

The early Christian circles such as those addressed by Paul…could not claim any traditional ethnic privilege to justify their refusal to worship the gods.  For, prior to their Christian conversion, these individuals, no doubt, had taken part in the worship of the traditional gods, likely as readily as other pagans of the time among their families, friends, and wider circles of their acquaintances…

Of course, a pagan might choose to convert fully to Judaism as a proselyte, which meant becoming a Jew and ceasing to be a member of his or her own ancestral people.  By such a drastic act, proselytes effectively changed their ethnic status and so could thereafter try to justify a refusal to participate in worshipping the pagan gods as expressive of their new ethnic membership and religious identity.  But this was not the move that Paul’s pagan converts made… 

Indeed, Paul was at pains to emphasize that his pagan converts must not become Jewish proselytes.  For Paul saw his mission to “Gentiles” as bringing to fulfillment biblical prophecies that the nations of the world would forsake idols and, as Gentiles, would renounce their idolatry and embrace the one true God.  That is, unlike Jewish proselytes, Paul’s pagan converts did not change their ethnic identity.[1]

Categories of ethnicity and faith were not clearly delineated in the ancient world.  Instead, they were broadly interchangeable.  To be a part of the Jewish nation was to adhere to the Jewish faith.  To be a Roman Gentile was to be a worshiper of the Roman gods.  There was no concept of religious freedom like we know it today – where a person can worship and live out their convictions freely quite apart from their nationality.  Thus, part of what made Christianity so offensive to the ancient pagans was that it began to decouple a presumed synonymy between ethnicity and faith.  A person’s ethnicity, in the Christian conception, no longer informed ipso facto a person’s faith.  A person could be a Roman Gentile and a Christian monotheist.

Not only did Christianity decouple ethnicity from faith, it actually claimed that a person’s ethnicity was subservient to faith!  Again, to quote Hurtado:

Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)…Whether you were Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, this was now to be secondary to your status “in Christ”…Irrespective of their particular ethnic, social, or biological categories, therefore, all believers were now to take on a new and supervening identity in Christ.[2]

According to Paul, Christ comes before clan.

Like the ancient Romans, we too have a tendency to couple our ethnicity with our faith, or, to put it in another, more recognizable, way, to couple our country with our God.  When this happens, however, it is almost always our God who winds up serving our country.  When it appears particularly expedient or reassuring in the midst of a dangerous and changing world, we can be all too willing to sacrifice fidelity to our faith for the prosperity of our nation.  Hurtado offers us an important reminder:  though we may retain our ethnicities and citizenships and still be Christians, ethnicities and citizenships are subservient to faith.  Faith cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the State.  Furthermore, as we are learning our increasingly secularized society, faith is often at odds with the goals of the State.  Everything from the legal enshrinement of the sexual revolution to the often raucous and raunchy rhetoric of our most recent presidential campaign demonstrates this.  So let’s makes sure we keep the State and our faith straight.  Faith comes first.  After all, the God of our faith will continue to stand, long after the State has fallen.

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[1] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2016), 53, 55.

[2] Ibid., 55-56.

March 20, 2017 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

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