Posts tagged ‘First Things’

What If The Culture War Is Lost?

book bible religion reading study learning education pen coffee cup mug

Credit: Aaron Burden

Over my years in ministry, I have had many conversations with people who are frightened by the path Western society seems to be walking.  Secularization and hostility to Christian claims seem to be on the uptick.  In a recent article for First Things, Sohrab Ahmari described our current situation as a “cultural civil war” and claimed that we must “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”  In order to achieve this “Highest Good,” Mr. Ahmari calls for an offensive attack against the secularizing forces in society based in a realpolitik, claiming that “civility and decency are secondary values” in our fight.  Our opposition, he explains, does not practice civility and decency, so why should we?  In Mr. Ahmari’s view, the “Highest Good” can only be achieved only through baser means.  Any other path is naïve, idealistic, and dangerous, he argues.

Frankly, I do not share Mr. Ahmari’s view – partially because I don’t think we can forfeit what is moral now for the sake of winning a fight and expect to be taken seriously when we try to point people to what is moral later, and partially because I do not believe this is a war we can win, at least using standard political tactics.  This does not mean that we do not argue for Christianity in the cultural mainstream, but it does mean that we should be thinking about new ways to argue for Christianity now that, at least in some areas of the country, we have been pushed to the fringes – if not outside – of the cultural mainstream.

This past week, Alison Lesley, writing for World Religion News, told the story of Wayne Cordeiro, a well-known pastor from Hawaii, who took a recent trip to China.  Christians there are severely persecuted and can be imprisoned simply for owning a Bible.  Ms. Lesley tells the story of a secret Bible study Pastor Cordeiro led with a group of Chinese Christians:

The group was short on Bibles. When Pastor Cordeiro asked them to turn to 2 Peter, he noticed that one of the women had handed her Bible to another leader while managing to recite the entire book.

When he asked her about it during a break, she replied, saying that prisoners have a lot of time in prison.  Pastor Cordeiro then asked if the Bibles were confiscated in prison.  She replied saying that while the Bibles are confiscated, people smuggle in pieces of paper with bits of Scripture on them.

She added that people memorize these scriptures as fast as they can because even if they take the paper away, they can’t take away “what’s hidden in your heart.”

The response of these Chinese Christians to persecution is astounding and admirable.  They have no constitutional protections, no social capital, and no legal resource or recourse to push back against an oppressive and atheistically oriented government.  Yet, the Church in China continues to grow because Christians there understand that Christianity can be lost on a culture while still thriving in the hearts of individuals.  No matter what is happening societally, they can still hold God’s Word in their hearts.

I pray that I never find myself in the same situation as these Chinese Christians.  Yet, I also take comfort in the fact that the Church can withstand any cultural confrontation.  Even if Christians lose their comforts in a particular culture, they never need to lose their souls because of any culture.  Culture wars may be lost, but the battle for our salvation has already been won.  As we struggle in our culture, let us never forget this promise for our souls.

July 1, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Why Pray, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation”?

Credit: Wikipedia

It seems as though the wording of the Lord’s Prayer will soon be changing in the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church.  Charlotte Allen reports for First Things:

On November 15 the Italian Bishops’ Conference announced that it plans to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer in the Mass liturgy. The bishops want the current Italian equivalent of “lead us not into temptation” to become “do not abandon us to temptation.”

The bishops have now petitioned the pope to approve this proposed alteration – a petition he is almost certain to grant. In a 2017 interview with an Italian Catholic television channel, the pontiff expressed his distress with the current Italian wording – non c’indurre in tentazione, a literal translation of the Latin ne nos inducas in tentationem that is part of the Lord’s Prayer in the Vulgate versions of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

I would hasten to add that the traditional translation of “lead us not into temptation” comports not only nicely with the old Latin Vulgate, but with the Greek of Matthew and Luke.  So, why is Pope Francis so concerned with this translation?  Ms. Allen continues:

Francis opined that “lead us not” might confuse the Catholic faithful, because “it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell.”

On the one hand, the pope is right in claiming that God does not lead us into temptation.  No less than Jesus’ brother declares:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. (James 1:13-14)

James is clear that it is not God who tempts us to do evil; it is we who tempt us to do evil.  We, as the saying goes, are our own worst enemies.  God, on the other hand, does not and will not tempt us.

So, this begs the question:  why would Jesus teach us to pray to God that He would not lead us into temptation if the Bible says that God doesn’t tempt anyone?

Martin Luther, in his explanation to this line in the Lord’s Prayer, writes:

God, indeed, tempts no one; but we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, nor seduce us into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and though we be assailed by them, that still we may finally overcome and gain the victory.

Notice that Luther begins his explanation of Jesus’ words with the promise of James 1:13.  This is the crux of Luther’s explanation of this line in the Lord’s Prayer because when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are praying a promise of God.  In other words, we are simply praying back to God what God has already sworn to do for us.

One of the wonderful things about the Lord’s Prayer is that the whole prayer is composed of God’s promises.  When we pray, for instance, “Thy kingdom come,” we know that God’s kingdom has certainly come in Christ, even without our prayer.  As Jesus Himself says, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9).  This is why Luther writes, in his explanation of this phrase, “The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself.”  Or, when we pray, “Thy will be done,” we know that God’s will is always done, even without our prayer.  As Job says to God, “I know that You can do all things; no purpose of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).  This is why Luther writes, in his explanation of this phrase, “The good and gracious will of God is done indeed without our prayer.”  God always says “yes” to the Lord’s Prayer because before the prayer was a prayer, it was a series of promises made by God.  And God always keeps His promises.

What is true of God’s kingdom and sovereign will is also true when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  God most certainly will not lead us into temptation because of His promise.  Praying this petition, then, can remind us of God’s promise.

What the pope suggests we pray about temptation – that God would not abandon us to temptation – is certainly a fine and needed prayer, but it is not the Lord’s Prayer.  It is good to pray Francis’ line, then, in addition to what Jesus says.  We should be careful, however, praying Francis’ line in place of what Jesus says.

For centuries now, Christians have prayed the Lord’s Prayer as they have received the Lord’s Prayer.  Perhaps, instead of trying to revise it, we should be content with just receiving it as well.

January 14, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Texas, Abortion, and the Terrible Triumph of the Human Will

Supreme Court Texas Abortion Case

Credit: Associated Press

A front page for the The New York Times caught my eye during a layover at the Phoenix airport last week.  Its headline read, “Justices Overturn Texas Abortion Limits.”  Last week, the Supreme Court ruled against a Texas law that required abortion clinics to have hospital admitting privileges in order to continue operating.  The Justices ruled that this and other standards in the law placed an “undue burden” on the ability to obtain an abortion.

Along with the headline, there was an infographic with this caption: “The Supreme Court Drifts to the Left.”  Sadly, this is the way the abortion debate is often now cast:  conservative versus liberal, right versus left.  But there is far more at stake in this case than just political or ideological points.  What is at stake in this case is human lives.

Yes, the lives of the babies lost to abortion are at stake.  But so are the lives of the women who suffer through the loss of a child to abortion.  Abortion can change profoundly the lives of the women who endure it – and not necessarily for the better.  Indeed, some studies have shown that women can suffer under a crushing weight of hidden hurt and regret after obtaining an abortion.

Yet, regardless of its mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual tolls, many in our society continue to fight for the widest possible access to abortion and, as the Supreme Court ruling symptomizes, raising any concerns about the way the abortion industry operates is regularly met with little more than scorn and skepticism.  The right to abortion, in this view, is sovereign.

The problem, however, with making the right to abortion sovereign is that it makes physical reality subservient to the human will.  The physical reality of life in utero becomes becomes dependent on a person’s choice.  To borrow a quip from 2004 presidential candidate Wesley Clark: it means that “life begins with the mother’s decision.”

Except that it doesn’t.  Life begins in spite of a person’s choice.  But life, tragically, can be ended by a person’s choice.  To try to make the physical reality of life subservient to the human will is to deny that physical reality really matters at all.  But the denial of physical reality in light of human decision seems to be en vogue – not only with babies in wombs, but with people in their lives.

Several weeks ago on this blog, I wrote about the connection between transgenderism and Platonism.  Just like Platonism sees that which is non-corporeal as more important and, in some sense, more real than the physical, transgenderism gives preference to a non-corporeal inner identification over a person’s physical biological sex.  Sherif Girgis made a similar observation about the relationship of the physical to the internal in an article for First Things:

The body doesn’t matter…Since I am not my body, I might have been born in the wrong one. Because the real me is internal, my sexual identity is just what I sense it to be. The same goes for other valuable aspects of my identity. My essence is what I say and feel that it is…

On the old view, you could know important things about me unmediated, by knowing something about my body or our shared nature. And our interdependence as persons was as inescapable as our physical incompleteness and need: as male and female, infants and infirm. But if the real me lies within, only I know what I am. You have to take my word for it; I can learn nothing about myself from our communion. And if I emerge only when autonomy does – if I come into the world already thinking and feeling and choosing – it’s easy to overlook our interdependence. I feel free to strike out on my own, and to satisfy my desires less encumbered by others’ needs.[1]

Girgis’ final line is key.  If we are fundamentally defined by our internal wills rather than by our physical bodies, our wills must be held as sovereign and defining.  Anything and anyone that would encroach on our wills – even a baby growing inside of us – must be put it in its place.

In this way, everything from same-sex marriage to transgenderism to abortion is of one piece.  It privileges the human will over everything else.  I can choose who I want to marry without any regard for a created complementarianism.  I can choose my gender quite apart from what are, in most cases, very clear biological markers.  And I can choose to keep a baby inside of me or to rid myself of it.

I understand and am sensitive to the fact that, in each of these cases, there are strong stirrings that can lead to difficult decisions.  The stirring of affection for someone of the same-sex can lead to a same-sex marriage.  The stirring toward the lifestyles of the opposite gender can lead a person to live as transgender.  And the stirring of fear over what it takes to raise a child can lead to an abortion.  But even when these stirrings are strong, I think it is worth it to at least ask the question of whether or not it is wise to make human stirrings so defining that they can eclipse and even try to deny actual physical states of being.

According to the Supreme Court, the stirring of a person’s choice in pregnancy is defining.  And if anything – even a raising of medical standards for abortion clinics in Texas – impedes that choice, choice must have its way.  So it will.  And with deadly results.

_________________________

[1] Sherif Girgis, “Obergefell and the New Gnosticism,” First Things (6.28.2016).

July 4, 2016 at 5:00 am 1 comment

Angry At A God Who Isn’t There

God - MichelangeloThe other day I heard the story of a distressed parent.  Their son had gone away to college as a Christian and had returned as an atheist.  They wanted to know what they could do to bring their son back into the fold.

Honestly, hearing this boy’s story distressed me.  After all, nothing less than this young man’s very salvation is at stake.  I was tempted to break out into a rant about how far too many colleges and universities deliberately and relentlessly undermine faith while uncritically peddling a deluded vision of a far-flung utopian secular humanistic paradise, but I stopped myself and instead asked a simple question:  “Why?  Why did your son become an atheist?  Was it because of something he heard in some class from a professor, or was it because of something else – something deeper?”

Many atheists like to present themselves as cool and collected, calmly examining empirically verifiable data and coming to the inevitable and emotionally detached conclusion that there is no God.  But the reality of atheism is far less viscerally clean.

A couple of years ago, Joe Carter penned an article for First Things titled, “When Atheists Are Angry At God.”  In it, he notes a strange phenomenon: many people who do not believe in God find themselves angry at God:

I’ve shaken my fist in anger at stalled cars, storm clouds, and incompetent meterologists. I’ve even, on one terrible day that included a dead alternator, a blaring blaring tornado-warning siren, and a horrifically wrong weather forecast, cursed all three at once. I’ve fumed at furniture, cussed at crossing guards, and held a grudge against Gun Barrel City, Texas. I’ve been mad at just about anything you can imagine.

Except unicorns. I’ve never been angry at unicorns.

It’s unlikely you’ve ever been angry at unicorns either. We can become incensed by objects and creatures both animate and inanimate. We can even, in a limited sense, be bothered by the fanciful characters in books and dreams. But creatures like unicorns that don’t exist – that we truly believe not to exist – tend not to raise our ire. We certainly don’t blame the one-horned creatures for our problems.

The one social group that takes exception to this rule is atheists. They claim to believe that God does not exist and yet, according to empirical studies, tend to be the people most angry at Him.[1]

But why is this?  Why would people who don’t believe in God become angry at God?  Carter goes on to cite Julie Exline, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University:

Studies in traumatic events suggest a possible link between suffering, anger toward God, and doubts about God’s existence. According to Cook and Wimberly (1983), 33% of parents who suffered the death of a child reported doubts about God in the first year of bereavement. In another study, 90% of mothers who had given birth to a profoundly retarded child voiced doubts about the existence of God (Childs, 1985). Our survey research with undergraduates has focused directly on the association between anger at God and self-reported drops in belief (Exline et al., 2004). In the wake of a negative life event, anger toward God predicted decreased belief in God’s existence.

In other words, atheism is not as viscerally clean as many atheists would like to have you believe.  Atheism is not always the product of cool, clean, detached observation of empirically verifiable date.  Instead, atheism is often the product of not disbelief in God, but rebellion against God because a person feels slighted by God in some way.  Atheism, although it may hide between a veneer of intellectualism, is also heavily emotional.  It’s hardly a wonder that the Psalmists says of the atheist:  “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).  Atheism is not just a matter of the head.  It’s also a matter of the heart.

I never quite did get to the root of the atheism of my friend’s son.  But I suspect it was more than just some smooth-talking college professor that led him down the road to unbelief.  That’s why, when sharing my faith, I not only try to speak to a person’s head; I try to minister to his heart.


[1] Joe Carter, “When Atheists Are Angry At God,” First Things (1.12.2011).

January 20, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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