Posts tagged ‘Soteriology’

How Starbucks (Didn’t) Steal Christmas

Credit: Starbucks

Credit: Starbucks

It was the coffee kerfuffle that wasn’t. When a story about Christian outrage over Starbucks’ plain red holiday cups began trending on social media, something about it seemed off to me. Sure, there was a video of a self-styled evangelist shoving a red Starbucks cup into the camera and shouting about how Starbucks employees are not allowed to say Merry Christmas and explaining in a Facebook post that “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus.” And sure, there were the stories about all the controversy it was igniting in the Twittersphere. But as I checked my own social media feeds, what I saw was not Christian outrage over the Starbucks’ minimalist holiday cups, but outrage over the fact that there was so much outrage over something as inane as a coffee cup. Outrage over outrage. Is it just me, or does this all seem, well, outrageous?

I have a funny feeling that the evangelist who opined his offense at Starbucks’ holiday cups on Facebook may have done so more for clicks and shares than out of earnest conviction. In my opinion, this is little more than a shoddily manufactured controversy. But even if I am right and this controversy is manufactured, I am grateful that commentary by Christians on the controversy has been largely thoughtful. Take this from Ed Stetzer:

Folks, we really need to calm down. If you’ve posted an outraged Facebook update, take it down.

Starbucks cups are red because of the Christmas season. Starbucks is not persecuting you. Starbucks may be attempting to respect those who don’t celebrate Christmas – and that’s OK. That’s their choice. They’re a business that exists to serve all customers without preference, regardless of what winter holidays they do or do not celebrate. If they choose to do that by means of a plain, red cup, that’s their call …

Here’s what I would say – this is the wrong fight and being done in the wrong way. And, it’s just making Christians look silly, like so many of these fake controversies do.

We have a better story to tell than one of faux outrage. So let’s tell it. It’s not the job of your barista to share the gospel. It’s your job to share the gospel.[1]

Ed Stetzer is exactly right. It’s ridiculous and embarrassing when a man trying to start a faux movement to protest red coffee cups gets more attention than the Church who has been charged to be an ongoing movement to spread the gospel.

Setting coffee cups aside for a moment, it is important to understand that this kind of unhelpful outrage has implications far beyond the clear-cut inanity of supposedly, but not really, offensive coffee cups. Far more serious ethical and cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and stewardship of creation and treatment of the poor have ignited no small amount of outrage. And make no mistake about it: we, as Christians, should have plenty to say about these issues. But if we become so embroiled in outrage over these issues that we lose sight of the joy of sharing the gospel of Christ’s death for sinners, we have become lovers of issues rather than people. And when this happens, we lose sight of the gospel.

It is interesting to me that for all the well-documented differences between conservative and liberal Christians, they can both often fall into the same trap. Sure, more conservative-leaning Christians may beat the drum about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage (and they should) while more liberal-leaning may beat the drum about issues like stewardship of creation and treatment of the poor (and they also should). But in both instances, each side can easily wind up becoming so obsessed with current ethical and cultural issues that they lose sight of the evangelical and soteriological cross of Christ. In this regard, both sides, whether conservative or liberal, have traded Billy Graham for Walter Rauschenbusch. The soteriological gospel has been sacrificed to the social gospel.

It is this that takes us back to the Starbucks, ahem, brew-haha. The evangelist who posted his now viral Facebook tirade suggested that customers tell baristas their name is “Merry Christmas” so servers will be forced to write “Merry Christmas” on their holiday symbol-less cups. Besides the fact that I am pretty sure that this will do little to nothing to shift cultural sentiment concerning Christmas and what it represents, I am even surer that it adds nothing to the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. Thankfully, most Christians already know this. That’s why they have rejected his strategy.

So let’s take this lesson from a bout of Starbucks silliness about what’s most important and use it to keep our priorities straight as we engage our world on much more pressing topics. Our witness to the world on these topics must never be only ethical and cultural. It must be first and foremost evangelical and soteriological. For without Christ and Him crucified, ethics and culture become nothing because they save no one.

Crux sola est nostra theologia.

________________________________

[1] Ed Stetzer, “When We Love Outrage More Than People: Starbucks Cups and You,” Christianity Today (11.9.2015).

November 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Pope Francis and What’s Most Important

Credit: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Credit: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

The New York Times may have called him “the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics,” but it seemed nearly impossible for journalists and pundits to filter Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, which wrapped up last night in Philadelphia, through anything but a political lens. After an obligatory nod to his spiritual status, the Times went on to report about the Pope’s address to a joint session of Congress:

While he checked boxes in calling for religious liberty and defending the family, the heart of his address, and the most time, was dedicated to aspects of Catholic teaching embraced by progressives, especially the overriding need to help the poor and destitute. He was at his most passionate in embracing immigration, alluding to his own family’s history of moving from Italy to Argentina, where he was born …

He also warned of the excesses of globalization, though in far more measured tones than he has in the past, when he used fiery language and the memorable phrase “dung of the devil” to describe unbridled capitalism.[1]

“Religious liberty.” “The excesses of globalization.” “Unbridled capitalism.” Though these things certainly have theological implications, as the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed would remind us, in our society, they are cast first and foremost as political concerns. Indeed, the Times ultimately concluded:

In the end, both sides could walk away citing parts of his message. But the liberal agenda items in his speech were explicit and clear while the conservative ones were more veiled.

Apparently, the real value of Francis’ speech, according to the Times, lies in how politicians will be able to leverage it and not in the theology that was contained in it.

Filtering theology through political policy is fraught with danger. In such a system, orthodox doctrine all too often gets sacrificed to Machiavellian expediency and a Savior who died gets turned into a political operative who just happens to hate all the same people we do.

On the one hand, Francis seemed to defy such bare politicization of the papacy, as Peter Johnson points out in his article for The Federalist, “10 Stories The Media Won’t Tell You About The Pope’s USA Visit.” Mr. Johnson explains how the Pope has taken on both liberal and conservative concerns – everything from climate change and immigration to government overreach and the dangers inherent in the Affordable Care Act. Such political schizophrenia is inherent in Christian ethics, which has the pesky habit of refusing to conform to both the liberal and conservative party platforms. Christianity can, at times, annoy both the left and the right.

On the other hand, it’s not too difficult to understand why the Pope’s address to Congress has been interpreted politically rather than theologically. After all, in a speech that lasted for nearly an hour before a joint session of Congress, the Pope, while covering a whole range of geopolitical and ethical issues, failed to mention Jesus – even once! This seems odd and, honestly, downright disturbing for the leader of a body of whom the apostle Paul noted is at its best when it resolves “to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

In one sense, the domination of the geopolitical and the ethical at the expense of the Christological in the Pope’s words is understandable both in terms of the ecclesiology and the soteriology of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ecclesiologically, popes have historically laid claim not only to spiritual authority, but to temporal power as well. Such power was crystalized in 800 on Christmas Day when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the emperor of Rome. A spiritual authority, on that day, crowned a political one. These days, though the Pope’s temporal power formally extends only as far as Vatican City – and even that authority is largely titular – the papacy’s interest in and influence over temporal affairs lingers. So it comes as no surprise that Francis would seek to shape geopolitical events.  In some ways, I welcome such an effort.  Our geopolitics needs all the sanctified wisdom it can get. But when geopolitical concerns drown out any mention of Christ in a major address from a man who claims to be the head of Christ’s Church, I begin to get a little nervous.

Soteriologically, Roman Catholicism’s view of righteousness and its relationship to salvation lends itself to Francis’ deep concern over ethical issues. As a Lutheran Christian, I will often speak of two kinds of righteousness. The first kind of righteousness is that which is imputed to me from God in Christ by faith. In the words of the apostle Paul:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)

Christ’s perfect righteousness is a righteousness that leads to my salvation quite apart from anything I have done or ever will do. This righteousness is not an ethical task, but a sheer gift, not based on my actions, but based on Christ’s action for me on the cross. The second kind of righteousness involves the good deeds that I do for my neighbor. I am called to love, serve, and help my neighbor, as Jesus explains forcefully in His Parable of the Good Samaritan. When I do these things, I am acting in the way of righteousness. But such a righteousness does not save me. It simply helps others.

In the Roman Catholic system of theology, these two kinds of righteousness are collapsed into one. The righteous acts we do for our neighbor are righteous acts that are also taken into account when we receive salvation from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this clear enough:

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.[2]

The Catechism baldly asserts that my righteousness cooperates with Christ’s righteousness so that I may attain eternal life. All the good things of which the Pope spoke in his speech, then, pertain to salvation because our good works on these good things aid in our salvation. It’s no wonder, then, that Francis would be especially concerned with our good works, even as the good work of Christ went missing in his words to Congress.

For all the excitement Francis’ visit and words generated, I fear that we managed to overlook what is the most important business of the Church:  to proclaim Christ’s forgiveness for sinners. This, to borrow a phrase from Paul, is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). All of the things the Pope addressed in his speech to Congress are important and should be discussed, but they are not most important.

Mollie Hemmingway puts the situation well when she writes:

It’s wonderful that some people say that Francis makes them feel the church is more welcoming to them. But if it’s just making people feel more comfortable in their politics, instead of making them feel the comfort of absolution, communion and strengthening of faith, that’s not much to get excited about.[3]

This is most certainly true. We can get excited over and become passionate about geopolitical issues. We can strongly advocate for ethical issues. I do all the time on this very blog. But our deepest commitment must be to Jesus. Our first proclamation must be of Him. For long after the concerns of this age fade way – indeed, long after this visit from this Pope is forgotten – Jesus will remain. The best thing this Pope can do, then, is invite us to turn our attention – and our hearts – to Him.

__________________________________

[1] Peter Baker & Jim Yardley, “Pope Francis, in Congress, Pleads for Unity on World’s Woes,” The New York Times (9.24.2015).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MN: 1994), § 2010.

[3] Mollie Hemmingway, “The Pope Francis Effect: Enthusiasm, But To What End?The Federalist (9.25.2015).

September 28, 2015 at 5:15 am 6 comments

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


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,062 other followers


%d bloggers like this: