Skip to content

Christians, the Cross, and Culture

As is my custom I’ve been spending a good deal of time on Holy Week contemplating all that happened during that momentous week.  I know that many of my evangelical/baptistic friends worry that too much Holy Week meditation sounds a tad too liturgical but I’ve found it to be a blessing.

This year, as often in the past, much of my thinking has gone to Silent Saturday, the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  From our point of view we can say that this one day interval is no big deal.  We look back to the cross knowing that everything was going to be OK, indeed much more than OK.  But to the disciples and other Jesus-followers, from the minute that Jesus breathed his last on the cross until they saw the empty tomb, it was a disaster; the most horrible, hope-dashing, thing that could have happened.

All this has me meditating on the reality that, while by no means as bad, we’ve all had similar horrible experiences.  We go along dumb and happy and then one day something slaps us in the face.  A cancer diagnosis, the sudden death of a dearly loved one, the loss of a job, a serious car accident, etc. hits us and we are devastated.    We too find ourselves saying something like “Why did God let this happen?”

While that question goes all the way back to Job and other Old Testament passages something has changed in the way we ask it.   People today are far more likely to lose their faith over suffering than in times past.  This is because our confidence in the power of our intellect has radically changed.  In the past, people never assumed that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgment of an infinite God, and what God might be up to.  Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God.  As Tim Keller says:

“There is, then, a significant amount of faith behind modern arguments against God on the basis of evil. It is assumed, not proved, that a God beyond our reason could not exist – and therefore we conclude that he doesn’t exist…but it wasn’t true that their reasoning had undermined their faith. Instead it was that a new kind of faith, one in the power of human reason and ability to comprehend the depths of things, had displaced an older, more self-effacing kind of faith.”

Keller is right.  The assumption that our human reason can demand satisfactory answers from God is an act of faith, not reason.  We simply shift our faith from God to our own intellect.  It is at this point that I and many of my fellow evangelicals are ready to congratulate ourselves that we aren’t like that; that we have not succumbed to the allure of placing our own reasoning powers as the judge of all.  We can be like the Pharisee proudly declaring “I am not like this man.”

Maybe we shouldn’t.  Maybe we have actually, to some degree, placed our faith in our own reasoning.  Perhaps it is that we are just clever enough to give this faith a new name – systematic theology.  We collect verses from across the Bible, many of them ripped from their context, and assemble a belief that satisfies us on a host of issues, including the devastating problem of why disaster strikes.  We overlook that it is our reasoning that assembles these verses, not the Bible itself.

I’ve always thought it was a nuisance that God didn’t, in one clear passage, simply tell us in unmistakable terms what to believe.  It is clear that, no matter how much fun, and how helpful, systematic theology is it has never led the church to uniformity on many issues.  I am aware of this now because next week our Bible study group is going to turn to II Peter 2: 20&21.  Our “once saved, always saved” members are going to have to struggle with verses that seem, if taken literally, to imply some can lose their salvation.  They will have to explain to our lone, smiling, Arminian, why we believe that “of course they were not actually saved, they just thought they were.”

Lest you think I am picking on the TULIP lovers in my group I know that there are verses that can turn the table and let them be the ones sitting smugly.  This problem continues on many issues because, gasp, we too have put our faith in human reason; in our ability to properly assemble the “right” systematic theology.

How galling it is to admit that our own intellect is so flawed.  How uncomfortable it is that, when faced with unexplained and painful happenings, and Bible verses we can’t figure out, that we are forced to simply live in the assurance that God is in control; to live each day trusting that the Gospel is true.   We are forced to live each day and be glad in it, to lay down our sin and rely totally on Jesus, even when we can’t figure him out. We have to live each day determined to be joyful in Jesus, knowing that, should something radically change tomorrow, the Lord is our God and our only refuge.  How hard it is to admit that, more often than we’d wish, we are clueless.

Are We Like Lot?

In our Wednesday night Bible study we are slogging our way through II Peter and, last night, we were in II Peter 2.  This book, and in particular this chapter, with its no-holds-barred condemnation of false teachers, is not what you could call uplifting.  Peter is brutally blunt in his description of what happens to false teachers, particularly blatantly immoral ones, and to those who follow them.

Along the way we stumbled into a long discussion on the description of Lot as “a righteous man.”  We spent some time in the story of Lot in Genesis 19 where he comes across as something less than a stellar saint.  Some in our group thought the discussion was meaningless because “the bible says Lot was righteous, case closed.”  Others picked up from the verses that Lot was emotionally and spiritually distressed as only the righteous can be when confronted with blatant sin around them.  I found myself in this group but, like some of the others, found Lot’s actions dubious at best.  In the end we found the whole subject to be a ringing endorsement for the grace of God because, after all, “if Lot was deemed righteous there is hope for us too.”

But in the end the subject shifted to comparing ourselves with Lot, not so much spiritually but rather culturally.  There was Lot, treading water in a sea of iniquity, grieved on the inside but seemingly doing nothing to either challenging the prevailing culture or separating himself from it.  The question was raised – are we the same way?  Are we swimming in an ever-decaying culture where morality is going out the window?  If so, what should we do about it?  I ended up thinking about this long into the night.

My primary reaction is to think that, while morality is seriously changing, it is not declining.  In fact, our culture is growing increasingly rigid on sexual morality in particular.  There is no faster way to feel the moral wrath of our culture than to speak against the accepted morality.  The problem is that traditional Christian morality is rapidly moving toward being on the outside looking in.

The historic cornerstone of Christian sexual morality has been the restriction of sex to being within a married (for life) heterosexual relationship.  On many levels this is now frowned upon.  Don’t like sex outside of marriage?  There is something wrong with you.  Think that “one man, one woman” is the only accepted relationship?  You are bigot.  Oppose divorce?  You are an unfeeling brute.  The problem is not immorality but a changed morality.

So what is a Christian to do?  Some, including a few last night, champion the idea that, thanks to the wise leadership of our current President, we are on the cusp of a great resurgence of traditional morality.  I disagree.  There is no way to unscramble that egg, particularly not through legislative or executive political power.

As an evangelical I am a firm believer in a change of heart through the saving grace of God.  I believe that the song “I once was lost but now am found” can be a reality in anyone’s life.  I accept and believe that no one, absolutely no one, is beyond the reach of the grace of God.  But the only active morality I actually change is my own.  I cannot change the heart of another.

Frankly I think too many of us have lost sight of what is important.  We focus on a losing battle of trying to enforce what we think is moral behavior and miss chance after chance to speak the truth in love to those around us.  We sit in our echo chambers decrying the morality “out there.”

The battle to recodify our morality is over – we lost.  When we come together and whine about culture we are like Lot; we are simply anguished on the inside.  Even worse, we might, like some our Puritan forefathers, grow to smugly see ourselves as the elect and turn our backs on others.  Maybe we need to spend more time eating with, and listening to, “tax collectors and sinners.”  Lot held on to his inner anguish as he (apparently) did nothing but silently grieve.  It could have been worse.  He could have said “Yippie!” when told Sodom was to be destroyed.  Are we like Lot?  Better?  Or worse?

The Benedict Option

There is a lot of flap online about the recently released book The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.  The book proposes “a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation.”  He bases his book on the monastic order that St. Benedict formed in the dark ages and calls for us to retreat into Christian communities and more or less hide from a declining culture.

Dreher is a decided pessimist. While many evangelicals are elated about the election of President Trump and see this as an opportunity to “bring our nation back to God” he sees this as merely an interlude in an already lost war that gives us “time to prepare for the coming dark age.”  In fact, he says “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization….This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”

So, is he right?  There are already a lot of online opinions about this.  You can see a few them here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Trust me, there are many others but I got tired of creating links.  While most of those links go to respected evangelical sites like Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition I’ve included one from a progressive Christian and one from an out-and-out nonbeliever.  If you feel that listing to people who disagree with you threatens your salvation then for sure skip those two.

Another thought that came to me, and that I am in the process of doing, is that we might want to read  The Rule of St. Benedict itself in a modern translation and see what this dear saint said directly.

I have two preliminary thoughts on the concept.  The first is that, in our connected world, there is no easy comparison to the Benedictine era building of a wall around your little community and shutting the outside out.  Just ask our Amish friends or even better the vast, supposedly self-sufficient, Mennonite Colonies in South America.  They strive to be separated from “the world” but constantly find they can’t do it.

The second thought is that if our churches are not already the sort of “in the world but not of the world” sanctuaries we want then there is something wrong with them.  Church, the community of believers committed to each other and to the word of God, is where we draw our strength and comfort as we then go forth to engage that big bad messy world out there.  In other words, we as believers are already not of the world.  Hmmmm.  Where did I hear that?  Oh yes, I remember.

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”  John 17:14-19

A Gospel Issue?

I have a friend who is fond of saying “if you don’t believe Genesis 1, you can’t believe John 3:16.”  He calls this “a gospel issue.”  What he means of course is if you don’t read Genesis 1 exactly the way he does you don’t believe the gospel.

If you do a web search on the phrase “a gospel issue” you will find that, in addition to Genesis 1, there are all sorts of things being called a gospel issue.  Among them are race relations, conservation, abortion, complementarianism, human dignity, and a host of others.  In addition there are several helpful articles explaining just what a gospel issue actually is.  I read a number of them and consensus is clear – the issues they think are gospel issues actually are but the issues raised by others with which they disagree aren’t.

To decide what meets the standard of being a gospel issue it would seem that we first need decide what the gospel is.  While I don’t claim any more inerrancy of my opinions than I am willing to give to others I thought I’d say what I truly think the gospel is.  So here goes, I believe the gospel is that…

…Jesus pre-existed with the father from before the foundation of the world.  He took on human form in accordance with the scriptures.  He died on the cross for our sins as predicted by the scriptures.  He was buried and then rose from the dead, once again in accordance with scriptures. After a period of time on earth in which he appeared to many he ascended to heaven where he sits at the right hand of God as Lord.  One day he will come again in power and as judge.

This is what I must believe –and act as if I do – if I believe the gospel.  I’d be happy to know other explanations of what the gospel is but I am convinced that, no matter how important we think those other issues are, they are not the gospel and can’t be gospel issues. I’m not diminishing the study of these other matters.  But I continue to be concerned about the way we imply – or even outright say – that you must agree with me on them or else you don’t believe the gospel.

Beauty and the Beast and the Bible

Well, the latest version of the story of Beauty and the Beast starts today and I already know several people who are planning to see it ASAP.  For me, and my wife Peggy, we will probably wait until it comes out on Netflix before we see it.  I am guessing that retirees are not their primary audience and I am still not quite over the trauma of seeing Frozen a few years ago in a theater filled with little girls singing along on all the songs and even saying the dialogue along with Elsa and Anna.

But I’ve been reading all the reviews today – which are mildly favorable – and also two different reactions to the movie that started even before it came out and find that the movie, or at least the commentary on it, tells me something important about the Bible.  Let me explain.

One group of people reacting were Christians, Franklin Graham for example, who were outraged that an “openly gay character” was to be in the movie and called for a boycott.  I suppose “reacting” is not 100% accurate as this all happened before anyone actually saw the movie.  Is “preacting” a word? (Secular reviewers I’ve seen say that there are “hints” of a same sex attraction but nothing overt.)  In any event, this group is mobilizing to encourage us all to be outraged. One commentator called it a “gay movie.”

The second group that was “preacting” with outrage was those who are concerned about the abuse of women by male partners.  I kind of see their point.  I mean “boy meets girl, boy imprisons girl, boy verbally abuses girl, girl’s sweetness eventually changes angry boy” is not your usual romance.  Some advocates for abused women are also encouraging a boycott because it, as one advocate said, “glorifies domestic abuse.”

My guess is that neither of these boycotts will be particularly effective.  I also doubt that there will be many little girls who come out from seeing the movie and suddenly decide they are gay or come out yearning to be in an abusive relationship.

I’m not criticizing either group.  They have the right, perhaps even the duty, to speak up with their concerns.  But there is one thing that stands out.  Each group “saw” in the movie something that their personal and cultural background taught them to look for.  One, the culture warriors, interprets the movie as gay and the other, advocates for the abused, as abusive.  I can’t blame them, particularly abuse survivors.

But here is the question I have to ask myself, and other Bible readers – are we so very sure that we do not bring our own biases, our own cultural assumptions, and our own personal experiences into our reading of Scripture?  This is why I advocate (again and again) reading the Bible with humility and openness to be shown we might be wrong.  We all say we are open, but when was the last time any of us actually has admitted we’ve been reading scripture wrong?

Could it be?

It all started with this tweet about immigration policy from Rev. Al Sharpton:  “Before you head to church today, remember to thank God for his son Jesus, a refugee who fled to Egypt.”

This set off a huge firestorm of critics furious with Sharpton, including Fox News which said:  “There’s one problem though: Sharpton’s tweet is not exactly accurate, at least according to the Bible.”  Here is a sample of other critics:  “After all these years, Al Sharpton still doesn’t know his Bible!”

Here is what the Bible actually says in Matthew 2:13-14:  “When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt…”  (Boldface mine)

Here is the dictionary definition of refugee:  “A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to avoid war, persecution or natural disaster.” (Boldface again mine)

It certainly seems to me that what Joseph, Mary and Jesus did exactly fits the definition of refugee.  Could it be that Sharpton actually read the Bible correctly?  Could it be that his critics freaked out because they just couldn’t stand that Sharpton may be right on an interpretation?

The larger issue is different though.  Could it be that the story of Jesus fleeing to Egypt was never intended to teach us the “correct” position on 21st century refugee issues?  Can there be a difference between what the Bible says and what the Bible teaches?  When we move away from explicit instructions/commands (i.e. “You shall have no other gods before me”) into shaping our principles on Bible examples we are doing something laudable but can we can’t claim we are inerrant as we do.

Jesus says…

I’m told that this week the Republicans are getting ready to roll out their replacement for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.  Already people are rushing to prepare defenses of and attack on the plan that they have not yet seen.  I saw an article by Dr. Roger Marshall, newly elected Republican representative from Kansas, why his state did not accept the Medicaid expansion that was included in Obamacare and why it is not needed in any replacement.  What caught my eye was the way he quoted Jesus:

“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’  There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Whether we “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act is a subject that is up for debate but I am rather annoyed to see Jesus being brought in to bolster Marshall’s case; particularly because his use of Jesus’ words is, well, wrong, wrong, wrong.   In fact Marshall only quoted half of a sentence from Mark 14:7 which reads as follows:

For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.”  (ESV)

Clearly Jesus is not saying “don’t worry about the poor” he is saying that we can always be ready to help them; the opposite conclusion to that which Marshall gives.  But it gets worse.  As Mark (and Matthew who also records the statement) knew, and the people that Jesus was talking to knew, Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy.  Here is Deuteronomy 15:4-11

“But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.  Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”  (ESV)

Note the verse in boldface.  Our English translations bend it slightly as they translate from the Greek and Hebrew in Mark and Deuteronomy but the phrase is the same.  The entire section is a command to care for the poor.

Should we do this through government programs?  If so, what kinds?  Or should we do this as individuals?  Through our churches?  What type of help do we give?  These are all good questions to debate.  If we want to come up with our own personal WWJD answer to these questions I think that is a good idea.  But if we insist on quoting Jesus we need to do it right.