On road trips in the 80’s, we’d push a cassette tape into the console, hit rewind, then play an entire album over and over again. None of this MP3 song-by-song stuff. We listened track by track, and in this way, entire records became the backdrop of our lives.
So it's kind of funny now to sit at Chilis and watch the faces of my friends when Metallica, Randy Travis, Billy Joel, Erasure, or Bon Jovi, start playing. We don't just hear a song; we hear a record. We don't just hear a record; we hear an era. We get flashbacks of high school dances; crazy summer nights with friends; sitting in our bedrooms whispering into a phone with a long, twisted cord.
Some of those memories are good. Some we wish we could erase.
I was twenty the summer I spent exploring London while listening to Enya’s Shepherd Moons on a Walkman. Two-and-a-half decades later, the buoyant ache of these haunted vocals still makes me smell the diesel of double-decker buses. I taste Earl Grey with milk, hear my own footsteps in the Tate, and feel the thrill of two beautiful older men from France asking me for a phone number I refused to give them. That summer was exhilarating, dangerous, and beautiful, and so that record knocks down a domino train inside me. It pulls me back through time and revives old joys and old temptations.
Repetition gets in our bones, see. It links us to experiences, to values, to desires; and I think about this a lot when I consider how the enemy of our souls works.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a group of young friends about how scary it is to grow up. My heart grew soft listening to their concerns because I have felt so many of these struggles myself over the years.
“I’m not the sort of person anybody could love.”
“Something is wrong with me.”
“The world is too messed up for my generation to live a good life.”
“Everybody is just grabbing what they can get. There’s nobody left who would wait for me.”
“Nobody could want me as I am—I have to find an angle.”
These weren’t small, passing concerns—they were hard confessions of silent threats that had been spoken in the background of their young lives over and over again. These young people were brave enough to verbalize the amorphous but particular sense of doom that hung about them: You’re alone. You’re ugly. You’re incompetent. You’re a fake. If anyone could see the real you, he would hate you.
Here were tapes that had been rewound and restarted over and over again. Each conclusion began as a single suggestion on some hard, past day long forgotten. A twinge of doubt had grown there, and that doubt had repeated itself until “What if” became “This is who I am. This is where my whole life is going.”
As I listened, I began to think about the strategies of darkness—about how important it is for our enemy to create negative records to rewind and replay over our lives. He knows how ideas get stuck in our guts, so he works to knit little events together that cause us to define ourselves and our possibilities, note by note, phrase by phrase, creating choruses that eventually become so common to us that we live by them.
I encouraged my young friends to take a moment and stare even more directly at the tapes that were being played behind the scenes of their own hearts. Why were these words being repeated? Why would a spiritual enemy work like a military general seeking weak spots that maximize attack? I encouraged them to name what has become subconsciously accepted even behind their felt doubts and to take each assumption back to Jesus, asking him directly if it were true.
I wanted them to do this because when we let such tapes drone in the background unchallenged, we are carried into more decisions than we realize. If we will only take a straight, hard look into what the hater of our souls is trying to use to paralyze and discourage us, we can uncover so much. What insecurities is he using? What fears is he using? How is he attempting to monopolize loneliness and shame? How has he tried to hit the root of our identity, and what is he doing with the names he has assigned to us? What labels has he tried to write upon us and our world?
This morning I read the story in Luke about Mary and Martha. It’s almost embarrassing to see Martha’s internal tape exposed by Jesus. While Mary sat at Christ’s feet listening, Martha was up doing all the hard work until the responsible sister finally cracked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
How many years of being “the good one” had gone into that single complaint? Martha assumes that Christ couldn’t possibly disagree, and that’s telling. This is the confidence that grows after many years of self-righteous martyrdom. How often had Martha harbored silent criticism of her daydreamy sister? How many times had little bits of random praise affirmed her internal narrative? Since childhood, she had been the sister who kept things in line.
But in an instant, this old recording of pride was exposed by a sharp rebuke. “'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.'”
Ouch. Just like that, the tape was ripped out and shredded. Here’s your heart in the bare light, Martha. You’re nervous. You’re unsettled. You’re trying to get your worth through performance.
It’s emergency surgery on the part of Jesus. He’s able to look at the core of the records we play and call a spade a spade so that we can get out of a bad rut. It had to sting to hear what Martha heard, but what freedom was waiting for her after the truth settled? Was she finally able to feel loved for who she was instead of for what she did? Was she able to serve from that moment onward with a heart that was giving instead of trying to fill her own cup?
It's a little bit unsettling to think about the tapes running in the background of our lives. There's no telling what we might learn. But when we identify the whispers that drive us, bonds can fall off, and we can begin to know freedom of the good portion that cannot be taken away.
On road trips in the 80’s, we’d push a cassette tape into the console, hit rewind, then play an entire album over and over again. None of this MP3 song-by-song stuff. We listened track by track, and in this way, entire records became the backdrop of our lives.
I attended my first creation/evolution debate in the late 1990’s, and even as a believer in Jesus, I was turned off by what I witnessed. I wasn’t overwhelmed by data. After spending the first half of my life studying biology, I was accustomed to technical scientific dialogue. If anything, the scientific aspects of the debate were too general for me--a smattering of details a mile wide and a few inches deep.
At the time, I thought Scripture allowed for both theistic evolution and old earth creationism, so most of the arguments raised by these men felt peripheral. I had no doubt that God had orchestrated the origin of the universe; everything I had studied about biology in secular environments (ranging from cancer research at UC Berkeley to a symposium at the University of Florida) indicated the presence of a creator.
On both sides, these men seemed to make mountains out of molehills. I left that night feeling like the heart of Christianity had been missed, and as I fell asleep, I wondered how anyone might find a living Jesus through a venue such as that.
These were strange and lonely years for me as a believer. In the 1990’s, the main purpose of evangelical Christianity seemed to be winning the culture wars. During those years, I attended several seminars that promised to equip Christians to stand firm against the assaults of secularism, and when I remember the body language of those teachers, I remember a lot of swagger and pomp. I think these teachers were trying to demonstrate a confidence that would help young Christians feel assured about their beliefs, but it always felt odd to me. The undercurrent to this body language was: “Those dumb atheists. Those dumb secularists. We’ve got the real answer. We’ll show them.”
I was in my 20's then, so maybe I was just waking up to how theological conversation has always worked, but it was here--during the dawn of internet forums--that I watched dominant, cavalier postures take root in many areas of the faith. A haughty spirit ran through creation/evolution debates, through Biblical gender roles debates, through Calvinism/Arminianism debates, through Rapture/amillennialism debates. Christians didn’t just have an opinion, they had a spirit of bravado. Above all things, in all areas, Christians were certain about everything.
Discernment bloggers began to bless and curse with directives: Christian women should have more babies. Christian families should homeschool. Christians should vote for Candidate X. Only young earth creationism respects the inerrant text. So many lines were drawn in the sand with a swagger, and some of those directives were bizarre. I was smart enough to banter, so I jumped in the fray. Like little billy goats wrestling on the side of the hill, we used one another to try to get stronger. In a crude and untrained form, we were attempting to grow by dialectic.
It wasn’t until I began to reread Western philosophy that I realized the great irony of these matches. Essentially, we were adopting the core premise of secular humanism: we were agreeing that humans are essentially thinking creatures, and that by the power of our minds, we could achieve enlightenment.
This belief—this belief about what we were and what we were capable of doing—was the prime influence on our posture. It was causing us to puff ourselves up. It was causing us to trust ourselves. It was causing us to create a secondary “religion” of the human mind that could operate without God's living, active force in our day-to-day operations.
By saying all this, I’m not making an argument for anti-intellectualism. My favorite theologians are thinkers who have researched deeply. But these dear souls also pursue knowledge with a living awareness of the limitations of humanity. They leave room for a real God to adopt an active role in reaching the world with the gospel--as a result, their posture is different. They understand what they can do, and they also understand what they cannot.
This morning, I was reading the book of Luke and ran across this uncomfortable glimpse into the life of Jesus:
“In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’”
God hides truth from some people. He reveals it to others. He's that active.
If this is true, it impacts our ability to argue our way out of the culture wars.
It teaches that our best efforts at evangelism will come to nothing, if God doesn’t reveal himself.
It teaches that truth that can’t be forced through the best debates in the world.
It shows us that Paul's brilliant rhetoric in Athens and in the book of Romans will come to nothing if the Lord doesn't go before his words.
It shows us that when C.S. Lewis or Tim Keller are used to woo a soul to Christ, that the Holy Spirit has been involved. Without the Lord's active hand, not even these great evangelists could make progress for the Kingdom.
This passage shows us that our dependence upon Christian bravado, upon debate, upon proof, upon a condescending and dominant posture is foolish—because the revival of a culture is ultimately a product of the outpouring of the Lord's quickening. America is dead, and we will stay dead until he revives us. We will remain dry bones until the Spirit of the Lord hovers over the surface of the deep. Here is the true state of our dependence. We cannot save ourselves.
While we should always be ready to give a ready defense, and while we can be good stewards of reason and research, we must root our ultimate dependence in a Holy Spirit who must go before us to open eyes and hearts, or else all our efforts will be in vain. This is humbling information. It doesn’t allow us to swagger into a secular culture with fancy, intellectual guns-a-blazing. It calls us to get up early and pray before we engage. It calls us to cry out to the Lord before we cry out to our lost friends. It calls us to step every step in utter reliance.
Understanding our reliance calls us to a posture that is not confident in our own readiness but confident in the near presence of our King. When I find teachers who set bravado aside and adopt a posture of dependence upon the living God, I'm enthralled because these men and women point beyond their own abilities and goals to a God who fulfills more than intellect, to a God whose Kingdom extends beyond today's culture wars. These teachers shift my focus from gaining immediate dominance to keeping communion with a God who made specific plans for my life long ago (Ephesians 2:10).
Reliance protects me from self-worship and self-salvation and reminds me that I am a branch in a vine that must wake up every morning and look for sustenance. Apart from Him, I can do nothing of eternal significance--no matter how intelligent I am, no matter how prepared I am, no matter how confidently I stand. All that will come to nothing if I do not abide in the God who goes before me.
This morning I spent two hours writing a post that I am not going to publish on my blog.
It was the sort of post that would have connected with people. If I had put it online, readers would have immediately said, “Me too!” and they would have forwarded it to their readers who would have forwarded it to their readers. I’ve been writing long enough to know how these things multiply.
Because I was writing out of strong emotion, I stumbled into several metaphors that were powerful and unusual. Here were the sort of images that make readers say, “Aha! You put into simple words what I have been carrying around for months! Look here, everybody!”
The post was honest enough to make readers feel like they could trust me. It was relevant enough to connect with the mood of social media this week. In terms of platform-building, it was a gold mine.
The post was also reckless.
It was mostly right, mostly selfless, mostly Christ-centered—but running under the surface were fear, pride, and anger.
I didn’t write it in faith. I wrote it trusting my own feelings and wisdom. And as far as the world's standards go, it was darned good writing.
One unexpected benefit to an extended time away from big Facebook has been the growth of my sensitivity to dilemmas like this. Because I am keeping more company with myself and my God, I’m starting to develop more of an inner dialogue about how and why words are used in public. Lines of distinction are starting to grow between what I give the world and what I allow to develop in quiet.
I'm starting to get more of a feel for when a piece is ready to be spoken aloud.
I’m not fully grown here yet. Several times a week, I still lash out in frustration or offense. But through trial and error, and through limiting my venue--through days of waiting, I’m starting to at least begin to feel the edges of that distinction.
So this morning’s first post is going in the drafts folder, a place for writings devoted to wrestling with God in private. That drafts folder is becoming a sacred space for me, a realm in which I unpack my most convincing arguments with the full force of emotions and intellect and then sit to wait in the dark for my Lord, knowing that the morning light may expose what is right and what is wrong with what I have felt.
I'm learning love for an audience of one. Not 20 likes. Not 20,000. 1.
This is a novel concept for a click-to-publish world in which we've come to expect to say and hear everything. But there are also secret and beautiful ways to write--there's a worship that comes from a lavish and holy waste of time--writing poured out in trust and patience, like perfume on the feet of Christ.
They pray, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus," but I cannot pray with them.
My heart wants an escape hatch, a beam-me-up-Scottie, some ruby slippers to click.
There's no place like home.
There's no place like home.
But my spirit resists.
"Delay, Lord," it prays.
"Delay. Lord, and protect me from asking for the end before its time."
Oh Father, I want to be with you. How I ache to recline on your chest, to hear your eternal heart beat with my own ears, to walk in the rooms your artistry has made for me, to revel in your creativity and thoughtfulness, and to rest forever in your joys.
But if today were that great and terrible day of your coming, how many souls would pass into an eternity void of even the simplest pleasures?
No sun on their arms forever and forevermore.
The wind in their hair. Lost.
The sound of a whippoorwill.
The feeling of clean sheets on their legs. Gone.
A hot shower. Gone.
The taste of a strawberry.
Only fear and regret and darkness and pain forever and forever...only the great sucking void left by the absence of God's bright presence.
Only the eternal echo of, "My will be done!" resounding in empty halls of an empty castle
Creation revels in the glory of God, but hell is an alien horror.
Hell is the cyclical praise of the natural earth come to a sudden stop.
Come, Lord Jesus?
Wait, Lord Jesus. Wait.
We can wait.
Because if today were that great and horrible day, how many would be caught unprepared? How many would pass into a realm in which today's sick fear and despair have no end?
Yes, I see this violence. Yes, I taste on my tongue the bitterness of the hater of humans.
I can barely stand to see the chaos.
I can barely breathe.
Is hell so bad as even this? Worse too?
Oh, then delay, Lord Jesus. Delay.
Delay though it burns us to stay on this sin-scorched planet. We can bear it. We can endure for their sake
Receive all prayers that you might come with an outpouring of your Spirit. Come in invisible ways. Read every plea as, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
While we linger like the grass that fadeth,
come to make us more focused.
Come to make us more courageous.
Come to make us more reliant.
Come to help us see through the glass darkly so that we spend every resource well.
To die is gain, but to live is Christ? Then delay our gain. Hold our rest. Wait. Wait. And though these brief years of sorrow break us, make our sorrow yield a spiritual harvest beyond what we can ask or imagine.
Don't rescue us yet.
Let us stay, instead, for the rescue of the lost.
Let us take rush into the fray with the gospel
Send us into this darkness to tend the wounded.
Use our weary, war-torn souls to bring your children home.
When I realized that I had a serious gift for writing, I felt a moral obligation to become a “writer.” By “writer,” I don’t mean someone who does the work of tilling words and ideas like a farmer tills wild ground; I mean the labor of identity development--the labor of trying to get large numbers of people to recognize me as someone who writes well.
That goal sounds so strange now that I look at it directly, and I’m not sure where this pressure originated. Maybe I noticed what other writers were doing and felt the need to follow them. It’s also likely that I was still carrying the burden of “saving the world,” either from some long-past Baptist revival or from the plot of a superhero movie.
But the work of writing and the work of trying to be a writer are not the same thing. The former involves long, solitary hours of reading, thinking, praying, connecting images and thoughts to words—work that is complete when the chasms between what is perceived and what is communicated are spanned.
Trying to be a writer, however, involves attention-getting strategies and branding. It means:
Posting twice a week
on certain days
in less than 800 words
using lots of pictures
focusing on a theme
building a platform
asking strategic questions to make your readers feel connected
maximizing social media
developing a persona
networking with other famous writers.
You tell yourself that you do all this because the world is dark and because if you get famous enough, you will at last have the power to wield the one ring in such a way that Middle Earth is saved.
Perhaps that's the calling God has given some people. I don’t doubt that these strategies have been used well in some lives, but over the past few months, I’ve found liberty and purpose in another viewpoint.
It’s also possible to invest small for the glory of God.
Going small opposes so many ideas I was taught as a young evangelical. I was trained in strategic planning, target audiences, the identification of natural leaders, spiritual multiplication, megachurches, megaconferences, and superstars. The Baby Boomer generation applied corporate strategy to every possible angle of the gospel of Jesus, and this made a certain amount of sense to me in my twenties.
But in my 40’s, I’m no longer sure that the ends justify the means. If 2016 gave me one good gift, it was permission to finally admit the inherent dangers of an incorporated Christianity. 2016 showed me the deformed end of a church that relies upon the stuff of earth to accomplish the will of heaven, and I want nothing more to do with it.
I’m finally ready to look for something different. And out of frustration with the mechanics of the American church, I've withdrawn significantly in the past few months to focus on my work and to figure out how I want to invest the last 1/3 of my life.
This morning I was reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Body and the Earth,” and I found a quote that applies to the stewardship of a writing gift. In this paragraph, Berry explains that for all our talk of global citizenship, we serve the world best by living well in a small area. We don’t give best by becoming influential on a national scale or by becoming known. The world is changed when citizens are faithful in local realms. Berry writes:
To forsake all others does not mean--because it cannot mean--to ignore or neglect all others, to hide or be hidden from all others, or to desire or love no others. To live in marriage is a responsible way to live in sexuality, as to live in a household is a responsible way to live in the world. One cannot enact or fulfill one's love for womankind or mankind, or even for all the women or men to whom one is attracted. If one is to have the power and delight of one's sexuality, then the generality of instinct must be resolved in a responsible relationship to a particular person. Similarly, one cannot live in the world; that is, one cannot become, in the easy, generalizing sense with which the phrase is commonly used, a "world citizen." There can be no such thing as a "global village." No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality.
This bit in particular applies to what I am learning:
No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality.
I can’t save the world through my blog. I can’t save the world through a book release. I can’t save the world through becoming famous enough to bear the weight of this planet on my own shoulders like some evangelical Atlas.
I can be a good teacher in a classroom of 20 students. I can listen to a teenager who is having a bad day. I can unpack a novel in light of the lavish love of Jesus. I can be fair. I can be kind. I can be patient. I can speak up for four people who are being treated unfairly. I can write notes of encouragement with a real pen on real paper, and I can use my gift by God’s power to resurrect one dead soul.
Now and then I can write an encouraging post for five people--or I can write a post for one person who is struggling.
I can wait to post until I have something important to say.
I can let the gospel apply small. I can let God be God and trust Him to place my labors in the context that is most useful to him.
I can live small then smaller still, encouraging my readers to do the same.
I can do all this because the gift of writing doesn't offer an identity that springs into being with a publishing contract, or with a following in the 100’s of thousands. Writing well is simply a tool to utilize in the context of an identity that was secured long ago by the work of Jesus. We have nothing to earn; we have only to wake up each morning and say, "In every small step I take, Thy will be done."
God hasn’t fulfilled two of my most urgent requests for two decades.
One of those prayers is so important to me, my faith has shuddered and failed while I’ve been waiting for God’s help. As days have turned to weeks, as weeks have turned to months, as months have turned to years, I’ve wrestled deeply with theological assumptions that were once easy for me—assumptions that God is real and that he is kind.
Intellectually, I have enough evidence to know these things. Historically, scientifically, inter-textually, I can show you why God exists and that he is tender. In an academic sense, it would be impossible for the Bible to be false. Still, reason and proofs can’t medicate certain types of sorrow.
When I am hurting, I don’t want evidence. I want relief.
When I hear atheists talk about religion being the opiate of the masses, I wonder if they realize what they are actually saying. The process of learning to trust God is profoundly beautiful at times, but it can also be agonizing. When Jesus urged us to take up our cross and follow him, he was serious. Faith leads to life, but it also involves suffering and death.
Christians are given a paradox—a light and free burden of salvation that sometimes involves long nights in Gethsemane wrestling, sweating, and crying out, “Not my will but Thine.” We have been told that the new wine will burst the old wine skins because the old life and the new life cannot coexist.
It's true that union with God leads to eternal delight, and we can experience some of those joys now. Some days we get flickers of vision that drive us onward and upward. But when the foretaste of those joys fades, we inevitably endure the painful shedding of old skins. Salvation may be instant, but sanctification takes a long time.
After walking through several long seasons of emotional suffering, I can see why books that promise the secrets of harnessing God's immediate relief sell millions. The agony of trusting the Lord while faith is yet unseen can be overwhelming, and the thought of a shortcut is so sweet.
Yet there are also opportunities in the midst of waiting that come at no other season in our journies with God. Only now--when things seem most impossible, most chaotic, and most unbearable—can we offer the unique sort of worship that such times allow.
First, in long seasons of pain, we come face-to-face with our idols.
Maybe fifteen years ago, I cried as I prayed, “Give me one pure and holy passion,” trying to imagine what it would be like for someone as scattered and earthly as I am to love God supremely. I wanted that sort of love for Him, but I had no idea how to focus my wild, artistic heart.
It didn't matter if I knew how to do it. All that mattered was that I had asked. Over the next season of my life, methodically, God began to expose my idols. I didn’t realize what was happening at first. I thought my life was just falling totally apart. But through taking what I loved away, or through destabilizing it, God allowed me to see how many good things I had prioritized over him.
This may sound cruel and selfish, but it isn't. God isn't a narcissist or an egomaniac. He is a realist who wants my ultimate worship because he is worth loving more than anything. He is for me, and he knows that core devotion given to any lesser object will be ultimately harmful.
The expressions of love and trust that we can offer God after much has been taken away are different from the prayers we pray when all seems well. As we sit in heartbreak and overwhelming loss, we find that we are still able to whisper, “But you are here, and you are ultimate." We might not feel this at first, and it will be tempting to run away before we get there. But in moments when this truth settles, we begin to see how unstable any other form of joy truly is. When such sorrow ends in trust, we find a cornerstone upon which we can build the remaining days of our lives--and we can know (finally) that this cornerstone cannot be shaken.
Secondly, in long seasons of pain, we can offer up a quality of praise that is impossible at any other point in our walk with God.
Praise comes spontaneously when I can see the obvious workings of God’s hand. In nature’s beauty, in relief, in abundance, it takes no faith to rehearse the goodness of my Lord. But when all is darkness, loneliness, and emptiness, I have an opportunity to worship that I might never have again in my life.
Here I have the opportunity to get very still before my Creator and say,
“You were master over the void. From the void you brought life. In this void, I trust you.”
Here I have the opportunity to say,
“All I cared about is gone, and yet, I have your company. In this utter poverty, even as I cry out that I am ruined, I find you here--and I see that I have all I need.”
I can pray,
“Great surgeon, I resign. Whatever it takes. Finish what you have begun in me.”
At this level of brokenness, we can stop simply asking God to work and begin to implant the core of our trust in the fact that he is working already.
At this level of brokenness, we can begin to take a few steps in the heavenly realms in which we are already seated, a realm that has no end.
Our school verse of the year is Hebrews 12:28a: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” I love this verse because it anchors me in this mad world in which secondary loves yank me like a boat on wild seas. My devotion and my agony toss and turn, and yet always, always, my home remains steadfast.
According to Hebrews, our proper response to this unshakable kingdom is worship. We worship God in reverence and in awe because our He is a consuming fire--a fire that burns away everything that can be destabilized. If you are here, you are in a sacred space. If you are here, you are loved enough to be shown a portal into some of the deepest mysteries of this life.
If you are here, you stand with one foot on earth and the other in eternity. "Give me one pure and holy passion." It is a radical prayer, a dangerous prayer--for Aslan is not safe, but he is good."
Thanks be to God.
I'm sitting in a cafeteria in Maryville, Tennessee, waiting for my daughter to finish her All-East Choir tryouts. She's not nervous this year like she's been in the past. She's a senior, and she knows the ropes. She has learned that life goes on after you make it to State, and she has learned that life goes on after you don't.
Before her sophomore tryouts, she practiced obsessively in the car on the ride down. That was the year I tried to ease her jitters by pointing out all the cute, red-headed tenors before the big audition. She giggled, and paced, and got through her first big scare, but there's no need to do any of this this go around. This year, she's a couple years older than almost everybody. The ginger that would have turned her head three years ago now looks like a little brother.
She's grown, see. She's learned to jump in and do the hard thing and manage the jitters. That's the goal--it's why we encourage our children to belly flop into all sorts of risks at this age. It's the grown-up version of holding our baby's hands while she takes her first few barefoot steps on the hallway carpet. "Go. You can do this. And you can survive and try again if you can't."
This year my daughter also started Brazilian JiuJitzu, which has been a quirky and hilarious journey. If you know anything about the art, you know that people don't "like" JiuJitzu. They fall in love with it.
Frankly, I'm astonished that a teenage female has the courage to walk into a practice room with ten huge adult males twice her size and learn to flip them on their butts, but she does it. I sit on the bleachers to watch, biting my nails and holding my breath. I pray for her bones, and I laugh, and I yell things I never thought I'd say in public--things I've only ever yelled at a television while watching Rocky.
Over my past few months of hanging out with ninjas, I've picked up one of my favorite sayings from the martial arts community:
"The hardest belt you'll ever get is your white belt."
Blue, purple, and black belts say this to newcomers as a statement of affirmation because it takes a long time (two years) to rank up in this complex martial art. Yet all those experts want beginners to remember that 99% of people in America never even achieve a white belt because they aren't willing to walk into the room to try something new.
You win the first day you show up for class, feeling stupid and awkward. You win even bigger when you show up for the second class after spending your first session feeling like a fool. You failed, and you were worse than everybody, and you'll never get this right, and it's too hard... yet here you are again not giving up. Bravo.
As I wait for my daughter to finish her choral tryouts, I am watching clusters of rural Tennessee families pass in and out of the cafeteria doors. Little bands of teenagers are walking out of their auditions, some with tears in their eyes, some complaining about the sight reading, a few saying they aced "Ave Maria" or botched the Whitaker. From their accents, it seems that more than a few come from tee-niny towns in the mountains, but here they are, glorious and brave because they've learned to sing a few lines of Bach in German.
One girl just passed me singing still, singing what she just sang in a tiny room full of tension, a song now pouring from her lungs in relief and delight. She likes that song. It's part of her now.
She showed up here this morning because she was willing to invest in beauty. She showed up because she was willing to believe that her small voice had a shot at something wonderful. She might never make it to All East or to All State, but that little songbird was a flutter of levity as she nearly danced through the doors. It's over. She did it. I'm so darned proud of her.
I got tears in my eyes a few minutes ago--maybe because I'm a teacher, maybe because I'm a mom--I can't tell. I was trying to grade reasearch papers, but I couldn't focus because I kept wanting to grab these kids and tell them what they've accomplished already.
I kept wanting to make all the choral teachers and parents stand and make an ginormous arch with their arms for all these kids to run through. I want to applaud for them, and find cheerleaders to call out their names, and assure them all that no matter what results they get two weeks from now--showing up today was practice for the rest of their adult lives. This stuff is so much more important than any of them realize. No matter what happened in there, they've won already.
Our school's cross country team keeps a meme in the hall of our school. "Run the mile you are in," it says. I think about it all the time. I remember those words and tell myself, "Do the next thing, and do it in faith and with all your heart. Trust this minute's resources. Eat today's manna. That's all you have to do right now. That's it."
Jump in. Try. Engage. Look stupid. But keep going.
Get a cramp in your side. Fall on loose gravel. Then finish that mile. That's a win.
Goof up the sight reading. Mispronounce the German. Walk out of that room on your own two feet and promise yourself you'll do better next year. That's a win.
Botch the MLA citations. Forget to match your pronoun and antecedent in number. Wreck your verb tenses. Then go in to writing lab to learn to do it better. That's a win.
Stand up for a lost cause. Have the conflict. Pray and leap. Be willing to apologize if you mess things up. That's a win.
Ask the girl out who rejects you. Try out for the role in the play you'll never get. Love your someday enough to flub up your now. Believe that there is grace enough from Jesus for your weakness, grace enough to begin what we can't learn without failing some along the way.
Then get back up. Run one more mile. Do the humiliating, awkward, faith-laden work of a white belt. Receive the awkwardness of learning, knowing that some failures are victories in themselves. This is where all of the greatest things begin. I'm proud of you for taking a single, wobbly step. I'm even more proud of you for taking a second.
- - - -
(This post is dedicated to my brave friends Mitzi Pierce and Jessica Rogers and their warrior children. It's especially dedicated to Xander, who has taught me more this week about the fierce, proactive work of reconciliation and forgiveness than any book I have ever read. Miss Becca loves you, X-man. And kiddo, you have no idea how much I needed your example this week.)
I should start by saying that I understand why evangelical leaders felt compelled to make such a declaration. This past week, a first grade student in California was sent to the principal’s office for using the wrong name for a trans classmate. After children were trained in gender fluidity by a state-funded school, parents were told that it would not have been possible for their children to opt out of moral training that their school offered.
I’m not citing that incident to ignite shock, anger, or fear but to demonstrate that the legal and cultural demands of the LGBTQ world do not simply exist within the realm of private, individual rights. They are moving actively into culture while demanding the authority to inflict punitive consequences upon anyone who fails to comply to one, specific morality. This movement declares that the state's authority trumps the wishes of parents--a posture which (historically) rubs feathers the wrong way, no matter what the flavor-of-the-month worldview issue happens to be.
Atheist parents don’t want a public school shoving young earth creationism down their children’s throats just like Christian parents don’t want a public school forcing assumptions about gender fluidity into their families. Americans generally dislike it when state institutions function in a morally-didactic role. But since worldview can’t be neutral, any government stance that feels like baseline, essential human respect to one group will feel oppressive to others. And these issues are not just impacting adults who can ignore what other adults do in their private bedrooms--they involve captive children being forced into vocal compliance.
The California situation is only one example of an aggressive cultural agenda promoted by certain activists within the LGBTQ community. And while some LGBTQ folks are fine living private lives that don’t intrude upon the private convictions of others, I have listened to other speeches by LGBTQ leaders who are now working a strategy, infiltrating power structures within America and positioning themselves to force (yes, force) the general public to comply with the one interpretation of human morality that those leaders feel is ultimate.
This extreme agenda of aggressive gay activists doesn't extend to my closest gay friends--men and women who would never bully me or my kids into forced agreement. Likewise, I would never attempt to wield human power to change the views of my gay friends. I don't put my trust in politicized evangelism--I trust the Holy Spirit to show up in individual, heart-to-heart engagements. This works small scale. As individuals, my friends and I are able to love each other and respect one another as we are. But in different circles, among different people, conservative and liberal forces struggle to gain dominance at the legislative level. Even if it's not my style to try to effect life change there, I cannot ignore that the struggle exists among others.
For this, among other reasons, it makes sense to me that evangelical leaders would want to create a definitive document naming a clear, Biblical stance on sexuality. As random as the timing of The Nashville Statement feels to many of us--as peripheral as the subject may feel while Houston is flooded and racial wounds are infecting--this is not an out-of-the-blue document falling upon a neutral culture. Despite yesterday's barrage of scoldings from condescending leftist Christians, there are legitimate, active tensions driving the creation of such a statement.
After acknowledging this, however, I think it’s also important to look at the way the Nashville Statement reads to a large segment of thoughtful evangelicalism.
Many of us have spent the past year watching evangelicals rally around one of the most perverted, crude, and ungodly leaders America has ever seen. For decades, Donald Trump has flaunted a lifetime of gross sexual exploitation. He has bragged about instigating adultery and voyeurism. His third wife was a nude model. He was divorced multiple times. He has objectified and commodified sex. It would be difficult to find any man in America who has demonstrated less respect for traditional, Biblical marriage—yet all this has been ignored and excused away.
As President, Trump has offered the public ongoing and unapologetic pursuit of flagrant sins of the flesh. He has celebrated pride, cruelty, materialism, violence, and dishonesty, leading scores of others to embrace such evils. Yet evangelical leaders have looked the other way and celebrated this man, regardless of his past, present, or promises for the future.
It’s incredibly ironic to think about how several signatories of the Nashville Statement have excused away Trump’s abominable character. And when I go back to reread the “Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency”--the 1998
document created and signed by dozens of theologians after Clinton’s sex scandal (https://www.layman.org/news86fd/)--I can’t help but feel a sinking sort of political despair. When it suited our political ends, we were bold to decried moral offenses that we now excuse en masse because the offender is a Republican.
After watching the 2016 election, I can't help but believe that men like Eric Metaxas, Jerry Fallwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and James Dobson would rally around a LGBTQ candidate in 2024, comparing him to Biblical heroes and calling him God’s salvation, if that candidate were simply Republican enough. Maybe that’s too cynical. But if you had told me that James Dobson would be campaigning for Donald Trump back in the good old days, I would have thought you were absolutely nuts.
So, if the evangelical right had any business drawing up a statement on LGBTQ morality (which we probably did), we had just as much business drawing up a statement on the perverse behavior of evangelical pastors during election season. That’s not just a cheap tu quoque, it’s an acknowledgement of a massive elephant that stands in any room in which evangelicals attempt to talk about morality post Trump. I might read the Nashville Statement and agree (technically) with most of it—but I’m also reminded of a mom I once saw smacking her kid in a Wal-Mart while angrily yelling, “Don’t you EVER lose your temper and hit people again!”
So I see both sides of this one. I see why theologians are feeling the need to unite and resist the punitive tsunami of the politically-active side of the LGBTQ movement— a movement that will not be satisfied until it saturates every corner of American culture with its single, unrelenting angle on human morality. I also see why thoughtful Christians think a written statement feels thin and hypocritical—especially now—and especially after all the wrongs we’ve done.
I understand why thoughtful Christians are agitated by the whole thing, wishing for more active reliance on the Truth embodied--why they are tired of words and politics, thirsty for the living gospel, feeling little hope that any mega-statement signed by a troupe of famous white men might have any sort of power to change the world.
I get this ache--not because I'm a relativist who is tremblingly nervous about declaring homosexuality unBiblical--but because I don't know that evangelicals post election 2016 have enough cultural credibility left in the bank for words to do much good. So much of American culture is inflamed to extremes right now, and evangelizing our nation is going to require a far more embodied gospel than any written treatise can provide. I see why the document was created. I'm also skeptical that it might bring any meaningful sort of change to our nation.
What do we do, then? Well, I think it's a super good time to be reading Andrew Murray, Corrie ten Boom, and the New Testament. All those good promises about Christ living in us, indwelling us, directing us moment-by-moment couldn’t fall upon a more thirsty, desperate season. Because If Jesus isn’t real---if the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding hearts that are wholly yielded to a God who has a plan for every step we take--all the networking and posturing in the world won’t get us out of this. America is too messed up for political strategies to work now. We need God’s active rescue, his daily leadership, his constant provision desperately.
No matter how brave we are, no matter how smart we are, no matter how united we are--nothing else but the indwelling presence of Jesus is able to save us now. Even if a legitimate political threat drove the creation of the Nashville Statement--we must not trust it to do what only the living Truth can.
I received one of the best questions I’ve ever received from a blog reader this week, so instead of replying in a comment, I’d like to devote an entire post to my answer.
A reader named Allen wrote to say:
“I would love to hear your thoughts on the influence of Social Marxism and the efforts to foment and manipulate some of the deep connotations of both the left and the hard right to bring chaos and deconstruction.”
First off, it did my heart great good to hear that someone in America is even thinking along these lines. Bravo.
Secondly, I wish I had time and space to devote to a longer answer, but the best I can do at this super busy stage of life is throw out a few bullet points and related comments. Perhaps these will at least give you direction for more research.
1. Marxism vs. Marxism vs. Communism and Socialism
If you’ve read Karl Marx’s writings, you know that they vary enough to be organized into at least two eras (pre-Engels and post Engels). Marx’s early manuscripts (known as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts or The Paris Manuscripts) were published in 1844 and were hidden from the public eye for almost 100 years. Marx never referred to them in his later writings. Those early manuscripts had a big impact on Western intellectuals.
Marxist theories that resulted from Marxist writings split into more subcategories after his death. When we talk about Marxism today, we might be talking about Classical Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Western Marxism, Libertarian Marxism, Structural Marxism, Neo-Marxism, Cultural Marxism, Analytical Marxism, Post-Marxism, Marxist Humanism, or Marxist Feminism.
And while there are similarities among Marxism, Communism, and Socialism, Americans tend to err by using these terms interchangeably. I am not going to distinguish between these philosophies in this post, but I want to at least acknowledge that there are differences.
2. Some Time Well Spent
When the Emergent Church began to appear on the landscape of evangelicalism, I was concerned that modern voices were beginning to echo the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch (early 1900’s). In fact, I found uncited sentences that were nearly verbatim Rauschenbush in several emergent writings. While it’s true that the church should bring the the Kingdom ethic to the earth, the Social Gospel is riddled with grave theological error. I won’t make time to unpack those errors here, but I will urge you to spend time with two sources that may shed light on how political evil intends to commandeer the church.
The first is an interview with former KGB agent and defector Yuri Bezmenov (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgmg2VFX058 ). Yes, this video is old. Yes, every single American should spend the hour and a half needed to watch Bezmenov explain how enemies of democracy can maneuver a government and its people to gain power. Even if you think Russian aggression is no longer a threat to the United States, the practical instruction you will gain from hearing about Russian cultural strategy is vital. Every Christian (Republican, Democrat, and independent) needs this information to grow in awareness about how the cause of Christ might be manipulated for worldly ends.
The second resource is a little more obscure. It's a list of 45 Communist Goals entered into the Congressional record in 1963 after they were given in a speech by U.S. Representative Albert Sydney Herlong Jr.. (Liberal readers might find it interesting that Herlong was, in fact, a Democrat. As you read the list, remember that.) http://nwlibertyacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/communist_goals.pdf . Whether or not these goals were ever official, it’s fascinating to see how many have come to pass in the past 54 years. And it's helpful to at least think about why each step might (or might not) be important in undermining a democracy.
3. Intentional Unrest
Stirring up internal cultural chaos is almost always a declared goal of opposition forces, and we should be aware of the vulnerability of our own reactivity. When discussing this matter, our fingers should not simply be pointed at young people taking to the streets en masse, but also to the highest office in the land, and to every political leader who has built a platform on vitriol.
I do not know where the deep, secret allegiance of our leaders takes root, but even an unintended personal weakness (such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder) can feed the chaos that is beneficial to America’s enemies. This is why it is vital that our leaders maintain a dignified and mature presence on social media. Words have consequences, and any true patriot would be wise to remember that while rhetorical boldness can be as inspiring as one of Churchill's speeches, it can also be as foolish as any "Hold my beer" redneck with a handful of lit firecrackers on YouTube. Loud and proud doesn't equal wise and trustworthy.
4. None of this complexity excuses Americans from taking a stand for essential human morality.
The proper response to this tenuous social context is not silence. We are to speak truth—even hard and costly truth—into the public sphere firmly, wisely, and repeatedly. Furthermore, the evasive move of answering the KKK with “But BLM...” does not remedy the essential problem America faces. We must call evil evil and not allow reactive bifurcation fallacies (which benefit our enemies) to determine our course.
That’s all I have time to offer for now, but I will try to give more another day.
Allen, thanks for your good question. For now, readers, please be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. Not only is it right and good to take the time to be informed about the complexity of our situation, educating ourselves is the second-most patriotic effort Christians can make for our nation at this time. The first, of course, is to live in complete submission to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
One of the first things I teach first-year rhetoric students is the difference between denotation and connotation. Knowing the difference between these two terms has always been important, but in 2017, it’s critical to engaging with a broken society.
DENOTATION is the literal definition of a word. It’s the definition you would find in a dictionary.
CONNOTATION is much more complicated. Connotation includes the social overtones of a word—the cultural connections it evokes in a given group of people.
For example, the denotative definition of the word “home” is, “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household” (Google).
The connotative definition of the word “home,” however, is different for different people. A home might mean a place of warmth, safety, shelter, fellowship to some. To another, it might be a place of chaos, abuse, criticism, loneliness.
While the term “home” is relatively benign, many other words used in modern public dialogue are inherently explosive. Simply speaking a word like, “patriot,” “Obama,” or “Second Amendment” can produce a surge of affection or ire. In America 2017, words are triggers, which makes public discourse a walk through a field of land mines.
HOW THIS PLAYS OUT IN SOCIAL DIALOGUE : A SAMPLE CONFLICT
So let’s create a fictional but likely scenario in which to explore these terms.
Let’s say that Citizen Left is frustrated that a public university building is named after a war general who was also a slave owner. Citizen Right reads Citizen Left’s complaint, and he tweets, “Snowflakes who can’t deal with America’s actual history can get on a boat and go back to Africa.”
News of this conflict hits the press, and furious posts are written on Citizen Right’s favorite news cites, claiming Citizen Lefts are attempting to erase the past and destroy national history from coast-to coast. Journalists aligned with Citizen Right write columns about the snowballing demands of political correctness, claiming this single change will lead to removing all national landmarks. Readers on the Right grow emboldened, feeling like patriots when they stand in hostile defiance Citizen Left’s complaints.
Citizen Lefts see this response and feel threatened. Citizen Right does not simply say, “No. We do not want to change this building name.” It says, “You are the enemy for wanting to change anything.”
In the wake of this heightened response, Citizen Left feels the need to join forces with other Citizen Lefts to resist what is now a escalating movement of anger toward a declared people group. Online dialogue divides and hardens people into two groups. A request for a simple name change has become a national line in the sand.
Such a domino train of connotative conclusions is nearly impossible to stop once it begins. No issue stands alone because every single complaint or cause is impregnated with all the meaning imbued by these extreme micro-cultures. Wild expressions of generalized connotative emotion overtake focused expressions of reason, and national aggression grows.
WHAT NOBODY TAKES TIME TO SEE : OUR CONNOTATIVE CONTEXT
It’s impossible to divorce ourselves from connotation, nor should that be our prime aim. Humans are not robots, and the emotional power of words is just as important as their technical definition.
However, if America is going to heal, we must openly acknowledge the central role of connotation and begin to operate accordingly. A couple in marital counseling has to identify and admit key problems before it can to work through them, and America’s fundamental threat to unity at this time is the threat of connotative context.
Every single human being carries a connotative context into every single human interaction. This context develops over decades, beginning in our first homes. Most of us learned to either love or mistrust Jimmy Carter (or Bill Clinton) by listening to comments made by family members we trusted--not by evaluating statements during a Presidential debate. As we grow older, additional friendships and life experiences become formative, and allegiance to a faith system (or non-faith system) and political affiliations calcifies our sense of context.
Eventually, a connotative context can overtake our whole personhood, and because connotation is affective, it impacts our sense of self far more deeply than denotative facts. Connotative context is stitched together from the faces of people we know, from places that are familiar, from real-life relationships, experiences, and metaphysical affiliations grow to define “us” instead of simply defining our coordinates in a world in which we operate.
If left to itself, a connotative context becomes identity instead of simply a lens by which to see the world.
CONNOTATIVE CONTEXT AND THE CONFEDERATE FLAG:
Let’s look at one example to unpack this tendency a little more deeply.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen how the Confederate flag can evoke wild and varied responses. For one man, it evokes feelings of Southern pride, independence, and patriotism. For another, it evokes images of lynchings, KKK rallies, and threats of genocide. If these two individuals try to have a conversation, they are unlikely to find a middle ground because their presuppositions are rooted in experience.
Old white men may remember giving a happy rebel yell to the sight of that flag while riding bikes as a ten-year-old, thinking nothing of racial issues, only warmed by a sense of Southern loyalty. An African American woman may remember flagrant racial hostility that she encountered from angry men flying this flag from their trucks.
These two people have had different experiences with this one symbol, and once their connotative context is calcified by time or by pain, it’s not likely to change. The man who remembers a childhood feeling of warm glee at seeing the Confederate flag will find it very hard to empathize with a woman who feels threat of abuse at the same sight. A woman who feels the threat of abuse is unlikely to feel comforted by another man’s benign childhood memory. This one flag is nostalgic and patriotic to one person, while it is ugly and hostile to another. These two realities exist at an incredibly deep level in each of these human beings.
In fact, you may have noticed that when people argue about the Confederate flag, they use denotative details almost exclusively to support their own connotative context. One may reference the resurgence of this flag during the 1960’s as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement. Another may reference its origin as the symbol for Virginia’s Army of the Potomac. But those details almost always fall within the tsunamic force of an affective soul which remembers either feeling threatened or warmed by this flag. The real fight isn’t happening in the exchange of data, but way deep under the surface, where our first loyalties and threats are formed.
Meanwhile, to make all this more complicated, our connotative context is a reality we can hardly see because it exists too close to us. Trying to see our context is like trying to see our own eye balls without a mirror.
THE DISCIPLINE OF SEMINOTICS
The discipline of seminotics—how signs communicate meaning--might be helpful here as well. This discipline was developed by Frederick Saussure, then expanded by C.S. Pierce who introduced a triadic theory of signs. I’m offering an incredibly simple reduction of the discipline below, but knowing that a couple of these terms exist might be important.
Pierce’s model of seminotics suggests that there are three parts to how signs work in a culture:
1. First, we have a SIGN (the representation)
2. Behind this sign, we have an OBJECT (what the sign represents)
3. Finally, we have AND INTERPRETANT (the interpretation of the sign)
This language allows us to admit that every sign causing tension in our culture points back to an object for interpretants.
Ignorant people try to avoid this complexity by dismissing opponents as “snowflakes,” but it would be more intelligent and fair to take the time to say, “Here we have a sign. This sign points to ______________ (object) for me. Where does it point for you?”
Admitting this difference isn’t a move of relativism. It doesn’t require the erasing of history or the undermining of our republic. It’s a move of essential humanity—admitting that we all grew up in different contexts, in different situations, and therefore that we see the world differently.
Understanding connotation is hard and humble work, and I’m not sure how a nation addicted to pride and anger can begin this sort of dialogue. I’m incredibly angry with a huge portion of America right now, and frankly, I don’t care why certain people feel what they feel.
White supremacism, for example, is clearly a satanic force in this nation; therefore, I am unwilling to ask meaningful questions about why KKK members feel the way they feel. I don’t care what their stories are. I don’t care what their families were like. I simply want those dastardly people to go away. However, brave souls like Daryl Davis are doing the work of personal engagement, and they are seeing change as a result. I am in awe of Davis’s courage and character. If I hadn’t read his story, I wouldn’t even be able to imagine trying to do such a thing.
God also gave supernatural grace to Corrie Ten Boom as she engaged with one of her former Nazi abusers. After watching the ugliness of Charlottesville, I see now more of how astounding that move was. It would take divine empowerment to push me to care about people so driven by foolishness and hate.
I’m not ready yet to try to engage with those sorts of people. But I can take baby steps with other groups who make me angry.
For example, I’m profoundly angry with Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. because they have bastardized the gospel with political allegiance. I’m convinced that these men are living out the sins of the church of Ephesus in the book of Revelation, and I think they are misleading thousands of sincere believers, corrupting a gospel that should be kept pure at all costs.
I’m also profoundly angry with Eric Metaxas and other so-called conservatives who have abandoned their professed morality to operate from fear and political posturing. I believe they have done far more harm to the conservative cause than any liberal has ever done.
I am certain that these men are committing grave wrongs. I don’t think that engaging with them will change my opinion on how Christians should engage with politics. However, asking better questions of their followers might allow me to operate more humanely instead of dismissing them in disgust. And maybe if I am more humane, asking questions about fears and their sources, eventually those people will calm down enough to be able to hear my own viewpoint.
For example, when I realize that reading Left Behind twenty years ago caused a woman in Alabama to believe that Trump is preventing globalists from issuing in the anti-Christ, I am likely shake my head. But understanding her fear also helps me understand this woman’s decision-making process. And when I realize that thousands of people like her are operating out of a connotative context in which “America first” feels like it will prevent Nicolae Carpathia from planting sign-of-the-Beast microchips in every citizen, I see a fear strong enough to make a person unable to see Trump’s actual violations of Scripture.
Hearing all this doesn’t make me automatically patient or compassionate with people who should be acting better than they are. But as hard as it is to take time for this sort of thing, I still think it’s important.
I also think it’s essential to resolving some of the problems that are overtaking America at present. Why are some statues so offensive that people are willing to risk jail to tear them down? What stories are behind that? Why do certain people feel heard and represented by someone like Donald Trump? What does Franklin Graham fear so much that he is willing to use his social media page for political ends? Why would someone feel the need to say "Black Lives Matter" instead of just "All Lives Matter?"
If individuals don’t take time to understand their own connotative context as well as the connotative context of other individuals—if we don’t stop lazily blowing all opponents off as “snowflakes”-- if we don't start seeing why different signs mean different things to different people—we are going to end up simply killing each other for stories we never took time to hear.
Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency
The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org, November 16, 1998
The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org
To be released on 13 November 1998
As scholars interested in religion and public life, we protest the manipulation of religion and the debasing of moral language in the discussion about presidential responsibility. We believe that serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage. The resulting moral confusion is a threat to the integrity of American religion and to the foundations of a civil society. In the conviction that politics and morality cannot be separated, we consider the current crisis to be a critical moment in the life of our country and, therefore, offer the following points for consideration:
1. Many of us worry about the political misuse of religion and religious symbols even as we endorse the public mission of our churches, synagogues, and mosques. In particular we are concerned about the distortion that can come by association with presidential power in events like the Presidential Prayer Breakfast on September 11. We fear the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts. While we affirm that pastoral counseling sessions are an appropriate, confidential arena to address these issues, we fear that announcing such meetings to convince the public of the President’s sincerity compromises the integrity of religion.
2. We challenge the widespread assumption that forgiveness relieves a person of further responsibility and serious consequences. We are convinced that forgiveness is a relational term that does not function easily within the sphere of constitutional accountability. A wronged party chooses forgiveness instead of revenge and antagonism, but this does not relieve the wrong-doer of consequences. When the President continues to deny any liability for the sins he has confessed, this suggests that the public display of repentance was intended to avoid political disfavor.
3. We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy. Elected leaders are accountable to the Constitution and to the people who elected them. By his own admission the President has departed from ethical standards by abusing his presidential office, by his ill use of women, and by his knowing manipulation of truth for indefensible ends. We are particularly troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one’s actions.
4. We are concerned about the impact of this crisis on our children and on our students. Some of them feel betrayed by a President in whom they set their hopes while others are troubled by his misuse of others, by which many in the administration, the political system, and the media were implicated in patterns of deceit and abuse. Neither our students nor we demand perfection. Many of us believe that extreme dangers sometimes require a political leader to engage in morally problematic actions. But we maintain that in general there is a reasonable threshold of behavior beneath which our public leaders should not fall, because the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda. Political and religious history indicate that violations and misunderstandings of such moral issues may have grave consequences. The widespread desire to “get this behind us” does not take seriously enough the nature of transgressions and their social effects.
5. We urge the society as a whole to take account of the ethical commitments necessary for a civil society and to seek the integrity of both public and private morality. While partisan conflicts have usually dominated past debates over public morality, we now confront a much deeper crisis, whether the moral basis of the constitutional system itself will be lost. In the present impeachment discussions, we call for national courage in deliberation that avoids ideological division and engages the process as a constitutional and ethical imperative. We ask Congress to discharge its current duty in a manner mindful of its solemn constitutional and political responsibilities. Only in this way can the process serve the good of the nation as a whole and avoid further sensationalism.
6. While some of us think that a presidential resignation or impeachment would be appropriate and others envision less drastic consequences, we are all convinced that extended discussion about constitutional, ethical, and religious issues will be required to clarify the situation and to enable a wise decision to be made. We hope to provide an arena in which such discussion can occur in an atmosphere of scholarly integrity and civility without partisan bias.
The following scholars subscribe to the Declaration:
1. Paul J. Achtemeier (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
2. P. Mark Achtemeier (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
3. LeRoy Aden (Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia)
4. Diogenes Allen (Princeton Theological Seminary)
5. Joseph Alulis (North Park University)
6. Charles L. Bartow (Princeton Theological Seminary)
7. Donald G. Bloesch (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
8. Carl Braaten (Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology)
9. Manfred Brauch (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary)
10. William P. Brown (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
11. Don S. Browning (University of Chicago)
12. Frederick S. Carney (Southern Methodist University)
13. Ellen T. Charry (Princeton Theological Seminary)
14. Karl Paul Donfried (Smith College)
15. Richard Drummond (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
16. Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago)
17. Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (Calvin College)
18. Gabriel Fackre (Andover Newton Theological School)
19. Robert Gagnon (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)
20. Joel B. Green (Asbury Theological Seminary)
21. Robert H. Gundry (Westmont College)
22. Scott J. Hafemann (Wheaton College)
23. Roy A. Harrisville (Luther Theological Seminary)
24. Stanley M. Hauerwas (Duke University)
25. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Wheaton College)
26. S. Mark Heim (Andover Newton Theological School)
27. Frank Witt Hughes (Codrington College)
28. Robert Imbelli (Boston College)
29. Robert Jenson (Center for Theological Inquiry)
30. Robert Jewett (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)
31. Jack Dean Kingsbury (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
32. Paul Koptak (North Park Theological Seminary)
33. John S. Lawrence (Morningside College)
34. Walter Liefeld (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
35. Troy Martin (Saint Xavier University)
36. James L. Mays (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
37. S. Dean McBride (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
38. Sheila E. McGinn (John Carroll University)
39. John R. McRay (Wheaton College)
40. Robert Meye (Fuller Theological Seminary)
41. David Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
42. Grant Osborne (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
43. Carroll D. Osburn (Abilene Christian University)
44. William A. Pannell (Fuller Theological Seminary)
45. Jon Paulien (Andrews University)
46. John Piper (Bethlehem Baptist Church)
47. Stephen Pope (Boston College)
48. J. E. Powers (Hope College
49. Mark Reasoner (Bethel College),
50. John Reumann (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia)
51. David Rhoads (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago)
52. W. Larry Richards (Andrews University)
53. Daniel E. Ritchie (Bethel College)
54. Joel Samuels (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
55. David Scholer (Fuller Theological Seminary)
56. Keith Norman Schoville (University of Wisconsin)
57. J. Julius Scott (Wheaton College)
58. Mark Seifrid (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)
59. Christopher R. Seitz (St. Andrews University)
60. Klyne Snodgrass (North Park Theological Seminary)
61. Max Stackhouse (Princeton Theological Seminary)
62. W. Richard Stegner (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)
63. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
64. R. Franklin Terry (Morningside College)
65. David Tiede (Luther Theological Seminary)
66. Reinder Van Til (Eerdmans Publishing Company)
67. Warren Wade (North Park University)
68. J. Ross Wagner (Princeton Theological Seminary)
69. David H. Wallace (American Baptist Seminary of the West)
70. Timothy P. Weber (Northern Baptist Theological Seminary)
71. Merold Westphal (Fordham University)
72. Jonathan R. Wilson (Westmont College)
73. Edward and Anne Wimberly (Interdenominational Theological Center)
74. Harry Yeide (George Washington University)
You grew up listening to Adventures in Odyssey,
soaking down stories that taught your young heart
to swim against the current.
They told you it wouldn’t be easy to do what was right
because the world was dark and ever darker--
they said you needed to be willing to stand alone.
So you walked through the halls of a ratty high school,
wearing a purity ring and carrying a Bible,
defending your faith while the other kids laughed
because even if you were
the only one,
you would keep your eyes on heaven.
It was lonely to hope,
lonely to wait,
difficult to see beyond all this chaos.
“It’s worth it,” they whispered.
“Here is the pearl of great price.”
And your heart fluttered because
you saw how goodness was beautiful.
You decided you were willing to die for it.
They warned you about the coming evil,
the sly tricks of the devil,
the progressives and the humanists.
You were ready for all of it.
You sat through The Truth Project
strengthening your muscles with a ready defense.
You resolved to stand firm though all hell broke loose,
so you divided the values of earth from the stuff of God,
and you drew a hard line of allegiance.
“All of me, God,” you prayed.
“God, take all of me.”
You kissed dating goodbye,
read marriage books, prayed, and prayed,
and resigned again.
You studied Biblical womanhood,
waited for the wedding night, then
homeschooled the babies that came to you.
No matter how difficult it was,
you were always willing,
“All of me, God. All of me,”
because His kingdom was not of this earth,
and your eyes were on the prize.
Then you woke up one morning to a man shouting,
“Grab them by the pu**y, you can do anything.”
“It doesn't really matter what (the media) write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of a**.”
And God’s people said, “Amen”?
You looked round stunned.
“HERE IS THE SALVATION OF THE LORD!” they cheered,
this clanging, vulgar man
was King David, King Solomon,
a friend of the Kingdom--
lo, he was the salvation of the world.
And you stood still as a little girl
who has just been molested by her favorite uncle.
You held your empty hands out and trembled when you said,
“But here is everything you have taught us...”
They told you to shut up.
They told you that it was time to ditch the fairy tale.
They called you a snowflake and a RINO.
They said you didn’t understand anything at all.
They said you were delicate and spoiled,
they mocked you and said, “What’s wrong with you?
Don’t you know that out in the real world,
good men do bad things.”
“Grow up!” they hissed.
“The work of Jesus is dirty sometimes.”
Your knees shook as you ran from them,
and you wept as you knelt by your bed to pray.
You are weary now,
weary from a life poured out like nard on the feet of Christ,
only to be shoved back
by angry men
eager to tattoo vulgarities from a gas station wall
onto the Good Lord’s clean skin.
You have written to me quivering,
asking if the gospel was only a dream.
In your agony,
proud theologians have shoved
the equations of orthodoxy into your face,
dismissing your sorrow with a wave of a hand.
“You were never His at all!” they say,
"or you wouldn't doubt at all."
An easy answer to scratch their own itch.
But oh, you dear, tired little lamb,
let me be a mother to your broken heart.
The storm rages round and round,
and I hear your heart pounding these many miles away.
I see the strain on your face,
like a child pulled from rubble.
Come in close.
All is not lost.
Though the strong be drunk on power and on fear,
though men who claim to know God prove that they do not,
though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy dwelling places of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered;
He raised His voice, the earth melted.
the Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
All you have entrusted was not wasted.
All you have believed was not a lie.
Heroes are only men,
only small and passing men.
So remember how our Jesus knelt in the Garden
abandoned by all friends,
how he wept with blood and sweat intermingled.
And here we kneel, too, following.
It is a holy posture to grieve so.
You have not believed too much;
the masses have believed too little.
Hold firm, then. Hold firm.
Whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence,
if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
See your Savior high and lifted up.
He lives forever.
His name is holy.
You have been no fool to give what you could not keep
for that you could not lose.
“All of me, God,” you prayed, and do not retreat.
In the face of the very opposition you never expected,
pray it again.
I will pray it with you.
Evangelicals spend so much energy trying to prove that God is real, but most of the atheists I know wouldn’t want the God of the Bible, even if we could prove his existence.
Why? They would reject the faith because they don’t think the God of the Bible is moral.
Don’t just laugh that thought off as ridiculous. Considering some of the information many atheists have received, I can understand why some have drawn this conclusion.
If Christians want to make any progress in sharing the gospel with an unbelieving world, we need to listen to the reason atheists have this particular problem with our faith. And we need to clear some of the fog away before having surface arguments that lead to nowhere.
I. First off, there’s confusion about the facts.
It’s human nature to believe the worst about any worldview that we don’t like. (Look at how quickly we eat up dirty gossip about our political enemies!) So when misinformation about our faith hits the news, many atheists stand eager to embrace the worst possible angle on Christian beliefs.
I don't like seeing this happen, of course, but I can't blame nonbelievers too much because I have made similar mistakes about others I suspect. Having this wrong done to me reminds me how important it is to be fair.
After the hard lesson is taken, though, it's helpful to think about where all this bad info coming from. I've seen two main sources, and I'd like to talk about both of those a little bit.
A. BAD INFO COMES FROM SECULARISTS WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE TRYING TO WRITE ABOUT THE BIBLE
For example, last week atheist sites were giddy because Canaanite DNA was found in the Middle East. A secular writer found a verse from the Old Testament and said it was a claim that all Canaanites were destroyed. Before anybody who actually knew the Bible could get a grip on that story, the thing spread like wildfire.
Of course, that’s not what the Bible teaches. It teaches the opposite in fact, showing us why Canaanite DNA should still exist in the Middle East. But over and over again, this sort of viral brouhaha rolls out of a simple misunderstanding, adding to confusion and mistrust on both sides.
B. BAD INFO COMES FROM PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO BE CHRISTIANS
My head literally hurts when I see bad teachers handling Scripture. I don’t mean to be an academic snob, but seriously, I wouldn’t let some of the people I see trying to interpret the Bible read me instructions out of a John Deere riding mower manual.
Some of those folks mix theology with bad science. Some mix theology with bad ethics. And while bad Bible teachers are making some of the most embarrassing mistakes I’ve ever seen anybody make on a public stage, they roar with all the confidence in the world. (I need my blog to have a GIF option. You've seen that one where the guy runs headlong into a wall and slides off, right? Insert that here.)
The Bible isn’t about being “smart,” of course; the core of the gospel is simple enough that even a child can understand it. But people who have never been taught to think clearly—people who don’t know fair principles of literary interpretation—those people often carry raw weaknesses into their attempts to teach about God. And unless God intervenes miraculously (and sometimes he does), especially if pride takes over, a lack of information can lead to goofing the Bible up super badly.
Average Joe would never attempt DIY brain surgery after watching a YouTube video on the subject. Average Evangelical Joe will, however, attempt to teach about the almighty Lord based on hearsay and gut instinct. Attempting the second is even more dangerous than the first. So much damage has been done to the gospel because of this sort of overconfidence.
II. Secondly, there’s a ton of confusion about how the Bible works
Somewhere along the way, the public began to believe that any story included in the Bible was also endorsed by the Living God. But that’s not how the Bible functions.
Some of the most horrifying narratives in the Old Testament don’t show us what God loves; they show us how ugly human sin can get if it runs its free course. The book of Judges says, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And indeed, this is a book of the Bible which teaches us how violent and selfish humans can be when entrusted to develop and maintain their own morality. These sorts of narratives show what we look like when God doesn't protect us from ourselves.
So many secondary moral issues clear up when we realize the Bible is doing this. Many teachings about slavery, the treatment of women, even genocide fall under the narrative umbrella of a culture that was thoroughly resistant to submission to God. Laws that you and I criticize would have been utterly unnecessary if God’s people had been willing to seek God’s heart. Instead, they were rebellious over and over again, insisting on doing things their own way.
This is why I get so frustrated when atheists start citing random laws from the Old Testament as some sort of claim against the Divine. It’s not that those laws never existed, but they did exist inside of a human context that didn’t fit into God’s ideal. Like a temporary restraining order against a violent husband, protections were sometimes put in place that a healthy marriage would never require.
As the New Testament expands, we see a truer picture of the sort of moral order that God intends—a morality that is based on union with his Spirit instead of just rote regulation and obedience. This is why the Old Testament must always be read through the lens of the New Testament. They are not equivalent. One foreshadows, and the other completes.
III. Despite all this, there are still confusing sections of the Bible
I’ve studied the Bible for over thirty years now, and there are still some passages that are difficult for me to understand. There are still a few passages that I feel are unjust, too, and I don’t ignore that feeling like I used to. I don’t check my brain at the door and trot along in trusting ignorance, excusing sections that seem to contradict the greater thrust of Scripture.
I will say, though, that quite a few times over the course of my life, disturbing, obscure passages have opened up beautifully once the right information has appeared. So while I was defiant and angry about unclear passages of Scripture in my twenties, in my 40's, I'm more patient about sections that seem offensive or mysterious. I don't try to hide my horror from God. I pray, “Uh, what do you even want me to do with this part because it doesn’t seem to fit with 90% of what you’ve said in the rest of the Scriptures.” I pray, “What in the world? Why would you even care about this?" I’m honest about all that stuff when I pray because God’s my Father, and I trust him with my gut reactions.
And where the Old Testament seems wonky, I interpret the unclear by what is clear. I interpret the old through the new. And I never act on obscure teachings that seem unstable or disjointed.
I don't strain to apply stories I don’t understand as moral guidance for my soul. I WAIT FOR GOD to show me how mystery fits, and I leave it alone until he clears the confusion up. There's plenty to do in the clear, direct commands of love and compassion without getting snarled up in what is uncertain.
IV. What I've written here doesn't make the core snag of atheism vanish
Sometimes I think atheists are unfair about the Bible, and sometimes I think messed up Christian teachers distort the Bible. But even if all this is handled properly, determined secularists will still hit a snag.
Even if all narrative confusion is swept away, the God of the Bible still asks for us to trust him, and trust comes hard for people who haven’t lived in a trustworthy world.
You and I have been hurt, so we trust ourselves and not much else.
That old temptation of Eve’s serpent is still running the circuit, and it's still powerful. “Has God really said he’s going to take care of you? Why don’t you just try to be like God without involving him? You don’t need him--you can be strong on your own. You’ve got this. You’re smart enough. Just be the best you that you can be. Look at these resources around you.l and use them. That’s all anybody can do.”
Gosh it's such a sweet promise for hurt people because we want to hold the controls to our own lives so badly. Even deeper than arguments about evolution, genocide and misogyny, lies a real question of whether or not we would be willing trust a God to hold authority over us.
Lest we point too many fingers at atheists, this is the same mistrust that has led evangelicals astray for years. We make political alliances because they promise tactile safety. We make strategic plans because God is too quiet. We reach for fading comforts because eternity is too dang hard to imagine and too far away to embrace.
In fact, sometimes I think the atheists have one up on us in that they are at least willing to admit that they don't trust God. I want to trust Him always, but a lot of the time, I don't. In that regard, I suppose we all have a whole lot to confess and a whole lot to learn.
“Fifty years ago, the main cultural tension of being a Christian in the United States was that the Christian believed things regarded as naive and false by the general culture: that believing in an omnipotent creator required the checking of your brain. Now the main tension is that the Christian's tradition is regarded by the general culture as immoral: that the God of scripture is a bad character, and those who adore him are misshapen by the company they keep. Consequently the work of the apologist today resembles more closely that of the early church's apologists. The Romans, to be sure, regarded the Way as false, but (more gravely) they regarded it as dangerous -- a thing that produced bad citizens.” David Mitchel
I understand the embarrassment, and I’ve had the same urge myself. However, at least for now, I’m not ready to hop on board that train.
And my reasoning isn’t political—it’s spiritual.
I don't think most evangelicals or most conservatives are bad people. I do think many have been flattered and manipulated so long that they are now having trouble discerning good from evil.
This whole situation reminds me of that scene from The Silver Chair in which a villain throws green powder onto the fire, drugging good Prince Rilian, Jill, and Scrubb. Those three young heroes don't want to do the wrong thing, but as they breathe in the enchanted smoke, they find that they cannot tell truth from lies. They lose their ability to think clearly.
At this moment, the brave marshwiggle Puddleglum charges forth and stamps out the fire with his bare feet. He does this because this is what true friends do for one another in such times. We put our own bodies on the line to break the spell of evil.
As embarrassing and as frustrating as it is for clear-headed conservative, evangelical believers to watch the intoxication of those who abuse these labels, love compels us to go try to help them.
I realize that a whole lot of folks don't realize that they need help. In fact, many think they are the only ones who see the world clearly.
I know many are proud. I know that many feel secure in money and in power. I know many are so full of propaganda they can't hear the instruction of the Holy Word.
I am human enough to tremble when I see leaders of massive movements tickling the ears of millions of people with gross distortions of grace. I'm also human enough to grieve when my old heroes give in to this cause.
But despite all of this, those people who are being deceived are in grave spiritual danger. And when a brother or sister is endangered, it is right and good to try to help. Even if we feel like the cause is futile.
All my trail-blazing instincts want to cut off the old and charge into a new frontier, but I'm not listening to those instincts. Not yet.
I'm willing to give restoration the first fruits of my strength. Why? Because when a fellow soldier is wounded in battle, you run into enemy fire to drag him to safety, even if he is hallucinating.
How do we help? Here's one possibility.
In Acts 17, we find the Apostle Paul sharing the gospel with the men of Athens. He could have charged in there like a raging bull, proclaiming a new system of salvation--but he doesn’t. He’s far more shrewd in his approach.
Paul has listened to the culture well enough to communicate on its own terms. He makes his argument by referencing an object that is familiar to his audience--something they trust and worship. He says, “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”
Paul does the work of redemption by unpacking the tiny bit of truth that his audience already sees.
So, strategically, I think it's worth using the terms "conservative" and "evangelical" in a similar manner. While the connotative use of these two words has been corrupted, denotatively there is still much to unpack. It's even possible that these two words can be used to show our brothers and sisters how they have abandoned their first love.
It's a good time to consider the church of Ephesus in Revelation--men and women who have worked long and hard for the cause of Christ while losing focus on what originally drew them to him. Jesus says, "Without growing weary, you have persevered and endured many things for the sake of My name. But I have this against you: You have abandoned your first love." Then the stern warning--if Ephesus will not repent from this behavior, the Lord will remove their lampstand.
I don't want this to happen to my brothers and sisters. I think they began well, I just think they grew confused along the way.
I want to remind them that “evangelical” comes from a Biblical Greek root word meaning “good news.” This means that if evangelicals are not primarily about the business of sharing the gospel, they have veered off course.
I want to remind them that to be “conservative” is a call to follow the wisdom of Jeremiah 6:16, a call to look back at the old ways and find what was good in them. This isn't the work of blind nationalism, sentimentality, or cliché. It's not the work of fevered anger and fear. It's humble work involving study, reflection, and discernment. It's careful. It's kind. It's selfless.
Over the past year or two (and arguably over the past few decades), evangelicalism and conservatism have become separated from their own visions. It's so important for us to talk about this. I think that if we talk about it enough, instead of just threatening to run away and start all over, we might be able to stamp out some fires.
I don't say this because I am scared of what will happen if Christianity amputates its diseased limbs and hobbles onward.
I say that because people I love are diseased. They are being sucked down into evil while thinking they are doing good. They are losing Jesus while trying to fight for him. They are so terribly sick, and they don't even realize they are dying.
I see millions of Christians wobbling like Prince Rilian, Grubb, and Jill, increasingly unable to see the things of God with any clarity. I see a great Green Witch who is tweeting and rallying them into their own demise.
The situation is dire, and I cannot turn my back on all those people. If the bare feet of a Marshwiggle can do any good here, I'm at their service.
So yes, I'm an evangelical. Yes, I'm a conservative.
Men and women of evangelical, conservative America, I have seen the altar you have built, and I know this Unknown God you serve. Let me introduce him to you. Let me remind you who he is in Spirit and in Truth.
I love real books.
I love how they feel and how they smell. I love their sense of space and progression. I love their permanence.
Sometimes, however, I run into people who advocate for real books as if they were advocating for trafficked children. I think that’s a little extreme.
I know an older person who has invented body language for the specific purpose of disparaging e-readers. She doesn’t just say that she prefers physical books. She views e-readers as a moral wrong. She’s also pretty sure they cause brain damage. “I only read REAL BOOKS,” she declares, standing firm as the final line of defense against an invading army.
I get tickled when I see this, imagining the transition between scrolls and the codex between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Maybe the old folks back then complained, “There’s no way a human brain can process the true flow of writing with all these blasted page breaks. These great works were meant to be taken in by scroll, and I’ll read scrolls until the day I die.”
Or when parchment began to replace papyrus, “These young kids have no commitment to precision. They can erase on parchment. You couldn’t erase back in my day. You had to get it right the first time.”
Was there ever a critic who griped about portability of papyrus? “I remember the good old days when somebody who had something worth saying carved it into a big, fat rock. Now THAT was a world of stability.”
For whatever little it matters, here’s my philosophy on the thing.
There are some books I only read in bound form. I tried to hit the ESV Reader’s Bible on Kindle, for instance, and that just didn’t work for me. I need the layout of the printed set to do part of the work.
But there are other books that I find much easier and more effective to read on Kindle. I’ve been taking a leisurely approach to Les Mis for the past year, and reading this book on Kindle is a far better experience than reading it on the printed page. With a click of a thumb, I can look up rare historical references, and reading footnotes is a breeze.
I’m not thumbing through a thousand pages every few paragraphs to find out what a “Saint-Jacques pragmatist” is. I touch the footnote number, get the historical nugget, close out, move on. Takes five seconds instead of thirty. That makes a big difference when you are tackling a project like this.
Here’s another confession. I bought Les Mis in three formats, audio book, hardback, and Kindle.
I knew that I would enjoy this book for the rest of my life, and I knew that this first reading would be a big part of my recreation for many months, so I took the leap.
On long bike rides, I listen to George Guidall’s brilliant rendering of the story--which is mighty helpful in some of the historical passages with complex pronunciations. When I want to go back over a specific passage in depth, I open the physical book and set Julie Rose’s translation up against several others that chose a word-for-word approach instead of an idea-for-idea method. Late at night while my husband is snoring away, I open my beautiful new Kindle Paperwhite and revel in the miracle of a 1300-page novel reduced to 7.3 ounces.
7.3 ounces. I can take that anywhere. And I do.
In every format, I am delighted with Hugo’s work. In those passages I have read three different ways, I have found that my brain picks up different things...not greater or lesser information but different information. Some details I have missed in bound form, the audio or the Kindle have revealed. It’s been humbling to realize that.
One more thought. It’s not true that all printed books are created equal.
When my friends over at the Rabbit Room print a hard copy of a book, they obsess over margins, fonts, paper quality, typesetting. This publisher is thoughtful and precise so that when you buy a Rabbit Room book, you’re buying a reading experience that enhances the reading material. When I have the opportunity to buy a book by Rabbit Room Press, I never pick the Kindle form over the hard copy.
But Rabbit Room production stands head and shoulders above the cheap paperbacks being thrown out en masse today. The classroom versions of so many brilliant novels are hideous, and I can’t blame students for being exhausted by them.
Great classics are ruined when they are thrown onto grey-smudgy, thin, stinky, cheap paper, words in tiny fonts crammed together, margins virtually non-existent, no beauty in page composition, a binding that makes opening pages fully impossible. We do our teenagers a great disservice when we hand them these aesthetic disasters.
I would much rather my students read Pride and Prejudice on a Kindle in a nice, clear Bookerly font than to mess with the headache of a poor physical reproduction. I can see why students toss many of those books aside for the SparkNotes summaries. I wouldn’t waste my time on trying to hack through such a mess, either.
All this to say, if you have been exposed to e-book shame, be free, be free. Do what you need to do to get the books read. Find the venue that works for you, and don't let anybody make you feel guilty about it.
Because I have the Kindle app on my phone and iPad, I wrestled for a year about a Paperwhite purchase. It seemed extravagant. Now I see that it’s one of the most important investments I have ever made. How I wish I could go back in time and make myself buy this two years ago. I could have used this sweet little thing during the election. Curling up in bed with a device that won’t let me check the news or social media is helping me sleep better than I’ve slept in a long time.
Having the option of silently reading a chapter or two when I wake up in the middle of the night is lowering my stress. I don’t see headlines. I get away from all that madness and allow hours meant for rest to be restful. I wake up, click on a soft little backlit page, read for fifteen minutes, then go back to sleep without the weight of the world on my shoulders.
And while "real books" will always have a soft spot in my heart, I'm completely smitten with this little thing. Welcome to my world, Paperwhite. I think we're going to be good friends for a long, long while.
This won't be a long post, just a little housekeeping. :)
Today I realized that I need to let my readers know that I keep a filter on comments here, and that I plan to do so for as long as I blog. There are many places on the internet where people call each other names and try to hurt others with their words, but my blog isn't going to be one of those.
While a hearty discussion between people of different belief systems can be profoundly beneficial, abusive firestorms begin when verbal hostility takes over, and these accomplish nothing but the purposes of hell.
My blog is a place to talk about ideas and seek Jesus. It's not a free-for-all where strangers are allowed to be mean to strangers. I never mind disagreement, but all comments that you offer to other readers must be civil, patient, and kind or else I won't push them through to the public eye.
Basically, I don't allow anything said here that I wouldn't allow to be said over my dinner table. If my children were sitting in a room while an adult was flying off the handle, I would ask that adult to leave my home. I'm applying that policy to my blog as well.
If you disagree with me or someone else and want to talk about an issue publicly here, take some time to do the following before commenting.
- Ask a humble and sincere question for clarification before making angry assumptions.
- Remove all name calling, insults, and unfair associations in your post. Stick with the issue instead of trying to hurt people.
If you just need to vent at me, you can do that. But when I can tell a reader is letting his/her temper lead, flying off the handle unfairly, I usually just read a sentence or two and then mark the post as "spam" without finishing it. That sort of label means all future messages from that IP address go directly to the trash, and I won't even see them.
Hateful comments make me feel empathy about the trauma or relational lack that leads a person to adopt a hostile style of communication, but they don't hurt me. They evoke mercy, but they are too pitiful to actually sting. At least they haven't yet.
Thankfully we live in a free country where aggressive and rude folks have other venues for their anger. I'm just not going to host them here.
This post doesn't apply to 99% of you. Of the tens of thousands of hits I got on a post this week, I only had two rude comments attempt to make it through. That's pretty stunning, if you think about it. But it's still loving to define some ground rules for a community now and then, and these are the rules for Thistle and Toad.
Oh, one more thing. I sometimes hold off on comments that make claims about public figures. That's not because the writers are trying to be rude but because I need some sort of validation before helping spread information that might hurt someone else's reputation. If you have something in such a category to share, please just provide external reference material that allows me to validate your claim.
Alright, gotta get back to some things here. I'll be back in I Corinthians tomorrow!
NOTE: Over the years, I've learned that when my friend David tells me to read something, I should read it. He's one of those people who seems to have a knack for suggesting books that scratch an itch. A few days ago, he urged his friends to reread the book of I Corinthians because its teaching fits the needs of our American church, so I hopped on it. Today I'm continuing yesterday's post, working through this epistle. If you want to read along with me, I'll be posting on this topic for the next few days.
ON LIVING IN TWO WORLDS AT ONCE
When people on the internet disagree, they usually fight by calling their opponents “stupid," but Paul doesn’t do that. In fact, he does the opposite. He admits that there are different systems of wisdom, and that it’s possible for someone to be brilliant in one of those other systems.
When Paul critiques his opponents, he critiques them by speaking teleologically— a word which looks at the purpose or end of a thing. To critique the telos of another worldview is to ask: “Let’s look at where this alternate system of wisdom is going to end up?”
In making this distinction between God’s wisdom and the world’s, Paul writes: “...we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God...”
In other words, it is possible for a system of wisdom to look brilliant on earth, but that doesn’t mean (the telos) of that system is going to end up being beneficial or pleasant. (Need an anology? Compare this to a dating relationship that looked so promising during the first month but made you miserable after six.)
My two favorite Christian apologists are Ravi Zacharias and Tim Keller, in part because they tend to get this one rhetorical skill right. They don’t attempt to elevate Christianity by taking nervous pot shots at secularists. When they see logical errors, they address those with humor and respect. But they only engage after taking the time understand and speak accurately about the world’s systems. They aren’t haphazard in calling other systems foolish; they address them in light of their telos — their ultimate end. (They operate like a wise parent who says to a teenager, “You can try that. But let’s talk through where this is going to land.”)
If we get this right, we will still be deeply offensive to many secular thinkers. Why? Because there’s a diagnostic built into God's system that violates the strongest values of the godless world.
The secular world believes that all truth can be found through the power of the human mind and the reliability of the natural world. Any eternal truth that requires more than these two elements feels unfair to the pure materialist.
But God didn't guarantee that all important knowledge could be obtained this way. In fact, he set up the world up so that people who are only willing to embrace the secular currency of wisdom will be blind to the spiritual realm.
I can see why this dynamic would feel unjust to anyone who thinks the world’s system of knowledge should be reliable enough to find God. But that sense of injustice is a natural consequence of misplaced trust. If we insist on worshipping our own minds and our own ability to analyze the world, we're going to end up with the limitations of those two gods.
Imagine a community of people living in a little biosphere, people who can’t imagine anything beyond the tiny world in which they exist. Or go back to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave, a tiny underworld in which lifelong captives of darkness can’t imagine an outside realm full of sunlight and greenery.
If we choose the small gods of our own minds and perceptions, we can insist that all we have ever known and valued is all that is fair and good to know. But our confidence doesn’t make our assumption right.
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ON DIFFERENT TYPES OF PAULING TEACHING
Several times over the years, I’ve been frustrated with Paul because some of his teachings of seem contradictory. It wasn’t until I realized that Paul openly admitted teaching different sorts of truths to different sorts of believers that the pieces began to fall into place.
Paul writes: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”
In other words, Paul didn’t teach all Christians the same things. And he did that intentionally.
We do this sort of thing with our kids, right? When our children are young, we give them less freedom and different types of instructions than we do when they are grown in trust, intellect, and character. As their maturity develops, we begin to trust them to be heart-driven instead of task-driven.
When we read Scripture, we tend to do read it flatly, as if there were no topography to the thing. But that’s just not how the text itself claims to work. The books of the Bible, and especially the epistles of the New Testament, were written to specific people, and understanding the original audience matters.
It takes effort to be a thoughtful reader and to unpack the levels of instruction included in the Bible. But I don't know why anybody would ever think that studying the Bible should be easy. And this is the sort of effort that can protect us from making serious errors in interpretation.
I wish I had more time right now to make a huge chart, delineating the various maturity levels of the audiences Paul addresses and then listing the sorts of instructions he gives accordingly.
But as far as I can tell, the bottom line is this: maturity boils down to union with Christ-in-us. Once we really learn to walk in the Spirit, a lot of the rules that are essential in our early days of faith become unnecessary because we cannot carry out the deeds of the flesh if we are abiding in Christ.
However, it takes a long time for some of us to let go of our fleshly efforts to try be “Christian.” Like Paul, many of us will have to go through humiliating experiences with failure before we finally become willing to depend on an indwelling Lord.
A young believer may need more rules, not just to protect him, but to show him that he doesn’t have the ability to keep them without Christ. Eventually, we will learn what Paul say here,“...no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” But different believers need different sorts of instruction along the way to arrive at that conclusion. Those nuances not only appear in the teachings of Paul, but I think also in the teachings of Jesus.
Ultimately, after years of being aggravated at Paul (and Jesus) for teaching what seemed like contradictory instruction, I’ve come to see this section of I Corinthians as a key that unlocks most of the New Testament. (Tim Keller actually addresses this principle in his sermons “The Inside-Out Kingdom” and “The Upside Down Kingdom.” These two messages are definitely worth a listen, if you haven’t heard them yet.)
Ever since I can remember, I’ve seen Christianity taught by one of two secular methods.
Because I teach philosophy, I’m going to use two philosophical terms to describe those two methods. The first term is rationalism. The second is empiricism. It’s important for you to understand both of these if you are going to understand the first paragraphs of I Corinthians.
Rationalism goes back to the Greeks, and essentially, it means you use formal logic to prove something. According to Plato, logic exists in the invisible realm—and this invisibility was important to the Greeks because they didn’t trust their senses completely. Our eyes and ears can deceive us, but we can tell deep in our minds that 2+2=4*
Empiricism started in earnest around the time of David Hume (1700’s), and it means you use physical evidence to prove something. This works more like our modern scientific method, in which you run an experiment and trust the results of that experiment to teach you some truth about the universe. **
Modern academics tend to use a muddy blend of rationalism and empiricism, and most of us think very little about doing this. When we see Sherlock Holmes using induction and deduction, trusting both his senses and his logical ability, we think he’s smart. When we see hot heads on social media yelling things like, “Do your research!” or “Think about it!” we realize they are asking for some sort of source that can be validated. But unless we’ve done some formal study into how proofs work, we might not realize that it’s almost impossible to prove anything, really. Both rationalism and empiricism are helpful, but they’re also flawed. They remind me of those times Siri has tried to get me to a rural location, and she just gives up five miles out and says, “Please walk to your destination.”
At the time that Paul was writing this book, Greek rationalism was still in full force. Even though the Romans were dominant at this time, they had adopted most of the academic ideas of the Greeks. So when a Greek person wanted to know if something was true, he would use a rational system of logical proofs to make his argument.
Apparently, the Jews worked a little more like David Hume’s crowd would 1700 years later. They wanted physical evidence. Paul says the Greeks wanted wisdom and the Jews wanted signs, but that he wasn’t going to speak in terms of either value system. Instead, he was going to choose an epistemological value system that would make him look foolish to both groups.
Before I write any more about this, I’d like for you to read this section of I Corinthians.
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For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but indemonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Yet among themature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
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For many years, I was a systematic theology junkie. I was raised in the Lee Strobel/Wayne Grudem/R.C. Sproul/John Piper era, and because I tend to be a bit of a nerd, I was thrilled by the promise that a rational/empirical approach to problem-solving could be applied to the Scripture. Not only did this give me a sense that I could figure things out for myself, but also, it gave me a sense that I could fight culture wars and win souls by watertight proofs.
But that’s not what Paul says here at all. My theological assumptions were based in my secular values, not in the values of the Bible.
Paul was a super-educated guy, and he knew exactly what he was saying when he was defiant here. (When he chooses to use logic and proofs other places in the Scripture, he's a master of these disciplines.) But there’s a powerful bit of irony in his statements, boasting about intentionally losing his case on every academic front that meant anything to the people of his era.
When he talked about being unimpressive in speech and presentation (trembling and bumbly), he was saying, “I’m bad at rhetoric.” Rhetoric was the formal discipline of presenting your case in such a way that you could persuade others to agree with you, and it was mega important in Greco Roman times. This was how anybody who was anybody got things done. In terms of cred, he’s shooting himself in the foot repeatedly here, taking every angle to try to stand like a fool instead of scrambling to use data or arguments to prove his faith to anybody.
Why? Why would an educated man like Paul do this?
Look at what he elevates instead.
Paul emphasizes something that I almost never hear a modern Christian academic admit these days. He says that God’s wisdom is intentionally secret. It’s intentionally hidden.
He says you can’t get to the truth of God by the common roads, and that this is purposeful on God’s part. There’s a Spirit involved here that knows our hearts way down deep, not just our minds, but our inclinations. And that Spirit is able to determine our motives.
In other words, our judgment won’t just be based on what we could figure out with our thoughts. The most central and true qualities of our souls are seen in total clarity by God. When it comes to the essence of who we are, we are totally bare and defenseless before a God who looks straight into our hearts. We can hide nothing from him. And when he judges us, he's fair, because he sees with flawless vision.
Paul says that people who attempt to use only rationalism and empiricism will never be able to understand certain eternal truths because while those two roads are commonly traveled, they don’t lead everywhere. There are some destinations that you can only reach if you are willing to operate in the realm of the spirit.
That doesn’t make the faith irrational. It doesn’t make it violate empirical truth. But it does mean that people who attempt to find God only by the mind or by the senses won’t ever find Him. There has to be a willingness to engage at the spirit level with a Being who has intentionally made it impossible to find him through the world’s most trusted methods. This is a matter of posture, not just knowledge.
Sound cruel? Sound unfair? I can see why it might feel that way at first glance--especially when we are accustomed to addressing the entire universe by the lower roads. Our value system is the value system of the secular world.
Even though these epistemological roads are lower than the realm of the spirit, they are treated with profound respect by people who are respected here on planet earth. This makes the realm of the spirit seem foolish, when it’s actually the most pure knowledge of all.
A whole book could be written about this, but I’m afraid you’ll stop reading if I keep writing. For now, go back and reread that I Corinthians passage a few more times. In light of what I’ve just told you, I think a few new things will pop out to you as you study it.
Am I going to make a case for total Christian mysticism? No. Church history shows us how strange and greedy people can misunderstand the realm of the spirit, making systematics a healthy guide for staying out of heresy. (Like bumper bowling. Ha.) Besides, I’m still too much of a rationalist to go there entirely.
But I do keep my systematic theology and my empirical proofs in a more humble position after realizing what Paul was actually advocating here. There are things we can know, but the things we know are always secondary to knowing the Maker of all things.
For so many reasons, both personal an interactive, that's vital to remember.
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*This is a huge oversimplification because the realm of math was actually below the realm of pure logic in Greek rationalism. If you want to study this more, study Plato’s Divided Line Theory.
** Also a significant oversimplification because David Hume showed how we couldn’t prove causality, and we also can’t resolve the gap between our perception of the physical world and the physical world.
When friends of mine are hurting, their pain takes root in my own belly. I feel what people I love feel, and I feel it intensely. Several times, that empathy has been so strong, a friend's suffering has disoriented my own convictions.
Once a friend of mine was going through a brutal divorce. The spouse was not only sexually unfaithful but also emotionally abusive. Flagrant affairs were thrown in my friend's face. Marital sex was used as a weapon of emotional torture. Cruelty to the entire family (including their children) was intentional and boundless. I don't know if a personality disorder was involved, but the spouse seemed to delight in setting traps for my friend, causing as much pain as humanly possible.
My friend was close to suicide, and for weeks, I spent long hours walking as close as I could. Many nights I got just a few hours of sleep because I was committed to being there no matter what. I was scared a lot. Scared I'd get a call that my friend had given up living.
When a second romance came into this friend's life, we were both fatigued. It's hard to tell you how happy I was when for the first time in a long while, I saw a flicker of joy. I saw hope. I saw this friend realize that she could actually be loved.
Waves of relief washed over me.
When you've seen someone you love on the brink of death, this sort of change is like rain in a drought. I was so thankful for this man who loved my friend.
Then they started to sleep together, and this is where I stopped knowing what to say.
I don't believe in sex outside of the confines of marriage, and I don't say that out of naivete. I'm human enough to have experienced the temptation and the excuses. I have never followed up on those temptations, but I do know how a wrong thing can seem absolutely right. I know that, and still, I hold to Biblical morality.
Yet this friend who was nearly dead seemed ecstatic as she engaged in extramarital sex. Instead of suicide threats, there were tears of, "I finally feel seen. I finally feel known."
As I loved her, I never stopped believing that sex outside of marriage was wrong. I always believed that, technically. But I also knew everything about the hellacious emotional torment my friend had experienced. Some days my compassion for my friend was so strong, I wondered if a sinful thing might somehow be used to repair the consequences of abuse. I wondered that because I loved her, and I felt so much relief that she was finally joyful.
I never changed my beliefs, but in flashes of empathy, I wondered if there were individual human exceptions to the rules. I wondered if cases of gross abuse made a difference in the boundary.
But as months went on, the sex that initially brought so much color into my friend's life brought grave trouble and pain. What felt like being known was being used. Love wasn't love; it was two lonely people leaning on one another until they both fell down. Extramarital sex had been a trap, of course--a trap that hurt everybody involved.
God's rules are always there because he loves us. He isn't trying to be cruel with any boundary, sexual or otherwise. But the intense pain of earth can cause us to mistrust him sometimes. After walking with my friend through this situation, I understand how hard that struggle can be now.
I didn't wonder if there were exceptions to the rules because I wanted to defy God. I didn't waver because I wanted to be a relativist.
I wavered because I was overwhelmed watching someone I loved suffer at close range. I wavered because I desperately wanted her to live. I wavered because I wanted her to find immediate relief instead of waiting for God's long and difficult rescue.
In those moments, I was wrong. But I was wrong out of fatigue and human empathy.
As I've grown older, several standards I've embraced "on paper" have had to work out in the context of real people. What was easy to proclaim at a distance became complicated sitting with my arm wrapped around the grieving and the dying. Getting down in the trenches has made me ask different sorts of questions.
I have emerged from those struggles holding to orthodoxy--but those convictions haven't come cheap.
I trust God's boundaries now, but I trust them as someone who has doubted them and found them solid and kind. And, I can see why someone like Mr. Peterson was caught off guard if he has lived taking the risk of loving at close range.
If someone had asked me a question about my beliefs randomly, during a season when my heart was bleeding for my friend, I might have given a rash answer from my gut instead of speaking from my spirit. It might have taken me a few days to go back to God's throne to say, "Do I really trust you? Even when it seems like your rules are way too difficult for hurting people to follow?" If I had prayed hard prayers in honest pain, I might have had to correct myself, too.
As I look across the landscape of evangelicalism, I see the sorts of leaders who bloviate and blast, and I used to be intimidated by them. But over the years, I've seen enough sex scandals emerge from this camp, I'm no longer awed by their proud self-righteousness.
I'm now drawn to gentle teachers who speak about sin with a tender understanding of how human pain works. While these tender men still hold to orthodox truth, they engage with humility and deep concern because they've taken time to weep with those who weep.
When we pray for the Lord to break our hearts with the things that break his heart, we are asking to be shown the intimate details of human suffering. That's going to involve emotional challenges we can't even imagine when we are living safe, comfortable, removed lives.
There's a huge difference between speaking of gay people categorically and speaking of your gay friend, Christine, who was brutally abused by her uncle for two decades and now feels nauseated every time she smells a man. It might be possible for me to walk with an evangelical swagger and act like an expert when postulating about the first category, but the second is a real person whose story brings me to my knees.
Do I think sex outside of marriage is wrong? Absolutely. Do I believe in the sanctity of male-female marriage? Yes.
Do I also sometimes kneel beside my bed and weep for my abused friends by name--friends who seek relief in ways that don't align with God's word? Yes. I do.
And when I pray for those friends, I don't pray simple, condescending prayers because their lives aren't simple, and their wounds aren't simple, and they bear horrible old complicated burdens that I have never had to carry.
I appeal to the father, holding up all their suffering and saying, "This story. This story. This story is so messy, God. How will you save my friend?"
As someone who has wandered into the underworld of pain with people I care about, I affirm my strongest convictions with tears in my eyes and not with hate or hostility.
I am firm in what I believe, but I am not unfeeling. And every "no," I give comes from learning the hard way that "no" is the most loving response--even when it doesn't feel like it.
Because of this, I'm willing to allow Mr. Peterson the chance to clarify without my condemnation. He has a huge heart, and he loves people profoundly. If he was momentarily disoriented because of tenderness, I get that. I've been there, too.
As far as I can tell, a lot of kids growing up in Southern Protestant churches are given one of two promises.
If you grew up Southern Baptist, Methodist, or Charismatic, you were probably promised that you'd be able to feel God somehow at some point.
If you grew up Presbyterian, DTS/Bible Church, or maybe Anglican, you were more likely to receive a promise that God could be proven with facts and your mind.
These are broad generalizations, and I don't mean for them to be watertight--some Baptists are deep into apologetics, and some Presbyterians are more mystical. But just for kicks, let's allow for outliers here and dive into some of the problems these two promises can create.
Why do that? Because more and more lately, I'm seeing young adults who grew up in the shadow of these two promises hit a crisis of faith. When gets super hard, hurting people go back to those two expectations and shout out across the canyon of their deep doubt, asking for God to show up in the way they were promised he would.
But all they feel is silence.
That silence is scary because many people don't feel like they can take it back to their churches and say, "Hey! This thing you told me didn't work." Instead, they hold it in their bellies and fear and churn. The silence makes them lonely, and it makes them wonder if they believe in God at all.
These two promises produce different sorts of disappointments, so let's look at those individually:
AT THE END OF THE "FEEL" PROMISE
At the end of the feel promise, you reach out to God because you desperately need him, but he doesn't seem to show up. You can never honestly say, "I had a peace about it." The warm fuzzies never hit. The world feels empty, and you feel like you're praying out into a vacant universe.
God feels cruel because what kind of all-loving Father would ever do that to somebody? An earthly parent won't even ignore her child when he needs help... would it really be so hard for God to get involved?
AT THE END OF THE "PROOFS" PROMISE
At the end of the proofs promise, you find out that something Lee Strobel wrote just wasn't right historically, and you feel betrayed. Or you find out that a certain historical document conservative Christians use to validate the faith was actually doctored by a monk. Maybe you discover that other religions that predate Christianity also had a virgin-born messiah figure with twelve disciples. You run into verses or passages that contradict logically. You get worn out from trying to make them all jive.
WHY I'M INTERESTED IN THIS
First off, I've been there. At the end of both of these promises, I've hit the skids, and I have retreated into myself, terrified that I was slowly becoming an atheist. Some people might look at that fear as proof that faith is an artificial comfort, created to manage dread of the unknown. However, I don't think the fear of losing your old perspective is singular to Christianity. Whatever your worldview is, it's disorienting to have that rattled. I've felt similar fear when my opinions on other matters (like politics or the inner dynamics of marriage) have changed. I've also seen atheists fear when changing over to a posture of faith. Change is just a disorienting experience, right?
And when I couldn't get away from the fact that God was real, I've wondered if he was mean to keep so far back. Why would someone who COULD be obvious choose to be hidden?
So, before I say anything else, let me say that you're not freaking me out if you have hit this point. I get it. I know how frustrated and scared you are.
I can also tell you that so much good has come from these dark stretches of doubt in my life. At the time, they literally felt like the end of everything I knew to be true. But now that I've walked through this crisis of belief, I can put my arm around people who are there and say, "It's okay. I remember. And here's some more stuff to think about as you process the silence of God."
I'm not sure if everything I am bringing to you is right. I'm still a learner here, so check all this against the Bible and against your trusted mentors. But even if you make some corrections to this post, I think sometimes just seeing someone, ANYONE talk about this can be encouraging. It can crack open the freedom to raise your hand and say, "Me too!"
WHAT DID GOD ACTUALLY PROMISE US?
If we step away from the extreme promises our denominations sometimes make to us, it's kind of startling to see what Jesus did and didn't say about belief in Him.
He never said, "Hey! You're going to find TONS of historical and scientific evidence, and reading Scripture is always going to match up in a way that you understand it."
He never said, "You're going live at a ten on the warm-fuzzy scale, and whenever you doubt me, you're going to see my face appear on a pizza-flavored Dorito."
In fact, we see lots of places in Scripture that indicate that belief will (at least sometimes) be tough.
God sometimes refers to the truth as a secret that he intentionally hides from certain types of people. If empirical evidence alone proved the gospel, you couldn't ever veil it from anyone, right?
And to Thomas who said he was never going to believe unless he could actually see physical proof that Jesus was alive, Jesus showed up and then said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed"
In other words, he's not always going to prove himself in that same extreme way to every human being. He might not even use a proof that works like other proofs we have used before.
I'm embarrassed and frustrated by some of the scientific, historical, and logical errors passed around inside certain versions of Christianity. But despite those mistakes, I'm pretty nerdy about research, and I still think empirical/historical/logical evidence points strongly to the reality of Christ's life, his death, and his resurrection. My research doesn't remove the gap, but it narrows it an awful lot. I think what remains is intentional on God's part.
In terms of feelings, sometimes God does show up and direct us. Sometimes we do see clearly for a season. But even the Apostle Paul had moments that were so hard that they led him to despair. ("We were under a burden far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.")
Think about that. This guy who had experienced this major flash of God showing up directly, the guy who told us to "rejoice in all things" and said that "the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts" still got down the road to a point where his emotions weren't jiving with his beliefs.
YOU'RE NOT WEIRD. YOU'RE NOT ABANDONED.
I promise. You aren't weird if these disappointments have hit you.
In fact, it's taking every ounce of self-control I have to streamline this post because if I knew that I could glue your eyeballs here, I would unpack tons of the Bible and tons of examples from the lives of Christians to show you that hitting these two skids is often just part of a thinker's journey. A huge could be written about this topic. I'm trying to hit the highlights.
These hard spots don't mean your faith is dying. I know it might feel like everything is falling out from underneath you, but this season often just means that you're growing up, and sometimes growth hurts.
If you ever get a chance to listen to Monty Python's John Cleese read The Screwtape Letters on YouTube, DO IT. Do it. Do it. They are hilarious and so good. Anyway, in Chapter 8, Lewis talks about times of doubt just like this. He calls those the "troughs," and he explains why sometimes God removes evidence of himself so that we can mature in faith.
In another piece of writing, Lewis says that sometimes God lets us experience struggle so that *we* can realize what is really inside us. He knows all along what our gaps are--we just don't. So times like what you are going through right now can help you learn yourself better while also helping you learn God in a deeper way.
After that verse about Paul's despair, he says something so interesting. Get this: "Indeed, we felt we were under the sentence of death, in order that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. In Him we have placed our hope that He will yet again deliver us..."
This means Pauls despair was actually a classroom that taught him not to depend on the strengths of his emotions or his logic but on the living person of God.
ONE LAST THING:
One of the worst things (I think) about the extremes of the "feel promise" and the "proof promise" is that they can sometimes decrease our sensitivity to the realm of the Spirit. While God did give us some pretty solid evidence for the faith, and while he also gives us feelings sometimes, there's also a realm of the Spirit in which confirmation isn't just a logical conclusion or a surge of endorphins.
This realm isn't often discussed by folks because it's difficult to describe. I think of it almost as a sixth sense. If we were animals, I'd use the term "instinct," but it's more than that, and it's also more than intuition. I think it's actually part of the "imago Dei"-- or the capacity for God that God put inside humans and no other animal.
Instead of hacking through a ton of theology, I just want to mention this capacity in a simple phrase. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
I don't think that's describing a simple emotion, and I don't think it's referring to empirical proof. I think it's whatever word we should use for the unspeakable connection of the human spirit with the divine Spirit.
Yeah. That's going to get too complex to address here properly. But maybe saying that much will help somehow, too.
Know you aren't alone. Please know that. It's okay if you are here. Lots of people have been here. I certainly have.
It's the scariest most disorienting thing in the world to wonder if everything you have believed isn't even real. And it's hard to wonder if God is cruel or indifferent if he does exist. But over time, I've realized that a lot of my problem was rooted in expectations that God never actually put on me. And just relaxing there, admitting the truth of my struggle, and taking a big breath has helped so much.
You want to know something super ironic? When I read my Bible now, sweet, confirming emotions that fear had frozen in me for years have returned. (For several years, I dreaded reading it because I was afraid it would just frustrate me all over again.) And when I research historical and intertextual evidence now, I don't freak so much when I see bad proofs. Yeah, it still embarrasses me when Christians make errant claims. But I usually just move forward now, looking at primary sources and strong logic for what does hold water.
Now that the fear is gone, I can approach both emotions and proofs with a more relaxed spirit because I'm learning to depend on God instead of my own self. Paul was right. There's a way through the fog, and that way is a Person.
As hard as it was, I'm increasingly thankful that I walked through that dark night of the soul these days. What felt like the end of everything was actually only a new beginning. I had to shed an old skin before I could begin to emerge from it.