Two Murders, Two Cities, Two Loves

William_Blake's_Cain_and_AbelAccording to Augustine, it is common that earthly cities are founded by murderers. Fratricides to be exact (City of God, Bk. XV.5). In Scripture, we learn that the first city Cain who slew his brother Abel was the founder of the first earthly city. He was jealous of Abel’s favor before the Lord in offering a right sacrifice and so the sin crouching at his feet overwhelmed Cain as he overwhelmed his brother.

It’s no wonder, then, that he was followed in this “by a kind of reflection” in the founder of the archetypical “capital” of the earthly city of Rome. As the founding myth would have it, there were two brothers, Romulus and Remus. Disagreeing about which hill to build their future city on, they quarreled and Romulus slaughtered his brother, founded the city, and named it after himself. After that, Romulus built his armies, legions, and spread from there.

The two foundings, while similar, also reveal different conflicts at work. In the case of the second pair, Augustine thinks it is obvious what the root of the issue is: both Romulus and Remus were citizens of the City of Man whose aim is self-glory.

Both sought the glory of establishing the Roman state, but a joint foundation would not bring to each the glory that a single founder would enjoy. Anyone whose aim is to enjoy glory in the exercise of power would obviously enjoy less power if his sovereignty was diminished by a living partner. Therefore, in order that the sole power should be wielded by one person, the partner was eliminated; and what would have been kept smaller and better by innocence grew through crime into something bigger and worse.

As the lust for glory provokes Romulus to kill Remus, it would spill into further violence and bloodshed. The lust for dominance and glory is insatiable, and once it has found a crack in the wall, the dam inevitably bursts forth.

But what of Cain and Abel? There was a difference there, right? Cain was the founder of the first city and a representative of the City of Man, but Abel was a citizen of the “Eternal City” of God whose glory is the love of God. There was not “the same ambition for earthly gains”, and Cain was clearly not jealous of Abel’s power–he was a poor shepherd and their was no city to be founded yet. Instead, Augustine says that “Cain’s was the diabolical envy of that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil.”

Thus the quarrel that arose between Remus and Romulus demonstrated the division of the earthly city against itself; while the conflict between Cain and Abel displayed the hostility between the two cities themselves, the City of God and the city of men. Thus the wicked fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked.

The city of man built on love of human glory and power is inherently destructive. It not only opposes the good, but eventually tears itself apart. Because human glory is a limited resource, those who desire it cannot share it. And, what’s more, they even hate those who do not seek it, because it seems to diminish their own pursuit of it. Try to opt out of the competition and it makes the prize at the end seem all the less desirable.

But what of the love of the city of God? What of the desire to possess goodness?

A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them. In fact, anyone who refuses to enjoy this possession in partnership will not enjoy it at all; and he will find that he possesses it in ampler measure in proportion to his ability to love his partner in it.

Love of good and the God who is the Good is an inherently social love. Those who have it naturally seek out fellow citizens who with whom to delight and rejoice together. And this is the joy of the Heavenly Jerusalem that descends from above. There the citizens of the City of God will have their eternal good and delight together in their unchanging possession of, or rather, possession by, the Infinite, Unlimited Subject of their affection.

 

Soli Deo Gloria 

Predicting the Moral Weather 16 Centuries Early

crowdContinuing his defense of Christ against the charges of the pagans who attribute the fall of Rome to abandoning, the old Roman gods, in Book II chapter 20 Augustine takes a brief chapter to discuss the preferred moral ethos of the pagan critics. As I read his, obviously unsympathetic, exposition of the “kind of felicity the opponents of Christianity wish to enjoy”, as the title of the chapter goes, I couldn’t help but note the numerous parallels to be found in the reigning ethos of our contemporary, capitalist, liberal (in the classic and modern sense), democratic culture. At the heart of Augustine’s critique is how little they care about the actual moral character of their citizens. As long as they are materially okay and everyone is broadly freed to do whatever they want, then they’ll be happy.

What I’d like to simply do is quote and then comment, drawing out links to the present.

‘So long as it lasts,’ they say, ‘so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of piece, why should we worry?

I mean, right off the bat: material prosperity, military victory, and peace. What’s more American than that?

What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right for the poor to serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make sue of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride;

An increasing gap between rich and poor, with varying responses to the problem, at once sounding like liberal and conservative solutions to the problem.

if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice;

There are any number of examples here but can we stop and think for a minute about the glorification of celebrity culture for a minute? Name the last ethicist who got serious air-time or public accolades? Now, how many film, TV, and music awards shows do we have every year?

if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights;

Self-explanatory, but we are not a responsibility culture. We are a culture of personal freedom and autonomy that extends in all directions. Well, as long as nobody messes with each other’s stuff:

if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect.

Here we begin to get into those features of modern culture caught up with our differing conception of the role of government, but it’s been a long time since we’ve understood it as an instrument of moral formation for our society. Governments are increasingly seen as referees making sure nobody plays too rough.  Governmental respect is low, but as long as we fear its power.

The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a mans own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s proper, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his won, or with others, if they consent.

Again, the assumption that the character of the citizenry is a moral concern of government is gone–and there’s something inevitable about that when you’re trying to manage a pluralistic culture. Still, minimalistic, consent-based moralities are increasingly seen as the norm to which we should be aspiring.

There should be plentiful supply of public prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially for those who cannot keep private mistresses.

Don’t mess with my porn, bro.

It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick; to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence.

Luxury and opulence are not an object of reproach. The idea that certain forms of financial extravagance are obscene–that there even is such a thing as financial extravagance–is for communists. Various forms of gluttony, both of the garden-variety or the more delicate tastes of the foodie class, binge-drinking, and so forth, can be noted to be on the rise.

Most interesting is the reaction of the mob against anybody who raises a protest:

Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority; he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living.

If this sound unfamiliar to you, then you haven’t been paying attention to the drift of most public discourse over the last few years. Obviously, the rhetoric is a bit soaring, but the fact of the matter is that dissent from the partyline on the nature of freedom, autonomy, and so forth is increasingly marginalized and given no space in academic forums and eventually the public square.

Finally, the idolatrous root is arrived at.

We should reckon the true gods to be those who see that the people get this happiness and then preserve it for them. Then let them be worshipped as they wish, let them demand what shows they like, so that they can enjoy them with their devotees, or, at least, receive them from their worshippers. All the gods have to do is ensure that there is no threat to this happiness from enemies, or plagues, or any other disasters.’

Whether it’s the hands-off god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that only wants us to be happy or just your more average cultural deification of created goods, we trust the “gods” who promise to give us these basic ultimate values. We will serve whatever god serves us best.

Obviously, this is all a bit dark and pessimistic. It’s an evaluation that needs to be paired with Augustine’s underlying confidence and hope for history because of the work of Christ. Still, the moral insight is prescient, revealing a pattern, a tapestry that seems to be reweaving itself before our very eyes. Of course, it wasn’t the end of the Church then and, though in post-Christendom we face a somewhat different challenge, it won’t be now. Still, it’s good to recognize the pattern for what it is–its interconnections and precedents.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine, Friends Who Are Enemies, and Hope in the Middle of History

StAugustineA little less than 100 years after Christ triumphed over the old Roman gods, the Goths under the Arian-Christian King Alaric followed suit and sacked Rome–mostly just to show they could. The physical impact was relatively minimal but, as historians are quick to point out, the political and psychological impact was cataclysmic. Among varied responses to the sack were those of the pagans who laid Rome’s historic defeat at the feet of the Christians and their new God. By abandoning the sacrifices of the old gods, they had provoked them, lost their protection, and had been left defenseless against the assault.

It was in response to this reality that Augustine of Hippo penned one of his crowning theological achievements The City of God. His basic point was to answer the charges of the pagans, but in the process he lays out a broad vision of God, his purposes in history, politics, philosophy, and dozens, if not hundreds of other issues.

To my shame, I must say that despite good intentions for many years, I have only just begun to read it this week and it’s already repaying with insights relevant to the present moment. One passage in particular in Chapter 35 of Book 1 is worth meditating on for a bit:

But let this city bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hidden those who are destined to be fellow citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theatres with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are predestined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation.

The line that really grabbed me was that bit about “among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are predestined to become our friends.” According to Augustine there are Two Cities in the world, the City of God and the City of Man, and until the future judgment, her citizenry are mixed up and jumbled together–hidden, as it were, in plain sight.

History is not immediately transparent before our eyes. Eschatological judgment and the course of history under the guidance of God’s providence will contain surprises that unsettle our too-confident sense that we have a read on things as they are. From this truth, Augustine deduces that Christians are not to despair in the face of even the most virulent opposition.

Why? Because in the sovereign grace of God, it may be that our bitterest enemies may end up our staunchest friends. It is very easy when looking out at the headlines today to embrace a narrative of decline–which may be more or less correct–and then conclude we must settle for a defeatist attitude, bunker up in our churches, and wait out the storm. Or, more personally, it’s possible to look out at our Facebook feeds, Twitter threads, and look at some whom we see to be most hostile, vocal, and critical towards Christian faith and its moral vision, and simply write people off. In our arrogance and finitude, we freeze them as they are, passing judgment before the time (1 Cor. 4),

Augustine has a far different view. God is not bound by the exigencies of history. Trajectories exist, it is true, but God is the God who is Lord over history, both cosmic and personal. What’s more, he is the God of mysterious grace. This is why Augustine can urge hope for our “enemies”–the grace of God overcomes the opposition of those who hate him, through the good news of the gospel. Augustine knew this personally because of his own story of conversion from scoffer to Bishop. But also because of the Apostle whose letters exerted such a magnificent influence on his own theology: Paul, the chief persecutor of the Church whom God called to be her greatest missionary and theologian.

In other words, it is a betrayal of the gospel to lose hope for our enemies, our communities, or even a culture that seems dead-set to gut whatever is left of its philosophical underpinnings inherited from the gospel.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Augustine if he didn’t also highlight the inverse truth: some of our current friends may turn out to be ultimately false believers who end up abandoning and betraying the gospel. We can all think of any number of friends or pastors who seemed to start out so strong, but before the end, turn away and–even worse–drag a number with them. This is the Augustinian limit and caution on hope: set it on the right object.

Our hope for the world, for our neighbor, even our enemies, is ultimately not in human teachers, political programs, or the right method of “engagement.” Our hope is in the God who speaks the world out of nothing, light out of darkness, and a word of justification in the midst of the most damnable moment in history–the cross of his own Son.

We have reason for hope–his name is Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Ring, the Giver, and the Bridezilla Inside Us All

bridezillas-showTrue story:  I won’t say when and I won’t say how, but I have seen episodes of the show Bridezillas. Mostly in horror. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it’s essentially a reality show that follows soon-to-be, hysterical, tyrannical, drama-queen brides as they prepare for their weddings. The show is a parade of varying levels of emotional and relational dysfunction, narcissism, horrible family patterns, and mayhem with humorous commentary.  Obviously, all the caveats, warnings, and self-deprecating comments about voyeuristic reality shows can be inserted here.

Still, I was reminded of the show the other day when I ran across a passage in Augustine that I think cuts to the heart of the most horrifying thing about most of the brides on the show. Augustine is preaching about the proper relationship of Christians to the world and what it means not to “love the world, neither the things that are in the world.” He is careful to distinguish between loving the world as a created gift (ie. heaven, moon, sun, earth, oceans, etc), and loving it as an end in itself:

Let the Spirit of God be in you, that you may see that all these things are good: but woe to you if you love the things made, and forsake the Maker of them! Fair are they to you: but how much fairer He  God does not forbid you to love these things, howbeit, not to set your affections upon them for blessedness, but to approve and praise them to this end, that you may love your Creator. In the same manner, my brethren, as if a bridegroom should make a ring for his bride, and she having received the ring, should love it more than she loves the bridegroom who made the ring for her: would not her soul be found guilty of adultery in the very gift of the bridegroom, albeit she did but love what the bridegroom gave her? By all means let her love what the bridegroom gave: yet should she say, This ring is enough for me, I do not wish to see his face now, what sort of woman would she be? Who would not detest such folly? Who would not pronounce her guilty of an adulterous mind? You love gold in place of the man, lovest a ring in place of the bridegroom: if this be in you, that you love a ring in place of your bridegroom, and hast no wish to see your bridegroom; that he has given you an earnest, serves not to pledge you to him, but to turn away your heart from him! For this the bridegroom gives earnest, that in his earnest he may himself be loved. Well then, God gave you all these things: love Him that made them. There is more that He would fain give you, that is, His very Self that made these things. But if you love these— what though God made them— and neglect the Creator and love the world; shall not your love be accounted adulterous?

-2nd Homily on the First Epistle of John

The horror of watching some of these Bridezillas, aside from the blatant idolatry of the bride who says “It’s all about me”, is the way obsession about the wedding, the dress, the ring, and all the trappings and accoutrements eclipses any sane focus on the marriage or impending union with the groom. There are a number of episodes where the bride’s fixation on having the perfect wedding, perfect ceremony and party, so engulfs her that she pours out abuse upon abuse on her family, friends, and alleged love of her life. You could easily imagine her dispensing with the groom entirely if it weren’t for the fact that it would ruin the balance of the pictures.

And this, of course, is the deepest horror of it all: in viewing the Bridezilla, we find ourselves exposed. The worship of the wedding on the part of the Zilla is just a microcosm of my daily temptation to worship creation instead of the Creator. I am the Bride who focuses on the Ring instead of the Giver of the ring. Every time I look to God and accuse him of not arranging my life in the particular ways I picture it playing out, I am, in effect, focusing on the quality of the gold, the shape of the diamond, and the way it sits on my finger instead of the glory, goodness, and generosity of the God who gives me these things that I do not deserve. (Note: do not read this as a comment on the relative worth of brides and husbands on the human plane.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a beautiful wedding. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying God’s creation and even desiring it. Augustine reminds us, though, that the things of the world, all that shines and is fair, becomes an idol unless it is taken for what it is: a gift and a token of something of far surpassing worth.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Friendly Rejoinder to a Response to a Reply to a Defense of the Term “Savages”

Last week Andrew Walker and Owen Strachan wrote a piece defending Chris Kyle’s use of the term “savages” to name his opponents. I followed it up with a piece questioning some aspects of that defence. This week Andrew had a friendly response to my critique. If you haven’t already, please read these before going further as I won’t be recapping the arguments. Also, please note, if you comment in a way that indicates you have not read the articles, I’ll likely ignore you.

That out of the way, what I want to do is just give a quick, friendly follow-up to clarify my points in contrast and agreement with Walker.

First, I hope I did not give the impression that Christians ought not name evil in stark, appropriate terms. Indeed, I noted that I was grateful to Walker and Strachan for making that broader point. Naming actions as wicked, evil, idolatrous, violent, and so forth are necessary for proper Christian speech. So, just to be clear, I have no problem labeling the atrocities recently perpetrated by ISIS as wicked, grotesque, cruel, and utterly appalling. In that sense, I find a larger, broader agreement with Walker and Strachan in the principle of naming evil as evil.

What I was suggesting was a nuance on the point. I proposed that we ought to be sure we take into account the historical dimension of speech, paying attention, not only to the dictionary denotation of a term, but the socio-cultural connotations of a particular term like “savage.” Walker disputes that point:

Implied in his criticism of us is that naming something as evil or “savage” can or should be conditioned or governed by externalities that have nothing to do with the evil being perpetrated. On this, I simply disagree.

As Walker says, evil is no respecter of persons and our naming of evil should not be. Our naming of evil should be carried on without fear of social and cultural realities as long as we’re equal-opportunity offenders:

And I agree, fiercely, with a recent headline “When ISIS Ran the American South” from Rod Dreher, who linked to a story out of The New York Times that described the barbaric, savage practice of lynching in the American South. I’ll willingly be an equal opportunity offender: Those Americans who perpetrated lynchings acted as savages, driven by irrational motive and employing brutal tactics that were unspeakably awful (and what is incalculably terrible is that many who professed Christ were the evildoers. Maranatha!). I’m not concerned about the feelings of any American who felt they were somehow justified to commit barbaric acts against their fellow citizens because of their skin color. I want to confront that past evil, name it, and work to end future occurrences of it.

Where evil is practiced, let us call it evil, barbarous, and savagery—regardless of culture, race, or ethnicity. Let not the troubled conscience of past sins erode our ability to name evil for what it truly is. Let us be aware of the points of vulnerability, but let not that impede the opportunity to speak in morally stark terms that seeks to restrain the evildoer and rescue the innocent.

I appreciate Walker’s egalitarian approach to condemnation and discernment, as well as Dreher’s willingness to remind Americans of their own possibility of descending into “savagery.” Indeed, in my pastoral care, I repeatedly remind my students of those age-old gospel truths of the universality of judgment and, correspondingly, of the opportunities of grace.

Still, my point is that church leaders need to take care about those “points of vulnerability” in which our chosen terms of moral condemnation can carry a weight that gets away from us. Speech-act theorists have noted the way that the utterances we use (locutions) to say what we want to say (illocutions) can have an effect (perlocutionary force) that carries beyond what we intended. What happens when we invoke terms like “savage” are a good example of that.

When I wrote the initial article, some people were skeptical that race was or even could be a dimension in the use of terms like “savage” for Iraqi soldiers and so forth. In their minds, it was clearly linked to acts of particular political actors associated with particular ideologies and so the condemnation stops there. Let me, at this point, be even blunter than I was in my article. For a lot of people that’s simply not the case.

What do I mean? I know this is a bit anecdotal, but not four days ago, when a woman at a coffee shop found out I was a Palestinian and a Presbyterian, she asked me with great shock about my conversion from Islam. Because that’s obviously what happened. I’m an Arab, so I must have been a Muslim growing up. For her, me saying “Palestinian” just meant “Muslim.”  For many there is an utter lack of awareness of the longstanding history of Christianity in Palestine or the large percentage of Arab Christians in the region as well as the US. Despite what I said, her own preconceptions based on her culture, history, and so forth, determined the meaning of what I said. My illocution had an unintended, but predictable perlocutionary force. This why my dad has historically described himself as a “Christian Palestinian” to forestall the nearly inevitable misunderstanding.

Now, this is a fairly innocuous example. Still, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes trolling through Twitter, Facebook groups, or even just local political commentary at the water-cooler, to see that for a number of Americans and Westerners, even some sitting in certain churches, there is an indiscernible mass of Muslim/Terrorist/Arab/Enemy/Violent-Degenerate. It is for that reason that I raise a caution about the way holding up possibly language about “savages” as morally exemplary can play into this sort of thing.

And this is where I do something that I don’t particularly enjoy doing because of how staunchly conservative I was raised. Returning to the point about being an “equal opportunity offender” on this score. One friend (not Walker) pointed out after my last article that my ethnic background seemed to be playing a role in my reasoning. I agreed. It does. My rejoinder was that so did his. When it comes to the language of “savages”, that’s a lot easier to do when you’re not the brown guy whose ancestry, religion, and culture have historically been the ones under suspicion in the majority culture.

I suppose that’s the sort of sensitivity I’m talking about. I’m not saying we ought to neglect moral language. I’m saying take care of the context in which you use it and choose your terms carefully. Precisely because we want to avoid becoming a “respecter of persons”, it pays to be respecters of context.

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Helpful Words Before You Preach That Awkward Word

awkwardEvery pastor has sermons that they hate to preach, especially when it comes to cultural flashpoints. Unless you’re a glutton for conflict, or you’ve got nerves of steel, the thought of misunderstanding, rejection, or turning someone off from the Gospel because you’ve got to preach on that subject this week when Joe happens to be bringing his 10 unsaved, unchurched friends might just cause you some nerves.

The tension is there for various reasons. First, you want to be faithful to God’s word. You don’t want to hem or hedge or cover over what God has spoken. It’s God’s word and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s truth that, even when it cuts, leads to the beautiful healing brought about by the Spirit. Then again, you also want people to properly hear what was actually spoken, as opposed to what they’ve been culturally-trained to hear as soon as a couple of key buzzwords are dropped. As wonderful as the Word is, aside from our own natural resistance, people have mishandled it, creating a natural, understandable hesitation about certain hot-button topics.

In these situations, I have found that it’s helpful to say a few words before, or with, or after, those words we’re a little worried to utter or expound. Consider them framing words. They help set up, frame, or prepare your people to process what you’re about to say. To use an odd, distracting image, it’s like trying to clear some wax out of the ears before putting in headphones. You want as little hindering your people as possible. What’s more, these are the kinds of helpful conversation-framers that teach your people how to talk to outsiders beyond Sunday morning in the pews. By the way, at the outset, you need to know that I probably got all of these from Tim Keller at some point.

So what are these ‘words’?

1. Culture changes, so do our presuppositions. The first point is that our moral intuitions, while there for our good, are culturally-shaped, and therefore pretty malleable. Things that just “felt wrong” to people 60 years ago, didn’t feel wrong 60 years before that, and vice versa. Or again, things that just “seem obviously right” to someone in the Middle East, will “seem obviously wrong” to someone in downtown Chicago. Yes, there is a fundamental human nature, with instincts for the basic shape of right and wrong, but like our sense of fashion it’s got a certain sense drift. We’ve worn jeans for a while now, but in the 90s they were baggy and under your butt. Now, they’re skinny compressed. At both times, they “feel right” as pants, despite their wide difference.

In a similar way, some of the Bible’s answers will make intuitive sense to people out in the culture and sometimes they won’t. Right now the Bible’s answers about grounding the nature of human rights, cultivating empathy, compassion and forgiveness, all resonate with our culture even if they don’t buy the story. In other areas like sex and money, the Bible’s message is going to grate. Sometimes, then, the Bible’s answers are like an odd image on puzzle-piece. It’s only when you’ve placed it in the broader picture, that it will make any sense.

2. The Unchanging Cultural Universal. The next truth that goes hand in hand with the last point is that no culture has ever been universally right on every point. Every culture has blind spots. As Lewis has pointed out before, we might look back on the Medievals and judge them for their violence and love of marshall conquest, while they would look at an age like ours and wonder at our cheap view of sex, or physical cowardice. Compassion towards outsiders might be a premium we champion, but our lack of loyalty in marriage, or our workaholism and materialistic consumerism are things that other ages and cultures would look at us and shake their heads at. Just like human individuals, the Bible teaches that human cultures are both filled with common grace truth and yet broken by sin. If that’s the case, if the Bible is the transcultural truth of God, wouldn’t we expect for it to affirm and challenge each culture and age in different spots?

3. First Things First.  Next, and this one is mostly for the skeptics or newbies checking out the faith, keep first things first. As Keller asks in The Reason for God, “Surely you don’t want to say that just because you don’t like what the Bible says about, issue x (women, same-sex marriage, etc) you don’t believe Jesus rose from dead? You wouldn’t want to make such a non-sequitur.” The point is this: Figure out the main things first and then come back for the tough, but peripheral stuff. There is an order of importance in the Christian faith for which beliefs ground other beliefs. In other words, who cares what the Bible says about contraception or gender roles if Jesus never rose from the dead? If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then, as Paul says, “your faith is futile and you’re still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:12-20), so who cares right? So, if you’re troubled and new and don’t know what to think, that’s okay. Read and learn. But first, tackle the bigger issues like God, Christ, the nature of salvation, and then wrestle with what the Bible says about your pet issue.

4. If Jesus Did Rise… Now, for those of us who have come to the conclusion that Jesus did rise from the dead and he’s the Creator of all things and Cosmic Lord of the Universe, well, then it’s time to wrestle with the Bible he affirmed as true and authoritative. It’s not possible to say to him, “Jesus, you’re my Lord, my Savior, and I trust you with my eternal destiny when I die” and then turn around and add “but right there, what you said about my bank account (sex life, marriage, time, etc), is kind of off, so I’ll have to pass.” It just doesn’t work. Now, you may take a while to study and figure out what the Bible is saying, but after you’ve said yes to Jesus, straight-up disagreement is not an option.

So there you go. Obviously, you don’t have to frame them the way I did. And, it would probably be a good idea to go cruise through Keller’s Reason for God at some point if you haven’t, just to get the clearer version of all of these. Still, points like these are worth making. And now that I think about it, they’re good, not only during the particular sermon in question, but regularly, during all sorts of sermons. You often need to be tilling the soil long before planting season if it’s going to be ready to receive the more difficult seed you want to sow.

Of course, above all, trust God himself to be at work in the Word by his Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Evangelical Church Listicles Waiting to Be Written

There’s a certain kind of self-indulgent listicle that keeps being written about nearly everybody. You know the kind. “18 Things Only Introverts Will Get.” “95 Reasons Whovians Are Imaginative Flowers.” “13 GIFs to Explain Why Left-Handed Shamans Are the Best Spiritual Advisers.” They’re mostly harmless bits of “Hey, someone else gets me too!” Buzzfeedery, if a bit narcissistic. My problem comes when these types of articles are written with an air of revelatory gravity.

The Holy Grail, for me, consists of the listicles related to “millennials”, the church, and, of course, the failures of Evangelicalism. Often times they’re little more than performative exercises in show-martyrdom. Mostly fruitless, they tend to do little more than reinforce our over-weening sense of entitlement, aggrievement, and disaffection from the Church.

Even though they’re kind of paint-by-numbers predictable at this point, they’re still good one thing: getting shares and clicks for bloggers.

Now, maybe it was sympathy, or despair, but I reached a point today where I figured, “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em”, and so I decided to propose a few future titles on Twitter for a possible listicle of my own. I present them here for your approval. Also, because I probably don’t have anything else to write at this point.

And finally,

If you’ve got any suggestions of your own, go ahead and leave them in the comments. I just want to make sure if I write it, my list is the listiest and clickiest of them all.

Soli Deo Gloria