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

How (American) Christians Ought to Respond to the Midterm Elections

flagMany wouldn’t guess this by my writings here, but I am a recovering political junkie. From childhood on, I used to be frenetically concerned with all things politics. Reading the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page by junior high, my dad kept me informed by printing out reams of political analysis every week for me to take to school and read in boring classes. It was fun. I like the horserace elements, the ideological battles, the speculation, and everything that went with it. It was like sports for me, only with old white dudes not doing anything. Kind of like golf, I guess.

These days, I’ve cooled off a bit. Not because politics aren’t important, mind you–they are. I’ve simply had a shift in intellectual priorities. Most of the time, the day to day quirks of my job don’t require a detailed knowledge of which piece of legislation got passed today. Still, right around now, midterms and the presidential elections, some of the old fire comes back and I care again.

Now, I’m still not going to say much about the meaning of what happened on Tuesday. The internet is full of political speculation about whether or not these elections favored conservatives or only disfavored Democrats, what implications this holds for the next two years, or whether Kim Kardashian will make a run in 2016. (Though, I do think I have some solid thoughts on that last one.)

What I will do is ask all of my politically-concerned brothers and sisters one question: Are you praying now?

I don’t mean to be a self-righteous pontificator, Jesus-juking everybody who’s more tightly caught up in this, but I really want us to honestly ask that question. When I was a political junkie, even though I was a Christian who read, prayed, and cared, I didn’t really think to obey one of the only truly clear commands in Scripture about Christians and the political process:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Republican or Democrat, whoever did or didn’t win  in your district, whatever idiotic ballot proposals did or didn’t pass, you as a Christian have at least one clear command about how to respond to the midterm elections: pray for whoever’s coming in.

Pray for wisdom to conquer folly.

Pray for righteousness to trump pragmatism.

Pray for bravery to overwhelm cowardice.

Pray for a vision of the common good to overcome personal greed.

Pray for the shalom of the city to bury its violence.

Pray for the salvation of whoever has come to power so that they may know the joy of Jesus Christ and then be guided by God’s Spirit to govern in ways that reflect the goodness of God’s kingdom for the sake of all.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Progressive Evangelical Package (Mere Orthodoxy)

It’s no secret that Reformed Christians have built their own wing of the internet where they spend their time chatting among themselves. They police certain key boundaries and dissent from some of these can (rightly or wrongly) bring about serious criticism. While there is more diversity among the Reformed than critics usually want to recognize, there can also be a heavy pressure to conform to the ‘standard’. Given the more consciously confessional (and I do use the term somewhat broadly) ethos among the Reformed, it’s rather unsurprising that this should be the case.

The progressive Evangelicals now have their own wing, though, ostensibly with an emphasis on diversity and a marked aversion to foreclosing conversations or policing boundaries. The idea that there is a strict standard, a party line you have to tow in order to be a part of the club, is supposed to be foreign to the Progressive internet’s ethos. That’s for the heresy-hunting, conservative builders of Evangelical empire, after all, rather than the “radically inclusive” prophets of a more Christ-like faith. Unlike their conservative counterparts, Progressives follow a Jesus who came to tear down the walls that divide, not put new doctrinal ones back up.

Those are the stereotypes, at least. But it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this picture if we take a look at the actual situation on the ground.

There may not be a Progressive Gospel(s) Federation with explicit standards we can look to, but there are certain tenets that are increasingly defining what I’ve dubbed the “Progressive Evangelical Package.” The theological scene is beginning to mirror the political two-party system such that if you hold one or two of these positions, or want to have a voice in the Progressive conversation, it’s likely there is heavy pressure on you to begin affirming all or most of them.

These tenets do not mark out a monolith. There are undoubtedly figures who don’t fit the description, just like there are figures who spend lots of time in the Reformed world who don’t fit the characterization above, either. I maintain that they signal a trend, though.

You can read the rest of the article at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria