Hunger Games, Dystopia, and Two Kinds of Slavery

catching fireThis week the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire hits the big screen. Last year I read The Hunger Games right before the movie came out, and this year I decided to do the same. In the middle of it I was reminded of Andrew Wilson’s insightful analysis of the Hunger Games in light of the two classic, modern dystopias of the 20th Century 1984 and A Brave New World: 

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, as has often been pointed out, imagined two very different dystopias. In 1984, written just after the Second World War, Orwell depicts the forces that held people captive as fundamentally external: coercion, espionage, laws, constraints, threats, lies, the state. By contrast, Huxley’s Brave New World, published just after the Wall Street crash had turned the excess of the twenties into the Great Depression of the thirties, portrays a future in which people are enslaved to forces within themselves: desire, inanity, hedonism, egotism, fatuity. For all the similarities between the two books, it is this difference that is the most striking.

Wilson goes on to point out that the Orwellian slavery is what we in the anti-authoritarian West tend to think of, while the ancients were more focused on avoiding the Huxleyan kind. The remarkable thing about Collins’ works is how she manages to counterpoint both conceptions in the Hunger Games series:

These Huxleyan and Orwellian dystopias, and ancient and modern conceptions of freedom, are juxtaposed (whether deliberately or not) in intriguing fashion in Suzanne Collins’ immensely popular The Hunger Games. The inhabitants of District 12, including the protagonist Katniss Everdeen, are enslaved in a very obvious, Orwellian way: through coercion, draconian laws, sanctions, electrified fences, and deprivation.

Those who live in the Capitol, by contrast, are in bondage in the ancient, more Huxleyan sense, with their vacuous pastimes, obsession with appearance, absurd make-up, and inane conversation bearing witness to the invisible chains of unconstrained desire. The citizens of the Capitol appear free when compared with those in the districts, but they too are trapped, and prevented from flourishing as humans. If anything, the sheer emptiness of the lives they lead make them more pitiable than Katniss, Peeta, and the rest.

For most of us, thinking of the latter group as pitiable is mostly foreign. Still, a truly Christian vision of freedom needs to understand and fully integrate both emphasis if it’s to be in light with the picture given to us in the Bible:

Yet if the human is to be seen as body and soul, physical and spiritual, object and subject, political and religious, then our vision of freedom needs to incorporate both modern and ancient perspectives as well. The fact that the state is best equipped to promote political freedom, which I take for granted, does not mean that it is the only sort of freedom there is.

The Judeo-Christian tradition holds both types of liberation—from the other and from the self—together, with its repeated emphasis on the concept of redemption. Israel is set free from slavery in Egypt through the Exodus, but immediately requires rescuing from her carnality and idolatrous desires in the wilderness. The prophet Isaiah describes the political redemption from Babylon that Judah will experience (chapters 41-48), and then looks forward to the spiritual redemption from sin that will follow (chapters 49-55). Jesus himself articulates his mission in Isaianic terms, promising both freedom for captives and forgiveness for sinners.

If you’re interested, (and I suggest you should be), you can read the rest of the article here.

Happy Hunger Games!

Soli Deo Gloria

If Grace, Then Sin?

cough syrupGod saves us by sheer grace; we cannot earn it and none of our good works can procure it. God justifies us because we have trusted in and united to Christ’s work on our behalf, his sin-bearing death and his life-giving resurrection. That’s the gist of the Gospel of Paul according to the Reformation.

As we noted the other day, one of the great objections leveled against the Gospel of the Reformers was that it was an invitation to license: “If God saves us by grace, then why be good? Won’t people just keep sinning if they know they’re going to be forgiven?” This isn’t a crazy question either. Any pastor who has tried to preach the Gospel to his people will have had it come up. Paul apparently did.

In his letter to the Romans, he asks question of a hypothetical interlocutor:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1)

His answer?

“By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2)

John Calvin takes up Paul’s denunciation and briefly outlines the Reformed response to the charge against the Gospel of grace, both by critics, and by sinners who’d love to take advantage of it. Commenting on the Romans 6:2, and summarizing the argument to follow:

[It is] an argument derived from what is of an opposite character. “He who sins certainly lives to sin; we have died to sin through the grace of Christ; then it is false, that what abolishes sin gives vigor to it.” The state of the case is really this, — that the faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of regeneration; nay, we are for this end justified, — that we may afterwards serve God in holiness of life. Christ indeed does not cleanse us by his blood, nor render God propitious to us by his expiation, in any other way than by making us partakers of his Spirit, who renews us to a holy life. It would then be a most strange inversion of the work of God were sin to gather strength on account of the grace which is offered to us in Christ; for medicine is not a feeder of the disease, which it destroys. We must further bear in mind, what I have already referred to — that Paul does not state here what God finds us to be, when he calls us to an union with his Son, but what it behoves us to be, after he has had mercy on us, and has freely adopted us; for by an adverb, denoting a future time, he shows what kind of change ought to follow righteousness.

Comment on Romans 6:2

Once again we come back to the reality of double-gift we receive in union with Christ. There is no grace of justification and forgiveness that comes separated from the Holy Spirit’s work of cleansing regeneration. The “medicine” of grace doesn’t make sin stronger, but destroys it at the root. This is why, though we are saved not by our works, we are never saved without them. Though we are not accepted because of our obedience, the truly accepted will obey.

Paul’s solution to licentiousness is not to add more imperatives in bolder print. It is not making the indicatives dependent on the imperatives. It is preaching the indicatives with greater clarity and force that the imperatives naturally follow. Actually, it is through our teaching people clearly the truth of their saving union with Christ, the gift of forgiveness and free justification, and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit,  that the Holy Spirit actually increases their faith, thereby cutting the root of their sin: unbelief.

So, does preaching grace too strongly merely encourage sin? No, it’s our greatest weapon against it. The reality we have to continually keep in mind is that the medicine is working at the deepest core of our being. It’s the difference between an antibiotic that kills the bacteria and a cough medicine that simply deals with symptoms. Just looking at the symptoms, it might seem like it’s not having any effect. Underneath though, the deep reality is that it is eating away at the bacteria of sin in our lives, eradicating it from the inside out.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Reasons Membership in a Local Church Matters

Leeman-Church-MembershipIronically enough, I don’t think I knew what church membership was until I went to a a big mega-church that told people on a regular basis that they didn’t need to become one. I had grown up with parents who functioned as committed members of their churches, but conceptually the idea of formal membership in a local body was foreign to me until a few years ago.

At the risk of over-generalizing, I think that’s about where your average American Christian (evangelical) is nowadays. Insofar as we’ve actually given any thought to the issue, we go to church, maybe plug in to a church, or at most commit to a church. But, formally belong to one? Like on a list? With like a signature and stuff? In our individualistic, consumeristic, anti-authoritarian society, that sounds too rigid, too formal, and just bizarre. The church is a family, a community where I go to get fed and built up in my faith, not some organization or institution I belong to.

For a while now I’ve been getting over that kind of knee-jerk, anti-institutional way of thinking. I mean, I’m at a Presbyterian church for crying out loud. Still, at the suggestion of a friend I finally picked up Jonathan Leeman’s couple of books on church membership and discipline (The Church and the Surprising Offense of the Love of God, Church Membership), and found his arguments challenging and largely persuasive. The issue is a big deal, and membership in the local body is far more central to being a Christian than most of us are used to thinking.

In one little section Leeman helpful summarizes a key section of his argument into 12 reasons membership in a local body matters:

  1. It’s biblical. Jesus established the local church and all the apostles did their ministry through it. The Christian life in the New Testament is church life. Christians today should expect and desire the same.
  2. The church is its members. To be a church in the New Testament is to be one of its members (read through Acts). And you want to be part of the church because that’s who Jesus came to rescue and reconcile to himself.
  3. It’s a prerequisite for the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a meal for the gathered church, that is, for members (see 1 Cor. 11:20-33). And you want to take the Lord’s Supper. It’s the team flag that makes the church team visible to the nations.
  4. It’s how you officially represent Jesus. Membership is the church’s affirmation that you are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and therefore a pass-port carrying Jesus representative before the nations. And you want your representation to be authorized. Closely related to this…
  5. It’s how you declare your highest allegiance. Your membership on the team, which becomes visible when you wave the flag of the Lord’s Supper, is a public testimony belongs to Jesus. Trials and persecution may come, but your only words are, “I am a Christian.”
  6. It’s how you embody and experience biblical images. It’s within the accountability structures of the local church that Christians live and experience the interconnectivity of the body, the spiritual fullness of his temple, and the safety and intimacy and shared identity of his family.
  7. It’s how you serve other Christians. Membership helps you know which Christians on planet Earth you are specifically responsible to love, serve, warn, and encourage. It enables you to fulfill your biblical responsibilities to Christ’s body (for example, see Eph. 4:11-16; 25-32).
  8. It’s how you follow Christian leaders. Membership helps you know which Christian leaders on planet Earth you are called to obey and follow. Again, it allows you to fulfill your biblical responsibility to them (see Heb. 13:7, 17).
  9. It helps Christian leaders lead. Membership lets Christian leaders know which Christians on planet Earth they will “give an account” for (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).
  10. It enables church discipline. It gives you the biblically prescribed place to participate in the work of church discipline responsibly, wisely, and lovingly (1 Cor. 5).
  11. It gives structure to your Christian life. It places an individual Christian’s claim to obey and follow Jesus into a real-life setting where authority is actually exercised over us (see John 14:15; 1 John 2:19; 4:20-21). It’s God’s discipling program. 
  12. It builds a witness and invites the nations. Membership puts the alternative rule of Christ on display for the watching universe (see Matt. 5:11; John 12:34-35; Eph. 3:10; 1 Pet. 2:9-12). The very boundaries, which are drawn around the membership of a church, yield a society of people that invites the nations to something better. It’s God’s evangelism program. 

Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, pg. 79-81

Membership matters then–a whole lot more than most of us are used to acknowledging. The local body is key to mission. It’s key to discipleship. It’s key to actually following Jesus instead of just claiming to.

For the unconvinced, I’d recommend picking up Leeman’s little, and I mean very little book, and examining the biblical arguments for yourself. (If you’re up to it, I highly recommend his bigger book.) Even if you don’t come away convinced of every point, you’ll be challenged to take a deeper view of what it means to be a part of the body, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Tips for Keeping It Clean In Your Dating Relationship

awkward dateSo, I work with college students. Sometimes they like to date each other. Being human, with normal, God-given (but fallen) physical desires they also want to do stuff together while they’re dating. You know–sexy stuff. Of course, most of them who’ve been around long enough have learned that the Bible says the sexy stuff is God’s good, beautiful, and pleasurable idea for knitting a man and a woman together in marriage. In the meantime then, I’ll have couples approach me wondering if there are ways that they can continue to build their relationships in holy, appropriate ways, and avoid temptation.

Now, I remind them that it’s not just about not breaking rules–it’s an issue of the heart. I remind them of the grace of the Gospel for any past or future failure, and that this is not the one, irrevocable sin.  I encourage them to look to Christ, develop their relationship with him, and all the good spiritual, foundational stuff. But then, well, I get “practical” and offer them a few (slightly humorous) tips that helped my wife and I during the (four!) years we were dating.

I can’t emphasize enough that these are not laws, but general guidelines that help you obey God’s laws for your good. These are not hard and fast unbreakable rules. They are wisdom, though. Some of them may seem childish or nit-picky. You might think read them, roll your eyes, and think “Really? Come on, I’m not an animal!” True, but you’re not an angel either, and following these can help you honor God in your dating relationship:

  1. Clothes are not optional. But seriously, stay fashionable–in your clothes.
  2. If no one’s home, you’re not home. This might narrow your hang-out options initially, but it forces you to be creative. I really can’t stress this one enough.
  3. Cars are fun when you’re driving. When stationary, you can get in an accident.
  4. Give someone you trust absolute authority to speak into your life and talk to you about this area whenever. Also, don’t lie to them.
  5. Consider the consequences on a regular basis.
  6. Pray at the beginning of your dates.
  7. “Napping” together is stupid. Falling asleep during a movie is one thing, but otherwise…nah.
  8. And God said, “Let there be light…”
  9. Private porn usage always makes a public appearance. Eventually, porn shapes the way you act with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Avoid it at all costs.
  10. Spas are fun group activities.
  11. God gave you legs for a reason. Run when you have to.
  12. Have this conversation often. Re-affirm and re-commit to biblical guidelines and standards for your relationship.

Above all of these, of course, is to constantly be chasing Christ. Tips and rules can help for a while, but it’s the deeper holiness comes through the Spirit of Holiness changing our affections from within through the grace of the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Much Theology Should Couples Agree on Before They Get Married? (TGC)

cake-marriage-300x225I’ll admit, this isn’t a typical question most Christian singles, or even couples, are asking. Most are still stuck on, “Wait, I’m supposed to date Christians?” That said, once you’ve established the importance of marrying someone who will be your partner in the faith and has the mutual goal of encouraging you in your relationship with Christ, you may start to wonder, “Well, does it really matter what kind of Christian they are? How will our theology affect the way we point each other to Christ? I mean, does it affect things if I’m a Protestant and he’s a Catholic? Or what if we have different views on the end times? What about speaking in tongues? Can I date someone who ‘quenches the Spirit’ and thinks I worship with ‘strange fire’?”
As I’ve thought about the issue while talking with friends, considering my own marriage, and searching through the Scriptures, I’ve concluded there isn’t any quick, easy answer. Instead, I want to simply put forward three questions, and a couple of caveats, to help singles and couples navigate the dating and marriage decision.
You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.
Soli Deo Gloria

Is Vanhoozer Still a 5-Point Alvinist? (Engaging KJV Pt. 3)

This is the third entry in my series “Engaging Kevin J. Vanhoozer”, devoted to Kevin Vanhoozer’s work Remythologizing Theology by working through the essays devoted to it in a recent volume of the Southeastern Theological Review. You can read part 1, and part 2.

Fabulous beard. Horrible philosophy.

Fabulous beard. Horrible philosophy.

Oliver Crisp’s entry “Remythologizing, Projection, and Belief: A Reply to Vanhoozer,” is almost entirely focused with the methodological component of Vanhoozer’s project. Leaving aside the material proposals about the doctrine of God, Crisp analyzes what he sees to be a major gap in Vanhoozer’s armor, threatening to undercut his whole project: namely, his epistemology.

Projection Issues – One of Vanhoozer’s main foils in Remythologizing Theology is Ludwig Feuerbach, whose main claim was that all of Christian theology is just anthropology, or our best thoughts about ourselves projected onto the screen of eternity. Crisp summarizes:

Belief in God, on this view, is simply the reification of certain notions we have about ourselves, the projection onto the clouds of a father-like entity that is no more real than any other figment of human imagination. (pg. 32)

He then formalizes it in good analytic fashion, into what he calls the “Problem of Projection (PP)”:

(PP) Christian theological language about God is disguised language about the needs of human beings: such language reifies cherished human religious thought, values, beliefs. (pg. 33)

Vanhoozer’s remythologizing approach (which I’ve summarized here) is proposed as an answer to the problem by returning to the text as God’s own self-presentation, or Divine self-projection through Word and Spirit, as given us in God’s speech to us in Scripture. Theology in this view is a responsive, dialogical reality, attending to the story (mythos) of the Theo-Drama, not a monological mythology of our own making.

Crisp Anxieties – All that’s fine and well says Crisp, but there’s a hitch. Who’s to say all of this isn’t just another story? (pg. 33) Why should the Feuerbachian or the modern theologian buy this account? In other words, where’s the epistemology to to match it? All of this just seems to assume a view about God and Scripture, without an account of why we should accept scripture as God’s speech. Crisp takes us through a brief tour of Vanhoozer’s epistemological comments in other works, especially The Drama of Doctrine (DoD), to set up his problem (and solution.)

When it comes to epistemology, Vanhoozer has described himself as a postfoundationalist and an aspectival realist. Instead of coherentism’s metaphor of an interconnecting web of knowledge and foundationalism’s structure metaphor, with certain core, stable beliefs holding up the whole, Vanhoozer’s aspectival realism offers us a map. It is a framework of interpretation through which we see the world; it must be coherent, as well as have some connection to reality if it is to work, is admittedly limited, and yet it is testable, refinable, and correctable on the basis of new insights and information.

And yet, Crisp says, Vanhoozer’s a bit of a “theological magpie”, taking bits and pieces of various frameworks and piecing them together as they fit his own project. So, along with the map, in DoD Vanhoozer seems to adopt some of Alvin Plantinga’s reliablist account of knowledge even though it is a moderate form of foundationalism.

plantinga 4

Your thought has been judged and found wanting.

For those without knowledge of Plantinga’s account (which I favor heavily) Crisp explains:

On this way of thinking, what we believe is innocent until proven guilty. Such beliefs are formed by epistemic mechanisms that function according to a design plan aimed at truth. In his earlier work Vanhoozer even flirts with the Plantinga-inspired notion of properly basic beliefs.10 These are beliefs that are (a) noninferential, that is, not held on the basis of other beliefs from which they are inferred, and (b) justified or warranted, that is, formed in an epistemically responsible manner. (pg. 36)

Here’s where things get interesting. Crisp says this would be great, except that it seems Vanhoozer has dropped this line of thinking in RT because “proper basicality is embedded in a foundational epistemology” that he likely rejects as a postfoundationalist. In any case, he doesn’t mention it in the later work.

This becomes problematic in RT because, well, let me just let Crisp explain again:

Much of the work in this most recent volume involves the spinning out of his particular peroration on the claim that Scripture is the vehicle for divine discourse. But with so much riding on this claim, it is strange that he does not do more to shore up its apparent vulnerability. For, absent the notion of properly basic beliefs, it is not clear (to this reader, at least!) how he can ground the assertion that his hermeneutical framework, and his theological myth, is more likely to be closer to the truth of the matter than the frameworks and myths of his interlocutors. He has not provided an adequate means by which we can adjudicate whether his canon-linguistic approach to doctrine, or his more recent remythologizing approach to theology, is closer to the truth than either Bultmann or Feuerbach. (pg. 37)

In other words, Vanhoozer hasn’t given us a compelling epistemological reason to accept his picture over the others on offer. For someone who doesn’t accept fideism, the truth, or justification question is still up in the air. Along with another proposal derived from the material content of the faith, Crisp suggest that Vanhoozer’s Projection Problem could be cleared up with a heavy dose of Plantinga’s modest foundationalist epistemology, properly basic beliefs and all. It’s a good epistemology, it fits with the project, and Crisp even helpfully tells a little story about how all of this can work together:

What he can say is this. Although we cannot guarantee that we have the absolute truth of the matter, we can be sure that our hermeneutical framework, that is, the framework of canon-linguistic remythologized theology, provides some purchase on the truth, sufficient for us to be confident that it provides a theological myth or story more complete and more accurate than that of Bultmann or Feuerbach. Granted there is no “view from nowhere”—not even the canonical-linguistic view—from which to survey the epistemological landscape and make judgments about it. Nevertheless, what Vanhoozer provides is both internally coherent and a good fit with the biblical material, wherein (as he puts it) we find the mighty speech acts of God. Because our cognitive and linguistic faculties work according to a design-plan aimed at truth, we can move beyond perspectivalism to aspectivalism. That is, we can have some confidence that our theologically attuned hermeneutical frameworks give us the truth of the matter, or near enough, at least some (most?) of the time. Furthermore, because we are fashioned according to a design plan we can know certain things about God because he has designed us to be receptive to him. (pg. 36)

So what does Vanhoozer have to say about all of this?

Vanhoozer’s Confession – As it turns out, it’s all been a happy confusion since he basically agrees. Says Vanhoozer:

Crisp has to ask if I am still a “five-point Alvinist,” because Alvin Plantinga is an epistemological foundationalist while I appear to hold to some kind of postfoundationalism. The problem here is semantic, and can be fairly easily cleared up (I take full responsibility for any misunderstanding). The simple explanation is that I accepted Plantinga’s objections to classical foundationalism, and his proposed positive alternative. Plantinga argues that it is rationally acceptable (warranted) to believe in the existence of God without evidence, proof, or even argument (because belief in God is “properly basic”). Initially, this seemed to be a kind of Calvinist post-foundationalism. In retrospect, however, I acknowledge that Plantinga prefers to describe his Reformed epistemology as a version of foundationalism. Understood in Plantinga’s way, then, I too am happy to call myself a “modest” or “chastened” foundationalist. And I am therefore delighted to accept Crisp’s proposal that belief in Scripture as normative is a properly basic belief (I say as much in Is There a Meaning in this Text?), especially if this lets me escape, Houdini-like, from the Problem of Projection.  (pg. 78)

As you can imagine, I’m grateful to Crisp for squeezing this clear confession of Plantingan faith out of Vanhoozer. I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a Plantinga fan, so I read Crisp’s account with great interest as I’d had thoughts along the same line.  I’d actually always sort of blended Plantinga and Vanhoozer together in my head hoping that it made sense, so it’s nice to get confirmation and a little constructive clarity from Crisp and Vanhoozer himself.

So, for those who are wondering, yes, one can be Vanhoozerian and a Five-Point Alvinist. All is right in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria

You Were Made For More Than Safety — “Risky Gospel” by Owen Strachan (Review for Christianity Today)

strachanExodus tells us that God saved Israel that it might “serve/worship” (avodah) him (Ex. 7:16; 8:1; 9:1). Contrary to what we might think, the Israelites weren’t set “free” to go off, settle in, and have a safe, pleasant life according to their own whims. God had particular, sometimes difficult, purposes for them. God’s redemption aimed at creating a people to boldly worship, serve, and represent him before the nations (Ex. 19:5-6). In Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Do Something Awesome, Owen Strachan, assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College and executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), revives this message for a modern Christian audience. Framing our situation with Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), he invites us to do more than accept life in a fallen world, hoping not to screw up too badly before the master returns.

Instead of living “safe,” miserly lives as the wicked servant did, we are called to go out, fulfill the creation mandate, and “take dominion” of the world (Gen. 1:26-30)—in other words, “build something awesome.” For this, we’ll need a willingness to take up our crosses and risk discomfort, failure, and pain in order to boldly do great things for the glory of God.

Sadly, instead of bold worshippers, Strachan sees a landscape filled with Christians who are tired, scared, defeated, and satisfied with small, pointless pursuits; we’re living our “stressed life now.” To use Andy Crouch’s language of “gestures” and “postures” (Culture Making, pp. 90-96), Christians have been flinching, slouching, and playing it safe for so long, we’ve developed a sort of scoliosis of the soul. In other words, we’re stuck. Stuck in weak prayer lives. Stuck in our parents’ basement. Stuck in suburban monotony. Stuck in marriages we’re scared to actually try at and are tempted to bail on. Stuck trying to merely hunker down and survive the Christian life. Well, as a good doctor would, Strachan endeavors to apply the medicine of the gospel to straighten our spines, and walk with the upright boldness of people who know the trustworthiness of God.

You can read the rest of my review over at Christianity Today