The Proper Use and Abuse of Hypocrisy-Checking

hypocrisy juking

Everybody’s an inconsistent hypocrite. At least, that’s the lesson the internet is teaching us in 2018. (In case we hadn’t learned it from Scripture already.) I’m referring, of course, to the ever-present (and much commented-on) practice of hypocrisy-juking and various forms of whataboutism.

I was struck by it once again yesterday, when a number of conservative friends began to (correctly) point out the relative silence of progressive Evangelical bloggers and commentators on the failure of Congress to pass the ban on elective abortions at 20-weeks, when the child in question can obviously feel pain.

Now, this shouldn’t have been hard to pass nor to condemn and lament. It’s not a radically pro-life position on the matter. Most progressive European countries don’t allow the practice to be elective that late; the US is in the company of only seven other countries with abortion regimes as permissive as ours, including China and North Korea.

What was striking to my conservative friends was that you’ll frequently find progressive Evangelicals loudly (and perhaps rightly) arguing for various other policy measures (single-payer, immigration reform) along the lines of being holistically, or truly Pro-Life, and then decrying Congressional failure to act on these policies, and Evangelicals for failing to support them.

And yet, when it comes to a policy that is directly and indisputably Pro-Life? Crickets. One wonders why.

Maybe everybody was just focused on other issues that day? Or perhaps, given the increasingly tribal way we engage in moral outrage, there was a fear on the part of newly Progressive Evangelicals at offending or alienating their new-found allies on other issues of great moral concern? Is it a desire to avoid being perceived as one of those Pro-Lifers? The kind they left behind with the rest of their small-minded bigotry? Most cynically, perhaps they don’t care about pro-life anymore at all and simply use the language to engage Evangelicals on their issues of real concern.

Maybe Richard Beck has a point in warning his own tribe of progressives about just turning into Democrats the way conservative Evangelicals became knee-jerk Republicans.

Now, if you’re a conservative Evangelical of a certain sort, these last few paragraphs may have given you a nice, warm sense of satisfaction inside. I could suggest many reasons for it, but one might be the sheer relief of seeing someone other than the conservative Evangelical leaders who have been beclowning themselves in a Carnivalesque fashion through series of attempts to justify President Trump’s various gaffes and sins being called out. The list of cynical justifications, hypocritical back-tracking, willful blindness, and cowardly silences is truly cringe-inducing. Volumes could be written on the failure of moral voices in 2017 alone.

The point is, we could play the, “If Obama had said…” and “If Bush had done…” and “If Clinton had been…” game until the cows come home and we could all be right about someone. And more importantly, someone could probably be right about us.

Which brings me back around again to the broader question of hypocrisy-juking. Why do we engage in it? Also, are there proper uses for it? If so, how? And how ought we respond to it?

On the first question, I can think of a few reasons.

First, it’s just satisfying to take your ideological enemies down a peg. This is especially the case if you see them as prone to a specific kind of preening self-righteousness and grandstanding, with little self-reflection or humility. Catching out their inconsistencies can assure you of their basic wrongness and your basic rightness.

Connected to this, it can be a way of assuaging your own conscience for your own inconsistencies. You may not state it this way, but the basic tu quoque can be a rationalization: everybody does it. Look! They do it too.

More nobly, you may actually be interested in issuing a moral warning. Some people are actually interested in dialoguing and arguing with a principled opposition. You may see someone you disagree with and respect generally, falling into the sort of self-justifying hypocrisy, or an inconsistency born of moral cowardice and a need to fit the tribe, and feel the need to reach out and warn them to avoid it. Now, this can turn into concern-trolling fairly quickly, but I have seen it done (and had it done to me) in good faith.

Finally, and this is an extension of the last point, you may actually be interested in persuasion. Instead of just pushing people down a peg, you may desire to convince them to change their mind on a particular issue given their historic stance, or their stated principles elsewhere. In which case, something like hypocrisy-juking may be in order. (One thinks of Jesus grilling the Pharisees for tithing mint and dill for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, despite adhering rigidly to the minor ones.)

I think we can already see that in these last two reasons, we some place for it. But in the case of persuasion and warning, the act of pointing out hypocrisy and inconsistency ceases to be an act of “juking.” The moral intention, the heart behind it, transforms the act into one of righteous and (in the end) loving exposure and correction.

The last two questions, I think, are caught up with one another and are answered in Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:3-5)

Only the person who is committed to removing the plank from their own eye, to rigorously pursuing intellectual and moral integrity in their own life and thought, will be suited to attempt to remove the speck from their brother’s. This, both because they are now seeing more clearly, and also because one of the things they see more clearly is their own sin, corruption, and guilt in the matter. This leads to a humble heart not set on vengeance or the vindication of their own name and tribe.

But, of course, in order to be this person, you must be prepared to accept your brother’s help in removing the plank from your eye as well!

All of which is to say, when tempted to point out the hypocrisy in an opponent’s position, check yourself in the matter first. You may quickly find the self-righteousness drained from your stinging remarks. Which, ironically enough, means you’ll be more likely to frame them in a way that people on the other side will hear them.

On the flipside, the wise accept rebuke and become wiser still (Prov. 9:8-9). And this, even from harsh or bad-faith critics. It may be that you know someone is critiquing you just to take you down a peg or to protect themselves. Before you write them off as a fool, ask yourself, “But do they have a point?” If so, correct it. If they have a point, they have a point.

Correct it because it is right, but also, the next time someone tries to critique you along those lines, you can actually be confident it is wrong. Indeed, you may even be able to share the way you have changed and that may be a model for your interlocutor.

Growth in grace here is difficult, and I don’t think for a moment I have this down. Still, given the toxicity of the cultural moment, one of the greatest ways to witness to the forgiveness, mercy, and transforming power of the gospel in our lives is to manifest it in our humble struggle for integrity.

Because the reality is, our greatest resource in any of this is in letting go of our sinful attempts at self-justification because we know by the witness of the Holy Spirit we have justified in Christ.

Maybe take some time now to log off and meditate on that.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Smith’s Proposal for “Orthodoxy”-language and SSM

nicea-2.jpgYesterday James K.A. Smith had a post on whether to talk about SSM as an issue of “orthodoxy” or not and, of course, it provoked some discussion online. Alastair Roberts has already weighed in with a rejoinder worth considering on what it means to be “creedally-orthodox.”

I have a few thoughts on it that I figured I’d lay out in no particular order. First, though, I’ll just state at the outset, I benefit greatly from Smith’s work, respect him as a scholar and a Christian. Nor am I at all worried this is an attempt at moral revision or something like that. And I hope anyone reading this (including Smith himself) will read this post in that light.

To begin, I’ll just say I find myself quite sympathetic to Smith’s concerns. A few years ago I wondered aloud whether we needed another term to flag what sort of error SSM-affirming is. I’m certainly in no rush to declare new heresies or label anybody as a heretic. I have enough friends who I am convinced are trying to love Jesus but honestly differ from me on this issue that it would be painful and costly to do so.

That said, I’m not sure Smith has been fair to or grasped the point of those who have been using the term this way.

For some who insist this is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy, the point is same-sex marriage is and assumes a denial of a broader theological vision of creation and the meaning of the body assumed by the whole of the Christian church and the creedal tradition itself. It’s a functional denial of doctrines like creation and the Christology implied by the resurrection of the body. For them it is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy by “good and necessary consequence”, so to speak.

Second, some would object to this sort of trimming of the concept since it tends to imply an un-Biblical bifurcation between dogmatics and ethics. Paul’s admonition against fornication and sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6 is grounded in the creation of the body, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection (“the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body”). It is an explicitly Christological sexual ethic. I don’t think Smith intends this bifurcation, but it seems to be a danger inherent in his thin creedalism.

Beyond that, it does not seem those whom Smith suggests are “stretching” the markers of orthodoxy are “oddly selective.” They are reactive to particular, current movements to normalize behaviors in the Church which have been scandalous to it for 2000 years. Now, there may be a selectivity about it worth critiquing, given other scandals we may think are occurring without much notice. But there’s nothing unintelligible or suspicious about the reaction this issue, since on no other issue does there appear to be such a full-court press towards revision and acceptance in both society and the Church.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem their focus on sexual immorality is out of place with the focus it was given in the life of the early church. Consider the first church council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Whatever you make of the proscription against consuming blood, one of the first rules the Apostles laid down for the Gentiles to be seen as Christians in good standing is to abstain from “sexual immorality”, a term which in 1st Century Judaism was largely informed by Leviticus 18 including its proscription of same-sex intercourse. This actually tells you how central sexual ethics was to the practice and understanding of the gospel it was in the 1st century.

If you jump into the writings of the Fathers, this focus is similarly not lacking. In fact, the Councils themselves had various canons attached to them which included much moral and ethical instruction beyond the specific definitions and creeds we usually associated with them.

Beyond that, the danger most are reacting to is that if we don’t label something a matter of orthodoxy, it tends to become minimized to an adiaphora or an “agree to disagree” issue. Smith is not trying to do that. He says this linguistic change doesn’t signal it’s a matter of indifference. And yet there is a danger of doing just that when he asks this question:

“Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?  So that someone can affirm the core, scandalous, supernatural tenets of the Gospel, and affirm the radicality of grace, and yet fall outside the parameters of your small-o “orthodox Christianity?”

There are couple of problems with this question. One is running the issue of SSM right in there with women in ordained office and violence. The exegetical and traditional witness on women’s ordination is in such a different place than that of SSM. Even starker (at least in the tradition) is the difference on the matter of nonviolence and Just War. By putting them in the same category it falsifies the difference between these three issues and (unintentionally) moves the boundary towards a similarity in treatment.

Second, though, I think we fail to consider that the battles over orthodoxy in the first few centuries were all among people who had way more agreement between themselves on the broad Christian story than with the surrounding Pagan culture. For instance, the sixth council which ruled on the issue of Monothelitism was making some fairly fine distinctions about the nature of Christ’s two natures. All the participants could plausibly say, “Hey look, we’re all Nicene and Chalcedonian Christians here.” And certainly someone from the outside would look at it as distinctions with barely a difference.

At this point, then, you have a dispute between Christians who affirmed the supernatural tenets of the gospel, the resurrection of Christ, the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father and so forth, grace, and yet this very fine distinction about Christ’s two wills was deemed a marker of orthodoxy, because if it wasn’t affirmed, it functionally and materially undermined all the rest. I think we need to consider that reality when we think about Smith’s questions and our unwillingness to use strong language about the issue.

As I said, though, I don’t mind using a different term. So long as we all agree “orthodox” only means, “signs off on the right propositions on some foundational issues settled by church creeds and definitions.”  But what needs to be made absolutely clear at that point is that “orthodoxy” is now an extremely limited concept for ecclesial boundaries and distinguishing normative Christian belief and practice. It is necessary but nowhere close to sufficient for flagging the totality of their beliefs within the ecclesially-acceptable spectrum of normative Christianity.

Let me put it this way, on this thin view, it’s a coherent and acceptable statement to say, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes adultery can be Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes bearing false witness is Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes coveting is Christian behavior.” None of those statements is incoherent if “orthodox” just means “formally aligns on key Nicene and Chalcedonian propositions.” And yet it’s obvious in each case, somewhere Joe is severely out of line with the gospel. My point is that it’s clear whatever extra term we have, it needs to have some real, normative force.

Otherwise, while we may say this isn’t an issue of indifference, the more we repeat sentences like, “Well, this is an argument between ‘orthodox’ believers”, the more the line is moved and we all begin to hear, “Well, this is a discussion between believers who are all basically in line with the gospel.” Smith’s thin definition of orthodoxy will still carry the thicker connotation it has typically had with all of its boundary-defining force.

Now, with that said, what different word will do? I suppose traditional could work, for the reasons Smith mentions. But it seems to lack something of the moral and ecclesial force it needs to in order to flag the importance an uniformity of opinion on the issue in church practice and history. What’s more, the implied binary term “un-traditional” still manages to carry with it a bit of sex-appeal and cachet in our culture that is unhelpful.

I’m tempted to suggest a difference between a “catholic” sexual ethic v. an un-catholic or revisionist one? It’s close enough in sense to traditional, but gives clearer testimony that this view is one of the only ones that could plausibly fit the Vincentinian Canon (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”) in both time and space. In which case, someone could be “orthodox” creedally, while “revisionist” as to ethics, and we could have a better sense of the situation. There was a reason no less than Wolfhart Pannenberg thought churches who revised on the issue were formally schismatic.

Of course, I am not married to that language. Perhaps “apostolic” could do. Or maybe I’m being too finicky and “traditional” is enough. The point, though, is that whichever term we choose, it needs to be an unambiguously clear way of signalling this is a very, very serious deviance from historic Christian belief. And it’s one that if gotten wrong, has serious moral and spiritual repercussions.

How we have the conversation does matter. We do need to conduct it with the love, grace, charity, and courage of those whose lives are marked by the confession of God’s forgiveness. And yet, we need to be clear on exactly what sort of conversation we’re having.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Church Has Always Known Theological Controversy (A Bit on the Peterson Thing)

athanasisu“Not again.”

That was my first thought when Eugene Peterson’s comments on gay marriage came out.

Regardless of the retraction, I knew the next few days would be ugly online. Various think-pieces (good and bad) would come, as would the tweets, the aggressive partisans, and the aggrieved bystanders in the middle, wringing their hands.

I don’t have a ton to say about Peterson himself, his comments, or the various reactions. I was frustrated initially, glad for the retraction, and saddened by the whole mess.

What struck me during this round, though, was the sense of fatigue. Maybe life online accelerates and magnifies our sense of controversy, especially since most people aren’t on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re in a particularly stressful or conflicted moment in the church, and that this sort of thing will only become more common.

A friend of mine summed it up, asking, “Has it always felt so embattled to be in the Church?”

To which my response is, “Yes, actually. From the beginning, in fact.” It’s valuable to remember that for a moment.

You can read the rest of this piece over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Experienced Pain, Truth, And Developing Doctrine

job and friendsI recently saw a discussion online about hell. In the course of things, one person noted their childhood trauma connected with teaching on this doctrine. Another (or possibly the same) went to suggest they couldn’t possibly see how growing up with a particular view of hell didn’t lead to childhood trauma. The doctrine itself was inherently trauma-causing and the implication was that this in itself counted strongly against its truth. Others chimed in, both for and against, either disagreeing or trying to defend the doctrine in question.

I didn’t have time to jump in at the moment, but I’ve been chewing on the issue for a bit. Not so much the doctrine of hell, but more generally what role considerations about a doctrine’s adverse psychological effects ought to play in doctrinal construction. So I wanted to test out a few tentative thoughts on the issue.

Words Matter. Let me begin by saying I am not doubting the experiences of trauma of those who were claiming it in that conversation. I don’t know some of them and I don’t have reason to doubt the ones I did know.

I will say, I do think there is a general tendency towards carelessness with words on this point, though. A friend of mine who is doing work in the area of trauma and theology has helpfully pointed out that words like “trauma”, “abuse”, “trigger”, and so forth, have specific, technical meanings related to qualitatively different sorts of psychological conditions and events. This is missed when we sloppily overuse them and apply them broadly to any generally unpleasant or disturbing experience (as is sadly common today).

This is unhelpful because it can illegitimately (even if unintentionally) be used to gain unfair and manipulative leverage in conversations by those who are not actually trauma sufferers. What’s more, in so doing, it actually minimizes and waters down the experiences of said, actual trauma sufferers.

Be Careful Not to Universalize Your Particular Experience. On that point, while I wouldn’t for a moment want to ignore or deny their experiences of dread and psychological distress connected to the doctrine, I would also caution we mustn’t deny the experience of those who did not have those same experiences. Because it seems empirically not the case that growing up with this particular view of hell is universally and necessarily traumatic, even if it sadly was so for some.

I’ll dangerously use myself as an example. I grew up being taught some version of that same doctrine from a very early age. It wasn’t something my parents or Sunday School teachers dwelt on obsessively, but they didn’t ignore it. And while I remember a short season in junior high being quite worried about judgment (I had been cursing at school and it haunted me at night), I eventually came to an assurance of the gospel and it passed. It’s not to say I don’t still find the reality of it troubling, or worth wrestling with—much the way I do many other awful realities. But it is not something that has left a lasting, psychic scar on me. And I know a great many of my friends and families and members of various churches who could say the same. What’s more, it’s entirely plausible that a larger survey would reveal the non-universality of this doctrinally-driven trauma far beyond my anecdotal evidence. Indeed, if we expand that survey across the globe and across the history of the Church, that seems manifestly obvious.

I suppose I am making a version of the argument against cultural imperialism in theology. One of the things that’s become clear over the years is that people from other times, cultures, and places read the Bible and experience Christian teaching in different ways than affluent, Post-Enlightenment Westerners. Go back a thousand years in church history. Or maybe a thousand miles across on an ocean. Texts we find shocking, they do not. Texts they find shocking, we do not. And it would be presumptuous to assume that our cultural-driven theological instincts automatically give us more insight. They don’t necessarily give us less insight, either. But considerations like that ought to give us pause.

My point is that we similarly shouldn’t be psychological or experiential imperialists, assuming the texts or doctrines which trouble us particularly, will trouble or shock others in the same way. There is a certain intellectual and empathetic myopia involved there—one which I have found myself guilty of on numerous occasions—which needs to be reckoned with. My experiences, my position, my place, my psychological make-up incline me in a particular direction theologically. But so do others. And it’s not that I need to always assume I’m wrong, but I need to acknowledge that. And this is true not only for positive experiences, but also negative ones and how we related them to our doctrine.

One example that comes to mind is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over suffering and evil. Some find the idea that God has a purpose (either immediate or mediate) behind allowing their pain and suffering—the loss of a child to early death—to be one of horror and disgust. Others find it absolutely necessary to maintain any sort of faith in God’s goodness in the face of the exact same tragedy. At that point, we have two instances of sufferers reacting to the very same teaching in diametrically opposed fashion. Whose psychological experience with that teaching should be weighted more strongly? Whose comfort is more trustworthy?

Truth Can Be Troubling. Following on this, we must keep in mind that the truth of an idea, may indeed be troubling—even traumatic. Growing up on a mountain, a child may be taught to take care not to shout too loudly in certain areas lest they trigger a rock slide, or an avalanche. They may then come dwell on that idea incessantly and obsessively. This is sad and possibly psychologically traumatic. Now, this may be a good reason to not live on that mountain, but it would not be a reason for rejecting the belief that avalanches are a liability in in their locale. The truth of the reality is fairly independent of whether it is potentially traumatic to believe it.

I would go on to point out, though, that even good truth, inappropriately introduced or dwelt on, could probably cause trauma, or at least have adverse psychological effects. Let’s be a bit Freudian and use sex as an example. That nearly every child has been begotten by an act of sexual love between a mother and a father is a good and beautiful truth. That God created sexual love as a pleasurable experience is as well. Both are good for people to know.

Yet we can all agree that exposure to pornography at a young age (or at all) would be a wrong, distorting, and harmful way to learn about them. Or, turning away from the immoral, it seems quite possibly traumatic to be introduced to these truths at the age of 7 by walking into your parent’s bedroom at the wrong moment, forcing a subsequent explanation. This could easily have adverse effects that, in the right sort of child, lead to sad, unhealthy fixations later on in life. But this being the case by no means counts as an argument against the good truth of the reality of sex. It is an argument for bedroom locks, discretion, and a game-plan for talking to your child about sex in an appropriate fashion.

A Diagnostic, Not a Criterion. But then is there any place someone’s psychological experience of a teaching should play in the way we think about it? I think there is. But we must not confuse what kind. I would suggest that it at least plays the role of a diagnostic light on your dashboard, warning you that something needs to be addressed.

Now, what needs to be addressed is not always immediately clear. Someone might experience great distress—unhealthy pain—at a doctrine for a few reasons. First, yes, the teaching itself is possibly flawed. I’m not saying that’s never a possibility. It definitely is. Second, it could also be that the teaching is not flawed but it is being taught and applied in a harmful and unhelpful fashion which needs to be addressed.

For instance, it’s possible to take doctrines and distort them—even wonderful doctrines about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace can be used abusively. Here the social and moral context of the teaching proves toxic and that toxicity affects how it is being received. Or, it could be that a doctrine is being taught not wrongly, or falsely, or “abusively”, but is being over-emphasized or without being properly set in the context of the rest of Christian truth.

One friend pointed out that doctrines like hell, or the fear of losing your salvation (or that you’ve never had it) can take on an extra psychological pressure in environments where much emphasis is laid on having a visible “conversion” experience, a second blessing, etc. The monastic context in which Luther struggled against the judgement of God might be another. Or one thinks of Kierkegaard’s testimony about the effect his father’s tumultuous personality paired with a pietistic focus on Christ’s sufferings hand on him as a young child. An individual doctrine isn’t doing the work here alone, but rather the way it functions alongside everything else.

All this to say, widespread experience of adverse psychological effects associated with a doctrine can definitely alert us of a problem we need to address. But it’s not immediately clear the solution is doctrinal revision. Often it is a call to greater pastoral discernment about the uses of doctrine, not the doctrines themselves. As the old maxim has it, “improper use does not nullify proper use“, but we can’t be so busy defending good doctrine we never stop to think about how to use it properly.

Avoiding Projection. To sort of round things out, I suppose one worry at the back of my mind is that an instinct to rewrite, or to tweak, Christian teachings in order to make sure it’s always psychologically affirming in some direct way, can turn our theology into a species of projection. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said all theology was basically our anthropology magnified to the Nth degree and then projected up onto the screen of heaven. Freud makes a version of the same argument: God as wish-fulfillment. Believing in God is the comfort of having an ideal earthly father, simply projected into eternity.

And the thing is—when it comes to a lot of theology—they have a point. Much modern theology explicitly buys the premise that we’re basically just coming up with revisable metaphors for God that work for us and contributing to “flourishing”—however Late Moderns have come to define the term. In other words, my worry is conceptual idolatry, despite the admirable motive of concerns for those in pain.

All of this comes around to how do theology for the Church. It’s an obvious truism that all theology is done by humans, from particular perspectives, who inevitably have their favored theological paradigms informed by their experiences. But are we at least trying to give priority to God’s self-revelation, his self-testimony in the Gospel and recorded in Scripture? Are we at least attempting to let God’s Word beyond our experiences speak a word of comfort about God into our experiences? Or do we explicitly make our variable, subjective, and relative experiences, cultures, and intuitions function as a normative authority or criterion?

Again, I’m not saying we never rethink doctrine, or how we’re teaching in light of people’s adverse psychological experiences. What I am saying is that we must make sure that these realities drive us to humble ourselves before Christ’s voice in Scripture—to hear what we may have missed, to have him clarify what we have muddled, or to have him reaffirm what we might be tempted to dispense with in our haste and pain. For ultimately it is his words–even those which initially confuse and confound us–which heal our deepest wounds.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Easy “Wisdom” of Cynicism

I have been thinking about cynicism the last couple of weeks. (I have piece coming out in a couple of months on cynicism for CT, so I won’t repeat that bit.) The thing that struck me this morning, and I tweeted about, was its appeal.

I think, teach, and write for a living. I’m supposed to know some things. To have insight into either Scripture, or God, or the world. Wisdom, of sorts.

The thing about cynicism is that it offers an easy shortcut to the appearance of wisdom.

“Seeing through” the stated reasons and motives of others is a particularly prized form of insight in our context. (We’re all Nietzscheans, squinting to get at what’s really going on.)

And so if I’m in a dispute with someone, it’s pretty easy for me to come up with a fairly plausible rationale for why someone believes, says, or does something other than the one they’ve stated.

“Sure, you say it’s because of Scripture, but also isn’t your job riding on you believing that?”

“Sure, you say it’s because you’ve honestly changed your mind, but also isn’t it convenient that most cultural winds blow that way today?”

“Sure, you say you’re now X because of intellectual reasons, but aren’t you also mostly just believing what’s gonna frustrate your dad?”

“Sure, you say you’re totally committed to the cause, but also RTs?”

I can come up with longer, more sophisticated versions of these sorts of readings on the fly now, and build ’em out to make them seem pretty plausible. At least to the people who already agree with me.

But are they true? Maybe. Or maybe they’re just stories I tell myself to flatter my own beliefs and look smart because, you know, I’m not getting suckered.

All this to say that default cynicism isn’t the same thing as biblical discernment. Discernment seeks out truth and falsehood. It sees as much as it sees through. Ironically enough, being too cynical can make you undiscerning, rendering false judgments, leaving you open being deceived, not positively, but negatively.

In other words, being “wise as a serpent”,  is a lot harder than thinking everybody’s a liar all the time.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

“They Do Not Deserve You”; Wonder Woman and Soteriology

wonder woman(Spoiler Alert: The following notes assume big plot twists and a knowledge of the film.)

My wife and I saw Wonder Woman last night, and thank God, it was a good flick. I was worried the hype was just, well, hype, but it turned out it was a really solid superhero film and will be seen by most as the best of the DC franchise. It probably is, but I actually enjoyed Man of Steel and did-not-hate-kinda-liked most of Batman v. Superman (the extended edition, which actually makes way more sense).

In any case, as is my tendency, I had theological thoughts about the film as I was watching.  I mean, I am a Systematic theology student.

Still, superhero flicks lend themselves to this sort of analysis, since they’re explicitly concerned with quasi-divine figures rescuing humanity from destruction. They, therefore, typically contain an implicit soteriology (view of salvation), and therefore a corresponding anthropology (view of humanity) and hamartiology (view of sin, or what’s wrong with the world). I know it’s the ultimate cliche to find “Christ-figures” all over the films, but with Superhero flicks, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Wonder Woman is no different. Indeed, it’s quite explicit about these things. One of the main plot tropes is Diana’s encounter with the world of men off the Island of Themascira. It’s what generates much of the humor (confused outsider a la Splash), as well as the moral energy. Yes, Diana is on a mission to defeat Ares, god of war, whom she believes is behind the carnage of World War I. But she is also on a moral journey; she is a goddess learning what it means to be a savior in the world of men.

One thing she has to learn is an alternative anthropology. In her myths about the creation of men, she learned that they are basically good, but they have been perverted and twisted towards violence by the powerful sway of Ares. She thinks, “If I can just kill Ares, men will be released to be good.” In other words, her hamartiology is reduced to a demonology: “the devil made them do it.”

And so whenever she encounters duplicitousness in the world of men–the lies and cowardice of even the “good guys”—she declares, “You too have been corrupted by Ares. You’re under his influence as well.”

A key movement of her moral journey involves recognizing the problem is much deeper. She comes to realize that humanity itself, apart from Ares, has evil within it. Humanity wars against itself, regardless of Ares, and in this war there are no pure figures. At the key hinge dialogue in the film, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) struggles to make clear to her, “Maybe we’re all to blame.” In other words, it’s the flesh, not just the devil at work in human evil.

Actually, this is where the demonology of the film gets interesting. Ares, as it turns out, is not the obvious devil figure you’re led to expect through the film. Ares turns out to be a moral misanthrope. And it is in his role as an Accuser of men that he makes his case to Diana against saving them. He hates men because he sees their weakness, their evil, their inherent proclivity towards hate. He tells her he has never had to control them–he has only had to suggest, to whisper, to stoke ember of evil that were already there in order. He has only fomented the war in order that men might destroy themselves–receiving in themselves the due penalty for their corruption, as it were.

It’s here that the goddess must learn the lesson of grace. Before she goes off the Island to fight, her mother Hippolyta tells her, “They do not deserve you.” She’s pure. She’s good. She doesn’t lie. As soon as she sees the good, she is immediately moved to pursue it.

And it is precisely for this reason, she must learn the lesson of grace. She has to learn why she’s a hero, why she ought to struggle to save humanity.  Before she thought it was because they’re basically good, deserving victims of Ares’s oppression. And while that latter statement is true, they are victims of Ares’s machinations, they are also victimizers. “They do not deserve you.”

And so in that same climactic scene, as the weight of human evil strikes Diana, Steve must play the role of advocate of sorts arguing, “It’s not about what they deserve–it’s about what you believe.” If humanity is going to be saved, it can’t be a matter of merit. They have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of Diana, in that regard. In which case, it must be a matter of mercy and grace. It has to be a decision Diana makes beyond desert.

Now, here the statement “it’s about what you believe” is a little limp. Pressing deeper, reflecting on Steve’s character, his valiant sacrifice, and the other men she has become friends with, she recognizes there is more to humanity than the evil within. There is love and goodness as well. The image of Zeus, if you will. And so she decides that is worth fighting for, even if humanity doesn’t deserve her.

This is one of those places where, coming from a Christian theological perspective, I thought they could have pressed deeper. Because, narratively, it’s not merely a matter of what she believes about humanity, but who she is for humanity. She was created in order to save humanity from Ares, from war, from the hell they make, apart from consideration of their merit. In that sense, it is about Diana’s purpose and the consistency of character as good, merciful, and just; it’s about the obligations that she has to be herself in the face of evil. Diana saves men, because Diana was created to be a savior.

Of course, Diana is not Jesus. And obviously, this wasn’t a “Christian” movie–for all sorts of reasons. All the same, for a being a comic flick about a hero rooted in a Greco-Roman, pagan mythology, there was a lot of theological good sense that makes me curious how it will be received by our friends and neighbors.

Well, that’s about it for now.

 

On “Listening” to Millennials (and What Does that Even Mean)

(Yes, I’m sorry, this is a piece about Millennials.)

listeningHonestly, I feel bad for churches and older leaders trying to get a handle on reaching Millennials. One of the biggest things the recent literature tells churches to do is “listen” to Millennials. But that can be fairly confusing.

For instance, one very clear message we’ve heard for years from both experts and Millennial spokespersons is that the Church has gotten “too political.” By marrying the Church to political causes and parties, we’ve turned off younger Christians to the gospel who see it as just another ideology. Okay. Check. “Chill on the political stuff, and stick to the gospel.”

Then the 2016 election cycle happens. And now, it’s also suddenly very clear “political silence is complicity.” Those very same experts (voices of a generation), assure us Millennials will not be satisfied with churches that stay on the sidelines and remain quiet in the face of injustice. So which is it? Be political or not?

Or maybe Millennials are just now figuring out what they really wanted was a different politics, but politics nonetheless?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ quip about the fickleness of his own generation, “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” (Luke 7:32) When John came preaching, they called him prude, but now they call Jesus a party animal. So which is it?

Now that’s probably not the fairest read of the situation. Maybe there was an underlying principle all along. Maybe the problem wasn’t politics, but partisanship. Maybe the situation has changed dramatically. (I think there’s probably a good case for that.) But apparent turnarounds like this raise some of the questions involved in “listening” to Millennials.

For one thing, which Millennials are we listening to? New York Magazine just had a piece highlighting the differences between older and younger Millennials. Another recent study of Canada’s youth split my generation up into six types like “New Traditionalists”, “Critical Counter-culturalists”, or “Bros and Brittanys”, who all have seriously varied moral, social, and economic orientations. It seems listening to these diverse, often conflicting segments of a large generation would yield wildly different results.

Even more importantly, what does “listening” even mean?

Learning might be part of it. No generation has an exclusive premium on truth, or an unbiased read of the spiritual landscape. Not even Boomers or Traditionalists, who can plausibly claim the wisdom of experience, should be closed off from learning from younger generations.

Indeed, that seems to be a lot of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Millennials are creative, adaptive, digital natives and so are a great resource for forging new paths to tackle the problems of the Church. More than that, they’re not interested in going to Churches that don’t take that seriously.

While I think there’s something to this, it’s important for Churches not to confuse an invitation to listen to Millennials for a demand to cater, or even worse obey them. (“Listen or we’ll leave” seems to be implied threat sometimes).

The fact of the matter is we’re young and we really could be wrong about a lot. We’re still learning and growing. We often don’t even know what we want, much less what we need. To resolve to “listen” in that sense, quickly acquiescing and accommodating every impatient demand, would be a recipe for folly–the naïve leading the blackmailed.

What’s more, while we might be its future, we’re not the whole of the Church, nor will we ever be. Joel prophesied that in the last days, when the Spirit is poured out, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (2:28). Both groups will be doing this at one and the same time—the young and the old are empowered by the same Spirit to serve.

I want to suggest, though, that much listening to Millennials (at least by older generations) involves an element of spiritual parenting. Paul commands parents not to “exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

This begins to get at an important dynamic of the listening process. There’s nothing more exasperating as a child than feeling like nobody’s listening to you. Even if you don’t get your way, simply being taken seriously as a member of the family goes a long way. I do think that Millennials need to be taken seriously—not condescended to—but treated as real, contributing members in any church community. (At least the ones who commit to actually being members.) They’re not only the future of the Church, they are a powerful part of its present.

Secondly, churches need to take Paul’s admonition to train and instruct the next generation in the Lord. If you don’t know where Millennials are, what concerns they have, what they commonly struggle with, you probably won’t be very adept at instructing them in the way of the Lord. And you should be instructing them—to walk with the Lord, read Scripture, pray, evangelize, serve the poor, work their jobs, etc. That’s just the task of discipleship.

Listening also allows you to know when to hand over responsibility at the right time and in the right ways. I suppose we can file this under “training”, but older leaders need to see it as part of their task to prepare Millennials to teach and preach, to lead studies, to work alongside deacons to bless the congregation, and so forth. This involves actually inviting them to do some of these things. (I mean, this shouldn’t be that crazy as some of us are already planting and leading churches anyways.)

Still, in established congregations that involves risk. But all parenting does. Which is why all of this listening needs to be shot through with prayer, trusting we will hear and be guided by the Father who wants to see his all of his children “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Soli Deo Gloria