One of the Worst -Isms

One of my favorite Christmas movies is the original Miracle on 34th Street. Alfred, our favorite janitor/Santa Claus impersonator, while lamenting the consumeristic bent of Christmas in a department store, quips, “There’s a lot of bad -isms floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck.” And that was in 1947. Just look at how far we’ve come since then in the pursuit of wealth.

It’d be easy to decry all of our societal structures and institutions for giving in to commercialism, for so very many have. The American healthcare system (inasmuch as it can be called a “system” which “cares” for health) readily springs to mind. Costs are too high for most people to afford any real care they need, and it’d be unthinkable to have something as simple as a routine appendectomy or a tooth pulled without insurance — which is itself prohibitively expensive. Many families must choose between food and medication. Other countries have shown us that healthcare costs needn’t be so exorbitant, yet they still are. Why? In part because of the greed of commercialism. People aren’t embodied soul requiring loving care; they are broken fleshy machines people will pay anything to repair. And so they do; simple supply and demand.

If it’s terrible such commercialism has infiltrated the care of bodies, it’s positively abhorrent it has become part and parcel of the care of souls.

Here again it’d be all-too-easy to list those televangelists and fake faith healers who will swindle the widow out of her mite. I could go into detail about false prophets bilking the innocent out of their money to pay for their private jets, limousines, and sprawling estates. And while that kind of behavior is sinful in many, many ways, and while they will stand in judgment for what they’ve done to their victims, there’s another dimension of commercialism that has taken root in the church. It’s far more sinister — and far more accepted. It’s the rise of the consumer church.

If you want to know what I mean by “consumer church,” take a look at most megachurches. Really, just pick one that seems to suit your fancy. These have, by and large (with the occasional exception), ignored the traditions of the faith to provide something more aligned with the current whims of culture. There’s nothing wrong with using a different worship style, but there is great danger in altering worship content. A consumer church will typically change both. The more negative realities of Christianity (hell, sin, etc.) get dropped in favor of fluff which omits the need for salvation. Ministers no longer “preach,” since people don’t liked being “preached at”; instead, they “speak” or “talk with you.” The term “sermon” is replaced by “teaching time,” and songs are sanitized as all references to “wretch,” “worm,” and other non-ego-stroking terms for the sinful self are removed. And yes, names matter.

The worship service itself mutates from a corporate act into lots of individual acts carried out in close proximity to one another. Rites and rituals are either omitted entirely or left unexplained, bewildering newcomers and those young in the faith. Catechesis disappears as classes and groups wane due to a lack of emphasis.

In short, our ecclesiology has died. Our liturgics have been entirely forgotten. We no longer live and teach our theology in a corporate setting. The fundamentally Christocentric nature of worship is supplanted by an anthropocentric — or even egocentric — “worship experience.” And why? Why jettison such things? To appeal to consumers who view church as something to be taken in like entertainment instead of a dynamic connection to a living God. Because people don’t put money in the offering plate to hear you tell them to repent. And the more money, the bigger the church; the bigger the church, the more famous the pastor; the more famous the pastor, the more money people give . . .

Did I mention we preachers sometimes have ego problems, too?

Not all megachurch pastors suffer from such thinking. Some truly possess a servant’s heart, and that gives me great hope. But it remains a common pitfall, giving in to a consumer-driven, commercialistic mindset. So we have to remember: fads change. People will want a totally different church twenty years from now because what’s “cool” will be totally different by then. But God never changes. The gospel never changes.

The grass withers, and the parachute pants fade, but the word of the LORD endures forever.

Community

It’s inevitable, really. Whenever I join a new group of friends, or even whenever an older group gets to know me well, I get singled out as the group monk. Maybe it’s my lack of love life, maybe it’s my pursuit of knowledge, maybe it’s my dedication to God — or maybe it’s all the above (or none of the above). Whatever the reason(s), someone will eventually decide I would be a great monk. As one friend remarked a few months ago:
“It could be you. ‘We’ve not heard from Chris in a while.’
“‘Oh, yeah, he’s been reclusive learning the words of creation from a book of exalted deeds.'”

It’s funny, you see, because it’s true.

But when we talk about monks, we need to remember there are two categories of major monastic traditions. Anchorite monks, such as Saint Anthony of the Desert, are solitary hermits. On the other hand, cenobitic monks live their lives in monastic communities. Even though the word “monk” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “solitary” (monachos), it would seem some of those solitary figures realized a Christian life must still be lived in community. The life of faith cannot rightly be lived out alone in the desert.

I think we all have an innate grasp of that reality. We realize first that humans are gregarious creatures; we are social animals. One dimension of the imago Dei is the relational image. Like God, then, we are relational beings, and our lives are meant to be spent in relationships with others of our own kind. I specifically say “with others of our own kind” because some attempt to replace relationships with other people with pets or machines or some other surrogate (Crazy Cat Lady, anyone?). But none of them are equivalent replacements for another human soul, another being made in the image of God. As much as we’d like to believe Fido can understand every word we say, he’s incapable of expressing his doggy views on campaign finance reform, soteriology, and Mrs. Nesbitt’s low opinion of your casserole at the last potluck. Can we love such creatures and have a relationship of sorts with them? Yes, but it is the love and relationship of a greater to a lesser, a master to a vassal. It cannot serve as a substitute for the love among equals, for genuine human relationships and real human community.

If it’s impossible to be fully human without being part of a community involving other people, why would we think we can live a life of faith estranged from other Christians?

Recently I attended a dinner for one of our Sunday School classes. I have a standing invitation to their get-togethers, so I hastily made some macaroni and cheese (not the kind that comes in a blue box, either, but the real deal) and went to supper. Sitting at the table and listening to everyone swap stories, I was struck by two thoughts. First, I realized how much I myself missed being around the same group of people on a daily basis (a staple of academic life). Second, I wished each of our classes would do something similar. It doesn’t have to be a supper, although a common table has been the hallmark of Christianity since the time of Jesus. It could be a trip, a party on game day, anything. Anything which would bring people together and give them a chance to share their lives with one another. In the church of all places, we need those moments, those chances to rejoice, to weep, to laugh, to simply be present with each other without worrying about what comes next.

In an age defined by digital distractions, being mentally and emotionally present is increasingly difficult — and increasingly rare. We can all tell stories of going out to eat and seeing every person at another table on their phones. None of them were willing to be as present soulfully as they were physically. Things like that have repercussions. For one example, we use things instead of people as babysitters, and it turns my stomach. I admit I have no children (monk, you know), but it seems to me if you truly valued your children, you would spend time playing with them, teaching them, discipling them, disciplining them. You wouldn’t say, “Here’s my phone; now shut up and leave me alone.” You wouldn’t let an iPad raise your child for you. (Yes, you need time for self-care, but is that truly the best way to achieve that?) It’s a new form of absentee parenting: Dad didn’t leave, he’s just on the couch playing video games while the toddler sits glued to the tablet. There’s no interaction there, no community, only two strangers sharing space and a bloodline.

If parents can’t even live in community with their own children, it will take an act of countercultural revolution to get Christians to engage with one another on a personal level. Fortunately for us, Christianity has always been countercultural.

To live out this new counterculture, to reclaim the community which has been lost, we need to revisit a favorite verse we always quote for something else and add its context. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” We’ve all seen v. 25 used to tell us we should be going to church — and rightly so. But v. 24 adds another dimension to it. We come together to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” That can happen at a class supper, a lunch meeting, a trip with friends, a weekly time to check in with one another. It may find its fullness of expression on a Lord’s Day, but it needn’t be limited to corporate acts of worship. It is about living out our faith in a community of faith — the church. It is about being a part of a body (1 Cor. 12:12ff.). After all, a single body part can’t live on its own; it needs everyone else.

As the physical body, so the spiritual body. We cannot live out a vibrant Christian faith without being connected to a larger community. We can’t go off into the desert; we have to live and laugh with other people. Without others around us, our love grows cold, and without a love for others, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). So go be social. Live life in community. Be fully human, fully alive, and fully connected to God.

F.A.Q.: Can We Take the Bible Literally?

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed if the Bible itself is trustworthy, what to do with the Old Testament in a New Testament Church, how to evaluate the translation process, and other matters of hermeneutics. Today I want to discuss one question I seem to be asked with increasing frequency: can we take the Bible literally.

It’s pretty easy to see how this particular question came to such prominence in people’s minds. The debates on evolution and the age of the earth have given rise to any number of books on either side and places such as the Creation Museum. The creator of the latter continues to showcase the literal reading of Genesis with a full-size replica of Noah’s ark, the case for a global flood writ large on the northern Kentucky landscape contra those who believe Noah’s flood was either local or non-existent. The questions arising from how to properly read Genesis are seemingly endless — and that’s just a single one of the Bible’s sixty-six books. True, fewer issues pop up about things like the atonement or David and Bathsheba, but there are many who would claim things such as the miracles, the Virgin birth, and even the resurrection are either allegory or fiction. (And don’t get me started on nine-tenths of Revelation.)

In true Me fashion, let me say that the answer to “Can we take the Bible literally?” is yes . . . and no. Before you rally the lynch mob or form a posse, let me further state approximately zero percent of its readers takes the Bible 100% literally. If we did, passages such as this from Song of Songs would be either incomprehensible or horrifying: “Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. . . . Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim” (SoS 7:2,4b). Consider also this portion of the Song of Deborah: “At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet, he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell — dead” (Judges 5:27). I think we can all agree Solomon’s lover was not a construct forged of drinking vessels, grain, flowers, and geographic features. Similarly, since his death in Judges 4 never mentions multiple resurrections or a staircase, it’s safe to say Sisera didn’t sink and fall repeatedly after Jael drove a tent peg through his head as he slept.

We can easily recognize both of those passages — and many, many others — as poetry, things said for effect and not to be taken literally. Solomon’s depiction of the Shulammite woman is a very imagetic metaphor; Deborah’s description of the death of Sisera utilizes parallelism to make her point. It’s obvious we take things like form and genre into consideration when reading our Bibles, even if only unconsciously. And the distinctions make a world of difference in our interpretations of those passages.

So when genre and rhetoric would indicate a passage is not to be taken literally (as in poetry and apocalypse), we read it with symbolism in mind, decode the sign systems, and gain meaning from the text. When they seem to say it’s a literal depiction of events (narrative and law, for example), we interpret things literally. It really is a both/and sort of thing.

The hard part is figuring out which is which.

It’s easier for things like most of the wisdom books or Revelation. The imagery alone is enough to tell us they can’t be taken totally literally. But what about Job? Jonah? Miracle accounts? Genesis? Those are harder for some people to figure out. There are arguments to be made on either side, and they get increasingly complex as you go. Taking Jonah as an example, some say it’s an extended parable or a morality tale because of things like the whole fish food incident. Others say it must be literal because it mirrors features of the other prophetic books and there are other biblical references to a prophet named Jonah son of Amittai.

And we all know the Genesis debates.

In the end, will there be a “more correct” way to interpret problem passages? Probably. But since God alone has all the answers, our job is to make a solid biblical and theological case for why we choose to interpret certain passages as literal and others as more symbolic. Once our evidence is in, we take our stand. But no matter how we view a few texts, we can always take comfort in one thing: Jesus literally died for our sins and literally was raised the third day. Rejoice that salvation has come!

Love Story

I’ve talked too much politics recently, and for that I apologize. I suppose today, on St. Valentine’s Day, I’m obligated to talk about love (or wuv, twu wuv, if you prefer). With that said, I feel like most of us have a working, orthodox theology of love. We understand it from the biblical perspective — not as unconditional endorsement or an apathetic tolerance, but as a genuine care of the other which requires grace and discipline both. And so while I could go on about the various forms of love and whatnot, I’ve decided to go another route today.

I’ve been re-reading a bit of narrative theology lately, a school of thought which resonates with those of us with degrees in literature. Sometimes story can convey truth more readily than textbook-esque syllogisms; if you don’t believe me, ask your valentine tonight which he or she would rather hear, “I love you, and here’s what you’ve done to mean so much to me” or “When I look at you, my body increases output of testosterone/estrogen, adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin with the result I feel emotional attachment to you.” One is the story of your life together; the other is what’s happening on the biochemical level. (Trust me: the story means a lot more.)

Perhaps that’s why love stories mean so much to us. We don’t care about the physiology so much as the emotional content. Yes, it’s grand someone’s thoughts swing one way as key neurotransmitters are deployed, but I’d rather see them sacrifice for one another, make loving gestures, that sort of thing. We all prefer Romeo & Juliet (a teenage romance resulting in multiple deaths) to the BBC’s explanation of the chemical reactions in your brain (unless it’s narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and then it’s even money). The deeds, the action, the romance, the tensions, those are why we enjoy love stories. They tell us tales about people like us living lives like ours but to whom something extraordinary happens, an extraordinary something we’d all like to happen to us. It captivates both heart and imagination in ways raw data cannot.

Unless they’re sad love stories, of course. In which case women leave the theater crying as men wonder what just happened in the last two hours, both in the heart of his lover and on the screen (because, let’s face it, no man is going to be paying rapt attention to a chick flick).

Perhaps this is why the Bible makes use of love stories as often as it does. And not just love stories — love poetry. Reading Song of Songs in Hebrew may make one’s head hurt more than reading a Shakespearean sonnet, but we can’t remove Solomon’s work from Scripture. It’s one of the greatest ancient portrayals of romance still existing today. Nowhere else in the Bible can we find such beautiful depictions of love and sexuality. Sometimes readers will wonder how on earth it made it in there in the first place, but again, we all love a love story. We all understand what Solomon and his Beloved feel for each other. Song of Solomon helps us to recognize that such feelings are gifts from God.

In the great debate about sexuality, we’ve forgotten to emphasize that point as much as we should. We omit love to discuss sex. We forget about the God who created both. Maybe that’s because we blush when we read Song of Songs. Maybe it’s because we as Christians have misrepresented sex as something shameful and dirty for so many years. Whatever the reason(s), we need to reclaim eros just as surely as we need to embody agape. The God who is holy love, unconditional love (whether you call is agape or caritas [“charity” in the KJV]) is also the God of eros, of erotic, romantic love.

A brief caveat here: don’t confuse the romantic/erotic with the lustful. God did not create lust any more than He created anything else sinful. Lust is the perversion of love, the pale imitation of the real. Love for another is holistic; it is care for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves of the other. You cannot truly love someone if you don’t care about their mind, just as you can’t fall in love with a soul which is darkened and twisted. Lust says otherwise. It relies upon biochemical sympathy to say “my body wants your body” without caring about any other dimension. It ignores the personhood of the individual and offers a reductionistic identity correspondent to their physicality. And that’s a problem. Bodies don’t last. Sometimes minds don’t even last. But love will care for the whole person, not just a single component of them. Lust never can and never will be able to offer anything more than sexual attraction.

Love offers a lifetime of devotion and dedication. That’s the kind of love God gifted us. He wired us to love one another in this way, designed us so that we would be able to care for one another on a romantic level. Such is the goodness and graciousness of God.

Now, this isn’t to say the single are “less-than.” It’s not to say the love which we pursue defines us in any way other than to point to our humanity and the Divinity which created it. We can enjoy life and personhood and a relationship with God without being married or dating. Paul even refers to it as a preferred state. So those who have the gift of romance can never look down upon those who do not. And those who do not should not feel envy or bitterness towards those who do. All rely on the provision of a sovereign God (and more than a little human initiative). All experience love, no matter the form it may take.

Most importantly, all know the love of God. A God who sent His Son to die on a cross for us, simply because He loves us and want us to love Him.

Now that‘s a love story.

A Nonpartisan God

Monday I did something I swore I would never do: I quit my party. Not a birthday party or some social function. I don’t really host those in the first place (and typically decline invitations to those of others). No, Monday I mailed my paperwork to change my voter registration. As a result, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person on either side of my family to not be a registered member of the Republican Party. (I guess I’m just the malcontent. The rogue.)

I’m now independent, unaffiliated with either of America’s two major political parties — or with any of the minor ones, for that matter. It means I can’t vote in party primaries, and the switch cost me some major political capital in other ways given the current state of things. My former party controls every level of my government, local, state, and federal, so I’ve just abandoned those who make the rules, so to speak. Much like my (former) fellow GOP-ers, I at one time celebrated that we had, at long last, taken back control. I waited in anxious anticipation for the conservatives to set in motion things many of us — and many Christians of all stripes — had awaited for years. And they did. Republicans in Kentucky advanced thrillingly pro-life legislation. They ended mandatory union dues. The national legislature began hammering out how to protect religious liberties, and the president nominated a worthy heir of Justice Scalia to the Supreme Court.

Then things turned ugly.

And I’m not talking about just in the capitals, either. People on the ground outside of D.C. and Frankfort, private citizens without any political office whatsoever, began spewing some of the most hateful, vitriolic, anti-Christ rhetoric I’ve heard in a decade — and practically all of it in the name of Jesus. At first I was shocked and appalled. Then I became angry. Now I’m just sad — and more than a little curious. Did Constantine do this to my brothers and sisters? By legalizing my faith, by declaring Christianity the religion of the Empire, did he consign us to hatred in the name of politics?

Historically Christianity and political clout haven’t mixed well. Don’t get me wrong; if you know me at all and/or read the rest of this blog, you know I’m an amateur political theologian who would use political means to safeguard biblical truths. But the simple fact of the matter is Christians can be some of the world’s worst bullies while in office — or out of it when talking about politics. We tend to push for theocracy and mock or damn anyone who would stand in our way. Sometimes we kill them (Servetus and the Inquisition, anyone?). It’s just not right. But we do it anyway.

Usually we do it because of two concomitant errors. First we elevate portions of the Bible over others, demonizing those who disagree with our rankings in the process. Second we place allegiance to our politics/party/country above the demands of the portions of Scripture we ranked lowest. Both parties do this, which is why I went independent instead of simply becoming a Democrat. But consider the following before you tell me I’m wrong about that.

1. Abortion terminates innocent human life and is therefore morally wrong.
2. The Bible consistently emphasizes the moral duty owed to immigrants and refugees.
3. Christians are called to be selfless and put God first, not America first.
4. The Bible condemns same-sex relationships.
5. Jesus never asked the sick for a co-pay or the 5,000 for a drug test.
6. They will know us by our love, not our patriotism; our caring service, not our party platform.
7. God is a jealous God, and you shall have no other gods before Him.
8. The worship of or primary allegiance to something other than God is called idolatry, and idolatry is sinful.
9. Every human being is made in the image of God.
10. God loves everyone equally.

Now, with these ten biblical truths in mind, let’s examine party platforms.

The Republicans score points for being anti-abortion and pro-traditional marriage, but lose points for being increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic, putting self and country above the widow and orphan. They also lose points for putting frankly sinful profit margins ahead of providing access to health care and pharmaceuticals.

The Democrats earn points for Care of the Other, including policies on health care and immigration. They lose points, though, for promoting the murder of the unborn and advocacy for alternative sexualities/non-binary genders. They also lose points for a sort of forced atheism in most policy-making, a theocracy of a different sort.

So tell me: how do you weigh the two on even a handful of policies? Is letting a refugee die because of fear better or worse than paying for abortifacients? Whose life is worth more? Is the shameless promotion of big business in the name of ideology (i.e. capitalism) while letting the poor die of treatable diseases better or worse than attempting to normalize once unthinkable and still evil sexual relationships? Should we ban prayer in schools or the teaching of scientific fact? Who must go: God or Darwin (because it’s evident no one will fight for both)? Both parties are steeped in pervasive systemic sin. So which sin is worse?

Listening to their followers, the Other Guy is always the enemy, the most immoral. Republicans call Democrats heathens, “snowflakes,” traitors, and generally un-Christian — all while saying Jesus would of course build a border wall because even heaven has a gate. Democrats call Republicans uneducated, anti-science, bigoted, and racist — all while saying God is love and therefore loves sinful expressions of sexuality because it’s all about love. Both believe God is on their side exclusively. Both believe God votes their party line.

Both are terribly, horrifically wrong.

The eternal God of the universe existed infinitely before the foundation of either political party, and He will exist infinitely after both cease to exist. He supports biblical causes, no matter which party — if any — claims those causes as its own. He does not blindly support the United States in everything it does anymore than He always affirms the party line. All are composed of sinful, imperfect men and women trying to serve a perfect God. No party can claim Jesus as its mascot. No party can categorically claim every member of the opposition is going to hell. And the Risen Christ will never, ever carry a flag other than his own, the standard of the kingdom of heaven.

Stop believing the lie God is always the conservative. Stop believing He is always the liberal. God is God, and He will support the righteous and oppose the unrighteous, all while loving both. He cheers for what is right and condemns what is wrong, no matter the party, nation, or person. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar.

And that’s why I’m no longer a Republican.

The Known

We all know the adage “scientia potentia est” — knowledge is power. Somewhere down the line, someone thought they’d be clever and mash it together with another fun phrase then expand on the result: “Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. Study hard. Be evil.” I can’t totally agree with the logic there, but it inadvertently highlights a certain stigma, I think. Many people do associate knowledge with some sort of evil, be it hubris, egoism, atheism, gossip, or something else. It doesn’t help that the smartest character in most movies and television shows is the villain. We’ve turned it into a stereotype: brains = baddie. I maintain this specious equivalence is one reason I was voted in high school both Most Likely to Succeed and Most Likely to Blow Up the World.

Scripture won’t let us go quite that far, but it doesn’t always portray knowledge in a positive light, either. Proverbs may teach us knowledge is born of the fear of God, but the very next book goes a different direction. Ecclesiastes, the great wisdom capstone of the cynical Solomon, offers us two key verses on the subject: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (1:18) and “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (12:12). If ever I am tempted to argue with the Bible, 12:12 is the reason. As for 1:18, well, the studies are in, and those who score of average intelligence report being much happier in life than those with higher intelligence. (Ignorance really is bliss, it seems.) So maybe there’s something to the idea of knowledge and wisdom causing sorrow and grief after all.

But knowledge itself, well, I’ve never bought into the notion knowledge is intrinsically good or evil. Knowledge, to me, is moral Switzerland. Raw data are void of moral content. It’s only in the application, in the praxis beyond the theory, that knowledge and ethics can be properly juxtaposed. For example, knowing the significance of the carotid artery is trivia. Putting pressure on it to stop someone from bleeding out is heroism; deliberately severing it is murder. Knowledge may have enabled both actions, but it didn’t cause them. Actions still require volition.

Some may agree with me to a point and then declare specific data are good or evil, exceptions to the rule. I can appreciate the perspective, but I still disagree. Most would (rightly) argue that satanic rituals are evil. Knowing about them, however, is not. I could use the knowledge to perform one, yes, but I could also employ that information to recognize one in progress and put a stop to it. I know quite a bit about Gardnerian Wicca, but I’m not a witch. Knowing its beliefs helps me to argue against them from a Christian perspective. In both of those (extreme) cases, a neutral knowledge of an evil thing leads to good actions. Again, moral content is added in praxis.

At this point, I’m obliged to look at obligation. If I know Sweet Nell is tied to the railroad tracks and the 11:15 is due at her location any moment, doesn’t the information I possess obligate me to act according to a certain ethical standard and rescue her? Yes, it does. But suppose I adhere to another ethic, one which sees the elimination of the hero’s beloved as a worthy objective (assume I work for Evil, Inc.). Am I still ethically bound to save her from stream-driven death? No, not if we assume ethics are relative and human agency isn’t beholden to a moral absolute. The base knowledge (damsel in distress) hasn’t changed; all that’s varied is the moral implications, the sense of ought-ness connected to the actions arising from the knowing. The use of knowledge is governed by obligation at times and by morality always.

In the same way, learning — the acquisition of knowledge — is governed by an ethical framework and moral obligations. We’re obligated to learn as much as we can about God. We ought to find out where the baddie tied the girl to the tracks. We should stay away from the private matters of other people. If we cross those bounds and learn, the knowledge gained may have moral consequences. Whether it does or not, however, the information itself remains neutral.

I admit I’m biased about this. I like knowing things. Growing up, I soaked up useless trivia like a sponge (the reason my sister called me “Garbage Brain” — head full of junk). When asked which of the divine omnis I’d like to be — omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent — I always pick omniscient. An unslakable thirst for knowledge defines who I am. With that said, I don’t believe God, mysterious though He is, delights in ignorance. He created us with great intelligences capable of learning about the universe. It’d be a shame not to use them.

So study hard. Learn all you can. Just don’t use it for evil.

King of America

Tomorrow will see the inauguration of the next President of the United States. We will end the eight-year tenure of Pres. Obama to make way for (at least) four years of Pres. Trump. The people, as they say, have spoken. Even though Mr. Trump lost the popular vote, the rising tide of partisan politics ironically allied with an increasing distrust of the Washington establishment was sufficient to carry him all the way to the White House.

It’s true that Mr. Trump has been subjected to more media scrutiny than any other candidate I know of, and, given the ubiquitous bias of our news agencies, he has been the subject of more fake or horribly slanted stories than any other as well. However, I’m not here to vindicate him, nor am I here to condemn. Mostly I just wonder at how a man objectively questionable on many metrics made it to his inauguration day — and I marvel a bit at the role the Church played in his doing so.

In a time when the Moral Majority is now defunct and the Religious Right has lost all sway, it would seem impossible for the evangelical voting bloc to influence an election. Yet it did, due in no small part to the tactics and policies of the current/previous administration. Pres. Obama may have billed himself as a champion of hope, but for evangelicals and other Christians, he destroyed hope. His global advocacy for same-sex “marriage” and abortion struck a nerve for many of us, and the policies advanced under his watch created an America defined by liberalism and progressive mores: acceptance of the LGBTQ community and non-binary genders, expanded abortion under the guise of women’s rights (despite it resulting in the deaths of countless women), stronger emphases on scientism and rationalism, restricted religious liberties, major changes to the healthcare system, etc. Most Christians view these as moral issues, and that makes them religious issues. And religion votes if you make it angry enough.

That, to me, is the good side of the evangelical alliance with the conservative party, our commitment to holding the line on some of the things which are clearly taught in the Bible. But there’s a dark side to it, too. Just beneath the surface runs a jingoistic strand of nationalism masquerading as simple patriotism. While I consider myself a patriot, I do not believe every country is totally inferior to the United States in every respect, nor do I believe our nation to be infallible, and I don’t even think capitalism and federalism are sacred cows. So I reject the all-too-common xenophobia, racism, and isolationism of the Republican party. I dismiss its assertion socialized medicine will only destroy us but allowing pharmaceutical companies and hospitals to charge exorbitant prices for what we need to survive will save our lives. Unfortunately, these are evils frequently propagated by those bearing the name of Christ who seem to put party above church and earthly citizenship above heavenly citizenship.

When we re-prioritize state above Savior, we fall into the same trap as did the ancient Israelites in 1 Samuel 8. You can replace “king” with “president,” but verses 6-7 would otherwise read the same: “But when they said ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: ‘Listen to all the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected Me as their King.'”

To me, the 2016 election sounds an awful lot like 1 Samuel 8. Evangelical voters no longer trusted God to see them through the increased persecutions of a darkening world. Hope had been lost as influence waned, and they cried out for a new Messiah to save them from a shifting, sinful landscape. Prayers morphed to votes, and we elected a man who has yet to prove himself in political office or display the majority of the fruit of the Spirit despite reports of a mid-election conversion and baptism. Is it too early to offer decisive opinions on his presidency and a change of character? Absolutely. Only time can reveal both of those things, no matter how current indicators may appear. Is it safe to say he will do more in favor of Christian values than his opponent would have? Again, absolutely. Another Clinton presidency posed grave perils to evangelical beliefs and freedom of conscience.

But Mr. Trump should on no account be heralded as the new Christ come into the world to save us from the “pagan progressives,” either by name or by fact of attitude. There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:4-6). Mr. Trump is none of those. The Republican party is none of those. Only Jesus can provide access to all of them, and so it is in him we have hope.

As always, I will obey just laws and submit to all governmental authorities; these are biblical commands. Evangelicals may have cried out for a king of America to rule them in this life — and we received one. And who knows; he may even have been chosen for such a time as this (Esther 4:14). But he is not a Savior, a crucified and risen Lord. So during the inauguration, remember this: Donald Trump will be my president, but Jesus Christ will remain my only King.

The Absolute on Absolutes

One of the biggest paradoxes in Western culture is the prevailing perception of truth. It seems as though the notion of absolute truth has fallen by the wayside — except when it must be adhered to at all costs.

Let me explain. We have two very popular epistemological assumptions, one broad and one narrow, which must be believed in order to be a good citizen of the twenty-first century. The problem is their direct opposition to each other — a fact which is entirely ignored. On the one side is scientism/empiricism. To be true, something must be capable of being verified under direct observation à la the guidelines of scientific inquiry. Of course, the core tenet of scientism fails its own test (the statement “all things must be empirically verifiable to be true” is not itself empirically verifiable and therefore can’t be true in its own system), but that hasn’t stopped anyone from promoting it as a foundational paradigm. On the other side, and in direct conflict, is moral relativism. What is right for you may not be good in the eyes of someone else, and so you can’t enforce your own moral code anywhere but on your own personal behaviors. I say this conflicts with scientism because without core moral absolutes, morals degrade entirely; they cannot be verified in any way and therefore cannot exist. (Consider, for example, if we cannot agree on what precisely constitutes murder, theft, or rape; if we can’t match the activity to an absolute definition, then it could be argued the activity doesn’t exist according to empiricism. All that exists are uncategorized behaviors devoid of moral content.) Yet we’re bound by social convention to believe they do exist, just not in the same way for everyone. At best we’re left with some ephemeral type of something called “morality”; at worst, we hold a rather large contradiction in our heads because of social mandate.

I realize that probably comes across as splitting hairs or a weird reductionistic stance to some people, so let me broaden the second element from moral relativism to a relativism of all truth. Again, truth must be verifiable to be true; science says things are in fact verifiable; therefore, truth, absolute truth, must exist in the scientistic schema.

But we don’t want to believe that, schema or no. People say that what is true for you may or may not be true for me or anyone else. Absolute truth doesn’t exist — but when people tell me that, I typically laugh and say they’ve just made an absolute truth claim, so they clearly believe absolute truth does exist. (Seriously: if stating your position requires you to contradict it, you might want to get a new position.) We don’t want to believe that, though. Absolute truth creates moral absolutes, or least opens the door for them.

And that’s uncomfortable.

Consider the far-ranging results and implications of the absence of absolute truth. Science, and therefore scientism, fails. Everything based on the acquisition and manipulation of data fails: science, mathematics, history, anthropology, all of it. Even the arts break down once we remove necessary definitions for things such as “blue,” “Middle C,” and “square.” If those no longer exist, what about language? Architecture? Love? Yes, that’s a bit on the reductio ad absurdum side, but other things aren’t.

Scientific fact: humans come with twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in each cell, each chromosome comprised of genes linked together as either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. (Exceptions are made for gametes and those suffering from rare genetic disorders.) They can only combine in one of two ways, resulting in an individual being limited to one of two biological sexes, an XX chromosome pairing for females and an XY pairing for males (again, extremely rare cases of things like hermaphroditism exist, but I’m talking about the other 99% of the time). These are absolute truths. There is no room in this truth for things such as transgenderism, non-binary genders/sexes, otherkin, etc. There are a number of people putting themselves in wheelchairs, casts, braces, etc. who are medically fine; they simply identify as “transabled,” a disabled person in a healthy body. Adults declare themselves to be children and wear diapers, or, worse, turn themselves into animals simply for sexual identity and gratification. These sorts of things are only permissible if we abandon absolute truths (here offered by biology) in favor of relativism. If we are free to reject what is real for what we want to be real, if we accept a sort of functional subjective metaphysical antirealism, we lose our very selves in the process. In short, self-destruction is the final end of relativism gone rampant.

The logical question to follow this isn’t “is truth absolute,” but, rather, “who determines what is absolute.” Here again our contemporaries offer up science and empiricism as the mediators of the absolute — but remember my earlier caveats. Some people believe such truths are obvious, available freely to anyone with ears to hear, but that leads to a subjective form of truth. After all, we might disagree on a few things due to differences in our sensory perceptions, and then who gets to break the tie? An individual is insufficient to establish absolutes, and those who try actually represent the guiding force of relativism (namely, my word against yours). A related warning: if we do know absolute truths to be absolute, we cannot let them make us arrogant, contemptuous, cruel, or callous. (This is why so many dislike Christians: we speak the truth, but we fail to do so in love, instead offering condemnation for those who fail to live up to our versions of the absolutes.)

What is the source of absolute truth and moral absolutes? To the theist, it is deity; to the Christian specifically, it’s the Triune God. We see this repeatedly in Scripture:

  • Psalm 33:4, “for the word of the LORD is right and true”
  • Psalm 31:5/Isaiah 65:16, “the God of truth”
  • John 1:14, “full of grace and truth”
  • John 14:16, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”
  • John 16:13, “he will guide you into all truth”
  • John 17:17, “your word is truth”
  • 1 Timothy 3:15, “pillar and foundation of the truth” [referring to the Church]

As Christians, we accept the authority of the Bible, and thus we see God as the sole source of absolute truth. If anything is true, it is of God; if anything is false, it is from Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

With an external, objective source of moral and truth absolutes, we can make legitimate truth claims. Blue is blue because it possesses the qualities of blueness, not because I personally think it a bit different shade from green. Right becomes right, wrong becomes wrong. Biological fact remains as immutable as all fact is, and deviations can be diagnosed so the one suffering can be helped. We call things what they actually are, not what we wish them to be.

For our wishes are subjective, relative. But truth, like the One behind it, is absolute.

Peace Like a River

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

I think most of us in church circles have, at some point, sung “It Is Well with My Soul.” It’s been my favorite hymn since I was a junior in high school. I was in band, and we were practicing “On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss” for our spring concert. Mid-song, my father walked into the band room, stood along the back wall, caught my eye, and slowly shook his head. I knew immediately my maternal grandfather had just passed away, had just lost his battle with cancer. With the band still playing around me, I stood up, told the band director what had happened, asked one of my friends to tend to my instrument for me, and left with my father. Had the words of that song not been echoing in my mind and heart as we played, I don’t think I would’ve been able to keep it together like I did. Somehow, it’s just easier to deal with things when the melody behind you proclaims “it is well with my soul.”

The first phrase of that song, “When peace like a river attendeth my way,” speaks volumes to me. I consider it a personal mark of being in God’s will to have peace about me. If a decision throws me into panic or chaos, I search for the option that brings peace when I prayerfully consider it, and that’s the option I choose. It’s not always the easiest option, nor the safest, but it has never failed to be the best. When I’m in the wrong, peace is nowhere to be found, and I know I need to do a bit of self-examination and repenting in order to restore that divine sense of ease. Peace has become my barometer, one of my chief tools of discernment. It’s my way of doing as Paul writes in Colossians 3:15: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

The Bible has a lot to say about peace. It’s one of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), a hallmark of those who are called by the name of Christ. If we are truly new creations through water and the Holy Spirit, we are given the peace of Christ. In most liturgical worship services, there’s even a specific time to “pass the peace.” (I mean, nothing wrong with an old-fashioned handshake line, but deliberately telling the other person “Peace of Christ” when you do it carries just a bit more theological content.) As believers, we are to be at peace with one another and with our neighbors.

The world . . . well, the world doesn’t make that easy most days. If there are four things the world greatly lacks, they’re love, hope, faith, and peace. Because it lacks the first three, it lacks the fourth. If love, hope, and faith prevailed, think of what the world would look like. Peace would abound as war ended, as crime ceased. That would be the legacy of peace. And, to be fair, we do try to promote peace, don’t we? We even have a prize for people who make a difference in establishing peace around the world. Whether or not we listen to those people is another story entirely.

With the lack of peace around us, it can be difficult to establish peace for ourselves. Fortunately for us, peace doesn’t come from ourselves; it comes from God. Philippians 4:7 assures us “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” What a beautiful promise! But how do we live into it? The answer is just before, in verses 4-6: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” If we do these things — rejoice, be gentle, stop worrying, and pray about all things while giving thanks — we are promised a divine peace, a peace so boundless and wonderful we cannot comprehend it. And there are some things we shouldn’t try to comprehend; we’re meant to simply enjoy the benefits.

As the holidays end and life gets back to normal, I invite you to a season of peace. Don’t be so quick to jump from one thing to another. Rest. If you’re faced with a major decision, seek the peace from God that comes with the right choice. The Holy Spirit will guide you in the way you should go if only you’ll stop to listen. And even when things go wrong, when nothing is right in the world, you can cry out to God and say, “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.'” And in that moment, you will receive peace.

 

Looking Backwards

It’s hard not to be glad 2016 is almost over. To paraphrase a line from a favorite old movie, I could draw a year out of a hat, blindfolded, and get a better one. And thus many of us are quite content to watch 2016 in its death throes.

It was an . . . interesting year, to be sure. I don’t think anyone woke up on January 1st and thought we’d be where we are now, personally, nationally, or globally. For me personally, I began 2016 with hopes of becoming the youth minister at my current church — which I did, for all of two months. I never expected to be the senior minister (and frequently said so to the friends who told me I was going to be “promoted”). Our church saw new souls saved and added other members, and praise God for it!

But . . . that rest of the year, though.

This is arguably the most surprised I’ve ever been that a presidential candidate 1) won the election and 2) didn’t get shot in the process. Our country is still feeling the aftermath of one of the most contentious, uncivilized elections in history. That combines with strings of shootings with a diverse group of victims and results in a divided land. Whether you attribute such things to media coverage or to “real” problems, 2016 revealed some of the worst aspects of our fellow Americans (and ourselves).

The Church hasn’t fared much better these past twelve months. United Methodists narrowly avoided schism by (in essence) kicking the can down the road a few more years, all because clergy and laity in a few areas didn’t want to follow their own rules anymore. Celebrity pastors fell amid the latest waves of scandal. The marriage debate continued to sunder ecclesial bodies, and the opening of a replica of Noah’s Ark brought to the forefront not-so-pleasant discussions on origins, the historicity of Genesis, and the complex relationship between science and theism. New surveys came out declaring mine and subsequent generations the most atheistic on record, and other studies proved we are truly in a post-Christendom world.

Meanwhile, people got sick. Some died. We had an epidemic or two.

People were born. Some got married. I was asked how many kids I had five times.

Friends were made. Friends failed to remain friends.

I gave up a return to grad school to remain a pastor. I learned how difficult — and how rewarding — ministry can truly be.

I killed spiders, fought other bugs, and trapped many, many mice. (Seriously, I’m looking for a house to rent at this point.)

I bought a lot of books and read most of them.

Our Bible study still hasn’t finished Revelation, but we have enjoyed a lot of food and fellowship.

Yes, 2016 was an interesting year. It’s not a year any of us are likely to forget, try as we might. But should we try? It wasn’t all bad. Even the horrors exposed problems we can fix and be better than we were before. We can’t erase the past simply because it makes us uncomfortable. We must embrace it, and for the same reason.

A blessed 2017 to everyone! I’ll see you next year.