Saint Stephen’s Option

There comes a time in every Christian’s life when we must decide how to move forward, how to be salt and light, how we will relate to the world around us. As I’ve outlined previously, theologians and ethicists categorize our options into a few different groups (and more abound than in my earlier post). Today, though, I want to skip the helpful nuances and present you with a black and white, heads or tails choice with precisely two options for our cultural engagement.

Option One: we give up. This choice is exactly as it sounds. We just give up, roll over, and call it a day. We admit we lost the war and adopt positions which mirror the secular-humanist philosophy of our unchurched peers. Marriage? Well, the law is the law, so let that one go. Open the doors of our worship spaces and let all gays, lesbians, and transgenders wed. Go a step further and unite them at our hands, invoking the blessings of a largely apathetic (if not outright non-existent) God upon the union. Abortion? It’s a clump of cells, barely alive, and certainly sub-human. Expel it from the uterus, crush its skull in the birth canal, just get rid of it. After all, you might be inconvenienced by having to care for a child, particularly if you’re not married. But if you’re not, that’s fine. Living together is the “in” thing, after all. Commitment is outdated, and since sex is only about your own pleasure (not even your partner’s, but yours) and has zero spiritual or mystic dimensions, have fun. Be yourself. Oh, and don’t fret about staying in your marriage if you’re already hitched. Marriage, like sex, is only about your personal happiness. Leave whenever you like for any reason whatsoever. I mean, some people just don’t get along, and it’s hard to make it work.

To support these changes, we’re going to need to give up a lot of other things, too. No more talk of sin. No cross, no atonement, as these require sin. Miracles are anti-science, so none of those. Oh, and let’s toss any theology argued from creation, as creation is a silly, antiquated idea from the mythic age; we’ll need to get rid of Paul, and the Pentateuch, some psalms, the last chapters of Job . . . well, honestly, the angry Old Testament God is pretty problematic (the concept of judgment is a bit woolly these days), so let’s only go with the New Testament with the aforementioned omissions. Be sure to skip Revelation, too, though, as there’s a lot about people not being saved, hell, and lakes of fire.

Really, Option One changes every facet of worship. Most (all, if we’re being careful with our lyrics) of our music would be inappropriate in such a setting. Sacraments convey a sense of “in” and “out,” so let’s skip those. Prayer might be a bit, well, pointless at this stage, so give that a miss, too. And since there’s really nothing left to preach, we may as well leave out a sermon. Someone can give a rousing talk or a self-improvement seminar, but leave sermonizing out of this.

As you can see, the first of our two options ends in simply closing the doors of the church. It would be superfluous (as so many think it now), unnecessary reinforcement of the cultural norms (as so many churches have already become). The church would stop being called out from among the world — the literal definition of the church — stop being weird, stop being alternative and counter-cultural.

In the spirit of fairness, I want to paint Option Two (remaining steadfast) with an equally exaggerated treatment. This second of our two possible choices is the opposite of the first. Instead of giving in, we redouble our commitment to our current positions. We declare sex belongs only in marriage and marriage is one man and one woman for life. We call abortion murder, the willful and deliberate taking of another human life. We preach sin, hellfire, judgment, and damnation. We sing songs about the cross of Christ and the atonement made to cover our personal sins. We teach stories of a creator God who loves us and disciplines us. We say “you shouldn’t do that” as well as “I encourage you in this,” whichever is appropriate at the time. We initiate believers by baptism and serve them the body and blood of Jesus Christ in our Supper. We promote peace and human flourishing, not hedonistic, individualistic self-destruction.

The truly radical part is how we can do all this while suffering for it. I never want to diminish the persecutions faced by my brothers and sisters in other countries, but even here we face insults, protests, and people crying out for our destruction. In the eyes of our culture, Christians are increasingly being painted as villains. But we endure it all. We don’t change our proclamation, opting instead to willingly face the consequences.

I call this the Saint Stephen Option. St. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church — and its first martyr. As his story goes in Acts 6-8:1, Stephen was seized for preaching the gospel. In his defense before the Sanhedrin, he simply recounted salvation history, ending with a vision of Jesus. He was stoned to death, his last words crying out to God to forgive his killers.

His is the example I propose we follow. I say we draw the line in the sand and hold to it. We don’t budge. We don’t jettison unpopular doctrines. We cling to them more than ever. We preach and teach the fullness of the gospel. We do so in love and because of love. If we are robbed or killed or spoken of evilly or forced from positions of influence or ignored entirely, we bear it in grace. We willingly suffer for proclaiming Christ and him crucified, realizing the salvation of souls is worth any sacrifice we may be called upon to make. It is our turn now; Saint Stephen has passed the baton to us. Our sacrifice, our blood will be the seed of the church. Future generations will say of us, “the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:38). But only if we hold the line.

Option One is untenable. Of these two, only the Saint Stephen Option will work. Only our continued witness to and critique of our culture will do it any good. Only if the Church maintains its status as an alternative community will it continue to exist at all.

The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16:18). Don’t open the doors and let it inside freely.

God in the Zombocalypse

It was inevitable, really, that I would eventually have to blog about zombies. A working theology of the undead isn’t something that was really given much attention for the last couple of thousand years. The Summa has no “First Article: Whether the Undead Are Still Bearers of the Imago Dei?” nor can you find a section titled “Are Zombie Shows Totally Depraved?” in Calvin’s Institutes. But in the 2000s, the crawling, shambling, biting hordes are everywhere — comic books, novels, movies, television shows, music . . . just everywhere. Factor in all the merchandise associated with the proliferation of zombies in media and you discover a world filled with them — just not in the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it sort of way. What, then, shall we say to these things?

I want to begin by saying I think the origin of the zombie matters, how precisely it gained its unlife. The standard these days seems to be a virus of some sort, either one which arises naturally or one which is genetically engineered. The virus reanimates basic functions (such as those in the medulla and cerebellum) while leaving alone the higher cerebral functions. It creates a body bent on sating a hunger for flesh (ostensibly so the virus can reproduce and spread) but which is ultimately devoid of a mind or soul. (I’m not sure how a monist views zombies, come to think of it.) Of course, a virus is only one method of creating undead. Fans of fantasy fiction have known for years that certain dark magics can also produce a reanimated corpse of varying degrees of awareness. Yes, the fabled necromancer may create a horde of soulless shamblers, but a sorcerer afraid of death may become a lich or find another way for soul and body to co-exist in a form of undeath. Then there’s the whole issue of vampirism, regardless of degree of sparkle. (Options abound.) Theologically, then, I propose we separately consider viral and magical zombies, in that order.

A body reanimated by a virus is precisely that and no more: a walking corpse, devoid of any semblance of personhood or the image of God. The walker is host to another entity pulling its strings; it is merely a mockery of a human, more puppet than person. It’s not a sick person needing to be made well; it’s a morbid marionette. Like any other dead, it should be treated with respect and dignity — after, of course, it’s “killed” again (but, really, returning it to the earth is affording it respect). A relative or colleague’s body may be difficult to put down, but remember: the soul is gone, and you would in fact be doing them a service in preparing their body for the true resurrection.

The same principle applies to soulless magical undead, I should think. Throw a human soul into the mix, however, and you’ve got a different problem entirely. The very nature of the zombie shifts from reanimated husk to outright abomination against the Lord God Almighty. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, after all (2 Cor. 5:8), and so to place the soul back into its earthen vessel is, in some sense, to remove it from eternity. Death has separated the two, and ne’er the twain shall meet this side of the eschaton. To bring them together again is to commit a blasphemy. It violates the divinely-established natural order to recall souls after bodily death, one reason mediums and spiritists are sharply condemned in Scripture (Lev. 19:31,20:6; Deut. 18:9-13; Isa. 8:19). This is not to say, however, the ensouled zombie constitutes a person made in the image of God. It is instead a perversion, a person trapped in the prison of death. Thus these, too, are to be dispatched and returned to the dust from whence they came. End the undead abominations and free the souls.

. . . OK, I really just wanted a chance to talk about zombies.

On a serious (and more applicable) note, even in these apocalyptic wastelands, we can find the presence of God. Some shows, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, feature(d) characters of faith. They remind us of God’s goodness and faithfulness even when each day is a violent struggle for survival. (And one character in particular is careful to further remind us the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age will most assuredly not look like the zombocalypse.) It is possible to find love and grace, joy and contentment even in such dire situations as these. We learn about the importance of trust and community. We receive tutoring in thankfulness. We’re made all-too-aware of the sinful, broken nature of human beings (live ones) and our universal need for repentance and the salvation made possible through Jesus Christ. Every so often, we feel a call to service and sacrifice vicariously through the lives of the survivors. And occasionally one setting may even give us a glimpse of God’s grace and provision directly.

Should a Christian, then, watch/read/listen to zombies just as the rest of our culture does? Before I answer, let me make a confession: The Walking Dead was a seminary requirement for me. OK, not literally, but I did watch several seasons of the show with a group of many other pastors-in-training. I’m not free from bias here. But I do want to say a few things about the suitability of such things for the average church member (clergy are exempt from such considerations, obviously . . . yeah, no, these are for us, too). The first is simple: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). While there are theologically redemptive elements in zombie stories, I’m not 100% convinced they meet the Phili. 4:8 standard. Second, the level of violence and gore is a concern, particularly when its highly visible as in movies and TV shows. It’s not something I would recommend ingesting on a regular basis — what we take in affects what comes out, after all, and I can assure you that casually discussing the latest rounds of decaptitations will get you uncomfortable looks in the grocery store. It can impact you in other ways beyond conversation, too: you could become more angry, more violent; some have developed seemingly interminable zombie-themed nightmares; a few begin to long for an actual zombie apocalypse, perhaps to finally openly be the person of violence they are inside.

Of course, those arguments can be used against a great many things, and perhaps they should — or shouldn’t. I do, however, want to balance them against a duty of cultural awareness (not participation, but awareness). We as Christians should know what’s going on in the world around us. If we have any desire to show people a faith which can address and interact with all areas of their lives, then we need to stay abreast of current trends and topics. Especially if you work primarily with the younger crowd, it may be vital for you to talk about a few undead-related topics. That should certainly be a consideration in deciding if zombies are right for you. I eventually decided they weren’t right for me (well, some of them weren’t). And that’s OK, too.

In the end, though, I encourage us all to be ready for the true resurrection of the dead, to have our souls washed in the blood of the Lamb and the waters of baptism. Remember: some zombies flee from the power of God.

A Very Quick Look at Social Media

In the ancient lore of our culture, from a time so long ago the children of the race of Men have all but forgotten, we read of a book. This book, legend says, contained the names of individual people — and not just names, but copies of their likenesses as well. In fact, the myth goes so far as to state this book of likenesses — a book of faces — was simply known as a face book, and it served to help people put names to faces, faces which they would actually encounter in real life — face to face.

How absurd.

Yet similar legends exist. One maintains the existence of personal territories, areas rightly called (by their owners) “My Space.” Still another decisively refers to such diverse things as birdsong and heart palpitations as “twitter.”

Ludicrous.

It’s easy to laugh at how the world changes and drags language along with it. The simplest of words mutates and gains a new referent even as the objects and concepts themselves gain new linguistic signifiers. Such is the way of the evolution of language. But as fascinating as that is to geeks like me, that’s another topic for another day. Today I want to deal with the contemporary iterations of those things I mentioned above: Facebook, MySpace (such as it is), Twitter, and their ilk. Today’s topic is the theology of social media. And, yes, there is a theological way to discuss social media, just as there are ways to theologically consider every other aspect and artifact of our culture (and the others, too). So let’s begin at the beginning.

Social media encompasses the sphere of digital platforms used primarily to communicate with other people and stay abreast of their lives. It’s those things we use to publicly share personal information about ourselves and receive information in kind with which we may then interact. The biggest social media platform is, of course, Facebook, but social media also include things like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what’s going on behind the scenes.

At first blush, they’re pretty handy things. I’ve sworn multiple times that I would delete my Facebook profile if it weren’t so useful. I can communicate with people rapidly and unintrusively. I can keep up with news on all levels as well as the goings-on of individual lives. I can share images and articles I want people to see without having to plan a time to get together for a group discussion. And I can re-evaluate all of my life choices when someone I haven’t spoken to in a decade wants to reconnect and I’m forced to wonder why we were ever friends in the first place. Plus there’s a darker side, the side of online bullying, harassment, stalking, and similar evils. Of course, all of these things are possible on any social network, not just Facebook. They’re simply inherent in the social media system.

In our current day and age, participation in social media is practically mandatory. Employers ask for your Facebook profile, church members read your blog (hi, guys!), and family follow you on Twitter, reading your profundities 140 characters at a time. It’s incredibly difficult to fully extricate yourself from the digital age; how, then, should a Christian think about it all?

The first thing is to recognize digital presence is but a travesty of personal presence. Yes, you have 3,126 friends online, but how many do you ever take out to lunch? Do you have friends over for tea, or do you only talk to them whilst at home through a computer or cell phone? Electronic messages can’t convey tone or vocal inflection and are thus easily misunderstood. What messages are better said face-to-face? I realize I grew up in the South (by the grace of God), but I believe so much conflict could be avoided if we’d simply sit together on the porch drinking sweet tea and talking together instead of typing out our grievances and leaving our passive-aggressive words on the Internet for their intended target to trip over.

It only gets worse when we allow our online presence to overshadow our personal, physical presence. How many times have you gone out to eat and witnessed an entire family seated at the same table but not speaking to each other, all because they’re all glued to their phones? They would rather be online than at the same table with each other. Many have lost the ability to listen to someone else for an extended period of time without consulting Facebook or a Twitter feed. (And let’s be honest: that’s not really listening, now, is it?) Our attention spans are suffering, our ability to interact with others is deteriorating, all because we’ve traded in physical presence for social media.

Second, social media can be (and often are) the perfect tools of deception. I’m not even talking about all those posts no one ever bothers to fact-check. I’m talking about us, ourselves. It’s easy to be brave over the Internet and talk to your “crush.” But if you haven’t the courage to do it in person, why waste his/her time acting like someone you’re not? We can fully edit everything about our personalities simply by sitting at a keyboard in a different location than our interlocutor. (And don’t get me started on PhotoShop.)

It should be obvious to the Christian that these two concerns alone merit caution. We are a people of authentic community. We’re called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), to be a family, a single body of brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 12). These are hard to to do if you’re never in the same room together. While it’s certainly a boon to us to have easy communication with each other, under no circumstances can we let that be our sole presence. We must be physically present so we can laugh together and hold each other when we cry. We should strive (if we are medically able) to be bodily present during times of worship. No form of online “community” can ever replace that. Likewise, we are a people of truth who follow the one who is Truth (John 14:6). If we masquerade about on the Internet, disguising ourselves, pretending to be someone we’re not, then we’re not of God but of Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

While social media can be a great tool to connect us (at surface level) with another human being, and while it can even enable to share our faith (when done properly), it can also be a place for both explicit deception and counterfeit community (among other things). But since it’s all but inevitable we participate in this digital age, all I can say is this:

Log on with caution.

Let’s Hug Dating Hello

I come from the generation that kissed dating goodbye, as one rather popular book chose to phrase it. Christian teens and young adults everywhere opted to forgo traditional dating and just wait for “The One.” This meant dating would only be permissible among those who had intent to marry, as it were. As some still say, dating without the intention of getting married simply robs someone of their spouse for an indeterminate amount of time. And so casual dating was out; “I’m having my first date tonight with my future husband” was in.

Few relationships could withstand that sort of initial pressure. To place that kind of expectation in a relationship at the outset before you even truly know if you’d enjoy marriage to the other person . . . well, it has caused many a relationship to fail. I mean, dating is a way to get to know someone for who they are, not a way to immediately size up one’s marriage potential. I should be married to you to know you as my spouse; dating is the pathway, the vehicle to get that far. It’s the time for getting to know you, getting to know all about you — not a time for naming the kids or picking the color of the kitchen curtains.

All of that — the waiting, the learning — was deliberately kicked to the curb by my generation — by the Christians of my generation, specifically. The others aided the rise of our contemporary hookup culture, thereby also abandoning dating qua dating. If the only options were “God told me to marry you” and “Wanna come back to my place?” it’s little wonder things evolved into our current mess.

And a fine mess it is, too. Real dates, real romance seem to be non-existent. You’re on a date? Because it looks surprisingly like “let’s stare at our phones while in close proximity to each other.” No interaction with each other, no learning about the other and falling in love with the cute freckles on her nose (because you’re not even looking at each other). Just a passive co-existence near one another facilitated by technology. Of course, I have to be fair: there’s the opposite extreme of one’s level of interaction, the notorious (and infamous) “Netflix and chill.” Which, oddly enough, seems to involve a minimum of Netflix and practically zero “chill.”

What more can we expect of a culture where people meet by swiping right (left? up?) on a smartphone app or after a cursory glance at an online profile? We’ve lost our intentionality in even looking for someone to date; why should we expect any higher degree of purpose or deliberate action during the pursuit itself? It’s a bit sickening to watch the average guy treat the average girl (and vice versa) like a product in a shop window, someone who is so much more than a thumbnail image on the Internet. And there’s no desire to date an online construct, especially when so many of them are available.

You may think I’m just jaded since the traditional dating methods have failed me. I am, after all, a single male without a girlfriend who is weeks away from turning thirty. You can point to my failed relationships, including a failed engagement, and say, “This guy is just bitter. He’s stuck in the past because that’s the only game he knows how to play.”

Well, no. I just believe that to see another human is to look upon someone bearing the image of God. I think it means to see Christ in them. It’s not some sort of utilitarian pleasure calculus. It’s about recognizing the other for who they are, caring enough about them to want to get to know them sans agenda, and to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

So maybe we should hug dating hello again.

Zeitgeist und Heilige Geist

I like languages. I’ve always been fascinated with the way we use sounds and scratches on dead trees to convey meaning. And I like people who like languages, too; I once dated a girl who was fluent in six or seven different dialects (which put me to shame, and I’m no slouch myself). Today’s title borrows a word from German without an English equivalent (and so I thought, why not put the whole thing in German): zeitgeist. Literally it’s a compound word of “time-ghost” (which sound a bit wibbly-wobbly), and so it refers to what we think of as “the spirit of the age,” or “the spirit of the times.”

Every age in history has its own zeitgeist, its own particular cultural consensus as to how it views the world. Think of the Roaring Twenties and its accompanying sense of decadence, or the relative prudery of Victorian England, or the unflagging courage and valor of the Greatest Generation, or of the “flower power” of 1960s America. These are examples of the spirits of the age. They arise in every time period in every culture. They may even be in competition with each other depending on where one finds oneself; academia may have one prevailing wind, as it were, and rural areas another; Europe may be in opposition to Africa; you get the idea.

So what’s our current American zeitgeist? What’s the spirit of our age and area which defines how our culture looks at the world? It arises out of a confluence of different factors, but we can look at several of them. The political landscape, foremost on people’s minds this election year, is just a mess. It’s a combination of optimism and sheer horror.  (As one anonymous commentator on the Internet has said, “It’s like this is the final season of America and the writers are just going crazy.”) I think it’s also tinged with a bit of xenophobia, with the “other” being whatever is appropriate for your context: immigrants, homosexuals, Republicans, Gen X-ers, Christians, Muslims, what have you. Then we have to take into account a rampant individualism, especially as evidenced in the proponents of abortion, LGBT advocacy, the quickly-declining marriage rate, the steadily-rising divorce rate, the preference of young adults to rent rather than own homes (and thus not be tied down, among other reasons), the ubiquitous selfie, etc. Many, many things which point to the Self as the Golden Calf of our times. If I had to characterize our zeitgeist in two words, then, I would choose these: fear and narcissism. We love ourselves, and we’re scared of anything that a) isn’t us and b) might prevent us from being who we truly want to be.

One man’s opinion.

The problem with any spirit of the age, however, is that it must ultimately deal with the spirit: the Holy Spirit, the Heilige Geist from the title. An unchanging God will not bend to the personal preferences of particular people, nor will He kowtow to the whims of those who wish Him nonexistent or a carbon of themselves. God is God — and He is a holy God. A Holy Spirit cannot get mired down in the sins of the world without ceasing to be holy. And so God can participate in neither the fear nor the ego of our current zeitgeist. He stands as loving Father and final Judge of this age and all others. When the spirit of the age comes into conflict with the Holy Spirit, our loyalty must always be to the latter. We can’t let ourselves get so caught up in the world we lose sight of the holy; we can’t focus on the temporal to the exclusion of the eternal. And so we rest our identities and our souls in the one who stands outside of time.

Our worship should do the same. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for solely traditional worship, and I’m not suggesting we should move into the purely contemporary (my thoughts on the so-called worship wars will come later). But we shouldn’t let our Christian practices of worship be dictated by popular opinion. We must continue to do what is holy and what is sacred. We continue on with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, regardless of rhythm; we continue to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost souls in a dark world; we celebrate the Table and we baptize those who come to saving faith; and we take our renewed bodies, hearts, minds, and souls out to the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.  That’s the real point of worship: to ascribe blessing, honor, glory, and power to the God who deserves it and to invite others to a place where they can do the same.

The church must continue to be a community called from among the world, called away from the zeitgeist, but then it must always go back out to the same world to offer it a different Spirit. The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit from a holy God of holy love.