Counter culture week 3

In Counter Culture week 1, I liked the details in David Platt’s teaching, but felt that the overall tone and direction was off. In Counter Culture week 2, I liked the overall tone and direction of his teaching, but felt some of the details were wrong. In week 3, I agreed with almost everything. The overall subject of the week was the value of human life. The two subtopics were abortion and sexual exploitation. In covering the topic of sexual exploitation he spent the most time talking about sex slavery, but then segued briefly to pornography, urging us to consider the two as connected and to repent of any involvement with pornography in our own lives. In the study guide, the final day focused on the complete forgiveness we have in Christ.

He asked us to put together a statement of how we see the gospel as being connected to abortion and to sexual exploitation. My answers are here: the gospel and abortion, the gospel and sexual exploitation.

The gospel and abortion

[David Platt, in the Counter Culture Bible study, asked us to state how we see the gospel related to the issue of abortion. In what follows, I draw on some of the points he made in the associated study guide.]

The image of God

Humans are unique because we are created in the image of God.

In Genesis 1, God commanded the various elements: “Let there be light”, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters”, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place”, “Let the earth sprout vegetation”, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens”, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures”, and “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”. When it came to mankind, the pattern changed. God said, “Let Us make man in Our image”. Rather than commanding something to come into existence, or commanding one thing to bring another thing into existence, he “commanded” himself (!) to do the creating, and he himself is the one from whom man came.

Also, in Genesis 1, God created the various creatures to bring forth “after their kind” but of man it is said: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness … God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The constant repetition of our creation in the image of God is meant to emphasize it. Unlike any other creature, we are uniquely made to reflect the nature of God.

In Genesis 2:7, it further emphasizes God’s unique involvement in our creation, saying that he formed (or “fashioned”) man from the dust of the ground, and breathed his own breath into him to give him life.

In Genesis 1, mankind is given the commission to multiply throughout the earth and take charge of it. They are given every plant for food. After the fall, things change. The earth becomes hostile to man, man becomes hostile to man, God judges the world through the flood, and Noah starts over. In Genesis 9:1-7, God renews his charge to mankind, but this time he takes into account the fallenness of the world.

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.

 

Whoever sheds man’s blood,

By man his blood shall be shed,

For in the image of God

He made man.

 

As for you, be fruitful and multiply;

Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”

Again, mankind is told to fill the earth. Again they are given dominion over it. This time they are promised that the rest of the creatures will fear them – a promise that is only necessary in a fallen world. This time they are given the right to kill and eat any living creature, except for humans.

However, they are told not to kill humans. The reason given is because humans, unlike other creatures, are made in the image of God. We have dominion over the whole earth, to do what we want with it – but God reserves the right to decide which humans live or die. Perhaps these verses implicitly grant permission for capital punishment, but when it comes to the innocent, God alone has the right to decide when life ends. The point is this: the Bible reserves the right over life and death for God alone, and the reason it does so is because we are created in God’s image. We are God’s workmanship, and no one has the right to destroy that.

Psalm 139:13-16 says:

For You formed my inward parts;

You wove me in my mother’s womb.

 

I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are Your works,

And my soul knows it very well.

 

My frame was not hidden from You,

When I was made in secret,

And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;

 

Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Your book were all written

The days that were ordained for me,

When as yet there was not one of them.

 

I am convinced by Luke 1:41-43 that the baby in the womb is a living human being, but I don’t think the verses here speak directly to that question. At least the final verse does not: it talks about the days ordained “when as yet there was not one of them”. If verse 16 were talking about the fetus, it would imply that none of his days had occurred yet, and so imply that he was not living yet.  I don’t think that’s what it means though; it is speaking, rather, of God’s foreknowledge of the Psalmist even before he existed at all. Jeremiah 1:5 is similar.

This verse isn’t focusing on what kind of thing the unborn baby is; it’s focusing on how far back God’s creating and fashioning activity extends. It says that God planned us from before we even existed, and was involved in crafting our physical being from the moment it began.

So the question isn’t when we first became alive or first became human or first became a person. It certainly isn’t when we first became viable or when we began to have a heartbeat or a brain wave or to feel pain. The question is, when did we first become the workmanship of God, made in his image? The answer is: from the very beginning.  By the time we know there is a baby there, it is already being fashioned by God and we are already forbidden to exercise our “dominion” to end its life.

The value of life

In my philosophy classes, students often discuss the morality of abortion. I’m dismayed by how frequently they assume that if a baby is going to be born into poverty, it would be a kindness to kill him instead. I often ask if they’d be willing to kill a two-year old for the same reason; many say No, but a sizable number say Yes, they would.

I’ve mulled this over for a couple of years now, and I have come to realize that it is vitally important to me that the value of someone’s life has nothing to do with how much they are suffering. Being unhappy does not diminish a person’s worth!

Jesus suffered greatly in Gethsemane and on the cross, but his life on earth was as valuable as it is possible to be. Because he suffered for love’s sake, and completely fulfilled the Father’s call for his life on earth, his life was full of meaning and purpose and majesty.

What has happened is that my students are assuming that the only value someone’s life has is that it makes him happy. When he is unhappy, then it is not worth so much anymore. What an impoverished view of human worth!

It is true that we often identify value with success. Those who are rich, happy, and influential somehow seem more worthwhile than those for whom the opposite is true. The message of Jesus’ ministry, and especially of the Beatitudes, is contrary to this. It is those who suffer, who are powerless, who are vulnerable, that are the Blessed.

I believe abortion is a tragedy, but I am not convinced at this point that it is my role as a Christian to wage a political war against it. (I’m not saying it’s not your role – I’m just not convinced it’s mine.) What I do want to stand for, though, is the truth of the enormous value of human life. In the course of debating abortion and euthanasia and evolution and many other things, we have slipped into thinking of human lives as commodities that can be assessed and then itemized in a cost-benefit analysis. The truth is that our lives have transcendent value. We are magically, mystically wonderful beings! Not because of what we do for others, and not because our lives feel good to us, but because of how God sees us and His creatorship and ownership of us. That is at the core of the gospel. You are loved; you are planned; you are called. These are at the heart of the gospel message. You matter, not because of you’ve done, and not because of how you feel about yourself, but because of your part in God’s plan.

I want people to see the baby in the womb that way, but I also want them to see themselves that way. The gospel is the story that God is telling about our lives, and understanding and receiving it lets us step into that story.

Lust for lust

[David Platt, in the Counter Culture Bible study, asked us to write a statement about how the gospel relates to the issue of sexual exploitation. Here is my statement.]

Our culture idolizes sensuality. That means it idolizes sexual desire.

It doesn’t idolize sexual climax, but sexual desire – lust. The goal isn’t merely to have sexual desire satisfied, it’s to have it stirred up as much as possible first. Pornography isn’t about making sexual satisfaction more likely, it’s about making sexual desire more intense beforehand.

Sensuality is a focus on the body. When we are sensually driven, we tend to objectify other people, but we also objectify ourselves. We see ourselves – and seek to see ourselves – as physical machines that cannot help but follow their programming. We hide from our essential rationality and freedom to choose what to value, and pretend we have no choice at all. Think of how many times sensual lyrics or prose focus on how someone is helpless to resist their urges. Why? Because it somehow increases the sexual thrill to think of ourselves as controlled by our desires. We want to be controlled by lust, and it helps us feel the thrill more intensely if we imagine that we are.

Satan uses our desires to tempt us. Most of the time, having a desire is not itself a bad thing. We only sin because we seek to meet our own desires in our own way instead of taking them to God. We legitimately wish we could have something, so we steal it. We want praise, so we brag or otherwise seek our own glory. Initially, sexual sin is similar. Someone has a normal, natural sexual desire and it leads them to act it out inappropriately – they get a little too physical in a relationship with someone, or they look at pornography, or something.

When we begin to pursue sexual desire itself, as an idol, we move into a completely different kind of desire, one which is in and of itself unhealthy. It is not something we can look to God to satisfy, because the desire itself (the lust for lust) is unhealthy. Proverbs 30:15, 16 describes that kind of desire this way:

The leech has two daughters,

“Give,” “Give.”

There are three things that will not be satisfied,

Four that will not say, “Enough”:

Sheol, and the barren womb,

Earth that is never satisfied with water,

And fire that never says, “Enough.”

The point is that this kind of desire is by nature insatiable. It cannot be satisfied, even by God, because it is in its very nature to deny any permanent satisfaction. All it does is say “Give, give”. It is like the grave, in that its recurrence is as inevitable as death (no one will ever say, “Well, he lived, because the grave was full.”) It is like the barren womb, in that no matter what is given to it, it will never have what it needs. It is like the desert earth, which is unable to absorb the water that lands on it, and even if it did, is so immense that there would never be enough. Especially, it is like fire, which only burns hotter the more you feed it.

Feeding sensual desire will lessen it, temporarily. Images and fantasies that stirred it up become commonplace, and fail to fan it. But the desire for desire just continues to burn hotter, and more frustratingly. Eventually, something taboo becomes fuel for the fire. Its forbidden nature gives it a little more intensity, a kind of kick, which makes the thrill return. This explains why a true pornography addiction tends to escalate to harder and harder forms. What was taboo is commonplace after a while, and the addict needs something still more forbidden to keep stoking the fire.

The thing about sensuality is that, paradoxically, it’s a spiritual thing. The thrill of the lust gives us a sense of meaning, of transcendence. It makes all of life glow with intensity and purpose.  It becomes a substitute for real spirituality, for a real connection with God. It is no coincidence that so much idol worship in the Old Testament involved lots of sex.

The difference between the spirituality of the sensual and the spirituality that comes from God is twofold. First, the spirituality of the sensual makes everything seem transcendent when it is bathed in lust, but when the lust dissipates, everything seems meaningless. The more a sensual addict finds his meaning in lust, the less he can find any satisfaction in regular life. So as the thrills get weirder and weirder, ordinary living becomes bleaker and bleaker. True spirituality is completely different. When God breaks through our lives with the supernatural, it doesn’t leave the ordinary days emptier afterwards; it enriches them a little.

The other difference is the one I mentioned at the beginning: that sensuality reduces us to merely physical creatures. We come to identify ourselves with our physical desires. We cannot imagine anything else being real. But true spirituality awakens our sense of ourselves as spiritual people, for whom the body is only one factor of being alive. We become aware of our ability to reason, to value, to empathize, to dream, and especially to responsibly choose. We are transcendent, not through our physical lusts, but by finding that they are irrelevant to who we are most deeply.

Because there is no way for God to righteously satisfy the desire for sexual desire, though, those Christians who are trying to seek God for deliverance from sensual addiction will find themselves feeling as though life is gray and bleak and as though they themselves have nothing inside that can ever respond to anything but the physical. They may accept that there are serious consequences to a sensual life, but they will have trouble believing that there is any joy to be had in living a non-sensual one. They need to be encouraged that the spiritual joy that comes from walking with God will eventually become evident, and that when it does, it will feel as much a part of them as sensuality ever did, but in a way that enriches the rest of their lives instead of impoverishing it.

Anyway, how does the gospel relate to all this? The same way as it relates to abortion. It shows us that we are created in the image of God, that we transcend the physical realm, that we are anything but ordinary, and that our lives are tinged with the supernatural. When we come to Christ, we are called to more than enslavement to our physical desires, and have a higher purpose than sensuality and lust.

Jesus loves and accepts us, but the exciting thing is that he doesn’t see us as we think of ourselves. He sees us as we can truly be, in him. The gospel is a message of transformation. It’s an invitation to be born again, to be born of spirit, to become the kind of person who is far more than we ever dreamed. It’s an invitation to step into a new, transcendent identity as a child of God.

Evaluation of counter culture week 2

I liked this week. I’m finding right now that I don’t want to be critical at all, but since I’m supposed to be evaluating honestly, I suppose I’d better at least mention the concerns I had. Afterwards I’ll move on to what I learned from the week.

Concerns

In the first week, I thought that the author was mostly accurate, but the basic message was disappointingly business-as-usual for me. In the second week, it was the opposite. He has a strong message here that I loved hearing, but he seems to be one-sided in presenting it. He is accurate when it comes to expositing individual Scripture passages, but I’m not sure he’s worked out how they are to be balanced with other Scriptures that point in the opposite direction.

That’s OK; I can balance things myself. What I need is to hear someone make a strong case for things I may not have sufficiently considered. That’s what this week did.

The other thing I disagreed with this week was that the study guide was pushy about how to apply the Biblical principles involved. It kept giving very specific steps we might take to show our love for the poor and then asking us to commit to doing it, right here!, right now! I found myself answering No a lot. No, I don’t think that’s wrong. No, I don’t think that’s important. No, I’m not going to be doing that. We all need to obey the Scriptures, but the Holy Spirit may lead us to do so in very different ways.

By the way, as a young Christian I heard a similar message from Think of your Future by William MacDonald, and I seem to recall that it also suffered from being a little too pushy and a little out of balance. Nonetheless it’s something I’m glad I read and took to heart as a young college student. I recommend it if you want to read another strong call to abandon possessions and live for the kingdom alone.

What I learned

The primary message of the week was to encourage us to be aware of the danger of the desire for material possessions, and to be willing to live more simply and give more generously to the poor. It encouraged me to do a lot of thinking about poverty and wealth in Scripture, and it’s been fruitful. Additionally, our pastor preached a moving couple of sermons on Sunday about truly feeling compassion for people around us. The Holy Spirit’s been using both of those things together to give me slightly clearer direction on how I should focus my life and ministry this year. I’m still letting it simmer for now, though, so I don’t think I can get any more specific than that.

Anyway, one of the last questions in the study guide for this week said this: “How does the gospel shape what you believe about wealth and poverty? Write a simple statement of your views on material possessions.”

I suspect that by “simple” they meant a sentence or two, but I took the prompt as an opportunity to systematize everything I’ve been thinking about from this week, inspired and guided by Platt’s teachings among other things. I’m putting it in a separate post so I can link to it by itself later if I want to. Here it is.

Wealth, poverty, and the gospel

[The Counter Culture Bible study I was in prompted me to work out my position on the relationship between wealth, poverty, and the gospel. Here it is.]

In a perfect world, God would provide everything anyone needed. Some of that would come through hard work on their part which would, however, be a joy for them. Some would also come through people giving to each other, which would also be done joyfully (no one would have to worry that they were being taken advantage of).

In a fallen world, people suffer a lack of provision due to factors that fall into roughly three different categories. First, we sometimes suffer because of the direct consequences of our own sin. Either the sin has natural and direct consequences financially (e.g., being lazy or spendthrift), or God uses financial deprivation to get our attention so that we will repent of some more general sin. Second, other people’s sin: The world around us is filled with people who compete for resources, cheat people out of things, coerce them based on their need, corrupt justice for the sake of the rich while marginalizing the poor, and refuse to give people what they need. Third, circumstances brought on by nature itself (e.g., drought) or as an indirect consequence of sin (e.g., wars) keep people poor and downtrodden.

When Israel began, God did two things to alleviate poverty. First, he gave them a system of laws that were a good guide to implementing a financially just society. Second, he promised to bless them with material prosperity as a nation if they obeyed. In the early OT Scriptures, then, poverty was painted as a judgment of God and wealth as a sign of his favor.  This was corporate, though; individual godly men and women still suffered from national judgments.

Later, as Israel’s dreams fell apart – as she fell into spiritual decline, and found herself militarily weak or even conquered – the focus of the Scriptures shifted to living in a hostile world. In the “literature of poverty” we get a picture of godly people who are nonetheless poor, while the wicked are rich. This image of being sufferers among powerful and ruthless oppressors became one of the primary ways to think about living a godly life.

At the same time, there were lots of prophecies about the coming kingdom when everything would be different. In that day, God’s blessings would be restored, and the poor and downtrodden would finally experience the prosperity and freedom that they currently lacked.

In the early part of Jesus’ ministry, he proclaimed the coming of the kingdom as good news for the poor and downtrodden — the time was just about here when they would finally be rewarded for their patient, long-suffering faith. However, as the gospels progressed, the emphasis shifted to the spiritual poverty we all have, and our desperate need for forgiveness, which Jesus offers.

In the epistles, the church continued to be seen as the suffering poor in a hostile world, and it continued to announce with joy the coming of the kingdom on earth. At the same time, there was a new emphasis: that as followers of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are already incredibly rich in spiritual blessings. The gospel was an invitation not only to hope in the return of Christ in the future but to participate in the inward wealth of his grace today.

The church sought to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by suffering poverty and persecution in solidarity with Jesus himself, by sacrificing to help each other in loyal brotherly love, by generously giving their time and material possessions as an expression of their great joy in the spiritual riches they’d been given, and by proclaiming all these things as signs of the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom.

As Christians, I believe our view of material possessions should be similar. We should realize that

  • God’s ultimate ideal is prosperity and peace and freedom for all.
  • In our fallen world, that is thwarted by individual sin, by interpersonal sin, and by circumstances. (This applies to capitalism and socialism alike – indeed, to every economic system.)
  • Jesus is coming back soon to right wrongs and restore things to God’s ideal.

As we present the gospel or serve the poor, we should:

  • proclaim with joy the kingdom that is coming
  • sacrifice willingly for our brothers and sisters in Christ
  • give generously and humbly wherever we can because we have been so richly blessed spiritually
  • accept suffering and persecution willingly because it lets us walk with Christ in his sufferings

This will lead to the unique combination of joy, suffering, and generosity that was exemplified by the Macedonian church in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, of whom it is said that “their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.”

Caring for the poor (Counter Culture week 2)

As more food for thought about caring for the poor, I present these snippets from a book review I wrote for myself about 15 years ago.

The book is Remembering the Poor by Dieter Georgi. Most of it was spent in working out the chronology of the collections for the Jerusalem believers described in passages like Acts 11:27-30 and 2 Corinthians 8-9. From what I can recall, I strongly disagreed with its basic standpoint on the inspiration of Scripture: It discounted the Acts chronology because it assumed that Acts was primarily propaganda written by Luke hide the truth of the division between Paul and the Jerusalem church. The book had some interesting reflections on the poor, though, especially in the afterword. After I had finished reading it, I wrote the following summary.

1. Community

Just as Man and Woman in Christ [a book I definitely do recommend] encourages us to create a space within church life in which we can obey the instructions for men’s and women’s roles, so we need to create a space within the church in which we can model a Christian economic structure. The point is not just that we need to use Christian principles in our financial dealings in the world, but that in the church itself we can model things which would not be prudent in the world. We can live out a sort of utopian system (in a way) which shows how things may one day be when Christ comes back.  We can do things that ordinary capitalism and communism can’t afford to do, because they are based on the assumption of a world of sinners, and the church on the other hand can assume the presence of a great many truly redeemed people.

We need to build a “world within a world”, a system within the world’s economic system.  We need a way to be able to live prudently within the system around us, being wise enough not to be taken advantage of, while still discovering a whole new economic system within the family

2. Poverty before God.

This point is mainly theoretical, but critical nonetheless. We need to become saturated with the truth that we are impoverished before God spiritually, intellectually, and in every way.  We live every day only by the grace of God. All our riches are illusory, in a very real sense.  When we begin to realize this truth fully, it will affect every aspect of our financial value system.  For instance, we will no longer get our security or our identity from riches

3. A voluntary base

We must trust the Spirit to lead people within the church to do as they should with their money, rather than coercing them in any way.  The world’s systems can’t do this – they have to rely on force and law to get people to do right with their wealth.  But we need to replace almost every worldly system with one that is trust-based — taxes with voluntary tithes, welfare from the government (tax-based) with voluntary giving, and so on. Even interest and credit and banks and insurance all look different when they are trust-based.

Both communism and capitalism have as primary principles that you must count on people acting in their own self-interest; this is based on the opposite principle.

4. Valuing giving more than having

We must reverse our value system so that our joy in what we have comes from being able to give.  We need to really believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive – not just to think that it is our duty to give, but to see it as a gift from God.

Let me phrase that more strongly – we need to see that having the opportunity to meet someone else’s needs is a gift from God to us.

Again, this is something we need to work through until our entire value system has been revamped. In the context of a community of givers, we should be able to work this out so that people aren’t foolish or taken advantage of.

5. Honor the poor

We need to value the poor for several reasons.  The minor one is that the poor give us an opportunity to give. Another is that the poor through their gratitude to God (not a condescending thing) bring glory to Him.  Third, the poor are God’s way of reminding us of our imporverishedness before Him.  Fourth, the poor are examples of faith and patience to us. Etc.

The idea is to replace condescension or feeling condescended to with this set of ideas. We need to become convinced that the poor in the church are God’s gift to the rest of the church. We need to help the poor feel the same way about themselves.

This applies to other poverty besides financial poverty – those who are physically disabled, old and retired, etc.

Counter culture study, section 1

I’m participating in a Bible study at our church called Counter Culture based on a book by David Platt (see my previous post). I’m trying to work through this material fairly intensely, which means critiquing it as I go, to decide what I agree and disagree with. When I do that kind of thing, I tend to learn a lot.

Anyway, here are the most important thoughts I had as I worked through the first section (about 3 weeks worth of meetings).

The free-climbing story

During my grad school days, our church had monthly couples meetings in which the pastor would give a short devotional designed to encourage us in our marriages. One time the pastor showed a 15 minute video about someone doing “free climbing”, which apparently means climbing a cliff without a rope or any equipment. After commenting on the climber’s courage and perseverance, he used it as an example of the kind of commitment we should have within our marriages.

That threw me, because it was the exact opposite of what I had come to expect. As an undergrad, I’d attended a different church (in a different state) with a pastor whose specialty was pointing out how foolish and unbiblical the world’s approach to everything was. If hed shown the video, he would have pointed the folly of risking your life for something as inconsequential as rock-climbing. He would have emphasized how desperately the world searches for meaning and joy, and what dangerous thrill-seeking it leads them into.

So I was left with this question, which really bothered me at the time: when we see an example like the rock-climber, are we supposed to emphasize the good things about the example or the bad things?

I finally decided that the simple truth is that every thing the world does always has some aspect or other which positively demonstrates the truth of the gospel and another aspect which contrasts with it. We should notice both, and then we should use whichever is relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves (Colossians 4:6). If there must be a bias, let it be toward looking for the positive, as instructed in Philippians 4:8-9.

The study guide for our first week tended to emphasize the negative side of things throughout the first week’s material. I think we must be aware of the negative, but I would rather use the positive in most cases.

Integrating Christianity into our entire lives

Platt exhorts us to take what we believe about the gospel and think about everything in our lives in its light. I love that! We must get away from compartmentalizing everything. In my opinion, when our response to our culture is inadequately Christian, the problem is usually that we have not figured out how Jesus is relevant to it.

Desiring God

From time to time Platt makes the “anti-self” error. The answer is to read John Piper’s Desiring God.

Creation

How do we integrate our understanding of God as creator into our world view? How do we counter the culture using that understanding?

The answer most Christians at our church would give is to fight against evolution. I don’t think that is particularly important for most unbelievers, though.  I think there are two other points which are far more relevant to the average unbeliever’s life. The positive point is that if God is our creator, then there is a Great Storyteller for our lives. That is a beautiful thing to be able to honestly believe, and as Christians we get to! The negative point is that if God created us, then he “owns” us in some sense. He designed us for his own purposes, and he has the right, not we, to say what we are created for. We are behaving irresponsibly if we just wander off script and try to write our own story. We have a responsibility, and can be held accountable, for failing to live up to our design.

How do we integrate the understanding of the fall into our world view? How do we counter the culture using that understanding?

The essence of the fall was that Adam and Eve claimed the right to determine right and wrong for themselves in complete independence from God. Platt makes use of this idea by focusing on moral relativism. He argues that anyone who rejects belief in God cannot consistently believe in objective moral absolutes. Setting aside that there are many people who think that they can believe in absolutes without being believers in God, I still think this runs the risk of missing the point. We don’t want to get embroiled in technical philosophical debates about the connection between theism and morality.

Here’s the thing: most people, even those who claim all morality is relative, still have strong, deeply held moral convictions. That’s what we should have expected, according to Romans 2:14-16. The moral absolutes approach minimizes these feelings of morality, by telling people they have no right as unbelievers to have them. That doesn’t make sense to me; wouldn’t it be better to emphasize their sense of conscience, and then show them that even according to their own moral standards they are sinners in need of a savior?

Idolatry

The study guide uses the second half of Romans 1 to explore the topic of idolatry. Platt defines idolatry strangely, though. He says that we bow before things as idols when we “look to them for our hope, meaning, satisfaction, comfort, pleasure, or prosperity and when we think they’ll make our lives better.” God often uses things and people to give us hope, meaning, etc, though, and when he does it is completely legitimate to look to what he gives for what we need — especially if we see that he is behind them and give him thanks for them.

I think I know what Platt means — he means that idolatry is when we look to those things in some ultimate sense that should be reserved only for God. I would rather define idolatry as when we use any other thing or person, including the instruments of God’s blessings to us, as a substitute for God, so that we do not have to look to him.

Platt points out the obsession of the Athenians with whatever is new (Acts 17:21), and explores the possibility that they made an idol of the new. I think this could be true, but I would like to point out that it is just as common to make an idol out of the old (as in Mark 2:21-22 and 7:8). Furthermore, Paul didn’t reprove the Athenians for their attitude toward the new — it was that very attitude that made them willing to listen to him!

Similarly, in our case, I don’t think we should quench the desire for novelty. We should just be sure that people are willing to actually act on what they discover. The Athenians didn’t really want answers; they just wanted to play around with ideas. We probably do need to challenge people to avoid that.

Platt asked us to list some of the most important idols in our day. My list is

  • Sensuality
  • Success / drivenness / the ability to get things done at any cost
  • Tolerance
  • Celebrity status
  • Being able to provide data / scientific proof for everything

How should we respond to culture?

Platt considers four alternatives: conform, check out, combat, or counter. When we counter, he says, we seek to redeem, not conquer. I think that is wise.

When he talks about conforming, he finds fault with our desire to make the gospel appeal to the surrounding culture. The gospel, he says, is inherently offensive. I agree that there are parts of the gospel which will offend, but it is equally true that the gospel, if we present it correctly, speaks to deep yearnings in people. It draws them. It’s beautiful. If we don’t see that, we will miss lots of opportunities. He is right, though: we must not try to water down the hard parts of the gospel. In fact the beautiful parts of the gospel usually are the same as the difficult parts. If we soften what seem hard in it, we at the same time dilute what is good in it.

There is a difference between using culture to redeem people and redeeming culture. Platt shows how we can do the first: we can take popular ideas as expressed in movies, songs, and so on, and use them to build rapport and then discuss the gospel. I think we can do the second, actually redeem the culture — not REDEEM it, in the sense of saving it, of course, but redeem it, in the sense of bringing something good out of it. The culture isn’t just a bunch of individuals, but a system, and there is evil that is systemic. We can bring about real, though somewhat superficial, change to the system. (Deep changes are coming when Jesus returns.) Just think about how the church changed slavery or the treatment of orphans, for example, or the role it had in establishing democracy. It isn’t a waste of time to seek similar transformation in our own society today, as long as we keep proclaiming that Jesus is still only ever the real answer.

We are all in the culture. If we want to counter and redeem it, then we have to live in it. Some Christians use movies, songs, and other cultural expressions merely as rapport-building gimmicks for the gospel. I think we must go further. We must allow ourselves to be moved by the movies and the songs, to find them meaningful, but to do so discerningly.

Inception

Platt asked us to think of a popular song, show, or movie, to analyze it to see what desires, needs, questions of values of popular society it expresses, and then to show how Jesus meets those needs. Here is my example.

The movie Inception (spoilers ahead) has at its core the following problem: the protagonist Cobb and his wife are deeply involved in dreams that seem completely real. As a consequence, they begin to wonder whether real life is real. His wife, driven by her obsession with the question, loses all connection with her family and eventually dies because of it. He is faced with the same danger. At the very end of the movie, he spins his totem, which is a small top. If it falls over, it is supposed to prove that he is not in a dream. At the last minute, he looks up, sees his son out in the yard, and goes out to be with him, leaving the top still spinning. The camera closes in on the totem for a moment, and then the screen goes dark without letting the audience see whether it has fallen, leaving us in doubt ourselves about whether the final scene was a dream or in real life.

Why did the movie leave the final question (Were they still dreaming?) unresolved? Not just as a gimmick, I believe. I think it was to emphasize for us the emotional state of the protagonist. He walked away because he decided he didn’t need to know after all. The movies is asking us as viewers to make the same decision, to realize we don’t need to know either. We can just live life.

There are times when we just can’t know everything for certain. When that happens, we can get stuck in skepticism and doubt, or we can move on with life.

Hopefully, none of this would be me just preaching; it’d be a conversation.

At some point I would tell them about the dwarves in The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia chronicles, who were offered the chance to enter heaven but turned it down because they didn’t want to take the risk of trusting what they were being told.

I’d challenge them to consider their own attitude toward the gospel in this light. Some people pride themselves on being unwilling to consider any belief in God that does not come attached to absolute scientific proof. I’d challenge them to stop thinking of God as sitting out there passively while they work their way to him by intellectually proving his existence. Instead, they should ask God, if he is there, to reveal himself to them, using as much evidence as he realizes they should need to make trust in him reasonable. When he does so, they should be open to it. I’d also explain that Christians believe God revealed himself in the person of Jesus. I’d suggest they read the gospel of Mark and try to see what kind of man this was, and whether he seems like someone they can trust.

As always, I’d welcome additional thoughts in the comments.

Counter culture study, first night

I going to be participating in a Bible Study called Counter Culture, based on a book by David Platt. Here are my thoughts from the first evening, pretty much just as I had them.

  • I am cranky tonight, ready to argue with everyone. I don’t want to be that way. I want to be open to anything God shows me, and expectant and hopeful that he will show me something.
  • Part of the reason I am cranky is because I’m feeling out of place here. But the people at my table are a pleasant surprise. They seem interesting, intelligent, and willing to accept my brand of thinking-about-Christianity.
  • I am reading Ps 102:1-7 [Most of us at the table were there about 15 minutes early]. There is a lot here about despair and sadness. Someone at the table shakes her head at David’s despair, but I want to defend him. If this is inspired Scripture, it seems to me it is important for us to feel this way sometimes. In fact, “feeling” my way through this passage is granting me relief from my crankiness. Instead of feeling cranky, I now just feel sad, and as though I am bringing my sadness to God, and that seems to have been the problem all along. I wasn’t cranky, I was just sad (for no particular reason that I know of), and in denial about it. Now that I’ve owned it, God seems present in the middle of it, as in this Psalm. Actually, I guess there is much to be sad about – the counter-cultural mess we are in is heartbreaking, both in terms of what the world is doing to itself, and the attacks being made on the church, and the church’s somewhat self-destructive responses.
  • We’ve started. PJ is warning us about how much material there is available. Yay! –it looks like there is a lot of substance here. I hope. We watch a video advertising the series. I think I’ll like it. The members of the class make some thoughtful comments in response to the introductory stuff. Looks like this will be a good study.
  • The video / book, like the blurb, says that we are comfortable confronting poverty as Christians, but don’t know what to do with uncomfortable subjects like abortion. That seems backwards for Harvest Time. In our church, everyone knows what to say about abortion. It’s the subjects like poverty, the ones that seem to be politically liberal, that make people uncomfortable. Except poverty in third-world countries. We’re comfortable helping out with that – probably because it seems different than welfare.
  • PJ mentions the importance of focusing on relationships instead of rights. I am not sure where that should lead. Focusing on the rights of others is important. Proverbs 31:8-9. Of course, our relationship with God is far more important, but that’s not because of the priority of relationships, but because of the priority of God. Yet perhaps the priority of love means relationships trump rights. (What I mean, to be clear, is that focusing in a Biblical way on rights is a relational thing, or should be. It is how we ought to relate to the oppressed in love.)
  • There is an interesting section about the relative unimportance of changing people’s behavior vs. affecting eternity. The point is that the gospel is the most important need people have, far more than our changing how they behave. I agree, but I have a few comments. [This is my most important point.] This has things wrong. First, we focus not on eternity away from the world, but on the return of Jesus to this world. That is what we are supposed to be looking for. So it is here, not there, that will matter for us. Second, we are people who are waiting for him to return. No lasting change can happen without that. So it is very true that changing things now is not the most important thing. Third, we don’t work for cultural change in order to accomplish something that only the return of Jesus can accomplish, anyway. Rather, we do it as a demonstration / sign of the work of God, to point people to the coming King. It functions equivalently to the healing / miracles and compassion that Jesus demonstrated while on earth. There is no point is seeing God heal if you aren’t going to be drawn to salvation by it (Mark 2:9-11). There is no point in having a demon cast out only to have seven more return because you didn’t respond in the meantime to what it signified (Matthew 12:43-45). They are signs pointing people to the return of Jesus. Fourth, we can’t do that inauthentically. We can’t show compassion and change culture with the sole motive of being an advertisement for Jesus. What we have to do is to become the sort of people who automatically function as healers of the culture, regardless of whether it makes strategic sense. We are to be faithful and authentic, and leave the fruitfulness to God. Fifth, we know how this works already in one area – marriage counseling. Are we interested in helping people have better marriages? We should be interested in making the culture better to pretty much the same extent.
  • Colossians 4:5-6. I’ve always misunderstood this verse. I thought (because of the way the NASB translated it) that it meant that we salt our speech with grace. But the salt is the confrontational/truth part, and is there along with the grace.
  • We talked about confronting the world in an unloving manner. PJ makes the very good point that just because we have truth on our side, it doesn’t justify our saying it badly. However, we have to consider the Jesus-cleansing-the-temple example and the Isaiah-mocking-the-idolaters example. I don’t know how to blend those (John 2:13-17, Isaiah 44:9-20). The point is, that sometimes things that look unloving are actually loving. I’m pretty sure I agree about some of the unloving examples being unloving, but I’m not sure I can justify in light of these passages that they actually are. [The same issue arose several times the next day in facebook articles: when is it inappropriate to be harsh? When is it inappropriate to be critical of those who are being harsh?]
  • I suspect the apples-of-gold verse is relevant, and the don’t-speak/do-speak to a fool verse (Proverbs 25:11, 26:4-5).
  • 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. We don’t judge the world. Yet we do tell them they are wrong. What is the difference? In context, it must be whether we levy consequences on people for wrong behavior.
  • How does the question of our role in government and democracy apply? Wilson (https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/the-r2k-crucifix-problem.html, https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/ground-level-tactics-of-christian-resistance.html, https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/a-year-of-fresh-outrage.html, for example).
  • Persecution vs. being ignored. First, sometimes we are ignored. That leads us to want to be noticed. That leads us, sometimes, to be obnoxious, or at least shocking. Second, persecution is coming, and, I believe, is already here. Many Christians are annoyed that we call ourselves persecuted. I disagree, because part of persecution is being slandered, and we are. I don’t think we should agree with the slander to avoid being defensive and proud, because that throws our fellow believers under the bus. Yet the Confession chapter of Blue Like Jazz was wonderful. Why do I agree with one and not the other? Maybe it’s the pride inherent in one version and missing from Miller. Third, persecution is sometimes manifested in the attempt to marginalize Christians (Sam Harris for example).
  • Sometimes people react against us because of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, says Aaron. I agree. Then I thought: sometimes they react against us because they fear our hostility toward them. Then it occurred to me – if they are afraid of our hostility, then that will actually obscure the conviction of the Holy Spirit from them, so it’s important not to interpose is as an extra barrier. (It’s a very different thing, I suppose, to speak in a way that brings them face to face with God’s.)
  • As I mentioned in the class, if we are going to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), we will sometimes not know whether we are going too far. Therefore, one evidence that we are in the right place as a church is that do not all agree on whether we are going too far. Therefore, also, we need those voices in the church that are worried about our going too far – they keep us safe. It’s just that we need to have the discussion, not shut it down. We need to decide it issue by issue. The naysayers should not attempt to forestall ever getting close to the boundary.

Two modes

A decade ago or so, I was praying about the disorder in my life and realized that what made things difficult was that I had two very different needs. On the one hand, there were projects I was involved in – like raising a family – which required me to be patient and persistent and quietly constructive. On the other, there were battles I was fighting – against various temptations, or against obsessive fears – that required me to be bold and intense. I found that it was hard to be in the right mode at the right time. If I focused on fighting the battles, I would lose my patience with my family; if I settled into raising my family, I would lose my intensity for the battle.

At the time I thought of the story of Nehemiah. As the people of Israel built the wall, they also had to defend themselves against enemies. They worked in teams. One person would build the wall as another stood guard nearby to defend him. Some people carried things with one hand while holding a weapon with the other (Nehemiah 4:15-23). I loved the image of someone with a brick in one hand and a sword in the other. Somehow just having that picture helped me make sense of my life at the time, and keep everything in its place.

At a very different time in my life, the same theme recurred. I wrote about it here.

This semester, I’ve been thinking about having a brick in on hand and a paintbrush in the other. One thing that takes up most of my time right now is my heavy class load. Teaching and administering all my classes requires my building-the-wall mode. The rest of the time, I’ve been working on creative things, things that require me to be in an artistic mode, in which I open myself up emotionally and spiritually. I find that it is hard for me to switch from one mode to the other. When I start getting creative ideas for my side projects, I lose the discipline to stay caught up with grading. When I grind through my daily work, I shut down aesthetically.

A friend of mine pointed out that most artists aren’t well-known for their will-power, and observed that for many artists, will-power gets in the way of creativity. In other words, it’s the same story over again: we can function in one mode, or the other, but it’s hard to switch between modes.

I was reading Psalm 96 last week, and noticed this description of God:

The Lord made the heavens;

Splendor and majesty are before him

Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. (Psalm 96:5-6)

I was struck by the last line: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Strength corresponds to the builder mode. Beauty corresponds to the artist mode. God exemplifies both. I like the fact that when I come into the presence of God, I find One who understands and embodies both my artistic ideals and my constructive impulse. I can draw from him whatever I need, whether it be dogged determination or a sensitivity to beauty.

This week, I ended up in a long argument with several people on Facebook. It was a good argument – everyone spoke civilly, I got the chance to try out some ideas I’d been wanting to explore, and I think everyone learned a lot. Yet, I found it really draining. I ended up feeling angry and guilty most of the day. I felt inwardly hardened.

When I had my quiet time (reluctantly, since I was still feeling a little fierce) I read these verses:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: … ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. ’ (Revelation 2:1-6)

Jesus starts by praising the church for being vigilant warriors for the truth. Then he warns them that they have lost their first love. That could mean either their love for Jesus, or their love for one another. At the moment, I’m inclined to see it as referring to the second. Their love for Jesus was plain to see, expressed in their vehement struggle against false doctrine. It was their love for one another that had been drowned out by the battle.

Again, we have two modes. In warrior mode, everyone looks like a potential enemy. It’s hard to move from warrior to mode to nurturing mode. It’s probably equally hard to move in the other direction.

It’s interesting how well David in the Old Testament managed to be both warrior and shepherd/psalmist.

In any case, once again the question before me is how to move back and forth from one mode to another, as the situation requires. It’s hard to be that emotionally nimble.

How about you? What modes do you find you have to switch back and forth between? What helps you to do so?