Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Science Debate

A few weeks ago I attended a debate between a local pastor and an engineer from the local "Freethinkers" organization.  The topic of the debate was  "Does Science Confirm the Bible?" but this was more strictly defined at the event as- can the biblical account of creation be supported by biological science? (in other words: evolution versus creation) I was eager to attend as both an engineer and a Christian and as a wannabe scholar who dabbles in apologetics.

I have read some books and articles trying to reconcile science and the Bible but I had never actually seen it debated in person with specific points and counterpoints, watching the debaters think on the fly versus reciting prepared statements.  And I had just finished reading Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue (aka Science Mike), so such questions were fresh in my mind.  I went in with the mindset of asking myself how I would answer the questions, or what my rebuttals would be.  I also wanted to have an open mind because in my limited experience atheists, agnostics, and skeptics have legitimate points of contention and their questions should be taken seriously.

The Q&A ran long so I missed the ending.  I don't know if they actually declared a 'winner' or not, but in my opinion the winner was (drumroll).... the skeptic, and it wasn't close.

My biggest issue, and this is true with many books on this subject as well, was that the paster refused to debate the Bible on science's terms.  What I mean by that is that a scientific claim is made and the Christian responds with a Bible quote.  Sure, that may win over the Christians who already have their minds made up, but there's no reason for a skeptic to buy such an argument.  And the pastor dug himself into a deeper hole by claiming as his 'science' rebuttals cherry-picked quotes from scientists.

Yes, irreducible complexity is a compelling argument.  But that's a metaphysical debate, not a scientific one, despite what proponents of Intelligent Design might claim.  And yes, there are many believers (Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project for one) who are also scientists or even experts in these fields.  But personal quotes do not prove anything other than the what the person quoted thought about something.  Scientific proofs require evidence, measurement, and observation.  And the Christian side of the debate seldom goes down that road.

But why not?  I think on one hand we're afraid of where that road may lead (see criticisms of scholars like Pete Enns for example).  But I think more importantly, we refuse to admit that the Bible is not a science book.  Our personal doctrines and theologies have elevated the Bible to "Holy" status and therefore is objectively true from a scientific, historical, archeological, biological, anthropological... you name it, perspective.  There is no lens through which to view the Bible as 'not true'.  The problem  then is how we define truth.  Is it true that the earth was created in six days, or rather does that account reveal truth about who God is? Is it true that there was a literal Adam and Eve that lived in the Garden of Eden, or does their fall reveal truth about the sin-condition of the world?

In grad school I took a class called "The Philosophy of Physics" as one of the last electives I needed to knock out before I could get my degree.  The class was essentially a quantum physics class but without the math.  We discussed the philosophical implications of string theory, the multiverse, and quantum pairing.  And believe it or not the class actually strengthened, not hurt, my faith.  There was more "truth" debated in that course than I think I'd get in any 'creation science' class.  We need to be willing to ask ourselves hard questions.

I also think Christians are afraid of admitting they don't have all the answers.  Maybe you've heard the Bible described as "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth" as if that was its only value.  When we look at the Bible in such a way, we insist it must have all the answers to every question.  When science discovers something new, we simply don't know how to fit that new discovery into our worldview.

Because of the above reasons, Christians struggle to understand that faith and science do not have to agree.  There have been volumes written on this subject- here is just a recent example- so I won't get into this more deeply, but it is perhaps the most important point.  Today is not only Earth Day, but also the day organizers have set aside to 'March for Science'.  The driving concern of that march is that science has been politicized (it long has been) and that the current political powers have been dubbed 'anti-science' largely because of holding to biblical 'truth' over scientific truth.  Political decisions are being made under the assumption that the Bible is a science book therefore global warming can't be real, evolution is a hoax, and so on.

But the Bible stands on its own terms.  It doesn't need science to be proven.  In fact, it's not our job to prove God, he can stand on his own.  So let's stop approaching all of this with antagonism- science, politics, objective truth.  The only "proof" we need is our love for one another, "by this everyone will know" we are disciples (John 13:35)




Sunday, April 16, 2017

Two Songs, One Heart

Do you remember the movie Deep Impact?  Maybe not, but I bet you remember Armageddon.  What about Dante's Peak and Volcano?  Those aren't the only examples of very similar movies being released around the same time.  Prestige/The Illusionist, White House Down/Olympus has Fallen, The Jungle Book/Jungle Book, and so on.  It turns out this is actually relatively common.  I was surprised by the list I found on wikipedia for the "Two Film Theory".

What is more strange though is when this happens with music, call it the "Two Song Theory".  Contemporary Christian Music isn't immune to this phenomenon either.  'Grace Wins' by Matthew West and 'Flawless' by Mercy Me were both released around the same time, 'Move' by Toby Mac and 'It's Not Over Yet' by For King and Country is another example with one finding favor on some stations and the other on others (seriously, I think I've only ever heard 'Move" once on Air1 which is surprising for a Toby Mac song).

But what is jarring is hearing these songs back to back, especially when they are so similar.  A week ago, Air1 was doing their pledge drive and I have to admit I didn't want to listen to them ask for money so I was switching between them and their sister station, K-LOVE.  I've heard these songs before, but I never listened that closely to the lyrics.  But when I heard them back to back, one on Air1 and the other on K-LOVE, the lyrics jumped out at me.  Now I can't listen to one without thinking of the other.  What is remarkable is that these are essentially the same songs, just from different perspectives.  One, "I have this hope... you're with me and you won't let go".  The other, "If you could only let go your doubts... I swear that I won't let you go."

Maybe it's a double-punch to my heart, but I can't listen to either of these songs now without being moved.  Consider it two for the price of one.





Monday, April 10, 2017

Proportional Response

I was about the same age as my kids when President Reagan ordered air strikes against Libya.  I remember his national address interrupting whatever I was watching on TV and I was transfixed by the images of F-16s and explosions.  All I knew of war at the time was GI Joe (and how the blue and red lasers never actually killed anyone), but this event defined a 'real' enemy I could now include in my imaginary play.  I remember that as the news continued I would build a fort out of the cushions of a sofa where my American GI Joe soldiers gathered to plan their attack on the La-Z-Boy across the room.  Oh, to be an innocent child again.

Early in the first season of The West Wing, there is an episode called 'Proportional Response' where President Bartlet has to decide on what is an appropriate response to, ironically enough, Syria shooting down an American plane with a friend on board.  While military advisors recommend a nighttime strike against a military target to minimize casualties, the president wants to deliver a stronger message.  His emotions, in fact, drive him to want to "bomb the hell" out of Syria. (I recall a recent presidential candidate who speculated whether bombing that part of the world would make its sand glow in the dark, implying a nuclear response)  It was difficult to rationalize a response that didn't ultimately make any difference, but it was the right thing to do.

I had both experiences in my mind on Thursday when I got a message from work that we had taken military action against Syria.  My wife and I had already talked about how horrifying were the images of the chemical weapon attacks earlier in the week, wondering what could be done.

I'm not sure our proportional response will make any difference.  The politics in that region are complicated and allegiances are so intertwined that it is difficult to do anything without unintentionally angering an ally or provoking an adversary.  I can't say what we did was right or wrong but it makes sense.

From a certain point of view.

A couple of years ago, I was taking a class on Christ and Culture.  As we were talking about other global movements of Christianity, we turned to the subject of war.  In my head and in my speech I declare allegiance to a heavenly kingdom over an above any earthly rule.  But in practice...?  Once a year when we take up a special collection for world missions, I can conceptualize that foreigners and strangers are brothers and sisters in Christ.  But in my heart...?  When I realized that our national enemies may be brothers or sisters in Christ, that from an eternal perspective I have more in common with the casualties of war than the physical neighbor whose politics align with my own, my worldview was rocked to its core.  My perspective of war, geopolitics, and patriotism are forever changed.

Which makes Syria a conundrum.  Yes, the chemical attacks are gruesome and inexcusable.  And I fundamentally oppose authoritarianism because it always creates an oppressed class.  But like I said, the politics of that region is complicated, and Russia's involvement only muddies those waters.

Why does Russia care?  The obvious answer is oil, so there is an existing economic link.  Russia also has military bases there so there is a military link.  From our western perspective, we might say it's just an example of one bad guy teaming up with another so there may be a common-cause link.  But they're only bad guys from our point of view.  Like I said, it's complicated.  What has been under-reported since the Syrian civil war began is role of the Syrian Orthodox Church in all of this.  You see, the Syrian church has close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.  So there is actually a religious link too.

What does that have to do with Bashar Al Assad, chemical weapons, and the US?  Believe it or not, the Syrian church actually enjoyed some relative freedom and protection under President Assad, which obviously would not be the case under ISIS and would be unlikely under the rule of any of the Syrian rebel groups.  So if you were a Christian in Syria, you would be grateful for Russia's involvement and would be praying that the US keeps their nose out of your business.  You would long for a return to the status quo.

So then, what do we do?  Even if we have different denominational stripes, we have to be sympathetic to the Christians suffering in the Middle East but at the same time we have to humbly recognize that we don't have all the answers.  Our proportional response must be to pray with the fervor of explosive weapons.  Pray for peace.  Pray for those suffering, Christian or not.  Pray for unification against the radicalization that ISIS represents.  Pray agains the patriotic jingoism that we are tempted to fall into.  That is the only possible proportional response.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

See Yourself on the Silver Screen

My daughter has been looking forward to seeing Beauty and the Beast since the first trailer aired.  Unfortunately, she has to wait just a little longer since she's going with her Girl Scout troop as a celebration of their cookie sales.  Many friends saw it last weekend however, and I'm told they completely loved it.  There was no mention of any "gay agenda" being forced upon them, nor was there any disgust at any explicitly homosexual scenes.  I know my daughter couldn't care less about such controversies, and I'm willing to bet that when she does see the movie she won't even notice the subplot and scene in question.  Despite calls for a boycott, the movie opened last weekend to a March-record $170 million box office and an over $350 million worldwide take.

But this isn't about the boycott.  There has been plenty written about that already, most recently at Unfundamentalist Christian.  No, this is about the silver screen itself and our desire to see ourselves reflected, or rather projected, as the heroine, the princess, or at times even the villain.

My daughter wants to see the movie because she wants to see Belle dance and sing (along with candelabras, teacups, and clocks).  She likes to watch Mulan to see the girl become the hero.  She loves Lilo and Stitch because of the rambunctious girl who always seems to get into trouble, yet always finds a way to work everything out in the end.

But not everyone can enjoy movies that same way.  As a middle-class white male, I don't have to think twice about whether or not I'm represented on screen.  And if I can't relate to a character, it is usually because of the choices he makes or the dialogue he fails to deliver convincingly.  I don't think twice about whether that character looks just like me or represents my demographic.

Having LeFou's latent homosexuality slightly more explicit than was depicted in the animated movie means a lot to homosexuals who long to see themselves depicted on the screen.  For this to be the first explicitly gay character in a Disney movie is taken by some to be groundbreaking.

But this post isn't about homosexuality either.  Because they are not the only minority group struggling to be represented in Hollywood.

I'm a comic book nerd, so I haven't been able to avoid hearing about the "whitewashing" of characters from The Ancient One in Dr Strange, to The Major in The Ghost in the Shell; or the missed opportunity to cast a minority in The Iron Fist; or split opinions over Idris Elba being cast as Roland, the Gunslinger, in The Dark Tower; or the celebration over the casting choices for The Black Panther.

These things aren't new.  It was a big deal to have a single mother portrayed in a leading role on Murphy Brown just as it was groundbreaking (much more so than any character in Beauty and the Beast) for there to be a gay lead on Will & Grace.  What is new to me is that now I notice.

I have a lot more to write about "white privilege" that will have to wait for another time.  But in this case, I wanted to call our attention to the fact that white straight Americans take for granted our position in society, as evidenced by the roles we see in movies and on television.  Black-ish has become my favorite TV show because it challenges my perceptions and assumptions.  I wouldn't call myself "woke", but I'm getting there.

As Christians, we need to have more empathy.  Period.  I'm not saying minimizing sin (if that's your conviction) for the sake of tolerance, because that just goes in line with being politically correct.  No, empathy is a heart-condition.  It is the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and to see the world the way they do.

In the case of Beauty and the Beast, there are closeted gays who might for the first time feel accepted simply by a couple lines in a movie, who might no longer be suicidal, who might for a change have hope.  And that should be celebrated, not boycotted.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Music Monday: Faith in Music

As I'm still getting back into the routine of writing here regularly, I also need to resurrect some of my regular features- one of which are 'Music Monday' posts.  Here, I'll usually offer some thoughts on a song or a an artist just to stimulate deeper thoughts when we listen to music that sometimes we take for granted as just background noise.

I'm not going to do that today though.

Last weekend I read this article at Relevant Magazine by Marc Barnes about how music critics don't "get religion".  (As an aside, a whole blog is dedicated to the media coverage of religion, or lack thereof.  I wonder if Marc would be interested in starting a similar site focused solely on music.)  He hits the main points I try to with these posts- that if you listen carefully, you can glean spiritual, religious, or even explicitly Christian themes and messages.  Some artists are more overt, others subvert.  But when headliners or Grammy winners (see, Chance the Rapper) turn to religion, the typical music critic doesn't know how to treat that material.

I'm never going to be the next Lester Bangs (or his protege Cameron Crowe, yes 'Almost Famous' is one of my favorite movies).  When I listen to music I fail to hear the "[infused] angularity, with an industrialized blur of motion" (quoted from one review in the article).  I don't even know what that means.  But what I do hear are themes of redemption, hurt souls crying out for hope, and finding peace in a higher power.  If you listen carefully enough, you'd be surprised how common these themes are.  Does that make them explicitly 'Christian' in content?  Sometimes, but usually not.  So it is up to us, as believers who live to be salt and light, to search out the redemptive qualities of the secular space and to highlight those to the rest of the world so they may understand "the reason for the hope that we have" (1 Peter 3:15)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

For God So Loved the Exoplanets

I've always been a bit of a space nerd, moved by awe-inspiring images from the Hubble Telescope, imagining what it would be like to explore the beautiful depths of the cosmos.  Less abstract, the ever-growing list of planets discovered by the Kepler Observatory have captured my curiosity and its latest discovery, announced last week, reminded me of unanswered questions.

These questions are a staple of science fiction, exploring answers from the varied perspectives of linguists, politicians, the military, and families.  We imagine ourselves in the role of discoverer, peacemaker, victor, and victim.  But no one really knows what it would be like if we ever discovered alien life.  The biggest question, that I wish I had a good answer for, is what would such a discover mean for our theology?

Ever since Galileo got into trouble with the Catholic Church over the observation that the earth revolved around the sun, science and the church have been at odds (and probably longer, despite the many significant contributions believing scientists and mathematicians have made throughout history).  Evolutionary biology challenges the six-day creation account.  Geology challenges the age of the Earth.  Astronomy challenges the 'firmament' described in Genesis 1 and the notion of God spreading out the heavens like a tent.  And cosmology questions the need for an active creator.  Well-meaning and well-informed Christians can debate the theological significance of each but an undisputed discovery of alien life would turn all these debates on their head.

Most challenging, besides trying reconcile what this would mean for the existence of God, not to mention destroying the tightly-held doctrine of biblical inerrancy, would be the question of what would this mean for salvation and atonement?  Do other worlds have their own gardens of Eden?  Would sin be defined the same way for creatures that wouldn't communicate or interact the same as we do?  What form would divine revelation take?  And most importantly, are there several alien Jesuses saving the universe one planet at a time? (After all Jesus did say there are sheep other than these, meaning us, that he needed to save.)

I expect Christians would display a range of reactions to the discovery of alien life.  I think some would be inclined to respond with skepticism in the same way they react to global warming.  Others would react with hostility to anything that would cast doubt on the inerrant, authoritative, word of God.  But I think the most common reaction would be fear as if such news was a threat- not the threat of an alien invasion, but rather the threat of their long-held worldview being wrong.

You've probably done this exercise at VBS youth camp, or maybe even in a personal Bible study- look up John 3:16 and make it personal: "For God so loved (your name here) that he gave his only son, that if you believe in him you shall not perish but have eternal life."  You've probably heard this as well, 'if you were the only person on the planet, Jesus would still have gone to the cross for you.'  This is a nice sentiment, but I don't entirely agree and it is this emphasis on a personal savior and individual salvation that is at the heart of much of American Christianity theology.

But I don't think the Bible supports that.  Throughout Romans, Paul's most theological letter, Paul always defines salvation in context of God's Covenant faithfulness.  Even when he quotes Joel to say, "anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13), it is in reference to the Day of the Lord that is a fulfillment of God's covenant.  Jesus, while certainly emphasizing God's love for each of us individually as well as emphasizing our own personal responsibility in following him, framed his ministry in the context of the Covenant- "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets... but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)  I have to admit that I am influenced by scholars and theologians who have emphasized 'Israel's story' to define the Gospel (most notably Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright) but I also think such a view would help us reconcile the notion of alien life and whether they would be in need of a savior.

Ask yourself this question, is your favorite pet saved?  When you were a child you might have been told that the pet that died went to heaven, but do you believe that now?  Did God make a covenant promise to dogs and cats, complete with a list of conditional curses and blessings that include the end-state of either damnation or salvation?  In the same way, we have no evidence (obviously) of God making a covenant promise to any alien civilization.  Therefore they wouldn't need their own alien Jesus.  In fact, if God did make such a promise it would most likely be very different than we could even imagine and Jesus might not even be involved at all!

But would that mean we have to redefine the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of every... planet?  Or what if that alien invasion we fear is really them coming to evangelize us?  Maybe their advanced technology has shown them how much we need saving.

And maybe they're only 39 light years away, wandering in space, waiting to enter into their promised planet.




Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Romans 14 in the Age of Fake News

It happened again yesterday. While scrolling through my Facebook feed I came across an article that I knew right away was "fake". It was posted by a well-meaning friend as well as being liked and shared by several others. The headline was compelling enough that I had to click the link to read what all the fuss was about. Everything written seemed plausible, despite the obvious typo in the headline, but then I reached the end of the article where it read, "source: ufomania.org".

Graphic from CNN.com
Thankfully this happens less now that the heat of the campaign season is behind us. But people are still biting on the bait and getting hooked even if it is with less frequency. Later in the day another friend shared a meme (so it was without any source) making a dubious claim that put down another only to score a political point.

Why do we continue to get sucked in like this? There were numerous articles following the presidential election regarding fake news and how social media has become an echo chamber that only serves to reinforce our opinions. Here are just a couple articles that go behind the scenes. I'm going to summarize what many see as driving this phenomenon.

We desire a validation of our worldview. This isn't limited to politics. It extends to religion, sports, and entertainment. I'm guilty of this- if I watch a move that really gets my wheels turning, one of the first things I do is check reviews to see if anyone else picked up on the same things I did.

We want validation and acceptance. That's why we congregate around like-minded people. That's why it is more joyful to watch sports in a crowd versus alone on your TV (and why tweeting during live events has become so popular- so much so that some sports websites even include a social media frame along with live streaming). This is human nature and why headlines that reinforce our points of view are compelling. We tolerate our own cognitive dissonance because being validated is more important than being right. At the same time seeing news, articles, or memes that fit our preconceptions subliminally convinces us that our opinions are right (thereby making other opinions wrong, which is technically impossible).

We want to believe. Sometimes we think we know something but maybe we lack confidence in its truth. So we cling to anything that builds up our personal lack of faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see" (going with the NIV translation- you can switch out confidence and assurance with "substance" and "evidence" if you'd rather rely on the King James). So faith is inherently confident and is self-reinforcing with its own evidence. This definition of faith then assumes some level of trust.

But we don't apply faith that way. We have faith in things we hope for, but hope is only that. We hope something is true, but we lack confidence or assurance so we seek out evidence. This type of faith is the type that implicitly exclaims, "I told you so!" when we find what we think is proof. So we share articles about NASA scientists that proved the calendar is missing a day because of Joshua making the sun stand still thousands of years ago.

We get sucked in by sensationalist headlines. Did you know that in the mainstream media journalists don't write their own headlines? Did you know that in publishing authors usually don't come up with their own titles? There are professionals whose job is to write the headline that will get the most attention or book titles that will sell the most copies. There is research in the social sciences that takes this as far as identifying the best fonts, verbs, and even the maximum number of words to use. Online we try to maximize our Search Engine Optimization.

Over the weekend I was watching one news program where a journalist was getting grilled about a sensationalist headline that the host then claimed qualified the news as "fake". The journalist tried, with little success, to defend his work by noting that he didn't write the headline. He tried to steer the discussion to make the point that what some are calling "fake news" are simply examples of sensationalism or bias (both of which drive ratings, clicks, and shares).

Yet we're guilty of promoting the sensationalism we're being fed. In the example I opened with, which wasn't a political story at all, the headline was catchy enough to share without even reading the contents of the article. Had the person done so, I suspect she would've noticed the suspicious source being "UFO Mania". But that's not the only example. During the election a friend shared an article about Planned Parenthood based on a headline that seemed to reinforce her worldview. She apparently didn't read the article, because the article made the opposite point she was trying to advance. And this leads me to my last reason...

We have a problem with a lack of discernment. Much was made of the "intelligence gap" or "education gap" identified in polls during the election. But this isn't necessarily a matter of intelligence or education. Discernment is different. A lack of discernment takes things at face value without critical thinking. Discernment is the ability to take information and question its validity, independent of knowledge, information, or opinions you already have. You can be uneducated and have discernment. This is often described as being "street smart". At the same time, you can be highly educated and lack discernment. We see the same thing in church where someone might be described as "so heavenly minded they're no earthly good".

I hate to say it, but the church is guilty of promoting this lack of discernment. We listen to sermons built around verses that are proof-texts for the point that is trying to be made even if taken completely out of context. We do not follow the example of the Bereans who were of "more noble character" for checking whether what Paul was preaching was true (Acts 17:11). Meanwhile we reinforce a leadership structure that assumes a hierarchy of knowledge, holding those with a  DMin or MDiv with special esteem. Even though we have access to more information than ever before, tools that can help us study the Bible with unprecedented depth, we're really not that much different than the peasants who were kept in line by the church by their illiteracy.

If we don't dig deeper on matters of eternal importance, why would we expect to be any different when it comes to the media we consume? We blindly trust what a particular news source has to say the same way we nod our heads and proclaim "amen!" during a sermon that makes a point nowhere to be found in scripture.

Which brings me to Romans 14.

Romans 14 would seem like a non sequitur after the discussion of politics in Romans 13 but then we remember that this also follows the Romans 12 admonishments to "not think of yourself more highly than you ought" (12:3) and "as much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another" (12:18). Taken in that context, you could consider Romans 13 and 14 as applications of 12.

Interestingly, Paul immediately follows his discussion of politics with a warning to not quarrel over disputable matters, as if anticipating the obvious divisions to come. At the same time, he tells us to "accept the one whose faith is weak" and uses dietary laws and religious feasts as examples. What we sometimes miss when reading this is that these religious duties aren't analogous to whether or not it's ok to watch R-rated movies, rather they are demonstrations of one's own religious identity.

Follow the train of thought Paul is providing us: live at peace with one another, submit to authority because everything is under the authority of God, don't get wrapped up in disputable matters, and don't allow those things to become central to your religious identity. In other words, don't let politics define your religion. Because if you do, it will prevent you from being at peace with others, make you unable to submit to governments whose policies you disagree with, and lead you into useless arguments over matters of opinion (a literal translation of "disputable matters").

Sounds a lot like the state of the church today.

Running through this train of thought is the notion that some will be able to do this easily and others will not. Some will have faith that is "strong", while others will struggle because of their "weak" faith.

It may sound mean to say that those who revel in "fake news" are weak in their faith, but taken in this context it is the truth- they merely lack discernment. That doesn't mean I get to look down on them or mock them (which I am seeing far too often from Christians on the progressive end of the political spectrum). Rather Paul tells me that I need to be patient with them and put aside my own convictions for the sake of their faith.

So what do we do to confront the fake news we see nearly every day? We need to remember that the Kingdom is not a matter of Republican or Democrat (to paraphrase 14:17) and that "anything not done in faith is sin" (14:23). We need to ground our politics in faith- faith has to come first- and practice our convictions with righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (the rest of verse 17). We have to be humble enough to set aside our political points of view for the sake of others. Really, if our political discourse is causing someone else to struggle- whatever the reason, whether it is based on fake news, or is argumentative, or devalues the unnamed 'other'- we need to knock it off.

And prayerfully by applying the word we can learn discernment, by having confidence in God's love we can overcome our need for validation, by growing in faith we can increase our confidence in those things that are unseen, and with our eyes fixed on Jesus may we not become distracted by sensationalism because in him alone is Truth. In Christ there is nothing fake.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Submit to All Authorities?

Debating politics with another believer? Chances are one of you, and some point in the argument, played the Romans 13 card. Like most trump cards (no pun intended) it is really useful when desperate, but can be ignored if not needed. But what does it really teach us about politics?

A year ago, my church started having adult Sunday school before our weekly worship services. I've been helping teach the classes and we've covered the Psalms, Revelation, Ephesians and most recently, Romans. Our class on Romans happened to coincide with the elections and many were hoping we'd get to chapter 13 before having to vote. Unfortunately, covering only a chapter at a time, we didn't get to the thirteenth chapter until well after the elections and into the new year. I lost count of the number of times someone would ask for my thoughts, knowing that we were weeks away from covering the material but feeling the urgency of our political climate.

Photo: Mark Wallheiser, Getty Images
Interestingly, had someone asked for my opinion a year ago my answer would have been much different. But studying Romans following in-depth studies of Revelation (and its condemnation of the false prophet-beast/church-state) and Ephesians (with its emphasis on unity) changed my perspective greatly.

Coincidentally, or perhaps it was the Holy Spirit- who am I to say?, we studied Romans 13 the week before President Trump took his oath of office.

Of course on the surface, Paul is usually quite straightforward- "submit to all governing authorities". The only qualifier he offers is that governments are established by God to enact justice on behalf of God.

Most of the time when discussing this passage, we add our own qualifiers- as long as the government's laws don't conflict with God's laws, or that the word of God always trumps (again, no pun intended) worldly edicts or executive orders. Unfortunately the oft-quoted, "we must obey God, not men!" is from the book of Acts, not Romans. Paul doesn't give us any way out. We are to submit. Period. End of discussion.

Except that it's not the end of discussion. The most common mistake when it comes to Bible-interpretation is to take verses from the Bible as stand-alone nuggets of specific wisdom without considering its context. And the context of Romans 13 is important.

No, I'm not talking about the fact that Paul wrote this to a church under the rule of Nero. Or even to consider the political subtext of its cultural context (see The Arrogance of Nations by Neil Elliott for that discussion). I'm talking about the context within Paul's letter itself.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that Romans 13 comes after Romans 12 and before Romans 14. Romans 12 describes an ethic that Christians should strive for. It begins by instructing us to offer ourselves as "living sacrifices", not "conformed to the pattern of this world". This echoes Jesus, "whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." (Luke 9:24) If we seek the things of this world- politics, power, wealth- then we will lose our very selves. But if we choose to make ourselves living sacrifices, giving up those very things that the world promises will make our lives better, we will gain so much more.

With that "renewed mind" opening the chapter, Paul continues with a few statements that are crucial to understanding Romans 13. In verse 3 we are told to "not think of yourselves more highly than you ought" and similarly in verse 18 that "as much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another". (See my post from Romans 12 for more) Paul describes a position of humility as our default state. Then he closes the chapter by urging us not to take revenge because that is up to God. (12:19).

Interestingly, right after Paul tells us that it is up to God to judge and avenge, he then tells us that the government wields the sword in Romans 13. So government is an instrument of God's. This wouldn't have come as a shock to Paul's audience, despite being subject to Nero, because Paul already established this (and Jews recognized this from many of their own scriptures) in Romans 9 discussing how God used Pharaoh to bring about the Exodus.

At this point, it is crucial to examine our own faith. If we truly believe God is sovereign, doesn't that mean he is sovereign over governments? Much ado was made of "God intervening" in this past election. But would those Christians make the same argument if Hillary Clinton had won? Either God is sovereign or he's not. He's not just sovereign only when you get your way.

So what if you disagree? What if government is corrupt? Well Peter gives Christians in Rome similar instructions even while they are undergoing persecution (1 Peter 2:13-15). And we know from history how God used foreign, and assumed to be evil, governments to enact his will- Pharaoh during the Exodus, Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:17), and Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). So even if a government is evil and corrupt, that doesn't prevent God from using it for his purposes. (Important distinction there: his purposes, not ours). Again, Paul doesn't give us any disclaimer to 'submit only if...'

So we must check our hearts. Why do we disagree? What are our motives? I appreciate Warren Wiersbe for pointing this out- you can outline Romans 13 by our motivations to submit to government: fear of judgment (verses 3-4), our conscience (verse 5), love (verse 8), and Jesus himself (verse 14). Do you disagree because you did something wrong and deserve justice? Not a good enough reason. Do you disagree because of your conscience? Well you need more evidence than that. Do you disagree because of love? In other words, is a law you disagree with inherently unloving? Now we're getting somewhere. Finally we come to the traditional canard- what would Jesus do? Would Jesus obey this law?

So there's a progression we need to examine when we oppose our government. Ultimately, if we cannot practice civil disobedience from a posture of love in submission to Jesus then we are only seeking our own self-interest or self-righteousness.

Another point to consider when you oppose government is Paul's following argument in Romans 14, which can be summed up as the strong must bear with the weak. In other words, you need to put your self-interest aside and think of others first. So is your opposition for your own good or for the good of another? I'll have more on that point in another post.

So does Romans 13 actually mean what it says and we're to submit no matter what? Pretty much yes, but context offers some nuance: we are to be humble, God is sovereign, and our motives have to be loving rooted in Christ.

Don't play the Romans 13 trump card to try an win an argument against someone with a different political perspective than you. Rather apply it to yourself. Check out that log before you worry about someone else's splinter.

(for more discussion on Romans 13, check out the podcast 'Theology on Mission' with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw and their episode: Protesting Romans 13)


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Perspectve

Yesterday I watched the Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary while monitoring reactions on social media. It was interesting to see how either accepting or rejecting this particular Cabinet pick was taken so personally by so many.

Speaking of taking things personally, the same time I was glued to the TV my wife was a thousand miles away helping some of her family make funeral arrangements. The whirlwind of the past couple of days has helped me put all this political debate into its proper perspective.

So far this year, averaging nearly weekly, either someone close to me has passed away or someone close to someone close to me. Three in the past week alone. As hard as this has been, it has been good reminder that our lives are "but a mist" (James 4:14). That while we debate politics online, people in the real world are suffering- physically, emotionally, or spiritually- and our time is limited to do anything about it.

This isn't meant to diminish what I see are legitimate concerns with what is going on in the United States politically. But I think politics have become a sport- you cheer your side and boo the other, and defend your colors proudly to everyone you meet. It has become a distraction- I get too emotionally wrapped up in the latest headline while there is a homeless person on the nearest street corder begging for bread.

What I fear most about this distraction isn't just that it keeps our hearts away from the real needs right in front of us but that it also keeps our eyes from heaven, anticipating the return of Jesus.

Jesus told a parable about a 'rich fool' who plans to build a storehouse for all his grain so he can take it easy in the future. But he is a fool because that future never comes: "You fool! This very night your life will be demand from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" (Luke 12:20)

I'm beginning to view politics the same way. We choose who to support based on what we get out of it. But bureaucracy is slow. We won't see the effect of economic policies enacted now for a couple of years at best. The Department of Education won't disappear overnight (despite a bill desiring as much) and even if it did, the local school your child goes to won't just suddenly close. It took a year and a half to craft, debate, and pass a bill for national health care. It took several more months to enact it. We vote for what will benefit us in some future that may never come.

You fools! You vote worrying about your future when your very life may be demanded from you tonight. Or tomorrow. Or in six months.

But what about our children? And their children? These votes aren't just about us, but their future as well! I understand that, I really do. But it begs the question, in what or in whom are you putting your faith?

"Some of you will say,  'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil." (James 4:13-16)

If it is the Lord's will. That's a big if. And for whatever reason, whether you agree with it or not, this administration is God's will*. (Romans 13:1) So is our faith in God or our government?

*note, I have a post on this passage coming, so don't get too hung up on defining "God's will" quite yet

One last thought, as hard as it might be to put into practice the Bible is still true. "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these thing will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:33-34)

Don't worry about what politics is going to do about tomorrow. Do what you can to seek first God's kingdom today. Today has enough trouble to deal with, we have to trust God for tomorrow.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Useless Arguments

"Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way." (James 4:1, MSG)


Skim your Facebook feed and tell me this isn't so. Politics, religion, even griping about your boss/job/kids/school- it all comes from the same place in our hearts: we don't get what we want, so we complain. We may have grown up but we still act like spoiled children. We've just taken our tantrums from our bedroom floor to our Facebook wall.

"Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels." (2 Timothy 2:3, NIV)

"But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless." (Titus 3:9, NIV)

Useless, foolish, and stupid arguments. Sounds like social media.

I'm not saying we should be silent. We can cheer on or favorite sports team, or talk smack against a rival. We can share videos of cats being scared of cucumbers. We can also share headlines that catch our attention, make us scratch our heads, and at times make us question our place in the world.

Yes we can talk about religion and politics, taboo topics at the dinner table. But there's a right way to do it.

*****

When I was in college, I heard a sermon from Romans 12. At the time I'd go to church when I felt like it, leave feeling justified, and continue living as before. The Sunday I heard this sermon probably followed a Saturday night partying. It is likely I was hungover. But for the first time in a long time, the word came alive. My ears perked. I heard something I had never heard before: what my life was supposed to look like.

I don't remember the specific passage discussed; I know it wasn't the whole chapter. But my curiosity was piqued, I had to go back to my room and read the whole thing. I had to know what this was about. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. Romans 12 described what a Christian was supposed to look like. I didn't look like that. My friends didn't look like that. My church didn't look like that. This one chapter rocked my world.

Romans 12 has been a central part of my Christianity ever since. Even last weekend a guest preacher was giving his sermon and described Romans 12 as a "mini Bible"; that whenever we're not sure what we should do, we can always turn there for guidance.

Even if we debating politics.

For the past few months I've been teaching through the book of Romans. The first eleven chapters are deep in theology and history, filled with cultural nuances and relational complexities. But then Paul shifts gears. Therefore... because of everything I just bored you to tears with, live this way.

And as the Bible is wont to do, studying Romans 12 in our current polarized political context brought forth fresh insight. Those same key verses rang true, but they rang more clearly than they had before.

*****

"Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought." (Romans 12:3, NIV)

Besides our selfish motives, what causes fights and quarrels among us is pride. If I'm arguing with someone, I obviously think I'm right. Therefore, you must be wrong. We don't communicate with a sense of humility. We don't consider opinions outside our own echo chamber. We are not open-minded.

So we just shout past one another.

"As much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another" (Romans 12:18, 84NIV)

So we fight and we quarrel and we don't get what we want. We don't try and be peacemakers. We have to be right. Our worldview must be reinforced. Our political convictions must be protected at all costs.

And so we don't listen. We don't consider other people's perspectives, their experiences, their feelings. And we continue to divide.

"Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21)

We need to change our political discourse. We need to heed Paul's instructions. We must speak humbly, be peacemakers, and avoid sowing division.

*****

There is a lot going on in the world right now (there always is!). There is a lot to be concerned about (but not everything, and not everything the media would want you to think). As Christians, we need to stand out as light. We need to change the perception that we are known more for what we are against than what we are for. Bottom line, we need to love.

I wonder, if we all put this into practice what would my Facebook feed look like? Or maybe I should just go back to watching cat videos.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Flashback Friday: Sanctuary

Given current headlines I thought this repost was appropriate.  Although originally published way back in 2007, not a lot has changed in this debate. My stance has changed somewhat since then, however (and especially given the enormity of what's presently dominating headlines). I'd now argue a less passive, and more aggressive, response that what I write below. We cannot ignore the Biblical mandate to love the "least of these". And the theme of God's people being refugees, sojourners, and strangers runs deeply throughout the whole Bible. So, as Christians, we cannot be silent in the face of this oppression.

****

Do you remember Elvira Arellano? She was an illegal immigrant who made headlines in fall of 2007 for claiming sanctuary in a Chicago church. This headline led me to study my Bible about the role of sanctuary cities and a word study on refuge. At the time, the debate over illegal immigration died down, although as current headlines show the debate never went away.

Also in the fall of 2007, the city of Simi Valley, California sent a bill of $40,000.00 to a local church for the police required to keep order during a protest outside their doors. The protest wasn't organized by them, wasn't planned by them, and really wasn't even participated in by them. But the rationale was that since by their actions, allowing an illegal immigrant to seek refuge in their church, they incited the protest and that they should be the ones held responsible. Yeah, that made perfect sense.

If this would have held up, it would have set a dangerous precedent for the church. Would a church be held financially responsible if there's a protest on their stance against homosexuality? Or what if a synagogue is vandalized with anti-Semitic tagging, would you hold them responsible? At the time, most agreed that this was an infringement on that church's First Amendment right and a ploy to passive-aggressively stake their ground on the illegal immigration debate.

But is this something we, the church, Christ's ambassadors, should be getting involved in in the first place? There's no legal standard for a church being a sanctuary for fugitives. Rather it's an unwritten rule, kind of like fighting on Holy Ground in Highlander. But what's the history behind it? Obviously our country began as a refuge for many seeking religious freedom. The motivation behind the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment was to keep the government from dictating a state religion so any faith could be practiced freely. Churches were central as sanctuaries pre-abolition just as they were involved during the Civil Rights Movement. So there's historical precedent. But is there Biblical precedent?

When settling in Israel, the refugees from Egypt were given instructions by God to set aside "sanctuary cities". These were cities where one could flee if accused of murder so that their case could be heard by the elders before they were killed in revenge. The fine print though, was that they had to be innocent. Romans instructs us that we should obey the law of the land because every authority on Earth is there but for the grace of God. So is it right for a church to be a sanctuary for someone breaking the law, even if we don't agree with that law?

Another refugee from authorities wrote many Psalms about God being his only refuge. David was being hunted down and though he lived in caves and some towns let him hide, he knew that his only refuge was God Almighty.

But we are also commanded not to "oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9) And let's not forget about the Good Samaritan, a foreigner. We also read in James, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16)

So what should we do? Where's the line between giving to a "foreigner" in need and giving them employment? Where's the line between being sympathetic to illegal immigrants and offering your church as a sanctuary? First, we need to heed to existing laws. Second, we need to reach out to meet the needs of those who are here illegally. They are here for a reason, after all; Mexico is an absolute mess between its economy, political corruption, and rampant violence between rival drug lords. Finally third, we need to be careful not to skate on the thin ice of the hot political topic du jour. We need to let our lights shine, be the salt of the earth, and represent Christ in all we do. My question for all those "safe churches", are you doing everything you can to help the immigrant you're harboring to get on a path to citizenship? What are the circumstances of him or her facing deportation (immigration officers have their hands too full to want to deport someone 'just because')? Or are you just seeking headlines?

Yes, families are affected, and depending on where you live chances are there is someone in your congregation who is here illegally. But the church as an institution exists to meet the needs of its parishioners. In this case, that means helping them gain citizenship, legally. Sanctuary in the Bible requires innocence, and unfortunately none of us on either side of this debate are wholly innocent.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Lamenting Protest?

Given our political and cultural climate, I've begun the year reading Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by  Soong-Chan Rah. I want to orient my heart towards God's sovereignty in spite of the environment I see around me and am in search of the right personal response.


In the second chapter, 'The Funeral Dirge,' Rah describes lament as expressing historical suffering. He then quotes from Brown and Miller, eds Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and Public Square how lament takes the form of "arguing with and complaining to God about one's situation and protesting its continuation". Protest jumps out from that quote so Rah continues to say,
"Lament is an act of protest as the lamenter is allowed to express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering." (Prophetic Lament, pg 44)

These quotes burned in my heart over the weekend as millions marched in protest of the current administration. In an act of insufficient solidarity I posted the latter quote on Facebook. Meanwhile my wife, indignant over the response she saw from many who called themselves Christian on Facebook, stood up for the protesters.

I wasn't surprised by the response. But it does beg the question, should Christians protest?

Theologian Pete Enns wrote a post this morning addressing that very point. Enns doesn't ignore the paradox of our dual-citizenship as Christians. Although Christ's kingdom is not of this world, Enns notes that it is our civic duty to "hold powers to account when we see injustice being done". I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I have come to the conviction that Christians cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. Our voices can take different tones- vocal, relational, or financial support for the marginalized and oppressed, active protest, civil disobedience, and even lament.

Zack Hunt, author of the blog formerly known as American Jesus (that's not really its name, but that's what I like to call it) marched on Saturday. In doing so, he invited the online ire of many Christians. What would Jesus do? Would Jesus demand rights? Would Jesus incite violence? Would Jesus use vulgar language? (Would Jesus deal in alternate facts?)

I think those questions are immaterial. Jesus would listen. Jesus would welcome the protester into fellowship. Jesus would love because Jesus is love.

So why protest? Why not just sit comfortably behind a computer screen (like I'm doing now, I admit) and share platitudes like "Jesus loves you!"

Occupy Wall Street co-founder Micah White, in an article published by The Guardian, describes protest this way: "Sometimes, the people march. Other times we hold general assemblies, tar and feather opponents, occupy pipelines, go on strike, dance in a circle, riot in the streets or pray together. In each case, behind every act of protest is an often unarticulated theory of social change: a story we tell ourselves about why the disobedient behavior we've chosen will usher in the change we desire."

Doesn't this describe Christianity? Isn't this movement started by a band of working class, under educated, minorities an intentional lifestyle meant to usher in the change we desire? Isn't this exactly what Jesus taught us to pray, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done?"

And when we fail to see the answer to this prayer, "on earth as it is in heaven" isn't the appropriate response lament?

So that is why Christians should support protest. Because to live a Christ-like life in a culture that opposes it is, in itself, an act of protest.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A New Era

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me."
-Martin Neimöller

I lost count of the number of times I wanted to dust off this old blog during the election season. Every news article I read about broad-brushing Christians and who they were voting for, every pushback against major candidates in the name of religion, and every headline about yet another injustice urged me to speak up.

But who would listen? That's ultimately what stopped me. I convinced myself that my voice didn't matter- there were already well-known pastors, bloggers, and theologians who were speaking up (some of whom now mocked for it)- and my audience was limited anyway. And to be honest, i felt like it didn't matter. Most everyone I talked to had their mind made up and no bombshell headline or "October surprise" was going to get them to change it. Yet there were also many I knew who felt marginalized, who felt they didn't have a voice, who felt like none of their brothers or sisters in Christ could ever understand where they were coming from.

So I prayed about it. A lot. And I finally heard an answer: "don't be afraid of your voice."

"But if I say, "I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot." -Jeremiah 20:9

I honestly didn't think Trump was going to win. Yet despite the polling, I could sense the political winds blowing in his favor so I expected he would make it close. At the same time, I couldn't believe it as I was watching the returns with my family as Hillary lost Ohio, then Pennsylvania, then Michigan (although they stayed too close to call, the momentum was already well in Trump's favor).

I wanted to be hopeful. So many of my friends reassured me that he's surround himself with good people and that his tone would change once the magnitude of his office set in. Neither happened in my opinion. So over the holidays, with this blog looming over my shoulder, I continued to watch the news for every irresponsible tweet, every unqualified nomination, and still more injustice.

And then there were the talking-heads asking the question that ultimately brought me to this point, "what is the church to do now?"

I've been teaching adult Sunday school for the past year and I've been surprised how so much of the Bible is political. I always recognized Jesus-as-Messiah as being counter-political. I recognized the political subversiveness in his teaching. But it wasn't until we studied the book of Revelation that this point really set in. The Gospel is political, there is no denying it. But how we apply that 'Gospel-politic' has been debated for centuries. Obviously, I'm not going to solve that here.

But I will offer my take. This blog began motivated by the unholy marriage between the church and American politics. It returns in a new era, but the motivation is the same.

Today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. Today, I am a Christian. And I will no longer be silent.

(Don't get me wrong, I will continue to blog about many of the same things I did before. But I plan on digging more deeply into the political messages of the New Testament. This isn't all about Trump, rather our misguided expectations putting too much of our faith into politics, regardless of which sides we're coming from.)