When Deconstruction Becomes Destruction

It is, I think, an unfortunate choice of words that some speak of examining their belief system as “deconstructing faith.” It is unfortunate because the origins of deconstruction are in literary critical theory, a theory that has no particular regard for objective truth. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of deconstruction is that there is no such thing as truth, there is only culturally conditioned understandings of our world.

One should distinguish between this and revising the tenets of a belief system because we find something to be unscriptural or unreconcilable with Scripture.

For example, if I through my upbringing am led to believe that a minister of the gospel must wear special vestments while performing his ministerial duties, yet I come to see through research and investigation that such was never part of the early church, I should revise this to say I no longer believe it necessary for a minister to wear such clothes. Is this a “deconstruction” of belief? Perhaps it is, but most of the deconstruction one sees is not as innocuous as this.

The deconstruction we see most frequently is, at the core, a hermeneutical enterprise. That is, it gets at our approach to the text of Scripture, and at its authority. If I am convinced that there is no reading of Scripture that is not culturally conditioned, and that the biases and presuppositions we each bring to the text color our understanding, I may conclude that a true and accurate understanding of Scripture is not possible. Indeed, this is where some arrive when they have thoroughly “deconstructed” their faith.

But such a sharp dichotomy is far too facile an understanding of what is possible. Our understanding of language and text is rarely such that we say we understand absolutely everything, or absolutely nothing.  D.A. Carson comments on such a misconception.

“Although none of us ever knows any complicated thing exhaustively, we can know some things truly. Our confidence in what we know may not enjoy the certainty of Omniscience, but it is not condemned to futility. Even a child may believe and understand the truth of the proposition “God loves the world,” even when the child’s knowledge of God, love, and the world is minimal, and her grasp of Johannine theology still less (John 3:16). With patient study and increased learning and rising experience, a believer may come to understand a great deal more about the proposition “God loves the world” than does the child.”[1]

And it is here where many assume that through their deconstruction they are freeing themselves from oppressive or wrong-headed beliefs of their former community. Thus “Exvangelicals” point a finger at abuses within the evangelical world and stand apart from it. But it’s less often considered whether this is but an exchange of one culturally-conditioned understanding of Christianity for another. If one cannot know anything with certainty, then one cannot know that the new interpretive community is any truer than the last. Indeed, by the principles of deconstruction, one can in fact affirm it is not truer—only different.

The outcome of much deconstruction is a backdoor scuttling of both the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The line of thinking proceeds something like this: Scripture may be inerrant and infallible (or not) but our interpretations of it are certainly fallible. For this reason, no interpretation of Scripture is to be favored or privileged over any other. They all have equal validity. The personal experience of readers then assumes an outsized role in how we understand God’s Word, or whether God has spoken authoritatively at all. But all readers haven’t done the same work or study of the text. To say that someone reading John’s gospel for the first time has an interpretive position of equal validity to one who has studying the text for decades is ridiculous. We treat no other human endeavor in such a way

There are revisions to our understanding of Scripture we can undertake. But we shouldn’t confuse the setting aside of human tradition or of cultural accretions with an embrace of uncertainty and confusion. Deconstruction leads to destruction if we think that our limitations in understanding mean that God has not given us a revelation, has not spoken with an intent that we do understand him.  John writes that “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Revelation as a basis for faith, and the knowledge of God—this is why John wrote. Luke, also, told Theophilus he was writing “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4) None of us knows exhaustively, but Scripture is given such that we may know sufficiently and confidently. If your deconstruction leads you away from this, it’s taken you in the wrong direction.


[1] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 121-122.

What Does it Mean to Keep the Sabbath?

Among the Ten Commandments, none has been treated with more flexibility than the Fourth.

 

One encounters a whole range of views on the Sabbath command, and what people believe their obligation is toward it.  Since it is one of the Ten Commandments, it makes a good test case whether those who insist Christians must keep the Ten are actually doing so. The first question is, what is the Sabbath Day? Many point to the roots of the Sabbath in creation itself.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Gen 2:1-3

But while God did this, he did not issue any command to Adam to rest on the day. The text of Genesis says only that God rested. Many traditions have dealt with Sunday—the Lord’s Day— as a substitute for the Sabbath. We keep the Sabbath or honor it by gathering for corporate worship on Sunday, and by refraining from some activities they do on the other days of the week. The Westminster Confession affirms this:

This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (WCF 21.8)

But this is based on some assumptions of history and culture, and not on Scripture. The prior section of the Confession reads,

[God] has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

The Scriptural proof offered that Sunday is now the Sabbath are the verses that record Christians gathering for worship on the first day of the week. But none of these verses identify this day with the Sabbath. In fact, we learn from Acts 20 that the believers were meeting in the evening, very likely because Sunday was a work day for them. They certainly were not resting on the day. I agree with those who protest that Sunday is not the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is Saturday; always has been, always will be. But it is also not necessary to keep the Sabbath day as God commanded Israel because we in Christ are not Israel.

Returning to the Old Testament, it wasn’t until later than Eden that there is a command that Israel should rest on the day. When this command comes, it comes with specificity for the seed of Jacob alone—Israel.  The Sabbath receives its fullest explanation in Exodus 31.

And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31:12-17)

The Sabbath day in Israel was a day of rest. No work was to be performed on the day at all.  It was not a day of worship, or of going to the Tabernacle of the synagogue (there were no synagogues until the Babylonian Captivity) but only of rest. Those who say that Saturday is the proper day of gathering for worship face the hurdle that this is absent from the text of Scripture. It is, ironically, a tradition. I say ironically because some accuse those who worship on Sunday of giving in to the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church or of Constantine, but this is incorrect. We gather on Sundays because the Lord Jesus rose on that day, and the early church began to do so. (It’s not my purpose here to argue for Sunday worship, so I won’t expand upon that.) But we can say that Saturday was not a day of worship for Israel.

Note also that the day is called a sign specifically between God and the children of Israel. Gentiles were never commanded to keep the Sabbath because they were not part of the covenant God made with Israel.  Some have also noted that even if one holds to some form of natural law; that things such as murder, theft, and lying are universally and naturally known by all men to be wrong, one cannot say the same thing for the Sabbath command. Who knows in their conscience that resting on Saturday is a morally right thing to do, or that working on Saturday is wrong? For this reason, even those who believe the Ten Commandments are an abiding standard for Christians today often categorize the Sabbath command as ceremonial, and not part of the moral law.  Michael Horton writes, “To suggest that the fourth commandment, then, is part of the ceremonial, rather than the moral, law is to say that it is no longer binding for Christians.”[1] He avers that the fourth commandment is unique among the Ten, including the fact that it cannot be credibly claimed that it is stamped on the human conscience, as the others are, and that it is nowhere repeated: “We search in vain to find one single New Testament commandment concerning the Sabbath.”[2]

How did Israel treat the Sabbath? In Numbers 15, the people find a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and he is kept in ward until God tells Moses what to do with him. He is to be stoned by the whole congregation. Sabbath-breaking was thus a capital crime in Israel. For those who insist on keeping the Sabbath today, is it a capital crime not to do so? If not, why? Where was this changed? The point is that those who claim they are keeping the Sabbath aren’t actually doing so. They have modified the commands that accompany it, but with such modification, they aren’t actually keeping the day as God commanded.

Like much of the law, the Sabbath pointed forward to Christ. The Sabbath in the New Testament is no longer a day, but a person. We as believers find our rest in Christ. Recognizing that our rest—our Sabbath—is found in the Lord Jesus is the closest thing the New Testament has to describe how believers now “keep” the Sabbath. This isn’t to suggest that a rhythm of rest is a bad idea, but it is to say that believers have freedom from the law, and are not required to “Keep the Sabbath.” Paul writes that “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.” Rom 14:5-6, and “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Col. 2:16-17.  If you have a conviction to rest on Saturdays, (or Sundays) by all means do so, but don’t do so because God commanded Israel to do it.

[1] Michael Scott Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom (Chicago, Moody Press, 1993), 124.

[2] Ibid., 126.

Ecclesiology and the Start-Up Culture

Christian growth cannot be commoditized to scale up.

 

The doctrine of the church—ecclesiology—has been among the most malleable and flexible for believers today. How a church is organized, what it’s polity may be, many Christians see as of secondary importance. Instead, expediency is what is more important. Is what we’re doing working? And the measure of what works often mirrors the culture of business start-ups. Although this isn’t new, we’re seeing the full flowering (and decay) of the mindset. Going back to Willow Creek and the massive growth they experienced, growing a church is very much akin to growing a brand, to penetrating a market with a product. Indeed, it’s well documented that in the early days of Willow Creek, they did market research to find out what people didn’t like about the previous church “products.” And the vision for the product is cast by a leader who is charismatic and inspiring. If you think of Apple or Amazon, these companies grew largely because of the innovative leaders who founded them. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos had a drive and a vision that captured people and made them want to follow and get on board. It worked spectacularly.

Willow Creek had Bill Hybels and Harvest Bible Chapel had James MacDonald. These were the CEO equivalents to Jobs and Bezos. They had the vision, and they had the power. But by tying the success of the venture so firmly to themselves, they entered into unbiblical territory. The New Testament is clear that oversight of a local church belongs to a plurality of elders. It is a shared burden of leadership that must go beyond an on-paper org chart to being shared in fact and in practice. These churches had elder boards and an ostensible plurality, but it was clear that the senior pastor was “more equal” than the others. To have a genuine plurality, the full-time pastors must have the same authority as any other elder. Investing one man with more authority than others is to set up a situation that will produce grief and pain—as both Willow Creek and Harvest (and, one might add, Mars Hill Seattle) show.

It is also to establish what the New Testament does not. Rather than viewing church polity as a choice among several models that “work” why don’t local churches treat the doctrine of ecclesiology as they do things like soteriology: as a non-negotiable? The sole epistle where Paul addresses local church leaders is Philippians, and he begins that letter by saying “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” It is the whole congregation he first addresses, and then the leaders, but note it is plural, the overseers (elders) and deacons. There is no senior elder, teaching elder, or any such thing; plurality and equality. The other place Paul addresses local church leaders is on the beach at Ephesus. “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” Acts 20:17. Here, too, there is no hierarchy or pecking order. Paul goes on to admonish and warn them. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Acts 20:28-29. Paul counts on the fact that even among the elders themselves, there will arise men who would draw away the disciples!

The heart is deceitfully wicked, as Jeremiah reminds us, and as Lord Acton also reminds us, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whether one thinks pastors should rise above this is beside the point. Look at the evidence. The New Testament model of a plural oversight is the means of protection against this happening.

Christians have been seduced by the idea that growth is always good. If we’re gaining market share, then what we’re doing is working. This is folly. The growth of Christians in their faith cannot be commoditized. Indeed, if we go in this direction, the results are apparent. Conformity to Christ, a deeper understanding of God’s purposes and person; these things can’t be measured by a pie chart. It requires an investment that is slow and steady, faithful shepherding of the congregation. Smaller churches where the elders know the sheep, are involved in their lives, provides both safety and conforms to the New Testament model. What works to build a corporation is fundamentally different than what works to build the body of Christ. The goals are different, the motivation is different, and since we do not answer to shareholders but to the Lord of glory, we need to rethink assumptions that have prevailed in Evangelicalism. We have (justly) pointed out the flaws in churches that have a strict hierarchy, bishops over bishops, but evangelical churches have erected their own model of church polity that is itself flawed.
The New Testament has the answer to “how should the church be organized and governed?” That doesn’t mean it’s easy or perhaps “expedient” but it is what God has delivered to us.

Teaching the Bible in Public School is a Bad Idea

We don’t need more nominalism

 

There has a lot of chatter in the press recently about efforts to teach the Bible in public schools. This is mainly because the President has opined on the idea, and encouraged states who have introduced bills to promote it. Predictably, there is opposition to this idea.
The groups argue that the bills are backdoor attempts to promote religion. As the Washington Post reports, “The legislation has drawn objections from groups seeking to protect the separation of church and state. The groups argue that the bills are backdoor attempts to promote Christianity in public schools.”

I, too, am against the idea, but for the opposite reason: it would result not in the promotion of Christianity, but in the demotion of it.
Because of our constitution and the first amendment prohibition on the establishment of any religion, any teaching of Scripture in the public schools would be gutted of any theological content, any doctrinal conviction, and most importantly, any insistence that Jesus is the unique Son of God. It would of necessity be teaching the Bible as literature or as an important component in Western culture. The Bible is indeed these things, but it is much more than this. Is it the message of God’s acting in grace and mercy to redeem sinners who were at enmity with Him. It is the story of delivering us from the curse that our first father plunged his progeny into, and of the unparalleled lovingkindess of our God to liberate us from the slavery of sin.

Does anyone expect these to be prominent themes in a public school presentation of the Bible? Would the approved teachers present Scripture as the Word of God, or have any doctrinal stance about the Bible? On the contrary, the bill introduced in the Missouri legislature specifically excises this. “Baker says the classes would focus on how the bible influenced our Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution. Classes would not focus on religion or theology and would be taught by a Social Studies teacher.” This is how one arrives at nominalism, at viewing the Bible as “an inspiring book”, a “great message” that forms the foundation of our government and society. But it is also how one avoids the preaching of the cross, of the necessity of being born again. It is Christianity as culture, not as life.

I understand the ACLU and others have a concern that religion not be brought into public (government) schools, but Christians also have a concern to keep the government out of our exegesis of Scripture. These bills fail on this very point: They allow the government to dictate what is and is not an acceptable exegesis of Scripture. God’s Word is powerful and active and does not need public schools for its dissemination. I am afraid that these proposals would do more harm than good, so thanks but no thanks to teaching the Bible in public schools.

Using God’s Words in Our God Talk

There is an ongoing conflict between what Americans say is important about their faith, and how we speak about it to the culture around us. This is, in part, what Jonathan Merritt says in his NY Times OpEd, It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God. I agree with much of what Merritt writes, but while he diagnoses a problem with our “God Talk,” he doesn’t offer a prescription to heal it. To be fair, his column is based on his book “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — And How We Can Revive Them.” It’s probable there is more in the book that gets to the recovery aspect of the problem, but from what is in the column, he seems to avoid some of the very things that would overcome this problem.

If we’re going to recover God Talk, we need to return to using the words God uses. Ironically, the desire to reach people with the gospel is in part responsible for the downgrade in how we discuss God. Recognizing that many Americans no longer have the biblical literacy of prior generations, the seeker-sensitive churches such as Willow Creek Community Church actively avoided using the words the Bible contains. Reporting about his visits to Willow Creek services, Gregory Pritchard says, “it wasn’t unusual for Hybels to use other terms to communicate the idea of sin, terms such as ‘dark side’, ‘shadow side’, ‘selfish’, ‘sin nature’, ‘evil thoughts’, ‘cosmic treason’, and having ‘not made the grade.'”[1]

Merritt does refer to sin, only to say that it, along with other words he had been accustomed to using, “now felt so negative that they lodged in my throat.” But this is exactly where the recovery of spiritual conversations must begin, by using the words God uses in Scripture to describe the cause of our separation from him. It is not our poor self-image, our social alienation, our lack of feeling validated or affirmed as human beings, it is sin that has separated us from God. Similarly, we should use the words found in Scripture for our relationship with him—reconciled, redeemed, loved.

The authority for our God Talk, the warrant for the words we use, is Scripture alone. All other sources are opinion and culturally situated, and culture of course changes. I recognize that Scripture itself comes with a culture and a set of assumptions, but this is just the point; if we are to have any spiritually worthwhile conversations about God, we must accommodate ourselves to the culture of God’s Word, rather than changing the words we use to fit the culture.

If the words of the biblical culture have become laden with overtones and connotations, the solution is not to give up on those words, but to bring people back to what Scripture means when it uses them. We need to re-enter the lexical atmosphere of Scripture, where God has used words like justification, sanctification, righteousness, and yes, sin, to talk about the state of our souls. Evangelical populism has conflated many of these words with American civil religion, and that has made the task more difficult for Christians wanting to use God’s words in our conversations. Those who believe the gospel is the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinful humanity must patiently correct those who believe the church exists to further a political agenda.

Significantly, Merritt does not refer to Scripture in his column. Though he does mention the fruit of the Spirit, he says these are words Christians use, rather than saying these are what the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5.  There is specificity in these words, and thus honesty in what God is saying about us. Understanding that God is the authority behind these things, that they are not simply good ideas, that culture does not affect truth, this is what provides both confidence and humility when we discuss God/ One of the basic exercises of the soul before God is repentance, which means quite literally, to change one’s mind. Coming over to God’s side of a question, thinking his thoughts, means using his words to describe something. Christians need to repent of their functional biblical illiteracy, of preferring words that are not the ones God uses, and of thinking we can improve upon what he has written in Scripture.  Only there will we find help for how we should rightly speak of God.

 

[1]G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Evaluating A New Way of Doing Church, (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1996), 177.

Why Christian Music Remains Rooted in the Past, and that’s OK

When I arrived in music school many years ago, every incoming freshman was required to take Music History 101. One of the principles the professor imported from the world of architecture was “form follows function.” The principle is nearly self-explanatory, but when it comes to music, it may require some observations about how it is worked out. Dance music, for example, has certain rhythms that are symmetrical, because humans are symmetrical in our bodies. Music that was intended for performance in a cathedral had open intervals, amenable to reverberation in a cavernous space.

Music is constantly changing, continually evolving, but with Christian music, we’ve remained solidly facing the past. The musical materials the church continues to use are tonal. For those who aren’t musicians, you know all about tonality and have deep experience with it. Everything you sing in a church gathering is in a certain key, and behaves with predictability. Notes of the scale have their place and function and “want” to move in a certain way. If you sing “Happy Birthday,” imagine singing the final “Happy Birthday to you” and instead of going down a step on “you,” you sang the same pitch for the words “to” and “you.” It would be uncomfortable, it would feel unresolved, and would leave you feeling like the song didn’t actually end, didn’t come to closure. The final word wants to go back to the note it does. This is tonality at work.

Composers in the early 20th century began to move away from these assumptions and created music that did not have a defined tonal center. But Christian music hasn’t followed this path (nor, for that matter, has popular music in general.) The reason has to do with “form follows function.” The function of Christian song is to praise God in congregational singing, by people who are not professional musicians, and thus the form of the music must have an appeal to what is known and singable. Music with no center of tonality does not fulfill this function of having non-musicians quickly become participants in the music. If it can’t be sung on a first or second hearing, it fails that test.

Hymnody generally uses simple tunes that don’t have a lot of complexity or wide vocal range, singability again being a prime goal. Hymns are not harmonically adventurous, and rhythmically, not complex. There is now a distinction between hymns and “worship songs,” (CCM falls into this category), a difference that is newer in Christin history. Nevertheless, worship songs, too, follow these rules and if they owe more to pop music than to classic hymns, they still adhere to the parameters I set forth above: singability and participation by the congregation. Where we notice more difference than with hymns is that worship songs sometimes begin their lives as performances by contemporary Christian artists, and are later employed for congregational use. That can sometimes lead to awkward singing. What wasn’t designed for congregational participation doesn’t always work well when we try to make it so.

None of this means that creativity in our Christian songs has to suffer, though to be creative in writing what is singable by non-musicians requires more of songwriters. It seems like everything has already been done with the melody, harmony, and rhythm of traditional song. But there is always someone who comes along and surprises us. In English, we still have the same 26 letters we’ve always had, yet writers still find ways to come up with what is new and compelling. The same is the case with the notes of an octave, the harmonies that result from combining those notes, and with the common time signatures used in popular music.

The best outcomes in Christian songwriting come from those who start with the view that every aspect of what they are writing is important, but chiefly that they are enabling worship on the part of a congregation. When it comes to the words we sing, it is not the expression of my own sentiments or feelings so much as voicing the commonly held theology of the body of Christ. Our personal experiences, important as they are, are not authoritative for the whole body, while the theology of Scripture is. Hewing closely to Scripture is in one sense being rooted in the past, but past events that define our redemption.

On the musical side, every aspect of this must support the text, for every element of melody, rhythm, and harmony will give character to the words, and will influence how the singer/hearer perceives those words. Here, too, if there is a common body of musical “doctrine” it is the tonal music that prevails in Western culture. (I write this as a member of that Western culture. For those not part of this, other cultures have their own received musical artifacts and thus the West cannot dictate for them what this is.)

The music of congregational singing will inevitably seek this common ground of a culture that promotes the things listed above. If these things are rooted in the past, that’s OK. Our praise of God in song can still be new with the tools of a prior age.

The Books and Parchments are not a Screenplay

In a few days, a feature-length movie on the life of Paul will premiere. Paul, Apostle of Christ is a biopic of sorts, but when we come to a biblical persona, this is different than other such efforts to tell a faith-based story. The New Testament gives very little material to construct any sort of “life of Paul.” We only have the broad outlines of where he went, when he was there, and who was with him. We have his epistles, which contain his teaching, and indeed for us, are the most important part of Paul’s life and work.
 
I understand the desire to put together something like this, and I don’t doubt that the people behind the film are believers motivated by their faith. (This movie is a product of the Kendrick brothers, who also put out Fireproof and War Room.) But those films are different in that they are dramas telling the story of faith in contemporary life and present an application of Christianity in difficult situations.
 
With Paul, we enter the realm of speculation to guess at his feelings in many situations or to say what he thought at many points in his life. The effect of that is to blur the lines between revelation and reflection, between the record of Scripture, and what is not found there. Just as with The Passion of the Christ, films like this are ultimately not strengthening to faith, but subversive of it. Too many people are unaware of the details of Scripture to say, “That’s there, that isn’t.” In short, they don’t stick to the text, and in doing this, such films contain an implicit (if unintended) message that the text of the New Testament is but one avenue of knowing Christian truth.
 
Images are powerful enough so that when people see a depiction based on biblical events, some are unable to sort between what is interpolated and what is factual. They don’t have the grasp of the New Testament to see the differences. They can too easily think that the Paul depicted in a film like this is the same Paul we find in the New Testament. He is not.
 
I have quite enough material in the Acts and epistles to fuel my study of the Apostle to the Gentiles, and I’d rather keep to what the Bible does say rather than speculate on what Paul might have thought. I’ll be taking a pass on this film. I encourage believers who want to see it, or who may think it’s a good evangelistic tool to consider whether it’s a good idea to obscure the borders this way. Could it move someone to read more of the New Testament as a result of seeing this movie? Certainly, it could. But it could also lead them to believe that we know things about Paul that we don’t. The Holy Spirit has left us records from his pen. As much as we might want to know what’s behind this man, he instead wanted us to know who was behind him. The New Testament record is sufficient for this.

Should Christians Vote?

 Many have written about the word “evangelical” being emptied of meaning. Questions about what it means to be an evangelical are not new, but the issue has taken on new urgency when it comes to our political engagement.  For much of Christian history, this was not really a factor, because representative government did not exist.  While the question of political involvement is not unique to the United States, the current atmosphere has believers rethinking what it means to be a politically involved follower of Christ.  One question it has raised (again) for me, should Christians vote?
Many will dismiss this out of hand. Of course believers should vote, and be engaged in civic life. We have a duty to God to be good stewards of what he has given to us. Part of that is citizenship in a representative democracy. Exercising that stewardship is not only a privilege but a responsibility. That is one stance, and I don’t dismiss it as unreasonable or even unbiblical. It may be difficult to find specific Scripture that points to this, but the application of biblical principles is legitimate.
The other side of the argument is, as Paul writes to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we await a savior.” (3:20.)
The word translated citizenship is πολίτευμα (politeuma) from which we derive “politics.” Similarly, he wrote to Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) Both of these passages point to the truth that although we live in this world, we are not of it, and our citizenship is elsewhere. Peter, also refers to the time of our sojourning, which is elsewhere translated alien, foreigner, strangerThe Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions have taken this as a clear indication to maintain a separation from the world and its systems. To abstain from voting is a manifestation of that.
 
The argument for voting usually rests on political engagement as a means to an end. That end is to engage the culture for God, to influence public policy to protect the vulnerable and to ensure liberty. Much of this ethos hearkens back to the 1980s, and the Moral Majority. Similar organizations grew up to join this fight, but  what have we gained by this? Has there been a reversal of the trend toward greater secularism? What has public policy been enacted that Christians can really get behind and say, at last, we have stemmed the tide of departure from God? The “culture wars” have not been kind to Christians, despite any “get out the vote” effort.
 
On the contrary, we have recently witnessed a casting aside of the distinctive testimony of the gospel purely in the interest of retaining power. Evangelicals have supported candidates who, were they members of our churches, would come in for discipline by that local church. The justification is, we need that vote. We need to ensure we get the right justices on the court, and no matter how personally distasteful a candidate may be, how poor an example he may be, we must still vote for him.
 
It is an open question whether using public policy to achieve such ends is even desirable. The gospel does not need government to accomplish its ends. The transformation that the gospel brings is entirely inward, and it then shows itself outwardly. But public policy effects no inward change whatsoever and runs the risk of deluding us into thinking we have achieved something for God. He has not called us to establish a theocracy, nor to Christianize society. Rather, we preach the gospel, and men and women are saved out of this world.
I know the argument that as long as we are in the world, we are called to faithfully influence our culture for the gospel and for God’s kingdom. But there is a difference between engagement and entanglement.
 
When we set aside faithfulness to the truth, and fidelity to all that the gospel encompasses for the expediency of power, is this not idolatry? What have we sacrificed in the testimony of the gospel when prominent Christians put political power above the witness of the gospel. This is not theory, but it’s happening before our eyes.
I am not saying that anyone who is a Christian should not vote. But I am saying that the argument for Christian influence in politics is weak, and getting weaker all the time. I am also saying that the more I consider it, the more I see the logic and consistency of the non-voting position from Scripture itself
 
 

Deus Ex Machina

Yesterday’s iPhone X announcement was not so much a product announcement as a media event. While technology writers covered the event, it’s notable that the NY Times TV critic James Poniewozik also wrote about it. Indeed, he writes about the launch as Apple selling us “a better vision of ourselves.”

As society has become increasingly technologized, it is ever so tempting to apply technology to all problems, but more than that, to imagine that some thing, some device will make me better. It will make me smarter, more productive, and more efficient. Yesterday’s iPhone event is an example of how we are lured into this mindset. Apple is masterful at presenting their technology as indispensable for your life. And it’s not just Apple that does this. All technology companies do it – Google, Amazon, et al are all selling a version of a life made better by technology.

The Scriptures warn about worshiping and serving the creature rather than the creator. We can paraphrase that to say the device rather than the deity. Think about how often you check your phone, how infrequently you are without it, how it demands your attention through notifications. All of us spend a lot of time with our technology. This can overwhelm other aspects of our lives, and what is “virtual” can dominate what is truly real.

The prescient Neil Postman wrote about this in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. The book is now 24 years old, making his observations all the more remarkable. The danger, says Postman, is when a society moves from technocracy to technopoly, where the culture becomes so dominated by technology that we believe it holds all the answers. “Technopoly’s hold [is] to make people believe that technological innovation is synonymous with human progress.”[1] It is difficult to argue that we have not entered such a stage, where technology is treated with decreased skepticism. Indeed, we may have moved from technopoly to technolatry.

But our greatest need is not a better vision of ourselves, but a new version of ourselves – a new creation. That doesn’t come through technology, but through new life in Christ. The problems that still plague humankind are not problems that technology can solve, or that quicker access to more information will ameliorate. As Postman further observed, we should not assume “that the most serious problems confronting us both at personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to adequate information… If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information. Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication, and vast quantities of information have nothing to do with these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them.”[2]

We may not bow down to wood or stone, but our propensity to worship the creature (or what we create) rather than the creator is a part of our fallen condition. Christians should be aware and on guard for the subtle encroachment of the “god in the machine” that whispers and chirps to us.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is not written from a Christian perspective, but much of what he writes applies to Christians. More recently, Tony Reinke’s Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You is specifically aimed at believers with exhortations to be wise about our technology consumption.

Poniewozik muses on what the iPhone X means for him. “I’m not going to pretend that I’m immune to this allure… I will almost certainly buy one of the new phones. What will I do with it? What does anyone? I will Instagram photos of my cooking that I think look more appetizing than they are. I will see another tweet from the president. I will Google song lyrics. I will read Facebook posts and get mad on the internet. And another year from now, I’ll set another reminder to watch another Apple event, believing somewhere deep down that with one more upgrade, I might be perfected.”

Christians need to recall what the writer to the Hebrews said about the Lord Jesus. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Overcoming sin, and becoming more like the Lord Jesus – there’s not an app for that.

 

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, Vintage Books, 1993), p. 117.

[2] Neil Postman, p. 119.

Science, Hubris, and the Importance of Admitting Ignorance

I heard a piece this weekend on the TED Radio Hour that got me thinking a bit about assumptions, the scientific method, and how science is for some, a kind of faith. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at Cal Tech, gave a talk entitled “Cosmology and the Arrow of Time.” Some salient points Carroll made were, the universe is changing as time passes. It is expanding. The universe was “smooth” at the beginning. This was a time of low-entropy, of high order. The universe was in a very delicate arrangement, it was not random, but we’re not quite sure why.

Through the program, host Guy Raz and Sean Carroll discuss some of these ideas, and Raz asks this: “If there was low entropy in the beginning, if there was order, could it suggest that there was something that intended it to be that way?” Carroll’s somewhat extended reply:

“It could be. If you ask a question like that, the answer is yeah, it could be. There are many things that are possible. That’s certainly something that people have thought about. There’s something called the teleological argument or the argument from design for the existence of a supernatural creator that says that, you know, features of our universe, if they were very different wouldn’t have allowed for us human beings to exist. But the early universe, interestingly, the problem is not just it was quite orderly, but it was really way more orderly than it needed to be for us to be here. If you really want to make this argument that the universe is set up to allow for the existence of life or humanity or something life that, the early universe is overkill. So it seems that whatever the explanation is, for why the early universe has the features its does, that’s not a really good one. We need something to explain why it is so exquisitely low entropy, so many particulars in such a very, very specific state. And as physicists, we have theories, you know, we don’t know which one is right, it’s early times as far this big question kind of thinking goes, but it’s not hard to imagine that we’ll get a good physics explanation rather than reaching for something beyond the physical world.”

Christians, of course, call that explanation for early order “God.” Genesis begins with an account of God creating the heavens and the earth. But the account is low on details, because, as Herbert Lockyer noted, “The Scriptures were given to tell men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” The Bible is not a textbook on cosmology, so we shouldn’t expect that kind of detail. But Carroll discounts an explanation involving the supernatural, apparently because the early universe is too orderly than it needs to be. He doesn’t explain why a situation of too much order is problematic. Too much order for what, or why? I don’t think that’s a good reason, but one thing he does admit is, “We don’t know.” My intention here isn’t to pick apart his argument, but to highlight this overarching theme: What we often think of as science has lacunas of understanding, and for all we may know, there is much that is not known.

In other words, a basic question on the origin of the universe, an important piece of information about solving a scientific problem, remains out of reach, not understood. How does that fit in with the idea of “settled science” I wonder? My question is not so much to induce a revision of cosmology, so much as ask my atheist friends if they are prepared to acknowledge there are gaps –in human understanding of science, and these gaps are sometimes wide. Knowledge has so often been revised; updated, and indeed supplanted; that it seems a posture of humility is a good one to assume on so many of these questions. It’s very difficult to set up an experiment to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, so there is theory, some data surrounding those theories, but in the end, they are theories. And the very fact that those theories have been revised demonstrates they can be wrong. Scientists appeal to a lack of evidence for the existence of God, but an honest scientist will likewise admit that there is no proof of the non-existence of God. In other words, it’s not a good argument.

For a working cosmologist such as Sean Carroll, he can get closer to the data, and whatever experiments may be possible, but for the rest of society, that’s out of reach. What we are left with is faith, belief in information given to us from someone else, and those who believe do so not because of firsthand knowledge, or eyewitness accounts, but on a personal decision to trust the information you’re being given.

So, for my atheist friends, I have a suggestion and a plea. It’s forthright to acknowledge science involves gaps and theories, and remains not at all settled, but elusive and faith-based. I think this should be uncontroversial, for it is demonstrable. And given this, my plea would be for humility in the light of this. Current science may be the best it has ever been, but it’s incomplete. That’s a fact.