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Culture

Should Christians Vote?

Posted by M.Ferris on
 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
 
 
Culture

Deus Ex Machina

Posted by M.Ferris on

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.

Culture

Science, Hubris, and the Importance of Admitting Ignorance

Posted by M.Ferris on

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.

 

 

Bible/Culture

TLDR: God’s truth in a post-literate world

Posted by M.Ferris on

Probably a dozen years ago, I received a review copy of a book called Goodbye Gutenberg that purported to be the future of communicating ideas. The book claimed that the future would not be one of reliance on words and letters so much as a combination of picture and symbols that would replace the “old” system of letters, words, and sentences. I didn’t find the book compelling, and in hindsight, I wonder if it was partly due to being raised on a diet predominantly of print for teaching and learning. We certainly had movies and in grade school, those were the days of film strips and vinyl records. But for the bulk of learning, it was textbooks. And for hundreds of years prior to this, it was print on page that was the substance of pedagogy.

What I think Goodbye Gutenberg got wrong was to assume that the style of book it represented would carry this new way of teaching, yet convey the same ideas as before. But Neil Postman, the prophet of media, foresaw all of this and wrote about it with rueful warning. He opined, “a medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competition can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool – the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.” [1] The nature of ideas communicable by pictures differs from those communicable by print. A picture is worth a thousand words only when you’re assembling IKEA furniture or the like. But pictures cannot convey the subtlety and nuance of abstract ideas. Concepts of doctrine such as atonement, redemption, propitiation, justification are difficult if not impossible to fully expand and develop except through words, and in fact, lots of them.

The title of this post is a common Internet acronym meaning, “too long, didn’t read.” There’s certainly a lot of dross online that is not worth reading, but I wonder as well whether the online preference for the visual over the lexical has made people less likely to tolerate the latter. If we become accustomed to the visual presentation of everything, even abstract ideas, we are less likely to read than to watch. I’ve often clicked on a news story only to be shown a video. This is no doubt a response to what content providers think readers (or viewers) want. It is bowing to the post-literate world. It’s not that people can no longer read, it’s that their preference is to not read for long stretches. This is post-literacy. As an example, there has been a notable decline in long-form journalism at major newspapers across the country. Web sites can track a lot of data points on their users such as how long a person stays on a page or whether focus moves to a different tab in the browser. I don’t doubt this shift to more visual content is in response to that data.

Online readers, then, have gotten used to wanting ideas in bite-sized portions. The truths of Scripture are not presented this way. The original manuscripts didn’t contain chapter and verse divisions, so even when we excerpt portions of Scripture, they are just that: excerpts of a larger narrative or presentation of God’s truth. Scripture is grasped by repeated passes through the text, and by reading deliberatively. These texts are often long. Consider the sacrifice of Isaac, introduced in Genesis 22. A ram is substituted for Isaac, and when we come to Leviticus, we see substitutionary atonement in the opening chapters of the book. Both of these of course picture the Lord Jesus Christ in his sacrificial death. In other words, the thread of a truth quite often runs through many books in both testaments. Reading widely and deeply in God’s word is the only way to learn what God has put there.  The practical illiteracy of Christians when it comes to the Bible is sadly common. Is the TLDR mentality in part responsible for this?

If you are struggling with your reading of Scripture, the prescription may be oxymoronic: read more. Marinating in Scripture will cause you to want to understand more, to know more, and your enjoyment of God will deepen. The primary means of our knowledge of who God is, what he has done, and what he will do comes through the written word of God. The online world may manifest a preference for image over words, but Christians can’t go along with that in the service of God’s truth. If any should not answer “Too long, didn’t read” it should be followers of Christ.

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, Vintage Books, 1993), p 16.

Reformation/Culture

Luther’s Lessons on Gospel Vigilance

Posted by M.Ferris on

The just-released documentary Luther is an interesting bit of filmmaking. It is artful and professional, and hits on some key points of why the Reformation took place. (Nor does the film shy away from some of Luther’s sins – his late life anti-Semitism, for example, is dealt with head on.) Among the reasons the film is worth seeing is because Christians need constant vigilance for the gospel, and there are parallels between Luther’s day and ours. Close to the end of the film, presenter Barry Cooper issues a caution about the state of Christianity 500 years after Luther. “There is another kind of Reformation on the way. We who live in the West are experiencing it even now, in fact. The social privilege we once enjoyed has been ripped away. Christians [are] increasingly stereotyped as intolerant bigots, socially regressive, or just plain stupid by those who see themselves as progressive. It’s challenging, and increasingly costly for Christians to do what Luther did and stand firm.” He goes on to note that the news is far from dire elsewhere in the world. The gospel is spreading in Africa, South America, and Asia at far higher rates than in traditionally Christian lands. But the message for those of us who do live in the West is, we should be prepared to respond well. Some things to bear in mind:

The Scriptures tell us we are not citizens here. The temptation is always there for Christians to settle down and settle in, not so much physically, but mentally and spiritually. That is, to consider our rights and privileges and to be ready to stand up and fight for them. If that means the courts and legal battles, so be it. We have that right as citizens of our nation. We do indeed have the same rights as others, but Christians should be cautious about a knee-jerk reaction of going to court when we are aggrieved about our rights. Paul is most concerned not with preservation of rights, but with Christian testimony before the world. His immediate context is Christian going to law against other believers, but his concern is how that looks to those outside the faith. As people who have jobs, families, responsibilities and who live in the world with other people, we interact with the those outside God’s family all the time, but the New Testament reminds us that what is seen is temporal, perishing, and what is unseen is eternal. We too easily forget that. Gospel vigilance means this is but a stop on the way to our final destination.

The Scriptures predict we will suffer. All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. We spend a lot of time and effort to make ourselves comfortable. That’s understandable, but spiritual comfort is presented in the New Testament as a thing we experience amidst surrounding discomfort. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” 1 Pet. 3:14. Paul wrote the Philippians that his imprisonment had actually served to advance the gospel, and he rejoiced in his current state. He wrote to Timothy near the end of his life “And because I preach this Good News, I am suffering and have been chained like a criminal. But the word of God cannot be chained.” (2 Tim. 2:9 NLT). We need to continually remind ourselves that our confidence and comfort come not from making everything right in our lives here on earth, but in the fact that we are redeemed, justified, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Persecution and suffering for the gospel – especially for the gospel – should serve to increase our joy and satisfaction in Christ. This is unnatural for us, because our sinful hearts want ease and freedom from suffering. But suffering is also presented as a tool that God uses to prune and refine us. Suffering is the tool of Christian maturity in the believer’s life. Gospel vigilance means we can’t expect we won’t suffer, but our prayer should be that we’ll suffer well.

Church-State separation is a protection for the Church. In Luther’s day, the Church and state were intertwined in such a way that to oppose the Church was to oppose the governing authorities. It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who called on Luther to recant. The Emperor branded Luther an outlaw, and though it was a local political figure, the Elector Frederick who protected Luther, clearly the winds of politics may blow different ways. Luther knew ultimately that God was his protector. In our own day, the political left likes to portray the wall of church-state separation as ensuring that public and political life is free from the influence of faith, but that is of course not possible. Everyone has a belief system they operate from, and it is impossible to divorce that from one’s decisions. Self-proclaimed atheists do this as much as anyone. The separation enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is as much a protection to the church as anything. In the coming years, I believe this will work itself out through increasing pressure from the government upon churches and para-church organizations conform to societal and legal requirements. This isn’t new. In fact, it’s quite old. The post-apostolic church was a church constantly under threat, and being a Christian was a capital offense. The Roman Empire took a long time to get to toleration of Christianity, then to endorsement. But history shows that endorsement of the faith didn’t help the witness of the church. On the contrary, it ushered in centuries of empty ritual and increasing corruption that culminated in the Reformation. We may be returning to more open hostility toward the faith than in previous centuries, but our response shouldn’t be surprise. D.A. Carson’s 2012 book “The Intolerance of Tolerance” tackles many of these themes, and notes “Just as Christians cannot finally serve God and Money, so they cannot owe ultimate allegiance to the kingdom of God and to an earthly democracy. God is not establishing a democratic republic, but an eternal kingdom in a new heaven and a new earth.”[1] The state, fellow believer, is not our friend. We don’t need the endorsement of the government to proclaim the gospel and live a faithful testimony. It may become costlier to maintain that witness, but this shouldn’t surprise us, and it gives us a meaningful link with the earliest of Jesus’ followers.

Who knows if or when any of us will be called upon to face the sort of opposition that Luther faced. But if we are, let us be as clear on the gospel, and all that it entails, as he was.

[1] D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), p.175.

Evangelicalism/Culture

Evangelicalism and the Post-Truth World

Posted by M.Ferris on

Are evangelicals responsible for the “post-truth” world? A recent NY Times opinion piece by Molly Worthen makes this claim, but that conclusion is far from certain. I think history argues against that – even recent history.  If one lays the blame for giving up on facts at the feet of evangelicals, one of the first data points to consider is there no easy answer to the question, “what is an evangelical?” Worthen’s own work asks this question, and she acknowledges the answer to this far from clear. In Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, she notes:

“The term evangelical has produced more debate than agreement. The word is so mired in adjectives and qualifiers, contaminated by politicization and stereotype, that many commentators have suggested that it has outlived its usefulness.”[1]

By her own observation, then, the term is nebulous and fraught with imprecision. Worthen seems to focus on an evangelical subculture, fundamentalism perhaps as responsible for a disdain for science and other facts as informing their view of the world. To be sure, there have been skeptics of science, but it’s a more difficult claim to make that such a subculture has shaped all of contemporary American evangelical Christianity. Many evangelicals, indeed I would say most, do not fixate on the Bible as a scientific text, but are content to answer “undefined” to various questions of natural science. The biblical record is an account God’s dealings with humanity, our sin and failure, and God’s own provision of a savior in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The unfolding of his plan, and the revelation of God’s glory through Christ are the heart of the narrative. As science may touch on these things, the Bible notes that, but almost in passing; “he made the stars also.” As Herbert Lockyer wrote, “The Scriptures were given, not to tell us how the heavens go, but to teach us how to go to heaven.” The broad swath of evangelicalism I’ve been exposed to has never majored on scientific authority, much less fossils or archaeology as any formative part of the Christian faith.

Worthen acknowledges “evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying.” But while evangelicals believe the supernatural is real, the fact that others believe only in the natural doesn’t mean they are any less contemptuous of the other side. There is an entire school of thought (aka worldview) that says the Enlightenment certainty about the scientific method and rational conclusions is flawed. Structuralism and Post-structuralism cast these assumptions aside, and with it, one can credibly argue, any certainty about truth. These are the heirs of Nietzsche, not exactly a friend of evangelicals, who said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” That is just as presuppositional an apologetic as Cornelius Van Til or any other Christian may offer. It’s a worldview that is exclusive and rules out all others.

While focusing on a few evangelicals whose embrace of science caused them to run afoul of their Christian institutions, Worthen does not address the treatment of science as a faith in and of itself. It is an objective source of truth, a canon by which its adherents measure fact. One need only look at the numerous revisions to “settled science” to see that as a tenuous claim. In the 18th Century, it was settled science to bleed a patient suffering from any number of maladies. That, of course, is now considered medical hokum. Or more recently, A 130-Year-Old Fact About Dinosaurs Might Be Wrong. Our knowledge of science doesn’t represent a static body of doctrine, but something that is always changing. “We might be wrong” is something one hears too infrequently from the scientific community. The mandarins of science today have often coalesced with atheism; Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et. al, to posit a worldview that is just as dismissive of any view that doesn’t accord with their its orthodoxy. To paraphrase Worthen, they too have one worldview, the one based on faith in an inerrant Science, [that] does have a claim on universal truth, and everyone else is a spiritually-deluded simpleton. There is plenty of truth denial on the other end of the theological spectrum as well. The new definition of gender fluidity contradicts the science of XX and XY, but this didn’t emerge from evangelicalism.

Worthen also observes that Christian academia can become an uncomfortable place for any who would challenge the received orthodoxy, but that goes both ways. It’s long been the case that Christians or others who disagree with the prevalent academic mindset (i.e., left of center) have experienced that kind of marginalization. The claim of the Bible is that there is such a thing as truth, it matters, and it is knowable. That’s actually the opposite of “post-truth.” The truth is preeminently a person, Jesus Christ.  We shouldn’t confuse poor or sloppy handling of the truth with “post-truth.” Atheists and others who share no beliefs with evangelicals have just as firm a commitment that theirs is only correct version of reality. That’s not the provenance of evangelicalism. Evangelicals have a duty to handle the truth carefully, as a trust that we pass on to the next generation. But it’s simply inaccurate to claim that evangelical faith in the Bible as God’s authority has given us the world of “post-truth.” There’s a whole lot of blame to go around for that.

[1] Worthen, Molly (2013-10-01). Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Kindle Locations 88-95). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.