That’s Not Why (Or: The Problems With A Consequentialist View of Sin)

I hate-read (well, not “hate-read” exactly, more like “irritate-read”) a couple of Christian blogs, and in the comments section of a post to do with protecting children from being exposed to things they weren’t ready for, a commenter insisted on the importance of exalting the beauty of marriage and urging children to “save themselves for their future spouse.” It got me thinking. Weird, I know.

I have a problem with people focusing “purity” talk on weird stuff like giving your virginity to your husband just like I have a problem with people saying that lying and slander and gossip are wrong because they’re hurtful. Generally speaking, I have a problem with the implication that not trusting God is wrong because it makes our lives harder when we don’t, because I have a problem with consequentialism.

Consequentialism is the notion that the consequences of an action are the best way to know if the action itself is right or wrong. In other words, if something is harmful, to ourselves or others, it must be bad, and if something is helpful, it must be good.

Consequentialism pervades our culture — “they’re consenting adults” and “I’m not hurting anybody” and “my body, my choice” all point to a conviction that acts are as morally right or wrong as their impact on others. And don’t get me wrong, it’s is useful and indeed vital for a society because it shapes our laws and determines how we punish crime, but it’s a rotten foundation for understanding sin and holiness because it puts the purpose for doing right and avoiding wrong in the wrong spot.

The why of obedience isn’t “because it’s bad for you” or “because it’s bad for other people.” Not ultimately. Don’t get me wrong, here. God’s commands are good (duh), and obedience is for our good (duh). But our ultimate good is not the same as our short-term happiness or blessing. In God’s providence, even our sin is for our good; even our suffering is for our good. Sometimes God graciously defers consequences for sin, for his own good purposes. And you know what? Some people have sex (even lots of it!) outside of marriage and don’t get an STI or a baby in the bargain, and feel no guilt or shame or remorse for their actions. Some people get drunk regularly with no long-term health effects. Some people live genuinely happy lives while making choices Christians would all recognize as sinful. And guess what else? Many Christians are “virgins,” but consumed with lustful fantasies, or addicted to erotic novels or pornography, or simply eaten up with pride over their superior purity. Many Christians have never taken so much as a sip of alcohol, but have a disordered relationship with food, or are addicted to smoking, or look down their noses with disdain at those who enjoy a glass of wine now and again. In this fallen world, actions and consequences are simply not that mechanistic.

If we spend all of our time telling those we teach to obey because they’ll be blessed if they do and avoid sin because they’ll be sorry if they don’t, what happens when the uncomfortable realities of life in a fallen world strike? What happens when the girl you dragged up on stage at your youth event to do the duct tape analogy has sex for the first time and doesn’t feel like de-stickied duct tape at all? What happens when the kid who grew up being warned about inevitable spiritual depression if he stopped going to church stops going to church and is perfectly content with his decision to have brunch instead? I’m convinced that this kind of teaching is a big reason that so many kids leave youth group and the church about the same time. Consequentialist theology leaves them vulnerable to every message about following their hearts. It has the ability to make sin seem not all that bad, actually, as long as it’s not hurting anyone!

So you shouldn’t dress modestly to keep men from lusting after you or assaulting you. You shouldn’t avoid pornography because it’s addictive. You shouldn’t shun drunkenness because cirrhosis is deadly. And on the positive side, don’t read your Bible because it makes you happy, don’t go to church because you get blessed when you’re there, and don’t confess sin because your conscience feels better when you do.

So why do Christians obey God? Why do they seek to kill their sin and live a godly life? Because our sins are paid for, every last one of them. Because we are learning to see our sin more clearly as the years pass, and cling to Jesus in the midst of our failures. Because our King lived perfectly on our behalf. Because we have no fear that our sin will separate us from God ever again. Because we know that our very good deeds themselves come from the Holy Spirit in us, not our own efforts. Because, in short, we are free from condemnation and guilt, from slavery to the law, from the pressure to perform. We can live in that freedom, obeying sometimes, sinning often, failing regularly, confident that no one can snatch us from the hand of our Savior.

That is good news.

Believe that, friends. Don’t settle for the message of consequentialism, and don’t put your hope in the fear of consequences to keep you from sinning. Trust in a God who perfectly holds you and keeps you faithful by his power.

“Women Aren’t as Visual as Men” and Other Dangerous Lies

I read yet another article today in which a mother of boys reminds young women to be cautious about the pictures they post of themselves on facebook. It was all fair enough, though made slightly ironic by the photographs of her sons doing muscle-man poses in their swim trunks that were scattered throughout the article. But post Twerk-Gate, I’m not surprised by the content: the message that girls need to be counter-culturally modest gets recirculated around the Christian blogosphere every time a celebrity strips off in public or there’s a new case of teenage boys being arrested for passing around naked pictures of their girlfriends. You could practically write a Post-Scandal Mad Lib template: something about degradation, something about self-respect, something about how far our society has fallen, and a whooooole bunch about modesty, but only, or at least primarily, in the context of preventing lust among men and boys.

It’s all well-intentioned and mostly not terrible, but when it comes to modesty… you already know how I feel about that. (If you’re too lazy to click on those links, here’s a tip: in the Bible, modesty isn’t exclusively or even mostly about not looking “sexy.” It’s not mostly about covering up. It’s not even mostly directed at women, or in reference to men.)

But you might not know how I feel about the underlying assumption of a lot of these appeals, namely that men are always and forever, world without end, stimulated visually, and women just… aren’t; that there is a direct line between scantily clad women and men’s sexual sin, so please please ladies, if you love your brothers, cover up — I know you don’t understand because you’re not wired that way, but we are, so please please please…

So are you ready for this? That stuff is just not true. Men and women are different; that’s awesome, hooray. And I think mothers and fathers need to encourage their daughters (and sons!) to dress and comport themselves with modesty and dignity… but y’all, come on: we can’t just look at men, extrapolate from their experiences and preferences, and then assume women are the opposite. It’s lazy. It’s ridiculous. Women are women, humans made in God’s image in their own right, not just un-men. People will often cite these mysterious “studies” in which it is “proven” that women are more into words and men are more into pictures. But let me tell you why I have a problem with that.

First, I’m not sure you can deduce biological causality about men’s wiring from actions and characteristics that could just as easily be attributed to cultural expectations about how men act and what they like. A boy who’s grown up in our porn-saturated, women-as-props-in-male-fantasies society is not exactly a good control subject for an experiment designed to reveal pure biology. Second, just anecdotally, I don’t know one (straight) woman who isn’t physically attracted to the hotness of “hot” guy, whatever her definition of “hot” is. No, not every woman finds shirtless Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love attractive, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t visually stimulated for goodness’ sake. I also don’t know any men who don’t care about personality or character when choosing a potential spouse. And regarding that last point, I think it’s terribly insulting to men to imply that they’re basically just big hairy bundles of id, derping along until they find themselves in proximity to a hot, immodestly-dressed woman, whereupon they can do nothing but fall immediately into sexual sin.

Third, I think this set of lies is particularly dangerous because of where it leads. A couple of anecdotes:

A popular marriage book (which I won’t name here lest I get some of its terrifying supporters in the comments) describes in graphic detail the supposedly-true story of a young man, filled with lust at the sight of the snug-skirted young woman standing in front of him in church; the book’s author blames the young woman’s immodesty for causing his problem, implying that the young man’s lust was a purely biological response for which he couldn’t possibly be held responsible. If you can’t see the danger of blaming women for the sexual sin of men, maybe you need to read about the judge who last week sentenced a 49-year-old man convicted of raping his 14-year-old student to just 30 days in prison, claiming the victim’s maturity and apparent sexual control over the relationship as mitigating factors in the perpetrator’s guilt, despite the fact that, in the state of Montana, a 14-year-old cannot legally give consent, and the fact that the girl went on to commit suicide.

In addition to that issue, there’s also the fact that pornography use among women has skyrocketed in the last few years; among older teens and women in their early 20s, rates are rapidly approaching those of men of the same age. When we constantly beat the drum of Men Being Visual And Women Being Emotional, we are driving women who struggle in this area into seclusion and shame; when we offer resources to conquer porn addictions primarily in the context of men’s accountability groups, or hasten to add, “We know this won’t apply to most of you ladies” when teaching about pornography, or in any other way make sexual sin a male or female thing, we are heaping condemnation on these sisters, who now have to deal with feeling like freaks because they’re struggling with something that “isn’t really a woman problem.”

When the sum of our exhortation to women regarding sexual sin is to tell them to avoid Fifty Shades of Grey and make sure they don’t show any cleavage, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we treat men like out-of-control sex maniacs, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we talk about any sin as though it’s the exclusive territory of one group or another in the church, or rely on stereotypes and hackneyed statistics, we do a disservice to everyone in the church. Let’s seek a better path.

Bragging and Complaining

I said the other day to a friend that it seems like we often don’t know how to rejoice, we only know how to brag, and we don’t know how to mourn, we only know how to complain. And we don’t know how to respond to rejoicing or mourning — we respond to them like they’re bragging or complaining.

Just stuff I’ve been thinking about.

Fandom, or Pageview-Grubbing

People have always been drawn to others who share their tastes and preferences, but it seems like the last few years have seen a pretty remarkable expansion of the whole “fandom” concept. Between social media (especially Twitter and Tumblr) and fan fiction, fans of shows, movies, books, authors, actors, and characters can interact with those alternate worlds in a completely new way. Transmedia projects, which go beyond standard episodic formatting and tell parts of their stories using social media platforms, are increasingly successful, and storytellers of all kinds have taken to social media to build communities around their work.

I think fifteen years ago, if you’d had a dream about two brothers who live 1800 miles apart  turning their weekly life-update-style videos into a wildly successful educational YouTube video series, an extremely popular conference for web-content creators, and a community of a couple million smart, curious millennials who’ve not only put one brother on the New York Times bestseller list several times, but who’ve funded dozens of charitable projects around the world — including wells, wildlife sanctuaries, and at least one school… well, I think you would have dismissed it as a really cool (and weirdly specific) dream that could never, ever happen. And yet John and Hank Green have almost a million subscribers on their Vlogbrothers channel, half a million each on their CrashCourse and SciShow channels, and 150,000 on Hank’s update of Pride and Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; they helped raise close to half a million dollars last December for their charity Project For Awesome; John’s book sales have numbered in the millions. Oh, and they’ve added vocabulary to the American vernacular, coining the terms “nerdfighter” and “nerdfighteria” and making the phrase Don’t Forget to be Awesome common enough that the President referenced it in his post-State of the Union fireside hangout on Google+.

That’s a crazy extensive fandom right there: an empire, one might say. But not a media empire in the traditional sense — this isn’t Ted Turner cosseted in some downtown panelled office calling shots and fighting to dominate a timeslot, it’s an interactive, participatory, collaborative, extremely postmodern empire that celebrates the other fandoms of its own fans. In a recent sold-out appearance at Carnegie Hall, for example, John and Hank brought other well-known YouTubers onstage — people who, in a different era, would have been seen as competitors, not potential collaborators. They frequently give shoutouts to other fandoms, and are avid Whovians, Potterheads, and Sherlockians themselves.

I’m interested in where we go from here. What happens to the traditional content distribution model for movies and television when the Starkid generation, that grew up on Twitter and fanfic sites and Tumblr and meme generators and charlieissocoollike and transmedia and YouTube adaptations of classic literature and Vlogbrothers and CrashCourse, starts making decisions about a household budget and decides that cable is stupid and pointless? How are networks and moviemakers going to adapt to customers who are demanding a more immersive experience and more responsive content creators? And, most importantly, how can I convince you to watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries? IT IS SO GOOD, YOU GUYS.

That’s all I’ve got for today on this topic. Watch this space for upcoming Big Scary Series on feminism. Peace out.

Reasons/Excuses/Fear

So. I started and stopped and started and stopped writing a series last year about feminism and the church and Christians and how we’ve historically been so opposed to the negatives of feminism (and caricatures of feminism) that we’ve thrown out the stuff we could really stand to learn from feminists and ignored the beliefs we share with them. I would read something exciting, get pumped to write the series, do some research, and then freak out because… well, for the following reasons in no particular order.

  1. The Internet is not known for its ability to understand subtle, nuanced arguments; trolls are no fun to deal with.
  2. I don’t want people to think I’m some lefty wacko, or that my views on this subject mean I’ve abandoned historic Christian teaching on God’s will for human sexuality and gender.
  3. (REALTALK:) I don’t want dudes to read this and say, “Ew, I don’t want to marry some man-hating feminazi.”
  4. Not a lot of people want to read about things like sexual abuse, objectification, the male gaze, and other five-dollar terminology that tends to populate the syllabi of Women’s Studies classes at universities across the country… no matter how much I absolutely believe they need to believe rightly about those things.
  5. It’s easier to write about Downton Abbey and the Bible study Methods class I’m teaching and the fun stuff I do on a Friday night (HA!) than about deep, complex issues.

Are those reasons? Are they excuses? Are they nothing but manifestations of my own fear of man? Am I basically permanently walling myself off from marriage by writing about feminism? (No, seriously, am I?)

Anyway, I feel really strongly about this stuff, and I think I’m going to go for it. So I guess the alternate title of this post could be “In Which Laura Psychs Herself Up.”

Downton Abbey: Season Three Predictions, Wild Dreams, and Sundry Other Prognostications

Well, folks, what do we think about next season? I thought it would be fun to do a few polls, so please share this around on your favorite social media things (if you haven’t given it up for Lent!), so we can have plenty of opinions! :)

Let’s start at the beginning:

What about the general contents of the season?

What else? Other predictions in the comments, please!

Stewardship, Frugality, and Being In It for the Long Haul

True confessions time. Budgeting is not my strong suit. If you’ve known me for more than five minutes and/or you have any ability to observe or discern, you’ll have guessed that already, because structure in general is not my strong suit. I’m not into schedules or spreadsheets or files or anything like that. When talking about what I do every day, I like to use words like “rhythm” and “flow” and “pattern.” I don’t typically pay my bills the same day every month (although most of them are on auto-pay). And until recently, I didn’t have a good idea of how much I was spending a month on various things. Sure, my mortgage payment’s always the same, and my condo fees, but if you had asked me how much I spent per month on gas or groceries or necessities, I could have given you a vague ballpark range, but nothing specific.

Recently I decided that it was probably a good idea to cut that out. So I got a little free software (which I don’t like AT ALL; totally switching to something else if anyone has any suggestions) and downloaded a file from my bank and got a bit of a shock. I was spending at least a hundred dollars more a month on groceries and eating out than I’d thought, and a couple other categories were ten or fifteen percent more than I would have estimated.

Now, this might seem unrelated but it’s not. I’ve also been going over in my mind a saying about food that I love: You either spend money on food or you spend money on the doctor. I’m not really willing to cut back on groceries in the traditional way — buying cheaper meat, eating more white foods and grains, etc. — because I’m convinced that doing so is penny wise and pound foolish. What’s an extra fifty bucks a month for groceries compared to thousands of dollars in medical bills that could have been avoided if I’d been more careful about what I put in my body?

I think when we talk about stewardship we typically think of money first — and don’t get me wrong, it’s important! I certainly need to be more creative about adjusting my budget to enable me to be more generous, and I absolutely need to cultivate cheerful giving rather than giving out of duty or guilt. But giving generously is only part of the picture. I think stewardship is also about making sure that we can continue to be generous for many years to come, generous with our lives and work and ministry as well as with our money, and unfortunately too many Christians forget that. I forget it all the time. I forget that this body is the only one I get in this life, and how I care for it matters. I want to be an 80-year-old woman who can still take walks on a beautiful day, and who can counsel and encourage younger women, who can open her home to others and help them financially too, and who reads and writes and appreciates beauty and is still strong and healthy. I realize that I can’t control all the factors that play into that, but I can control some of them.

So I’m scheming. I’m figuring out how I can re-work my spending to enable me to be generous, and at the same time maintain a lifestyle that will allow me to keep on being generous for many decades to come, Lord willing.

Over It.

A blog I frequent has stoked rather fiery conversation in the comments section of an article that mentions, among other things, how unfair — not to mention impractical — it is for Christians to make “must be a virgin” a non-negotiable for dating. Common sense, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought! But apparently not. A slightly shocking number of young men have come along and protested that it’s perfectly all right to do so, and one of the most common themes in their comments is a sort of wounded, “Well, I stayed a virgin, so the least she can do is stay one, too!”

I’ve made several comments along the lines of, “Yes, it’s a fine desire to have, but it’s not ok to make it a demand; you’ll never have a sinless spouse and you’re not sinless either; there’s a big difference between someone who doesn’t value chastity and someone who does but who has messed up in the past; you’re potentially missing out on strong, committed believers with a biblical view of sexuality because you refuse to release them from their pasts, etc.”

But I can understand the sort of visceral, instinctive response of “I worked hard to keep myself from this particular sin and I’m going to go into a marriage without that baggage, thanks.” The difference is, I got over it in high school. In fact, I vividly remember getting over it. I was at camp the summer between junior and senior year, and at campfire one night I was sitting with a counselor who I’m now totally unashamed to say I had a massive crush on (it’s fine, he was like two years older than me, tops). Whoever was giving the little campfire devotional was talking about how important it was to remain committed to God’s standards, and he gave a few stats about teens and sexual activity, one of which had to do with how few young men graduate high school having had zero sex partners. I remember being seriously distressed by it and leaning over to Cute Counselor and saying something about how surprising it was but how I was sure it didn’t apply to him. He replied, to my continued shock, that, actually, it did.

I remember how much it screwed up my worldview. I remember thinking, But he’s such a good guy, and such a committed Christian! How could he have that in his past? And then, Could I ever marry a guy who wasn’t a virgin? And then, Do I even have the right to demand that? And then, I’ve been forgiven so much — how could I rule out someone who’s just been forgiven of different things than I have?

Let’s leave aside the practical considerations — the fact that the vast majority of adult men are not virgins, so making that a demand unacceptably narrows the dating pool. Let’s even leave aside the semantics — that “virginity” has such a range of meanings as to make it a very unhelpful metric of chastity. Let’s remember this:

Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”

And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

So he said, “Teacher, say it.”

“There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”

And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

And this:

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of goldwas brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I Started an Anonymous Blog

I don’t want to bore y’all with my navel-gazing (Lord knows there’s enough of that on this blog as it is) and I wanted a place where I could hit “publish” on a few introspection-in-process things, rather than edit and chew and remix ad nauseam. You can try to find it if you like but good luck! I’ve hidden it pretty well.

But anyway, some of those ruminations have got me wondering. What degree of introspection is actually helpful? I’ve never managed to get the balance right between living in my head and living in the world — I’ve gotten to the point where I actually do value my inner life and see it as a God-given respite from the craziness of reality rather than as procrastination or denial, but I tend to overthink, tend to play out hypotheticals and “what-ifs” forever. What level of “real-ifying” my thoughts onto a page or a screen is therapeutic, helps me work through things, causes me to love Jesus more? And what is damaging, causes me to dwell on my own vain imaginings, turns my mind away from my Savior?

If you understand any of the above blather, please share: your thoughts and experiences would be most helpful.

I Can’t Believe I’m Writing About Tebow

Although it’s not Tebow per se, just the tendency of Christians to latch on to ANYTHING that links our faith or values with success. Tebow, yes, but also any public figure who claims the name of Christ. Archaeological findings. Christian music that gets secular accolades. Family-friendly movies. TV shows that use God’s name as a blessing rather than a curse word. Books where the main characters don’t sleep together (but, interestingly, not books where the hero lays down his life for his friends). If it’s successful and seems to line up with our faith or values, we are ALL OVER THAT. And if anybody dares to criticize or question, they get piled on, post haste.

I have seen people, when questioned about the wisdom of letting teenage girls read a book about a young woman whose identity is so wrapped up in a potentially-dangerous man’s opinion of her, act like the foundations of Christian morality are being attacked. I have deleted hundreds of emails forwarded by well-intentioned brothers and sisters claiming that some massive atheist movement is trying to get Touched By An Angel or Seventh Heaven taken off the air, as though those shows’ insipid pseudo-gospel is the key to the salvation of thousands of pagan cable subscribers, or trying to persuade me to boycott this or that book whose author is supposedly a Satanist or Wiccan or whatever (never mind the fact that these things could be debunked with one thirty-second Snopes search). I have watched, incredulous, when a comments section explodes with vitriol below an article that dares to question the artistic merit of Fireproof or the Left Behind movies.

When the so-called “James Ossuary” was discovered several years ago, I remember some Christians acting completely triumphant, as though this archaeological find was the key to people finally recognizing the truth of Christianity. And then when the thing was proven to be a phoney a few months later, those same Christians were crushed. When George W. talked about Muslims, Christians, and Jews all worshipping the same God, many of the Christians who had voted for him because of his faith rushed to make excuses or to agree.

What’s the problem here?

Let me paint you a picture. Imagine a Christian (we’ll call him “A” just for the heck of it) who feels guilty because he’s never led a single coworker to Christ. The last time A got a guilty conscience, he invited all of them to screenings of Fireproof, but no one came. He feels pretty shaky about his ability to convince people that the Scriptures are true, because it seems like every time there’s another archaeological finding in the newspaper, three months later it’s proven to be a fake. A’s really worried that the whole country is going to hell in a handbasket, because it seems like atheism is getting more and more popular, immorality is rampant, and his email inbox is full of forwards from friends about the dangers of certain video games, movies, and books. He feels unsettled, always searching for the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to proving that Christianity is true.

Whenever A encounters people who have criticisms of Tim Tebow or Stephen Baldwin or other Christian celebrities, or who roll their eyes about Fireproof or Courageous, he’s frustrated and wonders why people are so nit-picky — I mean, so what if Tebow’s not the best quarterback in the world! At least he’s a Christian! And so what if Courageousisn’t Oscar material! It’s got a great message! Isn’t that what really matters? A really wants his brothers and sisters in Christ to be unashamed of the Gospel, but it seems like “Christian” behavior gets a lot of flak and he wonders where to draw the line. “Tebowing” in the hallways of a public school might not seem all that effective, but surely it must be good if it’s pointing to Jesus!

He just doesn’t know what to do with Christians who disagree with him about that kind of stuff, so he often finds himself in confrontations — even sometimes ending friendships with people he once loved and respected, so he feels increasingly alone in the world. In fact, A recently found out that a friend changed his views on what he thinks is an important issue, and A was incredibly grieved and hurt, and finds himself struggling to relate to his former friend. Sure, it’s not like his former friend renounced Christ, but how can he fellowship with someone with such different views on such an important issue?

Now, imagine a Christian (“B”) who is bold but thoughtful in the way he shares his faith with his coworkers. He has spiritual conversations with them but is never pushy, and has brought a few friends to church and had the chance to share the Gospel with some others. Whenever archaeological findings seem to support the biblical account, B smiles to himself and thanks God, but doesn’t worry if those findings are overturned, because he knows that God’s truth will ultimately be revealed, just maybe not on his timetable. He doesn’t get too caught up in the latest popular book or movie, Christian or not — he sees popular culture of all kinds as something to be discerning about, not something to either accept thoughtlessly or reject thoughtlessly. He watches good movies and listens to good music when they tell the truth about God’s world whether they have a Christian label or not, and he prays and hopes that more Christian artists will make great art, not just “Christian” art.

When a public figure professes Christ, B prays for that person’s faith and testimony, but doesn’t freak out when people criticize, because he knows that Christianity doesn’t make sense to people who aren’t Christians. He doesn’t get too concerned about books, movies, shows, or music that are supposedly going to “destroy young people” or whatever, because he remembers that God’s people have managed to survive Pharaoh, Cyrus, and Nero, to say nothing of Dungeons & Dragons and Twilight. B exercises discernment — and teaches those he mentors to do the same — about the latest craze, receiving the good with gratitude to God, and rejecting the wicked or worthless.

B recognizes that believers can differ on matters of conscience and still fellowship with one another — he has different personal convictions than some of his friends but wouldn’t dream of trying to impose his conscience on his friends. When he finds out that brothers and sisters disagree with his views on pop culture or politics or other issues of conscience, he humbles himself and is willing to be proven wrong, especially when the disagreement is with someone he trusts and knows to be a solid, mature believer. When he found out that a friend changed his views on an important but non-salvation-related issue, B was curious, but assumed that, since his friend was a believer and therefore had the Holy Spirit, he’d thought the issue through and prayed about it before changing his mind. B and his friend had a few conversations about it, and although B stuck with his own views, he was convinced that his friend had made the change with a good conscience before God and happily continued hanging out with him. On the other hand, a friend of B’s read a book espousing a dangerous, anti-gospel doctrine, and B knew this wasn’t just a “conscience issue.” So he talked through the book’s issues carefully with his friend, and they read it together, with B prayerfully helping his friend see the errors the author was promoting, without breaking fellowship.

What’s the difference between these two hypothetical Christians? Theology.

More about this tomorrow. Meanwhile… which Christian would you rather be like?

Some Thoughts and Questions on the Lord’s Supper, Ordination, and the Sacraments of the Church

A few days ago, I posted the following thought on Facebook: “You know what I miss about Sojourn when I’m away? Communion every week. I’d love to know why churches only do it once a month or even quarterly (!!!) — there has to be SOME rationale, right? Thoughts? Did I just sleep through that part of my church history classes?”

Twenty-five comments later (I only wish my blog posts could get so much traction!), the thing that stuck out the most to me wasn’t the reason for the infrequency of communion in some churches. It was a totally different — yet not completely unrelated — theological point. A friend from college mentioned Methodist circuit riders, who were often lay ministers and who, therefore, weren’t allowed to administer the Lord’s Supper, leading to the practice of monthly or quarterly communion. Another friend mentioned that his church couldn’t share the Meal on the rare occasions that their ordained teaching elder is out of town.

My immediate question was why? Why does a meal ordained by Jesus himself also need an ordained pastor/elder to make it legitimate? And then that question made me chuckle a bit as I reflected on the fact that, though some churches who partake only quarterly began doing so at least in part to avoid a Romanist ritualism, almost nothing, in my mind, is more Roman than requiring the presence of an ordained minister to “perform” the sacraments.

Now, for heaven’s sake don’t hear me accusing my dear Methodist or Presbyterian brethren of quasi-Popery! It just got me wondering. My own church doesn’t allow, for example, community groups to celebrate the Lord’s supper in their small weeknight gatherings. Many, many faithful, gospel-teaching churches would, I’m sure, have similar proscriptions. My question is: why? Do we have any indication that, in the apostolic church, someone “official” was required to be present at Christian gatherings to administer the sacraments? Isn’t the very name — the authority and command — of Jesus what makes them valid in the first place?

These questions aren’t merely rhetorical; I would genuinely love to hear the thoughts of those who are committed to these sorts of positions. Why should a group of covenanted believers be prevented from baptizing a new convert or celebrating the Lord’s supper as part of a celebratory meal without the presence of an ordained minister? Why does ordination matter, anyway? What purpose does it serve, and what justification does it have historically?

So Much “Christian” Art Sucks. That Is Not OK

Just a couple of thoughts.

With apologies to Tolstoy: All good art is alike; each bad work of art is bad in its own way.

Good art says something true about the world in a way that causes that truth to become real to us by the work’s beauty or skillfulness. It doesn’t have to be big truth; “afternoon sunlight strikes a bowl of fruit in such a way” is as true, logically, as “Christ’s resurrection is the ground of the Christian’s hope,” or “two and two are four.”  “Flowers are beautiful” and “death comes for every man” are equally true. “All is not as it seems” and “these colors look striking together”? Also both true (or at least potentially, in that last case).

In that way, all good art is good inasmuch as its beauty or skillfulness or execution says something true (which is not the same as “real;” not even a little).

Bad art, though, and particularly bad “Christian” art, can fail in a hundred points. It can be vapid. It can be unskillful. It can be sentimental. It can be a bludgeon. It can be propaganda. It can say something false about the world — that the world is all sweetness and light, or that evil is an illusion. Or something false about the Gospel or about God — that the good news of Jesus is mostly about us or our comfort or eventual escape, or that God is something that He’s not. It can be moralistic. It can be pandering.

That’s not OK, even if the focus of the work is something Gospel-related.

Vale Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Sad news this week: the death of the brilliant, articulate writer and philosopher Christopher Hitchens, of cancer. Many in the Christian world know of him as the belligerent atheist — anti-theist, really — whose series of debates with noted Christian author and apologist Douglas Wilson were made into a book and a documentary, both titled Collision.

Sympathies to his wife and children, and to his brother, journalist Peter Hitchens, who is a fairly recent convert to Christianity.

Details, Part Five: In Which Agony Aunt Laura Troubleshoots Your Dating Fails

“Dear Agony Aunt Laura,” you say, “I screwed it up. A totally good dude asked me out and instead of saying yes, I let out this huge spiel about why I couldn’t go out with him, but I was just nervous and I didn’t really mean it and he’s really cute and now I’ve RUINED MY CHANCES FOREVER and I’m probably going to DIE ALONE and be found three weeks later half eaten by Alsatians. What do I do?” Or, “I’ve liked this girl for months but I didn’t know what to say and now I do, but we’ve hung out in groups so much that I know she’s put me in The Friend Zone, and now I don’t want to ask her out for fear of causing awkwardness. Little help?”

Well, I’ve got a twofer for you today, friends; a little advice for the ladies and the fellas. Guys, you first:

1. Waited too long and now you’re friends and don’t want to make things weird? Lame. Carpe diem, bro. Adults can be friends with people they asked out or went on two dates with. Asking a girl on a date is not a proposal. It’s not even saying, “I could marry this girl.” It’s starting an investigation. Like I said: is she interesting? Ask her out. If she says no, that’s fine. Just go back to being friends. (Ladies, this goes for you too; if a guy friend asks you out and you know his character and find him interesting, go out with, him for crying out loud!) The boundary between “friendship” and “romance” is porous. Don’t get so freaked out about the difference between girls-who-are-friends and potential girlfriends. Pick up the phone and make the call. Do it.

2. Flirted, charmed, complimented, sent long emails, texted with her until the wee hours, unburdened your heart to her, hung out with her in datelike situations, basically treated her like a girlfriend without actually asking her out? Brace yourself for some tough love, guys: You’re a jerk and you need to repent. OK, you might not be a jerk, but still. Repent. Because those actions say, “I want to win your heart,” but refusing to actually ask her out says, “I don’t actually care enough about you to think about how my choices influence you, and I’m cool with lying to myself about your level of heart involvement so I can keep getting my emotional needs met (but only on my terms).”

If you’re doing this (or some degree of this) right now? Then, hombre, you need to open a new tab and start composing this girl an email. I’m serious. Vamos. That email will differ depending on your situation. Do you actually like her and have just been a total bonehead about it? Tell her you’re sorry and want to start over by asking her on a proper date. Have you just been using her as a romantic placeholder until a hotter girl comes along? Apologize for your actions and assure her that you’ll be changing the way you behave towards her. And then cut that out. Next time you want a girl to act like your girlfriend, make sure she’s your girlfriend first.

3. General screwups merit an email, too, albeit a much shorter and less-serious one. Got all marriage-y/relationship-y on the first couple of dates? Keep the tone light, and tell her that you’re out of practice on this whole dating thing, you got carried away, and you’d like to assure her that 100% of the conversation on the next date will be about movies, food, travel, or music. Name-dropped all your semi-famous grad school profs — by their first names (or just generally came off insufferable)? Apologize for being a clod and ask for a do-over. Keep it to the point. No rambling, no excuses.

4. Listened to your bonehead roommates and waited too long to call after a date? Relax. Call her, apologize for the delay, don’t make any excuses, and then ask her on date two. (But, guys, don’t be shocked if she tells you she’s gonna pass. Many, many women have had a really painful, heartbreaking experience of being strung along at one time or another, so if she says no, it’s probably not personal, it’s just, you know, once bitten twice shy.)

Now ladies:

1. Wigged out when he asked you out? The only mature choices: cut your losses or ask for a Mulligan. Seriously. Call him up, quick, apologize profusely for being a stammering boob, explain that you didn’t say what you meant, and tell him that you should have said yes, of course. And laugh! Laugh at yourself! It’s funny! You’re ridiculous! You’ll tell this story someday and crack up about it anyway — why not start now?

2. Came across as high-maintenance, catty, ice-princessy, whatever? Email time. Short and to the point: “Hey, I really did have a good time last night and I realized after I got home that I acted ______________ when I really didn’t feel that way at all. Sorry about that! Chalk it up to first date nerves. Do-over?”

3. Worried that you’re leading him on if you’re not super into him at first? Please. Don’t worry about this until… like… date five. Besides, you’re not leading him on unless you’re acting like you like him when you don’t. Being open-minded and willing for your attraction to grow is just smart. As long as you’re having fun and are still interested in finding out more, keep going out with him. On the other hand, if your interest isn’t growing, don’t be afraid to call it quits. It feels fantastic to have a good guy interested in you, I know. It’s a little addictive. But if you know for a fact that you’re not into him after, say, date four, do the kind thing and move on (and go ahead and enjoy the fact that a good guy liked you enough to ask you out, girl).

4. Responded favorably to a dude who did what I mentioned in the guys’ #2 above? Ooh, child. Toughie. Been there. A man who does this is either not ready for a relationship or not a good guy. Email time: redefine the terms of your friendship (as in, back to “friends” rather than “OH GOD I LOVE him and I THINK he likes me but I just don’t KNOW ohtheAGONY”), emphasizing that you’re not going to act like his girlfriend any more without actually being his girlfriend. It’s not an easy step, but it’s so necessary. Again, short and to the point is best. Try to keep it to a paragraph so you don’t accidentally end up confessing your undying love to him. (What? Like that’s never happened to anyone else?)

Everybody:

Dating is awesome. Not only is it the best way to find a mate, it also gives you tons of life experience — getting along with lots of kinds of people, figuring out the opposite sex, being a good conversationalist, dealing with screwups and successes gracefully. It’s a grownup thing to do. So do it more, OK?

Fellas, I have a serious, legit challenge for you. Ask a girl out in the next week. In fact, make it a contest: challenge your roommates or work friends or the dudes in your small group to man up and ask a real live flesh and blood woman, someone you know and see in person, on a date. Whoever doesn’t, gets… I dunno, dogpiled or sucker-punched or whatever it is men do to people who lose these challenges. Or set yourself a challenge to ask one person out a week until someone says yes. I bet it won’t take nearly as long as you think. Y’all are awesome (seriously: I know some of you reading this are off-the-charts solid dudes) and you can totally kill it.

Ladies, I have a challenge for you too. Make it a policy to say yes to good guys. You need a better reason to say no than, “He’s only a barista” or “I don’t want to date guys who look like me” or “He’s five years younger/older than I am.” I’m talking about serious stuff, like “He dumped my best friend last week after dating her for six months,” or “He hasn’t had or looked for a job in five years” or “I find him absolutely, utterly unattractive both physically and personally.” Say yes. Really. Let that be your default answer, even if he’s not exactly your type, even if he’s “only” a barista/UPS box-slinger/T.A./waiter/still in school. You want the men around you to act like men? Then you act like a woman. Respond. Go on, what’s it going to hurt?

All right. I am tapped out on this topic for the time being. So go forth, y’all.

Blah blah men and women blah blah friends blah blah sigh.

We’re so hung up on this and it’s really not as complicated as people make it.

People who give advice in this area often use words like “friendly” and “boundaries” and spill a lot of ink over the verse that talks about treating younger women “with absolute purity” and stuff. But they forget about the middle of that verse, which says “AS SISTERS.” Not “as potential seductresses, with absolute purity,” or even, “know your own weaknesses, and therefore treat women with absolute purity,” but “as sisters,” in a passage that encourages us to treat older people as parents and younger people as siblings — i.e., family! The purity of relationships in the body of Christ is grounded in familial affection, not “boundaries.”

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t even have boundaries (and here I’m talking about relationships among peers, not pastor-church member or employer-employee relationships or whatever which will likely need a little more specificity and care). But if your boundaries preclude you from paying what you owe to your brothers and sisters, they’re too narrow and — dare I say it — possibly sinful!

We’ve gotten so negative on all this when I think it would be much biblical — not to mention more effective and less neurotic — to say, “Treat your friends of the opposite sex with MORE care, MORE genuine, selfless love, not less,” than to say, “Distance yourself from others because they’re a sin danger to you.”

Trouble is, the principle of love is always more complicated than a list of rules. We like rules. We think they make us holier, that they protect our reputation from the slander of the world, that they actually stop us from sinning. But they don’t. They might channel our sin in another direction, or give us the reputation of being fastidious or scrupulous or (best of all!) righteous, or make us look holier. But listen, if Jesus was slandered, we will be too, even (or perhaps especially) if we require of ourselves His standard. They’ll know we are Christians by our fussiness about boundaries? No, man. They’ll know we are Christians by our love for one another.

That means a mental shift — in fact, a behavioral shift without a mental shift is just going to get you in trouble. So, repeat after me: “This brother/sister does not belong to me. They don’t exist on this Earth to fulfill my emotional or relational needs. I have a joyful obligation to love them, serve them, and to consider their ultimate good above my desires, which necessarily precludes seducing or using them, but which also excludes coldness or distance or lovelessness.”

We are in the same family, y’all — we are actually truly really brothers and sisters. We have got to stop letting ourselves off the hook about loving one another by making a list of supposedly sin-preventing rules that distance us from one another. I honestly believe that what keeps us from sinning is not a longer list of rules but a bigger vision of Jesus. And I believe a bigger vision of Jesus — who He is and what He did to make us one with God and one with each other — will result in more love, more self-sacrifice, more connection, more genuine affection, more of just being the family that Jesus made us. More.

Details

In reading a few things on The Internets recently, it has occurred to me that many 20- and 30-somethings just actually don’t have the skills to ask out or be asked out. I, in my 12 years as an unmarried adult, have been on the receiving end of seriously great and seriously awful efforts in the dating arena, and have responded both well and poorly to those efforts, so I want to just throw my experience and advice out there. Hope it’s helpful.

Part one is for ladies.

Gals, it’s a risk for a guy to ask you out. Recognize that. Men are screwups and klutzes just like we are, and we need to give them a break. So, with that in mind:

1. Encourage your guy friends. Be nice to them. Ask them questions about themselves and their lives. Be an interested, interesting conversationalist.

2. If you like a guy, be extra encouraging to him. Smile a lot. Laugh at his jokes. Don’t suppress your natural feminine responsiveness. Dare I say it? Flirt. Not in a shameless or provocative way, but in a responsive, open, charming way.

3. If a guy asks you on a date, say yes, unless there is a glaring (and I mean glaring) red flag. I’ve turned down guys I had absolutely zero attraction for, both personally and physically, or whose request for a date sounded more like a marriage proposal because that level of intensity is not something I want to encourage. Overall, I’ve probably said no to three or four guys in my life, counting junior high and high school. If he’s a nice guy, a Christian, and you think he’s interesting, say yes. On a really practical level, say something like, “Sure, sounds great. What did you have in mind?”

4. If you have to say no, keep it simple. Don’t patronize him with a line about how great it is that he was brave enough to speak up (done that). Don’t make up some nonsense about how you’re “not really into a relationship right now” (done that too). And for the love of everything good and holy, don’t feed him that awful nonsense about how you just don’t think it’s God’s will. God is not your scapegoat, girl. Be kind but not long-winded. Cook up a brief response, practice it in the mirror, and stick with it. He’s a grownup. Treat him like one. My canned response is, “Thanks so much for asking, but no thank you. I appreciate the thought!”

A Letter to Myself, Five Years Ago

Dear Me (or You? Salutations become rather complicated when reflexive),

Happy 25th birthday! I have good news, and bad news. Which would you like first? (I can answer that: bad news first. Always leave ‘em laughing.)

The bad news is, you suck. You’re bitter, untrusting, jaded. You’re sarcastic. You’re burnt out. You can’t get a handle on your sin. You’re careless with giving your heart away. You’re jealous of those with the life you think you want. You think you know better than God.

The worse news is, you’ll still be many of those things in five years’ time, but — and here’s the good news — to a lesser degree. And even now (then?), in the midst of sin, bitterness, distrust, jealousy, and pride, God is working. He’s building sets and painting backdrops and auditioning walk-on roles. And not every scene that’s coming in the next five years will have “peace” and “contentment” written in the margins. Some of them will be titled and footnoted and outlined in pain and affliction; you’ll cry more and rage more and pound an impotent fist into your pillow more than you probably care to foresee.

But, Laura of five years ago, this is the important part: your heartbreak and frustration, your very sighs and tears, have a purpose to the plot of this grand comedy, and its Author knows how (and why) to create a little tension. And in the midst of the dark moments, He’ll write in a few scenes — more than He has to — of pleasure and joy and peace, laughter, delight. A darling girl with strawberry-blonde curls and big blue eyes who will steal your heart and mispronounce her esses and who wants to be wrapped up with you in a sling and go with you on the airplane when it’s time for you to leave. Four little serious-eyed, stair-stepped children who make your life happier every time you see them. Two trips halfway around the world to meet dear friends. An amazing church community. A job that brings you true satisfaction and contentment. A cozy home. A vintage record player bought for a song. The perfect teapot. Sunrises. Macarons. Good music. A hundred thousand daily blessings, joys, pleasures.

Brace yourself. It’s going to be hard, and beautiful, and at the end of it, you’re going to be more like the One who wrote this story to begin with. Keep going.

Sincerely,

Me (Today)

Choosing Singleness?

I don’t think that (most) Christians in my generation are making some sort of conscious choice not to marry. Many of them are making or have made practical life choices that have resulted in or contributed to prolonged singleness, but I don’t think many, if any, of them set out at age 20 to postpone marriage indefinitely. Most of them, frankly, simply lack the skills to make marriage happen. This is a big indictment on men, since they’re the initiators, but many single women also lack skill in encouraging and responding to godly masculinity when they see it. It’s also a pretty serious indictment on our parents’ generation, unfortunately. Somewhere along the line many parents forgot that they had a duty to pass on a legacy of maturity and responsibility to their children and became enablers of adultolescence instead — many parents even misguidedly encouraged their children to put off marriage as long as possible! (Side note: if you think young people today are too immature to consider marriage, the solution is not to tell them to postpone marriage; the solution is to encourage and teach them to grow up!)

But we have to begin where we are. We have to dismantle the lie that people have an expiration date past a certain age, or that a person’s singleness is either their choice or their fault — most of the time it’s really neither.

No, I wouldn’t like to try online dating, but thanks for asking.

I’ve given some thought to just coming up with a brief little canned response when people ask me why I don’t try ReformedChristianSingles.com or eHarmony or whatever. Brief, because they do NOT want to hear the whole spiel, which goes a little something like this:

Marriage is good and I would like to be married. But it is not the goal of my life. The goal of my life is Christlikeness. Now, if I felt like there was some Christlikeness-obtaining value in me signing up for eHarmony and going on dates with strangers, then I would consider it. But all that would be accomplished if I personally signed up for a dating service would be for me to be more focused on marriage as a goal and a purpose for life, rather than more focused on Jesus. Online dating isn’t inherently evil or anything, and I know many happily married people who found their match online. But online dating is also definitely not for everyone, and I can tell you without the slightest hesitation or doubt that it is NOT. FOR. ME. 100%. End of story.

 

Here’s the thing: I think for some people, they can sign up for eHarmony or whatever, humbly submitting to God and feeling like He’s leading them through the whole process to the person He means for them to marry. But for ME, with my personality? It’s totally going to be me either saying A) “Look, Lord, you’re not doing things quick enough so I’m going to take it into my own hands, thanks,” or B) *siiiiighh* “Fine, I guess if I don’t want to be a pathetic spinster for the rest of my life, if I want my life to have any meaning, I’d better just resign myself to whatever loser I can find online…” And both of those things are founded on total lies, and completely stupid, and I’m not going to have anything to do with either of them. You dig?

See? People are not going to want to stand and listen through that whole thing.

Christians Cannot Condone Torture. That’s All.

A nationally-known Christian author whom I respect a whole bunch commented recently that he was disappointed in a particular presidential candidate because the candidate spoke in favor of waterboarding. He said it shouldn’t be a tough call for Christians to oppose torture. The responses were… well, disheartening to say the least. Several people agreed with him, but more said stuff like, Well they’re stoning and beheading people, why shouldn’t we waterboard them, and If it saves lives, I’m all for it. You know what that is? It’s anti-gospel, man. It’s tit-for tat retribution, and it’s pragmatism.

This was my response:

Y’all, you know where the best pieces of actionable intelligence have come from? Not from waterboarding, but from cups of tea, a place to sleep, decent food and human conversation. (Note: read that brief article and listen to the story if you’re not convinced — “enhanced interrogation techniques” didn’t work where rapport-building DID, time and again.)

Terrorists prepare themselves psychologically for all kinds of real torture if they’re captured — electrocution, having their fingernails pulled out, having bones broken and body parts cut off, being raped. They’re told that Americans are monsters. The best way to get them to cooperate is to destroy that preconception of us. In other words, we win when we treat them with dignity, not because their actions deserve it, but because it’s what dignified, civilized people do. We don’t avoid torture because we’re “soft” — we refuse inhumanity because it reflects Truth about our common humanity and OUR commitment to what’s right.

A last thought: even if torture worked (which it doesn’t, as a whole), it’s the way we treat our enemies that tells us who we really are.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” — Jesus