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.

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Ah February.

February is the actual worst: horrible freezing rain and snow one day, sunny but gale-force winds the next, drizzly and mucky for days at a time. I don’t want to go outside (too cold or wet or blustery) but I’m sick of being stuck in the house, so I don’t want to do the normal things that get me through December and January, like reading and cooking and reading and watching entire seasons of shows on Netflix, so I end up trawling travel websites for bargains on tropical vacations that I don’t have time for and can’t afford, and scatter-brain-edly watching half an episode of something while scrolling through Instagram on my phone.

COME ON SPRING. YOU CANNOT GET HERE QUICKLY ENOUGH.

Big Scary Topic: Feminism, Part One

This first post is pretty timely, it seems. You see, prizewinning and bestselling British author Hilary Mantel recently gave a talk entitled “Royal Bodies” for the London Review of Books’ winter lecture series. It’s one of the more fascinating things I’ve ever read on famous women and their bodies and how we view them, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. It’s also turning out to be the talk that launched a thousand rhetorical ships: of course every British paper had an opinion, most of them pretty well to be expected (The Daily Mail’s coverage could be summarized, as usual, as WE ARE HORRIFIED BY WHAT WE ASSUME WAS SAID); even the Prime Minster waded into the fray, missing the point rather spectacularly. Twitter has been ablaze with the question of was-it-ironic-or-wasn’t-it (hint: yes), and NPR highlighted the controversy during their main news broadcasts today.

All that to say, a lot of people are thinking about big issues right now — women and how freely we comment on their looks, fame and beauty and objectification and otherness and what exactly these bodies of ours mean. Those are important topics, and I guess I’m about to tackle some of them.

But I think I need to issue a few denials before I forge ahead, and maybe a couple of affirmations. So here goes.

I believe men and women are different, and that any effort to flatten out gender distinctions is going to end in… absurdity. But I also believe that there are any number of ways to act and be feminine or masculine, not just one (more on this later).

I’m no Marxist; I think it takes a lot of blindly clinging to one’s assumptions in the face of evidence to the contrary to look at human history and deduce that hierarchy is the problem that must be overcome in order for people to thrive. Some hierarchies are awesome and some of them are terrible, but the existence of abusive, exploitative power structures doesn’t invalidate the hierarchy as A Thing. And honestly, does anyone over the age of 35 who has ever read a history book still believe that a human society completely without hierarchy is even possible on any kind of scale or for any length of time? So no, I’m not going to be arguing that women need to rise up and overthrow some mythological worldwide Illuminati patriarchy so that society can progress toward its next evolutionary incarnation.

I don’t believe that “society” as some abstract entity has an agenda to “keep women in their place.” I don’t think that what this country needs, necessarily, is more women in ________ industry or field. I do think that looking at a circumstance — say, the fact that women are underrepresented in the sciences — and failing (or refusing) to consider that the reasons for that circumstance might be incredibly complex and even, perhaps, tied to the innate strengths and weaknesses of the genders, is just head-smackingly stupid. I think it’s lazy-minded, thoughtless, callous, and just plain rude, on the other hand, to dismiss all such disparities as merely representative of gender differences rather than societally-influenced.

I don’t think “feminism” as a worldview has any real solutions to the problems of society. But I think traditionalism, for most of us in the Evangelical camp, poses a far greater danger. It’s a prettier poison for many of us, and a subtler one. We need to be able to hear past the talking points and bumper-sticker slogans and strawmen of the feminist vs. traditionalist shouting match and get down to what the Bible actually teaches about women and their value, about objectification, about bodies. And I am convinced that we’ll have an easier time locating Biblical Christianity in the syncretistic miasma of modern traditionalist religion if we spend some time looking at feminism’s critiques of traditionalism.

So there you have it, I suppose: a bit of an introduction to the Big Scary Topic of feminism.

In the coming weeks or however long I feel like writing about this because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want, GOSH, I’ll be looking at such topics as Plato, Augustine, and the body; big ugly traditionalism and its little ugly cronies; objectification and othering; and, Lord willing, really scary topics like sexual identity, orientation, and even (gulp) rape and sexual abuse — and how feminism and Christianity intersect at those points. Fasten your seatbelts.

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.”

Believe It or Not, the Opposite of “Inerrancy” Isn’t Always “Errancy.”

The other day, a guy I run across in the blog-world was talking about how he sometimes gets fired up by what he termed the “Three E’s” — Errancy, Egalitarianism, and Evolution. These were my next thoughts:

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Coherent, eh? The implication is, of course, that anyone who doesn’t affirm inerrancy is an “errantist,” believing that the Scriptures are actually full of error. Yargh. I have a pretty big problem with that view (not to mention the attitude behind it), and I’ll tell you why.

*rolls up sleeves*

Preliminary data: inerrancy, which is the doctrine that the Scriptures are without error in everything they affirm, has been a pretty major battle ground over the last few decades and has been settled, one way or another, to the point that affirmation of inerrancy tends to be one of the identifying characteristics of Evangelicals. Inerrantists (I think rightly) believe that the absolute truthfulness of Scripture is an extremely important issue, and not one to be given up or compromised, so they use terms like “non-negotiable” and “essential” to describe the doctrine. Got all that? OK.

It’s true that the most vocal opponents of the concept of inerrancy have been people whose commitment to a modernist, materialist worldview precludes belief in any sort of divine character to Scripture. To them, it’s not divine, not authoritative, not inspired except in the way that, say, Shakespeare or Ovid were “inspired.” But this whole debate is quite new, and there are entire great big groups of Christians who just didn’t get involved at all — people like confessional Lutherans, Anglicans, and other folks on the higher-church end of the spectrum. They never absorbed the language of “without error in its original manuscripts” and the like. And that’s where the problems start to arise.

Some inerrantists steadfastly refuse to differentiate between people whose ultimate desire is to undermine the authority or divine character of Scripture and people who, say, don’t feel comfortable with the sometimes sterile-sounding language of inerrancy. Some use the term itself as a sort of shibboleth of orthodoxy, badgering people to sign on the proverbial dotted line of inerrancy (“No, just tell me. Are you? It’s not a hard question. Just answer.”). Some point to it as the test of, if not orthodoxy per se, then at least membership in the Evangelical community.

But there are a great many Christians who have never had this conversation, and who simply believe that the Bible is true. There are many who belong to denominations and traditions where the truthfulness of Scripture is taken as an article of faith, confessionally, rather than as a matter to be handled with lengthy treatises on exactly which documents can be given which terminology. Many more, while submitting to the authority, truthfulness, and sufficiency of Scripture, simply find themselves uncomfortable with a doctrine they see as a Procrustean bed, as restrictive rather than expansive. I don’t necessarily agree with all these objections, but I understand them. I recognize that my conscience cannot dictate the consciences of other believers, and I also recognize that, though some believers, just by personality, take great comfort and find great freedom in meticulously-delineated doctrines, others do not. Being Type A is not a prerequisite for membership in the family of God.

And this is why it’s important to ask questions rather than make assumptions, especially about our brothers and sisters in Christ. When someone asks, “Are you an inerrantist?” or “Are you a Calvinist?” or “Are you a creationist?” or whatever, the best response, in my estimation, is, “Well, what do you mean by that?” And on the other side, if someone says, “Oh, I could never be an XYZ,” I reckon it’s pretty important to find out what they mean by XYZ and how it affects the rest of their doctrine. And ask positive questions, too: stuff like “So, what do you believe about the Bible?”

Between brothers and sisters, questions like this should be conversation-starters, not conversation-enders. We cannot use these catch-phrases as code words for who’s “in” and who’s “out.” That kind of spiritual arrogance is exactly what got this guy a starring role as a baddy in one of Jesus’ parables.

Still Over It

A few more thoughts on this morning’s post, just in the realm of assumptions.

1. Sexual sin is a grievous thing with long-standing consequences. It’s an offense, both against a holy God and against one’s own body, according to the Scriptures.

2. Some sexual sin carries with it more emotional baggage than others, and some carries with it more tangible consequences than others.

3. No sexual sin — or any other kind of sin — is beyond the reach of the forgiveness of God, and no sinner is beyond the amazing transformation brought about by the Holy Spirit.

4. Pre-conversion sin can, as mentioned in #2, have consequences that last throughout one’s life, but these consequences are not ours to enforce. When we see a non-virgin who, by the Holy Spirit’s power, is currently living a chaste life, we should rejoice in God’s provision not shake our heads at the ongoing shame of past unchastity.

5. It is the VERY GRIEVOUSNESS of sin that makes Gospel transformation so amazing, so worship-engendering, so God-glorifying! If I told my friends that the estate of Bill Gates had not only paid off my mortgage and remaining student loans, but also given me ten million dollars, I hope they would be incredibly excited for me and celebrate with me, not say, “Shame on you for no longer living in your former indebtedness!” That, friends, is exactly what Jesus has done for sinners: he has paid off the debt we owe to God and given us every spiritual blessing and resource for godly living.

6. The attitude of “I thank you that I am not like that publican” has no place in the hearts or mouths of those who have been rescued from their (grievous, offensive, disgusting, condemnatory) sin by a merciful God. But for the restraining grace of God, who among us would not have given in to the lowest and vilest of our desires? If you think it’s your own effort and free will that have kept you sexually chaste, then of course you’ll be driven by pride to look down on those who have not been — after all, if I can do something in my own power, why can’t other people? But if you humbly believe that your heart, left to its own devices, is every bit as wicked as that of the worst sinner, and that every bit of good in you is there only because of the kindness of a loving Father who preserves you from falling into sin? Your attitude toward others is going to be very different.

What keeps coming to my mind are the words to one of my favorite hymns.

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains!

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away!

Downton Abbey 2.3

(Weekly grumpy reminder to go away if you’re not caught up, etc.)

So who else practically lost consciousness at some point during this episode? Great balls of fire, people. OK, let’s calmly deconstruct this whirlwind, by which I mean TRY TO REIN IN THE SQUEE-ING.

Boy, y’all, how do we feel about Branson right now? I mean, Sibyl actually received medical training and is a certified nurse, right? And has been consistently calm and efficient and great as said certified nurse, right? So Branson decides that his best come-on is to disparage her seriously countercultural career choice, dismissing it as “serving hot drinks to a lot of randy officers”? NOT COOL, Mr. I-Drive-The-Man’s-Car. NOT. COOL. I felt like this was a pretty grim Switcheroo, from Poor But Worthy to just Poor, both Pecuniarily and Personally (heyyy, alliteration). Sibyl’s not going to run off with him as long as he cops that attitude.

The other Switcheroo would, of course, be Edith, who in last week’s episode was beginning to discover that she was, in fact, born with a beating, pumping human heart. This week, much to everyone’s surprise, including her own, she discovered that not only was she born with a heart, but it hasn’t utterly atrophied from disuse! Can you believe it? She behaved decently the entire episode, not scheming or backstabbing or cooking up scandal ONCE! I mean, dig: She plays the piano, for other people? She relishes her newfound role of Steppin Fetchit/Alluring Yet Altruistic Postal Delivery Girl? She doesn’t hate Mary with every fiber of her being? Who knew? The scene of her wrestling with her conscience and ultimately deciding to tell Mary that Matthew had gone missing was so touching because it was Edith realizing that she actually has a conscience!

The theme of conscience-wrestling is becoming my favorite thing about the show. The characters we hate (or who annoy us) are the simplistic ones — out for revenge, protecting their territory, parroting a party line — while the ones we love are the ones who recognize the complexity of the world and are striving to be good and right and honorable in the midst of that complexity. Lord Grantham, Matthew, Anna, Bates, and now even Edith, all experience some degree of anguish over a difficult moral decision. They don’t always make the right call (HELLO MATTHEW ENGAGED TO NOT-MARY HELLO) but they labor toward the right call.

I do definitely want to punch O’Brien in her stupid face, however. One of my fellow watchers, as O’Brien watched indigent ex-soldiers stream through the Crawley’s gate, tut-tutted, “She is such an unhappy woman.” What a miserable existence, to be constantly watching out for an opportunity to ruin someone else’s life, over a perceived slight! What must it be like to be so eaten up with bitterness! I had hoped that we might see a bit of softening in her this season, given her terrible remorse over causing Lady Grantham’s miscarriage, and her sympathy for poor shell-shocked Lang, BUT NO. NOW, she’s decided that it would be a SIGN OF WEAKNESS or something stupid like that to ALLOW Bates to go unpunished for whatever blah blah blah vindictive cow.

OK NOW. NOW we can talk about the SQUEE-est moment of the entire episode. So, background: Matthew and his trusty batman William are missing, and there’s a lot of consternation but people are trying not to worry. (Side note: could a guy like Lord Grantham really pick up the phone and find out the sitch on a couple of MIA soldiers JUST LIKE THAT? I mean, dang, I know there’d been some pretty important technological developments in the last decade or so, but it seems slightly crazy that the War Office would a) talk to him about it at all, b) be able to get information from the battlefront in a matter of, like, a day, and c) be allowed to pass that information along. Anyway.) Mary and Edith have loaded some of their personal baggage into Downton’s tack room long enough to put on a Charming Period Musicale including a number about being the Only Girl In The World etc., for the convalescing officers. (Side note 2: how about that for a brilliantly throwaway Chekov’s gun, when Edith laments in passing how much nicer the song would sound as a duet with A MAN HINT HINT?) Everyone in the crowd is looking exceedingly Stiff Upper Lip during this when who turns up but MATTHEW FREAKING CRAWLEY WHO IS NOT DEAD THANK GOD, looking all lean and tanned and I’ve-Been-Trapped-Behind-Enemy-Lines-For-Days-You-Guys-NBD. Mary, of course, goes white and stops singing, which is the cue for Our Man to (*swoon*) pick up where she leaves off as he walks down the center aisle toward her, all “Buckle! Swash!” which (*swoon*) gives her the strength to finish. (Male friend watching with us: “OK, that was a little too much for me.” His wife and me: “NO WAY *SWOON*”)

The look on Mary’s face! Look, people, she loves him and he loves her and it would be criminal for them to marry someone else, so OF COURSE next week’s preview makes it look like Matthew is going to die and Mary is going to succumb to Sir Richard. (I’m guessing that’s not what’s going to happen, because Julian Fellowes is a cynic about many things, but Love Overcoming All Obstacles ain’t one of them. I’m guessing all the hubbub is about Sibyl running away with Mr. Hypocrite.)

I Can’t Believe I’m Writing About Tebow, cont.

So yesterday I said that the difference between insecure, troubled Christian A and secure, at-peace Christian B was theology. If you look in the dictionary under “theology,” it might say something about the formal study of the nature and attributes of God or a deity, but in practice, I think the best way to think about the term “theology” is just “what I think — and what my life says — is true about God.” Ideally, “what I believe is true about God” and “what my life says is true about God” should be the same thing, but in practice, because our imperfect nature affects our ability to be consistent. So let’s examine the probable theologies of these two hypothetical brothers:

A gives lip service to the idea that God is sovereign, but functionally (and perhaps even secretly) he believes that there are lots of areas of life where God doesn’t really control the outcome of events. Of course, God knows what will happen, he says, but He allows human choice to rule sometimes. A thinks that the difference between a believer and an unbeliever is primarily that the unbeliever just doesn’t know that the Bible is true. If my unbelieving coworkers just saw enough evidence, they’d surely have to believe, he says. He’d never deny the dictum that “all truth is God’s truth,” but it’s been so ingrained in him to be suspicious of science and fine art – after all, modern science is the enemy of the Scriptures, right? And “the arts” now seem to celebrate evil and perversion, so what good could be found there? He believes that Christians need to separate themselves from the world, which is filthy and horrible, to remain pure. He looks forward to the day when he can escape the confines of this sinful world and be with Jesus in Heaven forever (though he’d never admit publicly that an eternity of something that sounds like a church service with only one song doesn’t actually seem all that exciting; he assumes that his lack of excitement about Heaven just means he’s immature).

B is fully persuaded of God’s total sovereignty in every area of life. He believes that God uses ordinary people and ordinary means to accomplish his extraordinary and perfect purposes, and he’s excited to be allowed to be part of God’s plan. This confidence in God gives him a sort of Teflon coating for living in this broken world – when things go his way, B doesn’t let it go to his head, because it’s all for God’s glory; and when there are setbacks, it doesn’t bother B, because God is still in control. B believes that the world was created to be “very good,” and that God has lovingly preserved some of that goodness even now, even in fallen creation, even in sinful humans, even in the things sinful humans make, so B can rejoice in beauty and goodness wherever he finds it. B also believes that the world isn’t as God created it to be, so it doesn’t surprise him when he also finds darkness and evil and pain and sorrow. But, he knows, God is at work making things new, overturning the darkness. “Everything sad is coming untrue,” B is known to say by way of encouragement to friends in trying times.

What’s the lynchpin difference? The answer to the question of who is in charge of the universe, and what that means. If God is completely, meticulously in control of everything — both causes and effects — in the universe, if His Spirit dwells in believers and transforms them, if no one can turn aside God’s purposes, if those who are joined to Christ are joined to Him forever, and no one can snatch them out of His hand, and you live your life that way, you have a pretty good chance of being like B. If God is “in control” but people have to do X to get God to do Y, if sanctification is up to believers, if those who are Christians can jump in and out of salvation and God is powerless to stop them, and you live your life like that? You have a pretty good chance of being like A.

I like Tim Tebow. He seems like a good guy, and I’m grateful for a lot of things about him, most of all his constant testimony to Jesus; I’m happy to call him my brother. But his success and fame don’t prove that Christianity is true. He and his life and his football career are not the key to the salvation of unbelievers. And that’s fine — in fact, I praise God for it! If he were the key, who would be saved? The key is this: a gracious God reaching into history to rescue sinners, people who, without the plan He enacted from eternity past, would forever reject him. A God who orchestrated in the mysterious counsels of eternity, that you would be born into that family, and have those experiences, and that, one day, you would hear the message of the Gospel in a new way, that it would make sense like it never had before, that you would look at your sin and realize that you were lost, and that you would look to the cross of Jesus, not just as an event that happened, but as an event that happened for you, and that you would run to it with joy like a thirsty man runs to a stream.

Believe that, my friends.

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?

Less Than A Week!

Until season two of Downton Abbey!!

Some friends and I were speculating about the plot last night in our excitement — Will Edith ever find love? Is Political Activist Sybil going to hook up with the sexy-but-earnest chauffer? Or will she fall for a soldier she nurses valiantly back to health? Will Matthew and Mary EVER get their stuff together? Are the writers going to axe any of the major characters (sturm und drang here especially — Oh please God please not Matthew!)? Will Thomas have a change of heart or will he continue as the most malicious, two-faced, conniving little social climber ever to wear a head footman’s livery? Will the estate be saved?

If you’ve already seen it (British readers, ahem), I implore you: NO SPOILERS! Spoilers in the comments section may result in a permanent ban from this blog and I am not remotely kidding around.

Look for an ongoing series starting next Monday or Tuesday (depending on how the viewing schedule works out with my life). Hooray!

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.

The Fixup

Married friends, I just want you to know that I love you. Which is why I want to help you out. Not just MY married friends, but all married folks who are friends with single folks. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

So. Say you’ve got a couple friends you think would be great together, and you want to set them up. Here’s what happens ALL THE TIME. Married Mary comes to her friend Single Sue and says, “Would you be cool with a fixup?” Sue says sure, and Mary starts telling Sue all about Single Sam, her husband’s best friend since junior high who’s moving to town next month. Every time they get together, Mary extols Sam’s virtues, shows Sue pictures of him, tells her why she thinks they’d hit it off, and assures her she’s going to set them up. Meanwhile, Mary’s husband Gary says to Sam, “Hey, Mary’s got this friend she wants to set you up with.” And Sam says, “I dunno, man, my life is going to be so crazy in the next few months with moving and school and work and stuff. I’ll let you know once I get settled.” So Sam moves to town, gets busy with school and work, and two months later starts dating a girl from one of his classes. Sue, who’s been thinking about Sam this whole time (at Mary’s encouragement), is really disproportionately upset, and feels rejected and ugly and undesirable and all those things unmarried ladies often feel about themselves.

Do you see where this all went wrong? I hope you do. So I’ve got some advice about how to manage a fixup in a way that doesn’t end up with somebody mad or hurt.

First, KNOW YOUR DANG FRIENDS. You should know if your unmarried friends are cool with a fixup on general principle because that’s the kind of thing friends know about each other, right? You should also have a broad idea of their “type.” If your friend is really into, say, the preppy, classic all-American boy, it’s not a fantastic idea to set her up with your brooding tattoo artist friend. There are exceptions (like if your average-looking pal refuses to go out with anyone who doesn’t often get taken for Megan Fox, or if one of your bestie’s “standards” involves net worth), but be considerate. You have a type, everyone has a type. Respect the type.

Second, think minimalist. You want to give two great people a chance to see if they could potentially hit it off, not orchestrate a David O. Selznick-style epic romance starring your friends, complete with soaring violins and exquisite costumes. Accordingly, don’t daydream on their behalf, don’t paint them a picture of their future life with this person, and for heaven’s sake don’t exaggerate.

Third, go to HIM first, either the dude or as a couple (i.e., don’t just do this by yourself, married ladies; you need your husband’s help not to be a Yenta). And, again, keep it simple. Say something like, “Hey, my friend Sue is terrific and I think y’all would get along really well for reasons X, Y, and Z. I’d like to set you up. Here’s a picture; she seems like your type.” Then go to her and say something similar.

Fourth, get their input on the next step if they both say sure. Would he prefer to just ask her out? Or ask her out after you’ve introduced them? Or would it be less pressure to have some kind of social event be the first meeting? Or to have pizza and cards at your house, the four of you, some Tuesday night? Or go the Facebook route? Leave it up to them. And then…

Fifth, BACK. OFF.

OK, married folks, go forth and set up your friends! 😉

Honestly, Why Do We Need Posts Like This? Argh!

I have blogged about this issue before (ahem, several times), but the firestorm of comments on a couple of Kevin DeYoung’s posts (darn that guy, always writing stuff I wish I’d written) makes me think it’s time to revisit.

Look, people. There is nothing inherently wrong with or less mature about being unmarried. Paul? Pretty darn mature guy. Jesus? Him too. Also: Marriage isn’t the silver bullet to make you grow up, and it’s not a superior status. Also: Don’t give advice to people you just met. Also: Don’t try to fix people and certainly don’t try to “fix” them with pithy axioms. Also: Don’t be a jerk. Also: The golden rule, you guys. Nine tenths of the hurtful, ridiculous stuff that gets said to single folks could be eliminated if people just remembered their basic kindergarten manners.

That stern intro aside, here are some Dos and Don’ts, bullet-point style:

DO pray for your unmarried friends. DON’T just pray for them to get married. (At a loss? Start with “Christlikeness” and go from there.)

DO be on the lookout for potential mates for your closest unmarried friends. DON’T assume that you can make romance happen between two of your friends however much you want it to, and DON’T accuse your friend of being “picky” if he or she says, “No thanks.”

DO encourage your unmarried friends to grow in godliness, contentment, and maturity. DON’T imply (or say!) that any deficiency in these areas is what’s standing in the way of them getting married.

DO offer specific counsel when appropriate to your level of friendship with your unmarried friend. DON’T just offer pat answers — why don’t you move churches, why don’t you try online dating, why don’t you do speed dating, etc.

More soon on the right and wrong way (or… a wrong way and a better way) to fix up two friends and other ways for you married folks to step into the lives of unmarried folks.

?!??!?!??!?!??!

Believe it or not, in 2009, renewable energy sources had a smaller share of U.S. primary energy than they did back in 1949. Sure, wind and solar have grown dramatically in recent years, but in 1949, renewables—almost all of it hydropower—provided 9.3 percent of the country’s energy needs. In 2009, renewables—again, much of it supplied by hydropower—provided 8.2 percent of U.S. energy.

via Oil and gas won’t be replaced by alternative energies anytime soon. – Slate Magazine.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGH!!!

Alienating Verbal Tics

Just thinking of these last night.  They tend to disconnect people from the conversation.  Can you think of any others?

Habitually starting sentences with “No,” or “No way,” even when you’re agreeing or the sentence isn’t subject to agreement or disagreement.

“Shut up,” when said as, “You’re kidding!”  This one’s tough for me.

Saying, “You have no idea,” or “You don’t even know.”  This one is particularly bad.  It’s mostly intended as something like, “The situation I’m referring to was really bad/good,” but it comes across as, “I have experiences you could never dream about.”  Makes you sound super arrogant.

In Case You Were Wondering Where That Howl Of Fury and Protest Was Coming From…

It was me.  When I read this article.

What a load of utter, middle-class-guilt assuaging, white man’s burden, condescending, collectivist, furrowed brow, think-of-the-little-people nonsense.

First, why is it my business to raise other people’s kids?  Help them, yes.  Care for them, absolutely.  As a Christian, reach into their problems?  For sure.  But consider them FIRST, over my own doggone (hypothetical, future) children?  That gets a big HECK NO.

Second, why do I get to choose between 1) hurting those poor poor children, you arrogant and probably racist jerk, and 2) helping those poor poor children by sending my smarter, richer, happier, more psychologically balanced offspring (oh, the irony) to whatever public school my municipality in its infinite wisdom decides to shuttle them off to?  That, boys and girls, is called a false dilemma.  With just a leetle dash of straw man thrown in.

Just imagine with me for a moment that there could be — miracle of miracles — something like… wait for it… a third option!  What?  More than two options?  No way, man, we’re American, we can’t give people more than two options!  Not in public discourse!  Hahahaha…

In Which I Unexpectedly Post a Picture of Kanye

(First: I lied.  I know I said I’d publish a follow-up to the Titus 2 post but I totally forgot and then didn’t have time.  I’ll try to get it wrapped up and published tomorrow.  Sorry.)

In the Facebook comments from the last post, a friend summarized the advice columnist’s attempt at guiding the letter-writer thusly: “(1) grow up, (2) get to know her, (3) get married.”  All excellent advice except for step two which is, alas, hopelessly vague.  Twenty or thirty years ago, there wouldn’t have been any vagueness, because “get to know her” would have meant one thing: “ask her on a date.”  Now?  Not so much.

And that’s where the trouble lies.  When you combine all the varying advice young single people have been given, what you end up with is a mire of confusion, mixed signals, indecision, and heartbreak.  Seriously, how do you make a game plan out of that? 

Here’s just a taste of the kind of advice I’ve received or heard over the last ten years or so:

Don’t date. Dating is bad; Joshua Harris said so and if a 19-year-old kid says something in a book (!!!) that got published (!!!!!), it’s probably true.  Get to know people only in a big group.  But it’s a bad sign if you “struggle” with too much attraction toward one person, because that’s lust and it’s bad, so go after someone you feel really ambivalent toward.  Lack of attraction is HOLY, you guys.

Know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether he/she is “the one” before you make a move.  Be friends first, probably for at least a year, for some reason involving “seasons of life.”  

Guys, you don’t have to step up and take the lead until you’re officially dating, so don’t define the relationship until she breaks down crying in your car one day from pent-up frustration and disappointment.  And then tell her that you’re just not in a season of life to be dating anyone.  Because your life situation has to be perfect and complication-free before you can be in a relationship of any kind.  

Ladies, allow your nurturing instinct free rein and make sure to be available to your guy friends around the clock, and definitely don’t limit your accessibility to a guy you’re interested in!  It’s ok for “friends” to spend lots of one-on-one time together as long as they don’t call it “dating” — because dating is bad, remember?  If you’re attracted to a guy, it means you should spend more time with him dropping hints.  If you’re not attracted to him, that’s ok.  You can still hang out with him all the time and tell him your guy troubles until someone better comes along.

Don’t move too fast or you’ll regret it.  But if you struggle with sexual temptation in your months- or years-long pseudo-dating awkwardness stew of a relationship, you’ll probably be a social outcast and disqualify yourself from ministry forever.

AUGH.

So now, once and for all, let me make this as clear as possible.  The best way to get to know someone… 

You know what?  Let Kanye break it down for you.