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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Deep Wounds and Hello Kitty Bandaids

Hello Kitty bandaids work better than normal ones; this is scientific fact, indisputable. Ask my nieces. Given the choice between a plain beige bandaid and a Hello Kitty one, they will choose the Hello Kitty one 100 times out of 100. They’re medical miracles. They dry up tears, stop pain, and return a three-year-old to normal play mode as quick as a wink.

They also don’t work on a deep wound.

Everyone knows this when it comes to physical injuries. Your child slices her arm open, and you’re rushing for the car keys, not the bandaids, Hello Kitty or otherwise. Worse, your child is diagnosed with some chronic disease or illness, and you know that no amount of licenced products are going to help.

But reveal a struggle with depression, or anxiety, or panic attacks, or dark, spiraling despair, and suddenly the same people who would advise a 911 call and some prompt medical attention, or long-term medical treatment, are handing out bandaid answers like you just skinned your knee.

Today I read of a husband’s agony as he watched his wife struggle with post-partum depression. The comments section was character bandaids galore: make sure she’s getting enough B vitamins! one commenter insisted. Don’t forget to make confession of sin part of your daily life, said another. No, no, don’t use the Hulk bandaids, no one likes those. Have these bandaids instead!

All I can say to that is… don’t.

Just… don’t do that.

Friends, sin is not always, or predictably, the cause of suffering. Jesus rebuked the pharisees for thinking that a man’s blindness resulted from his sin or that of his parents. Suffering does not always seem to have a purpose; sometimes it doesn’t seem to have a cause, or a reason, or an origin. It’s not always taken away when we pray (2 Cor 12), or even when we treat it medically (Luke 8).

But for the Christian, suffering is always part of the hard providence of God, never escaping his notice or care, never catching him off guard. Satan himself must seek God’s permission to trouble us, and his power is always limited — how much more must the suffering we experience be controlled and limited by a loving and watchful Father!

True suffering defies and confounds tidy, pat answers. If the tools with which we approach it don’t go beyond a range of bandaids with superheros and cartoon characters splashed across them, we will have no comfort to offer those who desperately need it.

“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.

International Women’s Day and Casual Misogyny

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today in class we were talking about NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and how she (or rather, the popular portrayal of her) is an embarrassment to women everywhere because, although she’s ostensibly famous for her sport, she’s a) not as great at it as her fame would suggest, and b) far more famous for taking her clothes off and being a spokesmodel in skanky ads. We talked about how offensive it is to both men and women to depict women as empty-headed, easily-controllable imaginary objects just sitting there for male consumption, and I said something about how it turns them into these infantilized child-women, whereupon a student piped up with, “That sounds like a really bad superhero. Infantilized Child-Woman to the rescue!”

So we came up with a whole scenario for Infantilized Child-Woman, who goes around “rescuing” women from intelligent, deep conversations that aren’t about men, and turning them into flirtatious bobble-heads with one flick of her ruffled costume, and who foils male criminals by strutting around seductively until the cops arrive. Her arch-nemesis is Intensely Nerdy Boy, on whom her powers are useless because he prefers the smart girls he meets at ComicCon, and his secret weapon is a Fandom Gun, which makes everyone he shoots it at so involved in a fan community that they stop paying attention to Infantilized Child-Woman. Muahahaha!

I’ve been thinking about this today, a paraphrase of something I saw browsing just now on my lunch break: we need to stop thinking of sexism as part of an identity — i.e., so-and-so is a sexist therefore a wife-beater, a rapist, a woman-hater, etc. — and start thinking of it in terms of actions. Anyone can casually devalue women, and we, both men and women, do it all the time. So many things, from using pornography (i.e. consuming women’s degradation) to implying that women shouldn’t complain about discrimination (because we can, like, vote now and stuff), are sexist, and no amount of, “But I love women/am a woman!” negates that.

We might rightly roll our eyes at the antediluvian attitude that a woman’s place is always in the home and preferably in the kitchen. We might, I hope, get involved with charities that help free women from sex work. But it’s easier to let slide that sort of casual, condescending misogyny that applauds Danica Patrick equally for taking her clothes off and finishing 40th in some race, because it’s so subtle and so ubiquitous. It’s the kind of sexism that we need to be most careful of because it’s the easiest to slip into, the easiest to absorb from women’s magazines and sitcoms, and, I think, the toughest to eliminate.

But we have an obligation to value women, to treat them with the dignity they intrinsically have as image-bearers of God, creations whose absence prompted God to call something “not good” for the first time ever. Christians must strive never to be open to the charge of denigrating or diminishing that value, however casually or incidentally.

Two Terms You Probably Never Thought You’d See Together: “Papal Conclaves” and “Bookies”

This week my students and I started tracking the odds for various potential papal candidates now that the conclave has convened and the College of Cardinals are busy praying and, I’m sure, negotiating and discussing to determine who will be the next Pope. Evidently, bookies have given odds and taken bets on papal elections for more than five hundred years and this month’s election is no exception — just a quick google turns up loads of articles on the odds and loads more bookie websites where a person could lay money on this or that candidate.

My favorite candidate right now is Cardinal Peter Turkson, who has a lot going for him: he’s non-European, he’s conservative, he’s highly involved in social justice, and he’s not as old as Father Time, which helps. A close second is 68-year-old French-Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, whose academic background and advanced degrees in philosophy and dogmatics give him some intellectual appeal; he seems to have a good grasp of repentance for the wrongs of the Roman Catholic Church without groveling or compromise. The youngest candidate, Philipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, in addition to being an advocate for the poor and an outspoken defender of sexual abuse victims, also happens to be non-European, which I think is a much, much-needed move for this era.

Of course, it’s not like these men run for office! They’re just prominent men who seem likely, for whatever reason, to be elected by the College of Cardinals. It’s fun to watch it  unfold, and more than a little comical to watch bookies make odds on various candidates. Have a look at this list and read down almost to the bottom. There’s a little surprise there for the observant and well-informed reader.

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.”

Mark Baddeley’s Series on “New Atheism”

At the Matthias Media blog is well worth a read. It’s an eight (!!) part series of articles on New Atheism” (from Dawkins et al), explaining why he doesn’t think it’s particularly threatening in the long term, where its weaknesses are, who its prime targets are, and who does a better job of it than the atheist literati who spend too much time rolling their eyes at everyone who dares disagree with their hyper-empiricist worldview.

Here’s a quote from the first article:

I think the New Atheists are overrated. I find myself underwhelmed at their bus campaigns, their books, the way that journalists throw softball questions in response to their every problematic pronouncement, and their whole position. I have been scratching my head for years trying to work out where all the interest in them comes from, let alone why they are treated as some kind of serious attack on religion in general, let alone the Christian faith in particular.

Recently I discovered that I am not alone. Nathan Campbell on his blog discussed a particularly strong gaffe moment for Richard Dawkins, where Dawkins argued for deliberate discrimination against scientists with religious beliefs, and got taken to task by the commentators who would otherwise be thought to be natural allies. Before that Scott Stephens riffed on the ABC website on a theme covered several times in places like the First Things website—the lack of philosophical awareness and moral seriousness among the celebrity New Atheists. Overall, the movement looks more like a fad than a sober cultural movement.

Read the whole series starting here (all the installments are linked, handily, at the bottom of the first page).

Eschatology (Gulp) Matters, Part Two

(Important side note before we get started: how you approach a couple of key passages tends to make a big difference in where you land. If you approach apocalyptic literature in the same way that you do a narrative passage — like narrative, but future tense — you’ll probably land in one of the first two views. If you approach it more like you would the Bible’s wisdom literature or even prophecy — filled with imagery and metaphorical language — you’re much more likely to end up in one of the latter two categories.)

OK, so let’s just do a quick overview of the four main views, in very broad strokes (and for all of these, I’m indebted to this site and particularly this one, which includes some outstanding simplified outlines of these views — if you’re a visual learner like me, you’ll want to click through to see them):

1. Dispensational pre-millennialism. This fairly recently-developed view is based on the idea that Daniel 9 and Revelation 20 are to be read as strictly chronological accounts of entirely future events. Things on Earth will grow increasingly dire, then God’s people will be raptured just before a time of great persecution when a human ruler, the Anti-Christ, will have control over the whole Earth. Jesus will return and reign from Jerusalem for a thousand chronological years, after which the Judgment will take place and all God’s people will be then taken together into glory. People who hold to this view tend to be very watchful for Christ’s imminent return as well as world events that line up with prophetic or apocalyptic passages of Scripture.

2. Historic pre-millennialism. While this view shares some of the chronology of the first view, it tends to see some of the events described in Revelation as unfolding in history, not necessarily in a way that obviously links them to the impending return of Christ. People who hold to this position believe that the return of Christ may be in the very-distant future, and hold that the millennium may or may not constitute one thousand actual years. It’s called “historic” because it has been held in some form since the late second and early third centuries, whereas the Dispensationalist version has only been around since the 19th century.

3. Post-millennialism. Post-millennialists believe that the millennium is best understood as a future period (not a literal thousand years, but a long time) of Christ’s special reign over the earth from heaven, marked by a steady increase of the influence of the Gospel until the entire world has been Christianized. When the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God through Christ, Jesus will return in glory to judge and to bring all of God’s people into glory with him. This view particularly focuses on the prophecies given to Abraham about all nations being blessed through him, and the passages throughout the Old Testament that refer to the growing and spreading of the knowledge of the Lord in the last days. Daniel and Revelation are seen in light of their original audience (the Exiles and the first-century Christians, respectively), and most, if not all, of the events of the apocalyptic passages of Scripture are thought to have already taken place — i.e. that they are immediately applicable to their hearers and are meant to encourage us by extension, rather than give us a timeline of future events.

4. Amillennialism. Amillenialists believe that Christ ushered in the millennium at his ascension into Heaven, and that we are now living in it. They tend to focus on the tension in the New Testament between “the Kingdom is at hand/among you” and “now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face,” as well as the narrative of the constant expansion of the Gospel to all nations, beginning in Acts. They differ with Post-millennialists on the role of the Church in this “already/not yet” age: where Post-mills see a time when the Church is completely triumphant on Earth before the return of Christ, Amills believe that the Church will continue to be persecuted and suffer until Christ’s return, though there may be times of greater or lesser success as the Gospel continues to go forth to the nations.

Now. That’s a lot. I never realized that there were other views besides the first two until fairly recently, and though I don’t think the first two are untenable, per se, in studying the Scriptures I found myself leaning toward a pretty settled Amillennial position… though with occasional jaunts into Postmillennialism depending on how much Douglas Wilson I happen to be reading and how much the sun is shining and how well things tend to be going in my own life. Personally, I am automatically… not suspicious perhaps, but not really excited to latch onto any view on any Christian doctrine that 1800 years’ worth of really smart believers never thought of, but I don’t think this issue is important enough to argue about too much, so even if you’re firmly committed to the first view, that’s fine. Christians can know absolutely nothing about this issue except to say, “Yup, I believe Jesus is coming back,” and they will be A-OK, and they can disagree with each other about it without breaking fellowship. (I mean honestly, imagine Jesus standing in the room next to you right now: is he cool with you being cold or dismissive or, God forbid, divisive toward your brothers and sisters over the timing of his return? I’m guessing not.)

The bottom line with all this is, the passages of Scripture that talk about persecution or that address eschatology are almost always followed up with an exhortation to the reader to do a couple of things: 1) cling to Jesus, and 2) get off your toches and tell people about Jesus. So whether you think that the Bible teaches that Christ’s return is just around the corner or many thousands of years into the future, whether you see in its pages a literal and eventual thousand-year reign or a time we’re already in, your mission, Christian, is clear: teach your children, your neighbors, your friends, your family about the Gospel. Live it out in your relationships. Don’t spend your time searching charts or pooh-poohing them. Act like you really, truly have been radically transformed by a Victorious and Conquering King who will one day return, on whatever timeline the Father in his good wisdom chooses.

Eschatology (Gulp) Matters

This week, I talked with my students about eschatology. In case you’re not familiar with the term, it basically refers to one’s beliefs about how this ol’ world is going to be wrapped up, and what happens to people when they die. Does the world end with a bang? Or a whimper? Or something else?

I used to be one of those people who smartly called myself a “pan-millennialist.” It’s all going to pan out in the end, har har har. I didn’t really think much about it for most of my life, and if I did it was with a frisson of panic. I didn’t buy the whole pre-tribulation rapture thing (the idea that God’s going to snatch Christians up out of the world before things get too bad), so eschatology scared the bejeebers out of me because I figured that if I were around when Jesus came back, my life would have sucked real bad for a long time before that. It was not a happy place inside my head, so I just kind of pushed it to one side, comforted myself with the fact that I believed the Scriptures were true and God was kind, and forgot about it.

And then, a couple years ago, I had to teach about it. So I found a few good resources and some good visual aids and summaries of the four major Christian views, and I realized I already believed something about eschatology, and it wasn’t scary at all!

One of the things that came up in the course of my recent conversation with my students was that some of the views of “end times” (though I shudder to use that term) are very optimistic about the world here and now and where it’s headed, and others are very pessimistic. If you think the Scriptures teach that things are getting worse all the time, and that this world is going downhill and headed for destruction, but that believers are going to be zapped out before things get catastrophic and their souls rushed to an eternity-long worship service in heaven… OR if you think the Scriptures point to an age when the Gospel will go forth triumphantly into the nations, and the influence of Jesus’ kingdom will extend and extend and extend until the whole Earth is filled with the knowledge of God and then Jesus will return to judge the world and reign forever on an eternal throne in a renewed creation… how could that not influence your understanding of everything in this life?

So, what do you believe? Is your eschatology optimistic or pessimistic, and why? I’m putting together a quick overview of the four major Christian views, and I’ll tell you why I basically completely reject two of them and bounce indecisively back and forth between the other two. 😉

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 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?

Happy Epiphany

The Feast Of, that is.

Epiphany is one of the traditional “Great Feasts” of the church. Don’t get stressed out that I’m crossing the Tiber — or worse yet the Bosphorus. But Christians have celebrated it since at least the fourth century, associating it with the arrival of the Magi, and, thus, Jesus’ first appearance to Gentiles. This Gentile is mighty glad of that, and happy to commemorate such a beautiful and significant date in the Church’s calendar.

“For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” Romans 10:12

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.

“Patience, Hard Thing!”

Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.

We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

1918

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)

God is not a grump.

He’s not withholding things “to teach you a lesson” like some passive-aggressive 60’s-era TV housewife by which I obviously mean Betty Draper (side note: why can’t I think of her as Betty Francis since that’s her name now?). Anyway, serious stuff:

Sometimes he answers our cries with “not now” or silence, and that’s hard, but it’s meant to help us to trust him and to cause us to run to him. Will you respond in faith, clinging to Christ, or will you respond in doubt and fear, trying to save yourself? Remember that God is immeasurably generous to us, his people. He loves us more than we can even bear, with an eternity our hearts are too small and finite to encompass. His gifts to us are good and many. If God’s word says that the things you desire are good and honorable, ask him to purify them as you wait, and fulfill them in his time. Godliness is rarely incompatible with the Christian’s desires.

HOLY SONNETS I

THOU hast made me, and shall Thy work decay ?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste ;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way ;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again ;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

John Donne, 1609

Depending on God

“It is a dreadful truth that the state of (as you say) ‘having to depend solely on God’ is what we all dread most. And of course that just shows how very much, how almost exclusively, we have been depending on things. But trouble goes so far back in our lives and is now so deeply ingrained, we will not turn to him as long as he leaves us anything else to turn to. I suppose all one can say is that it was bound to come. In the hour of death and the day of judgment, what else shall we have? Perhaps when those moments come, they will feel happiest who have been forced (however unwittingly) to begin practicing it here on earth. It is good of him to force us; but dear me, how hard to feel that it is good at the time.”

— C.S. Lewis, from “Letters to an American Lady”

Guidelines for the Guidelines (Part 2)

4. Any rules or guidelines for modesty that fail to address the heart, particularly issues of pride or self-righteousness, or that make men’s lusts or preferences the focus of the conversation, miss the main purpose of the teaching of Scripture on the subject.

The question to ask here is: Does it work? If you can dress like an old-order Mennonite and be eaten up with pride, desiring nothing more than to draw attention to your “holy” attire, your rules have failed, man. Also, any guidelines about anything that focus on sin-management, as though you can ameliorate or eliminate sin by following this set of rules, miss the Gospel, which is pretty darn important.

5. While Scripture does give some broad standards related to dress, what specifically constitutes modest dress varies among nations, cultures, regions, and times.

Public nudity (as in, revealed genitalia) seems pretty clearly off-limits in Scripture, as does dressing with the intention of being taken for a member of the opposite sex. Apart from that, who am I to tell a South Asian woman to stop wearing her modest, culturally-appropriate shalwar kameez and start wearing only long skirts or dresses? Or to tell a Papuan man to stop wearing his culturally-masculine layered grass skirt and put on a button-down and slacks?

6. Christians should strive to dress, speak, carry themselves, and generally behave in a way that best befits their gospel witness, factoring in their climate, local culture, jobs and responsibilities, body type, preferences, etc.

This means that someone ministering to Northern European Muslims is not going to dress, speak, or act exactly the same way as a someone making meals in an un-air-conditioned Central American orphanage. Nor is a Christian interviewing for a job at a Chicago law firm going to dress or behave exactly the same way as a Christian running a surf shop in Maui. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a slender size four is going to have to watch out for different things, both in her dress and comportment, than a buxom size fourteen. There is no Christian uniform, and there is no universal “neckline” or “skirt length” rule, either.