A Tale of Two Christians

Today we are going to look at a tale of two Christians.  The contrast between the two is, I think, very illuminating and instructive as to where we are and what is valued in American Christianity nowadays.

Both are public figures, very public and very outspoken in their Christian commitments.  Both are professional athletes who excelled in their sport, though neither is actively playing now.  Both are active in philanthropy and in giving back to their respective communities.  Both have drawn massive amounts of public and media attention, though for different reasons.  Both were known for kneeling publicly at key moments in their games, though for different reasons (more on this later).  That is where the similarities end.

One is revered in American Christianity; the other is reviled.  One knelt publicly as an act of private prayer; the other as an act of public protest.

I think you can see where this is going.  One is Tim Tebow; the other is Colin Kaepernick.

Tim Tebow is the darling of American Christianity and especially American evangelicalism.  Evangelical young women want him; evangelical young men want to be him.  Tebow was a standout at Florida where he played on two national championship teams in three years; he went on to a not-quite-so-distinguished NFL career and is now playing minor league baseball.  Tebow is best known for his Bible verse eye black, his longstanding involvement with his father’s missions organization, and his outspoken commitments to pro-life and sexual purity until marriage.  His signature move, kneeling down in private prayer after a big score, is called “Tebowing”.  These things resonate in many parts of American evangelicalism.

Colin Kaepernick is the villain of American Christianity and especially American evangelicalism.  His name attracts a volume of disdain equal only to that of Satan himself.  It is impossible to speak sufficiently evil of him; the more evil you speak of him, the closer you are to God.  Kaepernick had been a standout at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.  But in 2016 he began to kneel during the performance of the national anthem, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in protest of police violence against black people.  This attracted a boatload of vitriol; fans posted videos of burning his jersey, he was voted the most disliked player in the NFL, and he even received death threats.  He was blamed for a drop in NFL TV ratings due to fans boycotting because of his protests (NFL ratings were declining long before he started protesting but that’s beside the point).  And when he was cut by the 49ers, denunciation and ridicule among evangelicals was fast and furious.  God opposes the proud, they said.  Look how the mighty have fallen.

If you’re looking for proof that civil religion is back, here it is.  Think about it.  Civil religion has a creed:  the Pledge of Allegiance.  It has a Bible:  the Constitution.  It has a Cross:  the American flag.  It has a Savior:  The American military.  It has a hymn:  the national anthem.  All these things are idols before which all must bow.  Refuse to do so–no matter what your reasons–and you are eternally accursed; your condemnation was written about from the dawn of time.  Colin Kaepernick ran afoul of this dictum and has brought the denunciation of all of American evangelicalism upon himself.

Yet even more than this, the contrast between Tebow and Kaepernick reveals a bifurcation in American Christianity.  There are two distinct variations; each looks with distrust and disdain upon the other.  One is committed to personal salvation and private devotion; the other is committed to public activism and social/political transformation.  One is vehemently opposed to private sins like abortion and gay marriage; the other is equally vehement in its denunciation of public sins like racial discrimination.

The truth is, we need both.  Public activism is fruitless unless it is motivated by a spiritual root and a vital connection with the living God; private devotion is equally useless unless it results in a life of care and concern for others.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it, we should be “awed to heaven, rooted in earth”, able to “join the angels in praise, and keep our feet in time and place”.  We need the reality of a vital connection to God while recognizing that people are the heart of God’s care and concern and how one treats other people matters immensely to God.

Compare this with the American civil religion which is all over the place in American evangelicalism and which doesn’t give a shit how you treat other people as long as you stand when the national anthem is being played.

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The Last Post Ever at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion

Funny how time flies:  Seems like only a few weeks ago that we were all thinking this would be the last post ever around here.

So what is it this time?

David Meade is a so-called Christian numerologist who has suddenly gained a great deal of traction on Fox NewsMeade is predicting that a heavenly sign will occur today, with another to follow on October 15, that will mark the start of the Tribulation.  Specifically he is predicting that Planet X, also known as Nibiru, will enter the solar system today, causing earthquakes and tsunamis and all manner of disruption as it passes Earth.  This is a pointer to the sign of October 15, when the planet Jupiter will exit the womb region of the constellation Virgo.  This “birthing of Jupiter” will signify the start of the Tribulation, a seven-year period of distress both natural and man-made which will precede the return of Christ.

We won’t discuss what I really think about Fox News devoting serious airtime and reporting acumen to bullshit like this.

People:  If anyone out there says they have figured when Christ is returning and how it’s all going to go down–they haven’t.  No one knows.  Not even Christ Himself.  Only God the Father knows.

There is no such thing as a “Christian numerologist”.  Sure, there are numbers all over the place in the Bible and they have special significance:  for instance, the numbers 3 and 7 appear frequently throughout Scripture to signify divine completeness and perfection.  That’s first-year seminary.  But it stops at first-year seminary.  There is no discipline of Christian numerology, no place where one can go to study and learn all the numerical principles to unlock all the numerical codes that will make the meaning of Scripture clear once and for all.  That’s because there is no Bible code.

But in the so-called world of “Christian numerology”, numbers mean all sorts of crazy things and everything in Scripture stands for something else which only Meade and others of his ilk can understand.

People, if someone comes out saying that they have a secret numerical code and suddenly everything in the Bible makes sense and it’s crystal clear how it’s all going to go down:  Run.  Run faster than you would from a zombie infestation.  They don’t know what they’re talking about.

For the best responses to this craziness, read what Ed Stetzer has to say on his blog at Christianity Today:

No, the World Won’t End Next Week and There’s No Such Thing as a Christian Numerologist

Fake Apocalypse News Shouldn’t Eclipse Real Tragedy News

A Tale of Two Religions

Given what we have looked at in the previous two posts, I feel it necessary today to return to an old Michael Spencer post entitled “The Face of the Gracious God“.  Go ahead and read it; it will set the tone for where I want to go today.

Religion #1 is a version of Christianity in which God is angry on a very fundamental level.  Our disobedience has corrupted us and made us completely loathsome to Him, so much so that he wants to destroy us and then hold us in a state of eternal conscious torment, and would be perfectly righteous in doing so.  Anything less than that is an act of supreme mercy on His part.  Luckily for us, Jesus stepped in on our behalf and calmed God down and He decided (reluctantly) to be gracious to us.  But don’t do anything to mess that up.  Peace is fragile around here.

Religion #2 is a version of Christianity in which God is gracious and loving, more so than anyone could imagine.  He is grieved and saddened that our disobedience has separated us from Him and enslaved us to a whole host of unsavory things, and is determined to repair the breach at all possible cost.  Through Jesus, He shows us what kind of God He is and what His love looks like, and that He will stop at nothing–not even the most violent and horrific death imaginable–to restore the joy and love that should belong to the children of such a Father.  True to His promises, He will bless all people and restore the world through Jesus.  You can’t do anything to mess that up.

There are way too many people out there, especially in evangelicalism, who are attempting to sell you on Religion #1.  John Piper’s prayer that I quoted in the previous post is an example of this par excellence.  It arises out of a religion in which we have grievously offended an all-powerful God and deserve nothing but calamity and distress, that such distress comes directly from Him as His “wise and needed work”, and that the only proper response is one of abject submission before His just and sovereign power.

There are way too few people out there who are overwhelmed at the goodness of a gracious God.  Evangelicals talk a great game about the grace and graciousness of God, but listen to us for any significant length of time and that good news soon gets buried under all the footnotes, codicils, and fine print that we have added to the Good News.  Sure it’s all about grace, but what really moves the needle around here is perfect submission and obedience, believing all the right things and living it out under the direction and watchful eye of those leaders whom God has appointed to instruct you in His truth and who will give an accounting of you before Him.

The Nashville Statement is an example of this par excellence.  It is an attempt to take the blessing which God intends to pour out on all people and say that a certain class of people are excluded until and unless they conform themselves to our standard of belief.  Slacktivist goes so far as to call it an “ugly ingratitude”, and I am with him 100 percent.  It reeks of an ingratitude for the grace which God has so lavishly showered upon us, to the point of attempting to exclude gay Christians and their supporters until and unless they come around to our way of seeing things.  It is just like the servant in Jesus’ parable who was forgiven a massive debt and then went off and imprisoned a fellow servant who owed him a mere pittance.

The reality is that in Jesus we discover just how good and gracious our God really is.  We see him reaching out to all but especially to those who were excluded by the religious and cultural system of the day.  We see him scandalizing all the religious power brokers through his free acceptance of and association with those whom they considered unclean.  We see him repeatedly assuring his followers that when they see him they are looking at the Father.

Would that we could have a faith that begins not with the sovereignty or the power of God but with the love of God.  Would that we could look to Jesus and see him as the true picture of what God is really like.

Confession time:  I find myself drawn way too often to the God of Religion #1.  When things are tough, I find it way too easy to imagine that God has brought these things upon me because He is fundamentally angry and I am disappointing to Him on a fundamental level, that the way I did not take is the way God wanted me to take but I was too stubborn and hellbent on my own way to see it, that I deserve nothing better than this distress, and that my only proper response is to submit and prostrate myself before His just and sovereign power and let it do its wise and needed work in my life.

I need help to believe–to move past the level of knowing and on to actual lived, heartfelt belief–that the Jesus we read about in the Gospels is the truth of who God really is and how He really feels toward us, and that this love is truly for all people, including me.

How Not to Pray in the Face of a Natural Disaster

Today we are going to talk about how not to pray.  Our teaching exhibit comes to us courtesy of John Piper, and is called “A Prayer in the Path of Hurricanes”.

It is considered monumentally bad form to publicly critique someone else’s prayer.  But this is a public prayer posted by a public figure in a public forum as a model for how to pray in the face of a natural disaster; for these reasons public critique is perfectly appropriate and warranted.  Besides, I am a blogger.  Offering unsolicited opinions when inappropriate and unwarranted is what I do.

Now then, the prayer:

O Lord God, mighty and merciful, we are asking for mercy — mercy amid the manifestations of your great might. We are asking, for Jesus’s sake. Not because we deserve anything better than calamity. We know that we have sinned. We have exchanged the high treasure of your glory for trinkets. We have not loved you with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We have sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. We are pleading for mercy.

We make no demands. You are God, and we are not. We are bent low in submission to your just and sovereign power. Indeed, we are prostrate before the unstoppable wind of your justice and wisdom.

We know that you, O Lord, are great. Whatever you please, you do, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. You make clouds rise at the end of the earth. You bring forth the wind from its storehouses.

You have commanded and raised the mighty wind, and it has lifted up the waves of the sea. The floods have lifted up, O Lord. You have tilted the water-skins of the heavens.

You sweep us away as with a flood. You kill and you make alive; you wound and you heal; and there is none that can deliver out of your hand. You sit enthroned over the flood — enthroned as king forever.

We are like a dream, like dust swept off the street in a torrent.

But you, O God, are mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea. It is our peril and our hope that you can do all things, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

O Lord, do not sleep through this storm. O Lord, let not the flood sweep over us, or the deep swallow us up. Rise up! And do what only you can do amid these winds and waves. Rebuke them, as you once did. When they have done your wise and needed work, let them not have one minute more of strength. Command them, O Christ, to cease, we pray. And make a holy calm. For you are God, all things are your servants.

And give us ears, O God. Your voice, O Lord, is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. O God, forbid that we would not give heed.

Open our ears, you who once brought Job to humble silence, announcing from the whirlwind who you are, and that, when all is lost, the story then unfolds that in it all your purpose was compassionate and kind.

Whether we sit waste deep in the water of our Texas homes, or wait, uncertain, with blankets on a church pew, or nail the plywood to our Florida shop, or sit secure and dry a thousand miles from any sea, teach us, in mercy, what we need to learn, and cannot any other way.

And woe to us who, far away from floods, would point our finger at the sufferer and wonder at his greater sin, forgetting how the voice of Jesus rings in every tragedy: “Do you think that they were worse offenders? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” The very word of God to all Americans.

And now, O Lord, unleash the common grace of kindness from a million hearts and bank accounts, and grant as great a mercy in rebuilding as you once gave verdict to destroy. Restrain, O God, the evil hearts of those who would bring sorrow upon sorrow by looting what is left behind, or exploiting loss for private gain.

And in your church awaken this: the truth that you once gave yourself for us that we might be redeemed, not first from floods, but sin and lawlessness. That you once died, not first to put us out of peril, but to make us pure. Not first to spare us misery, but make us zealous for good deeds. And so, O mighty Christ, unleash from us another flood — the blood-bought passion of your people not for ruin, but for rebuilding lives and homes.

O Father, awaken every soul to see where we have built our lives on sand. Show us from every storm the way to build our lives on rock. Oh are you not our rock! Out fortress our deliverer, our God in whom we take refuge, our shield, and the horn of our salvation, our stronghold. How great the fall of every life built on the sand of human skill!

And yet, how great the sure and solid gift held out to everyone in Christ! For you have said more wonderfully than we can ever tell:

Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword — or wind, or waves? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through your great love for us.
For you have made us say with deep assurance: Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor hurricanes nor floods, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And all in Jesus’s name,

Amen.

First of all, it seems incredibly charitable to call this a prayer, as it is actually a sermon very thinly disguised as a prayer.

Here we see the Neo-Calvinist way of looking at things played out before us par excellence.  In this view of things, it all begins and ends with God, His greatness, and His glory.  God is fully and completely responsible for all things, good or evil–there is not a single molecule in the entire universe which moves apart from His direction (as R. C. Sproul puts it, “There are no maverick molecules”)–and there is no standard other than “what God pleases”.  Or to put it another way, whatever brings greater glory to God, whatever magnifies His greatness and glory.  As noted above, it all begins and ends with God’s greatness and glory.  God’s power and might, His greatness and glory, are such that the only proper human response is abject silence and submission.

Such a view of God and His sovereignty is much more at home in Islam than in anything even remotely resembling biblical Christianity.

The view of humanity expressed here is one of complete and utter depravity.  While the idea of total depravity is a theme throughout Christianity, in the Neo-Calvinist world this is ratcheted up several thousand notches.  Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and its consequences, all of humanity has become so utterly corrupt and loathsome to God as to be deserving of the devastation wrought by Harvey and Irma.  It’s worse than that, actually:  We are all deserving of the worst kind of death imaginable followed by an eternity of conscious torment.  Anything less than this, shown to just one out of the billions of humans who have ever lived, is nothing less than the most extraordinary act of mercy on God’s part.  What can I say of a theological framework which permits one to view this devastation as the “wise and needed work” of God?

Such a view of humanity and of God’s mercy has more in common with Islam than anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.

Pastoral sensitivity?  Not here, my friend.  All this devastation was wrought by God to teach us lessons and it is our job to learn those lessons, for there are some lessons which cannot be learned any other way.  Not above using Luke 13 to take a cheap evangelistic shot at any who think that something like this can’t possibly happen to them.  It can and it will so you’d better repent before it’s too late.

Of course there is the altar call at the end; no sermon or sermon-disguised-as-a-prayer would be complete without that.  When it comes to evangelism, you should never let a good human tragedy go to waste.  After all, what is human suffering compared to advancing the kingdom of God?  This makes perfect sense in a theological framework where it all begins and ends with God and His greatness and glory.

For the coup de grace, Piper closes the deal by taking us to the closing lines of Romans 8, one of the greatest Scriptural passages of all.  But to revel in the love of Christ at a time when we should be expressing it through silence, humble service, and presence with those impacted by these devastating events–that is simply tone-deaf.

John Piper has not been known to let a natural disaster pass without availing himself of the opportunity to promote his Neo-Calvinistic way of looking at things, in which all such tragedies fit neatly within a theological framework which begins and ends with the glory of God.  Sure enough, he came through like a champion with this prayer.

This is simply not the way to pray in the face of natural disaster and human suffering.  Real people, real loss, real human suffering are reduced to nothing more than bullet points in a theological system:  the expression of God’s power and glory, our deserved lot before an all-powerful and mighty God whom we have offended, a teaching moment to catalyze repentance and drive evangelism.

Think about this through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  If you can make a case that what love requires of you in this moment is to pray like this…nope.  There is no such case to be made.  This is simply not the way to pray in a moment like this.

Not Signing the Nashville Statement

If there is one thing we evangelicals have down to an art, it is producing definitive statements of belief on some doctrine or another.

ICYMI (and you probably did miss it with all the news about Harvey):  The Nashville Statement dropped last week.  It comes to us courtesy of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical think tank whose mission is to promote the complementarian way of looking at things and an ultra-conservative view of gender roles and gender issues.  The list of signers reads like a who’s who of all the big names in conservative, complementarian evangelicalism.  (Many of these are big names in the Neo-Calvinist world and no doubt their views are informed and influenced by the Neo-Calvinist perspective.  But I digress.)

My name is not on that list.  Nor will it be at any time in the foreseeable future.  But if you’ve been tracking with me for any significant length of time, you probably suspected as much.

By this point the Nashville Statement has been picked apart by the Christian blogosphere.  I leave the specific, article-by-article analysis to others such as Scot McKnight, Preston Sprinkle, and more, and will limit myself to addressing the global, overarching themes.

The first question:  Why now?  Why at this specific moment in history?  The signers’ decision to release this statement at a time when all the eyes of the nation were on Houston was questionable at best, but I’m not here to nit-pick that aspect of things.  The larger question is this:  Why now, in an age when cultural sensitivity to and acceptance of same-sex and transgender issues is on the rise?  Why now, in an age when it seems that the evangelical message to the culture at large on gender is increasingly falling on deaf ears?  This has the feel of doubling down, screaming ever louder and more defiantly in the face of a culture that we fear is slipping away from us.

For the most part, the Nashville Statement affirms what the Church has always taught with regard to human sexuality, marriage, and gender.  Not all of the differences between male and female are cultural; some are inextricably linked to our biology with the result that male and female are significantly different ways of being human and it takes a great deal of empathetic imagination for one to understand the other.  Christians who deny this are at odds with some basic elements of a Christian worldview.  God’s design for marriage is male and female, whenever the Bible speaks of marriage it always speaks of male and female, whenever it speaks of same-sex relations it does not speak favorably.  The Church has, throughout its history, affirmed this view of things, and the Nashville Statement lines up with this.  I do have concerns with the language in some places, but I leave that to those who have already parsed this thing through and through.  My concerns are the same as theirs.

But why?  Why the need to issue a lengthy, dogmatic pronouncement on an issue which, though the Bible speaks clearly on it, it devotes a very small amount of text in comparison to the whole and to the volume of text devoted to other issues?  This has been my objection all along to the complementarian camp on this issue:  Though the Biblical text is clearly on their side, the volume of text is minuscule compared to the length of the Bible in its entirety, and compared to the volume of text addressing other issues.

Article 10 (I lied when I said I wouldn’t get down into the nitty-gritty of this thing) clearly shows the signers’ intention to raise this issue to which so little Scriptural ink is devoted to the level of essential Christian belief.  It claims that acceptance of homosexuality and/or transgenderism is “an essential departure” from Christian faithfulness.  A departure?  Sure.  An essential departure?  I don’t think so.  No Christian creed, from 1 Corinthians 15 to the Reformers, has ever made one’s view on homosexuality/transgenderism an essential of the Christian faith.  As such, it is nothing less than the Judaizing heresy of Christ-plus-X that Paul battled in Galatia.  In Paul’s day it was circumcision, today it is homosexuality.  Slactivist goes off on this point, going so far as to call it “ugly ingratitude” because all Christians have benefited from Paul’s push against the Judaizing powers-that-be in Galatia to include all believers including uncircumcised Gentiles, yet now we want to turn around and claim that another class of people (LGBT) are unwelcome unless they conform themselves to our way of looking at things.

The statement also represents a massive failure of pastoral sensitivity toward a class of people for whom Christ died and whom Christ commands us to love.  All the way through it speaks of LGBT’s as “they”, a subtle cue indicating that it sees LGBT’s and their Christian sympathizers as a separate class who must be pulled out and addressed separately from all the rest of Christianity.  It reduces complex issues of gender, sexuality, and self-identity which some go through excruciating pain in attempting to sort out, to easy and simple answers which ought to be self-evident to anyone.  It preaches, screams, to LGBT’s and to the culture at large, eschewing the posture of Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet–a slave’s task–and commanded all of us to do the same.

Though the Nashville Statement is consistent with orthodox Christian belief, it reeks of insensitivity in this cultural moment.  It has the feel of doubling down, as if its promoters are desperately lashing out in order to hold on to a cultural power that is slipping away.  It raises an issue on which the Bible wastes precious little ink to the level of essential Christian belief.  It is blind to the complexities of gender, sexuality, and self-identity issues and insensitive to those who have experienced and are experiencing extreme pain in attempting to sort these out.

Evangelicalism has a long record of dehumanizing gays, and in this decade that is costing us tremendous influence in the gay community and in culture at large.  An ever-increasing number of young people are turned off to evangelicalism and to Christianity itself because of evangelicalism’s track record with the gay community.  The Nashville Statement just dumped several truckloads of nitroglycerine on that grease fire.