Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christ vs. Caesar

We are a generation that is fixated on instant news. Our proclivity to assess our world based on current events is not new. In the first century people found hope or despair based on current news. The Roman Empire was the great western nation. It was ruled by Octavian, the great nephew of Julius Caesar. Octavian was eventually called Caesar Augustus, meaning Revered Emperor. He was the Caesar who brought the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome). He was even referred to on one inscription as the savior of the world. It was this news which informed the people of the first century.

This is the background to Luke’s ironic account of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2. Luke provides us with a news account which focuses our attention in an unlikely place. He gives us news about an insignificant teen girl, in an insignificant town, in an insignificant nation, giving birth to a very significant baby. Luke begins this story with Caesar Augustus’ census which forced Joseph and Mary to return to Bethlehem, demonstrating that the world’s greatest leader was simply a pawn in God’s plan for the birth of Jesus. Luke goes on to tell us this baby, not Caesar, is truly the Revered King, the Savior, and the One who brings peace.

Jesus is the Son of God who was born a man to live perfectly in our place, pay the penalty for our sin on the Cross, and raise from the dead, so that all who turn from sin and trust in him alone will be saved. Luke directly challenges our focus on current news and places it squarely on the good news of Jesus. May this Christmas season remind us that all other news events are merely tangential to the greatest news story ever told!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Impossibility of Evangelism & Preaching

Just after preaching the worship service at Sovereign Grace, I went to lunch with an unbelieving man. We had a great conversation and I was able to talk extensively about the gospel. He enjoyed the conversation and was more than happy to engage. He seemed to understand what I was saying conceptually, yet looked at me through the eyes of someone who wasn't connecting to my descriptions of the grace of God in the gospel at all. I enjoyed my time with him and hope to spend a lot more. I also was reminded of some precious biblical truth with regard to the impossibility of evangelism and preaching.

Christianity does not teach that truth is merely conceptual. Truth is personal. It is personal because Jesus is himself the truth. As a result, I can explain the truth and provide biblical descriptions of the truth, but it is impossible for me to describe the truth sufficiently enough for you to actually know the Truth. You can't know a person by hearing a description about him. You must meet and experience him. The problem is that men are not, in and of themselves, able to know the Truth. They can understand the descriptions I provide in preaching and evangelism. They can't, however, taste and see that the Lord is good through my descriptions of him. In the moments when I realize this, I feel like a man trying to describe honey to someone who has never tasted its sweetness.

The Bible is clear that the eyes of unbelievers have been blinded to really knowing and believing the truth. They can't see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:3-4). So, trying to describe the grace of God in Jesus to them is like describing the majesty of a sunset to a blind person. They can't see it based on my descriptions. They must receive sight. The Bible also refers to unbelievers as those who are spiritually deaf. I can sign the greatest description of a symphony to them, but they still don't know the beauty of its sound. So, in one sense evangelism and preaching are an impossible task. Apart from God opening the eyes of the spiritually blind, giving hearing to the spiritually deaf, or giving life to the spiritually dead so they can taste and see that the Lord is good, no man will ever know and trust in the Truth, Jesus Christ our Lord!

This reality drives me to my knees to plead with God to give spiritual sight, hearing, and life to unbelievers. The impossibility of evangelism and preaching in this regard should inform the church's prayer life. We must pray for men to be saved because God must work in them if they are to see and hear and know the Truth. So, I will continue to describe the goodness of the Lord in the gospel to people and I will also continue to pray that God enables them to taste the sweet honey of the gospel.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Oh Taste and See that the Lord is Good!

"The man whose soul is “growing” takes more interest in spiritual things every year. He does not neglect his duty in the world. He discharges faithfully, diligently, and conscientiously every relation of life, whether at home or abroad. But the things he loves best are spiritual things. The ways, and fashions, and amusements, and recreations of the world have a continually decreasing place in his heart. He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to hell. He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections, and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes. Spiritual companions, spiritual occupations, spiritual conversation, appear of ever-increasing value to him. Would any one know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increasing spirituality of taste."

J.C. Ryle, Holiness

Monday, September 27, 2010

Solomon and the 20th Century, Pt. 2

Part II: The Wind Cries Vanity

When we come upon the contrast I posited last week between the “Christian worldview” that values order, rationality, and meaning in the universe and the “Secular worldview” in the forms of Existentialism and modern art that values chaos, disorder, and meaninglessness, we must look much deeper than worldview assertions (or “world-interpretations” as I termed it last time). We must interrogate these assertions and ask why people interpret the world the way do. Is it because they begin with different texts to guide their interpretations? Possibly; the Christian interpretation does claim to begin with the Scriptures while the other does not. But we must ask an even deeper question: How do those respective parties each interpret their own text? Regrettably, we do not have the privilege of not interpreting the Bible and saying that these truths we claim merely are. Interpretation is the only game in town, and that means we have some explaining to do. So then, if we’re going to examine the Bible to determine what is Biblical or not in the way of the 20th Century claims about the world, man, and his existence in this world, where are we going to start?

Last week I suggested we begin with Solomon, and I still think that is a fantastic place to begin our study. God gave Solomon a tremendous amount of wisdom as well as the skill to write it down. However, I can’t seem to begin by ignoring the Beginning of Beginnings. Before we can go into the world Ecclesiastes, we have to briefly scour the beginning of Genesis – the entire Old Testament hinges on those opening chapters; it is after all the beginning. God created the world, and it was good; God formed man and woman, and it was very good – a brief summary of chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 3: big problem! Man disobeys God by eating the fruit God commanded him not to. Here’s where I want us to focus before we get into Solomon. The universe was made by God as very good; this idea of “good” is not a moral “goodness”, but a kind of usefulness and beneficence toward mankind. Creation was designed with man in mind, and all things lent to his good health and prosperity. Yet something goes incredibly wrong. Man, whom God favored as the ruler of all creation, trespassed the one and only command given him as ruler. And what was the consequence?

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
(Gen 3:17-19, emphasis added)

We must be careful to note that God did not curse Adam and Eve, but he did curse the creation, that creation he only recently created for man’s good. The verb used for “cursed” (ארר, for any Hebrew nerds out there) is the strongest in the Old Testament; God is utterly serious about subjecting the creation to this harshest of curses because of the totality, the sheer atrocity Adam’s disobedience in order that man’s life, which was once good and harmonious in the creation, would be one of toil, pain, and death – dust to dust. I don’t think I need to spend any time convincing you that we all live in this cursed place. Growing things to eat out of the ground requires hard work, making a living requires a great deal of toil, our front yards easily fill with thorns and thistles (a fact some of us are conveniently reminded of every weekend) and the most terrifying fact of all, everyone dies. Toil, sweat, and death are all essential parts of our lives after the Tree, no matter how much we may wish to ignore them. We live in a post-fall world, and it is of this world that Solomon speaks. He uses his wisdom to interpret a world integrally affected by Adam’s disobedience in the subsequent curse. So, with this in mind, that it was Adam’s disobedience that brought the curse upon creation, let us descend into the depths of the Preacher’s wisdom.

As we begin looking at Ecclesiastes, let us remind ourselves of the question at hand. Has God placed us in a world that, though fallen, is orderly, has rationality behind it, and operates on a basis of meaningfulness? Or, has God, if we take the basic thesis of Existentialism or modern art seriously on this matter, left us in a world of disorder, irrationality (or better yet non-rationality), and utter meaninglessness? Do our lives have meaning or not? Is there a reason behind this universe? What does life amount to? Just how fallen is this world and our existence in it? Our first introduction to existence in this world, life “under the sun”, from Solomon should be pretty enlightening: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2). Everything is vanity; but what exactly is vanity? Vanity here is not the kind of attitude one may expresses over extended periods of time in front of a mirror. The Hebrew word hevel (הבל), which most Bibles translate as “vanity”, connotes a vaporous or breath-like existence, a perishable nature, nothingness, emptiness, a void. Everything is vanity; everything is a vapor; everything is nothingness; everything is emptiness. Really? Is everything vanity? I think we could all agree that sinful things such as greed, anger, lust, and lies are all vanities, they amount to nothing in the divine scheme, they are pointless and meaningless, but what about our friends and family? What about our work? What about our creativity? What about our love? What about our justice, our happiness, our wisdom, our worship? Are these things vanity too? Doesn’t God value these things in our lives so that they are not empty and vain? Well, if we stay at verse 2, all we can say is “vanity of vanities!” Perhaps the following verses give us some perspective on the extent of this vanity: “And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind.” (1:13-14). Well then, it appears as if Solomon says that indeed everything is vain and empty.

Yet what about wisdom itself? God loves wisdom (Prov. 8) so wisdom must not be vanity. How else could Solomon write this book of wisdom if wisdom where emptiness too? “‘Why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance… How the wise dies just like the fool!” (2:15-16). Solomon, who’s wisdom was far greater than yours and mine, found his wisdom to be nothing but emptiness. We are going to die, and our wisdom will go with us into the dust just like a fool’s folly will accompany him. Both die; none are spared no matter how wise or how foolish. How futile! What’s the point of being wise?

And what about work? God ordained work for man in the garden; surely it must be sacred and meaningful. What about such noble ideas as the “Protestant Work Ethic” and duty? Could those amount to nothingness as well? Of course: “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity” (2:22-23). Does this remind you of Genesis? Life under the curse is life where work is fully of futile toil. No matter how well you work or how much you accomplish for good or evil it all amounts to the same thing: nothing. You work, you pile up accomplishments, and who gets the benefit of it when you die? The fool that comes after you (2:19). Because of the curse, work in this world is a vexation, it’s painful and tiresome, and there is no end of it. You’ll die before you can find any meaning in it – it’s all vanity. Why work at all then? What’s the point? Why shouldn’t I just quit my job and go begin digging my own grave? (Please don’t be so morbid). Hang on a moment longer.

Solomon brings us to an as yet unprecedented conclusion for the book of Ecclesiastes in the following verse: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24). We are supposed to enjoy our work? I thought it was supposed to be vanity? I thought it was cursed? No, “This also… is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25). Without God there would be no enjoyment. Yet this brings up a vexing question that cuts to the heart of our concerns. Does enjoyment eliminate the vanity, or are we simply to enjoy in spite of the vanity? Enjoyment is from the hand of God; it is one of the many gifts God gives us in our lives on this earth. Just as we cannot eat without God’s provision, we cannot enjoy without fearing him. But just because we’re enjoying something, does that make it less vain, less of a void? This question crops up over and over throughout Ecclesiastes. Solomon lays out a brutally honest picture of the world in all its emptiness, and then reminds us to be joyful in it. Your work is vain, so enjoy it! How do we do that? Do we take from our joy to acknowledge the emptiness, or do we forget the emptiness to be happy with our lives? Since there is nothing better to do “than to be joyful and to do good as long as [we] live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man” (3:12-13), why does Solomon even acknowledge, in all his wisdom, the vain nature of our world? Doesn’t that just kill all the joy? Or rather, does enjoying things give them meaning? Does being thankful to God, something we can only do as Christians, reintroduce the meaning that was lost in the fall?

There is one point in the text where I believe Solomon’s answer collides most poignantly with this question. Take a look at Ecclesiastes 9:9: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he [God] has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun”. Here Solomon goes again: enjoy! “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love”! Thank God for your marriage, enjoy love! Great, that means marriage too has meaning when we can enjoy it the Christian context. But what comes next? “All the days of your vain life…” Enjoy… all the days of your vain life. In other words, enjoy your vain life, the vain life that God gave you. In your empty work, your empty wisdom, your empty romance, in your weary life under the sun where nothing amounts to anything and everything amounts to nothing, be joyful! Life is by nature a vexation, full of weariness for us as we live in a post-fall world, so you better enjoy it. Solomon sees our lives as simultaneous enjoyment and vanity; one does not negate the other, they are both equally part of our existence in this fallen world.

As fallen creates we live east of Eden, and everything east of Eden is nothingness. We live in the once good world that has since been cursed, where everything has become frustrated so that we cannot tell end of something from its beginning – “the wind blows… and on its circuits the wind returns”. The purpose in our lives has been obscured and the only thing predictable about our lives is that we will die. However much we’ve accumulated through toil, however lucid our wisdom, however pleasant our family and friends, it all amounts to nothing; we die and it will all be forgotten, and anyone who remembers us or inherits our possessions will also die and be forgotten: “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Ecc. 1:11). Everything in this world will fade away like castles made of sand – dust to dust. Everything under the sun is “vanity and striving after wind”, striving after the wind we can never catch; the world is a vapor that extends through us in all of our “meaningful” activities. Vanity of vanities, all in this fallen world is vanity.

If you’re still reading this, even if you’ve been as comfortable as if you were sitting in a bucket of piranhas since everything you’ve ever known or did has been summed up as a bunch of vanity. No, it’s not very pleasant, and it isn’t supposed to be. And like everything uncomfortable, every unpleasant truth, there are always plenty of objections. “How can there be absolutely no meaning in my life? Doesn’t God have a plan for everything? Don’t things amount to something in the end?” I am no scholar of Ecclesiastes and the best I can say is perhaps, but can you know any of that meaning from where you’re sitting now? We don’t have the privilege of seeing the end of something from its beginning – causes do not advertise effects. We have to remember that it was God himself that gets the credit for giving us our vain lives and all the vain things we have to do in them, our vain work, or vain love, our vain wisdom. Vanity is not anti-sovereignty, anti-providence, or anti-God; rather, its sovereignty, providence, and God viewed from the perspective of post-fall human beings, creatures living in a world after Eden. We’re made of dust and we’re going back to dust – dust does not have the right to view things from the heavens. So why do anything? Well, there’s no particular reason to do anything, except that being thankful to God, obeying him, and fearing him will bring us to enjoy what we do. Our alternatives are between doing nothing and being miserable and disobedient to God, and doing nothing and enjoying it in the fear of God with thankfulness and obedience. Solomon is trying to drive us to this point where we cannot rely on those “meaningful” things in life. The utter meaninglessness he brings us to, the abyss he drops us into, leaves us with one option as believers: fear God. We get protective over our "meaning" in life as if there were nothing better, when in fact our meanings are subtle cover-ups for our loss. God has stripped us on our way out of Paradise of whatever we might want to find meaningful, and now nothing is better than to simply enjoy, fear and obey. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

So now, after merely grazing the surface of the Scriptures, how do we esteem our “Christian worldview”? It doesn’t sound like Solomon’s “worldview”, and I would humbly suggest that this is a problem. We cannot very well maintain anything “Christian” that doesn’t quite line up with the Scriptures – although some may try very hard. Our “new” (or should I say “uncovered”?) Christian world-interpretation, which holds nothing of the former’s audacity, extends its footing to the very bedrock of Christian thought: the Scriptures, and from here we have no need to rise any further.

And what about the notions of “order” and “rationality”? Is the universe ordered? Is there a logic behind it? Those two ideas merge together under the single notion that it is God who has made the world, and, since God is orderly and rational, the universe must likewise be rational and orderly. Simple and clear logic, but it belies and leaves untouched an even simpler fact that comes from our Preacher: “[T]hen I saw all the works of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (Ecc. 8:17). Maybe God is orderly, maybe God is rational, but he is not rational as we are, not orderly as we are. Our orders are not God’s, nor are our logics. If God is orderly and rational, it is a kind that cannot be discerned. The wise men, scientists, philosophers, and, dare I say, even some theologians may claim to know this wisdom, the wisdom of how God works in this world, but they are only making human approximations (which are vain) – they apply human rationality to a God who is greater than his creatures. We certainly know that he works of course, but how is a different matter. What about things like mathematics? Didn’t God create math in the universe? Mathematics, as well all scientific and logical systems of knowledge, is not a matter of discovery but invention. We invent things like math to describe a very human kind of order we see in the universe (and we see it not because it is simply there to be seen but because we are all too human). There are no such things as numbers in the world – that’s something we invented to advance our knowledge (which is also vain, by the way). Human order and rationality are not useless; they are incredibly useful, but that does not mean they were any less invented and vain. God has framed the universe beyond our frame of mind – his knowledge is too high for us. Orderly? Maybe. Rational? Possibly. But certainly in no way any man has ever known it, certainly in no way we could represent in any art form.

And that brings us full circle – back to our modern artists. Values of “meaningfulness”, “order”, and “rationality” have found their homes among other such fictions (be they ever so useful); the “Christian worldview” as we knew it in the above respects has been defrocked of its right to speak for Christianity. How then will we engage with 20th century art and philosophy? Let us allow our interpretation of Solomon to speak. I think you will find he is very capable.


"The Queen of Sheba Kneeling Before King Solomon" - J.F.A. Tischbein

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Are You Strong Enough to Exult in Monotony?

"A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore."

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Not What My Hands Have Done

Not what my hands have done
Can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne
Can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do
Can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers,
And sighs and tears
Can bear my awful load.

Thy work alone, O Christ,
Can ease this weight of sin
Thy blood alone O Lamb of God,
Can give me peace within.
Thy love to me O God,
Not mine, O Lord, to Thee
Can rid me of
This dark unrest,
And set my spirit free!

Thy grace alone, O God,
To me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.
No other work, save Thine,
No other blood will do,
No strength save that,
Which is divine,
Can bear me safely through.

I bless the Christ of God;
I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart,
I call this Savior mine.
His cross dispels each doubt,
I bury in His tomb
My unbelief,
And all my fear,
Each lingering shade of gloom.

I praise the God of grace,
I trust His truth and might
He calls me His, I call Him mine,
My God, my joy, my light
’Tis He Who saveth me,
And freely pardon gives
I love because
He loveth me,
I live because He lives!

Horatius Bonar

Unselfishing Ourselves

“Our self-abnegation is thus not for our own sake but for the sake of others. And thus it is not to mere self-denial that Christ calls us but specifically to self-sacrifice, not to unselfing ourselves but to unselfishing ourselves. Self-denial for its own sake is in its very nature ascetic, monkish. It concentrates our whole attention on self—self-knowledge, self-control—and can therefore eventuate in nothing other than the very apotheosis of selfishness. At best it succeeds only in subjecting the outer self to the inner self or the lower self to the higher self, and only the more surely falls into the slough of self-seeking, that it partially conceals the selfishness of its goal by refining its ideal of self and excluding its grosser and more outward elements. Self-denial, then, drives to the cloister, narrows and contracts the soul, murders within us all innocent desires, dries up all the springs of sympathy, and nurses and coddles our self-importance until we grow so great in our own esteem as to be careless of the trials and sufferings, the joys and aspirations, the strivings and failures and successes of our fellow-men. Self-denial, thus understood, will make us cold, hard, unsympathetic—proud, arrogant, self-esteeming—fanatical, overbearing, cruel. It may make monks and Stoics, it cannot make Christians.”

B. B. Warfield, “Imitating the Incarnation,” in The Person and Work of Christ (Grand Rapids, 1970), page 574.

HT: David Powlison

Friday, September 10, 2010

Have we traded the Gospel for American Prosperity?

Glenn Beck has burst onto the scene of the American right with a religious fervor not rivaled by any of his fellow talk radio or television hosts. He is talented, funny, witty, and smart. He is often a well-informed and passionate voice for many conservative issues. His popular show continues to surge to record numbers. His audience is demonstrably the most committed audience in conservative talk, as evidenced by the enormous turn out at his latest event in Washington DC.

Glenn Beck is also a Mormon. He is not afraid to speak of his Mormon testimony, his belief in who Mormons call Heavenly Father, or his desire to see America return to God. Lately his television shows have been riddled with discussions about God and the need for America to have a revival of sorts. He has spoken to great extent on the need for a Third Great Awakening in America; seemingly positioning himself as one of its leaders.

The First Great Awakening provided much of the religious and moral backbone for the American Revolution and subsequent founding of our country. The Second Great Awakening accomplished the same for the Civil War. Both of these great awakenings occurred as a result of gospel preaching and a deep passion for the Bible in the church. Glenn Beck seems to believe we need a Third Great Awakening in order to launch a war on political progressives and reclaim our country for God-fearing, liberty-loving, constitution-keeping, small-government capitalists. I would argue that on this note Glenn Beck is correct. I agree with De Tocqueville, Montesquieu, and others that unless the people of a nation are a moral people who self-govern their passions, the hope of liberty will fall to the tyranny of big government. I believe the only way this kind of self-governing of passions will occur is if we have a great Christian awakening in America.

However, I am also deeply concerned about Glenn Beck’s call for a Third Great Awakening. I am not primarily concerned with Glenn Beck. I am primarily concerned with the Evangelicals who are passionately looking to his leadership for this kind of revival. I am uneasy about the compromise I see taking place within evangelicalism. Evangelicals seem to be trading the gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, for the gospel of American prosperity. We have become so eager to advance an agenda of just laws for the good of our neighbors that we are beginning to compromise where it is not needed.

Historically, evangelicals have been called such because of their commitment to the “evangel,” or the gospel of Jesus Christ. While we have always had our in-house debates and disagreements, we thoroughly agreed that there were doctrinal parameters for defining the house. Positively defined, our core belief was that the Trinitarian God of the Old and New Testaments sent forth his Son, Jesus Christ, to pay for our sins on the cross, to rise from the dead, and to give the gift of new life and the Holy Spirit to all who believe. We believed the Bible was our sole authority and salvation was through faith alone in Jesus alone. Negatively defined, we were not Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or any of the cults of Protestantism; Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Apostolic.

It seems we are increasingly abandoning those core doctrines for a different set of core doctrines! When a man who believes in a completely different God calls us to a Third Great Awakening and we come running down the aisle clamoring for that great day, I wonder if we haven’t traded our core doctrine of the “evangel” for the core doctrine of “American prosperity.” When our evangelical leaders come together and link arms with a Mormon broadcaster and pray to “God” alongside him, I become increasingly convinced we have set our hope on the wrong kingdom.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not concerned specifically about Glenn Beck, or the Mormon church. I am thankful for the work they did in fighting to keep marriage between a man and a woman. I am thankful for the Roman Catholic church’s efforts to save the lives of unborn babies. I am not arguing against fighting for just causes alongside anyone who wants to join the fight. Rather, my concern is with evangelicals who are redefining the “evangel” to something less than the Gospel we have historically held to in an effort to reclaim America.

As a minister of the Gospel, and a citizen of the kingdom of God, I would love to see a Third Great Awakening in America. I long for and pray for that day. Yet, I believe that awakening must be thoroughly tied to the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the Bible and professed among historic evangelicals. I do not believe that awakening can be or should be led by a Mormon. I do not believe it is irresponsible to fight alongside Glenn Beck for just causes. I do believe it is irresponsible, and even idolatrous, to link arms in prayer with him and pretend we worship the same God or preach the same gospel.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Solomon and the 20th Century, Pt. 1

Part I: Why Do So Many Christians Hate Modern Art?

Lately, I’ve been rather surprised to find in recent conversations the extent to which ideas like Existentialism (taken in a very general sense) and concepts like modern art, staples of early 20th century world-war era culture, are widely despised by many Christians, especially those whom I would consider very smart. Their objections to the Existentialists (and there are various “breeds” so the generalization only goes so far), which range from a pithy intellectual dismissal to complete moral indignation and animosity, are very much the same as those they give to modern art – they find it degenerate. To some this could be moral degeneracy, meaning that those ideas have degraded from the older “Judeo-Christian morality” into a degenerate “secular morality”. Some look at the beauty of a Renaissance masterpiece and compare it to, let’s say, a Picasso portrait, and feel completely repulsed by the strangeness, chaos, and deformity of it all. “Secular morality”, they could say, “has perverted the image of man, which is the image of God, into this monstrosity! Clearly this is degenerate, immoral art”. Likewise, when these critics examine works of Existentialist philosophy, say Jean-Paul Sartre for example, they arrive at similar conclusions of the man’s moral degeneracy from the “Judeo-Christian” values (which is all too true) and render the same judgment on all of his philosophical positions. However, others who may be less inclined to the moral generalities consider these 20th century cultural artifacts as intellectual degeneracy. They view modern art and its philosophical kin Existentialism as intellectually degenerate from the “Judeo-Christian concepts” of order and meaning in the universe. Modern art and Existential thinkers strongly resist the values of order, rationality, and meaning in the universe and in man, values that were placed center-stage in the Enlightenment and all scholarship derived from it. “We cannot hold these views”, I’ve heard Christians argue, “that so clearly go against the Bible’s teachings on man and creation”. I’ve yet to find any book or any Christian thinker who is today taken seriously in Evangelical circles that speaks any more favorably toward either modern art or Existentialism; in my experience there’s been a very consistent negative reaction toward what has been labeled as “secular humanism” – a very dull term that acts more as a bandage for one’s gaping ignorance than a dangerous weapon against today’s culture – where this “secular humanism” finds its most immediate manifestations in art and philosophy, which have always proved historically to be easy targets for culturally resentful people.

Yet the objection is not merely aesthetic. What I’ve found is that Christian’s detest the greatest cultural forces of the early 20th century ultimately because of several prevailing ideas behind them. Perhaps you don’t know exactly what I mean by “Existentialism” or “modern art” (which probably means those terms don’t offend you very much), so for your sakes I will put it simply that what lies underneath things like modern art and philosophies like Existentialism is the idea that the universe is not orderly, not rational, and certainly has no meaning in it. Life is meaningless, the things that happen to you are chaotic, and ultimately, everything is “Absurd”, as the French philosopher Albert Camus put it. For them, the world certainly doesn’t have any moral order, there are no innate laws of nature, and, more importantly, you couldn’t even know them if they did exist. That’s why modern art looks like it doesn’t make any sense; it’s a statement of a world that makes no sense, not a representation through the eyes, as art has been historically viewed, but a stand-alone production as another nonsense thing in a nonsense world, a nonsense thing meant to make you realize the nonsense of the world. In the same way there’s no reason to value the “subject” of the portrait as more important of focus than the background because there’s no inherent values in humanity or nature that privileges one thing over another, which is why background and foreground are often mixed in modern painting. Proportionality and perspective are also things that are “flattened” in modern art. Nature to them is not proportional, perspective is something distinctly human, and painting is supposed to exhibit this too. Essentially, the point of it is not to make a something beautiful, but to make a statement to remind us that the meaning, order, and rationality of life we so often hold on to is just made up – we made the rules of the very game we subject ourselves to. As such, they try and break those rules to allow us a glimpse of the Absurdity and meaninglessness we really live in. It’s as if they were reminding everyone that the delusions of being rich are no cover-up for poverty; it’s as if they were trying to wake us up from our idealistic dreams. Not very pleasant is it. It’s no surprise to me that many Christian’s have an instinctual reaction against things like modern art and Existentialism. Much of Christian thought has been organized around values exactly opposite: beauty, truth, rationality, order, and meaning in life. Almost as if reacting to a physical threat, Christian writers and thinkers repudiate these ideas as anti-Biblical, against the Christian worldview, and altogether worldly.

Yet I believe this reaction is far too philosophical to be of any use – far too metaphysical to matter to a “degenerate” Existentialist. The problem with the answer most Christians give is not in the worldview-propositions or the values themselves, but that they even give them as answers. The battle is not a battle of “worldviews” since these “worldviews” – a spurious term I hate to use – can do nothing but merely restate their founding instincts in manifold forms. If we remain on the level of arguing between worldviews it will become an increasingly redundant debate full of I’m-right’s and You’re-wrong’s. That is not very helpful to anyone. To get to the bottom of it we must go to the bottom. We must become suspicious of both “worldviews”, these two opposing systems of values, and realize that no one simply views the world, as if it were an exhibit in a museum carefully preserved for us to analyze and explain, but rather that we all interpret the world. Things are not so obvious as to be simply viewed. Here then we see two “world-interpretations” coming to the fore each with their own set of rules prescribing the means of interpreting the various “texts” of nature and in one case the Bible (if I may speak in such an accommodating manner since the whole idea of a “text” becomes consumed in the act of interpreting – how can we tell the two apart?). As such, we have to be honest with ourselves; the Christian “worldview” does not have impregnable defenses because it is ultimately an interpretation, and interpretations come from people with biases. With every interpretation, the conclusions come from somewhere, and a little suspicion for until now easily accepted propositions is only warranted. In fact propositions can no longer be seen as weapons to defend from and attack the enemy, they are now merely affects of an interpretation, outward adornments to fit the philosophical dress-code. I am not saying we ought to be suspicious of the Bible, but we have good reason to be suspicious of our interpretation (and who doesn’t interpret the Bible?), and beyond that our interpretation of interpretations which we elevate as “worldviews”. We, and anyone else for that matter, have a right to be suspicious of these values and the pegs they hang on because their truth may be far less than obvious. At this point the argument transforms from moral indictments and hack philosophical propositions about why that view is unbiblical or not, to an honest question: why are we interpreting what we’re interpreting the way we are? Let’s not take our “worldview” for granted – what are the guts of our objections?

Now this isn’t the place to dive into Existential interpretations and valuations – maybe some other time. What I’m more interested in is why Christians hold to such a view that values order, rationality, and meaning, and why they interpret the world this way. All such ideas have their genealogy; let us begin to trace them back. I suppose the easy answer would be to say they come from the Bible, but that would be foolishly reflexive. Where and why do we get these things from the Bible? Even though we believe it to be the truth of God, we still must interpret it and that means applying a set of rules. Where do these rules come from? The text? We often claim these things to be Biblical, and I think it wise to wonder if they really are. If we are going to call ideas like meaninglessness and chaos in the world wrong, we ought to be confident of our rightness. If we’re going to have such a reaction against something so “unbiblical” we better make sure we are being Biblical as objectors. We must make archaeological inquiries into the history of our “Biblical values”. Now, if this is the task we are to give ourselves, where are we to look?

I’ve recently dealt with this issue in a rather involved discussion that, although more broad, kept coming back to the book of Ecclesiastes. The question was whether or not a Christian may view the world as Absurd (in the above Existential sense of meaninglessness and non-sense); do our lives in this world have meaning? Can we truly make sense of it all? Can we take seriously the statement of modern art and Existentialists when they say the world is a chaotic and absurd place where things happen to you that mean nothing at all? Who better to answer this than the Bible’s wise man Solomon? Well, no one's better than Solomon, but he's going to have to wait until the next part.

Paintings in order of appearance:
1. "White Crucifixion", 1938 - Marc Chagall (Notice the painting's atypical representation of an extremely typical Renaissance subject. Is Chagall offering any kind of profane view of Christ?)
2. "Girl Before Mirror" (Detail), 1932 - Pablo Picasso (How many people do you know that look like that? Perhaps Picasso is trying to say something about the human form that traditional representation can't? Notice the "flatness" and lack of depth as opposed to a "traditional" painting.)
3. "Metaphysical Interior with Biscuit", 1916 - Giorgio de Chirico (What is the subject of this painting?)
4. "Disintegration of Persistence", 1954 - Salvador Dali (This is a good example of a Surrealist work which often exhibit extreme anti-realism. Not much traditional order and representation hear. Notice how the watches, things of order, are "disintegrating" into who knows what, maybe Nothingness? Compare this painting to his "Persistence of Memory".)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Go therefore"

The following conversation took place between D. L. Moody and a critic:

Critic: “Mr. Moody, I don’t think your approach to evangelism is very effective.”
Moody: “I am certain that it can be improved upon. What method do you use? I would like to learn how to do my work better.”
Critic: “I don’t have any method just now.”
Moody: “Then I will stick to my way for the time being.”

HT: Dr. Lyle Dorsett

Monday, August 23, 2010

Life in the Body

“The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. It must be most emphatically stated that items included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant. By members he meant that what we should call organs, things, essentially different from, and complementary to, one another. When we describe a man as ‘a member of the Church’ we usually mean nothing Pauline: we mean only that he is a unit—that he is one more specimen of some kind of things as X and Y.

The society into which the Christian is called at baptism is not a collective but a Body. If anyone came to it with the misconception that membership of the Church was membership in a debased modern sense—a massing together of persons as if they were pennies—he would be corrected at the threshold by the discovery that the head of this Body is so unlike the inferior members that they share no predicate with him save by analogy. We are summoned from the outset to combine as creatures with out Creator, as mortals with immortal, as redeemed sinners with sinless Redeemer. His presence, the interaction between him and us, must always be the overwhelmingly dominant factor in the life we are to lead within the Body; and any conception of Christian fellowship which does not mean primarily fellowship with him is out of court. We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man, and man to Christ. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory