An open letter to 50 Shades… fans:

50-Shades-of-Grey-Christian-Review-e1357768415940Could we talk?

I mean, there’s already been a lot of chatter about this year’s theatrical release of 50 Shades of Grey.  And by “chatter” I mean my social media newsfeeds have been clogged with various reactions to the film.  My conservative friends voice concern that the film promotes pornography.  My self-described feminist friends voice concerns that the film’s BDSM elements propagate a “rape culture.”  Ironically, while Christians typically toss around the term “grace” and feminists demonize the use of “shaming language,” both groups have shrilly united around a singular message: the film is pornographic, and pornography is bad, therefore women who go see it are in some way contributing to humanity’s further demise.  I don’t know about all that, but it seems in today’s digitized age of tribal politicking and moral grandstanding, it’s become all too easy to talk past each other, or to only spout off enough of your opinion to ensure your Twitter followers feel the same way you do.  So while I’ve written on this subject before—back when E.L. James series of 50 Shades novels garnered attention—I felt that rather than offer yet another analysis of this subject, it would be more helpful to stop, take some time, and write to anyone who might see all the salivating controversy and be thinking: “What’s the big deal?”  I suppose I should mention that I write this as a guy—nay, a single, white, male, Christian pastor.  I realize it’s fashionable to question everyone’s agenda, so if this is the sort of resume that bothers you I understand and you’re free to resume looking at cats on the internet.  But if you want to have some honest discussion, than maybe—at minimum—this can be a starting point.

Some years ago Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book called Breakfast of Champions.  The novel centered on Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer whose short stories seemed cursed to only appear in pornographic magazines.  In one such story, Trout told the story of Don, an earthling who “who arrived on a planet where all the animal and plant life had been killed by pollution, except for humanoids. The humanoids ate food made from petroleum and coal.  They gave a feast for the astronaut, whose name was Don. The food was terrible.”  When Don tells them that yes, earth has “dirty movies,” the humanoids escort him to a local pornographic theater so he can see for himself just how dirty things can get:

“[The movie] was about a male and a female and their two children, and their dog and their cat. They ate steadily for an hour and a half—soup, meat, biscuits, butter, vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, fruit, candy, cake, pie….  After a while, the actors couldn’t eat any more….They cleared the table slowly. They went waddling out into the kitchen, and they dumped about thirty pounds of leftovers into a garbage can. The audience went wild.  When Don and his friends left the theater, they were accosted by [prostitutes], who offered them eggs and oranges and milk and butter and peanuts and so on. The [prostitutes] couldn’t actually deliver these goodies, of course.  The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a [prostitute], she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.  And then, while he ate them, she would talk dirty about how fresh and full of natural juices the food was, even though the food was fake.”

I’m unclear if there’s any literary connection, but Vonnegut echoes something written by C.S. Lewis (the author of the beloved Narnia series) some years prior.  Lewis wondered, if you found a culture where—instead of strip shows—people crowded into theaters to see “a mutton chop or a bit of bacon,” then would we not conclude that “in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”  In both authors’ views, a planet—a culture—starved for the “real thing” would fetishize their appetites to the point of obscurity.

In our increasingly-individualized world, we are starved for intimacy, for connection.  In his celevbrated novel Generation X, Douglas Coupland speculated that “sex was just an excuse to look deeply into another human being’s eyes.”

So there’s almost a sense in which I wonder if 50 Shades of Grey was not in some way inevitable.  The problem, of course, is that when we use sex as a means of personal fulfillment, it is never our satisfaction that increases—only our demand.  In Superfreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner observe that prostitutes once charged more for acts regarded as “taboo.”  Yet acts that once were most expensive are now among the least expensive.  What once was shocking has increasingly become the expected norm.  We’re like the dwarves from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels.  They delved deeply, looking for treasure.  The problem is that they “dug too greedily and too deep.”  They awoke a “Balrog,” a foul, unearthly creature impervious to traditional assault.   Now what passes for romance is the story of Anastasia and Christian Grey.  According to ABC news, Ana “willingly and excitedly agrees to spanking, whipping and gagging, with props like ice, rope, tape” while “Grey instructs her to call him “sir,” and sets rules on everything from her diet to her most intimate grooming routines.”

“But,” you might be thinking, “what’s the harm in a little ‘guilty pleasure’ now and again?”  You might be tempted to think that Christians are bent on smothering desire beneath the crushing weight of moral duty.  But this misunderstands the issue entirely.  The whole reason I chose to write is because if we focus only on issues of pornography or abuse, then we’ve only addressed the concerns of the surface.  I believe the gospel speaks more deeply than that.  I believe that what’s at stake here, is desire. 

Humans were made for worship, you understand.  That is, humans were made to both cultivate and express their desires.  In his 2005 address to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace argued that “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

Think about it.  Do we not frequently conflate sex with some sort of religious ecstasy?  In the 1980’s The Cure sang of a woman’s love as being “Just Like Heaven.”  More recently Trent Reznor unleashed his sexual frustrations in a song called “Closer to God.”  Catholic writer Peter Kreeft writes that “…spiritual intercourse with God is the ecstasy hinted at in all earthly intercourse, physical or spiritual.  It is the ultimate reason why sexual passion is so strong, so different from other passions, so heavy with suggestions of profound meanings that just elude our grasp.”

In the fourth century, a man named Augustine described human desire through the phrase ordo amoris—literally “the logic of the heart.”  He conceived of the human heart as something like a pyramid.  You will never flourish, Augustine would say, until God is at the top.  All other loves are meant to occupy the other spaces bellow.  So sin, he says, is misdirected worship.  It’s like Tom More from Walker Percy’s novel  Love in the Ruins, who says that “I believe in God and the whole business…but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all.”  And of course his life becomes an unmitigated disaster.  Reorder the food pyramid and it’s bad for your body.  Rearrange the pyramid of your heart and it’s bad for your soul.

So please understand: your desires are not shameful or bad—but I think we need to address the ordo amoris.  Could it be that 50 Shades speaks to a heart that’s “out of order?”  I know you might be skeptical of Christianity, but is it possible that the gospel might have something meaningful to say to every level of human desire?

 

DESIRE FOR PLEASURE

First, let’s admit that Christianity hasn’t always had the best approach to human sexuality.  Perhaps reeling from his life as a sex addict, the fourth century Saint Augustine believed that sex should be exclusively reserved for reproduction—not pleasure.

But Augustine got it wrong.  The Bible itself contains some pretty lurid descriptions of human sexuality—most notably a collection of poems we call the “Song of Solomon.”  Hebrew scholars note that “the Hebrew is quite erotic…There is no shy, shamed, mechanical movement under the sheets.  Rather, the two stand before each other, aroused, feeling no shame, but only joy in each other’s sexuality.”

Sexual desire isn’t bad or shameful or dirty—it’s just that sexuality is only truly satisfying when enjoyed in the way God designed.  In Jeremiah, God laments that his people “have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:13).” You understand the imagery here, right?  It’s like going from the Perrier bottling plant to the sewage treatment facility.

What we’re talking about is “lust.”  Now hold on; I know that when we use the word negatively we sound like we’re evoking a puritanical age of sexual repression.  But even Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University argued that lust is “the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for its own sake.”  Though Blackburn suggested there might be times when such feelings are only natural, he largely argued that the “for its own sake” part does not serve us well-individually or socially.

Think of it this way: if “sexual sin” was merely a social construct, then why would it be so universal? Contemporary psychologist Richard Shweder says that there are three different types of ethics.  If I accidently curse during a wedding toast, I feel embarrassed for having violated the “ethics of community.”  If I fail to receive the promotion I sought, I may feel frustrated or angry for having failed to meet my personal standards of “the ethics of autonomy.”  But if I violate some deeper law, I feel ashamed and ever dirty for having violated “the ethics of divinity.”  Similarly, Mary Stuart Douglas has argued that nearly all cultures describe ethics in terms of “clean and unclean.”  So shame and guilt can’t possibly be dismissed as “residual catholic guilt”—they’re far too universal.  Even if you don’t agree with everything Christianity has to say, you must agree that danger is found in lust.

Pornography often forms the seedbed of lust.  I realize that the line between pornography and entertainment has become blurry—if not vanished altogether.  Once upon a time the Supreme Court decided that one of the criteria for pornography is the violation of a “community standard.”  But in today’s atomized world there is no one Community, but a vast network of individuals.  What offends one may stimulate another—or vice versa.

So even if we can’t quite land on where the “porn” boundary lies, we can at least admit that some things exist only to cultivate lust.  I mean maybe—maybe—you enjoy 50 Shades for its storyline or writing style—but you’ll forgive me if that sounds suspiciously like the guys who read Playboy “for the articles.”

Results have been devastating.  In her book Pornified, LA Times columnist Pamela Paul interviews women who have been expected to use pornography (or the acts depicted therein) to strengthen their relationships with their romantic partners.  One such woman reports:  “My [sexuality] has definitely been influenced by similar pornographic forces that men experience…At the same time, it’s icky…I don’t just want to become [another body]….I felt cheapened…I felt so empty after the experience.”  Still more recent surveys have shown a correlation between 50 Shades readers and abusive relationships.  We can’t possibly dismiss this as merely “art.”  It has a profound impact on our social fabric.

Jesus knew something about this.  He encountered this attitude in a woman he met by a well in a village called Sychar.  The woman had been through multiple (failed) marriages, and currently sought security in the arms of a man who was not her husband.  Jesus promised her that “whoever drinks of the water I give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14).  It’s as if Jesus is saying: I want more for you.  I want more for you than just another attempt at marriage.  I want more for you than another fleeting sexual experience.  I want more for you than another haphazard search for intimacy.  And I believe he says—to you and to me—I want more for you than the pornography you’ve been using to satisfy your deepest thirst. 

Your desire for pleasure is real.  And it’s good.  But it will not serve you to satisfy your thirst in a “broken cistern.”  C.S. Lewis famously wrote that human hunger only makes sense if food exists to satisfy it.  Romantic love only makes sense if marriage exists to satisfy it.  So, he concluded, “if I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

 

DESIRE FOR LIBERATION

Wait, you may be thinking.  That’s fine if some people wish to find satisfaction in religion.  But people pursue sex because it is satisfying.  It’s only that Christians want to turn back the clock to 1950’s Leave-it-to-Beaver-style morality, where women belong in the kitchen lest they succumb to their urges.

For some, I’d imagine the world of Christian and Ana represent a world of escapism—which in turn testifies to a world where women are free to explore their sexuality in any way they choose.  Sexual independence, we’re convinced, is the surest solution to centuries of sexual shame.   The problem is that this simply hasn’t been the case.  Sexual liberation has not increased a woman’s sense of honor.  For instance, some years ago we became culturally enamored with Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional star of the HBO series (later a movie) “Sex and the City.”  But Shelton Hull considered the implications of Bradshaw’s lifestyle in an article entitled “Modern Woman as Love Machine: The Post-Feminist Landscape, as Projected by ‘Sex and the City:’”

“[Bradshaw and friends] drink to excess and exist to be laid by guys who, this being Manhattan, have no incentive whatsoever to love them. Not that love really matters in the real world anymore; it’s all about money and power and control. Love, as a modus operandi, is a pursuit best left to those for whom it is their only salvation from a life at the bottom of productive society… Any points to be made about the nature of sexual relations in modern America have been obscured by free-love frivolity, although apparently unprotected sex is okay as long as one does so only with wealthy white males one has met at a trendy nightspot.”

Hold on, Mr. Hull.  Isn’t this a double standard?  Aren’t men applauded for sexual conquest while women are dismissed as “improper” (or given some far more degrading name)?  The answer, sadly, is ‘yes,’ a double standard assuredly exists.  But sexual conquest is always dehumanizing, whether male or female.

See, my feminist friends object to a patriarchal society whose sexual and modesty standards contribute to a “rape culture.”  What we should be promoting instead is a “consent culture.”  And here is where I part ways, in what I’ve often called the myth of a consent culture.  Mind you, we should never tolerate anything less than explicit sexual consent—that truly is rape.  But we should not settle for only consent.  A consent culture moves sex away from “what is mutually beneficial” to “what is permissible.”  A consent culture reduces women to the mere gatekeepers for the male libido.  Women are worth more than that.

The song being sung in virtually every home in America is Disney’s “Let it Go” from Frozen.  Every little girl and soccer mom knows the words:  “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through, no right no wrong, no rules for me—I’m free!”  The irony, of course, is that the song’s message is the opposite of the film.  It was precisely when Elsa chose to “let it go” that things fell apart.  Self-reliance and self-discovery only became a self-imposed prison.  Like all fairy tales, the carnage was reversed only through self-sacrifice.

Christianity says that both men and women were created in the “image of God.”   Human beings—including women—are intrinsically valuable, and this value and beauty is revealed when we operate within God’s moral and creative character.  I have no real objection to feminism, but I struggle to see how communitarian values might flourish in a society that disproportionately values the individual.  I struggle see how feminism might flourish in a world where we’ve divorced anthropology from teleology—that is, woman’s identity from her purpose—and conflated beauty and sexuality.  This is our collective fault, mind you, but as a pastor I believe it doesn’t start by learning to empower women but striving to ennoble them.

This brings me to 50 Shades, which leaves the categories of nobility and honor wanting.  International novelist Anais Nin once wrote that she longed for “a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naive or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.”  We will not find such a man in Christian Grey.

 

DESIRE FOR INTIMACY

Still, why would women enjoy a fantasy world that centers on abuse?  This is perhaps the most confusing question of all.

In an undergraduate psychology course, I had a professor who said that humans have a hierarchy of attention:

  • Positive attention
  • Negative attention
  • No attention

For instance, children often “act out” to get attention—because negative attention is often better than no attention at all.

Where have all the “good men” gone?  According to a CNN article, their mommas’ basements.  Instead of marrying, men of marriageable age are extending adolescence.  Video games and pornography replace career and intimacy, respectively.  What incentive remains to “grow up?”

Enter Christian Grey.  In a world where women often feel forced to “pick up the slack” of their male counterparts, where men fail to lead in the workplace or their marriage, the confidence of Christian Grey must surely be alluring.  Sure, women are conflicted by the exact nature of his desires—but again, this negative attention must seem preferable to no attention at all.

 

DESIRE FOR HEALING

Finally, there are women who enjoy 50 Shades because they themselves have been victims of abuse.  Cultural experts tell us that stories have the ability to help us process the world around us—as well as our reactions to it.  Lev Grossman, book critic for Time Magazine tells us that “when you read [fiction], you leave behind the problems of reality—but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form…You don’t read it to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them.”

Women tragically endure horrific extremes of abuse and sexual assault—some as early as childhood.   When you experience any sort of betrayal—and sexual assault seems like the highest form of personal violation—you’re left with a huge amount of what Tim Keller calls “emotional debt.”  Why?  Because women are often forced to live with a lack of injustice.  When your attacker goes free; it hurts.  When others doubt your story; it hurts.  When you are forced to keep the abuse a secret; it hurts.  Where does this pain go?  For some women, abusive fantasies—including rape fantasies—can be a means of processing this huge amount of emotional debt.  In other words, if abuse hurts when it’s beyond my control, perhaps I can be free of the pain if I can experience it within my control—e.g., in a BDSM setting.

When Jesus went to the cross, he paid both the debt of my sin as well as its consequences.  He took my emotional debt on himself—all of the separation, all of the estrangement that I would ever feel was laid on his shoulders.  The cross sets me free from bitterness and anger.  The cross infuses me with the ability to forgive others—because they debt has been paid for.

 

CONCLUSION: ANASTASIA AND EUCATASTROPHE

In 2014, Reuters reported that nearly two-thirds of Americans had never seen any of the films nominated for Academy Awards.  They eschewed the dark, brooding dramas in favor of lighthearted tales of heroism and Disney’s latest fare.  Why?  Because, as fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien tells us, fairy tales represent more than youthful escapism.   In a famous essay entitled “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe—literally “good catastrophe”—what he calls “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”

Anastasia—the lead character of the 50 Shades film—ironically comes from the Greek word meaning “resurrection.”  And resurrection is the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  While most other religious systems base their confidence in religious experience or vision, Christianity anchors itself in the objective, literal reality of Christ’s resurrection.

What does that mean for us?  It means that if the gospel is true, we can find hope to be lifted out of a world where Christian and Ana pass for romance.  It also means that if I trust in Jesus, then the shame of my sexual indiscretion can be washed away permanently.  We live in a “dirty” world—dirty movies, dirty books, dirty talking, etc.  Even as a pastor I’m painfully aware that my hands have not always been clean on this matter.  But I can stand confidently knowing that my guilt has been eradicated through Jesus.

To you, women, I leave you with that simple hope and that joyful truth.  There is something better than 50 Shades, and it’s found in the singular stain of red that ran down our Savior’s face.

If you are looking for something tangible, one group is asking that you take your movie ticket money and donate it to victims of abuse.  For more, see: https://www.facebook.com/50dollarsnotfiftyshades.

“Son of God:” From Stained Glass to Silver Screen (Movie Review)

son of god movie poster“Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus originally posed this question to His closest followers, but it’s a question that is as timeless as it is timely.  Jesus is arguably the most recognizable figure of all human history—though He’s also the least understood.

Christianity affirms that the best and truest stories about Jesus come from the four “gospels” contained in the Bible.  Like all ancient biographies, the four gospels were intended to be read as reliable history.  But they were also written to invoke faith in the heart of the reader.  For Christians, the four gospels are the measuring stick by which we evaluate all other stories about Jesus.

These include the stories told on the silver screen.  What separates Scorsese’s dark The Last Temptation of Christ from, say, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a simple question: How much does the Jesus of the film resemble the Jesus of the Bible? 

The same question could be asked for a recent film.  On February 28, The Son of God opened in theaters.  The film is an adaptation of the Bible miniseries featured on the History Channel last spring.  Roma Downey—one of the producers—even has a role as Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The film opened to box office success, yet reviews were mixed.  Some critics focused on the medium of the film—the acting, storytelling, etc.  Others focused on the message of the film—asking the very same question as above: How much does the Jesus of this film resemble the Jesus of the Bible? 

For some, the answer to the above question is an emphatic “no.”  Sunny Shell, writing for the Christian Post calls the entire Bible miniseries “heretical and blasphemous,” and that The Son of God does a great disservice to anyone who is infected by it’s anemic and sclerotic message of false hope in a false christ.”

In an effort to evaluate the film on its own terms, Eric, Randy, and I made a recent trip to see the film.  The following is not a review per se, but an evaluation of our central question: How much does this Jesus resemble the Biblical Jesus?

IS THIS THE REAL JESUS?

I don’t want to give too much away—though I doubt it counts as a “spoiler alert” when the story is 2,000 years old.  The movie focuses on the life of Christ from birth to death and resurrection—using the disciple John as something of a framing character.

It’s hard to find fault with the film.  The film’s budget was clearly invested in set design.  I greatly appreciated the film’s ability to convey the cultural backdrop of the first century world: the tension between Jews and Romans, the significance of the Jewish temple—even the scenery gave the film a sense of authenticity.

The film highlights the more significant aspects of Jesus’ life—albeit with some creative license.  If we want to get technical, we can highlight a few areas in which the film does deviate from the gospels to one degree or another:

  • Sequence: If you were to write down the events of the film, you’d find their order does not match any of the four gospels.  In some cases, scenes are mashed together: Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32) is interrupted by the paralyzed man lowered through the ceiling (Mark 2:4).  In other cases, events are rearranged from their Biblical order: in John’s gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus early in His career; in the film, he comes to Jesus in the days before the crucifixion.

Should this bother us?  Not really.  It may sound strange to some, but ancient biographies weren’t that concerned about things like sequence.  We expect a biography to start with birth and proceed in chronological order.  Ancient writers weren’t so concerned with this.  In Craig Keener’s 300-page introduction to the gospel of John, he observes that some ancient writers would actually record the same event twice because they paid so little attention to order and sequence.  At the same time, biographies were still counted on to tell reliable stories about a person.  So even the gospel records don’t necessarily contain a precise sequence of events—though they can still be counted on as reliable history.

  • Selective cultural accuracy: In what was surely an effort to translate the first-century world to our own, certain cultural conventions seemed to be westernized for the film.  For example, Jesus taught while standing on a mountaintop (rather than sitting down), they ate while seated at a table (rather than reclining)—some scenes even seemed to nod toward western art (Michelangelo’s Pieta, for example).  It’s hard to imagine a Jesus film that perfectly captures the ancient culture (the language barrier alone would prove difficult).  So while this isn’t a major strike against the film, it is an area of divergence.
  • What does Jesus know?  There were scenes in which Jesus seemed to receive information for the first time.  He seemed unaware of His cousin’s (John the Baptist) death, and He seemed surprised by the reaction of the crowd at the feeding of the 5,000.  The most striking scene was the Last Supper—where Jesus appears to have visions of His coming death.  The Bible indicates that Jesus knew about His death from a much earlier point—it’s actually the turning point in Mark’s gospel (Mark 8:31).  Again, we may credit this as creative license—a chance to convey rich emotion, even.  Still, it raises questions about Jesus’ knowledge of His own destiny—knowledge that the Biblical gospels indicate that Jesus possessed from a much earlier time.
  • The 13 disciples?  This would probably not even be worth mentioning, had other reviewers not been critical of this fact.  Mary Magdalene accompanies Jesus and His disciples—prompting some to criticize the inclusion of a “thirteenth disciple.”  But the film never designates Mary as one of Jesus’ disciples.  And most scholars would agree that Jesus’ immediate disciples weren’t the only ones who followed Him.  Perhaps even the disciples’ wives (Peter was married—Matthew 8:14) came along.  So Mary Magdalene’s prominent inclusion shouldn’t trouble us.  It may even challenge us to look deeply at Jesus’ countercultural treatment of women.

CONCLUSION

Let’s return to our question: How much does the Jesus of this film resemble the Jesus of the Bible?  Very much so, actually.  Are there instances of creative license?  Sure.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The film was a compelling depiction of the life of Christ.  None of the above examples alters Jesus’ central identity as the Son of God.

I agree with the conclusion of Martin Marty, who in an article for the Huffington Post writes:

“Biblical illiteracy is measurably and grossly high. While the main audiences will be the already-convinced people of faith, those surveys make clear that the story is not well known, certainly by the general public.”

Stained glass crossIf you stop and think about it, widespread literacy is a fairly recent development.  Before the invention of the printing press, people relied on art to tell stories and convey meaning.  Stained glass windows, for example, were often used to tell Biblical stories to those who lacked the capacity to read for themselves.  Fast forward to today.  Just as the printing press brought a revolution in the spread of information, so too has the World Wide Web.  There are some who suggest that despite record sales of e-readers and e-books, we are heading toward a “post-literate” society.  Films like The Son of God speak to the heart of a culture that has forgotten the Biblical story, and yet craves and thirsts for image.  Roma Downey—one of the film’s producers, told ABC News:

“We’re aware that many people learn through visual storytelling…And for so many people, people who don’t go to church, people who maybe have never read the Bible, this movie…will be the first time that they hear and see the story of Jesus come to life.”

True, there are many reviewers who suggest that the film “preaches to the choir” on one level or another.  But perhaps that’s half the point.  In the book of Acts, a man named Philip encounters a man reading the story of Jesus as told through the prophet Isaiah.  “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.  “How can I,” the man replied, “unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31).  Our culture—nay, our friends, our families, our neighbors, our children—they will see this film.  They may not absorb its total message.  It’s up to us to ask the question: “Do you understand what you are seeing?”  Because how can they, unless we explain it to them?

Being right or being redemptive: What we can learn from Duck Dynasty-gate

Aight.  If you’ve just crawled out from under a rock, you’re hearing a lot of buzz around Phil Robertson, one of the stars of A&E’s popular reality show Duck Dynasty.  In an interview with Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Robertson expressed his opposition to homosexuality on the basis of scripture.  A&E has since suspended his contract.

Unsurprisingly, the Christian community has taken Phil to be the patron saint of persecution—a martyr on the altar of free speech.  Countless words have already been written—including this excellent piece from Jared Wilson.  Why yet another article?  Because while I don’t disagree with anything that’s been written so far, I believe there are several important lessons that lie beneath the surface:

  • We should be saddened but not surprised.    Shows like Family Guy find humor in rape jokes, while Robertson’s conservative voice is pulled from the airwaves.  This reversal of values should trouble us, but it should not surprise us.  Jesus said the world would get exponentially worse (Luke 17:26-31).  While every effort can—nay, should—be made to improve it, the reality is that we must learn to navigate today’s upside-down culture (see below).
  • Being right is not always the same as being redemptive.  This was easily the most troubling thing about Robertson’s interview.  When Jesus sent out His messengers, He advised them to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).”   I see neither wisdom nor innocence in Robertson’s discussion of the vagina and anus.  And that’s ignoring his racial comments entirely.  Being a self-described “redneck” does not give you the right to equate crudeness with earthy, homespun wisdom.  I love what Ravi Zacharias says: “Truth that is not undergirded by love makes the truth obnoxious and the possessor of it repulsive.”  Even if we agree with Robertson’s message, his presentation was downright repulsive.  It’s not about being “politically correct;” it’s about being able to speak God’s truth in a winsome way.  Does that mean that if Robertson had spoken more gently than he wouldn’t be in this mess?  Doubtful (see the previous point).  But at least he could have modeled a way to truthfully and lovingly respond to this critical issue.
  • Sensitivity is not the same as compromise.  This past summer I spoke on the subject of homosexuality.  Borrowing (stealing) from Tim Keller, I defined the gospel as the ability to see two things: (1) man’s sinfulness and (2) God’s love.  If I focus only on love, then I can easily fall into the error of relativism.  I am so concerned about my appearance before others, I emphasize Christ’s love and neglect to confront sin.  But if I focus on sin, then I am prone to form a position of disgust.  It is true that Christians need to repent of the idol of relativism and appearance, and with boldness address the moral failings of our day.  But I am deeply concerned for a Christian community that equates sensitivity with compromise.  We can address sin—all sin—without labeling certain sins as disgusting or revolting.

Gospel Homosexuality

  • Christian values never saved anyone.  It’s downright refreshing to see Christian values in the media, but we must remember that without the gospel Christian values have no value at all.  The Christian life is not measured by performance—positively or negatively.  It’s measured by Christ’s sacrifice.  Therefore, the goal of Christianity is not to alter the cultural landscape via boycotts and petitions, but by seeing the culture change as the gospel takes root.  Perhaps my concerns are misplaced, but I often worry that in all the social media hullaballoo we forget that it’s not the fervor of our faith that saves us, but the object of our faith.  I don’t mean to slam anyone, I only express a pastor’s heart that we would be as deeply committed to Christ as we are to having the right “values.”
  • Christianity never does well with celebrity.  We live in an era of charismatic authority—where power is equated with popularity.  So even if Robertson is merely offering his opinion, there will be those who interpret his statements as reflective of Christians everywhere.
  • Faith is bigger than a “fad.”  The gospel is bigger than a television show.  When the fad eventually dies—as all fads do—we must have a greater anchor for our faith than Uncle Si’s beard.  The church used to say lex orendi, lex credendi—“the church believes as she prays.”  Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones offers a more modern paraphrase: “What you win them with, you win them to.”  Let’s not tie our faith to a fad.  Let’s tie our faith to Jesus.
  • We’re strangers in a strange land.  The reality is that we’re almost certainly not going to win the battle over same-sex marriage.  I’m not suggesting that we refrain from standing up on this issue; I’m suggesting we learn to navigate a world whose values are not our own.  The more I read Daniel, the more I’m convinced that this is where our world is headed.  Daniel and his friends were political prisoners in Babylon.  He and his companions were even given names reflecting pagan worship—surely an outrage for the Jewish mind.  In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons suggests that the Christians who have the greatest impact on the future of our faith are those who are “provoked, but not offended.”  This was Daniel’s life, a life where he was provoked to live out his beliefs in the midst of an adulterous, idolatrous people.  To be a follower of Christ, then, means that we learn to live like Daniel—and teach our children to do the same.

I fear for a Christian culture that is quick to defend Robertson’s right to free speech and slow to acknowledge the responsibility toward outsiders (Colossians 4:2-6).  This Sunday, there may well be homosexuals walking through the doors of your sanctuary.  Are you willing to repeat what Robertson said to their faces?  Or might there be a better way of sharing the gospel?

College Sundays: Questions 5 & 6: Legal and Relational Questions

These are questions 5 & 6 texted/tweeted from our most recent “College Sunday” at Tri-State Fellowship.  

What are the legal implications for churches who deny marriage to homosexual couples? 

This is a great question.  The gay marriage question will ultimately become a religious rights issue.  Will Christians be permitted to stand by their beliefs without facing social or legal sanction?

This question applies to more than just pastors.  What about caterers?  DJ’s?  Owners of banquet halls, etc.?  Should they be expected to set aside their convictions in the name of tolerance?  What of chaplains in the military, hospital, prison, etc.?  To what extend will these professionals be expected to counsel same-sex couples?

The legal implications of this are still being sorted out.  We probably won’t know just exactly what this will look like until same-sex marriage becomes more prevalent—but this is soon in coming.  We catch a hint from a case from February of this last year.  Aaron and Melissa Klein are Christian owners of a bakery in Oregon.  The bakery politely refused to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  The Oregon Department of Justice issued them a letter claiming they were under investigation for “a possible discrimination complaint.”  Though nothing has yet materialized in the court system, the couple has undergone a media firestorm that is surely the tip of a larger iceberg.

This means that even recent decisions on same-sex marriage are running roughshod over religious liberties.  Where this takes us is anyone’s guess, but it could spell significant problems for the future.  This is one of the reasons why many are urging Christians to continue to stand against cultural pressure.  Gay marriage will hardly be harmless as it is so often claimed.  It will inevitably steamroll over the hard-earned religious freedoms of those who disagree.

How do I tell someone that they are not homosexual? 

This is a difficult question.  The young woman who posed the question was asking about a friend who believed that she was gay.  The young woman who asked the question did not believe this to be true.

As we observed, sexual orientation can’t be reduced to simple categories of “gay” and “straight.”  Nor can we point to any one clear “cause,” but instead recognize that sexual orientation is influenced by a variety of factors.

As Christians, we rightly recognize that God’s design is for heterosexuality.  Yet many—both inside and outside the walls of the church—will struggle with this issue.  Because of this, it will be increasingly common for us to encounter friends, neighbors, roommates, etc. who struggle with trying to identify their sexual orientation.

So to be honest, I’m unclear that we can tell someone that they are gay or straight apart from actually witnessing sexual/romantic behavior, such as who they choose to date.

But we can at least attempt to have an honest conversation with others regarding their sexual identity.  Our aim should be to  identify the root of some of their feelings.  In a recent article by psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, he describes an actual conversation he had with a 35-year-old homosexual man:

“I recall the exact moment I thought I was gay.  I was twelve years old and we were taking a shortcut to class.  We were walking across the gym and through the locker room, and an older guy was coming out of the shower.  He was wet and naked and I thought, Wow!”

I asked the client to tell me exactly what his experience was.  He became very pensive.  Then he answered,

“The feeling was, ‘Wow, I wish I was him.’”

(Joseph Nicolosi, “A Critique of Bem’s E.B.E. Theory,” appearing online at www.narth.com/docs/critique.html)

Nicolosi’s point was that a question of sexual orientation might simply be masking the need for acceptance.

So if we dialogue with those struggling with sexual identity, our questions should be more comprehensive and aim to address the person’s relationships and identity in general, rather than merely look at their stated sexual preferences.

Dialogue will flow naturally from asking questions.   So if someone we know is struggling with this issue, we might ask questions like:

  • Why do you think you might be gay?
  • When did you first have these feelings?
  • Might these feelings be more then friendship or admiration?  How do you know?
  • Have you had many heterosexual relationships?  How did those “go?”
  • What have been some of your earlier sexual/romantic experiences?
  • How well do you get along with your parents?
  • If you could completely choose, which would you rather be: gay or straight?  Why?
  • Do you have more guy friends or girl friends?  Do you get along better with one sex or the other?  Why do you think that is?
  • Do you believe that all sexual orientations are equally good?  If so, what reasons would you have for choosing one over the other?

These questions will hardly resolve the tension.  If anything, they will most likely increase it (!).  But questions like these can suddenly get the person to examine their life through a larger lens than merely sexual orientation.  These questions could also be used in conjunction with some of our earlier points regarding homosexuality, and introduce a larger dialogue about faith, forgiveness and transformation through the gospel.

Whether gay or straight, each of us has our own story of sexual brokenness.  While I don’t believe that all sins are equal, I don’t believe that we should regard heterosexual brokenness as superior to homosexual brokenness.  The gospel teaches us to get rid of our disgust, but to speak the truth in love.  Through honest dialogue about how God has redeemed our own sexual brokenness, God can move to transform hearts and minds for the sake of His gospel.

College Sundays: Questions 3 & 4: Jesus, Homosexuality, and the Law

Question 3: Why do people say that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality? 

Why is this question so important?  It’s assumed that if Jesus never addressed homosexuality, it must not really be a sin.

In philosophical terms, the argument looks something like this:

  • Major premise: Jesus addressed specific sins.
  • Minor premise: Jesus never addressed homosexuality.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, homosexuality is not a sin.

We can agree with the minor premise.  Jesus never did specifically address homosexuality.  But is the major premise true?   Was Christ’s mission to address specific sins?

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw it as their business to regulate morality.  But Jesus came to offer transformation.  Do you see how this might change you and I read the Bible?  If we read it as a moral code, a set of instructions—then you and I will live and die based on what we “shalt” and “shalt not” do.

But Jesus changes all that.  In one of His most famous sermons, Jesus repeatedly says: “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you.”  Do you hear what Jesus is saying?  He’s saying: “Don’t assume you’re a good person just because you follow the right rules.  I’m looking for purity in your heart.”  In relation to sexual purity Jesus says this:

Matthew 5:27-32 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart….”It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

This changes everything.  Jesus brought an increase in the demand for sexual purity.  But does this necessarily exclude homosexuality?  In Matthew 19:5-6 Jesus affirms the Genesis text about man and woman becoming “one flesh.”  He never overturns this principle.  Robert Gagnon concludes:

“Jesus did not overturn any prohibitions against immoral sexual behavior in Leviticus or anywhere else in the Mosaic law.  He did not regard sexual ethics as having diminished importance in relation to other demands of the kingdom.  It is highly unlikely that he would have held some sort of secret acceptance of homosexuality in the face of uniform opposition within the Judaism of his day.  Clearly, he did not adopt more liberal positions on other matters of sexual ethics such as divorce and adultery.  Instead, he was more demanding than the Torah, not less.  He would have understood the tension between the model of male-female union in Genesis 1-2 and the alternative model presented by same-sex unions.  Consequently, the idea that Jesus was, or might have been, personally neutral or even affirming of homosexual conduct is revisionist history at its worst.”  (Michael Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 227-8)

Question 4: The Law contains instructions regarding women and slaves as well.  If Jesus fulfilled these laws, why do we still focus on homosexuals?

If the Law never contained any instructions regarding homosexuality, would that change anything?  When we are seeking to understand the basis for marriage, we don’t go to the Law but to the original design as seen in Genesis 1-2.  This is why Paul describes homosexuality not as a violation of God’s Laws, but as something of a “crime against nature” (Romans 1:24-27).  God’s character is revealed in Genesis.  The Law served to clarify God’s ethical character.  So the primary answer to this question is that sexual ethics are described in the Law, but they are ultimately rooted in the timeless character of God.

Still, many wonder why Christians are so “inconsistent” in which laws they choose to follow.  A classic example of this comes from the Television show The West Wing.  At a press event, President Bartlett confronts a prominent radio talk show host for her comments on homosexuality:

“I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, and always clears the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:2, clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important, ’cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?”

Many feel that Christians are “inconsistent” in following some laws and not others.  But does following Jesus change the way we apply these laws?  Jesus said that He came to “fulfill” the Law (Matthew 5:17).  But what does that mean?

The Law was given to reveal God’s ethical character.  It shows you and I where we measure up—and where we fall short.  Jesus “fulfilled” the Law by perfectly matching God’s expectations of moral perfection.  And because we are “clothed” in Christ’s righteousness, God treats us as if you and I have a spotless moral record.  This is what is meant by the Christian term “justification.”  We are “declared righteous” in the eyes of God.

So the question can be flipped: Why should Christians follow what has been fulfilled?  This was the question that Paul asked the church in Galatia.  They followed Christ—yet insisted on keeping some of the rules, namely circumcision.  But Paul insists that they have a solemn choice: trust in the gospel, or trust in their own moral code:

Galatians 5:2-6  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

So in a very real sense, Paul is saying that it is inconsistent to follow Christ and keep the Law.  By following Christ, we fulfill the requirements of the Law.  In the case of homosexuality, we must again appeal to the fact that sexual norms are rooted in God’s timeless character rather than the timely principles of the Law itself.

College Sundays: Question 2: “Why do some churches accept homosexuality?”

Thanks for reading.  This series looks at some of the questions tweeted/texted in during last Sunday’s discussion on homosexuality.  You can read yesterday’s question here: “Can you be both gay and Christian?”

Why do some churches accept homosexuality and even perform gay marriage ceremonies?

As with yesterday’s question, I’d like to address this question from two sides: sociology and theology.  Today’s church basically struggles with two questions:

  • How can we remain faithful to the message of Christianity?
  • How can we be relevant to the culture around us?

What makes any church different at all?  The answer will always be found in the way she answers those two critical questions.

a.)    Theology: How we read the Bible

Christians have long been described as “people of the book.”  This means our beliefs are shaped by the character of God as revealed in the pages of the Bible.

The problem is that texts that prohibit homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:25-27) go against our culture’s supreme values of “openness” and “acceptance.”   So churches are faced with a dilemma: How can we remain faithful to these specific texts and still be relevant to the culture that surrounds us?

The question is answered not in what the Bible says, but how we choose to read it.  Let me explain.  The Bible was an ancient book.  We are separated from its culture, from its language, and from its time period.  How can we read it at all?  The science (and art!) of interpreting any text is referred to as hermeneutics.  A “hermeneutic” is a way of reading the text.  Don’t let the big words throw you. It’s simpler than it sounds, but we need to know some vocabulary in order to intelligently navigate these issues.

There are many different “hermeneutics” out there—many different methods.  But in regards to sexual ethics, we’re seeing a collision of two main kinds of hermeneutics:

(1)    HISTORICO-LINGUISTIC HERMENEUTICS

This is a very traditional approach.  This approach seeks to understand the original language, culture, and literary features of the Bible.  The end goal is to identify a set of principles that were at work in the lives of the original audience.  The spiritual application is to identify ways those same principles are at work in our lives today.

So, in the context of sexual ethics, we can see that the writers of scripture gave clear prohibitions against homosexuality, and endorsed marriage between man and woman.  This is why the language of “one flesh” is so important: it appears first in Genesis (2:24) but is repeated by both Jesus (Matthew 19:5-6) and Paul (Ephesians 5:31).  The principles there are absolute and unambiguous.

Numerous attempts have been made to reinterpret these texts.  Perhaps the Bible is speaking of homosexual prostitution, idolatrous religious sexual practices, or just sexual promiscuity in general.  None of these suggestions has had lasting impact.  If you truly are interested in reading more on these specific issues, I’d direct you to Robert A.J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice.

 (2)    TRAJECTORY HERMENEUTICS

This is a more contemporary approach.  While this approach acknowledges the principles set forth in scripture, it insists that the Bible presents us with many authors whose “voices” carry us through to the present day.  It’s up to us to understand how these voices speak to our issues.  Common examples are issues such as slavery or the treatment of women.  The Bible “endorses” slavery (or so it is claimed), yet we now recognize that slavery is wrong.  So while the Bible condemns homosexuality, it presents us with a loving God who is ultimately accepting of all people.

This might sound hopelessly abstract and needlessly complicated, so let’s look at a real-world example.  In December of 2008, Newsweek magazine published an article by Lisa Miller called “Our Mutual Joy.”  Though she does not say as much, Lisa Miller’s arguments seem to (generally) resonate with a trajectory approach:

“Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition…The Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric. It recommends the death penalty for adulterers (and in Leviticus, for men who have sex with men, for that matter). It provides conceptual shelter for anti-Semites. A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours. […]

In the Christian story, the message of acceptance for all is codified. Jesus reaches out to everyone, especially those on the margins, and brings the whole Christian community into his embrace.…The great Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, emeritus professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, quotes the apostle Paul when he looks for biblical support of gay marriage: ‘There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.’  The religious argument for gay marriage, he adds, ‘is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.’

The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage.”

Do you see her argument?  The Bible is not literal, but put us on a trajectory towards a better view of “slavery.”  Now we must do the same with homosexuality.

The problem with trajectory hermeneutics is simple.  Traditional approaches use the Bible to interpret our culture.  Trajectory hermeneutics uses culture to interpret the Bible.  It is an example of what Paul warned a young pastor about: that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions (2 Timothy 4:3).”

We can see that in the constant appeal to slavery.  But the slavery of the ancient world was nothing like that of the present.  Yes, there were men who have historically used the Bible to endorse slavery.  But they lost—not because of an appeal to culture, but because it was shown that scripture never endorses slavery as it has been largely practiced in recent centuries.   What is worrisome is that writers such as Lisa Miller seem ignorant of this entire period of history.  One of the Israelite’s worship songs sings: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).  God’s Word interprets our experiences.  We must not be guilty of letting our experiences interpret God’s Word.

b.)    Sociology: Religion in culture

But have you ever wondered why so many churches that endorse homosexuality tend to seem so very traditional?  I’m speaking of former “mainline” denominations whose actual church practices tend to be a lean a bit more toward traditional architecture, robes, liturgy, etc.

The answer is simple: without a secure foundation in God’s Word, we are left only with dry tradition.  The problem with mainline denominations is that in a quest for cultural “relevance,” they have negotiated themselves into premature obsolescence.  Everyone is preaching a message of acceptance and tolerance.  And if the message outside the church is the same as inside the church—why bother at all?

This is a hard lesson for today’s contemporary church.  In our own quest for “relevance,” have we sufficiently honored the deeper truths of scripture?  It should not surprise us, then, that many young people are gravitating toward the “high” church traditions—because these traditions speak of deeper meaning than the “life lessons” that have grown to define the megachurch movement.

CONCLUSION

Churches have sought to be relevant to a changing culture.  To do so, they have been forced to invent new ways to read the Bible.  But those who follow Jesus know that our experience is measured by God’s word, never that God’s word is measured by our experience.

 

College Sundays Q&A–Question 1: “Can you be both gay and Christian?”

This series of posts is designed to address some of the questions texted/tweeted during the message at Tri-State Fellowship entitled: “It Gets Better: The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

Can you be both gay and Christian?

Let’s look at this question from two different angles.  First, let’s look at the issue of sin in general, then look at the specific issue of homosexuality.

a.)    Sin in general

Could we ask the question more broadly?  Can you be a “Christian” and live in sin?  In other words, can a person be a genuine follower of Jesus and yet consistently fall into sin?

  • The nature of sin: God’s word tells us that we are born sinful (Psalm 51:5) with hearts that are intolerably diseased (Jeremiah 17:9).  This means that “sin” is more than behavior.  It is a disposition—a state of being.  Individual “sins” are merely a symptom of this larger, heart issue.
  • The nature of God’s grace: We cannot eradicate the stain of sin through performance.  Only through the cross can God’s wholeness be restored (Isaiah 53:5).
  • The nature of “repentance:” What is our responsibility?  God’s word speaks of the need for people to “repent” (cf. Mark 1:4; Matt 21:29).  Bruce Demarest defines repentance as “a change of mind, ultimate loyalty, and behavior whereby pre-Christians turn from sin unto God.”  Repentance most basically means to change one’s mind with regard to sin and God.

Jesus tells the story of a son who squanders his father’s inheritance on wild living.  But Jesus says that there was a time when the young man “came to himself” and decided to turn back to his father for help (Luke 15:17).  This is a picture of repentance and grace.  Repentance means we “come to ourselves.”  We recognize our brokenness, and turn to God as our only source of forgiveness.

Now, some emphasize the fact that repentance most literally means “to turn.”  Therefore, they argue, true repentance means turning from sin. But do you see the problem with this?  How far must I turn?  And if my purity is based on my ability to “turn from sin,” then have I now become my own savior?  Instead, we should see repentance as the recognition of brokenness and the need for God’s grace.

Therefore, my acceptance before God is not built on the purity of my repentance but the purity of Jesus.  No one can claim to be without sin (1 John 1:8).  But even habitual struggles can be paid for through the blood of the Savior who continually pleads our case before God’s throne (1 John 2:1).

b.)    Homosexuality in particular

How might we understand “repentance” in the context of homosexuality?  We can start by drawing a distinction between orientation and behavior.

  • Orientation refers to sexual desire.  Many would say that our orientation is actually beyond our actual control.
  • Behavior refers to what we actually do.  This may range from indulging in sexual fantasy to actual physical intimacy.

It’s unclear whether a homosexual can (or should) be expected to change their sexual orientation.  This is why attempts to “cure” homosexuality have been met with such resistance.  So what should we expect of a homosexual who desires to follow Jesus?

First, repentance means changing one’s attitude toward homosexuality, recognizing it as a form of sexual brokenness and sin.  Second, we must recognize that many may always struggle with their sexual orientation.  But finally, we must have confidence in the power of God to transform lives and offer freedom.

Tony Campolo, a former professor at Eastern University, writes:

“I personally know many Christians with homosexual orientations who fight against their desires for homosexual behavior through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The desire to experience sexual gratification through physical involvement with persons of their own sex is a constant (just as heterosexual desire can be a constant) for many of them, but they are more than conquerors through Christ who sustains them (Rom 8:37; Phil 4:13).

I cannot help but admire these brave saints who endure lives of sexual frustration because of their commitment to what they believe are biblical admonitions against homosexual eroticism.  Many such Christians have told me about their long nights of spiritual agony, as they have struggled against the flesh to remain faithful to what they are sure is the will of God.  Any who believe these homosexuals who remain celibate for the sake of Christ are anything less than glorious victors in God’s kingdom ought to be ashamed of themselves.”  (Tony Campolo, Speaking My Mind)

But what of those who claim to follow Jesus and show no sign of repenting from their sexual brokenness?  This is harder to address.  But can we trust God’s Spirit to convict the world of sin (John 16:8)?  This person may simply be at an earlier part of their journey.  We may rightly question their spiritual maturity, but not necessarily the authenticity of their faith.

The Loud Gospel: The Return of Extol

This song has all kinds of win.

Syncopation.  Melody.  All you’d expect from Norway’s metal giants.  After eight years, Extol is back—and better than ever.

Their last album was a huge departure—not just from the music scene itself, but also from the band’s signature style.  But my initial skepticism was washed away from the second the needle hit the record.  Long-time fans will be pleased by the return of Ole Berud on clean vocals and guitar.  And yes, audiophiles: that is a seven-string guitar you hear, giving the album a bit of a Meshuggah-esque vibe.

When it all comes together, you have a record that resurrects the best qualities of the band’s earlier work (this album will surely be compared to Undeceived) even as it breathes some new life into an otherwise stale scene.

But what makes the whole thing blog-worthy is the band’s lyrical content.  Sure, the band’s musical ability lets them share the stage with acts like Opeth, but it’s never been a secret that the band members describe themselves as followers of Christ.

Christian metal is hardly new.  I can still remember the first time I heard Inhabit by Living Sacrifice.  But over the years I’ve come to notice a shift: lyrics were now becoming more emotional and introspective.  Metal (and its related subgenres) became a platform for whining about your personal problems.

Brandon Geist of Revolver magazing said that the shift happened around twenty years ago with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.  Before that album, hard rock was

“a very sort of macho genre. … But after Nevermind hit, suddenly it was cool to be in a hard rock band and to sing about your feelings—and to sing about your feelings in a complex way. Hard rock became inward-looking. You can see that influence in the nu metal bands like Korn or Slipknot. All of a sudden it was acceptable to be in a metal band and to sing about your neighbor molesting you or something. Hard rock really became cathartic as opposed to escapist.”(quoted by Tony Sclafani, “Why Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ Spoke to a Generation,” Today.com, September 22, 2011)

But this wasn’t a trend unique to hard rock and metal.  Think about it: we usually associate music of the sixties with anthems of rebellion and non-conformity.  We associate the music of the today with relationships and personal feelings.

If you have a church background, you know the impact this had on Christian music.  When the “boomer” generation grew up, they turned their focus away from “traditional” hymns to “contemporary” worship songs.  On the one hand, it was great to have music that actually reflected the era.  On the other hand, we saw the lyrical content shift from songs about God to songs about how I feel about God.  In other words, Christian music tends to follow the same introspective cultural trend.

In his recent book, Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper raises this issue in seeing a huge contrast between the “messiness of Israel’s worship” and today’s music:

 “We are children of a much more sanitized era, you and I.  …The sentiment of most contemporary Christian worship is high on emotional language, heavy on the Spirit (and its accompanying imagery of flames, wind, and doves), but usually thin on (if not bereft of) the topic of bleeding birds and beasts.  We talk about the cross as a shorthand for the bloody sacrifice of Jesus, but even that is removed from the hands-on messiness of Israel’s worship.”  (Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace, p. 49)

But on this latest album from Extol, we don’t have that.  We find lyrics like this:

 “Hold my hand – move forward / Take me to the gates of righteousness / Lead me on – by Your word / Enter through the gates of righteousness” (“Open the Gates”)

“Incomprehensible, captivating / Flawless and beautiful / By the desire of the Creator / The essence of life poured out in every being / Not by mere chance, but with a purpose / Shaped in the likeness of the Triune / Come into existence to love, to worship, to connect” (“A Gift Beyond Human Reach”)

While they include our response to Him, these lyrics are more than merely a collection of personal sentiments: they are about God and His gospel.

The very genre itself defies our attempts to “sanitize” our world.  And perhaps that’s been the long-standing appeal of metal, at least in my own life.  One of my art professors said that when you get a bit older, you tend to return to the genre of music that first became truly your own.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve been finding such comfort in metal lately.   Or maybe it’s because in contrast to the “happy/clappy” plastic culture that dominates so much of today’s worship music, we hear Extol ask such penetrating questions: “Will Your eyes be upon me / Despite my distorted being? / Will Your presence follow my faltering moves / Through times of failure?”

Extol brings us the gospel—the loud gospel—a gospel that transcends questions of genre and preference and brings us instead an unwavering passion for God’s glory.

Rock on.

Why Study Culture?

Why study culture?

This Sunday I’ll be speaking at the first of three “College Sundays” at Tri-State Fellowship.  These Sundays will be designed to evaluate today’s trends through the lens of God’s timeless truth.  This Sunday we’ll be looking at the impact of technology in a message called “Rise of the Machines: Real Life in a Virtual World.”

But again: why study culture?  Why devote a Sunday morning to a cultural issue?  Should God’s people not place sole priority on God’s word?

These are great, thoughtful questions; let’s take a moment to unpack them a bit.

 WHAT IS CULTURE?

What exactly is culture, anyway?  Trying to define “culture” is a bit like nailing Jell-O to a wall.  Even the definition itself will reflect the culture that creates it (!).  Kathryn Tanner—a professor from Yale University—refers to culture as “the meaning dimension of social life.”  Most social scientists agree.  Christian writer Wade Clark Roof says that “culture has to do with making sense out of life and formulating strategies for action” through a series of “ideas and symbols.”

We can synthesize these definitions into something we can work with.  Culture answers the question: “What does life mean?”  Art, literature, technology, religion—each of these areas offer a set of ideas and symbols that help us answer the question of meaning.

 WHY SHOULD CHRISTIANS ENGAGE IN CULTURE

Christianity also offers an answer to the question: “What does life mean?”  For Christians, the answer is found in responding to God—a God who reveals Himself through nature, through scripture, through Jesus, and through His Church.

This also means that Christianity is a part of the cultural fabric.  There are many different answers to the question: “What does life mean?”  But if Christianity offers such a unique answer, why look at other answers at all?

We can offer the following reasons:

  • God commands His people to seek the wellbeing of the world we inhabit.  When Israel was held captive in Babylon, the natural temptation was to avoid the pagan culture.  But God told His people to “seek the good of the city”—to build houses, to settle down.  God doesn’t want separatists, He wants missionaries.
  • Because culture shapes us in ways we don’t recognize.  Proverbs 6:27-28 asks:  ‘Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?”  The culture we live in is never neutral; its practices will always shape us into its character.  The Christian task is to evaluate whether we’re being shaped into God’s character. 
  • Cultural engagement helps us to “speak in a secular way about God.”  The latter phrase comes from the writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that Christianity needed to find common language with the culture that surrounds it.  In Acts 17, Paul finds himself in Athens, Greece.  The city was known for being a major cultural setting—not just for the arts but also for philosophy.  Paul bridged the cultural gap by using their poetry to point to His God (Acts 17:27-28).  In today’s world, the Bible is no longer a common reference point for dialogue.  We need to find new ways of engaging the world around us.  The former pope reminded us that “the path of beauty” often leads to “the path of truth.”  God’s missionaries can use today’s culture to reveal God’s truth.

 HOW CAN WE APPROACH CULTURE?

So how do we evaluate culture?  The process is known as cultural exegesis.  The word “exegesis” most literally means “to lead out” or “to bring out.”  It was used to refer to scholars pouring over the stories of the Bible and “bringing out” a meaning.

Kevin Vanhoozer—a professor from Deerfield Theological Seminary—says the same task lays before us in today’s “cultural texts.”

Cultural Texts

What are “cultural texts?”  Vanhoozer says that these “texts” are “maps and scripts that orient us in life and give us a sense of direction.”  In other words, everything we encounter is trying to tell us something.  Or, more specifically, everything we encounter is offering an answer to the question: “What does life mean?”

But Vanhoozer goes on to borrow from social science, arguing that these texts have a “thick description.”  This means that every text contains multiple layers of meaning.  We all know that a film like Saving Private Ryan might have much to say on the theme of sacrifice and patriotism. But it also touches on such themes as loyalty, brotherhood, and the sacredness of life.

Therefore, the task of “cultural exegesis” is twofold:

(1)    To “bring out” what culture has to say about a given subject

(2)    To compare that message with what God says about the same subject.

Have you ever noticed how often movie heroes (such as the recent Man of Steel) find their way into Christian sermons/books?  Maybe it’s because both Hollywood and the Bible agree on the virtues of justice and self-sacrifice.

THE VALUE AND LIMITS OF CULTURAL EXEGESIS

I would agree that we could pay too much attention to culture.  But I would argue that there is danger in paying too little.  If I elevate culture to the neglect God’s truth, I become culturally accommodated rather than missionally focused.  But if I elevate God’s truth to the neglect of culture, God’s mission becomes a moralistic campaign.

God calls His people to surrender every area of their lives to Him.  He wants our lives, our relationships, our cell phones, and our social media laid before Him as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).  This Sunday is an act of social engagement, but it is also an act of worship.  And so in this—as in all things—we give God the glory.

Reposting for today’s Reformation Day.

...thorns compose...

He had the very best money could by.  With his high education, his father had hoped that he could advance to a position of wealth and prestige.  Yet before even turning 22, this young man’s life was changed forever.  The story, as it is often told, is of this young man trapped outside during an electrical storm – an experience he would later compare to Saul’s Damascus conversion.  It was there, hugging the ground, believing himself near death, that he struck his bargain with God.  Should he survive the storm, he would live his life in the Lord’s service.  And so on July 17, 1505 Martin Luther entered into a monastery. 

What significance does this young man’s life have for each of us?  Was his choice worth the life he walked away from, or the shame of parental disapproval over throwing away the promise of career for a merely religious…

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