“God made me this way”? Not exactly [REPOST]

(The original of this post is from 2009.  I need to get back to blogging the Heidelberg soon.)

Heidelberg Catechism
Q & A 6
Q. Did God create people so wicked and perverse?

A. No.
God created them good1 and in his own image,2
that is, in true righteousness and holiness,3
so that they might
truly know God their creator,4
love him with all their heart,
and live with him in eternal happiness
for his praise and glory.5

Note: mouse over footnote for Scripture references.

There’s a real tendency these days to appeal to genetics to explain behavior—and increasingly, to excuse behavior, as action is reframed as identity. The church can’t appeal to the word of God with regard to homosexual activity without someone (usually a good many someones) standing up and saying, “God made me this way, and therefore this is how I’m supposed to be, and therefore God can’t really have meant that.” Unfortunately, the steady repetition of that assertion has convinced a lot of folks (especially younger folks) who consider themselves evangelicals that it must be true. That has done considerable damage to the authority of Scripture in the American evangelical church.

I have no interest in the debate over whether or not or to what degree homosexual desires are a matter of genetics. To be blunt, I consider the whole question a red herring. We recognize this when it comes to other issues. From the studies I’ve seen, the heritability of alcoholism is about the same as the heritability of homosexual preferences, but nobody uses that as a defense for driving drunk. Certain cancers, we well know, come to us through our genes, yet we don’t tell cancer patients, “God made you this way, so he must want you to die of cancer.” (The federal government might, if Obamacare passes, but that’s another matter.) It would be quite consistent to label same-sex erotic desires just another inherited disease—but we don’t do that. This makes it clear that it’s not the genetic element that’s driving the argument, it’s the affective element. It’s the fact that those who practice such behaviors don’t want to give them up.

Since the appeal to genetics has been effective (whether logical or not), we can expect to see it raised as a defense for other behaviors as well. In time, it will become impossible for the church to call people to holiness without hearing, “God made me this way!” As such, it’s important to remind Christians that the Scriptures give the church a firm answer to this, to which the Heidelberg bears witness: No, he didn’t. We are all sinners, we are all bent to defy the will of God and to prefer evil to good in at least some areas of our lives, and all of our natural tendencies, preferences, orientations and desires arise out of sin-distorted hearts—but God didn’t make us that way. God created us good, in his own image. Our sinful desires are someone else’s fault altogether.

Just because something is natural to us doesn’t make it right. Just because we inherited it along with our hair and eye color doesn’t mean that God approves of it. All it means is that we’re born sinful—just like everybody else.

 

Photo © 2006 Joonas L.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

What do we mean by “the same God”?

With the recent flap at Wheaton over Larycia Hawkins, we have yet another round of argument over whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  This frustrates me, because there’s an obvious question that no one ever thinks to address in these disputes:

What the heck is that supposed to mean?

From a Christian point of view, there is only one God, for starters—a point on which Muslims would agree.  Both faiths understand themselves to be worshiping the singular Creator of everything that is, who is the rightful Lord of all creation.  There aren’t any other gods (let alone “Gods”) lying around whom we could be worshiping.  It isn’t as if Muslims were worshiping Ahura Mazda, Nyame, Odin, Zeus, Vishnu, Marduk, Xhuuya, Ba’al, or Set.  It seems to me the question we ought to be asking is, “Who is worshiping God in spirit and in truth?”

I’m not quite as alone in this as I thought, however.  In response to Dr. Hawkins’ assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, John Stackhouse responded,

I frankly don’t know what she meant by that.

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Be different just like everyone else

Given the increasingly common criticisms lobbed at orthodox Christianity in America these days, you’d think our culture was opposed to legalism; but don’t you believe it.  A few years ago, while he was still the senior pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Tullian Tchividjian made a trenchant observation in an essay titled “Church, We Have a Problem”:

The one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms.  Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”).  Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). . . .  Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. . . .  We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license.

The world wants us all to be legalists, and on the whole, it doesn’t really care which kind.  Put another way, the world wants us to be conformists.  Some times and cultures favor “keep the rules” conformists, while others favor “break the rules” conformists, but what really matters either way aren’t the obvious rules being kept or broken.  What matters is the deeper set of rules you aren’t allowed to question.

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“White Witch / Fenris Ulf 2016: Vote for a Proven Winner”

If you ever doubt that C. S. Lewis was gifted with a prophetic voice, you need look no further for correction than Prince Caspian.

So writes Gina Dalfonzo on the First Things website, discussing the Black Dwarf Nikabrik.  Nikabrik was one of the allies Prince Caspian found after his escape from his uncle, the usurper King Miraz, but as an ally, he was highly problematic.

We first meet him inside the home of Trufflehunter, wanting to kill Caspian the Tenth against the wishes of the badger and Trumpkin. Nikabrik is angry at all Telmarines, bitterly remembering the injustices suffered by the old Narnians in their hands. In his defense, Nikabrik was born in hiding, grew in hiding and lived in hiding throughout his life, which must have been very difficult for any independent, freedom-loving dwarf.

When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy (the heroes of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for those who might not be familiar with the series) reach Caspian, Nikabrik is speaking; they stop outside the door to listen.

“Either Aslan is dead, or he is not on our side. Or else something stronger than himself keeps him back. And if he did come—how do we know he’d be our friend? He was not always a good friend to Dwarfs by all that’s told. Not even to all beasts. Ask the Wolves. And anyway, he was in Narnia only once that I ever heard of, and he didn’t stay long. You may drop Aslan out of the reckoning. I was thinking of someone else.”

There was no answer, and for a few minutes it was so still that Edmund could hear the wheezy and snuffling breath of the Badger.

“Who do you mean?” said Caspian at last.

“I mean a power so much greater than Aslan’s that it held Narnia spellbound for years and years, if the stories are true.”

“The White Witch!” cried three voices all at once, and from the noise Peter guessed that three people had leaped to their feet.

“Yes,” said Nikabrik very slowly and distinctly, “I mean the Witch. Sit down again. Don’t all take fright at a name as if you were children. We want power: and we want a power that will be on our side. . . .

“They say she ruled for a hundred years: a hundred years of winter. There’s power, if you like. There’s something practical.”

“But, heaven and earth!” said the King, “haven’t we always been told that she was the worst enemy of all? Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?”

“Perhaps,” said Nikabrik in a cold voice. “Perhaps she was for you humans, if there were any of you in those days. Perhaps she was for some of the beasts. She stamped out the Beavers, I dare say; at least there are none of them in Narnia now. But she got on all right with us Dwarfs. I’m a Dwarf and I stand by my own people. We’re not afraid of the Witch.”

Nikabrik is so consumed by fear and hatred and the need to defeat the enemies of his people that he can see nothing else.  The White Witch was a cruel overlord who humiliated and crushed anyone who dared oppose her—but all Nikabrik can see is that she wasn’t too bad to the Dwarfs.  Dalfonzo observes,

His own people and their safety are all that matter to him now. Instead of being an important priority, this has become his only priority—and any attempt to remind him that other considerations exist brings only his contempt and anger.

This is how good people with strong, ingrained values—people who have invested time and money in the sanctity of life, religious liberty, and similarly noble causes—can come to support a man who changes his convictions more often than his shirts. This is how people concerned about the dignity of the office of President end up flocking to a reality-show star who spends his days on Twitter calling people “dumb” and “loser.” This is how some who have professed faith in Jesus Christ are lured by a man who openly puts all his faith in power and money, the very things Christ warned us against prizing too highly. As one wag on Twitter pointed out, “If elected, Donald Trump will be the first US president to own a strip club,” and yet he has the support of Christians who fervently believe that this country needs to clean up its morals.

As Joseph Loconte has observed, the Narnia stories offer us “a view of the world that is both tragic and hopeful. The tragedy lies in the corruption caused by the desire for power, often disguised by appeals to religion and morals.” How dangerously easy it is for the desire for power to take on that disguise—and how easily we Christians fall for it.

Tired of waiting for Aslan—who may be nearer than we think—we turn elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if our candidate hates, bullies, and exploits other people, the reasoning goes, just as long as he’s good to us and gives us what we want. Hatred is a perfectly acceptable weapon, as long as it’s “on our side.”

Read the whole thing.  Please.  And remember what happened to Nikabrik.

Photo © 2013 Gage Skidmore.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Preschool and the burden of achievement

The Atlantic recently published an article analyzing the state of preschool in America; its conclusions were grim, to say the least.

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

As a father of four whose youngest is still in preschool, this jives with my experience—though our current preschool is an exception, for which I’m grateful.  I am increasingly convinced that the biggest problem with education in America is that our educational policies are driven by adult anxieties rather than a desire to bless and serve our children.

 

Photo by author.

Meditation on forgiveness

Does it seem to you that Western culture is growing increasingly merciless and unforgiving?  Maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe you think the opposite is true, given the rate at which behaviors traditionally understood as wrong are being normalized—but that has nothing to do with mercy or forgiveness.  Actually, that trend underscores my point; given the increasingly pharisaical tenor of Western society, true toleration of behavior is disappearing into polarization, leaving only approval and anathematization as options.  The drive for societal affirmation of such behaviors as same-gender sexual activity isn’t driven by the intolerance of Christians.  Yes, there are plenty of intolerant Christians out there, but on the whole, the American church at least is far more prone to conflict avoidance.  We strive to avoid offending anyone because offending people reduces both attendance and giving, and we’re all about seeing those numbers going up.  When it comes to sin, we might still believe it’s sin, but our usual policy is, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  The same cannot be said of the culture at large.  That’s why the first rule of watching videos on YouTube is, “Don’t read the comments.”  It’s also why this comic from Randall Munroe continues to resonate so powerfully:

Our culture is very good at forgiving things it doesn’t think need to be forgiven—and increasingly good at denouncing orthodox Christians as unloving and unforgiving for insisting that such things do need to be forgiven.  When it comes to beliefs or actions which the elites who shape Western culture find unacceptable, however, there is little or no capacity for forgiveness.  This is a result of the ongoing re-paganization of the West.  The idea that forgiveness is a good thing was a Christian intrusion into the culture, and is fading as the cultural influence of the church fades.  As Tim Keller points out,

The first thing about [Christians that offended pagan cultures] was that the Christians were marked by the ability to forgive.  Almost all ancient cultures were shame-and-honor cultures.  A shame-and-honor culture meant that if someone wronged you, you paid them back.  Your honor was at stake.  You have to save your honor.  That’s what mattered.  And most of the people in the shame-and-honor cultures believed that that’s what kept society together.  Society was kept together by fear. . . .

Christians came along and said, “No, no, you forgive.  Someone wrongs you, you forgive.  Seventy times seven.”  This was nuts to a shame-and-honor culture.  Nuts.  We know that the Northern European pagan cultures that were being won to faith through the monks coming up during the fifth/sixth/seventh/eighth/ninth century . . . were shame-and-honor cultures, and one of the things they used to say in resistance to the Christian gospel was that “If Christians come in here and everybody starts forgiving everybody else, society will just fall apart, because what keeps society together is fear.”  And so the idea that you forgave your enemies and you turned the other cheek was crazy.

True forgiveness is renouncing the right to demand (or enact) judgment.  Read more

The importance of showing up

The above graphic comes from a church down around Dallas, but if you’re a Christian and you use social media, chances are this isn’t the first time you’ve seen that slogan.  (It may be the first time you’ve seen it used to advertise a sermon series, though.  I have to admit, that amuses me.)  I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s been at least twice this week.

In many cases, the people pushing this line clearly mean it in a rabbinic way, much the same as Jesus when he said, “If anyone comes to me and doesn’t hate his entire family, and even his own life, he can’t be my disciple.”  Did Jesus really want us to hate people?  No, he was using a typical rabbinic figure of speech:  the idea is that our love for God should be so great that our love for everyone else, true though it is, looks like hate by comparison.  (Given the propensity of people to declare that “If you loved me, you would . . .” and that if you refuse, you must hate them, this is no mere metaphor.)  Similarly, in this case, the point isn’t to dismiss the importance of going to church—as noted, the graphic above is for a sermon series at a large church in Dallas—but to emphasize the truth that the church is much bigger than just a place to go on Sunday mornings.  To quote from the description of that sermon series, “We are to be the church, we are to live dangerous lives for Christ, allowing ourselves to be God’s vessels for accomplishing extraordinary things.”

Though the intent is fine, this is a deeply problematic slogan, for two reasons.  Read more

Coming up for air

This was a rough month.  I haven’t posted because, for a variety of reasons, I’ve barely been on my computer.  The main exception to that has been time spent writing funeral services, as I had three this month (though I didn’t have the lead role in all of them).  I’ve had little energy to write anything else.

It’s not really over; I still need to do what I can to care for and support those who are grieving.  I hope there won’t be any more funerals for a while, but I can’t count on that.  Even so, I’m starting to feel my energy returning for the tasks I laid aside this month, including writing.  New Year’s is a fitting time to restart the engine.

2015 was an annus horribilis for me, but for all that, I’ve seen God’s hand at work.  Here’s hoping for gentler blessings this year.  Happy New Year, everybody.

 

Photo © 2007 Whit Welles.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

A little practical skepticism would be useful

Just a quick thought:  it seems to me that our nation(s) would be in much better shape if we all accepted that no matter what we do, even our best solutions will always work imperfectly and will always have downsides.  We would do well to be skeptical of the promises of politics—not just politicians, but politics.  We would do better to be skeptical of plans and programs and ideas for improvement—even our own.  No matter what we do, this world will still be broken.  Some people will be poor, and some will be exploited, and some will be abused; some will be exploiters, and some will be abusers, and some will be just flat evil.  We need to set aside our technocratic assumption that these are problems to be fixed and realize that they are people to be faced.  We need to give up the naïve idea that these “problems” can be fixed, which is really just avoidance:  we don’t want to face these people.  We don’t want to meet them honestly in their mess, we want the promise of a quick, clean, antiseptic solution that will make the mess go away where it won’t bother us.  We ought to be deeply skeptical of such promises, and even more skeptical of the desire of our hearts to believe such promises.

We won’t solve the problem of human evil by passing laws.  We won’t stop gun violence by passing laws against guns—or laws in favor of guns, for that matter.  When someone is determined to break the law, what’s one more?  That’s the easy way out, the cheap way out, the coward’s way out.  We will only make a dent in the evil of this world the hard way:  one life at a time, by knowing our neighbors and loving them as ourselves.

 

William Holgarth, The Polling, 1755.