On the difference between judgment and discernment: A response to Mark Sandlin, Part II

Over two and a half months ago, I began a series of posts in response to a blog post by Mark Sandlin (a liberal PC(USA) pastor) titled “At What Point Do We Get to Say Parts of Christianity Are No Longer Christian?”  Yes, this is the second in that series.  I truly did not intend to take that long to get back to this; life and other topics intervened.  I’m quite sure I’ll have the third up much more quickly than that, since I’ve already started working on it.  For now, though, go read Sandlin’s post and the first part of my response; I’ll still be here when you get back.

If you’ve done that, then I can take my positive comments on Sandlin’s post as read and go from there.  This is important because my first critical observation is actually implicit in my praise of his work.  Sandlin frames his subject in terms of judgment, and frets that identifying and calling out people who are using Christianity rather than practicing it (the distinction is his, and it’s a good one) is “judgmental” and “mean.”  My response, by contrast, is framed in terms of discernment, which is related but significantly different.  I believe there’s a category error lurking at the heart of Sandlin’s argument; it’s a subtle one, but important nonetheless.

Read more

Poem of the Week

I love the Metaphysical poets.  Henry Vaughan wasn’t as great a poet as John Donne or George Herbert, but that’s mostly because he didn’t write as many truly great poems as those two men.  At his best, his poetry was among the most brilliant the English language has yet seen.  This is my favorite of his poems, a meditation inspired by the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus in John 3.

The Night

Henry Vaughan

John 3.2
      Through that pure virgin shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glowworms shine,
         And face the moon,
    Wise Nicodemus saw such light
    As made him know his God by night.

      Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
         When Thou didst rise!
    And, what can never more be done,
    Did at midnight speak with the Sun!

      O who will tell me where
He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?
What hallowed solitary ground did bear
         So rare a flower,
    Within whose sacred leaves did lie
    The fulness of the Deity?

      No mercy-seat of gold,
No dead and dusty cherub, nor carved stone,
But His own living works did my Lord hold
         And lodge alone;
    Where trees and herbs did watch and peep
    And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

      Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
         Which none disturb!
    Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
    The hours to which high heaven doth chime;

      God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
         His still, soft call;
    His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
    When spirits their fair kindred catch.

      Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent,
Whose peace but by some angel’s wing or voice
         Is seldom rent,
    Then I in heaven all the long year
    Would keep, and never wander here.

      But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
         To every mire,
    And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
    Err more than I can do by night.

      There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
         See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Study for Jesus and Nicodemus, 1898-99.

“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.

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

Doers of the word

Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

—James 1:22 (ESV)

When it comes to the Christian life, what matters most isn’t how much we know (or think we know), or how good we are at saying the right things.  It isn’t how much of God’s word we’ve read, or how much we’ve studied, or even if we have a degree in it.  What matters is how much the word of God has changed us and how much God’s character and will are expressed in our lives.  Are we people who just hear the word of God and then go on about our business, or are we doers of the word?Read more

To be the church, you have to be the church

During our time in British Columbia, the governing party—a socialist labor party called the New Democratic Party—held a leadership race.  The provincial premier, a deeply unpopular little mountebank called Glen Clark, had a neighbor and friend who was under investigation for running an illegal gambling operation.  Said neighbor was also a contractor who had built a sundeck for the Clarks at their main residence and another at their vacation home.  Together, they added up to about $10,000 worth of work.  When the news broke that Clark was the subject of a criminal investigation, he abruptly resigned from office.  (He would be indicted on two felony charges; he was ultimately acquitted on both counts, though not without being admonished by the judge for his bad judgment.)

The race to succeed Clark was a circus, as BC politics tended to be, and produced some truly funny moments. One of my favorites came from the Agricultural Minister, Corky Evans.  Evans had a country-bumpkin image which he liked to play up for comic effect. In announcing his candidacy for party leadership, he told the story of the time he had decided to build a house for his family.  Being impatient, he hadn’t wanted to take the time to put in a foundation, so he just built the house right on the ground. It seems to have come as a surprise to him when the house began to sink. As he told the crowd, this left him with two choices:  either tear down the house, or lift it up and put a foundation under it. Either way, it was going to be a very messy business.

Corky Evans used this to describe the state of his party, but it applies just as well to the church.  There is and always has been the tendency to try to build the church with, on, and out of human efforts.  Some churches are built with music.  Some are built on the charisma of the leader.  Some are built out of programs.  Some are built by spending lots of money on advertising and entertaining Sunday services.  All of these are accepted methods for church growth.

The problem is, to build a church in such a way is to do what Corky Evans did:  it’s to build a house without a foundation.  If you try to build a church on the most popular music, or the most entertaining preaching, or the most exciting service, or the best structure, or any other worldly foundation, you may appear to succeed for a time.  You may well produce a large organization that has lots of members and money and a high profile in the community.  What you will not have in any meaningful sense is a church, and so it will not endure.  Sooner or later, it will begin to sink, leaving you with only two options:  either tear the whole thing down, or try to lift it up and put a foundation under it, because without the proper foundation the building cannot stand.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, the only foundation on which the church can be built is Jesus Christ.  It must be built with the truth of who Christ is and what he taught if it is to last.

(Excerpted from “The Glory of the Truth”)


Photo:  Foundation framework and reinforcing steel for 150-ton permanent cableway hoist house.  United States Department of the Interior, 1933.

The battle belongs to the Lord

President Obama declared on national TV that “we have contained [ISIS]”; within hours of the broadcast, ISIS struck Paris, following hard on the heels of attacks in Beirut and Baghdad.  Burundi, which not so long ago was sending peacekeeping forces to Somalia, is descending into a whirlpool of violence and nightmare.  It’s easy to look around at the world and wonder, “Where is the hope?”Read more

Let all the thirsty come

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.”

—Isaiah 55:1-3 (ESV)

Contrary to what we might have expected, this invitation and this promise are offered to people who were already outwardly members of the people of God. The nations aren’t excluded here—the invitation is given to all who are thirsty—but there’s no explicit summons to them, either.  The invitation is framed in terms of what God did in and for David. The point, which Isaiah has been making all along, is clear: though Israel has heard the law, and has heard the prophets, and they have all kinds of head knowledge about God, that hasn’t translated for them into any kind of real relationship with him. They consider him their God because they’re Israelites and he’s the God of Israel, and doesn’t everybody in this country worship God?—but many of them haven’t answered his invitation. Some probably haven’t really heard it before. They haven’t learned that there’s more to their faith than just being a faithful templegoer.

Indeed, there’s far more. The challenge to us of Isaiah’s expansive invitation is—do we still need to hear it? Have we really accepted it, or are we no different than the Israelites? In this country, it’s very easy to be a Christian, and that means there are a lot of folks who are outwardly Christian for all the wrong reasons, with no inward reality, no real faith in Christ. The church has to shoulder a lot of the blame for that, of course, because there are a lot of churches in this country that don’t give people God’s invitation, that don’t challenge people with the call of the gospel; it’s easier not to, after all, easier just to give people what they already know they want to hear. Even for the church, it’s easier to serve junk food.

Despite all this, underneath and through it all, God’s invitation still goes out: “Come, all of you who hunger and thirst; come to me, that you may live.” And we need to ask ourselves: have we really done that, are we really living in God? Or do we still need to accept it?

(Excerpted, edited, from “The Invitation”)


Photo:  Elakala Waterfall 1© 2006 ForestWander (http://www.ForestWander.com).  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States.

The stubborn faithfulness of God

“The former things I declared of old;
they went out from my mouth, and I announced them;
then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate,
and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you,
lest you should say, ‘My idol did them,
my carved image and my metal image commanded them.’

“You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it?
From this time forth I announce to you new things,
hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’
You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened.
For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously,
and that from before birth you were called a rebel.

“For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.

—Isaiah 48:3-11 (ESV)

Israel had a long history of faithlessness to God—it’s what got them taken off into exile—but despite all that, he refused to give up on them. He reminds his people of the many times in the past that he had told them what would happen, and then brought about what he predicted; and look at verses 4-5. Why did he do this? “Because I knew how stubborn you are”! If God had simply done good things for them, would they have given him the credit? No, they would have given the credit as they saw fit, to the idols they themselves had made. God told them what he was going to do before he did it so that they would know who was truly responsible. They could always refuse to admit that knowledge—and sometimes they did; that’s why God has to say, “You’ve heard these things. Won’t you admit them?”—but they would have no excuse and no justification for their refusal.Read more

Straight Outta Compton and the language of lament

I’m not sure why so many people in Hollywood were surprised when Straight Outta Compton took over the box office this past August.  Interest in the movie was running high, from what I saw, and it’s not as if there was much competition in the theaters by that point.  For that matter, though there were some big hits this year, there wasn’t all that much worth watching for most of the summer.  What’s more, SOC was released by Universal, which was well into its “all your box office are belong to us” routine.  According to the Grantland article linked above,

Universal has already put together a box office year for the ages, and Straight Outta Compton notches the studio’s sixth no. 1 opener of the year. With Straight Outta Compton, Universal could release nothing else this year but a two-hour video of the staff taking selfies and it would still break Warner Bros.’ $2.1 billion record for domestic box office. By the way, that’s a record set in December 2009, which Universal will break in August.

Finally, while the main reason projections for the movie were low was that “it had no stars,” that wasn’t really true.  I understand why people would say that (since the only actor in the movie with any reputation to speak of was Paul Giamatti, and he’s not exactly your classic leading man), but it missed the point.  The stars of the movie were the characters in the story; it wasn’t the name value of the actors but their ability to bring the characters to life that mattered (as is the case most of the time).  N.W.A has been defunct for a long time, but Dr. Dre and Ice Cube still have more pull than most movie stars.  As long as they were behind it and the movie told the story in a compelling way, it had all the star power it needed.  Having Ice Cube’s son playing him only reinforced that.

While it was mildly amusing watching the commentary and analysis of SOC‘s success, I was more interested in how little controversy there was.  I’ve never been a rap fan, but N.W.A was a mammoth cultural presence in my high-school years.  I remember the fury they caused, and I remember articles over the years asserting that gangsta rap was celebrating and even inciting violence against the police.  I don’t know if those articles were correct or not, but I was surprised that when N.W.A came back in some sense with this movie, I didn’t see the opposition come roaring back along with it.  Apart from a personal essay by Dee Barnes, who was brutally assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991, the dominant cultural response seemed to be nostalgia.

This is unfortunate, because N.W.A shouldn’t be uncritically celebrated.Read more