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Posts from the ‘Practical Theology’ Category

Notes on “How Should Christians Have Sex?”

Katelyn Beaty wrote this opinion piece in the New York Times last month. Read it before continuing here.

A majority of adults who came of age in evangelical churches in the 1990s and 2000s were exposed to “purity culture,” a term for teachings that stressed sexual abstinence before marriage. We had our own rituals, such as “purity balls,” and our own merchandise, such as “purity rings.” I had a “Wait for Me Journal” that I kept as a college freshman; created by a prominent Christian pop singer, the journal was designed to hold letters to my future husband. It held out the promise that if I remained pure, then God would reward good behavior with a husband — surely before I turned 30 so that we could have lots of children.

Somehow God and I got our wires crossed, because the husband hasn’t arrived. Twenty years later, I no longer subscribe to purity culture, largely because it never had anything to say to Christians past the age of 23. Yet lately, I also find myself mourning the loss of the coherent sexual ethic that purity culture tried to offer. Is consent culture the best that we have in its place?

Since this topic will be my Senior Thesis next year (sexuality education and discipleship in the local church) I am very invested in the same questions as Beaty. She wants to navigate between two failed paradigms. On the right, we have the 1990’s Purity Culture with its shame-based, gender-imbalanced, legalistic tendencies. On the left, a teaching “that simply baptizes casual sex in the name of self-expression and divorces sex from covenant faithfulness and self-sacrificial love.” However, there is a massive gulf between these paradigms. Where, exactly, we land between them will depend on the types of constructive theology we use to think about sex.

Beaty gives a few constructive ideas.

  • Spiritual Covenant. The proponents of purity culture “were trying to offer us the gift of sex within marriage. As Christianity teaches that marriage is not simply a legal bind but a spiritual covenant, so married sex is a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.”
  • Sacrament. “[T]he Christian teaching on sacramentality is helpful. All creation, including human bodies, by grace reveals deeper spiritual truth. In other words, matter matters. So when a person engages another person sexually, Christians would say, it’s not “just” bodies enacting natural evolutionary urges but also an encounter with another soul.”
  • More than Consent. “two people can consent to something that’s nonetheless damaging or selfish. Consent crucially protects against sexual assault and other forms of coercion. But it doesn’t necessarily protect against people using one another in quieter ways. I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent — a baseline, but only that — and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.”

I love these ideas. I think they are all good and they belong in every new constructive proposal of Christian sexuality. I also have some notes of my own. Please take these as tentative, debatable, and yet-to-be-systematized, and feel free to reply with your own ideas. This work is done better together.

First, the teaching, “don’t have sex before marriage” has nothing positive to say about singleness. I get what not to do, but what do I do? Does the church have any remaining advice for me as someone intentionally not seeking marriage? Or have I exhausted the church’s teaching on sexuality? Purity Culture implied that singleness does not actually exist on its own, but rather singleness is only the absence of marriage, like cold does not exist but is the absence of heat. This is profoundly mistaken. There really is a positive content to what singleness can be, but by only “enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce,” the Purity Culture church failed to “pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?” The only accepted form of non-marital relationships in our churches are dating relationships which are aimed at eventual marriage. Until we can talk about non-dating (and therefore non-eventually-marrying) relationships in a Christian way, we will not have any real alternatives to the Get Married Quick / Sin Sin Sin dichotomy that surrounds us. If we had any positive vision for what singleness could consist in, we could implicitly — almost accidentally — solve most of these problems.

Second, the proscription against sex before marriage does not help anyone navigate the bounds of sex within marriage. Once you get married, does ‘anything go’? Beaty makes this point by saying that consent does not stop “people using one another in quieter ways.” We need some type of framework for Christian sex within marriage, not just a prohibition on sex outside of marriage. One of my favorite films at the Chicago Critics film festival last month was Pink Wall. The movie follows a couple over six scenes, each in a different year of their six-year relationship. Things are bad, and they only get worse. Interestingly, though there was no sex shown in the film, at the Q&A afterwords director Tom Cullen commented that Pink Wall is about ‘the ways that sex, even consensual sex in a committed relationship, can be used as a weapon against another person.’ I think this is incredibly telling. Can’t the same be said about “don’t have sex before marriage”? Like “don’t rape,” that basic ethic is necessary, but not sufficient. One example in the film (that Paul also comments on) is sexual deprivation. Sexual deprivation is a major topic within the sex life of a married couple, but what guidance does the church have on it? While (1) a spouse is not “owed” sex on any given occasion, and (2) the other spouse certainly does not have a “right” to sex simply because they are married, and (3) yes marital rape does exist and is evil, and (4) this goes both ways, not just deprivation of the man but also of the woman… there still can be ways to weaponize sexual deprivation with the intent to emotionally scar the spouse. This would be wrong and un-loving, and therefore un-Christian, but does Purity Culture have anything to say about it?

Third, Purity Culture placed a major emphasis on virginity. I argue that virginity is not a “grace concept” because it does not have the possibility of forgiveness and it defies restoration. Rather, we should talk about ‘everyday purity,’ or ‘faithful Christian sexuality,’ or some other term that can continue to exist after it has been broken. When the Christian teaching gets over-simplified even further from “don’t have sex until marriage” to “remain a virgin until marriage,” we lose any hope for someone who loses their virginity and therefore is categorically “unclean” for the rest of their singleness. (Not to mention victims of rape). If a Christian loses their virginity before marriage, and their only ethic is “don’t lose your virginity before marriage,” there is a certain “well whatever, might as well keep having sex” attitude that naturally emerges. This licentiousness is the result of our biblically unnecessary emphasis on virginity.

Fourth, the emphasis on virginity has a simple work-around: oral sex, anal sex, mutual or solo masturbation, and use of pornography are all ways to avoid technically losing virginity. Mark Regnerus in his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (2007, pp. 163-182) makes the point, with qualifications. He found that non-vaginal “technical virginity” practices exist. They are more common in Mainline Protestant and Jewish youth than in more conservative groups. But he also found in the same chapter that more conservative youth were highly reluctant to talk about these practices, often opting to skip the question (especially on pornography use). I suspect, given this silence and the 12 years passed since Regnerus’s study, that this practice is significantly more common now than before, especially among conservative religious youth. I have a shocking story about some comments a few students of mine made in this vein, but that deserves its own entire blog post. My point here is that teaching on virginity and against pregnancy and STD’s as the main issue with pre-marital sex does not cover all or even half the practices condemned in Christian sexual ethics. Instead we need a way to understand these other practices as sex, which I would say is that they are embodied. My friend Matt uses the language of “doing what is fitting” and “fittingness.” There are many other views as well. Much more thinking to do here.

Fifth, one real proposal I have for one piece of a Christian sexual ethic is kenosis. Kenosis is the original word for “emptying yourself,” as Paul writes about Jesus in Philippians 2:7. Christians are called in all aspects of life to imitate Jesus’s humility. He emptied himself in the incarnation and made himself nothing in order to serve others. This is the call to unconditional love, altruism, and self-sacrifice. How often do you think of self-sacrifice when you think of sex? Literally never. The cultural conception of sex we have inherited is defined only by receiving pleasure, never sacrificing it. But Christian sex which imitates the sacrificial attitude of Jesus would never be centered on our own pleasure, only on that of the spouse. I had a professor at Trinity who said (and it was very TMI as a college freshman) that the goal of married Christian sex is to bring the other person to orgasm, not per se yourself. Figure out what they like, and do that, at the expense of your preferences. (This only works if both spouses do so equally). Kenosis in sex is radically different from American hook-up culture, with all its self-gratification, lazy sensuality, and casual disregard for the other person. Again, kenosis would be only one aspect of a broader Christian sexual ethic that needs to be built in the wake of Purity Culture.

Sixth, we cannot have discussions about Christian sexuality as long as the topic remains brutally taboo in Christian spaces. I lament the discipleship that happens in youth ministry because I know it ignores 90% if not 100% of the real struggles going on in students’ lives. As much as we don’t want to overplay sexual ethics to the detriment of our students’ young faith… we do more harm when we leave them without resources to understand the Christian teaching on sexuality and without contexts where they can process these things with other students. I worked with Jr. High students the past two years at church, and both years we talked about sexual purity for 90 minutes each year. God have mercy on us on judgement day when we stand accountable for our failure to shepherd these confused and helpless students. We know — we absolutely KNOW — that parents are not doing this either. But those same parents will claim “parents are the primary disciplers of their children,” which is the almighty trump card in youth ministry in 2019. The students are then left without Christian access to sexual information, and the internet fills the void. What an embarrassment. The problem extends beyond youth ministry, where parents censor the conversations their kids have. In adult-aged ministry, everyone censors their own conversations, because of unhealthy norms around “keeping it rated G” and “having no unwholesome talk.” As a result, sexuality in the church remains one of the only topic/context combinations in America that resembles an honor/shame culture. For the sake of our santification as individuals and corporately, this cannot be so.

Seventh, Beaty is absolutely correct when she writes that “Young women, who were expected to manage men’s lust as well as their own, fared the worst.” The gender imbalance in Purity Culture was no mystery to me as a middle school student. Girls were told not to wear skimpy clothes or they might lead the boys astray. More challenging, but more helpful for my discipleship (I am gay and never cared what the girls wore), would have been the teaching that everyone is responsible for repentance of their own lust. Or consider the words of Jesus, that “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (No, this is not out of context, because in verses 22-23 he includes several sexual sins as well). I cannot imagine the additional weight of constantly self-monitoring to make sure that you don’t trigger others. I have never had to do that, thankfully, and in a new model of Christian sexuality discipleship, girls would not face the total brunt of that weight. Anyways, non-Christians will continue to dress immodestly (by Christian standards), no matter what the Church teaches its people. So it is necessary, inside Christian spaces as well as outside, to begin to condition ourselves to hold ourselves accountable for our sin rather than blaming it on others. Maybe the other person does have some culpability for “causing me to stumble,” but my primary concern should always be to eliminate my own sin, not theirs.

Eighth, any teaching on Christian sexual ethics that functions as Law will be subject to the same critique of the law that Paul gives generally. Paul’s general critique is that the law actually is good, but it produces death in us because we are sinful by nature. Maybe in some hypothetical universe where humans don’t have a sinful nature, the law could have worked out well. But instead, in our fallenness, the “gift” of the law is actually a curse that leaves us worse off than before we received it. Now consider the main purity teaching. Being told, “Don’t have sex before marriage” does not actually help a person to not desire having sex, and in fact tells them exactly what to do in order to break the rule, so you can guess what will happen next. Instead of understanding Christian sexual ethics as regulatory law, we need to reframe the entire discussion in other terms, hopefully terms closer to the NT virtue ethics of life in the Spirit.

Ninth, Christian sex should be totally decentered from the meaning of the marriage relationship and the meaning of any person’s life. I’m afraid that Purity Culture was so emphasized in my church upbringing (while simultaneously not being talked about, almost ever!) that I began to understand myself, consciously or not, as a “sexual being” whose main goal in Christian sanctification was to avoid sexual sin. But we will have no such focus on sex in the eschatological kingdom, where we will be like the angels, neither married nor given in marriage, Jesus says. Our eschatological sexlessness should be great encouragement to those pursuing celibacy that sex is not essential to a meaningful life anyways. It should remind married people that their sex serves the greater purpose of uniting them in relational intimacy, rather than being an end in itself. It should warn unmarried but sexually active Christians that they are needlessly conditioning their earthly bodies against the reality of their heavenly body. The sexless eschatological state also serves as a powerful rebuke of our cultural moment and its relentlessly sexual outlook. In each of these cases what needs to be eliminated is not sex but the total and final significance we place on sex.

Tenth, (and I’m tempted to just dump the entire transcript of this talk by Matthew Lee Anderson here), we need to understand sexual desire in more particular categories than those delivered to us by Freudian or evolutionary psychology. In his talk Anderson comments at length about non-sexual attraction and argues that we need an “inadvertant, sidways point of view” on what constitutes sexual attraction, a view that is “deflationary.” He has in mind a view that sees “the formation of our aesthetic vision as the presupposition and context of our sexual desire.” He and Nate Collins have made this point, that sexual attraction is primarily about seeing, noticing, and observing things about the other person. This maneuver breaks down “sexual attraction” into two parts, a non-sexual “attraction” to what is true, good, and beautiful in others, and then in a second part, a sexualization of that attraction. Thinking this way has been fruitful in my own life the past year as I have considered my friendships and what draws me towards certain people. It decouples the parts of those relationships that must be mortified (because they are sinful) from those parts that must be sanctified (because they are not sinful). This means that, in my case, I can be friends with other men! And in the case of straight Christians, men and women can be friends, given certain prudent boundaries, without the friendship being morally suspect. I think the tension in male-female friendships prevents so much good that could be done in the Church. Like our sexuality itself, this tension will not be found on the Mountain of God.

THESE have been my thoughts, with links to other resources that can help continue the conversation. I have very definite opinions about points #1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, but less definite opinions about #4, 5, 8, 9, and 10. In other words, some of my arguments above are loose, speculative, and in need of further reflection. (If you point out flaws in them, I will back down immediately and disown them). Anyways, I still need to elaborate these points into particular applications, naming exactly what I would change and exactly how. That will be my Senior Thesis.

What do you think? How should the evangelical church continue to think about sex, while avoiding the deficiencies of progressive Christian sexuality and the excesses of Purity Culture?

Photo by Mohan Murugesan on Unsplash

Central Carolina report ignores Non-sexual Attraction

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It is obvious that our brokenness is often most painfully experienced with respect to our sexuality. My own and my friends’ struggles make it clear how central our sexuality is to the way we think and feel about ourselves. Our sexuality reveals to us our enormous yearning for communion. The desires of our body – to be touched, embraced, and safely held – belong to the deepest longings of the heart and are very concrete signs of our search for oneness. It is precisely around this yearning for communion that we experience so much anguish. Our society is so fragmented, our family lives so sundered by physical and emotional distance, our friendships so sporadic, our intimacies so “in-between” things and soften so utilitarian, that there are few places where we can feel truly safe. I notice in myself how often my body is tense, how I usually keep my guard up and how seldom I have a complete feeling of being at home.

Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 73.

Compare this paragraph from Nouwen with these paragraphs from the recent Central Carolina Presbytery Report on Revoice. Just before, the Report has established that the Reformed Tradition disagrees with the distinction between desire for sin and actively doing sin. Quoting Bavinck, Calvin, and the Westminster divines, the report settles that desires for sin are themselves sinful. This is standard within Reformed theology, and I don’t take issue with it. But then, they say this:

At this point, some in the Revoice conversation might argue for a qualitative difference between desire and attraction. Anderson, for example, makes this distinction in his category of “aesthetic vision.” Specifically, he says, “It seems to this observer that one thing which remains after the purification of same-sex sexual desires—besides faith, hope, and charity—is the complex set of noticings and attractions toward members of one’s own sex” (emphasis added). While noticing is not the same as desire, it is hard to imagine how “attraction” does not carry some sense of magnetic pull, arousal, or desire. By a simple dictionary definition, to notice is to observe or perceive, while attraction suggests interest and allurement. A mother may recognize that her teenage son is quite handsome or that her daughter has grown into an objectively beautiful woman. These noticings can take place apart from any sexual longing. But if a mother were to experience any attraction to her son or daughter surely we would describe this kind of noticing as illicit, as a perverse response—however unbidden—that should be mortified at all costs. In short, while we distinguish between noticing and attraction, we do not see how attraction and desire are fundamentally different moral categories.

This does not mean same-sex attracted Christians should be full of morbid self-loathing, any more than Christians who constantly battle unwanted heterosexual desires should be consigned forever to the slough of despond. It does mean, however, that when the heart is drawn after an illegitimate end, we must repent of that sinful desire, longing, or attraction and run to Christ for cleanness of conscience and forgiveness of sin. (pp. 7-8).

While I appreciate the report’s attempt to speak in the voice of “some in the Revoice conversation,” they grossly misrepresent at least Matthew Anderson’s position and, from my reading, the position of everybody else involved with Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. Maybe they would have understood Anderson’s position better if they had imbibed the first two minutes of his talk:

Speaking rightly about the Christian formation of sexual desires requires first speaking about something other than sex. Desires are shaped by our theological and communal practices. To consider sexual desire outside this broader context misconstrues it from the outside. I take this to be the heart of the Augustinian legacy on moral formation. Sexual desires are fundamentally about something deeper and more transcendent sex itself. Because of this, chastity requires the reorientation or transposition of the fires that animate sexual passion, rather than their extinction. Pace C.S. Lewis, it is not that the pornography addict’s desires for sex are too strong, but that his other desires are too weak. The intense longing for an immediate sexual consummation is only the lowest form of what is meant to be a more radiant and flowering enduring love. Chastity in our youth allows us to enjoy the full flowering of fidelity as we age, which often looks like a sexless intimacy founded upon years of life together. This form of love is foreign to many of us younger folks — children as we are of the divorce revolution — but it is a deeper and more powerful love than the intensity of sexual passion that occupies so much of our attention and time while we are young. The appropriate formation of our sexual desires then begins in an explicitly non-sexual key. The emergence of the sexual desire for a particular person is the culmination of a long train of reasoning, the premises of which are mostly invisible to us, and the control over which is largely indirect. The path towards ordering such desires towards God’s love begins, then, with posing the question of whether it is sex and its pleasures that they aim at at all — or whether the sexual desire is an echo or a refection of a deeper, a more profound longing for intimacy and love, that sexual union can only imperfectly anticipate. (Emphasis added).

The report authors give such an unclear “summary” of this talk (p. 2) that I am unsure they grasped any of this opening claim. Certainly from their later remarks, they did not grasp it. Anderson’s point is that sexual desires are not, at base, sexual. When he then goes on to talk about “attractions toward members of one’s own sex” he is not talking about sexual attractions. He is talking about non-sexual attraction. This is the value of his and Nate Collins’s aesthetic argument. We first notice things aesthetically: the person’s truth, beauty and goodness. Then, we are drawn to them by merit of these traits. It is only after observing and being attracted to these transcendent traits, in a sinful reflex of the prideful heart, that we spiral these noticings and attractions into lust.

To counter the report’s own example, Anderson is not arguing that a mother’s “attraction” to her children could be both sexual and sinless. Instead he would argue that a mother notices her child’s truth, beauty, and goodness, and then is drawn to them on those grounds (‘attracted’ to them), and only in a third and sinful step would lust after them. I don’t care that in the words of the report “it is hard to imagine” what Anderson means by this distinction. He explained himself, but the report amounts to an accusation that he endorses sin. Instead, Anderson argues for the existences of “a Christian de-sexulaized eroticism,” meaning the last word in the Greek eros for desire-at-large. How much less sexualized need he be then to use the word “de-sexualized”?

There is another word for this non-sexual desire for what is true, beautiful and good in another: love. But the authors of the Central Carolina Report object to that word, too, because someone else has already used “same-sex love” in an affirming book. Yet when Wesley Hill used the term “same-sex love” in his sermon (42:20 and following), he explicitly distinguishes between what he calls “same-sex love” on the one hand and “sexual sin” to which we say no on the other hand. Does it matter how “how most people understand the phrase”? Anderson himself has dealt with this in a similar context:

For [Al] Mohler, though, this is insufficient: “Same-sex attraction is not limited to sexual attraction,” he writes, “but it strains all credibility to argue that this ‘aesthetic orientation’ can be non-sexual.” Mohler doesn’t supply an argument here so much as simply suggest that it is impossible. But why? It strains all credibility to think that someday we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be like the angels in heaven. What we shall be like in the resurrection is indeed impossible to imagine — and yet, one thing Scripture seems to be relatively explicit about is that the particular complex and cluster of sexual desires that so captivate us now will not then. Mohler knows this — but rather than work out Collins’ position along these lines, and so present it in a fair light, he opts to simply dismiss it as defying imagination.

Christian teaching about the nature of same-sex love would shock listeners who bother to hear longer than the phrase itself.

The report also misrepresents Eve Tushnet’s message and makes the same error as before, summarizing that she believes “homosexual desire, though it should not be fully acted upon, can be embraced, celebrated, and redirected.” But the question is not whether homo-sexual desire can be somewhat, partially, fully, minimally, or maximally good. The question is what level of “desire” we are talking about: sexual, or pre-sexual? Because the authors of the Report have an exclusively sexualized understanding of desire, they cannot see past their own “thoroughgoingly Freudian” (Anderson’s term) presuppositions.

I began this post with the quote from Nouwen because he gives another example of the types of non-sexual longing which (through our “brokenness,” though Nouwen is using that word in a specific way) later can become sinful. Like Anderson, Nouwen points to “the deepest longings of the heart” but in addition to Anderson’s ideas Nouwen characterizes the search for transcendence as a “search for oneness” and a “yearning for communion.” These desires are not uniquely sinful. (They may be sinful in the Total Depravity sense that all desires for good which come from a fallen self are sinful. But they are not desires for sinful ends). Because these are not desires for sin, and it is only from our fallenness that we fulfill them in sinful ways, we should find other ways to fulfill them. This is the heart of the Spiritual Friendship project as I understand it: using friendship to fulfill deeper human desires which, if left unfulfilled, will likely lead to sin.

The Central Carolina report (as opposed to the much more thorough Missouri report) made seemingly no attempt to contact the conference speakers, others of whom they have also misrepresented in weak caricature. When one publishes a critique not just on the authority of their own personal blog, or a conference, or a single church, but the Presbytery itself, the standards are necessarily higher. Unfortunately, this level of engagement fails to be the kind of good faith, valuable pushback that advances the conversation.

 

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Henri Nouwen talks about suffering and joy

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The spiritual life radically changes everything. Being born and growing up, leaving home and finding a career, being praised and being rejected, walking and resting, praying and playing, becoming ill and being healed — yes, living and dying — they all become expressions of that divine question: “Do you love me?” And at every point of the journey there is the choice to say “Yes” and the choice to say “No.”

Once you are able to catch a glimpse of that spiritual vision, you can see how the many distinctions that are so central in our daily living lose their meaning. When joy and pain are both opportunities to say “Yes” to our divine childhood, then they are more alike than they are different. When the experience of being awarded a prize and the experience of being found lacking in excellence both offer us a chance to claim our true identity as the “Beloved” of God, these experiences are more similar than they are different. When feeling lonely and feeling at home both hold a call to discover more fully who the God is whose children we are, these feelings are more united than they are distinct. When, finally, both living and dying bring us closer to the full realization of our spiritual selfhood, they are not the great opposites the world would have us believe; they are, instead, two sides of the same mystery of God’s love. Living the spiritual life means living life as one unified reality…

What I most want to say is that when the totality of our daily lives is lived “from above,” that is, as the Beloved sent into the world, then everyone we meet and everything that happens to us becomes a unique opportunity to choose for the life that cannot be conquered by death. Thus, both joy and suffering become part of the way to our spiritual fulfillment. I found this vision movingly expressed by the novelist Julien Green in a letter to his friend, the French Philosopher Jacques Maritain. He writes: “…when you think of the mystical experiences of many saints, you may ask yourself whether joy and suffering aren’t aspects of the same phenomenon on a very high level. An analogy, crazy for sure, comes to my mind: extreme cold burns. It seems nearly certain, no, it is certain, that we can only go to God through suffering and that this suffering becomes joy because it finally is the same thing.”

Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 106-109.

Photo by DAVIDCOHEN on Unsplash

I’m pro-life. “Unplanned” is not worth seeing.

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Put aside production quality failures and Unplanned still does not work. Forget issues with lighting, camera angles, editing, pacing, colorization, any of it. Disregard whatever expectations you have of cinematography — because, let’s be honest, directors Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman of God’s Not Dead I & II fame are not trying to make a beautiful or sophisticated film. Meet Unplanned where it is at, which is not a film but a message-movie. Let’s focus only on the message.

I’m going to be generous here.

The argument against abortion in Unplanned is threefold. First, abortion looks gross. Visually you cannot watch it happen. To watch an abortion is to watch something bloody, gory, something alien to our sanitized suburban lifestyles. When you see an abortion on-screen you go, “Eww, gross.” It evokes a negative mind-body reaction. Second, the administration at Planned Parenthood is bad. Planned Parenthood makes profit-maximizing decisions and does not treat their employees well. They compare fetuses to french fries and soda, they speak in strict subject-predicate syntax and never use the passive voice, and they arbitrarily reprimand their employees (and later SLAPP sue them). Third, some people who stand at the Fence on Saturdays are good people who want to support women and provide them other options than having an abortion. Other people at the Fence are mean, but these certain ones treat women with respect and genuine kindness.

That’s all.

Grossness, Meanness, Kindness. These reasons can motivate any given person to become pro-life. I’m not denying that. And they come from Abby Johnson’s personal memoir. I see no real reason to doubt that these three reasons were significant in her conversion to the pro-life cause. (Though other aspects of the narrative are disputed). But they are unconvincing beyond sheer emotional appeal. Unfortunately that was not the case for the pro-choice arguments. As Abby becomes a Planned Parenthood advocate the audience is treated to many of the arguments that convinced her: (1) Women should have the right to choose, (2) Many women are in vulnerable living situations and can’t justify having a child, (3) Many teenagers are too young to responsibly raise children. These arguments can be easily diffused. Watch this: (1) Yes, but choices must be made in the moral-legislative context of democracy, so ultimately, we all must choose what we want our society to look like, whether pro-choice or pro-life. (2) Yes, which is why adoption matters. (3) Yes, which is why adoption matters.

I understand that the arguments are more complicated than this. But these basic argument-objection conversations were 100% absent from Unplanned. The movie didn’t go over any of them, at all. The only ones it attempted to address were that the fetus is a baby and that abortions are medically unsafe. (Neither of these are communicated fully in language, but they do get visually gruesome scenes). However, both of these objections are incorrect given the movie’s own reasoning. The movie depicts a 13 week fetus struggling against an abortion — this is Abby’s big conversion moment — but according to the oft-cited report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the fetus cannot feel pain until 27 weeks, the third trimester, at which point most States ban abortion. The other point, that abortions are medically unsafe, was depicted with a young woman almost dying from a perforated uterus. However, medical complications from abortion are exceedingly rare. Honestly, let’s admit it, abortion isn’t an unsafe operation (for the woman!). Medical safety isn’t why we should reject it. We should reject abortion on other moral grounds — and anyways, if the whole argument is medical safety, then when medical science advances and abortion becomes less dangerous (for the woman!) than it already is, the argument gets even weaker.

So, Unplanned left me with a powerful emotional journey as Abby converted from the pro-choice to pro-life cause. That is an important testimony and a sign of God’s grace in her life, personally, and the power of God to transform anyone, whatever they are “complicit in,” as the movie interestingly remarks. Not “guilty for,” but “complicit in.” This is good language for discussing sin that we did not ourselves commit

Unfortunately, Unplanned failed to say really anything else meaningful about abortion.

Notice that I have avoided mentioning the technical, formal failures in this movie. There are so many. But in order to not look like a film snob who missed the directors’ point, I’ve withheld my specific critiques. And even now I won’t say them. Just watch the movie yourself, you will immediately, and I mean IMMEDIATELY spot them.

The production failure upset me, though, because abortion is a really serious topic. I believe that abortion is killing and that in the vast majority of cases such killing crosses a moral threshold into murder, so far past that moral threshold that it ought to be outright banned in nearly all contexts. We need a ban for the good of society at large and because abortion will have no place on the Mountain of God. This is eschatology in action, that one day all of humanity “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” The scalpels, clamps and suction devices used in abortion will one day find a new use in the New Jerusalem, a use that builds rather than destroys life.

So when this movie does such an awful job, cinematically, it upset me. Poor filmmaking makes a mockery of its subject. The directors of Unplanned should have known better, tried harder, and done more with their (honestly good-sized) budget ($6m). Abortion deserves a serious film.

I left the theater not more passionate about my pro-life convictions, but less.

8 take-aways from #TGC19

Earlier this week my friend Matt and I went to The Gospel Coalition’s national conference in Indianapolis. This was our second trip and we both thought it was a great experience. Here are my reflections on the conference, on TGC, on some of the talks and breakouts and books, and the themes in our conversations that arose from it all.

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What my hair is doing I do not know.

• Three of the sermons are worth watching once TGC posts them online. Ligon Duncan, Trip Lee and David Platt had excellent biblical-theological exposition and preached with intensity from the heart. Avoid the John Piper sermon. The other messages fell somewhere between.

• The Gospel Coalition has shifted its target audience and content over the past 2 years. They focus less on nerdy, technical Bib studies topics and now write about everyday living, missional lifestyle, applied theology, cultural apologetics. This is a good shift! Coincidentally though, I have moved in the opposite direction as I have fallen deeper into the black hole of Christian academia. I have become less applied, more technical, and far more nerdy. (At some point we must have crossed paths. Maybe last Spring?) At the conference Matt and I could feel it. I love this change — now it is easier for me to share the website and conference content with others.

• The conference had a refreshing and normalized diversity. Worship, plenary addresses, announcers, breakout speakers, and the conference attendees themselves represented more backgrounds than the white evangelicalism in which I dwell. And it was so natural. I am very over the train of thought which says “why select for diversity when you could just pick the best people.” We don’t need the absolute best person to give announcements or play piano, and anyways there are tons of qualified people from different race and class backgrounds who can do just as fine a job. (It is weird that I have to talk myself out of implicit white supremacy but this is America). In other words it dawned on me that on-stage diversity should not be a goal but rather is prerequisite to doing ministry in globalized, multi-cultural 2019 America. This should not be controversial but standard.

• Jackie Hill Perry. I went to her presentation which was good. In her talk about sexuality she put a huge emphasis on the identity critique. And I agreed with it! Something that really needs to be clarified is that Revoice, SF, WH, Side B etc. also agree to a large extent with this critique but disagree that LGBTQ+ labels imply identity. I have found myself reflexively disagreeing with the identity critique (because I fall on the other side of the label debate), which is unnecessary of me. The real answer is that Revoice’s language is being misrepresented and that they have much more in common with conservatives than they are being credited for. JHP’s talk also showcased some important points about intersectionality. Many more thoughts here.

• One person I follow on Twitter makes fun of Evangelical Thought Leaders™ for being pretentious brainiacs who care more about getting the messaging right than getting the message right. Yikes, that’s me! And yikes, that was on full display at the conference. Maybe we should dial it down. And something to chew on: maybe this impulse in me stems more from my desire to be famous and publicly-smart than a desire to help people understand God, his word and his world.

• Conversely, at this conference I saw less Evangelical Celebrity Culture going on than usual. Somehow these speakers are humble enough (and not fake humble, “fumble”) to not makes themselves into a huge deal. Matt went to a breakout with Tim Keller and apparently someone asked him a question like, “Since you are such an amazing preacher, and everything about you is incredible, how did you come to be like this?” To which Keller replied “Well I don’t really know how to answer that, or want to. Can we get a question in here about Jonah?” The temptation to idolize these speakers is huge and I was feeling that temptation myself with some of them.

• On Tuesday morning I got coffee with another conference attendee who is same-sex attracted. We had a great conversation about our own stories and some of our thoughts about the current debates. More than anything I was blown away by how different our personalities are. As in, besides being celibate and Christians, we have nothing in common. Maybe this is encouraging because it means that one or both of us doesn’t fit “the stereotype.” He was also encouraging to be around, just himself. I could tell that he prays more than me and that he has more compassion than I do, two traits that are not coincidental.

• I bought eight books.
James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series,
Josh Chatrow’s Apologetics at the Cross,
Hannah Anderson’s All That is Good, and
Elliot Clark’s Evangelism as Exiles.

And then there’s the gay books.
Jackie Hill Perry’s Gay Girl, Good God,
Brad Hambrick’s Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk,
Ed Shaw’s Same-Sex Attraction and the Church, and
Preston Sprinkle’s People to Be Loved.

Honorable Mention (books I almost bought):
Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk,
Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body,
Robert Spaemann, Persons,
Trevin Wax, Eschatological Discipleship, and
Paul Gould, Cultural Apologetics.

Of me, as Ross

Ramrod straight I sat in that chair as my heart pounded away. The time came. There was a door in the corner of my eye, waiting for me to walk out, run away, do anything else with my late afternoon but this. I was tapping my fingers in some weird pattern, I don’t know what or why. A few in that small room might have been getting uncomfortable because I was making intense, sustained eye contact with each. Could they see my nerves? I haven’t said anything, but maybe my tells were obvious. Sometimes the tension gets the best of me. In this moment more than ever.

My therapy support group isn’t judgmental, so I don’t know why I panicked. In my journal that night I jotted down some ideas. Here’s the one I landed on:

But those words, those words, they carry the meaning of 20 pages compressed into three syllables: I am gay. The kind of sentence that should take 10 minutes to speak but comes out in seconds. Something so deeply buried in me doesn’t feel right to be released so fast. With a single clause the perceptions of me held by those in the room become completely out of my control — a bizarre feeling, seeing as I seem to spend all of my social energy on perception management. I lose a certain power when I become so vulnerable. The guys in the group took it well. They either said nothing or were affirming of me. Not in a theologico-sexual way. But of me, as Ross.

These guys are grace and peace to me. Coming out was the most difficult thing in my life and I’m glad to have had their support.

I’m gay. I’m homosexual. I’m a homosexual. I have homosexuality. I experience same-sex attraction. I’m same sex attracted. (That’s six ways to say something I have never said publicly before). I have been this way since hitting puberty, and in my life I have never been sexually attracted to a woman. Even once. I dated some girls along the way and had genuine emotional attraction to them, but that didn’t lead anywhere physically past friendship.

However, I have had consistent strong sexual attraction for other guys. You would think that this fact would have… tipped me off? To think, Gee, huh, maybe I’m gay? But that’s not how denial works. It took honesty and courage to come out to myself and that didn’t happen until the Fall of 2018. For years I had known about my sexual attraction to men but never realized the depth and exclusivity of these attractions. At some earlier points I had used terms like asexual. But I could not deny that I had sexual attraction going on. So maybe bisexual? But I could not deny that I simply did not have any attraction to women. Maybe that means I’m asexual with respect to women… and… um… and… and… that’s where the sidewalk ends. That’s when I couldn’t sustain the denial any longer. I began to recognize and name my same-sex attraction and tell a few trustworthy people.

My friends asked about my faith. After all — they reminded me — I am in seminary to become a pastor. The answer is complex, so I’ll write more in the future, but three things for now.

  • First, I believe that my same-sex attraction is a result of the Fall but is not itself sin. God intends marriage to be a male-female union, so I will not marry or date.
  • Second, my lack of opposite-sex attraction means that I am called to singleness which is celibacy with Christ. Thankfully singleness is better than marriage! 1 Corinthians 7:32-35.
  • Third, and the product of the first two points, I will find relational fulfillment not in one spouse but in a whole community of people, the body of Christ. I will pursue spiritual friendship by loving friends and being loved by them in the life-together of the local church.

As for pastoral ministry I see no necessary problems. Of course there are all the unnecessary problems. Like some who fear that I might infect them with my gayness. Nobody admits to thinking this but they do, you can tell. Or the outcry when I change some minor aesthetic detail (wall decorations, what type of stirring rods we use in our coffee, etc.) and the decision is attributed to my sexuality. Yes, these trivial things come up in church life. Or people who assume I will be political about sexuality all the time. Or others who think (groundlessly) that I will abuse their children. Or still others who run out of arguments and throw up their hands, saying, “We just prefer the other candidate.” I’ll deal with those responses as they come. But there are no necessary reasons why I would be excluded from pastoral ministry. I follow the example of singleness set by Paul and more importantly by Jesus himself.

I don’t care to defend myself. I don’t need to argue, though a close friend once described my love language simply as “debate.” Some people will stereotype me and others will flock to me, choosing me as their token gay friend. Both of these responses are frustrating but I will get over myself and deal with it. Some kindhearted people will thoroughly critique my use of the word “gay.” Okay. Kind of an in-house argument among us same-sex attracted Christians, so probably stop caring so much about that. Less kindhearted people will attack me for using “gay” as a pretext for their broader intent to malign and slander me. In the gentle authority of Jesus’s name please stop.

Instead, here is what I ask of you. Can you do what the gracious people in my support group did? Can you put aside for now your theories about what went wrong in my body (or my childhood development, or in my DNA, or etc. etc. etc.) and instead accept me? Not accept my actions as moral or reject them as immoral. Again, that is still a judgement, an evaluation. Can you be accepting of me, as me? Of me, as Ross?

I’ll lose Christian friends because they disagree with homosexuality. This makes no sense to me, as I do not have gay sex. But still I’ll lose friends. On the other side I’ll lose non-Christian friends because they will see my sexual ethics as self-repressive and hostile to other gay people. Rejected by some conservatives as too liberal, and by some liberals as too conservative, I’m caught in a trap I hate, defending a position I didn’t choose. Can you move past that with me? With me, as me? With me, as Ross?

Let’s talk about Ross. Ross likes to watch movies, especially Westerns and Thrillers. (Bonus points for Western Thrillers). Ross does dumb talent show performances, calls them “art,” and then refuses to explain their true meaning. Ross goes to college where he studies philosophy and ministry. Ross complains about the dining hall at school but appreciates it in secret. Ross gets riled up and wants to make everything a debate, because that’s somehow the way his mind is wired. Ross used to run Cross Country but out of laziness no longer runs or exercises at all. Ross cares about the migration crisis and wants to learn Spanish so he can be helpful to a Chicago-area immigrant ministry. Ross loves Junior High students and in many ways still is one. When he is angry Ross shuts down instead of lashing out. When he is sad Ross isolates himself and waits for it to pass. When he is humored, you will hear it, whether you are in the same room or not. Ross loves Jesus and has found more meaning in that relationship than in all others combined. And so Ross loves the Bible, because Jesus loved the Bible, and Ross wants to be like him. Ross sometimes runs out of socks and has to wear used ones twice. When it gets bad, he just goes to the store and buys more socks. That should solve the problem, he thinks.

Guys, this is me. I’m more than my sexuality. I’m more than my coming out narrative. I’m more than the prejudice and invective that mindless people hurl at gay folk every day. Forget all that. Can you love me? Can you love me, as me? Can you love me, as Ross?

Thank you for your understanding. Thank you for your grace. Above all, thank you for your friendship. To me it means everything.

Love,
Ross

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Thanks Todd for the photos!

Thanks Tim, Stephen, Josh, and Steve for helping me write this post!

With Reverence and Humility

The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906 - Paul Cezanne

Found this today in a commentary on Romans 1. Take these words from Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones to heart.


Let us learn these simple lessons as we move on. We put the creature before the Creator whenever we put any single idea of our own before the revelation of Scripture. I feel like repeating that. To put any idea of our own before Scripture is to be guilty of this very sin of putting the creature before the Creator, our ideas rather than what the Bible says, or what God has revealed. ‘Ah’, we say, ‘but I don’t understand that; I don’t see how God would be fair if He did this and that’. That may be what you say; and it may be what you think. The question is, What is revealed? What does God say about Himself? My friends, we are not meant to understand all we read in the Scriptures. It is beyond us. Our minds are too small, and we are born in sin. We come to this as little children, not to comprehend it all, but to worship and to praise, and to receive it. And if we start putting our ideas or difficulties or thoughts or feelings before the Scripture, we have already partly become guilty of this terrible, serious charge of putting and worshipping the creature before the Creator.

Let us, therefore, always approach the Word of God with reverence and with humility. Let us never come to read it without praying to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Let us come to learn, not to have our prejudices confirmed, or to turn something down. Let us come with open minds. Let us receive the words, lest in our modern fashion we may be guilty of this very thing which the Apostle charges those people of ancient times [Romans 1:21-23]. And above all, let us ever, as we think of Him and talk about Him, remember who He is and what He is. We forget that sometimes, do we not? Perhaps something has been going wrong — we may find ourselves like that man in the seventy-third Psalm, who had been having a hard time while the ungodly were very prosperous and begin to say, ‘Why does God . . .?’ Oh, my dear friends, the next time that thought or feeling arises in your breast, stop for a moment and remember that you are thinking and speaking about the uncorruptible God, this glorious Being, glorious in His holiness, infinity, and majesty! Let us put our hands upon our mouths and be content to wait until He reveals His purpose to us. How dangerous it is to speak, without thinking, about God, the Creator ‘who is blessed forever, Amen.’ Let us stop for a moment! God forbid that we should ever be guilty of speaking about God in a manner that is unworthy!


Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 1: The Gospel of God, 387, commenting on Romans 1:18-23.

Painting (unrelated): Paul Cézanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906.

Don’t Lurk

Your biology class lectures happen in an open field. Philosophy class is done while you rock climb. Your major classes are held during competitive team sports. While you practice archery, a professor explains how to write good thesis statements. Who knows the things you can learn about while white water rafting?

Can you imagine a college like this?

Everything is FUN!

Everything is EXCITING!

Nothing is BORING! 

 

A professor told us about this school — supposedly real, though I don’t care enough to research where this college is located or if this characterization is accurate — in class one day. And my mind wandered to how awesome this school would be. How I would be so, so much more happy in this kind of environment than where I am now. But my professor took a different angle. One that has stuck with me.

He said, “You would be so bored, so fast. In a few weeks, you would be over it. College isn’t about entertaining yourself with fun activities; it’s about creating something.”

Yes! This is true… but I am bored, too. Normal college got so boring, so fast. It only took weeks for me to be over it. So maybe I’m making in my own life the mistake that Fun Outdoorsy School is making at an institutional level?

Question: what makes college so boring? Answer: that we aren’t creating anything, anything meaningful. Creative work is our original calling. God has created us to “image” him back to the creation. We do this by working and tending things in this world, ruling over and taking dominion of the created order.

Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” …

2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. …

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

A task of ordering, shaping, dominating, tending, sorting, and ultimately, creating. It is only because of the Fall that this ordering, working, sorting task becomes tedious and painful. God curses humanity (represented by Adam):

3:17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

This curse applies to all people because Adam and Eve represented all people in this narrative. And so, we too feel the “thorns and thistles” of frustration, pain, suffering, and meaninglessness while we try to fulfill our calling from God to create. But it wasn’t meant to be this way! This is a diversion from the original purpose! We were made to “image” the glory of God in all that we do. And so this creative work is basic to finding meaning in life and to being fulfilled as a human being.

Another angle, less theology this time: Social Media has three types of people. Content Creators are the 1% of users who make and share new content of their own. Interactors are the next 9% who comment, like, or share other people’s content, but they don’t make things of their own. Lurkers are the next 90% who intake Content Creators’ work and Interactors’ interaction with that work, but do nothing with it besides see and enjoy it. They do not share, they do not comment, and they make nothing of their own.

Here are pictures.

Azad Blog 1

The same thing is true in college. In high school you are a Lurker just intaking ideas and information. But college makes you start to Interact with ideas, critique them, argue about their merits, and share them with underclassmen who are starting to wade into the discussions. The ultimate goal is to make you a Content Creator, someone who knows enough about the topic to really contribute new work that other people can take in. This means you have to specialize in one thing, because a 22-year-old doesn’t have the knowledge to speak into more than one debate at a time. So you pick a major and start to work, and work, and work, until you can produce new, quality work of your own.

That’s the point of college. The more time you spend creating something, the less tedious and frustrating and boring it will be. Those classes you hate? They are so painful because you have decided they won’t help you in your creative project. Even if you aren’t sure what that project is, you have a sense, and this History of Chinese Politics class just ain’t it.

(It could be that the class really isn’t helpful, and Liberal Arts colleges suck. Or maybe you just have a bad attitude and refuse to see how the class will help. Probably both.)

All of college boils down to Neil Gaiman’s dictum, “Make Good Art.” But instead of art, it can be anything. Make good biology research. Make good athletic training preparation. Make good philosophy writing. But whatever you do — whatever you do — do not Lurk. Find meaning and fulfillment by doing what you are created to do: create.

Converted Together?

A fascinating scenario from Paul G. Hiebert, not sure what publication, for my intercultural ministry class. Here, you can read the scenario and my response essay. Also enjoy this photo I found of the forest in Borneo.

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Mark looked at the chief and elders before him and at the more than two hundred men, women, and children crowding behind them. “Have they all really become Christians? I can’t baptize them if they don’t each decide for themselves!” he said to Judy, his wife.

Mark and Judy Zabel had come to Borneo under the Malay Baptist Mission to start a new work in the highlands. They spent the first year building a thatched house, learning the language, and making friends with the people. The second year they began to make short treks into the interior to villages that had never heard the gospel. The people were respectful, but with a few exceptions none had shown any real interest in the gospel. Woofak was always around and had been from the beginning. In time he had become a believer, but few of the others took him seriously. He was something of a village maverick. And there had been Tarobo and his wife and four others. By the end of the third year, the worship services were made up of these seven baptized believers, Mark and Judy, a few passersby, and a dozen children.

That year an epidemic had spread through the highlands. For weeks Judy and Mark went through the villages, praying with the sick and dispensing medicines, until they thought they could go on no more. They wept with families faced with death and told them of the God who loved them and had conquered death itself. One village in particular had suffered greatly from the disease. Though the people seemed to appreciate the love shown by the two missionaries, they had shown no particular interest in the gospel.

Three months later, two elders from this village had come to the mission home, wanting to see the missionaries. “Can you come to our village and tell us more about your God?” they asked. “We want to know more about him.”

Mark and Judy were excited. Their many hours on the trail in the rain and the weary days of ministering to the people were bearing fruit. Taking some food, water, changes of clothes, cots and nets, they set out for the distant village.

It was almost dark when they arrived. The village chief invited Mark into the men ‘s long house where all the adult males of the village were gathered. Judy joined the women, who sat in front of their huts discussing the decision the village elders were about to make. She sensed that there had been much discussion in the village before she and Mark had been invited to come. Now there was a feeling of excitement and uncertainty in the air. Some of the women wanted to know more about this new God. Others said that it was best to stay with their ancestors who cared for them in the spirit world, and with the tribal gods who had helped them to be victorious over their enemies in the past. In the long house the chief asked Mark to tell them more about his God. For three hours Mark told the men about the Jesus Way and answered their questions. Then the chief asked Mark to sit down on a log. Mark noticed that the men broke up into smaller groups, each made up of men from the same lineage. For half an hour there was a loud debate as men argued for and against following the new God. The arguments died down, and then the leaders from the various lineages gathered with the chief. Again there was a heated discussion. Finally the chief came to Mark and said, “We have all decided to follow the Jesus Way. We want to be baptized like Woofak and Tarobo.”

Although it was late, neither Mark nor Judy could sleep after the meeting. The decision of the village, especially the way it was made, had caught them totally by surprise. They knew that tribal people often made important decisions, such as moving their villages or raiding neighboring tribes, by discussion and group consensus. But they never dreamed that people might use this method to choose a new god. All their theological training in their church and Bible College had taught the young missionaries that people had to make personal decisions to become followers of Christ. Here the group leaders had decided for all. What did that mean? Was it a valid decision, especially when it was clear from the debates that some had opposed the choice? How could they baptize the whole village when not all were agreed? Then again, what did it mean in Acts when the jailer believed and Paul immediately baptized him and his whole household? Moreover, if they did not accept the villagers as Christians, the Villagers might return to their old gods. Judy and Mark knew that they had to do something before they left the next day. . .

As Mark and Judy searched for an answer, suddenly the great spirit gong in the men’s long house rang out. Hurrying over to find out what was going on, Mark found the chief and asked him why they were summoning the tribal spirits, now that they had become Christians. “Don’t worry,” the chief said. “We are calling them to tell them to go away because now we have a new God.

Judy and Mark were still uncertain as they finally fell asleep, bone-tired and knowing that they would have to give the chief and the village an answer in the morning.

Hiebert’s scenario involved a missionary couple converting a tribe. The tribal council elders, through much debate, decided to follow the missionary’s (Christian) god rather than the ancestral spirits. Conflicted with the implications of “group conversion,” the missionaries face a dilemma: do they baptize the village, and so assume that each tribe member has been saved? Or, do they wait until each person professes faith in Jesus, and then baptize each person individually?

The dilemma facing this missionary couple depends on two factors, one anthropological, the other theological. First, why do the tribal people not understand that salvation is a personal calling? Second, what is the purpose of the baptism the missionaries have offered? Quickly it becomes apparent that the first question raises meaningful theological questions, and the second meaningful anthropological questions, thus betraying the distinction between these categories in the first place.

Why do the tribal people not understand that salvation is a personal calling? The Hiebert case study characterizes the decision process of the tribe as “a loud debate as men [not women] argued for and against following the new God,” followed by “a heated discussion.” This model of “group consensus” seemed alien to the missionary couple, who “never dreamed that people might use this method to choose a new god.” The missionary couple resists contextualizing the gospel to the tribe’s collectivism. If salvation is primarily a born-again experience in which a single person makes an individual decision to make Christ their personal lord and savior – notice, “a single person,” “an individual decision,” “personal lord and savior,” clauses littered with adjectives stressing the solitary nature of salvation – how can the tribe choose together? Notably, the tribe did not even begin to consider conversion under these terms. It did not occur to them that each and every tribe member could convert, but not all at once. This means that the difference is one rooted anthropologically in the way the tribe is culturally structured.

The missionary couple brings a gospel steeped in individual language not because such framing is necessary to the gospel message, but because their own context has so mediated it to them. Why is salvation a “personal” “choice” to “accept” Christ “into your heart”? Where is that language found in the New Testament? Of course, it is well known that the Sinner’s Prayer is a modern invention, but does the individual salvation upon which it rests also come from modern times? It does. The New Perspectives on Paul movement has gone to great pains to show several closely related ideas about Second Temple Judaism and its social context, relevant here. First, in Second Temple Judaism, Jews did not have “works righteousness” as Protestants are common to claim, in which a person’s good deeds or bad deeds earn their standing before God. Rather, the temple was the locus of God’s presence, and sin rendered one ceremonially unclean so that they could not enter the Temple, and so they were considered “out” of society. This is why the Levitical code contains not only moral injunctions but also chapters upon chapters of instructions on ceremonial cleansing and ritual impurity. Second, from this, it becomes clear that Paul’s understanding of salvation was not “non-works righteousness” in the sense that God has nullified the old system and so now we ourselves individually do not have to work to earn God’s favor. That would nullify a system that never existed. Rather, the nullification is of the legal system itself, so enabling Jews who had the Law and Gentiles who did not to both share in the people of God, the Kingdom of God. This community is a body mediated through the bodies of its members (a concept later stolen and secularized by Hobbes) rising together into one reified being, for which Christ will return.

As a result of this communal understanding of salvation – we enter into a community, which is saved, rather than each person being saved, and then forming a community of the saved – the language of accepting Jesus as “personal lord and savior” or “individual” decision does not make sense. This has not addressed the other outstanding theological problem: that an individual “decision” has been made by “accepting Jesus” as personal lord and savior. (The quotes have been switched from the previous sentence). The simple answer to this is that people do not decide their salvation though it manifestly appears that they do this on the surface. Ephesians 1:11-14 (a passage well understood as collective salvation in the above sense) speaks to God’s choosing, predestining plan to redeem the elect, which manifests itself in our believing upon hearing the gospel and so being marked by the Holy Spirit as a seal. The reason that the New Testament does not use “accept Jesus into your heart” language is because by the time a person does so, Jesus is already in their heart, having orchestrated their accepting him in the first place. The combination of these two perspectives – that salvation is not individual, and salvation is not a decision – should, if thoughtfully considered by the missionary couple, shift their categories in way that reduces their hesitation to baptize the tribal people.

Baptism remains. Could the missionary couple’s understanding of baptism be what holds them back? What other perspective on baptism would rectify the problem? There an irony in the debate between paedobaptists and credobaptists. The former baptizes as an infant, and then does confirmation to be included in the life of the local church; the latter does parent dedication, and then does baptism to be included in the life of the local church. However, baptism in paedobaptist churches and parent dedication in credobaptist churches have similar functions: infant baptism signals God’s promise of election upon that child, into which they will grow as they are raised to be a Christian; parent dedication signals the parents’ promise to raise the child as a Christian along with the congregation’s help. In both cases, the event that takes place at about 1 year old signals that the child will live under the authority of a Christian household and be raised in the local church; the even that takes places around 15 or 16 or so years signals that him himself or she herself will be a participant in that local church on the basis of their profession of faith. The similarity is striking, really, and is the reason why paedobaptist and credobaptist churches do not differ in practical ways as a result of their position on baptism.

My suggestion to the missionaries is that the tribe is not being credobaptized, but paedobaptized, despite being adults. This seemingly askew category choice is appropriate because the only claim that can be made about them is that they are about to be subject to the authority of the local church (presumably run out of the Chief’s office). The promise of God’s election is being declared over them, into which they will grow as they are raised to live to follow Jesus. Since the tribal council decision was not about personal faith, but about whether to continue using the village spirits or the new God, it only makes sense to understand the council’s decision as one of official structure and committed religion.

In this response, I have shown that three aspects of evangelical Revivalist theology fail to meet the needs of the tribal people in Borneo to whom the missionaries were sent. Rather, by adopting a confessional, paedobaptist, Reformed theology, the missionaries could articulate the gospel clearly to the tribal people, without hesitation as the legitimacy of baptizing them together. We have seen that the anthropological question of individual vs. collective cultures is solved by a theological route (understanding Pauline justification and election), and the theological question of paedobaptism vs. credobaptism is solved by an anthropological route (understanding how church ceremonies actually function), betraying the assumed distinctions between the fields.

 

Trump, White Evangelicalism, Immigration, etc.

There is a lot to say about this new essay from Tara Isabella Burton at Vox. The key quote to focus on:

“This willingness to define seemingly straightforward passages in the Bible along politicized terms — reimagining what it means to be someone’s “neighbor” — speaks to a wider issue within white evangelicalism. The degree to which white evangelical identity is increasingly predicated on politicized whiteness — and on an insular and isolationist vision of community — reveals the extent to which white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Christian nationalism under the Trump administration. And, increasingly, white evangelicals are willing to selectively reinterpret the Bible to justify this.”

What disorients me is that I have experienced little of what TIB has described. The pastors of my parents’ church and my own current church have forcefully denounced Nationalism from the pulpit in messages on 1 Peter 2 (the church is “a holy nation, a royal priesthood”), on Revelation 5&7 (People of every nation will worship around the throne), on Ephesians 6 (that the Devil is our true enemy, not political or ethnic opponents) and Romans 14 (politics as disputable matters). My church is currently doing a series on politics and political engagement as a Christian, and the tone is nothing like an “evangelical identity predicated on politicized whiteness.” I go to the largest EFCA school in the country, and the rhetoric spoken around campus is always pro-refugee-life, pro-aid, pro-humanitarian. All of the Christian leaders who I pay attention to are similarly oriented when it comes to immigration topics — including the editorial staff for The Gospel Coalition, which is not a platform for liberalism.

But TIB’s description is still true. I see tastes of it at conferences, or from across the Christian blogosphere, or from individuals in small group settings in-person or being interviewed on television. And the polling numbers don’t lie, at least, significantly outside the margin of error. Here’s what I am wondering: in the same way Conservative and Progressive voices online get locked into echo chambers where only supporters see their content, could something similar be happening even within evangelicalism? I am not suggesting that we have carved out sectors of the larger Conservative-Progressive social mediaspace, but that within the Christian mediaspace certain niches have been carved to accommodate each perspective.

In an essay from earlier this month TIB pointed out that White Evangelicals are the only religious group in the country who supports President Trump. Which is true. But what she does not acknowledge is that there have already been longstanding breaks between Mainline and Evangelical protestants, and even longer, historic breaks between Catholics and Protestants. Those breaks happened at the level of whole countries (e.g., Germany vs. Italy, England vs. France), whole denominations (e.g., PCA vs. PCUSA), whole universities (e.g., Princeton vs. Westminster), whole ideologies (e.g., Modernism vs. Fundamentalism). But what is really new, what is really damning, is that now, in this current transition, there is not much of an institutional shift. The separation between politically conservative Evangelicals, on the one hand, and politically moderate or just leans-conservative Evangelicals, on the other hand, is happening at the grassroots level. President Trump has galvanized something like a grassroots split within Evangelicalism proper, mirroring broader concerns over the “Death of Truth” or “Post-Truth” society we inhabit in the information age.

But regardless of the existence of a niche, politically-moderate voice within Evangelicalism that happens to surround me, here is what TIB nails: the new hermeneutic at use that subverts Jesus’s calling to care for the helpless. By redefining “neighbor” to be only fellow Christians (which is bogus), or to be only those who have not broken the law, Christians in the age of Trump are buying into an inward gaze. This inward gaze is the concrete result of Nationalist rhetoric, yes, but I would also say it is a result of Rule-of-Law thinking that became really popular during Black Lives Matter protesting a few years ago. Of course, of course, of course, the Rule-of-Law mindset is completely irreconcilable with Christianity. With Jesus’s rendering inoperative (katargeó) the Old Testament Law. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem these days, since the Old Testament laws about refugees and immigrants are also being ignored. TIB refers to Isaiah 10, Matthew 25, Leviticus 19:33–34, Jeremiah 7:5–7, Ezekiel 47:22, Zechariah 7:9–10, and the flight to Egypt by Joseph and Mary as Biblical precedent for a pro-refugee-life stance. Ultimately she employs Galatians 3:28 to say that the power of Christianity subverts political and ethnic identities.

trump holding a bible 2

(The gross mishandling of Romans 13 by Jeff Session and Sarah Sanders, which I didn’t know about until reading this piece, is also important. Can you imagine Nero quoting Paul’s words back to the Christian community and saying, “Yes, you heard the man, now offer sacrifices to me”? When Rome quotes Romans, we have a problem.)

On that count, TIB is spot on. But what about the specific policies we support? What about the particular ways the federal bureaucracy maneuvers through these topics? Those are important, but disputable questions. However, we need to keep in mind that the most shocking statistic TIB cited was not about a specific policy: “more than half of white evangelicals report feeling concerned about America’s declining white population” is not a policy position; it is a generally racist sentiment. Such racism, obviously, has no place in Christian community. If not specific policy, when we focus on the topic of ethnic nativism: let’s not condemn ethnic nativism because “the Bible says that” you should care for the helpless and those who are fleeing persecution. Worse, let’s not default to citing “these Biblical writers who say that” we must be pro-refugee-life. If our doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture informs our thinking on this topic, we can comfortably and boldly say that “God himself has said.”