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Against “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation”

I will start this post with a long, overloaded quote from John Goldingay in his book Do We Need the New Testament? pp. 173-4.

It is true that the Rule of Faith provides a horizon from within which we may come to understand the Scriptures, and it may open our eyes to see things from within the horizon of the Scriptures themselves. It thus fulfills a function analogous to that of a concern for the gospel’s significance for the whole world, which makes it possible to look back at the First Testament [JG’s term for the Old Testament] and see that this concern is also present there, so that theological interpretation is missional. But its role is to enable us to see things that are there; it does not determine what is allowed to be there. It is not the “definitive hermeneutical framework for understanding the Scriptures.” The Scriptures do not need to be rendered coherent and relevant; they are coherent and relevant. The Rule of Faith can help us see how that is so. But where they have a broader horizon than that of the Rule of Faith, we will be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours; we allow them to broaden our horizon. In practice the church has followed the Rule of Faith in a way that did constrain what the Scriptures are allowed to say, and the Rule of Faith has thus been a disaster for the hearing of the First Testament. The Rule of Faith has no room and no hermeneutic for any episodes in the scriptural story between Genesis 3 and Matthew 1. As Robert W. Jenson put it, “The rule of faith saved the Old Testament as canon for the church — or rather, the church for the Old Testament canon — but in the process it did not open itself to the theological shape of the Old Testament’s own narrative, and so it could not support the Old Testament’s specific role in the church’s practice.” One recalls the alleged statement about a Vietnamese city by a major in the United States army, that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

I have bolded the idea I want to highlight. A story line of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” tells the Old Testament too simply. This is bad enough on its own: we should want to understand the Old Testament correctly. But it becomes outright disastrous later because the New Testament emanates out of the Old Testament. The shape of God’s intervention in history in Israel becomes the setting of Jesus’s ministry and his purpose. So to reduce the Old Testament story is to outright flatten the New Testament gospel. You can’t understand Jesus’s mission statement for the spread of the Gospel (Acts 1:8) unless you understand the question that prompted it: the disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Why was this their question?

Instead of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation structure, I want to chart a brief sketch of Exile and Restoration in the history of Israel. This path is not original and has been done many times before.

To live with God is to live in his presence, where he dwells, under his blessing and authority. God made a covenant with Abraham that God would live with Abraham’s descendants in this way. However, in God’s mysterious providence, they ended up in Egypt rather than in Palestine. They were exiles, living in the wrong place under the authority of the wrong ‘king,’ Pharaoh. So God brought them out (the Exodus) and Restored them to their rightful place, and ruled over them directly. They now lived in the Kingdom of God.

Fast forward 650 years and it happens again. The people of Israel/Judah have fallen into great moral wickedness and unrepentant idolatry. God has decided they must be disciplined, and so the neighboring warlord empires (Assyria, then Babylon) come destroy them and take the surviving Israelites into exile for a time. The prophets consciously realize that this is a repeat of what has happened before. They declare that just as God was faithful to Israel before in rescuing his covenant people from exile in Egypt — a first exodus — he would be faithful again to rescue his covenant people from exile in Babylon — a second exodus.

This second exodus happened. Nehemiah 7 even goes on for dozens upon dozens of verses to list how many exiles returned home alive from each tribe and clan. They rebuilt the temple, and the city walls, and God’s blessing and favor was on them. Or, it should have been. But it was not. The Seleucid Empire took control and did awful things. So awful that the Jews tried to revolt and restore God’s kingdom, which worked for a while but then fell apart again. Rome came and conquered Israel, installing a fake “Jewish” king but mostly ruling through the Roman Governor in the region.

As a result, the Jews of the first century were convinced that the second exodus never really happened. Yes, it happened physically, since the people did return to the land and now live there. God, though, is not ruling, and so his blessing is not on the people, and they suffer in “exile” in their own land. God will send a warrior-king to overthrow these enemies and institute the Kingdom of God again.

The Sea of Galilee, looking east. I took this picture last December on a trip to Israel.

Enter Jesus, who claims that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” His audience would have looked around, noticed a Roman soldier standing across the street, pointed at him and said, “no it’s not.” As a matter of fact the Kingdom of God is not at hand, they would have said. This gets right at the heart of Jesus’s mission. Jesus did not come to achieve satisfaction of the wrath of God to pay the debt of your sin on the cross and regenerate your heart and etc. No. Jesus came to restore Israel. You don’t personally “get saved.” You get ingrafted into Israel, which gets saved. Your sin-debt isn’t cancelled. God’s unique wrath wasn’t against you, silly Gentile who did not have the Torah. You were just going to hell, courtesy of God’s general wrath. God’s unique wrath was against Israel, who had the Torah and did not follow it, which is why he sent them into exile in the first place. Jesus appeases this unique wrath of God, ending the exile. Yes, you are a sinner in the hands of an angry God. But this same angry God has created a covenant with his people, and now you are part of his people, whose unique wrath from God has been appeased. Similarly, you yourself are not “regenerated,” whatever that means, but instead the Spirit of God is poured out on the True Israel and so the Spirit enables you to walk the Way (another exodus term) of Jesus. If Jesus was on a mission to restore Israel, all our doctrines of salvation and holiness flow from that mission.

Of the whole New Testament, Mark focuses the most on the second exodus theme. He outright begins the entire Gospel with a quote about it from Isaiah 40. He keeps quoting Isaiah his whole book. Mark structures his gospel (1:16-8:21; 8:22-10:45; 10:46-16:8) to parallel the structure of Isaiah 40-66, a second exodus text. Mark’s Jesus does many exorcisms and then explains them (Mark 3:27) by quoting Isaiah 49:24-25, a second exodus text. The Jewish people who were called to repentance would not repent and instead killed the innocent messenger: Isaiah by sawing in half, Jesus by crucifixion, in fulfillment of Isaiah 53, a messianic second exodus text. Mark also pulls themes and quotes from Malachi which is all about this second exodus (as is Hosea which is kind of a missed opportunity by Mark but Matthew catches it and adds it to his gospel in Matt 2:15). Anyways, I could keep going since the New Testament is full of this concept and I would even say is defined by it. (See Beale’s New Testament Biblical Theology pp. 694-699 for a good summary of Watt’s book on this topic).

“Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.” What is redeemed? Are we, individuals, redeemed? Hardly. Israel is redeemed by Jesus’s faithfulness as a Suffering Servant. Because of his faithfulness, God has resurrected Jesus from the dead several thousand years ahead of the general resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. Now, Israel is invited to participate in the kingship of God, the kingdom of God, the sovereignty of God, by hope-filled and sanctified presence under any earthly king. Earthly kings can’t stop the power of God (seen in Jesus being killed by an earthly king and then getting unkilled by God). In an unfortunate plot twist, the Jewish people for some reason overwhelmingly rejected this work of God, but that doesn’t change its shape or content. Instead the followers of Jesus were a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish people, which begins to achieve the purpose all along. God was always going to use Israel to reach the rest of the world, and even if 99% of Jews in Jesus’s day rejected the message, God’s mission was going to continue.

What I am getting at is that “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” hardly captures the richness of the Old Testament second exodus theme and so misconstrues the New Testament from the start. So the Old Testament gets mostly cancelled except Genesis 1-3 and few Messiah prophecies, just to set-up a misconstrued New Testament. Not great.

Even if you understand the Rule of Faith [C, F, R, C] as corporate salvation instead of individual salvation, which is a step in the right direction, it still place salvation outside of history. Who cares when Jesus came to earth? He could have died 1000 years before, or in 1978 for all it matters, our salvation is still understood the same. No. Jesus’s Incarnation is a specific invasion by God into history in a particular time. To take the Incarnation out of its historical time is to screw up the whole picture. Israel has been “already-not-yet” restored by Jesus’s death and resurrection. This wouldn’t have made sense 1000 years before, when Israel was still functioning. The hope for a Messiah was built out of a specific historical reading of the work of God in the world. The Judaism that Jesus fulfilled was a religion in history. God did not just create a timeless ethical teaching that would last for all the ages. God acted in history in a first exodus, and then neglected to do so in the second exodus, which set up the hope for a Messiah and made history itself a Jewish and so then also a Christian concept.

That summarizes what I want to say on this topic for now. There is more — how do the other topics of Creation, Fall, and Consummation fit into this frame? Another time, maybe another nitro cold brew and another late afternoon on a fall day at a coffee shop near campus, to the neglect of my actual homework. The most important and hardest work is to do what Goldingay said in the opening quote: “where [the Scriptures] have a broader horizon than that of the Rule of Faith, we will be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours; we allow them to broaden our horizon.”

Teenagers, Anxiety, Work

What has caused the rise in anxiety in teenagers?

The go-to answer for this question is social media. Instagram and Snapchat cause teens to compare themselves to one another. They then feel inferior because their hidden self is worse than everyone else’s performative self. This may be true in general, but I think people who answer the question this way don’t really understand how teens use social media or understand the bigger and worse problem lurking in teenage life in America in 2019.

School starts at, say, 8:00 and lasts until 3:30, for a total of 7.5 hours each day, 37.5 hours a week. But that is the bare minimum. Say you are in a sport: 2 hours of practice each weekday and 5 hours of Saturday are now consumed. Then say you work a part-time job. Teens increasingly need to work part-time jobs in high school in order to brunt the rising cost of college tuition (or trade school tuition, also rising). Even if they only work 10 hours a week, that’s 10 hours, gone. Now assume, and this is an understatement, that they have 2 hours of homework each night. Total everything up and this hypothetical student works 62.5 hours each week.

Compare this 62.5 hours per week with the average American adult work week of 44 hours and you may begin to understand the problem. Then realize that the US has the highest average work hours per week of any post-industrial, developed nation. If American adults are worked thin by their schedule, teens are destroyed.

This is not an exaggeration. My own case was clearly ridiculous – I did all honors and AP classes, was heavily, heavily involved in Student Council, was the leader of multiple other groups, did 3 sports for two of my years, worked a part-time job for two years, competed on the Speech team each year (all day Saturdays for 3 months), I volunteered in my “spare time,” and I was chronically over-involved at church. How I survived is beyond me. I was working 85+ hours most weeks. But the original analysis was not of me. It was of a random, probably slightly under-performing, teenager.

For some reason we do not see student hours like adult hours. We think of students sitting at their desk, in their unfulfilling classes, exhausted, burnt out from listening to absurd lectures all day… and we think this is different from adults sitting in their desk, at their unfulfilling job, exhausted, burnt out from listening to absurd lectures in meetings all day. No. They are the same. And students are even less able than adults to cope with high expectations and the ensuing stress.

American labor unions fought a hard-earned battle for the 40-hour work week, which led to new flourishing of family life and community engagement that had not been seen in America since before the Industrial Revolution. If, in another universe, we could cap student work weeks at 40 hours, what yet-unseen goods could our society gain? New social movements among teens, like a resurgence in the now-mostly-dead teen art culture? Would the emerging population of adults, ten years out, begin to perform better and more healthily at work? How would the next generation of young parents raise their kids, and what values of social participation in family and public life would be fostered in those kids? Speculation aside, I am sure that teen anxiety would no longer be the mammoth problem it is today.

The College Admissions System is the god of this age, and he has come to enter the temple of students’ very lives to desecrate what is most valuable, their time, by offering his sacrifice in them. He will sacrifice their friendships, their family, their schedule, even their mental health, to earn for himself the worship he demands. He knows no limits. He will rip out a teen’s proverbial throat and drink their proverbial blood. Will you, like the Maccabean Revolt of old, kill this god and wage war against his all-consuming, imperialist aims? By committing to a simplified, grace-filled lifestyle, you sign on to declare that the kingdom of this world is passing away with all its desires.

Triage on Faith and Homosexuality











Al Mohler wrote this in 2005:

A trip to the local hospital Emergency Room some years ago alerted me to an intellectual tool that is most helpful in fulfilling our theological responsibility. In recent years, emergency medical personnel have practiced a discipline known as triage–a process that allows trained personnel to make a quick evaluation of relative medical urgency. Given the chaos of an Emergency Room reception area, someone must be armed with the medical expertise to make an immediate determination of medical priority. Which patients should be rushed into surgery? Which patients can wait for a less urgent examination? Medical personnel cannot flinch from asking these questions, and from taking responsibility to give the patients with the most critical needs top priority in terms of treatment.

In the same way, Mohler says, when Christians disagree with one another, we perform a theological triage. We stop, evaluate the significance of each disagreement, and remain in fellowship to different degrees depending on how much each issue matters. Because I was raised in the EFCA, this is my default mindset. We call it the “major on the majors, minor on the minors” approach. Doctrine can be sorted into three orders:

  • First-order issues are most important to the core of Christian faith. Mohler lists “the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture” as first-order issues. We cannot accept that someone else is a Christian or that their beliefs are Christian in nature if they deny any of these doctrines. If someone believes that Jesus is not divine, I refuse to acknowledge them as a Christian, plain and simple.
  • Second-order issues are issues “believing Christians may disagree on… though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.” Mohler lists the meaning and age of baptism, and the ordination of women. I would add the historicity of Adam, the penal substitutionary atonement debate, and whether and to what degree we should take the Scriptures literally. Mohler rightly points out that these are the most debated topics in Christianity. Nobody is debating first-order doctrines like the divinity of Christ (at least, nobody who I consider a Christian!), and the third-order issues are less central, so the second-order issues get the most attention. Denominations split over these questions.
  • Third-order issues are issues “over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations,” but they not necessarily trivial. Like my denomination as of this summer, Mohler includes “most of the debates over eschatology” in this category, which do matter. Issues are not third-order because they “do not matter.” Rather, third-order issues do not have many other doctrines depending on them, or are highly speculative or unclear, or they regard categories that did not exist in Biblical times (like “undocumented immigrant”), or in some other way are highly disputable. Mohler does not list more examples, but in this debate he included the age of the Earth as a third-order issue (24 min mark). I would include under this label worship styles, some beliefs about spiritual gifts, beliefs about church and politics, and evangelism method.

None of these are unimportant, because all have eventual downstream effects on Christian living and discipleship which can be more or less helpful to a walk with Jesus by being more or less faithful to the Scriptures. Some beliefs may seem “trivial” but wholly depend on other beliefs which are not trivial, and so they are implicated in non-trivial beliefs. All these beliefs matter, even if some are more foundational.

So. Homosexuality. Where is it? Is homosexuality a first-order, second-order, or third-order issue?

This question cannot be answered as asked. “Homosexuality” is an umbrella term that encompasses three different debates in the church right now: marriage, orientation change, and labels. Depending on your answer to these three questions, you will land on one of four sides: A, B, Y, and X. By the end of this post I hope you will understand all four sides and why some of these questions fall into higher and lower levels of theological triage.

First-order debates on homosexuality. There are no first-order debates on homosexuality. Sometimes people leave Christianity altogether over this topic. But few if any are trying to remain within Christianity and support homosexuality by radically revising Christian theology from the ground up.

Second-order debates on homosexuality. There is one second order debate on homosexuality, which is the debate over affirming same-sex marriages. Churches cannot both affirm and not affirm same-sex marriages. They have to decide. When a church decides to be affirming, they make a major division with non-affirming churches, because the latter consider same-sex marriage to be explicitly unbiblical. Both churches will consider the other to be seriously wrong, but at the same time, both can recognize that they agree on all first-order issues. Because affirming same-sex marriage is not a first-order issue, we can continue to have personal fellowship with those who disagree. But because it is not a third-order issue, we cannot have public-ministry fellowship with someone who is affirming or invite them to teach in our churches on this topic. If someone is affirming of same-sex marriage, they are in Side A for Affirming.

Third-order debates on homosexuality. There is one third-order debate on homosexuality. This is whether sexual orientation can change or whether it is a fixed or mostly fixed aspect of a person. Belief that sexual orientation change efforts can be effective or that God regularly does deliver people from homosexuality (or “heal” them, if that’s your language), is a third-order issue. Christians should be able to respectfully disagree and coexist in the same churches. Do not hear me saying “ex-gay theology doesn’t matter.” It does matter, because your answer to this question will impact how your church does pastoral care for gay/same-sex attracted people, which makes a dramatic difference in their Christian living and discipleship. This means that, while individual Christians can agree to disagree and still remain in fellowship, it is wise for leadership at the same church to be on the same page. Those who believe sexual orientations will or often do change are in Side X for Ex-Gay.

Fourth-order debates on homosexuality. Al Mohler does not have a category for fourth-order, so I am inventing one. Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way. There are two fourth-order debates on homosexuality right now, and they track together. The questions are, Should Christians use sexuality labels like “gay” and “lesbian,” or use phrases like “same-sex attraction”? and, Should Christians participate in the broader LGBT community? If you think Christians should not affiliate with the LGBT community and should not use sexuality labels, you are in Side Y for “Why Identify as Gay?” Nobody uses that phrase. I just made it up. But the agreed upon letter is Y. Conversely, if you say yes, non-affirming Christians can use sexuality labels and can consider themselves to have affinity with the LGBT community, then you are in Side B, for in-Between the other positions.

Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way.

To be clear, this triage is contested. Some say that you are not saved if you marry the same sex, so, a first-order issue. Others think ex-gay theology is so harmful that Christians ought not associate with it, and they accordingly place it at second-order. Rosaria Butterfield recently commented that those in the Side B camp are “another religion,” then compared them to Muslims and Jews, and then called for their excommunication as heretics — whereas I put that debate at fourth-order, a squabble, not a significant debate. By contrast, this interview at TGC, while loaded with other problems, at least managed to make its anti-labels point without denouncing those who use labels as non-Christians.

If I were to play which one of these things is not like the other with Sides A, B, Y, and X, the first one to go is none of them. That is to say, before we play that game, we should recognize the common theological core that all Christians share which is not changed by beliefs about homosexuality. Then, playing that game, Side A goes first. Affirming same-sex marriage places churches out of fellowship with one another for the purpose of ministry because it regards as acceptable what the other side considers explicitly unbiblical. Denominations need to have a stand on this question. Then, playing which one of these things is not like the other again, the next to go is Side X, because ex-gay theology changes pastoral care practices within each church. Pastoral teams need to have a stand together on this question, though the congregation does not need to uniformly agree. Then Sides Y and B remain. These are similar enough that many have questioned whether there even is a Side Y, or if everyone who is non-affirming and non-ex-gay is just, by definition, in Between those two and therefore under the umbrella of Side B. (Others contest this.) Regardless, I believe the positions are trivially different.

There are more nuances to the state-of-the-debate, but that should capture the big picture. “Homosexuality in general” cannot be ranked on the theological triage scale because it is not one question but three. Nothing necessitates first-order disagreement. Affirming same-sex marriage (Side A) leads to second-order disagreement. Promoting ex-gay theology (Side X) is a third-order disagreement, one with important practical consequences. The debate over labels and the degree to which it is wise to affiliate with the LGBT community or in what ways to do so (Sides Y and B), is particular enough that all Christians should grant one another glad freedom and warm hospitality to decide where they stand.

Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

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

Freshly handcrafted, gourmet Links

Raw Ecstasy overrides your senses as succulent flavours rush your palate. The unmitigated bliss of such rich, artisanal taste-blends overwhelms your very physicality itself. You are not just having an out-of-body experience. You are becoming one. No, I’m not describing the sensuous texture of Edible Insects Bag of Mixed Edible Bugs. Grasshoppers, Crickets, Silk Worms and Sago Worms by Newport Jerky Company, though I applaud you for (justly) assuming such a quality snack. No, I mean the taste of munching on these freshly handcrafted, gourmet links.

 

Church and Theology links

• Podcast interview between Mike Erre and Johanna Finegan on the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality. Johanna goes over her testimony, her experience with the ex-gay movement, and why Revoice’s critics don’t understand what Spiritual Friendship &co. mean when they talk about gay identity.

• Good article from TGC summarizing what I consider to be a classic Covenantal biblical theology: From OT Baptisms to the Cross: Behold Your Escalating Bible. This was also D.A. Carson’s method in his class. My current take is that this method (1) corresponds really well with how Peter and Paul write in their epistles but (2) not very well with how Luke summarizes Peter and Paul’s sermons in Acts or how Jesus interprets the Old Testament. Which means that either my assessment of (1) or (2) is wrong, or this Covenantal position gets something right but in the wrong way or in an imprecise way. Unsure what to think from there.

• The whole church is burning, not just Notre Dame. Both have a chance for rebirth. from Washington Post:

That this ancient place of worship burned during Holy Week invites, perhaps paradoxically, hope. A time when Christians remember suffering and death and then celebrate resurrection speaks to the yearning for deliverance and renewal. Because Notre Dame was not completely destroyed by this tragedy — or by centuries of neglect, or by political threats — it can be reborn. …

At times, I think that those who are leaving the church — the outraged parents, the women and LGBTQ people who feel excluded from its concern — may simply have more courage than I do. Yet I still want to place my bet with those who insist the church can be delivered, who remember, as with Notre Dame, that it is a work in progress about which we always have to ask, “What, exactly, do you rebuild?”

• This week in conversation with a friend the cage-stage Calvinist comic came up. Here I am again, sharing it, again. (h/t David)

• Brett McCracken gives us five films about the beauty of Resurrection and I’m glad but 💯 not surprised that The Tree of Life (2011) was included. Happy to see Happy as Lazzaro (2018) as well.

 

Art Features

• Someone made a Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon with audio from Apocalypse Now (1979). Now THIS is art.

• Lindsay Elliott gets the spotlight on booooooom for her series “Mellowed.”

During her recent travels to Morocco, Elliott found herself drawn to the time of day when there were no shadows. Mellowed by her lens, the harsh sunlight creates the impressions of a strangely preserved terrain where “subjects are inextricable from the experience of place.”

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• I made a new playlist of slow songs by William Fitzsimmons:

• Whatever the opposite of the William-putting-me-to-sleep-with-slow-guitar-plucking would be, is encapsulated well by this awesome new track from some of my friends. Listen to Lettuce Lung by Bunker Babies:

 

Politics links

• Great summary and critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). An excerpt:

But there are reasons to be wary of these concepts. MMT proponents offer what looks to many like a technical way around intractable political problems. But their solution is neither politically easy — could we rely on Congress to raise taxes to thwart inflation? — nor does it deal in a direct way with one of the central economic challenges of our time: The richest Americans are obstructing, subverting and distorting the way our economy works to their own benefit.

The scientific maneuver Mueller used that implicates the president:

It’s a process of elimination. And this is exactly what Mueller does in his report. Mueller does not set out to prove that the president engaged in obstruction of justice; rather, Mueller recognizes that he is bound by the Attorney General’s interpretation of the law, which says the sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. In light of this legal interpretation, it would be futile for Mueller to build a case and demonstrate that the president should be charged with the crime of obstruction. So Mueller does something incredibly clever: He falsifies all of the alternative explanations.

How the far right spread politically convenient lies about the Notre Dame fire.

• Pete Buttigieg meme: (h/t William)

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Random

• Meet Tomatan, a wearable robot that feeds you tomatoes as you run:

Tomatan is a robot that can be worn as a backpack. Weighing 8kg (18 pounds), it features a tomato shaped head with a mouth that opens to dispense the tomato into circular metal arms that then come down over the person’s mouth to feed them a tomato.

As this robot is much smaller, the runner will need to hold a delivery tube up to their mouth, but the robot features a timer so the runner does not ingest too many tomatoes at one go and deplete their supply too quickly.

• This comic about Type A personalities:

• G-Haw music:

Image result for g-haw country rap

Jesus had to be one with us.

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We human people are so fallen, and we’ve been so fallen for so long, that we actually think that we are the measure of what it means to be human. It’s striking. We say things like “to err is human.” And we unwittingly then begin to define humanity in terms of that fallenness, in terms of its brokenness, in terms of its incompleteness. But if you define humanity like that, what do you do with Jesus? What do you do with Jesus who takes upon himself our humanity, yet, as the Bible tells us, is without sin, who does not err?

What we see in Jesus is true humanity. What we see in his incarnation, his earthly life and ministry, is what humanity was meant to be, what Adam was created to be but ruined in his sin and his fall. So, as Romans 5 teaches, the first man Adam sins, and through his sin death enters the world. But here comes a second Adam, a true Adam, Christ, who is truly man. What Christ does in his humanity is nothing short of remarkable. In his humanity, he offers to God everything that we owe God. In his humanity, in his perfect obedience to God’s commands, he offers to God the obedience that we refuse to give him (and could not give him) because of our fallen, sinful nature.

It’s absolutely essential that what we see in Christ is perfect righteousness, because he’s supplying that righteousness on our behalf. All the righteousness we will ever need is in the Son of God who took upon himself our flesh, our likeness, our human nature. Not only does he positively supply the righteousness, but on the cross, our Savior dies and pays the penalty that humanity owed. He dies in our place. We owe God not only righteousness, but now because we didn’t supply that righteousness, we also owe God our lives, our death, our blood. Christ takes our place, and he supplies to God the sacrifice on our behalf that satisfies God’s demands for righteousness and his righteous determination to punish sin.

And so in order to be for us a perfect High Priest, in order to be for us a perfect offering, Jesus had to be one with us. He had to take upon himself our nature and in that nature demonstrate what humanity is, what is was meant to be — righteous before God, obedient to God, worshiping God in all things, loving him fully. And he also demonstrates what humanity owes when he pays the penalty on Calvary’s cross for our sin. And so to be that High Priest, a perfect High Priest, who also now sympathizes with us, knows our suffering, knows our failures, knows our troubles, and knows them intimately because he experienced them in our flesh, he can look to humanity with sympathy and represent humanity to God with perfection.

And so it was necessary that he be made like us in every way, but without sin.

Thabiti Anyabwile, from question 22 of the New City Catechism Devotional.

Photo of Claude Laydu from Diary of a Country Priest (1951), a symbol of ultimate humanity.

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.

Therefore I will hope in him.

He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.

“I called on your name, O Lord,
from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, ‘Do not close
your ear to my cry for help!’
You came near when I called on you;
you said, ‘Do not fear!’

“You have taken up my cause, O Lord;
you have redeemed my life.”

Lamentations 3:16-24; 31-33; 55-58