Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 1)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 1)

“It’s like the garden of Eden.”

That’s how a friend of mine described the Chobe National Park, near the Okavango Delta.

I first went to Africa in the early 2000s. But it was not until a later trip that I saw Chobe. It is one of the few places left where one finds lions, leopards, hippos, crocodiles, impala, and myriad other species in their natural environments.

I took some students there in 2010.

Eden and elephants
Me, with friend and former student, Eden T.

At one point, our African guide drove the Land Rover alongside a herd of giraffes, and the creatures took flight around us. “Flight” is the best way to describe it—for whatever it was, it wasn’t running. Their spindly legs moved in slow motion though they were more than pacing our speeding vehicle.

giraffes
Before the stampede.

Later, we sat in a pontoon boat while a massive herd of elephants swam around us, moving from one side of the river to an island in the middle. Their trunks bobbed like fleshy periscopes. At the bank, we pulled close by the herd—too close in fact—and a mother elephant expressed displeasure with a false charge, a shaking of her head, and a trumpet blast of warning. Eden-like.

false charge
Elephant, telling us to “Back away!”

Or was it?

Now for a second Africa story:

On an earlier trip, in the lake region of Zambia, I sat in a wobbly canoe (much smaller than the pontoon boat) as a local fisherman shoved us away from shore. Then the realization hit me: There are probably crocodiles in here.

There were, in fact, (the villagers had told frightening stories of attacks; and I had seen a child scarred across his legs). One father even told of racing into the water to try to pull his son out of the crocodile’s mouth. The canoe had been a gift from my father-in-law, to help the fishermen build a business that did not depend (quite literally) upon the hand-hewn boats that were more vulnerable to local wildlife.

dinosaur
Picture I took of a crocodile/dinosaur, snacking on some hippo meat.

THE GRANDEUR AND THE GROANING

I bring up those two African experiences (Okavango and the “Croc canoe”) to make a point about the animal realm.

It is both blessed and bloody. There is grandeur and there is groaning. It may seem “like the garden of Eden” in Okavango, but it is fueled by a carnage of almost unimaginable proportions. It can even seem, says theologian David Bentley Hart, “as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory.”

“We know,” says the apostle Paul, “that the whole creation has been groaning … until now” (Rom 8:22, ESV).

Speaking of crocodiles, Ronald Osborn, a former missionary kid from Africa, highlights the possibility that the “Behemoth” of Job 40 may actually be a crocodile, described in one translation as “chief of God’s works” even as he “devours cattle as if they are grass” and “crunches all wild beasts” in his jaws (NEB, vss. 15–34).

Then Osborn goes on to ask how Job’s endorsement of this crocodilic carnage matches up with his own experience.

“I have seen crocodiles on the riverbanks of Masai Mara in Kenya, near the end of the wildebeest migrations, their bellies distended from feasting. It is said they continue to kill even after they are engorged, without any interest in eating their prey.”

In the face of this seemingly wasteful bloodshed, Osborn concludes with frankness:

“These are the realities we must add our ‘Amen’ to if we grant the God of the whirlwind who glories in the Behemoth and the Leviathan the final word” (Osborn, Death Before the Fall, 157).

In the famous words of Tennyson: “Nature [is] red in tooth and claw.” So while we trust that “God is love indeed,” the violence of the natural realm can seem to “shriek against his creed” (“In Memoriam A.H.H.”).

And this bloody reality contributed to Charles Darwin’s loss of faith.

DARWIN’S DILEMMA

One of Darwin’s haunting questions pertained to what he called “the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time.”

On the one hand, Darwin seemed open to the idea that human suffering might serve the good of “moral improvement” within God’s sovereign plan. But the number of humans seemed like nothing “compared with that of all the other sentient beings” (animals) that “often suffer greatly without any moral improvement” (Darwin, Autobiography, 90).

Darwin’s question was straightforward: Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God permit so many “lower animals” to suffer and die in the countless centuries that he believed to have preceded human beings?

This inquiry led to his most (in)famous pronouncement on the subject:

“What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” (Letter to Hooker, July 13, 1856)

For Darwin, this was not a minor issue. By his own account, the issue of animal suffering was one of the deciding factors that led him to away from orthodox Christianity and toward agnosticism.

“Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers … for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality” (Autobiography, 85).

But in time,

“the very old argument from the existence of [animal] suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause [was indeed] a strong one” (Autobiography, 90).

THE ROAD AHEAD

In the next few blog posts, I want to consider the problem of animal suffering in relation to the Christian belief in a loving, holy Creator.

My question is this: How do those two ideas fit together: the groaning and the grandeur; the beauty and the bloodshed?

Or was Richard Dawkins right to say that,

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites…

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (River out of Eden, 132).

Stay tuned.


 

If you’re interested in understanding the big story of the Bible, check out my most recent book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Justice without mercy

Justice without mercy

“Excessive zeal for justice always becomes satanic.”

That line comes from Walter Wink’s landmark study of the demonic: Unmasking the Powers. His point is not to disparage our need for justice but to season it with mercy, lest “Lady J” transform into, simply, “the accuser” (ha satan).

“Justice” often turns, like sour milk, to vengeance.

A similar theme exists in this provocative claim by Alan Jacobs:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.

The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.

Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’ve written on this before (here); but a similar point has now been made by a third and final figure: the famous atheist/neuroscientist, Sam Harris.

In reference to a recent spate of social media mobs that have called for the names, addresses, and (practically) the firstborn children of perceived offenders, Harris laments the fact that our modern culture has lost its ability to forgive (or even hear the evidence) amid its fervor for “justice.”

“We have to have a way back,” said Harris in a recent interview, regarding how the social media mob descends on certain persons with seemingly no mercy and no possibility of repentance or forgiveness.

Is there a lesson here from these three statements?

If anything, it is that a thirst for “justice” is not always an unalloyed good. We need mercy too. And humility (Mic 6:8).

 


Interested in understanding the Big Story of the Bible? Check out my new book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

When politics BECOMES religion

When politics BECOMES religion

Here’s a bold pronouncement:

The fastest growing “religion” in America isn’t Buddhism, Islam, or that age-defying voodoo powder that Tom Brady’s trainer sprinkles in his Gatorade. Not even close. Over the past decade or so, America’s fastest growing religion has been the all-consuming pull of politics.

A recent article in The American Conservative suggests something like this – and it isn’t limited to just the “Right” or “Left.”

Looking back to 2008, Timothy P. Carney argues that one thing many of the chanting, fainting, I-will-never-wash-this-hand-again supporters of Barack Obama had in common with the reddest of “red hats” is that they had abandoned church and transferred their religious fervor to political messiahs.

Politics replaced religion.

Based on research by the Pew Research Center, Carney states that:

The best way to describe Trump’s support in the Republican primaries […] would be: white evangelicals who do not go to church.

They came to Trump seeking what they had lost because they had lost church.

This claim is muddied by the fact that some of these devotees still claimed the label “evangelical,” though they had long since left church. In fact, the subset of Trump voters dubbed “the Preservationists” was the group most likely to say that religion was “very important” to them even while they were least likely to attend religious gatherings.

What meaneth this?

One way of reading the statistic would be to say that for some of these folks, it was not so much a case of politics expressing their faith as it was political fervor becoming their faith. (Read the whole thing here to see if you agree.)

It would be wrong, however, to say that this is just a MAGA phenomenon. My hunch is that something similar could be said of the far Left.

ET TU BERNIE?

It is widely known that this demographic is less likely to attend church regularly, or to claim a religious affiliation. The “Nones” are on the rise, we hear repeatedly. But is “None” really the most accurate religious descriptor for some of the most vocal members of the secular Left?

How many of these marching, chanting, constantly posting anti-Trumpists might also be said to have transferred their “faith” to America’s new national religion?

After all, a quick gander at the leading “news” sites (whether Right or Left) shows a form of ideological purity and boundary-policing that would normally be reserved for the harshest of fundamentalist sects. Heresy is a live category here, as is excommunication and the social media equivalent of burning at the stake.

WHAT IS RELIGION?

The first point to be made in response to my argument is that it would be unfair to accuse all passionate voices (on the Right or Left) of having adopted a new religion.

Theologians like myself should be careful about turning everything into a “religion,” as if my kids’ passion for fruit snacks and animal crackers should be read through the lens of Dionysius and animal sacrifice.

“Some” is the key word above.

Still, I stand by my claim that we sometimes define “faith” and “religion” too narrowly.

In my usage, religion (or “worship”) is the assigning of ultimate, transcendent value to a particular object, person, or idea. Along these lines, even famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens have long referred to Soviet Marxism as a de-facto religion. (Hitchens knew this from experience; as a young Communist, he had gone to live in Castro’s Cuba.)

My contention is that we sometimes fail to define “worship” and “religion” broadly enough. As Nietzsche rightly saw, there are more idols in this world than one thinks.

WHAT TO DO?

But what should Christians do in the face of America’s fastest growing quasi-religion?

An initial move should be to examine our own hearts and habits.  How much time do I spend perusing political news versus reading Scripture?  Would a quick scan of my Facebook posts indicate that I am most passionate about?  How often do words like “Left” and “Right” pepper daily my daily vocabulary?  Do I spend hours a week listening to acerbic talk radio or other forms of highly biased political content?

Then, three quick applications for the church at large:

1. Don’t baptize rival kingdoms.

An initial step would be a refusal to baptize the political dog in the ecclesial manger, regardless of the color of its collar.

In American politics, both sides have had tendency to care selectively about certain sins, while conveniently ignoring others. Both sides have tended to “bundle” issues strangely at certain points (e.g., justice for all and abortion on demand). And both sides have found church leaders willing to “baptize” their moves in exchange for access to power. I’ll forgo the examples.

In the words of evangelical historian, Thomas S. Kidd:

we should never want our church leaders to become partisan campaigners, regardless of the party in question. [This move] disrupts the unity of the church, and invariably turns the church into a servant of temporal power rather than the kingdom of God.

2. Don’t retreat to private faith.

On the other hand, it would be equally disastrous to respond to our hyper-politicized moment with a retreat from social engagement altogether.

“Religion as a private matter.”

~Said no one in the Bible, ever.

A “private” faith is an irrelevant invention of the modern world. Thus Christians ought to care about the issues God cares about.

For me, that includes pressing matters of justice like abortion, racial reconciliation, and many others topics.

At the same time, we must be sure to take our cues from Scripture more than from the talking heads of Cable News, or the self-interested bosses of party politics.

3. Don’t lose interest in the “seed” growing slowly.

My sense is that some Christians have simply grown tired or bored with the difficult and unheralded work of soul-care and The Great Commission.

And strange as it sounds, I get it.

On every news site and every social media platform, we are told repeatedly that political realities are the most important, most interesting, and most cringe-worthy aspect of life. Who isn’t tempted to believe it?

Politics is the laser pointer, and we are the frantic cats that jump to and fro at the whims of “owners” after ad revenue. Politics is the fast-moving, shiny object from which you can hardly look away.

By comparison, the “seed” growing slowly beneath the soil doesn’t seem as exciting. If the Kingdom of God is like leaven mixed with dough (doing its work in secret, without headlines, and without a 12-hour news cycle), then politics is like gunpowder. It turns more heads, makes more noise, and sucks up all the oxygen. But that doesn’t mean it’s where the actions is.

The challenge of Christ’s strange kingdom is to trust that the “seed” growing slowly is what really matters.

The gospel is the treasure buried in the field; it is worth selling everything to have; and it is more fulfilling than our new national religion of political fixation.


 

Interested in understanding the Big Story of the Bible? Check out my new book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Prophet or punk? (Pt 3)

Prophet or punk? (Pt 3)

Here’s the final installment of my “Prophet or punk?” series over at The Wesleyan Church website.

These posts explore the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness in the age of social media.

While part 2 dealt with recovering “lament,” this one deals with the prophetic hallmark of “persistent hope” expressed (perhaps) in some exuberant dances moves.

After all, the first named “prophetess” was Miriam (Exod. 15:20). And when she first steps foot upon the biblical stage to lead God’s people, it is with “with tambourines and dancing.”

Hence:

One is tempted to say that an imperfect litmus test to separate the prophet from punk is whether you can picture that person dancing.

Read the whole thing here.


Enjoy this post? Check out my new book on understanding the big story of Scripture: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Mozart in hell

Mozart in hell

One of the most controversial Christian doctrines concerns the reality of hell.

Yet while almost the whole of the tradition (not least Jesus) maintained belief in a form of post-mortem judgment, there are many different views on what that means.

One of these diverse perspectives comes from North America’s most famous preacher of fire and brimstone: Jonathan Edwards.

jonathanedwards_byjosephbadger_yale_detail-56eabd815f9b581f344de989
Jonathan Edwards, mensch.

In a prior post (here), I was critical of Edwards’ treatment of the subject. But in this piece, I’d like to examine an aspect of his thought that is, at least, intriguing.

For Edwards, hell is the presence of God himself.  And so is heaven.

He builds this view on Scripture.  Revelation 14:10 speaks, for instance, of a torment that takes place “in the presence of the Lamb.”

On the one hand, this portrait could be taken as a macabre depiction of a sadistic Christ who derives pleasure from watching the torture of those who worshipped “the beast.” This makes Jesus look like a rogue CIA agent who begins to enjoy the sight of waterboarded prisoners; or like a mafia goon who gets a thrill from plucking toe-nails from his enemies.  And this Jesus seems hard to square with the merciful Lord who walks the pages of the Gospels.

But there is another way of reading Edwards’ claim that God is the substance of both hell and heaven.

One word: Mozart.

AMADEUS AS THEOLOGY

In the movie Amadeus, we are shown two different reactions to the breathtaking beauty of Mozart’s compositions.

In the audience, there are those who hear this music and experience pleasure, worship, and a moment of transcendent union between the author and the audience. Perhaps you can relate. A concert can be a foretaste of heaven.

Yet in Amadeus, there is another figure in the audience who experiences the music differently.  To Salieri (Mozart’s jealous rival), this same music, in this same theatre, from this same orchestra feels like nothing less than torture. Not because it is terrible, but because it is perfect.

Salieri wants to be Mozart. Or kill him. And in the end, he chooses the latter.

A PARABLE

Amadeus is a parable of hellacious experience.

As sinful humans, we want to be God. Or kill him. And on Golgotha, we chose the latter.

Yet as with Salieri, the music gets louder after its composer dies. It rises from the grave. And the same song strikes us as either ecstasy or torture. Not because it’s terrible, but because it’s perfect.

I have no idea whether this is a good analogy to help one grasp the Christian concept of the afterlife.

I’ve never been dead.

And I don’t listen to Mozart.

It is however, a call to cultivate not only “ears to hear” the music of God’s holy love, but the “taste” to find it beautiful. Heaven is a party thrown for Prodigals, and an invitation to experience the Father’s presence in a way unlike the “tortured” elder brother.


Enjoy this post? Check out my new book on understanding the big story of Scripture: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

The silence of our friends

The silence of our friends

Today is MLK day.

And while that means many things, one practical result is that today, of all days, we are more likely to see a plethora of King quotations sprinkled through our Facebook news feeds–if only to show friends that “I” am not a racist jerk.

There are many excellent MLK quotations; yet this is the one that I’ve been pondering:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” (The Trumpet of Conscience, Steeler Lecture, 1967)

The statement dovetails with an insight from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he spoke of what he called the “white moderate.”

There he admitted that

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In other words: The taunts of enemies are less crushing than the silence of “friends.”

Which brings me to me.

A MESSAGE FOR THE SILENT

On what injustices am I tempted to be silent over?

How am I prone to be like that “white moderate” described by King, who was, in fact, a greater stumbling block to justice than the KKK?

1. The resurgent racism of our MAGA moment

One area that I am sorely tempted to be silent over has to do with the rise in nationalism (and sometimes outright racism) that has accompanied our current MAGA moment.

By any metric, certain segments of America have been made more of a “safe space” for white nationalism, as evidenced by a sitting congressman who recently implied that terms like “White supremacist” and “White nationalist” should not be seen as offensive. (Along with a litany of lesser, though related, statements.)

Then, we watched in shocked sadness as an aging Native American man (who was also Vietnam vet) was jeered by a crowd of “Pro-Life” high schoolers as he chanted a peace song during an indigenous peoples march in Washington, D.C.

“Build the wall!” they shouted in his face.

[*See below for update]

chantrally

For the past week, I’ve said nothing about either. Why?

It’s simple: I’m a silent friend.

2. The un-cool connotations of the Pro-Life cause.

My second temptation (like that of Christ) is related to the first.

After all, those ignorant teenagers (a redundancy we should all remember before permanently crucifying them) in MAGA hats were in Washington for the “March for Life.” This is an annual event designed to raise awareness over the atrocity of legally slaughtered babies in America.

It takes place near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

And I said nothing about that either.

Why?

I’m busy. Obviously. But another reason is that the same crowd that praises me for writing occasionally about the resurgent racism of our MAGA moment, often doesn’t think it cool when I talk about the evil of abortion.

And when you’ve already alienated one pre-fab fan-base, the temptation is to keep the other group happy.

Based on our current (nonsensical) partisan arrangement, we are told that we cannot speak out about both problems (#1 and #2).  We must either choose everything from “column A” or everything from “column B.” And if you refuse to bundle your issues in a way that fits the Cable News silos, you will face hostility from both sides.

“Abracadabra: silence.”

3. The stuff that doesn’t qualify as “news”

A third and final area on which I’ve been too silent involves that enormous, cloud-covered mountain of important stuff that doesn’t fit the category of “shiny objects” in our news feeds.

If a tree falls in the forest and it has nothing to do with Trump or Kanye or the NFL playoffs, does it make a sound?  Not usually.

A friend was telling me this morning about the horrendous surge in persecution toward Christians in the world’s two largest countries: China and India. I’ve known about the former, but have I even prayed about it, much less write a blog post?

Not really.

It isn’t shiny enough.

There aren’t many “cool points” there.

I’m a silent friend.

“The root cause of this persecution,” he said, “is actually the same thing we’re seeing all over the world. The rise of nationalism.” It’s an anger towards “outsiders” in an effort to make China more Chinese again; or India more Hindu.

The result is a metaphorical mob of chanting nationalists, surrounding Chinese Christians, as they sing their peace songs.

Will anyone say anthing?

CONCLUSION

Of course, it isn’t possible to speak up on every issue. The world is too big. And “outrage fatigue” is a real thing.

In addition, speaking up is no guarantee of speaking well, since some self-styled “prophets” are just demagogues in church clothes (see here on trying to sort out the difference).

Nevertheless, these are the words that I am pondering today, spoken to me if no one else:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”


Update: After posting this story, new videos and firsthand accounts surfaced that call into question the earlier reports regarding the MAGA high school students in D.C. See here . If these reports are accurate, then it appears that these students are owed an apology from myself and many others.


Feeling baffled by the Bible? Check out my new book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple movements(here).


Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

“This notebook doesn’t get Netflix”

“This notebook doesn’t get Netflix”

If you’re like me, one of your challenges involves balancing the benefits of our “devices” with their distracting downsides.

Their giant, hairy, screaming downsides.

Toward that end, I’ve begun using a paper notebook again to jot down ideas for book chapters, blog posts, and sermon prep. The shift happened almost by accident. Last month, IVP sent all of their authors a faux-leather journal for a Christmas gift.

my journal2
What you send authors to remind them to write the book they promised instead of mucking around with blog posts.
myjournal1
“Those ideas being ‘Make everyone twins’ and ‘Electric toilet’.” ~Baby Momma

As you can see, mine looks vaguely like it was stolen from a local psych ward. (Seriously, my high school psychology teacher showed us one he had “borrowed” from a friend with paranoid schizophrenia; it looked exactly like this, minus Jonathan Edwards.)

Then, last week, Jon Acuff’s author newsletter detailed why he uses pen and paper.

While at his daughter’s swim meet, Jon jotted down an idea on his notebook, only to be told by an elderly lady that “That’s the first time I’ve seen someone write something down by hand in a long time.”

His response was thus:

            “Paper helps me focus. This notebook doesn’t have Netflix.”

Nuff said.

And while I’m at it, here is a not-at-all-creepy pic I tookof my friend Jake T.

He has notebooks for days. I can smell the spirituality.

jake journal1
Jake T.: Pastor of the deathly hallows.

Make faux-leather great again.

Make everyone twins.

Electric toilet.


If you’re interested in an accessible book for anyone feeling baffled by the Bible, check out my new book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple movements(here).


Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.