On abortion and “argument by meme”

On abortion and “argument by meme”

In the increasingly heated debates over abortion, the following meme has been making its way around the inter-webs.

Kbell2
Don’t fault KBell for the missing apostrophe. #LetItGo

“Men shouldn’t be making laws about women’s bodies.”

In so many cases, I agree.

I have no desire to tell anyone (not least women) what to do with their bodies—so long as their bodily-choice does not involve depriving other “bodies” of their basic human rights.

THE TROUBLE WITH MEMES

But, of course, even this most basic of caveats cannot survive what I will now dub: “The meme-ing of the American mind” (i.e., the reduction of all ethical and political issues to a snappy bumper sticker that carries emotional freight but almost zero argumentative rigor [on another example, see here]).

To be clear, I would love to see the percentage of women increase in all branches of government, including courts and legislatures. And I have written forcefully about what I take to be the misogyny and sexism of certain evangelical “darlings.” The problem is real.

But the idea that laws are only valid if passed by someone who shares your “body-type” is just absurd. By that logic, only roosters could outlaw cock-fighting; only pit bulls could decide the fate of Michael Vick; and only female fetuses could have legal opinions on abortion.

Hogwash.

ALL LAWS REGULATE A “BODY”

A second faulty assumption in the meme is the implication that one can do whatever one wants with their own flesh and blood.

This too is nonsense.

Speed limits constrain what you can do with your body while driving an automobile.

Rape prohibitions regulate what you can do with your body when it comes to sexual consent.

And libel rulings say what you can legally publish with your body if it turns out to be knowingly false, defamatory, and damaging to others.

To repeat, every law in existence is designed to tell humans what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. Every. Single. One.

And that includes the ruling known as “Roe v. Wade”—a judicial fiat handed down by an all-male court. By the logic of the meme, “Roe v. Wade” would also be invalid, since it involved a bunch of old men issuing a decree that involved the “bodies” of both born and unborn women!

How many fetuses served on that judicial bench?

Should we then amend the viral claim as follows: “Non-fetuses shouldn’t be making laws about fetuses”?

CONCLUSION

The primary concern for any law is simple: Is it just for all parties?

And the bar of justice ought to mean that my bodily right to swing my fist ends where my neighbor’s nose begins. Hence the crucial question on abortion is precisely that once asked of Christ: “Who is my neighbor?”

Does that human category include those not yet born?

Whatever one decides on that final question (see my view here), it would better if both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advocates chose to have this debate in a way that acknowledges (1) the real issues at stake, and (2) the real value of both the unborn and the pregnant women placed in difficult situations.

We can do both.

That will mean support for pregnant moms, improved adoption processes, a willingness to listen, and grace for those who have already had abortions (a group often overlooked).

All that is possible, but it will require something more than memes and blog posts* to accomplish it.

 


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But the anthem was recognizable

But the anthem was recognizable

I’ve always loved this line from Steinbeck (East of Eden) on the raucous brand of revivalistic Christianity that sought to “save” the American West.

Somehow it manages to be both an insult and a compliment.

They fought the devil, no holds barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable.

The churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time…

The sectarian churches came in swinging, cocky, and loud and confident. … The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. … And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built.

they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt (East of Eden, ch. 19:1).

It is far easier to (1) see only the church’s stains, or to (2) excuse those blemishes without recognizing their full seriousness.

Steinbeck does neither.

In his view, even this prancing, fighting, farting form of frontier Christianity had value; because while the “players” were often misguided, there was enough truth and beauty to make the anthem recognizable.

 


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Unqualified Condolence

Unqualified Condolence

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened to learn late last week of the sudden death of the popular Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans.

She was only thirty-seven, and she left behind a husband and two young children.

I didn’t know Rachel personally. Still, it was obvious that she was an incredibly gifted writer who gave voice to the nagging questions and concerns of many (former) evangelicals.

She was both kind and controversial—and that rare combination brought forth an unsettling tendency in the outpouring of condolences and sadness.

Let us call it the “qualified condolence.”

As I began to comment on several posts that mourned Rachel’s passing, I noticed a certain worry creep into my head that expressed itself in sentences that began something like this:

“I didn’t always agree with Rachel, but…”

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, still…”

“Despite our differences, …”

In some cases, the “qualified condolence” may be benign. It may merely flag the possibility of having real affection for someone with whom you disagree.

But at least in my own heart, I sensed that these sorts of statements were a sign of something sad, and scared, and broken in me: a need to “signal” to my tribe that my grief did NOT equal a full endorsement of all Rachel’s views.

And that is to my shame.

We should not need to qualify our mourning at the loss of such a vibrant voice.

We need not mingle our condolences with fearful “smoke-signals” to the tribal border police as a way of reassuring others that we are still quite aware of “just how wrong she was” on this or that issue. To do so can betray the tragic reality that, in such polarized times, the only thing more sacred than life itself is our tribal affiliations.

An expression of solidarity and sadness should be enough.

Rest in Peace Rachel; Eshet Chayil.

New here?

New here?

This weekend, Brianna and I journeyed up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to preach at The Ransom Church, a fantastic community, where my friend Phill Tague is the Lead Pastor.

This is just one of many cool opportunities I’ve had to serve local churches, and to talk about why I wrote Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements.

I’ll post the sermon video when it’s up, but in the meantime I thought I’d do a quick post for the many folks who may be new to the blog.

As a theology prof at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, I write on a variety of topics at the intersection of theology and culture–usually with some humor, and an attempt to bridge the divide between academia and pop culture.

I’d love it if you’d click the green “Follow” button to be alerted to new posts.

You can read why I wrote Long Story Short here, and if you’re interested in why it matters that we reclaim the “big story” of Scripture, you can find that here.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to scroll through prior posts to find something that might interest you.

grace+peace,

josh

“Silence” during Holy Week

“Silence” during Holy Week

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel. And it is especially relevant as we now approach the end of Holy Week.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people. But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement. In the midst of the butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering church, and to investigate the whereabouts of his mentor, Father Ferreira.

Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, but rumors now swirl that he has renounced the faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must find out the truth.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, the priest is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The famous missionary has now adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In Ferreira’s place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture could free them. Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

This excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, Rodrigues looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his martyrdom, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christians to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


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This is a reposting of Lenten meditation from March, 2017.

“Tear this temple down”

“Tear this temple down”

There is a horrific irony that the iconic Notre Dame cathedral went up in a hail of flame and ash at the very start of Holy Week.

Holy week, of all times.

Nearly two millennia ago, Christ began this week with some similarly shocking actions in the temple of his day.

He walked into what was arguably the world’s most impressive house of worship, and pronounced judgment by turning over tables and condemning what had become a “den of [leston]” (brigands, robbers, revolutionaries). The event leads to a variety of interpretations, but both liberal and conservative scholars agree that Jesus’ actions in the temple led quickly and directly to his death.

It was the straw that broke the devil’s back.

At his trial, the false charge was that Christ had threatened to destroy the building:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

But the “temple” he had spoken of was his body (John 2:21).

In the years that followed, the early church developed a strange new view of earthly sanctuaries. It was not that they had disdain for buildings. But for them, the body is the only true temple (1 Pet 2:5; 1 Cor 6:19).

God’s Spirit dwells not in brick and mortar but in flesh and bone.

The Spirit resides in the frail frame of an Indonesian teenager, trafficked for her sexual value. The Spirit rests in the elderly man, who suffers from dementia, and is forgotten by his family. The Spirit blows upon the fetus with Down Syndrome, the convict in the county jail, and the CEO in her corner office.

The body is our only temple.

This does not mean, of course, that earthly buildings are either bad or unimportant. Far from it! I feel sickened watching the famed spire of Notre Dame go tumbling into oblivion. What a loss! (And I have written similarly of even ancient, pagan shrines.)

Still, the message of Holy Week is that though our earthly dwellings (of all sizes, shapes, and skin colors) may be stripped to their very foundations “more can be mended than you know.”

 


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 Videoteachings to help church small groups.

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*that last line is one of my favorites from Francis Spufford, in his work, Unapologetic.

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 5)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 5)

The whole reason for this series on animal suffering was to sort through an honest question raised by Charles Darwin (see pt 1):

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?

Last time, I highlighted an answer that has been suggested in the metaphor of “sacrifice.” In other words, might there be a sacrificial good that emerges from the grand and groaning world of creaturely predation?

Three theologians (Harrell, Rolston, and Coakley) answered “Yes.” And having presented their views already (pt 4), it is time now to subject them to a “priestly” inspection for purity or blemishes.

HARRELL’S SACRIFICIAL SNIPPET

First, Daniel Harrell hinted that we might reframe the apparent waste of creaturely death as a kind of “sacrifice” that—by virtue of its cost—helps humans see the “value” of the present world.

This appears to be a version of the “only way to greater good” theodicy. The payoff is a lesson whereby otherwise ungrateful humans gain a sense of gratitude for the price that was paid to get us here. In this way, Harrell’s reference to creaturely “sacrifice” is similar to the common patriotic call to remember the soldiers who have died to give us freedom.

The weakness of this proposal lies, first, in its lack of development. It is merely a snippet of thought in a brief “afterword” in book by two other authors (Venema and McKnight, Adam and the Genome).

Furthermore, it is by no means clear why this “teachable moment” should require so much bloodshed on the part of animals. Indeed, Harrell’s claim seems rather like a cattle rancher who decides to teach his children to be grateful for their warm beds by allowing his herd to perish in a blizzard, and then shuttering the local Humane Society for good measure.

Even if the cruel scenario did make the children thankful for their hearth and home, it is far from obvious why the “lesson” might be the only way to bring forth gratitude.

Harrell’s Creator seems vulnerable to a charge of “excessive force.”

ROLSTON’S WAY OF THE DRAGON

Second, Holmes Rolston III combined the “only way to greater good” defense with the notion of God’s co-suffering in creation. From his panentheistic perspective, “sacrifice” is not just a metaphor to teach us to be grateful but a reality in which divine and creaturely pain is inherently redemptive.

This “good” comes about not because there is some future resurrection for the individual gazelle or grizzly cub, but because there is an intrinsic and ongoing relation between the deaths of evolutionary victims and the redemptive “perfecting” of future life.

Rolston may be commended for desiring to see all of life through the lens of Christ and his cross. Unfortunately, his way of doing so includes a tendency to “baptize” the way of the dragon (the strong kill the weak), and then confuse it with the way of the Lamb.

If Rolston is correct, then the cross is not (as Scripture teaches) a punctiliar event that upends the world’s wisdom and power, but a “principle” that blesses violent grasping in a frightful case of the ends justifying the means (The ghost of Hegel this way comes).

By this logic, the feminist and liberationist opponents of atonement doctrine would be right in claiming that what happened on Golgotha is not just “divine child abuse” but a kind of plenary indulgence in the face of abusive power plays and “animal cruelty.”

This disaster cannot be overcome by locating God within the process.

COAKLEY’S PURPLE THREAD

That brings me, thirdly, back to Sarah Coakley.

The obvious challenge in appropriating Coakley’s argument is that it is not focused on theodicy at all, or on the perceived problem of animal suffering in particular. Her interest is in reconsidering the “rationality” of Christian belief and “sacrificial living” in an age in which the chief critics of the faith are evolutionists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

In the end, her claim is that “the ‘rationality’ of religious belief … may emerge from reflection on the mathematical patternings of evolution,” even if this logic must never be divorced from affective pulls toward “supernormal” sacrifice, displayed most fully in Christ, and to a lesser extent in saints and martyrs.

But this does not mean that Coakley’s sacrificial study is irrelevant to my “dead animal” fixation. She organizes her inaugural Norris-Hulse lecture around three colors that paint the (literal) backdrop to her study:

(1) red for violence,
(2) blue for analytic rationality,
(3) purple for Christ’s passion, mixed appropriately out of red and blue.

“To wax poetic,” states Coakley, “cooperation [is] the ‘thin purple line’ in evolution – the patterning of the special plenitude and productivity of ‘sacrifice’.”

To misquote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, she appears to be saying that this “thin purple line”—dividing good and evil (?)—“cuts through the heart,” not just of every human being (as Solzhenitsyn claimed), but perhaps through that of animals as well. As humans, Coakley believes that we retain the free choice to disown and discredit it.

Nonetheless, this “purple line” of creaturely self-sacrifice represents God’s “subtle pressure” woven into our biology “without which we would not be here at all.” And in Coakley’s estimation, it is the practice of this “rational [logika] sacrifice” (Rom 12:1–2) that “the world now urgently needs.”

All this is artfully framed and philosophically fascinating. But it remains to be clarified how Coakley’s “Sacrifice Regained” might relate to Darwin’s question (above).

With reference to this “thin purple line” (the sacrificial impulse) that has supposedly been implanted in the process of creaturely development, she appears to be saying that “God did it,” even while she acknowledges the darker potential of both cooperation and competition.

By reference to the “subtle trinitarian shape” to non-human cooperation, she attempts to highlight a “teachable moment” that is at once an apologetic tool and a kind of signpost pointing to Golgotha, and to a greater form of sacrifice. Yet again she remains free of the reductionism of “We did [all of] it” while also avoiding pan(en)theism and the claim that God is evil’s author.

What is absent from Coakley’s argument—perhaps because it clashes with the rationalistic blue of Cambridge sensibilities—is any reference to the role of Satan or evil spirits in the pre-fall world of animal predation. This is unsurprising for at least two reasons: First, we cannot be biblically certain what part, if any, fallen spirits played in primal history. And second, Walter Wink seems right to say that the devil remains, in sophisticated circles especially, “a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity” (Unmasking the Powers, 6).

Nonetheless, my own eulogy upon the carcasses of these “dead animals” will consider whether this diabolical “bone” within the modern throat might also warrant some paleontological (or rather: theological) inspection.

Next time.


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 Videoteachings to help church small groups.

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