What would Jesus undo? (Sermon Video)

What would Jesus undo? (Sermon Video)

I had a great time preaching this past weekend in Gillette, Wyoming.

Big shout-out to Mike Wilson and the folks at New Life Wesleyan for welcoming me!

They began a sermon series on Sunday entitled “What would Jesus undo?  And as a part of that, I got to preach on some ideas I’ve been working through about what it looks like for Christians to reclaim the sacred ground between (1) crippling doubt, and (2) angry dogmatism.

I’ve written about that topic before (here), and I’m currently writing a book on the subject for IVP Academic. But until then, here’s the video.


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When your tribe is wrong

When your tribe is wrong

We humans are a tribal bunch.

We seem to be designed that way (see here); and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are hard-wired to find community, common cause, and a measure of identity within particular groups.  There are:

Evangelicals, atheists, vegans, hunters, gamers, naturopaths, NRA members, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, teamsters, doulas, environmentalists, and perhaps most cult-like of all: CrossFitters.

But if you stay in your tribe long enough, one thing is certain: It’s going to be wrong.  And not just on some minor point.  Given the fallibility of humans and the tendency of groups toward corruption, chaos, and dogmatism, your tribe is going to err on something important, and in a relatively widespread fashion.

Which raises the question: What do you do then?

As far as I can tell, there are three common responses:

  1. Deny

Perhaps the most frequent human tactic when facing embarrassing or threatening data is to simply deny it.  “Smoking can’t cause cancer! My uncle Ernie’s 97 and he’s a human chimney!”  “And No! My knee injuries are not because of Crossfit; they’re probably genetic; or the work of Russian trolls!” “#FakeNews.”

Similarly, the choice to just stay silent on one’s tribal errors can also be denial.

But if one does this long enough, the result can be devastating.  Before long, you forfeit credibility with all but the most Kool-Aid swilling faithful of your tribal kin.  And for Christians, that’s Kryptonite for Kingdom building.

Now for number two.

  1. Defect

When denial proves impossible, one might simply leave.

In some cases, this is warranted.  Some tribes are inherently toxic, while others start good but have their mission so perverted that one must either defect or be forever tainted.

But there are dangers here as well.

As the saying goes: It’s hard to reform organizations that you leave.  And if the tribe holds certain true or noble values, then defection can be deleterious.  It can simply cede the field to the worst elements within the remaining group.

Likewise, the desire for defection sometimes stems from vengeful and unhealthy motives.  “I’ll show them! They just made the wrong kind of enemy!”

Given the human tendency for knee-jerk reactions, we often swing from one form of tribal dogmatism to another.  In disgust, we embrace wholesale the opposition, while immediately denying the deep flaws and contradictions in this newfound tribal home.  “Anything is better than where I came from,” we say.

In a final twist: some attempt a total defection from mission-driven tribal homes.  “I’m just a member of the ‘human tribe’ these days.”  Nonsense.  If we are hard-wired for these tribal groups, we will either find them or die of loneliness.

  1. Distract

When denial or defection are rejected, a final option when confronted with one’s tribal “wrongness” is simply to shift the focus to the flaws of rival tribes.  “Yes, yes, we have our problems, but when you look at the alternative… .”

Of course, some tribes are worse than others.  The cartel is not the rotary.  But when this “Lesser of two evils” logic is used as a distractor from the obvious corruption or error within one’s own tribe, the result is much the same as with denial: The “distractor” loses credibility with all but the most loyal partisans.  Again: Kingdom Kryptonite.

One doesn’t put out a fire in the attic by pointing to the smoking ruins of a neighbor’s house; or by simply moving to the basement.

Distraction is denial’s evil twin.

CONCLUSION 

What then is the right response to tribal wrongness?

It depends, of course, on a variety of factors. It doesn’t always mean a snarky airing of one’s public grievances (see here).

But it should probably begin with (1) an acknowledgment of the problem, (2) an awareness of these three coping mechanisms (above), and (3) a refusal to go from “tribe” to “tribalism.”

Now to mix the Kool-Aid for my CrossFit pre-workout. It helps with my genetic knee pain.

 


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But I deleted it

But I deleted it

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus lately as I’m been under a deadline to get a book manuscript polished up and sent back to the editor (Yes, Katya, I am working on it!).

But I took time last week to type up what I thought was a pithy response to a particular hot-button cultural issue that had been nagging me.

I wrote it; I rewrote it; and I even had some friends weigh in.

Then, after all that work, I deleted the whole thing. (Which was really hard because it had a corny joke about a “salvation” that is seen as coming sola Twittera–by social media alone.)

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I had an inkling of discernment (which is all I ever have…) that the last thing the world needed was one more pontification on something that I actually don’t know very much about.

On that note, I’ve found the following eight insights helpful for those times that I am tempted to think that I must always open my mouth/keyboard.

These come from the evangelical-Anglican and Baylor English professor, Alan Jacobs.

In his words:

Going off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice.

What ‘s more:

that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of [My] Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet . . . or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.

But must I always weigh in on every hot-button issue?

As Jacobs reminds himself:

  1. I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  2. I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  3. I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  4. I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  5. If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  6. Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  7. Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  8. Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

None of this means, of course, that I will stop writing on issues that matter–even when they’re considered controversial.  I come, after all, from a theological tradition (Wesleyanism) that refused to shut up on things like slavery and women’s rights, even they had been dubbed “too radical” for respectable Christians to weigh-in on.

So once I’m not buried under a book manuscript (which should be sometime in the next decade) I plan to keep thinking in public with what I hope is a mix of grace and truth–or at the least “grammar.”

And I hope other thoughtful people do too.

Still, it is freeing to recall occasionally that the world’s salvation does not come sola Twittera.  Or in my more long-winded case: sola blogos. 


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Jordan Peterson Cilantro! Dr. Fisher and I on the Wesley Seminary Podcast

Jordan Peterson Cilantro! Dr. Fisher and I on the Wesley Seminary Podcast

I was happy to be a guest on the Wesley Seminary Podcast to discuss Jordan Peterson’s unique take on Scripture, culture, and meaning (here).

I’ve written previously on Peterson (here) and (here); and I was honored to share the mic with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Dalene Fisher, Professor of English at OKWU, and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Aaron Perry is a great host. Feel free to check out other episodes wherever you get podcasts.

Amongst other tings, I explain here why Peterson’s reading of Scripture tends to divorce the biblical narrative from history, while reading his own brand of Jungian psychology into the text.

I also talk about cilantro (but you’ll have to listen to get that one).

Here is a quick breakdown of the conversation in case you want to skip around.

  • 0.00 – Intros
  • 4.25 – Dr. Fisher on Archetypes in literature, psychology, and Jordan Peterson
  • 12.05 – Me, talking about Peterson’s “(Not so) Strange” account of Christianity
  • 16.40 -Me, on Jordan Peterson, cookbooks, and cilantro! (Could Peterson’s archetypal reading of Scripture get the same “truths” from a cookbook?)
  • 20.40 – Dr. Fisher on how Peterson can be helpful for young adults.
  • 24.27 – Me, on how Peterson can be helpful.
  • 28.12 – Dr. Perry on Peterson on the danger (and the benefit) of comparison.
  • 31.43 – Me, on Peterson’s overly tragic view of life.
  • 34.12 – Dr. Perry on the lack of eschatology in Peterson’s dialectic of chaos and order.
  • 36.05 – Me, on why Peterson’s self-help psychology is NOT enough.
  • 37.35 – Conclusion

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Civilizing the Barbarians

Civilizing the Barbarians

In the words of Hanna Arendt:

Every generation is invaded by barbarians—we call them “children.”

From where I sit, that resonates. Especially since my three-year-old just ran through the kitchen like a tiny, unclad Gaelic warrior screaming “Captain Underpants!”

And in response to Arendt, Jonah Goldberg adds this:

Society doesn’t civilize the barbarians. Schools don’t either. That’s what families do. Other mediating institutions certainly do important work and they can fix some of the problems that come from an unstable home life, but all you have to do is talk to any teacher or social worker to appreciate that everything starts in the home.

People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad of institutions [the] family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc.

I agree.

And I agree also with Goldberg’s claim that our culture is now imperiled, in part, because families have eroded—leaving many to seek a home in what one might call the “fictive kinships” of tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics. (At least that is his list.)

A WAKEUP CALL

For parents, this is yet another reminder of how important our job is.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter how good I am at my “job” if I fail at being a dad. All the lectures, publications, sermons, and promotions in the world won’t raise “Captain Underpants.” Nor will they guide him to love Jesus, tell the truth, and stand up for the vulnerable.

He needs a family.

On such points, Goldberg makes a strong argument that traditional notions like marriage, monogamy, and child-rearing are crucial for a healthy society. Obviously.  And one doesn’t need to see many stats on, say, the effect of absent fathers on incarceration rates in order to agree.

And yet.

DON’T JUST “FOCUS ON THE FAMILY”

One danger in some modern idolizations of the “nuclear family” is that they may coincide with a withdrawal (or enclave) mentality with regard to culture at large.  Hence, Christians especially may be led to just “focus on the family” and leave the world to rot.  We might call this “The Benedict Option” run amok.

Hence James K. A. Smith has this to say (Awaiting the King):

Curtailing the state’s monopolies in order to devolve power to smaller communities only works if smaller communities actually exist.

That’s not an argument for continuing to prop up the behemoth, but it is the reason why policies that encourage “private” endeavors sound like—and can sometimes be cover for—the pursuit of enclaved special interests that abandon the common good.

If these smaller communities (most notably, the family) do not exist, then all the talk of their importance by folks like Goldberg may sound about as helpful as the 911 operator telling you all the ways you could have prevented the fire that now fully engulfs your home.

Ah yes… sounds like faulty wiring and a lack of smoke alarms. We’ll add you to the statistics! 

Which brings me to the church.

REDEEMING FICTIVE KINSHIP

There was, of course, a time in which western civilization was overrun by so-called “barbarians”—and not the three-year-old variety.

Germanic hordes swept over Rome in the 5th century. And in the 8th century, Viking warriors began their raids upon the West.  Yet in both cases, the “barbarians” were conquered, not so much by armies, but by a culture and a faith.

They were transformed not by the nuclear family, but by a “fictive kinship”—the family of God.

To be sure, such claims must be qualified.  For one, the civilization overrun by these “barbarians” was not always as civilized as one might think. Nor was the church that transformed them anywhere near perfect. (In many instances, it was a hot mess.)

Still, it bears noting that Jesus-movement originated as a “fictive kinship group”–to use a phrase I first heard from N.T. Wright–that sought to relativize the bonds of the (nuclear) family, so that they were made subservient to God’s Kingdom-agenda.

Even Christ’s choosing of twelve (motley) disciples signifies something like this:

“These are my mother and brothers,” says Christ, pointing to his disciples (Mt. 12.49).

And:

“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times…” (Mk. 10.29–30).

CONCLUSION

None of this changes, of course, the importance of the (nuclear) family in shaping a stable society.

But it does mean that Christians must focus on more than just blood-ties if we want to “civilize the barbarians” (ourselves included); or more rightly: If we want to see the kingdom come.

 


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God is not male (or female)

God is not male (or female)

For Christians, one danger of not knowing the tradition is the chance that you might set out to defend it with great boldness, only to discover that you are actually contradicting it.

Like, blatantly.

We might call this the Saul of Tarsus model of apologetics: boldly going in the wrong direction. And for the record, I’ve done it.

I was reminded of this danger recently as I watched an online argument in which a few Christians argued quite strongly, on “conservative” grounds, that “God is male.”

Yet the irony is that if you showed up at the councils of Nicaea or Constantinople with that argument, they wouldn’t call you a conservative; they would call you a heretic.

In fact, the Christian tradition has never claimed that God is male.

On the contrary, God is beyond gender, not least because God does not have a body.

“THEOS” AND THE FATHER

To be sure, Jesus (the second person of the Trinity) is male—and Scripture is clear that he retains his maleness to this day. After all, he ascends bodily to heaven. Yet while Christ is fully divine, the term theos (“God”) is almost always a reference to the first person of the godhead (a.k.a., the Father).

Things get confusing, of course, because “Father” sounds pretty “male” too. Yet the tradition has always viewed the label as a metaphor, just as it has the masculine pronoun “he” when used to speak of God the Father.

As with all metaphors, these come with a whisper of “it is” and “it is not.”

In other words, when applied to God, such labels shouldn’t be over-literalized. To call God “Father” doesn’t make him “male” any more than to call God “Rock” (Ps. 18.2) makes him a lump of granite out of which to make a countertop.

AN IRONIC CONTRADITION

As at least one person pointed out during this online conversation —there is an ironic contradiction in the (so-called) “conservative” contention that God should be seen as male.

In its simplest form, the contradictory logic runs like this:

  1. Sex and gender are connected to “bodily” realities.
  2. God does not have a body.
  3. Still, God is male.

To be clear, I actually agree with the first two points (as I’ve noted elsewhere: here and here). Yet to try to add the third point to the list is about as consistent as yelling “Meat is murder!” one minute, and “Down with vegans!” the next.

It’s contradictory.

And it has no precedent in orthodox theology.

ON FEMININE METAPHORS

Since God is not male, the next question is often whether we should complement our masculine pronouns with female ones.

In truth, the Bible does supply some feminine metaphors for God. These include likening God’s protective heart to that of a mother bird sheltering chicks (Ruth 2.12; Ps. 91; Mt. 23.37). While Isaiah likens God’s cries to those of a woman in labor (42.14), and God’s comfort to that of a mother with her children (66.13; 49.15).

Even so, Scripture stops short of calling God a “she.”

To do so in the ancient world may have risked certain problems in a culture filled with fertility cults, goddess worship, and copulating deities.

If one were going to supply a feminine pronoun to one person of the Trinity, the Spirit would be the most likely candidate. After all, the Hebrew word for “Spirit” is feminine; and the Greek is neuter. Yet not even this means that we should think of the Spirit as predominantly female.

To do so, would be to make the same error that was previously made with the unorthodox conception of “the Father.” And it would also be to forget that masculine and feminine nouns (in Greek and Hebrew) do not equate with “male” and “female.”

After all, the Greek word for “table” is feminine, but this hardly means that we should think of that thing you sit around for dinner as having “xx” chromosomes.

As the feminist theologian Sarah Coakley notes, to speak of the Spirit as a “she” may not even be advantageous to the cause of women’s equality—first, because it could simply replace blanket male stereotypes with unhelpful female ones, and second, because the church has often (tacitly or overtly) subordinated the Spirit to the other members of the godhead.

This too runs counter to orthodox theology– and it has resulted in what Coakley sees as the Spirit being drawn and painted as an ever-shrinking “pigeon” in our hierarchal artwork.

CONCLUSION

In the end, one takeaway from all this is that it is important for Christians to actually know the tradition before seeking to defend or overthrow it.

And on this matter especially, the tradition is not nearly as “patriarchal” as one might have been led to think.

Likewise, it is important to remember the “otherness” of God when discussing such matters.

To cite Karl Barth: “God is not ‘man’ said in a loud voice!”

And the same goes for “woman.”

 


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Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

For a writer, reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead can be a bit deflating.

Not because it’s bad, but because her countless perfect sentences—so simple yet so penetrating—are enough to make almost anyone despair of what they’ve written.

In Gilead, we read the letters of a dying pastor (Rev. John Ames) to the young son that he will leave behind.  In one of them, Ames tells of preaching during the carnage of World War 1.

In his attic, there are boxes of old sermons.  Yet:

One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it.

THE ONE THAT BURNED

At the time, the Spanish flu had broken out in the midst of the Great War, killing millions. Hence many young men were dying before they even made it to the trenches.

As Ames writes:

It was a strange sickness—I saw it over at Fort Riley. […] They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right there in Iowa.

Now if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like. So I wrote a sermon about it.

I said, or meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers.

And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God

Now the part that I care about:

It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was.

So he burned the sermon, despite the fact that it seemed like the most honest thing that he had ever written.

As Ames puts it:

It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it.  But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.

APPLICATION: PREACH TO THE PRESENT

My point here is not whether Ames was right about God’s hand within in the Spanish flu. In fact, I tend to detest such claims to omniscience when it comes to God’s judgement via natural disasters (see here).

My concern is with a more common problem amongst preachers, myself included.

That is:

The temptation to preach to those who aren’t present, rather than the ones who are.

After all, it’s easy to condemn the Woodrow Wilsons and the Pontius Pilates when they do not sit in front of you.

It’s easy to decry those “soft” and “lazy” millennials to a room of aging baby-boomers–or to a room of “superior” millennials (see here). It’s easy to bemoan liberal rot to a room of midwestern conservatives; or conservative fundamentalists to an educated group of East Coast mainliners.

It’s easy.

But what good is it?

It’s like railing to poor Mirabelle Mercer about the Kaiser’s war policy.

To preach to those who are present is more difficult, not least because you might step on the toes that sit beneath the pews. It forces us to ask about our besetting sins, which are always the ones we’d rather ignore.

The well-known Dallas Baptist, Matt Chandler, notes this tendency within his own context:

If I preach the sermon out of the book of Isaiah on justice, my inbox would fill with their glee that I would broach the subject. But if I applied it to the subject of race, then all of a sudden I was a Marxist or I’ve been watching too much of the liberal media.

If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous, as a ferocious man of God, and yet when I would tackle race I was being too political …

If I quoted the great reformer Martin Luther … never did I get an email about his blatant anti-Semitism. But let me quote the great reformer Martin Luther King Jr., and watch my inbox fill with people asking me if I’m aware of his moral brokenness.

His point is that it’s not just preachers who prefer the sermon to convict the absent, it’s often the parishioners too.  “Lord thank you that we are not like those people.”

CONCLUSION

In the end, if there is a lesson here from Gilead, it’s that sermons must connect, convict, and encourage the audience that will actually hear them—not the one that won’t.

In short: Preach to those present.

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer.


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