All posts by Theology+Now

The changeless God in changing times

By Seth Guess

Social norms and standards continue devolving at a dizzying pace. Nothing seems certain. College campuses, once the bastion of free speech, are increasingly “safe” places where protests discourage discourse. Debate is often cut short with the reply, “This debate is over because [insert a high percentage] of the scientific community agree.”

Society is especially devolving in two areas: the courts and, even more worrisome, churches. Even though Habakkuk 1:4 was spoken by a prophet in ancient times, the words could describe one of today’s front-page news articles: “Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous: therefore wrong judgment proceedeth” (KJV).

Today, many judges issue rulings based on their personal whims and cultural trends instead of properly applying the law. In 1921, the year after my grandfather was born, the Supreme Court of West Virginia stated in State v. Snyder: “No institution has a more direct influence or a more important relation in life than marriage. Civilization in large measure depends on it, and governments are solicitous to preserve and safeguard its sanctity.” The court recognized traditional marriage’s essential place in society.

Nearly a century later, in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States in a 5-4 decision struck down numerous state laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy declared: “changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.” Kennedy with four others on the Supreme Court decided that “changed understandings” and progressive perspectives dictated that the law change. The majority on the Supreme Court was not content to let state legislatures debate the “changed understandings of marriage,” perhaps because most legislatures affirmed traditional marriage. They wanted to decide the issue once and for all with a “thus saith the Supreme Court.”

Other examples about how the law is either misinterpreted or misapplied abound. A public school employee in Maine was forbidden to tell another co-worker while on school property that she was praying for him. The employee was instructed to “not integrate public and private belief systems when in the public schools” and to not express any “reference to your spiritual or religious beliefs.” The school argued the employee violated the First Amendment when she made these comments to her co-worker. For anyone who knows how and why the First Amendment was ratified, it is difficult to conceive of an example more at odds with the purpose of the First Amendment than the scenario in Maine.

Confronted by issues such as these, Christians may wonder, as did Habakkuk, why the “law is slacked” and why “wrong judgment proceedeth.” Though we may at times be discouraged, we should take heart that “the LORD is in his holy temple” (Habakkuk 2:20) and his words “shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

Culture, fads, trends, and styles all change — and not all change is bad. Some fads are merely about preference. My first pair of eyeglasses as a boy went out of style a few years later as much smaller eyeglasses became the norm. Now, the style has come almost full circle, as the nearly as-large-as-my-boyhood eyeglasses I now wear are in once again, according to my wife and sisters whose opinion in these matters is more valuable than my own.

We must recognize the difference in changes in essential and nonessential matters. Regardless of one’s judicial philosophy, Christians should stand up against change that is contrary to the Word of God.

Some people propose that Christians adapt their core beliefs to changing, prevalent social values. A host of important issues that were once considered certain and settled by orthodox Christians are now being questioned, criticized, and even rejected. Professing Christians, not just secularists, continue to assault basic points of doctrine,  including the divinity of Jesus, the inspiration of scripture, God as creator, and the definition of marriage.

Looking at the “beliefs” section of a local church’s website recently, I found the following answer to the question of whether Adam and Eve were “real”: “…the bible is conditioned by the times in which it was written. Some stories—gasp!—might be legends. That doesn’t mean they don’t have great wisdom in them. You do not have to believe that the Bible is without scientific or historical error in order to be a Christian.”

The line of reasoning in the Obergefell decision and a modern, supposedly more enlightened brand of Christianity appeals to some people. They wish to retain a sentimental attitude toward Christianity while minimizing the Bible. They want to pick and choose what they like in the Bible. But if we reject parts — if we treat the Bible as if it’s not the inspired word of God, as 2 Timothy 3:16 claims — what we’re really doing is saying our word matters more. Either God’s word must bend to our wills or ours to his.

If we accept the Bible as divinely true, as Jesus did, there are consequences. Regarding creation and marriage, Jesus addressed them both in Mark 10:6-9. Verse 6 states “[b]ut from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.” This passage clearly shows not only that the Adam/Eve and male/female distinction was from the beginning, but that Jesus believed in creation. The Bible also tells us that Jesus, the incarnate word of God, was directly involved in the creation (Hebrews 1:8-10; John 1:1-3; Revelation 4:11).

What about the flood? Is the story of Noah just another amusing myth for our children? If we believe Jesus, we must believe in the flood also, as Jesus clearly believed it (Matthew 24:37-39). Belief in Jesus also compels belief in the story of Jonah and the big fish. Jesus said this in Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Christians should take great encouragement and comfort from Jesus’ affirmations that the Bible is relevant and true. What God said thousands of years ago is just as true today.  The words penned by inspired writers over centuries and preserved to the present is just as true today. What God said about marriage, creation, his divinity and other issues is just as true today. He is always relevant.

God’s immutability — he never changes, is always the same — is cause for praise. The Bible teaches God is the same, steadfast, and on the throne, always reigning and never in danger of abdication or defeat (Malachi 3:6; Revelation 1:8; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 1:11; 13:8; Lamentations 5:19; Psalm 90:12, 103:12). Therefore, what Jesus said about issues then should resonate in the hearts of Christians today.

God’s changelessness should not only encourage but motivate Christians to “seek the good of the land” and positively influence our culture (Jeremiah 29:7). Rebelling against God’s unchanging standards and passing laws in direct opposition to God is not only bad for Christians, but for society as a whole. “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

This means we should vote for candidates based on their positions on important issues — not after merely listening to 15- or 30-second advertisements. We should understand the basics of the role and limitations of government, its branches, federalism, and checks and balances. Many programs and policies may sound good but have unintended consequences that harm the people they are designed to help.

Some Christians may have the opportunity to serve as public officials. Daniel served under several powerful rulers. Joseph was second in command in Egypt and helped preserve the country from a devastating famine. Esther used her influence as queen to save the Jews from annihilation. Nehemiah used his position with the king to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.

Whether in the political arena or without, we must know, live and proclaim the truth. To know the truth, Christians must be in the word of God. If we are biblically ignorant, we are susceptible to falling prey to each new deception and faulty worldview. The Bible is a compass that always points us in the right direction. To be grounded on a solid foundation and be the “salt of the world” and a “city set on a hill,” we need to immerse ourselves in God’s word and value what God thinks over what the world thinks.

Believing in the constancy of God and his word means living as a witness to those around us — in the pulpit, workplace, public forums, at home, raising children. Even if we do not see results, we are still called to be faithful to God. Paul could have given way to despair while in prison awaiting his hearing before Nero. He could have forsaken the faith. But instead, he persevered and God used his faithful witness to bring the truth to Nero’s own household (Philippians 4:22).

Because God is constant, so are his promises. Believing Jesus’ words on such issues as creation, the flood and marriage fall in line with believing his words about salvation. If we have been called “from darkness into his marvelous light,” as 1 Peter 2:9 tells us, we should live in the light, knowing that truth will be triumphant for God is true. God is constant, his word is constant — and his people should be constant, too.

Seth Guess is an attorney in Memphis, Tennessee.

The wonder of Wonder Woman

By Elsie Dalton

Over the past six to eight years, I’ve seen and loved nearly every Marvel and DC Comics movie.  I don’t expect much of the genre outside of a shiny costume, a few fistfights and a happy ending. But, whether we’re talking comics or movies, I’m still thrilled by the idealistic battle of good vs. evil — and the slick filming of this new crop of movies only makes them that much more entertaining.

That said, my hopes weren’t high for Wonder Woman. In my mind there were two paths for the movie: a hyper-sexualized “guy movie” about a freakishly strong and busty Amazon — or two hours of the feminist agenda telling me the only real woman is one who does everything a man can do.

Without giving too much away, Diana (Wonder Woman, portrayed by Gal Gadot) lives on Themyscira, a hidden island of warrior women, the Amazons. Diana, the only child on the island, is raised with the story of how Zeus created the Amazons to help end war and keep peace in the world. Ares, the god of war, is supposed to return one day, and it will be the Amazons’ responsibility to defeat him. Once he is defeated, the world will return to its natural state of peace and goodness. When Diana is given the opportunity to leave her island and fight for peace, she leaps at the chance to find Ares and rid the world of evil once and for all.

Slight spoiler alert: She wins. But when she does, she realizes that there isn’t just one bad guy and humanity is not basically good. Kudos to the filmmakers, this was a refreshingly honest and nuanced view of human nature. It’s all too rare for a Hollywood popcorn flick to admit that the average man has both good and evil inside him.

But outside of the lesson in depravity, Wonder Woman has an even better message about gender roles. While Diana is physically strong, has excellent martial arts skills and could certainly defeat any man in the movie, that’s not what makes her unique as a superhero. She cares about people. Her deep compassion is what drives her to leave her safe and peaceful home to try and save innocent lives. She uses her gifts to accomplish as much good in the world as possible. When faced with a wounded soldier or a hungry villager, she is compelled to help them — even at the expense of “the plan” or “the big picture.” Her focus on the needs of individuals drives her to save people and bring peace.

Aside from her fighting moves, the strength of Diana’s character is a refreshingly female. It seems remarkable in this age that her power and motivation come from compassion and her instinct is to nurture. She cares — about mankind, in general, but also about individuals damaged in the atrocities of World War I. In an emotional moment, she is even allowed to joy in seeing a baby for the first time. Caring is not an exclusively female trait, but it has often been erased from the idealized “strong” modern woman. Being warm, maternal and easily moved are rarely seen as characteristics to be admired, especially in a female action hero.

Her focus on the people she wants to save, rather than the enemy she needs to defeat, makes her unique among superheroes — while the Avengers and Wonder Woman’s Kryptonian and caped counterparts all conduct their heroics in the name of saving “the world,” it is rare that any of them interact on such a personal level with the individuals that need their help.

The interaction between the male and female leads is equally good. Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor admirably balances his roles supporting Wonder Woman in her superhuman battles and providing the leadership that their team needs to achieve their final goal. The two rely on each other’s strengths, using their united knowledge and skills to move the team forward. Each one calls the other back to focus and provides the encouragement needed to finish the task. And, of course, there’s romance there too.

Along with the good, there is necessarily the bad (a moral you’ll learn from this movie if you missed it in Sunday school). While the messages are refreshing in the survey of modern movies, some discretion is necessary. There are still cutesy sexual references, male near-nudity and an implied, off-screen hotel hookup. The history buff in me also would quibble with the depiction of WWI-era Europe — not so much the retconned warfare and weapons development (it is standard comic-book practice, after all), but the portrayal of period London and some of the dialogue.

This movie has a depth rarely seen in its genre, making it both enjoyable and meaningful. Diana shows the world how “super” a woman can be without sacrificing true femininity, and her lesson about the heart of man is one we should all applaud.

The movie ends with the sad, incomplete Hollywood conclusion that humanistic “love” is what will ultimately help mankind. But Christians know a far better answer to human depravity.

Ellen Ritchie contributed to this essay. Photo is courtesy of Warner Bros.

Elsie Dalton writes from her home in Saginaw, Texas.

Resurrecting the idea of a just society

By Ryan Poe

Rolling down the road, I recently listened to the podcast of a liberal Episcopalian minister with whom I’m acquainted. Instead of his usual live discussion on a religious topic, always with a crowd of local millennials, he’d brought in a woman to sing an old “gospel standard” titled “May the work I’ve done.” The song tells of the Christian making a case for leniency before God’s judgment seat: “May the work I’ve done, my Lord, speak for me,” she sang to the piping of a nearby organ, her voice filling the old church that once hosted Martin Luther King Jr.

I disagree with the song’s premise: I hate to think my works, not Jesus’ death, will speak for me when I die. But I don’t think the hushed crowd of 20-somethings had in mind the age-old debates over grace and works. Their attitude toward doctrine, summed up in a phrase, seems to be, “So what?” We’re used to thinking of these millennials as postmodern and even as post-Christian, but the church hasn’t quite gotten its head around the idea that they’re post-doctrine.

Living in a post-doctrine society carries all kinds of implications for the church. But a major implication is the growing popularity of a type of social justice that’s more social than just. The younger set of Christians seems to care more about societal salvation than eternal salvation.

Denigrating social justice — the go-to response for many conservatives — is an easy but ultimately fruitless response to the problem. But social justice isn’t a new idea or a bad one. In our small way, we at Theology+Now also hope to make society more just.

However, when I say “social justice,” I mean the society conformed to the commandments of God. If we take God at his word, we are living in his creation. And that means everything in creation belongs to God and should agree with God’s laws. Therefore, justice is ultimately the satisfaction of the great law-giver. And this means sin — rebellion to God — is the ultimate injustice. This isn’t a new view. This is the whole basis of our understanding of Jesus’ death: God poured out his retribution for our unjust rebellion on Christ on the cross.

But social justice means something entirely different to many of these passionate young left-leaning Christians. For them, as for much of our secular culture, “social justice” no longer means the society ordered per God’s word but the society ordered per autonomous liberty. By social justice our culture means the freedom to do what you want, when you want, with whom you want — as long as you don’t encroach on another person’s autonomy.

In other words, the foundation for modern social justice theory is the individual rather than God. Consider this random blog post at Patheos:

To put it briefly, I start with the axiomatic observation that my own suffering is a bad thing, something to be reduced and avoided. Critical thinking and empirical experience inform me that that other sentient beings experience their lives in a way similar to that which I do. Their suffering is similar to mine, and is therefore also something to be reduced and avoided.

Our culture is now suffering the consequences of this redefinition of justice, especially in the areas of marriage and gender. What once was up is now down. This same group of millennials mentioned earlier recently had a “reproductive justice” Bible study every bit as horrific as it sounds, that ended with the antinomian conclusion that because God wants us to be happy he doesn’t really mind if we disobey his scriptural commandments.

Here’s my theory: I believe the modern social justice movement is a postmodern twist on the Enlightenment. If we grasp this, we can more clearly see where our culture is headed.

The French Enlightenment thinker René Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”) triggered a radical new way of thinking about knowledge, one that made reason the alpha and omega. His personal theistic beliefs notwithstanding, Descartes’ thought experiment presupposed reason as the law-giver. In short, the individual dethroned God as the “I AM.”

This gave rise to what Philip Rieff in his The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) called the “psychological man,” whose features include an “anxious Protestant heart” and “open Enlightenment eyes.” Psychological man turned inward in his search for happiness — “a response to an absent God.” He redefined sin as a psychological issue and allowed himself to hope in psychological salvation. But, as Rieff pointed out, even Sigmund Freud’s more moderate stance couldn’t avoid the boredom of rationalism: “Psychological man may be going nowhere, but he aims to achieve a certain speed and certainty in going.”

After briefly swinging the other direction, into emotionalism during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, our culture has arrived at its present postmodern situation of disillusionment.

Today, our culture has largely discarded psychoanalysis after realizing pharmaceutical drugs can cure many of the problems we once assigned to psychology. In other words, our problems are external, not internal. Notice this tectonic shift in thinking about sin. In rejecting God, the Enlightenment made sin a rational problem; in rejecting psychoanalysis, the postmodern world made sin a social problem. And if sin is a social problem, then salvation comes from society.

And this brings us back to the modern social justice movement. In our society, justice means giving people what they’re due — which broadly translates into rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with seeking justice in society. The problem is who defines justice. As long as we cling to the Enlightenment belief that we are the law-givers, our social justice will eventually turn into injustice. In the name of justice, babies will die, successful business owners will lose their businesses and society will ignore underlying issues of gender identity, among other issues.

In George MacDonald: An Anthology, C.S. Lewis quotes the old English preacher and author as saying, “The one principle of hell is — ‘I am my own!’” Lewis puts this quote under the heading “Hell,” perhaps intentionally pushing us further down the rabbit hole of MacDonald’s meditation. We tend to think of hell as a punishment — and that’s true. But maybe hell is also God giving the reprobate mind exactly that for which it has longed since Adam: utter self-possession. Perhaps the reprobate would set foot in hell only to have his cry of “I am my own!” die on his lips in the realization that he truly is on his own, eternally without love or kindness or beauty or purpose or anything that makes life worth living. A place forsaken by God is a nightmare realm.

Even if this theory of hell isn’t true, we know that in this universe the further away we get from the sun, the darker and colder become our worlds — and the same is true of our lives, the further we get from God. The closer we get to realizing the statement “I am my own,” the further away from God we drift into the vast and empty nothingness.

We expect this infatuation with the material in secular rationalists. But this misunderstanding of the foundation of authority and justice — let’s call it materialistic spirituality — is infecting the younger generation of Christians as well.

A recent cultural example is Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) based on the Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo. Near the end of the film, which is set during heavy persecution of Christians by the Japanese government, Fr. Sebastien Rodrigues has been captured and tortured and told to trample on a fumie, an image of Christ. In the movie’s climax, God breaks his silence and tells Rodrigues in a buttery calm voice that he wants to be trampled on to ease our pain. So, Rodrigues gives in and steps on the fumie, denying Christ and in the process saving himself and the lives of several captured Christians.

The assumption of the movie and of our culture is that loss of life — our greatest material possession — is the greatest evil, greater even than denying Christ. In contrast are the thousands of Christian martyrs through the centuries that chose hurt, torture, death even — all because they knew that the idea that nothing could separate them from the love of God was a two-way street. God will not abandon us — and we should not abandon God.

The path offered up in Silence isn’t new: Faust was dickering with Mephistopheles, trading his soul for material joys, long before. Only now, we think denying God is a good thing, a commendable option — what Jesus wants.

Materialistic spirituality tries to have its cake and eat it too. The new social justice warriors want the same things as the secular warriors and for the same reasons — but instead of being content to contradict the Bible, they now want to bend scripture to their will.

But let’s not be unduly hard on these warriors. To their credit, they care and share. They see problems and they rally to correct them. Ignoring social justice is no longer an option in our media-saturated age — not that we should want to. There’s no putting the social justice genie back in its bottle, and traditionalist Christians must recognize that fact.

Rather than bemoaning our technological progress — a temptation to which we’ve succumbed all too often — Christians should recognize that the desire for social justice is a source of optimism. The desire to safeguard life, liberty and pursuit of happiness isn’t misplaced. We should want to see people leave poverty, to have jobs and health care and transportation and all the other material blessings so many of us take for granted.

The challenge for Christians today is to keep in view the doctrine, the truth, that God is the ultimate authority — while at the same time not losing sight of what he’s doing in this earth and why. We must find the balance James wrote about in his epistle: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Our wisdom must come from “above” — from the “one lawgiver” James mentions in the next chapter. Else, as James also describes, our wisdom will come from below, from ourselves.

Ryan Poe is editor of Theology+Now.

Transracialism, art noise & identity

By Ryan Poe

In today’s media deluge, finding worthwhile articles — the ones that really make you think — can be tough. But never fear: Starting today, Theology+Now will compile a few of those articles for you.

This week, three articles — on transracialism, art and consumerism — stood out.

Transracialism

First up is this New York Times op-ed outlining the debate — and debate about the debate — over transracialism. The basic argument sparked by the original essay: If people can choose to identify as a certain gender, shouldn’t the same apply to race?

Quick take: This excellent question shows the depths of the Pandora’s box of identity politics. If gender identity is a choose-your-own-adventure, why not racial identity? Of course, once the lines are removed, there’s no value to diversity, hence the pushback. Christians, on the other hand, can value differences because we view them as from God.

Drowned-out art

This article, Art in Conversation, is a fascinating read on a number of levels. Author Philippe de Montebello points out that art museums are putting their emphasis on “amentities” instead of the actual art in an attempt to attract more visitors.

Quick take: I see a correlation here between the “noise” of museums and that of churches. Where should our emphasis be? On the “art” or on the noise? Food for thought.

Existential consumerism

In The New York Times Magazine, this profile of celebrity “lifestyle guru” Amanda Chantal Bacon stands out for its writing but also for insights like this gem:

“Bacon is a lifestyle guru, and this is what lifestyle gurus do. They insist on a connection between what you buy and who you are. And then they sell you stuff.”

Quick take: What interests me here is the truth of this connection between our identity and what we buy. As the good book tells us, our heart is where our treasure is. If we give away our heart, our money is soon to follow — and vice-versa. Describing Bacon and other celebrities as “gurus” is apt because they’ve taken on a quasi-religious role in our culture. They’ll define us  — unless we have a more important connection.

Ryan Poe is editor of Theology+Now.

Bringing home the ‘Eve in Exile’

By Abby Rogers

As a little girl, I often wished I was born a boy. I sometimes longed to share in the deep fraternity of my two brothers. In many ways, the typical portrayal of manhood (adventure, bravery, strength) has always appealed more to me than the portrayal of womanhood (housework, emotional, weak). But I never once thought, “Well, because I feel like being a boy, that must mean I am one or should be one.” Continue reading Bringing home the ‘Eve in Exile’