reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the tag “culture”

A Campaign Gone Full Bore

ZZZA few weeks back, Donald Trump had a man thrown out of a rally for complaining that it was boring. I laughed at the time; life imitates The Onion, I thought. As it turns out, the man was part of a duo of comedians. Still, I think we may look back on that moment as the beginning of the end for The Donald. His campaign has proved immune to outrage, but boredom? That’s deadly.

Trump’s shtick is getting old, even for his supporters. He knows it too, but by toning it down, he may have initiated a death spiral. A tamer Trump leaves just the emptiness of his ideas, which only gain traction when coarsely shouted at a susceptible audience. When spoken in measured tones, they’re…boring.

So where does he go when his numbers start to slip? He can go back to outrageous, but that’s already worn out. Or he can stay the gentler course and fade into irrelevance.

Trump took the playbook of a rising dictator: exploit fear, invent scapegoats, and sell it all with bombast. But this isn’t 1939. Modern media will take anything to a saturation point much faster than the newspapers, placards and radio broadcasts of three generations ago.

It’s comforting to see signs that the old tactics are failing, but still scary that so many people – including some Christians – embraced a toxic message. Let’s hope a savvier successor to The Donald doesn’t emerge, able to feed that message into the communication channels of our time.

Advertisements

Shedding Grace

majesty21For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)

In America the beautiful, many Christians are shedding grace, but not in a good way. They are setting aside the grace of the Gospel and replacing it with a covenant of works for their nation to follow.

As Christians we don’t impose this covenant even on ourselves, nor should we. And yet some spend untold emotional, financial and political resources trying to hammer the United States into the image of Christ, all by trying to dictate the behavior of the government and the culture. It’s a Christian nation, they say, and then they try to manufacture the proof out of materials that refuse to bend.

In doing so, they like to point to our heritage, a time of greater righteousness and morality. I wonder what time they have in mind. Was it the time when Africans were abducted from their homes, bought and enslaved here, and their descendants oppressed and treated as less than human? Was it the time when Native Americans were subjected to a creeping near-genocide that still echoes across desperate, drug-infested reservations? Or was it when wealth became enthroned and the rawest form of capitalism became the de facto religion?

My point is not to hold every American responsible for all past or present sins; it’s simply to say that if we’re looking to recapture some righteous national legacy, there’s less to it than we like to believe. Past generations may have been more polite, more civil and more churchgoing. But like the superficial goodness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:27), these external virtues at times were whitewash on the tombs of hypocrisy.

I once wrote here that I believe righteousness does exalt a nation, as Proverbs 14:34 declares. Still, in all history only Israel could ever say, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12) That nation, the only chosen one ever, lived under a covenant based on the law – that is, on works – and it was exalted when it did right.

We are now in the age when God’s grace is revealed to a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). The grace God sheds on America is not saving grace. It’s simply His favor granted in the service of His plan, which has made this country into history’s greatest exporter of the Gospel. I’m thankful to live here, but like every other nation that ever was, the USA will fade away. No one in heaven will be wearing stars-and-stripes lapel pins.

The Bible instructs us to be good citizens and to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3); let’s do as it says, but let’s not try to make our country more than it is. There’s only been one earthly nation that could be saved. And the grace that matters for eternity isn’t shed on nations but on individual people. Christians are here to point them to it.

The Right Questions

question“Has no one condemned you?” – John 8:10

If the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage didn’t turn out the way you hoped, you may have some questions for God right now. How could He allow this? Has He changed His mind about marriage? Is He still there?

Maybe we as Christians need to ask ourselves some questions instead. Principally, if God allowed the battle to be lost, was He ever in it? You may think, of course He was!  God always fights against those who break His commandments, doesn’t He?

God’s judgment has come and is coming. He judged sin at the cross. For those who don’t accept that judgment poured out on Jesus in our place, judgment will come at the end of time, and there will be no intermediary to absorb it. Until then, however, Jesus won’t raid the speakeasy and send the revelers scurrying into the night. He’ll enter, in our skin and on our feet, and invite them to come out into the light.

God invites us into a covenant relationship, and marriage is a sacred, earthly symbol of that covenant, as the Bible repeatedly makes clear. That may be one reason it’s hard to believe God wouldn’t stand and fight with the defenders of marriage as He established it. But when God gives a symbol to represent a deeper concept of faith, the symbol never trumps the spiritual reality.

When venomous snakes attacked God’s people as they wandered the wilderness, God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it high; all who looked to it would be saved (Numbers 21:4-9). Through this symbol God demonstrated His power and foreshadowed Christ being lifted up to save all who would look to Him. What could be more sacred than that? Fast forward several hundred years. When people persisted in worshiping the bronze serpent, the righteous King Hezekiah destroyed it.

Am I suggesting that God wants traditional marriage destroyed? No, though in the next world, earthly marriage won’t exist; its time will be past (Mark 12:25). But sacred as marriage is in this life, there are more sacred things – such as God’s invitation into the higher relationship marriage symbolizes. We can’t extend that invitation impaled on a sword of judgment.

Speaking of symbols, it’s interesting that the rainbow, which God declared a symbol of His covenant never to flood the Earth again, has been adopted as a symbol for marriage equality. We can sit and fume about that. Or, just as God made the rainbow a symbol of judgment suspended, we can see it as a reminder to suspend our own judgment.

God’s Housecleaning

“It is wDSCN1165ritten…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'” – Matthew 21:13

I recently read an article that made me wonder if I had time traveled back to the 1980s or ’90s. The surprisingly young author was calling Christians back to the social battles of the last Bush-Clinton era (are we really headed for another?). She unflinchingly used the term “culture wars,” and the article was illustrated with a young, tattooed and pierced couple respresenting the “Christian Left.”

I think many American Christians, myself include, now recognize the long detour we took to the wrong battlefield while that writer was still a child. Not that sin has become virtue; many of the things Christian leaders campaigned against 25 years ago were and are contrary to God’s laws. But to revisit one of my recurring themes, it’s not our job to save secular culture or purge it of what offends us. Our job is to call people out of that culture. No one should take my word for it, however.

What did Jesus do? He didn’t campaign against Rome’s corrupt tax-collection practices. He called tax collectors to abandon their morally hazadous profession for lives of integrity. He didn’t call for stepped-up prosecution of adulterers. He saved an adulteress from a stone-wielding mob, then privately, gently called her to repentance. And even as he spoke against divorce, He proclaimed good news to a serial, cohabitating divorcee.

Jesus was not silent toward institutional or cultural corruption. But when it came to that, notice where His wrath was directed. It wasn’t toward the Roman government and culture, which did what secular governments and cultures always do. It was toward the rot within God’s house: the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the thievery of the money changers and merchants in the temple. And lest we think He called out only the Jewish establishment, remember His words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-18:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (NIV)

The apostle Paul, too, spent little time on secular culture and institutions, except to seize opportunities to preach the Gospel to them, or to remind Christians of what they had left behind and warn them against backsliding or compromise. His first letter to the Corinthians, for example, was primarily a lengthy warning and exhortation to a morally crumbling congregation, and the second letter responded to the growing influence of troublemakers in the Corinthian assembly.

So if Christians as a body tackle any kind of collective sin, maybe like Jesus and Paul we should look within our own house. Are we being torn apart by factions, turf wars and petty feuds? Are we all about the bank balance while we turn our backs on the poor and the marginalized? Are we winking at immorality in our midst? Are struggling individuals, loved and sought by God, getting trampled in our marches against this or that cultural evil?

Some Christians may feel called to the fight against particular cancers in society. It’s certainly not my place to tell individuals what God is calling them to do. That’s between them and God. But as a body, we shouldn’t be making collective enemies of those who practice or promote what we oppose. We should be looking for Matthew, Zacchaeus, the ashamed adulteress and the woman at the well. And we should be inviting them into a clean house.

What I Learned From a Troll

A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends. – Proverbs 16:28

As an evolving center-right kind of political creature, I respect my friends who sit a bit farther to the right than I do. They are, to some degree, my people. But I have this lament: Some of them wouldn’t recognize a troll if it clubbed them over the head and dragged them under the bridge.

I speak, of course, of the Internet troll, and some people badly need to be trained in troll-spotting. If you secretly wonder sometimes what this trolling thing even is, I’m talking to you. A fine recent example, though I can’t prove it, is a blog post purporting to be from a radical feminist who aborted her male child to avoid bringing another monster into the world.

If this is true, there are hardly words for how reprehensible it is. In a world that contains ISIS, such a person certainly could walk the Earth. But I doubt that this one does. Some things are so perfectly heinous that…well, there’s your first clue that you just might be getting trolled.

Trolling is not a new concept. Before the Internet, we would have called it yanking someone’s chain – saying something outrageous just to see the reaction. The anonymous online world has allowed this perverse craft to reach new heights of artistry and new depths of virulence. Sometimes it’s still just someone’s sophomoric fun, but much of it has taken on a sharp edge of agenda-driven deceit. It’s hard to even guess the motives anymore.

In the case of the allegedly aborted boy child, you may ask, “How could she?” A more interesting question might be, “Who is trolling us and why?” There are multiple possibilities. It could be an anti-feminist trying to make feminists look bad. It could be a feminist trying to provoke outrage from anti-feminists and make them look foolish for believing such a whopper. Or it could be the aforementioned juvenile someone with no particular agenda, stoking the fire just to soak up the heat.

The most interesting question, though, is why people fall for this kind of trolling. Never mind what it says about the troll. What does it say about us? Some people no doubt are just gullible. But in others I see an undercurrent of fear and/or hate, which are closely related. It’s the same kind of thing that I believe drives some conspiracy theorists. These people so despise those who are different from them, that they are willing to believe the “others” capable of just about any evil. Why so much hate? Behind hate there is almost always an element of feat.

As a Christian, I know better than to let fear control me, even if I don’t always practice what I know. We are taught to fear God, which means to hold Him in awestruck respect, but also to know that yes, He can deliver a righteous, loving smackdown if we have it coming. But fear of anything else in creation is not from God. If you find yourself a sucker for every scurrilous claim about someone you disagree with, maybe it’s time to ask God to root out the hate in your heart, and the fear that may be feeding it.

Words Fail

Aemojibout 20 years ago, we truly escaped the mechanical limits of the printing press and acquired the ability to move more or less infinite numbers of words anywhere we wanted, as quickly as we wanted. I would be interested to know the word count of the entire Internet. It would be one of those ridiculous statistics with exponents and long strings of zeroes.

As I watched the unraveling of Ferguson, Mo., something struck me about the protesters’ raised hands. That image quickly is becoming a wordless icon in a world with a limitless capacity for verbal expression. Hands raised in surrender are the new hoodie for those who rightfully lament the tragedy surrounding so many young African-American men. It is far too soon to pick sides on what happened to Michael Brown, but the symbol already has a life of its own. It hardly matters what the facts in Ferguson turn out to be. And that’s the problem.

The more we speak in symbols and not words – in gestures, attire, emoticons, “likes” and hashtags (I don’t count those as words) – the less we truly think about or rigorously debate the things that divide us. There’s nothing wrong with symbolism, but someone once said anything that fits on a bumper sticker is too simplistic. Bumper stickers are looking like dissertations these days.

These symbols that now pass for debate become like flags for people to rally behind, and from their opposing camps they hurl abuse at each other, without ever doing the hard work of persuasion or – here’s a concept – compromise. Even when we do get down to verbal debate, it devolves into stock phrases, tired epithets and well-rehearsed talking points, often lobbed anonymously back and forth in comment threads on the news of the day.

I don’t have any brilliant answer for the death of real discussion, but I will keep trying to heed the advice of many a parent to a whining preschooler: “Use your words.” They are, especially in our day, an infinitely renewable resource – even though they sometimes seem awfully scarce.

The Peril of a Soft Heart

Vintage Chenille Red Heart Pillow

(Photo: Nesha’s Vintage Niche)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? – Jeremiah 17:9

Let me be clear up front: a Christian should have a soft heart. Soft with compassion, soft with forgiveness, soft with refusal to judge or condemn people God longs to redeem. That would be everyone.

So where’s the peril of a soft heart? It arises when our gracious choice not to judge people becomes a foolish choice not to judge sin. Or when we call morally neutral, or even celebrate, what God calls sin. With this kind of soft heart we can deceive ourselves and raise our own risk of falling. Or we can deceive others that a saving relationship with God doesn’t have to change their lives.

This struggle is most visible right now surrounding homosexuality and gay marriage. I have said before, and I will say again, that it’s time for Christians to drop the culture warrior mentality on this issue. It’s not our job to chase after a culture that’s running from God; these fights can only raise barriers between us and individuals outside the faith. So I applaud the Christians who are reaching out, even apologizing to the gay community for hateful behavior, both past and unfortunately present.

But some Christians are walking right up to a very fine line and crossing it. Suddenly, God accepts not only homosexuals but their behavior, and the advance of gay marriage is a victory.

It all feels like earthly values of tolerance and enlightenment bundled into a happy package with heavenly virtues of kindness and compassion. It also doesn’t square with what the Bible says. It’s just another case of trying to live with one foot in the world and the other in God’s kingdom.

This kind of thinking extends to other behaviors, mostly in relationships. Premarital sex, living together before marriage, hasty divorce with no effort to reconcile – even abortion in some Christian circles – are things to tiptoe around. God’s teaching is too hard, or our fear of rejection is too strong, for our kind hearts to lay the truth on the table. Again, we shouldn’t be slamming doors on people who have engaged in immorality, or beating them over the head with their behavior. Jesus certainly didn’t, and every believer lives under the same grace. But that’s not the same as saying these behaviors are okay.

If we deceive ourselves on moral matters, we become unreliable witnesses to others, and we passively deny God’s power to change hearts. We also become vulnerable. Are you married? It could end; tomorrow you could be widowed. How would you behave in a future relationship? Would you think yourself entitled to whatever makes you happy, because that’s what your soft heart would want for others? Or would you remember and follow the Bible’s teachings?

And if someone asked you point blank what your faith teaches about relationships, would you be able and willing to answer with the truth? Or would you give tacit approval to lifestyles that are incompatible with committed Christianity? If it would be the latter, chances are your soft heart has become shapeless as to God’s truth, choosing to spare feelings even at the cost of endorsing sin.

The Answer is Yes

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”–The First Amendment

Was America founded as a Christian nation or a secular state?

It’s a needlessly polarizing question, rooted in almost willful blindness on both sides of the argument. Those who dismiss any religious role in the nation’s founding build their case on the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, those who imagine God’s kingdom on American soil point to countless customs that have woven faith into both public and private life. Not to beat around the bush, I believe the answer to my opening question is yes. America was both from the beginning. Here is how I break it down.

At its founding, the United States had a sketchy national identity, less religious than we like to think it was. But the seeds had already been sown for a nation that would be bound by a Christian culture, or more broadly, Judeo-Christian values.

Arguments against this make much of the founding fathers’ ties to the Enlightenment or to deism, a more generic belief in God. The establishment clause of the First Amendment makes clear their desire for government to be neutral toward religion. But it’s a mistake to dismiss pervasive references to God — from the Declaration of Independence to inscriptions on our currency to the opening of legislatures with prayer — as quaint artifacts or obligatory flourishes.

Whatever the framers’ intent in the Constitution, the people teaching, governing and judging in the nation’s classrooms, town halls and courthouses were accustomed to seeing faith, mostly Christian, expressed in everyday life. They weren’t constitutional scholars, and the signing of a piece of paper wasn’t going to break old habits. The easy blending of religious expression with official functions illustrates the cultural force of faith in America.

As the country grew still more religious, such expression crossed clear legal boundaries largely unchallenged until well into the 20th century – aided, no doubt, by the political benefit to officials who put on a pious face. For most of that time, the American understanding of the divine was largely from a Christian perspective. In many parts of the country, it remains so.

So when secularists say that our national, i.e., cultural identity wasn’t Christian at the beginning – they need to look past the letter of the law to the practical reality that has prevailed for most of our history. And take care how hard they push to bottle up faith in houses of worship and private homes. Authentic faith is not lived out that way, and this isn’t France. Christians – indeed, people of many faiths – will not be silenced.

And yet: the establishment clause is clear. As a matter of law, American government is not to endorse, enforce or inhibit religious belief or practice. Widespread disregard of this principle over 200 years may have been overlooked, but that doesn’t make it constitutional. In recent decades, religious encroachment in government functions has been challenged, and Christians have taken to the barricades as if the faith itself were under attack.

It’s time for Christians to realize that what they and previous generations enjoyed all those years was a triumph of culture over law. The culture is changing. One in five Americans now identifies with no religion at all, and Protestants now represent less than half of the population. Christian influence has weakened to the point that violations of the establishment clause won’t be ignored any more. Nor, I would argue, should we want them to be.

The church loses vitality when it becomes too institutional, too much a part of the secular power structure and the cultural mainstream. It’s easy to point to the history of the Catholic church in this regard. But American evangelicalism has cobbled together its own power structure and dogma, with the government and educational system at times bending to religious pressure. This cultivated a 3,000-mile-wide, inch-deep “Christian” orthodoxy that was long on ceremony and rhetoric but short on authenticity. In the process, politics and faith became entangled in unhealthy ways.

This is not to write off America’s Christian tradition, or to say that Christian government officials shouldn’t put God at the center of how they individually perform their duties. And I am certainly thankful for freedom to worship and practice my faith. The Bible promises that righteousness exalts a nation, and at times when America has been righteous, I believe God has exalted it.

But those days may be past, and while this isn’t France, neither is it ancient Israel. The God of the New Testament isn’t about building earthly nations. Neither should that be Christians’ focus. At a minimum, chasing a Christian national identity can distract us from the need for individuals, one at a time, to hear and respond to the Gospel. At its most extreme, blended Christianity and nationalism – confronted by a changing culture – can produce the offspring of fear and anger: cult-like and white supremacist movements.

When Christians rise up in fury over the end of organized school prayer, the expulsion of nativity scenes from public property, or the stripping of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse wall, what is the goal? For the government to rescue the faith? We’ve seen culture override constitutional law, but we shouldn’t reach for earthly laws to recapture a culture that’s running from God. It doesn’t work, and we’re putting our faith in the wrong thing. We have a constitutional right to practice our beliefs, and we should defend that, but see that we don’t get bogged down trying to regain privileges that were never constitutionally ours. God, not the government, is our ultimate protector and defender.

In God* We Trust

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7 (KJV)

This election season, millions of Christian voters will again look for candidates who tick the right boxes on social and cultural issues dear to Christian hearts. They will find their candidates, vote for them, and in many cases be disappointed.

I say this as a Christian who has voted Republican more often than not, and likely will again: It’s an open secret in political circles that many Republicans play Christians like the proverbial violin. They make promises they can’t or don’t plan to keep on issues that will attract votes.

There is a whiff of fear in Christian voters’ search for a political savior, and it says more about where their trust is than about the state of our society. If you are trusting the government to bend secular values to spiritual truth, then yes, be afraid. Progress might appear to happen here and there, but the worldly tide of history is flowing the other way.

The Bible doesn’t promise Christians a government guided by their values. “In God we trust” looks great on our bills and coins, and it’s a fine sentiment as long as we believe it with no asterisks. Our trust shouldn’t depend on whether God is giving us the government we want.

God permits governments to exist, and we are to obey them unless the civil law compels us to violate God’s law: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority…” (1 Peter 2:13, NIV). But civil government belongs to the world system, and the world system opposes God’s authority – hates it, in fact. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” Jesus said (John 15:18, NIV).

What will happen if Christians “lose” on gay marriage, school prayer, public Christmas displays or whatever other issues set the evangelical blood boiling? Well, God will still be God, and right will still be right, and our job will still be to speak the truth in love.

And what will it mean if Christians “win”? It would be nice to think revival will be at hand, and perhaps it could be. But more likely some critical mass of politicians will have learned to fear the Christian voting bloc, which is not the same as respect. And people outside the faith will live as before, though with an overlay of resentment where Christian ways of living have been forced on them.

This is not a call for Christians to drop out politically. Pray over your vote and, as the Bible commands, pray for your leaders. If you find candidates who authentically seem to represent the right values, vote for them, give to them, even work for them. But if you find yourself cheering for “your” candidate’s attack ads, or sniping at the opposition in online forums, it’s time for a hard look at where your heart is.

If your candidate’s walk while in office matches the talk on the campaign trail, all the better. But if your choice disappoints, there is no place for despair or fear. Your hope is not in that person anyway, and fear will only make you an angry Christian who lashes out at every perceived threat.

It’s a long way from writing God’s law into civil statutes, to writing it in individual hearts. The former will do little or nothing to accomplish the latter. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. I haven’t seen Him on any ballots lately.

Reality Chick

When Dan Cathy was asked his views on the family recently, he had the nerve to answer honestly. He believes that the Biblical model for a family is built around the marriage of a man and a woman. He could have evaded, could have lied, but he said what he really thinks. For this he and his company, Chick-fil-A, are being dragged through the mud, as if they were Westboro Baptist groupies picketing military funerals.

I have taken Christians to the woodshed for their sometimes fearful and hateful attitudes toward homosexuals. Now it’s the other side’s turn. As much as Christians are guilty of un-Christ-like attitudes in this debate, the side that currently holds the upper hand is not being very gracious in the march toward victory.

Gay marriage is advancing at a breathtaking pace. I think there are some gay activists who smell blood in the water, and they can’t resist a good feeding frenzy. The trouble with feeding frenzies is they don’t leave much room for nuance. So Dan Cathy is effectively lumped in with Westboro’s ringmaster, Fred Phelps, or the pastor who wants gays behind an electric fence, or the other pastor who says gays should be killed.

If we all vetted everyone we do business with and boycotted those who don’t share our views on social issues, commerce would be paralyzed. If Chick-fil-A and its president offend you that much, don’t go there. But must every disagreement degenerate into a smackdown?

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: