Wednesday, September 30, 2015
For the last several weeks many of us have been tuned into the latest reports from NASA about Mars. Technology has allowed scientists access to the red planet in ways unfathomable even just a decade ago. From details about Mars’ climate to evidence of water on the planet surface, a number of questions have been raised about the worlds that neighbor our own.
Perhaps for many of us, the images and descriptions of environments literally years away from earth might cause a little anxiety. What all is out there? How much of it? If our little galaxy is just a pin-point in a vast, swirling universe, then why would we think that what happens on this microscopic rock matters all that much? In the sweep of cosmic space, why would your life and my life have much purpose at all?
Secular philosophers and scientists have tried answering this question. Some, like the late Christopher Hitchens, say there is nothing special about humanity and it is immoral to think otherwise. Others, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, say that because humanity is nothing more or less than a part of the physical world (through evolution), what’s true about the cosmos is the true about people. That’s a slightly more romantic answer than the one offered by Hitchens, but in truth, both explanations lead to the same ultimate conclusion: The universe is huge, and we are small, just because.
But the Bible has a different answer. Scripture understands that human beings have a tendency to feel small in light of the universe around us, but the biblical explanation begins where the materialistic explanations end. After all, a material connection with stardust doesn’t a personal connection make. The universe doesn’t know I am here, and doesn’t care where I’m going, if the universe is just stuff.
In a Christian vision of the cosmos, the vastness of the universe around us isn’t incidental. God is designing the universe this way to reveal something (Rom. 1:20), something about himself, something about his gospel. David, king of Israel, felt small when he looked into the expanse of the night sky, a reaction the Scripture considers to be reasonable (Ps. 8:3). The starry scene above made him wonder, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:4). And David didn’t even see a pinprick of what we now see is out there. Conversely, we see only a pinprick of what our descendants may know about what’s out there.
The universe is meant to prompt such a response precisely so that this can be met by a revealed word: that humanity is “crowned with glory and honor,” and that God has set all things “under your feet” (Ps.8:5-6). That reality cannot be seen through the natural order alone. Sure, we can see the dignity of humanity over against the beasts and the birds. We recognize our intellect, our moral sense. But what about us seems “crowned with glory and honor” in light of the star systems and black holes light years away from us? We don’t yet see all things under our feet, the book of Hebrews tells us, and that’s the point.
“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). The central point of the cosmos is Christology. All things are summed up in this man, Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:10). Even from the perspective of the territory of Israel, much less the Roman Empire, the background of this man was surprising. God chose the Light of the cosmos to dawn not out of Rome or Athens, or even Jerusalem, but from Galilee.
The natural universe is not merely a mute accessory to our lives. In Christ, the very mud of the earth is joined to the eternal nature of God so that the material creation is joined—without conflation or separation—to the Person who is the center and purpose of all of history. This means that nature is, in fact, permanent—more permanent than any naturalistic account could conceive. “God has much more in mind and at stake in nature than a backdrop for man’s comfort and
convenience, or even a stage for the drama of human salvation,” evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry asserted. “His purpose includes the redemption of the cosmos that man implicated in the fall.” In other words, Jesus came not to bury the earth, but to raise it.
The vastness and beauty of the Milky Way should elicit a response from us. That response should be neither one of pagan nature worship nor greedy utility, but of wonder and awe at Christ Jesus in his infinite vastness and immeasurable beauty. We should likewise marvel at the truth that a God in charge of galactic orbits chooses to live with and in us. We are not adopted into Christ despite our smallness, but indeed on account of it. If the unveiling of Christ was met with a dismissed, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46), should we really be surprised that God, at even the cosmic level, chooses what seems insignificant and tiny to display the paradox of the wisdom and power of God in Christ (1 Cor. 1:20-31)?
The universe is meant to make us feel small, to stand in silenced awe. The gospel, though, tells us that we have purpose and meaning, not by our strength or our power, but because we’re hidden in the One who was dead, and is now alive forever, the One for whom every galaxy, seen and unseen, was made as an inheritance.
Publication date: September 30, 2015
Monday, September 28, 2015
There are two key mistakes American Christians tend to make when thinking about the intersection of religion and culture. The first is to have an attitude of a “majority” culture, a mindset that incorrectly conflates a civic morality with Christianity and seeks to build coalitions to “turn America back” to Christ. But there is another mistake too, and that is to have a fearful, hand-wringing siege mentality. While it’s true that religious liberty is genuinely imperiled, perhaps more than at any time since the revolutionary era, we will not be able to articulate our commitments in this arena if we don’t know how to differentiate between state persecution and cultural marginalization, between public oppression and personal offense.
Several years ago, I was flipping through magazines on an airplane when I came across a couple of pages that spiked my blood pressure. A beer advertisement was tagged with the headline, “Silent Nights Are Overrated.” A few minutes later, in a second publication, there was an advertisement for an outdoor grill which read: “Who Says It’s Better to Give Than to Receive?” My first reaction was a personal, if not tribal, offense. “Would they advertise in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan with the line ‘Fasting Is Overrated,’” I fumed, “or by asking in India, ‘Who Says Everything Is One with the Universe?” I was missing the point.
The truth is, these companies were trying to sell products, not offend constituencies. Taking shots at any group’s religious beliefs isn’t good economics. I’m willing to bet whoever dreamed up these ad campaigns didn’t “get” at all that they might be making fun of Jesus Christ. Madison Avenue probably didn’t trace through that the song “Silent Night” is about the holy awe of the dawning Incarnation in Bethlehem. To them, it probably seemed like just another Christmas song, part of the background music of the culture during this season. Saying it’s “overrated” probably didn’t feel any more “insensitive” to these copy-writers than making a joke about decking the halls or reindeer games. The writers probably never thought about that the statement “It is better to give than to receive” is a quotation from Jesus via the Apostle Paul (Acts 20:35). It probably just seemed to them like a Benjamin Franklin-type aphorism, along the lines of when someone says “scarlet letter” without recognizing Hawthorne or “to be or not to be” while not knowing the difference between Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn.
We ought not fume about such things, as though we are a protected class of victims. We ought to see that our culture is less and less connected with the roots of basic knowledge about Christianity. Many, especially, in the culture-making wing of American life, see Christmas the same way they see Hanukkah. They know about Menorahs and dreidels, but not about the Maccabean fight. That ought not to make us outraged but to prompt us to see how our neighbors see us—sometimes more in terms of our trivialities than in terms of the depths of meaning of Incarnation, blood atonement, and the kingdom of Christ. This means we need to spend more time engaging our neighbors with the sort of news that shocks angels and redirects stargazers and knocks sheep-herders to the ground. That will seem strange, and that’s all the better, because it is strange. An Incarnation safe enough to sell beer and barbecue grills is a gospel too safe to make blessings flow, far as the curse is found. Not everything that offends us should offend us, and not everything that offends us is persecution.
But there is genuine persecution, in every era, and we ought to work for congregational cultures that recognize this. In one sense, many of our congregations are already on the way at this point, those churches with a culture of strong missions advocacy. These congregations may spend time praying for different people groups around the world, and may even visibly signify their concern for the nations with flags of various countries positioned throughout the church. Part of our missions focus should be concern about religious persecution and violence, and not just of Christians. After all, how can we love the world with the gospel if we are apathetic to, for example, global anti-Semitism or the burning of houses of worship of religious minorities? We should pray for human rights and religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, not just for those who believe our gospel.
That said, our congregational cultures also should cultivate a special focus on those within the Body of Christ who are hounded and beaten and imprisoned and jailed around the world, just as the Scriptures call us to do (Heb. 10:33-34). This is not a matter, really, of the “strong” standing up for our “weak” brothers and sisters around the world. In one sense, of course, it is. We have relative freedom, and we can pressure the State Department to act, we can send relief to communities in peril, and we can use technology to alert the global community to what is happening to religious minorities persecuted around the world. But our remembering of those persecuted is not only so that we can advocate for our brothers and sisters but also so that we can learn from them how to live as Christians.
When we encounter those persecuted Christians around the world, we see a glimpse of what Jesus has called us to do. We see the sort of faith that isn’t a means to an end. We see the sort of faith that joins the global Body of Christ across time and space, in the confession of a different sort of reign. We see a gospel that isn’t American affluence, with heaven at the end.
When we pray for those in prison for their faith, we remember that the gospel came to us in letters written from jail. When we plead for those whose churches are burned in Egypt, we remember that our hope isn’t in building religious empires but in a New Jerusalem we’ve never seen. When we weep for those who are (sometimes literally) crucified in the Middle East we are reminded that our Lord isn’t a life coach or a guru but a crucified Messiah. That can remind us of the gospel we signed up for in the first place, and free us from our fat, affluent, almost-gospels, which could never save in the first place. And we can be reminded that the persecuted Christians for whom we pray and advocate very well may be those who will send missionaries to carry the gospel to a future post-Christian Europe or North America.
The most important thing the church can do to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience is to hold to the gospel itself. Many Christians in the history of the church have gone to jail, from the Book of Acts to right now. We ought to work diligently to keep Christians, and others, out of jail for religious convictions. But there are worse things than going to jail. After all, one can maintain freedom by simply accommodating to the spirit of the age. The prophet Daniel’s cohorts, those who prayed to the king’s statue, never saw the inside of a lion’s cave. Pontius Pilate lived to a relatively ripe old age, untroubled by the sort of state harassment that did away with the apostles. Judas Iscariot was never arrested for anything, collaborating as he did with the state to carry out their dark mission. Those who fell away from the early church escaped the Colosseum with their lives. All it cost them was a pinch of incense, a momentary mumbling of “Caesar is Lord,” and their souls. God forbid.
We should protect our legacy of a free church in a free state. We ought to pray and work for a “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim. 2:2). But that is not the ultimate sign of our success. It is better for our future generations to be willing to go to jail, for the right reasons, than to exchange the gospel of the kingdom for a mess of Esau’s pottage. Sometimes jails filled with hymn-singing, letter-writing, gospel-preaching Christians can do extraordinary things.
This article is adapted from Russell Moore's new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.
Publication date: September 28, 2015
Thursday, September 17, 2015
In 2006, the television comedy “The Office” aired an episode in which one of the characters, Dwight Schrute, nervously faces the prospect of delivering a speech after winning the title of top salesman of the year for his company, Dunder Mifflin. As a prank, his co-worker preps him for his moment by cribbing a speech from a dictator, coaching him to deliver it by pounding the lectern and waving his arms wildly. Dwight does it, and the audience gives a standing ovation to a manic tirade.
Watching a cartoonish TV character deliver authoritarian lines with no principles, just audacity, was hilarious back then, but that was before we saw it happening before our eyes in the race for the United States presidency.
Donald J. Trump stands astride the polls in the Republican presidential race, beating all comers in virtually every demographic of the primary electorate. Most illogical is his support from evangelicals and other social conservatives. To back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe.
Ben Carson recently contrasted his own faith in God with Mr. Trump’s theatrical egocentrism. “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life, and that’s a very big part of who I am,” he said, citing a Bible verse. “I don’t get that impression with him.” Mr. Trump hit back, suggesting that Mr. Carson was faking his own faith: “So I don’t know about Ben Carson’s faith, and all of a sudden he becomes this great religious figure. I don’t think he’s a great religious figure.” Mr. Carson quickly backed off from his comments, but the questions are not so easily dismissed.
There’s no religious test for office, and there shouldn’t be. My Baptist ancestors were willing to make alliances with the heretical Thomas Jefferson because he believed in religious liberty. It didn’t matter that they never would have let him teach Sunday school.
We should not demand to see the long-form certificate for Mr. Trump’s second birth. We should, though, ask about his personal character and fitness for office. His personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposés but because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the “top women in the world.” He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.
This should not be surprising to social conservatives in a culture shaped by pornographic understandings of the meaning of love and sex. What is surprising is that some self-identified evangelicals are telling pollsters they’re for Mr. Trump. Worse, some social conservative leaders are praising Mr. Trump for “telling it like it is.”
In the 1990s, some of these social conservatives argued that “If Bill Clinton’s wife can’t trust him, neither can we.” If character matters, character matters. Today’s evangelicals should ask, “Whatever happened to our commitment to ‘traditional family values’?”
Mr. Trump tells us “nothing beats the Bible,” and once said to an audience that he knows how Billy Graham feels. He says of evangelicals: “I love them. They love me.” And yet, he regularly ridicules evangelicals, with almost as much glee as he does Hispanics. This goes beyond his trivialization of communion with his recent comments about “my little cracker” as a way to ask forgiveness. In recent years, he has suggested that evangelical missionaries not be treated in the United States for Ebola, since they chose to go overseas in the first place.
Still, the problem is not just Mr. Trump’s personal lack of a moral compass. He is, after all, a casino and real estate mogul who has built his career off gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate. When Mr. Trump’s casinos fail, he can simply file bankruptcy and move on. The lives and families destroyed by the casino industry cannot move on so easily.
He’s defended, up until very recent years, abortion, and speaks even now of the “good things” done by Planned Parenthood. In a time when racial tensions run high across the country, Mr. Trump incites division, with slurs against Hispanic immigrants and with protectionist jargon that preys on turning economic insecurity into ugly “us versus them” identity politics. When evangelicals should be leading the way on racial reconciliation, as the Bible tells us to, are we really ready to trade unity with our black and brown brothers and sisters for this angry politician?
Jesus taught his disciples to “count the cost” of following him. We should know, he said, where we’re going and what we’re leaving behind. We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.
Publication date: September 17, 2015
Thursday, September 17, 2015
Last week the state assembly of California voted to allow legal assisted suicide. Lawmakers have sent a bill allowing terminally ill people to purchase and use life-ending drugs to governor Jerry Brown. This news come just weeks after an astonishing report from Europe detailed a huge expansion of assisted suicide in the Netherlands and Belgium, an expansion so vast that even mainstream media outlets have labeled it “sinister.”
The battle over expansive assisted suicide is not merely another skirmish in the “culture war.” Rather, it is an expression of one of the biggest religious alternatives to historic, orthodox Christianity in our world today. No, it’s not atheism or Islam. It’s the Grim Reaper. It’s Death itself.
The well crafted arguments in favor of ending life for the ill, paralyzed and now the depressed and bored depend on the idea that death is just a natural part of life. There’s nothing necessarily evil or broken about it. So if one cannot bear the burden of an immobile body, an unwanted child, or an unresponsive spouse, you can just ease the transition from consciousness to annihilation. That’s not just a political position. It is a religion.
Unfortunately, some have articulated this religion of death within the walls of the church. John Shelby Spong, the heretical retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, has argued that conservative Christian opposition to things like assisted suicide are rooted in a deficient theology of death. “Just as we have come to believe that St. Paul was wrong in his attitude toward women and homosexuality, we must now see that he was also wrong when he viewed death as an enemy, even the ‘last enemy’ that had to be destroyed,” Spong has written. “When Paul wrote those words, he was under the influence of the ancient biblical myth of creation.”
Spong is right about one thing—a Christian attitude toward death is shaped by a view of creation. When the apostle Paul spoke of death as an enemy, he did so because he recognized that every funeral wreath echoes an ancient curse: “In the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). When Jesus wept openly at the death of Lazarus, he did so because death is not natural at all. It represents the enemy occupation of the cosmos, as the god of this age holds captive an entire race through guilt, condemnation, and the ravages of death.
But American culture is increasingly schizophrenic about death. On the one hand, the culture treats death as just another medical treatment—embracing abortion, infanticide, suicide, and the euthanasia of the elderly and the sick. On the other hand, American culture is panicked by the thought of death. We idolize youth and beauty, injecting our wrinkles with Botox and sucking away our midlife pounds with liposuction. Americans act like ancient pagans, offering sacrifices to a capricious god in the hopes that he will leave them alone. But, deep in their consciences, Americans know this god will eventually come for them. They are afraid.
As we seek to advocate for the unborn and the disabled, we must remember that the root issue here is not ideological or political. It is far more ancient than that. The issue really isn’t about scientific disputes as to whether or not the fetus is biologically human, or what kind of brain wave activity constitutes life. We all know the answers to these questions. The real issue is what the Wisdom of God tells us—“All who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36). That means abortion and euthanasia are not just liberal, and they are not just mean. They are part of an ongoing guerilla insurgency against the image of the Creator himself.
The cult of death means that Christians need to think through what it means to follow a resurrected Messiah. The Book of Hebrews points to the core of the gospel in the notion that the very Word of God took on our humanity so that “through the power of death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:15-15). This means we need to stop trying to domesticate death. We need to learn to view it the way Jesus himself does—as an enemy to be destroyed.
We need to learn to hate death.
That will take a worldview shift for some of us. We sing songs about death as “one glad morning” and speak of a funeral as a happy “graduation day” for the believer. We know that Scripture says “to die is gain” but we forget that it also says that “to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21). Our hope is not in death itself, but in the pioneer who has passed through the jaws of death—and will raise us with him never again to die.
I remember a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine that depicted the Grim Reaper at home after a long day’s work, locking a series of security locks on his front door. The humor was that death itself might have something to fear. That’s not just a joke. It is the creed of the new paganism. As Christians we need to remind ourselves—and the watching world—that death claimed the cold corpse of an executed Jewish rabbi a couple of thousand years ago. We need to remind those who align themselves with the god of death that this dead rabbi’s heart started beating again one Sunday morning. When his blood-matted eyes opened in the darkness of that tomb, death was swallowed up in victory. He is at the door. And there aren’t enough deadbolts in the cosmos to keep him back.
Unlike the rest of the culture, believers don’t cower in the face of death—and we don’t take it lightly either. We take refuge in the One who called Himself “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:24). We don’t whistle past the graveyard of our impending mortality. We look the Grim Reaper square in the eyes and—maybe with a lump in our throat—we ask him a question he first heard on a Sunday morning in a garden in Palestine: “And where now is your sting?”
Publication date: September 17, 2015