Monday, October 05, 2015
As a child, I remember being in church and seeing a man sitting in front of me, with his arm resting on the pew. The arm was covered with a large tattoo of a woman who was, well, let’s just say she didn’t fit what we would consider biblical standards of modesty in her attire. This was not in a “relevant” urban church, mind you, but in the most stereotypically “hellfire and brimstone,” King James Version-quoting, gospel hymn-singing southern revivalist church you could imagine. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this, in my church. I was simultaneously thrilled (when else does one get to see naked women in church?) and outraged (how dare anyone do that in my church?). So I nudged my grandmother and pointed, as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
My grandmother leaned down and whispered. I expected her to share my outrage (though not my secret titillation). She was, after all, a pastor’s widow with strict moral standards who had once washed my mouth out with soap because I had said “Gosh,” which was, of course, to her just a rebranded way to take the Lord’s name in vain. But that side of her didn’t show up in that moment. She whispered, “Yes, honey, He doesn’t know the Lord yet, and he’s had a hard life, with drink and drugs and all. But his wife had been trying to get him to come to church for a long time, and we’ve all been praying for him. He’s not trying to be ugly to anybody. He just doesn’t know Jesus yet.”
I’ll never forget that word “yet.” With that one word she turned my imagination on its head. She put before me the possibility that this hardened ex-military man with the naked woman tattoo might one day be my brother-in-Christ. And, in time, he was. I suppose as time went on this new Christian started to see that his tattoo was potentially a stumbling block to others, because I started to see it less and less as he started to wear long sleeves to church. Some of the other kids in the church said that (since tattoo removal technology wasn’t much of a thing then) that he had added a bikini to her, and then later a one-piece bathing suit. For all I know, he may have died with her in a plaid pantsuit and a briefcase. I guess this man started to see that tattoo as emblematic of an old life he’d left behind. He didn’t need a tattooed pastor (and in that church, he never had one). But he did need a church that didn’t see his tattoo as evidence of a life gone too far, of someone too rowdy to be loved with the call to repentance and faith.
I don’t like tattoos, and I can’t emphasize this enough (especially if you’re one of my children, one day, reading this). But if the Spirit starts moving with velocity in this country, our churches will see more people in our pews and in our pulpits with tattoos, and that ought to change our public witness. Now, what I do not mean by this is that we need more Christians to tattoo crosses or the Apostles Creed or the sinner’s prayer across their arms and necks. That’s not a sign of gospel awakening. It’s just, at best personal fashion, and, at worst, more marketing in an already over-marketed American Christian subculture.
Tattoos don’t mean what they used to. They don’t signify necessarily, by a long shot, the kind of “tough” image they used to. But sometimes they do. There are people around us with markings of blood-drenched skulls, or of profane sexual boasts or of threats to violence. Some demonstrate fearsomeness. Some are pagan, or even occult. As I see them in the streets around me I am chastened by how rarely my first thoughts are rooted in my grandmother’s wisdom. Again, not everyone with tattoos is an unbeliever or has lived a hard life. But I wonder how many people don’t listen to our gospel message because they assume they don’t “look” like the kind of people who would be Christians—namely shiny, happy Republicans. And, shamefully, how many times to we filter out our gospel preaching and our social witness to people who would , upon baptism, be able to pose nicely for our ministry advertisements? How often do we assume the good news of Christ is a message just like a political campaign or a commercial brand, targeted toward a demographic of a certain kind of buyer?
That was precisely Jesus’ point in his story of the two sons. He turned to the religious establishment and said, shockingly, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31). That was Jesus’ point from his sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, throughout his public ministry, and right to his dying moments, pardoning a repentant terrorist. Jesus was building his church with those who seemed to have wrecked their lives forever: prostitutes, Roman collaborators, outcasts with infectious diseases, demon-possessed grave-dwellers, and on and on. If we’re really carrying forward his message, this means there are going to be people listening whose very bodies may carry messages contradictory of the Word of God. So did our hearts and psyches. The young woman with the “Legal Abortion Without Apology” tattoo or the old man with the Hell’s Angel marking, they may wonder, as they feel the pull of the gospel, “How can I enter with this visible reminder on me of my past?” That’s not a new question. That’s the question we all had to ask, regardless of how “respectable” we looked when we came to Christ: “Deep is the stain that we cannot hide? What can avail to wash it away?”
Jesus will build his church, with us or without us. But if we are going to be faithful to him, we must share his mission. This means we don’t just talk about lost people; we talk to them. And we don’t talk to them as enlightened life-coaches promising an improved future, but as crucified sinners offering a new birth. The hope for the future is not that Christianity will be seen as more respectable or more influential in the sectors of American power. The hope for the future is churches filled with people who never thought they fit the image of “Christian.” We’ll see that the markings on the flesh, whatever they are, count for nothing, but that what counts is a new creation (Gal. 6:15). We’ve come not to call just those who look like whatever Christians are supposed to look like, but the whole world. If the church is powered by the gospel, then the Body of Christ has tattoos.
That reality ought to crucify our dour, gloomy, curmudgeonly pessimism. Our fretfulness is evidence of defeatism, a sign of wavering belief in the promises of Jesus himself. That’s what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, “Does gospel Christianity have a future in this this country at all?” He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.
The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might currently be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic today. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star this week. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.
But the Spirit of God can turn all that around. And seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8-16). After all, while Phillip was leading the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ, Saul of Tarsus was still a murderer. And that happens over and over again, as God raises up leaders who seem to come out of nowhere, with shady pasts and uncertain futures. And none of us would be here, apart from them.
This article is adapted from my new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.
Publication date: October 5, 2015
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