Sanity, sin and evil

The Alabama shooting, like the Virginia Tech massacre before it, is sure to unleash a wave of speculation about what drove the troubled young Michael McLendon to do what he did.  Even this morning on my commute, I overheard a discussion of the killing spree in which one fellow conceded, “Since he killed that many people, it just can’t be evil — he must have been insane.”

That insanity can and should be a legal defense I do not dispute.  It is, of course, too often misapplied and abused to let murderers off the hook, but the insanity defense should not be discarded.  A person lacking control of his sense of reality should not be held to the same legal culpability as someone who possesses his full mental faculties.  The problem with my fellow commuter’s view is that while sanity may have much to do with a legal defense, it has little to do with whether or not an act is evil.

Evil is often irrespective of its object.  The Hebrews knew this concept well. The predominant Hebrew term for evil in the Old Testament (raa) has a range of meaning from everything to natural disasters and calamity, to human acts of violence.  The word is introduced in Genesis 2:9 with respect to the tree from which the man and the woman were not to eat. In Genesis 39:9, Joseph speaks of adultery with Potiphar’s wife as a “great evil.” The narrator of Job even tells us that Yahweh himself had brought evil upon Job [Job 42:11], and 1 Samuel 16:14 speaks of an “evil spirit” sent from Yahweh.  God is of course not himself evil, but in these instances he providentially wields evil for his purposes.

It follows that evil does not equal sin, but it does, however, have a strong relationship with sin.  Sin is always an evil action, but all evil forces, though always unpleasant, are not necessarily sinful.  Evil existed on the tree and with the serpent before Adam and Eve premiered the first sin. Sin lives, thrives, and is born where evil meets humanity.

Whether or not Michael McLendon was legally insane, we may never know.  What we do know is that insane or not, his actions were indeed evil, and evil is at work in the world.  The Apostle John reminded us long ago that “whole world lies in the power of the evil one”  — a fact that should make us all tremble, since we are all just as prone to be caught up and turned by evil.

Thankfully John also reminds us that if we are born of God, we have a Protector who can keep us from evil.  Without Him, nothing stands between us and evil.  God help us all.

Jesus, branding, and the myth of neutral messaging

There is much to commend in Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s Christianity Today cover story, “Jesus Is Not a Brand,” but this excerpt is especially noteworthy:

The difficulty with the pro-marketing arguments, however, is the failure to recognize that marketing is not a values-neutral language. Marketing unavoidably changes the message—as all media do. Why? Because marketing is the particular vernacular of a consumerist society in which everything has a price tag. To market something is therefore to effectively make it into a branded product to be consumed. The folks at ChurchMarketingSucks.com have no problem with this: “Marketing is the process of promoting, selling, and distributing goods or services. It’s a business concept, but something very similar happens in the church. As much as we bristle at comparing evangelism to a sales pitch, there are certain similarities.”

There are indeed similarities. But evangelism and sales are not the same. And we market the church at our peril if we are blind to the critical and categorical difference between the Truth and a truth you can sell. In a marketing culture, the Truth becomes a product. People will encounter it with the same consumerist worldview with which they encounter every other product in the American marketplace.

Wigg-Stevenson’s premise, of course, is that “marketing” is not a concept that can be imposed upon the church in the same way in which it is imposed upon business.  The problem with this (and the reason why many will dismiss the article) is the frighteningly large number of churches whose polity more closely resembles a TQM-management textbook than the biblical model of the church.

Given my own experience in both the church and the marketing/branding field (my undergrad major was advertising, and I’ve worked for a firm that branded people among other things), I think the points raised by Wigg-Stevenson are even more prevalent and dangerous than the level-headed tone of his article betrays. The world’s methods may often be amoral in some sense, but they are by no means neutral.  Whenever I shape a message into a form or medium, my message takes on some of the inherent properties of that medium whether I like it or not.

I’ll have more to say about this topic later when I finish reading Lucas Conley’s OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion, but until then, you would do well to read the whole Wigg-Stevenson CT piece.

Truth on the slant

In the most recent issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers spoke with Eugene Peterson on the place of reading in the spiritual lives of Christians. They reference a brilliant poem by Emily Dickinson from which Peterson takes the title of his upcoming book, Tell it Slant. Here’s the poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never before come across this gem, but I’m glad I did, as it expertly highlights an oft-overlooked aspect of truth-telling: sometimes the best way to tell the truth is indirectly.

The principle is not foreign to the Bible. Moses, for example, asks to see the full glory of Yahweh, but is told by God, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (see Exodus 33:17-23) Moses is instead offered a glimpse of God’s backside — an encounter that was still so powerful that he had to veil his face because it glowed so brightly.

Peterson noted that Jesus’ parables were constructed explicitly to bring truth in an indirect manner. Having people get the point immediately didn’t seem to be goal of such cryptic storytelling. Truth apprehended immediately doesn’t always have the same staying power as truth revealed eventually.

Such indirection is not to be mistaken for deception. Deception, with its substitution of false reality, is too intertwined with untruth to be a proper tool for truth telling.

It must also be noted that indirection isn’t the only manner in which truth must be presented. It was necessary for the Apostle Paul to be blinded (by the Truth, no less) on the road to Damascus. Only such an abrupt encounter with truth could prepare him to later write these words: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Indeed, sometimes the truth hurts. But it can also hint, or — better said — dazzle gradually.

What is ‘good’?

It’s a good question — one posed by Ron H. in his comment on my recent “Darwinism and good” post:

What can adequately explain why something is or isn’t good? Equivalently: What is good?

For many (in practice this is most, I imagine), something is good if it turns out the way a person wishes. Good is reduced to whatever is the most pleasant outcome.

This view is problematic in that there is so much more to “goodness” than its typical subjective uses. There exists an objective good, whether or not we can ascertain it.

As a Christian, I view the concept of good through the lens of biblical revelation. The concept is there throughout Scripture, and shows up early on in the Old Testament book of Genesis:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4, ESV)

Good is that which is wrought by God.

In the New Testament, good is applied on a personal level:

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:17-18, ESV)

And to gifts we’ve been given:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17, ESV)

These are but a few examples that begin to show a biblical view of good. The Scriptures indicate that good is a reflection of God’s actions and his character. Good emanates from God.

Without such grounding, it becomes difficult to quantify good in terms other than mere personal preference. It would seem, for example, that a naturalist — who believes that the natural world is all that there is — has little grounding for appealing to the good. I can say that a little girl’s smile is good, because I know that she is a good creation of God.

Upon what can a naturalist base a view of good?

Evangelical espionage

Just how crazy are those wacky evangelicals? Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wanted to find out, so he went “Undercover with the Christian Right” by immersing himself in the world of TBN star John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church.

There’s much not to like about the methods that Taibbi employed for the piece, which is an excerpt for a forthcoming book. First of all, to act as if you’re going in to uncharted territory by investigating pentecostal Christians is a little disingenuous. After all, this is America. There’s a pentecostal on every corner — they’re not that hard to find.

Second, why in the world would a reporter use an alias when signing up to attend a retreat at John Hagee’s church? Was he afraid someone would recognize him as a writer for Rolling Stone? The folks he described didn’t strike me as the type to sit waiting each month with bated breath for their copy of RS to arrive just so they can read Matt Taibbi. Understandable if he were investigating the mafia, but pentecostals?

Third, Taibbi suffers from a condition common to many media professionals: ignorance of the evangelical landscape. The reason for this undercover stint, he claims, was to “to get a look inside the evangelical mind-set that gave the country eight years of George W. Bush.” To claim Hagee as the cornerstone for the evangelical mind-set in America is pretty big leap. Hagee is at best a subset.

That said, Taibbi does come away with a few observations of which evangelicals should take note. This passage in particular highlights the kind of psycho-babble that often shows up even in churches outside the pentecostal sphere:

The program revolved around a theory that [retreat leader Philip Fortenberry] quickly introduced us to called “the wound.” The wound theory was a piece of schlock biblical Freudianism in which everyone had one traumatic event from their childhood that had left a wound. The wound necessarily had been inflicted by another person, and bitterness toward that person had corrupted our spirits and alienated us from God. Here at the retreat we would identify this wound and learn to confront and forgive our transgressors, a process that would leave us cleansed of bitterness and hatred and free to receive the full benefits of Christ.

[…]

We were about a third of the way through the process when I began to wonder what the hell was going on. Fortenberry’s blowhard-on-crack-act/wound gobbledygook were all suspiciously secular in tone and approach. I had been hearing whispers throughout the first day or so to the effect that there was some kind of incredible supernatural religious ceremony that was going to take place at the end of the retreat (“Tighten your saddle, he’s fixin’ ta buck” was how “cowboy” Fortenberry put it), when we would experience “Victory and Deliverance.” But as far as I could see, in the early going, most of what we were doing was simple pop-psych self-examination using New Age-y diagnostic tools of the Deepak Chopra school: Identify your problems, face your oppressors, visualize your obstacles. Be your dream job. With a little rhetorical tweaking and much better food, this could easily have been Tony Robbins instructing a bunch of Upper East Side housewives to “find your wounds” (“My husband hid my Saks card!”) at a chic resort in Miami Beach or the Hamptons.

When a writer for Rolling Stone can recognize that your preaching is more pop-psychology than biblical truth, you’re in trouble. Sadly, much of the evangelical landscape shares this wholesale adoption of talk-show therapy. It’s a practice the Apostle Paul might well refer to as conformity to the world.

The gist of Taibbi’s piece is to show how markedly different these alien Christians are from the norm. Though he saw some pretty nutty stuff (glossolalia in the form of Russian band DDT!), it’s ironic just how much wasn’t as different from the world as it should have been.

Family Driven Faith

Family Driven Faith

It’s ironic that within the evangelical church — a people who by and large claim their ultimate authority to be Scripture alone — it is tradition that is often the most difficult thing to change.

Voddie T. Baucham Jr.’s book, Family Driven Faith: Doing What It Takes to Raise Sons and Daughters Who Walk with God (Crossway Books, 2007) challenges many of our extra-biblical traditions with a tough but winsome approach. Instead of cultivating the latest ecclesiastical trends, Baucham takes a refreshing look at the age-old biblical institution of the family, and places it at ground zero for the work of Christ in the church.

The book covers topics ranging from the irresponsibility of men who abandon spiritual leadership to the growing biblical illiteracy among Christians who can’t even articulate their worldviews to their families, much less anyone else. Relating anecdotes from his own life, Baucham teaches how it is biblically necessary and possible for a family to worship together not just in church, but in the in the home as well. Some feathers are likely to be ruffled when Baucham tackles topics like education, where he takes an unapologetic (but reasonable) stand against government-sponsored schools.

These points are instructive, convicting, and even controversial, but none is more interesting and potentially paradigm-shifting than one of Baucham’s final points: the family-integrated church. This model, which is essentially an organizational subset of church polity, does away with age-segregated ministries and shifts the locus of ministry to fathers as heads of families. Surveying the current landscape of evangelicalism, Baucham observes:

One day you visit a church, your teen goes off to the youth service, your little one goes off to children’s church, the baby goes to the nursery, and you and your spouse get a great seat in a plush auditorium with first-class music, professional drama, a relevant, encouraging, application oriented, non-threatening talk, and you get it all in just under an hour. Moreover, you look at the brochures, and it’s right there in black and white: “Our youth ministry exists to do the job that you’ve neglected all these years.” What a deal! We don’t have to keep the little one quiet, we get our needs met, and to top it off, the youth guy is going to disciple my teenager (whom I don’t even like right now). Who cares if the youth guy has only been married a few months and has never even attempted to disciple a child of his own. “Count me in!” [p. 178]

Baucham readily admits this is hyperbole, but anyone who has set foot inside an evangelical church in the last 30 years will recognize the massive age segregation that occurs. Children’s ministries — a subset in themselves — are further segregated by the grade levels assigned by schools. “Young marrieds” meet for Bible study in a different place than that wily “College and Career” crowd. The “seniors” groups go on bus tours to Gatlinburg and Branson, while the “Youth” take their mission trips to the inner city.

Age segregation is one of the most impenetrable non-biblical institutions within the church, yet there’s absolutely no Scriptural support for these divisions. This does not mean, of course, that Scripture prohibits such segregation, but it does call into question why it has become such a staple for church organization.

I suspect, along with Baucham, that such age segregation more reflects the American educational system than a biblical model of intergenerational interaction. Baucham suggests that a family-integrated model would better meet the needs of discipleship than what has in recent years become the traditional evangelical approach. Youth groups and other age-categorized ministries are discarded in exchange for teaching and ministry that is organized around families rather than age.

Amid a culture that has little respect for the elderly, such an approach could do wonders. Younger adults would have more opportunity to learn from believers who have walked the road ahead of them, and the harsh transition that teens often endure from adolescence to adulthood would be obviated by living their theology around adults instead of solely their peers.

This will be a tough pill for most churches to swallow, given the practical implications of moving to such a ministry paradigm. After all, there are few who have any experience with doing church this way. In the end, however, Christ’s church should be governed by biblical principles, no matter how unpragmatic they might be.

Baucham himself realizes the uphill battle, and sympathizes with his friends who do not share his views. This does not, however, stop him from raising the issue. And that is what I find so refreshing about the book. Baucham succeeds in his ability to shine light on some pretty significant flaws in the church while still retaining a place at the table. Family Driven Faith critiques without casting away.

Read it if you dare.

Politics and the Prophet

[Editor’s note: In light of today being Earth Day, I thought I would do my green duty and recycle a post from June 2005 that is remarkably still relevant today.]

The pregnancy of Britney Spears and the trial of Michael Jackson notwithstanding, the hottest topic in the news today has to do with the intersection between politics and religion. Following the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the topic has become a “we’ve arrived!” bellwether for many people of faith — and a panic button for many secularists.

Evangelicals have gained much influence in the political arena. While the left constantly cries theocracy, evangelical ideas have made modest gains in the public square. With the possibility of high court justices being secured for a long time in favor of evangelical ideas, things are looking up for Christians in America. The way things stand now, a time of great prosperity for American evangelicalism would seem imminent.

Or would it?

Is political superiority the key for the advancement of the people of God? Not always, if Jeremiah 27 is in any way indicative of how God might intervene in the political sphere. It’s a bizarre passage that elicits a much deserved double-take, because when read in light of conventional wisdom, it appears to make little sense.

Ever the unpopular preacher, Jeremiah delivers the news that Yahweh is putting everyone under control of the pagan Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar:

It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.

Lest Israel, God’s chosen people, think that they were excepted, Jeremiah informs them that they too—just like all the other nations—are losing their own autonomy:

To Zedekiah king of Judah I spoke in like manner: “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?

The leaders and false prophets must have thought of Jeremiah as an ancient–day Howard Dean, speaking such nonsense. Why should the chosen people of God stand for serving a foreign, pagan leader? Such a notion was appalling to their sensibilities.

The irony, however, was that Israel had been serving foreign gods all along—it was only fitting that they should now serve a foreign king. Now, in an unseeming reversal, Israel would only see prosperity if they relinquished their own political sovereignty. Only after they had endured captivity would their land be restored to them.

In this strange passage, Yahweh showed that he doesn’t need the political structures of his people to verify his sovereignty. He is indeed the Maker, and only his kingdom has ultimate authority.

What relation does this ancient story have to do with our modern political climate? Should evangelical Christians relinquish what little political clout they have gained that they might prosper under a leftist government?

Just as the governance of Israel under the Davidic kingship remained the ideal (ultimately fulfilled in Christ!), evangelicals should continue to be wary of campaigning for the left. What Jeremiah 27 does do is to remind us who is really in charge, and who holds each political administration in his hands—even the bad ones. Evangelicals should continue to influence the political scene for the better, but let us not forget who is really on the throne.

Mysterious, yet strangely sovereign are his ways.

God as commodity

Several years ago, I accompanied two friends — Eastern European university students who were visiting the U.S. for the summer — into a Christian bookstore. One of the two, Andrei, was a Christian who wanted to visit the store while in America to purchase some Christian music. The other student, Sasha, was an admitted atheist who was merely along for the ride. While Andrei went to a “listening station” to preview the latest contemporary Christian music album, Sasha and I walked around the store, looking at the vast assortment of such products as “Bibleman” videos and “Testamints” candy.

It was then that the atheist Sasha made an observation that is particularly damning to the contemporary evangelical subculture. He said, “Christians in America market God just like everything else. In my country, Christians take God more seriously.” I couldn’t help but sadly agree, and I could offer no defense.

This was at a time when books constituted roughly a third of a given Christian “book” store’s inventory — the remainder of the stores were usually filled to the brim with cards, music and kitsch, all branded with the name of God. I have no recent statistics, but that ratio is likely even less today, as many chain stores have dropped the word “book” from their names altogether. Don’t get me wrong, such merchandise isn’t necessarily wrong in and of itself (more on that in a later post…), but it too often makes God out to be more commodity than Creator.

Of course, the merchandising of God is not limited to trinkets. Even books, Bible studies, and academic programs can lead us to this folly if we’re not careful. Eugene Peterson captures this well:

It isn’t long before we are standing in line to buy whatever is being offered. And because none of the purchases does what we had hoped for, or at least not for long, we are soon back to buy another, and then another. The process is addictive. We have become consumers of packaged spiritualities.

This is also idolatry. We never think of using this term for it since everything we are buying or paying for is defined by the adjective “Christian.” But idolatry it is nevertheless: God packaged as a product; God depersonalized and made available as a technique or program. The Christian market in idols has never been more brisk or lucrative.

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, p. 125

How dangerously ironic it is that we humans seek to control, manage, and market spirituality when our spirituality should be managing us.

Time really is money

As I was reading from Proverbs today, it dawned on me just how similar money is to time:

Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.
When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
for suddenly it sprouts wings,
flying like an eagle toward heaven.

Proverbs 23:4-5, ESV

This reminded me one of my favorite sections of St. Augustine’s Confessions, where he discusses the nature of time:

[…] What then, is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know. But I confidently affirm to myself that if nothing passes away, there is no past time, and if nothing arrives, there is no future time, and if nothing existed, there would be no present time. Take the two tenses, past and future. How can they ‘be’ when the past is not now present and the future is not now present? Yet if the present were always present, it would not pass into the past: it would not be time but eternity. If, then, in order to be time at all, the present is so made that it passes into the past, how can we say that this present also ‘is’? The cause of its being is that it will cease to be. So indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends towards non-existence.

Confessions, xi (16), p. 230-231

Like time, money — once grasped — tends towards non-existence.