Evangelicals in Search of an Enemy

Wednesday, January 14, 2009
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When George W. Bush became President, evangelical Christians like myself traded stories about his dramatic conversion. He had been an alcoholic but had found Jesus. He had become one of us. We welcomed his Presidency because he would stand for what we stood for. Family values. Marriage between one man and one woman. The curtailment of abortion. He would uphold our moral agenda.

When 9/11 occurred, we knew that God had given America the right man for the job. In an age when "evil" was a dirty word, Bush would have the character and resolve to name evil and confront it.

When Bush initiated the war in Iraq, most of my evangelical friends were for it. The spirit of the day was that it would be un-American not to "support our troops" and our President. After all, Bush understood our situation in history as only a Christian could. Somewhere out there, beyond the borders of America, a vicious evil lurked. All of us Americans—the "good" folk—had to unite together, seek out that evil, and destroy it. Like the ancient Israelites purging the wicked Canaanites from the land, God had appointed our generation to confront fundamentalist Muslims.

Then the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison emerged, shocking us into mute disgust. Not only were the images revolting but they turned our worldview on its head. The evil wasn't "out there" anymore. The good guys, too, carried out the basest forms of evil. The line between "us" and "them" blurred into indistinction.

Later we learned that Bush had flaunted the constitution by authorizing domestic wiretaps. We heard about the CIA's secret prisons and the torture techniques they used there. We learned that Bush himself had authorized the use of torture.

At first, evangelicals were slow to respond. Maybe the "harsh interrogation techniques" Bush had authorized weren't really torture? Maybe Bush had intelligence we didn't have—intelligence that somehow compelled Americans to use torture? There must be a reason that our brother in Christ would authorize the sort of inhumane treatment we watched in the Passion of the Christ.

Three years after the allegations had emerged, the National Evangelical Association released a declaration against torture. The announcement underscored—belatedly—a shift in the way American evangelicals had come to think about their government and the President. We saw this shift again in the 2008 elections where only 54% of churchgoing evangelicals voted for the Republican candidate—down from 61% in 2004.

Throughout the Bush years, most of my evangelical friends remained die-hard Bush supporters. Even after Obama won last November, many of them bemoaned his victory and dreaded his presidency even as they committed to praying for him. Yet others—especially of the younger generations—welcomed Obama with enthusiasm. Some swore never to vote Republican again. The Bush years changed the evangelical mind, but they didn't change all evangelicals equally.

I've been surprised by the diverse reactions from the Christians around me. I'm trying to understand why some have praised Bush through even his most questionable decisions while others consider the Bush Presidency one of the most villainous administrations in American history.

I've decided it all comes down to who you see as the enemy.

Evangelicals have traditionally had a strong sense of "us" and "them." We are the good guys. We have—or try to have—committed marriages. We guard our children against M-rated games and R-rated movies. We put pornography blockers on our computers. We feel uneasy when the lesbian couple moves in next door. We see our homes as bastions, sanctuaries against the evil of "the world." The world is Hollywood, liberals, activists who threaten to woo our kids into lechery, promiscuity, and homosexuality. Although America has declined since the 50s—morally speaking, of course—it still feels like "our" place. But "they" are always knocking at the door, making inroads, threatening to change our country into a sexualized, athiest, amoral wasteland. The enemy is anyone who would take our decent, essentially (if covertly) Christian America away from us.

It's this mindset that supported Bush through thick and thin. Bush could start the first pre-emptive wars in American history, he could sit on his hands while (wicked) New Orleans sank, he could even torture "them." So long as he fought terrorists, gay rights, and abortion, he was one of "us."

Though many evangelicals still carry strains of this mindset in their DNA, the moral blurriness of the Bush Presidency has caused others to think again. The enemy is not so easy to pin down. Evangelicals uphold the sanctity of marriage, yet get divorced as often as non-Christians. Evangelicals distrust Hollywood, yet allow TV and the Internet to babysit our children. National Evangelical Association president Ted Haggard turned out to be a drug user and sometime homosexual. Last month, NEA vice president Richard Cizik—one of the drafters of the declaration against torture—resigned after admitting he supported civil unions. Evangelicals who looked for evil "out there" are increasingly finding it "in here."

So it turns out that the enemy is within. Surprise, surprise. Isn't this what the Bible taught all along? "No one is righteous—no, not one."

The foundational truth of Christianity—how could we have forgotten it?—is that each of us is filled with evil. Paul portrayed this truth vividly: "When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!"

Who is the enemy? I am.

Paul knew that Jesus didn't come to guard us from Romans or terrorists or the lesbians down the street—he came to cleanse us from the evil within. Evangelicals know it too. But somewhere along the line, in our terror for our children, our lifestyle, and our souls, we let ourselves forget.

As Barack Obama takes on the leadership of the nation next Tuesday, evangelicals gain—as do so many others—a new opportunity to rediscover our identity and mission. As I struggle to do this for myself and my own family, the image that stands out to me most brilliantly is the scene Jesus painted of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee lived an upright life and even gave his money to the temple. But the parasitic tax collector, the moral scum of Jewish society,
stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

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A Theological Reflection on Fallout 3

Friday, December 19, 2008
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With apologies to the Fallout 3 team.
Also, be warned: (Vague) Spoilers Within

Fallout 3I've been wandering the Wastelands for three months now and I've come to a conclusion. There is no God.

Let me tell you what happened today. I was heading south along the river, walled in on the left by decayed office buildings. I remember thinking how beautiful they looked in the falling sunlight.

Suddenly I saw Mutants. They had a captive, and she was bound up, blindfolded, kneeling on one side of their camp. I thought, I've got to get her out of there.

There was no way to avoid a fight. Before I knew it they were on top of me. One of them came at me with a sledgehammer, and I prayed with every blast of my shotgun that he would fall before he reached me.

But then something else happened. Somehow in the chaos somebody threw a grenade. It bounced near my feet, then rolled past me as I leaped aside. I heard it pop behind me, but I didn't have time to look.

After I turned the Mutants' heads into spaghetti I went back for the captive. I found her in pieces. The grenade—she never saw it coming.

That's when I knew. Nobody's looking out for us. Nobody made this world. Nobody's telling this story—it just happens like it happens.

In my heart I've known ever since I stepped out of the Vault and looked out over the polluted carcass of what used to be Washington D.C. There was something lovely about that scene too. A golden light lay over the shoulders of the hills. A rusted water tower reflected the blue sky. A dust devil teased the earth along the path in front of me. Then I walked up between some boulders, and a feral dog nearly ripped my throat out. I had to beat it to death with a police baton—couldn't get the blood off for three days.

Now I've been out here three months and can't see my own skin for the muck and the grime. Still searching for my Dad, I tell myself. But who am I kidding? I'll never find him. If the Mutants haven't got him, the Yao Guai have.

At first I told myself that Fate would guide me. When I looked into the faces of the people around me—the people I knew and loved growing up in the Vault—I saw beauty and mystery and spirit. These faces, these eyes, the light behind these eyes, were not random happenstances of chemistry or science. Someone made these people, directly or indirectly. Someone was telling a story through them and through me. Whoever that Someone was would make it all come out all right. Even if I died, I would die heroically. But I wouldn't die—no one I loved would die. I would prove myself the hero of this story that Someone was telling.

That was then. What a self-righteous, stuck-up little chump I was! And naive, so terribly naive.

Then I met the raiders, watched their brains splatter on the rotting concrete—one by one, day after day. The slavers and their tortured slaves. The rats, the scorpions, the Deathclaws. All the poisoned freaks who haunt this hell hole. They taught me, without words but undeniably: There is no story here. No God. No Designer. This world just happened. It's just happening. It'll just keep on happening, because there's Nobody to put it out of its misery.

SydneyA few weeks ago, I met a tough, smart fighter named Sydney in the ruins of the National Archives. She carried a mean SMG and knew more about ammunition than anyone I'd met. We teamed up to find an old, valuable document—"The Declaration of Impediments" or something.

Her dad had left her behind, too. When she was fourteen, he went out and just never came back. "Never even said goodbye," she said. "Do I have to tell you what it's like for a young woman alone in the Wasteland at that age?" Boy, that stuck with me.

Then a few days later I was exploring an old building downtown and came across a skeleton curled up on a cot. Next to the corpse was a recording of Sydney's father that he hoped would somehow reach her. It explained everything. He had gone out to do some business, the deal went bad, bullets were exchanged, he took one in the gut. He had just enough time to tell her that he loved her, that he never meant to leave her, and that he had faith she would make it.

So Sydney grew up hating the father who loved her, fending for herself in a vicious world where the only language anyone understands travels at 896 feet per second.

Now what kind of God would let that happen?

I'm not looking for my father any more. I'm going where he has gone, following in his footsteps, doing what I'm supposed to do to someday catch up with him. But I know he's gone.

This story can have no happy ending, no resolution. This world is too cruel, too grotesque for me to believe it has any Storyteller but Mr. Luck and Mrs. Chance.

I'll keep wandering the Wastelands, because that's what my body and brain tell me to do. But don't talk to me about Fate or God or Destiny or Designer. If he ever existed, he died when the bombs fell.

Or maybe he just walked out. Like Sydney's father. Like my father.

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What do we know about Satan?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008
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I'm writing a paper on Ezekiel 28 this week for one of my seminary courses. The question is: Who is Ezek 28 talking about?

The chapter directly addresses the "king of Tyre," and says he is a "man" (Hebrew adam, a word most people know). Yet some of the ways in which it describes this "man" suggest he may be more than a man. He was in Eden (v. 13), he was a cherub (14), and he is said to have been "created" (Hebrew bara, vv. 13, 15) where we would expect "born". Consequently, many interpreters of the Bible believe that the "king of Tyre" is really a reference to Satan. So I've been examining the evidence for whether Ezek 28 is really talking about Satan or the literal king of Tyre.

My study got me wondering: What do we actually know about Satan? What does the Bible really tell us about who he/it is and where he/it came from?

I start by looking at Old Testament (OT) references to "Satan." In Hebrew this is the word שטן (satan). Now it's important to know that this is not a proper name like "Samuel" or "Billy." Satan is just an ordinary noun that means "adversary." So for instance in 2 Samuel 19:22, David says to the sons of Zeruiah, "Why should you be an adversary (satan) to me." There's no spiritual idea here—David's just complaining that these men are hassling him. Likewise in 1 Kings 5:4 Solomon describes the peace his kingdom is experiencing by saying, "YHWH my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary (satan) nor misfortune." Life is good. Nobody is fighting against him.

Indeed, if you look through the twenty-three verses in the OT where the word satan appears, only a handful even have a chance of talking about the being that Christians refer to as Satan. 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that "A satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel." Note that satan here is indefinite: it's a satan not The Satan. Nonetheless translators often see this as a reference to The Satan and put it into English as, "Satan stood up against Israel and moved David..."

If this is a reference to Satan, it's the first time the Old Testament names him as Satan and the only place in the historical books where he is identified by name. Doesn't that strike you as rather unlikely? Usually the Bible introduces characters and concepts first before using them in an offhand way later, but Satan hasn't been introduced—not by name—up until this point.

Moreover, in the parallel account to 1 Chronicles 21:1 which appears at 2 Samuel 24:1, there is no mention of Satan. Rather, God himself "incited" David to number Israel. It doesn't say how God incited David to do this. There has been a lot of handwringing over this apparent contradiction between 1 Chron 21:1 and 2 Sam 24:1. Did God incite David to number Israel or did Satan? Or did God use Satan to incite David?

Yet there's a rather simple solution to this conundrum staring us in the face. Remember that the word satan in 1 Chron 21:1 was indefinite: a satan. Well up until this point in the Bible, everywhere that a satan is used the translation is always "an adversary"—usually a military opponent. And that makes perfect sense here. A military adversary came up against David and this motivated him to number Israel—that is, to count his troops. 2 Sam 24:1 reveals that it was God who ordained the arrival of this adversary, and this is a common theme in the Old Testament. So the NET Bible, following this same reasoning, translates 1 Chron 21:1 as "An adversary opposed Israel, inciting David to count how many warriors Israel had." It seems pretty clear to me that this is what the verse means.

If you take out all the references to the word satan in the Old Testament that clearly don't refer to the Devil, you're left with just two passages: Job 1–2 and Zechariah 3:1–2.

Now in Job we have a very clear description of a spiritual being—one who accompanies the "sons of God" as they report before YHWH—who is refered to as the satan. Here we have the definite article, and that makes all the difference. This is The Adversary. Not just any old adversary that a person might encounter in life, but the adversary par excellence. We learn a fair bit about him from these chapters. In this story he has been spending his time "walking back and forth across the earth." We hear his words to God, and they are clearly adversarial. He undermines God's admiration of Job. He proposes to harm Job. He doubts the sincerity of Job's faith. He seems to be against everything. He leaves the impression of a sulky rebel disgusted by God's little picnic of mutual love. But he doesn't just talk—he has power. He brings the Sabeans and Chaldeans to raid Job's household, sends fire down from the sky, brings a blast of wind that flattens a house, and later makes Job terribly sick.

So Job is the first clear reference in Scripture to who Satan is and it gives us some hints about his character and abilities.

In Zechariah 3:1–2 we have another pretty clear but far more cryptic reference to Satan. Here again the word is definite: The Adversary. We see him acting in a courtroom scene as a sort of prosecutor toward Joshua the high priest, and YHWH comes to Joshua's defense. But The Adversary doesn't say or do anything, and we don't learn much about him. Yet this scene reinforces the image we had from Job: The Adversary appearing in the court of God arguing against a human whom God honors and defends.

That's it. Those two passages are the only clear references we have to the Devil as the satan in the OT. That's not a lot to go on.

Here's the first point I want to make. Satan is a title, not a name. You don't go up to the Devil and say, "Hey, Satan, old buddy..." Satan is not his name—not in the OT, at least. You might go up to him and say, "Hey, aren't you the Adversary? I mean like The Adversary." Now he'll know what you're talking about. The word satan is a perfectly ordinary Hebrew word. It usually just means an "adversary." It only means The Adversary in a couple of places. And it never means the proper name Satan. So don't go calling him Mr. Satan when you meet him.

There are several other places in the OT where Christians think they catch glimpses of him, just not under the title satan. In Gen 3 "The Serpent" tempts Eve. Most Christians think this is more than just a talking snake, and I won't disagree.

In Isaiah 14:12–17, the prophet speaks to the king of Babylon, but as in Ezekiel 28, the language sounds a little lofty for a mere human king. "How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn." Many scholars believe this may be a veiled reference to The Adversary. Yet as I read over the passage, I don't see anything to make me think it's speaking of a supernatural being. The passage explicitly addresses the king of Babylon (v. 3), it calls him a "man" (v. 16, Hebrew ish this time) and says he will be buried in a tomb only to be cast out of it (18–20). It looks to me as if the lofty language in vv. 12–14 simply reflects the king's own self-deifying thoughts. It's the king of Babylon who calls himself "The Star of the Morning" and who fantasizes about setting his throne "above the stars of God." This sort of kingly deification (not to mention hubris) is commonplace in ancient cultures. So I think Isa 14 is just talking about the king of Babylon, not The Adversary.

The same reasoning makes me think Ezekiel 28 is also talking about who it says it's talking about: the human king of Tyre. This self-important king thinks of himself as equal with God, as a divine being who lives on Mount Olympus, and the passage reflects his own fantasies. Note that many of the references that make us think this passage refers to a supernatural being—that he lived in Eden, for instance—are also applied to other kings in Ezekiel (see 31:2–9, 16, 18), yet we don't think these other passages sneakily refer to The Adversary. I see no reason to find him here.

So what do we know about Satan from the Old Testament? Not a lot, it seems to me. We have clear references in Job and Zechariah and a pretty clear reference in Gen 3 ("The Serpent"). That's it. The other possible references are profoundly cryptic at best, and I'm highly skeptical they refer to The Adversary at all. Indeed, perhaps it's the lack of information about The Adversary in the OT that makes us want so badly to find him where he isn't.

Now the New Testament sheds a great deal more light on this shadowy character. But I haven't gotten there yet. In the meantime, my study of the Old Testament references to "Satan" lead me to be more cautious about what I think I know about him.

For instance, the name "Lucifer" comes from a Latinized version of Isa 14. But it's highly questionable that Isa 14 is talking about The Adversary, so he was probably never called "Lucifer" until Bible interpreters made this mistake. The Christian belief that Satan was created as a cherub comes from Ezek 28, but I don't think that passage is talking about him either. Even our name for Satan isn't really a name in the OT but simply a description or title.

So what do we know about Satan—what he is or when he was made or even what his name is? As far as the OT is concerned, not much.


Book Business

Saturday, May 03, 2008
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Christian book publisher Thomas Nelson laid off a tenth of their work force this week. Their president and CEO, Mike Hyatt, has been blogging about the decision. His candor and openness are quite refreshing—not to mention educational for aspiring authors like me. He gives us an glimpse into the tough inner world of book publishing.

The words "tough" and "book" don't belong in the same sentence. It's like putting Shirley Temple into a film about Jack the Ripper. As I read through Mike's posts, I realize that part of my anxiety about getting published comes from this tension. How do we marry the creative and practical sides of writing and selling books?

I might ask the question this way. Are books really about this:

ScholarReading RoomSmoking Jacket

Or are they really about this:

Business HandshakeStock ExchangeMoney

Of course the answer is that they're about both. You can't keep making books unless you make a profit. Yet nobody who chooses a career in publishing chooses it purely for the money—other industries will make you wealthier quicker. As Mike says, "It is partly about the money. Otherwise, we won't stay in business. But that is certainly not what gets us up in the morning."

So we don't want to say that the "good" side of publishing is the creative/intellectual side while the "bad" side of publishing is the practical/financial side. The two sides have to stick together. Divorce is not an option. You can't have one without the other.

Yet, from an emotional standpoint, when I imagine being a published author, it's not the money that gets me excited. It's the readers. It's the bookstores. It's the physical presence of the book itself.

Yesterday morning I spent 45 seconds sniffing C. H. Dodd's The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, which was published in 1932. The yellow pages are browning at the edges like an old daguerreotype. Dodd's commentary is fierce, but it smells sweet—literally, like a summer meadow.

My dad published a few books when I was a kid. I remember him bringing the galleys home—oversize pages with fine, typeset lettering—a sort of prototype for the book. Looking at them was like sneaking a glimpse into a secret world. They would be marked up in blue by a copy editor, who even noted things like indentions and headings and the location of page numbers—things no ordinary reader would ever know someone had fussed over. I hear publishers don't use galleys anymore. They've been cut adrift and left to bob in the wake of digital technology. Pity.

I love books, and I love reading—not just doing it, but imagining it done—the long, united centuries of paper and print and the people who have loved them. When I write a paragraph, I don't think about its market value. I think about its meaning, its function, its structure, its beauty or lack thereof.

But I know that to get published I must sometimes take off my wire-rim spectacles and don safety goggles, or even a helmet, and charge once more into the fray, and let slip the dogs of market analysis and pitch meetings and niggling contract terms. I have to make the beautiful sell.

It's tough straddling the worlds of books and business—one foot on land, the other on sea. You have no choice but to serve both logos and mammon.

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Translation Sensation

Thursday, April 03, 2008
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I have just translated my first Hebrew passage and it has made me absolutely giddy. I'm embarrassed to admit that an academic exercise could fill me with such delight, but there it is. Up until this point, I've parsed individual words and translated single sentences. Today was first time I translated a whole block of the original Hebrew scripture.

The passage is Jonah 1:1–5, which we're studying in my second-semester Hebrew course at Dallas Theological Seminary. Part of what makes the translation such a pleasure is the story itself. Jonah has an amazing, vexing personality. His adventure is engrossing, profound, helpful, and hilarious, all at the same time.

Translating from the Hebrew brings color to each word. I discover that the word we translate "to sleep deeply" (1:5) can simply mean "to snore." I begin to see connections I hadn't noticed before. Jonah is an underachiever. Both God and the ship captain have to tell him to "get up!" People keep throwing things: God throws a wind upon the sea, prompting the sailors to throw their stuff overboard. Later, they'll cast lots, and then of course they'll chuck Jonah.

The star of the show is kind of a lovable nut. What is more comical—and yet disturbingly believable—than a prophet who thinks he can escape from God? What kind of weird mix of faith and rebellion would enable someone to sleep through the perfect storm?

But Jonah is more than a slapstick crank, and much more than a children's book character. The tension that drives him is one that drives me. On the one hand, he wants to serve people and bring them closer to God. On the other hand, he thinks God is too good for those people—and by implication, so is he. It's easy to hold contempt for those you're sent to serve. So when God speaks to Jonah, I try to keep my ears open.

After nine months of studying Hebrew, memorizing 400+ vocab words, learning Qal verbs and Piels and Hiphils and Hophals and myriad Weak verbs, it's a relief to finally apply that knowledge. I feel like a man who has been studying a map so long he can barely focus his eyes, until one day he is dropped off in a foreign city and discovers that he already knows how to get around.

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Monday, October 22, 2007
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In Texas, where I live, autumn comes through about one time in seven. Occasionally we'll get a beautiful, bright fall where the trees turn all sorts of colors before gracefully scattering their leaves. Usually the trees turn brown and drop their leaves overnight in a lump. I want to tell you a story about what happened one of those years when none of the trees wanted to put on a show, except one of them—and that one was an evergreen.

It was a cedar, in fact, and it stood in a forest of all kinds: oaks, walnuts, pears, hackberries, maples, willows, and pecans. Now cedars, as you know, never lose their leaves. They stay green all year round. But this particular cedar loved nothing better than to see the colors of fall. All through the scorching heat of summer she dreamed of a day when the north wind would bring frosty air down from the Rockies. Then the sun would shine bright from a clear, blue sky onto a festival of yellows and ambers, oranges and auburns, vermilions and russets and reds. She would shake out the dust from her limbs and breathe in the sweet air and feast her eyes on the colors all around her.

This particular autumn began as they all do, with a sudden sweep of cool air followed by three days of storms. The little cedar felt refreshed and happy. She rubbed her leaves in anticipation. But after a week or two, she began to notice that the other trees were only turning brown.

She went to the oaks and said, "Great oaks, autumn has come, yet you haven't turned beautiful colors. Why are you only turning brown?"

"Ah, little cedar," the oaks answered, "we haven't had enough rain. We need water to turn lovely colors, but our roots are dry and our mouths are parched and all we can do is turn brown."

The little cedar felt very sad for the oaks. Then she went to the pecans and said, "Mighty pecans, autumn has come, yet you haven't turned beautiful colors. Why are you only turning brown?"

"My goodness, little cedar," the pecans answered, "it's hardly worth it, is it? I mean, we do all that work to make a little splash of color, then all our leaves fall off as soon as a puff of wind comes along. Why go to all the trouble?"

The little cedar felt rather angry at the pecans. Then she went to the maples and said, "Beautiful maples, autumn has come, yet you haven't turned beautiful colors. Why are you only turning brown?"

"Well, little cedar," the maples answered, and they smiled condescendingly, "it's not exactly fashionable anymore, I dare say. Bright colors are well out this year—haven't you heard? Browns are so much more understated, don't you think—so much more sophisticated. We wouldn't be caught dead in the bright oranges and reds we wore last year." And they droned on like this for some time.

The little cedar felt bewildered by the maples. As the sun set, she sensed a frosty bite in the air that told her winter would soon arrive. Then all the trees would lose their leaves, and she would have to wait a whole year for the chance to see them turn again. The little cedar looked up to the budding stars and said, "Please, please let me see lovely autumn leaves before winter comes." And she fell asleep with tears dripping down her branches.

She awoke the next morning to the sounds of gasps and whispers. She looked around. The sky was blue, the air was crisp, and the forest buzzed with excitement. Yet everywhere she looked, the little cedar saw only brown, dry trees, and she wondered what had captured everyone's attention. Then she realized that what they were all looking at…was her.

She looked down at her limbs and saw that her own leaves had changed from dark green to all the colors of autumn: yellows and ambers, oranges and auburns, vermilions and russets and reds.

She shook with joy. She was very beautiful, and she reveled in the breeze and the sunlight. The whole forest admired her—even the maples—and she gloried in her colors for the rest of the autumn.

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John Reed: Pastors' Pastor

Friday, August 17, 2007
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The Jot & Tittle (DTS's student newspaper) published this profile of Dr. John Reed in its summer edition. Here it is for your online viewing convenience.

John Reed hesitated as he stared into the mirror—somehow, he had forgotten how to shave. He dressed, then wandered into the living room. His daughter Beth phoned, but he couldn't put a sentence together. Sensing something was wrong, Beth raced home and took him to the emergency room. Then a seizure gripped him—Reed, 80 years of age, was in real danger. "I was on the edge. It had to be a matter of hours," he recalls. The surgeons operated on his brain, finding and repairing a ruptured vessel that had pressurized his brain cavity with blood.

Two weeks later, he greets me at the door of the house he has shared for thirty years with his wife Erris. He shakes my hand and leads me to a chair. I watch, surprised, as he lifts a nearby table and lamp and shifts them out of the way, then sits in the chair opposite. It's hard to believe this man came near to death so recently. His recovery seems miraculous.

Hundreds of friends around the world—many of them pastors—prayed for him in the days following his seizure. You may never have heard of John Reed, but you've heard of some of the pastors he trained: Joe Stowell, Timothy Warren, Ramesh Richard, Tony Evans, David Jeremiah—the list goes on. "No one knows the name 'John Reed,'" says former student Greg Jenks, "but when his daughter Becky died a few years ago, attending the funeral was a Who's Who of evangelical ministry."

Reed worked as a professor in the Pastoral Ministries department at Dallas Theological Seminary from 1970 to 1993, spending much of that time as chairman. Now he leads the Doctor of Ministry program, continuing to train both new and experienced ministers.

Dr. Tony Evans, who now pastors the 7,500-member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, says Reed had a profound influence during his years in seminary. "Dr. Reed was the first person to welcome us when we came to DTS in 1972," he says. The seminary had only admitted three African American students up to that point, and Reed gave Evans a much-needed sense of belonging. "He was a great encouragement," says Evans. "He added heart to a lot of the truth I was learning."

Jenks describes Reed as a pastors' pastor. "John is known for his insight as a mentor and encourager. He has the uncanny ability to know what's going on in your life without having to ask. He knows how to bring you along without being too direct."

Derrick Jeter, whom Reed mentored in the early '90s and who now works at Insight for Living, agrees. "He was the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove—he gave tough and pointed criticism but in a way that made you want to accept his critique," he says. "I always think when I talk with Dr. Reed, this must have been what it was like speak with Jesus."

Reed's success as a pastor of pastors has made him one of the most influential and beloved figures in evangelical ministry. Perhaps his speedy recovery is due, in part, to the many Christian leaders who, in the weeks following his seizure, let God know they can't afford to lose him.

Confronting Limitations

I ask Reed how he got started in ministry. His answer: "When I was young, I was very shy. People made me uncomfortable. But when I was 18, I experienced a call to ministry. It came about one winter, sawing lumber. My dad was a very quiet person. We would go to the woods in the morning and he would say, 'Good morning,' and at the end of the day he'd say, 'Let's go to the barn.' We didn't talk. It left me with a lot of time to think. And as I thought, I felt a compulsion to ministry."

But Reed faced a serious barrier: stage fright. Whenever he got in front of an audience, his knees shook and his whole body trembled. He decided to face up to this limitation and conquer it, so he looked for opportunities to get in front of audiences. At Cedarville College he got a job introducing and closing a TV program called Chalk Talk. "We never did any retakes. And after two years, I was totally relaxed and free in front of a camera. I'll look in the big blue eye anytime."

He also worked to develop his preaching skills. In churches where he spoke, he asked individuals from the congregation for feedback. One of the things they told him was that he needed to smile more. "I had to learn to express joy through my preaching," he says. He became a student in rhetoric, eventually earning his doctorate in communication.

This once-shy boy shepherded churches in Indiana, Ohio, and Texas for 37 years, ending up as senior pastor of Sherman Bible Church, which flourished under his leadership. Then he shifted into the role of seminary professor, helping to train new generations of pastors and preachers.

His love for the pastoral office is infectious. "I could listen to sermons day after day and week after week. I love working with people, bringing them on, encouraging them. I've been professor and I've been pastor, so I know them both. But the power is in the pastor of the Lord's church. That's where the influence is."

Overcoming Inferiority

Reed's battle with stage fright was only the first in his campaign to overcome his limitations. Despite his easy, confident exterior, a sense of inferiority has haunted much of his life. When he came to Dallas Seminary in 1970, Reed found himself alone, isolated, and intimidated by fellow professors who had graduated from the seminary and knew the original languages intimately. "I'd see S. Lewis Johnson and Bruce Waltke come into chapel with their Greek and Hebrew Bibles bound together, then get up and preach straight out of the original languages! I felt unworthy."

In his early years at Dallas he slipped into depression. "One Saturday night, I was driving home, picking out a bridge abutment to drive my station wagon into, and I realized I was suicidal. I told Erris, and it scared her. There weren't any counselors then—no chaplain—and I had nobody to talk to because I didn't know who I could trust." He realized he had to analyze his situation and find a way out of the darkness.

Then it hit him. The seminary had hired him to train pastors, not to expound the ancient languages. He was good at what he loved to do, just as other professors were good at what they loved to do. Their expertise complemented rather than overshadowed his.

Though the crisis passed, he continued to feel inferior. "The faculty would meet every Thursday afternoon for one or two hours. I was so frightened of those people, and I'd just sit there. If I ever said anything in that meeting, I would have prayed about it, thought about it, written it down—and I got a reputation for being wise." Reed laughs. "I've never told them that I was intimidated, not wise."

Have these feelings of inferiority ever disappeared? "It never goes away. It never, never goes away. It's usually my first impulse—all I know now is how to check it. I am inferior, I just don't want anybody to know it."

Close to the Edge

I ask him about the seizure, his brush with death. "I had to lie on my back for three and a half days and let the rest of the blood drain out. It was a horrible experience. There was no pain—just the restraint: I can't sit up, I have to lie just like this." He stiffens to show the discomfort.

When did he realize he had come close to dying? "When my doctor said, 'You were pretty close to the edge, John.' I was shocked. I thought, 'Boy I sure have left things a mess.'"

Is he afraid of dying? "I'm ready to go. I don't have any problem with it. My daughter died in 2002 of brain tumors. I thought about her when I was lying on my back. No, I don't fear death at all, but it was premature for me.

"I'm okay. I'm not depressed. I'm a happy person. I enjoy life. My father lived to ninety-nine and a half, so I'm targeting one hundred and ten."

A Pastors' Pastor

Reed looks forward to writing Civil War novels after retiring from seminary. But I have a hard time believing he will ever fully abandon his passion for cultivating Christian pastors. As Derrick Jeter says, "He is one of the few men I would consider a great soul—loving his Lord and his students more than himself, committed to training excellent preachers of the gospel for the glory of God." Since hearing God's call in the stillness of a winter forest, he has fought through his limitations to become the finest of pastors' pastors. Training fellow shepherds is deep in his soul.

Now he leans forward and fixes me with his eye. "What's God calling you to?" he asks, then leans back in his chair. Before I can answer, he sets the hook: "Or does God still talk to people? Do they get quiet long enough to hear Him?"

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Good Game

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Relevant published my article How Video Games Taught Me about God this week on their online portal. It appeared there in an abbreviated and sanitized form. For the full, raw, uncut version, read on.

Let's make a game. Let's you and I sit down together and invent our very own video game. Then we'll show it to our friends, put it up on a website, and people all over the world will play it.

What sort of game should we make? Should we design a strategy game, a puzzle game, a role-playing game, a massively multiplayer game—yeah, how about a massively multiplayer game? Let's make something that will bring people together and help them connect.

What should we put in our game? What features can we think up that promote relationships between players?

First we need a way for people to talk. We'll add a chat window so players can type messages to each other. But relationships take more than words. Let's allow players to choose their faces and expressions. That way they can express their personalities and emotions: solitary or sociable, grumpy or jolly.

Now players can communicate, but they need more to do than stare at each other and talk. They need activities. Let's make it so they can build things: statues, houses, machines—anything. Each player will start with a few parts that they can stick together—bricks, wheels, motors, axles, windows, gears. They can combine their parts with other players' to build bigger and better things than a player working alone could ever make. A single player could build a unicycle, but a couple of players could build a bike, and a team of players could build a bus. This sounds good—our design begins to take shape.

Will WrightWill Wright, the brilliant designer of Sim City, The Sims, and Spore, defines a game as "a series of interesting decisions." Our design already meets his definition. By giving players building blocks and letting them put them together in a variety of combinations, we've envisioned a world that rewards ingenuity. Some players will team up to build artwork—replica of the Statue of Liberty, anyone?—others to build functional things like shopping carts and bulldozers, others to build instruments of destruction like battering rams and catapults, and others to run markets for rare parts or handy devices. I imagine a noisy, exciting, talkative world full of players making, using, and trading things. We have ourselves the core of a good game.

You and I have just done what I do for a living. I develop video games. I helped make Ultima Online, Brothers in Arms, Halo PC, and Phit. If you haven't played one of my games, ask your nephew—he probably has.

Christians often ask me why I—a Christian—would work in a godless, immoral, child-corrupting industry like game development. Not wishing to disappoint, I give them the usual excuses: to shine light in the darkness, to fight the corruption from within, to bring the gospel to geeks and artists. The real answer is more complicated. For me, making games is an exercise in experimental theology.

We Create Worlds

When I started my career twelve years ago I worked for Origin Systems, developer of Ultima Online. Origin's slogan boldly asserted, "We Create Worlds." We loved that slogan; it captures the power and allure of making games. In a very real way, game makers fashion worlds like little gods would.

The word "game"—with its offhand, childish overtones—fails to capture what games really are: virtual worlds. Game designers create vivid, living places. You can visit them, explore them, even live in them. Not long after we released Ultima Online in 1997, we discovered that many players spent upwards of 12 hours a day, every day, inside the game world. We heard of divorces caused by players' gaming addictions. We had created a world that appealed to many players more than the real world did.

The Good Game

As I design games, I keep rediscovering how God's world resembles a well-designed game. Sound ridiculous? J. R. R. Tolkien, that greatest of modern mythologists, once described God as the ultimate Myth-Maker. God, he said, authored the True Myth. Like any myth, the True Myth has plot, events, characters, heroes, and villains. Yet it lives and breathes: you and I dwell in its pages. In much the same way, the real world resembles a game. It is the Good Game, designed and programmed by the ultimate Designer.

How does the real world resemble a game? A game poses challenges, leading players into interesting decisions. Likewise, the real world confronts us with choices and responds to our decisions. Video games have instruction manuals and strategy guides to help players excel. Likewise, God has provided us with the Scriptures to teach us the objectives, rules, and hints (and even some of the cheat codes) to help us excel in the Good Game. The mastermind behind Ultima Online, Richard Garriott, entered his own game as a player named "Lord British." Similarly, the mastermind behind the Good Game entered as a player named Jesus Christ.

A Series of Interesting Decisions

As Game Designer, God has total control over every element of his Game. If he says the sun will shine, it shines. If he says players should blink every few seconds, they blink. If he wants to teleport a player named Philip, Philip goes zipping through space. But in a game—unlike a book or movie—players should have some control. Their choices matter. Much of the skill of game design lies in crafting rules that limit what players can do while granting them freedom. The Nintendo character Mario can jump high, but only so high. He has power within limitations. We see the same principle in God's Game. He grants us, his players, control within the boundaries he defines.

Because players have freedom to do what they want, game designers influence players in indirect ways. A good designer suggests what players should do, rather than forcing them. For instance, many games flash the health bar when your health gets low. This warns you of danger but leaves you free to ignore it: you can carry on picking up bonus points if you choose to take the risk. In God's Game, hunger has a similar effect. By requiring us to eat, God wakes us up and gets us focused on the world around us. We choose when and what to eat, but God's Challenge of Hunger puts the choice in front of us. Without hunger, we would spend our lives yawning and daydreaming—why bother getting out of bed? Hunger lets us know from the opening moments of the Game—from our first seconds of life—that we have something at stake, that we have to play to win.

We all know the rule that nobody lives forever. Death horrifies us, yet serves a good purpose: it tells us we cannot win God's Game through material gain. With one, simple rule, God makes clear that health and wealth fall short as the currency of success—even the healthiest and wealthiest players die and decay. Incredibly, many players ignore this basic, undeniable truth. Jesus' parable of the rich fool who toils for wealth only to lose it with his life illustrates what happens when we forget the Challenge of Death (Luke 12:16–21).

The Challenge of Sex

More than any other game element, the Challenge of Sex advances God's desire to teach players how to love. Yet our distorted views of sex blind us to the genius of its design.

Game designers will tell you that if you want players to work together, you have to entice them. Players prefer to work alone unless cooperation pays off. To promote cooperation, designers give players complementary abilities. In a role-playing game, for instance, archers excel in long-range fighting but succumb to close-range attacks, whereas swordsmen excel in close-range fighting but succumb to long-range attacks. To survive in the widest variety of fights, archers and swordsmen wisely team up. By designing each type of player with strengths and weaknesses, designers encourage players to join forces.

God's strategy for cultivating relationship follows a similar principle. He begins by making half his players male and the other half female—two complementary types. He rewards physical contact between these types with orgasm—the greatest immediate pleasure his creation has to offer. This gives an immediate incentive for every player to connect with a player of the opposite sex. On its own, the thrill of orgasm fails to ensure relationship, but it does get players focused on each other—a move in the right direction.

Next, God attaches the process of childbearing to the sex act. Producing children offers another of the greatest rewards in the Game, and both males and females naturally want children. God designs children to need protection and training, a difficult challenge for parents. This challenge brings players into real connection with their mates: players who want the best for their children must commit to work together with their mate, communicate about their children's needs, and agree on difficult choices for nearly twenty years. A couple pursuing these challenges moves toward true relationship.

Yet men and women differ so greatly, not only physically, but in appetites, outlook, and psychology. God designed this challenge too—not to frustrate our relationships, but to perfect them. The tension between men and women rests on a key imbalance. While both a man and a woman can enjoy the sex act, the woman carries the baby.
Pregnancy—the very thought of it—gives the woman a different perspective from the man. For her, a single moment of closeness can transform her body and change her life. She needs help raising a baby and wants a man who will stick with her. This need for commitment leaves her yearning for deep personal connection before, during, and after sex. The man, with less at stake, takes a more immediate approach. Instinctively he knows he can enjoy a woman, then leave her, so he needs less emotional connection. Yet he benefits just as she does from raising healthy children. Both the man and the woman enjoy the benefits of children and consistent sex only if they commit to a life-long partner. They have similar goals but dissimilar outlooks. Through the design of our bodies, God has posed a challenge that guides us toward marriage and deep relationship.

We often respond to this design with resentment rather than joy. Men complain about reticent wives, women complain about overeager husbands, and the "battle of the sexes" rages on. But God never poses a puzzle we can't solve (1 Corinthians 10:13). He has created us to win at the game of love (Genesis 2:18–24). When we trust him, we see that God gives us these challenges to teach us intimacy. Because men and women look at sex differently, we fully enjoy the benefits only when we commit, communicate, compromise, and—ultimately—love one another. Like the best game designers, God keeps us engaged with wonderful rewards that help us press through the hardest lessons. We choose whether to keep on striving for success or to give up hope. But we must remember that God's Game Manual gives two key instructions: "Love the Lord your God" and "Love your neighbor." If we truly want to win God's Game, marriage provides the best training.

The Grand Design

The great Calvinist creed known as the Westminster Confession states the ultimate objective for players of God's Game: "To glorify God and enjoy him forever." God draws us, his players, toward that objective through hunger, which reminds us we have something at stake; death, which reminds us that victory lies apart from material gain; and sex, which challenges us to work out the puzzle of true love. They represent just three of the many features he designed to grow us and help us succeed. When we look at his world as a Game, we discover a beautiful design full of subtlety and wisdom, crafted for our growth and enjoyment.

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The Long Dark Night of the Dead Living

Monday, August 13, 2007
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Living DeadIn the churches I've been involved with over the last twenty years, I've seen a kind of mass deflation. It's not the churches that have gotten smaller, it's the people. Churchgoers attend less regularly. They give money less consistently. A smaller and smaller core serve a larger and larger clientèle of punters. When I meet people on Sunday mornings, many seem furtive and desperate. They avoid eye contact. They talk in generalities and stick to safe topics—"Awful hot out there," "Rangers seem to be picking up this year." They love Jesus, apparently, but won't talk about him. Sometimes I feel like I've landed in a spiritual horror movie where it's the good guys who have become the zombies, The Night of the Dead Living.

I see Christians struggling to explain what puts the "Good" in Good News. We each remember some poignant moment when we "accepted Jesus," "got saved," and our lives began to turn around. But for many of us, somewhere along the way, our lives stopped turning around. We stopped drinking but not smoking. We stopped sleeping around but not looking at porn. We stopped cussing around the office but not around the kids. We gave up greed but can't get out of debt. We learned how to love, but still got divorced. Where, we ask, is the abundant life that Jesus promised?

So now we drift in and out of our churches, hoping against hope that someone will have some answers. We sing worship songs we've long since stop feeling. We rub shoulders with brothers and sisters but the love of most has grown cold. Pastor's got lots of nice things to say, but they don't amount to the crowbar we need to pry our lives back into shape.

The Present FutureIn the last ten years, a string of writers has diagnosed the church's problems and offered solutions for how to fix it. George Barna produces a wealth of data exposing the heart rate and blood pressure of a sickly North American Christendom and advances his own prescription for how to heal it. Brian McLaren and others have founded the emergent movement trying to get the church back in step with a rapidly changing culture. I've just been reading Reggie McNeal's The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, which exposes the moral and practical failure of the megachurch movement and pushes a "missional" approach. Some friends of ours are starting a family-based church that upholds the nuclear family as the center of God's work on earth. Christian pundits have advanced 101 suggestions for what is wrong with the church and how to fix it. My heart is drawn to these writers and ideas because I'm aching—really aching—about the condition of the church and yearn to see it revived.

But I don't believe that anyone has uncovered God's official new way for doing church—not Barna, not McLaren, not McNeal, not nobody. And I don't think we'll uncover what God has in store until we give ourselves the time to become truly empty.

Emptiness. That's my contribution to the discussion. Emptiness.


It's amazing how few people even realize something is wrong with the church. Those who do realize it often don't understand their own thoughts and feelings—"Why am I so unhappy on Sunday mornings?" "Why don't my Christian relationships seem as open as they used to?" "Why doesn't anyone else see what I'm seeing?" And when we tell others what we're feeling, we're often rebuffed.

A few years ago I pointed out to my then-pastor that our local church had become a revolving door where visitors left as quickly as they arrived. I suggested what we needed was not more churchgoers, but deeper churchgoers. His goal was to pastor a megachurch, and he wanted to crank up the appeal of Sunday morning music and sermons in order to draw in the masses. So he didn't appreciate it when I pointed out that finer showmanship on Sunday morning would only promote a thinner, shallower, less committed congregation, not a deeper one. Evidently something about this suggestion tweaked him because he reacted aggressively, accusing me of arrogance (a tactic he used many times against the many people who questioned him over the years that followed). His hostility shocked me, but since then I've seen it again and again. The last people to accept that the church is in trouble are the people who have the most to gain—or think they do—by carrying on with business as usual.

Brian McLarenThe result of this hostility is that we who question the health of the church quickly find ourselves alone and misunderstood. Our isolation opens us to many temptations: defensiveness, divisiveness, insensitivity, and—indeed—arrogance. I'm not saying Brian McLaren is arrogant and self-absorbed, but have you seen his book, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN? You don't get that way—the way I'm not saying he is—without fighting for change alone and unsupported for a lot of years. When people do begin to agree with you, you feel vindicated and relieved—jubilant, even. You feel ready to find a solution and fix the problem—stat.

Loving a wounded church hurts. It hurts to see the church hurting. The hurt can draw us into desperation. So when we see a chance to help the church, our temptation is to jump at the solution without too much discernment. "Corporate model? Emergent? Missional? Family-based? Pick whatever buzzword you got and give it to me," we say. "Anything would be better than this."

But of course: no. Many things would be worse than this. And when we uphold solution X as God's New Way of Doing Church, we subscribe to something much worse: we love the solution rather than God or the church.

This is the catch with the umpteen new models for How Church Should Be. They are all about The Problem and The Solution. But there is no one problem and there is no one solution—there is only Jesus and his Bride struggling to love one another. When we forget that, we fall into solutionism and worship the fix rather than the Lord who gives it.

Say I'm a disenchanted middle-aged pastor. I've been reading church health books and going to conferences for years, struggling to grow my church and see it shine with spiritual vibrancy. Sometimes I see growth, yet our vibrancy continues to dim. Or a growth spurt occurs, but then diminishes as our members siphon off into the megachurch down the road. Finally, starving to see real ministry happen, I crack, declaring, "This is not how church was meant to be!"

I wander lost and alone, but finally come across a writer who says what I've been thinking all along. I'm not alone! I discover that just the sort of decay I've seen has happened in churches around North America. My writer-guru and I agree: the church is sick and needs healing. But what do we do about it?

It's at this point we make our mistake. We immediately search for The Fix—the New Way of Doing Church—and in our desperation quickly find it. When we do this, we skip a step, the all-important step of Emptiness.


When God takes someone from one place to another, he often brings them through a time of emptiness. This happened with my wife and I when our marriage was on the rocks. Our old way of relating to each other—the childish, selfish way we had practiced since dating—collapsed into resentment and bile. We desperately needed to learn how to love each other as God intended. Yet he let us wallow for a while in brokenness. After we had despaired of each other and turned our tearful eyes upon him, he didn't immediately give us bright feelings of delight and service for each other. He let us wallow, not out of cruelty, but in order to let our old ways fully drain from us. Only when we had become truly empty did he begin to build up the new ways.

Emptiness is part of transition. We see it in Christ's forty days in the desert, his time of preparation for ministry. We see it after the Exodus in the desert wanderings as the sands of Egypt fell away and God prepared Israel for the Promised Land. We see it in Job's despair, in Paul's years in Arabia, in John's isolation on Patmos.

God does not like to put his treasures into cluttered vessels. He likes to clean out his vessels—slowly, thoroughly—before depositing his treasures into them. It makes good sense for him to do this—the vessels would not gain by being stuffed with jumbled oddities, and his treasures deserve a fitting home. Yet it's very painful for us. When we give up our old ways—old habits, old ambitions, old securities—we're filled with longing for the new ways. Yet it's at that moment that God "deprives" us (so we think), and we begin our wait—the long dark night of the soul.

Jesus didn't burst from the tomb the moment he was placed into it. Between the crucifixion and the resurrection is the long silence of Jesus' death. What incredible terror and doubt the disciples must have gone through! But their emptiness no doubt had a purpose: to prepare them for the changes to come. Likewise, the Holy Spirit didn't come at the moment Jesus ascended. There is emptiness between the Ascension and Pentecost.

So it is with the church now in its dark and stumbling days. We're praying for rescue, for revival, for God to show us where he wants the Bride of Christ to go. But this transition is too big for an easy answer or one-size-fits-all solution. No doubt God is calling his church to be culturally relevant, missional, and family-oriented. But why stop there? Mightn't God call us to rediscover worship, or prayer, or spiritual gifts? Perhaps his "new direction" for the church will involve rampant persecution or widespread poverty in a collapsing global economy. I don't believe we'll experience God's revival until we empty ourselves of all expectation, of all solutionism.


It's funny, because the one model of church that everyone admires—the first church as illustrated in Acts 2—is the one model nobody is quite willing to follow. We all want to break bread in our homes and eat together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. But who wants to go to church every day? Who wants to form a commune in which we all sell our SUVs and pool our incomes? How do we really feel about our apostles freaking us out with miraculous signs on a weekly basis?

We admire the Acts 2 church, yet fail to emulate it, because it represents a reality we're too afraid to embrace: the reality of people who have truly been changed by Jesus. Christ calls us to be witnesses to who he is and what he has done. Being a witness is easy: you see something, you say you saw it. The problem many Christians have is that we haven't really witnessed Christ doing much. We've read about him but haven't experienced him. So we don't have much to say, and our Good News comes across to non-Christians (and ourselves) as neither new nor especially good.

We can talk about revival, but until we can talk about what Christ has done for us, what business do we have fixing his church? We don't need a new model for church. When we let Christ change our lives so deeply that we can't stop talking about it, we'll be living the new model. Then revival will come, and we won't be able to stop it.


Articles in Kindred Spirit and The Jot & Tittle

Wednesday, August 01, 2007
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I've had a few print articles published this summer that I want to tell you about.

"Anchored in Deep Waters" is the article I co-authored with Eva Bleeker on the ongoing Katrina recovery effort, published in Kindred Spirit.

The seminary student newspaper Jot & Tittle published my profile on DTS professor John Reed a few weeks ago. On the back cover of the same issue is my cartoon, "A Seminarian's Guide to How to Hold Your Face on Campus." The Jot & Tittle is available only in print, but I'll post these items here when I can.

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The Boy Who Wouldn't Cry Wolf, Part I

Saturday, July 21, 2007
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Once there was a shepherd boy who tended the village flock. The villagers had charged him with grazing the sheep, guiding them, and protecting them from harm. They kept the sheep for clothing and food, and relied on the boy to keep close watch.

One day as the boy's mind emerged from a delicious daydream, he heard one of the flock bleat wildly for a moment, then go silent. He looked for the source of the outburst but saw nothing. Later, when he counted the flock, the number came up short. He decided he must have miscounted—his abacus was missing a bead.

The next evening when the boy numbered the sheep, he realized that two were missing. He looked all over but found only a tangle of blood and wool where the flock had last been grazing. He felt alarmed at first, but when he brought the flock into the village, he told no one about what had happened.

The next afternoon he saw a black shape racing among the sheep and heard terrified cries pass through them. He dismissed the shape as a bird or badger, but later when he counted the sheep, another five were gone.

That night the man who tended the barn asked the boy about the flock. "It looks one or two short," the man said. "Are you sure they're all there?" The boy gave a toothy, uncertain nod before going into the house.

The next evening, as the boy played his flute to the sunset, he noticed an odd silence coming from the flock behind him. When he had finished his song, he looked back hesitantly, then quickly turned away, not wanting to believe his eyes. After a few shuddering moments he looked again at the flock.

Half of the sheep were missing. Half of those that remained lie groveling on the ground or stumbling aimlessly from place to place. As for the rest—at first the boy couldn't understand what was wrong with them. They seemed to be standing up and lying down at the same time. Their wool had turned black and white. They sat eerily still, and breathed either not at all or with rapid heaving gasps. Occasionally one of them shook violently, then became still again. They seemed to have two sets of eyes.

It was then that the boy grasped what he was seeing. The black-and-white sheep were not sheep alone, but wolves and sheep clutched together in a cruel embrace. Each sheep had the jaws of a wolf clamped onto its neck. More than a dozen wolves were scattered among the flock, their eyes shifting furtively, their lips peeled back in a guilty grin, each quietly crushing the life from its victim.

The boy snapped to his feet with his voice clenched in his throat and his flute dangling from his fingers. He hesitated, unable to take his eyes from the horror in front of him. He knew he had to get help, but fear stayed him: fear of what the villagers would do when they found out; fear that the wolves might let go of the lambs and turn their hungry eyes upon him.

I wish I could tell you what happens next, but I can't because it hasn't happened yet. As of July 21, 2007, that was the last we had heard of the Boy Who Wouldn't Cry Wolf.

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Jesus Saves, but How?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007
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Christianity Today posted an article this week about a split between three evangelical groups in Britain. The split ends a 14-year partnership responsible for the largest annual British evangelical gathering. The reason for the split: disagreement about exactly how Jesus saves.

Three parties are involved—Spring Harvest, Keswick Ministries, and the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF). The Spring Harvest conference—the gathering they put on each year—brings together 55,000 Christians including a great many youth. Now its future is uncertain.

What makes this a particularly sad split is its cause: the doctrine of atonement. Atonement is the question of how Jesus' death and resurrection brings about salvation. It is a terrible subject to pick a fight over, for more reasons than one.

The question at the heart of the doctrine of atonement intrigues Christians of all stripes. We all believe that Jesus saves us, but how exactly does he do it? Some people think about it this way. Although God was angry at us for our sins, Jesus drew that anger upon himself and satisfied it when he died. We are saved from punishment because Jesus has experienced the punishment we had earned. We call this idea the "penal substitution" theory of atonement. God had good reasons for feeling angry with us, and that anger had to go somewhere—so Jesus took it into himself.

The Lamb of God

The penal substitution theory has its upsides and downsides. On the upside, the Bible says that something like this took place. Jesus is described as a sacrificial lamb that takes away the sin of the world, and if we look at the idea of sacrificial lambs in the Old Testament, we see that they were thought of us substitutes right back to Abraham and the Passover—dying in place of human beings to take away their sins. Paul says, in a profound and beautiful statement, "God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21, NET)

But the penal substitution theory has problems too. First, it explains nothing about how we opt into or out of Jesus' sacrifice. If Jesus absorbed God's anger, why would God still send some people to hell? It's as if Jesus absorbed God's anger conditionally, so that each of us has the chance to "sign up" for forgiveness or not. Well, most Christians believe that, but it doesn't really explain much. There's nothing quite like it in normal human law. How can God's anger be satisfied—but only on a per-person basis?

Christus Victor

The other theory of atonement at the heart of the Spring Harvest split is Christus Victor, otherwise known as the ransom theory. According to the ransom theory, Satan "bought" humanity when we sinned. Atonement means that Jesus bought us back with his blood. We had sold ourselves to Satan, but Jesus ransomed us.

Jesus himself said that he came "to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28), so the ransom theory rings true. But like the penal substitution theory, it gives an incomplete picture. Did Satan really enter into a bargain with Jesus, trading souls for blood? The Bible doesn't tell this story, and we're left to speculate. And again, how is it that Jesus paid for some people but not for others?

It's tempting to hammer out all the upsides and downsides to both theories, to debate their strengths and weaknesses, and to dredge the Scriptures for supporting evidence until one theory defeats the other in hand-to-hand combat and strides forth as the victor. The trouble is that life isn't that simple—God isn't that simple—what Jesus did on the cross isn't that simple.

Christianity's Dark Secret

I'm about to utter the dark secret of Christianity, the Fact that Dare Not Speak Its Name, the truth we are embarrassed to admit. Here it is. Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins, but we haven't the foggiest how it actually works. The gospel we package up and sell each week is something we only dimly grasp ourselves. We have a few theories—images really, mere metaphors—but we haven't got a clue how Jesus' blood dealt with sin. We know that in some cosmic way, Jesus' death plus our belief makes us pure in God's eyes. But as for the mechanics of that transformation—the technicalities of divine jurisprudence—we are out in the cold. We have only the dimmest glimmer of insight.

It's sad that Christian organizations would split over this question. How can you split over something you don't understand? Why part ways over a mystery?

The Mystery of Salvation

In the Christianity Today article, J. I. Packer is paraphrased as saying, "Penal substitution, Christus Victor, and other Scriptural views of atonement work together to present a fully orbed picture of Christ's work." In other words, picking a theory of atonement is not an either-or thing. Christ did something profound when he died for our sins. His death worked on many planes, in many ways—some of which we can begin to understand, others of which we cannot. Anyone who has read or seen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has glimpsed the richness of atonement. Did Aslan die as a substitution for Edmund's sin? Yes. Did he negotiate a ransom payment to buy Edmund back from the witch? Yes. Did he fulfill the cosmic law concerning traitors? Yes. Did he transcend the cosmic law to fulfill the divine, creative law? Yes. C. S. Lewis understood that atonement is multifaceted. It cannot be boiled down to a party political statement, a theological soundbite.

Fundamentally, whatever other consequences it may have had, Christ's death was an interaction between Father and Son. In some mysterious way, the Father and the Son conspired together—and yet strangely in opposition with each other—to make sinful people utterly sinless. How can we understand what words they exchanged, what commodities changed hands, what legal precedences were invoked? Their negotiations, whether by whispers or shouts, are out of our earshot. We cannot comprehend the magnitude or method of what they did. So why would we argue about the mechanics of grace?

Who or What?

It's this word "faith" again. In recent years, Christians have got it into their heads that saving faith has to do with what you believe. It never did. It has to do with who you believe. Who do you think is trustworthy? Who will you bank on? Who will you invest in, spend your time with, imitate? "...That whoever believes in him will not perish..." Believes in his existence? No. Believes in the correct nature of his atonement? No. Believes in him—trusts him. Reckons he can get the job done. Dallas Willard suggests the word "confidence" instead of "faith": Do we have confidence in Jesus?

That's not to say confidence doesn't involve doctrine. Jesus can't get the job done unless he is fully man and fully God, and that's a doctrinal statement. But in the Bible, faith is not fundamentally about logical propositions—it's about who we decide to follow.

Salvation, then, is not about the technicalities of atonement, but about the Person who gives it to us. There is no point in arguing about the mechanics of grace; the only thing to do is to receive it. This is one gift horse whose mouth is best left unexamined.

So when I come before the throne of God and he asks me why he should let me into his kingdom, I don't plan to give him a treatise on Christus Victor or the penal substitution of atonement. I'm planning to say, "I don't know how it all works, but I trust Jesus to have made my way." It's like they say in business: It's not about what you know—it's about who you know.


Listening to the voices in your head

Saturday, June 30, 2007
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I went to the emergency room on Sunday night. Ever since the kids came along I've been dreading having to take them there, but it turned out I was the one to get hurt first. I nearly put out my eye while doing a harmless bit of car repair. Here's how it happened.

Two of the door handles on our 2002 Toyota Sienna had broken. It's cause our kids have superpowers and don't know how to control them yet—a common problem amongst larval superheroes. I couldn't repair the sliding door myself, but I found a site outlining how to fix the rear door handle better than new. I'm not mechanically inclined, but I reckoned I could do what the site described. And it would save me the $130 the repair man would charge.

First I removed the inner part of the rear door and removed the broken latch. The latch was plastic—no wonder it had broken. Now all I had to do was drill a hole down through the latch into the lever that had broken off it, then screw the two back together. This would make the latch even stronger than it originally was: metal is stronger than plastic, you know.

Drilling through the parts went well until I realized I couldn't get the drill bit back out of the part. The bit was stuck so tight that the drill couldn't keep a hold on it. I tried prising it out in several ways; I even drilled a second hole right alongside the first, but the bit still would not budge.

I decided that what I needed was a tighter grip on the drill bit. So I clamped it with a pair of pliers and clamped the pliers in a vise. Then I rocked the part back and forth, trying to twist it off the bit.

With the inclusion of the pliers and vise I had involved quite a bit of force into this endeavor and realized the chance of something slipping, flipping, or cracking was non-zero. I said a little prayer that the handle wouldn't crack—I really hated to have to pay the repair man to replace it. Then I remembered my friend Chris, who had his eye nearly blown away a few months back in a freak accident, and I heard a little voice saying the same sort of thing could happen to me. "But of course it won't," I replied. "Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I'm the least accident-prone person I know." Still, I felt uneasy, and pushed my glasses closer up toward my face. I've worn glasses since I was a kid and they've saved me from many a flying chip, splinter, and pebble. But as I touched them I noticed they don't give the coverage my early-'80s serving platters did.

Even worse, they weren't even in a position to block whatever shrapnel might emerge from my twisting contraption. I'm needing bifocals, frankly, and what that means—for you young folk—is that I can't focus on something if it's between six and twelve inches from my face. I can look under my glasses at something if it's closer than six inches; I can look through my glasses at something if it's farther than twelve inches; but in the middle distance neither my eye nor my lenses give me focus.

I suddenly realized I was looking at this twisting contraption under my glasses, about six inches from my eye. So I moved it away to arms length. But I needed to see whether the drill bit was turning, so before I knew it I had moved in close again.

Now this is the moment when the drill bit should have wrenched free from the handle effortlessly, and I should have grinned at it triumphantly and carried on with my work. Instead, there was a sharp "ping" sound, and suddenly I was staggering back from the work table, the vision in my right eye was blurry and—holy cow—pink, and I've just shot out my eye.

It didn't hurt. It felt like a little dust had got in there. But when I pulled my hand back down and saw my fingers were covered in blood, I knew I had bigger problems than dust.

This is just going to keep getting worse, so stop reading now if you've had enough forensics.

I felt quite calm as I went into the house. My first thought was that the kids not see me. My second thought was that I could now joke with Chris about going to new lengths to identify with his troubles. My third thought was that I should get someone to take me to the emergency room. The order of those thoughts will tell you a great deal about my character.

I moved through the house to the bathroom and surveyed the damage. The good news: my left eye was perfectly fine. The bad news: my right eye looked like the horror section at the video store. I was literally crying blood. Some of the more enterprising droplets had stolen into my tear ducts and now emerged furtively from my right nostril. The white of my eye was flowing pink like a decorative waterfall at a Japanese garden. A thin sheet of tissue about the size of a fingernail emerged like an anemone and wavered every time I blinked.

I leaned under the faucet and rinsed. When I got up, there was a little tab of tissue left in the sink. I thought: "I've got a pretty good chance of losing this eye." I prayed that I wouldn't—that I'd come out of this unscathed.

Not wishing to cause alarm, I called to my wife in the most nonchalant, "Honey we're out of toilet paper," voice I could muster, and pondered what to do next. Usually I have a hard time planning a trip to the bathroom, but it took me no time to decide how to get to the hospital. Driving myself was out of the question. I couldn't ask my wife because someone had to stay with the kids. My parents were entertaining company. So I called up my nephew James. My wife came in as I reached him, and I told him to be on standby. Then I showed her what had happened. She gasped, looked more closely, gasped again, then went to the bed to wrestle with the temptation to faint while I asked James to drive me.

We were at the hospital for three hours—not bad at all for an emergency room visit. I spent most of the time resting on the bed, reading a good book and enjoying myself. I felt completely calm—no anxiety at all. The nurse found my heart rate and blood pressure to be normal. This will sound trite to some, but I knew from long experience that God would do right by me. I could live without one eye—there are worse things to lose. And I figured he would answer my prayer with a "yes." He usually does. Usually.

The doctor put weird drops in my eye and looked into it with a blue light. Then he gave me the diagnosis: subconjunctival hematoma.

The eye, it turns out, is a complicated thing. The white of the eye is a mass of tissue kept at a constant pressure by an elaborate pumping mechanism or something. Then you have the cornea, which is the clear "dome" over the iris—the colored part of the eye. What I didn't know was that the eye is enclosed in a kind of clear skin called the conjunctiva. What happened with me is that a little piece of the drill bit bounced off my cheek, making a small mark, and ricocheted across the surface of my eye making a long, but not terribly deep, scratch. It tore the conjunctiva and cut a little way into the white, then came out again. If it had stayed embedded, I would have been in agony—not to mention the unpleasantness of removing it. If it had struck a few millimeters to the right, I would now be blind, or facing endless surgeries, or both.

hematomaIt merely broke a couple of vessels in the white of my eye, and this flooded the space between the white and the conjunctiva with blood. Thus the diagnosis: subconjunctival hematoma.

The injury did not damage my cornea. It did not affect my vision. It didn't mess with the sensitive pressure in my eye. All told, I got off easy. I needed a tetanus shot, antibiotic eye drops, and some saline solution. If I say, "Praise God," will you see what I mean? When God had warned me about my eye, I hadn't listened. But when I asked him to make it work out all right, he did listen.

I paid $100 for the privilege of using the emergency room, plus $35 for a check-up three days later. So much for saving money. The next day I braved working on the handle again, and found it was still unbroken. The drill bit had snapped off right where it exited the handle. I decided to leave it in there—more steel reinforcement. Then I finished fixing the van, and the rear door works better than ever.

My eye was dry and uncomfortable for a couple of days. Now it's fine. The only long-term effect is that I look like a demon-possessed thug. Even this downside has its advantages. I win a lot more arguments, for instance.

I learned three things from my experience.
  1. Wear safety goggles.
  2. There's a reason repair men charge the big bucks to fix things. Let them.
  3. If a little voice inside your head says, "Maybe this isn't such a good idea," believe it.


Book Review: The Great Omission by Dallas Willard

Saturday, June 23, 2007
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My review of Dallas Willard's The Great Omission has just appeared on Relevant magazine online.

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Exploiting the Evangelical Market

Saturday, November 11, 2006
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One of my friends over at Erksom forwarded to me this rather disturbing memo, which I pass along without further comment.

Mr. Chip Dinger
Director of Marketing
Erksom Products Ltd.
101 N. Frisk St.
Archminster, IL 41238

Archminster, October 31, 2006

Re: Exploiting the Evangelical Market

Dear Fellow Directors:

My department has completed our preliminary research into the market we discussed on Thursday. The good news: Demographically speaking, American evangelicals are rich, stupid, and easily sold. The bad news: We're not the first to have realized it. We must move quickly to take our share in this lucrative and expanding market.

Evangelicals began to emerge as a distinct purchasing force in the early- to mid-90s, but have only come into their own in the last few years. Several major product releases, including the The Passion of the Christ and The Purpose Driven Life, have recently demonstrated the vitality of this poorly-understood consumer group. Passion, for instance, grossed over $370 million at the box office and is the eleventh top-grossing film of all time, just ahead of Jurassic Park. Its success was propelled by evangelical leaders who saw the film as a marketing opportunity for their own (spiritual) product, and rented out whole theaters as an "evangelistic exercise." (It turns out, though, that most non-Christians--including most of us in marketing--found the film repulsive, and it had little "evangelistic" success.)

The Porpoise Driven Life (as some of my staff are calling it) has sold through over 25 million units. Interestingly, its early sales were driven by Warren himself, who, with the help of like-minded financial backers, bought hundreds of thousands of copies to distribute for free and to seed initial sales figures. The book's ambi-Christian packaging--devoid of clear religious references--helped it sell to the agnostic and quasi-religious self-help market. But a great deal of the marketing was propelled by evangelicals themselves, giving copies to "lost" friends and family members.

These and other product successes show that evangelicals are a major purchasing force. Product saturation still lies well beyond the horizon. This is our opportunity.

Some of our competitors have been working in this market for some time, so we must move quickly. In September, Fox Home Video, acting apparently out of their own deep-felt religious yearnings, launched FoxFaith Films, an arm dedicating to exploiting the evangelical market. The financials are interesting. The films are made for $5 million apiece (less than a tenth of the average movie budget), with an additional $5 million for marketing. FoxFaith clearly sees this consumer group as desperate, not discerning. Fox is known, paradoxically, for both raunch and conservativism; perhaps a Last Temptation Island of Christ series will spring from this happy union?

What is it about this market that makes it so lucrative? The key is this: Evangelicals are consumers first, religious believers second. Like all consumers, evangelicals shop in order to find and express themselves. Just as students flash their iPods, writers flash their Montblancs, and middle managers flash their Lexuses, evangelicals flash their NIV Study Bibles, their Veggie Tales videos, and their Calvert Math homeschool texts. Like all Americans, they spend money as a way of showing the people around them who they are. Human animals searching for meaning and self-expression will spend ridiculous money for a product that aids them in their quest--just look at the success of the iPod or Starbucks. That is one gravy train we cannot afford to miss.

So what do evangelicals spend their money on? "Family Values" is the buzzword to watch. Although an evangelical is just as likely to be divorced, absentee, or lecherous as the next guy, he likes to think of himself as a lover of home and hearth, a defender of decency, and the protector of his children. An evangelical's greatest dread is a future world where his or her children are wild and "pagan," having been lured from the faith by video games, hip-hop, and homosexuals. It's notable that the leading quasi-Christian radio network has the slogan "Safe for the Whole Family." One of the leading Christian retailers is "Family Christian Stores." The major Christian radio programs is "Focus on the Family." Spot a trend?

Evangelicals decry America's "moral decline" even while financing it. This contradiction is the key to success in this segment. An evangelical shopper will buy a family video with one hand and a porn video with the other. He or she will hand-wring over whether to give to charity, yet drive two thirsty SUVs. The secret is to exploit their sense of terror and guilt by offering products that promise to guard their children and strengthen their family while still providing the thrills and personal fulfillment Americans demand.

Marketing feels this is a crucial opportunity for Erksom Ltd. We believe one brand announcement before the end of 2006, with 3-5 additional in 2007, will help propel us into a leadership position in this segment by 2008. Given this background, here are some specific suggestions for product lines we feel PD should consider.

  • The Happily-Ever-After Video Series. Each video in this series begins with a one-hour, family-oriented romantic adventure culminating in the triumphant marriage of the hero and heroine. The movie then pauses at an intermission, giving parents an opportunity to get their children to bed. The second hour of the movie continues the story of the wedding night with a mild (by normal standards) pornographic offering.
  • The Lord is My Fortress Home Security System. Monitored by avowed evangelicals, this security system takes both spiritual and physical safety into account. At the press of a button, home owners can request a quick prayer for safety, comfort, or freedom from anxiety from regional monitor personnel. Installed keypads adorned with Scripture and crucifixes bring feelings of warmth and security.
  • Pet Rock of Ages. It's high time pet rocks made a comeback, and what better market than those wholesome, nostalgic evangelicals to usher it in? Each rock comes with a care-and-feeding booklet complete with rock-oriented spiritual lessons for children.
  • The Martin Luther Bling Streetwise Jewelry Line. Evangelical children living in 21st century America can hardly escape the allure of gangster rap and its "cool" accouterments. Christian parents have long recognized: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. What better way to sanitize Junior's rap obsession than with spiritually edifying "Martin Luther Bling" jewelry? Now Junior can dress like Chamillionaire while learning important lessons in Reformation history and soteriology. Line includes oversize necklaces, bracelets, rings, clip-on earrings, phylacteries, and alarm clocks.
We are proud of Erksom's heritage of success in exploiting subculture markets. Our recent offerings in organic cookware and gay intimate apparel have been groundbreaking and profitable. Marketing feels the evangelical subculture is low-hanging fruit that lies very much within Erksom's core competencies, and we should waste no time in aggressively developing brands and products in this area.

Yours Sincerely,

Chip Dinger
Director of Marketing

cc: Dick Bascaroni
Epstein Brianson
Fitch Williams
Arg Neckplankton
P. Stephen Sloan


Wading in Skubala

Wednesday, November 08, 2006
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You need to be warned that this post contains a bad word. But it does so only because the Bible itself contains a bad word. I never knew that. You don't know it either, because you've been protected from knowing it.

It appears in Philippians 3:8 (which I've recently been working on for my 3rd semester Greek class at seminary). Here it is in the original Greek:
ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου, διὃν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην, καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα, ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω...
The word you want to keep your eye on is "σκύβαλα"--pronounced "skubala." Here's a literal translation of the verse.
But indeed I also consider everything to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I forfeited all things; and I consider them shit so that I may gain Christ...
Yes, you heard me right. Skubala means shit. Not only does it literally mean shit--i.e., human excrement--but it also has the same connotation. It is a vulgar word. Paul would not have said it in mixed company unless he expected a reaction.

It's difficult to find Christian sources that discuss skubala, but its use in ancient writings outside of the Bible makes clear that it was considered very impolite. The leading modern Greek lexicon--BDAG, it's called--glosses skubala as "refuse," "garbage," "human excrement," "crud," and "crap"--very strong words for this Christian scholarly book.

So the original text of the sacred Scripture contains a dirty word. I don't know about you, but I felt a profound sense of relief when I discovered this.

English translations don't like this word. They take the edge off it.
King James: ...Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ...

New American Standard: ...Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ...

New English Translation: ...Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things– indeed, I regard them as dung!– that I may gain Christ... [I suppose the exclamation point is there to make it a bit "edgier."]

Revised Standard: ...Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ...
It's interesting that all these translations "soften up" the original vulgarity. What does that say about the people who make and buy Bibles? What does it mean when the Bible is more profane than we are?

Why Do We Sanitize the Bible?

I'm betting there are two sorts of people reading this post. One sort of person will be asking, "Why have the translators been sanitizing the Bible? If Paul said it, surely it's not our business to change it." The other sort of person will ask, "Why, Jeff, are you writing about this? Why air this dirty laundry? How is this discussion helpful to Christianity?"

Interestingly, the answer to both these questions lies in Philippians 3 itself. Paul uses this naughty word for a reason. Look at what Paul is saying here (Phil 3:4b-9, NET translation).
If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things– indeed, I regard them as dung!– that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ's faithfulness–a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ's faithfulness.
So what's the connection between the fact that Paul uses a dirty word and the fact we purge it from our translations? The connection is legalism.

How Good is Good Enough?

Legalism is the pretense that some human beings are nice and others are naughty: that there is a standard of "normal" behavior that defines what sort of person is "decent" and what sort is a scumbag. The Philippians were starting to buy into this idea, and Paul wrote to them to wake them up. He says, in effect, "Don't bother trying to be 'decent': I've already tried it. I was as 'normal' and 'decent' as you can get and I was still a scumbag. If you want to be righteous, it's going to take a whole lot more than politeness and normalcy. It's going to take a divine intervention." And to make sure they get the point, as well as to illustrate his contempt for human standards of normalcy, Paul drops the s-bomb.

In his discussion of legalism, Paul is saying what Jesus himself said again and again. Here are some of the ways Jesus said it.
Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)
(You can already sense the Ted Haggard reference coming, can't you?)
You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

On that day, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!' (Matthew 7:22-23)
Interestingly, in the Old Testament, Isaiah uses another "vulgar" image when talking about this same topic:
We are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight. (Isaiah 64:6)
In other words, what human beings perceive as upstanding behavior, God perceives as a soiled tampon. Thanks for that image, Isaiah.

Insiders and Outsiders

We only let G-rated people into our churches. In church, a person who smokes, or cusses, or reeks of liquor, or dresses seductively is viewed as suspect, inferior, abnormal, an outsider. You're only allowed into the church body/family/club/clique if your shirts are starched and your smile is white and your speech is inoffensive.

It wasn't always this way. Jesus himself hung out with "sinners"--including tax collectors, drunks, and prostitutes--to such a great degree that the decent "church people" of his day accused him of being a debauched party animal (Luke 7:34). The early church was a motley crew, not the clean middle-class stereotype of modern evangelical churches.

What changed? One of the things that changed is the reason why we go to church. Now we go to "connect with people like ourselves," to "form community," to "fellowship" and receive "support." We go so that our children will be in a loving, safe setting where they can learn about God and family values. Well, these are noble goals, but what do they have to do with Jesus hanging on a bloody cross? Did Jesus hang on a bloody cross to provide us with a clean, safe, child-friendly mall-like clubhouse where we can hold banal conversations with like-minded family-values-oriented people? Or did he hang on a bloody cross to utterly transform our shitty lives? And if it is the latter, who do you think "gets" Jesus more: the clean, polite middle-class people or the dirty, vulgar funky-class people? He said: "Those who are healthy don't need a physician, but those who are sick do. Go and learn what this saying means: 'I want mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:12)

So the Bible says "shit" and "soiled tampon" because that's what the Bible thinks of how good we are. But your translation says "dung" and "filthy rags" because Christians are still trying to whitewash the truth.

Invested in Sin

Well, how's this strategy working out for us? We evangelicals are faring pretty well, right? I mean, maybe we don't uphold God's crazy-high standard of moral behavior, but we sure do a lot better than the normal human standard, right?

Oh sure. That's why our divorce rate is no better than the national average. That's why 50% of all Christian men admit to being addicted to pornography--admit to being addicted. Twenty percent of Christian women do too.

And that's why Ted Haggard's recent confession does not surprise me in the least. (There's the mention--you knew it was coming.) Evangelicalism has become a religion of appearances. We've created a subculture of politeness and "good morals" instead of humble worship and radical obedience to God. We churn money and votes through our glistening megachurches, but have lost touch with our own deep brokenness. Our talk is all about "conversion" (i.e. selling club memberships) rather than the discipleship (transformation and obedience) that Jesus offers and commands. Why should I be surprised when the king of the religion of appearances turns out to be not as he appears?

There's an interesting article on the National Association of Evangelicals' response to the Ted Haggard scandal. In it, Rev. Leith Anderson, a megachurch pastor who is temporarily replacing Haggard as NAE director, says, "[Most people] will understand that if there are 45,000 churches [affiliated with NAE], that 44,999 of them have leaders that did not misbehave and that one person misbehaved and that that is an anomaly."

So "misbehavior" is an anomaly? See, that's funny, 'cause I thought the Bible said everyone misbehaves; something like: "There is no one who does good, not even one." Is "misbehavior" different from "sin," in Rev. Anderson's view? Is he suggesting that misbehavior is gross, whereas sin is mild and excusable? Or is he saying that "misbehavior" is when sin becomes embarrassingly public, whereas mere "sin" is kept pleasantly private?

It's too bad that a religion that names itself after Christ, that purports to offer his Good News to the world, still wants to deny the very reason he went to the cross. People are broken. Not some people: all people. So which is worse: to be broken in a way everyone can see, or to be broken in a way that you can keep secret--even from yourself? Think about it. To understand the answer to that question is to begin to understand the Sermon the Mount. "Blessed are the poor in spirit." "Blessed are those who weep and mourn." "I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it." "I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." The Bible doesn't offer "decency" as an option. Either you're mired in sin, or you are justified. The Bible neither denies sin nor revels in it. It tells the truth about our grotesque brokenness, and then offers a supernatural solution. Isn't that the gospel we are so eager to spread? Then why are we still running from it?

Jesus ' story of the two worshipers sums it all up (Luke 18:10-14).
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.' The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!' I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee.


Why do institutions always decay?

Monday, November 06, 2006
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Human beings sometimes change for the better, but institutions always get worse.

I was just reading about that 16th century clash between Calvinism and Lutherism. Calvin and Luther got along just fine, but after their deaths, their followers couldn't stop fighting. The Great Men themselves seemed to have the insight, confidence, and love of unity necessary to navigate their differences peacefully, but their followers lacked such nuance or love. It got me thinking: why do institutions always seem to deteriorate in the generations after their founders pass on?

Walt Disney is another example. The man himself created magic wherever he went and seemed incapable of taking a misstep. Certainly he propelled his company from obscurity to one of the great organizations of modern history, not only in filmmaking but in television, theme parks, merchandising, and so on. Yet now, just a couple of generations after his death, the Disney company seems to have lost its way. It use to be that everyone copied Disney; now it's Disney doing the copying. The torch has passed to Pixar--and Disney either can't, or doesn't have the sense, to hold onto its last available light source.

The Reformation itself, which Luther and Calvin spearheaded, came in response to the deterioration of Christianity. Even Jesus' own great movement had decayed in the centuries since he walked the earth; by the 15th century it was--with rare exceptions--a disgusting farce: rampant with greed, governmentally oppressive, morally debauched, militarily violent. If even Jesus' own movement is doomed to institutional decay, how can any leader hope to found something of lasting value?

This question shivers my bones when I look at contemporary America. Our founding fathers were inspired, and the system they established is still the best the world has seen. It has served us very well these last two hundred years. But are we doomed to follow in the footsteps of the other great powers of world history--Britain, Rome, Greece, Persia, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt? A decaying America seems unthinkable, yet history says it's inevitable.

Why do institutions always decay? I wonder if it has something to do with this idea of regression towards the mean.

It takes a remarkable person to found a new organization or movement. The more remarkable the person, the more remarkable the movement. Yet, the more remarkable the founder, the less likely that is his successors will be as remarkable as he. After his departure, his movement comes to be entrusted to leaders who are quite unlike the founder, and they inevitably drop the ball to a greater or lesser degree.

Why are they inevitably inferior? Because although these leaders may still be outstanding--after all, the remarkable founder selected and trained them--they are still unlike him in that they, necessarily, are exactly the sort of people not to found a remarkable, revolutionary movement. If they were that sort of people, they wouldn't have joined his movement or ridden on his coattails.

A founder is a person who is so unhappy with what is currently going on--and so inspired/driven/confident by his own vision--that he has to found something new. But the people who join his movement, rise up in it, and eventually take the reins are by definition more joiners than founders. Their goals and skills are at least as much to do with sustaining the organization as with breaking new ground.

I heard on the radio, driving home the other night, that Walt Disney was fairly cavalier about money. He was a genius financier, yet he never quenched ambition with niggling practicalities. He trusted that if you were making a bright enough light, no amount of dust would dim it. That's a founder way of thinking. Yet a corporation like Disney Corp, post-Walt, with its stock price and shareholders, its beloved brand to protect, and its prior successes readily available for exploitation, quickly turns its mind to nickels and dimes, to protecting money as well as creating great ideas. It cares about making light, but it also cares about counting motes of dust. Institutions, unlike their founders, have something to lose; they gain a share in the status quo.

Look again at Christianity. Where did Jesus worry about practicalities? "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin." "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" Jesus does not think in terms of practicalities or force--at least not in the way we usually think of it.

Yet by the 15th century, the Popes had one of the most powerful armies on earth. They no longer named themselves after saints, but after Caesars. They were the richest people on the earth. They threw lavish and lewd parties for their courts, and openly kept harems of concubines and stables of illegitimate children.

All institutions decay. See if you can find an exception. (The Illuminati, maybe? -chuckle-) They decay because whatever once made them great becomes harder and harder to sustain, until all that's left is the memory of past glory. You can never point to an institution and say, "They've licked it. They've found the Golden Fleece. They'll just keep getting better and better from now on."

But I'm still hoping Pixar will buck the trend.


Divine Smackdown: Round Ten

Saturday, November 04, 2006
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Great, another evangelical leader bites the dust. Is God trying to tell us something through this chain of scandals? The Ted Haggard allegations come just a few months after Mel Gibson's humiliating arrest, which confirmed non-Christians' and lite-Christians' worst fears about "real" Christianity. Is Christianity really a life-changing encounter with the living Jesus Christ, or is it simply a rallying cry for individuals whose real interest lies in moral and fiscal conservativism?

What makes me sad is the thought of all the people I know--young Christians, non-Christians, older Christians who are still struggling to find the "abundant life" Jesus promised--who will now have yet another reason to dismiss Christianity. When Jesus started this movement, it was full of miracles and life-change and resurrection and understanding and healing. Now, in this Christian nation, where one in three people call themselves "born again," our brightest stars can't seem to stop themselves from getting drunk, smack-talking the Jews, taking drugs, and playing with other men's penises. What in blazes is going on?

Ted Haggard was one of the leaders at the heart of the evangelical power+money arm. (Power+money all for a good cause, of course.) I've been skeptical of this arm for a long time, and now I'm ready to chew it off like a badger caught in a trap. Remind me again: where did Jesus command or model for us to seek political power? When did He teach us that money was a necessary evil--rather than just an evil?

Christianity has been scheming against God, asking Him for help but assuming He won't, and taking matters--political, military, financial, and otherwise--into our own hands. It reminds me of Jacob, who couldn't make up his mind about God either. Before Jacob met Esau--after having ripped him off--he asked God to help, then assumed He wouldn't. Jacob started scheming how he was going to protect himself from Esau's wrath. It was after that last day of scheming that God showed up in human form and fought with Jacob: literally wrestled--it still makes me laugh. And physically, Jacob won! But when he realized what was happening, God won his heart and renamed him Israel--"he who strives with God."

Are we so different from Israel? We think we're God's chosen, we offer up our milquetoast prayers, yet we don't really lean on Him. We believe God saves our souls, but not our pocketbooks, not our jobs, not our children's eyes and ears, not our happiness. We can't wait around for a miracle; we've got bigger fish to fry than helping the poor; so we form lobbying organizations and political unions, raising millions to Fight the Good (Enough) Fight.

Show me the chapter in the Bible where God said to do this. I think we're wrong, and I think God is sick of our pseudofaith. Now here He comes, showing up with His boxing gloves on. Maybe Ted Haggard's fall is simply the latest divine Right Hook--a body-blow for the Body of Christ.


Scientific Study on Prayer

Sunday, April 02, 2006
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"Study: Prayer didn't help sick" is a new article in The Seattle Times describing the results of a recent experiment on prayer and illness. I always find these studies interesting--sometimes they affirm that people do better when prayed for, sometimes not. This one doesn't.

I thought the study was particularly interesting in light of my recent bout with strep throat and prayer.


Illness and Compassion

Wednesday, March 29, 2006
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For the past few days my son and I have been down with strep throat. It’s the sickest I’ve been in years. When you’re well it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be sick. Let me remind you: it’s awful.

With strep throat you of course have a sore throat, but that’s only the beginning. You also have a high fever—almost 104 in my son’s case, and me not far behind—causing chills and constant pain in all your joints. When you’re well, 104 sounds much the same as 102 or 100. But when you’re at 104 you don’t need a thermometer to tell you you feel way beyond normal awful.

You feel every sound coursing up through your ribcage: the beep of the microwave, the shutting of a door, a gale of thin laughter coming from the TV. The aching in your joints drives you into a constant, conscious cycle of adjusting your limbs and body. You try to remain perfectly still to ease the pain, then feel that moving a leg or ankle will ease it, then try to stay still again, then feel the need to adjust again, endlessly, not for an hour or two but for hours upon hours, more than a couple of days this time around. Time never moves more slowly than when you are ill. I am usually surprised at how quickly my days pass, but at one point during this bout I guessed two hours had passed when in fact it had just been half an hour.

Thankfully, it is possible to sleep even with this level of discomfort, but only after hours of doing the fever dance, and even then your dreams are filled with vague, repeating, agonizing images of irresolvable conflict. I read Plato before falling asleep on Saturday night, and my dreams—if you can so call these half-waking horrors—were somehow like dialogues between various parties arguing for lying on my right side or my left or face first, legs twisted one way or another. No side ever won.

After a day or two, the sore throat and fever are joined by a grinding headache that alternates between the base of the skull and the crest of your brow. Even the tiniest of lights makes a pinprick of pain and can spell the difference between wakefulness and sleep. You try to rub away the pain in your neck and it seems to help ever so slightly, then your hands quickly become cold, and chills draw you back into a huddle.

After a couple of days we were over the worst of it. We got diagnosed and dosed, and now a day later feel mostly better. Plus a new GameBoy cartridge arrived yesterday; there’s no better medicine, if you’re not too sick—101 or less, let’s say.

It was an awful experience, but I know I’ve had worse. Yet something about this illness coming at this point in my life made me think more realistically and theologically about sickness and suffering than I ever have.

Does God Respond When We Need Him?

The second night was the worst. I was up at 1 AM, couldn’t sleep, and the minutes felt like hours. I was in too much pain to sleep yet too tired to do anything else. I prayed desperately—if God had eyes that could be looked into, I looked into them and said: “Heavenly Father, please relieve this headache. Please help me fall asleep and sleep soundly until morning.” I prayed, too, that the girls—my wife and daughters—wouldn’t get sick.

I can’t remember now whether it was an hour later or just seemed like an hour later, but at some significantly later point in time I still had a splitting headache—not even to bother mentioning the chills, aches, or throat—and was not sleeping. My prayer was not being answered. I confess I was disappointed. I was, in the immortal words of Phillip Yancey, disappointed with God. Not for the first time, either. But this time was hitting home in a rather HERE and NOW way.

Eventually I did fall asleep. I did sleep well—a solid four hours, dreamless, the first good sleep in two days. But I thought about my prayer and God’s response. I asked the old question every child asks (and the best of us, I think, keep on asking): How is it that Jesus, and later his disciples, went around healing people like crazy, while here in our modern age the only Christians who seem to be able to heal anything always seem to be hoaxers?

What was stopping God from simply taking away my headache, or my whole illness and my son’s with it for that matter? Was I lacking in faith? Relative to some of the people Jesus healed in the Gospels—some of whom were really clutching at straws—I don’t think so. Would it have cheapened my faith, diverting it to the wrong focus? No: I’ve seen bigger miracles than that, and not so different from it. Was there something I had done to repulse God’s kindness? I certainly sin, but I don’t recall any looming sin that would warrant the cold shoulder treatment, nor do I think God’s compassion works that way.

Although I didn’t become an atheist during my suffering or contemplations, it occurred to me that there can be no more atheizing experience than unmitigated suffering. If you have no solid experience in your life pointing to the existence of God and you are suffering, nothing could seem more reasonable than to say that God is not answering your prayers because God isn’t there to answer them. You would say, How could this God who showed so much compassion through Jesus so fail to show it to me? Either he never did what they say he did through Jesus, or whatever God did those things through Jesus buggered off sometime between then and now. About the time of the Inquisition would be my guess.

The trouble I have, though, is that with all I have experienced, it would be silly for me not to believe in God—and the God of Jesus, to be exact. It would be as silly as you thinking you can chew your own earlobe if you just swing your head hard enough. It just wouldn’t be rational.

So I’m left with a tough nut to crack. But as I sat there that morning, continuing to suffer, I did come to two conclusions.

God the Parent

I think it is a sound principle that God, as a good father, at all times wants to push down to us, his children, as much responsibility as he can. This is not a new idea but it deserves recalling.

A good father airs up the tires on his child’s bike when the child is little. But when the training wheels come off the child airs up his own tires; if he fails to, the bike doesn’t ride. A good father lets the toddler help him scoop horse feed into the trough. In a few years the child feeds all the animals without being reminded; if he forgets, the animals get sick or even die.

Is the father cruel, imparting such responsibility? Hardly. Have you never seen a child throw a tantrum after getting help he didn’t want? Or have you never heard that most delighted of childish exclamations: “I did it all by myself!”? Humans are made to grow. We crave it and deserve it. M. Scott Peck goes so far as to say that growth is the very essence of all things good. The child who is never asked to do anything hard, or is bailed out whenever things begin to go wrong—that’s the child that stirs our pity.

There’s a hard balance there, maybe the hardest balance of parenting, to give neither too little responsibility nor too much. This is God’s predicament with each human on the planet, and he’s always navigating it, with more care and finesse than we can imagine.

Given that principle, we can surmise that history reveals the same sort of thing happening with the church. In fact, we can do more than surmise: we can observe. First, Jesus performed miracles. Then he had the disciples help with performing miracles—being waiters and busboys at the feeding of the 5000, for instance. Then he had them go out on limited, closely supervised excursions such as the sending of the 70. Then, throughout the book of Acts, he had them go out on their own, yet still wielding lots of divine power and receiving specific direction from the Holy Spirit. Later, the church developed a greater understanding of God’s character and work through the gathering of the books of the Bible, and God continue to grant them more responsibility while giving them less “artificial” help. Now, 2000 years later, the church is expected to do God’s work with a great degree of maturity and confidence.

It’s the parenting pattern. First, Daddy did it himself. Then he let us help. Then he let us do it ourselves—with supervision and close assistance. Then he let us do it independently—but with him bankrolling us and calling every day. Slowly both the calls and the cash became less frequent. Now we still can get specific direction and cash deposits when we really have big plans, but we’re expected to run the business and make it a success. It’s not OK to act like children anymore.

What does all this have to do with suffering? Everything. Because the “business,” you see, is the business of giving life. Spiritual life, yes. Afterlife, yes. But ordinary, blood-and-arteries life, also yes. Jesus proved this the minute he started healing people by the thousands. Ironic, isn’t it, that whereas the crowds of Jesus’ day couldn’t see past the physical blessings he offered, we modern middle-class American Christians are so comfortable and wealthy we consider any blessing that isn’t spiritual rather “tacky.”

My first conclusion, then: God didn’t heal my son’s and my strep throat miraculously because he has delegated that job to the church. At this late stage of human history, this principle almost always applies: What the church fails to do, doesn’t get done. This underscores for me how wonderful it is when Christians give their support, energy, genius, and time to hospitals and medical research. God bless the Presbyterians for the hospital my daughters were born in, and the Baptists and Methodists for the hospitals my family members have been healed in at various times over the past several years. And God bless the scientists who dedicate their lives to healing people and easing their pain, whether they know there’s a God or not.

Compassion Wakes

As I lay there miserable for several days, I thought how horrible it must be for someone who is really sick not for just a few days but for weeks or months or years—sometimes in much greater pain than I was. And it’s not just the pain that’s so bad about illness. I’ve had to cancel several important meetings including a visit from an old friend who hasn’t visited in years. My work was delayed. My children missed me. And I felt so lonely, like I haven’t felt since I was a kid. When you’re sick you just want to be touched and held, but you can’t because you’re contagious. I simply forgot human life could be as bad as it is when you're really ill.

Miserable as I was, the truth struck me that millions, maybe billions of people on this planet—people who feel and think and wish and deserve just as much as me—feel just as bad right now as I did with strep. Old people, tiny babies, starving people, people with chronic and terminal diseases, people struggling with depression and grief, all over the world. For me, the bad feeling was just a little interlude in an otherwise comfortable life. For millions of them, the only thing waiting for them on the other side of weeks or even years of misery is death.

I could have realized this obvious fact at any point in my life, but something about this illness at this point in time—as I said before—opened my eyes. Now I want to do anything I can to help anyone who is suffering right now. And not hours from now, when they’ve been through that many more hours of suffering, but now.

The trouble is, now that I’m starting to feel better, I’m starting to forget what it was like. Compassion, remain great within me.

The girls haven’t gotten sick yet.


My Faith So Far/Under the Overpass

Tuesday, January 10, 2006
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Book Reviews: My Faith So Far by Patton Dodd and Under the Overpass by Mike Yankowski

Both of these books are intriguing and well-written. Both are thought provoking. Both were written by young Christian men. Both are personal memoirs. Both struggle with the question of how to be not only a cultural Christian—one living mindlessly by the obligation of social custom within the Christian community—but a true one, and what exactly that means. Despite these similarities, the two books head along different trajectories and end up in very different places.

My Faith So Far recounts the author’s conversion to Christianity and the semi-deterioration of that conversion during his first two years of college. Dodd’s work is enjoyable but excruciatingly awkward. It’s chief virtue is the frankness with which Dodd exposes the skeletons in his spiritual closet. But it is haunted by a spirit of cynicism and doubt that is fully revealed by the book’s end.

In high school Dodd had been non-religious and wayward. He smoked pot, got drunk, made out with girl after girl, and generally got up to no good though never getting into any real trouble. Then a series of events leads him to commit himself to Christ and he enters college full of hunger for prayer, the Bible, Christian music, and church. I found myself envying the account of his early days as a Christian when he is full of enthusiasm, eager to study the Bible, constantly making exciting new discoveries, fully in love with God, and surrounded by like-minded friends. His dedication eventually motivates him to matriculate to Oral Roberts University where he expects to grow by leaps and bounds. But soon he begins to notice cracks in the face he thought was Christianity: difficult Bible passages, oddball Christians, and a supposedly miracle-wielding university president who has all the appearances of being a huckster. Soon, his enthusiasm and faith plummet as the edifice of cultural mores and theological assumptions it is built upon starts to crumble. The books ends there, with his faith still alive but gravely wounded.

It is an interesting read, but the question I am left with is, why did he write it? What did Dodd hope to offer the world in describing his experiment with faith? In some ways it was a dangerous book to write. It is more likely to promote doubt than faith. Those fringe Christians who find it sympathetic and comforting will probably not really be moved forward by it, either toward firm atheism or faith. It is highly critical of Oral Roberts University and says little that is complimentary of Christianity in general. Was he writing it by way of personal therapy, oblivious to its likely effect on others? Or did he think it would somehow aid others in their own quests of faith? Whatever his intent, Dodd has served mainly to muddy the waters and expose Christianity to further poorly-considered skepticism and faith-bashing.

It’s not that I think no one should question Christianity or dare to air out its dirty laundry. You only need read this blog to see that I’m not above either of those activities. The real problem is that Dodd attempts to attach cosmic significance to what is fundamentally a commonplace experience. Dodd’s wild love affair with Christianity is hardly unique in his or any prior generation. Young men having been falling madly in love with Christianity, along with many other things, and later having their dreams and assumptions crushed since time immemorial. That he believes his own experience of obsession and disillusionment worth telling is a mark of his postmodern culture, which holds every story as unique and valuable, celebrates plurality, and embraces confusion. Although there is a great deal of overtone in the book that hints at how the reader should interpret events, there is almost no abstract commentary. This too marks the book as postmodern, where stories are valuable but interpretations elusive and personal. I am sympathetic to many of the impulses of postmodernism, but here I think it has failed us. Dodd’s story is nothing more or less than the story of a young man’s mistake, a mistake that many young men (including me) have made and gotten over. Dodd seems not to have gotten over his mistake, which is a further mistake, and yet he ennobles his folly in a book.

Christian faith, properly considered and carefully founded on experience, reason, history, and Scripture, is nothing like fragile. It is steel-clad and potent, truly mountain-moving. Great men have done great things with that sort of faith for millennia; the world we now inhabit, particularly in the west, is substantially their creation. Faith is not so fickle a thing as young Christians--or older folks who have lost their faith--imagine. The trouble is that people call all sorts of things “faith,” and many of them are other by another name “arrogance.” The true faith that the Bible praises comes only through humility and patience: mainly humility, where it can be shaped by God rather than by the dreams and fears of the recipient.

What Dodd experienced was simply quick, young, fragile faith. He got thoroughly invested before he knew what he was investing in. His faith was formed rapidly, violently, with a great deal of heat and light but without real challenge or exposure to the realities of life. When it was exposed to reality it was shown to be brittle, and so crumbled. In a sense, Dodd in his two years of intense Christianity had not truly discovered faith in God. What he had discovered was faith in faith, and it was his faith in faith that failed him and shattered. Because he thinks he had true faith and it betrayed him, he thinks his story may be useful and important. In reality, he has—or had, as of the time of the events told in the book—never tried real faith, and he has little to contribute on this subject.

Older Christians and Christian leaders would benefit from reading My Faith So Far, not least because it is an enjoyable story, but also because it exposes one of the darker facets of postmodern Christian thinking—one that leads toward crippling skepticism and pluralism. New Christians and those of college age and younger would probably do better to avoid it. Everything the book has to offer you can be summed up here: Don’t mistake Christian emotion, enthusiasm, or friendship for truly knowing and loving God. Allow God to build up your faith at his own pace and in his own way. Let it be his project and he will not let it fail.

Under the Overpass is one of the most riveting books I have ever read. Not since Harry Potter have I found a book so difficult to put down: indeed, I read it in two long sittings. It is the true account of how the author and a friend undertook the project of becoming homeless and living among the down-and-out for almost half a year. They spent this time in five cities, spending about a month in each location before moving on. This progression provides the underlying structure for the book. The story is told in a series of vignettes, each centering on a particular person or event. Virtually all of the vignettes are concluded with a commentary, insight, or homily by the author. These commentaries are clearly designed to make the lessons and message of the book unmistakable. Most of them are wise and moving but some of them feel obligatory: the story would have been stronger without the moral having been made explicit. This, however, is the one fault I found with an otherwise outstanding book.

Yankoski brings you up close to the grime, stench, and suffering of the homeless. It’s a place I knew I needed to go even when I didn’t want to. I have always had an awkward mix of pity, repulsion, and curiosity about the homeless. How many of them are strung out on drugs? How many are insane? How many are dangerous? Should I give money to beggars? How can I effectively help the homeless? Yankoski’s book shines a lot of light on these questions both through his direct experience and personal reflection. Yankoski’s experience of God through those difficult days is also intriguing as he learns to lean on God to meet his needs and struggles to extend grace to the truly depraved.

The message I found most compelling was Yankoski’s warning to the church. He and his friend did encounter a few generous Christians during their time as homeless men, but many of the Christians they met were unhelpful or even hostile. Yankoski and his friend kept the habit of attending church each Sunday. After one service, a few men come over to them to talk and make sure everything is “OK.” Yankoski’s shoes are worn through; he has hurt his foot earlier that morning and a gash on his toe is still seeping blood. Without directly asking for help he makes his plight obvious to the churchmen, binding up his shoe with duct tape while they watch. Do they offer to help him get first aid for his foot or replace his worn shoes? They do not. They wish him well and send him on his way. This is typical of several experiences that Yankoski recalls with sadness and I read with shame.

If you’ve ever felt a hint of compassion for the homeless or wondered how you should help them, you can do no better than to read this book. Christians of any stripe, young and old, will both enjoy it and be challenged by its message.

It is interesting that Under the Overpass, while dealing primarily with action and service—Christianity lived outwards—ends up being far more profound and inwardly transforming than the navel-gazing, inwardly-oriented My Faith So Far. Under the Overpass is driven fundamentally by compassion. My Faith So Far is driven fundamentally by a kind of egotism. My Faith So Far burns out on its own self-obsession, while Under the Overpass soars to great heights of insight and encouragement even while groveling among the filth and despair of homeless America.


Another Theological Question

Sunday, January 08, 2006
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If God is forgiving (Neh 9:17), why doesn't he just forgive everyone? Why did he need a sacrifice to compensate for our sins? Aren't atonement and forgiveness in some way opposed?

When the Bible says God is forgiving, does it mean that he is forgiving via the atoning sacrifice of Jesus? Or does it mean that he forgives some sins, but others need atonement? Or does it mean that he forgives any number of individual sins, but generally sinfulness needs atonement to be nullified?


Hometown Religion

Tuesday, January 03, 2006
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I snapped this picture around Christmas Day in the town where I live. I thought it was pretty funny, in a sad way.


Questions for Which I Must Find, or at least Earnestly Seek, Answers Before I Leave Seminary

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What follows is a personal list of theological questions I feel responsible to pursue answers for through my studies at seminary. Seminary provides a unique opportunity and precious resources to pursue these questions which I should not waste. I started the list toward the end of last semester and plan to continue to maintain it until all the questions have been laid to rest.

I make this list public with some trepidation. In my earlier life, difficult questions such as these haunted my thoughts and dragged me into doubt and depression, but in recent years I've learned to approach even "scary" theological questions with optimism and joy. Others may find these questions distressing; I do not want to lead anyone to despair through them, so please, enter into the discourse rather than bottling up fear and doubt. Some may say that no true Christian could ask these kinds of questions. To that I can only say: Hogwash.

For many of these questions, I already "know" the answer or part of it. That is, I either have an intuition as to what the answer may be, or I know the official "party line" answer. In these cases, the point in asking the question is to develop a solid, complete, reasoned response rather than a flimsy or rote one. The abundance and severity of these questions should not be taken as a measure of faithlessness on my part. I have no doubt in the goodness, love, holiness, and power of God. I ask these questions in a spirit of humility and submission, recognizing that some or all of them may not be answerable by human investigation and that God may not be willing to reveal an answer. When I discover in the course of pursuing a question that no answer can be found, I accept that result with sincere happiness. I've found in the past that even when you discover a question is unanswerable, the "non-answer" itself is usually illuminating and satisfying—as we can observe in the case of Job.

Here is the current list of questions which I feel responsible to seek good answers for as part of my seminary education. I'll continue to update it as answers are found and new questions arise.

  • Has the law been abolished or fulfilled (see Matt 5:17, Eph 2:15)? In either case, why should we feel free to eat pork, for instance, and yet still be bound not to drink blood (Acts 15:20)? Isn't there still a kind of "law" or code of conduct in force even for those under Christ? And if not, how should we view Christian morality?

Notes: Paul discusses these issues thoroughly in Romans, Galatians, and elsewhere. Hebrews also deals with them extensively. I've read these books more than once but still don't have a true understanding of the answers.

  • What in the world was the point of all that Mosaic Law stuff anyway? The OT goes to great lengths to spell out and celebratethe law, including animal sacrifices and so forth, only to say it's all worthless in the end (Ps 40:6, Hos 6:6, Heb 10). Why go to such lengths over rules that were ultimately abolished? How were the Israelites supposed to understand that the law was really just a "shadow" and that faith was the true way to salvation?

Notes: I understand the dispensational response to this question, that God's institution of the law was a temporary arrangement designed to demonstrate to all mankind that we can never obey God by our own power, even with clear instructions. Paul also says that part of the purpose of the law was to make sure people knew what sin is and experienced the fact that law gives power to sin rather than making it more avoidable, though I don't fully understand his thinking. Also, the sacrifices were symbolic of Christ's ultimate sacrifice, and prepared people to understand what he was going to do—though I can't say I really understand why sacrifice atones for sin, only that it does. Despite these answers, I imagine if I told an Israelite of Joshua's time (for instance) that the Mosaic law would be done away with eventually and would no longer be considered authoritative, he would laugh at me, then stone me. I'd like to have an answer that would make him think twice about doing that, if possible.

  • Why do the NT Authors make crazy with OT quotations, modifying them, taking them out of context, stretching their apparent original meaning, etc.? For example, Jesus quotes Isa 6:9-10 in Matt 13:13-15. In the Isaiah passage (NIV), the (spiritual) deafness and blindness of the people is in the imperative (though the NIV text note points out that in the LXX the quote is as Jesus has it). In Jesus' quote the people's situation is described rather than ordained. Has Jesus modified the text, or used an alternative translation as if it were Scriptural? Is it OK for us to do the same?

Notes: Here's a good resource toward this problem: http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Pines/7224/Rick/Septuagint/spindex.htm. Offhand, it looks like most of the "making crazy" is actually very subtle, not changing the meaning at all. In many cases, (as in the Matt 13:13-15 case) the difference arises based on whether the NT author used the Masoretic text or the LXX. In some cases, though, the NT authors did paraphrase and mix together their OT quotes to a degree that we would no longer accept. Perhaps we should? Do we learn from their usage that the force of the message is more important than perfect recollection of the text?

  • How is it just to torture people in hell for eternity? I can perhaps imagine someone who is really nasty deserving eternal torture—although the older I get, the harder it is for me to feel it—but what about all the "normal" people out there? I know everybody sins, but eternal torture? I don't "feel" the justice of this. It feels unjust to me.

Notes: I recognize, prayerfully, that the real issue here and in the following question is with my own awareness of God's holiness. I know intellectually that God is totally holy and that my own sense of goodness and justice is compromised and degraded. Therefore I ask God to answer this question suspecting that the answer will come in a greater inner awareness of his holiness.

  • Related to the question on hell: How is it just for God to have ordered the genocide of the Canaanite nations, including men, women, the aged, and children—"anything that has breath"?
  • Christians say that even a little sin means eternal separation from God; we say that every human is born into sin, stained with sin from birth; and yet many of us (Anabaptists, anyway) also believe that children up to some age, level of conscience, or severity of sin are allowed into heaven. How do we reconcile these beliefs? Incidentally, those who practice infant baptism can respond to this question with, "Ah-ha! This is why you need to baptize your babies to ensure they don't go to hell." But now you've got a belief system that says God sends unbaptized babies to hell! I can't imagine believing that.
  • Did animals die before Adam sinned? Unless you believe in a literal 7-day creation, you'll have a hard time saying that animals lived forever prior to the Fall. Were there carnivorous animals before Adam sinned? If so, nature was "red in tooth and claw" when the world was still perfect—just as God had ordained it. Predation involves what certainly looks like horror and suffering on the part of prey. We certainly see pain here, and death. How can this be consistent with the idyllic pre-Fall creation we infer from Genesis, or with God's goodness as expressed through creation?

Notes: Interesting discussion on this question at http://www.christian-thinktank.com/predator.html.

  • Would hurricanes, earthquakes, and other deadly natural disasters have occurred had the Fall not occurred? If so, can we imagine a "perfect," Garden of Eden-style creation coexisting with such calamities? If not, then how is it that man's sin caused the natural world to deteriorate in this way? We may ask the same question regarding nasty creatures like viruses and poisonous bugs. How did human sin—a relatively abstract thing—cause the world to become such a nasty place on such a grand scale?
  • What is Dispensationalism, and why does DTS invest so much of its identity in it? Can a belief arising this late in church history, dealing with concepts so removed from daily Christian living, really be worth any amount of controversy? Why hang your hat on this peg rather than a more fundamental or useful one?


Seminary Students Ain't All That

Friday, December 30, 2005
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Seminary students are just as broken, suffering from just as many insecurities, driven by just as vain ambitions, as crippled by sin, and struggling with as much doubt as everybody else.

What evidence do I have for this claim? First of all, myself. Although God has grown and matured me more than I could have ever imagined, I still have moments of insecurity and anxiety. I have times when my mind is full of ambitions about how famous I could be or how much praise might be heaped upon me for this or that accomplishment. I still sin, sometimes profoundly. Although I have much greater faith than ever before, I am often aware of how little I feel and act like God is real, here, now.

I’m not the only one. A few weeks after the start of the semester, I began to notice that there was a sort of deadly silence that hung about the seminary. I don’t mean a literal silence, but an oppressive sense of general insecurity and furtiveness. Walking along the pathways of the campus, you would notice that seminarians greet each other much less often, and more tersely, than you might expect of tomorrow’s Christian leaders. In the classroom, I was astounded by how few questions or comments were offered by students. In one class, the professor asked a group of about 80 students if someone would please volunteer to pray at the start of class. After an embarrassingly long pause he finally prayed himself.

Seminary students, perhaps especially at DTS, are held to a tremendously high standard of behavior, spirituality, and knowledge by each other, the school, and society. My observation is that this standard is very intimidating, especially to younger students. A common response is to fold up and avoid saying or doing anything lest it be the wrong thing. I find this very sad. It also disappoints me, personally, because this atmosphere of fear is not conducive to the kind of relationships I want with my fellow students or the kind of discussions I want in the classroom.

I find it surprising that on a campus with as many students as DTS has, there are so few student clubs and organizations. The student organization page on the DTS site lists eight organizations, including Student Fellowship, Black Student Fellowship, International Student Fellowship Council, Seminary Wives in Ministry, and Women Student Fellowship. There are few student organizations that are there just "for fun" or to support mutual interests, for instance chess or Latin or boating or fencing or soccer or quilting or debate or writing or Hellenistic Greek or service or outreach. One club does meet this description: EIKON, an organization dedicated to developing and promoting student creativity in all forms of art. Bravo EIKON! Still, why are there so few clubs and organizations? Why are students so reticent to connect and spend time together?

Most DTS students are required to participate for two years in “Spiritual Formation Groups.” These are small Bible study groups like you would find in many churches, and they are meant to help students be drawn out of themselves, form relationships, and benefit from mutual discipleship and support. One of the reasons I came to DTS was to join in a Spiritual Formation Group. When I came on campus, I was disturbed to find that they are not well liked. Students often speak of them with loathing, faculty and staff speak of them almost apologetically. A recent article in the student newspaper mentioned that somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of Spiritual Formation Groups flounder and have to be resuscitated by DTS staff.

Those appalling statistics underscore what is perhaps the great tension at the heart of Christianity. Is Christianity a club, where like-minded people can form friendships and alliances and discuss topics of mutual interest in a safe, uncontroversial environment? Is it a self-improvement program, designed to crank up the spirituality, psychological health, strength, self-discipline, and wisdom of individuals who subscribe? Or is it something else, or something more? It’s easy to call yourself a Christian, to wear the right things, say the right phrases, and vote for the right political party. It’s easy to work on self-improvement and “maturity.” It’s even relatively easy to become a leader in the Christian world. What’s not so easy is to become a person who deeply loves people and knows how to form and sustain relationships—in other words, to become Christlike. Seminary students live in the heart of this tension. They’re expected to be card-carrying, secret-handshaking, Bible-slapping members of the Christian club. They’re expected to be “holier than us,” a cut above the rest, nearer to perfect than the ordinary Christian. And at the same time, most of them—I hope—are sincerely following the Spirit’s true call to think with the mind of Christ, feel with the heart of Christ, and act with the love of Christ in a practical and self-sacrificial way. That’s a lot of expectations. And seminary students ain’t all that. So they tend to be a little furtive and edgy.

I ain’t saying I’m all that either. I’m not easy to get along with; I don’t like people, on the whole, and I don’t form friendships easily. But I do yearn for friendships even if I’m scared of them. Probably, a lot of seminary students are like me: they want to be more loving and have better relationships, but getting close to others is scary and it’s easier to “grow in the faith on your own,” even if that’s an oxymoron.


log( os + 2 * theou ) -- Huh?!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005
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I am a programmer and an artist, a skeptic and a Christian. I'm attracted both to the logical and the mystical, the scientific and the spiritual, the analytical and the creative. Hence the title of this blog. If you haven't figured it out already, it is a silly, mathematicized rendition of one of the most important phrases in the Bible: λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. This is Greek, the language the New Testament was written in. It is usually translated "Word of God" or "God's Word," but it has many meanings. It can mean "God's Message," "God's Conversation," "God's Question," or even "God's Story."

This latter sense reminds me of an idea of J. R. R. Tolkien's. He said that we are all living inside the "True Myth," a myth that is like any other--full of adventure, epic in scope, drenched in symbolism and meaning--except that this myth is Real. For the True Myth, God himself is the bard who forms the story and each of us are the heroes and villains who act both as participants and audience.

As I look back over my life, the ups and the downs and everything in between, I see how God is telling a story through me. So far the story has been beautiful and wonderful, though not without tragedy and pain. It makes me wonder where the story is going and how it will end.

In his Gospel, the apostle John said that "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." What a strange idea! How could a Word become flesh? And yet John was not just blowing smoke: he knew this Word personally. As he wrote his Gospel, John could remember the Word resting his head against his chest. He could remember seeing the blood of the Word trickling along rough wood. He heard the voice of the Word asking him to take care of the woman who had, in another bloody and ignominious event, given birth to the Word. John knew better than any of us how real, how frail and human, the Word was. Yet he still recognized that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, this friend of his, was far more than human. Jesus was the Hero of the Story: the Hero of heroes, the centerpiece of history. More than that, he was the Teller of the Story, the creator and sustainer of the universe. And in some profound sense, John said, Jesus also was the Story itself. In his Gospel, John recalls for us something Jesus had said: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

Jesus was, and remains today, God's Message to mankind, in which he revealed his unbelievable love for each and every human being on the face of the planet, and through which he made it possible for any of us to be friends with God again, despite our total rebellion and sick depravity. This Message is not an FYI--an advisory statement, a bit of information to file along with the others. It demands a reply; and more than a reply, a conversation.

It is in our reply that our personal stories and God's commingle, where we become a hero or villain in the True Myth. On this site I will try to articulate my conversation with God and offer my story as it unfolds.


©Copyright 2002–2007 Jeff Wofford