Friday, July 30, 2010

The Rock that Doesn't Move

Today's news included word of Anne Rice's rejection of organized Christianity (particularly the Catholic Church), saying among other things:

I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity.....
I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism....

I responded to a friend, saying: Ah, but how does one "know" Christ apart from the Church? She is left with her own creation of Christ, and thus turning to the "religion of Anne." We all acquiesce to something larger than ourselves. I'll still take the Church over Culture.

As if to emphasize the divide between the orthodox Christianity and the Spirit of the Age, today's news also reported that Cardinal Jorge Medina, Archbishop Emeritus of Valparaiso, has incurred the wrath of Chilean homosexuals for restating clearly the Catholic Church's teaching that homosexual tendencies constitute a disorder.

The Catholic Church has been the recurring object of scorn. From media digs to explicit oppression for faithful Catholic academics, there is little tolerance – and no evident understanding – of what it is Catholics (and all orthodox Christians) are called to embrace and model.

Similar frustration and bewilderment are voiced at the Church's inflexible position on abortion, all the more in the recent effort of U. S. Catholic bishops to support universal health care while insisting that no loophole exist to pay for abortions. Trying to peg and label the bishops seems beyond the scope of journalists.

“Conservative..... Liberal..... Democrat..... Republican....” are labels which are cast frequently and often with passion. Different issues jockey for premier status –– the economy.... the war.... the environment.... the definition of marriage.... the protection of innocent human life (and particularly abortion). Almost everyone accepts the arena of politics as the proper context for discussion and any possible solution, and so it is no surprise that political labels are embraced and castigated with passion.

It is also no surprise that most people seem to accept the assumed inherent conflict between “liberal” and “conservative” positions. The charge is made that people who are inflexibly opposed to all abortion are not concerned for the poor and oppressed. Popular opinion holds that people who want to give the poor a chance to escape poverty and people who want to give women the option to choose something other than being “barefoot and pregnant” understand that legal (and so-called “safe”) abortion must be available to women for whom an “unwanted” child is a grave injustice.

It is little wonder, then, that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are often criticized by both political liberals and conservatives, because the bishops support universal health care (typically a “liberal” political platform) and yet will not budge on their insistence on absolute protection of innocent life, particularly abortion (a “conservative” political position). Are these bishops schizophrenic? How are we to understand this wide embrace of what is generally understood as mutually exclusive issues?

First, it is important to remember the paramount responsibility of the USCCB. As Catholic bishops have the Apostolic office in the Church to protect, defend and extend the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), those bishops who serve the Church in the United States have as their primary obligation the faithful expression of Christian doctrine and practice. For Christians, issues are not merely “political;” issues which affect human good and morality are first of all responses we make to God, and the role of the USCCB is to guide the Catholic faithful in the United States to an awareness of what is ultimately good and right.

Consider the issue of abortion. It has been politicized to the extent that many are tired of it. Even many Christians who say they are “personally opposed” seem ready also to say “live and let live” and not try “to put my morality on someone else.” Especially since the “right” to legal abortion has been the law of the land for so long, it is argued that it is time for those opposed to withdraw and be quiet. But this idea that abortion has been legal for “so long” that it’s now a settled issue has a poor perspective on longevity. An honest look at history shows that the Church has decried the evil of abortion since its earliest days under the Roman Empire. Looking at more recent history, other ecclesial communities under the Christian umbrella had one voice with Catholic Faith about abortion until a slow but steady erosion began in the mid-Twentieth Century. There is a myopic way of seeing that allows the Spirit of the Age to cloud moral vision so that God’s people accommodate to attitudes and practices that grieve the Holy Spirit and quench the life of God. We should think beyond the immediacy of politics and popular opinion (on either side) and cultivate thankfulness that our Lord has given his Church the Apostolic Office to preserve and protect the truths that lead us to eternal salvation. The USCCB is right to allow no compromise on their position on abortion. The bishops’ concern is not what is popular or pragmatic, but what speaks the truth of God’s life into our world.

It is for that reason that the USCCB is supportive of a universal health care policy for the people of our country. I say it that way quite intentionally: “for the people of our country.” Again, this is not just a political issue. It is not about governmental policy (although that cannot be avoided on a practical level). It is about providing people with what is good.

Catholic social teaching –– which is Christian social teaching (which should go without saying) –– is rooted in love. God is love, says Scripture. Humanity was created in love in order to be a physical expression of God’s love in the created order. We are created to love God and to love one another, as Jesus expressed in his teaching on the greatest commandment.

Two key themes of social justice (out of seven) identified by the USCCB are the “life and dignity of the human person” and “solidarity.” Human life is sacred, and one way to model that is to care for each person at each stage of life from conception to natural death. Because we are one humanity, we each belong to the whole and every part of the whole deserves equitable opportunity. Out of this comes a principle of the common good in which each person should be allowed to reach his full human potential.

Because of sin there is a human tendency to care most (or only!) for one’s self and those with whom one is familiar –– family, social class, nation, faith, race, etc. It is the love of God as expressed in Christ that shows the full implications of solidarity. It is because we are “one” in the image of God that Christian Faith should be concerned with the welfare of each person who makes up “all” of us. It is for this reason that the USCCB is supportive of universal health care. This is a point of Christian love and witness.

Yet it should be obvious that “health care” does not mean killing children while in the womb. So, while the bishops are right to be in general support of the overall direction of the national health care law, they remain unable to give it the support expected from those espousing Catholic social teaching precisely because the law gives at least latent option for abortion, which Catholic social teaching cannot endorse and at the same time remain true to the tenets of Catholic Faith.

Thus the bishops oppose the bill because it appropriates billions of dollars in funding without prohibiting the use of these funds for abortion. Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Maryland announced on their web sites that plans utilizing “high-risk insurance pools” would include abortion. With any loophole, for which the bishops rightly give diligent analysis, there can be no USCCB support for the law, no matter how “generally” good it appears to be. The bishops are calling for “a legislative fix to close such loopholes once and for all.” Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB says, “Whether these or other billions of dollars in taxpayers’ funds are used to help kill unborn children is not a matter we should leave to shifting politics or to chance” (quotes from Zenit).

One of the benefits of being Catholic, and I say this having chosen to come into the Church after years of committed Christian life in an ecclesial community, is being a part of the Church that Jesus promised would be faithful to the end. This promise of faithfulness extends from Peter and the Apostles to those who succeed them. While the USCCB cannot avoid interface with “political” issues, we in the Church need to remember that this is, ultimately, not politics. Being faithful to Jesus and his kingdom is not a matter of “liberal” or “conservative.” Those who extend the life of the kingdom by witnessing to God’s truth will be misunderstood just as Jesus was. This is the high calling of our bishops. This is the witness they are to bear. This is the witness to which they call the Church and all her members. This is also the witness they bear to society at large and to the State, in the hope that Gospel seed will be sown so that the true life of Jesus can be extended throughout the world.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

God's Will & Human Freedom

In the early 80s I read Sheldon Vanauken’s personal story of faith entitled A Severe Mercy, how he came to surrender and commitment to Jesus through the death of his wife and the friendship of C. S. Lewis. A few years later Vanauken continued the story of his journey –– interspersed with other reflections –– in a work entitled Under the Mercy. A significant part of this later journey was his embrace of Catholicism; looking back, this was probably early seed being implanted in my own mind and heart.

I recently returned to this second volume to find the selection I’ve included below. The book is OP now, but available from used book dealers. I recommend it to you (despite a few strange excursions about the Confederacy; Vanauken was an “old-world” Southerner).


Reflections on the Problem of Pain

"I still can't get over it, Jane, losing my baby. Just before her second birthday. But it was God's will."—"God must be testing Sue by giving her cancer."—"He broke his back when the tractor turned over. It was God's will, of course."—"God took both our children."—"How can a good God let the Cambodians starve? I refuse to believe in a God like that."—"All three of his sons, such fine boys, died when the cruiser was torpedoed. It was God's will."—"How can God make me suffer so? I hate God!"

It was God's will. Or, as Allah wills it. Is this, in truth, the way of it? Does God indeed award a cancer here, a car wreck there, all according to His high and mysterious purpose? Does He punish Mr and Mrs Smith by willing the death of their child when the drunken youth rams their car? Does God will the earth to quake? Did He will the deaths of millions, Christians as well as Jews, in the Nazi death camps, or at the murderous hands of Stalin?

It may be indeed that good men must sometimes suffer to learn that their only lasting joy—their only security—is in God. Some may be called upon individually to bear the weight of the cross for His sake, nor can we always see how their pain shall be to His glory. But in speaking of every disaster as God's will, we forget something essential to the Christian faith: the Fall and its consequences. The story in Genesis may be taken as literal truth or as myth; but myth implies an essential truth. Moreover, the Fall is not only affirmed by St Paul, it is affirmed by redemption itself—redemption in Christ—for redemption is from sin. The sin that entered the world with the Fall.

Let us consider what the Fall was and is. It is man, a created being—a creature—in rebellion against his Creator. It is man in his pride seeking independence—autonomy—by choosing something other than God. By choosing himself. Self. Self-centeredness. Selfishness. Self-expression. Self-realization. Self-fulfillment. Some of these sound quite innocent, don't they? But Christ's command was to die to self. We are not roused to enthusiasm by the idea.

A question arises: Why did God let the Fall happen? Why didn't He give Eve a frightful slap and say in a voice of thunder: "Stop that!"? Why did He let us become infected with sin? We are so addicted to self, so infected, that our self-love doesn't even shock us, we hardly notice. But God allows us choice. That is the answer to the question of why He didn't slap Eve. A simple answer—and utterly astonishing. He not only made living, moving creatures. He made creatures capable of saying "No" to Him, of defying Him. Unlike the trees, we have free will. God's great experiment was to create us free to choose to love Him (the only love worth having) or to reject Him. We love Him and serve Him, or we love our self and serve that self. We don't admit we're self-serving, but we're often proud to say we're self-sufficient, without need for God.

But if we are fallen—infected with sin and addicted to sin—what hope is there for us? Perhaps God, not caring, has abandoned us? —He cares so much that He allowed us to drive the nails through His hands. My God! He loves us that much! The phrase has become so boring as to lose meaning: Christ came to save sinners. Awesome meaning, in fact.

He came down from heaven—God Himself—and became man and died in agony as man, trusting forsaken (as He had to be to taste the whole of death). When we suffer, let us remember the Son trusting the Father—and the validation of the trust in the Resurrection. Christ was, precisely, God's action to save us from the Fall. On our own we cannot conquer our addiction to self, but with Christ in us we are not on our own.

When the Fall occurred, it was not only man that fell. All creation (at least on earth) somehow fell too. We cannot know how it was before—whether it was only with the Fall that the lion learned to bite man. And we don't know whether there is indeed a Prince of this World, an archangel, himself fallen after "dubious battle on the plains of heaven." But we may remember that that ominous figure, however much not "in" among Christians these days, was spoken of with authority by our Lord. What we cannot know is what that fallen creation—and that prince—may have to do with the cancer that tries our trust.

The finite mind of man cannot comprehend the infinite mind of God. We can know only what God has revealed to us in Christ. We know that we have choice, for He told us. And we know, even with our finite minds, that if men can choose evil, other men will suffer. Three-quarters of the suffering is clearly traceable to man's own cruelty and greed. And we know—it is much—that He loves us and that we can trust Him. We can hold to that.

It is the implications of free will that I wish to explore. That we were given choice is one of the things we know. But it was not Eve only making a choice, and choosing further to tempt Adam: consequently he was faced with his choice, and he made it. And we have been making choices ever since: the Nazis were men making choices, so is the fellow who snaps at his wife at breakfast.

But choice has consequences or it wouldn't be choice at all. If we pull the trigger, the bullet strikes, and our victim gasps and dies. If God gives us freedom, freedom to choose, He must allow us to have what we choose—the taste of the apple, the death of the man we shoot, or, if we insist, Hell—or it wouldn't be choice at all. He must allow the consequences. And the consequences of the consequences, going on endlessly, involving the innocent.

If a young man drinks too much (a choice) and pridefully decides to show his girl how fast he can drive (a choice), he may smash hideously into your car, killing his girl and leaving you paralyzed for life. Is this God's will (except in the sense of permitting the choosing)? It cannot be, for that would mean God forced the young man to choose evil (self). He chose; the consequences follow. The girl's family plunged in grief. You unable to send your son to college. The policeman who came to the wreck not being somewhere else to stop a crime.

But there may be good consequences, too—God will bring these about if possible. You and your wife may learn to trust God more deeply; the young man, haunted by grief, may become a Christian. But those would be bringing good out of evil, not bringing about the evil in hopes of the good. The evil was the consequences of a choice.

To say that because God is sovereign and all powerful He can simultaneously give us freedom to choose and compel our choice is not to say something profound about omnipotence but to speak nonsense. The glass is either transparent or opaque. The Holy Spirit urges us towards the good, not towards the evil. And, of course, our good choices—our prayer for strength to bear pain or for healing—also have consequences. The consequences of good acts also go on and on.

Millions of people choosing, millions upon millions of choices, choices at every second of the centuries. One choice is like a stone chucked into a still pond with the wave spreading out in all directions. But all the choices: imagine an ocean with a constant hail of stones plunging into it and a chaotic tumult of boiling waves in a patternless storm. Only God could comprehend it.

The murderer is making a choice. So is the monk praying in the night. The rapist is a monster of self-choosing, as is the woman who feeds on her children to bolster her ego. The man who rushes into a burning house to save a neighbor's child; the businessman who cuts his neighbor's financial throat; the child who tortures the cat. The choices are not in a vacuum: someone else is helped or harmed, including the cat.

Sometimes it is said about monstrous evils like the Nazi death camps that, if there were a God, He would stop them. Why doesn't God stop such human suffering? Let us, then, suppose He does. Let us imagine God looking down at the Nazi death camps: the squalid misery, the near starvation, the cold, the brutal guards, the firing squads, the skinny children herded into the gas chambers. God sees it all and hears the wailing and the prayers: "Help us, oh God! Let our cry come unto Thee!" — Suddenly the divine fist slams down upon the table, and thunder drowns out the guns below.

"By God!" He says. "It's too much. Eating an apple is one thing—but thisl I never dreamt that my men could be this wicked. I will it to stop."

Well, of course it stops. A Nazi guard turns a handle to start the gas flowing in upon the huddled victims behind the heavy glass. He yawns, he's done this so many times. No thrill left. Then he notices that the people in the chamber are not clawing their throats. Odd. He gives the handle another push, just as the walls of the gas chamber dissolve. He and the other guards snatch out pistols and fire. God catches the bullets in His hand. In time the prisoners shuffle away, finding that the perimeter fences have vanished.

God has acted. Elsewhere, booted feet ascend the stairs, and a door is kicked in. Storm troopers enter, guns leveled, and the man they've come to get cowers. But the blow and the kick do not land; and the storm troopers, bewildered, go away.

Now that God is acting, He will have to act the next time the Russians purge a few million people. In the meantime, there is the Hitler war. Hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers are over London, bombs whistling down. But God's hand is in the way. Londoners go back to bed. The roar of the guns on the Russian front is stilled. A submarine fires a spread of torpedoes. It appears that two at least will strike the cruiser, and 800 men will die, including one family's three fine sons. God reaches into the water and seizes the torpedoes. The proud cruiser steams on.

But agony is not to be measured quantitatively. The 50 people in a gas chamber—a quick death, after all—or one man being hideously tortured, hour after hour, day after day, by the Secret Police. God stops that: no line can be drawn. And the woman in a hospital, her body eaten up with cancer: she is suffering almost as much or perhaps more—who can measure? God, committed now to action, acts. The woman draws a long breath, flinching. It doesn't hurt. She sits up and asks for lunch.

A rapist is leering down at his terrified victim. Then he finds an invisible wall between him and her. In a few moments she pulls her torn frock round her and goes, possibly sticking her tongue out at the shrunken man. A woman watches her husband drink the coffee she has put strychnine in. She turns pale when he gives her a kiss and goes off to work. Another woman screaming at her tired husband, as she has done for years, is suddenly voiceless. A boy's cruel epithet flung at a high school girl who would be scarred by it is heard by no one. The child's hands torturing the cat go limp. The cat goes away, tail in air.

All this—it's right nice, isn't it? This is the God we want, we think. We are ready to re-elect God, God. But let us look further. When all this begins to happen, people will be astonished and unbelieving, victims and predators alike. Of course many of the victims are predators in their own ways: the man in the death camp may be, in what he thinks of as better times, a rapist. People will go on for a while trying to find pistols that will work and have fun again.

But finally it will dawn upon mankind that God has stopped all victimizing. You cannot shoot anybody, but also—since God can't draw lines—you cannot bark at your wife or cheat on your income tax. The fist cannot connect. The cruel word cannot be said. Free will has been repealed. No one now chooses to be good; he must be.

Newspapers shrink. No more wars or rumors of war, no more corruption in Washington, no more murder trials, no more juicy scandals. Lions lie down with lambs, and capitalists with workers. Almost every novel ever written will soon come to seem unreal, for they were about a world where good guys strove with bad ones, and courage meant something. And goodness.

The gift God gave to man was the freedom to choose. If God acts to prevent the consequences of choice, the gift is withdrawn. No one will choose to shoot if the bullet cannot strike. No one will accept cancer with fortitude and prayer if there is no cancer. No one will wound with a cruel word if it is unheard. For awhile people will wistfully yearn to hurt somebody, but new generations will have forgotten choice. No longer will it be salvation through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Indeed, the Passion itself will seem meaningless to a world that has never known suffering, a world where wickedness is unknown.

But, also, a world where goodness is not chosen and is, therefore, unknown. To finite man, what meaning can goodness have if there is no badness? Is this, after all, the world we should like? As it is now, we are moved by valour and goodness because they shine in an evil world as stars shine in darkness.

No stars, so to speak, in our new world. God's grand experiment of creating people free to love and trust Him or to hate Him will be all over. We, compelled to be good without choice, shall sink into apathy. Perhaps our minds will decay. We shall not have achieved autonomy. We shall have become automatons. More and more like vegetables, merely existing. We who were created for the stars.

After all, perhaps it is as well that God is running the universe, not us.

When God became one of us in Christ, He never promised us an easy time or said that Christians would be spared. In fact, the lions in Rome were already looking forward to their first taste of raw Christian. What Jesus said was: "Take up your cross and follow me."

We shall suffer because of evil loosed into the world, most of it men's choices. Despite a shudder for what may lie ahead for me, I say thank God—imagining a world without choice. Pain may seem an unmitigated evil—and, unless it draws us or others to deeper trust in God, it is. But would we escape it by rejecting God's grand gift of freedom? We must indeed use that freedom to lessen the suffering in the world: thus good comes from evil.

And if we must suffer, let us remember Jesus forsaken. And, like Him, trust in agony—remembering that God Himself in awesome compassion is suffering with us. In the end we shall have what we have chosen: we shall have Him: and in the light of His face all the suffering unto death—the bearing of our cross—will then have been less than a half-remembered dream.

Sheldon Vanauken, Under the Mercy, Thomas Nelson Pub, 1985

ppg 117–122

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The New Paganism

The two previous posts have raised the issue of culture. The following is a sermon I preached in my former congregation 17 years ago this month. I have not edited the content at all; it is presented just I as wrote and proclaimed it in July 1993. That I'm posting it "as is" is to imply my affirmation yet today.

Haddon Robinson is one of the teachers on the Radio Bible Class. He also chairs the preaching department at my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in Massachusetts. I was there two weeks ago for a conference on preaching for which Haddon was the speaker. In the course of his sessions he interjected a thought which I immediately wrote down: "All cultures are Satanic; they keep people from knowing God."

There is a popular tendency for people to recall the "good old days." It is easy to wistfully compare some idealized time in the past with a present that seems to have more than its share of trouble and bad news. It is right to remember that since the Fall no place and time on earth has been totally "good" or "Christian" or whatever term one might want to use. At the same time, it is right to admit that some times and places have been better than others. For instance, eighteenth-century England (which was affected by the Wesley-Whitfield revivals) was a better place to live than eighteenth-century France (which had bloody revolution instead of revival). Or again, America in the 1930s and '40s was better than Germany, and America in the 1950s was better than Stalin's Russia. But that is not to say that America, with its racism, its underground organized crime, and its materialism was an ideal society.

That brings me to Haddon's observation: Every culture is demonic in the sense that it tries to pull us away from God. Every culture is infused with evil. There are spiritual powers which work in and through things which, by themselves, might seem innocuous. On the other hand, some cultures are better than others –– are more pleasant to live in and come closer to the standards of God's truth.

Perhaps some definition of culture would be helpful. Culture is more than the arts. It is a whole design for living shared by a society. It affects the way people understand and use matter, society, art, religion and language. Culture shares a world-view that molds values. Those values, in turn, form institutions like law and education. Law and education shape and protect the values that formed them –– values which are shown in the way we relate to material possessions, behavior and relationships, and social customs.

Culture is not inherited; people learn culture as they live in it. It is amusing to sometimes run into people who think that our Korean daughter, who came into our family when she was three and a half months old, might talk with a foreign accent or have an inherent taste for kimchi. Culture shapes people –– their tastes in clothing, food, and music, their expectations for laws, their role in relationships.

At the same time, people shape and change culture. Culture is not static. Tastes and styles change. Meanings for practices change. In our technological world, meanings can change rapidly. There was a brief period a few years back in our culture when homosexual men wore a single piece of jewelry in one ear to indicate sexual orientation. Today both heterosexual and homosexual men wear earrings in both ears, and there is no single inherent meaning. I have more to say about that kind of thing later.

There is a strong conviction in secular anthropology that culture is neutral, that all cultures are equally valid. A primitive tribe in the Brazilian rain forest is supposedly no better or worse than Calvin's Geneva or the 1990s New York City. The idea is that what works for humans in one time or place is not necessarily better or worse than what works for humans in another time and place. That could be true if "what works" for humans is the ultimate concern and humans are the ultimate authority.

The Bible tells us something about culture that the social sciences will not accept because it is beyond the realm of verification. The Bible tells us there is not only culture, there is also the supra-cultural –– that which transcends the cultural. There is a dimension to earthly existence which goes beyond culture, dynamics which need to be reckoned with that cultural analysis alone cannot find, and certainly cannot understand. The secular anthropologist studies individual traits within a given boundary. One can isolate, for example, music or dress patterns within a culture and find reasons for the data as well as a contextual beauty. The Bible says there are forces which go beyond the observable data, forces that can move cultural practices that, when isolated, seem morally neutral to practices that are actually good or evil because of how they relate to the supra-cultural. A more familiar way to refer to the supra-cultural is the kingdom of God and the demonic. As Christians we must remember that the gospel is the story of our world as it has been affected by powers we cannot see. Culture is never neutral. The gospel is never the guest of any culture; it is always an invader. The gospel is always culture's judge and redeemer.

This means the mundane things we do from day to day are not really insignificant mundane things. What we wear, how we look, what music we listen to, the television we watch, the way we decorate our homes.... all of this has spiritual significance.

To illustrate this I would suggest reading the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Leviticus. This is not an easy application. Whenever we go to the Old Testament we have to do three things to come to a practical understanding. First, we must try to understand the law of Moses on its own terms, within its own historical environment. God intended it to be heard and understood by Israelites who had recently been redeemed from Egypt. Second, we must try to understand how the New Testament completes God's story and God's word that he began to speak in the Old Testament. Third, we must apply God's word to ourselves and our own circumstances and then obey. To understand our circumstances, we need to understand the implications of the supra-cultural, and not merely look at our world the way unbelievers do.

In Leviticus we find God forming, on the basis of a supra-culture (the kingdom of God) a culture (laws, religious observance, diet, attire, relationships, holidays) among a people (Israel) who had just escaped one ungodly culture (Egypt) and were going to a territory occupied by people of other ungodly cultures (the Canaanites). There were issues which affected Israel culturally because of the supra-cultural implications of the cultural practices of the ungodly societies from which they had come and to which they were going. Notice what God explicitly said to Israel: You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them (Lev 20:23).

Why did God abhor the customs of those nations? Why did God tell Israel, for example, not to cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves (19:28)? Those nations did not have God's law as Israel did. God had not carried one of their people into a mountain and given ten commandments. How can certain customs of a society be abhorrent to God? The best (and most succinct) answer to that is in Paul's letter to the Romans:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities –– his eternal power and divine nature –– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator –– who is forever praised. Amen. (1:18-25)

There are two concerns here. One is more obvious, and that is the call, in Paul's words, to glorify God as God and give thanks to him. The basic difference between Christians and non-Christians, godly people and pagans, is the place that God has in one's life. It is not an issue of religion or ill-defined spirituality; many pagans are religious, finely tuned to the spiritual in an occult sense. The issue is whether the one true God is honored as such in a person, a family or a culture.

The other concern is not so obvious, and that is the general awareness of the implications and repercussions on a person, a family or a culture when the one true God is not honored as such. An ungodly person is not merely an individual who does not know or honor God; an ungodly person is a pagan who has either knowingly or unknowingly sided with the powers of darkness in opposition to the kingdom of God. Likewise an ungodly culture is one that is being affected by the powers of darkness in substantial ways because God's truth is not given honor and authority. That means that the so-called mundane activities of life which are often understood as culturally neutral are subject to the manipulation of destruction and evil in ways that cannot be seen by people who will not acknowledge God.

It is imperative that we understand this framework before we try to move to application. When we move to application we find ourselves limited by at least three things: 1) immediacy (it's often hard for us to see something that's too close), 2) spiritual immaturity (spiritual discernment grows as a person walks close to God over a long period of time), and 3) human finiteness (we can hardly comprehend the gracious power of the gospel to demolish the many tentacles of paganism. Because the gospel is powerful, many Christians on the one hand ignore the implications of paganism on a culture; because paganism is often repulsive to God's people, many Christians on the other hand try to define and limit paganism with codes and rules. What I hope we can do is be sensitive to the issue for ourselves and yet open and loving to people who might be caught in it. In fact, that's a good way to respond to God –– maintaining both high expectations of holiness and a high level of forgiveness.

To illustrate that, notice something from the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Leviticus: In 20:23 there is a general warning about the customs of the "alien" peoples, i.e., anyone not of Israel –– a pagan. In 20:1-5 there is a specific warning that any pagan (or pagan-influenced Israelite) who sacrifices a child to Molech must be put to death. On the other hand in 19:33 there is instruction for graciousness toward the pagan as a person: When an alien lives with you in the land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. In other words, Israel was to avoid the practices of paganism, but they were to be gracious towards the pagans who lived among them. Israel did not do a good job at that, but neither has the church perfectly modeled it for the past two thousand years.

Now everything I've said up to this point has been a framework for us to try to live wisely in this world. I like frames. They establish boundaries and give space for the details to be filled in. I like ideas and principles; they provide vehicles we can use to respond to God (and that is the most important thing).

At the same time, most people want examples. You may find a frame to be insufficient –– you want me to give you a picture. You say, "It's not enough to talk about the issue of paganism; show me something that's pagan." Well, filling in the frame with specific pictures is like asking me to choose the art work for your house. I may choose a legitimate piece of art, but it may not "fit" your particular room. Defining paganism is like the courts defining pornography; someone has said, "Maybe I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it!" I think that's true of paganism, too. Nevertheless, I'm going to be bold and suggest three issues or patterns in our culture right now which have their roots in paganism.

Even as I say that I need to give a disclaimer. To criticize certain issues in general on the basis of supra-cultural concerns is not to accuse individual people who have identified in some way with those issues as necessarily not being a Christian. The insidious thing about culture is that it can present itself as neutral, and people often participate in an action or with an appearance without giving the supra-cultural dimension any thought. More than anything else in this sermon, I am making a plea that God's people try to do just that –– think through the supra-cultural ramifications of cultural expressions.

One sign of a new paganism inflicting our society is the animal rights movement. I do not say that because I do not care about animals or because ethical treatment of animals is not worthy of concern by Christians. I say this because of the pagan presuppositions which are behind this concern on a foundational level. The Christian view of creation holds that humans are a special creation, made in the image of God, unlike any other life. God gave Mankind an authority over the rest of creation which included the use of animals for food and work. The roots of today's animal rights movement denies the fundamental difference between humans and other animals. That does not mean Christians do not care if animals are sadistically mistreated. It does mean that Christians do not accept the assumption that life is life, and that an animal should not be used for food or for research that could save human life.

Environmentalism is in the same context. Yes, Christians need to respect our environment as part of God's creation. But the idea that the earth is our mother, that some life force is inherent is all the earth so that we are parts of one big whole, is nothing but a blend of Eastern pantheism and pagan animism. Christians need to be critical of causes that are popular in the culture. Most of the time they assume something that is not true about God.

A second issue that is affecting us culturally is physical nudity. I admit this is hard to define when it's isolated and viewed totally from a human culture point of view. Limits of modesty have certainly changed over the past century in our culture, but is there no point or way that God's people can say enough is enough? This could take a whole sermon, but if I started with this particular issue apart from the context of supra-cultural concerns it would surely sound both provincial and legalistic. But those who take the time and trouble to trace what the scriptures say about "nakedness" would find it connected with shame, with sensuality and with pagan ritual –– in other words, things that are the opposite of holiness among people whose find their identity in God. Speaking supra-culturally, I would say, for example, that thong swim wear modeled in public is going way too far. A spiritual view of life recognizes that the body should not be flaunted.

One last issue in our culture that disturbs me is the incredible rise in popularity of what we might generally call "body modification." By this I mean things like piercing, tattooing, branding and scarring. Am I saying that a woman who has pierced ears is a pagan? Of course not. I am saying that when I see a young woman at the mall with fifteen rings encircling one ear she has been affected by more than she probably realizes, and Christians need to think about the issue beyond the cultural level.

The same thing with tattooing. Again, I am not talking about an individual with a tattoo. I am talking about whatever spirit it is that compels a person to permanently mark a body that is the pinnacle of God's creation. I do know that the Bible says, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (1Cor 6:19,20). What I notice about both tattoos and piercing is that it draws attention to the physical body, often in a sensual way. And those kinds of things are invariably introduced into the culture by people who are anything but models of Christian spirituality. The Bible says that God's people should be noticed for their distinctive attributes of character and spirit.

I have a file I've compiled on body marking. An article in the Harrisburg Evening News (1/29/91) refers to people who "[poke] needles through lips, noses, tongues, genitals, belly buttons, and yes, ears, for beauty, ritual and erotic sensation." And another (8/6/91) says, "nostrils, nipples, navels, lips, septum, tongues, eyebrows, cheeks, genitalia and even the webs between fingers and toes are among the places people have taken to wearing jewelry." The former article cites "Roman centurions wore nipple rings as a sign of virility and courage, navel piercing was a sign of royalty to ancient Egyptians, and ancient Hindu men pierced their genitals for erotic pleasure." The common denominator among those peoples is their paganism.

We are at a stage in our culture where it is not sufficient to look only to a particular activity to decide whether it is right or wrong. Few things can be proscribed so neatly. We need to be people who learn to test the spirit behind the fashion, behind the look, behind the sound or whatever it is that might be culturally popular.

God's word came to Israel and demanded that they be different from the other cultures. The word for it was holy. God's people today need to recapture the call to holiness –– to distinctiveness from the pagan ways which surround us. You must not live according to the customs of the nations... Some "customs" are designed to grieve God's spirit and so keep us from intimacy with him. Ask God to give you wisdom as we confront the new paganism of our culture.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Some people have asked (and even more have wondered) how I, an Evangelical pastor for so many years, could make the decision to enter the Catholic Church. Often the recent scandals in the Church are raised as objections; others criticize what seems to them to be lifeless formalism. While these things do exist, they are not reflective of true Catholic teaching and practice. Particular reasons for my decision are many and varied, but one of my devotional readings from this past week gives one window:

....the Church would be without stain if we were not a part of it! The Church would have one less wrinkle if I committed one less sin. Martin Luther criticized Erasmus of Rotterdam for remaining in the Catholic Church despite its corruption, but Erasmus answered him: "I put up with this Church in the hope that one day it will become better, just as it is constrained to put up with me in the hope that one day I will become better." (Fr Raniero Cantalamessa)


A Better Time?

A friend responded to my previous post, noting that America in the early Twentieth Century was not "ideal." I did not mean to imply that it was. No time or culture is "ideal" by Christian standards; we await the consummation of the Kingdom.

I gave this reply to my friend:

My premise is not that the America of the first half of the Twentieth Century was anywhere near "ideal", but rather that the overall worldview of the culture was CLOSER to Judeo-Christian presuppositions, and that made a big difference in the broad society.

I think the rise of technology and the dispersement of extended family following WW2 had a big effect as well.

And I know the seeds of the problems that began to flower in the 60s (increasing autonomy) were laid in the philosophy of education planted in the second half of the Nineteenth (and even back to the Enlightenment).

I'm also aware of arguments (which I think are cogent) that even lay considerable blame on an individualistic autonomy inherent in the Reformation ("no Church is going to tell ME how to read the Bible and think").

There are enough issues here for a book.... or a series of them (and those books have already mostly been written -- it's just that hardly anyone reads them).

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Culture's Blind Unbelief

This morning I listened to a few moments of PBS's Morning Edition. There was a spot about George Lucas and Steven Spielberg collecting Norman Rockwell originals. In the course of the dialogue, this statement was made:

He captured the American ideal of what we wanted to believe we were," Lucas says, finishing Spielberg's thought. "We weren't any better then than we are now, but by having the ideal out there — what we aspired to — it made it so that we could try to be more than what we were.

I was not surprised, but at the same time it seems incredulous that anyone can believe that "we weren't any better then than we are now." Rockwell's paintings appeared on the covers of Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1963. It should be obvious to any objective observer that our society was far better "then" than "now." Compare the number of murders in Lancaster, PA, the county seat of my home (or any other small city), during that period to today. How many babies were ripped prematurely from their mother's wombs then in contrast to our contemporary culture of death? (I know there were murders and abortions "then," but not in nearly the quantity, and in the latter case, "now" it's with with legalized approval.) "Then" it was possible to walk in almost any community after dark without fear. Try that today. "Then" (in the latter period) it was common for young men to have shotguns hanging on racks in their unlocked trucks parked at school so they could go hunting as soon as class was dismissed (no stated contrast with today is needed here!). Divorces were uncommon. Unwed motherhood was a shame. Pornography was deep "underground" (and scarce). Movies (and later, TV) instilled morals instead of tearing them down. Open homosexuality was not even a hidden thought in general society. The available illustrations of the differences are so obvious, so where is someone's brain to think "we weren't any better then than we are now"?

Two things have happened, and the second is a result of the first. The first is that society at large (and the people who shape it) have denounced the reality of Truth. The common assumption is that nothing is absolutely/objectively right or wrong; morality is "consequential" and subjective. This is because a personal God who reveals Himself to His creation (and to whom we are accountable) has been rejected. Our culture wants autonomous freedom rather than freedom to do good, and the result is self-distruction.

The second thing that has happened in the course of our enveloping darkness is that people do not see it (the analogy of developing darkness is quite apt): the nature of spiritual darkness is that the more one embraces darkness, the darker things get. St. Paul is quite specific about this as he sets forth his overview of Christian Truth in the letter to the Romans. In the very first chapter we find this diagnosis:

....they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.... (1:21b.22a)

Three times Paul repeats the awful effect of rejecting God's truth: God gave them up (to "impurity," v24; to "dishonorable passions," v26; to "a base mind" and to "improper conduct," v28).

Take a fresh look at Norman Rockwell paintings. That is the way it used to be.... back when our society was more firmly grounded in the belief that God says some things are right and some things are wrong. It just isn't true that "we weren't any better then than we are now." There was a time when there was a general goodness throughout our society order. Today we are in grave jeopardy. What we believe makes a difference, especially what we believe about God.

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