Category Archives: Religion

What humble looks like

“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Romans 3:27-28, NIV)

I was thinking about this passage the other day. It’s one of those stretches of the epistles where the Apostle Paul, frankly, has always lost me. I try to follow the argument but just can’t find the thread.

But I think I’ve got it now. What Paul is talking about here is Christian humility.

As C. S. Lewis has explained somewhere, our stereotypical image of humility is deeply warped. We think of a humble person as someone shabby and dusty and hunched over, wringing his hands and apologizing all over the place. But in fact, when we are lucky enough to meet one of the few really humble people who actually live around us, our only response is likely to be, “What a happy person! What a pleasant person to be with!”

The reason for that is what Paul, I think, is explaining in this passage. A mature Christian is humble, not because he’s bowed down under the weight of guilt and shame (the principle of observing the law), but because his attention is directed away from himself toward God (the principle of faith). He’s not thinking about his inferiority. He’s not thinking about himself at all. He’s looking upward, and his face reflects the sunshine of Heaven.

I understand this intellectually, of course. Applying it to my life is another matter altogether.

Asking the Devil for the Lowdown

[first blogged on Halloween 2003] In honor of the upcoming season, let me write a bit about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Many of us were forced to read it in high school, but maybe you didn’t. Reject that foul Stephen King novel! Banish that evil Anne Rice tome! Tolle lege* this short tale of a young man’s dreadful walk with the devil.

I think the reason “Young Goodman Brown” sticks in my mind as a great tale, other than my fascination with early America and affection for Hawthorne, is its clear description of how to set yourself up for believing a lie. Brown does three things in the first couple pages to seal his doom. He leaves his home at sunset to meet the devil in the forest. Apparently, he is searching for the truth. He wants to hear what the devil has to say for himself. And like an idiot, he starts his trip just before dusk. Darkness conceals many things, so if he really wanted to the truth, he would look for it in daylight when things can be seen for what they are. But at dusk, he walks deep into the forest–putting himself in a place where shadows conceal. How much can you see when you’re in a dense forest at night? Still, Brown thinks he can meet the father of lies in a place like this and reason with him. That’s his biggest mistake, and possibly the one which makes his doom inevitable. He thinks he can talk to the devil and parse his words for bits of truth. Of course, Old Scratch reels him in easily.

When Brown first objects to walking deeper into the trees, Old Scratch encourages him to present his arguments while they walk because he can always turn back. Too far, Brown says while walking. He must not be seen walking with the devil. Naturally, replies the devil, that’s why my dealings with your father and grandfather were kept secret. What! Can it be true? exclaims young Brown. Of course not, you idiot! You’re talking with the devil! He doesn’t tell the truth except to make a lie more plausible, because a slight miscalculation is an easier lie to shallow than a total fabrication. Brown doesn’t get it, unfortunately, so into the darkness he goes.

What about us? Do these steps apply to our quest for truth, even if we don’t have the devil penciled in for 10 p.m. Friday? Yes, they do.

1. Darkness conceals truth. Light describes wisdom and knowledge. Read the first few chapters of Proverbs for descriptions of wisdom and her methods. In order to shed light on the deep questions you’re asking, give yourself time and quiet reflection. Noise and busyness can act as clouds over the sun. Try to avoid them, but don’t think getting alone with your thoughts will draw all truth to you. You can come up with only so many answers when you’re the one confused.

2. Trees obstruct the light and hide the real world. In the forest, Brown found that the night only got darker. The same can happen to us in a forest of opinions. We can find wisdom in many counselors, but not all opinions are worth hearing. C.S. Lewis encouraged readers to postpone reading another contemporary book until they had read an old one, meaning a book written before last century. If we consume many modern books, we can become conditioned by a limited perspective particular to our day. By reading old books, we are better equipped to see beyond a limited modern perspective.

3. The devil does not have a worthy point of view. It’s common to try to hear both sides of an issue in order to form an unbiased opinion; but I’d like to suggest that some perspectives, some sides of particular issues, are completely wrong. Not everyone’s perspective is worth hearing. Some are logically inconsistent. Some are merely argumentative, taking up a position solely to conflict with another position. The better ones are internally sound, though they may be based on lies or ignorance. Some are completely right. It’s no shame to be partisan when your side is right.

I hope haven’t bored you back to your Doctorow novel. Have a good weekend, and try to avoid the cheap candy. Life is too short to eat waxy chocolate and those nasty orange rounds.

* “Take up and read”

Legal, moral and low-fat

It’s got to indicate a pretty disgusting level of self-complacency to go to one’s own writings for inspiration.

So naturally that’s what I’ll be doing tonight.

I wrote something here yesterday, and having writ, moved on. But as I thought about it, it seemed to me it was worth examining in its own right.

What I wrote was: Joylessness is an easy sin to ignore. It isn’t any fun, so how can it be bad?

Have you noticed how we (and I think I speak for most of us here) tend to equate pleasure with sin? And virtue with suffering and deprivation?

In a way I can understand how secular people would think this way. The concept is deep in our culture, probably a leftover from Victorianism (I could say Puritanism, but the Puritans really had a lot more fun than modern people give them credit for. So did the Victorians, for that matter).

But our culture is full of jokes about sin and virtue. “Everything fun is either illegal, immoral or fattening.” “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris” (Oscar Wilde). Alfred Doolittle’s fulminations against “middle class morality” in Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (that’s “My Fair Lady” for you musical comedy fans).

But Christians often think this way too, and we ought to know better. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10, NIV). “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11). “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

In theory the Bible ought to count for more with Christians than quips from Wilde or Shaw.

But I know how it is. I suspect I know better than most, being famous for my depression and general sourness of disposition. Doing right seems to be so much work, and sin offers such welcome, immediate satisfaction.

(At this point in the essay I originally wrote a long disquisition on short-term vs. long-term gratification. I now realize that that wasn’t really what I wanted to write about. So I’ll try it over.)

Our cultural Puritanism (not to be confused with real Puritanism, for reasons explained above) tends to take it for granted that all pleasure is sin.

This is a snare of Satan.

One of the book passages that changed my life was the following from C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape (who, in case you don’t know, is a devil advising another devil in methods of temptation) writes in Chapter XXII:

[God is] a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it: at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore”. Ugh! …He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to use. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.

Pleasures are very often sinful. But they’re not always sinful. It seems to me one bad effect of Christian revivals is that as the original fervor fades, people try to keep it going artificially through the imposition of more and more rules. “If we just get people to stop doing this or that, their hearts will turn again to the Lord.” So certain people are forever looking for new things to declare sinful and forbid to others. There’s one Christian leader in particular (and no, I won’t tell you who he is. Some of you will guess) who (it seems to me) has built his entire career on searching the Scriptures for new things he can declare sinful, new laws he can lay on the backs of his fellow believers.

I say it’s wrong. I say we need more innocent pleasure, and if Pharisees insist on condemning people who do things not forbidden by the Word, then somebody ought to punch them in the nose.

Try it yourself.

You might find it pleasurable.

True or false: pick one

Romans 3:1-8 is a passage that’s always puzzled me. It’s not that I disagree with what’s said there, but Paul seems to be addressing First Century arguments that nobody would make today, and that confuses the contemporary reader.

But reading it today, it occurred to me that Paul is addressing the modern mind in one sense:

But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved. (vv. 5-8, NIV)

There are doubtless many deep truths in this passage that I’ve missed so far. That’s a given. But one point that struck me as I studied it today was that Paul is drawing a line here. He’s saying, “There is a difference between right and wrong. It’s not just a matter of point of view. It’s not variability in cultural values. God approves of some things and condemns others. He’s not broad-minded in the sense that’s fashionable today.

There’s a tendency to think of “spiritual” as being the same thing as “fuzzy.” In the spiritual realm, we imagine, all differences are smoothed out. All disagreements are discovered to be meaningless. Right and wrong are seen as equally valid manifestations of the Eternal. Yahweh and Baal are really the same Being, as is Asherah.

Paul says “Hooey.” God is just, and He has told us what He means by justice. Don’t imagine it’ll all even out in the end. Get with His program or suffer the consequences.

We’re all on notice.

You Know You Are Not Reformed If . . .

  • you think the Apostles Creed is the guy who fought Rocky in Rocky I.
  • you think the Canons of Dort are like the Guns of Navarrone.
  • you think the psalter goes with the pepper shaker.
  • you think unconditional election is a practice of communist dictatorships.

And so on. Riddleblog has “You Know You Are Not Reformed If . . .

Yeah, I didn’t think it was that funny either, but I hope someone gets a laugh out of it. (by way of the Jollyblogger)

In Fact, My Son Is Named Satan

“Satan in the New Testament should be regarded as holding the equivalent of such positions as Prime Minister, or Attorney-General, or Head of MI5, or Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and as no more evil than many zealous holders of these positions here on Earth,” says a Californian who wants to rehabilitate the devil’s public face. He’s written a book about that star who fell from heaven. The Times of London headline for the story: “Forget Judas, let’s have sympathy for the Devil.

I should ignore this kind of foolishness, but it’s just so . . . foolish.

The black man’s burden

There was a Polynesian dance class going on in the park by Lake Crystal today as I took my constitutional. Sorry. Erase the picture that sentence generated in your mind. It wasn’t like my (and probably your) stereotyped fantasy of Polynesian dance. In fact, I’m not entirely sure it was Polynesian dance. I drew that conclusion because the teachers looked Polynesian to me, and the motions the students made looked more like something from the South Seas than anything else I could think of.

No, there were no nubile girls in grass skirts there, wiggling their firm, fetching brown hips. This was two lines of mostly middle-aged white people, doing a step-step-while-making-a-sort-of-rowing-motion-with-the-hands. I immediately judged them all former hippies, striving for some kind of multicultural salvation.

I felt particularly bad for the guys in the group, who were no doubt married to (or living with) women in the group who’d dragged them along. I’d be willing to wager that, if you got enough beers in them to get them to tell the truth (like Mel Gibson), they’d admit that if they had to make fools of themselves in public, they’d rather do live steel with the Vikings and me. Only their Significant Others wouldn’t let them, and the folks down at the Whole Foods store would never understand.

There. You know what one of my prejudices is.

Which brings me to this article, by way of Mirabilis:

With church-going on the wane in Europe, Africa’s vibrant Protestant churches are sending scores of men like Mukholi to the West to win souls and revitalize shrinking congregations — an ironic twist on the 19th century drive by Western missionaries to convert Africans.

I’ve been waiting for this for years. I have doubts whether Europe is salvageable anymore at this point, but it seems to me that if it is to be saved, this will be an important element.

It all depends on racism. Racism isn’t dead. Not here in America, and not in Europe. It’s just turned itself inside out. Instead of the nasty white people of the last century, who thought themselves Nature’s Pinnacle, looking down on the vile dark races, today’s white racist despises his own race and idealizes those blessed richly with melatonin. It’s been noted by other writers before me that whenever an author or scriptwriter wants a character to deliver a Message from God nowadays, he generally puts that message in the mouth of someone black. Preferably someone old and black.

This makes a lot of sense. It’s a rare old black person who hasn’t seen a lot of hate and injustice, and just surviving a long time under those conditions implies that they must have learned something.

But our respect for black people in the West goes far beyond this. It amounts to pure veneration. Idealization. That’s why the U.N. will never do anything about genocide in Africa, as long as it’s blacks killing blacks. To take action would be to admit that black people aren’t morally superior, and that would be a death-blow to their faith.

It is a little cynical, I suppose, to exploit this white racism for evangelistic purposes, but I’m basically a pragmatist. Whatever works, I’ll pretty much support.

The second reason I like this strategy is for its genuine educational value. African Christians know a whole lot about Islam and paganism, and they know it first-hand, not from New Age books and television documentaries.

I met an African man who went to our seminary a while back. I didn’t know him well, but he had an interesting story. He’d been an Olympic athlete for his country of origin. After converting to Christianity, he’d attended a mainline Lutheran seminary in the U.S. He left it angrily when a Comparative Religions professor assigned his class to attend a mosque.

“I do not need to attend a mosque to learn about Islam,” the man said. “I know about Islam.” He finished his seminary training with us.

The same sort of thing goes for paganism. People who’ve actually been pagans know it’s not about pretty naked women dancing under the stars. It’s about superstition and the constant fear of breaking taboos. It’s about sticky blood and sacrifice and ugliness.

So God bless the African missionaries. May He speed their feet and open the listener’s ears to their message.

If a god showed up every time

Canadian Author Margaret Atwood is quoted by Bill Moyers on his “Faith & Reason” site: “If a god showed up every time you put a quarter in the prayer slot it wouldn’t be God, it would be a puppet that you could control by doing that…that would make the deity subservient to you. So it wouldn’t be a deity would it?”

That’s good. It points a problem many Christians have, because we kick around a lot of bad theology on prayer. God never announced that he would pardon us for specific sins after we repeat a memorized prayer nor does he wait for us to use specific phrases from the Bible in our prayers before acting with power. He is the Lord of all creation and everyone in it. No one can stop him from doing what he wants and no one can make him act.

For more on this idea, I recommend a book by J.B. Phillips called, Your God Is Too Small.

News flash: Solomon was smarter than me

Today I started thinking about a certain practical concern, and I decided to pray about it.

I prayed something like this: “Lord, I’d appreciate it if you’d provide _______ for me. However, there’s lots of people in greater need, so if the answer is no, I’ll understand.”

I thought this a very mature kind of prayer. I’ve always had Solomon’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 1 in mind when I pray: “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (NIV). God responds, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, riches or honor…, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, riches and honor….” (v.11-12).

The lesson I drew from this as a child was, “Don’t ask for much. God will be pleased with your humility, and maybe He’ll throw in some goodies as a reward.”

But it occurred to me today (and you adults probably knew this already) that that’s not the point at all.

Solomon doesn’t ask for small things. Wisdom and knowledge aren’t small. What he’s asking for is precisely the tools he needs in order to do the work God has set before him. He’s asking God to equip him for his vocation.

Passive-aggressiveness is a sickness of the soul. Also I’m pretty sure God can’t be manipulated into rewarding me for fake humility.

I wonder if I’ll ever live long enough to grow up.

I’ll be taking another blog-break until Monday evening. I’ll be in Decorah, Iowa for the Nordic Fest, playing Viking, live-steel fighting, and selling a few books (I hope). If you’re in the area, stop by. The Viking encampment is next to the Vesterheim museum.

Sir Robert and good works

Before I say anything else, I want to give you this link from Blue Crab Boulevard concerning a new replica Viking ship that recently made its trial run. Why news outlets waste time on Middle East wars when they could be covering really important events like this, I’m at a loss to understand.

In the Comments yesterday, I said I’d write a little more about Sir Robert Anderson, the English Secret Service official, Scotland Yard commander, lay preacher and amateur theologian.

I wanted to tell you a story he told that I read some years back (in Decision Magazine, I think). I can’t find it online, so I’ll retell it from memory. I always thought it was neatly put (unfortunately you’ll be getting my words, not his).

Sir Robert recalled a visit to his office by a wealthy woman. She confided to him that she was unable to feel secure in her salvation. She felt that God demanded something more from her in payment for her sins.

“You already do many good works,” he said. “I’ve been told that you frequently host meals for the poor.”

She admitted that she did that.

“Do the poor pay you for these meals?”

“No. Of course not. They have no money to pay.”

“But surely they have something! They could give you the clothes they wear, for instance.”

The woman laughed. “If you were to see the filthy rags those people wear,” she said, “you’d know that I wouldn’t ever even want them.”

“And that is precisely how it is with God!” said Sir Robert. “The Bible says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags to Him. He does not want your filthy rags of good works in payment for His forgiveness. His forgiveness is already paid for out of His infinite abundance in Christ.”

Barry McGuire and a Lott more

Kevin at Collected Miscellany recently posted this interview with author Jeremy Lott on his new book In Defense of Hypocrisy. I hate to dispel the common misconception that I have everything figured out, but this interview cleared up an important logical point for me. I’ve realized for a long time that there’s a fallacy in the modern insistence that hypocrisy is the worst sin, and that everyone who fails to live up to his own moral code at every single point is a hypocrite (“therefore,” the argument goes, “there’s no point even trying. Enjoy yourself and forget ethics!” The new moral prophet is John Belushi in Animal House).

What Lott explains here is that there’s a difference between hypocrisy and moral weakness. A guy who tries to live up to his principles and fails is not a hypocrite. He’s morally weak (as we all are to some extent). But he’s not a hypocrite. He’s not worthy of contempt.

This helps me. “There’s a difference between hypocrisy and moral weakness” is an axiom, and I personally need axioms in order to think. Maybe some of you can think clearly without them, but I can’t do it.

Alan at the Thinklings writes about Barry McGuire today.

You youngsters won’t remember McGuire, but I remember him well. He first swam into my ken as a member of the New Christy Minstrels folk group (and yes, I liked them. So indict me). He was everybody’s favorite Minstrel. He had a gravelly voice that added a microgram of spice to that highly processed musical mix. After he left the group, he had one big single hit, “The Eve of Destruction.” All about how the world couldn’t possibly survive past 1970 or so.

Then he became a Christian. There was much rejoicing. This was part of a phenomenon, related to the Jesus Movement, which will seem as strange as the New Christy Minstrels to younger readers. Lots of famous people (B List at least) were professing Christ back around then. McGuire, Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary (whatever happened to him, anyway?), even Wonder Woman. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash (who brought in Kris Kristofferson for about a week). Jimmy Carter, a professing born-again Christian, was elected president.

We were on a roll, we thought. Bill Bright had a plan for evangelizing the whole world by the year 2000. I had my doubts, but anything seemed possible at the time.

Today, a little more than a quarter century later, we’re wondering how long the government will allow us to keep our churches open.

Things change.

Let’s hope that remains true.

Mormons Complain: “We’re Christians Too.”

A ticket agent says the movie States of Grace is “being advertised as a Christian film, but it’s really a Mormon film,” and Mormons are shocked, claiming to be Christians. Ted Olson, Christianity Today’s online managing editor, reports on other complaints Mormons have had in the news and concludes with this:

Even more [evangelicals] see Mormons as non-Christians—-or worse—-while seeing liberal Protestants as “bad Christians”—-though both groups equally deny classical Christian doctrine on revelation, the full divinity of Christ, the nature of man, and other key points.

With their strong family values, constant Jesus talk, and passion for evangelism, Mormons seem almost like evangelicals’ cultural twins. In some ways, they represent our ideal. Maybe that’s one reason why so many evangelicals are more comfortable with liberal Protestantism than with Mormonism. We like our differences stark, with red-and-blue color coding.

Is Ted being snarky here? I suggest the real difference b/w Mormons and liberals when evangelicals want to label them is a desire to avoid generalizations. Mormon doctrine is not Biblically sound, so a faithful Mormon can be safely label non-Christian, whereas Methodist or Episcopal doctrine may be sound despite what individual churches teach or what certain bishops say to reporters. You can’t broadbrush all Episcopals by calling them non-Christians. They aren’t, no matter how liberal their denomination appears to be. And you can’t call Mormons Christians no matter how much they talk about Jesus. They aren’t talking about the God/Man who words are recording in Scripture, and He never spoke to Joseph Smith either. [seen on Open Book]

Victor Immature

(OK, let’s try this a second time. As you can tell, being the conservative I am, I’m incapable of dealing with change. So this new utility throws me into a tizzy, impelling me to throw my apron over my head at the first setback, jump up on a stool and cry, “Kill it! Kill it now!”)

Anyway, I was closing up the bookstore yesterday and my gaze fell on a book of Bible stories for children. One of the prominent figures on the cover was a bare-chested muscleman whom I assumed was supposed to be Samson. And that got me thinking about that character.

You’ve almost got to put Samson on the cover of a kids’ Bible book, because he’s one of the few Bible characters who really gets their attention. No matter how good a Sunday School teacher you may be, you know you’re never going to raise the same interest in the story of Nehemiah and his walls as you’ll get with the story of Samson. Samson’s story is simple. Samson himself was simple. He liked to party and he liked to fight, and when somebody crossed him, he killed them. Spiritualize the story all you like, but basically that’s what it is.

His story is a dysfunctional saga in the Bible’s most dysfunctional book—Judges, where “there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

Ever see the Cecil B. DeMille movie, “Samson and Delilah,” with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamar? It’s one of those sand-and-sandal extravaganzas that hasn’t held up well with the years, imho. It opens with a common movie device for those days—an open book, and a narrator reading what’s written on the page, in case anyone in the audience is illiterate, or Lithuanian, or something. This opening explains that Samson was a heroic freedom fighter, struggling to free his people from the yoke of the oppressive Philistines.

Which is hooey.

Pick up your Bible and go to the Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. Read the story and find me any passage where it speaks of Samson fighting for freedom, or even speaking up for freedom. He doesn’t do it. He doesn’t even speak up for God (though he speaks to Him at the end). He seems perfectly happy to hang out with the Philistines and party with them, until they cross him.

The Philistines (do you say “Fill-i-steen” or “Fill-i-stine?” I used to say “steen,” but I’ve gotten all hoity-toity in recent years and have been trying to learn to say “stine”), if I remember my history properly, were related to the Cretans, who were related to the Minoans, who were related to the Greeks. In other words they were Europeans who’d invaded the Middle East and snatched some prime real estate. Kind of like Vikings (I have a suspicion that Samson went after Philistine women because, like many guys before and since, he had a thing for blondes). The Philistines controlled iron technology in the region, which gave them a huge economic and strategic advantage. They had all the money and all the neat toys, and Samson appears to have enjoyed their culture quite a lot.

It wasn’t until the Philistines broke up his engagement and murdered his fiancée and her father that he started killing them. It had nothing to do with freedom, or with the Hebrew religion. It was pure personal vengeance. God made use of Samson, certainly, but Samson’s devotion isn’t evident in the story.

So the spiritual meaning, such as it is, seems to me to be that guys who waste their gifts and talents, break God’s law (Samson violates his Nazirite vows numerous times) and live by their lusts come to bad ends. There’s some grace at the point of death, which is a comfort, but all in all it’s a tragic story.

(Needless to say, the above commentary was written by a life-long wimp.)

The Ruined Soul

We should be very sure that the ruined soul is not one who has missed a few more or less important theological points and will flunk a theological examination at the end of life. Hell is not an ‘oops!’ or a slip. One does not miss heaven by a hair, but by constant effort to avoid and escape God. ‘Outer darkness’ is for one who, everything said, wants it, whose entire orientation has slowly and firmly set itself against God and therefore against how the universe actually is. It is for those who are disastrously in error about their own life and their place before God and man. The ruined soul must be willing to hear of and recognize its own ruin before it can find how to enter a different path, the path of eternal life that naturally leads into spiritual formation in Christlikeness.

— Dallas Willard (1935- ), The Renovation of the Heart