No One Else Can

28 July 2020

If you’re sleeping with someone else’s spouse, I need not inquire into the motives of your heart to know that you are in sin. God has already told us that there is simply no righteous way to do what you are doing. Before we even look, we know that the motives of your heart are going to be a mess. (What sort of mess, we’ll find out when we look. But there will be a mess, right enough.) As a minister of the gospel it is my solemn duty to name your adultery for what it is and encourage you to get out of it, right now.

But when it comes to what you eat or don’t, which holidays you celebrate, and similar matters, I am not allowed to tell you what to do, and you are not allowed to let me. Colossians 2 and Romans 14 are painfully clear on this point.

Christian liberty does not mean that there is no way to be wrong before God. It means that the nature of the issue is such that it’s your mistake to make. The thing may be fine in itself, but something God is calling you to leave behind as a hindrance for you. I don’t get to make that call for you; my pastoral authority does not extend that far. I can (and do, cautiously) make observations and suggestions, but the matter is between you and God.

God may give you Rolex watches, catalog dresses, snazzy cars, ice cream, good Scotch, fat theology books, interesting movies, thick steaks. These are all good gifts to enjoy, so enjoy them, knowing that a day may come when He calls you to give them up. As David Field recently put it, there is nothing in your life that you did not already lose the day you became Jesus’ disciple. God can, at any time, with anything you have, say, “I’ll have that back now, thank you.” He has given you everything, down to your very breath — and the day will come when you release a breath, and God does not give you another.

So hold it all loosely. God might call you to wear your blue jeans to church in order to mortify your vanity. He might call you to wear a suit and tie to church, to mortify your sloth. He may call you to dye your hair pink for reasons that aren’t quite clear to you, or to quit dyeing your hair pink…or even to quit dyeing your hair its pre-grey natural color (gasp!) because that’s become an idol for you. Now taking one thing with another, hair dye is among those things which perish with the using, and I don’t have the right to tell you what to do. This matter is within your liberty, and that means that you are permitted to do as you like, even though you may be dead wrong.

The point is not that God can’t or won’t require you to move in a particular direction; the point is that nobody else can.


Lost Worlds?

24 July 2020

These days, pretty much everybody who calls themselves “Christian” accepts the resurrection of Jesus, but I’ve noticed a trend among Bible scholars. The more academic accolades they aspire to, the less of the Bible they take seriously in its historical details.

The grace gospel is founded on taking the biblical story seriously, down into its details. God blessed Adam and Eve before they’d done anything to deserve it. Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. David celebrated having no sin imputed to him, despite the fact that he’d sinned grievously.

On that point, this article is well worth reading. Here’s one money quote, to whet your appetite:

Taking Genesis 1-11 seriously invites mockery and ridicule, not to mention exclusion from elite intellectual circles. Walton’s “Lost” series is an attempt to “save” Christians from the embarrassment of believing the Bible, without actually denying our faith….


Two Kinds of Hard Obedience

21 July 2020

We are Christians. We must seek to obey Scripture. We must particularly obey those passages which seem “hard” to us. There are two kinds of hard obedience, and two corresponding kinds of resistance.

The first kind of hard obedience is pretty well understood: we all know what to do and why to do it, but it’s just difficult. For example, a lot of Christians have a problem with drunkenness. Even when they decide to get sober, it is usually a significant struggle. In this kind of hard obedience, everybody understands very clearly why a good Christian needs to be sober. The hard part comes in the day-by-day slog of doing it.

The common resistance to this kind of hard obedience stems from laziness and/or despair. The drunk doesn’t believe he has the strength to really do it. Lacking hope, the whole thing seems impossibly hard. If he gets on the wagon anyway, he’ll start to build some hope…and that’s where the laziness often gets him. Staying sober is just so much work. So he slacks off, goes dry drunk, and then relapses.

But there’s a second kind of hard obedience that is not primarily about the difficulty of doing it. For example, we’re told three times in the New Testament to sing Psalms. Do we obey? Mostly, no. Why not?

Is it because it’s very hard to find tunes and singable settings and so forth? Not really. First of all, if you bother to really look, all that stuff is out there. Second, even if it weren’t, we have a multi-million dollar Christian music industry devoted to solving the logistical problems of generating and delivering Christian music to the end user. Hundreds of songs are written, recorded, and broadcast every year. Most of you reading this routinely learn new (or at least new to you) songs in church already, not to mention what you pick up off the radio. If our problems with Psalm-singing were merely logistical, we’d be well on our way to obedience in a couple months. (And don’t blame the music-industrial complex for our disobedience; they’re producing what we’re willing to buy. If we wanted albums full of Psalms, rest assured, they’d be delivering.)

It’s not hard for us because there’s anything especially difficult about doing it. In this case, the matter is hard for us because we don’t see why we should. We already have songs we like. The psalms are so long. They don’t fit our musical culture. They talk about things that you can’t sing about on Christian radio. And what about all that “slay my enemies” talk?

In other words, we are so far gone, we can’t even see the sense in obeying. We have been so disobedient for so long that the disobedience has become normal to us, and obedience has become impossibly weird. Why would anyone even want to do that? This is exactly what the author of Hebrews called “being hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”

And there’s only one thing to do at that point: a practice I call “mere obedience.” Just do the thing. Obey, however ineptly to start with. Settle in for the long haul. Get better at it as you go. Trust that in due time, your obedience will bear fruit, and the reasons for the command will become very clear. It has been my experience that this is the case.

I can tell you now a bunch of reasons why we should sing Psalms. But I didn’t know any of those reasons when I started singing Psalms. I just started singing because the New Testament said I should. It was awkward at first and I had no idea what I was doing. But God was kind, and I grew, and the blessings began to roll in. In hindsight it all seems so inevitable…but only in hindsight.

I began praying the Lord’s Prayer seriously out of mere obedience too (“When you pray, say…” from Luke 11:2). And literally speaking blessing to people I meet (Luke 10:5). And a host of other things that I didn’t know the benefits for until I had been doing them a while. They’ve all proven fruitful.

So what obedience is God setting before you?


Even the Little Ones

14 July 2020

Paul writes to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16) that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable…that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In some passages of Scripture, it’s a bit challenging to find the profit. Take, for example, Psalm 137, which ends with “O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!”

What do we do with this? One popular approach is to skip brusquely to “we can’t apply this literally, so let’s make up something edifying” as this author has done. I’d like to propose something better: something that starts with taking the psalm seriously in its original context.

Israel is in Babylon, having been brutally conquered and dragged into captivity. The psalm is a lament posing a question: how do they worship in a foreign land? This is not a simple question. The musical service of Zion was originally designed to serve as a parallel at David’s Tabernacle to the Tabernacle sacrificial service at Gibeon. At Solomon’s Temple, the musical and sacrificial services were brought together. (There are ascension offerings and ascension psalms, and so on.) With the Temple destroyed and the sacrifices no longer happening, was it even appropriate to sing the songs of Zion? (The editors who arranged the Psalter set it up so that the following songs answer the question posed in Psalm 137, but that’s a topic for another day.)

As they grapple with the question, their captors are demanding that the musicians sing songs of Zion purely for Babylonian amusement. Can you imagine? You’re a Levite, a son of Korah, your whole life devoted to sacred music in the Temple. All of a sudden, it’s all destroyed, and you’re a slave, and your master demands that you play sacred Temple music for the amusement of his guests at a drunken pig roast. That’s what Israel’s sacred musicians are facing.

And so the psalm closes with a curse on Babylon, and a blessing on the conqueror who does to Babylon what Babylon did to Judah. It’s not hyperbolic language; it’s a literal curse. It quite likely came to pass in the days of Belshazzar, with Darius’ Persian troops receiving the blessing.

So that’s what’s going on. After the cross, applying such a thing is complicated. You don’t get to curse your enemies and just say you’re following the example of the psalmist; the cross really did change some things. Today, we face strong counterexamples.

Jesus did the exact opposite of this curse on the cross (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”) Stephen followed His example (“Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”) James charges his readers that blessing and cursing ought not come from the same mouth (Jas. 3:8-12). In tension with that, Jesus Himself pronounced judgment on Jerusalem (Mt. 23:33-39), Peter cursed Simon Magus (Ac. 8:20-23), Paul blinded Elymas (Ac. 13:9-11), and asked God to repay Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14). Of those, two were clear means to the end of furthering repentance (Simon Magus) and the gospel (Elymas), and both had the desired effect (you could also put church discipline in this category). Matthew 23 arguably works this same way, given how it ends in v. 39, although we haven’t seen the fulfillment yet. Paul’s treatment of Alexander the coppersmith is less clearly redemptive, but notice that Paul does not specify what should happen to him, instead leaving him in the hands of the Lord to judge.

Where does that leave us? Before the cross, cursing your enemies was just common sense. Afterward, not so much. The Old Covenant is dead, and under the New, even the curses have a redemptive purpose. We are not allowed to simply follow the example set in Psalm 137; instead, we are called to follow Stephen’s example instead. Or Peter’s, cursing redemptively. So it is the easiest thing in the world to (in practice) just scrap the psalm–for all practical purposes, to mentally remove it from the canon of Scripture. “It’s not applicable today,” we say, and that’s that.

This is precisely where the ancient church comes to our rescue. Rather than simply discarding the psalm as an artifact of its time and place, inscripturated for some reason but utterly inapplicable today, the ancient interpreters take Paul at face value: *all* Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. The goal is not to figure out what we can disregard as “not applicable today,” but to wring every last bit of transformation out of our encounter with the Scriptures that we can get. 

So where is the profit here? If we may not have this hatred toward our enemies, the ancient interpreters ask, is there something, some enemy, that we *should* have this hatred toward? Of course there is. “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). We really should cultivate this antipathy — not toward people, but toward sin. The psalm really should resonate with us, not because we beg God to slaughter our enemies’ children, but because we call on God to destroy our sins.

Even the little ones.


Fire on the Mountain

7 July 2020

I delivered this talk at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO, some weeks ago as a discussion starter. The full discussion centered around the question, “Where is God’s Presence?”

I know this sounds like a lame question. This is theology 101, right? God is omnipresent — He’s everywhere. So great; that’s settled.

What I hope you’ll find this morning is that our Scripture passage (Acts 2:1-24) forces us to rethink. Omnipresence is true, but it’s also true that God is particularly present in a special way at specific times and places.

This is true starting all the way back in the Garden. If we closely read the description of Eden and the accounts of the fall of Lucifer, we find that the Garden was planted in the lowlands of a region called Eden. It had to be in the lowlands, because there was a river that watered it — and the river had to flow down from higher ground. Somewhere else in Eden was a place of volcanic beauty, where Lucifer, the anointed covering cherub in the very presence of God, covered in gemstones, walked back and forth in the midst of the fiery stones. Obviously that’s not the same place where Adam and Eve were going about naked among the fruit trees.

But in the cool of the day, God would leave the glory of the fiery stones and come walk in the garden with the man and woman He created.

When we sinned, God dispatched a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the gate to the garden. Divine fire blocked our way back to God.

From that day forward, we often meet God in fire.

Moses meets God in the burning bush. Before they cross the Red Sea, God stands between Israel and the Egyptian army in a huge pillar of cloud and fire.

And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night. (Ex. 14:19-20)

Later, Moses and the whole nation meet God on Mount Sinai. God descends to the mountaintop in fire and storm.

And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. (Ex. 19:17-19)

When the tabernacle is built, divine fire comes out of the sanctuary and kindles the offering on the altar. Later, God executes wayward priests who offer strange fire on His altar.

And Aaron lifted up his hand toward the people, and blessed them, and came down from offering of the sin offering, and the burnt offering, and peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces. (Lev. 9:22-24)

God leads Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they’re camped, the pillar of cloud and fire is always above the Tabernacle, and divine fire burns on the altar, a portable mountain of God.

When Solomon dedicates the temple, God once again brings down fire from heaven and kindles the altar.

When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’S house. When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever.”Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the LORD. (2 Chr. 7:1-4)

When Elijah faces the prophets of Baal, he calls down divine fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice.

And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. “Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!” (1 Ki. 18:36-40)

Days later, when Elijah flees into the desert, he meets God once again on Mount Sinai. All the things that happened with Moses happen again: storm, fire, and earthquake…but God is not in them. Then God comes to him in a still, small voice.

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Ki. 19:11-12)

After the resurrection, Jesus told His disciples to go disciple the nations, but to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit came on Pentecost, he came as God had come on Sinai: a mighty rushing wind and fire. But this time, the fire is not in just one place: one mountain, one altar, one pillar of fire. There are tongues of fire on every believer’s head.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

And just like with Elijah on the mountain, the real power’s not in the fire. The real power’s in the voice that comes after the fire: everyone hears the wonderful works of God in their own language, and 3,000 people are added to the church that day.

Now there’s a temptation that hits us, as soon as we start to talk about how every believer has this. We stop thinking it’s special. We mentally put it with omnipresence. Everybody has it. It’s no big deal. No.

Do you understand the picture God is painting here? Every believer is the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire, the Tabernacle, the Temple, all rolled into one. This is not just omniscience; God is specifically present in you in a way that He is not present with everybody. When you walk into a room full of unbelievers, the fire of God just walked in — and remember, after the fire comes a voice. What will you say? It matters!


A Prophet’s Biggest Job

30 June 2020

We haven’t paid enough attention to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about how to conduct a church service. The challenge is to come together, each one with a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation, and do so in such a way that we grow together.

In Corinth, everybody brought what they had: a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation. They got that part right. (We have trouble with this part.)

The Corinthians missed two things, as Paul explains. The first is order, and you can read about that in any commentary. The second, much less commented upon, is that prophecies must be judged. Just because you think God has spoken to you doesn’t mean you’re right; Paul entrusts the group with the job of discerning gold from dross.

We understand this perfectly well when it comes to teaching, and we understand all the possibilities inherent in it. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition; one part of a teaching can be true and another false, something could contain a grain of truth but be distorted in some way, and so on — all manner of nuances. We routinely discern the correctness of teaching in just this way.

We are called to do the same with prophecy. Moreover, discerning others’ prophecies was actually the New Testament prophet’s biggest job. (Not prophesying. Does that surprise you?) Suppose you’re part of a house church of, say, 30 people. Now, you don’t all prophesy, although Paul wishes you did, but a bunch of you are prophets. You’ve all been trying to speak at once, which is part of the problem. Let’s suppose that only half the group prophesy. That’s 15 prophets — a real mess when they all start talking over each other. Paul says to stop that: only 2 or 3 will be allowed to speak (one at a time!) in any single gathering. Think through the math: the average prophet in the group will be occupied in hearing and judging others’ prophecies about 5 times more often than he is giving a prophecy himself. The prophet’s biggest job is to discern.

We have trouble envisioning what this looks like in practice, because we have become so thoroughly disobedient that we can’t even imagine it. Paul told us a church service should be orderly, and we’ve taken that to such an extreme that we want to pre-screen everything so that nothing in the church service will require correction. That’s not what Paul said to do. He actually prescribes the opposite solution: let the thing happen, and then correct it. The church service is not supposed to be a polished performance; it’s a workshop.

We can kinda get our heads around workshopping a teaching. We have no trouble talking about how a speaker’s first point was good, his second point was way off base, not at all what the Scripture passage is talking about, and the third point wasn’t bad, but it was more of a personal preoccupation than an application of the text. We understand how to make a nuanced evaluation of teaching. We cringe a little at the idea of someone saying these things in a panel discussion right after the sermon, but why? Do any of us really outgrow the need for feedback? Why not do it together? Why not share it with the Body, so everyone can learn and be encouraged?

If we could review teaching, then why not a prophetic word? We get stuck in the trap of thinking there are only two options: either it was genuine, a prophecy from God, and therefore we have to swallow it whole, or it was not, and we throw it out entirely. Those two options are certainly on the table, but there’s just more to it than that.

Remember that we’re talking about interpersonal communication here: a prophet giving account of what he believes God said to him for the group. When it’s a boss giving his secretary instructions for his employees, what are some of the ways it can go?

  • The secretary faithfully relays the instructions
  • Not listening well enough, the secretary relays most of the instructions, but leaves out something that the group definitely needs to hear
  • The secretary elaborates on the instructions beyond what the boss actually said. The additions are common sense, but maybe not quite what the boss actually had in mind
  • The secretary adds an item that’s really just a personal pet peeve

If the secretary gave you instructions, ostensibly from the boss, that sounded a little funny to you, what would you do? Call the boss and clarify, right? We can do that — we have the Holy Spirit! As we discern a prophetic word together, that might sound like…

  • “That first 30 seconds was gold, definitely from the Holy Spirit, but after that I think you were on a roll and you just started improvising.”
  • “That was incredibly condemning; I believe that was your internal monolog, not God.”
  • “Thank you for that word of exhortation. That was for you personally, not for the whole group.”
  • “As you were speaking, the Lord was confirming to me everything you were saying.”
  • “Most of that was great, except for that one bit about lust. By the way, have you noticed that every single time you prophesy, there’s always something about lust? Let’s talk about why that is…”

Paul intends for the Corinthians to do this. Let someone speak, then evaluate — table-talk it afterwards, in public, with everyone listening. In this way everyone learns to hear God’s voice better, by walking with those who do and leaning on one another — “he who walks with the wise will be wise,” like the man said.

Cessationists regularly complain that the very claim to have a prophetic word renders the content of the prophecy beyond discussion. The whole project is impossible, they will say. They only think this because they have failed to pay attention to what Paul actually told the Corinthians to do. Discernment isn’t impossible; it’s just hard.

We lack the skill to hear God’s voice because we have refused to participate in the exercises where He teaches us how to do it.


Political Perpetual Motion

24 June 2020

Suppose a group approaches your city government with a proposal for clean energy in your city. You go to the town hall meeting, and the proposal sounds good to start with. They’ve identified some real problems in your city, and they’ve been able to present the problems clearly. As they start to lay out their solution, they’re clear and compelling, and you’re really exited about it…until you realize that the core of the whole approach is a perpetual motion machine.

You can’t believe they would seriously propose that, so you ask outright: “So…am I hearing that the foundation of your new power plant is a perpetual motion machine?”

“Well, yeah,” they say, “but you have to understand that the other perpetual motion machines you’ve heard about didn’t implement the theory properly. This one’s gonna be different.”

How likely are you to keep listening?

Suppose they complain that you’re no longer listening; why won’t you hear them out? Well, for the same reason that the U.S. Patent Office stopped accepting patents on perpetual motion machines — because all of them contradict known realities about the way the world works. It’s a waste of time.

***

For those of us who pay attention to the real-world results of experiments in political philosophy, this is what it’s like when someone highlights real problems in our society, but then moves into analysis and policy prescriptions based in a Marxist view of the world.

Marx was wrong, period. He didn’t understand human motivation or the value of risk — major mistakes for an economist. He overestimated the ability of human planning to account for the complexities of the real world (to be fair to him, this was the intellectual fashion of his time, but we should certainly know better now). Every place his ideas have been put into practice at scale, the result has been bureaucratic nightmare and economic disaster. Safely sheltered from real-world consequences in the hothouse environment of the university, our academics have been cultivating new and virulent strains of Marxist theory. However good they may sound in a graduate seminar, they fail dramatically in the real world. They are (to borrow a phrase from Peter Hitchens) “a beautiful idea, and a terrible reality.”

The real-world failures of Marxist theories in turn cause a fundamental problem in the conversations we’re having about how to address the injustices found in our culture. We have real and outstanding injustices that must be addressed, but often the most popular proposals for addressing them rely on utterly false assumptions about how the world works, and this creates a serious problem in the conversation.

On the one hand, I love the people I’m talking to, and I owe it to them to hear them out. It won’t do to take real injustices lightly — which is what I’ll be doing if I dismiss the entire conversation out of hand. On the other hand, the policy prescriptions on the table are wicked, and too much damage has already been done by foolish people who take them seriously.

We can’t do more of that nonsense. It’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. Let’s do something that might work.


Three Critical Failures

17 June 2020

Critical Race Theory is much under discussion these days. My first exposure to critical theory was in literary criticism and classical studies a few decades ago. I’ve seen it applied in a host of other areas since, and to my eye, critical theory in general suffers from fatal flaws common to all its applications. It flatters us with a series of comforting lies: that our problem is smaller than it really is, that the solution is shallower than it really needs to be, that our human group identities are bigger and more important than the claims of Christ on us. In more detail:

  1. The lie that our problem is limited to oppression. Critical theory rests on an inadequate hamartiology in which the only sin of interest is oppression. Relatively few critical theorists would go so far as to claim that the oppressed can do no wrong or that oppression is the only sin, but in critical theory the sins of the oppressed are of no interest, and in practice, un-addressable. As against this, Scripture teaches us not to show partiality either against the poor (Ex. 23:6) or for the poor (Ex. 23:3) in judgment. Paul gives instructions to both masters (Eph. 6:9) and slaves (Eph. 6:5-8). In Scripture, everyone’s sins should be repented of, and there are no rules about just preaching to your own class (however defined). Paul didn’t tell Titus to “stay in his lane” because Cretan foibles are the product of a unique cultural situation, and he’d better let a Cretan preacher address it. No, he said “rebuke them sharply.”
  2. The lie that the solution is simply a matter of social engineering. Critical theory rests on an inadequate soteriology in which liberation from oppression will solve our social ills. It has this in common with the rest of Marx’s ideological offspring; it’s one of the basic errors that marks Marxism as a Christian heresy. It locates evil primarily in the social system, and posits that if we fix the system, the people will be ok. We know that the problem runs much deeper than that. Evil is located in the people and instantiated in the systems we build, which means that there is no “system so perfect that no one will need to be good” (to borrow Eliot’s phrase). For us, an unjust system should be critiqued and reformed, but even a perfect system — could we build such a thing — will not solve the root problem. There is no way out but following Jesus. Jesus-followers in a less-just system will still seek (and find) ways to do justice; carnal men in a more-just system will still seek (and find) ways to weaponize the system to unjust advantage. This point doesn’t de-prioritize reforming an unjust system, but it does mean that a Christian’s priorities will be different from a critical theorist’s.
  3. The lie that our human group identities are the most important thing about us. Critical theory rests on an inadequate anthropology in which our various class memberships are given more practical importance than our common identity as created by God and redeemed into one family in Christ. The biblical answer to oppression is to emphasize creation and new creation at the expense of our other group memberships. “These are My mother and My brothers,” Jesus said, thereby subverting the power of clan membership. Paul did the same with Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. Paul exemplifies this approach again when he tells Philemon to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother. (And set an example for us all by addressing this particular situation at his own expense).

All of the above doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from the insights of critical theorists about how oppression has played out between particular classes at particular times and places. All truth is God’s, and we should never be afraid to learn our history. I learned about the history of red-lining from a critical theorist — like they say, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. I am not saying that critical theorists have nothing to offer; whatever the flaws of their ideology, they are bringing neglected history to light. That’s a hard, good thing. We owe them a debt for doing that hard work.

At the same time, critical theory, as such, is a (post-)Christian heresy, and I don’t use that word lightly. It flatters us with a shallow appraisal of our sin and a weak prescription for redemption. As we are gleaning insights from critical theorists, we have to be sure to correct for ideological corruption as we go.


Basics of Barfield: Four Pieces

11 June 2020

Owen Barfield was a companion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, sometimes called “the first and last Inkling” because of his varied career and long life. He had an extraordinarily agile mind that mostly found expression in philology and philosophy rather than the fiction that was the domain of the more popular Inklings like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Here follows a distillation of some key points from Barfield’s work.

First piece: Language is a forensic record of human consciousness

Human consciousness changes over time. A modern person from New York does not think like a 15th-century English aristocrat, who does not think like a 15th-century Javanese rice farmer, none of whom think even remotely like a 5th-century BC Babylonian astrologer. Some of the differences are cultural, but some differences are more than that.

The development of human thought and consciousness leaves a forensic record in our language. As we develop new concepts and new ways of interacting with or perceiving the world, we also develop vocabulary and expressions to say what we’re thinking.

A simple example of this language/consciousness interplay would be our words for colors. When we don’t have a word for a color, we literally have a harder time seeing it. As soon as we name it, it becomes easier to see. So you have a forward-thinking individual who sees something most people can’t see, gives it a name, and starts teaching other people to see it. If it catches on, your language gets a new color word.

Second piece: Original participation

Ancient languages worked from the outside in. The Hebrew word ruach meant “wind” first, then “breath” — the wind inside the body — and then finally “spirit.” The Greek pneuma and the Sanskrit prana worked the same way. Modern languages, on the other hand, work from the inside out. There’s a whole class of words that have come into existence in modern language that never existed before, as we have come to see the outer world in terms of what goes on inside us.

Originally, human beings saw themselves as immersed in the world, participating in it by taking its qualities into themselves. Thus, in the ancient world, a tribe would name itself after an animal and seek to take on the animal’s traits. Modern people project their traits outward onto the world.  Ancient man would be the bear tribe, channel the spirit of the bear, eat the bear’s heart to gain the bear’s courage; in modern times, we have Smokey the Bear, who walks upright, talks, wears clothes, and carries a shovel. The man no longer seeks to be like the bear; rather, he makes the bear more like himself.

Original participation is nearly dead. We simply can’t see the world in those terms anymore. People who are born into the few societies where the last vestiges of original participation remain can see the world that way, but someone who’s grown up in a modern society has language — and therefore consciousness and categories of thought — that preclude original participation. We can mimic it in a way, but we can’t really go back there. There’s an unbridgeable gap between a modern Wiccan and one of the Druids who tried to assassinate St. Patrick.

But if we are cut off from original participation, we have not yet reached final participation. We can project ourselves onto the world in a psychological sense — hence the cartoon bear wearing pants. But that’s all it is; a portrayal, a fantasy. We do not really participate in the world, and so we are stuck in limbo between original and final participation. We can neither take the world into ourselves to transform us, nor transform ourselves in a way that alters the world; we are cut off from the world, separate from it.

Third Piece: The Twofold Cord

Barfield held that reality is a melange of matter and spirit, inseparably tangled together. Under original participation, nobody saw these as separate things. The idea that the ancient animist believes in a tree spirit would come as a surprise to the animist, who just thinks of it as a single being, a tree– as alive as you and I are. Likewise rocks, animals, and so on. There’s a series of necessary steps to get from there to where we are.

  1. Differentiate matter and spirit.
  2. Focus on matter for the purpose of investigating matter thoroughly.
  3. Come to believe that only matter is real.
  4. Learn that matter is really condensed energy…and that it interacts with and responds to consciousness at the quantum level.
  5. Ooops…

First, we have to differentiate between matter and spirit. The ancient Hebrews started this in Genesis — God formed man from dirt, and breathed the breath of life into him. Man is a melange of these two elements, which are separable only in death — the body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, as Ecclesiastes says. But while the two elements are not separable in any real way, they certainly are distinguishable. One can talk about them as two things, and this is the first step.

The next step is made by Descartes. Having distinguished objective matter from subjective consciousness, he unravels the two-ply rope of reality for the purpose of an in-depth examination of matter, rigorously excluding any hint of consciousness or the subjective. This is the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, and it gives unparalleled results.  

The third stage is mistaking the Cartesian principle of investigation for a metaphysical reality. People come to believe that anything not subject to scientific examination — i.e., anything not matter — isn’t important, and then that it isn’t even real. At this point, everyone believes that matter is composed of small but solid particles, like a lego building is made up of smaller lego bricks.

The final stage dawns when advances in atomic science show that matter is mostly empty space, gains momentum when Einstein proves that matter is really highly condensed energy, and comes into full bloom when quantum mechanics shows observation changing the behavior of fundamental particles. We have chased our examination of matter as far as we can, and it has bent back round to consciousness.

Meanwhile, the parallel investigation of consciousness, the deep delving into the subjective, has not really been done (particularly in the West). 

Fourth Piece: Final Participation

Barfield saw that in order to continue growing, we would have to undertake that parallel examination of consciousness, and then deliberately re-entwine the two strands to get a fuller understanding of reality. That fuller understanding leads to final participation, in which humanity grows from merely projecting ideas onto the external world to actively interpreting the world in a way that conforms it to the interpretation. Enamored of various techniques for doing this, Barfield missed his opportunity to see what the Bible says in this area. 

The first thing Scripture shows us is that there is a height of authoritative interpretation to which we cannot rise. The world comes pre-interpreted by its Maker; we are invited to explore and interpret under God, not in place of Him. He has invited us to create within His world, but we cannot simply make our own private world. We are not the Creator; we are not imposing our own world on undifferentiated chaos. There are limits we cannot cross.

Second, Jesus showed us in His earthly ministry what final participation can look like. Blind eyes saw, demons fled, the storm was stilled. He commissioned His followers to go out and do two of those things (heal and cast out demons), and set the shaping of the natural world before them as a possibility: “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Maybe deadly hurricanes make landfall because we haven’t the faith to steer them. 

Third, Jesus fulfills the hope of final participation. He is the human being who, uniquely, can consummate Barfield’s hope by ascending the heights reserved for the Creator. By Him all things were made; all things are now upheld by the word of His power; all things come to coherence and completion in Him. 

If you’re interested in digging further into Barfield’s thought, I recommend Saving the Appearances and The Rediscovery of Meaning. His dialogic novel Worlds Apart is a tough read, but very valuable.


No Way Out But Jesus

6 June 2020

In my first post on the George Floyd killing, I focused on peaceful means of change after the fact. In my second, we looked at a scenario that involved intervening in the moment. Let’s talk a little more about that: What is our duty in the moment? Whatever led up to it, when a downed, restrained man, clearly no longer a threat, is being killed right in front of me, what is my duty? 

Shall I yell at the killer? Take a video with my phone? Is that it? Is it really enough to document the crime so somebody can maybe punish it after victim has already died? Or am I called to do something more effective to save his life?

If everybody involved is a civilian, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We need to remove him from the guy’s neck — now. Failure is not really an option, so the only question is how far we’ll have to go to put a stop to the situation. If yelling at him or shoving him works, then great. If it takes a knockout punch or a broken bone to prevent him from murdering the downed man…so be it. Seems pretty clear to me. Now maybe the attacker is much bigger and stronger than you. Maybe you don’t have much of a chance. Even then, isn’t a man’s life worth some effort? Don’t you wanna at least try?

But what if the attacker is wearing a badge? Historically, we virtually never permit resisting the officer, even if he’s plainly in the wrong. In the moment, the officer has an enormous amount of leeway to decide what’s appropriate. After the fact, of course, those decisions are theoretically subject to review. But honestly, review is often unlikely, and evil legal doctrines like qualified immunity are regularly used to prevent serious consequences even when the officer is found to be in the wrong. 

It’s a tough balance to strike. On one hand, we don’t want to live in a society where everybody on the street feels justified in assaulting the officer on the scene if they think he’s doing it wrong. That way lies madness. At the same time, we don’t want to live in a society where a badge confers the ability to murder someone in broad daylight, and no one will put a stop to it. In case you missed it, that’s what we have.

It is our responsibility to change what must be changed, and there is no way out of this apart from Jesus. We are past the point where we can loot Christianity for some guiding principles, secularize them, and then call them “human values” or “common sense.” The secularization process takes out something important, the the resulting mishmash of conflicting directives lacks moral authority. Again, in case you missed it, that’s what we have. How’s that working out for us? What we need instead is people at the scene who can hear the Holy Spirit and make Solomonic decisions on the fly. 

 So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9) Nothing less than a real return to God will do. 

Let’s be about it.