Like Bread and Wine

19 March 2019

Over the next couple years, I’ll be involved in a protracted engagement with a number of people who are actively involved in using 3DM resources and applying their methods. I plan to discuss my experience here at some length; I hope these articles will be a help to others who are considering the brokenness of American church culture and considering various answers to it.

3DM offers one set of answers, and far from the only one. (There’s also Soma, Theopolis Institute, Trivium Institute, Greyfriars, Acts 29…the list goes on and on. And yes, those are not necessarily comparable organizations, which in itself illustrates the diversity of approaches.) I don’t think 3DM’s approach is The Answer To Everything; I found an earlier iteration of their material to be basically unworkable in my context, but still helpful and worth engaging. What I’m engaging now is a further iteration of their material, and I’m now in a different context, so…we’ll see how it goes. (That said, if you’re the kind that picks up your toys and goes home the minute you encounter unfamiliar terminology or an exegetical mistake, you’re going to find this difficult reading. But then, if you’re that kind, you’re probably over at Lighthouse Trails anyhow.)

3DM’s approach and resources present as a highly integrated, highly polished, highly developed system. So here’s the thing with systems like that. You stumble around, knowing you have a problem and not sure what to do. You find someone who has a couple of suggestions that look promising, so you look into their ideas a little further. The more you look into their system, the more you find. It’s all been carefully thought through; there are answers to everything! Everything fits together! Whether it’s a system of doctrine like Reformed theology or Dispensationalism, or a system of praxis like the 12 steps or 3DM, exploring a new system can be an intoxicating experience.

And “intoxicating” is the key. When you take in too much, too fast–faster than you can metabolize it–you get stupid and make bad choices. But like a fine wine, a good system can add value to your life, if you can take it in moderation, in doses you can metabolize. (Thanks to my pastor-theologian friend Tim Soots for the metaphor; he was talking about Barth at the time, but it applies just as well to other systems.)

Highly developed systems are also like a loaf of good bread: if the system is properly designed, the ingredients are well integrated to the point of being hard to recognize as separate entities. That is a design feature. Nobody eats eggs, flour, water, yeast, salt, and oil separately and thinks it’s the same thing as good bread. And if you find a lump of flour in the middle of your bread, it’s not good bread. The ingredients working together harmoniously is the point.

But every strength has a corresponding weakness. If the bread has one ingredient in it that you personally can’t digest — eggs, say — how can you eat it? It’s not like you can pick the eggs out of the loaf. And if, through some oversight, the baker has mixed in a quarter-cup of iron filings, then the loaf isn’t just useless to you; it’s bad for anybody.

At their finest, bread and wine become sacramental vehicles through which we experience Christ. At worst, they fully integrate indigestible and unhelpful ingredients, or make us drunk and stupid through overindulgence.

Wisely engaging a developed system (of doctrine or praxis) is not a simple task. It’s not really enough to simply glorify or condemn the finished product. The job is do take your time and unravel it. Dive deep into the ingredients, and examine how they work together. See what’s true and false, what’s bound to a particular context, what’s applicable to your own situation.

That’s what I intend to do here. Over the next few years, I’ll be writing a few different kinds of posts in this series:

  1. Autobiographical accounts of engaging and using 3DM tools and training (when I do)
  2. Reviews of 3DM resources
  3. Critical engagement with three particular content areas in 3DM training and resources: their use of Scripture, their underlying theology, and their grasp of the real world (pedagogical theory, culture formation, contextualization, etc.)

I hope it proves helpful to you. If you’re interested, you can keep up with these posts by checking on the 3DM category.

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Shamrocks and Crankypants

17 March 2019

Is it appropriate for a minister [in our tradition] to wear green in the pulpit on St. Patrick’s Day?

The question came up in a theology discussion group I happen to be part of, and quickly became a fairly sharp discussion. Of course there were cranky fundamentalists denouncing the whole affair as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk and start fights. (Presumably a minister should either preach against that, or just move on with whatever series he’s preaching at the moment.)

Other, more historically informed, folks made the usual observations about green being the Roman Catholic color, and orange being the Protestant color (which is historically true). Then the usual counter-observations were made that the orange-wearing (English invader) principals to the conflict in Ireland aren’t the sort of people we’d want to identify with, so we oughtn’t to wear orange, either.

It sounds like there’s a pretty good case for abstaining, if you’re in Northern Ireland. Wearing one color or the other might be a bit like choosing to wear red (or blue) in Compton. Maybe. I’ve never been to Northern Ireland; couldn’t say for sure.

But perhaps we’re missing the point. We’re not in Northern Ireland, and whatever the historical links between that culture and ours, the question that confronts us is not what either color meant there, then.

The question is what the culture means in our context, now.

Here and now, St. Patrick’s at its best is a celebration of a Christian missionary notable for both his effectiveness and his (deeply Pauline) methodology. A man who had been kidnapped and enslaved, escaped, and freely chose to obey God’s call to return as a missionary to the people that enslaved him. He obeyed God’s call at tremendous personal cost; a thoroughly admirable man.

At its worst–as already noted by the cranky fundies– St. Patrick’s is an excuse for amateurs to drink too much as a prelude to bad decisions about fighting, fornication, and karaoke.

But we are Christians. So as a pastor, I celebrate the best—whatsoever things are pure, true, noble, and all that. Of course I wear green and talk about the life of St. Patrick. (And not just on St. Paddy’s, actually. Good history never goes out of season.)

I’d encourage the crankypants among us to actually read the extant writings of St. Patrick. He was quite a follower of Jesus, and I look forward to meeting him one day.


An Invitation to Theology

15 March 2019

The first thing to know about theology is that it operates from the inside; it is inherently a believing endeavor. Sociology of religion, comparative religion, cultural anthropology, history of philosophy–these endeavors focus on believers (and the beliefs they hold) as the object of study. They operate, in other words, by looking from the outside in.

But theology cannot be practiced in that way. Theology is not a study of beliefs but an experience of the One about whom people hold those beliefs. To engage in theology is to have your own beliefs about the divine shaped by knowing God yourself, by partaking in the divine nature yourself. In this way, theology is less something you study, and more something you participate in, something you practice, and perhaps something that–to a degree, by God’s grace–you may attain.

***

Theology is not an objective discipline, any more than romancing your spouse is an objective discipline. Objectivity seeks to elide the observer/interpreter, such that anyone might–through a scientifically valid method–come to the exact same understanding. This sort of method is entirely appropriate to the natural sciences, in which we are doomed to observe the objects of our study from the outside. Partaking in the nature of, say, a granite boulder is entirely beyond us. The best we can do is subject it to study.

But where the nature of the endeavor is to know another p/Person, we proceed differently. We seek the other person’s self-revelation. We communicate. If we are successful, there is a kind of mutual indwelling (or to use the old word, perichoresis). All of these are inherently relational acts; it matters who the parties are. To elide the observer/interpreter is to miss the whole point.

***

In hermeneutics texts, much is made of the gap between us and the original author and audience–gaps of time, culture, language, geography, and more. We work diligently to overcome those gaps and try to grasp the situation of the original author and audience in order to better understand the text.

Little is made–at least in the hermeneutics books I was reared on–of the gap between us and the divine Author, although in some respects, that gap is easier to bridge. This side of eternity, Paul is beyond my reach. The Corinthian church was the product of time, place, culture, and circumstances that no longer exist. Through diligent study and imagination, I get as close as I can, but some aspect of a passage may remain forever opaque to me through simple ignorance of an idiom, crucial archaeological fact, or tidbit of cultural knowledge. Many things that were obvious to them are now lost to me in the mists of time. Gary Derickson has given us a window into the viticulture behind John 15, for example. How many other such things are yet to be discovered and articulated?

The divine Author is entirely beyond my reach as well. But I am not beyond His reach, any more than the biblical authors were. And so it is that, unchanged by the passing years, is as present to us now as He was to them then. (More than under the Old Covenant, now that we have the indwelling Spirit.) He offers us the opportunity–if the promises of the sacred text mean anything at all–to know Him directly, in a way that is consonant with, but not limited to, what can be mediated by the Scriptures themselves.

***

tl;dr: God is real. God is present. God speaks. Here. Now. Yes, even to you. Are you listening?

 

 


We Have To Do This Work

8 March 2019

There was an interesting little controversy last month over on Theopolis Blog, and now that I’m caught up on reading the whole thing (which took a little while), I’d like to offer some color commentary from out here in the cheap seats.

It starts with a forum called “Theopolis Conversations,” in which an author makes a proposal, four other authors respond to it, and finally the initial author finishes with a rejoinder to his four respondents. In this case, the topic is “Paths to Human Maturity.” The initial article by David Field (which is looong!) also has links to the follow-up responses, except for a surrejoinder Doug Wilson posted on his own blog after the discussion was over. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing; it’s worth your time. But there’s a particular aspect to the kerfluffle that I’d like to comment on, and in order for my comments to make sense, I’m going to summarize the initial proposal, below.

In a nutshell, Field proposed a project, thus:

Reformed Christians would do well to take a look at the proposals and practices of psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, and Zen Buddhism because these supposed ‘paths to human maturity’, at the very least, generate some important challenges and questions for us.

Field then posed the situation of a pastor named Ira, “a sincere and spiritually mature man” who “meets the requirements for elders and bears the fruit of the Spirit.” Ira has carried a great deal of repressed anger since childhood, and although of course he is not conscious of it, his anger “does come out in various ways ‘above the surface’, i.e. in conscious, visible life. There are moments when there’s a [hint] that there is something lurking underneath, but Ira does not pay them any serious or sustained attention.”

Ira, though wholly sincere and genuinely godly, is not one to slow down, attend to the surface signs of unconscious passions, and connect with the associated emotions. He certainly has quiet times but in these his mind is busy – with intercessory prayer, memorising Scripture, and theological reflection. There is not time for extended, unhurried, radically honest, and exploratory conversation with another (therapist, counsellor, friend) and in any case, this would feel self-indulgent.

Moreover, drawing from contemplative traditions that might help Ira to notice what is happening in him seems “to represent a departure from the Puritan spirituality he so cherishes and therefore…to represent also a lack of trust in Scriptural ways of maturation.”

Therefore, Ira soldiers on,

And, in his case, the repressed anger manifests in his consciousness as a critical or reforming spirit which he identifies as the desire that things should be ‘right’….[H]e may control the conscious expression of this spirit and desire which can take the form of resentment at bearing responsibility, at an endeavour to control, at an obsession with correct doctrine or social conduct, as shame at the public sins or shortcomings of family members and so on….[H]e doesn’t realise…that underlying several of these various emerging ‘pressure-points’ is the one unresolved, un-named, unconscious passion of anger.)

Ira would like, of course, to be free of these besetting temptations against which he struggles. Field suggests that the only path from where Ira is to where Ira wants to be goes through “radical honesty with God,” which will require a kind of stillness and attention that Ira has not heretofore cultivated. Field further proposes that the Desert Fathers have something to offer Ira in such a season, as do the observations of the world gathered together by Zen Buddhism and depth psychology.

Field is pointedly not suggesting that Ira abandon his Christian faith. “The proposal is that we should investigate these pathways [the Desert Fathers, Zen, and depth psychology], not that we should adopt them.” [emphasis added] Why would we look into these traditions in particular? “The address to the self and associated practices which are found in these movements…are impactful and…have interesting connections with key biblical themes.” He then goes on at some length (which I’ll let you read yourself), discussing ways in which these three traditions intersect with biblical themes and might be worth investigating.

Peter Leithart, Uri Brito, and Alistair Roberts all responded with some measure of endorsement, but also varying degrees of caution. Their responses are well worth reading, and fairly brief. (As a massage therapist who works with essential oils, I particularly liked Leithart’s jag on the biblical ramifications of aromatherapy.)

What interests me here is the fourth response, from Doug Wilson, in which he (by his own later admission) “pulled the fire alarm.” In an article titled “A Crisis, not a Conversation,” Wilson rebukes the principals for even starting the conversation, and does so on asbestos paper with napalm ink. Wilson is at his fightin’ fundie finest here, quoting the expected passages about philosophy and vain deceit and banging the drum for the sufficiency of Scripture. He voices a number of valid concerns, most of which Fields ably addresses in his rejoinder. (I’ll probably have something to say on that subject later, because Wilson’s argument here is weak in ways he doesn’t realize. He argues in ways common to, say, the NANC/ACBC/BCF group, who have made “integration” a theological swear word–but he’s publicly committed to integration. Lotta tension there.)

Wilson goes more than a little over the top in his closing recommendations that Theopolis’ financial supporters might want to reconsider their giving, and threatening to do the closest thing his polity allows to calling for church discipline for the folks that started this thing, but that’s also another matter for another time. The first thing I want to comment upon here is what he doesn’t say.

Because here’s the thing: Ira, the fictional pastor with the repressed anger problem? Not so fictional. He’s more like a cliche. I’ve known a dozen of him, at least. These guys are spiritually mature (to hear the community tell it, anyhow), doctrinally sharp, honest in their business dealings–salt of the earth, right?

Yeah, about that..multiple times I’ve seen Ira’s unacknowledged wrath tank a whole ministry when it finally found its way to the surface. (And a another one where the underlying issue was vainglory, rather than anger.) I’ve been treated to the spectacle of warring Iras in the same ministry–a lot of people (me included) got drowned in that particular pissing match. Twice, I’ve had different sets of Iras blow up my whole life. Stats on pastoral failure and burnout tell the same sad tale. Various Iras, with their unaddressed sins and consequent inability to get along with one another for Jesus’ sake, are shambling through the evangelical church, leaving bodies and burning wreckage in their wake, and nothing could be plainer than that standard-issue evangelical piety is not addressing the problem.

Field is proposing an answer. Wilson doesn’t like Field’s answer. I like the way Field addresses it better than the way Wilson doesn’t. When the problem is real, which it is, in spades, having no answer is often as bad as having a poor answer. You can’t make course corrections in a parked car, and at least the guy with the poor answer is moving….

…which leads to my second point on all this: Field’s answer isn’t a poor answer. We have to do this work. We have to do it because our parishioners are not all as clueless as Ira. Some of them know something’s wrong, and they have figured out that they aren’t getting the answers they need at church. They may or may not encounter the Desert Fathers, but depth psychology has permeated our culture, and Zen mindfulness and meditation practices are not far behind. Our parishioners are searching for answers, and they are encountering this stuff. They work alongside people who are trying meditation and getting benefit from it, who are seeing Jungian shrinks and sometimes growing as a result, because common grace works. Think they won’t dabble? Bah. Of course they will. So will Wilson’s–they just won’t tell him, and what a loss that will be, both for him and for them!

Is there a straightforwardly biblical answer for these folks that makes a foray into other traditions unnecessary? If so, then let’s flesh it out and offer it to the church. Do we need some response to these other traditions anyhow, since our people are encountering them? Obviously. Would we rather have something wise to offer them in this area of common grace, or just leave them to their own devices? For a shepherd, that’s no question at all.

And anyhow, we are called to retake the territory; we play offense. To the extent that there’s anything there of value, it belongs to Christ, and we are commissioned to return it to its proper service to Him. Field has thrown down the challenge; what are we waiting for?


Martial Arts and the Christian

1 March 2019

A friend wrote me recently, passing on some questions he’d been asked about Christian participation in martial arts. Of course I’ve addressed these questions many times over the years, and his email ended up sparking an essay. So–lightly edited–here it is.

One of the first lessons I learned about speaking on Christian participation in martial arts training is that context matters. In the usual settings where the subject comes up for me, my principal concern is explaining my own practice—which is quite a different thing from addressing whatever might happen in the storefront dojo nearest you.

So I have two basic things to say: On the one hand, these things can be done well, and to the glory of Christ. On the other hand, they often are not, pagans are plentiful, and an awful lot depends on the teacher. Discerning whether a particular school, instructor, or class is a good choice for a particular student can be a tricky business, since it depends not only on the instructor but also on the maturity and needs of the student. But we are called to have our senses exercised to discern good from evil, so if it’s going to be difficult, we’d better gird up our loins and get to it. God is light; He’ll show us the way.

As with all such areas of liberty, Romans 14 applies. It’s good to look into it, and it’s good to be fully convinced in one’s own mind. Different people may come to different conclusions about the same program, and they may both be right…for them.

A Christian who walks into your typical storefront dojo (a taekwondo school, say) finds himself in an alien world. There’s a bunch of people wearing pajamas and bowing to one another, folks with arcane titles like “Master” and “Grandmaster” and so on. What does it all mean? Can a Christian be part of it?

As to the bowing and titles, I’d advise looking into what it means in the parent culture. If two businessmen in that culture would traditionally bow to one another when they meet (as opposed to shaking hands like we do), then I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s a greeting. You’re paying to learn a practice from someone else’s culture; it’s silly to be upset that they don’t act like Westerners. Similarly, look to what the titles mean in the home culture.

For example, my own title (which I never use except on official paperwork, but more about my practice later) is Guru Muda, which is enough to make any red-blooded, English-speaking Christian spit. But in Bahasa Indonesia, guru means ‘teacher’ with no particular spiritual connotations; one can be a guru of chemistry or Chinese literature or engineering. (Muda means ‘young;’ the ‘young teacher’ designation is roughly analogous to an ‘associate professor’ in our university ranking system. The next step up is ‘teacher;’ the one after that is ‘master teacher.’) The reason guru has spiritual connotations in English is because spiritual teachers from India used their native word for teacher (guru) when they came here—Vivekananda and the like. For the same reason, the Japanese sensei has martial arts connotations in America, thanks to the karate teachers who came here (and the Karate Kid movies)—but again, in Japanese it just means teacher. A friend of mine who was teaching English in Tokyo thought it was really funny that his students called him their sensei. They didn’t understand why it sounded funny to him—to them, sensei has no martial arts connotations.

As to the flag and the yin-yang symbol: Taekwondo in particular is regarded as a Korean national heritage, and the Korean flag is nearly always displayed in Taekwondo schools (as you’ll sometimes find the Japanese flag displayed in a traditional Karate school). I look forward to the day when the symbol on the Korean flag is a cross rather than a yin-yang, but I’d be reluctant to conclude something was spiritually fishy about a particular school based on the flag alone. I mean, jeepers, there’s a bunch of pentagrams on the American flag, but nobody thinks you’re secretly worshiping the host of heaven because you happen to have a flag on your porch or in your church. (Whether it belongs in your church, and what it means to display it there, is another discussion. But it doesn’t mean you’re a sky-worshiper.)

On these sorts of things, you have to keep in mind what you’re doing, and accept its necessary conditions as the cost of doing business. You’re learning to fight from people who know how. Taking one thing with another, the people who are really great fighters did not get that way by being happy, well-adjusted humans. You’re not likely to be dealing with saints and Sunday school teachers, ya know? (Yes, there are exceptions. Don’t hold your breath.)

Another (often-)necessary condition is crossing cultural barriers. Here in the West, we developed firearms to an exquisite degree, and at the same time we have developed a society that’s less violent than anything ever seen before in human history. Apart from some arcane holdouts if you know where to look, the West has not really preserved its traditions of hand-to-hand combat; those that have a serious need, carry guns. So you’re going to a culture where their hand-to-hand arts haven’t been lost, to learn the way they do it—which is different than how things are done here. So you remember who’s the visitor, and be polite. If they bow instead of shaking hands, you learn how to bow. If they like onion in their tea, then you learn to drink onion in your tea. If they treat their bruises with foul-smelling herbs after practice, then you do too.

If they bow to a little shrine containing pictures of their ancestors in the art, you politely explain that you will happily offer God a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have preserved the art for you and passed it down to you, but God forbids bowing to images of the dead. If they won’t teach you because of that, off you go—that one wasn’t for you. But the point here is that outside of things God actually forbids, there’s no point in going all ‘ugly American’ just because the foreigners are acting foreign. If you don’t like it, go to a boxing gym.

The degree to which a particular school spends time on whatever philosophy may underlie the art varies widely from school to school, and sometimes from teacher to teacher even within a single school. Some places, it gets pretty deep. Other places focus on the physical art. (One teacher, asked about the spiritual side of his (Japanese) art, said, “Yeah, there’s a spiritual side: the dead guy doesn’t get to go to church.” Another one, this one Chinese: “Our philosophy? Our philosophy is to crash through the opponent’s center and kill him.” Not everybody uses the art as a platform for teaching a spirituality.)

The point here is, you gotta go and find out for yourself, and whether it’s a deal-breaker depends on what the prospective student is ready for. An awful lot of Christians want some kind of guarantee in advance that nothing will make them uncomfortable. They seem afraid of getting somehow tainted by rubbing shoulders with pagans. They’d prefer to do all their research online, and won’t go to the events and meet the people. That’s a poor way to handle apologetic engagement. Apologetic engagement requires, well, engagement. If you don’t go and see for yourself, you’ve no right to complain when people answer your objections by telling you that you don’t know the first thing about it. They’re right; you don’t.

Having found out, you then have to answer some hard questions. Is this philosophy attractive to me? Does it repulse me? Why? What is true about it? What is false about it? How do I know? The cautions Paul gives in Colossians about philosophy and vain deceit apply here, as do the characteristics of idolatrous thought laid out in Romans 1. Any Christless philosophy is vain and self-defeating, but sometimes it takes some growth in us before the self-defeating nature of the system becomes apparent to us. At the same time, because everyone–despite their ardent pretense otherwise–is living in Yahweh’s world, they often learn some useful things about that world. Sifting the operations of common grace from the operations of human depravity takes a good eye. So we need to grow, but there’s no need for panic.

Those same cautions apply to enrolling in Leviathan State University as an engineering or pre-med major. The student will encounter all kinds of ugly ideas and sub-Christian worldviews. There’s work to be done to counter them, but God has not given us a spirit of fear. You don’t want someone enrolling—either in your state university or in a martial arts school—who isn’t up to the challenge the environment will present to their worldview. So get ‘em ready, and then send ‘em in.

Now, as to what I do with my classes: I don’t pretend this is The One Right Way To Do Things, but I’ve been teaching since 1999, and this is what I’ve found works best for me and mine. I practice Kuntao Silat, an Indonesian art brought here by Dutch-Indonesian immigrants in the 60s. Some of the leaders and senior practitioners are Christian; some are not. The roots of the art are deeply mixed: Muslim, animist, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Christian. There are some practices in our history I don’t find appropriate as a Christian, so I don’t do them.

The terminology of the art is largely in Bahasa Indonesia, with a smattering of other languages thrown in; Indonesia is a polyglot kinda place in language and culture, just like it is in religion. I know what the Indonesian terms mean, but my students mostly don’t;  I teach my classes in English. (E.g., sapu and beset are two fundamental leg movements in the art; my students know them as ‘scoop’ and ‘drag’ respectively.) Shoot, half my students don’t even know my title is Guru Muda. They call me Tim.

We don’t open my classes with a bow. We open my classes with a blessing (and since I’m not starting a cult, we do it round-robin style; I give and receive.) All my students learn to speak blessing over other people, even if it’s a simple, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” or “May your training be blessed today.” If you’re not willing to look another human being in the eye and speak blessing over them, I’m certainly not going to teach you how to hurt people.

After the blessing, we begin the class, which is informal and at times very demanding. You can teach martial arts with a number of different focuses (sport, cultural heritage, performance art, fitness, healthy movement, mental discipline, self-defense); I focus on healthy movement, discipline, and self-defense.

At the end of class, we finish with a closing circle where each student has to articulate one thing he learned that day, and one thing he intends to practice in the coming week. Then we have a closing blessing, and class is over.

Along with translating the terms to English, I’ve dropped a lot of the cultural trappings. This is a philosophical decision each teacher has to make for themselves: do you try to replicate your own learning experience as closely as possible, or do you cannibalize your own learning experience selectively to craft a new learning experience for your students? If you are, say, a traditionally raised Japanese man who learned jiu-jutsu from another traditionally raised Japanese man, you have a pretty good shot at reproducing your learning experience for the next generation of students, and it might be a good idea.

In my circumstances, that approach didn’t make much sense. The men who brought my arts to the U.S. grew up in colonial Dutch Indonesia before WWII, and like the Preacher said, “All is mist.” They are the products of a unique time, place, and culture that no longer exists. I’m a white boy from Virginia; I can’t reproduce that culture and I don’t intend to try. All the bowing and flags and so on leaves me cold, so I don’t bother with it. I’m passing on the fighting art, so that’s what we spend time on. I’ll teach some tidbits about the culture and history as it illuminates the movement or the mentality of the art (which it does), but the point is to understand the fighting art.

In my classes, we laugh a lot. We play, we have fun. But I also make my students face the ugliness of what we’re doing, for two reasons. First, I want them to come to terms with it in training before they have to face it for real. Second, it’s bad for your soul to romanticize a discipline where the raw material is healthy bodies and the finished product is cripples and corpses.

The theology is relevant, and it comes up as we work through the ethical issues that come with training to injure people. We can’t lose sight of the fact that what we are training for is not good. We broke the world, and introduced evil. We are living with the consequences, which include the need to fight evil—if you love sheep, you have to be ready to fight wolves. But—thank God—these things have an end. Jesus has already triumphed over evil and buried it in the heart of the earth; it just doesn’t know it’s dead yet.

On the glorious last day, we will beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks. From that day forward, we will no longer study war, and that will not be a sad day. No one will look back nostalgically at the good old days when we worked so hard to be ready to hurt people. But you have to know where you are in the story; friends don’t let friends over-realize their eschatology. Our job is to be ready for the last day when it comes, and until then, to be ready for tomorrow no matter what comes.


Jesus All The Way Down

22 February 2019

If I want to house a homeless woman, because Jesus, or feed a homeless man, because Jesus, I must also desire to pay for these things, because Jesus.

I may not drive someone from their apartment at gunpoint in Jesus’ name in order to house the homeless woman. I may not steal from the grocery store in Jesus’ name in order to feed the homeless man. And if—in Jesus’ name—I stick up some third neighbor at the ATM in order to pay the landlord and the grocer, I am only compounding the problem. It can’t be a slick patina of Jesus (which looks suspiciously like Shane Claiborne, just sayin’) on the surface, and an unrepentant Zacchaeus down where the real work gets done. It’s got to be Jesus all the way down.

The point here is simple: STOP COVETING OTHER PEOPLE’S STUFF!!!

In a more secular mode, the appeal is inevitably to “simple human compassion.” You cannot call it compassion to care for the addict who does not work or the mentally ill who cannot work while plotting to rob the worker to pay for it all. It is not compassion to hate the productive business owner and make him your slave. Covering it all with Jesus-talk does not somehow make it okay. We cannot expect God to bless our so-called compassion when we build the whole project on covetousness and theft.

All the Christian leftists who want to take other people’s stuff to pay for their compassionate endeavors—if all those people repented of their covetousness and became Christian business owners who work hard to earn the money to pay for those same endeavors so they can show real generosity with their own stuff rather than faking it with someone else’s—it would all be paid for, and then some. Or do you think God wouldn’t bless that?

“Let him who stole, steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, in order that he might have something to give the needy.”

And let him who lobbied for the stealing, and him who voted for the stealing, do the same.


Introducing Five New Fundamentals

15 February 2019

I’ve written recently about the continuous need for discussion about the fundamentals of the faith, for re-articulating the ways in which the Christian faith cuts against the temptations of our own time. It is not enough to rest on the victories of the past; we have to deal with the temptations of the present.

To that end, I present my own modest proposal: five fundamentals for the present day. I believe that these key doctrines must, first of all, be lived. We must joyfully and obediently push them into all the little nooks and crannies of our lives, and reject the temptations that they cut against. Only then can they be effectively proclaimed from our pulpits and across our supper tables, defended in private discussion and public discourse, and paraded before a shocked and disbelieving world.

So without further ado, five fundamentals for the present day:

  1. The Unity and Community of Christ’s Whole Body. Those who are united to Christ are united to each other, and therefore we must fellowship deeply across gender, family, class, ethnic, denominational, and national lines. Every form of individual pride or group-based sectarianism, chauvinism, prejudice, and vainglory is destined for the pit. Every form of individualism that assures us we’re fine without deep and constant sharing of life with one another is also destined for the pit.
  2. Love of Generous Fruitfulness. “Be fruitful” is the first command to humanity; it extends into everything, and obedient, godly fruitfulness overflows in every direction. From reproduction to craftsmanship, every endeavor and way of being that is fruitless by nature falls short of our calling as human beings. Every attempt to simulate generosity through compulsion by guilt, fear, or force is doomed.
  3. The Equality and Difference of Man and Woman. “Male and female He created them.” The existence of culturally constructed differences does not invalidate the existence of biological differences: men and women are different down to the very last cell. Men and women have equal value and dignity and are designed by God to live symbiotically together. Every erasure of real differences — and the social policies based on such follies — can only come to grief. Every form of contempt for one sex, or vaunting one sex over the other, robs us of a chance to flourish.
  4. The Social Reality of the Fall. There is no “system so perfect that no one will need to be good”–and Jesus is the only hope for human goodness. Nothing short of continuing repentance and life in the Holy Spirit will lead to a genuinely good human society. All utopian social designs are counterfeits of the New Jerusalem, and until the New Jerusalem comes, all social designs must plan for the human drive to exploit other humans for one’s own advantage.
  5. Functional Supernaturalism. The world was spoken into being, and is upheld by Jesus’ spoken word. It is supernatural down to the quarks, and God actively intervenes on behalf of His Kingdom. Materialism — including the methodological kind — is not correct “as far as it goes;” it is error all the way down, as wrong as Ptolemy’s spheres.

Every one of these five will be derided as ridiculous, judgy, dangerously retrograde. They* will be outraged when we talk about them, but they will be jealous when we live them. So let’s live all five, to the hilt. They* will argue, but like Sophrony once said, “For every argument there is a counter-argument, but who can argue with life?” We don’t have to out-clever our cultured despisers; we just have to live. As we live these truths, and they do not, we will reap fruit and blessings and joy that — for all their cleverness — they cannot explain. We can hope that induces repentance, but honestly I think it will just make most of ’em even madder.

I can’t wait.

*Spoiler alert: “They” will include an impressive number of Christians, not least the evangelical suits and haircuts from Impressive Universities, Respectable Publishers, and Important National Conferences. But so what?