A Twisted Path

19 November 2019

As conservative Christians, we have badly misunderstood the way depravity works.

Depravity doesn’t just make you want to be wicked in the ordinary senses that people think of as wicked — stomping on kittens, say, or talking at the theater. Depravity can’t force you to stop having the good desires that God put within you, desires for love, community, respect and admiration, acceptance, peace.

Depravity is relational. It is a rebellion against the God who alone can make those God-given desires a reality. We crave good things — peace, joy, love, and so on — that’s the image of God in us, and we can’t get rid of it, no matter how hard we try. But we want all those things on our own terms and for their own sake, apart from God — and that’s depravity.

We were made to accept love, joy, and peace as good gifts from a loving Father. When we won’t accept them as gifts, we seek to wrest them from the world under our own power. Depravity is taking a twisted path, thinking it will lead to a good end. Of course it never works. But if we admit that it isn’t working, that we aren’t really finding the soul-rest that God made us to seek, then we have to admit that ignoring God is not working. Depravity doesn’t want to do that, so instead it makes us forget what we really want.

We crave joy, so we take the twisted path of getting rich, thinking it will lead to joy.  Along the way, we forget that we were aiming for joy, and just get preoccupied with getting rich. Even if we succeed, we remain profoundly unhappy–but our depravity has long since caused us to think of wealth as the goal. We often don’t realize how unhappy we are until some circumstance in life forces us to face it. Others find a different twisted path toward joy, with the same basic result: first we give up everything for the sake of the twisted path, and then the twisted path fails to deliver what it promised, and in the end it kills us.


The Freedom to be Wrong

12 November 2019

If you’re sleeping with someone else’s spouse, I do not need to inquire into the motives of your heart to know that you are in sin. God has specifically said this is a no-no. He has already told me that the motives of your heart are going to be a mess, and as a minister of the gospel it is my solemn duty to name your adultery for the sin it is and encourage you to go and sin no more. But when it comes to what you eat or abstain from, which holidays you celebrate, and so on, I may not tell you what to do (Romans 14:4-10), and you are not allowed to permit me (or anyone else) to pass judgment on you about that, or enforce regulations over you (Colossians 2:16-23).

These latter areas are what we call “areas of liberty.” Christian liberty does not mean that there are no wrong choices to make. It means that the nature of the issue is such that God does not allow us to pontificate on someone else’s correctness. Let’s illustrate with, say, hair color.

Now, whether we’re talking about a lady of a certain age unnaturally prolonging her days as a brunette, or the same lady going electric blue, hair dye has been a hot topic in certain times and places. Accusations of ‘worldliness’ abound (and are particularly funny when leveled by an unnatural brunette against someone else’s unnaturally electric blue hair, but never mind.)

When it comes to hair, Scripture says some things about ostentatious displays of wealth and leisure, but dye is so cheap anymore that’s not really a problem. Taking one thing with another, hair dye is among those things which perish with the using, and other believers do not have the right to tell you whether you may use it, or what colors you may or may not use. This is a matter that is within your liberty, and that means that you are to be permitted to do as you like, even though you may be dead wrong.

This wrongness can happen in two ways, and it’s important to grasp both.

In his discussion of ‘doubtful things’ in Romans 14, Paul takes sides on the issue of eating meat. Here we have one brother chowing down on a steak, and a vegetarian who thinks his carnivorous brother is flirting with deadly compromise. Paul does not say they’re both equally valid dietary choices; he pointedly describes the carnivore as the stronger Christian. The vegetarian, he says, has a weak conscience–and he is allowed to be wrong about this. The vegetarian may not pass judgment on the carnivore, nor the carnivore hold the vegetarian in contempt. So if you feel that pink hair is an abomination, you are allowed to avoid it. On these sorts of matters, you have the freedom to be wrong; let each one be fully convinced in his own mind, as Paul says.

There is also another way in which you can be wrong. The motives of your heart may, in fact, be drenched in worldliness. Your boyfriend’s ex dyed her hair pink last week, and he’s been looking longingly at her ever since, and there’s no way you’re going to let that skank show you up — who does she think she is, anyway? — and so you’re gonna get a dye job that can be seen from low earth orbit. Now as your pastoral counselor, or just your friend, I see a whole stack of issues worth addressing here, but the point for our conversation today is that I’m not allowed to tell you the dye job is sin. This is the kind of circumstance where God might call you to forget the pink hair, but that’s not because pink hair is sin, it’s because it would be a hindrance for you.

God may ultimately call you to forsake Crossfit, or rolex watches, or Starbucks coffee, or snazzy ties. God might call you to let your grey hair grow in, to mortify your vanity. He might call you to polish your shoes every Saturday night and wear a suit and tie to church, to mortify your sloth. Liberty does not mean that God can’t or won’t call you in a particular direction; the point is that nobody else can demand it. It’s between you and God.

So listen well.


What It Can Mean

22 October 2019

One of the most frustrating, and most important, lessons I ever learned about interpreting Scripture happened when I was in Bible college. I’d had some Greek, and in an inter-session course I had the opportunity to take an elective from a wise old scholar whose name (I am ashamed to say) now escapes me. He was retired, but came in to spend mornings for a week lecturing us on Ephesians. Every morning, he would arrive at the classroom with only his English Bible and his Greek text. No lecture notes, no notepad, nothing but his two Bibles.

He would set his English Bible on the corner of the desk, where it would sit untouched for the next several hours. Then he would open up his Greek text to Ephesians and begin to lecture. The lecture consisted of reading a phrase or so at a time in Greek, translating it on the fly into King James-style English, making comments at length on the meaning of the Greek words and the overall passage, and entertaining questions along the way. I think we spent 4 hours a day for 5 days making a single pass through Ephesians, which will give you some idea of the length of the comments and the overall pace.

In that class there were several of us who had taken varying amounts of Greek, and a couple of dynamics quickly developed that were repeated many times over the course of our 5 days together.

The first one was when we thought we had caught him propounding an interpretation of Ephesians which contradicted some other passage of Scripture.

“But wouldn’t what you’re saying contradict [other passage], which says ______________?”

“Well, that would be a contradiction, young man, but [other passage] doesn’t say that. It says — ” and here he would quote the other passage, in Greek, from memory, translate it, and explain what it actually said and why it didn’t contradict his understanding of the Ephesians passage under discussion. He would then return to the lecture. As far as we could tell, this man knew the entire Greek New Testament by heart.

The second dynamic that happened repeatedly was when we thought he’d mistranslated one of the Greek words in the text.

“Sir, couldn’t that Greek word also mean ______?”

“Yes, young man, it certainly could. But in this passage, it doesn’t.” He would then explain why, in the passage at hand, the word meant what he was saying it did. I remember these explanations as well-reasoned, succinct, and effectively impossible to rebut.

Frustrating as it was, these were really important lessons in interpretation. Contradicting what I think a passage says is not the same thing as contradicting the passage. Choosing an interpretation of a word is harder than it seems. Words have different meanings: trunk can be the front of an elephant, the back of a car, the middle of a tree, the torso of a person, or an item of luggage. The fact that “trunk” could mean any of those things in some context does not mean that it does mean a particular one in this context. You don’t get to treat the list of possible meanings as a menu and just pick the one you like. The meaning has to cohere with the particular context, and demonstrating that you’ve made the right interpretive choice is not always a trivial undertaking. Sometimes it’s obvious, like using the word “trunk” when we’re talking about an elephant, and not talking about cars, trees, people, or luggage. Other times, it is less obvious: in the middle of a move, when the family car and Grandpa’s old steamer trunk are right next to each other in the driveway, “Put this in the trunk” could mean more than one thing. But if the back of the car’s already loaded with Dad’s greasy tools, the steamer trunk is open and half-full of linens, and Mom just handed you a lily-white tablecloth and said “Put this in the trunk,” there’s an excellent case to be made that she means one and not the other.

“But can’t trunk mean the back of the car?”

“Of course it can, young man. But in this case it doesn’t, and if you don’t want a spanking, you’d better get your exegesis right.”


No Trap to See

15 October 2019

I spent my first years in ministry helping a small group of people get out of a cult, and then several more years on the much trickier task of getting the cult out of the people. That work, and the subsequent times I’ve been called on to help people recover from cults, has given me an interesting look at how cults operate on their followers.

One of the central dynamics by which such cults flourish is the leader’s secret knowledge, his discernment of things too lofty for the hoi polloi, and especially of dire, dangerous threats too subtle for the hoi polloi to discern.

The dynamic proceeds thus: the congregant thinks Practice (or belief) X is innocuous, perhaps even helpful. The Dear Leader comes along and denounces Practice X, connecting it (by whatever dubious means) to Heresy Y. The People dutifully praise Dear Leader for his wisdom and are confirmed in their conviction that without Dear Leader and his subtle discernment, they would not be able to navigate their spiritual lives.

In the nature of the case, Practice X cannot be something obviously wrong. The people are already avoiding the things that are obviously wrong anyway. It brings no credit to Dear Leader’s discernment to denounce, say, devil worship. But suppose, in a rhetorically dazzling series of sermons titled “What Can Brown Do For Your Soul?”, Dear Leader connects UPS to a worldwide secret cabal of devil worshippers? Well, now you’ve got something. The poor congregants would never have known–why, they’ve been supporting devil worshippers with every Christmas package they send, without knowing it!

The whole point of the exercise is for Dear Leader to highlight a spiritual trap that the congregant would never have been able to discern, the better to demonstrate how much they all need Dear Leader and his spiritual insights. The intended effect of the exercise does not occur unless the People didn’t see the trap. And it works best of all when they couldn’t have seen the trap, because there is no trap to see.

As long as he can convince them after the fact that there is in fact a connection between Practice X and vilest heresy — using whatever rhetorical trickery is at his disposal — the trick works, and his authority is confirmed. The fewer other leaders agree with him, the more he is elevated above the common rabble of pastors — they are confused, clueless, or complicit in the sin themselves. And so betraying his close allies, whom he paints as compromised with various sins and false teachings he alone is able to discern, becomes one of the key ways in which a cult leader can consolidate control of his people.

It’s an ugly business, one that Christians should steer well clear of.

But the ugliest part is the way in which the same dynamic infiltrates groups (both conservative and progressive) that most of us wouldn’t consider cults, although we might allow as how they’re a bit sectarian. In this way, many churches groom their people, especially their young people, in habits of mind that make them easy pickings for cults later in life.


“Dual” Relationship, or Real Relationship?

1 October 2019

In general, skin in the game comes with conflict of interest.”
-Nassim Taleb

I recently worked my way through Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game, a book-length treatment of asymmetries of risk, and it spends a pretty good chunk of text on the question of what’s gone wrong with our class of professional advice-givers. The key observation is pretty simple: a disinterested third party usually pays no penalty for giving bad advice. Therefore, disinterested third parties often give bad advice, because humans are just not as careful when they’re gambling with someone else’s money.

As a culture, we generally prefer that our advice-givers be disinterested third parties. The theory is that experts, a bit removed from the situation and unhampered by any conflicts of interest, will be able to view the situation “objectively,” and so give better advice. But in reality, we’ve created an entire “chattering class” of putative experts who do little else but serve up advice, the vast majority of which is utter crap. (Did you get anything good from the last “Six Ways To…” article you read? Me neither.) What’s gone wrong?

Think about it in terms of financial advice. If your financial adviser owns a big chunk of the stock he’s urging you to buy, then he’s no longer a disinterested third party. Perhaps he needs you to buy that stock to shore up his belief that he made a good investment; perhaps he is helping keep the stock in demand by having all his clients buy it; perhaps he is even in a “pump and dump” scheme. Because he’s involved, his advice is no longer “objective.” And so we will point an accusing finger–he has a conflict of interest.

But consider the alternative. Suppose he’s not at all invested in the stock he’s recommending to you? Suppose that no matter how much he tells you that it’s a great buy, definitely undervalued right now, etc…he hasn’t bought any himself, and doesn’t intend to. How does that look to you?

So these are our choices: either you take advice from someone who put his money where his mouth is, or you take advice from someone who didn’t, and has nothing to lose if his advice turns out to be disastrously wrong.

Me, I want the guy who’s buying the stock he recommends to me. If I’m taking the risk, I want him to be taking it too. In other words, he has skin in the game. Yeah, there’s potential conflict of interest, but that’s the cost of involvement. Those who have a stake in your success always have a potential conflict of interest.

Certain professions (psychotherapy, for example) have actually enshrined in law their suspicion of conflict of interest, prohibiting any form of “dual relationship.” (A dual relationship is any relationship where the therapist is not just the therapist, and the client is not just the client. If the client is also a friend, business associate, hairdresser, relative, student, employee, lover, etc., then it’s a dual relationship.) Of course, real relationships often naturally develop multiple facets. Your sister-in-law can be your hairdresser, your wife’s best friend, a member of your church. This kind of thing is very common in the real world. And actually, “dual” relationship isn’t a great term for it; there’s often more than two. It’s more like “multifaceted relationship,” or better, “natural relationship.”

The prohibition of dual relationships greatly limits the therapist’s ability to have skin in the game. A client’s failure is unlikely to affect the therapist’s life in any meaningful way; the therapist isn’t allowed to be invested or involved in the client’s life. (The prohibition also reveals a weakness in some therapies and some practitioners: when the efficacy of treatment depends on the client not knowing the therapist for real, what does that say about it?)

In ministerial ethics, we take exactly the opposite position. A good minister is fully embedded in the community. The people we minister to are also our dry cleaners, our auto mechanics, our grocers, our neighbors. That’s not just a thing that sometimes happens; it’s expected. (And would you really want a pastor that keeps professional distance, lives in a different community, and is uninvolved in the lives of the people he serves? I wouldn’t.)

We prize personal involvement. We understand that comes with complications. Real, multifaceted relationships can be hard. Developing a difficulty in one facet of the relationship automatically causes ripples in the other areas. You challenge your parishioner to confess his affair to his wife, and three days later–because he’s also your barber–he’s cutting your hair. Can be a bit awkward. It takes a huge amount of character to manage the potential conflicts of interest and inevitable complications that come with a real relationship that crosses multiple domains.

Moreover, doing your work surrounded by people who have all these different vantage points on your life is going to expose places where your personal integrity is lacking. That’s not a bug; that’s a feature. It’s hard to counsel a man to treat his wife better when he heard you fighting with your own wife last week in the grocery store parking lot. So treat your wife better. Duh.

Now please hear me, that doesn’t mean you can’t give advice on something unless you’re perfect at it. It does mean, though, that you can’t hide hypocrisy behind professional distance, like the addiction counselor who helps clients get off drugs while using an endless series of random hookups to cope with the stress of the job. You can’t be a hypocrite. You have to own your failings and be making honest effort to improve. Because your community will know if you’re not…and they won’t listen to you.

One of the reasons massage therapy fits so well into my life is that in massage, we take a very similar approach to multifaceted relationships. We know that healing happens in the context of relationship, and so we don’t shy away from doing healing work with people that we have real relationships with. We move cautiously, we communicate, we consider carefully whether we can do this healing work with this client at this time — and the answer might be no, for various reasons, but that’s another post — but we don’t automatically rule it out. In most settings, if you have integrity, use wisdom, and communicate well, having a real relationship with your client is not a drawback; it’s a force multiplier.

This approach in massage therapy is nearly inevitable, starting in school. There’s no way to simulate doing bodywork; you gotta actually work with a body. Having students practicing on each other and giving each other feedback is the only practical way to do that. So we start off in multifaceted relationships–at minimum we’re each other’s therapists and each other’s clients. Many of us also become friends, and some of us become business partners as well. We grow accustomed to navigating the difficulties of real relationships, and so we don’t need to hide behind professional distance later. It’s a rare massage therapist that doesn’t treat friends, neighbors, family members, and so on, which is a far more natural practice than artificially excluding them.

That doesn’t stop us from having integrity, doing what we say we will, and delivering a high-quality service. Much the opposite.


Which Way The Arrow Points

24 September 2019

In the conservative evangelical world, especially the seminary-educated part of it, we take for granted that there is a particular order to living the Christian life: sound theology drives sound living.

This accommodates our grasp of Christianity to one of our great cultural myths, the notion that theory precedes, and drives, practice. Applying that myth to Christian living, we come to believe that intellectual comprehension precedes and drives action. We give this idea a patina of respectability by linking it to passages like Romans 12:2, which talk of transformation through the renewing of the mind.

But reality is far more complicated than that.

In terms of the general myth that theory drives practice, Nassim Taleb ably takes that on in Antifragile, arguing successfully that most innovation is actually driven by practitioners tinkering, improving things by trial and error, and the theory comes afterwards. In other words, the arrow runs the other way: practice ->theory, not theory->practice. There are noteworthy exceptions, but they are noteworthy precisely because of their rarity. In the real world, trial-and-error practice drives theory far more than the other way around. (If you’d like it stated epigrammatically: “The difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference….”)

If we’d read Romans more closely, none of this would surprise us. Sure, the renewing of your mind transforms you. But the verse before that, you offer your body as a living sacrifice, which is only possible because the Spirit gives life to your mortal body. Not your mind, note. Your body, directly. God does not only deal with your mind, which then straightens out your body. We could believe that if Romans ended after chapter 6, but it doesn’t.

The Holy Spirit is not some positive thinking guru; He doesn’t just give you holy thoughts. He deals directly with your body, not just with your mind.

***

As a practical matter, we often find that practice precedes theory. God will call us into obedience in an area long before we understand the benefits and ramifications of that obedience. This is how Psalm-singing was for me. I was confronted with three NT passages that said Christians should sing psalms, so I started doing it. It really was that simple.

I had no theory; I had no idea what would happen if I did it. I wasn’t very good at it either, to be perfectly honest. But over time I got better, by God’s grace, and I began to reap the benefits of obedience. I could give you a long speech now about the benefits of singing the Psalms, but that knowledge came long after the practice.

Which is to say that obedience is often necessary in order to acquire eyes to see. The  world is a complex place, and there are limits to how much we can discern about the world by sitting around thinking about it. Going out and trying things is much more productive.

Would that we were obedient more often, instead of just demanding more explanations.


Weak Pneumatology

3 September 2019

I had occasion recently to reflect on the pneumatology of my (Bible church movement) tradition. It’s mostly correct, on paper. But it’s also really weak.

On this, three points (the first mostly a prolegomenon, but necessary for this discussion.) First: Theology can be correct but weak, because theology is not simply something one teaches; it is something one attains. Having your theological paperwork in order doesn’t matter if you don’t actually do it. It is no defense for a serially philandering pastor to hide behind his correct teaching on the sanctity of marriage. If he doesn’t live up to his talk, then he has attained only a weak theology of marriage.

Second: Much of what the Scofield-Chafer-DTS tradition has developed on the Holy Spirit is true, but the community does not allow it to be applied. As a practical example, that tradition very carefully articulates a doctrine of illumination (per Ryrie, “The ministry of the Holy Spirit helping the believer to understand and apply the truth of the Bible,”) and everyone is required to agree in general that such a thing happens. However, nobody is permitted to claim that it has happened in a specific case. You can test this in your own church, although I make no promise that it is safe to try: tell them that last night God showed you what a passage of Scripture means, and see what happens.
Of course nobody should swallow such a claim whole; when someone says that to me, I want to hear what the person thinks God showed them, and I want to weight the exegetical evidence, pro and con. But healthy skepticism is not the reaction a claim of illumination gets in this community. Far more often than not, what happens is incredulous scoffing — because we don’t actually believe in illumination, no matter what we say.

Third: Although we tout “personal relationship with God” and we claim to believe that the Spirit makes that possible, we shy away from anything “subjective” or “mystical.” But while good relationships have an objective basis, an enormous amount of what happens in the day-to-day conduct of any real relationship is subjective. This goes double when the relationship is with an incorporeal Spirit. As a result of our fear of “subjectivism” or “mysticism,” we are unable to actually live in relationship with the Spirit. The realities described by John 17:3, Galatians 2:20 or 5:16, or Romans 8:11 are not meant to be “objectively” certified, but subjectively lived. If we are afraid of the subjective, we are afraid of relationship, and if we are afraid of relationship, we will neither have relationship with God nor talk about it well.

In sum: Our pneumatology is weak because it espouses realities in theory that it will not permit anyone to actually apply, and because it stops short of dealing with realities that are the very core of the biblical picture of the Christian life.

We really need to fix that.