A Complementarian Crisis

The Biblical vision of gender offers real joy and flourishing. The question is, do we?

A couple years ago Ray Ortlund memorably described the typical lifespan of an American evangelical church as “Movement, monument, then mausoleum.” The early years are the movement, as enthusiasm and purposefulness characterize the church’s charter members and leaders. If the movement finds success, over time the church tends to lose its missional passion and instead devotes most of its energy to preserving itself against the sands of time. The result is an insular, nostalgic culture that can be stirring when excitement is highest but spends most of the time curved in on its own identity. If this habit goes unbroken long enough, eventually the church simply runs out of people who remember “the good old days” and has nothing and no one to replace them with.

Many evangelicals, including yours truly, can personally attest to how true to life this narrative is. You don’t have to go far in America to find a large, beautiful, ornate, empty church. Ironically, though many churches have abandoned the old practice of keeping a cemetery on their grounds, a sobering number of congregations have become their own kind of cemetery, where evangelism and community lie interred. While it might be oversimplified, the movement-monument-mausoleum narrative is certainly true of enough.

That’s at least one reason why many evangelical complementarians, like me, are a bit uneasy nowadays. What’s true of the institutions and movements explicitly commissioned by Jesus (churches) is doubly true of the institutions and movements that are mostly just extra, and in some cases the downward slopes are steeper outside congregational walls. As someone who is solidly convinced that the Bible teaches complementary gender theology over and against both secular feminism and Christian egalitarianism, the complementarian spectacle has not been pleasant of late.

Let me describe the spectacle as I see it.

First, evangelical complementarianism, based on the messaging and activity of its most important institutions and advocates, seems to currently lack a compelling identity. The debate over the Trinity a few years back was an impressive exchange of massively important theological ideas between gifted and faithful scholars, but it’s not at all clear to me what, exactly, that dialogue accomplished. There seems (at least to me, an interested layperson) to be no better consensus on issues such as the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS) now than there was in the smoke.

Such a lack of closure on what appears to be the most significant theological moment for complementarianism in the last ten years exemplifies what feels like a broad uncertainty over what evangelical complementarianism is: a position (on which issues?), a movement (including which people?), a dialogue (between whom?), a response (to what?), etc.  Hence, the feeling of some that current complementarianism, lacking a clear center of gravity, has turned its polemic energy on itself.

That is the second concerning trend. The uncertainty lingering after the trinity debate has led (at least partly) to a widening gap within complementarianism, between the “thin” and the “thick.” Again, the terms are maddeningly unclear. Thin complementarians appear to be mostly responding to arguments from divine ordering and natural law that bind consciences on questions like what jobs and roles women can have in the public square. The thick comps seem to view at least openness to such gendered ordering of the public square as integral to an authentically biblical theology of male and female.

It’s important to acknowledge the significance of this intramural rift for complementarianism writ large. The complementarianism of the Danvers days was explicitly presented as a response to evangelical feminism, e.g., the ordination of women in Christian churches and the downplaying of male-female distinctions in culture and politics. Most self-described “thin” complementarians accept male-only eldership and reject both same-sex marriage and transgender ideology (by contrast, a significant percentage of self-identified egalitarians seem to be LGBT and transgender affirming). Thus, the current rift between thin and thick complementarianism is not a rift over the core content of classic complementarianism as it has been most often articulated, but a rift borne of a newer, more active search to chart the true implications of this theology. No matter whether you identify as thick or thin, the biggest point here is where complementarian energies are being expended, and divided—not so much over the ordering of the home and church, but in the potential implications for public theology outside.

It’s certainly true that the various disputes between the thin and thick camps matter, and should not be dismissed or avoided. If nothing else, pastors and church leaders should define themselves as clearly as possible to avoid potentially catastrophic illusions of unity on issues that have real implications for the congregation. Granted that, I think it’s fair to wonder if the thin vs thick faceoff is doomed by the law of diminishing return. It’s hard to imagine a robust, coherent complementarianism with lots of different splinter cells, servicing competing evangelical sub-tribes that share digital space at places like TGC but work behind the scenes to undermine one another. Perhaps thin vs thick is not such a harbinger. Perhaps it’s a watershed moment that will yield a liberating amount of theological clarity and solidarity. Perhaps not, too.

If certain dynamics continue unchanged, there’s reason to worry about the above scenario coming true. In fact, it’s already started to happen. This is the third concerning trend: a surplus of “lumping,” a frustrating infatuation with ephemeral social media trends, and growing suspicion that what’s being talked about isn’t what’s really being talked about.

One vivid example took place just last week at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention. After giving the ERLC’s annual report, president Russell Moore took questions from the floor. One of the questions was a pitifully obvious attempt at a gotcha: The delegate quoted an old piece by Dr. Moore that vigorously asserted a complementarian position on churches that allow preaching by women. “Do you still believe this,” the delegate asked, and only some of the members present would have been able to hear the dog-whistle for a condemnation of Beth Moore.

Of course, one question from one delegate at the Southern Baptist Convention does not a narrative make. Still, the Beth Moore “moment” that swept through large portions of influential complementarian social media was a disconcerting episode—not because a woman’s preaching on Mother’s Day is a good idea complementarians should just get over, but because the stakes of public complementarian theology are much bigger than subtweets and a Hallmark holiday.

These disconcerting trends have one possible, unifying explanation. It could be that the evangelical complementarian vision has pivoted from its focused, theologically hefty “movement” phase, and is currently more concerned with recreating its old polemical energy. In this hypothesis, what the “monument” phase looks like for complementarians is an attempt to re-win a war already won, regardless that evangelical feminism has largely collapsed fully into the mainline denominations and has, for the most part, become one thread in a thoroughly non-evangelical garment. Without the same clearly delineated purpose and target, a restless complementarianism turns on itself and becomes a monument to its former role and rhetoric.

Assuming this is at least partly true, what now? I go back to Ortlund’s original blog post, because the path he offers churches to renewal and rejuvenation rings true in more ways than one:

The responsibility of a church’s leaders is to discern when their movement is starting to level off as a monument. It is at this crucial point that they must face themselves honestly and discover why they have lost their edge, go into repentance and return to the costly commitments that made them great to begin with. They may need to deconstruct much of what they have become, which is painful and embarrassing. But if the leaders will have the humility, clarity, and courage to do this, their church will go into renewal and re-launch as a movement once more. Jesus will become real again, people will be helped again, and those bold, humble leaders will never regret the price they paid.

Unpacking this rich paragraph, I count several steps forward for a renewed complementarian vision:

1) Complementarians don’t need to agree about all the reasons in order to acknowledge that the movement needs help and revitalization. From #MeToo to the Trinity to trolls, complementarian culture needs to honestly assess its current health.

2) Complementarians need to repent of the role that any spiritual pride or anger may have played in the decay of the movement, especially that which may have caused us to deflect faithful criticism and compromise with un-Christian means to accomplish (in our view) Christian ends.

3) Complementarians should enter a season of self-examination, consciously pressing pause on polemics in order to define, clearly, what we believe Jesus is calling us to be and do. There needs to be a “return to fundamentals” in theology, resisting temptations to answer challenges with slippery slope angst and credential-checking and instead going ad fontes, to the heart of the full biblical narrative on gender and God’s image.

4) Complementarians should pray urgently that the Holy Spirit would be discernible to outsiders, including all His fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These aren’t the ingredients to heavy blog traffic or snazzy headlines, but they are the only fruits that matter to the Judge of all the earth.

I don’t believe complementarianism is a generational fad. Rather, I think it is the best, most serious attempt thus yet to make sense of the Bible’s radically counter-cultural ideas about maleness and femaleness. Biblical complementarity, like biblical sexuality, offers deep joy and real flourishing. The challenge, as always, is to resist making a theology that isn’t about us, really about us, and in so doing stand squarely between the world and the joy and flourishing offered by our risen Savior. Of course, Christ doesn’t let even mausoleums get in the way of his mission. The question is, will we?

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Why C.S. Lewis Was So Persuasive

A new book lays out why Lewis was such an effective communicator.

In the new book Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church, James Beitler III looks at C.S. Lewis’s rhetorical strategy to reflect on what made him so successful at rhetoric. Beitler ascribes to Lewis a rhetoric of goodwill, and fleshes this out in three different categories. Lewis was a powerful and effective communicator because he

1) Defined his audience and addressed them specifically

Beitler writes that Lewis was not afraid to be explicit about the kind of people whom he was addressing in a given context. By deciding who it was that he was most trying to reach, Lewis was able to craft his logical approach in a way that was specifically effective for that audience. This meant, among other things, deciding what particular angle his particular audience needed most, and then putting his ideas where that audience could best access them. Beitler writes, “Lewis’s observations speak to the necessity of learning about one’s audience members before addressing them, and his willingness to do such legwork is an important aspect of his rhetoric of goodwill.”

2) Asserted objective truth humbly.

Beitler points readers to Lewis’s writings on hell—especially The Great Divorce—as exemplifying Lewis’s attitude that truth mattered, and that he (Lewis) needed the truth spoken most of all. Lewis doesn’t divide the world into those who get it and those who should; rather, he preaches intellectual and spiritual repentance to everyone, and to himself most of all. Granting that Lewis could be arrogant (in a footnote, Beitler cites scholarship testifying as much), Beitler finds in Lewis a persistent unwillingness to see himself as better than the ones to whom he was writing.

3) “Cultivated communities of goodwill.”

Lewis practiced the art of friendship. His intellectual work was not created in a vacuum but emerged from relationships in which Lewis practiced the virtues and mercies of grace. Lewis sought out the presence and advice of others, was generous with his critics, and showed kindness and tenderness to his students. On at least one occasion Lewis declined a publisher’s financial offer because he didn’t want to write the scathing review they sought. In other words, Lewis was not simply made of pure logic, but a Christian who lived out the beauty of Christianity and made its claims appeal to the imaginations of those who knew him.

Beitler’s essay on Lewis’s rhetoric is outstanding, and I’m enjoying the rest of the book. By laying out Lewis’s rhetorical effectiveness so plainly, Beitler offers the church at large a model to aspire to. Lewis was indeed brilliant, but that’s not why God used him.


photo credit: CS Lewis sculpture, Belfast (3)
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Albert Bridgegeograph.org.uk/p/2826954

The Empathy Trap

Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant writer Joe Rigney published a piece at Desiring God titled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” Provocative? Yes, and to be honest, my first response when I saw the title was, “Uh, no.” I balked at the suggestion that what we should be talking about in an age of intense polarization, shame storms, and racial and ideological violence is the sin of empathy. Obviously this was a case of someone trying too hard, no?

But as I read the satirical demonic letter  (in the spirit of The Screwtape Letters), the scales began to fall. Here’s how Rigney’s Screwtape describes the difference between empathy and compassion:

Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.

However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth.

Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.

In other words, compassion multiplies sufferers, but empathy consumes all fellowship into the feelings of one. In the economy of empathy there is no currency except the sufferer’s own interpretation of their suffering; any other alm offered up is illegitimate. Compassion grabs hold (in one of Rigney’s metaphors) of sinking sufferers while keeping a firm grasp on that which is immovable, so that the sinking sufferer can be pulled up onto something. Empathy dives headlong in the quicksand. The point is not finding life after suffering. There is no point, except the experience of the moment. What we’re talking about is simply the abdication of pursuing the right and true in deference to feelings and experiences.

Now, even typing that previous sentence feels strange. It feels strange because for a while now the idea that feelings and experiences do not dictate what we should believe or do is an idea that has been lumped—lumped in with bombastic right-wing pundits (“Facts don’t care about your feelings”), scowling John Wayne boomers, and careless theologians. This is one of the essential difficulties of thinking in a polarized, culture war age: It’s impossible to believe anything that isn’t somehow trademarked by an obnoxious tribe.

But the difficulty of thinking is not an excuse for failing to try, and if we’re willing to listen, I think Joe is making a crucially important point about the empathy trap and the power it wields over many.

This empathy trap was on display in evangelical social media this week. On Sunday, president Donald Trump appeared onstage at McLean Bible Church, and pastor David Platt prayed with and for him. Joe Carter has a helpful summary of the background of the event, as well as a full transcript of Platt’s prayer. Nearly everyone seems to agree that Platt’s prayer was excellent. It was steadfastly non-partisan and unequivocal about the gospel. But did Platt make a serious error of judgment in allowing Trump to come onstage, in praying for him, and (perhaps most of all) in not forcefully shaming and rebuking him for his politics?  Since the moment resulted in some not-negative PR for Trump, and since Platt did not use the opportunity to challenge the president, a very vocal, very passionate group has reasoned that this obviously caused trauma and offense to many members of Platt’s church (and others).

It is, of course, entirely coherent to hold that a pastor must never allow a politician to be onstage at church. I’m actually sympathetic to that view and imagine that, all variables being equal, such a policy would probably solve a lot of problems at once. But nobody appears to be arguing from absolute principle that Platt was wrong to pray with Trump onstage. Instead, because it was Trump, it was wrong. The argument expressed so far has to do with the felt offense of members of Platt’s church at watching their pastor pray for a president they abhor.

The Platt drama reveals two of the biggest dangers of unchecked empathy. First, empathy is by definition selective (empathize with NeverTrump, or his supporters in the church?); thus it’s uniquely vulnerable to being held captive by passing fads, trends, and mobs. Much of the fiercest criticism of Platt seems to be deeply self-congratulatory, reverberating with Retweets and Likes in echo chambers that consistently take the ungenerous interpretation of a white evangelical pastor’s stage time with Donald Trump. Nary a thought is offered for the complexities of being a pastor of a politically diverse congregation, and the wisdom in refraining from partisan language and simply pointing the church and the president to the gospel.

Second, this kind of empathetic absolutism runs serious risk of becoming a ruthlessly utilitarian way of doing life and theology. Matthew Vines built an entire case for Christian LGBT affirmation on the basis of the hurt and alienation of gay Christians from traditional churches. “Bad trees bear bad fruit,” he wrote, an analogy that fails logically but succeeds emotionally. It’s not hard to see how a one-note emphasis on the feelings of others can become a mechanism for controlling revelation, particularly in the hyper-democratic and hyper-individualistic superstructure of online life.

The alternative, as Joe writes, is compassion. There should be much compassion for those who fall into the empathy trap, since, where compassion is lacking, unchecked empathy often rushes to fill the void. There is a true dearth of compassion in both secular and Christian culture—tribalism when there should be honesty, shaming when there should be help, and politics when there should be prayer. The inability to even mention these dynamics without seeing conservative backs stiffen is why the empathy trap is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should, in the name of wisdom and eternity. Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle, to hold a hand on one end and keep a grip on solid ground with the other.

The best I can tell, David Platt was put into a demanding position and asked to make a potentially explosive decision. In the end, he shared the stage with a seriously morally problematic leader and did nothing else but echo the exhortations of the Caesar-submissive Paul. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a political leader and feeling offense at his views or conduct, but there’s everything wrong with imputing that offense to the gospel itself and demanding that churches only obey 1 Timothy 2:2 through gritted teeth and scorn. Bible-trumping partisanship crouches at both GOP and Democratic doors, and it’s not less of a tragedy for it to master one tribe over another.

We must still master it. To that end, I don’t think we could do much better than to pray alongside David Platt: “Please, O God, help us to look to you, help us to trust in your Word, help us to seek your wisdom, and live in ways that reflect your love and your grace, your righteousness and your justice.”

The Beauty of a Little Life

A eulogy.

On Tuesday I was at the funeral for my grandmother, Wilma V. James. Wilma lived most of her 95 years in an industrial town named Owensboro, Kentucky. She raised three boys and worked at General Electric for decades. She outlived my grandfather by almost 22 years. You won’t likely read anything about her other than obituary. Hers was a little, beautiful life.

Do we value little lives? Do we see them as beautiful? Perhaps not. It’s easy to find someone preaching to follow your dreams, to aim for the stars, to become somebody. It’s even easy to baptize the fear of obscurity with Christian lingo, so that the measure of a life’s worth becomes how “radical” it is. What’s not easy is to hear a little life, given to a little family in a little town, held up as desirable. So much of modern life seems to be about escaping, through whatever means available, smallness. This seems tragic to me. There’s beauty in that smallness.

My guess is that we don’t value little lives because we don’t value what God values. Reflect for a moment how much God loves the unseen and the seemingly “pointless.” Reflect on the planets in the visible universe that are uninhabitable, dark, cold, and remote. AS far as we know there are millions of planetary bodies that seem to be little more than floating landscapes. Have you ever thought about why God has made a universe and galaxies so enormous that we will almost certainly never even see most of it, let alone “use” or understand it? Perhaps it’s merely because God thinks such invisible, “useless” creations are beautiful. Perhaps it’s merely because He likes them. God likes what we cannot even perceive.

Perhaps we misjudge the value of little lives also because we don’t evaluate correctly. We all know how to quantify selling millions of albums or getting a six-figure advance or pastoring a 10,000 member church. We don’t know how to quantify feeding a family that turned around and fed another family, and another, and another. We know how to quantify being an “influencer” with a million followers, but we don’t know how to value parenting future parents of parents. In other words, we only see concentrated value, not generational value. This is the definition of failing to think in terms of eternity.

I wonder sometimes if it’s always been this way. Older generations seem to have more or less accepted the borders of their lives. Moderns have grown up on technology that promised a way of escape from the givenness of things. We’re upwardly mobile and connected. We can ditch town any time and become celebrities without leaving our living room. We don’t have to be here, we can be anywhere. A little life is thus all the more loathsome to us because it is all the more avoidable. Anonymity can be cheated with a smartphone and a free app. Insecurity can be mollified with the right filter. There’s no modern reason we have to stare down our fear of the “same old thing.”

The problem comes when I try to reconcile my grandmother’s life with  my obsession to escape a small life. How much blessing did she infuse into my life through merely her presence? How much was I shaped by the meals, the open doors, the simple “How are you doing” calls? She was not anywhere; she was here. She was here, in a small obscure life, for my Dad. He was here for me. Where would I have ended up if it had not been this way? Suddenly I wonder if the problem is that I want to be on the receiving end of a little life, rather than the giving end. Let me dine on the fruits of obscure love and kindness while I use everything in my power to become famous or significant.

I pray that as I contemplate my grandmother’s glorious, little life, my heart will begin to release its craving for stature and instead look with love at the people and places my Creator has put right in front of me. To see a little life as beautiful instead of punishment is an act of love: Love for others and love for Jesus, who makes the least to be greatest in his kingdom. Obscurity is not failure and simplicity is not tragic when they reflect the worth of the world to come. The corners of the universe are invisible now, but they won’t stay that way. They’ll be glorious in our new eyes soon enough.

For Grandma, they already are.

Evangelicals and the (Complex) Persecution Complex

Conversations about American Christians and religious liberty are dysfunctional to the core.

Bonnie Kristian surely writes for almost all in the journalist class when she ridicules Mike Pence’s comments about Christians and religious freedom. “This is the evangelical persecution complex in action,” she writes, and “suggests an embarrassing ignorance of history and the teachings of Christ alike, and to those outside the church it unquestionably reads more as whining than witness.” I’m not sure whether by “those outside the church” Kristian means everyone who isn’t an evangelical Christian, or everyone who is sympathetic to progressive politics whenever they collide with Christian conviction. If she means the second, she’s definitely right. If she means the first, she might be surprised at the religious non-Christians who also feel threatened.

Anyway, Kristian’s argument is a familiar one. She says that 1) Christians have historically been persecuted (and are currently persecuted around the world), so Pence’s implicit nostalgia is misleading; 2) the gospel promises opposition to genuine faith, so Pence’s call to political culture war is at odds with Jesus’ teachings; and 3) Christians actually enjoy power and privilege in the United Sates, so Pence is simply lying in suggesting to young believers they are being actively discriminated against. She concludes, “For Christians here in the United States, this sort of rhetoric has a “boy who cried wolf” effect where religious liberty issues are concerned.”

With regard to Pence’s comments, I think Kristian is understandably cynical, but her argument has problems. First, from the manuscript, it looks to me as if Pence was careful to avoid saying that American Christians are persecuted in the same sense that Christians across the globe are. Rather, he said that while the church global is often persecuted, American evangelicals face intolerance and social pressure to capitulate—something that feels self-evidently true in the post-Obergefell era. Second, she seems to imply that political influence and economic privilege rule out any kind of meaningful prejudice. But how does that square with her reminder that Christ promised that his followers would regularly experience enmity? If any political capital rules out any form of persecution, is the conclusion that Barronnelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips must not be genuine believers?

The problem, though, is not really Kristian’s argument, nor Pence’s. The problem is that the entire conversation about religious persecution is dysfunctional to the core.  If there’s a better contemporary example of the genetic fallacy and the age of lumping than the issue of religious liberty, I can’t think of it. It’s absolutely soaked in out-grouping and gainsaying those whom your tribe dislikes, no matter what they’re saying.

My suspicion is that there are many fair-minded people who know that Christian universities are facing authentic forms of political pressure, but can’t bring themselves to endorse this idea publicly because of how it would lump them in with the GOP or religious right. It’s true that American Christians are often quick to find conspiracy when really only the market and a rapidly diversifying culture exist. But it’s also true that evangelical educators and business owners have been in court quite a bit lately, and that even the “victories” appear to leave the door open to a radical new understanding of what is and isn’t a permissible exercise of religion in the public square. The issue isn’t that evangelical political persecution never happens, the issue is that evangelicals and everyone to the left of them fundamentally disagree about whether it’s “persecution” or “the price of citizenship.” If you think that same-sex marriage and transgenderism are fundamental human rights, and that anyone doing any business in public should be required to recognize and accommodate those rights, then by definition you are going to see through 90% of religious liberty cases as simply whining.

As in a lot of things, the question “does group X experience Y” is really proxy question for, “What is group X and what should their experience be like?” This is the same way that debates about racial injustice in policing or politics get stuck. That there is no systemic injustice against ethnic minorities can never be disproved if it comes from the prior belief that systemic injustice is impossible because we’re all Americans. Likewise, what’s underneath a lot of the ridicule of the “evangelical persecution complex” is a steadfast belief that certain traditional elements of Christian theology are illegitimate in a civil culture. Isn’t it impossible to persecute persecution, to be intolerant toward intolerance? Stuck in between all this are, again, fair-minded folks who sense something is off when nuns are sued over contraception or adoption agencies are shut down, but refuse to be mapped onto Twitter alongside Donald Trump or Pat Robertson.

Worst of all, “Are evangelicals persecuted” is often asked completely devoid of geographic or socioeconomic context. Without qualifiers, the question really reads, “Are the evangelicals you see on TV and read about in magazines persecuted by people like you?” This fails utterly to take into account how pocketed American life has become, how diverse yet intensely concentrated.  What it means to be a traditionalist Christian in Marietta, Georgia means something very different than what it means to be one in San Francisco. For all our obsession over federal politics and national headlines, it’s worth remembering that people don’t risk their jobs or their relationship with their neighbors on a national level, but a local one. And it’s often true that small things punch deep holes in grand narratives.

All this is why I don’t use the phrase “persecution complex” to describe evangelicals. To me the phrase comes more from (warranted) frustration with evangelical political engagement than a fair consideration of the facts. And I don’t think it helps those outside the Christian tribe who may be experiencing prejudice and threats to constantly talk religious liberty concerns down.

But I also think it’s fair to also be skeptical of commencement addresses that sound like pre-battle hype speeches. Bonnie Kristian is right to suggest that a steady diet of this rhetoric undermines thankfulness and orients hearts toward victimhood and resentment rather than mission.  After all, the reason so many want so badly an answer to the question “Are evangelicals persecuted” is so they can know how to treat them or how to demand to be treated. Ours is a society in which far too much of our experience depends on whether we are sorted in a pitiable class. I can only take you seriously and care about you if you’re being run down by the outgroup. Forget neighborliness. Advocacy is where it’s at.

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

His love binds us to himself.

Every night when I lay my son down to sleep we sing the same song. He will hear me begin, “Jesus loves me this I know…” and then jump in: “The Bible tells us so!” What began as a way to disciple my four-year old has turned into nightly catechesis for Dad and son. We confess our weakness and rest in the strength of Jesus. We remind ourselves that it is to him that we belong.  As the familiar refrain tenderly reminds us, “Yes, Jesus loves me; yes,Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

These words resonate with Christians young and old because of their simplicity and depth. The melody is simple enough for a child to remember, but the meaning demands prayer to even comprehend it. The Scriptures declare that Christ’s love for us is immeasurable. With intercession Paul prays that Christians “… may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19). In other words, yes, Jesus loves us—and that love is so immeasurable we can’t even comprehend it without his help.

I lead my son in singing the line “little ones to him belong.” Naturally we might think of Jesus’ reception of children and the humble way adults are to come to Jesus in faith (Matt. 18:1-4; 19:14-15). But I can’t help but also think of how belonging to Jesus means we are caught up in a love that is both eternal and perfect. The Father’s love for the Son (John 3:35; John 5:20; 17:24-26) and the Son’s love for the Father (John 14:31) is the basis for our redemption in Christ Jesus. Our belonging to Jesus means that Jesus loves us as the Father loves him (John 15:9). Jesus even prays that the love the Father has for the Son might be in us (John 17:26). Those in Christ are, as D.A. Caron says, “friends of God by virtue of the intra-Trinitarian love of God…”[1] Is there a greater motivation for obedience than this? After the day’s battles with temptation, doubt, and fear, this musical nightly rhythm reminds me that I belong to Jesus, who loves me as the Father has loved him. This is what refreshes the heart to desire to abide in the love of Jesus by keeping his commands (John 15:9).

The confession of our weakness leads to trust in Jesus’ strength. The nightly proclamation that He is strong grants us gospel rest. Was not God’s love made manifest in our weakness? “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:8) It is Christ who intercedes for us after all; who can separate us from this intercessor? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Romans 8:32)

Our world is ever changing. The most loving parents can’t protect their children from the worry and distress of every day. I may want to be strong for them, but I can hear my own weakness in the melody as I sing. So my frail voice points to the strength of Jesus. His love binds us to himself and the reaches of Hell will never be able to pull us from his grasp; “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

We sing the final verse and he slowly drifts off to sleep. I retreat into the quiet of the night, leaving the business of the day behind. My mind, finally “free,” is now reminded of failures, past and present. The feeling begins to build along with anxiety, doubt, and despair. But there has been grace in this nightly repetition. The melody is stuck in my head. Unlike other children’s songs I don’t rush to block it out, but breathe deeply and sing, “Yes, Jesus loves me; yes Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.”


[1] D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000) 43.

The Besetting Sin of Christian Worldview Education

Why do many evangelicals fail to recognize the genetic fallacy?

The besetting sin of Christian worldview education is the genetic fallacy, defined as an irrational error made by appealing to something’s origin (or “temporal order”) to explain away its truth-claims (or “logical order”). Here’s an example of how someone using the genetic fallacy (GF) might respond to various arguments:

A: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

GF: “Andrew Breitbart said that, and he was a right-wing troll, so you’re obviously wrong.”

B: “The unanimous testimony of Scripture is that homosexual acts are sinful.”

GF: “That’s exactly what Westboro Baptist Church says. Do we really want to be like them?”

C: “How well or poorly policies and systems treat minorities matters to God.”

GF: “Progressive Democrats talk about systemic injustice all the time. This is just code for abortion/socialism.”

Notice that in each example of the genetic fallacy, the retort is factually true. Andrew Breitbart DID say that politics was downstream from culture, and he DID popularize a belligerent style of journalism. Westboro Baptist Church DOES preach against homosexuality, and they ARE a horribly cruel cult. Progressives DO talk a lot about systemic injustice, and they often DO mean abortion and socialism as part of the solution. The retorts are true, or at least believable.

So if the retorts are true, why are these answers fallacious? Because they do not answer the actual question. Statements A, B, C make independent  claims that stand alone. By invoking a suspect source and then critiquing it, the responses are actually responding to a claim—about the worthiness of the source—that’s not being made. In other words, the retorts don’t actually tell us anything about the validity of the claim, only the validity of people who make similar claims. But since truthful statements and human credibility are not the same thing, the retorts miss the argument entirely. It would be little different, logically, if you told someone you believe it would rain later and her response was, “I don’t think so, because you need to clean your car. ” Ridiculous, right?

And yet the genetic fallacy is, in my experience, one of the logical errors least likely to be recognized in conversation. Each of the examples above are actual statements and retorts I have seen in prestigious magazines or from well-educated speakers. Evangelicals rarely rise above contemporary culture on this, too. This week Joe Carter was accused by some readers of this TGC column of smuggling in language from secular, disreputable sources. Without even dipping a toe in the debate over whether Joe’s piece makes a valid argument (I think it does, for the record), shouldn’t there be a little bit more incredulity that some professionally trained theologians sincerely believe “This term was coined by a Marxist” is an actual counter-argument?

My working theory is that much Christian worldview pedagogy, with its one-note emphasis on coherent systematization of religion, has habituated a lot of us to care more about identifying the ideological “root” of a claim than the claim itself. If you believe that the ultimate marker of Christian belief is how it contrasts in every aspect to non-Christian systems, then it makes sense to evaluate truth claims by whether they originate from the right system or not. If they don’t—in particular, if they’re a widely held belief among non-Christians—then those claims are de facto inconsistent with Christianity, because they fail the ideological paternity test.

So in a conversation about, say, conservatism and white nationalism, an evangelical who thinks strictly in terms of worldview systems comes into the conversation with much different goals than someone who doesn’t think like that. The worldview-shaped evangelical is constantly pulled in the direction of Sort, Contrast, Dismiss: Sort truth claims (“White nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics”) into appropriate “Teams” based on where this claim is most likely to come from. Here, the answer is obvious: Secular liberals and progressives. Having sorted, the worldview-shaped evangelical can now Contrast, but here’s a twist: He doesn’t have to contrast the claim itself, he only has to contrast the team into which he has sorted the claim, against the “team” he identifies with. So he contrasts secular progressivism with conservative Christianity…and now it’s all over but the yelling. He can safely Dismiss the claim that “white nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics” on the basis that this statement embodies the antithesis of his religious worldview—all without actually examining the factual basis of the claim.

The only way to break this cycle would be to convince our worldview-shaped friend that a secular progressive can be wrong about Christianity and abortion but right about white nationalism. But it’s likely that this just isn’t how he was educated. To grant that a secular progressive could be right is to open the door, to teeter on the slippery slope, to the claim that the progressive is right about everything: God, the unborn, religious liberty, etc. To grant that a secular progressive might be right is to grant a measure of legitimacy to his intellectual system. If the underlying presupposition of the worldview-shaped evangelical is that only one truth system can have any legitimacy, then this is unthinkable.

It’s unthinkable partly because it’s difficult to hold such a notion in one’s head. But it’s also difficult because, in a culture war society, the capacity of our beliefs to generate enemies and weapons against those enemies is actually a measure we use of truthfulness. The more enemies you have, the more oppressed you are, and the more oppressed you are, the more there must be a reason for that oppression. And everyone thinks the reason is that they’re right.

Rules of Love

Review of “The Common Rule” by Justin Whitmel Earley

Justin Whitmel Earley. The Common Rule: Habits of a Purpose for an Age of Distraction. IVP Books, 199 pages, $18.00.

The Common Rule is the kind of book that, if its prescription is taken seriously, can probably save lives. I mean that literally. A passing awareness of the news is enough to know about the surge in depression, anxiety, and suicide among millennials, particularly professional, college-educated ones. Without any sweeping claims or controversial analysis, The Common Rule meekly presents a powerful, life-saving antidote to a restless culture that’s choking on minutia and starving for meaning. One’s only quibble would be that this is more a potent dose than a full supply.

Near the beginning of his book, Justin Earley recounts the story of a severe nervous breakdown. While an ambitious career was beginning in law school, Earley intentionally structured his life around being as available, as “connected,” and as active as possible. Convictionally, he was a Christian who believed in the worship of Jesus, but habitually, he became a worshiper of doing. “I now see that my body had finally become converted to the anxiety and busyness I’d worshiped through my habits and routine. All the years of a schedule built on going nonstop to try to earn my place in the world had finally rubbed off on my heart.” This insight is crucial to the logic of The Common Rule: We are being formed not only in the image of what we believe but what we practice. Our habits don’t just reveal our beliefs, they shape them. A more theologically profound book on this topic is James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, but where Smith is most concerned about changing our understanding of and attitude toward habit, Earley offers an impressively thorough, and helpfully actionable, set of practices.

The “common rule” that the title refers to is a set of four daily habits and four weekly habits. Together, the eight habits form a concise, systematic rule of life for maintaining spiritual, relational, moral, and physical health. The greatest strength of the Common Rule, its specificity, is also its greatest weakness. Many of the practices of the Common Rule depend on a certain middle-class, information-economy lifestyle that many but not all Christians share. For example, the weekly rule “Curate media to four hours” is perhaps too rife with an American, upwardly mobile subtext to really mean something to especially poor or especially non-Western believers. Similarly, much of the book’s effectiveness will depend on how much readers feel distracted by digital devices or burnt out by an oppressive daily rhythm.

But of course, many American Christians do feel that way, and for them too many books about intellectual health in an omni-connected era are little more than data points mixed with self-evident truisms. Even the good books tend to try too hard to be “revolutionary” and end up offering a binary choice between technology and flourishing. A helpful, recently released general market book on this topic, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, is persuasive and insightful, but several of Newport’s recommended practices are extreme and likely unfeasible for the very readers who most need their benefits.

Earley’s approach is far more about creating habits than erasing them. For example, Earley rightly extols interpersonal relationship in pushing back against the disembodied communication of the internet. The Common Rule thus commends one daily meal with others and one weekly, hour-long conversation with a friend. These may sound like minor, even trivial, guidelines. But that’s exactly the point. Ours is a technological time in which even the most trivial human interactions are being annihilated. Just as how we never stop needing basic theology and spiritual disciplines, we never stop needing just an hour’s worth of conversation with a being who can look us in the eye, not in the avatar. In refusing to make The Common Rule a revolutionary manifesto, Earley has made it into something more personal, more practical, and more helpful.

Earley understands that the “distraction” at the heart of 21st century life is actually a deep confusion about what a person is. An exclusive diet of digital relationships and trivial mass media frustrates and grieves us because human beings are image-bearers created for glory, not efficiency machines. The first practice of The Common Rule is a kneeling prayer three times per day, a habit that physically reminds us of the dust from where we come and of the Creator to whom we must speak and from whom we must hear. Earley’s chapter on prayer convicted me deeply of my own indifference toward the presence and word of God throughout my day. Something is going to frame my morning, afternoon, and evening. If that is not time with the Lord, what will it be?

My only critique is the somewhat low-shelf theological reflection. There are some really good sections about identity formation and beholding the world (“We become what or who we reflect…We can’t become ourselves by ourselves. The way we discover ourselves is by staring at someone else.”), but the book’s heavily practical focus leaves some important issues unsolved. I would have loved to see a chapter that weaved the 8 Common Rule practices into a thread of worship. Habits always coexist beside loves, and the Christian life defines flourishing in terms of worshiping the One who is worthy of worship, and patterning our lives worshipfully. One hopes for a future expansion of The Common Rule along these lines.

For a long time I believed that spontaneity was a synonym for happiness. As I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’m come to realize the truth at the heart of The Common Rule: My heart needs people, places, and practices that sink deeply into the ground of my life and stay there. For desperate believers who are tired of spiritual lingo peppering life that’s really devoted to becoming more like a machine, The Common Rule offers a badly needed alternative. Here’s hoping this conversation continues and does not stop anytime soon.

We Will Die, But We Will Live

When Jesus speaks, death yields to his voice.

We have all attended more funerals than we cared to. I remember standing with my family as we grieved the loss of my sixteen-year old cousin who went into cardiac arrest at church just days before. I’ll never forget the small caskets that held two young children who tragically drowned when the car they were in rolled into the Ohio River. And I can still feel the grip of my friend’s hand as she withered away because of cancer. I kissed her forehead and cried, leaving Illinois knowing I would never see her again.

Funerals remind us that there is something wrong with this world. Things are not as they should be—at least for now. If the world is going to be made right there must be someone who is greater than death. There must be one who can make death yield to the sound of his voice. This is what Jesus does throughout the gospels. He told Jairus’ daughter to rise and she did. He told Lazarus to come out and he came. Jesus spoke, and death yielded.

When we see Jesus resurrect the dead in the gospels we want to insist like Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my loved one would not have died.” (John 11:21) If he had been here we could have sent the hospice workers home. If he had been here the diagnosis would have changed, the scans would have become clear, and pain would have ceased.

There is hope in these passages, but hope is never about the present. After all, Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus were not raised to live that state forever. They weren’t meant to. Eventually they died again. Perhaps they grew old and died peacefully in their sleep, but their deaths may have been difficult, long, and painful. There is hope in these passages, but that hope doesn’t alleviate every pain now. The hospice workers will stay, the diagnosis may not change, and the scans may remain unclear.

Our culture often greets death as a friend. Physician-assisted suicide alleges hope for those suffering. In these cases death is to be embraced and appreciated. We are told to make friends the very thing that is wrong with the world. The gospel never confronts death as a friend. Because death is the result of sin (Rom. 5:12) the gospel meets death as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), an enemy it can and will overcome.

The hope in these passages is that the one who can raised the dead will himself be raised from the dead. When Martha pleads her case to Jesus, he tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” No wonder Jesus could look at Jairus in the midst of skeptics and say, “Do not fear. Only believe!” (Mark 5:36)

The gospel narratives show us that Jesus is greater than death, but the resurrection of Jesus shows us that Jesus defeats death. As Luther said, death’s doom is sure. The resurrected Christ will one day end death for all eternity (1 Cor. 15:26). The Christian’s hope is sharing in the resurrection of Jesus. He can raise the dead, was risen from the dead, and will one day raise us from the dead.

I wonder how hopeful Lazarus and the little girl were when they faced death the second time. They had personally experienced that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. They would die, but because of Christ they would live. This is our hope as well. It is how we live with hopeful eyes in the midst of death, the funeral parlor, and the graveside. To be in Christ is to be in the resurrection and the life. We will die, but because of Christ, we will live.

Blood Calls to Blood

Why I am a Christian

This is embarrassing to admit, but here goes. If I were not a Christian, I’m pretty sure I would be a Unitarian Universalist, or something like one.

I’ve known the answer to the “What religion would you be if not Christianity” question for a long time. It’s not that I’m impressed with UU from an intellectual or even moral point of view. On the contrary, it seems vapid and incoherent in the extreme. No, the reason I’d be a Universalist is Charles Dickens,”What a Wonderful World,” and Coke commercials. I’d be a Universalist because of Star Wars, art museums, and the New York Times. If you were to take most of my favorite things about American culture and wring them like a rag, universalism would pour out—not so much the idea of it, but the mood. My day to day happiness would multiply if I could go about my middle class American life and sincerely believe that everyone who walked into my favorite coffee shop on a Saturday morning was gonna be OK, or that all my favorite pop songs and blockbuster films were different hymns of the same church.

For me, this exercise is hypothetical. For a lot of people, it’s where they actually are. A whopping 72% of Americans believe in heaven; 58% believe in hell. That 14-point gap is one of the most seductive places I can imagine. Who wouldn’t sell all they had to live in a world of just heaven, no hell? Who could measure the psychological relief that many would experience if the red and green lights of Christmas signified only the spirit of giving, carols only the sentimentalism of the past, and church bells merely the brotherhood of all living things? Life would be so very simpler if it were a metaphor rather than a babe in that manger.

My inner desire for a world such as this has been my version of a “crisis of faith.” I’ve never actually seriously contemplated rejecting Christianity for universalism. Then again, the universalist in me doesn’t play by the rules of  serious contemplation. C.S. Lewis made famous the “apologetic from desire,” the argument toward the God of Christianity starting from our need to make sense of our deepest human longings. What I’m describing is an argument from desire, too, an apologetic for rejecting everything that obscures a romantic view of the universe.

In his first letter, Screwtape advises his apprentice to interrupt a human’s journey to Christianity by showing him the minutia of a typical day—”a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past”—and gently suggesting that this is real life. The genius of this demonic strategy is that it’s all happening underneath reason and argument. The point is not whether ignoring the evidences for a personal God and the truth of Scripture is a logical or illogical thing to do. The point is that, given the choice between Christianity and unbelief, there is only choice that will let you look at the universe, whether the Milky Way or Main Street, and accept that that’s all there is to it. That’s what I find romantic about universalism: “This is the world, this is reality, and you don’t have to think or do a thing about it except eat, pray, and love.”

***

I decided several months before my oldest child was born that I was going to watch the whole birth. I wanted to do this partially to support my wife, partially out of curiosity, but also because I’d heard countless testimonies of how seeing the “miracle of life” and then holding the miracle in your arms annihilated any doubt of the existence of God. Not that I doubted God’s existence, really; I just wanted the sensation of doubt being annihilated.

When we checked into the hospital I brought in all sorts of romantic ideas about watching a life come into the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that most of these ideas were sterile, almost offenisvely so. I expected to see a beautiful infant glide effortlessly into the room. I expected to hear cries as soft as whispers break my mental rendition of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” I looked forward to the moment of my son’s birth as a moment that I knew would transform me in its greatness, exorcise my demons and balm the proud callouses of my soul. I was going to be a different person just for having seen this, I thought.

What really happened was blood. What really happened was searing pain in a trembling wife. What really happened was gore and viscera, as a grey-purple mass of human anatomy slowly came out covered in its own fecal matter. My son’s cries were almost entirely muted as he struggled to cough his own waste out of his lungs. Instead of a moment of enlightenment and transformation, there was confusion as nurses swept him away from our arms and took him to the NICU to help him not asphyxiate. Instead of the soundtrack-backed beauty penetrating my soul, my wife, in-laws and I cried and prayed that our son would be able to cough the waste out of his body and breathe.

Thus was my sterile, romantic view of this slice of existence shattered. The real world, it turns out, is not one of perfect-pink babies who melt your heart at first glance, but of blood and meconium-soaked infants who (might) need technology just to live. Yes, there are precious newborn pictures to take and sweet “Happy birthday” celebrations to come, but these don’t exist apart from trauma, stitches, the risk of hemorrhaging, heartbeats that can bottom out, and lungs that can flail. My son only lives because his mother endured violence to her body. He could have not lived. There was nothing in the book of Science! that said his lungs had to successfully eject his own body’s poison. Infants die every day. Infants die.

This isn’t just being “realistic.” It’s one thing to not live in a happy-go-lucky fairy tale like so many literary creations. It’s another thing to suffer. It’s yet another thing to know, to feel, that the very universe is “red in tooth and claw.”

As I write these words, my grandmother is only a few days removed from suffering a severe, life-threatening stroke. Whether she will ever regain her speech is unknown. When I opened my Facebook feed this morning, one of the first things I saw was a friend’s heartbreaking image of his little boy hooked up to hospital IVs. Just now I saw someone else on social media talk about his wife’s days in the ICU. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about cancer, disease, or death.

Red in tooth and claw.

***

The sterilized metaphysics of Western spirituality, the liturgies of eat-pray-love, are sieves when it comes to the bloodiness of reality. I could, if I chose, close my eyes and insist on believing in the inherent goodness of man, the brotherhood of all, and the common destiny of all but the worst people. But I could not close my eyes hard enough to un-see the blood of vaginal delivery. The blood does not merely sit there. It calls out, just as the blood of Abel cried “out from the ground.”  It calls out for reckoning. Almost every secular person agrees that children are the closest thing we have to divine love. What does it then mean that the existence of children is brought about not by ephemeral well-wishing but by the tearing of flesh? What does it mean for the millions of modern people who long for heaven and laugh at hell that heaven has hell clutching at its heels?

Christianity is about blood. It is a blood-stained narrative about a blood-stained universe. The Garden teems with spectacular creations of life, and blood courses through the veins of animals and image-bearers alike. When God gives Adam and Eve skins to cover themselves with after they plunge the cosmos headlong into darkness, the unspoken realization is that somewhere, a creature’s blood was shed so that this man and woman could be clothed, protected, and unashamed.

Atonement is not mere ritual, it is a reckoning with the world as it really is. Everyone offers a blood sacrifice for something: a creature’s blood for my food, a stranger’s blood for my survival, my own blood for the life of my child. Try to believe for one minute that this world is not fallen, not broken, not longing for a redemption denied it hence, and you won’t take three steps before you see blood. Blood is the stuff of life, as well as its price.

What the Easter story gives us is Jesus’ blood for our life. Blood is the price of life, and we have forfeited life with our bloodletting sin (sin’s first fatality was that Edenic animal). Jesus sheds his blood for our sin, pays the price of life, and gives the rewards of that payment to us. Some insist that the idea of “sin” is psychologically damaging and repressive. But what other word is there for a perpetually bleeding existence? The world is red and tooth in claw. No philosophical or religious system that fails to reckon with this speaks truthfully. The sanitized inward journeys of Eastern contemplative religions do not explain the blood. Moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t receive the blood. Atheism and scientism choose to drown in the blood. At the center of Christianity is a man with shredded flesh and pouring veins, a bloody overlay on top of a bloody universe. Look away in disgust if you will, ignore if you can, but every step of your daily, embodied existence reminds you of blood. This is the world as it really is, not as how gurus want it to be. You don’t get a choice whether it’s true. Your very birth shed blood.

The world we find ourselves in has blood at the center of it. You can scrub away at it all your life and it will not come up. Holy Week is about blood calling out to blood. His blood exchanged for mine. The blood of a violent, sinful, dying world transfused for the blood that spoke the stars into existence and washes whiter than snow. A bloody world must receive a bloody Savior.

That’s why I’m a Christian.

Arms nailed down

Are you telling me something?

Eyes turned out

Are you looking for someone?

This is the one thing

The one thing that I know.