The highlight of the Super Bowl for me isn’t the plays, the scores, or the halftime show. It’s the moments when the camera zooms in on the referee, his voice takes on a superhuman boom, and in measured tones he metes out judgment. (I know, I’m weird.)
In his withering new book, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith rises above the scrappy fray of public debate about religion and calls foul on four core atheist claims. He writes with a dispassionate tone and scrupulous, academic rigor. He keeps to the umpire’s role. And yet, while pawing through the pages of Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Cannot Deliver, I felt the frequent urge to scribble, “Burn!”
Smith is careful to avoid the kind of overreach he critiques. He isn’t arguing that atheism is false, or that Judeo-Christian theism is true. He simply evaluates whether the claims made by atheist moralists today are intellectually defensible—and throws yellow flags when they aren’t.How Good Should We Be without God?
When it comes to morality, contemporary atheists are making an ambitious play. In their bold new secular world, atheists assure us, a commitment to universal human rights and equality, and sacrificial love to the poor and oppressed, will flow from secular beliefs.
For example, Smith quotes Columbia professor Phillip Kitcher’s claim that atheism compels us to become “responsive to the desires of the entire human population” and to work toward the “provision of equal opportunities for worthwhile lives for all” (14). With equivalent daring, New Atheist author Sam Harris asserts that being good without God entails promoting “happiness for the greatest number of people” and “maximiz[ing] personal and collective well-being for all humanity” (15).
But, as Smith points out, none of the atheist moralists he quotes gives convincing reasons for the universal scope of our obligations toward other humans.
Like a careful archeologist, Smith brushes the rhetorical sand off common arguments (social contract appeals, utilitarian arguments, and so on), explaining how each fails to deliver the robust moral framework that atheists promise. Sure, their arguments may motivate people out of the scrimmage of sheer self-interest to care about “a limited set of people who matter to them” (18). But they don’t come close to the end zone of universal human rights. We can imagine quite different moral conclusions from atheist starting points. Indeed, we’ve seen them play out multiple times in the last century.
To be sure, many modern Westerners take universal benevolence and human rights to be self-evident moral truths. But, as Smith reminds us, these aren’t free-standing moral facts, ready to be discovered like scientific laws. Rather, they are historically contingent beliefs growing out of Judeo-Christian tradition. Someone who “believes in a naturalistic cosmos,” he acknowledges, “is perfectly entitled to believe in and act to promote universal benevolence and human rights, but only as an arbitrary, subjective, personal preference—not as a rational, compelling, universally binding fact and obligation” (49).How Good Will We Be without God?
One of the book’s strengths is that Smith assesses atheist arguments both theoretically and also practically. In one of his most devastating moves, he highlights an irony in the atheist’s position. Atheism can’t offer compelling reasons why an individual should care about the welfare of those beyond their own immediate sphere. If atheism is correct, therefore, then “human practices of ethics will function more effectively if the general public remains in obfuscated darkness about morality’s mere human origins and sheer functional purposes” (29). This, Smith observes, “is a perverse bind for atheists, who claim to be our greatest champions of enlightened intelligence, scientific reason, and education in the facts” (29). The irony becomes more pronounced when we realize that allowing people to remain religious is perhaps the best strategy for an atheist intellectual who wishes to promote expansive altruism at a societal level.
Smith notices a further irony in common atheist arguments. Despite positioning themselves as no-nonsense realists, atheist moralists tend to gloss over the weaknesses in their system by assuming what he calls “a naïvely optimistic view of human nature” (36). He quotes journalist and author Katherine Ozment to illustrate this point: “I’ve always believed that people are basically good—they just need structures in their lives to reinforce that goodness.” But Smith sees “little evidence in history or the contemporary world” for this idea (39).
Moreover, far from shedding religion being the key to humanity attaining moral goodness, removing religious motivations and constraints leaves gaping holes. For instance, Smith observes that while atheists “scorn the idea of a punishing God who induces fearful obedience, in the end they must substitute their own version of the same, a watchful and punishing human society to secure moral order” (30). Again, 20th-century history and today’s world furnishes us with many examples of atheist societies doubling down on such enforcement.Does Science Justify Atheists’ Claims?
Smith devotes the third chapter to calling foul on atheists making metaphysical pronouncements as if they’ve been justified by science. As one example, he quotes a line from Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “There are no gods in the universe . . . outside of the common imagination of human beings” (Sapiens, 28). Claims like this punctuate Harari’s otherwise scientific account of humanity’s deep past. And Smith’s voice booms out across the field: “Said plainly, Harari is here engaging in a deceptive sleight of hand, an unacknowledged smuggling of atheological metaphysics in through the back door of science, ostensibly with the authority of science” (89).
Science cannot validate atheism.
With a flurry of equivalent quotations, Smith exposes how common this practice is. Atheist scientists and writers leave us with the impression that science has disproved God, when no such case has actually been made. Indeed, as Smith observes, science cannot validate “atheism, a pointless universe . . . or any similar claim of metaphysical atheology” (102). Evaluating such claims simply isn’t within science’s scope. Once more, atheists have overplayed their hand and failed to write with academic rigor.Will the Atheist Project Finally Succeed?
The last chapter of Smith’s book considers whether humans are naturally religious. He argues that religious belief is endemic to the human condition, even though individual humans can certainly reject religious beliefs, and societies have been known to function well with low levels of religiosity. Humans naturally ask questions and harbor desires that religious beliefs and experiences fulfill: desires for ultimate meaning, final hope, and ecstasy. Given these deep human needs, Smith argues that the “secular humanist, and New Atheist visions for a totally secular human world are simply not realistic—they are cutting against a very strong ‘grain’ in the structure of reality and so will fail to achieve their purpose” (115).
Further, the cut-and-dried distinction atheists attempt to make between religious belief and other forms of knowledge is ultimately untenable: “There is no universal, rational foundation upon which indubitably certain knowledge can be built. All human knowing is built on believing” (117). This, Smith concludes, is the human condition.
While making an important case, this final chapter takes an already intellectually meaty discourse into even less accessible territory. If you spend your coffee breaks discussing critical realism, positivist empiricism, and postmodern deconstructionism, you’ll eat it up. But this final movement of Smith’s symphony would’ve been more effective were it somewhat easier listening.Let’s Raise Our Game
Throughout the book, Smith takes atheist leaders to the intellectual turf. For those who can track with him, it’s an exhilarating ride. But where many of the writers he critiques have mastered the art of accessible writing, Smith’s book is heavy on argument and light on illustrations. His voice booms out over the field, but some of his terms will leave a general audience rubbing their temples. Seldom does one wish a book were longer, but Smith’s focused, 130-page assault on atheist overreach could’ve been made more accessible if it had more space to breathe, more stories to tell, and more metaphorical pictures to paint.
Nonetheless, if an academic register is at all within your range, I highly recommend you read this book. It’ll sharpen your thinking and equip you to help others dissect common atheist claims. Importantly, its tone isn’t that of a gleeful take-down, but rather a careful critique of ideas.
We evangelicals have too often conceded the intellectual high ground to atheists. Smith—a former evangelical, now Catholic academic—has mounted that terrain. Let’s take the map he’s made for us and raise our game.
An influential female leader recently told me she wished she had pursued graduate education at the same time as her husband. But it didn’t even cross her mind.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports women generally make up 53 percent of doctoral students in America. But according to data provided by the Association of Theological Schools, in the United States, women make up only 23 percent of the doctoral students in theological education. Many reasons exist for that discrepancy, and it testifies to the reality that many women don’t even consider theological doctoral work.
Whether or not we have, or should prioritize, equal numbers of men and women in advanced degree programs, we certainly need Christian women to be trained to disciple and serve in our churches. We need women to be theologians. Doctoral work is certainly not the only way to serve the church and society, but it’s one way to be equipped for service.
I finished my doctorate six months ago and, as I look back on the process, I can identify four reasons I pursued my doctorate.1. I Pursued a Doctorate to Worship
We were made to learn. Learning about God, his Word, and his world leads to awe and worship. Hours of study may seem like a call to drudgery, but ultimately it’s a call to delight.
I not only felt God’s smile on me in my studies, but my studies also made me smile. I readily admit I’m a nerd, but the delight I felt in learning isn’t unique to me. We’re all called to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). We are thinking beings, and worship involves leveraging all we are to show God’s great worth. As John Piper once said, “God-centered exultation is rooted in God-centered education.”
We’re each called to be learners, not necessarily in graduate school or seminary, but we should all feel compelled to use our minds to the glory of God. Read a poem, look closely at a blade of grass, crack open a Bible commentary, or learn to change the oil in your car. Do these things, and delight in the God who made your mind.2. I Pursued a Doctorate to Be Trained
After my undergraduate graduation, I went on a month-long mission trip to a Christian school in Peru. I taught first-graders how to read, using what I had learned from my mom, a phonics specialist. I also tutored a seventh-grader in percentages. Although math is not my forte, percentages had been my favorite chapter in seventh grade. After the school day, I taught a program for the sixth-grade class who were all failing language arts, and I got to use the same curriculum I’d grown up with.
That trip to Peru demonstrated God’s powerful use of my previous education. God had equipped me even before I was saved to work in that spot with those children (Eph. 2:10). If he had been so purposeful in his preparations for a short trip, I didn’t want to waste any opportunity that he gave me to learn.
The church and the world would benefit greatly from having more theologically trained women.
The end of learning isn’t just for increased knowledge or personal gain. Learning should be used in love to build up the church for God’s glory and honor. My doctorate likely won’t be used in every way I anticipate, but it has been and will continue to be used in ways I can’t imagine. Though I didn’t know if pursuing a doctorate would provide me with a job, I knew I would be better trained for whatever good works God had prepared for me.3. I Pursued a Doctorate to Steward What I’d Received
When I started my degree, I was 30, single, and working at a college. As I considered how to best leverage my singleness, energy, time, job, and resources, a doctorate seemed wise.
Moreover, it was a matter of stewarding my gifting and passion. I love academics and flourish best when I’m intentionally learning. It also stewarded my influence. Studying prompted me to be a better teacher, a better resident director, a better dean, a better mentor, and a better church member. Being a student made me more compassionate and supportive of those around me.4. I Pursued a Doctorate to Grow in Faith
I pursued my doctorate because I wanted to grow, not just in knowledge but also in faith. The Lord used my doctoral program—the content and the process—to grow me spiritually. Doctoral work is hard. James 1 says to count it all joy when you face trials of various kinds, since the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. Doctoral work fits into that category. The result, he says, is “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). Trials rightly encountered and endured lead to Christlikeness. That’s just as true of the challenges and hardships that come through a doctorate.
I was led to the end of myself in doctoral work; I learned dependence and trust as a result. I had a twice-yearly ritual. I found the same staircase on campus, sat on the bottom step, and recounted how God had been faithful to that point in my studies. When I finished the first way I had seen him act, I would move up a step and recount the next way and then the next. I eventually outgrew the staircase. God’s faithfulness to me in the program was so abundant there weren’t enough steps to count all the ways he had worked.
You might think a doctorate isn’t for the faint of heart. I was often faint in heart, weak, and discouraged. But the Lord provided encouragement, resources, and strength. When God guides, God provides. My faith grew as I stepped into doctoral work and watched expectantly, knowing he would have to act.
These aren’t the only reasons to pursue a doctorate, but I hope women understand the great advantage and joy of pursuing doctoral studies for the glory of God. The church and the world would benefit greatly from having more theologically trained women.
John Beeble recently retired from his job as construction executive in Denver, Colorado. Not wanting to fully retreat from working life, John started his own consulting company.
“There’s only one rule about my consulting company—no employees. I did that for 20 years,” he said, with a note of weariness in his voice. Yet he violated his rule less than a year into starting his firm. As clients multiplied, he needed an executive assistant to manage the demands on his time.
“I’m trying to discern what’s next in this phase of life,” said Beeeble, feeling the tug between rest, family, and work. “I want to stay engaged, but not in the same way as during my career. Give me some time to figure this out.”
He’s not alone. Baby boomers are retiring at an average of 10,000 per day; over the next 20 years, an estimated 70 million boomers will stop working. Those over age 65 are the fastest-growing age demographic in the United States.
It’s not just America, either. The world is rapidly aging.
Baby boomers are retiring at an average of 10,000 per day.
“From 2025 to 2050 the older [over age 65] population is projected to almost double to 1.6 billion globally,” the U.S. Census Bureau reported. In 2015, only 8.5 percent of the world was over 65; by 2050, that number is expected to reach 16.7 percent.
For most of them, retiring from work is not a financial option. Among those who can, many—both Christians and their neighbors—are expressing a growing sense of unease about the future.
Across the developed world, the dominant paradigm for retirement is about vacation—how to afford it and then how to make the most of it. A Google search for the word “retirement” shows articles, ads, and tips on how to save enough money for it and a host of books on how to enjoy it. Retirement gifts follow suit—a coffee mug that reads “Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.” A kitchen wall-hanging with the acronym R.E.T.I.R.E says Relax, Entertain, Travel, Indulge, Read, Enjoy. A wine glass that reads, “I can wine all I want. I’m retired.”
Yet older Christians are sounding the alarm that retirement as a never-ending vacation promises more than it can ever deliver.Reimagining Retirement
The closest the Bible comes to our modern idea of retirement is found Numbers 8:25: “And from the age of 50 years [the Levites] shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.”
Since hauling tabernacle furniture was hard physical labor, older Levites were commanded to instead “minister to their brothers in the tent of the meeting”—a hint that God doesn’t intend for our work to completely stop, but rather to morph and mature with age.
Though retirement may be foreign to Scripture, the Old Testament idea of becoming an elder is not. Far from being an insult, the term “elder” was associated with wisdom, character, and leadership ability—the assumed fruit of experience and age.
“Stand up in the presence of the aged,” says Leviticus (19:32). The term elder (zaqen) is always used in the Old Testament as an indication of one’s nobility. One example is the elder teaching wisdom at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6–10).
Scripture is replete with elders playing a critical role in redemptive history. Sarah was 90 when she miraculously gave birth to Isaac. Moses was 80 and Aaron was 83 when they confronted Pharaoh. Anna, an 84-year-old widow who devoted herself to fasting, prayer, and worship, “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). Far from being whisked off to desert golf courses or Caribbean cruises, elders were sought out for time-tested wisdom (Proverbs 31:23).
Far from being whisked off to desert golf courses or Caribbean cruises, elders were sought out for time-tested wisdom.
Gordon Smith, author of Courage and Calling, believes two ideas—wisdom and blessing—comprise the biblical model for fruitful living in retirement. “To bless is simply to affirm the other, to take particular delight and joy in the other in a nonjudgmental manner,” he writes. Elders are called lay down former titles and professional roles, yet take up a mantle of wisdom and affirmation for a coming generation.From Retirement to Sabbatical
The issue in today’s culture is twofold: We don’t have clearly marked rites of passage into “eldership” (outside of the formal New Testament church office), and most men and women entering retirement feel the need for renewal—sometimes physically, most often spiritually.
Because of this, rather than completely ceasing from work, a growing number of older adults entering retirement are taking a sabbatical—an intentional 3, 6, or 12 months to rest, worship, remember, and listen for God’s voice in order to discern next steps. The idea is rooted in Leviticus 25, where God gives instructions for a sabbath year to allow the land to rest before resuming productivity.
“When we moved to a new state following my retirement, I decided to take a private sabbatical,” says Lowell Busenitz, a retired professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Oklahoma. “One goal of my sabbatical was to use it to get a clearer perspective on this phase of life in order to get my future launched in the right direction.” Busenitz used early retirement to take long walks in the Colorado sunshine, read, study the life of King David, visit family, and reflect how God has shaped his career and working life.
“While I do not want to continue the teaching and research with the same intensity as before, the Holy Spirit has brought home in me that I was to stay reasonably close to my roots in entrepreneurship,” Busenitz said. “Some directions remain a puzzle right now, but I am becoming increasingly okay with that.”Staying Faithful
Some older Christians elect to live out their vocation right where they are.
Ellen Snyder, a retired lifelong hospital volunteer, continues to serve at a day center for the homeless. Verona Mullison, a retired Cru missionary, sees retirement as an opportunity to explore the sciences, which she’s loved since she was a child. Joanne Butler, 68, a cashier at an Einstein Bagels in southern Colorado, makes a countercultural choice to wake up each morning to coffee and cinnamon crunch bagels.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to be retired,” Butler said. “But I like talking to people. This is where I belong.”
After a sabbatical, Barry Rowan, the former CFO of Nextel and Vonage, decided to return to business.
“I came to see that the purpose of business is to bring about a better society as seen through the eyes of God,” Rowan said. After his sabbatical, his work was endowed with renewed peace and purpose. He saw his work as not just a way to make money, but a God-given opportunity to build businesses around “responsible value creation, creating an environment where employees can flourish, serving customers, and being good corporate citizens.” Now in his 60s, he is also seeking to mentor young Christian business leaders. “I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire,” Rowan said.
For many, retirement is a new season to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10), yet from a heart being ever renewed by the gospel (2 Cor. 4:16).
Perhaps the coming “gray dawn” of the global church will not produce an economic apocalypse, but rather a movement of older Americans who choose a truly uncommon path for retirement—one of a deeper rest, a deeper sense of peace, a deeper acceptance of the realities of aging, and a deeper sense of responsibility for the world God so loves (John 3:16).
“Give me some time to figure this out,” says retired executive John Beeble. Indeed, now is the time for pastors, scholars, and Christian leaders to paint a more beautiful picture of work, rest, vocation, and aging for the millions of older adults longing to hear God’s voice for the next season of life.
Theology is important for so many reasons . . .
- It’s vital for our missional living, since an essential component of fulfilling the Great Commission involves teaching the nations.
- It’s vital for the church, since everything we do is grounded in what we believe.
- It’s vital for Christian living, since our theology determines our biography—that is, what we believe shapes how we live.
These things and more directly apply to church-planting pastors. We have the privilege of ministering the Word of God to the people we are reaching and those we are shepherding.
Our theological training is not for the purpose of winning Twitter arguments, but for maturing people into the image of Jesus. And it should also humble us, driving us to worship and prayer. Indeed, our theology must kindle in our hearts a deep love for God and neighbor. We don’t study theology to make the head fat, but the heart right.
To help us think about the importance of theological clarity in church planting, I’m excited to have Francisco Bendfeldt with me on the podcast today.
She called it a “selective reduction.” Describing to me years of failed infertility treatments, my friend relived the grief of barrenness. Even after she and her husband began attempting in vitro fertilization, she bled disappointment and shed hope with every new month.
The desire for children became more urgent; the doctor, more reckless. After several failed attempts, he assured my friend and her husband that their chance of multiples was quite low and implanted a handful of fertilized eggs. Four “took.” Four babies with pulsing hearts began growing in that once-hostile womb.
Seeds to become saplings to become trees.
When the doctor delivered the news, it was not the scene of Gabriel’s annunciation. The doctor insisted that my friend either “selectively reduce” two of the fetuses or face the possibility that none survived. Though she had spent a childhood of Sundays on kneelers, a lifetime praying the “Our Father,” my friend was not prepared for the collision of wills: the divine will to sanctify life, the human will to manage the odds.
My friend’s twins are beautiful, healthy children.
New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot remembers her own abortion as a college freshmen at U.C. Berkeley, but without my friend’s palpable regret. Writing to counter the guilt women feel in seeking a “safe, legal medical procedure,” Talbot calls her decision to “end a pregnancy” one of the most consequential decisions of her young life. “It allowed me to claim the future I imagined for myself.” At 18, she describes having neither the wisdom for motherhood nor the fortitude for adoption, although later in her 30s she did begin a family with a supportive husband. “In some foundational way,” Talbot muses with gratitude, “I have my abortion to thank for that.”
To further the idea of abortion as “social and moral good” (emphasis mine), Talbot cites the work of Willie Parker, an abortion provider and “follower of Jesus.” Parker believes abortion to be a deeply ethical choice made by parent(s) whose desire for a child is the only thing to imbue it with sacredness. Parker explains, “As a free human being, you are allowed to change your mind, to find yourself in different circumstances, to make mistakes. You are allowed to want your own future.” Parker sees dignity in his patients’ desire to exercise their freedom, holiness in his call to grant their choice.
As he writes in his book, Life’s Work, “The procedure room in an abortion clinic is as sacred as any other space to me. . . . In this moment, where you need something that I am trained to give you, God is meeting both of us where we are.”My Will Be Done
These stories do not represent a singular experience of abortion. My friend ultimately followed her doctor’s advice, but her tears bore witness to moral injury and regret. Margaret Talbot triumphantly invoked the “all-trumping argument” to defend her abortion: choice. (As Charles Taylor would note, she fails to mention the “sacrificed alternatives in a dilemmatic situation, and the real moral weight of the situation,” A Secular Age, 479). Of the three, Willie Parker is the most enigmatic. We understand abortion as regret, abortion as choice.
But abortion as worship?
It is tempting, like Chicken Little, to decry the abasement of morality in contemporary culture, especially when compared (however naively) to an idyllic yesteryear. The sky is falling! Defense of abortion and headlines like, “Bestselling Female Author Divorces Husband and Marries Woman!” reinforce the perception of our age as being driven by a newer, crasser breed of self-interest.
My will be done.
But as Taylor argues, it is not that the secular age has no spiritual or moral shape, no spiritual or moral aspiration. Godlessness does not inevitably produce moral fecklessness. In fact, in the 21st century, we’re asking the same urgent questions people have always asked: “What constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes life really worth living? What would we most admire people for?” (16) Unbelievers, like believers, want to live well—and not simply for the temporary, tickling pleasures of base desires. “We strive to live happily with spouse and children, while practicing a vocation we find fulfilling, and also which constitutes an obvious contribution to human welfare” (7). According to Taylor, the fundamental shift of the secular age isn’t declining belief in God or waning ethical commitments. It lies in our definition of “fullness.”
If death is coming for us all, how do we make this “one wild and precious life” count?
The fundamental shift of the secular age isn’t declining belief in God or waning ethical commitments. It lies in our definition of ‘fullness.’Let Humans Flourish
In primitive tribal societies, “gods” were a given feature of the landscape. While they might have been alternatively benevolent or hostile, they did not necessarily demand self-renunciation for the sake of otherworldly devotion. One offered sacrifices to the gods, yes. But the sacrifices sought temporal benefit. “What the people ask for when they invoke or placate divinities and powers is prosperity, health, long life, fertility; what they ask to be preserved from is disease, dearth, sterility, premature death” (A Secular Age, 150). The desires and aspirations of “early religion” were deeply rooted in a vision of the good life, here and now.
Let humans flourish.
By contrast, later religions, like Christianity, invoke higher goals for human flourishing than good harvests and healthy babies. “There is a notion of our good which goes beyond human flourishing, which we may gain even while failing utterly on the scales of human flourishing, even through failing (like dying young on a cross). . . . [Christianity] redefines our ends so as to take us beyond flourishing” (A Secular Age, 151).
In the example of Christianity, when God entered history, clothing himself with flesh to die a humiliating, degrading death by crucifixion, we have a shift in the sense of divine demand. God might not only purpose my happiness—he actually might, mysteriously, will that I suffer. As Taylor aptly notes, at the cross of Jesus Christ there stands an irreducible difference between the injunction “Thy will be done” and “Let humans flourish.”
At the cross of Jesus Christ there stands an irreducible difference between ‘Thy will be done’ and ‘Let humans flourish.’
Modern exclusive humanism returns us to the mode of early religion (if also taking us a step further by eliminating the notion of “god”). “A way of putting our present condition,” Taylor writes, “is to say that many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent” (143). In the secular age, “cross-pressured” as we are between doubt and belief, we can’t know for certain if God exists. But if he does, surely he wills our good.
Which betrays the real problem: secularism is not the problem “out there.” Instead, every Sunday morning, it is “secular” people filling our pews. They attest to loving Jesus—but accept “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing” (18). They pray for God’s kingdom to come—and imagine the advent of their own happiness.
In the secular age, God becomes the guarantor of our best life now.
Read the full chapter, “Whose Will Be Done? Human Flourishing in the Secular Age,” in Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.
A semi-popular YouTube video opens with a young person who is either a feminized man or a masculinized woman. The voice is hard to place; is it a man speaking in a womanly voice, or the reverse? The speaker says people constantly ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” The answer:
No . . . I am non-binary. . . . Gender is in the brain. Physical sex is a completely separate and different thing. . . . Gender is what you feel, not what your “parts” are—it doesn’t matter what meat skeleton you’ve been born in, it’s what you feel that defines you.
The video follows a social trend many might prefer to ignore. But two realities make that strategy ill-advised . First, a biological male who looks and acts like a male in every regard can expect to be treated like a woman in many states—if he simply says “I am a woman.” In many places, laws protecting people regarding sexual orientation and gender identity (“SOGI”) rely solely on self-definition. A man can call himself a woman and freely use women’s facilities. Second, many schools promote gender fluidity both early and also late in the curriculum, potentially causing confusion in elementary-school children and teens.
Because the transgender issue is a cultural wave, we shouldn’t ignore it.
Tennis champion Martina Navratilova was recently lambasted as transphobic because she said trans men cheat if they compete in athletics as women. Navratilova is an expert on the topic, having won many titles competing with and against men in mixed doubles. As a declared lesbian, she is an unlikely target. But the trans community is quick to criticize those who question its ideology.
This short article cannot address every transgender issue, but I seek to equip parents to talk to their children about gender. It is vital to offer compassion and care to all who experience body dysphoria—the sense that they inhabit the wrong body.
Here are three great truths that can help parents discuss gender with their children.1. God is the Creator, and he chose to create humanity male and female.
Genesis 1 says: “God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them. . . . And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gen. 1:27–28; Gen. 5:2). Jesus reaffirms this text in Matthew 19:4: “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female.”
The term “gender” can be defined in several ways. Some call gender the social and cultural (rather than biological) aspects of being male or female. Or gender is a person’s awareness of his or her sexual identity. But it is better to say that sex is a biological reality, and gender is the way we express that reality in society. That is, people are male or female—and societies expect people to show which they are. (About 1,000 people are born “intersex” each year. Still, genetically and chromosomally they are either xx or xy. There is also Klinefelter syndrome, wherein a few people who appear to be ordinary males have 47 chromosomes, and are xxy or xxxy. Like all who are born with genetic abnormalities, we must offer care and compassion.)
We do everyone a favor if we recognize that many cultural norms are just that—cultural, not biblical.
Because of sin, each society expresses gender in harmful ways; and because of common grace, each society expresses gender in helpful ways. Gender is grounded both in biology (the created order) and also in culture. Therefore, some aspects of gender are objective physical realities, and some aspects of gender are socially constructed.
Activities like giving birth and nursing are creational, not social. Reproduction is basic to how God designed us. People are male or female in every cell of the body, in both nerves and hormones—not in the reproductive organs alone.
Yet elements of gender are socially constructed. In America, professional men often wear ties; professional women usually do not. This is arbitrary, socially constructed. Ties were invented around 1860, so no one signified gender through ties until recently.
Similarly, Americans have agreed, somehow, that women cook inside the house, while men cook outside. And when they do cook outside, it gets a different name—grilling. This too is arbitrary. Perhaps it makes sense for men, who tend to be larger and stronger, to dominate construction projects, but women can be as adept as men at most physical skills.
We do everyone a favor if we recognize that many cultural norms are just that—cultural, not biblical.
Today, many assume that boys like the outdoors, while girls like the indoors; that boys like collision sports, and girls do not. There are tendencies in those directions, but innumerable girls like to wade streams and climb mountains. They love sports like soccer and ultimate frisbee where people collide. There’s nothing wrong with such girls (I fathered three of them). Nor is there anything wrong with boys who like to cook. Let’s not cause needless doubts by imposing purely cultural ideals on our children.
That said, we distinguish roles and clothes: It’s normal for boys to act like their fathers and for girls to act like their mothers. It’s also good for men and women to signal, by their appearance and actions, that they are indeed male or female, understanding that various cultures have varying signals. This principle is reflected in Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.”2. Your body is a gift, not a problem.
Parents, help your children appreciate that they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). Tell and show them that God enables their bodies to do marvelous things. We can run and shout. We can be still. We can dance, sway, and sing. Parents, let your children see you performing acts of dexterity and skill—making music, juggling and drawing, throwing and catching, making and fixing.
I suspect the love/hate relationship many Americans have with their bodies has contributed greatly to the transgender movement. We idolize perfect bodies, and we diet and exercise to form them. But food is everywhere, and most of us lead sedentary lives. High standards coupled with high failure rates creates high dissatisfaction. Tragic results include cutting, anorexia, and binge eating. The problem keeps growing and has spread from women to men.
I suspect the love/hate relationship many Americans have with their bodies has contributed greatly to the transgender movement.
Ryan Anderson describes the historical roots of the transgender movement in When Harry Became Sally, showing that radical feminists sought to sever the link between gender and biology. For them, the body is a problem; it enslaves women to reproduction and lactation and keeps them from asserting and defining themselves. A few feminists hoped to “seize control of reproduction” and end “the sex distinction itself” until “genital differences . . . no longer matter.” These radicals (not most feminists) claim that a woman’s body “opposes her existence as a person,” so she must resist it. Even if their program never became popular, the body-is-a-problem mentality has influenced Western culture.
To be sure, fallen bodies have many flaws, including genetic disorders and diseases. We must extend compassion and care to all who experience severe problems. But our bodies are God’s good gift, and there is a direct and positive relationship between our bodies and our identities as male and female. Wise parents help their children view their bodies as a gift.3. Discover who you are within God’s providential gifts, including your body.
Parents can tell their children that God has chosen to shape us through genetics. We can “find ourselves” in our God-given gender, just as we “find ourselves” in a genetic heritage that includes height, weight, strength, and more.
My family is fairly athletic, but we are also prone to certain injuries. This winter, as I struggled with a torn elbow ligament, my daughter struggled with a torn foot ligament. She nodded as I said, “I’m sorry I passed this on to you, but you will need to work through this aspect of your heritage—you have gifts, and you are injury-prone.”
These matters, like our sexual identity, are elements of God’s providence.Tapping into Authenticity
Since the 1950s, Western culture has extolled authenticity, which requires one to live according to the genius of one’s inner being, not the demands of society or family. Authentic people choose their path and reject the roles ascribed to them. The transgender movement taps into the current zest for self-definition. Our culture constantly tells us to “Follow your heart” to find our identity by looking within. The Bible never says, “Follow your heart.” In fact, Jeremiah 17:9 makes it plain: “The heart is deceitful.”
It is good, not evil, to find our place in the world through the body God gives us.
True, we may question roles that family and society have thrust upon us. Yet it is good, not evil, to find our place in the world through the body God gives us. If we believe in the sovereignty and goodness of God, we tell our children this truth applies to them.
For the last decade, I have ministered in contexts marked by significant wealth. By that I mean the area was wealthy relative to the surrounding context, while being home to a number of seriously wealthy people.
I used to find people with lots of money intimidating, but God has been teaching me what it looks like to serve and lead them.
What follows are simple observations, but they’ve been learned through seasons of pain and frustration. Though I’m by no means an expert, I hope these 13 principles will prove useful.
1. Warn Boldly
When the Bible speaks of the rich, it does so almost exclusively in tones of stark warning. You don’t have to look far to find these passages. Don’t shy away from them.
2. Understand that Everyone Is Under Financial Pressure of Sorts
Everyone feels financially induced pressure. I know this sounds incredulous, but it’s true. For the poor, it’s the lack of wealth. For the wealthy—if they’re paying attention—it’s the responsibility of stewarding their wealth. If you stop and get to know people, you will learn that everyone is under pressure. Paul’s warning to Timothy is pertinent: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10).
To love money, you don’t have to have lots of it: $5,000 can be just as great a snare as $5 million.
To love money, you don’t have to have lots of it.
3. Let Respect and Empathy Replace Reverence or Resentment
Wealthy people are used to these polar opposites. They are revered in service/delivery interactions, and yet they feel resented in the messaging of society at large. Both realities fail to adequately recognize their humanity. Wealthy people are not money machines, and they are not the root of all evil. They are sinners who need grace.
Churches can fall into the same trap when trying to engage people of significant means. We are tempted in one of two ways: to let them have total control, or to treat them with contempt.
I’m reminded of Jesus’s encounter with the rich young man. Jesus looked at him and loved him (Mark 10:21) and then immediately reminded him that he wasn’t the center of the universe. Jesus neither revered nor resented the young man. He loved him, and he called him to walk away from the idol of his wealth.
Wealthy people are not money machines, and they are not the root of all evil. They are sinners who need grace.
Take the time to know these people. They likely have lots of folks either serving them or hating them from a distance. What they don’t usually have are people seeking to understand them and their unique burdens. They need people, especially pastors, who will listen to them and seek to apply the gospel to their hearts and lives.
4. Teach How Money Is Meaningless and Meaningful at the Same Time
I love how Psalm 49 speaks of this tension:
Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
Money is meaningless in that it is temporary, and money is meaningful if we attach it to the right things and use it for the right ends. But if you only highlight money as meaningless, don’t be surprised if you struggle to get people to give it away in any meaningful way.
Money is meaningless if it exists for our comfort. It is extremely meaningful if it is leveraged for the kingdom.
Therefore, show how meaningful money can meet real, meaningful needs in the world: to fund church planters in your city or among the nations; to support the ministry efforts of churches in poor neighborhoods; or to train leaders ministering in underserved contexts. Money is meaningless if it exists for our comfort. It is extremely meaningful if it is leveraged for the kingdom.
5. Work Hard to Connect Faith, Work, and Mission
People spend a lot of their time attached to their work, looking to it for a good deal of their sense of purpose and meaning. We do people a tremendous disservice when we fail to connect their faith with their work, and expect them to engage in mission that has nothing to do with what God may have wired them to do.
This leads to compartmentalized Christian lives that are joyless and ineffective. So press into those areas of your people’s lives with sincerity and faith. Teach them to live with a singular focus in all aspects of their lives.
6. Ask for Money, and Make Sure to Ask for More Than Just Money
Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Don’t. Look people in the eye, explain what it is you need it for, sell the vision, and make the ask.
But . . .
Don’t only engage wealthy people when you have a financial need. Call them to serve sacrificially in the church in ways that don’t just involve their money. They are used to paying people to do things they don’t want to do, but last I checked, Ephesians 4 said the work of ministry is to be done by the members of the church. This means there must be meaningful ministry for them to do. Call them to that work.
7. Create Budgets that Look Like Rivers, Not Dams
If you want to teach your people how to be generous for the kingdom, one of the best ways is with your church budget. Show what it looks like to flourish through radical generosity. Show that godliness with contentment actually is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6)—through a church that’s content to throttle some of its own ministry wants in order to meet ministry needs elsewhere.
8. Teach Stewardship as the Principle
I love the beautiful tension of 1 Timothy 6. Paul issues a clear warning: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9).
But—lest we think riches are bad—he shows the way forward for those who are wealthy: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).
The goal isn’t to be poor. The goal is to store up treasure in heaven by being a good steward of what you have on earth.
9. You Can’t Shepherd People and Want Their Stuff at the Same Time
While you may not be able to share wisdom on business deals and investment strategies, you are able to model contentment—and they need you to do it. This is an area where shepherds ought to be exemplary, and yet it’s precisely where many struggle.
It’s hard to lead someone spiritually while you desperately want their stuff. And you can’t call them to a different life if you secretly want the life they have.
I’ve had seasons of simultaneously trying to warn people in the congregation about the love of money and really loving money myself. It’s hard to lead someone spiritually while you desperately want their stuff. And you can’t call them to a different life if you secretly want the life they have.
10. Stay as Far Away from the Giving Schedule as Possible
This is more of a wisdom call, and one I recognize won’t be possible in every church.
Nonetheless, I was freed up to serve people differently—and better—when I didn’t have the burden of knowing how much they gave to the church. I found that knowing this information often led to the temptations of reverence or resentment that I earlier argued we need to avoid. Stay away from this knowledge if you can.
11. Strive for Discipleship, Not Just Efficiency
People with wealth are used to efficiency in every area of their life. Therefore, they will likely expect it with spiritual maturity—and then wonder why they don’t grow. I was deeply convicted recently when reading Eugene Peterson’s masterful A Long Obedience in the Same Direction for a second time. In his opening chapter on discipleship, he says:
There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. . . . I don’t know what it has been like for pastors in other cultures and previous centuries, but I am quite sure that for a pastor in Western culture at the dawn of the 21st century, the aspect of our world that makes the work of leading Christians in the way of faith most difficult is . . . today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.
Fight the urge to provide entertainment that is immediate and casual. Push instead to the long, difficult road of sanctification-in-community. Some wealthy people will fight you, because it cuts against the way they measure investment in the world. Do it anyway.
12. Fight for the Marvelous Mess of Diversity
So much of the New Testament assumes people of different means are in the same communities of faith. Slaves and masters are addressed in the same letters because they were in the same churches. I love Paul’s letter to Philemon, where he outlines the manner in which Christians ought to respond in relationships of mismatched financial power. The gospel transforms how we respond in such situations, and it shouldn’t look like most deals in the business world.
Additionally, wealthy people shouldn’t only encounter poor people when they take the occasional short-term mission trip. Those sorts of engagements often only exacerbate the power dynamic that the rich have over the poor. Instead, the wealthy should encounter the poor in their family of faith, united under the common bond of Christ’s cleansing blood.
Economic diversity is one of the toughest forms of diversity for a community to accomplish. It takes something remarkable to bring people of different financial means together. Something, say, like the gospel.
13. Remind Them of their Need for—and the Availability of—God’s Miraculous Power
All hope seems lost when the rich young man walks away from Jesus’s offer of eternal life:
“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23–24)
In response, the disciples begin to wonder if there’s any hope for the rich in this world: “And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?'” (Mark 10:26)
Jesus’s answer is something that we must cling to, teach, and model: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God'” (Mark 10:27).
Oh how grievous it is that this verse is often wielded as a promise in pursuit of earthly riches. But the context is clear: It is very difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom. Very.
Who can thread a camel through the eye of a needle? God.
But who can thread a camel through the eye of a needle? God.
We need faithful pastors to do the hard, slow work of shepherding camels. And we need to trust God to make them fit. That’s our only hope.
“Being a loving church, being a loving Christian, is no excuse for accepting false teaching. That’s Jesus’s point here. It’s what he said, not me. It’s what he says in the text: ‘I have this against you.’ Being loving, doing good works? Not enough. We have to guard the truth that’s been entrusted to us.” — Mez McConnell
Text: Revelation 2:18–28
Preached: February 18, 2018
Location: Niddrie Community Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week.
“Our numbers are down.”
Few words have inspired more dejection among American pastors. For many, the emotional ups and downs of their labors are tethered to the attendance figures of Sunday mornings and ministry events. This fixation on numbers plagues churches of all shapes and sizes. Some may acknowledge that such ups and downs are unhealthy—even ungodly—yet they still can’t help being downcast when attendance flags.
For those who wish to break their unhealthy fixation on numbers, the challenge is answering this question: How do I become less obsessed with numbers while also taking seriously the call to evangelize?
We live in a society in which numerical growth is equated with success. Numbers are the currency through which we evaluate the health of organizations, from cities to non-profits to businesses to, yes, even churches.
One of the first questions pastors are often asked is “How many people go to your church?” Such questions are at least partly evaluative—people want to know how successful a church is, and attendance figures seem to be the most tangible way of assessing success. Here’s the tacit, common assumption: the larger the church, the more successful the church. The pastor of a storefront church is not qualified to publish books on the secrets to successful ministry. Those books should be written by megachurch pastors—so the thinking goes.
Insofar as size equals success, when our ministry grows we’ll feel better, and when it declines we’ll feel worse. How might we be set free from such emotional rollercoasters and instead lean into our calling?Church Growth Is Not Evangelism
Why, though, shouldn’t we fixate on numbers? Isn’t it better if 100 people become Christians as opposed to 10? What about the biblical passages that depict large numbers of conversions, such as the response to Peter’s speech at Pentecost?
The contemporary problem is simply that numerical growth isn’t the same as conversion growth. Church growth is not the same thing as evangelism. You can grow a church or a ministry numerically and not bring one lost soul into the kingdom. This is a “dirty secret” of contemporary American church planting: Much of the growth of new churches has little to do with evangelism. Instead, it’s predicated primarily on drawing people who recently moved to the area or those who’ve merely left one church for another. These are examples of “transfer growth.”
You can grow a church or a ministry numerically and not bring one lost soul into the kingdom.
Growth through Christians transferring from one church to another isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People who move to a new area are grateful to find sound churches where they may flourish. Some churches succumb to false teaching, so it can be a good thing when parishioners move from one to another. There are even occasions in which pastors may send parishioners from one church to another for a particular ministry or calling.
This kind of growth is not evangelistic, however, and it is imperative for pastors to be honest about the nature of such growth. If pastors lack such honesty, they may take measures that are effective at growing a church but not reaching the lost. The fastest way to grow a church is usually through appeals to people who are already following Jesus. It’s intuitive: The people looking for churches are already Christians. Those who are far from Christ ignore our advertisements, our events, and our seeker-friendly sermons.
Many books tout ministry success, teach pastors how to identify target populations, or explain the effectiveness of certain advertising strategies, all geared towards maximizing church growth. But in setting numerical growth as the ultimate goal, pastors are subtly wooed into devoting time and resources to persuading individuals to leave their current church for another. Perhaps this is one reason we see hundreds of church-planting success stories in America while simultaneously witnessing a decline of new church attendees.Begin with Honest Assessment
In order to break our fixation on numbers, we must begin with an honest assessment of our ministry. Why have people joined your church? You may find these reasons have little to do with your growth strategies. People show up on a whim; they’re invited by friends; they’re guilted by a parent; they’re in the midst of church shopping.
An honest assessment might reveal that most in our church were Christians before joining. This doesn’t have to be sobering news. I believe God brings people to our churches, and we should celebrate that and help them grow in their faith. We can’t ultimately control who God brings, and we should delight in the privilege of ministering to and alongside anyone God brings. There’s a certain joy in knowing that much of our ministry is to believers coming out of toxic, heretical, or isolating forms of Christianity.
But this work shouldn’t be confused with evangelism. We shouldn’t think ourselves gifted evangelists or as having “cracked the code” of evangelism when the bulk of our new members are a product of ecclesial migration.
At the same time, we shouldn’t necessarily equate a lack of explosive growth with a failure to evangelize.More Excellent Way
Here’s a better question for assessing healthy growth: Who is coming to your church who otherwise probably wouldn’t be active in the faith? This metric, of course, is imprecise, and we don’t want to presume how the lives of others play out. But this can be a good starting point for helping us to see better who’s attending our church, and to understand more clearly what we’re called to do as pastors. If our church is primarily about bringing newly isolated Christians into community, we can learn how to better minister to them. If we truly want to do evangelism, it might mean seriously reconsidering where we’re directing our energy.
We shouldn’t think ourselves gifted evangelists or as having ‘cracked the code’ of evangelism when the bulk of our new members are a product of ecclesial migration.
Pastors must also begin to set different goals for their churches. I suggest they replace the drive for numerical growth with two better goals: becoming more skilled at the practice of evangelism, and glorifying God with our presentation of the gospel.
The first goal may require reorienting the vocational aspirations of pastors and missionaries. The vocational model for pastors is often derived from CEOs, with books such as Good to Great exemplifying career success.
To become more skilled evangelists, pastors should think of their approach to evangelism as a skilled artisans such as a woodworker or a musician might think of their craft. For the woodworker or the musician, perfection of a craft rather the achievement of earthly success is the goal. Pastors should strive for excellence in praying for friends, sharing the gospel with the lost, and discipling new converts. A church of any size can do those things well, because they don’t depend on numerical growth.
Here’s where patterning ministry after woodworkers and musicians is particularly apt: The goal of these crafts is not success, but the joy of acquiring those skills. One does not master the violin to become wealthy, though such skills may lead to financial success. We develop such skills because there are unique joys in playing the violin. A violinist can delight in mastering a portion of the Brandenburg Concerto whether performances are done in private or before large audiences.
Pastors often fall into the trap of thinking a lack of focus on numerical growth equals a lackadaisical approach to mission. There are standards for success, but they are related to faithfully doing evangelism, rather than the measurable outcomes of evangelism. We can’t control who shows up to our church, but we can control whether or not we do evangelism. We must evaluate the things we actually control—our dutifulness in engaging lost people, our steadfastness in prayer and fasting for them, and our diligence in working to present the gospel clearly. We’ll discover deep joy in evangelism as it grows us in the grace of Christ.
We can’t control who shows up to our church, but we can control whether or not we do evangelism.
This leads to the second goal of evangelism: to glorify God by consistently telling others about Christ. We can accomplish this goal whether our efforts lead to mass conversions or none at all. We glorify God by carrying out the craft of evangelism to the best of our abilities, and our reward is not external success but the internal delight of drawing near to God. Read the great proclamations of Peter and Stephen in Acts, and you’ll see expertly crafted speeches meant to stir sinful hearts to repentance and belief in Christ. One speech ends in thousands coming to Christ, the other to a stoning. Yet, in his stoning Stephen receives a vision of Christ’s glory. God is glorified in both events.
Pastors are tempted to fancy themselves a Peter when the demands of evangelism may call them to be a Stephen. We cannot start with numerical success and retrofit a growth strategy for our churches. We must begin with the simple tasks of prayer and telling others about Jesus.
Practically speaking, this may mean pastors spend more time praying for the names of actual people who don’t know Christ and less time looking over impersonal attendance figures. It may mean empowering those in your congregation who are good at evangelism and learning from them, as opposed to responding to the latest market research about your community. It may mean more time spent on your knees and less time assessing the latest managerial fads.
We can’t control the responses of people with whom we share the gospel. Numerical growth may come, or it may not—God builds the church. Pastors must focus on ministering to those who come and not to those who don’t. In so doing, they may discover freedom from the chains of numerical success, freedom from anxiety, and freedom to enjoy whomever God has called them to reach.
Decades ago I was unfortunate and reckless enough to go spelunking on in what the National Park Service called “The Wild Cave Tour” in Mammoth Cave (Kentucky), the world’s largest cave system. I crawled, twisted, and sloshed my way behind an impressively knowledgeable guide as we worked our way through barely accessible sections of the cave on a grueling eight-hour expedition. Pointing out rock formations, old saltpeter mines, evidence of seismic activity, and even ancient inhabitants, he showed me things I hadn’t seen or even known of before.
The defining moment, however, was at the end of the trek. We wriggled our way through a hole only 23 inches in diameter to emerge in an exquisitely colored cavern, a destination that made the punishing trip worth the effort. I felt even better when I learned that, from there, we could walk a short distance to the mouth of the cave and step into the warm afternoon sun.
Reading Robert Alter’s magisterial The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary gave me that same sense of wonder and learning about many things I hadn’t noticed before. Unlike my never-repeated subterranean excursion, I hope to have Alter guide me on this odyssey again and again. I find this work engaging and enlightening to such a degree that I can’t imagine ever studying an Old Testament passage without at least consulting it. It’s destined to become a standard.Solo Translation
The few translations done by a solo translator have all the strengths and weaknesses one might expect. They each reflect the vision, knowledge, presuppositions, and translation proclivities of an individual without the perspectives and deliberation that usually attend the work of a committee.
I find this work engaging and enlightening to such a degree that I can’t imagine ever studying an Old Testament passage without at least consulting it.
Additionally, they typically manifest some theological or textual conviction of the translator. George Lamsa, for instance, believed the Syria Peshitta to be more reliable than the Masoretic text, and his Lamsa’s Bible (1933) is based almost entirely on it. Conversely, the compromises and concessions made in a room full of opinionated scholars can dull the sharp linguistic edges and idiosyncrasies of the biblical author.
While Alter has his own eccentricities, he is candid with the reader when his translation is “somewhat speculative” or even contains “guesses and approximations.” He invites the reader not only to look over his shoulder, but even directly into his mind, and this is unique in a translation of the entire Hebrew Bible.Scholarly Background
If any scholar has been adequately prepared for the task of singlehandedly translating the entire Hebrew Bible into accessible English, Robert Alter is the one. His seminal work, The Art of Biblical Narrative, as well as The Art of Biblical Poetry and his subsequent translations of sections of the Hebrew Bible (The Book of Psalms, Wisdom Books, and The Five Books of Moses), have long been considered indispensable to many students of the English Bible.
Amazingly, Alter didn’t arrive at his expertise by the usual route. He holds a PhD in comparative literature, having studied with Lionel Trilling as an undergraduate at Columbia before completing his doctorate at Harvard. At 83, he still serves as the Emeritus Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
As a young American Jewish boy compelled to study Hebrew, Alter became enamored with the language and learned every word in a Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary, figuring that “if I could get everything in that book into my head, I’d have it.” Ever acquiring more knowledge of the language and then combining that with a careful literary reading of the Hebrew Bible, Alter began to rebel against the destructive forms of criticism that saw the biblical text as little more than a thoughtlessly compiled scrapbook in which tensions and apparent contradictions slipped past obtuse or oblivious redactors. He dared suggest that the authors and editors of the Hebrew Bible were intentional in the details and that the reader should see instead a “composite artistry” in the juxtaposition of differing details or narratives.
In his 1968 presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, James Muilenberg pleaded with scholars to go beyond form criticism, with its emphasis on the supposed history “behind” the text, and to work with and understand the text as we have it. “It is the creative synthesis of the particular formulation of the pericope with the content,” he observed, “that makes it the distinctive composition it is.” In that same spirit and concern, Alter doesn’t preoccupy himself or his reader with modern source criticism. Though he accepts many of its assumptions, he doesn’t seem interested in it. Alter deals with the text as it is rather than as it was or might’ve been. He writes:
I am deeply convinced that conventional biblical scholarship has been trigger-happy in using the arsenal of text-critical categories, proclaiming contradiction wherever there is the slightest tension in the text, seeing every repetition as evidence of a duplication of sources, everywhere tuning in to the static of transmission, not to the complex music of the redacted story. (5)
These views have earned him the reputation of being subversive to the critical establishment in both academia and also the world of religion.Translation Philosophy
Alter may be subversive, but he’s not diffident. Always candid about his philosophy of translation, Alter’s forthcoming book, The Art of Bible Translation, explains his convictions in detail. But you don’t have to wait for that publication to understand his approach. His “Ten Commandments of Bible Translation” convey his translation philosophy with sharp humor and aplomb:
- Thou shalt not make translation an explanation of the original, for the Hebrew writer abhorreth all explanation.
- Thou shalt not mangle the eloquent syntax of the original by seeking to modernise it.
- Thou shalt not shamefully mingle linguistic registers.
- Thou shalt not multiply for thyself synonyms where the Hebrew wisely and pointedly uses repeated terms.
- Thou shalt not replace the expressive simplicity of the Hebrew prose with purportedly elegant language.
- Thou shalt not betray the fine compactness of biblical poetry.
- Thou shalt not make the Bible sound as though it were written just yesterday, for this, too, is an abomination.
- Thou shalt diligently seek English counterparts for the word-play and sound-play of the Hebrew.
- Thou shalt show to readers the liveliness and subtlety of the dialogues.
- Thou shall continually set before thee the precision and purposefulness of the word-choices in the Hebrew.
The result of Alter’s self-imposed Sinaitic confines is a translation both literal and literary, original but faithful. Though accessible to contemporary English readers, it retains the diction and rhythm of the underlying Hebrew, refusing to make the rough places plain with linguistic botox.
Though accessible to contemporary English readers, it retains the diction and rhythm of the underlying Hebrew, refusing to make the rough places plain with linguistic botox.
I spent the last week of December and the first week of January reading through Alter’s translation in great detail. I hardly think I could’ve chosen a better beginning to the new year. My wife enjoyed the excitement with which I would share insights I learned or some literary device I saw for the first time. I readily agreed with Alter’s disdain for what he calls “the heresy of interpretation”—the tendency of translators to use translation “as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language.” I wholeheartedly agree that “in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible” (xv).Valuable Commentary
Alter’s translation, however, is only half of the treasure in this work. His commentary is rich with attention to nuance, structure, and literary devices that often get lost in English translation. An added bonus is his economic use of words. He exposes the jewel of the text to the reader with little self-conscious description of how he mined it from the ore. In his notes on the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, for instance, he elucidates:
This chapter is the most elegantly symmetrical episode in Genesis. It comprises an introductory narrative frame (verses 1–6), a closing frame (20–23) that elaborately echoes the introductory verses, and the central story of the failed seduction, which is intricately linked to the framing verses by a network of recurring thematic key words. . . . The thematic key words, emphatically repeated in phrase after phrase are: “all,” “hand,” “house,” “blessing,” “succeed”—the last two terms being the manifestation of the reiterated “the Lord was with Joseph.”
This exposure of the structure, of how the author achieves his intended effect, is what Alter does over and over. His commentary often reveals the beauty that lies beneath the surface, not truly hidden but also not obvious. In fact, the measure of Alter’s triumph in these volumes is that his textual commentary points out the observable and apparent features of the passage in such an accessible manner that the reader responds with a “Yes, I see that!” instead of “I’m glad I have an expert to tell me this, because I could never otherwise know it.” His translation is the work of an accomplished scholar, but his commentary is the reflection of a careful reader that he delights to share. His knowledge of Hebrew is his own, but his understanding of the text is a communicable attribute.Benefiting from a Non-Christian Translation?
I admit a feeling of unease that someone who doesn’t profess to be a Christian could feed my soul so sumptuously. How can I revel in this scholar’s translation of the Hebrew Bible when his commentary is devoid of the Christ to whom I know it points? I came to realize, however, that this paradox is itself a testimony to the power of Scripture. The Word of God is so powerful that Jesus can’t be eclipsed in any honest translation, even when the translator doesn’t consciously see him.
The Word of God is so powerful that Jesus can’t be eclipsed in any honest translation, even when the translator doesn’t consciously see him.
Consider Alter’s comment on Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”:
These famous words are the ones pronounced by Jesus in his last agony—though in Aramaic, not in the original Hebrew. That moment in Matthew is a kind of pesher, or fulfillment interpretation, of this psalm, because there are other details here (for example, verses 16–19) that could be connected with the crucifixion. (68)
Similarly, his translation of Isaiah 53:3 reads, “Despised and shunned by people, a man of sorrows and visited by illness. And like one from whom the gaze is averted, despised, and we reckoned him naught.” His subsequent commentary is:
Famously, these words and what follows were embraced by Christian interpreters from the formative period of Christianity onward as a prophecy of the Passion narrative and the Crucifixion. The emphasis on the Servant’s bearing the sins of the people and becoming a kind of sacrificial lamb seemed especially relevant to the idea of Christ’s dying for the sins of humankind. Illness, however, is not part of the story of Jesus. Virtually no serious scholars today see this as a prediction of the Passion, but it certainly provided a theological template for interpreting the death of Jesus. (801)
Alter respectfully acknowledges the Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible even though he doesn’t share it. He has no ax to grind when he disagrees, so Christian readers aren’t forced into an imaginary contentious debate as they read. To the contrary, Alter’s reliable translation and lucid commentary often undergird a Christocentric reading of the text. A Christian will know what kind of illness Jesus was acquainted with.
In taking the journey though the Hebrew Bible with Robert Alter, I know I’m led by a skillful, experienced guide who expertly points out the structures, the flow, the literary and compositional seams that deepen my understanding and increase my appreciation of Scripture. I’m glad to follow him on this journey. But in the end, after enjoying such exquisite attention to detail beneath the surface, I walk alone into the warm sunshine of its fulfillment in Christ.
The Bible clearly teaches that not all people are saved. Instead, the saved are a remnant (Rom. 9:27) according to electing grace (Rom. 11:7). Historic confessions teach what has sometimes been called limited atonement, that the saving intent of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is limited to the elect, those for whom he died (John 17:9).
But does all this mean the elect remnant is small compared to the number of those lost?
And why does the question matter? What happens in our lives and ministries if we believe God is stingy with grace? If only a few are saved, should we be suspicious of people’s claims to salvation? Can we use the perceived smallness of the elect to justify a small view of church, taking pride in being a “little flock” willfully cut off from others?
How might Scripture help us respond to the suspicion that a limited atonement equals a meager atonement?The Elect Are Both Few and Many
In Luke 13:23 Jesus fields this question: “Lord, are there few who are saved?” But he doesn’t answer it. Instead, he urges people to enter through the narrow gate, which many don’t enter (v. 24). The passage doesn’t answer the question.
Jesus is stronger in Matthew 7:14. “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and few there be who find it.” That sounds conclusive. But is Jesus telling the future? Is he not rather preaching a sermon addressing the unbelief of the current generation? Jesus stresses that many of his contemporaries will be “thrust out” (v. 28). They were close to the kingdom but refused to enter through the narrow door, trusting instead in their own works (see Matt. 6:1–18). In their place, many outsiders (Matt. 8:11) will sit down in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).
What about Jesus’s insistence that “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14)? The comment is part of his parable of a wedding feast. Since many invitees refuse to attend, the master turns to the highways to find guests who will. Jesus is speaking to those builders who had rejected the Christ (21:42). The parable illustrates what Paul later observes: “Not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:2). Those invited are more numerous than those who actually attend. It’s bad exegesis to read the last phrase of Jesus’s parable—many are called, but few are chosen—as a technical theological commentary using Pauline vocabulary of “calling” and “election.” John Calvin cautioned that Jesus’s words here ought not prompt us to enter into “the question about the eternal election of God.”
If parables speak to the proportion of lost to saved, then should we do likewise with the parable of the ten virgins, where 50 percent of the characters are saved (Matt. 25:1–13)? Or the parable of the wheat and the tares might suggest the lost are only a small percentage of the population (Matt. 13:24). But this isn’t how parables should be read. In parables Jesus is making moral points, not numerical calculations.
In parables Jesus is making moral points, not numerical calculations.
And what about passages that speak of the vastness of Christ’s atonement? The Son of Man came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). “The gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many” (Rom. 5:15). “By one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20). In heaven John “looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” (Rev. 7:9).
How can we reconcile these passages? According to B. B. Warfield, the texts frequently cited to defend a marginal election merely reflect the situation of pervasive unbelief in Jesus’s day. These passages, which suggest a small size for the elect, might better describe the early visible results of God’s redemptive work. Jesus himself said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (Luke 13:18–19). It begins small. It surely was small in Jesus’s day. Few were walking his narrow path. It’s always a hard path, but in Jesus’s day it was also a new path. In time it would become better understood and more traveled. To ponder the breadth of God’s saving grace, why would we prioritize the early warnings of Jesus to his unbelieving contemporaries (e.g., Matt. 22:14) over John’s vision of God’s gathered people (Rev. 7:9)?
So, are the elect a small number? We can respond in at least three ways.1. Scripture Doesn’t Say How Many People Will Be Saved
The question, “Are there few who are saved?” (Luke 13:23) presented Jesus an ideal opportunity to say, “Yes, sadly, only a few.” But he purposefully didn’t answer. Such passages prove, Warfield maintained, only that “salvation is difficult and that it is our duty to address ourselves to obtaining it with diligence and earnest effort. We can never learn from them how many are saved.”
And if Scripture doesn’t allow us to say that the elect are few, it doesn’t help to appeal to experience. In the days of the apostles, a tiny fraction of earth’s population were church members. But today nearly one-third of the world’s population, an estimated 2.2 billion people, adhere to the Christian faith. And what if the church is still in its infancy? What if the astounding growth of Christianity from the first to the 21st century is only the first small segment of a vastly longer timeline of church history? We simply lack the perspective to quantify the elect.2. Believers Should Be Hopeful for a Great Salvation
“In the lack of people is the downfall of a prince” (Prov. 14:28). Will God have such a problem? Charles Hodge wrote that, on the basis of God’s electing grace:
We have reason to believe . . . that the number of the finally lost in comparison with the whole number of the saved will be very inconsiderable. Our blessed Lord, when surrounded by the innumerable company of the redeemed, will be hailed as the . . . Savior of Men, as the Lamb that bore the sins of the world.
Those who affirm the Bible’s teaching on unconditional election, of all people, have reason to hope for a vast election.
Likewise, Warfield said,
The number of the saved shall in the end be not small but large, and not merely absolutely but comparatively large; . . . to speak plainly, it shall embrace the immensely greater part of the human race.
Finally, Charles Spurgeon preached:
I do abhor from my heart that continual whining of some men about their own little church as the “remnant”—the “few that are to be saved.” They are always dwelling upon strait gates and narrow ways, and upon what they conceive to be a truth, that but few shall enter heaven. . . . I believe there will be more in heaven than in hell . . . because Christ, in everything, is to “have the pre-eminence” (Col. 1:18) and I cannot conceive how he could have the pre-eminence if there are to be more in the dominions of Satan than in paradise. Moreover, it is said there is to be a multitude that no man can number in heaven; I have never read that there is to be a multitude that no man can number in hell.
Those who affirm the Bible’s teaching on unconditional election (Rom. 9:16), of all people, have reason to hope for a vast election. This is because salvation doesn’t rest on people’s willingness to choose grace, but on God’s free choice. He can have mercy on those we think are beyond repair. If we insist that only a few are saved, we risk subjecting God’s saving work to statistical probability. And if he hardly saves anyone, then why should I suspect he’ll save me or others?3. We Should Enter the Kingdom and Urge Others to Do the Same
The door to glory is narrow; there is only one door, Jesus. No one will enter heaven who isn’t clothed in Christ’s righteousness. All those, and only those, who come to him in faith will be received by the Father (John 6:37). But we must come! In Luke 13, Jesus laments over those who were so close to the kingdom—but never entered. They were devoutly religious. They lived in the Holy Land. They heard Jesus teach. They ate and drank in his presence, but they were left outside because they never presented to Christ the ruins of their depraved hearts and said, “Save us!” Yes, we should believe the saved are a remnant. But let’s not try to make that number smaller than God has. Instead, enter the narrow door and strive to take with you as many as will follow.
The saved are a remnant. But let’s not try to make that number smaller than God has. Instead, enter the narrow door and strive to take with you as many as will follow.
The words of Revelation 7:9 echo God’s ancient challenge to Abraham: “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them . . . so shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5). Can you picture Abraham scanning the night sky, realizing he couldn’t even begin to number those stars? The apostle John got to see Abraham’s believing seed gathered in. Like Abraham, his head spun. He too saw “a great multitude which no one could number” (Rev. 7:9).
The picture of the narrow gate and difficult path is God’s way of urging great effort. The picture of the innumerable company of the redeemed is God’s way of evoking hopefulness and wonder at his great salvation.
“The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven,” one of the characters says in The Da Vinci Code. “Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.”
Walk into the first class session of World Religions 101 at a university near you, and you’re likely to hear a variation on that theme. The Catholic Church created the Bible to control people. The Bible as we know it didn’t exist until the reign of Constantine. The church decided what belonged in the Bible at the Council of Nicaea.
But according to New Testament scholars Michael Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) and Don Carson (PhD, University of Cambridge), historical evidence does not bear out this narrative. The books of the New Testament were all written in the first century and were in wide use by the early church as early as the second century. Kruger and Carson explain why they don’t believe the Bible’s authority comes from the decision of any man.
Church plants can’t reach people they don’t know anything about. It’s crucial, then, for church planters to be familiar with the demographic makeup of the place in which they wish to plant.
But my fear is that most church planters stop there. Knowing demographics is essential, but in order for that understanding to be accurate, we must also know the history of our community. Every community’s present state has been forged in the past. No place can escape its history.
And if we fail to rightly understand such history, our churches risk doing more harm than good.What You Don’t Know
We started South Dallas Community Church in September 2017. A year prior, while still a small group, we took time to research the history of our city. Initially we researched out of necessity, because the majority of our core team weren’t natives. As we talked with residents in the community, it became clear just how much we didn’t know.
We developed something we called the “Learn to Serve Project”—a document chronicling the history of our community and how it relates to ministry. What we learned from these efforts has proven invaluable for our young church’s witness in our community.
As we talked with residents in our community, it became increasingly clear just how much we didn’t know.
Unsurprisingly, we discovered that our community’s history is complex. Like many historically black communities in America, our neighbors have faced numerous hardships. In South Dallas, many continue to suffer from the effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws.
Now, imagine if our church-planting team had ignored such realities. That would’ve been detrimental to our hopes of reaching and discipling the people here. Failing to understand our community in its historical context would’ve led to simplistic solutions regarding issues that have a long and sordid history. For example, I can’t approach evangelism alongside a white member of our church without being sensitive to the harm that some professing Christians have had on our community. In our community’s not-too-distant past, a group of white “Christians” bombed the houses of African Americans in our community.
In more recent times, people have made promises they haven’t kept. Because of this our church has faced skepticism, and sometimes downright hostility, from those around us. If we approach our communities with no understanding of their historical context, it shows a lack of love and concern for who they are.Where You Fit
We must also realize where we—as the church-planting team—fit into our community’s historical context. Are we one of the many groups helping build a new suburb? Or are we the third wave? Are we part of the new younger, wealthier residents moving into a historically poor community? Have churches been planted here before? If so, are any still active? Did the community welcome them?
Ethnicity, socioeconomic status, church size, and many other factors must be taken into consideration in how your church—and how you, pastor—fits into the community’s history.
For us, being young in age and half white—in a community with an average age of 45 and which is predominantly black and Latino—we recognize where we fit in our community’s historical context. We represent gentrification and, regardless of our motives, that’s how we’ll be perceived. To combat this perception we must be humble, consistent, and demonstrate, as much as possible, that we genuinely care about the people here.
Knowing our history has helped us see the assets that already exist in our community.
We’ve sought to do this in a variety of ways, including providing mentoring, health care, and educational support. Additionally, knowing our history has helped us see the assets that already exist in our community. For example, we meet in the neighborhood YMCA on Sunday morning, because we want to gather in a place familiar to the local people. The YMCA has been such a place for decades. Many of us work out, send our kids to various programs, and try to spend time there outside of Sunday mornings. This is one way we’ve tried to weave ourselves into the historical fabric of our community. We want to be a counter-narrative to traditional “gentrifiers” who come to take from neighborhoods and transform them into their own image, as opposed to coming to serve, share Christ’s love, and build up the current residents.Listen and Learn
Just as every person has a story, every community has a history. Do you know yours? If you don’t, here’s a good place to start: Get to know people who’ve been there a long time.
Find the elders in your community and ask them to tell you their story. How has the community changed? What significant events have shaped them? Have they experienced oppression from certain groups? If so, how has that affected the locals’ perception of outsiders? The key here is to ask good questions, and then simply listen. Humble yourself and labor to learn. Fight the urge to jump to quick solutions.
Humble yourself and labor to learn. Fight the urge to jump to quick solutions.
The second stop should be your local library—read as much as you can. This availability may vary depending on your context: If you’re in a large city, there may be books written on the history of your city, or even your neighborhood. Some cities also feature information on local history at museums or parks.
No matter your context, knowing the history of your community will help you understand, and therefore love and serve, the people God has put in front of you.
Michael Haykin has one of the most interesting conversion stories I’ve ever heard.
Born in 1953 in Birmingham, England, he embraced Marxism by age 14. Western culture in the 1960s seethed with anger, especially among Haykin’s peers. But it that atmosphere alone did not drive him to embrace a two-fisted worldview committed to imposing intimidation and violence on innocent people. The culprits, actually, were Roman Catholicism and Christian hypocrisy.
I spoke with Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, about what drew him to Marxism, how God saved him, whether some evangelicals today are “cultural Marxists,” and more.While most of your teenage peers were playing team sports or discovering the opposite sex, you were reading Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao Tse-Tung. Some of these figures promoted guerilla warfare and assembling Molotov cocktails. What drew you to Marxism?
A few friends and I drank all of this in, and we seriously—and quite naïvely, I now see—prepared ourselves for the revolution we thought was coming to North America. I can even remember preparing myself for the possibility that I would have to kill people close to me—such as members of my own family—for the sake of the revolution. But it is one thing to be a “budding” Marxist revolutionary in the comfort of your father’s house, and quite another when you’re living on your own in a city without many friends! My going to university in 1971 at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in London proved to be the catalyst whereby God began to shake me free from the bondage of Marxism.You were raised in a Roman Catholic home. When did you first become skeptical about the Catholic church, and what led you to be open to other worldviews?
The change in my worldview began as I observed the hypocrisy deeply entrenched in the Roman Catholic Church. I noticed that many of my high-school classmates centered their lives on drinking and partying, yet would turn up at church on Sunday and receive communion. I soon concluded that Christianity was a hypocritical sham. I began to stop attending mass.
I soon came to the conclusion that Christianity was a hypocritical sham.
But man is by nature a worshiping creature. I rejected the false worship embedded in Roman Catholicism only to fall into an even more heinous idolatry.Virtually every conversion story is different. What means did God use to awaken you?
When I went to UWO, it was the first time I’d really been away from home. For the first term (autumn 1971), I was boarding with an elderly couple who seemed, at least to me, to be constantly talking about friends of theirs who were dying. Their somewhat morbid conversation awoke in me a fear that I had never fully faced: the fear of death. I began to think that I had medical problems—a brain tumor, heart defects, and so on—and would often lie awake at night listening to my heartbeat, terrified that it might suddenly stop. Sometimes my fears would so overwhelm me that I would call my father in the middle of the night and ask him to drive from Ancaster to London to take me home. In the face of such fears, Marxism proved to be helpless and could give me no comfort. I cannot recall making a conscious decision to reject Marxism, but slowly it began to lose its hold over me.
In the face of such fears, Marxism proved to be helpless and could give me no comfort.
During my first year at UWO, two significant events occurred. The first stemmed from a growing interest in philosophy. Up to that point I had always expected to study history—my earliest academic love. But during my year at UWO, philosophy—partly because of my interest in Marxist thought—began to exert a greater control over my interest and thinking. One day in fall 1971, I sat down to write out a philosophical proof for the existence of God, but before I could put pen to paper, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a God. One moment I was agnostic about God’s existence; the next, I knew there is a God. But believing God exists doesn’t necessarily entail a change of lifestyle, and it certainly does not mean salvation, as I was to find out.
The second significant event followed on the heels of the first. One of my friends at UWO was a fellow named Doug, with whom I had played high-school (American) football. Doug had become friendly with a group of Christians. Now and then, while having lunch with him, these Christians would be there—and although I don’t recall any of them witnessing to me about Christ, I do recall their conversation about Christ and the Holy Spirit. I began to try to pray, but how can you truly persevere in prayer if you don’t know Christ, and if his Spirit doesn’t live in you? As John Bunyan, the 17th-century Puritan put it, “When the Spirit gets into the heart, then there is prayer indeed, and not till then.”Talk about the role your wife, Alison, played in your conversion.
Over the next couple of years, while I maintained a nodding interest in Marxist political thought, I began to probe into various areas of modern spirituality. Like so many of my generation, I turned eastward to such things as Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Transcendental Meditation. But none of them could relieve my fear of death.
In autumn 1972 I left UWO and moved to the University of Toronto (U of T). During the course of that school year, the second year of my BA in philosophy, the implications of God’s existence were largely ignored as I led a somewhat riotous, immoral lifestyle.
Living in a one-bedroom apartment with two other guys took a heavy toll on our friendship. Not surprisingly, by the end of that year, we were no longer friends, and I began to make plans to live alone the following year. About this time, I was growing tired of the lifestyle I had been leading, and I decided to give up smoking and drinking, and cut my hair. I also slowly abandoned all commitment to doctrinaire Marxism.
During summer 1973, I got a job at Mother’s Pizza Parlor Restaurant in West Hamilton. It was here I met my future wife, Alison; I was a pizza-maker, and she was the cashier. After going on one date, I discovered she was a Christian and attended Stanley Avenue Baptist Church. In my desire to effect a real change in my outward lifestyle, I asked Alison if I could go to church with her. Little did I realize the sort of change that God had in store for me!
As the months rolled by, the fear of death that had lain submerged for a year and a half or so re-emerged. This fear was compounded by the fact that a certain philosopher I was intensely studying, Martin Heidegger, had maintained that authentic existence is only possible in the contemplation of one’s death. Again, I was faced with the fear of death, and I realized I was utterly helpless. But this time there was an answer at hand.
As I sat under the proclamation of the Word, which spoke of the risen Christ, and as Alison and her mother spoke to me about their faith, I began to grope toward the One who alone could free me from the fear of death—and from death itself (Heb. 2:14–15).
The breaking point came in February 1974. It was midweek, and for three nights in a row I awoke in a cold sweat, my heart pounding, fearful I was about to die. The third night—to my amazement—I fell on my knees, crying out to God for salvation. Graciously he opened my eyes to know his Son, and to know that in Christ there is salvation not only from sin’s power, but also from sin’s wages—eternal death. When I went home that weekend to Ancaster and Hamilton on the Greyhound bus, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was no longer alone—God had graciously come into my heart, the citadel of my life, and taken possession of it by his Holy Spirit.What is Marxism? What about cultural Marxism? Do you think the current emphasis of some evangelicals on social justice is a species of Marxism or socialism?
Marxism is essentially an economic explanation of history: History is moving toward a specific goal, namely, the classless state, after the destruction of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, that is, the working class. The past has seen the evolution from monarchical and aristocratic rule to bourgeois capitalism, which will be replaced by the proletariat in due course. The shifts from one economic system of rule to another is usually attended by violence, since class structures won’t normally relinquish power peacefully.
What about the charge that some evangelicals’ emphasis on social justice reveals them to be a species of Marxism? I personally find that a ludicrous statement and tantamount to fear-mongering in a cultural climate for which socialism is an ever-present bugbear.
Lenin introduced a modification: the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a prelude to the classless state. Marx envisaged the classless state following hard on the heels of the working-class revolution. That did not happen in Russia, hence the need for the interim step of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Cultural Marxism, developed primarily from the Frankfurt School associated with Max Horkheimer, was not as simplistic regarding the problems of modern society as was the economic determinism of classical Marxism. Cultural Marxism expanded its reflection beyond the economic to critique the dreariness and one-dimensional nature of culture and personal life in the bourgeois capitalist system.
What about the charge that some evangelicals’ emphasis on social justice reveals them to be a species of Marxism? I personally find that a ludicrous statement and tantamount to fear-mongering in a cultural climate for which socialism is an ever-present bugbear.Why do some evangelicals confuse social ministry with Marxism?
Because they’ve bought into a cultural narrative that was shaped in the 20th century, when the ideological enemy was communism (the Cold War and all that), which was understood by many between the 1920s and the 1970s as the Antichrist. It is not easy to shake off this ethos. Tie that into a historic mistrust of the government, and the fact that social justice often involves governmental regulations, and you have the present climate of fear.Do Reformed Christians have a heritage of working in areas that might be termed “social justice,” or is that a newer development?
Yes, all the way from the deacons in Calvin’s Geneva taking care of the city poor, to Spurgeon urging the British Parliament to prosecute not only prostitutes but also the men who used their services, to Spurgeon’s stated refusal to sit down at the Lord’s Table with slave owners, which led to his books being burned in the antebellum South. In between, we have men like William Wilberforce, who sat on the boards of more than 60 charities and believed social change had to happen on the fronts of both personal conversion and also socio-political legislation.
The child who lies obviously displeases God and grieves his parents. But he also invites adverse consequences to himself.
I learned this lesson in third grade when I bought a pea shooter (an oversized drinking straw) and a bag of dry peas for shooting. I knew I would be in special trouble if I shot my younger brothers. My parents had already taken away my previous pea shooter for aiming it at my siblings.
A budding 8-year-old munitions engineer, I began experimenting outside our back door with my secret new equipment. Frustrated by the slowness of loading one pea at a time, I decided to stuff the entire bag of peas into my mouth, hoping the shooting device would work like an automatic machine gun. (It didn’t.)
Just as I glutted my bulging cheeks with pea rounds, the back door opened. Mom leaned out: “Sammy, what are you doing?” Feeling the need to conceal my mischief and high-powered weaponry, my sinful instinct was to answer, “Nothing.” But it’s hard for an 8-year-old to speak clearly when a bag of peas is holding his mouth hostage. Instead of “nothing,” out came “ngmffngm.” But I wasn’t doing ngmffngm. I lied. And my mother knew it. At that moment she didn’t worry about the pea shooter; she cared about her boy’s blatant falsehood, which revealed a darkness that strikes a wise mother’s heart with sadness and pain.
We desire for our children to tell us the truth, especially when confessing their sin. But how can we teach them to be candid with us, to speak the truth?
I’ve found six practices helpful in fostering honesty in children.1. Pray
Ask God to do the heart work that only he can do.
Maybe someday in heaven I’ll find out all the trouble I avoided because of the prayers of my parents and grandparents.2. Teach That God Is Truthful
Joyfully and decisively embrace God himself as truthful.
Before dealing with the actions and hearts of children, refocus your own heart on God’s trustworthiness and the extremely high premium he places on truth-telling.
Worship him for his reliability. Truth is his name (John 14:6). Get that clear. It’s impossible for him to lie (Heb. 6:18), and he hates lying (Prov. 13:5).
Aspire for you and yours to be like him.3. Model Truth-Telling Yourself, Especially When It’s Costly
Make no compromise in your own truth-telling. Never lie to the children, or in front of them, or get them to lie for you. If we want children to confess their wrongdoings to us, we mustn’t fail in confessing and repenting of our own sins, making a humble pledge to strive to never do that wrong again.
If you’re going to use words—and you are—mean them. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. If you say, “Turn off the video game”—and they ignore you, and you do nothing—then not only does “turn off the video game” come to mean nothing, but all your words lose value. You make your words into a kind of lie, for “turn off the video game” apparently doesn’t mean what it seems to say.
You make your words into a kind of lie, for ‘turn off the video game’ apparently doesn’t mean what it seems to say.4. Talk to Your Kids About Telling the Truth
Talk about the advantages of truth-telling. Explain how it earns future trust, while lying destroys trust. Point out and celebrate truth-telling wherever you see it—in preaching, in news reporting, in dinner-table conversations, and so on.
Let them hear God’s Word on the subject (e.g., Col. 3:9; Eph. 4:25; Luke 6:31; Prov. 11:3). Let them see that you take the Bible seriously. Show them in the Bible how often Jesus says “truly truly.”
Expose them to stories about truth-telling and lying, such as the little boy who cried wolf, Pinocchio, Ananias and Sapphira, and Zacchaeus.
In teaching children to speak truthfully, couple truthfulness with love (Eph 4:15). What does love do? It tells the truth.5. Reward Kids for Truth-Telling
It’s hard to overestimate the value of swift rewards in shaping the behavior of a young child. When a child admits to his crime—breaking the lamp, kicking his brother—commend the truth-telling prior to addressing the infraction. So perhaps something like: “Thank you, son, for being honest with me. Telling the truth is so important. It helps everyone trust you. It pleases God. So I’m pleased with you that you told the truth. Now let’s address the broken lamp” (or whatever).6. Having Underscored Honesty, Also Teach Discernment
Not all truth needs to be announced, and it certainly need not be brutal. In certain contexts, some truth is better left unsaid—just because the lady at the store is overweight doesn’t mean we need to say so! Children can incrementally be taught that some factual information is better kept to ourselves.
Parents and caregivers, may we teach our children the value and beauty of telling the truth, no matter the cost. After all, there is no greater joy than knowing our children are walking in the truth (3 John 4).
Eighteen months after my son died, I had a conversation with a pastor friend that enraged me.
His first child was going to college, and he expressed the sadness and difficulty accompanying the milestone. In describing his sorrow, he repeatedly used a certain word. “We’re grieving her leaving us. We’re grieving her being so far away. We’re grieving her absence in our house.”
With each enunciation of “grief,” I grew angrier. Having buried my son in the previous calendar year, I wanted to say, “No, no, no. Grief is reserved for really bad things. Grief is reserved for death. Grief is reserved for people like me, not your healthy, living child going to college!”What Changed My Mind
Fast forward two years. I noticed the new strength required to lift my now-4-year-old daughter for a hug. Her increased self-sufficiency and growing vocabulary contrasted starkly with memories of that chubby baby girl who used to crawl around the house.
As I pulled up videos from the toddler and baby phases, a funny thing happened. My heart ached with sorrow, and tears filled my eyes. I realized I was experiencing what my pastor friend felt as his daughter went to college: grief.
A sense of loss lingered as I knew that a treasured season had passed, never to be recovered. Daddy’s sweet girl no longer got excited about watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Good Night Moon was done. She was figuring out that an “r” belonged on the front of “remember;” she was correcting the cute mispronunciation—“amember”—that previously melted my heart. On the next trip to Disney, she would realize the real Cinderella doesn’t reside in the Magic Kingdom.
All grief involves loss. A joyful hope for the future dies, or a cherished aspect of the present slips into the past. And we grieve.Grief and the Fall
All grief originates from the fall, when Adam and Eve tarnished a rich paradise of joy, squandering endless possibilities of pleasure, hope, and life. Regardless of what we grieve, there is a keen sense that life wasn’t meant to be this way. We taste moments of glory where we receive a glimpse of Eden—and we feel sadness and pain as those transcendent moments pass. Whether we’re lamenting the death of friends and family or sorrowing over dashed dreams, our hearts mourn that this life falls drastically short of God’s original intent.
We are born with an innate sense that life was meant to be so much more. The toddler who throws a tantrum when the playdate ends demonstrates (even if sinfully) that moments of joy, vitality, and friendship were never meant to cease. Along with the rest of our sin-marred creation, the child subconsciously grieves what was lost in the fall.
For people who have lost small children, so much of their grief involves losing the joys and journeys of the different phases of childhood. They grieve missed birthdays, a nonexistent first day of kindergarten, a graduation ceremony that never comes. They painfully wonder how their child’s personality and appearance may have evolved over time. The seasons of enjoying that child are lost.
Regardless of the severity, all sadness, frustration, and anger are expressions of grief. We all mourn the loss of Eden and the life for which we were meant.Recovery Is Coming
Romans 8 points to the ultimate solace for humanity, trapped under this excruciating curse:
The whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:22–23)
This groaning carries connotations of grieving. There is a deep, guttural pain lurking within the fallen state of the world. There is a grinding frustration with how life falls miserably short of our desires and longings.
But Paul doesn’t leave us with hopeless grief. He points to Christ’s second coming, where believers receive and experience their full “adoption as sons” and “the redemption of [their] bodies” (Rom. 8:23).
Our son died at age 3, but I cling to this hope: The times and experiences lost with Cameron in this life will be regained and renewed a thousandfold in the world to come. As I wrote in Therefore I Have Hope:
Remembering that Cameron is still my son and that he is still alive in heaven reminds me that nothing truly will be lost and that everything will be recovered. I will see my little boy again. We will have a beautiful, fun, intimate, joyful life together for eternity in heaven. We will have adventures and lessons and laughter and meals and celebrations. We will hug and snuggle and kiss and laugh and play in heaven.Wait with Joy
The real sense of loss that undergirds all the pain, disappointment, and grief in this life has been reversed through the gospel and will be enjoyed—fully and forever—in the age to come. Jesus will recover all of the fallout from Adam and Eve’s demise.
The gospel is a hope that God will never leave us empty-handed. Never. Knowing this hope, I, along with all other believers, can wait, endure, and persevere. And not just wait, but wait with joyful expectation.
A piece of legislation known as the Equality Act is expected to be introduced soon by House Democrats. The bill’s provisions add the categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of protected classes in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
As I wrote in 2015, when the Equality Act was first introduced, the bill represents the most invasive threat to religious liberty ever proposed in America. Given that it touches areas of education, public accommodation, employment, and federal funding, were it to pass, its sweeping effects on religious liberty, free speech, and freedom of conscience would be both historic and chilling.
The bill represents the most invasive threat to religious liberty ever proposed in America.
Its passage would sound the death knell for hopes of détente in the culture wars that pit conservative Christians against their LGBT neighbors. For progressives, it would be winner-takes-all. Virtually no area of American life would emerge unscathed from the Equality Act’s reach. No less significant would be the long-term effects of how the law would shape the moral imagination of future generations.Supporting the Sexual Revolution
To be clear, Christians reject all forms of invidious discrimination. We believe all persons, including those who identify as LGBT, are made in God’s image and are deserving of respect, kindness, and neighborliness. But this truth does not necessitate Christian capitulation to the Sexual Revolution. No Christian who believes that the Bible’s depiction of created reality is both sacred and authoritative can accept the Equality Act’s underlying tenets. By codifying the ideas that (1) sexuality has no core ethical limits other than consent, and that (2) male and female definitions are psychologically based, rather than biologically based, the Equality Act must be interpreted as an assault on Christian institutions and especially on parental rights—since public education will be transformed to follow the law’s provisions. It will further lead to the corrosion of our public discourse, the type of discourse that breeds zero-sum outcomes. One only has to look to Tim Gill (who infamously remarked that he intends to “punish the wicked”—those who fail to endorse LGBT politics) or Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet (who compared those who fail to endorse LGBT policies to Nazis) to see how fraught this conversation has become.
For progressives, the Equality Act is the rallying cry that would forever cement the legitimacy of sexual revolution ethics into federal law.
For progressives, the Equality Act is the rallying cry that would forever cement the legitimacy of sexual revolution ethics into federal law. The Equality Act will not only accelerate the number of conflicts pitting Christians against their conscience, it will also shift the Overton Window to accelerate the pace of anti-Christian bias in society. Of course, Christians expect persecution and anti-Christian bias. Our Lord Jesus predicted as much. But our Lord’s words need not mean we hasten persecution.
The tragedy of the moment is that many progressives, sensing the cultural winds at their backs, have signaled no interest in playing nice with those who disagree with them when it comes to matters of sexuality and gender. Consider the scathing opinion editorial by actress Cynthia Nixon, who took to the pages of the Washington Post to call Vice President Mike Pence “insidious” because he holds to a culturally conservative worldview on matters of sexuality and gender. According to Nixon, not only do Christians hold views she personally disagrees with; she can’t understand how a group of people could hold to views she considers so innately toxic and immoral.Culturally Disfavored ≠ Morally Repugnant
But at the level of public policy, why is support for the Equality Act completely unacceptable? Here’s why: It’s not viewpoint neutral. It communicates that Christian beliefs about what it means to be male and female, and how marriage ought to be defined, are incompatible with what U.S. law considers to be decent, reasonable, goodwill convictions. The Equality Act fails to make meaningful status/conduct distinctions. It treats the Christian baker who objects to using her creative talent to design a same-sex wedding cake the same as an individual who would stupidly, and bigotedly, deny an LGBT person a booth at a restaurant. In short, the Equality Act equates Christian ethics with hatred and bigotry. Moreover, if the new bill is the same bill as previously introduced, it has a specific—and stunningly audacious—provision that guts the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from being appealed to in situations where the Equality Act applies. It specifically defenestrates and subjugates constitutional and statutory precedent beneath the ever-evolving norms of “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”
The Equality Act equates Christian ethics with hatred and bigotry.
Christians need to do a much better job of explaining the rationale and merits of their beliefs around gender and sexuality. We do not believe these are sectarian truths applicable only to Christians. Rather, we believe how God patterned creation in Genesis is the blueprint for human flourishing. If we don’t contend for the legitimacy and rationality of our views, they’ll end up being sidelined as intolerant and harmful—to the detriment of all.
Some beliefs and viewpoints within a society—for example, racism—are morally repugnant. Even so, our constitutional framework allows such attitudes to exist on the margins of society where they belong, and when deemed necessary, impeded upon for the sake of equal treatment under the law. There are also viewpoints, held in goodwill, by millions of Americans that are culturally disfavored, especially views concerning the definition of male and female and the definition of marriage. But what is culturally disfavored is not necessarily synonymous with what is morally repugnant. Opinions or viewpoints that don’t enjoy cultural support can be held with sincere goodwill. It’s important that legislation which aims to protect all sides understand this. Any piece of federal legislation that fails to differentiate culturally disfavored views from morally repugnant views, or implies that culturally disfavored views are necessarily morally repugnant, is legislation that evangelicals cannot support. The Equality Act not only fails to do this, it contributes to the decline of understanding and civic pluralism.
What is culturally disfavored is not necessarily synonymous with what is morally repugnant.
The concerns expressed here say nothing of the absurdities of the bill itself. As one panelist at the Heritage Foundation suggested, the Equality Act should be called the “Female Erasure Act,” since in codifying the transgender worldview into law, it defines womanhood (and manhood) as little more than psychological fantasy.Opposing the Equality Act
The Equality Act must be opposed. Any Christian legislator or conservative legislator who understands the vital urgency of religious liberty must oppose it. Or else, with the stroke of a pen, pillars of human history—the ideas that marriage is a complementary union of a man and a woman, and that male and female are immutable, biological realities—would be thrown into the dustbin of history. If progressives get their wish, the Equality Act would usher in “the Right Side of History” to which they constantly appeal.
The timing of the Equality Acts release comes at a providential time. Just last week, Christian baker Jack Phillips—of the infamous “Masterpiece Cakes” legal case—had complaints of discrimination against him dismissed in Colorado. The reason? Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission was deemed as treating Phillips’s religious convictions with contempt. Just as one hopes that government would learn a lesson in refusing to punish individuals like Phillips, who hold their faith with charity and goodwill toward all, the Equality Act is coming along to cement the same type of anti-Christian bias into American law.
Call it the Hillbilly Elegy effect. Bookstores have bulged with attempts to explain support for President Trump since his surprise election in 2016. Such books ask the same question: What’s wrong with America? But they don’t emerge from the same assumptions or aspirations. One set masks their accusation in a question: Who are these people who voted for Trump? The other set aspires to learn an answer: What are they trying to tell us?
Timothy P. Carney belongs in the latter category with his new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. Carney, commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, insists that he’s written a book about Trump voters, not about Trump. And we’re grateful he did. Carney’s book doesn’t belong in the genre of political polemics whose authors appear on cable news. It’s more like the long series of sociological studies produced by the likes of Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, and Robert Wuthnow. Carney shows how places where you’re more likely to bowl alone resonated with Trump’s rallying cry that he would make America great again. For them, the American dream is dead.
But Carney brings a unique and insightful perspective to this long-standing lament for the loss of social capital in American life. He doesn’t concentrate on the 2016 general election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, because Trump supporters offered innumerable reasons for preferring him to Clinton. So he turns to the Republican primary election results, and he discerns a fascinating trend.
In particular he looks to areas where Trump lagged behind competitors like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. Those locales contrast as much as heavily Dutch, conservative, middle-class Oostburg, Wisconsin, and cosmopolitan, liberal, rich Chevy Chase, Maryland. So what holds them in common? They score especially high on social capital. Their schools don’t lack for volunteers. Clubs of all kinds thrive. Local government engenders trust. In these areas—some highly educated and liberal, others highly religious and conservative—the American dream is alive and well. And Trump’s support in the Republican primary was dead on arrival.New Dynamic
So what’s the big point for Carney? He shows readers that if you want economic and social mobility—the American dream—you need social capital. Good schools, churches, and clubs support strong families. And strong families reinforce those institutions as they together promise a better life for our children. Yet in too many American communities—across the political spectrum—these institutions have collapsed. We’ve read a lot about the effect of family dissolution. But Carney introduces a new dynamic: Churches in particular have declined in many places where Trump thrived in the 2016 primary. He concludes that you can find the communities where the American dream is dead by looking for vacant church buildings.
You can find the communities where the American dream is dead by looking for vacant church buildings.
With the widely reported support of Trump by white evangelicals, many readers might be confused by how Carney connects closing churches with supporting Trump. But that’s why his focus on the Republican primary is so valuable. He cites polls that indicate Trump’s biggest supporters—the kind of people who didn’t care much for politics until Trump captivated them—were also the most likely demographic to say religion is “very important” to them. Somehow, at the same time, they were the group least likely to regularly attend church. By contrast, Trump fared worst among Republicans who attend church most frequently. Here’s where Carney connects to Hillbilly Elegy [read TGC’s review of Hillbilly Elegy]. In J. D. Vance’s book, there’s a lot of talk about Jesus. But there isn’t much organized religion or church attendance.
For Carney, a practicing Catholic, the decline of church life has many effects, even through a purely secular lens. Let’s look at the differences between Carney’s two paradigmatic cities where the American dream thrives: Chevy Chase, Maryland, and Oostburg, Wisconsin. Chevy Chase is much wealthier. Oostburg is much more religious. Both rejected Trump in the primary. And both teem with social capital. Carney concludes that you can buy your way into social capital by moving to a place like Chevy Chase. It’s like fictional Eagleton from the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation. You’ll get great schools full of well-adjusted if highly pressured kids. But with a median income of more than $250,000, most of us can’t afford that option even if we want it. Any of us, though, can afford to join a church. Oostburg, then, holds the key to reviving the American dream of economic and social mobility.
One year after the 2016 presidential election, The New Yorker writer Larisa MacFarquar reported from Orange City, Iowa. It’s a town I know well, having grown up among that region’s Dutch diaspora. My high-school marching band usually performed in the Orange City Tulip Festival parade. It’s a town that bears striking resemblance to Oostburg in its religious and ethnic makeup, though Orange City is about three-times larger with 6,000 residents and growing. MacFarquar’s report, “Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On,” found the same thing Carney did. Strong churches make strong families that make strong schools. You might not expect to find the American dream thriving in a small conservative town isolated from air travel and hospitals, with some of the most extreme weather anywhere on Earth. But that’s just what you see in the diversified economy of Orange City. Social capital begets, well, capital.Better Hope for Change
Church leaders may not see themselves as stewards of the American dream. Given the scriptural warnings against love of money, we’re at best uneasy in such an acquisitive, materialistic society. The prosperity gospel perverts the actual gospel and damns its adherents. But if you understand the American dream more as economic and social mobility, then you can see the role we play in helping socialize our communities in ways that lift everyone together. We’re not so much trying to help people get rich as trying to expand opportunity and freedom to all our neighbors, whatever their religion, class, or ethnicity.
Many of our neighbors have despaired of hope for themselves and their communities. Even the churches have abandoned them. They think that perhaps a distant political leader can make their dreams come true. Let’s give them a better hope for change. Let’s help them find Jesus in the church, and introduce them to a community—better, a spiritual family—whose bonds will endure for eternity. To fulfill that call, we need more churches led by pastors who love the small places.
The American Dream may be dead in much of the country. But downward mobility doesn’t hinder gospel advance. In the economy of Jesus, it’s the route to rewards (Phil. 2:5–11).
When its promotional campaign began in December 2016, Fyre Festival was touted as an exclusive, immersive, one-of-a-kind music festival on Pablo Escobar’s private island in the Bahamas. There would be beaches, booze, supermodels, private jet transportation, bespoke glamping accommodations, artisanal food, and music by the likes of Blink 182 and Pusha T. Fyre’s marketing team paid millions of dollars to “Instagram influencers” and models like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Hailey (Baldwin) Bieber to be the first to tease the event online. It was a brilliant strategy to hype an event that was promised by entrepreneur Billy McFarland (Fyre co-founder) to be the “biggest event in a decade.”
Except that it was all hype. After paying top dollar to attend Fyre (tickets ranged from $1,000 to more than $12,000), attendees showed up to a desolate island and disorganized mess. It was closer to a Cormac McCarthy apocalypse than the yachts-and-models paradise promised in the promo videos. The advertised “culinary experience” turned out to be soggy cheese sandwiches, “luxury tents” turned out to be waterlogged leftover disaster relief tents, and Blink 182 was nowhere to be found.
Social media had a field day with the disgraced festival, lawsuits were filed, and fraudster McFarland is now in jail. Netflix’s Fyre—along with Hulu’s rival documentary about the Fyre Festival, Fyre Fraud—now stand as cautionary tales about the unreality of the social media age, where what you see online is rarely what you get in reality.
It would be easy to watch the crash-and-burn narrative of Fyre with a certain degree of delight. Rich kids lured to the Bahamas for a weekend of hedonism, based solely on polished ads featuring Instagram celebrities, got what they deserved, right? We shake our heads at the gullibility of our age. We wag our fingers at the “emperor has no clothes” nature of this vapid cultural moment.
But rather than being amused by the can’t-look-away debacle of Fyre, perhaps Christians could see it as an opportunity for self-reflection—a chance to assess our own tendencies to fall for online fakery and perpetuate disconnects between hype and reality.Stop Falling for Fake. Fight for Facts.
What happened with Fyre is ultimately a subgenre of our larger crisis of epistemology. Fake news. Alternative facts. Post-truth. In a world where digital deception is easier than ever and critical, slow, evaluative thinking is rarer than ever, we don’t know what to trust. Recent media examples include the Covington Catholic schoolboys and Jussie Smollett. In both cases the uncritically fast, rush-to-rage nature of social media produced a flood of polemical commentary that turned out to be a fool’s errand. Why? Because it was reacting against what turned out to be fake news.
Christians have been as guilty as anyone else in jumping into online frays before sufficient facts are gathered. We are often opportunistic in calling what we don’t like “fake news” and accepting as true what is convenient for our narratives. As much as we talk about the importance of truth—as followers of a Messiah who called himself “the truth” (John 14:6) and said “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32)—we sadly aren’t known for our rigorous fidelity to truth online.
Our world desperately needs guidance in how to discerningly sift through the glut of misinformation. Christians could be these trusted guides in world of wobbly, disorienting digital chaos. But we aren’t currently. As Trevin Wax has argued, we need Christians to care more about getting the facts right, “whether or not they’re useful or beneficial to ‘the party line.’” We need to rise above the tendencies of our age to reduce facts to partisan ammo; to see what we want to see rather than what is there. Christians of all people need to fight for truth because it is true, not because it helps or hurts our cause.
Christians of all people need to fight for truth because it is true, not because it helps or hurts our cause.
Christians might not be tempted to fall for an expensive, hedonistic music festival because we saw an Instagram post of Bella Hadid on a yacht in a tropical setting. But we certainly fall for our own brands of polished presentations that don’t reflect reality: celebrity pastors whose Steve Jobs-esque charisma wows: “girl, wash your face!” self-help gurus whose perfectly imperfect hair tricks us into falling for their “authenticity”; authors, speakers, and Instafamous influencers who pitch themselves as “relatable” but only so they get us to buy what they’re selling.
Christians can be just as gullible as the Fyre Festival attendees. We just fall for different things.When Fantasy Faith Doesn’t Match Reality
Perhaps the truest line in Fyre comes near the film’s end, when Brett Kincaid—a commercial videographer hired to create the festival’s promotional videos—says this: “The real Fyre Festival happened twice. It was the shoots. What the commercial was was what everybody wanted.”
Fyre reflects a world where there is often, and increasingly, a vast distance between what is sold to us and what we actually receive. It’s the distance between the presentation of our best selves on Instagram and the reality of our often-awkward lives. It’s the distance we often assume is necessary in order to make the sale. Will people buy the thing we’re selling if we’re honest about its challenging aspects? Would they still “like” me on Instagram if they saw the real me?
Sadly, churches and Christians often fall into this temptation when thinking about how to present themselves as attractive to a skeptical and secularizing culture. We make the mistake of assuming the realities of Jesus, Scripture, and church are simply not desirable enough on their own. They need dressing up. And so we turn church into a consumer-friendly, comfortable experience full of amazing lattes, Ted Talk-style sermons, and music the kids like. We give our pastors makeovers—insisting they trade their pleated Kohls khakis for Uniqlo skinny jeans and avoid talking about things like hell, tithing, and biblical sexual ethics. We pitch the “abundant life” message of Jesus (John 10:10) but not the “take up your cross” message (Mark 8:34). We pitch Christianity as a tool for self-enhancement—becoming centered, known, living one’s best life—but downplay the self-denial side of it. In short, we sell a Christianity we think will get people in the doors. And often it works! Like the thousands of people who bought tickets to the Fyre Festival, crowds will naturally flow into churches where Christian faith is pitched in the “desirable life” language of Instagram fantasy.
Christians often make the mistake of assuming the realities of Jesus, Scripture, and the church are simply not desirable enough on their own. They need dressing up.Christianity Is Costly. Don’t Crop That Out.
But what happens when they find out the rosy colored Christianity that was marketed to them isn’t actually real Christianity? What happens when they find out about the cost of discipleship—that following Jesus requires repentance and dethroning ourselves as chief authority; that church is often a frustrating and uncomfortable experience because diverse community always is; that suffering and tribulation are more likely to define our lives than popularity and flying first-class? What happens when they, like the Fyre Festival attendees who showed up expecting a party and got a disaster instead, realize the reality is far from the paradise they were promised?
Actually what often happens is they give up on faith, assuming the whole thing is a sham. Or they maintain the delusion that there is a “best life,” Bieber-branded, hipster Christianity somewhere and they just need to find it. Either way, the disconnect between the marketed faith and the real faith leaves them disillusioned and ever more skeptical about Jesus.
What happens when seekers find out the rosy colored Christianity that was marketed to them isn’t actually real Christianity?
And that’s why the lesson of Fyre for Christians is that we must be staunchly committed to a consistent faith—where what is presented is also what is practiced; where our lives match our words; where we trust that Jesus and Scripture, however costly they are, don’t need to be cropped and Photoshopped in order to be desirable.
If Christians are truly committed to truth, we must not only fight against fake news out there, but also in ourselves and in our churches. The world doesn’t need a Fyre-style, Insta-perfect Christianity. It needs a consistent, biblical, uncomfortable Christianity. Even if that’s a tougher sell.
Last year, the Georgetown University athletic department tweeted:
With the world trending toward Virtual Reality (VR), we ask you to take a step back and experience the @GeorgetownHoops Actual Reality (AR) Seating Section!
Those who purchased tickets in the “Actual Reality” seating section were asked to leave their phones at home or drop them off at a phone check-in station. Phoneless fans were encouraged to “actually talk face to face” and—get this—watch the game.
Just as attending a basketball game has changed in our hyperconnected age, so has attending church. With increasing frequency, churches are encouraging folks to “attend” church virtually through an online livestream. Although a livestream can be a great tool to serve people unable to attend, it can’t replace the experience of actually going to church.Blessings of a Livestream
My church has a livestream, and it helps many people. I think of one church member whose health legitimately prevents her from coming to worship with the church family. Every Sunday she has her iPad locked and loaded with the livestream, and for her, it’s a great blessing to remain somewhat connected to her church family. In other instances, people traveling overseas have been able to listen online, and EMTs have been able to tune in when work has prevented their attendance. For such scenarios, and probably a thousand others, the livestream is truly a gift.
But don’t be mistaken: Church isn’t something you can get solely online.Blessings of Attending Church
In the Bible, “church” doesn’t refer to an event, but a people. The church is a family that you belong to by faith in Jesus Christ. When you trust him, you get his family, the church (for better or worse!). The event of Sunday morning worship with preaching, prayer, singing, and fellowship is what the church does when it gathers, but family is what the church is.
As a family, the New Testament authors call believers to love one another, bear with one another, forgive one another, and more than 50 additional “one another” commands. The author of Hebrews writes to Christians: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24–25). When we neglect to meet together—now easier than ever before with livestreaming—we’re missing out on the “one anothering” that occurs when the church gathers as family.
Virtual attendance also fosters a consumer mentality. Yes, you can consume a sermon and stay “in the know” via livestream, but you won’t be able to fully participate in the joys, sorrows, and God-intended discomforts of family life. Church shouldn’t be something we consume but something we participate in. To some degree, church is supposed to be uncomfortable, since the church body is called to love fellow sinner-saints, exercise patience, gentleness, and sacrificial service, and walk together through the messiness of family life in a fallen world. Like physical exercise, discomfort is part of the plan to grow us.Don’t Trade Actual Church for Virtual Church
To put it bluntly, virtual church isn’t church. When church members livestream Sunday worship because it’s their only option, it’s still the church family’s responsibility and privilege to visit, pray with, and care for them so that they can stay as connected as possible.
For everyone who can attend, however, it’s my hope that you’ll find a local church family to join, and after experiencing the goodness of church family, you won’t want to trade it for virtual reality. The next time you’re tempted to stay in your house slippers and sweatpants on Sunday morning and tune in via the livestream, go ahead and wear your sweats and slippers to church. Choose the actual reality.