Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Stillborn God

Hello virtual friends of the wonderful internet reality,

Hope you all had a great Christmas. Mine was exhaustingly delightful.

It's a bit ironic, but on Christmas Eve I starting reading a book entitled The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla. So far, I'm loving it. It's masterfully written, brilliantly argued, insightful -- and in my opinion, mostly correct.

Mostly -- but not entirely. For example, Lilla tries to assign some of the blame for the violence Christianity has chronically engaged in on conceptual conflicts rooted in the theology of the New Testament. I think he's mistaken. I'd argue that all the violence is rooted in the fusion of political thinking and Christian theology that arose once Christianity acquired political power in the late 4th century. But though Lilla spends quite a bit of time on this point, it's actually not central to his thesis.

Lilla argues that the modern western concept of freedom is the result of Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (in his work Leviathan) reacting against the perpetual religious-political violence of the 17th century by completely separating politics from theology. The modern concept of political freedom, in other words, is an inherently secular concept. While some conservative Christians try to argue that the Constitution of America is somehow rooted in Christianity, Lilla persuasively argues it came about only because influential thinkers abandoned Christianity and all religion as a foundation for political thought.

He is so right about this!

I'm not finished with the book yet, but the concern that seems to be driving Lilla's work is that this secular concept of freedom continues to be threatened by religion. We are not "out of the woods" yet, he argues. The secular concept of political freedom has only been around for several hundred years and the verdict is still out as to whether it will survive. The political theology of Nazism demonstrates how easy it is even for modern western people to slip back into theologically-based politics, and how harmful this can be when it happens.

I think Lilla is profoundly right about this as well. It's part of what concerns me when right or left wing Christians declare their political opinions to be the "Christian" position or to represent the politics of God.

I suspect many Christians would read Lilla's book as a slam on the Christian religion and a defense of full blown secularism. In a sense, it is. But I don't see this as a bad thing, for the movement Jesus came to establish -- the Kingdom of God -- can't be identified with the Christian religion. In fact, insofar as the Christian religion hasn't looked like Jesus Christ loving, serving and dying for his enemies (and let's be honest, if often hasn't), it contrasts with the Kingdom of God. It's in the interest of all Kingdom people to passionately point this sharp contrast out to people.

Not only this, but one can agree with Lilla's thesis that the modern concept of political freedom is inherently secular without accepting full blown secularism. I passionately reject the secular, humanistic, materialistic worldview. But because I think political freedom is a good thing, I just as passionately want to follow Lilla's advise and keep religion out of politics.

The bottom line is that religion and politics don't mix. Not only are free societies threatened by the mixing of religion with politics, as Lilla argues, but history shows that mixing politics and religion is disastrous for Christianity. This is what concerns me most.

We who have pledged our life to following Jesus are called to do one thing: follow him! We're called to mimic his loving service to all others, even if this entails suffering for enemies (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:20-25). We're not called to pretend that we have any superior wisdom or morality when it comes to resolving political conflicts.

So far, I'm finding Lilla's book to be a compelling demonstration of this truth. I heartily recommend reading it.

Stay centered in his love,


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I and my Christus Victor Team
want to wish all of you
who occasion this blog
and support this ministry
a very
Merry Christmas.

Be blessed

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why did Jesus say "buy a sword"?

Hope you're all enjoying the Christmas season.

Here's a question I've gotten a dozen times in the last several weeks:

If Jesus is opposed to violence, why did he tell his disciples to buy swords (Lk 22:36-37)?

First, if we read ahead 12 verses we find Jesus being arrested in the garden. His disciples ask, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" (vs. 49). Before Jesus can even answer, Peter swings away, cutting off the ear of a guard. Jesus rebuked Peter, telling him that all who live by the sword will die by the sword (Mt. 26:52; Jn 18:10-11). Jesus then healed the guard's ear, showing that the Kingdom he represents advances not by committing violence against enemies but by loving and serving enemies.

Whatever Jesus was up to in telling his followers to buy swords, it's clear he didn't intend them to use them! In fact, had he intended his disciples to use violence to defend themselves it would have contradicted every single teaching Jesus had previously given them about loving enemies, doing good to them, never retaliating, turning the other cheek, etc...

A close look at the passage reveals Jesus' purpose. Immediately after telling his disciples to buy swords (Lk 22:36) Jesus says, "It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”(vs. 37, emphasis added). So the reason Jesus wanted his disciples to possess swords was not to use them, but to fulfill prophecy (Isa 53:12) by appearing to be a law breaker to the Jewish authorities.

This is why, in the next verse, when the disciples say they have two swords, Jesus says "That is enough." (vs. 38). Obviously, if Jesus ever intended the disciples to actually use swords in self defense, two wouldn't be nearly enough. But it was enough to fulfill the prophecy and justify the Jewish authorities accusing him of being a rebel leader. (My thanks to my friend Tony Bartlett, author of Cross Purposes, for giving me this insight at a recent Atonement conference).

It's also significant that when Jesus appeared before Pilate and was asked if he was the King of the Jews, Jesus told him his kingdom was not of this world. He then pointed to the fact that his followers were not fighting to defend him as proof of this claim (Jn. 18:36). Kings of earthly kingdoms always have their subjects fight to defend or advances their causes. Not so with this King, and not so in this Kingdom.

Let your refusal to engage in violence be proof to the world that you belong to a Kingdom that is not of this world.

Be a peacemaker, not a sword swinger.

Merry Christmas


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Was the Christian Security Guard a Hero?

On December 9, Matthew Murray walked onto the campus of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and began shooting at people. He killed one person and wounded several others before a volunteer church security guard, who was also a member of the church, shot him (she wounded him, after which he shot and killed himself). The pastor of the church called the security guard a "hero." I've received dozens of e-mails from people asking me if I agree with the pastor, so I thought I'd briefly share my thoughts.

Let me say at the start that I have the utmost respect for people serving in the police force. These folks put themselves in harms way to protect innocent people from dangerous people like Matthew Murray. It's an honorable profession. On top of this, there's no question that the action take by this security guard was justified (by normal "just-war" criteria) and brave. In this sense I have no problems agreeing that this security guard was a "hero."

At the same time, just because a profession is honorable and an act of violence is justified and even heroic doesn't mean it's appropriate for Kingdom people. Paul teaches that God allows governments to use the sword for the purpose of maintaining law and order (Rom. 13:1-4). But in the seven verses leading up to this passage Paul forbids Christians from engaging in this sort of behavior (Rom. 12: 14, 17-21).

Every Kingdom person who considers entering into an occupation where they might have to kill someone -- indeed, any Kingdom person who considers using potentially lethal violence against enemies in any circumstance and for any reason -- has to wrestle with the question of how they reconcile this violence with the teachings of the New Testament.

Here's a list of everything the New Testament says about how Kingdom people (as opposed to governments and nations) are to view and treat their enemies. We're to....

* love our enemies (Lk 6:27, 35; Mt 5:44) (and remember, love is defined in the New Testament by pointing us to the example of Jesus dying for his enemies, [I Jn 3:16])
* follow Jesus' example by being willing to suffer unjustly at the hands of enemies, even when we have the power to crush them (1 Pet 2:18-23, 3:15-16; Eph 5:1-2, cf. Rom. 5:10)
* do good to our enemies (LK 6:27, 34-35)
* bless our enemies instead of curse them (LK 6:28; Rom. 12:14)
* pray for our enemies (Mt 5:44; Lk 6:28)
* forgive our enemies and ask God to forgive them (Lk 6:37; 11:4; 23:34)
* give to our enemies without expecting anything in return (Mt 5:44; Lk 6: 30, 34)
* feed our enemies when they need food (Rom. 12:20)
* give drink to our enemies when they need water (Rom. 12:20
* never resist evil with force (Mt 5:38-39)
* treat enemies as we wish they'd treat us (Lk 6:31)
* never return evil with evil but always return evil with good (Rom. 12:17, 19; I Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9)
* never exact vengeance against our enemies, trusting God to do this instead (Rom. 12:17-19)
* turn the other cheek when struck (Mt 5:39; Lk 6:29)
* pray for the healing of our enemies rather than seek to injure them (Mt 26:51-53)
* humbly serve our enemies (Jn 13:1-5)
* respond gently when interrogated under persecution by enemies (1 Pet 3:15)
* consider our sin to be worse than those of our enemies (Mt 7:1-3; I Tim. 1:15-16).

To the best of my knowledge, this represents everything the New Testament teaches on the matter. Note that nowhere do we find any exception clause in these teachings. Jesus doesn't say "Love and do good to your enemies except when common sense tells you you need to kill them."

It's also important to remember that many of those who were originally given these teachings subsequently endured the agony of watching their families fed to lions or burned alive before being tortured and executed themselves. The "enemies" the New Testament talks about are not just grumpy neighbors or personal enemies. They include national enemies, enemies who are terrorists, life-threatening enemies, and enemies who threaten not only us but also our loved ones.

Now, let's be honest. This teaching strikes most of us as impractical, if not insane, unpatriotic and even immoral. To not use whatever force is necessary to protect loved ones, innocent people and our nation from dangerous people strikes most of us as just plain wrong! So, many think, whatever Jesus and others in the New Testament meant with their teaching about loving enemies, they couldn't possibly have intended to rule out killing them when it's justified to do so.

I empathize with the sentiment completely. But, if I'm honest with myself, this seems to be exactly what Jesus and others in the New Testament are ruling out. I've looked at this teaching from every possible angle and I see no way around this conclusion.

I grant that this teaching violates our common sense. But how common-sensical was it for the omnipotent God to let himself get tortured and killed unjustly rather than use his power to defeat his foes? And we're supposed to follow this example (Phil. 2:5-7; Eph 5:1-2;1 Pet 2:18-23, 3:15-16). Jesus himself is aware that the teaching goes against common sense, but he stresses that it brings about a distinctly Kingdom reward for just this reason (Mt 5:44-47; Lk 6:32-35). The Kingdom is radical, holy (set apart) and beautiful precisely because it is not "common."

Every person who has pledged to live in the way of Jesus, rather than the way of the world, but who nevertheless carries (and is willing to use) a gun, for any reason, has to wrestle with this New Testament teaching. For my two cents, I confess I cannot see how the two are compatible. The use of lethal force may at times be justified and heroic by ordinary kingdom of the world standards. But I cannot see how it's compatible with being a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

Yet, I want to end by saying that this doesn't mean I or anyone else can pass judgment on the security guard or question the authenticity of her faith. Jesus proclaimed that the faith of a sword-wielding Roman Centurion -- a high ranking officer in the Roman army! -- had greater faith than anyone he'd found in Israel (Mt 8:5-10). And, while I'm certain Jesus didn't condone the Centurion's military profession (especially being an unjust oppressor of Israel), neither did he confront it. Jesus meets us where we're at, and we're all at different places as we "work out our salvation" (Phil 2:13).

I thus cannot judge the security guard or any other Christian serving in the police force or military in a capacity in which they might have to kill public or national enemies. But neither can I with integrity claim to understand how they reconcile this with the teachings of the New Testament. So when asked, I feel obliged to help Kingdom folks wrestle with their decision to use potentially lethal force for any reason.

Be a peacemaker.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sex and the Trinity

Okay, this is (I hope) the last of my sex blogs for a while. But hey, this is important stuff, especially given how cavalierly our culture treats sex.

So far we've seen that sex is to be reserved for marriage because it's the sign of the marriage covenant and the symbol of Christ's relationship to the Church. I now want to argue that it's also a sacred symbol of the Trinity.

At the center of Israel’s faith was the confession, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4). The word for “one” in this passage (echad) doesn’t denote numerical singularity – as in “one” as opposed to “two.” It rather denotes a unity – as in “we are one nation.” This is the same word used when the author of Genesis says the husband and wife become “one flesh.” It’s not that they become a singular body. They have become a united body (I Cor. 6:16).

A central part of God’s original design for sex is that the joyful love that makes a husband and wife "one" reflects and participates in the joyful love that characterizes God’s own oneness. That is, the loving unity-amidst-diversity of a man and woman reflects and participates in the loving unity-amidst-diversity that is the Trinity.

I believe this is first hinted at in the Genesis narrative. In every act of creation prior to the creation of humans, the Creator was referred to in the singular, and God simply said, “Let there be…” When he came to humans, however, Scripture records God saying, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1:26, emphasis added). In creating humans, God emphasizes his own unity-amidst-diversity. Then the text immediately adds that God made them "male and female" (vs 27) and gave them the command to multiply and to have dominion over the earth (vs. 28).

All of this suggests, I believe, that when a male and female become "one flesh" and beget children, thus extending the human dominion over the world, we are, in a particularly profound way, reflecting the image of God. This "one flesh" unity-amidst-diversity mirrors God's own unity-amidst-diversity. The loving ecstasy of a man and wife is the clearest echo of the loving ecstasy of the triune God that we have. As a husband and wife become "one flesh," they may beget children, and this echoes God's own creativity. And as these children extend human dominion over the world, humans echo God's own Lordship.

In our present state of rebellion and demonic oppression, of course, many people don’t or can’t get married, and many couples don’t or can’t have children. In fact, in our present war zone environment, Jesus and Paul both suggest it’s a distinct advantage to remain single. Yet, the basic point remains. The unique “one flesh” relationship of a husband and wife is intended to reflect the loving union of God’s triune essence and be a central means by which humans cooperate with God in the creation process and in carrying out “his will on earth as it is in heaven.”

When people become “one flesh” with others outside of the life-long marriage covenant, they desecrate sexual intercourse as a sign of the Trinity and violate the covenant that lies at the foundation of human community as God intends it. God’s strong “no” to sex outside of marriage is simply the necessary corollary to God's strong “yes” to sex as a revelation of himself and as the foundation for healthy human community.

Think about it.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sex and Our Heavenly Marriage

One or two more blogs and I'll be done with sex -- at least as a topic of discussion for the time being.

We've been talking about why sex is such a big deal for God. Several blogs ago I showed that sex is the "sign of the covenant" (marriage) that serves as the foundation for all of God's plans for humanity. Biblically speaking, when a person desecrates (make non-sacred) the "sign" of a covenant, they break the covenant. And, as I've argued, our culture's recreational view of sex is desecrating the sign all over the place. Many of our current social ills are the result of this.

But sex is not only a sign of the marriage covenant. The “one flesh” reality God creates through sexual intercourse is also a sign of the relationship Christ has with the Church. This adds to the sacredness of sex considerably.

Paul reveals this profound aspect of sex in Ephesians 5.

In the course of giving instruction to husbands and wives, the apostle Paul reminds them that all followers of Jesus are to submit to one another, regardless of social standing, gender or ethnicity. So, a husband and wife must submit to one another (Eph. 5:21).

Whereas marriages under the curse tend to be characterized by power games in which each party tries to rule and control the other (Gen. 3:15), Kingdom marriages are to be characterized by doing the opposite. Husbands and wives are to submit to one another. A marriage reflects the Kingdom insofar as husbands and wives are Christian – Christ-like – to one another.

Paul then appeals to the analogy of Christ and the Church as he fleshes out what mutual submission in marriage looks like in a first century context. In first century Jewish culture, husbands typically held all the power. They were the “head” of the family. So Paul tells Christian husbands how to use this culturally-given power. They’re not to enforce their will on their wives after the pattern of fallen marriages. They’re to rather use their headship to sacrificially serve their wives, after the pattern of Jesus Christ. “Husbands,” he says, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church hand gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25, emphasis added).

The wife is then to respond to the husband the way the church does to Christ. As the husband sacrificially serves her, she is to reciprocate by sacrificially serving him (Eph 5:22, 24).

Paul then goes on to tell husbands they must love and care for their wives just as they love and care for their own bodies (Eph 5:28-29). And they are to do this “just as Christ does for the church, for we are members of his body” (vs.29-30).

Now, it might seem that Paul has suddenly shifted the analogy from a marriage relationship to a body relationship. But, as a matter of fact, he has not. For, as we have seen, the marriage relationship is a “one flesh” relationship. Through sexual intercourse, the couple has become “one” with each other “in body” (1 Cor 6:16).

This is why Paul concludes his teaching by once again quoting Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (vs. 31). And then, most remarkably, he adds, “This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.

This profound teaching reveals that the “one flesh” relationship God intends for a husband and wife is a sign of Christ’s relationship to the church. Christ has something like a “one flesh” relationship with his church, which is his bride and therefore his body. Just as we become “one in body” with anyone we have intercourse with, so too we become “members of Christ” and are “one with him in spirit” when we submit to his reign (I Cor. 6:16-17). The profound intimacy and shared ecstasy of sexual intercourse is thus a sign of the profound intimacy and shared ecstasy of the relationship God intends for Christ and his church.

It’s vital we understand that the “one flesh” type relationship Christ has with his bride isn’t cheap. To the contrary, it's magnificently beautiful precisely because it cost Christ everything to initiate, and costs us, his bride, everything to reciprocate. Christ lays down everything for his beloved, and we the beloved respond by laying down everything for Christ.

In the same way, the “one flesh” relationship God creates between two people only properly functions as a sign of Christ’s relationship to the Church when it is costly. It’s intended only for couples who have made the ultimate sacrifice of pledging their lives to one another. When people enter into “one flesh” relationships without making this sacrifice, they cheapen the “one flesh” reality and thereby violate its meaning as a sign of Christ’s relationship with the Church.

This should help us further appreciate why sex is such a big deal to God, and why he strongly prohibits sex outside of marriage in the Bible. He’s preserving the preciousness of the symbol of Christ's relationship with the Church.

I encourage you to honor the sign! It really is a big deal!

Blessings on ya'll.


Monday, December 3, 2007

Promiscuity and Terrorism

Hello bloggerites,

If you just recently joined my blog, you probably think I’m a man obsessed with sex. I’m actually not. I just happen to be working on a chapter on this topic for a book (Revolting Beauty) so it's on my mind.

As I mentioned a few blogs ago, our culture is steeped in a recreational view of sex. While God intended sex to be enjoyed between married couples alone, our culture has over the last three decades come to view it as a morally neutral activity that can and should be enjoyed however and whenever one wants. This cheapened view of sex is having destructive social and spiritual consequences.

For example, in 1960 just over five percent of children were born to unmarried mothers. In 2005 thirty seven percent were born to unwed mothers. This is a major contributor to the poverty in America as well as the alarming crime and violence rates in our culture, especially among young people. One in five Americans now has a STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection). Forty three percent of all marriages now end in divorce. And, ironically, the percentage of people struggling with sexual dysfunction is on the rise, especially for married people. One main reason for this is that porn deadens one’s appetite for real-life sex and introduces an inhibiting pressure to perform like a porn star in the bedroom.

The sexual revolution, it seems, is backfiring.

There are many other destructive consequences of our promiscuity as well, though they're less obvious. I would argue, for example, that our recreational view of sex contributes to the high frequency of depression of our nation. Nine percent of Americans are clinically depressed -- the most (by far) of any nation studied.

There's another non-obvious harmful consequence of our promiscuity I'd like to talk about in a bit more detail, for it shows how interconnected things are (and how we often overlook these connections). To put it bluntly, I'm convinced there's a direct connection between our promiscuity and terrorism. I know this probably sounds insane, but hear me out.

Radical Islamic groups notice that America has a drastic morally corroding effect on every country it influences. This is undeniable. Our brand of capitalism is inextricably bound up with sexually explicit advertising, which they abhor. And we are by far the main exporter of sexually explicit entertainment around the globe.

Consequently, these groups associate the “freedom”America stands for and now claims it wants to export to the rest of the world with its debauchery. And they understandably want to stop this at all costs. So, in the name of Allah, they have declared war on “the great Satan.” (Of course, they also have many other reasons for identifying America as "Satan" as well -- but our promiscuity is one of the major ones).

The majority of Americans can’t fathom why the terrorist groups hate us so much. Since we know we’re "so good," as George Bush stated several years back, most Americans conclude that radical Muslims who hate us must simply be evil. (How we love self-serving black and white categories!)

May I suggest that Kingdom people should not be so puzzled, so black and white, or so self-righteous.

America is not the “holy city set up on a hill,” as our traditional American mythology would have us believe. (See R. Hughes, Myths Americans Live By for a good exposition of this and other popular American myths). As a nation, we have become completely decadent and have, to a certain degree, brought this diabolic aggression on ourselves.

This doesn’t in any way condone the violence or tactics of these Islamic groups. Their hatred and violence is demonic. But so is the perversion of our culture. And in this light we need to expose the self-serving, simplistic fabrication that we are simply “good” and they are simply “evil.” The truth is, we’re both evil!

And all this simply demonstrates one more way in which the promiscuity of our culture is harming us.

As people who have pledged our life to imitating Jesus, we are called to revolt against this promiscuity. But unlike the revolt of the Islamist, we must always remember that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). Our warfare is not against people, but on behalf of people – including those who are morally decadent as well as the Muslim extremist.

Both Hugh Hefner and Osama Bin Laden are unwitting pawns of the Powers who need rescuing.

We thus “do not wage war as the world does,” nor do we fight with “the weapons of the world” (2 Cor. 10:3-4). We do not fight with hatred and violence. We rather are called to fight this battle by humbly manifesting the beauty of God’s design for sexuality as we purge ourselves of the promiscuity that pervades our culture -- and as we love our enemies.

Be free,


Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Question of Masturbation

Hi folks,

We're talking about sex these days. And, not surprisingly, I've gotten several questions about masturbation.

Of course, if I was smart, I'd leave this question alone. But why start now?

Besides, every single person, and many married folks, struggles with (or at least wonders about) this issue. So why shouldn't we talk about it? For crying out loud...we're all just humans.

When I was a new struggling Christian, I raised this topic with my pastor. I was told in no uncertain terms that God struck Onan dead for masturbating. Yikes! That was worse than what the nuns at Catholic school told me. They said people who "stroke their penis" sometimes go blind or become retarded (seriously). I was taught this in third grade as part my catechism! At the time, I had no clue who this "Master Bation" was, no clue why anyone would want to stroke their penis in the first place, and no idea why God would be so angry when they did it. But I got in a lot of trouble for spontaneously laughing when the nun said "penis." I knew what that was, and seeing this old wrinkly angry-faced nun, dressed in her full nun outfit (this was back in 1966) say the word was more than I could handle.

Anyway, at some point I read the passage about Onan for myself (Gen. 38:1-10) and discovered my pastor had somewhat mislead me. It’s true that Onan was punished by God because he “spilled his semen on the ground” (Gen. 38:9). But he didn’t do this by masturbating. He was engaged in sexual intercourse when he did this. At the last minute, the text says, Onan would pull out and spill his semen. Not only this, but the reason he was punished had nothing to do with the mere fact that he "spilled his semen." He was punished because he was violating his ancient duty to procreate with his deceased brother’s wife.

The Bible actually says nothing about masturbation – which itself is pretty interesting, since the Bible addresses just about every other aspect of sex. Not only this, but it's not like masturbation is a recent invention. As a matter of fact, it's frequently mentioned in ancient writings -- even in texts older than the Bible. (For example, I recall reading an ancient Sumerian text in grad school that dated around 3000 BC that mentioned the god Enki creating the Nile River by ejaculating. Gross!)

Now, does the Bible’s silence mean that masturbation is okay? Not necessarily. There are other considerations that come to bear on this.

For example, Jesus taught that lusting after someone in your mind is as sinful as actually having sex outside of marriage – though, of course, the social consequences of the latter are much worse than the former. This means that people who are committed to surrendering their lives – and therefore their minds – to the Kingdom must strive to purge their minds of fantasies of sex outside of marriage. And this clearly rules out masturbating the way most people usually masturbate – escaping into their own fantasy world where “anything goes.”

But what if someone was disciplined about what they fantasized about when they masturbated? What if they only envisioned sex within the context of marriage covenant? Is that permissible?

Many notable Christian authorities – including (to my surprise) James Dobson - say yes. This is perfectly natural, they argue, and is the right way to relieve sexual tension prior to marriage, thereby helping single people stay chaste. Others, however, would say no, for even if one’s mind is fantasizing about marriage, the reality is that the person is expressing their sexuality outside of an actual marriage covenant.

I weigh in on the side of the first school of thought. But I would give three words of caution.

First, as in all areas that are ethically ambiguous, it’s important that each person seeks God’s will for them on this matter. Just because something is permissible doesn’t mean it’s God’s will for your life. Out of his infinite wisdom, the Lord forbids for some what he allows for others. On matters such as this, therefore, every person must answer to God on their own (Rom. 14).

Second, I believe it's important that people not allow masturbation to become habitual. Among other problems, habitual masturbation sets a precedent that can never be realized in marriage. Sexual tension is part of married life, for a couple’s sex life is affected by a multitude of practical factors. So, even if it’s permissible for single people to sometimes relieve sexual tension as they dream about a future marriage relationship, I encourage them to not fall into the trap of habitual instant gratification.

Finally, I believe it’s important for married people to refrain from masturbation, except perhaps in exceptional circumstances where they’re separated from each other for long periods of time. The purpose of sexual tension is to motivate couples to pursue one another. When one partner relieves sexual tension through masturbation, it obviously undermines this motivation to some degree. As Paul puts it, people who have entered into the “one flesh” covenant have a duty to regularly have sexual relations – that is, to regularly re-experience the sign of the covenant. And anything that works against this is not beneficial (I Cor. 7: 1-5).

Well, I tried to think of some clever way to end this blog, but all the puns that come to mind seem inappropriate. (Maybe I am becoming smart!) . So I'll just end by quoting my favorite SNL (Saturday Night Live) character, the infamous church lady...

"Well... isn't that special?"

hope this helps


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why Sex is a Big Deal

Hello internet friends,
I preached a sermon on chastity today at Woodland Hills Church. You can access this sermon and all past sermons HERE. What I tried to show is not just that God warns us to preserve sex for marriage, but why God takes this strong stance. Why is the right use of sex such a big deal to God?

I wanted to help people see just how off our culture’s recreational view of sex is (see my previous blog on our culture's "recreational view of sex").

I made four main points.

First, Jesus and the rest of the Bible teach that when two people engage in sexual intercourse, they become “one flesh.” Jesus says, “they are no longer two, but one.” And "what God has joined together, no one should separate” (Mt 19:5-6). Intercourse clearly involves much more than two people getting physically intimate with each other. God himself is involved in creating a new “one” out of the two. This new oneness reflects the love and ecstasy of the Trinity and is the foundational covenant between humans in the Bible. The welfare of couples and of society hangs on honoring and protecting this new “one flesh” reality that God creates.

Second, Paul indicates that this “one flesh” reality is created whenever two people have sexual intercourse. “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh’” (1Cor. 6:16). Even when the partners intend sex to be purely recreational – as when one has sex with a prostitute – it still creates this “one flesh” reality! Something profoundly spiritual, metaphysical and foundational is going on, even when the parties are “just having fun.”

Third, intercourse is the sacred sign and seal of the marriage covenant, for it symbolizes the “one flesh” reality God has created with the two covenant partners. This is why in Scripture and in the Jewish tradition, a couple wasn’t considered married until they’d had intercourse. In traditional Jewish weddings, the couple would go off to have sex after exchanging vows and the post-wedding celebration couldn’t begin until they returned – until the covenant was sealed with the sign. This is also why in the Old Testament, if a man had sex with a virgin outside of wedlock, he was commanded to marry her (Deut. 22:28-29). Since he’d already sealed the marriage covenant, it was believed he had an obligation to live up to the covenant.

This means that sex is anything but recreational. There is no such thing as “casual sex” from God’s perspective. Whenever two people engage in sexual intercourse, they are, in effect, sealing a sacred covenant that was meant to never be broken. Even when the sex is with a prostitute, as we saw, the “one flesh” marriage principle of Genesis applies (1 Cor. 6:15-16). And this is the same “one flesh” principle that Jesus says makes “the two, one” and that should never be broken (Mt 19: 6).

Finally, we need to know that throughout the Bible, the sign of a covenant was considered part of the covenant. To violate or desecrate the sign was to break the covenant itself. And God took such violations very seriously.

Anyone who violated the Abrahamic covenant sign of circumcision, for example, was banished from the Israelite community. Anyone who violated the Sinai covenant sign of keeping the Sabbath was put to death.

When we violate or desecrate the sacred sign of the marriage covenant, we are violating the marriage covenant itself. We are inviting pain and misery on ourselves, those we have sex with, and on society as a whole. This is perhaps why Paul treats sexual sin more severely than other types of sin (I Cor. 6:13-20). Unlike other sorts of sin, sexual sin involves violating the most sacred and foundational covenant God gave for humans to enter into with one another. When we casually tear apart what God joins together, it has negative effects on us and others we can hardly begin to calculate.

Here's a few of the more obvious consequences. One out of five Americans has an STD. Almost 40% of kids in America are born out of wedlock, which contributes to poverty, crime and violence, especially among young people. Over 40% of all marriages end in divorce. There were 1.2 million abortions last year. Ironically enough, sexual dysfunction is on the rise in America (thank you sexual revolution!). Millions have emotional and psychological scars from their promiscuous activity. I would argue there’s a connection between the massive promiscuity of our culture and the fact that Americans are more depressed, suffer more psychological disorders and see therapists more than any other country on the planet.

I would even go so far as to suggest that our moral decadence is partly responsible for the wrath we’ve incurred from Muslim extremists. Without in any way condoning their violence, one of the main reasons they see America as “the great Satan” is because of how we’re influencing the rest of the world with our debauchery. It's undeniable that wherever American influence is evidenced, sexual morals loosen. They disdain our “freedom” because to them it's inseparably wrapped up with freedom to have sex outside of marriage. When they hear George Bush announce that we're going to expand "freedom" around the globe, what many hear is Satan announcing he's going to spread debauchery around the globe.

Out of his passionate love for us, God is calling Kingdom people back to honor the sign of the marriage covenant. He’s calling on us to revolt against the pervasive debauchery of our culture and manifest the beauty of God’s original design for sexuality.

This involves sacrifice and, for some, a certain amount of suffering. But that is what the Kingdom is all about. For the Kingdom always looks like Jesus, manifesting the character of God by his willingness to suffer out of love for others and to honor the will of his Father.

But it's also the way to true wholeness, abundant life and profound joy.

Revolutionaries, live in the way of Jesus. Honor God with your bodies.


The preacher

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I never watched the sitcom Friends much, but I came across a quote yesterday that reminded me of one of the few episodes I did watch. Monica asked a friend whom she’d begun having sex with: “Can we still be friends and have sex?” “Sure,” he replied. "It’ll just be something we do together – like playing racquetball.”

I think that pretty much sums up what sex has largely become in our culture. Racquetball. A nice form of pleasurable recreation. It's so pervasive in our culture that to call it into question -- as I will do here -- is to come across to many as moralistic, repressive, Victorian and just down-right unenlightened.

I've been doing some research on sex for my book Revolting Beauty, and what I'm finding is head spinning.

For example, did you know that roughly 65% of American teens today experience sexual intercourse before graduating from high school, while an additional 10 to 12% have experienced oral or anal sex without intercourse? (It turns out most young people today don’t regard these latter activities as “having sex”). By the time they get married, only about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men are still virgins, and the percentage that have not had oral or anal sex is even smaller than that.

Sadly, as with all other facets of American life, statistics on the sexual behavior of professing Christians don't vary much from the general populace. In fact, research suggests that being involved in an extra-curricular sport does more to lower the rate of sexual activity among teenagers than does attending church.

The stats on porn are in some respects even more mind-boggling. Revenues from the porn industry topped 13 billion in 2006, which is more than the revenue from professional football, basketball and baseball combined. For the last several years, “sex” has been the single most common word fed into internet search engines. Every second, 372 new internet users start typing adult search items into search engines. Every 39 minutes a new pornographic video is being created in the United States. Close to half of all guests at major hotel chains watch adult films, accounting for nearly 70% of their in-room profits. A 2004 survey revealed that 44% of U.S. workers with an internet connection accessed porn websites while on the job. Whereas porn was once seen as a strictly male thing, today one in three visitors to porn sites are women.

Voyeuristic racquetball.

Here too the evidence suggests professing Christians differ very little from the general population. For example, some recent research suggests that about 50% of all Christian men and 20% of Christian women regularly use pornography. A study of 5 Christian college campuses disclosed that 68% of the men had viewed porn during the school year. A 2000 Christianity Today survey revealed that about a third of all clergy had visited porn sites within the last year. I could go on and on.

This feels overwhelming to me. It feels completely out of control -- because it is! What implications does this have for me as a pastor? Am I really to believe that more than half of the single people in my congregation are sexually active and that half the men and a fifth of the women are into porn? It would be arrogant to think otherwise, but I also can't conceive of it.

Lord, what do we do about this?

I know that screaming shaming Bible verses at people doesn't help. Plenty of churches do this, but the stats speak for themselves. It's not what's needed.

What's needed, I believe, is that we've got to help people get free of the incessant cultural brainwashing that leads us like a herd of cows to accept that sex is no different from racquetball. We've got to help people see that sex was designed by God to be the precious sign of the most important covenant two people can make with each other: the pledge of marriage. And, perhaps most importantly, we've got to help people see that the racquetball philosophy of sex is ugly bondage while the sign of the covenant view of sex is beautiful FREEDOM.

Now -- how do we do that?

I'm working on it.

Pray for me to get God's wisdom on this...

and to not feel overwhelmed.

Walk in the way of love.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

it's movie review time

Heh folks, let's lighten things up a bit here and do some movie reviews. It’s been a while, so I’ve got a number to go through (in no particular order).

Rendition: *** Reese Witherspoon has come a long way since Legally Blond (which I LOVE). This is her most dramatic role, and she does it superbly. Meryl Streep is arguably the best actress alive, and she plays a marvelous self-justifying villan in this movie. The show poignantly raises the issue of “extraordinary rendition” which allows our government in “extraordinary” circumstances (which are ambiguously defined) to arrest and torture citizens (overseas of course) without due process. It’s also a good statement on the cyclical nature of violence. It’s brutal and hard to watch – but it needs to be.

Death at a Funeral: **** The single funniest movie I’ve seen all year! You have to see it twice because you'll miss a lot of the dialogue from laughing so hard the first time through.

Gone Baby Gone: ** A smart thriller with a super surprising twist. This is a brutal movie that is extremely hard to watch, especially since it involves a little girl getting kidnapped. But it raises, in a poignant and brilliant way, a very difficult ethical question. You’ll leave the movie debating this one (but I can’t tell you what the ethical question is without giving the movie away).

Love in the Time of Cholera. A fascinating movie that finally gives a definitive answer to the age old question: Just how truly awful can a Hollywood movie be? [Hence zero stars... and I'd give it negative stars if they existed]. I can't think of a single redeeming quality to this pathetic excuse for a movie. The acting was so terrible I wonder if this was a failed attempt at a farce. The character development was non-existent. The producer offered the audience no reason to care about what happened to these uninteresting and unlikeable people. The show is packed with silly gratuitous sex scenes that you'd think were produced by a sex crazed 13 year-old boy. We walked out after an hour, and that was 59 minutes of pain I'd like to spare you. (Honestly, I started disliking this show 60 seconds into it). I ascribe unsurpassable worth to the producer, but unsurpassable worthlessness to this film.

The Bourne Ultimatum: *** Just a good old “how-will-he-get-out-of-this-mess?” thriller. About as good as a movie in this genre ever gets.

The Kingdom: ** Yes, another brutal movie that is hard to watch. It’s main value, I think, is that we can’t opt out of the violent tit-for-tat game of the world unless we become thoroughly disgusted with it and convinced of its futility. This movie will help move you in this direction, if you’re not already there. The very last scene of this (overly long) movie is positively brilliant.

Into the Wild: *** The true story of a well-to-do kid who left it all behind to “find himself.” He ends up dying in the Alaskan wild. Slow moving, but very well told. The layers in this film are incredible. I saw this story as a powerful commentary on the destructive deception of individualism. We’re conditioned to think that the way to find ourselves is by getting alone – when in fact, as this man learns, too late, “no man is an island.” We are our relationships.

Fried Green Tomatoes: ****+ Okay okay, so it's not a new release. But I just watched it for the fifth time last week and was reminded of how beautiful this movie is. Yes it’s a “chick flick” – but I also liked Notebook. Best movie on friendship ever made.

300: ** True story about Spartan valor against all odds. Totally gross, but it does a good job bringing viewers into the military society of ancient Sparta. You can either respect the courage of these warriors or disdain their stupidity for thinking that their willingness to slaughter and be slaughtered would make a lasting difference in history.

Greg Boyd, film critic at your service.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Did Calvin Kill Servetus?

Hi folks,

The last two blogs have generated a bit of a stir. Good! If what I’m saying about the centrality of Calvary-looking love is right, we need a major paradigm shift on how we view orthodoxy – which in turn should effect who we see as the “heroes” of orthodoxy.

My contention is that, while we can and should continue to appreciate the theological insights of people who were involved in torturing and killing people, we should not regard them as heroes of orthodoxy – for they were guilty of the worst heresy imaginable. If we continue to esteem killers as heroes, we can’t help but have our vision of the beautiful Kingdom polluted. Of course, none of our heroes are perfect. But I would think, at the very least, they should not be guilty of the worst heresy imaginable. If we wouldn't make a person who denied the Trinity a hero of orthodoxy, we shouldn't make anyone who kills in Jesus' name a hero either.

A few have questioned my claim that Calvin was responsible for Michael Servetus’ murder. One person argued that Calvin actually tried to stop his execution.

It’s true that Calvin didn’t want Servetus burned alive. He advocated for him to be beheaded. But there’s no reputable Calvin scholar I know of who denies Calvin wanted him executed.

Calvin himself had told his colleague Farel that if Servetus ever returned to Geneva, he’d “never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” After the burning, Calvin said, "Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that (they allege) I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face." Elsewhere Calvin said, "Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.”

Even Calvin’s staunchest defenders (such as B. B. Warfield) grant that Calvin was ultimately responsible for Servetus’ death. They simply minimize his culpability by saying he was “a man of his times.”

I regard this response to be very weak. Jesus and the early Christians lived in very violent times yet refused to conform to them. And there were many Christians during Calvin's time (the 16th century) who argued that the use of violence is inconsistent with the teachings of the New Testament – including Calvin’s former friend Sebastian Castellio and all the early Anabaptists. Not only this, but by most accounts, Calvin’s enthusiasm for the use of force to uphold what he regarded as right doctrine and behavior went far beyond most other religious leaders of his time – including, very often, his own Geneva council.

For those who are interested in doing further reading on this topic, here’s a few works I’ve read that I’d recommend:

* Roland Bainton, The Hunted Heretic. I was fascinated with Servetus when I was at Yale and had a number of talks with the elderly Bainton on his book during this time. This man was a walking encyclopedia on the Reformation. (As a side note, he was close to 90 when I met him, yet was sharp as a whip and rode a bike all around town!)

*John Fulton, Michael Servetus: Humanist and Martyr. An excellent overview of Servetus’ life, thought and death (which Fulton sees as a martyrdom)

*Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. A very scholarly work that includes a good section on how public outrage toward Calvin's murder of Servetus contributed to Christianity finally become a religion that tolerated religious differences. Sebastian Castellio played a major role in creating this outrage.

*Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography. Argues that Calvin was directly responsible for 38 executions in Geneva (other scholars argue he was at least indirectly responsible for as many as 58).

*Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin's Geneva. Kingdon is one of the foremost scholars in the world on Geneva under Calvin. This book, published by Harvard Press, relies entirely on original sources and presents an incredibly harsh picture of Geneva under Calvin’s rule. For example, a number of children were imprisoned, tortured and even executed for being disrespectful to parents (though I'm not certain I got this information from this work).

My point in all this is not to pick on Calvin. His defenders are right in at least one respect: Almost all segments of Christianity were killing enemies at this time, and Christianity had been engaged in this sort of barbarism for a thousand years by the time Calvin came on the scene. Tragically, Calvin's murder is not at all unique in the history of this religion. My point is rather that we need to clearly distinguish the Kingdom of God from all such barbarism. And to do this, we must stop making heroes of Christians who killed enemies rather than loving and serving them, as Jesus taught.

Be a peacemaker,


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Worst Heresy Imaginable!

Wow, I've gotten a ton of feedback on the picture in my previous blog. (I still have forty or so e-mails to get through!) Almost all of the responses (so far) have been positive! I thank God for the folks at Heavenly Sanctuary for coming up with this fantastically edgy picture. I believe it is going to be used in powerful ways for the Kingdom in the future.

I'd like you to consider something.

The New Testament defines agape love by pointing us to Jesus Christ (I Jn 3:16). To love someone is treat them like Jesus has treated you -- dying for you while you were yet a sinner.

The New Testament tells us that the command to love (= looking like Jesus Christ) is the greatest command, encompassing all others ( Lk 10:27; Rom. 13:8, 10; Ja 2:8). It tells us everything else in the law hangs on our fulfilling this law (Mt 22:27-40). It tells us that love is to be placed above all else (Col 3:14; I Pet 4:8). It tells us that everything we do is to be done in love (I Cor. 16:14). It tells us that nothing has any Kingdom value apart from love, however impressive things may be in and of themselves (I Cor. 13:1-3). It tells us that the only thing that ultimately matters is faith energized by love (Gal. 5:6). And it tells us that this love is to be given to all people at all times, including our enemies (Lk 6:27-35) . Indeed, Jesus makes loving our enemies the pre-condition for being considered "children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked" (Lk 6:35). We're to "be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful" (Lk 6:36).

This is simply what it means to look like Jesus Christ.

Now follow me: If love is to be placed above all else, if everything else is to be considered worthless apart from love and if everything hangs on fulfilling this one law, how can we avoid the conclusion that refusing to love even our enemies is the worst heresy imaginable? To miss this all important point renders whatever other truth we may possess worthless.

In this light, we have to ask, who is the worse heretic: Michael Servetus who was burned alive for denying that the Son of God was eternal, or Calvin who had him burned alive? Burning someone alive is not loving them, doing good to them or blessing them (Lk 6:27-28, 35). And without love, whatever other truth Calvin may have been defending becomes worthless. If we're thinking biblically, how can we avoid concluding that Calvin was not only a worse heretic than Servetus, but that he committed the greatest heresy imaginable?

But I don't mean to pick on Calvin. Throughout church history from the time of Augustine (who first justified persecution in Jesus' name), millions of people were tortured and murdered for their alleged heresy. Yet, if we're thinking biblically, how can we avoid the conclusion that the Church that carried out this barbarism in Jesus' name was far more heretical than all the heretics it persecuted?

Ironically, while millions were tortured and murdered for having "heretical" views on things like baptism and communion, there's not one episode I know of throughout church history of anyone so much as having their hand slapped because they lacked love.

Yet, everything hangs on this.

Finally, while we have an obligation to distinguish between what is and is not the Kingdom of God, we have to carefully guard against self-righteousness. Rather than feeling righteous by contrasting ourselves with Calvin or any other Christian persecutors from the past, we have to ask ourselves: Are we guilty of the worst heresy imaginable? Do we do everything in love? Do we place love above all other considerations?

Do we love Osama Bin Laden?

Think about it.

Live in love, as Christ loved you and gave his life for you (Eph 5:1-2).


Saturday, November 3, 2007

Washing Osama's Feet

Brad Cole is a friend of mine who runs a ministry called Heavenly Sanctuary. This ministry puts on Conferences around the country on the Character of God -- and they get it right. This year they hired an artist named Lars Justinen from the Justinen Creative Group to paint the above picture to use on posters advertising their conference. Under this picture they had captions like "Follow the Leader," "God IS Great," and most accurately, "Jesus - Still Too Radical?"

Heavenly Sanctuary had contracts with several malls in the Seattle area to hang these posters advertising their conference, but no sooner had the posters gone up than angry calls began flooding the malls. Many people -- but, it seems, mostly Christians -- were offended at the image of Jesus washing Osama Bin Laden’s feet. There was such an outcry that each of the malls decided to go back on their contract and take the posters down. The Christian College that Heavenly Sanctuary was renting space from to host the Conference also canceled their contract. Brad had to scramble to find a secular venue (which, ironically, had no problems with the poster).

What does this say about how many American Christians envision Jesus? Obviously, the protesters believe that Jesus would not wash Osama Bin Laden’s feet. But Jesus died "not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world" (I Jn 2:2) -- and this obviously includes Osama. So if Jesus died for Osama, how are we to imagine him being unwilling to wash his feet?

What the protest reveals is that many Christians have tragically allowed their patriotism to co-opt their faith. They have allowed their American citizenship to take priority over their Kingdom citizenship -- despite the New Testament's instruction for disciples to consider themselves "foreigners" and "exiles" wherever they happen to live (Heb. 11:13; I Pet 1:17, 2:11) and to consider their real citizenship "in heaven" (Phil 3:20). Many American Christians seem to want a Jesus who will defend their country and hate their national enemies as much as they do. Many want the Jesus of the Middle Ages whom Crusaders called on to help them slaughter -- not serve -- their Islamic enemies. Many seem to want to reduce Jesus to just another version of the tribal gods that have been called on for centuries to bless tribal battles. Most wars throughout history have been fought under the banner of some god or another.

Fortunately, the real Jesus isn't anything like this. Knowing all power had been given to him, John says, he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the dirty, smelly feet of people he knew would deny and betray him in a couple hours (Jn 13:3-5). Knowing he could call legions of angels to vanquish his foes, the real Jesus rather chose to let them crucify him, because this is what they needed him to do (though they of course didn't know it). Then, with his last breath, the real Jesus prays to his Father to forgive his barbaric torturers -- and all of us (Lk 23:34).

is the kind of power the omnipotent God of the universe uses against his enemies. And this is the kind of power we're to use against our "enemies." It's the power of Calvary-like love.

We're called to imitate the Jesus who washes the feet of enemies, dies for them, and prays for their forgiveness. We are to "live in love, as Christ loved us and gave his life for us..." (Eph. 5:1-2). When we were enemies, Jesus nevertheless ascribed unsurpassable worth to us by paying an unsurpassable price for us. We who claim we are his disciples are called to do the same. We're to sacrificially ascribe unsurpassable worth to all people, including our enemies -- even Osama Bin Laden.

In light of God's servant love toward us, we must be willing to wash Osama's feet -- and pray for his forgiveness.

Jesus says to us:

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt..." (Lk 6:27-29)

And in case we missed the point, he comes back five verses later and says:

" your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. (How important is this? Read this next sentence carefully). Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Lk 6: 27-29; 35-36).

When we act like our kind Father, we reflect the fact that we are his children.

In Christ, God's been kind to Osama. May we who are his children do the same. May we be encouraged by the above picture rather than offended by it. May we pray, "Father, forgive Osama. He doesn't know what he's doing."


P.S. In case some of the faces on the poster are unfamiliar to you, they are (left to right) German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Tony Blair, England; Kofi A. Annan, UN; Osama bin Laden; George Bush; Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; and Jiang Zemin, former president of China.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Snakes, Scorpions and Satan

Hello my intellectual internet friends,

I'm preaching through the book of Luke these days (actually the last several years), and this last week was on Luke 10:17-24. In this passage the 70 disciples that had been sent out by Jesus returned and were joyful because they were able to cast demons out of people. Jesus responded, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." He then adds, "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy..." (vs.18-19).

Now, I didn't preach on this, but I find it interesting that snakes and scorpions seem to be grouped in the same category as "the power of the enemy." This in turn suggests that these creatures are not entirely the handiwork of the all-good, benevolent Creator. If the creation hadn't been corrupted by the "god of this age" (2 Cor 4:4) and "principality and power of the air" (Eph 2:2), it seems these creatures would look and behave very differently from the ways they now look and behave (by the way, my paparazzi messy-room hater lard friend Marcia was stung by a scorpion in Costa Rica last year...and she would definititely attest to the demonic nature of scorpions).

If this line of reasoning is correct, this passage lends further support to my Satan in Nature (S.I.N.) hypothesis. Nature itself has been corrupted by Satan and the rebel Powers. God's beautiful creativity is still present throughout nature, but it's also resisted by the destructive forces of rebel spirits. So everything that has evolved reflects God's handiwork but also contains some element of Satan's corrupting influence. This, I argue, is why the animal kingdom is so full of violence - despite the fact that God originally created the world entirely free of violence, according to Genesis 1 (vs. 30). It also in part explains why nature often acts in massively destructive ways.

The one who holds the power of death (Heb 2:14) together with his minions has corrupted God's good creation. But someday, praise God, the entire creation will be redeemed. Lions shall lay down with lambs, and snakes and scorpions will play with mice.

Think about it.


"The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or
die--does not care if it itself grinds to a halt. It is fixed and blind, a
robot programmed to kill." Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 179.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Lessons on the Non-Violent Atonement

Hi Folks,

Crazy last 9 days for me!
*Last Friday through Sunday participated in a conference on faith and politics in Kansas.
*Monday was in meetings all day at Woodland Hills Church.
*Tuesday worked 14 hours on my book Revolting Beauty.
*Wednesday and Thursday was in Detroit, Michigan, preaching and conducting a Seminar on Imaginative Prayer
*Friday participated in an all day conference on "The Non-Violent Atonement."
*Saturday prepared and preached a sermon at WHC.
*Sunday preached twice at WHC.
*Monday was in meetings all day at Woodland Hills Church.

In the midst of all this I had to read Tony Cross' great (but difficult) book Cross Purposes as well as Christopher Hitchen's interesting (and angry) God is Not Great.

I love everything I'm doing, but I'm tired. The light at the end of the tunnel is mid-November. Lord help me hang on!

I want to share a bit about the Non-Violent Atonement Seminar I participated in last Friday. It was really interesting. The Seminar was sponsored by an organization called Preaching Peace headed up by Michael Hardin (editor of Stricken By God?). He was joined by Denny Weaver (author of The Non-Violent Atonement) Tony Bartlet (author of Cross Purposes) and myself (I argue for the Christus Victor view of the atonement in The Nature of the Atonement, eds. P. Eddy and J. Bielby).

The one thing all of us have in common is a concern about the dominance of the Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement. This is the view that the way Jesus reconciled us to God was by becoming the object of God's wrath against sin. We don't deny that Jesus "died in our place" and "as our substitute." Nor do we deny that we're reconciled to God only "through the blood of Jesus" or that Jesus died as our "atoning sacrifice." We just have serious reservations about the Penal Substitutionary interpretation of this substitutionary and sacrificial language.

For example, if God punishes Jesus for our sin, does God really forgive anybody? If you owe me a hundred dollars and I won't let you off the hook till someone pays me, did I really forgive your debt? Why does God frequently forgive people in the Bible without requiring a sacrifice? So too, are sin and guilt the kind of things that can literally be transferred from one party (us) to another (Jesus)? Where is the justice in God killing his innocent Son because of what we humans did? Does Jesus reveal God's love for us, or placate God's wrath towards us? And doesn't this way of thinking presuppose that you can attain a good, loving result through violence? Does the end justify the violent means? Isn't this the sort of thinking that has fueled the endless cycle of violence that's characterized human history? (I address other concerns in the Q &A section of my website).

As I traveled to this conference Friday morning - having just flown back from Detroit the night before - I was tired, grouchy, and wondering why the heck I said "yes" to doing this. But once the conference started, and especially as the day progressed, I was glad I was part of it. I learned a lot - particularly from Tony Bartlett. Among other things, Tony taught us a lot about Rene Girard's mimetic anthropology and his scapegoat theory. I wasn't clear about any of this before the conference.

I also gained some insights into aspects of the Bible's sacrificial language I wasn't entirely clear on before. For example, one of the main texts used to support the Penal Substitution view of the atonement is Romans 3:25 where (in many translations) Paul says God put forth Christ to be "the propitiation for our sins." Penal Substitution theorists argue that "propitiation" means something like "appeasement." They hold that Jesus appeased (or "satisfied") the Father's wrath against sin. Tony presented a compelling argument that the word for "propitiation" (hilastarion) actually means "a place for atonement" - referencing the mercy seat in the ark of the Old Testament. So Paul is simply saying God presented Jesus to be the place where we receive mercy.

Good stuff. My "flesh" may be fatigued but my mind and spirit are soaring.

And now, on a totally unrelated note: half of the small group I'm a part of is in Haiti right now engaging in some incredible ministry with my good friend Dr. Jen. They're journaling on line, and it's frankly beautiful and powerful stuff. (Though they've been off line for a couple days because of Tropical Storm Noel). You can check them out HERE.

Peace on all of you


Monday, October 22, 2007

It turns out I'm a Mennonite!

Hello internet friends,

I spent the weekend at a conference at Heston College, a small Mennonite college located just outside of Witchita. I and John Roth, a Mennonite historian, held several sessions and participated in workshops on faith and politics.

The Mennonites are heirs of the Anabaptist Reformers (including Menno Simons, from whom they derive their name) in the 16th century. The Mennonites are completely orthodox in all their beliefs, but with a few very noteworthy distinctives. One core aspect of their faith is the conviction that the Kingdom of God is radically different from all versions of the Kingdom of the World. The Kingdom of God is about sacrificially serving others while the Kingdom of the World is always about lording over others. They have held that citizens of the Kingdom of God must be wary of participating too much in, or trusting in, any government or nation. Traditionally Mennonites have refused to say the pledge of the allegiance, since their only allegiance is to Christ. Another core aspect of their faith has been the conviction that followers of Jesus are called to love, bless, pray for, and do good toward their enemies (Lk. 6:27-35). They have thus refused to fight in wars or kill for any reason.

The Anabaptists were the one group everybody loved to hate during the Reformation period. The Anabaptists wouldn't recognize a State Church and would not baptize infants (which was understood to be an initiation into both the Church and State). Consequently, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Melancthon and many other Protestant Reformers as well as most Catholic leaders believed they should be imprisoned and executed. Almost all Anabaptist leaders were executed within a decade of when the movement began (roughly 1520). But, to their credit, the Anabaptists never fought back (with the exception of one messianic looney tune who thought he was ushering in the end of the world.)

In any event, I've admired the Mennonites from a distance for years, but this was the first time I'd ever taught among them or fellowshipped with them. And, on a deep level, it kind of felt like coming home. I gave several seminars, based largely on my book The Myth of a Christian Nation, and they were enthusiastically received (though John Roth, who responded to each presentation, offered good critical insights on points that "need further exploration"). They also asked me to lead a discussion on Open Theism, and even that was enthusiastically received. I had eight people (I counted) who told me they'd basically always thought this way but just didn't have a name for it. It confirmed something John Roth had told me: most Mennonites are Open Theists but simply don't know it.

But there was another very interesting thing I learned about the Mennonites: they're in trouble. I heard this from a number of people, including John Roth. One man literally wept as he told me how he's been grieved seeing Mennonites abandon their core vision of the Kingdom and core convictions over the last several decades. They're loosing their counter-cultural emphasis and becoming "Americanized" and "mainstreamed" (as various people told me). Consequently, many Mennonite leaders are getting involved in partisan politics in a way that goes against the Mennonite tradition. While Evangelicals tend to be co-opted by Right Wing politics, these leaders are being co-opted by Left Wing politics. They're basically defining Kingdom social activism as supporting radical democratic policies. Yet, three fourths of Mennonites are Republican. Hence there's growing tensions between the leadership and the body of the Mennonites.

One person told me the reason my talks landed so well was because "we see you passionately running toward the vision of the Kingdom we've always embraced, while many of our own people are either running from it or have grown apathetic about it." Another person told me I was "more Mennonite than most Mennonites today."

My whole time at this Conference had a prophetic quality to it that I hadn't anticipated -- calling Mennonites back to their beautiful, biblical, core convictions. The conference left me excited, because I felt like I found a tribe I could passionately embrace. But it also left me unsettled, seeing that this tribe is in the process of loosing its identity. My heart was strangely warmed and unusually disturbed. I'm going to be praying about what this all means.

Blessings on you!


Monday, October 15, 2007

Capitalism and the Danger of Greed

Here's a thought:

It’s hard to deny that capitalism is the best economic system around. It creates wealth far better than feudalism, communism, socialism or any other system one could name. But for all its advantages, capitalism has one major drawback that Kingdom people need to be concerned about: it needs people to stay perpetually hungry for more. If Americans as a whole ever followed Paul’s instruction to be content with basic food and clothing and not pursue wealth (1 Tim. 6:6-11), the system would come to a grinding halt. The undeniable truth is that capitalism runs on greed.

So it’s not surprising that people raised on capitalism tend to be greedy. We of course don’t think of ourselves as greedy, for it’s hard for fish to notice the water inside their own aquarium. But the evidence is all around us.

For example, Americans enjoy a lifestyle that is about four times the global average. Yet we on average spend 97 to 98 percent of our wealth on ourselves – despite the fact that close to a billion people live on the threshold of starvation with 40,000 dying each day of issues related to poverty, malnutrition and preventable or treatable disease. This is greed. We are hoarding resources while neighbors lack adequate food, shelter and medicine.

This should greatly concern followers of Jesus, for Jesus had a lot to say about greed and the need to care for the poor. Jesus lists greed as a sin right next to adultery (Mk 7:22). He criticized the religious heroes of his day for being preoccupied with maintaining a nice religious exterior while their hearts were full of “greed and self-indulgence" (Mt. 3:25; Lk 11:39). These people meticulously followed religious rules, but because they loved money (Lk 16:14) they “neglected the more important matters of the law” which include “justice” and “mercy” (Mt. 23:23). In other words, their religious appearance notwithstanding, these people hoarded resources and didn’t share with the poor. For Jesus, this omission rendered the rest of their religious behavior irrelevant.

Along the same lines, when a man wanted Jesus to settle a legal dispute with his older brother over how much of the family inheritance he should receive, Jesus said, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbitrator between you” (Lk 12:13-14). He was basically asking the man, “Do I look like your lawyer”? (Notice how Jesus refused to get pulled into politics!) He then warned the man, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (vs. 15). “However you work out your legal and political issues,” Jesus was saying, “never let greed get lodged in your heart.”

Jesus then drove the point home further with a parable about a farmer who “yielded an abundant harvest” -- so abundant that he didn’t have adequate storage space for it. After thinking about the matter, he decided he’d simply tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store his surplus food. He could then “[t]ake life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (vss. 16-19). In other words, with his stored-up wealth he could retire and live “the good life.”

I suspect most of us Americans would have thought the same way. The man frankly seems to be guilty of nothing worse than being a good capitalist! You come upon some extra cash, so you enjoy life more and retire a little early. It’s called “the American dream.” What’s the big deal?

Yet, Jesus taught that God called the man a “fool,” for it turned out this man was going to die that very night. And then, most ominously, Jesus said, “This is how it will be with those who store up things for themselves but are not rich towards God” (12:20-21).

The problem was not that the man happened to get wealthy. While riches are considered dangerous and the pursuit of wealth is forbidden (I Tim. 6:9-10), neither the Old nor the New Testament takes issue with wealth as such. The problem with the wealthy farmer was that he was not also “rich towards God.” He didn’t submit his (God-given!) wealth to God but instead considered only how he and his family could benefit from his fortunate harvest. In other words, he was greedy.

Jesus tells us that unless we give up all our possessions we cannot be a disciple of his (Lk 14:33). I don’t interpret this to mean that we can’t legally own anything, since most of the disciples he was speaking to continued to earn money and live in houses. But it does mean we can’t consider anything we legally own, or any money we legally earn, to be our possession. They belong to God, and as such, we are called to seek his will as to how our wealth should be spent. Whatever he allows us to enjoy, we should enjoy (I Tim. 6:17). But whatever he leads us to share with the poor and invest in our churches, we must obediently let go of.

There is no fixed percentage given in the New Testament about what percentage of a person’s wealth they are allowed to keep. But given that most of us Americans are the wealthiest people on the planet, and given that we’re surrounded by people who are starving to death, we need to seriously question whether we’re really listening to and obeying God if we’re keeping 97% of our wealth for ourselves.

Think about it.

Peace on you (unless God starts convicting the daylights out of you for how you steward his resources!)


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wow, did I have a great time at the Faith and Politics Conference at Yale (it was actually called "Voices and Votes")!

It was quite an experience returning to my Alma Mater after 25 years. Sitting in the chapel, looking at the pulpit where I preached my first (terrible) sermon 27 years ago for a preaching class gave me a real poignant sense of the passage of time. Sitting outside the dorms where Shelley and I lived for the first three years of our marriage had a certain bittersweet quality as well. It was all a bit surreal. Sometimes life feels like a dream.

Hanging with David Kuo was a riot. We've been corresponding for the last several months via e-mail, but this was the first time we ever actually met. Some friendships take several years to get off the ground, others several seconds. Ours was definitely in the second category. I think we were throwing out jabs at each other about four sentences after saying "Hi, I'm...."

For example, after my panel discussion David came up to me and said, "You totally sucked!" To which I responded, "Well at least I had the gonads to say something unlike some weenies I know!" (He hardly had a chance to say anything on his panel). It's that kind of friendship, and I love it. It's our way of saying to each other, "Man you were great!"

One of the highlights of the Conference was David and Tony Hall sharing their very different experiences as Christians working in the White House. David headed up Bush's Faith Based Initiative and Tony Hall is a Congressman and heads up the Foreign Aid committee. David's political experience was in the end quite negative and has led him to stress the importance of Christians making a clear distinction between their faith and politics. Tony Hall's experience has been very positive and has led him to believe that Christians need to be heavily involved in politics. It wasn't a debate, but simply a sharing of different experiences, and it was fascinating...and moving. Both David and Tony were asked to share how trauma has impacted their faith. David shared about his ongoing struggle with brain cancer, and Tony about his experience losing a 14 year old son to leukemia. After a day of academic sparring, this gut level dialogue was powerful!

I also enjoyed having my ideas challenged. Probably not surprisingly, the most animated and beneficial engagement, from my perspective, was with my friend Jim Wallis. We especially sparred over whether the Church is called to be "the conscience of the state." Jim thinks we are, I think we're not. Jim points to the example of the role Old Testament prophets played in confronting various kings in the Old Testament. I argued back that this was done in a theocratic context in which it was understood that prophets were supposed to confront kings, but that this didn't carry over into the New Covenant -- which is why Jesus and his followers never confronted kings. (Yes, John the Baptist confronted Herod, but that's because Herod was a Jewish King. John the Baptist never confronted a pagan King).

Through the discussion, we almost came to see eye to eye. I can grant that there's one sense in which the church is to be the "conscience of the state" -- because I see one way in which Jesus was the "conscience of the state." Jesus never acted like he had any superior wisdom about how the world should run, and so he never advised Caesar or Pilate about governmental matters. So I don't think we who are his followers can claim any special wisdom about governmental matters. (History I think is on my side here). But, Jesus did expose the injustice of Caesar's program by his willingness to suffer at its unjust hands. The cross is Jesus' protest vote to the injustice both of Caesar's government and Ciaphas' religion. This, I think, is how we're supposed to protest injustice -- not by superior wisdom, but by voluntary self-sacrifice.

This is why both Jim and I can approvingly point to Martin Luther King.

Finally, I have to say I was impressed with Tony Hall's testimony about how he feels God has used him in Congress. For example, one time a massive amount of funding for famine relief was cut. Tony at one point felt led by God to go on a 20 day fast to get this funding back. Word got out and many others joined him. He ended up getting more money back than was cut! Thousands of people were fed who otherwise would have gone hungry. Here's a beautiful example of what can happen when we enter into solidarity with those on the loosing end of injustice -- as Tony did with the hungry who needed this relief. This testimony helped me see how God really can use people in government who strive to hear and obey God's voice. My general cynicism towards government can easily blind me to this.

At the same time, as David Kuo point out in his response to Tony, we need to be careful. Tony's obedience to God was obviously a beautiful thing. But as he and Tony both know, Christians in the White House and elsewhere also claim to hear God about things like how people should vote on gay rights, on abortion, on tax increases, on Health Care, on stem cell research, etc...and when God is invoked on "wedge issues"this just gives a religious intensity to the vicious polarization of the political scene and it dishonors God.

So, as in many other matters, on the issue of Christians in politics we have to say, "yes -- but."

Keep thinking, growing and loving!


Friday, October 12, 2007

The Biblical Call to Justice?

Here are my thoughts for the day on the topic of JUSTICE. People so often say things like: "The Bible calls us to stand for justice" and "We need to live out the biblical mandate to live out justice." We will all nod our heads in agreement -- including me. Justice. Yes and Amen!!!

But here's what I'm wondering:

a) Do we need the Bible to tell us this in order to stand for justice? Don't non-Christians also stand for justice? Don't all decent people stand for justice? What's uniquely biblical about this?

b) What political mileage can you really get out of the Bible's call to stand for justice? For example, the main criteria for justice today centers on political freedom and personal rights. But where in the Bible do we find any interest in these concerns? Yes, everyone is made in the image of God. But nowhere does the Bible talk about people having "inalienable rights" because of this. (This was an Enlightenment concept, not a Biblical one). In fact, when the idea of political freedom and personal rights first began to be seriously considered in the Enlightenment period, it was mainly Christians who opposed the idea! How can anyone support the idea that people should have a say in who governs them when the Bible clearly says that GOD ordains the authorities that be (Rom.13). It's also interesting to realize that the same Bible that tells us God calls us to stand for justice is the Bible that endorses male domination, construes women to be property and encourages (in the OT) and allows for (in the NT) slavery!

So honestly, can you really base a modern ethic of justice on the Bible?

Now don't get me wrong, I BELIEVE people have inalienable rights. I believe justice includes supporting equal rights for all and personal and political freedom. But I believe this because I'm an American, not because I'm a Christian.

c) And third, what political disputes are solved by appealing to the biblical call to stand for justice? What's the point of appealing to "biblical justice:"? Are there political opponents out there that stand AGAINST biblical justice? Is there an "Anti-Biblical Justice Party" out there? No. EVERYBODY stands for "justice," they just define it and apply it differently. So everyone can appeal to the "biblical call for justice" for support, if they wanted to. Which means that appealing to the Bible's call for justice may make us feel like our views have more authority, but it actually gets us nowhere.

For example, I've recently gotten several mailings from left-wing Christian organizations asking me to stand with them for "biblical justice" and "peacemaking" by opposing the war in Iraq and calling on our government to pull our troops out now. Sounds righteous enough. Let's march!!! But, on the other hand, one could argue that this move might prove to be the most unjust and war-encouraging thing we could possibly do! Sure, it would save U.S. lives, but why think U.S. lives count more than Iraqi lives -- or even the lives of terrorists? So, in the name of standing for "biblical justice," one could argue that our troops should stay as long as needed to ensure stability.

Now, we could debate the merits of pulling out verses staying endlessly -- as with most other political matters. Fine. But my point is that appealing to "biblical justice" to support our views won't help the matter. To the contrary, it just invites the typical divisiveness of the world's politics into the Church.

So, it seems to me that trying to root your position in the "biblical call to stand for justice" is:

a) somewhat disingenuous, since you would have stood for the "justice" position you believe in anyways;

b) somewhat disingenuous, since the freedom and rights you're standing for aren't in the Bible; and

c) very unhelpful, since everyone on all sides of the debate can make the exact same claim.

I say let's just come clean and let common decency define "justice" and govern politics. And in the meantime, how about we followers of Jesus get around to doing the one thing we're supposed to be doing: imitating Jesus' self-sacrificial love to all people and at all times.

Whatever "justice" means, we'll certain get it covered if we are aiming at replicating Calvary.

Peace out