I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
The other day I got to participate in a showing of The Shack that our church, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, and Valleyview Community Church sponsored.
It happened in the beautiful Imagine Theatre Movie Lounge with its wonderful recliner seating (I am not being paid for that plug by the way – it really is nice!).
The Shack is a movie based on a book where a man, Mack, suffers the loss of his daughter. His daughter, Missy, is murdered, and he hates God for it. His life is beginning to unravel when he gets a card requesting his presence at the shack where his daughter was murdered, signed by “Papa,” the name for God his daughter used.
Mack goes to the shack wondering if the murderer is there, and Mack comes ready to kill him. When he goes there and finds no one, he lets out his anger at God. Shortly after in the woods, a man who we find out is Jesus, invites him back to the shack to have a weekend with the Trinity.
God the Father, “Papa,” is portrayed as female, a big black lady and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman, Sarayu. Mack is invited into fellowship with them. Mack is struck by the warmth of Papa, the relatability of Jesus, and the mysterious wisdom of Sarayu.
Mack learns that the Father is fundamentally love. Rather than seeing God the Father as distant and unforgiving, disconnected from Jesus – essentially being the thing Jesus saves you from – the Father is unified with Jesus, one in the purpose of loving humanity. The cross is the full disclosure of the love of God, all of God. Mack is surprised to see the mark of the nails on Papa’s hands.
Mack goes out to the garden and speaks with Sarayu. They begin digging a hole. Mack wonders why the garden is so messy and wild. The garden, Sarayu indicates, is Mack’s heart. Her work is wild and beautiful and creative and she is working in him, growing something that he does not understand right now.
A pivotal point in the journey is that Mack goes out on a boat. He begins to think about his pain and his loss, and realizes the boat is sinking into the dark waters. The sea is the primordial chaos of satanic sin, seeking to swallow him. The only thing that saves him is that he sees Jesus walking on the water towards him. He grabs a hold of Jesus and does not let go. After that is some, as I call it, “Christian cheese,” where Jesus and Mack goof around walking on the water. The point is theological: Mack admits that Jesus is the most accessible of the members of the Trinity.
Mack is taken to a cave where he is confronted with lady Wisdom. Mack angrily wishes God to smite the killer of his daughter. Wisdom invites him to sit in God’s throne and play God for a moment. Wisdom invites him to give judgment on who will live and who will die. Eagerly Mack sits, ready to pour out his ire on his daughter’s killer. However, Mack’s other two children are placed before him. Their sins are recounted, and Wisdom requests Mack to choose between them, who will be preserved and who will die. Mack is confronted with the fact that if God is a loving Father to all people, God still loves the murderer, despite his brokenness, and is working to save him just as much as all his other children, not wanting any to perish.
At this point, Mack is given a glimpse of heaven, and sees Missy enjoying the fellowship of Jesus. He realizes that God in his love has placed her in a place beyond the pain of her death, and this comforts him to know she is okay.
Mack begins to heal as he learns to forgive as God has forgiven him. In the process, Mack learns he has to forgive his father, who was abusive. Interestingly after he does this, Papa appears to him as a male. Mack needed healing to approach God as Father. Papa previously appeared as a mother to appeal to the love that Mack already knew. Now, Papa is about to teach Mack a new stage of forgiveness. Papa brings him to the place where his daughter’s body was hidden. Along the walk, Mack is confronted with the need to forgive his daughter’s killer. As Mack lets go of his hate, Papa then brings them to the small cave where the body is stashed.
They delicately bring the body back to the shack and Mack realizes that Jesus has been working on a beautiful casket for his daughter. They bring the casket to the garden, and Mack realizes that the hole he was digging with Sarayu was a grave to bury Missy in. Mack realizes the love the Trinity had for Missy is the same as his and that God was with her through all that she went through. They all have a little funeral service there together.
Mack leaves the shack with a new found love at work in him, which he uses to rebuild his fractured marriage and family.
The movie was wonderful: good acting and cinematics. It is a bit of a crier, with many emotional and touching scenes. Admitfully, a movie of this nature is hard to pull off. Depicting God as a character, let alone the Trinity as a black lady, a young middle eastern man, and a weird Asian lady, is hard to do with warmth. We expect either the comical Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty or the powerful austerity of the voice coming from the burning bush like in The Ten Commandments. To depict Mack engaging in a friendship with God, and to do so tastefully, is perhaps most difficult because we don’t often want to think about God that way.
The movie presented the love of God, the invitation to trust Jesus, the wisdom of the Spirit, the need to live out God’s forgiveness and love as a response to the problem of evil in perhaps some of the most clear and success ways I have seen in Christian cinema. I look at some of the crap out there in Christian movies, not to name names, but The Shack was frankly refreshing.
Now, some will say that this is just literature and others, the movie’s critics, point out that it is teaching theological convictions. Both are correct. My reaction to the theological themes of the movie, which I will take up next post, are same as the book. Several years ago I read the book curious as to whether it was “heretical” but was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. My reaction is the same: “Am I missing something? Why are people getting angry at this?”
If you want to understand the book you really must listen to Paul Young’s testimony here. People need to walk a mile in Young’s shoes before casting judgment. In deed, as Christians I don’t think they can do that without listening to him. The Shack is a metaphor for his wrestling with God, as a man that was the son of missionaries, thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical thinking. We would be wise to listen to the views of such an insider. Our children know our flaws better than anyone. His father abused him and taught him a theology of shame. Later in life he was unfaithful to his wife, repented, and sought counseling. The level of vulnerability and emotional insight in his testimony is staggering. The counseling was so intense that he almost committed suicide, but through it, he finally understood God’s love and grace. The book was written as a present to his kids, never intended to be published at the scale it has achieved. For any critic of Young, even if you disagree with his ideas, I would hope they would extend understanding on a person that shows us so much about how to follow Christ through suffering and brokenness.
As someone who is a person that saw abuse in our home (my mother’s husband to her), as someone who did grow up around emotionally toxic Christianity (my father was a pastor’s kid and his father abused him), this movie is highly therapeutic. As someone that has experienced a lot of difficulty, especially in my college years with my parents dying of cancer, while I will get into it more in the next post, this movie has forgiveness and faith at the center.
That is, I think, what the book is about at the end of the day: A man learning about the love of Christ through pain and suffering, propelling a person towards forgiveness. Am I missing something? What is wrong with that?
“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”
This is what a pastor told me as we sat chatting at his house for lunch after service several years ago. I spoke at his church and my message was on drawing close to the love of the cross. Recently a friend of mine then had came out to his church and was driven out. He went suicidal, and seeing the whole thing, I was outraged at those Christians. One of my points challenged them to stop their hatred and conditional love of sexual minorities and thus to truly embrace the fact that we are all justified by faith not by works.
I thought this would be a controversial sermon, but it was met with unanimous approval. One lady even came up to me and said, “Pastor, what a fine sermon. One day you will become the next John MacArthur!” I choose to take that as a compliment.
At lunch the pastor turned to me and expressed that he also felt challenged by what I said. He told me that he was doing door-to-door evangelism one day – God bless him! – and a person greeted him and let him come in. As he started talking, the person shared startling information. This person appeared female, but was actually “intersex,” meaning that while she appeared mostly female, she had both male and female genitalia. Neither she nor the pastor I spoke with shared specifics beyond that.
She turned to him and said, “Do you honestly think that if your church knew this about me that I would be welcomed in your church?”
The man sheepishly tried to respond, and as he did he looked around and saw the pictures of her family. She apparently had a lover, who was female, and they had a child.
Overwhelmed, he turned to her and said, “Honestly….nope, my church would freak out.”
So, he thanked her for her time and dejectedly left. And as he turned to me, he uttered a statement indicative of the grand mess the church with its uncritical beliefs has gotten itself into:
“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”
For him, he believed that there was male and female and that was it (which is a pretty bad way to read Genesis 1-2). If you don’t fall into those comfortably, it’s your choice, your fault. However, in doing so, his beliefs prevented him from not only reckoning with the basic facts of life: that intersexed people (and this is something different than transgender) exist and they were born with both genitals in some way. It also prevented him and his church from having grace on people it should have been showing grace to. He admitted to me with deep shame that his church was not prepared to love the unloved.
The way we talked about this person was a matter of ministry: is this person loved by God? Is there a place for her in our church? Those are the important questions of us as a church. However, people are talking about this issue in regards to politics…
Once upon a time our laws were blissfully naïve to the existence of the full range of the children of God. Women went to the bathroom that had a person with a dress in it; men to the one with a person in trousers. We are told that trans-people have always been around, and it seems like these people used the bathrooms that best corresponded to how they looked, and the watching world was none the wiser. If they did go to a bathroom that did not correspond to how they looked, they did so at risk of ostracization and even being beaten up.
Lawmakers did one of two things: institute laws that prevented trans people from using bathrooms of their current gender or institute laws that protected them, giving them the right to use the bathroom of their current gender. Either way, people were not happy.
Now, I am going to talk about a sexual topic today, which we have to say always makes people squirmy. Sexuality is a dimension of the human person that is closest to who we are at our most vulnerable. Therefore, we are the most guarded and sensitive about those topics.
Obvious proof of this: how many couples here even go to the bathroom while their spouses are in the bathroom with them? I don’t like to even with my spouse being near me, let alone another man, let alone anyone else. Thank-you very much.
There was an East Side Mario’s in Hamilton. In the men’s washroom, there were urinals. Anyways, I went to the bathroom there, and I found that the urinals were only about a foot apart. No barriers. Another guy came in. He obviously had to go. Came up to the urinal beside me, and started going. Our shoulders were touching. I couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. It was very traumatic for the both of us.
All of that is to say, matters like sexuality, we are more sensitive to. People naturally will get upset about these kinds of things no matter what people say. People make knee-jerk reactions based on their sexual-disgust feeling. Evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this. They are ironically “liberal” reading their experience of bodily shame into Christian ethics. Where guilt and shame-based preaching abides, evangelicals fixate on matters of sexual disgust as their core political concern, forgetting far more grievous social sins. I have heard evangelical pastors say really idiotic stuff like, “I am not homophobic; I just think the whole gay thing is disgusting.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted this when we visited the U.S. He thought evangelicals resembled gutter journalists, obsessed with what people did with their genitals to the neglect of all other ethics. I think that is more or less true.
So, keep that in mind, and now let me sketch out a timeline of this kerfuffle.
Most people don’t even know that the legal battle in Canada is a done deal. A transgendered person can use any public bathroom that they feel corresponds to their gender.
In Canada, in 2012, the NDP proposed Bill C-27, which amended the criminal code to protect other “gender identities.” If you remember the Conservative party was in power at the time. Over the next few years, it went through various readings, eventually being fully passed in 2013. What is interesting about his (and you can look up all the transcripts of debates and votes on the internet) is that the bill would not have passed if 30 some odd votes were not given by conservative MP’s. On most of the votes that happened on Mar. 20, 2013, the bills were passed by 150 to 130, give or take. The 20-30 votes that were needed to tip the bill into being passed came from the conservative party.
This means the party could have prevented the bill if its leader demanded uniformity (which he often did). This to me smacks of the lip-service conservatism that says it is pro-life but does nothing about it (Harper actually quashed his own MP’s from trying to talk about it), or in this case, says it is against a bill, but lo and behold, supplies just enough to get the bill passed, but not enough for it to look like the conservatives supported it.
I say that because I am very weary of any political party claiming to be the “Christian option” in this day and age. At least as far as I understand the conservative party in Canada, it does not seem like the definite traditional-Christian party anymore. It seems like a house divided at best. This does not mean the liberals are “the Christian” option either, or the NDP. Christians are called to affirm that Christ is King and all other politics authorities are secondary.
I find in politics there is very little integrity. Politicians refuse to admit their faults. They will argue their points, even if they know they are wrong. They will demonize their opponents to win. They often have ulterior motives: making a corporation rich or appealing to a voter base. For that reason, Christians should always keep politics at arms length. Only the kingdom of God will restore society, not a liberal utopia or conservative nostalgia. We are not going to build the kingdom of heaven by who we vote for.
At any rate, the Bill was met with interesting protests from trans individuals. Take for example, Brae Carnes (first picture below), who posted in male bathrooms, exposing the obviously problem of making all transgendered people go into bathrooms that did not match their identities. I don’t think any conservative would want a person that looks like the next two individuals in women’s bathrooms either.
The issue changes when it has a face doesn’t it?
I think intuitively when you see just how far transitioned these people are that it would not be a good idea to force them to go to the bathroom of their birth gender. But there are lots of transgendered people that do not look that much like their transitioned gender. For them, going to any public bathroom will still be dangerous.
Many conservatives did oppose the bill under the notion that it put women and children at risk. Potentially a predator could come into a woman’s bathroom and claim to be a woman, and refuse to leave. There are a handful of examples that show laws the protect transgendered people have been manipulated by sexual predators. For instance, a man claimed to be transgender, and used it to living in a woman’s shelter, committing acts of sexual assault. There are those examples.
Certain places in Canada installed gender-neutral, co-ed bathrooms. I remember using one of these bathrooms at University of Toronto. Apparently these bathrooms were quite unsafe. They certainly were awkward.
Then HB2 hit. While Canadians dealt with this debate rather quietly and civilly, as we often do, for good or for ill, but when things happen in America, it happens like singing a bad campfire song again: “Second verse same as the verse, a little bit louder a little bit worse!”
North Carolina passed the law allowing organizations liberty to enforce that a person ought to go to the bathroom of their birth-gender.
The company, Target, refused. They said, if you are trans-gendered, you can use whatever bathroom you feel meets the gender you feel. Note that they are merely exercising the rights that HB2 gave them.
Conservative family values lobbying organizations protested this and organized a boycott of Target of almost 1.1 million signatures. I think organizing a boycott like that is foolhardy. Even if you are morally outraged at Target, there are so many more immoral companies out there that Christians are not boycotting, so by doing this to Target, this portrays that Christians really have uneven standards.
Also, think about it this way: Would you appreciate a company refusing to sell to you if it knew your religious convictions? Lets say an atheist bakery refused to bake bread for church communion? We would be outraged at the pettiness. Yet this is why I cannot see those conservative Christians they would refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding as anything but petty.
In wake of this, two particularly disappointing things happened:
First is that there is a story of a woman, who had short hair and was athletic, was followed from the woman’s bathroom and harassed by Christians in a public place because they did not believe she was a full woman. Now Christians are the ones straight people need protection from!
Second, the leader of one of these family values political lobbyist groups, Sandy Rios of American Family Association, admitted in an interview that her organization actually sent men into women’s bathrooms to scare women and children into agreeing with her agenda. That is the height of hypocrisy. Her organization claimed to be about protecting women and children from men in their bathroom, yet they are the ones sending men into said bathroom all for the sake of their political agenda. What if one was, as they argued, a woman that was raped? Again, there is this odd necessity to now protect bathroom from Christians.
We should note that if this is true, the American Family Association has very likely put more men in women’s bathrooms than there are instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws. While there have been instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws, these instances are very rare. With good reason: How many times do you think a predator can get away with doing that? Predators need absolute secrecy, and it seems like only the really stupid ones would try to do that.
But given the whole debacle, the whole thing is really quite sad. Just plain sad.
Personally, I find the conservative politics the most abhorrent. It is mostly because Christians often back conservative politics, so there should a higher expectation of moral integrity, which is not there. But perhaps it is my own disappointment with the party I was raised to support. While liberalism worships sexual liberty in a problematic way, Christians who support conservative politics routinely come off as condescending and apathetic towards others. Evangelicals routinely ignore basic science on matters of gender. The persistently make one issue about another. Do conservative evangelicals really care about transgender people? Or do they just want their political sensibilities validated and codified?
They sound like they just want the church to flex its muscles and the world to bow down to them and wave fans at them for being so right. That’s probably most sad part.
Personally, I would rather say, “I don’t know but I care,” then be obsessed with have all the right answers, and coming off like I don’t care.
I know Christian pastors that harp on this issue and don’t even know a single transgender person. These pastors are not acting like the priests of Christ but acting like pharisees of the law.
Those that do this forget some very important facts. They read their Bibles, but not the book of nature. This much I do know about the science: There are people – less than 1% but that is still quite a bit – that are born with different configurations of gender. Some are born being physically male but have within them ovaries. Some are born physically female, but have within them testes. They often don’t discover this till years later, and then they understand why they feel “different.” Some are born with both genitals, believe it or not. Some are born physically male or female, but their brains are hardwired to be the opposite. There are all sorts of other examples like this.
When I hear of unique cases like this, I turn to God and reaffirm the strange but blessed diversity of God’s image in humans. He made us all; he loves us all; he claimed us with the dignity that belongs to his children. The more we lovingly draw close to others different from ourselves, the more we see the divine image.
If they are born that way, there is the unsettling truth that I could have been born that way too. So could you. We can’t control the circumstances of our birth.
I could have been born feeling like a female within, and being drawn to “girlie” stuff as my parents looked on with confusion and concern.
I could have had a disappointed father that always made me feel like half of a “true man.”
I could have been the one mocked in gym class change rooms as my peers invented new insults.
I could have been married with kids, trying to live a normal life, but never feeling like “myself” around them, or anyone else for that matter.
I could be the one dying of confusion, despair, and even self-hatred of why I am the way I am.
If this could be any of us, we must follow Christ’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
How would I want to be treated in public? Hopefully just to be left alone. What kind of world would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a just one. What kind of church would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a compassionate one.
What they go through could be what any of us could be going through, and therefore it is our obligation to care and do something.
I am amazed at how many people don’t get this.
I often ask myself: Why cannot people be more rational? Why can’t Christians particularly have empathy? Or at least discuss things with a least a drop of honesty and integrity. So, let’s try to do that.
Note that there are two major responses to this debate:
(1) Liberals have made it their goal to proclaim that all gender is fairly fluid and that choosing the gender that one feels is the best approach. This usually involves hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. How that works, I am not going to get into here.
(2) Conservatives tend to ignore the existence of true intersexed people, and emphasize that there are many others that are plainly gender confused because of the break down of the nuclear family. It is nurture not nature. The person had an unstable childhood, so their gender is unstable. In those cases, recommending gender reassignment surgery is a bad option. It causes more harm to an already unstable person. The best thing a society can doe is get back to the stability of the “good old days.”
Who is right? I don’t think either side has it completely. Let’s admit that. When issues polarize, there is very rarely one perfectly right side.
Christ forbids the notion that there ought to be an “us” versus “them.” Eph. 6 :12 warns, “For 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.” I worry about those Christians that excel at making enemies of the people they are called to preach reconciliation to.
At least as far as I have read, gender reassignment surgery has been shown to relive the anguish of some transgender people, but also in many cases create whole new problems. I am not a psychiatrist, so that is all I can say. Whatever a transgendered person is going through, we know it is going to be difficult. We should be honest about that.
Now, bring in politics. What do you do when a person identifies as a woman, but was born a man, and wants to use a woman’s bathroom? Some say, “Let them if it helps them feel some modicum of security and peace.” Others say, “I don’t feel comfortable with a person of the opposite physical gender being in that bathroom. The laws can be abused by predators.” Again, both have a point, but neither side have it all.
There seems to be a bunch of concerns here that all Christians should have:
- Transgendered people are valued and should be kept safe from harassment.
- We need greater awareness for the existence of transgendered people and what they go through.
- However, the concern is also that in doing so, society promotes the notion that our genders are fluid, which could cause physiological harm to some that need more structure.
- Women and children could be put at risk by sexual predators abusing transgender laws
You will notice that liberals tend to prioritize (1) and (2) while conservatives prioritize (3) and (4). But, if you can admit that both sides are trying their best to uphold justice some way, I think we can have a better way of thinking about his whole debacle.
We cannot be satisfied with any law that does not protect all vulnerably parties. We don’t get to choose who we defend the dignity of, one way or another. We are called to defend all people’s dignity. All people, not some, not just your kids, not just transgendered people either – all are made in the image of God. Everyone is. We don’t get to choose who to care about. All deserve our love in how we talk, think, feel, and write policies.
So, what should a Christian do? Should we advocate for the laws to stay the same? That did not happen, and there should be a law that protects trans people. Should we advocate for the bathroom laws to pass uncritically that can be abused? No. I think there needs to be further criteria to how the bathrooms are used. Should we advocate new ones that can further allow transgendered people to get beaten up and harmed, protecting the churches prerogative over others? No.
Many say we should move to installing gender-neutral bathrooms that are fully enclosed. That is probably the way things are going to go, but that sounds expensive. I don’t think companies can accommodate every public bathroom being converted that way. There does not seem to be a good answer here.
I think the obvious response for Christians, when the law of the land does not reflect the perfect justice of God is to pray and trust and hope.
I recently read through 2 Peter. Peter is encouraging a congregation with the hope that Christ will return and one day the world will be ruled by God not people. So, he says,
“We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13)
We are to live like exiles in a strange land, for we are citizens of a different kingdom.
This admits that the current situation does not have a comfortable solution that Christians should be happy about. If any law leaves a vulnerable party unsafe, we should not be happy about it. We need to continue to rethink, listen, and pray.
What does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to many things in life. But as I said, I would rather say that I don’t know but care then that I know but come off like I don’t care.
I don’t know if I have a position, but I do know the posture: Christ. I don’t care much for politics, but I do care about the people. That is what we should focus on: the posture of Christ and the people in need of love.
I look at this world, and all I know is to cling to the love of Christ, the love he showed me, and the love I ought to extend. True religion is, according to the prophet Micah 6, “To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The more I befriend people that much different me, the more I see Christ working around me. That is a humbling thing.
I know that politics is not the vehicle of the kingdom of God. The Gospel of our God loving all people, forgiving all sin is. Our world is broken, so we need to walk graciously in Christ, for our sake and others. There are broken people in it, like ourselves. If we are to love our neighbors, we need to listen to them and walk with them.
May you walk in the peace of Christ in this broken world, on this matter and all things.
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – Phil. 1:21
Like good Protestants, but bad students of church history, we are going to have to jump 1500 years into the future, to the dawn of the Reformation. In this room here, I imagine we have Christians from different denominational backgrounds like Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Mennonite, Pentecostal, even some Catholics as well. And some of you even know what those words mean! Those words tend to mean less today not just because we don’t know our church history, but also I think because we have a deeper recognition that we are all one in Christ Jesus, despite minor doctrinal differences in how we interpret our Bibles. It was not always so…
The first Baptists, called by their enemies, the “Anabaptists,” were radical Protestants that saw all the wars of religion, killing between Protestants and Catholics, and the concluded that faith has to be free and voluntary. They were committed to non-violence and refused to let the government legislate religious belief one way or another. This is what Baptist call the separation of church and state – more accurately it is the separation of faith from power.
Again, most Christians now affirm this in one way, shape, or form, but back then, the Baptists who preached freedom of religion and conscience, something we take for granted now as our un-revocable right as a citizen. However, back then, they were deemed enemies of the common good by the established churches and their governments, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. And so, authorities hunted the Anabaptists. This was a dark moment in European history, Catholics killing Protestants, vice versa, Protestants killing Protestants. Christians who all believed in the same Jesus, executing other Christians. What were they killing over?
Baptists held to believer baptism, Reformers and Catholics to infant baptism. In hind sight that is a terrible thing to fight over, let alone kill. It was petty. Yet, where state-religions were strong, so also was the need to control people to get them to believe, and so the Anabaptists, who dissented from this, were chased. Their punishment: they were often dragged to bridges and lakes and flung into the water to drown as a kind of ironic punishment for being re-baptized.
One man was arrested by the Dutch authorities for his Baptist convictions. His name was Dirk Willems, and he was imprisoned purely for saying he no longer believed what other Christians of his day believed. He never hurt anyone. The accounts say that he managed to escape the prison, slipping out of an unbarred window. It was winter time, and so, in order to evade his pursuer, he ran arose a frozen lake neighboring to the prison.
The guard chasing him, being a bigger man, fell through the ice. Dirk was home free. But then he stopped. What would Jesus do? His conscience pricked him, and he was moved with compassion on his persecutor. At great risk to himself, he dragged the man out of the icy water, warming him with his own body heat. Dirk carried the man back to the prison, accepting that if he retuned, he would be re-arrested. Sure enough, some prison guards did not care about his very obvious compassion and bravery, let alone the injustice of his charges to begin with, and sent him back to his cell.
For being a Baptist heretic and because he refused to let his own enemy die rather than escaping, Willems was burned at the stake 16 May 1569.
Can you imagine his thoughts? Turning to save the man that would imprison him, knowing that it mean confronting prison and the death penalty?
It seems difficult to imagine, but that is what Jesus did for us. While we were still sinners [still his enemy], Christ died for us.
Father, we pray for Christian unity, as Jesus prayed “May they be one as we are one.” Empower us to end our petty squabbles and focus more on you. Remind us that the only way we will show the world your son is by having the same reconciling love Willems modeled for his own pursuer. You teach us to love our neighbors as our selves and may we love even our enemies the way Christ loved us, counting their lives more important that our own.
“Woman, behold your son” … “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26)
While it is easy to see this passage of Christ looking to his mother, Mary, and instructing her to embrace John, the beloved disciple, and John vice versa, as a simply provision undertaken by our Lord to ensure his mother is cared for, these passages offers us glimpses of something deeper. Let’s look at both John and Mary here.
Why is Mary told to refer to John as a “son” and John to refer to Mary as his “mother”? The provisions of care do not necessitate this, yet Jesus insisted. He could have just said, “John, take care of her.”
Some have seen this as Jesus recommending a relationship between Mary and the disciples.In Christ, there is a new family, a global family, of the redeemed that all began at the cross. Mark 3:35 says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here we see the constitution of that family, gathered around the crucified Jesus, listening to his instructions, and so, compelled to treat one another as family.
But it surely meant more than that for John. Mary and John are among the few that actually stayed close to Jesus. They did not flee like the rest of the disciples. John was allowed near the crucifixion site, perhaps because he was so young. We know this because only boys too young to serve in the military could come near the execution site for fear of uprising to save the crucified.
This helps us understand why John sometimes refers to himself as the “beloved disciple,” who “reclined at Jesus’ side.” Peter would have been much older, the eldest of the disciples, possibly. It is also possible that John was the youngest. He was only a boy, small enough to need hugs from Jesus. He may have seen Jesus has a father figure.
Jesus taught us to call God, “Abba” (Daddy). John may well have called Jesus, “Abba.”
John is standing there, watching his father figure die. So, this was more than provision of care to Mary, it was recognition of mutual support. They would need each other. You can understand Jesus’ words now as commissioning the young John. “It is time to be a man, now John, take care of Mary, treat her like your mother.”
As we see John’s writings through the New Testament, particularly in his epistles, John took up this commission well. He was an apostles of family and love through and through. He constantly refers to his congregation as his “little children,” not unlike what he was when he learned his essential instructions from his master.
We know from church tradition that John’s dying words to his church was, “Little children, love one another!” Love shun through John’s writings at all points, especially in passages like 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
His church was his family, and love was his ministry because Jesus was his hero.
Can we look to Jesus like John did?
Now, Mary: Protestants have often forgotten the importance of Mary. We have done this out of understandable reasons: it is out of discomfort with how high Mary is elevated in Catholicism. But as Catholicism raise Mary too high; Protestants are guilty of not raising her high enough.
In church history, veneration of Mary began because of how Mary pointed to a proper understand of Jesus. Jesus died in the flesh (contra some who denied his humanity) because Jesus was born to a human mother: Mary was the guardian of Jesus’ humanity, the theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek.
But, sadly, Mary was elevated to a kind of co-operator with Christ in some Catholic theology, which Protestants simply feel makes her into an idol. But we should ask is how do we properly adorn Jesus’ mother so that she once again safeguards her son’s high place? We might phrase this better by asking, how does respecting Mary as a mother – us looking to her motherly qualities – how does that bring us deeper into appreciation of Jesus? Or, how does understanding Mary as mother deepen our understanding of Jesus as our brother?
The picture displayed above renders this clearly: eyes too sorrowful to see clearly, but too concerned to look away; hands, clenched praying perhaps both that her son would be faithful to the onerous task she bore him for, but because she bore him, praying pleading with God to relent of the suffering her son is feeling.
To look to Mary as our mother is to look at Jesus’ hanging on the cross, not as an abstract idea, a stale doctrine, a historic account, or an expression of our own sentiments, it is an attempt to see the cross for what it is, and not bypassing it too quickly.
Seeing the cross as our salvation can too readily jump from its tragedy to the benefit we get out of it. We can easily see Christ as suffering on our behalf and we can say, “thanks,” and continue on our merry way. We can selfishly forget the cost of the cross. We can easily look at the cross for what we get out of it, not what God put into it.
When we look to Mary as the mother of Christ, we also look at the cross through the eyes of a mother. Someone’s son died on that cross. Someone’s little boy, her pride and joy, everything she lived for, is being murdered mercilessly, dying that miserable death.
And do you not think that it may have occurred to her that while she knew Jesus was dying for her sins, she would have gladly died in her sons place just to save him from the pain? Don’t you think even that she would have gladly refused her own salvation if it meant saving her little boy’s life?
It is only when we look at the cross through Mary’s eyes do we appreciate the cost of the cross for us. It is the cost of a life more precious than our own.
It is only when we lament the cross through Mary’s tears are we ready to say thank-you to a God that gave so much we will never understand.
It is only through the love of Mary for her Son that we ready to love the world as Jesus loved it.
May we love as John loved. May we look to you as our daddy, our father figure. So close to us that we can “recline at your side.” Help us to remember that we are beloved disciples, not just disciples. Draw us closer into the family of God. May we treat your sons and daughters as brothers and sisters. Give us opportunities to be big brothers and sisters to others.
May we mourn for you as Mary mourned. And in our mourning, let us remember the provision that Jesus gave at that very moment, the only true provision against the tragedy of this age: You gave us the church, the family of God. Help us to take care of one another. Help us to love one another.
This is a reflection I wrote back in 2011, when my first son, Rowan, was born. It is, as I call it, a “theo-poetic” reflection, as I could not help but think about the grandness of this event as connected with faith in God.
Some would question whether fatherhood is a valid impetus for religious reflection. What do the two have to do with each other? I am of the opinion that even an atheist, when gripped with the beauty of life’s greatest moments ultimately resort to religious-like vocabulary: words of transcendence like “sublime” or even, “sacred.” There is a reason why the Hebrew prophets were not scientists or philosophers – those who think the mysteries of life can be objectified, scrutinized, and exhausted, those that naively hold that thought begins in doubt and ends in certainty rather than beginning and ending in wonder. Rather, all of the prophets were poets.
Many know their fathers as appearing cold and silent, perpetually poker-faced. After my son was born, my wife turned to me wondering why I did not cry at the sight of my son. I said that I did not know. I almost felt ashamed that I did not. Could I be that emotionless? However, as I reflect on this, and many of the powerful moments of my life, I have found that there are, for me, moments so profound that their magnitude invokes such a complex polyphony of emotions, our bodies do not know how to express one where our minds are wrestling with many. It is not that men are emotionless or emotionally shallow (as some have said), it is, I think, that sometimes we are so complicated, no one expression of emotion does justice. Thus, we appear reductionistically simple.
For this reason the Christian scriptures were not written as pure historical reports, logical propositions, and empirical data – objective yet dry, stale, and irrelevant – but rather as narratives, poetry, proverbs, and epistles – subjective, personal, and thus, real and relevant. Poetry is the enemy of science, as science accuses poetry of un-realism, yet it is poetry that seems to come to grip with what reality is for the human experience more than science. In French, the same word is shared for an account of history and a story, l’histoire, as it is understood that in order to communicate the flavor of life’s memories accurately, one must ironically use the metaphor, forsaking the demands of the factual in order to fulfill it and employing the rich meanings found typically in fiction. The wondrous thing about poetic reflection is that it is the attempt to wrestle into words the things that matter most to us, yet render us silent and speechless.
It is a strange wordless feeling becoming a father. Watching my wife’s pregnancy was just that: watching, a position that intrinsically predisposes a father to a sense of aloofness. Another’s pregnancy, for all its power to produce the sense of maternity, is no process to prepare for one’s own paternity: no inherent connection is formed between father and fetus, no nesting instinct clicks on automatically. A guy does not spend his childhood unwittingly rehearsing for childcare with his toys and their many nursery related accessories. Compared to the astounding ability to produce life from within oneself, to shift seamlessly and intrinsically into a parental-consciousness, men are left feeling as the “weaker sex.” Fatherhood, at least in its initial impulse, far from its place in perceived male headship, subverts the great chains of social hierarchy – hierarchy with all its promise of strength and security – that we as men wish to remain unthreatened.
I take Meagan in to be induced on the evening of Good Friday. We stay the night for observation. I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep: part anticipation part the stiff hospital chair-bed-thing is not actually suitable for sleeping.
Then the labor happens in the morning, Easter Saturday, April 23. Trumpets from heaven might have well of blasted: all the signs were there, all of it expected, however, an urgency sweeps over you that makes you feel you were never ready for what is to come. All preparations feel illusory and inadequate. It is the eschaton of my life, as I know it.
Moments become eternal as memory fragments into snap-shots that somehow also bleed together like a long exposure photograph: At the hospital, Cervidil administered, epidural, lunch from the Hospital’s Subway, contractions set in, the movie Ben-Hur plays in the background, cervix is fully dilated and ready to push. I look at my watch, its 4:25. Ben-Hur is at the chariot race scene. I hold Meagan’s hand. I hold her leg. Meagan’s mother, on the other side, does the same. Breathe. Push. Pause. Breathe. Push. Pause. I see the head.
I am not going to lie, it is gross. Life in it’s most raw forms, we often find disgusting; without all our prim and proper adornments to shield ourselves from the overwhelmingly messy purity that life is, we find it scary before we can properly appreciate it as sacred.
A haze of helplessness, ignorance, and anxiety from watching my wife have contractions, have pain, have labor, have something I have never witnessed before and can never understand, leaves me unsure of what is going on, what I should be doing, what I could even do at all. Men are supposed to “fix things.” I don’t know what to do. I say, “Good job,” as if I am the expert, as if I am not feeling awkwardly pathetic.
It all comes to the pivotal moment I see the little body and the loud cries begin. The sur-reality of labor splits sunder by the sharpness of the in-breaking reality of delivery. Adventus at 4:57.
The image behind the shadowy ultra-sound phantasms and amorphous movements within the belly manifests itself for the first time in one tiny distinct form: the crying naked body of a tiny baby boy. The tohu-wa-bohu of childlessness break by the bara of conception, that leads to the badal and miqveh of pregnancy, and culminates in the final barak of birth.
I give my wife a kiss, no longer simply between two lovers, but from the father to the mother of our child. A mature love is affirmed, love that culminated in new live, a new journey: our family. I hold my wife, my wife holds the baby, the baby holds my hand. Bone of my bone holding flesh of my flesh: we are three, yet, in love, we are one.
We named him Rowan Albert Boersma, Albert after my dad, John Albert Boersma. However, I was so tired after the birth that when I called my family to tell them the news, I told them the wrong name! It was the most pleasant point of exhaustion, I’ve ever felt!
I take my son in my arms and I look at him, and he opens his eyes and stares at me. Some refer to a religious experience as an “I-Thou” encounter, the finite “I” encountering God’s absolute “Thou.” The presence of the infinite being produces a sense of being infinitesimal, under the weight of the wonder of that which is Wholly Other. To hold my son for the first time is an similarly unspeakable feeling, apophatic yet oddly inverse: I feel like the thou, staring down at this being that is in my “image and likeness,” this person that is utterly dependent on my providence: so small, so fragile, so vulnerable, so innocent, but above all else, just so. With all that I am, I pronounce blessing on this being: I see him as “very good.” His finger reaches out and touches my finger in Michelangelo-esque sublimity.
As I sense myself as the Thou, the child becomes the I. And thus, I see myself in something other than me. In doing so, eye to eye, I sees I, self-hood is seen in another and otherness in self, an infinite reciprocal circle of identity and alterity. A type of self-transcendence occurs. The I-Thou reverses as I stand before a new tiny Thou. All senses of deity, the feeling of being bigger than you have ever been, paradoxically permeates with the sense of being smaller than you ever have been, feeling the full weight of fatherhood, the magnitude of responsibility, and the fear of innumerable potentialities of failure. The future in all its awesome potentiality presents itself, simultaneously dazzling as dangerous.
In holding that child for the first time, with the instantaneous love, you feel that you are more sure about what is right in the world than ever before, yet at the same time the most unsure. With love, an kenotic agape occurs as someone other than yourself becomes the measure of your essence. As you love this little someone, you see yourself in them, and your own idenity as a loving person becomes bound to them, covenantally. You bind your self-hood to something other than yourself, freely allowing yourself to be taken hostage to this someone that you know has the uncontrollable judgment to pronounce you a success or a failure in your task of loving, in your ability to be loving. The certainty in love appears also as the greatest risk. For those that define masculinity as a man’s self-sufficiency, power, and ability, fatherhood appears as a threat-to more than a fulfillment-of manhood.
Is this what God felt like as he beheld Adam? Is this what the Father felt as he looked down upon Christ lying in a manger? Through the divine tzimtzum, is this the risk of God’s essence as love entails as he constantly proclaims to his children, those other than himself yet from himself? Is this the mystery of God’s promise and proclamation to all humans, when he says, “I am love; I created you from love; I love you; I will always love you”? Is it in the finite response of gratitude for God’s love that God’s infinity is realized? Did God, as a being whose supreme ontological predicate is love, risk his very deity in the act of creating humans? It is only when every “knee bows and tongue confesses” the Spirit’s love, Christ’s lordship, and the Father’s paternity that God will truly be “all in all.” The marvel of God’s sovereignty is his willful vulnerability.
How can God be vulnerable? In Greek mythology, Cronus the Titan devours his children so that none can challenge his sovereignty. Zeus the all powerful, Cronus’ son, slays his father, only to become an absent uncaring father himself to myriads of bastard children of the women he seduced. He, the “father” of all gods, is a god that intervenes to win wars for his subjects – wielding the symbol of his power: the lighting bolt – only for the profit of more temples, more worship, more reputation, more fear of his might. The gods of the Greeks were defined as timeless, impassible, unchangeable, omnipotent and omniscient. And because of this, the Greeks logically concluded, in all their metaphysical sophistication, that the gods do not care about us. They must not care, or else they would not be gods! To care is to be weak. This is what the world conceives of as divinity: power and control.
Some wonder why an infinite deity would choose to identify himself as gendered and allow himself to be named by his people as “our father” (although there are many parts of scripture, I should point out, where God is depicted as motherly too), yet everywhere in our world we see absent fathers – people, perhaps, afraid of the risk of love – broken homes, abandonment, even abuse. And yet in our darkest moments something, someone, beyond all our experience, beyond all notions of how the world is, pierces the veil of despair and shines through in glorious consolation: God as love appears as the one that never abandons, always keeps his promises, always protects, is always proud, is always daring to love.
The God who identifies himself with the stories retold by the community that claims their brother is Christ is a God that we profess does nothing like what a god is expected to do: he comes into history, changes himself into a sacrifice, suffers with us, becomes weak and helpless choosing powerlessness over violence, chooses compassion over wrath, and even is said to have become the very thing God is not: the misery of sin and death. Though the vile yet beautiful cross – the symbol of the Christian God’s awesome ability – all this was done to say to all the fatherless: to all victims those crying out for rescuing, to all the abandoned that will never understand themselves as being worthy of a father’s proud smile. All this to say to all people: you have a father! Daddy loves you. He is proud of you. He will rescue you. He is never going to leave you.
Indeed, no psychological projection, no philosophical system, no misguided mythology constructed by human minds could invent the notion that a God would choose to use masculine language to define his magnificent characteristics yet fundamentally in his very essence, in his very being and becoming, be something so unbecoming of the impassible power and sovereign invulnerability of our notion of “male” deity, that is, the unfathomable and ineffable reality that God is love.
Hearing my crying child, holding him for the first time, and not knowing what to do to end the crying is an absolutely terrifying experience. Something so small renders someone so much older, bigger, and more capable that itself, ultimately incapable: omnipotence dissolves into omni-incompetence. However, he calms down and sleeps sweetly, and I pause to take in the strange soothing fragrance of a new born baby at peace on my chest, his soft head against my cheek. We both rest, I in pride and Rowan in purity. I think to myself that this is how God must have felt on the seventh day. Shalom, the peace that all existence strives for, engulfs us.
I use the blue musical teddy bear to comfort him, the same one my father used to comfort me. Now I understand what my parents felt, and I regret every moment that I ever took their love for granted. My father has passed away, my mother also, yet I am here. I say, “Daddy is here. Daddy is never going to leave you.” A generation passes, a generation comes, and yet in the flux of life’s frailty, for all its uncertainty, love is what remains eternally and assuredly the same. Death is no competitor to the renewing power of life through love. The “risk” of becoming a father, love’s risk of being inadequate, vulnerable, and the potentially a failure, in turn, is then what becomes illusory, dissolving into epiphany, as love’s jeopardy becomes life’s victory, as love demonstrates itself as the essence of immortality, as love demonstrates that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, never ends and never fails.”
So, this past week was Black Friday. People lined up in a frenzy to get good deals on electronics and clothes and whatever else. Some go under the pretense of selflessness: that they are just trying to save a buck or two on Christmas shopping. Of those, I wonder what is the actual percentage of items bought for others and items bought for oneself.
While most are fairly decent about walking through the busy malls, this obsession with Black Friday has had darker moments. Since 2006, there has been a 98 reported injuries due to the craze of Black Friday shopping: everything from people fighting, rioting (in which cops had to deploy pepper spray), etc.
To date, there has been 11 reported fatalities: An old man was pushed and collapsed, getting trampled; people have gotten hit in the busy caring lots; others have gotten stabbed in the back as they ran ahead of someone for a sale; still others, have fallen asleep at the wheel, exhausted from shopping, crashing to their deaths.
The stabbings and trampling a helpless elderly man are what really get me. When I think of what would propel someone to enact violence of that nature, you have to care about your money, having things, in such a way that you have placed it way to high up your priority list in life.
You might just say that these people have a screw loose, but the truth is scarier.
If you have inflicted violence on another human being over a sale, this is not an emotional problem. It is a spiritual problem. You have invested a spiritual level of energy in it. You have invested your soul in it. You in essence worship it. I derived ultimate meaning from it. It for you is an idol.
I for one think secularism is a bit of a farce sometimes. Everyone is spiritual. Everyone worships. Everyone has a religion. Everyone has a god of sorts.
It is just that in the downfall of Christendom and the collapsing of modern ideals of political progress and enlightenment, the only thing left is the religion of consumerism.
Go to the mall, and you are bombarded with religious messages; Messages on how to find the “true you;” products purporting to change your life with overly salvific tones; advertising attempting to proselytize you to a certain brand name.
I know a lot of people that don’t believe in “organized religion” because it is full of narrow-minded, repressive, shallow people that just want you money. Yet, no one I know who holds such things is consistent and gives up shopping. Whatever authoritarianism, demagoguery and fideism religion can be accused off, consumerism is even worse.
Consumerism is a religion. Its products are idols. And they are not even that good.
Idols always disappoint us. Christ will not. That is why we need to smash them.
What Is An Idol?
Wikipedia gave a good definition, which I will add to: An idol is an image or other material object representing a deity to which religious worship is addressed or any person or thing regarded with admiration, adoration, or devotion.
My own definition is this: Anything we trust more than God is an idol, AND anything you care about more than what God wills for us to is an idol. The second part is often missed. We can turn some of the best things in life into idols by caring about them more than what we should (I’ll explain how to discern this shortly).
There are important examples of idolatry in the Bible.
Right from Genesis 1, we see a notion that God is transcendent from creation. Nothing in creation deserves our worship. The only image he has is humanity, and that means that only worship that is acceptable is one that respects God’s transcendence, and God’s love for people.
Our typological parents fell because they choose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in essence, claiming that they could be their own god. The result of that, however, was alienation from each other and God, spiritual death.
Abraham is told to “leave his father’s household” and this implies leaving his father’s religion of idols.
The Exodus is essentially a battle narrative between God and Pharaoh. The ten plagues show God is in control of all the things the Egyptians revered as god: the sun, sky, river, animals, etc. The most striking example is the hardening of Pharoah’s heart. Pharaoh claimed to be god, and yet, in the narrative, God has control over his very will! That passages sometimes gets turn into a double predestinationist theology, but what this is trying to say is that those that claim to be god are not. Such self-assertion against God is futile.
Of course, as soon as the Israelites leave Egypt, they commit idolatry. While Moses is up on the mountain, the Israelites compel Aaron to give them an image to worship. John Calvin once said that the human heart is a “factory of idols.” Here we see that at work. The people did not want to worship another god, they wanted a representation of YHWH to worship. They felt like they needed an image. They could not conceptualize a fully transcendent God – the “I am who I am.” When God brings this to Moses’ attention, God then threatens to disown his people and restart with Moses. Moses begs God to punish him instead, and because of Moses’ intercession and atonement, God “changes his mind.” God reveals that he is the God, who “has mercy on whomever I have mercy.” Here the transcendence of God manifests itself not in sublime terror, but in the surprising, unpredictable mercy that only a living God can offer. No idol could do that.
The war with idolatry is throughout Israel’s history. It is either the perpetual temptation of kings or their greatest concern to eliminate. The kings of Judah and the Northern Kingdom are assessed in 1 and 2 Chronicles according to whether they tear down the Asherah poles or offer them praise. Sadly many turn to idolatry, and for that the people are sent into exile.
In the narrative there are powerful confrontations between the Prophets and the false-prophets of idols. Elijah demonstrated that the Baal was lifeless, unable to cause flame to his altar as his prophets prayed to the point of cutting themselves in devotion. Elijah, on the other hand, drenched his altar with water, prayed, and it went ablaze. Similarly, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, and for that, were thrown into a furnace only to be protected by angels. The biblical narrative attests to this constant struggle with idols, and the constant superiority of God over these lifeless, finite things.
Idolatry is a concept that gets expanded in the Bible. Isaiah and Micah turned to their own religion and saw any ritual that caused apathy to be detestable. Habakkuk looked at the empires of his day and saw trust in military power to be idolatry: “their might is there god” (Hab. 1:11). The prophets were truly brilliant people. They are the greatest social critics history has ever produced. They were capable of scrutinizing their beliefs in faith in a way that no secular atheist could do to their own. Why? Because they know that God was beyond all of it.
In the New Testament, idolatry gets applied to sin. Anytime we prioritize our sinful desires, we are placing ourselves before others and God. This is what I mean by idolatry as “anything you care about more than what God wills for us to is an idol.” Colossian 3:5 reads: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
Why Are Idols So Harmful?
(1) Any god except God will disappoint us.
We have a thirst for transcendence. According to anthropologists and theologoans, humans are the only species that has refused to settle into a habitat. We are not at home in the world. We, as a species, always want something more (see discussion in Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 130-131).
This thirst can be ignored, however. This thirst can be quenched by illegitimate things. There are commercials that have been designed to stimulate the religious centers of the brain, fabricating spiritual experiences. Why? Companies want people to be that attached to their products. Kind of messed up isn’t it?
The things of this word only satisfies us so far. Nothing but the forgiveness and love of the true God satisfies this. Why? Because only the perfect love of God casts out fear.
Will our houses always keep us safe? No.
Will our computers, Facebook, cell phones, really produce authentic relationships? No.
Will our clothes and cars gives our lives vocation and purpose? No.
Will our IPods safe us from the fear of death? No.
Can our possessions forgive our worse failures? No.
Nothing we are, have, do, nothing can satisfy us, protect us, forgive us, save us in the way God can.
Unless you know that God will do these things, that fear will always be there. That fear will drive you to destroy yourself within and destroy others.
We see the most deadly example of this in Scripture: the worshipers of the detestable god, Molech. Molech was hated by the Prophets because he demanded your first born son to be offered in the flames. One of the earliest metaphors for hell in the Prophets comes from the followers of Molech burning their children, and the Prophets warning that idol worshipers will have that done back to them. If they did not stop, Jerusalem will burn like the poor children they are sacrificing.
What drives a person to sacrifice their own children? It seems so distant to us. However, if you live in an agrarian society were fertility was life or death, the fear of whether God was on your side was an all consuming terror. People would do anything to know that God was one their side. To prove that, naturally, came the notion of the altar, offering something to show the gods gratitude in order for them to bless you. Of course, in desperation, knowing that one’s whole family might starve, feeling like one’s mistakes could be the cause of a drought – that fear could drive a person to make the calculated choice to sacrifice one of their children.
People were so afraid of the gods. Their worry and guilt and need for control drove them to murder their own children.
We might look at these people and consider them primitive, but we do the same.
In order to preserve our idol of self-importance, we will sacrifice our marriages, family and friendships.
In order to preserve our idol of safety, we sacrifice the lives of innocent Arabs as we drop bombs on them.
In order to preserve our idol of comfort, we sacrifice Syrian refugees.
We don’t want to pay more taxes, so the poor don’t get the programs they need.
In order to preserve our idol of consumption, we sacrifice our planet.
In order to preserve our idol of standards of living, we sacrifice our time working too much.
In order to preserve the idols of our own privacy, we avoid religious gatherings, even our own family and friends.
In order to preserve our religious idols of certainty, we shut out all other opinions and perspectives. We will shun those that remind us of how fragile our faith can be.
(2) We become what we worship.
We become what we worship, and if we worship the lifeless things of this world, we will become lifeless as well. David Foster Wallace, a college literature professor and one of the greatest novelists of our time, wrote this graduation speech. We wrote it shortly before he committed suicide from a loosing battle with severe clinical depression.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
The Scriptures know this well. Psalm 135:15-18 reads,
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
In this regard anything can become an idol. Our possessions can become idols. Our jobs, our longing for recognition can become an idol. Our sexual gratification, when outside of God’s loving intent, can become an idol. Drug addiction, with how much the addict invests there life into their addiction, is an idol. Sports, when that euphoria and thrill of victory can lead to, for instance, rioting like the 2011 riots in Vancouver (where over 800 charges of violence were laid), can become an idol. The military, trusting in war to keep peace, is an idol, especially in the United States where its war spending is now three quarters of a trillion dollars and are now locked into perpetual war.
Even things like our marriages, family, and children can become idols. Our desire for comfort and provision for our families can cause us to be morally apathetic. Yet, my children need to know that there are certain matters of integrity that are fundamental.
Atheism can become an idol. While there are atheists who are more moral than Christians, the idea that reality is all there is, my life is all I have, can lead to a dangerous sense of self-concern.
On the other side, our religion can become an idol. When ever we use the Bible in an unloving manner, we violate the principles it gives us to use it appropriately. There is a big difference between believing the right things and believing in the right way.
If your “biblical beliefs” lead you to open fire on an abortion clinic. You religion is an idol.
If your “biblical beliefs” lead you to hate gay people, and exclude them from church. Your religion is an idol.
If your “biblical beliefs” lead you to demonize Muslims and fuel the longing for war. Your religion is an idol.
If your “biblical beliefs” lead you to hold any of your convictions in a way that causes hate, anger, disgust, condemnation, etc. towards others. Your religion is an idol.
So How Do We Smash Our Idols?
So, if we know these things will harm us and leave us unsatisfied, in fact, will even destroy us, how do we smash these idols? Smashing idols is the work of discipleship in a community. The church, a place of instruction and encouragement, is any believer’s best resource for learning what is an idol and working to bring all aspects of our lives into its proper place under Christ.
Stay open minded. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that, “He who cannot listen to his brother will soon find himself unable to hear the Word of God also.” When we can make the Bible and our interpretations into idols, listening in open-mindedness, humility, and fallibility to others will expose our own religious idols.
Test everything against the law of love. The Bible does not want you to read it in a shallow manner. The most pervasive test for any interpretation or prophecy or application in the New Testament is the law of love. If a biblical law is not loving, the biblical thing to do is to understand it as non-applicable today, to think about a better application, or to revise it.
Finally, draw close to Jesus. The crucifixion was a scandal to the Jews. Why? The pharisees made the law into an idol, and the cross smashed the arrogance of their legalism. God showed his only try representation, his incarnate self. At the cross, God became forsaken. God was found in the other, dying for others. God gave himself up for his very murderers. An idol, in so far as it appeals to our need for self-assertion over others and fear of the other, cannot stand when submitted to the test of cruciformity, dying to self. In the cross’ perfect way of love, every idol will break.