Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kakure Kirishitan

(This is a continuation of sorts to an earlier posting.)

Many of the elements of the Tales of the Otori are drawn from the real-life history of Japan, and the persecution of the Hidden (a small religious sect based on real-life Christianity) is no exception. Christians' mission to and persecution in Japan are a chapter in the history of Christianity that's rarely discussed in the American church. The first recorded Christian missionary in Japan was Francis Xavier, a Spanish missionary who landed in Japan in August of 1549. He and other missionaries met with significant success, and by the end of the 16th century, there were an estimated 300,000 baptized believers in Japan, making Japan one of the largest Christian communities outside of Europe.

This changed at the beginning of the 17th century, first under the ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who issued an (initially laxly enforced) edict of expulsion against European missionaries, and then under Hideyoshi's successors Tokugawa Ieyasu and Tokugawa Iemitsu, who started persecuting Christians in earnest. Many missionaries were forced to leave, and several who tried to stay were beheaded. The persecution was absolutely brutal:

Every kind of cruelty was practised on the pitiable victims of the persecution. Crucifixion was the method usually employed in the case of Japanese Christians; on one occasion seventy Japanese at Yedo were crucified upside down at low water, and were drowned as the tide came in. For Europeans the penalty was generally burning alive… As the persecution moved forward, what the authorities wanted was not death but apostasy. The torments were carried to the point at which resistance was almost impossible; again and again victims were brought back from the point of death, and then again put to the torture. Apostasies among the Japanese were very numerous, and we have the records of seven missionaries, all as it appears Jesuits, who gave way and apostatized… Most of these almost immediately afterwards recalled their apostasy and died… The number of those put to death was about 1,900 in twenty-four years, of whom sixty-two were European missionaries. To these must be added the far larger number of those who died from the hardships of imprisonment and malnutrition. There were, no doubt, cases of timidity and too ready repudiation of the faith. But the great Japanese persecution has added a memorable chapter to the long record of Christian endurance and faithfulness unto death. (A History of Christian Missions, Stephen Neill, p. 137-138)

One common form of persecution was the fumie, a bronze or stone image of Jesus or Mary. Japanese soldiers would order suspected Christians to trample on the fumie; anyone who did was considered an apostate or unbeliever, while anyone who refused was tortured or killed.

The horrible persecutions almost wiped out Christianity in Japan. Those Christians who survived went into hiding, passing along their beliefs by word of mouth. They became known as Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”). Over the centuries following the persecutions, their beliefs became garbled and mixed with the beliefs of those around them:

Worship without benefit of a Bible or book of liturgy had taken a toll, however: their faith survived as a curious amalgam of Catholicism, Buddhism, animism, and Shintoism. Over the years the Latin words of the mass had devolved into a kind of pidgin language. Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum benedicta became Ame Maria karassa binno domisu terikobintsu, and no one had the slightest idea what these sounds meant. Believers revered the “closet god,” bundles of cloth wrapped around Christian medallions and status, which were concealed in a closet disguised as a Buddhist temple. (Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey, p. 275-276)

American evangelical Christians have an odd relationship with persecution. Within the States, we demonstrate a persecution complex. We're sometimes quick to label anything – from zoning disputes, to overzealous school administrators' attempts to regulate prayer, to public opposition of the sort we should expect in a democracy, to legitimate opposition to pseudo-Christian hate speech – as religious persecution. We talk as though we're a threatened minority, under constant assault from secularists; in taking this attitude, we're seemingly oblivious to our substantial numbers (over one third of Americans, by some estimates) and political clout (which is demonstrated every election season, as politicians court the evangelical vote). (Ironically, I've seen Internet forums where secularists talk as though they're a threatened minority, under constant assault from evangelicals.) We get defensive and combative in the face of slights real and imagined.

While we demonstrate a persecution complex inside the U.S., we almost romanticize persecution outside of the U.S. 1,800 years ago, Tertullian said, “The blood of Christians is the seed of the church,” and we continue to believe this. We talk about how the church spread throughout the Roman empire, in spite of the persecution there, and then lost its vitality once it became state-sanctioned. We talk about the growth of house churches in China, in spite of the Chinese government's hostility, and the discussions that I've heard about this have an almost wistful air, as if we wish that the soft, lukewarm American church could experience a bit of purifying hardship so that it could get some of that vitality too.

There are just two problems with this approach. First is that persecution – the crucified-and-left-to-drown, whipped-and-tormented, firebombed-your-church sort that people overseas have experienced, not the received-some-unpleasant-speech sort that we usually experience in the U.S. – is bad. The second problem is that, as the Kakure Kirishitan in Japan illustrates, sometimes persecution works. Sometimes the church isn't strengthened by purifying hardships; sometimes it barely survives.

I don't like stories like this. I want to see the church always triumphing over its opposition. I want to see the evangelical agenda sweeping Congress and the White House. I want to see the church always growing in numbers and influence. I want my beliefs validated by knowing that numerous other people agree with me. I don't want to have to put up with ridicule or scorn or blind hostility.

I don't like stories of post-Christian Europe or the faith of the Kakure Kirishitan hanging by a thread in Japan or the declining number of Protestants in America. Jesus promised that “the gates of Hades will not overcome” his church (Mt 16:18), but it's hard to reconcile this with the church fading to irrelevance in postmodern Europe or barely surviving in 17th century Japan.

However, although Jesus promised that the church would be victorious in its assault on the gates of Hades, he never promised that this victory would be in our time frame and on our terms. And Jesus also repeatedly promised persecution and opposition (Mt 5:13, Mt 24:9, Mk 10:30, Mk 13:9-11, Lk 21:12, Jn 15:19-21, 2 Tim 3:12).

I keep wanting to see the church succeed in human terms: numbers, respect, political and cultural clout, being powerful enough to avoid hardship. But Jesus' promise is that we will overcome on God's terms: lives transformed from within, blessedness in persecution, God's “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Further reading: Cal Thomas's 1996 column, “Christians shouldn't gripe about persecution,” is still the best commentary I've read on how American Christians view opposition and how we should view it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Yet Another Petraeus Commentary

General David Petraeus sinned.

I'm not particularly interested in talking about the specifics of his sin. As C.S. Lewis said, “One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both.” I might add that one person may be so placed that his sin gets him humiliated in national front page news, while another person so placed that his sin remains only between him and God. Most of us are fortunate enough to be more like the second person. The immediate consequences of the first man's sin are greater and are newsworthy, but the recent media frenzy surrounding Petraeus extends beyond that.

I'm more interested in some of the reactions to Petraeus's sin. “How,” reporters, columnists, and bloggers ask, ”could such an intelligent man – the head of the Central Intelligence Agency – make such a dumb mistake?”

The answer, of course, is that intelligence and morality don't really have anything to do with each other. A good intellect doesn't automatically mean good judgment. Sin can make people do dumb things.

I'm a pretty smart guy; more than smart enough to think through, in the abstract, the consequences of my actions and inactions. That often doesn't make a difference when the moment of decision comes; either I don't stop to think, or I ignore my reasoning to do what I want, or I convince myself that this time the consequences will work out differently. Intelligence – “knowing better” – has not helped me to actually do better. And I don't think I'm alone. Very few people, if told that they need to lose weight or stop smoking or spend more time with their family or give more of their time and money, will say, “Oh, thank you. I didn't know that. Now that I know that, I will immediately make the appropriate changes.” It's nice to think that Petraeus's problem – and our problems – are simply the result of not being quite smart enough, something that could be fixed simply with a little careful thought or the right kind of education or some better decision-making. In reality, though, our problems run much deeper than the mind; they affect the heart and the will.

Our society values intelligence. For the first eighteen years or so of your life, you're evaluated primarily on the basis of your intelligence and how well you apply it in school. Even into adulthood, your IQ has a huge impact on college, career and income. Surprisingly, and in contrast to modern society, the Bible has almost nothing to say about intelligence. In fact, other than describing a few people (Abigail, Solomon, Daniel, and Sergius Paulus) as smart, Scripture only mentions intelligence once, in Isaiah 29:14 (also quoted in 1 Cor 1:19):

Therefore once more I will astound these people
with wonder upon wonder;
The wisdom of the wise will perish,
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.

The Bible does, however, have a lot to say about wisdom: good judgment, “experienced and competent mastery of life and its various problems” (TDNT, p. 1057). The Bible mentions wisdom hundreds of times, with Proverbs 9:10 being one of the best known verses:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Intelligence, schooling, knowledge, and reasoning are all good things, and I'm very thankful for them. But it's good to remember that they won't ultimately save us, and they may not even protect us in the short term from the destruction and humiliation that sin can bring. Wisdom, good judgment, and the fear of the Lord are far more important.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night Musings

It's Tuesday night, and all anyone seems to want to talk about is the election. TV shows have been bumped so networks can show election coverage. Statisticians like Nate Silver hone their mathematical models to try and predict the outcome. Various web sites show fancy data visualizations of state-by-state polls and electoral vote breakdowns. Co-workers wonder if they're going to be able to sleep tonight. All of this is in an effort to find out, as soon as humanly possible, who will be the president in 2013.

There is, of course, a much simpler way of finding out who will be the president in 2013: turn off the TV and computer, read a book or play a board game, go to bed, and check the news the next morning. This is, of course, very hard to do for anyone who cares one whit about American politics; I'm resisting the urge myself to go check web sites.

Why do we feel like we need the hour-by-hour, state-by-state breakdown? Why do we care so much about something we can't affect? Why can't we choose the simpler, faster, less stressful alternative of simply waiting?

We hate not knowing what's going to happen.

We hate uncertainty. We hate the unknown.

We hate not being in control, and knowing what's going to happen – knowing, in some small way, the future – lets us feel like we're in control.

Lack of control is really at the heart of worry. I don't worry about the things that I can control; I simply handle them. Even if it's something bad, as long as I have control, I can deal with it. It's often less stressful to deal with the certainty of something bad, as long as it's a situation where I have some control, than to deal with the possibility of something bad, about which all I can do is worry.

We expend enormous effort trying to control the world around us, trying to know what's going on, even to the point of distorting our view of the world just to believe that it's controllable. All of this is in an effort to establish some security in our lives, but tragedies both national and personal show us how fragile security is.

As a Christian, I've come to believe that this need for control is something that we need to outgrow. The Bible makes it very, very clear that God is in control and that God knows the future and that that's good enough. The Bible and my everyday life make it very, very clear that I'm not in control. Yet I continue to expend mental energy worrying about matters such as national politics, climate change, the culture wars – things over which I have almost no influence – when I could instead devote that energy to those areas where God has clearly called me – growing in my walk with him, developing my relationships with family and co-workers, making the best use of the gifts he has given me.

So I'm doing my best to tune out the election news today. I've already done everything that's in my control – I've read about the candidates, I've prayed, I've cast my vote. Now, instead, I'll try practicing the discipline of focusing on what's around me, where I can make a difference, instead of worrying about where I can't.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Of the Tales of the Otori

I've been reading the Tales of the Otori, a series of five historical fantasy novels by Lian Hearn set in an imaginary Japan. The novels are noteworthy for several reasons—their beautifully evocative descriptions of Japan's culture and landscapes; the web of attractions, loyalties, and rivalries that binds the characters' stories and lives together; the sparse, engrossing storytelling—and the first three novels in the series, at least, are a very enjoyable read.

In her preface to the first book, Lian Hearn writes that “neither the setting nor the period is intended to correspond to any true historical era, though echoes of many Japanese customs and traditions will be found.” Accordingly, many aspects of the story have analogues in the real world, and I was surprised to recognize that the novels' Hidden, the small religious sect in which the main character was brought up, corresponds to real-life Christianity. The books never use the words “Christian” or “Christ,” but there are plenty of details about the Hidden that make the relationship obvious. The Hidden believe in one God and ignore the gods and goddesses worshipped around them. They are forbidden to kill or (in contrast to the honor-bound warrior class) to commit suicide. They're taught to forgive, as the main character reminds himself even after his village is destroyed and his family killed in the first chapter of the first book. The Hidden practice a “ritual meal” (the Lord's Supper) (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 20) and “speak of being reborn through water” (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 29). Later books make the link between the books' Hidden and real-life Christianity even more explicit, referring to the cross and to “the son of God when he walked on earth.”

The Hidden are ruthlessly persecuted in the Three Countries (the setting of the Tales of the Otori). Their persecution is explained in the first book, in a conversation between two women, Kaede and Shizuka, who are discussing Iida, the villain of the book:

One evening Shizuka, uncharacteristically subdued, whispered to her [Kaede] that men and women had been found… they were to be hung from the castle walls until they died of hunger and thirst. The crows pecked at them while they were still alive.

“Why? What crime did they commit?” she questioned.

“They say there is a secret god, who sees everything and who they cannot offend or deny. They would rather die.”

Kaede shivered. “Why does Lord Iida hate them so?”

Shizuka glanced over her shoulder, even though they were alone in the room. “They say the secret god will punish Iida in the afterlife.

“But Iida is the most powerful lord in the Three Countries. He can do what he wants. They have no right to judge him.” The idea that a lord's actions should be judged by ordinary village people was ludicrous to Kaede.

“The Hidden believe that their god sees everyone as equal. There are no lords in their god's eyes. Only those who believe in him and those who do not.” (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 87)

The third book is even more blunt in explaining the persecution of the Hidden:

“They believe everyone is equal in the eyes of their God, and that he will judge everyone after death. Great lords like Iida hate this teaching. Most of the warrior class do. If everyone is equal and God watches everything, it must be wrong to treat the people so badly. Our world would be overthrown from the ground up if everyone thought like the Hidden.” (Brilliance of the Moon, p. 23, emphasis added)

The world values power over service, status over humility, acquisition over giving, comfort over sacrifice, strength over character, convenience over doing the right thing. The world says that the people of our own tribe are more important than people different than us. The world values people for what they can do (how they can benefit us) rather than for who they are. Even when the world tries to do otherwise (for example, saying “business people need to have character”), it can't help but turn it into a means to an end (“…because that will make them more successful!”).

Christianity turns this thinking on its ear. Christians cared for plague victims and started orphanages. They start schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters. They fought inequalities from slavery to racial segregation in the U.S. to the caste system in India. They fight for the unborn and oppose euthanasia. All of this is to help the powerless, the poor, those of other races—all people who the world's value system would ignore or oppress.

We're used to Christianity. Our culture, for all of its faults, has been deeply influenced by Christian values. We at times have made compromises with our culture, which further blurs the distinction between Christianity and the world. For these three reasons, I'm afraid that we sometimes forget how truly radical Christianity is. The perspective of an outsider (such as the characters of the Tales in the Otori) can help remind us of just how much Christianity runs counter to the world's standards, how it's purposed by God to “overthrow the world from the ground up.”

Let's not lose sight of this.

Jesus himself shows most clearly how God overthrows the world from the ground up. He said that the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the looked-down-upon are those who are truly happy (Luke 6:20-22). He said that the rich, the well fed, and the religious people of his day were not nearly so well off as they thought (Luke 6:24-26). Although he had literally all the power and possessions in the world, he did not use them. When fans sought after him, he discouraged them (Luke 9:57-62, John 2:23-25, John 6:60-66). When foes betrayed and beat him, he forgave them. He could have commanded obedience; instead, he became a servant. Instead of conquering the world by an exertion of raw power, he submitted to every evil that the world could throw at him, dying to it, and by dying, became the Savior of all.

Further reading: “The Difference between a Theologian of the Cross and a Theologian of Glory,” by Justin Taylor; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Philippians 2:5-11

Monday, September 3, 2012

For Example

There was a popular (and, for my taste, overplayed) song on Christian radio a few years back, by Stacie Orrico, titled, “Don't Look At Me”:

Don't look at me if you're looking for perfection
Don't look at me I will only let you down
I'll do my best to point you in the right direction
But don't look at me
No, no, no
Don't look at me, look at Him

A lot of Christians, I think, would recommend Oricco's approach. And there are plenty of reasons for thinking that looking at other humans will let us down. Nationally known preachers and church leaders get embroiled in scandals. Politicians who champion family values are revealed as lacking them themselves. Christian singers' personal lives are revealed to be a mess. Defenders of the faith turn to atheism. Many of us, in our personal lives, have seen friends who we've looked up to fall away, or we've heard of or attended churches that have had to deal with a minister who's had an affair, or we've have had the awkward experience of explaining to our own kids why our actions don't match our words. Perhaps Orrico's advice isn't bad for Christians today.

Paul, however, had no problem telling people to look at him:

Therefore, I urge you to imitate me. (1 Cor 4:16)
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Cor 11:1)
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. (Phil 3:17)
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. (Phil 4:9a)

It would be easy to say that Paul's telling others to look at him was an exercise of his apostolic authority, and not something that others could do, but Paul also tells his readers to be examples, so that others can look at them:

You became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. (1 Thess 1:7)
Set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Tim 4:12b)
In everything set them an example by doing what is good. (Titus 2:7)

Paul had guts. By holding himself up as an example of what it means to be a follower of Christ, he effectively pinned both God's reputation and other Christians' growth on how well he, personally, could live out what he taught. What made Paul willing to tell others to look at him as an example, when so many people today don't (and shouldn't)?

It wasn't because he was so self-confident that he thought he could never fail (1 Cor 9:27); it was because he had confidence in Christ working in him (Phil 1:16).

It wasn't because he thought he was perfect (Rom 7:21-25, 1 Tim 1:16); instead, Paul knew that he was mature enough to be an example to others (Phil 3:15).

Most importantly, it was because Paul knew that he would never give up on his commitment to Christ (Phil 3:12-14). He had the kind of commitment that holds true to Christ even over holding true to oneself; as Rich Mullins said about Jesus, “I will never doubt his promise, though I doubt my heart, I doubt my eyes.”

We need to be more willing to be like Paul. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that people should expect to never see us stumble (if that's what they think that a Christian example means, then they're sorely mistaken), but there's a false humility and a lack of confidence in the Holy Spirit's sanctifying power in saying that people shouldn't look at us at all. And I'm not saying that we should go around talking all the time about what wonderful examples we are; that's prideful and is a great way to be seen as self-righteous. But the fact is that we are examples—to our children, to new church members, to our co-workers, to the cashier at the grocery store—whether we acknowledge it and like it or not. We need to be good examples: to follow Paul's example in letting Christ work in us, in pursuing maturity, and in commitment to Christ.

Although I'm not a big fan of Stacie Orrico's song, I've always appreciated Steve Green's “Find Us Faithful”

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Good and Bad

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. - James 1:17

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. - Isaiah 45:7

Joel Osteen was talking on TV about how God's goodness means that God wants to do good things for us. As far as I could tell, the good things that Osteen had in mind are almost exclusively near-term and personal—getting noticed by the right people, getting a promotion, avoiding physical harm. Going from memory, part of the sermon went like this: “Someone might say, ‘How can you say that God is good, when my car got totaled?’ But I say, ‘God showed his goodness in that, even though your car was totaled, you were not harmed!’”

There are (at least) four major problems with this approach:

  • While focusing on God's desire to do good for us, it ignores other aspects of God's nature (for example, his justice, or his disciplining us).
  • The “good things” described are almost exclusively near-term and personal.
  • I do not understand how you can grant God total credit for every good thing that happens without also granting God total responsibility for every bad thing that happens. Sometimes only the car is totaled, but sometimes the car is totaled and the driver killed.
  • I do not understand how you can grant God total credit for every good thing that happens without also granting God total responsibility for every conceivable good or bad thing that might happen. If we thank God for intervening and sparing the driver's life, even though the car was totaled, then we must realize that it would be just as easy for an omnipotent God (and no doubt much more convenient for the driver) for God to turn a car-totaling accident into a near miss.

All of these problems can (and have!) been addressed by Christians, but they can't be addressed by the kind of facile theology that presents God's goodness in terms of our happiness and that invokes James 1:17 while ignoring Isaiah 45:7.

I do not think that God is especially concerned with my happiness. I don't think that he ignores it, it's just that if my happiness were a high priority to him, it becomes very difficult to explain why he's answered prayers the way he has. But that's okay; parenting has made me realize that I'm not especially concerned with my children's happiness. I do want them to be happy, but I know that I've already provided them with good lives, with lots of reasons for happiness. And I don't want them to be merely happy; I want them to love others, to know that they are loved, to learn and grow academically and spiritually, to commit their lives to God, to make an impact in the world. All of these things are much more important to me than their happiness.

I doubt that my kids spend much of their day considering how they can best love others, or learn and grow, or make an impact in the world. Their concerns are usually much more immediate. One wants to make sure that he gets a blueberry (not cinnamon raisin) bagel. Another wants to play Nintendo DS as soon as he possibly can, even if family or friends are visiting. The last wants my wife or me to do things for her so that she won't have to do it herself. When they don't get their wants, there's arguing, pleading, and occasionally tears. In short, I am not making them happy. They may not think that I'm very good at times like that.

My concerns are different than theirs. I want to teach them to accept a cinnamon raisin bagel with thanksgiving if that's all that we have. I want to teach them that relationships with people are more important than things, and sometimes that means spending time with people instead of playing video games. I want to teach them maturity and responsibility rather than getting a grown-up to do things for you. I'd argue that these things are good and that, in the long run, things like thankfulness, relationships, and maturity will bring more happiness than blueberry bagels, video games, and grown-ups' help.

I'm only 24 to 28 years older than my kids. My brain's finished growing, but other than that, I'm no smarter than them. But this is enough to have a completely different set of concerns than them. Why should I be surprised that God, who's infinitely older and wiser and smarter than me, has much more important goals for my life than the concerns that I so often permit to cause me unhappiness?

Blueberry bagels and video games and grown-ups' help are good things, and as James 1:17 says, we should thank God for them. But, as Isaiah 45:7 says, sometimes good things don't come. That's okay. There are higher priorities than what we cab currently see as good things. And even when bad things come, God is always good.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Reasons Why

When I heard of the Aurora, Colorado shootings on July 20, one of my first reactions was to read the news stories for any information on the shooter's motives. From a purely practical perspective, there's little reason for this: the shooter's motive has no impact on the reality of the tragedy for the victims' families, the sense of closure that I'd get from knowing more about the story wouldn't remove my obligation to pray for those involved, and I'll never meet shooting suspect James Holmes, so whether or not I understand him will have no bearing on my life. It's just that I wanted to know why this terrible event happened.

I'm apparently not the only one to wonder why this happened; the web and news are full of stories delving into suspect James Holmes' personal history, discussions of his motives—or lack thereof—and speculations of his mental health or illness. As I'm writing this, one of links at the headline of CNN's home page is “Opinion: Why Kill?,” discussing possible motives. Almost as soon as I'd heard about the shootings, I got an email in my inbox talking about “making sense of” events such as this. Clearly, I'm not the only one wanting to know why this happened.

Wanting to understand why things happen—and why bad things happen in particular—is a powerful human desire. It's been suggested that one of the reasons journaling is therapeutic is because it helps us turn our jumbles of experiences into stories—organized series of cause-and-effect events, complete with implied whys for what happened—so that we can better understand them. Psychologists talk about the just-world hypothesis, the belief that the world is fundamentally just and that, therefore, if something good or bad happens to someone, it's because they deserved it. The just-world hypothesis is surprisingly widespread and strong. In numerous experiments, when subjects were presented with someone who received an electrical shock or had suffered illness, violence, or poverty, the subjects thought less of the victim. In other words, their hypothesis that this is a just world—their belief that there must be a why for everything that happens—caused them to think that the victim in some way deserved what happened. The just-world hypothesis can apply to good events too: if something good happens to someone (even if it's just luck), observes may assume that that person is skilled or virtuous.

As people who believe that the world is fundamentally under the control of a just God, we Christians are more prone to just-world thinking than others. I've heard countless variations of this sort of thinking from Christians over the years. This person died in a car crash because they were born out of wedlock. That person got sick because they didn't take care of themselves. The United States' historical rise was proof of God's blessing. The United States' more recent problems are proof of God's judgment. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because of the immorality there. The 2010 Haiti earthquake occurred because Haitians made a deal with the devil. Any and all of these whys are, technically, possible—after all, God is more than capable of using any means he wants to get people's attention, and God certainly does act in history—but unless the Christians who are voicing these whys have direct revelation from God, they should not be so presumptuous as to assume that they understand when and why the Almighty intervenes.

This thinking is hardly new. Much of the book of Job consists of Job's friends trying to convince Job that they know why he's suffering and that his suffering is his own fault, but in doing so, God replied, they “had not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7). Jesus' disciples assumed that a man's congenital blindness was due either to his sin or his parents' (John 9:2); Jesus replied that it was neither. And although there are plenty of stories in the Bible where the why is spelled out in immediate, just-world terms—this good thing happened because of this person's faithfulness, that bad thing happened because of that person's sin—Jesus is quick to warn his listeners not to be too quick to draw conclusions about why bad things happen:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

My grandfather suggests, based on 2 Thessalonians 2's description of the power that opposes God in this world as “lawlessness,” that it may not even be possible to find a reason why bad things happen. If God is a God of order and peace (1 Corinthians 14:33), and if God is the source of our reason, and if the evil in this world is described as lawlessness—chaos—then it may fundamentally have no reason. (In The Dark Knight, Alfred perhaps gets at this aspect of evil with his description of the Joker: “Some men aren't looking for anything logical... Some men just want to watch the world burn.” However, I sometimes wonder if pop culture treatments such as this serve to trivialize rather than illuminate reality.)

It seems to me, then, that there are several guidelines in this area that we as Christians need to follow:

  • We need to be aware of our innate tendency to look for whys and the limitations of those whys. (Rational explanations may not address someone's suffering, and even though they may provide closure, they do not relieve us of the need to wrestle with issues, offer support, empathize, or pray.)
  • We need to reject naive just-world thinking that automatically attributes good events to good actions and blames people for bad events.
  • Although we should not dwell on the evil in this world, we should not trivialize or ignore its lawlessness, chaos, and unreason.
  • In spite of the unreason of evil, and in spite of our own inability to always offer just-world explanations, we should hold fast to our belief that the world is ultimately ruled by a just God. We have the Christian hope that, ultimately, justice will prevail.

(I'm trying to focus specifically on how we think about why things happen instead of the much broader question of why bad things happen. For a discussion of that question, Philip Yancey is a good place to start.)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Serious Business

Many American Christians seem to have a weak grasp of the theology of the church. Maybe it's an overreaction to the authoritarian, rigid hierarchy that Catholicism (and other denominations?) are seen to have; maybe it's simply a result of American individualism. For whatever reason, we often fail to realize how wonderful and how important the church is.

While attending the University of Tennessee, I was blessed to be a part of the Christian Student Fellowship there. I don't know how campus ministries are generally organized—I've heard of various combinations of outreach, Bible study, and social activities—but in the words of Sam Darden, the campus minister, the CSF was simply “a church made up of college students.” Sam was continually amazed that God would take a small (thirty to forty) group of college students, whose members changed constantly from year to year, who lacked money and regular schedules and (often) maturity, and form a church out of them.

Sam also talked about the gift of the church. Church isn't just something that we do because we're commanded, and it's not just a place where we can individually “fill up” on our spiritual needs for the weekend, and it's certainly not just a social gathering or a vehicle for entertainment. The Church is a gift: we get to be a part of the body of Christ; we get to share with others the joy of worshiping God; we get to form eternal friendships; we get to help other people (physically and spiritually) and be helped by other people.

This should affect how we view the church. Ephesians 5:25-27 (NLT) reminds us that Christ “loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God's word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.” If Christ values the Church this highly, then we should too.

This should affect how we view churchgoers. We are to “stop evaluating others from a human point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16, NLT) - as earthly friends, or as rivals in the argument du jour, or simply as whoever's warming the pew next to us. C.S. Lewis elaborates on this idea:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. (The Weight of Glory)

The church is serious business.

This makes it all the more serious when people harm the church, either by action or inaction. It's strange to think that we can by our human deeds harm the body of Christ, but the Bible contains too many exhortations about how both our actions and our inaction (James 4:17) affect others for us to not think that this is the case.

We harm the church with our divisions and our arguments (John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 3:1-9).

We harm the church by failing to pray for it and for our brothers and sisters in it (1 Samuel 12:23).

We harm the church when we judge our brothers and sisters by our own standards (Romans 14). I recently read of a ministry leader who espoused a doctrinally shaky position. In discussions online, he's being challenged Scripturally on his position - which is good and healthy - but he's also being assaulted, insulted, and torn down for daring to hold such a position. This is being done without regard for the faithful service he continues to do and without any apparent awareness on the attackers' part that their own doctrine may be imperfect.

We harm the church when we tolerate continued immaturity (Hebrews 5:11-14). Everyone is at different stages of maturity, but wherever people are, growth—genuine discipleship—is required.

We may harm the church when we put ourselves forward as ministers, leaders, or champions of a cause without recognizing our own immaturity. 1 Timothy 3:1-13 describes the requirements for elders and deacons specifically, but the principle is clear: simply having the desire to serve is not enough, if qualifications of character and maturity are not present. I have seen and read of people who persist in trying to do something in spite of their own failings and do harm as a result. We need humility to recognize our own shortcomings.

We harm the church when we try to turn it into an association of our favored race or social class or into a vehicle for our pet ministry or social or political cause. Examples of racist or overly politicized churches are too common; thankfully, though, other churches are consciously cutting back the “stuff” that they do so that they can focus on what is truly ministry. (See, for example, here.)

We harm the church when we bash it. Criticizing and looking down on the church and Christians for their shortcomings is a common pastime, and I've indulged in it myself often enough. Realizing that Christ loves the church enough to die for it should stop me in my tracks: how can I disparage something that my Lord loves so much?

I harm the church when I keep to myself in my pew, singing and absorbing the sermon and doing nothing else, or when I only look for my handful of close friends, instead of coming out of my shell and reaching out to whoever I can to carry out the 59 “one another” commands of the New Testament.

Paul knew very well how serious the business of the church is:

I face daily the pressure of my concern for the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11:28-29)

Do we recognize this too?

In discussing the divisions and arguments within the Corinthian church, Paul gives this warning to those who would harm the church:

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for God's temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

Let us recognize how great a gift the church is and do all that we can, by prayer and deed, to build it up.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Pledge Now

Our area Christian radio station recently finished its pledge drive. Over the course of the pledge drive, I heard several variations of the following two statements:

“Christian radio is an important ministry and worth supporting.”

“If you pledge now, then you'll be entered in a drawing to win a new iPad.”

These two statements seem a bit contradictory. If a ministry is intrinsically worth supporting, then why does it need to offer an extrensic reward?

I once saw a church web site that offers all first-time guests a free Starbucks gift card to “say thanks for coming and taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us.” I think that giving some sort of welcome gift to first-time visitors is a nice touch—for example, the church that I used to attend offered loaves of homemade bread—but if a church feels that they should give cash value gifts for people spending the time to attend their services, then what does that communicate about how valuable they believe their services are?

Contrast that radio station and that church with Rob Bell's approach in starting Mars Hill Bible Church:

I remember being told that a sign had been rented with the church name on it to go in front of the building where we were meeting. I was mortified and had them get rid of it. You can't put a sign out front, I argued: people have to want to find us. And so there were no advertisements, no flyers, no promotions, and no signs.

The thought of the word church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick. (Velvet Elvis, p. 99)

Much of what churches and parachurch organizations do falls under the category of marketing or advertising:

marketing, noun: the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service (Merriam-Webster)

Advertising is a form of communication used to encourage or persuade an audience (viewers, readers, or listeners; sometimes a specific group of people) to continue or take some new action. (Wikipedia)

By these definitions (which I confess to having cherry-picked a bit; for example, the American Marketing Association has their own, much harder to parse definition), asking for donations as part of a fundraising drive, trying to get people to come to church, and raising awareness of social and moral ills (as my church did recently with a presentation on human trafficking) are all advertising and marketing.

Advertising and marketing don't have to be bad things. There are plenty of problems with how it's often practiced in the business world—the annoying pervasiveness of ads, the attempts to manipulate people, the shading of the truth that sometimes happens—but there's nothing wrong with the basic concept of promoting something worthwhile. In fact, promoting the Gospel—promoting God's glory—is at the core of the Christian life.

So, on the one hand, we should do all that we can to promote God's glory and the Gospel. On the other hand:

  • The more we believe that God is in control, the less we'll be tempted to resort to alarmism in an attempt to motivate human action. (“The family is under assault! America is in crisis! Democrats might win elections!”)
  • The more we feel secure in our love for Christ, and the more we believe that the gospel is truly Good News, the less we'll feel embarrassed about or feel the need to apologize for stating our beliefs.
  • The more we trust the Holy Spirit to lead people to repentance, the less we'll try to guilt trip people.
  • The more we believe that our causes are worthwhile and that God provides, the less we'll feel the need to use fundraising gimmicks. (George Mueller, who never directly asked for money and instead prayed for all of his orphanage's needs, took this to an extreme.)

The more we experience the greatness of Christ, the less we'll try to attract people with anything that's not Christ.

Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)