Newton: the Lord only afflicts for our good

We could do much worse than start the week off with some wisdom from John Newton.

…be not discouraged; the Lord only afflicts for our good. It is necessary that our sharpest trials should sometimes spring from our dearest comforts, else we should be in danger of forgetting ourselves, and setting up our rest here. In such a world, and with such hearts as we have, we shall often need something to prevent our cleaving to the dust, to quicken us to prayer, and to make us feel that our dependence for one hour’s peace is upon the Lord alone.

–John Newton, “To the Rev. William Rose,” Letter II. 21 December 1776. Letters of John Newton.

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The new Jerk Store?

WARNING: The following is an egregious display of dispassionate thinking that some may find highly offensive. Assumptions made within the post do not reflect the position of any church, denomination, or Christian entity. --The Administrator

One storm gives way to another and so, having survived Irma, I turn my thoughts back to the web storm that was the Nashville Statement (NS). If you’re wondering whether or not you should continue reading here’s a simple test:

The Nashville Statement is:
(a) an evangelical statement on human sexuality
(b) a press release on Troy Gentry’s death.

If you answered ‘b’ you probably won’t care to read any further.

For the remnant who answered ‘a’ (and are willing to persevere to the end) you should read the NS if you haven’t already. The responses have been all over the map so trying to group people in pro and con camps is futile. But amidst the cacophony is a variegated faction who agree with the NS but refuse to endorse it because they believe the document is incomplete and/or cold. I find their position curious and unpersuasive.

On the whole, I like what Samuel James has to say in his article over at First Things, especially when he says:

I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity.

I think James is right on this point even though it’s impossible to prove the relative sincerity of a given critic, so while some may withhold their endorsement with integrity I have a few suspicions of my own.

{pause to adjust soapbox}

I suspect many people are letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perusing my Documents of the Christian Church (2nd edition) I search in vain to find a creedal statement that is both exhaustive in scope and sensitive in tone. The Nicene Creed? Good on the Trinity but weak on the hypostatic union. The Westminster Confession? Exhaustive but as warm as January in Maine. The Baptist Faith & Message? Pick your poison. Then there’s The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the Manhattan Declaration but you get the point. Christians have never claimed nor expected perfection from their doctrinal statements–what’s changed?

I suspect that many critics conflate sexual orientation with personal identity and, as a result, no longer consider same-sex desires inherently sinful. As long as this remains true I don’t think any orthodox statement will pass the sensitivity test. Everything will be interpreted as a personal attack.

I suspect that some of those who balk at the NS would be encouraged by taking a quick look at the initial signatories. J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, Russell Moore, Sam Allberry, and Rosario Butterfield aren’t exactly short-sighted, insensitive clods. That has to count for something, right?

I get that some Christians have genuine concerns when a select group addresses a complicated issue with far-reaching consequences, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we distribute our dogma in Costanza’s Jerk Store. But orthodoxy will  always have sharp edges and we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can smooth them out with a little more craftsmanship.

A wretch like me

Only those whose “eyes have been opened” to the light of Christ rejoice to have their deeds exposed. It is baffling that our whole society knows and apparently loves the hymn “Amazing Grace.” What are people thinking of when they sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me”? The man who wrote the hymn was a slave trader who came to see the wickedness of his activities. Most of those who sing the hymn today know nothing of this background. It is startling to hear it robustly sung by people who are so imbued with today’s talk of self-esteem that one can’t imagine them identifying themselves as wretches. A chasm of incomprehension has opened up between the awe of the old slave trader who knew that he had been redeemed by Christ in spite of himself and the contemporary notion of a generalized sort of spiritual self-improvement. The joy of the hymn writer is specifically that of being released from the burden of sin. His gratitude is “for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.” The link between the confession of sin and a prevenient state of blessedness, however poorly understood today, remains indissoluble.

–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 170.

The Crucifixion

I recently began reading The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ and have been very appreciative of what I’ve read so far. If Part 1 is any indication this may be the first of many passages I share from the book.

[Note to the Haters: the author, Fleming Rutledge, is an Episcopal priest and {gulp} a woman! How do ya like me now???]

On the significance of Christ’s crucifixion to the Christian faith Rutledge incisively observes:

In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the only word used in connection with the entire span of Jesus’ life is “suffered.” “Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Who, today, notices how extraordinary this is? What a way to describe the life and ministry of a man so famous for his teachings, parables, healings, exorcisms, and other works! None of these things are even mentioned in the creeds, and very little is said of them in the various New Testament epistles. The wording of the creeds is a vivid demonstration of the early Christians’ conviction that the passion was the culmination and consummation of everything that Jesus accomplished, so as to subsume everything else in the magnitude of its significance. Yet various versions of Christianity stripped of suffering and devoid of crucifixion are more common than ever in affluent America.

GoT holiness?

Note to self: There are some things in life you simply cannot question–the supremacy of SEC football, the vile depravity of the NE Patriots, and the suitability of a Christian’s entertainment.

Enter Kevin DeYoung’s  seemingly innocuous admission that he didn’t understand why so many conservative Christians devote themselves to Game of Thrones (GoT) when the series has so much explicit sexual content:

It seems to me sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of the series. And still, a good number of conservative Christians treat the series as must-see TV.

I don’t get it.

Tweeting the link to that post brought on a small flurry of comments on Facebook, most of them critical . . . of DeYoung. I must admit to being a little stunned and that was before I was directed to the comments section for the original post. I thought I had stumbled into bizarro world.

Having recovered from my stupefaction I’d like to offer a measured response to critics of the article. My modest objective is to show that DeYoung’s implied question (i.e. Why would a conservative Christian watch GoT?) is not pharisaical sin-sniffing but well within the bounds of what should be normal self-examination. I’ll proceed in two stages. First, I’ll volunteer some clarification on what the article did/didn’t say. Second, I’d like to address some of the early responses to the article.

One more thing and this is crucial. I’m going to assume that any Christian reading this post would at least agree that the graphic sexual content in GoT is sinful even if we don’t agree on the appropriate response. So if, as a Christian, you don’t believe this kind of material stands against the biblical imperatives concerning holiness and immorality, then we’ll just be talking past each other.

What the article didn’t say

(1) Real Christians don’t watch GoT. Some of the reactions to the post made it seem as if DeYoung had taken it upon himself to separate the sheep from the GoaTs.™ Far from it. As he stated from the outset: “I’m always amazed that a number of people I respect–smart people, serious Christians, good conservative thinkers–are obviously watching (and loving) the series” [emphasis added]. If DeYoung’s position were that no real Christian would watch GoT he wouldn’t be so perplexed.

(2) It is forbidden for real Christians to watch GoT. No doubt DeYoung would advise Christians to steer clear of the series but that’s a far cry from anathematizing the series and all who would watch it.

A rejoinder to the early responses

(1) What about holiness? Strange that with so many readers dismissing DeYoung’s concerns I never saw anyone deny his basic premise that “sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of [GoT].” I actually find the whole thing a bit discouraging–not the criticisms so much as the belligerent indifference.

Where is the longing for purity and its reward (Mat 5:8)? Who considers that we’re in a war for our souls (1Pet 2:11)? What does the pursuit of sanctification look like when I’m parked in front of a TV (Heb 12:14)? Responding to these questions with charges of legalism sounds more like deflection than reflection.

(2) Sin is deceitful and never satisfied. I don’t know that I could improve on this classic statement from John Owen. I’m a fool to think that I can safely manage my lusts as I indulge them.

(3) ‘Live and let live’ isn’t a Christian mantra. Christian community is in a state of disrepair when mutual accountability is held in suspicion. No doubt the Christian life holds some truths in tension. On the one hand, I am not the judge of a fellow servant (Rom 14:4; James 4:12); on the other hand, I’m not to passively watch my brother drift away (Heb 3:13; Jam 5:19-20; Jude 23). No man is an island, least of all the man in Christ.

(4) On the power of the remote. An experienced remote manager can save himself a lot of trouble so long as he remains alert and conscientious. Our remote has been used as a censoring device on numerous occasions while streaming TV shows and movies so I’m well aware that a simple flick of the finger can negate the baring of much flesh. Self-filtering is obviously better than taking it all in.

But two caveats are in order. First, as my wife & I were recently reminded when we tried to watch the first season of Homeland, sexual content often appears without warning. We simply can’t anticipate every sexcapade an episode has in store and, considering the amount of sexually explicit content in GoT, we’re practically guaranteed to see the baring of flesh despite our best efforts. Second, even if we could eliminate every objectionable scene, no one assumes that that’s what all Christians are doing while they’re watching the show–as it airs.

(5) On criticizing a show you haven’t watched. Living in the information age means we don’t always have to watch something to know what’s in it. Yes, if I want to critique the cinematography or the acting or the story I need to watch the show. But it should go without saying that I don’t need to watch soft porn in order to find it objectionable, so it’s hard to understand how not watching GoT due to the sexual content diminishes a man’s concern over said content–especially when we all agree it’s there.

All of that to simply say this: Watch what you will knowing that we all must give an account, but please don’t act as if it doesn’t matter what you watch.

The results of our rebelliousness

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities… {Isa 53:5, NAS}

As I was studying Isaiah 53 for a men’s Bible study I came across this poignant passage from Oswalt. Referring to the “piercing” and “crushing” of the Servant in v5 he states:

This effect in the Servant is the measure of how seriously God takes our rebellion and crookedness. We typically wish to make light of our “shortcomings,” to explain away our “mistakes.” But God will have none of it. The refusal of humanity to bow to the Creator’s rule, and our insistence on drawing up our own moral codes that pander to our lusts, are not shortcomings or mistakes. They are the stuff of death and corruption, and unless someone can be found to stand in our place, they will see us impaled on the swords of our own making and broken on the racks of our own design. But someone has been found. Someone has taken on himself the results of our rebelliousness, and we have been given the keys of the kingdom (2 Cor 5:21; 8:9; 1 Pet 2:24).

–John Oswalt, Isaiah (NICOT)

‘Christianity And’

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’, You know–Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Physical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart–an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

–C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

About that EDM…

“What ought to make worship delightful to us is not…its novelty or its aesthetic beauty, but its object.”

An earlier post made note of a CT article detailing the emergence of EDM (electronic dance music) into corporate worship settings. When making light of the latest fad, conscientiousness can sound an awful lot like crankiness, and since no one gives serious thought to the arguments of a crank I thought I might offer reasons for my dissent.

My antagonism toward EDM has very little to do with style per se. I do think it’s naive to act as if all styles are created equal when it comes to a corporate worship service but, objectively speaking, my dissent has less to do with what it is than why it is.

The CT article leads me to believe that a major reason why EDM has been brought into the church service is because we’re hoping to keep up with the cultural trend. Now a trend isn’t necessarily sinful but, like a man-bun, that’s no excuse for accepting it. Years ago Os Guinness astutely noted:

A common reason many people are uncritical today is that they see trends as simple, straight, and short–almost like the flight of a missile. But in fact, trends are much more like the bounce patterns of a ball in a pinball machine. Where it comes from, where [it] is bouncing to, and what it is hitting on the way are more important in interpreting a trend than seeing precisely where it is at any particular moment.

Read through the article with an eye toward answering the Guinness questions and you might just see the EDM trend in a different light. But beyond a general wariness of all things trendy, we have many other reasons to keep EDM out of a church service:

(1) Spiritual ≠ suitable. In a nuanced discussion on the appropriate use of tongues in the church Paul says “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1Cor 14:18-19). Notice that Paul (a) affirms the gift and (b) claims to make use of it personally but (c) curtails it’s use in a corporate setting. So even those things which have spiritual value are not necessarily suitable for an assembled church. The test, Paul says, is what’s edifying for the body (14:4, 26). The relevance of the edification principle to EDM is worth considering. Maybe we could take a cue from Paul and say “I listen to EDM praise more than you all but in the church I’d rather do something different.” Of course, this assumes that EDM shows signs of an edification deficit. Read on.

(2) Aesthetics vs. articulation. From the article: “the aesthetics and structure of EDM also present challenges in terms of balancing instrumentation and the articulation of the message through text.” Like it or not, the Christian faith is word/text based and that has to shape the way we use music in the assembly. See, for example, Col 3:16 where song is a means of instruction.

(3) Delighting in novelty. Quoth D. A. Carson: “What ought to make worship delightful to us is not…its novelty or its aesthetic beauty, but its object.” Try finding the object of worship in the CT article. See also the quotes in #4.

(4) EDM’s contribution to a corporate service is trivial (at best). To wit:

But it’s the effect the music has on congregants . . . that has worship leaders most    intrigued. “It just brings more of a liveliness to the worship atmosphere,” [a worship pastor] said. “When you hear it, you just kind of want to move a little bit more.”

“[EDM] gives permission to have fun and jump around . . . When you look out into the congregation or the crowd, everyone is just jumping to the music. And I feel that is the beauty of EDM—you can’t not jump to the beat.”

(5) Ironically, EDM advocates are sowing the seeds of their own irrelevance. What stirs passions today will be passe tomorrow. What then–identify & adopt the next latest trend? [On the whole, I think Christians are more likely to pick up a trend on it’s way out but that’s a discussion for another time]

(6) EDM is more exclusive than inclusive. Being far removed from my club days I’ll go out on a limb and say that the EDM crowd is a decidedly small demographic in our population. Unless we’re ok with generational segregation, EDM seems to be a poor medium for corporate worship. Again from the article: “People in the crowd dance, clap, and sing. Others stand statuesque, as if wondering what’s happening.”

Indeed.

Bored by technology

Boredom—for children and for adults—is a perfectly modern condition.

In the history of the human race, boredom is practically brand new—less than three hundred years old.

The English word does not appear until the 1850s, and its parent word bore (as a noun—”he is such a bore”) appears only a century earlier. The French word ennui begins to mean what we call “boredom” around the same time. Before the eighteenth century, there simply wasn’t a common word for that feeling of frustration and lassitude that overtakes so many of us so often…

Could it be that modern life is boring in a way that pre-modern life was not? How could this be? Our world has more distractions and entertainments than we can ever consume. We feel busy and overworked in ways even our grandparents couldn’t have imagined (even as many of us work far less hard, physically than most of them did).

But that’s actually why we get bored. Boredom—for children and for adults—is a perfectly modern condition. The technology that promises to release us from boredom is actually making it worse—making us more prone to seek empty distractions than we have ever been. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the more you entertain children, the more bored they will get. . .

Boredom is actually a crucial warning sign–as important in its own way as physical pain. It’s a sign that our capacity for wonder and delight, contemplation and attention, real play and fruitful work, has been dangerously depleted.

–Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family

EDM, interpretive dance, & The Message

A quick round-up of things that caught my eye this weekend.

• In the latest sign that the Apocalypse is near, a report in Christianity Today informs us that electronic dance music (EDM) has now found a place in corporate worship. It’s hard to single out the most inane quote from the piece but these two have to be in the running:

When I’m waiting for that moment of the bass to drop, I’m waiting to experience a whole bunch of things.

and

This could be a time of expression of worship that we haven’t really seen before, which is pretty cool.

• If reading the CT article leaves you fearful that the EDM virus has made its way into our ecclesial bloodstream, DO NOT FEAR! Tim Keller’s lab at Redeemer Presbyterian already has the antidote.

• In an interview with TOM (the other Merritt), Eugene Peterson said that his views on same-sex relationships have changed and that, if asked, he would officiate a same-sex wedding ceremony. That interview was published on June 12. On June 13 Peterson told the Washington Post that “on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract [that statement].”

Peterson is perhaps best known for his Bible paraphrase The Message and it’s worth noting that Peterson’s rendering of key NT passages on homosexuality are more in keeping with his first statement. On these readings one would think homosexuality is only wrong when it’s lacking in love.

Rom 1:26-27 Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either—women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.

1Cor 6:9ff Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.

1Tim 1:10 It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the law code isn’t primarily for people who live responsibly, but for the irresponsible, who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever!