Tangled Web, Part 1

The last couple of weeks have seen shocking developments in abortion laws in several states. These proposals are driven in part by fear that conservative appointments to the Supreme Court threaten the future of legal abortion. Nevertheless, many are justly shocked at the extremity of these proposals and the macabre celebration of them.

Many Christians see abortion as simply a “pro-life” issue, (and of course there is a life vs. death simplicity to it). But to understand society’s dedication to it, it is helpful to see that abortion is woven into a broader worldview. Abortion sits near the center of a web of ideas that many people are committed to, even people that oppose abortion. And like a spider’s web, impact in one place reverberates across the web. Threats to abortion amount to threats across the thought system. Let’s identify a few of those threads.

Abortion is an expression of individual autonomy. One hears this clearly in the insistence that women must have control over their bodies. Absolute autonomy over our “selves” and especially our bodies is in view. Legal abortion ensures that women can act with absolute autonomy.

Abortion secures freedom of self-creation. Our culture believes that nothing should inhibit a person from self-actualization, of creating their identities. Whether and when to have children is an essential component of that self-creation and unwanted pregnancies threaten it.

Abortion undergirds sexual liberty. Prior to the availability of reliable birth control, all sexual activity carried the “risk” of pregnancy, creating a natural brake to sexual promiscuity. While birth control is widely available and effective, abortion serves as the ultimate backstop permitting people to engage in sex freely.

Abortion is crucial in the push for the equality of the sexes. That men do not experience the risk or demands pregnancy or the complications of motherhood, creates a situation of inequality which abortion “solves.” Women’s lives need not be interrupted by an unwanted pregnancy.

Abortion buttresses key economic values. To be fully human and a meaningful member of society requires contributing to the economy through productivity and work. Focus on this value has come at the expense of the meaningfulness of human reproduction and family life. Abortion ensures that women can contribute to the economy without fear of their careers being derailed by an unexpected pregnancy.

Productivity is coupled with consumption. We produce so that we can consume and there is a nearly equal emphasis placed on the value of consumption in modern culture. Abortion frees families from the financial burden of children allowing them to allocate their resources to consumption as they see fit.

So we should see that for supporters of abortion, much is at stake. If we are honest, however, we should admit that even if we opposed abortion, Christians are more committed to these same values than is biblically defensible.

As created and redeemed beings “we are not our own” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Furthermore, we do not operate with absolute autonomy, but function within the collectives of family, church, and society. Though we participate meaningfully in the process of our becoming, we do not self-create but are to be transformed into the image of Christ by the work of the Spirit (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). Scripture clearly puts boundaries around sexual expression, confining it to the bounds of marriage and blessing it with fruitfulness. Scripture (and nature) teaches the equality of the sexes before God, but not their exact identification. Especially in the context of married life, difference of role is coupled with equality of value (Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Cor. 11:2-9). While Scripture makes much of humanity’s ability to create, it does not root human meaning in that ability. Rather, human meaning is found in being made in God’s image, an image that we manifest in various ways (Gen. 1:26-28). Finally, while Scripture makes it clear that God has given us the fruits of the earth to enjoy (Gen. 1:29-30), it also warns against greed (Col. 3:5), overconsumption (Prov. 23:1-5), inordinate affection for things (Mt. 6:19-24), and seeking to find our satisfaction in anything other than God himself (Ps. 73:25).

We should by all means oppose abortion directly because it is a simple life and death issue. But we should also spend time examining our complicity in the deeper cultural commitments that when taken to extremes manifest themselves in abortion.

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The Faithful Few Many

A study of injuries suffered by cats falling from various distances arrived at an unusual conclusion: cats that fall from fewer than six stories and live, have greater injuries than those that fall from higher than six stories. Seeking to explain this unlikely finding, it was suggested that since it takes cats a few stories to right themselves, they can then relax, better enabling them to absorb the impending impact, thus minimizing injury. However, a later interpretation suggested that since dead cats are not usually brought to veterinarians, many of the cats that fell from greater heights were not included in the reports; only the ones that survived their falls were included, skewing the overall results.

This is an example of what is called “survivorship bias.” By only counting the cats that fell from higher heights and survived the study unintentionally distorted the actual likely outcomes of falling cats. Similar errors are made in the assessment of businesses and finance managers when studies only take into account those organizations still in business or traders still active in the market instead of including those that failed and quit.

A similar dynamic may be in play in how we assess the success of our Christian life. As we look at Scripture and Church history, we are far more likely to highlight and therefore compare ourselves against the success stories—say, Joseph, Daniel, or Ruth—than against the “failures”—say, Stephen.

A poignant example of this can be found in Acts 12. That chapter recounts the remarkable story of Peter’s escape from prison thanks to angelic escort, including the touching detail of young Rhoda’s excitement at his unexpected appearance. That the narrative concludes with the execution of the hapless soldiers and later, the grisly death of overweening Herod, only serves to underscore the victory.

However, the chapter begins by relating that Herod “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (12:2). While I have heard these divergent apostolic outcomes rationalized various ways, my point is that we remember Peter’s story and expect our story to be like his. No one imagines, hopes, expects, or even interprets their lives to be modeling the experience of James here.

But the truth is that across the whole of Scripture and Church history, far more have tasted martyrdom or lived a life of religious tedium than have experienced the angelic rescue of Peter, the dramatic prayer outcomes of George Muller, or the remarkable ministry productivity of George Whitefield. Yet we persistently look to these success stories, not as the individual acts of grace that they are, but as though they set the standard for our personal spiritual expectations. The predictable result is frustration or feelings of failure.

But for every Esther there are thousands of nameless but faithful Israelites. For every Elijah, “seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). For every George Whitefield, a host of faithful pastors. To be sure, these “Heroes of the Faith” serve as examples for us, but they do so primarily in their faith, not in the temporal outcomes of it. How God distributes outcomes is up to him. May we join our daily, undramatic faithfulness to the long history of saints, known and unknown, celebrated and forgotten, who have gone before us.

Outside Your Head

Today we will celebrate Communion and in preparation I want to ask an odd question: Where does Communion happen? “In church, of course!” you answer. That’s true but hold that thought. What I mean is, where does the action happen that makes of Communion something more than just eating a very specific, small snack?

One answer is that it happens in the “snack” itself. Something happens to the elements themselves that transforms them and the consumption of them into something extraordinary. We might call this the Catholic approach. When the priest utters the words “This is my body”, the bread, or “Host”, is transformed in such a way that those who eat of it, quite apart from any belief on their part, are now taking of the body of Christ.

Our Protestant forebears reacted against this view of the Lord’s Supper though they did not achieve unity on the best way to talk about it instead. In the absence of a clear alternative, over time, the place of “action” for Communion moved from being located outside the one partaking to inside. That is to say that what makes communion more than just a snack is what happens in me as I take it. Do I believe it? Am I prepared? Am I sincere in my taking? Is it meaningful to me?

But can it be that my internal disposition is that which makes or breaks Communion? That I make it real for myself based on my feelings? If it is my thoughts that count, why do I need the bread and juice? One effect of this mentality is that Communion is no longer “communion.” If the meaningfulness of communion is in my own mind (or “heart”), it is personal not communal. The practice of Communion ceases to be an activity we share with the Church and becomes, instead a “vehicle for self-expression and self-fulfillment” (Ritual and Its Consequences, Seligman, et. al., 10). Something may be happening in me at the same time that it is happening to other people in the sanctuary, but we can’t really say that the same thing is happening because it is personal to you.

The meaning and power of Communion are outside your own head. The “action” of Communion has already happened. God has so ordained that the bread and wine present the body and blood of Christ. And he has given the practice of their consumption to the church as an act with a meaning attached. When we participate in this ritual, we “proclaim the Lord’s death” quite apart from how we feel about it. We cannot make it any more real or meaningful by our feelings or beliefs about it. In participating we assent to the meaning-making that God has already done. And we do so together with others who similarly assent.

So, you were right to say that Communion happens in “the church,” the church as the Body of Christ. Because it was in the body of Christ that the action of Communion first took place, and it is within the Body of Christ, the community of people covenanted to living out the reality of the symbols, that the “action” of Communion is re-lived.

Glorious Anonymity

Pop artist Andy Warhol once predicted, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” A look at modern culture suggests that Warhol was almost right. It would be more accurate to say that now everyone “wants to be” world-famous for 15 minutes, to “go viral.” To be famous, or even infamous, seems to be the pinnacle of individual achievement. Somehow we must set ourselves apart from the crowd.

Though we struggle to imagine conceiving of ourselves any other way, this striving for individuality and recognition is a relatively recent development in Western society and doesn’t exist in many other cultures even today. Just a few centuries ago, the individual was not the basic unit of society, groups and classes were.

One manifestation of this absorption of the individual into the collective is the anonymity in which clerks and artists plied their trades. Legal documents bear only the individual’s position not their name, or at best, an initial. The design and execution of major public works was accomplished without attribution. With exasperation, Walter Ullmann, a medieval historian rants:

Who conceived Ely Cathedral? Who was the architect of Strasbourg Cathedral? Who were the builders of the dozens of magnificent monuments? To be told that this work comes from the school of Reichenau and that work from the school of St. Albans, and so on, is really no substitute for an identification of the individual who composed and executed or illuminated this or that manuscript. (33)

For our self-soaked mindset, it seems impossible that these people would leave no trace of their involvement in these magnificent works. We must have recognition and we must have it now.

In general, Ullmann writes with an historian’s circumspection. But on this point, the stark difference between that time and our own prompts a brief, damning editorialization. He writes, “Today when a new apartment house goes up, the name of its architect is splashed all over the papers but in coming ages neither the architect nor his building will be remembered, while after so many centuries medieval productions still evoke justifiably great admiration” (33) Compared to the art and architecture of earlier ages, our modern world creates very little that anyone will still be marveling at centuries hence. But we always know who did it. We make plaques listing donors, name legislation after its proponents, and turn artists into household names.

There are two types of glory at work here. One is broad, brief, and evanescent. The other is lasting and deep, but anonymous. As Christians we are not immune to the thought practices of our culture. Are we looking for recognition now of who we are and what we’ve done, even religiously? If so, Jesus would say, “You have your reward.” Or are we willing to work anonymously to contribute to the building of a kingdom that will not fade away?

*The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.

Weapons of Mass Confusion

I followed a car recently sporting a bumper sticker which stated, “Love is love” accompanied by several pairs of same-sex stick figures. The sentiment (and it is a sentiment, not an argument) is politically correct and culturally approved. It is also disingenuous, misleading, and cynical.

It is disingenuous because what it really means is “Sex is sex.” No one has ever had a problem with same sex couples loving each other. In fact, history suggests that many cultures in the past have been far better at it than ours is. We can’t read about historic, intimate same-sex friendships, such as David and Jonathan, without importing our sex-fixation and imparting sexual overtones to them.  It is also disingenuous because there are other “love” relationships that the people promoting same-sex relationships are reluctant to endorse: incest, bestiality, pedophilia, etc.

It is cynical because it knowingly co-opts and distorts language to suit its purpose. They know that “sex” is the issue, not “love”, but by framing the discussion this way, they can cast their opponents as being against “love,” something everyone is for. Further, it can make nearly immediate allies of unreflective people who are easily taken in by the slogan. A similar dynamic is at work in the “Pro Choice” movement. Who isn’t for “choice?”

The phrase is misleading because “Love is love” is just not true. We differentiate between all sorts of love relationships, weighing their values, and understanding their roles differently. Most of these relationships have some physical element in the expression of love—parents hugging children, say—but not a sexual element.

What the bumper sticker really endorses is not the freedom to love but the freedom to follow your sexual desire. Yet, except for a few die-hards, stating this ethic of absolute sexual libertinism so baldly leaves many people uncomfortable for reasons that they probably can’t explain. The slogan “Sex is sex” doesn’t sell as well. So, incapable of arguing honestly, they equivocate. “Love”, “equality,” and other such ideas get used in fuzzy ways that obscure and confuse, but comfort people into thinking it’s not just all about sex.

As Christians we are called to discernment. The term “discernment” comes from the Old French meaning “to separate, divide, distinguish.” That is, inherent in discernment is the practice of separating between concepts and ideas. Already in the paragraphs above we have “discerned” that sex and love are not the same thing. Gay sex and heterosexual sex are not the same thing. Marital love and parental love are not the same thing. The list goes on.

One of the Enemy’s chief weapons is precisely the opposite of discernment: namely, confusion. Confusion is the mixing and muddling of concepts that ought to remain separate. Sex, love, self, identity, gender, body, mind, etc. In all of these areas the Enemy sows confusion until it is impossible to see what is what. The thoughtful Christian recognizes that only the Word of God, that sword capable of slicing between soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12), is sharpened finely enough to dissect contemporary confusion into timeless truth.

Time will Tell

There is an old saying that there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. It is a helpful reminder in a culture that attempts to prove or disprove everything through “scientific studies.”

It is tempting for Christians to overestimate the value of studies that purport to support things that we believe, like, say, a study that finds that children from intact families fare better in life. “See, the Bible was right all along,” we say.

But statistics cut both ways. In From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, Darel Paul chronicles how many studies showed that children raised by same-sex partners fared as well (or even better!) than children in heterosexual homes. This evidence was used to weaken arguments against same-sex marriage and parenting by showing that it had no deleterious effects on children. Critics of same-sex marriage and parenting were left to question the validity of the studies in some way or offer counter studies.

How do we think Christian-ly about this issue?

First, we should be circumspect in our appreciation or rejection of purported scientific findings. Reports of the health benefits of good marriages no more prove the truth of Scripture than those showing the resilience of children from single-parent homes disprove it. By using a scientific study as part of our “evidence” for the truth of Christianity, we place ourselves at the mercy of the latest “scientific” findings.

Rather than being discomfited by supposed scientific findings contrary to biblical ethics we should expect them. Why?

We are limited. While our studies may approach truth in the “hard” sciences, in areas such as psychiatry and sociology, we are simply incapable of taking in and evaluating all the relevant data. Findings are necessarily provisional.

We are sinful. Data does not interpret itself and our sinfulness implies that our assessment and evaluation of data is not just limited but distorted, sometimes obviously, other times not.

Truth is revealed over time. Scripture indicates that sinful ways can be seen to prosper for a time. Psalm 37:1-2 instructs: “Fret not yourselves because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers.” The Psalm argues that while it may appear that their ways are prospering now, “They will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.”

We believe that God’s judgment is final. The ultimate assessment of all things is not the current apparent status of behaviors and their outcomes. Rather, all things must be evaluated through a look back to the unchanging truth of God’s Word (his “judgments”) declared in the past and a look forward to “end of the story” when truth will finally be revealed (judged). It is then that those who have lived according to God’s word will be vindicated and those who did not will be exposed.

Only time will tell.

Problematic Presence

In a recent sermon, our pastor affirmed that “God is always with us.” He is on sure biblical ground: “He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6). “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

In each of those cases, the expression of God’s sure presence with us is given to inspire action. In Deuteronomy God’s presence is the basis for the call to be “strong and courageous.” In Matthew, Christ’s presence undergirds the Great Commission. For the author of Hebrews, Christ’s presence should help us “Keep our lives free from the love of money and be content with what we have.” God is with us and knowledge of his presence enables action. So far, so good.

But there is a deep problem with the presence of God: it’s “absence.” It is unseen and unfelt. It is unapparent or transparent. We rarely if ever feel the presence of God. We live in an era that prizes seeing and feeling. But God’s presence doesn’t usually cooperate with our preference. Even moments that we interpret as experiences of divine presence—say a meaningful worship moment—leave us with the lingering suspicion that they could just as easily be interpreted as a nothing more than a “good feeling.”

And it has always been thus. Even though we think of the biblical times as a period of regular, obvious divine activity, actual manifestations of God’s presence were very rare and usually exceedingly uncomfortable (think Israel at Sinai or Isaiah 6). The fact is, throughout human history, most of God’s people, pre- or post-Christ, have rarely experienced the presence of God in a tangible way.

What are we to do? Must we just believe in God’s presence by brute “spiritual” force? Perhaps an image may help.

We might think of God’s presence like radioactivity. Its effects are present without immediately being seen or felt. It is powerful. It can even be dangerous. In certain contexts, say, Chernobyl, we ignore its presence to our peril. We don’t think about radioactivity all the time, of course, nor do we walk around with Geiger counters. But we know it exists and know that there are times and places when awareness of it and attention to it are advisable, (e.g. you wear that heavy apron when the dentist takes an x-ray).

Like radioactivity, acknowledging, assuming God’s presence in our lives and living in light of it has a cumulative effect over time. Obviously, in the case of God, the effects are positive as opposed to the often-negative effects of exposure to radioactivity. In fact, I believe living assuming the presence of God makes us increasingly able to identify those rare moments when He makes is presence especially known.

God is always with us. Will you often feel it or see it? No. But cultivate the practice of assuming it. You’ll be better for it.