Tangled Web, Part 2

In an earlier post we saw that support for abortion is woven into a web of cultural values—self-creation, personal autonomy, sexual license, etc. It is not that abortion supports those values, but rather that abortion abets the free pursuit of them. Seeing this helps us see why some people are so committed to protecting legalized abortion; its loss threatens the sanctity of these deeper values.

Yet this tangled web of cultural values only describes the ideology of the cultural elites whose voices influence policy-makers. The truth is that the elites that champion abortion on demand very rarely have actually ‘needed’ an abortion. Statistics show that rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion are far lower in higher economic and education brackets. In short, those who advocate for abortion don’t get abortions. Those who get abortions are no less tangled, they are just tangled in a very different web.

Those seeking abortions are often caught in destructive relationships. The baby’s father may be absentee, opposed to the pregnancy, abusive, or unknown. The mother’s family may be distant, or unsupportive. There may be no other network that the mother can turn to.

Those seeking abortions are often in precarious financial situations. They may have limited education and job prospects. They may be single mothers struggling to provide. The prospect of another child to care for is overwhelming.

Such relational and financial deficits are often accompanied by spiritual and psychological weariness and suffering. Depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, are common. Pregnancy and motherhood seem unbearable to those suffering such mental health shortfalls.

Caught in such a hopeless web of destruction, abortion seems the only option. In a sad irony, however, abortion, grasped as a “solution” to the predicament, only serves to exacerbate the emotional imbalance as regret and guilt follow. Not infrequently that emotional decline only feeds further deterioration in relationships and economics.

Responding to these two webs requires very different approaches. Most of us are not in much of a position to influence the ideological web and its increasing grip on our legal system. Nevertheless, this is often the web that receives the most attention through protests, breast-beating blogging, and demonstrating.

As individuals and as a church, we are much better positioned to minister to those caught in the webs of sin and brokenness that often lead to abortions. It may be said that people are complicit in their compromised relational, financial, and mental health condition. And it is true to a certain extent. The fly caught in the web only complicates his situation by wriggling to free himself. But Christ came to us with salvation “while we were yet sinners”, while we were his enemies, to bring us to God. We were no less complicit in our death and brokenness than are those suffering the soul-crushing relational, financial, and spiritual conditions that give birth to the death that is abortion.

We may not be able to stop abortion; the legal tide seems unlikely to shift soon. But we will always be in a position to discourage abortions, provided we view with compassion those tangled in the web of death and deception.

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Scripture Sandwiches

In our house we enjoy fried egg sandwiches: egg, cheese, and bacon or ham on an English muffin. There is some difference of opinion in the house about what type of cheese is best and whether the muffin should be spread with butter, Miracle-whip, or one on either muffin half. Otherwise, our appreciation is shared.

Fried egg sandwiches are a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Alone, eggs, cheese, and bacon all have their own glory, but together something new and greater arrives. That greatness even manages to shine forth, if only dimly, in the version of egg sandwich that one finds at the fast food chains. In a pinch, I’ll eat one of those. But attention to the individual ingredients repays the investment. Sure, you can use Aldi bacon, processed American cheese slices, and weeks-old defrosted English muffins. But a richer, more satisfying experience awaits the consumer who combines farm-fresh eggs, aged, sharp cheddar, and artisan hickory smoked bacon, nestled between slices of homemade sourdough bread. You’re already regretting that bowl of cold cereal you hastily ate this morning, aren’t you?

Throughout Scripture God has given us incredibly rich but compact summaries of key elements of his character, his plan, the person of Christ, and the substance of the Gospel. I think of verses like John 3:16, John 1:14, Psalm 103:10; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Timothy 3:16 and phrases like Jesus’s “I am” statements, “God is love,” “Be holy as I am holy,” “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” or the Golden Rule. We might think of these summaries as soul sandwiches: portable, practical, spiritual nutrition.

Like the sandwiches that filled my lunchbox and me through my school years, these biblical morsels may be the substance of our spiritual caloric intake for periods of our life. Proverbs 3:5-6 is a PB&J that people rely on to nourish themselves day in and day out. And here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with that. God didn’t intend for us to need a 7-course spiritual meal three times a day any more than we need that physically. What would concern me are two spiritual sandwich scenarios: (1) if spiritual PB&J were all we ever consumed, or, (2) if, over time, the quality of our ingredients declined such that our spiritual sandwiches were unpalatable, or worse, not nourishing.

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.

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.