The Enlightenment’s Lie About the Basis of Human Rights

It is all the rage to talk about how oppressive Christianity is and has always been. It’s even more troubling to see some Christians parroting similar lines. Don’t believe it. It is a myth perpetuated since the Enlightenment that Christianity’s contribution to the world is oppression and abuse. As a corollary, the myth also purports that human rights are self-evident. Some add that returning to the way of the Ancients— Greece and Rome— would set us on the path to peace and freedom. Religion in general and Christianity in particular, so the story goes, has led to nothing but wars, doctrinal squabbles, and power grabs.

The sins of the Church are indefensible— exploitation and conquest, abuse and compromise, manipulation and control and more. The critiques of the Christian justification of imperial exploitation are on-target and well-deserved. But those critiques are not original to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It was Christians who said them first. From Alcuin to Aquinas, from Bartholome de las Casas to Benjamin Lay, it was Christians who most fervently condemned conquest and slavery. But my point here is not to balance the scales of the appraisal of Christianity’s contribution nor even to go blow for blow about its good versus its ills. The point is simply this: Not only do Christians critique their own failures, they do so on the basis of Christian teaching.

Secular historian Tom Holland writes:

“The paradox that weakness that weakness might be a source of strength, that a victim might triumph over his torturers, treat suffering might constitute victory, lay at the heart of the Gospels…The standards by which [Voltaire] judged Christianity, and condemned it for its faults, were not universal. They were not shared by philosophers across the world. They were not common from Beijing to Cayenne. They were distinctively, peculiarly Christian.” (Dominion, p. 394)

In other words, power struggles and abuses were not unique to the Church or to Christendom. What was unique, however, was the basis for condemning it: a savior who died in order to save, a king who was killed in order to conquer sin and death.

But the French never had a Reformation, so their response to the abuses of the Church was to reject Christianity wholesale in the revolt of the philosophers which came to be called in a self-congratulatory way, the “Enlightenment”. Yet the idea that they could simply return to reason as a new kind of religion was itself a myth.

Take, for example, the notion that human rights are ancient. Well, as Holland points out, the Persians were renown for perfecting the art of torture, the Greeks for raping the women of a city they conquered, and the Romans for incorporating both and adding the practices of paedophilia and infanticide to the list. It was Christianity which made the above practices criminal.

Even the French philosopher Marquis de Sade who hated Christianity taught that the “doctrine of loving one’s neighbor is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to Nature” (p. 407). Sade, following what the ancients took for granted, believed some men were born to be masters, and others slaves. The inferior class of human was only slightly above a chimpanzee. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies because of their declaration of human rights in the late 1700s, they were tempted to make exceptions and delay the implementation of abolition. It was the outcry of the British public— Evangelical English men and women— who put the pressure on British diplomacy. Eventually, it took the British navy to block French slave ships from continuing the trade in Africa in the early 1800s.

What about the universality of human rights? Aren’t they self-evident? The claim that the language of human rights “…existed naturally within the fabric of things, and had always done so, transcending time and space”. Holland counters:

Yet this, of course, was quite as fantastical a belief as anything to be found in the Bible. The evolution of the concept of human rights, mediated as it had been since the Reformation by Protestant jurists, and philosophes, had come to obscure its original authors. It derived, not from Ancient Greece or Rome, but from the period of history condemned by all right-thinking revolutionaries as a lost millennium, in which any hint of enlightenment had at once been snuffed out by monkish, book-burning fanatics. It was an inheritance from the canon lawyers of the Middle Ages” (Dominion, pp. 401-02).

The notion of a human right began modestly enough with canon lawyers in the 1200s. How were the Christians to square the rampant inequality between rich and poor with the insistence of numerous Church Fathers that “the use of all things should be common to all”?’ (p. 239). After the completion of the Decretum (a compilation of church canons and teaching), they arrived at a solution: “A starving pauper who stole from a rich man did so, according to a growing number of legal scholars, iure naturali— ‘in accordance with natural law’ ” (p. 239). Thus, they were not guilty of a crime. Holland sums it up this way:
“Charity, no longer voluntary, was being rendered a legal obligation…That the rich had a duty to give to the poor was, of course, a principle as old as Christianity itself. What no one had thought to argue before, though, was a matching principle: that the poor had an entitlement to the necessities of life. It was— in a formulation increasingly deployed by canon lawyers— a human “right”’ (Dominion, p. 239).

Then, when he visited the Spanish colonies in the Americas, the friar Bartholome de las Casas began to rebuke Christians on both sides of the Atlantic for thinking that they had not merely a right but a duty to conquer and ‘prosecute’ idol-worshipping peoples (pp. 346-7). Though such a view sat easily with Aristotle’s doctrine that ‘it was to the benefit of barbarians to be ruled by “civilized and virtuous princes” ’, the Christian belief that every human had been made equally by God and had been endowed with reason made the suggestion that natives were slightly higher than monkeys blasphemy by Christian standards (p. 347). Drawing on the teaching of Aquinas, las Casas taught that “ ‘Jesus Christ, the king of kings, was sent to win the world, not with armies, but with holy preachers, as sheep among wolves’ ” (p. 308). Thus it came to be that las Casas coined the phrase ‘Derechos humanos’— human rights.

This is why, by the time the British colonies in North America declared their independence, it was clearly Christianity that fueled their dream of a new community. It is most readily apparent that the roots of such thinking was not truly Enlightenment rationalism but Christian revelation. Holland again writes:

“That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. That most Americans believed they were owed less to philosophy than to the Bible: to the assurance given equally to Christians and Jews, to Protestants and Catholics, to Calvinists and Quakers, that every human being was created in God’s image. The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic— no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think— was the book of Genesis.” (Dominion, p. 400)

Christians have not always gotten it right. The Church has been notoriously wrong. But when it is, it is judged to be wrong on the basis of what Jesus and Paul taught. The abuses of Christendom are contradictions of Christian teaching, not confirmations of it; they are distortions not extensions of what the Scripture says; they came as a result of ignoring canon law and Church teaching not of illuminating it.

Exploitation and abuse is the sickness of sin at work in the world. The Church is not immune to such sickness. Nevertheless, it is the Gospel that provides both the diagnosis and the cure.

What I Read In 2019 (And Why)

2019 was a good year for reading. I managed to read about 30 books this year, which may be a personal high, but there were several shorter books in the mix!  I’ll give you the full list and my top five in a moment…but first, a bit about how I choose what to read.

I often choose reading along certain themes. Late last year, I decided I wanted to read about empires in 2019— not theological reflections or pontifications on Christianity and empire, but histories of empires themselves written by non-Christians.

In late 2018, I finished “Gandhi and Churchill”, which was a poignant parallel of two remarkable leaders whose respective nations would come to clash over ideology and power. The centuries-long presence of the British empire in India may be one of the most world-shaping realities of the modern era. Then, to kick off 2019, I went on to read about the way German church leaders were complicit with the rise of the Nazi regime as seen through the life of one particular pastor, Martin Niemoller, in the book “Then They Came for Me”. It was sobering. I followed that up by reading about the rise of the Roman Empire, from Augustus to its Nero, in Tom Holland’s epic work, “Dynasty”. It was fascinating to see the roots of many of our modern conceptions of power, nobility, and public virtue. But what I loved most was the being able to imagine the political backdrop of the New Testament as I read about the first five Caesars (the Julio-Claudians). Finally, I read Niall Ferguson’s “Empire” on the rise and fall of the British Empire, the largest empire the world has ever known. The influence of Christianity as a moral restraint for the excesses of power and as a justifying reason for their assertion of superiority resulted in a complicated legacy.

I threw in a couple of fiction books to round off my reading on empire. “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster was thoroughly enjoyable, and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe was a slow but sobering reminder that what is a footnote for the empire is a lifetime of sorrow for one man; the machinations of “progress” must be slowed by attention to its impact on the particular.

The capstone— the book that brought many of the themes in these other books together— was “Dominion” by Tom Holland. I’m about two-thirds through, and it doesn’t seem that I’ll finish it in 2019, nevertheless, it is my Book of the Year. Holland, a secular historian, traces the improbable rise of Christianity, carefully showing how unprecedented its claims and teachings were in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. It’s persistence and resilience in the face of persecution and the development of theology through careful contextualization are further remarkable features of Christianity. Though Holland doesn’t shy away from the darker chapters in Christianity’s history, he is quick to show when certain actions were aberrations of Christianity teaching and when they were extensions of it. Contra many claims by atheists today, the worst actions of Christians in history were when they had deviated the most from the teachings of Jesus and Paul. In the end, Holland argues that much of the embedded and institutionalized virtues and values of Western society are fruit from Christian roots. Can the fruit remain if it is severed from the root? This is the great experiment of the march of secularization.

The next theme I turned to was how Christianity relates to a secularized age, a pluralistic world, and a humanistic empire. “Seriously Dangerous Religion” is a tour de force of comparative religions through a meta-frame. Provan identifies 10 major questions every major religion or system must grapple with. He then shows how the Old Testament addresses these questions in comparison to other ancient religions or post-modern composites of ancient religions (like the notion that all religions of the “Axial Age” were the same, or the generic spirituality of the New Age). He does show how Christianity (the New Testament) extends the vision that is sketched in the Old Testament and brings it to its fullest expression and completion in Jesus.

“Faith for Exiles” by Barna’s David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock summoned research to outline five practices of young Christians who developed a resilient faith in the the midst of a Babylonian world. It was practical and inspiring, not only as a pastor but as a father. The accessible yet richly theological, “Gospel Allegiance” outlines how fidelity to Jesus the King grounds Christians and gives shape to a robust Christianity no matter what empire we find ourselves living in. It reclaims words that have lost their original textual meaning– like faith, gospel, grace, and works– and shows how the fit together through the paradigm of Kingship and Kingdom. Finally, “Seculosity” demonstrated with observational insight and a sharp wit, how society in the west has channeled a moralistic impulse and appropriated religious fervor and ritual to facets of life like work, romance, parenting, eating, and more.

The rest of my reading can be filed under the categories of pastoral theology and personal enrichment. Here’s a quick bit about some of them. I was struck by the profound integration of social analysis and theological reflection in the collection of sermons from Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love”; I benefited from Preston Sprinkle’s short books, Grace/Truth 1.0″ and “Grace/Truth 2.0”on gender and sexuality; I found the collection of essays on identity, community, and authority in the digital age in “The HTML Of Cruciform Love” utterly fascinating; I loved my pastor’s book, “Remarkable”, on engaging culture in a Christlike way; I learned a lot from Lucy Peppiatt’s succinct summary and fresh perspective of the biblical vision of womanhood (which challenges the assumed patriarchy of many); I normally find reading Rowan Williams to be quite a laborious endeavor, but hist short series of books–  “Being Human”, “Being Christian”, and “Being Disciples” — were really excellent and not too dense; I appreciated Wesley Hill’s demonstration of Trinitarian theology at work in Paul’s letters; I found Haley Jacob’s exegesis and arguments in “Conformed to the Image of His Son” really compelling; I was moved and inspired by what I consider the best single book on prayer, Pete Greig’s “How to Pray”; and, I can see why some have called N. T. Wright’s “History and Eschatology” a capstone of his life’s work on the historical Jesus and Christian eschatology.

Alright, here are my top five, followed by the full list.


My Top Five 
1. “Dominion”– Tom Holland

2. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson

3. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan

4. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates

5. “Seculosity”– David Zahl


The Full List:
Theology/Biblical Studies
  1. “The Christological Hymns of the New Testament”– Matthew Gordley
  2. “Paul and the Trinity”– Wesley Hill
  3. “Conformed to the Image of His Son”– Haley Goranson Jacob
  4. “The 3D Gospel”– Jayson Georges
  5. “For all God’s Worth”– N. T. Wright
  6. “Blue Parakeet 2nd Edition”– Scot Mcknight (read 2/3rds)
  7. “Being Human”– Rowan Williams
  8. “Being Christian”– Rowan Williams
  9. “Being Disciples”– Rowan Williams
  10. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan
  11. “Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women”– Lucy Peppiat
  12. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates
  13. “History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology”– N. T. Wright
Histories/Biographies 
  1. “Then They Came For Me”– Matthew D. Hockenos
  2. “Dynasty”– Tom Holland
  3. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson
  4. “The Intellectual World of CS Lewis”– Alistair McGrath
  5. “Dominion”– Tom Holland (2/3rd done!)
Cultural Conversations 
  1. “Grace and Truth 1.0”– Preston Sprinkle
  2. “Grace and Truth 2.0”– Preston Sprinkle
  3. “The HTML of Cruciform Love”– Edited John Frederick and Eric Lewellen
  4. “Remarkable”– Brady Boyd
  5. “Talking to Strangers”– Malcom Gladwell
  6. “Faith for Exiles”– David Kinnaman
  7. “Seculosity”– David Zahl
Fiction 
  1. “Things Fall Apart”– Chinua Achebe
  2. “A Passage to India”– E. M. Forster
Devotional
  1. “How to Pray”– Pete Greig
  2. “Prayer: Our Deepest Longing”– Ronald Rolheiser
  3. “Strength to Love” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (2 chapters left!)
Leadership
  1. “Captain Class”– Sam Walker

‘How to Think’: A Summary

The goal of the book is to help us learn to interrogate our instincts and intuitions by examining the social, emotional, linguistic, and (necessarily) reductionistic way our intuitive thinking works.

Introduction
Takeaway: How we are incentivized not to think.

Using psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s terms from Thinking, Fast and Slow, Jacobs outlines two ‘systems’ of thinking: ‘System 1’ is ‘intuitive thinking, the fast kind (p. 16). ‘System 2’ is ‘conscious reflection’, the slow kind of thinking (p. 16). ‘We go through life basically running System 1; System 2 kicks in only when we perceive a problem, an inconsistency, an anomaly that needs to be addressed’ (pp. 16-17). Psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares ‘intuitive thinking’ to an elephant, and ‘conscious decision-making’ to a ‘rider’; ‘intuitive thinking is immensely powerful and has a mind of its own, but can be gently steered— by a rider who is truly skillful and understands the elephant’s inclinations’ (p. 17). The aim of the book is to help us understand the way ‘System 1’ works, the inclinations of our intuitive thinking, so that we can employ System 2 properly to evaluate it.

Why we don’t want to think (exact words from p. 17):

  • Thinking troubles us
  • Thinking tires us
  • Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits
  • Thinking can complicate our lives
  • Thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those qw admire or love or follow
  • Thinking is slow

Marilyn Robinson, writing on why Puritans are almost always referenced in a negative light, suggests that we have a ‘collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information’ ‘when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved’ (pp. 20-21).

T. S. Elliot wrote that ‘…”when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts” ’ (p. 22).

‘The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear’ (p. 23).

Chapter 1: Beginning to Think
Takeaway: How thinking is social and emotional, not just analytical.
 
Thinking is necessarily social.
 
Thinking is not simply analytical.
 
Thinking is emotional.
‘…one must have a certain kind of character: one must be a certain kind of person, a person who has both the ability and the inclination to take the products of analysis and re-assemble them into a positive account, a structure not just of thought but also of feelings that, when joined to thought, can produce meaningful action’ (p. 43).

‘…when your feelings are properly cultivated, when that part of your life is strong and healthy, then your responses to the world will be adequate to what the world is really life’ (p. 44).

Chapter 2: Attractions
Takeaway: How the desire to belong makes us lazy or evil.
 
Haidt argues that ‘moral intuitions’ bind and blind. ‘ “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices” ‘ (p. 55).

C. S. Lewis’ ‘Inner Ring’ is a helpful way of describing how the terror of being excluded from a desired group makes a person ‘ “who is not yet very bad…do very bad things” ‘(p. 56).

Friendships are different than an ‘Inner Ring’ because they are not formed for the purpose of being exclusive; the exclusion is a by-product. They do not view their bond as making them superior.

Friendships matter, especially in formative seasons.

‘The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning…’ (p. 59).

‘The only remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted’ (p. 62).

Chapter 3: Repulsions
Takeaway: How the will to survive leads to the hatred of others and closes our minds. 

Sometimes we are pushed to a way of thinking because of a repulsion to a particular group. The ‘desire to punish the outgrip is significant stronger’ than ‘the desire support the in-group’ (p. 73).

Avoid what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Bulverism’: ‘ “Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall” ‘ (p. 78).

The cure is to see a person not as an ‘other’ (who must be wrong), but as a ‘neighbor’ (p. 83).

The answer is not to eliminate attractions and repulsions and to be ‘purely rational’. Antonio Damasio argues in Descartes’ Error that ‘when people have limited or nonexistent emotional responses to situations, whether through injury or congenital defect, their decision-making is seriously compromised’ (p. 84).

Biases ‘reduce the decision-making load on our conscious brains’ (p. 86).

Chapter 4: The Money of Fools
Takeaway: How the power of words (keywords, metaphors, and myths) keeps us from seeing different worlds.

Don’t let words carry too heavy of a load. They can provide helpful shortcuts, but be aware of the work you’re asking them to do.

Use your opponent’s own words instead of restating it in “other words”.

Jacobs highlights two metaphors from Robin Sloan to help with this. The first is ‘method acting’, where you realize that ‘in different circumstances you could be that person’ (p. 111). The other metaphor is that of ‘dual booting’, where a computer can run two different operating systems. Jacobs writes, ‘Something similar happens when you try out someone else’s vocabulary: you experience the world from within that mode of describing it, with a new set of “terministic screens”, and some things you’re used to seeing disappear from view while new and different ones suddenly become visible’ (p. 112).

Chapter 5: The Age of Lumping
Takeaway: How taxonomies prevent information overload and create solidarity, but can lead to oppression if we don’t remember that taxonomies are provisional and if we fail to see the individual.

Taxonomies– the sorting of things into categories– is part of ordering the world. But the creation of social taxonomies is ‘a form of myth making’, so ‘we absolutely must remember what those taxonomies are: temporary, provisional intellectual structures whose relevant will not always be what it is, or seems to be, today’ (p. 119).

We must also practice ‘splitting’— the ‘disciplined, principled preference for rejecting categories whenever we discern them at work’ (p. 121). Be careful when you are tempted to explain something in someone as being because they are a member of a particular group and not because that is who they are as an individual.

Chapter 6: Open and Shut
Takeaway: How keeping an open mind is not possible, but closing it is dangerous. 

One cannot have a perpetually open mind. The object of opening one’s mind is not simply to have it open, but rather, as Chesterton noted, it is like ‘ “the opening of the mouth” ‘— the object is ‘ “to shut it again on something solid” ‘ (p. 126).

The goal is to be neither indifferent nor indecisive, but to have ‘the mental flexibility and honesty to adjust our views when the facts change’ (p. 127).

One of the biggest obstacles to being open to alternative views and narratives is the ‘sunk cost’ bias. ‘The more people have invested in a particular project, the more reluctant they are to abandon it, no matter how strong the evidence indicating that it’s a lost cause’ (p. 129). This eventually leads to doubling down, what scholars call ‘ “escalation of commitment” ‘ in the face of sunk costs (p. 129).

A fanatic is someone who avoids ‘considering any alternative to their preferred views’; ‘no matter happens, it proves [their] point’ (p. 136).

Look for signs of this in your group of friends. One giveaway that they are an unhealthy group (perhaps an ‘Inner Ring’) is if they have closed attitudes toward ‘ideas from the outgroup’ (p.138).

Chapter 7: A Person, Thinking
Learn fluency in another ‘dialect’. Imagine yourself in a different set of plausibility structures to see that your views are not necessarily inevitable.

Nevertheless, one cannot thrive in a constant state of evaluating the ‘truth-condusiveness of your social world’. Instead, follow the advice of W. H. Auden: ‘ “The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to auricular confession: Be brief, be blunt be gone.” ‘

The Thinking Person’s Checklist (pp. 155-156):

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes…
  2. Value learning over debating…
  3. …avoid the people who fan the flames.
  4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your future and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate…toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with…
  8. Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the ‘ick factor’ is telling; sometime’s it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

Seven Books I Read and Loved in 2017

I feel like I read a lot of books this year. But it would be more accurate to say that I read parts of a lot of books this year. Graduate and post-graduate education have ruined me as a reader. I have learned, among other things, how to read the first few chapters and the last few chapters, study the table of contents, and track the argument of the book without reading all of it. This works best with academic books, but it hardly passes for deep, immersive reading. But research reading is raven-like, scavenging whole books for the tastiest morsels, the bits most relevant to one’s current appetites and needs.

So. There weren’t too many books I read cover to cover in 2017. There were several sections of several books– and a fair quantity of journal articles too– which I really enjoyed and found immensely helpful as a pastor and as a scholar. But I’m not sure I could say, ‘You should read this!’ about all of them…not to mention the lack of integrity in doing so since I didn’t finished reading them myself! But, as I scanned my stack on my night stand and bedroom bookshelf, there were seven books that I not only read completely, but also enjoyed thoroughly, in 2017. Here they are, in the order I read them.

1. “Destroyer of the Gods”

I love books on the early Christian centuries, the period before Constantine, because of the insight it gives us into how Christians learned to flourish and bear witness to Christ from the margins of society and culture. Though this isn’t full of new insights (there are some notable sections) or written in riveting prose (it’s written by a historian!), it covers some of the key features of early Christian communities, with plenty of wisdom to offer our age.

2. “The Day the Revolution Began”

Though not quite as revolutionary as some might have liked— Wright defends a view of the atonement that would fit broadly within the ‘substitutionary’ views— it is still Wright’s longest and fullest engagement (in popular form) with the meaning of the cross. He blends his work from Jesus and the Victory of God with his work on Paul (his New Interpreter’s Romans commentary among other works), to sketch a multifaceted view of the atonement— one which works somewhat like a stained glass window, holding otherwise disparate pieces together in the right light.

Readers who are new to Wright will appreciate his strong connections to Passover theology and practice as a hermeneutical key in understanding the crucifixion. It provides a much more compelling picture, too, of sin, refusing to allow the Christian to say that humans broke rules so God had to do something about it. The result of this wider-angled lens on the cross is that the very core of God’s original vocation for humans becomes clear.

3. “A Walk in the Woods”

This was pure fun. Bryson is at his comedic best, especially in the early chapters. As the book goes on, the story starts to lose steam, but he held my attention with fascinating historical vignettes and a few beautiful reflections on the treasures of nature in a rapidly urbanizing world. You’ll learn a lot, and the best part is it won’t feel like it.

4. “The Challenge of Jesus”

This is vintage Tom Wright. It was fun to see his early attempts to take his work on the historical Jesus and translate it for non-academics. I think it is crucial, however, to remember that though Wright is constructing an approach to the divinity of Jesus and the historicity of his resurrection that may seem circuitous and cumbersome to evangelicals, he is doing so in response to the skeptic/atheist/agnostic historian. It forms a bridge to their world (and especially the academic quarters of that world), and it is a bridge not easily torn down.

5. “A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?”

I had never read Robert Jenson before. But as the tributes and eulogies flowed in this the year of his passing, I felt compelled to start. This was a fabulous recommendation from good friends. It’s more or less the transcript of his lectures to a group of undergrads on “basic Christian theology”. But in Jenson’s artful hands, it is so much more than basic; it is narrative, it is comprehensive, and it is captivating. Like Wright, Jenson knows his (initial) audience may be mostly liberal (read: not Creedal per se), yet presents confessional articles of Christianity in clear and elegant prose. I see what all the fuss is about now.

6. “Our Secular Age”

If you’re like me, you’ve never read Charles Taylor’s tome A Secular Age, but you’ve read other works on its importance. I read Jamie Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular a few years ago, and this is a worthy companion. It’s less of a summary or re-articulation of Taylor (as Smith’s book is), and more of a “so what?” pastoral follow-up. Each chapter contains contributions from various pastors/thinkers/writers on the implications for ministry practitioners in this new secular age. It’s very readable and contains specific points of reflection for our American context. I wish every pastor would read it and take it seriously. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say, if you only picked one from my list to read in 2018, let this be it.

7. “Practical Theology”

This one is mostly for seminarians, methinks. But it is what evangelical seminaries need in order to overhaul the current approach to “practical theology”. I know: that’s a bold and perhaps brash statement. In my very limited experience, so much of what passes off as practical theology is nothing more than applied theology— preaching, pastoral care, and the like. Meanwhile, the tools and trade secrets of anthropology and sociology are quarantined to “cultural studies” and maybe a few “missiology” programs. But the (dominant) British model of practical theology places theory and practice in a dialogical relationship, counting both as theological. The goal is to parse the embodied and embedded theology of practice (along with its communities, culture, and contexts) and to allow it to critique and shape historical, biblical, and systemictheology— instead of only allowing the influence to flow in the other direction. To be sure, for some this is a path to abandoning orthodoxy. But in Ward’s work, the evangelical reader will find a guide she can trust amidst the myriad of models and methods. For pastors who have completed seminary education, there is so much in here that will help you utilize old tools you learned (along with some new ones) in fresh contexts. After all, we often find ourselves doing practical theology on the fly; we may as well learn how to do it better on purpose.

BONUS: “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”

 This is a ‘bonus’ because I didn’t read this one cover to cover. But, I think if one were to read the early chapters in which Hays lays out his foundation and hermeneutical methodology and then to skip to the topics which interest the reader (as I did), it works quite well. It was immensely helpful to me to watch Hays carefully work through a consistent rationale and arrive at conclusions to ethical questions in ways which honor the authority of Scripture and take seriously the particulars of our context.

Seek First to Understand: Can Public Discourse Be Saved?

We don’t understand each other.

And I’m not sure how hard we’re trying.

This is not a post about athletes or anthems, flags or protests. *Take a deep breath.* This is about how we talk— or more accurately— how we listen to one another.

Years ago, Stephen Covey wrote in his ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, we should ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood’. So in the effort to aid our understanding of one another, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how controversial and heated topics can become a pathway into empathy, and lead to better public discourse. I want to reflect for a moment on emotions, symbols, and language.

I. Emotions.
We often think emotions are the problem. “Don’t be so emotional,” we say. “Just face the facts and forget your feelings.” We think this is how to “grow up”, as if the coldly logical Dr. Spock were the epitome of maturity.

But emotions are not flaws. They are part of the glory of being made in the image of God. The problem is not that we are “emotional”; the problem is that we do not know how to pay attention to our emotions.

Emotions, as Bob Roberts from Baylor has argued, are a mode of perception. They are a way of seeing the world based on what we care about. Or as my friend Adam Pelsar who teaches at the Air Force Academy says, emotions are the “eyes of our heart”.

When you’re angry, it’s because something that you care about is being obstructed. When you’re afraid, it’s because something you care about is being threatened. When you’re sad, it’s because something you care about has been lost.

Two people could have very different reactions to a rainy day. One could be sad, the other could be relieved. Rather than arguing by trying to convince each other that they should not feel what they feel, they could learn about the other by asking about what their emotion is saying. Perhaps the one who is sad about rain was hoping to go on a hike with their friend. Maybe the one who is relieved lived through a forest fire and was hoping for more moisture. You see, our emotions can be a way into understanding each other if only we’d stop being shocked or offended when someone responds to a situation with a different emotion than the one we’re feeling.

What if when we saw someone get emotional about something, or read an outburst on Facebook, we don’t respond with equal intensity to counter them? What if we learn to ask instead, “Tell me what are you most concerned about here?” “Help me understand why is this so important to you?”

Emotions can be a gateway into intimacy. If we learn to be attentive to our emotions, they can help us learn about ourselves. And better yet: they can help us gain empathy for each other.

II. Symbols.
Consider how symbols work. A symbol is not a code. A code has only one referent; a symbol has many. So what the flag means to one is not what it means to another. What the symbolic act of kneeling means for one is not what it means to another. That’s just how symbols work. And frankly, it’s what gives symbols their power. They are incredibly malleable and portable. They can easily be imported into very different contexts.

But this means that we cannot evaluate another’s symbolic act solely based on what that act symbolizes to us; we have to ask what it symbolized to them. When sociologists debate the meaning of ritualized acts, the focus is often on who determines the meaning. Is the meaning of an act pre-encoded in, or does it depend on the performer? Or, more confusing yet, does the meaning of a ritual depend on the impressions of the viewer? No matter how post-modern our perspective, the general sense is that the performer of a ritual has the most say about what the act means.

So if you want to know what the flag means to people who stand and salute, ask them what meaning they are assigning to their act of standing. And if you want to know what the act of kneeling in the anthem means to those who kneel, ask them. I know people in our congregation who have different perspectives on this. I said in a recent sermon that those who have sacrificed and served and suffered loss like the men and women in our military have will have a deeper understanding of allegiance and of the flag than those who haven’t. I also said in a different sermon that many of us have no way of comprehending the depth of the impact of racism, particularly toward African-Americans, in our country– from the slave trade to segregation, from redline laws and institutionalized bias.  I am learning to listen and to give voice to the people in our congregation who identify with each of these perspectives. Both groups have something profound that they’re trying to communicate. Are we listening?

Speaking of listening…

III. Language.
Stanley Hauerwas, the great theologian/ethicist, said that we can only act in the world that we see, and that we shape the world we see by the words we say. So, if you call a fetus a ‘pregnancy’, you would be more open to ‘terminating’ it. But if you call it a baby in the womb, you would never think of taking a life. Words matter.

Words in our public discourse matter not just because they have the power to wound or to heal— though, please God, help us pay more attention to that too! Words matter because they show us how we are seeing the world. They lead to how we act in the world.

What if we listened— really listened— to each other’s words? What if when someone says that they experience systemic racial injustice, we take the time to imagine the world that they see? What if when someone says they feel disrespected by an athlete who kneels, that their service and sacrifice has been trivialized, we listen to those words? Injustice. Sacrifice. Disrespect. Words matter.

Words can show us one another’s worlds. They can help us enter each other’s stories, feel each other’s pain.

But words can only do this if we listen. And if we allow our listening to provoke a holy curiosity.

Tell me, what is it like to fear being pulled over when you’ve done nothing wrong?

Tell me, what is it like to lose a friend in battle and to witness the flag being folded and presented to their grieving widow at his grave?

Let the power of words help us enter each other’s worlds.


Friends, the world is not yet aflame with strife. May God grant us the grace to use emotions, symbols, and language as a way to listen with more empathy that we might gain more understanding. Who can say, but we just might save public discourse yet.

What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic Church?

What does it mean to be prophetic? The word is thrown around a lot, but depending on which circles you run in, it means something quite different. If you’re in the charismatic crowd, being prophetic means speaking the ‘now’ word of God— bringing ‘fresh revelation’, and possibly even doing it in a way that is spontaneous and disruptive to the plan or the schedule. But if you run with justice-oriented Christ-followers, being prophetic is being bold, confrontational, and possibly disruptive not to a plan but to an order, a societal framework. How could the same word have such different connotations? What can we recover from the Biblical roots of the prophetic role?

In the Old Testament, two words are used to describe the prophet. The earlier of the two is the word ro’eh, which roughly means, ‘the one who sees’. Later, the more common word used for a prophet is nabi, which can be loosely translated as, ‘the one who speaks’, particularly, on behalf of another.

A prophet is one who sees a different world, and says a different word.

Specifically, a prophet is able to speak a revealing word because he sees something others don’t, something hidden to others. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 called Jesus a prophet– he revealed the truth about the number of men who had married and abandoned her. And this is why Paul is a prophet– because the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed to him. If we bring all this together, we can outline a sketch of what it means to be a prophetic church.

A Prophetic Church…
1. Sees Jesus as King and His Kingdom arriving here and now.

One of the major themes in the Old Testament is that the Creator-God is the King of His Creation (many of the Psalms praise God in this way). When we read the first few chapters of the Bible through that lens, we begin to understand that human beings were created to reflect the wise and loving rule of God the Creator-King into His creation. This is what having ‘dominion’ means. Yet, the fall was a rebellion that forfeited that privilege.

Until…the True Adam came as the world’s True King. When Jesus announced His Kingdom mission in Luke 4, He quoted Isaiah 61, where the anointing of the Spirit is the empowerment to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner, and more. In Luke’s ‘Volume 2’— the Book of Acts— the Spirit is poured out on the Church so that this Kingdom mission can continue.

Paul argues through his letters in different ways that the Church participates in the Kingdom by confessing Jesus as ‘Lord’— the true sovereign of the world— and by living under His reign by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is at its prophetic best when it lives in a way the would make no sense unless Jesus is King, and His Kingdom really were arriving here and now. That is why a prophetic church does not divide up evangelism and miracles and justice. We see them as a threefold cord. A prophetic church announces the forgiveness of sins, healing for the sick, and justice for the oppressed in Jesus’ name.

2. Speaks the truth to power.

Our image of the prophet has to be shaped by the Old Testament’s regard for Moses as the greatest prophet in Israel. We don’t usually think of Moses as a prophet, but when we do, we understand that part of the prophetic call is speaking truth to power. In that light, Nathan’s rebuke of David and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel all begin to make sense. Sometimes the prophet does the truth-telling through the voice of lament, as Jeremiah did.

Thus Jesus is prophetic not only because of His revealing the marriage history of the woman at the well, but also because of His confrontations with power. When Jesus overturned the tables of money-changers in the Temple, and when He defied Pilate— by reshaping his questions, refuting his claims to power, and even by refusing to answer— He was living out the prophetic vocation by speaking the truth to both religious and political powers. (Paul echoes these behaviors in his conversations with various religious and political rulers in the latter half of the Book of Acts.)

The early Christians were not killed because Christianity was a religion Rome did not like. Rome welcomed any and all religions, but they were particularly threatened by Christianity. Why? Because Christianity made a radical, new and exclusive claim: Jesus alone is the Lord of all, worthy of worship; all other gods must be renounced as false. Rome viewed this as a dangerous belief. And every time the Church gathered to worship, there were speaking the truth to power by confessing Jesus as the True Lord– using terms Caesar had applied to himself as political propaganda– and thus declaring the gods of Empire as false.

Every time we show the gods of our age to be false, and expose their claims as a lie, we are speaking the truth to power. We denounce the lie that economic prosperity is the source of joy, that sexual pleasure is the highest end of every relationship, that violence is the path to peace, that a people-group or nation matters more than another. Sometimes our voice is the voice of proclamation and confession; others it is the voice of lament. Both are forms of prophetic truth-telling.

3. Signposts toward the future.

Activism has many appealing qualities. It is better than doing nothing; it unites and mobilizes people toward a common cause. It can raise awareness and even adjust a widely-held cultural paradigm.

And yet, activism is not the same thing as being prophetic. The Church does not care for the poor or feed the hungry or speak for the marginalized for the same reason an activist does. They may be in the same march or use the same hashtag, but the Christian is motivated by something different than the activist. The Christian is not in this— ultimately— to create change or to solve problems. If this were so, then a Christian may weigh the odds of actually changing a situation before speaking up or acting. A Christian is driven to act and speak because she has seen a different future. Remember: a prophet says a different word because he sees a different world.

Every time the Church ‘welcomes the stranger’, forgives an enemy, shows mercy to the offender, or protects the vulnerable, we are a signpost to the future. We don’t do these things to be a good humanitarian or to solve a global crisis. We do it to point toward the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, on earth as it is in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when suffering is no more.

Now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit to help us live as a witness in the world of a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, arriving on earth as it is in heaven. May God give us the grace to live as a prophetic Church.

The Currency of Christian Leadership

 

Where do leaders in churches and Christian ministries gain their authority to lead?

It is tempting to simply say, ‘From God!’ There is, of course, some truth to this. All authority ultimately comes from God, and Scripture tells us that all who occupy positions of official authority do so because God allows it.

And yet, there is more to the situation. Romans 13 refers specifically to government authority. What about the authority to lead the people of God? Is the model of spiritual leadership different from general organizational leadership? And even if we would say that it is, the question is where do we look for our model of spiritual leadership?

Over the years, I’ve heard church and ministry leaders protect their power by admonishing others not to “touch the Lord’s anointed”– which they took to mean never challenging their authority. They squashed dissent and took control by using the Lord’s name…quite nearly in vain. Strangely, all the Biblical justification they used for their right to power was based on an Old Testament model of leadership.

Not everything from the Old Testament is different in the New, but leadership underwent a severe overhaul. A leadership mentor insightfully pointed out to me almost ten years ago that in the Old Testament the man of God went up to the mountain of God to get the word of God and then came down and told the people of God what to do. Think, Moses.

But in the New Testament, we are together a Kingdom of Priests; each of us has access to God, and the Spirit of God living within. A Kingdom of Priests was God’s original intent; it was the people of Israel who were afraid and refused, begging Moses to go for them. This inclination to have someone else in charge surfaced generations later when they pleaded with God, “Give us a king!” God wanted to be their King, to have each of them follow Him. But they refused. Strong human leadership is easier; it’s more convenient, and far more efficient. Just put someone in charge and let him delegate authority down.

Consider how the New Testament church appointed leaders. 1 Timothy 3 contains the New Testament guidelines for elders and deacons. Here is just one line from the long list of qualifications, and this is one for deacons:

“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and household well.” (1 Tim. 3:12, NIV)

Follow me for a minute: Who was the best and greatest king of Israel? No brainer– David. Every other king is measured against David. Because of God’s love for David, He wouldn’t punish Solomon for his sins during his own lifetime. Even the best of the kings of Judah that followed couldn’t hold a candle to David. He was the greatest.

Yet David would not meet this New Testament qualification to deaconship. What did deacons in the New Testament church do? Remember Acts 6? Deacons were appointed to wait on tables to help with the care of the widows. Wait a minute. You mean David would not have been allowed to wait on tables in the New Testament church? Yup.

The greatest leader in the Old Testament would not have qualified for the lowest position of leadership in the New Testament.

Why?

In the Old Testament, leaders got their authority to rule from “divine right”; in the New Testament, people get their authority to lead from earned trust. Every one of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and even in Acts 6 when they chose the first 7 deacons has to do with trust. What kind of reputation do they have? Are they known for servanthood? Are they known for being people of wisdom, full of Spirit of God? Have they been tested? Do they have the abilities necessary? (Paul says specifically, “able to teach”.) He doesn’t ask if they’ve been prophesied over as children or if they have a calling on their lives or if they believe they are called to be a prophet to the nations or even if they’re anointed. He asks what sort of reputation they have. In essence, can they be trusted?

Trust is the currency of leadership in the New Testament era.

There are authority structures even in the New Testament church. It’s not spiritual anarchy. The church in Jerusalem was led by a council of elders, the head of which appears to be James. Authority is not a bad word. The question is how God wants to establish that authority publicly in the Church. From the examples in Acts and from Paul’s writings, the process seems to be as follows:

  1. God works in an individual’s life, giving gifts and the desire for leadership.     
  2. The individual gains the people’s trust by a servant’s heart, solid character, and by faithful and skilled service.
  3. The established leaders lay hands on him/her in front of the people, confirming his/her calling and setting him/her in office.

It is tragic irony that the Church so often resorts to an Old Testament leadership model, and not the one pioneered back in Jerusalem in the 1st century.

All authority comes from God; but leadership over others comes from the trust of the people.


How do leaders gain the trust of their people? More on that in Part 2 HERE.