Why I Am a Christian

The universe cries out for the blood that only Jesus can give.

This post was written two years ago. This week I’m republishing it for Holy Week.

This is embarrassing to admit, but here goes. If I were not a Christian, I’m pretty sure I would be a Unitarian Universalist, or something like one.

I’ve known the answer to the “What religion would you be if not Christianity” question for a long time. It’s not that I’m impressed with UU from an intellectual or even moral point of view. On the contrary, it seems vapid and incoherent in the extreme. No, the reason I’d be a Universalist is Charles Dickens,”What a Wonderful World,” and Coke commercials. I’d be a Universalist because of Star Wars, art museums, and the New York Times. If you were to take most of my favorite things about American culture and wring them like a rag, universalism would pour out—not so much the idea of it, but the mood. My day to day happiness would multiply if I could go about my middle class American life and sincerely believe that everyone who walked into my favorite coffee shop on a Saturday morning was gonna be OK, or that all my favorite pop songs and blockbuster films were different hymns of the same church.

For me, this exercise is hypothetical. For a lot of people, it’s where they actually are. A whopping 72% of Americans believe in heaven; 58% believe in hell. That 14-point gap is one of the most seductive places I can imagine. Who wouldn’t sell all they had to live in a world of just heaven, no hell? Who could measure the psychological relief that many would experience if the red and green lights of Christmas signified only the spirit of giving, carols only the sentimentalism of the past, and church bells merely the brotherhood of all living things? Life would be so very simpler if it were a metaphor rather than a babe in that manger.

My inner desire for a world such as this has been my version of a “crisis of faith.” I’ve never actually seriously contemplated rejecting Christianity for universalism. Then again, the universalist in me doesn’t play by the rules of  serious contemplation. C.S. Lewis made famous the “apologetic from desire,” the argument toward the God of Christianity starting from our need to make sense of our deepest human longings. What I’m describing is an argument from desire, too, an apologetic for rejecting everything that obscures a romantic view of the universe.

In his first letter, Screwtape advises his apprentice to interrupt a human’s journey to Christianity by showing him the minutia of a typical day—”a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past”—and gently suggesting that this is real life. The genius of this demonic strategy is that it’s all happening underneath reason and argument. The point is not whether ignoring the evidences for a personal God and the truth of Scripture is a logical or illogical thing to do. The point is that, given the choice between Christianity and unbelief, there is only choice that will let you look at the universe, whether the Milky Way or Main Street, and accept that that’s all there is to it. That’s what I find romantic about universalism: “This is the world, this is reality, and you don’t have to think or do a thing about it except eat, pray, and love.”

***

I decided several months before my oldest child was born that I was going to watch the whole birth. I wanted to do this partially to support my wife, partially out of curiosity, but also because I’d heard countless testimonies of how seeing the “miracle of life” and then holding the miracle in your arms annihilated any doubt of the existence of God. Not that I doubted God’s existence, really; I just wanted the sensation of doubt being annihilated.

When we checked into the hospital I brought in all sorts of romantic ideas about watching a life come into the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that most of these ideas were sterile, almost offenisvely so. I expected to see a beautiful infant glide effortlessly into the room. I expected to hear cries as soft as whispers break my mental rendition of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” I looked forward to the moment of my son’s birth as a moment that I knew would transform me in its greatness, exorcise my demons and balm the proud callouses of my soul. I was going to be a different person just for having seen this, I thought.

What really happened was blood. What really happened was searing pain in a trembling wife. What really happened was gore and viscera, as a grey-purple mass of human anatomy slowly came out covered in its own fecal matter. My son’s cries were almost entirely muted as he struggled to cough his own waste out of his lungs. Instead of a moment of enlightenment and transformation, there was confusion as nurses swept him away from our arms and took him to the NICU to help him not asphyxiate. Instead of the soundtrack-backed beauty penetrating my soul, my wife, in-laws and I cried and prayed that our son would be able to cough the waste out of his body and breathe.

Thus was my sterile, romantic view of this slice of existence shattered. The real world, it turns out, is not one of perfect-pink babies who melt your heart at first glance, but of blood and meconium-soaked infants who (might) need technology just to live. Yes, there are precious newborn pictures to take and sweet “Happy birthday” celebrations to come, but these don’t exist apart from trauma, stitches, the risk of hemorrhaging, heartbeats that can bottom out, and lungs that can flail. My son only lives because his mother endured violence to her body. He could have not lived. There was nothing in the book of Science! that said his lungs had to successfully eject his own body’s poison. Infants die every day. Infants die.

This isn’t just being “realistic.” It’s one thing to not live in a happy-go-lucky fairy tale like so many literary creations. It’s another thing to suffer. It’s yet another thing to know, to feel, that the very universe is “red in tooth and claw.”

As I write these words, my grandmother is only a few days removed from suffering a severe, life-threatening stroke. Whether she will ever regain her speech is unknown. When I opened my Facebook feed this morning, one of the first things I saw was a friend’s heartbreaking image of his little boy hooked up to hospital IVs. Just now I saw someone else on social media talk about his wife’s days in the ICU. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about cancer, disease, or death.

Red in tooth and claw.

***

The sterilized metaphysics of Western spirituality, the liturgies of eat-pray-love, are sieves when it comes to the bloodiness of reality. I could, if I chose, close my eyes and insist on believing in the inherent goodness of man, the brotherhood of all, and the common destiny of all but the worst people. But I could not close my eyes hard enough to un-see the blood of vaginal delivery. The blood does not merely sit there. It calls out, just as the blood of Abel cried “out from the ground.”  It calls out for reckoning. Almost every secular person agrees that children are the closest thing we have to divine love. What does it then mean that the existence of children is brought about not by ephemeral well-wishing but by the tearing of flesh? What does it mean for the millions of modern people who long for heaven and laugh at hell that heaven has hell clutching at its heels?

Christianity is about blood. It is a blood-stained narrative about a blood-stained universe. The Garden teems with spectacular creations of life, and blood courses through the veins of animals and image-bearers alike. When God gives Adam and Eve skins to cover themselves with after they plunge the cosmos headlong into darkness, the unspoken realization is that somewhere, a creature’s blood was shed so that this man and woman could be clothed, protected, and unashamed.

Atonement is not mere ritual, it is a reckoning with the world as it really is. Everyone offers a blood sacrifice for something: a creature’s blood for my food, a stranger’s blood for my survival, my own blood for the life of my child. Try to believe for one minute that this world is not fallen, not broken, not longing for a redemption denied it hence, and you won’t take three steps before you see blood. Blood is the stuff of life, as well as its price.

What the Easter story gives us is Jesus’ blood for our life. Blood is the price of life, and we have forfeited life with our bloodletting sin (sin’s first fatality was that Edenic animal). Jesus sheds his blood for our sin, pays the price of life, and gives the rewards of that payment to us. Some insist that the idea of “sin” is psychologically damaging and repressive. But what other word is there for a perpetually bleeding existence? The world is red and tooth in claw. No philosophical or religious system that fails to reckon with this speaks truthfully. The sanitized inward journeys of Eastern contemplative religions do not explain the blood. Moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t receive the blood. Atheism and scientism choose to drown in the blood. At the center of Christianity is a man with shredded flesh and pouring veins, a bloody overlay on top of a bloody universe. Look away in disgust if you will, ignore if you can, but every step of your daily, embodied existence reminds you of blood. This is the world as it really is, not as how gurus want it to be. You don’t get a choice whether it’s true. Your very birth shed blood.

The world we find ourselves in has blood at the center of it. You can scrub away at it all your life and it will not come up. Holy Week is about blood calling out to blood. His blood exchanged for mine. The blood of a violent, sinful, dying world transfused for the blood that spoke the stars into existence and washes whiter than snow. A bloody world must receive a bloody Savior.

That’s why I’m a Christian.

Arms nailed down

Are you telling me something?

Eyes turned out

Are you looking for someone?

This is the one thing

The one thing that I know.

Never the demons

The first few chapters of Mark’s gospel mention Jesus’s casting out demons and “unclean spirits” more than five times. The first public work that Jesus performs in Mark is casting a demon out of a man who was calm enough on the outside to attend synagogue on Sabbath. On the other end of the spectrum is the man who lived “among the tombs” and cut himself in demonic madness. The latter example is a bigger spectacle, but it is striking how many times in Mark the Bible just passingly notes that Jesus was casting out unclean spirits in all kind of spaces. They were everywhere, even in public worship. Casting them out wasn’t an occasional part of his ministry; it went hand-in-hand with his teaching and healing.

So the question nagging me is: if the literal people of God were so beset with demonic oppression that the Son of God spent a great deal of time casting out demons (and sent his disciples out to do the same in his name), how beset with demonic oppression are we moderns—we who are “spiritual but not religious,” open to the influence of the numinous but with no knowledge or even desire to know what kind of spiritual forces take us up on our invitation? I’m all for interrogating the harmful effects of some church cultures, but I’m not sure why we don’t even linger over the news of a young man’s murdering eight people to “eliminate temptation” long enough to see the demonic forces that Jesus clearly saw everywhere he went. And when that story is quickly followed by another mass murder in Colorado? The news cycle just resets, and the blood is on the hands of the GOP, or all Muslims, or purity culture, or cancel culture…name your ideological enemy, and you can find someone prominent laying horror at their feet.

Never the demons.

Why not? Perhaps one reason is that ignoring the work of demons allows us to ignore the work the Lord gave us in opposing them. “These kind can only be cast out by prayer,” he once said. Prayer against demonic works, and the earthly powers clearly beholden to those demonic works, is not as satisfyingly assuring as playing a culture war blame game. We look to scapegoat others so that we are not ourselves implicated. And a lot of what gets called “analysis” is merely this: looking at the world for any and every sign that we ourselves are the righteous people we believe us to be, and the Other Side are the wicked tribe we believe them to be. This is not polarization or hatred nearly as much as it is a profoundly deep kind of therapy. Self-righteousness as self-care.

In his book The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs references a stunning quote by the Catholic literary giant W.H. Auden:

Psychoanalysis, like all pagan scientia, says: “Come, my good man, no wonder you feel guilty. You have a distorting mirror, and that is indeed a very wicked thing to have. But cheer up. For a trifling consideration I shall be delighted to straighten it out for you. There. Look. A perfect image. The evil of distortion is exorcised. Now you have nothing to repent of any longer. Now you are one of the illumined and elect. That will be ten thousand dollars, please.”

And immediately come seven devils, and the last state of that man is worse than the first.

One of the themes in Mark is how the demons know Jesus. They know who he is. The demons are far more theologically astute than the people, even Jesus’s disciples. The man among the tombs cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” After Jesus sends this man’s demons into the pigs, the herdsmen and townspeople beg Jesus to leave their region. If they listened to the demons, they wouldn’t have done this. Against their own will, the unclean spirits declare truth, the deep nature of things. But what if we can’t hear them? What if the “distorting mirrors” suck, like a black hole, all attention onto its image?

We see horror. We blame the fundamentalists, the progressives, the Calvinists, the woke. “If only these people—the people who raised me, the people I met in college, the people in my old church or the people at this other church—if only these people would change or go away,” we say, “the world would not be such a horrible place.” No one responds to this way of thinking with prayer. No one is moved to fast by the feeling that those Bad People Over There must be stopped. We are moved to Tweet, to blog, to rage, to shut out. To look more deeply into that distorting mirror.

Never the demons.

On male friendship and the local church

Why do many churches struggle to fix the crisis of American male loneliness?

This piece by Ryan McCormick on the decline of spaces for male friendship is really spectacular. I’ve read so many essays on the topic, most of which are two and three times as long as Ryan’s, and almost none of them produce the genuine insight that Ryan did. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend stopping what you’re doing and fixing that.

I think a lot about friendship and masculinity nowadays. As you can probably guess, one reason is that it’s relevant to me personally. I struggle to make friends. Leaving college was for me, like many others, a turning point; the last several years have been almost exclusively given to work, marriage, parenting, etc. The richest time of friendship in the years I’ve been married were probably the almost 3 years we spent in Wheaton, where I enjoyed getting close to a few coworkers and a wonderful small group. COVID-19 put an anticlimactic end to that, and we ended up moving back to Kentucky last summer. I can’t say I haven’t struggled with the discouragement of losing those men.

Statistically a majority of American men my age are in the same boat, and it gets worse for men when they leave their 30s. Middle-aged men are one of the loneliest groups in the country, so much so that it’s being called a legitimate public health crisis. We probably won’t know for a while the effect that a pandemic and lockdowns had on this, but it’s not hard to guess: men aged 35-64 represented 40% of all suicide deaths before the pandemic.

All right, so: Time to recover a doctrine of the local church, right? Hold on. As Ryan points out in his piece, local churches are more often than not participants in the diminishing of “third spaces” rather than solutions. Here’s a quote from his essay:

It is widely noted in my own congregation that the women have their own small groups and yearly retreats; the men have practically nothing. As Anthony Bradley noted in a recent essay on this site, the American church (even when it is pastored or governed by men) functions mainly due to the involvement of women. Consequently, the social programs that churches typically offer adhere to the norms of contemporary female friendship, e.g., small groups, where church members share life updates and prayer requests. These groups are certainly immensely valuable to men. Yet while I’ve loved each small group I’ve belonged to, they have never produced durable male friendships. What is lacking in the church are groups where a common horizon can be forged between guys.

Let me add another element to this. It seems to me that in many evangelical church cultures, women’s ministry naturally encompasses producing opportunities for friendship in a way that men’s ministry doesn’t. For one thing, as Ryan points out, men’s ministries are often sparse. A typical church’s finite resources tend to go toward facilitating events for the dominant demographic, and throughout evangelicalism the dominant demographic is female. It’s not uncommon at all to find evangelical churches that have absolutely nothing offered for men, or if there is, it is an annual event, one in which a lot of pressure is placed on men to not miss since this will be the only event of its kind for a year.

For another thing, men’s ministry is highly programmed. In the recent past I’ve noticed that my wife will come home after a women’s ministry event and have much to share about the people she talked to and their casual conversations. This is fascinating to me because the majority of men’s events I’ve been to allow little or no space for this. What matters in men’s events is being productive: doing as much Bible study or “sharing” time as possible, and programming events and groups so that men are free to come, download the content, and leave efficiently.

The impression I’ve often got from many churches is that, when it comes to the men, gathering and friendship are thought about instrumentally. They are to be valued to the extent that they represent opportunities to do the “real” stuff of studying the Bible, or praying, or sharing testimonies/accountability questions. What I don’t find in many churches are opportunities for men to come together and form friendship in a natural way, without expectations of a spiritual performance or mastery of biblical content.

In other words, in many of the evangelical church contexts I’ve seen, women are invited into friendship and encouragement, while men are usually only invited into either Bible study or accountability. And some men receive this message loud and clear, and make a point to attend church programming without forming meaningful friendships on the margins; but because these men make an appearance at the events that “matter,” the church infers its men’s ministry is doing quite well.

It should go without saying that this doesn’t describe every church or perhaps even a majority. But it’s been a consistent enough pattern in my own experience that I’ve expressed these thoughts to various people throughout the last few years, and many of them say they’ve seen it as well.

So how does the local church address itself to the crisis of loneliness in American men? I think Ryan’s essay gives an important clue. In order for the local church to become a living solution rather than a cliche to throw out when you don’t know the answer, churches have to think hard about the material causes of isolation and loneliness among men. Are men lonely because there are not enough one day conferences and Bible studies? Or are they lonely because the environments and contexts in which male friendship thrives are disappearing? Does Christian formation for men depend primarily on how much Bible knowledge they are able to put on a sheet of paper, or how emotionally transparent they can be a weeknight gathering? Or does it depend on something deeper and harder to manufacture?

As with many things, if we’re not sure of the answer just yet, we can always identify what we have been doing and ask if it’s working. Well, is it?

Country club deconstruction

Deconstructing the Christian faith in which you were raised due to suffering or intellectual/existential crisis is a move that deserves a careful and nuanced response. Deconstructing your faith because you’ve grown up and discovered cooler people than the folks in your youth group deserves something different. 

I know there are plenty of people in the first category. But to be honest, I’m starting to suspect that the deconstruction content industry is funded and operated mostly by people in the second category. There are too many common schticks, stories, and even experiences among the ex-Christian books and podcasts. Some similarities among people who were raised in conservative religious circles is completely expected. But when just about every de-converting personality says “There were never good answers to my questions,” any reasonable person might begin wondering if there’s some note-sharing going on. 

Christians want to understand why people leave the faith, and our evangelistic beliefs mean that we instinctively make it our responsibility when a person who was in church for several years ends up disavowing everything they once believed. I don’t think this is a bad thing. But I also think, in a time when #content is king and everyone’s perspective is potentially for sale, it’s an easily exploitable thing. If you want big, rich publishers to pay attention to someone who was raised in a mostly white, conservative Christian environment, tell that person to come out of the gates swinging against it. If you want highly-followed accounts on Twitter to link to you and say things like, “Really important thread,” insist that you were brainwashed by your youth pastor. 

Of course, merely pointing this out can feel like a callous disregard for the way bad theology or bad church cultures can shipwreck people’s faith. They absolutely can do that. That’s one reason why the flavors of novelty and detachment from history and tradition in American evangelicalism are so destructive. We’ve certainly already seen how much Christian spirituality in America cashes out to spiritual jargon + conservative political beliefs. When you storm the US Capitol building with a placard that says “Jesus Saves,” you’ve jumped the shark. 

But in the halls of influence and affluence in American society, pointing this out is easy. It’s nearly a form of social currency. Which is why the popularity of the deconstruction story is something a little bit other than a rebuke of the spiritual formation practices of backward conservative evangelicals. Plenty of “deconstruction” stories are predictably American: someone grows up in a small, conservative community; moves away to college or career; and discovers that bars and sex and Left politics don’t immediately vaporize them the way they thought. What’s worse, this story is often soaked in ex-Christian shibboleths, like the one mentioned above about never getting answers to questions—as if the questions didn’t have answers. There were questions I had growing up in Christianity that didn’t get good answers from my youth pastor or Sunday school class. But it turns out those answers exist and functional, college-educated adults can find them: if they want to. 

I guess the point of this post is to say: maybe lots of people who’ve abandoned the Christianity of their youth are suffering in ways they don’t realize. Maybe their deconstruction is just another part of their life that they have built around getting the approval of people who will be glad to join a social media cancel mob against them if the wrong post ever gets dug up. Maybe, more than being assured that their childhood Christianity was malformation, they need to be inspired to care about whether things are true or untrue, rather than whether they get attention. 

Does Art Matter in a Pandemic?

The only way out of COVID-19 is toward the place where all the beauty comes from.

I’ve seen more than one Christian theologian in the blogosphere sneering at the federal government’s decision to dole out grants to arts organizations, as part of the historic coronavirus stimulus bill. One pastor said the grants were evidence of conspiratorial hysteria, or “covidiocy.” In an otherwise superb piece, Carl Trueman writes: “‘Redeeming the arts’ doesn’t seem quite so urgent when your immediate problem is not that of obtaining tickets to the Met but of potentially dying before the box office reopens after the COVID-19 crisis.” From what I can gather, the point is not about the particular worthiness of the National Endowment for the Arts, but about the self-evidently unimportant nature of art in general, which is obscured in times of wealth and ease but exposed during  crisis.

There’s a point here, to be sure. We take entertainment far too seriously and spend too much money and time on it. And Trueman is right to say that our elite aesthetes trivialize life. All variables being equal, it probably would be better for our collective souls if a few film studios were allowed to go bust.

Yet I’m not sure that a deathly plague is the correct launch point for reflecting on the futility of art. Trueman is absolutely right that the church must take seriously its charge to prepare believers for death and eternity, but is such seriousness opposed to something like “redeeming the arts”? I don’t think so, for a few reasons.

First, as Trueman himself notes, bad art has conditioned many in our culture to feel flippancy toward their existence. Good art, on the other hand, awakens our spiritual senses and makes us feel the weight and givenness of everything. If glib depiction of things like suicide and sex numb our moral imagination, good, true, and beautiful depictions can also animate it.

A couple nights ago I re-watched 1917 and was moved again by its visceral depiction of courage [warning: spoilers in this paragraph]. For me, the most powerful moment in the film is when Schofield happens upon a young woman living underneath a town engulfed in flames. She is caring for someone’s infant—she doesn’t know who. He calms the uneasy child and offers it some of the milk he found on the farm that was the site of his friend’s slow, agonizing death. The scene is unspeakably beautiful, and we wish it could go on–that Schofield could somehow escape from the flames of the Nazis and find solace in this dimly lit room. Yet he pulls himself away:”I have to go,” and the words have to reveal the kind of spirit that builds and defends civilizations.

That is the moral power of art. It is one thing to know that soldiers are brave. It is another thing to somehow imaginatively participate in the moments of such bravery. This is the kind of art that can help us prepare for our own deaths.

God invented art and he intended it to have this kind of power. That is why the Scriptures are full of stories, poetry, music, and parables. Failing to nurture our God-given, creative nature can have devastating consequences when we come to the Bible. As Russell Moore has noted, evangelicalism is worse off when believers emphasize rote Bible memory to the exclusion of allowing ourselves to be shaped by the story of redemption.

Second, I think we should be leery of pitting good things against one another. It is good that General Motors can switch its machines around to make ventillators instead of transmission lines. It should do that! But the current desirability of ventillators over transmission lines is not actually a statement about the worth of cars. After this virus has abated, the future flourishing of many will depend on those machines making cars once again.

Like Imrahil urging the Captains to leave behind a defense for Minas Tirith, we ought to use our time and resources to preserve what we will need after this crisis is over. We can debate how many dollars such a goal is worth in a federal stimulus. But dismissing artistic reflection brings us perilously close to the utilitarian reasoning of many contemporary universities that shutter their philosophy programs at the first sign of financial stress. Such decisions do not result in the end of philosophy, they simply ensure that Silicon Valley technocrats will be the only ones teaching it. Likewise, Christians deciding that the gospel doesn’t speak to art will not make movies and music less distracting, but it will mean that more are distracted by flippancy and materialism instead of by truth and beauty.

Here we must admit that we need discernment between the American value of efficiency and the Christian virtues. If efficiency were a Christian virtue, there would be nothing to mourn and everything to celebrate about being forced to livestream a sermon. The time it takes for believers to wake up on Sunday morning, get dressed, and lasso children (in the home and the Sunday school class) merely for the sake of sitting on hard seats with people they wouldn’t otherwise befriend is what the smart people would call a sunk cost. Yet the Bible tells us that something mysterious happens in that physical gathering—that somehow that disparate group of sinners can be in the presence of the King of the universe, commune with him, and bear each other’s sorrows and joys.

The danger in forgetting art is not that we will forget to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” but that we might forget what “as it is in heaven” even means. Let’s say instead with Lewis that the only way out of COVID-19 is toward the place where all the beauty comes from.

 

Close the Churches

A response to R.R. Reno.

R.R. Reno writes from a Roman Catholic perspective when he bemoans the closure of churches and suspension of Mass during coronavirus, but I’ve seen enough similar sentiment from Protestants to know he’s not alone. HIs argument however is both rife with logical fallacy and lacking in thorough biblical reflection.

First, the either/or fallacy pops up quite a bit in the piece. Consider this line:

Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care.

It feels like that final sentence is missing an ending. It sounds like Reno means to imply this concluding clause: “Instead of the physical health of those entrusted to her care.” I think I’m on solid ground in supposing that hidden finish, because in the next paragraph Reno writes: “In this environment the faithful need spiritual truths from their church leaders, not recapitulations of public health bulletins and exhortations to wash their hands.” The pitting of spiritual nourishment against physical care is a false dilemma that is explicitly rejected by the apostle James, and has been rejected throughout Christian history by the scores of believers who have served as evangelistic doctors, nurses, caretakers, not to mention the Christians that established such global relief organizations as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. To suggest that churches need to ignore the risks of serious illness for believers (the most serious risks being for the elderly and already infirm) so they can “sustain spiritual health” is by extension to claim that individual believers should likewise ignore the risks, and that is a bewildering claim.

I think it’s better, both biblically and ecclesiologically, to say that the gospel is an intact gospel. An intact gospel is one not divided against itself, as if there were “good news” for your soul but bad news or no news at all for your body. Indeed, Scripture relentlessly portrays the Lord as a healer (Psalm 103). The promise of Christ’s resurrection is that he will one day give life to our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). God loves the human body and expects us to share that love. In a season of pandemic, love of the body means taking a virus seriously, at least seriously enough to not present others with a choice between faithfulness to the Lord and protecting communities from a potentially fatal disease.

It’s quite likely that not every church in the US need cancel services right now, but there are many that do need to. This is not kowtowing to fear or the supposed preeminence of the magistrate. For churches in communities that have been visited by coronavirus, canceling physical gatherings is by far the most effective way of protecting both congregants and non-congregants from the illness. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. Perhaps protecting people from sickness at the cost of the worship service sounds like elevating the physical above the spiritual, but it’s not, not anymore than a man rescuing a trapped animal on the Sabbath was elevating the economic over the spiritual.

It would be an inappropriate elevation of the physical if churches were to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and say, “Actually, this whole livestream thing is just so much easier and safer and cost-effective. We’ll be going all-online now!” All those adjectives are true, yet the church exists to be physically gathered together in a way believers cannot neglect (Heb. 10:25). But suspending physical gatherings while the world withstands a brutal but temporary viral epidemic can, and I think must, acknowledge that something truly has been lost, even with a livestream. In this way the church can testify to the already-but-not-yet: in sitting under the preaching of the word online even as we yearn for the day we can come together again without members under threat of pandemic, and yearn even more for the day that death is dead forever and every tear is wiped away.

I understand the discomfort with doing church online. I think there should be some discomfort with it. But the coronavirus crisis need not be a referendum on the goodness of technology. It can instead be a referendum on the absolute goodness of our embodied selves and our embodied churches: of physical people, with faces and moods and hungers and stories and burdens. In a sense both Reno and the e-church enthusiast are making the same mistake. They are failing to properly value the humanity of Christ’s body, one through preference for technology and the other for neglect of care. Sometimes the best way to honor complementary truths is to not have a perfectly clean solution.

To this end, I would commend to you the letter that my former pastor, Greg Gilbert, wrote to the members of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, right before the suspended service last weekend. Here are two paragraphs that will encourage you:

Brothers and sisters, Christians should never be motivated by fear, not when we serve the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. But there’s a crucial difference between fear and prudence, and in this case love for our neighbors compels us to join our nation’s extraordinary efforts to minimize contact between people in order to slow the spread of this virus and “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.  We are not cancelling our services because we ourselves, as Christians, are afraid to get sick or even afraid to die.  God forbid!  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Rather, we are cancelling because we believe it is imperative for us to be a part of our society’s response to this virus that, at best, will be serious for the most vulnerable, and, at worst, could put even more people at risk by creating a severe and sudden spike in demand on our health care system.  So don’t be afraid or fearful, brothers and sisters.  Read God’s Word, remember God’s promises, help those who are needy, and trust in God.  He is sovereign over all, and he loves you dearly.

Brothers and sisters, thank you again for your help and understanding in these matters.  These are not easy decisions, but we think they are the best way for us to love our neighbor in a critical time.  And again, just like we’ve said before, don’t be fearful about this.  Be prudent and wise, but not afraid; there’s a profound difference between the two.  The fact is, this fallen world has always been a dangerous place.  We as Christians know this, we have always known this, the Bible teaches us to expect this, and there is a wonderful fear-smashing confidence in knowing that our God is sovereign over it all.  So let’s live our lives, let’s be wise and careful, and at the same time, let’s rest in the hands of our sovereign Lord, who is working all things together for the good of those who love him.

This is Probably What We Needed

Will a pandemic tie us closer to social digital technology, or expose it as empty?

As we continue to try to wrap our minds around the surreal events of COVID-19, one thought has been recurring for many:

This will destroy the last motivations in our society to actually interact with other human beings.

I understand this fear. It’s reasonable. As the jokes and memes attest, social distancing was happening well before it was mandated. Loneliness has been pandemic a lot longer than coronavirus. It’s logical to imagine that a society voluntarily isolating itself to death would interpret mass quarantine as a validation of the wisdom of living online. I think this fear is probably what kept many churches in the US from closing their doors this past Sunday. People already ask what’s the point of waking up to go to church if I can find a world-class preacher on the Podcast store. If we start asking them to say home, it’s over. Right?

Maybe. But maybe not. There’s another version of this whole story that keeps playing out in my head and I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t shake the feeling that an oppressive pandemic might actually be the one thing that disrupts the unthinking embrace of virtual social behaviors. When the toxic dust settles, I’m wondering if we’ll find that the punishment fit the crime, and that the anxiety of not knowing when we will see the people we love in real life is sadder than getting a new “Like” is fun.

I’ve written previously in this space about Facebook, and how over the past decade Facebook has made a series of design and functional choices that drop even the pretense of trying to connect people to each other. I’ve been without an account for almost a year now, and even I’m surprised how little I’ve missed it. When I’m looking at wife’s personal feed, here’s what I see: influencer post, influencer post, meme, link to an article, influencer post, somebody trying to sell something, etc., ad infinitum. In other words, Facebook has shifted from a tool to facilitate contact among friends, to a platform by which individuals can communicate with the masses, preferably to help turn a profit. The friendship ethos is totally gone.

People know this, which is why just about everyone you know under the age of 30 has either deactivated their account or gone to Instagram. That’s why predictions that places like Facebook or Twitter  will just become more and more omnipresent until they’ve essentially totally  replaced communities have never been compelling to me. A lot of us are addicted, yes, but that doesn’t mean we cannot tell when the grass is greener somewhere else. Twitter has the advantage of monopolizing the journalist class and therefore being the substance of choice for  “informed” people. But people leave Twitter too, and the odds are good that if Jack Dorsey keeps it up, they’ll keep leaving Twitter. Eventually the same will happen to Instagram.

Before COVID-19, most of us held the assumption that when these companies decline, it’ll be because their users find some other platform. But that’s what I wonder about.

If people in the West will be, as is expected, confined for several months to an absolute minimum of social contact, holed up within their homes and cut off from classmates, church members, concerts, and sporting events, then I think it’s more than possible that social media will fail the cultural test that is given to it. In the coming months social media will be asked to fill a void that is fundamental to who human beings are. Count me among the number who believe that it will fail that test because it cannot do otherwise.

It’s not difficult for digital technology to replace human contact. It is impossible. Silicon Valley advances not just tools for harnessing human nature, but an alternative belief system about what human nature is. That belief system is sort of like the prosperity gospel—it works as long as it doesn’t have to work. When the infrastructure of normal life crumbles, when suffering and sea billows roll, the check always bounces. I understand the fear that people will emerge from their quarantine wondering why they ever left their living room in the first place. But I see another question coming: “Why did we ever bury ourselves with our machines in the first place?”

The logic of tech addiction has been so powerful in part because it almost never feels like we’re losing control. We’re so agile, so upwardly mobile as a society that literally limitless options available to us make retreating into our screens feel like a necessary act of self-care. The infinity potentialities of self-expression in offline life make online life feel accessory rather than replacement. What COVID-19 is about to strip away is the illusion of options, the illusion of total control over what our tech does to us. We are faced with several months of having little else aside from our screens. There’s a gut check coming. And a lot of us will decide we don’t want to live that way.

Maybe this is what we needed. I’m not talking about death, obviously. The deaths of thousands from coronavirus don’t serve the “higher” purpose of rehabbing a culture off technological delusion. I’m talking specifically about those who survive, and go on after this crisis is over to live relatively normal lives. For us, maybe this is the only thing that could really trigger change. I’m optimistic that it will. Once upon a time meditating on death was a spiritual discipline that wise believers said would fortify against complacent worldliness. Hardly anyone remembers their death until they have to. That’s human nature. Human nature.

Why Panic Won’t Save Us

A response to Peggy Noonan

“Sometimes paranoia is just good sense.”

So writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Her point is well-made. Everyone should take the COVID-19 virus seriously, listen to experts and make choices that take into account the well-being of others. These are high-stakes times. Churches and schools are shuttering for weeks; hospitals sit on the brink of being overrun. There are moments when wisdom and compassion look like overreaction, and right now is one of those moments.

Still, I wish I could tell Peggy Noonan that panic won’t save us. It never does.

The Bible has much to say about fear, and nearly all of it is either a promise or a warning. On the one hand, God’s people have boatloads of promises from our sovereign king that he is with us and fights for us. Fear, even fear of death, melts in the beams of eternal love and security.  On the other hand, God’s people also have many warnings about misdirecting our fear. Jesus warned us that we ought not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul, and the context implies that misdirected fear can be a sign that our souls are not as safe as we think.

There is a kind of “fear” that gives birth to prudence. Washing your hands many more times than usual because of a viral contagion in your community is prudent, and it comes from an awareness that failing to wash could endanger you or someone else. To some extent that is fear, but it is healthy.  But we should clearly distinguish fear from panic. Noonan writes

“Don’t panic” is what nervous, defensive people say when someone warns of coming trouble. They don’t want to hear it, so their message is “Don’t worry like a coward, be blithely unconcerned like a brave person.”

Noonan is a brilliant columnist, but I think she’s wrong here. For Christians especially, courting panic is not rooted in realism, it is rooted in the opposite. A heart captivated by crippling, all-consuming panic is living in a fantasy world, in which there is no God, no divine power over pathogens or nations, and no promise of forever good to all those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Panic says, “This fearful thing is ultimate, thus it is worthy of my fullest dread.” That’s not realism because it’s not true. Coronavirus is not in charge because God is.

That’s not a false dichotomy, it is a crucial one. Contrary to the scoffers who sneer at those who offer “thoughts and prayers” in moments of cultural unrest, remembering God and his power are part of what it means to respond rightly to real threats. In an essay in her volume The Givenness of Things, Maryilnne Robinson points out that one of the most noticeable characteristics of a secular age is its widespread fearfulness. Commenting on Leviticus 26:37, Robinson writes, “Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety…can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears.”

Of course, coronavirus is not an irrational fear. But the power of panic is in turning normal concerns into abnormal ones. One of the clearest signs we have surrendered our emotional lives to the reign of fear is that we swap putting our real daily burdens on the Lord for trying to mentally stomach all kinds of imaginary trials. In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape counsels his underling to spiritually attack a human by redirecting his attention away from what’s actually happening and toward what could happen.

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s [=God’s] will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say ‘Thy will be done,’ and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided.

It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it.

God’s promises that he will always be with us, that he will strengthen and establish us, and that nothing will ever separate us from his love in Christ are so precious precisely because they are calibrated for the exact suffering we are facing. The voice of panic tells us that unless we fantasize sufficiently about every possible kind of suffering we may face, we will be unprepared, out of control, and ultimately left alone. But faith is honest and clear-eyed. It sees the trial right in front of it, but it also looks above and sees the One who tells it to cast all cares on him, because he cares for you.

While giving in to panic may feel like “realism” in the moment, it actually hinders our ability to serve others well. Several years ago it was revealed that the icebergs that decimated the HMS Titanic were spotted with more than enough time for the ship to turn and avoid them. But the  second officer panicked after seeing the icebergs and turned the ship the wrong way, leading the Titanic directly into harm.

This isn’t just about theological correctness. Wise actions, the kind of wise actions that preserve life, almost never happen in a context of utter panic. Emotional fortitude is realism minus impulsiveness. That’s why we’re supposed to let the fog of anger response pass before speaking (Psalm 4:4). It’s why wisdom is found in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 15:22). Panic tends to turn inwardly on itself, rejecting patience as foolish and outside review as pointless. That the overwhelming portrait of the Christian life in Scripture is one of calm and humble submission to wisdom tells us how much God values a heart freed from panic.

Panic won’t save us. Instead of panic, let there be wisdom. Wisdom can heal the flesh and refresh the bones (Prov. 3:8), and it actually starts with fear—not of a pandemic, but of the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Doctrines We Lost in the Fire

The following is a guest essay by my friend Caleb Wait.

What does one do when their house is on fire?

Californians, such as myself, have to think about this question more often than most Americans. While there may not be one correct answer, one generally is inclined to salvage the essentials, whatever is priceless, and let the rest go up in flames. Easier said than done. In the recent Kincade fire in Sonoma, CA, 180,000 residents were forced to pack up their belongings and say goodbye to their homes. After getting to safety, some residents realized that what they salvaged in their panic was far from the essentials: folks have been recorded grabbing cucumbers, cleaning supplies, and bike helmets.

Panic is a strange and disorienting phenomenon. Per Mariam-Webster, panic is “a sudden unreasoning terror often accompanied by mass flight.” This seems to make sense of the residents of Sonoma. Likewise, it might make sense of those in the church’s history when faced with new cultural and philosophical fires, as it were: the East and West had different reactions during the Great Persecution in the 4th-century, Roman Catholics and Protestants reacted to Humanism and Voluntarist philosophy differently, and Christians today continue to react to the Enlightenment and modernism in their own ways. Some more successful than others.

Perhaps when Hume awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers,” it was an awakening full of panic and violence, s0 much so that Kant salvaged the wrong pieces of furniture from the perceived fire of Hume’s project. The empiricist project that said we cannot reason our way to God or know anything about him, rather, we can only trust our sense experience and passions. Either way, Kant wanted to hang on to morality, a priori. And he knew you needed God for that. But do we need orthodox doctrine? While Kant left dogma on the kitchen counter to await the flames of modernity, we might not want to be so hasty.

Right Belief vs Right Behavior

While modernity is now old hat, it is no less easy to buy into the same dichotomy Kant did; that doctrine and moral obligation are irreconcilable forces. Conservatives and progressives both do this. For many, orthodox doctrine encumbers the ability to ‘just love’ one another. It gets in the way of caring for hurt people and it doesn’t do enough to combat injustice and oppression. For others, doctrine is used abstractly as a means to remove one’s moral responsibility. For the former group, what we believe and why is not as important as loving your neighbor; for the latter, doctrines are merely tools for demarcating who you can associate with and who you must make highly edited videos of, placating them as dangerous liberals.

However, what if orthodox doctrine is a primary way we love our neighbors? What if the implication of our confessions propel is toward our moral responsibility? In Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, Peter Cotterell & Max Turner give the following summary about implicatures:

Language is interesting in that what is implied may be as informative as what is said…. The notion of implicature is of importance in the interpretation of utterances in general and of conversations in particular…conversations are governed by certain principles, amongst context-appropriateness. The actual words used in conversation might appear to run contrary to those principles. My wife asked me: ‘Are the girls in yet?’, and I replied, ‘The porch light is still on.’ Taken out of context the two utterances appear to be unrelated, and my response would appear to disregard both principles. However my response required an implicature which did not require to be expressed: ‘The porch light is still on, the girls would have switched it off had they come in, and so I can say that they are not yet in.’ The conversation principle that I should not include unnecessary information is observed and so are the two earlier principles (p. 47-48).

In light of Cottrell and Turner’s principles, we can see the connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy laid out in several biblical texts.

Paul’s Theology of Love

In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks to the kinds of issues an immature and multicultural church might face. One such issue is the matter of idol-food. Those who partake in eating idol-food without a troubled conscience do so because they assent to the truth of the Shema:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:4-6).

The ‘strong’ in the church feel justified in their consumption of idol-food since the so-called gods represented by idols don’t really exist, unlike the one true God. The ‘strong’ read an implication into the Shema which Paul grants; nevertheless, that is not the only implicature Paul reads into this orthodox claim.

In 8:6, Paul sets out to qualify some of the assertions represented in v. 4-5a. His goal is to help the Corinthians form a full-orbed understanding when they confess “there is no God but one.” To know God constitutes a love for God and a love that overflows in building up the brethren (8:1b). I am indebted to Chris Tilling’s helpful work on 1 Corinthians here. He summarizes that Paul reworks the Shema subtext from Deuteronomy in terms of Christ, and does so, “in light of the contrast between the Corinthian ‘knowledge’ and true ‘love for God’ in 8:1-3.” (Paul’s Divine Christology, p. 91).

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God (1 Cor. 8:1-3).

Paul then utilizes the Lord/Christ in the Shema (v. 4-6) to contrast its covenantal implications between God and his people against the rational Corinthian gnosis. The context in which the contrast plays out, of course, is in the case of eating idol-food. If one truly loves the one God and one Lord, one will build up those whose conscience is weak, instead of using their “knowledge” to destroy the other (v. 11).

1 Cor. 8:6 introduces Paul’s use of Deuteronomic imagery, which he continues to use as a parallel with the church, adding that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” (10:11a). Thus, from 10:1-22, Paul moves back and forth between the current issues the church is facing and the issues Israel faced in the wilderness. After consideration of Israel’s circumstances long ago, Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (10:14). How does one flee from idolatry? Paul answers by harkening back to the contrast of the Corinthian “knowledge” and true knowledge: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (10:23). To sin against a brother, then, is parallel to the idolatry of Israel in the wilderness.

Paul’s scriptural allusions, starting with God’s knowing of his people in 8:3, shows his work to weave the themes involved in the experience of Israel’s relation to YHWH with the experience of the church in Corinth. Tilling summarizes:

Just as Deuteronomy 6’s monotheism was susceptible to the destructive power of sin, by ‘following other gods’ (6:14), by testing YHWH (6:16), just as loyalty to YHWH was always threatened by rebellion, so, Paul’s argument shows, is loyalty to Christ, the one Lord of the Shema. By sinning against your brothers, you sin against Christ (p. 92).

Knowing Jesus Leads to Orthopraxy

While Tilling goes on to extrapolate the vertical as well as horizontal dimensions of sinning against your brothers and sinning against Christ (8:12) in the Supper, the point at hand is that there is a connection of right belief and behavior and devotion and understanding of who Jesus is. In 1 Cor. 8 Paul sees the driving force leading to proper love of the brethren as a true understanding of Christ as the Lord of the Shema. Which is quite striking, really. When you confess who God is, the obvious conclusion for Paul is that we must love our brothers and sisters. And if you mishandle the base facts of orthodoxy, you are prone to the same idolatry the wilderness generation was prone to. Those in Corinth know orthodoxy as lip-service, but they do not know orthodoxy for what it is: a way to know and love God and neighbor.

These themes are especially pertinent to those of us in the malaise of evangelical and modern culture. As Molly Worthen pithily summarizes, “Winning the war against modernism became more important [for the later fundamentalists] than illuminating orthodoxy.” We all know there is a fire of sorts, but we are busy debating what needs salvaging and what needs leaving behind. Some wish to leave doctrine behind, others wish to lock the doors of the burning building and leave the brethren behind.

This clarion call of orthodoxy is not a ploy for us all to just get along. Much more than that, we must take our confession and its implications even more seriously; so much so that when those of us who are tempted to use orthodoxy as a tool for demarcation in the culture wars, we must tell them to “flee from idolatry.” Perhaps then we can stand in the midst of our fiery furnace, demonstrating to the world that its fire has no power over our devotion to God and love for one another (Dan. 3:27).

Kobe, Worship, and Us

Admiration that is misdirected is still better than a callous on the soul.

It didn’t take long in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, and the outpouring of eulogies and sorrow that quickly followed, for me to hear what has become a popular refrain among conservative evangelical Christians. “Can you believe this amount of sadness for an athlete? This just goes to show what an idolatrous culture we live in. People worship Kobe. They should be worshiping God!”

Yes, it’s all true. The level of society-wide grief for the death of an athlete does point in some degree to how sports is its own quasi-religion. We’ve seen already how the floodgates of disordered love can obscure a person’s full, fallen humanity, and result in hagiography that may or may not punish those this person sinned against. And yes, what you’re seeing is indeed a form of worship. There is only One who’s worthy of it, and we ought never be embarrassed to say so.

Yes. But…

Listening to some evangelicals respond this way makes me wonder whether we fully appreciate our cultural moment, and whether we understand what’s really happening in a public spectacle such as Kobe’s death. As overwhelming as the media coverage and hashtags were, I came away not primarily irked at American idolatry of sports heroes but instead conscious of something I think is important. Our era of Western life is an era in which not just worship of the true God is scarce, but the idea of worship is implicitly and explicitly ridiculed. The mechanisms of life in our modern, mobile, digitized, secular age work against the very elements of worship, including admiration. Just as Lewis wrote that nature did not teach him that God was glorious but instead gave the word “glory” meaning for him, admiration—of created things, including fallen people—trains human beings to be able to respond in worship to what is actually worthy of it.

Admiration, the emotional response hardwired into the soul when it encounters something that moves it, is undermined often nowadays. Consider the transformation the smartphone has brought to the art gallery, as visitors stand in the presence of true greatness, snap a quick pic or selfie, and then quickly move on to the next exceptional piece. Anyone who has visited a national landmark in the last 10 years can attest to how modern people now “consume” awe-inspiring landscapes or architecture via their phones, rather than sit in silent admiration of them.

Admiration is the seed of worship because it teaches a responsive attention. To admire a sheer, deluging waterfall is to stand in its presence and know that not only is it beautiful, but that its beauty is good for me. Is the modern culture we see before us one that helps us to admire in this way? Or is it one that rapidly evaluates how well a particular beauty can help us get Likes, or make us “cultured,” or affirms our own self-esteem?

It’s often said that Americans worship celebrities. That’s undoubtedly true. But as cancel culture now demonstrates, even the most dazzling stars now fit in the palms of our hands or laptop screens. Admiration for actors, artists, performers, and even politicians is subject to how well they remain in the public favor, how well they say the right things at the right times and never run afoul of the “rules.” Besides, human admiration fades parallel to memory. Records are broken. Beautiful people get old. This too is the conditional admiration, the worship that ultimately depends on how much the worshipers can get out of the ceremony.

That’s why I found the cultural lament for Kobe Bryant somewhat hopeful. Where some evangelicals see idolatry, I see a flickering ember of something that looks like true admiration, the responsive attention to greatness that must exist in every heart that would feel this toward its Maker. That even people who never wore his jersey or cheered his team would feel sadness and a sense of “there’s-something-wrong-with-this-world” at his death is a sign that our technology and our politics have not fully extinguished our souls’ ability to stand in the presence of something and say, “This is good.” I suppose my thinking is that even love that is misdirected is better than love that is never directed anywhere at all. A room with a poor view still reminds us that there’s such a thing as outside; a hall of mirrors cannot do that.

It’s been reported that the morning of the crash, Bryant and his daughter Gianna went to Mass. I very much hope that’s the case, and I very much hope that they were at Mass for this very reason: to sit in the presence of who is truly worthy of worship, to receive his beauty and grace and truth, and to say, “Yes, this is good, and good for me.” We should all pray that the morning of our deaths would find us like that—and our lives, too.