Breaking Up in Light of Our Blessed Hope

Guest Post by Margo Frasier

February 14th used to be a reminder of the fact that I’ve never received flowers from any man but my father.  In fact, Valentine’s Day is almost a trigger word among millennial single Christian women, causing a deluge of internet angst on waiting, wanting, and finding joy in the midst of waiting (while secretly wishing He would take this particular cup from you).  That’s not what this article is about.  A few years ago, God decided to  deny me one of my many excuses for self-pity, and now, February 14th is a reminder of the brokenness of our present human relationships, forgiven regrets, and the hope at the end of it all.

If “falling in love” requires reciprocated affection, then I’ve only been in love once, but it was enough to know some things for certain.  A break up is grief. Deciding to be “just friends” is a decision to lose that person.  For months afterward, I ached for his arms and smell. The memory of his fingers stroking my palm was so strong I could still feel it, like my body had a permanent instant replay of any touch we shared. He wouldn’t leave my dreams be, and I would wake up in pain, the sorrow and sobs washing over me again with newness.  It wasn’t just the physical affection I mourned. It was everything our caresses represented, the part of love that makes us human – the dreams, the laughing, the deep, unseen touch of soul against soul.  The emotional and spiritual intimacy we shared was suddenly gone, and in its place only doubts, what-ifs, and words wished said and left unspoken.  I was keenly aware of my vulnerability to anything that suggested him. Cheddar Ruffles, homemade pizza, a bench we sat on, a restaurant we ate in. Kryptonite to my resolve to truly let him go.

These confessions are raw, and perhaps, uncomfortable.  But I also know that my journey through my first lost love is not singular.

Following Christ is, by His own definition, living out love.  Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Easily said.  It sounds nice.  Even people who aren’t particularly religious will admit that Jesus’ teachings are noble.  Turn the other cheek.  Forgive, seventy times seven.

But then, that love gets awful hairy when you have to put it into practice.  Living it out is hard.  After all, remember what love acts like?  Patient.  Kind.  Gentle.  Does not envy.  Does not boast.  Keeps no record of wrongs.  Does not seek its own.  Always hopes. Always perseveres.  That’s a lot. And always is an awfully long time.

In “Christian” dating, love is a loaded word.  Lots of couples promise not to say it until engagement.  If any couple starts saying it too fast, they invite the judgement and tsk-tsking of family and friends.  I used to be in the tsk-tsking camp.  I was attracted to my boyfriend.  I enjoyed being with him.  I cared deeply about him.  But love?  I would never use such a loaded word.

And then we broke up.  Maybe not forever.  Just for a while.  And suddenly I found myself praying a lot, saying things in that honesty that I was too self-righteous to admit before. “What do I do if I can’t love him anymore?  That’s all I’ve been trying to do for our whole relationship.  I want the best for him.  I want him to grow – to be well and whole and strong in Christ.  I want to help him be a great and godly man.  But maybe I’m not right for him; maybe he’s not right for me.”  I found myself struggling with the idea that, perhaps, despite our feelings, real, biblical obedience to our first Love might require saying goodbye.

Then he moved on.  Forever “not a thing” was official.  I was left still wanting his best, still wanting him to be well and strong and happy – still loving him. Grieving all the could-haves and should-haves, and knowing in my frontal cortex that this was better for everyone.  But I still walked on the edge of tears for weeks.  And the regrets lingered for months afterward.  Remembering all the ways I hurt him. All of the promises broken. Wishing I could stop analyzing it.  Wishing that for a moment this unbearable, crashing, breaking pain – this love – would disappear, even if all the memories had to go too.

This is where following Jesus gets hard.  Our dating relationships are part of our new life in Christ, even our broken, regrettable ones.  There are temporal and eternal ramifications.  Sin mars even the good memories, and we often choose to wallow in it.  But we don’t have to. The gospel means all the guilt and mistakes that come with failed relationships were buried with Christ.  He died for it.  If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin.  We don’t have to live in it.  We can ask the Lord to show us where we were wrong in the relationship, and repent.  This could mean asking forgiveness if we’re able, but then, walking in His mercy and grace.  Even if that means verbally rebuking the thoughts when all that guilt tries to come back.

It also means that, the other person, their sin has been buried with Christ too.  While we may no longer be romantically attached, we are mandated to forgive.  God is able to heal us where we were wounded and sinned against in the relationship.  That’s a whole other article; but the point is, what is our responsibility toward them in Christ?

As I worked through the break-up with my boyfriend for over a year, I became convicted that my prayers for God to show me what to do with my love for him, uttered in my initial pain, were answered by 1 Corinthians 13.  Love keeps no record of wrongs.  As a believer, I can’t villian-ize my ex like the world does.  I have a responsibility to forgive and to protect him from slander, even if it’s coming from my lips.  Love does not envy.  I can’t hate his new girlfriends, or worse, stalk them on Facebook.  I had to let him go, mentally, emotionally, spiritually; that is kindness.

Love does not seek its own.  As much as I wanted to tell my side of the story, to justify myself to our mutual friends and church family, that is not the way of love.  I have to rest in the fact that God knows the entire truth; He sees my heart, forgives, and that has to be enough. And finally love always hopes.  All those prayers I prayed for him weren’t wrong-headed.  Perhaps they will come to pass after all.  It is good and healthy to move on, but my attitude towards him should be anything but bitterness and resentment.  The things is, hoping for his best, even passively, allows the sadness of our mutual brokenness to linger.

This is where our blessed hope comes to bear.  Because if I love my ex in the 1 Corinthians kind of way, and we both love Jesus, we never truly get to forget each other.  We are eternal, family forever, and someday we will again see each other face to face.  Yet, on that day, sin will be gone forever, and all the shame, regret, and awkward will be gone too. We’ll stand before God as He meant us to be, and we can love each other perfectly in that perfect place where there is no marriage or giving in marriage.  We will worship our King together, perhaps standing next to spouses we loved in a different way on earth, but, there, it won’t matter.  We all, the entire Bride of Christ, will stand with unveiled faces before our Groom, forgiven, alive, and completely healed.  Someday I will have all that was good and eternal in our relationship, and all the pain will be forgotten.

A break-up is grief.  A decision to lose that person, to cut all earthly ties.  But we are not bereaved.  And we will be restored.

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Strategy and Morality: Two Arguments for Immigration

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By Samuel Schmitt

There are no shortage of voices speaking out about the actions of the new American presidential administration. While one hesitates to add to the growing social media fracas, logical discussion becomes more important and less common as emotional issues dominate the headlines. What follows is an attempt to humbly present two arguments for continuing to accept refugees into the United States from war torn regions of the Muslim world.

One note before beginning: these arguments narrow in applicability. The basis of the first argument is strategy and is therefore applicable to all Americans. The basis of the second argument is theology, and therefore, applicable to all Christians.

The argument from strategy 

Premise 1: ISIS’s attacks on western powers are motivated by a desire to make western powers turn away Muslim refugees and limit the freedom of native Muslims. This is part of a plan to drive followers to ISIS’s cause.  

Premise 2: Doing what one’s opponent wants is bad strategy.  

Conclusion: Therefore, western powers who wish to undermine ISIS should not turn away Muslim refugees or limit the freedoms of their own Muslim citizens.

The first premise is well established. The Islamic State has stated in its own newsletters that the motivation behind its attacks is to eliminate “grey spaces,” places where Muslims and non-Muslims can live together in peace. For an organization that brands itself as the one true caliphate worthy of Muslim loyalty, these grey spaces represent an existential threat. If Muslims can live peacefully with a higher quality of life in a western democracy, what reason is there to join the despotic Islamic State?

Anyone who has played a strategy game or sparred an opponent in martial arts understands the second premise. In his first full-contact MMA-style sparring match, one young fighter learned this lesson the very hard way. After dropping his hands in response to his opponents persistent low jabs, the fighter’s opponent landed a solid right hook that left the fighter laying on the floor, admiring the seemingly spinning ceiling  lights, and wondering precisely how he had gotten in this position. The fighter learned an important life lesson that day: if your opponent is trying to get you to do something, don’t do it! Find a way to solve the immediate problem without opening the door to a second, greater problem. The young fighter had other options at his disposal, but he took the quick, easy fix and played precisely into his opponents hands. (The author can speak to the truth of this story).

This argument does not mean that western powers should fail to protect their citizens or refuse to respond to terrorist attacks. Nor is it intended to downplay the severity of those attacks. In the above example, the young fighter had to respond to the low jabs or they would have inflicted serious damage over time. In addition to the human cost, persistent “lone wolf” style attacks, such as the Pulse shooting, the St. Cloud stabbing, and the San Bernardino firefight take a toll on a nation’s psyche that must not be underestimated.

What this argument does demonstrate is that western powers who wish to oppose the Islamic State must find a way to respond to terrorist attacks without playing into the hands of their opponent. A government’s purpose is to protect its people, but playing into the enemy’s hands does harm in the long run. There are options for weeding out threats from within refugees (so-called extreme vetting, surveillance of non-citizen refugees, etc), but banning immigration from war-torn, predominantly Muslim regions would be making the move our opponent wants us to make.

 

The argument from Christian Scripture 

Premise 1: Care for the widow, orphan, and foreign refugee is called for in the Bible and is integral to God’s character.  

Premise 2: Christians should align their concerns with what is important to God.  

Conclusion: Christians should want to help modern refugees.

The first premise is easily proven. Malachi 3:5, Deuteronomy 10:19, Ezekiel 22:29 & 47:23 all discuss the need to be hospitable to foreign sojourners. Indeed, in Malachi, neglect of the widow, orphan, and sojourner is listed with witchcraft as one of the ways that Israel has chosen to be disrespectful and disdainful toward God.

The second premise should need no proof nor commentary.

The conclusion follows easily. Granted, this is not an air-tight case for why Christians should wish to accept refugees into the United States, but it is an air-tight argument for why they should want to help. There is room for disagreeing about how to best help, but there is no room for being unloving toward the plight of the refugees.

There are indeed risks to be weighed when considering this argument, but Christians should be more inclined to love than to fear. They should want to love intelligently and not be taken advantage of, to be sure, but they also must not let their caution choke out their love.

The specter of the Nazi regime clearly haunts the American people. Both sides of the political spectrum routinely compare the other side to the fascists of the 30s and 40s ad-nausea. While unhelpful, this is understandable, as such a display of evil naturally leaves us fearful and repulsed. However, the constant characterization makes the history of the matter confused and unreal. One fact that is often forgotten is that America was asked to take in Jewish refugees at the outset of the Nazi persecution of Jews and refused.

Most Christians are outraged when they find that the United States turned away tens of thousands of Jewish refugees prior to World War II due to the risk of Nazi infiltration and fear that the Jews would have divided loyalties. They seem to feel that the need to help outweighed potential risks in that situation, given the benefit of hindsight. We do not have the benefit of hindsight at the present moment, but we should make decisions with an eye toward the future. We are ashamed of our forbearers who turned away the Jewish people in their time of need. Our descendants need not be ashamed of us if we act rightly now.

 

Loving my Neighbor in Election Season

Galatians 5:14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

By Samuel Schmitt

Wall street brokers. Illegals. Muslims. Gays. Fundamentalists. The 1%.

These words are angrily spat from the mouths of politicians and party-liners every day this election season. A few syllables is all it takes to draw a line between “us” and “them.” This is usually followed by an oversimplification of the nation’s problems followed by verbally dumping the blame for these problems upon the group in question.

Your college loans are crippling because of the greedy 1%. Illegals have taken American’s jobs. Muslims are violent and should have fewer rights. One finds it so easy to draw lines and convict faceless groups of crimes.

Categories are a necessary thing for any sort of discussion. We live in a complicated world that is getting more complicated by the day. To make things more manageable from a knowledge perspective, we have to categorize all the time. One might say “I saw cars on the road today,” meaning that they saw Jeeps, Cadillac’s, Priuses, semi-trucks, etc. One finds it impossible to carry on a conversation without some sort of categorization, so a politician categorizing a group of people is understandable on some level. The trouble is categories quickly become stereotypes which flows into pre-judging. For the Christian, the danger with putting people into political categories are two-fold: dehumanization and pride.

The first thing it does is dehumanize a number of people by causing us to see them as a political problem instead of what they truly are. We see them as a drain on the system or the greedy elite instead of eternal creatures made in the image of God. The brutal reality of history is nations rise and nations fall. There will come a day when the United States goes the way of the Greek, Roman, French, and British empires before her. Her individuals, every transgender, every red-neck farmer, every east coast media reporter, will go on in eternity to become either a glorious heir to the kingdom of God or banished from his presence in an irreparably broken state. That is why the Christian is called primarily to make disciples of people, not to win political battles. Individuals are more important than politics. Individuals are eternal.

Christ touched people from all walks of life. Mathew was a tax collector for the Roman occupation force. Simon was a Jewish insurgent against the Romans. Peter was a lower-class fisherman. The Samaritan woman was a prostitute  from a marginalized political group. Paul and Nicodemus were religious insiders. Christians are ordered to follow his example of loving our neighbor, even if our neighbor happens to be a Democrat (or Republican).

The final and perhaps greatest danger in sweeping political stereotypes is that it takes our eyes off of our own responsibilities and shifts the blame for the brokenness of the world onto other people. I may be lusting after my neighbor’s wife, but at least I’m not making money off the backs of poor people like the Wall Street brokers. I may be a coward, but at least I’m not an intolerant fundamentalist. I may not donate to charity, but at least I’m not an illegal immigrant.

Christians can and should be involved in the political process (more on this in the following pieces), but they also need to be wise enough to recognize propaganda when they see it. Often, sweeping generalizations and stereotypes are used by both parties to whip up the base and drive support. Anger is an extremely useful tool for politicians, so they spend large amounts of time on the sins of the “other” to drive their supporters to angry action.

Did Christ tell us to spend more time repenting of our neighbor’s sin or our own?

The answer should be clear.

 

A Biblical Perspective on Homosexuality

By Samuel Schmitt

 

There is a misconception that exists within the church that those who have homosexual desires are isolated and unnatural. Like a modern day leper, they must cry “unclean” in church, to be viewed from a far with abject saddness. They are to be pitied to be sure, but one must be careful about getting to close to them, lest they become infected with leprosy as well. Like many popular misconceptions, it is difficult to pin down exactly how this came about. Very likely, the church’s zeal toward opposing same-sex marriage contributes. The arrogance and prejudice of some church members also plays a role. Perhaps the fears of those within the church add to the lie. This post is an attempt to get past some of the politics and misconceptions and to look at how one should respond to individuals.

A Look at Sin

Sin is an action. Adam and Eve sinned when they ate the forbidden fruit, not when they were tempted. To be tempted is to be human. The Bible states that the act of homosexual sex is a sin (Lev. 18:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9). Any sort of lust, heterosexual or homosexual, is also a sin (Matt. 5:28). Lust is a decision to think about someone in a sexual way for personal gratification. The decision is wrong no matter what the sexual preference of the decider is.

The trouble with saying “homosexuality is a sin” is that it does not clearly differentiate between the inclination/desire and the decision to act upon it. We are not responsible for things we have no influence over. Adam and Eve did not sin when the serpent told them to eat the forbidden fruit; rather, they sinned when they chose to eat it. Likewise, a person does not sin simply because they are attracted to someone of the same sex; rather, they sin when they choose to have sex with or lust after someone of the same sex. Sin is something you do, not something you are or something you experience.

Then Why Is There Such a Stigma About It in the Church?

Part of the complexity comes from how the church has fought quite hard on a social/political level to prevent same-sex marriage. Regardless of the value of such a fight, singling out a sin for a social movement has made ministering to individuals who struggle with that sin more of a challenge.

Coupled to this is Western culture’s view of sexuality as one’s identity. In a society that views sex as the highest form of human experience, placing limits on the experience is the mortalest of sins. If sex is the highest human experience, then I should be able to do it in whatever way is most fulfilling for me personally. Any limits or boundaries placed upon it are a threat to my very humanity.

This latter issue bleeds into the church, where certain pastors give sermons that make it seem like one who is gay is a pitiable, uniquely troubled case. The man who views pornographic pictures of women, at least he can get married (a mythical state in which most of our problems supposedly vanish), but the one who is gay: he’s doomed to suffer until Christ’s return!

We need to examine our view of sexuality. Sexuality is a gift and a good thing. Sex is holy within the boundaries of a heterosexual marriage (part of the command for marriage, in fact). Christians should have a positive view of sex, one that embraces it within its Biblical boundaries. We should not demonize it, but we should also not idolize it.

As powerful and joyous of a thing as it is, it is not man’s highest calling on earth. It is not for everyone in fact, according to Jesus himself. And it is not the primary decider of our identity.

The overriding, most important aspect of our identity is our relationship to Christ. Without it, we are all sinners. Within our relationship to Christ, we are all children of God. Everyone one of us have equal access to the blessings of our inheritance. We are different in station, but equal in value. We are all able to relate to Him and enjoy the blessings of his community. We all stumble, we all fall, and we all need His grace . To claim or even imply that a gay Christian is somehow a lesser or more sinful person than any other Christian is more than simple error, it is arrogance and an insult to God’s children.

Thankfully, most of the Christian communities I’ve been a part of have been very accepting of those who have shared their struggles. They are not judged for their temptation. Frankly, they aren’t treated any differently than anyone else who shares their struggles. They are loved, accepted, and valued just like all God’s children should be.

Claiming that gay sex or lust is not a sin is unloving, for it is untrue. God’s Word warns us of the danger of giving into lust, and God’s servants, the church, should never contradict God. But, they must stand strong against all sin, gossip, greed, and pride included. They cannot judge another more strongly for a sin because it is different from their own. They must not compromise their doctrine, but neither should they compromise their love.

Common Questions: What About Those Who Haven’t Heard?

 

By Samuel Schmitt

Salvation is through faith in Christ. The Bible is clear that Christ is the only way to a relationship with God (John 14:6) and that man cannot be saved through his own good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is true and what the Bible teaches. It does, however, lead to a very common question by both skeptics and believers: what about those who have not heard of Christ.

The common church response is that everyone has rebelled from God (true: see Isaiah 53:6), and that everyone deserves punishment for this (also true: see Romans 6:23). Also generally added is a reference to Romans 2:15 which mentions that the law of God is written on people’s hearts; meaning that He has provided a way for people to know that He exists and that rejection of Him, even apart from hearing the Gospel, is justlydamnable.

All this is true. It is not, however, a sufficient answer to the original question, it leads to another question.

The Next Logical Question: What about those people who want to know God and still haven’t heard the gospel?

It’s here we often go astray. Quick pat answers are given: no one truly seeks God, this person is still sinful, these cases are few and far between, etc. In addition to being shallow, these answers technically don’t answer the question.

A Look At Faith

What is faith?

This is a large question. In short, it’s a decision of the will to trust God for something. Since it is from the will, it effects both one’s thoughts and one’s actions. Belief, like action, is an element of faith,but at it’s core, faith is a decision.

How was Lot saved? Abraham? Rehab? 

By their faith, answersthe writer of Hebrews 11.

Was this faith a faith in Christ? 

It must have been, if it was salvific, for we are only saved through Christ.

Was it cognitive of all the Gospel?

No, but it must have been a true, if not comprehensive, faith to be effective.

Lot, Abraham, and Rehab did not have codified systems of doctrine about God. They knew nothing from Scripture about Christ.They did not even know about the ten commandments, but they put their faith in God as He revealed Himself to them at the time. God did not bless their faith in false idols as close enough, nor did He dismiss their faith as not complete enough. He blessed them for responding to Him at whatever level they understood Him. This understanding was a true understanding, though incomplete.

My understanding of cars is this way. I don’t know how it works, but I know that if I turn the key, put my jeep in drive, and press the accelerator, it will go. And I choose to do this every day when I go to work. I put my faith into action.

All of our understandings of God are incomplete (1 Cor. 13:12). Not a single mortal human can fully understand God, for God is infinite. We can have a true understanding of Him, but it is not the whole truth.

Again, faith does not justify falsehood. If I turn my keyhaving legitimate, authentic faith that my jeep will grow wings and fly, I’m going to be sorely disappointed. Likewise, sincere faith in a god (or gods) that are not true does not save.

If there is enough evidence for God’s existenceto permit a just condemnation of those who have not heard the gospel, it would logically follow that there is enough evidence for someone to have at least a basic faith in God apart from hearing the gospel (see Job, Rehab, and Lot). God is not a casual observer; He will bless this humble faith one way or another (possibly through revealing Himself to the person further, such as in the case of Cornelius in Acts).

Likely Objections

Doesn’t the possibility of salvation apart from evangelism put the urgency of missions in jeopardy?

No, for three reasons. First, Christ is our Lord, therefore we are required to obey His commandment to preach the gospel.

Secondly, if God is good and beautiful, then the more people know about Him, the more likely they should be to respond to His love. Therefore, we should always seek to know Him more and bring others to know Him by sharing the story of His love with them.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is that God’s responding to those who seek Him and our work in missions is not contradictory. If the church is the body of Christ, then it is not prideful or foolish to believe that missions is partly God answering the prayers of those who honestly seek Him. The idea that God responds to the basic faith of those who seek Him is not contrary to missions; it is complimentary.

Isn’t this universalistic?

NO. Universalism is a heresy. I am not saying that faith in another god can be mystically transferred to the true God. Christ is God; Zeus and Apollo, not so much. What I’m saying is IF someone has never had access to the gospel, but understands that there is a Creator who wrote right and wrong on the human conscious, and if that person humbly had faith in that Creator and called out to Him, then that person could be counted as having faith in Christ (since Christ is God). That’s what happened to the likes of Job and Lot in the Old Testament, and since God is eternal, I don’t see why it would change after Christ came. Getting into heaven is about Who you know, not what you know. There is no entrance exam in theology at the holy gates.

Does this mean that most people who haven’t heard about Christ are saved?

No. Humans are usually too wound up in their own personal concerns to spend serious time and prayer seeking after God (see human history, the Bible, and your own life). There’s no doubt from Christ’s statement that the way to Him is narrow and few find it. But some do find it, in fact, all who seek do find, according to Him. The key is to seek, humbly, persistently, and sacrificially.

 

 

For an excellent summary of the many stances on this issue, check out:  http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-about-those-who-havent-heard

Postmodernism: Does it mean what you think it means?

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(Photo credit Sairam Sundaresan)

By Zach Schmitt

Say the word “postmodernism” in Christian circles and you will likely be met with blank stares or disdainful reactions. Some may consider philosophical movements too abstract and distant to affect the average Christian, others may see them as dangerous and harmful. But whether we care or not, outside forces do shape and mold the church, and it is vital that we are aware of what is happening.

Christianity was born into a very pre-modern world. Its longevity, however, has meant that it has had to face the rise and fall of many philosophies and movements. During its entire existence it has faced a multitude of opponents starting with pre-modern paganism and continuing into postmodern a/theology. I will attempt to track and define these oppositions. Additionally, I will note the influence these movements have had on Christianity, and if Christianity can ever be called modern or postmodern.

While the title addresses strictly postmodernism, I feel it would be difficult to describe without first setting the stage with the philosophical movement of modernism

The Rise of Reason: Modernism

The Enlightenment brought with it a fair share of opposition toward Christianity. Open opposition, such as Nietsche’s declaration, “God is dead,” did less to attack Christianity as did the rise of Reason. Science became the “Prince of the Age,” and man began to look to himself as the center of all things. Naturalism, found in the science of Darwin and others, believed that all that could be known came from this world. The individualism found in the works of Descartes, Kant, and Hume meant that man could come to knowledge strictly by his own abilities; he did not need an outside force to instruct him. Optimism in science led many to believe that we were constantly progressing upward. Science had replaced the need for a god.

Christianity was met with these challenges and responded in several ways. The first response saw many turn to Deism. A God existed but only an impersonal one; we could not know Him or have a personal relationship with Him. There was a clockmaker, but not a Father. Secondly, others, viewing the benefits of humanism, began to adopt a Social Gospel which preached freedom from oppression instead of freedom strictly from sin. This twist in Christian thinking took the focus off of man’s spiritual self and turned it to his physical self. Man began to find himself at the center of even Christianity. Ultimately these movements mostly failed or found themselves marginalized in Christian circles, but some aspects of modernism still exist in Christianity. Chiefly, the individualism of modern thought can be found in Protestantism. When Martin Luther found himself in front of a Catholic trial at the Diet of Worms, he stated, “Here I stand. God help me.” He stood alone on his own reason and challenged the very structures of the Catholic Church. Luther’s use of reason has continued. Christians have continued to search and construct apologetics based on human reason and many pastors today fit logical constructions into their preaching. While they certainly come with their own challenges, these elements of modernism have been helpful in connecting with the modern world while at the same time remaining faithful to biblical principles.

Caution Deconstruction Ahead: Postmodernism

Perhaps the Church’s acceptance of several modern ideals has led it to so strongly oppose the beliefs of postmodernism. Certainly postmodernism, like modernism, has not been kind to Christianity. Jacques Derrida strongly opposed the idea of a transcendental signifier, or a god who could rise above and explain truth to us. Jean-Francois Lyotard and postmodernists after him have railed against the idea of a metanarrative, or a story to explain other stories. Michel Foucalt’s web or network of knowledge made total knowledge of truth impossible—there is too much to grasp. Furthermore, relativism has been misconstrued by some followers of postmodernism to mean that all conception of truth are equally valid. This ambiguity and deconstruction of truth is at great opposition to Christianity’s absolute message. But, as with modernism, elements of postmodernism have been adopted by Christianity.

With the rise of postmodernism, came the rise of post-colonialism. Edward Said discusses in his text Orientalism that the West has created a strange and mysterious image of the Orient and declared this to be real. This has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of culture and created a dominant Western way of life. Many Christian missionaries in the modern era believed that a Christianizing of an indigenous people meant changing their culture to a Western lifestyle. This was in many ways unhelpful and even dangerous. However, a rise in postmodern thinking has brought with it a beneficial questioning of Western beliefs. Recently, a group of missionaries witnessing to a tribe in Southeast Asia faced a challenging situation when, after the tribe’s leader accepted Christ, the whole tribe came forward to communally accept Christian beliefs. The missionaries were at first uncertain what to do.  Didn’t these people have to make the decision to accept Christ their own? The concept of group conversion is foreign to a Western Christian because of how tied our beliefs are to ourselves. Individualism has unnecessarily embedded itself deeply in our faith. The New Testament has several stories where a head of a household believes and is baptized with his entire household, the example of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16 being the most prevalent. These actions are foreign to Westerners, but not wrong in light of Biblical witness

The Church’s Response

Is a postmodern Christianity possible? I do not believe that it is just as a modern or Eastern or Roman Christianity is not possible. Christianity is its own entity entirely: transcending movements, cultures, and philosophies. If the Church wraps itself up in a particular movement, like parts of it tried with modernism, then it loses sight of its basis. Deism and the Social Gospel were unsuccessful because they limited God and elevated man; in much the same way, the Emergent Church (perhaps the most apparent postmodern Christian movement) was so muddled by plurality and anti-foundationalism that it is all but completely dead.

With that said, the church can certainly use postmodern ideals to connect with this postmodern world. The demariginalization formulated by Judith Barth and the widening of “the circle” that Iris Young proposes present Christianity with an interesting opportunity. The modern ideal of a rich, athletic, white male should not be the only one that the Church attempts to reach. Christianity would do well to demonstrate a love to the people on the outside—after all Jesus ate and worked with the outcasts of Jewish society. Moreover, the evil beast that is relativism in the Church’s view could be used for great benefit in witnessing. Richard Rorty, when describing relativism in his text “Solidarity or Objectivity,” said there is nothing to say about truth apart from the societies in which we live. Living in a postmodern, relativistic world the Church could easily agree that our view of truth is limited by our culture, but that there is someone who stands outside of and beyond the world in which we live who can transcend these barriers: that someone being God. Finally, even in the postmodern world of today, science still holds a tight grip on what is considered to be truth. But David Griffin in his work Reenchantment of Science proposes a view that truth exists outside of science–existing in poetry and music and in countless other fields that cannot be quantified. His conclusion shows us that to limit truth to one field limits our humanity!

Christianity cannot get bogged down in movements, in philosophies, or in anything of this world. It must always live beyond these ideas. But that does not mean that it cannot adopt and use elements of these movements to focus and to maximize its work. Paul used the idol with no name to evangelize to the Greeks, and we can use postmodernism (and modernism) to share God’s love to our world.

In Defense of One Hero

This article is written as part of our mini-series on heroes. Read Samuel Schmitt explain why multiple heroes are a good thing here.

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(Photo Credit Pawel Kuczynski)

By Zach Schmitt

“Your heroes are dead

They were all in your head

When nothing is left we’ll start again.”

Project 86’s song “Your Heroes are Dead” tells us a story of great import. Our heroes are imaginary, failing, and ultimately harmful to our spiritual development. Mere men will always fall short of the example that we need to follow—if we look to them we will always be disappointed. This passage is a difficult one to write. Our world has always been filled with legendary stories of great men (and women) who have done incredible deeds. From the ancient Beowulf myth to the contemporary stories of Batman, from King Saul in Israel to Napoleon in Imperial France we see the story of heroes permeate cultures through time and geography. It is of my opinion that when we are talking about heroic figures we must split them up into two figures: real, historical figures and fictional characters. In the following I will argue that both are insufficient models for the Christian to pursue. I must clarify before I begin that I am not throwing the entire concept of the hero-figure off the moral cliff; I believe that there are very important elements that can be revealed in heroic individuals, but with these beneficial aspects come several important cautions.

“Folks need heroes, Chief. It gives them hope.” –Sergeant Johnson, Halo 2

The above quote comes from the introduction to the second Halo when Master Chief is on his way to receive a medal for his heroic actions in a previous conflict. Master Chief is reluctant to spend time in the spotlight, until Sergeant Johnson repeats to him the well-worn line we have all heard: we need heroes because we need hope. I agree. But any hope that we place in fallible man is nothing more than false hope. We can never find a man who will provide the expectations that we seek in them. We will always be let down. The most recent Batman movies offer a very similar proposition as Sergeant Johnson, but instead of holding to the statement, we see by series end that perhaps what people need more than heroes is truth.

King David was a man after God’s own heart. He slayed Israel’s great foe, Goliath, and killed tens of thousands of the giant’s countrymen. He wrote hundreds of praises and songs to God and poured out repentance for the sins he had committed. David is perhaps the best example we have been given of a true hero figure. Perhaps just as famous as David’s triumphs, however, may be his greatest failure. He steals the wife of one of his best soldiers and has him murdered on the field of battle. On top of it all, David acts as though he has gotten away with everything! Once he has been called on his sin by the prophet Nathan, David does come to repentance, but not without grave loss to his family (For generations!) and to the nation of Israel. Does this fit into our conception of a hero? Would you ever see a movie about this?

When my cousin was in grade school she was obsessed with the Abraham. “He’s the coolest!” she used to say. But as her weekly Bible study went on she began to learn more about him. Eventually she got to the story of Abraham’s time in Egypt. She heard about how he decided to make his own path by leaving the Promised Land in times of trouble and handing over his wife when times got even tougher. Abraham, this huge figure in her life, had just fallen to the same sins that she did. My cousin was pretty shocked and angered by this development and she went on about how much she hated Abraham for several weeks. I am pretty sure she has moved on at this point, but I can’t help but be reminded of how many times I have felt just like my cousin. No matter how much I admire or look up to someone they will always fail to live up to the image I have created for them. Perhaps what we find most shocking is that no man is better off than our own selves. Of course, we have had this warning for quite some time. Romans 3:23 tells us, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We are all fallen, none of us can offer hope. Folks needs heroes, but we cannot be them and neither can David or Abraham.

Fictional heroes are more prevalent in our thinking, but are they any more useful for us to emulate? There is no doubt that heroes of fiction can demonstrate a higher and more consistent moral character than that of real men. Captain America seemingly never wavers from his convictions. He always does the right thing in spite of hardships and every kind of opposition. Luke Skywalker faces off against the greatest evil in the galaxy and he does it without the help of a targeting computer or much training in the Force. Yet somehow he still manages to defeat the greatest forces of evil—both in the Empire and within himself. These two characters and countless others have been the models for boys for half a century, and yet we have seen no moral improvement in the upcoming generations. What is ultimately difficult with these characters is that when you try to live out their positive traits in your own life you find that you are incapable to grab that remote with the Force and even less so to always make the right decision. Fictional characters are just that, fiction. They are another unattainable ideal.

I see only a little use in the portrait of the conventional hero; the anti-hero, however, has great potential. The idea of an anti-hero is a literary device that changes the expectations of what a hero is supposed to be. Han Solo (Star Wars), Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby), Rick Grimes (The Walking Dead), and Malcom Reynolds (Firefly) are a few better known examples of the place of the anti-hero in story-telling (Christopher Nolan’s Batman is another prominent example, but he was just a bit too close to the conventional hero for me to consider). Each exhibits different flaws and imperfections; none are always examples we can look up to, but all of them do occasionally exhibit strong moral characteristics. These are often portrayed in ways that involved very difficult decision making, self-sacrifice, and often great loss. The truth is that doing the right thing is not always easy and it always comes with a cost. Luke 9:23 says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” It is a daily battle, a daily struggle and we will fall, but ultimately we know that the reward at the end is worth it. Truth is a vital component of the hope that we have, and I think we see a much truer story in certain anti-heroes.

Is there any such thing as a real hero? Yes. One. The One who offered true salvation and lived a perfect life. He controlled the largest empire ever and defeated each of his foe’s attacks. He sacrificed Himself to save His people and defeated Death. Jesus, the Savior of the world, and His actions are the most impacting of all time. If we were ever to follow after one man, one archetype, it is Him. Folks don’t need heroes, they need a hero who offers Hope and Jesus is the only person who can.

Men will always fall short, real or imagined. How should we respond? The answer is certainly not to discard all of our hero stories and look up to no one. Augustine once said to believers that wherever “truth may be found, it belongs to his Master”. The same can be said for any truth in men—ultimately it points back to the Creator. Some men really do contain good character and strong moral standings. The actions we can admire in those men are actions that reflect the life and commands of Christ; we should emulate them in their goodness. At the same time, we should be careful not to place our hope in those men—because they will never offer us the Hope we need. Let’s not outright abandon the hero stories, but let’s abandon the common image of them. If we do not, we will find ourselves helpless at the worst possible time. Hope is only truly found in the Son of God.

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What do you think? Do the dangers of heroes outweigh the benefits? Let us know in the comments.

In Defense of Heroes

 This article is written as part of our mini-series on heroes. Read Zach Schmitt explain why heroes may be more detrimental then helpful here.

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Phtoto Credit: Heather Hart @ Heather Hart Studio

By Samuel Schmitt

Heroes have fallen out of favor. From The Walking Dead to Watchdogs, it is the anti-hero, not the hero, who is ascendant. Our protagonists are deeply flawed and selfish, frequently saving the day more by accident than anything else. We relate to them, see ourselves in them, and empathize with their struggles, but we don’t look up to them, not really. Moreover, we take joy in removing heroes from their pedestals, in fault finding those lauded for virtue, in bringing everyone down to the same level. We don’t like the idea some people are better then others in any respect, so we try to find the worst in everyone to justify our own problems. This is nothing new. In Tides of War, one of the characters explains why Athens condemned Socrates,

“Men hate him for this (his goodness), because to acknowledge his nobility is to concede their own baseness, and this they can never do.”

I have no problem with the rise of the “realistic” anti-hero. I acknowledge that all human beings are fallen, and everyone has problems. However, we don’t just do our heroes harm when we seek to lower everyone to the same moral level, we harm to ourselves, because whether we like it or not, we need heroes.

What is a hero?

The English word hero was first used in the mid-14th century and was derived from a pair of Greek words meaning “protector” and “defender.” According to Merriam-Webster, one of the primary definitions is “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.” The Meriram-Webster definition is the type of hero we’re referring to here. The person can be real or fictitious, Abraham Lincoln or Frodo Baggins. The important part is that he is someone with admirable traits, generally exercised for the benefit of others.

Note that they don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be admirable. Consequently, I propose that they don’t have to be virtuous in every area of life to be admirable in one or several areas. I don’t have to applaud King David’s polygamy to admire his love for God. I don’t have to endorse George Washington’s theology to admire how he resisted repeated attempts by others to give him more power. I don’t have to embrace Luke Skyewalker’s whininess (to put it politely) in order to admire the mercy he showed his (spoilers) father in the end. This principle is so universal and common-sensical* that it hardly needs statement. Virtually everyone has a friend, parent, mentor, or sibling that they admire and want to be like in one area of their life but not in others. A realistic view of our heroes is necessary, but having the heroes themselves is also necessary.

Heroes Embody Abstract Virtues

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Integrity is an abstract virtue. I could explain it in terms of remaining true to your beliefs, elevating principle over social pressure and living authentically; or I could point at Captain America. You’d likely forget my explanation, but you’d probably not forget his example. Abstract, ethereal virtues seem unreal when spoken about as merely virtues, but tell a story (whether fiction or non-fiction) about someone living out a virtue and suddenly the virtue has become real.

Humans love stories. More importantly, humans remember stories, because stories are relatable. You have probably forgotten most of the equations your high school math teacher taught you, but I would bet money you remember at least some of the stories that your history teacher told you. Likewise, a lecture on the value of integrity would put someone to sleep, but a story about Captain America standing up to the mob is memorable. The story would stick with me. The story would inspire me. The story is something I would want to live out.

Heroes Offer a Model

In addition to showing us what an abstract virtue is, heroes show us how to live them out. Tolkien shows how to write a fantasy world into existence. Sergeant York shows how to fight with both strength and mercy. Nehemiah shows how to lead a discouraged team. Heroes are the moral pioneers; they show us give us a map we can follow or, at the very least, a place to start.

Obviously, for the Christian, the ultimate example of this is Christ. But having Christ as our primary hero does not mean we cannot have any other, lesser examples to look up to. Christ is the perfect model, but he is not the exclusive model. He has enabled others to be good through His grace, and these can be admired as well, so long as they are not elevated above Him. In fact, the apostle Paul recommends that the Philippian church look to and follow his own example in Philippians 4. These other heroes need not be idols against God; on the contrary, if the Bible is true, then humans are the divine image bearers. Those in our history (and stories) who do good deed are bearing that image of God’s goodness. They don’t detract from His honor; they reflect it.

Heroes Give Us Courage

Even when we know what to do and how to do it, we still often doubt that it can be done. Fear hijacks our imagination and fills us with dread of the future. The hero helps reclaim the imagination for good. As G.K. Chesterton says,

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

The heroes, invented and real, show us that there is hope. The real heroes, with their real flaws, show us that good can triumph over evil in the real world. The Mother Theresa’s, Martin Luther King Junior’s, and William Wilberforce’s show us that it is possible to make a lasting difference for good in the real world.  The imaginary heroes – the Narnians, Jedi, and Avengers -show us that even our imaginations need not be held in the grasp of fear. Evil, both external and internal, can be overcome.

 

 

*(editor’s note- we reserve the right to make new words)

 

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What do you think? Do the benefits of a heroes outweigh the dangers? Let us know in the comments.

Doing Versus Being: Christianity’s Take

In an interview on the Art of Manliness, Steven Pressfield stated that all current schools of thought, including Freudianism, Communism, and Christianity, all share a common goal. Ultimately, he explained, they are all about doing something to reach a higher level of existence. The means are different;psychoanalysis, redistribution of wealth, turning the other cheek, but the goal is the same: transcendence of the normal human condition through doing a certain action.

Mr. Pressfield is a brilliant man and an incredible author. His book Gates of Fire should be required reading for everyone everywhere. Unfortunately, on this seemingly simple topic, he joins a growing number of individuals who have a fundamental misunderstanding of the core of Christianity.

One finds it difficult to blame Mr. Pressfield. The American church has waged what it describes as a “culture war” for the better part of five decades.  T Without judging the merit of such action, suffice it to say that since much of the church’s part in the public dialogue has been about doing the right thing, one can easily see why many people would think that the message of Christianity is one of doing.

Even a skimming of Romans would argue quite the opposite. The mode of change in Christianity is not one of doing, but one of being. Actions such as loving God and loving one’s neighbor are a response to the change that God has done for us. Romans teaches that man was separated from God by his sin, that God in Christ returned man to a right relationship with Him through His sacrifice, and that man must simply have faith in Christ to be returned to that relationship.

Summed up by Paul:

Ephesians 2:8-10 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,not a result of works, so that no one may boast.For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

The actions that a Christian does are a result of his being, not the cause of it.

Initially, I may find it tempting to accuse Paul of splitting theological hairs. So what if living out the Bible’s ethics are not the means, but the result of a transformation. They are still involved and still necessary. Am I merely playing semantic games?

Or perhaps not. If transcendence is something to be achieved through my action, then I can be smug about my own work, judge the failings of others, and execute punishment on those who are less enlightened, for I have achieved what they could not. I did it through my own hard work, and they simply failed to work hard enough.

However, if my works are the result, not the cause, of God’s mercy, then I don’t have any justification for looking down upon anyone else. I can still believe in absolute right and wrong action, but those who choose to do wrong are no better than I, for my own actions do not make me right with God. In fact, if Jesus and Paul are to be believed, no amount of good action can gain merit, so no matter how much “better” I do than others, I still have not made myself a more worthy person.

The theological distinctives in the discussion are legion and have been written about better elsewhere. But the difference on a practical level is incredibly important. In short: it kills pride.

For some reason, the cultural stereotype of Christians is one of pride;, for the redeeming work has already been completed by God. There is no way to earn one’s Christianity, for it was earned by Christ. The doing only comes from being.

Thinking Critically in a Deluge of Controversy: A Noah Review

By Samuel Schmitt

 

Pardon my gratuitous pun in my title. Noah has garnered a flood of criticism and praise from various camps. I hesitate to add another drop (okay, I’ll stop) to the ocean of opinion, but, unfortunately, most of the criticism miss the virtues of the movie, as well as the real problems that lay right beneath the (wait for it…) surface.

So here we go. The good. The bad. And the the ugly.

(SPOILER ALERT)

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The good:

On a technical level, Russell Crow was his usual spectacular self, brilliantly portraying Noah as a tortured soul who is desperately grappling with his own flaws while trying to be obedient to God. In one of the best parts of the movie, Noah is confronted with the truth that he and his family are every bit as sinful and fallen as the rest of humanity. Unfortunately, Noah goes on to draw bad conclusions from this (more on that later).

Ray-Winstone also is impeccable in his role as Tubal-Cain. Tubal-Cain is a highlight of the movie. He is an ideal icon for fallen man, relying upon his own strength to defy God, rule his own destiny, and enforce his will.

The rock monsters/angels have been a frequent point of attack for blogs that oppose the movie. This is unnecessary. The angels, who have fallen from their glory because they relied upon their own wisdom, are redeemed when they lay down their lives in obedience to God’s purpose. It’s an interesting bit of creative liberty that speculates how another race could be redeemed. Is it in the Bible? No. Does this make it bad? No, in fact, the message is arguably biblical.

The second theme that caught a baffling amount of criticism from Christian circles was the portrayal of eating animals before the flood as a serious sin. I find it strange that this criticism comes from so many Christian circles when the Genesis account quite clearly states that man is not allowed to eat animals until after the flood (perhaps those who cry that the director of Noah should read the story should indeed themselves read the story). Furthermore, the stated reason for man’s defiance of God in eating animals before the flood in Noah is so that he can be stronger. He defies God that his own strength may grow. Noah, when faced with this challenge, encourages his sons to rely upon God’s provision and stay within his will. The message to this sub-plot is not environmentalist; it’s actually the best part of the movie.

On a shallow (but legitimate) level, we’re also shown a really cool flood scene with a neat battle. And the pre-flood earth is different from current earth in a creative, speculative way.

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The Bad:

Most of the bad things happen in the last 30 minutes of the movie. Unfortunately, Noah post-door closing on ark is no longer a Noah of the Bible. He somehow concludes that God has decreed that all of humanity (including his bloodline) must die. So Noah takes it into his own hands to see this through. In pseudo-Abraham moment, he begins to do this. The knife is cocked back and Noah is about to follow what he understands to be God’s will. But he decides he can’t and slips into depression. He is later comforted by his daughter-in-law saying that God left the choice to Noah and that Noah saw humanity’s inherent goodness and chose mercy, a decision that was retrospectively blessed by God.

This is a problem for a myriad of reasons.

The key problem is that, the fate of humanity lies with Noah. History lies at the mercy of his choice betwixt mercy and justice. He relies upon his own heart and will to save his family, and in the end, God, in an impersonal sort of way, blesses his choice.

Biblically speaking, God is the one who chose to extend mercy. That’s the point of the Noah story. Man deserved destruction. All (including Noah) were sinful and fallen. But Noah chose to trust God regardless of what happened, and God chose to give him mercy and save the earth from man’s evil.

In the Biblical narrative, Noah strength was in his trust and stewardship. In the movie, Noah’s loss of “faith” (though viewers are left wondering if Noah hallucinated the command since he seems unsure of himself) over judging mankind winds up saving him and his family. In the movie, it starts with Noah and God responds. In the Bible, it starts with God and Noah trusts. This is a large, critical difference that changes what would be a good movie into one with a bad message.

The other issues (family versus God, Noah’s insanity, and Noah’s acceptance of the mark of Cain) all are tied to the core confusion of the movie. Is the power in Noah’s faith or his own will? Tubal-Cain falls because he trusts his own will instead of submitting to God, but Noah trusts his own will and is saved? The movie falls sinks beneath the clashing of its own confused logic.

Perhaps this confusion exists because God is portrayed so distantly. He never speaks, does not offer guidance, and seems quite removed. Contrast this to the Genesis account where He explains to Noah with relative clarity what he should do and what is going to occur.

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The verdict:

Noah has an incredible production value with some decent sub-plots. However, it’s message is unfaithful to its source material and its own internal logic. This makes the film a sub-par narrative. Unfortunately. And I still love Russell Crow.

Most unpleasantly, there is an ugly that must be mentioned before closing.

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The ugly:

The Christian community has severely dropped the ball in its response to this movie.

Is the movie faithful to the Bible?

No.

But the movie has caught theological flack from many people, who have never seen the movie, over issues that are most certainly mole-hill issues. Rock monsters, vegetarianism, and possible environmentalist sympathies are not sufficient reasons to launch off on social media rant about how people should boycott a film.

Distorting the message of the Bible from one of faith and mercy to an elevation of man’s goodness and the power of his will IS a serious problem. But, how can one rightly judge something’s message without taking the time to listen. Critical thinking is critically important. But one must first understand the material before one begins to criticize.

Noah is a movie that deserves to be criticized for distorting the core message of the Bible (see Genesis), not for rock monsters and vegetarianism. Mainstream Christians need to learn to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (see James). We have the process inverted.