- 2020Jul 07
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Wang Xi
Confession: I have a terrible problem of talking, and sometimes walking, in my sleep. It’s an old family trait that I’m carrying on, much to my family’s sometimes dismay.
Last night, Maria woke me as I was standing upright in the bed, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. When she told me about it the next day, I mused that maybe my subconscious was just celebrating the Fourth of July weekend, and that if anyone ever questions my patriotism I can just say, “I literally pledge allegiance to that flag in my sleep.”
By the time you read this, the Fourth of July celebrations in the United States will be over, and my dog, Waylon, will have recuperated from his nervous frenzy over the sound of fireworks in our neighborhood.
Whether you’re an American or not, this is as good a time as any to think about what it means to have a patriotism that is shaped by the gospel, rather than one that is armed against it.
For all human beings, there’s a temptation to over-react to the last bad thing, to try to stay so far away from the last disaster that one runs headlong into an equal and opposite disaster on the other side. The same could be true here.
Most of us have seen the sorts of “Christian” services that are indistinguishable from a patriotic display on the national mall, just with prayers interspersed between the flags and songs. And, sadly, most of us have seen people re-work some of what they claimed to be their deepest convictions, not because they changed their minds by study of Scripture, but because one set of politicians won and another set lost.
That’s dispiriting, and is leaving a wreckage of cynicism in its wake. I don’t deny any of that, and I’ve written and spoken about it constantly. But most people who read this newsletter don’t fall into that temptation.
Some might even come (rightly) to see the rejection of this sort of civil religion as implying that one must choose between the kingdom of God and love of country. This would be a mistake.
The gospel is not a means to an end.
The gospel is not a tool to excite nationalistic passions or to form social bonds or to teach civics. The gospel is the announcement that God has raised the crucified Jesus from the dead and seated him in the heavenly places as the rightful ruler of the cosmos.
Every other allegiance, then, is subordinate to his lordship.
The follower of Jesus, then, is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus’ words here contrasted the kingdom of God not with Baal worship or strip clubs, but with food and clothing.
The teaching is not that seeking the kingdom leads to naked Christians on a starvation diet. As a matter of fact, Jesus teaches us to pray by showing us to ask, first, for the coming of the kingdom (Matt. 6:10) and then, immediately after that, to ask for daily bread (Matt. 6:11). The issue, in this case, is not either/or, but priority.
Seek first the kingdom of God, and all the other things will be added to you.
Love of one’s country is a good thing—just as honoring father and mother is a good thing, just as cherishing one’s spouse or children is a good thing. And yet, any one of those things can refuse to be subordinate goods, and can insist instead on being ultimate goods. That’s when they become idols. That’s, obviously, a spiritual problem for the ones drawn to the idolatry.
But what we sometimes miss is that putting the kingdom first actually enables us to love these things better.
I was surprised several years ago, in talking with cohabiting couples, about the reasons they would give for not marrying. I expected them to answer that question with a defiant cliché from some 1970s sexual revolution slogan about not needing a piece of paper to verify their love or about how marriage was slavery or some other nonsense.
I found almost no one, though, who would say that. Most of the time they didn’t express a low view of marriage at all, but a very high one—higher, in fact, than the Bible teaches. Many of these people would talk about how they knew that there was their one soul-mate out there, who could meet all their physical, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual needs.
This view of marriage doesn’t lead to happiness, but to exactly where it led to with these couples—to the replacing of the goodness of marriage with a chase for a mirage. The happiest couples are those who can give themselves to their marriage, who can love each other, but who love Jesus more.
The same is true of parenting. Some of you may have been the pinnacle of your parents’ lives—all their hopes and dreams pinned on you. No one can live up to such expectations, though, and it leads ultimately to resentment.
The best parents are those who love their children, but who do not expect their children to be worthy of worship. That enables these children to be themselves, to make some mistakes, and to live their lives without carrying the weight of being the ultimate vindication of their parents’ expectations.
You can love your parents best if you’re not crushed when you find that they make some mistakes, that they fail sometimes. You have a Father God who will never fail you, which means you can bear with those earthly echoes of that fatherhood who sometimes will fail. Those failures don’t mean they can’t be loved, just that they are not God.
Putting these good things second actually helps us to love them more.
I can have loyalty to my country if it is a secondary loyalty, not an ultimate loyalty. If my country becomes my ultimate identity, or my politics my ultimate vocation, then I will, in time, grow to hate my country because every idol, sooner or later, is seen to be too weak to do what’s asked of it (Isaiah 46:1-2).
But, with the kingdom first in our affections and in our self-identity, we can show gratitude for our country, and can serve her, willing both to criticize her missteps as well as to valorize her achievements.
We can truly love the land in which we live, precisely because we know that our citizenship here is temporary (Philippians 3:20).
You can sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” better if you love “Amazing Grace” more. You can be an American best if you are not an American first.
- 2020Jun 15
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Zerbor
The Supreme Court of the United States released its long-awaited decision in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia over whether sexual orientation and gender identity are included in the definition of “sex” in Title VII of the federal non-discrimination laws. The Court ruled, in an opinion written by Justice Gorsuch, that “sex” does, in fact, include sexual orientation and gender identity, despite the fact that legislators repeatedly voted against including those categories in the legislation. So, what now?
That this case is not well-known in the American public, not much a part of the ongoing “culture wars,” might cause one to think that this is an unimportant case, but this would be the wrong conclusion. The precedents set here will have major implications going forward on how the public meaning of words at the time laws are passed should mean for how they are interpreted in the future. This will mean that legislators actually won’t know what they are voting to pass—because words might change cultural meaning dramatically between the time of passage and some future court case.
The ruling also will have seismic implications for religious liberty, setting off potentially years of lawsuits and court struggles, about what this means, for example, for religious organizations with religious convictions about the meaning of sex and sexuality. This will mean not only that this is just the beginning of the legal discussion at this point, but also that Congress must clarify precisely what they intended, or intend now, in laws that protect women from unjust discrimination—laws that now are to be applied much more broadly.
But, beyond that, there are other considerations for the church. This Supreme Court decision should hardly be surprising, given how much has changed culturally on the meanings of sex and sexuality. That the “sexual revolution” is supported here by both “conservatives” and “progressives” on the court should also be of little surprise to those who have watched developments in each of these ideological corners of American life.
Whatever the legal and legislative challenges posed by this decision, they are hardly the most important considerations. What is most important is for the church to see where a biblical vision of sexuality and family is out of step with the direction of American culture. For 2,000 years, the Christian tradition, rooted in the Bible, has taught that human beings are limited by our createdness. We are not self-created, nor are we self-determining beings. God has created us, from the beginning, male and female—a concept articulated at the very onset of the biblical canon (Gen. 1:27) and reaffirmed by our Lord Jesus (Mk. 10:6). That’s because this creation order is not arbitrary but is intended to point beyond itself to the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 5:32). Here the church has stood, and will stand.
That will mean teaching the next generation of Christians why such distinctions are good, and not endlessly elastic. We do that by rejecting both a spirit of the age that would erase created distinctions between men and women and those that would exaggerate them into stereotypes not revealed in Scripture. This will mean also that we train up our children to see how such are matters rooted not in cultural mores but in the gospel itself. And it will mean that we provide not just teaching but models.
Those who decry the sexual revolution, but approve of, or participate in, sexual revolutions of their own—in excusing, for instance, adultery, sexual abuse, or pornography—will have, and should have, no credibility. Instead, what is needed is an ongoing demonstration of counter-cultural fidelity, accountability, love, and a recognition of the kinds of limits that make human life good and livable. And, at the same time, we can be the people who recognize that those who disagree with us are our mission field, to be persuaded, not a sparring partner to denounce. We must have both conviction and kindness, both courage and patience, both truth and grace.
- 2020Jun 08
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Ig0rZh
100,000 Americans are dead of Coronavirus. No sooner do we see the horrific video of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery than we see the video of George Floyd choked to death with a police officer’s knee on his neck. Riots then broke out in Minneapolis, and, as I write this, the city is still burning. And on and on and on goes one event of mayhem after another. It feels as though every institution is failing, every norm is collapsing. Many of you, from what you’re telling me, are feeling numb and helpless and overwhelmed. That’s a scary place to be.Several weeks ago, I pulled out one of my favorite C.S. Lewis books in order to talk about it on one of the “Reading in Exile” videos. The book was The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays, and my copy has been with me all of my adult life. Flipping through it to remind myself what would be of interest, I scanned over all the pages that I had marked and highlighted in the years past. One of them was less marked-up than the others, and that was Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime,” a sermon that he delivered in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford in the autumn of 1939.
The reason, I think, that this essay was not as marked-up as the others is, I’m sure, because my younger self would have seen it as more of a historical relic than a matter of ongoing concern. After all, Lewis’ subject was students at Oxford wondering how and why to study when their country was under attack and the entire globe was convulsing under the weight of World War II. That seemed to be a distant time, a far-off concern.
It doesn’t seem that way now.
In the weeks since, I’ve noticed that many others are also turning back to “Learning in Wartime.” Margarita Mooney penned a moving essay in the Hedgehog Review about how the sermon can help us “prune our minds” in a time of crisis. Jonathan Adler also examined the sermon in light of the present moment over at Reason magazine (note: y’all know I’m not an end-times conspiracy theory hawker, but when libertarians are turning to C.S Lewis, turn in your Bibles to Revelation because, friends, we’re almost there).
In his sermon, Lewis addressed a number of obstacles to focusing the mind in a time of crisis. All of them are relevant, but I want to focus on one here that seems to be of particular concern to many of us, and that is what Lewis calls “frustration.”
The frustration Lewis talked about was both a sense of limited time, “the feeling that we shall not have time to finish” and a sense of futility—this is going to fail so why do we give attention to it? That certainly seems relevant to the present moment. Much of what we face leaves us helpless before it, no matter how much motivational talk we give ourselves. No matter how we declare ourselves “re-opened,” a virus pays no attention to government edicts or human psychology, and it is not going away. Racism is not swept away by the upward march of history. Racism is a religion, and that religion is Satanism, the idolatry of the flesh and the will-to-power. And when we see the images by video done secretly of these killings, or the television images of the protests and riots in the aftermath, we wonder, “What can be done?”
And that’s where Lewis cheers me with his motivational pessimism. He tells us that we should not be surprised by the helplessness and frustration we feel because, in one sense, everything we do comes to nothing. One could easily conclude, “I am going to die someday so why would I bother with nutrition and hydration?” or a Christian could say, “I’m still going to be a sinner twenty years from now, if I live that long, so why do I try to pursue holiness now? Let’s just find some cocaine and prostitutes.” God forbid.
What we have is the present, and for that we must give an account. “It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for,” he said. “The present is the only time which any duty can be done or any grace received.” Knowing that, we can be faithful in the moment, even when we don’t know the future, the outcome, our success or failure or even how to gauge those things.
That’s because, Lewis reminds us, the crises we face are unveilings of awful realities, heightened manifestations of awful things, but they are all pre-existing conditions. We face life-or-death questions—personally and societally. Will the virus kill us or someone we love? Will injustice triumph in our legal system? Will our social and civic norms hold or splinter apart? Those are all very real questions but they are heightened intensifications of what we face every second of our lives.
That’s why Lewis wrote that “there is no question of life or death for any of us, only a question of this life or that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later.” We will die, and wars and pandemics do not make death more frequent. That sort of pessimism can lead to devilish places of cynicism and inaction. “Well, we’re all going to die of something, so let’s pull off the masks and dance” or “Well, hatred goes all the way back to Cain and Abel so let’s just ignore our consciences when they show us our part in it.” Jesus warns us against this sort of sloughing off of our stewardship (Matt. 25:15-28) and so do his apostles (2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:9; 2 Thess. 3:13)
Instead, Lewis argued, that frustration and feeling of helplessness should lead us somewhere else—to the right kind of disillusionment. “All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered on this world, were always doomed to a final frustration,” he said. “In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.” We come to terms with it not by sanctifying it, but by seeing what is wrong and crying out for the alternative.
The death of our illusions, then, isn’t meant to paralyze us but to re-shape us into the people who know how to weep and how to groan and how to point to a different sort of kingdom. As he said: “If we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”
Not a moment too soon.
Disillusionment can be soul-destroying. I see it all the time in people who have just given up, and made peace with the way-things-are. But the right kind of disillusionment can be a blessing. As David Foster Wallace pointed out (though never, it seems, really grasped himself) the moment that your idols disappoint you, that is a moment of revelation.
Disillusionment can lead to awful places—to cynicism, to laziness, to inaction, to despair. Or it can lead one to let go of every other stable place, and retrace one’s steps to the bush aflame with the Weight of Glory, a bush that does not tell us why things are the way they are, but tells us only “I Am That Which I Am.”
These days I find myself thinking quite a bit about the transfiguration, that moment when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up onto a mountain and then, mysteriously, exploded with radiant glory. They heard there the voice of God, and they saw Moses and Elijah with him. I identify with Simon Peter who “did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mk. 9:6), and so, as he often did, said something stupid. He asked to build “tabernacles” there for the three of them. He wanted a monument, a marker, that would make that place a place of stability, a memorial of where the glory had appeared and who had been there in it. But, from the cloud, the Voice of God countered: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (Mk. 9:7). And, after that: “suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only” (Mk. 9:8).
The glory of God was not in stable monuments but in the life of Christ, and the life of Christ only. Everything else is stripped away. “All other ground is sinking sand,” one might say. And that’s true for all of us as we follow the Way of the Cross.
Stripped away from everything but life in Christ—from all the glories you thought you wanted in order that you might see the Glory of God reflected in the face of Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6)—that’s what gives us the will to keep going—to love neighbor even when hated for doing so, to love life even when you know it will end, to love God even when you cannot see how he’s at work. That’s how we can walk back down the mountain to follow him, even in—especially in—times of blood and plague and terror and tragedy.