Juxtapositional Theology

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I am sometimes fascinated by juxtapositions.  For instance, on page 593 of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (13th edition), this quote from a hymn by John Mason Neale:

Brief life is here our portion.

…is followed by the quotations from Karl Marx, beginning with:

Religion…is the opium of the people.

Two worldviews providentially arranged for our comparison.

The first worldview sets this life in the context of eternity.  Our days in this world are few–but there is another life to come, in the heavenly city, for those who belong to Christ.  The hymn is actually a translation of a 12th century work by Bernard of Morlas, and the entire hymn can be found here.  It connects, in turn, with Hebrews 13:14, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (ESV).  So an acknowledgement of the ephemeral quality of this present life serves actually to prompt us to faithfulness and to ground morality in this present world.  Relativizing this life undergirds living it well.

Marx, on the other hand, may agree that this life is short–but, in any case, it’s all we’ve got.  The grand religious narrative that calls us to think of the world to come is a stupefying fable.  Therefore we must focus on this life, and on the equitable distribution of resources for human flourishing.

But that last point does not follow.  If this life is all, why should we pursue equality and flourishing for everyone?  Why shouldn’t the strong take advantage of the weak for their own gain?  And that, of course, is how Marx’s ideas actually played out in human history.  Absolutizing this life is how we make it best approximate hell.

So the merry juxtaposition of Bartlett has set before us something like the two ways of biblical wisdom literature.  Live for this life, and you make this life a misery.  Live for God, in light of His eternal kingdom, and you fill this life with meaning.  This is true for cultures, but it is fundamentally true for individuals–cultures are, after all, aggregates of individuals.  Two ways are set before us; “Therefore, choose life” (Deut. 30:19).

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Plain, please

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I was confronted this morning once more with the vexatious reality of evangelical commercialization and celebrity culture.  Christianbook.com had kindly sent the church a catalogue, labeled “Pastor’s Resources Fall 2019.”  Among the four books featured on the cover was The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, which I was exhorted to pursue on page 7.

Sigh.

Dutifully turning to page 7, I find that Charles Stanley, and his publisher Thomas Nelson, are not alone in carrying out this travesty.  On pages 5-7, we discover also the Jeremiah Study Bible (that’s David Jeremiah, not the OT prophet), the MacArthur Study Bible, the Ryrie Study Bible, the Scofield Study Bible, the Maxwell Leadership Bible, and others.

Now, I know that in a sense these are just 1-volume Bible commentaries.  And I think Bible commentaries are tremendously valuable.  And I think it is fine, even desirable, for Bible commentaries to print the text of Scripture along with their commentary.

Nonetheless, it strikes me as irreverent towards the Word of God to print a Bible labeled with a popular teacher.  This is one of many ways in which the evangelical publishing industry has been unduly influenced by celebrity culture and commercialization; but it is probably the worst.

As for me, I’ll take my Scripture plain, please.

The Foundation of Freedom

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It doesn’t take much reflection to observe that America today is home to many people for whom the nation’s founding principles must appear odious, even scandalous.  Consider how this early line from the Declaration of Independence must read to many in our culture:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Scandal upon scandal!  One offense unfolds upon another.  First is the assertion that anything should be certain and universal, much less “self-evident”, a defiance of the basic relativism of the postmodern mind.  Second is the generic use of the masculine pronoun, a capital offense in contemporary academia.  Related (Second, Part Second?) is this concept of a ‘man’, which a fair number of our legislators and academics, and the majority of our celebrities, seem no longer very clear on.

But third–and here I wish to dwell a moment–is the real scandal.  The worldview and claim of freedom in this document seems to be explicitly based in theism.  And, though this sentence does not specify, I think the historical background is sufficient to assert that this theism is a monotheism of at least vaguely Christian contours.

Doctrines of God, creation, and providence are foundational to the American experiment in freedom.  Upon such foundations was built a republican (small r) government that most people no longer understand, and which the Democrats (big D) are trying to dismantle because it has proven a nuisance to them lately.  But those who like freedom may usefully contemplate its Christian theistic basis, and the implied danger of our growing trends towards secularism (soft atheism?), atheism, paganism, and religious pluralism.

What sort of society do we want?  One where schools outlaw prayer and promote sexual immorality and an atheistic evolutionary worldview (the last two are surely related)?  One where Antifa thugs beat journalists in the streets?  One with increasing government control and technocratic paternalism?  Or one where a responsibly free people inculcate in their children a Christian character, and live out that Christian character in love of neighbor, caring for the needy, and pursuing virtue?

If what we want is the last one, then we have to see that secularism as currently understood is not how our nation was put together, has ushered in the other isms aforementioned with their destructive tendencies, and will never produce a just and good society.  The American experiment has had massive failures and hypocrisies (e.g. slavery), but it has also had measured successes.  Its best hope for getting back on track is to affirm once again the foundation of responsible freedom: the one true God.

“For the LORD Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2, NIV)

Proper Respect

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Independence Day is a time to celebrate the many blessings we have as a nation, especially the great amount of freedom we really do enjoy.  In some countries you can be punished for criticizing the government, or for your religious beliefs.  But times of patriotic celebration also invite us to consider the relationship between our citizenship in this world and our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, loyalty to Christ comes first.  The apostle Peter is quite pronounced in his declaration that heavenly citizenship makes believers “foreigners and exiles” in the world (1 Peter 2:11, NIV).  Yet, interestingly–perhaps surprisingly for some revolutionary-minded Christians–this does not mean that Christians are disruptive to the earthly societies in which we still live.  On the contrary, having our citizenship in heaven makes us very good citizens on earth, in every way that would not compromise our fundamental loyalty to Christ.

So the apostle says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (vv.13-14).  Loyalty to Christ, so far from leading to social revolution, implies that we should be respectful and obedient to earthly authorities.  And we should remind ourselves that the Roman emperors if the first century were not good or godly men; they were pagans, with pagan morals and vices.  When we take this into our own context, it suggests that disrespecting the president and other government officials is not Christian behavior–even when those officials are immoral.

This doesn’t make Christians government stooges.  When the powers go against God, we must respectfully disobey (see Acts 4:19).  But the general rule is that citizenship in the kingdom of heaven means good citizenship in the earthly lands where we presently sojourn as strangers.  This will help our witness (1 Peter 2:15), as we live out our loyalty to God (v.16).

Giver of Rest

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“O Lord, who art as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, who beholdest Thy weak creatures, weary of labor, weary of pleasure, weary of hope deferred, weary of self, in Thine abundant compassion and unutterable tenderness, bring us, we pray Thee, unto Thy rest–Amen.”

-Christian Rosetti, quoted in Great Souls at Prayer, 240

Self, Shame, and the Savior

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CNN posted a tragedy recently, as part of their effort to promote the sexual revolution. The story is as instructive as it is appalling.

The article’s headline read: “I was married with 2 kids when I realized I’m gay.” Immediately following came the editor’s note, which stated with tragic predictability that “Melisa Raney is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Atlanta with her two children.”

What happened to the husband? Between title and editor’s note lay the story of a marriage destroyed by the sexual revolution. The article itself confirmed this. But what justification could be offered for this betrayal of marital vows? What could be more important than loving the man to whom this woman had united herself? What could trump the importance of providing a stable home and family life for their two children?

Finding herself. Self-acceptance.

For here was the problem, in the young woman’s mind: “there I was, at 36 years old, realizing I didn’t know myself at all.”

What explains this sense of lostness? What was missing from her life, that she had this sense of alienation and incompleteness of identity? “I had everything I thought made my life perfect. I was married to my best friend and we had two beautiful, healthy and hilarious children, with successful careers and a beautiful home.”

If that’s the description of what she thought would make her life complete, the diagnosis seems fairly clear. There is someone missing from the picture, but it’s not herself. The tragedy unfolds from her misdiagnosis of the problem. She bought the lie that desire is identity, and accepted the prescription of self-acceptance for salvation. “A part of myself wasn’t living. And by not letting that part live, I was slowly dying.”

It’s easy, then, to see why others had to be sacrificed. The gospel of self-acceptance quite naturally demands sacrifices, and one’s children and covenant partner are likely candidates for the altar. “My family was being shattered and I couldn’t stop it. I constantly had to remind myself, ‘You get one life. This is your life and no one else’s’” (italics hers).

The sacrifices were made, but ineffective. “I was finally figuring out who I was. Now I was ashamed by that answer.” Shame, the need to hide ourselves—first consequence of the open eyes in the primordial fall. How do we deal with the shame of true self-realization? Adam and Eve tried to cover up with fig leaves, but God showed them that something must die to cover their sin.

Self-acceptance is a fig leaf. No amount of supportive community and group therapy will make it adequate. The goal is an illusion: “We were on a path that feels impossible to navigate until one day, you can live your truth and be perfectly fine shaping a new life.” Truth is not a matter of personal subjectivity. Shaping a life to suit your own desires will never work out to joy, because you were made to shape your life around God and His desires.

That’s who was missing from her picture of the perfect life; and joy was missing too, because joy is His gift. Sacrifices to self-acceptance and sinful desire cannot bring what God alone possesses. So she ends with a mistaken moral for this heartbreaking tale: “I want people reading my story to know that it’s OK to be the person you’re meant to be—no matter what your age is when you finally get to know yourself and love who you are in the process.”

The real moral, of course, is that only Christ brings true life and meaning. There is a price to believing the lies of the sexual revolution, the especially heavy price of what those children have and will continue to suffer. The mask falls, and we see clearly how little the LGBTQ+ movement has to do with love. Broken homes and broken lives are its results.

Having a private, personal ‘truth’—my truth—sounds very useful indeed. It legitimates my desires and makes them utterly immune to criticism. But it is only a cloud of smoke, poisonous smoke; for the supreme tragedy is that personal ‘truth’ keeps us from finding Him who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). And He is the only adequate covering for our sin and shame.  He is life, and He alone brings salvation.

Among the Pagans

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“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12, NIV)

Even Christian ethics has a missional aspect.  We do not live for ourselves, but for God; and so, the mission of God should be in focus when we think about our behavior.  Doing good, usually, is regarded positively by most people.  Goodness is winsome, and love is powerful.

Of course, faithful Christian living in a pagan society will get you accused of wrongdoing.  Every Christian in America today needs to understand this, because we want to be thought well of, we want to be considered good people, and that desire is being used against us.  That normal human desire for respectability has been used to get a whole lot of people on board with a whole lot of wicked nonsense.  But as the month of June has so forcefully reminded us, if the celebrities wouldn’t call you a hate-filled bigot, you’ve probably compromised on a biblical understanding of human sexuality.  If you don’t fall within the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights’ definition of a hateful extremist, you’ve probably let the world corrupt your view of the sanctity of human life.

The price of a good reputation in a pagan society is too high.

But reputation in a distant, abstract, sense is one thing; how the people who know you feel about you is another.  Supposing some neighbor, in lock-step with the spirit of the age, found out you belong to a church that holds a biblical stance on moral matters.  They might think of you as a hater.  But what if you’re the one who visited them in the hospital, and mowed their lawn while they were recovering?  What if you’re the one who had them over for bbq, and gave them a ride to work when their car was in the shop?

Though they accuse you of evil, they see your good deeds.  And this may make them open to hearing the gospel, and to the possibility that on the day of the Lord they will be among those gladly bending the knee, rather than those bending the knee in terrified conviction.  Make no mistake, doing good isn’t sharing the gospel; but it is consistent with sharing the gospel, and it may pave the way for the message of God’s love.

Don’t you know there’s a war on?

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“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11, NIV).

I wonder if our resistance to temptation would be stronger if we had the mentality Peter shows here, the sense that sinful desires are an attack upon our souls.  Few Christians take sin as seriously as we should.  We can recognize a wicked desire–greed, pride, lust, or whatever–but at the same time it can seem harmless, or at least insignificant.  And every time we give in to temptation is a surrender, a failure to recognize that this world is not our home, a harm to our souls–an offense to God.

There’s a war on.

We’re strangers here, and the wicked ways of the world are assaults upon our spiritual life.  Recognizing this is part of what can put us in the right frame of mind to resist temptation.  Small temptations aren’t small; they’re attacks on your soul.  Small concessions aren’t small; they’re surrenders in the spiritual battle.

The good news is that Christ brings victory.  The Holy Spirit gives us strength to fight this war.  By prayer and faithfulness, we can resist temptation.

This is war time; soldier on.