Posts Tagged ‘Culture’


The courage to be civil

Today, on the ERLC blog, I continue my series on civility and courage:

How do Christians navigate the tension of civility and courage?It’s easy to grow discouraged by the way we often get it wrong, but rather than embracing cynicism, we should do our part to model civility through engagement, humility and prayer.

In an interview with Christianity Today, ERLC president Russell Moore said: “I hope to speak with convictional kindness. I hope to speak of a holistic vision of human dignity and human flourishing rooted in the kingdom of God—and to do so in a way that is grounded always in the gospel. I don’t view people who disagree with me as my enemies or my opponents. I hope to speak with civility and with kindness and in dialogue with people with whom I disagree.”

We can’t stop every instance of incivility, but we can begin by setting a good example for our friends, family and anyone in our sphere of influence. I’m particularly sobered by the way my own children watch the way I engage issues and the words I use when talking about public figures. What am I teaching them about respect and dignity? Extending this out to our social networks, churches, community groups and small groups, let’s use our platforms, however big, to demonstrate a gospel-centered approach to truth-telling.

Read the whole article here:


Peter, Revolutionary, Sellout, Champion of Grace

Yesterday on the ERLC blog, I continued my series on speaking with grace in the public square: 

For several hundred years, basic Judeo-Christian values have held a dominant place in Western culture. But things are changing. While the Church is experiencing explosive growth in the Global South, the West is rapidly becoming post-Christian. For many followers of Jesus, this new reality is unsettling. Suddenly, long-accepted views on issues like marriage and sexuality are now viewed as intolerant, even bigoted.

Though the post-Christian paradigm is new in America, it’s not new in the history of the Church. There are very few moments in history where the surrounding culture affirmed the Church’s values. God’s people have always been a counter-cultural movement. Jesus, in his final discourse on the night before his arrest, warned his disciples about the possibility of social marginalization and physical persecution:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:18-20).

“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” –these words are as relevant to us as they were to the disciples. But they are words that don’t exactly go down easy. It’s human nature to want to be liked and yet, the call of Christ is, at some level, to embrace the role of a subversive, an outsider, a revolutionary. The gospel upends the dominant social order, always confronting and provoking.

So the question for followers of Jesus is not if we’ll face opposition or why we’re facing opposition, but how should we react when the culture winces at our message?

In my view, we typically adopt one of two equally misguided attitudes. We are tempted to worship at the altar of acceptance and willingly jettison core Christian teachings. The last several years have seen the rise of novel interpretations of Scripture, hoping to align shifting sexual mores with biblical values.

At the other end of the spectrum there is an equally dangerous posture. This is the temptation to proudly wear the badge of cultural provocateur. In this worldview, controversy is king and no rhetorical weapon is left unsheathed in the war of ideas.

But are these the only two choices for a follower of Jesus? I believe there is a third way, a more biblical approach to engaging culture. We see this modeled in the life of one of the most enigmatic characters in Scripture: Simon Peter.

In a 24-hour space of time, Peter was both the provocateur and the culturally timid. He pledged undying loyalty to Jesus and in a fit of defensive rage, lopped off the ear of a Roman soldier. And yet it was also Peter who sheepishly denied the Lord, not once, not twice, but three separate times. He was both a zealot and sellout in the same night.

Read the whole thing here:


Christianity As a Word-Centered Faith

Today I interview Karen Swallow Prior for Leadership Journal. Karen is one of my favorite voices in the evangelical world. She’s a fun follow on Twitter. Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and a contributing writer for Christianity Today. I love Karen’s work, because she urges the Church toward a rich and robust love of literature. 

One of the questions I asked her was this:

Why is it important for followers of Christ to read deeply and read well?

Christianity is a Word-centered faith. That term—“Word”—takes on layers of significance, all of which are meaningful and relevant to our faith. Because Christ is the Word and the Bible is God’s revealed Word, it is clear that Christians have a special calling to the understanding of words—and therefore the Word. Neil Postman famously points out in his classic treatise, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that the prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments suggests that the Judeo-Christian God is one who is to be known through rational, abstract language rather than the immediate, sensory experience of images as seen in the idol worship of the surrounding pagan cultures. If we know God through reading the Word, then the practice of reading—deeply, faithfully, and well—helps us to do that. Furthermore, reading demanding works of literature that require our time and attention can foster the very spiritual disciplines that enable us to slow down, attend, and heed the Word of God. As our society reverts increasingly to an image-based culture, our calling as a Word-centered people becomes even more compelling and resonant.

Read the rest of the interview here:


We Are All Judgmental

Last week the Internet exploded with news of two people whose actions (rightly) produced moral outrage, regardless of where you are on the political/religious spectrum. Anthony Weiner, already thin on public trust after his ridiculous Twitter exploits which caused him to resign his New York Congressional seat, was caught continuing that ridiculous behavior well after he claimed he was sorry, etc. To top it off, he’s sticking to his candidacy for Mayor of New York.

It was the same week that Milwaukee Brewers baseball star and 2011 MVP, Ryan Braun admitted, after months of passionate denials, that he indeed broke the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs. It was probably the worst kept secret anyways as nobody really believed his story. Braun was suspended for the rest of the 2013 season and had to forfeit this year’s salary, nearly $4 million.

On Twitter, on the radio, in newspapers, in casual conversation, the reaction to both stories, by people of all stripes, is something like, “Can you believe this guy?” For Weiner, there is no end to the mocking on Twitter. Fellow Democrats were as harsh on him as Republicans. For Braun, the words, “cheater”, “liar”, “fraud” are being used prolifically.

Of course there really is no defense of either of these men. Both violated a public trust. And yet, I find it interesting that a society deeply divided over many issues finds consensus on certain things being right and certain things being wrong.

In other words, even though we mock those who make moral judgements as being angry, power-hungry, backward, repressed, etc, we engage in that same behavior ourselves. We all make moral judgements. It’s just that the line between right and wrong has shifted.

Take for example the debate about gay marriage. Or abortion. These issues are usually framed this way: Christians are too busy pushing their morality down our throats. They need to get back to what the Bible really says about love and grace and tolerance. How dare anyone cast a judgement on the way anyone lives? Or the difficult choices someone must make? Why can’t evangelicals stop condemning people?

To be sure, some of the criticism of the Church has been accurate. Too often we have acted the Pharisee, beating our chest with pride at our own self-righteousness and missing Jesus all together. Too often we’ve sent the signal that being a Christian is about doing good, rather than about the miracle of God in flesh, dying to rescue us from sin, rising again in victory, and offering us new life in Him. So we should take the rebuke and return again to our first love.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Everyone makes moral judgements. Everyone condemns. Everyone has a set of truths that inform right and wrong. We all agree what Anthony Wiener did violates some kind of sexual ethic. We all agree Ryan Bruan’s behavior violates the ethics of fair play. We all have a standard of right and wrong and we all hate it when someone breaks it.

The difference is this: our view of what is right and wrong is not based on something absolute anymore. It’s anchored rather perilously to the shifting sands of public cultural opinion. We have become our own gods, determining right and wrong.

And this is a dangerous place to be, in my view.


Between Eden and Heaven

When I get to do leisure reading–reading that isn’t for ministry or school–I usually choose biographies. While I love to read about a wide variety of people, my favorite are American Presidents. I just got back from vacation where I consumed the very interesting book, Ike and Dick, a recent work focusing on the relationship between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

I know. It’s an obsession without a cure. I’m a nerd this way. But indulge me for a moment and let me tell you what energizes me about reading presidential biographies. Reading history reinforces to me the grand narrative of the story the Bible tells. Here are three reasons:

First,I’m reminded that nothing is accidental and that God is gathering all of history to Himself. Even if all you study is American history, you realize how fragile it is. A few different choices, a few votes here or there and history would be completely different. I’m reminded of the turbulent sixties. Had JFK listened to the Secret Service and not rode through Dallas with the top down on the car, he’d likely have finished out his term. It’s likely he wouldn’t have escalated the Vietnam War as LBJ had–mainly because he didn’t suffer from the same insecurities as LBJ. Which means LBJ would not have been president during this tragic war. Or take for instance, the simple decision Robert Kennedy made to leave a Los Angeles hotel through the kitchen instead of the typical exits, where security was better. He likely would not have been the victim of an assassin’s bullet, which means he would have likely won the Democratic nomination for President instead of George McGovern. Had RFK been the nominee, he would probably vanquished Richard Nixon, whose unlikely political resurrection was due, in part to McGovern’s anti-war candidacy and the fissures in the Democratic Party.

This is just one time period. But American history is full of so many close calls. Actually all of history is like this. It turns on a dime. But it turns, according to Scripture, on the axis of God’s sovereign will. So reading history, to me, enables me to read today’s headlines with less fear and trembling, knowing that Christ is Lord over even today’s bad news.

Secondly, I realize that there is nothing new under the sun. I often get agitated at the unproductive partisanship displayed at all levels of leadership. There is a tendency to think that this is a new thing: men and women leveraging whatever they can to gain more power. But power plays, corruption, money grabs, and character assasinations are as old as sin itself. In fact, sometimes I wonder if the acrimony of earlier times in American history was worse than we find today. The way candidates sniped at each other, the way biased media dug up personal stories and had no fear in libeling those of other ideological persuasions. No, sin, sniping, strife predates even the American experiment. It stretches back to the first conflict in the very first family, where jealousy and self-righteousness led Cain to spill his brother, Abel’s blood. The motivations in the hearts of men have not changed in the millenia since the Fall. And so this reminds me that no movement or election or man-made effort can do what the gospel of Jesus Christ does in every generation: regenerate dead and black hearts. We an all try to be nicer to each other, but ultimately we’ll fail unless we are transformed from the inside out. This is why I love the gospel story. Without it, there is no hope in the world (Ephesians 2:12. And we are, of all men, the most miserable (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Third, I don’t have to long for the good old days nor put hope in a false future. If you look behind every social movement, there are one of two motivations. Either we are trying to reform–bring things back to a perceived golden era. Or we are trying to progress: shape a more hopeful future. This longing, I believe, is God-given. It’s rooted in the Biblical narrative. Though our nostalgia may, on the surface, point to the 1950’s or some other seemingly golden era, it’s really veiled longing for our original home: Eden. This idea we have that things were once good–told so often in our best tales–hails back to the Garden where man and woman walked with God in innocence, where evil was absent and life was as it was intended to be. This instinct we have that something messed it up is answered by Genesis’ account of a snake, an enemy, and a poison. Sin destroyed what man once possessed and now we are left longing for the place where we are no longer welcome.

And yet we have a yearning for things to get better, to improve. This desire for utopia, often warped by the evil imaginations of cruel dictators, is what fuels our political activism, is it not? We vote because we don’t like the status quo. We look for another political savior, put our trust in him or her, and then express our disappointment four years later when they turn out to be human. This is not new. Israel thought a king would solve their problems. And they soon realized that a king could often be the source of their problems.

This instinct, to yearn for something better, is also answered by the biblical narrative. What we’re longing for, a utopia where things are as they should be, is Heaven. Only we can’t create utopia. We can and should try to make life better, to alleviate human suffering, to create environments for human flourishing. But every generation fails at perfection. Every generation falls short of the glory of God. Followers of Jesus live with the real hope that Christ has defeated the sin that destroyed our Eden and has vanquished death. He’s coming back one day to reign as King and restore what sin destroyed.

So, Jesus’ followers should avoid the pitfalls of both overealized nostalgia and overrealized eschatology Returning to a mythical golden era (that never existed) denies the unique calling to live on mission in the time and place where God has uniquely called us. And the messianic impulse that says “we are the ones we have been waiting for” not only supplants Jesus as the ultimate agent of change, it sets us up for the frustration every generation of world-changers experiences: unrealized expectations.

We’re between Eden and Heaven. We don’t have to mourn the sin that kicked us from the Garden because the Savior vanquished it on the cross and in His resurrection. So our mission is to declare the good news of the gospel, roll up our sleeves and serve our communities, and keep our eyes on the city coming, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10). We love our neighbor, not because we, or our movement, is his solution. Not to earn merit points with an angry deity. We do what we do, out of love, reflecting in some small and fallen way, the love of the perfect One, who is both Savior and Lord.

Only this gospel answers both our longing for what we have lost and the hope for a better future.


Loving Someone With Whom You Disagree

Today in my Friday Five interview for Leadership Journal, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Russell Moore, the newly elected head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve long admired Dr. Moore for his clear, biblical teaching and his winsome perspective on the Scripture and politics. One of the questions I asked him was about his relationship with the President. You might not expect a friendship between a liberal Democrat and a conservative evangelical, but this is what Dr. Moore said. I think his response gives Christians a good model for how to disagree agreeably:

I have disagreements with President Obama on some crucially important things, such as matters of life, marriage, and religious liberty. I have respect for him as a leader and as our president, and I like him as a person. When you pray for someone every day, it is hard not to love that person, even when he disappoints you in some area or another.

He and his Administration have always treated me with kindness and respect, and I have friends I love in the Administration. We don’t have to agree on everything to work together sometimes, and to seek to understand one another when we don’t agree.

I hope to honor and to pray for the President, as the Bible commands us to do, even when we disagree, and to work with his Administration when we have points of mutual concern for the common good.

I have learned a lot by watching the example of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in his friendship with the President. In a profile of Sen. Coburn in TIME Magazine, written by President Obama himself, of all people, the senator is quoted as saying, “What better way to influence someone than to love them?” I recognize the Spirit of Christ in that statement, and I hope to live up to it.

Read the entire interview here:


Shouldn’t Gratitude Should Be Our First Language?

Yeah, yeah, of course we’re supposed to be thankful on Thanksgiving. But it occurs to me that we’re not very good at this. By we, I don’t mean the editorial “we” by which I’m pointing the finger at the rest of Americans for being ungrateful while I ignore my own ingratitude. By we I don’t mean the “Church” by which I think the problem is the rest of those ungrateful brothers and sisters in the Lord while I silently pretend I’m not full of unhealthy entitlement.

No, I’m talking about me and my own ingratitude. And of all people, shouldn’t it be me that’s the most thankful? Whose first language is one of thanksgiving? After all, it’s me who was sovereignly chosen to salvation, who was brought from death to life by the mercy of God at the cross. It’s me who is the recipient of God’s resurrection power, giving me new life, endowing me with the Holy Spirit, gifting me to serve God, and securing a beautiful eternal city where I’ll dwell with God forever.

It occurs to me that, of all who should be grateful, Christians are at the front of the line. And yet it is us–it is me–who are the least grateful. We belly ache about the state of our country, posting our beefs on Facebook and Twitter, muttering them at the coffee shop and the water cooler. We complain about our jobs, our marriages, our children, our in-laws. We rail against the faults of the Church worldwide, the church local, and that cranky old neighbor next door. When we’ve exhausted these complaints, we moan about the weather.

But our lips should resound with praise. Of all people, we who have been touched by the gospel, should know the depths from which we were rescued. We, of all people should recognize the simple gifts of beauty from a gracious God. Sunlight, oxygen, green grass, rows of harvested corn, breath, blood, life, and community. We, of all people, should enjoy the fruits of American prosperity: political stability, food, order, money, iPhones, clean shirts, education, books, coffee, and a warm coat.

God’s people should speak first the language of gratitude. We should treasure, rather than bemoan, our closest relationships. We should overlook rather than highlight the flaws of those we love. We should embrace, rather than run away from, hard work and accomplishment and purpose.

I wonder the effect on our culture if Christians first simply expressed the unadulterated joy of a man in prison: The Apostle Paul. Where others would complain, he said, “Rejoice.” Where others would give up hope, he said, “I’m content.” Where others would rail at God, he said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Imagine the impact if this attitude prevailed among God’s people. Imagine the impact if it simply prevailed in me.

The careless soul receives the Father’s gifts as if it were a way things had of dropping into his hand yet is he ever complaining, as if someone were accountable for the checks which meet him at every turn. For the good that comes to him, he gives no thanks—who is there to thank? At the disappointments that befall him he grumbles—there must be someone to blame!- George MacDonald


3 Reasons Your Pastor Probably Doesn’t Preach Politics

I’ve written on this issue before, but it’s probably worth revisiting in an election season. And new research has been released by Lifeway that affirms what I’ve always believed: generally Bible-believing pastors shy away from overt political endorsements and preaching politics in the pulpit.

I wrote a piece for Relevant not long ago on this subject in which I said this:

[To preach] is a humble and holy task because the people who attend churches arrive with the assumption that what is said comes from the Bible. To cut and paste partisan talking-points or to substitute consistent exegesis with sample “election season” sermons is spiritual malpractice.

I want to expand on this with three important points on why pastors don’t and probably shouldn’t preach politics in the pulpit:


1) Our Text Must be the Word of God

This sounds like a cliche, but it bears saying: faithful Bible preachers use the text of the Word of God as their source of preaching. Anything less is simply a speech, which may be inspirational, moral, or even Christian-themed. But if our basis is not the text, we’re not preaching.

Sometimes a given text will make political or moral statements. For instance, if you’re preaching through Psalm 139, you cannot escape the references to the sanctity of life. Or if you are preaching through Proverbs you will encounter many economic truths that shape capitalism. Or if you are preaching through parts of James or Timothy, you will find it inescapable to avoid the harsh condemnations of greed.

But as a rule pastors, especially those who preach in an expository (taking a book at a time, chapter at a time, verse at a time) approach, will be guided by the text. To parachute political talking points into the text is spiritual malpractice.

One caveat is this: perhaps a pastor will do a topical series on key issues of the day and how Christians should think through them biblically. I’ve done this as a Sunday Night series. This can be helpful, however, a pastor must be faithful to let the text speak to the issue and not wedge your particular political opinion into the text.

2) The Bible cuts both ways

I find it fascinating that certain groups on the Right want pastors to “speak up.” What they mean by this, of course, is to more overtly endorse their preferred candidates and/or moral issues. But what they don’t understand is that pastors are speaking up, it’s just that what pastors are speaking up about may not be the taking points of the current season.And, the Bible cuts against both parties, against all political persuasions. Yes, there is much in the Scripture affirming the prolife (Psalm 139; Genesis 2-3) and traditional marriage (Mark 19:5) positions. You can also make a good argument that the Bible affirms the idea of limited government (1 Timothy 2:2; Mark 12:17) and some of the root ideas of capitalism. So some would say the Bible is very conservative.

And yet that would be incomplete, because you will also find in Scripture many texts on justice, the plight of the poor, treatment of the immigrant. And who were Jesus’ chief antagonists were in the gospels? The Pharisees, the Religious Right of their day.

Should pastors speak about in the pulpit about contemporary issues? Yes, but only when the texts of Scripture clearly articulate it. They shouldn’t bow to any party’s talking points. They shouldn’t slant their sermons to fit a political profile. They shouldn’t become wannabee pundits in the pulpit. They should preach the Word and let it do it’s work in the hearts of the people, who will then go influence their communities.

3) We must never dilute the message of the gospel. 

The Church should be counter-cultural and should engage the issues of the day. But this engagement should be an outgrowth of the gospel’s sanctifying work in each believer. In other words, the political issues shouldn’t be the main thing that characterizes a church. The gospel should be the main thing. The Scriptures should be the main thing. Christ should be the main thing. This is why pastors often shy away from endorsements or public pulpit activism. It sends the wrong message that the main purpose for gathering on Sunday is to stir up the troops and get “our guy” elected. But what of the brother or sister of the other party or the soul seeking God who only hears partisan talking points? If this happens, we’ve failed in our mission.

To be clear, pastors are citizens, too. And so in other venues, such as op-eds, blogs, books and other places of influence the pastor may speak his mind. Even so, he must jealously guard that influence and always speak winsomely. Again, as a minister of the gospel, he must not make politics more important than his pastoral duties.

Pastors should also coach their members to winsomely engage the culture. We need gospel preachers at all levels of society and in all spheres, politics included. Pastors should equip, encourage, and support those who enter public service.

Summary: In conversations I’ve had and in my own experience, it is mission that keeps pastors from overtly preaching politics in the pulpit and not the IRS.