Whose Way?

If I asked you to list a few current events that are splashed across our headlines, you could probably do it with ease. How about presidential politics? How about BLM? How about Blue Lives Matter, or is it just black lives? If black lives matter, why are blacks assassinating fellothw blacks who serve as our police? How about the 60 million abortions in the U.S. since 1973’s Roe v. Wade? Do their lives matter? 29,000 babies, just in America, will be aborted this year, after 16 weeks of gestation. Do their lives matter? And let us not forget illegal immigration. Should a nation not have borders? If not, why not? Can you name a nation that has lasted that doesn’t have borders? What does the word nationhood even mean if it’s denuded of its written laws and borders? Or how about the tone of our country’s public discourse? What does it reveal about current American public discourse? Current discussions resemble MTV’s pubescent crassness more than substantive debate.

This morning after coffee, I checked the headlines from my computer at work for just some of our current events:

  1. When nonstop terror bleeds into our media and political culture
  2. Baton Rouge killer carefully plotted attack against police, brought 3 guns, investigators say
  3. Erdogan’s appeal to Islamists in wake of failed coup spurs fear for Turkey’s future
  4. Terror strikes again: ISIS claims responsibility for German train attack
  5. White House won’t be lit in blue

Is there a unifying theme through all of these headlines? Some might say the theme is unraveling. Others might say the theme is lack of courageous leadership. Others might say we’re witnessing the triumph of evil. Others might say we’re seeing that the enemy is inside the wire–that is, that current events are being orchestrated by folks who are ostensibly on America’s side, but who, in reality, are vehemently opposed to America, our freedoms, our constitution, and our other founding documents. I don’t speak as one with no view. Presumably like you, I’m a legal citizen, and am concerned, but I speak from a biblical worldview.

Is this the first time that world events have seemed out of control? Is this the first time that culture seems to be unraveling? Is this the first time that people have rejected God, Christ, the Bible, Christian input, etc? Did Noah’s generation repent when he was called to pronounce judgment and warn of a worldwide flood? Did vast numbers of folks repent and turn to hear the preaching of the word? Did the masses repent and turn to God? Listen to Gen 6:11-12:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.

Sound familiar? Yet God did not leave Noah with just a diagnosis of disaster. He made a way: “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” (v.18) God made the way, but it was just that—God’s way, not man’s way.

Or think of another OT prophet, Jeremiah, in the 600s B.C. in Israel, a man called by God to warn the people to repent and turn to God. But did the culture listen to the word of the Lord through his servant Jeremiah?

Listen to Jeremiah’s word of the Lord: “violence and destruction are heard within her; sickness and wounds are ever before me. Be warned, O Jerusalem, lest I turn from you in disgust, lest I make you a desolation, an uninhabited land.” (Jer 6:7b-8)

That was in the 600s B.C. Was that the first time the nation was unraveling? Was that the first time that God spoke through one of his prophets, pleading with people to listen and obey the word from the Lord? Was that even the first time that God’s people were persecuted for telling the truth?

But did God leave Jeremiah there, in the pit (later in his ministry), suffering alone? Israel and Judah both fell, of course, as judgments. And many were deported to Babylon (present day Iraq) in 597, 586, and 582 B.C.

But did God just diagnose the people’s situation and leave them there? No. But deliverance was to be God’s way, not man’s way. Listen to Jer 31:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their heart. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (vv.31-33)

It had to be, then as now, God’s way, not man’s way. The greatest example in history of God speaking is found in God’s incarnation in Jesus–his supernatural birth, life, death as substitutionary atonement, and his resurrection. Christ requires an either/or ultimatum.

Will we turn to him in repentance and faith, or remain in our evil deeds and darkness? As another writer phrased it, it’s Christ or chaos. And what do our headlines indicate most people choose?

Did Jesus not warn the people to repent and turn to the one true and living God? And what sort of reception did Jesus receive? “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (Jn 1:11)

Why did his own people not receive him? The Scripture says that their works, like ours, are evil: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (Jn 3:19)

But did God leave them/us there? Did he only condemn us and abandon us? Are we like the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot? Or is man, as Sartre wrote, a useless passion? Is there no hope?

Probably you’ve heard, “If only God would show up, then I would believe.” May I say this as kindly as possible? He has, and his name is Jesus. God in the flesh not only showed up, but he lived the only life worthy of God’s requirements. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:17) He was born of Mary who’d been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. He lived a sinless life. Yet he became sin for us, for those who’d believe upon him: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

What’s more, God raised him from the dead (Mt 28; Mk 15; Lk 24; Jn 20; 1 Cor 15). The theme remains the same: deliverance only comes God’s way, not man’s way.

If you want to witness the bloody contrast between the two ways, witness our daily headlines. What will it take? Will we look, in repentance and faith, to God incarnate who came for sinners? Whose way? There is only one way, but there is, in fact, a way, and his name is Jesus.

The Devil’s Books?

Prepare to be offended. I want to ask two related questions. First, should Christians read the classics? Second, what principles should guide their reading?

Let me sharthe the background of what got me thinking on this. Recently, I was having an email conversation with a “Facebook friend.” We’re both Christians, both thoughtful people, and both reasonably well educated. In the course of our writing back and forth, she asked me why I had read Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Here are my exact words to her: “Ha, I read widely. I was a latecomer to Harry Potter (sic). I read a lot of history, theology, and literature. But when something is as influential as those books, I thought I should read them all in order to understand their worldview. Just because I read something doesn’t mean that I buy into its ideology or worldview. I read many things with which I disagree. But I think it’s important to know the entire marketplace of ideas, not just things that make me comfortable or with which I agree.”

Can you guess her response? Here is the first part: “I’ve heard that before. Please don’t be offended, but don’t you think we can know about it because we know about the enemy and his worldview? All I need to know is that it is inspired by the dark side. When Harry uses supernatural powers that do not glorify Jesus Christ, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not good for us. We can know a lot about it because we know the enemy. We know how he works and we know his tactics, but we don’t need to eat from his table. It’s kinda (sic) like the Lord’s warnings in the Old Testament about going to them for counsel.”

What does that conversation reveal about the issues raised? Am I sinning because I read the Harry Potter books? I don’t practice divination; I don’t consult the dead; I don’t cast spells. But I did enjoy the books. I cannot speak for other readers, but I was never as interested in the magic that Harry performed as I was in Harry’s character—how Rowling made him (and other characters) come alive in the stories. We see how Harry grew up, and how and why his personality was the way it was.

The same goes for any literary character, right? Read The Great Gatsby? I feel like Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy Buchanan live in my imagination, but they were just literary characters. I don’t worship them. Rather I learn from them. How? I can only say, in the way that great literature alone accomplishes. It is part of the (forgive the pun) magic of great literature.

On the other hand, I have tried to think through my friend’s counsel. She is right in that Scripture clearly condemns magic, astrology, demonic spirits, witchcraft, etc. (see Deut. 18:9-12 and 1 Chr. 10:13, e.g.). There are scores of examples in Scripture where witchcraft is condemned. I selected these as among the most obvious, for those who will read them and think through them. Does thinking on things that are honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable (Phil. 4:8) preclude me from reading anything but Scripture and Sunday school literature?

I asked her if Christians should read War and Peace and Huckleberry Finn. I’m still waiting on her answer. Because we need to think through these things. Much is at stake. I’d hate to think that all my shelves of Dostoyevsky, Tolkien, O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Larry Woiwode, and T.S. Eliot are for naught. Murders abound in Dostoyevsky, but he’s generally considered a Christian novelist. Tolkien wrote of hobbits, magic, etc., but his writings have reached thousands with the gospel worldview. O’Connor’s writings are filled with sexual deviancy but she’s overtly biblical. Percy, like O’Connor, was Roman Catholic, but I wrote my master’s thesis on Percy, and he was saturated with the biblical worldview, and warned through his writings of man, outside of Christ, is “lost in the cosmos.” Tolstoy, Lewis, Woiwode, Eliot, et al were all orthodox Christians, but each had things in his writings that wouldn’t make it into one’s Sunday school curricula. And the Christian world should evade reading them? I don’t think so.

Fear not, we’re still “Facebook friends.” Iron sharpens iron, right? Hopefully, we can discuss more than the 66 books we both cherish. I hear some good ones have been written. Many even term them “the classics.”

I realize I didn’t answer the questions myself, but you might infer what I think. I continue to teach literature and writing to this very day. I think life without literature, like life without music, would be a mistake. Scripture must guide our evaluations of what constitutes “great” literature (often termed ‘the classics’). Though I don’t make the case that the Harry Potter books constitute great literature, I do think they’re worthy of being read.

Secularism does not lend itself to the creation of great literature simply because secularism is reductionistic. Only a biblical Judeo-Christian worldview gives objective reasons for man’s dignity (he is the creation of God who is goodness Himself) and art, as an ability of co-creation of the true, good, and beautiful, is rooted in a biblical worldview.   But to disparage quality literature as inspired by the devil, it seems to me, cheapens the discussion and tends more towards intellectual cowardice than towards sanctification. Romeo and Juliet, e.g. is replete with metaphors about astrology and the roles of fate. However, to ignore and/or forsake the incomparable beauty and truths in that play, or others of that caliber, ends in making Christian holy huddles an object of pity.

As thoughtful Christians, let us trust truth-tellers, even if they don’t have coffee with us in our Sunday school classes. God even uses pharaohs to manifest his glory.

 

Judas Iscariot, a Perennial

Ever been betrayed? Sure. Everyone knows a traitor. The most infamous traitor in history is Judas Iscariot. Judas betrayed Jesus. Thirty pieces of silver. That was the equivalent of four months’ wages for a laborer. Let that sink in. For the equivalent of 16 weeks’ pay, Judas betrayed Jesus. But the money was symptomatic of a deeper and deadlier issue. Judas had a pagan heart. Money was the visible exchange for the invisible transaction within Judas’ soul. It would not have mattered if the amount were a thousand times that much; the amount was immaterial. What was sold was a soul. Judases are perennials; they recur with each generation. There are many who profess genuine faith in the lordship of Christ but their deeds contradict their professions.

Yet God knows all. Jesus was, and is, God in the flesh. As such, he knows all. He knew who was to betray him. Matthew illustrated it by telling of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas and his (Jesus’s) subsequent arrest. As Judas knew where Jesus’ habitual place of prayer was, he (Judas) had orchestrated his scheme ahead of time. Listen to Matthew’s account: “Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” (Matthew 26:48-50a, ESV) Can’t you feel the drama? God incarnate is praying in Gethsemane and he knows that one of his own disciples is a devil. And when Judas approaches him (with a kiss!) Jesus, still knowing all, says, “Friend, do what you came to do.”

Yet Jesus allowed it all. In fact, he ordained it. John’s gospel further illustrates Judas’s treachery. When the story unfolds, Jesus had just washed the disciples’ feet, and he was about to give his true followers the great commandment recapitulation (John 13:34-35). John records that Jesus began to be “troubled in his spirit” about the encroaching betrayal, passion, and crucifixion:

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table close to Jesus, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.” (John 13:21-30, ESV)

It’s crucial to understand what’s occurring. Jesus, knowing all, had just washed his disciples’ feet. Wash the feet of one’s betrayer? Yes. Exactly. What kind of love is this? Then some of the disciples are actually listening intently to Jesus and realize that God incarnate had just told them that there was a devil in the room. And though John’s gospel does not record the facial expressions of Jesus and Judas, can’t you envision them? Perhaps Jesus spoke gently but firmly to Judas when he (Jesus) said, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Heartbreaking. What’s more, the imagery is vital to grasp. Verse 30 says “And it was night.” Yes, darkness (evil) had indeed descended. Evil had just broken bread with the Messiah. Judas was slithering his way to damnation.

My mother is a master of the soil. She can make flowers grow in almost any soil. She taught me about annuals and perennials when I was a boy. To this day, I love flowers and spring, and things in bloom invariably remind me of my mom. The first thing she taught me about perennials is that they recur; they come back year after year. And we’d do well to learn that traitors are a lot like that; they’re perennials. Thus, we are to be wise as serpents and yet gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16). “Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” (Proverbs 20:6, ESV) There was, and is, one who is faithful. In fact, he is called faithful and true (Revelation 19:11), and he even washed sinners’ dirty feet.