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No such thing as secular

Updated: 2008-12-02T18:25:00Z


Being a Disciple of Christ in Post-election America


Writing about political discipleship for Capital Commentary in June, I described Posted on 12/01/16 Writing about political discipleship for Capital Commentary in June, I described “the horror show that is the roller coaster of history between Fall and Consummation” and the attendant temptation to check out of politics. Following the United States’ presidential election, some regard the current moment as a horror film come to life, and others as horror averted. For the latter, concerns about unbridled political correctness, the working class, religious freedom, and the Supreme Court were among the issues that led them to vote for president-elect Donald Trump. The former were worried about a campaign characterized by incendiary and divisive rhetoric, Trump’s boorish and bullying character, and his political inexperience. In the wake of the election, protests against Trump continue, numerous incidents against minorities have occurred, and our social media world continues to bring out some of the worst from both sides. A unified country seems a lofty but vain aspiration. What are disciples of Jesus to do in this time of great division? I offer three exhortations: Resist the temptations of the moment. The calls for rethinking Christian political witness are ongoing since the election. While few have urged a full-scale retreat from politics, warnings abound about the corrosive effects of politics, particularly the intoxication with power. Stepping away from power is a great temptation, but this view suggests that the only way we can use power is by making a bargain that includes corruption of our soul. Power carries opiate-level potency, to be sure, but is it really the case that it cannot be well-stewarded for the common good? Succumbing to despair is a second temptation that has grown since the election. Many of us have seen the high level of distress among friends and loved ones since Trump’s victory. Even though we have heard good answers to the question “How could this happen?”, it does not reduce the fear, grief, and anxiety of many who wonder whether we are entering four years of sociopolitical wilderness. Though protests indicate the resolve of some to fight for a better country, the heart cry of many citizens after Election Day reveals a despair that makes some wonder if it is even worth trying to participate in this process. The temptations to dismiss power or yield to political despair are very real, but a greater reality is the hope that ought to characterize Christian witness, private and public. This is not denial masquerading as hope, but the disposition proper to those who lament the distortions of power and the traumatic realities that can yield despair. I Corinthians 15:58 urges Christians to keep at the Lord’s work because it is not in vain. This hope is rooted in the truth of Christ’s resurrection, not the rapidly shifting winds of circumstances—historical, cultural, or political. Political engagement is part of the life of discipleship and must go on. Those who follow and worship a resurrected Savior will face severe temptations, but reminders of Christ’s ultimate authority can lead us toward a more hopeful disposition and practice. Pursue citizenship opportunities in a contested domain. There are genuine reasons for the exasperation and worry about division in the United States, but the reality of division should not surprise us. Part of the opportunity and challenge of citizenship is participation in a public square populated by people of different ethnic backgrounds, social classes, education levels, religious and philosophical worldviews, and political commitments. For Christians who take seriously the belief that sin deeply alters the perspective and practices of humans, the reality of a divided public space should be unsurprising. Taken at full strength, a strong view of sin helps us see that at times this division will be quite intense and deeply lamentable. Such a view is not surrender to d[...]

Eve and the ESV


Last month, my 97-year-old grandfather died. He was a missionary who devoted his life to Posted on 11/29/16 Last month, my 97-year-old grandfather died. He was a missionary who devoted his life to putting the Bible in the hands of people, in their own mother tongue whenever possible. As he lay dying, my cousins and I quickly stitched together a video of us reading Psalm 23. In the last few decades, he preached from the NIV, even though that was not the translation he was most accustomed to as a child, because he found it to be the most accessible for the people to whom he ministered. But in the flurry of text messages among my cousins as we worked to put together our video, we checked which translation would have been most familiar to him as a child, when he first learned the Psalm. And so the American Standard Version was what we read. Our preferences for Biblical translations are deeply personal, often based on the translation that we first heard. Yet Bible translation also has a long history of being intertwined with politics, both in the realm of church affairs and of secular culture. It only takes a basic knowledge of Reformation history to know the truth of this: Wycliffe, Tyndale, Erasmus, and Luther challenged the political fabric of Europe with their translations by putting the biblical text directly into the hands of people who could not read Latin or Greek or Hebrew. And even after the Reformation had completely turned over the structure of European Christianity, there continued to be political debate about translations. The reason behind the King James Version involved appeasing the political and religious powers that be in England. Although today we think of that translation as the definitive one for English-speaking Protestantism, there were other translations put forward by those who dissented. (Pilgrim leader William Bradford used the Geneva translation rather than the King James.) Biblical translation today is no less political. A current controversy over the latest edition of the English Standard Version illuminates a struggle in more conservative churches, a struggle that also spills over into secular culture. The latest changes to the ESV include a modification to Genesis 3:16. In older ESV versions, it read, “Your desire shall be for your husband.” But the revision reads: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” There is great debate about the subtleties of this change, as well as questions about whether the Genesis curse is meant to be descriptive of gender relations due to the presence of sin or prescriptive for how God intends gender relations to be. But beyond the linguistic and theological debate, this discussion also highlights the rise of feminism within evangelicalism and fundamentalism, a movement that is challenging the accepted anthropology of gender in those communities. I can’t help but wonder if the scholars who dominate the ESV Translation Oversight Committee, a group of exclusively male theologians, edited Genesis 3 in an effort to push back at movements toward more equality for women in the Church. As the last few months of American politics showed, many Americans are still uncomfortable with the idea of women in leadership positions. In October, female evangelical leaders stepped out from behind their male leaders to criticize Donald Trump for his treatment of women, and the secular world took notice of the influence these women have. The ESV edits had long been in the works by then, but I can’t help but think that this is part of the culture the editors of the ESV may be pushing back against. As a woman in church leadership, I am of course rooting for the Christian feminists in evangelicalism. I think the Church can only be blessed, in this critical time, by the leadership of all of God’s people, regardless of gender, race, class, or other categorizations. And I’m grateful for the voices of Christian leaders who are carefully examining the ESV’s treatme[...]

Black Mirror’s Christian Suspicion of Technology


Despite society’s near-universal embrace of personal technology, a 2014 Pew Research Posted on 11/28/16 Despite society’s near-universal embrace of personal technology, a 2014 Pew Research poll suggested that a significant number of Americans have reservations about its place in our lives. Only 59 percent of those polled were confident that technological developments will lead to a better future, while 30 percent feared that the world will be in a worse place because of technological changes. This tension in the American psyche has played out notably in film over the past several years: Interstellar, Tomorrowland, and Pacific Rim all advance in various ways the idea that humanity can overcome both its natural and self-inflicted problems through its own technological innovation. On the other side, a plethora of classic films like King Kong, Godzilla, and Jurassic Park challenge this hubristic claim. As Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park warns: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Meanwhile, in the real world, technological innovation has carried on: military drones, genetic modification, driverless cars, and ever-shrinking privacy for the sake of social connectivity and national security present unprecedented ethical challenges for a world increasingly enraptured with a romantic view of the progress of humanity through technology. This is what makes Black Mirror, now on Netflix for its third season, so important. Each episode of Black Mirror is a self-contained story with its own writers, directors, and actors. The unifying factor is a criticism of society’s lack of caution with technology and a warning of the potential consequences. Perhaps the unrelentingly dark “Shut Up and Dance” is the most frightening and important episode of this season because all of the events could easily take place today. A teenager (Alex Lawther) receives an email from a group of hackers with a video of him watching pornography and a demand for his phone number and cooperation. As the teen follows directions and meets more people who are at the mercy of the same hackers, the moral of the story becomes clear: in the Internet age, there are no secrets Black Mirror is a prophetic warning. Both explicitly and implicitly, society affirms a metanarrative about technology: that through human innovation and ingenuity, there’s no problem that can’t be solved. While Christians recognize that technology can be a gift, the gospel also holds that humanity has brought on itself a problem that it cannot solve. This is where Black Mirror aligns well with Christianity. Both recognize that “forward progress” isn’t going to save us. In “Playtest,” another episode, a man (Wyatt Russell) tests a new virtual-reality horror game that connects to the user’s mind and alters their perception of reality, ultimately making both the main character and the viewer uncertain of what is real and what is not. Before the game begins, the man plays a virtual-reality version of Whac-A-Mole, which serves as an apt metaphor: for every problem we “solve” via technology, two more emerge in an unexpected place. Christians should join this call for caution. In challenging society’s belief in technology to save us, Black Mirror reveals the need for the salvation-from-without that is promised in the good news of Jesus Christ. Comments (0) [...]

Hillary Clinton and the Color of Advent


Hillary Clinton’s concession speech was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise Posted on 11/28/16 Hillary Clinton’s concession speech was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise depressing election. Though I didn’t vote for her and don't support her policy positions, I deeply respect the poise and dignity with which she accepted the narrow outcome of a fierce and frequently uncivil contest. After months of vicious mudslinging, her disarming humility helped me believe that perhaps at the end of the day we're all still on the same side. And that's a beautiful thing. Clinton's symbolic choice of wearing purple for the occasion has been widely discussed. Undoubtedly there were multiple messages she intended to communicate by wearing it. Because purple is the color of constancy and dedication in the suffragette movement, it may have been a subtle call for perseverance in the quest to shatter what she called “that highest and hardest glass ceiling.” Purple is also the color of bipartisanship (being equal parts red and blue). As such, it discloses Clinton's awareness of a nation more divided than many of her followers realized in the days leading up to the election, and it communicates a willingness to set differences aside and work toward common goals. Indeed, in her address Clinton expressed patriotic solidarity, perhaps not with Donald Trump the man, but certainly with America the nation—even under a Trump administration. And that took guts. It's a message we all need to hear, regardless of whom we voted for, because the world probably won't end on inauguration day. There was also a distinct liturgical undertone to Clinton's attire—as though the lifelong Methodist was presiding over a service of mourning. It was a poignant choice for the candidate who would make history as the first to use the words “I'm sorry” in a concession speech, and who would quote scripture to encourage her followers to stay their course in spite of the pain. Clinton may live out her faith differently than I do, but I choose to rise above the temptation to gloat and to instead pray for a grieving sister in Christ. It seems peculiarly appropriate that election cycles end just before Advent begins, and that presidential transitions occur during the most eschatological season of the church year. Now is a time when many Christian traditions use purple to denote mourning, penitence, and hope. Regardless of whether our political vision has triumphed or has been deferred for another season, we take comfort in our secure knowledge that the King of Kings remains sovereign, and that his benevolent will is never thwarted by political outcomes. This year, I hope that the purple of our Advent candles will remind us—perhaps more urgently than ever before—that our hopes and dreams are tethered to a kingdom that is not of this world. The election is over. Some in our congregations are feeling deeply remorseful. Others are fervently hopeful about longed-for changes in 2017. For both, Advent is a time for remembering that ours is a world that still walks in darkness. Yet it is upon this world that God's light has shone. Let's treat one another in ways that honor the Prince of Peace, so that we can be found ready at his coming. Comments (7) [...]

Moana and Living Water


Moana, Disney’s big new animated musical, draws on Polynesian mythology as its Posted on 11/22/16 Moana, Disney’s big new animated musical, draws on Polynesian mythology as its primary source of inspiration, yet as I watched it, I couldn’t help thinking of John 4. Set on an island in the ancient South Pacific, Moana employs water as a constant visual motif. Indeed, the ocean itself becomes an embodied presence—even its own character—in a way that brings to mind the biblical notion of “living water.” The title character (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) is the young daughter of the island’s chief. While most of the islanders are content to stay safely near shore, Moana has always longed to explore the greater ocean. She gets her chance when the island is threatened by a decaying force and she must set sail to seek help from the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Maui is a prominent figure in Hawaiian, Samoan, Maori, and other Polynesian myths, something akin to Hercules of Greek lore. He’s a playful presence here, as the casting of Johnson would suggest, especially in a delightfully hubristic production number called “You’re Welcome.” (The song is sung by Johnson, with music and lyrics by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, he of Hamilton fame.) It was not the music, however, but the watery visuals in Moana that reminded me of John 4, in which Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well. Despite the social barriers between them, he acknowledges her struggle and offers her “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus’ description of himself as living water and Moana’s depiction of the ocean waters share three powerful similarities: Both are inviting. Early on in the film, there’s a wonderful scene of Moana, as a toddler, playing at the beach. The tide rolls in, teasing her as tides do, and then dramatically rolls back to reveal an enticing shell on the now-dry sand. She waddles toward it, and just as she reaches it the water rolls back again to reveal another shell, further out. This continues until eventually Moana is surrounded by a rippling wall of water that bends towards her, reaching for her curious, outstretched hand. This is an invitation to an unusual relationship, much like the one extended to a rejected Samaritan woman by Jesus, a Jew. Both are sustaining. Once Moana has found the supercilious Maui, he tells her that he’ll finish the journey on his own without her help, and goes so far as to push her off the raft to make his point. Before he can smugly smile, the ocean forms a small wave that plops Moana right back on the boat. The ocean saves Moana again and again in this way, offering a lively echo of Jesus’ saving grace. Both are healing. During its climax (which I won’t spoil), Moana calls back to that early scene of the retreating tide. This time, an entire lagoon parts (a reminder of the parting of the Red Sea), allowing Moana to walk across the dry lagoon floor to meet a character in need of healing. This miraculous scene recalls the reconciling power of Jesus’ act in in John 4. By acknowledging the Samaritan woman’s adulterous path and setting the groundwork for reconciliation, he pointed her to a better way forward, one in which the water he offers is all we need. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="" width="560"> Comments (0) [...]

Hamilton and the Diversity of God’s Kingdom


When I say that the hit musical Hamilton is a work of art, know that I say it as a Posted on 11/21/16 When I say that the hit musical Hamilton is a work of art, know that I say it as a voracious lover of musical theater. And when I say that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway phenomenon, now playing in Chicago, will be a precedent for the artistic community, know that I say this with both hope and lamentation. Something as important as Hamilton—which casts many people of color in a tale of early American history—has been a long time coming. And it feels a bit like Kingdom come. Hamilton was in the news again over the weekend, as Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a Friday performance. As the show ended, actor Brandon Victor Dixon read the following statement to Pence: “We, sir—we—are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.” This was a living, breathing example of the stage not being a stage, of art reflecting life. When I saw Hamilton earlier this fall, I experienced it differently than Pence. Imagine spending years working in a particular field and rarely seeing anyone who looked like you—especially in a leadership position. Imagine sitting in rooms at work and being one of the only people of color. And then imagine walking into one of the most dazzling theaters in Chicago and being taken aback by a cast of so many races—including your own—and by an entire production whose music, imagery, references, and style all incorporated your culture, your passions, your skin. Imagine the joy you would feel at seeing so many people who look and sound like you happy, singing, rapping—and being paid to do so. Now imagine that most of the country was praising the effort (including Pence, who reportedly "applauded after most of [the] numbers"). As a black man who has spent the past 15 years deeply entrenched in the artistic community of one of America’s most diverse—and segregated—cities, I know that art reflects life. The majority of Chicago’s residents are nonwhite and most of them are structurally or culturally locked out of employment, housing, and artistic circles. Many people across America are producing art, but only certain ones (often reflected by the color of their skin) are paid well and promoted to do so. Thus I am hopeful for what I have seen with Hamilton—a diverse Broadway success created by a man of Puerto Rican descent—even if I still lament that it is such a rarity. The sad reality is that much of American life—be it in Hollywood, the video gaming space, or tech culture—still struggles to achieve genuine diversity. Often, it only means silent presence. Hamilton forces us to ask: what is the value of diversity—in the world and within the Kingdom? Can art be a form of justice and a platform for a radically inclusive paradigm shift? By demonstrating that a Founding Father of the United States could be represented by anyone, including people of color, Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a work of art as diverse as the Kingdom of God described in Revelation. Christians should embrace Hamilton as a model for reconciliation and representation moving forward. Not just because there are people of color in the production (diversity), but because people of color produced and are reaping the benefits of its excellence (inclusion). That inclusion and source of ownership is a form of justice that betters the world. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul lays out a challenging concept: that his adaptation to those around him is a tool for God’s Kingdom. His willingness to serve other[...]

Jesus Wept for Sia Too


“Jesus wept.” This is the shortest verse in the Bible and also the title of a Posted on 11/17/16 “Jesus wept.” This is the shortest verse in the Bible and also the title of a new single from Sia’s deluxe version of the album This is Acting. The verse is a unique portrayal of Christ’s humanity. Sia’s single gives a true depiction of humanity with a hint of hope. Together, the verse and the song show us how light can overcome the darkness. Though Jesus has power over the darkness of death, he still grieves over its brokenness. John tells us Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” when he saw Mary weeping over her dead brother, Lazarus. Everyone said he was too late, but Jesus came at the perfect time to display the glory of God in the face of death. He came to prove what he said to Lazarus’ other sister, Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” When Jesus told Martha that her brother would rise again, she thought he was referring to the resurrection of the dead on the last day. He came to physically raise Lazarus from the dead, but that physical reality was a symbol of the spiritual reality of Christ’s power to also bring to life dead souls. This resurrection work is not just saved for our physical bodies on the last day, as Martha thought, but it is a spiritual work Christ inaugurated with his coming and continues to do today. We can see this play out in the lives of those who are enslaved to the spiritual death of addiction, which Sia points to in “Jesus Wept.” The orchestral opening of the song cuts out to short harp strums and cello as Sia’s slow, plodding vocals begin the opening verse. Resembling the mournful sounds of a funeral dirge, the verses speak of the emptiness of “God-shaped holes” and how she tries to fill them with “bottled friends who won’t bring relief,” with parties, and “with mighty weed.” Sia seems to be referring to the same type of behavior exhibited in her hit song, “Chandelier,” which opens with these lines: Party girls don't get hurt Can't feel anything, when will I learn I push it down, push it down. As she pushes down the emptiness by binge drinking, she ends the verses with, “Throw 'em back, till I lose count.” In another verse, Sia mentions the addict’s close companion, shame: Sun is up, I'm a mess Gotta get out now, gotta run from this Here comes the shame, here comes the shame. And yet, with “Jesus Wept,” Sia introduces a light into this darkness of addiction. As the first verse ends, piano keys lead the way to the chorus, where Sia’s vocals become stronger and more confident: How Jesus wept He wept as he Took twelve steps And carried me Oh, how he wept For thee Resurrection on me In the third line of the chorus, Sia might be referring to the 12 steps of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous. She feels that someone carried her through that process and wept for her. If Jesus’ weeping shows his humanity, then his power to raise the dead to life displays his deity. “Jesus Wept” slowly progresses towards a “blinding white light.” Sia’s vocals, along with the instrumentation, burst forth like a resurrection. As Jesus raised Lazarus to life, he can also raise those suffering from the spiritual death of addiction. Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” To which she answered, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Only the Son of God can weep over, carry, and raise to life that which is dead. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="[...]

Why Christians Should Stand with the Standing Rock Sioux


It is critical we take a moment and pay close attention to what is unfolding among the Posted on 11/17/16 It is critical we take a moment and pay close attention to what is unfolding among the Standing Rock Sioux, the United States federal government, and proponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline. If we do, we may begin to understand the debt of love (in the form of social and environmental justice) that U.S. citizens—and Christians in particular—owe to Native Americans. On Monday, the U.S. Departments of the Army and Interior decided to halt construction on the highly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline project near Standing Rock Sioux land. The 1,170 mile-long pipeline would deliver crude oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. A final decision will be issued after further analysis and discussion with the Sioux tribe. Monday’s joint statement gives the impression that the Departments of the Army and Interior are grappling with the specific objections the Sioux have leveled. The statement reads: “The Army has determined that additional discussion and analysis are warranted in light of the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossessions of lands, the importance of Lake Oahe to the Tribe, our government-to-government relationship, and the statute governing easements through government property.” Even if the final decision under the Obama Administration is to reroute the pipeline, president-elect Donald Trump could reverse it. Trump has a vested interest in the pipeline’s successful completion because he has investments in the company building it. Furthermore, it’s unlikely Trump would address the Sioux’s concerns since he freely cast aspersions upon native peoples in the form of racial slurs and false allegations when they didn’t cooperate with his business ventures in the past. Supporters of the project maintain that transporting crude oil via pipeline is safer than by rail, as well as cheaper and quicker. However, Native Americans and their allies at Standing Rock will quickly point out that pipelines have a higher leak-rate than rail and that contamination of water is generally much worse for the environment than contamination of land. Water contamination is one of many critical reasons why the Sioux tribe doesn’t want the pipeline near their water sources. As a Christian, I am convinced that Cornel West is right in saying that “justice is what love looks like in public.” One aspect of love is seeking to promote the flourishing of the beloved for the beloved’s sake and to secure ample opportunities for the beloved to flourish. We will all give an account for the life of another. History demonstrates that the U.S. government—and the non-native Americans in whose name the government has acted—has continually harmed native peoples, while rendering their grievances illegitimate. Indeed, genocide has been committed, lands have been forcibly taken, and entire people groups have been herded onto reservations. Today, further injustices deny Native Americans the opportunity to flourish. Standing Rock is more than a protest over water rights. It is an icon beckoning us to behold the litany of atrocities and injustices that have been committed against indigenous peoples. It’s a call to look, listen, and confess of the sins that have been committed against them. Standing Rock is a call to lament and repent. Only when we admit to wrongdoing can we then ask Native Americans how we might produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Comments (21) [...]

Soylent and the Cost of Convenience


“Agriculture’s one of the most dangerous and dirty jobs out there… Posted on 11/15/16 “Agriculture’s one of the most dangerous and dirty jobs out there… There’s so much walking and manual labor... Surely it should be automated.” This is the candid response that startup entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart gave in a 2014 interview shortly before shipping the first batch of the meal substitute beverage, Soylent, that he and his tech buddies had invented. While reviews on the flavor of the sludgy, beige drink have been mostly negative, the company gained popularity among investors and consumers with the appeal of maximum nutrition for minimum effort. But what if we were created for more than convenient nutrition? Last month, Soylent voluntarily recalled some of their snack bars after reports of consumers complaining of food poison-like symptoms, including severe vomiting and diarrhea. In an update posted to their website, Soylent reassured their customers that they have “worked aggressively” to discover why some consumers were getting sick. Which leads me to wonder if Rhinehart is updating any of his views on the actual amount of effort required for automated food. What if our food wasn’t meant be convenient and our food sources efficient? Even though the company’s marketing images show hip young adults sipping from a white Soylent bottle while mountain biking and hiking ocean cliffs, one of the demographics responding most positively to Soylent’s brand message are the entrepreneurs holed up in windowless office cubicles cranking out 18-hour work days. Maybe we don’t get to escape work either way? In that case, let’s savor the flavor, color, quality, and preparation of our food. It’s hard to imagine anyone savoring a beige-yellow, chunky liquid that some have likened to drinking refrigerated oatmeal. While I commend Rhinehart and his team for their desire to ingest good nutrients instead of, say, microwaveable burritos, might there be more to food than the sum of its nutritional parts? Does the packaging and preparing matter? Yes, I think it does. Take, for instance, what we’ve learned about certain compounds contained in fruit skins, which are not necessary for human survival but still provide important health benefits. For example, the pigment that makes tomato skins red, lycopene, has been credited with lower rates in prostate cancer. Compounds responsible for a blueberry’s blueness have been connected with decreasing diabetes rates. Soylent prides itself on containing all of the nutrients needed for survival, but we were made for more than mere existence. Take heirloom tomatoes as another beautiful example. Cultivating heirloom tomatoes requires manual labor for not only the farmer who harvests each crop, but also for the generations of farmers saving and passing along the seeds for the most flavorful outcomes. This work is not necessary for humans to keep from starving. Currently there are more than 3,000 varieties of heirloom and heritage tomatoes being cultivated across the world, out of more than 10,000 known varieties. If automated, labor-free nutrients are all we need, then what is the point of all those peculiar tomatoes? Should we stop bothering with all of this inefficient work, requiring generations of manual labor? In that 2014 interview, Rhinehart shares a bit of his personal history. He grew up in a Christian family but claims to have lost his faith during his senior year at a Christian high school when he tried to prove the creationist principle of a young earth from a scientific point of view. He read Dawkins and Hitchens and instead titled his paper “Bad Religion.” He failed the class and left the church. I empathize with his desire for[...]

Is Self-control Overrated?


In Galatians, we’re told that a fruit of the Spirit is self-control. So what should Posted on 11/15/16 In Galatians, we’re told that a fruit of the Spirit is self-control. So what should we make of recent research that suggests self-control is overrated? "There’s a strong assumption still that exerting self-control is beneficial,” Marina Milyavskaya, a psychologist at Carleton University, says in a Vox article reporting on the findings. “And we’re showing in the long term, it’s not.” The Vox piece, however, is a bit misleading. Milyavskaya’s research, conducted with Michael Inzlicht, did show that a “grit your teeth and try real hard” approach to resisting temptation resulted in only short-term gains, if not failure. Yet other methods that could be considered self control were more effective, such as not putting yourself in the path of temptation (don’t go by the donut shop if you’re on a diet) or adding rewards to unpleasant tasks (run to the donut shop). In essence, the research suggests that in fighting temptation, the best defense is a good offense. The most intriguing element of the Vox piece, for me, was its misunderstanding of the message of Scripture. The article opens by describing the story of the Fall as a failure of self-control. Eve sees the apple, wants the apple, eats the apple. But that’s not the story’s point at all. Genesis 3 isn’t a moral lesson about controlling your impulses; it’s about what happens when we stop believing God’s intentions toward us are good. Eve’s failing wasn’t a lack of self-control, but in allowing herself to believe the serpent’s lie, namely that “God is holding out on you. He doesn’t want you to be happy. There’s something more you need.” This is still the lie behind every temptation we face. From lust to gluttony to greed to vanity, all temptations are ultimately a belief that we are lacking something other than God, and that if we could get it we’d be happy. This is what the research gets right: the solution to resisting temptation isn’t “trying harder;” it’s replacing the temptation with something true. When we’re told in 2 Timothy that the Holy Spirit gives us power, love, and self-control, this doesn’t mean “go try real hard to be powerful, loving, and self-controlled.” We’re also told that we are free from fear, which is the fuel behind every temptation. Taking comfort in our father in heaven, we can allow that relationship to produce self-control in us. Maybe, then, the Vox article is taking a biblical approach after all. It concludes by suggesting that gritting your teeth and resisting has its place, but only after more effective practices. “Because even if the angel loses most of the time, there’s a chance every now and again the angel will win,” says Kentaro Fujita, another psychologist. “It’s a defense of last resort.” Setting aside the angel-demon analogy, Christianity would agree—and take it one step further. The human will is fundamentally flawed and bent toward temptation. Gritting our teeth in the face of temptation will never be overly effective. Seeking something truer by redirecting our desires is more effective. In that way, we allow God to renew the mind and the heart. The Vox piece may be positioned as a gentle correction to Christianity, but in actuality it reveals how psychologically spot-on the Bible has always been. Comments (2) [...]

Mergers and Micah: What Christians Should Make of AT&T-Time Warner


Last month it was announced that AT&T intended to purchase Time Warner for $85.4 Posted on 11/14/16 Last month it was announced that AT&T intended to purchase Time Warner for $85.4 billion. The merger, which would bring together two giants in telecommunications and media, is far from certain. There are considerable hoops and hurdles yet to maneuver as the business deal will be scrutinized by federal regulators. There is skepticism from consumers, investors, and politicians. What about Christians? The potential merger would combine AT&T, the second biggest wireless company and a conduit to distribute entertainment, with Time Warner, one of the world’s largest producers of content, including HBO, TNT, CNN, and Warner Bros. The business community, whose overriding concern is return to investors, is unconvinced that the merger is a good idea. The infamous AOL purchase of Time Warner for $165 billion (nearly twice the bid price for AT&T) and its aftermath has not been forgotten. Evidence of this suspicion was the stock market’s unenthusiastic reaction to the potential merger, with the price of AT&T stock dropping some 8 percent since the announcement. Consumers and politicians are less concerned with the business acumen of the deal than they are with the reduction of competition, resulting in higher prices. The CEOs of AT&T and Time Warner have claimed that there will be no price increases, and that if anything prices will decrease. They are promising a disruption within the traditional entertainment model that will benefit consumers. A Christian perspective on business mergers should consider other stakeholders and implications beyond the aforementioned concerns, however. Although there is no explicit teaching in the Bible regarding mergers and acquisitions, a guiding principle might be the biblical ideas of justice, mercy, and humility, as described in Micah 6:8. Further, Jesus taught that the mere following (or appearance of following) the law may hide greed and self-indulgence and that it is insufficient to follow the law alone while neglecting to be just and merciful. Following this, we must recognize that one reality of mergers is the impact on employees. Duplications resulting from merged companies typically necessitate employee layoffs. (Granted, certain mergers are necessary for a company’s survival and from a utilitarian perspective, some layoffs are preferable to an entire company’s collapse with all employees losing their jobs.) Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller, writes in Leadership Jazz that employees should not be regarded solely as individuals, but as people with families. DePree stresses that layoffs, which are indeed horrendous to employees, have even further-reaching implications. The lives of spouses, partners, and children can be uprooted with long-term consequences. Layoffs and disrupted lives resulting from mergers should not be dismissed as insignificant. Fortunately, in the case of AT&T and Time Warner, there may be few layoffs because the merger is vertical, with little duplication. Another consideration should be the unique consequences (and severity) associated with a particular merger. For example, consolidation within the finance industry contributed to systemic risk and “too big to fail” institutions. When the financial crisis occurred, people lost homes and retirement savings. Taxpayers were forced to fund a bailout in the trillions of dollars. Consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry may be partially blamed for the exorbitant high costs of prescriptions that are unaffordable to many. In contrast, the consequences of an AT&T merger with Time Warner may be minor. If the worst outcome is that it costs more to [...]

Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson’s Desecration of the Body


A crucifix in a World War II drama’s clothing, Hacksaw Ridge takes a remarkable Posted on 11/10/16 A crucifix in a World War II drama’s clothing, Hacksaw Ridge takes a remarkable story of Christian pacifism and contorts it into a suspect station of the cross. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the director is Mel Gibson, whose The Passion of the Christ was a monumental work of conviction that nevertheless couldn’t see past Jesus’ physical pain. At least there the suffering had a logical—indeed, Biblical—context. Hacksaw Ridge purports to tell the story of a man opposed to violence, only to gruesomely detail the bodily effects of violence for much of its running time. Gibson’s movie dramatizes the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a World War II medic in the United States Army who was the first conscientious objector—due to his Christian beliefs concerning violence—to win the Medal of Honor. It’s an extraordinary tale, and to be fair the set pieces involving the Battle of Okinawa do include scenes of Doss performing acts of nonviolent service. We see him risking his own safety, many times, to drag the wounded from the battlefield or apply life-saving tourniquets. Yet even in these instances, the focus is as much on the spurting arteries and dismembered legs as it is on Doss’ healing hands. More representative of the film are its opening images, which capture, in slow motion, the many horrific ways men at war can be killed: blown to pieces by grenade explosions, shredded by bullets, set afire by flamethrowers. Even before The Passion of the Christ, Gibson’s movies equated physical suffering with spiritual victory. From the start of his career, many of the characters he’s played have had to endure wounds in order to win. This is somewhat in line with Christian theology, most notably in regard to Jesus' crucifixion, and also in the notion that our created bodies, and what we do with them, matter. But it also underestimates Christ’s experience on the cross. Yes he endured great injury, yet he also faced so much more in our place: the full weight of our sin and the abandonment of the Father. In this sense, Christ’s physical suffering is the least significant aspect of the crucifixion (if the one we mortal beings can most easily understand). Returning to Hacksaw Ridge, which Gibson has described as a Christ allegory, it’s important to note how corporeal the film is. Even when it considers spirituality, it’s always within the context of the body. Here, the literal flaying of flesh is the pathway to salvation. (Notice how Gibson’s camera fetishizes, rather than laments, the gory details.) Hacksaw Ridge demonstrates this most clearly in what I think of as Doss’ halo moment. This comes the day after Doss has heroically, single-handedly saved some 75 wounded men from the battlefield, a sacrificial act the film treats with dutiful respect, but does not offer as its narrative or emotional climax. That, instead, comes the next day, back on the battlefield, when Doss himself is wounded in a grenade explosion. Now, finally, he has been blessed to physically suffer too. As Doss is loaded on a stretcher and lowered from the steep ridge where the fighting is taking place, Gibson swings the camera from above the medic to below him. From this vantage point, he appears to be rising to heaven. Gibson’s cinema, then, is one of crucifix-ation. In Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis considered the value of focusing so intensely on Christ’s bodily suffering on the cross, and he was conflicted: There is indeed one mental image which does not lure me away into[...]

Post-election Anxiety? Fear Not, and Remember the Cubs


If your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, many Americans are brimming with anxiety Posted on 11/09/16 If your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, many Americans are brimming with anxiety in the wake of yesterday’s presidential election. While some of my relatives expressed concern prior to the election over what a Hillary Clinton presidency might mean, especially for the Supreme Court, today I am hearing other worries. My friends with darker skin than mine are terrified. Having a president who is openly supported by the Ku Klux Klan has raised their psychological stress significantly. The LGBT friends in my news feed are scared about the vitriol being spewed by Donald Trump supporters. My Hispanic friends are concerned about those they love being deported. My retirement account was not happy, as fear was even expressed by the markets. So many Americans were feeling afraid last night that they managed to crash the Canadian immigration website. God’s most frequent commandment in Scripture is do not fear. Something greater is expected from those who serve a sovereign God. In this season of anxiety, then, let me suggest that we remember the Chicago Cubs—not as a distraction, but to learn from their championship run. Last week we had a celebratory party here in Chicago that some have claimed was the seventh-biggest public gathering in modern history. What brought so many people together in such a peaceful, unified way? What can the Cubs offer us in these turbulent, post-election days? Patient perseverance Cubs fans were always the good sports, knowing how to lose well. They spent 108 years with a longing for someday. Someday we will have the perfect lineup. Someday we won’t have to be good losers. Someday we won’t face ridicule. Someday the team won’t suck. Or, as the Cubs’ song goes, “Someday we will go all the way.” Christians, too, yearn for a better day. Our hearts have a deep longing for the world to be made right. As people living in a broken world, our hearts resonate with the frustration that someday is not today. Our hearts should break over injustice. We long for the someday when God restores the world. After patient perseverance, the Cubs saw that someday come. Curses can be broken The Cubs have spent decades living under a supposed curse. You can blame the billy goat, but the reality is that God, in his providence, writes the story. Would the championship have felt as good if it was not preceded by such a long season of suffering? Some think the losing seasons with the Cubs became a mental block that they struggled to overcome. They did not think that they could be winners. They lived with a legacy of failure. Amidst the strife of the election, we have felt the curse of this broken world all too clearly. Yet Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Christ has overcome our curse of sin and death so we can have peace even when life feels uncertain. Peace even as we fret over the presidency. Unity today In an election season so polarized by painful divisions, the Cubs have brought us together in a powerful way. It was beautiful to see video, taken far from Wrigley Field, in which you could hear the crowd singing together to celebrate their Game 5 win. In one unified voice, “Go Cubs Go” rang out over the city as an anthem of agreement. Fans came together in the streets in jubilation. There was a celebratory atmosphere in the air. Voices were hoarse from singing together in fellowship. It was a picture of the unity of heaven, where God brings together[...]

Ray Allen’s Jump Shot and the Sovereignty of God


I was born a year before Ray Allen was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. I was 6 when the Posted on 11/07/16 I was born a year before Ray Allen was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. I was 6 when the Bucks lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 NBA Eastern Conference finals. While Chicago wanted to be like Mike, up north we all wanted to be like Ray. I was in middle school when Allen won his first championship in Boston and I was in high school when he won his second ring with the Miami Heat. Until the last two years, during which Allen was a free agent, there had not been an NBA season in my lifetime of which he had not been a part. Now, with last week’s announcement of his official retirement, it feels like the closing of a chapter of my NBA fandom. Allen’s announcement came in the form of a letter to his 13-year-old self. He describes the loneliness he has felt and the difficulties of growing up in a military family. He speaks of the hard work and hours of practice he has put in, starting at a young age, to be one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. And in the middle of the letter, he tells himself this: “Listen: God doesn’t care whether or not you make your next jump shot. God will give you a lot of things in life, but he’s not going to give you your jump shot. Only hard work will do that.” I hate to disagree with my childhood idol, but Ray, your jumper is God-given. This is not because God sprinkled you with some special power, like a Space Jam magic trick. It is because God gave you everything, both your unique athletic talent and your work ethic. In James 1:17 we’re told, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Ray Allen’s jump shot came from his work ethic, but his work ethic came from God. God is sovereign over all we do. He is sovereign over an office on the top floor of the Empire State Building and he is sovereign over a dusty gym on the United States Air Force base in Dalzell, S.C. God loves all people and all of his creation. He wants to see us succeed in all we do. John Piper has written, “What defines us as Christians is not most profoundly that we have come to know him, but that he took note of us and made us his own.” One of the most memorable Ray Allen moments was “the shot.” This was during game six of the 2013 NBA Finals when the Miami Heat were playing the San Antonio Spurs. With five seconds left in the game, Allen hits a three to send the game into overtime and eventually save the series for the Heat, leading to their second straight NBA championship. I was a Heat hater when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh decided to team up in South Beach, but once Allen signed, I wanted them to win it all. I needed to see my favorite player get another ring. He was one of the oldest players on the Heat’s roster that year, but he didn’t let that stop him from saving their season. After making “the shot,” he gives a quick fist pump and then gets back on defense because he knows the game is not over. Allen currently holds the record for most three-point field goals made in an NBA career, but he was so much more than just a shooter. His unfathomable work ethic is why I will always love him and why he has impacted every place he has played, especially my home city of Milwaukee. He might say that his jump shot is not God-given, but his work ethic sure is. God’s blessings and gifts look different in every person’s life. It may be the grit required to be an NBA Hall of Famer or it may be the patience[...]

The Dark Vision and Faint Hope of HBO’s Westworld


When you look at the world, what do you see? That’s the question the new HBO show, Posted on 11/03/16 When you look at the world, what do you see? That’s the question the new HBO show, Westworld, is asking of its characters. And since the show is begging us to see its fictional world as a proxy for ours, it’s asking us too. Do you see the world and believe you have a preordained role in a created order? Is the world primarily there to service your desires for sex, money, power, or advancement? Is the world a bitter disappointment that’s failed to provide meaning? Is it a prison, a paradise, or a plaything? Is the world even real? Westworld suggests that it is how we see the world that determines if we are the hero or the villain, if we’re wearing the black hat or the white hat. This is heady, philosophical stuff for a series that takes place in an Old West theme park. Set at an unidentified point in the future, Westworld is about the people who run the park, those who visit it (the guests), and the androids that populate it (the hosts). These androids follow pre-assigned roles given them by their creator (a menacing Anthony Hopkins) and are indistinguishable from humans. They also seem to be gaining self-awareness. And that’s just the beginning, as things get significantly more complicated from there. Westworld the theme park feels like an expansive Old West universe you could lose yourself in, like a live-action version of the video game Red Dead Redemption. The music, set design, casting, and acting, especially by Evan Rachel Wood as (presumably) the heroine Dolores, is spot on. And while the dialogue is occasionally clunky, the plotting reminds me in all the best ways of Lost. (J.J. Abrams, one of the masterminds behind Lost, is an executive producer here.) But whereas Lost wore its optimism on its sleeve, Westworld has a darker heart. The impression five episodes in is that, in Westworld, anyone who tries to find meaning is doomed to become the slave of a capricious god or the victim of pure evil. Dolores opens the pilot episode saying, “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe there’s an order to our days. A purpose.” Yet Dolores’ purpose is to suffer. She is doomed to live the slaughter of her parents over and over again as part of an “adventure” that guests can participate in, either as hero or villain. It’s implied she has been raped multiple times. Each morning her memory is wiped and she wakes again believing that the world is beautiful. Whereas Dolores sees Westworld as a place of beauty and purpose, the guests see it as their plaything. The park is essentially advertised the way Las Vegas is today: what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld. But from the very first episode we see what a pleasure-filled, consequence-free world produces: sadists. The guests unleash the worst of themselves on the hosts and the camera doesn’t flinch. It wants us to feel the pain of the androids programmed to endure it. And then there’s the Man in Black (played by Ed Harris, with his cold-as-stone blue eyes). The Man in Black is a guest who has gotten tired of the pursuit of pleasure. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he has found it to be meaningless. Instead, he believes the heart of Westworld holds a secret, left there by one of the park’s co-creators, and he is willing to commit unspeakable acts in order to find it. Pursuing this truth with a religious fury, he is in some ways the ultimate pharisee: a believer in an absolute truth so abstract, i[...]