Category Archives: Controversy

BULLIES AND SAINTS

I have read many books on history and the history of the church. Church history was also my minor or cognate field of study in seminary.

There is much to like about John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History. Sometimes instead of a regular review, I like to offer five things I appreciated about a book. Here goes with Bullies and Saints:

*Dickson is balanced in laying out the good, bad, and downright ugly or evil. He does not fall prey to either the cynic on one hand or the hagiographer on the other hand.

*There is a responsible engagement with the best scholarship, yet the book remains accessible.

*Dickson is a lucid writer who knows how to find the telling anecdote or illustration.

*Unlike some Christians, Dickson does not go back to the past to find talking points he already agrees with. He allows the strangeness of the past to speak to him and by way of extension, us.

*It is the kind of book that a Christian could comfortably give to a thoughtful non-Christian. I think many non-Christians would be pleasantly surprised by Dickson’s fair-mindedness.

AFGHANISTAN: WHEN “REALISTIC” LOSES ITS PERSUASIVE POWER

Note to readers: This post does not address who is to blame for the debacle we are witnessing in Afghanistan. If that is your interest, you have ample things to read elsewhere.

“Let’s be realistic…” Three words that remind us that we have set our expectations too high. Three words that remind us that the real world is full of pain and suffering, so we better adjust our assumptions accordingly about how life really works.

But realistic can also be a cheap dodge from moral responsibility. Invoking the need to be “realistic” can protect us from the critical obligations of a moral life. And this moral life is messy and difficult whether we are looking to address our own life or the life of a country like Afghanistan.

It seems utterly irrational to hang onto a plane when it is taking off, but we Westerners make our judgments far too hastily. When King David numbered his troops and the non-military men, he fell under the discipline of the Lord. God gave David three possible options for his punishment. Let David’s response sink in deeply: “…I am in great distress. Let us now fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” Like the terrified Afghans, David knew full well how ruthless people can be.

From the comforts of our homes, it is understandable why we Americans feel helpless in offering anything of lasting benefit to the Afghans. I know the feeling. I wonder what I as a sixty-three-year-old man living in the safety of the American suburbs can do. It seems crazy to think I can do anything of consequence. Yes, I am terribly sad over the ghastly images I witnessed of those desperate people in Afghanistan, but then my inability to do anything screams with a clarity that seems undeniable. And inability eventually leads to a cold logic that says I have no real responsibility. It is a brutal calculus, but it permits me to go to go to bed with a clean conscience.

Realpolitik is a fancy word that describes geopolitical decisions being made based on pragmatic realities instead of allowing our moral outrage or ideological commitments to set the agenda. For example, our government (and this is true of both sides of the political aisle) understands that calling the Chinese to task for their abuse of the Uyghurs is impractical because it would hurt our economic interests. Our government can certainly offer some periodic outrage over the Uyghurs, but everyone knows, including the Chinese, that we are simply grandstanding for a hollow sound bite.

Realpolitik reminds us that America cannot be the police force for the rest of the world. It is a terrible thing to admit, but in our big and complicated world it is hard to gainsay. We Americans must simply nod in sad resignation that this is the way things are and carry on with our own lives.

During my days of college ministry, I recall hearing about a study that explained why people get more animated with lesser causes like saving the whales. Nothing wrong of course with wanting to save whales. The author of the study said people get exercised with lesser causes because the more important ones seem impossible to address. The lesser causes give us a sense that we are making some difference in the world.

It’s understandable why we are tempted to pass on bigger problems, but perhaps the crisis in Afghanistan is one we can do something about. Perhaps we are too easily invoking “Let’s be realistic about Afghanistan…” to escape things we can do.

What are those things? More than the stifling “Let’s be realistic…” will allow. Fresh brainstorming among those who know and love the Afghan people ought to be encouraged. “Let’s be realistic…” will hardly provoke the kind of creative, out of the box thinking about the issues that most vex us. “Let’s be realistic…” may also be a bogus excuse to do little to nothing when other possibilities exist, the kinds of things that only come into view when one is committed to thinking with moral clarity.

 

 

CHRISTIANS HATING ONE ANOTHER

We live in turbulent and divisive times.  

We may be tempted to focus only on the ungodliness of the “culture” in general, but ungodliness is hardly limited to those outside the church. 

Inside the church there is suspicion among Christians, even hatred. Christians have told me that they can’t talk about their differences on important issues…with their best friends!  How much hope is there then to discuss controversial matters with those we don’t know?  Growing numbers seem pessimistic about the prospect.

The gadfly sensation, Jordan Peterson, likes to tell young people that they have no credibility to protest in public unless they first keep their own bedrooms neat and tidy.  It is good counsel and one we Christians ought to take more seriously, even if others don’t.  To change the imagery a bit, I like to say that we Christians regularly want to start a landscape company when the weeds in our own backyard need serious attention.

Consider the following not so hypothetical conversation:

Pro-Life Christian: I can’t believe that people think partial-birth abortion is okay.

Pro-Choice Friend: How come?

Pro-Life Christian: Because it is the killing of a human being!

Pro-Choice Friend: Why do you believe anyone two and younger is human?

Pro-Life Christian: Because the Bible says so!

Pro-Choice Friend: Would you show me a few of those Bible verses?

Pro-Life Christian: Uh, let me see…I know they are in there somewhere…

Whether it is engaging in conversation with those inside or outside the church, we ought first to consider whether we are adequately literate to speak with such confidence and conviction.

The final chapter of Stuck in the Present offers a way forward…

 

AM I WOKE?

Danny Akin is the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Danny and I are bound together (literally) because his commentary on Song of Solomon and mine on Ecclesiastes were matched together in B & H’s series of commentaries on the whole Bible.

Danny believes the shocking truth that the gospel of Jesus speaks to all of life.

Some within the Southern Baptist “denomination” (see my post on June 15, 2021) dubbed Danny a “woke liberal.”

If shrewdly “plundering the Egyptians” and seeking to have an irenic spirit makes one a liberal, then I guess many of us must wear that moniker. 🙂

And by the way, before you are tempted to sling out the word “woke” ask yourself whether you have done the hard work of lots of biblical and theological study along with ample historical work. If not, it would be better to ask questions than make confident pronouncements of who is and who is not “woke.”

If you want to better know history, here is a pretty good book to get you oriented:

 

ARE THE SOUTHERN BAPTISTS A DENOMINATION?

Thousands of Southern Baptists are gathered this week in Nashville for their annual convention.

A number of controversies and conflicts look to make for a challenging week.

“Southern Baptist” is big tent that has strongly divided constituencies over issues like Critical Race Theory and the handling/mishandling of abuse victims.

Since Southern Baptist churches function with lots of autonomy, and since there are deep divides on many issues, I am thinking we should call the Southern Baptists what they really are: a very loose affiliation of Protestants who have some semblance of agreement about the gospel…though that may now be in jeopardy as well.

 

CONTROVERSY, CRITICISM, AND CHRIST-LIKE CHARACTER

No matter what Christian tradition we align with, or group we associate with, all of us should consider the following questions. Over the years I developed this list to ask myself these kinds of things on a regular basis:

*Am I fearful of speaking up due to the fear of losing my livelihood? As a pastor I regularly reminded myself that the folks at church were not responsible for paying me. They were God’s instruments to be sure, but God was in charge of my well-being. I am glad for a father who instilled in me the virtue of doing the right thing no matter the cost.

*Am I fearful of speaking up due to jeopardizing opportunities for ministry (or business) in certain venues? Much could be said about this, but the reality is that many don’t press important issues over fear of losing out on speaking and writing opportunities. 

Years ago, I talked with a guy who lost his job at a big, Christian publishing house because he protested them accepting a book which contained heresy. The best-selling author stayed and the editor left. It cost him in some significant and very tangible ways, but it did not cost him his integrity.

*Am I fearful of speaking up because I truly like these people and don’t want to lose my “community”? This is understandable as indeed all of these temptations are, but we must ask how good the friends really are if any pushback and challenge is viewed as a threat to the friendship. 

Personally, I don’t mind hearty disagreements and have had them with many friends. I do mind when a lack of respect, not actively listening to one another, setting up straw-man points, ad hominems, or the all too common practice of passive-aggressive behavior takes place. 

*Am I fearful of speaking up because I don’t want to be tagged “a critical spirit”?  Labels can be lethal. I have seen the “critical spirit” label wielded with wicked efficiency. 

To be candid, I have been guilty for labeling some “company men” who may not have deserved it. Others probably did, but that still is not the best way to communicate. We label because as David Dark said so well, we are lazy and want “mental shortcuts.”

In either case, we ought to be willing to be misunderstood, but actively seeking to understand others better. I am absolutely convinced this is greatly aided by proximity. If I don’t know someone it is easy to label them in an unfavorable light. If I do get to know them, we might still disagree, but be less keen on categorizing one another with our unflattering arsenal of terms.

One example is the mea culpa a popular blogger gave over his less than flattering review of Ann Voskamp’s, One Thousand Gifts. Tim Challies candidly registered his dismay over how he treated Voskamp (http://www.challies.com/articles/in-which-i-ask-ann-voskamps-forgiveness). Wonderfully, it was Voskamp’s invitation to Challies and his family for a meal with the Voskamp family which got that ball rolling. So proximity is powerful. Repeat it often!

My go to verses which have helped me better navigate (no perfection achievable this far from Eden!) the choppy waters of simultaneously not fearing man, yet remembering the need to remain a man growing in peace with others whenever possible are:

“Stop regarding man, who breath of life is in his nostrils; for why should he be esteemed?” (Isa. 2:22)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”  (Matt. 5:7)

“If possible, so far as depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Rom. 12:18) while always remembering the balancing verse of “Woe to you when all the people speak well of you; for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way.” (Luke 6:26)

“This you know, my beloved brethren.  But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE TEARS WERE NOT EXPECTED

Late last night, I was overcome with grief. The tears were not expected.

It is impossible to digest properly all that happened yesterday. As I write in my forthcoming book Stuck in the Present, we need the longer view of history for that, so I am heeding my own counsel.

Stuck in the Present: David George Moore: 9781684264605: Amazon.com: Books

Over the years, I have heard warnings to not take the American experiment in democracy for granted. It is sturdy in one sense, but still fragile. I remember hearing that each generation of Americans must commit to it. I thought it was good to issue such a warning but was never too worried. No longer.

Have things been this bad before in America? An argument can certainly be made for that and the antebellum period is the one historians typically mention.

Are our cluster of present problems unique to the more modern period of American history? Again, I think the 1960s offers another example of serious strife and deep division.

My deepest sadness, however, is not over our country’s present chaos and strife.

My deepest sadness is over the state of the Christian faith in America.

For many decades I have witnessed Christians who are apathetic about knowing God’s Word, loving one’s enemies, an unwillingness to suffer for Christ in the most modest of ways, prayerlessness, and much more. 

Most Christians are poorly prepared for times of crisis. We love the church programs that meet our insatiable desires. We adore our celebrity pastors. We are biblically and historically illiterate, but more than willing to offer our superficial opinions on the most vexing issues of the day.  

This sad state of affairs is due to a lack of making long-term discipleship and serious grounding in the Christian faith our priorities. These simply do not take place in many churches (or parachurches for that matter). We have sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. We should not be surprised where we find ourselves.

Things are not going to be any better by avoiding these realities. Things also might not be any better if we face these realities but at least we will have been faithful.

I pray for God’s mercy, but I do not find myself too sanguine. My lack of “optimism” is not because the culture is so bad. Rather, it is because many of us Americans claiming the name of Christ have become dull of hearing.

God’s Word makes it clear that Christians can lose their influence (Mt. 5:13; Rev. 2:4,5). We are kidding ourselves if we think this is not happening right now.

All of us who claim the name of Christ need to ponder and consider Peter’s dire warning:

Indeed, none of you should suffer as a murderer or thief or wrongdoer, or even as a meddler. But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?… (I Peter 4:15-17)

I added this in the reply link, but will also add it here:

Again, to underscore the biggest point of the post: Yes, shock over the events of yesterday, but I am much more worried about the state of Christianity in America. And my concerns go way back before Trump or any other politician.

We must look at ourselves!