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Maybe You’re Unhappy Because You’re Too Big and Bored

Jan 19, 2016 | Trevin Wax

new-year-2014-27I preached on Simeon over the holiday season. Simeon – the mysterious old man in the temple who personifies the hope of Israel. Wrinkled fingers clasping the tiny hands of Jesus, hands that will grow up to bear eternal scars of love.

Simeon is most famous for his song (Nunc dimittis in Latin), a farewell hymn of praise to his Lord. I’m the Lord’s slave, he says, before launching into praise to God for His faithfulness to His covenant promises.

It’s a beautiful paradox. Because Simeon sees his position as a slave, he is therefore free to worship. Because he sees himself as a lowly servant, he is freely filled with gratitude for God’s goodness to him.

And that reminds me… Joy suffers whenever we are too big and God is too small.

The fuel of joy is gratitude, and the fuel of gratitude is wonder. But wonder gets stifled by entitlement, and gratitude disappears when wonder dies.

Childlike Wonder

One way for us to recapture a sense of the glory of God is through seeing the grandeur of His handiwork. This is one way we shrink ourselves and magnify God – through childlike faith, we are to become like children, fully dependent on God our Father and enthralled once again at the world He has given us.

Our two-year-old son shouts in delight at the most ordinary things. Christmas lights! he chirps from the backseat as we pass the same house for the hundredth time. A truck! he yells, running to the window to wave at the garbage collector. Salsa! he cries with joy when we take our seats at Chili’s and a basket of chips is placed before his eyes.

“We feel no wonder at ordinary things,” writes David Fagerberg. “It’s no wonder that ordinary things disappoint us.”

The Discipline of Wonder

It takes discipline to see the wonder in the ordinary. That’s why Professor Clyde Kilby once made a list of daily resolutions in order to awake his soul to the sheer glory of existence.

“At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me,” he wrote. “I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are.”

N. D. Wilson says we ought to thank God every day for life:

As the earth screams through space, balanced exactly on the edge of everyone burning alive and everyone freezing solid, as we shriek through deadly obstacle courses of meteor showers and find them picturesque, as the nearest fiery star vomits eruptions hundreds of times bigger that our wee planet (giving chipper local weathermen northern lights to chatter about), as a giant reflective rock glides around us slopping the seas (and never falls down), and as we ride in our machines, darting past fools and drunks and texting teenagers, how many times do we thank God?

This takes work. It takes discipline. But why? Why is gratitude hard? Why do we lose our sense of delight in the ordinary?

The Curse of Comparison

Some would say it’s because we’ve become too familiar with things as they are. Over-familiarization leads to overlooking.

That’s only part of the answer. The bigger obstacle standing in the way of gratitude is that we suffer from the curse of comparison. As long as we are always comparing things, we will be incapable of just enjoying what is.

You will never delight in an apple if you are wishing you had an orange. You will never be able to marvel at a tulip if you are comparing it to a rose. The grass is always greener, some say. But wait – there’s grass!!! What marvelous carpet this is!

“Everything’s Amazing, and Nobody’s Happy!”

Comedian Louis C K captured this sentiment when he told Conan O’ Brien, “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” He mentioned people who complain about how bothersome their experience was in the airport or airplane. “What happened next? Did you fly in the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?” Then, he yelled, “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!

Everyone laughs because, in one moment, the truth is presented so starkly that we can’t help but marvel. But watch how easy it will be for your sense of wonder to deflate when, next time you fly, you miss out on peanuts and pretzels, or you can’t get the movie to play right on your personalized screen.

We marvel as children when we encounter the world anew, realizing that nothing has to be this way. We cannot be truly grateful for fleeting moments of happiness if we believe we deserve each and every one of them. We must see ourselves as graced before we can be grateful.

Be Happy, Be Smaller

This interplay of gratitude and wonder, and wonder and happiness can only happen when the world becomes bigger and we become smaller. As long as we see ourselves at the center of this vast and ever-expanding universe, and as long as we think of ourselves as extraordinary and everything around us as ordinary or – God forbid – boring, then we will never discover happiness.

It is only when God is at the center of our existence, when He is big and we are small, when we see ourselves as ordinary people in a world of extraordinary marvels – only then do we discover the joy of gratitude.

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Trevin’s Seven

Jan 15, 2016 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation by Jonathan Rieder. $1.99.

Seven of the best articles I came across this week:

1. Skye Jethani – The Age of Secular PhariseesToday, we increasingly live in a culture of secular Pharisees—non-religious people convinced of their own righteousness who view Jesus as a morally inferior kook followed only by simpletons.

2. Tim Keller – What I’ve Learned About the Bible. The Bible is the way that, through the Spirit, God is active in my life. 

3. The Smithsonian – How the Phonograph Changed Music ForeverSpotify may be disrupting to the music business, but it pales in comparison to the invention of the phonograph.

4. Chuck Norris vs. CommunismA 50-minute docu/film about Romanians smuggling Western films behind the Iron Curtain.

5. Jayson Casper – What Arab Christians Think of the Wheaton-Hawkins “Same God” Debate. Among Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, the discussion is not over whether we worship the same God, but rather Muslims challenging us that we worship one God at all.”

6. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra – The Top 50 Countries Where It’s Hardest To Be a Christian. 2014 was the world’s worst year for the persecution of Christians in the modern era. Until 2015 surpassed it.

7. Bruce Ashford – The (Religious) Problem with American Politics. Ideologies never rest by pointing out something true. They assert that this partial truth is the entire truth, and therefore distort what they value by giving it an ultimacy it does not deserve

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From Stephen Colbert to Taylor Swift: 4 Reasons I Write Cultural Commentary

Jan 14, 2016 | Trevin Wax

word with dice on white background- culture

Whenever I write about the worldview of a cultural icon or a cultural artifact, I brace myself. The ensuing comment streams and Facebook conversations almost always devolve into debates over whether such cultural analysis should happen in the first place.

(Examples of this phenomenon are my post that analyzed the underlying philosophy of Taylor Swift’s music video for “Out of the Woods,” or my post interacting with Stephen Colbert’s definition of faithfulness.)

Many Christians think of cultural artifacts (such as a pop song) in categories of “good” or “bad.” Naturally, some readers assume that my choice to comment on a song or interact with its spiritual dimensions serves as an implicit endorsement. Or they think that comparing or contrasting something as banal as a pop culture phenomenon with the good news of Christianity cheapens the gospel.

On the other side are readers who assume that my critique of a song means I think it is “bad” and should therefore be “banned.” If the song is deficient in the worldview it promotes, it is “dangerous.” These readers then assume that the blog post is an overreaction, a futile exercise in “overanalyzing.” They jump to the artist’s defense.

What both sides have in common is that they miss the point of cultural commentary. Examining a cultural artifact is not a statement on the spiritual state of an artist; neither is it a blanket endorsement or condemnation of a product.

Instead, cultural commentaries are an exercise in cultural literacy, what Kevin Vanhoozer describes as “discerning the meaning of cultural texts and trends in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Why Read the Culture? 

In his book, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, Vanhoozer offers several reasons for becoming “culturally literate.”

1. To resist the temptations of the time.

We need to know what songs and messages are forming one’s spirit. “It helps to be able to name the powers and principalities that vie for the control of one’s mind, soul, heart, and strength,” Vanhoozer writes.

2. To follow Scripture more faithfully.

We ought to read culture so that the scripts we perform in everyday life are in line with the Scriptures rather than the dominant narratives of our society. We are more likely to imbibe uncritically whatever it is we sing or whatever movies we watch if we are not trained to see the underlying philosophy, to recognize both what is good in that worldview and what needs to be challenged.

3. To know the setting for your faithful witness. 

We should read culture in order to know where we are in the great story of redemption. If the culture is the setting for the next scene, we need to understand that scene well in order to be effective witnesses.

4. To love and understand your neighbor.

This exercise is offered up as an act of love toward God and neighbor. As Vanhoozer writes:

“I cannot love my neighbor unless I understand him and the cultural world he inhabits. Cultural literacy – the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life – is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.”

You can’t love or reach people you don’t care to understand.

How To Read and Comment on Culture

Now that we’ve outlined some reasons why it is helpful to examine cultural artifacts and trends in our day, we can turn to the question of how to read and comment on culture.

1. Start with a cultural artifact.

Cultural commentary usually begins with an artifact that shines light on the values and beliefs implicit in a culture. You start with some thing or someone who has captured the public eye and the imagination.

2. Ask questions of the artifact.

  • Why is this cultural artifact important today?
  • What does it tell us about our society?
  • What is the message? How is it communicated?
  • What impressions or emotions does the artist want to leave us with?
  • Why does this artifact resonate with people today?
  • Why is the artifact significant right now, as opposed to other times and places?

3. Hold the artifact up to the gospel’s storyline.

Once you have considered the artifact’s significance, you hold it up to the light of the gospel story. Usually, you’ll find you can affirm some things that are true – longings or aspirations that are, in some way, grasping for the joy that is found only in Christ. You’ll also find some things that are false – the “shortcut” to happiness that won’t ultimately deliver because it sidesteps or opposes the gospel.

Almost every cultural phenomenon has aspects that can be affirmed by Scripture, as well as aspects that are idolatrous distortions of the truth. To only focus on what can be affirmed is to dull the prophetic edge of the gospel’s hard truth. To only focus on what should be challenged is to fail to show how the culture’s longings are answered in Jesus.

4. Help people understand their culture in light of the gospel.

From Francis Schaeffer in the 1960’s, to C. S. Lewis in the 1940’s, to G. K. Chesterton in the 1920’s, we stand in a long line of people who have identified the narratives on display in cultural artifacts of their day, and then spoke to those longings by putting them in light of the gospel. John Stott called this “double listening” – listening to God’s Word and to the people in God’s world, so that we can be effective witnesses to the kingdom.

Conclusion

Too many Christians assume that analyzing cultural products is simply a way of saying “safe” or “unsafe,” “bad” or “good,” “acceptable” or “banned.” Not so. When done well, cultural analysis helps you ask the right questions, see the narrative in light of the gospel, and look for what can be affirmed and what should be challenged.

That’s why I plan on doing more cultural commentary in the future, not less.

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4 Principles for Parenting in a World of Video Games

Jan 12, 2016 | Trevin Wax

cyber-tormentIn a recent edition of Comment magazine, James K. A. Smith marvels at the achievement of our educational institutions and the privilege we have in benefiting from so many opportunities to grow and learn. Then, he makes an observation:

“As someone who spends countless hours on airplanes, I never cease to be amazed at the number of professional, college-educated adults who, when presented with a three-hour stretch of downtime, proceed to spend that time playing video games. Our countries invest 5 percent of their GDPs in universal education; teachers invite us into the labyrinths of history and the imaginative worlds of literature; parents make sacrifices for us to attend Christian schools and colleges. And we play Angry Birds. We’re not educated for this, surely.”

He goes on to warn his students:

“If I ever see you on a plane playing a video game, I will accost you, and I will be disappointed, and I will forthrightly remind you: you weren’t educated for this. The world needs your (continuing) education, and your soul is starving for it. We are remarkably well-educated dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants who could only dream of what we enjoy. Let’s not squander our inheritance.”

With Smith, I’m also disappointed when I see people fail to fully appreciate just what a privilege it is to receive an education, own a library of books, and have access to so many resources in the English language. But I’m afraid this squandering is likely to get worse, not better. The generation coming after us has never known of life without video games, electronic devices, and iPhones with countless apps.

Teaching Your Kids to Use Technology Wisely

What can we do as parents to shape the habits of our children?

What can we do to help them make wise choices regarding the time they spend on electronic devices?

Do we ban devices and games? Do we set limits? What is the best way forward?

Many parents wrestle with these questions. I know, because my wife and I have discussed this issue with other couples on many occasions.

Our family has implemented a system that works well for us. I realize our way isn’t the only way, so I’ve asked a few Christian leaders and thinkers to share how they approach this issue. Below are some principles to consider.

1. Instead of banning electronic devices altogether, train your kids to discipline themselves.

The assumption among every family I spoke with is that there is a legitimate place for video games and iPhone apps and other forms of entertainment. Like watching television or listening to the radio, we can enjoy entertainment and leisure time in moderation.

Trillia Newbell, an author friend of mine, explained her family’s view:

“We think devices are fine as long as they are monitored and have clear instructions, and restrictions.”

In other words, it is better to help your children order their time wisely than to take away the opportunity to show self-control. Never use a device as a babysitter.

Aaron Earls, online editor of Facts and Trends, sees value in using video games for family time. On Friday nights, for example, his family will have a Wii family game night and everyone will play together. Electronic devices, in their proper place, can bring the family together instead of causing everyone to drift to separate rooms with separate screens.

2. Never allow your children to be alone with unfettered access to electronic devices.

Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church and father of six children, confesses that it is difficult to keep up with everything all his kids are doing. But there is one rule his family won’t budge on:

“No TV, computers, phones, or tablets in the bedroom. Screens are used in public areas, not in private.”

In the Wax home, our kids have limited access to our old, no-longer-in-use iPhones. But we set restrictions on those phones. That way, the kids are unable to unlock the phone, access the Internet, or make purchases. Take advantage of the restrictions settings on phones and tablets.

3. Set the timer. 

When our kids play the Wii, they have to set the timer in the kitchen. When they play on our old iPhones, we set the Timer feature to “Stop Playing” so that the game shuts down and the phone locks when the timer goes off. Our rule is 30 minutes a day during the week, and an hour a day during the weekend.

Dan Darling, an author who works at the ERLC, limits his children’s screen time to an hour a day, with some give-and-take on holidays, special times, etc.

For Trillia Newbell’s family, the timer has been a huge help:

“The kids know exactly what to expect and it helps eliminate confusion. It also gives them something to look forward to. They enjoy their time on devices much more now than before we implemented to timer. They focus on playing because they realize they’ll need to be off for the night/day otherwise.”

4. Use electronic devices as motivation for reading.

A few years ago, I asked one of my favorite authors, N. D. Wilson, how parents can instill a love of reading in their kids. He told me that he and his wife allow their kids to stay up at night as long as they want, as long as they are reading. We tried that a few times, but our kids like to go to bed early.

What has helped them develop a love for reading is what we call “reading for time.” Our kids have the opportunity to earn more than their 30-minute-a-day allotment of electronics time by matching that time with reading. If they want to play games for 30 more minutes, great! But first, they must read for thirty minutes.

Our kids love this system. They’ve both taken to reading books they enjoy, and it helps them see electronic time as a privilege, not a right.

Aaron Earls’ family does something similar. In 30-minute segments, they can earn additional time on an electronic device. Using this method, his boys have already read classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.

Conclusion

I want my kids to enjoy the Nintendo and the iPhone and the creative worlds of Minecraft. But I also want them to enjoy playing outside, reading good books, and growing up as well-rounded kids. I’m thankful that my parents limited my access to Nintendo when I was growing up, and that’s why I can’t imagine setting them loose to play devices for hours on end.

The challenge for parents is to be consistent in the principles we put into practice in our homes. Make sure your kids understand why you’re setting limits. Discuss why certain games and shows are inappropriate. As Dan Darling says,

“Try to instill in your kids a sense of discernment that will help them when they leave the nest.”

That’s right. Discernment and self-control, where you can take time for leisure without letting leisure take over your time.

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Trevin’s Seven

Jan 08, 2016 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: 30 Events That Shaped the Church: Learning from Scandal, Intrigue, War, and Revival by Alton Gansky. $1.99.

Some of the best articles I found online this week:

1. Bart Barber at Canon and Culture – The Constitution Anticipates Today. The idea that religious liberty might come into conflict with important government objectives is not a possibility unanticipated by the First Amendment; it is the amendment’s very reason for existence.

2. Mike Cosper – The Banality of Abortion. By manipulating language, we can insulate ourselves from reality. 

3. Colleen Gillard in The Atlantic – Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories. Their history informs fantastical myths and legends, while American tales tends to focus on moral realism.

4. Lindsey Bever in The Washington Post – “I Am Pro-Life!” A Surrogate Mother’s Stand Against “Reducing” Her Triplets. So much to unpack in this one question, posed in the article: “Does a woman carrying someone else’s child waive her rights to her own body?”

5. Christianity Today – The Importance of Gospel-Centered Teaching in Children’s Ministry & The Importance of Teaching Kids the Hard Stuff of ScriptureA number of children’s ministers from prominent churches in multiple denominations explain why kids need to know the Bible’s big story.

6. Tim Keller and Russell Moore discuss (on video) following Jesus in an “age of authenticity.”

7. Jonathan Haidt identifies the “Cross-Partisan Divide” as the most recent scientific news. Here’s what it is and what it means for education and politics.

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I Am Going To Write

Jan 07, 2016 | Trevin Wax

Graduation Fall 2015_20_CassityIt was just moments before I would walk up the stairs and through the doors of Binkley Chapel, where I would then be “hooded” as a doctor of philosophy. Lined up outside with fellow graduates, all of us decked out in our regalia, I was handed a sign that said “I am going to” with a line underneath left blank.

The “I Am Going” sign is one of Southeastern Seminary’s trademarks. Southeastern faculty and staff love to ask people to answer that question with a marker and then hold the sign up for a picture. You can either write down where you are about to go or what you plan to do.

Jittery with emotions at the time, my mind drew a blank about that blank! Where am I going? What am I going to do? I’ve completed this PhD process and my formal education has come to an end. What next?

The only word that came to mind was “write.” No matter where I go or whatever else I do, I am going to write.

Ideas and Words

For almost a decade now, I’ve done most of my writing here at this blog. The routine of writing two or three articles a week has helped me discover my voice and grow in my skills. Feedback from readers has sharpened my thinking. I’ve learned why it is important to ponder, not pontificate. And why the goal is persuasion through solid argumentation, not “rallying the troops” through ranting.

One of my primary and constant callings in life is to write. Truthfully, “writing” is not nearly as enjoyable for me as “having written.” Ideas animate me, not words. But words are a powerful way of communicating ideas. And ideas, both true and false, have consequences.

The Beauty and Difficulty of Good Writing

On a plane trip late last year, I was reading an edition of First Things in which Roger Scruton wrote about good journalism and the life of the mind. In one well-crafted sentence, Scruton explained the beauty and difficulty of this kind of writing:

“To take the issues of the day, to give them the context that frames them and the arguments that reveal their importance – to do this in the minimum of space, and at the same time to mount a clear case for an opinion that you can express in all sincerity and in the hope of persuading the reader, is to engage in one of the hardest and most rewarding exercises of our reasoning powers.”

After reading that sentence, I reached into my carry-on luggage and found a pen so I could underline those words. I reread them several times and thought, Yes. That is what I want to do.

To take the issues of the day…

John Stott was famous for recommending believers engage in “double listening” – listening to the Word of God and to people in the world, in order to bring God’s Word to bear on the issues of the day. We need writers and thinkers and preachers who do this well, who can speak to the issues of our day and encourage people toward faithfulness.

… to give [the issues of the day] the context that frames them and the arguments that reveal their importance…

Anyone with a Facebook account can write about the news headlines. What we need are people who can widen the lens and put these issues in context. Writers should help people see why these issues are confronting us and not others. Sometimes, we’ll urge people to pay attention to deeper, more foundational issues that don’t make headlines. Good writers don’t just speak about the issues; they speak to the context that frames them.

… to do this in the minimum of space…

I have more than a few friends who mourn the loss of the long-form essay among evangelical blogs and books. It’s truly rare that articles exceeding two or three thousand words get widely-shared and read. With Scruton, however, I am excited by this challenge. The constraint of space, of cutting and chopping your work to meet an artificial word count can be freeing. Discipline makes you a better writer. 

… and at the same time to mount a clear case for an opinion that you can express in all sincerity

It’s one thing to point to an event, and another thing to make a point about it. The best essayists and bloggers and writers are making a case for something they believe in. Your sincere opinion invites sincere criticism. So get ready for the commenter who pats you on the back and the commenter that punches you in the face. Sometimes, it may be the same commenter!

… in the hope of persuading the reader…

Here’s why the writer goes public. It’s one thing to write down your opinion for yourself, or to work on your writing skills on your own. It’s another thing to envision your reader, anticipate his or her objections, and skillfully answer them as you promote your opinion. I realize that my blogs and essays may not always be persuasive, but I hope they at least make people think, to reconsider some assumptions they’ve never questioned before.

… to engage in one of the hardest and most rewarding exercises of our reasoning powers.

Yes, it is hard to reason in this way, with minimal space, in an environment where many people are looking for confirmation of what they already believe rather than an encounter with another point of view. Nevertheless, this practice is rewarding. In anticipating and answering objections, we grow. We learn how to reason. We become better at clarifying our points and persuading our readers.

Going to Write

With my dissertation behind me and new adventures in writing books and blogs on the horizon, I realize I was right to go with the first thing that popped in my head that morning in the moments before Graduation. So, in 2016 and beyond, I am going to write. Thank you for reading.

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What You Should Ask Whenever Pundits Talk About “The Evangelical Vote”

Jan 06, 2016 | Trevin Wax

vote-hereMy latest article for Religion News Service:

It feels like stating the obvious to say that “evangelical voters” are not a monolith that can be reliably relied upon by any politician. But what should go without saying apparently needs repeating: To say “the evangelical vote” without any further specification is almost meaningless.

First, there are various ways to define “evangelicalism.” Sociologists ask “Who claims to be an evangelical?” and then look for common themes that unite those who say they belong to the movement. Others look at those who claim to be evangelical but are not recognized by the majority of evangelicals as “authentic.” Still others seek to list essential evangelical commitments.

Unlike many journalists covering evangelicals from a political perspective, the fiercest debates over evangelical identity focus on the center and boundaries of evangelical theology: What are the movement’s theological distinctives?

All these questions make the debate over evangelical identity a pressing one for evangelical churches and institutions. But these questions are primarily about doctrinal commitments, not political positions.

It’s not surprising, then, to see LifeWay Research partnering with the National Association of Evangelicals to offer a “belief-based research definition” for future surveys. Survey respondents must agree with these four key statements before being considered “evangelical”:

  • “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.”
  • “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their savior.”
  • “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.”
  • “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”

Note how each of these survey questions is focused on evangelical belief, not politics.

So, what does this mean for predicting what evangelicals will do at the voting booth? That question needs further clarification. What kind of evangelical are we talking about?

CONTINUE READING

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The Gospel According to Taylor Swift

Jan 05, 2016 | Trevin Wax

taylor-swift-out-of-the-woods-music-video-stills-07-e1451658193656

Unless you live in a cave, you may find it difficult to avoid hearing Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods” this year. The song – about Taylor’s troubled relationship with one of the members of One Direction – is a brilliantly crafted piece of pop music that has been covered by multiple singers and bands (including the Christian group For King and Country).

The music video for “Out of the Woods” debuted on New Year’s Eve and has already racked up more than 15 million views on YouTube. It features a kaleidoscope of scenes (mountain, woods, snow, ocean), with Taylor enduring distress as she fights to free herself from the challenges in her surroundings.

“Out of the Woods” is about a relationship on the rocks. It’s about trying to work through issues until restoration takes place. But the end of the music video has a twist.

When Taylor emerges from her struggle, all scuffed up and muddy, she walks forward to a pristine, unharmed Taylor-look-alike on the beach. As soon as she puts her hand on the identical woman’s shoulder, the song is over, and these words come on the screen:

She lost him.
But she found herself.
And somehow that was everything.

In a matter of minutes and in just a few words, Taylor Swift’s music video provides a popular-level version of what philosophers and sociologists call “expressive individualism.” It’s the idea that the purpose of life is to find and express your individuality. You “find yourself” by fighting through all the constraints placed upon you by others. The goal is to emerge triumphant, fully aware of your own unique essence, so you can express yourself to the world.

This is one of the dominant narratives of 21st century American culture, so it’s no surprise to see our musical icons telling this story through song.

“She lost him.” In other words, the relationship failed. They never made it out of the woods. In the case of most love stories and love songs, you’d think that means the song is sad, a lament of sorts.

But…

Here’s the crucial turning point, the good news according to Taylor Swift. “She found herself.” Notice that the broken relationship isn’t a sad ending after all, because the failure is what enabled her to find herself. Emerging from the woods, Taylor sings about how the relationship died, but through this death she has come alive to her true self.

The end of “Out of the Woods” makes sense to people today. If the highest purpose of life is to discover yourself, then everything – including our relationships – must be reoriented to that view of self-discovery and self-exploration. The dissolution of the relationship is now a good thing if it prompts that crucial moment of self-discovery.

Why does this song by Taylor Swift resonate with people? Because, deep down, all human beings want to be totally known and totally loved. And the shortcut to being totally known and totally loved is to “know yourself” and “love yourself” – to no longer be dependent on anyone else for your happiness.

The end of “Out of the Woods” also appeals to the idea that all our troubles in life are part of a grander story of discovery. “And somehow that was everything.” The big story of self-discovery supersedes whatever heartache you’ve experienced.

But, like I said above, this is only a shortcut, and the happiness from such “self-discovery” is fleeting.

  • How does Taylor Swift really know that she’s found herself?
  • How does she know the look-alike on the beach isn’t just a mirage?
  • Will her next relationship be simply another avenue for her to find more of herself?

Here, the core message of Christianity affirms the longing expressed in “Out of the Woods,” but challenges the solution the song provides.

Yes, the Bible says, there is a grander story of discovery that makes sense of all our trials. But that story is radically God-focused, not self-focused. It’s a story about God finding and saving unworthy sinners, not our own attempts to find and save ourselves. It’s discovering how God expresses Himself in grace to the world through the death of His Son, not how we express the worth we think we have in ourselves.

What’s more, Jesus once said something that sounds very counter-intuitive to our ears today. The one who finds their life will lose it, but the one who loses their life – for His sake – will find it.

Friends of mine who have followed Taylor Swift’s career tell me that her songs have followed a story arc. Her earliest songs could be summed up this way: I am searching for the right person who will fulfill me forever. Later, her songs turned to heartbreak: I am grieving the fact I may never find meaning in life and love. Now, her songs are a declaration: I have, in myself, everything I need to be happy.

The question now is whether she will arrive at a fourth stage: I’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places. That’s the stage where, by the grace of God, people who are looking for happiness might stop looking in and start looking up. 

The gospel that calls us out of the woods of sin and brokenness rewrites those final lines from Taylor Swift’s music video. She lost herself. But she found Him. And somehow that was everything.

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My Most-Read Articles of 2015

Dec 22, 2015 | Trevin Wax

most readChristmas is here! Time to pull back from online interaction and writing and spend time with my wife and kids during Christmas break.

At the end of every year, I like to look back through the archives and pull out the articles that received the most readers. I wrote more words in 2015 than ever before, primarily due to a 100,000-word Ph.D dissertation. I also wrote in more places than ever before, choosing to blog a little less frequently and contribute articles to other publications more often (Washington Post, World, Religion News Service, etc).

So, here is the list of the ten most-read posts at Kingdom People, as well as my most-shared articles for RNS. A big “thank you” to all those who come here often to read and share my writing!

Top 10 Articles at Kingdom People

10. Dad, Look! When Your Kids Invite You Into Their World (January 20, 2015)

I don’t want to be the dad of a passing glance. I want to enter the world of my children, just like God entered ours. I want to be a father who delights in the imaginary innovations of my children, just like God enjoys watching His children make something of this world He has given us.

9. Sex is More AND Less Important Than You Think (August 11, 2015)

This paradoxical view of sexuality in our society requires a paradoxical response from the Church. Our Christian witness must “put sex in its place” – meaning, we will need to take sexuality more seriously and less seriously than the rest of society.

8. The Mark of Christianity That is Disappearing from Our Worship (August 27, 2015)

My hope is that the practice of corporate confession will make a comeback – whether in a time of silent prayer, corporate confession, or songs that plead for mercy. After all, we are not in a posture to receive God’s Word until we have first renounced our sin.

7. Answering “No” to One of These Questions Will Kill Your Evangelism (February 19, 2015)

These questions peel back the layers of our defensiveness toward evangelism and help us see what needs to be in place before we will be confident, joyful, and effective tellers of the good news.

6. The View on “Being Good” vs. The Gospel (December 15, 2015)

In just a few minutes on The View, we see three different ways of viewing religion, as well as the counter-intuitive nature of the gospel.

5. The Shrug That Scares Me To Death (August 25, 2015)

The absence of societal shuddering in response to the Planned Parenthood videos frightens me more than the videos themselves.

4. Stephen Colbert on Being a “Fool for Christ” (September 29, 2015)

Colbert’s definition is a start toward what it means to be foolish for Christ in the eyes of the world, but there is much more to be said – a richer and deeper foolishness we should aspire to.

3. A 5-Minute Overview of the Whole Bible – For Kids (March 30, 2015)

This is an overview of The Gospel Project Chronological for Kids. Take a few minutes to enjoy it! And if it moves you the way it does me, please share it and help us get the word out.

2. Top 10 Quotes from the Dissenting Justices on Same-Sex Marriage (June 26, 2015)

#1 – “Just who do we think we are?”

1. The Duggars and the Evil Outside (June 2, 2015)

I’d like to point out a problematic, but fairly common assumption in many corners of evangelicalism — an assumption that needs to be challenged. It’s the idea that sin is something out there that we need to watch out for. The reality, however, is that sin is not primarily something we need to be sheltered from, but delivered from.

Top Articles at RNS

4 Reasons Hillary Clinton Should Apologize for Her Inflammatory Abortion Rhetoric

If you believe in human rights for all, including the unborn, you “don’t want to live in the modern world.” Your position is “extreme” — something we’d expect from “terrorist groups.” That’s what Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said…

Must Christianity Change Its Sexual Ethics? History May Hold the Key

Whenever people today say that Christianity needs to update and adapt its moral standards for the 21st century, I hear echoes from 100 years ago. Back then, the calls for change had less to do with morality and more to do with miracles. But the motivation was similar, and the results are instructive.

How to Treat Gays with Dignity While Respecting Religious Freedom

Treating the LGBT rights/religious freedom conversation as a zero-sum game where one can only “win” at the expense of the other is actually a “no-win” for all of us. We’re Americans. We’re better than this.

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Trevin’s Seven

Dec 18, 2015 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: My #3 pick of the year, G. K. Chesterton’s Francis of Assisi, is $0.99 on Kindle.

Seven of the best articles I came across this week:

1. Timothy George – Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus? The answer is surely Yes and No.

2. GQ Magazine – “What Would Cool Jesus Do?” This is a fascinating article on many levels about Hillsong, where Justin Bieber and Kevin Durant attend church. (Language alert!) The author can’t help but like the pastors there, even while disagreeing with the church’s teaching on the exclusivity of Christ, homosexuality, etc. This line: “If there’s one thing that’s true about Christianity, it’s that no matter what couture it’s wearing, no matter what Selena Gomez hymnal it’s singing, it’s still afraid for your soul, it still thinks you’re in for a reckoning. It’s still Christianity. Christianity’s whole jam is remaining Christian.

3. PRAY – If you haven’t seen this beautifully-crafted video of “The Lord’s Prayer” extended by Desiring God, do yourself a favor the next few minutes.

4. Andrew Barber – Star Wars: Childhood RevisitedEven in the most prosperous country on earth, in which most have never experienced hunger or homelessness, we are desperately trying to smash through the windows of our adult world and fly back to our childhood.

5. Michelle Goldberg – The Trans Women Who Say That Trans Women Aren’t WomenSlate reports on the “apostates” of the Trans Rights movement.

6. LifeWay Research – What is Church Attendance Like During Christmastime? Most Americans attend church during the Christmas season, and many would come if invited.

7. Malcolm Gladwell – Tough MedicineA disturbing report on the war on cancer.

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