Trevin’s Seven

Oct 16, 2015 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: The City of God (Xist Classics) by Augustine. $0.99.

Here are seven of the best articles that I came across this week:

1. Eric Geiger – Thick Skin, Tender Hearts, and Four Types of LeadersI asked Eric to write about this because I think he exemplifies the right balance and because I want to have thick skin but a tender heart. Do not miss this post.

2. Andrew Walker – Kuyper vs. Benedict: This Is Not an Either/OrMuch online ink has been spilled over Rod Dreher’s advocacy for the “Benedict option” of engaging culture in this generation. Andrew shows that Christians with the transformationist impulse are not far removed from the Benedictine focus on strengthening our church communities and institutions.

3. Sara Groves and Makoto Fujimura – Wasteful Extravagance and the Economy of Wonder. Perhaps the greatest thing we can do as a Christian community is to behold. Behold our God. Behold his creation. The church has exiled beauty from its conversations, and I think that we need to rediscover the beautiful in order to recover ourselves — our humanity.

4. Matt Queen – Can We Talk About the Gospel Without Telling It? A timely word about the danger of talking about the Gospel to those who know it best without taking the Gospel to those who need to hear it most.

5. Meryl Gordon in The New York Times – Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. A tragic story of fame, stigma, and mental illness.

6. Marcus Johnson – Who’s Your Teacher? Our Sacred Duty to Teach the Devil to Death. We are all catechized. The only question is “what is catechizing us?”

7. Nashville’s Skyline Being Reshaped By Building Boom. The New York Times reports on the explosive growth of Nashville. With singer / songwriter Andrew Peterson, I’ve just got to say, I love this city.

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5 Steps to the Severing of Sexuality in the 21st Century

Oct 15, 2015 | Trevin Wax

lonelinessLast week, I recommended five resources that help us understand how sexuality functions in our social context and why it is important for Christians to build a healthy culture of marriage and sexuality in the days ahead.

Topping my list of suggestions was a book by Jonathan Grant, a pastor in New Zealand. Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age maps the “modern sexual imaginary” and shows how our culture views sexuality within a philosophical framework of consumerism, liberty, and technology. Grant shows how our culture arrived at this point, and why we think and act the way we do.

There’s one section of the book I’d like to quote from extensively. Grant lays out five stages in which sex has been progressively “disembedded” and “liberated” from the social contexts that once gave it its essential meaning.

As you look at these five steps, don’t simply shake your head and wag your finger at the world. Ask yourself, How have our own churches taken these steps? 

Step 1 – The Separation of Sex from Procreation

“[This] was enabled by a host of factors, including the invention of contraception, medically assisted conception, and the modern priority given to sex as an expression of companionship rather than as primarily for having children.”

Step 2 – The Separation of Sex from Marriage

“Cohabitation came to be seen by many as a sensible form of premarriage testing or even as an alternative lifestyle. The loosening of sexual relationships is reflected in our use of the term ‘partner,’ which is primarily an economic term. In the name of authenticity and honesty, we declare that we will be partners in this common endeavor for as long as it suits our perceived needs and desires.”

Step 3 – The Separation of Sex from Partnership

“The commodification of sex as a form of recreational pleasure seeking means that many people have come to think of sex as a lone pursuit that just happens to involve another person.”

Step 4 – The Separation of Sex from Another Person

“The attitude [of step 3] has led not only to the disenchantment of sex but also to further fragmentation. As the reasoning goes, why include other people if sex is purely about self-gratification? The rise of online pornography is a natural result of this cultural reasoning.”

Step 5 – The Separation of Sex from Our Own Bodies

“[This is] the final form of fragmentation, which is the inevitable result of this journey of progressive disembedding. Our inherited gender was once seen as normative for determining what form of sex we engaged in and with whom. But it has become a core modern intuition that ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are things we choose, or that our ‘orientation’ is part of a deeper ‘sexual personality’ that transcends our gender. Cut free from the moorings of divine design, we are not splintered and isolated by an infinite array of sexualities…

“This stunning transformation has been accepted as self-evident within the modern moral paradigm, and yet such a perspective has been made possible only by the progressive stages of disembedding outlined above. Today, despite the unambiguous testimony of our bodies, we are faced with an open choice.”

jonathangrantbookGrant’s point is not that these stages can’t happen simultaneously or out of order. (Pornography is an ancient phenomenon, after all.) It’s that the latter steps cannot be seen as morally neutral, acceptable, or even virtuous without the impact of the previous steps. These steps indicate that our society has lost any coherent vision of sexuality and its meaning.

Our denial of transcendence and teleology leaves us “with no foundation on which to think about how to engage our sexuality, except for open-ended self-expression, which fuels the confusion and destructive dynamics of modern sexual practices. The loss of any coherent cosmic structure that gives sex its real purpose — namely, God’s blessing of sex within marriage for intimacy and childbearing — leads to sexual chaos.”

Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age,119-122.

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God Calls Us to Share the Gospel, Not Just Talk about It

Oct 13, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Rye earsTalking about the gospel should never be a substitute for sharing the gospel.

That is one of the takeaways from a recent address from Dr. Paige Patterson at a symposium on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Patterson urged believers to re-establish personal evangelism as a major priority of the Great Commission. He contrasted talking about the gospel (with other Christians) to sharing the gospel (with unbelievers):

“Talking about the gospel is as far removed from effective witness as talking about race cars is from driving in the Indy 500. I’m thrilled that anyone wants to talk about the gospel, but talk is cheap. Like-minded people can easily sit in pleasant venues and talk about how to define the gospel, but to ‘go to the highways and the hedges and compel them to come in’ is a much more difficult situation… A witnessing church is the product of much concerted intercession, the example of a pastor who establishes the standard by his own actions, and the focus of a church on those who languish in their sins.”

I’m grateful for Dr. Patterson’s description of a “witnessing” church, and for the reminder that talking about the gospel should stir up in us a missionary spirit. After all, the gospel is the story of a missionary God who sent His missionary Son and now indwells us by His missionary Spirit.

I’m also challenged by Dr. Patterson’s words of warning. It is all too easy for churches to turn inward, even the ones that have “gospel-centered” labels affixed on their website. It is also easy for churches to turn “outward” – in good deeds and service – without including gospel proclamation. Both are real dangers: (1) the inward-focused church that talks a lot about the gospel but rarely shares it and (2) the outward-focused church that does a lot of ministry to others, but fails to give the gospel.

The Challenges to Personal Evangelism

The challenges to personal evangelism today are many. First, the past “scripts” of formulaic evangelism are no longer as effective in a pluralist society. But as Thom Rainer has warned, many churches have abandoned the cookie-cutter approach to evangelistic outreach without adopting anything else in its place. It’s fine to say something like “we see evangelism as a way of life, not a program” if evangelism truly is a way of life. But for too many churches, evangelism is neither.

A second challenge is the difficulty of knowing how best to share the gospel with an individual. Personal evangelism is often a journey, not one conversation. People come to the Lord through different experiences, different circumstances, and with different questions. As Os Guinness writes, “Jesus may be the only way to God, but there are as many ways to Jesus as there are people who come to Him.” No one encounter is exactly alike. 

A third challenge is the time commitment of personal evangelism and discipleship. Last year, I wrote a post entitled, “Answering ‘No’ to One of These Questions Will Kill Your Evangelism.” The sixth question came to me from Greg Laurie, who told me he often sees Christians hesitate (1) to call people to faith and (2) walk with people once they have believed. In calling people to faith, we hesitate because we don’t want to seem pushy and we’d rather build a relationship. But there is a problem if all our “relationship-building” doesn’t include Jesus. In walking with people who trust Christ, we hesitate because of the messiness of repentance and faith. Newborns need a lot of care, as do those who have recently decided to follow Jesus.

A final challenge is the withdrawing of our society into like-minded associations. People associate by interests and less by geography. One of the things I hear from stay-at-home moms or from people who work in largely Christian environments is that they don’t encounter many lost people. That’s a challenge we need to overcome with intentionality. Going to the highways and hedges means looking outside our present circles, even while not neglecting those in our immediate vicinity.

A Jesus-Loving, Jesus-Talking Christian

I want to be the kind of person who is overflowing with love for Jesus and for others, the person who can’t talk long with someone before Jesus shows up in the conversation. I don’t want to share the gospel merely because it’s my duty or obligation; I want to share the gospel because of how much I love Jesus and want others to know Him too.

Yet, all too often when I share the gospel, I feel like a clumsy kid handling a stick of dynamite. Every time I’ve had the immense privilege of praying with someone who received Christ, I’ve thought, This has to be a God-thing. I didn’t do this well at all. Perhaps that’s God’s way of reminding me that the power is in His Word, not our presentation.

I also want to lead by example, not just by talk. I remember hearing James MacDonald ask a group of pastors one year, “If everyone in your congregation shared the gospel as often as you have this year, what would your church be like?” 

The Good News of Evangelism

The good news is, the good news continues to go out. That’s why nothing motivates me more than spending time with other believers who love to share the gospel. Their passion is contagious. They hold me accountable, they ask about the people I’ve witnessed to, they pray with me for specific individuals, and they ask me for updates.

Just this week, one of the young women in the Life Group I lead asked that our group be praying daily for friends and family members who are lost, and for the opportunity to share the gospel every week. I was excited to pass along that request to the rest of the group, a result of evangelistic fervor bubbling up from the group.

Last week, I was rejoicing with a good friend about two Chinese students who had been the recipients of love and care from the church and who had recently repented of sin and trusted in Christ. We were talking about the contagious nature of evangelism in a local church when life change happens regularly and visibly.

Talk is cheap. Even when that talk is about the gospel. So, let’s not settle for conversations about the evangel that don’t lead to evangelism. Let’s pray the Lord will work in us and through us as we recommit to seeking the lost.

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Trevin’s Seven

Oct 09, 2015 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: The Precious Things Of God by Octavius Winslow. $0.99.

Here are seven of the best articles that I came across this week:

1. Andrew Peterson at the Burning Edge of Dawn. Andrew’s new album is, like all his others, profound and beautiful. 

2. Tish Harrison Warren — Our Beautiful, Broken Christian AncestorsOur Christian inheritance includes immense beauty, holiness, and grace, as well as immense violence, failure, and sin.

3. Matthew Lee Anderson — Against Moral Idealism in Defunding Planned ParenthoodThe notion that there is no form of suffering our society should accept in the unwinding of gravely evil moral systems is a reverse form of moral perfectionism and idealism.

4. Timothy Tennent — The “Progressives” are Desperate, the “Conservatives” are Weary, but God is Still HolyTennent gives an update on the United Methodist Church’s ongoing debate about sexual ethics.

5. Ross Douthat — Ghosts in a Secular Age. Even the most secular among us have experiences they cannot explain from a materialist worldview. Douthat reflects on the relationship between traditional religion, secularity, and metaphysical mysteries.

6. Ann Voskamp — About Not Waiting Till Marriage. I appreciate the way Ann seeks to show the beauty of purity and chastity in this letter to her sons.

7. Mark Dance — 8 Common Guest Speaker MistakesI’ve made most of these at some point or another. Hopefully, never again.

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5 Resources for Cultivating a Beautiful Culture of Marriage and Sexuality

Oct 08, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Earlier this week, I wrote about evangelical churches ”holding the line” on same-sex marriage while adopting virtually every other wrongheaded aspect of our culture’s view of marriage. I mentioned several aspects of our cultural redefinition of marriage and how evangelicals have been affected by these shifts.

At the end, I made this suggestion:

We underestimate just how much cultural cultivation we have to do if we think success is just getting people to say “no” to same-sex marriage. We need the wider narrative of Scripture, and the bigger picture of marriage, if we are going to make sense of Christianity’s vision for family.

We are not called merely to reject wrong views of marriage; we are called to build a marriage culture where the glorious vision of complementarity, permanence, and life-giving union of a man and woman, for the good of their society, can flourish.

Success is not having church members say gay marriage “is wrong.” Success is when the Christian vision of marriage is so beautiful that revisionist definitions of marriage “make no sense.”

If you’re like me, you may be thinking, Great! Where do I sign up, and how do I start? Here are five resources for helping us go behind the gay marriage debate to the fundamental, beautiful truths about marriage and why they matter.

jonathangrantbook1. Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age

This new book by Jonathan Grant, an Anglican leader in New Zealand, will make my list of top 10 favorite reads this year.

Grant does two things well. First, he ”maps the modern sexual imaginary” and shows how our culture views sexuality within a philosophical framework of consumerism, liberty, and technology. In other words, he shows how our culture arrived at this point, and why we think and act the way we do.

Secondly, Grant “charts a new course for Christian formation” in a way that goes beyond the do’s and don’ts of Christian rule-keeping and toward a comprehensive vision of desire, sexuality, singleness, and the role of the church. Part 1 of the book is descriptive (here’s where we are); Part 2 is prescriptive (here’s what we should do).

This is not a book about gay marriage or homosexuality. It’s about the bigger picture of sexuality, marriage, singleness, and how these fit together according to our culture, in contrast to how the Church is to put these things together in our own community. I say “start here” because Grant offers us the foundational pieces of the puzzle that help us understand our context and how we can be faithful in it. Really, get this book and read it twice.

keller2. The Meaning of Marriage

Tim and Kathy Keller’s book on marriage is my all-time favorite. What the Kellers do so well is affirm what the culture gets right about marriage, and then challenge the cultural assumptions that lead to marriage breakdown. Here’s just one quote:

As a pastor I have spoken to thousands of couples, some working on marriage-seeking, some working on marriage-sustaining, and some working on marriage-saving. I’ve heard them say over and over, “Love shouldn’t be this hard; it should come naturally.” In response, I always say something like, “Why believe that? Would someone who wants to play professional baseball say, ‘It shouldn’t be so hard to hit a fastball?’ Would someone who wants to write the greatest American novel of her generation say, ‘It shouldn’t be hard to create believable characters and compelling narrative?'”

marriageiswalker3. Marriage Is: How Marriage Transforms Society and Cultivates Human Flourishing

Andrew Walker and Eric Teetsel have done evangelicals a service by showing how marriage matters to communities. It’s more than a private relationship between two consenting adults; it’s a public institution that recognizes the familial bonds that form the foundation of society.

Marriage matters for human flourishing, for social justice, and for future generations.

Walker and Teetsel want evangelicals to recover a culture of marriage in the local church that invigorates evangelical passion for both the personal and social dynamics of marriage. After all, there is social, not just personal, significance in saying, “I do.”

Humanum_Ep014. The Humanum Series on Marriage

If you haven’t seen these videos, you need to watch and learn. The Humanum series brings together representatives from major world religions and from various points on the globe in order to speak of the glory of marriage complementarity.

The six-part series that showcases the beauty and significance of marriage is the place to start. After that, you may want to check out some of the Christian explanations of marriage and why it matters. One highlight is N. T. Wright showing how marriage is one of the central threads of the Scriptural story line. Another is Russell Moore’s address on marriage and the mystery of Christ.


5. Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage

John Stonestreet and Sean McDowell accomplish many things in this book. They work through the arguments for same-sex marriage, show where they came from, and how Christians can respond. They place current debates in perspective.

More than that, they offer a vision for marriage in general, and they call for Christians to rebuild a marriage culture and offer it as a gift to a disintegrating world. They are charitable, convictional, and compelling in their presentation.

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Our Tragic Response to the Oregon Tragedy

Oct 07, 2015 | Trevin Wax

AP photo/Gosia Wozniacka

AP photo/Gosia Wozniacka

From my latest article at RNS:

Less than 24 hours after a gunman began killing people at Umpqua Community College, our country’s political fires were raging at maximum intensity.

President Obama was clamoring for more gun control laws.

Gun rights advocates were blaming “gun-free zones” for making it possible for public places to become killing fields.

An out-of-context comment by Jeb Bush spread like wildfire through social media, as if to prove that heartless conservatives care more about guns than people.

Witnessing all the fury, I can’t help but feel like this unspeakable tragedy in Oregon has just become — if possible — even sadder.

There once was a time in American life when a crime of this magnitude would bring people together. We carried with us a sense of patriotic grace, a river of pathos flowing underneath common ground. Moments like this hushed our lips and led our hearts to reflect. More often than not, that reflection led to empathy: “That might have happened here. That could have been my child. What if I had been there? Oh, God — give us peace.”

Those sentiments dissipated all too quickly this week. Perhaps due to the callousness of our hearts or the fact that mass shootings have become common, we now rush to the computer to vent our frustrations rather than turn to God and to each other to express our grief.

I understand how the feeling of helplessness intensifies the desire to just do something — to promote some person or push some policy. Make a statement. Pass a bill. Do whatever it takes to help us at least feel like we’re making progress in preventing these senseless horrors.

What troubles me is not that these tragedies lead to advocacy for policy change, but that our country’s imagination is held captive to the idea that the only place where such change can take place is in the legislature or courthouse. That’s why the conversation turned immediately to governmental blame and governmental solutions:

  • From the right: Government is to blame for preventing good citizens from being able to act quickly and protect people in situations like this!
  • From the left: Government won’t pass common sense legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals!

All sides of the gun control debate seem to think government is partly to blame and government is our only hope.

But this raises an interesting question: Why do we turn to government first? Are there no other places to turn for comfort, for consolation, for change?

Continue Reading…

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Are Evangelicals More Revisionist on Marriage Than We Think?

Oct 06, 2015 | Trevin Wax

marriageI’m concerned about evangelicals and marriage.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think we’re about to see a massive capitulation of evangelicals on same-sex marriage. There are good reasons to reject the notion that evangelicals will adopt revisionist interpretations of Scripture or abandon the global, historic witness of the Church.

What concerns me is the possibility of evangelicals “holding the line” on same-sex marriage while adopting virtually every other wrongheaded aspect of our culture’s view of marriage.

Just because most of the people in your congregation reject same-sex marriage does not mean that their vision of marriage is biblical. Many of the folks sitting in church pews every week are just as revisionist in their understanding of marriage as their friends with rainbow avatars on their Facebook. That’s why I’m less concerned about our churches caving on gay marriage and more concerned about evangelicals adopting the underlying, revisionist framework that makes same-sex marriage possible.

Same-sex marriage is only the tip of the spear when it comes to the differences between the biblical vision of marriage and cultural counterfeit. If we focus only on current legal challenges regarding marriage, we may overlook just how deeply formed we are by our surrounding culture in matters related to sexuality and marriage. We may miss the fact that we, too, view our relationships in individualistic and therapeutic terms. We may think we’re “safe” or “faithful” if we adopt the “right belief” about gay marriage, when in reality, we may be just as compromised as the rest of culture. We may take pride in ”holding down the fort,” while the fort has been hollowed out from the inside.

Just how has society’s view of marriage changed? Andrew Sullivan, one of the leading voices in the gay marriage cause, lays out several ways in which marriage has shifted in recent decades. Each of these shifts affects evangelicals.

1. Marriage as Temporary 

“From being a contract for life,” Sullivan writes, “[marriage] has developed into a bond that is celebrated twice in many an American’s lifetime.”

Sullivan is right to point out how, for many, marriage has become a means to serial monogamy rather than a lifelong partnership. The expectations and responsibilities of marriage have shifted as a result, which is why people no longer invest the vow “till death do us part” with the same significance and meaning it once had. Neither do people expect their families, friends, churches, or governmental institutions to hold them accountable to such a vow.

No surprise, then, that divorce is more common, prenuptial agreements shield people from financial losses, and “wed-leases” codify the idea that marriage is something to opt in or out of – a temporary arrangement.

A century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote against those who wanted Christians to relax their standards on divorce and remarriage:

“The broad-minded are extremely bitter because a Christian who wishes to have several wives when his own promise bound him to one, is not allowed to violate his vow at the same altar at which he made it.”

Today, violations of our vows are commonplace, even in the church. We find it hard to talk to people with marital troubles because we have adopted society’s notion that sexuality and marriage are “private matters,” and not to be interfered with by anyone else, including church members or leaders. We may have gotten better at helping people pastorally through the aftermath of divorce, but we have much to do if we are to improve the conditions that would make divorce unthinkable in the first place.

2. Marriage as Emotional Commitment

Sullivan points out another way that marriage has changed:

“From being a means to bringing up children, it has become primarily a way in which two adults affirm their emotional commitment to one another.” 

Here, Sullivan articulates the essence of the revisionist understanding of marriage, one that many Christians, perhaps unknowingly, would affirm, even if they would substitute “a man and a woman” for “two adults.” The revisionist vision of marriage holds that emotional commitment is the foundation for marriage. Since Obergefell, the government now gives approval and benefits to any two adults who demonstrate emotional and romantic feelings for one another and are willing to enter into this commitment.

No longer is marriage the public institution that seeks to protect the ideal situation of children being raised by their biological mother and father for the perpetuation of society. According to the revisionist definition, marriage is about finding “the one” – your “soul mate” – and living as companions for life.

Evangelicals are no less influenced by this idea than our unbelieving friends and neighbors. We, too, have adopted the myth that we are made complete only when we find that perfect person who fulfills all our desires. Unfortunately, placing this much hope in marriage crushes us with too many expectations, and it clouds our vision to the point we no longer see how the love that led us to enter the covenant of marriage is protected by that same covenant when the feeling of being “in love” has faded.

3. Marriage as Personal Expression

Sullivan goes on:

“From being an institution that buttresses certain previous bonds – family, race, religion, class – it has become, for many, a deep expression of the modern individual’s ability to transcend all of those ties in an exercise of radical autonomy.”

Here we see how the expressivist philosophy of our culture changes the way marriage is perceived: it’s about the couple, not about anyone else. We can spot traces of this view in evangelical churches, where weddings are increasingly viewed as the personal expression of the couple, not the moment for a community to witness to a lifelong vow and take responsibility for holding the couple accountable.

Andrew Walker and Eric Teetsel distinguish between “inward” and “outward” marriages:

“Inward” marriages look inwardly to a couple’s happiness. In contrast, an “outward” view of marriage looks outwardly toward the value that marriage brings to society. Now, neither of these categories requires one category being set against another—again, this isn’t an either/or. But this inward-focused, or “Happily Ever After,” view of marriage—a view that treats marriage as a sexual and solitary social unit—is a view that we’ve all passively consumed inside and outside the church.

The Task Before Us

We underestimate just how much cultural cultivation we have to do if we think success is just getting people to say “no” to same-sex marriage. We need the wider narrative of Scripture, and the bigger picture of marriage, if we are going to make sense of Christianity’s vision for family.

When we share the same undergirding ideas about marriage as the culture, the Christian’s “no” to same-sex marriage looks arbitrary and motivated by animus toward our LGBT neighbors rather than being a part of a comprehensive vision of marriage that counteracts our culture in multiple ways.

We are not called merely to reject wrong views of marriage; we are called to build a marriage culture where the glorious vision of complementarity, permanence, and life-giving union of a man and woman, for the good of their society, can flourish. Rebuilding a marriage culture must be more than lamenting the current state of the world at multiple conferences a year. It must include the strengthening of all our marriages within the body of Christ: from the truck driver, to the police officer, to the teacher, and the stay-at-home mom.

Success is not having church members say gay marriage “is wrong.” Success is when the Christian vision of marriage is so beautiful that revisionist definitions of marriage “make no sense.”

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Trevin’s Seven

Oct 02, 2015 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: 131 Christians Everyone Should Know by Mark Galli. $2.99.

Here are seven of the best articles that I came across this week:

1. Sarah Laskow - Are Apple Stores the New Temples? This is a fascinating look at architecture, spirituality, and significance.

2. Brett McCracken – Chipotle Church and the Problem of Choice. What we want is not what we need, and the Church suffers when our consumerism is unchecked.

3. Burk Parsons – The Perspicuity of Scripture. The clarity of Scripture, guided as we are in our interpretation by the Holy Spirit, is one of the most important doctrines we believe about the Bible.

4. Jarvis Williams – Race Matters. Part testimonial, part prophetic, part prescription for improvement within evangelicalism.

5. Mollie Hemingway – A Quick and Easy Guide to the Planned Parenthood Videos. This is the best one-stop place for seeing summaries for the videos and the videos themselves. Share widely. Don’t look away.

6. Eric Geiger – Four Leadership Personalities: What Color Are You? I took this test as part of my role at LifeWay. I’m on the Red/Yellow line.

7. Dale Coulter – The Eight Kinds of Commenters in the Christian Blogosphere. I am familiar with all of these commenters, and I often hear from them all on the same post or Facebook thread!

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The Battle That’s Bigger Than The Culture War

Oct 01, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Armor of God 2Imagine you are tasked with writing a letter of encouragement and exhortation to Christians in distress.

Your readers occupy the margins of society; they are maligned and falsely accused. Some of them face imprisonment, and a few have been martyred. The government is cracking down on any religious expression seen as subversive, and the Christians are prime targets. Meanwhile, the rest of society approves of the reigning authorities’ coercive methods of persecution.

What would you say to Christians in the middle of a culture war?

How would you strengthen believers in that situation?

Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you… (1 Peter 2:11)

Desires Waging War

What strikes me about Peter’s exhortation to the suffering believers scattered throughout Asia Minor in the first century is that the apostle is so focused on the battle for holiness in the life of the believer.

The same dynamic shows up earlier in the letter as well. Peter encourages the Christians in their struggle through suffering – “Don’t be afraid but rejoice!” – right before telling them to be holy and to “conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your temporary residence.” (1 Peter 1:17) In other words: fear God, not man.

The War On Your Soul

Imagine these beleaguered believers, ready to open this letter for the first time, ready to receive fortifying counsel from the apostle. If there was any war they would have been concerned about, it was the war against them and their faith, right?

Now, picture the surprise of the earliest readers when they discover that Peter’s focus isn’t on the battle being waged against them by unbelieving authorities. Peter starts with the daily struggle going on in their hearts.

Peter doesn’t say, “Watch out! The bad guys are coming! The war is on! Defend yourselves from the world!” Instead, he says, “Abstain from the desires of the flesh that are waging war on your soul.”

In other words, “I’m less concerned about what unbelievers will do to your body than I am what sin will do to your soul.”

To update that for panicked evangelicals in the 21st century: “I’m less concerned about what unbelievers may do with your church’s tax-exempt status than what compromise and complacency will do to your congregation.”

The Battle Bigger Than a Culture War

Peter’s focus flips our expectation. We should be more concerned about this war than any culture war.

That’s not to say there aren’t real issues that press upon us and demand our attention. It’s not to say that political wrangling over religious liberty, the rights of conscience, and the preservation of societal space for Christianity’s distinctive sexual ethic is unimportant.

It is simply to remind us of the frightening prospect of Christians who might win a culture war and lose their souls. Our focus on human flourishing and the common good is of little value if, while we focus on morality in the world, we fail to pursue holiness in our own hearts.

The character of God’s kingdom people in a secular age must be holy. For this reason, the battle against fleshly desires is always bigger than any cultural battle.

You can lose the cultural battle and still win the war against sin. But if you win the cultural battle and lose your soul through compromise and complacency, you remain with nothing but a societal façade that masks a corrosive hypocrisy.

Fighting for your rights in society is pointless if you’re not fighting for righteousness in your heart. That’s where the biggest battle is, and that’s why Peter calls us to root out sin and submit to the Savior.

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Stephen Colbert on Being a “Fool for Christ”

Sep 29, 2015 | Trevin Wax

colbert-witnessIf, ten years ago, someone had told me that today I would be writing an article about the theology of a late-night talk show host, I wouldn’t have believed it. Picturing Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien – I would have thought: What would there be to write about? 

Yet here we are in a day in which late-night hosts have left behind some of the cynicism of the past in favor of the fundamentals of comedy. We smile at Jimmy Fallon’s infectious joy and marvel at Stephen Colbert’s ability to combine moments of hilarity with moments of gravity as he talks with his guests.

Faith in Late-Night TV

I’m glad to see this refreshing shift in late-night television. I’m also glad to see that, in the midst of our secular age, a comedian like Stephen Colbert would be so open about his Catholicism. In a recent episode of Witness, Colbert answered questions from Thomas Rosica about the persona he created on The Colbert Report, the need for humor and faith, and the interplay between faith, facts, and feelings.

Now, it’s rare to see performers of this stature speaking so openly (and positively) about faith – with no qualms or equivocations. Even more rare is the performer who displays so much knowledge of his church’s teaching and history. Colbert retells stories from the Gospels, references Thomas Aquinas, summarizes C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and critiques Anselm of Canterbury. It’s remarkable to see a public figure speak not about “having faith” in general, but about a faith in particular.

The “Fool for Christ” 

In the interview, Colbert describes his persona on the Colbert Report as a “pundit” – someone who is blissfully unaware of important facts, but confident in the rightness of his feelings. Colbert’s created persona acted on whatever he felt to be true. He was a “well-intentioned,” but “poorly informed idiot.” The humor came from Colbert’s willingness to “play the fool” for nine years, to mine the depths of stupidity in search for the unexpected, which evokes laughter.

According to Colbert, “idiocy” is when your good intentions and feelings overwhelm your judgment to the point you dismiss facts that might challenge your beliefs. Impervious to reason, Colbert’s alter ego is a fool “because he doesn’t act according to logic, and social norms, and expectations.”

Right then, Rosica shifts the conversation to what it means to be a “fool for Christ.” That’s when Colbert defines foolishness for Christ as the willingness “to be wrong in society, or wrong according to our time, but right according to our conscience, as guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Faithfulness as Living By Your Conscience

In Colbert’s definition of a “fool for Christ,” we see a snapshot of how many people in our society envision faithfulness: living according to your conscience no matter what the world says. There is a biblical impulse toward non-conformity in that definition, as well as a nod toward freedom of conscience, a right that is at the heart of every free society.

Colbert’s definition goes further than Jiminy Cricket’s counsel to always “let conscience be your guide” because he includes the role of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, his definition would be stronger had he gone even further.

In a secular age in which finding and expressing one’s “authentic self” is the main purpose of humanity, the desire to “live according to your conscience no matter what the world says” could easily be hijacked by the non-conforming impulse already present in our most popular books and films. It could be twisted into nothing more than a religious way of saying, “Be yourself” or “Be true to your heart.”

Something Greater Than Your Conscience

If “foolishness for Christ” must go beyond the appeal to conscience, where else do we turn?

Colbert mentions the Holy Spirit. A more traditional Catholic might add the Church, considering the Catholic Church’s vision of authority. Protestants who believe in sola Scriptura would say Scripture. (Luther appealed to his conscience, but he described his conscience as “captive to the Word of God.”)

Whatever the case, surely something outside ourselves must serve as ultimate authority. Otherwise, anyone can follow the dictates of their conscience and claim to be living an authentic Christian life.

If being a “fool for Christ” means following the dictates of your conscience (directed by the Holy Spirit), does this mean one is willing to be wrong, not just in the eyes of the world, but also the eyes of your Church? Or willing to live according to your conscience even if you find it contradicted by God’s Word? Furthermore, what happens when the feelings of one “fool for Christ” differ from the feelings of another?

Faith and Feelings

These questions stimulate further questions about the relationship between faith and feeling. In the interview, Colbert references Anselm’s proof for God’s existence – proof he believes to be “logically perfect” and “completely unsatisfying.” He explains:

“Faith ultimately can’t be argued. Faith has to be felt.”

Faith, for Colbert, is the settled conviction of feeling – something that must be expressed and experienced rather than explained.

Colbert immediately clarifies that he does not want to establish a dichotomy between faith and feeling. “Hopefully, you can still feel your faith fully,” he says, “and let your mind have a logical life of its own. And they do not defy each other, but complement each other.” Then, admitting he may be contradicting Aquinas’ view of human reason, Colbert says,

“Logic itself will not lead me to God, but my love of the world and my gratitude for it will.”

I could write two or three blog posts just on that one line about gratitude. Anyone familiar with Christian apologetics recognizes the limits of argumentation purely on the basis of logic and reason. Christian persuasiveness must include the corporate witness of the church, the beauty of the biblical story, and the general revelation of creation. And, with Colbert, evangelicals resonate with the idea that faith is something to be experienced, not merely explained.

Nevertheless, if we ground our ultimate authority in the faith we feel, we may wind up reducing faith to “personal belief.” In our secular age, faith retreats into the private feeling of one’s heart, where it peeks over the hedges only when it becomes a way to express one’s identity.

God, Give Us True Fools

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.

What are the beliefs or practices that seem hopelessly out of step with the times, for which we are willing to be labeled “fools?”

How can we make sure that in our affirmation of faith we do not become like Colbert’s idiotic alter ego and instead become more like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, the kind of person who exudes an irresistible joy even while facing ridicule for being so “wrong” according to society?

Even better, how can we better resemble the Apostle Paul, who counted everything (including his good works and all his religious observance) as loss compared to the all-surpassing worth of knowing Jesus as Lord?

Those are questions I never expected to be prompted by a late-night TV host.

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