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Remembering Maggie

The pun in “@crosspurposes” reflects two foundational Christian truths.  Jesus defined His ministry and Christian discipleship by the bloody cross which was used to kill Him (Matthew 16:21-25).  Therefore, the way of the cross, which is a way of shame, suffering service, and death, is totally at odds with the usual way of the world, a way that seeks pleasure and glory.

Yesterday, two news items reflected these kinds of cross purposes in stark lines.  My morning began with the sad news that Dr. Margaret Karner had died.  Maggie Karner had given service through her life to LCMS Life Ministries, working in world relief and human care and advocating for pro-life policies.  Maggie was suffering from brain cancer.  So, a year ago, when the American entertainment-news media began to glorify the decision of Brittany Maynard, also suffering from brain cancer, to kill herself, Maggie wrote a beautiful, pleading testimonial for the grace and dignity of a life lived even amidst suffering.

Yesterday evening, I saw something much different, a video which nastily misrepresents Christian beliefs and claims for the sanctity of life.  The video doesn’t come across as bitterly malicious, though.  It’s highly edited, of course.  It’s polished and the speaker appears to take the high road of reason.  I thought, “What would Maggie say?”

I thought about what Maggie would say because of the grace which she brought to these discussions.  An easy, natural tendency when someone is knowingly lying about you is to get angry.  But, see, it’s precisely what’s at stake in the arguments Maggie made that affected the way Maggie offered those arguments.  One of the central arguments in American culture today is about whether a human life, when in a stage without full faculties or when burdened with great pain or disability, is dignified.  If you believe in the dignity of the unborn, the aged, the suffering, the demented, then you believe even opponents in debates should be treated with dignity.  Maggie Karner believed in that dignity and lived her life accordingly. 

Bill Nye advocates against that dignity, and it’s not surprising to find his style of argumentation follows suit.   Bill Nye, once known as “the science guy,” has recently moved from entertainment/education about science to working for progressive political action.  His new shtick relies heavily on his older work, trying to give the sheen of science to questions outside Nye’s expertise.

In Nye’s video on abortion, for example, there is no scientific evidence given.  Rather, Nye uses a type of argument scientists often look down upon when used by religious figures, the argument from authority.  Nye tries to use his authority as “science guy” to say that opponents of abortion do not know the science about embryology.  But not only does Nye misrepresent his opponents’ position, he also misrepresents established embryology.

Nye claims that religions teach that every time a man and a woman have sex, a baby results.  I am aware of no religion that teaches this.  Certainly Christians do not teach this.  What Nye is practicing is called a straw man argument.  This is when you misrepresent your opponent’s teaching to make it look easier to reject.

The one scientific-sounding argument Nye makes refers to the fact that many eggs are fertilized without successfully implanting in the uterine wall.  Sometimes mothers are never even aware that this happened.  Nye declares that the failure to implant means they were never human.  This is yet another logical fallacy, circular reasoning which begs the question

The issue he raises, however, is effective in raising doubts for some about the humanity of fertilized eggs.  Ironically, it’s usually bothersome for people because of theological reasons.  If each fertilized egg is considered a human being of equal dignity to all other human beings, then why do so many of these children fail to thrive?  In other words, why does God allow so many of these to die without living the life we know?

This is not something the Scriptures give a definite answer to.  However, the Scriptures do describe God’s commitment to write the story of each human being, even from their time in the womb (Psalm 139).  We also know God is better able than us to put the human life on earth into the context of eternal human life with God.  A child “lost” to us after only days of life is not lost to God, not kept from future bliss.  The tearful service parents give to the children they do not get to hold in their arms but do bring into life is valued and cherished by the Father of all.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” Jesus taught (Matthew 18:5), taking the Golden Rule and making it for us into effective worship.  When a mother receives an initially unwanted or soon-to-be-grieved child, she serves as Mary once did.  When in a debate, we give dignity to opponents and treat their arguments with respect, this, too, is worship.

Bill Nye has been an admirable entertainer for many years.  It’s a shame his recent work undercuts his scientific educator’s legacy. 

It’s no wonder, on the other hand, that Maggie Karner's life ended with the same grace, dignity, and faith that she advocated for throughout her life.  It’s the same teachings of Jesus which inspire Christian charity, inspire Christian advocacy, inspire Christian living.  Christians fail all the time to live up to Christ’s teachings; no doubt our sister Maggie repented for her share in her time.  But we can still celebrate, give thanks, and share the life we saw in Maggie, the life given through the cross.

Atticus Finch and How to Set a Watchman

The publishing of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been a fascinating event.  Lee wrote Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird, but was told by her publisher to scrap it and rewrite the story from a different perspective.  It was precisely that advice that led to a book, To Kill a Mockingbird, so popular it can score ahead of the Bible in “most inspirational” book polls.  The effect of Go Set a Watchman, however, is not nearly inspirational, and some are finding it downright depressing.

Go Set a Watchman radically changes many readers’ perceptions of a modern hero, Lee’s character Atticus Finch.  This radical change actually mirrors the change in understanding that Atticus’ daughter, Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, undergoes in watching her father through the plot of Watchman.  In Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the lawyer who stands against racism for equal representation before the law.  In Watchman, however, an older Atticus Finch stands with his hometown Maycomb, defending Jim Crow.  Jean Louise, visiting from her new home New York, finds her father disgustingly racist.  She is disillusioned and undone.

Many reviews find this portrayal of Atticus Finch “awkward” (WSJournal), “disturbing,” and “disorienting” (NYTimes).  Some are even in denial.  Megan Garber at The Atlantic warns of “a dent in the universes” unless readers simply reject Watchman’s portrayal.

 On the other hand, others are claiming to have long known Atticus Finch was a racist.  One of the best commentaries on the paradox of an Atticus who can seem both ahead of his time and behind his time on race was actually written before both of Harper Lee’s novels.  Walker Percy was a contemporary Southern novelist to Harper Lee.  In 1957, in his essay “Stoicism in the South,” Percy says,

Until a few years ago, the champion of Negro rights in the South, and of fair-mindedness and toleration in general, was the upper-class white Southerner.  He is their champion no longer.  He has, by and large, unshouldered his burden for someone else to pick it up.  What has happened to him?  With a few courageous exceptions, he is either silent or he is leading the Citizens’ Councils.

Percy’s paragraph is a neat summary of Go Set a Watchman, where Jean Louise Finch is disturbed at her father’s participation in a Citizens’ Council.  (Citizens’ Councils were local groups organized to oppose desegregation in the 50s and 60s.)

Percy’s essay goes on to explain how, in his view, the earlier proponents of “fair-mindedness and toleration” represented classical Stoicism.  The nobility of the Stoic was

the stern inner summons to man’s full estate, to duty, to honor, to generosity towards his fellow men and above all to his inferiors- not because they were made in the image of God and were therefore lovable in themselves, but because to do them an injustice would be to defile the inner fortress which was oneself.

In this way, Percy explains the confusion Southerners were feeling in the 50s and 60s as the voice of the church and the voice of Southern tradition could no longer be heard in harmony.  Southern Stoicism felt ennobled by showing generosity to the inferior.  The Bible had all along ruled out the idea of inferiors, for all are made in the image of God.

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch struggles to apply her Southern American Methodist catechesis with the actions of her home town, Maycomb.  She accuses Atticus of saying on the one hand that Jesus loves everyone, but that for some that love only goes so far.

That “love of Jesus” described by the Finches is not the love described by Jesus’ own Apostles in the New Testament.  The Finches' “love of Jesus” is the Southern Stoic variety.  In Watchman, Atticus says, “Hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anyone.”  The Stoic’s love is “live and let live.”  “Live and let live” does build walls, often telling people just where to live so our messy lives don’t messily intersect.  Contrast that with the Apostle Paul trying to maintain congregations where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female all came together: 

For Jesus Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

Jean Louise, as a true-to-life Southerner coming of age in the era of Watchman, faced the moral confusion Walker Percy described.  No more could the Christianity of the Bible and the Stoicism of the South be reconciled.  If Jesus loved all His little children, the walls had to come down, even if that meant sacrifice.  But the “Christian” South could not abide the walls coming down.  So Watchman shows a moral rite of passage, a painful rebirth through the shattering of Atticus’ perfect image.  Jean Louise began as a character completely trusting Atticus’ rectitude.  She is reborn, developing her own conscience.  But it is not a Christian conscience she embraces.  Through the midwifery of her Uncle Jack, she develops her own Stoic conscience, able to tolerate even the racist hypocrite.

This is precisely why the novel is so dissatisfying for modern readers.  Harper Lee tried to preserve a Southern Stoicism that Walker Percy more sagely recognized as headed for extinction.  American society did not come to tolerate racism.  For many in modern American culture, prejudicial thinking is the one unforgiveable sin.

Jean Louise in Watchman is particularly disturbed that Atticus could still be a gentleman while failing to have the right political views.  Go Set a Watchman takes its title from Isaiah 21:6.  In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, the watchman is the prophet, alone given the Divine insight to know which is the “right side of history.”  In the context of Harper Lee’s Stoic ideal, each individual must guard her own heart, developing a conscience that progresses past the generation who raised her.  Jean Louise had let Atticus be her watchman, stunting her imagined moral growth.  His fall was necessary for her ascendency.

Indeed, this view of comparative moral maturity stands behind the viciousness of modern American moral culture.  It is easy to imagine you have the right views about prejudice.  It is much harder to bear with the failings of your neighbors.  Go Set a Watchman is awkward to read because the latter half of the novel follows Jean Louise treating her neighbors, friends, and family horribly, all in the name of her imagined greater righteousness.

In his book i told me so, Gregg A. Ten Elshof describes how the modern, a-Christian worldview has not cured racism even as it has elevated racism to the greatest of evils.  The problem, he suggests, is that whenever we calculate a particular sin as worse than others, it becomes harder to recognize our own failings in that sin category.  “If racism is worse than we thought, then it’s harder than it used to be to admit to yourself that you’re a racist” (11).

The American Stoic’s identity requires the self-image of a better-formed conscience than her neighbor’s.  This very identity is in direct contradiction to the Christian identity where the meek inherit the earth, where daily repentance constantly humbles the man who lives by grace.  The American Stoic’s pride curses each generation to a lonely homelessness and creates the modern need for generational echo chambers.

Go Set a Watchman is an “awkward” novel because it does not satisfactorily resolve the tension it creates.  It cannot, for its answer, Attican Stoicism, is part of the problem.  On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman does a service in revealing not only the historically accurate “dark side” of Atticus Finch, but the self-destruction inherent in a progressive conscience.

As our country continues, 150 years after the Gettysburg Address, 70 years after the Voting Rights Act, to grapple with race relations, it’s far past time to recognize that each of us pretending to be the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird has not enlivened the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

My own son is about the same age as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  We watched him grapple with encountering racism while reading Little House on the Prairie.  The story is filled with heroic characters, yet several express despicable attitudes about Native Americans.  My son could not understand why some people so good could think that way.

It is precious and heartbreaking seeing the innocence of youth recognize the injustice of prejudice.  We live in a world where Little House characters and Atticus do express ugly prejudices.  But it’s not just Little House characters and Atticus.  Real heroes have thoughts of persistent dehumanization mixed into the way they think about things.  Rather than pretend to be the Atticus of Mockingbird, we all would do well to recognize ourselves as the Atticus of Watchman.  We, too- I, too- have prejudices hidden within that are worth uncovering, repenting, and turning from.

Jesus once spoke to a Pharisee named Simon who thought he had a progressive conscience, better than his neighbors.  Simon wanted to reveal Jesus as a sinner, so Simon set Jesus up, inviting the Nazarene to dinner only to insult Him once there.  A woman described as a “sinner” saw the offense of Simon not washing Jesus’ feet, not greeting Him as a rabbi.  So she washed His feet with her tears.

Jesus told a parable in this moment that speaks exactly to our reluctance to uncover our own prejudices, to our desire to see our own consciences as having evolved past the generation before.  Jesus spoke of two people, one who owed a small debt and one who owed a great debt.  When both debtors were forgiven, Jesus asked which would love the forgiver more, the one with the greater or smaller debt.  Simon could only answer that it was the one with the greater debt.  Jesus brought His point home by saying that the reason Simon loves little is because he thinks he is forgiven little and the reason the “sinner” loves much is because she knows she is forgiven much.

Prejudicial thinking is sinful because it fails to recognize the image of God in every human being.  It is not unforgiveable, however.  And the way to replace prejudice with love is not to pretend it cannot infect us.  We, too, can love more by being forgiven more.  "We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

Abortion and the Good Samaritan

I was asked, “Does the Bible ever use the word ‘abortion’?” this week.  The short answer is that the Bible does not use it in the way the questioner meant.  Nowhere do we find a command, “Thou shalt not abort.”

There are all sorts of moral issues to which the Bible does not speak directly.  Nowhere do I find a verse that says, “Thou shalt not drive drunk.”  It’s not just modern issues.  There is no command, “Thou shalt not eat human flesh” despite the fact that the Bible clearly sees cannibalism as one of the horrors of siege warfare (cf. Jeremiah 19:9).

Still, the Jews had a common understanding of the basic outlines of the Scripture's views on right and wrong.  Luke 10:27 records a lawyer summarizing the Law:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus affirmed this understanding.  When the lawyer found that he and Jesus agreed, Luke says he wanted to “justify himself,” so he asked another question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

That is the question that led to Jesus’ great parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  Jesus tells of a man, attacked and dying on the side of the road.  Two men cross by on the other side of the road.  They were those expected to be holy, priests and Levites.  Finally, a good man attends to the victim, sacrificing his own time and resources.  This good man was one expected to be inferior, the Samaritan.

Samaritans were a class of people who lived near the Jews and claimed some common faith, but they also rejected much of the Jewish orthodoxy and mixed with idolaters.  They were precisely the kind of neighbors whom Jewish lawyers would be tempted to count as un-neighbor. 

But Jesus is not content simply to count the un-neighbor as neighbor.  His parable turns the tables on the question “Who is my neighbor?”  When Jesus finishes His parable, He asks, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?”  For Jesus the question is not, “Who can be classified below ‘neighbor’ so that he has no moral claims on me,” but “Am I acting like a good neighbor myself?”

This is relevant to the abortion question.  “When does a fertilized egg become a human being?” is certainly another form of “Who is my neighbor?”  Like the priest and Levite who pass by the man on the side of the road, a fearful mother may want to deny that the child within has any moral claim on her.  Similarly, society as a whole may wish to deny those children and their mothers have any moral claim on all of us.  Like the Samaritan who does choose to care for the wounded man, any mother who cares for a child will be sacrificing her time and treasure.

That’s precisely why the twitter movement #unplannedparenthood has been so beautiful.  Story after story has been filed under #unplannedparenthood describing how an unplanned pregnancy brought love, grace, wonder; the stories are endless.  Do yourself a favor and read them.  One of my favorites:  

When I see someone in need, their humanity is not at stake.  God knows that person and loves them, no matter their age/ability/race (Ps 139:13-16).  What is at stake is my own humanity.  When I act as a neighbor, I am more.  When I pass by, I am less.

Most of the women who consider abortions are in positions where the people around them have already made their own decisions not to be a neighbor.  Worse, the people sadly influencing the pregnant mother have often refused to be a father or a grandparent.  Telling stories of the joy and grace of unplanned parenthood can encourage pregnant women to embrace the gift that is given within by the only Creator of life.

Yet if we stopped at only telling stories, we’d miss one of the great points of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Jesus did not just sit around and tell stories about being a neighbor.  He acted in grace.  He saw us, dying on the side of the road.  He did not hesitate to sacrifice all He had for us.  But it was also “for the joy set before Him [that Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).  Jesus suffered for us, but He rejoices in us today.  Isn’t that the story of parenthood?


In Search of Men with Chests

In his 1943 work The Abolition of Man, scholar CS Lewis predicted the fruit of modern education.  An education drained of moral content, he wrote, would produce “men without chests.”  Lewis described these pseudo-intellectuals: “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out.  Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary:  it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”

Moral wisdom at its richest has a religious source, “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 9:10).  But there is a lesser richness, available even to those without religion, which can flow from the generous emotion of compassion.  The compassionate man identifies with his neighbor.  That sympathy powers living by Jesus’ Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

This month, we have exhibits one and two of men without chests. 

The first example happened in a metro train car in Washington DC on the Fourth of July.  An 18-year-old, Jordan Spires, tried to take the cell phone of 24-year-old Kevin Sutherland.   Spires is described as 125 lbs, 5’5”.  There were about ten other people on the train just feet away.  They watched.  They watched Spires hit Sutherland until he fell to the ground.  They watched as he stabbed Sutherland over thirty times.  They listened to Sutherland moaning.  They huddled together just trying to avoid Spires’ notice.  A witness said, “I watched [the attacker] drop-kick him in the head several times, like he wanted to kick his head off.”  The witnesses told each other not to intervene.

After the event, one of the men who witnessed the attack wrote of his soul-searching.  “My wife and I have spent the last couple days going over and over what happened, trying to think about what we could have done differently…. What I don’t wish is that I had somehow tried to attack the assailant.  I am a little bit larger than he was, but I would not have won.  It’s scary, because if we had been sitting closer and had seen the attack start I probably would have tried to help, and would have been stabbed.”

I cannot say whether I would have the courage to intervene if I was in this situation.  As an able-bodied man, I hope I would have done my best to stop the murder, even at risk to my own safety.  If I had one of my kids with me, maybe I’d just be focused on protecting them.  But I am sure if I stood by for three minutes and watched the brutal attack, I would regret not intervening physically.  All it would have taken to save Kevin Sutherland on that train were two men with chests

We are not, however, a culture that trains self-sacrificial morality.  We are trained to watch safely from the couch, fed by a steady diet of commercials to arouse other appetites to spur our ongoing consumption.  In this world, our trained first responsibility is to keep consuming.  Our culture’s “heroes,” the ones who confront violence for us, are fashioned as spectacularly “other”—Asgardians, billionaires in batsuits, and Jedi.

So, what happens when, instead of having this violence thrust upon you in the close confines of a train car, it appears as an online video, an interview secretly filmed, describing institutionalized violence, happening in each major city of the country?  Exhibit two is the response to the video showing a Planned Parenthood executive talking about organ trafficking from abortions performed in their clinics.

Abortion is sold in this country by dehumanizing the unborn.  We sympathize with the mother, especially those confronted with the responsibilities of a child whose father refuses to help, but our sympathy does not extend to the child hidden within her.  Abortion advocates describe the fetus as just a “clump of cells.”  But when we hear about how an abortion provider can profit off of organ trafficking, we are forced to recognize the child.  As Robert George, Princeton professor of law, put it,

The heart, lungs and other organs carefully spared by Planned Parenthood abortionists are useful because they are organs of a human being.

— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) July 17, 2015 

But if children in the womb with lungs and kidneys and other “useful” organs are human beings, then what are we doing, not just in abortions that enable trafficked organs, but in every abortion?  The essential response of Planned Parenthood’s defenders is to do everything they can to avoid that moral question. 

For example, Cosmopolitan magazine did its part in urging, “Nothing to see; move along” in an article by Robin Marty, “That Planned Parenthood Video Isn’t the Scandal; Abortion Opponents Are Making It Out to Be.”  Marty begins with her bona fides, telling us she’s done her due diligence in looking at the supposedly incriminating documents, but “Frankly, I’m just going to yawn.”  And yet, she admits that her initial reaction was to shudder and be upset.  This, moving from shudder to yawn, is precisely the numbed rationalization required by any perpetrator of institutional violence.  What first provokes moral outrage must be calmed by the amoral pseudo-intellectualism:  “This is just how the world works.” Of course, Marty and similar propagandists (for example, see the piece by Amanda Marcotte in Slate which follows the same talking points) are right in their premise that what Planned Parenthood is doing can only be wrong if you think abortion is wrong.  If you’ve dehumanized the fetus, and you can kill it, then why not harvest its organs for scientific experiment?  It only evokes moral sympathy when it becomes him or her.

But mind yourself (if not your neighbor), for once you’ve numbed your conscience against one group of human beings, you may be more liable to do the same to another group.  Marty and Marcotte both turn their articles against the producers of the video.  Marty makes an astounding claim:  “In the end, it doesn’t matter to abortion opponents if their accusations can hold up to scrutiny or not.”  Really?  Why are they doing all this if not to create arguments that change people’s minds?  This lack of sympathy for her opponents leads to Marty littering the rest of her piece with strawmen and misrepresentations. 

Rather than go through those claims point by point, let me encourage you, when involved in a disagreement with such moral consequence as our ongoing debate about abortion, to put yourself in the shoes of the people involved.  Stop reading sources that dehumanize the people that disagree.  Recognize the biases of sources that claim objectivity.  Compare, for example, the response to this story from Abby Johnson, who used to work at Planned Parenthood herself.

Most importantly, realize that the culture we are in demands work at cultivating a conscience that is empowered.  We need to be in regular Bible study together.  We need to engage in serious moral conversation that answers disagreement respectfully.  Without a healthy “fear of the Lord” and a healthy sympathy for our neighbor, we will be left on the couch watching brutality, saying nothing more than “Frankly, I’m going to yawn.”

Rather, “ ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:14-16).

Playing the Game the Right Way


Major League baseball player John Baker has a fun column at Fox Sports’ Just a Bit Outside.  He talks about what it means to “play the game the right way.”  It made me think about morality and absolutes.

Perhaps, while watching a baseball game, you have seen benches cleared, players holding each other back, jaws flapping, and you wondered what caused all this.  On the replay, the announcer tries to explain it was a simple act of celebration, like a bat flip or a cryptic gesture, that caused  the offense.  “Really?” you may have wondered. 

Baker explains in his column why people take offense, and why, if it’s such a big deal to some, it keeps happening.  He says it’s all about players insisting other players “play the game the right way” but:

The longer I played baseball, the more I realized that across America, that cliché – Play the game the right way – actually means something very specific: Play the game MY way.

He goes on to tell an interesting story from his time playing baseball in the Dominican winter leagues.  There he watched players celebrate not only home runs but almost every little victory within the game.

Baseball is supposed to be fun, and we were having fun. Had the same thing happened during a game in the U.S., the other dugout would have freaked out, both teams would have to play the “Hold me back, no hold me back” posturing game we play when we’re all too scared to fight (everyone except Jeff Samardzija). There was no fake posturing, nobody’s feelings were hurt, the pitcher didn’t care. Just a part of the game.

Baker realized how different it was to grow up Stateside playing versus scrapping it out in the Dominican Republic.  There are so few opportunities for kids in the Dominican to get out of poverty.  Baseball was not only one of the few opportunities, it was a fun one.  The boys who could get out of poverty because of their talent at baseball knew how blessed they were.

More than their abilities and their accomplishments, these kids celebrated their opportunities. Their celebrations were, in essence, highly personal thank-you notes to the game for the opportunities.

So Baker encourages baseball fans (and players) to learn more about how the game is played in different places.  It’s a well-written, thoughtful article.  He concludes, “When we discuss these things unwritten, there are no absolutes.”

I respectfully disagree only with this last line.  Baker’s entire piece is about a simple absolute:  “Respect your neighbor.”  He wants to encourage respect for players who play the game differently than one person’s “right way.”  If the old cliché about “playing the right way” is supposed to be about respect, Baker is pointing out that this respect can’t be a one-way street.

In many ways, Baker’s final line contains a microcosm of confusion about absolutes within a multi-cultural society.  It’s a good thing that we have learned to be more respectful of different cultures.  Some cultures wear white for a funeral, while others wear black.  Is one way right and the other wrong?  No.  Although, if I knew everyone was going to wear white and I wore black, that would be disrespectful and wrong.  Where cultures differ, there are plenty of times when neither is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.  This is because showing respect to your neighbor is absolutely right.

The New Testament writers lived these same kinds of situations.  As the Gospel of Jesus moved from 120 people in Jerusalem to thousands around the world, Christians faced decisions about where absolutes lay and where they did not.  For example, in his lettter to the Christians in Rome, the Jew from Tarsus, Paul, wrote:

One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.  Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.  (Romans 14:2-3)

Dietary differences need not be absolute.  Mutual respect was absolutely necessary.  How we show that respect will change in different times and places.  There is never a law against love (Galatians 5:23).

If you’re interested in “how to play the game the right way,” read all of John Baker’s good column.  If you’re interested in how to live life the right way, read your Bible.  Not only was it written by a people learning to love one another across massive cultural gaps, it’s inspired by the God who is love!  Better yet, read the Bible to find not just how to live, but how Jesus lived the right way for you, how He died and rose for you, and why that message inspired (and inspires) people to become brothers and sisters with people who are so very different from one another.

Filming Jesus

This Easter, the television offered a number of ways to receive the story of Jesus.  I was able to watch portions of Killing Jesus and A.D.   The latter promises to focus more on the early church, but began in its first episode with Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem and His resurrection.

Both shows fill out the behind-the-scenes political intrigue between the Sanhedrin (Jewish religious leaders), Herodian palace (Roman-appointed, Jewish-in-name tetrarch), and the official government of Rome represented by Pontius Pilate.  There is grist there for their mills, as the first century was an era of disparate and animated political actors.

But at the center of any story about Jesus or His church has to be the Christ Himself.  And that is the great challenge for artists who deal in the media of narratives.  Many great artists have been impressively successful at showing scenes from Jesus’ life.  Churches are full of sculpture, painting, frescoes, and stained glass.  But very few novels, plays, or movies have stood the test of time when they have chosen to make Jesus a central figure.  How do you imagine Jesus reacted when Peter made the first confession: “You are the Christ”?  How do you see Jesus reacting to Pilate when he asks, “What is truth?”  It is easier for you and I to say, “Huh.  I don’t know.”  An actor and his director, however, can only hide Jesus’ face so often.

In A.D. we actually see Jesus roll his eyes at Pilate.  In Killing Jesus the Messiah is surprised when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Son of God.  Some of these reactions we know are wrong.  The Gospel of Luke, for example, shows Jesus as a child “in My Father’s house,” claiming God as His Father (Luke 2:41-52).  He didn’t need Peter to reveal this to Him.  Similarly, Jesus shows great sorrow, not uncontrolled anger or tedium, for His aggressors (Luke 19:41-44).  He wishes He could gather them in as a hen gathers her chicks (Matthew 23:37-39).

But that’s not to say there wasn’t anger!  Jesus’ great woes upon the Pharisees are bitter rhetoric (Matthew 23).  So how do you balance righteous anger, the man of sorrows, and the joy of a rabbi who had children flocking to Him?  It’s not an easy task.  It may be an impossible task.

Some of the world’s greatest artists have tried to portray Jesus in narratives of different sorts.  John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost is considered one of the greatest works in the English language.  Yet his portrayal of Jesus is underwhelming, and people wonder if the more vividly drawn Satan is the true hero of the poem.  Milton would be scandalized that anyone suggests that.  It’s harder to draw perfect righteousness than abject evil.

An actor draws on his own experience to decide what to portray.  We have experienced love.  We have experienced anger.  We have experienced joy.  None of us have experienced these emotions without sin, always loving both aggressor and victim.  We have been angry for the right reason, but have we restrained that anger so that it doesn’t cause collateral damage?  We have loved, but have we loved each person in the room with a passion that was willing to give our own life?

In the Ten Commandments, God says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).  St. Paul repeated this, “Being God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29).   Images of God were forbidden because there was only one Image that would stand on earth for God.  The incarnate Son of God is the image of the invisible God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15).

When we paint or sculpt an image from the Gospels, it can be a snapshot and a reminder of the Gospel narrative.  Most narratives (like films and stories), on the other hand, add to the Gospel accounts (the 2003 film The Gospel of John is a notable exception).  They add with imaginations that are often incredibly talented artistically.  But no amount of artistic talent can make up for the problem that we live life without the constant overflowing love and the utter faith that Jesus had.

It is amazing to contrast the fruits of artistic talents like William Faulkner (see the decade-in-the-making self-proclaimed “masterpiece” yet artistic failure depiction of Jesus: A Fable, 1954) with the works of much less prestigous, much less educated first-century writers:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  At least one of these writers was an uneducated peasant.  Yet all four produced believable accounts of a perfect man.  How could they do this unless at least one of two things is true:  they worked with eyewitness accounts of a perfect man (Luke 1:1f.); they were inspired in their writings by God Himself (2 Timothy 3:16).

So my expectations for any movie of Jesus are limited.  The best use for these films is to test your own imaginations against the actor’s and director’s.  Just as I caution that no director or actor gets it all right, my own imagination is similarly defective.  When I find something in one of these movies that seems different than I thought it went, it is good to be driven back to the Gospels themselves.  Do they really say this happened?  Was I imagining it myself?

What parts of the recent Bible movies made you rethink things?  What parts did you like?  What parts did you think were really off?

"Who fears the other?"

In the book of Acts, Saul tried to stamp out the church, but found his efforts only served to spread the Gospel farther.  Eventually, Saul himself converted (Acts 8-9).  This is hardly the only time persecution of Christians had the opposite of intended effects.  An African Christian of the second century, Tertullian, claimed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Several weeks ago, we watched 21 Christian Egyptians martyred by ISIS.  It appears the effect on the world is not quite what was intended.  Feb 18, Christianity Today ran an article with the sub-head “With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt.”  The article detailed the “strong response of unity and sympathy” Christians received from Egypt.

The following week Christianity Today released another article about how Christians were witnessing to their faith.  This article highlights a tract “Two Rows by the Sea” with a powerful message:

Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

Now, Vatican Radio adds a surprising detail.  Among the 21 martyrs was a man from Chad, who was not originally a Christian.  He saw the 20 kidnapped Christians and was inspired by their faith.  He wanted to join them and did, being killed himself.

This is what we mean by “cross purposes.”  The world means to end Christ’s rule (Psalm 2).  But the world’s best shot ends up being turned to good by God.  So, Paul learned, “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

That “weakness” was first and always, Christ crucified.  But we are privileged to join Him in weakness in various ways.  Some are called to the weakness of forgiving those who have inflicted great pain.  May God fill our hearts with the warmth of mercy.  Some are called to the weakness of service.  May God fill our bodies with endurance.  Some are called to martyrdom.  May God give courage in the Spirit.  More- may the blood of the martyrs be a seed to convert our enemies and raise up workers in the kingdom as mighty as the Apostle Paul.  Amen.