Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Little Bit of Good

Here's the truth: the only reason I am a Christian is because of the community that comes with it. Ironically, that's the reason that millions don't want to be. I sympathize. Unfortunately, the Christian community - also know as the Church - has both good and bad. We're reminded of the bad quite often by our culture. But let me share something about the good.

I just finished a two week trip in Ontario. During the time I met with various Christian pastors or what we Jesus people like to call "brothers/sisters in Christ." Every single person I met was previously a stranger to me. My connection with them came through random email inquiries. In two weeks time I met with 9 different people for coffee or lunch or beers and half of them paid for my food/libation. All of them were eager to here about my life's story and were happy to help me in any way they can.


Is this common?

Driving home I found myself pondering these experiences. Would I have been able to meet with random strangers under a different fraternity or in a different vocation? Perhaps. But it seems to me that this kind of camaraderie is becoming less and less common. Even I - who grew up in the church - was admittedly surprised by the kinship that I experienced with my sisters and brothers in Christ.

If I've understood anything from reading the Bible and listening to the Christian tradition, it is that human beings were meant to be a family and treat each other as such. It doesn't always happen. But sometimes it does.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Christian Salvation and the Concept of Freedom

My last post was about the Libertarian-ized concept of "freedom." In short, I explained that I think that there is a one-sided overemphasis on the idea that freedom is all about being free from alien determination (i.e. freedom means others can't tell you what to do). But in reality, freedom is more complex than that: freedom means not only that others can't determine your destiny but also that you are free from "indeterminateness" or a "state of free suspension" (i.e. you're free from aimless, arbitrary wandering). In short, freedom means you have a purpose.

These thoughts sparked a correlation with the Christian concept of salvation. Freedom is closely related to the idea of salvation in Christian theology. Indeed, the overarching theme of the biblical narrative is the theme of exodus: the God of the Bible is the God who liberates people from bondage. The exodus motif is seen in Jesus' first sermon in which he explained that he had come to proclaim freedom to the captives (Luke 4:18). And Paul also wrote that "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom," (2 Cor. 3:17).

Freedom is part of salvation. The God of the Bible liberates. Salvation is freedom.

But in the same way that the libertarian-ized concept of freedom tends to overemphasize one side of freedom, I wonder if conventional views of Christian salvation also overemphasize one side of freedom.

It is quite common to hear Christians talk about the fact that they are "saved." Being saved means being saved from something. It connotes a new existence in which one has been saved or freed from an old existence. Like the slaves who came out of Egypt, the individual has been liberated from the bondage of sin (Rom. 6:6). Freedom, therefore, is an appropriate concept to describe Christian salvation.

But it seems that the contemporary [and deficient] understanding of freedom has influenced the common understanding of Christian salvation. I make this inference because I know of so many Christians who define salvation in this way: I am saved. I am free. The end. Salvation then becomes defined by what one has been saved (or freed) from and not what one has been saved for. This is precisely the kind of freedom discussed in my previous post. It is "freedom without the goal of determinateness." It is salvation without a purpose.

Free from what? And free for what? Likewise, saved from what? And saved for what?

The good news is that Jesus saves us from a broken world for a healed world. The good news of Christian salvation is that Jesus frees us from guilt, shame, and violence for self-worth, forgiveness, and peace. In short, Christian salvation is freedom from sin for the purpose of the Kingdom of God (i.e. the place where God's will is done).

It seems to me that only when we have a fuller understanding of freedom as that which grants both self-determination and purpose can we appropriately use freedom as a way to explain the salvation that is found in Jesus the Christ.

Libertarianism's (Scary) Indeterminateness

Libertarianism scares me. There, I said it. The zeal for freedom in America, especially among the Libertarian/Ron Paul movement, has me a bit concerned. Here's why.

Freedom is a wonderful ideal. It is a democratic ideal. It is a strong theme throughout the biblical narrative. No wonder Americans love it. But freedom without a purpose is deficient. Freedom for the sake of freedom is bogus. As Anglican Priest, Ian Lawton, writes, "Freedom without responsibility is often lazy, and responsibility without freedom is often mindless obligation. Freedom doesn’t exist just for its own pleasure. Freedom is the basis for responsibility."

The concept of freedom is complex and I think Libertarianism oversimplifies one side of freedom: the state of being free from alien determination. German theologian Ebelhard Jungel offers a thoughtful explanation of freedom:

"Freedom has two sides: (a) self-determination as the opposite of alien determination, but also (b) self-determination as the opposite of indeterminateness (arbitrariness). Freedom understood without the goal of determinateness would be an impermissible abstraction. The will to determination is what makes self-determination, makes freedom something concrete. Thus freedom is something other than a state of free suspension which has no bonds or obligations. Faithfulness is constitutive of freedom." (God as the Mystery of the World, 36)

It is this second side (b) that seems to be lacking in much libertarian (and American) thinking about freedom. For what purpose are we free? Is the goal simply to de-regulate businesses for the sake of freedom? Is laissez faire capitalism's only goal to have freedom? Such freedom is not true freedom, but rather a one-sided "state of free suspension which has no bonds or obligations."

What frightens me is that such a one-sided state of freedom is ironically the breeding ground for all kinds of freedom to oppress others. It is like the post-lunch recess for junior high kids: there is no structure, no agenda, just "free" teens hanging around... and that's when the bullying begins. It is analogous to what Dr. King said: peace is not the absence of war but also the presence of justice. In the same way, freedom is not just the absence of regulations or government programs, but also the presence of determined purposes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ebelhard Jungel on the Concept of God

"As far as the concept of God is concerned, the history of European Christianity until now has fallen prey to this danger in one regard. It has considered itself capable of thinking of God in his being as God without thinking of him simultaneously as the Crucified. A characteristic indication of that is the constantly recurring attempts ever since early church Christology to conceive of the death of the Crucified One as an event which only affected the 'true man' but not the 'true God.' The 'perfection' of God required by the law of metaphysics forbade imagining God as suffering or even thinking of him together with the one who was dead. This prohibition and its alleged reason are seen, however, from the perspective of the word of the cross, to be the basic aporia into which European theology has blundered."

- Ebelhard Jungel, God as the Mystery of the World, 39.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

From Apology to Confession: Toward Better Online Dialogue

It seems to me that apology leads to a lot of apologizing. I've gotten into a lot of arguments lately. Mostly on Facebook. And mostly about things having to do with religion or politics. And I have to say, I'm tired. I'm exhausted by the constant pressure to explain a thought here or defend a statement there. After a while, it just takes a toll.

I can't be the only one who feels this way. Debates seem to arise everyday in the Facebook 'News Feed' or in blog commenting. Surely there must be others out there who feel drained like me. Surely there are others who are tired of their stomach turning or their brow furrowing by another comment publicly challenging their perspective. Surely there are others.

My instincts tell me that I'm not alone. I see enough of it around the internet to infer that there must be a large number of people who, like me, are tired of debates. Debates are exhausting. They're exhausting because they demand that we stand on the defensive the entire time. I've played enough of basketball to know that constantly playing defense is exhausting. The same is true in social interaction.

I've noticed a trend - especially in online communication - and it seems that many, myself included, are constantly on the defensive. The default mode is defending. The default mode is apology, a word that comes from the Greek apologia, meaning "to speak in defense." Even when we are challenging someone else's perspective, I submit that we're really just defending our own. We attack the other's view because we want to make sure that our view is right and true. We're in apology mode.

And rightfully so, I must add. The views that we hold are precious. They make us who we are. They drive our behavior and give our existence value. The views we hold on topics of ultimate meaning are held near and dear to our heart. Like our heart, our beliefs are the center of our being. Indeed, our religions - i.e. our systems of meaning - are so close to our heart that it feels like we are sharing our heart itself when we talk about them. No wonder we want to defend them.

But at what cost? Is my heart more important than yours? Is your heart expendable? Should I step on your heart in order to save my own? Defending one's heart is exhausting. No wonder my heart is tired of thumping in fight or flight mode. There has to be a better way.

Samir Selmanovic writes, "Only when we believe that the other is not there to hurt us - though the other may struggle to understand us - can we begin to share not only the light but also the shadows of our religion." Perhaps Samir is right. But how can we genuinely believe that the other is not out to hurt us?

How can we be sure that our opinion will not immediately go to trial once it is posted online? How can we be sure that the other is not out to publicly condemn our perspective? How can we be sure that the other is not just trying to trample our heart and protect her/his own?

Perhaps the answer lies in shifting from apology to confession. This term confession comes from the 14th-century Latin confessio, which stems from the word, confiteri, meaning "to acknowledge." To confess is to reveal something personal with honesty and openness. Confession means to share from the heart and to own the confession as a personal opinion. Confession does not speak in universal propositions, claiming to know the truth for all people at all times. Confession speaks in the humble language of conviction. Confession does not speak for others, it speaks only for itself.

Confession cannot be deconstructed by debate because confession is simply the truth. It is a the admission of one's conviction. Whereas apology demands that the other conform to its will, confession invites the other to a safe place for exploration, regardless of whether or not the other conforms. Unlike apology mode, confession mode recognizes that others too are confessing their opinion. To see religious opinions as confessions allows us to see something that can be explored or ignored, but need not be attacked or "fixed."

And perhaps most importantly, confession mode requires "to acknowledge" others. It differs from apology because confession demands a true listener, not a debater. As Selmanovic explains, "Our mysteries need one another." The late, great Dietrich Bonhoeffer captured the necessity of listening when he wrote:
Just as our love for God begins with listening to God's Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God's love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God's Word, but also lends us God's ear. We do God's work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. ... Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. [Life Together, 98]
Perhaps online "listening" means refraining from instinctive apology mode and the need to respond immediately to a divergent opinion. Perhaps online "listening" means sending a private message rather than a public comment. Perhaps online "listening" means asking clarifying questions rather than making presumptuous condemnations.

Online "listening" demands that we renounce "a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say," (Bonhoeffer, 99). Authentic listening demands love. It is the kind of love that dares to slip into the shoes of another person and see the world from their perspective.

I believe that confession, rather than apology, can cultivate online environments that invite safe, authentic dialogue. We're all looking for a place to share our heart because, at the end of the day, our heart is who we are. But I agree with Selmanovic, we'll never share our hearts with each other until we believe that others aren't out to hurt us.

The thought of sharing my heart with brothers and sisters online brings me joy. The thought of confessing my deepest convictions without the fear of being hurt by others brings me peace. It brings to mind a community with little need for apology, let alone apologizing.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Whose Justice?"

With all the talk from political candidates about freedom and Constitutional rights, it's easy for Christians to forget about the kind of society that Christ desired "on earth as it is in heaven." Underneath much of the political discourse on rights and freedoms is the concept of justice. Here is a cogent reminder from Scot McKnight on how the concept of justice is subjectively defined and, for the Christian, ought to be "defined by Jesus and the Spirit." The following excerpt is taken from his book A Community Called Atonement.

"Before we look at atonement as the work of God that creates a pervasively just society, let me clarify the expression 'social justice.' We make a serious mistake when we write with adjectives: 'social' before justice limits justice and moves justice from the church in to the government. I propose that we drop the word 'social' in the term 'social justice.' First, such an expression tends to imply an old-fashioned dualistic spirituality in which some things are spiritual and some things are not.

In addition, the only way to define 'justice' is by reference to a standard. Social justice tends to be defined by its standard: the fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution - or a watered-down version thereof. But justice for the Christian is not about freedom or liberty, rights, individualism, or the pursuit of personal happiness. When that is what justice means to the Christian, that Christian has adopted Western values as the standard by which justice is defined.

Christians can't let the U.S. Constitution (or John Stuart Mill or Karl Marx) define what 'justice' means. We have to define justice in a way consistent with what Jesus meant by 'kingdom.' Which raises postmodern a issue that cuts sharply into the deep caverns of what we mean by justice.

Kant taught that universal reason would lead us to a universal sense of justice, and then more recently John Rawls suggested rather hopefully that the consensus of reasonable people would lead us to a deeper sense of justice. But postmodernists and anti-postmodernists (like Hauerwas) have entered the fray to observe that justice does not come from answering "What is justice?" but that justice comes from those who are willing to ask "Whose justice is it?"

That is, when justice is defined by some party, the power of that party's definition determines the meaning of justice. Which is to say that justice is shaped by one's moral standards, and those in power get to do the most shaping.

I accept the postmodern critique, and I add the Christian view to the mix. I contend that a Christian sense of justice is one shaped by the Christian story. And that means that a Christian sense of justice is shaped by the love of God and love of others instead of a Western, individualized, and modernist concept of freedom and rights.

Lessle Newbigin spoke about the supposedly self-evident truths that "every human being has an equal right to the pursuit of happiness. What this affirms," he continued, "is the right to the pursuit of happiness, not to the pursuit of the end for which humans, as a matter of fact, exist." [from Foolishness to the Greeks] We might have the rights for happiness, but what makes humans happy is not determined necessarily by having those rights. We need to ask again what a Christian theory of justice looks like.

Justice in the Bible is behavior that conforms to God's standard, and we can plumb that standard in any number of ways - through detailed analysis of specific passages in the Torah, through summaries of the Torah, through the teachings of Jesus, or through the Spirit-inspired life.

Permit me two definitions: let us define justice as behavior tha conforms to the teachings of Jesus and, at the same time, as behavior that emerges from the Spirit's direction. You can have it either way; for, if I am right, these definitions end up at the same place. Justice is also structural at some level: it refers to the establishment of conditions that promote loving God and loving others or living in the Spirit.

For the follower of Jesus, justice is not defined by the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, Kant's categorical imperative, or any other social formation of law. It is defined by Jesus and by the Spirit - and we learn of its Spirit-directedness through the Bible.

Some will say that this is too religious, that it is too Christian, or that it is not practicable for a pluralistic society. I care about none of those criticisms, not because I don't think working in the public square requires common sense and even agreement to the U.S. Constitution for amicable discourse, but because we need as Christians to recover what we think the Bible says "justice" really is: the conditions that obtain when humans are right with God, with self, with others, and with the world." [p.124-125]

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pray the Object Back to Life...

This post of mine was originally published over at (original here). Here is the manuscript, slightly altered.

September 7, 1927. That is the date of the first electronic video image. Since then the electronic screen has evolved into the hottest commodity in Western culture. From the inaugural TV programming (1948) to computers, digital cameras, smart phones and 3D TVs, this entire phenomenon is what I and others call "Screen Culture." If you're reading this sentence then you too participate in screen culture. What you may not know, however, is that screen images subtly affect the way you see other human beings.

One Stanford professor believes that the quantity of time we spend with screens (rather than face-to-face) is affecting our ability to connect with one another. While I agree, I am more concerned here with the direct effect that certain screen images have on us; namely, images of other human beings.

Take, for example, the image above. While the image is of two human subjects, it subtly invites the viewer to see not subjects but objects. When you stare at these people, they do not truly stare back. You may stare all you like. There is no reciprocation, no awkwardness, no shame. You the viewer are in control. It is not a human subject to which you relate, but an image - an object.

Now, what happens when we see hundreds of virtual screen people every day? I believe that we learn the habit of seeing other human beings as objects instead of subjects. Put another way, screen images decrease empathy.

Studies estimate that we in the U.S. see anywhere from 3-5,000 ads per day. In ads, the imaged person is so often tied to the marketed product that s/he becomes mingled with the product, a kind of piece of the object. In addition to ads Americans spend hours viewing virtual humans through various screen mediums (TV, movies, video games, etc.). There can be little doubt that seeing so many screen versions of humanity affects the way we see humanity off the screen. I find it hard to believe that anyone could spend hours playing Call of Duty (i.e. pretending to kill human beings) and not be influenced to view human life as expendable. I also find it hard to believe that anyone could spend hours gazing at porn and not be influenced to see others as objects for pleasure. I mention these as examples because the images that flood our screens are increasingly violent and sexual.

Objectification is certainly not a new trend for humankind. Ever since Descartes we have tended to view the world outside of ourselves as an object to be controlled and utilized for our own benefit. The proliferation of screens only furthers this trend.

As a devoted Christian and avid participant in screen culture, I have struggled with my own propensity to objectify other human beings both on and off screen. But over time I have found that if I pray for the other human being, whether imaged on screen or in person, it is extremely difficult to objectify that person. When I pray for my sister or brother, I no longer view them as an object but as a subject, a beloved child of God. I pray the object back to life.

When we see others as subjects instead of objects, I believe that we heed Jesus’ call to love our neighbors. Jesus challenges the objectification of any human being by naming them "neighbor."


  1. Try praying for the people you encounter – both on and off the screen.
  2. Take an empathy quiz!
  3. Learn more about the Christian movement to fight pornography addiction

Monday, January 2, 2012

Public Faith & Responsible Communication: A Reflection on Tebow

Let me make this crystal clear: I genuinely like Tim Tebow. I think he's an awesome guy and I am happy for his success this season with the Broncos. He has shown a lot of class both on and off the field. I particularly commend him for the Tim Tebow Foundation, which aims to improve the lives of thousands here in the U.S. and abroad.

That being said, I do have an issue with Tebow's excessive, public displays of faith. It's not that I have any issue with prayer itself; or even praying in public per se. Nor do I have any doubt that Tebow's heart is in the right place.

My concern has to do with communicating one's faith in public in a responsible manner. Allow me to repeat: this post is not about Tebow's faith or Tebow's heart, it is about communication. The question I want to pose is this: What does a public act of faith communicate to others?

When the Bronco's QB takes a knee and prays before and after games, that is great. What does it communicate? To me, it communicates that Tebow is giving his all for his God and petitioning for the safety of others (I've heard him pray for this when he was mic'd). It might communicate that God is more important than football. Great. I like it.

But what about when his fingers point to the sky after a touchdown? What is being communicated? Once again, I am not judging Tebow's heart or his faith. This point deserves a digression.

There are many Christian billboards in the West. Some are good, some... not so good. The purpose of Billboards is communication. I would not want to challenge the motive of a church who pays to put up a billboard; nor would I challenge the heart of the pastor whose highway sign promotes creationism. I don't doubt her/his heart. But I do question what is being communicated. We must admit that a good heart doesn't always make up for poor or irresponsible communication. The question, then, shifts from motive to responsibility.

It is the same for Tebow's excessive public displays. I am concerned about what is communicated when he - and other players - point their fingers to the sky after a TD. Whether he intends to or not, he communicates through his actions. And what is being communicated is that God is to be thanked or praised for the touchdown (or the ability to throw the TD? Or the great opportunity to experience a TD? Or the amazing "platform" to praise God for throwing a TD?)

But I have yet to see Tebow - or any other QB for that matter - throw his fingers to the sky after an interception (neither would I). I have, however, seen Tebow remain positive and encouraging on the sideline post-INT. I commend him for that. I think he displays an incredibly Christian attitude all the time. It's awesome.

But, the question I am exploring here is: What is communicated when a QB points to the sky after a TD or an exciting win, but not after an INT or a loss? What is implied through such behavior? And are non-Christian critics somewhat justified in their perception of Tebow's public faith? (Don't get me wrong, I think what Bill Maher did just recently was terrible.)

Again: Not questioning his heart. I'm asking: How does this appear to audiences? What is communicated? And what is Tebow's responsibility to manage what is being communicated?

If you have watched the media and read the op-eds then you know that there is a mixture of what is communicated by Tebow's public displays. On the one hand it displays that he is more concerned with God than football. Great. But on the other hand, the excessive displays communicate that God is somehow responsible for TD's and wins. Tebow may not intend this, but it is what is communicated. Every criticism of his public faith cannot be dismissed as anti-Christian hate. Christians in the public eye have a responsibility to consider how they are perceived by others.

There is a saying in public speaking: It's not what is said but what is heard. Tebow and many others rightly see his "platform" as a way to speak publicly about faith. But I would encourage him to consider that it's not just what is said, it's also what is heard. There is an essential responsibility that comes with being a public "speaker."

I conclude with a story. 60 Minutes did a special on an Eastern Orthodox Monastery called Mt. Athos in Greece. During an interview with one of the monks the reporter asked if the interview bothered the monk because it took him away from his prayers. The monk began laughing. The reporter was puzzled. Why are you laughing? the reporter inquired. The monk replied that he was laughing because the reporter thought that a mere interview could interrupt the monk's prayer life. The monk explained that he cannot stop praying and was, in fact, still praying during the entire interview.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Bonhoeffer on the Incarnation & More

"Behold God become human, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world. God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.

What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. God establishes a most intimate unity with this. God becomes human, a real human being.

While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings. While we distinguish between pious and godless, good and evil, noble and base, God loves the real people without distinction.

God has no patience with our dividing the world and humanity according to our standards and imposing ourselves as judges over them.

God leads us into absurdity by becoming a real human being and a companion of sinners, thereby forcing us to become the judges of God. God stands beside the real human being and the real world against all their accusers. So God becomes accused along with human beings and the world, and thus the judges become the accused."

- from Ethics, 84.