Tag Archives: Cultural criticism

Please Don’t Say Everything You Think!

 

Today, in a world ablaze, I say to myself, to other Christians, and to all people of good will: “Please, please do not say everything you think.” Our minds and memories are full of evil, selfish, petty, and blasphemous thoughts.  Who is without sin? Who will deny it? When I was young I thought Jesus’ teaching against swearing applied only to certain words or perhaps to the act of placing yourself under a curse. Don’t use God’s name except in reverence, don’t say “Jesus Christ!” or “Damn!” But I did not notice verse 37, which I have emphasized below:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

Verse 37 condemns and warns against speaking a single word designed to wound or express anything other than respect, love, and truth or do anything other than good. We think many hateful, prejudiced, selfish thoughts. Don’t say them! Once you do, they will escape your control and take on a life of their own; and they will eventually turn on you.

When I was a teen I loved the Book of James. Perhaps it was because I felt such a need for wisdom. Life is so complicated and living in human society presents so many difficulties. James’ extensive instructions about the use of speech grabbed my attention. I have since that time tried (and often failed!) to put into practice James 1:19-20:

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James 1:19-20).

James nails it. Anger makes its first external appearance in speech! James urges us to listen, get the whole story, allow reason, wisdom, and common sense experience teach us what to say, if anything at all. Don’t speak when angry. Better yet, learn where anger comes from and deal with the root problem. As I said in a previous post, anger is a reaction to insult. But Jesus told us to bless those who curse us. How can we do this? It can be done only if we refuse to be insulted, because we are clear that our dignity depends on God’s love and not the momentary thoughts of other human beings.

I heard many sermons on James 3:1-12, which is one of the most extensive discussions of the dangers of speech in the New Testament. And those preachers were right to preach often on this text. The power of words is deceptive. They are so easy to utter! But they can unleash hell, war, and murder:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:1-12).

Oh, how we love to express our opinions, prejudices, and fancies…especially on religion and politics! We love the sound of our own voices! For the moment we feel as wise as our words boast. The tongue is so close to the brain and takes so little energy to operate. It works almost automatically. James warns us that teaching is a serious act. Teachers will be judged with stricter judgment. We don’t get off the hook by claiming that we are not “official” teachers. In any act of teaching in any context from a casual conversation to a blog post to a Facebook comment we should take seriously our responsibility to tell the truth and do something good. The tongue is so difficult to control that James uses self-control in speech as the gold standard measurement of maturity. Learn to discipline your speech and you will have learned to control every other impulse and passion.

A fire! A fire sparked by hell’s flames! That is what James calls uncontrolled speech. Thought is an internal act while speech is an external act. Speech is the gateway through which the demons within escape into the world to spread their poison. Oh, how sweet it is to let the poison out! Keep the gate shut! Let reason and wisdom, the twin guards, do their work.

In a culture where we can speak to the whole world through the media at our finger tips, allow me to say it again: “Please, please don’t say everything you think!” Don’t say it yourself, and don’t “like” or “share” any words you would not say yourself. Liking or sharing or forwarding anything that violates Jesus’ and James’ teaching is just the same as saying it yourself. We are not less guilt of a crime because we get someone else to do it for us. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. Bless and do not curse!

 

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Idolatry—The Carefully Guarded Secret of Contemporary Culture

Perhaps there was a time when a catechism of the church could transition smoothly from discussions about what Christians should believe to how they should live. After explaining the doctrines of creation, atonement, sacraments, eschatology, and others, we could move right into morality, virtues and vices, duties and sins. But that time is long gone. Contemporary culture no longer holds presuppositions that make discussions of the Christian way of life understandable. And we have to face the unhappy truth that many people who think of themselves as Christian no longer hold them either.

The foundation and presupposition of biblical morality is God’s right and demand for our absolute loyalty:

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

God is Creator and Lord, the beginning and end of all things. He gives all things their existence and purpose. God’s will is the law of existence. And those who know and acknowledge this truth seek to know and obey God’s will. They do not claim a right to direct their own lives. Instead, they follow Jesus’ example and say to God, “Not my will but yours be done.” Even the Son of God, who loved his Father and acknowledged his goodness and wisdom, had to obey his God. He renounced all independence and autonomy in relation to God. We should relate to God in love, joy, faith, and admiration. But true test of love for God is obedience, because obedience continues to do God’s will even against inclination, even unto death.

But contemporary culture unequivocally rejects this presupposition. This rejection has roots that go back 300 years in Western history and beyond that to the Old and New Testaments. Christianity asks each individual to establish a relationship to God characterized by faith and obedience. Ultimately each person is answerable to God alone for the way they live their lives. The individual enjoys freedom in relation to God, to believe or not, to obey or disobey. The 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment and the democratic movements that followed applied the Christian view of the God/individual relationship to politics to argue for greater individual liberty over-against the political order. God’s authority trumped human authority, and the individual’s obligations to God trumped the individual’s obligations to the state. Hence human governments have limited authority over the lives of citizens.

However over the past 300 years, the individual’s sacred obligations to God evolved slowly but relentlessly into the sacredness of the individual’s own autonomous self. After the rights of the individual in relation to the state had been established, people forgot the original basis of that freedom. The individual became his/her own god, the source of their own rights and dignity. God became superfluous. Contemporary gods and goddesses reverse Jesus’ statement of submission to his Father. They say,

“Not your will, but mine be done.”

The First Commandment has now been inverted to say:

“I shall have no other god but me.”

The Greatest Command has been rewritten to say:

“I am the Lord my God, me alone. I shall love myself with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength”

Many of our contemporaries knowingly or unknowingly reject the presupposition of all biblical morality, that is, that God should be obeyed in all things. Perhaps there is no more offensive and counter-cultural word than “obedience.” It strikes at the heart of the modern view of the sacred dignity and rights of human beings. Our absolute obligation to God has been transformed from the origin and foundation of human rights and dignity into their greatest enemy. Our contemporaries display an intuitive resentment and a knee-jerk rejection of any moral assertion that suggests submission to any will other than their own, even to God’s will.

A catechism of mere Christianity for a post-Christian, post-denominational culture will be ineffective unless it recognizes and exposes the modern divinization of the individual as the root of modern culture’s enmity toward the God of the Bible. Popular rhetoric of freedom, justice, individual rights, and tolerance is too powerful for immature and acculturated Christians to resist. Its power derives from its deceptive resemblance to Christian morality. Though it sounds vaguely Christian, it is actuality idolatry in its most original form: self-deification and self-worship.

The first and most basic premise of the Christian life is that we should passionately seek God’s will that we might obey him in all things, no matter what the cost.

School — No Place for a Child

 

Some days I need to yell, “The world has gone crazy!” This is one of those days. Let me tell you up front that my wife and I homeschooled our children, and we’d do it again. So, this essay is not a cool analysis. One more caveat: I come from a family of public school teachers. I think many teachers do the best they can given their situation, and they are all underpaid. This “yell” is about the system and the culture, not about the individuals trapped in it. Okay, ready?

Yes, I mean it. A school is no place for a child. As a child nears 5 or 6 years of age she or he is made to believe that starting school is a glorious coming-of-age transition. You’ll become a big boy, a big girl. You’ll learn to read and write and do all sorts of fun stuff! You’ll get to make decisions for yourself—which actually means that you will give in to pressure to do what your peers are doing. At six years old the baby bird must leave the warm nest and learn to fly. At six! Is that crazy or what? You’ll learn to deal with ubiquitous bullies and pick up the ways of the world from older kids. Why? Because the world is full of bullies and you’ve got to face the world sooner or later anyway! (Actually, the only place I have ever been bullied is at a school.) Away from the protection of mommy and daddy you will be taught and protected by an underpaid and over-stressed teacher, who has 30 children to look after. And teachers are all-knowing and all-seeing. They always know what goes on in the play yard, the hallways, the athletic fields, and the restrooms. You might get a teacher who views the world like your parents and your church does or you may end up with teacher who views God, morality, life, and love in radically different ways. You don’t know in advance.

And what will you learn in the education factory, the state-run orphanage for parented kids? You will learn the least common denominator of moral values. Government schools are supposed to be religiously and morally neutral, and that “neutrality” is the heart of their religion and morality. You’ll read the books, hear the stories, and engage in the sort of activities that are designed to make you exactly like everyone else, a compliant, tolerant, and uncreative citizen. Excellence, creativity, thoughtfulness, and individuality are discouraged because they are disruptive. Everyone is equal, everyone is special, everyone is gifted, and everyone is right. And no one thinks.

The parent-child bond must be broken (at six years old!), because parents teach their children all sorts of crazy stuff about religion, race, and gender. Useful skills like language, writing, and mathematics must be subordinated to the really important task of socialization for life in a “pluralist society,” that is, of teaching children not to judge anyone for anything…except of course for believing in the difference between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, and good and bad. Or, for believing in the superiority of one’s own culture or religion. And the informal “socialization” you learn is how to survive in a school culture with 10 adults and 200 children near your own age. Such a social skills have nothing to do with those you’ll need in the real world.

Okay, I’ve had my “yell,” my rant if you like. I am not asking you to join my chorus. I just wanted your attention. My main goal is simply to plant a question in your mind: Does it have to be this way for me and my family? I want you to know that if you feel like there is something not right about giving up your parenthood when your child is five or six years old, that there is something crazy about that notion, you are right. And you don’t have to do that. You are not the crazy one.

A New Series Begins: God and the Modern Self

With this week’s entry I begin a series of posts dealing with issues I addressed in my recent book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (InterVarsity Press, 2013). I will not write the series as a book review but as a study guide. The complete series, at least 16 entries, can serve as a study guide to the book for individuals, Sunday school classes, sermon series, college or seminary teachers or students, campus ministers, and youth workers to use their respective settings. But I also intend the posts to make sense even apart from the book; so, you can be stimulated and edified even if you are not reading the book.

The series will follow the book’s outline. The first half will deal with “The Me-Centered Self” and the second half with “The God-Centered Self.” The first part contains seven chapters and the second nine. Each week I will deal with a different chapter.

Introduction: Life in Two Worlds

Christians live in two worlds, the world of Scripture and the world of contemporary culture. Scripture embodies divine wisdom and revelation and a history of the prophets and saints and apostles. It preserves the words and deeds, suffering and triumph of Jesus Christ. The church has preserved Scripture, reflected continuously on its meaning and attempted to embody its truth for nearly 2000 years. Christian identity is shaped by 3500 years of history and tradition. Unlike many of our contemporaries we have (or should have) long memories.

From the world of Scripture and tradition we learn to see ourselves as God’s creatures, dependent on God for all good things, as sinners in need of forgiveness and renewal, as God’s beloved children, chosen for greatness, as mortals eagerly anticipating the advent of eternal life. We learn to value such moral and religious attitudes as trust, obedience, self-control, humility, love, reverence and hope. We see our lives as directed to accomplishing the will of God, to bringing glory to him and sharing in that glory. This shared, long-term and God-centered memory gives us stability of identity and clarity of character as individuals and as a community; and it protects us from the ever-changing winds of fad and fashion.

But we also live in the world of contemporary culture. And, just as we need to practice remembering that long story to keep alive our Christian identity, we need to observe, analyze and evaluate contemporary culture as a part of our own faithful self-examination. We face the double danger of forgetting the past and becoming enchanted by surrounding culture. That double danger can be overcome only by forming habits of remembering and by thoughtful engagement with culture. Attempting to preserve memory without thoughtful examination of culture will render us unable to communicate the Christian message to our contemporaries and, paradoxically, it may make us even more vulnerable to adapting to secular culture in substance while maintaining orthodoxy in words. But attempting to stay in tune with contemporary culture without constantly remembering our story in Scripture and tradition will lead to loss of God-centered identity.

My book and this series address this double danger by analyzing and evaluating contemporary culture and bringing to remembrance the Christian message of divine and human identity as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The first installment, “God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)”, will be posted immediately.