Sunday, February 25, 2007

Amazing Grace, the Flick

My wife and I just saw the new Amazing Grace movie. We both thought it was quite good, though in my view, it could've been better in spots.

The film intends to be a story of William Wilberforce's decades-long effort to end the African slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce is one of those figures in history who effected enormous change. And students of history well know that individuals such as this often endure considerable personal cost as part of changing the world. Wilberforce was no exception. Throughout much of his life, he endured poor health, and it is hardly controversial to say that his own health was compromised in part by the savagery of the institution of slavery he was fighting against. It is often the case that when one immerses himself in a great cause to overthrow an entrenched and evil system, the personal cost is high as a result of having intimate familiarity with something he finds so completely vile.

The slave trade was not Wilberforce's only concern. In addition, he (like Kierkegaard) was heavily burdened about the nominal Christianity of his day. While Kierkegaard wrote a series of articles in the 1850s attacking lukewarm Christianity which later became consolidated as his 'Attack on Christendom', Wilberforce did much the same thing 50 years earlier when he published his Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (I would say that Wilby needed an editor, but it's hard to make this claim in light of his eloquence as an orator in the House of Commons). In this book, Wilberforce passionately argues that the bulk of the self-professed Christian masses are not authentically living out their faith. In today's terms, Wilberforce is attacking 'cultural Christians' who practice the outward rituals and routines of religion and feel good about themselves in the process, but have lost the core of the Christian faith in doing so. He notes:

Often has it filled him (Wilby) with deep concern, to observe in this description of persons, scarcely any distinct knowledge of the real nature and principles of the religion which they profess.

Repeatedly calling the code of Christian nominalism an "erroneous system" (this is an idea that, perhaps unwittingly, was resurrected by Machen over 100 years later in his Christianity and Liberalism), Wilberforce eloquently goes on:

The grand radical defect in the practical system of these nominal Christians, is their (willful) forgetfulness of all the peculiar doctrines of the Religion which they profess - the corruption of human nature - the atonement of the Savior - and the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, some things never change.

Wilberforce charges nominalism with being too comfortable in the gaities of everyday life. This manifests itself in the indulgence of natural appetites which results in 'living without God in the world'. According to Wilberforce, people like this (through sickness or the death of a loved one) get brief jolts of the temporal nature of everything they have lived for and trusted in, and this conjures up a need to find a more stable foundation than the world can offer. But for Wilberforce, the result is merely a man-made attempt at reformation. And...

Here it is that we shall recognize the fatal effects of the prevailing ignorance of the real nature of Christianity...These men wish to reform, but they know neither the real nature of their distempor nor its true remedy. They are aware, indeed, that they must cease to do evil, and learn to do well; that they must relinquish their habits of vice, and attend more or less to the duties of Religion; but having no conception of the actual malignancy of the disease under which they labour, or of the perfect cure which the Gospel has provided for it, or of the manner in which that cure is to be effected.

For Wilberforce, the result of nominalism is stagnancy, complacency, and ultimately lunacy passing as Christianity.

The film Amazing Grace does not directly touch on this aspect of Wilby's burden. It does, however, touch on it indirectly by periodically offering snippets about 'making the world better'. For Wilberforce, a dynamic, vital, and true Christianity will change the world rather than resembling the world. This film, I believe, prompts its audience to ask whether the exercise of its faith has truly changed anything for the better. Wilberforce is held up as an example of someone who, primarily through his religious beliefs, was the public face of a movement that altered history and fundamentally improved the state of humanity worldwide. Can we say the same for ourselves? Can we even come close to saying it? May I suggest that Wilberforce's devastating critique of nominalism rings true today because many of us can't. But the answer is not to sulk, but to follow the example of Wilberforce - to embrace the struggle of doing God's work in a resistant world, and rely on the Spirit to give us the perseverance to see it through. Because as Wilberforce said:

The subject is of infinite importance; let it not be driven out of our minds by the bustle or dissipations of life. This present scene, and all its cares and all its gaities, will soon be rolled away, and 'we must stand before the judgment seat of Christ.'

May the renewed interest in Wilberforce serve as a reminder not only of God's amazing grace, but also of God's determination to use people like us to expand his Kingdom to the ends of the earth. Will we embrace the work of the Kingdom like Wilberforce, or will we make the excuses of the nominalist to justify our own comfort, and lose the core of our faith in the process?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Meekness/Humility and Individual Rights

The intersection of meekness and the assertion of rights has long been very thorny. Nietzche considered meekness to be a sign of weakness that the uber-man mentality would (and must) inevitably conquer. To be meek is to be weak, so the theory goes. To be meek is to forfeit one's rights and to allow others to dominate through the assertion of their rights and the imposition of their will upon the weak. For Nietzche, meekness was the great enemy of true power, and that once humanity discovered the will to power that Nietzche preached, the death of God by our own hands would be upon us.

Was Nietzche right? Does Christianity really entail a surrender of individual rights through the elevation of meekness as a blessed virtue (Mt. 5.5)? Well, as with many things, the answer is 'yes and no'.

There is little doubt that Christianity in general (and the Pauline letters in particular) seems to teach that godly people should be willing to sacrifice their own individual rights for the sake of the gospel. Paul himself did this on more than one occasion in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul explicitly chooses not to exercise certain rights that he has by virtue of being an apostle. Why? It is because Paul did not want to exercise his rights (or do anything else) if it meant hindering the gospel of Christ (9.12). Paul does the same thing in his letter to Philemon. Paul's letter to Philemon has rightly been called a masterpiece of subtle suggestion, and in it, Paul again makes clear that as an apostle, he could assert his rights and force Philemon to do the right thing (v8, 14). Instead, he brilliantly eschews outright demands and appeals instead to Philemon's better intentions. Throughout his letters, Paul routinely calls his audience to mutual respect and love for each other that insisted on putting the needs of others ahead of individual self-interests (Rom. 12.5,8; 1C 10.24; Eph. 4.29; Phil. 2.3-4). Both Peter and the writer of Hebrews offer similar instructions (1P 4.10, Heb. 13.16). What we have in all of these cases are examples of how the early church lived out the Golden Rule of Christ (Mt. 7.12).

So does this mean that meekness and deference translate into a distasteful surrendering of our own needs and individuality? Is meekness really naked weakness? Absolutely not. Christianity does not teach the sacrifice of one's own rights for no higher reason. To the contrary, the Scriptural witness seems to be that godly people should be willing to sacrifice their own rights in an effort to defend the rights of the weak. Humility and weakness does not entail being silent or idle in the face of injustice or unrighteousness. Instead, it means a willingness to be disadvantaged ourselves if necessary, in order to defend the disadvantaged. It is often the case that righteousness is disadvantaging ourselves for the sake of advantaging others. This, of course, is exactly what Jesus himself did. The great christological hymn of Philippians 2 tells us that Christ voluntarily gave up the glory of his sovereign and divine position in order to identify himself with lowly sinners. It was through the transfer of his righteousness to us through his sacrifice that sinners might know victory. The Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is a poignant demonstration of this ethic that previews the work of Christ by thousands of years(Gen. 32).

Meekness is not weakness. Ps. 37 famously declares that the meek will inherit the earth. A willingness to sacrifice our rights does not mean we volunteer to be punching bags - not at all. Meekness is not an end in itself. Again, meekness and the assertion of rights is thoroughly linked with the gospel itself. It is the gospel that is not to be impeded through the assertion of rights. It is precisely because the virtue of meekness is so alien to secular existence which makes the assertion of meekness so radically different and attention-grabbing. To advance the cause of Christ is to authentically present the world with an attractive alternative to Nietzche. To be meek in such a way as to defend those whom Nietzche's philosophy discards as weak and unworthy of dignity is to appeal to the image of God that exists in everyone. Deep down, everyone knows that the Nietzchean quest for superman status on the backs of everyone else is reductionistic and ultimately unhuman. Some will never admit it, but most are very willing to listen to alternatives when experiencing the rawness of Nietzchean ethics. To see an alternative through tangible acts of meekness is even better.

The Bible knows what it's talking about, not only when it comes to meekness, but in the often destructive carousel of defending our own rights to the exclusion of any larger considerations. Our individuality is not subsumed when we insist on looking out for the needs of others at least as much as we look out for our own. To the contrary, our individuality is enhanced by such an ethic, because in living this way, we choose not to reduce our existence to just us. Instead, our lives become linked with something much bigger than us (the gospel), which increases our own individuality and purpose. Imagine where we'd be if Christ had chosen himself rather than us! But in choosing us, Christ has become the most discussed Person in all of history. He has hardly been subsumed, and neither will we if we do what Paul says, and follow the example of our Savior through the ministry of the Spirit within us (1c 11.1).

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Romans 1 and the Anthropology of Islam

This is a follow-up to the post a few entries ago about a responsible comparison of Christianity and Islam. I mentioned in that previous post that the anthropologies of the respective faiths are quite different, at least when it comes to what each has to say about man's biggest problem in his relationship with God. In Christian thought, sin is man's biggest problem and severs communion with God. In Islamic thought, forgetfulness and ignorance is what keeps man from understanding the will of Allah and aligning himself with it. As mentioned previously, in Islamic thought, human forgetfulness and ignorance are the reasons why man does not submit to Allah and doesn't know how to submit. In Islam, the Quran was given by Allah to remedy this malady and make it possible for people plagued with forgetfulness and ignorance to submit to Allah. This anthropology of forgetfulness and ignorance is critical to remember when dealing with questions of comparative religion. Is the Islamic take on the human condition compatible with Christian anthropology? I would respectfully submit that Romans 1 in particular compels us to answer 'no'.

Before getting to Romans 1, it is worthwhile to look briefly at some common and not so common passages out of the OT that are pertinent here. Jer. 31.31-33 is a favorite among Christians, because it is said that God will make a new covenant with his people, and that his law will be put in their minds and written on their hearts. But as wonderful as this is, the idea that the law will be placed on the minds and hearts of men was not new. Deut. 6.5, 26.16, 32.46 and many other passages imply this ideal. In addition, Deut. 10.16 and especially 30.6 more graphically discuss God's intent to circumcise the hearts of his people to follow him with all their being. Circumcision of the heart was not a NT idea, but one that was as old as the Mosaic law itself. What is clear from this all-too-brief survey is that God is not content to instruct us with written commands, though such commands are vital and essential. No, the anthropology of the OT is one in which direct supernatural intervention within the hearts and minds of people is necessary to cure people of the sin problem that ails them.

This leads to Romans 1, which is not only Paul's grand statement of the universality of sin, but also of the universality of God's general revelation to humanity. In Romans 1.18-32, it is said no less than five times (1.19, 1.20, 1.21, 1.28, 1.32) that even the 'godless' KNOW God and his commands. It is very clear from this section that man's problem in relation to God is not a lack of knowledge - it is not ignorance about God or his ways as the anthropology of Islam proffers. Rather, as 1.20-21 say, God has made himself and his ways plain for all to see, and his general nature has been clearly grasped and understood by all. Knowledge of God and his ways isn't the problem.

So what is the human problem per Romans 1? Put simply, sin. Twice, in 1.18 and 1.25, it says that man's natural sinful inclination is to 'suppress' the truth. This is not ignorance of the truth, but a deliberate and willful suppression of it. Why does man suppress the truth? Romans 1.18 says it is through his wickedness that he suppresses the truth. How is this done? Romans 1 tells us that it is done through a brutal exchange. Three times in this section (1.23, 1.25, 1.26) it is said that man willfully forfeited the truth he knew and exchanged it for sinful idolatry. Romans 1.29-31 graphically illustrate the result. Man, in his natural state, has dehumanized himself, not because he didn't know any better, but because he willingly forsaked the truth he knew and embraced lies instead.

As uncomfortable as it is, it is clear from Romans 1:18ff that God has sufficiently revealed himself to such an extent that no one can claim ignorance when it comes to the question of whether God exists. It is clear that non-Christians "know" God; they are not blissfully ignorant of the reality of his existence or of his commands. The primary difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that Christians know God and non-Christians do not (although clearly, the Christian's knowledge of God is deeper due to the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit). Rather, the primary difference is the respective reaction of both groups to what they know to be true – Christians embrace this knowledge, while non-Christians futilely strive against it.

This anthropological diagnosis of man's condition and his most severe ailment stands in contrast to Islam's diagnosis. The sin problem is not cured through written instructions. This is why the Bible alone is not sufficient for our salvation, because mere agreement with its teachings, while good and essential, is not the remedy for our ailment. It is belief in Christ as the loving and transforming Savior that releases us from the penalty of sin, enables us to resist the power of sin, and will ultimately deliver us from the presence of sin in our glorification. The Bible's words are completely true and are completely accurate in describing what God has done and is doing with people - writing the law on people's hearts, and revealing himself plainly to all so that as Romans 1.20 says, mankind is without excuse. Muslim anthropology requires instructions and information as the remedy for man's chief problem. Christian anthropology requires a Person to pay a sin debt that man could never pay so that man might live and find eternal rest through faith in this Person. This is a rather basic difference between Christianity and Islam.

For many, the Christian teaching is the harder teaching to accept. It's much easier and far more palatable for us to believe that what we need is greater knowledge of God in order to make an informed spiritual decision and not be punished for bad things we may have done out of ignorance. By comparison, it's much tougher to read the judgment of Romans 1 that we are without excuse because we already have more than enough knowledge of God. It's far less offensive to believe that ignorance is our biggest problem than to believe that sin is our biggest problem. But as a Christian who operates with a Christian anthropology, I confess that substituting ignorance for sin is the exact kind of 'exchange' that Romans 1 talks about. We're prone to do it, and many people have done it and will do it. Paul's observations about the human condition 2,000 years ago are just as valid today. But the quote from Flannery O'Connor that I quote in my blog heading reminds us that 'truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.'

Sorry about the tough nature of this post. Christian teaching isn't always easy or fun.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Denied Again

Word out of Miami is that Art Monk was once again denied entry into the Hall of Fame.

One word - shameful.

Friday, February 02, 2007

One More Time - Art Monk for the HoF

I blogged on this last November, but it is worth touching on again as we near the annual gathering of reporters who will vote on this year's NFL Hall of Fame class. Art Monk belongs in the Hall, period.

As others have noted, at the time of his retirement, Monk held the all-time record for career receptions, receptions in a single season, and consecutive games with at least one reception. He accomplished all this in a Joe Gibbs offense that stressed a running game that routinely called for Monk to be heavily involved in blocking schemes - which he did better than any receiver that has played the game. In this respect, Monk redefined the position, not in a sexy way, but in a selfless, courageous, and team-first way. In addition, Monk accomplished his receiving records even though there was no Hall of Fame QB throwing him the ball. Lynn Swann had Bradshaw. Jerry Rice had Montana. James Lofton had Jim Kelly. Monk, on the other hand, had people like Theismann and Doug Williams (both good QBs), and then people like Mark Rypien and Jay Schroeder. Monk did not have the advantage of a legend throwing the ball to him like many other legendary receivers did. And yet, his reception statistics are still better than any (that's right, ANY) wide receiver currently in the Hall of Fame.

Among the poor excuses that some have made to justify their repeated votes against Monk are that Monk was not a big impact receiver, nor was he the primary offensive weapon that defenses feared. These are bogus arguments. First, part of why the Skins' running game was so dominant was because of Monk's unprecedented blocking skill as a wide receiver. The Hogs deservedly get a lot of credit for the greatness of the Joe Gibbs running attack. But it was also due to the blocking of Monk that people like Riggins, Joe Washington, Kelvin Bryant, George Rogers, Earnest Byner, and even Timmy Smith got the glory they did. Second, to say that Monk was not a big impact receiver is to argue that being the guy who so often converted key third downs for 13 years has no real impact on a team's offensive success (and defensive success, since 3rd down conversions keep defenses fresh by keeping them off the field). Not even sports reporters are dumb enough to say that. What is really meant here is that Monk was not flashy enough; he didn't make enough spectacular highlight reel catches to make an impression on people looking for glitzy moments to separate Hall of Fame candidates from each other. The absurdity of this kind of standard for measuring excellence is self-evident. It is because of Monk that the running game was as dominant as it was, and people like Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders were as open as often as they were to make the 'big catches' that the voters seem to be looking for. I put 'big catches' in quotes, because as a Redskins fan, I remember Art Monk making more 'big catches' in 'big games' than Sanders, and maybe even Clark. Clark made a lot of big catches, but he dropped a few too. I can honestly only remember Art Monk dropping one pass in his entire career with the Redskins. He no doubt dropped more than that, but I sure can't think of any.

This leads to a final point that some consider irrelevant, but is far from it. Art Monk was a team guy first and last. He was no crybaby whining for the ball, and his unselfish commitment to the goals of the squad comes up over and over again whenever anyone talks to his former coaches and teammates. Put simply, Art Monk was a character guy and the most important guy in the locker room during the great decade-long Redskin run of the 1980s and early 90s. In response to this, some have said that Monk's character is irrelevant to the voting process, in that this is the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Virtue. Well first, such an attitude doesn't exactly reflect well on the selection process, and it is quite sad that there are people who proudly proclaim such a standard who are on the selection committee. In my view, and in the view of many others, such arguments seriously tarnish the credibility of the committee. But second, let's assume there's nothing wrong with this standard. The bottom line is that it still misses the mark. Art Monk never demanded the ball, never made a fuss about his role in the offense, never asked the coaches to build their offensive philosophy around his need for getting the ball, and he still held multiple prestigious receiving records at the time of his retirement. It is fair to ask how many more touchdowns, receptions, and 'big catches' Monk would have made if he had ever emulated the modern-day phenomenon of receivers demanding that the offense be centered around him getting the ball. This is no minor issue. Monk is being compared to other receivers who did exactly this, and this makes the comparison unfair. The worst part about it is that anti-Monk voters have had the gall to look at Monk's receiving numbers and tell us that induction into the Hall isn't just about numbers; it's about intangibles too. Indeed!! But in Monk's case, he has both the numbers AND the intangibles as I've tried to outline above. Yet, he has been denied entrance into the Hall.

As I said back in November, it is long overdue for the selection committee to do the right thing, and put a great receiver and a great human being into the Hall of Fame. The credibility of the selection process and the worthiness of the Hall itself are in play. Enough is enough.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Responsible Comparison of Christianity and Islam

For obvious spiritual and geopolitical reasons, the importance of the topic under discussion in this post is self-evident. While nothing I say will be news to those who are far more educated in the field of comparative religion than I, my hope is that this post will be helpful to laypeople who are grappling with whether constructive dialogue can occur between Christians and Muslims regarding their respective faiths. If by 'dialogue' we mean the resolution of all differences between the two religions, the answer is most definitely 'no'. But if by 'dialogue' we mean something better than misunderstanding, mutual suspicion and antagonism, and talking past each other, than I think the answer is 'yes' based on the below.

The best way to begin constructive dialogue between different parties is to try and locate some important area upon which there is either agreement, or some mutually understandable similarity. The latter indeed exists between Christian and Muslim doctrine. The specific area of doctrine where similarity exists is in the area of God's most complete revelation to humanity. Justin Holcomb has effectively discussed this in some length in a paper that is available to read at ThirdMill.

Now on the surface, it might sound logical when comparing Christianity and Islam to compare the Bible and the Quran, and/or Jesus and Mohammed. It sounds sensible to compare book and book, or leader and leader. But in this case, such comparisons are actually counterproductive because they confuse doctrinal categories. This is the major reason why Christians and Muslims don't understand each other, and look down upon each other when dealing with doctrine. The proper comparison to be made is between the respective faiths' source of God's highest revelation to man. For Christians, this revelation is the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. For Muslims, this revelation is not Mohammed, but the Quran. We need to be comparing Jesus Christ and the Quran.

While we must be careful not to mistake similarities or commonalities with elimination of all differences, there are indeed similarities that can serve to foster responsible dialogue. In Christian doctrine, the means of the great revelation of Christ was the Holy Spirit visiting the virgin who became pregnant with the Incarnate Word. In Muslim doctrine, the Quran was supernaturally recited to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. Both the illiterate Mohammed and the sexually pure Mary point to the miraculous nature of each faith's ideas about God's greatest revelation to man.

In addition, in both Christian and Muslim tradition, similar debates have raged about the eternality of the great revelation. In Christian tradition, early church councils were convened which debated the question of whether Christ was created or uncreated. This is known primarily as the Arian controversy. Similarly in Islamic tradition, debates have taken place about whether the Quran, as the great revelatory word of Allah, was created or uncreated (eternal). Structurally, as Martin and Woodward have said, the basic issue that causes this debate is similar to both faiths - how can the eternal and transcendent divine exist within the confines of human history? For Christians, the resolution is in the Incarnate Word. For Muslims, it is in the Quran.

As an evangelical, I must emphasize again that just because there are some similarities between Christianity and Islam regarding the most vivid revelation of God, we should not think for a minute that they mask the significant differences that have and will always continue to exist between the two religions. The most obvious difference is that there is a qualitative difference between the two faiths regarding this most vivid divine revelation. For Christians, God's fullest revelation to humanity is thoroughly personal, because his revelation is in the form of a Person. For Islam, Allah's fullest revelation to humanity is not through a Person, but through words in a book. This explains a great deal about how Christians and Muslims view their relationships with God. The Christian emphasis on God as Father, and we as his children is personal, familial, and relationally intimate. It is no accident that Christians stress 'a personal relationship' with God, because it is through a Person that God most revealed himself to mankind. This is not Islam's idea of intimacy with the divine.

This is demonstrated, as Holcomb has done, in the respective anthropologies of the two faiths. In Christian doctrine, humanity's chief problem is the sin problem. This take on the human condition corresponds to the Christian understanding of God as personal and concerned to take away the sins that create the broken relationship between God and man. But in Islam, humanity's chief problem is ignorance and forgetfulness. As Holcomb points out, in Islam, man is ignorant of his obligation to submit to Allah, and he is also ignorant about how to do it. Enter the Quran, which remedies this problem. The fullest revelation of Allah in Islam is not only ontologically different from the Incarnate Word of Christianity, it is functionally designed to achieve a different result. In Islam, Allah's fullest revelation is not designed to salvifically reconcile sinners to a holy God, as Christ does in Christianity. Instead, its purpose is to instruct people in how to understand Allah and his will better through disciplines in order to overcome their ignorance. This is very different from the Christian diagnosis of the human condition and its divine remedy.

To acknowledge similarities is not to deny significant differences. To the contrary, to get a working grasp of the similarities puts us in a far better position to accurately and responsibly highlight the differences that exist. I hope this post has marginally succeeded in that endeavor.