2014/03/30

Barna FRAMES: Fighting For Peace


One of the Barna Group's most recent projects is FRAMES, an attempt to engage in many important aspects of culture and their intersection with Christianity. In light of our culture's growing inability to focus and read anything of any significant length, each FRAME is a concise reflection based both in the author's personal experience and recent research done by the Barna Group. I had the pleasure of attending Barna FRAMES Live recently and will be working through the material presented for each FRAME in the live discussion, the book form, and the short film. I will continue my exploration into these FRAMES with Fighting For Peace: Your Role in a Culture Too Comfortable with Violence by Carol Howard Merritt and Tyler Wigg-Stevenson.

While this FRAME features a controversial and often contested topic, regarding which I have written on in terms of my own attempts to grapple with the subject elsewhere (The Christian and Violence, I: Christians, the Government, and Military Participation, The Christian and Violence, II: Violence for Protection?, and Violence), Merritt and especially Wigg-Stevenson approach the subject at such a fundamental and primary way that it becomes quite hard to disagree with their premise while still affirming a Biblical worldview, and for that perspective I am quite thankful.

Wigg-Stevenson begins by defining what violence is at least in Christian terms: violence is harm done to human bodies. The "normal" or "usual" approach taken when it comes to violence is to then ascertain if and when such bodily harm is legitimate or illegitimate. As Barna's research shows, different people have different comfort levels with various forms of violence: some are more concerned with gang violence while others prove more concerned about police brutality. Some are more concerned with domestic violence or foreign wars or violence in entertainment than others. Such an endeavor is an attempt to ascertain the lines of "appropriate" versus "inappropriate" violence and levels thereof. Yet Wigg-Stevenson challenges us to think more deeply: why does violence have such a strong appeal to us in its various forms, from football hits to gory movie scenes or video games?

On one hand, as Merritt and Wigg-Stevenson discuss, many Americans have done well at keeping themselves away from actual violence. Wars are being fought, but they are "over there." School shootings take place, but we watch them on television, and thus establish distance between ourselves and the events; coverage of violence on the news also tends to be sanitized, further masking the ugly reality. I, personally, have often commented on how "sanitized" modern Western existence is and how our forebears were much more attuned to the natural violence and despair of life: if they wanted meat they would have to kill an animal, while we get wrapped meat from a grocery store counter. Actual violence and death are not day-to-day realities in most of our lives, save those who are unfortunate to live "across the tracks" and/or in abusive relationships. Yet while we have sanitized actual violence out of our lives we seem to maintain a primal desire to see it, and thus we have such great amounts of violence in our entertainment.

Wigg-Stevenson goes on to spend much of his time discussing violence in entertainment mostly because, I imagine, that's the kind of violence that most of his readers are participating in more actively, and it no doubt helps fuel and is fueled by our culture saturated by violence. There is some unease about it: 33% of practicing Christians polled felt that violence was one of their top two concerns about entertainment, and 69% believed some connection existed between playing violent video games and violent actual behavior. Nevertheless it seems that "everyone" participates in some sort of violent entertainment, and most do it as a form of escapism. Wigg-Stevenson then focuses on two myths of violence which allow its justification in our culture; these two myths prove quite pervasive and extremely hostile to the Christian message.

The first myth involves the dehumanization of a person necessary in order to "enjoy" their destruction: in order to watch a movie and be able to get a rush from a person's injury or death, that person or person(s) must, at some level, be reduced to the body parts being injured and cease to be a real human, otherwise there would be at least some guilt in watching the person or people die. Wigg-Stevenson invites us to imagine a gory scene from Braveheart, to use one example, of a British man having his head smashed in by a Scottish mace. If the movie first told this British man's background story, how he was born, his love, his aspirations, how he was conscripted for war, and then his gory death scene, it would be much harder to stomach his death, let alone cheer it on. In order to enjoy violence the person must be distanced from his essential humanity as made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27); since it would deny the value of the human as made in God's image, Wigg-Stevenson sees this myth as perpetuating an atheistic view of the world: people are just bodies to be dispensed with for our entertainment, a piece of meat. Wigg-Stevenson also identifies this as the essence of pornography as well: the object of lust is truly de-humanized, their background, their hopes and dreams in life, their emotions, etc., are all not only irrelevant but distractions from the opportunity to satisfy desire by looking at their body parts. To that end pornography is its own form of violence: "holes are to be filled just as meat is to be butchered."

The second myth is perhaps even more pervasive: the myth of redemptive violence. This is its own form of worldly wisdom: violence is the answer to the world's problems. This is the code of ethics of all violent movies and video games: someone has to use "legitimate" violence in order to stop others from committing more "illegitimate" forms of violence.

As Wigg-Stevenson notes, Saturday Night Live has showed us what the Gospel would look like if it conformed to this myth of redemptive violence in its mock movie teaser for "DJesus Uncrossed" (warning: some cursing and much graphic violence):


Such is the inverse of the Gospel of Christ. Jesus gained His victory precisely by suffering death without retaliation (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-4). The Apostle Paul explicitly charges Christians to not seek vengeance but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Yet the myth of redemptive violence is pernicious, and many seek to hold on to it with a Christian veneer, justifying it by images in Revelation, yet not noticing that it is precisely in Revelation where we see Jesus as the conquering Lamb, having gained His victory through humiliation and sacrifice, and overcoming His foes with the Word of His mouth (Revelation 19:15, 21). There's no Rambo in Christianity.

Ultimately the most biting and indicting aspect to this FRAME is the research done comparing what people of the world and Christians think about various matters of violence and what they think Jesus would believe or do. As the chart shows, large numbers of Christians believe they are justified in using violence for self-defense and are against gun control laws, yet feel that Jesus would not agree with them. This chart makes it clear that vast majorities of not only believers but also worldly people understand Jesus in terms of non-violence; that much is encouraging. Yet the wide gaps between what Christians think Jesus would do and what they themselves can and would do is staggering; sure, Christians will claim to follow Jesus, and will do so where it is comfortable, but here is an instance where modern (especially conservative) culture widely diverges from Jesus' life and practice and thus the divided loyalty becomes evident quickly. After all, if all these Christians understand that Jesus would be non-violent, then from whence comes their own divergent viewpoint?

For her part Merritt focuses on the violence all around us that we often ignore or neglect: the violence in the inner cities and domestic violence, and offers encouragement regarding how we can "fight" for peace in our daily lives. Stephan Joubert, in the Re/Frame, provides touching examples from South Africa regarding the healing power of reconciliation in the wake of violence.

So all of this leads to application: should Christians seek to live in a violence-free bubble? In the FRAME Wigg-Stevenson endeavors to carve out a place where some violence may have to take place for justice's sake, relying on Romans 13:1-7 and the need for some to uphold the rule of law, but even then counsels about the effects of violence and exhorts toward caution regarding such matters. In terms of entertainment he did best in his FRAMES Live talk by declaring that "good art does not titillate," in terms of either violence or sexuality. We live in a world full of violence; we cannot shrink away from it, and we must come to grips with it. But violence is not something in which to glory.

Perhaps the most powerful illustration made by Wigg-Stevenson is the appeal to Jesus on the cross. There He is the object of violence, publicly humiliated to display ungodly power, a proclamation of a lack of belief in the God of Israel and the Christ whom He sent. To some level He was crucified for the entertainment of many: the Roman soldiers mocked Him, as did many among the Israelites, making fun of Him and taking pleasure in His execution (cf. especially Mark 14:64-65, 15:16-19, 29-32). How can we claim to serve Christ crucified yet "enjoy" dehumanizing violent entertainment making sport of the sufferings akin to what Jesus experienced? And how can we declare Jesus the Crucified Lord yet still hold on to the idea that violence can indeed lead to redemption?

In the end, it is one thing to learn about and be transformed by the sufferings experienced by others. But it is quite another to find refreshment, escape, satisfaction, or any other pleasure in the dehumanizing violence so often displayed in movies, video games, and their ilk. Such forms of entertainment perpetuate and are fed by a culture of violence, and we as Christians are called to not be conformed to such but be transformed by the renewing of our minds according to the Christ who experienced suffering and identified with the victim and was glorified because of it. Let us "fight" for peace and resist the dehumanization of violence and pornography in entertainment!

ELDV

2014/02/15

Barna FRAMES: The Hyperlinked Life / Greater Expectations



One of the Barna Group's most recent project is FRAMES, an attempt to engage in many important aspects of culture and their intersection with Christianity. In light of our culture's growing inability to focus and read anything of any significant length, each FRAME is a concise reflection based both in the author's personal experience and recent research done by the Barna Group. I had the pleasure of attending Barna FRAMES Live recently and will be working through the material presented for each FRAME in the live discussion, the book form, and the short film. Two FRAMES discuss the challenges of navigating real life in a digital age: The Hyperlinked Life: Live with Wisdom in an Age of Information Overload by Jun Young and David Kinnaman, and Greater Expectations: Succeed (and Stay Sane) in an On-Demand, All-Access, Always-On Age by Claire Diaz-Ortiz.

In The Hyperlinked Life Young and Kinnaman set forth the overwhelming influence of technology and digital devices in our lives, focusing primarily on smartphones. They mention how there are more smartphones in the world now than toilets; they increasingly mediate the way we relate to the world around us. In many ways this is understandable; the smartphone provides instant access to the Internet and the warehouse of human knowledge, maps, calendars, calculators, music, videos, and even serves as a handy flashlight. The "phone" aspect of the smartphone seems to be its most antiquated feature; social media and texting tend to be the primary means of communication anymore. While the Internet and its related technology have provided many benefits, many downsides remain. Barna reports that 71% of people feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to know in order to keep up-to-date; 54% of people have moments when they feel as if they have too much information; 35% of all adults, and 49% of Millennials in particular, feel their personal electronics sometimes separate them from other people in real life.

To this end Young and Kinnaman feel that the time has come to consider a theology of information. The technology already exists; people spend an average of eight hours a day looking at screens and devices, often checking the smartphone over a hundred times a day. In so many ways the Internet is the modern Tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 11:1-9), made of 0s and 1s, stored in buildings full of servers, perhaps digital, but no less an edifice to human pretension and quest for glory. Such does not make the Internet inherently ungodly or anti-godly, but it does speak to the need, for Christians, to make sure that God is put at the center of information, our digital lives, and how we in reality interface with technology.

I found it compelling, personally, to think about God on the Internet. Since the Internet is a human invention, it might be easy to imagine that God is not involved. But if God is truly not involved in the Internet in some way, why should we, as His servants, have anything to do with it? If we live and move and have our being in God in reality (Acts 17:24-28), and man can go nowhere to hide from Him, since He fills heaven and earth (Jeremiah 23:24), then God's eyes are also upon the Internet and our digital existence, and God should be filling the Internet.

The call for a theology of information, and of wisdom regarding how to live in an Internet age, is necessary and useful. It would seem easier to dispense with the lot, yet such is unwise and impractical; the technology is here to stay, and it provides wonderful opportunities. Last year my family and I took an 11,000 mile trip around the country to visit supporters, family, and friends over a ten week period. We had someone stay at the house and some financial affairs were handled by people here in California, but much of the trip was mediated through technology. Waze directed me everywhere we needed to go, and often proved more accurate than paper maps. Financial support could be deposited through mobile banking. I brought my laptop and backup hard drive and therefore had full access to everything I've ever written, and could quickly upload any lesson to my Kindle for preaching. While such a trip could have been planned and executed before the current age, it could not have been done as easily or efficiently. Furthermore, by posting frequent updates and pictures, many of our Facebook friends were able to experience the trip vicariously. It was not long into the trip when we started to hear people say how they had followed us along our travels through Facebook and appreciated that opportunity. Social media, for all its flaws, does allow life to be lived and shared communally over large distances, a real benefit in a society where young families often move hundreds if not thousands of miles from their birthplace and family connections. Time would fail me if I attempted to discuss all the relationships that have been started or renewed on account of social media connections.

Yet, as Young and Kinnaman note, the breadth of communality and in number of relationships also means that too much emphasis on the digital aspect of relationships lead people to alienation and isolation. 2,000 Facebook friends may not mean that a person has many "real" friends with whom they could share both the pleasantries and the less pleasant aspects of life. Lots of people are more in love with technology than with people; this is not a good trend. Therefore, Christians must consider themselves and how they live their lives in reality and in the digital realm. Christians should consider if their online personae are anything like themselves in reality, and seek to live a bit more authentically online. Christians must be discerning about the information they get online; most people seem to know that nothing is true just because they "read it on the Internet," since people believe that about 55% of what they read on the Internet is accurate. Nevertheless, people remain prone to accept what they want to believe, and reject what they do not: among self-professing Christians, 64% over 40 and 48% under 40 accept the veracity of a particular truth claim if it fits with things they already know; 49% over 40 and 61% under 40 will verify the truth claim with another source. Meanwhile, 60% of all adults, and 67% of Millennials, get frustrated when they have conflicting pieces of information. The Internet has overcome many challenges we faced in terms of finding access to information; the challenge for all of us today is to learn critical thinking skills so as to exercise proper discernment and judgment about what should be accepted as true based upon what God has revealed and what is actually real as opposed to the reality we would like to imagine exists (John 7:24, 2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Much of what Young and Kinnaman recommend regarding wisdom for life in the digital age is fleshed out more fully by Diaz-Ortiz in Greater Expectations. Diaz-Ortiz works for Twitter and has needed to establish disciplines in her own life in order to find satisfaction and to remain sane. One of the aspects of technology we do not often want to consider is whether we own technology or if our technology is owning us: who is in control of whom? Most people cannot imagine going a day in their "regular" lives without Internet access; only 12% of people consciously set aside time during their day when they are not using technology. Internet overuse is beginning to be understood as a psychological disorder. Has technology made us more productive? 50% would agree; 50% believe it has made them less productive. This is leading to less satisfaction in life: 42% feel unsatisfied with their lives, and 55% wished they had been more productive the day before.

Consumption of digital media can overcome very easily. There are always new blogs to read, new e-mails to check, new Facebook, Twitter, or other social media feeds to consider. 40% of adults (56% of Millennials) check their phone as the first thing they do when they get up; 33% of adults (54% of Millennials) make a final check just before bed. Therefore, a significant proportion of the population begins the day online and ends it online. The Internet is always on; therefore, there is an expectation that people are now "always on" as well. If you are willing to work all the time, people will expect you to work all the time. If you don't establish boundaries, limitations, and schedules, no one will do it for you, and you will more likely than not feel stressed out, overwhelmed, and insufficiently productive.

Young and Kinnaman recommended "digital detox," going for a day or so without the use of technology just to see how dependent one has become on it as a point of reflection. Diaz-Ortiz finds value in that as well but also espouses a more holistic practice of using the time right after waking up as a period of offline time to prepare for the day. She uses a PRESENT acrostic, featuring prayer, reading, expressing oneself, scheduling, exercise, personal nourishment, and tracking of how well the whole PRESENT thing is going for you. By accomplishing these things offline, you define who you are and what you will do outside of the Internet and away from its distractions. In terms of scheduling she recommends doing as much as can be done offline, so as to have less distraction; to have breaks, ideally not screen time; and to have block scheduling whenever possible so as to not need to constantly shift mental gears between tasks and thus to work more efficiently.

I have personally found using the period just after waking up as a time for prayer, reading, and otherwise offline time as not only productive but also in many ways liberating. As an evangelist in a "mission field" it has been very easy to be "always on" and "working" every waking moment 7 days a week. I had to set boundaries for myself: since Thursdays and Fridays were the only days without scheduled events, I have endeavored to sanctify Thursdays and Fridays as days of non-work. Such does not mean I've taken off two days from God or following Jesus; instead, they are times for reading, spending time with family, getting non-work matters accomplished, etc. Taking those days off does not mean the phone won't ring or e-mails won't come in; if anything, Murphy's law has been at work, and many requests will come in on those days. I've had to learn to just hold off, both in reality and mentally, and let it be done on Saturday or beyond.

At Frames LIVE, George Barna spoke about information and trying to make sense of it, and while listening to him I recognized how I was not really "made" for this particular time. I prove far too naturally curious about just about anything. When information is limited to specific books with specific levels of access, it proves easy to maintain some discipline and self-control; but with an ever-present resource that can answer any question at any time to any degree of depth, I've often found myself spending hours going through Wikipedia pages on all sorts of topics, and have often spent hours reading through my RSS feed. Meanwhile, the stack of books I should read grows ever higher, and projects are often delayed or take longer than they should to complete. Young and Kinnaman call for an understanding of technology in terms of stewardship, and that is wise: we have to be good stewards of our technological lives, keeping it in perspective, not sacrificing the greater good in pursuit of lesser goods. Do I read my RSS feed? Sure, but I try to get other tasks done first, or look at it during a break. I try to get some of that high-priority reading done right after waking up to make sure it gets done. Whereas there must be some flexibility in schedule, I try to keep a good idea of what should get done by when (and probably should have a bit more expansive view of what ought to be done by when).

I say all of this to show that stewardship of technology will look a bit different for each person on account of their responsibilities and particular strengths, challenges, and temptations. While the technology is new, the challenges are not; we are called to exercise discipline, self-control, and sober-mindedness in all situations, and therefore do well to establish healthy technological practices today to model for the next generation which will all but assuredly be even more immersed in technology than our own (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, 1 Peter 4:7).

We cannot close ourselves off from these issues; we are in the midst of the technological revolution, these types of technology are here to stay, and so we must use discernment to ascertain how we can best follow Jesus in this hyperlinked age. These FRAMES are recommended for consideration of technology and how to remain its master and not its slave, and to begin the discussion of how to best glorify and honor the Lord Jesus through a healthy real-digital life balance.

ELDV

2014/02/04

Barna FRAMES: 20 and Something


One of the Barna Group's most recent project is FRAMES, an attempt to engage in many important aspects of culture and their intersection with Christianity. In light of our culture's growing inability to focus and read anything of any significant length, each FRAME is a concise reflection based both in the author's personal experience and recent research done by the Barna Group. I had the pleasure of attending Barna FRAMES Live recently and will be working through the material presented for each FRAME in the live discussion, the book form, and the short film. I begin with 20 and Something: Have the Time of Your Life (And Figure it All Out Too) by David H. Kim.

In this FRAME Kim attempts to present a coherent picture of the Millennial generation, defined for this purpose as those born between 1984 and 1993 (i.e. those 20 to 29). He admits that it is hard to define this generation but notes some themes, particularly as they relate to the shared experience of the generation. He focuses on Millennial views of technology, relationships, work, and views regarding institutions and thus their general disposition.

This generation grew up with technology, and unlike any previous generation, are truly digital natives. Their lives are saturated by technology in almost every facet: their relationships are often mediated by some level of online contact, their view of work and how they would be able to change the world are based in technology, their entrepreneurial spirit is informed by the possibilities of technology both for improving quality of life and its ability to be wielded by small groups as well as large corporations, and their view of institutions is, at least in some part, shaped by how technology has overthrown many, transformed others, and has led to the formation of very important and large corporations in an unbelievably short period of time (after all, all these Millennials are older than Google and Facebook). They see the promise of technology but also are aware of technology's limitations; they still crave relationships. They are used to having a warehouse of knowledge at their fingertips and have no problems using it. Apparently 25% of Millennial churchgoers have fact-checked something they heard in a sermon during that sermon.

This generation does value relationships and places a premium on developing close friendships that go well beyond the superficial connections made through social media. Adulthood is defined primarily in terms of emotional maturity and self-discovery; previous hallmarks, like marriage, childbearing, and financial independence are not seen as what defines a person as an adult. They place a great premium on marriage and raising children, but most often see those life events further ahead in the future, perhaps less about irresponsibility and more about concern about finding the most compatible life partner and taking seriously the commitment of having children.

Work features prominently in the Millennial mindset even though far too many Millennials find themselves over-educated and under-employed. Millennials have little job loyalty and loyalty to institutions, and they expect to find meaningful jobs which will empower them to help change the world. It sounds overly idealistic and naïve, and yet they can point to many examples of young people involved in corporations and non-profits alike active in enhancing quality of life around the world through technology. They're willing to pass over some job opportunities in order to find work which they find meaningful and valuable, and they expect any organization or institution with whom they labor or in which they invest time and energy to provide meaningful labor and work toward something greater than themselves.

Despite growing up in tumultuous times, after the fall of Communism in the west but during the Internet upheaval, the tech boom collapse, then 9/11 and other terrorist events, and the most recent great depression, the author finds Millennials, on the whole, to be quite optimistic about themselves and their future. They expect to find work, make a good living, and change the world; "hope" and "change" are not meaningless to them. They have a more optimistic view of corporations and government than previous generations, yet are the generation that has the least confidence in churches (30% as compared to 34% of Gen-Xers and 41% of Boomers and Elders, p.39). Millennials seek meaning, in general maintain a robust spirituality, yet do not feel compelled to participate in the "institutional church."

The numbers are sobering: 59% of young adults who grow up as "Christians" broadly defined end up leaving the church at some point after high school graduation (p. 27). Such is not unique to this generation; many in previous generations left for awhile during their 20s and yet returned. But previous generations were raised in an age with greater loyalty to institutions and less access to a range of informational alternatives. There is no guarantee that a large percentage of those Millennials will come back to churches, especially if they find greater meaning and participation in more "secular" pursuits.

It is easy for those of us who are older than this generation to be quite dismissive of the Millennials as narcissistic and hopelessly naïve. It is easy to cringe at their demand for constant affirmation and how they think everything has to have meaning. There are some respects in which the expectations of this generation, as generations before them, will have to be tempered: the way in which we work in this creation has been cursed (Genesis 3:17-19), the goal of eternal monuments to our efforts has proven futile since the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), and this generation ought to get a needed dose of the wisdom of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, especially as it relates to life, work, and effort.

Nevertheless, this generation should not be so easily dismissed or written off. In his lecture/discussion David Kim spoke of his and my generation, the Gen-Xers, as the Seinfeld generation, quite cynical and sarcastic, while Millennials are quite optimistic and don't seem to understand why we are so cynical and sarcastic. It really is quite the question considering that "we" grew up in better times with a more optimistic outlook and yet wore grunge, listened to depressing music, and then lamented how so many were strung out on drugs and/or committing suicide, and yet for what and why? Cynicism and sarcasm are easy responses to a quite less than ideal world, yet the Gospel calls us to hope in Christ, something which seems to come more naturally to Millennials. There's value in idealism; a cynic can never be disappointed.

Regarding the Millennials a great call must be made to the church to live up to what it professes. There are many understandable reasons why Millennials are disillusioned with the institutional church: its moral failures are paraded in the media, it seems to refuse to understand or work with them but expects them to conform to their arbitrary standard, it does not seem like a place where meaning can actually be found, but looks like a major vat of hypocrisy and pretension.

In our widely-connected yet superficial world, Millennials and many others seek meaning and deep relationship. The church has all of the resources to satisfy these desires at its disposal in the message of the Gospel, in which all men and women are called to share in the community of God in Christ, the church, where people can share in life, both the ups and downs, and should be able to open up about their challenges and difficulties and find acceptance, wholeness, and healing in Christ (Romans 5:6-11, 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). The church ought to be a place in which Millennials can work with Gen-Xers, Boomers, and Elders as joint-participants in the work of God in Christ, using their talents to advance God's purposes to His glory, and be able to participate in the only work which will last unto eternity, the proper channel for their desire for meaning in work and life (Matthew 6:19-23, 1 Peter 4:10-11). The church should be the place where the Millennials can provide a needed "shot in the arm" of optimism and idealism while learning about the challenges, pitfalls, and dangers of existence from those with greater experience. Millennial yearning for authenticity in relationships and finding meaning in life are not handicaps or difficulties; we do well to listen to those desires, as they are God's desires (Acts 17:24-28, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 13:10-13), and find ways to develop authenticity and meaning within churches.

Every successive generation is at least partly shaped by the major events and forces which defined their formative years. In terms of the Gospel and the church we must find ways to communicate God's purposes to the next generation so as to bring them in, encouraging them through the witness of what God has done in Christ and what that means for us so that they may share and participate in life with us. It is not for us to judge and condemn the next generation any more or less than it is for them to judge and condemn previous generations; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it is in the Body of Christ where our strengths can encourage and strengthen others while our weaknesses are offset by others' strengths, to the building up (edification) of the Body, to be part of something greater than ourselves (Ephesians 4:11-16). When the Body is hemorrhaging its youngest constituents, there is a major problem. While we ought to work diligently to bring into the fold Millennials who were never part of it or who left it, we must also work diligently with the young who have yet to leave to make sure they have a well-informed faith, understanding what God has done in Christ, and how the Gospel and the church are to relate to their lives, relationships, technology, work, and search for meaning. If 59% of those who grow up in the church find no use for it once they reach 20, we need to take a hard look at how the church is attempting to accomplish its purpose, discuss how the church is not living up to its calling, and begin working toward Biblically based solutions so that the next generation may better understand why God works through the church and why radical individualism is no way forward.

HarperCollins is offering a free edition of one of the FRAMES here if you are interested in this FRAME or another one in the series. 20 and Something is recommended for those who wish to better understand Millennials as they seek to encourage them to participate in God's purposes in Christ in the Gospel and the church.

Hopefully this can begin a good conversation about Millennials and faith. Millennials: do you feel this characterization is accurate? How can Christians and churches be more responsive to Millennials? Those of us who are older than Millennials: how can we most effectively work to encourage Millennials in their faith and participation in the church? How can we do better to raise our children in successive generations to understand God's purposes in Christ and His body, the church?

ELDV

2014/01/30

Communication and Knowledge

One of the matters of the faith regarding which I have been giving much thought is the process of communicating knowledge. Proclamation of the Gospel, after all, demands the communication of saving knowledge of the Risen Lord Jesus who was crucified (Romans 1:16, 10:17). What is going on in the process of attempting to communicate the Gospel?

This is another area in which the Enlightenment paradigm has taken hold. The Enlightenment paradigm involves the assumptions of the Enlightenment: the problem with mankind is ignorance or false knowledge; the solution is to inform, or enlighten, mankind with true knowledge, and then humanity will do what they are supposed to do when they know what they need to know. According to the Gospel, knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient: our problem as humans is that we know quite well what to do but we are tempted to sin and fall prey to temptation (Romans 5:12-21, 7:1-25, James 1:13-15).

Another aspect of the Enlightenment involved the idolization of "objectivity." The only things which are really true are those that can be maintained through objective analysis. We can see this clearly in the pretense of the media: the stated goal is to attempt to communicate the news as objectively as possible so as to allow the reader to make an appropriate conclusion based upon a sober and reasoned analysis of the information provided. Never mind that no one wants to read an objective news story and everyone has their biases because everyone has an already formed worldview; objectivity remains the goal.

I'm sure you've heard the illustration of the man or tribe overseas in some distant location who has never been influenced by any denomination, and that if he/they were given a Bible in their language, they would practice, well, what we would practice. If such a circumstance were to take place, I grant they would not start the Catholic church, Lutheran church, or things of that sort, and they would see in the text and practice things like elders in a local congregation, baptism, etc., but may also give the holy kiss, meet in their huts or wherever they would live. It would be consistent with New Testament Christianity, just like (I believe) we seek to be consistent with New Testament Christianity, but in the end this story is impossible, because this tribesman / isolated man is a myth. No one is fully objective. Everyone, from the New Guinea tribesman to the Parisian to someone in the Deep South of America, has a worldview shaped and formed by their experiences and their environment. Every worldview is consistent with the Gospel in some ways; every worldview falls short in some ways. That's why we must be rooted in Christ and challenge our most deep-seated assumptions with the Gospel (Colossians 2:1-10).

And this is the challenge with how we view Gospel communication. We'd like to think the Gospel Preacher proclaims the Gospel and the Hearer understands exactly what is meant and comes to the exactly proper conclusion and makes the appropriate changes. That's the ideal, and we all know what happens to the ideal in our creation. In fact, every step of this process is fraught with difficulty.

The Gospel Preacher is exhorted to preach the Word faithfully (2 Timothy 4:1-4), but the Gospel Preacher is a creature of his time, place, and culture. Based on his experiences he will think that certain elements of the message need greater emphasis than others; he may be right in some ways, but he also may not. He may defend tradition as if it were truth, and dispense some truth as if an earlier tradition. No doubt he'll think he's proclaiming the whole counsel of God, but if there could be an "objective analysis" of what was preached, some lesser things textually would be magnified in preaching, and some things made much of in the text would not receive as much emphasis. This is not the end of the world; we preach the Gospel in a specific context, which means that we are going to have to spend more time on certain subjects rather than others. But we've also all probably seen when it goes wrong.

Then there's the Hearer. So I don't go crazy with pronouns, we'll say she's a she. Assuming her sincerity, she has lived for years apart from the Gospel of Christ or influenced by some other understanding of Jesus. Today she has lived in 21st century America and has been influenced by all of its cultural peculiarities. Even if she is very receptive to the Gospel, when she hears its message, there are parts that she isn't comfortable with and strike her as odd, counter-intuitive, and against everything she's ever been taught. This is not a bad reaction; it is exactly the reaction that should exist, because there are parts of the Gospel that should make us uncomfortable, should strike us as counter-intuitive, and against everything she's ever been taught. A Gospel that is everything she believes, everything she expects, and with which she fully agrees is not a real Gospel at all, but the God of the imagination of man of that particular era. The Gospel is supposed to be a challenge to some degree; at some point, we have to recognize that many of its dictates are difficult, counter-intuitive, and against everything we've been taught, but decide to trust God and His ways over our thoughts and ways (so Peter, John 6:68-69). Anyway, our female Hearer, like the rest of us, are not computers. We don't just process data; our emotions and soul are involved. Therefore, she's not just receiving information and processing it like a computer; she is reacting to what she is hearing or reading in her emotions and soul as well. She might feel a deep sympathy or revulsion at what is heard; she may automatically sympathize with what she hears, or feels hostility toward it; the visceral impressions she feels may be impressed as a deep memory which might recur when the subject or information piece is brought up again in the future. This is not bad or wrong because if God wanted to make computers, He would have; instead, He made humans, and our minds and emotions and soul all influence one another. This is how we can, say, abhor what is evil, and cling to what is good (Romans 12:9); we can have such visceral reactions. But in our sin corrupted nature, we can misfire. We can feel deep revulsion to some things that God has said are good or are consistent with holiness; we might still cling to sin or not righteousness. I've heard too many stories of people who have gone down the wrong paths doctrinally not because of a well-argued, coherent, rational argument, but because they are reacting to some situation that was not handled properly or a very uncharitable or unloving attitude expressed toward another, and the person felt a deep revulsion to what was going on.

"Coming to a knowledge of the truth and be saved" is not, therefore, just a matter of mental information processing. Our understanding is colored by our emotions; just like we need to align our thinking towards God's Word, we must align our feelings with it as well. And we need to confess and admit that the proclamation of the Gospel is not just an information transfer, but often a war within the mind, body, and soul, the spiritual conflict of forces of light and darkness, the flesh versus the spirit (Galatians 5:19-24, Ephesians 6:12). We've got to conquer our biases, our deeply held impressions, our visceral reactions, for they are part of that thought process. And we need to be aware that others will be going through this experience as well, and shouldn't expect the transmission of the Gospel to just be about objective pieces of information. Communication never is.

The other aspect I am chewing on involves one of those major changes between our time and the first century that isn't addressed a whole lot. Notice that the New Testament doesn't say a whole lot about reading or studying; the focus tends to be on hearing and listening. This is appropriate for a time and place when (a) most people were illiterate and (b) scrolls were few and far between. Therefore, if you are an early Christian, odds are you can't read. And even if you can read, odds are you don't have access to all of Scripture, let alone in the various forms we have it. So what do you do?

In such an environment, the public reading of Scripture becomes all-important; it's the only way you get access to Scripture. If the reading is not done well, or worse, misread, you may come to believe that God has said something He has not said, or has not said something He did say. Not for nothing does Paul exhort Timothy to give consideration to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13). Granted, in an aural culture, your mind is better able to retain the things you have heard read to you, which is good, because after hearing the reading and the exhortation on Sunday, that's what you'd have to think about throughout the week until the next Sunday. Hence the Biblical exhortations in Deuteronomy 6:4-12 about having the Law be on your mind, in your conversation, etc.: it's to be made a part of life. You might think about the reading while plowing the field, and perhaps you'd have a chance to put it into action by helping a neighbor as you walk home. The message heard on Sunday is thus not divorced from life; there is an expectation that it is thought about and acted upon in life.

We've seen an incredible shift in 200 years: not only has Scripture become so easily accessible, but literacy is no longer the privilege of a few. I am not saying this is a problem; it's great to have constant access to Scripture. But I have questions about our model. It seems that "studying your Bible" has become one of the defining religious behaviors of Christians. By listening to lessons you can easily get the impression that we should (a) be there on Sunday, (b) do the acts of worship right, (c) not be a denominationalist, and (d) go study your Bibles. Now, that sentiment is noble: the idea is that by going and studying your Bible, you'll reflect more on it, and seek to put it into practice in your life. If people were to do that, such would be great, right?

But let's be honest. Let's even grant that people are studying their Bibles like they should. Are we honestly seeing the transformation that should be taking place? Are people effectively meditating upon what Scripture says and applying it to their lives? Also, as discussed above, how well is the average individual doing at understanding what he is reading? Who's there to correct him in his private study if he's made an inappropriate conclusion or application? Does he even engage Scripture with a view toward applying it to his life, or is he just trying to understand the text for understanding's sake so he doesn't sound like an idiot in Bible class and doesn't gain the ire of the preacher? How has he seen Bible study modeled in the Bible class: is it an attempt to come to an understanding of what God is saying, challenging our thoughts and actions, seeking to apply it to the modern day, or is it just a weekly opportunity to utter the same stock phrases and platitudes and revel in how we have it all right and others do not?

Even beyond that, how is the person "hearing" the voice of God in Scripture in his head? Scripture is never dead words on a page. Remember that Scripture was meant to be read aloud: sure, it's not Paul or Peter standing up there actually saying the words, but if we close our eyes and listen, we can hear the words of the Apostles speaking to us through the Scripture reader just like they were originally read to the Ephesians or Colossians or Christians of Asia Minor or whomever and wherever. It's its own form of communion with the saints, the shared experience of hearing the words of God spoken before us. You just can't get that experience from reading paper or an e-reader.

For that matter, what was preached in your congregation on Sunday? Maybe you remember it. Great! What about last week? The week before that? Last month? How often have the lessons spurred you on to greater meditation on Scripture and applying it?

I want to be clear: I am not against studying Scripture. I like encouraging the study of Scripture! But how are we going about it, and what do we see in the Bible? In short, how could we blend the benefits of the ancient approach and the modern approach?

To that end, I want to exhort all Christians to take the public reading of Scripture more seriously. It's one of the acts of the assembly and should be held in high esteem. Actually read Scripture; be willing to add drama to it, for it is a dramatic text! Make it more than a preface to the lesson; remember that whatever the preacher says, no matter how substantive or well-presented, is uninspired, but the Scripture reading is our chance to actually listen to and meditate upon the inspired message of God. In terms of meditation and application, through social media, I've been sending out 3-4 "Scripture, meditation, and application" based on the Sunday lesson, one a day during the week, to provide an opportunity to think about a Scripture as related to the lesson and an application of it, to keep the message fresh and to bring the message into the regular life of those who pay attention. There are other ways to attempt to reinforce the lesson throughout the week. It also forces me to make sure that there are sufficient Scriptures, meditations, and applications in place in the lesson, since God has established these for us not just as a mental exercise but as encouragement to make Christianity real in our daily lives. Christianity can only be real in our daily lives when we're actively thinking about it and looking for ways to apply it. Personal Bible study can be good and profitable but it is not an end unto itself; we need to remember that for the first 1700 years of Christianity Christians had no ability to engage in personal Bible study and God is not going to condemn them for it. Personal Bible study should lead to the same goal as the public reading of Scripture and the exhortation in preaching: to foster meditation on what God has said to us so that we have it actively in our mind so as to have opportunity to act it out in our daily walk and to do so. All the Bible study in the world, even becoming a "walking Bible," is of no value unless it is lived, and it is the lived Christian life which should be elevated as the ideal religious behavior for all Christians, just as it is in Scripture (Galatians 5:17-24, Ephesians 4:1-6:18, Colossians 3:1-4:6, Titus 3:3-8, etc.).

Let us give appropriate consideration to the processes of communicating knowledge so as to most effectively promote the apostolic Gospel of Christ in the 21st century!

ELDV

2013/11/18

BR: The Voice Bible

The one thing we do not lack is variety in Bible translations available in English today. There is a veritable alphabet soup of versions available: KJV, ASV, ESV, NASB, RSV, NKJV, NRSV, NLT, NIV, CEV, TEV, HCSB, CEB, among many others. Now, in such an environment, another version has been produced: The Voice Bible. Why yet another version? What can The Voice provide that is missing in other Bibles?

The Voice Bible has some distinctive elements worth considering. Its translation committee involved Biblical scholars but also artists of other genres so that the translation does not sound so much like, well, a translation. The Voice is a dynamic equivalence translation, or a "thought-for-thought" rather than a "word-for-word" translation approach, and goes beyond with constant amplification of the text (thankfully always italicized) and many notes interspersed throughout the texts explaining the context and its meaning. The Voice also reads more like a screenplay than a text, exemplified (along with the note concept) here in John 4:8-9:

Jesus: Would you draw water, and give Me a drink? Woman: I cannot believe that You, a Jew, would associate with me, a Samaritan woman; much less ask me to give You a drink. Jews, you see, have no dealings with Samaritans. Also, a man never approaches a woman like this in public. Jesus is breaking accepted social barriers with this confrontation.

The Voice Bible, therefore, strives for maximum comprehension of the message of the text as its ultimate goal, and goes to great lengths in order to accomplish it.

In the past I have been very critical of dynamic equivalence translations ("thought for thought," e.g. CEV, NIV, NLT, The Message, The Voice) on account of the amount of textual distortion that takes place in the process. Some such distortion is confessionally/doctrinally motivated: baptism is frequently de-emphasized while faith "only" comes to the fore, since that is the strong doctrinal stand of many translators. Yet what is perhaps most problematic is the unintentional distortion that takes place precisely because comprehension of the basic message is the emphasis: in order to bring the basic meaning to the fore, the text is presented in such a way that conclusions drawn from it are at variance with the actual wording of the text. The example I use of this most frequently comes from 1 Timothy 3:2 in the description of the qualifications of elders:

The bishop therefore must be without reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, orderly, given to hospitality, apt to teach (ASV).

The American Standard Version (ASV) is a formal equivalence ("word for word") translation, and from it we can see that the bishop, or overseer, is to be, among other things, the husband of one wife (literally, "one woman man").

That's why officials must have a good reputation and be faithful in marriage. They must be self-controlled, sensible, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and able to teach (CEV).

The Contemporary English Version (CEV) is a dynamic equivalence translation. It accurately conveys the main point of Paul's message; for a man to be a husband of one wife, he needs to be faithful in marriage. But what happens if a man is a polygamist? He could be "faithful in marriage" and yet not be the "husband of one wife." And this is the challenge of dynamic equivalence translations: even when the text is not distorted by confessional or doctrinal bias, the emphasis upon the primary meaning could lead to difficulties in terms of secondary matters such as inferences and applications.

In terms of both confessional and doctrinal biases and secondary distortions, The Voice, especially in the New Testament, poses some difficulties:

Baptism is always a difficult subject for Bible translators since they are attempting to satisfy a diverse audience: those who sprinkle versus those who pour versus those who immerse; those who consider it necessary versus those who consider it optional; and so on. In an attempt to steer clear of such controversies The Voice ends up being a complete disappointment. The way "baptism" is translated demonstrates the patchwork nature of the version: in some books, it is rendered "baptism," in others, "ritually immersed," in others, speaking of the ceremonial aspect, and so on; all of them are footnoted indicating that baptism is under discussion, and often defining it as immersion, or as a cleansing. Many may make much of calling it a "ritual" or a "ceremony," but in New Testament usage, it is: just as the Lord's Supper is not a substantive meal but a ritual one, so baptism is not designed to be a physical cleansing but a spiritual one, and the act is a ceremony or ritual (1 Peter 3:21); that does not mean that baptism has no efficacy, just as the Lord's Supper as a ritual meal still has great spiritual significance even if it does not satiate hunger (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:22-30). Yet The Voice Bible's attempt at expanding the translation of baptism leads to ludicrous results at times, especially in Matthew 20:22:

Jesus (to all three): You don't understand what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink? Can you be ritually washed in baptism just as I have been baptized?
The expansion of "to be baptized" to "to be ritually washed in baptism" literalizes the metaphor. Jesus is not talking about His immersion in water by John; He's speaking of the immersion in suffering, misery, and pain He is about to experience. Better to translate as immersion or transliterate as baptism and let the notes explain what you want to explain.

More egregious examples are found in the textual expansions, especially 1 Corinthians 7:15 and Titus 1:5:

If the unbelieving spouse decides the marriage is over, then let him or her go; the believing partner is freed from the marital vows because God has called you to peace.
Here’s what you should look for in an elder: he should be above suspicion; if he is married, he should be the husband of one wife, raise children who believe, and be a person who can’t be accused of rough and raucous living.

There are many who believe 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows the abandoned Christian spouse to be able to marry another; there are many who think elders/bishops need not be married (I had one conversation with someone who was part of a liberal Protestant denomination who never thought of the idea that Paul meant in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:5 that the elder/overseer actually had to be married!). Nevertheless, neither text demands those particular interpretations, and they are actually quite suspect. In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul says that in such circumstances Christians are not enslaved; nowhere in the Bible is the marriage bond considered as enslavement, but the yoke of slavery is precisely the metaphor used to describe the connection between believer and unbeliever in 2 Corinthians 6:16. If an unbeliever deserts a believing Christian, they are no longer enslaved to that connection, and should feel no compulsion to reconcile (as would be imagined based on 1 Corinthians 7:11). Yet that is far from justifying marriage to another; Paul says no such thing here and such would militate against Matthew 5:32, 19:9. The expansion, therefore, is entirely unnecessary. The expansion of Titus 1:5 is even less justified: there is never a hint in 1 Timothy or Titus or in any other text that elders/overseers were not married. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever considered themselves elders or overseers; Peter did, but Peter was also married (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-4). Such an insertion is entirely unjustifiable and vindicates all those who find no value in dynamic equivalence translations since they thus distort what the original text is saying.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons why I want to like The Voice Bible, and they involve a lot of the reasons why I've softened a bit on dynamic equivalence translations. The goal of Bible translation cannot be just literalism; unless you have advanced training in Hebrew and Greek, the literal text is frequently barely comprehensible gibberish, especially in the most difficult and challenging texts. Hebrew and Greek have their own idioms and their own way of expressing things. As in most any form of communication, there is a tension in Bible translation between word and meaning: how to most appropriately convey what is meant while remaining faithful to what is said in the text? "Literal" translations like Darby's or Young's or the LITV sacrifice a lot of comprehensibility in order to remain quite faithful to the text (although even "literal" translations frequently flesh out idioms and many times are forced to flesh out the meaning in English of a very economical Hebrew or Greek text); formal equivalence translations are willing to sacrifice a bit more faithfulness in order to provide a more comprehensible text, and dynamic equivalence translations run the gamut from a slightly modified formal equivalence translation all the way to The Message and its ilk, willing to entirely abandon the text as written in order to enhance comprehension. Many of those who critique dynamic equivalence translations continually insist on the need for faithfulness to the text, and that is a strong argument and ought to be respected. Yet such an insistence, especially when texts like the KJV and ASV are the ones held in high esteem, entirely miss out on the other side of the issue, and that is comprehension. Yes, it is important that we hear the Word of God in English as close to what would be heard in Greek or Hebrew as we can, with a minimal amount of doctrinal/confessional interference, but it is all for naught if those who hear cannot understand what is being said! The Old Testament texts were all originally proclaimed or read out to Israelites, and understanding was at a premium (cf. Nehemiah 8:1-8). For centuries the Greek of the New Testament baffled scholars since it sounded quite different from the Attic Greek of the tragedians and philosophers; many suggested that the New Testament was written in "Holy Spirit Greek." That has all changed in the past two hundred years as discoveries of papyri in Egypt show that the Greek of the New Testament is the same as the commonly spoken Greek of its age: God communicated in Koine Greek so that the message of the Gospel could be understood (cf. Ephesians 3:1-12)!

The Voice Bible is a version meant to be understood. They handled the Old Testament excellently; there were a few notes regarding which I felt they went in the wrong interpretive direction, but on the whole, the presentation of the text with the interlinear notes do a great job of helping a 21st century American make sense of what is going on in 2nd and 1st millennium BCE Israel. For instance, I've read the book of Job in Hebrew and in many translations, but it was when reading through The Voice's translation when I finally mentally captured the flow of the arguments in the conversation. I grant that Job is hard to translate, and tricky precisely because there are many ways to understand what the speakers are saying, but there is value in having a translation that tries to simplify the discussion without overly compromising it. I did not mind the presentation of most of the New Testament, either, save for the matters discussed above and the times when the authors decided to add "only" to faith despite James 2:14-26. Revelation is presented and explained in a first century Roman context; most of the notes and explanations do help 21st century Americans, at least to some degree, make sense of the Gospel as proclaimed in the first century in both the Jewish and Greek worlds.

Therefore, there is value in The Voice Bible. I believe it would be a mistake to use it as one's primary study Bible, since its phrasing cannot be relied upon when making inferences or conclusions. Yet as one of many translations it can help in its insistence on coming to an understanding of what is being communicated. I could not recommend it to the youngest in the faith because they have not yet gained the discernment between what God has said and the interpolations of man, but for those with an intermediate or advanced understanding of Scripture, The Voice Bible can provide benefits in terms of coming to a clearer understanding of the primary meaning of the text and as a counterweight against the tendency to absorb Biblespeak without really thinking about what the words involved really mean.

ELDV

**--book received as part of early review program

2012/06/15

BR: "Why Men Hate Going to Church" by David Murrow

There are some books which prove quite important to one's growth and development in life because they make evident a pattern, challenge, and/or idea that is true, real, and yet somehow neglected or left unconsidered. Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow is one such book: after reading it, you will never look at Christianity and its practice in 21st century America the same way again.

I first encountered this book a few years ago and was glad to have the chance to read and review the updated and revised edition. "Completely Revised and Updated" is not an exaggeration: I remember many of the key arguments and themes, but in the new edition they are presented more powerfully and underscored with more evidence. My reading of the original edition really caused me to think about the best way of approaching ministry; reading the new edition has led to the same process.

Why Men Hate Going to Church presents one of the pressing challenges of American Christianity: where are all the men? The author sets out the evidence: most churches have a gender gap, featuring far more women than men. The more active the women get, the more likely the men are to leave. When men are not active in churches, their children are less likely to be active in churches, especially their male descendants, and the challenge grows.

The author then provides helpful analysis of the sources of the difficulty: church plays to the strengths of women but the weaknesses of men. Women tend to be more auditory, better at study, more relationally-driven and focused, willing to sit and listen, share, and better at expressing themselves verbally. Men are more visual-spatial, less patient with study, less relationally-focused, fidgety, and often find expressing themselves verbally as challenging.

Men do excel at boldness, willingness to take risks, and engagement in acts of service, but many times these values are not honored as highly in the assembly and in the general life of a church. The author spends some time contrasting different images of Jesus and to whom men and women best relate ("the Lion of Judah" vs. "the Lamb of God"). The author describes how churches better appeal to women, and on account of it, develop a more softened and feminine approach, further alienating men and enhancing women's presence.

Yes, many ministries are male-dominated, but the author does well at showing how ministry is often done by men who are more verbal, studious, and more "feminine" than the average "macho man" (and I, for one, must plead guilty). The author also shows how when women do take over, either in terms of various matters within the congregation or as preachers themselves, men are most often further alienated and their number continues to drop.

The author spends some time looking at historic trends and the various reasons why we have come to the place at which we find ourselves, as well as seeing different experiments that seemed to work in the past (like the YMCA). He also spends a lot of time considering how to bring the men back in: return to a mission-based view, consciously think about how a given prayer, song, lesson, theme, etc., would sound to the average man and adapt accordingly, find things for men to do that play to their strengths, and find ways to work with boys and their particular composition in such a way as to respect their constitution and not develop an inferiority complex in the face of all the girls.

I have some concerns about many of the suggestions which put a lot of the impetus on the church where the Lord put it on the individual Christian in terms of service and in terms of the programs which should be provided for the youth; thankfully, the revised and updated edition put less emphasis on adaptations to the assembly and more on finding ways to get men to serve out in the world. I'm afraid that some of his theological points in terms of masculinity might be a bit too reactionary against an overly feminized version of Christianity; it's understandable but not necessarily beneficial.

These concerns should not distract from the main point of the book or its importance. I believe this is a must read for anyone who seeks to promote the Gospel of Christ and wishes to encourage his or her fellow Christians: you don't have to agree with every point or every solution to gain from the author's perspective and the needed reconsideration of thought, feeling, and practice toward being more inclusive of masculine characteristics. There's a reason Jesus speaks more concretely and obviously about mission than relationship; there's also a reason why Jesus chose 12 men and worked intensively with them. If the church will grow and prosper in the twenty-first century it will need men to stand up with faith, boldness, vision, and effort to promote the Gospel message, and an over-emphasis on the "feminine" aspects to the detriment of the "masculine" aspects of humanity is pushing those men out and away. There are times for preaching and study; there are times for service and boldness. There is a strong need for greater relationship; there is as strong of a need for recognizing, understanding, and accomplishing God's mission for His Kingdom. Let us find ways to bring men into the fold and make sure that we are not pushing them away on account of our distorted emphases or an environment hostile to masculinity!

ELDV

*---book received as part of early review program

2012/02/03

Hell and Theology

If so be that it is righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you, and to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at in all them that believed (because our testimony unto you was believed) in that day (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

In the past year there has been a significant controversy within many parts of "Christendom" in regards to hell, its existence and nature, discussed in terms of Rob Bell's Love Wins. Yes, I know that I am late coming into the game, so to speak; nevertheless, I have had an opportunity to read Love Wins along with Francis Chan's Erasing Hell and some other resources in regards to this issue.

Many of the pertinent issues have been addressed well in other places; I especially recommend Erasing Hell toward that end. What has interested me is just how much we learn about our theology based upon our understanding of hell.

The very word "hell" and our reactions to it tell a lot about our theological inclinations. Some shudder at the concept are convinced that it is the bloodthirsty concept of some less developed society. Others prove very comfortable with the idea, and most often are quite sure that it is for all sorts of other people and not themselves. These are the extremes, and most everyone else falls somewhere in the middle.

These theological inclinations come out when arguments about hell are presented. On the one side, God's love (or, perhaps better, human conceptions regarding what God's love must be) is maximized, suggesting that His love for mankind demands that hell either cannot exist or cannot exist permanently for whatever reason. On the other side, God's wrath is maximized, leaving many to wonder how anyone could ever be rescued from it.

Therefore one's view of hell says a lot about one's theology, and understandably so. Hell is one of the most challenging and contentious aspects of Scripture, not only about the place itself and its function, but what it says about God in terms of His love and wrath, justice and mercy. Since the Bible speaks of God's love, God's wrath, God's justice, and God's mercy, it becomes very easy to get distorted and overemphasize some of these to the detriment of others. This exacerbates the problem, for very often believers are tempted to react to the distortion of others and themselves distort in the opposite way. Finding balance is hard enough on most issues; finding balance when it comes to how we understand who God is and the presence of hell is that much harder!

This is my greatest criticism of Rob Bell's presentation of hell: it demonstrates a distorted theology. Much can be read about God's love in Love Wins, but there are few, if any, references to God's wrath or God's justice. Although I am quire sure that Bell is aware of the passages in the Bible speaking about God's exhortation for Israel to commit ethnic cleansing (1 Samuel 15), the swift execution of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-13), and even discussion of God's wrath as poured out in the Judgment (Romans 2:4-11, 12:19-21), but there's no hint of wrestling with or grappling with these realities in Love Wins.

I will grant that there is plenty of bad theology and bad eschatology out there, and there are plenty of people whose view of hell and what goes on there is more influenced by popular cultural theories than what is in Scripture. There are people who seem to revel in God's wrath; one has to wonder if such people have soberly considered Amos 5:18-20!

But if theology is going to be a useful practice, it must be based not in what I think or whatever "groupthink" comes up with but what God has revealed about Himself. Rob Bell knows this and speaks frequently about his opponents and "what kind of god" it is they believe in. But the same criticism can and must be leveled at him as well (as well it should be for all of us, and a good corrective for all of us): is the "god" presented in Love Wins (or in my theology, your theology, etc.) the Creator God who revealed Himself to Israel and through Jesus, or is it an idol that may have some resemblance to the God revealed in the Bible but full of distortions based upon culture, society, and other factors?

It would probably be good to attempt to explain what Bell is trying to say about hell. This is not easy to do since he never comes out and provides a full explanation. From my attempt to understand the book, it seems that he understands hell mostly in terms of all of the pain, misery, and injustice experienced on earth. He seems to think it honorable of himself that he says that there is a perfectly good word to describe all of the evil in the world, and that word is "hell." It does seem that Bell believes that there will be a place in the next world that is separated from God; he suggests that most people in that place will then realize how terrible it was and is to be separated from God and that most, if not all, will desire to be reconciled back to God. He asks whether God will say "no" to such a person in that condition (and we're supposed to believe that God will not tell such a person "no"), and thus believes that everyone will get another chance in the afterlife to be reconciled back to God. This, in his estimation, is how "love wins."

There are a lot of evils on earth; there's a reason why people speak of "hell on earth." Nevertheless, the better word to describe such things is hellish, not hell. Jesus is perfectly aware of the problems of pain and evil in life, but when He speaks of the condemned, he speaks of their fate as one where the worm does not die and the fire is unquenched (Mark 9:47-48), a fiery furnace or the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41-42, 49-50, 25:30; it is worth noting that when Bell describes what Jesus says about hell, he focuses on Jesus' use of gehenna but entirely ignores the other images Jesus uses to describe the same place). To speak of earthly evils as "hell" is not to use the term properly; it is to dangerously minimize the power and the import of the term. What happens on earth is bad, but it is only hellish. From everything we gain in Scripture, the actual hell is far, far worse!

I found Bell's question about whether God would say "no" to people who would want to reconcile with Him yet find themselves in hell to be a desperate plea; in fact, the minute I read it, I thought of the following passage:

"Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us.'
But he answered and said, "Verily I say unto you, I know you not."
Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour" (Matthew 25:11-13).
Here we have an instance of people who wish to get that "second chance," but they come to a shut door.

One can only wonder how Bell would reconcile such a question with Paul's:

And reckonest thou this, O man, who judgest them that practise such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:3-4).

Why would Paul be worried about anyone despising God's forbearance and longsuffering unless he envisioned a time when such foebearance and longsuffering would cease?

And, of course, there remains Hebrews 9:27:

And inasmuch as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment.

Bell is convinced that all the passages that speak regarding God "reconciling all things to Himself" means that all people at some point will be fully reconciled to Him, and yet without that premise, the entire concept of a post-judgment chance at reconciliation falls flat. There is no Scripture that speaks about it; all the Scriptures speaking about the Judgment have an air of finality about them.

The implications are worse. People are carnal; we have numerous examples of well-intentioned doctrines being distorted by people to justify their immorality. In Bell's doctrine, it would not matter if one lived completely sinfully on earth without repentance; they could receive reconciliation after the Judgment. Bell would not advocate for this, but it won't take too long for people to draw that conclusion from what he has said. And, if it is possible to be reconciled back to God after the Judgment, is it also possible to fall away from Him after the Judgment? Where do we hear of these matters? Why are they being introduced?

We have no reason to believe that God's reconciling all things to Himself will involve the reformation of all persons and entities who are in rebellion against Him; in fact, we know as much, based upon Matthew 25:41 and 2 Peter 2:4: Satan and his angels will experience eternal fire and we have no indication that they will be reconciled back to God. Therefore we have no reason to believe that those cast into that fire with Satan and his angels will be reconciled back to God, either.

All of this has been well-covered by others in more effective ways. I do find it interesting, however, that the one thing Bell does not seem to analyze or question much is this "love" which wins.

And this is the trap: it's our assumptions that often get the better of us. In the entire book there is a tone that says that God's love is incompatible with the "standard views" on hell.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

Bell understands that coercion and compulsion are incompatible with love; in that sense, he is not fully "universalist." He understands that God will not coerce or compel anyone into believing in Him.

Nevertheless, Bell has seemingly ignored or missed the aspects of love that are not charitable to his case: love does not rejoice in unrighteousness (and Greek adikia refers to injustice as much as to unrighteousness). Love rejoices in the truth. Therefore, that which is unrighteous and/or unjust and against truth is against love. Love cannot embrace both truth and unrighteousness/injustice. Yes, it is true that love does not "take account of evil,: but that means that love is not resentful, and God is not resentful: He does not act out of personal animosity.

If love does not rejoice in unrighteousness/injustice, justice and righteousness must maintain a prominent place in love. This is made perfectly evident throughout the Prophets and their insistence on Israel following the ways of righteousness and justice. In Malachi 2:17, the Jews cry out, wanting to know where the God of justice has gone.

God is love, yes, but God also upholds justice and righteousness (Psalm 33:5). This is a necessary aspect of theology because it is a necessary aspect of God. Yes, it is difficult to define justice clearly, but there is agreement that whenever evil is perpetrated without consequence, injustice has taken place.

This is why so much emphasis is placed on the day of Judgment in Scripture. It is a warning, yes, but also a promise: there will be a day of reckoning. This was already expected by the Jews (cf. the Day of the LORD, also Daniel 12:1-2); it should not pass without notice how often it is emphasized in the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles (e.g. Acts 10:42, 17:30-31). With the Judgment comes the consequences for lifestyle, as Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, etc. make clear.

Granted, too much emphasis on justice would mean all of us are going to hell; there is a place for God's mercy and grace as expressed through Jesus (Romans 5:6-11). This also renders rejection of some concept of Jesus as paying the penalty for sinners untenable: after all, if there is no concept of justice in God's saving act through Jesus, how can the Judgment have any pretense of justice? If there was no penalty paid for some sinners to be justified, how is it just to force other sinners to pay the penalty for their sin? If there is no concept of justice in the atonement, how can anyone argue against what Bell is suggesting?

In all of these things, balance is essential. God's love demands that injustice be addressed; repentance and change is ideal, but condemnation is a very real and just sentence as well. The Scriptures are quite clear that Judgment involves what we have done in the flesh: our chance for repentance and finding life in Jesus come in this world, and once we die, we've exhausted our chances. That does not mean that God is now somehow unjust or unloving; He gave us plenty of chances, did He not? At some point, God will say "enough." Who are we to argue with Him?

And that's the issue in the end. God is who God is. We either accept that or reject it. There's every temptation in the world to accept the aspects of God we like and try to refashion all of God's more "negative" attributes into something more socially acceptable. Israel did the same thing: it was great that YHWH rescued them from slavery, but who could serve a god without an image? And so they made a golden calf and called it YHWH and felt better about themselves. But the calf was not YHWH. YHWH cannot be so easily fashioned into a god of our own liking.

He lets us do it because He loves us; He does not coerce or compel us to accept Him as He is. We must seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6), and He desires to be found, being quite nearby (Acts 17:26-28).

There are some aspects to God and Scripture that are difficult. What the Scripture says about the fate of the unbelievers and the wicked is difficult to swallow and hard. Understanding how God could command Israel to commit ethnic cleansing is hard. There are a lot of things we will find out about God which we may not agree with and perhaps we might strongly dislike.

We don't have to like it. But we have to confess that it is true.

Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and know that thou art the Holy One of God (John 6:68-69).

It is very easy to make an idol out of knowledge, understanding, and preference. We will never know everything, understand everything, or even like everything about God in Christ, but that does not mean that we reject whatever we do not know, understand, or prefer. This is not a call for us to presume that we know the answer even when we do not know the question, or to get so lost in the challenges of many of the questions that we lose heart. Instead, we are called upon to trust. To have faith. To accept what God has revealed about Himself, us, and the fate of everyone. We may not always know everything, understand it all, or even like it, but we can know that Jesus has the words of eternal life, and He is the Holy One of God. Let us be rooted in that faith, and allow Jesus' message to inform our understanding of God.

ELDV