Spiritual Abuse

I spoke with a young woman recently about a tough situation in her home church. To describe her situation, she utilized the language of ‘spiritual abuse,’ and something about those words made me hesitate. It’s not language I typically use, or appeal to, and the more I reflected on our conversation, a series of questions began to work their way through my mind: What is spiritual abuse? Have I ever experienced it? Why do I feel like it is language that needs special nuance?

The last question is probably the best place to start. I think the language of ‘spiritual abuse,’ like the language of ‘spiritual warfare,’ may be misused in the church. What I mean is that when I encounter a difficult situation, I hesitate to explain those situations by an appeal to spiritual abuse in the same way I hesitate to account for difficult situations in the church by appeal to spiritual warfare. Don’t get me wrong—I believe that spiritual warfare is real, but I think we should look to natural sources of a problem before we appeal to explicitly supernatural sources. In other words, I feel like we should arrive at warfare as an explanation for difficult people and situations by means of a process of elimination. If something goes wrong, it might be spiritual warfare, but it also might be bad planning, or bad timing, or human error. To put it even more bluntly, sometimes the devil made me do it, but it’s far more likely that you were an idiot. Jumping too quickly to the overtly ‘spiritual’ explanation short-circuits the process by which we need to carefully examine our own motives and culpability in a given set of circumstances.

“See, the demons made me do it!”

I also hesitate to use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ because the language of abuse is freighted with quite strong cultural implications. To be labelled an ‘abuser’ is one of the worst things you can be called in today’s world. It implies intentionality and malice, suggesting that the person accused of spiritual abuse has willfully and consciously abused the people under his or her care. While this is sometimes the case (and I will return to these cases at the end), I don’t think most people who perform actions of spiritual abuse in the Church do so willfully, or maliciously, or even intentionally. I think most spiritual abuse can be accounted for by appeal to incompetence. To put this even more specifically, I believe that most spiritual abuse in the church is born from a lack of self-knowledge. This is a claim that may require some explanation.

What is spiritual abuse, and why do I think it comes from a lack of self-knowledge? I think spiritual abuse is, quite simply, the misuse of spiritual authority. Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the concept of authority, because authority is an intrinsic part of our relationships. Some people have been authorized to teach, guide, discipline, correct, model, and love others. The right use of their authority results in the proper teaching, guidance, discipline, correction, modeling, and love of others, while the mis-use of their authority results in vacuous, inept, or abusive relationships between those parties. In every relationship of authority there is an ever-present danger, because every entrusted matter can be misused, resulting in abuse. The authority invested in parents may be the clearest example of this—a parent has been authorized (by virtue of his or her parental role) to do all of the above tasks for their children. They are good parents when they utilize their authority appropriately, and mediocre or bad parents when they fail to use their authority properly (whether it be through neglect or excessive control).

Yes, parental authority even extends to explaining the facts of life!

What, then, is ‘spiritual’ authority? Spiritual authority is the natural authority of relationships as it manifests in a religious context. Speaking as a Christian, we have a religious text (the Bible), a body of dogma (theology), and a historic body of people who steward that book and dogma (the Church). Together these three factors comprise the primary sources of spiritual authority. Within the Church, specific members are authorized to utilize that authority in specific contexts. For example, parents are authorized to raise up their children in the Lord; pastors and elders are authorized to teach, rebuke, and disciple; and every member of the Church is authorized to call one another to greater faithfulness. But in each of these contexts we encounter the ever-present danger of authority—that is, every matter of spiritual authority can be abused. Additional dangers emerge when we contrast earthly authority and spiritual authority. If I am a prison warden, authorized to keep order and peace in a cell block, I may use physical force to enforce my will; as a pastor, I may not beat people into spiritual submission. If I am a parent, authorized to train up and discipline my children, I may hide their toys, or ground them, or take away their allowances; as a pastor, I may not rob or manipulate my people into spiritual submission. If I am a property owner, I may demand that people stay off my lawn, or park away from my drive, or sue them for property damage; but as a pastor, I may not demand or coerce people into doing anything spiritually. Whatever the context and privileges of an earthly authority, when it comes to spiritual matters we who are tasked to act in spiritual authority will find that our hands are uniquely tied. As a pastor I may not bribe, bully, or beat my people into submission; all that I can do is exhort them, and, moreover, when I exhort them, I may not manipulate them through guilt, fear, or shame. Spiritual authority always goes wrong when we make use of worldly tools of authority in its service.

Why, then, do I think that spiritual abuse tied to a lack of self-knowledge? This explanation may appear complex but hang with me for a moment. At the heart of the matter, a spiritual abuser has confused what I want with what God wants. In other words, the spiritual abuser lacks the self-awareness required to distinguish between his or her personal desires and the mandates of ministry. This is why I can, if I am an abuser, appeal so easily to spiritual rhetoric in the service of earthly agenda; in order to get what I want, I slave the Kingdom of God to my personal desires. Spirituality then serves as a tool for manipulation. Examples abound: If you really loved God, you’d obey me. If you really had faith, you’d tithe more. If you were really humble, you’d agree with me. If you knew Jesus, you wouldn’t act like that. In each case spiritual rhetoric is employed to drive someone to do what I want; it is a rhetoric that shows up in building projects and vision statements, in marriage seminars, revivals, conference programs, and elder board minutes. It’s pervasive.

Behind this confusion (between what I want and what God wants) lies a deeper unacknowledged issue—namely, that the situation faced by people with spiritual authority produces anxiety. In short, spiritual authority comes with a deep mandate to powerlessness. It is God and God alone who changes people, not preachers, parents, or Sunday School teachers. But as ministers who are charged with communicating the good news of Jesus Christ, it is all too easy to take on the life-changing aspect of that message as our task. When we do that—forgetting that it is not our job—we revert to worldly methods of power; we manipulate through our words, we bully our people through our actions, we attempt to bribe them. It is in this way that spiritual abuse is born form this gap our self-knowledge, because no minister consciously wants to manipulate or abuse his people into action. But to men and women who haven’t come to terms with this powerlessness—who haven’t permitted that look in the mirror where they begin to come to terms with their own weakness and ineptitude—then such people must rely on their own power. Oblivious to the innate powerlessness of the call to ministry, we utilize the tools of earthly authority in our spiritual mission. Feeling powerless, such a person appeals to methods that ‘work’, even if they are wrong. The result is inevitably a form of abuse.

There are perhaps four more things I want to say about spiritual abusers—each rooted in this lack of self-knowledge. In the first place, I think it is very important to acknowledge the fact that abuse begets abuse. Men and women who abuse spirituality most often learned their habits from other ministers, who themselves didn’t know they were being spiritually abusive. We should not be surprised that ministers who lack self-knowledge struggle to lead others into greater self-knowledge. In some respects this means that spiritual abuse is nothing more than a bad habit—albeit a very bad one. Nevertheless, this situation raises some alarming reflections: if a given pastor models spiritual abuse from the pulpit, in his personal life, and in relationships, then the congregation will begin to learn those lessons tacitly. The pastor who abuses his congregation spiritually will give permission to associate pastors, elders, deacons, lay leaders, and parents to utilize those techniques in the authority they exercise over their wards. (To my mind, this raises again the seriousness of a passage like James 3:1, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, for we will be judged more harshly.”)

Students at Heritage Christian school dress like their teacher once a week. To be clear, this isn’t abuse–it’s proper formation!

Second, I think it is terribly important to recognize that a spiritual abuser doesn’t know that he or she is abusive. This is, in a way, unsurprising—if spiritual abuse is a product of ignorance, how can you possibly know you’re doing it? This fundamental gap in self-knowledge makes it all the more difficult to grow out of the habits of abuse. But there are a few additional reasons that make this situation even more troublesome. In the first place, to the abuser’s thinking, spiritual abuse works. More often than not, bullying and manipulation can succeed at getting people to change—at least on the surface. (After all, the abuser is someone who has in all likelihood himself or herself been abused spiritually—“It worked for me, didn’t it?”). To this situation is added a troubling logic—if I do something in ministry and it works, that means my ministry is blessed by God. If God has blessed what I am doing, how could it be wrong? In this way, my earthly metric of success reinforces my bad habits. It becomes far more difficult to self-examine when everything appears, on the surface, to be successful and ‘blessed.’ But in the second place, and more importantly, to admit that I am a spiritual abuser will mean admitting my powerlessness. This is a deeply alarming prospect, because it invites a confrontation with anxiety, with sin, with my own history, my wounds, and those places where I am appealing to spiritual matters to control my own anxiety. Growth in self-knowledge is painful, and willful ignorance is a wonderful way to keep that pain at bay.

Third, because the spiritual abuser does not know the boundaries of her self, her sense of spiritual authority has been collapsed into her sense of self. Because I don’t know where I end and God’s authority begins, this is why I can so easily confuse my agenda with God’s agenda—this is the root of the thinking that “my way is Yahweh.” But the more, in ignorance, I am committed to this collapse, the more I can be convinced that I am doing the right thing. Once again, where an idea of success is linked to a concept of blessing, then success in abusive methods will be interpreted as a blessing upon those methods. Because it works, I am right, and God loves me and agrees with me. This situation also produces a wonderful sense of confidence—even an imperviousness to criticism. God is for me, who can be against me? All of this leads to a further side-effect. For many spiritual abusers, they have so deeply identified with their authority that they perceive opposition to that authority as direct opposition to the self. To disagree with or oppose a person in spiritual authority who thinks this way is to violate their sense of self. Oppose the abuser, and they will respond in the strongest possible terms.

The Blues Brothers had some terrifying nuns…

This, in fact, is the fourth observation, because if you stand up to a spiritual abuser, you will be accused on spiritual terms. In fact, the most alarming thing to a spiritual abuser—who at core doesn’t know who she is—is the presence of a person who does know who she is. To the person who has become accustomed to bullying as a way to get what they want, it is deeply alarming to encounter a person who cannot be bullied. In response, they will pull out all the stops, “You’re so prideful!” “You’re not even very spiritual!” “I suspect that she is under the influence of demonic powers!” Sadly, many good people in the Church have been slandered by others, simply because they wouldn’t cave to the unacknowledged anxieties of their spiritual leaders.

I believe that spiritual abuse is a uniquely difficult problem in the church today (perhaps it is the case in all religious contexts, but I can only speak with authority about the Christian one). The unique difficulty is that to break the cycles of abuse we must grow in self-knowledge. But, as I’ve suggested, spiritual abusers are often by disposition immune to such growth in self-knowledge! I can offer only a few provisional suggestions. First, we’ve got to advocate for good theology of ministry—that is, a theology of ministry that properly emphasizes the power of God and the role of our own powerlessness. Second, we’ve got to encourage growth in the baseline of self-knowledge throughout the Church. Since spiritual abuse is a problem in the exercise of authority, I suspect that change in this area will need to begin with ministers, then work its way down into the pews. Third, and most difficultly, spiritual abusers must be answered by men and women who know who they are and cannot be bullied. This is a painful recommendation to make—it means encouraging faithful men and women to be accused of the worst kind of spiritual offenses, to be ostracized, shamed, and manipulated, but, being confident of who they are and who God is, standing firm.

Addendum: I said at the beginning that there are, indeed, situations of malicious spiritual abuse. These are people who manipulate others through spiritual means, and consciously know that they are manipulating others through spiritual means. Such people are psychopaths, and while there are occasionally psychopathic ministers in the Church, I believe such situations are rare (although newsworthy, when they are outed).

The Gospel, Seven Ways (Or, What is the Gospel?)

There’s a Vietnamese dish called “beef seven ways.” It serves beef in a series of, you guessed it, seven different courses: fried, boiled, minced, souped, and so forth. It’s all beef, but presented in a variety of mouth-watering preparations and courses. I am always reminded of this dish when I am asked to tell people what the Gospel is. It’s a question I like—not only because I’m a preacher committed to the Word, but because it gives opportunity to show how there is something of a magnificent variety in the Gospel itself. The Gospel, like beef seven ways, is too big to be served only one way; it can be presented to us in a variety that is spiritually mouth-watering.

Photo Credit: vietvisiontravel.com

“Gospel” is a word that means “Good News.” It is a report, a telling. When the messenger running from the battle of Marathon finished his 26.2-mile sprint (and before he collapsed, dead!), he announced victory. His message was an instance of euangelion—evangelism. He was bringing good news. The church also bears witness to good news. The content of that good news is our Gospel.

But the good news we have to tell isn’t just one thing. I fear that for many people in the church today, the Gospel message is limited to something like the Four Spiritual Laws, or what some have called the Romans Road. You are a sinner, God has sent Christ, Christ died for sin, through faith in Christ you will be saved from sin. For others, the to state the Gospel means to tell a story about a specific model of atonement (often, the model that is called “penal substitutionary atonement”). There is no disputing that these features are part of the good news, but I want to suggest to you that they aren’t the whole of it. The Gospel—the good news of God in Jesus Christ—is bigger than just personal salvation.

Like beef seven ways, I think the Gospel can be presented in a wide variety of ways—all while still being the Gospel! For the remainder of this piece, I want to offer you seven ways we can serve the Gospel. (Might there be more than seven? Of course! But these are my seven favourites!) So, without further ado, here is the Gospel, Seven Ways:  

1) The Gospel, as Jesus preached it, is the good news that the Kingdom of God was at hand. The most common oversight when we talk about the Gospel today is to neglect the fact that our reproductions of the Romans Road look so little like Christ’s Gospel in the New Testament. Consider again what Mark says about Jesus’s preaching at Mark 1:14-15, “Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.’” This is explicit—that before there was a cross and resurrection there was a Gospel to be believed, and that Gospel is good news about the coming Kingdom of God. What is God’s Kingdom? It is God’s reign, God’s justice, and God’s will for the earth. It is the inbreaking power of God for change, and its coming is fundamentally good news. Because God’s reign is coming, we should repent now of those ways that characterize the earthly kingdoms. To put this good news in other words, “God is coming, so get your act together!”

2) The Gospel, as the apostles preached it, was the good news that God has raised Jesus from the dead. It is an astonishing thing to realize that the apostles, when they preach the Gospel, also don’t talk very much about personal sin and salvation—instead, they talk about the resurrection. For them, this was the good news—good news first carried by the women who were watching the tomb, announced to them first by an angel of God (Luke 24:5-6), “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!” The resurrection is the Astonishing Fact—that a man came back from the dead, raised to life by the Spirit of God, that in his resurrection lies the firstfruits of the end of the world. Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was near, in the resurrection of Christ the Kingdom is now here.

3) The Gospel, as the apostles preached it, was the good news that Jesus is King. Once again, there are striking differences between the preaching of the apostles and our modern presentations of the Gospel. Consider again Peter’s summary argument from his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:36), “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” In this presentation of the Gospel we are not yet at personal salvation—here, Peter is announcing the Lordship of King Jesus. Jesus is the anointed one, the promised King of Israel. Jesus is kurios—the Lord Himself—that in encountering Jesus we are encountering the person of very God. Mortimer Arias noted that while Jesus preached the Kingdom, the disciples preach the King. Jesus is King; Christ is the Lord—and it is good news that in him evil has been judged and will be judged; in him will be found freedom for prisoners, release for captives, healing for the sick, freedom for the oppressed. In the Lordship of King Jesus every earthly lordship is judged—all politics and powers and systems and nationalisms are subject to his supreme lordship—so that (Phil 2:10-11) “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The letters at the top of the cross stand for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (In Latin, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Ioudaeorum.) Pilate, of course, meant it as an insult–but he spoke truer than he imagined.

4) The Gospel is the good news that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, our alienation from God has been removed. We come at last to that element of the Gospel which is most commonly preached—that our sin, which stood between mankind and God, has been eliminated in Christ. This is a message that Paul states clearly in Ephesians 2:1-10—that formerly we were dead in our transgressions, but now in Christ we have been granted new life through his resurrection. This is the good news that Christ’s obedience and death have cancelled out our transgressions, while his resurrection life enables our new life in right relationship to God. Moreover, Paul is keen to note that this Gospel is also the good news that this transaction is effected by means of God’s power, and God’s gift, and not our effort. We don’t earn salvation, nor do we inherit it by means of our genetics. God has given us the gift of salvation in the person and work of Christ—this is the good news that we receive it by faith!

When God declares all foods clean to Peter, Peter gets the message clearly: the Gentiles are now welcome at God’s table!

5) The Gospel is the good news that in the physical body of Jesus a new way for unity has been made for all people—both Jews and Gentiles. When the apostles began their preaching on Pentecost Sunday, they didn’t yet seem to have a vision for how expansive the message of the Gospel was to be—Peter even targets his preaching solely to “the house of Israel.” But God had a bigger plan—His Kingdom, and His King, would be for the whole world, for all people. Interestingly enough, the second half of Ephesians chapter two is also the Gospel. In that passage—verses 11-21, Paul describes how ‘formerly’ we were a divided people—divided by the law—but now we are now, in Christ, a unified people, a new humanity. This new humanity every bit as much the good news for Paul as is the language of personal salvation. This is the good news of the Church, that God has called from out of the world a people for Himself, that through His Spirit they will be made one, perfected, and purified for His purposes—agents and ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.

6) The Gospel is the good news of the Incarnation. Although I began this list with the preaching of the Gospel in Mark, the real beginning of the Gospel was the good news announced to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 2:31): “Behold,” Gabriel said, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” To Mary, God first announced His plan to invade the world (and a close look at the Magnificat will reveal how politically Mary perceived this announcement!). But in addition to marking the fulfillment of God’s long plan for humanity, embedded in Christ’s birth there is a more fundamental good news: God Himself has taken on flesh, the world which we see around us, material reality, is good enough for God. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis on this point, God likes matter; He made it. It was His idea in the first place. And when Christ took on flesh he condemned once and for all any theology that views the material world as worthless. Subjected to frustration? Yes. Requiring submission and management? Of course. But what must not be missed is that, from day one of creation until now, God’s world is good, and in the incarnation of our Lord God affirms that goodness for all time. There is no greater condemnation of the evils of the world than that God declares the world to be good.

Rublev’s Trinity is a remarkable piece of artwork–note especially the posture of invitation!

7) The Gospel is the good news of the Trinity. I have saved, for last, what is perhaps the most important aspect of all—but since it is the most explicitly theological, I wanted to present those more explicitly biblical elements, first. Before Christ’s coming we knew God to be One, perfect, and holy. He was a monad; solitary, powerful, but alone. With the coming of Christ we have learned that while God is still One, He is also mysteriously Three. The ‘mystery’ here is not a kind of hand-waving over a difficulty, but rather our acknowledgement that God is greater than our concepts. Whether or not we understand the Trinity is immaterial—what matters at this moment is that this revealed doctrine is incredibly good news. Why? Because in God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we have access to know and experience God. That because of Christ’s sacrifice, death and resurrection, we receive the Spirit as a deposit and gift—the Spirit makes a way for us to become like Christ, so that we can live in right relationship with the Father. In other words, it is the Trinity that makes it possible for us to know, love, and experience God! And if that isn’t good news, nothing is.

Doubtless there are more ways I could have carved up the Gospel—but these are the seven that are on my heart this week. I could easily have broken some of them into parts—for example, I could have made salvation by faith its own course on the menu. But maybe I’ll ask you, reader. Are there any you would add?

A Long Erosion in the Same Direction: Trump, Evangelicals, and the Poison of Conspiracy Theories

Throughout the past five years I have regularly criticized Donald Trump, and while it remains true that I personally dislike him, that personal dislike has been neither the substance nor source of my criticisms. Instead, my attention has focused on what his presidency and actions have meant for, and within, the community of Christians of which I am a member. I am an Evangelical, and these past years—under the explicit influence and impact of Trump—have revealed many things about Evangelicals that reflect poorly on the Gospel we claim to advocate.

I think we’ve made a bad deal.

I have found, speaking as a Christian to Christians, something deeply troubling in the easy alliance between our tribe and this president. This president has been a Bad Moral Example—he speaks and acts in ways in which we would not allow for our children. The ready defense of his many indiscretions makes a mockery of our public witness—we who claim to uphold the importance of integrity in our public officers have, strangely, given this man a pass. In the end, we look like people who are more hungry for power than for justice. We are the inevitable losers in this exchange.

To pour salt on these wounds, in recent years Christians have increasingly turned upon one another when they criticize Trump. Certain members of the Evangelical world are all too ready to question the credentials and faithfulness of anyone who dares to publicly criticize this particular president. The rhetoric of divisiveness (us/them, conservatives/the libs), the sloganeering and name calling (snowflake, libtard, MAGA), and the all-or-nothing thinking (“Trump’s presidency is the last hope for America!”), have combined in such a way that the Good Guys and Bad Guys are now determined not by their faithfulness or clear thinking but by—ironically enough—a form of political correctness. These factors bear a strange fruit indeed when an upright figure like John Piper becomes an enemy of Evangelicalism for daring to criticize Trump.

Nietzsche once ironically wrote of a “long obedience in the same direction.” His words were ironic because, despiser of Christian rules and regulations as he was, he recognized in them a consistent source of beauty and goodness in the world. But now I fear that we Evangelicals stand together at the end of a long erosion in the same direction—that we Christians, who for so long have warned of the dangers of the slippery slope, have become the victims of one; that, having cozied up to a form of power, we have allowed that power to corrupt our witness.

This corruption has reached a peak in the last weeks. Despite all of the alarming characteristics within Evangelicalism that have been exposed by the Trump presidency, none has been more dangerous—or more toxic to our faith and witness—than those that have emerged in the conclusion of his presidency. I speak specifically with regard to the claims of widespread conspiracy and election fraud. These claims, and our belief in these claims, present perhaps the gravest threat of all to our Christian witness. Allow me to explain why.

I should begin by noting that I grew up near Chicago, and Illinois basically wrote the book on election fraud. It is, indeed, a Thing. It happens, and when corruption reaches a certain stage in civic operations, it becomes difficult to accomplish anything without corruption. But I also know that the resources required to commit a fraud at the level required to hoodwink an entire national election beggars belief—organization, secrecy, money, they simply aren’t there. I’ll tell you why I think this way. When I was young and driving at night—especially late at night—I used to listen to a syndicated radio program called Coast to Coast AM. The program was great fun. They regularly interviewed alien abductees, discussed the Kennedy assassination, and talked endlessly about the mysteries of Area 51. The content was absurd, but at night, driving alone in your car, the voice through the radio worked its comforting magic and became strangely believable. One night, the host was interviewing a former CIA agent. The host was asking questions about government conspiracies, about cover-ups and secrets, and in two short sentences the former agent put a pin to the balloon that is basis of many U.S. Government Conspiracy theories. He said, “The people who run the CIA are basically like the Post Office. Do you think they’re organized enough to keep a thing like this secret?” With that, the absurdity of a nationwide, massive coverup became clear as day. It’s impossible. Nobody knows how to keep quiet about these things. Nobody is organized enough. And therefore it is far more likely that the conspiracy theory is just that—an interesting but ultimately flimsy theory.

Here, with the 2020 election, we face a similar set of incredulous claims—and they are in-credulous in that they defy credulity. And yet we are challenged by many prominent Christian figures to believe that there are widespread conspiracies of election fraud. Eric Metaxas is a prominent example of this, and in articulating his convictions he has quite clearly linked support for Trump to support for the Christian faith. About a month ago, participating in an event called “Global Prayer for US Election Integrity,” Metaxas offered the following comments, drawing first on the distinction between the natural and supernatural,

If we’re going through a time of darkness where in the natural we’re not getting the evidence—or whatever—we need, there is no doubt that we must stand firm. It’s like somebody saying, ‘Oh, you don’t have enough evidence to believe in Jesus.’ We have enough evidence in our hearts. We know him and the enemy is trying harder than anything we have seen in our lives to get us to roll over, to forget about it. (video timestamp 11:52)

This is an astonishing train of thought, because in it something of the very structure of Christian belief has been coopted for political purposes. Metaxas is arguing that belief in election fraud is of a kind with belief in the resurrection of Jesus; that faith might mean knowing a thing is true first and then finding the evidence later; that the nature of faith is belief in the absence of evidence; and with all these there is the suggestion that the nature of belief is a kind of inner fervor. This, to my thinking, is the most troubling development of all, the most dangerous yet to our Evangelical witness.

There are many things to address here. In the first place, Christian faith is not a feeling, it is not a fervor, nor is it a kind of conviction in the absence of evidence. One of the most mis-read verses among Christians is Hebrews 11:1, which states “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In my experience, Christian readers undergo a kind of hypnosis when reading these words—they read, “Now faith,” then gloss the middle of the sentence, and hear, “is unseen.” Faith is invisible, it is like the “leap of faith” in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where he doesn’t see the invisible bridge, but must step on it anyway. See? Faith is unseen. But that isn’t what the author of Hebrews says—he says that faith is the assurance, the substance, the material reality of things hoped for. If we look closely we will see that it is, in fact, hope that is unseen. Faith is most definitely seen.

This is, of course, not a new problem. American Christian teaching on faith and the nature of faith in has for too long relied on a misplaced understanding of faith—our theology has been formed more by Stephen Spielberg than by the Bible—and we have allowed ourselves to believe that faith means clinging to things without evidence. This kind of belief—faith as fervor, faith as belief without evidence—characterizes not Christianity, but Mormonism. The book of Mormon documents rivers, cities, and events that don’t’ exist and never happened. No external evidence corroborates the events of the Book of Mormon, and therefore faith for Mormons very much means believing in things without evidence. When Christians ask us to believe in election fraud, even when there is no evidence, then the structure of their ‘faith’ looks more Mormon than Christian.

And yet evidence is at the heart and soul of the Christian faith. On this, 1 John 1:1-3 is explicit, and I will attempt to make it even more explicit by highlighting the words of evidence in bold:  

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.

The New Testament contains the writings of people who were eyewitnesses to the Christ event. They met him, touched him, heard him, sat with him, watched him die, and met him after he rose from the dead. The whole business of Christianity hangs precipitously on whether or not Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and even the early Christians knew the stakes. Paul himself, writing in 1 Corinthians 15:16-19, makes this explicit,

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

Do you see that? If it didn’t happen, we’re the stupidest people on the planet. Everything—and I mean everything—for Christians hangs on the testimony of these eyewitnesses.

This means that, extending from our belief in the evidence of the resurrection, we are a people who care a great deal about evidence, and along with evidence we care about truth. Our commitment is, in fact, uncompromising. Josef Pieper, in his book Happiness and Contemplation, puts it succinctly: “We want to know the truth at any cost, even if the truth should be frightful.” I want to know God, not my idea of God. I want to know the real Jesus, not my idea of Jesus. And if it were indisputably proved tomorrow that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead—if they produced without doubt the desiccated bones of Jesus Christ—then the nature of our faith is such that everything we Christians believe would be over. It would be a frightful truth, but it would be true; and we who have committed to the truth could do no other.

This is the quite the opposite, of course, to the tone set by many public Christians of late—who appear to be measuring the value of a news source based on its agreement with what I already believe. Upset with Fox News for reporting, well, the news—the news that Trump had lost and that no fraud was forthcoming—many conservatives have turned on Fox! The new measure of a news source’s worthiness is whether or not it agrees with me, and apparently masses of conservative Christians have migrated from Fox News to Newsmax, from Facebook to Parler. It begins to look as if agreement means more than information. We have truly entered into strange waters when a media figure like Metaxas wields more authority among Christians than a seasoned pastor like Piper.

But a further reason why claims like Metaxas’s are so damaging is precisely because as Christians we ask other people to believe things. We are in the business of faith, of belief—that’s arguably our main business in the world. What we do is ask people to believe—things like our testimony, our witness to the resurrection of Jesus, the trustworthiness of our tradition, and our commitment to goodness, and truth, and virtue.

But all this is at risk, because what we ask people to believe are real things. Thing that really happened. The basis of the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, bodily, on the third day after his crucifixion. We believe this because eleven men and three women saw him that day, and then most of them died violently never abandoning their conviction that Christ was alive. They handed their testimony on to others, who met and experienced the risen Jesus, so that today—two thousand years after the event—we believe in the resurrection of Jesus in the same kind of way that we believe Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the 15th of April, 1865. It happened. People saw it, and told us about it, passing it on.

Christian faith is not a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy depends upon secrets, deception, hidden evidence, and suggestive connections between events. Christian faith depends on openness, clarity, sound reasoning, and an unbroken line of eyewitness testimony. Consider the words of Chuck Colson, one of Nixon’s advisors, and the only one of his associates who was tried and convicted for the events related to the Watergate scandal. Reflecting on these events years later, he wrote the following in his autobiography, Born Again:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.

Colson has nicely outlined the difference between conspiracy-faith, and Christian-faith—the conspiracy cannot sustain itself, it will break, and under pressure the truth will out; Christian faith is ongoing, it doesn’t break, and under pressure its original adherents refused to break. Their testimony was proved true. So should it be with us who claim Christ.

Therefore when we—whose entire eternity is wagered on the belief in the trustworthiness of these events—when we abuse our belief by associating it with baseless conspiracy theories, when we allow our cultural fears to override overwhelming evidence, then this promises immeasurable damage. What is at stake is more than an election, more than our rights, more than America; what is at stake is our ability to ask people to trust us when we tell them that a man rose bodily from the dead and that belief in him is the means of salvation for humans.

In the end, the more incredible the beliefs we demand of people, the more incredulously they will regard our actual beliefs. It was bad enough when society began to associate the term ‘Evangelical’ with Trump; now, because of our tarnishing of belief, they will associate our disposition of faith with Trump’s fraudulent election claims. Inasmuch as Trump will inevitably fail to execute this particular lie, our faith will be tarnished alongside him. That’s why our evangelical association with conspiracy theories is so very dangerous: because if you are ever again going to ask someone to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a condition for their salvation, you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror about what other things you have linked to that belief.

Statues and their Worth

I’ve been asked to say some things about statues, and why, presumably, we should or shouldn’t topple them. In some ways, the answer is quite simple, but, as always, things are more complex than they seem. I’ll attempt to tease out some of that complexity here.

Saddams-statue

The statue of Saddam, being toppled.

It is unquestionably clear that statues of evil people should be toppled. On this, I believe everyone agrees. For example, I clearly remember the conclusion of the Iraq war, when a generation of jubilant Iraqis gathered to topple the statue of Saddam Hussein, symbol of their oppression and despair. I remember the fall of Gaddafi and the destruction of images of his power, whose insane reign terrorized Libya for a generation. I even remember the tumultuous years from 1989-1991, with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, and the undoing of those symbols of Soviet power and civic authority. I’ve seen my share of statues and symbols fall—and each time I agreed with those who wanted it toppled. In each of these cases, a visible symbol of oppression and terror—a manifestation of government control and power—was unmade as a new era came into being. Nobody in Iraq, Libya, or Berlin is longing for a return of these oppressive images. Nobody believes that their removal is an erasure of history.

What we must keep in mind, of course, is that every statue is a form of propaganda. Don’t hear ‘propaganda’ and automatically assume bad things—governments need to disseminate information, and they have a vested interest in forming the opinion of citizenry. World Wars I and II were heavily influenced by government propaganda which directly impacted the morale and hope of average Americans, Britons, and other allies. A modern statue, then, is a form of propaganda—it embodies a civic narrative. Its highly visible presence in a public square declares to all citizenry who view it that “this is good and worthy,” this person deserves to be memorialized by the state. He or she is axiomatic. Be like him or her.

Lincoln-statue-web

My favourite public monument.

The catch, of course, is that just because a government says something doesn’t mean that it’s true. Governments, of course, are not neutral producers of public art. Giant Soviet public sculptures were intended to say something about what it meant to be Russian, about the everlastingness of the United Soviet Socialists Republic. They remain now as ironic testaments to its failure and collapse. In America, it is the donations of individuals and foundations that often generate public art, rather than the impetus of a specific government narrative. Statues, in other words, often reveal their propagandic purpose by means of a money trail. Who paid for it tells us a great deal about why it’s there.Take, for example, the statue of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently toppled by protestors.The protestors see in Columbus a figure of questionable historical value, an oppressor whose image reinforces a wicked American narrative. Ironically, the statue itself was designed by Italian-American immigrants, and represents the acceptance of Italians into the American mainstream. It is, in other words, highly pro-immigrant. The narrative of the protestors, in other words, is at odds with the narrative of why the statue exists.

Jefferson Davis Monument

Jefferson Davis, in Louisiana.

On the other hand, I struggle to imagine why there should be a public statue of Jefferson Davis anywhere—least of all in the South. Davis, president of the Confederacy, was the emblem of the losing side. He, and his policies, were and are anathematic to modern American identity. States may not own slaves. States may not secede from the union (under the guise of States’ rights) so that they may continue to own slaves. To these basic considerations may be added the provenance of a given statue’s creation. The one made for the Jefferson Memorial in Louisiana was, apparently, erected in 1911, for a “whites only” audience, which sang Dixie, and commemorated the 50th anniversary of Davis’s inauguration as president of the Confederacy. Clearly, the provenance of this statue is problematic—not only is it anti-American (as in, anti-Union), its proponents were explicitly anti-Black. This seems to me plenty of warrant to see it removed—which it was, by protestors, in 2017. In this case, to remove the statue is not to remove ‘history,’ per se, but rather the removal of bad history. Those who argue that removing statues is to erase history might too quickly forget that the statues themselves have a history.

Assuming, then, that we all agree statues of evil people—public symbols of oppression—should be removed, what are we to do with the statues of figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Cecil Rhodes, and Theodore Roosevelt? It would seem to be a simple solution (too simple, I am afraid), to address each statue in a case-by-case basis. We need to know who the person was, what he or she did, who built the statue and when, and, very importantly, who paid for it. Once we’ve gathered the relevant information, we can make an educated decision on the value of a given civic statue and its ongoing function as public propaganda.

Head Removed From Christopher Columbus Statue In North End Of Boston

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 10: A statue depicting Christopher Columbus is seen with its head removed at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park on June 10, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. The statue was beheaded overnight and is scheduled to be removed by the City of Boston. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

But as I said, this solution might be too simple. Peter Drucker in his classic book The Effective Executive, writes about recognizing the difference between ad hoc decisions and generic decisions. Ad hoc decisions are those that are truly case by case, with no overarching implications, while generic decisions have to rely on an underlying principle or rule. A serious danger in executive decision making is the fact that “the incomplete explanation is often more dangerous than the totally wrong explanation.” In the case of statues, the individual character of the figure in question may be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; the real, underlying problem is one of a contest between civic narratives.

Let me try to make this clear: when it comes to statues, beneath the question of the individual who is represented there is a question of what narrative he represents. One narrative, the traditional one, regards these individuals as valuable, significant, and historically important. This is often why statues are defended on the grounds of ‘preserving history.’ The other narrative regards these figures as oppressors, wicked emblems of an ongoing plight. This, in turn, is why they consider them emblems of what is sometimes called ‘systemic racism.’ The conflicting narratives in turn produce conflicting accounts of morality. What is ‘good’ within one narrative may be ‘evil’ from within the new narrative. From one perspective, therefore, it is not at all clear that George Washington is as evil as Hitler, or that Christopher Columbus is as evil as Gaddafi. In brief, depending on our operative narrative, we likely don’t agree on what qualifies as ‘evil.’

washington-statue--730x487

A concatenation of messages make it difficult to discern which narrative to follow.

The removal of the George Washington statue in Portland a few weeks ago makes this question of civic narrative explicit. Images of the statue, hurled to the ground, clearly display the spray-painted numbers 1619. If you don’t know, the “1619 Project” was a series produced by the New York Times which attempted to re-tell the narrative of American history with specific reference to the role of slavery in its foundation (1619 is the first year slaves arrived in Virginia). The narrative implications are fairly clear: to continue to lionize a figure like Washington is to perpetuate a civic narrative that is emblematic of an ideology of oppression. The problem isn’t Washington, it’s the American civic narrative itself. From within this new narrative, figures like Washington, Jefferson, and even U.S. Grant are objectively bad guys. If we accept this argument fully then it follows that they are as bad as the Nazis and the Communists—worthy of erasure from the historical record. It is important to hear that behind the argument that these statues represent “systemic racism” lies a counter-narrative to American identity, and that behind the argument to “protect history” lies a defense of the traditional civic narrative. What is really at stake is a question of what it means to be American.

Here things get really complex. Governments have the right to propagate narratives of identity, to lionize certain figures and to minimize others. States where the citizenry have the power to select these figures have no less narrative power. At the same time, in most modern states citizenry have the right to critique those narratives. That is, in fact, the very business of history. Where those figures show ugliness (e.g., Washington’s slave ownership, Grant’s alcoholism), we should mark that ugliness appropriately. But we must also weigh that ugliness against the person’s historic value, civic value, and in light of his or her own time. It is exceptionally ironic when a given critique criticizes the power that allows them to critique. In other words, it is absurd for Americans to utilize the American tradition which was founded by Washington, Jefferson, and other Enlightenment thinkers—a tradition that enshrined free speech and public assembly in its constitution—to attempt to undo the legacy of the very figures who guaranteed those rights. To describe this as short-sighted would be generous.

Profanation of Notre Dame in the French Revolution

The desecration of Notre Dame

Many of the people toppling statues today, however, see themselves as revolutionaries, and it is worth remembering that revolutions feasts on symbols—they can gather, unite, and typify the message of the revolutionary. But revolutions rarely generate their own symbols—they leech, parasitically, power from existing symbols. They piggyback on existing power, attempting to hijack its prominence for their own message. Adherents to the French Revolution attempted to replace the church with the “cult of reason.” For this, they desecrated Notre Dame, and in its place elevated a local prostitute now dressed in the robes of reason. The new symbol sought to borrow from the significance and power of the old, while at the same time denigrating it.

Complicating this situation, mobs and revolutions thrive on black and white distinctions. We are all good while our enemies are all bad. Everything we want is right, while everything our enemies want is wrong. Our heroes are perfect, while the heroes of our opponents are literally Hitler. This absolutist approach to good and evil fuels situations like cancel culture, where a given public individual, found guilty of a thought-crime, finds himself or herself ‘cancelled’—Kevin Spacey, J.K. Rowling, Bill Cosby, etc. Their shows and books are removed because of the character flaws (real or perceived) in the person. It is, in its own way, another form of statue removal. Of course, the standards of judgment are erratic, and grace is rare. Martin Luther King Jr. keeps his statues despite being, in his private moral life, a pretty terrible person. His ‘goods’ are weighed against his ‘bads’ and he is allowed to remain. In brief, his goods match whatever is ‘good’ in the new narrative. No such evaluation—or grace—is extended to a George Washington.

MLK-Memorial-front-631

But what is the ‘new narrative’ that powers these revolutionary impulses? What is to replace the traditional narrative? For some, there is no narrative but anarchy. A deep anger is manifesting itself in a hatred of all traditional sources of authority and power. At other times, the narrative looks a great deal like Marxism. To be clear, Marxism here means a way of interpreting the data of the world by means of certain ready-made categories. The Bourgeoisie against the Proletariat, the haves against the have-nots, the privileged against the oppressed. The problem isn’t in identifying disparity and saying that it exists and needs to be addressed. The problem, rather, is in the way that the disparity reduces complexity to simplicity. Individual cases don’t need to be addressed; if they fit the class, they are guilty by association. In turn—and this is a cruel feature of Marxist societies—a sense of shared victimhood provides identity for the oppressed class. (This is a process called ‘othering.’ I write about it more here.)

To make these matters worse, the Marxist narrative—in every place where it has been tried in the 20th century—has revealed a highly utilitarian approach to the truth. Words are tools to achieve ends, and promises are irrelevant—only the revolution matters. Action matters! Policy can be adjusted to match the truth later. Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Castro—each was a virtual case study in prevarication. P.D. Ouspensky, who witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917, wrote of the Bolsheviks and their empty promises of peace. He diagnosed the hollowness of their words as follows: “They had no intention of meeting their promissory notes, therefore they could issue as many of them as they liked. This was their chief disadvantage and chief strength.” The revolutionary who does not care about the truth can say what he likes—it is the ends that matter, and only the ends that matter.

So, where does this leave us? Hopefully with one set of actions, and one real debate. The actions are to evaluate each statue by its own merits. This will take patience, investigation, a real commitment to history, and a commitment to honesty on both sides. If it can be shown that a statue was raised for wicked purposes, to reinforce bad narratives (i.e., to reinforce Jim Crow laws in the south), it seems to me that the statue should be removed. (And, for what it’s worth, I’d like to see cities put forth public hearings on a given statue, and then put it to the vote. That’s the most American response there is.)

And yet the deeper and more important debate is to query what is to happen to the tradition of the West. Will it survive, warts and all, with a fresh commitment to its core values of liberty and justice? Or will it be toppled by a mob that want something far more dangerous and destructive—either unbridled and undisciplined power, or an ideology inimical to the foundation of Western freedom. The choice, quite literally, is ours.

On Quoting Movies

I’ve just completed a series of daily Facebook posts—I wasn’t nominated, and I didn’t nominate anyone. In fact, I made up my own thing. Each day I featured a movie I quote all the time. I would describe the movie, talk about the line I most often quote, and then tag a friend I’d most like to watch the movie with. It was a surprisingly pleasant exercise. I didn’t know how far I would go, or if I would run out of people to watch movies with. In the end it became a kind of game, pairing up ideal people into ideal movie groups.

12_Bill and Ted's Excellent AdventureTo begin, I listed four or five movies that I knew I quoted all the time, listing their lines as well (Highlander “There can be only one”; Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Excellent!”). Then, as the days went on, whenever I’d find myself quoting a movie with my wife, I’d jot it down on the list. I ended up posting some nineteen films. (I could have done a few more, but I ended on my birthday with my favourite film of all, Willow.)

The exercise prompted some reflective thinking, of course. Is there something unique about this set of movies that they are stuck in my head? Can I learn anything from looking at the data? It turns out, I could.

05_Nacho LibreI posted 19 times, but there were actually 23 movies on the list. Curious about relations between the films, I made a chart, documented their release dates, the ratio of comedy to dramas, and noted any repeat figures in the movies. What did I find? The movies I quote most often range in date from 1980 (The Empire Strikes Back) to 2006 (Nacho Libre). An overwhelming majority of the movies fall between 1984 and 1993 (78%), with half of them falling between 1984 and 1989. Almost 80% of the movies I quote most often are comedies. Four of the movies feature Christopher Guest, three of them Val Kilmer, while two each featured Mike Myers and Harrison Ford respectively.

There are a few observations to make about this data. First of all, as much as movie quotes play a significant role in my daily discourse, the truth of the matter is that I used to quote movies a lot more. I distinctly remember the feeling when I was learning Greek back in university that the space in my brain that was previously dedicated to movie quotes was being repurposed for Greek vocabulary. That’s of interest because, of course, I graduated in 2002, roughly coinciding with the upper limit of my movie quotes date.

16_The GooniesIt is also interesting to note just how many of the films are nestled in that 1984-1989 spot. I was only aged 4-9 during those years, so I certainly didn’t see these films in the theater (excepting Willow, the first movie I saw in theater). Instead, I watched these all later, on home video—on VHS, to be exact. The idea of VHS these days is a moniker for nostalgia, but the truth of the matter is that it points to a kind of shared experience in my generation. One of the things we did was get pizza, put in a VHS, and watch movies together—often the same movies again and again. Highlander, Wayne’s World, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were everyday fare for me and my friends. It’s what we had at hand to do together. And, just to be explicit, we had no YouTube, no Netflix, no internet even. It was just you, your mates, the TV, and maybe some one player video games.

But here’s where the quoting comes into play—it seems to me that, for us, quoting a movie was a way to extend the pleasure of the viewing experience. We had all seen a thing together, and now we could re-enter that thing, make one another laugh, use it to interpret experience afresh. It touched base with the experience we’d shared, reaffirming our friendship in the process. To guffaw at So I Married an Axe Murderer and then to spend the rest of the day talking in Mike Myers’s exaggerated Glaswegian accent was not just funny, it was a kind of community reiteration.

03_HighlanderBut it extended beyond your immediate friends. When you discovered another person who had seen and loved the same movie, quoting the film was an easy doorway into community. We know the same things, have laughed at the same things, have loved the same characters. Quoting movies foreshortened the distance to new relationships.

Of course, this foreshortening process is crucially limited to people who have seen and remembered the same movies I have seen. Adults in my generation (whatever the heck we are—Xennials, The Oregon Trail Generation, I dunno) have recourse to a similar set of influences. But it makes me wonder what the set of shared experiences for later generations will be? YouTube rewinds? Memes? Things move so quickly there’s hardly time for stable, repeat viewing of content in the same room with your mates. In the absence of these shared experiences, what aspects of collective memory will bring people together?

14_The Emperor's New GrooveIt’s interesting to me that I don’t quote many, or really any, movies after 2006. On the one hand, the world had changed. On the other hand, I had grown up. I no longer had time to lay about watching movies with my mates at all hours, eating cold Little Caesar’s pizza and lukewarm Orange Crush. The network of people who activated movie quotes was gone. At the same time, by 2006 I was married. The only person I was regularly watching movies with was my wife. Fortunately for me, she appreciates—and dishes out—a great and well-timed movie quote.

But of course, sometime after we got married we stopped adding new quotes to our relational vocabulary, hence the tapering off at 2006. Why would this be the case? On the one hand, we were busy with jobs, school, and life. I was getting my master’s degree and Liesel was working full time. Then I was a full-time pastor and Liesel was a young mom. Kid’s movies, while occasionally entertaining, are not typically known for their quotable value. One kid became two, then three, and finally four. The last eleven years of our lives have been consumed with work, school, and early parenting. We’ve not had time to watch, and re-watch, and quote new films together.

15_Waiting for GuffmanAll the same, I’m still quoting movies—it’s just that I’m most often quoting this set of 23 movies. And in the context of marriage these quotes serve an important role. Like with my friendships in childhood, they have the power to reaffirm shared experience with my wife. It’s like saying, “Hey, remember this thing that we both laughed at?” Quoting Inigo Montoya during an argument is a great way to deescalate a frustrating conversation (“You keep using that h’word. I do not think it means what you think it means”). Dropping a Corky St. Clair reference can extend empathy and humor at the same time (“Thatssss not a good thing”). Above all else, movies are quoted in my family to spin the plate of collective memory, to reassert our own shared experience, to keep alive—and enliven—the ongoing conversation.

All that to say, I’ve learned something interesting about myself during this quarantine experience. It’s that I love movies (I knew that already), but I miss watching them with my friends. It’s also renewed my gratitude for a wife who is a friend with whom I can watch, and quote, silly movies.