Joshua Harris’s Fall and Christian Higher Education

I kissed dating goodbyeIf you, like me, were a kid who was a teenager in church in the 90s, then you know the name Joshua Harris. He wrote THE book on dating, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I confess that I’ve never read the book, but then again, I didn’t need to. We all knew what was in it. Dating was bad. Courtship was good. Romance was dead. Christians should retrieve romance and courtship in their relationships, and all this should be done with a commitment to purity. At the time, it all made perfect sense. In many ways, it still does.

However, there were unforeseen problems. When Harris wrote the book he was only 21 years old—hardly experienced enough to opine about all dating and all relationships. The book also contributed to a broader movement that is sometimes called “purity culture”—a movement which prioritizes sexual purity in the ethics of the young, with the unfortunate effect of both minimizing other aspects of formation (character, charity, mercy, peacemaking, etc.), while idolizing sex and marriage. In some people, it appears—and especially in certain young women of the time—sexual purity came to be seen as a bargaining chip for a good marriage. Save sex for marriage, the logic goes, and God will bless you with both a great marriage AND great sex. Christian teaching undoubtedly holds that sexual purity matters, but to turn it into a kind of bargaining chip for God’s work in your future relationships is to try to leverage God. In this respect, it’s a kind of prosperity gospel: if I do this action in faith, God will bless me.

Like I said, I knew the basics of Harris’s thinking without having read the book, and if the prosperity exchange of purity for future pleasure was taught, I didn’t hear it.

The book, like the 90s, faded into memory, until once again Joshua Harris’s name came across my newsfeed. This time it was 2015, and Harris had announced he was leaving his church to get some formal theological education—something he’d never had, despite serving as a pastor for more than a decade. The reason it was of interest to me was because he would be attending Regent College, the seminary I had attended. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was a great thing. I’m always happy when Pastors get educated.

regent1

In the intervening years, Harris’s name popped up again—this time as he began to distance himself from the claims of his famous book. He helped to produce a documentary, called “I survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and eventually formally recanted the teaching of the book and asked the publisher to stop selling it. I read through the information at the time, and felt then that these seemed very much like the moves of someone coming into maturity. Harris was growing up, theologically speaking, and we should all rejoice about this.

I survived I kissed dating goodbyeThese changes weren’t without concern, however. A growing reaction against what had been “purity culture” was growing in the church. Women (it seems to me especially) from the 90s who had grown up on Harris’s logic were frustrated with how it had idolized sex and marriage, and how the realities of those institutions didn’t match up. Perhaps no greater image of the rejection of purity culture can be found that that of Nadia Bolz-Weber, gathering purity rings from her female members and (without any apparent awareness of Aaronic irony) causing them to be melted into he shape of a giant vulva. Those who had sacrificed themselves to purity would redeem the image of the vagina.

Harris emerged again last week, of course, with two subsequent bombshell announcements. The first (through Instagram) that he and his wife would be separating (apparently amicably? a kind of Gwyneth Paltrowian ‘conscious uncoupling’?), the second (also through Instagram) that he had left the Christian faith. Harris’s journey of ‘deconstruction’ (his own word) appears complete.

joshharrisshannon_si

This was the (cheerful?) picture posted along with the instagram announcement of their divorce.

The news was met with grief (from Christians) as well as joy (from atheists and other former Christians). Naturally, the circumstances invite speculation, as well as unfortunate puns. What happened to Harris? Why did he kiss Christianity (and his wife) goodbye? I don’t intend to answer either of those questions, especially since the answers lie in Harris’s heart, to be discerned between him and God alone. But there are two things I want to point out as frames for thinking about his trajectory—both publicly known. The first is the nature of the church he came from, the second is the nature of Christian Higher Education.

First, Harris’s church home. Harris had been trained, and nurtured, under the direct tutelage of C.J. Maheny, once powerful and respected megachurch pastor. Harris was, to my understanding, Maheny’s chosen successor. Over the past several years, Maheny’s Sovereign Grace Ministries has come under serious fire. There was a series of accusations from former members and leadership about Maheny’s abuse of power and controlling nature, then a series of members (11, I believe) who accused the church of covering up child sexual abuse. The church has denied these allegations, but the fallout has still been immense—Sovereign Grace has lost a number of its member churches, a number of its members, and Maheny has lost much of his influence (Al Mohler publicly severed ties with him). It was about this time that Harris left his ministry church to pursue education, declaring in a sermon that now he sees there were “flaws in the system.”

mahaney

C.J. Maheny

(As a fascinating, if tragic aside, when Rachael Denhollander, the Olympic gymnast, began to speak up about the abuse she had experienced, her church wanted her silenced, and she and her husband were eventually asked to leave their fellowship. That church was one of the churches which worked to restore Maheny to leadership.)

It seems to me that the Sovereign Grace story is a key component to the trajectory of Harris’s faith journey. He was raised (homeschooled as well) in a very conservative, apparently controlling environment. Tutored under a controlling, apparently power-hungry leader. Educated on the job in a self-protecting institution which hurt its members. Neither Maheny nor Harris were seminary educated, and it appears (from Harris’s own account) that Christian Higher Education was something actively dismissed by them.

The point is this: we might look at Harris’s story and conclude that he’s left our Christianity, but it seems far more likely to me that he’s left Maheny’s Christianity. He’s left a Christianity of control, of fear, of rules, of power, of hurt, and of a lack of grace. If this is accurate, then Harris’s honesty (about his faith) is something that should genuinely be applauded. In his public statements he displays a remarkable self-awareness and honesty. Of course, that honesty is marred by two things—one of them being his divorce, which is fundamentally dishonest, the other being the snazzy marketing means of the announcements. Instagram is a weird place to cheerfully declare the destruction of all you publicly held important.

Covenant Life Church_Harris

Harris was pastor at CLC, a Sovereign Grace Ministries Church.

This leaves us with the question of Christian Higher Education. Maheny and Harris are not alone in their belief that seminary—and with it education—is dangerous to faith. In this, they tap into a longstanding trend in American thinking: that intelligence is dangerous. John Erskine, famous American educator, wrote the following over 100 years ago:

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.

A certain kind of Christian piety continues to hold today that an increase in intelligence is cause for suspicion, that blind obedience is to be preferred to carefully thought-out action. To those pious reasoners, Harris’s loss of faith is easily accounted for: he went to school. If he hadn’t gotten that seminary education, he would have stayed in the faith.

pew+research+center+logoCuriously parallel to this is recent data from the Pew Research Center. In one study last year, they showed that there had been a significant uptick in those who identify themselves as religious “nones”—that is, people who claim no religion at all. “Nones,” Pew astonishingly found, account for as many Americans as Evangelicals. In a more recent study, from just a few weeks ago, Pew showed that Jews, Atheists, and Agnostics outperformed all Christians on tests of basic religious knowledge. One way to tell the story is to claim that education is linked to lack of, or loss of, faith.

While some read these data with alarm, I find it encouraging and challenging news. First, it is encouraging that if more people identify as religious ‘nones,’ then we are equipped with a better understanding of the evangelistic task. If these are the same people who previously identified as “Christian,” but now identify as not, then there is an increase in honesty of reporting. Too long has a kind of cultural Christianity swayed American self-perception. Honest answers frame an honest mission. Second, the gap between education and faith presents itself as a challenge. It appears that Christian education is sorely lacking in American faith. It suggests that, in the command to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we’ve opted instead for the wisdom of doves (and therefore the harm of serpents!).

im-stupid-40218973

But with education does come danger. And here we might return to Harris. I remember my own time at Regent, and the laments of my peers about the nature of their own deconstructions—learning that the Church was bigger than expected, learning that the text must be carefully interpreted, learning that the history of the church was more fraught than anticipated (and, in some cases, that it began before 1906). Through it all, the faculty wouldn’t tell you what to believe—that wasn’t the methodology—but would present, and leave the work in your hands. For many students, this new knowledge, combined with the freedom to think for yourself, was simply too much. In this respect, I don’t think the problem was completely Regent’s—I think the problem is the educational state of American Christianity. (And, for what it’s worth, I think Regent could have done a better job of shepherding people through this process.) Once again, I don’t think it’s right to speculate on the shifts in Harris’s heart, but it would not surprise me if he discovered, while educating himself about the Christian faith, that the faith he’d publicly believed in wasn’t quite the Christianity he was learning about. And if that’s the case—in fact, either way—it presents us with a mandate to pray.

In a State of (Confused) Grace

Grace is one of the most powerful and evocative words in Christian lingo, but if you ask Christians to define it properly most of them will scratch their heads. Very likely, they’ll try to use it in a sentence. In my experience, three types of use emerge.

The first (and most evangelical) is to speak of grace as forgiveness. We see this in prayers that begin with the words, “Our Gracious Heavenly Father;” we see it when people claim, “If it weren’t for grace, I wouldn’t be here.” It’s present when others reflect that “there but for the grace of God go I.” In each of these phrases, grace means something like forgiveness. We pray to the God who is forgiving, we acknowledge that if it weren’t for forgiveness we wouldn’t be here, and we claim that without the experience of forgiveness we might be a lot more rotten. Grace is forgiveness.

Annunciation

The second (and most Catholic) is to speak of grace as a state of sinlessness. We use grace this way when we hear about someone being “in a state of grace.” Mary, addressed by Gabriel, is called “full of grace,” and Catholic theology typically interprets this to mean that she possessed a special sinless state (which made it possible for her to carry the Christ child). Formally, sacramental theology holds that the performance of the sacraments (eucharist, baptism, etc.) are visible signs of invisible grace. The performance of baptism removes the stain of original sin (restoring the infant to a state of grace); the regular performance of the eucharist restores the person to union with Christ and the state of grace that is consonant with that union. Grace is sinlessness.

A third (and more universal) way to speak of grace is to evoke a kind of goodness, generosity, elegance, or noblesse. Perhaps you’ve heard someone exclaim, after experiencing some unexpected good, “Well, that’s a grace!” Or perhaps you’ve seen an excellent dancer and remarked, “What grace!” You may have heard someone describe another person as a gracious host, or a house as a gracious house. The word ‘grace’ in each case evokes this sense. Interestingly, the word noblesse originally referred to nobility from a foreign country—in this respect, the grace of Christian persons is the representation of their foreign (heavenly) manners and sensibilities. Such a person embodies a goodness, a generosity, and an elegance that is otherworldly, therefore gracious.

Amy Adams as "Julie Powell" in Columbia Pictures' Julie & Julia.

There is enough variety between these three conceptions of grace to suggest that none of the three captures the essential heart of whatever ‘grace’ means. Sinlessness, forgiveness, and noblesse are similar, but not the same thing. So, what definition of grace gets at the heart of grace, without excluding these other interpretations?

A classic, Protestant, Sunday School definition of grace can be found in the following acronym: Grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. I must admit that I’ve always found this definition somehow lacking. First of all, it is difficult to conceive. What are the riches? Are they all at Christ’s expense? Was no grace possible before Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead? It also seems conceptually cumbersome to plug it into scripture that utilizes the word grace. Consider the opening prayer: “Our [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] Heavenly Father.” This now seems strange and redundant. Or, to speak of a host, “He’s a very [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] host.” This seems to render excessively theological the duties of hospitality. The most sensible exchange, perhaps ironically for Protestants, would be Gabriel’s: “Hail Mary, full of [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense].” On this reading Mary, somehow, receives the merits of salvation prior to Christ’s death and resurrection.

A friend of mine alerted me to another common definition of grace—this time in contrast to mercy. It goes like this:

–> Mercy is not getting what we do deserve.

–> Grace is getting something we don’t deserve.

gavel_2To a degree, this is fair enough—on account of God’s mercy, humans in Christ are not punished for their sins. On account of God’s grace, humans in Christ receive an unmerited salvation. (Grace as “unmerited favour” is another classic definition of the term.) But I want to observe that these definitions rely quite heavily on their situation within a law court. Mercy and Grace are given tactile meaning by means of their interpretation with exclusive respect to sin and forgiveness. Is there no grace where there is no sin? If graciousness is an attribute of God, does our lack of sin limit His capacity to express that attribute? If mercy is an attribute of God, does it depend on sinners—on human failure—to activate? The law court appears to rely too heavily on a temporary human state to provide a suitable basis for our definition of grace (and of mercy as well).

In the New Testament, of course, the word we translate grace is charis, and its definition is ‘favour’—and yet it is favour in a very specific sense of social exchange. In the patronage system of the ancient world, to receive the favour of a superior often meant the reception of a gift, in exchange for which the recipient would render service. The link between the two concepts is further enshrined in the relationship between the words “charis” and “charismata”—the first is favour, the second is the explicit gifts given in favour (explicitly in the New Testament, the gifts of the Spirit). We still retain a semblance of these meanings when we remember that the Latin translation of charis becomes gratis, from which we derive our words grace, gratitude (thankfulness for a gift), gratuity (a gift given in exchange for service), and gratuitous (a gift exceeding what is required or expected). Gifts, and gift giving, in relationships with obligations, are at the heart of the meaning of the word grace. In view of this, a passage such as Ephesians 2:8 may take on some interesting nuance: “For by grace (charis) you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift (doron) of God.” God, in patron relationship with His people, offers them favour in the form of a specific gift. We get salvation, God gets something in return.

Viking Gold_

Famously, ancient tribes would trade gold for service. You can read about it in Beowulf, and then remember that Christian covenants aren’t all that different…

I am convinced that the primary frame for understanding the nature of grace is not the law court, but covenant. John Levenson has written compellingly in his book The Love of God about the nature of Hebrew (and ancient near eastern) covenants, how they make explicit the terms and conditions of relationship between suzerain lord and vassal. The Lord offers certain benefits to the vassal—protection, companionship, financial benefits, and in exchange it is quite common for the vassal to promise love in return. In a covenant context, God offers His people gifts (charis, charismata), and the people offer God love and service in return.

This situation seems to make a great deal of sense out of the New Testament account of God’s grace and the human response to that grace. God, in Christ, has established a new covenant with the people of the earth. God will be our God, and we will be His people. He, showing the favour of a liege lord to His people, gifts us with forgiveness (so that we can stay in His presence), with his Spirit (so that we can be equipped for His service), with new hearts (so that we can fulfill the covenant stipulations), and He effects all of this through the gift of Himself through the Son (Who makes all this possible). In a covenant frame, grace is the favour and gifting of God which, being received by His covenant people, demands a response of covenant love and obedience.

Abraham-and-the-stars

Grace, then, is favours/gifts from God which demand love and obedience. It follows that all things have the potential to be grace, if they are received rightly. Life itself, as a gift from God, is a grace the acknowledgement of which demands new love and obedience. Every instantiation of beauty, received as grace, is an apprehension of something which demands love and obedience. And, if we are to take Job as our guide, in an astonishing way every experience of horror—so received as if from God—can also be interpreted as a demand for love and obedience (“Shall we accept good from His hand, and not ill?” Job 2:10). Furthermore, a covenant frame for grace can contain all of our common understandings of grace—within the covenant, of course forgiveness is a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); sinlessness is also a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); and noblesse is a mode of grace (the witness of which also demands our love, obedience, and imitation).

Fuzzy definitions make fuzzy Christians. A good definition of grace should equip us to better fulfill our obligations as recipients of God’s favours. And, if we believe that all of life is a gift, then to live rightly in response to it is to embody the very nature of grace—covenant people receiving gifts and returning love, obedience, and gratitude.

Eight (8) Myths of Popular Piety in Good Omens

Last night I finished watching through the Amazon Prime show, Good Omens. I was already familiar with the story, having read the Pratchett/Gaiman book several years ago. The show itself was reasonably entertaining, theologically absurd, sometimes hilarious, often dumb, but through it all David Tennant and Michael Sheen really shone as a pair of 6000-year-long friends haplessly trying to prevent the end of the world.

good-omens-amazon-tennant-sheen-goodomens-106-03098-1-fnl

Good Omens isn’t really about Christianity. What it’s about is, well, itself, and part of that self is to parody the 1976 film The Omen, in which the antichrist is born, placed in the care of an American diplomat, and through those channels brings about the imminent end of the world. Good Omens is that story, but gone screwy, partly because of the actions of Aziraphale, a compassionate but somewhat dimwitted angel, and Crowley, a clever but only accidental demon, who together happen to have struck up an unlikely friendship over the past millennia. Things go wrong, some things go right, some things are silly, and if you like those sorts of things, then Good Omens is definitely worth a few nights of your life. But if your knickers get into a twist over any irreverence associated with Christianity, then this show ain’t for you.

In fact, criticizing Good Omens (as some have been doing), is a pretty clear Proverbs 26:4 moment—that in answering the fool according to his folly, we become fools like him. The show is absurdism, and critiquing it makes the self-styled critic absurd. Much like getting upset about satire, raging about Good Omens proves that the joke’s on you.

In the next paragraphs I’m about to offer a critique of eight religious myths present, and prominent, in Good Omens. But let’s be clear that I’m not really talking about Good Omens. I’m talking about these myths of popular piety that are so common, and so prevalent, that they become part of the fabric of Good Omens without our batting an eye. Let’s dig in.

Adam and Eve with Apple

  1. There’s no mention of an apple in the Adam and Eve story.

I think this is still a surprise to many people. The Genesis text mentions two trees—the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent tempts Eve to take fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but we’re never told what the fruit is. It could have been an apple, yes, but it also could have been a pear, peach, plum, or pomegranate. Come to think of it, since none of us has ever seen a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we’ve no idea what its fruit looks like anyway. All we know is that it looked good to eat.

  1. Few people in the early history of Judaism/Christianity thought the world was 6000 years old.

The earliest authoritative interpreters we have for the Genesis text (Origen and Augustine) explicitly urge caution in reading the Genesis 1-2 story literally. Much of church history followed their lead, and yet the passion for maths + scripture (which always = confusion) was irresistible for some. It appears that many of the more modern numbers (i.e., 4004BC as creation date) are, in fact, more modern, stemming from new understandings of dating and the sciences. Many early Christians, following Augustine, believed the earth was created instantly, out of nothing, at an unspecified time. All that to say, there is both no consensus in the Church about the age of the earth, and most people in history haven’t lost any sleep over it. I suggest we join them in that practice.

lucifer-luc-viatour-cc-by-sa-3-0

  1. Satan is, in fact, just another angel.

In popular piety, Satan is considered a superbeing, coequal with Christ and God’s chief opponent—as the embodiment of evil—in the universe. But the truth of the matter is that Satan (we believe) is nothing more than a fallen angel. He’s more like Crowley and Aziraphale than like Christ. In fact, some have speculated, his chief opponent in heaven is Michael the Archangel, rather than anyone else. What is more, as many angels appear to have specific functions (see the Angel of Death in the Exodus narrative), Satan also seems to have a specific function—he is the accuser (that’s what ha satan means in Hebrew). He shows up in Job and, well, accuses. He shows up in the Garden and, well, accuses (that God is deceptive). That’s his function. Furthermore, as a (former) angel he has no corporality. That’s what it means to be an angelic being. He also doesn’t have the power to create anything, so the idea that Satan is going to cause a child to be born—his own son—after the pattern of God and Christ is, again, absurd. He doesn’t have that power. He can’t create. He’s just a spirit.

Harrowing of Hell_Fra-Angelico-c.-1440-Museo-di-San-Marco-Florence

  1. Hell belongs to Jesus.

I grimace a little whenever I hear people claim they want to go to hell because that’s where all the party people are. The thing they don’t realize is that Jesus descended into hell, released from there its captives, took Satan himself captive, and now reigns as lord of Heaven, Earth, and Hell itself. Hell isn’t the domain of evil, it’s the place of the dead. The domain of the evil is, for the moment, the earth. At the end, Satan and all his followers will be cast into hell, but they aren’t there yet. When they do go there, they’ll be under the command of Jesus. (That’s right, in Christian theology there’s nowhere to go from Jesus at the end.)

  1. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” serve Jesus.

No image of the apocalypse has been more evocative than the four horsemen—war, famine, plague, and death, who come to the earth bringing stages of destruction. In Good Omens, the four horsemen are the friends of the antichrist, his servants to bring about the end of the world. But the truth of the matter is that these four horsemen are agents of God. He summons them, they do His bidding, and they serve a function—that is, to remove our capacity to trust in politics (war), wealth (famine), health (plague), and life itself (death). Later in John’s Revelation, another horseman shows up—this time on a white horse, with the words, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” written on his clothes. I wonder, who could this white horseman be?

angel-of-death-3If you really want to get your brain in a pickle, there’s a good chance all the horsemen are angelic powers as well. Death looks a lot like, well, the Angel of Death. War looks a lot like, well, the Angel of War—Michael the Archangel. Plague and Famine are less easy to place, but the plot remains suspiciously similar: functionaries, they serve the functions of the Almighty.

  1. Antichrist is a way of being, not an individual.

Popular piety seems to love the idea of antichrist being a specific person, a kind of anti-Jesus who is the incarnated son of the devil—someone we can look for, and check our news sources to find. But (per myth 3), if we remember that Satan is merely another angel with no creative power, then we’re already in trouble. If we also remember that Satan isn’t even remotely God’s equal, things get more troubling still. And even more worrying is the warning in 1 John 2:18, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Wait, what? Many antichrists? And they’ve already appeared? What’s going on?

The solution to the puzzle is to realize that antichrist is a way of being, not a specific person. If we can discern what it is to be in the way of Christ, then we can work out by deduction what it means to live anti that way. What is the way of Christ? Self-sacrifice, power surrendered in service, kingship by means of a cross. When Satan tempts Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, he offers him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. Jesus refuses, and while the temptation may seem bald and obvious (why worship Satan?) the real sting of it was in the opportunity to skip the cross. Come along, Satan may have whispered, you can have all that is yours without the costly suffering and shame. Just bend a knee! To be in the way of Christ is to embrace a difficult suffering after the pattern of Christ. It follows, by deduction, that to be in the way of anti-Christ is to reject self-sacrifice, to cling to power in the service of what we think is right, and to take kingship without a cross. This is how there can be, and have been, and are at this very moment, many antichrists.

New Jerusalem

If you really need evidence for why we’ve got to be informed readers, and competent interpreters of difficult imagery, just look at the stuff created by people reading John’s Revelation too literally.

  1. The world doesn’t end in the Bible, it’s made new.

The whole idea of the world ending is a little odd, especially since our religious text makes it more than explicit that no such thing happens. Revelation 21:1-2 is quite clear, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.” The end of the world is, well, a new world. It isn’t the end, it’s a renewal. And not only is it a renewal, if you look closely you’ll realize that nobody goes to heaven at the end of the story. Instead, heaven comes down. That, in point of fact, is what the book of John’s Revelation is all about—not the end of the world, but the arrival of heaven.

  1. John’s Revelation is not about the future, but the present.

The most pervasive and unfortunate myth of popular piety is that John’s Revelation is about the future. It isn’t. Or, at least, most of it isn’t. Most of it is about the present. There’s a bit of confusion about the language of “end times.” They aren’t coming in the future, they’ve been going on since Christ rose from the dead. The end times are now, and have been now for the past 2000 years. Take the four horsemen again. They systematically strip away all human hopes for change—through power, wealth, health, or the imagination of immortality. When have war, famine, plague, and death not been part of our human story? The horsemen aren’t coming in the future, they’re here now—and they are challenging you to place your hope in something else. Something more powerful, lasting, and eternal. The four horsemen disrupt our false confidences so that we can place our confidence in a more lasting place—on the fifth horseman.

I’m certain that these myths aren’t going away. They’re too deeply entrenched in our religious and cultural subconscious. They also make for such entertaining stories! Of these, Good Omens is good fun, but that’s all it is. If you don’t go to it for your eschatology, you’ll be fine. But you shouldn’t have been doing that anyway.

Two Faces to Hate: Some (timid) Thoughts about Christchurch

In the latest episode of horrifying shock-murders a white Australian man opened fire last week on a mosque-full of Islamic worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. The murderer, a savvy media manipulator, filmed himself performing the massacre and uploaded a lengthy manifesto detailing his allegiance to various and sundry features of the White Supremacy movement. If nothing else is said about these events, then at least we must admit that in our age we have entered into a new world of evil.

Christchurch Murderer

Media responses have been, as usual, swift and condemnatory. The perpetrator was quickly labelled a terrorist, and media engines shifted into overdrive to minimize and mask his platform. If the logic was to perform a mass murder to gain attention to his platform, then the media is, in this case, muzzling his manifesto, and working hard to restrict access to the video. (Full disclosure: I have neither read the manifesto nor watched the video.)

Let’s admit, before all else, that this is a horrifying situation, and that the perpetrator’s actions are justly condemned by all right-thinking people. You shouldn’t murder people. You shouldn’t murder people while filming yourself murdering people. And you shouldn’t murder people while filming yourself murdering them as if the murders were a kind of video game with a soundtrack. What is more, you shouldn’t attempt to justify your actions by means of lengthy equivocations. There is nothing good about either what the perpetrator wanted, or how he proceeded in his plan.

At the same time, I confess that I am unsettled. Above all else, I am unsettled by certain features of how media coverage operates, even in their muzzling, counter-intuitive narrative. To explain this, consider two faces.

MAGA and Egg Boy Close up

This first is the face of Nick Sandmann, a Catholic high school student, who is—quite apart from his planning—brought awkwardly face to face with a Native American activist named Nathan Phillips. The other image is of William Connolly, smashing an egg on the head of Australian senator Fraser Anning. Both images have caught the attention of the media. Both images have evoked strong emotional responses.

The image of Sandmann, with his MAGA hat and “smug” face, invited the vitriol of the media world. This, they argued, is what is wrong with America. Disrespectful teens, smirking in the face of a peaceful Native American elder. A MAGA hat—the emblematic sign of modern racism!—sneering in its own right down on a person from whom Americans long ago robbed America. Condemnation—and hate—was swift. This was a boy who should be punched in the face. This Catholic school breeds hate. MAGA supporters are all closet white supremacists, and so forth.

sandmann-covington-lincoln-memorial

Of course, the truth came out eventually. The boy wasn’t being aggressive, but he and his classmates had been the recipients of substantial aggression from a group of Black Israelites, who had been hurling abuse at them for some time. The Nathan Phillips had arrived to “make peace,” but had done it awkwardly—walking up to and making eye contact with Sandmann, who was just a bystander—and as a result Sandmann’s face wasn’t smug so much as uncomfortable. He was an awkward teen, caught in an incredibly awkward moment, and the world witnessed his awkwardness and was all too ready to caption it with its own preferred labels. In this circumstance, the label of ‘hate.’

This second image, of Connolly smashing an egg on a Senator’s head, has been met—as far as I can tell—with universal acclaim. Senator Anning had written a letter, outlining his belief that there were, indeed, real immigration problems, and real cultural divides between Islam and the West. Connolly’s timing is admittedly poor, and his judgments may be flawed, but you don’t have to agree with him to recognize that he has a right to his opinion, and a responsibility as a senator, even, to share it. People, knowing how he thinks, elected him after all. But in response, here we have another teenaged boy, this time with a camera to record his own actions, and an egg to smash on Connolly’s head. And this time, the boy’s actions are acclaimed. He’s a hero. He deserves a scholarship.

Fraser Anning Egg

In the one circumstance, we have a boy who has done, literally, nothing, and is deserving of pure hatred because he is associated with things the media dislikes. As a result, he ought to be punched in the face. On the other side, we have a boy who has done something stupid (and let’s admit that filming yourself doing things like this is stupid), who does indeed get punched in the face, but who is really deserving of adulation because he is associated with things the media likes.

Here we come to why I am unsettled. These two faces of hatred display, in a unique way, the unbelievable power that the media holds to sway and shape our opinions. It’s okay to hate X, it’s praiseworthy to love those who egg the representatives of X. It’s okay to hate the people we don’t like. Narratives, context, motivations, impact—none of these factors matter. Only the manifestation of hatred and ready judgment.

Governments reacting to terrorism is the object of terrorism. One of the governing tenets of the pseudo-right, (semi-)white supremacist movement, is that the media controls perception. The belief that the media lies to me is the catalyst for so much of the emotional content which gives rise to these manifestations of hatred and xenophobia. And when the media pulls these kinds of stunts, they are proved right.

Several years ago I accidentally (and I mean it!) joined an alt-right group on Facebook. I’ve never commented or participated in the group, but I watch, and listen, and attend to what makes them tick. The group is sizeable, with something close to 80K members—so this isn’t exactly a fringe group. Their response to these killings has been pretty sickening, and I won’t go into all of it, but two predominant features emerge: first, they believe that the media coverage has universally prevaricated on the story of Islam in New Zealand, and second, they want to incite further Islamic retaliation, to aggravate the hornet’s nest further, so that, perhaps, the West might ‘wake up’ and respond. Whether their vision is right or wrong, evil or not, this attack, and the media coverage, fulfils either outcome they desire. And that might be the most unsettling thought of all.

John Chau and the Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

John Chau died last week, on the shores of the Sentinel Island and at the hands of its inhabitants. Long and notoriously reclusive, the island’s people are protected by law, both out of a desire to preserve their way of life, but also to protect them from Western illnesses which threaten genocide. Chau, determined to reach them for Jesus, died there, studded with arrows, shortly after arriving on the shore and ‘hollering’ that “Jesus loves you!” His story has been awash in the news, and the details have been intensely galvanizing. Was Chau, like Jim Elliot, a martyr for a lost people group? Or was he just another colonizing Westerner, intent on destroying indigenous populations in the name of a dangerously inflated religious ego? The jury remains out.

johnchau-998x702

There are things I want to say about Chau, and about how we Christians respond to him, but first I want to pause to consider more deeply these two competing narratives. On the one hand stands the Jim Elliot narrative. Elliot, passionate, moody, introspective, and compelling, felt a call to reach an Ecuadorean group called the Quechua in 1956. He, several friends, and their wives made their way down to Ecuador, fully knowing the dangers that might lie ahead. They made early contact with the group by means of flyovers. They reached out gently to meet the tribe and had initial success. Optimistic, they returned to continue their efforts. But something happened—we don’t know what—and there was a sudden change in the tribesmen. Instead of fellowship, without warning they began to cast spears. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully all died there. But such was not the end of their story. Covered by Life magazine, their example galvanized missions work in America. Not only that, but Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth, returned with the other widows to continue to reach out to the tribe, who eventually came to faith. Almost as a perfect statement on the whole story, Elliot had written in his diary, some time before, these compelling words, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” The story of Jim Elliot remains one of the most tragic, heroic, and compelling in the history of modern missions.

Through gates of splendor

Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of Jim and the other missionaries in this iconic book. Well worth a read, if you haven’t heard of it.

Was John Chau another Jim Elliot? In the minds of many, the answer is a self-evident “Yes.” He is called, knows the risks, takes them anyway, and out of obedience and a radical love for Jesus lays his life on the line to share the gospel. He, a fool for Christ, clearly gives what cannot be kept (his life) to gain what cannot be lost. In the minds of many Christians, Chau’s heavenly rewards are certain and secure.

But there is another narrative, one that tells us how much the world has changed since 1956. In this narrative, Chau is an egotistical colonist, who cannot bear to leave an indigenous people alone, even if his presence means potentially wiping them out completely. He is a foolhardy maniac, openly defying the laws of India to take a gospel the Sentinelese haven’t asked for, and potentially don’t need, and force them into the 21st century by means of it. The discomfort may run even deeper—in an age of consent, Chau’s insistence on advancing into a people group without their consent may come to look even like a kind of cultural rape. Behold, in Chau’s smiling face is embedded the insane Christian ego, violating the culture and conscience of a people, all the while telling them that “it’s for your own good.” It’s a disturbing picture.

At this point, given the material I’ve read about Chau, and given my current understanding of the picture, I must confess I am more inclined to see his death more as a tragic misstep than a heroic martyrdom. This is a situation that both could, and should have, been avoided. Irrespective, however, of the merits or demerits of Chau’s actions, I want in these brief comments to focus attention on the responses of many everyday Christians. Over the past week I’ve encountered their thoughts both in published articles and comments in response to those articles, and among my Christian peers there is a common, if not unanimous, move to praise Chau’s obedience. In their responses it is his very folly that is the central node of praise—he did what others wouldn’t do, he was obedient where others were afraid to be obedient, and his body now lies as a testimony to the future Sentinelese. Who knows, after all, whether or not this action might be the very beginning of their coming to faith?! What these sentiments exhibit, and what I want to focus on today, is our general Christian confusion between the fool and the foolhardy. More explicitly, what I detect in us is a deep suspicion of intelligence.

Moral obligation CoverRecently I read a fascinating essay by American educator John Erskine, “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” Writing in 1915, Erskine presents, appealing to various literary sources, a crisis in the Western mind. He writes,

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the hart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.” (5-6)

Our habit, ingrained on his account from the time of the Saxons till now, is to distrust the crafty, and to trust the simpleminded; that somehow simplemindedness is in itself a virtue, while intelligence is always mere shades away from vice. We are programmed now to be suspicious of scientists, of experts, of people with letters after their names, and to prize (at least sentimentally) homegrown wisdom and certain varieties of ‘common sense.’

Erskine takes issue with the prevalence of these sentiments, and perhaps the centre of his argument is as follows:

But as a race we seem as far as possible from realising that an action can intelligently be called good only if it contributes to a good end; that it is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end; and that any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious. (17-18)

ErskineGoodness, he argues, is not an innate property of the simple. Nor is vice an innate property of the intelligent. Instead, a given action is good or bad if it leads to (and is connected with) good or bad ends, and only the virtue of intelligence can calculate the metrics of those goods and bads. There is no value in foolhardy stupidity, or in a gung-ho bulldozing through barriers and walls, or in blind obedience to a simplistic understanding. In fact, Erskine argues, “any system of ethics that excuses [us] from that obligation is vicious.” In other words, any system that allows us to ignore the obligation to be intelligent, to think through causes and effects, to know and love the good in our circumstances, is a system which allows us to justify our actions based on factors that aren’t good. If we refuse to be guided by intelligence, in other words, we will be guided by our desires (such as our desire to be well thought of), or our fears (such as our fear of missing out), or our false conclusions (such as our bullheaded refusal to admit fault and make things right).

To some, I imagine this may sound like a kind of grand casuistry—an excuse mongering which dodges the pure call to obedience. Chau was obedient, God will provide, case closed. And yet we do have a direct command in scripture regarding our intelligence—to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Pause and think about that first clause for a moment. Wise as serpents. The serpent was the most crafty animal God had made. So crafty, in fact, that it becomes nearly synonymous with the Devil himself. And we are to be like him in that way. Crafty. Devious. Plotting. Intelligent. All while remaining innocent and pure. Reading the ardent supporters of Chau, it is not hard to imagine that we’ve read the passage in reverse, and in obedience to our misunderstanding we are now wise as doves and harmless as serpents. Constitutionally stupid (doves), we commit harms on others (snakebites).

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sometimes we forget that the snake is itself a creation of God, and that this suggests it is part of the ‘good’ of the whole creation… !

Curiously, this very morning I read another scripture that seems to apply the same lessons—this time, from the mouth of that cranky prophet, Amos:

14Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
And thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you,
Just as you have said!
15 Hate evil, love good,
And establish justice in the gate!
Perhaps the Lord God of hosts
May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:14-15)

The warning, in other words, is to utilize our intelligence for the execution of just judgment—to evaluate our circumstances and make a choice based on our comprehension of good and evil. The danger of ignoring the good, and of neglecting the knowledge of evil as a possibility, is to fall to judgment. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

What judgment we make about Chau, and whether or not he is a martyr for the Christian faith, may have to wait on the perspective of eternity. What cannot wait for that eternal perspective, is our duty and mandate to access and exercise our moral intelligence. There is no value in the foolhardy per se, there is great harm to be done by being wilfully simpleminded. And those who urge obedience at the expense of careful, wise reflection, potentially urge us onto courses of destruction.

The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.

tayari-jones-800

Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

mlk jr

And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

Black Lives Matter_Girl

#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

Pride parade portrait

#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.