A Failure in Critical Thought–On Christian Support of Trump

There are two reasons to read the Babylon Bee, and the first is simply to enjoy the satire. Good satire, I might suggest, is a gift from God. It allows us to laugh at our sacred cows. Used in the right hands—much like the office of a court jester—it works to let air out of the balloon of our pretensions. It provides a necessary service in self-reflection and self-deprecation. At this game, the Babylon Bee has shown itself almost unmatched, and in some ways has assumed a near prophetic office in the church today. It speaks the truth, even when it hurts.

The second reason to read the Bee is to attend to what happens in the comments. The comments, when they encapsulate outrage and frustration at the satire, are potent mirrors for the inner beliefs of individuals. In other words, you learn a lot about people from their response to satire. If Acts 19 teaches us anything, it’s that if you want to start a riot, strike an idol. The Bee has an uncanny ability to strike our cultural (especially American) Christian idols, and consequently to arouse the rage of a surprisingly large body of Christians.

This was particularly in evidence in a July Bee post about Trump and the hemorrhaging staff from the White House offices. The headline was as follows:

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As the picture faithfully indicates, the article suggests that the president holds himself in a position of trenchant rejection that anything significant is going on while the offices of the White House burn down around him—i.e., while staff are fired in ever increasing numbers. As an example of the Bee’s satire, it probably doesn’t rise above the “moderately funny” category, and yet the response to this piece is, as I suggested, highly illuminating. It was illuminating because it revealed serious flaws in Christian critical thinking—more specifically, the almost complete lack of it. For each of the following responses, we will detail the suggestion which seems to underlie the comment, then point out the problem in critical thought that follows. So, consider the following responses. (Please note–occasionally individuals respond with satirical comments of their own. To the best of my understanding, all the comments that follow are genuine.)

Example 1: “So tired…!”

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Suggestion A: Christians ought to support the president. To be a faithful Christian means to show support for America’s president in some meaningful way.

The Critical Thought Problem: The Scriptures are filled with criticism of leadership—if you didn’t know that, I’d suggest you spend more time with the prophets—in fact, the Scriptures are critical not only of bad leaders, but even of the good ones! Remember that it is Nathan the prophet who calls out David for his sin with Bathsheba.

There is an additional problem with this suggestion, namely, that it exposes hypocrisy. I’ve got strong reasons to believe that the same Christians who are now calling for blanket Christian support of the President did not show the same support for President Obama. There’s a clear double standard at play here.

Suggestion B: If you criticize Trump, it means that you’d rather have had Hillary as president.

The Critical Thought Problem: Formally, this is a kind of non sequitur—it does not follow from my critique of Trump that I would rather have had Hillary as president. Critique of Trump is not support of Hillary, and it is a false equivalency to suggest that. This tactic is an all too common obfuscation in political debates. It’s like discussing the merits of a particular pizza (it’s too cheesy, not hot enough, flavourless, etc.), and in response you say to me, “Yeah, but would you rather eat arsenic instead?” No, no I wouldn’t. Arsenic wasn’t ever really an option for me. And furthermore, your suggestion that I eat arsenic isn’t really a meaningful advance in our discussion regarding the quality of pizza before us. What you seem to be saying is that, because I’m eating pizza, I ought to love the pizza no matter what and without criticism. There’s a name for the political system where you’ve got to support the leaders no matter what—it’s called Communism.

Example 2: “God Allowed It!”

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Suggestion A: To criticize the president is somehow to criticize God’s work.

The Critical Thought Problem: This logic rapidly decays into absurdity, because God also “allowed” Manasseh, Herod, Shalmaneser, Pharaoh, Stalin, and Hitler. God’s “allowing” of these individuals to operate on the field of history has never meant that God-fearing people ought to posture themselves in an attitude of support for the agendas of those individuals. Far from it! We are called instead to postures of radical faith and criticism of these agendas—the fundamental Christian stance is one of prophetic dissonance to the world.

Suggestion B: Criticism shows lack of faith in God’s plans.

The Critical Thought Problem: I refer you again to the Old Testament prophets.

Example 3: “Economy’s doing great!”

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Suggestion A: Benefits in one area mitigate concerns in another. If things are going well with respect to X, then stop complaining about Y.

The Critical Thought Problem: This seems to be advocating that we turn a blind eye to evil—very much like taking a bribe (which is expressly forbidden in Scripture!). Fundamentally, though, the Christian Scriptures instruct us to do justice and love mercy even at the expense of our financial position. We give an extra cloak if we have it, we don’t harvest to the edges of our fields so that others can eat. Economic benefits are at best of secondary importance to moral obligations. The very idea that interest is forbidden in the Old Testament suggests that we dare not make financial benefits the determining factor in our relationships and judgments. Proverbs 28:6 makes this explicit, “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse.”

Example 4: “He wants to save unborn babies!”

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Suggestion A: The ends (stopping abortion) justify the means (Trump).

The Critical Thought Problem: It simply cannot be true for Christians that achieving a given end (ending an evil) justifies the capitulation with evil. Under such circumstances, whatever good is achieved will be itself tarnished by the evil actions committed to achieve it. It will be a soured victory. If we succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade through the instrumentality of Trump’s presidency, then at what expense have we achieved our goal? At what expense to our Christian witness? What does it say about our relationship to power? Will we try to force other Christian values on people by means of political power? What meaningfully separates us from totalitarian states? And what will happen when the balance of power shifts, and those on the other side of the political spectrum begin to pass laws that dictate our livelihood? To sell everything in order to defeat abortion—especially by means of one such as Trump—seems to me to be incredibly short-sighted.

Suggestion B: If I criticize Trump, I’m not sufficiently pro-life.

The Critical Thought Problem: This is all or nothing thinking. It suggests that unless I concur with you tactically, we can’t possibly have the same objectives and goals. But this is also patently false. I am staunchly pro-life, but I also believe that if we have to do violence to our moral witness in order to achieve our pro-life agenda for others, then we’ve corrupted that witness in the process. I am also convinced that while we may win legal battles relative to our moral agendas, if we lose the battle for the heart in the midst of that, we’ve lost more than we’ve gained. Social change is certainly part of our Christian life in the world, but always at the service of witness, and never at the expense of it.

The long story short is this: if you are offended by satire, then you need to ask yourself why. There’s a good chance the offense might point to something amiss in your heart. And if you can discover that—well, then the satire will have done its job.

Show and Tell: A Critique of Public Rhetoric

Before I say anything constructive, consider the following four quotes—three taken from America’s Twitterer-in-Chief, and the fourth from C.S. Lewis:

“The media coverage this morning of the very average Clinton speech and Convention is a joke. @CNN and the little watched @Morning_Joe = SAD!” (@realDonaldTrump on July 29)

“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on “Russia,” with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” (@realDonaldTrump on June 27th)

“Crowd is booing the hell out of that phony decision – place is angry and going wild. Fight was not even close! DISGUSTING.” (@realDonaldTrump on May 4th)

“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.” (C.S. Lewis to Joan Lancaster, 26 June 1956 [Letters to Children, 64])

Lewis and Trump

I put these four quotes here to highlight what is a growing pet-peeve I have with public rhetoric. Labels such as “Sad,” “Fake News,” and “Disgusting” are appearing with increasing frequency, and what I dislike about them so very much is that they pretend to draw your conclusions for you. Rather than engaging in the work of thinking, evaluating, and then drawing a proper conclusion from a piece of information, these conclusions are ready-packaged right from the start. You don’t have to think your way through right and wrong, I will simply tell you how to feel. #Convenient.

It’s worth unpacking this problem further. First of all, we should note that a declaration is not an argument. Simply because I declare something to be “disgusting” doesn’t make it disgusting. I might dislike it a lot. I might think you will dislike it a lot. But nothing replaces the task of actually arguing for why a given thing, person, or place is “disgusting,” and then for you to consider those arguments and make a judgment. In fact, it is the very business of public rhetoric to try to convince you—through argument—that one thing deserves one categorization and not another. It takes arguments to determine whether Republicans or Democrats are right about the management of American government. It takes arguments to determine whether or not the Affordable Care Act is a good or a bad program. And declarations are insufficient arguments. #Truth.

A further problem is how this trend reflects on our critical thinking more generally. Label-based rhetoric is certainly a much easier task to perform than argument-based rhetoric. It’s far simpler to call someone “Loser” than to actually demonstrate his or her failure. And while it is possible that this is simply a by-product of the medium—140 characters do not lend themselves to particularly deep and critical thoughts—the labelling of emotional responses to a given event smacks more of laziness than of constraints. When I write a one-word conclusive label to cap off a point then I’m asking you to do my work for me. #Lazy.

Related to this, I am reminded of another Lewis quote—this time from his book on education, The Abolition of Man. He writes,

“Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought… The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeably, disgusting, and hateful. (The Abolition of Man, 28-29)

Looking at things this way, the activity of education is a kind of extended, grand, patient act of show-and-tell. The educator shows—for example in literature—an instance of the best, along with some instances of the worst, and permits the student to draw conclusions between the two. The best of education happens when the student is so sufficiently acquainted with the good that he or she can recognize it in other media. The conclusions will not have been drawn for you, you will be equipped to draw those conclusions for yourself. #Smart.

I think it unlikely that Trump will change his rhetorical habits. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is required to either ape his rhetoric, or cave to the lazy simplicity of labels. In fact, we have a civic (and indeed Christian) responsibility to act publicly with rhetorical dignity, honourability, and integrity. We must argue and not presume, and we must do these things with both respect for ourselves, and for our interlocutors. #Self-Respect.

The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

Mexican Vegetables_Rogaz Gugus

Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.

Joy, Sadness, and Success in Vancouver

If you’re a regular reader then you know that in December my family and I packed up our lives, left our church community in Burnaby, BC, and emigrated to Scotland so that I could begin a PhD. It’s been a wild ride, and we’ve been busy! In May we were privileged to return to Vancouver for a wedding. It was a great experience, and it allowed me a special perspective from which to reflect back on my own ministry. I thought I’d share a few of those reflections with you today.

First, leaving a church is never easy. (Or, at least, it never should be easy!) You are leaving relationships, many of them deep, with people for whom you have prayed, laboured, and with whom you have suffered in ministry, people you have married, people whose parents and friends you have buried, and children whom you have dedicated. A minister gets slowly but deeply integrated into the life of a community—you can’t possibly leave without some discomfort!

However—and this was an enormous blessing that I in no way take for granted!—we were able to leave on great terms. From day one, the church knew that further studies were part of my life goals. What is more, God’s provision for our studies had been so evident, and the story of His provision so compelling, that it gave my people (and us with them!) a real sense of God’s call. This made the pain of leaving truly bittersweet—happiness about God’s self-evident work mingled with sadness over the loss of relationships.

What wasn’t so good is that, although we were on good moral and social terms with our church members, we left town badly. We had a firm deadline for when we were to leave Canada (mid-December), and we were leaving both without visas and without a place to live in Scotland. In the midst of that uncertainty, the overwhelming business of packing, saying goodbye, cleaning our house, selling our cars, preparing boxes for storage and shipping, and tying up all our other affairs left our heads spinning. Not only that, many of these things—such as the final packing of our storage facility, the selling of our cars, and the cleaning of our house—happened after we left and were done for us by our church members! Leaving was ugly, but in the midst of it our people were absolutely beautiful!

Originally, in planning our final days in Vancouver, my wife and I had slotted the last two days for eating at some of our favourite restaurants, visiting a few of our favourite locations, and saying goodbye to the various houses we’d lived in. Instead, a snowstorm on those last days (and our own insane busyness) made a mess of that plan. Three days before departure we slept for about four hours. Two days before we slept for about two hours. The day before we left we may have slept for about an hour on the floor of our nearly empty apartment. Rather than an easy departure in the early afternoon we left late at night, exhausted, drained, and almost completely miserable. (Did I mention that throughout this process my wife was in the early months of pregnancy?)

The only consolation, then, was the knowledge that in about six month’s we’d be back for a wedding, and in my mind I lodged the thought that maybe with that trip we could make up for the ugly departure we’d just been through.

Fast forward six months. We’ve moved to Scotland, found a place to live, and settled in to a new life in a new world. May has come, and it’s time to pack up our bags and head back to Canada. We’ve slated 13 days for the trip, have a list of restaurants to visit, people to see, baby clothes to collect, and a few things to buy. What I didn’t—and couldn’t—expect, were the things I would learn visiting my “home” community again, as a former minister. I want to talk for a moment about the following five.

1) I am humbled by the quality of people in our Vancouver life, and honoured to call them friends. The people in our church life—the friends we’d built up over the past 8.5 years—are some of the most amazing people I know. They housed us, and loaned us a car, and fed us, and loved on us and on our kids in an unremitting way for all 13 days we were there. For my part, each and every day I ate at least three meals a day with our church friends, and sometimes more than three. I came back to Scotland with my belly fatter but my heart full. Again and again as I sat with them (and ate!) I couldn’t help but think how much I appreciated each and every person I saw, how much I valued their lives, their faith, their stories, their children, and their parents. I was struck and humbled as well by the sheer excellence and quality each person. For so many of them, six months had passed, and yet it felt as if no time at all had transpired. For me, that only happens with my closest of friends, and yet I felt it with so many of my former members. It was a shock!

2) I succeeded in ministry, but I could never have realized it until I left. On paper and in public I set myself to operate a ministry based on friendship. I didn’t want relationships which were based solely on my office or the power of the pastorate (although I wasn’t shy to utilize that power as appropriate and necessary). Instead, I wanted to highlight the fact that we shared a common faith, a common lord, and that my purpose as pastor was to strengthen their personal relationships with the King in such a way that it would never depend on the pastor. While I was active in ministry, I couldn’t really gauge my success. I was too busy, and had too many relationships to maintain, and not enough time to invest the way I would like in each person. Ironically, it was only leaving the ministry that could reveal its success—so, to return, and then to receive the love of so many people who are friends left me gobsmacked. But this led to a third lesson:

3) The fact that I was too busy to enjoy these friendships is a HUGE problem. On one late afternoon and early evening our kids had a play-date with church friends. I ended up sitting on a couch, casually reading a book, while my wife and the other mom visited. Later, we ate together, walked to the park, and enjoyed a quiet evening in beautiful Vancouver. It struck me in that moment, “Why didn’t we do this before?” Immediately I knew the answer. I would have been too busy. I would have been at my office, or at a meeting, or speaking at an event, or working on some other project, or handling an emergency, or resting in exhaustion from the execution of some combination of each of the above tasks. I would have sent my wife and kids on their own to the play-date and would never have made it to the house of the very friends whose everyday faith would have restored me. It is a deeply ironic situation. I can only conclude, in the future, that if I am in full-time ministry again I must create those spaces simply to be with people. They may be as important to my ministering soul as are times of devotion and rest. They are rest.

4) Preaching again was an experience in discernment. One joy was to preach again after the six month hiatus of moving-to-Scotland. I got to tell the story of our adventures, travels, and things I’d learned so far in Scotland. I got to encourage my members to take risks, to step out in faith by following Jesus. But while I stood in front of their welcoming faces a few key things ran through my head. One was a sense, again, that no time had passed. Preaching remains one of the things I am called and equipped to do, and there was an easy comfort to stepping back into that space. At the same time, as sometimes happens at these moments, there was no hint of nostalgia—no inner sense of, “I could come back and do this again…” In its place was a clear sense of, “Your time here is done.” For what it’s worth, preaching again showed me that I’m supposed to be in Scotland, and supposed to be pursuing this PhD right now. There was a satisfying comfort in that moment of discernment.

5) I’m seriously considering a book about Second Generation Ministry. My 8.5 years in full-time ministry with Vietnamese and Chinese churches has taught me enormously. In the process, I’ve had to reflect (creatively!) on the dynamics that make my churches operate—cultural, structural, interpersonal, and so forth. In the process I’ve tried to share these insights with my members, whether in the big public spaces of preaching or in private conversations. The result is a notebook with quite a few jottings about these issues. Not being Asian myself, I’ve hesitated to write such a book—I don’t want to present myself as another non-Asian telling Asians how to run their lives as Asians. But maybe, just maybe, as a friend who cares deeply for my many friends who happen to be Asian, I can write something that will articulate things going on in their lives, as well as encourage, bless, and enrich their faith.

Of course, such projects might be slightly delayed by the 80,000 word thesis I’m supposed to be writing for the University of St Andrews. Between that, and dinner with my children as often as possible, we’ll see how my spare time shapes up!

Announcing a New Book! People of a Certain Character

Dear Reader,

In my eight years of pastoral ministry the most frequently recurring request, from laypersons and leadership alike, has been to implement some form of “Leadership Training.” From the top, church leaders see a crisis in volunteers; from the pews, members feel ill-equipped to take on Christian service. “Training” is often the language we use for the process of bridging this gap.

I have come to believe that there is something troubling, even deeply broken, about this process. Especially from the leadership level, I am uncomfortable viewing my people as resources to be harnessed for our projects. From the lay level, I’m troubled by both the tacit appeal to secular leadership models and the role that “technique” seems to play in training curricula. Both processes seemed far removed from the business of making disciples into Christ’s image.

People of a Certain Character Cover_ThumbnailThat’s why I’ve written People of a Certain Character—it is an attempt to bridge this gap in our ecclesial discipleship. The central argument of the book is that it is in the formation of our Christian character, not the adoption of techniques, that we become most fit for service in the Kingdom of God. To do this I ask a series of questions directed at the heart of the reader. For example, one of the first questions is “Do you know you are loved by God?” This seems to me the single most essential characteristic for an individual in Christian service. After all, if you don’t know that you are loved by God, you will strive to be loved by people. And a heart that desires to be loved by the people it serves is most likely to go astray. There are twelve such questions in the book, and each is an attempt to get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in service.

There is an additional problem in the business of discipleship and the training of leaders—namely, that there is both a shortage of capable leaders to teach the material, and a shortage of time for those leaders who are capable. It seemed to me, then, that there was a clear need for a resource which could be used in a group. Chapters would need to be short so that nobody would fall behind in the reading. Lessons would need to be anchored in Scripture so that we don’t fall into the trap of secularizing our leadership practices. Each lesson would need to be deep enough to sustain discussion, and each lesson would require questions to facilitate such reflection and discussion. A well-crafted book, I hoped, would enable groups of disciples to gather together and do the business of discipleship in a small group. With a minimal commitment of time in preparation, it might free both leaders and laypersons alike to walk on a journey towards more Christlikeness. This is, indeed, the kind of ambitious book that I hope People of a Certain Character can be, and, by the grace of God, I pray that you might read it and find that I’ve succeeded to some degree.

If this sounds like the kind of book you’ve been waiting for, then you can purchase a copy from either Amazon.com or from my createspace store. If you would like a review copy, send me your name, address, a brief bio, and your blog address to contact@jeremyrios.com and I’ll see if I can mail you a copy for review as soon as I’m able.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios
St Andrews

Dear James (G)–Pride and Self-Damnation

Dear James,

I hinted at this throughout our correspondence, but I’m not fully convinced that sins can be ranked—at least in the traditional sense of ranking them. They have degrees of external effects (on individuals and groups), but the real measure of sin in my estimation is in its capacity to remove you from the presence of God. Whether the removing happens on account of your belly, your loins, or your mind seems largely irrelevant. The fact that you have been removed seems to be the most important. In this sense I am skeptical of the division between “mortal” and “venial” sins, since the division seems to be so clearly rooted in a fundamental ranking of sinfulness. Given that, I believe I can still hold Pride to be the chief and worst of sins because it is, fundamentally, the replacement of God with the self. In this it sits behind and beneath all the other sins we’ve discussed; they are, in their extreme, expressions of this attitude of self-love and self-exaltation. To commit the sin of Pride, therefore, is to reject God.

Pride, then, is the sin of sins. But be careful not to confuse this theological pride with our human conceptions of arrogance or vainglory. There is an appropriate pride that I feel when my children do something praiseworthy, or when I take pride in my work to make it presentable. To get at the real meaning of sinful Pride we’ve got to look closely at the Garden again. There, Adam and Eve make a choice. They have the capacity to choose to obey God’s command, to live with the bounds of His provision, or to capitulate with the Serpent’s wishes. They choose against God’s way; they choose their own ethics, their own desires, and I believe that the heart of that choice is a choice to do things my own way. I exalt my will, and diminish God’s. I place my own desires in command, and ignore my Maker’s. I declare my independence and self-sufficiency. And that act of rejection, which happens at the level of the soul, is an act of necessary self-damnation. In Pride I stand upon my own power for life and living. In the extremis of Pride God grants to me the right to stand upon my own power for life and living. The storm necessarily comes, and I, built upon the sand, am washed away.

George MacDonald once wrote that “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” That’s the ethic of self-damnation in practice. I do what I want, for myself, by my own rules, and all others be damned! But the only one I damn is in fact me. We are not self-sufficient creatures, we are creatures, made for a living dependency upon our maker, made for relationships with one another. The inverse of MacDonald’s phrase is therefore equally true, that “The one principle of Heaven is—I belong to someone else.” We see that principle in action when the Father gives to the Son, and the Son gives the Spirit to us, and in the Spirit we are presented as gifts to the Father. At the centre of the nexus of Heaven and Earth is a being whose whole existence appears to be wrapped up in a giving away, a man on a cross who spills himself out for the life of the world.

So much of our world depends on this self-love, this self-supremacy. I’m reminded of that story of Laplace speaking of science to Napoleon. When asked where God fit in this theories, Laplace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The story may not be true, but the sentiment certainly is. What need has the modern world for a God-hypothesis? We have power, and resources, and medication, and happiness—what use have we for the theory of a God who might interfere with such happinesses as are offered by the world? Who regulates pleasure, and finances, and creativity, and industry, and the treatment of other persons? Isn’t such a “God” merely an interference in fulfilling our true joys? The answer, of course, is “Yes, He is.” He does interfere; but we forget that it is His world with which He interferes.

Pride then expresses itself in our resistance to God’s interference. It is the petulant “No!” which pushes back against the loving (occasionally painful and discomforting) advances of our creator. Pride hates to be told what to do, hates to be told to self-mortify, hates to give up authority over life. It is in this sense that Pride expresses itself through our other sins. Pride behind Lust refuses to release desire to God’s control. Pride behind Greed refuses to trust in God’s provision. Pride behind Sloth clings to control by blocking God’s call. In the grip of Pride, I reject God so that I can maintain what I believe to be control of my self. It is a sin of self damnation, God help us all.

My will is too corrupted to even see all the Pride that sits within me. I need help. And I think the best help we get is to meditate upon the obedience of Christ. He who had all power became powerless so that we could be restored. There—in another Garden!—he says “Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said, “No.” “Thy will and not Mine.” We go on to examine the extent of his obedience—prayer, pain, loss, fear, suffering, unjust suffering, betrayal, excruciating pain, and death itself. No human has ever or will ever do away with Pride who will not suffer the image of the humble and obedient Christ to penetrate his heart.

James, may image of Christ so penetrate you and I this Good Friday, and bring us to new and restored life this Resurrection Sunday!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (F)–Greed, Which is Idolatry

Dear James,

I agree that the more we look at sin, and look into sin—especially that sin which sits lurking in the quiet unexamined spaces of our hearts—the more we look the more we’ll see. It’s almost neurotic, like the student of pathology or psychology who finds, through study, that she bears the symptoms of every disease and disorder she encounters! But where with the student such a thing is a necessary phase, one out of which she ought rightly to grow, the analysis of sin for us is both accurate and unending. It is also a worse experience. Sin is not limited to its bodily effects, it is also psychological, and indeed goes beyond the psychological to touch the very soul. The pathology runs throughout the entirety of the human person. It’s a scary business, looking into your own heart.

I trust, despite your note of alarm, that throughout this season our exercise together hasn’t slipped into despair. We’ve tried to balance the grim with the good, and while I admit that I haven’t made much of forgiveness, it’s worth remembering that our salvation from sin hasn’t really been the point so far. In Christ we’re both saved already, are we not? What we want for is an act of transformation in the inner man to root out the twisted evil of our hearts. To get at that, we’ve got to commit to the long, hard look inward.

It’s possible that one of the hardest places to look today is at Greed, if only because our political and economic systems are crafted to sanction and shape human Greed. Acquisition is at the heart of capitalism, and the system claims to free men by freeing their capacity for acquisition. It is interesting to remember that the Hebrews had strict injunctions against charging interest, if only because application of those same laws today would destroy our economies. In this way, and others, Greed is hard to look at; we can’t imagine living without it.

Greed has to do with stuff, and with the desire for stuff, but of course it goes much deeper than that. At its root, it’s about the danger of stuff to stand between us and God. When Jesus talks about Mammon in the Sermon on the Mount he’s speaking about a deity—the god of things—which wars with God for our allegiance. Greed’s power is to help us to think that our things will save us, that acquisition really is the meaning of life. It lends power to the belief that a sufficient buffer of money, power, and influence will be what I need to protect me against the day of trouble. “You fool!” Christ says, “This very night your life will be required of you.” In these ways, Greed keeps us from trusting in God.

But Greed also flattens our human relationships. Rather than seeing my fellow man as someone made in God’s image and likeness, a brother or sister in need, I see dollar signs. I see someone who can be used to make money, or someone whose needs will cost money. Greed reduces persons to things, and relationships to economics. (Which suggests, ironically, that Marxism’s materialism actually generates a politics to rival capitalism’s Greed.) In the end, the old phrase becomes true—rather than using things and loving people, in Greed I use people and love things.

And this, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of Greed, that it wars against Charity. Here the word Charity is important in both of its senses—that of giving alms, and that of the love that is proper to Christians. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to be truly Charitable when I am in the grip of Greed—not only because I believe that these things are mine, and therefore not fit for another, but also because I have permitted the weight of my stuff to stifle the right response of my heart. Properly Christian love sacrifices itself for the benefit of another. Greed throws checks in this process, and by so doing perhaps fundamentally inhibits our growth in grace.

All of this is part of that hard, inward look, and yet it seems to me that we as the Church haven’t got the best track record for this process. Far too many people still seem to think that—or at least act as if—“accepting Jesus” were the end of the story. Not only do we appear to have an aversion to the hard work of faith, we categorically dislike being forced to look into the mirror of God’s truth. I wonder if Greed might actually play an important part in this aversion. Greed, as it manifests itself in a belief that I deserve something, that I am owed certain things in life, extends outward to mean that I am owed a good life (from God), and owed an easy faith journey, and owed peace, and security, and happiness. When I don’t get those things, I feel at liberty to make them happen by my own power. With Greed in control, I get to be my own master. With God in control, I don’t. This indeed is the Greed, in Paul’s words, “which is idolatry.”

I think there might be two clear answers to Greed in the human heart. The first, of course, is Charity itself, in the sense of sacrificial giving. We ought to be giving away from what God has given us. And I don’t think we ought only to be giving to the Church, but we ought also to review those charitable options available to us and allow ourselves to be moved by the other kind of Charity. Where our heart is touched, we ought to give. The other answer is to commit to the work at your local church, and to allow your heart to be touched by the needs you see there. Where you see needs, attempt to meet them. Above all, both these activities ought to generate in us a sense that we are seeing people and using things.

All the best to you as you prepare your heart for Holy Week.

Jeremy Rios