Monthly Archives: April 2010

Stewarding God’s Garden (1): What is the Ideal World?

One of my reading projects for the summer is to spend some time looking at Christianity and its relationship to environmental issues. As I’ve started doing some reading already (it’s probably a sad reflection on just how dull I am that I’m blowing off finals by reading position papers on environmental issues), I wanted to start offering some preliminary thoughts which form the grid through which I tend to engage environmental issues. I’ve been pretty convinced of these ideas, and, barring major changes, they form the grid through which I’m planning to assess this summer’s reading. I’ll be writing a couple posts here, one on each issue.

If you’re interested in following along, I’ll show my hand up front and tell you the four questions I”m going to be asking:

  1. What is the ideal world?
  2. What is humanity’s role in this world?
  3. What sorts of things constitute real environmental issues?
  4. How should we assess specific policy suggestions to address these issues?

Without further ado, let’s look at the first question.

Question 1: What is the Ideal World?

The fundamental assumption of many in environmentalist circles is that the ideal world, the system in which things work best, is an idyllic natural environment completely unaffected by any sort of human action. It is something like the deep Amazon rain forest, with a canopy of trees overhead and insects buzzing around, where the dramas of nature play out without humanity interfering. The advent of advanced filming techniques in nature documentaries has helped to codify this vision: the only people who live in such a world are hidden behind the camera.

Put another way, the environmentalist approach sees humanity as existing in subordination to nature. This comes in all different shades; while few modern men or women would actually advocate that we return to primitive tools and swinging naked through the trees, many operate with the assumption that anything which changes the “natural” progression of things is dangerous and harmful. Typically, this is because nature ends up being the one with all the power – a “spaceship earth” on which one ill-advised open door could vent the whole thing into a black vacuum. We exist to serve the earth, or at least to do as little to it as possible.

In contrast to this, there is a certain progressivist vision which runs in a substantially different direction. In it, the earth exists to serve humanity. It has no value, and its natural systems are nothing but a challenge to be overcome in our own great march of progress. We can shoot animals for fun, chop down trees for sport, and pave paradise just because it provides more convenient parking. This vision assumes that any sort of humility toward or concern for the natural world is a denial of our rightful power.

The Christian vision is something different than either of these approaches. The problem with both of them is that they make human life a tug of war: nature is on one end and civilization on the other. The only difference between them is in who they are rooting for to win. In Scripture, however, a third actor is introduced into the story: God. In the biblical account, God made both the world and the human beings who populate it, and He made them both with purposes within this creation. God is the one with the power in this story. He is the one who demands our service.

The most important thing to recognize about this introduction of God into the narrative is that He redefines the purpose of both the other actors. Nature is not the ultimate good; it exists to glorify God and (in a sense, as we shall examine later) serve humanity. However, the service it renders is not one of subservience, but rather of enablement. Nature is the tool, the medium in which man is to work. At the same time, humanity is not the ultimate good either. We also exist to glorify God and (again in a sense) serve nature. But this service is not fearful subservience either, but is instead a tending and stewarding of nature to make it better than it would be without us. More on both those points in the next post.

The fact is that, when God is introduced, he redefines the purpose of both the world and we humans who inhabit it. He introduces a new ideal, an Edenic garden extended into the wilderness. Forests and cities are both beautiful in this world. Animals and people both have a purpose in it. The first key to Christian environmentalism is to recognize that God defines the goal of all our efforts: creation is to be a garden which we work and tend to make more beautiful and pleasing to God, in all the ways in which He has revealed what this beauty and pleasure means, in order that God might be more and more exalted in all of it.

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Biblical Marriage is Like a Handgun

I couldn’t help looking at this letter on Russel Moore’s blog and then skimming the comments.  For those of you who don’t want to take the time to read it, the letter asks for advice from a Reformed Baptist man and a Pentecostal woman who are considering marriage. Moore says he’ll put up his thoughts later this week, but opened up the letter for commenters.

Now, before I critique the comments, I’ll give my initial thoughts. First, in the big idea realm, I see no reason why such a couple couldn’t marry. If marriage is an image of Christ and His church, then to claim that they couldn’t marry because of denominational differences is a betrayal of disbelief at the thought that Christ can love across such lines. However, this isn’t the sort of thing you should go into blindly. The temptation in such situations is to minimize the real differences the two of you have, and I promise that such a course will sow seeds of conflict whose harvest you will reap later.

That said, what I couldn’t help but notice was the commenters’ obsession with the complimentarian question. Almost all of them called attention to the fact that the wife (who was the Pentecostal) needed to submit to her husband (the Reformed Baptist), and should only marry him if she was comfortable with letting him choose the church. Now, there is an element of truth in this advice, but I want to push back a little.

The reigning error in complimentarian circles (and, should you be readying an assault, I am a complimentarian) is that the paradigm for discussion ends up being about power rather than about service. Scripture clearly teaches that the husband is the head of the wife, but this headship is meant to be one of self-sacrifice – of laying down his life and his desires in order to serve and protect her. He is to lead in service, both to God and to his spouse, exactly the way that Christ led in service to His church (including the beatings, the rejection, the loss of his independent ambitions and a blood-splattered cross.) When we take this fundamental truth out of the equation, we end up championing something other than the biblical teaching on marriage, instead defending what I in the past have referred to as “chauvimentarianism.”

In practice, this means that we might want to couple an admonition to the wife in Moore’s letter with one to the husband. He is responsible, in serving his wife, to promote sound teaching of God’s word, and this needs to factor into church choice. However, he is also responsible for finding a church where she can express and experience God in the ways that He has created her to, even if he as the husband doesn’t much like it. It might be worth telling the husband that he shouldn’t get married if he’s not willing to give up the churches he’s used to attending in order to serve his wife.

I don’t bring this up to be controversial, but rather honest. Complimentarianism is sort of like keeping a handgun under your bed. When used for its intended purpose, it can be a way for the husband to protect his wife and keep her safe. However, we know from statistics that too often its power ends up being wielded in domestic disputes, often with tragic results. I often feel the struggle of knowing that I have a certain measure of authority from God in my family and that this authority could easily be used to serve my own self-interest. But to do so would be (and is; it’s not like disobedience is just a theory for me) inexcusable. If a wife doesn’t submit to her husband, she’s just doing what the church does every day. If a husband uses his authority for something other than loving service to his wife, he is making a mockery of the work of Christ. And Jesus doesn’t take well to bullies who claim His authority for themselves.

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Coming Down and Looking Up

As I write this, I’m studying in my favorite coffee shop – the one with electronic music blaring in the background and bumper stickers displaying nuggets of careful reasoning like “Eve was Framed” and “Republicans: Proof Against Evolution” plastering the walls. Behind me, a girl is shaking and muttering as she comes down off a drug high, while at the next table over, a lesbian couple flirts. The air is thick with cigarette smoke, and friendly calls of “F#$@ you” get bantered between the barristas.

This is, ironically enough, my favorite place to study. Sure, some of it is the ambiance. It tickles that part of my heart that still loves tattoos and eyebrow studs. There’s a deeper level to it than that, though. What I love about this place is how much it makes what I’m studying make sense. Continue reading

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Helping Those Who Help Themselves…?

Ah, that famous mistaken quotation, that much-maligned phrase of my youth. If there was nothing else I learned from Sunday school, it was that “God helps those who help themselves” was assuredly not in the Bible. I have since discovered that its origins lie with Ben Franklin, a fact which gives my sardonic side an impish smile. If the extrabiblical nature of this phrase is news to you, well, spend a few minutes thinking about it before reading this post. Go ponder the fact that we do, in fact, live in an economy of grace where not everyone get’s what we deserve and favor is not simply doled out according to merit.

Alright, you’ve come back? Excellent. Now that you understand that the phrase isn’t Scripture, I want to spend a little time pointing out that it’s also not all wrong. Continue reading

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The Reason I Won’t Be Blogging Much For a While

I’m wading through hundreds of pages of this:

“At the end of the days, Metapolis, eternal city of the Great King, will be revealed, a gift of heaven. From the cocoon within which it exists through the long ages of postlapsarian history, the covenant community will emerge in an apocalyptic metaporphosis-event as the new creation of God. The story of how that historical matrix structure first came into being after the Fall and was preserved through prediluvian times, a story entwined with that of the origin and apostate development of the city of man in the world wilderness, is complactly narrated in Genesis 4:1-6:8.”

“Apocalyptic metamorphosis-event”? “Historical matrix structure”? Using “postlapsarian” and “prediluvian” in adjoining sentences? Gah!

I need a Meredith Kline translator program.

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Why the Religious Right (and Left) Can’t Succeed

Note: I owe a lot of this thinking to a recent book I picked up which I found helpful in distilling issues of Christianity and culture: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.

With a title like that, I’m sure you’re all expecting me to say something inflammatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, as I interact with Christians’ attempts to influence and shape culture (the true aim of both the religious poles – politics is merely an outworking of this), I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings of culture which result in misguided attempts to change it.

Both Christian liberals and conservatives buy into what we might call the “democracy myth” of culture. This myth supposes that culture is just an amalgamation of the beliefs most people share in common – as if everyone votes their worldview, and the one with the most ballots in the box ends up setting the agenda. Thus, engaging in a “culture war” primarily consist of convincing people to think correct things and then live out what they believe.

While I’m all for right thinking and right living, the democracy myth is patently false when it comes to approaching culture. It is much more complicated, in three ways. First, culture is not monolithic. Rather, it is a set of overlapping circles, some closer to the center and some to the fringe. The areas in which they overlap form shared beliefs, values and influences, but no two circles in America share everything in common. Thus, while certain cultural forces are represented in a variety of cultures (i.e. the New York Times, some genres of music), each of these cultural circles also have unique forces at work. Because this is the case, simply being a voice in a part of culture in no way guarantees that your voice will be heard in culture as a whole.

Second, cultures do less to instill specific beliefs than they do to erect plausibility structures – frameworks of thought in which certain beliefs are easier or harder to hold. There is a remarkable diversity of specific convictions within any given culture. Every human being is rife with contradictions. It is not that they live in the culture and wake up one day to discover that they’ve become convinced to change one of those beliefs. Rather, within this diversity, not all beliefs seem created equal. Some make sense to people, and some seem more and more unbelievable. It is this “sensibleness” which culture creates.

Third, culture is shaped by the interaction of cultural conservatism and cultural antagonism. When a voice seeks to speak into or challenge culture, one of two things can happen which could end up keeping the voice from being heard. On the one hand, if the voice is too similar to the dominant culture, the conservative nature of the culture will work to co-opt that voice; to use what it says to reaffirm the values of the culture it is speaking into, even if the voice would vehemently disagree with some of those values. On the other hand, if the voice is too different, it will fail to get a hearing in the culture at all. It will so violate its plausibility structure that it will be rejected out of hand. However, this antagonism doesn’t simply result in the voice being ignored. Rather, since values are defined in part by the other – by what they oppose or what they are not – such extreme voices will actually serve to drive the culture in the opposite direction. Thus, trying to change culture often results in it becoming even more deeply established, either by being used to prop up its views or to serve as the other to those views.

When defined in this way, I think it becomes clear why most Christian attempts to affect culture fail. We might categorize the normal modes of Christian interaction into two groups: opposition from without and relevance from within. Many groups end up using a combination of these two strategies, but they are clearly present – and neither of them can affect how culture actually functions.

The problems with the  “opposition from without” model manifest in all three of the spheres I mentioned above. First, it tends to view culture as something monolithic (and which it is outside). Thus, it often goes after a part of culture as if it was the whole thing, failing to see the complexity and gear its critique toward areas of overlap. Second, and more importantly, it tries to change beliefs without recognizing the plausibility structure in which they function. It doesn’t matter how many arguments you make or laws you change. If cultural forces do not work to make these arguments and laws believable to the people interacting with them, they are doomed to fail. The result of this failure is not just being ineffective, either. Rather, since those opposing culture from without tend to be the voices which culture is antagonistic to, they often become bogeymen used to scare people into going in the opposite direction – to affirm more strongly the very things that Christians want them to change.

However, this is in no way an argument for the “relevance from within” model. It fails on all three counts as well. It tends to be incredibly naive about cultural diversity, and so seeks to speak to “culture” by anchoring itself in one tiny circle, often speaking primarily in the unique areas of that circle rather than in those that overlap. What’s more, it tends to be incredibly naive about how plausibility structures work. It often leaps into such structures thinking that they can be adopted wholesale while still holding the right beliefs, only to discover ten or twenty years later that nobody holds those beliefs anymore because they seem, well, unbelievable. As a result, the relevance paradigm ends up being co-opted and used to make culture even more established, rather than moving it in the direction its proponents desire.

So with all that gloom and doom, we might be wondering, what should we do? I’m going to save that discussion for a post next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is this an adequate view of culture? Is there another paradigm of engagement you can see which addresses these problems?

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Theology 101: Law and Gospel

In sitting down to write this post, I’m beginning to realize that “Theology 101′ is something of a misnomer. In the first place, basic classes tend to shy away from controversial topics, at least in theory. If I actually taught a class with that title, I’d probably work through the Apostle’s Creed or something else with which (for the most part) all Christians would agree. Maybe I’ll do that someday, but it’s not what I’m thinking about right now. What’s more, the title implies a sort of authoritative seat of judgment, from which I proclaim disconnected theological truths. As I’ve said before, if you came to listen at my feet as I made such proclamations, we would both be fools.

However, there are certain theological convictions I have arrived at which are extremely important for how I approach God and His Word. As I’ve been thinking a lot about them, I’d love the opportunity to put them in writing and help explain and explore their impact. The kingdom of God is one such topic; the way we understand the distinction of law and gospel is another. So with that clarified, I’d like to offer some thoughts on this oft-debated topic. Continue reading

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