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Is It Time to Withdraw?

We are living and ministering in an era of unprecedented change, especially regarding the definition of gender, sexuality, and marriage. These past two weeks, with all the attention on the transgender movement and then the oral arguments regarding same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court, I was reminded how swift the pace of moral change is.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched an evening news program on one of the major networks that featured a five-year-old girl who had decided to become a boy. The reporter interviewed the parents, who were going along with the girl’s wishes and attempting to change her into a boy. The reporter also interviewed experts who lauded this.

One thing was clear: This network presented no alternative viewpoint—no alternative perspective even slightly questioning the prudence of doing this to a five-year-old. This was simply an unmitigated celebration of the transgender movement, with no need for an alternative viewpoint—as if the topic was why you shouldn’t eat foods high in saturated fat—with no alternative perspective presented.

In the wake of this onslaught of media momentum for the same-sex marriage and transgender movement, some conservative evangelicals have concluded that we have “lost the culture war.” And they have decided that the best way to react is to withdraw from the public square, at least for a time, and build up the church’s internal resources.

James Davidson Hunter, the sociologist at the University of Virginia, is an example of this approach. He believes Christians should be “silent for a time” in the public square, concentrating on improving the internal resources of the church.

But is this the approach we should take? If conservative religious people are behind in the current battle for the hearts and minds of Americans regarding the definition of gender, marriage, and sexuality, is withdrawal a viable option?

I don’t think it is. It presents a false dichotomy, as if the only way for the church to build up its internal resources, re-learning its identity and mission (and there is no question that it needs to do this), is to withdraw from the public square.

Jesus’s teaching pushes us away from this false dichotomy. This is seen nowhere more clearly than in His high-priestly prayer in John 17:14-19:

“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (NKJV).

In this passage, Jesus says this regarding our relationship with the world: We must withdraw from the world and permeate the world at the same time. We withdraw from the world in our values, attitudes, priorities, habits, and practices. But we permeate the world in our presence in and active engagement with the world.

Jesus takes us radically out of the world and puts us radically into the world at the same time! I can’t imagine how withdrawal can be justified biblically.

Christian witness cannot be artificially limited to just private, “spiritual” witness. What are we to tell Christian artists or scientists or judges or doctors or political leaders or psychologists? Must their witness in the world be limited to sharing the plan of salvation with individuals? Are we to tell them not to bear witness, in their spheres of influence, to how the law and gospel and kingdom of the Trinitarian God transform our lives together?

I think Jesus’s teachings lead us to avoid this false dichotomy. We dare not make an arbitrary decision to withhold our witness to the world in the public sphere—whether this be how doctors deal with abortion, or how judges or governmental leaders deal with same-sex marriage, or how psychologists deal with a transgender five-year-old, or how scientists deal with genetic engineering, or how artists deal with portraying the reality of God’s creation and the distortions fallen humanity brings to it.

Yes, we need to get serious about the need for the church to rediscover its biblical and historic identity—about orthodox faith and practice. This is going to mean calling a halt to our infatuation with popular culture and being accepted by that culture. As I said in a previous post, “the reason evangelical Christianity is losing influence over the moral direction of our culture is that it has lost its stark, prophetic difference from the world in its quest to attract the world by being as much like the popular culture as it can be.”

Yes, we need to ask serious questions about how the religious right has sometimes borne its witness in the public square in ineffective and even less-than-Christlike ways. But the answer is not to pendulum-swing to the opposite extreme from what we don’t like about some in the religious right, thus withdrawing from the public square in the various spheres of influence in which Christians engage.

Instead, we must be radically in the world, bearing witness to the transforming rule of Christ in every area of life. But we must also be radically not of the world, living out what it means to be Christ’s redeemed people, called out from the world, set apart for His holy purposes. This nuanced posture will bring kingdom transformation to the world around us.

Praying and Working for Religious Liberty

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage in all fifty states. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito asked the U.S. Solicitor General, who was arguing in favor of same-sex marriage on behalf of the Obama Administration, some pointed questions concerning religious liberty. Specifically, they asked how a ruling in favor of the legalization of same-sex marriage in all fifty states would affect religious institutions.

The Solicitor General was asked, first, if religious institutions that barred homosexual couples from living in married student housing would be subject to legal sanctions for doing so. Second, he was asked if religious institutions would be in danger of losing their tax-exempt status on the grounds of discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation.

In brief, the Solicitor General did not answer in the negative to either question. He simply said that the question of institutions barring homosexual couples from living in married student housing would likely be up to the states. He replied that the question of an institution losing its tax-exempt status on the grounds of discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation would be “an issue.”

We are in the midst of massive changes in the legal and moral landscape of Western Civilization and of the United States. When the Solicitor General of the United States, representing the President of the United States, advocates for same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court and gives vague answers on the question of the religious liberty of institutions whose religious faith compels them to uphold the millennia-old definition of marriage, religious liberty is in grave jeopardy.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the free exercise of religion, along with freedom of speech and of the press. Christians need to be praying and working to protect the first amendment liberties that the U.S. Founders provided for. And we need to be praying for wisdom, guidance, and courage for Christian institutions that will face opposition for their support of biblical morality.

Goethe wrote, “What you have as heritage, take now as task; for thus you will make it your own.” It is time to engage, in a kind, peaceful, Christ-honoring manner, in the important task of praying for and working for religious liberty. It is not a time for silence or withdrawal. I ask my readers to join me intently in these prayers, and in this work, to safeguard religious liberty in these United States.

Some Interesting Developments in Art

Recently I have been thinking a lot about art and have been impressed by some interesting developments that I think some of my more artistically inclined readers will find fascinating. They have to do with a recovery of classical realism or representationalism in art. (If you know one of the hundreds of students who entered artworks in the NYC Competition, consider forwarding this to them; it might pique their interest.)

I have been amazed to see how much interest there is among younger artists in traditional notions of beauty, art, and artistic techniques that are influenced by classical, Renaissance, and neoclassical approaches to painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Architecture is the field in which this movement has gained the most traction. That is because of the new urban movement associated with architects like Andres Martin Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Steve Mouzon. The new urban movement is responsible for some of the most popular housing developments in recent times.

This vision is catching on more in architecture than in painting and sculpture. This is no doubt because everyday middle-class people are buying homes and townhomes in these new-urban planned communities, while many of the leading representational artists’ paintings and sculptures are out of the price range of most middle-class people. This architectural approach has much in common with the British architect Quinlan Terry (though Terry’s projects are much more expensive than the average new-urban townhouse) and organizations such as the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art.

This same vision is seen in the recent TRAC2014 conference, which brought together artists from all different backgrounds and worldviews who agree on one thing: modern and postmodern art has gone as far as it can go, and it’s time to experiment with older forms and techniques to breathe new life into the theory and practice of art.

This trend dovetails with a century-old New York Times interview I recently read with the New York art critic and painter Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) [1]. Reacting to the modern art at the famous Armory Show in 1913, Cox compared the Cubists and Futurists to the French Symbolists in literature, who wrote in irrational combinations of letters and words. What if a poet, he asked, were to write in such a way “and then tell you that combination of letters gives the sentiment of dawn, how are you going to prove that it doesn’t?” (19-20). “Expression,” Cox says, “must be in a language that has been learned, or it is a pure assumption on the artist’s part that he has expressed anything at all.”

Cox believed the avant garde [2] movement in art would die out, like the Symbolist movement in literature had. How wrong he was. But he may have been more right than we first might think. This new movement of present-day artists that is reacting against the excesses of modernist and postmodernist art believes those movements have seen their better days and that we are witnessing a return to realism in art that we haven’t seen in seventy years.

Peter Trippi and the magazine he runs, Fine Art Connoisseur, are testimonies to this trend toward more traditional aesthetic approaches. At TRAC2014, he told a gathering of painters, “We live in a world that is witnessing a golden age of art making not seen since the 1930s. Thank you for what you do. It’s kind of exciting to be alive right now.”

These artists are reacting against the multi-million-dollar avant garde artworks by world-famous contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Tracey Emins and extolling a return to traditional painting techniques. They lament how it took painters like Winslow Homer one to two months to paint a typical easel painting, but it took painters like Pablo Picasso one or two days.

One big difference between these artists and the avant garde is that these artists seem to want to communicate truths about the created order and the nature of things more than they want to express themselves. They want to reassert that art has a meaning. And they want that meaning to be discernible to the public. They seem to want to give art once again a social role rather than its being the province of an elite few.

This is the same thrust we see in Kenyon Cox and others like him who were skeptical of the avant garde art of their time. Cox explained that his views on art were “founded on a lifetime given to the study of art and criticism, in the belief that painting means something” (22, italics mine).

This mood stands in stark contrast to those modern artists who seem more intent on simply expressing their own (subjective) individuality rather than communicating (objective) truth or virtue. Thus Cox lamented “the men who would make art merely expressive of their personal whim,” making it “speak in a special language only understood by themselves.” The tendency of modern art, he said, was “to exalt the individual at the expense of law” (22).

But in this interview, Cox went on to say what was needed, and it appears that the artists in this new gaggle of artists, yea these many decades later, are heeding his call: “Either there will be a reaction toward the classic and traditional or art will cease to exist. Naturally, I prefer to believe in the reaction, to think that some of us who are now considered belated classicists may turn out to be the real precursors” (23).

Indeed, in this new movement represented by organizations like TRAC2014 and the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art are artists, art critics, collectors, historians, and philosophers who hope to make sure Cox and his comrades are “the real precursors” to a vibrant new movement in the visual arts that can flourish, not just among the artistic elite, but among the general public, with what they see as the denouement of the dominance of the avant garde.

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[1] Documents of the 1913 Armory Show.

[2] The Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary (2010) defines avant garde as “the advance group in a field, esp. in the arts, whose works are unorthodox and experimental.”

Artwork: Leah Lopez, “Delft Creamer and Cherries”

On C.S. Lewis and Chronological Snobbery

The Commission for Theological Integrity of the National Association of Free Will Baptists (of which I serve as chairman) sponsors a blog, fwbtheology.com. From time to time, I post a theologically oriented blog post on that website and place a link to it on this blog. I recently posted a blog on that site entitled “On C.S. Lewis and Chronological Snobbery.” You can gain access to it by clicking here.

“O Send out Thy Light and Thy Truth,” Part 3

This is the third of three posts in which I’m meditating on Psalm 43:3, “O send out thy light and thy truth,” which serves as Welch College’s motto. In the last post, I talked about truth. In this one I’ll be discussing light.

What good is truth if you can’t really know it and act on it because you’re so sinful and so distorted in your understanding? Well, that’s where light comes in. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit give us light so that we can see the truth for what it is. That’s why the psalmist says, Send out your light and your truth.

This is why theologians have always spoken of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination. Not only does the Holy Spirit inspire or breathe out the words of Scripture. He also illumines our understanding so that we can see the truth that he has breathed out. This is also why salvation is so often referred to in Scripture as enlightenment (see, e.g., Hebrews 6:4).

The light is the Father and the Son and the Spirit coming to us and bringing the light of their own personal word to us, and then giving us, by the Spirit’s illumination, by the Spirit’s enlightening, hearts and minds to understand that word.

This is why Jesus is called the light of the world. And we know from Scripture that a little bit of his light goes out to everyone. In other words, God somehow tells everyone about himself and gives everyone a glimpse into reality. That’s why John in his gospel says that Jesus is the light that lights everyone who comes into the world (1:9).

Now, I like this, because I have two alma maters that have this motto—not just Welch College, but Yale University. Their motto has been, for hundreds of years, Lux et Veritas, the Latin for light and truth.

My wife Melinda and I used to go to Yale-Harvard ball games, and the Yale students would always hold up homemade signs poking fun at Harvard’s motto, which was Veritas—Truth. Those posters would say something to the effect that Veritas without Lux is not enough.

I doubt those students knew just how profound they were being. Because the signs they held up at those games get to the heart of our predicament as sinful human beings who are enmeshed in a distorted, disordered life, alienated from the life we were created to live.

Without light we can’t really understand the truth. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But without the light of God’s revelation, God’s Word illuminated by his spirit, we can’t really comprehend the truth. And we’ll always remain in bondage.

At Welch College, our purpose is to create an environment in which God’s light and truth will be on display. This will change not only the way we look at knowledge and learning—at how we understand God’s Word and God’s world, and how the two relate. It will also change the way we look at our ultimate purpose in life, at how the light of the gospel pierces our dark world and changes everything.

We know—and we want to teach and model before our students—that the light and the truth of the Lord is the only way to have liberation from the despair in which we find ourselves, which is the result of our sinfulness.

And we know—and we want to teach and model before our students—that that light and that truth will produce in them and in the world around them, as the psalmist says, deliverance from despair, divine guidance, nearness to God, forgiveness of sin, joy, praise, and hope.

With the psalmist, this will ever be our prayer: “O send out thy light and thy truth.”

“O Send out Thy Light and Thy Truth,” Part 2

In this post and the next, I will be continuing the meditation of my last post on Welch College’s motto, from Psalm 43:3, “O send out thy light and thy truth.” Let’s start by discussing truth.

We need the truth of the Trinitarian God if we are to make sense of the world we live in and know how to find a way out of our despair.

Now when the Bible talks about truth, it’s talking about something different from what our postmodern culture means by truth. In our current cultural mood, we have a tendency to say, “Truth is relative. You have your truth; I have mine.” But that’s not the way the Bible sees truth at all.

Here’s my quick, thumbnail definition of truth: Truth is a God’s-eye-view of reality. It’s what’s in God’s mind. It’s the real nature of things as God sees them.

When the Bible speaks of truth, it means two things that could be summed up in two words: faithfulness and factuality: faithfulness, in the sense of personal reliability, and factuality, as opposed to falsehood. Most of the uses of truth in both the Old and New Testaments are derivatives of these two uses. (See Anthony C. Thiselton’s still-excellent “Truth,” in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology published by Zondervan in 1978).

Liberal-leaning scholars in the nineteenth century began to drive a wedge between these two uses. They said there was a wedge between the Hebrew concept of truth as personal faithfulness and the Greek concept of truth as factuality. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, said that the Apostle John was guilty of soaking up Greek ideas in his idea of what truth is.

I think this approach is eating away at our age and at students in so many of our schools and universities. It’s the view that truth is really only personal truth, personal faithfulness or reliability, and that truth as fact is unimportant. Thus there is a de-emphasis on absolute truth or objective truth and an emphasis on the subjective, on personal perception.

But Scripture does not present truth as relative. It’s absolute. It’s what Francis Schaeffer called “True Truth” or “Truth with a capital T.” So when we proclaim to the world that racism is wrong or that human trafficking is wrong or lying or abortion or same-sex relationships, we’re not just saying it’s wrong to us, to our culture, to our time. We’re saying it’s wrong in the mind of God.

But Christians believe in objective truth. To take out of context Fox Mulder’s slogan from that television program back in the day,The X-Files—“The Truth Is Out There.”

The Bible even goes so far as to say that everybody knows the basic truth of reality. St. Paul said in Romans 1:18-23:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (NKJV).

As you can see from Romans 1, we’ve got a big problem, and that is this tension in us. On some deep level, we know the truth, but because of our sinfulness and fallenness, we suppress it. We tuck the truth away so deeply that it’s not really in our consciousness.

So what good is truth if you can’t really know it and act on it because you’re so sinful and so distorted in your understanding? Well, that’s where light comes in, and I’ll offer a meditation on that in my next post.

“O Send out Thy Light and Thy Truth,” Part 1

For many decades the motto of Welch College has been taken from Psalm 43:3: “O send out thy light and thy truth.” This has been symbolized in the official College Seal, about which my colleague Dr. E. Darrell Holley wrote the following:

“The College Seal represents the College’s belief in the total integration of a Biblical Christian Faith and the tradition of the Christian liberal arts. The open book is thus both the Holy Scriptures and the world of letters. Superimposed on the book is Psalm 43:3, ‘O send out Thy light and Thy Truth.’ This verse speaks of the College’s devotion to the truth of God’s Word and the truth revealed in nature, as well as to the College’s dedication to the evangelical task of making God’s truth known to all. This belief is re-emphasized by the torch behind the open book. The torch, the symbol of this light, is winged to emphasize the College’s aim of sending the light of God’s truth throughout the world.”

I want to meditate in this blog post on this verse. It gets to the heart of our radical need of God’s light and truth in the midst of our dark, distorted world. Without the light and truth of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we will never be free to be who God created us to be. We will never be truly human, truly the image of God. But we know, through Christ, that Christ’s light and truth has the power to transform us and recreate us in the image of God’s dear Son, and that changes everything, for the here and now, and for eternity.

The context shows us that the psalmist is in trouble. This is good news for us, because we’re in trouble. We’re perennially in trouble because of our sin and alienation from God. This condition makes us not operate the way our creator designed us to. So everything in our lives is out of kilter, and things can be set right only by a relationship with our creator and his truth, as we conform to his life and his ways.

But not only are we in trouble individually, our culture is in trouble. The current culture we’re part of here in the West is entering a post-Christian phase in which it is setting itself, more and more, against God and his truth. This psalm helps us see what we need to do when we’re in this sort of trouble. What does the psalmist say the answer is to dealing with the predicament we’re in?

The psalmist says, Lord, the thing I need most of all when I feel overwhelmed by trouble all around me, when you seem absent, when I am in deep distress, the thing I need most of all is your light and your truth.

So in the next two posts, I want us to ponder these two things the psalmist says are the answer to the deep despondency he finds himself in.

Preaching to Millennials in the Next Ten to Fifteen Years

This week I had the opportunity to speak and be a part of a panel discussion at Trevecca Nazarene University’s Academy for Preachers Festival. The topic was preaching to the Millennial generation in the next ten to fifteen years. I thought some of my readers might be interested in my comments; so I have included the video on the right hand side of the page.

“Higher Purposes” or “Self-Fulfillment”?

Last week in Salon.com, an article written by Edward L. Rubin appeared entitled “‘50 Shades’ of Confederate grey: Why the Christian right is losing power over Southern morality.” In it, Rubin discusses the fact that the salacious film “Fifty Shades of Grey”—a film anyone with any sort of worldview that derives from a traditional religion would describe as pornographic—has done so well in the South, becoming a “smash hit in the heavily Republican, mega-churchgoing Southern states of the union.”

My initial gut reaction when I read the article was to dismiss Rubin’s analysis, but the more I read, the more it seemed to be on-point. Rubin argues, correctly I think, that:

“Traditional morality, which maintained that sex was only moral if it served the higher purposes of procreation (thus condemning homosexuality and abortion) and social stability (thus condemning divorce and female promiscuity), is crumbling throughout the Western world. Cultural conservatives are quick to see this process as evidence of an overall moral decline. . . . [T]he old morality of higher purposes is being replaced by a new morality, centered on human self-fulfillment. According to this rapidly advancing worldview, the purpose of sex is pleasure, and fulfilling sex is an important element of most people’s general life experience. Self-fulfillment is a real moral system.”

I think he’s dead-on. Think about what he’s saying: The “old morality of higher purposes is being replaced by a new morality, centered on human self-fulfillment.” This gets to the heart of our predicament in our current post-Christian cultural milieu. Our culture is in the process of abandoning a “morality of higher purposes” and replacing it with one of “human self-fulfillment.” No Christian preacher could have said it better.

But the more I think about this, the more I wonder about the very question Rubin raises (but doesn’t really answer): why the so-called Christian right is losing power over Southern morality. Reading an article like this brings to the surface fears I have about the current state of popular evangelicalism, what Rubin describes in his comment about the “heavily Republican, mega-churchgoing South.”

It makes me concerned that the reason evangelical Christianity is losing influence over the moral direction of our culture is that it has lost its stark, prophetic difference from the world in its quest to attract the world by being as much like the popular culture as it can be.

An article like this provokes the question in me: Could it be that mainstream American evangelicalism, in the way it conceives of the church and spirituality, has become more about religious “self-fulfillment” than about “higher purposes”?

In a course I teach here at Welch College, we were recently discussing the need to structure the lives of our churches, not on the trends of this present age, but on the teaching and example of Christ and his apostles. I explained that the church’s “DNA” is biblical and apostolic, and we should seek to structure our congregational lives and our spirituality in a way that naturally grows out of that biblical-Christian-apostolic “DNA.”

But what we see too often in evangelicalism is a substituting of the values, priorities, and methods of the present age for the patterns we have available to us in our inheritance in Scripture and in the Christian tradition.

We as evangelicals are too often so unsure of ourselves. We have such an inferiority complex that we don’t really believe the inner resources we have received from the Spirit—the Word and the Church—are sufficient to get the job done. We immediately think, “Surely there’s something we need to add to the mix that will really get the job done.” And that extra “something” is usually what is trending at the moment in the secular culture.

But as I once heard Mark Dever say, that extra something that we tack on to the sufficiency of Scripture and the gospel to attract people to church is the same thing that cults and false religions could use to attract people to their gatherings. When we do this, we’re despising the very means of grace that God has given us—that built-in DNA—for the life and health and growth of the church.

We’re biting our fingernails, deeply afraid that the Spirit’s resources are not enough, and that we must find something in the secular world that is—whether it’s entertainment, marketing, pop psychology, secular models of leadership, or whatever.

American evangelicals are emphasizing “self-fulfillment” too much in the way we think about what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be the church. But we will never experience renewal—and we will never be able to be salt and light in our culture—until we draw on the resources the Spirit has given us in Christ’s Word and Gospel and Apostles and Church. These are the “higher purposes” that we need to return to—not the religious “self-fulfillment” we seem to be currently pursuing.

An Early General Baptist on the Washing of the Saints’ Feet

The Commission for Theological Integrity of the National Association of Free Will Baptists (of which I serve as chairman) sponsors a blog, fwbtheology.com. From time to time, I post a theologically oriented blog post on that website and place a link to it on this blog. I recently posted a blog on that site entitled “An Early General Baptist on the Washing of the Saints’ Feet.” You can gain access to it by clicking here.

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