Going to the Movies with Habakkuk and Haggai: What the Prophets Have to Say to Modern Moviegoers

conner-murphy-363916In the last three years, I’ve seen three movies in the theater. I share that to say, I’m not an avid moviegoer. But for reasons of cultural interest and paternal pressure, my sons and I have gone to see the last three Star Wars in the theater. And thus, I offer a belated reflection on the movie.

Only, I will not commend or critique Rian Johnson and his interpretation of the Star Wars canon. I am not nerdy enough, I mean, knowledgeable enough to do that. Rather, I want to make a few observations about the whole movie going experience and how a family-friendly movie is far from faith-building unless coupled with intentional, proactive biblical reflection. (This isn’t a scree against movie going, but a call for biblical reflection on all things, especially watching movies). Continue reading

Screwtape in 280 Characters

Circa 2006

Screwtape: “What’s new, nephew?”

Wormwood: “Nothing, uncle. Just a couple guys in California starting something with 140 characters.”

Screwtape: “You moron! This is what our research department has been working on for years.”

Wormwood: (puzzled look)

Screwtape: “With only 140 characters, we will enshrine banality . . .

. . . engender hate . . .

hate

. . .  and take over the world.

trump

Circa 2017

Screwtape: “What’s new, nephew?”

Wormwood: “Nothing really, the guys in California have increased their 140-character thing to 280 characters.”

Screwtape: “Are you as dumb as you look?”

Wormwood: (puzzled look)

Screwtape: “Get away from me. Go haunt someone else.”

Screwtape: Tweet to @Jack.

 

Lesson

*Read* Screwtape Letters, not Twitter.

screwtape

 

Photo credit: Jesus Never Said

 

Preaching to the Late Modern Mind: Five Cultural Narratives to Know

preachingIn his book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller addresses how Christianity confronts culture. Wisely he speaks of the way we must (1) affirm truth in culture, (2) confront idols in culture, and (3) show how truth in culture is derived from and only satisfied by the Christ who reigns supreme over all cultures. Thus, instead of just being for or against culture, Keller describes a “Yes, but no, but yes” approach for preaching Christ to culture.

Approaching culture in this nuanced way means understanding the modern world in which we live. In a chapter entitled “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind,” he describes the difference between the pagan, pre-Christian world and the way in which Christianity brought dignity and personal value to the West. In other words, before Christianity emerged in the West, the pagan world with its philosophers conceived of the world as an impersonal universe. Belief in a tri-personal God, sovereignly directing history and seeking to redeem humanity changed all of that. And the bounty of the Western world, therefore, is a byproduct of Christianity’s influence.

In one place, Keller nicely summarizes five differences between the pre-Christian world with the Christian West. He then goes on to explain how secularism has taken Christian values to the extreme, making them idolatrous falsehoods. But in explaining how Christian values have gone rogue, he doesn’t include them in his compact table. On page 128, there is one column missing (that would help flesh out his argument on pp. 128–33).

So, I added the third column to the table below to help show the way in which the West has left Christianity behind and distorted many of the values it provided. By seeing in our culture post-Christian culture the traces of Christian thought, we can as Keller points out, begin to lead people back to the source of the values (e.g., science, individualism, personal choice) they embrace today. Indeed, if you value and enjoy science, justice, or personal choice today, it is worth noting where those cultural gifts derive. Keller’s chapter on preaching Christ to culture is an excellent place to begin thinking about that relationship.

Five Chief Narratives of Western Thought[1]

Before Christianity Emerged [in the West] After Christianity Came to the West After Christianity ‘Left’ the West
The body and material world are less important and real than the realm of ideas The body and material world are good. Improving them is important. Science is possible. Science is absolute. Materialism is absolute. Technology is sufficient to solve our problems.
History is cyclical, with no direction. History is making progress. Progress means history is unimportant. Everything novel is superior to the past.
Individuals are unimportant. Only the clan and tribe matter. All individuals are important, have dignity, and deserve our help and respect. Individuals are supremely important. Individualistic expression should never be questioned, even when detrimental to the group.
Human choices don’t matter; we are fated. Human choices matter and we are responsible for our actions. Choice is sancrosanct and must be guarded and guaranteed at all costs.
Emotions and feelings should not be explored, only overcome. Emotions and feelings are good and important. They should be understood and directed. Emotions and feelings are determinative. To feel authentic I must express my desires and never suppress them.

In sum, these “five axes,” which Keller adapts from Charles Taylor (The Secular Age), help diagnose some of the challenges in front of us. Together these five narratives can be classified as follows:

  • rationality (and an explanation of where the world came from and what we can know about it),
  • history (and the meaning of life),
  • society (and the relationship of individuals to groups),
  • morality (and who gets to determine right and wrong), and
  • identity (and where we get our sense of value and purpose).

To be sure, these realities do not drive our exegesis of the biblical text, but in communicating that text to others we must be aware of these ideas. Knowing these cultural baselines helps us affirm and deny the beliefs we find in individuals and in our surrounding culture. Preachers must be aware of these realities to wisely apply God’s Word.

Indeed, all Christians should have a growing awareness of cultural presuppositions. Why? So that we will not be ensnared by them, and so we can communicate the gospel by rightly affirming some cultural desires as finding their telos in Christ and by confronting others cultural idols as errant promises that ultimately lead to death (Prov. 14:12).

In short, Keller’s sections on preaching Christ in a post-Christian culture are worth considering. They challenge the faithful witness to love his neighbor(s) by knowing what his neighbor believes and loves. Therefore, while planting ourselves in God’s unchanging Word, we must also learn how to share Christ with others who embrace various aspects of the aforementioned narratives.

To that end, let us continue to give ourselves the Word and the world, so that we can take the good news of the former to meet the dire needs of the latter.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

_________________

[1] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 128. First two columns are verbatim; the last column summaries Keller’s prose.

Four Exegetical Commitments to Doing Biblical Ethics

ethicsIn his chapter ethics in Progressive Covenantalism, Stephen Wellum lists four commitments necessary for doing biblical ethics. These principles for doing ethics take into account the progressive revelation of Scripture, the progression of biblical covenants, and the unity and diversity of ethical commands in the Bible. In short, they are commitments we should make whenever we seek to be ‘biblical’ in our ethical formulations.

This approach to ethics fits with a larger vision of how to put the Bible together and provides a helpful, “thick” reading of Scripture with regards to Christians ethics. Below are the four commitments drawn from his chapter. I commend them to you and further consideration on how every topic of ethics requires a whole-Bible approach to the subject.

(For two examples of how this approach might be worked out, you can see how I sought to handle racial reconciliation and transgenderism in two recent sermons). Continue reading

On the Transgender Movement in Public Schools: Video and Written Resources

malefemaleThe Prince William County School Board is set to vote again on Proposal 060, the measure postponed last fall. This policy change would add sexual orientation and gender identity language to the non-discrimination policy of the public schools. Since last fall churches in our county have sought to speak with grace and truth in the public square.

Such speaking is not often easy, because it is often perceived that opposition to transgender policies is unloving towards those struggling with gender dysphoria. Yet, the most unloving thing we can do is permit falsehood to reign and children to be deceived by the messaging of the transgender movement. (See there agenda here).

In what follows, you can find a number of video resources about the transgender movement. Below that are written resources that can also be read and disseminated. Continue reading

Finding Life in Leviticus 19: Ten Gospel Notes for Social Justice Warriors

commandments-311202__480The Ten Commandments are listed twice in the Old Testament—once in Exodus 20; once in Deuteronomy 5. They are also explicated at least twice. After each list (Exodus 21–23 and Deuteronomy 12–25), Moses specifies and applies the Lord’s “ten words.” This means that we do not need to wait for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) to get an inspired interpretation and application of these commands. There is, within the Torah itself, explanation and application.

In fact, there is one other passage on the Ten Commandments which stands between Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Leviticus 19 Moses records the holy standards of God and makes personal application to the people of Israel. In reading this chapter recently, I took note of ten observations related to the content and context of these laws. I share them here to help us to better understand the good purposes of God’s Law, and specifically to show how many modern desires are best fulfilled by God’s all-sufficient Word.

In short, Leviticus 19 is not an archaic list of do’s and don’ts; it is actually a personal application of the Law which deals with so many of the issues Social Justice Warriors seek out. Only because these “laws” are grounded in the personal, holy love of Israel’s God, they retain their life-giving shape—something that no human set of ordinances can ever do.

Take time to read Leviticus 19 and consider how these laws give life by leading members of God’s covenant to trust in him. Continue reading

Rightly Dividing the Cultural Background to 1 Corinthians 11

corinth

The Corinth Channel

There are a lot of cultural challenges to 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, a passage that invites discussion about the trinity, gender roles, the use of head coverings, and the role of angels in public worship. Tomorrow I will preach on this passage, but today I share a number of quotations from various commentaries related to various cultural and theological challenges in this passage. These quotes provide some background to this enigmatic passage.

Dress

In the context of prayer and prophesy, it makes sense that dress would be considered. For prophets often had a particular dress. Moreover, they often symbolized in their appearance various biblical truths. So for instance, John the Baptist appearance is given as wearing “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4). Importantly, this outward dress identified him as a prophet in the manner of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8: “They answered him, ‘He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.’ And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’)

Likewise Isaiah 20 records how God commanded Isaiah to walk through Israel naked for three years to indicate God’s coming judgment on Egypt and on those who trusted in that foreign power. This outward expression of God’s will fits other examples too. For instance, the high priest wore garments of beauty and glory to reflect the presence of God’s holiness with Israel (Exodus 28:2); Nazirites did not cut their hair in order to express devotion to the Lord (Numbers 6); and many grieving saints tore their clothing or wore sackclothe and ash in order to express their contrition. So, throughout Scripture, clothing and hair did play a part in expressing worship to God.

Moving from Old Testament to Greco-Roman culture, the same attention to dress is found.

The Greeks’ self-identity arose most from their speech and education, while our Roman often distinguished himself by what he wore. It was not the Greeks eschewed head apparel. Rather it was clear to them and Romans that the habitual propensity of Romans to wear head apparel in liturgical settings stood in sharp contrast to the practice of others. (R.E. Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: The Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4,” NTS 34 (1988): 494; cited by Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth24) Continue reading

The Air That We Breathe: Expressive Individualism, I, and Me

mirrorFew modern theologians have helped me think more clearly about culture than David Wells. His collection of works on modernity and postmodernity (listed below) address the many ways evangelicalism has been bent and broken by chasing the winds of culture. Considering the ways the modern world (with its penchant for technology, urbanization, consumerism, and mass communication) has refocused Christianity, and the way modern philosophies have turned religion towards the subject, he shows why so much modern Christianity mirrors the world, rather than prophetically modeling a different way of life.

For me, his observations have been a helpful corrective against the acids of culture that eat away at our soul. He has given me eyes to be a better cultural exegete, and his Reformed convictions, have pressed me back to the Bible to see what it says about any number of topics. Most recently, I picked up his Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision to consider in more detail the effects of individualism on the church.

What follows are a few quotes, observations, and insights on the topic of expressive individualism—a poisonous air wafting through so many American churches.  Continue reading

Exposing the Allies of Abortion: Personal Autonomy, Hyper-Individualism, Sexual Immorality, Technological Utopia

light-bulbAn abortifacient is any man-made device which leads to an intentional miscarriage. Typically, this word is used to describe drugs or devices which terminate a pregnancy. But I want to suggest that it is not only chemicals and syringes that abort babies. Ideas do too!

For instance, when a Christian learns their method of birth control kills embryos, they change. Why? Because knowledge of the world makes their biblical convictions sharper. Psalm 139 says that God forms the child in the mother’s womb, and anything that might result in destroying God’s handiwork is impermissible for biblical Christians.

This is the way that ideas save life or destroy it. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, believed among other things in the Satanic lie that the white race was superior to all others. Accordingly, her ideas led her to found an organization which targeted the elimination of babies—but especially black babies.

Ideas have consequences, and conversely, consequences spring forth from ideas. And so in the battle to protect life, and especially unborn life, we must not only confront the legal system and the abortion providers; we must confront the ideas that strengthen and make plausible abortion. We must confront the lies that lead young women to turn against their child. And we must confront ourselves for believing some of the same lies that fuel abortion.

In truth, abortion only exists in a world with a number of pre-requisite factors. Just as a fire requires a certain source of fuel to keep it burning, so abortion requires a certain number of ideas to keep it burning. And like with the fire, we must bravely confront flames. But just as important, cut off the fuel supply. Hence, with the fires of abortion, we must expose the beliefs that make abortion plausible, even desirable. Only then will we will be able to see abortion stamped out in our day. Continue reading

How ‘Be Still and Know’ Is a Call to Arms: Five Ways to Labor from Rest

dc
[This post depends largely on yesterday’s exegetical consideration of Psalm 46.]

If the first step in troubled times is to take refuge in the Lord, it is not the last step. Only by reading Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God”) in isolation from the historical context of the Psalter or the whole counsel of God found in the rest of Scripture could we walk away from Psalm 46 and believe passivity is proper.

Rather, the best reading of that classic devotional verse is to see that it is a word spoken by God to the nations that he will subdue them (cf. vv. 8–9). For us, in other passages then he tells us to take up arms—the sword of the Spirit and the prayers of faith (Ephesians 6)—to engage in the battle we find all around us.

Indeed, to believe in God is not “nothing.” Rather it is the foundation of all good works (see Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:8–10; James 2:14–26). Likewise, Word-inspired intercession is not “nothing.” To the world, prayer seems like pious but powerless chore. Yet, James 5:16 rightly corrects us: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Therefore, as we abide in the shadow of his wings, we find that abiding in his Word and prayer are two powerful actions. Still ,such Godward devotion is not a cul-de-sac but a rest area that leads God’s people from the church gathered to the church scattered, from worship to work in the community, the state, the nation and beyond.

Indeed, with that centrifugal framework in mind, we are ready to move from the safety of God’s refuge into a sin-cursed world desperately in need of redemption. And to help us think about how to move into the culture from the firm foundation of refuge in the Lord, let me suggest five ways to labor from rest. Continue reading