Thursday, July 9, 2015

How to Convert to Catholicism, in 8 Easy Steps

Albert Little, a former Protestant who is now Catholic, wrote a brief piece in which he warns people (tongue firmly in cheek) how to avoid falling for Catholicism as he did. I find myself in the opposite boat--a former Catholic who is now Protestant. So what is written below is written in the same tone as Little's piece: a friendly anti-apologetic, in my response to him. I hope it will be received in the same winking tone that it is written, while also pointing out some true points of consideration. I personally do not know him, but perusing his site he seems like a witty and fun guy. (It might help to read the original link above to get the tone I'm going for.)

So, if you are a Protestant and want to know what it takes to become Catholic, let me help you with the following eight steps:


1)  Read Scott Hahn (but don't think about it too much)

When I first converted to Protestantism, my grandfather (also my godfather, and we have a great deal of mutual spiritual respect) gave me Hahn's famous book, Rome Sweet Home. In it, Scott and Kimberly share their story of how they (as Presbyterian seminary students) ended up as Catholics. Like all conversion stories, it has some universal elements that will appeal to all of us, and it is a sincere story which clearly excites the Hahns and therefore is fun to read.

However...if you want to convert to Catholicism, be careful that you don't read too closely into Hahn's book. You might find him making bold statements which are easily disprovable from Scripture, such as saying that Paul never taught justification by faith in Scripture--and conveniently ignoring things like Galatians 2:16 and literally dozens of others.

If you step back out of Hahn's excitement and read it again, the story might take on a slightly different slant: that of a zealous Bible student who (as many do during seminary) questions everything that they are taught by their authority figure. But rather than just debate or research, Hahn spends five years attending Mass every day, prays the Rosary an hour every day, and buys a priest's library and spends seven hours per day reading it. His marriage nearly crumbles in the process, with his wife feeling betrayed, lonely, and even suicidal. She eventually converts after five years, but you are left wondering whether she is trying to save her marriage or has had an actual doctrinal shift in her mind. Regardless, neither her conversion nor Scott's comes across as a logical, reasoned, Scriptural conclusion--but rather as an emotional change. (Which does not, by the way, mean it isn't real: it just means it isn't as convincing if you have doubts of Catholicism.)

So the Hahns' story does have a lot to commend it to the questioning Protestant, but just be careful that you don't read it too closely--if so, you will find yourself saying, "Really? Is THIS the best Catholic apologetic book?" So just skim it, please...don't read too deeply.


2) Read Church history (but not all that far back)

My aunt converted from Baptist to Catholicism, and for her one of the major attractions was how old Catholicism is, going "all the way back to Peter." Similarly, Little found that reading about the Reformation, that Luther and the Reformers were not as heroic as he had in mind.

There is no doubt that MANY churches today, particularly of the Baptist/evangelical variety, exist in a virtual historical vacuum. They neither know nor care about the past, and as such as doomed to repeat past heresies and mistakes. In this regard, Catholicism seems like a stable tower in a storm, which has stood for thousands of years and whose doctrine is stable.

So studying Church history can absolutely help you become Catholic.

BUT...stop at about the 11th century. Don't go back further. The Catholic's history of the medieval period and forward is pretty well documented and has a lot to attract people to it, for sure. But when you go back earlier in your studies, you might accidentally discover that the ancient churches--those from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and early 4th centuries--really don't resemble modern Catholicism at all. Indeed, it may appear that the 4th-10th centuries saw a radical shift in church politics, structure, and doctrine, and from this "proto-Catholic" church came what we call Orthodoxy and Catholicism. But your journey to Rome may falter once you realize that this "early" Catholic church was as far removed from the time of the apostles as we today are removed from the landing at Plymouth Rock.

(Oh, and definitely DO NOT attempt to trace the line of Popes back to Peter and verify it with non-Catholic sources.)


3) Read the Early Church Fathers (but read them as though they were written yesterday and use modern Catholic theological terms)

Another great source of influence in your journey to Catholicism can be the early church authors, the people who write just after the apostolic authors of the New Testament. They were the students of the apostles and therefore can help us understand their mindsets.

Now if you are going to study the Early Church Fathers to help you get to Roman Catholicism, you need to do two things. First, you need to give them more weight than the Bible. If the Biblical apostle says something that an early church father contradicts, then you should assume that the church father is telling us what the apostle really meant, and the apostle just worded it improperly. Assume that since they were the apostles' students, their writings must be absolutely 100% in alignment with what their teachers taught and wrote as well. (Ignore what we saw with Scott Hahn, where sometimes a student DOESN'T follow exactly the theology of his teacher. Assume that for the early church fathers, that didn't happen.)

Second--and this is critical!--you must NOT read it in context. Read the terms as they are understood today. If you read the term "bishop" assume it means someone in an administrative office who has several priesthoods under him. Definitely do NOT study the time, and learn that the term 'bishop' is a common term in Roman communities meaning the financial leader of any club, and therefore is identical with the Jewish "presbyter"--in other words, the bishop in this case would be the pastor of the local church, not a regional head of religion.

It is VERY important for your road to Catholicism that you do not let the Scriptures or the Early Church Fathers get too "Jewish" on you. That makes the faith Near Eastern, rather than Western. That tends to make what they say and do seem very different from the medieval Western Christianity of Rome. Far safer is if you divorce yourself of the Anglican and Protestant ideas of NT Wright and Scot McKnight, which are so insistent that we read these Jewish authors in a Jewish way.


4) Start hanging out with Catholics.

(Out of character) Okay, I can't really lampoon this part of Little's article, because I think you SHOULD hang out with great Catholics--regardless of whether you are Catholic or Protestant. Great believers are great believers, even if our theologies differ.

I hang out with great Catholics all the time. It's a good thing, not a bad one (and somehow I haven't crossed back over the Tiber yet.)
(/Out of Character)


5) Start living like a Catholic.

This is a good one, and probably the one that will make the biggest impact. Don't worry about those pesky doctrinal concerns. Don't worry about what it does to your marriage or other parts of your life. Don't worry about whether you actually BELIEVE in it.

Just start living like a Catholic. Go to mass every holy day and every week. Pray the Rosary every day. Before long, you will feel like a Catholic!

Of course, this is true of any belief system...if you just start doing it even before you believe it, then eventually your beliefs will come to support your actions. This is basic confirmation bias, and is completely human nature. So take advantage of that. "Fake it till you make it."


6) Give God an inch--but only an inch.

Changing to Catholicism is going to be difficult, so you're going to need to be willing to change some things in your life. Make sure that your denomination is on that list--be willing to allow your denomination to change.

But nothing else--don't let Him take a mile. Because then you might end up reading His Scriptures every day, or even worse! studying them in context, and that can be devastating to your Catholic conversion.


7-8) 

(Out of character)

At this point of Little's list that I found baffling. It seems that he is making the (absurd) statement that if you pray and are open-minded you will end up Catholic!

He says that you should just stop praying altogether if you want to avoid Catholicism. Or if you are praying, you must refuse just arbitrarily.

It is of course extremely obvious that this is untrue. I wouldn't even make this argument for Christianity in general, as prayer is a large part of non-Christian religions as well.  To imply that praying will inevitably lead one to Catholicism is silly. Likewise it is silly to claim that everyone who is open-minded ends up Catholic and no one else does.

I can't really lampoon these two because they seem to lampoon themselves.

(/out of character)



So if you can do these things, you too can convert from Protestantism to Catholicism.  Read Scott Hahn for the writing and emotion of the story but don't get into the theological details; read medieval church history but ignore the ancient stuff; read Scripture and Church Fathers like they are Catholics rather than Jews; only hang out with Catholics and go to Mass and pray the Rosary every day; and be willing to let God change your denomination but not willing to commit yourself to following what His Scriptures say.  Do this, and you too can remain a Catholic.






Sunday, June 14, 2015

"I consider myself black" says white woman

Rachel Dolezal is a civil rights activist in Washington. She is the local head of the NAACP, an organization dedicated to the advancement of African-American community needs. She has been in the headlines since 2009 as the victim of hate crime, a run-in with neo-nazis, a professor of Africana studies, and as chief of a police oversight body. She identifies herself as mixed-race black, white, and Native American.

There is only one slight problem. Biologically, she isn't one iota black.

Her confused parents provided media with complete documentation that she is German, Czech, and Swiss--not black.

She however says that she is still black. That she has always felt black, and "I consider myself black."

She, for her part, is frustrated: she says that the community at large "quite frankly, don't really understand the definitions of race and ethnicity."

Now that is an interesting statement. You see, what Rachel appears to be claiming is that the definition of race and ethnicity should not be intermingled. You see, race is defined as the biological division of humankind to which one belongs; while ethnicity is belonging to a group with a shared history and culture. So she is arguing that race and ethnicity need not be mixed together.

She is arguing--if I am understanding properly--that you can't assign her white or European as her ethnicity simply because she happened to be born biologically white. Instead, she should get to choose what ethnicity she belongs to.

This is why she refuses to call herself African-American--which would imply race--but believes it it totally reasonable for her to have tanned her skin to a light black and taken a leadership position in a black organization. Because in her mind, "black" is a choice, not a race.

I was a bit flabbergasted to read this yesterday when it came out, because I used precisely this same scenario (albeit with Asians) less that two weeks ago as an example of the ludicrousness of the transgender argument. I never actually expected someone to try it and have been trying it, though!

You see, the transgender community also separates one's biological classification (male/female) from which part of society one feels an affinity for (masculine/feminine). As such they say it is possible to be biologically one thing but emotionally something else, and that therefore we must all treat the person as how they emotionally identify.

By that same token, Rachel is completely right and should keep her job and any benefits traditionally offered to blacks--because, after all, though she was biologically born white, her emotional affinity is as a black woman.

In 1979, Steve Martin's The Jerk had a white guy deliver the line, "I was born a poor black child..." because the absurdity of the statement was good for a laugh. Now, a statement like this apparently is completely acceptable.

So here is my question for those who support Bruce Jenner's and the transgender community's argument that one can change gender: how is this any different than what Rachel is doing in claiming that ethnicity and race can be separated and if a white person 'feels black enough' they should be treated as though they were black? Do you accept both arguments? If not, how can you explain your inconsistent position?



Thursday, June 11, 2015

Pride and P.C.

The other night on Late Night with Seth Meyers, comedian Jerry Seinfeld talked about his refusal to speak or do stand-up at colleges any more. It seems colleges have become so politically correct that even family-friendly comics like Seinfeld find it undesirable to work there. (He is not the only one—Chris Rock made a similar announcement in December, saying that kids in college are so preconditioned to become offended by anything that almost any joke is now off-limits.)

Where does this massive shift come from? Just 15 years ago, when I was in college, comedians and speakers were most highly desired when they were unafraid to say anything, no matter how offensive some might find it, as a way of pointing out what was wrong with society and getting us to think. Now, even the Seinfelds of the world no longer feel welcome—and politically, he agrees with those who are offended, just not with the extreme sensitivity to which they get offended!


At the base of it all, actually, is pride. I will come back to these specifics later, but for now a few words about pride and the Christian disciplines of submission and humility.

Pride is, as many throughout the ages have pointed out, the attitude which twists perfectly good things and makes them into sinfulness. In pride, we seek to protect our rights and indeed to get the maximum reputation possible; in other words, every situation is about us—how it makes us feel, how it makes us behave.

Money is a good thing, a God-given thing. But when pride comes into play we want to have more than our neighbor so that our reputation looks great. As a result, pride leads us to greed and mistreatment of others, so that our reputation can continue to grow.

Power is a good thing, God actually gives us great power in the Holy Spirit. But when our pride gets involved, we begin to see power not as a tool to achieve God’s calling for us, and instead see power as something to protect or increase our own reputation.

Food and exercise are good things, which help these meat machines we drag around to work efficiently. But when pride gets involved, your food and exercise routine is no longer about being healthy, but about vanity—making people say good things about you.

Clothing, jobs, vacations—everything follows this same pattern. So things which are in themselves good, are twisted by pride to be about us, and whenever everything is about us the twisting of things into sinfulness is an inevitability.


The Christian response to this is a discipline called submission, which is the process to achieve the virtue called humility. Humility is the virtue and worldview which Jesus so frequently focused on for us; when listing the Beatitudes (“superb blessings”) which God gives to certain people, the humble person is the first priority (Matt 5:3).

Humility is the opposite of pride—and let me state something here. Confidence is not the same thing as pride. Confidence is believing in your ability to achieve something, and as such its opposite is low self-esteem. Pride, however, is the protecting and elevation of our reputation. Humility is pride’s opposite, for humility is the virtue in which we do not see ourselves as the center of a situation; rather, other people and God are the center. The humble man, as Paul says, values all others above himself (Phil 2:3-4).

But how does one achieve humility? Through a discipline known as submission. Jesus called it taking up your cross, and exhibited it throughout His life and career—perhaps most memorably when He washed the feet of the disciples. Submitting each to the other (Eph 5:21) means giving up the rights which you deserve to have.

For example, consider the famous passage in Colossians 3 about submission:  “Wives, submit to your husbands…”, “Children, obey your parents…”, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters…”. Now do not miss something here: in the culture of the day, this would be as meaningless as commanding the sky to be blue. The entire society was patriarchal, built around the Roman idea of pater familias: women had to submit, children had to obey, slaves had to follow commands.

The very fact that Paul gives these commands shows that the people had a choice in the matter, which is shocking in that culture. You see, Paul himself had pointed out that the Gospel freed us of categories—we were all God’s children, not women or men or Jew or Gentile or slave or free any more (Gal 3:28).

But submissiveness occurs when we give up the rights which we deserve to have. Paul was telling those who society had systematically forced into submission that they were freed from society’s demands as believers…and yet, that the healthiest thing for them was to immediately give away these rights as freewill offerings so that they could serve and represent Christ well.


As Americans, we have been generationally trained and beaten into our heads that giving up freedoms and rights is wrong, but really you know it to be true deep down, for you see it in other areas. The rich has a right to keep every dime he ever earned; but it is better if he gives up this right and uses his money to aid those who have none. Your boss has a right to yell at you or fire you for poor performance; but it is better if he or she is kind and leads by inspiration rather than fear. The wife has a right to divorce her husband just because she doesn’t like him anymore; but it is better if she sticks out the oath and commitment which she made.


Submissiveness—giving up our rights willingly—is the antidote to pride. If we give up the rights to our money as our own, then pride cannot twist it into greed. If we give up the right of ambition to have a cool job title with a lot of power, then pride cannot twist us into horrible bosses and employees. Submissiveness seeks the good of others above ourselves--which is why the New Testament tells us that if we have wronged a brother then it is our responsibility to reconcile (Matt 5:23), and if a brother has wronged us then it is our responsibility to reconcile (Matt 18:22). In any scenario, it is "on us" to seek and ensure unity by submissiveness--by giving away our rights and personal desires to another.


In short, let me summarize it this way:  pride aims to protect and enhance our reputations, whereas Christianity tells us to ignore our own reputations, which is only possible when we give away some our rights and submit them over to God instead.



And that gets us to our point today.

Kindness is a good thing, a God-given thing. We as Christians should be so focused on loving and giving honor to each other that it is a competition for us to hold each other up (Rom 12:10).

But, as we stated—pride can twist anything. And in our society, the virtue of kindness has been twisted and expanded to an unbelievable place, because of pride.

You have certainly been offended before—as have I. This is understandable. For when someone insults us or something we have done, it reveals the pride we have: our reputation is harmed. We don’t like someone thinking badly of us. While not a healthy Christian viewpoint, it is at least understandable. What is outrageous is the extreme to which pride has pushed this feeling in the last 10-15 years, to the point that our reputation has become the most important thing to all of us.

Because pride has improperly elevated our reputations in our minds, we find ourselves unbelievably sensitive to any slight, real or imagined. We find ourselves constantly on the lookout for someone stepping out of line in a way that “insults” or “degrades” our reputation: the wrong joke, the wrong word choice, the wrong pronoun, the wrong way to look at someone…we walk around with a “PC radar” on, looking for what is wrong.

Frankly, it seems to me that certain people walk around already offended and are just waiting for a reason to justify it.

We as Christians should be kind—however, we are also called to have integrity and allow our yes to mean yes (Matt 5:37; Jam 5:12).


It is critical that we Christians must not lose the ancient rhythms of our faith in the face of society’s ever-changing rules. From the very beginning, we have been taught that we give up our rights for the sake of all, and as a result we become people of humility—it’s not that we think badly of ourselves, we just don’t think much about ourselves at all.

When we can adopt that attitude, we are not so easily offended, and much more able to balance and speak truth in kindness—not truth without kindness, or kindness without truth, which pride desires.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Jenner and the Image Crisis

As the Bruce Jenner saga continues, one recurring theme from the Vanity Fair piece and discussions about the situation is the idea of identity crisis.

Jenner's story includes long feeling that something was wrong with his identity--at an early age, his image of himself did not match what he saw, and he identified the solution as the feeling of being a woman trapped in a man's body. As a result, the idea came up in the 1960s and 1970s to use modern medical techniques to change the sex of the person to match the gender which they felt.

Now let's stop for a minute and admit that this is logical. If it is possible that a person is born a gender and born a biological sex and that the two can get mixed up somehow, then it is logical this could lead to confusion and psychological flaws; therefore, to realign sex and gender would be logical.

However, there are two monster-sized assumptions which underlie the idea of transgender:

  1. Gender identity is separate from sexual identity
  2. Gender identity is a 'given', not a choice--you are born a certain way 

If either of these is untrue, no reasonable physician would approve surgery as an option. Why?

If the first is not true, and gender cannot be separated from biological sex, then someone who feels they are different is actually undergoing a serious psychological issue and this is a symptom, not the cause; thus, the surgery will not actually solve the problem.

If the second is not true, then you would not undergo such a major and radical surgery when the person might have regrets later and wish to change their mind; yet sex change operations are not reversible.


The difficulty for the medical community is that gender is not a physical thing you can measure and therefore it is not easy to decide what to do.

However, now that this has been done thousands of times historically, we have strong evidence: evidence strong enough that it led Johns Hopkins to stop offering the surgery. After transgenders have sex-change operations, they report high satisfaction, removal of the problem, etc.; however, every single study ever done later shows that they continue to express serious psychological concerns at later dates. 

In fact, post-op transgenders, far from being removed of their demons, seem to be far worse: the suicide rate raises at shocking levels. 

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 4.6% of the general population have attempted suicide at some point. The number increases to 10-15% among those who are LGBT but not transsexual (no sex change operation). After sex change operations, the suicide attempt rate is an astonishing 41%.

Yes, that is correct: 2 of every 5 post-op transsexuals who state that their burdens were lifted, later changed their minds. Unable to deal with their other psychological issues, they attempted to commit suicide--many, tragically, were successful. The only group which comes close to reaching these rates are cross-dressing men, who didn't take the step to get the surgery but did begin to alter their appearance.

Now, the doctors looking at this data must draw one of two conclusions, as must we. 

If the assumptions listed above are correct, then there must be something else causing this huge spike--either a very unfortunate and persistent coincidence or our society somehow manages to punish them so much more after surgery than before that two of every five just decide they'd rather die--and this punishment somehow is never noticed by the psychologists, for none of those post-op studies revealed such a situation. 

The other potential conclusion is that there was some psychological underlying issue--the true root cause--which led to  the feeling of gender disorder and which therefore was unaddressed by the sex change operation. In this case, the surgeries actually helped cause the suicidal spike, because once this issue was removed the person remains in despair, and yet has thrown their life into upheaval in the process. Bruce Jenner admitted to such a second thought when waking up the next day after the surgery, thinking he had made a huge mistake. It is unfortunately an all-too-common mistake.

As a result, Johns Hopkins concluded that this elective surgery was not worth the risks of mortality post-op--both due to suicide and natural complications.


So what is the root cause?

I actually think that Jenner and the transgenders are right--there is an identity problem. The image they have of themselves does not match their physical reality. I think they have nailed that on the head.

However, I think where they have gone wrong is in trying to assign the cause of that dissonance. They have assigned the cause to a feeling of gender. 

I would argue that this is not the root cause at all--that the image problem they have is significantly different, and is one that we all have.

I am currently preparing a sermon on Genesis 1 which I will teach later this summer. In it, I will give what I believe to be the proper exegesis of the passage, tying Genesis 1 to ancient temple texts and showing that it aligns perfectly and, therefore, if read in its context contains much that we miss.

One such thing that we miss--which I have alluded to but never fully detailed (one of these days, I will)--is the idea that we are the Image Deo, the image of God.

Many teach about this but miss the main point.

If Genesis 1 identifies earth as God's temple (and it does, as many other texts support; again, I will detail all this one day later), then we must read it as an ancient would read it. In the center of each temple was the sanctuary, and Genesis 2 presents Eden as God's sacred place in the Temple. 

Inside this sacred place was the Image of the god in ancient temples. The Image was something--usually a statue--which was meant to appear like the god. After the temple is dedicated, the god's ba, or presence, animates the statue. It is this image that the god uses to rule creation, to deliver his oracles, and to receive the sacrifices which lead others into his presence.

Knowing this, we see the importance of Genesis 1:26-27...we are the Image of God. We are the 'statue' in His temple, filled with His Spirit. We are supposed to lead others to Him in worship, to share His wisdom/oracles, and to represent Him physically to the world.

However, the first image-bearers, Adam and Eve, did not want to only be the image of God, they wanted to be God. They did not want to merely receive wisdom and pass it along, they wanted to own the wisdom--and hence they ate of the tree of knowledge. They became broken images and God cast them out of the sanctuary, like a cracked statue.

(PS--This explains a lot of the Gospel, by the way. This is why Jesus had to come--the proper High Priest to re-enter the Temple sanctuary, and the proper Image who shared God's good news and did His will without fail. Jesus promises those of us who want it that we will be "conformed to His Image" and made like Christ; thus, those who desire to be the Image of God again can, by following Jesus and His leadership, receive the presence of God (the Spirit) in their lives and begin the process of being remade to be like Jesus. It also explains how in Revelation some are mislead by the image of the beast, and it also explains what the Bible means when it says that we will co-rule with Jesus in heaven.)


At any rate, the point is that we ALL have an image problem. We all have an identity crisis. We were shaped and molded to be the image of God and stand with Him in His sanctuary; instead, we are cracked and broken and our image is destroyed.

The problem arises when we try to diagnose the problem. 

Some realize the problem is spiritual and seek out religion to correct their image -- other religions generally speaking try to correct the image through works, while Christianity says that Jesus will correct it for you if you will serve Him.

Some think the problem is about fame, or money, or power, and seek it by chasing those things in this world.

Some think the problem is sexual, that if they can find the right partner or situation that they will feel whole again.

Some think the problem is about their literal, physical image--that if they can control their appearance through makeup or dieting or breast implants or rock-hard abs, then they can somehow fix the broken image.

And some--like Jenner--think that the issue is gender-based and that if they can only swap genders, all will be right with the world.


The reality is that nothing in this world can fix the brokenness that is our lives. We all, deep down, feel it--have always felt it. But the thing is, our broken image is not physical matter, and thus no change in physical matter will fix it--neither money nor sex nor power nor adoring fans nor changes to our bodies (surgical or otherwise) will address it. It is like drinking wine to combat cancer--it might make you feel better for a few minutes, but it's not going to fix the problem.


I do believe that Bruce Jenner had a serious image problem. Unfortunately, what he needed was a good Christian counselor or pastor...not new breasts.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Bruce Jenner, Definitions, and the Emperor's Clothes

We all remember the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. The Emperor, wanting to appear trendy, always wears the finest clothes. A pair of con-men convince him that they have created him the finest clothes ever made--but they can only be seen by those who are not stupid or incompetent. Not wishing to admit that they are stupid or incompetent, everyone says they can see it to fit in with everyone else; in the end, it is only a child who points out the Emperor's nakedness. The child, unconcerned with maintaining appearances and what others might think of him, is the only one bold enough to point out the truth.

Now far be it from me to say that others are not pointing out the truth in the transgendered situation. However, I do feel a bit like the little child, exasperated among a crowd which seems content to smile and tell the Emperor that yes, his clothes look just fine.


"Courage"

For the most part I avoid mainstream media and news, especially if it deals with pop culture or celebrity; instead I rely on my newsfeed of secondary sources to keep up with what is important to those who love the Kingdom. I find my life is considerably happier when the stories coming to me deal with God's Kingdom than our own.

However, there is one definite exception--sports. I love Mike & Mike every morning, and LeBatard every afternoon, as I drive to and from work. And so eventually even I could not stay out of the Bruce Jenner focused news of the past week.

I couldn't avoid it because, this week, ESPN decided to give the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage to Jenner for his conversion into a woman, Caitlyn Jenner.

Ashe was a good choice to name a Courage award for--he overcame racism to become the first black player ever to win singles titles at Wimbledon, Australian Open, and US Open and the first black player on the Davis Cup team. During a blood transfusion he was given HIV and contracted AIDS; he used his platform to teach others about the disease and was among the first to make it known globally that HIV was not a "gay" issue but a human one. He was also an active voice in the anti-apartheid issues in South Africa. All around, "courage" is a good word for him.

For you see, "courage" is generally defined as the willingness to face agony, pain, or intimidation, or to act rightly in the face of popular opposition.

The runner-up to Jenner for this year's award is an ex-military serviceman who lost an arm and a leg to roadside bombs but runs and completes triathalons. That is willingness to face agony and pain, so it makes sense.

What I am failing to see is the 'courage' associated with Jenner's decision. The only pain he has faced is that he created for himself, with multiple surgeries to mutilate himself into a new form. I suppose some say it is courageous because he would face popular opposition, but anyone who has read the news knows that is not the case at all--the media is fawning over him and there is no way you can call it "courage" to say something for which the media will call you a hero. (Also a poor definition of the word 'hero' but, that's for another time.) Indeed, most of the internet is focused right now on shaming those who use the "improper" pronoun, calling him "him" instead of his preferred, "her." (Add another trip to the dictionary for his supporters--they seem to be choosing the wrong pronoun as the 'improper' one.)



"Gender"

Unfamiliarity with Webster aside, the bigger issue for me is how rapidly it has just been accepted in our society that gender is a choice. Keep in mind that the idea of 'transgender' first popped up just a couple of decades ago, and all of a sudden we have widespread media acceptance and popular shaming of those who are so "bigoted" as to say that because someone is biologically a male we should refer to him as a male.

If you (as I was in the past) are confused by how someone can just 'decide' that they are a male or a female, here is what has happened in the past twenty-five years or so: two words which were considered synonyms--gender and sex--have been very slightly redefined, but with significant result. A person's sex is now defined as the biological set up for reproduction that they were born with--that is, their genetic makeup and reproductive organs which make them male or female. A person's gender is defined as the set of social norms that a person sees themselves as--that is, do they tend to like 'girl things' or 'boy things.'

Now do not misunderstand: this distinction has some merit and some importance on rare occasions. There are those people born as hermaphrodites (both biological sexes), and one gender must chosen. There are some other rare birth defects as well which create difficult scenarios like this. These are painful situations, and our compassion should be with the parents, doctors, nurses, and individuals who are involved. But these are also exceptionally rare, and we must always be careful of changing rules and norms based upon exceptional cases. Such decisions rarely end well.

At any rate, this distinction while it may have some use in certain medical situations, has been expanded far beyond its boundaries, like a river which has crossed its banks and is flooding into areas intended to remain dry.

Now, we have men like Mr. Jenner who are stating that gender is purely a choice based upon how they view the world, and they can simply decide one day that, "I am no longer male."

That this is a significant claim with potential to impact society seems almost so obvious as to need to go unstated; however, as it seems most are simply accepting the New Clothes with no comment, I feel the need to point out the obvious.

Women and men are treated differently in society--and while sometimes this is quite bad (sexism, particularly in the workplace for example, or the high frequency with which males can rape females and get away with it)--often there are some benefits to the differences. Certain scholarships are offered only to women as a method of helping offset certain societal discrimination. Sporting events are divided by gender so that it is a more compelling and fair competition. Legally the mother (definition: the parent of a female gender) of a child is far more likely to retain custody as psychological study after study have shown that mothers have a unique relationship to their children. There are rules in place protecting women from being discriminated against as a hiring practice. Insurance policies cover different things for men and women. The bathroom at your local restaurant is divided into men and women.

So what now are we to do? Because Bruce Jenner made a choice to swap genders, should he be eligible to compete against women in the Olympics? Is that fair, to have top-notch male athletes switch genders to rack up gold medals? Or if Jenner had made the change as a teenager, would it be fair for him to take a girl's scholarship? Or if he switched genders after being married should he now be treated by the state as the biological mother--after all, he provided half the DNA and is now a 'female' parent, right? Should he be able to sue for gender discrimination if he is not hired? Should insurance companies cover him for male or female or both situations? Are you fine with a man and father to follow your teenage girl into the women's bathroom because he has chosen to identify as female?

These are the natural results of transgender becoming accepted as a valid lifestyle in our society. Now as a society we should accept and protect those who differ from ourselves....but of course there are always limits and the limits should be philosophical/logic based in reason.

"Philosophy"

You see, the position that gender is something one can choose based upon how they emotionally feel is philosophically untenable.

If you are an atheist/evolutionist, then you must admit that "gender" as so defined is, frankly, not a real thing--we are simply biological machines and creatures, and so one's "mind" is nothing more than its brain...and Jenner's brain is that which came with his male body. The fact is that to change genders requires one to CHANGE their biology...removal of genitalia, taking a large number of synthetic chemicals to change brain chemistry, etc. I find it so strange that in an era where our society is so pro-organic and pro-nature and pro-evolution that we would simply accept something which cannot be true if these other beliefs are true...to be a transgender is to make the claims that: (1) how you are born is not how you have to be; (2) taking a mass of synthetic chemicals to alter your brain is totally safe and fine and socially acceptable; and (3) evolution is false in that it does not account for the 'soul' or 'mind' of the person, for in fact one's personhood is different from their physical body. (Which, if so, has profound pro-life influences and abortionists position is undermined.)

Frankly speaking...for those who tend to support this lifestyle (atheist/agnostic, evolutionist, leftists), the idea that one can change gender is in direct opposition to the rest of their worldview.


So then, to accept this you must be a theist (believing that there is Someone or Something more than nature which gives us a personhood and identity) and that there is nothing wrong with changing your biology to match your emotions. However, to hold this is also an untenable position...for you must (1) admit that Whoever or Whatever created your biology made a mistake, and (2) believe somehow that you have the authority to override Him/Her/It.


There is a third option, however...the one which I feel leaves me as the child pointing out the obvious--"But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

Isn't it far more likely that Jenner is in fact a male; that gender and biological sex are linked as is obvious even to a schoolchild; and that for whatever reason he has developed a psychological condition which should be properly treated rather than avoided by changing genders?

Imagine that I came in one day saying that I was actually Asian inside--true, biologically I am white, but inside I've always been Asian. I like math and science, I appreciate Asian culture and cuisine, etc. So therefore, I am going to get some surgery to change my appearance--skin tone, eye shape and color, hair--and begin identifying myself as Asian. I should be called Asian, treated legally as an Asian (scholarships, etc.), and allowed to join Asian only clubs.

What would you think, if I continued to insist I was Asian? You would rightly refer me to a psychologist who would help me identify the root of my issues and find joy and peace in who I am. What you would NOT do is say, "Well I think that is marvelous. What a courageous thing to do. Go get that surgery!"


"Bigotry"

I know, I know--I will be called a bigot.  But I feel that I must point out the obvious, for there are simply some things which are true and factual--regardless of whether our society wishes it were so. One of those is that Bruce Jenner is a man, and though surgery and chemistry and makeup can hide this fact, it remains exactly that: a fact. But I suppose that makes me a bigot, for acknowledging a fact.

By the way, the word bigot is from the medieval German bei Gott, meaning "by God." It refers to people who are hypocrites to their philosophy, claiming to believe one thing but acting differently. In French it still retains this meaning, that of religious hypocrite. In America, we have changed this word and apply it to anyone who disapproves of someone else's life choices, even if those life choices are, themselves, "bigoted" in the proper sense--that is, in opposition to their own philosophy. Properly speaking it is bigoted to claim to be an evolutionist yet support transgender and it is bigoted to claim to be a theist yet support transgender. But in America, I will be the one called a bigot for making this statement.

Oh well. We long ago gave up caring about definitions of things, didn't we, Caitlyn?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

You are the eikon of God

In my last post, we discussed the image (eikon) of God in relation to Jesus' discussion on taxes. However, today I want to expand on the idea of eikon, which is not well understood in Christian circles today despite being a powerful concept.

Eikon is the root of our English word, 'icon' and it literally means to "be like." The idea is the concept of a mirror reflection--the face I see in the mirror is not me, but is the eikon of me. The same can be said of a photograph--it in itself is not me and lacks some aspect of who I am; and yet, it is a very similar representation of me. In literary terms, this is used to describe allegories--an allegory is an eikon of the original story. Likewise, in the ancient Greek world if someone were to tell a ghost story, the phantom of the dead person would be called his eikon.

As we saw last week, the eikon of Caesar which was imprinted on his coin implied that the coin both belonged to, and represented, Caesar. Likewise, if you were to record a video of me giving a speech, that speech replayed would be a powerful eikon of me--both representing me as a reflection and in some way manifesting me.

The idea of an eikon is powerfully used in the Bible; indeed, you could very easily preach the entire Gospel simply from the idea of eikon. Let's see how.


Mankind was designed to be the eikon of God

In Genesis 1:26-28 we see the God created us to be His eikon:

"Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image [eikon], according to Our Likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.'
So God created man in His image, He created him in the image of God, He created them male and female.
God blessed them, and said to them, "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth." 

Whenever someone wonders, "What is the meaning of life?", the answer is--to be God's eikon. God created the heavens and the earth and then, having created us, named us as His eikon.

In other words, we are to be His mirror-reflection on Earth, the imprint of His currency, the photograph of the Creator.

Specifically, we are told a few things that, as His eikon, we are to be:


  • We are to care for His creation, as He cares for His creation. God made everything here and declared it "very good"--we were designed to be His image-bearer among creation. We are to care for it, tend it, and rule it...ensuring its continued goodness and fruitfulness.

  • We are to be relational, as He is relational. God said "Let US" make man, "in OUR image", according to "OUT likeness." The Triune God is inherently relational--Father-Son-Spirit were in loving relationship before the creation of the world.  God did not create one human, but two: and He created them male and female, complementary parts of a whole, so that relationship between the two is critically necessary in order to fulfill our role as His eikon.  Indeed, I would argue that this tells us we cannot succeed as God's image alone. It is clear that God is not merely 'male' but includes both masculine and feminine qualities--He is both Father and Mother, and thus creates both "male and female" in order to make His image.

  • We are to be fruitful and creative, as He was fruitful and creative. One cannot miss that God was in the sixth day of a very fruitful week! He creates and creates, everything we see around us--from supernovas a billion light-years away to the small crickets in the field--and He asked us to be similarly fruitful. When we are fruitful, we fulfill our image of God. There is a real, fundamental reason that our souls receive satisfaction from a job well done, or from creating a beautiful painting or composing a piece of music, or even creating a silly football team on a video game:  we are hard-wired to be God's eikon, and creativity and accomplishment are fundamental aspects of His Personality.


So in this text, we see that the 'meaning of life' is for us to be God's mirror-image, which means: caring for what He created, being relational, and being creative (both in terms of creating life and in breathing meaning into the world around us).



Man refused to remain the eikon, but tried to usurp God's throne

In Genesis 3, we see the well-known story of the Fall of Man. Satan, possessing a serpent in the Garden of Eden, leads Adam and Eve to disobey God's one and only command: do not eat of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result, God banishes mankind from the Garden where they were supposed to grow old. They are exiled to the wilderness of Earth, a world of death and pain and suffering. They are cursed and that curse passes down to us today.

The Fall of Man sometimes is confusing to people. Yes, Eve disobeyed. Yes, Adam disobeyed. Our forebears disobeyed a direct command. But, let's be honest...doesn't the curse seem too harsh a punishment? Does the punishment really fit the crime here? And if God is so merciful, why couldn't He just forgive Adam and Eve?

If you do not grasp the concept of man as God's eikon, then I think these are fair and difficult questions with which to grapple. However, understanding the theology of an eikon puts things in better perspective.

You see, the Fall of Man is not so much, "Adam and Eve sinned" as it is, "Adam and Eve desired more than their role." They were not satisfied with the role as God's image-bearer. Look more closely at how Satan tempted them:

" 'You will not die,' the serpent said to the woman. 'In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God' " (Gen 3:4-5, emphasis mine)

This phrase "you will be like God" is more direct in Hebrew--it is only one word: elohiym, which is the plural word for God.

I think the translation which adds "LIKE" to this phrase is unfortunate. It isn't in the text, but is a theological addition.

The text is: elohiym yada yowm akal ayin paqach elohiym. It doesn't use the word for 'image' (tselem) at all--it says of eating from the tree: "God knows at that time you eat, your eyes will open and you are gods."


You see--God made us as His image. His reflection. Adam and Eve decided this wasn't good enough: they didn't want to be God's image-bearer, they wanted to be God.

This is misunderstood because of the bad translation of Genesis 3:5--Adam and Eve weren't tempted by being "like" God...they already WERE like God! They were God's eikon...they wanted to be God Himself.

It was an attempt to usurp the throne--the same sin, by the way, that got Satan cast out of heaven. Unable to usurp the throne himself, he tempts Adam and Eve to try as well. And, like Satan, they fail.

The sentence for attempting to usurp the throne is the same for both would-be gods.  Satan is first exiled (from heaven to earth) and later sentenced to death (in Revelation, with the lake of fire.)  Likewise mankind is exiled (from the Garden to earth) and later sentenced to death (on earth, through suffering, pain, and natural causes).


This is why the punishment is not too great for the crime:  the first men were not content to remain as image-bearers of God--they wanted to be gods.

And indeed, this remains fundamentally with us each individually. Just like our ancestors, we have a fierce streak of individuality. We wish to bow the knee to no one--even God. We want to be our own, perfectly free, individual. Every man has within him a heart of anarchy and an ambition to godhood (Rom 1:23). We want the universe to revolve around us.


(This, by the way, is why God is so frequent and clear about not creating idols/icons of any kind, even of His own image--because WE are to be His image! We shouldn't be creating stone/wood images of God, because WE should be His living images in the world. There is not a century from 1st-8th where you don't find early Christians specifically demanding that no icons or images be made or worshipped.)


God therefore sent a new eikon

But God wants us to be His image-bearers. It is why He created us. And so, the Bible tells us, He sent His own Son to be the perfect eikon.

2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us that Satan has "blinded the minds of the unbelievers so they cannot the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image [eikon] of God."

Colossians 1:15 that Jesus "is the image [eikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn over all Creation."

The Colossians verse is particularly clear: because God is invisible to us, and because we are not fulfilling our roles ruling over creation as His image-bearer, therefore Jesus came to be the eikon that we failed to be, serving as firstborn/ruler over Creation.

The world SHOULD have seen God reflected in us...instead, they had to see it through Jesus.


If you believe in Jesus, He makes you back into the eikon you were supposed to be

Consider what Paul wrote in Romans 8:29: "For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image [eikon] of His Son."

We see the same statements in 1 Corinthians 15:49, Colossians 3:10, and many other places.

Perhaps Paul says it most clearly in 2 Corinthians 3:18:  "We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory".


Have you ever wondered why our faith in God is sufficient to get us into heaven? Doesn't that seem strange?

Well, the reason is because, if we believe in Jesus then we believe that a perfect eikon of God existed, and that by defeating death He proved that He can make us like Him. Faith saves us because faith in Jesus is, essentially, handing over our reins to Him: it is saying, "I subvert my will to Yours, so that You can remake me into Your image."

At its fundamental level, being a disciple of Christ is not about doing a series of works to live perfectly: it is about giving control to Jesus, refusing to reach for the throne and instead being satisfied to be His eikon. It is recognizing that we are shattered mirrors, and asking Jesus to put the pieces back together until we are eikons again.


I absolutely love this quote from CS Lewis' Mere Christianity, illustrating the same point:

"That is why He warned people to 'count the cost' before becoming Christians. 'Make no mistake,' He says, 'if you let Me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect--until My Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.' "
This is why John tells us that we will be made perfect and not continue in our sins (1 Jo 2:1, 2:5-6, 3:2-3, 5:18) even though currently we are still sinners (1 Jo 1:8-10, 2:2). Because God promises that we who believe that Jesus is God's perfect eikon in the flesh, the Christ Himself, will be conformed into that same image. It is a process, but it is a promised process.


Further, the Scripture tells us that unbelievers continue to bear the image of Adam--the would-be-usurper--instead of God (1 Cor 15:49). And in the book of Revelation, we see that an eikon of the beast will be made, and unbelievers and rebels will worship it (Rev 13-20, numerous instances).


Conclusion 

So you see that the difference between a believer and an unbeliever is intimately tied up with this idea of the eikon--you either reject your role as eikon and seek the throne for yourself, or you worship some false god's eikon, or agree to allow God's perfect eikon (Jesus) to transform you into an eikon which again bears His likeness.

There is no fourth choice.

So the practical question today is:  what eikon do you worship? To what are you aspiring? Are you your own god? Are you worshipping an icon/idol instead of God?

Or are you willing to accept that Jesus was the perfect eikon, and that if you allow Him--and only then! He will not force you!--that He will conform you into a perfect eikon.



Friday, April 17, 2015

The Tax Man Cometh

Wednesday was Tax Day, April 15, which for my CPA wife is the end of an insanely busy season. (If you know any CPAs, buy them some flowers or something; it's not unusual for my wife to be working until 1am during the last month of tax season.)

So taxes were fresh on my mind when, driving home yesterday, I heard someone on a Christian radio station talking about how the government was using "my tax dollars" to fund abortions.

Now I have taken a hard-line stance on abortions many times before--I think it is a no-brainer and a major issue for any believer--so you would assume I would be as offended as he was.

But that's not quite the case.

To explain why, let me start with the key text, Matthew 22:15-17:

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. 'Teacher,' they said, 'we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?


Now at the time in Rome, the imperial tax rate for an individual was usually around 2-5%. Obviously this was not a major burden. You might wonder, why were the Pharisees complaining? Why did they think that Jesus might tell them not to pay taxes?

You must understand the situation. As anti-Christian as you may think our modern society is, it pales in comparison to ancient Rome. The Roman Empire was very tolerant of religions...as long as you were tolerant back. They took over a country and said, 'Your gods are good by us--let's mix our two systems together.' And oh, by the way--you also have to worship the Emperor as a lesser god. You wouldn't pray to the emperor as you would to the pantheon of gods...however, every day in some way you would be expected to sort of pledge allegiance to the Emperor as a lesser deity. For those who accepted hundreds of gods anyway, this was no big deal--and in their eyes, the peace and wealth of Rome was indeed like a gift from heaven.

The only group who fought against this were the Jews. They refused to worship other gods or abandon their religion. They refused to pay homage to the Emperor, and riots against Rome were commonplace. Indeed, even after Rome allowed them to pay part of their taxes to their own Jewish Temple, they still often refused to pay the other taxes.

The logic they used for not paying taxes is like this:

  1. I earn a certain amount of money
  2. Taxes take some of my money away
  3. My money is being spent on unholy things
  4. I am not supposed to associate with unholy things
  5. Therefore, I will not pay taxes

So what the Pharisees are saying is very similar to our Christian radio host earlier:  it is an outrage that the government uses MY money to fund unholy enterprises!  Our host's logic for steps 1-4 is the same, he just comes to a different conclusion:


  1. I earn a certain amount of money
  2. Taxes take some of my money away
  3. My money is being spent on unholy things
  4. I am not supposed to associate with unholy things
  5. Therefore, I will try and convince the government not to do so



So while they use different actions, the reasoning is the same.

The Jews thought this would trap Jesus. If He said, "Don't pay taxes," then they would turn Him in as an anti-Rome revolutionary; however, if He said, "It's okay," then they would say He supported unholy things.

Jesus flipped it around (as He often does). He replied:

"Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought Him a denarius, and He said, "Whose image is this? And whose subscription?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

Then he said to them, "So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

The people left amazed. Why? Why did they not say "Gotcha--you support unholy things!"?

Because look what Jesus said--the taxes were Caesar's to begin with. You should pay Caesar your taxes, because Caesar is the one who provided that money.

This ruined their argument, because now it looks like this:

  1. I earn a certain amount of money, and Caesar's government provides me a certain amount
  2. Taxes take some of Caesar's money back
  3. Caesar is spending his money on unholy things
  4. I am not supposed to associate with unholy things
  5. YOU AREN'T--Caesar is, with his own money.


That is why they left, defeated. Jesus was saying--the money they take for taxes never belonged to you in the first place, so stop worrying about it.

And that is applicable to us as well. As horrible as abortion is (and I'm basically a one-issue voter who will never cast a vote for a pro-choice candidate), it pales in comparison to worshipping false gods. In our eyes, idolatry should be worse than murder.

So just as Jesus did not oppose paying the taxes--even if used for unholy things!--in Rome, so to would He not oppose it here.

More importantly, though, I think often we are missing the main purpose of this passage:

Jesus asks, "whose is this image"...the word image is eikon. This is the word that we usually discuss as icon.

In the New Testament, WE are the eikon of God (cf: Rom 8:29; 1Co 11:7; 1 Co 15:49; 2Co 3:18; Col 3:10). This is a reference to the Old Testament, Genesis 1:26, where man was made as the image-bearer of God for all creation.


So let's look at what Jesus said with a slightly different word choice and you will see a difference:

Whose icon is on this coin?

Caesar's.  [or for us:  Abraham Lincoln; George Washington; Andrew Jackson; etc.]

So give back to Caesar his icons, and give God's icons back to God.


What Jesus is basically saying is:  the government made that money, gave it to you, and took it back. Fine. If you think they are misusing it, then pray for them.

But money is the currency of this world, and it belongs to this world.


OUR currency is to trade in God's image--that is, people. We are to be God's icons.


Jesus' point here, I think, is to say this: you should be a LOT more worried about how you are "spending" the image of God in your daily walk, rather than worried about how Caesar is spending the money he printed.


So to Americans angry about how taxes are spent today, I say this:

  1. Stop saying "the government shouldn't spend MY tax dollars like such-and-such." They aren't your dollars. The government printed them, and before you ever got your first paycheck the law was in place that you had to give it back to them. It's not YOUR money.
  2. Our money may say, "In God we trust," but it's not God whose image is on it. Our money bears the icons of America, not of God.
  3. You, on the other hand, bear God's image and are God's icons.
  4. So:  let America worry about America's dollars--you should be spending your time worrying about how you're using the gifts God gave to YOU.







PS--No, I don't mean that it's okay that the government sponsors abortion. And yes, of course I think we should vote for those who will use the government's money in godlier ways. But it (a) isn't your tax dollars; and (b) shouldn't be all that big a concern for you. You have your own sins to deal with and people to witness to, which are actually of far more importance.