Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Who am I? Integration and Identity in an Age of a Social Media

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People have always been good at putting on masks and personas to project a certain image to others. There is nothing new about being “two-faced,” as we called it in my generation.

Nevertheless, one disturbing aspect of social media is its ability to create personas that are inherently removed from both those who create and those who observe them.  We no longer need to be two-faced when we can be multi-faced, presenting a seemingly endless number of facades to the world around us.

If I’m young and don’t want my parents to see the “real” profile I have on Instagram or Facebook, for example, it’s easy to create alternative accounts and post a few wholesome pictures every now and then, giving them the impression that I’m actually living a somewhat normal and ostensibly moral life.

One of the great challenges of committed Christian discipleship is living a consistent, reliable, and integrated life.  We should be the same in private as we are in public, and the “face” we show strangers and neighbors should be the same “face” we show ourselves, our family, and our friends. There should be no “skeletons in the closet,” no secrets to remember not to tell, and no multiple and disingenuous personalities portrayed on various social media platforms either.

I fear that if it goes on too long, some will no longer be able to appreciate or understand the importance of being an integrated and consistent person—someone who is the same in public and in private.  Having a set of personalities to create and maintain will begin to seem somehow normal and healthy rather than socially disingenuous, distracting, and debilitating.

In addition, some could lose a true sense of self.  If we are too apt to present and promote various personas to the world, we may end up becoming increasingly ignorant of who we really are.  Aristotle was clear about the need to “know thyself.”  Failure to do so means a failure to flourish in the world as God intended and made us to be and become.

Because of sin, we are already prone to living dissipated and dis-integrated lives, cut off from the One who makes us unified and whole again.  Social media merely makes the opportunities to create and promote alternative versions of ourselves easier and more ubiquitous.

Lord Jesus, save us from ourselves that we might better know and be ourselves through our ever-increasing knowledge of the One who made and truly loves us.

Did Jesus get it wrong?

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In a world that worships power, pleasure, possessions, beauty, intelligence, talent, and fame, I am continually struck by the profoundly counter-cultural nature of the Christian faith. Jesus reverses the field in almost every arena in which human beings naturally hope and long for.

Jesus got it wrong if He was trying to make everyone love and serve Him in an overwhelmingly impressive or subtly coercive sort of way.  Instead, He quietly came to live in the Galilean backwater village of Nazareth and lose His perfect life on a simple wooden cross, so that we could gain his life and be reconciled to God.  That is a love that breaks the mold of all our expectations and confounds the wise, the strong, the powerful, and the rich, so that even the fools, the weak, the insignificant, and the poor could actually inherent the earth and live forever.

In short, Jesus loves the unlovely, the unloving, and the unlovable.  He makes the poor rich and the rich poor.  He exalts the lowly and humbles the exalted.  He makes the simple wise and makes simpletons of the wise.  He makes the strong weak and the weak strong. He makes losers out of winners and winners out of losers.  He asks His followers to lose everything in order to gain everything.

It doesn’t make for much of a marketing campaign to invite all who wish to follow Him to come suffer and die.  That sounds more like a cult for masochists.  But here is where the great irony of God’s economy in Christ comes into play: Those who suffer are blessed and will be comforted; those who die in Him will rise and live forever.

Of course, the opposite is also true: Those who are unrepentant and comfortable in this life will wind up uncomfortable in the next; those who hold tightly onto to things will lose them all; those who try to save their own life now will lose it for all eternity.

No, Jesus did not get it wrong, but we do—constantly.  Instead of loving people and using things, we love things and use people.  Instead of loving righteousness and spurning wickedness, we hate the good and love what is evil.  Instead of giving thanks to God for His goodness and wisdom and patience, we ignore, defy, and spurn Him—and then blame and rage against Him when our lives fall apart.

Despite our magnificent insignificance, overweening pride, and astounding indifference toward the One who created and sustains us, He still loves us with an everlasting love. He patiently and persistently offers forgiveness, grace, and eternal life in Christ for all who will believe and trust in Him.  He, and He alone, can take our every wrong and forever make us whole and right again.

Who am I trying to please?

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I want to be popular. Most people do.  Only masochists want to be reviled, ridiculed, and rejected.  I put on a good show and try to appear like I don’t care what others think about me, but deep down inside, I desperately want to be liked and respected.

Before my time, people tried to be “hip” and “groovy.”  Growing up, the goal was to be “cool.”  Years later, everyone wanted to be “bad.”  About that time, I lost track of (as well as significant interest in) the ever-evolving latest term for being “relevant,” “popular,” and one of the “in crowd.”

Once upon a time in America, being a Christian did not automatically disqualify you from being acceptable to others.  There were enough people around who thought Christians weren’t so bad, even if they weren’t Christians themselves.  Many of the social norms and expectations revolved around some of the basic moral (but often distorted) teachings of the Bible.  People were not afraid to identify themselves as Christians, even if their understanding of that term was nominal at best.

These days, it’s not so easy to identify as a genuine Christ-follower.  It’s no longer “cool” to defend and promote a traditional view of marriage (for example) or to suggest that sincere faith in Jesus Christ is the exclusive and only means to know and spend eternity with God.

Almost 2,000 years ago, it was not popular to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus either. It was much easier to “go with the flow” and not cause trouble by condemning sexual immorality or refusing to syncretize and compromise one’s religious faith.  In fact, refusing to follow the crowd could even get you imprisoned or killed. It was not an easy time to claim and proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.

In this respect, contemporary attitudes toward certain aspects of our faith place us in a long and storied history of being ridiculed and rejected for believing in Jesus.  And this should come as no surprise.  The Bible never said it would be easy or fun to follow hard after Christ.  God never assured us that we would be loved and accepted by others for following Him. Instead, 2 Timothy 3:12 provides us with this precious and magnificent promise: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

And 1 Peter 4:1 reminds us that since Christ suffered, as his followers, we should be ready to suffer as well.  Peter goes on to say we should not be surprised when we suffer for our faith, but rather, we should “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. . . .  If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

Jesus makes a similar promise in Luke 6:22-23 when He states, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.”

Paul also reminds us in Galatians 1:10 that our goal in life is not to be accepted and well-liked by everyone around us.  Rather, we are to seek to please God by fearlessly and single-mindedly serving Christ.

Of course, we do not intentionally seek to be odd or offensive for Christ.  But the goal of our lives is not to be cool, but to be clear, clear about the sometimes offensive simplicity of the gospel—that Jesus died to save sinners like you and like me, and that apart from Him, there is no hope of salvation in this life or the next.  If we face suffering for saying so and living our lives in light of it, we can rejoice, just as the disciples did in Acts 5:41, and thank God that He counts us worthy to suffer shame for His name.

Would I suffer and die for Jesus Christ?

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Worldwide, many contemporary Christians are experiencing persecution and even death for their faith. I have listened with sadness and admiration to accounts of those who risked their livelihoods, lives, and families by refusing to deny their faith in Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:29 makes it clear that as believers, it has been granted to us to suffer for Jesus’ sake. It is, in fact, a gift.  And while we don’t always want every gift we receive, in God’s wisdom, He knows exactly how to give us what we need.  Suffering is a dreadful but necessary grace.

While preparing to teach church history, I read some older accounts of Christian martyrdom and persecution from the first three centuries of the church.  As a result, several things struck me, but two stand out the most.

First, it’s easy to admire the courage of these Christians with an abstract appreciation for their faith in the face of torture and death.  It’s far harder to picture myself and fellow family members standing before the examiner and facing the choice between forsaking Jesus or suffering torture and death.

When I first started walking closely with the Lord, I was convinced I would die for Him.  Thirty-plus years later, I am much more acutely aware of and honest about my cowardice and strong attachments to the things and consolations of this life.  For all my prior blustering braggadocio about being willing to “sacrifice it all for Jesus,” I now have to admit, I want a tranquil and comfortable life.

Would I really suffer and die for Jesus if offered the choice?  With all of my heart I want to say yes, but I’m also honest enough to admit it would not be easy.

In the end, I suspect I could only do so if the Lord granted grace if and when the moment arrived.  Meanwhile, I am still trusting God to help divest myself of inappropriate and inordinate affections for anything and anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ.  Perhaps that is an admission of faithlessness, but I hope it is more a recognition of weakness and desperate need for His everlasting mercy and grace.

The second thing that struck me is closely related.  It occurred to me how grossly unprepared most professing Christians—myself included—are to suffer for their faith in any serious way.  Most (but certainly not all) Christians I know have been led extremely sheltered and comfortable lives compared to the hardships of many contemporary and historical Christians.  I certainly have.

Of course, if this has been the case, it is not necessarily something for which we should be ashamed. It is a privilege to be able to turn our freedoms and resources into opportunities to serve and care for others for God’s greater glory.  And many have done just that.  Lord, let us be legion!

But those who have lived in relative safety and ease of comfort should pause to consider: If life ever became much more difficult precisely because we are Christ-followers, would we, like the believers of yesterday and today, be willing to suffer and even die for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Would you?  Would I?  God grant us the grace to live humbly and boldly for Your glory, whether in life or in death.

For Such a Time as This

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Growing up, I often dreamed of living in another time and place.  Some long to live in the future, fascinated by imagined and fantastic things that might someday become possible and common-place.  I, on the other hand, always felt like I was born too late, ill-fitted for life in the present age.  The quixotic past I envisioned living in was safer, slower, less technological and complex.

It’s easy, after all, to romanticize the imagined past and the dreams of the future when you don’t actually live in them.  It’s far harder is to live well within the messy and difficult realities of the present.

Many things make me want to live in the past, but the recent rapid rise of digital information technologies has been especially instrumental in increasing this nostalgic yearning.  The explosions of tech innovation and the accompanying breakneck pace of cultural and academic alterations in teaching have disoriented, dumbfounded, and discouraged me.  The methods and means of education are changing so rapidly, I wonder if I’ll be able to finish my career as a professor if I cannot quickly adapt to these relentless and radical technological transformations.

I frequently catch myself thinking, “Perhaps if I was born about fifteen years earlier, I would not have to worry about all these changes.  I would be approaching retirement and could let younger generations figure it all out.” But if my health and mind hold out, there could many years of teaching opportunities ahead.  God has been reminding me that like it or not, I will have to face these challenges in the here and now.  And when you really think about it, what other time do we have to live within but the actual present?

I suspect that many have wrestled with the longing to escape the difficulties of today by wanting to live in the future or the past.  And while we can certainly learn from the past and look to the future, God still calls us to live well in the present—the exact time and place in which He has chosen us to live and move and have our being.  As such, none of us were born too late or too early.

As Mordecai reminded Esther, we were born for such a time as this, created at just the right time for God’s sovereign plans to be revealed and fulfilled in and through us.  I doubt Esther wanted to risk her life to save her people from extermination, but it was the time and place in which God had positioned her.  That moment gave her the opportunity and responsibility to live well in the present. She accepted it with courage and used it wisely.

If we are willing to embrace with faith and joy the place and time in which God has positioned us, and if we are willing to live—really live—in that actual present, I suspect God will grant us many opportunities—big and small—that we alone are meant to accept and fulfill.  They may or may not be, like Esther, life-risking, nation-saving endeavors, but in the here and now of God’s purposes and plans they still matter immensely nonetheless.  May we therefore attend to and live well within the present prospects God grants us so long as it is still called today.

When Truth Doesn’t Matter Anymore

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Watching the news recently, I have become increasingly discouraged by the manner in which people disagree. It’s one thing to disagree.  It’s another to refuse to consider alternative viewpoints.  And it’s yet another to vilify the opposition by using derogatory names and making threats of intimidation and even violence as a means to silence and subdue them.

I’ve often wondered, how did we ever come to embody this kind of immature and unproductive public and private discourse?  Then a friend recently called my attention to a Bible Gateway blog post from May 17, 2018 that helped make some sense of all this quarrelsome showmanship.  Part of the reason we now disagree in such disagreeable and unreasonable ways is because we have now entered into the next “logical” phase of postmodern thought—the “post-truth” phase.

In the blog entitled, “What Does It Mean to Live in a Post-Truth World?”, Jonathan Petersen interviews Abdu Murray about his recent book, Saving Truth.  Murray notes, “post-truth relates or denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs. In other words, feelings and preferences matter more than facts and truth.”

My personal desires and feelings have not merely become “my truth” (as they were in postmodernity), they have become more important than truth.  They trump truth.  Even if someone could be adequately shown that something was true, all that would really matter to them would be whether or not they want it to be true.

There are many ways this manifests itself in contemporary life.  I have already noted the stubborn refusal to disagree in a constructive way.  If all that matters is how I feel about it, facts are either desire-confirming plusses or irrelevant irritants to be dismissed or derided.  Murray articulates another post-truth era effect this way:“Confusion has now morphed into a virtue.  Those who are confused sexually are labeled heroes.  Those who see morality as a fuzzy category are considered progressive.  And those who are confused about religious claims—saying that all paths are equally valid roads to God—are considered ‘tolerant.’”

On the other hand, “If someone is certain or clear on sexual boundaries, that person is a bigot.  If a person is clear on the existence of objective moral values and boundaries, that person is regressive.  And if someone clearly understands that different religious paths can’t possibly all lead to God, that person is considered intolerant. In other words, confusion has become a virtue and clarity has become a sin.”

Finally, Murray concludes that a post-truth thinker might concede that there is objective truth but would still insist, “I don’t care because my personal feelings and preferences matter more.”  Consequently, “Anyone who brings facts that challenge those feelings or preferences is labeled as a ‘hater’ or something similarly derogatory.”

This kind of labelling and name-calling doesn’t boost the potential for having productive interactions between those who disagree.  It also makes our job as Christians harder, not only because we still affirm that truth and moral standards are inherent to the fabric of God’s universe, but because we must continue to love and show kindness to those with whom we (even strongly) disagree in a way that still grants them honor and respect.  Why?  Because they, like us, are still made in and reflect, no matter how dimly, the image of God.

As Christians, we should also exhibit a deep conviction and confidence in the goodness and wisdom of God, a wisdom that sometimes goes against our natural dreams and desires.  And this means that some of the things that we and others want to be true and pursue are, by God’s design, false and detrimental to our personal flourishing.  In a world still under the curse of sin, we are not designed to ignore reality for the fulfillment of our often-distorted cravings and yearnings.

No doubt, desires and preferences matter, but when they matter more than truth and are allowed to determine reality, we set ourselves up for wide-ranging psychological insecurity, disappointment, and dysfunction.  But far more tragically, in subservience to our fickle feelings, we ignore and separate ourselves from the One who created us, loves us, and is goodness, truth, and life itself.

Jonah and His Whale of a Tale

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I was recently talking to a Chinese student who had questions about the reliability of the Bible. He mentioned he’d read an article debunking the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.

As he explained it, the article claimed Jonah’s undersea journey must have been a fable or myth (like Pinocchio’s in Carlo Collodi’s classic tall tale), since science has proven the majority of whales do not have throats big enough to swallow a human being whole. Even if there are whales (like the sperm whale) who can swallow a person whole, the environment inside the whale’s stomach is completely inhospitable to life.  Jonah cold not have survived three days in the belly of a whale, even if one did manage to choke him down.

His comments reminded me of my childhood when I read an account of James Bartley who purportedly fell overboard during a whale hunt and was swallowed by a sperm whale.  Not long after, the whale was captured and killed. When dressing it, the hunters cut open the whale’s stomach and discovered Bartley, unconscious, but alive inside.  As the story goes, he eventually made a full recovery.

It sounds like a whale of a tale, and many have questioned its veracity.  It’s embarrassing to admit now, but in the naïveté of my youth, Bartley’s account gave me some comfort and helped convince me that what happened to Jonah was somehow plausible since it might have happened to others.

What, then, could I say to this struggling student?  I might have mentioned that some Christians believe the book of Jonah is indeed mythical and was never intended to be taken literally.  There are exegetical and theological problems with this view and I strongly disagree, but genuine believers have embraced it from time to time in church history, mostly in the modern era.

I might have pointed out that the KJV translators mistakenly translated the Hebrew word, dag, as “whale,” when it should have been translated more generally as “fish.”  There are, after all, fish (like large sharks) who can swallow a human whole.

I explained, however, that ultimately, it has to be acknowledged that the story, on its face, is wholly implausible.  Science is right to question the possibility that someone could be swallowed by a large fish (or whale), spend three days in its stomach, and live to tell the tale.

But after admitting as much to this student, I then explained that the book of Jonah wasn’t created from some prior real-life event that was borrowed and embellished by an ancient Hebrew author to make into a good bedtime story for children.  In fact, Jonah’s harrowing journey is recounted in full recognition that it was a once-in-the-course-of-all-time occurrence. Consequently, science could not explain how Jonah could be swallowed and then three days later regurgitated alive on land by a gigantic fish—precisely because it wasn’t a natural event.  It was a supernatural act of God!

This is one of the points of the story: God did something only He could do.  In short, Jonah’s story is one filled with divine interventions and usurpations of science.  These were not natural events or myths, they were miracles!

Of course, appealing this way to a miracle is not some clever attempt to justify or explain the inexplicable.  But it is the overt recognition that while miracles don’t happen very often (otherwise, they could hardly be classified as miracles!), the God of the universe does sometimes perform them for His purposes and glory.  The fact is, we know and serve a God who can do the impossible whenever and wherever necessary.

Neither does it negate or invalidate the possibility of determining the reliability of scripture. As numerous apologists and biblical scholars have shown, there are many portions of scripture that directly enable us to test and examine historical and intertextual claims to discover if the Bible is telling the truth.  Since these portions show the scriptures to be trustworthy, we have good reason to trust accounts where miracles are recorded.

But this is only true, of course, if we do not have a preconceived bias against the possibility of any supernatural intervention into the natural realm.  If we are convinced that only scientific and naturalistic explanations for historical events are possible, then just like the skeptics in Jesus’ day, we will automatically rule out miracles, even when they occur right before our very eyes—consider, for example, the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11, especially verses 45 and 46.

No other book has been more thoroughly examined (or more widely ridiculed and vilified) than the Bible. Nevertheless, it has stood the test of time and continually demonstrates its reliability against any and all assaults. Because it truly is the word of God and comes from Him, it can be trusted because He can be trusted.

Jonah foolishly ignored this and paid a frightful (though ultimately miraculous) price for his willful disobedience.  Thankfully, we, on the other hand, have the amazing opportunity to learn from Jonah’s whale of a tale and trust God fully at the start of His call upon our lives versus merely at the tail-end.