Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Marijuana and Christian Freedom: Not as Simple as It Once Was

Christianity Today released a timely article addressing the up-and-coming issue of the Christian conscience and the legalization of recreational marijuana.

They write,

With the recreational use of marijuana now legal in Colorado and Washington (and the Obama administration disinclined to enforce federal laws against it), it's only a matter of time before it is completely legal coast to coast to toke up. This is a great opportunity—not to use pot, but to reflect on the true nature of Christian freedom.

I think they are on point. Issues regarding the recreational use of marijuana are not as simple as they have been in the past.

Previously, if the issue had come up in a conversation, I would default to its legality, and that participation in its consumption would be a violation of Romans 13. There will soon be a time when this is not the case and Christians will begin to have to deal with this on a more basic ethical level. So, I wanted to trace some of the things that I think will play into up and coming discussions.

Legal Loopholes: Certainly, as same sex marriage laws are currently, this will become an issue of legal loopholes. On the issues of same sex marriage, our nation is in a situation where it is federally legal, but it is meeting its hurdles at the state level. Recreational marijuana is kind of a reverse situation. It’s legality is being tested at the state level, with the goal of eventual federal approval. It’s “illegality” at the federal level certainly belongs in quotations.

Demographic Divides: The stances on this view seem demographically predictable, and those in the church may stand in more than one demographic. Politically, this already seems to be gaining quicker support in democrats than republicans. Likewise, “blue” states are likely to legalize the recreational use of marijuana more quickly than “red” states. The West Coast is already leading the way, and it seems likely that the Northeast will follow suit much faster than much of the South. Likewise, we can probably expect to see the younger generation in the church to be more persuaded by the cultural shift. The older generation, who have lived through the drug-culture of the sixties, may be a little more hesitant to live through that. Although, the experiments in CO have proven to revive much of that generation.

Historical Examples: An historical point that is bound to play into this discussion is that of the prohibition. It was tested to be a failed experiment for the US. From what I understand, organized crime in the United States can be traced back, in many ways, to the prohibition. The lesson learned is that people will get what they want no matter the cost. The proposed solution is that legalizing what people want stops them from seeking it in crooked ways. We see the same arguments for abortion as well, especially recently, following Gosnell trials.

Ethical Debates: The focus of the ethics of the debate will depend on one’s viewpoint. Those who are for recreational marijuana are going to focus the ethics of the matter on the thing itself, probably drawing a tighter comparison to issues of alcohol and tobacco. Some will argue that marijuana is healthier and less dangerous than alcohol. Expect many pseudo-scientific Facebook posts in this regard. Science, as in politics and legislations, is not immune from pop-culture.

On the other hand, while proponents will focus on its responsible use, those against its use will demonstrate examples of the havoc of its abuse, as well as long-term medical examples of its dangers.

So, proponents will focus on the mere ethics. Those against will focus do the same, but put more emphasis on ends that result from the means.

Biblical Debates: Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 will be key texts that will be discussed.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Bavinck on Redeeming Culture


 Herman Bavinck on the covenant of grace. I am not sure were I stand in my eschatology, but I find Bavinck's Postmillenial hope quite gripping:

"It is never made with a solitary individual but always also with his or her descendants. It is a covenant from generation to generations. Nor does it ever encompass just the person of the believer in the abstract but that person concretely as he or she exists and lives in history, hence including everything that is his or hers. It includes him or her not just as a person but him or her also as a father and mother, as a parent or child, with all that is his or hers, with his or her family, money, possessions, influence, and power, with his or her office and job, intellect and heart, science and art, with his or her life in society and the state. The covenant of grace is the organization of the new humanity under Christ as its head, as it links up with the creation order, and, reaching back to it, qualitatively and intensively incorporates the whole of creation into itself."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dostoevsky and Gospel Realism

One of the heroic characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov is an elder monk named Father Zosima. Zosima seems to be sort of the chief protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel. All of the evil has has to look in the face of Zosima, the Christ-figure.

One moment in the novel struck me in a very strange way. There is a period of time in the long novel where the entire monastery is awaiting the death of Zosima. There is a strong belief among his followers that Zosima’s death will bring about miracles. What miracles, they are not sure, but they are sure that his body will not stink.

A strange thing happens when he does die. He stank horribly. Dostoevsky gives no explanation. Alyosha and the rest of the monks were disappointed with no answers.

This kind of realism is ubiquitous in The Brothers Karamazov. It is one of the reasons I have come to love reading Dostoevsky. His writing is so striking that many have speculated whether he actually had any Christian faith. I think it is hard to believe, however, that he didn’t.

It seems that he was simply a Christian realist. He made the Christian hold on to their faith and look square into the gruesome realities of this world. By far, the most disturbing chapter in the book is “The Rebellion.” Ivan, the atheist, tells his brother Alyosha, the mystic, why he does not accept God. His explanation is a long-winded description of gruesome current events, mostly focused on the suffering of children. Again, Dostoevsky gives no logical defense of this chapter. It is my understanding that he had none. He simply believed that Jesus could stand up in the face of it.

I am convinced that the church can only be helped by realism. The gospel is not mythology. It is not fantasy. It is not a story to retreat to in order to escape our present reality. It is the hope in the face of our present reality.

"Realists do not fear the results of their study." -Dostoevsky

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Way to Memorize Passages of Scripture

My Experience:
Years ago this sermon changed my life. In the beginning of the sermon, John Piper quotes multiple chapters of Scripture from memory. Before hearing this, I didn’t see memorizing Scripture at that capacity as something that most Christians can reasonably do.
I was so encouraged by it that I committed Romans 8 to memory. Since I have been able to memorize the Sermon on the Mount and the entire book of Ephesians.
My goal in saying this is not to boast, but to show you that it is actually easier than you may think. It just takes a little consistency.
Many of us have grown up memorizing memorizing certain verses in Sunday school, but there are various reasons as to why I would recommend memorizing passages of Scripture (many of these correspond with John Piper's points).
It deepens your understanding of the Bible in general. Memorize a series of verses makes you think about the passage in context. It drives you to want to understand the book in which it is contained and the whole canon of Scripture.
You can study Scripture everywhere. When you have passages of Scripture in your mind, you can literally study them while walking to and fro, driving, standing in line, or doing anything that would otherwise be boring.
It gives you a deeper understanding of a passage. Understanding something new can require renewing our mind on more than one layer of thought. So, for a few days, one aspect of a passage may stretch your heart and mind. After that sits with you for about a week, you may be challenged by something else in the very same passage.
It progressively forms you as you mature. A passage as complex as Romans 8 cannot be fully understood in one reading. As I grow in my relationship with God and in my understanding of the Bible, I continue to understand Romans 8 on new various different levels that I was not ready to comprehend at an earlier point in my life.
The method that I have used is one that I have heard from various sources. I originally heard it from N.T. Wright. Here’s how I go about it.
If I don’t have much time:
Right now I am not taking much time in my day to memorize Scripture, but I am trying to reteach myself the Sermon on the Mount. It probably takes less than 3 minutes out of my daily routine.
Day 1: I would look at Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor and spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I read it to myself 10 times. Then, I try to repeat it to myself without reading 10 times, only looking if I am unsure whether I am repeating it correctly.
Then throughout the day, I meditate on it when I have spare moments. So, if I am driving by myself, walking by myself in the hallway, or waiting in line, I am repeating to myself, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This usually leads me to think about the passage more. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit? Is that describing how we should be, or to who the kingdom is offered?” “Who is Jesus addressing? Is he talking to the 12 disciples, or a large crowd?” “What does he mean by the kingdom of heaven? Is that referring to the future, here and now, or both?” As I continue to muse over these things and memorize more verses, I continue to see connections with other parts of Scripture.
Sometimes, I forget the verse while I am out and about and I try to check myself on it as soon as I can get ahold of a Bible that is the same translation as mine. Sometimes I keep it pulled up on my smart phone all day. Some people like to write it on a card.
Day 2: I repeat Mat. 5:1 again. Then I do the same thing with 5:2 that I did with 5:1.
To make sure I am remembering the whole passage, I will occasionally take the time to try to recite it all to myself. This usually means that I take part of my prayer time to recite it and think about it. Or maybe I have a longer drive than normal where I have time to think about it all the way through. This is usually pretty sloppy at first and I have to correct myself a lot, but I get better the more I do it.
It take refreshing: It will take some time to really know a passage by heart, but once you do, it sticks with you with minimal practice.
If I make time:
If you use these methods and carve out some time each day, you will be surprised how quickly you could memorize a book like Ephesians or Philippians.
It will take time, but, if you are consistent, you may be surprised at how much your mind takes in.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Some Reflections on Books


I took a vacation day from work to finish some assignments for my classes. I decided to utilize Liberty’s new library. On the second floor, there is a reading room. I walked in and immediately noticed a blissful, scholarly-looking spot in the corner. The ivory shades were closed and the sun was beaming through upon a brown leather chair, though it was initially green in my mind. I sat down and angled myself so that the sun would shine from behind me, but not directly.

I had a piece of pie that I was determined to finish for second breakfast before I embarked. As I ate my pie, I perused the books in the “reading room.” As I did, I felt again like I did as a child, when I would go to the toy store. There was so much to be explored. I immediately noticed reference books on German and thought about my desires to learn German within the next couple of years. My eyes scrolled down upon Dostoevsky, who I have read some and gleaned from, and Tolstoy, who I have not read, but hope to. I noticed Hebrew references, and thought about this summer, and how I hope to study Hebrew each day, in order to, Lord willing, prepare myself for graduate work. I tried to recall in my mind what I knew about Hebrew so far, which consisted of trying to recite the alphabet, but only getting to daleth before I turned the corner. I saw Lewis and Tolkien, had a vague impression of what I knew about reading their works and longed to read more. My eyes glazed the great writers whose books I have not cracked open, but who, from testimony, I knew had richness of wisdom to share: Bunyan, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens. I saw Jane Austen and recalled the joy and richness that her works have brought Amanda, longing to understand what Amanda does about her works.

What I encountered in my short perusal was a combination of some things discovered, but much more undiscovered. The limited exposure that I have had to the knowledge on these shelves sent my heart longing to know more. I became, as I always do in libraries, increasingly aware of my own limitations. I realized that I will die before I come close to reading a small percentage of these works. Yet, it sent my heart longing for the God who, in wisdom and knowledge, spoke the world into existence. The God whose own thoughts make these books seem more simple than an infants babble. The God who is the ultimate goal of the knowledge in these books. I had peace that the God who thought all of these thoughts long before these authors did (and much more perfectly), who set the sun in motion that is shining through these shades, is the God with whom I hope to spend an eternity, forever gleaning knowledge and beauty of his Being

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Still in Exodus: Acknowledging Suffering with Hope


Many Christians don’t handle suffering well because they are not ready for it. They don’t know how to think about pain, hardships, and disappointment. This is partly because we live in a culture, including our Christian culture, that likes to make things appear better than they are instead of seeing things as they are and learning the truth about them. As an athlete learns better offensive tactics by anticipating defense, Christians are better able to deal with suffering when they anticipate it.

The Reality:

We know the axiom, “those who don’t learn history or doomed to repeat it.” This is true of redemptive history as well. That is part of the value of biblical narrative, especially since the God of the Bible never changes, nor do his plans.

Our current state as Christians is one of suffering and longing for redemption. In order to illustrate this, the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, constantly look back to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, and their wanderings in the wilderness.

An example is Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, who warns Christians not to grumble and turn from God as Israel did in the wilderness. Likewise, Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 speak of how the Israelites desired rest in the wilderness, but failed to attain it. The author reminds us that rest is promised us, but that we should “fear lest any…should seem to have failed to reach it.”

The Hope:

If we are in a spiritual wilderness, why should we be happy? Paul speaks beautifully to this.

In Romans 8:18, he says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In Ephesians 1:17-19, Paul prays that God would give the believers in Ephesus a spirit of wisdom and revelation, having the eyes of their hearts enlightened, that they may know what is the hope to which he has called them.

Our Wilderness Experience:

This hope is not a fairy tail wish. If you are a Christian, it believes that you mean these things to be literally true.

Expect suffering now. Don’t be surprised by it, but despise it with hope. Let it set your heart longing for the redemption prepared for us in Christ (Rom. 8:24-25) and ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in seeing it in perspective (Eph. 1:17-23).

We await a spiritual Jerusalem (Gal. 4), a heavenly Mt. Zion (Heb. 12:22).

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Plato, Nygren, and God's Love for Humans

Kevin Vanhoozer edits a booked titled Nothing Greater, Nothing Better. It is a series of articles covering contemporary issues on the love of God. I was particularly struck by a chapter in the book by Gary Badcock, titled “The Concept of Love: Divine and Human.”

Badcock discusses to two attempts to make sense of God’s ability to love humans. The first is from Plato. Plato described love as “born of need” (Vanhoozer, 31). So, according to Plato’s view, one person loves another person because they need affection. One loves wisdom because they have some foolishness in them (31-32). So, the gods, to Plato, cannot love because they do not have needs. The other attempt at describing God’s love comes from Anders Nygren. Nygren, in reaction to Plato, describes God’s love as the agape love that is “spontaneous and uncaused,” “indifferent to human merit” (33). So, according to Nygren, God sees nothing loveable in humans, but loves them anyway because he is God.

Badcock tries to find a kind of middle ground between these two. I do find his answer striking, but unsatisfying. I will try to deal with two important statements in Badcock’s reconciliation.

First, in reaction to Nygren’s view of man’s depravity, that “he [God] is unable to see any good remaining with human nature after the fall” (35), Badcock argues that “he [Nygren] represents an unduly pessimistic view of human nature and an inadequate doctrine of sin” (35). In response he says, “It is the love of God for the person that is all-important, the divine love that recognizes the goodness or potential for goodness buried deep beneath the mound of perceived unloveliness” (36).

Without saying it, it seems that Badcock is using Nygren as a kind of caricature for what is typically the Reformed view of total depravity. Like the liberal media loves reporting stories of Westburo Baptist church and other crazies, I come across a surprising amount of writers and speakers who tend to cite extreme versions of Calvinist doctrines and use it to knock down what most Calvinists actually say.  What I am saying is that Badcock’s choice of Nygren over a more classic approach, like Augustine, is suspect.  He seems to be setting up a kind of legal straw man. It’s above the belt, but it’s still a gut-check.

I agree with Badcock that the choice between Plato’s view and Nygren’s view is a false dilemma. I sit in the middle with him. He seems to sit a bit closer to Plato and I seem closer to Nygren. I am also arguing, however, that the rest of the Reformed community seems closer to me than to Nygren.

I haven’t read any Reformed theologians who would claim that there is not “any good remaining within human nature after the fall.” Reformed theology typically champions common grace and the imago Dei. There is certainly a great worth to human beings that God is jealous to restore. That remaining good, however, is not the motivation of God’s love. He needs no motivation. So, I think Reformed theology has a medium between these views that is not guilty of the same overstatements as Nygren.

The second statement from Badcock that struck me is that “God is affected by the world-or at the very least he chooses to be so-which is no more than to say that it matters to him, that he loves it” (46).

First, I want to point out some a presupposition to Badcock’s thinking. This statement is assuming that in order for love to exist, it must be affected by the one being loved. Not being affected implies “indifference” (46). It matters to me what Badcock means by “affected.” He isn’t, however, clear on this. If it merely means that God relates, responds, feels, and cares, I am not concerned. If he believes that God is “affected” in a way that implies humans do things that God didn’t expect and that have an impact on God’s experience as God, that is more concerning. He seems to step into this line of thinking when he says, “both positions err in not recognizing that the existence of the world adds something to God’s experience” (46).

While I think that Badcock raises some striking problems, I do not think we need to find answers to them in God’s being affected by humans in the way Badcock is describing. I think we need only look to the Trinity. In Jn. 10:17, Jesus states that the Father loves him. It seems reasonable to assume that Persons of the Trinity have loved each other from all eternity. From this, I would argue, that God’s intra-Trinitarian love for himself propels his love for humanity. His love for himself need not be affected by humans to be legitimate. He has had enough love pouring from his own being from all eternity that it does not seem to lesson his love to say that it is completely self-provoked. That is why I can hold to a Calvinistic view of human depravity are and have no problem seeing God’s love as actual love. Because, when the Father sees his church, he sees Christ.