Faith Among the Faithless (or... Why I Wrote a "Girls" Book)

“Isn’t Esther a ‘girls’ book?”

You might be surprised to find how many times I’ve been asked this question over the last two years. After all, books about Esther usually don’t appear on the shelves besides men’s devotionals, or even in the “Christian Living” section of the book store. They tend to be placed alongside books like Bad Girls of the Bible, a book which is clearly not marketed for men.

I must admit that the first time I really studied Esther was begrudgingly. At the time, I was still serving on the staff at Sojourn Community Church here in Louisville (where I still attend and serve as a non-staff pastor), and I was regularly serving as part of the preaching team. We were working through the books of the Old Testament, and were doling out preaching duties for Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Ezra and Nehemiah each got two or three weeks to cover their stories. Esther was only getting one, and since I wasn’t the regular preacher, the duties fell to me. (I also think the other preachers weren’t excited about having to preach a “girl’s book”.)

So I re-read the it. And while I had heard the story and read the book several times before, this reading took my breath away. This was not the tame bedtime story that its often made out to be. Esther is not a beautiful virtuous girl who won the heart of a King and saved her people. She is a profoundly compromised character caught up in a stunning drama. Her story is much less “Veggie Tales” and much more “Game of Thrones.” God’s name never appears in the book, and there is only one moment of overt religiosity, yet the story is rich with God’s providence and his grace. And it might be the book we need for times like ours.

These days, in our increasingly secularized world, Christian leaders are often pointing to the life of Daniel as a model for how we might make our way through dark times. But there’s a problem with making Daniel our point of reference. Daniel lived the formative years of his life in Jerusalem, immersed in the habits and practices that defined Jews as a tribe distinct from their neighbors. I don’t think we can separate Daniel’s acts of resistance – his refusal to bow to idols or his refusal to give up his habit of prayer – from these formative years. They gave him a firm ground on which to stand in contrast from the world around him.

We, on the other hand, are long past the days when Christianity served as a foundational backdrop for our culture. Even our evangelical churches struggle to serve this purpose today. At one extreme of the spectrum, we have churches that are relevant but not formative, and at the other, formative but not relevant. One draws crowds and entertains them; the other struggles to draw crowds because its practices, which were once effective at making disciples, no longer are.

In other words, with a few exceptions, most of us aren’t like Daniel. Our formative practices center around social media, entertainment, and the bizarre circus of our politics. There’s plenty of research to back this up. Christians are as likely to divorce and as addicted to porn as their non-Christian neighbors. Many evangelicals had no problem endorsing a presidential candidate who brags about sexual assault and adultery, and whose business dealings are notoriously shady. And of course, this is just a snapshot of conservative evangelicals. Liberal and progressive Christians represent another kind of compromise altogether; a willingness to abandon historic beliefs in order to align with the ethics of the sexual revolution. We’re in a real mess.

Enter Queen Esther.

Esther was born in exile, immersed in a Persian culture, and raised by a cousin named Mordecai – a name given in honor of the Persian god Marduk. Esther’s name, too, is in honor of the Persian goddess Ishtar. When their story begins, no one knows they’re Jewish. When Esther is taken into the King’s harem, her cousin tells her to do everything she’s told to do: eat the food, participate in the beauty regimen, sleep with the Persian King. There is compromise happening all the way through the story.

And yet, these two profoundly compromised characters experience a kind of awakening. They make themselves vulnerable in their hostile culture, and their self-sacrifice leads to a miraculous redemption for the people of God. Not only are their lives spared, there is a kind of religious renewal that happens at the end of the story, with the inauguration of Purim.

Esther’s story is an invitation for anyone who finds themselves immersed in a hostile world, struggling with a sense of lost identity, and longing for spiritual renewal. She confronts demonic evil with vulnerability and weakness. She and her cousin Mordecai practice a kind of resistance that not only improves the welfare of God’s people, but improves life throughout the kingdom of Persia. They fulfill the mandate of Jeremiah 29, seeking the good of the city.

I believe that, like Esther, we need an awakening. And by immersing ourselves in her story and following in her footsteps, we can renew our faith and empower God’s people to live with a kind of faithful presence in a hostile world.

You can read more about it here. Or you can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, or Wal Mart, or any bookstore. 

McKinney, Privilege, and Our Circle of Concern

There’s an ethical question that I heard years ago called “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.” It originated, I believe, from Peter Singer – who I confess is not my favorite philosopher. But the test is helpful for this conversation.

Imagine: each day, on your way to work or school, you pass a small pond. One morning while passing, you see a toddler-aged girl drowning in the pond. It is well within your means to save her, but doing so will require getting your clothes soaked and being late to work or school. Are you obligated to help? 

The answer, of course, is “yes.” 

Imagine, then, that there are many others passing by? Does their indifference and callousness make a whit of difference? “No.” 


Now the question expands: what if this results in losing your job or failing the class? The answer is the same. 

Finally, what if the same were true about a child dying on the far side of the world? Here, things get more difficult. It is still within your power to help, though your help would be indirect. For minimal cost – the price of a movie ticket or a CD  – you can provide life-saving food and medicine to suffering people through an international aid organizations. (Considering that no one spends money on music anymore, we should all have $15 or so lying around… But that’s a topic for another day.) 

Here, the sense of obligation shifts. Most people will say that they feel some degree of obligation, but not the same degree that they’d feel if they saw the girl drowning in the pond. We begin to ask question about the efficacy of international aid, the percentage of funds that make it to the field, and so forth. 

What the test reveals is that there is a limited circle of concern in which most people feel obligated to others. The drowning girl is obviously within that circle of concern. The starving child on the other side of the world, less so. We can more easily justify are inattention to the latter. 

Seth Godin asks a similar question, but puts it a little differently. In his version, you pass the pond while wearing a brand new, $1200 pair of shoes. You can save the girl only by jumping right in and ruining the shoes. Almost everyone will say, “Of course; ruin the shoes.” Then Godin points out that for $1200, you can feed 300 starving people for a month. Knowing that, how can anyone spend $1200 on a pair of shoes ever again? 

Now, most of us wouldn’t spend $1200 on a pair of shoes, but the point extends to the $120 pair of shoes, or the $1200 TV: the drowning child gets an “of course,” but the starving child – who is not within a certain degree of proximity to us – gets run through a different set of ethical filters. 

Which brings me to the topic of McKinney, Texas and white privilege

There’s something so stark, so nauseating, so horrific about the video footage of a police officer violently throwing a teenage girl to the ground and planting his knees on her back while she screams for help and cries out for her mother. It’s even more nauseating in the wider context of the video, where boys with black skin are being systematically culled out of the crowd and told to sit while white folks seem free to move about. And it’s chilling to see the cop pull a gun when the girl’s friends try to step in and help her. 

Is she the girl in the pond, or the one on the other side of the world?

Is her plight – and the plight of those who are subject to the officer’s abusive speech – something we should feel compelled to respond to, or something which we can in good conscience shrug our shoulders at? 

I think the answer to that question relies, to a degree, on the color of your skin. If you’re an African American or person of color, she’s the girl in the pond. Her suffering demands a response not because you can rescue her, but because what she was subjected to is something that you, your family, and your community are at risk of suffering as well. It’s proximity is very, very close. 

If, like me, you’re not an African American, then the situation is much different. One can watch the video, find it horrifying, be moved with empathy at the particulars of the case, and move on with one’s life. The overarching theme of brutality that targets black skin doesn’t (necessarily) break through to your circle of concern. You haven’t experienced similar things in your life and in your community. You don’t have to warn your children about how they mind themselves when police are around. You don’t have to live each day with the subtle legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation that cause a crowd to assume that you don’t belong at a swimming pool in a middle class neighborhood. 

This is what it means to be “privileged.” It means that society assumes some things in your favor. Or perhaps, it means that you aren’t subjected to certain bias, suspicion, and violence. Privilege is the ability to look the other way. 

The video isn’t a threat for white folks because all the white folks in the video walk away unscathed. They are invisible to the officer who is rounding up black kids because it is assumed that they belong there and the black kids don’t. If you’re white, you can ignore the whole thing and go on with your life, confident that you, your children, your white friends and neighbors aren’t likely to be subjected to overly harsh treatment based on the color of your skin. 

For white folks, the girl pinned to the lawn by the knees of a police officer might as well be on the other side of the world. 

Privilege can dismiss this as a tragic, but, isolated incident. Privilege can look at this case – and Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and Walter Scott, and many others – as isolated incidents where “bad apples” acted with unjustified violence. Meanwhile, African American parents have to respond to this incident, like the others, by telling their kids to expect injustice and to go out of their way to comply with authorities. 

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Paul told the Ephesians that Christ destroys the wall of hostility between the races. (Ephesians 2:13-16) He told the Galatians that in Christ, there’s no Greek or Jew. (Galatians 3:28) We see, in Christ’s reconciling work on the cross, that humanity is restored to what it was meant to be, one human community worshiping its one Lord. This news should turn us out towards the world with the knowledge that what my brother or sister suffers is a burden that I, too, should help bear. When my brother weeps because his sons are roughed up by cops for no reason, when my sister weeps because her daughter cried out for help and no one could help her, this should lead me to weep too. 

We can listen to our African American brothers and sisters as they share their stories. We can seek to empathize with their experience. We can expand our circle of concern and recognize that the girl in that video is no less than our neighbor. She is an image bearer, a fearfully and wonderfully made reflection of our Creator. She is our daughter. She is our sister. So were Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott. 

We should recognize a culture that proclaims equality and practices oppression. We should join those who say “Black Lives Matter” because all lives do, indeed matter, and we want to be a corrective voice in a culture that has undervalued black lives. 

I am saddened and sickened by the video from McKinney, as is everyone I’ve talked to about it. I am just as saddened by those who, in response, will dismiss the bigger questions it raises and fight to sustain the status quo. Our circles of concern need to expand to include our black brothers and sisters. We need to shed our privilege and refuse to look the other way. 

Artists, Pentecost, and Bearing Witness

Sunday was Pentecost, the moment in the Liturgical calendar when the church remembers and celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Simon Chan, in Liturgical Theology, describes Pentecost as the final revelation of the mystery of the Gospel. Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has made peace with God and humanity. In Pentecost, God comes to reside in our hearts, and the restoration of all things has begun. It’s lamentable that when we talk about "the Gospel," we often leave out this crucial movement of God. Not coincidentally, my scripture reading for Monday was from Acts 2, when the Spirit poured out at Pentecost and the apostles preach in tongues. It’s a beautiful, chaotic scene. 

The flaming tongues and their accompanying languages have a nice symmetry with a scene in John’s Revelation, where at the end of days, all tribes, tongues, and nations are drawn before the Lamb in worship. These two scenes are like bookends for the mission of the church: the Spirit initiates by multiplying tongues at Pentecost and in time, the nations and tribes of the world respond by worshiping the Lamb. It has a rhythm to it. An exhale of the Spirit followed by an exhale of the Church. A revelation-response rhythm. It’s downright liturgical.

Most often, when we talk about the “mission of the church,” we think in terms of evangelism, church planting, and international missions. This is a good thing, but as I reflected on these biblical scenes this morning, I found myself thinking about the many artists, musicians, and writers who have had an impact on my faith. They have, in various ways, been like these flaming tongues, bearing witness in a myriad of ways to King and Kingdom. 

All art bears witness, and all artists have a point of view. That’s true if you’re writing a song, making a film, or doing stand-up comedy. To make art is to share your experience, your vision, your joys and sorrows through a story, a painting, or a song. This is a description that, I believe, suits the comedy of Richard Pryor as well as it suits Annie Dillard, Jackson Pollock, or Patti Griffin. This testimony might be overt or subtle. It might be prophetic – attempting to disturb the comfortable and “speak truth to power” – or it might seek to be the voice that comforts. It can be as diverse as all human experience.

For Christians, though, this can be an entangling issue. Do we make overtly Christian art, or do we “make art Christianly” and allow the work to be more subtle and indirect? Do we market to the Christian subculture or eschew it in hopes of reaching a wider audience? Many artists worry about overstating their worldview and being preachy. Others worry about being “ashamed of the gospel.” What’s the best way forward? 

I think, Pentecost (as well as  the passage in Revelations) offers us a clue. The best witness that the church can offer is a diverse witness. The church needs Michael Card and Jon Foreman, Shai Linne and Lecrae, C.S. Lewis (who wrote allegory) and J.R.R. Tolkien (who despised it), and perhaps to put the sharpest point on it, we need Fireproof and ree of Life. The church doesn’t need one kind of “Christian” art, but the manifold witness of Christian artists who pursue their vocation, develop their craft, and offer their gifts to the world. There's something to be said for artists who want to spend their lives encouraging the faithful. There's also something to be said for those who want to be a "faithful presence" in the broader world. I know in my own life that I’ve been encouraged by both.

The invitation that Pentecost extends is simply that we should lend our voice, whatever that voice may be, whatever set of gifts we might possess and whatever sense of calling might be leading us to make art. There is, of course, no guarantee that our art will be good, or that we will be successful. In fact, in Pentecost there are no guarantees at all about the outcome of our work. There is only the invitation to bear witness and to be one more tongue set afire by the presence of God. The outcomes will always be unpredictable and mysterious. “The Spirit blows where it wishes…” 

The truth is that making art is hard enough already, and superimposing a narrow view about what is and isn’t “Christian” art only adds to the obstacles every artist faces. Each of us has a few dozen critics-in-residence in our brains, telling us what’s wrong with our work, and they don’t need any more help from the theological peanut gallery. 

Rather than worrying about making good “Christian” art, Christian artists should worry about being good artists and good Christians. By “good Christian,” I simply mean that one should be committed to a path of discipleship and to a life of ever-deeper love for God and neighbor. By “good artist,” I mean that one should be committed to the disciplines of an artist – developing and deepening skills, learning from those who’ve gone before you, and showing up to do your creative work. These two paths will intersect and inform one another, but they are not dependent upon each other. One doesn’t need to be a good artist to be a good Christian, and likewise, one doesn’t need to be a good Christian to be a good artist. 

What is rare and glorious, though, is when both qualities – deep faith and deep skill – emerge in the same person. One with a profound sense of God's Kingdom among us, who also possess an immense set of skills as an artist can give the world profound gifts.   C.S. Lewis comes to mind here, as someone whose skill as a wordsmith and depth as a Christian coalesced into a body of writing that will continue to bear witness long after we're gone.  Terrence Malick, Wendell Berry, Denise Levertov, and Thomas Merton come to mind as well. 

And that may be just what the world needs most. We live in an age where the plausibility of Christian faith is greatly diminished, and where Christians who hold to traditional, orthodox beliefs are increasingly treated as bigots and social pariahs. What art (and artists) can do is sneak up on people, lay an artifact before them, and allow that story/song/sketch to bear witness to another way of seeing the world. Like parables, these artifacts can surprise us, opening our eyes to the reality that world is not what it seems, that transcendence is possible, that good and evil both are amongst us, and as Tim Keller often puts it, we may be far worse off than we thought, but grace is more abundant than we dreamed. 

The Zen of Don Draper: Mad Men's Cynical Finale

On Sunday night, we said goodbye to Mad Men. For most of the series, it operated more like a great novel than a TV show, an in-depth exploration of the ugly lives of beautiful people. In the end, there were few loose threads; almost every character came to some kind of resolution, and some of those resolutions were downright syrupy-sweet. Pete transformed from a weasel to the voice of virtue. Peggy found love. Joan refused a pampered life of objectification and launched her own business.

But not all the endings were sweet. Betty Draper is dying of cancer, and Sally Draper bears the burden of nurturing her brothers in a home without their natural parents. And then there’s Don...

Don was always the key story in Mad Men, and whatever we make of his ending is, ultimately, what we make of the show. Some saw it as a kind of redemption, but I don’t. I think Don’s story reveals a deeply cynical way of seeing the world. 

After a strange odyssey across the country, Don collapsed on the sofa of Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie. It’s clear that he’s in trouble and it turns out she’s not much better off. She’s headed out of town to what appears to be the Esalen Institute, a famous bay-area retreat that where group therapy, transcendental meditation, and other humanistic and new age practices are taught, and she drags Don with her. 

There, Don begins to unravel. Just as he seems to hit rock-bottom, he ends up in a group therapy session, and then things get odd. There’s a long, awkward hug (reminiscent of awkward recovery-group hugs in Fight Club) and then Don appears on a sunny hillside, humming “Om” with a cross-legged group of meditators. He grins, and the scene cuts to the famous “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad.

What are we to make of this? Perhaps we can get to the bottom of it by looking more closely at the Esalen Institute, or better yet, one of the Institute’s most famous teachers, Alan Watts.

Watts was a philosopher who popularized Eastern philosophy in the West in the 60’s and 70’s, and a regular lecturer at the Esalen Institute. The character who leads several of the group therapy sessions, as well as the meditation group at the end, looks remarkably like Watts. (There have been other nods towards this spiritual movement, including a reference to Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in the episode “The Milk and Honey Route,” whose title is not only a biblical reference, but also a reference to one of Jack’s encounters in the same book.)

Alan Watts saw Buddhism’s insights as antidotes to the crises of anxiety and identity in the modern world, and core to his philosophical vision was a kind of self-acceptance. A passage from his book The Wisdom of Insecurity says:

“I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.” “I,” who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward “me,” and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently “I” will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make “me” behave so badly.”

(Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, p.78)

This passage might have been written about Don, who chose a new identity in an attempt to leave behind the shame of his past. Even in this new life, he is perpetually torn between the man he wants to be and the man he is. He wants to be a faithful husband, a good father, a faithful friend, a reliable co-worker, but he isn’t. He’s a walking lie – a philanderer, a drifter, and an alcoholic. He has enough charm and creativity to get people to overlook his faults… for a time. But eventually, most of those close to him find that life is easier when he isn’t around.

Don’s story has been about the collision of these identities. Bit by bit, he’s come to accept his past. He’s told people where he came from, revealed his true identity, and even admitted culpability in the death of his C.O. in Korea. By the story’s end, he has no secrets left, but he has nothing else either: no family, no home, no job. In desperation he calls Peggy and admits all of his failures, and she urges him to move forward, to come back, but Don is too broken to move. He appears ready to give up.

A conventional redemption story would have Don rising up from these circumstances, demonstrating that he’s somehow ready to take responsibility for his life. He’d be returning in redemptive triumph, perhaps taking his children home. But in the world of Alan Watts, Don’s hope for redemption begins not with transcending himself, but with accepting himself, accepting the reality of who he is instead of trying desperately to present a fake version of himself to the world. In Watts words, there must be no “I” and “me,” no idealized version of himself anymore. There is only him, flawed as he is, present in the here and now.  His inability to love, to stay connected to other people, is fundamentally about his inability accept himself.

Don’s turning point comes in a group therapy session, when he’s listening to a man describe a life that is the polar opposite of his own. Rather than an abundance of identities, this man had none. No one in his life noticed him. He was miserable not for his excesses, but his insignificance. Don, weeping, embraces him, and no words are exchanged. Don doesn’t have to make promises, he only has to be present. It’s a pseudo-Buddhist enlightenment that starts with radical self-acceptance and extends to acceptance of the other.

But while all of this seems to hint at the possibility of redemption and change in Don’s life, I think the final scene reveals that Don is no Buddha. He’s sitting on a hillside, humming “Om.” A bell chimes, Don grins, and suddenly we’re thrown back into the world of advertising.

The smiling faces in the ad mirror the faces we see at Esalen, only now they’re selling us Coke. As Don himself said in season 1, ads are a place where ideals are promised, but only to sell us products. While talking with Rachel Menken, he mocks her for believing in love.

“She isn’t married because she’s never been in love,” He says. “I think I wrote that just to sell nylons… The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call ‘love’ was invented by guys like me. To sell nylons.”

“You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.”   

Just like there are two versions of Don, there are two worlds that he lived in. In the Real World, he was an outsider. Rather than despair, though, Don became a hedonist, indulging every impulse that offered relief from psychic pain: a dram of scotch at 10AM, a mysterious woman in a café, or allowing his wanderlust lead him west.

But another world was just as real for Don. It was a world where the family gathered over the table at Burger Chef, where a Kodak Carousel displayed an idealized vision of his marriage, where nylons are part of a story of true love. Don could imagine a better world, and could display it better than anyone. He just couldn’t live there very long.

So even if Don experienced some kind of enlightenment at Esalen, even if his sense of identity was more unified and integrated, the show’s ending seems nonetheless cynical because it returned to the world of advertising.

In the ad itself, Don’s experience of transformation has been co-opted to sell Coca-Cola. People gather on a hillside much like the one Don is meditating on, singing about unity and harmony and the beauty of creation and the pleasures of Coca-Cola, repeating the refrain, “It’s the real thing,” a deeply ironic phrase, given Don’s story.

What’s the ‘real thing?’ Here’s what Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek says: “It’s not just another positive property of Coke, something that can be described and pinpointed through chemical analysis, it’s that mysterious something more. The undescribable excess which is the cause of my objective desire.”[1]

In other words, when we’re captivated by a Coca Cola ad, we’re never captivated by the product itself. It’s “that mysterious something more” that we’re after, that excess, that longing for transcendent experience. We want a Coke because we want inner peace, or world peace, or whatever one might call the vision of the good life the ad is portraying. Advertisers are masters of the bait-and-switch. They promise love and sell you nylons. They promise peace and sell you Coke.

This strikes me as the deepest cynicism of all. Don, we’re led to believe, has the real thing right before him and trades it for the ad. After his entire odyssey, his suffering and loss and war with himself, he rises from the dead to write (to borrow a phrase from A Christmas Story) “a crummy commercial.” Sure, it’s one of the most successful ads of all time, and it’s sure to make Don wealthier and more powerful than ever, but is that the best this world has to offer? Is that really what Don was after?

Don has indeed accepted himself, and has perhaps found a deeper sense of peace, but that doesn’t mean he’s transcended his sin and suffering. Instead, he’s accepted the limits of a world of immanence, and accepted his fate as a drifter in its midst, likely to repeat the cycle he’s lived for seven seasons of the show. Apparently, in the world of Mad Men, the best thing that can come from spiritual depth is a good tag line, and if inner peace really does exist, it only exists like love: it was created by men like Don, to sell nylons.




[1] Slavoj Zizek, from the documentary, “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”

"Not the Poor" – A Response to Denny Burk and Robert Putnam

Last week, Harvard scholar Robert Putnam invoked the ire of many evangelicals by making this statement:

“The obvious fact is that over the last 30 years, most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for. This is the most obvious point in the world. It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.” 

The problem with the statement is this: in many of the most important, measurable ways, Putnam is wrong. As Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council, and Pat Fagan of the FRC’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute point out at RNS:  

“contrast the work [Evangelical] groups do with respect to same-sex marriage, sanctity of life and so forth with the money Christians give to the very things Mr. Putnam indicts them for ignoring. It is a tiny fraction of the total giving to those needs Mr. Putnam accuses Christians of neglecting… Mr. Putnam might be a fine political scientist, but he needs remedial education in arithmetic.” 

The church’s concern for the poor and oppressed is deeply ingrained in her DNA. These practices continue even when cultural elites fail to notice. 

But I also wonder if there isn’t a way in which Putnam is right. And for evidence, we can turn to yet another story involving Putnam, this one penned by Denny Burk.  

A few days after Putnam made the above comments, he participated in a Poverty Summit at Georgetown University, along with Barack Obama, E.J. Dionne, and Arthur Brooks. There, the criticism of Christians and conservatives continued, along with invocations to care for “the least of these,” a Biblical phrase they used to lend spiritual gravitas to their comments. This caught the attention of Denny Burk, who posted a response titled: “The ‘least of these’ are not the poor but the Christian baker, photographer, and florist.” 

Those who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I reacted poorly to this title, particularly to the phrase "not the poor." 

I don’t object to Denny’s exegesis, which is thorough and carefully articulated. I don’t object, either, to the inclusion of Evangelicals whose consciences have prevented them from providing services to same-sex weddings, and who have suffered ridicule for their decision. I object strongly, vehemently, to the phrase, “not the poor.” It is sloppy at best, and cheap political point-scoring at worst. 

Denny’s point is that “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40 does not indicate the poor in general, but followers of Jesus. Again, I don’t disagree – but the passage specifically includes followers who suffer under conditions of poverty:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36) 

To say “not the poor but the Christian baker” etc. is to obscure a plain reading of the passage. I’m not saying exclude those who might experience contemporary forms of persecution (i.e. those who are shamed and ridiculed for reasons of Christian conscience). I’m saying that Burk’s articulation seems to deliberately exclude the poor, and that is problematic. 

It’s especially problematic in the light of Putnam’s comments from the past week. Putnam was wrong, but Burk, in a way, proved him right. He noticed an exegetical error made by opponents in the culture war and pounced. In doing so, Burk reinforced the image of Evangelicals as obsessed with abortion and homosexuality. “The least of these isn’t the poor! It’s those oppressed for their refusal to support same sex marriage!” Irony noted. Points scored. What’s lost is the opportunity to bear witness about Evangelical commitments to the poor, and to empathize with the concerns raised at the summit – concerns we should all share. 

The language of “culture war” is illuminating in this situation. In a war, one engages in regular battles, seeks opportunities to attack, and ultimately intends to win. This attitude is what conservative Christians are most known for, especially since the 1980’s, and this is why Putnam would make the comments he made to the Washington Post. By the numbers he was wrong. By reputation, he was right. 

The no-holds-barred political posture of some Christians has its mirror in the socially liberal activist left. They aren’t content to fight for enough space for their views in society; they want to shame and embarrass all who would disagree with them. In many ways, the Christian Right provided their model. It is a war, and victory means a silenced and marginalized opposition. 

It was a failed strategy for Christians in the 80's and 90's, and I suspect it will ultimately run a similar course for the activist left. In the meanwhile, Christians ought to consider a different approach. We ought to find ways to contribute to the common good in such a way that our non-Christian neighbors would stand up in our defense. It's not impossible, but requires a mode of engagement that is committed to winsomeness and is driven by the love of God and neighbor.   

One alternate approach is James Davison Hunter’s model of “Faithful Presence”, as he articulated in “To Change the World.” In an interview with CT, he summarized what separates this approach from others: 

“The desire to be defensive against the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on one hand, aggressive and confrontational, and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. And the desire to be pure from the world entails a withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. In contrast to these paradigms, the desire for faithful presence in the world calls on the entire laity, in all vocations—ordinary and extraordinary, "common" and rarefied—to enact the shalom of God in the world.

“Christians need to abandon talk about "redeeming the culture," "advancing the kingdom," and "changing the world." Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God's word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn't new; it's just something we need to recover.” 

Faithful presence means showing up in a conversation about poverty with a desire to be constructive, to demonstrate our commitment to carrying out the Biblical imperative to care for the poor – “not only for the household of faith but for everyone.” Faithful presence describes the kind of Christians who show up in the world’s most desolate places, serving the poor, the sick, and the desperate, such as Dr. Stephen Foster, who inspired Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who is not an evangelical, to write “A Little Respect for Doctor Foster,”  an article defending evangelicals on the basis of the good they’re doing around the world.  

The culture war puts us in a posture where we’re too busy scoring points to cooperate or collaborate. It diverts energy and attention away from our very real contributions to the common good and perpetuates the image of Christians that Putnam described last week. 

To be sure, I’m not advocating silence on same-sex marriage or abortion. I’m simply saying that there’s more to a Christian witness than these issues, and interjecting them into every conversation is distracting. A discussion about poverty is an opportunity to bear witness about poverty; turning it  into a conversation about same-sex marriage is an adventure in missing the point. And when we miss the point about our public witness, it’s no wonder that others miss the point as well. 

Weekend Reading, 3.15.2015

This is a new feature here at the blog: Weekend reading links. Take some time to check these out:


“There is Only One Direction” is an essay by writer Samantha Hunt. It may be the best thing I've read all week. At first, you’ll think it’s about being an adult fan of One Direction, until Hunt begins tying together fandom, parenting, and death. There’s even a guest appearance by Patti Smith. 

Here’s a preview: 

“The day they remove my right ovary, Zayn fails to show up at the world premiere of the new 1D record. It seems right in terms of my reproductive health. The boys make excuses, say it’s a stomach bug. I know it isn’t a stomach bug, but I make excuses also because I want to live.”

B.B. King’s Best Songs: A Playlist

In honor of B.B. King, who passed away this week, Ted Gioia has compiled an 8-song playlist to introduce you to his music. Spanning various phases in King’s career, it shows off the blues man’s signature touch, tone, and presence. 

If I personally had to recommend one King record, though, it would be “Blues is King”, the record he recorded in 1966. He had good reason to have the blues that year: His wife filed for divorce, his bus was stolen, and the IRS slammed him with a hefty bill for back taxes. 

For more on King, this site has a wealth of biographical information, concert videos, and interviews. 

“Color-Blind Policy, Color-Conscious Morality.”

Ta Nehisi Coates has a provocative piece at The Atlantic called, “Color-Blind Policy, Color-Conscious Morality.” It’s a critique of the progressive approach to issues in the African-American community which, as Coates describes it, is quick to critique moral failure within the community but slow to talk about the racist policies and history that have eroded that community’s foundations. Instead, policy focuses more broadly on class: 

“…[Y]ou will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy. It is not hard to see why that might be the case. Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes. Asserting the moral faults of their government, not so much. I am sure Obama sincerely believes in the moral invective he offers. But I suspect he believes a lot more about his country which he chooses not to share.

“This affliction is not solely Obama’s. Consider that in a conversation about poverty, featuring America’s first black president, one of its most accomplished progressive political scientists, and one of its most important liberal columnists, the word “racism” does not appear in the transcript once. That is because the progressive approach to policy which directly addresses the effects of white supremacy is simple—talk about class and hope no one notices.

This is not a “both/and.” It is a bait and switch. The moral failings of black people are directly addressed. The centuries-old failings of their local, state, and federal government, less so. One need not imagine what a “both/and” approach might sound like, to understand why a president of the United States can’t actually offer one. At best, one can hope for reference to “past injustice.” But in a country where Walter Scott was shot in the back, where Eric Garner was choked to death, where whole municipalities are—at this very hour—funding themselves through racist plunder, fleeting references to “past injustice” will not do.”

Food for Thought:

There are a lot of think-pieces being published about the New England Patriots and Deflategate. Rather than posting a link, here’s my 1/2 ounce on the topic. 

The issue in question seems minute, but only if you take the NFL’s commitment to parity out of the question. The truth is that any team, on any given Sunday, should be built in such a way that it can compete with any other team. The salary cap and draft system bias the whole league towards fairness. If deflating the footballs gives a 1% advantage – or .1% advantage – it erodes the integrity of a game that has committed itself to competitiveness. In other words, it’s a big deal. 

It’s an especially big deal when – in light of the league’s parity – you think about the psychology of the game. One team walks out with a mild, almost insignificant advantage. *But they know it.* That’s a much bigger deal. Confidence leads to momentum. And momentum, in the NFL, is everything. 

It is also significant that the Pats – and Brady himself – could have eliminated a significant amount of suspicion and gossip by fully cooperating with the investigation. 

Lastly, the Patriots’ defense of their org seems to assume that NFL fans and officials are just plain stupid:

“Mr. Jastremski would sometimes work out and bulk up — he is a slender guy and his goal was to get to 200 pounds. Mr. McNally is a big fellow and had the opposite goal: to lose weight. “Deflate” was a term they used to refer to losing weight. One can specifically see this use of the term in a Nov. 30, 2014 text from Mr. McNally to Mr. Jastremski: “deflate and give somebody that jacket.” (p. 87). This banter, and Mr. McNally’s goal of losing weight, meant Mr. McNally was the “deflator.” There was nothing complicated or sinister about it.” 

‘Oh… that explains everything. You referred to one of your equipment managers as “the deflator” because he wanted to lose weight. Let’s drop the investigation and reinstate Brady.’ Give me a break. 

*** In the interest of full disclosure, I am a rabid fan of the Indianapolis Colts, and Deflategate only confirms what we have known for a bit more than a decade. *** 

Courage, Love, and Confidence in the Truth: My Reflections on Biola's "The Cost of Freedom"


A little more than a week ago, Biola University hosted an event called The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil. It was an evening spent exploring civil disagreement, featuring Robert George and Cornel West, and moderated by Rick Warren. With West coming from the political and theological left, and George and Warren coming from the right, one would reasonably have expected fireworks. I won’t recount the event blow-by-blow; the video is online and well worth taking the time to watch for yourself. Instead, I want to reflect on a few themes that emerged over the two-hour long conversation.

I was struck, first and foremost, by the way each speaker demonstrated a kind of mastery of language. I say “kind of” because each one’s skill was unique.  

Warren’s opening comments were, as Derek Rishmawy noted, epigrams: perfectly crafted sentences and phrases that carried a potent teaching point:  His speech demonstrated craftsmanship, carefully expressing wisdom to-go. You’ll remember what Warren says. He ensures it.  

George, on the other hand, spoke in syllogisms. Each statement just as carefully worded, but layered with nuance. A nod was given to every counter-argument. Every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. 

West set yet a third tone with his speech, and was as concerned with delivery as he was content. He knew just how long to enunciate the word “love” so that its emphasis – its absolute central importance – was crystal clear. He spoke in blues poems with flowing alliterations, rhyming thoughts like a Hebrew poet and occasionally rhyming words like Langston Hughes. There was a metered, musical quality to his speech.  

Historically, speech has been a powerful political tool, but contemporary society has evolved in such a way as to rob speech of its potency. We’re a culture of cynics – distrusting and mocking any efforts at sincerity. We are also a culture of tiny attention spans. If it can’t be condensed to 140 characters or summarized in a soundbite, we don’t have the time and patience for it. 

The Event at Biola made a point of making space for real speech, and the space it provided enabled us to not only gain a grasp of each man’s point of view, but of their vocation: Warren, the Shepherd, guiding the flock; George, the Scholar, pursuing the Truth; West, the Activist, stirring the heart. It was easy to find each person sympathetic, and to see how their vocation shapes their words and work. 

It was the depth of the conversation that made the evening compelling. Most debates I’ve witnessed – even in academic environments – feature men and women speaking past one another, parroting soundbites, and failing to actually listen and answer each other’s remarks. 

Depth in conversation comes as space is given to think, to fully articulate ideas, and to answer questions. Because this kind of space was extended – not just from Biola, but from each member of the discussion to one another – the  conversation was riveting. It took on a freewheeling character ranging from Shakespeare to Coltrane, from Chekov to the Constitution, from emancipation to ISIS. One can witness George and West “thinking together” as George described. And while there was much disagreement along the way, there never was a moment of hostility or disrespect, none of the all-too-familiar trampling of one another or cheap point-scoring.

It was evident from the very beginning of the conversation that these men not only respected one another, but liked each other. George and West continually referred to one another as “friend” and “brother.” They spoke of love as the foundation for dialogue and disagreement, and they modeled it, displaying their friendship as they exchanged ideas. 

So much of what happened at this event runs against our culture’s primary mode of talking about politics: careful speech, the ability to articulate complete thoughts, a foundation of love and respect. Contrast these with the talk radio, cable news, or Sunday Morning political roundtable discussions. Speech is either careless and vitriolic or so neutered and sanitized as to be meaningless. Politicians and pundits are given 30 seconds to offer reflections on ISIS, same-sex marriage, or American race relations (or worse, all three). And without question, the goal of each speaker is to dominate the competition. 

The Cost of Freedom didn’t describe an alternative model so much as it displayed one. Beginning with comments from Biola’s President, Barry Corey, a tone of generosity was set. Corey described Biola’s vision for cultural engagement as having a “firm center and soft edges,” a firm set of evangelical convictions at their core, and a gentle and generous way of engaging with the world around them. If your commitment is to Truth, and if you have deep confidence in the Truth, then there should be no fear in engaging people with differing ideas. 

Robert George described this as well. He talked about Peter Singer, a philosopher at Princeton who defends late-term abortion and has even argued for infanticide. George said that Christians must protect freedom for people like Singer to share their ideas, no matter how repulsive those ideas are. We must lovingly, winsomely advocate the Truth in the face of such ideas, and have confidence that the Truth will reveal itself to be more compelling, or will at least hold together under the assault of its attackers. West echoed this by quipping that he would “fight for the right for Rush Limbaugh to be wrong.” Warren chimed in too: “Christians who aren’t confident in their beliefs are afraid of competing ideas. I’m not. Bring it on.”  

Without ever saying the word, each man was encouraging courage as a necessary virtue for those who love the truth – courage to live in a world where the Bible’s account of the truth is constantly contested, and courage to protect that space of free exchange. 

In light of this, I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversy about Q Boston, over its inclusion of Matthew Vines and David Gushee – both of whom identify as evangelicals and advocate for a shift in the church’s stance on same-sex relationships. How could the evangelical leaders at Q allow space on their platform to Vines and Gushee? 

In response, Gabe Lyons, founder of Q, said, “Some people are afraid that if those who are theologically progressive are invited, it suggests they hold an equally valid idea… We still believe the historic view of sexuality is true, but we are also confident that the trueness of that view can carry its own weight.”

In other words, “I’m not afraid. Bring it on.” 

It strikes me that this approach works in two ways. First, it lowers the temperature on the rhetoric surrounding contested issues, inviting an atmosphere of exchange and genuine dialogue. Second, it charitably assumes that others (our “interlocutors,” as George might say) will extend us the courtesy we extend to them. Third (and this is the point that was utterly lost on some of Q’s critics), it assumes that the Truth will endure and (ultimately) outshine its competitors. 

At its core, this approach relies on virtues like winsomeness and hospitality. It calls us to gentleness and self-control, to refuse repaying evil (in the form of raging rhetoric) with evil. It doesn’t demand that we throw holy water on people whose positions we disagree with, but we might consider giving them something to drink and taking the time to listen to them. Apart from that, we certainly shouldn’t expect them to listen to us. 

In the events themselves, Q and The Cost of Freedom were very different. I will say that I wish Warren had pushed the conversation more deeply into areas where George and West disagree vigorously, like same-sex marriage and abortion. But nonetheless, the conversation between West and George was rich and not without conflict, and modeled something that was clearly counter-cultural - perhaps even subversive – to the shouting matches that characterize most of our political and theological disagreements 

And while not all of us have a platform like Biola or Q on which to extend such hospitality, we all have back porches and living rooms, lunch breaks and neighborhood haunts where we cross paths with people with whom we might passionately disagree. We might vilify them. They might vilify us. And then again, all of this hostility might just be guilt-by-association. Hospitality creates space to cut through the noise and meet one another as human beings. We can enter that space, learn a few things, and discover friendships. We can discover how the truth can stand up to scrutiny, and see how love can cut through a culture of vitriol and bile. But it takes courage to put them to the test.