Time magazine today published a story about the public stand InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV) has taken on human sexuality. So the cultural war goes on. But the IV position is neither new nor novel. It is in fact the position that has always been Christian. What is new and novel is the cultural shift we are seeing in the western nations toward sexual license and gender ambiguity. The eighteen page IV document is just the latest summary of the historic Christian view of sexuality in its many expressions. This decisive stand was inevitable given the significant presence of IV on college campuses across the nation and even the world. It is no secret that sexual issues are front burner in the minds and bodies of college students. The IV document addresses all of the major moral questions regarding sexuality, not just the LGBQ issues. The fact that the IV leadership felt the need to clarify its position on human sexuality does not indicate any change in the historic position of this ministry; but rather, the sea-change in western cultural views and practices, not the least of which includes the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage.
It is of the very nature of sin, as Christians understand it, to rebel against human identity with the image of God in which we were created. This resistance to God’s order shows up most powerfully in areas of life that are themselves powerful, like sexuality, to name but one. When sexuality is practiced as God intended it brings pleasure, intimacy and procreation. When practiced outside of God’s plan it introduces suffering, division and disillusionment.
Human culture is necessarily religious. This is so because humans embody in culture their most fundamental beliefs. They may claim that these are not beliefs at all, but merely facts. That claim cannot be sustained. The most basic moral positions and practices of a culture or an individual are truth-claims about reality as believed by the people. Where these claims impact religious beliefs they reveal themselves to be alternative religions. Some prefer to call such cultural positions “world-views.” Yes they are, and all religious claims are also “world-views.” So the cultural wars I alluded to at the beginning of this blog, are in fact religious wars. As we have seen already some of these culture war issues will be settled by force, most likely in the courts. Christians will likely be victimized and subjected to loss of religious freedom if the larger culture continues to move away from historic Christian beliefs. These events will test the faith and the courage of many. Maranatha!
Intro: In I & II Samuel we get the outward visible story of David and Israel in his time. But in the Psalms we get the inward story, in a way the story that matters the most to us living as we do so many years later.
The continuing story (8 years; approximately 1018-1010 BC. David would have been age 22-30; this period is recorded in I Samuel 21-31; If you look at a map of his travels you will see that most of it is around the west side of the Dead Sea. For special perspective the Dead Sea is about 31 miles long and 9.3 miles wide.):
As we have seen king Saul was in spiritual decline. Long years of trying to serve both God and himself, with himself gaining the upper hand, had led to serious spiritual and moral decline. Now he was subject to periods of debilitating depression. Remember, he had first admitted young David to his court to sooth his sad moods with music. In chapter 15 we saw that God had told the prophet Samuel that he was to anoint a new king to replace Saul. This new king was David. But Saul was to continue as ruler while God trained David in godly leadership.
Beginning in chapter 18:7ff we find the people praising the exploits in war of David above those of Saul. Saul became angry and eventually his anger turned to fear of David (18:12, 29). The spiritual disease of his heart then turned to murder (18:11, 17, 25).
Beginning in chap. 19 we learn that there was a parallel plot developing. Saul’s oldest son Jonathan had taken a liking to David. They became such close friends that Jonathan’s loyalties were divided. He tried to dissuade his father from killing David (19:4ff), and in the end he facilitated David’s escape from Saul’s murderous plans (ch. 20). In the meantime David had been given a daughter of Saul, Michal, as a wife, but she too conspired to save David’s life when Saul sent a hit-squad to kill him (19:11ff).
So from chap. 21 onward David is forced to flee to the wilderness and scratch out a living there as Saul and his men continue to seek his life. The events at the priestly sanctuary at Nob serve to reveal how far Saul had fallen. It is a lesson to us to look at behavior over words. [Appl: Throughout this period Saul continues to talk the talk of Israel’s religion, but he was no longer serving God in his heart.]
David is tired and desperate when he shows up at the sanctuary and meets with Ahimelek the priest. The priest knows him but wonders why he is alone. David lies. How wonderful. Up until now we have seen a David who seems to be without flaw. He has courage, he has great faith in God, he is so humble as to be almost as virtuous as the Messiah, but he is not. He is just a man. A man who resorts to lying to the priest as need arose. However, we could read his lies as for the benefit of the priests. After all he know that Saul would soon be on his trail and it would be best if the priests did not knowingly help a fugitive. So even his lies could be construed as for the benefit of others.
But Saul was no longer reasonable. [Appl: Take careful note of this. When the ungodly powerful get it into their minds that the people of God are a danger to their power they will not behave reasonably. The history of the early church from the late 1st century through the beginning of the 4th century testifies to this. Educated Christians tried to persuade the powers that Christians only wanted to live in peace and had no intention of harming the state, but often their efforts fell on deaf ears. They could not be reasonable once they began to hate and fear the Christians. They, like Saul, demanded unreasonable proofs of loyalty.]
So Saul ordered the killing of the priests, but his men would not carry out the order, so he turned to an outsider, an Edomite named Doeg to do his dirty work. “So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck them down. That day he killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. He also put to the sward Nob the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle donkeys and sheep.” (I Sam. 22:18, 19).
But one son of the priest Ahimelek escaped. His name was Abiathar and he went off to the wilderness to join David where he found safety. By this time David had been joined by his family and a few hundred people who were misfits in society. “When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him.” (I Sam. 22:1-2). [Some believe that Ps. 133 was written about this time.] We are told that David, who was ever looking out for the safety of others despite his own problems, left his father and mother with the king of Moab for safety and then, following the advice of the prophet Gad, he led his men “to the forest of Hereth.” (I Sam. 22:5). The exact location of this “forest” is in doubt. Some say it was not a forest as we N. Americans think of a forest. On the other hand there is evidence that at one time there were great forests of the sort we know of in Palestine. This theory notes that the rise of the iron age around the 10th century BC led to massive cutting down of the forests to supply fuel for iron production, thus changing the climate of Israel. ( https://eternalthronechronicles.wordpress.com/category/mediterranean/)
In any case it was a remote wilderness. [Appl: In Jewish tradition this is the period when David wrote the 23rd Psalm. If so we can see how he comforted himself in the knowledge of God despite the outward fact that he was walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.” In this Psalm David manages the remarkable analogy from his own experience as a faithful shepherd of his father’s sheep to the view that God is like that. In the history of theology this is called reasoning by analogy. Whenever we say, for example, “God is good” we are arguing from the analogy of our limited experience with “good” to the character of God. This is what David is doing in the 23rd Psalm. By this time having survived six attempts by Saul to kill him, and having gained a small army and many allies, David is reflecting on the many ways that his God had been his shepherd. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” -Ps. 23:6]
Conclusion: As most of us lead settled non-violent lives we can find it difficult to identify with these stories. Yet, we still love the 23rd Psalm. Why is that? Because it tells some of the inward story of David. It is because we continue to share human life experience with David and the other people of faith who have gone before us. We have experienced emotional wilderness (I know I have). In fact there is a period in my life before any of you knew me, the period following the death of my first wife that I often think of as the wilderness period in my life. Like David, we all are capable of lying and violence to survive in this life. We share something of his faith and something of his fleshly weakness. As Paul writes in his Corinthian correspondence, these things are written for our instruction. The wisest thing we can do is seek to imitate David’s faith and avoid his failings, with the Holy Spirit’s help, remembering that wilderness experience is a time for growth if we keep an eye on what God is doing in our lives.
I Samuel 17
The armies of Israel were terrified. They could not meet the Philistine challenge. They huddled in their camp without faith and without hope because they had forgotten their God. There were two large men on the field that day. There was Saul the king, who stood head and shoulders above most of the men of Israel. And there was Goliath who stood somewhere between seven feet and nine feet tall. A giant of a man whose armor might have weighed 125 lbs. and whose javelin was about twenty pounds, with a fifteen pound iron spear head on the tip.
The respective armies were on opposite hillsides with the valley of Elah between them. Though Saul was offering a very large reward to the man who would go out and fight Goliath (vv.25ff), he had no takers. Fear is debilitating. Fear crowds out faith. It is no wonder that the scriptures so often say “Fear not” (e.g. Is. 41:10 etc.). Don’t fear those who can kill only the body, Jesus said, but fear God who can send both body and soul to hell. Among the first words spoken to a young woman of Nazareth by the angel of the Lord were “fear not.” Likewise to Joseph her betrothed; Fear not to take Mary as your wife.
“Fear,” a writer once said, “Is the wrong use of imagination. It is anticipating the worst, not the best that can happen.”
Even though these people were the heirs of Abraham, of Moses, of Joshua and of the Judges, they like many 21st century Americans, had forgotten the hard learned lessons of their forefathers and mothers. They had lost sight of the faith of their fathers and mothers. They no longer took to heart the promises of their God. So they lingered in fear listening to that uncircumcised Philistine mock them, curse them, call out to them in the names of his vindictive pagan deities.
Into the story steps the haqqaton a Hebrew word that is often translated “the youngest” but in our current language probably better translates as “the baby brother” with a note of disparagement. We can see that attitude in I Sam. 17:28-30. 9 (i.e. What are you doing here?) Baby brother had been sent by the father Jesse to bring some supplies to the three oldest brothers (out of eight), Eliab, Abinadab and Shammah. These were impressive looking men whom even the prophet Samuel at first admired until the Lord told him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . “ (16:7) The oldest brother wanted to send this baby brother back to the menial job of sheep tending. No one there thought there was any significance to baby brother’s presence.
Remember that this baby brother had been anointed as the next king by Samuel (ch. 16) but in that story he is not even named until after Samuel anointed him and we learn that his name is David. David, the name that will go on to occur about 600 time in the OT, and about 60 times in the NT. David, the name that will be so closely associated with the Christ that he will be called repeatedly the “son of David.”
Eliab said that David should go back to the sheep, but he did not have eyes to see that this baby brother had matured as a man of God while tending sheep. David had learned in the wilderness about the greatness of the creator. He had seen first hand what wonders are there to behold. The fields and meadows around Bethlehem had been his school of faith. He had the heart to see the lion and the bear with his eyes, but to know that the invisible God whom he served was greater. He also had the heart and courage to risk his life to rescue his father’s sheep from the mouths of those wild beasts.
His words in I Sam. 17:34ff suggest that he knew already the lesson Jesus would later teach: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much . . .“ (Luke 16:10) He had done the little things in tending and protecting the sheep. Now this would translate into the big thing as he would confront this enemy of the armies of the “living God” (17:36).
David is ready to confront the enemy, not because he believers himself to be stronger, but because he believes in his God. But first he must confront another problem. The young believer David is being offered well-meaning help by the much older and more experienced unbeliever, Saul. Saul had started well as king and man of God but over the years he had drifted away from God. He no longer had the spiritual eyes to see that David had. His soldiers were like him, with the possible exception of Saul’s son Jonathan. So Saul outfits David with his own armor. This was an honor that any other soldier would have accepted. But David could hardly move in that heavy ill-fitting stuff.
All of us must respond to the call of God as we are. We are not called to wear someone else’s armor. We are called to be only who we are and to use what gifts and opportunities God equips us with. So David took only his staff, his shepherd’s bag and his sling. Then he knelt. He knelt down by the wadi and chose five smooth stones. David’s trust was in God, but that did not mean he was helpless. He had one weapon he was competent with and that is what he would use. Picture him kneeling to gather the stones. Surely he whispered a prayer as he knelt. Five stones. There was to presumption in him that he would only need one. He would be prepared with five. Any experience hunter would understand why he chose ballistically efficient smooth stones, and five in case the first one missed.
Now we come to the denouement, the climax of the story. Goliath is insulting, and thinks that David is going to fight him with only a stick (v. 43).
Then the surprise move by David: he sprinted toward the battle line to meet Goliath, and as he did he took a smooth stone from his shepherd’s bag, placed it in the sling, and flung it with the skill he had honed while tending sheep. It struck the giant in the forehead with such force that the stone sunk deeply into his skull. And the Philistine fell face down to the ground. The Philistine army fled. Now they were afraid, and the army of Israel regained its courage and pursued and routed their enemy. How encouraging it is to others when they witness a great act of faith.
I don’t doubt that David had spent many an hour in the fields with the sheep meditating on the stories of his people, of Moses, Joshua, the Judges. He could not have anticipated how God would eventually use him, but his quiet preparation was vital to the final outcome. He had an imagination shaped by biblical stories and biblical ideas about life, meaning, God and what it means to be a human being. Remember, fear is the wrong use of imagination.
This training would make him a much better king than Saul. And it would leave us with the legacy of his Psalms, those honest and insightful records of spiritual life that continue to resonate with us today. He could not have known all of this any more than any of us can know the long-term effects of lives lived in daily faithfulness.
Much less could he have known that one day the Son of God would be called also son of David. But few in history would ever match the words he said as he went out to meet the giant ( I Samuel 17:45-47).
God uses ordinary people, unexpected people. As I read the four Gospels it seems to me than none of the twelve apostles exhibited as much faith as David had on that day in the valley of Elah. Yet see what they did with such little faith.
The heading in this blog entry is a quotation from Russell D. Moore, President of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is referring to the just released book by Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? I have been teaching and preaching the Bible for about forty years. In most of those years I never preached on the subject of homosexuality, and indeed rarely mentioned the subject unless it turned up in passing as I read a passage of scripture. But all that has changed now. With major denominations drifting over to cultural conformity, with professing Christians advocating not just the tolerance of homosexual behavior, but the celebration of homosexual coupling, we who love the word of God and are committed to faithful witness in the world can no longer keep silent. Kevin DeYoung has done the churches who belong to Jesus the Christ a great service by writing this book. It is a clear and concise (150 pages) statement in defense of the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage, well documented and compassionately stated.
The Christian reader of this book will not only become well informed about the biblical teachings concerning homosexuality, but also learn a great deal by example about how to faithfully approach the interpretation of texts in the Bible. They will see a fine example of biblical study in the best historic tradition of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation). They will also see why the biblical call to holiness as well as love is indispensable. DeYoung first surveys the five major statements about sexuality from Genesis forward, and then offers responses to the standard objections and alternative claims coming from those who wish to overthrow the biblical standards. All of this is done with care, compassion and intellectual honesty. I highly recommend this book to all who are willing to honestly listen to biblical teaching and who care about the future of the churches of Christ!
Current Hollywood trends exhibit for us the state of sexuality in America today. We have arrived at the place where the only sexual appetite generally condemned by the public is the appetite of the pedophile. All else is excused and even celebrated. This poses a crisis for Christianity because, as C. S. Lewis long ago observed, either Christianity is wrong or current sexual mores are wrong. We cannot have it both ways.
These social-moral changes have been in the works for decades with respect to heterosexual behavior, but are now expanded to include all that the LGBT communities are fighting for. If this trajectory continues the time will come when so-called “open marriages” involving any kind of mixture of partners will be celebrated. Already it is clear that the larger culture gives no consideration to the historic Judeo-Christian view of marriage as that which was created and defined by God. Even many who profess to be Christians show little to no evidence that they are seriously guided by biblical teachings.
[A review of Paul Elie. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003. 472 pages plus notes and index.]
Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy lived parallel 20th century lives, often overlapping, as Catholic pilgrims, writers and searching human beings. This book seeks to make sense of their lives, to show their existential explorations, to illustrate the ways in which they influenced the world and each other, and it does so remarkably well. Thomas Merton, the Columbia graduate become Trappist Monk. Dorothy Day a journalist struggling to find her way in the world becomes Catholic reformer. Flannery O’Connor a southerner whose sole ambition was to become a Catholic writer of fiction, and Walker Percy trained as a doctor, nearly dying of TB and then leaving medicine to write. As Paul Elie puts it, “Four like-minded writers had become aware of one another . . . Already they are skeletally joined, as members of a body are joined. They will have no headquarters, no neighborhood, no university fiefdom or corner bar. They will write no manifesto pose for no group portrait. Their unity, rather, will be that of pilgrims who are taking different routes to the same destination . . .” (p. 200)
Three were converted Catholics and one (O’Connor) was a Catholic from birth, but all would wrestle with the meaning of their faith in the 20th century post-modern world. Each would share many of their struggles with the world through their published writings, and in some cases with one another. Day and Merton would never meet face-to-face but would carry on an extensive correspondence. Percy and O’Connor, both southerners, would meet only once yet Percy, the last of these four to die, would claim “Flannery” as his friend. The four would share several mutual friends whose roles in their lives would help carry their stories forward. All the while, as their stories are being told, we are getting a history lesson that spans from World War I through to Viet Nam, and much in between. We find that Dorothy Day was inspired by the work of Rose Hawthorne, the little-known (but my students should know) daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. They will all reject the “modern liberal Protestantism” that turns “religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power . . .” [quoted from a letter of O’Connor’s, pp. 340, 341].
All four would in one way or another continue to answer for themselves and for others, “Why believe?” And each in his or her own way would seek to answer this perennial question in writing, sometimes in fiction writing, most notably Percy and O’Connor. Their styles were radically different, reminding us that there is more than one way to seek and arrive at the same destination, that truth, while not relative is richly manifold. Percy would speak for all of them in answering the self-assigned question, Why not just believe in “scientific humanism?” His reply; “This life is too much trouble, far to strange, to arrive at the end of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e. God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less.” (p 446).
This is one of the most engaging books I have read in a while. It kept me up at night and eager to see what would happen next in these four engaging intertwined lives. Highly recommended.
Since my previous post about Human Nature I have come across some interesting remarks about Mark Twain’s declining views about human nature in his later life. These remarks are found in the interesting book by John T. Frederick titled, The Darkened Sky: Nineteenth-century American Novelists and Religion. It is observed here that from the 1870’s onward Twain wrote increasing scathing pieces about humans. These views were indirect in books like The Innocents Abroad, The Gilded Age and The Prince and the Pauper. It was to be in smaller writings like “The Curious Republic of Gondour” and “Some Learned Fables, For Good Old Boys and Girls.” These contain what Frederick describes as “rather vicious satire aimed directly at religious notions and slogans, . . .The chief target of the work, however, is human nature itself . . .” (pgs. 148, 149) By this time Twain had rejected historic Christian orthodoxy while standing fast on his belief in one God, and maintaining a substantial reverence for the person of Jesus Christ, while denying his divinity.
Yet it is after this rather dark period that Twain, in the 1880’s finally completes Huckleberry Finn, and his views of human nature in that book are far from homogenous. While there are contemptuous people portrayed, there are also people of positive goodness like Jim and Huck himself. As the story of Mark Twin continues to unfold his life will be first blessed with wealth, followed by personal tragedies and losses, and then financial ruin. Throughout this time, apparently until his death, he struggled and wrote about his continued belief in God but his decreasing confidence in the significance of Man. So, as a representative person, Twain in many ways forecast what we see now about one hundred years after his death.
Robert Adams, former English teacher turned photographer, has been described as a philosopher of photography. His two books, Beauty in Photography and Why People Photograph, certainly authenticate his credentials. Of the two I especially appreciate the former. He argues that form is the essence of beauty, and makes this claim about its importance: “Why is form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.” (pg. 25) There is a touch of existentialism in his position as he notes, I believe rightly, that, “With a camera, one has to love individual cases. A photographer can describe a better world only by better seeing the world as it is in front of him.” (pg. 26) Furthermore, “Photography can always be new, because the surface of life keeps changing.” (pg. 84) Perhaps this is part of the attraction of street photography today. This is a small book of only 108 pages published by Aperture, and it is surely worth the read.
Why People Photograph is a collection of essays written since the publication of Beauty in Photography. If you were to come to this book hoping for an answer to the question, why do people photograph you would be disappointed. These are essays and reviews written, as the forward says, “for a variety of occasions.” As with the former book he ranges widely in quoting from his own readings; Aristotle, Aquinas, William Carlos Williams, C. S. Lewis and Keats, to name a few. And as with the former, there are wonderful quotable lines like, “A saints gift to us is a life, but an artist’s is mainly a vision.” (pg. 90) Again, “Art does not deny that evil is real but it places evil in a context that implies an affirmation . . .” (pg. 181)
Both of these books will reward the thoughtful reader whether a photographer or one who simply appreciates the arts.
[This is a simultaneous post on both of my blogs.]
As I watched the dystopian story Divergent with two teen girls (my younger daughter and her friend who call themselves fangirls) I was struck by the claim of the female leader of the intellectuals that the problem is “human nature.” In a world where higher education increasingly devalues the Humanities in favor of hard science and technology (I speak as a Humanities teacher) this makes sense, and may be believed by more people than we think. In his book The Face of God, Roger Scruton puts his finger on the problem: “Take away religion, however; take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’, which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind, and with it our kindness.” (pg. 72)
The biblical story of humans created in the image of God is the high water mark for idealism about human nature. But it is curious to me that another film I recently watched, Noah, puts the ideal of the image of God on the lips of the villain rather than Noah, who comes across for part of the story as more of an anti-human environmentalist than a man of God who owns the sixth day of the creation narrative. Of course the villain misuses the concept to serve himself. Nevertheless, Noah, or someone in his onboard ark family, could have said something to redeem the image ideal while he was ranting about killing the newborn girls. But it was not to be in this Hollywood version of the story. Are these two films telling us something about the popular mood toward formerly sacred beliefs? Of course they are. That is what art and entertainment does best.