Evangelicals swoon when people not affiliated with us speak truths we love. A potent example is David Foster Wallace’s assertion at Kenyon College that, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” This quote entered the Christian bloodstream mainly through Tim Keller’s injection, and boosted it like a little caffeine hit.
What a rush to have a magnificent thinker support such an important piece of our faith’s foundation. So the irony was palpable this week when The Atlantic’s Megan Garber published “The World Still Spins Around Male Genius.” The piece, a part of the #MeToo corpus, exposes Wallace himself as a troublesome locus of devotion. He is a specimen, according to Garber, of worship of human genius. The very worship he spoke of. A kind of worship that excuses evil. She writes:
“A fealty to genius is its own kind of faith: in transcendence, in exceptionalism, in the fact that gods, still, can walk among us. And genius, itself, becomes its own kind of infrastructure. We have organized our art around its potential; we have organized our economy around its promise. We have oriented ourselves according to the light of its stars—and so when they flicker, even momentarily, we lose ourselves. And: We defend ourselves. We delude ourselves. We choose not to question the makeup of the firmament. It’s so much easier that way.”
The easy observation is that even when we reject the true God, humans can’t avoid being drawn to his image. Broken bearers though we may be, the brilliance of the Creator still breaks through in the best of his creature-creators. Can anyone outside of Christ be blamed for gravitating towards what whispers of the godly? Certainly not.
But in the case of Wallace, and of many others, that moth-like pull to light can blind to egregious offense. He is documented as a stalker and abuser of the woman he supposedly loved, writer Mary Karr. The things he did were terrifying—following her five-year-old home from school, throwing a coffee table at her, trying to buy a gun. It is documented that Wallace fans seethe when these truths are brought back up. They distract from his literary glory and are beside the point, they claim.
They simply refuse to acknowledge the ugliness and evil in what they love, and as Garber says, they lose themselves.
Sadly, we can lose ourselves, too, just the same way.
See, it can be easy to cluck our tongues at the non-believers. Poor souls, misdirected. Looking at The Atlantic and other publications can stir up sympathy for those outside, or in some sad cases, schadenfreude. But this is a dangerous distraction.
As different streams of reckoning flow over the cultural landscape, leaving no topography untouched, we need to especially look to our own house. Sexism has washed over us in the church; perhaps rather it has had its own walled in fountain in our midst. Racism has been perpetuated like a favorite family tradition, to our shame. Writers and teachers of greater caliber and stature than myself are saying as much, and we desperately need to listen, to take account. We need repentance, for we have sinned. When we see ourselves acting just like the world, should we not tear our garments?
I certainly don’t have all the answers for what to do with the reality that all of our human heroes, and institutions, fail us. There are so many geneses of failure, so many species of fallenness, that no article length treatment could approach a taxonomy. But I believe deeply that we need to encourage each other to have the conversation in healthy ways. We need to be taught that health, we need to learn that repentance and practice it together.
Who has the words to grieve that Wallace could write what we believe and betray it constantly in his own life? Near the end of his Kenyon College speech he said, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
We nod our heads with those lines, we feel the biblical rhythm of them. Who has words to grieve that we, I, can every day still refuse them? Wallace had a reason for not living up to Christ’s standard: he was not a Christ-follower. But us? We have the Spirit, and the words of the prophets. If we enjoy being observers of culture, critiquing it as well as valuing it, then especially among us we need to watch the world and bring the lesson home. We will not be spared, but godly grief remains open to us. Honesty and recompense remain open to us. Blood-bought forgiveness remains for us. Sisters and brothers, let us embrace them.
Rosaria Butterfield’s new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, should include a trigger warning. It is presented on some level as a tidy book on hospitality, bringing up images of clean houses and doilies, of pleasant, polite conversation.
Instead one is confronted with secret meth addicts, an excursus on gay nightclubs, rebukes of church failings, and just a whole lot of soup. This is no mere hospitality volume, this is a practical theology of discipleship. Was this a product of mis-marketing?
Or, more likely, have we been catechized into a faulty vision of hospitality?
Butterfield expertly weaves her book together, narrative the warp and theological reflection the woof, to create a seamless whole. We need narratives of a particular life, because the universal can be so large as to lose us. In seeing the practicality of what the Butterfields do, the possibility of it opens up in our own lives. And this, of course, is where the fear sets in.
Fear, because hospitality does indeed expose our American idols of comfort and control. Fear, because welcoming strangers is in fact dangerous. Fear, because we can’t see it to the end, and perhaps because we know our own frailty.
And fear, of course, can lead to rationalizing. We see an admirable life, and our hearts appreciate it. But as soon as that life makes a demand on us, we want to justify our inaction. We label ourselves too busy, too introverted, too feeble. Certainly this was what I said to myself at various points in the reading.
Butterfield will have none of this. She makes pains to explain that she too is busy, introverted and feeble, and she anchors planning around these weaknesses in the call of Christ to come and die. That’s why it’s not about hospitality, but discipleship. She firmly roots the use of our homes in the very principles of true Christianity: sacrifice, love, welcoming of the other even at great cost.
She is most moving in two conversion narratives. First, she recalls how her family wooed a recluse into friendship, and how that wooing was used by the Spirit to draw that unlikely man to Christ. This narrative runs through the whole book, watering it like a steady stream, pointing to the fruitfulness that God can work through radically ordinary hospitality. The second is the deeply empathetic story of Butterfield’s relationship with her mother, it’s toxicity and resolution in the mother’s deathbed conversion.
Both episodes show that hospitality is primarily oriented towards mission, and nothing less. The home becomes hospital, both birth and delivery ward as well as nurturing the sick and injured. The effect is inspiring, and self-evidently Christian.
That doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t have weaknesses. Though she is careful to caveat that hospitality doesn’t have to look precisely how her family runs it, the overall presentation of the book can militate against those caveats. Additionally, her declarations about how wives should function in the home may create such a distraction for some readers as to cause them to miss the bigger point. And the declarations themselves are perhaps not quite nuanced enough for the callings and giftings that exist in many husband-wives teams. I offer that light critique as a complementarian myself, who believes in the goodness of loving male headship and joyful self-submission of wives as the way God has designed family to work.
The book also would have benefited from more ways for the principles it contains to be brought home. Perhaps questions at the end of the conclusion to direct the reader would help the lessons land.
Nonetheless, these don’t undermine the many good things that Butterfield offers. She is realistic, unashamed, and fervently Christ-centered. She is never trying to trick, but rather trying to call you out of being tricked by your own sin. Each of us longs for a life of meaning but most of us instead construct something dull, dead, and numbingly safe or worldly. Butterfield invites us to see that Jesus is and has always been the challenge, the adventure, the life we have wanted.
I was deeply challenged by this book, in the best way. Both the difficulty and the beauty of the call to steward my life and home in a radical way weighed heavy upon me. I didn’t feel the condemnation of the accuser, telling me what a poor job I do; instead I felt an upward call to start where I am, to pray for Christ’s strength in my weakness, to anticipate both hardship and beauty if I follow through. The part that gives me pause is my own capacity to be inspired yet do nothing. That would be a tragic misuse of this book, and one I feel so capable of committing.
The best way to avoid that end, I believe, will be if discussion of these principles becomes more normal in our Christian circles. This book, and hopefully others like it, seem to be just what the church needs today, if only we’ll act in the Spirit after reading. Buy it, read it—even better, put it into practice.
*I received a promotional copy of this book from Crossway for review purposes.
If someone asked me, “Is the joy of the Lord your strength?” I can pretty well predict what my internal reaction would be.
First, I’d think “the right answer is yes, it has to be yes.” Second, “Well, my answer really is yes, right? I mean, I love Jesus.” And third, “What the what does that phrase even mean?”
I suspect this might not be off from your own reactions. It’s not because we couldn’t guess at what the phrase means—after all it’s made up entirely of words and concepts that are standard issue in Christian life. But isn’t it life, fresh pressed and served chilled, when God’s word opens up an old package for us to reveal new treasure? That’s what Nehemiah 8 did for me on this little phrase, quite by accident.
Let’s recall the scene in Nehemiah 8:1-15, against the back drop of God’s history with his people. He chose, first, a man named Abram to be the father of a family who would possess a special land and have a special relationship with God. When his descendants landed in slavery in Egypt, God recused them for relationship, promising to make good on his covenant with his people about the land and the relationship. One of God’s favorite images to communicate these things is himself as husband, his people as bride.
Heart warming, right? Except that his people had a sin problem, a rejecting the good husband for worthless lovers problem. And after centuries of mercy, patience, warning, pleading—God sent his bride away. Leaving the land was a brutal punishment, both in how it was accomplished, and in how it burned into the psychology and self-understanding of the people. Who were they without the land, without the temple in the land? How should they relate to God in the absence of these tangible blessings?
These types of questions still haunted them when they were brought back to the land. At a key point in rebuilding Jerusalem, the sacred city, which had been utterly lain to waste, Ezra the scribe gathered all the people. The text is explicit that it’s everyone, not just the men. And he read to them from God’s book, and had skilled ministers to explain the words and meanings to the people. Nehemiah 8:8 states “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
And once the people understood, really got it—they wept.
Ok pause. Now, sometimes it’s easy to think of God’s Law, that stuff near the front of your Bible, as about as interesting as the Apple terms of service document you never read but click “yes” on so that you can set up your phone. Not exactly an emotion inducing document, right? But what if God’s Law is less like terms of service, and more like wedding vows?
God’s relationship with his people is very much like a marriage, which makes the covenant document between he and them very much like vows. Sacred promises, made in love, deep commitments. We say them on our wedding day with hope and promise, and a little naïveté.
It sometimes happens that married couples have a renewal of vows ceremony. Why do couples do this? As The Knot, a popular wedding propaganda site puts it, “Perhaps you've made it to 2, 5, 10, 25 or 50 years together and you want the world to know you'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. Maybe you want to reaffirm your commitment to each other after a rough period in your relationship.”
A rough period is a mild way to put what had happened between God and his people. But imagine, there they are at this vow renewal, and the words are read out clearly, to be understood. All those promises, all those commitments. And the people of God hear, and what is before their eyes is the destruction they caused—a city, barely rebuilt. And what is before their minds’ eyes are all the ways they and their ancestors had broken, sometimes with glee, every last one of those vows. They had been wretchedly unfaithful. There they are, standing in a beautiful dress as it were, and they feel intensely the weight of their adultery. How could they not weep?
Nehemiah, a leader of the people, steps in to comfort them, and to command them, “do not be grieved”—why?—“for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (8:10).
Imagine the scene again, the vow renewal. The bride is grief stricken, but there is the husband. He is immaculately dressed, just as his wedding day. His face is full on his wife, and his eyes shine. His cheeks ache from smiling. He holds out his hands expectantly, full of delight. The warmth of love that he feels when he looks at her radiates out in a posture of expectancy, of joy. He hears those vows and he is thinking yes, I’m still committed. Yes, these are the promises I will always keep to her, because I love her. I can’t wait to declare it again.
That, my friends, is a joy that could impart strength. God declared in that moment through his book and his leaders that he loved and delighted in his people. He was fully aware of what had transpired, and yet his commitment was ever more steadfast. There was no shaming, no “I told you so”, no clenched jaw hoping for a better turn this time. Only joy and love.
I had read Nehemiah 8 expecting to come away with tidy lesson about the importance of reading Scripture or something like that. Instead, I was overwhelmed at who God is, a desperately, even recklessly loving husband, brimming over with joy. My own record of wretchedness is long, but God looks at me and declares, “Beloved,” secured forever because Jesus kept my end of the vows perfectly and for credit to my account. And that love has the power to even make me a vow keeper, however imperfectly. I breathe that in, and I feel strength. I pray it does the same for you.
I had the opportunity to review Daniel Mattson's Why I Don't Call Myself Gay for The Gospel Coalition. The work is an entry into the discussion of labels and identity among same-sex attracted Christians, this time from a Roman Catholic. Click the title link above if you'd like to read it!
When a self-described anarchist pacifist writes of themes that resonate with my worldview, I sit up and notice. This morning I spent time reading a piece in the Atlantic by just such a woman: Quinn Norton. Apparently, she has been recently slandered on the internet and constructed into a caricature of herself. This is ironic, because she studies precisely this phenomenon.
The whole article is written with a combination of humility and confidence that I have found rare in secular spaces. I’m not familiar with any of Norton’s other writings, so I can’t pretend that I understand her point of view in totality, but her lack of defensiveness while defending herself felt deeply resonant with how we are called to engage with the humans around us as Christians.
I was moved by her explanation of why she spent time with abject sinners, indeed how she could form friendships with them. The language of sin is mine, not hers, but when one is referring to a Neo-Nazi, I don’t think it’s unwarranted.
What she says in her defense is worth quoting at length:
“In my pacifism, I can’t reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences… I don’t support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself. I had what I now see as the advantage of coming from a family of terrible people. This taught me that not everyone worthy of love is worthy of emulation. It also taught me that being given terrible ideas is not a destiny, and that intervention can change lives.”
This, I would think, is as close as person far from Jesus can get to grace and truth. And if Norton is this close conceptually, perhaps she is not far from the kingdom of God.
We see the shocking grace first. Humans often love to be publicly censorious regarding their moral pet peeves, to make judgments of guilty or innocent and then move on, the verdict rendered. But Norton refuses to do this. She flatly rejects the idea that anyone is beyond, can we even say it, salvation, or that deep patterns of sin are the final arbiter of one’s life. Isn’t this just what we see in the New Testament? Jesus was willing to associate with known, loathsome sinners such as Zacchaeus; he understood and modeled the very same thing.
But notice, too, the truth. Norton doesn’t practice blind acceptance. She demands that error be corrected, lovingly, and she targets the best place to do this: within the context of true relationship. Just so the church; as siblings in Christ, while not taking God’s seat in judgment, we are commanded to be each other’s keeper. We have to take out our own eye-log so that we can help with our sister with her speck. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t let a stranger touch my eye! That assumes a level of trust beyond acquaintance.
If Norton has this all figured out, why do we even need the gospel? Perhaps we should all sign up to be anarchist pacifists!
However, both Scripture and experience teach us that there is an impossible gulf between “not far from the kingdom of God” and “in Christ.” Not even instincts like Norton’s can make that leap. We are made in the image of God, but we are broken beyond self-repair. This means that we often have enough of the good sense of God to diagnose what is wrong, sometimes even enough of his common grace to see what is called for in response. But we are in our flesh—we try to fix these problems with our own intelligence, our own charisma, our own strength. It can’t but fail, even where it succeeds.
If Norton convinces her Neo-Nazi friend to renounce his views, she will have done real good. Praise God for that. But she will not have saved his soul, nor hers. And she will be faced with the temptation of self-righteousness in the wake of success.
Norton’s system relies on her belief in the power of persuasion, that human love and intention can overcome the death grip of sin. But we believe that only God in Christ through the Spirit has the power to break our sin, to make real changes in the world that last forever – both in individuals and in communities. And we who know Christ, whose lives are hidden in him, have access to this spiritual power, to live in the world with grace and with truth because Jesus has forgiven us and is transforming us. Let Quinn Norton’s words stir us up to recognize that the world is in hungry need of what only God can provide through his people, and let us act accordingly with the gifts and circumstances he’s given us.
“What surprised me was that confession wasn’t humiliating—it was liberating.”
I sat across from a young woman who said this sentence so calmly, even casually. Yet these words hit me with full force. They dismantled one of the stealthiest lies in sanctification: that admission of wrongdoing is disaster.
It’s important to note what kind of confession she was not talking about, which is the naming of an act or thought to God in prayer as wrong. As she described her process of first trusting and following Jesus as a young adult, she had been quick to understand scripturally and logically that one should confess sins to God. After all, he knows everything anyway, and it seemed like a time-tested religious practice. She didn’t experience this act as humiliating, nor did she expect it to. But neither did she experience it as fully liberating.
Perhaps you’ve been there as well. You’ve believed (perhaps functionally if not theologically) that your piety is all about you and God, so naming your sins to him will check them off. After all, 1 John 1:8-9 is a promise! For certain missteps, confession before God alone moves you to a different place. But all of us have experienced periods of time where, no matter how often we may acknowledge something as sin in prayer, there seems precious little relief.
Richard Foster states it well in his classic work Celebration of Discipline, when he reminds us of our tendency to “doubt our forgiveness and despair at our confession [to God privately]. We fear that perhaps we have made confession only to ourselves, and not to God.” The lack of sensing liberation can lead us to doubt the efficacy of our prayer, or even God’s character.
This is precisely why we have been given to each other. Because of the Holy Spirit who lives inside each Christian, we have the power and authority to minister God’s forgiveness. We are God’s new priesthood and with the authority of God’s Word and the power of his presence, we can receive and provide the balm of peace.
Why do we not seek it out? Perhaps we believe that if we were truly known, we would be rejected. After all, not every Christian is mature enough yet to appropriately handle the tender things of another person’s heart. Or it could be that we believe the lie that we are the only ones who have failed this way, this many times, or for this disgusting reason. If I’m honest, at times I have somewhere in the corner of my heart believed that if I didn’t speak a thing out loud, that it would disappear along with its consequences. This is especially true if my sin involved (in my limited view) only myself.
These are each lies, powerful lies. But each, in the right circumstances, can feel true.
And yet there is something far more true, which is the power of God’s work through his promises. He never lies to us, he never misleads us. And in this case, he has promised that there is healing in confession to one another (James 5:16).
This is precisely what my friend experienced. The Spirit was urging her to confess her sin, and she sought out her pastor. She spoke to him, halting due to embarrassment, but she was able to get to the end. Bracing for what would come, she received warm words of thankfulness, forgiveness, and acceptance. This was when she made her discovery: the act hadn’t shamed her, it had freed her. The weight had been lifted.
I have experienced this in my own life as well. It is hard to explain the logic of how the forgiveness and embrace of a Christian can bring a flood of relief when, by Christ’s blood, we know that forgiveness is secure before that act of corporate confession. But ours is not always to understand the how—it is to claim the gift.
Is there a secret weighing down your heart today? Perhaps it is from last week, perhaps it is from fifteen years ago, but no matter the time it whispers in your ear. You may have built an elaborate fortress of justifications for why you’ve only brought it to the Lord, and not to his people. Certainly some of those reasons are respectable looking from the inside. Even so, you’re choosing a prison of your own making. Jesus has given you a three-toothed key: his words, his presence, and his people. Use it, and experience the freedom of a fresh wind of forgiveness.
But maybe you are reading this without a heart weighed down. Praise God for this! What would it mean to shepherd this blessing well? Confession involves at least three parties: God, the one who confesses, and the one who receives the confession. May the Lord strengthen us to execute both human roles well under his guidance, by his authority and grace.
Imagine you’re a stranded early 20th century pedestrian on a back road of Georgia, and you need to get to Atlanta in a hurry. Suddenly a man comes along and says, “You can’t do it on your feet! But guess what, you can use a car! A car can get you there!” Delighted, you say, “Great! How do I operate a car?” But instead of teaching you to drive, the man just goes on and on about how powerful the car is, and how beautiful the car is, and the fact that it can carry you great distances, without really mentioning how to put the key in the ignition and put the gas pedal into action.
As someone who has struggled significantly with sexual sin—particularly in my early years as a Christian—this is how I would have felt after reading Paul Tripp’s latest book, Sex in a Broken World: How Christ Redeems What Sin Distorts.
Let me explain.
It must be stated that there are many things in this book that Tripp does well. For example, there is certainly no book about sex in the Christian market in which God features so prominently. Naturally other Christian volumes take God into good account, but Tripp represents God as big, personal, and ever present. God’s character and motivations are always in view, and no one could escape this read without understanding that Tripp is fully convinced that God in Christ is full bodied and our only hope.
God is that only hope not merely because he is so grand, but because we are so wretched. Tripp walks his readers slowly and convincingly through biblical and real-world evidence that we are our biggest problem when it comes to sex. This is a point that needs to be underlined for most conservative Christians, who love to publicly and privately hand wring over the depravity of the world around us in 2018. Tripp wants to pop this bubble with good-old fashion theological anthropology: we are sinners, and everything we touch we break, no matter our circumstances.
Tripp works wonders here because he doggedly pursues the root of sexual sin, which is ultimately a rejection of God’s authority over us. He works logically through to bring this point out as self-evident by the end. He begins with a rejection of the sacred/secular dichotomy that compartmentalizes sexual behavior, and shows how sex is always a contingent set of acts related to all of a person’s life. Because it is, just like any part of life it must be exercised in God’s way, which is fundamentally relational. Tripp in fact doubles down on this last point, to great effect.
By the closing of the book, the reader has been exposed to dozens of realistic stories of sexual problems, thoughtful biblical theology, and many, many expressions of the gospel truth that only God can save us from our “sexual insanity,” Tripp’s rallying cry. So how does it fall so flat?
While Tripp is explicit about the fact that we are our own problem, and that only taking hold of the gospel can transform us, he fails at explaining how—just like the fictional man praising the car to the pedestrian. For a book to get theology so right yet miscarry on application is heartbreaking. Tripp rebukes us for being so individualistic in our view of sex, but in the end, he’s as helplessly individualistic in his presentation of sanctification.
What do I mean by individualistic? Simply that he affirms that a believer must grasp on to God’s truths as revealed in His word, but he says nothing of service about the other two things Jesus has given us to actualize these promises: His Spirit and His church. Learning a truth can truly be life-changing, but what about when we know a truth that doesn't seem to be penetrating our hearts? God is not limited, he can work with reflection questions at the end of chapters. But he has given us so much more in the Spirit and in each other. So while Tripp doesn't mean to, he will leave many with a functional white-knuckling through sexual sin, despite his good intentions. This is tragic.
There is another way that the book disappoints, which would have been unnoticed fifteen years ago but is inexcusable in 2018: it does not in any way speak to the goodness of God’s design of sexual complementarity nor to the challenges that same-sex attracted believers face, save a one sentence mention of a woman attracted to women near the end of the book. It feels as if the topic is an afterthought to Tripp, which is a luxury the church can’t afford right now. We have failed those in the church who are sexually broken in this way by ignoring them, why perpetuate this? Tripp had such an opportunity to paint a picture of God’s grandness in sex in this area, and he declined.
I have no doubt that Paul Tripp loves Jesus with all his heart and has been a great service to many people in the body of Christ. I have no doubt that this book will sell and encourage. But Tripp can do better—and the church must say so.
*I received an advance digital copy of this book from Crossway for reviewing purposes*
The back end of Christmas can fall with a thud. The anticipation has built for weeks, especially if you’re a kid, and how can any single day bear that weight? Yes, the presents can give you a thrill, and the time with family may truly be precious. But even the best Christmas ends, and then we’re cleaning the dirty dishes and fixing the toys that have already broken, and piling up all the garbage into overstuffed containers.
For some, Christmas isn’t even joyful to begin with. It can be a harsh reminder of a loved one who isn’t there because of death or estrangement, or it can confront you with the fact that you can’t give or receive the nice gift, that you weren’t blessed with the family you have in your mind.
And then in the midst of Christmas hangover, we gear up for New Year’s Resolutions, which are often promises instantly broken, or expressions of our desperate desire to be different than we have been. As Americans, it’s hard for us to shake our instinctual belief that we can make ourselves into the best versions of us if we just have enough time and willpower.
In the face of all of this, it is so helpful to remember that Advent is the season of anticipating a birth, and a birth is never just about one day. We rejoice in birth because it’s a beginning, it’s the promise or the hope of years to come. It bursts with potential. After all, it’s not as if Jesus came only as a baby.
In Galatians 4:4-5, Paul writes “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
I love this verse about the birth of Jesus, because it is alive with the purpose of it.
First of all, Paul teaches that it came at just the right time. When his prophets had been silent, when his people had been conquered, and way before the invention of YouTube to broadcast it all, God said Yes, this is it. It’s comforting to know that he loves to work in situations that to our eyes look questionable.
Second, Paul centers us on the reality of Jesus’s personhood. Yes, he was without sin, but he decided to place himself under the law he wrote. He decided to take on the limitations of flesh that he created. In love, he became one of us, from diapers to puberty to brutal death, all while demonstrating his deep care for us miserable sinners. He wasn’t just born, he was a man who really lived—and in him, we can too.
This is what I need in this sluggish, dark cold week between holidays. I don’t need to dig down deep and make myself new. I don’t need more stuff. I need to breathe in and welcome my redemption, to stop and speak with my Father who loves me. I need to remind myself of the goal of Christ’s life, and that he achieved it to the full.
For 2018, I don’t have any grand promises to make myself about me, but I do have a grand good news to share, as do you. May the Holy Spirit give us courage and opportunity to do so.
I had the great pleasure of writing a joint review with Ed Shaw of Nate Collins's All But Invisible for The Gospel Coalition, which you can read there, or below.
There has been a recent avalanche of books from a biblical and traditional perspective on same-sex attraction. Each brings a different viewpoint, with many writing from their own experiences of same-sex attraction. Both of us also experience same-sex attraction; we’ve benefited immensely from the variety books on this topic and trust that the church has as well.
The latest addition is from Nate Collins in All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality. Collins—a partner associate at The Sight Ministry, a Christian organization based in Nashville that provides resources and support for individuals, families, and Christian organizations regarding LGBT issues—likewise writes out of experience and from a traditional, biblical approach.
But what justifies yet another book on these subjects? More books are justified by the other, more powerful cultural avalanche that has nearly buried us all—the new attitudes and approach to gender and sexuality created by the sexual revolution of the last 50 years. More recently, acceptance of same-sex marriage has slipped in the evangelical church through the influential books of James Brownson (at an academic level) and Matthew Vines (at a popular one).
In response, those of us coming from a traditional perspective have had a lot of rescue work to do. But both avalanches have left us with a new landscape where some differences of opinion have emerged among those who espouse a traditional view on same-sex attraction. There has been friendly fire on issues like:
- Origins: What causes same-sex attraction—is it nature or nurture?
- Identity: What contemporary labels can—or should—a Christian use or avoid?
- Orientation: Is it just sexual acts and fantasy that are sinful, or is it every aspect of someone’s same-sex attraction?
- Change: What expectation of change is possible or necessary for the same-sex-attracted Christian?
These complex and subtle differences require deep thought, and Collins’s book is an important entry in this category. He provides new vistas in this conversation which deserve our attention. Though he lands in some different places than we do (for instance, in how we choose to label our sexual orientation), we both benefited from reading his book.
All But Invisible has some considerable strengths. Collins is well-read and engages with more secular texts (especially on gender and minority groups) than many of us have time or ability to. His description of the way church culture has encouraged the internalized shame of “nonstraight” brothers and sisters is crushing and highlights what we need to repent of and work against. Perhaps most helpful is his call for same-sex-attracted Christians to acknowledge—rather than hide or minimize—such attraction as a real part of their experience, and, like all truths about us, to put it into submission to who we are in Jesus Christ. It’s not erased; it’s transformed.
The most important idea is Collins’s presentation of aesthetic orientation. He argues that viewing gayness and straightness through the primary lens of sex urges misrepresents the experience of gay people and furthers the stereotypes of gays and lesbians as sexual deviants. Instead, he proposes placing the locus of orientation in beauty, rather than sex. This move has at least two strong positives that are desperately needed in the conservative church.
First, it militates against both shame and stereotype: we don’t need to feel guilty when we notice God-given same-gender beauty; we do need to confess sin when we imagine having sex with the beautiful person in question. Moral culpability is rightly placed on our response to temptation, not on the presence of temptation itself.
Second, it rightly captures the nuance of attraction. That pull toward another human is so much more than physical, and those of us who experience same-sex attraction deal with this pull in many ways.
However, the label of “aesthetic orientation” also presents some mild problems. It relies heavily on the subjective experience of each person’s attraction, and may overemphasize the difference between straight and gay responses to beauty on this basis. Collins writes:
If we are to speak of an aesthetic orientation and use it to differentiate between gay and straight, we would say that both gay men and straight women are, for example, less aware (in general) of the beauty of feminine personhood than straight men or lesbian women. (150)
And it isn’t merely among females; straight males, too, can have a deep draw towards male beauty that manifests in joy, appreciation, and intimate friendship, though it’s true that the art of friendship has seemed to wane in the recent generations. Beauty itself doesn’t seem to be able to hold the key to what it means to be gay, because deep same-gender appreciation and draw exists across orientations. Though Collins has excellent reasons for wanting to disassociate the center of being gay from sexual and romantic feelings, those feelings are precisely the difference between those who are identified as gay and those who are not. Instead of taking up the mantle of aesthetic orientation, the church should become more nuanced in our discussion of what same-sex attraction is, recognizing that it’s not less than sexual attraction, but also more.
Notably, Collins acknowledges that “one of [his] main arguments in this book is that being gay (understood as an aesthetic orientation) is not sinful in itself” (303). This is also why he engages extensively with Denny Burk and Heath Lambert’s counterclaims in their recent volume Transforming Homosexuality. Pastors, theologians, and strugglers throughout the church are making good-faith efforts to parse this question.
We believe with Sam Allberry that “desires for things that God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” (Is God Anti-Gay?, 30); that is, our sexualities are fallen. But ever since we responded to Christ in repentance and faith, our union to him has removed the need for any lasting guilt or shame about our sexual feelings. This leaves us free to unashamedly acknowledge any ongoing same-sex attraction and use all the tools of the Spirit to say no to temptation. Our moral responsibility concerns what we do with our attractions, which leaves us in a remarkably similar place to Collins, which needs to be underlined. This conversation is between brothers and sisters—it is no war.
The biggest weakness of All But Invisible is its academic tone. While we need well-researched, carefully argued books, the pace and language of this volume means that most won’t be able to get to the best parts or have the patience or time to digest its arguments fully. The temptation will be to soundbite it, which would be a travesty.
Though the structure of the book is clear, and Collins constantly references where he’s going, he often muddies the waters through digression and wordiness. A longer conclusion that drew together the different strands the book explored would’ve been much appreciated and would’ve help alleviate confusion. Because of these deficiencies, this work wouldn’t be our first recommendation for someone just beginning to explore these issues—they should start with Allberry, Butterfield, or Hill.
Still, Collins has provided us with a number of thoughtful reflections on some of the more puzzling and contentious aspects of the new landscape we’re living in today. Many of us writing on—and living out—this experience from a biblical and traditional perspective are actually closer to each other than we often think. We long for the same things: dignity, holiness, and fullness of life for all people in the church, but especially for nonstraight Christians who have experienced exclusion and shaming for too long. We’re grateful that Collins has joined this much-needed and continuing conversation.
“There are only two paths in life, and they both lead to fire.”
Fire and brimstone preaching is a well-known, and often mocked, feature in certain types of ministry. The technique centers around the motivation of fear. By stoking the listeners’ imaginations around the horrors of hell, and the certainty of their going there, the preacher hopes to spur to repentance. Salvation from this motivation can derisively be called “fire-insurance” for this reason. People don’t want to burn, right?
I heard a pastor open up Matthew 3:1-12 this past weekend, and he made the provocative statement above. What if the choice isn’t between fire and no fire, but rather between types of burning?
The Matthew passage contains the introduction of John the Baptist and his ministry in the wilderness. A fulfillment of prophecy, John was preparing the hearts of Israel to receive their coming Lord. But it seems that some of the religious elite came to spy out what was going on, or at very least they came to participate but in a compromised way. John understands them immediately and warns them: Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
There it is, that stark message. Turn or burn. He’s not being cheeky though; John is deadly serious.
Directly after this word, he compares his ministry to that of the Coming One. John is known for baptizing in the river, but he declares to those surrounding him that there was a more dramatic baptism on the way. That one would be administered by someone much mightier than John, and it would be with the Holy Spirit and—there again—with fire.
Some debate has circled around just what this fire means. Is it just a representation again of judgment for those who don’t accept the Spirit? Perhaps. But I side with Greek scholar Grant Osborne here, who sees this construction as representing a total package, not an either/or. That is, some would be baptized with “Spirit and fire.”
Who would these be? Well, who were the ones who were baptized with water? They were those who were repenting of their sins, those who responded to John’s message. Similarly, those who would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire will be those who respond to the message of the one who brings that specific baptism, that is, Jesus Christ.
The pastor who preached this sermon did an admirable job exhorting his congregation to consider which path they were on—the fire of judgment, or the fire of the Spirit? But it stirred up in me a connected thought: do we in Christ expect fire, do we welcome it? Should we?
Fire is used to destroy, but also famously to refine. Unlike wood or straw, fire applied to gold doesn’t destroy. Instead, you find that impurities in the gold rises to the top, and can be skimmed off the top. If this process is continually done, you can work the gold over to a level of purity never found in the natural world, when gold is pulled from out of the earth.
The gold during this process is in a distressed state. It isn’t solid, but molten. It’s vulnerable in a way, to spilling, to its shape changing. It’s only in this state that the gold can be remodeled into jewelry or bars or what have you. The comparison to spiritual formation is clear: to receive the purifying fire of the Spirit is to be completely at his mercy, but also to be moving towards greater and greater purity.
Frankly, we wouldn’t mind the purity, but the process is unwelcome. We don’t want the fire of hell, but isn’t there a way to sit happily in the middle, safe from all this burning?
This safety is less desirous than we imagine. Safety from vibrant relationship to Christ. Safety from developing our gifts to serve and bless. Safety from transformation, from putting away the habits that depress and haunt us and putting on Spirit empowered practices that give us access to joy and peace. Safety from a life fully lived. Perhaps we can have this safety—but do we want it? Is too much of this counterfeit safety a signal that it’s not Jesus we’re after, but a crude self-preservation? Is this a self worth preserving?
The advent of Jesus into the world, into a life, never leaves things the same. To expect any different is not to know him. This is a threat, but it’s also the fulfillment of what we’re chasing after all day long. If we have said yes to Jesus, let’s keep saying yes. Let’s today put ourselves under the influence of the Spirit by faith, trusting that he loves us. He alone can bring us to himself, and give us a new, forever self along the way. The refining fire is a fire of passion, and the one who wields it is skilled for our good. Can we trust him enough to choose it? What, really, is the alternative?
Missionary, in some circles, is like a curse word. It represents the very worst of colonization, the impulse to vacuum up “pagan” cultures and replace them with what the colonizer has deemed proper. Like a spiritual Manifest Destiny, this kind of missionary expands religion hoping for grateful acquiescence but willing to extract obedience through force if need be.
This is unrecognizable to me, as a staff member of Cru, one of the largest missionary forces in the world. But I was confronted with how painfully real this image was and is to many as I read the biography of Edward S. Curtis in Tim Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
One hundred years ago, Curtis, a man I have never heard of before, gave his life to capturing the cultures of Native Americans as they were before Europeans came to colonize. That is, as much as he could capture. Many of the peoples and ways were rapidly slipping away. As Curtis traveled amongst dozens of the people groups of North America, he began to truly love them. Perhaps he even idealized them. Nonetheless, his heart burned against the injustices they had faced, and he worked tirelessly, even recklessly, to preserve authentic customs and real, powerful lives on film and in writing.
Curtis had grown up the American West, the son of an itinerant preacher. His father never made much of himself, and is presented by Egan as a tragic figure. The reader isn’t exposed to what that man thought of the gospel, what methods he used, or even the primary audience he was ministering to. But it was clear that whatever exposure the younger Curtis had to the Bible left him unmoved.
How opposite his interactions with the various native faiths he encountered. Through patience, observation, and humility, Curtis gained access to many sacred rituals, such as the Snake Dance of the Hopi and the Yeibichai Dance of the Navajo. He was transfixed. While stereotypes and gross misrepresentation of Native life abounded in white America, Curtis saw real humans. He experienced communities of integrity, warmth, and deep spirituality, not confined to ceremony alone but certainly present in it. And he was transformed.
Paradoxically, this gave him a kind of missionary zeal to explain the Native life for the broader American culture. For example, during a traveling exposition of his work, he stated “It is often said of certain tribes that they are sun-worshippers…To call them sun-worshippers is, I believe, in most instances about as nearly right as it would be to call all Christian people cross-worshippers. In other words, the sun is but the symbol of the power”(211,12).
By drawing this analogy, Curtis was working hard to communicate well to a predominantly Christian audience - culturally, at least. But he didn’t hide that it was often “Christian” workers who had spread false views of native religion, and missionaries who traveled far and wide to crush native ceremonies, to wipe them away. A missionary to him was one who destroyed, not one who brought life. The most vibrant community of natives Curtis ever met were the only ones that missionaries hadn’t yet reached, way up in the arctic north near Russia.
The drive to preserve, interpret, and protect pre-colonization Native life consumed Curtis, destroying his health and family. Late in life, literally on trial for how he could be so famous and yet possess zero assets, working for free to support whole peoples but neglecting his wife and children, Curtis was asked by a judge why he would do such a thing. This masculine symbol of American fortitude cried on the stand as he answered, “Your honor, it was my job. The only thing…the only thing I could do that was worth doing” (293).
On reading this, my heart overflowed for this broken man, long dead. I have felt the same pull myself, but towards the gospel mission.
I have no reliable sense of what irony actually is, but this feels ironic to me: a man on a mission for the faith of others, whose greatest enemy seemed to be Christian missionaries, embodying the self-sacrifice that their Lord asked of them. It produced two tragedies, equally weighty.
The first is that Curtis pursued a beautiful thing in destructive ways. To pour out one’s life for the sake of others is truly Christlike. To neglect one’s family, the wife of one’s youth, is not. Nor was Curtis able or willing to offer the gospel. He was unable to save the native cultures he loved, nor was he able to offer them reconciliation with the God who made and loved them-a double loss.
But the second tragedy is more severe, because it is a failure of the church. How could those coming in the name of Jesus, Jesus who would never break a broken reed or tread on a vulnerable heart, how could they come with such cultural imperialism? It is great sin to conflate the universal gospel with any specific cultural expression, a sin which wreaks unspeakable damage. If you can read this book, and its story of native demise, without weeping, I suspect you have no heart.
This story demanded that I look at my own heart, and my own expression of mission. Are there any places where I would demand a person change beyond what the gospel asks, to conform to something in me or my culture that is unnecessary and even harmful to God’s purposes? The gospel is God’s beautiful power, but it is wielded by imperfect, sinful humans. We must take great care, friends. We must go, but we must go in God’s Spirit, asking much forgiveness for what has been wrought before us where necessary. God help us to have courage and humility in equal measure—to love like Curtis, but even more, to love like Christ.
When the water comes, you don’t think in inches. You think in furniture, in body parts, in whole buildings. It starts walking up the steps, swallowing to the waist, to the neck, drowning the neighbor’s home to the roof.
“The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.”
Hurricane Harvey began as a small storm on the western coast of Africa, and made its way across the Atlantic. Thirteen days later, engorged with water, it slammed into the United States, the strongest to strike Texas in a generation. The water lifted, constantly lifted, disfiguring and disorienting Houston and swaths of the area around it. Its departure was meager relief, disaster and death strewn in its wake.
“The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.”
These words from Psalm 93, with their rhythmic build, mimic the terror they describe. The floods, the floods, the floods—Hebrew poetry doesn’t major on three-fold repetition, it jars the reader intentionally. The floods are personified too, and they don’t just speak, their voices lift like a watery host, building to a roar.
This menace rises in the middle of the psalm after its opening declaration of the LORD God’s power, visualized in the imagery of royal robes. The poet proclaims, “Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.”
But these rebellious floods. In the face of the God who speaks stars into being, they roar, they taunt, they bring destruction and death. The sea, chaotic water, is a frequent symbol of evil in the Bible, a potent picture since humanity is so vulnerable before its power. Too many of our neighbors have wailed in grief these past months, realizing this bitterly, even in the safety of modern life.
Then immediately the response:
“Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
mightier than the waves of the sea,
the LORD on high is mighty!”
The LORD is not vulnerable, he is high above. The waters can’t crush him—they don’t even reach his feet. Their rebellion and chaos are matched, more than. He will calm them.
But is this good news for us?
We are born rebels. Whether roaring or murmuring, we are born hating God’s claim to authority, distrusting his goodness, his beauty, even his existence. We say, Surely we are wise enough to rule the world. Surely we know enough to make the best choices for ourselves. Surely we are self-made people, mighty and good.
God’s might in this poem, his forever-robed power, is meant for the staying of rebellion. While some rebellions in history have been just and right, rebellion against God only masquerades as righteous. It borrows the heroic narratives of the justified but brings the destruction of a flood: all encompassing, smothering death. Lungs filled, but with counterfeit substance.
Is it a forever-drowning? After all, as the psalm ends, the verdict is clear: God’s laws and covenant are trustworthy. The holiness that adorns his house is forever. We are unholy covenant breakers, how can we stand?
We stand because he is not only mighty, but full of rescuing love. In the aftermath of Harvey and the other storms, it was the rescue stories that showed the reflection of God in us. Women and men who plowed into the waters to save their children, their neighbors, even strangers. Some lost their lives in the effort, and we feel the nobility of it, the humanity of it, the love of it.
Jesus became human to perform this rescuing love. His whole life bore its marks, and it was demonstrated finally when he was dying. The flood of God’s wrath crept up his body, swallowing it totally on the cross that was lifted from the earth, even up to the heavens which went dark. He was drowned by the cup, saving us. Mighty, he went under while lifting us over his head. His lungs filled with the water of judgment, our lungs breathed true for the first time with new life.
Psalm 93 tells of God’s steadfast might against the chaos of watery death. The whole Bible tells of his steadfast love for its victims and perpetrators. He is robed in majesty, and he offers you the clothes of salvation—beautiful, breathtaking wedding clothes, so much more than the wool blankets of rescue workers. They are held out for you to take, they are held out for your joy in the LORD who loves you. An everlasting joy for an everlasting God.
“Xenophobe Triggered By Great Multitude In Revelation 7”
The humor of this Babylon Bee piece sparks to flame because it pits a realistic stereotype of a political conservative against an established biblical fact: God has always been about all nations— the coming consummation of the kingdom will famously feature every tribe, tongue and nation.
Jesus became incarnated as a particular male in a particular culture and place, in order to rescue the whole church, scattered across space and time. This is should come as no surprise to any Bible reader, and should be fruitfully used in our witness to a world that cares increasingly about diversity. Their heart in this, though imperfect, echoes God’s, and this should be celebrated.
But diversity isn’t something that God is waiting to institute, a final act to show his benevolence. Diversity has been a priority for God from act one.
So God created humanity in his own image
in his own image he created it
male and female he created them
There is more to be said about this small poem than can be contained in any one post. It has captured imaginations and started fights. But as I turned it over in my mind the other day, it was the diversity that struck me.
It celebrates unity of course, as the male and the female together make up the collective noun translated humanity, or mankind, or people (and hence the “it” of line two). But that noun, and that reality, was designed to embody one necessary diversity: male and female.
Before heaven, we will never experience full cultural diversity; any church in rural New Hampshire can amen to that. We’ll have to wait for that coming multitude, as we’ll need brand new upgraded hearts to be able to contain that kind of joy, I suspect. In fact it will be more than just intra-human diversity—it will be God with his people, diversity of kind on a different level. But even the primal diversity of female and male in the first humans points us to both of these types of new earth diversities to come.
First, it was the source of all human diversity, since God made from one man all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth. That is, this first diversity spawns all the others, and is its seedbed. Each of us owes our very lives to it and to the male female diversity directly responsible for us. Second, it was in itself a picture of God and his people, different yet united in love and commitment, as Paul points out about marriage in general in Ephesians 5.
This is one reason why gender diversity within marriage remains such a powerful good today. Just like the first marriage, it points to these same two realities, performing the beauty of unity amidst fundamental diversity in all seasons, without sugar coating, in the thickness of real life. It is the seedbed of new life and thus new difference, just as the first couple. It is also a living, moving replica of the one marriage in heaven, however imperfect. Of course married couples have more differences than just their sex and gender, but there is something visceral, visual, powerful, about the diverse nature of male and female together making up full humanity. In a generation that loves diversity, can we make this vision sing? I think it is there for the taking.
Hey friends--today I'm featuring a wedding speech that my good friend Dr. Greg Nelson wrote and delivered on the occasion of his brother-in-law's wedding this past summer. I found it deeply moving; even though written for a particular couple on a particular day, its theme is universal. I have lightly edited it, and present it to you for your joy and consideration:
A love without boundaries: It speaks to the supernatural and the transcendent as well as to the practical daily realities you bear with one another.
Integrating two people with different cultures is an obvious challenge. However, I think every couple should reflect on this, whether from opposite ends of the world or opposite sides of the same street. Even if you both came from the same small village with one faith, one language, and one skin tone, once you live together, you will discover that your mate is crazy. And each person is her own microcosm of little "C" cultural preferences and observances.
But what I most want to share with you today are thoughts on the greatest and most guarded of boundaries - the self.
As you have and will continue to discover, even the most ardent love must lay siege to the fortress of self-preservation. This is where the transcendent and poetic meet the mundane and everyday. Our self-preservation takes many forms - the need to win an argument, the desire to meet our needs first, the lies that hide our imperfections, the retreats that avoid vulnerability.
But a real love without boundaries is one that razes even this final wall of self protection - daily laying down our own agenda and looking first to the other's good. In our generation, this is heresy. We are taught you cannot love another until you love first yourself. Shouldn't love make me happy, we ask? Isn't all this selflessness just for fantasies and fairy tales?
Let me add another layer to the discussion. Our generation prizes keeping doors open, having a multitude of options at our fingertips, disposing of things the moment their newness fades. "Love without boundaries" is appealing to us because it sounds like freedom - no constraints, no rules. Many think of marriage, a commitment to only one person for the rest of your life, as a dungeon door slamming shut; we joke about a spouse as one's "ball and chain." But I want to encourage you both that in fact, the opposite is true.
As you stand here today, making this commitment to forsake all others and stay by each other's side until death do you part, you are in fact on the precipice of a truly limitless love.
I know that Le Petit Prince is a book with special meaning to both of you. Many of you may be familiar with it. In it, a child-like prince from another planet travels to Earth learns what it truly means to love another.
You will remember that in his journey, the little prince meets a fox. In the beginning, the fox is just an ordinary fox like a thousand other foxes in the world, and the prince like a million other boys. But as they cultivate their friendship, day by day, in the words of the fox, they "tame" one another. Through their mutual investment and connectedness they become priceless to one another.
Sounds nice, right? Well, don't be mistaken, this comes at a cost - the lost opportunity to experience other competing relationships and the certainty of future pain and loss. But this exclusivity is the doorway to the most fundamental of human hopes: to be fully known and fully loved.
As you stand here today, it is not that you have found "the One" who will make you perfectly happy. Instead, you are choosing to be "the One" to the other. Through your regular daily life, you will practice saying "no" to other people or things you may want, SO THAT you can say "yes" to each other. This process repeated will transform this person standing in front of you today into a diamond in a world full of shiny rocks. The boundary of your exclusive commitment to one another in marriage is actually the foundation for the limitless love you seek.
Remember the shock of the prince, when he finds out that the rose he thought was unique in the whole universe in fact looks just like the other thousands of roses on Earth? But after he has tamed and been tamed by the fox, he recognizes the true beauty of his rose lies in their shared experience.
He says this,
"People where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden ...yet they don't find what they are looking for. And yet what they are looking for could be found in a single rose. But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart."
This is the real fulfillment of the love you seek. Not every couple finds this path. Alas most do not. Where can such a transformative power be found?
It is apparent that the fox's teachings on connectedness come from his personal experience. A single act of romantic heroism, I can imagine, but a sustained conscious effort is difficult to fathom, harder to imitate - unless you have received it from another.
The Christian Bible tells us of another Prince who comes to earth and faces death for his beloved, triumphantly conquering the grave for her. The New Testament describes the love of God displayed in Jesus Christ as a marriage between God and men. And rightly so, for commitment is at its center.
Therefore, no matter your faith background or perspective, we can all look to this shining example of love and receive from God this great gift. In the experience of His transcendent love, we find ourselves transformed to reproduce the same for one another. I encourage you, never stop seeking the source of this limitless love.
"People where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden ...yet they don't find what they are looking for. And yet what they are looking for could be found in a single rose. But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart."
Here is your rose. Here is your prince.
“It was the touching that was unusual.
the reverend everly thomas”
What are ghosts in our stories? What are their goals, their hopes? Why aren’t they resting in peace? In this year’s Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders spins an unusual ghost story—a historical fiction that exhumes these questions with pathos and humor. A ghost love story. It is one of the strangest novels I have ever read, and I loved it.
Trust me, you need some context. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie. The records of his grief are profound. Saunders orients his novel around the day and night of Willie’s interment, in a D.C. cemetery, and Lincoln’s visit there after hours to hold the dead body of his son—which may or may not have happened in real life. It’s the stuff of rumor it seems.
The cemetery holds a wide cast of characters, who we might call shades, or ghosts. They are given backstories and it becomes clear that they are each lingering, sometimes for decades, because they don’t believe they are dead. They are in denial, and it pegs them to this in between state (the bardo of the title), where they wait to have their life finished out. Hans Vollman assures himself that he’s merely sick. Soon he will recover and consummate his marriage with the wife he loves. Roger Bevins III regrets having injured his wrists so violently. He is sure someone will find him and revive him soon. Etc.
Ghosts are people who can’t admit that they’re dead. That open secret haunts them.
For me, this raised the specter of Ephesians 2:1: You were dead in your trespasses. God diagnoses our state: dead. Before we know him, we are in denial. Yet our hearts sometimes whisper that secret, and it haunts us.
In the novel, the ghosts wait and wait. Their false lives are punctuated only by arrivals and departures. Some who have lingered give in to the truth and explode, gone forever. One night, though, Lincoln comes, after hours, and shocks them all.
He comes, heart rent and heavy, and holds his boy. The ghosts have never seen anything like it, and their witness of the act becomes a key turning point in the novel. As one ghost puts it, “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community.” It’s not that people don’t come—they come, but disconnected. If they do touch, it is roughly: to steal a body or mock it. But mostly, they never seek to touch.
“But this—this was different.
roger bevins iii
The holding, the lingering, the kind words whispered directly into the ear? My God! My God!
the reverend everly thomas
As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?
It was cheering. It gave us hope.
the reverend everly thomas
We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.
roger bevins iii”
This broken father-love does not shrink away from embracing even death, even a body in the midst of decay. This broken father-love, the touch of it—even witnessing its touch on another—stirs up their deepest hopes. This broken-father love, I recognized it immediately. It is the same love that saved me.
“You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
The course of the novel is so much more than can be touched on here, and I encourage you to read it. But at its core, it holds out a vision of salvation for these ghosts: Willie receives broken-father love. It tells him a truth that sets him free from the bardo: that he is dead, but he is still loved. This truth works its way through the cemetery, and Saunders spins a brilliantly human picture of its consequences. But in the end, he leaves no space for the love to actually vivify. It merely gives the peace needed to let go – surely a blessing in the context of the book.
God’s love is so much greater. He is the Father of broken-love, the Christ weeping over death, the Spirit who comes to make alive—to bring new birth. His purposes for us are drenched in affection, soaked in tenderness. This truth sets us free, not to embrace our death, but to embrace him, and live.
This novel gave me renewed hope that not only do we need to hear this story, but that this story salves the wounds our contemporaries can barely articulate, the wounds they deny - that we deny. We were truly dead, but not beyond the reach of our Father. He did the unthinkable, reaching into death, pulling it right into his chest and defeating it. Raising us in love. Tell it to yourself, again. Tell it to a friend.
Recognizing boasting is a little like the old definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. It’s not simply a positive declaration. No, it has a flavor of triumph, the aroma of conquest or achievement. A little more than self-satisfied, boasting only exists as far as it is expressed.
Christianity must speak against this braggery, right? I know you’re not fooled by such an early hypothetical question, dear reader. You’re anticipating that the New Testament holds nuance on this question which should be profitably mined.
Absent one occurrence in Hebrews, Paul alone uses the word which is translated “boast” in our English versions. His usage uncovers a key truth about this word: its morality is revealed by its object. Additionally, the variety of objects available to this verb suggests that we should not be concerned about whether or not we are boasting, but rather about whether we are boasting in the right things. Just as David Foster Wallace and Tim Keller have popularized the notion that we all are worshippers, so we should recognize that we are each of us boasters.
Would it surprise you to know that this word is used more often in a positive way than negative? It surprised me. In this positive usage, the word gets translated thrice as “rejoice” in Romans 5, and “glory” twice in Philippians, along with the more common “boast.”
Its objects in these cases flow downstream from the primary one, the Lord Jesus Christ. After boasting in the great work of Jesus for his people, we see boasting in weakness, and frequently, boasting in other people. There is an ignorance of, a lack of interest in, the achievements of the person doing the boasting. They are case studies in self-denial, as Paul demonstrates how his rejoicing in the accomplishments of others leads him to bragging.
What then makes up the negative cases? When we think of boasting, it’s easy to think of the person who is bragging about her nice things, her spate of amazing travel opportunities, or perhaps her career accomplishments. In certain circles it can look like incessantly pointing out how well one’s children are doing in school or an activity. It’s always obnoxious, and we all find ourselves doing it at times.
But that is not at all what Paul focuses on when he’s talking about boasting. His target is more insidious: boasting in religious activity, in churchiness. Because of Paul’s context, this most often revolves around keeping the Mosaic Law, or even simply possessing it. For us, that can look like boasting in Christian heritage, or in ministry activities.
I heard one teacher put it this way: Our boasting reveals what defines us.
It’s deadly to have your pious activities define you. It’s that spirit that seeks to put God in our debt, that if we do that right things, are the right people, then he’ll owe us. Then we’ll have something to point to that justifies our existence. And it can just all look so good, like we’re checking all of God’s boxes. We’re praised. But we’re rotting—a branch snipped off, close to the vine as it lies on the soil, dead all the same.
So what about Paul’s own boasting in his ministry? Is that not a defining of himself by his works? We shouldn’t gloss this. It has troubled me for a couple of days, so what I offer here is perhaps preliminary.
As one example that would point to the acceptable nature of Paul’s ministry boasting, consider his discussion in 1 Corinthians 9. He recalls there that he has a specific assignment for ministry from the Lord for gospel preaching, a necessity. Because it is required of him, he has a right to be paid, a worker receiving his wages. However, his desire is to do it for free, to offer Jesus his services at great cost to himself. Remember, he became all things to all people that some might hear and respond. He suffered immensely, but penned that one could give his body to the flames in ministry, and without love, it would be nothing.
I believe we see in Paul an extreme test case in what boasting can look like. While the circumcision party boasted in traditional Judaic rule keeping, while the Corinthians gloried in the amazing power of their spiritual gifts, Paul kept on identifying himself as a slave to Jesus. A slave. His heart was constantly caught up in the concern for the churches, that they not wander from their first love and his, Christ the Lord. He had been struck blind and rerouted, reprimanded and restored, and lived his life broken for others. A boasting apart from weakness, apart from being rent, is suspect.
Paul wasn’t a perfect man, even in his post conversion life I’m sure. But Jesus is perfect, one who greatly deserves our boasting. His strength, his patience, his tenderness, his intelligence, even his humor, each of these and more calling for our affection and bragging. How he stooped down, wiped us clean, resurrected us, accepted our punishment. Watching him draw out of dead stumps like ourselves the vigor of green life, how can we not point at each other in wonder, praising each other’s growth loudly, praising the God who is accomplishing it?
Our boasting reveals what defines us. How I long for my identity, and for the identity of my church, to be bound up in the Groom, and his spotless Bride. How then could we fail to produce raucous wedding-day bragging in their heroism and beauty?
If God is light, is there value in dark?
Children learn early to separate the good guy from the bad guy in a story. Darkness is a north star, navigating them toward the happy ending, the triumph over evil. These norms make soothing promises, and indeed we serve a triumphant God. We identify the hero early and map ourselves on to them.
Yet from my youth, I’ve been drawn to the tragic ending, to the promise broken. Sad stories are my savored sweets, drawn out, extracting every drop. I’ve found that this taste has not dissolved through 13 years of growing closer to the God of joy and comfort. It was inevitable that I would pick up Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark—the title alone wooed me.
The promise of the title asserts itself quickly. The themes weave in and out of death, infidelity, infertility, futile love, abandonment, loneliness, and even getting trapped under an ocean tanker in the dead of night. The epigraph from Eudora Welty quarters the work and shows us its organs: “Then she raised the hoe above her head.” There is violence, drama, female protagonists, and if you’re willing to admit it, humor.
All of the laughing I did surprised me. LOL is rarely literal, but there I was, cackling on my couch over Hunt’s perfect delivery, her ridiculous, obvious metaphors. But what won my heart was how everything she wrote felt real in the way that only fiction can. Even when holding up the absurd—a perfect sex bot designed to explode a terrorist, teenagers riding a horse to Walmart, a resurrected dog ruining a sexual encounter, a husband and wife becoming deer—Hunt feels in control. She’s telling you the truth.
We all know how real fear and anguish are, how real are betrayal and regret. We dream of framing our lives on the sure boards of success and happiness, but the truer studs are frequently our failures, the secrets we will never tell. Hunt doesn’t describe the dark dark for its own sake, a published voyeur. She presses us to acknowledge that sometimes the most universal story is expressed in the specifics of exquisite loss.
How can I pull out just one gem for you to look at in this embarrassment of riches? Perhaps you’ve never conducted an affair with your professor, and then yelled out at an academic party that everyone is “just angry because of what I do with my queer vagina.” Hunt uses language we may avoid and find uncomfortable, but it is not gratuitous. She is framing the outburst as pathetic, childish, and desperate - an attempt to dress up sin in words that are both smug and insecure, which we are all guilty of. Hunt’s narrator recalls the yelling woman and ponders: “‘Queer’ once meant strange. ‘Queer’ once meant homosexual. ‘Queer’ now means opposition to binary thinking…How did common, old, vanilla adultery ever become queer?” Why is it that we always try to cover our evil, even to ourselves, by giving it a bold name?
Perhaps you’ve never stood, spade in hand in your backyard, ready to kill a homeless woman who has the audacity to share your name and be carrying a child while you menstruate, unwanted, again. But we’ve all felt the rage of deciding that we deserved a thing more than someone else who got it, especially if that someone else is poorer, dirtier, or less educated than we are. Suddenly we can imagine how it could be us in the afternoon sunlight, contemplating coldly how to best hide a woman’s remains. Our real selves are exposed in fiction, and it makes us shiver. We can’t resist mapping ourselves onto the antihero.
Therein lies the value. It’s common to complain that we need to slow down, we need to notice, we need to put down our smartphones and be mindful. If nothing feels particularly urgent, it’s easy to ride our habits all day long, lulled. But a story wakes us, shaking our sleeping shoulder. The darkness asks frightening, urgent questions, and doesn’t supply the answers. Suddenly we’re paying attention.
This is what keeps Hunt’s work from being simply bleak. She allows the questions to linger, and a hope that they can be answered hovers—is it just within reach, or just outside? There is no moralism here, no tied bows. In this way, The Dark Dark recalls the excellent short stories of Flannery O’Connor. They share a spiritual connection despite the distance in the personal piety of the authors. Both women demand that you look, that you reckon. They will not be pleased until you relinquish your easy answers.
How shall we respond? Jesus Christ is the yes and amen of every one of God’s promises. His unconquerable life is our great joy, our forever wealth. He is the answer, but never the easy one. We betray his person if we use his presence in the world today by his Spirit as a reason to look away from the dark. The response of God to thick pain was to enter it, touch it, be overcome by it, and only then to rise. Jesus demonstrated the strength of his answer by becoming vulnerable. He knew the magnitude of what was against him; and the magnitude of who was behind him.
We have an invitation to this same Spirit empowered vulnerability. All of us can pretend that strength is conquering the dark by our own spirit, or by a well-placed Bible verse, or by ignoring the pain. But this is garbage. Our light is not enough, and trying to contain God’s light into a package that we can control will never do. Let’s enter in to each other’s dark questions, and invite the Spirit to show us himself, to show us Jesus. While this dark dark persists, it can serve as a path to the one who knows its reality, acknowledges its power and breaks it with his own body. Not easy, but won.