Results tagged “morality” from Reformation21 Blog

Mr. Moral Magoo?


I'm sure there's a generational gap when someone refers to Mr. Magoo. If you're under 30, there's a good chance that you've probably never heard of Mr. Magoo. I just so happened to have watched enough classic cartoons over the years to have seen a few episodes. Mr. Magoo is a cartoon about a legally blind man who blundered around the city, never knowing where he was going or what he was doing. And yet he always seemed to end up in the right place. By the end of the episode, Mr. Magoo had tripped off of girders only to land on another girder exactly in the right place. It made no sense, but he always seemed to survive by the end of an episode. He accidentally made it every time. He had always gone the wrong way and ended up at the right place.

I wonder how many of us have good theology and solid moral positions, but we have no idea how we got to them. Many in the Church have "Magooed" themselves into moral and theological positions that happen to be biblically sound, but we have no idea how we got there. If someone asked us why we believe or do what we do, we couldn't give an answer for it beyond our own cultural norms.

Christians, of all people, need to understand that the why of our moral and theological positions is just as crucial as the what of our moral and theological positions. Here is one example of that about which I am thinking: 

In the south, when I read Scripture that relates to human sexuality, there is very little pushback. When I read Paul's words regarding homosexual behavior in the south, I am preaching to the choir. I still never have anyone come up to me after the service and say that they need to talk about what I said - maybe people are thinking it, but there isn't any obvious pushback. For most, I hope, this is because they're been exposed to the teachings of Scripture and submit themselves willingly and joyfully to God's own revealed will about biblical morality.

However, I suspect that many have simply inherited a proclivity toward the normativity of heterosexual even though they really have never been persuaded from Scripture that this is God's revealed will. Perhaps they personally find the idea repulsive, or they've never had friends with same-sex attraction, and maybe they've spent their whole lives just never even thinking much about the struggle that some people may have. "Of course it's sinful! I find it gross!" But if you asked them why, their answer would be thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. At this point we start to see that there is a very thin line (in fact, one might argue there's no difference at all) between bigotry and culturally inherited bias against homosexuality. It's a moral position that they are correct about, but only by accident.

Another example of this "magooing" of theology has to do with the issue of complementarianism. If our view that only men should be in leadership roles in the church is culturally inherited, but we really couldn't tell you how we got there from Scripture, then that is sexism. Apart from the command and teaching of Scripture, what we end up having is a culturally inherited belief that men are superior to women and therefore that men ought to lead the church, not women.

In both of these examples, what the church needs is a theologically robust understanding of what the Scripture says about human sexuality and about human sexual behavior. We need to encourage our churches to dig down deep into the text and ask ourselves, "What has God said?"

There is a practical reason why we must do this: if our moral and theological positions are only culturally informed, then they can be devastated by a more persuasive cultural norm when it shows its face. In fact, we see this happening quite a lot right now. It seems like the last two or three years have shown that many in the evangelical community had magooed themselves into their views of human sexuality and have been just as easily moved out of them.

Their views were thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. And so when they met someone who shattered their preconceptions about homosexuality, or when they had a son or daughter that revealed they were same-sex-attracted, then of course their culturally-informed (rather than biblically-informed) views folded in the face of overwhelming pressure. I've yet to meet anyone who identified as an evangelical, who subsequently folded on this issue and said, "You know, I look at the word 'arsenakoitai' in Scripture and what it means and had my whole mind changed." The Scriptural twisting ultimately must come after the cultural pressure has been applied and yielded to.

And here is the point: if our morality is culturally conditioned, then it cannot hold up in a day and age when the cultural pressure is so acute, so painful, and so obviously intended to make evangelicals adopt the new morality. Our understanding of God, and our understanding of what it is he requires of us has to be thick, biblical, and rooted in God's self-revelation. Anything less will be blowing in the wind.


It was an article about a European film director, usually hymned to the skies as a master craftsman and genuine visionary. It led me to an extended synopsis of one of his more recent films. I will not go into details, but it was a blow-by-blow account of the plot, complete with spoilers. The film was a showcase for the director's usual themes, and manifested his skill in carrying his audience along. It was this latter capacity which intrigued me, yoked as it was with the thematic and visual content of the film. Reading the synopsis gave me the opportunity to consider in the cold light of day what I would have been watching, and to consider what I would have been thinking and feeling had I been watching this film.

My responses might have been, fairly crassly, divided into two categories. There would have been responses arising from my fallen-though-redeemed humanity and my remaining sin: the fascination with the perverse, the indulgence of sinful sexual desires, and the satisfaction that comes from revenge, for example. Then there would have been responses that might have been traced more to common grace and something of the image of God: anger at injustice and cruelty, grief over loss, sorrow over suffering.

But here's the thing: as I worked through the synopsis, I began to understand that there was a developing twist in the tail (not to mention the tale). Up to this point, all one's responses - more or less sinful or righteous (though you will appreciate that I am not for one moment suggesting that you want to watch this film) - were being tagged to certain persons, events and relationships, running down what you might call normal channels. Then, at the denouement, when the twist in the tail becomes a sting, there would have been this horrible moment of torsion. At the moment of the reveal your reasonably normal though not necessarily righteous responses - loathing for this character, pity for that; physical attraction to or sexual desire for the one, anger at another - would be suddenly, violently, aggressively re-ordered. It is the moment at which you realise that all the categories in which you have been working are not what they seem, that the routes down which your thoughts and feelings were running are actually carrying you to a radically different location than the one you were anticipating.

Now, I am not suggesting that every film (or any other medium) does this or does it invariably. Many films run very predictably to the outcomes you can predict from the first three minutes (think of just about any action film you wish to name). Others build a sense of tension before leaving you hanging with questions (Christopher Nolan seems to enjoy this). Others revel in this unsettling twist, this re-ordering of all your categories and expectations.

But have you ever stepped back and considered the level of mental and emotional and moral manipulation to which you are subjecting yourself? Even if there is no twist, it does not mean that you are not being trained to think and feel. Rather, you are having certain channels dug ever deeper and reinforced. This is the way to think, and feel, and act. These are the correct intellectual assessments, the appropriate emotional dispositions, the right moral judgements. Perhaps the film that leaves you hanging suggests that there are no resolutions, no right or even knowable answers.

Where there is a twist, have you wondered at the level of intellectual, emotional, even moral reorientation that might be occurring? If your sense of justice is suddenly ripped to shreds, and you realise that wronged character you have been rooting for is actually the perpetrator of the crime? If the sexual desires that have been consistently stirred up are suddenly revealed to have been directed toward someone who is not of the gender that you had been led to believe? If the person you have been horrified by as morally corrupt suddenly turns out to be, in essence, the closest thing you have to a hero?

These are not the only possibilities, but I wonder how much of this is happening, hour by hour, day by day. We complain about the ignorant bewilderment that there is in the world, at the erosion of common grace, at the confusion of moral categories, at the seemingly irresistible slide toward Sodom and Gomorrah. But - without wishing to sound paranoid - have we considered the influence of these kinds of media on the thinking, feeling and judging of the world? If these influences are being perpetrated by men and women with a thoroughly godless outlook and a very deliberate agenda, then the outcome will be entirely predictable - a thoroughgoing confusion and dissolution of thought, feeling and morality.

The same happens, in measure, among Christians. Some of us expose ourselves, perhaps thoughtlessly or even arrogantly, to what might be called a drip-feed for consistency were it not a torrent for volume, a relentless flow of the sludge of carnal attitudes and appetites. This flow threatens to overwhelm and erode all our distinctive thinking and feeling, to re-order our intellectual assessments, re-direct our emotional dispositions, and re-align our moral judgments. Isaiah made it clear: "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Is 5.20). Yet how often we allow such men and women unfettered access to our minds and hearts, competing with the revelation of God for our intellectual, emotional and moral allegiance. Then we are surprised at how much like the world the church has become, as if it were a thing unexpected, despite having made or allowed the world to be our teachers. It is hard enough to hold fast at the best of times; how much more when we thoughtlessly or arrogantly surrender ourselves to such influences! Under such circumstances, it will - it must! - have an effect on us.

I am not suggesting that the answer is a wholesale retreat from every medium of communication, any more than I think that Christians should try to take over the radio stations, television stations, and Hollywood studios, and go toe-to-toe with the godless in terms of production in the hopes that we can somehow start to push back.

But perhaps the first part of the answer is real discernment. First, discernment in whether to watch at all, because the first line of defence might be and perhaps should more often be the off-switch. A healthy dose of Philippians 4.8 would go a long way in some circles. Then, discernment in how to watch: we need to be aware that these words and images that flow into us are having an effect upon us, even in matters that might at first seem negligible or innocent. We must be conscious of how we and others are being manipulated and trained, and we must resist it where - deliberately or not - it skews all our categories. We must develop our intellectual, emotional and moral faculties through the Word of God: that must be our first, fundamental and final standard. Then, whatever and whenever we watch and hear, willingly or unwillingly, let us never suspend those biblically-tuned and biblically-attuned faculties, but rather bring all to the touchstone of Scripture, viewing and listening to all through the filter of divine revelation, and continue to think and feel and judge as God intends.

Try this exercise: for yourself, your friends, your children, for whomever. Think back to what you have watched or heard or read recently. Write out a synopsis. (Perhaps some would be surprised how spiritually ugly some graphic sounds-and-images appear when reduced to black on white, when our emotions are not being carried along and we are not more-or-less willingly suspending our faculty of discernment.) Trace the development of character and plot, note the ways and means in which your thoughts, feelings and judgements are being tagged or yoked, channelled and directed and perhaps manipulated. Consider what you are being taught and how you are being taught it. And then ask, if you are a child of God, "Is evil being switched for or confused with good, and darkness for light, and bitter for sweet? Are my foundations being shaken, and how and in what way and to what ends? Is this the way my heavenly Father would have me think? Is this conforming me to Christ?"

To be sure, there may be times when you are able to say, "I can keep enough distance here: I can read this article, watch this documentary, follow this series, read this book, watch this film, hear this program, and I can discern the processes at work, and establish a filter, and guard my heart." At other times you should say, "I do not have the wisdom to discern these things, and - even if I do - I would be a fool to imagine that I have the strength to stand," and so you would flee for safety. When you can see the manoeuvres of the enemy, even where you cannot prevent combat, you can at least prevent surprise. If we learn to see the battle in these terms, we might just begin to learn to fight the battle.

Fish-y Business at the Presidential Inauguration


Over the Christmas holiday with my extended family, amid a full-blown but lovable circus of three to seven-year-olds that was rivaled only by the even louder football bowl game commentary emanating from the TV, the name of Stanley Fish came up in an unexpected burst of worldview conversation. Fish is a professor of humanities and occasionally writes opinion pieces for the New York Times. I like him not because I agree with all of his conclusions, but because he has exposed some of the dubious aspects of contemporary notions of fairness, neutrality, and procedure--over against truth claims, convictions, and honesty--espoused by certain streams of the Enlightenment political philosophy known as classical liberalism. (As it is used in the Fish school, "liberalism" generally operates according to a principle of "live and let live" and is not to be taken as a point on the political spectrum opposite "conservatism" or the like). 

Fish has long argued that contemporary forms of classical liberalism have transformed the current marketplace of ideas in the West into an arena of competing agendas and presuppositions rather than one of inclusivism and fair play. This has resulted, he claims, in a public square that touts virtues like openness, freedom, and tolerance while masking basic determinations to exclude all views that may threaten the accepted liberal ideology. [George Will has found a similar idea at work in the Vanderbilt "all-comers" policy here]. Unfortunately, because Fish's own worldview is not shaped by Scriptural revelation as the absolute norm, he chooses instead to swim the open waters of moral relativism, resting content to watch the world fight out its competing agendas (see his controversial essay, "Two Cheers for Double Standards" here [Caution: some strong language]). 

If you're still reading, and to spell this out a bit more, one primary tenet of classical liberalism is the idea that religious convictions about absolute truth have no place in public discourse. Play by the secular rules of debate or go home.  Bow to the limits we impose upon your religiosity or walk the tolerance plank. To put it bluntly, classical liberalism says, "For the purposes of public life, it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth, and you must speak and act accordingly or be dismissed out of hand or worse." The obvious hypocrisy is that while purporting to be tolerant of all views, this line of thinking is terribly intolerant of all views that are grounded in absolute and universal norms it abhors. 

Then just yesterday, a family member sent me the news of evangelical mega-machine Louie Giglio's dis-invitation by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Apparently, Giglio is suddenly a no-go to give the benediction at President Obama's second inauguration because in the 1990's he preached a sermon in which (by many counts, graciously and faithfully) he extended a gospel call in the face of sin in general, and the sin of homosexuality in particular (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; cf. Matt 19:5). It is plain that classical liberalism has just told Louie Giglio that he can be accepted as "affirming and fair-minded" only at the price of his theological convictions. It's a strange way to promote inclusion--excluding all who hold to orthodox Christian sexual norms--until you realize that what counts as "inclusive" has already been absolutely defined as excluding views grounded in those norms. 

An important point for readers of this blog is that in the coming years (and, of course, even now in the present), Bible-believing Christians will be more and more pressed to hide or revise their biblical convictions on a host of matters or else face being labeled "intolerant," "backward," "bigots" or even "evil."  My point today is that the very philosophy that stands behind such a threat is both hypocritical (because it makes universal claims as to what is acceptable while excluding yours, politely denying any inconsistency in doing so) and empty (because it has no ground upon which to assert the existence of the human rights it claims to identify and uphold).  

Of course, pointing this out doesn't mean that you will avoid being labeled an "unrepentant bigot"  if you remain true to the Christian faith, but it does mean that you will be standing in the only place that provides the kind of human dignity and purpose that, deep down (cf. Rom 1:18), all people know exists (but, sadly, many of whom refuse to acknowledge in their Creator and his saving purpose in Christ).  To put it another way, we should remember that to be truly loving, we sometimes have to say what is right, not merely what is nice (think of loving the alcoholic, for example), though we should pray we do so with humility and kindness. 

The apostle Paul knew how to remain faithful and gracious to the end despite all opposition and disenfranchisement, dismissal and mockery. He did so because his aims were decidedly other-worldly. "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Tim 2:8-10).

Of course, the suffering Paul endured was merely a sharing in the humiliation of the Man we claim is Savior (Col 1:24). And the apostle feared disloyalty to Him far beyond any revilement he might receive on earth. Should we in the coming days endure unprecedented dismissals, name calling, and worse--and we inevitably will--we will be in good company. Our vindication and reward, like Christ's, is not found on a national stage with a microphone but on the far side of the grave. Such a vision of the Christian life takes faith, to be sure.  Not a blind, backwards faith, not even a leap into the dark--rather, a faith founded upon the only reality in which life has meaning. So, friends, rejoice (Matt 5:11; Acts 5:41), endure (2 Tim 2:3), pray (Luke 6:28), remember (1 Pet 5:9), persevere (Acts 14:22), and welcome the painful privilege of fellowship with Christ (Phil 1:29). 

Going Down? Dawkins, Doubters and Debauchery

Editors' note: A summary of the incident referred to by Dr. Oliphint can be found here.

Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the (non-existent) god of all things atheist, recently found himself on the wrong end of a verbal baseball bat. The story itself drips with so much irony that it's impossible not to get soaked while reading it. To summarize: at a conference of skeptics, one of the lead "dubietants" found herself being propositioned on an elevator at 4 a.m. As is our (post)modern custom, the first thing one does when such traumas occur is blog about it.

The blog, however, didn't meet with universal sympatico. Particularly, it failed to garner the emotional empathy of Dawkins. In a comment on the "skepti-sleeze" incident, Dawkins used the Supreme Skeptic's blog complaint to attempt a taxonomic tirade of world-wide tragedies. Given the mutilation of Muslim women, commented Dawkins, a mere proposition on an elevator at 4 a.m. seems a relatively meaningless and petty complaint.

But Dawkins bit off more skepticism with such comments than his atheist stomach could digest. Even after an apology followed by an apology to the skeptics, he was ill-prepared for the wrath that the rationalist regime rained down on Dawkins. The vitriol was relentless, and Dawkins found his own god-like status in serious question. He simply could not understand how his prioritizing of evil deeds could have caused so much caustic consternation. Of particular interest to me was the article's concluding comment on the Skeptics vs. Dawkins discussion: "That's skeptics." said one writer, "Rational about everything except themselves, self-preservation, and manners."

These skeptics pride themselves on their commitment to rationality and evidence-based reasoning. However, what ought to be perfectly clear in this kerfuffle is that "being rational" is insufficient to deal with things like personal offenses, human preservation, and any statement or belief with an "ought" implied in it. More specifically, "being rational" provides no help or information to someone who is inappropriately propositioned in an elevator. The woman who was propositioned, and who, on her blog, names herself the "Skepchick," assumed that the mere mention of her plight on her blog would rally the rationalist troops with appropriate, rationalist responses. But Dawkins dared to compare the Skepchick's scare with Muslim mutilation and then to imply an (arbitrary) equation of moral equivalence. What Dawkins discovered is that such equations don't compute for the Skepchick and her supporters. How can it be, we could ask, that so many committed to nothing more than being rational and evidential find themselves in such turmoil?

This might be a good place to introduce a sometimes useful apologetic tactic. The use of so-called ad hominem (literally, "to the man") arguments are generally considered to be fallacious. There is no question that such arguments can be fallacious, but there is also no question that logical fallacies are not fallacious in every case. An ad hominem argument, when used in a fallacious way, is an attack on a person's personal character rather than a response to that person's argument. It is, in sum, character assassination. In a charged political atmosphere like the one we in the USA are currently enduring, such arguments are in abundance.

An ad hominem argument that is not fallacious is one in which a person's position is challenged based on what that person himself claims. It is an ad hominem argument because it goes to the challenger's own beliefs; it seeks to question the consistency of what someone believes, argues or maintains in light of other beliefs or arguments that one claims to hold.

So, we could ask, what is it about Dawkins' response that violated the rational or the evidential foundation of the skeptics? Dawkins tried to make the point that the Muslim mutilation of women is a level of evil with which a 4 a.m. request to have coffee on an elevator can hardly compare. Is that an irrational argument? If it is, then the Skepchick might have provided the specific law(s) of reasoning that Dawkins violated. Does it violate a commitment to evidentialism? If so, then it would have been useful to spell out just how evidential principles were transgressed in Dawkins' argument.

Of course, the fact of the matter is that the fact of the matter transcends the rational and the evidential. There is something at work in Dawkins' argument and in the Skepchick's response that goes beyond their basic commitments. The Skepchick (likely unconsciously) realized this point and so, predictably, attributed Dawkins' insensitivity to those things which are beyond his control, and which, at least according to her, motivate everything he says and does; she located the obtuse character of the argument in Dawkins' gender, race and age. The ad hominem question to ask here is just what it is about gender, race and age that violate rationality or evidential reasoning.

No legitimate response will be forthcoming from such a question because none could be. One will search the plethora of logic textbooks in vain if what is hoped for is the discovery of a rational law that would vindicate the Skepchick and her supporters. She had to move beyond her own worldview in order to lodge her lament against Dawkins. She was, consciously or not, depending on principles that did not comport with her supposed basic notions of the rational and the evidential.

There are, then, deep and inviolable forces at work in this debate, forces that go way beyond rationality and evidence. For Dawkins, there is the obvious scale of evil -- what is done to Muslim women is more evil that what was done to the Skepchick. For the Skepchick, there is a code of morality that must be taken with all seriousness when it is she who is violated. So, as the article says, there really does seem to be no common rational or evidential commitment between Dawkins and the Skepchick when it comes to their own personal lives, the way in which they ought to act, and what constitutes acceptable behavior between people.

This is inevitable. As we have said in previous articles, anyone who determines to base his life on something other than the Lordship of Christ, and all that His Lordship entails, will discover that whatever foundation he thinks is holding him up is actually, even if sometimes slowly or imperceptibly, crumbling to dust underneath him. Thus, the ad hominem argument. The supposed basic foundation they have chosen cannot bear the weight of real life in God's world, as God's creatures. It is utterly impotent and so cannot begin to accomplish the task it has been assigned.

The article is useful in that it points out, in a real-life, tangible way, just what it means when we say that atheists (skeptics included) cannot, on the basis of their own worldview, make a credible judgment on moral issues. Dawkins' argument may make some sense; it certainly seems to be true that the mutilation of women is more serious than a man asking a woman to have coffee, even if the request came at 4 a.m. in an elevator. But in order to make that evaluation, there must also be a cogent understanding of just what and who people are (i.e., image of God), and just why and how it is that such things constitute real, and not just subjective, evil (i.e., because God, as the only and ultimate good, determines what things are evil and what are not). The Skepchick was formally correct in pointing to the unalterable and involuntary aspects of Dawkins' character. But it was not his gender, race or age that motivated his assessment. Rather, contrary to his own announced commitments, Dawkins could only set out the priority of evils he attempted because he knows, deep down, that people are more than rational laws and material composites. They have characteristics that transcend their thinking and their constitution; they are image of God.

Dawkins wouldn't put it that way, of course. He could not do so without a healthy commitment to repent of all that he has stood for. But it is just that repentance, and that alone, that can resolve the tension between Dawkins and the Skepchick. It is, to put it rather bluntly, only repentance that will give to both Dawkins and the Skepchick what they so desperately want -- a cogent and consistent way to understand "themselves, self-preservation, and manners." The solution to the Skepti-Sleeze incident, then, as in all other problems, is to turn to Christ, to set Him apart as Lord. As a matter of fact, nothing could be more rational than that.