The Tyranny of the Absolute

Further musings on legalism, liberty, and the difference between the two

I am frustrated by people who paint me into a corner by forcing me to defend from Scripture my “right” to do something … instead of working within the boundaries of liberty set up by Scripture.

They ask the wrong question.

I’m frustrated because there’s just no winning that argument when they get to set it up.

I’ve been down this road many times now, from both directions. I understand the holiness/pietist arguments because I used to believe them. But it didn’t take long in college for the Scripture itself to start breaking those arguments apart.  Things aren’t as tidy as they seem. And if you accept that sin is “contamination” instead of the characteristic of a sinner, you’re gonna end up in all kinds of weird places

…. like BJU allowing students to listen to soundtracks from PG movies but not PG 13 …  I guess PG13 movies breach the “sin line” too often, and we all know that listening to music associated with a film that’s “bad” must be bad too …. *rolls eyes*

But the “absolutist” comes along…

Absolutist: That’s a horrible song! Why are you listening to that?!  The Bible says to avoid evil, and that’s evil! So stop!
Me: Um, well … First of all, I’m not convinced the song is “evil” . . .
Abs: Ack! How can you not label this song evil?! They’re singing about sex! And it’s clearly premarital … and we know that’s wrong! Young minds are going to be affected by this!
Me: But singing about sex isn’t wrong! In fact, sex isn’t wrong unless  … oh never mind…..

You see? You end up looking like a fool. Or an “antinomian” who “sins that grace may abound.”  Or (at the least) “unwise” … because the absolutist can always pull out the “unwise” argument:

Me: But I can show you from Scripture that my conscience is clear regarding this issue. A Blink 182 song isn’t sin for me. I listen in faith …

Abs: *scowls dramatically* But is it WISE?!!

Me: *sighs*

The question is all wrong. But it’s all wrong at the worldview level! And I can’t battle the worldview on my own.

Bill Davis talked a lot in my epistemology class this summer about how worldviews are changed:  the most effective shaper of underlying core beliefs is the Holy Spirit … but if we focus on human tools … our worldviews are shaped by the people we love and respect the most. That’s why it does matter to me that I have a real relationship with the students I teach. From an educator’s perspective, I’m not even going to get in the front door of their hearts if there’s not a relationship of love there first.

But that doesn’t help me much with disgruntled legalists.


The Loving Touch

I was musing this morning on the Italian church in Venice, pastored by missionary Frank King. (We hope to worship with them this spring if the Italy trip works out for our 11/12th graders.)  The believers’ love for one another was so evident. Part of it was cultural — all Italians greet one another by kissing on the cheek. But the supernatural “unity” of the Spirit was beautiful in that place.

When we moved to Anderson 3 years ago, I jumped everytime a guy touched me on the arm. Heh. Ten years of “touch not!” had done its work to mold me into a “hands-off” relationship with people. I’m sure my reflexes amused men like Mike Settle and Don Hall, who literally embraced me in my role as mentor and teacher of their children. With much practice, I’ve gotten much better at receiving brotherly love.

I know men who refuse to hug any woman not related to them. This is especially true of ministers in the circles I grew up in. It comes from a well-intentioned desire to remain “blameless” from any possible charge of infidelity or temptation toward adultery.

But like the former alcoholic who cannot taste a drop lest he fall back into drunkenness, the “sin” still rules. The alcohol controls where that man goes, what he eats, who he can spend time with. He’s not living in victory over sin; he’s a paroled prisoner. Perhaps a refusal to extend the most basic of human communication–friendly affection–out of a fear of being tempted is an equal bondage.

And I’ve decided that’s a pretty sad way to live.

Hugs to you all.  Don’t flinch next time I greet you.

The Artist and The Author

To quote from a theater company I was reading about today:

Artaud put it over sixty years ago in “No More Masterpieces” “Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us. We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone.”

So …. does anybody else have a problem with that?

The author of this statement is a director writing to defend his decision to turn Midsummer Night’s Dream into a smoky, dark, sensuous story, playing up Shakespeare’s sexual humor and inserting it where he couldn’t find any. A newspaper critic had reviewed his show pretty harshly, and this was his response.

Shakespeare scholars, stage directors, and theater companies everywhere have ascribed to the theory that since there’s no way to know for sure what Shakespeare intended, his intentions are irrelevant. In fact, in our postmodern age of uncertainty, it is the reader’s (or watcher’s) response that matters above all else–because that’s all we can know (so the theory goes).

I can agree with about 90% of Artaud’s statement above. My main quibble is with the line “We have the right to say . . . even what has not been said.” And so you end up with sex-drenched R-rated adaptations of Midsummer . . . Or Branaugh’s Hamlet, which inserted a physical relationship with Ophelia that isn’t stated in the text . . . Or attempts to turn some of Shakespeare’s pairs of same-gender friends into homosexual lovers . . . Or Merchant of Venice into a heavy, ponderous diatribe against anti-Semitism (the most recent Al Pacino/Jeremy Irons/Joseph Fiennes adaptation, which had some definite points of merit despite its preachiness).

If we who are People of the Book insist that there is a core of eternal, unchanging truth revealed by God in His Word and knowable to all people in all places . . . doesn’t that demand a different brand of literary theory than what is pushed so hard on unsuspecting high school students and college undergraduates?

My literary friends (those with degrees in things like English literature) disagree with me here. They say that the Word is a unique book; in other literature we must operate in the realm of postmodern uncertainty, with an emphasis on reader response.

Jefferson, Mann, and Us

[post from our time at Covenant College, doing MEd coursework; class by Kaufmann and Greene called School and Society; worth reposting]

Today Dr Kaufmann (he wants us to call him Steve but he’s just so fatherly that I have trouble doing it! =) talked about Jefferson’s “fair experiment” to create a nation devoid of an established state church. As you know the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment stems from this impulse.

Our discussion centered on the idea that Jefferson’s experiment failed. A democratic state cannot operate unless its citizens agree on a core of civic values which are transmitted through some institution. The main options are government, family, church, and school. When America eschewed state-established religion for the sake of religious freedom (not necessarily a bad thing), it left a huge vacuum in what Kaufmann calls “central meaning/values dispensing institutions.” In other words, SOME institution is going to have the task of taking the “pluribus” [of “e pluribus unum’}–the immigrants, the rabble, the various cultures that existed in the colonies — and turning them into an “unum” which could work together in the republic.

Without an established church to inculcate a certain set of values for the common good, the government (led by Horace Mann and his “common schools’ movement in the early 1800s) rushed in to fill the gap with education. This went hand in hand with the rise of Unitarianism in the New England states, where Mann believed that humanity’s problem was ignorance (not the Fall) and the solution was education (not divine redemption). And as soon as he got what he wanted– common education for all children under the auspices of the government — a new “public religion” was born to fill the gap that Jefferson left.

The push for a united, free, and government-controlled public school system wasn’t universal UNTIL even level-headed Protestants like Charles Hodge (as well as just the ordinary guy on the farm) became alarmed at the enormous influx of Irish-Catholic immigrants. Protestants in general were wary of Catholics’ loyalty to the pope instead of to the government. And ethnic “racism” [“Irish are dirty, filty, good-for-nothing, uneducated rabble”] shoved people over the edge. Suddenly, everone wanted public compulsory education to turn these Irish Catholics (and later Italians, Poles, Czechs, etc) into good American citizens (which happened to match the values of the white Protestant middle class). Hope you weren’t Jewish!

Ironically, the removal of explicit Christian teaching from public schools stems from the mid 1800s, not in the 1960s Supreme Court decisions that banned prayer and Bible reading. And–even more ironic–the move to strike overt religious teaching was backed by Christians themselves. Why? Because Catholics were complaining about the discrimination against them in the school system. They didn’t want their kids to be forced to read the King James translation or study Protestant doctrine. When their protests fell on deaf ears and even produced a school system hostile to their beliefs, they went off to found parochial schools. If you grew up in the Northeast or a large city, you know the rest of the story. And a little more than a century later, independents and Baptists left the public system to found their own schools–the coincidence with school desegregation is more than a little embarrassing.

The ironies here are rich:

  • Christians in the 1800s overwhelmingly volunteered to give up their right to parent-controlled local school districts out of fear of Catholic “power”
  • Christians in the 1800s never dreamed that by giving up explicit Christianity in the schools to discriminate against Catholics, they were setting up their own demise 100 years later. Um, can we say “discrimination is probably not a good solution” in just about any case??
  • The separation of church and state clause seemed doomed to push Christianity from the center of public life from the very start. But as long as Christians thought they were “top dog” in the list of religions, no one cared.
  • Christians bought into the myth that education could take place apart from worldview considerations — that you can teach “moral values” apart from a religious system to underpin them.

If you know anything about the Dutch Reformed concept of “sphere sovereignty,” you might know where this history lesson is going. More on that tomorrow . . .maybe

On Story

I hate literature by Christians that beats you over the head with its moral. And I like it when smart people agree with me. So I submit this Flannery O’Connor quote that was buried in a footnote in a philosophy of reason/religion book I have to read:

“Now this is a very humble level to have to begin on, and most people who think they want to write stories are not willing to start there. They want to write about problems, not people; or about abstract issues, not concrete situations. They have an idea, or a feeling, or an overflowing ego, or they want to Be A Writer, or they want to give their wisdom to the world in a simple enough way for the world to be able to absorb it. In any case, they don’t have a story and they wouldn’t be willing to write it if they did; and in the absence of a story, they set out to find a theory or a formula or a technique. Now none of this is to say that when you write a story, you are supposed to forget or give up any moral position that you hold. Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

–Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, p 90

Worldview and Imago Dei

[written during my 3rd year of Covenant College MEd summer coursework; class was Epistemology with Bill Davis; worth reposting]


You’ll find me doing several of these, I’m certain . . . I chrew through information verbally (although I learn best visually – go figure) so these daily review sessions are how I cope with all the data of my day. Here are some thoughts from my classes today:  I’ll try to put “fun stuff” in orange …. the yellow stuff is discussion. Feel free to ignore it . . . 

First of all — our class is one huge comedy club, I swear. But in a good way. . . .    We had very profitable discussions today mixed with much laughter. And I don’t think I’ll need the dart gun in class this week– unless we decide to shoot Dr Davis for the sheer love of causing trouble. He’s too clear of a thinker to provoke any frustration in me. Brilliant guy.  OCD about being orderly, which is good for a guy who spends his life organizingideas.  Oh, and I decided he looks like Kenneth Branaugh, but with much darker hair.

Anyway, two major lines of thinking from today:

1. A person’s worldview is the filter which sorts the raw data of our lives –what we observe or what happens to us — into a story which we call experience. This worldview is often defined as “presuppositions”–statements about how the world works. But Davis pointed out that a worldview includes two more foundational aspects:  cognitive vocabulary and affections.

You have to learn terms for foundational concepts like “sin” “evil” “happiness” “worth” “justice” etc before you can organize what the world throws at you. Whether your idea of “sin” matches the biblical one is a totally different matter. And this vocabulary is still developing all through the middle school years — which is why many kids aren’t ready to think about worldview presuppositions until at least middle-teens. (Although my 8th grade classes have, to this point, been populated by several 13/14 year olds who were already thinking pretty deeply about the world and their place in it.)

More importantly, people value what they love. Want to know a kid’s worldview . . .  What does he/she talk about all the time?

And people listen to the people they love. A student’s worldview is developed by what s/he sees modeled in adults around he/r–adults s/he cares about, especially. A teacher who talks about living all of life to the glory of God but who lives a disjointed life full of frustration, unable to connect life’s experiences to the great Metanarrative of  Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation– that teacher is screaming “The Christian Worldview Does’t Work!”

ick.  my reactions  to life and in the classroom reveal my own inconsistencies

2. On the topic of the image of God:   Davis had a slightly different view of the imago Dei. I’m going to try to represent it here, but if you hate what I say, realize that I might be messing it up…

We tend to define God’s image as a human’s capability of reasoning, making moral decisions, and maybe being creative. That’s a leftover from Aristotle and the medieval theologians. Problem is, what happens when a human ceases to function like that? Does an advanced Alzheimer’s pateint lose his status as image-bearer when he can no longer express rationality, decision-making, or creativity?  Um . . . no

So Davis proposed a “covenant model” of the imago Dei:   Moses’ language in the Pentateuch often borrows heavily from the Near Eastern suzerainty treaties of the ancient world. In these treaties, a sovereign would make a covenant with his people. Part of that covenant included appointing a representative who would carry out the work of the king in that region. The word for that representative is the same word that Moses uses for “image” in Genesis 1.

So …. what if the image of God in us is actually more a task than a set of characteristics?   The task: fulfilling the creation mandate — exercising dominion over this planet and culture as the representative of God.  In that case, the image lies in humanity as a collective — both male & female — and not so much in individual people. BUT theequipment for that task — the fact that humans are rational, creative, moral, spiritual, communicative, etc etc — is distributed to individuals so they can carry out this mission.

Hmmm. It’s an interesting concept. Some implications:

  • If our task is given to humanity as a collective, we must rely on one another’s gifts.  Individualism breaks down pretty fast when you realize there’s no way you can do this alone. That’s a vital lesson in the classroom too –and I’ve watched kids balk when I assign them a group project and give the whole group the same grade. GASP! Welcome to life, folks . . . sometimes the group has to sink or swim. And if God gifted you with a particular ability, you can’t sit back and say, “Hey, I don’t think that guy’s doing enough work over there!” Are you going to do that when you grow up and your pastor asks you to take on a ministry?don’t shoot me … just think about it 
  • The Fall did not delete God’s image in man: the responsibility to fulfill the dominion TASK.  But the Fall didbreak our equipment (creativity, morality, rationality, stewardship, etc …)
  • Unbelievers as well as believers are held accountable for this task — it’s not like people don’t become image-bearers until they receive the Holy Spirit.  And all humans are equipped for the task — broken, perhaps, but still equipped — and common grace allows unbelievers to contribute in positive ways to dominion activity. Again, it’s twisted, but it’s definitely there. Even public educators. 

OK. That’s enough for now. I still have a pile of reading to do for this course, so I’m gonna sign off for now.  And there’s talk of some entertainment tonight with the 4 guys across the hall — maybe a poker game or something. We’re hoping to plan a soccer game for tomorrow, but the Edge kiddos have descended upon us in great hordes. AAAARRRGGGHHH!  You can’t walk anywhere without running into a pack of adolescents clogging up the campus arteries!!!!  And I bet they swallowed the soccer fields too…  LOL

Love is inherently dangerous

“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell” (C. S. Lewis,The Four Loves, chap. 6).

–Thanks, Dan

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