Monday, 30 May 2011

Relationships, love, sex & marriage

Biblically speaking, relationships are more central to our being than bodily pleasure. We are first of all relational beings. God made humans male and female (Gen 1:27), addressed Adam as a covenant-partner (Gen 2:16-17), and made Eve as a suitable helper for Adam, for whom it was not good to be alone (Gen 2:18). Abraham was to be the channel for God's blessing to flow to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). Christ died and rose for his people - the church (Eph 1:22, 2:19-22, etc) who are to mutually encourage each other (Gal 6:2; Heb 10:24-25). We are to use our bodies to enhance relationships. If we are in healthy relationships, our bodies will prosper. If we are in unhealthy relationships, our bodies will deteriorate.

Relationships are built on trust, and trust is built on the reliability of a person’s character, usually expressed in their faithfulness to promises. This is because relationships are essentially other-focused.

In any intimate relationship – family, spouse, BFF – we take the risk of giving ourselves to the other person, and acting for their benefit, without protecting ourselves – that is to say, we love them. We trust our relational partner, that they, recognising and valuing this gift of ourselves, will cherish and protect us – we trust that they will respond to, and value, our love. We also trust that they will return our love with a commensurate gift of themselves – that they will give themselves to us, and act for our benefit, without concern for themselves – that is to say, that they will love us in return.

This is why relationships are both risky and rewarding. In any relationship, we make ourself vulnerable to our relational partner. If they return our love, then we rejoice and flourish, for our self has been affirmed by the one to whom we entrusted it. If they do not return our love, then we are crushed, for we have given our selves to another, and they have not deemed it worthy of response, but have discarded it.

Sexuality fits into this relational framework. Our sexuality is a good bodily function, given to us by God, to enhance our relationships. Sexual activity brings physical bodies and relational love together. Love and sex are mutually reinforcing: when we fall in love with someone, we desire sex with them; having sex with someone reinforces our love for them. In sexual activity, we make our bodies vulnerable, giving them to each other for mutual pleasure. Betrayal by our sexual partner has deep emotional and psychological consequences.

This is why the Bible presents marriage as the proper context for sexual activity. In a marriage, a man and a woman promise to commit to each other for life. Those promises define the relationship between the two of them, and call them both to mutual faithfulness – to have the personal character to be faithful to those promises, whatever difficulties life may throw at them. Having promised faithfulness to each other, they entrust their bodies to each other in sex.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Around the Blogosphere

A few days ago, British physicist Stephen Hawking said that heaven is a fairy story. That comment was of course picked up by the media - more interested in sensationalism than facts - all over the world, and paired with outraged statements from religious leaders. But, as this review of Hawking's latest book, The Grand Design, says, it's old news. Hawking's absolutely brilliant in theoretical physics. But he never has believed in God or the supernatural world. He's always been a standard, predictable naturalist. Which means he, like other dogmatic atheists, simply doesn't engage with the question of whether God exists, because he "knows" that he doesn't. So when he says heaven is a fairy story, the proper response isn't to argue, but to yawn.

Leadership Journal has an article on the problem of youth groups watering down the gospel and effectively becoming child-minding with pizza: The Red Bull Gospel. The result? The young people are never really converted, and when they grow up, they find more interesting things to do than east pizza. I read the same thesis twenty years ago in No Guts, No Glory: How to build a youth ministry that lasts, by Ken Moser, Ed Vaughan and Al Stewart.

Over at Theology & Culture, Aaron Rathbun has a very good post on how we're amusing ourselves to death.

And at The Bible and Interpretation, Thomas Verenna has an excellent (if lengthy) article criticising the recent media furore over the supposed "lead codices". He's lays out some pretty damning evidence of the "complete lack of journalistic integrity, honest research, and thorough fact-checking".

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Love: nature, purpose, commitment and affection

In a previous post, I blogged about the arguments for same-gender marriage. I received the foll. question:
There’s one other argument used by those in favour of same-sex marriage that you haven’t covered: love.

The basic argument goes - the core reason for marriage is the declaration of your love for, and commitment to, another person. Homosexual couples are just as capable of love and commitment as heterosexual couples, so they should be just as able to express their love for each other as heterosexual couples can by getting married.

The slippery slope with this argument is that it not only opens the door for same-sex marriage, but also polygamous and polyandrous marriages. How would you respond to this argument?
Here's my answer.

There’s at least three meanings to the word ‘love’:
  1. To use something according to its God-given nature and purpose, which can only be fully known through divine revelation, but can be partially known through scientific, empirical examination;
  2. To be committed to the well-being of someone or something – which well-being is defined by aforementioned God-given nature and purpose;
  3. To have feelings of affection for someone or something.
The bible orders our loves as above, 1-2-3. God tells us what things are like and what they are for (1. above). He calls us to be committed to these revealed natures and purposes (2. above). We are to love what God loves – our affections are to follow our God-honouring commitments (3. above).

The world, unsurprisingly, turns this upside-down. We feel affection for someone or something (3. above). No-one has the right to judge these feelings. If I feel nice about someone or something, I ‘commit’ myself to them or to it – until that feeling goes away, that is, then my (so-called) commitment goes away with it (2. above). And I assume that God affirms me in that feelings-based non-commitment, because that’s his job – God is there to validate me and make me feel good about myself.

People can feel affection for - that is, "love" - lots of things: people of the opposite gender, people of the same gender, pets, children, inanimate objects (I love chocolate...). The question is: how are we going to express that affection? How are we going to act on that love?

As I argued in my AFES WebSalt article, same-gender love is a good and healthy thing. The bible says men should have deep feelings of loyalty and affection towards other men - that's how David and Jonathan felt for each other, and Ruth was very loyal to Naomi. But, those relationships were not sexual. Sex belongs in heterosexual marriage because God made human bodies and relational capacities in such a way that sex works best in that marital context. The bible explains it to us by showing the deep connections between sex, marriage, and union with Christ. But we're not dependent upon special revelation: science shows us that our bodies work best, and individuals, families and soceities tend to be happy, when sex is enjoyed within heterosexual marriage.

(Post)modern Western society has sexualised everything. Love = sex; intimacy = sex; joy = sex... everything good = sex! That's why advertising uses so many sexual references. The advertisers know that if they can portray the item in a manner that suggests it enhances your sex life, or gives pleasure equivalent to sexual pleasure, it'll sell.

This rampant sexualisation has happened because (post)modern Western society holds to a reductive materialist ontology: (1) we're nothing more than pleasure-seeking biological organisms; (2) sex is self-evidently the highest pleasure we can experience; (3) therefore, the goal of life is to have the best sex possible. I critiqued this attitude in another one of my AFES WebSalt articles.

We've also lost the ability to have good friends of the opposite gender. Just as we get to know someone of the opposite gender well, we feel like we enter a sexually-charged zone in the relationship, and we either give in and have sex with them, or give up and back off on the friendship and stop getting to know them better. No-one has the courage to stand firm: to defuse the the sexually-charged environment through getting to know the person better, as a person, not just a sex object. For more thoughts on this, see yet another of my AFES WebSalt articles.

So of course we've also lost the ability to have healthy, non-sexual same-gender relationships. If we "love" someone of the same gender, we must have the right to have sex with them if we want to. Or else we've been denied the right to love. But that statement assumes that we have the right to define what it means to "love" that person of the same gender. If God has the right to define what it means to "love" someone, then going against that God-given definition is not actually loving. Regardless of the intention, it's actually abusive. The loving thing to do is actually warn against that abuse.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Inaburra School Teen Health Conference: Our Pornified World

This Fri & Sat, I'm speaking at Inaburra Christian School's inaugural Teen Health Conference. The conference is looking at everything from alcohol to risk taking to sex to travel to bullying. Thurs night open to students, parents and teachers; Friday for students; Sat for parents & teachers. Dunno if it's full yet - I'm sure they'll welcome late registrations - try the rego page.

I'm presenting a session on the effects of our pornified world on today's youth.

Pornography is fantasy sex - it's visual, superficially physical, anti-relational, and commercial. It treats humans as merely pleasure-seeking organisms: as bodies throbbing in constant emotional and sensual climax, with no dangers, no limitations, and no consequences.

That is ridiculously out of step with reality. Real sex is wholistic, embodied, relational, and personal. It involves two people finding out about each other as people - with emotional needs, and bodily limitations. It involves communication, care, and compromise. It doesn't always "work" - it can be awkward & clumsy, the body parts may not operate properly, we may not enjoy it half as much as we think we should.

The problem is: the fantasy world affects us - and especially today's youth - more than reality does. They therefore grow up with attitudes to themselves, other people (including potential sexual partners), and the world, that are out of step with reality, therefore deeply unhealthy.

Our culture is pornified: the characteristics of porn - visual, superficially physical, anti-relational, commercial - are more and more becoming part of ordinary life. That means the whole culture we operate within is getting out of step with reality, and therefore deeply unhealthy. We live in a world gone mad.

All humans have a reciprocal relationship with culture: we are affected by the culture we operate within; we shape the culture we operate within. We are a victim, but not just a victim; we are a leader, but not only a leader. This is especially true of youth. They are heavily impacted by the environment we adults place them in; they will go on to shape the future world. What kind of heritage are we creating for our children and our children's children? What views will they have about sexuality, and their bodies, and their very selves?

None of this is unique to Christianity. But of course, the Bible explains both the problem, and the solution. We are not simply pulsating pleasure-sacs; we are relational beings. We're relational beings because we're made by a God who is relationship in himself - the Holy Trinity. God gave us our bodies as good gifts, to use them to advance our relationships. We are to give our bodies deeply for the other person - just like Jesus gave his body for us, on the cross.

Orright - the challenge for me is to reduce all of that to half-an-hour, clear language with no jargon, including statistics & visuals. Prayers please.

Monday, 16 May 2011

What's the issue with same-gender marriage?

Up until recently in human history, marriage has been uniquely between a man and a woman, for the purpose of begetting children and raising a family. Recently, that has been challenged by advocates for same-gender marriage.

The logic for same-gender marriage goes like this:
  1. Our sexuality is part of our body;
  2. We, as individuals, have the right to determine what we do with our bodies;
  3. If anyone else tries to tell us what to do with our bodies, including our sexuality, that's the same as doing violence to our bodies - ie, we are "hurt", and we must "scream" and "fight back";
  4. Society must affirm individuals in their search for bodily, sexual self-expression;
  5. If society doesn't affirm us, we have been violated, and can "scream";
  6. Because we, as individuals, have the right to determine our own sexuality, then having sex with someone of the same gender is as valid as sex with someone of the opposite gender;
  7. If anyone disagrees with 6., we have been violated and can scream and fight;
  8. Marriage is the normal societal way of affirming sexual union;
  9. Therefore society must - not may, not can, but must, is morally compelled to - permit same-gender marriage;
  10. If society doesn't, then those who choose to be sexually active with someone of the same gender has been violated, and can scream.
The Biblical view departs from this at point 2.

1. Our sexuality is part of our body - agreed. God made us embodied and sexual, and it was good. Genesis 1:28; 2:23-25; Song of Songs; 1 Tim 4:3; etc.

2. We, as individuals, have the right to determine what we do with our bodies - No. As creatures of a good God, we trust him to tell us what to do with our bodies - sexually, and in everything else - because he knows us better than we know ourselves. Psalm 11:4, 139:13; Prov 20:24.

3. If anyone else tries to tell us what to do with our bodies, including our sexuality, that's the same as doing violence to our bodies - ie, we are "hurt", and we must "scream" and "fight back" - No. When God tells us how to live our lives, he does so for our good. And we are called to speak good words of rebuke and correction to each other, for each other's good. Heb 10:24; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:9.

4. Society must affirm individuals in their search for bodily, sexual self-expression - Not quite.

Christianity is not a secular religion; we do not seek to impose belief on unbelievers through law and coercion. The only way to truly come to God is to be convinced, through the Bible, that Jesus really is God, and that he died to forgive us. Having come to God in Christ, we trust his good direction for our lives - including our sex lives. None of that can be achieved through law and coercion; it is achieved through explanation and persuasion.

So, the secular State should maintain broad freedoms - including freedom of religion, speech, assembly, media - so that people can search for what is "true", including the truth of Biblical Christianity.

That said, the secular State should not affirm anything that is positively damaging. And, as will be argued below, same-gender sexuality is positively damaging. So the State should not affirm it.

5. If society doesn't affirm us, we have been violated, and can "scream" - No. See 3. above. Even if we're not Christians, a mature person is able to transcend their own opinions, listen to others, and consider that they just might be wrong. Radical individualism necessarily leads to ethical narcissism - I do whatever's good for me - which eventually leads to the dissolution of society because no-one's listening to each other, everyone's screaming and fighting everyone else.

6. Because we, as individuals, have the right to determine our own sexuality, then having sex with someone of the same gender is as valid as sex with someone of the opposite gender - No.

Same-gender friendship is very good; same-gender sexuality is very bad. Our bodies are made for sexual expression with someone of the opposite gender, not the same gender. Same-gender sexuality - especially men having sex with men - damages the body by making it do things it wasn't designed to do. For more info, see my article on AFES WebSalt.

7. If anyone disagrees with 6., we have been violated and can scream and fight - No. See 3. & 5. above.

8. Marriage is the normal societal way of affirming sexual union - Yes, historically and Biblically (Gen 2:23-25; Matt 19:4-6; Hebrews 13:4).

Marriage is for sex, and the children that sex begets. As I argued in another AFES WebSalt article, cross-gender friendships are very good. They can and should be truly "loving" and "affectionate" - as in we deeply care about the person, we like to be with them, they make us feel good, we're happy when they're happy and we're sad when they're sad - but these relationships are not sexual, therefore they're not a marriage.

The irony of the same-gender marriage movement is it's coming at a time when sex and marriage have been broken apart. Contraception has broken the link between sex and babies, thus breaking the link between sex and families. Why bother getting married? If you want to have sex with someone, just do it. If you want to live with them while having sex with them, just do it.

9. Therefore society must - not may, not can, but must, is morally compelled to - permit same-gender marriage - No. In fact, because same-gender sexuality is personally destructive, the State is morally compelled to oppose it.

10. If society doesn't, then those who choose to be sexually active with someone of the same gender has been violated, and can scream - No, but they will anyway. If the homosexual lobby succeeds in getting legal recognition for same-gender marriage, they will use it as a tool to persecute the church. They will turn up at churches, demand to be married, and when we say no, they'll publicly mock us or use legal sanctions against us. And because we're to love our enemies, we'll respond with kindness and gentleness - which will itself be used against us, just like Paul's refusal to take money for ministry was used against him (1 Cor 9).

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Debate vs dialogue

When presenting the gospel - in an evangelistic setting, or speaking/preaching, or one-on-one, or whatever - what's the better "posture" to take: a "robust" posture of a debate, or a "friendly" posture of dialogue?

The benefit of a debate is it permits us to make universal claims: "this is reality, take it or leave it." That agrees with the nature of the gospel - Jesus really is Lord of all, whether we like it or not. And it also agrees with the examples of proclamation in the book of Acts.

The problem with a debate is it scares people who are timid or uncertain of their own beliefs - Christian or atheist or whatever - and therefore potentially shuts down true questioning and searching through intimidation rather than conviction. Also, it potentially reinforces a grumpy, doctrinaire preconception of Christianity.

The benefit of a dialogue is it invites people to "walk inside my worldview" without making absolute claims of right/wrong. That agrees with post-modern love of narrative and discussion, and its suspicion of universal truth-claims.

But that's also its detriment: Jesus' Lordship is not actually up for discussion. Also, is it deceptive to not using a method that agrees with the nature of our message? That is, if we don't really think Jesus' Lordship is negotiable, is it deceptive to present it in a way that suggests it is?

Thoughts, anyone...?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

An evangelical theodicy? A response to the "problem of evil"

A ministry colleague sent me a query from someone within his ministry context about the origin of evil, asking me to help him frame a response. Here's an edited version of my response. Anyone got any thoughts? Feedback appreciated.

The classic dilemma goes as follows: how can a good and all-powerful God permit evil and suffering to exist? It either denies his goodness, or his all-powerfulness.

The very simple explanation - classically called the "free will defense" - goes like this: God created humans, and other spiritual creature - like the angel who became the Devil - with a genuine capacity for choice. This genuine capacity for choice is itself a good thing - it gives us dignity, some genuine independence from God, and responsibility. But, while being good, this capacity for choice is fragile. It's natural goodness makes it vulnerable to being used in a bad way - viz, to choose against God, rebel against him, and bring in chaos. Therefore, we should not blame God for giving us the "space" to make choices - to do that is effectively to depersonalise ourselves and say "God, I wish I was a robot." Instead, we should accept our responsibility for using God's good gifts in an evil manner, and thus siding with the Devil and his supernatural forces against God.

Notice this doesn't try to explain why God made us as personal beings. It merely asserts that God made it that way, and appeals to our instinctive preference for relational choice over being an automaton.

From a Christian point of view, God in his kindness provides a solution to get us out of the mess we've put ourselves in. That solution is found in Christ - in his death and resurrection. And the nature of God's solution itself points to the problem - an evangelical, gospel-shaped response to evil.

Jesus always chose for God. He resisted Satan in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11 & parallels). Hebrews 4:15 says Jesus "has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin." Therefore, Jesus deserved to be honoured by God, vindicated by him. That happened in Jesus' resurrection. Jesus also takes the punishment we deserve for rejecting God. That happened in his death on the cross, where the punishment we deserve fell on him (Isaiah ch 53; Mark 10:45; Romans 3:21-25; 1 John 4:10; etc...). So we now need not fear God's anger - it was all exhausted on Jesus on the cross.

For those of us who have put our trust in Jesus, God now calls us to choose for him (Deut 30:19-20; Ezek 18:33, 33:11; Acts 2:38, 3:19; 1 Thess 1:9-10... etc) - to exercise our wills, make our decisions, his way, not our own way or the world's way or whatever. This happens as we read the bible, through which we little by little understand God's way of thinking, and his perspective on the world (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Tim 3:16-17; etc). It also comes through the power of his Holy Spirit working invisibly within us to reshape us from the inside (Gal 5:22-25). We're never perfect - that only happens in glory - but we're constantly being reshaped to be more & more like Jesus (Colossians 3:9-10).

This adds some detail to the free will defense. If Jesus is truly human, but didn't sin, then true humanity is choosing for God - joyously obeying him in all of our life, with all that we are. We, in our rejection of God, become sub-human - or, more correctly, brokenly human. Personal choice is an aspect of the good humanity that God created us for.

Did God have to give us choice to make us personal beings? Perhaps not. The persons of the Holy Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit - can't help loving each other. So in that sense they don't have the choice to not love. So that means that choice is not necessarily essential to personhood.

On the other hand, we can't simply draw analogies between the persons of the Holy Trinity and our personhood, for the simple reason that the Trinity is uncreated and immortal, and we're created mortals. So we must be careful before drawing connections, in either direction, between the persons of the Trinity and ourselves. All I would say, therefore, is that we cannot say that God had to give us choice to make us fully personal. He could somehow make himself so gloriously proximate to us - as the persons of the Trinity are gloriously proximate to each other - that we could not help but love and obey him.

Anyway, getting back to Jesus (always a good thing...): Jesus shows us that, whatever we think about the necessity of God giving us choice as an aspect of our good created humanity, it is actually possible to choose for God. So bang go all our excuses.

I would contend that the gospel itself - the message about Jesus, and what he's done for us - both puts some detail on the "free will defense", and provides God's solution to evil. And that's an evangelical theodicy - a solution to the problem of evil shaped around Christ and his cross.

Thoughts, anyone...?

Monday, 9 May 2011

G. E. Ladd and Evangelical scholarship

We see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants.

21st century Evangelicalism has benefited immensely from the labours of mid-20th century evangelical scholars. They were people who, convinced that if the God of the Bible was the creator of all things - as the Bible claims he is - then he is also the creator of the rational mind, with its desire for clear explanation of phenomena. And, if the same God who caused the Bible to be written about himself also created the whole world, then this whole world should fit together the way the Bible says it would. Therefore, they committed themselves to evangelical scholarship - to studying the Bible and the world, not as "objective scholars" - a so-called objectivity which assumes away the supernatural without argument, and is therefore both radically subjective and a cipher for atheistic materialism - but as self-concious believers in the Lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus.

We've had our luminaries here in Australia - D. Broughton Knox of Moore College, and Leon Morris of Ridley College, Melbourne, spring to mind. Graeme Goldsworthy is an unsung (under-sung...?) Aussie theological hero - his three-fold "people, place, rule" outline of the Old Testament has influenced countless church leaders, myself included.

George Eldon Ladd was one of the key shapers of American evangelicalism - and let's face it, America was the global trend-setter for evangelicalism in the 20th century. His Theology of the New Testament remains, to this day, a classic statement of evangelical convictions. I remember devouring slabs of it myself, as a student at Moore College, in preparation for an eschatology essay. He clarified all my bad vibes about currently fashionable eschatology - especially that of Jurgen Moltmann.

John D’Elia has brought out a biography of G. E. Ladd: A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America. Scot McKnight has a good review of it. D'Alia doesn't write a hero tale - he honestly tells of Ladd's struggles with alcohol, his poor family life, and the psychological damage he sustained as he tried to engage with non-evangelical scholarship. Looks like a worthwhile read to get to know the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Africa Bible Commentary and South Asia Bible Commentary

Let me confess to a moment of cynicism. When I first heard of the Africa Bible Commentary project, I thought "oh please - another expression of post-modern reality fragmentation. We already have plenty of Australians, Americans and Europeans ignoring the Bible's own assertions, reading their own situation into it, and then admiring their own reflections and proclaiming it as the word of God - do we have to make the Africans do the same?"

I'm glad to discover how wrong I was.

Conrad Mbewe, a Reformed Baptist from Zambia, has written an excellent review of the Africa Bible Commentary. He commends it as being an excellent example of "conservative evangelical scholarship" where "the commentators allowed the passages they were commenting on to speak for themselves – however uncomfortable that might be – which is an important aspect of conservative evangelicalism." Nevertheless, the commentary is appropriately contextuslised for Africa: "All the books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, are made to speak to us as Africans", including articles on "HIV and AIDS, funerals, circumcision, street children, inheritance of widows, witchcraft and demons, lobola, tribalism, polygamy, land, debts, etc., [which] will not be found in your average commentary from the West (or the East) but they are all handled in this one volume."

This bolsters my hopes for the still-in-progress South Asia Bible Commentary. I was born in Sri Lanka and still have family and friends there. I hope this lastest project will equip people in the sub-continent, and expats like myself who seek to minister to South Asians who in the West.

Monday, 2 May 2011