Response to Feedback

I’ve received a lot of interesting feedback from my last post – Not All Political Issues Are Created Equal.  Some readers assumed I was suggesting something that I wasn’t trying to suggest.  The thrust of the post, in short, was NOT, “Can you be a Christian and still have one political affiliation or the other?”  I certainly believe you can.  The purpose of the post, rather, was to highlight the often mistaken perception that all the political issues are weighted fairly equally.  They are not.  Some issues are directly addressed in Scripture.  Others are not.  To a Christian, that should mean they are fundamentally different.

I intended to address this in further detail in next week’s post.  I still plan on it.  However, I’ve received enough feedback thus far that I wanted to provide a word of clarification until then.

As always, thanks for reading 🙂 !

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Not All Political Issues Are Created Equal

The 2012 election debates are complete and we’re now officially less than two weeks away from voting day.  For the most part, we heard the candidates this year speak about pretty familiar issues.  While the specifics often change from election year to election year, the same basic issues seem to remain, and probably always will – economy, taxes, military, budget considerations, foreign policy, and basic human rights issues – the types of issues addressed in our nation’s Constitution.  This year was really no different.  Right now we still have very high unemployment issues stemming from the recent “Great Recession.”  That is perhaps the issue most on the forefront of Americans’ minds this election year.  But for the most part, the issues are still pretty much the same.

But the issues are not equal.  When you hear the presidential candidates moving from question to question during the debates, it’s easy to think the issues are equally vital.  But they’re not.

For a Christian, recognizing a priority in political issues is not completely unlike recognizing priority in biblical interpretation.  For a student of the Bible, having a healthy and accurate view of doctrine isn’t just about recognizing the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.  It’s also about emphasizing what the Bible emphasizes.  So, as a pastor, while I do believe the Bible is clear regarding what it teaches about eschatology (i.e. End Times), I’m not as concerned that someone I’m instructing has a definite understanding of that as I am that they recognize the basics of sin, grace, and faith.  I’m not as concerned that they understand the role of Achan in the Bible (Josh. 7) as much as that they recognize the role of Jesus.  I’m not quite as concerned that they understand all the ceremonial washing regulations of the Old Testament as I am that they recognize the importance of loving and serving others.  Understand?  In every discipline, profession, belief system, or political election, it’s not just about a smattering of points, but it’s equally important which points you emphasize.

Okay, so for a Christian, which issue(s) would naturally seem to rise to the top?  Well, let’s start by acknowledging that many political issues are fairly “gray areas.”  Policies on trade regulation, taxation, social works programs, global warming, and energy are important and they affect a lot of people.  I don’t mean to minimize them.  Nonetheless, you can be a Christian and hold very different stances on such issues without much problem.  In fact, in such cases, one of the only ways that you could cross a biblical line is to assert something that the Bible itself does not assert.

For a Christian, these issues therefore must be fundamentally different from issues that are directly addressed in the Bible.  Specifically, here, I’m talking about abortion.

As pro-life authors James Robison and Jay W. Richards put it in their 2011 book, Indivisible:

It (i.e. abortion) deals with the first right, on which all other rights are based.  It involves an act evil in itself – intentionally killing innocent human beings.  So abortion policy should be far more central to our voting than virtually any other issue.  If one candidate is pro-life and another is pro-choice in an election, most other issues ought to pale in comparison.  You can’t decide how to vote with integrity simply by making a checklist of issues and then picking the candidate who gets the most checks. (Indivisible, 100)

That might sound too black and white to you.  You might prefer something that comes off more “balanced.”  But the question really isn’t whether or not the statement pleases you or offends you.  Every statement that takes a firm stance is going to offend someone.  The question is whether or not the statement is accurate.

The Bible’s recognition that human life begins at conception is so obvious that I’m not going to get into it too deep.  I’ll just provide a couple of passages that say it clearly: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5) and “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13) and “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” (Jeremiah 1:5).  You really have to twist those statements to suggest they don’t indicate human life prior to birth.  Additionally, we have the benefit of historical documentation to see how Christians have always looked at abortion.  The Didache, arguably the most important extra-biblical Christian text for understanding the early church (ca. 110 AD), clearly says, You shall not murder a child by abortion or commit infanticide.” (Didache 2:2)  While abortion and infanticide and abandonment in the roads was highly common in the Roman Empire, the Christians living in that culture refused to have that low of a view of human life because they understood how high a view God himself has of human life.

Many Christians have sort of side-stepped the abortion issue as just “another issue” or “an issue that doesn’t apply to me.”  As I’ve suggested, I don’t think the “another issue” argument works here, and you also have to think long and hard about the “doesn’t apply to me” issue.  Some may say it doesn’t apply to them because they are 1) not of childbearing age anymore, or 2) would never choose to have an abortion themselves.  But you have to think about how comfortable you are living in a country that is willing to end innocent lives that cannot defend themselves.  Furthermore, one of the big issues in this election and every election in the foreseeable future is that of the impending Social Security bust.  While just about everyone recognizes that some reform is necessary, think about the fact that since 1973 (the year of Roe vs. Wade) there has been more than 53 million abortions in our country, or around 20% of our current population.  To put it in more crass and selfish terms, we wouldn’t be in quite the same bind with Social Security in a few years if we had 53 million more taxpayers.  Historically, the further a country moves from God’s design for humanity, the more it makes life difficult for itself.  Morally and practically, abortion affects EVERYONE.  And finally, another consideration that you have to weigh is “which candidate could potentially seek to empower government to take Christian freedoms out of my hands,” which could easily affect right to life matters.

Let me illustrate by way of biblical anecdotes.

When King Herod heard from the Magi that they were searching for a new ruler in Jerusalem, he ordered that all baby boys in the vicinity 2 years old and younger were to be killed (Matt. 2).  An angel of the Lord warned Joseph to go to Egypt so that the child (our Savior) would not be killed.  Before that, when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, they’d become so numerous that, fearing riot, the pharaoh of Egypt ordered that the baby boys be killed (Exodus 1).   However, some Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who respected God’s high view of human life, refused to carry out the orders.  When true believers are threatened with the possibility of state mandated child murders, they have a biblical and historical track record of refusing to acquiesce.  And if you think that’s old, primitive, and too farfetched for our country today, consider how if you lived in a  different central government dominated state, like China, in the past 50 years, in an urban location, and you or your spouse became pregnant, you could have found yourself in virtually the identical contemporary position – government forced abortion.

As followers of Jesus Christ, the one who created, protected, provided for, redeemed, and ultimately saved human life, central to our thoughts should be how we too can participate in acts that seek to create, protect, provide for, redeem, and save human life.  This is NOT just “another issue.”

Never a New Idea – How Hollywood Rips Off the Bible and What That Should Teach Us

I’m a bit of a movie junkie.  I’ve never made much of a secret of that.  I’m personally of the belief that movies are currently the medium through which our culture is most profoundly shaped.  That may change.  Movies might be replaced by “Arc TV” which can more accurately render more of the details of a complex plot, like those found in books, as opposed to a roughly 2 hour cinematic film.  Nonetheless, being a “movie junkie” today is not entirely unlike being a “book junkie” 100 years ago.  The medium changes, but the human craving for good narrative does not.

With the enjoyment (and learning experience) that I get out of movies, I’m generally on the lookout for what’s coming out as well as what’s making waves at the box office.  In the past couple of months, few films have made the impact that “Looper” has.  Without giving much of the plot away and without having you think I’m giving a ringing endorsement to any and all rated-R movies, I’ll say this.  “Looper” is an action & sci-fi thriller, based in the future, about time travel, and stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  The story explores the impact on the future that both our selfish and selfless decisions make and the universal cycles that are created by both negative and positive choices.

While the movie was marketed with reviews which included phrases like “refreshingly original” and “uncommonly smart”, while watching the movie, I couldn’t help but notice the obvious influences of other films.  After the movie, as I typically do, I went on line for an hour or two to do some additional research.  Sure enough, I found an interview with the movie’s writer and director Rian Johnson in which he mentioned how movies like “Witness” and “Blade Runner” and “Twelve Monkeys” and even “The Terminator” were strong influences in creating the film.  In fact, Johnson goes so far as to say that one of the underlying themes of the movie is how little “new” there actually is in the world.  He comments, for instance, on how in this futuristic culture, many of the trends harken back to the current era.  For instance, referencing a scene in the movie where one of the characters is making fun of men wearing ties due to their lack of functionality, Johnson says, “Everyone still romanticizes neckties” and “He (the main character) is driving a Miata.”  The interviewer then says, “I kind of feel the same way when I see some 15 year-old wearing the same sweater I wore in 1988.”  The point that Johnson is driving home is the fact that our culture has arrived at a self-awareness that there is nothing really all that “new” out there anymore and there never will be.  Pretty insightful.  In fact, it reminds me of the words of a guy that the Bible says was the most insightful man not named “Jesus” who ever lived, Solomon – “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

I’m guessing you’ve noticed the lack of new ideas out there too.  In the past decade or so, Hollywood, TV, and toy-makers have given us more blatant rip-offs than “Looper”.  The super hero movies, Transformers, G.I. Joe.  This is my childhood.  And to a degree, it was my father’s childhood.  It’s hard to tell if the lack of new ideas is more the result of creative laziness or if we’ve simply just dried up the well of creativity.  And for that matter, the connection that most amazes me (that I suspect many miss) are the biblical undertones of most successful narratives.

You could start with most influential story-tellers in the world today.  For instance, much has been made of the biblical allusions in horror-writer Stephen King’s works.  King, like fiction giants J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis before him, believes that good fiction writing is rooted in biblical themes.  Or consider how every single one of the classic Disney movies have biblical themes intentionally running through them.  And what about 2012’s biggest features?  “The Avengers” is a tale about how each individual is uniquely gifted so that they may serve their community for the greater good.  Sounds a lot like what the Apostle Paul has to say about spiritual gifts in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.  “The Hunger Games” is the story of an innocent, ordinary, and unlikely hero, Katniss, who takes the place of her younger sister who is less capable of enduring the dangerous journey before her.  Along the way, Katniss stands before colorful and corrupt political figures who are amazed yet unchanged by her combination of courage, capability, and innocence.  Sounds a lot like the account of Jesus, a man who came to rescue his wayward people, who stood before the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate (John 18-19).  Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated “Alien” prequel, “Prometheus”, was actually criticized by mainstream media for its overtly biblical allusions – such as humans questioning why aliens (believed to be their “creators”) would allow suffering and death to come to their creation.  Look, I could go on and on and on, Superman is the story of the son of the gods who came to save mankind.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, his creators, will tell you that his influences were guys like Samson and Moses.  Even his Kryptonian name, “Kal-El” can be translated in Jewish as “voice of God”.   “Pretty Woman” forced you to think about the story of Ruth.  “Shawshank Redemption”…well, too easy.  It’s everywhere and in everything.  NONE of it is new and ALL of it, in some way, points to the Bible.  The failure to see the connection comes either from a lack of understanding the movies or a lack of familiarity with the Bible.

Why is this important?  It’s important for every person out there who likes modern entertainment forms but won’t give the Bible the time of day because, while they may not admit it, they think it is “boring”.

There was a time when I felt the same way.  A little older, a little wiser, and now actually having the taken the time to study it without someone else forcing me to, I’m telling you, the Bible is many things, but it is NOT boring.  Admittedly, many of us Bible teachers are guilty of “boring” teaching.  But that’s our fault, not the Bible’s fault.

Furthermore, have you ever watched a movie and not entirely “gotten it”.  Maybe you sensed the film was saying something important, but you just didn’t piece it together and then, instead of taking the time to consider it more deeply, you wrote the movie off as “stupid” because you didn’t understand it.  Look, there’s no shame in not understanding something.  It is embarrassing, however, to hide behind phrases like “it’s stupid” or “it’s boring” for things that are objectively brilliant.  The Bible has sold more copies than any book in history.  It’s influenced more lives than any other book.  Objectively, millions of more people have died for the message of this book than for any other narrative.  Clearly, nothing’s boring about the message.

Are you sure you “get it”?  I’m often struck by how many people think they get it.  In fact, most everyone thinks they get the Bible.  I’d lump myself into the category of people who, at one point, thought they had the Bible all pegged down only to be humbled later by totally underestimating it.  I’ve been humbled and amazed and awakened now too many times to be so arrogant as to suggest that I fully “get it”.  But I now know how exciting it is to discover more and see more clearly.  Additionally, God designed the Bible so that you would “get it” primarily through the teaching of others who know it better than you.  So, while reading it on your own is worthwhile, it’s more beneficial to experience it in the community of believers through collective Bible Study.  In a culture of people who want to do things on their own terms and consider every opinion equally valid, group Bible Study is a often a tough sell.  But I’m telling you, it’s the God-designed way to be pushed further and grow.

Wouldn’t you love to be able to “get” every movie?  How much more would you value “getting” the Bible, objectively, the biggest life changing narrative in history.  I’ve got a Bible Study for you right here at rlrochester.com.

By the way, I said I wouldn’t give away too much, but in “Looper”, the main protagonist lays down his life to save countless people (arguably the entire world) in the future.  Now where do you think that idea came from?

I’m a Christian Pastor. I Have Tattoos. I’ll Probably Get More Tattoos. Here’s Why…

I recently celebrated my 31st birthday by getting another tattoo.  Notice I said “another”.  That means there has been at least one prior.  And I clearly don’t look at it/them as a mistake.  I’ll explain why in a minute.

But first, I’d like to point out two negative views on tattoos which are at opposite ends of the spectrum, both of which I’ve had to address before on a couple of occasions.

1) “Real Christians Shouldn’t Do That”

A very kind, supportive, and faithful southern Christian gentleman asked me about tattoos a number of years ago, before I had any.  His daughter had mentioned that she was interested in getting a tattoo and he wanted me to talk to her about how this would be against God’s will.  I started by suggesting that since she was still a legal dependent of her father, this was an issue of respecting your God-given authorities as much as anything (4th Comm; Eph. 6:1-3).  I proceeded by asking him why he felt tattoos were against God’s will.  He said something about how “Doesn’t God forbid it, in the Old Testament?”  So we opened our Bibles to Leviticus 19:28, a section regarding tattoos that is often pointed to by people who recognize the authority of the Bible’s words but who don’t recognize the reality of the Bible’s setting, context, and writing style.  Lev. 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.”  Right there it was.  Was he right?  I asked the man, however, to read the preceding verse, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lev. 19:27)  I gently, kindly, and firmly told him that if he wants me to be a consistent and faithful Bible teacher and tell his daughter that tattoos are evil, according to his logic, I’m going to have to call him to repentance for his recent haircut.

We went on to have a good conversation about how God gave some laws to his people in the Old Testament for the purpose of guiding them away from the idolatry and wickedness of the neighboring people.  We further discussed that if certain morally neutral practices of our culture were associated with the worship of false gods, that they’d generally be a good thing to stay away from as well.  So, for instance, while I could put a menorah on my dinner table and suggest that I just “like the pretty candles”, it’s been so closely associated with Judaism for so long that it’s likely not wise.

Close association to the worship of false gods may, at one point, have been associated with tattoos.  Fifty years ago, tattoos were most commonly associated in culture with gangs who, arguably, worshiped false gods of violence, drug use, and sexual immorality.  But times have changed.  In September 2006, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey which found that 36% of Americans ages 18–25, 40% of those 26-40 and 10% of those 41-64 had a tattoo.  They’re not all in gangs :).  Furthermore, a little informal research at my local workout facility would tell you that tattoos are now seemingly the norm for most Americans under 40.

There’s no biblical mandate and little cultural taboo concerning tattoos.  Therefore, self-righteous legalism against tattoos ain’t doing anything good for the church.

2) “You’re Doing That To Try To Be Cool”

The other negative view I’ve gotten against tattoos is that a pastor who gets tattoos is attempting to acquiesce to modern culture and be “cool”.

Right…..cause we’re in the 6th grade?  Look, my Ford Escape has a decal of a cat and a rabbit that my wife put on the back window.  I think the “attempts at cool” ship sank a while back.

I get it.  Attempts by churches (or pastors) to be cool, or look cool, or talk cool, are a little stomach-turning to me too.  I once saw a billboard where a church advertised “Here’s what OUR pastor wears on Sunday”, followed by a picture of a proud, heavy-set, middle-aged man dressed from head to toe in denim.  I think the church was trying to suggest that they don’t have a stuffy, enforced dress code.  Okay.  But, if in an attempt to be edgy and counter-traditional, they honestly think that a picture of a man draped in denim would coerce me to come to their church, or go anywhere for that matter, they’re mistaken.  I couldn’t care less what your pastor is wearing, as long as he’s wearing something.

Most attempts by churches (or pastors) to come off as “cool” are fairly embarrassing.  Since what is defined as “cool” is so often dictated by a culture tainted by sin, a church, in many ways, may look very different from that.  In other ways, it maybe can/should look similar to the culture.  What’s embarrassing is when you try too hard to be overly cultural (hip & trendy) OR counter-cultural (self-righteously rigid & stodgy).  In either case, you’re trying too hard at the wrong things.

If you really care about sharing the gospel, you’ll be serious about understanding your culture and intentional about meeting the people of your culture where they’re at, but you won’t treat your culture like a false god that you too must bow down to.

Gluttony for cultural relevance ain’t doing anything good for the church either.

The REAL Reason for the Tattoos

It’s simple.  COMMITMENT. I think it’s necessary to regularly remind myself of the importance of commitment in a world that’s terrified by it.  Tattoos, for the most part, are a visual, physical lifelong commitment.

Our culture (particularly Gen X’ers & Gen Y’ers), as mentioned earlier, is getting an unprecedented amount of tattoos.  Inked, Miami Ink, and LA Ink have all been very popular shows on cable TV in recent years.  Why do you think this is?  While there might be a number of reasons, let me propose one:

In an era that I have no doubt will be characterized, historically, by hyper-relativity which leads to an extremely noncommittal attitude toward anything and everything, I think it’s clear that young people are demonstrating their longing for commitment, through tattoos.

It’s really not much different from how, despite attempts by recent generations to make our lives increasingly private, this generation of young Americans have launched head first into social networking.  You simply can’t hinder relationship when, biblically speaking, you were built for relationship.  Likewise, the increasing societal presence of tattoos on young people is demonstrating that you simply can’t hinder commitment when, biblically speaking, you were built for commitment.

The Bible has a great deal to say about commitment (or “covenants”).  For instance, the Bible promotes a commitment in marriage that our culture simply doesn’t know. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say something to the effect of “Why do we need a piece of paper (i.e. marriage certificate) to prove that we love each other?”  What they won’t say, but really mean, is, “We love each other but we don’t want to completely close off all of our other options yet.”  So, I’ll say, “Well if you have true marital love, that means that you want to be together for the rest of your lives.  What damage then is there in getting a piece of paper?”  If you refuse to get that piece of paper, you’re simply and clearly declaring that you’re just not THAT committed to the other person.  This would logically mean that you don’t truly love them to the degree that you could, because the essence of true love, according to the Bible, is sacrificial commitment to the good of another.  By and large, our culture doesn’t see much of that and doesn’t really get that, but still craves that, because we were designed for that.

Finally, only in Jesus can we understand true commitment.  Jesus was utterly committed to us, sacrificing his entire life.  And he seeks, in us, that same sort of commitment.  He said to another man, “Follow me…..No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59, 62)  God didn’t give you a spirit of timidity or relativity or non-commitment.  He gave you his Spirit.  So in the name of Jesus, according to the will of Jesus, guided by the Word of Jesus….“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.” (Psalm 37:5-6). 

My Recent Tattoo

By the way, if you’re wondering, the tattoo featured in the picture above are the words, in Greek, from the end of 1 Peter 1:12, “Even the angels long to look into these things.”  In short, these words suggest that the gospel of Jesus is so magnificent and beautiful that the angels can’t even take their eyes off of it.  And if that’s the case (and those angels are that much smarter than me), how could I possibly ever think of tiring of the gospel’s beauty.