What the Purity Movement Didn’t Tell Us

Growing up, I was a strong advocate for the “purity movement” of the late 90’s.  This was a movement primarily in the Christian evangelical church which encouraged teenage boys and girls (predominantly girls) to avoid having sex before marriage.  Some churches had purity ceremonies where teenage girls walked down the aisle and were symbolically given to Jesus by their fathers.  They would wear a white dress and receive a ring and make a promise to “stay pure” until marriage.  Some churches had purity bible studies where, without ever talking about healthy sexuality, young girls were told that “sleeping with someone” when you’re not married makes your heart grimy and dirty and means you are turning away from Jesus.

To make better sense of this movement, I need to go back to the Home-school Revolution of the early 80’s.  In deference to James Dobson and several other fundamentalist leaders, evangelical Christians were encouraged to break out of societal norms and to revolutionize the world by keeping their children untainted by it.  Many parents chose to pull their children out of school in order to shelter, protect, and influence their children in the way they saw fit.  Others chose to have their children in private Christian education but kept a close eye.  Many watched only “Christian” movies, listened only to “Christian” music, and only socialized with Christian friends.

Now, jump ahead to the late 90’s.  All of these parents who had experimented with sheltering the children of the early 80’s found themselves parenting  pubescent teenagers with romantic interests.  How were they to parent young adults and find them mates in a post-sexual-revolution culture?  The home-school and fundamentalist movements placed great emphasis on family – in fact the idea of living a life in singleness was predominantly viewed as tragic – but how were they to get their children to the altar?

It was on this fertile ground and with this high demand for Christian advice on romance that Joshua Harris published his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”  In this book, Harris advocates not only sexual abstinence but romantic abstinence until marriage.  Saving one’s heart as well as one’s body for the wedding night.  The purity movement’s mantra in answer to the sexual revolution was, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage.”  Harris’ addition to the mantra was, “and don’t think about it either.”

Now, I am not here to speak against abstinence; historic Christianity has always been pro-marriage and anti-promiscuity.  Nor am I speaking against emotional self-control; anyone in a committed relationship knows that sometimes fidelity requires more than just physical boundaries.  What I am saying is that the purity movement addressed pre-marital sex without addressing marriage.   Instead of painting a beautiful, fascinating, healthy and realistic picture of marital sex, they attempted to control the behaviour of teenagers and left marital sex almost entirely out of the conversation.  No one was preparing young people for sex, they were trying their best to get them not to have it.

The purity movement didn’t address things like the dangers of sexual anorexia, male chauvinism, the prevalence of sexual abuse, or the path to healing.  The  movement didn’t acknowledge that marriage is less like a chic-flick and more like Baptism.  Instead it only spoke of marital sex in order to promote a prosperity gospel that promises sexual bliss for the price of pre-marital abstinence.  Empty promises were given, like, “If you don’t have sex before marriage, you will enjoy it so much more once you have it.”  In addition to this, we must not forget the “petal plucking” philosophy which states that virginity is a rose and every romantic experience is plucking a petal off of that rose…on your wedding night don’t you want more than a stem to offer your spouse?  Furthermore, no one explained what the poor little flower supposedly looked like the morning after the wedding.  After all, if they got you to the wedding pure, you were on your own.

Even if a young Christian adult was strong enough or sheltered enough to avoid sex before marriage, many have been left to walk into marriage with all of the same polluted ideas of sex that they learned from the culture but with a hovering sense of guilt that sex is morally bad.  Sadly, some learned this not just from the culture but from their “purity” promoting parents.  Many Christian men were not taught that hedonism is false and to learn self-control; they were taught that hedonism is true but delayed gratification is more pleasurable.  Wait for the wedding night, then have sex whenever you want.  Many women were not taught that sex is for them too; they were taught female subjugation and that the real value of sex is the power to keep your husband.   Don’t ever say “yes” to a boyfriend and don’t ever say “no” to a husband.  A man will not stay with you if you don’t give him his pleasure, but nor will he buy the cow if the milk is free.  I can’t even repeat that phrase without gagging a little.  Comparing marriage to the purchase of livestock is just icky.

The purity movement didn’t speak out  against marital utilitarianism like that found in Dr. Laura’s book, “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.”  They didn’t address how placating men by debasing women is degrading to both sexes.  For some her book is even considered good ol’ practical advice for a Christian home.  I even read a review that described it as “a wonderful instruction manual on how to carry out the New Testament’s principles for wives.”  In addition to this, consider that the Scripture refers to marriage as an image of Christ and His Church.  Can you imagine how disturbing it would be to read a theological book entitled, “The Proper Care and Feeding of God”?  This would be disturbing because God is a Person!  I’m sure such a book would include all the necessary prayers and actions required to keep a simple God placated into not abandoning His people.  It is philosophies like these that continue to poison our marriages.  Men are not beasts or loyal pets.  Women are not mere things – even pure things

To call this a “purity” movement is a misnomer – this was a “virginity” movement.  We taught people about abstinence; we taught them nothing about sex.  Even worse, we taught them nothing about grace, about forgiveness, about salvation, about healing.  We did not teach them how to love their spouse, we taught them how to keep record of wrongs.  We did not teach them sacrifice, but mutual jealousy.  We gave them a movie plot that ends with a wedding.  But the altar is not meant to be a finish but a beginning: the beginning of a life of sanctification with another person.  Marriage is like Baptism.  Baptism is not where we demonstrate our purity, it is where we wash off our sins.  Marriage is a place where we learn to love a sinner and so become less sinful ourselves.  It is a place where we may be so loved by a sinner that we realize we can’t  begin to glimpse the kind of love God must have for us.

 

Robin Hood and Christianity: Corrupting Christ’s Return

An episode of Robin of Sherwood, a delightfully dated 1980s Robin Hood television adaption, begins with a broad-bodied fellow laid in the dust, fending off the blows of a vicious little knot of robbers. Before we have time to worry about his fate, the Merry Men enter with swinging fists and shooting arrows, and the ugly little band darts off to the shadows. As Robin oversees it all like a hardened watchdog, the hearty heroes take the fellow back to their Merry Mancave to eat and drink and, of course, wrestle.  Before we know what’s going on, the chap lifts Little John above his head (?!?) and throwing him to the ground.

That’s when he reveals that he, himself, is King Richard the Lion-Hearted, come back from the East to restore England to right crown and rule and order. He shakes Robin’s hand, inviting him and the Merry Men to Nottingham, where there is feasting and song. That day, he issues the Sherwood gang a pardon and many praises.

Yet, something is rotten in the state of Nottingham. The universe of this particular Robin Hood is not the universe of the Robin Hood of the old myths. In all those tales, Robin Hood is just a man who does what he ought to do. His King being absent, the throne being usurped, Robin acts with a loyalty to the crown which makes him an outcast and a hero. However, in the universe of this show, it is Robin who has the Destiny.

From the first episode, it is clear: Robin is the hero. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when Little John begins to doubt the King’s sincerity. The other Merry Men follow, and even Maid Marian shakes her head. Their doubts are well-founded. When Robin is off screen, the King goes about angling for power, selling off titles and rights, and showing himself to be the equal to his evil brother. Loyal Robin realizes the truth last. He wants to remain faithful to his king, but his king fails him.

By the episode’s end, the King is just another bad man in authority.

The strangest part, perhaps, is how casually the screenwriters undo King Richard. This episode is not a series finale or a season finale or even a Christmas special. It is just another episode. It has no great consequence to the series.

How can Robin go on as though nothing has changed? What happens when you take a deeply Christian tale and pull Christ out of it? Absurdity. After all, King Richard presents a type of Christ, the king of a usurped throne, to which he is returning.

The tale of Robin Hood and Christianity have a common heart, and the long wait for Richard is not unlike half a dozen of Christ’s parables about stewardship and expectation for a returning master. And Robin, well, Robin is the faithful Christian who bears exile for the sake of remaining true to Christ. He continues to act virtuously and stand up against injustice, despite how closely it threatens his life. We, along with Robin, expect the return of Richard to be the coming of heaven to Earth. That moment will set everything right, because that is the effect of the return of Christ.

But long before the series exposed Richard, the writers created a different Sherwood than the one of the parables. By turning Robin into the man with the Destiny, rather than leaving Richard as the Destiny of all, they elevated the Christian above the Christ. When Robin got a destiny, he stopped being part of the greater story of King Richard. Without King Richard, who is Robin Hood? Without Christ, who is the Christian? At best, a nice guy trying to do nice things for the people around him. At worst, a law unto himself.

Moreover, the 1980s show unwittingly paints a dark picture of what Robin Hood becomes when he is the center of his own story. Rather than the joyful, often silly, Robin of the Howard Pyle stories or even the Disney movie, this show offers a broody, dark Robin pursued by a tiny rain-cloud visible only to his soul. This Robin is rightly depressed: the show has created a world where he can believe only in himself, which means that his greatest hero is not a King fighting for God and country, but a robber living in the woods. So it is that, despite the catastrophic implications of an evil King Richard, the show allows Robin to go on with his life in the next episode without reference to the royal disappointment.

The writers’ gesture suggests that the Christian can go on despite displacing the Christ, who does not have to be returning, does not have to possess the throne, does not have to be real; it poses no problem to Robin. Indeed, the underdeveloped spiritual philosophy of the show places deer-headed shaman beside God-fearing nuns with no sense of one being right and the other wrong. In this world, everyone can just believe what they like without it working itself into any of their actions or dispositions. So it is that the writers reveal that they lack an understanding of what it means to believe in anything. This is why they can’t imagine a Robin who needs to believe in a Richard.

The “Quieter Love” That Comes with Time

I met my husband when I was fifteen years old. We fell in love as kids. Jordan used to pick me up at my parents’ house in his white mustang to take me out on dates: to movies; to go swing dancing; to the local Albuquerque coffee shop where he had asked me to be his girlfriend in the first place. We dated for several years (broke up once in the middle) and married two months before my twentieth birthday.

The groundwork for our relationship was laid in the early days of our youth, which paired nicely with the pleasant dizziness of youthful love: love that is just starting out, just revving up, just blossoming and overwhelming you with its sweet fragrance.

Sometimes I miss those early days of being in love. I’ve seen more and more engagement announcements in my Facebook feed in recent years, always accompanied by photos of the smiling couple and the girl showing off her ring, always full of the particular excitement and giddiness that comes with still-young love.

Let me be clear: I love my husband more than anyone. He’s my favorite person in the world. I certainly haven’t “fallen out of love” with him (whatever that means). Our romance is still young in a lot of ways, and there’s always something new and exciting to look forward to next.

But our love is different than it was back in high school, or when we first got married, and I’ve learned that that’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to be. We have both changed over the years, because that’s what human beings do as they grow and learn. We’ve gotten to know each other (and ourselves) better. We’ve faced some challenges and made some big decisions together. We’ve seen each other at our worst, our most vulnerable, and our weakest. We’ve enjoyed each other at our best.

There’s a passage about love from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity I’ve been thinking on lately (and which I’ve mentioned on here before). It’s long, but it’s great, so here it is:

“Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called ‘being in love’ usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from ‘being in love’ — is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be ‘in love’ with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

This quieter love is what, I think, Jordan and I are beginning to experience now, after entering our fifth year of marriage (and the eighth year of our relationship). Because not only do we as individuals change with time, but love changes, too. After you’ve left the stage of new, young love, you begin to experience what older love is like…not that I would classify what Jordan and I have as particularly “old,” but it’s older than it was eight years ago when we started dating or five years ago when we married. Like us, it’s aging and growing and changing. Love is not a static thing. And (Lord willing) in five, ten, twenty-five, or fifty years, I’m sure our love will be different than it is now.

Relationships are fortified through little, everyday things. Earlier this summer, Jordan and I were apart for over three weeks, which is the longest we’ve spent apart since getting married. (It unpleasantly reminded us of the roughly two years we spent long-distance dating, which, as I articulated in an exasperated Twitter post while Jordan was away, “SUCKED FOREVER.”)

Some of the things I missed most during that time were just the everyday parts of our relationship. I missed our evening routine of making dinner and watching something on Hulu or Netflix together. I missed having someone just to talk to about my feelings. I missed the silly little things we’d do to make each other laugh, like doing a dorky dance while taking the dishes to the kitchen or making up our own lyrics to cheesy love songs to sing to each other from the next room. I missed lying in bed together, staring up at the dark ceiling, and talking about our days or our future or how we want to raise our kids and all of the other little, secret things you only share with a spouse. This must be the stuff of Lewis’ “quieter love.”

I am excited by this new stage of love that, while not as flashy as its predecessor, is a little deeper and richer and growing more so day by day. I remember fondly the early days of our romance, but I wouldn’t trade what we have now to go back and start all over again.

Onwards and upwards.

Image via IM Creator.

Happy Endings in Love and Life: The Keys to Satisfaction

Man was never created to be an independent creature, free to do as he pleased.  In the garden, God created man to be in constant communion with him. Adam’s sole purpose was found in relationship with God. God created Eve because it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18).  Relationship is a core component of human nature.  Humans were made to be in constant relationship both with God and with each other. Eve broke that relationship when she took the forbidden fruit, choosing  her own way instead of God’s way, disrupting the natural state of man.  Man was no longer in constant subjection to God.  Listening to self instead of God soon became an option for living.  Obviously, this was not without consequence.  Discord and strife, instead of peace and harmony, immediately became the norm for life.  Hello to the world as we know it.

Marriage is an institution ordained by God designed to replicate the harmony in the garden.  Husband and wife entering into perfect harmony with each other; two becoming one (Genesis 2:25). However, just as it was in the garden, the husband and wife experience unity in their submission to God.  This requires mutual submission and self-sacrificial love.  Acting for yourself in opposition to your spouse results in strife.  For many, this kind of marriage seems very constraining.  It is.  You are not allowed to follow all your passions on a whim.  Marriage is a life time commitment to submitting to and loving another human being.  But in this commitment comes great joy that is not possible in relationship outside of marriage.

Desire is an important part of any relationship.  But as with any passion, desire can come and go.  Following desire can lead you down many stray paths.  Desire alone is not enough for a thriving relationship.   Commitment and security are needed.  In Song of Solomon, the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me (7:10).”  Without this firm sense of belonging, insecurity and doubt will destroy even the most passionate relationship.  Marriage provides a framework for desire where security and exclusivity allow it to blossom.

What about people in abusive marriages?  What about adultery?  There is no doubt that these will drastically affect and possibly shatter any union.  Strife and discord are inevitable in any relationship, no matter how committed the two spouses are to God and each other.  But my point here is not to write about the affects of sin on marriage.  My point is simply to present the best bet for a lasting love.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the story of a tragic love affair.  Anna and Vronsky are destroyed by a love that cannot satisfy.  Anna soon becomes consumed with doubt and insecurity regarding Vronky’s commitment.  Without marriage, there is no assurance of commitment or belonging, thereby making insecurity overtake passion.  Vronksy strives to retain his “manly independence” and keep a life apart from Anna.  He holds onto part of himself that he refuses to give to Anna.  This too prevents them from becoming one flesh.  Chaffing is the natural result.  Destruction instead of a blossoming love becomes the outcome of their affair.  Desire outside the bounds of marriage yields nothing but strife.

Anna and Vronsky are perhaps an extreme example of something so commonplace in our culture, love outside of marriage.  Anna and Vronsky’s destruction was in part caused by their rejection by society.  Today, “living together” is a common place behavior.  While it may not be openly destructive, as with any other self-centered behavior, it can result in nothing but inward strife and discord.  It may feel good at times, but does it satisfy? True satisfaction only comes through living a life in relationship with and submission to God, and, if that life involves the love of your life, a God centered marriage.

Why is God important?  This too goes back to the garden.  God created us to be in constant relationship with him.  Thriving is only possible through this relationship.  Veering away from God might lead to earthly pleasures but will never lead to ultimate fulfillment.  Jesus came so that we might be fulfilled in a post-fall world.

Are you engaging in a self-centered behavior right now?  Whether it is an extra-marital affair, or something like excessive drinking or viewing pornography, I have to ask you, “Does it satisfy?”  Not just on the surface, but deep down inside.   Jesus tells his followers, ”The thief comes to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”  Choose life.

Comparison as the Thief of Joy

It’s been famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This reminder was recently quoted in a Christian talk, and my gut reaction was, “That makes sense.

We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to others but finding our value in Jesus.” While this conclusion is true, it doesn’t dig into why comparison is so harmful or where our true value comes from.

In fact, when I hear somebody say, “We’re all valuable to God!” my mind leaps to the concept of participation trophies. While the idea is well-intentioned, it doesn’t actually accomplish the purpose of a trophy. A trophy recognizes outstanding performance based on a valued goal, especially when compared to other performances with the same goal. In comparison, participation trophies set a minimal, basically valueless goal and rewards everyone for completing what is actually closer to a necessity. While it’s true each individual is valued by God, it could be a type of minimal value, similar to a participation trophy.

However, when I was reading Psalm 139 I realized two things. First, whatever value we have to God, it’s never a small amount. “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful to me.”  Even if God gave every single person a trophy for value, the fact that each of us has value does not diminish the worth of His regard. Instead, it contradicts the notion of a participation trophy since His regard is not minimal or an assumed fact. In fact, His regard for us is larger than anything we could conceive and more precious than anything on this earth.

God’s value for man is unlike the concept of a participation trophy but it’s also not like a trophy system that compares performances. See, a true trophy system evaluates performances in relation to an overarching goal but we’re not created with the same goal in mind. Psalm 139 tells us we were each created with a unique goal or purpose, “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Since God created each individual with a unique goal or purpose, there is no need to compete by the exact same standards.

Since God uniquely created individual purposes, comparison becomes the thief of joy. We are the most happy when we are fulfilling our purposes but when we begin comparing ourselves to others, we believe the lie that our purpose is the same as someone else’s. In this framework, we will never be happy because we are chasing a specific purpose that isn’t ours. We then begin to falsely compare and compete in the delusion that we are striving against one another for the same goal. Instead, our joy is found in fulfilling God’s purpose that’s uniquely created for us.

However, it’s also important to remember that we shouldn’t be anxious or worry about figuring out the specific path ordained for us. We were ultimately created with the overarching purpose to glorify God, and the psalmist in 139 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” If we love God and seek Him in a way that remains true to our individual nature, it is then possible to discover our specific path and simultaneously glorify to God.

 

 

Why YOU Should Love the Homeless–Breaking the Cycle of Rejection

This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown.  Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by.  Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement.  Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us.  This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.

In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment.  In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).”  Being rejected again and again hurts.  Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.

Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12)  For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred.  For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby.  No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.

Our actions have a cyclical affect.  Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others.  Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others.  Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us.  Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect.  Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day.  Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day.  However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.

It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse.  The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being.  However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted.  This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend.  Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.

We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet.  But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet.  We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us.  We love because He loves us.  The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him.  During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day.  Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective.  Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith.  But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.

This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs.  We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways.  While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store.  I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16).  Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.

Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it.  If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle.  Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions.  We are called to be cycle breakers!  Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed.  Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.

*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

Power Struggles with the Untamed: What Nature Can Teach You About Yourself

When you learn to ride a horse, you become painfully aware of two things. The first is that the reins in front of you are just an illusion of control. The second is that, no matter how strong your thighs are, if that horse decides you belong on the ground, there’s a good likelihood you’ll end up there pretty soon. A relationship with a horse is risky. There’s no way you can completely control an animal that weighs half a ton. Yet, as you might know from experience, a relationship with a horse is a privilege. It’s an honor to move with a beautiful creature that is so much more powerful than you.

When Christians talk about nature, we usually talk about creation stewardship. We care for the earth because in the beginning God called the earth good, and in the New Testament we see that God desires to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. Yet even creation care can sometimes focus too much on controlling or ruling nature rather than learning from it. Are we to interact with nature simply because we were told to take care of it, or does it exist to teach us something? Rightly regarding nature helps us understand human power correctly, and it can give us insight into our relationship with the earth and God.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, we see that when man practices bad stewardship, he develops an unrealistic understanding of his power that leads to man’s destruction. Captain Ahab is driven to fight nature because his perspective of the world is anthropocentric—he assumes that he has the inherent right to conquer the whale and misunderstands who he is in relation to the natural world. Ahab’s missing leg and his “gashed soul” are, Melville tells us, the direct result of the attack of the great white whale. Despite this, Ahab is unable to accept his powerlessness in the face of nature, embodied by the whale, and he becomes obsessed with regaining power: “All…demonisms…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were…made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” For Ahab, nature is the sole source of all human pain and destruction. Ahab completely relinquishes his roles as a husband and father and leads his entire crew into a dangerous oblivion, which ultimately claims the life of almost every crewmember.

The fate of Captain Ahab and his crew could have been changed if Ahab saw fault not in the whale but in himself. In his pride, Ahab fails to see nature for what it truly is, and he fails to see himself for what he truly is. In Ahab’s world, there is only domination. Either Ahab will dominate the whale, or the whale will dominate him. He will be either a slayer of the earth or a slave to it. But there is a middle way that Ahab has forgotten: man’s primary role as caretaker and lover of the earth.

Melville contrasts Captain Ahab with Ishmael. The only crewmember to survive the wreck of the Pequod, Ishmael does not claim control over the leviathan, and he includes many facts about the whale throughout his account of his journey, proving he is more interested in trying to know this unknowable thing than conquering it. He contemplates the foolishness of man in thinking that we can control nature at all: “However baby man may brag of his science and skill…yet for ever and for every, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest frigate he can make…man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.”

Oughtn’t we come to terms with the fact that nature could, at any moment, “insult and murder” us, as Ishmael so bluntly tells us it could? It is a harsh truth that the earth is more powerful than we are, but this truth does not have to destroy us like it does Captain Ahab, who is wrong in assuming that the harshness of nature means nature is against us. Nature can be frighteningly untamable, but that which is untamable is not necessarily evil. Instead of losing his sanity because he cannot control the earth, Ishmael humbly accepts who he is in relation to the earth. He hungers for knowledge of it but is not obsessed with overpowering any part of it, including Moby Dick. He recognizes that he cannot hate the untamable parts of the earth because they reflect something human. Contained within the earth there is an image of something with which he identifies. Ishmael ponders, “Consider both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”

The mysteries of the earth and endless depths of the sea remind us of all we do not know about this world and even about ourselves. Our souls are mysterious. Our bodies are mysterious. We gather facts like Ishmael, but the same questions God spoke to Job still hover over every created thing: where were we when all of this was created? How were the vast mountains and our tiny nerves fashioned? By reminding us of all we do not know and all we cannot know or control, nature humbles us. We, like Ishmael, should approach the earth not with the desire for control but instead with respect and a willingness to experience wonder. We are the creatures whom God made in His image, yet we have been given a world we cannot (and should not) fully tame, and that reminds us both of how finite human power is and how glorious our God is.

The Seventh Day

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money…is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” – Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

 

This past summer, I found myself in a lot of cathedrals. I traveled to Switzerland, France, Spain, and England, and in each place I saw tall turrets and brilliant glass windows. I quickly learned that experiencing the outside of a cathedral is not the same as experiencing the inside of a cathedral. The outside is colossal and glorious and allows you to see where the cathedral exists in space compared to all that exists around it. The inside is colossal and glorious in a different way. It is darker, holier. In it, your senses adjust to the sacredness of the space. The scents and sounds are different, the air is cooler, and there is no direct sunlight. Rather, all sunlight is filtered through stained glass windows wherein you see your Savior and His story. He is brighter than you, and you are aware of it. When you are in a cathedral, you are in a sacred space: a space built by man but dwelt in by God. This is the Christian tradition.

 

While the beauty of sacred spaces can be appreciated in itself, sacred spaces only fully affect us if the time within them is sacred as well. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish rabbi and activist of thetwentieth century, speaks about the sacred thing that God built before man ever built the cathedral. In The Sabbath, Heschel points out that there was a designated sacred time before there were sacred spaces. This sacred time was the seventh day, the only thing God created in the beginning that He called “holy.” Sabbath—or Shabbat, as it’s called in the Jewish tradition—is like an incorporeal cathedral. It is a sacred architecture assembled not in space but in time.

 

During Shabbat, it is the participant who decides to make Shabbat holy. This is very different from sacred space. The sacred spaces we gather in (like cathedrals) are, in part, designed to help us adopt the right posture towards God during sacred times of worship. Yet in holy spaces, I fidget and my mind wanders if I have not learned to regard time correctly. Although sacred spaces invite you into sacred thoughts, if you have not learned to value time as sacred as well, you likely will not feel the need to actively give up your internal quarrels or evil thoughts. We can enter into sacred spaces while hiding these profanities so that they are invisible to everyone else. However, it is much more difficult to enter into sacred time while harboring profane thoughts. For Shabbat to occur, the participant must actively give up enemies, quarrels, and work. Worry is laid aside; war ceases. Shabbat is an internal commitment to keep the seventh day sacred, and it is this internal commitment to sacredness that enables us to fully experience the affect of external sacred spaces.

 

Shabbat celebrates time, not space, teaching us how to have a proper relationship with time. The result of the fall is a broken relationship between man and himself, God, and all of creation. We must learn how to correct our relationship to all aspects of existence again, including time, which is an aspect of existence that we often misuse. Driven by our desire for success, Americans often consider rest as merely a means to increase productivity throughout the week, failing to see rest as an end in itself. To Heschel, however, Shabbat “is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When we enter Shabbat, we enter into a glimpse of eternity, or as Heschel calls it, “eternity in disguise.” During Shabbat, we cannot pick up our worries and quarrels as we would on a normal day. We are commanded to enter into rest, and that rest reminds us that our earthly cares are just that—earthly. They cannot follow us into eternity, and if we enter Shabbat correctly, they cannot follow us into Shabbat, either. Shabbat is peace in action among man and everything else. For one day, we do not fight the earth, fellow man, or God. The only thing we fight during Shabbat is our own desire to do, a desire that often stems from the idea that doing is what makes us worthy or whole. Once we fight ourselves out of doing, we can realize that just by being—being God’s child, an heir to the kingdom, a new creation—we are worthy. Work is important to the Christian life, yes. But we must remember that it is God who makes us worthy and whole, not our work.

 

The cathedrals I found in Europe are merely one testament to how much we’ve done to preserve historically sacred spaces. We have done much less to preserve the ancient practice of sacred time. Imagine if the number of sacred places on earth were converted into sacred days during which we could experience the peace of the kingdom of God. Rest and peace can happen outside of a cathedral. We can fill the entire world with the sacred peace of Shabbat.

 

Society is No One: When You Have Society’s Approval

Society is no one. It is the no one who sits in judgment over an activist’s appeal. It is the nobody standing in support of a preacher’s morality. It is the no one who cares for and supports you in your personal growth. Of course, everyone together is society, and good society demands good people to make it up. Society is so much a little bit of everyone that it is very little of anyone and is a dry reed ready to splinter and stab anyone who leans on it for support. And yet, society is something.

If everyone ditched trousers in favor of kilts, “but everyone’s doing it!” would be a meaningful appeal. Although traditional clothing can have deep and significant meaning, monks with manuscripts are no match for punks with printers. Mindless manufacturing is efficient, so whatever the original pattern is, it wins. People just copy, and to a point, they don’t mean anything by it. Copying is a glandular function, not an intellectual one. When I look at pictures of old Mormon homesteaders, all I really see is a bunch of people dressed like pioneers with a surplus of wives. What everyone did covered all the bases the Mormons cared to clothe, but the ideas on the inside were what mattered, and it was for those ideas that the Mormons’ neighbors drove them out.

G. K. Chesterton said something about agreeing to live in peace with each other so we could settle the theology, and he rejected the notion of agreeing on the theology to support settling down to live together. For instance, I consider whether I have a girlfriend to be more lastingly meaningful to my spiritual life than whether women should be ordained, but I refuse to throw up my hands with a resigned “C’est la vie!” so I can get on with romance if society judges one way or the other about women’s ordination. Society says do this and do that. Society thinks this and that. Society has the intellectual depth of a bowl of dog sweat.

Now for a gay marriage reference. If gay marriage supporters say society supports them and it does not, they are liars. If gay marriage supporters say society supports them and it does, they nevertheless commit themselves to perpetual evangelism because opinions come in and out of style just as much as they think they do. If they win the externals without the conversions of hearts and minds, they are going to lose. In the push for gay marriage, as in any other thing in society, there is an A Team of thinkers somewhere doing the intellectual heavy lifting. When they die out, others will come after to continue the push, but good leaders do not keep the mob going so much as they fashion individuals out of the proletarian dust, breathing life into their hearts and minds.

I think that everyone should think the same things that I think. Even if their ways of thinking are different, they should reach the same conclusions and arrange them in the same places that I do. If I have not thought about something, I should hardly dare to call anyone to agree with my position on it. If I am wrong about something, I should hardly dare to surrender when we change the subject and I am right about the new topic. How is it possible for me to demand agreement from others while still calling upon them to do their own thinking? How can I believe in agreement, which builds society, if society is no one? The individual, the lone man or woman, has free will. Society only has momentum.

There are, from time to time, individuals who incarnate their societies’ values and interests. Kings, priests, prophets, scholars, poets, philosophers, entertainers: they live differently than all their family and friends, but they are accepted as part of society, even essential members worth the sacrifice of many lives of ordinary people. The Church has its own catalogue of exemplary people, and in some Christian traditions, they are the Saints. You know, with the capital S. Saints achieve in their lifetimes the reality toward which the Church is struggling and striving, that being union with God and the active revelation of him in every aspect of their lives. Not everyone gets to be a capital S Saint and painted into icons (or for evangelicals, have books and movies made about them), but everyone does get to choose who they will imitate. What is more, they have the choice to imitate a way of life or just drift with the dispassionate tides. Tides care about nothing. Saints care about the smallest things. Free will exists, but my free will and yours are not the only two in existence.

Call it God, call it powers and authorities in the heavenly realms, call it your mother in law’s dead hand strangling you from beyond the grave: all of these wills are working on you. References to society as some sort of authority are like references to a rickety canoe as some sort of stability. That canoe keeps us out of the water, but currents and cataracts work no matter how much we argue about where and how we should go. Society is no one, and we have free will. Society is everyone, and we have duties. “Society says” is a “shut up, stupid” against disagreement and forms a poor argument and even worse proof for anything. Society demands named individuals to stand up and be counted as examples and authorities to be cited. Society demands that something other than society should speak, because society has no will. Society has only momentum. Society is no one.

Family Matters: A Biblical perspective one’s duty to the family

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).

These are the words of Jesus, spoken to a crowd of his followers. This is a severe and perhaps surprising assertion. One would not expect Jesus, who demonstrates perfect compassion and love, to ask his disciples to show hatred towards their families. This demand does not seem to fit in with the behavior that is expected in the Kingdom of God. To complicate matters, Paul says in 1 Timothy that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1Timothy 5.8). Paul’s statement is also harsh, but what he says seems to contradict the words of Jesus. Yet, with a deeper investigation, these seemingly opposite claims can be reconciled.

When Jesus says his disciples must hate their family members, he is not giving instructions on how to treat one’s family, but rather communicating the cost of being a disciple. He concludes his talk saying, “therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.33). He means that the cost of being a disciple of Christ is a heavy one. It requires the complete renunciation of oneself. We are to serve God and God alone. This does not mean that we ought to hate our families, but it does mean that we have to renounce our duty to them. The severity of Jesus’ statement is genuine. He is reminding us that one cannot enter into the Kingdom of God half-heartedly.

Paul statement on the family is actual instruction for the church. The family is an institution created by God. It was designed so that members could care for each other. In fact, proper care of one’s family is necessary for the thriving of the church as a whole. Regarding church leaders, Paul writes, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1Timothy 3:4-5) To be effective in the church, you must first prove to be faithful in the small things. We are called to care for our families before we can extend our reach to the church and to the world.

Jesus and Paul are speaking of two different aspects of the Christian life. Jesus is talking about the weight of the decision to follow him. Paul is giving guidance of how we ought to live once we have given our all to Jesus. Combining the messages of Jesus and Paul, we can conclude that when we renounce our family, we receive an even greater responsibility for them. To become a follower of Christ, we must surrender all. Yet, we take on a new lifestyle when we choose to follow Jesus. We are expected to behave differently. We now put God above all, and in doing so, recognize everything that all we have belongs to him in the first place. Jesus reminds us that our families are not actually ours. Family is a gift which was graciously bestowed upon man by God. Thus, we must care for them, adhering to the structure and order that God has designed. Of course, this cannot be done without love, compassion, and attention to our loved ones. When we are faithful in this task, we can also serve effectively in God’s church. It remains our responsibility to love our families as Christ loves us.