Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On Gay Marriage: Who Drank All The Orange Juice?

On many occasions in my life as a parent, I've been chastised by my children for drinking “all” of whatever beverage my children wanted. It may be that I drank a total of one ounce of a bottle of orange juice, but, if it was the last ounce, I “drank it all,” earning the burning disdain of righteously indignant toddlers. Additionally, no amount of my superior adult reasoning can convince them that there is a difference between “all” and the “the rest of...”

I see a similar dynamic occurring this week in our cultural debate over gay marriage. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recently handed down a ruling legalizing homosexual marriage in all fifty of the united states. Quickly, my social media feeds were abuzz with knee-jerk reactions from my Christian friends on both the left and the right. [1] (Yes, they are all genuinely my friends, and I love them all.) My friends range from the marxist lefties (with their disdain for the Republican corporate bourgeoisie) to the fundamentalists far-right who are preaching America's imminent and deserved doom. Many of them colored their profile pictures with rainbows or the Christian flag and others shared memes in support of one position or another.

I need to make a couple of preliminary remarks before proceeding. First, I do believe that homosexual acts are sinful. I've become convinced that the Scriptures are, in fact, God's revelation. In these Scriptures, it is clear to me that homosexual acts are declared to be immoral by God whose very nature stands in objective opposition to certain acts. (Rom. 1:26-27) Secondly, my political reaction to the issue of homosexual marriage is far more complicated than either extreme (left or right) will allow. In short, just because I believe that something is immoral, it does not follow that I think the government should be the one to fix the problem. Many libertarians, for instance, are of the opinion that the government should not be concerned with recognizing marriage at all. The government, they say, should merely recognize individual citizens qua citizens. Perhaps the churches should be the only ones recognizing marriages. (Of course, there would be denominations that choose to ordain homosexual marriages. Likewise, there are currently churches that choose to worship both Jesus and Buddha.)

I would like to address two assumptions of my friends on the far-right who have been preaching that America is now doomed and that the sword of judgment is proceeding from the mouth of Jesus as he mounts his white steed in preparation for his return. (Rev. 19:15). [2]

The first assumption is that the sin of homosexual acts, and its wholesale acceptance by American society and media, is the one sin that makes America so grossly sinful so as to trigger the return of Jesus, as if Jesus is sitting in glory waiting to see what happens to this one special nation over all others. Denmark legalized gay marriage 26 years ago. Does God care more about the spiritual and moral health of the United States more than Denmark? Or, have we just written off Denmark as too pagan and liberal to warrant God's attention? How about the moral atrocities of religious genocide (against Chaldean Christians) in the Middle East? Or the extreme oppression of the citizens of North Korea? Or the sex slave trade of women and children all over the world. I wholeheartedly believe that Jesus is returning some day, but I'm not convinced that American gay marriage is the moral weight that tipped God's scales. Jesus came because those scales were already tipped, in the Garden of Eden.

The second assumption is that, before America became the 17th nation to legalize gay marriage, it was on relatively good moral ground. I think we need a history lesson. America has deeply sinful baggage from well before gay marriage. Think of the following examples: the first “Americans”, in some cases, forcibly removed natives from their lands. The subsequent American west was a post-apocalyptic land whose only rule was survival of the fittest. The way west was beaten flat by the greedy lust for gold and land. We bought and sold human beings as chattel property until the 1860s. Then, we treated them as less than fully human legally until the 1960s. When white people like myself look back to the 1950s as the good ol' days, our black neighbors are rightly disturbed. The Egyptians saw glory, but the Jews saw slavery. In WWII, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. We produce and buy pornography at world-record rates. We've renamed “divorce,” “conscious uncoupling.” We've been executing unborn children legally since 1973. Some secularists of the early 20th century were forcing sterilization on minorities, the disabled, and the poor in a crude and inhuman eugenics experiment, which was only outdone by Hitler and his goons. Look at the garbage we export to the rest of the world out of Hollywood, New York, and Nashville.

Now, there are some who are wagging their fingers (and their memes) at homosexuals, saying, “You drank all the orange juice!” 99% of the orange juice was already gone, and many of us consumed it with our greed, our lusts, our divorce, our abortions, our racism, our civil war, and our general consumption.

The narrative that America just fell from its righteous pedestal is a false one. That isn't what happened. [3] The truth is that America is like every single other country on this Earth—it is populated by fallen people—the descendants of Adam. [4] What do the Scriptures teach us about this race of Adam? We are sinners, so twisted by prideful perversion that we don't even understand the depths of our depravity. We are all broken, hurting, and hurtful. We hurt others, and we hurt the heart of the God who loved us enough to sacrifice his own son. No one has gotten his act together enough to warrant Jesus' favor. (Rom. 3:23) “There is none righteous, no not one.” (Rom 3:10-12) We all deserve death. (Rom. 6:23) This is the world we Christians have always lived in. [5] This was the world the day before SCOTUS made its landmark decision. And, this is the world afterward. Christians are sojourners in a strange land, which operates by a different set of values. (Phil. 3:20;  Heb. 13:14)

It is in this world that Jesus took on flesh. It is in this world that Jesus embraced broken sinners and rebuked prideful ones. He preached that we are to love our neighbors and our enemies. He dined with harlots and thieves and the faithful. He was executed by betrayers and enemies, and, as he died, he said, “Father, forgive them.” In his dying moment, he was cursed by one criminal and embraced by another.

This is the world we live in. A law has changed and U.S. political sensibilities seem to have changed, but the nature of the world around us has not.


[1] For the purposes of this post, I simply use “Christian” to mean anyone who claims to be so.
[2] The reason that I've chosen to address the right side of this debate is because they are my own “tribe.” I'm theologically conservative and evangelical. I'll address my liberal Christian friends on the left another time, but here is a preview: If I have to decide between basing my ethics on the apostles or a Christian friend with the rainbow flag, I'm going with the apostles. (Eph. 2:20) It's not even a serious decision for me. If my liberal Christian interlocutors think I've misread the apostles, that is a different debate for a different post.
[3] I'm not denying that the U.S. has undergone a rapid cultural change with regard to its views of sexuality.
[4] This probably offends the sensibilities of those who accept American exceptionalism.
[5] Even in the most secular areas in the United States, it is easier to be a Christian than it was for the apostles and their disciples for almost 300 years after them.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Complicated Motivations of a Christian Missionary

America exasperates me some times. I mean "America" generally, but I come from the particular American tribe that is Southern white Protestant Evangelical. Therefore, much of what I have to say is informed by that particular experience.  The exasperation is multi-faceted and cannot be attributed to any one factor. Some of the foremost factors are: political polarization, social/racial segregation, anti-intellectualism, corporate greed, government overreaching, Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, Libertarian Jesus, and the American "Dream." I do love America, but there is some rotten fruit on its branches.
The flag of the Republic of Korea

I have now lived as a missionary teacher in South Korea for 15 months. A number of people have asked me where I prefer to live, and I have come to one very clear conclusion: I prefer to live in South Korea. This is an unsettling answer for my dear friends and family whom I miss and who miss me, my wife, and our children. This answer is as much a surprise to me as any, and it has caused much reflection. Why do I prefer to live in South Korea?

Given my theological understanding of humankind, I dare not say that Korea is exempt from the sins that have beset American culture. Koreans are just as sinful as Americans, even if the sins of greed, lust, pride, and arro
gance manifest themselves differently. One man's (or culture's) sins may not be another's, but we are all cut from Adam's cloth. (Romans 3:10-18, 23; 5:12)

So, why do I prefer to live in Korea? In Korea, I get relief from the myriad things that drive me crazy, because I'm an outsider. There are divisive and unintelligent political debates here, too, but I don't hear them, because I don't speak the language.  I'm certain there are profit-driven media outlets masquerading as objective sources of news here, too, but I don't watch them, because I don't have Korean television. Americans are bombarded daily by self-centered Lockean individualism, and Koreans are bombarded by self-consuming Confucianist collectivism. Both of these philosophies in their extremes are destructive to the person, because both pervert the imago dei.

So, what it comes down to is that I have found some relief in hiding in Korea. Korea is not better than the United States, but here I can hide in plain sight. My white skin, western clothing, lack of native language, and unusually hairy face are something of a cultural Teflon. The problems of Korean culture usually just slide right off of me. The problem now is that this type of cultural isolationism is exactly the sort of thing that I've criticized in others. I've repeatedly condemned this in my own American evangelical tribe, but I am able to hide my own isolationism under the cloak of mission work. [1] 

There lies within me a hypocritical contradiction in the form of a self-centered escapism, which I have baptized as mission work. This calls for a level of sober self-awareness about my motives for being a missionary. Am I content in Korea because I'm loving the Lord and his people here, or am I merely enjoying an Amish-esque vacation from my native culture? Or maybe both? [2]

Vacations become boring and exhausting in their own way if they go on for too long. If I'm not motivated by a genuine, persevering love for God and his people in Korea, what will happen when the vacation becomes wearisome? What will happen when I do learn the language and become annoyed with the South Korean culture? It will happen. People are people. Will I move again? Will I be propelled by annoyance of the culture I'm leaving or by love for the people to whom I go?

I welcome your comments and advice below, but, for now, I have to keep my eyes on the Lord and those I came to serve as a teacher. I have to learn the culture and language here and press into it when it becomes exhausting. I have to quit pretending that my motives to serve here have been pure and ask the Lord to forgive me and cleanse my heart. I have to remove the plank from my own eye. (Matt. 7:5) I have to love God and love people. These are the two greatest commandments. (Matt. 22:36-40)

Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul

[1] Please understand that I do believe God called me to the work I'm doing in South Korea, and I love doing it. I do genuinely believe that God has called my family to this nation. (Matthew 28:19-20) This post is not a subtle hint that I'm going back to America this year.
[2] God has an incredible, sovereign way of taking our own sinful actions and desires and orchestrating them in such a way that his perfect story is told. Satan thought he had won at the moment Jesus died on the cross, but that was actually the crushing, mortal blow to Satan and his kingdom. (Gen. 3:15, NIV) The paradox is also stated by Joseph, who confronted his brothers who had sold him into slavery many years before: "...you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive..." (Gen. 50:20) I'm glad that, even when I've been evil, misguided, or self-centered, God still does his good work through me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

11 Things I Love About the Republic of Korea

A panoramic view of Pyeongtaek City from atop AK Plaza
I've lived in Pyeongtaek-si, Korea (formally the Republic of Korea) for almost one year now, and below is a list (in no particular order) of eleven things I've come to love about living here. The first year of living overseas can be very challenging, due largely to culture shock and weariness, so you  have to hold on to the little things that you really love some days. These are the little things I love about South Korea:
1. Bulgogi and Kalbi

My daughter checking out a kalbi cooking pit.
I've made no secret of the fact that I generally do not like Korean food, particularly the side dishes like kimchi, radishes, daegujeon (cod fillets), and miyeokguk (seaweed soup). But, one thing I do love here is meat, such as bulgogi and kalbi. Bulgogi is a thinly sliced beef in a broth of vegetables and mushrooms. Kalbi is sliced pork (often marinated) cooked at the table over an open flame. Cooking your own meat is just cool.

2. Collectivism

This actually belongs on my "10 Things I Dislike About Korea" list, too, but I won't be writing that post. Korea, due to its deep Confucianist roots, is collectivist, as opposed to individualistic like America and other western nations. For an American living in Korea, this is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing, because people tend to be more concerned with the whole community, rather than their own individual preferences. To the uninitiated it comes across as rude when people push and shove onto the train. But, to Koreans, it is matter of individuals collectively agreeing to sacrifice their own comfort so that everyone can get to where they need to go. The good news is that, though things sometimes seem chaotic, there is a mysterious way in which things always work out. For an American, it is very challenging to keep a good attitude about collectivism, but it must be remembered that they are not being rude to the individual. They are making sure the whole functions and are not willing to let individual comfort get in the way of that.

3. Public transportation

While buses can be a violent ride due to aggressive driving, public transportation is world-class throughout the country. Taxis are everywhere, buses are clean and on time, and trains are WiFi-equipped. There are also inexpensive comfortable commuter buses and high speed trains to carry travelers long distances. Getting groceries with children in tow can be difficult, but families can generally live in urban areas without a car. I use public transportation and my bicycle to get most places. 

4. The Internet

South Korea is wired to the max, and the Internet is the fastest in the world. Recent research by Akamai reveals that the average connection speed for South Korea was 17.5 Mbps, making it #1 on their list of the fastest internet connections in the world. Japan was #2 at just 9.8 Mbps. The average for Arkansas is 3.74 Mbps, and the average for the U.S.A. is somewhere around 7 Mbps. See the ranking by state here. Connecting to the Internet and having sufficient bandwidth for streaming or downloading is not an issue.

5. Personal quietness

Perhaps only a person who has lived in a loud place like Chicago would notice this, but Koreans are personally quiet--an attribute, which makes them good neighbors. I've very rarely heard a car driving down the road with extremely loud music. On the occasions that I have, it has usually been an American soldier from the nearby U.S. military bases. Koreans definitely stay up late, but they do not have loud, raucous parties that keep up the whole neighborhood. I suspect this relates back to its collectivist culture. Personal behavior that would be so disruptive to the whole would be unacceptable. This is not to say that living here is all quiet. There is a certain level of non-human noise that is common to any urban environment, and there is an U.S. Air Force base nearby to supply sufficient noise pollution to those who like it.
The fish stand at the Songbook street market

6. Market venders

Street markets are pretty great. My neighborhood (Jisandong) has a "4-9" market, which means that the street market is set up on any calendar day that ends with either a 4 or a 9. If it can be bought in Korea, you can find it in the market. The streets are packed, lively, and colorful. It is also an ideal place to go out and practice Korean. It can be pushy and crowded, but, if you can just go with the flow, it is all good. Do NOT take a stroller.

7. Personal safety

"Hello" International Market in Songtan on an off day.
Older Korean men (called ajusshi) can be brash and blustery, but violence is just not a thing here. I have not once felt like I was in danger. It does, of course, help that I'm larger than 98% of the males in this country. The only people I have cause to fear here are foreigners, usually Americans. On an index of crime in OECD countries for murder, rape, burglary, and vehicle theft, Korea is low on the lists. On "Charlie Mooney's Index Of How Uncomfortable He Is With His Wife Walking At Night," Korea is favorably low. I just don't worry here. Of course, there is the perennial threat of Kim Jung Un of North Korea who says he'll rain down nuclear winter on the South. But, most South Koreans don't pay him any attention, because it seems that he is just being blustery and posturing, as ajusshis do. This does not affect my "...Walking At Night" index, because it won't matter if we're out walking at night or not.

8. No tipping

Tipping for meals and services is not generally part of the culture here. Employees are simply paid a full wage and the cost of labor is part of the price. Here is a helpful article about the evolving cultural attitudes toward tipping. But, not having to work out a tip does make things easier. I just have to remember when I travel back to the U.S.
Some have even said it can be offensive to tip someone. I've heard that it implies that the server is lowly or even that the extra money should be used to go and learn how to do the job better. There doesn't seem to be any consensus on the explanation however. I have seen a few places in westernized areas with tip jars, so it seems likely that western influence may be changing things slowly here.

9. Organic Communal Spirit

Western, individualistic societies, such as the United States, tend to be rules-oriented. Rules are necessary to ensure that the individuals don't infringe upon one another's individual rights. Therefore, there are clearly-defined building codes, parking spaces, pedestrian spaces, trash pick-up processes, and traffic laws. In Korea, things are much more fluid but they still seem to work out in the end. Traffic laws are loosely obeyed, people drive and park on sidewalks, scooters are everywhere, cars have the right-of-way over pedestrians, some intersections don't have any kind of signals, and the decision-making process of government agencies seems to be completely unrelated to any kind of logical process. This can be extremely frustrating at first, but, in the end, it all seems to work out. The best illustration of this fact is the use of narrow roads in many residential areas. They are two-way but they are only as wide as one car. There are times when cars meet, but no one seems to complain. The issue is not worked out by clearly-defined rules. Rather, there is this unspoken and immaterial spirit of communal cooperation. While two-lane roads are nice, I'm not sure it occurs to people that building them is necessary. Why build another lane when all we have to do is move over and let others pass? This was frustrating at first, but I've come to see the beauty of this (most of the time).

10. The movie theater experience

The "sweetbox" at a CGV theater. image source.
If you can find an English-language film showing in Korea, the experience is great. The patron gets to pick out his seats on a touch screen, which are assigned to him. The seats are large and comfortable, and the tickets are significantly cheaper than in the US. I watched Captain American 2 for about $8 one week before it premiered in the US. If you must have the usual American snacks, other than soda and popcorn, you are out of luck. But, you can get peanut butter squid (not kidding)! If you want to watch the movie cuddled up to your significant other, you can even save a "sweet box."

11. Rice field roads (for cycling)

The rice field road between my house and my job
If you happen to be a cyclist who lives near agrarian areas, you have access to prime riding locales. The endless rice fields of Korea are segmented by a grid of concrete, one-lane roads and irrigation canals. Generally speaking, these roads are not much wider than a car and they are in good enough condition for me to ride my thin-tired road bicycle. For a cyclist, they are essentially low-traffic cycling roads. As an added bonus, the rice fields are a beautiful, pastoral sight for most of the months that one would care to ride a bike recreationally. In winter and early spring, they are simply vast mud pits.

Korea is not perfect, and there have been moments of exasperation in which I couldn't imagine staying here another week, but I've been called to love and serve here. That means trying to see Korea in the best possible light. This is why I will not be writing a piece entitled "10 Things I Hate About the Republic of Korea." I know its shortcomings, just as I know the shortcomings of my close friends and family members--except my wife, of course. She has none. Because I have chosen to love this country, I will keep those observations to myself. After all, I'm an invited guest who lives here by permission of a foreign culture and its government. I desire only to show respect and contribute to the goodness that his already here. I'm thankful that God has placed me and my family here.

Honorable mentions: Korean Chinese food, beautiful traditional buildings, the natural beauty of the countryside, the cultural respect for teachers, the elevated social status of the elderly, kid-friendly culture, lots of public parks, McDonald's delivery, kids' cafes, abundant public hiking trails, Korean air travel, technology, floor heating, and the phonetic alphabet of the Korean language (hangul).

The pastoral ride fields under the high-speed train rails on my morning bike commute
The sheaves in the foggy field after the rice harvest in front of my school

panoramic shot of Hwy 1 in Songtan

A beautiful lake (and cycling destination) on the Jinwi River

The roof of my apartment building has a cross on it.
My Korean homework and notes at Jisandong Cafe
My son enjoying a nearby hiking trail in the fall

Monday, February 3, 2014

Common Grace And The Death Of An Artist

I feel grieved over the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a way that I have not felt over the death of other stars in recent years. The 46-year-old actor par excellence was found dead in his Manhattan apartment with a needle in his arm on February 2, 2014. He had apparently died of a drug overdose.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014
Why does this bother me so much more than the equally untimely death of his fellow actor, Paul Walker, who died at the age of 40 only a couple of months before? I've meditated on this and come to the conclusion that my feelings are multifaceted; therefore, isolating any one factor as the cause is reductionist. That said, analyzing the many reasons for my grief has led me to a deeper understanding of God's common grace to humankind.

What are the different reasons for my reaction? For one Hoffman appears to have died in desperate slavery to addiction, which he thought he had previously mastered. Rather than judging him, I wish I could have been there in his last desperate moments to try to show him love and compassion that might turn his heart from slavery to liberty. Additionally, he was young. The closer to I come to my forties, the younger I realize it is. He was a father to three young children, whom he shared with his girlfriend. The mere thought of leaving my children fatherless rends my soul. My heart breaks for all of these reasons; however, there is another factor, which deserves some biblical reflection--he was an actor of the highest quality. I don't mean to disparage the career of Paul Walker, but, for all Walker's success, his skill as an artist in the realm of acting was easily overshadowed by that of Hoffman. I'm neither a critic nor an actor, but, in my mind, there is no comparison between the two. It is the difference between my theological writing and John Calvin's.

All other things being equal (and they probably are not in this case), why should the acting ability of the deceased have any effect on how I respond to their deaths? Herein lies the theological reflection. This is not about the sins of two men, nor is it about whether they knew Jesus as Lord and Savior. I can't answer those questions and do not care to try. It is about God's grace.

Christian theologians differentiate between two types of grace. The first is God's saving grace, by which God justifies the sinner who places his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. It is this grace that saves the wretched sinner from the wrath of God that he deserves. When the preacher says, "We are saved by grace alone," this is what what means. Sola Gratia. This salvific grace, also called particular grace, applies only to those who come to Jesus in faith. (Ephesians 2:5,8)

The second kind of grace is common grace. It is "common" in that it is God's favor shown to all human beings, despite the fact that no one deserves God's kindness. (Ps. 145:9; Matt. 5:45) This is not the kind of grace that leads to salvation, nor is it relegated to the faithful. It is for everyone. Common grace means that God shows kindness to everyone, whether they know Jesus or not. What is this kindness that he shows indiscriminately to humankind? He has given humanity innovation, technology, medication, friendship, families, wealth, and He has restrained the worst of human evil. He has withheld his righteous anger toward fallen humanity in an act of cosmic patience. In addition to all of this, he has given us the arts--poetry, painting, drawing, printing, acting, singing, dancing, etc... God bestowed upon man the concept and ability of self-expression in aesthetically pleasing ways to bring joy to the soul.

God bestowed this upon Philip Seymour Hoffman to an unusual degree. Losing Hoffman to an ugly addiction and even uglier death is the robbery of humankind. The same sin that stripped joy from the Garden of Eden has stripped the twenty-first century of a great actor. It is no wonder that God hates sin. It wrecks his created beauty.

The snuffing out of God's grace, which was bestowed to us through Hoffman's gift, drives me to the hope and expectation of the endless age we will spend in the New Heavens and the New Earth. It will be a sacred and unending age in which God's gracious gifts of joy-inducing creativity will not be destroyed by cancerous sin. Death will not win.


I pray for grace and peace upon Hoffman's family.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Loving the Tired Outsider: Developing a Theology of Culture

Cultures organically develop over time in the midst of societies in order to make the members of those societies feel more comfortable. Collective comfort is established through various cultural expressions, such as art, music, language, architecture and food. There are micro-cultures (e.g. companies, neighborhoods, and even families), and there are larger-scale cultures that emerge in geographical regions, countries, and continents.  By definition, cultures are insular--designed for the benefit of those on the inside. Leaving our parent cultures can be exciting and richly stimulating, but, over time, it becomes difficult and tiresome, because life is no longer comfortable.

Being a Christian expatriate

The longer I live as an expatriate (from the Latin for outside of the father land) in South Korea, the more prone I am to negativity and cultural fatigue and the more I need to develop a biblical theology of culture that is grounded in Jesus' commands to love my neighbor (Matthew 22:38-40). I need to be reminded that Korean culture does not exist for my comfort. Nor should it. It exists for the comfort of Koreans who are just trying to get through life. Jesus called me to Korea (and its culture) in order to love my neighbors, and it is my burden to absorb the shock of cultural conflict--not theirs. It is very frustrating that I can't do something as simple as pay my bills without help from a Korean speaker, but it is my burden to learn Korean, not theirs to learn English. Koreans have different attitudes about traffic laws, about holding doors open for strangers, about dealing with fussy children, and about inter-personal conflict. It is my responsibility to learn Korean ways of navigating through these issues. If I am unwilling to love Koreans enough to take on that burden, I should go home.

Embracing this burden sacrificially requires entering into other cultures eyes- and ears-first. We must put away our personal colonialism and become observers. Watch and listen without trying to bring our superiority to the situation. It is an incarnational approach that is found in the Gospel itself. Christianity is the only religion in which God became one of us for our salvation, rather than demanding that we become like him. (Philippians 2:5-8) Christian sojourners must be willing to take on the flesh of new cultures if they are going to show Gospel love to them.

Being a Christian host

The expatriate life has also sharpened my ideas about the treatment of immigrants to the United States, my father land--the land where I am a patriot. The concept of loving the foreigner who sojourns in the land (Hebrew, ger) is even codified in the Old Testament law (Exodus 12:47-49; Leviticus 18:26). The Hebrews were commanded to love and accommodate "foreigners" who sought to become citizens of God's land by treating them as equals. [1] I may or may not live in the United States again, but, if I do, I'm certain to encounter those brave and fatigued souls who have wandered into my culture. Perhaps they have even come to love and serve my culture. Or, perhaps, their circumstances are so dire that the resources of my culture were their only hope to survive. What do I know about them? They are tired. If they are there for more than a vacation, above all else, they are tired, and the tired need a Sabbath rest. There is no group or institution on this planet more suited to give rest to the weary than the Christian Church that is obedient to Christ. (Hebrews 4:9-11)

As an act of love, Christians ought to be looking for the cultural outsiders--the expatriates--and be a refuge for them. This principle has countless applications. It means befriending a migrant worker and helping him to get his English-language paperwork in order so he can go to work without fear. It means offering to pick up the Chinese college students to drive them to the Asian market so they can feel somewhat at home for a few minutes. (It's not really Chinese as they know it, but the longer you're away from home, the more "close enough" starts to feel really good.) [2] It means choosing to sit with the new 8th grader in the cafeteria at lunch, because she doesn't know the first thing about how people make friends in this new culture. It means moving into a poor neighborhood to befriend the desperate and broken-hearted. It means sending small tokens of their home culture to missionaries in the field who are secretly struggling to adjust. Quite simply, it means sacrificing yourself to help outsiders feel like insiders just as Christ brought us into the Holy Community of the Trinity.


[1] The OT law differentiates between foreigners who settle among the Jews with permission (ger) and foreigners who are merely passing through or settling without permission (nekhar, zar). See this helpful article from James Hoffmeier for some explanation. Hoffmeier helpfully deals with the issue of illegal immigration, but that is not the subject of this post.
[2] In my experience, the "American" food that I ate upon arriving in Korea was really pretty bad. However, after about six months, it is now the best American food I've ever eaten. In reality, it is not about the food; it is the mental relief of stepping back into the familiar, if only for a few moments.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Dark Side of Beauty And The Hope It Gives

I’ve often wondered why dark menacing clouds approaching from the horizon are so beautiful. I vividly remember one of the more awe-inspiring and spiritual moments of my life occurred while walking along Lake Michigan, on the campus of Northwestern University, on a windy, blustery day. A violent storm was rolling in, and the clouds crashed around like waves and were periodically illuminated from within by severe lightening. An ominous storm was coming, but I didn’t think that I should hurry home. I just stood there, struck by the beauty of it all.

Beautiful dark skies over a Kansas field. image source.
Why was this scene so beautiful? It is so dark and potentially destructive and, yet, something about it spoke to me in a way that a bright, sunny day with a warm breeze could not. It had an aesthetic resonance about it. I have the same experience with darkness in films, novels, and music. Isn’t darkness the villain, which should be tarred, feathered, and run out of town? Why would God create us such that darkness moves our soul in such a way? One would expect dissonance, rather than resonance.

Perhaps, our souls are just as out-of-tune as reality—our hearts and reality playing the same wrong note in the same wrong key. Or, maybe there is something to be appreciated about darkness. I think it is the latter.

Caravaggio's "Deposition from the Cross", 1602
This is where I see hope. The element of darkness makes for great novels, powerful scenes, and rich art. White-washing our art to make it sugar and spice and all things nice comes across as cheap kitsch. What if God knows that? What if God, who directs all of reality and even our individual lives, is writing a grand story—a story so magnificent that it will be worth celebrating for eternity? What if God is such the playwright, that he is weaving together a grand story with one over-arching narrative and yet still makes legitimate use of the relatively tiny details of our own lives? What if the horrific crucifixion of Jesus and the loss of my first child in miscarriage are integral parts of something far greater than I can imagine? What if this story ends so spectacularly that I’ll look back and say it was all worth it?

This means there is a purpose to our pain and our darkness. The brokenness of our lives will be redeemed for the beautiful story they make. Death, disease, pain, brokenness, hatefulness, poverty, and loss do not stand in equal opposition to the the Light. They stand in subjection to it. As Joseph told his brothers who sold him into slavery and faked his death, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good...that many people should be kept alive...” (Gen. 50:20, ESV)

There are, no doubt, forces of evil that are morally culpable for the pain caused in this life. But, pain is allowed to remain for a purpose. Perhaps that purpose is beauty.

Monday, November 4, 2013

...The Chaff He Will Burn With Unquenchable Fire

Below is a photograph that I took just outside of my school after the Korean rice harvest was over. They separated the rice grains from the stalks by beating them with winnowing sticks. After a few days of drying on the ground, the chaff was gathered into bundles. The bundles will later be destroyed or consumed. Scripture came to mind that reminded me of the dire position my lost students are in.


Friday, August 16, 2013

The World Is Almost Rational: Why I (and G.K. Chesterton) Find Christianity Convincing

"The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite." [1] These words from Orthodoxy, first published by English journalist G.K. Chesterton in 1908, kick modernist secular rationalism in the teeth and Chesterton makes no apologies. It was these words, which I only read recently, which have affirmed something I had already begun to sense in my own intellectual journey. A master wordsmith put concrete form to the nebulous thoughts whirling around in my mind 105 years before I thought them. It was a refreshing and stabilizing encounter.
G.K. Chesterton, author of Orthodoxy

In today's cultural market place, traditional Christianity is often marginalized and a secular humanism frequently overstates its case. While there are plenty of other intellectual options, naturalism and some form of monotheism are the two most plausible worldview options for most westerners. [2] I began following Christ 17 years ago, and, since then, my decision has only been affirmed intellectually. I do, however, in the spirit of intellectualism, continue to take the claims of naturalists seriously. This is where Chesterton has helped me; he reminded me why I must stay the course and reject naturalism.

Quite simply, naturalism claims that the physical realm is all there is, and it operates mechanistically, according to a set of deterministic laws and forces. If we had the digital or mental processing power, in addition to knowledge of all the variables at any instance in time, we would be able to predict the exact state of events at any point in the future. [3] However, this can only work if the universe is perfectly rational--always following the rules. Any departure from the rules would throw off the whole system. This is the problem for naturalism. There are simply phenomena for which a naturalistic worldview cannot give a plausible account. Some things just aren't quite rational.

Chesterton uses the human body as an illustration:
"Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong." [4]
There are unexpected and incalculable elements of the human experience that naturalism can't explain and yet Christianity can and does explain them, even if according to a different kind of logic. Again, Chesterton: "Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong." [5]

Naturalists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins lambast Christians (and other theists) for being irrational. As long as they are picking the logic du jour, we will obviously be thought illogical. Perhaps there is a better logic--one that includes the supernatural. If Christian "irrationalism" can make more sense of the world around us than secular rationalism, who is the intellectual winner? Forgive me for not embracing a hardened rationalism that doesn't work.

The problem of naturalism:

What are those things for which naturalism cannot account? The problems are many, and I'll propose a few here:

  • The epistemological (knowledge) problem. If naturalism is true, we have no reason to believe that our beliefs and thoughts are true, including the belief the naturalism is true. In his evolutionary argument against naturalism, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has delivered a devastating critique of naturalism, showing that it is self-defeating. Our brains would essentially be wet machines randomly "selected" by nature for survival. Therefore, our brains would not seek truth; they would seek survival.
  • The problem of evil. It seems unlikely that any naturalist would say that Hitler wasn't evil. Dawkins has even claimed that anyone who denies evolution is possibly "evil." If nature is all there is, how can there possibly be something called "evil?" How can there be anything called "good," for that matter?
  • The problem of love. How can sacrificial love be explained? Self-interested cooperation is perhaps explicable in Darwinian terms, but real agape love is not. Love is reduced to a bio-chemical function of the brain. Surely what naturalists feel for their wives and husbands as they lay near them at night is more than chemistry. Or maybe Jesus of Nazareth suffered from a serious chemical imbalance of the brain. (1 John 4:8)
  • How do we explain the human drive to pursue justice and beauty? What are justice and beauty?
  • Why do humans across time and cultures share a basic set of morality? (Romans 2:14)
  • Where did the universe come from? Frankly, the claims of theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, which have been bolstered by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, that it is possible for something to come from nothing is the height of irrationality and sounds like double speak. His "nothing" is not really "nothing."
Though not following the rules of naturalistic logic, there are biblical answers, which are intellectually satisfying, for all of these questions. Until naturalism, cosmic humanism, or any other worldview, can offer answers to these basic life questions, I'm perfectly satisfied with a biblical worldview.

I'm grateful for Chesterton, despite his loathing of John Calvin. He is a master of making his reader see the world from a new perspective. I find myself repeatedly asking, "Why didn't I see that before?" Reading his work is like wading through a muddy marsh, because his prose is so dense and unconventional; however, it is well worth the effort. Read it slowly and read it often.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004), 95.
[2] In the eastern hemisphere, such as my own current home of South Korea, more cosmic humanist worldviews such as Buddhism enjoy more cultural capital.
[3] For a classic explication of this, check out the 19th century writings of Pierre-Simon LaPlace, particularly a "A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities."
[4] Chesterton, 95.
[5] ibid, 96.