On the Utter Meaninglessness of Everything: Goods and gods (pt. II)

See part I, “Blessing and Delight.” Or see the beginning of this ongoing series on Christ in Culture.

Looking to have a good existential crisis? Let me recommend the book of Ecclesiastes. A quick read may convince you it’s the most hopeless, depressing book in the Bible. Written by someone who needs to get a grip.

Here’s the book’s delightful beginning:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 1:2

That opening line uses the Hebrew word hevel five different times. The word translates as “meaningless” here.[note]See only four here? It’s because that Utterly meaningless line uses hevel twice. You might also be able to say “Meaninglessly meaningless” here.)[/note] To give you a general sense of that word hevel, here are all of its uses in another bleak book, the book of Job (the translation of hevel in bold):

  • My days have no meaning.[note]Job 7:16[/note]
  • Why should I struggle in vain?[note]Job 9:29[/note]
  • How can you console me with your nonsense?[note]Job 21:34[/note]
  • Why this meaningless talk?[note]Job 27:12[/note]
  • Job opens his mouth with empty talk; without knowledge he multiplies words.[note]Job 35:16[/note]

It’s a word that sometimes is used to talk about things being a mere breath or vapor. A word that suggests emptiness. Empty talk. Empty action. Empty life.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the writer comes back to hevel about every six verses. Think of your downer friend who only speaks up to make sarcastic comments about how GREAT it is that his job is miserable and he missed the fantasy football playoffs because of a Monday night fumble.

Except the writer of Ecclesiastes isn’t just a downer about his life. He sounds like a downer about life. He calls it all a “chasing after the wind.” A few things that he calls hevel:

Wisdom and Knowledge – So you thought maybe he’d just come after frivolous things? Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll? But instead, the writer comes out––in a book that’s part of the Old Testament’s Wisdom Literature––and says wisdom and knowledge are empty pursuits.[note]See Ecclesiastes 1:16-17[/note] Hey You, pursuing your next degrees and reading philosophy in your free time … it’s all a waste. “With much wisdom comes much sorrow,” he writes, “the more knowledge, the more grief.”[note]Eccl 1:18[/note]

Pleasure, Laughter, Eating and Drinking – “What does pleasure accomplish?”[note]Eccl 2:2[/note] These are all meaningless, too, according to Ecclesiastes.

In my Wesleyan world, which can tend toward asceticism, maybe this one will be a bit easier to accept. Quit with all the indulgence and go do something!

While we might turn up our noses at delicacies, most of us would still say we delight in simple things—reading a good book, taking a walk, a coffee to start the day, time with friends talking and laughing.

Here’s something for you to try. Next time a friend posts a picture of friends on Facebook or Instagram and says something like, “Had a great time catching up with special people last night,” hit the comment button, hit your caps lock, and write MEANINGLESS!

Sounds like what Ecclesiastes is trying to do for us here.

Work and Success – For the people who were okay with pleasure being meaningless, the next one might hit harder. The writer talks about undertaking great projects, making gardens and parks and reservoirs. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”[note]Eccles 2:11[/note]

We’re in full-on existential crisis here. And it’s part of sacred Scripture. Is this the Word of God for us?

Good or Meaningless?

My last post focused on the goodness of all created things. Sex is good. Food and drink are good. Work is good.

What do we do with a biblical book, then, that calls it all meaningless?

That word for meaninglessness that we keep seeing––hevel––is an interesting word. You saw how it’s used in Ecclesiastes and in Job. In the rest of the Old Testament, most of its uses are references to idols. When God says the Israelites have provoked him to anger with their idols, he literally says, “they have provoked me to anger with their hevels.”[note]Deuteronomy 32:21[/note] It fits. These idols they were worshiping were worthless, empty, meaningless. An idol is a nothing.[note]See 1 Corinthians 8:4[/note]

And look at what God says happens to these idol worshipers.

This is what the LORD says:

“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
that they strayed so far from me?
They followed
and became
hevel themselves.”

Jeremiah 2:5

The NIV translates that as “They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.”

Rethinking Idolatry

We need to reconsider two of the common ways we think about the idolatry in the Old Testament.

First, we tend to think of idolatry mainly in terms of provoking God’s anger. We think of the outward damage idols caused between the people and God. That’s a real thing. We just saw it above, where God said, “They have provoked me to anger.”

But in my experience, we rarely talk about the inward damage that’s done. What happens when people worship these worthless, meaningless, empty things? God says they become worthless, meaningless, empty themselves.

Existential crisis.

Think of the blank stare of someone under the influence of certain drugs. Or the empty existence of people that Wall-E depicts. They followed worthless things and became worthless themselves…

What we pursue starts to define who we are.

Second, we tend to relate idolatry to primitive people who were silly enough to believe that something carved from wood or stone could actually be a god. We wouldn’t fall for this.

I wonder if the book of Ecclesiastes unmasks what idolatry is really about. Not just for us, but even back then for those primitive people. When you think about idols, don’t just think about carved wood and stone. Think about what’s behind those empty things. Think about what Ecclesiastes calls empty: wisdom and knowledge, pleasure and laughter and eating and drinking, work and success.

I want to suggest to you that idolatry is not usually about bad things. Idolatry is about good things that we have turned into gods. We are moving things from the category of God’s good creation, which we bless, to treating them as gods.

God and gods

Who is God? God is the one who gives our lives meaning. God is the one we trust and rely on to see us through our hardest times. God is our ultimate desire, the one we pursue because life would be empty without him. God is the one who tells us what is good (and we cling to it) and what is evil (and we hate it). God is our goal, our end, our reason for being.

Who are our gods?

They’re whatever we go to for our meaning and purpose in life. Ecclesiastes: “When I surveyed all that my hands had done […] everything was meaningless.”

They’re whatever we turn to in our hardest times. Ecclesiastes: “I tried cheering myself with wine.”

They’re whatever desires we pursue because we believe life would be empty without them. Ecclesiastes: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired.”

They’re the ones we allow to tell us what is good and what is evil.

They’re our goal, our end, our reason for being.

The story of humanity’s idolatry is a story of people turning to God’s good gifts in the times that we should be turning to God himself. When we do, those good gifts turn out to be empty. Not because they’re entirely worthless, but because they’re unable to take the place of God.

Food and drink

What do you do when you receive bad news? When you’ve had a hard day? When you’re overwhelmed or scared?

In the book of Esther, a king issues an edict to have all the Jewish people in his kingdom destroyed. When the Jews learn about the edict, they respond with mourning, fasting, weeping and wailing.

In the book of 2 Chronicles, the king of Judah learns that “a vast army” is coming to attack the people. Rather than calling his army to take up arms, he resolves to inquire of the Lord and proclaims a fast for all Judah.

When some of the worst news comes, they respond with fasting. What a difference from some of our most typical responses! For many of us, with a hard day or bad news, we take the Bridget Jones path. We choose ice cream or vodka. Or maybe both. (Or whatever our food and drink choices are in these times.)

In their hardest times, Israel stops eating and drinking. In our hardest times, we often over-eat and over-drink. Why? We go to these for some sort of relief, some way of numbing ourselves to the hardship of life. Rather than turning to God in these times, we turn to food and drink. And at this moment, these stop being good gifts of God and become something they were never intended to be––our go-to in hard times. That’s God’s role. We could say that the good things have become gods.

Food and drink are good. The people of God gather for huge feasts throughout the Bible, complete with alcoholic beverages. But when people turn to them to fill a deeper longing that these were never meant to fill, it’s gluttony, a sign of idolatry.

Through the practice of fasting, I’ve learned about some of the unhealthy ways I’ve used food. I find myself up, walking around, looking for food, not because I’m hungry, but because I’m bored. Or frustrated. Or tired. I want a drink at night specifically because it has been a hard day.

The food and drink don’t solve the problems. They just numb us to feeling them for a moment. Follow these empty solutions for long, and we become empty ourselves. If you find yourself turning to food or drink to cover over other frustrations or anxieties, there’s a good chance it’s idolatry.


Sex is good. It’s a beautiful, mysterious creation of God. It should draw us closer, not just to each other, but to God.

When does sex become idolatry? When sexual identity is what gives our lives meaning. When we treat sexual activity as a necessary part of life, without which our lives would be empty. When we treat others’ bodies as cheap pleasure-delivery devices rather than as gifts for intimacy and procreation in marriage. Easy access to pornography (now not just in X-rated movies, but in “must-watch” TV series) is giving us easier ways both to hide and to justify this idolatry. But the ease of justification will leave us no less empty for it, and the ease of hiding it will put us in greater danger.

Sex has become not just a personal idol in our time, but a political idol. Other than partisan politics itself, the clearest dividing line we have between allies and enemies is often drawn according to views on human sexuality. For both sides, beliefs about same-sex marriage have become an easy shibboleth for friend or foe. Sexual politics have caused some religious people and groups to shun anyone who doesn’t hold to their standard or represent their position. This has been especially hard for celibate gay Christians. As one friend said to me, “Everyone has a problem with one of those words.”



Sex is good. We don’t need to affirm its goodness in all instances to believe that it’s good. The demand for that blanket affirmation turns this good into a god, giving it a place God never intended in our world and in our lives.

Several others

I won’t go into detail on the many other ways goods things can become gods. A few brief words.

Work – It’s good. It’s meaningful. God puts Adam and Eve in a garden to cultivate it. Work becomes god when it defines us, when the meaning and value of our lives is defined by our accomplishments. When work becomes god, we trust in ourselves and the work of our hands rather than God. When work becomes god, we neglect other important relationships (to God and others) so that we can get more done. Though it may sound strange, this can be a manifestation of the vice of sloth––neglecting the hard work of love. You can be a workaholic sloth. It may also be about vainglory––the excessive need to be recognized, to receive others’ praise and applause. You’re likely under-recognized and under-appreciated (most people are), and you should receive some recognition for what you do. But when it becomes the thing you’re pursuing, it has become a god.

Money & Possessions – They’re gifts from God that can be used to glorify God. In the last article, I said that money is not the root of all evil. That idea comes from misquoting the Bible. Here’s the direct, extended biblical quote:

For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

1 Timothy 6:7-10

If we find ourselves constantly agonizing over money, we may have given money and possessions a god-like place in our lives. If we find ourselves consistently discontent because we don’t have enough –– either not enough things, or not enough money to pay for our expenses (beyond simple basics) –– it may be the vice of greed. This is nothing new. Jesus warned, “You cannot serve both God and money.”[note]Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13[/note]

Politics – Politics are good. At root, the word is about providing structure and order for a particular body of people. But partisan politics has become one of the great idols of our time. Many of us have allowed partisan political parties to define good and evil for us, both in terms of issues and people. In the U. S., neither the Democratic nor the Republican party––neither Trump supporters nor never-Trumpers––look like the kingdom of God. We give these political parties (and their associated news channels, websites, and radio shows) a god-like status when we walk in lock-step with them in defining good and evil.

Even more, partisan politics are breeding hatred across our country. A claim I’ve made earlier: people are created in the image of God. They’re loved by God. All of them. Even deplorable sinners. (Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.) Even our enemies. Even our political enemies. Even Donald Trump. Even Hillary Clinton. When partisan politics turns people into objects of our scorn and wrath, it has likely become an idol.

Speaking Truth

We began with the book of Ecclesiastes. “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”

Is the book just a big existential crisis? It is at least that. For anyone who seeks meaning in life through any of these good things––work, pleasure, wisdom, etc.––the promised end result is emptiness. All of these, as final pursuits, are empty. They will not satisfy.

More than existential crisis, I think Ecclesiastes is a book on idolatry. Pursue these things as if they were your god, and your life will be meaningless. But it doesn’t conclude by calling life meaningless. In fact, it finds a clear purpose for life. Here’s how the book ends:

Now all has been heard;
     here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
     for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
     including every hidden thing,
     whether it is good or evil.

Eccles 12:13-14

Life finds its deep meaning in loving, serving, and living in union with God. When anyone takes God’s good gifts and turns them into gods, they lose the meaning of life.

How should the Christian and the Church respond in times when people serve false gods? I believe our best approach is to do as the writer of Ecclesiastes did. I’m calling it “Speak Truth.” This involves two things:

  1. Unmasking the idols of our world for what they are. How can we show people––gently, if possible––the utter emptiness of the things they’re turning to in place of God?
  2. Pointing people to the true God. He is the one who redeems us from the empty way of life handed down from generation to generation.[note]See 1 Peter 1:18[/note]

Be slow to see this as a prophetic word delivered from people who call themselves Christians to people who do not. We should try to unmask the idols of our secular world and point it to God (again, gently where possible). But much of the truth we speak will be to others who already call themselves Christians. In fact, the first and most consistent truth we seek should be for ourselves. Most of us carry on with low-grade idolatries, unaware of just how much we are influenced by them. We would be better to recognize them for what they are, let the good things be merely goods, and let God be God.

See part I, “Blessing and Delight.” Or see the beginning of this ongoing series on Christ in Culture.

Blessing and Delight: Goods and gods (pt. I)

This post builds on my new proposal on Christ and Culture. If you haven’t read it, it would be good to start there.

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

Everything God made was good. I think we in the church spend too little time on this point.

At least in the version of Christianity I grew up with, we gave more attention to holiness, truth, and justice than we gave to beauty and the goodness of God’s creation. My vision of eternal life looked like evacuation — getting out of this bad place to go to a good one with clouds and harp-strumming. I don’t know that I actually believed that was God’s intention for eternity, but whatever God’s intention, I didn’t consider that it would have much to do with this creation. One glad morning, when this life is over, I would fly away!

I was ready to dismiss most of the current creation as something to avoid, something that was thankfully going away. I was shocked when someone first pointed out that Adam and Eve were doing work before the fall. And that the popular Old Testament phrase “They will beat their swords into plowshares” suggests that work has a place in God’s new creation. I had seen it as a necessary evil until we were free from its drudgery.

And of course, any discussions of sex, alcohol, or money and possessions were all about dangers and avoidance. To be honest, as a foolish teenager, perhaps the warnings and fear were what I most needed.

But I’ve also seen how these messages have created a distorted worldview for people who grew up with them. Sex took on a shameful and dirty association for some people — one that has been difficult to shake, even after marriage, and left them to see themselves as irredeemable if they’d had sex outside of marriage. I actually remember writing a snide article in my high school newspaper mocking anyone who would drink alcohol, since we all know it’s disgusting and you would only drink to get drunk. (If you went to high school with me … sorry.)

In all, it was a rather dismal view of the world. “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”[note]See Colossians 2:21 – then see the surrounding conversation.[/note] It was much more comfortable with John the Baptist, who came neither eating nor drinking, than it was with Jesus in his eating and drinking (surely only because the water wasn’t safe to drink, I would say).

Thankfully, I’ve had a shift in my mentality, and at least from my vantage point, other Christians are also seeing more of the goodness of God’s creation. In a variety of ways, we can celebrate God’s gifts by delighting in what he has given.


Our church’s retreat for 5th graders on sexuality begins with the creation account. “When God looked at everything he had made, including humans, God declared creation supremely good. You are supremely good. Your body is supremely good.” The first words kids hear about sex and sexuality on the retreat are “Our bodies, sexuality, and sex are all gifts from God—gifts which express God’s love and grace to us.”

From the earliest creation accounts, God gives sex as a means of union and intimacy and procreation. Robert Jenson’s brilliant commentary on the Song of Songs notes how intimacy and eroticism aren’t foreign to God. In fact, they give us a better understanding of God’s love. About the Song of Songs, he says:

“Israel does not here long for forgiveness of sin or rescue from disaster or for other gifts detachable from the Giver, as Western theology tends to conceive salvation, but simply for the Lord himself. Moreover, the longing is aesthetic rather than ethical; it is longing for the Lord’s touch and kiss and fragrance. The Lord is simply lovable, and salvation is union with him, a union for which sexual union provides an analogy.”

How about that? Sexual union as an analogy for union with God. That’s a much better starting point than shame, guilt, and rules.

Food and drink

One of the first uses of the tithe in the Old Testament was for people to gather food and drink and come together for a great feast. They would eat 10% of their annual food supply in nine days. And they were instructed to use money “in exchange for whatever your soul desires—for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for other intoxicant, or for whatever your soul requests.”[note]See Deuteronomy 14:26[/note] Think of Thanksgiving, only for nine straight days.

The church doesn’t usually have trouble celebrating the goodness of food. We’re more known for our potlucks than our fasts. This is good. We need to have times for feasting together.

In many parts, our relationship with alcohol is more troubled. At the least, it should be more complex, given the great harm that alcohol has done to people, families, and communities. More on that in the next post. But have we overstepped when we consider any consumption of alcohol evil?

C. S. Lewis discusses this in Mere Christianity:

“Temperance [originally] referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; [Islam], not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he wants to give the money to the poor, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying.”[note]In Mere Christianity Book III, chapter 2.[/note]

Lewis distinguishes between abstaining from something because it’s bad, and abstaining from good things for good reasons. We have too often sounded like the former––condemning and self-righteous. We’d do better to act as the latter when abstinence is called for––prudent and righteous.

Many other things

We could add many more things to this list. 

  • Money & Possessions: Money is not the root of all evil (more on that in the next post). We find the words abundance and prosperity frequently throughout the Bible as a blessing from God. We find people delighting in God’s good gifts.
  • Work: See those notes above about work in Eden and work in the new creation. Work doesn’t have to be seen as drudgery, a necessary evil, something to flee as soon as we can retire or die, whichever comes first.
  • Leisure: Those who highly value work and accomplishment might instead look down on leisure as a waste. But this, too, has its place in God’s creation. As Thomas Aquinas said it, “God plays. God creates playing. And man should play if he is to live as humanly as possible and to know reality, since it is created by God’s playfulness.”[note]From his Summa Theologica, as quoted in Craig Brian Larson and Brian Lowery’s 1001 Quotations That Connect, quotation 602[/note]
  • Beauty:We can rejoice simply in the beauty of creation. Whether it’s standing at the top of Red River Gorge on a fall day, delighting in a Shakespeare sonnet or Anne Lamott’s prose, or going on an art gallery hop, Christians celebrate the beauty of creation. And we have an opportunity to participate in it with our own creative work.
  • Creation and Creatures: Humanity has been given dominion over all of creation. Power can go to one’s head, and I’ve seen this power do some terrible things to distort a good gift by acting as if we can abuse or disregard it. Wendell Berry provides a better perspective: “The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it.”[note]In What are People For?[/note]
  • Competition (?): I heard a presentation recently on baseball in heaven. It was a deep and thoughtful consideration of what we should expect of God’s new creation. The speaker argued that we should expect baseball in heaven (he thinks more highly of it than I do), but he said there would be no score. It assumed that competition is bad, something that would have no place in God’s eternal kingdom. But I wonder if that’s necessary. Must we see competition as inherently bad? It gives us some of our greatest opportunities for improvement and celebration. Even as a long-time Kentucky football fan, I believe we can delight and grow from competition, that we can enjoy it as something good in God’s creation. Whether it’s sports, cards, or board games, I bet you have some fond memories of competition––in the thrill of victory and even, perhaps, in the agony of defeat.[note]This is a more speculative argument than the rest. It’s a topic of interest for me, so I may take time in the future to do some deeper work on it.[/note]


Finally, we come to the crowning point of all created things: humanity. Humanity is created in the very image of God. All of us. And so we delight in others. We give them our attention and recognition and praise. We seek to ensure that all people are treated with dignity.

I’ve been intrigued by the various ways that Mike Mather talks about seeing others, delighting in them, and blessing them (see our interview). His church hosts birthday dinners for teenagers and shut-ins to have others speak words of blessing to them. They talk about greeting people with the line, “I see you,” and the response: “It is good to be seen.” It is good! It is good to be noticed and valued and treated with dignity.

Of all the places on earth, the church should be a place that celebrates and blesses people like no other.

To Bless the Good

The church should have more parties. We should have big celebrations with lots of food where we speak words of blessing and praise and encouragement to particular people among us. Those blessings would be to members of our congregations and to people outside of them.

If we really mean it — that everyone is created in the image of God and has something of that divine image in them — should there be any bounds to the list of those we would bless? There would be bounds to what we would bless (i.e. we would not speak words of blessing over unholy decisions, behaviors, or systems), but not to whom we would bless. We would bless not only those we regard as saints, but those we regard as sinners, too. Not only our friends, but our enemies. Not only those whose positions and policies we support, but even those whose positions and policies we despise.

What if the church were known as a place of blessing? What if we were known as a place of blessing for all people?

And the church should have more artists and advocates and entrepreneurs. We should celebrate people who see opportunities to create something good and beautiful and then do it.

Yes, but… 

As you’ve read, you may have wanted to say, “Yes, but …” “Yes sex can be good, but …” “Yes food and drink can be good, but …” “Yes we should bless people, but …”

In the next piece, we’ll deal with the buts. They’re real and necessary. But they’ve often led the Church to the point that we were unwilling to call good things good. Before we start dealing with our mishandling of God’s good creation, let’s stop for now to say, “It is very good.”

Next: On the Utter Meaninglessness of Everything: Goods and gods (pt. II)

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Christ in Culture: A new proposal

In the past two posts (see here and here) I’ve been discussing how the church engages with the world. I shared two popular models that try to describe our options.

We can take a “Christ of Culture” / Relevance approach to the world and assume what we see in culture is good, relevant to the Christian life, and should be embraced.

We can take a “Christ against Culture” / Countercultural approach and assume what we see in culture is bad, harmful to the Christian life, and should be rejected.

Or we could take a mediating view. You can see more about those in the previous posts (again, here and here).

Here’s Keller’s model again. It asks whether the world is generally good or bad (how full of common grace?) and whether the church should be active or passive in influencing culture.

The problem with the models

These different models for how the church and Christians can engage culture are helpful descriptive models. But they’re flawed when we begin to use them as prescriptive models. We can’t begin with a “Relevance” mindset, for instance, and assume that we can apply it to everything we see in our culture. As I concluded in my last post, whatever perspective you take on how the church engages with our culture on sexuality, you almost certainly wouldn’t maintain the same position with slavery and rock ‘n’ roll. No one model fits all situations well.

This is where Tim Keller advocates balance––we should move toward the center and not go too extreme in any direction. But “balance” isn’t enough help, and it’s not always right. We celebrate that William Wilberforce didn’t take a “balanced” approach to the injustice of slavery.

A Prescriptive Model: Christ in Culture

The models we use for Christ and culture say too much. They try to claim Christ has a single position relative to our culture: of, against, above, transforming … But the reason we have all of these models is because we see that Jesus took all of these positions in his first century culture. And as the Body of Christ, the church does the same, or should. We should understand ourselves as the Body of Christ in culture––sometimes adapting, sometimes rejecting, sometimes transforming, etc.

I’m going to propose that we use love as our guiding principle for engaging culture. Novel, right?

More specifically, let’s use Jesus’ great commandment as our first guideline. Jesus says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Everything we do should be aligned to loving God and loving God’s creation.

[I’m taking a liberty here to use “creation” instead of neighbor. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”[note]Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26[/note] All people, creatures, and creation. He has given it all to us as a gift. Use the comments if you disagree with me.]

So now we can expand on what we mean by love. We’ll draw it out like this:

Notice that this isn’t like some of the other questions we’ve seen about cultural engagement. It doesn’t ask us to claim which is the right way of viewing things, as if one side of the pole is right and the other wrong. It asks a situational question instead: “Are we talking about love of God or love of God’s creation in this situation?”

To be clear, these are in many ways inseparable. If the creation is God’s precious gift to us, we can hardly abuse that gift while loving God. And our ability to love comes from God. Nevertheless, some questions primarily have to do with how we relate to God and others with how we relate to others.

It won’t be enough for us to talk about love, though. Love takes different forms, and these will come into play. Here’s how we see it described in Romans 12:9 – “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”

So let’s draw a second line:

That looks a lot like Keller’s four quadrant model above. But it doesn’t ask us for our generic approach to the culture. It asks for our specific approach to every issue that presents itself.

How do we engage the culture in each of these quadrants?

Bless the Good

Take a look first at that upper left quadrant. What does it mean to “love God’s creation” and “cling to what is good”?

It means blessing and delighting in God’s good creation. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. He created it and called it good. We continue to see God’s goodness in his creation. And wherever we see it, we should celebrate it.

This may be the quadrant that “evangelical” Christianity has most neglected over the past several decades. It’s the reason many Christian teenagers have come away from the church with generally negative views of sex as something dirty, shameful, and sinful. (Just search “purity culture.”) It’s the reason many people view the church according to what it stands against.

The Church –– and especially evangelical Christians –– could stand to spend a lot more time in this quadrant. What do we see and celebrate as good in God’s creation? How can we name and bless and delight in what is good?

If you read or listened to my interview with Mike Mather (here and here), this defines well what he’s doing. The “Relevance” and “Christ of Culture” models find their roots in this quadrant.

When we bless the good, we focus on goodness and beauty. We recognize these as attributes of God and God’s creation. The Western Church has undervalued beauty in recent years. N. T. Wright talks about beauty as part of the three-fold mission of the church, along with justice and evangelism.[note]See ch. 13 of Surprised by Hope.[/note] I doubt most of his readers would have been surprised to see justice and evangelism on that list. But I bet few of them expected to see beauty there.

Seek Justice

Look now to the bottom left quadrant. What does it mean to “love God’s creation” and “hate what is evil”?

Above all else, we believe that everyone is created in the image of God. Everyone. And where people are oppressed, neglected, or treated in a way that denies their dignity, justice is perverted.

Wherever God’s good creation is treated without dignity, it’s unjust. The Christian response: seek justice.

You’ll find wings of the Church that hold this as their primary concern and others that have neglected it. Where we’ve done well, we’ve defended those who were abused and taken advantage of. We’ve taken up the cause of those who have been deprived of power and pled the case of those who have been deprived of voice.

I discussed both the #MeToo movement and the abolition of slavery in the previous post. If those are movements you believe Christians should have celebrated and taken part in, it’s because of a sense of justice. To many people’s surprise, evangelical Christianity has a long history of activism, including the abolition of slavery, fighting for the poor, and women’s rights. I’ve written about that in more detail here.

Where we get things wrong with seeking justice, we make two opposite mistakes. One mistake is to ignore it. That happens when we discount the value and goodness of God’s creation and focus entirely on salvation. We feed people’s souls but neglect their bodies. We point to God’s kingdom in the future without regard for God’s will done on earth, as it is in heaven.

In the other instance, we mistake ourselves for saviors and use language about “building the kingdom,” usually through our own revolutionary tactics, as if it were ours to build. We can act as if we “want the Kingdom without the King,”[note]In Mark Sayers’s brilliant parlance.[/note] doing it all ourselves with little attention to Christ.

You’ll also find occasions where we fight for justice with such rabid force that we oppress, neglect, or deny the dignity of another person or group in the process. Look to the current state of politics in the United States and across the Western world, and I believe you’re seeing opposing social revolutions. Both are giving attention and voice to groups that have long been ignored and excluded.[note]See the increasing progressive focus on race, gender, and sexual identity. See also the thesis of President Trump’s inaugural address: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” His surprising victory came because of his unique appeal to small town voters, mostly white people without college educations, long neglected by both political parties and unrepresented in our nation’s elected leadership.[/note] Meanwhile, their seeming hostility toward another long ignored and excluded group grows. One of the greatest idolatries of our time––partisan politics––threatens to deny some people justice in its fervor for justice for others.

The “Transformationist” and “Christ the Transformer of Culture” models find their roots at least partially here. When we seek justice, we focus on God’s nature as a just God who will set his world to right.

Be Holy

We move now to the upper right quadrant. What does it mean to “love God” and “cling to what is good”? I’ve chosen “Be Holy” as the way to represent this. We could also use language here about worship or devotion. This is about clinging to God, because God is good.

I’m using language of being and holiness because this quadrant isn’t just about what we do; it’s about who we are. When you hear anything about “being holy,” your mind likely goes to something like rule-following. But holiness is much bigger than that.

Throughout the New Testament, we encounter the incredible claim that we are united with Christ. This was the premise of my serious post with a tongue-in-cheek opening: “We are gods.” What if Kanye was right? Or see this helpful article: “10 Things You Should Know about Union with Christ.”[note]It’s written through the lens of Calvin’s theology. My discerning Wesleyan readers might pick up on that in a few places. I think it is overall a very good, agreeable representation. Use the comments if you take issue with any of its claims.”[/note]

Holiness is not so much an expectation of who we should be as it is good news about who we can be. It’s not so much God’s requirement of us as it is a calling, a possibility, God’s very design for us. And if God has designed us for holiness, he will surely do it in us.

We’re God’s holy people, set apart for God and set apart from sin.

In my previous post, I suggested that Christians have the option to look to our culture for our sexual ethics: don’t make such a big deal about casual sex, casual nudity, extramarital sex. If you objected to that approach, it was probably because of this notion of holiness. By the grace of God, we’re a set apart people. We give that up when we follow whatever the world tells us is okay. It’s specifically regarding sexual ethics that the apostle Paul reminded us that we’re united with Christ: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!”[note]1 Corinthians 6:15[/note]

Some people may view Christians as prudes or holier-than-thou or self-righteous because of our moral stances. If we come off that way, it may be because we’ve misunderstood holiness. Holiness is not about being better than other people. It’s not about looking down on others. It’s not about following unnecessary rules. None of these would describe Jesus as we see him in the gospels. And yet we say that Jesus is fully holy––unerring in his devotion to the Father, neither looking down on others nor condoning sin, the model of prudence.

The “Counterculturalist” and “Christ Against Culture” models find their roots in this quadrant. They recognize that Christians live our lives devoted to God, even in union with God. Compare that to this from 1 John 2:16, “For everything in the world––the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life––comes not from the Father but from the world.”

With holiness, we encounter one of the biggest differences between the Church and the world. At your business, should someone be eliminated from consideration for leadership if they aren’t a devoted Christian? In almost all instances, the answer is no. But in the church, should devotion to God––marked by holiness––be prerequisite for certain positions? Yes!

Speak Truth

I think there’s another reason some people accuse Christians of being holier-than-thou. (To be clear, I’m not discounting the first problem: that we really can behave that way.) That other reason is that Christian holiness can unveil idolatry. And no one likes their idolatry unveiled.

Take a look at that bottom right quadrant. What do we get when we cross “love God” and “hate what is evil”? What we should hate is when something or someone other than God is worshiped. We call this idolatry (turning something else into our god) or heresy (misrepresenting the true God).

How do we engage a culture that worships other gods and misrepresents the true God? By speaking truth.

We see Jesus and the apostles speaking truth in these kinds of ways throughout the New Testament. In addition to the compassion and grace Jesus extends to the Samaritan woman in John 4 (because all people are created in the image of God and to be treated with dignity––Bless the Good), Jesus also says, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.”[note]John 4:22[/note] It’s a claim about who the true God is, spoken against a false notion about God.

Paul’s speech in Athens does the same thing: “You are ignorant of the very thing you worship––and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.”[note]Acts 17:23-24[/note]

Do Jesus’ and Paul’s words here seem abrasive? Unkind or uncaring? They weren’t received well by all who heard (some who heard Paul sneered at him), but others responded with belief. Their false worship of other gods turned to true worship of the living God.

We have no fewer idols today than they had then. We likely have more. Christians today need to continue unveiling idols and heresy for what they are. There will be many methods, and I would advocate the more winsome ones as best––ones that don’t forget the dignity of the other person. But if we abandon any effort to speak truth in our world, we’ve abdicated the Church’s ongoing call to proclaim the good news.

The “Transformationist” model also has some roots in this quadrant, along with the “Seek Justice” quadrant above. That’s because truth-telling and justice-seeking are different means of transforming our culture. In both, we must be careful not to ignore the dignity of those whose hearts, minds, and behaviors we seek to change.

Most of our idols today are not bad things. They belong in that upper left quadrant. They’re good. But when they take the wrong place in our lives, they cease to be goods and become gods.

Problems with this model

This model won’t answer all our problems quickly or easily. The big question it doesn’t answer: What is good and what is evil?

Niebuhr’s and Keller’s models allow us to start with an assumption about good and evil in the world. We either expect the things we encounter to be good or we expect them to be evil. Of course, the problem with those models is that our assumption will often be wrong. Not all things in our culture are good. Nor are they all bad.

So this leaves us to do the hard work in an ever-changing culture. And we’ll frequently find that a question requires us to work in all four quadrants. For instance, the church’s swirling debates about human sexuality involve human dignity, justice, holiness, and truth. How do we go beyond holding these in a weak balance to observing each to its fullest?

Lots more still to consider. For now, go and Bless, Be, Speak, and Seek.

See the next post in this series here: “Blessing and Delight: Goods and gods, pt. I”

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The Church in a (Once) Sexually-Liberated World: Sex, slaves, and rock ‘n’ roll (pt. II)

In my last post on how the church engages culture, I showed you two popular models for how we can understand cultural engagement. I finished with Tim Keller’s four quadrants. They look like this:

Keller has said that none of these is the “right” answer. Instead, he argues for balance. We shouldn’t get too extreme in any of these directions, but instead utilize all of them in appropriate ways.

That’s a decent start, but it has the potential to lead us astray. A generic “balance” isn’t the answer. In fact, there are times that our response to something in our culture should be one of these in the extreme. But Keller’s model doesn’t help us identify when to favor one of these stances, and it doesn’t help us identify how to adopt that stance. Neither did Niebuhr’s earlier model (also described in the previous piece).

The problem is the starting premise in both models. They attempt a top-down approach to cultural engagement. They ask general questions about the nature of a culture: Is it good? Is it bad? Should the Church be actively involved in it? But we don’t approach a culture generically. We approach it in all of its particulars, and each is different.[note]Niebuhr was aware of this. He writes, “When one returns from the hypothetical scheme to the rich complexity of individual events, it is evident at once that no person or group ever conforms completely to a type” (See chapter 1, part IV of Christ and Culture).[/note]

Amid the rich complexity of individual events, the models that Niebuhr and Keller propose leave us aimless––or even worse, justifying bad positions. To demonstrate, I’ll consider three case studies: sex, slavery, and rock ‘n’ roll. This post focuses on the sex and uses slavery and rock ‘n’ roll as its foils. I’ll expand on those if you think it would be helpful.

The Church in a Sexually-Liberated World

For all the sex on our TV shows and movies, almost none of it is between married couples. Our culture’s accepted and celebrated sexual ethic has little in common with historic Christian teaching. The idea that sex and marriage should go together seems outmoded. And now, some are arguing that it’s not just a quaint, antiquated notion. They’re claiming that it’s bad, harmful, repressive.

How do Christians handle the difference between our historic teaching and the culture’s generally accepted practice? Let’s consider Keller’s four approaches:

The Relevance model

Are you looking to our culture for the answers to sexual ethics questions? You fit here. A faithful church attender said to me not long ago, “It’s the 21st century. I don’t think God is too worried about sex outside of marriage anymore.” Look around. Get with the times. Read up on the harm that comes with sexual repression.

The Relevance model will probably also talk about the harmful shaming and fear that Christian “purity culture” has caused and instead focus on the goodness of sex and sexuality.

Christians who take the Relevance position on sexual ethics won’t stand out from the world. That’s part of their intent. If you want people to be attracted to the faith, you need to quit making it look so weird.

The Counterculture model

If you fit here, you see our culture’s unrestrained attitude toward sex as unsurprising. But you also see it as incompatible with the Christian life. You expect the church to model something entirely different, even if we don’t try to impose it on others.

The counterculture church maintains lives of purity and chastity: fidelity in marriage, celibacy in singleness. (A note: the kind of “purity” this church should advocate is neither shame- nor fear-based, but holiness-based.)

There’s no concern here about changing our culture’s views on sexuality. The world will be the world.

This will be the crowd most likely to abstain from the shows and movies that promote a different view of sexuality. At the least, they’ll likely reject shows and movies with nudity and graphic sexuality. As a wise person once said, “Casual sex, casual nudity, and pornography are eroding our respect for the body and sex. They’re training us to separate two things that God created to go together––intimate relationship and the intimate giving of our bodies.”

The Transformation model

If you’re a transformationist, you want to go further than the group above. You want to change the culture’s views and practices. You believe it would be better for the world around us to maintain a Christian sexual ethic, even if they don’t adhere to the Christian faith.

If that’s you, we need to ask how this transformation would come about.

One option is to mandate it. Legislate it. Make laws against cohabitation and extramarital sex. You’re probably not ready for that, are you?

If we don’t legislate it, the church could seek transformation in another way: by spreading our worldview. Hold out the Christian understanding of sexuality in its most winsome form across our culture so that it would become the mainstream view of what’s good and right. This is where some Christians have advocated heavy involvement in the entertainment industry and education sector.

Like money or food & drink, human sexuality is a good thing when it’s used as God intended. But when we cast off restraint, it becomes a form of idolatry that’s deeply destructive to ourselves and others. The transformationist tries to convince our society of that, whether they’re Christians or not.

The Two Kingdoms model

Maybe none of these sound quite right to you. You’re more of a live-and-let-live kind of person. You’ll continue to maintain a sexual ethic as the church teaches it, but you won’t stand out. You’ll neither compromise your own standards nor expect others to live by them.

The two kingdoms model will have you live in both the Church and the world, but in different ways. For instance, you probably won’t have any problem with a co-worker or employee who sleeps around or lives with his girlfriend. But if your pastor is doing the same, you’re not okay with it. In fact, you’d probably consider it unjust if your secular employer fired someone for anything to do with their sex lives (excepting anything illegal, which is a different matter), but you’d consider it highly appropriate for your church to fire the pastor who has a sexual relationship with someone other than his/her spouse.

According to Two Kingdoms, we expect different things in the Church and in the world. What would be considered an unfair or unjust expectation in one place would be a requirement in the other.

An aside: The Cracks in our Sexual Liberation

The #MeToo movement has highlighted many of the problems with our sexually-liberated society. When sex is disentangled from relational commitment, we create a whole new set of questions about when it’s appropriate. The cracks in our sexual liberation are showing.

We’ve landed on “consent” as our guide, but we’ve seen that even that standard can be difficult to define. In a relationship where one person has more power, does the other person really have power to consent? Is “Baby It’s Cold Outside” a playful song or predatory? When one or both people are drunk, can they consent? We’ve had plenty of instances where one person claims the encounter was consensual and the other claims it wasn’t. And so we’ve created forms and apps that allow us to contractually consent to sex.

Imagine that … associating sex with a contractual commitment. We’ve heard about this somewhere before.[note]To the wokest, I agree that consent can even be at issue in a married relationship. And that sex should never happen without both parties’ consent. Every problem I know of from the #MeToo movement, though, involved people who had not freely chosen to be married to each other. Marriage continues to be one of the most reliable indicators about whether someone generally consents to having sex with the other person.[/note]

How do we choose?

Did one of these models strike you as most appropriate? Or maybe you found portions of a few of the models that you would endorse? Did any seem like inappropriate ways of handling sexual ethics in our culture? You may even say that a nice balance of these is best in this situation.

Whatever model of engagement fits you best for this question, I would bet that it won’t fit you best when we discuss slavery or rock ‘n’ roll.

You may have thought the idea of legislating sexual morality was a bad idea, you might have liked the live-and-let-live approach of the Two Kingdoms view or the “alternate society” approach of the Counterculture view, but I bet you would be glad Christians were involved in changing laws about slavery. And you doubtfully would say they should have just been balanced in their positions.

You may agree with me that we shouldn’t look to our culture and “evolve” to whatever it believes is a proper sexual ethic, but you may also be okay with an “evolving” acceptance of musical styles as the world around us changes. (Hey, even the organ was once a new invention.)

The models explain which stances we’re taking, but they don’t explain why. They might even allow us to justify a position that we shouldn’t justify (e.g. wholesale acceptance of our world’s sexual norms or anyone who took a “live-and-let-live” approach to American slavery).

I think we can ask better questions to arrive at better answers. I’ll detail those in the next post.

For now: Does one of these models sound closest to your view? What helps you identify which positions to take and which to reject?

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A Summary Chart