By / Dec 21

What is a path of wisdom for churches to follow with emotion-packed, divisive, yet meaningful topics of today that we do not think Scripture speaks to? What do we do when we don’t want to bind consciences on things that Scripture is not clear about, but we want to promote wisdom and biblical fidelity? In an era replete with complex social issues, Christians often encounter scenarios that Scripture does not explicitly address. Consider, for instance, issues that have become more common as transgenderism has become more prominent, such as pronoun usage and restroom choices. What should we think about such matters?

Four principles for wisdom and biblical fidelity

When Scripture seems silent, here are four principles we should consider applying in order to uphold both wisdom and biblical fidelity.

1. Understand the scope of Scripture

In thinking about how to navigate these issues, Christians must first turn to Scripture. But there are two primary pitfalls we need to avoid when considering whether Scripture addresses an issue. 

The first pitfall is to assume that Scripture always has something to say about every subject. This is what philosopher Roy Clouser calls the “encyclopedic assumption”: regarding the Bible as an encyclopedia in which we may look for an answer to any sort of question we may have. The problem with this approach, as Clouser points out, is that it ignores the Bible’s own central theme and purpose and tries to force the Bible to yield truths about matters which never crossed the minds of its authors.

The second pitfall is assuming that Scripture has nothing to say about a topic the Bible does not directly and specifically address. Therefore, we reason, we are free to “follow our conscience” in determining how to think about it. This approach ignores the fact that God’s Word is the foundation for all knowledge. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states, Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, equipping us for every good work. There is almost always something we can apply from Scripture to help us think about every issue we are called on to consider. 

This is especially true the closer the issue gets to the realm of the human heart. The Bible does not have much to say about the inner workings of an atom, so it does not directly address specific issues within the realm of physics. But the Bible does have a great deal to say about the inner workings of the human heart, and thus it does often have something to say about issues related to human conduct and behavior.  

2. Search for and apply relevant scriptural commands, whether directly or indirectly

If an issue proceeds from the heart, then we must consider whether Scripture has something to say about it directly or indirectly. The first place we should look is in scriptural commands, whether broad or narrow. 

Within the Bible we find two basic categories of commands: broad (or general) commands and narrow (or specific) commands. Broad/general commands typically apply to many situations, such as the command to love God first and then love our neighbor, and always apply in some way to all cultures and all contexts. In considering the issue of pronouns, we must first ask what behavior most exhibits our love for God? For instance, since Jesus is truth (John 14:6), we must use language—including pronouns—in a way that best expresses and reflects truth. We must also do that in a way that is most loving toward our neighbors. 

The other type of Scriptural commands are narrow or specific commands, those that relate to a particular circumstance, often in a culture that differs from our own. An example is Deuteronomy 22:8 which says, “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” An application in our day might be to build a fence around your backyard pool so that a neighbor’s child doesn’t fall in and drown.

Narrow commands might not always apply to all cultures and all contexts. In some cases (as with the example above), there might be a parallel application. Narrow commands are similar to “case law” (i.e., law as established by the outcome of former cases) in that they give us paradigmatic examples for situations we might encounter.

In determining how a command applies, we must consider the reason for the command. If the reason for the command is a theological principle that is always true, then the rule will almost always apply today. As a general rule, if the Old Testament gives a moral command, it is still in effect unless later canceled, either explicitly or implicitly, in the New Testament.

3. Apply indirect commands analogically 

Sometimes it is rather obvious how a command in Scripture can be applied. But oftentimes, to determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture, we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:

Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.

An example of how to use analogical reasoning might be to consider the relevance of Jesus’ commands regarding oaths (Matt. 5:33-37). The application extends beyond the issue of oaths into the realm of general truthfulness. As Tim Keller explained, Jesus is “saying if you think you can create levels of truthfulness, you’re wrong. He is saying that ‘every yes and every no must be as truthful as if you just swore it on a stack of Bibles on network television.’ Every yes and every no is observed, because God is the creator and is present with us.” 

As applied to pronouns, the question you might ask is whether you believe pronouns represent specific genders or are interchangeable terms? If you do not think they are interchangeable, then are you being untruthful if you use the pronoun “she” to refer to biological males or “he” for biological women.

Ultimately, the issue is not what pronouns you are using but what you are doing with those words—and your motive behind it. Are you using the words to communicate truth or to say what you do not truly believe? And are you using pronouns as weapons in a “culture war” (e.g., to mock or hurt a person who identifies as transgender), or are you attempting to avoid conflict or hurt someone’s feelings at the expense of speaking the truth?

4. In the absence of scriptural commands, apply Christian liberty thoughtfully

Those are difficult questions to address, which is why we are tempted to classify pronoun usage as an issue of Christian liberty. 

How does Christian liberty apply? In Romans 14:1-23, Paul addresses matters of conscience where Scripture is silent. He advises believers not to pass judgment on disputable matters but to act in love. This principle of Christian liberty applies to contemporary issues not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. 

The issue of pronoun usage might not be, as we’ve argued above, a true issue of Christian liberty, though, since Scripture does seem to address how we use language for the purposes of being truthful. However, the issue of individual restroom usage may be a better—albeit counterintuitive—example of an issue where Christian liberty should prevail.

The Bible does have something to say about how to go to the toilet (Deut. 23:12-14). But it does not say anything about the necessity of those individual facilities being gender-neutral. We could argue, of course, that such an explanation was not necessary because it is a matter of “common sense.” Yet appealing to a common-sense standard might violate the purpose of Christian liberty. 

There are, after all, numerous activities that some Christians have considered to be sinful because they violate the common-sense standard. The ingestion of harmful substances, such as tobacco, has been a frequent example through the past few centuries. However, this has not prevented other groups of believers (perhaps most famously, the Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon) from claiming it to be an issue of Christian liberty. 

Whether or not it is a matter of common sense, the best approach might be to consider bathroom usage to be (in a limited sense) a matter of Christian liberty. This is not to say that in considering it a matter of liberty that Christians must therefore allow anyone of any gender to use any restroom they choose. Indeed, that is not how Christian liberty works. What it means is that in the absence of clear direction from Scripture, Christians are allowed to adopt whatever customs and practices are deemed to be best and in keeping with the principle of love. 

Restroom usage can thus be approached as an issue of Christian liberty, with a focus on other relevant concerns such as safety, privacy, and respect for persons. These are some of the reasons why many churches with newer buildings have a “family-friendly” restroom. There is nothing in Scripture, of course, that requires a separate facility for families of young children to use. But concerns over privacy and respect have led some churches to choose that as a loving and respectful option. 

In the same way, churches can use their Christian liberty to allow visitors who identify as transgender to use gender-neutral facilities (such as single-room toilets that might not be available to everyone or family restrooms when they are not in use). But Christian liberty also gives churches the freedom to require that restroom usage conform to a person’s biological sex. Both are examples of how Christian liberty might look different within different circles of believers.

After choosing a side, we might think that one group is weaker in faith than the other. Yet, because they are fellow believers, we are still required to welcome them instead of quarreling over our different opinions, despising them, and passing judgment on them (Romans 14:1,3).  

(A third option, allowing transgender individuals to use the public restroom that aligns with their gender identity is likely to be the least loving option. Christian liberty should never be used in such a way that it becomes a stumbling block to other sincere Christians (Rom. 14:13). Allowing a biological man to enter a female-only space (i.e., a space where men who aren’t transgender would be forbidden from entering) would give the impression that biological sex is irrelevant to God and his people. It does not properly love the individual because it affirms their disordered identity.)

Embracing wisdom, love, and grace

As we face questions that Scripture does not explicitly address, we should be committed to walking in wisdom, love, and grace. Rather than simply assuming we are right and another group of Christians is wrong, we must first seek diligently to hear from God and apply his Word directly and analogically. If we become convinced that Scripture is silent on the issue, we then can view it as a matter of Christian liberty. But we must embrace all that entails and not use it as a license to do whatever our sinful nature (or our sinful culture) deems to be best. 

Adopting such an approach requires humility, patience, and a commitment to uphold the core truths of our faith while navigating the nuances of our ever-changing world. It’s an approach that is rarely easy and often controversial. But in doing so, we reflect Christ’s love and wisdom, and we offer the watching world a God-honoring response to the pressing issues of our times.

By / Dec 28

The 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma traces the effects of the digital age on individuals and communities, highlighting how social media has led to a breakdown of trust and larger social instability.

In it, computer scientist and design ethicist Tristan Harris makes an important observation: technology itself is not necessarily the threat.

“We’re all looking out for the moment when technology would overwhelm human strengths and intelligence,” Harris says. He goes on:

When is it going to . . . replace our jobs, be smarter than humans? But there’s this much earlier moment when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses. This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification, the entire thing. . . . It’s technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society and the worst in society brings the existential threat.

In other words, while technology may create the conditions, the spark that sets the world on fire is . . . us.

Although he probably doesn’t realize it, Harris is echoing what the apostle James knew in the first century. In James 3:14, he writes that “bitter envy and selfish ambition” fuel “disorder and every vile practice” (v. 16). In the next chapter he says it this way: “What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you?” (4:1). Bitterness. Envy. Vile practices. Wars and fights among us. Sounds a lot like the present moment, doesn’t it? But just a few verses prior, James also says this: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness . . . setting on fire the entire course of life” (3:5–6 ESV).

According to James, we are the ones who light the fires with our knee-jerk reactions and our constant need to be right. But James isn’t addressing simply what we say. He’s addressing the deeper realities of our heart, because what we say, write, and profess reveal what’s happening within us. We wage war on the outside because we have passions waging war on the inside. “The source” of all the fighting, of all the fires, isn’t “out there” with some person or group we disagree with. It is “in here.” The spark is the sinful passions and desires within the human heart, both yours and mine. Our mouths simply give them a voice. As Jesus put it in Luke 6:45, “[the] mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.”

The danger isn’t simply that we struggle to know and say what’s true, but that too many of us don’t want the truth in the first place. The problem is that we’re interacting with other people from fleshly hearts that are full of “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” Technology has created a combustible environment, sure. It has made it easier for us to be terrible to each other. And that is something to mourn and resist (many tech experts will tell you that was done on purpose). But what James holds up in front of us is this: the desire to be terrible in these ways, regardless of environment, has always been smoldering within us. Our environment can only fan the flame of destruction because the flame is there in the first place.

Fire safety and heavenly wisdom

When I think of a raging fire, I think of my father-in-law who worked as a forester for four decades. Throughout his career, he managed hundreds of acres, partnered with landowners to steward and cultivate their properties, and battled the forest fires that would inevitably break out. In fact, my husband tells of a childhood punctuated by “fire season” — a period of several months in spring and fall when forest fires are common due to environmental factors like dryness, bare trees, and high winds. During fire season, my father-in-law couldn’t travel outside a prescribed radius, needing instead to stay close to his work truck, ever ready, ever vigilant, should a fire break out. Because all it took was one spark. One match, one flame could set the hills ablaze.

While my father-in-law’s work demanded vigilance during fire season, he spent the rest of the year reducing the risk of fire through things like reforestation, prescribed burns, and teaching fire safety to the larger public. (When the moment called for it, he wasn’t above donning a Smokey the Bear costume to remind folks that “Only you can prevent forest fires!”)

The idea behind fire safety is simple: you can’t control the elements. You can’t control how much rain will come and how dry the forest will be. But you can control your behavior. You can choose to make wise choices about when and where you start fires and whether you’re careless with matches. You can conduct yourself with wisdom instead of foolishness.

After warning us about how the tongue can set the world on fire, James asks this question: “Who among you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct he should show that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom” (3:13, emphasis added). And with this, James sets up a contrast between those who pursue wisdom and those who indulge their sinful tendencies. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart,” he continues, “don’t boast and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (3:14–15). Simply put, there are those who fight the fires and those who start them. There are those who seek heavenly wisdom and those who act out of earthly wisdom.

So what would this heavenly wisdom look like? How can we tell the difference between the wisdom that is from above and “wisdom” that is simply enabling, excusing, and encouraging our human weaknesses and fleshly desires?

First, heavenly wisdom is counterintuitive. Biblical wisdom has a way of confusing us at first because it challenges the assumptions that emerge from our sin nature. This is what Proverbs 14:12 means when it says that “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” Our instinct or gut feeling about how to respond to a situation or issue is not enough — neither is “feeling peace” or a “lack of peace.” 

Instead, we are pursuing the “renewing” of our minds (Rom. 12:2). We are inviting God’s Word and God’s Spirit to make us into the image of God’s Son, to conform our thoughts and words and deeds to his likeness. So, as we explore what wisdom looks like in these times, expect to be surprised. Welcome the experience of feeling challenged. Why? Because this is exactly what the Scripture tells us will happen when we’re being changed.

Second, heavenly wisdom is knowable to all who seek it. Wisdom is not the exclusive property of a select few who have discovered a secret memo, a secret meaning, or a secret cabal. In fact, in James 1:5, the Scripture invites “any of you” who lack wisdom to come to God, promising that he will give it to all truly seeking him. The challenge of wisdom is not that only a few can “know” what is true or real. The challenge is that wisdom requires hard things of us. It disrupts and confronts us, so many of us simply choose to look away from it. We don’t want to look at “the source” of the wars being waged among us, namely, our own sinful passions and desires. 

We resist the invitation because doing so would also mean admitting that we are part of the problem. To face our inner arsonist and drag it into the light would take an enormous amount of both courage and humility. This is why James warns us that coming to God for wisdom will require singleness of heart. Anyone can come to God for wisdom; but only those humble enough to believe that God’s ways are better than our own will find it.

Third, heavenly wisdom is countercultural. Those seeking heavenly wisdom are seeking the “narrow way” that leads to life and flourishing — a narrow way that many other people won’t necessarily understand (Matt. 7:14). Even other Christians. Even their fellow citizens. In fact, heavenly wisdom will likely disrupt the status quo because it seeks the kingdom of God rather than a kingdom on this earth. In this way, heavenly wisdom challenges both our personal assumptions and our cultural and social assumptions. So don’t be surprised if, in pursuing heavenly wisdom, you find yourself swimming against the current in unexpected ways. Don’t be surprised when what you once thought to be common wisdom turns out not to be wisdom at all.

Fourth, heavenly wisdom points to the gospel. Rather than reinforcing our sense of righteousness and self-reliance, heavenly wisdom challenges us while leading us to repentance and grace. After all, if Jesus is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), his ways, works, and words will align, teaching us how to live out the gospel in practical ways. Even more, lives based on heavenly wisdom will bolster our claims that Jesus himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Living in foolishness, on the other hand, will undermine our gospel witness because the disconnect between what we say and what we do will be glaringly obvious to anyone watching. 

Consider how Paul calls out the partiality and segregation that was occurring in the church at Galatia — when certain Christians separated themselves from their brothers and sisters. He says that “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14 ESV). The way they were mistreating those of a different background reflected earthly values and earthly wisdom. Heavenly wisdom, on the other hand, calls believers to behavior that embodies Christ and his cross.

And finally, heavenly wisdom seeks union and reconciliation. Listen again to the words of James: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:17–18 ESV). The goal of heavenly wisdom is not simply to separate those who are right from those who are wrong. The goal of heavenly wisdom is to identify and heal the brokenness in our midst. The goal of heavenly wisdom is reconciliation. And while it’s true that some may resist that reconciliation, those seeking heavenly wisdom will not. Those truly seeking to live like Christ understand that the goal of the gospel is reconciling us to God and each other.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from World on Fire. Copyright 2021, B&H Publishing. 

By / Sep 20

Most Christians are familiar with the story of Joseph as a powerful example of forgiveness and restoration. It is that. But it is not a simple, flat story. It is a complex story that spans a lifetime. It involves family drama, multiple betrayals, and political theatre. It is not a story we can apply as simply as Aesop’s fable The Fox and The Grapes. The story of Joseph is no simple children’s story.

Tracing the theme of power

Maybe one of the most dangerous misapplications in the story of Joseph occurs when it’s cart-blanche applied to how an abuse victim should respond to their abuser; as if it is a simple one-to-one application. What needs to be understood in order to apply Joseph’s story wisely to cases of abuse? We need to begin by tracing the theme of power throughout the story.

Initially, Joseph has the power. He is his father’s favorite son (Gen. 37:1-11). This means he doesn’t have to do the worst family chores, and he gets nicer clothes than his brothers. Joseph does not steward his power well. He flaunts his power and chides his brothers. By modern, American legal standards, Joseph’s actions were interpersonally offensive (i.e., rude). We would say he needed to repent, but we would not call the police.

Later, Joseph’s brothers have the power. They out-number Joseph and they are older and, therefore, physically stronger than Joseph. Joseph’s brothers do not steward their power well. They beat their brother, throw him in a well, and sell him as a slave (Gen. 37:12-36). By modern, American legal standards, Joseph’s brothers’ actions were criminal — kidnapping and human trafficking. We would say they needed to repent, and we should call the police if we learned of comparable actions.

In the final scene, Joseph has the power again. He is second in command to pharaoh and controls the distribution of grain during a famine (Gen. 42-50). We applaud Joseph because he is the first person in this sequence who uses his power to bless and redeem instead of abuse and demean. Reading this part of the story, we want to be like Joseph and want everyone else to be like Joseph, too. When we hear from someone who has been through hard times, like Joseph went through hard times, Joseph comes to mind as a great example to follow.

Forgiveness and restoration in Joseph’s story

Let’s make another distinction before we try to make wise application of Joseph’s story. When Joseph famously says to his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good” (paraphrase of Gen. 50:20), two interpersonal activities are occurring: forgiveness and restoration. Because these two responses so frequently travel together, we can easily view them as two sides of the same coin, rather than independent actions.

Forgiveness is the removal of relational debt. Restoration is engaging a relationship as if the relational debt did not occur. To illustrate the difference, if you allowed a friend to borrow your car and they wrecked it by driving carelessly, forgiveness would mean not requiring them to pay for damages, but restoration would mean letting them borrow your next car. You might do one without the other.

In Genesis 50, Joseph is both forgiving his brothers (not throwing them into prison) and being restored to his brothers (inviting them back into family relationship). If we cavalierly use the story of Joseph as an example for abuse survivors to follow, we are communicating that it is good and safe for survivors to do both. Implying their life will turn out like Joseph’s life if they do.

Is restoration wise for an abuse victim? 

So, why was it wise for Joseph to do this, but maybe not for an abuse victim? The answer has to do with power.

It was good for Joseph’s soul to forgive his brothers. It honored God and gave Joseph freedom from bitterness. We can say with confidence that this is what God wanted for Joseph. We can also say with confidence that God was patient with the journey. It took Joseph 13 chapters (Gen. 37-50) and approximately 24 years (best guess from Bible scholars) to come to this place of forgiveness. We should be equally patient in advising survivors to forgive.

But what about restoration? Why was restoration wise for Joseph, and when would it be wise for us? Notice that the power differential that allowed for abuse had been balanced. Joseph was no longer “little brother.” Joseph was no longer outnumbered 11 to 1.

When we are caring for an abused friend considering restoration, a question we should ask is, “Has the power differential been balanced in this relationship?” If repentant, an abusive person who has leveraged power to harm someone will diffuse those power dynamics. An invitation back into an imbalanced relationship is an unwise offer to accept.

This means we must understand the kinds of things that create power in relationships: positional authority, access and control of money, age, social standing, education, etc. A near universal prerequisite for abuse is power differential, and the abuse of power makes other sin more consequential.

For example, if your accountant embezzled money from your bank account, this is more consequential than your child’s friend stealing the same amount of money left on your kitchen counter. The accountant used their position, authority, education, and social standing to get privileged access to your bank account. Even if you forgave the accountant (which would be good for your soul), you would not restore them with the pin number to your checking account.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of power, I would highly recommend Diane Langberg’s presentation at the ERLC Caring Well Conference. But, with even a basic understanding of power and abuse, we can better understand why a tearful and articulate abuser who insists on maintaining factors that gave them power is most likely not repentant. There is strong reason to believe they are like an emotional accountant wanting your social security number. They are not doing what is within their power to debunk this concern.

This is what makes Joseph’s actions in Genesis 45 an example to follow. Do you notice what Joseph did? He broke the cycle of power. He did not relate to his brothers as the VP of Egypt who had temporary guests. That would have maintained his power. He invited them into a family (power balanced) relationship.

Yet, even in this story, we notice that before Joseph restored relationship with his brothers, he took steps to vet whether greed, power, or fear would cause them to relapse into their old pattern (Gen. 44). He wanted to be restored, but he also wanted to be wise.

So, what are our takeaways from this reflection?

  • Don’t rush a survivor to forgive. Rushing godly responses is not good pastoring.
  • Do understand the power differentials in an abuse case. Unless we do, we will make sloppy application of Scripture.
  • Do set the expectation that power balancing is necessary to make restoration wise. Anything less is not addressing what made the abuse possible.
  • Marvel with a new perspective at what Jesus did to allow restoration with us.

This article originally appeared here

By / Apr 26

“Our world has more and more information, but less and less wisdom,” says Brett McCracken, author of the recent book, The Wisdom Pyramid. “More stimulation; less synthesis. More distraction; less stillness. More pontificating; less pondering. More opinion; less research. More speaking; less listening. More to look at; less to see. More amusements; less joy. There is more, but we are less. And we all feel it.” 

Though the age of information has created a real predicament for us, we are not called to yield to the currents of our day that are sending us downstream and away from the path of life. Instead, as Christians, we are called to swim upstream toward wisdom and toward true human flourishing. To that end, Brett McCracken has given readers a helpful tool to aid us on our journey toward a life of wisdom. He recently spent some time interacting with us on several of the ideas in the book, which you can read below. 

One of the major aspects of The Wisdom Pyramid is the likening of our information intake to that of our food intake. Your “Wisdom Pyramid” in some ways mimics the intent of the USDA’s “Food Pyramid” published in the early 90s. Why do we need a similar tool for the development of wisdom?

The same logic that gave rise to the Food Pyramid—that the composition of our physical intakes can make us either physically healthy or sick—applies as well to our spiritual health. The ideas we take in can make us spiritually healthy or spiritually sick, wise or foolish. Just as for our physical health we need to be mindful of the types of foods we are consuming, and in what proportion, we also need to be mindful of the intakes coming into our hearts, minds, and souls. The voices we listen to, the sources we look to for information, the places we spend our time — all of it shapes us, for good or for ill. I wrote the book because I’m seeing a lot of imbalanced information diets these days (including in my own life!), and it’s making us sick. 

In the book’s introduction, as you describe our “unwise age,” you write about the problem that our brains are overstimulated. What are the consequences of having a constantly overstimulated brain? How does it affect our ability to think?

There is research showing that our brains are expending so much energy doing constant triage — sorting through the glut of information encountered on any given day — that there’s increasingly little energy left to spend on deeper level thinking: reflection, synthesis, critical evaluation. Of course, these are exactly the mental skills we desperately need if we are to be wise. Our brains are being rewired by the fragmented, disconnected, hyperspeed nature of information consumption today. And the rewiring is causing us to forget how to think carefully, slowly, and in a focused way. Mentally we live most of our days online in a “mile wide, inch deep” sort of mode. Over time, that leads our brains to lose the ability to go much deeper than an inch on anything, even if we wanted to. That’s scary.

You describe how, as with eating food too fast, consuming too much information too quickly isn’t healthy for us. As it relates to developing wisdom, why does the fast intake of information not transfer to the cultivation of wisdom?

When we consume information too quickly, we rarely take sufficient time to vet the quality of that information. Is it sound? Is it biased? Is it presenting both sides of the story objectively? Is it omitting something important? Media today tends to focus on sensationalized headlines and incendiary angles, to get people to click or watch. When we consume information too quickly we are passive pawns who click on things indiscriminately and then retweet or share without thinking twice about whether we should. We are gullible and reckless. 

Wisdom often means withholding immediate commentary until sufficient context and facts are known. Wisdom is patience and restraint in a world where we’re beckoned to opine, rage, and comment on events in real time. Foolishness is what makes QAnon conspiracy theories go viral. Foolishness is what perpetuated false narratives about Jussie Smollett and Nick Sandmann (among many others) before full contexts and facts were known. Foolishness rushes to judgment and situates things too quickly, and simplistically, in partisan narratives. All of this foolishness comes about because we go too fast. Wisdom is countercultural in part because it insists on a slower, more careful pace in a relentlessly fast world. Cultivating wisdom is necessarily a patient endeavor—which makes it an increasingly hard endeavor in today’s world. 

You go on to assert in chapter 1 that the constant glut of information serves to fragment our lives by orienting our attention everywhere but the place in which we physically find ourselves. Why is this significant?

This is an incredibly damaging dynamic. The internet and social media are placeless — everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time. By sucking our attention constantly into the endless conveyor belt of controversies, headlines, injustices, diversions, and pseudo-events that populate our feeds, we can easily spend our entire lives attending to things far removed from our immediate contexts, leaving us with little energy or interest to engage the (usually more mundane) realities right in front of us.

You take aim in chapter 2 at the popular phrase “redeeming the time,” saying that “instead of being content with silence in the “in between” moments of life,” we can’t help but “do something, anything, to maximize the time” (40-41). How might this phrase “redeeming the time,” and our practice of it, be misguided? What do we gain by trading the constant hum of information for silence?

The impulse to “redeem the time” is understandable, especially for Christians who have a clear mission and want to make every moment matter. There’s so much to do, so much to know, so many books to read! The glut of content (much of it excellent) makes it even harder to resist the “optimize every moment” mindset. We have to remember, though, that rest is God’s idea. He created the Sabbath. He also created humans with limits; he created us to need sleep. No human can be “always on,” even if we live in an always-on world. I’ve found in my own life that some of my most fruitful and creative stretches come out of a time when I prioritized rest. Some of my best ideas come when I’m just still and not doing. I’m convinced that silence and empty, unmediated space in our lives is absolutely essential for our wisdom. It helps us slow down and think more carefully. It helps replenish our overtaxed brains and our overwhelmed senses. 

Can you discuss the correlation between living in a technological society and the growing tendency to “reject the truth of the body,” as you say? How can we resist this tendency?

The more we live our lives in the ethereal, abstract, disembodied spaces of the internet, the more detached we can get from physical, embodied reality (of which our own bodies are just one part). The more we live in the “virtual” reality of online life (where there are few limits on the identity you want to present to the world), the less we feel constrained by actual reality, not least the reality and accompanying limits of our given physical bodies. This is why, for example, something like transgenderism has risen to prominence in the internet age. There are other factors that have contributed to it, but the idea that one’s “gender identity” can be something wholly detached from biology—gender as a “reality” as easily constructed and changeable as a Facebook profile picture—is an idea that can gain unique traction in a virtual world of avatars and digitally performed/manipulated identity.

Wisdom is countercultural in part because it insists on a slower, more careful pace in a relentlessly fast world.

How do we resist the distorting effects of the digital age? How can we guard against the ways our own concept of self can be shaped in a virtual world? Part of it is making sure we spend enough time in the offline world. Go outside more! Exercise. Get your hands in the dirt. Do things that make you aware of your body—what it can do and what it can’t do. This is part of why I included nature as a key component of wisdom in The Wisdom Pyramid. All sorts of foolishness arises when we distance ourselves from God’s creation and forget that we, too, are creatures God made. But there is wisdom to be found if we’re aware, attuned, and grateful for creation’s rhythms, order, and design.

In the book, you mention your dad often. How did his habit of consistently reading the Bible affect you as a kid?

Habits of wisdom are first and foremost picked up by observing them in others. You can be told Bible reading is important, but it becomes more believable and real when you see it in practice. This was the case for me, growing up with a dad who I often saw reading, studying, and treasuring the Bible. I have such clear memories of him sitting in his chair with a big old Bible, stuffed with church bulletins and Scripture memory cards, with a fountain pen and highlighter. It signaled something in my young mind and soul about the importance of the Bible. I hope my own sons have similar memories of me.

In chapter 5, you say that “Our inflated focus on global awareness depletes our capacity for local action” (96). Can you expound on this? To what extent should we prioritize local action over global awareness?

Neil Postman described this in terms of a severing of the connection between information and action. For most of human history, the only information one had access to was actionable information, and so there was a connection between what filled our brains and what our bodies did. But after the telegraph and then even more so with subsequent innovations in mass communication (especially the internet), suddenly we were exposed to huge amounts of information from far away places—information which we consumed but could not really act on. In the social media era this is now the majority of information that fills our brains—information that is inactionable aside from awareness and maybe some social media commentary. No wonder we are so angsty and mad all the time. No wonder our mental health has never been worse. Our brains and souls were never meant to bear the burden of so much information that has little real-world application in our lives. Constant awareness without recourse to tangible action leaves us feeling impotent and frustrated.

You argue that books are a “massively important source of empathy.” In what ways do books help cultivate empathy in us? Why is this important?

When you read a book you are literally practicing the wisdom of James 1:19: “be quick to listen, slow to speak.” You are giving your silent attention to another person’s voice, perspective, and experience. You are humble and teachable (which is not to say gullible or uncritical). To read another’s perspective in a book — whether a nonfiction argument or a fiction narrative — you are walking in another’s shoes. And walking in another’s shoes can’t help but cultivate in us empathy. A book is far better than a tweet for helping us understand where someone is coming from. That’s why reading books by authors on the “other side” or various arguments, or even reading books by a hostile opponent, can be good for us. Even if we still vehemently disagree with their arguments and perspectives, reading their book helps us see that they are human whose passions and perspectives are shaped by a story — just as yours are.

What are some of the books, both Christian and non-Christian, that you would recommend to readers as they seek to grow in wisdom?

That’s a question I could answer in a thousand ways. So I’ll just mention five that have shaped me personally: C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory; Marilynne Robinson, Gilead; J.I. Packer, Knowing God; Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death; and John Stott, The Cross of Christ.

In contrast to what some would say, you state that “the internet and social media desperately need people of light to stay rather than leave” (154). How would you encourage Christians who do stay to both guard themselves against the woes of the internet and social media and to function as people of light as they engage?

Any mission field holds the risk that the missionary entering it will be changed more by the culture than the culture is changed by them. This is certainly true of the “mission field” of the internet and social media. If we spend all our time online, even with good intentions of being a winsome Christian presence there, it will likely shape us in profound and disturbing ways. So the first thing I’d say to Christians seeking to be light in the darkness of the internet is that we simply can’t spend all day, every day, online. It will suck us dry. We’ll get sick. 

Healthy presence online, I’m convinced, is only possible if we are visitors but not permanent residents online. The people posting the worst, most vile things on social media are often the ones who never live offline. Their entire diet is made up of the junk food of social media, so of course they are sick and spreading sickness in what they post. For Christians to be spreaders of health and wisdom online, we need to be healthy and wise—and we’ll only be healthy and wise if we’re drawing nourishment in other places than just the internet. This is ultimately what I hope readers take away from The Wisdom Pyramid. We can’t give what we don’t have. And so if we are to be a faithful, life-giving presence online, we need to start with our own health and our own habits.

By / Apr 8

As 2020 ended, many anticipated that the turning of the New Year would bring with it a fresh dose of hope and a reprieve from the hardships that marked the last year. And, in some ways, it has. COVID-19, at least in America, seems to be trending in a promising direction, vaccinations continue at a rapid pace, and life is slowly beginning to look more normal. But while one pandemic seems keen on abating, another more insidious pathogen continues to intensify. 

I’m speaking of our “outrage culture” and the anger that fuels it. Outrage culture, sadly, is a phenomenon that has enticed us far and wide, even within the church. And, based on Tim Kreider’s commentary, “enticed” is the exact right word. He says, “Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure” (emphasis added). Pete Ross calls our anger and outrage an “acceptable and addictive drug of society” which convinces us that we’re smart, we’re right, and “we have the necessary ideas to fix everything. That we’re the ones that need to be in charge.” We apparently can’t help but participate in outrage culture because doing so feeds a Pharisaical self-righteousness that feels good. It coddles the pride that, unless God grants repentance, will result in disgrace and, ultimately, our destruction.

Proverbs and the way of wisdom

Sadly, among the Christian community, our outrage and self-righteous Pharisaism is often aimed toward one another. Dan Darling calls this “a kind of performative self-flagellation incentivized by a social media environment that rewards hot-takes, shaming, and appealing to tribes,” all of which spills out of a heart angered by the internet controversy of the day. And day after day, Christians, with unbefitting outrage, continue to “rhetorically sacrifice” their own brothers and sisters in the faith. 

If our anger and outrage—forms of self-righteous pleasure-seeking—are rooted in pride, then the book of Proverbs shows us a better way. Proverbs 11:12 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” The way of outrage culture is the way of belligerence, the way lacking in self-control, the way of slander and self-righteousness; it is the way of pride. But the way of wisdom is the way of humility and charity, of compassion, of patience and long-suffering; it is the way of holiness. 

But, the question remains, can Christians resist the enticements of outrage culture? From the Proverbs of Solomon to the book of James, the Bible answers this contemporary question with a resounding yes. By the power of the Spirit, humility and charity are the first two steps forward. 

  1. Humility

Rick Warren, in his best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life, said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less,” which is generally a fair statement. But, in the case of outrage culture, where the tendency is to lambaste our opponents because “we’re right and we need to be in charge,” thinking less of ourselves and the primacy of our expertise is an effective place to begin. Biblical humility, though, does not advocate for a self-deprecating view of oneself. Rather, it advocates for a right view of oneself, recognizing that we are creatures, recipients of God’s common grace who are offered God’s saving grace found in Christ, just like those we’re raging against.

Further, because we know that “pride goes before destruction,” as Solomon warns, we can be sure that if we practice the ethic of the outrage culture, with its furious fits and spats, any authority that we possess or hope to possess will ultimately be taken from us. In so doing, we will have proven ourselves unqualified. There is no attribute or behavior more unbefitting of the kingdom of God than the sin of pride.

Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Unimaginable honor and authority await those who have humbled themselves before God. We will not show ourselves capable of entering God’s kingdom or exercising the rule he promises to entrust us with until humility becomes our fundamental orientation toward our Father in Heaven, our brothers and sisters, and our neighbors, whether online or in-person.

  1. Charity

Scrolling down a Twitter feed or a Facebook timeline, it’s often hard to imagine that Christians take Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Though he was clear on the mountainside that day that he expects his followers to love not only our neighbors but our enemies, this has proven to be an elusive standard. Even the most intuitive act of charity, “loving those who love you,” often seems too ambitious for the people of God in our online interactions.

But, Jesus and, later, the Apostle Paul, were not offering quips or suggestions to be implemented at our discretion. They were showing us the way of righteousness, the narrow way of the kingdom, the way of the children of God. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “For he (God) is gracious to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35). “Charity is kind,” says Paul, “it doth not behave itself unseemly . . . is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil . . . beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” (1 Cor. 13:4, 5, 7, KJV). “This is the way,” God is telling us. “Walk in it” (Isa.30:21).

God the Father, through God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit has commanded and empowered us to live our lives with a charity that is other-worldly and that we learn from him. Thus, as we seek to resist the lure of outrage culture and embody the way of Christ, let us take seriously these words of Andrew Murray: “Let our temper be under the rule of the love of Jesus. He alone can make us gentle and patient. Let the vow that not an unkind word about others will ever be heard from our lips (or read in our writing) be laid trustingly at His feet. Let the gentleness that refuses to take offense, that is always ready to excuse, to think and hope the best, mark our dealings with all.”

Outrage toward indwelling sin

Not all outrage is off-limits for the children of God, though. A Christian ought to be appalled at the lingering depravity and brokenness of the world; it is our native response. In fact, to pray “thy kingdom come,” as Jesus taught us, is itself a statement of outrage against the world’s fallenness. But woe to us if we believe it right to do violence against God’s image-bearers with uncharitable and outrageous words.

There is a place where the full force of our outrage can be levied: Toward indwelling sin. John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Rather than adopting the ethic of outrage culture and spewing rage at one another, and taking pleasure in it, we would do well to redirect our attention inward, toward the indwelling sin “waiting to destroy everything we love,” as Matt Chandler has said. The Apostle Paul says, “if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Life and death are before us. Shall we yield to the pride of our flesh and join the carnal chorus of outrage culture, a culture that loves its sin and hates its neighbor? Or shall we aim our outrage inward and, by the Spirit, put to death these self-righteous deeds of the body?

Brothers and sisters, may we be a people who embody the ethic of God’s kingdom, not that of outrage culture. May we be a people who keep the commands of Jesus, all of them. And, humbly, may we begin by loving our neighbors and hating our sin.  

By / Aug 13

Herman Bavinck, Dutch theologian and Christian leader of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, delivered the first edition of his Christian Worldview in 1904, and later revised and republished it in 1913. Through the good work of Crossway publishers and editorial/translation work of Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, and Cory C. Brock, this important work is now available in English.  

While the notion of a world and life view has persisted for millennia, the word “worldview” was not coined until 1790 by Immanuel Kant (originally the German weltanschauung) and quickly became common-speak in the Western world. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian worldview had become a central theme. David Naugle argues that the “headwaters of Christian worldview thinking can be traced back to the Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Orr and to the Dutch Reformed polymath Abraham Kuyper” (Naugle, Worldview; The History of a Concept, xviii).   

Summary of three chapters

In the vein of Kuyperian thought and influence, Bavinck offers his slim, three-chapter work on Christian worldview as a front-footed, unapologetic case for believing the truth of Christian Scripture as the only story that accounts for the world as we know and experience it. 

Weighing in at only 133 pages, let not the brevity of the book deceive concerning its depth or density. Bavinck addresses three basic questions that he believes are “problems” that have and continue to confront the human mind; “What am I? What is the world? And what is my place and task in the world?” (29).  His chapter titles address these questions respectively as “Thinking and Being,” “Being and Becoming,” and “Becoming and Acting.” He ends his introduction with this preliminary answer to these questions; 

Autonomous thinking finds no satisfactory answer to these questions—it oscillates between materialism and spiritualism, between atomism and dynamism, between nomism and antinomianism. But Christianity preserves the harmony [between them] and reveals to us a wisdom that reconciles the human being with God and, through this, with itself, with the world, and with life. (sic., 29)

As a point of advice to future readers, allow the quote above to serve as a constant clarifier for the rest of the volume. With each chapter, Bavinck attacks the question at hand, though the journey between question and answer is sometimes difficult to follow. He commonly takes sharp turns down the path of rival worldviews and ideas, sometimes seeming to agree or argue in favor of the position, only to turn back just as quickly in favor of the Christian view.  

In chapter one, Bavinck argues that we are capable of knowing only because God has known first. Then, “the doctrine of the creation of all things by the Word of God is the explanation of all knowing and knowing about,” for this assumes a correspondence between the knower and the thing known (46). He continues insisting that, “the deeper one thinks this through, [the clearer it becomes that] all truth is understood in the Wisdom, in the Word, who was in the beginning with God and who himself was God. The one who denies this Wisdom undermines the ‘foundation’ of all science…” (sic, 47, italics added for emphasis).  

Bavinck’s emphasis on wisdom is noteworthy and relatively unique in the broader—and more popular—worldview literature. Throughout the book, Christian wisdom serves as the clue to worldview. Thus, in chapter two Bavinck demonstrates the superiority of the “organic” worldview over what he calls the monistic-mechanical approach on one side and the dynamic/energetic approach on the other. He argues that the organic view does justice to the oneness and diversity of creation, and to “being and becoming.”  

Bavink notes that wisdom accounts for the essence of all things, but adds that God’s will (decrees) must be joined to wisdom to account for their existence in the world. Wisdom and will, then, account for the dynamism and development in the world that the mechanistic and energetic views cannot.  

Finally, Bavinck’s final chapter calls its readers to recognize that we are designed to conform to God’s laws and norms in the world: “You shall love the true, the good and the beautiful with all your soul; and you shall love God above all else and then your neighbor as yourself” (95). This isn’t accomplished by individualism, communism, or autonomous reason, but only by the Christian faith. “Christianity is not exclusively a teaching about salvation, but it is salvation itself, brought about by God in the history of the world,” centered on the person and work of Christ, concluding with the end of the ages (115-116).   

Three takeaways

First, Bavinck’s consistent pushback against individualism and autonomous reason remains timeless counsel that we do well to heed today. In our day, as in Bavinck’s, the temptation to assume center stage as though the function of human reason is the beginning of wisdom remains a fatal flaw in the pursuit of right living in God’s world.  

Second, Bavinck’s awareness of the broader disciplines is exemplary. He was not only conversant and up to date in the sciences, but his unique ability to penetrate the assumptions, methods, strengths, flaws, and plausibility of differing views yields insight that remains valuable even more than 100 years later.  

Finally, as noted above, the emphasis on divine wisdom is commendable and unique. While I have concerns about an over-intellectualized understanding of wisdom in the book, Bavinck rightly and repeatedly returns to God’s wisdom as essential for a proper view of the world. 

Bavinck’s work is an important addition to the last hundred years of Christian worldview literature. It will quickly become a classic volume for Christian philosophers, theologians, and worldview teachers everywhere.   

By / Jul 7

Many pastors are in the midst of an identity crisis. As the importance of religion in the American psyche wanes, along with the unique experience of a global pandemic, churches are experiencing a corresponding decrease in attendance, baptisms, and budgets. Too many pastors find themselves scrambling to apply the secrets of secular business to the local church. Christian publishers have responded by publishing innumerable books each promising a “silver bullet,” multipoint plan that will fix all the issues in the local church. While there is indeed value in strategic planning and discipleship models, many pastors, myself included, have bought the book and tried the plan only to learn that ministry is not reducible to a multistep process. In this setting, Herold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart is a breath of fresh air.

Developing a pastoral habitus

In The Care of Souls, Senkbeil (M.Div. and STM, Concordia Theological Seminary) combines lessons he learned watching his father work on the family farm with over three decades of pastoral experience to provide practical advice to pastors. Senkbeil argues that pastors need to develop a pastoral habitus. Senkbeil defines a habitus as “a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit through his means” (17). Seminaries cannot teach a habitus, nor can a pastor develop a habitus by reading the newest book on pastoral ministry. Pastors refine a pastoral habitus through years spent patiently walking with the church in faithful ministry. Through the failures and successes of his ministry, the pastor slowly develops his habitus.

Senkbeil’s concept of a pastoral habitus is promising. The rigidity of silver-bullet solutions to local church woes is why most multistep plans fall far short of their lofty goals. What works in my church in the Cajun country of Louisiana would almost certainly be an abject failure in a large urban church. Senkbeil’s habitus has much more flexibility. Instead of offering a one-size-fits-all approach, Senkbeil encourages pastors to be faithful to their calling while acknowledging that pastors fulfill their calling in countless ways. The ultimate goal is faithfulness; however, faithfulness can look different in different settings.

A pastoral habitus begins with understanding who a pastor is and what a pastor should be doing. The pastor is, first and foremost, a servant of Christ. As a servant, the pastor’s highest aspirations are faithfulness and obedience. Senkbeil uses the apt example of a sheepdog and shepherd to illustrate this point. Pastors are to God what sheepdogs are to shepherds. The sheepdog does not know everything that the shepherd is planning. The sheepdog merely does what the shepherd has taught it to do. Likewise, as pastors, we are not privy to all of God’s plans. Indeed, his ways are often inscrutable. He is truly a God of surprises. Our highest goal is to be faithful servants of God our King.

God’s command to pastors is simple and yet complex. God has called pastors to lead Christians closer to himself. On one hand, this charge simplifies ministry greatly. Pastors and congregations have seemingly illimitable ideas of what a pastor ought to be doing. At times, serving as a pastor can feel like being the CEO of a small corporation! In this setting, having the single goal of leading people to know and love Christ is refreshingly simple.

On the other hand, the call to lead people closer to God is incredibly complex. As Senkbeil recognizes, pastors lead people closer to God in many different ways. Pastors will find Senkbeil’s view of Scripture refreshing. Senkbeil argues that one of the ways pastors lead people closer to God is by rightly applying the Word of God to everyday experience. When sitting by a hospital bed, a pastor can lead a person closer to God by comforting them with Scripture. Likewise, pastors can lead people closer to God by helping people understand their identity in light of Christ. In Christ, they are a new creation and have been given victory over sin, and pastors can help people embrace this view of themselves. 

Senkbeil also stresses the importance of the pastor’s spiritual standing. Indeed, pastors ignore their spiritual standing at their own peril. Senkbeil argues that too often pastors focus on the external problems in their church without realizing that most external problems have an internal, spiritual root. As God’s missionaries, pastors and their families are the target of demonic attention and hatred. To lead people closer to God, pastors must have a healthy devotional life full of Scripture and prayer. Indeed, Senkbeil argues that all pastors need a pastor to hold them accountable. 

Leading people closer to God while remaining personally devoted to the faith is a multifaceted undertaking that cannot be succinctly described in a single book. The complexity of God’s simple call on the pastor’s life is why pastors need a pastoral habitus. Senkbeil’s book is refreshingly different from most books on pastoral ministry precisely because he never provides a blueprint for how to establish a pastoral habitus. Such blueprints are simply too rigid to withstand the demands of the pastorate. Instead, Senkbeil provides the basic building blocks. By being faithful to God and their church, any pastor can develop a pastoral habitus tailored to their specific context, and Senkbeil’s book is a welcome companion along the way.

By / Aug 19

You know the eerie feeling that someone is watching or listening to you? Maybe it’s the specific ad you get on social media after a conversation with your roommate or spouse, or how your mapping app, like Waze, seems to recommend your favorite coffee drink at the exact moment you yawn. We live in a hyper-connected world and share some of the most intimate details of our lives more openly online than we would with a flesh-and-blood human being. 

We have all come to rely on and trust technology in ways we never thought possible. But that trust is starting to wane in light of major privacy issues and the ways that we are being shaped by the tools we use. According to a new study from Pew Research Center, Americans now have less faith in technology companies than the church.

Trading privacy for technology 

Privacy is highly contested in the public square right now. Just mentioning it elicits a number of reactions from both the left and the right. From pallet platforms at the Iowa State Fair to the bully pulpit at America’s residence, we are seeing a number of calls for the technology sector to be regulated, change, or outright broken up. We are growing more and more convinced that we are being tracked and listened to without our knowledge. And we might be onto something.

Just last week, Bloomberg broke the story that Facebook has been outsourcing voice recordings for transcription and labeling, as they seek to improve their artificial intelligence (AI) systems. But this outsourcing of data isn’t unique to Facebook. It is a common practice among many technology companies. The issue lies in the fact that users were not aware this was taking place. It is being captured on TVs, smart home devices, and other social media apps. Most current forms of AI require some level of training by humans in order to perform at the levels we are growing accustomed to. This is often described as “ghost work,” because it is behind the scenes and goes on without our knowledge. Much of this information is found or vaguely mentioned in those lengthy terms and conditions that no one actually reads.

The reality is that privacy barely exists in today’s society. Increasingly, everything we do and say is being tracked, analyzed, and sold in order to promote what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” She explains in her most recent book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, that companies collect a massive amount of behavioral and personal data about us and, in turn, are able to predict with amazing accuracy what we will buy, where we will go, and what we will do. These predictive insights are then sold to marketers who pay a premium to get their goods or services before our eyes and ears at just the right time. The more accurate the predictions, the bigger the reward. Zuboff shows that these companies do provide us with premium low-cost or free services like social media and email services, but argues that the trade off is always tilted in the company’s favor. Surveillance capitalism has allowed these companies to become some of the largest and wealthiest in the history of civilization.

Have we taken the time to think about what we are trading for all of these technical innovations and the benefits we receive from these premium services? Have we accepted this exchange without thinking about the nature of privacy? We often just click “accept” on the terms of services as quick as possible so we can start using our new gadgets and services. We care more about what we might look like when we are older than we do about how much will be publicly known about us when we finally do go gray. 

Living wisely in a connected age

Zuboff lays out three timeless questions for us to ponder as we think about the nature of privacy and surveillance capitalism: 1) Who knows what? 2) Who decides? and 3) Who decides who decides? These questions get to the core of the problems we’re facing and can allow us to have an open dialogue about these pressing issues. 

As Christians, we can no longer passively accept the golden age of innovation. Instead, we need to evaluate the real-world impact of technology on each of us and the way companies have turned data capture and predictive analysis into big business. How do we live faithfully and with wisdom as we use these tools and services? And what should we do about privacy in our families and churches?

Before signing up for a new service or purchasing a new gadget, we should ask honestly how they will encourage us to love God and love our neighbor better (Matt. 22:37-39).

The hard, yet necessary thing to do is to engage these questions directly. One place to start is by answering Zuboff’s three questions. We should seek to know what is being shared and tracked, who decides these things, and who decides who will make the decisions. Rather than letting privacy be a partisan or generational issue, we all need to collectively think about the world that we want to live in and how far into our lives we want technology to reach. Before signing up for a new service or purchasing a new gadget, we should ask honestly how they will encourage us to love God and love our neighbor better (Matt. 22:37-39).

As individuals, families, and churches, it is our duty to think wisely about the tools that we allow into our lives and the things that we have come to depend on. While we may not start reading the privacy policies and terms of conditions on what we use, I pray that we’ll pause and reflect on how we have come to rely on technology in ways that benefit companies and marketers more than our individual lives and communities. In addition, we need to take responsibility for the tools we’re using and not rely solely on our public officials to solve these privacy problems. As Christians, let’s be the ones that engage our digital age with wisdom, winsomeness, and hope, recognizing the need to enter into informed discussions about how others are shaping us through technology.

By / Jul 27

A question for my fellow football fans: How much brain damage would you be willing to endure to watch NFL games?

Would you watch the same amount of football if every game increased your chances contracting palsy, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease? If not, then you might want to consider why you are willing to allow others to take such risk for your entertainment.

A new study has found that 110 of 111 deceased former National Football League (NFL) players had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or permanent brain damage as a result of repeated blunt force injuries to the head. More broadly, as Katherine Ellen Foley notes, the study found 177 of 202 deceased players who played at any level (including college and semi-professional) for an average 15 years (ranging from roughly 10 to 20 years) also had evidence of CTE.

A team of researchers led by Boston University and the Veteran’s Association in Boston conducted the study, which was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As Foley points out, there is a chance that the study is biased since it relied on the player’s bodies being donated by families who suspected there was a link between football and brain injury. Also, the establishment of a correlation between CTE and football players does not mean that playing football caused the brain damage.

Still, this is the latest in a growing body of evidence that the repeated blows to the head that many football players endure are causing long-term irreparable harm to their bodies. At what point should this be a concern for the Christian football fan?

Four years ago, in an article for Christianity Today, Owen Strachan argued that the physical harm caused by football should lead Christians to reconsider the game's violence:

Football, more than any other mainstream American sport, depends on violence—the cultivation of violent instincts, the use of violence in the moment, and the game yields positive reinforcement after successful acts of violence. Some training in violence is necessary—soldiers defending their country, for example. But the culture of football should concern Christians. The number of football-related arrests, assaults on women and tiny children, murders, drug charges, and more should not glance off the evangelical conscience. The physical brutality of the game likely factors in here. Many of the athletes who have gone off the rails and killed themselves and others suffered from CTE. This is not conjecture. It is fact. We kid ourselves if we don't acknowledge the deleterious effect of continuously traumatic contact.

At the time, David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins wrote a reply to Strachan and other football critics here on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website, David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins in which they said, “Laziness and intentional underachievement, along with a safety-centric worldview are enemies to the advancement of the gospel.”

Football represents one of the only major American institutions still standing that is exclusively for males and speaks unashamedly about manliness and toughness. Boys are drawn to demanding physical competition against other boys, assertive male leadership, and a cause that demands sacrifice and calculated risk. These are good things that ought to be cultivated on a pathway from boyhood to Christian manhood.

Courage and calculated risk-taking are causalities of our contemporary safety-centric worldview. Sadly, evangelicals seem to be leading the movement to train bravery and adventure out of our children in favor of a cult of safety. Boys, who are virtually bubble wrapped by their parents to ride bikes in the front yard and do not participate in things like football because they might get hurt, will have a difficult time finding Paul remotely intelligible when he asserts, “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:13).

Prince and Scroggins correctly note that “courage and calculated risk-taking” are necessary for the advancement of the gospel and that in many ways sports like football can help train men for such work. While we need to be careful about confusing biblical masculinity with a culturally conditioned, hyper-macho view of manhood, there is a definitely a need for the development and cultivation of physical stamina and courage. Football has often proven useful for just such training.

However, our bodies are not our own. As Paul reminds us, they were bought with a price. We are called to responsibly steward our bodies and glorify God with them, which is why we cannot dismiss the concerns about violence. As Strachan says, “If a game is associated with violence, that should be of note to believers. Following Christ means avoiding unnecessary violence, no matter what macho culture and John Wayne manhood might say (Luke 22:36).”

Reducing unnecessary violence in play and entertainment—and sports is ultimately a form of either play or entertainment—should be a reasonable compromise for those of us who love the game.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, football was such a brutal sport that many players died due to the injuries they received on the field. Between 11 and 20 deaths resulted directly from a football injury during the 1905 season alone. As David Dayen notes, that would be the equivalent today of  95 on-field deaths. Public opinion was turning against the sport to such an extent that the New York Times op-ed on “Two Curable Evils,” listing football alongside lynching.

In an attempt to save the game, then-president Theodore Roosevelt stepped in by inviting the coaches of three biggest college programs—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—to the White House for a private meeting and encouraged them to make the game safer. In response to Roosevelt’s request, Harvard coach Bill Reid helped to organize the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), now known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In January 1906, representatives of 62 Colleges and Universities meet to appoint a rules committee for college football. In an attempt to “open” the game, the IAAUS made 19 changes, including doubling the yardage needed for a first down from five yards to 10; creating a neutral zone between the two sides of the line of scrimmage; requiring six men on the line; and establishing the forward pass.

If the original Rough Rider could propose changes to football that reduced its brutality—and made the sport better—we armchair quarterbacks should be able to support modifications that strike a balance between vicious violence and safety-centric softness.  

By / Jun 16

As a young teen, I read her books and articles with a voracious appetite for her wisdom. When I was 20, I attended one of her conferences and met her in person. Even now, one of her books sits at my bedside. Few women have had the influence on my life that she has had. It wasn’t that Elisabeth Elliot was perfect—far from it; it was the fact that she knew Christ’s strength in her weakness and made the clarion call for others to do the same.

And while her wealth of wisdom shaped much of my thinking in my formative years, there is one particular piece of her advice that has helped me navigate seasons of depression, stress and uncertainty. It was advice she herself had gleaned from an Old Saxon poem:

Do it immediately;

Do it with prayer;

Do it reliantly,

casting all care;

Do it with reverence,

Tracing His Hand,

Who placed it before thee with

Earnest command.

Stayed on Omnipotence,

Safe 'neath His wing,

Leave all resultings,

DO THE NEXT THING.

It was that simple: Do the next thing. And I’ve rehearsed it a thousand times to myself these many years.

Do the next thing.

In a culture obsessed with celebrity and novelty, emotional highs and experiences, we’ve forgotten that real life is mostly lived in the daily mundane. It’s not lived on mountaintops and it’s not impressive enough to be a Facebook status. It’s a series of uncelebrated steps, of hidden habits. This week you’ll do a hundred unspectacular things: brush your teeth, eat food, wash dishes, do laundry, answer the phone, pay bills, gas up your car, wash your hands, make your bed, etc.

You’ll do the next thing. And then, after that, you’ll do the next thing.

One little (seemingly insignificant) moment at a time.

But God has often written his story in the midst of everyday affairs. Consider the lives of King David, Moses and Ruth. David was a shepherd boy who wielded a sling and stone to keep his sheep safe from predators. One swing at a time, one predator at a time, until one day, “David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone” (1 Sam. 17:50). He wasn’t setting out to be famous, eagerly awaiting the day when his name might top the “50 Most Influential Israelites” list. He was faithful to do what was before him, even when that was caring for a bunch of sheep.

And Moses, after enjoying the life of a prince, spent four decades in the wilderness. We know little of his time there except that he tended sheep. When God revealed himself to Moses through a burning bush, he posed the question, “What is that in your hand?” And Moses answered the obvious: “A staff.”

It was this simple utilitarian staff—used for prodding and protecting sheep—that God would use to show his glory to Pharaoh, the Israelites and all of Egypt.

Then there’s Ruth. Apparently she had extensive experience gleaning in the fields. So when she arrived in Israel with her mother-in-law, destitute and hungry—she did what she’d done a thousand times. Never could she have known what God was accomplishing in the midst of her hard, tireless labor. 

How many times did Moses carry that staff in his hand? David wield his sling? Ruth work tirelessly to provide for her family? Dozens and hundreds and thousands of times. Years upon years. But the mundane became the soil in which the miraculous grew.

Sometimes the next thing to do is hard. It’s the last thing you feel like doing. But it’s what he’s put before you, and it is good.

Many years ago, a young widow took her small child and moved into the very tribe that had killed her husband. When folks made a fuss over her heroic faith, she quickly declined their praise and said she’d simply learned to “do the next thing.” 

“What is that in your hand?” Take it and do the next thing. What is your stone-and-sling, your staff, your field to glean? You take care of the task before you, even if it’s mind-numbingly mundane or breathtakingly scary—and as you offer up your obedience to him, he’ll make it into something miraculous.