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Little White Emails

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Kudos to Tim Hall for his excellent piece, “Electronic Lies.” Tim addresses those pesky forwarded emails (who reads ’em?) that, more often than not, spread inaccuracies at the rate that hamburgers are distributed at Macdonald’s.

The particular email message that prompted his article concerned one of the presidential candidates. He doesn’t name the candidate. But I checked Snopes.com, and Barack Obama is number two and Hillary Clinton is number eight in their top fifteen urban legends. Tim says he received the electronic smear from a fellow Christian, someone who is supposed to uphold truth and honesty. Personally, I have received similar emails, not to mention others related to a variety of subjects, from celebrities to big corporations. On top of that, I hear brethren sharing the “knowledge” they have gleaned from their inboxes at church on Sundays.

As Christians, we ought to watch our words. Maybe we’re not speaking them with our mouths, but a keyboard can do as much damage, maybe more.

Two suggestions:

1. If you are in the habit of forwarding every juicy piece of gossip you receive electronically to everyone in your address book, please stop. We don’t read it, and you are becoming a nuisance.

2. Accept the responsibility for the information that you send by email. At the moment it comes from your computer, you become the source. If it is false, you have spoken a lie. Just because you don’t know the person you have slandered personally, that doesn’t make it any less of a lie.

Check the veracity of your email messages using Snopes.com. It’s a great fact checker.

Oh, and one last thing: God really won’t curse you for deleting chain emails. I did it once, and so far, so good.

The Downside of Pluralism

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Since my last excursis on Global Warming, I have been looking for an explanation for the your-science-versus-my-science politics that clouds environmental ethics. As I was perusing the “Letters” column of Newsweek I found what I was looking for.

Bernard Dov Cooperman, a professor of History for the University of Maryland, called attention to what he believes is the real problem in the Global Warming debate. I doubt that he and I would agree on the issue of climate change itself, but I believe his position on the underlying cause of our disillusionment towards issues like this one is excellent. He wrote,

…our society is more than happy to accept spin…because we have come to believe that all expertise is bias, that all knowledge is opinion, that every judgment is relative. I see this daily in my university classroom. Many of even my best students seem to have lost the ability to think critically about the world. They do not believe in the transformative power of knowledge because they do not believe in knowledge itself. Begley [the author of a recent Newsweek article on Global Warming, D.K.] decries the tactic of making the scientists appear divided, but the corporations didn’t have to invent this tactic. It is built into our carefully balanced political “debates,” into our news shows with equal time given to pundits from each side and into the “fairness” we try to teach in our schools. We need not be surprised that people have become consumers who demand the right to choose as they wish between the two equally questionable sides of every story. Neither global warming nor any other serious problem can be addressed by a society that equates willful ignorance with freedom of thought.

We live in a pluralistic society that takes pride in allowing its citizens the freedom to believe as they wish. Pluralism does provide freedom, but it can also be overwhelming to the point that critical thought is equated with a migraine headache.

Consequently, Americans are choosing their positions by three faulty criteria:

  1. They go with an emotional knee-jerk reaction.
  2. They arbitrarily choose a position based on positions that look appealing on their surface.
  3. Or they decide that critical thought is too draining and fall back on the position best supported by their background.

These criteria, though they may comfort us in the glut of information from sources like the Internet, cable television, the print media, and radio, do not achieve conviction, which is the drive behind achievement.

Let me offer three suggestions for finding the clarity necessary for doing the hard work of critical thinking.

1. Believe in truth. When first confronted by a problem, we may not know which of the plausible explanations is right, but one of them has to be right. The truth may still lie dormant, waiting for discovery but it’s out there. And finding truth is freedom (Jn. 8:32).

2. Separate the principle from its purveyors. It’s tempting to give up on a cause because of the hypocrisy of those who promote it, but we must not quit a principle based on hypocrisy. Inconsistency in a leader is disappointing but it neither proves nor disproves the principle he supports. A report on Ted Haggart’s sex life or Al Gore’s electric bill sheds no light on the controversies we face.

3. Seek authority, not popularity. It’s tempting to trust a familiar face. But truth clings to those who have paid the price for it (Prov. 23:23).

From a biblical point of view, the Scriptures, above all else, should rank highest in the Christian’s list of respected authorities. Finding out what God says ought to be more important to us than keeping our finger on the pulse of society.

America is doubled over in the throes of moral confusion. Not until we learn to believe in truth and search for it will we find pluralism an asset in our quest for answers.

When Convenience Becomes God

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

One thing you can say about Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, is that it has created a dialogue. Since its release last year, America has been buzzing about Global Warming and “going green.” Gore proposes that Americans should spend millions of dollars to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that, according to his science, lead to earth-threatening climate change. (Some of us have trouble accepting these words, since they come from a guy with a $30,000 utility bill.) A host of reputable scientists have surfaced who say Gore is wrong and that the pricetag of his proposals will destroy our nation’s economic security.

Al Gore’s movie may be full of holes, but he was right about one thing: truth is often inconvenient. This is the characteristic of truth that makes so many people run away from it.

Christians felt the pinch truth’s discomfort early on. Consider what was written in The Didache, an ancient Christian document written early in the second century.

Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things, baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (emphasis added).

The design of this instruction was to summarize the apostles’ teaching. However, when the writer allowed pouring as a substitute for immersion he departed from the inspired record (Acts 8:38-39; Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12).

Why did some of the early Christian leaders alter the truth? It was inconvenient. They predated indoor heated baptisteries, and in certain areas it was difficult, maybe even dangerous, to find enough water for baptism. So they allowed for pouring in extreme cases. But look where this led. Pouring is now the norm in many denominations.

When it comes to the alterations we have made to the New Testament for convenience, the list is long. No aspect of church life has been untouched; worship, morality, organization, and the plan of salvation have all been targeted in the name of convenience.

To be honest, convenience has become a god. Tune your television set to a typical worship program on Sunday morning. Look at what people are wearing. Watch them sip coffee during the lesson. Observe the plush setting. See them swipe a credit card for the offering. Listen to the preacher in his button-down and khaki pants. Americans still want religion, but not if it’s going to make them uncomfortable.

The problem is that, somewhere along the way, truth is going to make us uncomfortable. Too many people have come to the fork in road where convenience diverges from faith and have chosen the path of least resistance. What they haven’t stopped to consider is that resistance inevitably waits at the end of the road of convenience, a resistance that no man can bear (Mt. 7:21-23).

Hypocrisy’s Usefulness in Testing Spirits

Monday, March 5th, 2007

The news has been featuring a number of intriguing stories about hypocrites.

At the forefront is Al Gore’s carbon footprint. The former vice president has been telling us the world is coming to an end because of our excessive energy-consumption, yet his electric bill is $1,200 a month.

Then there is Ted Haggard, the fallen leader of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. After a male prostitute accused him of homosexual activity and drug abuse, Haggard checked himself into rehab. Three weeks later he was pronounced “completely heterosexual.” The public is understandably having trouble believing him.

Another story that has somehow passed under the radar is the inconsistency of bioethicist Peter Singer. For years Singer has been redefining human life by coining the phrase “human non-person” to refer to fetuses, newborn babies, the disabled, and the terminally ill. The hope is that the phrase will prove a worthy salve for postmodern consciences desirous to justify abhorrent practices such as abortion and euthanasia. Hundreds have been influenced by Singer’s humanistic philosophies. But how well does he do when he is personally confronted with them? Not well, as a recent story reveals. When Singer’s own mother became a “human non-person,” he couldn’t bring himself to end her life. When “ethics” got personal, Singer chose to allow nature to take its course.

People of principle relish stories like these because they validate our suspicions. We can’t believe that people actually think their mothers and children are “human non-persons.” We know a lot of these televangelists are religious hucksters in disguise. We’ve always had a feeling that celebrities and politicians don’t practice what they preach. But is hypocrisy really evidence that we’re right?

John wrote, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). What did he mean by “test the spirits?” The idea is borrowed from metallurgy, the ancient technique of separating metals from their ores using fire. Just as the metallurgist tests his metals by the standard of a fiery cauldron, Christians must examine and prove every teacher by the standard of truth.

But is practice that standard? That is what we are saying if we use hypocrisy as a guide. Hypocrisy may be ugly; the Lord hated it (Mt. 6:1-2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7-9; 22:18; 23:2-33; et al.). However, hypocrisy cannot be used as the standard for judging whether or not something is true. If that were the case, then Haggard’s example proves homosexual behavior is acceptable, and Al Gore’s example, on its own, proves that Global Warming is a farce.

Practice cannot serve as a standard because it’s far too subjective. Sure, Haggard fell, but Christ didn’t. He’s the one who originally established the sinfulness of homosexual behavior (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10). Thousands of other preachers have lived up to their teaching, enough to relegate Haggard to the category of “exception to the rule.”

Moreover, hypocrisy is often the result of a disconnect between what a person believes in his heart and what he actually does. True, some are liars and know what they’re saying is false. But I think most hypocrites are just believers floundering in their own weaknesses, whether they are church leaders, philosophers, or heads of state.

The standard for truth is God’s Word. Because it is inspired (God-breathed), it can claim objectivity (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). While many of its heralds failed to live up to its doctrine at times, including some of the apostles, it has never wavered.

Hypocrisy should be shunned; dishonesty should never be tolerated. But let God’s Word be the judge. If we’re not careful, we’ll arrive at the wrong conclusion because we tested our propositions in the wrong fire.

Wisdom from a Birmingham Jail

Monday, January 15th, 2007

This year, on the day reserved for the celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., my thoughts turn to Dr. King’s Birmingham Campaign, a pivotal phase of the Civil Rights Movement, which occurred in the spring of 1963. The campaign was a protest in the belly of the beast, a city which was, according to Dr. King, the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. It began with a series of mass meetings and direct actions and then moved to acts of nonviolent resistance, such as sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and a boycott of downtown merchants.

On April 12, the protests eventually led to King’s arrest. For a week he was kept in solitary confinement. From this point, the situation escalated. As more protestors descended on Birmingham, energized by the imprisonment of their leader, Birmingham firemen and police officers resorted to cruel and inhumane tactics to quell the uprising. Youths were swept into the streets by the force of firehoses, attack dogs were unleashed, and nonviolent protests were answered with clubs.

But King’s tactics were working. On May 10 of that same year, Alabama’s chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convinced local politicians and business leaders to agree to the desegregation of public accommodations, a committee to ensure nondiscriminatory hiring practices in Birmingham, cooperation in releasing jailed protesters, and public communications between black and white leaders to prevent further demonstrations. Unfortunately, this was met with violent resistance, the culmination of which was the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the death of four little girls. But the next year, President Kennedy signed the Civil Rights Act (1964), the most significant civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

The city of Birmingham would like to forget these things. In many ways it has moved past the segregation and prejudice of its past. But in some a spirit of hatred still lingers. It was planted by tradition and culture and will be difficult to pull out of the hard soil where its roots have been anchored for so long.

Lofty precepts are needed to call men to rise above their preconceptions. In his eloquent way, King argued this point in a letter written in the margins of The Birmingham News from his prison cell during that critical campaign. He wrote,

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful.

Alabama’s laws of segregation would have never been defeated if it weren’t for man’s faith in the absolute laws of God. Strangely enough, many churches were not preaching this law. They were clinging to the commandments of men instead. This was lamented in King’s letter:

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

No country can escape unjust laws of its own making until it heeds the Higher Law in God’s Word. Nazism was defeated on this basis as was slavery. Every moral improvement in national legislation must be credited to God.

So why do churches, the very places that ought to be upholding the Eternal Code, exchange that which is holy for that which is popular? We are still seeing social evils promoted in the name of God. In fact, it’s getting worse. You can still visit communities in the South where black Christians and white Christians worship separately. In addition to this, churches not only accept but promote evils such as homosexuality, the destruction of the home, challenges to biblical authority, and irreverence towards God. We hear that there is freedom in Christ and that we are saved by grace, but what about Paul’s command, “Be not conformed to this world?” (Rom. 12:2). Can it be said of us, as Jesus said of his disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world?” (Jn. 17:16).

Martin Luther King, Jr. was great because he recognized a Higher Law with regard to racial equality among men. He saw God’s church as the ekklesia, those called out of the world. He did not live by the mediocrity of the status quo; he challenged men to leave it for the excellence of Christ.

This holiday means many things to many people. For the Lord’s church, it ought to serve as a reminder that human wisdom never improves upon the will of God.