When Exactly Do We Apply Free Speech Again?

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Two stories. Two similar scenarios. Two possible applications of freedom of speech.

In the first scenario, an acting duo produces a film entitled The Interview, a raunchy gross-out comedy trip through North Korea that includes a gratuitous orgy scene involving Kim Jong Un. The Film concludes with an assassination attempt on self-same head of state.  When North Korea discovered the details of the plot of this film, as the FBI report details, they hacked into the Sony Films data cloud and and leaked sensitive executive documents as retribution.  These hackers also claimed revenge and terrorism if Sony releases the film for national distribution.

The initial response by Sony was to delay the release. Later, Sony decides to cancel it all together.  The public response, mostly by the artistic community, has been to cry foul and to lift up the ideal of free speech in America, especially when it comes to art.

In the second scenario, an undergraduate student in an ethics class at Marquette, a Jesuit university, asks his teacher, a graduate student, for clarification on some remarks she made in her lecture on ethical conversations about human sexuality.  The teacher remarked that anyone taking a position against homosexuality as a viable option for human flourishing would be required to drop the class. The student pressed her as to the ethical reasons for such a narrow position.  She glibly responded that the student did not have the right to hold to such a position.

When the student brought the matter to the attention of the faculty and administration (through some less than above board means), the administration responded with an open letter in support of the grad assistant/teacher.  The public response, mostly by the religious community, has been to cry foul and to lift up the ideal of free speech in America, especially when it comes to religious liberty and ethics.

I find these two stories, situated one after the other in my twitter feed, to be interesting foils that highlight an important conversation about the extent of freedom of speech in America in the 21st century.  Namely, should we limit free speech?  Or, rather, should we limit the application of free speech in America?  When a film portrays the assassination attempt at a global political leader is this to be understood as an appropriate application of free speech?  Or is free speech then limited if it brings about negative consequences?

This would seem to be the case in the Marquette scenario.  The student in question had the freedom to speak until his free comments offended the teacher.  At that point, freedom of speech was no longer to be applied.

The big question rolling around in my brain today is this: Do we really believe in freedom of speech?  Or, do we like the idea of free speech as long as no one is offended?  Are we now a nation of people pleasers who aim to train the next generation of thinkers to become even more skilled and proficient people pleasers?

I don’t think we are.  At least, I certainly hope not. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who warned against this same kind of madness from within the context of Nazi Germany:

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

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5 Things Christians Can Take Away From The Serial Podcast

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Episode 12 of the wildly popular podcast Serial dropped into the new podcast folder of my smartphone this morning.  It marks the end of a crazy 12 week auditory journey that my friend and I have been on together, relishing the wholesome goodness and throwback feel of a weekly radio broadcast driven by smart writing, intrigue, and plot twists.  Okay, a moment of truth – most of my friends and I binge-listened to Serial beginning this past weekend. But, we enjoyed the podcast nonetheless.

As I was listening to the episodes, five things stuck out to me. And I sense that these five impressions could be useful to Christians engaged in Great Commission ministry:

1. Live above board in all areas of life.  One of the biggest truth principles to emerge from of Adnan’s reflection on his time in jail and on the events of 1999 is that he put himself in a position to be accused of criminal things, not because he killed Hae, but because he was living immorally.  He had sex outside of marriage (a “no no” for a good Muslim boy).  He smoked weed (again, a “no no.”).  He was deceptive with his parents.  He had a secret life.  He admits this much to Sarah.

2. Live each day with purpose.  One of the things I kept thinking about as Adnan was trying to piece together the murky remembrances of February 13, 1999 was that he would have benefited from a regular reflective period of each day — a time when he thought back through the course of his day and, perhaps, journaled his thoughts from the day.  It would also help if Adnan had not have intentionally hindered his perceptive abilities by smoking weed.  Journaling has long been associated with the Christian life of discipleship and the Serial podcast indicates how profoundly helpful it is to live each day with purpose and with a sense of appreciation for the little details in life.

3. You are who your friends are. One of the biggest flaws in Adnan’s case was his friendship with Jay.  Adnan spent considerable amounts of time with Jay, a guy who sold drugs and who worked at a  pornography video store.  Adnan not only spent time with Jay and his associates, but he loaned his car and his phone to a guy who lived this shady life.  Adnan tied the fate of his life with Jay’s fate.  So when the state wanted to point out Adnan’s character flaws, all they had to do was point to Jay.  Both men received punishment as a result of their friendship.

4. Good communication is captivating.  Koenig is a wonderful storyteller and communicator.  It should not be a surprise that Serial is wildly popular, despite the seemingly antiquated medium.  But this tends to bear out what many have known and reiterated for centuries: Good communication captures our attention. Hitler knew this. Winston Churchill knew this. President Obama knows this. Sarah Koenig knows this.  And she uses her communication skills masterfully.  For those of us who want to preach the good news of Jesus, we would do well to take notes from the master on how to communicate effectively.  Pacing, content, delivery, style…all of these things matter.

5. Less is more.  Serial proves that even in an instant gratification society, less can be more.  Rather than rolling out all 12 episodes at once (as Netflix’s strategy seems to be), Serial intentionally required the audience to wait patiently for each upcoming episode.  This strategy resulted in a massive reddit community commentary page, several parodies on youtube, and countless other text, phone, and coffee conversations facilitated by listeners and fans.  Serial has demonstrated that one does not need to reveal all one’s cards in order to draw an audience.  If you have something good to give, you have permission to reveal the goodness at your own pace, in your own timing, and in your own way.  This applies to podcast content.  It also applies to human sexuality and dating relationships.

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Mary As God’s Baby Mamma? My Sermonic Attempt At Unwrapping The Christmas Miracle

In this sermon I look at the details surrounding the immaculate conception in Matthew 1:18-23 and following.  I conclude that Jesus’ birth and conception are recorded as miraculous and seem to be consistent with how this event was historically regarded by the Christian church in the first few centuries at minimum. The text reads like this in the ESV:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed  to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”

While I debated with our youth ministry staff over the pro/cons of making such a theological statement, I ultimately decided to leave it out of the sermon.  However, on this blog I want to suggest that Mary was something like God’s baby mamma. I believe this popular phrasing gets us close to what the Bible says about Jesus, about Mary, and about the nature of her pregnancy.

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Misattributing The Bible: What Dawson Trotman Would Say To Barack Obama, And To All Of Us Who Identify In Christ

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President Obama followed up one of his more ingenious moments with one of his more forgettable moments.  After brilliantly taking over for Stephen Colbert on his show earlier this week, President Obama took to quoting scripture during an immigration speech in Nashville last night.  Mr. Obama said:

“The good book says, don’t throw stones in glass houses. Or, make sure we’re looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks’ eyes.”

As many commentators (and twitter users ) have pointed out the first quote is not from the Bible.  It is a common proverb quoted in Chaucer, perhaps attributed to James I, and re-quoted by scores of English speaking Europeans and Americans over the past three centuries.  And yet, while it appears to be a helpful moral proverb, it does not find its grounding in the authority of Scripture.

So what do Christians make of President Obama’s inexcusable misattribution of Scripture? And furthermore, in what way should this rather awkward public misattributions shape our future discipleship?  I believe that Dawson Trotman would be helpful for weighing in on this particular issue.

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dawson-trotman-courtesy-of-the-navigators-linkDawson Earle Trotman (1906-1956) was the founder of The Navigators parachurch ministry, the architect behind Billy Graham’s Follow Up team, a mentor and confidant to Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright, Wycliffe Bible Translator’s Cam Townsend, and YoungLife’s Jim Rayburn, and the original thinker behind the 20th century idea of discipleship in the fundamentalist and evangelical movements in America.  At the core of Trotman’s discipleship methodology was a practical emphasis on memorizing the plain text of scripture, usually from within the King James translation.

Trotman believed that Psalm 119:11, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,”  was a core theological text for spiritual formation and essential for the development of disciples of Christ.  In his reading of this verse, Trotman believed that God wants all Christians to memorize scripture and hide it in their hearts, the central-most part of their being, in order to effectively shape and produce a disciple who would operate from a biblical worldview.  Not surprisingly, the first year of discipleship training under Trotman involved flash card memorization of 1000 Bible verses covering theological topics ranging from sin and salvation to prayer, evangelism, and spiritual growth. By the end of the discipleship program, many of the Navigators’ top brass could recite whole portions of the Bible from memory.

Trotman recoiled at what he observed to be an “easy believism” in American Christianity, the kind of watered down Christianity that offered cheap grace and psychological notions of forgiveness to convenience-oriented Christians.  These were the selfsame types of American religious adherents who often misattributed popular sayings to the Bible.  For Trotman, if you did not know the difference between cultural moral sayings and the plain text of scripture you were breaking the heart of God.  In fact, it was not uncommon for Trotman to find himself chatting with a Christian only to shift the conversation to spiritual matters with the piercing and unsettling question, “So, what verse of the Bible are you currently memorizing?”

Upon attending his first Billy Graham crusade meeting in 1950 (at Graham’s invitation) Trotman took issue with the lack of any legitimate follow up efforts for those who made decisions to be born again and to follow Jesus in discipleship.  He invited the Graham team over to his house for dinner and proceeded to lecture them on why follow up was important.  In particular, Trotman pressed Graham and his team on the need for more robust scripture memory plans for new believers.

To his credit, Graham was not offended at the stern lecture during the meal at the Trotman home.  Instead, Graham demanded that Trotman begin developing a systematic follow up program to be used in all future Graham crusades — the very follow up program that Graham would use for 60 years, and the same program currently used by most major evangelists, including his daughter Ann Graham Lotz.

With Graham’s reach and influence, Trotman was able to see a portion of his ministry vision fulfilled as thousands of people came to believe in Christ and then become discipled through Navigator training methods, including scripture memorization. Many more came to grow spiritually through one of Trotman’s most notable inventions – scripture memory cards.

Trotman worked diligently throughout his ministry to ensure that when Christians were pressed into giving informed positions on important issues, they were prepared to also provide a document trail back to the chief authority on all matters of life and faith — The Bible, quoted verse and chapter. For Trotman, paraphrasing was not enough. General summaries were ultimately unhelpful.  And misattributions were lazy and potentially damaging, since they spoke to the reality of God’s nature and character.  For Trotman, God was the chef, the Bible was the menu, and the job of the Christian was to be a waiter who quoted verbatim what was printed on the menu.

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Logic Is Not A God: Reflections On College Football Debates

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I feel compelled to write one last post about the College Football Playoff.

One of the more favorable arguments against shifting away from the BCS Championship system to the new four-team College Football Playoff is that under the BCS format the regular season games carried more significance and meaning.  The net result of this system, the proponents would argue, is that regular season games would matter.  If we moved to a playoff system, as the argument progresses, we would render the regular season meaningless.

I think the events of the past season have blown that line of reasoning to shreds.  Instead of rendering the regular season meaningless, the playoff system maintained the importance of the regular season while also providing a thrilling and hotly debated playoff field.

In fact, one might argue that the current playoff system could expand to as many as 8 or 16 teams.  The regular season will be just as thrilling (since rankings based on the regular season play will determine the final playoff bracket) and there will always be passionate arguments about who should be in verses who should not be in.

The real question for the leadership in coming years is, “Which teams do you want to be debating in the public square?”  Do you want to be debating between #4 and #5, or between #8 and #9, or #16 and #17.  Debate will happen and will only serve to highlight the importance of the regular season.

What Can Believers Take Away From This College Football Debate?

This debate highlights a helpful principle: Logic is not a magic bullet. Logic is a tool. Remember:

  • some will use logic to aid in arriving at Truth (This is what, Lord willing, local church pastors aim to do).
  • Others will use logic to keep people from Truth (This is what Satan did in his conversation with Jesus in Luke 4).
  • Some will use logic to make a point, at the expense of a fluid conversation.  Typically, we label these folk as “contrarians.”
  • Others will use logic to make a difference.  This is what Martin Luther, Jane Addams, Elie Wiesel, and Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to do.

Logic is a tool that can be used for good or bad.  That is why it is so critical that believers in Jesus Christ increase in loving Jesus with their minds, as well as hearts, souls, strength, and neighbors.

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Injustice for All: Reflections on American Culture and Feelings of Injustice

College-Football-Playoff-Logo-2Many Americans complained about injustice this weekend.

Some felt swells of anger due to the NCAA College Football Playoff committee’s selection of playoff teams on Sunday.  Ohio State, Florida State, Alabama, and Oregon are in.  TCU and Baylor, co-champions of the Big XII Conference, are the first two out.

The final selection sent shock waves through fans of the Big XII. After all, how could the committee select Ohio State over Baylor?  Didn’t they see TCU’s drubbing of Iowa State?  And, Baylor beat TCU 61-58 in the head to head battle!!!!!

Meanwhile, the shooting deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice in 2014 as well as lingering concerns over the Trayvon Martin death in 2012 stir up sentiments of injustice in society and culture for many other Americans.  Some feel equally or more passionate about this level of injustice as the fan with rooting interest in a college football team.

Either way, there is a prevailing sense of injustice in American culture on this day in 2014. And the collective sense of injustice leads this blogger to ponder two important questions about life and culture:

  1. Are certain types of perceived injustice more important and pressing than other types of perceived injustice?  Does a feeling of righteous indignation over the deaths of four men trump the feelings of injustice over rankings in college football?  Some may answer “yes.”  Social liberals, for example, typically privilege political and social injustice as the holiest of pursuits — the exact kind of work with which all reasoned and truly religious people should be concerned.  This perspective might consider a dubious college football ranking system to be a superficial agenda and a distraction from the realities of urban life and community disorder in America.  Proponents of religious liberty, on the other hand, may answer “yes” and privilege religious liberty as a higher priority than any other ideal — including access to healthcare options, wedding industry services, and educational platforms.  While some may answer “no,” we should all be aware that certain perspectives do privilege certain types of injustice and these perspectives exert tremendous influence on the conversations we have in the public square.
  2. What do we make about the common theme of injustice in the course of life? Why do people take to social media to raise awareness about football resumes and police report details?  Why do Americans get so impassioned?  Why does the notion of injustice collectively irk the sense of well-being in American life?  After all, can’t we all just get along?  In justice appears to be an absolute reality of our common existence.  What meaning do we make of this? C.S. Lewis often asked a question in this manner and concluded that our collective awareness of injustice points to the sense we have that this life is not what it should be.  Injustice is the equivalent of a Warning: Engine Trouble light on the dashboard of the human soul, directing our attention to the need for repair.  While some may take issue with this line of teleology, it stands to reason that one plausible answer to the question at hand is that there is a God who exists, who has created every human being with an innate sense of right and wrong.  And, it is precisely when we begin to exercise judgement of right and wrong that we become aware of our need for ultimate justice.  That this world affords us little hope of justice calls us to consider if we were really made for this world…

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Douglas Wilson Just Dropped A Music Video. No Seriously. And, It Is Not Bad.

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I just came across this video of Douglas Wilson and it blows my mind.

Not because he is winning/losing a debate about morality and American culture. Not because he is responding to criticism from a monograph on the history of colonial slavery.  Not because has said something insightful about Reformed theology.

I just watched a video of Douglas Wilson — front man for an Americana Southern rock band.

The video is is tied to a new book called Rules For Reformers that just dropped today. Here is a link to the book and here is a link to the promo video.

What follows is a retroactive diary of my thoughts as they exploded within my brain in a more-or-less sequential order of experiencing this Doug Wilson music video for the first time. Enjoy:

  1. Is Doug Wilson playing acoustic guitar?  Did you know that Doug Wilson plays guitar?  Is there anything else that Doug Wilson does that is not public knowledge?  Can he play basketball (and what is his game like)?  Does he collect figurines?  Does he dress up as a Santa Claus in some mall in Idaho?  I am not sure if I even know Doug Wilson anymore.
  2. His voice works for this sound.  Wow.  It really works.  And the song has a good rhythm to it.  This could be a good song.
  3. Who are the dudes in his band?  Are they elders in church?  Is it a requirement for elders in his church to play musical instruments? If so, what is the evaluation matrix grade for a candidate with decent theology but killer guitar chops?  Does that guy get on the board?
  4. Yeah, this song has real potential.
  5. What brand of sunglasses are they wearing?  Oakley? Ray-Ban? Foakley?
  6. Will this song be played in a worship service at Doug’s church?  Is this the style of worship music that he employs?  If so, would I want to go to this kind of church?  I am not kidding — I may want to move to Idaho.
  7. Who are those women who are shopping for/breaking pots?  Is that Doug’s wife?  Is that Doug’s mother?  Is there tension between Doug’s wife and his mother? What does Doug recommend to women who have MIL issues?  Does it include breaking pots?
  8. Did they get that artist to fashion pots just so Doug could break them?  That’s kind of a waste…but also kinda boss. It seems like something Doug Wilson would do.  And I am not even sure what that last sentence means.
  9. This scene is reminiscent of Office Space.  Has Doug Wilson seen Office Space? Where does it rank in his Top 10 films?
  10. Wow.  I am hugely impressed that Doug Wilson can be a rocker.  He’s a Romans Road Rocker.  Also, I am legitimately concerned to not remind God that I am a jar of clay.  Because Doug has demonstrated what happens to ungrateful jars.

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Ebola in Frisco? One Pastor’s Response

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A friend texted me this afternoon.  “A second potential Ebola patient was found in Frisco.”

The patient was at a clinic not too far from my home.  Across the street from where I got gas last week.  Near a neighborhood where many of my friends live.  In the same parking lot used by a sister church in our area.

The news hit me like a punch in the gut.  I was alarmed, terrified, and paranoid all in one emotional reaction.  I retraced my mental log from the last week:

  • Did I run into anyone who seemed sick?
  • Did I walk near that clinic for any reason?
  • Was there anything suspicious that I was overlooking last week?

I called my wife in a calm panic.  We both desperately needed to confirm that we had not exposed our family or friends to a deadly infectious disease. My wife went immediately to the store to grab bleach and clorox disinfecting wipes.  She wiped down the house like it was a scene in a Jason Bourne film.  We both checked twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media for up to date information on the patient, the situation, and the danger risk.

In my worry, I assumed a zombie-like presence. At work people came in and out of my office but I found it difficult to focus.  I was experiencing something I had not faced in quite a while.  Sheer terror.

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Ebola as an idea is not a pleasant thought to my 21st century sensibilities.  In Ebola there are no known antidotes.  This means that there is no opt-out protocol.  I cannot unsubscribe from Ebola.  I can’t negotiate with the disease.  I am unable to “keep my options open.”  It is the airplane turbulence of diseases and I am sitting in a passenger seat. There is no way to insulate myself from that which Ebola represents — namely, that when it comes down to it, I am not in control.

And so it is in this moment that I must consider a deeply important question about ultimate reality — how do I function in a world where I am not in control?

The Israelites found themselves in a similar situation on the shores of the Red Sea in Exodus 14.  Pharaoh’s chariots were visibly approaching along the shoreline and their intent was destruction.  There in that place, roughly 3 million former slaves were trapped between an impending army of doom and an impassable body of water. They were faced with a similar reality – No negotiating.  No other options. No ability to control the situation.

And in that moment, God graciously stepped into their context and provided a way where there was no way.  He parted the Red Sea, providing dry land upon which they could cross.  And then he enclosed the waters over their captors.

In this moment, God reminded them of an important principle about His character.  The author of Hebrews attests to this principle in Hebrews 12:27 (NIV):

“The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.”

Sometimes, God will allow our world to be shaken so that what cannot be shaken will stand out as our only option. 

Sometimes God will permit us to become aware of our own lack of control. And, in that moment He will graciously remind us that He remains in control.  Sometimes God permits an potential Ebola scare on Main Street in your town, a few blocks away from where you get your groceries, in your own neighborhood, across the street from where you get gas, all to remind you that you are not in control and that He remains in control. Ebola may shake us, but the realization of our own anxiety contrasts with the reality that He cannot be shaken.

Today I am aware that Ebola potentially exists in my city.  And I am honestly scared.  But I am also honestly reminded of God’s sovereign rule over all things, including Ebola.  And so I am also resolved to bless the Lord whilst quoting Psalm 20:7:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

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