On Emperors and Paper Houses

There’s something about fictional stories that I simply adore.

I think it’s the ability for a story to teach us about ourselves without feeling intentional. We’re far enough separated from that alternate reality that it’s not personal, but it still affects our thinking and feeling.

For example, you can tell a story about a young boy on a desert planet. A boy who farms moisture, and takes care of self-aware robots. A boy whose estranged father is an evil ruler who chokes people to death and cuts them in half, and whose sister is the princess of a planet that gets destroyed. A totally bizarre story!  And yet, we can feel connected to those characters.

I’ve been reading through the Dune series by Frank Herbert over the last couple years. (I highly encourage everyone to check them out.) I just finished the third book: God Emperor of Dune.  It has mazingly fleshed-out characters, but there was one in particular that sticks to my mind… Moneo.

Moneo was the second-hand man to the God-Emperor named Leto. He obeyed Leto without wavering, and invested decades of his life in the service of his master.  But he had one major character flaw that revealed itself time and time again… He was unable to question his beliefs.

It’s not that he was not allowed to question his beliefs in the God-Emperor (the ‘center’ of worship throughout the universe of these tales), but that he simply could not cognitively and emotionally handle his own suppressed doubts. Throughout the story, he encounters moments of dissonance; times when his ideas about the God-Emperor are challenged, and his mind begins to crumble as he scrambles for understanding – that all-too-elusive solid ground upon which his mind can stand.

Several characters in the story surpass Moneo in terms of their personal growth. His own daughter, for example, becomes the choice person for succession for the God-Emperor Leto as time goes on. Even the character who is expected to attempt an assassination of God-Emperor Leto is shown more favor as Moneo sinks into the background.

Many times, and especially towards the end of this entry of the series, God-Emperor Leto becomes frustrated with Moneo and his lack of mental/(spiritual?) flexibility. Moneo is so set in his thinking that he is unable to grasp the significance of his place, and his lackluster future is lamented by his ruler.

What is striking, however, is that Leto eventually reveals how much potential Moneo had; the intended purpose of his life, all the grandness that was laid out for him, and the majestic nature of Leto’s leadership.  And yet, he was so stuck in his rigid thinking that it wasn’t until his dying breath that he finally broke through his naïve shelter of paper walls and saw with clarity the true nature of his life and that of his master Leto.

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I find that Moneo is a good example of many believers. I, myself, remember living in paper houses. Following a rigid system of beliefs and a worldview that I neither understood nor cared to explore. I feared leaving those places – afraid that my life would crumble at the mere presence of an idea juxtaposed to what I believed to be true.

One of my greatest joys is seeing people leave paper houses. I remember those shining moments when someone is able to actually ask a real question; is able to truly reflect on their own notions of reality and challenge what they have thought to be true for so long. They take their first steps into a beautiful new world, full of danger – yes – but full of potential as well.

 

It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ imagery in The Great Divorce. The ghost-like people are new to the world of reality, and even their own feet cannot bend the blades of grass in this strange place. They walk on what feels like needles; they cannot lift even a single apple in this land. Strength comes with time, however, as they learn how to walk and their bodies become more solid.  So many visitors, however, abandon this world of reality as cruel and inhumane. They opt, instead, to return to the world of grey, where empty houses cannot even keep out the rain.

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On Bricks and Sermons

I’ve always been into Legos. Ever since I can remember, I loved getting Lego sets for my birthday and Christmas. I had so much fun following the directions and constructing a new toy to play with. My imagination ran wild with all the adventures I could have with it. But, inevitably, I would deconstruct whatever I built and throw the pieces into a large bin with all the other pieces I’d accumulated.

The vast majority of my time spent with Legos consisted of creating new projects. Whether it was a space ship (I’d say this was 90% of what I built), a house, or a landscape, I was building something new. And this was the process I always went through – and still go through – when building something new:

  1. Dig through my entire Lego collection, setting aside every single piece I might want to use
  2. Build whatever I wanted from the pieces I had set aside
  3. Put the unused pieces in with the rest of my collection.

On any given project, no matter how large or small, I would only end up using – at most – 30% of all the pieces I originally set aside. When collecting those pieces, my imagination would go crazy with all the ideas I had… “I could use this piece if I wanted to make a kitchen-type room,” “What about this piece? Yeah, it could be a wing or something…,” “Every spaceship needs a grate over the mechanical segments,” and so-on.  In the end, however, the majority of my ideas would be scrapped.

I remember one time I was building a single-seater space ship (of course). I spent about an hour or so collecting all the parts I thought I could use. I probably had around 500 pieces in all by the end of it. My original idea kept changing, and the next hour was used for building exactly what I wanted. In fact, every time I think back to that project, I wish I wouldn’t have torn it apart because the set turned out perfectly.

All-in-all, it was only comprised of 100 pieces.  But man…. I loved that ship. It was just right!

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Being trained in ministry is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that my focus for being a pastor is more narrow, allowing me to better determine how to best used my time and energy in serving others. It also helped me in structuring sermons (probably my most consistent form of ministering to people).

But ministry training is also a curse. Probably the worst thing for a preacher to go through is listening to another preacher, because we have been trained in message preparation; Biblical hermeneutics, public speaking, presentation structure, ancient culture and language, and Christian theology. To be perfectly frank, one of my greatest struggles is attending other churches. It’s almost inevitable that something the preacher/speaker says is going to put me off; an anachronism, proof-texting, misappropriation of a text, exegetical fallacies, or something as silly as “the gain on his mic is set way too high.”  All of that is stuff I can look past, to a point, but I’ve noticed a larger issue that is happening in a lot of churches….

I typically develop a message the same way that I build with Legos: I start with a general idea, and then gather up all the pieces that I feel fit the best. I’ll jot down a story idea, point to other parts of the Bible, maybe a piece of philosophy or language, add in some backstory, a rabbit trail or two if it doesn’t distract from the message, and anything else that pops in my head.  Once that’s done, I strip everything down to what’s necessary to convey the truth of that Sunday’s Scripture reading.  Overall, I’d say that my weekly sermon is about 30% of what I’ve played with during preparation.

I can only imagine what my sermons would be like if I tried to add every “great idea” I had in preparation. I would have so many anecdotes, fluff information, and side-notes that the message would be way too long and convoluted, and ultimately people would leave thinking, “wait… what was the message?”  That’s what I see happening in a lot of churches, and even in people’s personal lives.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but there’s a growing atmosphere that consists of “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are nice; but what else?” Perhaps we’ve stumbled into it, or maybe it’s a response to people who don’t think the Gospel is dense enough, or it could be that we keep trying to outdo ourselves in our presentation. Whatever it is, I rarely meet people (outside of my local community, because our pastors are pretty awesome) who confront the Word on a regular basis. They confront exciting, emotional music; they watch a well-produced movie or a sketch at church; but the Word must have been left in the Pastor’s study.

It’s sad to admit that when I read a ‘Christian’ book, watch a Christian movie, or see a televangelist, I resign myself to the fact that I’m not going to encounter the Word; I’m going to encounter an abstract painting – just enough color and texture to be interesting, but contorted to the point of being indistinguishable.

There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with the Gospel, because it’s been buried beneath a lot of “great ideas.” We dress it up, do some color correction, add cool effects, inject a bunch of memes to make it ‘relevant,’ and before too long Christ is left on the periphery of the real focus: a variety show.

Now, I’m not shouting “Heresy!” toward preachers, teachers, or speakers. If people are coming to know the Lord, I’m not going to heavily discount the work of a lot of churches out there. My point is this: Is the forgiveness of sins enough for us?  Is sanctification satisfying? Is resurrection, and life eternal, worthy of reflection?

Or do we even know what those mean anymore?

Maybe we threw them back into the bin, in favor of something else we want the Gospel to be.

On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

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Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.

On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.

 

 

On Christianity, North Korea, and Propaganda (Part 2)

Some of you probably noticed a few writing errors on my last post shortly after it was published (I know I did!). As I was going through and making some minor edits on misspelled words, I began to sift through it and add hyperlinks to various parts that I thought were relevant – parts where I thought, “you know, maybe someone wants to know more about what I just said. I’ll include hyperlinks to show where I’m getting my information.”

But then I encountered a problem… About 2/3rds the way through my last post, I began saying things like, “Read YouTube comments, and you’ll see the strong opposition to anyone who would seek to promote Christianity as a respectable religion in our culture’s Scientism-based ideology.” Here’s the problem I encountered: I couldn’t find a demonstration of this. Sure, as I looked through YouTube videos discussion religion/faith there were a few spots where things got a bit heated in the comments section. But, for every post I found that belittled Christianity I found another that belittled non-Christians. Overall, for all the vitriol that YouTube comments hold (“cesspools,” as some people describe them), there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong leaning one way or the other. In fact, there are some good conversations that take place, albeit rarely.

As I scoured the videos I watched in days-gone-by where I thought I was getting a hint of anti-Christianity, I soon began to question myself… Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda?

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I began to search the internet even more, looking beyond YouTube into Reddit, Facebook, and even 4Chan to see what kinds of anti-Christianity existed. What I found was that there certainly is an anti-Christian presence on these sites, but there is also a pro-Christian presence. In fact, most of the views held by both sides of the conversation tend to stay within their own circles, like different cliques of people sitting together in their own section of the bleachers during a school event; having their own in-house meeting while occasionally slinging mud at one another, but having no real engagement between the two.

Then, I began to think through my personal interactions with those I’ve met who are atheists and agnostics. Interestingly enough, I cannot recall one hostile conversation I’ve had with such people throughout my life. Maybe one or two heated discussions during my Middle and High School days between classmates, but even then it was more a conversation of exploration and testing than persecution-levels of animosity. And, in my adult years, I have actually been frustrated more by Christians than non-Christians (but this is probably due to my high exposure to Christians compared to the latter).

In fact, I recently attended my 10-year High School reunion. I admit I was a bit nervous about the fact that I am now a pastor, and wasn’t sure what to expect from my classmates if/when they discovered that fact. To my surprise, they were perfectly fine with it and a couple of them even opened up to me about their lives and some of what they are going through (this happens even with strangers – more often than you’d think). My being a Christian, and a pastor, actually allowed for genuine conversations rather than creating a hostile environment between people of different religious perspectives.

As I thought through this, I juxtaposed my personal experiences and ‘research’ with what I have been presented by Christian media. I grew up inundated with Left Behind ideas of a stark contrast between peace loving Christians and war mongering atheists who love to trip-up believers and knock them down as the inferior species. As I entered college, Christian media started to actually gain some real production value (they actually felt like movies instead of made-for-T.V. specials). Yet, for all the developments in technology, the underlying themes remained the same: Christians = good, atheists = bad; Christians = smart, unbelievers = stupid; Christians = victims, non-Christians = persecutors. You can imagine how such consistent messages can influence one’s perception of reality. And, that is exactly what propaganda is designed to do – influence one’s perception of reality.

I asked myself again: Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda? By assuming, without solid references to back it up, that Christians and Christianity are attacked and belittled, I was promoting these notions that Christians are a discriminated group worthy of pity and able to claim victimhood of near 1st century levels of persecution.

But is this true? Are Christians in America really being lambasted for their beliefs? Are we being persecuted for wanting to worship in relative safety or being open about our faith? I submit that we are not. Perhaps we can claim particular instances where it seems we have been mistreated for our faith, but a look beneath the surface of what is going on will show that most (if not all) of these instances rely almost entirely on our subjective interpretation of what is going on instead of what is actually going on. “SayGoodnightKevin” does a good job of going through some of these particular instances at the end of his review of ‘God’s Not Dead.’

We have been groomed to think we are the persecuted minority. We have been taught to see strangers as Christian haters, worthy of neither our engagement nor our love (though we may throw them a tract or two, because – you know – John 3:16). But what ultimately happens is we end up sitting in our own circle of friends, the “Christian Club,” in our own section of the bleachers. We become hopelessly unaware of what life is like outside of our own bubble and construct faulty understandings of reality, but do not challenge them because they empower us. Victim mentality does that.

Once that happens – once a victim mentality is established – then engagement ceases to matter. “They” hate us because of what we believe, and so there is no reason to mingle with the likes of them. “They” become the enemy, and should be proven they are in the wrong. “They” should be attacked in order to preserve our way of life and to protect our rights. Our way of life is, after all, the superior one.

And then Christianity becomes a hermit kingdom, with the Great Commission being reduced to a bumper sticker on the back of a rusted out Hummer in an abandoned lot somewhere in Scottsdale, Arizona.

On Christianity, North Korea, and Propaganda

I was watching a documentary today on Netflix. Not a particularly unique event. For some odd reason I began finding dramas and action movies wholly dissatisfying a couple years ago and found myself scouring Netflix and Youtube for any historical clips, intellectual debates, and foreign films based on cultural ideologies or philosophical examinations.

It’s no wonder, then, that when I came across an independent film titled, “The Propaganda Game” I almost instantly added it to my list. The cover is a North Korean soldier, and having been to Korea and studied some of its culture over the last couple years – even learning some of the Korean language – I thought this would be an interesting watch.  I wasn’t disappointed.

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The film follows a Spanish filmmaker throughout his exploration of the country and how the North Korean culture perpetuates itself within the system of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). I recommend everyone to watch it. It is truly fascinating to see the contrast between what we see/hear of North Korea from news sources and what people experience when they actually visit the country.

I admit that I struggled while watching this film. And, as the filmmaker admits at the conclusion of the movie, it is difficult to tell what is true and what is not. Are the lives people live simply a façade, carried out through fake smiles and rehearsed lines in order to appease the powers-that-be? Or is that simply our perception of what is going on, built up by misinformation and speculation, and fueled by anti-communist mentalities? In reality, I think that many who live in North Korea truly believe that they are the greatest country on the face of the earth, that the Juche ideology will carry the Korean people to world dominance and full independence, that it’s leaders are deserving to be worshipped and respected above all others, and that the West (particularly America) is the enemy of freedom and an imperialistic power.

We hear such positions, and we immediately infer that they derive from propaganda. Constructed out of lies, deceit, and subjugation over decades of ideological conditioning and brainwashing. We hear what happens within the country and we cry “foul,” demanding that human rights have been violated and sanctions should set against it for the sake of the DPRK’s citizenry.

However, I found something to be entirely fascinating throughout my viewing of this movie. I was entranced and fixated on this one singular point that served as the undercurrent, and I have been wrestling with it all day. The point is this: Are we not living in the same reality?

As much as we look at a country like North Korea and say how abusive it is that television, news networks, and cinema are manipulated in order to condition the thinking of its people, does our culture not do the same? How the police and military forces are used to enforce strict laws that would punish those who work against the established system, and are used to root out anyone who would disrespect the Great Leaders and their position – do we not do the same?

A rudimentary look through Facebook would reveal how our culture punishes its people for not standing up during the National Anthem. Read Youtube comments, and you’ll see the strong opposition to anyone who would seek to promote Christianity as a respectable religion in our culture’s Scientism-based ideology. Watch the news, and see how it condemns other countries (including North Korea) for not functioning the way a country ought to, even though the standards we use to judge the efficiency and functionality of other cultures is based on Western ideas.  Watch any movie that has come out in the last year, and you will see how our own American culture produces its own propaganda: alternative sexual lifestyles should be celebrated, the sovereignty of the individual is the greatest moral achievement, freedom of choice in every aspect of life is the highest ethic to be pursued, science reveals all truth, and the Western way of life is the ideal way of life.

With only few exceptions, see what happens when anyone counters those ideas. I am willing to bet that many who are reading this have automatically assumed, whether subconsciously or consciously, that most or all of the aforementioned ideals are good, noble, and true. However, could we not conclude that such ideals are the product of decades of our own propaganda?

Taking this one step further, in the direction of how it relates to Christianity, we ought to be aware of how our own cultures have affected our beliefs. I find it fascinating that Christians in the West gravitate towards Biblical themes of liberty, freedom, and autonomy, while Christians in parts of Africa gravitate towards the themes of patriarchal authority, communal living, and piety.

Could we not conclude, then, that our own faith may be subject to culture’s propaganda? After all, if we take an honest look at American ideologies and Biblical teachings we will find many conflicts. Where American teaches freedom of choice in all areas of life, Christ teaches self-sacrifice and full submission to the will of the Father. Where America teaches the sovereignty of the individual – the power we have to define ourselves – Christianity reveals that the only freedom we have is the freedom to either follow or reject Christ, and if we choose to follow Christ we forego our “rights” or any claim of self-sovereignty. Where America and its culture teaches that we must respect the American flag and pledge our allegiance to it, Scripture teaches that we pledge allegiance to Christ alone and no other.  America teaches that we belong only and exclusively to ourselves, and are held accountable by no one above us, while the Bible teaches that we are but singular parts of a greater whole who are taught to hold one another accountable and to be responsible for one another.

In many ways, it seems that Christianity has more in common with North Korea than with America.  But can we see through the haze that is our own Western propaganda machine – a machine that force-feeds us philosophies, ideas, “truths,” ethics, and morals through television, video games, magazines, movies, newspapers, books, sports, education, and social media?

I am not commending the DPRK as an ideal which we should follow. I am merely pointing out how inconsistent it is that we, as Americans, condemn that which is not like us simply because we have different worldviews. Ironically, we condemn North Korea for doing the same.

Perhaps this can be a step toward liberating our Americanized church from nationalistic tendencies, and perhaps we can begin to see ourselves – the Church – as a nation without borders, whose sole philosophy is “Jesus is Lord.” What if we allowed ourselves to be conditioned in that way of thinking, rather than be conditioned into an American way of thinking?

On Good and Noble

Lately I have been noticing something more and more in my web surfing and Facebook News Feed scrolling.

It is something I have had a sense about for many years now, but only recently began to pay more attention to it as the kernels of truth in the matter rise to the surface. Today, it is much more obvious and ‘out-there’ than it was some 5-10 years ago.

The late Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly disagree with but deeply respect, articulated one particular frustration I have had for many years. Towards the end of many of his debates with Christians, or more generally ‘theists’ of multiple faiths, he posed a challenge: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”

Barring that “Because It’s True” developed a fairly good argument for the invalidity of such a challenge, it is a challenge that I have wrestled with for most of my life. After all, it seems that non-Christians are well capable of performing good and noble acts without the need of being “born again” and filled with the Holy Spirit. And, the subsequent thought it what has kept me awake during many night: if that is true, then what practical message is there to be found exclusively in Scripture that doesn’t result in selfish ‘escapism.’ In other words, if faith in Christ has no practical use in this life except in attaining peace for what happens on the other side of the grave, then what use is Holiness to us?

Do a quick scroll through your Facebook, or glance at the headlines on the “News” tab of Google. It won’t take you long at all to see that people of all walks of life are performing good and noble acts. However, there is something altogether different about the acts of a non-believer and the acts of a believer (at least, there should be).

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Now, I cannot account for other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They will have to stand on their own in defense of this topic. However, almost every time I read a story of someone who acted altruistically and gave up something of themselves for the sake of someone else, there is a common theme that lies underneath it all. This undercurrent is what I have been sensing for many years, and unfortunately it seeps into many streams of Christianity. It is this: “I do good things because it makes me feel good.” In other words, most of the stories we hear about are of people who do good and noble things to achieve a therapeutic outcome.

When these stories of do-gooders first started to creep into the mainstream, this message was very subtle and nearly impossible to distinguish. Nowadays, it is overt in almost every story of someone who helps another: “I did this and that, and I learned how great it makes me feel.” Or some variety of that sentiment.

This may not seem that terrible on the surface, but when you really think about it, this perspective is horrendously selfish. It is actually exploitation for the sake of personal fulfillment. I do X so that I can obtain Y. I help Larry so that I can feel good about myself.

We hear this all the time in the stories given by people who go on mission trips. What a great time they have! Doing all these good works, helping out these poor and destitute people. And what is the ultimate response to doing such work? “I have learned to appreciate what I have more.” Or, “It really changed the way I live.” These are not bad messages in and of themselves, but it furthers the notion that we do what we do for the sake of ourselves and our own betterment.

However, this is a point at which Christianity diverges from popular culture. Popular culture teaches, “Give and give so that you may receive.” On the contrary, Christ teaches, “Give and give because you already have.” We give our lives away for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves. Actually, let me correct that: We give our lives away for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of ourselves.

Mother Theresa is known for responding, when questioned why she was hugging a leper, with “Because this is my Lord.” When we see people in need we respond not out of a sense to help ‘the lesser person’ but out of a sense to help because in the face of the helpless we see the face of Christ himself. The passage in Matthew 25, around verse 40 should clarify what I mean here.

In a more practical sense, Christians ought not seek to go to other parts of the world (or indeed our own neighbor) out of a sense to feel good about ourselves or somehow attain a sense of inherent value in our personal existence. We should go and help because that is what we do.

And, in this way, I feel I have a response to the challenge: Without religion one can certainly do good and noble things, but they become something entirely different when Christ is at the center of it all.