The Things of Earth

things_of_earthIf you already saw my book review on Goodreads, I’d still say go ahead and reread my plug for the book below anyway. For emphasis. But first, the following paragraph introduces the book on its back cover.

The world is full of good things…Ice-cold lemonade. The laughter of children. College football. Scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. But what happens to these earthly pleasures when Jesus shows up? Do the things of earth grow strangely dim? Or does he shine in all that’s fair?

I wish I had read this book twenty years ago. That would have been impossible, though, because the copyright is 2015. So I wish I had read another book like it anytime in the last twenty years. But if there is one, I don’t know about it. I wish the truths of this book were in the bones of my Christian discipleship, but since they haven’t been, I’m even more thankful for this book now.

Rigney tackles helmet-on-helmet how Christians must not love the world in one way and how those same Christians—Christian hedonists even—must love the world in another way. He does great work showing the Trinity’s story on earth and how we should think theologically and poetically and eat cake all the while. The categories of comparative love and integrated love alone are worth triple the price of the book.

I restarted reading as soon as I finished. I am telling everyone I know about it. I’ve already bought a copy and given it away.

I do wish the endnotes were footnotes, not only because endnotes are gross, but also because many of the endnotes deserve more prominent page space. I also think the book could have used some Kuyper alongside of Edwards, Lewis, Chesterton, but whatever. If you want to honor God with your heart and your hands then get The Things of Earth and READ it right away.

The Disciples Missionaries Made

A disciple-maker should know where he’s going. If he does, then he probably knows his end depends on starting in the right spot. He also won’t be surprised when he arrives at his goal.

John Piper wrote a concentrated post on missions two weeks ago pointing to the January/February cover story in Christianity Today, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries”. The CT article describes the findings of sociologist Robert Woodberry who spent a decade researching “the effect of missionaries on the health of the nations.” Piper quotes Woodberry:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

When men “convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ” things start to change not only for them as individuals, but also in their community. That’s why a map showing First World, Second World, and Third World countries relates directly to the presence of the gospel in those places. Most of the First World knows, or at least once knew, gospel roots.

Woodberry observed, and Piper presses, that cultural change surprised the missionaries. Woodberry says, “Colonial reforms (came) through the back door” and “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.” Piper concludes,

The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life.

In other words, “Tree first, then fruit.”

But saying that we should “focus on…conversion” is similar to saying that farmers should “focus on planting.” Trees grow from seeds and seeds must first be sown. Sowing, however, is only the start. Farmers must also water, weed, fertilize, and cultivate the tree to health and strength. They expect and work for more than a successful plant. When buds turn into branches and branches bear fruit all across the field farmers don’t say “these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.”

It is true that we won’t “achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation” without conversions but, brothers, we are not conversionists. Christ commissioned us to make disciples, not converts. Discipleship starts with conversion but it ends with “teaching them to observe all that [Christ] commanded.” We labor to present every man complete in Christ and that includes teaching them to think like Christ, to talk like Christ, to act like Christ. That kind of stuff gets out.

Why would we seek, and even expect, conversions by God’s sovereign grace but not also expect an entire culture to change as grace grows whole groups of men in their obedience to Christ? Why would we call men to repent and believe, then move on to other fields? Evangelism is only the opening stage of discipleship. What is surprising about believers obeying in obvious and coordinated ways? We don’t say that our arrival at the supermarket was unintended because we had to get out of the driveway first.

“The fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:11) only grows from new creations of the Spirit, but the fruit of transformation affects votes, vocation, parenting, medicine, schooling, economics, government, and every other lawful cultural activity on earth. If Christ cares about it, then image bearers can and should, too. If we’re supposed to make disciples of all men, but not all men are supposed to be teachers, then disciple-makers are responsible for knowing how to disciple Christians of every calling. That means we will need a plan for the many at some point down the road since, where two or three sheep are gathered together, they will need to learn how to get buy or sell car insurance from each other.

So, “missionaries that will do the most good for eternity and for time–for eternal salvation and temporal transformation–are the missionaries who focus on converting the nations to faith in Christ. And then on that basis and from that root teach them to bear fruit of all that Jesus commanded us.” But many missionaries and pastors want proselytes and then have nothing else for the proselytes to do except read their Bibles and make more proselytes while they wait for heaven. That’s why talking about our aim as making disciples helps us approach our work better than making converts. When we remember that conversion is the start, not the end, we won’t be surprised that God takes whole cultures to better places.

Who Told You That?

One great success of Christians in our culture can be seen by considering one great criticism from the culture against Christians. One of the most frequent and vigorous judgments is that we don’t love each other.

This judgment is grounded in truth. Jesus said that Christians should love one another sacrificially just as He did and obviously so that the world can see.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35, ESV)

It is good that the world knows what we’re supposed to be doing. But how did they even grasp how to grade our assigned work? We gave them the answer key. Nature teaches them that God is powerful but nature doesn’t teach them about love. God’s Word teaches that God is love and that He commands us to love. Christians have translated and printed and preached the Word so that our society breathes that assumption.

When your kid asks from the back seat why you’re going so fast, remember that you’re the one who explained to them what speed limit signs are for. Unbelievers may point out our responsibilities even though they may not like the standard or plan to apply the standard to themselves. Fine, but at least least they know the law. That’s good.

It’s bad that it is so obvious that we aren’t obeying. They know we’re His disciples because we love to talk about all the Greek words for love. We’ve become like a team of 500 pound nutritionist bloggers and the irony is heavy.

The answer here isn’t for Christians to be secretive about Jesus’ commands. The answer isn’t to hide the truth from our kids about the requirements of speed limit signs. The cultural accountability is good; we want them to know the Bible and we want them to watch our lives. We’ve gotten what we’ve asked for, but we haven’t lived up to our press. Let’s continue to paint the target for our culture to criticize us but let’s also give them no ammo to shoot at us.

Four Bases

I started reading The Odyssey last week. This is yet another book I’m sure I was assigned and am even more sure I ignored. Like Roy Hobbs said to Harriet (sports star serial-killer) Bird, “The only Homer I know has four bases.” While the poem hasn’t “knocked the cover off the ball” for me yet, I’ve still got a couple thousand more lines to swing at.

The part of the story that provoked this post finds our hero, Odysseus, stranded on the island of the Phaiakians trying to get back to his wife, Penelope. He meets Nausikaa, a young girl out doing laundry, who seemed to him to be someone who could help him get home. Odysseus addressed her with the following flattery.

May the gods give you everything that your heart longs for; may they grant you a husband and a house and sweet agreement in all things, for nothing is better than this, more steadfast than when two people, a man and his wife, keep a harmonious household; a thing that brings must distress to the people who hate them and pleasure to their well-wishers, and for them the best reputation.

Here in Washington state, on a much less epic level, imagine a man outside of Safeway who needs gas money to get home. He observes a young woman with well-ordered hair coming out of the store with her friends and figures that she might be able to help him. If he flattered her about her marriageability, not only is it possible that she’d be frightened, she might be outraged. “How dare you assume that a woman would even want to be married!” or, “What gives you the right to say that marriage is between a man and a woman?”

Homer wasn’t a worshipper of the true God. The gods of his culture were nominally moral, and inconsistent at that. The stories told for entertainment included all sorts of the worst sexual immorality. And yet, these winged words from Odysseus reveal a worldview that still had some original, Genesis 1 and 2 image-bearing residue.

I’m discouraged that civilization in Homer’s day had a more civilized appreciation of marriage than ours. But the biggest whammer is that the first spouses to blame are within the church, not outside of it. If Christian husbands and wives actually enjoyed each other, if they demonstrated the glad dance of sacrificial love and submission, then maybe more people would desire marriage rather than deride it. Perhaps married life would once again seem natural.

I’m not arguing that Homer’s message makes it around all four bases. I’m arguing that Christians need to repent and take their marital image-bearing more joyfully for sake of our society and the next generation. May God grant such sweet agreement.

Little Miss Red Shoes

Little Miss Red Shoes

I don’t always read Challies but, when I visit his site, I typically scan through his A La Carte links. A week ago he started with a post at Paradox Uganda about a young girl in Africa whom the author named “Little Miss Red Shoes.” She’s nine. She had gone to the police and then to the “casualty department” at the hospital to report being raped by a 15 year-old neighbor.

I have a nine year-old daughter. She wears Mary Jane style shoes, too. I can’t imagine if she were in a similar situation.

Read the story and “please pray for JUSTICE, for Little Miss Red Shoes and the countless little African girls (and others all over the world) who are raped, beaten, blamed, sold.”

Enculturation Centers

All schools are religious schools. All schools teach worldview. All schools have a philosophy of education. All schools have creeds, liturgy, and dogma. All schools have orthodoxy and doctrine. In short, all schools – public, private, parochial, and home–are enculturation centers, and none are neutral.

—Bradley Heath, Millstones and Stumbling Blocks

Cultures Are Incarnational

If it’s true that men become and live like who/what they worship (and God says it is, see Psalm 115:4-8), then there can be no truly secular space.

All cultures are the incarnational outworking of a religion or combination of religions. When you deny a transcendent God, this does not eliminate the need for a god at the top to make the system coherent. It just means that the applicants for the position of deity are all, to use one of Hitchen’s favorite words, mammals…If there is no God above the system, then the system is god. All societies are religious organisms, not just the ones with a religious exoskeleton…All human societies are theocracies. The only issue that confronts us is which theos we will serve. The atrocious cultures are the ones who serve atrocious gods. (Doug Wilson, God Is, 95-96)