READING THE TIMES: Separating Fact from Ideological Cheerleading

READING THE TIMES: Separating Fact from Ideological Cheerleading

If you enjoy Fixer-Upper as we do, you know that there is a formula for the popular TV show. A family-friendly couple is looking for an all-American home in Waco, Texas. They view three houses Chip & Jo have selected for them. Joanna wants to open the floor plan and remodel the kitchen, add crown molding, and of course, shiplap. Chip cuts up for Joanna’s entertainment. Demo Day! Half-way there and, oh no, there’s a problem! Last day and Joanna has to work late. Chip drops by with the kids. The big reveal!

It is enjoyable if you like that sort of thing, but it is not real. It’s scripted. It follows a specific narrative arc or storyline every time. Viewers know what is going to happen; we just enjoy watching it unfold. Entertainment is the mission.

Entertainment is not, or should not be, the mission of a news organization. Still less propaganda: information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.[1] Reliable reporting follows the facts wherever they lead. Propaganda follows a predetermined narrative.

Discerning the difference between infotainment (entertainment masquerading as news), propaganda, and reliable reporting is a critical skill for every citizen, but especially Christians. God is the God of truth. His children are responsible for discerning it as well as spreading it, for making decisions based on it in the marketplace, on social media, and especially in the voting booth.

Here’s a brief how-to.

Watch for predictable storylines. All reporters begin with a theme, a unifying idea that guides their questions and structures their stories. But when facts fail to support it, the theme must change. Truth-telling reporters will do that. But dishonest reporters force the facts to fit the theme, magnifying those that do and minimizing or else ignoring those that do not.

Example: When every weather story somehow supports man-made Climate Change theory, you may be seeing propaganda. When every review of a press conference makes your favorite politician out to be a genius, you may be hearing propaganda. When every story you see about unwanted pregnancy centers on women’s health, ignoring the rights of the child, you are watching a narrative as predictable as Fixer Upper, but with reliably deadly consequences.

Watch for generalities, the glossing over of inconvenient facts. Reliable reporting uses concrete detail, specific examples, and defining quotations from qualified experts willing to go on the record. When you read, “some experts say,” or “studies show,” you are reading generalities. If the topic interests you, dig deeper before you share it online.

Watch for something for sale. Most magazine reporting, especially in special interest mags and online sites, is just long-form advertising. Much Christian magazine reporting does the same thing, except that instead of selling a product, it is selling a ministry. Ministry Watch Magazine and World Magazine are exceptions. Search their archives on a ministry before you buy-in.

Watch for alternate worldviews. Journalists striving for objectivity should cite several different sources to support a theme. But if those experts share the same worldview, they are only “balancing subjectivities.”[2] Reliable reporting seeks out several perspectives.

Watch for commentary masquerading as journalism. Conservative commentator Cal Thomas got it right in his January 24, 2019 analysis of media coverage of women newly elected to Congress:

“Especially in the Trump era, media have displayed increasingly naked ideological cheerleading. Any fair examination of major newspapers—from the front page, to the editorial and op-ed pages—proves the point.

If there’s any hope of getting out of the political mess we’re in, journalism must return to a focus on facts, not fanfare.”

And Christians must learn how to discern the difference.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Dictionary.com

[2] Marvin Olasky’s term.

 

 

SEVEN TESTS OF TRUE FAITH

Do you ever wake up in the morning and not feel like a Christian? Wait, let me re-phrase that. Do you ever wake up and, even after your first cup of coffee, not feel like a real believer? What do we do with that?

And how about those people who attended church and sang the songs and said the prayers and served the community but whose life choices now seem totally out of sync with biblical ethics? What do we do with that? How do we come to grips with our fickle feelings and feckless friends when it comes to spiritual things? How do we know if we or anyone else is truly in the faith?

It is not a new question.

The Apostle John answered similar questions in his first letter to the churches. He gives us seven tests of faith that help us distinguish between true and false believers. They also comfort and confirm us on those days we doubt our salvation when our emotions are wiggly, and our faith is weak.

The overarching test, the one that provides the foundation and frame for the whole letter, is the Christological, or the “Christ” test. We see it in 1:3; 2:22; 4:2-3 and 5:7-12, among others. It maintains that Jesus Christ is God’s Son in the flesh who lived a real earthly life, died for our sins and rose from the dead, ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and will return to rule one day. If we do not believe that, we are not “in him.”

This belief is no mere intellectual assent or culturally acceptable confession. Ask just about anyone on the street if he believes in Jesus and, he will say yes. (OK, ask it in the South. I can’t vouch for other parts of the country). Belief, in the New Testament, means the complete acceptance of and compliance with Jesus’s claim to be Messiah, the Son of God, the only atonement for our sins and, the only hope of eternal life. It means he has our ultimate loyalties.

But as Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and the tares, and as we see in the lives of Judas and other people in Scripture, it is possible to fake it. That’s why John provided six other tests.

  1. The light test, 1Jn.1:5-7. True faith lives in truth or with biblical ethics. Lives characterized by wickedness and error are in the darkness. Lives of holiness and truth are in the light.
  2. The humility test, 1Jn 1:8-10. True faith practices humility about personal sin. If we recognize and confess our sinfulness, he cleanses and purifies us. If not, “we make him out to be a liar.”
  3. The obedience test, 1Jn. 2:3-6. True faith obeys. If our lives are characterized by obedience to his commands, we “know we are in him.” If we say we are his, but our lives are characterized by disobedience to his way, we are lying to ourselves and everybody else.
  4. The love test, 1Jn. 2:9-11. True faith lives in love. Lives characterized by love for others, including those outside the faith, are in the light. If not, we remain in darkness.
  5. The worldliness test, 1Jn. 2:15-17. True faith loves the things of God. Covetousness, lust, and boastful pride belong to the world.
  6. And finally, the persistence test, 1 John 2:19-25. If we depart from the faith as it was handed down by the Apostles, we do not have the Father or the Son. But if we persist in that faith, we remain in him (v.24).

18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.[1]

Feelings will lie to us, and friends will sometimes forsake the way. But God’s word is true, and you can count on it.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (1 Jn 3:18–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

MEN ARE FORMED, NOT BORN

The news of men has not been good of late. My friend Tommy died last week. The last I heard he was in the Roanoke Rescue Mission. But in the end, he was homeless, doing crack, meth, and heroin. The drugs took him at 52.

There’s the porn epidemic. As Catholic writer, Benjamin Wiker, has said, “Our sexual environment is about as polluted as China’s air, and the harm caused by such pollution is just as scientifically demonstrable.”[1]

Then there’s the swelling cohort of insecure, indecisive, incompetent young men whose directionless energies are squandered in endless pursuits of, well, that’s just it, nothing special. As Auguste Meyrat recently wrote, they are “hapless chumps” who can “make observations, crack jokes, ask questions…but they cannot make theses and support them.” Women may “friend-zone” these guys, but they won’t marry and have children with them.[2]

And its common knowledge that one of the greatest common denominators for mass shooters (not counting jihadis) is that they are young, alienated men, with absent, abusive, or just irrelevant fathers.

Males are born, but men are formed. And our culture is failing to form them.

Cultural trends for the last forty years mitigate against it. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” founding feminist Gloria Steinem said, and a whole generation of women believed her and did without. That movement, along with constant media mockery of men as sleazy sex addicts or buffoonish oafs, removed much of the motivation men had to become something other than overgrown boys.

Healthy masculinity, the kind that gets tough when the going gets rough and tender when it doesn’t, has also been undermined by hypocrites like Bill Cosby and pedophile priests. But they are only the most famous of a multitude of men who hide predatory natures behind a faith and family friendly mask.

What’s to be done? Specifically, what can the church do? The most important thing we can do is buy into my thesis: Men are formed, not born.

There are definite attributes and specific disciplines that separate the men from the boys that can be passed down from one generation to the next. They have nothing to do with physical or sexual prowess and everything to do with character formation. We can work out the details of how to do that later, but we must buy in first. We must believe that positive masculinity can and should be formed in young men by older men.

Too many fathers and too many church men assume that “boys will be boys” and just let them raise themselves or worse, “let their Momma do it.” That’s not meant as a slam on moms who sacrifice endlessly for their children. But the truth is that young men do not respond the same way to women as they do men they respect. As a result, we have a generation of “feral children,” who—wishing they were real men—have mistaken real masculinity with owning powerful weapons and hyped-up pick-up trucks. Or else mistaken it for feminine virtues that, while admirable, aren’t masculine and therefore do not satisfy the innate need of a male to achieve manhood among other men.

My friend Tommy grew up a feral child. His father abandoned him early in life and rarely offered anything other than criticism for his son’s failings. Like all of us, Tommy made choices for which he alone was responsible. He had multiple opportunities to turn his life around. But I can’t help wonder how his life might have turned out if the right set of men had taken him in and committed to train him how to be a man.

[1] https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/08/04/sexual-pollution-is-a-scientific-and-destructive-fact/

[2] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/ts-eliot-poem-describes-modern-males-perfectly

THE BILOXI BLESSING

THE BILOXI BLESSING

The woman was working hard, digging in her front yard, planting azaleas and poinsettias, obviously enjoying herself. She called to my wife and me as her little dog skittered and barked his way toward us, “Don’t worry, he’s very friendly!” And sure enough, he was.

We were taking our daily walk in a neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, while our then teen-aged daughter took a voice lesson.

“He is friendly!” I said as she dropped another plant in the dirt and filled in around it.

“He’s a survivor too,” she said. “We both swam under the door frame and out of our house or we would have drowned in Katrina.”

“You’re from the Gulf then?”

“Yes. Biloxi. They said my house would never flood so I never bought flood insurance. You can bet I have it for this house!” She filled us in on how they escaped the hurricane and what it took to rebuild and finally be able to sell out and move to Durham.

“Wow, what a coincidence to meet you. A bunch of guys from our church went down in 2006 to help a Biloxi family rebuild.” I said as we headed off down the street in the quiet neighborhood. “We’ll see you later!”

We returned just in time to be called in to consult with the voice teacher, so we didn’t have time to resume our chat with the neighbor. But as we were backing the car out of the driveway, she dusted off her hands and hurried out to the street. I could tell she felt urgent about something, so I rolled down my window.

“You said your church helped people rebuild in Biloxi?”

“Yes.”

“Would you please tell them how grateful all of us are? I have friends whose insurance took four years to settle. Some still have no home. Had it not been for the Churches and all the Christians that came down to help us we never would have made it. Please tell them how much we appreciate it. And tell them this: A lot of people who had not gone to church in a long time started going again when they experienced the love of the Churches. And a lot of people got saved. Would you tell them that for us? And tell them thank you?”

“I sure will! And thanks for sharing your story!”

We had that conversation in 2009. Many hurricanes have come and gone since then, and the people of God are still helping rebuild. So, to everyone who helped, in whatever way, the people devastated by Katrina, Florence, Harvey, Michael, and others, know for certain that God used your efforts. You blessed others with his love, and you are blessed by the survivors in return.

The Gospel Streamed

The Gospel Streamed

I sat down expecting to be disappointed. Religious television and movies have dissatisfied my artistic, historical, and theological sensibilities so often over the years that my wife, who had already seen the episode, had to nudge a bit to get me to watch.

I came away profoundly moved and ready to buy the first season of The Chosen, a new streaming television series on the life of Jesus as experienced by his followers. It is billed as the largest crowd-funded production in television history and it doesn’t disappoint.

Artistically, The Chosen is very satisfying. The scenery, the videography, the acting, plot lines and story structure draw you in and keep you engaged. Often, in Bible-based films, one or more of those elements is so bad it’s like hearing a soloist mangle the Star-Spangled Banner. You just wish they’d left it alone. Not here. Only a few of the actors were recognizable. Eric Avari (The Mummy, Independence Day, The Brink) plays a nuanced Nicodemus. Jonathon Roumie (The Good Wife, Fallout 4) plays a kind and believable Jesus. But none hit a flat note.

Historically, The Chosen hits its marks with credibility. The interplay between Matthew the tax collector and his Roman body guard and between Nicodemus and a Roman Centurion rings true to what we know of the relationships between oppressed and oppressor. Andrew and Peter’s fishing boat and business and their interaction with tax collector Matthew are also believable.

I’ve only seen the first episode, available here for free, but so far, The Chosen doesn’t disappoint in the spiritual or theological arena either. In fact, just the opposite. Director Dallas Jenkins, son of well-known evangelical author Jerry Jenkins, is a Bible-believing evangelical who has “zero desire to mess with Scripture or make some sort of new theological point. This is about telling these stories in a way that makes the moments in Scripture even more impactful.”[1] Justin Tolley, a producer on the project, agrees. “We don’t want to roll one frame that’s contrary to the Word of God. We want to do it with excellence, to give God our best.”[2] Show consultants include a New Testament scholar and a Messianic Jewish rabbi.

The storytellers of a culture shape the values of the culture. This is the greatest story ever and in The Chosen it is being well told. So far so good, but there is one fly in the ointment. VidAngel, the streaming service they’ve partnered with just lost a big legal battle with the Hollywood movie industry that has the potential to kill the service. That would force the producers to go with another platform that may not be as friendly to The Chosen’s production values. That would be a shame.

If you’re looking for something edifying to watch with excellent production values, I encourage you to try The Chosen, or look up their Facebook page for trailers and background videos. You won’t be disappointed.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/interview-dallas-jenkins-first-multi-season-drama-life-christ/

[2] From The Chosen Facebook page.

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

Denny Hamlin’s win in the Daytona 500 was particularly poignant for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team had just buried their former president, Joe’s 49-year-old son, J. D., who died of a neurological disorder in January. I bet Joe’s family would happily forfeit the trophy and all their successes if they could have J.D. back. But that’s not how they roll.

It reminded me of other personal disasters I’ve witnessed.

Seventeen years ago, this week, I walked with my friends Phil and Shelley Ramsey, as we buried their eighteen-year-old son, Joseph, who died in a car wreck.

A late-night phone call, “Pastor, can you come? Our baby was born with undeveloped lungs and isn’t going to survive.”

A distraught counselee, “I’m thirty-nine and pregnant with our second child and my husband just left me. Where is God?”

Pregnancies that miscarry, dream jobs that become soul shredders, the number and diversity of things that can disappoint and disillusion in life is endless. But it’s worse when we think God has somehow let us down.

Evangelicals are particularly prone to this. We’re taught all our lives that God loves and cares for us: “His eye is on the sparrow,” said Jesus. “Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you,” wrote Peter. That’s true, but not the whole story. Most of us have a truncated biblical world-view about suffering and it costs us dearly when trouble comes. We cherry-pick the verses we like and forget the context. We think life is supposed to be a Disney World ride when it’s more like the Daytona 500, where the big wreck is always in the offing.

Life’s inevitable disappointments are often about unmet expectations, of God, others, and our selves. When we line them up with what the Bible actually reveals about people, life, death, the world, and God they may not be easier to bear but they do leave us less confused and better prepared to overcome.

Scripture tells us: “time and chance happen to everyone,” including us. “His eye is on the sparrow,” but all sparrows fall. “He knows the number of the hairs on your head,” but they will turn white and turn loose. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” that can be expected to crack without warning. All humans are “slaves of sin,” prone to follow our self-destructive passions and hurt those we’re supposed to protect. The heart is “deceitful above all things … who can really understand it?”[1]

Depressed yet? I’m not aiming for that, but it’s imperative to see that nowhere in the Bible does God promise us sunshine without sweat and smiles without sorrow. Aligning expectations with revelation dilutes frustration.

What has he promised?

To make us part of his tribe. To share with us his joy. To suffer with us when we hurt. To give us his strength. To counsel and comfort us. To love us even when we don’t love ourselves. To stand with us in life’s battles. To shape us into little Christs. To providentially provide for us and through us the things we need to survive. To empower us to participate in the awesome and terrifying task of advancing his kingdom. To give us a purpose, a future, and a hope, a reason for joy in the midst of pain. And to glorify us with Christ when he returns.[2]

Joy and sorrow will ever run parallel tracks until that day.

Joe Gibbs Racing took their fifty-four-pound trophy to Steak ‘n Shake, Sunday night, just like they did after their first win in 1993. It was the biblical thing to do.

Life is like the Daytona 500, a difficult, fascinating, disappointing, exhilarating, often dangerous, always high-stakes ride. Trust God and buckle your seat belt.

[1] See: Eccl. 9:11; Matt. 10:29-30; 2 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 6:6-22; Jer. 17:9

[2] See: Eph. 2:19; John 17:13; Matt. 28:20; Rom. 8:26; John 15:5; John 14:16; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Rom. 8:35-39; Rom. 8:15-17; Rom. 8:29; Phil. 4:19; Acts 1:8; 1Pet. 1:3; Eph. 2:12; Rom. 8:18.

SOLOMON’S TOP FIVE ON SEX & ROMANCE

SOLOMON’S TOP FIVE ON SEX & ROMANCE

It’s February 13th and romance is in the air, or at least around the corner. Which leads me to ask this question: Do you know what the Bible teaches about romance and sex? Do your kids?

Most Evangelicals don’t and we’re suffering from it. We found out the hard way when our grown children, all three godly, intelligent young women, told us what a lousy job we did teaching them. Their verdict went something like this: “You did exactly what most Evangelical parents do with their children on this issue: freaked us out, scared us to death, and generally made us feel like sex is the last thing on earth we would ever want to have anything to do with, even in marriage. Other than that, you were great parents!”

When it came to sex, romance, and the Bible, we thought our daughters were fine. But like Mark Wahlberg said in The Italian Job, “you know what fine means? Freaked out, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

OK, they weren’t that bad, but it wasn’t acceptable either. That drove me to a Bible study on The Song of Songs. I benefited from Douglas Sean O’Donnell’s THE SONG OF SOLOMON: An Invitation to Intimacy, among others.  Here are my top five lessons from Solomon on love, sex, and romance.

The Bible Celebrates Our Bodies

The Bible does not separate body from soul, matter from spirit, or godly purity from physical passion. It does not devalue the human body. It exalts it. Think of the incarnation! Think of the bodily resurrection! There is no belittling of sensual delights. Jesus turned the water into vintage wine! And he did it at a wedding! There is no contradiction between spirituality and sexuality, between loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your spouse with your body. Enjoy it. It’s a gift from God.

Words Have Erotic Power

The Song is some of the most evocative and erotic poetry ever written, but none of it is coarse or crude. The lovers teach us to praise two things: physical beauty and character, and to be specific. Fill in the blanks about your lover’s body: Your eyes are … Your lips are … Your neck is … Your voice is …. Your skin is … Your fragrance is … Fill in the blanks about your lover’s character: Your mind is … Your personality is … Your heart is … Your skills are …  The right words spark the fires of romance. The wrong ones snuff them out.

Timing is Everything

Lovers must make time for love, especially after children arrive. A man’s body works like a smoke detector: one whiff of the right perfume and he is on fire, all his bells and whistles blaring. Women’s bodies are like flowers at dawn, they wake up slowly in the sunlight of affectionate attention. Either way, wise lovers make time for love and don’t rush things.

Risk Heightens Eros

Risk plays a big role in romance. We love the risk-taking lovers: The young man who risks big bucks to follow his love to France, just to demonstrate his love; the teenager who put 500 sticky-note invitations to the prom on his girlfriend’s car; the guy who pays the skywriter big bucks to write “Will you marry me?” in the air above the football game as he kneels and holds out a ring. The extravagance and risk of failure or rejection communicates something powerful to the beloved: I WANT YOU MORE THAN MONEY, PRIDE OR SAFETY. I WOULD THROW MY LIFE AWAY TO HAVE YOU. Risk heightens Eros.

All the Roses Come with Thorns

East of Eden the “rhythm of married life is that of frustration and delight.”[1] There is a natural ebb and flow to romantic love, and the differences in our personalities and stress levels make it difficult to communicate. Be patient and forgiving with each other. The flower is no less sweet for the thorns.

As the book of Proverbs is good for all but addressed primarily to young men, so the Song of Songs is wisdom for all but addressed primarily to young women with their mothers as the primary teacher (8:2). Sing the Song for your daughters as they reach the right age and they will be far more than fine when they’re grown.

[1] David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1991), p.313.