Solzhenitsyn and Public Repentance

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German newspaper Spiegel has posted a recent interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is interesting for a number of points, but what most intrigued me is his call for the authorities of his own Russia to offer public repentance for their crimes against millions of victims of the gulag and communist terror. Yet, he says, “I have grown used to the fact that, throughout the world, public repentance is the most unacceptable option for the modern politician.”

Putin himself has said, in the words of the interviewer, “high time to stop this masochistic brooding over the past, especially since there are attempts “from outside,” as he puts it, to provoke an unjustified remorse among Russians.”

Masochistic brooding over the past? Unjustified remorse among Russians? What audacity! How shameless! Ultimate chutzpah. Want a counter-example? Germany. They’ve owned up to the Nazi’s crimes and they deplore them. In fact, they work hard to ensure no one ever forgets the evils Nazism inflicted on the peoples of Europe.

I find all of this is very insightful spiritually. It illustrates a number of important truths of Scripture, most particularly, the depravity of man that goes on the defensive when confronted with his sin. No one likes to be held accountable for crimes they’ve committed against God or others, especially publicly. How often, instead of instant humility and grief, we react with the same offended criticism toward the one calling our sins (or the sins of our forefathers) to our attention – just like Putin has done.

Instead of owning up to the blame, we deny our guilt. Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, we blame the other person: Adam blamed Eve blamed the Serpent. And the pattern continues. We are sons and daughters of Adam indeed.

Solzhenitsyn continues this observation well when he then says, “The elder political generation in communist countries was not ready for repentance, while the new generation is only too happy to voice grievances and level accusations, with present-day Moscow a convenient target. They behave as if they heroically liberated themselves and lead a new life now, while Moscow has remained communist. Nevertheless, I dare hope that this unhealthy phase will soon be over, that all the peoples who have lived through communism will understand that communism is to blame for the bitter pages of their history.”

He’s afraid no one will own up to the root problem – the root cause of so much evil and pain.

But just as Scripture asserts, Solzhenitsyn recognizes that, “We should clearly understand that only the voluntary and conscientious acceptance by a people of its guilt can ensure the healing of a nation.”

Amen. And an individual as well.

Repentance is required for forgiveness. It’s part of the Gospel, being the inseparable partner of the faith we place in Christ. It is a turning away from our sins and idols to Christ and His righteousness alone. This is the root of the Gospel. The Gospel is about dealing with sin, with calling people to repentance and forgiveness.

Would to God pastors today were as bold in calling their hearers to repentance as Solzhenitsyn is in calling his nation to it. That would require pastors to really believe that sinners need to repent before they could enjoy the spiritual healing and joyful promises of the Gospel. Too often pastors tend to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former.

The article recounts how Solzhenitsyn was willing to decline the praise of men’s awards. That’s a good example for pastors to quit worrying about their listeners liking them more than worrying about making sure they’re hearing the whole, un-watered-down truth of the Gospel – including the hard parts about sin, repentance and denying yourself to follow Christ.

This article made me stop and examine my own readiness to own up to my sins and repent of them quickly. And it made me think of my own faithfulness in my ministry as a minister of the Gospel. Please pray for me.

Cultural Decay & The Arts

“One of the reasons I do the work I do is because I believe that American society is in a state of cultural deterioration, and that the Church is often making things worse rather than better. Specifically, serious art, literature, and music no longer have the position of importance in the lives of educated Americans they once had, and I believe that our lives (and the shared life we call our “culture”) are worse off for that. Celebrities (people famous for being famous rather than for creative achievement) have replaced artists in the minds and hearts of people who should know better.”

Ken Myers wrote that last Monday. I can’t agree more. That’s precisely why I’ve been blogging about this lately.

In fact, I just finished listening to some extremely interesting lectures he gave at Southern Seminary earlier this year, which give tremendous insight on how popular culture affects how we think and live. As a Christian seeking to live for God’s glory and at the same time enjoy God’s gifts in creation without succumbing to our culture’s sin and disorder, I find this an area that all Christians need serious help navigating. Frankly, we’re pretty naive about what’s culturally beneficial and terribly gullible in embracing and even helping to advance elements of cultural disorder – even in the church.

One of the remedies for our cultural decay is some art education. Sadly, this an endeavor Christians are largely indifferent toward. This is a tragedy, as it is a failure to be really good at training ourselves and others to be really good receivers of the gifts of God in His creation, and thus, really good worshipers of the Giver.

As Dana Gioia said in his commencement speech at Stanford this year, “Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding the world and expressing the world – equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being – simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, ans physical senses.. There are some truths about life than can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.”

The earth is the Lord’s and thus something designed to bring us understanding of Him (truth) and the experience of human pleasure (joy) in many different ways (taste, smell, sight, touch, hear). But not all those ways (joys) are equally accessible. Many of them require a little more discipline, more a little familiarity with.

But we are too easily attracted to settle for the immediate gratifications of popular culture. But shouldn’t we be more thoughtful than we typically are about the elements of culture we consume? Like most things easy, it ruins your tolerance for things a little more difficult. And like most things instant, it ruins your palate for something better. No one needs to take a class to listen to that latest single from U2, you can appreciate it (or not) immediately.

But the truly good things in life usually require a little more effort than what immediate gratifications typically offer. And, as Ken Myers wrote in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, “popular culture encourages a mood of expecting everything to be immediate, a mood that deters greater depth and breadth in other areas of our lives, including our understanding of Christianity and our experience of obedient faith.” (p. xv)

So in the interest of grasping the both the truth and beauty that God has hand-built into the created order with greater depth and breadth, we ought to be better at appreciating, understanding, and enjoying it more deeply. For me, this means seeking out resources to help me do that better. I want to be a connoisseur of God’s art. What I now realize is that that art is found not only in the physical world God created, but often in the works of art that God’s creations themselves create, like paintings, drawings, photography, literature, poetry, film, architecture, etc.

I’m starting to feel my way around in this endeavor, but here are a few of the best resources I’ve found that approach culture and the arts from a Christian perspective. I’ll be blogging about some of them, so stay tuned. This is merely a starter list of what has helped me so far. I’ve got a wish list of other books to take me further. But, I’d love to find out what has helped you.

Books:

Art for God’s Sake, by Philip Ryken

The Liberated Imagination, Thinking Christianly About the Arts, by Leland Ryken

Realms of Gold, The Classics in Christian Perspective, by Leland Ryken; audio version available here

All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, by Ken Myers

Periodicals:

Books and Culture

First Things

Articles & Essays:

The Necessity of the Classics, Louise Cowan by (PDF); audio version available here

Toward a Christian View of Art, by J. Scott Horrell (.doc)

The Ten Commandments for Artists, Makoto Fujimura

Can Poetry Matter?, by Dana Gioia

Websites/Blogs:

International Arts Movement

Via Affirmativa

EIKON

Arts & Letters Daily

Poets.org

Audio Journals & Courses:

Mars Hill Audio Journal

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

How to Read and Understand Poetry

Should Christians Enjoy “Secular” Art and Entertainment? – Part 2

In my first post on this issue, I got some great comments and have done some more thinking about it. Actually, I’ve been thinking and reading on it for better than a year now. So I am a rookie at this. I am no art critic, by any means, although I’m trying to learn a bit more as I’m able. I find it fun and challenging. I find that it enlarges and enriches my soul.

Which brings me to where I left off: using discernment in enjoying art and entertainment. My (formerly long-lost high school) friend and fine artist Derrick Durham made an excellent point in his comments by distinguishing between “encountering” art and “enjoying” it. He said, “Art should be encountered and reasoned with.”

I agree wholehartedly! I think that that is the first step a person should take. But too often it isn’t. Too much of our consumption of art and entertainment is a thoughtless absorption of it. We allow ourselves to be amused, in the truly literal sense of the word: “a-“, meaning “not”, and “-mused”, meaning “to think.” Not only do we not think hard about the things we expose ourselves to, we really don’t give it much thought at all.

That’s a tragedy. And it’s dangerous.

It’s dangerous because we can mindlessly be exposed to both evil things and less-than-edifying things that really do diminish our love for Christ, our eternal-mindedness, and our commitment to holy thoughts and acts. We should think hard about and examine and discern the things we encounter in media and art. We should be sensitive to our consciences and to the clear commands of Scripture to avoid that which defiles.

It’s a tragedy because our thoughtlessness leads us to miss the fingerprints of God’s glory in the art and entertainment that’s good. We miss the glory. We fail to feel the awe of it, and enjoy the good in it. Simply because we’re not looking for it. Which is exactly what the will of God is for us in enjoying the gifts of both divine and human creativity: to encounter and enjoy that which is good. To seek to derive intellectual, emotional, and spiritual benefit from the things we encounter, and allow it to uplift us, to deepen us, to enlarge us, to challenge us, to sweeten us.

But, those effects of God’s beauty and glory is muted when we don’t pay attention to it. Too much of the time, I’m afraid we are too lazy to exert the effort to think about what we’re looking at in a painting, or watching on the screen, or listening to on our iPods, or reading in a book. Instead, we want to rush past the thoughtful consumption of these things straight for the emotional effect.

But that actually diminishes the emotional effect and our perception of the very good that we are after. We’re too impatient. And we’re too lazy. I think that this is one of the effects of popular culture. As Ken Myers says in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, “Popular culture encourages a mood of expecting everything to be immediate, a mood that deters greater depth and breadth in other areas of our lives.” (p. xv)

Depth and breadth is what I’m after here. That’s what I crave when I watch a movie, or read a piece of literature, or look at art, or listen to a song. That’s what heightens the enjoyment for me. At least most of the time. Sure, like everyone else, I sometimes just want to listen to a “feel good” song, or watch a “feel good” movie. But the older I get the more sick I get of the pervasive triviality and emptiness of so much “art.” It just leaves me wanting something. Something glorious and good. Something nourishing and soul-enriching. Something that when I leave it, I leave a better man.

I think that’s the effect of art and entertainment when it has glory in it. That’s the effect every good gift from the hand of God is intended by God to have on us. God’s gifts have glory in them. His glory. A taste of His goodness, His love, His beauty, His justice, His holiness, His bounty. When we taste and see those things in beautiful expressions of both divine and human creativity, we taste and see Him.

And the only thing that makes our joy in it better is telling someone about it!

Some Good Guidelines for Voting

Over at The Riddleblog, Dr. Kim Riddlebarger has posted a helpful, sane, reasonable, and biblically-sensitive set of means for Christians to size up a political candidate of any level of government. I think he gives some good ways to think about those “single issue voter” moral issues like abortion and homosexuality. Check it out.

Should Christians Enjoy “Secular” Art and Entertainment?

My formative years as a Christian were heavily influenced by strict fundamentalism (of the independent Baptist variety). I was taught that anything in entertainment that wasn’t expressly Christian wasn’t OK for a “godly” Christian to watch, listen to, read, look at, do. “Separation” from the world is one of the (if not the) chief marks of a holy life. The most godly Christian life is defined as the one that is the most refrained from indulging in anything “worldly.”

“Worldly” is defined really broadly in legalistic circles. Mostly, it was applied to things pertaining to art and entertainment. Movies, music, books, magazines – anything that wasn’t clearly Christian was not acceptable – to God. In fact, if it wasn’t Christian enough, it wasn’t acceptable.

So, for example, not only was secular music not acceptable, but even most Christian music was out of the question. Especially contemporary music. So, not only was everything from U2 to John Denver “worldly” and corrupting, even Michael W. Smith and Steve Green were to be abstained from, not to mention Petra or Third Day! Why? Well, because their music was “worldly.”

You can see that with “standards” like that, that attending a movie (especially in the theater!) was even worse than listening to ungodly music. Movies were too full of worldly ideas, sinful acts, vulgar words, and ungodly attitudes. Especially movies made in color! (Of course no John Wayne movie with all it’s whiskey drinking, killing, and occasional cursing was ever really condemned, since he portrayed the kind of strong masculine toughness, unapologetic maverick individualism, and Wild West cowboy justice that fundamentalists thrive on and esteem. Plus, everybody loves John Wayne!)

Needless to say, non-Christain literature was avoided just as well, and for the same reasons. It would have been frowned upon to be known to be reading a book other than by an acceptable Christian author – someone who largely agreed with fundamentalism’s core tenants. Even if there were “good” books out there (even the classics), they are a waste of time. They just don’t fill your mind with holy thoughts and can lead you into sinful ways of thinking and living.

For now, I’ll spare you the details of my break with this kind of mentality. But I will give you some of the contributing factors. The first was a Biblical understanding of grace: that I cannot make my self MORE acceptable to God than I already am in Christ by His sheer grace – justifying grace. And that I therefore cannot do MORE righteous acts to gain more of God’s favor – I already have His full favor in Christ. The massive effect this reality has is that it frees you from performance-based spirituality – from legalism. And grace becomes a thing of sheer awe.

Once you begin to realize how you were bound by man-made rules of measuring your spirituality, you begin to question everything in your life. What you do and don’t do and why. And, germane to the question I’ve raised, what entertainment and art you can and can’t enjoy.

My thinking on this began to shift when I added another thing of awe: God’s work in creation. Yes, we live in a fallen universe. But the vestiges of God’s beauty and glory are still on bright display. And not just in the sun and stars and oceans and forests and mountains and birds and fish and animals. But also in people. Even lost people.

God made us in His image. And although due to our sin we have lost some of the reflection of God’s image in our beings, we did not loose it all. All is not lost! God’s handiwork in human beings is magnificent! And not just in our physical bodies (eyes, organs, limbs, etc.), but also in our natures and in our work.

God is creative. Oh, is He ever! Who can tell it sufficiently? Just look at the varieties of shapes sizes and colors of fishes, birds, flowers, trees, even people! Look at the color and hue of the sky. It’s breathtaking! Isn’t it amazing how much beauty and creativity and variety He has built into His creation? He didn’t just make one kind of flower and He didn’t just make them all one color. The same goes for all the rest of His hand-made flora, fauna, creatures, and heavenly bodies.

And He put this same creative urge in man. Not just saved men either. All men. God made us to be creative – to produce and enjoy things of beauty. Some of us are better than others at this, no doubt. But all of us are this way.

John Calvin wrote, “The human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator.”

So, why can’t we enjoy the creative expressions of God’s hand-made people? A flower painted by a Christian is not by definition necessarily more beautiful and therefore worthy of enjoyment than the very same flower painted by a non-Christian. A creative and interesting story or book isn’t necessarily better just because a Christian wrote it. The same is true of a song or a movie.

We are allowed to enjoy God’s beauty, even if from the hearts and minds of ungodly men. Classical music is an easy example of that statement. But it doesn’t stop there. Is a song that tells a compelling story, but doesn’t mention God, or isn’t told from a Christian perspective, or a song that expresses deep emotions or even humor, somehow unworthy of being enjoyed by a Christian? Can we not enjoy the story or feel the emotion or laugh out loud? Are we only allowed to do this when Christians are the singers or movie makers or authors or artists?

No. We should delight in the beauty and joy of God’s creation wherever we find it. To do less is to ignore Him in it. Yes, I am saying that I can enjoy God by looking at art painted by an unbeliever. I can learn valuable lessons from books and even movies written and acted by unbelievers. I can even experience common human emotions like sorrow and joy in a song or piece of music not created by a Christian. To do any less would be an insult to God and His goodness in the gifts of creation.

Again John Calvin said it so well: “If we reflect that the Spirit of God [or Christians] is the only fountain of truth [or beauty], we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.”

God is good and His good gifts are to be enjoyed. Not without discernment, not without thought, lest we partake of forbidden fruit. But we shouldn’t never eat this fruit just because there are some bad apples on the trees. More on that later. Any thoughts?

A Brief Explanation of the Vatican’s Statement

Here’s why the recent statement by the Vatican is so wrong: They believe that your salvation depends on the primacy of the Pope. How? Here’s their theology and logic:

Saving grace only comes through participating in the sacraments (baptism, mass, etc.).

The sacraments only provide this grace when administered by ordained priests.

Ordained priests are only valid if they are in submission to “apostolic succession”.

The Bishop of Rome (the Pope) is the apostolic Successor of Peter.

This is why the Roman Catholic Church thinks that other churches are “defective”: they do not recognize apostolic succession and primacy of the Pope. They therefore think all souls outside the Catholic church are in danger. Why? Because a church without submission to the papacy has no basis for the effectiveness of its sacraments and therefore cannot provide channels of saving grace.

They think any church not submitted to the Pope is “deprived of a constitutive element of the Church” – that it is not a church “in the proper sense.” That is why they so earnestly contend for the primacy of the Pope. This is the defining issue for them. Why? They think your salvation ultimately hangs on it. (See for yourself in their brief document here.)

This just exposes their complete lack of comprehension of the Gospel – how a person is saved from sin. They take a works+grace view, but the New Testament teaches a grace alone view.

This also exposes their complete lack of comprehension of the church. They think a church is a church when it is submitted to the Pope. The New Testament teaches that a true church is one submitted to the Word of God alone.

A Gospel-centered Perspective on Environmental Issues

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Dr. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote an article entitled “Blood, Gore, and Global Warming“. It’s a great 3-minute read, and an all-too-rare example of a thoughtfully Biblical way to discuss the practice of stewardship of the “environment,” which, incidentally, used to be referred to as the “creation.” (But that’s another post for another day).

I’ve culled three paragraphs from it that succinctly state a Gospel-centered perspective on environmental concerns. This is the kind of Christ-exalting, hope-giving, eternal perspective that Christians ought to let shape their thinking and acting regarding all things environmental.

The universe is cursed, and the universe groans under the burden of this curse (Rom 8:19-22). That doesn’t mean that we simply give the earth over to the ravages of its birth-pangs, anymore than we can cite the curse of literal human birth-pangs as reason not to comfort a mother in delivery. It does mean, though, that we understand the limits of “saving the world” in this time between the times. And it means that we understand that, whatever the environmentalists tell us, humanity is not a “cancer” on the earth…or a “virus,” or a “fever.”

The earth is longing for something, the apostle Paul tells us, longing for a Man, the Lord Jesus, who unseats the dragon despot of this present darkness. The earth is groaning for us, “for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom 8:19). That’s why gospel proclamation is the most farsighted form of environmental activism. The earth is delivered when her rulers are raised from the death curse, when all things once again are under their feet, in Christ. (emphasis added)

Let’s take care of the earth, protect the natural order. But let’s remember that the world is not ultimately rescued by politicians or musicians or filmmakers or scientists. The world is saved by blood, not Gore.

Thanks to Tim Challies for the head’s up on this article.

iPhone Technology and Human Depravity

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Today is a day of extreme opposites. The long-awaited iPhone launches to incredible hype. People are waiting in lines (some have been camping for 4 days now) simply to have their long-awaited hopes realized for the latest technology solution for our lives. The hope and hype for the iPhone crystalizes the misplaced hope our culture clings to for the latest technological advancement to deliver help to our lives in somehow significant or lasting ways. 

Yet on this very same day we have news articles that ought to remind us that the greatest need in our culture can’t even be touched by the latest, coolest phone or gadget.  Just consider the shocking examples of the depravity of man in the news this very day:

Police in London’s bustling nightclub and theater district on Friday defused a bomb that could have killed hundreds after an ambulance crew spotted smoke coming from a Mercedes filled with a lethal mix of gasoline, propane and nails, authorities said.  The bomb near Piccadilly Circus was powerful enough to have caused “significant injury or loss of life”— possibly killing hundreds, British anti-terror police chief Peter Clarke said. (Link)                 

And then there’s this one:

One of four people arrested on suspicion of branding a woman’s face with the word “snitch” said Thursday that the victim was awake and screamed as her flesh was burned from lip to earlobe.  Kibbol A. Avila described the attack as revenge for help the woman gave police in a 2006 domestic violence case involving two of his friends, James H. Standridge, 34, and Jackie L. Getz, 26. The two were arrested after she gave the help, and a child was removed from their home. (Link)                       

Want some more? Just watch the local news this evening. Amanda and I made that mistake earlier this week. Hoping to catch the weather forecast, we were inundated with story after story of murders, murder-suicides, drug busts, and the like. We went to bed grieved and overwhelmed.

Examples like these make it so clear how badly our culture needs the transforming grace of the gospel of Christ! Men’s hearts continue to devise and act out some of the most unbelievable acts of sin, and our culture is reeling under the heaviness of the burden it increasingly creates. But instead of seeking the only answer to all that pain and misery and emptiness, Jesus Christ, our society runs headlong for toys to distract us from the misery. We pin our hopes for societal and personal betterment on technology.

Instead of placing our trust in the Savior, we are infinitely confident in the possibilities of science. Instead of looking to ministers of God to deliver divine solutions to our deepest needs, we now seek the wisdom of our scientists and R&D departments to solve the practical and pragmatic. They are the new priests of our culture.

No doubt, technology certainly has its advantages. Who doesn’t appreciate the many conveniences these gadgets afford? I love my Mac, my iPod, and would love to own an iPhone. I love air conditioning, and my home is full of labor-saving appliances in the kitchen and garage. But today served as a stark reminder to keep my thinking clear about what really matters most in this world and to keep my hopes rightly-placed on a kingdom made without hands. I found myself praying today, “Thy kingdom come!” iPhones are nice, but righteous hearts are needful, for they are the certificate of entry into the kingdom of God. 

An Introduction is in Order

I’m finally taking the plunge into the blogosphere. The water seems warm, so I’m jumping in.

So, who am I anyway? I am the founding pastor of Grace Church, a Baptist church in Alpharetta, Georgia (north suburb of Atlanta). Every Sunday I get the privilege of shepherding a spiritually hungry congregation though the weekly exposition of Scripture and God-centered worship.

This blog will mostly offer commentary on a wide variety of issues that relate to Christian theology, living, and thinking. I’ll probably rant, sometimes rave, and will try to consistently offer a perspective on things that I hope you’ll find interesting and helpful, if not at least thought-provoking. Almost always there will be a theological point to what I write.

I hope you’ll drop in or even comment along the way.