On Thinking Small and Changing the World

Pawn on chessboard

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

The world is not what it should be. In just the past few days, we have been inundated with news about jihadist murder in France, racial tensions in America, an attempted coup in Turkey, and starving millions in Venezuela. I think we would all agree that Someone Should Do Something About That, and we probably feel guilty that we aren’t stepping up to be the Someone who does the Something.

But perhaps we are not quite on the mark about the Something we ought to be doing. Several unrelated social trends have worked together to give our era an unbalanced and counterproductive understanding of how renewal comes and what it takes to make the world a better place.

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‘Transgender bathrooms’ are not the problem

If you came within 100 feet of a television last week, you know that the debate over “transgender bathrooms” heated up when the Obama Administration unilaterally ordered every school system in the country to allow male and female students to use whichever bathroom they choose. Let’s start with the obvious: the mandate is egregious, both morally and constitutionally, and any possible pushback is appropriate. Because identification as transgender is entirely subjective–completely divorced from biological facts–the practical effect of the bathroom mandate is to give male students carte blanche to enter girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms at any time.

The danger of sexual assault is obvious, but the assault on modesty is equally troubling. Propping open the door to the locker room in the name of inclusion casually devalues both male and female bodies by implying that there is nothing sacred or special about an uncovered body–nothing worth shielding from prying eyes. Apparently, the right to privacy guarantees abortion and gay marriage, but has nothing to say about the protection of unclothed young women. (We can thank pornography for how unremarkable this proposed violation seems.)

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First, be righteous

Given the state of our country, it is probably no surprise that reform and revival have been on my mind lately. I’ve been studying through a few Old Testament prophets and was reminded of the urgency of repentance, as well as how quickly God restores and forgives when we ask. His promise to Jeremiah is particularly encouraging: “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jer. 18:7-8). It is never too late to turn back.

Being a Christ-follower in a fallen world means we are in a similar place to those Old Testament prophets, calling out to the lost and rebellious to turn and repent. That being the case, it behooves us to prayerfully consider how reformation happens, at least on the human end of things. I fear we may be handicapped by a mistaken blueprint of what true revival looks like and how it begins.

Any attempted reformation–whether of a nation or a marriage or anything in between–which sees itself first and foremost as a project to get other people to behave differently is almost certainly doomed to produce little but frustration and exhaustion. We must think of reformation less as a matter of reorganizing or clarifying and more like a kind of good virus. We need carriers, not captains.

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When Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons are at the door

One of the most frustrating things about trying to share the gospel with our friends and neighbors is that most unbelievers simply don’t want to talk about it. They feel like they know about Christianity already, and they aren’t interested in hearing any more. If only there were people who wanted to talk about religious things. Well, there are–and they have probably come to your door recently. Unfortunately, for many Christians the twin silhouettes on the porch are cause for whispers and a hasty retreat to a back room rather than excitement at an opportunity to share the gospel.

Our hesitation is understandable, of course. It is hard to know what to say to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon, and it is frustrating to invest time in a conversation that will most likely bear no immediate fruit. But a little preparedness can change all that. Ask yourself this: How many chances have you gotten to share the gospel in the past year? Is it as many as you would like? As Jesus would like? When a JW or LDS team shows up, God has literally brought a witnessing opportunity right to your door. Don’t let them get away!

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Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

The suspension last month of Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins for stating that Christians and Muslims are both “people of the book” and “worship the same God” has sparked quite a debate over the merits of her position. The question, of course, is more than academic. In a world where ecumenism is the highest virtue, rejecting distinctions between Christianity and Islam carries very practical implications for outreach and evangelism.

If we’re going to ask whether Muslims worship the same God, we ought to start by considering where the Muslim idea of God originated. When Muhammad founded his religion in the early Seventh Century, he drew heavily from Judaism and Christianity, overlaying and modifying that foundation in line with his own ideas and emphases. Because Muhammad’s image of Allah started with a basically Judeo-Christian sketch, the Muslim God does remain recognizably similar in many ways. Surah 112 states, “Say: He is Allah, the One. Allah, the Self-Subsisting. He begets not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him.” With the exception of verse 3, an intentional contrast with Christian Trinitarianism, this surah would be unobjectionable as a summary of Jewish or Christian monotheism. But that caveat about the the third verse goes right to the heart of the matter, in more ways than one.

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Apologetic arguments aren’t perfectly conclusive, and that is okay

Apologetics is the reasoned, intellectual defense of the Christian faith, responding to attacks and offering reasons for belief. It is the responsibility of every Christian to be ready to offer that sort of thoughtful answer to the best of our ability (I Peter 3:15), because such conversations are one tool that God uses to draw unbelievers to himself, encourage the faith of his people, and create a culture that is open to the claims of Scripture.

In many ways, everyday modern Christians can be better prepared for difficult apologetic discussions than any previous generation. The printing press and the internet offer Christians almost limitless resources to equip ourselves to challenge false ideas, and that is a very good thing. However, I am afraid that this wealth of resources has contributed to false and counterproductive ideas about what apologetic arguments can and should accomplish. Our misunderstandings are leaving Christians disappointed and frustrated after their exchanges with unbelieving skeptics, while the skeptics themselves evade the force of arguments that should be much more effective and compelling.

The basic problem is that many of us–whether consciously or not–expect apologetic arguments to be conclusive; to leave no rational option but belief. We expect the cosmological argument to leave absolutely no defense against the idea of a supernatural creator. We want our design argument to demonstrate the need for a universal designer with perfect clarity. We are disappointed if a historical argument leaves any room whatsoever for doubt about whether the modern Bible reflects actual first-century events. And so on. Because we know that God exists and the claims of Christianity are true, we expect our arguments to conclude with the same sort of conviction we ourselves feel. Unfortunately, there is both a theological and a tactical problem with such inflated expectations for our apologetic arguments.

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When ‘violent disagreement’ isn’t just a figure of speech

A few days ago, journalist Zoey Tur, formerly Bob Tur, briefly made headlines after a televised roundtable discussion of transsexuality during which he grabbed another participant by the back of the neck, leaned in, and growled, “You cut that out now, or you’ll go home in an ambulance.” The other panelist’s offense? Arguing that Tur’s male genome meant he was in fact… male. When he was asked later why threats of violence against transsexuals are wrong but threats of violence against those who disagree with transsexuality are acceptable, Tur tweeted, “being called Sir and mentally ill is violence” (emphasis mine).

I bring up the incident because it illustrates a new and increasingly widespread perspective which has the potential to radically change the social and legal framework of conversation and disagreement in America. This is the idea that being confronted with “bad” ideas, and especially being challenged on issues which one considers important, is tantamount to violence.

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Showing Jesus to the internet

If you’re a Christian, then wherever you are is a mission field. That includes social media. If you’re on Facebook or Twitter or Google+ or anywhere at all where others can see what you say and do, then you’re testifying something about what it means to be a Christian with every key you press. That’s a sobering realization, but it’s also a pretty cool opportunity. In a world where it is hard to find openings for meaningful conversations with unbelievers, you probably have dozens and dozens of people who watch and listen to whatever you want to say, every day, through your social media account. We ought to make the most of that opportunity!

Beyond posting Bible verses
We have to think bigger than the content we post. That is a testimony, sure. But you are most compelling when you are least prepared. The give-and-take of a discussion thread shows far more about who you are in Christ and what you believe. Remember: If people know you are a Christian (and they should!), then every time you hit “Enter,” you’re showing people something about what it means to bear that name.

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Toward not despising the day of small things*

I was on the mock trials team in college, but I was not very good at it. Well, I actually was pretty good when I was playing the role of a witness, but when I competed as a lawyer, I just couldn’t seem to get it right. This was a bit demoralizing for someone who, at the time, thought he wanted to go to law school. It was also odd, because I had done well in high school debate. I could not figure out why mock trials lawyering did not “click” for me, but in hindsight I think I know. Unlike debate, mock trials is a team event. There are three “lawyers” and three “witnesses” on each team, and you are judged as a group. It is literally impossible for one person to win it or lose it, and everyone has to do their part. When I was playing a witness it was easier to just focus on my piece and let the lawyers manage the big picture, but when I was a lawyer my debate instincts and competitiveness kicked in and I was always looking for the one killer argument or perfect point that would win the case for us all–and therefore I wasn’t a very good lawyer, because I was trying so hard to do our job that I wasn’t focused on my job.

Is there anything that the people who made Just Do It one of the most successful advertising slogans in history hate more than outcomes that are in someone else’s hands? It’s part of what makes marriage and parenting so hard; the fact that you are making something with someone else, like two pianists sharing one instrument. We cannot stand the feeling of responsibility without control.

I think a lot of Christians are feeling that way about our culture. We know all the Bible verses about evangelizing the nations, about being ambassadors for God in a lost world, and we realize they are talking to us. Meanwhile, we see our country falling away from any sort of Christian identity and enthusiastically and publicly embracing every flavor of sin, and we think, hey, the church needs to do something about that; I need to do something about that. But what can you do about a problem made up of hundreds of millions of people, most of whom have already heard the gospel and consciously rejected it?

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Is naturalism ideology or science?

It’s almost always a simplification to point to a single ideology as being “what the culture believes.” With that caveat, however, it is not inaccurate to say that the opinion-makers of America–academia, media, scientists, etc.–have nearly unanimously embraced the naturalistic worldview. While even its supporters struggle to define naturalism precisely, at its heart is the simple idea that everything in the world (both what exists and what happens) can be explained through purely mechanistic cause and effect. Everything from planets to animals to ideas is ultimately the product of a chain of exclusively material “dominoes” stretching back into the unknowable past. The theory really came into its own in the 19th Century, as Darwinian evolution purported to fit the diversity and apparent design of biological life into that same impersonal progression of cause and effect.

Naturalism matters to a Christian because it is what is left over when theism is discarded. Throughout history, humans have assumed there are two fundamental sorts of “stuff” in the universe: mental/spiritual existence (things like gods, angels, ideas, and values) and material/physical existence (things like elements, molecules, and atoms). Christianity and most other theistic worldviews assume that the spiritual existed before and was the cause of the material: “In the beginning was the Word… All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Atheism, on the other hand, by definition cannot accept a preexistent and creative Mind. This leaves the atheist with a world in which everything begins with impersonal, material being; naturalism, in other words.

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