Book Review – “Why Can’t We Be Friends”

When I say I’m  “friends” with Aimee Byrd, I should qualify that statement a few different ways. Aimee and I  “met” like so many people do these days, online, some years ago now, connecting over our shared thinking out loud in the blogosphere about the place of women in our collective corner of Reformed Evangelicalism. We have some personal things in common also, which have prompted a few phone conversations as well. But we’ve never met in person, or IRL as the kids say. Not yet, anyway.

But the biggest reason I’d have to qualify the term is because of the most important and essential thing we have in common. We’re both committed Christians. So even though we’ve never met in person, if Aimee ever happened to be in my town and needed anything, she could count on it from me – a meal, a place to stay, a car or an outfit to borrow, even an organ (if I could reasonably spare it and we had compatible blood types). That’s what family does for one another. And in Christ, Aimee is not “just” my friend – she’s my sister.

Not too many Christians would raise an eyebrow too high at my framing our relationship this way because I’m a woman. But if the advance online discussion about her latest book is anything to go by, things might be different if the person writing about their relationship with Aimee his way was a man. That’s the dichotomy Aimee examines in her latest book. 

(Reviewer note – I’m taking the liberty of breaking book review convention and referring to the author by her first name instead of her last name, because see previous paragraphs about our being friends and family. Anything else just feels strange 🙂 )

In her last book, “No Little Women”, Aimee made an appeal for churches to invest more intentionally in the theological equipping of women.   In her latest, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” she tackles a point of contention her previous book raised – a question that resurfaces with every new #ChurchToo story that emerges. What about the moral hazards created by men and women not married to each other spending too much time in each other’s company?  Aimee views this concern as symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of the way God created His people to relate to one another. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” sets out to correct it.

In the first half of the book, Aimee proposes answers to the question posed by the book’s title- reasons she believes Christians are so reticent to believe that true friendship is possible or right between men and women beyond the bonds of marriage. She begins by considering the different voices we are conditioned to listen to – our family’s, worldly culture and the church – arguing that the church’s perspective is inordinately influenced by the world. She then moves on to consider different aspects of our identity as believers – the totality of our humanness, the mission we’re called to, and the role purity plays in our lives as Christians. In the last two chapters, she argues that our confusion comes from a critical misunderstanding of the true nature of friendship, and of our status as brothers and sisters in Christ.

With reasons for the problem defined, in the second half of the book, Aimee sets out to propose the solutions to them, centered around the idea of living as “sacred siblings”. She first considers the passages of Scripture which point to Jesus’ identity as “firstborn among the brethren” – that he is our spiritual elder brother. She then moves on to describe the implications for us as men and women, or brothers and sisters, as a consequence of our identification with Him in that role. In the final chapters of the book, Aimee considers some of the practices that can promote and nourish these kinds of relationships – cultivating the right church environment, promoting holiness, enjoying table fellowship, and celebrating and suffering together. At the very end of the book is an appendix that surveys sibling relationships in Scripture.

“Why Can’t We Be Friends” is replete with ideas and insights into the truly countercultural nature of our collective identity as a spiritual family in Christ that will challenge your thinking, and even stir your soul. Just some of the ones that resonated with most deeply with me included:

  • The numerous ways we have hidden the dramatically countercultural framing of mens and womens roles in the Bible under a stifling blanket of stereotypes, even as the New Testament repeatedly challenges them (pgs. 41-45)
  • The irony of early church Christians being judged for the perceived excess in their love for one another, while today we are judged for our inordinate reticence (pgs.111-112)
  • The idea of personal purity as an ongoing holistic pursuit of holiness energized by communion with God, not a set of behavioral boundaries we draw around ourselves to promote sexual continence (pgs. 63 and following)
  • The disproportionate weighting of times familial language is employed in the New Testament (amplified by the recently updated Christian Standard Bible, the Bible I’ve adopted as my regular reading Bible and which is referenced throughout the book)
  • The implications of Jesus as our elder brother for our identity as brothers and sisters with Him, and in Him with eachother (pgs. 131 and following)

These two points are the pivotal ones that inform so much of the later chapter regarding how men and women can and should interact in different contexts. They’re the ones that have stuck with me the most, and are the ones that I’ve been referencing in almost every conversation I’ve had about the topic, and about this book since I first read it.

Perhaps there’s no greater proof of their significance and how Aimee unpacks them than in the way they also serve to call out a few of the book’s weaknesses. The greatest is the cover – both the title and the comic-book style graphic that accompanies it. Aimee writes in a serious and thoughtful but still accessible and personable way about the practical implications of our status as brothers and sisters in Christ – a topic that the church seems to be floundering in as much as the world is. We shouldn’t be throwing out the “friends” term altogether, because the Bible doesn’t. But it’s clear from Scripture, and Aimee’s thoughtful handling of the topic, that the leading definer for the relationship between men and the church shouldn’t be “friends”, but “family”.  It’s a term replete with sacred significance. A much more accurate pop song title that would more accurately summarize the book would be the Pointer Sisters’ “We Are Family”. The subtitle borrows from one narrow, albeit controversial aspect of the conversation. Meanwhile,  the graphic resembles a 1970s era cartoon of a guy and girl stealing nervous glances at each other as they sit at a bar – exactly the kind of tortured, risky scenario naysayers on this topic appeal to to disagree.  If this was all simply a cunning strategy to prompt pre-release buzz, it’s certainly worked. But in my opinion, the net effect both trivializes and misrepresents the content, and it’s disappointing.

Followers of a parallel and very related controversy over the Revoice conference for Christians will likely observe another weakness of the book – the lack of surgical carefulness with which certain critical terms are defined and used. Even though there is an entire chapter devoted to defining friendship, it left me with questions that dogged me whenever the word was referenced in the rest of the book. How does the nature of friendship change between those who are in the faith vs. outside it, married vs unmarried? What is the role of attraction in becoming friends and what are the differences between right attraction and wrong? When is attraction sinful and when is it not?  As another reviewer has noted, one key anecdote Aimee describes involving a friend’s lament over a moment of “attraction” to another man that Aimee dismisses will likely be a target of disagreement, simply because she doesn’t really call out the difference between attraction to someone’s good character, and lust or sinful desire. To borrow an overused but still useful word, there are “trigger words” in these conversations, and some more intentional defining and usage of terms would have added clarity, instead of creating confusion or potential controversy.

These two flaws, together with various places where the line of argument was a little circuitous, and some of the topic transitions a little abrupt, all point to what seems to be the general problem of less editorial stewardship than a topic this weighty and challenging clearly deserved. Had the book been more tightly focused, readers would have been better guided through Aimee’s arguments, and better helped to either be persuaded or not.

The net impression I was left with was akin to several experiences I’ve had hiking with my family. I’m far from a natural outdoorswoman, so smooth paths, clear signs and easily spotted landmarks are necessary blessings that keep me upright and moving in the right direction. One memorable trek to a vista we’d heard wonderful things about involved some ambiguous signage, hard to spot landmarks, and a couple of falls that tempted me to give up more than once. But the glorious scenery we encountered when we arrived, not to mention the time spent sitting and talking, made the trek worth it, to the point that we’re planning a return visit. And when we do, we’ll get there much faster and be able to stay and enjoy it longer.

Reading “Why Can’t We Be Friends” felt much the same – it was an occasionally tricky journey that nevertheless yielded great rewards.

The Mike Pence rule being deployed every time a tragic announcement about a Christian leader’s moral failure occurs is proof of why the topic of being spiritual family matters so much. So is the escalating arguments regarding spiritual friendship as it relates to same-sex friendship and attraction. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” is a less than perfect book about an incredibly important topic, with innumerable insights that will change the way you think about all of the Christian men and women in your life, not just the ones in your nuclear family. It will hopefully change the way you see them, and serve them, for the better. That makes it a book that’s eminently worth your time to read and consider.

 

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The Weakness of Men, the Power of Women

The Weakness of Men, the Power of Women

An Atlantic article from over a year ago has been recirculating in the wake of what feels like a Spirit-lead reckoning of the SBC over institutionalized failures to protect and affirm women. The article considers the case of the now departed Wells Fargo CEO’s brazenly un-self-aware congressional testimony about dishonest business practices to ask a prescient question:

“What is it about power that makes powerful people abuse it without seeming to know that they’re abusing it?

As Christians, we know the Sunday School answer – sin – as surely as we know the secular answer – science. Or more specifically – biology. This is the angle the Atlantic article pursues, as it reviews various behavioral and neurological studies that explore the effects of power on the brain and the behavior it drives.

Notable among the results is the observation that one of the most negatively influential consequences of power is the development of what’s described as an “empathy deficit”. As people with power interact with others, those in their charge will “mirror” their attitudes or words (as a way to signal acquiescence), but the people in power will not do the same with their subordinates. This impulse might be rooted in good intentions – a desire to filter what feels like extraneous data to focus on the end goal. But when other people’s feelings or perspectives, particularly differing ones, are put into that “extraneous” data bucket, lack of empathy and awareness ensues. According to the research described in the article, that response is traceable to specific neural pathways that deteriorate over time the longer a power differential persists.

TLDR – Unchecked power can literally damage your brain.

I’m not the biggest fan of  “science proves what the Bible says about X” arguments. Too many Christians have a tendency to embrace the scientific assertions that affirm their beliefs (rock music is demonic) but dismiss the ones that don’t (climate change is a deep state conspiracy). Not to mention – as could be the case here – there’s a swift and predictable rhetorical progression from “power causes brain damage” to “brain damage absolves abusers of authority of accountability for their actions.”

I read several valid objections to the scope of the research, and particularly to the hyperbolic framing of the results as literal “brain damage”. As the article itself goes on to lay out, the “damage” to the brain caused by power isn’t necessarily permanent and is in itself a corollary of the person’s self-awareness of the problem. It can be resisted. And that’s why what really grabbed my attention wasn’t the description of the theoretical causes of the problem, but an anecdote offered as an example of an effective strategy for mitigating it.

On June 29, 1940,  as Hitler and his troops were marching down the streets of Paris, Winston Churchill received a letter from his wife. In the letter, Clementine. Churchill lovingly confronts her Prime Minister for what she has observed, and others have reported to her, concerning his deteriorating attitude towards some of his subordinates. It’s a classic case study in how a leader’s unkind or even abusive behavior demoralizes those in his charge. After Mrs. Churchill clearly and unapologetically exhorts him about his need to change, she wisely concludes with the most compelling of reasons why – that his behavior won’t yield the outcome he desires.

We don’t know what the Prime Minister’s immediate reaction was to his wife’s letter, but we certainly know what Churchill eventually accomplished. And it’s not hard to see the role the loving, yet honest, words of a trusted woman played in helping him do it.

As I read Mrs. Churchill’s letter,  I couldn’t help think of the way her interaction with one of the most powerful men in Britain (who just happened to be her husband) mirrored that of so many women in the Bible with powerful men –

Abigail with King David

The slave girl with Naaman

Esther (and Vashti) with Ahasuerus

Pilate’s wife with Pilate

The women at the resurrection with the apostles

In each incident, a man (or men) in power stands at a fork in the road of redemptive history. The women they encounter give them specific direction about the path they should take. The men who heed their wisdom become woven into the stories of all the others who furthered God’s plan. The men who don’t become commemorative object lessons in folly.

Several months ago, when John Piper was asked about his perspective on the #MeToo movement, he replied that it was the logical consequence of egalitarianism – specifically, the rejection of the notion that men have a particular call to protect women.

Piper described this call as  “…not merely mutual honor; this is a special honor flowing from the stronger to the weaker. This is an honor of a man toward a woman precisely because he’s a man and, in general, men are in the position of physical power and strength over women. God inserts between them in that relationship a special duty, a special responsibility that a man has.”

Piper’s appeal to the power differential between men and women is the one that is commonly deployed in conversations about gender. A man’s physical size and strength is symbolic of greater power, while a women’s smaller size is symbolic of her lesser power. This same argument often extends to men’s larger brain symbolizing greater intellectual power,  or the “power” of reasoning vs. the “weakness” of emotions.

The one time the power differential conversation is reversed is in the area of sexuality. Whenever the conversation focuses on sexual attraction, men are described as inordinately vulnerable, by virtue of their libidos and their positions of power. Only here are women in possession of greater power – in particular, to stumble a man into moral compromise, or to take out a man’s ministry or his livelihood with false accusations.

This is the power differential that drives the Pence rule, that attempts to protect a man from the power of women by limiting his proximity to them.

But what the Biblical stories like David’s and Naaman’s and Pilate’s, and historical anecdotes like Winston Churchill’s, and the stories of the last several years, months and weeks from evangelical institutions teach us,

is that there is a particular masculine vulnerability to power that can be mitigated by the particular power of a woman’s influential wisdom. But the taller and thicker the hedges are against it, the less capacity men will have to receive it, and the more vulnerable they will actually become.

This is a strength worth protecting.

What the Bible repeatedly shows is that man’s particular calling to protect women is not simply because he is stronger, but because he is weaker as well.  He is as in need of a woman’s complementary strength to protect him, as she needs his to protect her.

It is not good for man to be alone.

That Atlantic article concludes on a decidedly pessimistic note – that the “…malady seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites is unlikely to soon find a cure.” From the perspective of secular research studies, that’s certainly true.

I wonder what conclusions the writer might have drawn if he’d also studied the Bible.

Learning From My Black Family

Learning From My Black Family

I was raised in a Christian context that, in the name of vigilance against the dangers of revisionist history, actively taught it. I grew up believing that the Puritans were the pinnacle of American Christian orthodoxy and that Martin Luther King Jr. was little more than an adulterous heretic. I was taught that majority black churches were corrupted by the prosperity gospel, irreverent worship, and too many women in leadership.

Which is why, this week, as we’ve been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, I’m celebrating the irony of God’s mercy in using two African American hip-hop artists I’ve never met to expose my inherited ignorance, and lead me into what will be a lifelong process of repentance and relearning.

I don’t remember when or how I first heard of Shai Linne, only how it felt the first time I heard his music.  Like a lot of young, restless, and Reformed Bible college grad types, I had long ago set aside the childish things of CCM radio and fed my soul a steady diet of the Gettys and Sovereign Grace music. But what Shai Linne had created seemed to defy categorization.

Before the album “The Atonement,” all I knew of rap and hip-hop was the glorification of violence and misogyny. Shai Linne’s music was different. His lyrics were theologically solid and rich as the Westminster Catechism. But it was the lyrical approach – the discipline of the syntax, the creativity, the turns of phrases so tight that the only other artists I could compare it to were dead white men like Shakespeare and Donne – that gripped my soul. It was poetic, prophetic gospel preaching, creatively wrapped in the rhythms of rap. I remember the day I listened to “Mission Accomplished” as I folded laundry, and felt all the questions I’d ever had about limited / particular atonement finally fall into place. One three-and-a-half minute song settled what four years of Bible college had not. I was hooked.

Not long after, I learned about another artist named Propaganda. I read that he wrote in the spirit of Shai Linne, so I downloaded his album “Excellent” the day it released. As the kids say, I wasn’t ready.

“Excellent” was broader in scope than “The Atonement,” but every bit as gripping. This time, I was chopping vegetables for dinner as I listened. Suddenly, the lyrics of one track gutted my Reformed Baptist American sensibilities with such surgical precision that I had to set down my vegetable knife and click “rewind,”  just to make sure I understood what I was hearing.

“How come the things the Holy Spirit showed them
In the Valley of Vision
Didn’t compel them to knock on they neighbor’s door
And say “you can’t own people!”
Your precious Puritans were not perfect
You romanticize them as if they were inerrant
As if the skeletons in they closet was pardoned due to they hard work and tobacco growth
As if abolitionists were not racists and just pro-union
As if God only spoke to white boys with epic beards
You know Jesus didn’t really look like them paintings
That was just Michaelangelo’s boyfriend
Your precious Puritans
Oh they got it but they don’t get it
There’s not one generation of believers
That has figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action
Don’t pedestal these people.
Your precious Puritans’ partners purchased people.

Why would you quote them?”

(Click here to listen to the whole song-it’s well worth your time)


The forcefulness and eloquence with which Propaganda called out the heroes of my faith sent me on a hunt for answers the minute the dinner dishes were dry. I combed the stacks of the church history section of the combined library of my Multnomah Bible College-graduate husband and my Master’s University-graduate self. My search yielded few and incomplete answers.  So I took to the Internet. There I found various Reformed theologians and bloggers, equally gripped by “Precious Puritans,” discussing the historical veracity of Propaganda’s claims, and arguing charitably over the different ways they could be viewed.

None of Propaganda’s detractors denied the substance of his argument – that many of the Puritans and later Reformed theologians I had been taught to revere had been slave owners, and/or slavery and segregation apologists. The allegations were, in truth, facts – facts I had never been taught.

But as shocking as these facts were to learn, what gutted me was that the main line of defense was not denial, but compartmentalization. Sure, the argument went, the Puritans had owned slaves and propped up the institution of chattel slavery, but that shouldn’t overshadow all the good things they did.

Propaganda had marched uninvited into the institutional halls of Reformed evangelicalism and ripped the closet door off its hinges, causing the rotting corpse that had been hidden inside it for centuries to come tumbling out onto the floor. And the strongest response his detractors could muster, as they shoved the corpse back into the closet and forced the door closed, was to keep waving their hands at all the pretty art on the walls.

The abruptness with which I learned these inconvenient facts about the Puritans didn’t shake my faith in their, and my, God. But it forever shattered my belief that the Puritans had a lock on what practical faithfulness to Him looks like. Not only that, it moved me to consider whether, and how, the Reformed Baptist tradition which held them in such unqualified high esteem might suffer from the same moral blindness. Most importantly, and most painfully, it made it necessary to consider how much of the same unchecked blindness – that sin,  had found its way into my own soul.

It didn’t take long to see it in my first thoughts about artists like Shai Linne and Propaganda.

One of the tenets of Reformed Baptist identity I had been taught to embrace was the importance of exercising discernment about our spiritual influencers – the pastors or theologians we listened to and learned from, the books we read, etc. (This was doubly emphasized to Reformed Baptist women, what with us being the gender of the more easily deceived and all.)

Of paramount importance was the depth and purity of someone’s theological orthodoxy – their Five Solas bona fides. But of nearly equal importance was how that theology was packaged. With what denomination was someone affiliated, and how theologically orthodox was their church? How closely did they follow the regulative principle of worship? What kind of clothes did they wear? What kind of tone did they employ, in their writing, their speaking, even their singing? With which contemporary cultural issues did their theology rightly intersect (e.g. marriage, abortion, taxes), and from which ones was it kept rightly separate (e.g. poverty, race relations, the environment)?

In other words, while the content of someone’s message was paramount, if the packaging wasn’t wrapped in the right way, or didn’t have the right pattern, the contents were necessarily suspect. And if the right packaging only came in certain colors, well, packaging in any colors other than those was necessarily suspect as well. Conversely, if the packaging was the right pattern and color, that automatically signaled that the contents were right – no need to look inside too closely to check.

Thus, what I saw modeled and was taught to believe, was that my default posture towards any white Reformed Christian teachers (and their Puritan forebears) should be unquestioning trust. But my default posture towards even self-professing Reformed Christians of any other ethnicity should be skepticism, until and unless they conformed to all the prescriptive cultural norms and biases of my tradition.

I could be challenged and convicted by white Reformed Christian leaders because they were inside the permissible circle of trust. But because my default posture toward non-white Reformed Christian leaders was skepticism or uncertainty, it was easy to dismiss anything they said that was challenging or convicting as proof that they weren’t sufficiently worthy of trust or attention.

When I first listened to Shai Linne, I did so from a default position of skepticism and mistrust. How could someone who sounded like him, who looked like him, pass the orthodoxy test? But the words he spoke, and the skill with which he wielded them, schooled my ignorance and exposed my prejudice for the sin that it was.

And the sting of this rebuke prepared me for the next one, courtesy of the pen and the voice of Propaganda, an African American brother in Christ who would have been viewed with suspicion at any church I’d ever attended up to that point, just because of how he looked, let alone because of what he had to say.

And from that day to this, I’ve been repentantly listening and learning from him, and many other godly African American family like him.

This week, the fruit of that repentance has looked like listening to the speakers at the MLK50 Conference. As I’ve listened, one part of me has been thinking about the future – about what God has yet to teach me about how He wants me to think, and especially do, differently in my own church context. Another part of me has been thinking about the past – how the old me would have responded to what I was hearing, and how the people I was taught to view with such mistrust and Pharisaical disdain, are the people who I count as valuable teachers, as family, today.

I saw a lot of stiffnecked disdain and self-righteousness circulating on social media yesterday – an experience that produced a simultaneous mix of sorrow and thankfulness in my heart. The old me would probably have been an enthusiastic contributor to it. But because of God’s work in my heart through the faithful witness of two gifted African American brothers, I wasn’t.  And I’m grieved over those who were.

I can, and do, pray for God to do the same kind of work in my white family He did in me, however He chooses to do it – whether through the words of faithful black brothers like Shai Linne and Propaganda, or the less eloquent words of their grateful white sister, Rachael.

Peanut Butter, Bow Ties, ​and Boaz-es

The new edition of Fathom Magazine just came out, and it’s all in on all things imago dei. There is a great piece on clothing as cultural language,  a beautiful poem about peanut butter and motherhood, and also a piece by me on raising Boaz-es in a hypermasculine world. It’s one of the best new magazines for thinking Christians out there. Give them a read and spread the word!

The Statement the World Needs Most

The Statement the World Needs Most

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

If popular media trends are any indication, people have been asking that question for a very long while, but we’re not satisfied with the answers.  For the last fifty years, Hollywood has been doing a brisk trade  in TV franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek, and comic book movie universes featuring the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men, selling stories that stoke our imaginations, and haunt our dreams, as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be human.

The surge in interest in science fiction and superheroes stories has happened concurrently with the rise of the Digital Age. Both “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” rose to popularity in the 1960s, during the first wave of mainframe computing. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the spinoff that launched so many others, soared to popular and critical acclaim in the early 1990s, during the building of what Al Gore famously named the “Information Superhighway”. The DC and Marvel comic movie empires grew in the midst of the first Silicon Valley dot-com boom, bust, and recovery, as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook grew from successful start-ups into the technology monoliths they are today.

This trend can be partially explained by the way technology has infiltrated the way movies and television are made. The more technologically advanced the story telling is, the more convincingly real the stories become.

But that’s not the only reason, nor the most important one.

From the invention of the first super computer to the launch of the latest mobile app, the central goal of the technological revolution has been the transcendence of human limits – ones like time, location, and knowledge.  Thanks to the wonder of FaceTime and WiFi, we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds instead of days. Laptops, tablets, and video conferencing systems let us work anywhere, anytime. The (potential) answer to any question is as close as the click of a mouse. And if bad weather and crazed children have you cursing the limits of time, space and knowledge, collectively, just ask AlexaShe’ll have 45 minutes of peace and quiet delivered to your door in a matter of hours.

But not all of our limitations are so easily surmounted.

The most enduring limits of our human state involve our bodily capabilities and the raw materials with which we exercise them.  Our physical, mental, and emotional capacities are all subjected to the vagaries of our environment, circumstances, genetics, disease, and disaster. No matter how fully we ever realize our potential, it eventually diminishes and dies, gradually, or in a single, terrible instant.

There isn’t an app for fixing that, at least not yet.

It’s the combined intractability and universality of these limits that produces cheers, and tears of wonder, each time technology helps us get one step closer to conquering one of them. Whether it’s an artificial heart or pancreas or womb, a brain implant that restores hearing or stills seizures, or an exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk – nothing is more thrilling than seeing the limits of our bodily brokenness overcome.

This is the place where worldviews collide, and divide.

According to secular humanism (the dominant ideology of technology industry leaders and workers), humans are uniquely evolved organic matter, possessing an intricate blend of features and flaws. The boundaries of our bodies are fluid. We are eminently malleable, and infinitely upgradeable. The meaning of our humanity is as variable a construct as its substance.

The Bible says differently.

The Bible says that humans are wondrously made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 139:13-16),(Genesis 1:26).  Because of this, all of the boundaries of our humanity have meaning, and none of them are neutral.  Many of those boundaries are “as designed”. They display God’s character (Genesis 1:31). They enable us to serve each other as we fulfill God’s creation mandate (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). They demonstrably display the differences between the Maker and the made (Psalm 121:4).

Many others are the consequence of our fallenness (Romans 3:9-19), or the fallenness of the world in which we live. (Proverbs 13:23)  The common grace of our God-reflecting desire to rescue and heal, and our capacity to create, and the particular grace of the work of the Holy Spirit, help us retrace the boundaries of our humanity more closely over God’s design in some ways.  But we are utterly incapable of doing it completely, nor were we ever made to.

That work can only be done by Jesus.

Jesus was with God at the beginning (John 1:2), forming living being from dust, and life-bearer from living being (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). In his incarnation, the limitless one took on human limits (Philippians 2:6-8), living perfectly within them on our behalf. Then he submitted himself to humanity’s greatest limit in death, shattering its hold on us through his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

Sin is what causes us to see the different boundaries of our humanity – our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our gender,  – as tools to divide and oppress.

Jesus is the one who covers that sin, not by erasing our boundaries, but by redeeming them, and uniting all of us, as human beings, in him.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

This is the statement the world needs the most. The one it keeps asking for. The one the church still hasn’t written.

For all of its good intentions, the Nashville statement answers questions the world thinks it already has answers for, without sufficiently addressing the ones the world knows that it doesn’t. They are questions the world has been asking for years, ones the church has largely overlooked.

And while the world continues its quest for answers, Silicon Valley has been steadily, effectively reframing the question.

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

We’re living in an era of unprecedented human transformation. Does the question really matter that much?

 

On Stumbling Over Statements

On Stumbling Over Statements

This morning on The Briefing, Al Mohler proposed that people’s responses to the Nashville Statement would fall into one of at least four categories:

  1. Those certain of its rightness, who would be committed to outspokenly supporting it.
  2. Those reticent about its rightness, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
  3. Those uncertain about its rightness, without yet knowing why, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
  4. Those certain of its wrongness, who would be determined to repudiate it.

I’d like to humbly propose adding a 5th, one that might change the way we consider the other 4:

  1. Those concerned that its rightness in some aspects, is so overshadowed by its wrongness in others, that it’s impossible to support, in its current form.

This is the group in which I find myself.

It’s important to note the variety of points of disagreement people in this group have raised, as well as the their number:

It’s also important to note how many of the people in the group offering up some, or all, of these points of concern, agree with the statement’s basic assertions about sexuality and marriage,and most essentially, with the affirmation and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ with which the statement ends. (No one that I know of in this group is offering up anything about Article 14 other than “Amen and Maranatha”.)

In other word, this group is not comprised of the usual suspects who drag their soapboxes out anytime the letters LGBTQ start trending on Twitter (although, yes, they’ve shown up this time as well).

These are faithful brothers and sisters of the household of God, whose collective public work, and personal testimonies, make their concerns worthy of consideration.

The preamble of the Nashville Statement asserts that Western culture is in a season of “massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” On this point, almost everyone, from the statement’s ardent supporters, to its angriest critics, are potentially agreed.

A statement that began there, then proceeded from it, could do much clarifying good.

But in its current form, the Nashville Statement seems to be the equivalent of a brick path that’s been unevenly laid down. When so many committed, thoughtful Christians are stumbling over it, it would be judicious to examine the way the bricks were placed, not just assume the only problem is that people aren’t looking where they’re going.

Awake, O Sleepers

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I was sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, as Philando Castile sat bleeding to death in his car. I was getting ready for an important day of meetings, and I’d put myself on strict social-media lockdown to stay focussed. So it wasn’t until the following afternoon, when my meetings were over and I was in the back of an Uber car, driving through the thick Arkansas humidity back to the cool comfort of my hotel, that I finally read the news.

Being away from home meant I was free to read longer, and more in depth than I otherwise would have that night. I had spent part of my travel time out to Little Rock reading about the death of Alton Sterling, which had happened just one day earlier. The customary cycle of commentating and social media back and forthing about Sterling’s death between my longtime white community of friends, and my growing community of African American friends, had barely abated. Now a new cycle was starting before the previous one had even slowed down. It was almost too much for my mind to process, or my soul to bear.

The next day, I had  three hours before I needed to be at Clinton Airport for my flight back to San Jose. I noticed that my route to the airport would take me past a high school that was designated as a National Historic Landmark. My curiosity was piqued – could anything historically significant come out of Arkansas? A couple of clicks laid my ignorance bare. With all the questions swirling in my mind in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death, it seemed providential that I just happened to be four miles away from one place that might offer some answers. I decided I should visit.

Little Rock Central High School was the school of the “Little Rock Nine” – the three African American boys and six African American girls who were the first black students to attend one of the largest and most highly regarded all-white schools in America, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. That ruling declared that “separate but equal” segregated education was a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution. But Arkansas civic leaders were determined to ignore the ruling, and maintain the racially segregated status quo.

When the NAACP helped register the nine students before the beginning of the 1957 school year, Arkansas Governor Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to forcibly prevent the students from entering the school on the first day of class. President Eisenhower then sent in the 101st Airborne Division to force the Arkansas National Guard to stand down, and ensure that the nine students would be escorted in safely.

For nine months, the Little Rock Nine attended classes under the presumably protective watch of the 101st Airborne Division. But the reality of what they experienced was almost unimaginable. They suffered relentless psychological torture and physical abuse by students. Teachers and administrators ignored their pleas for help. The soldiers and other law enforcement agencies who were their security detail did little beyond what they had been forcibly ordered by the Federal government to keep them physically protected.

Several of them finished high school elsewhere, but the majority endured, and eventually graduated. Little Rock Central High School was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982. In 1999, the Little Rock Nine were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest offer given to civilian American citizens, in recognition of how their courage and  determination, in spite of their youth, catalyzed a nation toward greater awareness and action in the fight for civil rights for African Americans.

I walked into the Visitors’ Center having never heard one word of this chapter in America’s civil rights story.  I had spent my high school years overseas, and my college years at a conservative Christian liberal arts school. Over the past several years, I had grown increasingly uncertain about the scope, and especially the slant, of my understanding of American history, let alone the church’s role in it all. But I didn’t know yet how much I didn’t know.

The LRCHS Visitors’ Center sits diagonally across from the still-operating school. A collection of exhibits are positioned strategically near large windows, so you can see the school and its sidewalks in the near distance, and envision the dramatic events unfolding as you learn about them.

The entire center is riveting, but it was the moments I spent standing in front of this picture of Elizabeth Eckford  that I’ll never forget.

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She is walking away from her new school after being turned away from the entrance by the Arkansas National Guard. The picture stands in the exact middle of the center. On a wall to its left are quotes from judges and politicians, referencing landmark rulings and arguments in the years leading up to that day, some of them referencing God or the Bible.  To its right, only slightly further away,  is another enlarged photograph, this one of Emmett Till’s mother gazing at the mutilated face of her son as he lays in an open coffin. Also close by is an exhibit dedicated to the role of the  new media of television in bringing this event directly into the living rooms of ordinary Americans.

The tapestry of thoughts that ran through my mind as I took in that scene were woven from the innumerable threads of providence that brought me to stand in front of it. My oldest daughter was the same age that Elizabeth Eckford was then. My middle daughter was the same age as Emmett Till was when he was lynched.  The white woman with the face contorted in rage resembled any number of the women at my youngest daughter’s private Christian school (including me).  I gazed at the passive faces of the military officers in the background, and at the adjacent pictures of television newscasters delivering live commentary from nearby sidewalk corners. With the morning media coverage of Diamond Reynold’s horrifying commentary recorded on her iPhone and posted on Facebook so fresh on my mind, it suddenly became crystal clear how the same confluence of factors at work in America in 1957, were working themselves out in identical ways in America in (then) 2016.

Before I headed to the airport, I stopped at the gift shop and bought books for each of my daughters, and one for myself titled “Warriors Don’t Cry”. An autobiography of another of the Little Rock Nine named Melba Beals, it reads like the memoir of a survivor of a POW camp. Tears streamed down my face, unchecked, as I read it from cover to cover on the flight home.

All of the same themes I had observed  in the Visitors’ Center as I stood in front of Elizabeth Eckford’s picture, repeated themselves in Melba Beals’ story:

  • The institutional entrenchment of unjust laws and abusive authority structures, buttressed by Biblical language and ideological blackmail
    In the aftermath of the Civil War, the battle for the segregated South shifted to America’s institutions – law courts, schools, police forces, and churches.
  • The prophetic power of visual media
    Mamie Mobley insistence that her son’s casket be left open so that as many people as possible would be confronted by the horror of his death lead to the picture that was the visual spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement in earnest.
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    Two years later, ordinary citizens watched history unfold via the televisions in their living rooms, as the Little Rock Nine made their way home through an epithet- spewing mob via the new media of live television.
  • The unfathomable courage and resolve of black women (many of them Christians)
    From the mothers and grandmothers of the Little Rock Nine and their advocates like NAACP chapter president Daisy Bates, to women like Mamie Till, Rosa Parks, JoAnn Robinson and others, black women both endured and resisted immense political and personal pressure to push forward the work of racial equality and justice for African Americans
  • The passive (and active) complicity of white Christians
    Judges, politicians and pastors deployed Biblical language and theological arguments as offensive weapons against integration. Professing Christians absorbed them, and embraced entrenched racism and segregation as “biblical”. Christian dissenters and desegregation advocates were marginalized, labelled as liberals or heretics, so that many ordinary Christians capitulated to pressure to remain silent in the name of keeping peace.

Those themes have emerged yet again this past week in the aftermath of Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s acquittal in Philando Castile’s death, as new video and still images of the incident and its aftermath, and commentary on it, are rolling through social media.*

Whatever thinking, reading, writing, and social media interacting I’ve done on topic of the gospel and racial reconciliation since then was birthed from what God did in my mind and heart over those two days in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The term some groups use to describe my experience is being “woke”: the scales of ignorance have permanently fallen from my eyes so that I now see what African Americans have been testifying to for so long. It’s not a term I’m comfortable using. Wobbly grammar aside, I don’t know that it’s the most appropriate term culturally for a forty-something white lady from Silicon Valley to adopt for herself.  But beyond that, it’s the way many people treat “wokeness” as a binary state – one in which you live completely, or not at all –  that prevents me from embracing it, at least for myself.

My evolving understanding, and awkward, imperfect attempts to speak and act consistently with the gospel in all this feels more akin to how Neo felt in the famous red pill/blue pill scene in The Matrix. 

I’m barely beyond the disorientation of waking up, covered in the slime of my ignorance, surrounded by a legion of others still unconscious. Gracious new friends are helping me build muscles atrophied from lack of use. My eyes hurt, because I’ve never used them before. And that’s about as far as it feels like I’ve come.  

As I’ve lurched and stumbled through dialog about race and the gospel in the digital world of social media, and the personal world of my local church contexts (both the one I’m in now and well as ones from previous seasons of life), I’ve found myself in the same place as other white Christians in times past.  I’ve experienced the subtle, and unsubtle, criticism and distancing by other white Christians, and heard the suggestions that I’ve “gone liberal” and fallen in with the so-called gospel-diluting “SJW”s. I’ve felt the tiny stings of  social media unfollowing and mutings, when I’ve shared stories in the hopes others might finally be persuaded in the same way that stories persuaded me. Remembering the immeasurably worse my black sisters have endured, and continue to endure, convicts me when I’m tempted to silence, and simply spurs me to ask God to increase my faith and give me courage like theirs.

A different hurt comes from a place my reading hadn’t lead me to expect.  When white Christians like me take a step forward in advocating for racial reconciliation or restitution, whether a small one on social media, or a slightly bigger one involving collective action, our attempts are sometimes met by some black Christians with cynicism, judgement, or a barrage of “so what are you going to do right now”s and “not enough”s. When you’ve discovered that some of the pillars of your understanding of the gospel are rotten, and you’re doing your uneducated best to replace them, the extra burden of law and guilt we’re given to wear weighs us down,  and tempts us to quit. Remembering the far worse burdens my black brothers and sisters have borne for centuries without quitting, and the gospel of grace which gives all of our burdens to Jesus, spurs me to keep going anyway.

The lament over the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer was the biggest and loudest by Christians I’ve yet observed. It gives me hope that we may be living in what future generations of Christians might look back on as the real Great Awakening of the American church.

But it will require many more Christians to embrace the gospel in asking for God to reveal our blindness, to take the sins He reveals of our collective indifference, willful ignorance, and complicitness to the foot of the cross and leave them there,

and then ask Him to give us the grace to speak, and to act,  precisely because so many generations of our forefathers and mothers would not.

“The LORD loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.” (Psalm 33:5)

“The LORD stands at the right hand of the needy one,
to save him from those who condemn his soul to death.” (Psalm 109:31)

 

*I’ve declined to include the video or still images of Philando Castile’s death, to respect both the African American community who are so constantly traumatized by these images, and the LEO community struggling to work under the dark shadow the unrighteous acts by some cast over the honorable and sacrificial service of the rest.