We Need to Rethink How We Talk about LGBTQ

We journalists like studies. They help us put stories and topics in context.

So a study released in 2018 exploring the association between importance of religion and suicide ideation is obviously going to interest me.

If you’ve followed my writing for any length of time, or you’re a friend of mine, you know that religion and mental health are two of my favorite topics. So of course, I wanted to learn about this study. Unfortunately, it’s $4 to access, but thankfully there was a news article about it from Reuters titled “Religious faith linked to suicidal behavior in LGBQ adults.”

If you’ve followed news somewhat closely, you’ve got to be aware of the stories of LGBTQ individuals, teens in particular, that take their own lives with motivations strongly related to their sexuality. According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides mental health support to LGBTQ youth, gay/lesbian teens “seriously contemplate suicide” nearly three times more than straight youth and are five times as likely to attempt suicide.

So this study, reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, can’t be that surprising. Analyzing data from the multiple surveys on mental health of college students, the numbers were startling. While 3.7 percent of heterosexual young adults reported recent thoughts of suicide, the numbers increased for those questioning their sexuality (16.4 percent), living bisexual (11.4 percent) or identifying as gay or lesbian (6.5 percent). 

The numbers jump when it comes to attempting suicide: 5 percent for heterosexual youth, 20 percent for bisexual, 17 percent for questioning and 14 percent for gay or lesbian. 

The heartbreaking statistic came here:

“For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity was protective against thoughts of suicide and suicidal attempts in the heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.

Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”

One of the study’s authors, John R. Blosnich of West Virginia’s Injury Control Research Center, told the Huffington Post that studies for years have said considering religion important has limited the number of people considering suicide. But this study, as well as other surveys and data, indicates that things are different when it comes to sexual minorities.

So what do we do?

What Role Did the Church Play?

Before we get going: this is not an evaluation of whether or not homosexuality is a sin. That’s not the point of this piece. 

Anyway, most scientists of any stripe — social, physical, organic, chemistry, etc. — will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and I agree. But this study begs a question:

Has the Christian church played a role in this?

The HuffPo article says, accurately, that “some of America’s largest religious denominations still hold non-affirming views of queer sexuality,” including the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church *(see note at the bottom of this article)*. HuffPo quotes Amelia Markham, described as a “queer Christian activist” with The Reformation Project, an LBTQ-affirming Christian group, saying more needs to be done in helping Christians have “a more nuanced view of queer sexuality.”

“There are some serious questions we have to begin asking ourselves if maintaining one interpretation of our sacred text is demonstrably linked to bodily harm and spiritual devastation for an entire group of people,” Markham said. “That is something I hope religious folks across the board would begin to think and pray more critically through.”

Markham’s call is serious, and based on the numbers, I think it would be dishonest if the Christian church, particularly the evangelical wing, didn’t ask itself if it played a role in these numbers, these realities. 

Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did in this case. I’ve lived my whole life in a church culture that severely stigmatizes LGBTQ people, intentionally or not. The Christian evangelical community for many years has said flat-out that homosexuality is a sin, with some churches creating little to no space for LGBTQ people in churches, sometimes to negative consequences.

Countless stories have been told of teens or youth that have come out to their families and been rejected, sometimes kicked out. I listened to a podcast recently featuring Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, who said he experienced severe trauma and pain due to fighting his sexual feelings for years because of his church upbringing. Countless Christian authors and speakers, including Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker, were more or less banished from evangelical circles due to their belief that homosexuality is not a sin.

Very often, evangelical Christians defend their actions and beliefs with the statement that they’re just sticking to the Bible, defending God’s Word and loving people to tell them they’re sinners. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” they say. And while I’m sure there are many that are properly loving their LGBTQ family and friends and reflecting Christ in doing it, there are many LGBTQ people who have left the church and left God at least in part due to how they were treated by so-called Christians.

What Did Jesus Do?

Again, this is not a conversation about the sinfulness or non-sinfulness of homosexuality. This is a conversation about the effect the church’s position and attitude and approach to same-sex attraction and homosexuality has had on real people and real lives.

The culture hasn’t always done well with it, first of all. In 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming, an event that became a lynchpin for hate crimes due to looming suspicion the attack was motivated by Shepard’s sexuality. In 2010, 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi’s intimate encounter with another male. 

These events have caused a societal push for LGBTQ acceptance and understanding and further discussion about mental health and suicide. That’s all awesome, in my opinion. And while some Christian congregations are actively addressing these issues in the right way, it’s my opinion that the church at large is falling behind on both counts.

How often are Christian blog posts written about helping people that identify as LGBTQ that doesn’t involve telling them they’re sinful? How often are sermons given where we’re encouraged to learn from and understand our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends and family members? I’m sure those things happen, but not enough. We’re often more concerned with being “right” than being “a good neighbor.”

What did Paul do, and what did Jesus do, more importantly? The people that were considered outside the “religious crowd,” how did he handle them?

He loved them. And no, I’m not talking about loving people by “telling them the truth.” Yes, that is a form of love, but anything LGBTQ person that’s been around an evangelical Christian has more likely than not already received that kind of love. 

What Jesus did is eat. Matthew 9:10-13 —

“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Eating was a very intimate thing to do in those times. You’d sit at a table and take your shoes off, recline and spend time. There were no cell phones, no menus, no TVs nearby. Just the food and the people. 

Jesus ate with people labeled “sinners,” both in this passage and other times. In this particular passage, both Matthew and the Pharisees refer to Jesus’ dinner guests as “sinners.” Everyone at the time sinned, so the distinction made here is about identity. These people were identified by their sin — not their profession, not their father or family, but their sin. They were outcasts, pariahs, weirdos. But Jesus loved them the same.

In the current evangelical Christian culture, members of the LGBTQ community are among today’s “sinners.” They’re outcasts, pariahs, weirdos, different. Far too often, the church today is known for shunning those “sinners” instead of eating with them, loving them, appreciating them as people created in the image of God.

The Concept Falls Short

This is where “hate the sin, love the sinner” falls short on so many levels. I get the concept: love the people, hate what they do. But in practice, it fails far too often.

What happens when someone drinks too much alcohol? We may say, “Hey, he/she is drunk.” That person becomes defined by their actions. We do it with so many things: profession, interests, religion, etc. 

Members of the LGBTQ community often take pride in their sexuality and make that a primary identifier, something the evangelical church picks up on. Because the “sin” begins to identify the “sinner” in our minds, they become interchangeable, and we begin to hate the sinner. 

Most of this happens subconsciously and unintentionally, I believe, but we begin to treat people the way the biblical culture treated “sinners,” making them outsiders and pariahs. We spend more time trying to change them than love them. 

And then we go in on how bad the LGBTQ culture is. It’s all about how they need to change and how the “militant gay agenda” is ruining America and allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with is dangerous for our children. Again, not everyone is like that, but it’s said way too often.

First of all, imagine if Christians had been treated like members of the LGBTQ community have been treated over most of the last 40-50 years. Wouldn’t we be frustrated with the persecution? For a long time, sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t protected classes in discrimination laws. Imagine if religion was in the same place.

Second, to group the entire LGBTQ community, as some do, with the “militant gay agenda” is dishonest. Most, I believe, just want to live their lives and be treated fairly. To see extremists who call themselves “born again” compare LGBTQ people to the Ku Klux Klan would make anybody mad.

It’s insulting. It’s humiliating. It’s discriminatory. No wonder they don’t like us.

But some of them like Jesus. I wonder why. 

Maybe it was because He never spoke about the “militant pantheistic agenda” of the Roman Empire. Maybe it was because He hung out with the pariahs. He listened, loved and taught. He was condemning of the religious people, those who were gleeful in telling people why they were wrong. He encouraged all to repent while turning water to wine and five loaves and two fish into an overwhelming feast.

As Jesus said in Matthew 9, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” His ultimate desire was for people to love one another. Yes, His message was one of repentance and of turning from sin, but how did He go about His ministry? Where do we see His efforts? In the good news of salvation, in the dying on the cross for our sins to be forgiven. “Follow me,” he told the disciples, “and I will make you fishers of men.” He says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” He started with mercy and love and following Him. 

Maybe we should try to look more like him. Be listeners. Ask questions. Learn. Sympathize. Be compassionate. Treat people the way you would wish to be treated. 

That’s the Golden Rule, right?

I’ll end with a quote from a guy named Jeff Johnston with Focus on the Family. He wrote an incredibly powerful and helpful piece on “9 Ways to Reach Out to a Gay-Identified Friend,” which you should really check out. Here’s a bit:

“Imagine attending a gay pride parade and hearing insults shouted by church people standing on the sidelines. Would you want to follow a God like the one they’re displaying? Or imagine attending church and hearing derogatory language from the pulpit. Would you want to develop relationships with those people?”

– – – – – – – – – 

*Side note: the UMC’s official Book of Doctrine states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” but most, American Methodists affirm LGBTQ individuals in their theology. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/slim-majority-of-methodists-support-same-sex-marriage/)

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BARS at the Cinema: CAPTAIN MARVEL and Changing Your Mind

NOTE: If you have not seen Captain Marvel yet, it might be best for you to avoid this piece. It has significant spoilers for the movie, which is fun and worth a watch.

A movie that’s stuck with me for a long time is Come Sunday, a Netflix film about preacher Carlton Pearson. I wrote about it here.

I referenced it the other day in conversation with a film critic about the movie First Reformed. In both movies, a preacher who’s done things the same way for a long time is challenged with a negative truth and is forced, either by rational thinking or a spiritual experience, to change what they believe.

In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Ernst Toller is shaken by the suicide of a congregant’s husband. The man loses hope in the world, despite having a wife and a child on the way, due to growing climate change and impending environmental disaster. Toller pastors a small, traditional church that receives support from a megachurch led by Cedric the Entertainer’s Rev. Jeffers. Toller and Jeffers butt heads over how much the church should do about environmental change.

In Come Sunday, based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Pearson sees a news report about the 1994 mass genocide in Rwanda and has what he deems to be a spiritual epiphany: there is no hell as commonly defined by the church. This puts him in direct conflict with the stated theology of his denomination’s elders and his spiritual mentor, Martin Sheen’s Oral Roberts.

Both of these films explore what happens when someone learns something new and it changes their world. Both also have a significant Christian/religious bent to them, which is probably why I like them.

But another movie, Captain Marvel, explores a similar theme, and while it doesn’t do it as well as Come Sunday or First Reformed, it makes you think about what it’s like to learn something new.

I won’t give the customary plot summary here because this part of the movie (SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!) comes in the second act.

Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel learns that the Kree race she has dedicated her life to — thanks to a plane crash, some brain-washing and super science — have misled her on the threat of the Skrulls, and that her people are the real villains. It shakes her world. All the while, she’s dealing with the fact that while she thinks she’s always been a Kree, she was actually an Earth-dwelling human for most of her life.

The movie does a half-decent job of exploring how these major shifts in thinking affect Carol. I think the filmmakers could have done more, but the theme is at least introduced, and I think it has a lot to tell us about living the Christian life.

The Bible is chock full of people who lived their entire lives thinking one thing and then changed in the blink of an eye when they got new information.

The disciples were just fishermen, doing their thing, when Jesus comes up and radically shifts their worldview and their profession. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:19.

Saul was a Jew of Jews, zealous, imprisoning and killing Christians, when Jesus stopped him on the road to Damascus and changed his life. Eventually, his name was changed too, to Paul. He went from killing Christians to trying to recruit people to be Christians.

That’s a significant shift. We don’t know exactly how long it took Paul, Peter and Andrew to make that change in their minds. The Bible presents them as just changing their lives almost immediately. We do see that all of them have to take some time to adjust — Paul learns from the apostles for a time, and the disciples clearly didn’t get it for a long time.

When we become Christians, we make a similar shift, a similar change. We go from death to life, from condemned to saved. We learn a lot more about ourselves and who we were and who we are going to become.

Just like Carol Danvers, Carlton Pearson and Ernst Toller, our allegiances shift and we begin fighting and living life for a new purpose. That can be hard. Some of our friends and family will resist that change, wondering why in the world we’re investing in this new thing, thinking we’re losing our minds. Your brain has to create new ways of thinking due to this shift.

Clearly, this is a film trope that’s been around for a long time, but it’s a reflection of real life.

I want to end this reflection on Captain Marvel with this encouragement: there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading this, your mind is shifting on something. It’s part of life, and evolution is critical to humanity existing. If we didn’t change our thought processes and create telephones, vaccines, automobiles and more, we may not exist, or we’d still be like we were in the 1600s.

I believe your life of faith is the same way. Through reading man’s reflections on God and God’s words themselves in the Bible, we can learn wisdom and grow as Christians. By praying and seeking input and conversation with other Christians, we can change for the better to more reflect who Jesus is and what He wants for us.

But like Carol, Ernst and Carlton, we need to be open to it. I’m not writing this to pass judgment on their changes. But they set a good example for us to be open to being wrong and changing to reflect the reality around us.

Changing your mind isn’t an inherently bad thing. Sometimes, it can make the difference between following yourself and following Jesus. Give it a shot sometime.

How Christianity Increased My Anxiety, and Why You Don’t Have to Have the Same Experience

I know the title of this post will make some people instantly protective. God’s not a God of confusion, they’ll say. How could you take something as clear as the Bible and get confused by that?

A few reasons: God may not be a God of confusion, but how we talk about Him often leaves me confused. And the Bible isn’t really all that clear, if we’re being honest.

It’s things like clarity and certainty that help people with anxiety, that give us a sense of peace and purpose in a crazy world. But the Christianity most of us follow do little to assuage those of us who think a lot and think deeply. 

The reality is that the Christianity that’s real, the Christianity that’s true, allows us freedom to follow God mostly on our terms, in our environments and personalities and likes and dislikes. Of course, that does not give us license to sin willy nilly. But I’ve found out more about following Jesus when I learn it myself in my circumstances and my reality instead of following someone else’s prescribed rules. 

The first key to finding this freedom is understanding what makes us a Christian. What does the Bible say? In Romans 10:9-10, Paul explains: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believe and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

Being saved? Believe in Jesus and confess it. That’s it. There’s no list of stipulations we have to meet to be a Christian except for those things.

We get into trouble — and my anxiety ramps up — when we begin to place stipulations and clauses in our “contract for being a Christian.” We ask questions like, “How is your time in the Word?” And “how much are you praying?” 

Well, if I am spending time “in the word,” whatever that means, how much is enough? How do I know if I’ve met the requirement to satisfy whatever your desire is? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes? 

If I am praying, how much is enough? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes? 

Inevitably, I’m going to fall short. And in so much of modern Christianity, we define “how Christian we are” by how our actions seem to reflect our faith. While there is biblical basis for that understanding — James 2:17 states that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” — there is no standard given. There’s no specific guidelines. So giving out specific guidelines, while it may be helpful, and implying that faithfulness is measured by a certain level of “obedience” is not biblical, and leads to more anxiety and confusion.

A list of stipulations shows us we will always fall short, and when we define our Christianity by our actions, we will always fall short of feeling that we’re a Christian. The Bible never defines our Christianity by our actions. James says that Abraham’s “faith was completed by his works” (2:22). Our actions are the out-working of our faith and being a Christian, not the essence of it.

The second key to finding this freedom is understanding what the Bible is. Other than the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law, there is no list of rules in the Bible that tells people how to live their lives. Even if there was, the Bible wasn’t written directly for us. It was written for a different people in a different time. 

That doesn’t make it useless. In fact, the Bible is stock full of wisdom and guidance that we would do well to heed. But we need to understand that the Bible was not designed as a checklist of rule-keeping. It’s a bunch of letters, histories, prophecies, poetry, songs and advice. But there’s tons and tons of wisdom in there, in both the Old and New Testaments. 

And most of all, we have the Word of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). That Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17). 

The modern church has a long history of making the Bible a list of rules, but it’s conveniently left some things out. For instance, women are allowed to speak in church despite Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and it seems that a woman not covering her head while praying is disgraceful and dishonoring according to 1 Corinthians 11:4-6. 

Since the Bible is not a list of rules, or even “God’s letter to us” — because it’s made up of letters to people from people — we’re freed to read it as it is and gain the wisdom and guidance we need to live as God’s people. 

The third key to finding this freedom is understanding who Jesus is. As already stated, the Bible says that Jesus is the “Word of God” (John 1:1), and is the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). But most importantly, a relationship with him looks like rest. He says it Himself in Matthew 1:28-30.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That’s the words of God, in the person of Jesus. There seems to be some clarification here that when we come to Jesus, we don’t get a list of rules or a standard to uphold. We get rest. Taking his yoke upon us, it seems, leads to rest. It leads to learning. 

If we’re not getting that from following Jesus, we’re not following Jesus. We’re following some picture of Jesus that has been created by ourselves or the “Christian culture” around us. 

Re-Imaging the One Who Created the Image: A Review of Pete Enns’ “How the Bible Actually Works”

The Bible has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.

I don’t know how many I’ve owned over the years, but I feel that I’ve always perceived it one way: it’s God’s word, given to us from heaven, good for everything that we can ever come across.

Of course, that general view has been slightly altered at different times, but it’s generally been that way. However, in recent months, I’ve begun asking some questions about the Bible that I never asked before, and honestly, was afraid to ask.

Is all of it really from God? Should we trust every single word? Are there errors? Are some of the instructions and commandments morally or spiritually wrong?

It’s in that backdrop that I read Pete Enns’ “How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers — and Why That’s Great News.” It’s available worldwide later this month, and you can read more about it here.

I’ll cover how I view it as a piece of literature — because I’m a writer, I have to do that — and then I’ll tackle the theological points posited.

Literary Value

Enns is a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and host of the podcast “The Bible for Normal People.” His background includes Old Testament interpretation and a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard, and it shows, but in a way that’s digestable.

You might think a book that covers deep theological topics and translation issues might be difficult to read, and that would be perfectly understandable. I bet there are few Christian books that really cover those issues in the way that Enns does. He uses comparisons to his mailman, the New York Yankees and parenthood to get across his points, making the subject matter relatable and accessible. Enns also employs humor quite well most of the time, making even the footnotes worth the read for whatever fun fact might be found.

Enns flows from topic to topic fairly seamlessly, and it’s a fairly enjoyable read, but I do have one qualm with his writing. He often uses the word “reimagining” when it should be a different word, like “re-imaging,” that might get across his point better. And that brings us into the theological part of this review.

Theological Points

Enns’ point is best summed up this way: each book of the Bible was written to fit the culture in which it was written and is best used as a guide for wisdom, not a step-by-step instruction manual that provides a how-to for being a Christian.

When processed, that thought might be difficult for many Protestant Christians. After all, the Bible has been taught to us as God’s word, given to us, completely inspired and inerrant, perfect and completely applicable to us now. To take a different tact than that is in and of itself bold, but Enns’ argument is worth a listen.

Enns argues that the Bible is ancient, ambiguous and diverse, which means that we can’t take each and every command and directive and make it mean the same today as it did when it was written. He says that the Bible itself and the Jewish and Christian traditions that follow it have had the adaptive approach of what God was seen to be, a “reimagining” of who God is.

In the end, Enns says, that’s what his book and the Bible itself is about, seeing who God is through the lens of the author and their experiences and the culture around them. After all, we all do it.

“God is relentlessly reimagined all around us,” he writes. “American Christians have imagined God as feminist, environmentalist, capitalist, refugee, soldier, Republican, Democrat, socialist, and on and on. Some portraits of God I agree with more than others (and let the debates begin), but the act of reimagining God in ways that reflect our time in place is self-evident, unavoidable, and necessary” (157).

Enns cites seeming contradictions in the Bible as examples of that, not the least of which is a couple Christians today take for granted.

The Old Testament seems to describe the coming Messiah as a new king of Israel that will rule over its enemies and provide a land for them. The New Testament re-images that Messiah as Jesus Christ, the self-proclaimed Son of God whose kingdom is not of earth, but of a different realm (John 18:36).

The Old Testament commands that followers of Yahweh make animal sacrifices and men to be circumcised. In the New Testament, Paul re-images what God asks of His followers by saying we need to be circumcised of heart and that the sacrifice of animals was replaced by the eternal and sealing sacrifice of Jesus (just read all of Hebrews).

A Challenge

The practical outworking of some of these contradictions Enns presents, which he acknowledges, is that God is not the direct word-for-work speaker of these passages. It is the authors utilizing their wisdom, which the Bible provides, to re-image God for the time they live in.

Side note: Enns uses the term “reimagine,” which I feel doesn’t accurately capture his point. “Reimagine” almost intimates creating something new, while “re-imaging” means developing a new understanding of. I feel “re-imaging” is more to his point, but that’s just a small quarrel I have.

Anyway, this becomes a challenge for the evangelical reader that might pick up this book. Enns has been criticized in the past for his perspectives on the Bible, particularly his hint toward a lack of God-direct inspiration.

And I can understand the criticisms. Some of his arguments in How the Bible Actually Works seem a bit stretched to cover the Bible as a whole while they may only just apply to that one passage. And he consistently says something the effect of “and there are many more examples” without providing a list or passages to go to.

Perhaps this is an academic’s attempt to make his thoughts accessible to a common audience, and I don’t blame him for trying.

Something else that will also lose some audience is a failure to handle the verse most Christians go to, 2 Timothy 3:16, as the basis for their interpretation of Scripture.

Not One Way or the Other

I firmly believe that Enns doesn’t have the same perspective of the Bible as many people I know or those I grew up around. But I do believe his perspective can fit in or even go with most of what evangelical Christianity believes.

We generally believe that each book of the Bible needs to be read in the context of who wrote it, where it was written, when it was written, etc. So we don’t apply each of the Old Testament laws, but try to glean wisdom from them as necessary.

We also try often to understand what God or Jesus would say or think about a certain issue. We do it every time we answer a “why” question about a piece of Scripture that doesn’t have an obvious answer. Why does Paul say this, or why does David imply that?

I don’t think evangelical Christians need to completely dismiss Enns’ view out of hand. I think you can believe the tale of Jonah is a fictional account meant to encourage Israelites to accept outsiders and realize God cares for Gentiles, as Enns suggests, and still inspired by God.

And I think most, if not all, Christians can abide by Enns words near the end of the book:

“Whatever else we do, and especially with issues that generate so much conflict, wisdom must be pursued by all and invited to take a prominent place in these discussions — if only so that they may remain discussions and not an exercise in lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades. Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.”

*Note: I received a free copy of the book from HarperOne as part of the book’s launch team. Thanks for that and for the encouragement of those who were part of the team, who encouraged me more than they know.

Social Media Drives Me Bonkers. But I’m Sticking with It. And I Think You Should Too.

As I perused Facebook and Twitter today, I got sick. I think I ate too much beef.

My feeds today were filled with all sorts of arguments, squabbles, disagreements, outrage and, as the kids say these days, “beef.”

Franklin Graham and Lady Gaga. Cardi B — I’m still not entirely sure who that is — and people who say her latest music video undermines the #MeToo movement. No female directors getting Oscar nominations. Taraji P. Henson making some comparison that got people all upset. 

There’s so much bad blood and people disagreeing over things and people mad at each other, politicians, musicians, actors, athletes. You name it, somebody’s mad at it. And all that madness and dispute and hatred festers on social media. 

I think it does that for a few reasons. There are millions of people on social media, so it’s where the world interacts with one another. Social media allows people to voice their opinions, however well thought out or flawed. There’s also little oversight or moderation, so we often get to see the worst in others. 

Today, I seriously considered quitting Facebook and Twitter. Honestly. I’ve thought about it hundreds of times, but it was fleeting thoughts. 

I don’t think I’m addicted to the outrage. I hope I’m not, at least. 

But I didn’t quit. For practical reasons, I have to use Facebook and Twitter for my employment as a reporter, but there’s one other major reason, and it goes back to why I got Facebook in the first place.

Becoming an Adult on Social

I almost completely missed MySpace — I had a page for about 90 days, then my parents made me delete it. I did get it kind of secretly, so maybe I deserved it.

I got on Facebook and Twitter during my freshman year of high school, 2007. So I spent the entirety of my high school and college years, save a few months, hooked into the machine. 

I used Facebook first. It became the platform for my day-to-day activities, random comments on Carolina Hurricanes games and eventually the venue for me to post links to my fledgling blog, which mostly featured movie reviews. I analyzed my classmates’ comments on what was obviously their romantic relationships and misjudged people’s statements to me. It was the Internet, after all. It’s the haven for misunderstandings.

Twitter became the place to follow bands and athletes to see what they were up to, to keep up with sports news and highlights and find out when the latest track was coming out. As I got further and further into my studies of journalism, I learned that Twitter was a tool for sharing news in real-time and live-tweeting from sports games, much to the annoyance of at least one college friend.

I graduated from college and, a couple years later, found myself utilizing social media in my most recent job, as a newspaper reporter in my hometown. On my professional account, I would tweet often the latest news and highlights from local government meetings while keeping up with the news of the day, local, state and national. On my personal account, I would keep up with my favorite sports teams, authors and musicians, just like before. I’d occasionally post comments about Arsenal Football Club, hoping against hope that one of them would go viral amongst the Gunners’ rabid social media-crazed fan base. None of them ever have, by the way.

I knew those crazies existed beyond Arsenal supporters. I’d see it in response to the latest political development or social event that captured eyes and ears. 

But over the last few months in particular — more or less revolving around the government shutdown, funny enough — I’ve gotten sick of it. It’s obnoxious. It’s hashtags and disses, beefs and slams. It’s trying to be first and trying to be funniest. In a lot of ways, social media shows the worst of us. We often take our gut reaction and make it public in the most public way: putting it on the Internet, unfiltered for all to see. 

I’m just as guilty, although it’s usually about something as petty as a professional sports team. And most of the time I feel like I display enough patience. (Judge for yourself: I’m at @zacharyhorner21.) I feel like I carry that to Facebook as well.

So while I know I’ve made good use of these platforms in the last 12 years, both personally and professionally, it’s so tempting to leave it all behind, to let the beefs be on buns only and not on my phone screen.

But, as stated previously, I can’t for practical reasons. But because it gives me a window into the world, I need it.

In It, Not of It, As It Were

One of the more popular phrases in Christendom is that we’re called to be “in the world, not of it.” I think it’s been over-used and misunderstood, personally, and we get to see what it really means by looking at Paul.

Paul’s ministry, as outlined in the book of Acts, is one of living, eating and speaking among the people, wherever they were. He went to the synagogues, to the temples and to the places where the intellectuals spent their time. It’s that latter one that’s my favorite.

In Acts 17, Paul is hanging out in Athens and while there, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (v. 16). So he begins talking to people in the synagogue and the marketplace. Verses 17-18 record that he spoke with Jews, “devout persons,” everyday people in the marketplace and Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. It’s the stark difference of his philosophy and religion that catches the eye of the intellectuals of the city, and they take him to the Areopagus, where “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (v. 21). 

What Paul says at the Areopagus is worthy of reading itself. He speaks about Jesus, relating Him to the Athenians’ daily existence and their philosophy. 

But I want to key in on why Paul was there in the first place. He was out and about, listening to people, seeing people, learning from others about their lives and their existence. It’s because of that experience that he’s able to relate to those who spent their time at the Areopagus. 

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, we get to see his philosophy and thinking behind his method:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not myself being under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

I love this so much because Paul tells us the key to his evangelism, and thus gives us an important piece of advice at winning the world to Christ. And for me, a reason to stay on social media.

A Snapshot of Reality

“Fake news” is everywhere. It’s in the media, it’s in the halls of politics, it’s in the corporate board rooms, the church sanctuaries. Yes, the church sanctuaries.

I’ve spent years in church, and one thing I’ve noted is that we seem to struggle at understanding why non-Christians do what they do. We care about them and we want to see them changed and following Jesus. And that’s amazing! That’s exactly what we should want. But far too often, we stop there without trying to understand their realities. 

When we see someone who identifies as LGBTQ, we want them to be straight without trying to learn why they became LGBTQ in the first place. When we see someone who’s left their spouse, we want them to reunite without figuring out what caused them to leave. When we see a skeptic, we want them to believe without attempting to understand their rationale for not believing. 

I’m not saying this is a universal thing, that all Christians and all churches are like this, but I believe that if we as the body of Christ adopted this method, we’d be able to shed the “fake news” we assume about the world and try to understand where people are really coming from. 

We assume people LGBTQ rights because they don’t believe in Jesus. We assume people leave their spouse because they’re sinful and lazy. We assume people are skeptical because they hate Jesus and God. While there might be some truths in there, it’s often more complicated than that. The LGBTQ people I’ve known have given differing reasons for their lifestyle choice, and it’s often not simple. 

I think of the recent controversy over the kids from the Catholic school and the protestors at the recent March for Life. I’m not going to weigh in on that controversy here, but in that scenario, we learned that it’s much better to wait, to understand what actually happened, where people were actually coming from, before assessing the situation and rendering a judgment. So many people, myself included, grew judgmental and critical of those in the situation before hearing the full story.

In the same way, we need to listen to others and understand their lives, their realities before creating one for them and approaching them based on what we’ve imposed on them ourselves. That’s what Paul did. He spent time in Athens, talked to people and then rendered his perspective and brought it back to the Gospel. 

A word about “echo chambers”: Paul didn’t live in one. He spent a lot of time with Christians, yes, but he clearly took the time to understand viewpoints he didn’t share. We should, ideally, do the same.

Dipping the Toes in to Get Wet

In the same way, we should stay on our social media platforms and exist on them each day long enough just to get a snapshot of reality, to see what the culture is like, what it’s doing and what it cares about.

Of course, some of us should set boundaries about how long we spend, what we do on that social media, etc. That’s not what this post is about, but I wanted to re-affirm good boundaries and limits because social media, like most things, can become addicting. 

Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Odds are, you found this because I posted a link to it on social media.

Social media can serve a great purpose. We can use it to share about what God is doing in our lives, interact with fans of our favorite sports teams for fun conversations, showcase photos of our meals and new pets and, in some cases, express our opinion on a difficult or controversial topic. 

It’s up to you, of course, how much you share. But if you’re on social media now, I encourage you to stick with it. You never know what you’ll learn, and you’ll never know what you learn will mean down the road.

I Read 2 John in 5 Minutes. Here’s 3 Takeaways.

I read 2 John this morning. It was pretty easy. I mean, it’s only 13 verses, five of them are greetings and goodbyes.

But while I read it, I came across three things that challenged me today, that inspired me and made me think.

“Some of your children walking in the truth”

First of all, the whole “walking in” phrase related to Christianity is an under-evaluated piece of Christianese. That’s for another post, I think.

Secondly, what a great thing for this to be said of the “elect lady” that is the recipient of this letter! Of course, as I look this up and do a bit of research, and apparently some say the “elect lady” is symbolic of the church. But the whole text doesn’t bear that out.

Anyway, for a mother in the church to be singled out by an apostle of Jesus for the faithful obedience of her children, that’s huge. I love two things about this.

First, there’s John’s encouragement. He takes the time to compliment this mother by acknowledging her children as being obedient to the commands of God. It’s a slight call for all of us in the church to be more adamant about encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Second: Isn’t that what we all want for our kids? I don’t have kids yet, but when I read that this morning, I was so challenged. I want my kids to be “walking in the truth.” I want my kids to be following Jesus so closely that everything they do is shaped by what God has called us to.

Loving others = following God’s commands

Loving others, John writes, means following God’s commands. Verse 6 says:

And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.

2 John 6

Loving others means, among other things: telling the truth and not lying, providing hospitality, listening to other’s issues, praying for others in need. It means we do that for anyone and everyone, and that is the sign we are believers in Jesus. That is the sign of love.

And, as John writes later, “whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (v. 9b). That’s what I want.

Be careful when interacting with false teachers

The epistles and the book of Acts in particular records many instances of people twisting the message of Jesus to suit their desires, whether it be financial or popularity. In 2 John, the author warns the elect lady about those false teachers:

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greetings, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked words.

2 John 10-11

I struggled with this one for a bit because it seems kind of heartless. My immediate takeaway is this: “Don’t greet or have any kind of hospitable interaction with people who preach a false gospel, because those kind of interactions signal agreement.”

I think this interpretation is a practical outworking of the common thought that goes something like this: If you don’t actively oppose, in word or deed, something or someone bad, you are implicitly endorsing it.

I think that’s simplifying it a little bit. I think there are a lot of things I’m against, but I don’t have the time and resources to dedicate to all of them. Not being active in it by using a hashtag or attending a rally doesn’t mean you don’t care. It just means you have better things to do.

Not that that’s always true per se, but I think it’s important we make that distinction.

A side note: I’m not just talking about the “social justice warrior” crowd here who say that. I’m talking also about the “evangelicals” who participate in it as well.

Anyway, I hope John’s intent here was to be hospitable to people and to be kind, but not to endorse false teaching or wish well those who preach that on their preaching. I don’t know if it was his intent, but I hope that was it.

If it was, that’s awesome. We should be hospitable to and welcoming of those with whom we disagree. We should be kind. We should be loving. But loving doesn’t mean endorsing something we believe is wrong or wishing someone well on their mission.

The Books I Read in 2018 (And I Ranked Them)

So I read more books in 2018 than I’ve read in a year in a long time. Maybe it’s due to my wife, who devours book, or maybe I’ve just decided to educate myself more than I wanted to in the past.

For whatever reason, here I am, with the 12 books I read in 2018, briefly reviewing them and then ranking them. I’ll give a little description for books 1-3 on the list.

Hope you enjoy it!

12. Churchless
George Barna & David Kinnaman (of the Barna Group)
Genre: Religious Studies/Sociology
Released: October 2014
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #456,218

11. Sinatra in Hollywood
Tom Santopietro (Film Historian)
Genre: Biography/Film History
Released: November 2008
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,147,818

10. The Fall of the House of FIFA: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer
David Conn (Reporter, The Guardian)
Genre: Sports
Released: June 2017
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #360,242

9. Faith
Jimmy Carter (Former President of the United States)
Genre: Political Science/Religious Studies
Released: July 2017
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #89,402

8. The End of White Christian America
Robert P. Jones (CEO of Public Religion Research Institute)
Genre: Political Science/Religious Studies
Released: July 2017
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #89,402

7. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a 
Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free

Linda Kay Klein
Genre: Christianity/Women’s Issues
Released: September 2018
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,103

6. A Reporter’s Life
Walter Cronkite
Genre: Autobiography/History/Media
Released: 1997
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,829

5. Saints and Sinners
Lawrence Wright
Genre: Religious Studies/Biography
Released: May 1995
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #414,285

4. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah
Genre: Comedy/Memoir
Released: January 2017
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #360

3. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on 
Water, and Loving the Bible Again
Rachel Held Evans
Genre: Christianity
Released: June 2018
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,842

I don’t agree with everything Rachel Held Evans says — but I don’t agree with everything anybody says. However, I feel that Evans’ exploration and journey with the Bible in this book is worth reading because it caused me to ask some serious questions about my faith and grew it.

Evans wrestles with seeming contradictions both in the Bible itself and how Christian culture seems to say one thing and believe another. I found myself in her shoes very often — wondering how in the world we call the Bible inerrant but ignoring passages on how women dress, yet still saying it’s all literally true.

I think the Bible is still the Word of God, most of it at least. Some of it is just man trying to figure out how to live in a way that honors God — look at the psalms and some of the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, even Paul. That doesn’t mean, as she concludes, that it’s useless or worthless. We just need a fresh lens to look at it the way it was meant to be read.

2. The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the 
Correspondents, Staff and Guests
Chris Smith
Genre: Comedy/Television History/Media
Released: October 2017
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #34,466

While he was on television on a regular basis, Jon Stewart was, for my money, one of the best observers of the political and media landscape. You can disagree with his political viewpoint, which he wasn’t afraid to be honest about, but his war on hypocrisy and media laziness was fun to watch for a journalist like myself who abhores both of those things.

This book includes input from Stewart and many of the stars that came from The Daily Show — Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee and more — about the making of the show and the years Stewart was its figurehead. It doesn’t shy away from the tough times, including Stewart’s tiff with correspondent Wyatt Cenac and the early years of middling success. Mainly, it’s a book about people trying to be funny talking about politics and government, and it’s a good one if you’re into that kind of thing.

1. The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson
Jeffrey Toobin
Genre: History/True Crime
Released: September 2015 – reissue edition (1997 – original)
Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #34,466

I really enjoyed watching the FX series of the same name — “The People v. O.J. Simpson” — because of the performances, the drama, the intrigue. I was less than three years old when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, so I was not aware of the media circus and the craze that accompanied Simpson’s charges and later acquittal.

Toobin’s on-the-ground reporting and research plays out throughout this narrative that does read like a true crime thriller. You get to know the characters – Simpson, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden and Robert Shapiro among them. Toobin’s take definitely has a legal edge to it, as he’s very critical of Clark & Darden’s approach to the prosecution. To be fair, they did lose the case handily.

This is a must-read for anyone interested in the true crime genre, although you start the book knowing the ending. It was the best book I read this year, and I fully recommend it to whoever out there is a reader.

God Is Greater Than Satan. Duh. And We Benefit.

Image courtesy of Calvary Chapel Birmingham

I think sometimes, as Christians, we can overemphasize how much we give up to follow Jesus the way we do.

God asks us to lay down our lives for Him. It’s all over the place in the Bible. Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says. The woman who gives all she has to the offering is following God’s will, Jesus says.

That is all beautiful and significant, but we must not forget that God has given us so much in return for our faith. We have received and will receive far more than we will ever sacrifice to follow Jesus. I think of two Bible passages in particular that show me that abundantly.

The first I read just now in 1 John 4. He is writing about spirits that come into the world through false prophets, spirits that lead people astray from the true way of Christ. The right spirits, the ones you know are from God, John writes, are those that confess “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (v. 2). They say that Jesus is God, that He was and is the image of the invisible God. Remember, at this time, Jesus’s physical presence on earth wasn’t that long ago.

John continues to write encouragement to his audience, particularly in verse 4:

Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.

1 John 4:4

First of all, I love that John calls his readers “little children.” He’s done it before, in 2:28 and 3:7, and I just love it. It’s very fatherly and compassionate and wise-sounding to me.

Secondly, his emphasis is that God is greater than Satan. Duh. This seems obvious, but I don’t know if we always get it.

So often in Christian culture, I feel, we get so worried about the state of “the world” and how it will harm the church and the youth and society. While there are things in “the world” that are harmful and destructive, I think that, in those moments, we forget what God is capable of.

God is greater than Satan. Any move that Satan makes in the world, God is so much greater than Satan that not only can He match Satan’s move, He can one-up them, easily. We may not always see God’s moves the way we see Satan’s moves so often, but they’re there and they’re accessible.

Correct, they’re accessible. John says that his audience has “overcome” those false-prophet spirits because God is greater than Satan. And this leads us to our second passage.

In just one book prior, 2 Peter, the disciple of Jesus starts off his letter by explaining that as believers we have access to something very special because we are God’s children:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

2 Peter 1:3-4

God has made us “partakers of the divine nature” through His promises. What did He promise us? He promised us His Holy Spirit, by which we know how to live and be godly. He gave us His Word, Jesus, so we know how to live and be godly.

Because He’s given us this power, we can fight sin! We can choose right over wrong. We can see who is a false prophet and who is not.

We can be like God in those ways. There are many ways we can’t be like God, and thank Him for it. But we need to remember that we can access that power in moments of weakness, moments of temptation, moments of happiness.

He is there, and He is for us. And He is greater than Satan. Alleluia, amen.

God Can Handle Your Questions

As a journalist, I make my living asking questions. 

Questions are important. Questions are vital to our lives because, as limited humans, we don’t know everything we need to know, and we don’t know most of the things we want to know.

A lot of times in journalism and reporting, it’s about asking the right question, not necessarily the right amount of questions. A journalist at the White House recently got in trouble for asking the president supposedly “too many” questions, and while I won’t get into the politics here, I can see both sides’ frustrations in that issue. Sometimes you can be pesky and ask the wrong questions and be obnoxious.

Recently, I’ve been asking a lot of questions of God, particularly as it relates to the Bible, Christian culture and my personal choices and experiences in life. I won’t get into those questions here — maybe someday — but it’s caused me to think about how we in the church handle people questioning God.

For many, I believe, church isn’t the place where difficult questions can be asked safely. Questions like “How can I be saved?” and “Can I join the church?” are pretty easy to handle, I think, but there are some that we as a body of Christ don’t always do a good job responding to well, particularly when it comes to doubts over the reliability of the Bible and certain political positions.

As I’ve wrestled with questions of my own, I’ve come to one particular answer: God can handle our questions. He can handle when we doubt Him. He isn’t put off by us wondering whether or not He’s right. In fact, as we can see in a few passages of Scripture, He isn’t despondent or critical when we wonder whether or not He’s all He claims to be. He’s the exact opposite.

The Meat and the Fleece

The story of Gideon is fairly well-known if you’ve been in church for a while, but I’ll give the short version.

In Judges 6, God is shown to be pretty upset at Israel, His chosen people, so he gives them over to the military might of the Midianites and Amalekites. One day, “the angel of the LORD,” often believed to be Jesus Himself, comes to a guy named Gideon (v. 11), and tells him that he will lead the army of Israel against Midian. 

Twice, Gideon asks God to show him a sign. First, in v. 17-24, the angel of the LORD sets meat and cakes on fire via supernatural spontaneous combustion from a rock. Then in v. 36-40, God twice made a fleece wet with dew while keeping the ground around it dry.

God had spoken to Gideon and directly told him, “Hey man, you’re going to lead the army of Israel against Midian, your country’s oppressors, and I’m going to give you the victory.” 

But my man Gideon — seeing himself as “the least in (his) father’s house” and part of the “weakest” clan in his country (v. 15) — doubted. He asked God question after question, even put Him to the test with the fleece. Both times, God answered Gideon’s questions. In the next chapter, God used Gideon and 300 men to defeat a whole army of Midianites. It was the original 300.

This is not the only time in Scripture God responds to questions of those He calls. 

I think also of Moses in Exodus 3 — “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Then there’s Jeremiah in the first chapter of his eponymous book —“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” 

All of these men questioned God’s call on their lives, His specific, pointed direction for their future. But instead of belittling them and ignoring them, He went a step further and spoke directly to their fears. God Himself even initiated physical contact with a man (Jeremiah 1:9) and turned a staff into a snake (Exodus 4:3), as well as His multiple interactions with Gideon.

If God can handle their questions, He can handle yours.

Are Doubters and Questioners Really That Bad?

An article on the popular evangelical website The Gospel Coalition sparked my thought process and interest in this topic.

Posted on Nov. 13, writer Alisa Childers’ “3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share” caught some flack from people on my Twitter timeline, especially for this final paragraph:

“After all, the contemporary views that many people call ‘progressive’ aren’t progressive anyway: they’re very old, echoes of that primordial question, ‘Did God really say’ (Genesis 3:1), signs of the most wicked rebellion imaginable. And we all know where that ends up.”

In the piece, Childers criticized the thoughts and positions of authors like Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns and Rob Bell who have expressed doubts about the traditional understanding of the Bible. Childers’ reasoning was that doubting and questioning that understanding was one of the first steps to complete atheism. She extended that criticism to those who “may have an unresolved answer to the problem of evil” and “may affirm a culture-adapting morality.”

Along with quoting some of her targets’ work out of context — Evans’ book Inspired, which Childers quoted multiple times and I have read personally, was the most misunderstood — Childers’ article left little room for conversation, understanding and nuance. Instead of trying to really understand where people were coming from and speaking directly to their doubts and questions, she name-dropped those who don’t fall exactly in line with the traditional evangelical thinking and ignored the nuance and stories of their lives.

And here’s the final issue: by comparing these modern “progressive Christians” to the devil himself, she’s also comparing Gideon, Moses and Jeremiah to the serpent. Those men questioned God’s word to them to His face! Gideon was like, “So God, I know that you told me this, but did you really? Prove it to me.” Moses was like, “No, I mean, I know you said this, but I can’t do that. Are you sure you got it right?” Jeremiah, likewise, basically said, “Um, I can’t speak for you, I’m not good enough. You must have picked the wrong dude.”

It’s in these rough assessments like Childers’ piece of questions and those who question that we as the Church lose the skeptics. We don’t make ourselves as accessible as our God is to those who doubt and those who wonder. 

The Holes in the Hands

My new favorite story about doubt and questions is found in John 20:24-29. It’s about “Doubting Thomas,” which is really an unfortunate nickname because we tag the guy with a very small part of his life.

Jesus has recently resurrected Himself and has spent time amongst the disciples, save for the deceased Judas and Thomas. For whatever reason, the latter wasn’t with them the first time. The other disciples told him, “Hey man, we saw Jesus. It was sweet!” He responded, quite rationally, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (v. 25).

A little more than a week later, Thomas and the disciples were “inside again” — which I assume means that they were dining on some KFC and playing Boggle — and even though the doors were locked, Jesus showed up. The Scripture records that He goes to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Instantly, Thomas believes.

Jesus took some time — eight days, in fact — to answer Thomas’ doubts, but He answered them. He came to Thomas directly and said, “Hey man, here’s the answer.” Jesus, God Himself, was willing to acquiesce to the questions of man and the doubts of those who questioned Him. 

We have no right to question Thomas’ questions. Indeed, how often do we doubt something true we hear about Jesus? That He is with us in the storm? That He loves us in our sin? That He really wants what’s best for us? 

Doubt and questioning in and of itself is not sinful. Exploring those doubts and seeking answers to those questions is not sinful in and of itself. As the body of Christ, we must give the Thomases, the Moseses, the Gideons and the Jeremiahs the room to explore their doubts and questions. We must be willing to walk alongside them as they seek answers, not immediately write them off as “not believing the right thing” and certainly not comparing them to Satan. As Paul told the Areopagus in Acts 17, God made men “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him…he is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 26).

God can handle your questions. May we be a church that does the same.

The Death of Nuance: Max Baer, Hollywood, Modern America and the Church

One of my favorite books is Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History. It follows the lives of boxers James J. Braddock and Max Baer leading up to their 1935 heavyweight title bout, which Braddock won in upset fashion.

Braddock, a New Jersey native, was one of the best light heavyweight boxers in the world, but lost a title fight against Tommy Loughran in 1929. He was emotionally shattered by the loss, and his right hand, his strongest hand, was similarly fractured. Whereas before he was a strong, well-liked contender, his next 33 fights led to a record of 11-20-2.

Then the Great Depression hit. His financial stability shattered, he quit boxing and worked as a longshoreman. Working on the docks loading freight strengthened his left hand, and his right hand slowly healed.

Given a chance to get back in the ring in 1934, he knocked out up-and-coming heavyweight John “Corn” Griffin. After two more victories, he earned — maybe undeservedly, to be honest — a shot at the heavyweight title, held by Baer.

Baer was born in Nebraska, but was known more for his hometown of Livermore, California. He gained an interest in boxing and became a pro in 1929, working his way through the local circuits. But in August 1930, in a match against Frankie Campbell, Baer landed a couple punches that led to Campbell’s brain being knocked completely loose from his skull. Campbell died from the injuries. Two years later, another boxer named Ernie Schaaf died five months after a fight with Baer, and he was tagged once again with being a killer in the ring, although whether or not Baer was directly responsible for Schaaf’s passing is debatable.

Although he struggled a bit after the Schaaf fight, Baer eventually gained enough confidence and won enough fights to race to the heavyweight title. He upset former world champion Max Schmeling in June 1933, enhancing his already popular reputation as a ladies’ man, favorite of the press and strong puncher. Twelve months later, he took the heavyweight title from Primo Carnera, knocking the Italian champion down 11 times during the fight.

The 2005 film Cinderella Man chronicles Braddock’s story more than Baer’s, but it’s important for me to share both of their stories in this piece. Because while I enjoy the movie, there’s a tactic it takes to Baer’s story that is not just symptomatic of Hollywood but America in general and Christianity in particular, and it’s harmful.

Hollywood’s Penchant for Simplification

We know that movies and TV shows are best digested and easily processed when it’s simple. It’s good versus evil, clean versus dirty, the good guy versus the bad guy.

Cinderella Man takes that approach in Braddock versus Baer. Baer is painted as a playboy who doesn’t give a flying flip that he killed someone and actually revels in it. In the clip below, you see Baer and Braddock meeting prior to their fight, and Baer takes the opportunity to showcase his flippancy and attitude.

But Schaap’s book, history rather than entertainment piece, paints a different picture. After Baer punched out Frankie Campbell, Baer fretted over Campbell until the latter was pronounced dead the next day. Baer even turned himself into police being charged with manslaughter. He was eventually acquitted.

In the ensuing years, Baer would have many sleepless nights over the incident. He donated purses from several fights to Frankie Campbell’s widow. Baer’s son Max Jr. told The New York Daily News this after Cinderella Man’s release:

My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. He helped put Frankie’s children through college…They distorted his character. They didn’t have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero.

Obviously, Hollywood as a whole or screenwriters and directors as individuals have the right to put on screen more or less what they want. The film never claims to be an exact re-telling of the story, just “inspired by” the real thing.

I’m not writing this to be critical of Hollywood and movies in general. There are many movies and TV shows that have made us laugh, cry and be inspired in our own right. But this brings me to my second point.

America’s Bent Towards Sensationalism and Laziness

An often-talked about point in America today is the “biased media.” News networks like CNN and Fox News and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are accused of taking a side on issues, and that affects the way we receive the news they’re sharing with us.

I’m someone who’s felt that way, particularly about Fox News, I’ll be honest with you. But once again, these entities are well within their rights to have slants if they wish. What’s wrong, and what actually harms America at the same time, is a bias of a different kind, and it’s explained well by Jon Stewart in this clip of an interview on Fox News. It starts at 4:28 and ends around the 6-minute mark.

It’s one of the most real and most true things I’ve ever heard about America.

It’s not necessarily that we have an opinion on things that’s bad, but we as America, and maybe we as humans, tend more towards the most flashy way to read and understand something, and it’s probably because of laziness. Trying to dig in and understand people and situations and events takes time, so it’s better (for both our wallets and watches) to just simplify it as much as we can.

Next time you watch the news, think about this. How much nuance is explored? How much is dedicated towards trying to really understand both sides, not just presenting them?

In Cinderella Man, it’s not much. Of course we see all of what Braddock is dealing with, but Baer is simplified to a thuggish, un-caring brute who doesn’t seem to care that he killed people. The reality of the situation is much more complex. To be fair, if director Ron Howard and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman were to take the time to properly explore both men as Schaap’s book did, the movie would probably be 3 hours long.

I’d sit through that, especially because Paul Giamatti is amazing as Braddock’s manager Joe Gould.

The reality that the Cinderella Man creative team probably came to, and understandably so, is that people don’t really feel the need to know and understand. They need a hero to root for and a villain to root against. But when you take that approach in a situation that involves real people, someone is misinterpreted, misunderstood and/or misrepresented, thus Max Jr.’s complaints about the film.

Knowing the real story, his frustration is quite understandable, isn’t it?

Martin Luther and “On Jews and Their Lies”

Unfortunately, in the church, I’ve seen many Christians take the same approach.

For instance, did you know Martin Luther hated Jews? You won’t hear about it very often. If you do, it’s probably in a context like this:

There’s enough equivocating and “well, there’s this and that” to try to make a defense for someone these people idolize. These men try to make the argument that in On the Jews and Their Lies in particular, Luther was just speaking out against the religion.

But the reality is a little darker. Here’s some quotes:

  • “Did I not tell you earlier that a Jew is such a noble, precious jewel that God and all the angels dance when he farts?”
  • “Set fire to their synagogues or schools and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn…”
  • “I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…”
  • “…all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…”
  • “I brief, dear princes and lords, those of you who have Jews under your rule if my counsel does not please your, find better advice, so that you and we all can be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews…”

Hardly sounds like what those men in that video are talking about. Would Jesus be OK with that? Yes, he spoke often about what Jews to become believers and Christians. But he also said and wrote those things listed above.

But do we hear about it? No. And those who know of Luther’s virulent, violent and despicable language about a whole segment of people are thus confused when we make him our hero. In a short book about Luther, prominent evangelical pastor John Piper does nothing to wrestle with this reality. We often hear more about Luther’s defiant 95 Theses and his stand against the Catholic Church.

As explained in this article from the Religion News Service, however, Luther’s words were used to prop up the Nazi movement in Germany. German Christians supported the Nazis because of their harsh opposition to Jews, backed up by Luther’s writing.

Now, of course, Luther probably didn’t expect his writing to lead to the mass killing and human rights atrocities that his writings led to in the 1930s and 40s. But can you say it’s ridiculous for the Nazis to either a) read his writings and take their inspiration partly from him or b) see them as a piece of propaganda to boost their cause?

Tell me how often you’ve heard this explored when Luther is spoken about.

Nuance Is Right in Front of Us, If We Look

Luther’s past is just one example of a lack of nuance in Christianity. Here’s some other things I’ve heard:

  • Someone in deep addiction is just a sinner that needs to pray more.
  • Democrats are baby-killers.
  • People who think same-sex marriage is OK with God don’t believe in the Bible.

While there may be nuggets of truth in some of those statements, the reality is far more nuanced than we might want to admit. Let me examine each of those.

Addicts are sinners that need to pray more. Did you know that addiction can often be hereditary and genetic? Did you know that some addicts are believers who pray all the time for their addiction to go away?

To classify all addicts as sinners who need more time on their knees praying is a gross generalization that fails to take into account all the extenuating circumstances, human flaws and mistakes that are made in those situations. Maybe the alcohol addict didn’t know about his family history because his parents hid it well. Maybe the opioid addict was simply trying to get over some pain from surgery and got sucked in. These nuances don’t excuse behavior, but simply try to deal with them on a more real level.

Democrats are baby-killers. The Pew Research Center says 75 percent of Democrats think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That’s not 100 percent. That’s just 75 percent.

According to this article from Politico, there are three current Democratic U.S. Senators and three House Democrats that are endorsed by a group called “Democrats for Life.” Their website has a report on it that implores the Democratic Party as a whole to “be the big tent party” on this issue and “stop pressuring pro-life Democrats to change their position and stop discouraging them from running for office if they don’t.”

People who think same-sax marriage is OK don’t believe the Bible. While that might be true in some cases, not everyone is that way. On the website of the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that strongly supports pro-LGBTQ causes, former pastor Jimmy Creech writes that saying the Bible says homosexuality is forbidden by God is “poor biblical scholarship and a cultural bias read into the Bible.” Creech explains the Bible’s background of patriarchal culture and writes that “lesbian, gay and bisexual people (are) a part of God’s wondrous creation, created to be just who they are, and completely loved and treasured by God.”

While I believe homosexuality is sin, and some of Creech’s argument is logically flawed, his position is far from abandoning of the Bible. It’s misreading Scripture, of course — Romans 1 is clear on the sinfulness of same-sex relations — but I believe it’s an honest effort to try to love people the way God loves them.

Let’s Be Real About Nuance

Let’s go back to Martin Luther for a minute. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church has a statement on its website on the Lutheran Reformation about Luther’s messy past in regards to Jews.

The page, like the men we heard from earlier, deny the idea that Luther is an “anti-Semite.” He is not against Jews because they are ethnically Jews, but religiously Jewish. The Synod put together a resolution that included statements like these (italics mine):

  • “We reaffirm the bases of our doctrine and practice and the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and not Luther…”
  • “…on the one hand, we are deeply indebted to Luther for his rediscovery and enunciation of the Gospel, on the other hand, we deplore and disassociate ourselves from Luther’s negative statements about the Jewish people…”
  • “Resolved, that we avoid the recurring pitfall of recrimination (as illustrated by the remarks of Luther and many of the early church fathers) against those who do not respond positively to our evangelistic efforts…”

The Synod’s resolution looks at the whole picture. It recognizes Luther’s contributions to the Christian faith and appreciation of the Gospel while also accepting that he was a flawed man that, at least for a time, held some dangerous and destructive views about another religion.

That’s how we need to approach things. We don’t need to whitewash over the bad parts or sensationalize the bad parts. We don’t need to only prop up the good parts of our arguments and ignore the good parts of our opponents’ arguments.

In America, we tend towards, like Jon Stewart said, sensationalism and laziness. Let’s be better. In the church in particular, we need to be better. We need to take the time to understand the reality and not try to simplify things. It takes time and effort. It’s costly. But it’s worth it.

Jesus was fond of going beyond the outward appearance and understanding someone’s situation. Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman at the well, Matthew the tax collector, prostitutes — He was known for being loving, caring and understanding, not letting a simplistic version of someone be how He defined them. He died for them.

Let’s ask ourselves, “WWJD?”