Christ, My Strength and Portion

This is a song I composed on the piano about a year ago (July 2018). One day, when I have time, I’ll upload a recording:
Christ My Strength and Portion
Num. 23:19; Pss. 3:2-3; 55:12-13; 57:1; 71:5; 73:25-26; Mark 10:45; John 2:24-25; 17:17; Phil. 1:21; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Pet. 1:18-19
Verse 1
       C                  G                Am
The slander and flattery of man may deceive
             F                G             C
But my LORD, His Word is Truth
    F                 G                C G/B Am
To Him the unchanging God I cleave
     F               G                        C
My hope and trust from my youth
Verse 2
             C                  G                      Am
Though foes may revile and close friends betray
            F                 G        C
But my LORD, He is my shield
          F                 G                   C    G/B Am
In the shadow of His mighty wings I stay
              F               G                  C
He’s my glory, the lifter of my head
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And earth has nothing for me but You
My weary flesh and heart may yet fail
                                  F                      G                 C
But Christ is all my strength and portion forever
Verse 3
The Lord gave Himself as my ransom price
Let all I do, His love constrain
Bought with the precious blood of Christ
Now to live is Christ, die is gain

Are You For Us or Against Us?

Joshua 5:13-15
“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

In our “us vs. them” world, people are eager to appropriate God for their own agendas, but the Lord will not be reduced to a pawn in our battles. He is the Sovereign Lord over human history and He commands His own heavenly army. We should take care to submit ourselves to Him and His cause.

“Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” is not the right question, so the commander of the army of the Lord responds, “No.” He is no mere human soldier involved in a human battle. The question we should instead ask is, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And whatever we hear, we must do.

As brothers and sisters in Christ, let us not get embroiled in partisanship, but in humility and submission inquire of the Lord together. Don’t ask, “How can I use the Bible to support my opinion?” Ask, “Is my opinion Biblical?” Test every opinion you hold with the straightedge of God’s Word, and ruthlessly eliminate everything that doesn’t line up.

Why I’m Not Worried About Donald Trump

Super Tuesday

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, and as an unenrolled (i.e. independent) registered voter in Massachusetts, I intend to vote in the Republican primary. This year, in particular, my public duty feels invested with particular urgency, as I, like many others in the U.S., feel threatened by Donald Trump’s political ascendancy.

Donald Trump

Not only do many of his policies strike me as unconstitutional and unfeasible, he seems to say and do unconscionable things. Since, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), we are rightly alarmed by the outrageous things he says. Even though he claims to be a Christian, his brash and boastful leadership style is hardly reminiscent of Christ, who taught, “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:26).

Kingdom of God

Though many Christians have disavowed him, I have been baffled by some believers who support him, and I think this exchange between Jesus and his disciples sheds light on the whole situation:

In Acts 1:6, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” As Jews who are marginalized under Roman subjugation, they are looking for political vindication and empowerment, but Jesus speaks of a different power, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Tweet: “Jesus does not promise to make us #winners, but #witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection.” @shawnswoo

Jesus does not promise a kingdom of political power, but a kingdom of spiritual power. Jesus does not promise to make us #winners, but #witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus does not promise to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but to make his name great among the nations.

Sovereignty of God

So regardless of the outcome of Super Tuesday, or even of the general election in November, I remind myself that I don’t have to worry about Trump, or anyone for that matter. Instead, I say, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:20-21). God is, and will remain, sovereign.

Ultimately, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). We need no other Savior.

Tweet: “Jesus does not promise to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but to make his name great among the nations.” @shawnswoo

Eternal Dangers of Surfing (the Web)

The Daily Struggle

Every generation has faced its own set of distractions, but the rise of the internet has made everyday distractions more pervasive and persistent than they have ever been.

While reading a textbook or writing a blog post, you come across something that you would like to learn about, so you look it up on Wikipedia. One interesting article leads to the next, until you’re three articles removed, reading about something that is marginally interesting and vaguely related to your original inquiry.

You decide to refocus, but notice a new email in your Gmail tab and resolve to get back to work after checking it. The email is an inconsequential advertisement, and you jump to Facebook for a brief look to see if anything interesting has come up. A YouTube video that your high school friend recently posted catches your eye and you click on it, which leads to another video, and so on. Then, you realize that it’s been long enough that you may have a new email or a Facebook update to feast your wandering mind and darting eyes upon…

Psychology of Idle Surfing

Why do we scroll through an endless stream of Instagram pictures, Facebook posts, and Tweets? Expanding on Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, psychologists Myungsuh Lim and Yoon Yang have conducted a research that asserts that people use social media to engage in “upward” (those who seem to have more exciting pastimes, more attractive significant others or families, more followers and likes, and/or more engaging quips) and “downward” (those who seem to have less exciting pastimes, less attractive significant others or families, less followers and likes, and/or less engaging posts) comparison. We, then, assimilate this data and use it to evaluate ourselves and our own social standing. Of course, some of us turn to social media for other, good reasons, but nevertheless we may engage in this social comparison process subconsciously.

For some of us, it may be all-too-frequent visits to ESPN, Wikipedia, or the Huffington Post, indulging our curiosities and reading articles and opinions that range from ponderous to frivolous, but mostly in the middling category of interesting but insignificant. In one way or another, these stimuli activate neurons in our brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter which, among other things, rewards certain tasks with a feeling of pleasure. So we keep coming back for more.

Theology of Idle Surfing

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, Apostle Paul admonishes those who “walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” The word play between “busy at work” (ἐργαζομένους) and “busybodies” (περιεργαζομένους) makes explicit the connection between neglecting one’s own affairs and meddling in others’ affairs. 1 Timothy 5:13 similarly teaches that “idlers” are prone to become “gossips and busybodies.”

When surfing idly on the internet, we neglect our God-given vocation to meddle in the affairs of others; we lose our vertical mooring and drift horizontally in the waves of others, tossed to and fro by every whim and trend.

Tweet: “When surfing idly on the internet, we neglect our God-given vocation to meddle in the affairs of others.” @shawnswoo

Getting Off the Surfboard

So how do we stop mindlessly surfing the web? It is certainly helpful to install extensions like StayFocusd or LeechBlock on your web browser, programs like SelfControl on your computer, and apps like Weblock on your smartphone to block out distractions, but it is even more important to address the false beliefs that underlie our distractions.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Do we have an appropriately high view of our God-given vocation? Do we live with the awareness that our every waking moment affects eternity? Ultimately, our love for God must constrain us. An all-consuming desire to “do all [things] to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) is the only thing that can restrain our idle surfing.

What is God calling you to do at this present moment? Stop scrolling through your Twitter feed and work on the project that you’ve been assigned at your job! Stop staring agape at every food post on Instagram, prepare yourself a meal and invite a good friend to join you! Stop replaying that highlight reel on ESPN and go exercise! Stop sleepily scrolling through Your Facebook newsfeed in bed, go to sleep! Stop perking up to check every notification on your smartphone over dinner, be attentive to your wife, husband, or child! Stop reading this blog post even, go pore over the Word of God!

The way to stop being idle is to start applying ourselves to God’s work. We stop being a busybody by being busy at work. Remember that an idle surf is an idol’s turf. Tread with care and intention on the internet.

Tweet: “An idle surf is an idol’s turf. Tread with care and intention on the internet.” @shawnswoo

A Theology of Sports

Most of my friends know that, I’m an ardent Patriots fan. However, I was happy that Peyton Maning won his second Super Bowl before his retirement. I respect Peyton Manning because he is a consummate sportsman, and I believe those two things are related. Let me use him as an example to illustrate my theology of sports.

In his book, Manning, he writes (pp. 362-364):

Like my dad, I make it a point when I speak to groups to talk about priorities, and when it’s schoolkids, I rank those priorities as: faith, family, and education, then football. For me generally it had always been the big four: faith, family, friends, and football. And I tell all of them that as important as football is to me, it can never be higher than fourth. …

I committed my life to Christ [when I was thirteen], and that faith has been most important to me ever since. Some players get more vocal about it—the Reggie Whites, for example—and some point to Heaven after scoring a touchdown and praise God after games. I have no problem with that. But I don’t do it, and don’t think it makes me any less a Christian. I just want my actions to speak louder, and I don’t want to be more of a target for criticism than I already am. Somebody sees you drinking a beer, which I do, and they think, “Hmmmm, Peyton says he’s this, that, or the other, and there he is drinking alcohol. What’s that all about?” Christians drink beer. So do non-Christians. Christians also make mistakes, just as non-Christians do. My faith doesn’t make me perfect, it just makes me forgiven, and provides me the assurance I looked for half my life ago. …

How do I justify football in the context of “love your enemy?” I say to kids, well, football is most definitely a “collision sport,” and I can’t deny it jars your teeth and at the extreme can break your bones. But I’ve never seen it as a “violent game,” there are rules to prevent that, and I know I don’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as I can within the rules. I think you’d have to get inside my head to appreciate it, but I do love football. And, yes, I’d play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when I’m no longer a child. I find no contradiction in football and my faith.

Ah, but do I “pray for victory?” No, except as a generic thing. I pray to keep both teams injury free, and personally, that I use whatever talent I have to the best of my ability. But I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games, except as winning might influence the character of some person or group. Besides. If the Colts were playing the Cowboys and I prayed for the Colts and Troy Aikman prayed for the Cowboys, wouldn’t that make it a standoff?

Why He Plays

First, Peyton confesses his childlike love for football, admitting that he’d “play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when [he’s] no longer a child.” In other words, he doesn’t play football for the sake of something else, e.g. money, fame, or even a platform with which he could praise God and point people to him; he plays for the joy of football in and of itself. For him, football has intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value.

This is in contrast to many Christians who defend sports saying that it’s a great way to promote health through exercise, as well as cultivate self-control, discipline, respect for authorities, teamwork, etc. Yes, sports is useful for those things, but it is also good in and of itself.

That’s because our recreation is rooted in God’s good creation. Man is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), and that means he is to rule over creation as God’s representative. This is seen in the order of creation. In the first three days of creation, God creates kingdoms: light and darkness (Gen. 1:3-5), sky (Gen. 1:6-8), and the land and seas (Gen. 1:9-13), respectively. Then, during the next three days, he creates kings to occupy the corresponding kingdoms: sun, moon and the stars (Gen. 1:14-19), the birds and fish (Gen. 1:20-23), and land creatures (Gen. 1:24-25), respectively.

At the end of it all, as the pinnacle of his creation, God creates man as his royal representative (Gen. 1:26-28). And as such, man is blessed and commanded by God to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). As God creates man in his “likeness,” man begets man in his “likeness” (Gen. 5:1-3). As God “rules,” so man is commanded to “rule” and “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28; cf. 2 Chr. 28:10; Neh. 5:5; Jer. 34:11, 16).

This divinely-instituted human subjection of nature is “culture,” which H. Richard Niebuhr defines as “the artificial, secondary environment which man superimposes on the natural.” Rocks are nature; walls are culture. River is nature; canal is culture. Noise is nature; music is culture. And man is charged with the royal responsibility of creating culture from God-given nature.

This, likewise, applies to the nature of man. If running is nature, racing is culture. If play is nature, sport is culture. Sports, therefore, is a fulfillment of the cultural mandate and has intrinsic value. It glorifies the Creator when we enjoy his good creation.

Creation is not utilitarian. God created not only trees that are “good for food,” but also those that are “pleasant to the sight” (Gen. 2:9) for our enjoyment. One fruit tree would have sufficed to satisfy our hunger, but God gave us hundreds to delight our senses (Gen. 2:15-16). Everyone could have been given an equal, basic athletic ability necessary for survival, but God created some men like Eric Liddell, the Olympic gold medalist who claimed, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure” (Chariots of Fire). He created men like Peyton Manning, who can throw a football 80 yards down the field with greater accuracy than I can manage within 10 yards. Manning uses his extraordinary talent to play the game for the sheer enjoyment of it, and there is something profoundly right and good about that.

How He Plays

Of course, not all human culture is good in and of itself. The gladiatorial games were also a sport, but certainly not a good one. As Jeremy Treat writes in his helpful article, “More Than A Game,” sports can go wrong in two ways. It can be “[twisted] into a bad thing (sin as immorality) or … [made into] an ultimate thing (sin as idolatry).”

In a sinful world, sports can degenerate into an arena for violence, cheating (performance-enhancing drugs, spygate, deflategate, etc.), greed, selfishness, and vanity. Manning appears to be aware of this, and reasons that there are “rules to prevent [violence]” in football. He steers clear of twisting football into an immoral sport, recognizing that he “[doesn]’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as [he] can within the rules.”

Sports can also become an idol when it is received, not as God’s good gift, but as his replacement or rival. So athletes as well as fans can find their identity and meaning in sports rather than in God. In the current “malaise of immanence,” as philosopher Charles Taylor describes our secular age, sports offers a religious experience—a glimpse of “transcendence.”

So Harold Abrahams, the foil to Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, describes his reason for running, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?” The answer, of course, is that he will not. Though he wins the race, he loses his soul, because he has turned a good thing into an ultimate thing. He has replaced the Creator with the creature, the Giver with the gift.

Manning well understands this when he writes that football can never be higher than his fourth priority, after faith, family, and friends. He lives by this when he refuses to pray for victory, but rather prays “to keep both teams injury free,” and admits, “I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games.”

Peyton Manning was a superb quarterback, but he was an even better sportsman, and the latter is unquestionably the greater accomplishment. Even in the way we watch and play our sports, let us be constrained by our love for God.

The Pitfalls of Productivity

Last year, I read half a dozen books on productivity, management, and leadership in preparation for church planting. All the books came highly recommended by friends and coworkers whom I respect, and I reaped tangible benefits from them. In fact, I may even recommend some of these to certain people. However, as a Christian and a pastor, I have a lingering discomfort with the premise of many of these books, and I fear that too many Christians are uncritically accepting their insights.

Nearly all of them speak of investing in tasks that maximize one’s personal talents and yield the greatest return and fulfillment. They emphasize making tough decisions based on your priorities, even if doing so makes you unpopular. “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will,” they warn. “Whoever it is that’s trying to siphon off your time and energies for their own purpose, the only solution is to put up fences. … so you can head off time wasters and boundary pushers at the pass.”

You instead, should do work that only you can do—work that you love—because “life is too short not to do some things you love.” More specifically, “Focus your attention on the activities that rank in the top 20 percent in terms of importance,” they say, “and you will have an 80 percent return on your effort.” “If something [you’re] doing can be done 80 percent as well by someone else, … delegate it.” One of the books goes even further: “If you rate [a task/option] any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”

My objection to these approaches is twofold: (1) they wrongly assume that your priorities and interests are more important than others’, and (2) they wrongly assume that you actually know what is most important.

My Priorities or Theirs?

When people invade and throng his home, presumably seeking to be healed of their diseases and relieved of their demons (Mark 3:7-12), Jesus does not turn them away. In fact, he’s so busy attending to their needs that he and his disciples “could not even eat” (Mark 3:20). I can hear the productivity gurus protest, “Jesus, you need to establish clear boundaries so that you can keep people who siphon off your time and energy at bay.” “You need to stay focused on your primary mission to “[proclaim] the gospel of God” and tell people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

In Mark 6:30-44, Jesus invites his disciples to “come away by [themselves] to a desolate place and rest a while,” the crowd, however, finds and follows them. Yet Jesus fails, once again, to draw clear boundaries and protect his personal time of rest. Instead, he “[has] compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he [begins] to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Then later, rather than sending them away to go find food, Jesus does something that goes lavishly beyond what was required or expected of him. He feeds them, all five thousand of them.

Only one chapter later, Jesus faces yet another test of his focus and resolve. Will he adhere strictly to his priorities this time? A Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to cast out the demon from her daughter, but Jesus knows that his mission before his death and resurrection is to the Jews, and not to the Gentiles. Nevertheless, Jesus acquiesces upon the woman’s heartfelt insistence (Mark 7:26-30).

Consider the time when Jesus welcomed the children whom his disciples had deemed a nuisance (Mark 10:13-15)? Or that time when Jesus healed a blind beggar whom many sought to silence and ignore (John 10:46-52)? Or that time when Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding party at the request of his mother, even though “[his] hour [had] not yet come,” as he said so himself (John 2:1-12)? How extravagant and superfluous!

Even a cursory examination of Jesus’s life exposes the profound selfishness and individualism of much productivity advice. But Christians are to be different. They are to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [themselves], … [looking] not only to [their] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). Why should I think that my priorities are more important than others’ priorities?

It’s this kind of utilitarian mindset that counsels pastors (as I found in one pastoral ministry book) to avoid the neediest people, because they consume the most time but add the least value to the church. The time is better spent, they say, in discipling and training people who show promise. But Christians are to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, [and] be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:4). The pastors, of all people, should have the Father’s heart to leave the ninety-nine sheep to go out in search for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7)!

Moreover, doing only what we alone can do and only what we love to do are not viable options for a vast majority of people throughout the world. This line of thinking divides people into two classes and privileges the first: (1) those who do what they love (usually creative, intellectual, and/or socially prestigious activities) and (2) those who do what they have to (usually mundane, repetitive, and/or menial activities). Those whom we delegate to are essentially relegated to unimportant, invisible roles that serve our purpose.

As a pastor, I am primarily called to minister the word and pray. I feel that I am true to who I am and what God has gifted me to be when I am discipling and teaching others. But what about printing the bulletins, listening to voicemails, setting up chairs, and cleaning church facilities? Are these tasks beneath the dignity of the pastor, but not beneath the dignity of the industrious faithful who sacrifice their time and energy to serve the church?

My conviction is that the pastor should be involved in some kind of “menial” activity for the church, like our Lord who washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20). This cultivates humility, servanthood, and a deeper appreciation for the interdependent members of the body, and models these values for the church. Similarly, a pastor should not only invest in gifted, responsive members, but also in some people who are particularly needy and slow to change. This cultivates, love, humility, and a dependence on God’s grace, and models these values for the church.

What Are My Most Important Priorities?

You might object that Jesus never strayed from his mission and always did what the Father willed—that even the examples I adduced reveal the coming of the kingdom of God and therefore are directly related to Jesus’s central mission—and you would be right. But this actually proves my second, related point: that many books on productivity wrongly assume that we know what the most important priorities are. Yes, Jesus never strayed from his mission because he knew the Father’s will perfectly, but we do not.

Furthermore, if the seemingly ancillary and extraneous things that Jesus did happened to be integral to his calling, how can we so easily dismiss things that appear ancillary and extraneous to us? How can we be so cocksure that we know what is most important and therefore must be prioritized?

Reflecting on my own calling, how does a minister know that certain people are worth discipling and others are not? How does he know that a particular counseling situation demands his attention while another does not? How does he know which missions opportunities he should pursue?

Of course, there are answers to these questions, but these answers are, at best, provisional. What if God is doing a mighty work in seemingly small and insignificant people? What if God is weaving together an improbable series of events to advance the kingdom of God in the details that we overlook?

In Acts 16:6-10, we see the Holy Spirit disrupt Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s priorities and redirect their missionary journey. As missiologist Leslie Newbigin correctly observes, “the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decisions about the mobilizing and allocating of ‘resources,'” but of “the free and sovereign deed of God” of which we have no advance knowledge.

Therefore, our prioritizing and strategizing should be submitted, first of all, to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It should begin and end with the prayer of humble relinquishment, “Your will be done.” The rigid utilitarianism and clinical efficiency of “productivity” neither give due weight nor credit to divine intervention.

I do not say these things to discount the value of strategic planning. I well understand its importance, and that is why I read these books in the first place. Those who lack clear priorities and have a tendency to overextend themselves should read these books and benefit from them. But we must remember that faithfulness, not efficiency, is the goal of Christian vocation. God’s glory, not success, is the goal of Christian life. Let us not hide selfishness and self-importance behind the facade of “productivity.”

Poems & Songs

I love to create music and compose verses. Here you can find my original songs and poems that are scattered throughout my blog:

Double Spout
Empty Pews
Glory After All
Pressed Grapes
Scarlet Yarn

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

A Controversy In Wheaton

This week, Wheaton College placed Professor Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave for claiming on Facebook that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” The administration explained that professors must “engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.” Hawkins also wore a hijab through the entire season of Advent to express her solidarity with innocent muslims being victimized by retaliations against Islamic terrorists.

Of course, expressing solidarity with innocent muslims is to be commended. There have been over 40 documented cases of anti-muslim threats, shootings, and vandalisms in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13th. These hate crimes should be condemned, and Christians, as always, must promote justice for all.

Miroslav Volf’s Allah

However, human solidarity is one thing, theological clarity is another. Hawkins’s assertion was partly based on Miroslav Volf’s arguments in Allah: A Christian Response. Not surprisingly, Volf came to Hawkins’s defense, insisting that “her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”

Volf contends that saying that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” is not the same thing as saying “that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God” or “that Islam and Christianity are the same religion under a different name, or even that Islam is equally as true as Christianity.” In other words, describing an object differently is not the same thing as describing a different object. Worshiping the right God is not the same thing as worshiping the right God rightly. Since Christians concede that Jews worship the same God as they, even though Jews reject the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ, Volf maintains that Christians cannot, for selfsame reasons, deny that Muslims worship the same God.

“Allah = God” Is an Unhelpful Equivocation

As Volf’s attempt to clarify proves, for most people, the statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” implies a certain parity that is theologically compromising. In its bald formulation, the statement requires too many qualifications to be helpful, especially in the abbreviated context of social media. It is an equivocation that attempts to build solidarity at the expense of clarity.

Orthodoxy entails right worship. Aaron fashions a golden calf to represent YHWH, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt (Exod. 32: 1-6), yet this is still condemned as idolatry. There is no neat distinction between right belief and right worship.

Strictly speaking, even the Jews do not worship the same God that we do. Our God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three in One and One in Three. Our God is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Jews reject these foundational doctrines.

God’s redemptive plan unfolded progressively throughout history, and this progressive nature of God’s revelation demands greater accountability from the later generations. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

“Whoever believes in [Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” obfuscates this reality and hinders mission.

How to Engage Muslims

How, then, should we engage Muslims, Jews, and other unbelievers? Scripture teaches that faithful witness simultaneously corroborates what is right and critiques what is wrong in other religions.

When John declares that Jesus is the “Word” λόγος (logos), he is contextualizing the gospel by co-opting the Greek philosophical notion of “animating reason.”However, he qualifies his use of the term by adding that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). In its philosophical usage, the logos could not have become flesh. So John’s use of the word is uniquely Christian.

Similarly, Paul’s sermons use the cultural framework of his audience, but also disabuse his audience of false ideas. Preaching to Jews in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), Paul begins by affirming Israel’s salvation history from the election of the patriarchs, to the time of judges, and later, kings (vv. 16b-25). Then, he cites extensively from the Old Testament to prove that Jesus, whom the Jews had rejected, lived, died, and resurrected to fulfill the Davidic promise (vv. 26-37), and calls them to repentance (vv. 38-41).

When addressing a pagan audience, however, Paul takes a decidedly different course. In Lystra (Acts 14:15-17), recognizing that his audience are polytheists who believed that gods and humans intermingled to produce demigods, Paul begins by delineating the differences between divinity and humanity (v. 15a-c), then proclaims that there is only one true God “who does what is good” ἀγαθουργῶν (agathourgōn). This rare word occurs only twice in the entire New Testament (cf. 1 Tim. 6:18), and invites comparison to καλοκάγαθος (kalokagathos), the title given to Zeus, “the one who does what is good and faithful.” In using the term, Paul simultaneously contextualizes the idea of the one true God and confronts the idolatry of his hearers, insisting that God, not Zeus, is the one who providentially cares for them with “rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” (v. 17).

Still more striking is Paul’s speech in Athens. He quotes the Cretan poet Epimenides and the Cicilian poet Aratos, and incorporates various Stoic and Epicurean beliefs (Acts 17:22-31). However, Paul issues an unflinching challenge to their worldview when he asserts that the Creator God is the Lord of heaven and earth who will judge the world with justice through a man whom he has raised from the dead.

Volf proffers Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (15th century) as an example of “a towering intellect and an experienced church diplomat” who “affirmed unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” but this is patently false.

In his book, Cribratio Alkorani (A Scrutiny of the Koran), Nicholas of Cusa writes unambiguously that “the God of the Koran is not the Great God in whom, because He is the Creator of all things, every rational creature ought to believe” (Kindle Location 2027) and “that the Muhammadan sect … is in error and is to be repudiated” (KL 29). The stated goal of his writing is to prove “even from the Koran, that the Gospel is true” (KL 61), and the way he labors painstakingly to sift truth from the lies is consistent with Scriptural precedent.

Islam, like any other religion that sets itself up against the gospel of Jesus Christ, is a complex mixture of truth, half-truths, and lies. The simplistic statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” does not do justice to this complexity.

What’s at Stake?

What exactly is at stake in this debate? Why is Volf, Hawkins, and others so eager to affirm that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” For Volf, the answer, ostensibly, is to preserve future peace, for “two supreme divine beings always means war.” In other words, how you answer the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” will determine whether we have “a justification for cultural and military wars” or “a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence.”

This is essentially what Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (trans. H J. Tozer, Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998, 137-138):

Those who distinguish civil intolerance from theological intolerance are, in my opinion mistaken. The two kinds of intolerance are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people whom we believe to be damned. To love them would be to hate God who punishes them. It is absolutely necessary to reclaim them or to punish them. Wherever theological intolerance is allowed, it cannot, but have some effect on civil life, and as soon as it has any effect on civil life, the sovereign is no longer sovereign even in secular affairs. From that time, the priests are the real masters. The kings are their officers.

But Jesus never forced belief on anyone, and he even rebukes his disciples for wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume those who had rejected their message (Luke 9:52-56).

Moreover, Volf himself challenges Rousseau and contradicts the claim of his article in his book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World:

[T]hough it is true that Christian religious exclusivists make a clear distinction between the saved and the damned, the consistent among them also—and without contradiction—reject the distinction between moral insiders and moral outsiders. The Golden Rule, a succinct summary of all Christian moral obligations, commands: ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you’—do to all others, not just to a select few (Matthew 7:12). As the story of the Good Samaritan powerfully illustrates, the command to love one’s neighbors is universal (Luke 10:25-37); it applies to friend and foe, good and evil, saved and damned. To love the damned is not to hate God but to obey and emulate God, who makes the sun to shine on the good and the evil (Matthew 5:45) and who loves those who have made themselves God’s enemies (Romans 5:6-7).

It is this radical love for neighbor demonstrated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ that ensures human solidarity and future peace. No facile agreement or superficial identification will do.

Double Spout

(This poem is a tribute to my patient wife in blues form, which has roots in the African-American oral tradition and typically expresses, per Ralph Ellison, “the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit.”)

Your water can’s got a double spout
Drippin’ sad tears to make me sprout
Your water can’s got a double spout
Cryin’ sorry drops to make me sprout
‘Cause you bin waitin’ it’s overdue

To break my harsh and arid pout
And moisten dry and hardened flout
To break my harsh and arid pout
And soften mean and stubborn flout
Baby keep goin’ and don’t you rue

When you’s over and under, done bottomed out
Your can’s got nothin’ but airs of doubt
When you’s over and under, done bottomed out
Your can’s bin emptied and full of doubt
Mix your drops with heaven’s dew

-ssw (11/20/2015)

Shadows in the Night

Shadows in the Night, Bob Dylan, Columbia, 2015

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Shadows in the Night is Bob Dylan’s 36th studio album, and consists of ten covers of Tin Pan Alley standards that were popularized by Frank Sinatra.

The emotive orchestra and Sinatra’s silky crooning are gone, but the weeping pedal steel and Dylan’s sandpaper vocals embody the haunting loneliness of this rueful reminiscence.

The first track, “I’m A Fool To Want You,” is a lament of a foolish lover who loves someone who will not remain faithful. The mournful modulation of the pedal steel guitars, the gentle caresses on the acoustic, and the softly bowed string bass convey the despondency of the song.

Similarly, “The Night We Called It A Day” and “Autumn Leaves” are melancholic odes to the lover who has left. Heartbreak and loss are overarching themes of this album.

My favorite number on the album, “Stay With Me,” is a heartfelt prayer, sung with confessional solemnity. The wistful tone of Dylan’s voice, infused with his trademark rasp, blend perfectly to express the regretful yearning of an old man who has both softened and hardened with age.

Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see | Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me | Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from the fold | Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold | I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned | And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind | Though I grope and I blunder and I’m weak and I’m wrong | Though the road buckles under where I walk, walk along | Till I find to my wonder every path leads to Thee | All that I can do is pray, stay with me | Stay with me.

It recalls one of my favorite hymns, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come | And I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home | Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God | He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood | O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be | Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.

Like a child trying to pronounce all her syllables, Dylan’s intonation and rhythm are measured and deliberate, even as he strains to rein in his faltering vibratos and wandering pitch. His vulnerable vocals is a picture of the wandering sheep in the song, groping in the dark and stumbling along to God. I have never heard a more poignant song from this wearied bard, an embattled soul, who knows that he has not stayed with God, but desperately hopes that God has stayed with him.

“Some Enchanted Evening” and “Full Moon and Empty Arms” feature an electric guitar with strolling blues licks, which intertwines beautifully with the seesawing string bass to strike a slightly more hopeful tune.

But the album returns to its doleful trajectory with the following tracks, “Where Are You?” and “What’ll I Do”: “What’ll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to? When I’m alone with only dreams of you that won’t come true, what’ll I do?”

The final track, “That Lucky Old Sun,” is about the toil and trouble of life, and a labor-worn man’s desire to do nothing but “roll around heaven all day [like that lucky old sun].” The pace slows on the last line, and Dylan bellows it out at a higher octave with elongated syllables, soaring together with the swelling horns as if to lift himself up to heaven.

As songs like “Stay With Me,” “Why Try to Change Me Now,” and “That Lucky Old Sun” show, the heartsick lover in this album is a metaphor for brokenness of life itself. In a culture where love is treated like a commodity for exchange rather than a binding covenant, Dylan bemoans humanity’s unfulfilled longing for true love. This covenantal love, as Ephesians 5 reveals, is a glimpse into eternity itself, and points to Christ’s love for his people.

Shadows in the Night is thus a deeply spiritual album that correctly diagnoses the human plight. It ought to leave us weeping for God, always true and faithful, who loves an adulterous people who have forsaken their Creator and turned to other gods (Hosea 3:1).

Buy Shadows in the Night HERE.