Islam and Christianity, = or ≠?

At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama denounced the barbaric acts of terror perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In this context, he warned against blaming Islam and Muslims in general:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

This statement ignited a firestorm of criticism from Christian leaders and conservative politicians. In hindsight, it was probably unwise to use a complex and divisive example like the Crusade in a short speech that precludes historical and theological nuance.

I agree with Ross Douthat, “The deep problem with [President Obama’s] Niebuhrian style isn’t that it’s too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It’s that too often it offers ‘self’-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.” For this reason, his exhortation “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought, but rather [to] think of [ourselves] with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3), instead comes across as a self-righteous criticism of the “rest” of America.

This fact does not, however, justify the harsh reactions of many conservative Christians. President Obama’s illustration was infelicitous, but what he said was, nonetheless, true. Christianity is not immune to radicalization, nor is Islam incapable of civility.

Admitting this is not the same thing as conceding that Christianity and Islam are morally equivalent or equally valid. I believe wholeheartedly that Christianity is true and that Islam is false. Nevertheless, I recognize, as Obama said, that “there is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” Sin is the real issue here.

The fact that the Bible, rightly interpreted, does not endorse violence is not the point. It does not matter whether the Qur’an, rightly interpreted, promotes violence or not (I address this issue in another post). We know from the very beginning of human history that Satan is capable of distorting even God’s Word for his depraved purposes (Genesis 3:1-5). He can incite Muslims to violence even if the word “jihad” never appears in the Qur’an.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Islam is not the enemy, sin is, Satan is, and he is an equal opportunity offender.

If we single out and categorically denounce Muslims as our adversaries, we will be fundamentally impaired from loving them. We will become fearful of Muslims and feel threatened by them. We will harden ourselves against them and relinquish our ability to love and bless them.

We must not let that happen. Muslims are the Samaritans of our generation (Luke 10:25-37). We must love them, pray for them, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Precisely because the real battle is spiritual, precisely because the real battle ground is the sinful human heart, Christ crucified for our redemption is the only ultimate solution to our universal, human problem.

Islamic Terror and Islamophobia

As the atrocities perpetrated by radical Islamists mount, we see two extreme reactions. Those numbed by political correctness insist that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam; those blinded by Islamophobia insist that Islamic terrorism has everything to do with Islam. Neither is right.

Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS are products of Wahhabism and Salafism, which belong to the literalist school of Islamic legal thought called Hanbali. This is a legitimate and influential school that emphasizes a strict adherence to the Qur’an and the Hadiths (the deeds and sayings of Muhammad). The terrorists find in these texts both a theological warrant and historical precedent for violent jihad. It is misleading, therefore, to maintain that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.

However, there are three other schools of law for Sunni muslims (as well as two others for Shia muslims and one for Khawarij muslims), which are more progressive than Hanbali and give weight not only to the Qur’an and the Hadiths, but also to scholarly consensus (ijma), analogical reasoning (qiyas), and local Muslim customs (urf) that exercise a moderating influence. Moreover, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS do not heed the conditions necessary for violent jihad or observe the proper conduct for violent jihad delineated by their own school. It is unfair, therefore, to assert that Islamic terrorism is the quintessence of Islam.

It is incumbent upon Christians to engage muslims in critical dialogue without blaming and alienating them wholesale. Neither indiscriminate “inclusion” nor discriminatory “exclusion” will work. We must appeal to their religious consciences and question their allegiance to pernicious schools of thought.

Above all, we must tell them that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins—a truth that Muslims explicitly deny (Qur’an 9:30).

The System and the Human Heart

I have written previously about How to Eradicate Racism and Racial Profiling, but recent events call for further reflection.

This week, a Staten Island grand jury voted not to indict New York City Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who used an illegal chokehold to restrain Eric Garner and inadvertently killed him. Pantaleo was white; Garner was black.

This ruling comes on the heels of the Ferguson ruling last month, when the grand jury voted not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in a confused altercation. Wilson was white; Brown was black.

These are tragic deaths that call for mourning. These are also polarizing deaths that call for charitable listening and thoughtful response from both sides of the racial divide.

A Black Perspective
It was only 59 years ago this week that Rosa Parks refused to obey the bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger. The specter of systemic racism stills hangs over our nation, even though much of it is now perpetuated in our subconscious. Those on the receiving end of injustice are naturally more keenly aware of it.

This is why, in the poll preceding the Ferguson decision, 59% of blacks said that Officer Wilson should be charged with murder, while only 15% of whites concurred. Similarly, only 13% of blacks thought that Officer Wilson acted in self-defense, while 43% of whites thought so.

A White Perspective
Our justice system, however, is not entirely broken. In January, a grand jury indicted Officer Randall Kerrick on voluntary manslaughter charges for fatally shooting Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick was white; Ferrell was black.

Nor are all white police officers out there to lock up or kill black people. Most of them are risking their lives to serve the public good, and some are oblivious to their subconscious racial profiling. In many cases, they are protecting black people from black violence, since 93% of black homicide victims are murdered by blacks.

The System
The mutual mistrust between blacks and law enforcement must be healed. (1) Police officers must be made aware of their racial biases and trained to de-escalate confrontations in order to curtail the use of deadly force. (2) Social ills such as poverty and fatherless must be ameliorated to reduce black criminality.

The Human Heart
But we would be deluded to think that we can change our society by merely changing institutions. Undoubtedly, our human condition is a broken one that must be fixed, but we must not ignore the human nature that drives it. Changing the system is an expedient solution, but changing the human heart is more exigent. Systemic reforms must be driven by those whose hearts have been reformed by Jesus Christ.

Enlightened principles will not fix our world. A system of redemption is not enough. We need a Redeemer who can change the human heart, and His name is Jesus Christ. We must repent of our selfish agendas and submit to Him. Then, God will give us a new heart and fill us with the Holy Spirit. And “beholding the glory of the Lord, [we will be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to

It’s my birthday today. Perhaps I should be embarrassed about this, but there’s a song that always come to mind on my birthdays, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to…” It’s Lesley Gore’s iconic song “It’s My Party.”

It captures the individualism and self-centeredness of our culture. “It’s my birthday, so I should be the center of attention.” “It’s my birthday, so I can do whatever I want.” “It’s my birthday, so everyone should make me happy.”

I feel the tug all day long: “It’s my birthday, honey, could you please soothe our crying baby?” “It’s my birthday, can I have my favorite meal?”

Even for the more decorous among us, birthdays become occasions for shameless self-promotion. People who usually frown upon our aggrandized sense of self-importance, now turn a blind eye. We uncage and let the selfish beast within us roam free.

I am not one to pass up a good excuse to hang out with my friends and family. Nor do I think that celebrating and expressing appreciation for someone you love is wrong in any way.

There is a humility in letting those who love you serve you and express their appreciation for you. It would be rude and selfish to spurn their heartfelt gestures! But there is also an attitude of entitlement that is sinful.

Christians follow a Savior who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). We follow the God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and was born in a lowly manger (Luke 2:17).

We are called to “deny [ourselves] and take up [our] cross and follow [Christ]” (Matthew 16:24). And this command does not lose its force on our birthdays.

What if our orientation on our birthdays was self-denial, rather than self-indulgence? What if we were God-centered on our birthdays, rather than self-centered? What if we not only received, but also gave? What if we served others, even as they were serving us? What if we, rather than demanding preferential treatment as our right, acknowledged that savory food, thoughtful presents, and dear friends are all gracious gifts from God that we do not deserve?

That would be a birthday worth celebrating.

Does Digital Bible Reading Make Us Biblically Illiterate and Spiritually Immature?

The changing medium

From the stone slabs used by Moses (Ex. 24:12; 31:18), to the various wooden, clay, or metal tablets used by the prophets (Is. 8:1; 30:8; Hab. 2:2; cf. Ezek. 27:5), to papyri scrolls (Jer. 36:2; Ezra 6:2; Ps. 40:7), to parchment codices, and finally, to paper books, the Word of God has been preserved and communicated through a wide range of media.

Currently, we are witnessing the ascendancy of yet another kind of medium: the electronic hand-held devices (e.g. e-readers, tablets, and various smart phones). But is this a good development?

This is an important question, because there is no such thing as neutral media. As Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying goes, “The medium is the message.” In other words, the medium influences the message, because the content cannot be extricated from its form.

Are digital texts making us Biblically illiterate and spiritually immature?
Recently, a bevy of writers from prominent Evangelical gatekeepers, such as Gospel Coalition and Modern Reformation, have criticized digital texts for their lack of “thereness” or physical presence. Their objection is that Christ’s incarnation demands respect for the physical Word of God, and that the disembodiment of Scripture fosters nothing less than deficient discipleship and substandard worship.

However, the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation and hypostatic union precludes any argument from analogy. In fact, it borders on bibliolatry to identify the incarnate Son of God with Scripture. Jesus himself instituted the sacraments when he said of the bread, “This is my body,” and of the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:24-27). He never said of the Scripture scroll, “this is my body.”

Furthermore, before the invention of the printing press, most Christians could not afford a physical copy of the Bible, were these Christians inferior disciples than we? Stephen the martyr? Barnabas the encourager? Philip the evangelist? I think not.

Most of the critics of digital Bible-reading are professors at Christian colleges or seminaries who attribute the increasing Biblical illiteracy of their students to digital reading, but correlation is not necessarily causation. The reason young Christians cannot locate books and chapters of the Bible is not because they are used to the decontextualized approach of locating books and chapters via the search function, but because they simply don’t read the Bible.

(As a member of this Biblically illiterate generation, I have dozens of friends who own physical Bibles yet never open them outside of church on Sunday.)

As Alan Jacobs argues, “It’s not reasonable to think of technology–in the usual vaguely pejorative meaning of that term–as the enemy of reading” (The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 82). Our reflection on the intersection of emerging technologies and Bible reading must be more nuanced.

Theology of books
In his article in The New Atlantis, Jacobs unpacks his ideas further and suggests that the codex, a collection of manuscripts in book form, recommended itself to early Christians for its economy, portability, integrity, and sequentiality. 

We may call this the “theology of books.” The theological reasons for reading from books rather than from papyri scrolls or any other media. First, a book was economical, because it allowed for writing on both sides of the leaves (unlike scrolls). Since Scripture addresses not just the affluent, but all people “small and great” (2 Kings 23:1-3), a book’s affordability was a plus.

Second, a book was portable, because it was condensed (double-sided) and bound without the scroll roller. This enabled Christians to study and apply the Scriptures everywhere they went (Deut. 6:4-9; Prov. 7:1-3).

In The Epigrams of Martial (Book II), the 1st century Spanish poet writes:

You, who wish my poems should be everywhere
with you, and look to have them as companions on a
long journey, buy these which the parchment confines
in small pages. Assign your book-boxes to the great;
this copy of me one hand can grasp.

The “book box” was a scroll capsule that Romans used, which was much more cumbersome than a codex (not counting hefty codices like the Codex Sinaiticus, which also served ornamental purposes). Therefore, Martial is recommending a codex version of his poems for its portability.


Third, a book showcased Scripture’s integrity. Combined in a single volume, the book showed that the Scriptures are not disparate documents open for cherry picking, but a single, united witness of the Holy Spirit to divine revelation (2 Pt. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Fourth, a book was a visual demonstration of the sequential history of redemption. The Bible was arranged by the Jewish rabbis (OT) and Christian bishops (NT) to reflect theology, not chronology. The Old Testament proceeds from creation to covenant, covenant to desolation, and desolation to consolation, and the New Testament proceeds from Christ to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the Church to the New Creation, altogether demonstrating God’s covenant faithfulness and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

So then, there are good theological reasons why Christians are known as the “People of the Book,” but does Bible-reading on hand-held electronic devices forfeit these qualities?

Bible-Reading on Electronic Devices
Not necessarily. Most of the Bible apps are free, so if you already have a smart phone, tablet, computer, or an e-reader, they are very economical. And obviously, they are much more portable than physical books, especially considering that you can carry related resources such as Bible dictionaries and commentaries on the same electronic device:


ESV Study Bible [Hardcover]          ESV Study Bible [Kindle]
Price: $30.83                                       Price: $9.90
Dimensions: 6.5 x 2.2 x 9.2″          Dimensions: N/A
Shipping Weight: 5.2 lb                   Shipping Weight: N/A

Bible Readers can also preserve the integrity and sequentiality of Scripture in its presentation. My Bible Reader, Olive Tree, allows me to change the setting and turn my phone into a virtual scroll so that I can swipe from top to bottom continuously–from Genesis to Revelation, thus preserving the context. And the fact that you can check the cross references without leaving the current passage showcases the remarkable unity of Scripture!

The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate in color between white and light gray. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc - the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect. (
The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate in color between white and light gray. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc – the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect. (

Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) and Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation) have raised the important point that a truncated approach to literature, devoid of a linear, progressive orientation, conditions our brains to think in facile and fragmented ways. This danger can be avoided through thoughtful setup of the electronic device.

Interestingly, many of the people who criticize digital reading of the Bible seem to be fine with using screen projectors to display Scripture at church. As Jacobs notes, this is the primary, if not the only, way in which millions of Christians view Scripture, completely devoid of context and any semblance of integrity or sequentiality. This is a far more pernicious medium than phones or e-readers.

Shutting out distractions
But aren’t we more prone to get distracted reading from a smart phone? After all, you can switch from the Bible to Twitter, Facebook, or your email with a simple tap on the screen. Doesn’t the very versatility of the smart phone threaten sustained focus in reading?

First, distractions are not exclusive to digital reading. (How many times have you put down your physical Bible because you remembered that one thing you had to do right at that moment?) But given the sheer number of distractions on electronic devices and their siren pull, I concede that this is potentially a genuine disadvantage of digital reading. However, it is not an insurmountable disadvantage. Here are some steps I take to shut out distractions while reading my Bible on the phone:

  1. Silence the phone.
  2. Disable alerts. ImageOn the iPhone, you can go to Settings → Notifications, and disable alerts from individual apps so that nothing pops up to distract you while you’re reading the Bible. I actually keep the alerts disabled at all times, because I don’t want to feed the habit of instant gratification by checking things as soon as they appear, and prefer to check things on my own schedule.
  3. Start with prayer. Before I read the Bible, I pray through Psalm 19, which I have committed to memory for this purpose. It’s a magnificent psalm that talks about God’s general revelation of himself through creation (vv. 1-6) and his special revelation of himself through Scripture (vv. 7-14). God’s disclosure in Scripture is for his people who know him personally, which is why God is addressed generically as “God” (אֱלֹהִ֑ים; elōhîm) in vv. 1-6, but personally as “Yahweh” (יְהוָ֣ה; yhwh) in vv. 7-14. I pray through the verses, “Lord, through your Word, refresh my soul and make me wise (v. 7), bring joy to my heart and light to my eyes (v. 8), and fill me with the fear of God and righteousness (v. 9). Help me to desire and treasure your Word (v. 10), and be warned by it and kept from sin (vv. 11-13). May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you (v. 14).” This exercise centers my heart and prepares my mind so that I can submit to God’s Word and be shaped and molded by it, rather than subject it to fit my whims.
  4. Meditate on Scripture. We don’t read the Bible just to “download” information. We read it to encounter God through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. So instead of reading just to get through it, dwell on a passage of Scripture. Read at a slow, deliberate pace and be attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

The ability to read without getting distracted is a skill and discipline that we can, and need to, cultivate, regardless of what media we use.

Between two worlds
When I was at Urbana Missions Conference in 2006, Jim Tebbe, the Vice President of Intervarsity at the time, had the 22,000 people gathered there lift up their cell phones on one hand, and their Bible on the other. It was an amazing sight. Then, he prayed that God would reveal what the Bible had to say to our world, represented by our phones.

This is similar to John Stott’s statement that when he prepares a sermon, he takes “the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other” (Between Two Worlds, p. 149), in order to apply the unchanging Word of God to the ever-changing world of man.

Reading the Bible on our phones, then, can serve as an apt reminder of this application. If we reach for our Bibles as often as we reach for our phones, and if we search the Scriptures as often as we search through our inboxes, Biblical illiteracy would be the least of our concerns…

The Prude and Prurience: An Essay About Christian Modesty

There has been a fascinating dialogue on the Q-Ideas forum between Jessica Rey and Rachel Held Evans about female modesty in clothing.

Objectification of Women
Jessica Rey is an entrepreneur who started a popular line of Audrey Hepburn-inspired swimsuits that tries to steer past the Scylla and Charybdis of skimpy bikinis and frumpy one-pieces. In her viral video, she cites studies by scholars from Princeton and Stanford, which used fMRI scans to determine:

  1. that heterosexual men associated scantily-clad, or “sexualized,” women with first-person action verbs (e.g. “I handle”), while associating fully-clad women with third-person action verbs (e.g. “She handles”),” and
  2. that visual stimuli of sexualized women sometimes deactivated regions of the male brain associated with perceiving human agency (e.g. thoughts and feelings) and only activated regions of the male brain associated with tools (e.g. screwdrivers and hammers).

The lead researcher Susan Fiske commented that this “lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens,” and concluded that men are prone to see sexualized women as objects to use rather than as agents to relate to. For this reason, Rey promotes her fashionably modest swimwear by arguing that skimpy bikinis lead not to the empowerment of women but to their objectification.

Prudery = Prurience?
Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger and Christian feminist, responded to Rey by arguing that prudery and prurience are different sides of the same coin. In her post, Evans claims that both the sexualized popular culture and the Christian modesty culture disempower women by telling them to dress a certain way (i.e. provocatively or modestly) in order to please men.

Modesty and Materialism
As intriguing as that sounds, the arguments she adduces to support her claim are flimsy at best. First, Evans argues that Biblical injunctions about modest clothing refers not to immodest adornments but to materialism.

“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” -1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV)

Evans correctly notes that this passage, like its parallel in 1 Peter 3:3, is emphasizing that a woman’s “beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.” “Outward adornment” is clearly contrasted with “inward beauty,” “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). These passages are clearly a polemic against the materialistic focus on physical beauty.

However, to argue that these passages refer only to materialism and not to modesty is an unwarranted restriction of its range of meaning. While Evans is right that the word “modestly” does not mean “bashful” or “unassuming” as we might imagine, but rather “orderly,” “appropriate,” or “respectable” in this context, the descriptor that immediately follows the word “modestly” is “decency,” which refers to a “sense of shame” and a “sense of honor” in contrast to shamelessness (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

In Greco-Roman culture, outward adornments were often perceived as instruments of seduction (see Philo, On the Virtues 7.39; Plutarch, Advice 30), and women’s hairstyles were becoming increasingly elaborate, with curls, braids, wigs, and ornaments. In fact, historians can date the representations of women by the relative complexity of their hairstyle. Archaeologists have discovered coins minted throughout the Roman Empire that depict empresses as well as numerous prominent statutes of empresses, and their fancy fashions were quickly emulated by the well-to-do. To illustrate, Messalina, the empress and wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, as well as Poppaea, the Empress and wife of Emperor Nero, were notorious for their promiscuity, and for using their sexual allure to gain power. In this context, where elaborate adornments were associated with licentiousness, one can understand the apostle’s warning against external adornments.
Thus, the Bible condemns both materialism and immodesty. After all, what is the point of immodest adornments? Isn’t it to enhance or highlight physical beauty? Isn’t it to bring attention to one’s outward, physical features as opposed to one’s inward, spiritual qualities? Immodesty is rooted in materialism, and to say that Apostle Paul is addressing materialism and not immodesty is a false dichotomy.
A Biblical Theology of Clothing

The “sense of shame” that comes with physical exposure attests to the innocence that we have lost due to sin. In the beginning, Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, were naked yet without shame (Gen. 2:25). Then, after sinning against God, they suddenly realized that they were naked and attempted to cover themselves with fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). After seeing their woeful attempt at a covering, God himself clothed them with garments of skin (Gen. 3:21).

The loss of humanity’s spiritual innocence was reflected in their shame in physical nakedness. This is why wearing clothes is an exclusively human phenomenon. This is why the language of “covering” is used to describe forgiveness of sin (Rom. 4:7; Ps. 32:1). This is why God tells the Church in Laodicea to buy “white garments so that [they] may clothe [themselves] and the shame of [their] nakedness may not be seen” (Rev. 3:18).

Therefore, when God took animal skins to make leather garments for Adam and Eve, his act foreshadowed Christ who would be sacrificed to become the garment of righteousness for God’s people (Gal. 3:27). Christians are those who have clothed themselves with Christ (Rom. 13:14).

Physical clothing, then, serves to remind us of the glory we have lost, and immodest exposure, as well as other increasingly popular forms of public nudity, are defiant acts of rebellion against this moral reality. To encourage men and women to dress modestly, then, is not to make them ashamed of their bodies, but to help them put their hope in the future glorious bodies that they will have through Christ (Phil. 3:21).

Modesty and the Gospel
Evans is absolutely right that Jesus places the blame squarely on the men for lusting over women, and not on the women for dressing immodestly (Mt. 5:27-30), but does it follow that is it wise or loving for Christian women to dress provocatively since it’s not their problem or responsibility after all?

Our culture of individual entitlement says, “dress however wish, since it’s for yourself and nobody else,” but Christianity is all about surrendering our “rights” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9). Didn’t Apostle Paul say that he would even forego such basic rights as eating meat or drinking wine if doing so would cause a fellow Christian brother or sister to stumble (Rom. 14:13-23)? Should we not, then, exercise Christian charity in the way we dress?

As Martin Luther once said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As Christians we are to “look not only to [our] own interest, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), because this is precisely what Jesus did for us. Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

So to put it bluntly: we don’t dress just for ourselves. In fact, we don’t do anything just for ourselves. We do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), which includes the way we dress. Christian women who dress modestly don’t do it to please men, they do it ultimately to honor God!

What About Men?
“Well, then, shouldn’t men dress modestly too?” Yes, of course! Women shouldn’t show too much cleavage, and men should use belts so that they can wear their pants on their waists, where they belong, and not on their knees.

There is empirical evidence that men, in general, respond more to visual sexual stimuli than women do. (Just consider the fact that out of the 40 million adults who view pornography annually, only 28% are female, while the rest are male.) This is why the focus is usually on women when it comes to modesty, but men are certainly not exempt. I would totally wear a t-shirt at beaches if my abs made women stumble, but I have not found this to be the case in the U.S.

Isn’t Modesty Culturally Relative?
It is true that modesty is culturally-defined, but every culture covers something. In some cultures, showing one’s shoulders or bare arms is considered immodest. In others, showing one’s buttocks or the upper thigh is considered immodest. The questions that should guide us are: (1) Does the article of clothing in question cause shame? (2) Does it bring attention to outward, rather than inward, beauty? And finally, (3) Is it loving? Will it tempt others? Because, in all things, we ought to be constrained, not by our rights, but by our love for God and one another.

Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Bangladesh.
Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Bangladesh.

Trayvon Martin, Racial Profiling, and Stereotypes

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”-John 7:24

Jesus said the above words to the Pharisees, who stereotyped Jesus as an irreverent lawbreaker by the appearance of things, when, in reality, Jesus kept the heart of the laws better than any of the Pharisees (Mk. 2:23-28; Mt. 23).

Trayvon Martin and Stereotyping
This is especially relevant in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager. The prosecution claimed that Zimmerman provoked Martin to the fight that led to his death by racially-profiling the hoodie-wearing, black teenager as a criminal and then pursuing him. The jury, however, acquitted Zimmerman on the basis of Florida’s self-defense laws.

In response, President Obama gave a very personal speech where he said, “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me, 35 years ago.” He recalled various instances in which he, like other African-American men in the country, was racially stereotyped, such as when he was “followed [while] shopping in a department store” by those who suspected that he might shoplift, and the time when he “[walked] across the street and [heard] the locks click on car doors.”

Given this “lens” of African-American experience, it is no wonder that the vast majority of African-Americans see this tragedy as an instance of racial profiling and stereotyping. And regardless of whether you believe Zimmerman is innocent or not, we must seek to listen to and empathize with the African-American community. As Christians, who are commanded to judge not by appearances, but with right judgment, we must speak out against racial injustices facing African-American men throughout the country.

Some Generalizations Are Necessary
This is not to say that all generalizations are morally wrong. It is impossible to live without inferring general concepts and propositions from specific cases.

For example, people try to avoid honeybees while walking through and/or admiring flowers. This is a learned behavior in response to the fact that honeybees sting. However, this is also a generalization, because it’s only the female honeybees that sting. While only partially true, the generalization that “honeybees sting” helps people avoid getting stung by honeybees.

Similarly, people often assume that homeless people are addicted to substances such as alcohol and drugs. While not always true, it is statistically accurate that a higher proportion of the homeless are addicts compared to other populations. This generalization dissuades many generous people from giving money, which can be used to acquire drugs and alcohol, and spurs them instead to help the homeless by buying food for them or directing them to local homeless shelters.

In other words, some generalizations help people take appropriate precautions and act wisely. Despite the obvious limitations of generalizations, we cannot live without them. This is why even Jesus makes generalizations about the Pharisees and Scribes of his day in his scathing critique of their hypocrisy (Mt. 23:1-36; cf. Tit. 1:12-14).

But Stereotypes Are Sinful
But wait, aren’t young African-American men disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system? Isn’t this sufficient warrant for Zimmerman to suspect and pursue Martin? When do we cross over from fair-minded generalizing to sinful stereotyping?

“stereotype” is an uncritical, oversimplified, and prejudiced conception of someone or something held in common by a group of people. We stop generalizing and start stereotyping when we fail humbly to acknowledge the limitations of, and exceptions to, our generalizations, and proudly assume that they are true for every member of a particular group and apply them to specific individuals in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Even though Jesus did criticize the hypocrisy of Pharisees and the Scribes collectively (Mt. 23:1-36), he never pressed individuals who did not fit the generalization into stereotypes. In fact, in Mark 12:34, Jesus commends a sincere Scribe by saying that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.”

Romans 12:3-5 is illuminating:

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

All stereotypes are rooted in unwarranted pride and confidence in one’s own judgments. To stereotype is not “to think with sober judgment,” but “to think of [one]self more highly than [one] ought to think.” To stereotype is not to “judge with right judgment,” but to “judge by appearances.”

As the above passage shows, God doesn’t expect us to fit a uniform, procrustean “Christian” mold, but recognizes our individuality and calls us to use our diverse gifts to perform different tasks within the one body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-31). God forms each of us uniquely in the womb and knows us personally (Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139:13).

This is why there’s no such thing as “good” stereotypes. All stereotypes are an affront to God’s design for humanity to reflect his Triune being through individuality in solidarity and diversity in unity. They demean men and women created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) by circumscribing them with caricatures of themselves.

The Trayvon Martin case is tragic, because the bottom line is that an unarmed teenager was shot and killed, and we have no evidence that he was “up to no good,” except for the fact that he was “just walking around” in the rain after purchasing Skittles and iced tea from Seven-Eleven. The fatal confrontation would have been averted if Zimmerman had not relied on his hunch and instead heeded the recommendation of the police dispatcher who told him not to follow Martin.

Was his hunch motivated by racial stereotypes? Only God and Zimmerman himself know for sure. But may this tragedy remind us to be sober-minded, lest we judge by appearances and not with right judgment. As this case has clearly exposed, racial fault lines still divide our nation, and we still have some way to go in building “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Random Access Memories

Random Access Memories, Daft Punk, Daft Life/Columbia, 2013.

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After a 7-year hiatus from releasing a studio album, the French duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, released their fourth studio album, Random Access Memories, today.

In an interview about the album on NPR’s program “All Things Considered,” Bangalter lamented that electronic music nowadays, produced primarily from laptops, is forgetting the craft of the previous generation of electronic music producers who had to build their own “creative ecosystem” using hardware components of guitar pedals, synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines.

In order to recapture this lost art and restore the soul of the musician to electronic music, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo refrained from using computers as musical instruments, and instead used them merely “to handle assets and pieces of audio…to edit the music and put it together.” Without relying on samples and sound banks, they opted for real guitars, analog synthesizers, pianos, trombones, clarinets, basses, a live drum kit, an orchestra, and a choir, etc. to capture the magic of human performance and expression.

Right from the first track, the layers of funky rhythm guitar and jazzy electric riffs played by the Chic frontman Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr. signal a deviation from the electronic dance music (EDM) that Daft Punk has come to be identified with. As the name of the song indicates, the whole album is this attempt to recover humanity in EDM and “Give Life Back to Music.”

Fittingly, then, Daft Punk returns to the past to pay tribute to “Giorgio by Moroder,” the legendary Italian producer, songwriter, and composer, to whom they are indebted for the “life” in their music. The song starts with Moroder’s autobiographical monologue about how he wanted to find the “sound of the future.” He soon realized that the synthesizer was the sound of the future, and then “put a click on the 24 track which was then synced to the Moog modular.”

Normally, a monologue in the beginning of any album would have been too heavy-handed, but Daft Punk intuitively knows when to shift gears on a track to keep it interesting. Right when one begins to wonder how much longer the talking would last (0:34), a relaxed, loping bass, groovy electric, and light drums enter to create a wonderfully understated backing track.

Just as Moroder starts talking about syncing the “click” to the Moog modular, the music fades out, leaving only the clicks of the modular synthesizer (1:33). Then, the end of Moroder’s monologue (1:54) ushers in a throbbing beat with perhaps the most compelling synth line in the whole album, as if to say, “See where we have gone with the sound of the future that you discovered!” At the end, the splendid synchronization of the drums with the successive bass (7:01-7:37) and electric (8:10-8:47) solos top off the epic track until it all dials back down to the “click” that started it all.

The album resumes the motif of robots longing to be human in the song “Touch.” The tender vulnerability of Paul Williams’s vocals, the trilling ondes martenot, the soaring orchestra, and the ethereal children’s choir weave together to convey this robotic longing for the human “Touch / Sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel… / You’ve almost convinced me I’m real. … / If love is the answer you’re home / Hold on.” In fact, the robot seems to perk up with life as the sprightly, jazzy piano sequence begins at 3:24.

Similarly, in the instrumental “Motherboard,” there seems to be an alien giving birth from 3:07 to 4:10 with the life-blood flowing and the heart pulsating. Continuing the theme of robots seeking humanity, the motherboard actually becomes a mother of sorts.

So what does it mean for a robot to become “human?” What does it mean to “give life back to music?” For Daft Punk, it’s all about love. The melancholic “The Game of Love” deals with the heartbreak of rejection, and “Get Lucky,” the anthemic single off the album, depicts a couple who stay “up all night ‘til the sun” to share their love.

The verse of the song adds that “What keeps the planet spinning / The force from the beginning [is] (love).” Once again, the most powerful and fundamental force in the world is love. “We’ve come too far to give up who we are.” Love is what makes us truly human.

“Get Lucky” features syncopated electric guitar sequences by Paul Jackson Jr. and Nile Rodgers that add polish to the luxuriant synth, and includes an arousing vocal performance by the N.E.R.D. frontman and The Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams. It is the most melodic track on the whole album and will likely continue to be played on repeat on many iPods throughout the summer.

The theme of dancing, playing music, making love into the night until the dawning of light are all recurring themes. “Doin’ It Right,” a collaborative output with Noah Lennox, aka. Panda Bear of Animal Collective, is a hypnotic song about dancing into the night, “If you do it right / Let it go all night / Shadows on you break / Out into the light… / If you lose your way tonight / That’s how you know the magic’s right.” “Lose Yourself to Dance” gets at the same idea.

The reason for Daft Punk’s preoccupation with losing oneself to dance, music, or love until night becomes day is that all these things push one to the edge of one’s existence and touch upon something transcendent. They remind us that our everyday mundane existence is not all there is. As the first line of “Get Lucky” says, “Like the legend of the Phoenix / All ends with beginnings.”

However, the transience of it all is not lost on Daft Punk. They understand that it’s not possible to linger in these moments of glory or hold onto the glimpses of eternity. The song “Fragments of Time” encapsulates this sense of futility, “Driving this road down to paradise / Letting the sunlight into my eyes… / Keep holding these random memories / Turning our days into melodies / But since I can’t stay… / I’ll just keep playing back / These fragments of time / Everywhere I go, this moment’ll shine.”

This is why the theme of memory is so significant. The album title, Random Access Memories, compares the computer RAM (Random Access Memory) to the human brain, but by changing the singular “memory,” which is technical and impersonal, to the plural “memories,” which has a distinctly human, sentimental feel, Daft Punk evokes a completely different emotional response.

In other words, Random Access Memories is about sehnsucht, a German word that connotes the universal “longing” for a “home” elsewhere, an ideal “far-off country.” It captures the unexplainable sense that this world is not all there is and that things are not the way they ought to be. It is not a chimera, however, it is more real than the reality we know. Walt Whitman articulates it well in the closing lines of his poem “Song to the Universal:”

Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.

This nostalgia, however, can never be fulfilled on earth. Human memories of love, beauty, and glory are ever elusive. They awaken a “spiritual homesickness,” which cannot be satisfied in this life. Even if we could travel back in time to these happy moments of the past, we would not find the thing itself, but only memories of it. As C.S. Lewis writes:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. … [O]ur life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. (Weight of Glory, p. 3-8)

That’s why the track “Beyond,” amidst the spacey orchestral backdrop, exhorts us to “Dream / Beyond dream / Beyond life / You will find / Your / Song / Before sound / To be found / Close your eyes / And / Rise / Higher still / Endless thrill / To the land of / Love / Beyond love / Come alive / Angel eye / Forever watching you and I… / To find our way we lose control / Remember love’s our only mission / This is a journey of the soul / The perfect song is framed with silence / It speaks of places never seen / Your home’s a promise long forgotten / It is the birthplace of your dreams.”

The hauntingly beautiful ballad, “Within”–courtesy of Chilly Gonzales’s solo piano, the shimmering keyboard and percussive work, and the lush, mournful vocoder–expresses this nostalgia perfectly: “There are so many things / That I don’t understand / There’s a world within me / That I cannot explain / Many rooms to explore / But the doors look the same / I am lost I can’t even remember my name / I’ve been for sometime / Looking for someone / I need to know now / Please tell me who I am.”

The final track on the album, “Contact” (6:21), is about making contact with “something out there.” The whole song is a crecendo, driven by racing synth loops and charged drums rolls. At 3:18, a low static hum begins to grows like a radio signal reaching for contact with the alien entity. The pitch elevates higher and higher until it comes to a feverish clash at 4:51, when the static changes to a low-pitch hum again with only the bass and the bass drum maintaining the base rhythm. The contact seems ever closer, but of course, when one seems to be on the verge of establishing communication with the alien party, the contact breaks off and the song ends. It’s a fitting end to this album about soul-searching and sehnsucht.

Apart from the couple songs that plod (“The Game of Love” and “Doin’ It Right”), every track on Random Access Memories contains indelible hooks and irresistible grooves. All in all, it is superbly mixed, with literally hundreds of musical units arranged seamlessly in a series of progressions and regressions and crescendos and decrescendoes that beckon again and again.

Daft Punk has brilliantly captured our human yearning for eternity. They are right that “to find a way we [must] lose control” (“Beyond”), but losing control in dance or music is not the goal. As Bach once said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

The truth is that we are alienated from God, our creator. We are exiles from our heavenly home. We were made for glory and immortality, yet we live in the squalor of sin and are subject to the tyranny of death. But on the cross, at the end of his life, Jesus Christ offers us new, eternal life. In Mark 8:35, Jesus teaches that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” We must let go and take hold of his hand in faith.

In Random Access Memories, the robots of Daft Punk have found their souls. Here’s to hoping that their souls will find a home in God, the only place where we can find true rest.

Buy Random Access Memories HERE.

Patriots’ Day Bombing and the City of Boston

Patriots’ Day 

Patriots’ Day is a widely-observed Massachusetts holiday that celebrates the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord (the first battles of the American Revolutionary War) on April 19, 1775. It is observed on the third Monday in April. The Boston Marathon, one of the best-known races in the world and the oldest annual marathon in the world, takes place on Patriots’ Day.

This past Monday, during the 117th Boston Marathon, two bombs were detonated by terrorists near the finish line, leading to 3 deaths and over 180 injuries. The home games of the Red Sox, Celtics, and the Bruins, all part of the Patriots’ Day festivities, were cancelled. Hanna and I were not in the city at the time, but we had over a dozen friends running the Boston Marathon (thankfully, all of them are safe).

This tragedy inspired many people to heroic acts. The police, firefighters, and EMT’s of Boston saved many through their prompt response. Some of the marathoners ran straight past the finish line toward Massachusetts General hospital to donate blood for the victims of the bombings. Many ordinary citizens were seen assisting the injured, and many more opened up their homes and offered rides to those who were stranded in Boston due to the incident.


City of God & City of Man
As Christians in the Greater Boston area, how should we relate to and care for our city? Is it appropriate for Christians to be patriotic?

It is true that we belong to the City of God and not to the City of Man. We are exiles here on earth (Jas. 1:1; 1 Pt. 2:11). We lead lives that are, in many ways, countercultural. Our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, not to the Kingdom of Man.

Resident Aliens
Nevertheless, we do not, as some extreme fundamentalists are wont to do, separate ourselves and label this tragedy as a just punishment for the moral decay of the city. Instead, as the Jewish exiles in Babylon were commanded, we are to “seek the welfare of the city where [God has] sent [us] into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare [we] will find [our] welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7).

We do not belong to this world, yet we have been sent into this world (Jn. 17:15-18). Serving our city is not only the loving, and therefore the right, thing to do; it’s also the strategic thing to do because it bolsters the credibility of our gospel witness in the city. In Boston’s welfare, we will find our welfare.

The short answer, then, is this: We should be the very best citizens of the city of Boston and do everything in our power to ensure the healing and flourishing of our city.

In addition to praying for our city, here’s a list of things that you can do to help.

Can Christians Be Depressed or Suicidal?

Depression and Suicide

Depression and suicide are taboo topics among Christians, because they are often perceived as signs of spiritual weakness. “Good Christians are never depressed,” and “True Christians never commit suicide” are common sentiments among Evangelicals. But are these even true?

This week, the suicide of the 27-year-old Matthew Warren, the son of the renowned pastor Rick Warren, rocked the Evangelical world and began a national conversation about mental illness.

It is impossible to speak with certainty on this issue since the Scriptures do not directly address it. However, I do think that Christians can be susceptible to depression, and I do not think that suicide is an unpardonable sin.

What the Bible Says…
The Biblical narratives that mention suicide (Abimelech, Jdgs. 9:52-54; Samson, Jdgs. 16:30; Saul, 1 Sm. 31:4; Saul’s armor-bearer, 1 Sm. 31:5; Ahithophel, 2 Sm. 17:23; Zimri, 1 Kings 16:15-20; Judas, Mt. 27:3-5) pass no judgment on the morality of suicide itself. They merely comment on the reason why these men took their own lives.

Furthermore, men chosen by God such as Job (7:15-16), David (Ps. 13:2-4), Jeremiah (20:14-18), and Jonah (4:9) all despaired of their lives at some point, and Samson, who kills himself along with the Philistines, is hailed as a hero of the faith in Heb. 11:32. These examples alone should dispel the idealistic notion that Christians are immune to depression and suicidal tendencies.

Mental illnesses can have complex physiological, as well as psychological, causes. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression persist in this fallen world because our bodies are still groaning for the full redemption of God (Rom. 8:22-23).

On this side of eternity, sincere Christians still struggle with serious sins (Rom. 7:7-25). Thus, a volatile Christian can succumb to suicidal temptations in the throes of severe depression. Suicide is a tragedy in which the victim often has little control.

The good news is that there is no condemnation for those who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (Rom. 8:31-34), and nothing can separate us from the love of God–not life, not death, not even death by suicide (Rom. 8:35-39). We are saved, not by living up to certain behavioral standards, but through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the gospel.

The fact that one cannot repent of suicide after death does not preclude God’s forgiveness. We all have unconfessed sins that are unknown even to ourselves (Ps. 19:12; cf. 1 Cor. 4:4), and confession of every sin has never been the criterion for salvation.

Some cite 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 as proof that suicide leads to eternal damnation:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

However, this is a misinterpretation because the referent of “God’s temple” in this context is not an individual’s body (as it is in 1 Cor. 6:19-20) but the local church. We know this because (1)Paul is addressing the problem of division within the local church (1 Cor. 3:3-9), and because (2)the personal pronoun “you” in the original Greek is plural, though this is lost in translation.

The verses that immediately precede vv. 16-17 talk about how Christ will judge each one’s work in the upbuilding of the church. The enduring value of one’s labor will be tested by fire, and “if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:12-15). This “loss” speaks not of individual damnation but of the damage done to the church. His work will be lost and he will lose his reward, but “he himself wil be saved.”

Please Don’t Take Your Own Life!
Of course, God’s mercy is by no means an excuse for suicide. Suicide is never a viable option (Acts 16:25-34). It is presumptuous to take God-given life into our own hands, and selfish to spurn the care of our loved ones.

We have been bought with a price by Christ’s blood, and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit that belong to God. (In the context of 1 Cor. 6:19-20, the “temple” does refer to the individual body, because it is dealing with sexual immorality rather than with division in the church as before). Like any sin, suicide results in a relative, albeit not necessarily absolute, rift in one’s fellowship with God.

If you struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, please remember that God is sovereign and that there is always hope. Please seek help, both spiritual and medical. Please hang on, so that you can “teach the world to sing [your] song”…

For a more detailed treatment on this issue, please see my friend Al’s article on Christianity Today.

Well, I don’t want to die anymore
Don’t want the Lord to call me home
I’ve got this feeling he ain’t done with me yet
So, I’ll sit right right here and place my bet

So, I don’t want to die, not just yet…

Well, it’s a hard road
To get back to my home
I don’t know how much farther I can go
But if I hang on,
Though I know the road is long,
I could teach the world to sing my song.

-Excerpt from “Don’t Wanna Die Anymore” by Ivan & Alyosha

Download the song Don’t Wanna Die Anymore.

Download the full album All The Times We Had.