Wow. Just Wow.

Wow—from an evangelical literary review that looks promising:

I’m wondering if perhaps “fundies” have advantage in our emerging justice culture that others don’t have. Fundies grew up knowing that what they watched and where they went had moral importance. Fundies understand from an early age that entertainment is never just entertainment, and that mindlessly consuming anything is probably mindlessly consuming something bad. Fundies are well acquainted with putting moral demands on the world around them. They are usually scorned viciously for it. But doesn’t it feel like the fundies were ahead of the curve? I mean, when you live in a post-CTE, post-Weinstein, post-Nassar, post-Woody Allen era, might not the fundies have a lesson to teach about what life is like when you realize you can’t think deeply and enjoy heedlessly at the same time?

Just wow.

This supports what I’ve been saying to both of the people who will listen: American Protestant Christian fundamentalism, for all its faults, has something to offer to the body of Christ—and we who have been shaped by it ought, if possible, to strengthen what remains so we can keep giving those things. (What many fundamentalists don’t seem to recognize is that other Christian groups also have important things to offer to the body of Christ, too. But that’s another topic for another day.) I am abidingly thankful for the unshakeable impulse fundamentalism gave me, an impulse to check the Parental Advisories on a movie before I watch it. It’s been many years since I watched a movie for which the “sexual content” section on Focus on the Family’s Plugged In Online went beyond a line or two. My wife can tell you that this has meant many, many movie nights spent in a fruitless search with many rejected candidates. Many “movie” nights end with our watching an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show (and we just skipped one of those, too).

I’m not holy because of the things I don’t do. Asceticism ≠ holiness. But I certainly wouldn’t be holy, wouldn’t be obeying the principles of God’s word, if I trained my conscience to accept ignoring Eph 5:3 in my entertainment choices:

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.

It’s possible for Christians to deny the good gifts of God in culture by withdrawing from legitimate pleasures in entertainment media. But me and Andy Crouch don’t see that problem very often. It’s also possible for fundamentalism to become legalism, for personal standards to be applied Pharisaically to others, for us to practice our righteousness before men instead of before God, for us to claim biblical support for “standards” that we made up. Caveat lector.

But it’s also possible to so privatize the application of Scripture that I’m unwilling to call a spade a spade, particularly when that spade is practically nude and parading around for the world’s viewing pleasure and yet Matthew 5:27–30 is still in my Bible I just checked. I’m abidingly thankful for the power fundamentalism instilled in me to truly not care when the cool kids were all watching something I knew I shouldn’t enjoy. When people are being entertained by sins Jesus died to eradicate, I don’t fear vicious social scorn or the charge of legalism nearly as much as I fear the Lord. (I say this before God in good conscience, sadly aware of the times when I have failed.) This is my fundamentalist heritage.





Is a “Purity Culture” Necessarily Bad?

I haven’t read the book this CT article summarizes, a book about dating on Christian college campuses, so I am making no comment on it other than that it looks wildly interesting and, surely, hits close to home. Dating culture on evangelical campuses—well, one in particular—consumed my life for basically ten years. I felt a bit jaded by that culture by the time I escaped the dating world (in a Subaru Outback with trailing cans). But I never could bring myself to blame anyone. After all, I won. No, I triumphed. When my family care physician asked me last week if I was ever depressed, I couldn’t help bursting out in a big smile and saying, “I’m happy!” The wife I found at that Christian college is the most important (human) reason for that fact.

There was one paragraph in the article that leapt out at me—because I fear it’s becoming the stock thing to say, and I think it comes perilously close to cant. The strategy in this argument du jour has reached the sloganeering stage—and here’s the slogan: “purity culture.” This “purity culture” is always bad; there’s always a sneer bubbling just under its transparent surface.

 It’s not the ideal of sexual purity, per se, that causes these challenges, but purity culture, a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments that presents perfection as the sole ideal. Students reported to [author Dana] Malone that sex talk on campus, in public forums, doesn’t reach the level of authenticity or honesty that they need. The purity imperative means that students sometimes misrepresent their sexual pasts to friends and partners, and this leaves them uncertain about the place of physical attraction in an intimate relationship moving toward marriage. Women suffer shame and guilt not just around sexual sin but around the sheer fact of living in a body.

Here’s what I wonder: is it possible to have a labeled, self-conscious group (such as “evangelicalism”) which holds an ideal (such as sexual purity) without a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments developing around it? Every group does this with its dearly held values, right? It’s a necessary factor of group-formation and maintenance. There can be no group cohesion unless people are both manning the barricades and doing some measure of internal policing. Patriots fans don’t let Eagles fans into their clubs, and they don’t permit one another to wear Eagles jerseys, either.

Maybe I’ve only succeeded in making “purity culture” sound even more unappealing than the above quotation. So let me put it in terminology that should feel more positive to my readers: we in the church have a duty borne of love to restore brothers in sin, to provoke one another to love and good works, to exhort one another while it’s called “today.” Even when we’re doing something as simple as singing, what we’re supposed to be doing is “teaching” and “admonishing” one another. Sin is a big deal, and that fact is supposed to become part of our culture of interactions within the church.

And let me make it personal: without the purity culture surrounding me in my Christian environs as a young man, I think I would not have just told my doctor I was happy. Christ forgives, yes. And so can people. Love can overlook, love can bear all things. But sin still has consequences. The promiscuous guy in Proverbs gets “to the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.” What if I’d gotten a girl pregnant at 21—what would I be doing today? What would my place be in my Christian community? Would I have a wife and beautiful children? I just don’t know. I’m glad I had social pressure on me not to get into that state. I’m glad there was a sense of shame attached, culturally, to the sexual and relationship sins I was tempted to commit. I’m glad that a structure of first written and then informal expectations was placed around me regarding dating at my Christian college. In my case, they helped me make about the smoothest possible transition a rather immature redhead could make from adolescence to adulthood. I felt that they accurately reflected the Bible’s clarity about sexual sin and freed me to read my Bible and attain that clarity in my own conscience. (Please read Kenneth Woodward’s sage comments on this topic.) All of child-rearing is scaffolding toward a free-standing state. I’m not embarrassed to say that I needed such scaffolding past high school.

To be clear, I did things I’m not proud of during those ten years, things for which I have repented to God and to others. I sinned. But “purity culture” rallied around me, taking my sins seriously but believing ardently in the power of God’s grace to restore broken people—like every single member of the purity culture knew himself and herself to be, or was at least supposed to. I had a good—not perfect, not ideal, but good—experience in the very center of a strong, conservative purity culture.

I’m also not at all sure I would have liked sexual authenticity and honesty all around me during my college years. Some struggles with sin are properly kept discreet. I’m genuinely glad I didn’t even know about certain sexual deviancies until I was a grad student reading about them as part of my job at my Christian college library. Christian “purity culture” kept me from hearing the kinds of specific confessions from other guys that would themselves have become temptations for me.

I do need to get around, however, to some positives I see in the anti-purity-culture sloganeering. I do see some. Because when love and grace and God’s sovereignty and his Spirit and clear Bible get leached out of a purity culture, the culture can become imperious or Pharisaical. It can start to give the impression that sexual attraction is not a necessary part of marriage, when the Song of Songs rather says the opposite at book length. I’m sure it can put students in the awkward spot of feeling like they have to lie about their past sexual sin in order to preserve their friendships or campus leadership positions. I am no expert here (my wife kind of is), but I do tend to think that there ought to be a safe place for Christian college students to get pastoral counsel about what they’ve done in their sexual lives without necessarily having to risk their spot on the school newspaper staff. I have been told that my alma mater has worked to disentangle discipline from counseling. That’s out of my league, but it sounds right to me.

And there’s this comment from the article that rings more or less true:

Purity culture also creates a push toward marriage as a redemptive state that can “erase” sexual sins in a relationship.

I can’t say I saw much of this in my experience or in others’, but now that I see it named, I recognize the idea as one that floated around—and did go at least once through my own head. I can’t say the purity culture around me in college accepted it or promoted it, but I can see how that culture might have failed sufficiently to counter it.

But then the article resorts again to cant, to platitudes about how bad platitudes are:

Students described to Malone how they value traditional Christian morality but also want tensions and difficulties to be acknowledged and discussed on campus with informed, authentic dialogue, not platitudes or pat answers.

And I wonder: particularly in a mixed group of college students, how could this ever happen? Sex is so personal. Where is authentic but careful dialogue going to occur except in private settings? And how could it happen among a group which includes sheltered kids and not-so-sheltered kids? Dialogues “on campus” sound like faculty-led dialogues—which necessarily include many different students. Who isn’t going to aim for the least offense in a setting like that?

“Purity culture” is not inherently bad. A given Christian college campus, a given Christian church, a given group of Christian friends may have come to mix some bad ideas and values into their purity culture, but please don’t ever let my own children—or myself—fall into a group of Christians in which no such culture exists at all. I expect the Bible to have effects not just on individuals but on group dynamics, on shared norms of practice and virtue, on whether dads in a particular church feel encouraged to be involved in their children’s (particularly their daughters’) dating lives or are embarrassed to do so. As Jonathan Leeman so wisely pointed out when talking about other kinds of gender norms, we’re in the realm of “wisdom” here, not direct biblical command. But I sniff a little Western expressive individualism in the antipathy toward “purity culture,” and I’m not giving in to the bashfest. I needed that culture, and I will work to maintain and purify (!) it for the good of the children, teens, and college students I love.

I do think I know what the author of the article (and the book?) means in complaining about complete sexual purity as a “sole ideal”: I think she means that people who truly have repented from their sexual sins can come to feel that they are damaged goods who can’t have the truly happy marriages everybody else is promised. But there really is one sole ideal: sexual purity before (and after!) marriage. And we can’t give that up, because it’s in the Bible.

But one way to keep purity culture from becoming brittle and loveless and therefore harmful is to recognize that 1) not one of us has met the ideal, even men and women who never touched a member of the opposite sex until their wedding day. It is possible to be closer to the ideal and possible to be farther away from it; but it is not possible, I believe, to meet it unless you’re Jesus. We’re all damaged goods. And 2) none of us is guaranteed a happy marriage, no matter how close we’ve come to the ideal evangelical path toward it. There is an element of the laborers in the vineyard here: no one will get less than their due, but some in God’s gracious economy—he’s not a tame lion—will get more. Generally speaking, staying away from the forbidden woman (or man) of Proverbs is a better path to a good marriage, but God is allowed to call Hoseas to marry Gomers, and he’s allowed to cleanse and restore promiscuous people. “Such were some of you.”

Maybe I just need to read the book profiled in CT—again, I am not commenting directly on it, just on the article. But I’ve been thinking a lot about “purity culture” since Josh Harris’ readers were invited to write about their experience with his dating books a few years back. I thought someone ought to come out and defend it at least a little on an obscure blog where no harm can be done.



Marijuana Talk in Surrey

The kind folks up at Back to the Bible Canada, and particularly Isaac Dagneau of the indoubt podcast (a ministry to Millennials) had me up for a recent event in Surrey, B.C., to speak on the cultural changes surrounding the acceptance of recreational marijuana. I was invited because of my little co-authored book, Can I Smoke Pot? Marijuana in Light of Scripture. This was my talk (some of which, at the very end, got left out in the real talk).

I’m a Bible teacher before I’m a culture watcher, so even though I’ve been asked to talk about marijuana from a cultural angle, I have to start with a theological one. Broadly speaking, recreational marijuana use is growing in popularity because the one true God has not chosen to rule Western culture as directly as he used to. The overall plan of God is to put all nations under Christ’s feet, but he is permitting a large amount of rebellion against his rule until the day when Christ will put down all rule and authority. That’s the heading under which I’d like to look at marijuana and culture, because I connect every question ultimately to the rule of Christ and the glory of God.

Our job as Christians is always to obey that rule by applying the unchanging Word to our changing world—and that means reading our Bibles in one hand and our newspapers in the other. Dr. Neufelt looked at the one; let’s look at the other. So please turn in your Vancouver Sun or your Globe and Mail to page A1, and let’s try to read up on what the broader culture around us is saying—and revealing—about marijuana.

I think Western culture is saying one thing and revealing another in its talk about marijuana. Let’s talk about those two things and then go over some brief counsel on how Christians might be salt and light as Christ our King commanded given our current cultural situation.

1. What Western Culture Is Saying

I think what Western culture is saying is we want freedom. And this, of course isn’t new. Psalm 2 has the kings of the nations saying, “Let us cast away their cords from us!”

The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:2–3 ESV)

The nations have always wanted to get out from under Christ’s rule. They want freedom. Freedom is one of the major gods of Western culture. So much so that I feel compelled to say right away that I’m not against freedom myself—when defined by the Bible. But the very idea of “defining” and therefore limiting freedom is offensive to our culture. The French Revolution made “Liberté” one of its three watchwords. The U.S. calls itself “The land of the free.” “Freedom” is on my country’s postage stamps; “freedom…for all” is part of the pledge to the flag that every U.S. schoolchild makes every day. You here in Canada have a “Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Freedom is a powerful god.

It is another mark of the reach of this god that it wasn’t until I was about 30 that I myself ever stopped to ask, “Freedom from what? And freedom for what?” Edmund Burke, a British politician active during key years in the history of both the United States and Canada, said

The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.

If the movement in Western culture for a long time has been toward greater and greater freedom, the only principles standing in the way are, and here I borrow from non-Christian moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, “harm” and “fairness.” As long as an action brings no harm as defined by reigning cultural norms, and as long as it is no apparent threat to equality, Westerners think it ought to be permitted.

And during this era of history in which God permits his creatures to permit things he doesn’t permit, I think it’s fair to say that the West is overall giving more liberty to people to live against God’s will. But you can’t throw off the yoke of Christian truth all at once; by God’s common grace, he restrains sin in given cultures. Think of Abimelech in the Old Testament, to whom God says, “I kept you from touching Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” There are many non-Christian Canadians who have supported morally good policies and sustained moral good in their culture because God has restrained the effects of the fall in their minds and hearts. And by God’s special grace, there have been and are many Christian Canadians who have acted as moral roots in the soil. At least that’s the way we’re supposed to act! Western culture is saying it wants freedom; we Christians need to be moral voices warning, graciously, of the slavery that comes with any freedom not granted by Christ. You either get Christ’s easy yoke or the world’s hard and deadly one.

2. What Western Culture Is Revealing: Moral Thinness in the Public Square

The West is saying it wants freedom; but it’s revealing something, I think: namely that its moral language is thin if not bankrupt. I say this because in my judgment marijuana is discussed almost solely in utilitarian terms. To be clear, it’s not wrong to consider the financial impact of marijuana legalization and subsequent regulation. It’s proper for the mayor of Edmonton to give attention, as he did recently to the question of “policing, enforcement, and inspection costs” under the new dispensation.

But in my searches through Canadian news about this topic, I was struck by how difficult it was for me to find someone talking about marijuana from a moral perspective. I am certain that the topic has been discussed from this angle in Canada, because all people are moral beings (Paul said so in Romans 2), and Canada has a Christian cultural heritage; but searching your major news outlets, I didn’t see much if any moral talk. I found a MacLean’s article which dismissed the “moral panic” which led to marijuana’s criminalization in Canada in 1923. The lengthy article went on to say this:

The case for legalizing personal use of cannabis hangs on addressing two key questions. What is the cost and social impact of marijuana prohibition? And what are the risks to public health, to social order and personal safety of unleashing on Canada a vice that has been prohibited for some 90 years?

I was hopeful when I saw “social impact,” because I thought maybe we’d get some moral analysis, some question about the kind of society Canadians want to have, the kind of values they want their children to live out. But instead I got a lot of talk about the high financial costs of enforcing existing marijuana restrictions, and the projected impact on traffic safety and public health, conceived merely physically, not morally or spiritually. The secularizing West doesn’t know how to talk about morality, because the public square is supposed to be not only free but equal, not picking one worldview or one vision of the good life over another.

But humans can’t live this way: we can’t keep our moral visions out of the public square. So we smuggle in our visions of the good life under guises we ourselves don’t always see. Public discourse is supposed to be an iron cage letting no contested moral viewpoints in; only secular reasons are allowed. But we get them in anyway. An immoral vision of what life should be, one which maximizes freedom, has ended up winning much ground in our culture.

U.S. culture does permit a very few people to occupy positions in which they get to preach a more or less Christian morality to the public. The main two people I know who get to do this are the New York Times op-ed columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks.

It was refreshing to me to read Brooks saying this not very long ago while discussing marijuana:

Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

3. What Christians Need to Say in Public

And that brings me to what Christians need to say to our culture. I think we need to listen to its talk of freedom and offer a better one. I think we need to expose the absence of a moral vision and offer one.

We need to be very careful here, because preaching can be self-righteous and selfish. In America in my growing up years we had a movement called the “Moral Majority.” It was largely made up of Christians, and entirely made up of Republicans rather than Democrats. Implicit in that name “Moral Majority” was a boast: we’re the moral ones, and our political enemies are the immoral ones. That did not help matters, because it wasn’t true: there is morality and immorality on both sides of every political aisle. We need to bring humility and love to all our speech in the public square, even and especially social media, the only public square where most of us will get to speak.

I think I can motivate you to speak with love and grace, if you’re a Christian, by quoting my country’s most celebrated Olympian ever, the swimmer Michael Phelps. He is not a believer, and after his amazing athletic triumph in 2008, eight gold medals, he got spotted smoking marijuana. He admitted that his actions were “regrettable,” and he made a touching comment. He said the drug was his method of “self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was that I was trying to run from.”

I don’t scoff at that. My heart goes out to him. Even while riding a wave to the top of the world, he had problems that he couldn’t fix. He turned to marijuana.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor has said that our culture is still to this day “Christ-haunted.” But Christ is clearly not the king of North-American culture. We worship other gods now. And we look to them for salvation, as Phelps did. Because we are embodied souls in a created order, it is not wrong to seek medical treatment; medicines are a good gift of God and something humans should seek to make from his creation. But it is a sign that we are worshiping the creation rather than the Creator when we look to that creation to do what only he can do for us. This, I think, is the most common problem with marijuana. I have no complaint against medical treatments when properly vetted; but Jesus is jealous to be the solution to your anxiety, to your troubles. We should be able to find rest in his arms, not in mind-altering drugs. No, let me correct that: we can find rest only in his arms.

The effect of giving people freedom to self-medicate is that they will do it; and we know that “checking out” with pharmacological assistance will only make their problems worse. But we, we have hope; we have Christ. We don’t need to run from our problems; we can run to our strong tower and be safe. This is something we need to say to our culture: people don’t turn to marijuana to make life more abundant but to make it more mellow, or worse. We have so many exciting things to do, so many ways to love our God and serve our neighbor. Why would we want to check out? We have a moral vision to offer, a description provided by our creator of what the good life really looks like.

I also think that if we are really loving neighbors God has put in our lives who are running from their troubles, we’ll have an unexpected angle in our speech in public. When a restaurant close to my church wanted to start selling alcohol in violation of local laws about selling booze within certain areas, they knew that they could probably get permission to bend the rules if they asked nicely. But our church was asked to testify. Our assistant pastor, one of the wisest and most godly and gracious men I have ever known, told the government panel, “The tax revenues are appealing, we know that. But we pastors deal with people on the other side of alcohol abuse.” He could have leaned on the law; he could have preached. Instead he expressed empathy for the problems of people without Christ and warned gently that self-medicating with alcohol, in this case, wasn’t going to help.

One of my favorite theologians, Andy Crouch, said,

In our North American context, what is the function of pot? It is associated with superficially pleasant disengagement from the world. It connotes a kind of indolence and “tuning out” that is not an option for people who want to become agents of compassion and neighbor love.

And we, if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will put down moral roots in the soil and insist on them. And if we truly love them, that love will come out. It will become apparent that we’re not for one political party vs. another or one tax bracket vs. another. If we truly love God, we will be salt and light in a culture full of people who do have his law written on their hearts according to Romans 2:14–15. I think they know at some level, even if they suppress it, that recreational marijuana use is immoral. We must lovingly, for their good, call them to submit to Christ’s rule in every area of their lives.



A Quick Thought about KJV-Onlyism

A quick thought: my friends who are very concerned to have one standard English Bible often warn of the terrible confusion that is, they say, inevitable when Christians use multiple translations.

And I say they are deeply concerned about a problem that both 1) doesn’t exist and 2) has always existed.

What I mean is that 1) outside of KJV-Onlyism, where the possibility that someone-might-be-massively-confused-by-multiple-translations-and-fall-into-doctrinal-error-or-unbelief is a huge Bogeyman, this supposed confusion is not a problem. What can I say except that in all my experience, I’ve never seen it occur? I’ve never seen a Bible study fall apart or a person lose his faith over this. The only people I’ve seen who were confused and troubled by the existence of multiple Bible translations are people in or coming out of KJV-Onlyism.

And 2) there have long been multiple English Bible translations, even during the era when the KJV reigned supreme. The Geneva never went away. And within the KJV itself there are countless alternative translations in the margins. Whose faith is shaken by these? Who is confused? Weren’t they put there to help us? If the KJV translators thought it wise to provide alternate translations (and they explain why they do in their preface), why can’t contemporary Christians use alternate translations?

Empirically speaking, people with bad theology use the KJV—and every other major translation. Empirically speaking, people with good theology do, too. I’m just not seeing the translations as the problem. I simply don’t believe any cause-and-effect correlation can be established between translation X and bad doctrine (or good).

Bonus point: Protestants have no pope. There’s no one to make us use only one English Bible translation. The effort is doomed to fail. It has failed. And this is one time when “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is especially salubrious advice. To use multiple translations can only help Bible study for those who are properly taught. Those who have to unlearn their KJV-Onlyism before being properly taught will struggle, but KJV-Onlyism is creating a problem and then citing that problem as reason for its continued existence.