Why do I have to learn this stuff?!

Mark Ward

I recently preached a message at the opening for a Christian school in my town, one several church members have attended. It answers the perennial question, “Why do I have to learn this stuff?!”

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Cheap Sex: A Review

Mark Ward

Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and MonogamyCheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy by Mark Regnerus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A quick check of the Goodreads reviews for Cheap Sex by sociologist Mark Regnerus suggests to me that everyone has strong feelings about this book—which tends to support the author’s thesis, I think. In other words, sex is not what Captain Kathryn Janeway said it was in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, namely a component of good hygiene. One time when her crew visited a resort planet she encouraged her senior commanders to make sure to go have sex with the planet’s prostitutes. None of this was stated so bluntly; it was given instead with a wink and a nod and the good-natured air of a friendly schoolmarm doling out health advice.

There is no Kathryn Janeway, of course. People wrote her lines. Western people. American people. People describing and promoting their worldview through the tool of TV. A worldview Regnerus subjects to withering critique in this book.

Stat after stat. Story after story. The tools of sociology set in skillful array. Regnerus shows that the pill and porn have lowered the “price” of sex, made it more accessible than it ever has been, and therefore put women at a disadvantage in the sexual marketplace. I don’t have the capacity to question Regenerus’ research practices, nor the time to examine his data. Am I supposed to? Everything held true to my experience and worldview. How many readers will do anything other than run his conclusions and arguments through the grid of their own values—just as I have done?

And here’s what I came out with when I did this: validation of words that have guided me since long before I could ever possibly understand sociological stats, since long before my parents would ever have let me be exposed to the very frank stories and personal testimonies in the book. When I was a young teen I read what Jesus said,

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.(Matthew 5:27–30 ESV)

I read it over and over because, in my adolescent mind, I thought it was cool that this paragraph was part of the longest unbroken stretch of red letters in the New Testament. I now know that it’s called the Sermon on the Mount.

At that age there was no way I could process the pros and cons of sexual temptations and opportunities on my own individual level, let alone on a societal one. All I could do was listen to Jesus and trust him. Or not. (And listen to Solomon in Proverbs 5–6 or not. Etc.) I was provided, in God’s providence, the very kinds of help Regnerus describes to help me side with Jesus rather than with the sexual revolution. I had a conservative religious community with its much-maligned “purity culture.”

And after reading Cheap Sex, I have never been more grateful. I argued once in a blog post that every group holding no-sex-before-marriage ideals is going to come up with mechanisms of in-group policing. It doesn’t have to sound so bad, and Cheap Sex shows why: encouraging others to be sexually pure is a way of protecting people. Women especially, but not only them. They’re the ones who suffer the most obvious and immedaite effects of the lowering price of sex. But men also suffer, even if at 24 and the height of their sexual “wealth” they think they’ve got it made in this society. They are betting away future happiness at the price of present pleasure. (Regnerus shows that they’re betting away present pleasure, too, actually. A life of lonely porn and masturbation is not fun.)

I look at my present pleasures—a beautiful wife, healthy children, loud children—and I’m grateful for a culture that knew, because Jesus told it and because of experiences encoded in it, to put guardrails around me during a time when those pleasures seemed impossibly far away.

Ironically, perhaps, I’ve been listening to lesbian feminist Camille Paglia read some of her essays on the one hand defending pornography—that’s her pagan, Dionysian streak—and on the other hand insisting that gender is not a social construct and that feminists in the academy have become man-bashers unwilling to acknowledge the good men have done for women for centuries—that’s her truth-seeking streak. The protection, the work, the war. Egalitarianism hasn’t raised women up and given them the power of men; it has made them play by men’s rules. To the detriment of them first and the whole society as a result.

A must read for pastors and those in Christian education.

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C.S. Lewis on the Pleasure of Pleasing People without Being a People Pleaser

Mark Ward

A few years ago I had one of those little formative experiences. I was leaving a long-term evangelistic ministry to teenagers in which I participated at my church. After six years of Friday nights, after countless hours of work I loved and loved sharing with other church members, it was time to step aside and let others fill my spot.

The leader of the group thought it appropriate to have a few words said on my behalf, and to give me some parting gifts from the church bookstore. The books were generous, but it was the words that yielded the lesson. The leader asked two men who’d worked alongside me to speak briefly about my impact. It was a little awkward; it always is when you have to listen to people thank and/or praise you. What they said was very gracious, but it was vague. What they said could have been said of all the other faithful people there, many of whom invested more hours than I (some of whom still do, ten years later).

But then the leader stood up to say his own parting words, and he was specific. He had carefully noticed the one thing I had most dedicated myself to doing in the ministry; I won’t say what it was. But I was always doing it, and he had seen it.

I felt a correspondingly specific pleasure, a rare one in my life, a pleasure I C.S. Lewis describes in my favorite piece of his ever: the pleasure of a child being praised by a parent, the pleasure of pleasing someone I respected greatly whom it was my God-given duty to please. I had not been pandering. I hadn’t done the work primarily to please him, or I wouldn’t have pleased him; but when I did, and when he named the reason specifically—what a God-given joy.

I’ve tried since then to keep my eye out for the specific gifts of others, and to name them when possible.

Here’s Lewis:

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson, and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation” by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. Not only in a child, either, but even in a dog or a horse. Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment—a very, very short moment—before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex forever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero’s book. Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself; “it is not for her to bandy compliments with her Sovereign.” I can imagine someone saying that he dislikes my idea of heaven as a place where we are patted on the back. But proud misunderstanding is behind that dislike. In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. (36–39)

Read his whole essay, the first in this collection.

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New Bible Study Magazine

Mark Ward

Top Five Responses to Authorized from KJV-Only Brothers

Mark Ward

Does My Argument in Authorized Apply to Old Hymns?

Mark Ward

A pastor friend in urban Chicago asked a great question:

How does the case you make in your book regarding [unintelligible language in] the KJV apply to our hymnody? I’m editing our Sunday slide presentation and am finding that the “thees” and “thous,” while beautiful and transcendent, may not be clear to an outsider attending our fellowship. In some cases, the old English is updatable without ruining the message or meter. But, in other cases a small tweak would ruin a rhyme.

I replied that that question is a really good one, one other friend has already posed. And here’s what I’ve come to so far:

First, nobody is 17th-Century-Hymnody-Only or has made a doctrine out of using archaic hymns exclusively, so the pressure to push back against unintelligible language in hymns is not as great as the need to push back against unintelligible language in Bibles.

Second, the Bible is also more important than hymns, so that’s the battle I’m picking first.

But, third, to be consistent with my argument in Authorized, I have to say that we should not use unintelligible language when intelligible language is available. What a lot of KJVOs think I’m saying (or want me to be saying so they can burn up my straw man) is that we should remove all difficulty, including literary beauty and metaphor, from our worship. They say I’m calling for an emoji Bible. I’m not; and nor do I want an emoji hymnal. “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light” is a beautiful metaphor, and totally gettable. It should stay. Maybe “Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed / Bruise in us the serpent’s head” is a bit harder. But it’s straight Bible, with a small interpretive twist (“Bruise in us the serpent’s head”)—and I don’t want to get rid of such things. I’m actually fine with challenging metaphors, particularly if they’re drawn from the Bible—or comparable to the Bible’s metaphors in their obscurity quotient. Parts of the Bible are hard to understand; Peter said so (2 Pet 3:16). A good shepherd knows when to lead his sheep to those pastures, and how to lead them there. The same goes for our tradition of (non-inspired) hymnody.

I think “thee” and “thou” and “thy” really are not very difficult or unintelligible to modern English speakers with any education whatsoever. They are part of a recognizably high or sacral register in modern English. They show up on TV, even. But I want to be sensitive to my audience. I want to be on the lookout, because of 1 Corinthians 14’s edification-requires-intelligibility principle, for traditional wording I just have to know my congregation won’t get. “Naught be all else to me save that thou art” probably qualifies, I’m afraid. I tried to explain it recently to my congregation (I’m manic about this when I lead singing), but I’m not 100% sure of my own interpretation—even after watching the great Randy Leedy in class try to parse it one time. If he can’t get it, no one can. It probably needs to be revised—or what are we? Hidebound traditionalists who care more about aesthetic forms than about understanding and the edification that comes from it. And considering how poor our low-church aesthetic forms are compared to those of High Anglicanism or Rome itself, that’s pretty sad.

I love certain old hymns like “And Can It Be?” for their text and their tunes. The latter have been updated often in recent years; perhaps it is time for a concerted effort to update the former—just enough to retrieve intelligibility while preserving the doctrine and the metaphors.

Sort of fourth: to clarify one point I’ve been making… For almost six years I “pastored” an outreach congregation full of functionally illiterate people. I loved it. But we sang simple songs that I don’t sing in my current middle-class congregation. My current church can surpass the simple, for their spiritual and even aesthetic benefit. I’m not trying to dumb everything down; I’m trying to make understanding possible for my audience rather than impossible. That’s part of my calling when I shepherd the flock.

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