From Jerusalem to Timbuktu - A Review

If you read the right commentary on the state of Christianity, it will seem like doom is coming and we are well into the waning days of the faith, well past the point of no return. Those discussions of the present and future of Christianity tend to rely on data from the developed world, particularly the Northern Hemisphere that has been strongly influenced by the European colonialism.

In From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, Brian Stiller offers a much different picture. Stiller words as global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance and has previously served as president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. The reality he describes is generally more reassuring than the darkest of predictions, but disconcerting to those who have concerns about recent innovations in Christian doctrine. There is much to celebrate about the spread of the gospel, but much work to do, as well.

Stiller offers a number of reasons for the spread of Christianity. He cites the spread of Charismatic theology as a contributor to the spread of Christianity. (More on that later.) He also notes that the increase in the number of Bible translations in the heart languages of more people have advanced the cause of Christ. There is little doubt that the proliferation of God’s word has done a great deal to advance the spread of Christianity as a local movement.

Another reason for the spread of the gospel is the willingness of missionaries, particularly those from the West, to allow Christianity to take local forms by not constraining converts by Western clothing and music. This conversation is helpful, though Stiller seems to be uncritical of some forms of contextualization that appear to be closer to syncretism than authentic Christianity. Additionally, Stiller cites the efforts of Christians to engage in the public square for the common good as Christians. Corollary to engagement in the public square is the recovery of an emphasis on the implications of the gospel—in other words, seeking reconciliation in more than just the spiritual dimension—among Christians.

There is a great deal to celebrate about the growth of Christianity and Stiller’s book is encouraging in that general sense. On the whole, however, Stiller spends too much time arguing for recent theological innovations instead of simply reporting the facts. In particular, Stiller attempts to justify the rise of female pastors and Charismatic theology as normative and consistent with Christian tradition. It is clear from his argument that he believes these movements, largely unknown in the Christian church until the 19th century, are causes to be celebrated regardless of their differences with the historical practices of the church. It would have been a better book if Stiller had reported the facts instead of trying to push a theological agenda. His arguments on this front rely on pragmatic justification: these recent theological developments appear to be working, therefore they must be good.

Both with the rise of Charismatic versions of Christianity and excessive contextualization, the book fails to consider sufficiently the detrimental nature of the syncretism of pagan spirit worship with Christianity that he notes on several occasions. Similarly, he is insufficiently critical of the Prosperity Gospel movement, focusing on the abuses of its leaders rather than the theological poverty of the entire system. That critique is necessarily buried, since the Prosperity Gospel movement is a direct theological child of the revisionist Charismatic and Pentecostal movements—the Prosperity Gospel spreads most rapidly among those who seek ongoing special revelation as a special gift from God.

It is exciting that the gospel is spreading, but not all movements that claim to be gospel may accurately reflect authentic Christianity. In that sense, Stiller’s book should raise concern among orthodox believers.

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Setting aside those critiques, this is a largely encouraging volume. Although there is much handwringing in the West about the rise of Nones and the secularization of our Christian heritage, the Gospel of Christ is on the move. Stiller’s book pulls the reader’s focus from cable news stories about US Supreme Court cases, concerns over student aid for those who choose to attend a Christian university, and the minor persecutions that seem to highlight some media channels.

Most importantly, and the thing that makes this book worth reading, is that it offers reassurance that in Christ we are more than conquerors. It calls the reader to recognize the great need for evangelization, the opportunities for evangelism, and the possibility that each of us can participate in the spread of the gospel if we simply obey the command to do so.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this book with no expectation of a positive review.

Counter-Consumeristic Christianity

If you’ve been paying attention to the online arguments in the past few years, you’ve probably seen Christians arguing about how we should relate to the world around us. (If you haven’t, it’s okay, but I’m going to write about it anyway.)

Some argue for a form of withdrawal from society to catechize, where we function in distinct communities but still seek to serve the world around us. Others argue we should continue to go about our business on a daily basis and not differentiate ourselves overtly from the world; our presence in society as believers should serve to draw evangelistic interest. Still others have a more overt interest in Christianizing enterprises and doing them openly and overtly for Christ.

All of these are variations on a common theme. All of them are trying to answer a very important question:

“How do we serve Christ faithfully in a world that often actively and passively dishonors him?”

That question is a vital one, but it is too big for a single blog post. However, I argue that a significant part of honoring Christ in our daily lives, no matter our overarching understanding of the place of Christianity in the public square, is becoming Counter-Consumeristic.

What is Consumerism?

Definitions of consumerism vary depending on where you look and who you are asking.

For the sake of simplicity, I will define consumerism as an inappropriate concern for material comfort especially through the pursuit of material goods.

Consumerism is all about the buyer. The goal of consumerism is to buy whatever you need to make you happy.

 Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/Ex0a30jLu5b

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/Ex0a30jLu5b

In its best forms, consumerism leads to a focus on purchasing benefiting the needs of the customer.

However, consumerism is most often evidenced in Western society by acquisitiveness. Particularly in the United States, consumerism tends to be about getting more stuff or having better experiences.

Advertisers spend billions of dollars each year trying to explain why their product will make you happier, thinner, better, taller, prettier, or whatever.

Sometimes advertisers are marketing legitimate products that do offer real benefits. However, often, if someone has to advertise their product heavily, they are selling something you don’t really need.

Consumerism is a mindset that falls into the advertiser’s trap by believing that getting that new thing—whatever it is—will make life just a little bit better. Consumerism is a way of falling into the trap of believing that anything besides Christ is truly fulfilling.

Counter-Consumeristic Christianity

Given my definition, with which you are free to disagree, you can see why I believe consumerism might be something to be resisted.

Others on the world wide web agree with me, and some of those others call for Christians to become minimalists. Minimalists are people who try to own only those items they need right now.

Minimalism is great if you are wealthy and can purchase multipurpose devices and be sure you will have resources to replace broken objects without digging a previous model out of the closet. (This is, incidentally, one of the reasons why hoarders tend to be poor people.)

However, Christian resistance to consumerism is less about not owning objects but examining the reason why we own them.

As Christians, we are called to do everything for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31) This is a truism and often over-quoted (perhaps even here), but in this context, it means that what we purchase and own should be done for the glory of God.

Therefore, owning a car is fine if we do it for the glory of God. Now, the task for the Christian is to explain why purchasing a shiny new sports car with heated seats, built in massagers, and a microwave to replace the serviceable family sedan glorifies God. Or, for another example, to explain why buying a semi masquerading as a pickup truck to haul the boat you use three weekends of the year glorifies God.

Counter-Consumeristic Christianity entails resisting the myth that more is better and that the next purchase will unlock your best life now. It doesn’t mean you can’t purchase objects that you enjoy or that make life easier, but it does cause us to evaluate our priorities. If you can find a way to justify how the sports car glorifies God, then go ahead.

The essence of becoming Counter-Consumeristic is creating an internal filter before spending money that asks, “How will this item, service, or experience glorify God in my life?”

If you don’t have a good answer for that, don’t spend the money. It’s that simple.

Conclusion

There are a couple of practical reasons to become Counter-Consumeristic Christians. First, consumerism often leads to unsustainable spending habits. Second, consumerism often leads to improper environmental stewardship and wastefulness. Third, consumerism often increases the work required to take care of our stuff; it makes life harder instead of easier. These are all good reasons to avoid consumerism.

More significantly, however, I believe that when Christians become consumeristic it sends a clear message that our hope is in something other than Christ.

When the only differences between our lifestyle and the world around us are that we go to a special building on Sunday and don’t swear, it really leaves us with very little real witness.

There’s more to a sanctified Christian life than being Counter-Consumeristic, but it is certainly part of the mix.

Farewell Patrick McManus

If someone were to ask me who is the funniest writer I’ve ever read, there is little question what the answer would be. Of course, I’m not sure who would ask me that, but I’m ready when someone does.

For the sake of my setup, imagine you had actually asked me who I think is the funniest writer. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Thanks.

Wow! That’s a tough question. I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that, but you know, I think I have a pretty good answer.

The funniest books in print are, with little question, by a man names Patrick McManus. Or, as his close friends call him—those of us who have read his stories—Pat.

Now that you’ve asked me about Pat, I have to tell you that he’s no longer writing, because he died recently at the age of 84. He’s gone into the twilight, endlessly grousing. The world is a bit poorer because he’s gone, too.

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I discovered McManus in the back of the Field and Stream magazines that came to the house. Then I found out that many of those essays had been collected into books. That was sometime around the 6th grade.

Even as a kid, his humor could make me literally laugh out loud. He wrote with a wit and humor that was slightly self-deprecating, but mostly just funny.

His humor is generally G-rated, with the occasional innuendo that probably flew over my head as a youngster. Unlike so much of the humor in that’s out there now, he was not trying to shock his audiences, score political points, or tear someone down.

Instead McManus tells stories. He tells stories about himself—or the character that he pretends to be—through several phases of his life with a cast of familiar characters. McManus often plays the naïve straight man for the more comedic characters. He most often plays the man who knew too little, and it’s fun to watch him bumble through life.

Among the characters from his childhood are Rancid Crabtree, the old woodsman and sometimes mentor, and Crazy Eddie Muldoon, his childhood friend and negative influence. The amusingly foolish friend, Retch Sweeney, and worried neighbor, Al Finley, carry the storyline in Pat’s adult years. Meanwhile Pat’s mother, his sister the Troll, and his wife Bun, provide foils for the humor of Pat’s hijinks. As you pick up each of his stories, there are familiar people you come to know and become curious about what they might do next.

Even when McManus writes an expected storyline, he tells the story in an amusing fashion. Of course, things were better when he was a boy, but they were also harder. Except that the trails are much steeper and the air thinner now that he’s getting older. Even when you know what is going to happen because the plotline is predictable and McManus has strewn plenty of foreshadowing there is always a twist that makes the tale worth your time.

I’ve known marriage counselors who started sessions off by reading one of McManus’ short stories. If the couple doesn’t laugh, the counselor knows he is in for a rough time. If they laugh, then the ice is broken and the ground is a little softer for the plowing. The man is funny enough to make everyone laugh.

My wife (whose nickname is not Bun, else I be shot) knows when I’m reading something by Patrick McManus because the bed is shaking from my suppressed laughter. And my preteen taught can be heard guffawing when she devours his humor. McManus is a writer for all ages, which gives him a connection to his childhood dog, Strange.

McManus’ humor is where you go when you’ve had a long hard day, week, or month and need to find something to smile about. It never fails, even if it’s a story that you’ve read a hundred times before.

One of his stories, “Sequences,” has become a byword in my household. In fact, it’s an essay much like “A Message to Garcia,” that should be read by all future leaders. The message is simple: Everything is way to complicated, so you might as well just fishing. Or, more realistically, make sure you prioritize fun, because the work will never get done anyway. It has a point, but it is funny, not like this paragraph.

Even for those of us who don’t hunt, the stories that McManus wrote are funny. That’s one of the marks of a really good writer. With very few exceptions, everyone is in on the jokes because they are just good fun. I wish there were more people writing like Patrick McManus.

I’m sad that McManus is gone. He hasn’t written a whole lot lately, but mostly I’m sad that the world is just a little less funny without him. To celebrate his life, I may just do a modified stationary panic in his honor the next time I'm scared.

NOTE: If you are looking for a good place to start with McManus, The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw is one of my favorite collections.

The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw
By Patrick F. McManus

The Banality of Systemic Injustice

People expect evil to come with horns, pitchforks, and an obvious bent toward cruelty. That is, when we meet someone who has done or approved of great evil, we expect them to be obviously angry, psychotic, and express delight in their vileness.

Real evil in our real world is seldom like that. Our villains seldom arrive dressed like Cruella Deville or Sauron. But we still expect those that participate in something really bad to be obviously evil. Wicked people who do wicked things rarely have the flair we expect, which should teach us something about the nature of evil.

Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, helps undermine the expectation of an entertaining bad guy. She does this by presenting a portrait of perhaps the most boring and petty man in the twentieth century who orchestrated some of the most unquestionable evil in the history of humanity.

Who is Arendt?

Others are much better equipped to give a more detailed history of the life and work of Hannah Arendt. This BBC interview of a scholar who has studied Arendt offers a decent overview.

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Arendt was herself born in Germany and was a Jew. She left Germany in 1933 ostensibly to study, but eventually emigrated to the United States, where she remained a citizen until her death in 1975. It is for good reason, then, that Arendt felt a keen interest in the Holocaust.

She is best known as a political theorist, though her work is more broadly philosophical than most political discourse of our day. She was also a journalist for the New Yorker, who happened to fund her trip to Jerusalem to see the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The book that resulted from her trip to watch the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, caused a significant controversy in that day, with apparently coordinated efforts to undermine its spread. The main thrust of the controversy was Arendt’s indelicate handling of the apparent Jewish cooperation with the Holocaust.

That claim, even in this post, is somewhat remarkable and needs some nuancing, but it plays into the general idea of the banality of evil.

Arendt argued that the Jewish community participated in their own extermination because they largely cooperated with the beginning stages of the Holocaust. This sounds like victim blaming—and perhaps it is to a certain degree—but reading the book, that does not seem to be her intention.

What is true is that the Jews in Germany and the other occupied nations rarely resisted the ever-increasing encroachments on their liberty and deprivations of their rights. The community, by virtue of being administratively linked through and led by the synagogue, had recognized structure that often worked with the Germans, always hoping that cooperation at each stage would end the problem.

In some sense the Jews did cooperate in their own demise, though it is not clear whether overt resistance would have been successful. Arendt’s intention does not appear to criticize the Jewish community for their cooperation, but to explain why the mild-mannered Adolf Eichmann was able to help murder millions with little or no violent effort.

I leave final resolution of that controversy to others, but believe Arendt to be helpful on some points even if she is outrageously mistaken on that one.

Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann is the stereotype for the mid-level bureaucrat who is exceedingly efficient at making things move without understanding what exactly what was happening or why it could possibly be bad.

Based on Arendt’s description, which begs to be believed on the grounds of credo quia absurdum if nothing else, Eichmann had little animus toward anyone. He was a boring man, who lived a boring life, and did extraordinary evil because it is what the boring system he participated in required for “success.”

While the world—Arendt included—expected a slavering war criminal spewing anti-Semitic epithets from the witness stand, what they saw was someone who did not believe himself to be a war criminal because he was simply doing his job. Arendt reveals Eichmann to be a splendid manager but a terrible human.

The unthinking reader might succeed in passing over the horror that Arendt depicts, but the observant ones will recognize that Eichmann is frightening because he is so ordinary.

Why does ordinariness frighten? In this case because he managed to participate in such unthinkable evil with such a clear conscience. It is clear from Arendt’s description—which is corroborated by other historical sources—that Eichmann did not consider himself guilty of anything in particular.

In other words, Eichmann’s banality is frightening because we are so susceptible to it.

Systemic Injustice

Eichmann shows us what it is like to participate in systemic injustice with a clear conscience.

I recommend Arendt’s book to readers—particularly contemporary evangelical readers—because it shows without question the power of an unjust system, the difficulty in extricating oneself from it, and the importance of resisting such systems.

Eichmann saw himself as an idealist. According to Arendt, “An ‘idealist’ was a man who lived for his idea—hence he could not be a businessman—and who was prepared to sacrifice for his idea everything and, especially, everybody. . . . The perfect ‘idealist,’ like everybody else had of course his personal feelings and emotions, but he would never permit them to interfere with his actions if they came into conflict with his ‘idea.’” (42)

Though Eichmann was aware of the Final Solution, which he knew included killing the Jews, he had absolutely no sympathy. “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” (49) He was fundamentally a man that saw serving the system as the highest end, regardless of the cost.

The inability to speak Arendt refers to is that Eichmann was unoriginal in his thought patterns. He knew talking points and catch-phrases but was blissfully unaware of the conflicts internally between them and did not understand the enormity indicated by his language. This was facilitated by the Nazi efforts to sanitize language and speak of things bureaucratically—using boring systemic language to mark overt evil.

One might consider examples in U.S. history such as the idea of “Indian removal,” “separate but equal,” and “reproductive rights” to see how terrible evil can be masked by euphemism. This system can roll right over conscience by convincing the actors they are simply scheduling train cars and not facilitating the deaths of millions of innocent people.

Conclusion

Arendt’s account of Eichmann is sobering in our world filled with systems and euphemisms.

While some of the pleas about systemic injustice are little more than complaints that life was not unfair in favor of a particular group, conservative Christians have for too long ignored the reality of systemic injustice and our own participation in it.

In many cases, we unknowingly participate in such systems and in others we lack the requisite compassion to see the impact of our participation. Eichmann in Jerusalem should cause readers to ask what ideals they are pursuing to the detriment of others and recognize that if that ideal cannot be achieved without the injustice it is not a worthy ideal. The ends simply do not justify the means and they never can.

They Thought They Were Free - A Review

Godwin’s law is that the longer an online debate gets, the more likely it is that someone will make an analogy to Hitler. One corollary to the law is that the person who makes the comparison loses the argument.

A reductio ad Hitlerum is a rhetorical device altogether common in internet dialogue used to show someone how they are evil just like Hitler. Adolf Hitler is, of course, one of the few human beings that people can nearly universally agree is the embodiment of pure evil.

But if Hitler was the embodiment of pure evil and the German people put him into power, how did he either trick them or force them to make him the supreme ruler of their nature? Or, more sinisterly, was it that the German people were somehow an evil people themselves who saw Hitler as the embodiment of their nation.

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The third option is helpful wartime propaganda, but unlikely to be convincing in the presence of real, live Germans who may think differently, but who are pretty clearly not the embodiment of evil. This leaves the first two as possible options.

In the late 50’s, journalist Milton Mayer set out to figure out how Germany was led to elect Hitler—even to cheer him on—despite the evil that he embodied. Mayer, an American of German descent and a Jew, went to Germany to spend time with common men in a small town in Germany to figure out how they were duped.

The result of Mayer’s journalistic efforts is contained in the book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. The book was originally published in 1955 but was republished in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press. The volume’s republication is timely as Europe and the U.S. wrestle with the rise of populism in the face of economic difficulty and political destabilization. In some ways, we are living in a period very similar, which means that if we are to avoid (or overcome) the great evil of our age, we must be prepared to learn the lessons from history.

The book is a collection of interviews. They have obviously been edited to focus the reader on what Mayer himself saw, but the portraits he paints of the ten Nazi men that he befriended and interview do not bear the marks of caricature. Though he had every reason to be repulsed by these people who had supported the regime whose crimes are now the most readily useful hyperbole, Mayer presents his subjects sympathetically and, we may presume, fairly. If what he depicts is really true, then we have good cause for concern.

It becomes clear throughout the book that none of the people being interviewed consider themselves bad people—their loss in World War II was an unfortunate reality they were coping with, but even the public discovery of the mass murders in the concentration camps did not convince these men they were culpable for such great evil. Though the world may have viewed Germany broadly as somehow complicit in the extermination of the Jews, homosexuals, and other “unfit” populations, these men clearly do not believe they are criminals.

As the interviews explore the mindset of these Germans leading up to and during WWII, it becomes clear that these people—not to say all Germans—actively supported Hitler’s social program. Hitler solved unemployment, bringing relatively prosperity to a large portion of the population. He helped bring them out of the depths of depression and give them a sense of national pride, even after the stinging defeat and economic reprisals of the Great War. A rising stock market, so to speak, was a bigger concern than the dispossession of a small minority of the population.

The Nazis were unquestionably anti-Semitic. That was in the DNA of the National Socialist party, very clearly written in Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. At first, when the vitriol in Hitler’s book might have been more striking, it was apparently not commonly read. To be fair, how many Americans have really read The Art of the Deal or The Audacity of Hope? Even if those books had alarming theories in them, it would be altogether easy to minimize their implications or ignore their severity, trusting the sluggishness of bureaucratic government to minimize the impact of any excesses of thought.

As it turns out, the people Mayer interviewed were largely indifferent to anti-Semitism or actually anti-Semitic. The culture shaped them to be so, with frequent political rhetoric designed to show them how unjust the economic systems were and how the Jews had taken advantage of the rest of the population. Eventually people started to believe that, so that when the synagogue was torched it did not seem to great a travesty and when the local policeman was given the order to collect his neighbor for relocation and forfeit of his property, it seemed simply logical given. The program of anti-Semitic action was introduced slowly and incrementally so the German people had little sense of outrage at the next “little” encroachment on the lives of their Jewish neighbors, though all the while the kettle was getting hotter.

One of the key elements of the Nazi program was about distracting people from thinking about fundamental concepts like truth, justice, and holiness. As this conversation between a German academic and Mayer illustrate, distraction was part of the program of social change:

You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.

‘Those,’ I said, ‘are the words of my friend the baker. “One had no time to think. There was so much going on.”’

‘Your friend the baker was right,’ said my colleague. ‘The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your “little men,” your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism have us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and “crises” and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the “national enemies,” without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?’ (167-168)

Though the Third Reich replaced Christian belief with a pagan-infused religion with Christian trappings, the religiously devout were led to abandon their faith for German unity. Though their neighbors were displaced and abused, they assented or failed to resist. The intelligentsia and the common man were played by Hitler and his administration—made ineffective—and they allowed it to happen.

This book is powerful. Not primarily because I believe the present administration to be equivalent to Hitler’s, but the social climate seems to be laying the groundwork for a similar horrible power in the U.S. or even in Europe.

We are not to the stage of Germany in the 1920’s, but it is as if we are being groomed for that condition. Our call should be to resist. Not merely to resist the politics of the “other side,” whichever side that might be, but to resist the moral formation that will enable us to countenance the grave, overt, and unforgivable injustices that the Nazis were able to perpetuate. This may require us to put down our phones, read fewer blogs, and contemplate more fundamental things, like hope, love, truth, and faith.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

12 Rules For Life - A Review

Depending on who you read, Jordan Peterson is either the scourge of the hour or the timely herald of reason crying in the wilderness. Relatively unknown until the last few years, he now has millions of followers on YouTube, more speaking engagements than he can handle, television interviews, and has reached a level of notoriety that only our wired world can manufacture.

His latest book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson offers some self-improvement tips for his readers, but has stirred up controversy with a variegated mess of adulation and castigation from critics.

Peterson as a Cultural Phenomenon

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The reaction to Peterson has been polarized both from Christians and non-Christians. He seems to a sort of Rorschach Test that draws predictable reactions from the same old crowds.

Peterson’s rise to public notoriety came when his resistance to a speech control law in Canada hit the news. He indicated that he would resist the law requiring him to use sexually dysphoric people’s preferred pronouns. This resistance was widely publicized even though Peterson made it clear that his opposition is to the legal mandate of a certain accepted civility rather than a disapproval of transgenderism or even a desire to offed—in fact, he indicated he would use people’s preferred pronouns when they requested.

Normally this sort of resistance to the Zeitgeist comes from people that are quickly exposed as “uncultured,” “boorish,” or “ignorant” by the media. This sort of rejoinder tends to result in being celebrated by one cable news channel, ridiculed by another, and disappearance after a week or so. Even tenured professors like Peterson are usually subdued, squashed, and even fired after expressing cultural opinions like the ones he has offered.

That has not happened with Peterson. Instead, his appeal has broadened, he has weathered the storm, and he continues to have a voice in the public square.

A significant reason Peterson has been able to maintain his position is that he seems uniquely equipped to handle the rhetoric and bustle of our knuckle dragging media culture. In an extremely hostile BBC4 interview, where the interviewer intentionally misrepresents his position repeatedly, he remains calm, corrects her, and even manages to get her to stop and think. Most cultural rebels spontaneously combust in confrontation because they lack the self-control and reasoned care that Peterson demonstrates.

If there is only one thing Christians can learn from Peterson, it is how to manage controversy in this age of garbled communication and bloviating. He manages to hold well-reasoned views publicly and generally not get drawn into shouting matches or bluffed into silence. He communicates clearly and his words are carefully chosen and well-considered.

Of course, his resistance to the identity politics of the left, including his open scorn of some of the pseudo-disciplines in academia like feminist studies and its variants, has made him a darling of a growing, vocal, and toxic group of people on the political right. Some like Peterson because he delivers what they most want—liberal tears.

One danger for Peterson and his fans is getting sucked into the vortex of sewage in the nationalist right and alt-right. These groups are cheering Peterson as a long-awaited hero. This increases the left’s hatred for him and may draw some well-meaning Peterson fans beyond what he seems to intend.

To be clear, based on my reading of Peterson and what I’ve seen of his videos, he does not support the ideologies of nationalists, overt racists, and conspiracy theorists. In fact, he is careful to set limits on what he is and is not saying. However, we’ve so deeply drunk from the well of belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and the friend of my enemy is my enemy that Peterson serves as a scapegoat or talisman for groups that haven’t really considered what his message is.

Peterson and Christianity

The reception of Peterson among Christians has been similarly mixed. Among revisionist Christians who generally accept and promote whatever counter-Christian social mores the culture adopts as a matter of course, Peterson is anathema for not agreeing with them. However, among orthodox Christians, the opinion of Peterson is widely varying.

There is good reason for both positive and negative reception of Peterson’s message. It depends on why Peterson’s message is received and what the recipient is intending to glean.

For example, Peterson’s resistance to the cultural tide of the domination of supposedly oppressed ideologies is helpful. He has showed that it is possible to resist the current manias of our day and yet survive. Also, Peterson seems to be honestly seeking the good of his audience, particularly young men who have been told they are oppressive and evil simply for being men. He speaks with a sort of compassion and in that way represents a good and helpful voice for our time.

On the other hand, Peterson represents a dangerous temptation to some Christians who are more interested in a certain place in society than truly orthodox belief. Peterson is well-versed in Western culture and has a good grasp on the Bible as literature. He interprets the Bible using the methods common among theological liberals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In other words, there is a strong Judeo-Christian ethic and an invigorating call to arms based on the canon in Peterson’s message, but it denies essential elements of Scripture, like miracles, the resurrection, and the supernatural in general. Some Christians may follow Peterson and pick up well-reasoned resistance to cultural tides in some areas while imbibing unhealthy theology in the other—and that error may cause confusion in the pews.

The task for the discerning Christian is to learn what can be learned from Peterson, while resisting the error. This means that pastors and leaders within orthodox congregations should not rush to recommend Peterson’s work to immature believers, because it may be caustic to their faith.

A Review of 12 Rules for Life

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is Peterson’s second book. His first, book Maps of Meaning is a much more academic volume that was released in 1999. Peterson is both a professor and a practicing clinical psychologist, which seems to have previously directed his efforts toward the counseling room rather than the written word.

According to the introduction, this volume sprang out of a post Peterson wrote on a website called Quora, where anyone can pose a question, anyone can answer, and the crowd votes to approve or disapprove the answer. He provided a lengthy list, some serious, some humorous, of responses to the question, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” Peterson’s answer went viral and, after Peterson himself went viral over the political correctness law, he got a book deal that resulted in this volume.

There is nothing earth shattering about his rules, but the reception of this advice indicates he has struck a nerve with people that want to live well, but don’t know how. As a general rule, the advice is pretty good, too.

Most of the “rules” are just good advice: Present yourself well, because you’ll be treated better and have more opportunities. Don’t hang out with people that will harm you and drag you down. Discipline your children appropriately, using the means with the lowest force possible. Stop worrying about everyone else and their problems if your life is in shambles. Tell the truth and do not lie for any reason. Celebrate the joy of life in others, especially kids, as they explore the world around.

Although I would qualify some of the rules Peterson offers, they are generally pretty good advice. For example, one thing I would qualify is that Peterson advocates staying away from people that will harm you. This is good advice to a certain extent, because it keeps people out of trouble. However, it may cause some readers to avoid the sorts of people that most need help and lash out in their confusion. There is plenty of meat in the rules, but the reader must be prepared to spit out a few bones.

I won’t take the time to summarize each of the rules and critique them, since the list from the table of contents fairly indicates the content of each. It is worth discussing the general framework behind the rules.

Peterson’s Philosophical Foundations

Peterson is a Jungian Existentialist. Jung was a contemporary of Freud and generally friendly, but Jung’s philosophy (the underpinnings of his psychology) took a different turn. Instead of focusing on repressed sexual urges and presuming an Oedipus complex in everyone, Jung built on the evolutionary thinking of his day to build a theory of collective human consciousness arising from our ancestral heritage.

The key to understanding both the benefits and dangers of Peterson rest in knowing a bit about Jung. I am certainly no expert, but a quick bout of internet research shows that Peterson has done little more than modernize and popularize some of the core tenets of Jung’s thinking.

Much of the argument in Peterson’s book assumes that proper human behavior is based on a collective consciousness from evolutionary theory. Thus, Peterson defends hierarchy by noting that even relatively simple creatures like lobsters have a hierarchy, therefore humans should anticipate hierarchy in their social orders and reject the notion that there can be a perfectly egalitarian society.

This sort of argument is what angers Peterson’s critics on the left, because to their ears, Peterson affirms the evils of the patriarchy, inequality, and everything they dislike about our current social order. Since Peterson actively rejects the notion that patriarchy, sex difference, and white power are solely responsible for all the ills of this contemporary age, his critics on the left equate his arguments with the Alt-Right, Fascism, and whatever else they happen to hate that day.

It is pretty clear from reading him that Peterson is not arguing for anything like an Alt-Right position, despite attempts to paint him in that corner. His position is much more reasoned and more nuanced. Privilege exists, but this is majority privilege, not specifically white privilege. Therefore, the response should not be to shame white people for their genetic makeup, but to teach people to navigate the power structures to overcome privilege.

On this point, Peterson’s common-sense approach with a hefty dose of personal accountability will be attractive to many conservatives—both Christian and non-Christian. Yet, this is also the point at which Christians need to be the most careful in imbibing or spreading his message because it is entangled in a form of the naturalistic fallacy. Peterson assumes that what is in evolutionary history helps reveal what ought to be, as if humans have reached a sort of pinnacle of development based on everything that has gone before. If absorbed without due caution, such belief can justify a lack of compassion for the poor and the weak who “deserved it” or were simply bound by genetic misfortune to be at the bottom of the heap.

A second point of caution, which also arises from his Jungian foundation, is on the use and truthfulness of myths. In concert with many scholars, particularly German scholars that were his contemporaries, Jung taught that religions were explanatory myths that developed from the collective human experience. Christianity was a more advanced religion, but that is not because it is true, simply because it has more truth encoded in its scriptures and practices than earlier religions.

Such an approach enables Peterson to decode the Bible and other ancient texts to reveal psychological truths that can be applicable today. Christians should be careful embracing Peterson on this count, because he is teaching Enlightenment hermeneutics with an evolutionary twist that ascribe value to the text but deny its supernatural power.

Peterson’s overt and public use of Scripture, however, does show that preachers that believe they need to pull the Bible out of their sermons and not refer to it as authoritative to communicate to people in this day and age are sorely mistaken. It is worth watching some of Peterson’s talks to see how he uses Scripture to make a compelling case for his positions. Teachers should be careful not to adopt the bad hermeneutic, but his method of communication is helpful.

A third cause for caution is the existentialist framework that Peterson brings to the table from his Jungian base. In brief, existentialism relies on the idea that we are making meaning and that our essence is formed by our choices. This is a much better philosophical position than nihilism, which presumes there is no meaning or truth in life, but it is dangerously anthropocentric.

Many of the critiques of Peterson from the left are attacks on his existentialism from nihilists. They have reduced life to a meaningless pursuit of individual power and autonomous individualistic freedom. Therefore, Peterson’s more optimistic—or perhaps stoic—existentialism creates difficulties for them, particularly since Peterson points to meaning not in creating hegemonies to subjugate the presumed powerful under the whims of the self-identified oppressed. Rejecting the oppressive force of the supposedly downtrodden, which Peterson does often, makes him persona non grata in the world of identity politics.

This is exactly the place where Peterson is both most attractive to conservative Christians and the most risky. He is effective at resisting the progressive movement, but he does it for the wrong reasons. Christians can learn from Peterson, but have to be careful to not swallow the existentialism he is teaching. Though there have been Christian existentialists (e.g., Kierkegaard) who are helpful, that epistemology does not entirely line up with Scripture. We are not meaning makers, we discover the meaning that God has already woven into the universe, revealed in creation and, more clearly, in Scripture.

Peterson seems like a hero to many on the right because he is effective in frustrating the bullying of the progressive left. He may be an ally in that cause, and his methodology may be informative, but we should be careful of adopting his whole worldview because it is not one that has been well-formed and seasoned by God.

Conclusion

Church leaders should consider reading this volume and watching some of Peterson’s videos for several reasons.

First, Peterson has obviously struck a nerve with a broad swath of people. Though we should not run after every earthly trend to copycat it, he’s found an audience hungry for meaning and is giving it to them. We should consider how the church can offer true meaning rooted in the cross of Christ.

Second, Peterson is an example of communicating counter-cultural ideals carefully, clearly, and well. His rhetoric—especially his ability to maintain his poise when attacked—is something pastors, teachers, and average Christians will only need more skill at in the future.

Third, Peterson reveals that teaching the Bible in public to non-Christian audiences is not off-limits. He teaches his version of theology with boldness and clarity. We have the better message, let’s see what can be gleaned from his tools.

Fourth, the Peterson phenomenon is fairly well recognized. This book could be the contact point in a deeper conversation leading to evangelism. There will be young men in your church reading and watching Peterson, leaders need to be aware of him to help the flock sort out the good and the bad.

At the same time, Christians should be cautious in rushing to celebrate Peterson too fully. There is a lot of good, but it is wrapped in old time theological liberalism. We can do better. But we have to do better, and Peterson’s advice would be for us to continue to do better. So, let’s do that as we find meaning in the good news of Jesus Christ.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Defend Your Holy Week

In the haze of holy week there will be, without doubt, many reasons to lose focus on the Passion of Christ.

In recently memory, there have been scandals, political turmoil, theological disputes turned into public brouhahas in the days leading up to Resurrection Sunday.

Given the present political climate and the regular barrage of scandals, it is nearly unquestionable that there will be a scandal.

Often, news outlets choose to post articles arguing against the historicity of Jesus. Theologically liberal denominations publish posts on how, if Christ’s death was ordained by God for our redemption, it would be tantamount to cosmic child abuse. Others, like the book I discussed in a recent post, will argue that Christ’s death on the cross could not have paid for our sin because they think it has negative ethical outcomes. (Spoiler: The book does not do well at making this argument.)

In our constant battle for joy in holiness we are beset on all sides by the world, the flesh and the devil. There are few times this is as apparent as in the days leading up to Easter Sunday.

Watch this week. You’ll see a hundred attempts to derail your focus and distract from this holiest of weeks.

I’m neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I would bet a cookie that there is going to be a significant attack on Christianity this week.

That’s not superstition, it’s an acknowledgement that the last thing Satan wants is for Christians to revel in the wonder, mystery, and power of the resurrection. There is little that makes Christians more effective in living out the gospel than being enraptured by the miracle of Christ’s sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection in our place.

Perhaps the worst thing about the disruption to the possibility of our spiritual advancement in this week of particular focus is that we will allow it to happen. Or, at least, we will take few measures to present it.

Make Resurrection Sunday Bigger

 Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/CKN230j2FAB

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/CKN230j2FAB

Our culture has turned Christmas into a blowout holiday. Crass commercialism is creeping into everything, with stores pushing junk months ahead of previously little-celebrated holidays. But during Christmas we do a billion things to keep in mind that Jesus is the reason for the season.

Our culture loves Christmas because they have turned the incarnation into a chance to make money, eat rich foods, and hang out with family in tacky sweaters. Christians have gotten sucked into many of the bad aspects, even as we celebrate the goodness of Christ’s incarnation.

For most of us, however, the celebration of Christ’s atoning work on the cross gets a smaller budget, less build up, and a shorter celebration.

I would argue that Resurrection Sunday should be the pinnacle of the church calendar. That we should use the Lent season (with or without some of the trappings) to build to the glorious heights of the most important hours in the history of the universe: when Christ—the spotless lamb of God—took the penalty for our sin in our place. This is better accomplished at Easter since it lacks the commercial trappings of Christmas.

The atonement could not have taken place without the incarnation, which is why celebrating Christ’s birth is a good thing to do. But without the atonement the incarnation is incomplete. Christ’s work on the cross completed the work he did in this life. He lived a perfect life, showed people what the new heavens and new earth will look like, and pointed people toward the renewed creation that will be finally inaugurated when he comes again. Christ’s resurrection gives testimony that his work on the cross—his sacrifice for our sin—was accepted by God.

This is the capstone moment in Christianity and ought to bear the brunt of our interest and celebration.

Defend the Holy Week

However, when we begin to recognize the importance of the resurrection, the world, our flesh, and the devil will get in the way of being enraptured by its power.

If you don’t believe me, try meditating on the resurrection for a few minutes. The phone will ring, a kid will have a crisis, you’ll decide you desperately need to check social media.

Don’t be surprised that even if you set aside some time this holy week to focus on the cross, to participate in contemplation of the atonement, or to spend hours with your brothers and sisters in Christ that distractions will kick in.

There will be a scandal that directly pokes at the Christian faith. The media will release articles with conspiracy theories to convince the people you are sharing Christ with that the gospel is really fake news. Something will arise in the political sphere that seems designed to take your eyes of the cross. Your car will break down. Whatever.

It’s coming. Defend the Holy Week. Be prepared for battle.

Share the Good News

This is one of those weeks that it’s easier to have meaningful gospel conversations than others, because people are talking about Easter. Use the time wisely.

Skip over the political jabber and skip to the cross. Explain what Easter really means and why it has very little to do with bunnies, marshmallow chicks, or oodles of chocolate.

You would be surprised, I think, how few non-Christians actually understand the gospel. The Passion week is an excellent time to bridge those gaps, explain the real meaning of the cross, and point people to the life that can only come through Christ.

Don’t get distracted by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Preach Christ so that others might know him and celebrate new life even as we remember how the way was paved for us to share in that new life, too.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is Still Valid, Despite Mass Incarceration

This post is a second part of a review of a recent volume arguing against mass incarceration. I elected to post this portion of the critique separate from the initial summary review because the primary issue of the book is important and the positive potential of the book in facilitating a discussion of mass incarceration should not get buried by the significant problems in the theological argumentation of the book. However, the overall argumentation of the book against penal substitutionary atonement, which is a large portion of the second half of the book, deserves further critique.


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There are several significant flaws in the latter portion of the recently released book, Rethinking Incarceration. The first problem is methodological, the author relies almost exclusively on secondary and tertiary sources for historical data. Gilliard makes sweeping generalizations about, for example, the Puritans while only citing one source two or three times in a particular chapter. This pattern is repeated with his survey of the history of the penal substitutionary atonement, which he erroneously begins with Augustine. In his summary of the atonement in the writings of Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Aquinas, Gilliard cites Thomas twice from an original source. He uses quotations from the others but draws them from secondary sources. This is problematic because it is clear in his summary of the doctrine, that Gilliard does not adequately understand the doctrines that he is critiquing and is relying on the interpretations of others to formulate his argument. There are several points where the theology he is describing is unrecognizable to someone familiar with the primary sources.

A second major problem is also methodological and has to do with an overreliance on a few preferred sources. In the chapter on early American prison reforms, the author cites one book by Jennifer Graber so many times that it is unclear what independent thought went into the chapter. It also raises the question why a young associate professor in a religion department at a Texas state school should dominate a critical chapter of the volume, which is intended to substantially transform the contemporary understanding of a central Christian doctrine. Additionally, when the same chapter uses the term “Protestant reformer” repeatedly to refer to Quakers engaged in work toward prison reform, rather than to refer to the Protestant Reformers as they are commonly understood, it leads to questions about the author’s basic understanding of theology. The theological analysis of the entire section is also made less plausible by the failure to deal with the important question of (a) whether Quakers are actually Christian, (b) if they are Christian, whether they can assumed to be Protestants (unless that means simply not Roman Catholic), and (c) given their marginal nature within the Christian tradition due to heterodox beliefs, whether the work of the Quakers can be considered representative of the broader Protestant tradition. It is not clear whether this analytical ambiguity is native to Gilliard or if it resides in the only published monograph of his major source.

 Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/NHFe30j2APe

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/NHFe30j2APe

The second point leads into a third problem, which is a failure to deal with any counter arguments. Gilliard stacks up a lot of arguments against penal substitutionary atonement, but because he uses critics who do not actually hold to penal substitutionary atonement to prove his point, none of his criticisms stick. Additionally, a casual reader should be left with questions about why one would hold to the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement when Gilliard has arrayed such a strong group of quotes from people that oppose it, which may be the purpose of writing this sort of book. The major issue is that his failure to engage proponents of penal substitutionary atonement means that his thesis is largely based on hearsay and, based on the evidence he provides, is not logically valid.

In order for the theological argument in Rethinking Incarceration to be valid, it would need to have several coherent premises:

P1. Mass incarceration is a problem.
P2. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is theologically incorrect.
P3. Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory necessarily leads to mass incarceration.
C1. Therefore, to solve the problem of mass incarceration, Christians must abandon Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

Gilliard does an adequate job, especially for a popular level book, in supporting premise one, which is an important accomplishment.

However, because of the weakness of the research, as represented by the book he has written, Gilliard provides very little support for premise two. He has amassed a number of voices calling for a doctrinal distortion of Christianity and mashed in some unsupported theological statements from his own perspective, but he never actually engages with an adherent of this one particular theory of the atonement.

In lieu of researching the position that Gilliard is critiquing, he substitutes assertions like the following paragraph:

“Penal substitution is a reductionistic theory that forsakes the embodied life, ministry, and relationships of Jesus, reducing Christ’s body to punitive surrogacy. Penal substitutionary says Jesus merely came into the world to clean up our mess. Outside of establishing the possibility of reconciliation (not by love), nothing else about Jesus matters, not the Spirit descending on him after his baptism, his inauguration of the kingdom of God, or his calling and sending of the disciples.” (pg. 159)

Notably, this paragraph is not a summary of a lengthy argument on this point, but a representative sample of the critical engagement offered in this volume.

The presentation Gilliard offers is certainly reductionistic. While it would be fair to say that at times evangelical Christians pay too little attention to other valid theories of the atonement, there are few, if any, Christians who would recognize their theology in the summary statements Gilliard offers. Even without raising the level of expectation of this popular level book to that of a scholarly monograph, it is fairly clear that Gilliard did not do his homework and is relying upon his readers to be similarly theologically ignorant.

The evidence Gilliard provides for premise three, however, is even less helpful. At best, Gilliard’s argument that penal substitutionary atonement theory necessarily leads to mass incarceration is based on an association between correlation and causation:

P4. Some people that have been disinterested in the problem of mass incarceration (i.e., conservative evangelicals) hold to the penal substitutionary atonement.
P5. There are people who are engaged in the problem of mass incarceration who deny the penal substitutionary atonement.
C2. Therefore, belief in the penal substitutionary atonement causes people to be disinterested in the problem of mass incarceration.

Causal claims that move from doctrine to application are notoriously hard to defend for several reasons. Among them are the reality that many people do not always live consistently with the implications of the doctrines they believe. This may be because they legitimately disregard their doctrine for convenience, or it could be because they simply have not worked out a particular implication of their doctrine. Thus, for example, someone may have legitimately sound theology, but fail to recognize an inconsistency due to his or her cultural blinders. A second reason it is difficult as a critic to sufficiently defend causal connections between doctrine and a particular act is that, if the act is truly reprehensible, those who hold the doctrine would be able to articulate a reason certain doctrines do not lead to certain outcomes.

Gilliard is unable to overcome either of these difficulties because he fails to do the basic work of interacting with the primary sources (or anyone critical to his position) to develop his claim. In other words, Gilliard provides absolutely no evidence from the population he is critiquing to substantiate his claim. This makes his unconvincing plea to abandon the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement even less compelling than it otherwise would be.

A major problem in this volume is that the theological argument is driven by the desire for a different ethical outcome. That is, Gilliard is asking his audience to reject penal substitutionary atonement because it leads to systemic injustice, by his account. However, if penal substitutionary atonement is true and it leads to mass incarceration, then the logical conclusion is that mass incarceration is right.

As I have argued elsewhere, theology must precede ethics. When ethics becomes the motive force of theology, it often leads to different and increasingly severe doctrinal errors in other areas.

More significantly, making such fallacious arguments, particularly when attempting to convince the audience to abandon traditional Christian doctrines, often leads that audience to reject both the revisionist theology and the ethical claims that are obviously driving it. In other words, Gilliard risks causing a critical audience to reject the proper concern for the systemic injustice of mass incarceration by unnecessarily (and incoherently) tying a particular doctrine to a particular ethical outcome. It leads the people being criticized to make the opposite assumption that, since penal substitutionary atonement is biblically faithful, if it leads to mass incarceration then mass incarceration must be acceptable. This is similar to the effect the repeated efforts of revisionist Christians to criticize the theology of orthodox Christians into supporting the environment; the result has been a disinterest or outright aversion to proper biblical stewardship of creation. We can hope that Gilliard’s poor argumentation does not lead to the same effect on the issue of mass incarceration.

To continue to raise point after point where the argumentation of this volume is insufficiently supported risks digressing into abusive fisking. It is sufficient to say that this is another attempt to subvert the orthodox Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that has been done so poorly as to potentially hinder the author’s cause of theological revision.

Wealth is Good....When it has a Purpose

There is a prevailing myth among some in society that wealth is always a sign of virulent greed and that those who accumulate wealth have unjustly taken from others. There is sometimes truth in that; there are many times that people use unjust means to gain or hold their wealth. It would be wrong to draw from the abusive behavior of some that money is evil or being rich is a sin.

However, sometimes when people rightly argue against one wrong idea they fall into the trap of arguing for the opposite and equally wrong idea. Such errors are just as dangerous for people and societies as the ones that are rejected.

 Used by CC License. Chainsaw by Aardvark Ethel. http://ow.ly/WLEP30hNnfG

Used by CC License. Chainsaw by Aardvark Ethel. http://ow.ly/WLEP30hNnfG

Money is not evil, but the love of it is the root of all evil. Being rich is not a sin, but it can open the door to a lot of misery in this world. Wealth is not good in an of itself, it is good when it is directed toward its proper purpose of glorifying God by helping people flourish.

Wealth is like a power tool. When a power tool is used for the purpose it is designed, then it usually produces a better result in a shorter amount of time than doing the same task by hand. However, when the wrong tool is used for the wrong purpose, terrible things can happen.

For example, a chainsaw can make cutting down a tree much quicker and easier than using an axe or a good old fashioned buck saw. But if that same chainsaw is used trimming toenails the results could be disastrous.

The comparison seems silly, but illustrates the purposeful nature of a powerful tool. The chainsaw was created for a purpose, which is not personal hygiene.

Everything God created was created for something. The world works best when we use created objects for their intended purpose.

Wealth can be an outstanding tool for encouraging human flourishing if it is used for that purpose. It can be a danger to people’s well-being if it is used or sought after for the wrong reasons.

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he warns the young pastor to be content and not to chase after money. Though Timothy was a pastor, that warning is echoed throughout Scripture for all Christians to heed. Paul writes,

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:6-10, ESV)

It’s dangerous to get caught into the trap of loving money and pursuing it as an end in itself. That is the essence of greed. As Paul notes, the love of money can cause people to “wander away” from the faith. That it, not to reject it out because it is wrong, but to neglect it because something else—the pursuit of riches—seems more important.

There is more to Paul’s warning, though. People that become greedy and come to love money fall into “senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” When money becomes the focus of our desires, it can draw us away from God and cause us harm in this life.

Paul doesn’t leave us without something positive to focus on, though. He goes on to urge Timothy to seek something better:

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. (v. 11)

Some might think that Paul’s command to “flee these things” refers to money and see it as a call to poverty. That doesn’t make sense, though, since the phrase refers to plural objects to flee from. Most likely, Paul is urging Timothy to flee from the desire to be rich and the harmful traps it leads to.

More importantly, however, Paul gives Timothy something to focus by pursuing spiritual disciplines. He urges Timothy to become more like Christ.

Paul’s message here is not that the material world is evil, but, rather, he is echoing Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount:

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33)

In other words, make the worship of God and the flourishing of people the main focus in your life and the other parts will fall into place. Money can be a useful tool to build church buildings, to feed the hungry, to invest into businesses that encourage cooperation in society, and to educate your children, to keep you fed and warm when you can no longer work. However, when money becomes the object you worship and ultimately pursue, it’s like using a chainsaw to trim your toenails.