The Hunger Games, Amos, and American Christianity

If you have any idea what this post is about by the title, you deserve a prize. I doubt the connection between the items is at all obvious, unless maybe you’ve recently given them each good thought. But there is a connection, and one that concerns me. To put it as concisely as possible, the connection is “luxury and poverty.”

The Hunger Games presents this theme quite prominently, and even a bit humorously. While most of the people in Panem live difficult, impoverished lives, working hard to just provide the basics for their families and avoid the government’s wrath, one small part of the population does none of this. The residents of the Capitol live pampered lives in comparison. They feast while those in most Districts starve. With plenty of leisure time, they keep busy with absurd fashions, graphic television, and celebrity gossip. All of this comes, of course, from the slavish toil of the inhabitants of the Districts who struggle to get by.

Our reactions to the citizens of the Capitol seem to range from condescending amusement to unadulterated loathing. We tend to look down on them and think they should realize the tragedies outside of their walls. We may find ourselves indignant: “How dare they party so hard with so much food while poor children like Primrose never know if they’ll have enough to eat!” And that reaction would hardly be unwarranted.

The people of Israel in the prophet Amos’ day were in a similar place. There were poor and needy people throughout the land, but the rest did not care. They made their poverty worse with high taxes, lots of fines, slavish work, and apathetic attitudes. All the rich offered lavish sacrifices with extravagant celebrations which did not include the beggars they pushed their way through on the way to the temple. Women exploited those in need for clothes, then called to their husbands for more wine bought with fines and tax revenue.

Again, it is clear to see where the Israelites were wrong, especially when you see the strong language of the actual Bible. The natural response is horror and disbelief that people could live such luxurious lives at the expense of others who must live pathetic ones. The exploitation going on in Amos’ day seems to clearly justify the violent and terrible judgment which he prophesied against Israel.

I now reach us, the American Christians, and find disturbing parallels. Like the citizens of the Capitol and the rich Israelites, we never lack in food or clothes, and instead have our own problem of too little space in our closets and fridges. We act and speak as though we think of ourselves as the only people in the world, much like Cinna’s oblivious assistants. Many of us do not know or care anything about the state of peoples and nations that are aren’t in the news, like the Israelites who grew so proud in their national election that they thought nothing of the people near them. Republican Christians are likely to despise legislation which could actually help those in need if the government plays any part, while Democrat Christians are likely to support high taxes and strict regulations that no matter who they target, are likely to do damage all the way down to the poorest. In our individual lives, we applaud God’s condensation of the women who enslaved the poor for sandals, but I wonder how different that is from our imported clothes made in sweatshops. We stuff ourselves after church at Golden Corral without a thought to the millions of people whose budget to feed their children for a month is less than the price of our meal.

The truth is that we American Christians, even those of us who make below the official poverty line, live a life of luxury compared to most of the human race, both historically and geographically. This isn’t to say we’ve got no problems or lack. The rich life brings its own troubles. But we do sit obliviously atop the world’s economy. Ninety nine percent of Americans are really the top 1% of the world at large. This itself isn’t a bad or wrong thing. What justifies or condemns us is how we respond to that fact.

So what should we do if we don’t want to fall like Israel or Panem? I doubt God will be pleased if all we do is tag Jesus in the album of our otherwise normal, oblivious, pampered lives. In fact, I know He won’t be, since He tells us Himself in the parable of the sheep and the goats that He identifies deeply with the poor, oppressed, and needy. So to go most days ignoring them is all too close to ignoring the Father, even when we do personal devotions and church. Jesus tells us that He is hungry, He is sick, He is imprisoned, His children have been sold into sex slavery, He works hours and hours for a couple bucks, and can’t afford a place to live. So what will we do for our God?

To be honest, I’m not sure what all to do. Since I don’t see much of the suffering out there, it’s hard to get most of the needs. Moreover, I don’t like boycotts or such things because they are rarely effective or consistent. I’m also not convinced that the best route is a radical abandonment of normal life. Normal isn’t bad, after all. It’s a gift to be received with thanksgiving. But it is simply not enough on its own. So what do I propose? I don’t have much of anything concrete, but here are a couple ideas bouncing around in my head.

  • During a month or longer, or even indefinitely, match all the money you spend going out to eat with a donation that puts food in the mouths of the hungry.
  • Get out and see needs up close. Find the bad part of town and explore. Imagine how you would feel if you and your children had to live in that ratty house in that dangerous neighborhood. Make it hard to forget or ignore.
  • Start keeping up with the politics, news, and general welfare of another, less prosperous country, and consider what it would be like if you lived there. Start praying for them and getting involved in projects that can benefit them. Maybe even take a trip.
  • Try getting involved in something obvious and stereotypical that you never thought to do, like helping at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Avoid excuses, e.g. You are not truly too busy, and if you are, then get less busy. Take real time and real effort to meet needs and involve yourself with people who don’t have so much luxury.
  • Fast, but not for your personal growth in particular. Instead, give up something you have that much of the world doesn’t, and spend the time in prayer, service, and giving for their provision.

All of this is pretty experimental in my head, and I still need to try to implement stuff like this in my own life. I haven’t so far, at least not much, but reading Amos has convicted me again. So also remember not to be offended, because most of this criticism is really about me.

The Hunger Games, Amos, and American Christianity

God Is One, The Bible Is Not

When it comes to a good book, Stephen King’s résumé just can’t compare. Thirty-nine plus twenty-seven equals sixty-six books. And if you’re Catholic, there’s even more.

So goes the absurd rap parody, “Baby Got Book.” And it is correct. The Bible is actually 66 books. But from the way many people, both Christians and skeptics, handle the Bible you’d never know it. Instead, you’d probably get the impression that the Bible is only one book, maybe a theological encyclopedia or something. At first glance this might not seem to make a difference, but behind the scenes the way you interpret the Bible can be and often is affected by whether you treat the Bible like one single book or a collection of many books brought together in unity for God’s people.

One of the biggest ways this comes to matter is when people debate interpreting the Bible “literally.” People on all sides tend to insist on one thing: however you interpret the Bible, you have to do it the same way for the whole thing. You must not interpret one part differently than another, or else you’re being inconsistent. Conservatives will say that if you don’t take Genesis 1 as literal history, then you shouldn’t take Jesus’ death and resurrection as such either. Skeptics scold us for interpreting references to the corners of the earth as metaphorical while maintaining other stuff as literal truth.

All of this back-and-forth commits the grave mistake of acting like the Bible is a single, homogenous book. But it’s not. Scripture is many books, most of which were written very independently of all the rest. They are all different genres. Some are songs or poems. Others are biographies. Many are letters, historical records, or prophecies. None of these genres should be or even can be treated like all the others.

What we have to remember, then, is that we have to let each book be and do its own thing. More than that, we have to do that to each part of each book. We should not and cannot treat Jesus’ parables the way we treat a vision from Daniel. A psalm shouldn’t be read like a census.

This continues to apply even to narratives in different parts of the Bible. For example, when we read Jesus speaking in the Gospels we must take the words we read as basically what He said, give or take a few words or phrases. But in Job, we would be silly to think that Job and his friends all actually took turns giving long, poetic discourses. These are different books of different kinds with different purposes. Wisdom literature is not the same thing as a theological biography.

The point of all this is that the Bible doesn’t have to be forced into all or nothing on every question. The inconsistent person is not the one who treats different parts of the Bible differently, but who insists that all the Bible be treated the same but not every book in a library. Really, this even applies to inspiration. While I am pretty certain that all the Bible is inspired equally, it doesn’t have to be. Some books could theoretically be more or less inspired, or inspired in different ways. Again, these are 66 books written by dozens of people over thousands of years, united by God for the purpose of bringing people to know His Son.

On one hand, I say this all to dispel silly arguments that demand we treat the whole Bible the same in every way. But there is a more practical, helpful point to all this, too. Since Scripture is made of such variety, we don’t need all of the books to say the same things in the same ways. It’s okay that Paul talks about faith and works from a different angle than James does. Words don’t always have to be used the same way in the Old and New Testaments. Authors can use explanations and analogies for things that wouldn’t work together because they are making different points to different cultures under different circumstances with different backgrounds. The diversity of Scripture, when allowed to do its own thing, keeps us from having to scramble to explain what would be contradictions if it was really one homogenous book. This helps us respond to silly skeptics and even can settle some of our own nagging questions with a dose of perspective. So just remember: God may be one, but the Bible is not.

God Is One, The Bible Is Not

Beliefs about the Bible: Biblical Inspiration 101

The Bible: what a controversial book it is. The bestseller of all history, no other book is itself the subject of so many books. It’s so big that it’s not even one book, but really 66 different, connected but independent books (and if you’re Catholic, there’s even more!).

Naturally, with the Bible being the kind of book it is, and with it having the reach it does, people have disagreements about it. Some people ignore it, others toss it aside as hogwash, a few spend all their time opposing it, and then there are those strange folk who believe that God is somehow behind it. I, unsurprisingly, am one is them.

However, even among Christians, people who do agree that God was/is involved, there is disagreement about exactly what He did. This question is the doctrine of Biblical inspiration. What does it mean to say that God inspired the Bible? Here I plan to give a quick introduction to the major theories.

Dictation Theory

The most strict theory of Biblical inspiration is dictation. According to dictation theory, God spoke every word of Scripture straight to the Biblical writers, perhaps even audibly, and they wrote them all verbatim. In this view, the writers aren’t technically authors; they are more along the lines of secretaries transcribing a letter for their bosses.

For dictation, every last bit of Scripture is inerrant truth straight from God, with no human part at all. The Bible is 100% of God, 0% of man. This view rules out the possibility that the writing styles, personalities, or worldviews of the authors had any influence at all on what they wrote, for better or worse.

Verbal, Plenary Inspiration

This is the theory you are probably most used to. In VPI, God revealed His perfect truth to the Biblical authors through the Holy Spirit, keeping them from all error, and providentially ensuring they used just the right words. The authors are actually authors, but they were given the truth by God and He was careful to make sure they wrote just what He wanted.

Now, unlike dictation, VPI says God worked in and through the style, personality, and experience of each author to get the right text. There is an actual human part to the Bible, but it is guided, protected, and overshadowed by God’s part to produce a word-for-word perfect Scripture. This excludes errors of any kind, whether scientific, geographical, historical, or theological.

Dynamic Inspiration

Next down the line is dynamic inspiration. Dynamic inspiration says that God gave the authors perfect truth through the Spirit, but that they wrote them down on their own. God inspired the truths in Scripture, but not the precise words and sentences used to express that truth. That part was the job of the authors alone.

In this view, there is clearly a strong God element and a strong human element in Scripture. Both work together to produce a Bible full of God’s truth. However, in this view unlike the previous two, this doesn’t require that Scripture be 100% free of all errors, only that it teach the truth about God and salvation. Minor errors on geography, census data, science, or certain historical details could seep in on the human end. These don’t affect doctrine, though.

Existential Inspiration

Further along we go until we find existential inspiration. Existential inspiration sees the Spirit’s work primarily in how Scripture is received. Scripture is “God-breathed,” but it is not God breathing out perfect truths. Instead, it is God breathing life into an otherwise normal human work. The Holy Spirit gives special power to the Bible that makes it fit for spiritual growth.

In this view, the text of the Bible is basically a human work, the result of fallible men encountering God. It has all the errors a normal book about God might have: historical, scientific, and even theological sometimes. The authors, especially the apostles, had close enough contact with God that their writings are reliable, but not flawless. Yet God takes this flawed human creation and fills it with life-giving power as the Spirit speaks to author and the reader.

Karl Barth’s View

Karl Barth was a brilliant but not entirely normal theologian of the 20th century. He was trained in liberal German theology that taught lots of modern nonsense before he made a sharp break back towards historic Christianity. This left him with a unique doctrine of Scripture influenced by both sides. Since it’s so different, I’ll spend extra time explaining this one.

For Barth and people who take after him, the true Word of God is Jesus, God’s fullest revelation of Himself. There are other, less primary forms of God’s Word as well: His deeds and speech in redemptive history, and the writings and preaching which testify to them. Scripture is not itself the Word of God, but a witness to God’s Word, just like John the Baptist was not the Christ but came to point people to Him. The Bible was written by Spirit-filled people appointed by God to testify in writing to His deeds, His words, and ultimately His Son.

In this view, Scripture is 100% divine and 100% human. It contains all the limitations, errors, even wrong beliefs and ideas of the human authors, but it still permeated by divine truth and stamped with divine approval so that it is a uniquely reliable authority for the people of God. Even though it carries all the mistakes of the authors, Scripture was inspired by encounter with the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit uses it to direct the reader’s gave to Him despite the text’s flaws. 

Natural Inspiration

Last and certainly also least is natural inspiration. No saving the best for last: I don’t like natural inspiration at all. It says that the Biblical authors were only inspired by God inasmuch as anyone can be through normal spiritual means. The way you feel after a convicting sermon, uplifting worship song, day of thanksgiving, or intense personal devotion is really all there was to it for those writing the Bible. The Holy Spirit did nothing more in them than He does in us.

In this view, Scripture can be and is loaded with human error of every kind. While it is pretty reliable, it is only so to the extent that the authors understood the truth. If John the Apostle’s writings have any advantage over John Piper’s, it is merely that the Apostle knew Jesus personally. Ultimately, Scripture is very valuable because of its place in Christian tradition and its devotional use, but its origin is not especially divine.

What I Believe

It’s a secret to everyone. Including myself. When I figure it out maybe I’ll let you know. Until then, he’s a handy chart to sum up what I’ve said here.

Summary Chart of Views on Inspiration
Name God’s Role Man’s Role Errors? Who Believes It
Dictation God’s words 100% Secretary-like None Fundamentalists
Verbal Plenary 100% God’s word Man writes under inspiration and providence None Most Evangelicals
Dynamic 100% God’s truths Man writes in his own words Some minor, non-doctrinal Some Evangelicals, many others
Existential Spirit brings life to text Man writes on his own Many, of any kind, but generally reliable Mostly radicals and liberals
Barthian Spirit points author and reader to true Word in Christ Man writes his own, human testimony to the Word Many, of any kind, but specially reliable and authoritative Karl Barth, Neo-Orthodox, Revisionist Reformed, some others
Natural God doesn’t do anything unique Man writes of his own initiative Many, of any kind Radicals and liberals
Beliefs about the Bible: Biblical Inspiration 101

My Dog Ate My Prayerbook

If there’s one thing people are good at, it’s making excuses. I imagine we don’t even realize how many excuses we make for ourselves (and others!) in the average day.

If you’re a Christian, you probably see this most clearly and painfully in your prayer life. Well, I guess you could be one of those rare giants who prays for two hours a day in solitude plus quickly and quietly throughout your day, and if so kudos to you. But most of us are not like that. At all.

The number of excuses we use for not praying is truly impressive. We do it all the time, because we in all honesty spend a lot of time not praying when we could/should be. And the funny thing is that we don’t usually make these excuses to use on other people: we usually just tell them to ourselves!

Some of the excuses we make are downright lame and we know it. “I was just so sleepy this morning…” Really? Come on, son. “I was too busy.” Yes, those four episodes of The Waking Dead you watched on Netflix after supper were pretty urgent, weren’t they? And let’s be real, your prayers are never so long you couldn’t fit them into your 15 work break.

Some of our excuses are more sanctified, though. “I’ve messed up too bad, today, so I can’t face Him.” But that’s exactly why you need Him. “If I pray right this second, I’ll be too distracted by what’s going on for it to be any good.” Good thing your prayers depend on Jesus and not your own performance. “I can’t pray this late; I’ll fall asleep.” Where better to fall asleep then the arms of your heavenly Father?

The truth is that we know even these spiritual-sounding excuses are bunk, but we use them anyway. For whatever reason, we often put more effort into not praying than we would ever exert by praying. It’s wrong, though. We need to pray. Somewhere in our hearts as believers we do even want to pray.

So what do we do? What do I do as the worst offender? Well, the first step to solving a problem is to recognize it, so let’s call ourselves out. When you excuse yourself from praying, give yourself the look the teacher gives the “my dog ate my homework” kid. If necessary, get someone else to help hold you accountable so they can give you that look for your lane excuses. And above all, let’s position ourselves within God’s people, doing God’s work, so that we will be driven to pray. Amen.

My Dog Ate My Prayerbook

A Christological Argument Against Abortion

One of the greatest connections Evangelical Calvinism put together in my head is that Jesus is the image of God, and we were made in the image of God. The imago dei, that divine imprint we all bear, is grounded in our sharing of a nature with God in Christ. Jesus’ humanity makes our humanity the sacred thing that it is.

Connecting all human life to Jesus’ human life affects many issues, and abortion is no exception. Believe it or not (I know for most people in my life circles this is probably hard to believe), there are otherwise solid Christian individuals, groups, and churches who believe abortion is not necessarily sinful. This is, in my opinion, our generation of the Church’s most tragic, or at least one of the most tragic, failing. But I do not deny their genuine faith, for Christians in every age have held similarly horrid positions.

Since I do accept these brothers as members of one faith in one Christ, I would like to engage with them constructively rather than ignore them or vilify them. On many issues I hold the reservation that I might be wrong. Not so here, and I therefore think it is very important to have this conversation, and hopefully help my friends see the light on this matter.

Okay, enough with the introduction. What is my actual argument? Well, it’s fairly straightforward. Human worth, identity, and sanctity are all bound up with the image of God we were made in. This image is no other than Jesus Himself, God as a human being. By becoming a human Jesus gave humanity the image of God and our worth (not that humans lacked God’s image before Jesus’ arrival; His Incarnation is an eternal fact which affects even the dawn of time).

The significance of this for abortion is that we them humans (teens and kids, too!) have God’s image and a right to life because God was one of us. Jesus brought unity between God and humanity by being both in His earthly life. This applies to abortion because Jesus’ incarnation, His human existence, did not begin at His birth but while He was still in the womb! God did not only become a born child, but an unborn one. In fact, it seems Biblically safe to say that God became man at conception. (To say otherwise seems to me to run the risk of various Christological heresies.)

Because in Jesus even unborn humanity was united with God, it is impossible to deny them the same value, dignity, and protection that we expect as grown people. Our lives are sacred because Jesus lived as one of us, and in that life He lived as an unborn child as well, so their lives are just as sacred. We cannot just kill them, especially as innocent and helpless as they are, any more than we can just kill anyone else.

In fact, the issue is bigger than killing a created being. God in Jesus identifies with all who share the human nature of His Son, and is especially concerned with the needy, oppressed, and helpless. Violence against any human being, especially one like that, is violence against God Himself. Killing any human, including the unborn, is akin to crucifying Christ because in Christ all people are gathered up and bound to their Creator.

I know this will not immediately sway any believer who happens to be pro-choice. It’s not often people approach any issue, much less abortion, from the perspective of Jesus’ Incarnation. But it is vital that we do so, especially here where the issue is one of life and death. I do pray you will all consider this with Scripture and prayer. And if you’re pro-life but know a pro-choice believer, I encourage you to share this with them. Maybe God can use it to change some hearts if we ask.

A Christological Argument Against Abortion

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)

If God exists, why does evil? Is He too weak to stop it? Does He refuse? Did it catch Him off guard? These questions have challenged philosophers and theologians for thousands of years, and goodness knows I can add little or nothing to their many answers. But I just felt like sharing this thought on my mind.

In Christian circles, there are usually two answers given, one by Calvinists and one by almost everyone else. To the Calvinist, evil exists by God’s decision. He ordained before time that Satan should fall, and Adam after him. He did not directly cause evil, but knowingly set up the world with causes, effects, and stuffs which led to evil. Why did He do this? To bring Him glory in conquering and judging it. God’s glory is the greatest good for both Himself and the elect.

The problems with the Calvinist answer are many. Can the intense evil and suffering in the world really bring glory to a good and kind God? Did the same God we see in Jesus imagine the Holocaust to make Himself look good? Moreover, this reasoning smacks of utilitarianism, an unbiblical ethic system where the ends justify the means, and you can get away with anything for “the greater good.” Is God a utilitarian? That’s not what we see of Him in Jesus’ life.

On the other hand, Arminians, Molinists, and self-styled “Biblicists” usually go with the free will defense. I’m sure you’ve heard it. God wants us to freely love Him, but with free will necessarily comes the possibility to do evil. He can either force us to love Him, which wouldn’t be real love, or He must allow for the possibility of evil. This is considered by many a strong and intuitive answer to the problem of evil.

Yet this approach is not without its problems. For one, how do we know free will exists? That debate is ages old, with many arguments of both sides. Moreover, if free will is real, then God has it, but we also know that God cannot sin, and indeed always truly loves. So in that case why could He not make people in the same way, free, truly loving, yet unable to sin, like He is? Besides these problems, is free will by itself a strong enough concept to bear all the weight of the world’s evil? I don’t think we can really reduce the answer to every “Why, God?!” to “That’s easy, free will.”

If these answers don’t work, then what will we say? Shall we cite Karl Barth and his doctrine of nothingness? Maybe go with Augustine in saying evil doesn’t truly exist? Somehow, I don’t think any of these work well enough. So where do we go? How do we exonerate God from evil?

Maybe we don’t.

When we look at Scripture, God never tries to explain or defend Himself on this subject. The Bible never tells us how evil came around, or why God let it. We’re completely in the dark.

In fact, in God’s fullest revelation—Jesus Himself—speaks no excuse, apology, or even rebuke. He instead did the unthinkable: He took the blame. God the Creator, as a created human being, took on full responsibility for the evil of all His creation, and He suffered the consequences. He did not fight to prove His innocence or protect His reputation, but let us punish Him as we saw fit. On Calvary humanity judged God for evil, and God submitted to their sentence.

None of this means, of course, that God actually has done anything wrong and deserves blame. What it does mean is that God is a big boy, one who doesn’t need our philosophies or even sophistry to be justified. He is perfectly capable and willing to take responsibility for the state of His world.

Of course, the other thing the Cross proves in this subject is that God definitely loves us. Whatever else may be at work, and whatever questions He leaves unanswered, we can trust that Jesus loves us. So if nothing else, we can know that God is for us.

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)

I Don’t Believe in Hell

So, I don’t really believe in Hell. That’s right. I do not believe that Hell exists. And I sincerely doubt most of you do, either.

Now, before you scream “heretic” and start gathering a mob, I should clarify that, if you were to ask me if Hell exists, I would certainly say “yes.” If you asked me to define “Hell,” I would tell you that it’s a place of eternal suffering for those who reject Jesus.

So what on earth do I mean when I say that I don’t believe in Hell? In truth, it’s not my orthodoxy that is the issue but my lifestyle. Sure, I say that I believe there is a Hell for the unrepentant, but do I live out that belief? Do I tremble for the millions of souls to be lost? Forget love, am I even compelled by common human decency to do my part in bringing about their salvation.

All this shows my major lack: faith, not in Hell but in Christ. The only reason I even affirm Hell’s existence is that Jesus Himself seems to have taught it, and I’ve never seen a convincing interpretation otherwise. So if I really do believe in Jesus and trust what He reveals of God to be true, I ought to be consistently living a life that reflects His teaching. I should be seeing and treating people like they’re about to fall off a cliff and I have a chance to bring them to safety in the Savior.

I doubt very much that I am alone, indeed I am certain I am not. Many of you reading this probably feel what I’m saying. You know there’s a Hell, but you still act like there’s not. You see possible opportunities to tell about the Way and the Life, but make an excuse not to as if the only thing in danger were your dignity instead of a life.

Why do we do this? Why don’t we really believe in Hell? Plenty of reasons, I’m sure. Hell is so remote from our daily affairs; it’s easy to forget or ignore in the midst of everything else we can see, stuff with immediate, visible impact. Maybe on some level we don’t take Hell seriously because we subconsciously think God’s love really does mean no Hell. Maybe starting to preach during an important job interview actually would hurt not only your chances of a job but the chances of them taking your message seriously. But even a good excuse is really no excuse when lives are on the line.

So what’s the point of my rambling? Hell is hard, not just to swallow but to live in recognition of. This plagues me and probably you. What can we do? Pray for perspective, faith, and a bit of ridiculous boldness, I guess. Who knows who may be saved if we do?

I Don’t Believe in Hell