Universalism as a Lure? The Emerging Case of Rob Bell

As is so often the case, most of us first learned of Rob Bell’s new book by means of Justin Taylor and his blog, “Between Two Worlds,” at the Gospel Coalition. Justin reminds me of the steady folks at the National Hurricane Center. He is able to advise of looming disaster with amazing calmness. That is why I took special notice of Justin’s stern warning: “It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.”

Why would Justin feel the need to issue such a warning? He was writing about Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, due to be released on March 29 by HarperCollins.

The publisher’s statement about the book is clearly intended to provoke controversy:

Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

Now, Rob Bell and others within the Emerging Church movement represent what can only be described as a new form of cultural Christianity. Bell plays with theology the way a cat plays with a mouse. His sermons, videos, books, and public relations are often more suggestive and subversive than clear. They are also artistically and aesthetically superior to most of what is to be found in the video section of your local Christian bookstore or on the Web.

Time is running out on the Emerging folks. They can play the game of suggestion for only so long. Eventually, the hard questions will be answered. Tragically, when the answers do come, as with the case of Brian McLaren, they appear as nothing more than a mildly updated form of Protestant liberalism.

The publicity surrounding Bell’s new book indicates that he is ready to answer one of the hardest questions — the question of the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ. With that question come the related questions of heaven, hell, judgment, and the fate of the unregenerate. The Bible answers these questions clearly enough, but few issues are as hard to reconcile with the modern or postmodern mind than this. Of course, it was hard to reconcile with the ancient mind as well. The singularity of the person and work of Christ and the necessity of personal faith in him for salvation run counter to the pluralistic bent of the human mind, but this is nothing less than the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation.

Universalism and the various inclusivisms are exactly what Justin Taylor suggests — distortions of the Gospel that deceive the people of God (and non-Christians as well).

But what if all this is just clever advertising? What if Rob Bell’s book turns out to be an affirmation of the truth? Did Justin jump the gun?

There is good reason to doubt this. The most powerful argument about the book comes in the form of a video offered by Rob Bell himself. In the video, he pulls no punches. In his clever and artistic way, ever so artfully presented, he affirms what can only be described as universalism.

We must await the release of the full book in order to know what Rob Bell is really saying, but his advance promotion for the book is already saying something, and it is not good. The material he has already put forth does demand and deserve attention.

The Emerging Church movement is known for its slick and sophisticated presentation. It wears irony and condescension as normal attire. Regardless of how Rob Bell’s book turns out, its promotion is the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.

The Gospel is too precious and important to be commodified in this manner. The questions he asks are too important to leave so tantalizingly unanswered. Universalism is a heresy, not a lure to use in order to sell books. This much we know, almost a month before the book is to be released.

Conscience Trampled by the Regime

The Obama administration has revoked nearly all of the conscience protections put in place by the administration of President George W. Bush. The policy change came just today, and was released as a new rule from the Department of Health and Human Services.  As Rob Stein of The Washington Post reports, “The Obama administration rescinded most of a federal regulation Friday designed to protect health workers who refuse to provide care they find objectionable on personal or religious grounds.”

In this case, “most” means almost all of the previous rule has been rescinded. Stein described the action by stating that the Obama administration had “eliminated nearly the entire rule.” All that remains are protections put in place previously covering medical personnel who object to abortion or sterilization. Gone are all protections for those who object by conscience to abortifacient drugs and “emergency” contraceptives, the treatment of gay men and lesbians, and prescriptions for birth control sought by single women. In these cases, medical personnel have objected that their conscience and understanding of medical ethics do not allow them to facilitate acts and behaviors that are both immoral and unhealthy.

The Obama administration said that the Bush era rule was “unclear and potentially overbroad in scope.” Rob Stein explained the concern this way:

The Bush regulation, if enforced, would have cut off federal funding for thousands of entities, including state and local governments, hospitals, health plans and clinics, if they did not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists or other employees who refused to participate in care they felt violated their personal, moral or religious beliefs.

That wording implies that the normal expectation should be that health programs and providers should not “accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists or other employees who refused to participate in care they felt violated their personal, moral, or spiritual beliefs.”

In other words, the Obama administration is now ready to use the coercive power of the state to force medical personnel to perform acts they consider to be morally wrong and unhealthy for their patients. One obvious implication of this is that the state now finds it necessary to force medical professionals to do what they by conscience do not think is right. Allowed to act by conscience, these medical professionals clearly would not do what the state now requires them to do.

Just imagine how our nation’s founders would consider such a tyrannical trampling of individual conscience by the power of the state. From a Christian perspective, this should serve as a clear alarm for those who suggest that it is paranoid to believe that the state will use similar force to require other acts against conscience. The logic is right here for all to see, and only the willfully blind can deny what this new policy means.

Is Academic Bias Against Conservatives Real? An Amazing Admission

John Tierney of The New York Times offers a really important report on the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s recent annual meeting. As Tierney writes, “Some of the world’s pre-eminent experts on bias discovered an unexpected form of it at their annual meeting.”

It all started when Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, took a poll of his audience at the meeting:

He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

Haidt responded with this simple statement: “This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity.” Haidt then pointed to studies showing that while 20 percent of Americans consider themselves to be liberal, fully 40 percent identify themselves as conservatives.

The psychologist then proceeded to define his colleagues as a “tribal-moral community” that has its own set of “sacred values.” Those values, he argues, blind the academic tribe to its own forms of discrimination. While they see discrimination against women and minorities without difficulty, they blind themselves to their own prejudice against conservatives. Even their jokes assume that everyone is a liberal.

Professor Haidt went so far as to propose a new form of affirmative action for conservatives. He also suggested that most liberal groups tend to protest yesterday’s forms of discrimination and often miss the more urgent discrimination problems of the present.

In any event, Professor Haidt’s address represented a rare moment of candor and confession in an academic meeting. The open admission of bias against conservatives was a very rare achievement.

Beyond this, Haidt’s concept of the academic guild as a “tribal-moral community” is genuinely helpful. Indeed, his insights distilled into this phrase are transportable to many other fields of interest. We are all members of some moral tribe. Hats off to Professor Haidt for making that truth so clear — and for documenting the existence of bias against conservatives in academia.

A Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Legacy

This article was originally posted just after the death of President Ronald W. Reagan. It is republished today in honor of the centennial of President Reagan’s birth, yesterday, February 6.

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” Those words catapulted Ronald W. Reagan onto the stage of national politics. Though the “Great Communicator” has left the scene, his ideas continue to define the political landscape.

Reagan spoke of this “rendezvous with destiny” in a speech delivered to support the lagging campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Though Goldwater was to lose that election in a landslide, Reagan entered the political limelight, connecting with the American people in a way Goldwater and other conservatives had not.

By any measure, Ronald Reagan was an unusually complicated man, driven by unusually simple ideas. His roots in Dixon, Illinois gave him an immediate connection with the values of small-town America. Nevertheless, Reagan -– known then as “Dutch” to his friends –- had his sights set on a far larger world.

In reality, Ronald Reagan had several careers, all of them successful. His communication skills were first put to work as a radio announcer, but he soon came to the attention of Hollywood, where he developed a big screen career and seemed poised for greatness. All this was interrupted by World War II, when Reagan, ruled unfit for combat due to poor eyesight, was assigned to a film-making unit on behalf of the armed services. After making over 400 films for the national cause, Reagan emerged from the war with his movie career dimmed, but he soon turned to other opportunities.

Ronald Reagan then made his mark as president of the Screen Actors Guild, the leading labor union for actors and actresses. He was later to reflect that experience in the white-knuckled context of labor negotiations, which taught him both patience and determination. Both qualities were to be essential to Reagan’s later experience in political office.

Reagan was, up until the late 1950’s, an ardent Democrat. As a matter of fact, he would later acknowledge having been a member of several “bleeding heart” organizations for liberal causes. Reagan’s worldview began to change when he served as a spokesman for the General Electric Corporation, traveling around the nation speaking to both employees and public citizens. During this period, Reagan reconnected with grassroots America and sensed the need for political leadership that would recover American values, reassert American leadership, and reverse the welfare-state liberalism that then defined national policy.

For most Americans, Reagan’s political debut came in the speech made on behalf of Barry Goldwater. Reagan spoke of “a time for choosing” and told the nation of his political transition: “I have spent most of my life as a Democrat. I recently have seen fit to follow another course.”

In short order, that course would take him to the governorship of California. Elected against a cultural tide, Reagan took office and addressed some of the most critical issues of the 1960’s, including campus unrest at the University of California’s Berkeley campus and an out of control state budget. Reagan was overwhelmingly reelected to a second term, and his prospects for national office seemed to be bright. At the 1968 Republican National Convention, delegates held Reagan in reserve as a potential candidate if front-runner Richard M. Nixon failed in his effort to achieve the nomination.

Reagan’s entry into presidential politics came in 1976, when he ran against incumbent President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination, arguing that America needed a change, not only of leadership, but also of vision. Reagan came amazingly close to seizing the nomination, and he instantly became the front-runner for the 1980 Republican nomination when Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 race.

Reagan’s election as President in 1980 -– capped by a landslide decision of the electorate -– represented the transformation of America’s political terrain, not merely the election of a new chief executive. As a campaigner, Ronald Reagan broke all the rules of conventional politics. He spoke boldly of ideas and resisted his own campaign advisors who counseled him to tone down his campaign rhetoric in order to appeal to nonaligned voters. Reagan saw the equation very differently. He did not want to reach nonaligned voters –- he wanted to realign their political vision to match America’s present opportunities and challenges. His success in changing the terms of our national debate is often forgotten in the aftermath of his political successes.

As President, Ronald Reagan transformed the world by refusing to believe that freedom and liberty were too expensive to defend. He understood the difference between freedom and oppression and had nothing but disdain for America’s elites, who saw the world locked in a perpetual stalemate between freedom and totalitarianism. Reagan refused to accept the world on these terms and was determined to confront the Soviet Union and the threat of world communism. He was determined to force the end of what he courageously called the “Evil Empire,” and through a confrontational public policy and a massive buildup of America’s military might, he forced the Soviet Union into a public humiliation, as its economy could not sustain an equal military expansion. In the end, the Soviet Union lost political credibility because it could not deliver on its promises, nor make good on its threats. It took the courage of Ronald Reagan to walk away from the Reykjavik summit meeting in 1986, leaving Mikhail Gorbachev to face the fact that he could not deter the United States from its newly assertive military power and foreign policy.

The impact of this change in America’s international posture is almost impossible to overestimate. During Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, communism suffered its first massive and public defeat, as it was pressed back in much of the Third World even as the Soviet Union began to collapse from within. This was not a continuation of detente, but a foreign policy aimed at liberating millions from oppression. The stakes were high, but President Reagan was driven by an absolute confidence in the ultimate victory of hope over despair and freedom over oppression. In the end, the Soviet Union fell more quickly -– and more peacefully–than virtually anyone could have predicted.

Ronald Reagan is what specialists in political leadership identify as a “conviction politician.” As former White House counsel Peter J. Wallison commented, “Reagan had convictions –- not just ‘positions,’ but principles he believed in and was willing to act upon.” As Wallison argues, this separated Reagan from his recent predecessors in office, who had generally attempted to negotiate around many issues rather than to confront and solve them. “Reagan’s extraordinary acts of political courage demonstrated that politics had a moral core, and that government decisions could be based on something more solid and enduring than the shifting sands of political expediency.”

On the world’s stage, Reagan developed an historic partnership with his generation’s other great conviction politician -– Margaret Thatcher. In an unusual alignment, based on both personality and ideas, Reagan and Thatcher redefined the Atlantic alliance and established Anglo-American leadership in the world. Thatcher understood Reagan’s vision and admired his effectiveness as both communicator and statesman. “When we attempt an overall survey of President Reagan’s term of office,” she reflected, “covering events both foreign and domestic, one thing stands out. It is that he has achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible. From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set out to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat–and he succeeded. It is not merely that freedom now advances while collectivism is in retreat–important though that is. It is that freedom is the idea that everywhere captures men’s minds while collectivism can do no more than enslave their bodies. That is the measure of the change that President Reagan has wrought.”

Domestically, President Reagan used his incredible communication skills to lead the nation, and he combined respect for the American people with the expectation that Americans should solve their own problems. His most memorable anecdotes usually had to do with some story of government inefficiency or worse. In a line he often used, President Reagan offered that the most frightening words he had ever heard were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” Reagan’s “less is more” approach to government marked the end of an era of unbridled government expansion, with its accompanying financial constriction. President Reagan restructured the economy through massive tax cuts mixed with encouragement for entrepreneurship and economic expansion.

The transformations that mark Ronald Reagan’s life also touch the most basic moral issues of life and death. As the governor of California, Reagan signed one of the most liberal abortion laws of the 1970’s. By the time he ran for President in 1980, Reagan had come to see abortion as a moral blight on America’s conscience, and he almost single-handedly rebuilt a conservative movement driven by concern for individual liberty, economic freedom, and the sanctity of human life.

Ronald Reagan was a real human being, and it showed. Those who never heard him speak as President, who never observed his speeches and press conferences, are robbed of the opportunity to see this real leader grappling with the most crucial issues of his day. He did so with both humanity and courage, remembering that, in politics, he could afford many opponents but no enemies.

My introduction to Ronald Reagan came as I joined his 1976 campaign for the Republican nomination. I was a 16-year-old campaign volunteer working to distribute literature and serving time on the phone banks used to reach grassroots voters. I was captivated by the clarity of Ronald Reagan’s vision, and I resonated with his conservative political philosophy. Admittedly, I was also simply taken by the sheer charisma of Ronald Reagan as a leader.

I was able to see Ronald Reagan in action and in person at Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium during the 1976 nomination contest. Accompanied by his devoted wife Nancy, Reagan strode to the podium and delivered, apparently without notes, a political address that -– in terms of its ideas -– would later lead to his landslide election in 1980. I waited in the rope line for a chance to shake his hand, and then I saw for myself why biographer Edmund Morris would describe Ronald Reagan as “a force of nature.” His energy, optimism, and confidence swept through the room like a bracing storm.

History will remember Ronald Reagan as a great President. Americans will remember him as a great friend. In time, monuments will be built, and memorials will be formalized. Yet the greatest memorial to Ronald Reagan is the fact that his ideas still live –- and that a generation of younger Americans will not let them die.

Chilling Almost Beyond Belief

Americans generally know that abortions happen, but the reality of abortion is kept out of sight and, for most, largely out of mind. To acknowledge that abortions do occur does not require any actual knowledge of the numbers of abortions performed and the scale of the catastrophe. News reports that emerged in recent days will make that evasion harder to justify.

The New York Times reported on January 6, 2011 that the abortion rate in New York City is about 40 percent of all pregnancies. That means that no less than four out of every ten pregnancies in that city are terminated by abortion. That statistic is horrific, leading a group of New York religious leaders to describe the abortion rate as “chilling.”

Of even greater magnitude is the abortion rate among African-Americans in New York City — a rate of almost 60 percent. This means, of course, that far more black babies are aborted than are born. How is it that black church leaders are so silent on this murderous assault on unborn African-American babies?

The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that the national abortion rate is 22 percent. Two out of every ten pregnancies in America end in abortion.

The enormity of the abortion rate in America underlines the fact that abortion is anything but rare. Over 1.2 million abortions were performed in the United States in 2008, the last year with full numbers reported.

This means that abortion is taking place in your neighborhood and in mine. The abortion rate in New York City staggers the moral imagination, but the abortion rate nationwide is itself “chilling.”

We are a murderous people, and the blood of the innocent cries out for justice.

Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Jeremiah 31:15

For the Sake of the Kingdom: Redefining Retirement

The concept of retirement is rather recent in origins. Most historians trace the concept back to Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, who pushed through a series of social changes in the late 19th century. Among those changes was a system something like Social Security, intended as a guaranteed pension for the elderly.

Bismarck’s idea was that workers in Germany would need to give way so that younger men would be able to enter the workforce and support their families. The concept of retirement from the workforce took root, and by the mid-point of the 20th century, most American workers expected to retire at something close to age 65.

The contemporary ideal of retirement was a life of travel, leisure, golf, and time with grandchildren. In states like Florida, California, and Arizona, entire communities of retirees emerged. “Leisurevilles” advertised a concept of the good life that was free from employment and largely, if not exclusively, devoted to withdrawal from the world of all work.

These communities are now in trouble. The concept of retirement is now changing, brought about by the economic recession that has propelled many older Americans back into the workforce. As Laura Vanderkam reports in USA Today:

After decades of decline, the labor force participation rate among people older than 65 rose from a low of 10.7% in 1987 to more than 17% now. Nearly a third of those ages 65-69 are working or looking for work, up from less than 20% in the 1980s, and surveys of Baby Boomers find that many don’t intend to retire immediately either.

We will likely look back on the period between 1950 and 2000 as the Era of Retirement. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, the expectation was that workers would probably live an average of 5-8 years after retirement. But the extension of the human lifespan during the last half of the 20th century meant that retirement could easily last for twenty years, and often even longer. Now, those who live to age 65, Vanderkam reports, “can quite reasonably expect to live to age 85 or more.”

Here is the key sentence in Vanderkam’s essay: “The notion that work is something you want to stop doing is getting a makeover as well.” It’s about time.

The Bible dignifies both labor and age, but the modern American ideal of retirement is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures. Instead, lives of useful service to the Kingdom of Christ are the expectation, all the way to the grave.

The economic crisis of recent years has forced many Americans to rethink and redefine retirement as a matter of necessity. For Christians, this represents an important opportunity. The ideal for Christians should be redeployment, even after employment. There is so much Kingdom work to be done, and older believers are desperately needed in this great task. There are missionaries to be assisted, ministries to be energized, young couples to be counseled, boys without fathers to be mentored, and wisdom and experience to be shared. The possibilities for Christian redeployment are endless.

There is room in the Christian life for leisure, but not for a life devoted to leisure. As long as we have the strength and ability to serve, we are workers needed in Christ’s Kingdom. Given the needs and priorities all around us, who would settle for life in Leisureville?

The Deadly Logic of Anti-Blasphemy Laws

Blasphemy is a serious matter. Jesus himself underlined the importance with the statement: “And anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” [Luke 12:10] In this case, the meaning is clear — those who resist the work of the Holy Spirit in calling sinners to faith in Christ will never be forgiven.

Christianity is not an honor religion. Christ did not call upon his disciples to defend his honor, but to believe in him and to follow him in obedience. In this verse, Jesus affirms that even slander against him can be forgiven, but the unforgivable sin is obstinate rejection of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.

In recent weeks, a coalition of Muslim nations has demanded (again) that the United Nations criminalize blasphemy. A considerable number of Christians might, at least at first hearing, think this as a reasonable demand. After all, we do not disagree that slander against the honor of God is a very, very dangerous sin. But anti-blasphemy laws place the power of theological coercion into the hands of the state, and this is deadly dangerous.

In Pakistan, for example, Section 295C of the criminal code states that “derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet … either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly … shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

On November 8, 2010, a woman named Asia Bibi, a Christian, was sentenced to death by hanging just because she had entered into what was claimed to be a religious argument with Muslims. She was arrested after an Islamic mob surrounded her house and demanded her death.

This past Monday the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by one of his own security guards after the Governor had stated words of support for Asia Bibi. The assassin said that he murdered Governor Taseer in an act of “protecting Allah’s religion.”

Saroop Ijaz, a human rights attorney in Lahore, Pakistan, explained in the Los Angeles Times that, though no one has yet been executed under the blasphemy laws, “at least 32 people have been killed while awaiting trial or after they have been acquitted of blasphemy charges.”

Anti-blasphemy laws serve the honor logic of Islam but not the evangelistic aims of Christianity. It is wrong to give governments the power of theological coercion. Seen in this light, blasphemy is no small matter, but anti-blasphemy laws are deadly barriers to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Martyrs in a Modern World

Christians — especially those enjoying the safety of the West — often think of martyrdom as a part of the distant Christian past. But a recent barrage of headlines dispels that notion in a hurry. Over the past several weeks, Christians in Iraq suffered a series of church bombings, and experts in the region predicted a virtual evacuation of that nation’s Christian population. Approximately half of all Iraqi Christians have already fled the country. That represents a failure of the American ambition to leave Iraq with a government that would protect basic human rights and liberties. The murderous terrorism against Christians in Iraq amounts to a form of religious cleansing.

Meanwhile, oppression of Christians in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, intensified with a January 1 bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria. Twenty-one worshipers were killed and another 100 were injured. Analysts predicted a rise in the scale of these attacks, since many Muslims seem intent on eliminating Egypt’s approximately 10 million Christians.

In Pakistan, rioters took to the streets to insist that the nation’s draconian blasphemy laws stay in place — effectively allowing only Muslim practice and preaching. As The New York Times reported, “A crippling strike by Islamist parties brought Pakistan to a standstill on Friday as thousands of people took to the streets, and forced businesses to close, to head off any change in the country’s blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.”

There is no way we can determine the exact theological beliefs of these worshipers in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan, but there can be no question that they are suffering and dying in the name of Jesus Christ. They deserve our earnest prayers and advocacy. They also remind us by their witness that Christ has enemies — and so do His followers. The blood of the martyrs does indeed cry out their witness for Christ.

We must pray for persecuted Christians everywhere around the world.

“Through prayer we can be saved because of our Lord Jesus Christ, even after we have been punished. This will become salvation and confidence to us at the much more fearful and universal judgment of our Lord and Savior.” Justin Martyr

How Not to Fight Atheism

There is nothing so short-sighted and unhelpful as Christian insecurity — and this kind of insecurity recently led to predictable results in Fort Worth, Texas. In early December, the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason — a group dedicated to raising the profile of secularists, atheists, and agnostics — began running advertisements on Fort Worth public buses that read, “Millions of Americans are Good Without God.”

Some Christians responded with outrage. “The ads are hurtful to the people who do believe in God, and I proudly believe in Jesus Christ,” said one woman. A coalition of Fort Worth pastors called for a boycott of public transportation. According to The Associated Press:

The Rev. Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church, said not only the community but also some bus drivers have been offended by the ads, set to run this week until a printing problem caused a delay. Tatum called for a boycott, saying about a dozen churches would try to provide rides for anyone who refused to ride a city bus over the atheist ads.

These offended Christians called for action by transportation officials, and they did not have to wait long for a response. The Fort Worth Transportation Authority voted December 15 to ban all religious ads on buses. The policy took effect January 1, 2011. According to press reports, “both sides cheered the decision.”

Christians are sometimes our own worst enemy, especially when we claim to be offended. Those pastors and concerned Christians who demanded that the transportation authority ban the atheist ads actually gave the secularists the Grand Prize. By precipitating (and, of all things, celebrating) a ban on all religious messages from this public space, these Christians surrendered Gospel opportunities simply because they were offended by an atheist advertisement. No wonder the atheists clapped.

This is a disastrous strategy. Are Christians so insecure that we fear a weakly-worded advertisement on a public bus? These bus ads represent just how weak the atheists’ arguments really are, but the response from agitated Christians represents a far more dangerous weakness. Instead of responding to the ads with a firm and gracious defense of the Gospel, these activists just surrendered the space altogether, rather than to bear the offense of the cross.

Christianity has enemies, and the greatest victory of these enemies is to prevent the proclamation of the Gospel. The strategy so celebrated in Fort Worth is a route to evangelistic disaster. Religious liberty is a friend of the Gospel, and constraints on religious speech serve the cause of the secularists.

Being a Christian does not mean never having to be offended. Like the Apostle Paul, we are called to bear the offense of the cross gladly. If Paul had followed the Fort Worth strategy, Acts 17 would never have happened.

The Global Scandal of “The Global Baby”

The Wall Street Journal blows the cover off the international trade in babies and reproductive technologies this week, as reporters Tamara Audi and Arlene Chang tell of the emergence of a market that assembles the “global baby.”

Just consider the shocking introduction to their report:

In a hospital room on the Greek island of Crete with views of a sapphire sea lapping at ancient fortress walls, a Bulgarian woman plans to deliver a baby whose biological mother is an anonymous European egg donor, whose father is Italian, and whose birth is being orchestrated from Los Angeles.

The Bulgarian woman is a surrogate hired by an infertile Italian couple. The business arrangements are very much for-profit, and are negotiated by PlanetHospital.com, described by the Journal as “a California company that searches the world to find the components of its business line.” Audi and Chang then add: “The business, in this case, is creating babies.”

The desire for a child can be overwhelming, as the clients who go to PlanetHospital can attest. Some now turn to these international brokers who, often skirting the laws of respective nations, go around traditional means of adoption and fertility treatments. These companies do their business on a global scale, “often using an egg donor from one country, a sperm donor from another, and a surrogate who will deliver in a third country to make what some industry participants call ‘a world baby.'”

Our Ethics are Agnostic

The report candidly acknowledges the fact that many unborn babies are aborted by means of “selective reductions” – a procedure chillingly detailed in the article. Rudy Rupak, CEO of Planet Hospital, denies ethical responsibility in amazingly candid terms: “Our ethics are agnostic,” he told the paper. “How do you prevent a pedophile from having a baby? If they’re a pedophile then I will leave that to the U.S. government to decide, not me.” These firms are increasingly popular with homosexual male couples, who can arrange to have babies born that will include the DNA of both partners, so long as a common source of donor eggs is used.

The Wall Street Journal deserves credit for this important exposé of the ‘Wild Wild West” of reproductive technologies that is now operating across the globe. Made clear in this article is the fact that there is no adequate means of regulating this business.

Christians must recognize that these technologies are fraught with moral complications — and many of them dramatically so. These technologies, marketed through a global business in babies, threaten to redefine the vary nature of reproduction and the definition of family and parenthood.

On matters of such importance, it is simply evil to say, “Our ethics are agnostic.”

So, Why Is Incest Wrong?

There are certain questions now pressed upon us that previous generations would never believe could be asked. One of these is thrust upon us by events in New York City, where a well-known Ivy League professor has been arrested for the crime of incest. What makes the question urgent is not so much the arrest, but the controversy surrounding it.

David Epstein is a professor of political science at Columbia University, where his wife also teaches. He previously taught on the faculties of Harvard and Stanford. Last week, he was arraigned before a judge in Manhattan, charged with a single count of felony incest. According to authorities, Professor Epstein was for several years involved in a sexual relationship with his adult daughter, now age 24.

Though the story was ignored by much of the mainstream media, it quickly found its way into the cultural conversation. William Saletan of Slate.com, who remains one of today’s most relevant writers working on the issues of bioethics and human nature, jumped on the story with a very interesting essay that openly asked the question many others were more quietly asking: “If homosexuality is OK, why is incest wrong?”

After reviewing the various legal arguments used to justify criminalizing incest, Saletan comes to the conclusion that genetics cannot be the fundamental basis, since incestuous sex could be non-reproductive. Similarly, the basic issue cannot be consent, since no one is arguing in this case that the sex was non-consensual.

He gets the liberal response just about right: “At this point, liberals tend to throw up their hands. If both parties are consenting adults and the genetic rationale is bogus, why should the law get involved? Incest may seem icky, but that’s what people said about homosexuality, too. It’s all private conduct.”

Saletan comes to the conclusion that the basic reason for the wrongfulness of incest is damage to the family unit. As an Ohio court ruled, “A sexual relationship between a parent and child or a stepparent and stepchild is especially destructive to the family unit.”

Now, remember that Saletan raised the issue of the morality of incest as related to the question of homosexuality. He argues that the family-damage argument against incest does not apply to homosexuality. In his words: “When a young man falls in love with another man, no family is destroyed.”

Saletan’s argument is easy to follow, and if you accept his fundamental premise, it can even make sense. But his fundamental premise assumes that there is no damage to a particular family unit if a homosexual relationship exists. That argument can be made only by ignoring the impact upon a family of origin. Beyond this, it limits the family-damage argument to an individual family, when the argument must be more broadly applied to the family as an institution.

This article is a very interesting window into the sexual confusions that lie at the heart of our age. To his credit, Saletan gets the conservative argument basically right:

The conservative view is that all sexual deviance—homosexuality, polyamory, adultery, bestiality, incest—violates the natural order. Families depend on moral structure: Mom, Dad, kids. When you confound that structure—when Dad sleeps with a man, Dad sleeps with another woman, or Mom sleeps with Grandpa—the family falls apart. Kids need clear roles and relationships. Without this, they get disoriented. Mess with the family, and you mess up the kids.

That’s a pretty fair summary. Of course, the Christian argument goes much deeper than the merely conservative argument, affirming the fact that, with exacting precision, God has spoken to the sinfulness of such behaviors — specifically condemning both homosexuality and incest. In other words, Christians move the question from mere wrongfulness to sinfulness and place all issues of sin within the biblical account of sin and redemption.

It is extremely revealing that, for many of our fellow citizens, incest may merely “seem icky.” And yet, all around us are folks who, with a straight face, deny the inevitability of this slippery slope.

The Sins of the Father

The suicide of Mark Madoff, the 46-year-old elder son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, has all the trappings of a Greek tragedy. Madoff hanged himself in his Manhattan apartment on Saturday, the second anniversary of his father’s arrest for what is now known as the world’s largest-ever Ponzi scheme.

Just before killing himself, Madoff called relatives and asked them to check on his two-year-old son, sleeping in the next room. His death came even as prosecutors and other legal authorities were considering legal charges against the sons of Bernard Madoff. At the same time, other authorities were seeking to go after the Madoff relatives in order to regain some of the vast losses suffered by investors in the senior Madoff’s $50 billion fraud.

The Madoff sons have insisted on their own innocence, and they had originally confronted their father with the concerns that led to his arrest and conviction. Bernard Madoff is now serving a 150-year federal prison sentence.

Was Mark Madoff guilty of complicity in his father’s criminal scheme? We may never know. He insisted on his innocence, but there can be no question that he profited from his father’s criminal acts. News reports on the Madoff scandal have introduced many Americans to terms like “noxious profits.”

Regardless of the legalities in this case, there is a tragic affirmation of a biblical principle here. In the Old Testament, God is said to visit the iniquities of fathers “upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”  [see, for example, Exodus 20:5, 34:7; Number 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9]

Some Christians turn these passages into nonsensical and sensationalistic warnings about “generational curses” that must be removed by some kind of special prayer or ministry. The reality of the biblical warning is clear enough. We are warned that the consequences of our sins are not limited to ourselves, or even to our own generation.

Bernard Madoff did not ruin only his own name, but the name carried by his children and grandchildren. The moral, legal, and financial consequences of his sin will not be borne by Bernard Madoff alone, but by his descendants after him.

All of this is brought tragically to mind when we think of the despair of Mark Madoff — and even more so when we consider what this means for a two-year-old boy who had been sleeping in the next room. That grandson was not even conceived when Bernard Madoff was conducting his Ponzi scheme.

Cast aside the unbiblical nonsense about “generational curses” and reflect on the reality of the Bible’s teaching about the consequences of our sin — a sin indeed visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.

That two-year-old grandson already represents the third generation. May God mercifully protect him.

Coed Quarters & Free Birth Control–The New Campus Culture?

The campus of George Washington University must be an interesting place to be — and it looks like it may quickly become a lot more interesting. Consider these opening words from a report in The Washington Post: “The long-eroding boundaries that once kept men and women apart on America’s college campuses soon will disappear at George Washington University, which this week announced that students can share dorm rooms with anyone they want — regardless of gender.”

Thus, GWU becomes the latest school to adopt a “gender-neutral” housing policy. This policy, which will allow students to share a room with a person of either sex, was not pushed by heterosexual students. The demands came from gay, lesbian, and transgendered students. A student leader of “Allied for Pride” said, “Ivy League schools have it. A lot of progressive schools have it. It was time for us to try it.”

Several GWU students had already experimented with gender-neutral housing on campus by living in a townhouse they labeled “Escaping Gender.”

One shocking aspect of this development is how the moms quoted in the article were all for the new policy. “The students need to learn to make these decisions based on their own comfort levels,” said one mom. Another mom said, “They’re 18. We can’t do much about it anyway, if they’re away at school.”

That is patent nonsense, of course, but it indicates that many parents are no more mature or level-headed than their 18-year-old offspring.

Meanwhile, Newsweek also reports that GWU is wondering if the Obama health care regulations will classify birth control pills as “preventative medicine”, which would be available for free through insurance programs. GWU freshman Jessi Payton told Newsweek that not having the The Pill does not mean that students will not be having sex.

“The answer is definitely not having students abstain from sex,” she insisted. “We are adults. We are going to have sex, and if the pill isn’t available, sex just isn’t going to be as safe.”

Well, if this young woman’s words prove anything, it is that she is definitely not an adult. College students are dependents. They may be 18, but they are not living as full adults, supporting themselves and living responsibly. It’s a sad picture of America’s college students and a reflection of the moral confusion at the heart of the larger culture.

Depressed? Well, hold on for this: George Washington University was first established by Baptist missionary/statesman Luther Rice as Columbian College, a Baptist college for the training of young people for service in the church and on the mission field. Baptists lost control, the school changed its name to George Washington University, and it now serves as a parable of the secularization of higher education.

In less than two centuries, the school has modulated from Luther Rice to gender-neutral housing and demands for free birth control. The slide will not end here.

Transgressing the Transgressive–Why Modern Art No Longer Shocks

The great code word for art meant to scandalize is “transgressive.” The term was well-established by the end of the 1960s, when artists sought to scandalize middle-class morality by “transgressing” moral boundaries. Artists and writers began pushing through the moral limits, seeking the thrill that comes by shocking the masses.

All this was part of the Marxist dream of destroying bourgeois morality and values in order to liberate humanity from the constraints of the Christian worldview. In some ways, the effort was stunningly successful. But transgressive artists have run into a wall of sorts. How do you scandalize when every moral conviction has already been transgressed and trampled upon?

Eric Felten of The Wall Street Journal wrote about this in his recent column, “After the Shock is Gone.” Felten argues that artists who seek the transgressive approach today are often frustrated. “But once all the boundaries have been blurred, what’s left?” he asks.

Felten cites leftist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who observes that perversion itself “is no longer subversive.” It has all been seen already. Perversion no longer shocks. As Žižek notes, “transgressive excess loses its shock value.” It is hard to invent a new perversion that someone else has not already exhibited in a museum or presented on the theater stage.

This reality frames many of the artistic worlds around us, ranging from the local art museum to the television set. It all becomes boring as it loses its shock value, leaving the artist looking increasingly pathetic. “How many decades will Madonna continue to wear that same costume as if it were a racy innovation?” Felten asks.

The inability to transgress or shock is a sign of cultural decadence, but it is also a signifier of the foolishness of sinful humanity. Left to our own devices, we will do our best to shock ourselves until we can shock ourselves no longer. Then, we grow frustrated.

Transgressive art is exactly what we should expect from transgressors, is it not?

Who’s Afraid of Noah’s Ark?

A proposal to build a theme park that would feature a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark has set off a controversy in Kentucky that is worth watching. Within days, the controversy had spread to the pages of The New York Times and USA Today.

So, who’s afraid of Noah’s Ark? Lots of folks, it seems, but the editors of the state’s two largest newspapers, in particular.

The “Ark Encounter” is a major project to be undertaken by a partnership led by Answers in Genesis, the group that built the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky — an attraction that has now recorded over a million visitors by some reports. The attraction, also to be built in Kentucky, is to include live animals and a 100-ft tower of Babel.

The partnership has applied for incentives under the Kentucky Tourism Development Act, and Governor Steve Beshear announced plans for the park at a news conference in the Kentucky State Capitol.

Then . . . the deluge.

The Courier-Journal of Louisville editorialized that the project would amount to “creationist tourism” that would embarrass the state by featuring “a fundamentalist view resting on biblical inerrancy [that] indirectly promotes a religious dogma.”

The editors asked, “Why stop with creationism? How about a Flat-Earth Museum? Or one devoted to the notion that the sun revolves around the Earth?”

An op-ed column in the same paper lamented with frustration the fact that the proposed theme park was just another reminder that “only 39 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.”

Meanwhile, the state’s second-largest paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, declared: “Anyone who wants to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible has that right.” But, the paper added, the state would be embarrassed by appearing through its governor to embrace “such thinking.”

The paper reported that Daniel Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, called Gov. Beshear’s support of the project “embarrassing for the state.”

The editorial boards of the state’s two largest newspapers seem to be very embarrassed indeed. Gov. Beshear kept his comments fixed on economics: “The people of Kentucky didn’t elect me governor to debate religion,” he said. “They elected me governor to create jobs.”

The proposed theme park is expected to attract 1.6 million visitors in its first year, bringing a $250 million annual economic impact within five years.

The most interesting aspect of this controversy isn’t the proposed theme park, but the panic among the commonwealth’s self-appointed guardians of evolutionary theory.

So who’s afraid of Noah’s Ark? Now, we know.

Empire or Cow Town? National Geographic Looks at the Kingdom of David and Solomon

Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein argues that the kingdom of David and Solomon is a greatly embellished biblical fiction. Jerusalem, he argues, was a cow town, a “hill country village.” David was an insurrectionist and bandit whose followers were not a mighty army, but “500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting.”

All this is reported in the cover story of the December 2010 edition of National Geographic magazine. That magazine, you will remember, made its own headlines just a few years ago with the claim of a “Jesus family tomb” which was supposed to cast doubt upon the New Testament accounts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That “discovery,” by the way, did not stand up to close investigation.

Now, the magazine wades again into contested and controversial territory in its cover story “The Search for King David.” At least one strand of the article reaches back to 2005, when archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced that she had discovered the palace of King David. More recent developments include the discovery by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel of Judean ruins in the Elah Valley, which is where the Bible records that David slew Goliath. Add to this the discovery of what may well be a large copper-smelting facility in Jordan by American archaeologist Thomas Levy. All of these discoveries would add much to the case against those who claim that these events did not happen or were greatly embellished.

“In no other part of the world does archaeology so closely resemble a contact sport,” explains National Geographic. The claims and counter-claims of archaeologists are used to make arguments for and against the truthfulness and authority of the Bible, for and against the validity of Jewish claims to the land, and for and against any number of related controversies — all of them heated and potentially explosive.

The National Geographic article is both interesting and inconclusive. It leaves most of the big questions raised but unanswered. Significantly, the magazine does undermine the case for the “biblical minimalism” school of archaeology that would claim David and Solomon as “simply fictitious characters.”

Nevertheless, Christian readers of the magazine should note a couple of key observations. First, this cover story documents the fact that archaeology is not an exact science and that the discipline is heavily influenced by ideological interests. Claims and counter-claims often have as much or more to do with those contemporary agendas than with the study of ancient civilizations.

Second, Christians should always remember that the truthfulness and authority of the Bible are not based upon any authority external to the Bible itself. There is no external evidence required to “prove” the Bible’s truthfulness. It stands on its own claim to be the Word of God. Archaeology may sell magazines and make for interesting reading, but it cannot prove nor disprove the Bible.

Help from Hindu Quarters — The New York Times on “Take Back Yoga”

In Sunday’s edition of The New York Times — the front page, no less — reporter Paul Vitello writes about “a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga.” Well, welcome to my world. My last few weeks have been heavy into “fierce debate” and light on “the gentle world” part. It all started when I was asked to answer a practical pastoral question: Should Christians Practice Yoga? My answer was the answer long offered by those committed to orthodox biblical Christianity — No.

There is nothing wrong with stretching exercises, and Christians are called to meditate upon the Word of God, but the practices of Yoga, both historic and current, are not about mere stretching. I will not repeat the argument here, but you can read my essay for yourself. After that, came the deluge. After a major story by the Associated Press and coverage in the mainstream media, I found myself (and my poor inbox) flooded with angry, vitriolic, confused, and even threatening emails. I did not seek to fuel the national debate, since I was trying to advise Christian believers, not attempting to launch a social crusade against Yoga.

Along the way, something really interesting happened. I started getting emails of a different sort, and many came from India. Central to my argument was the fact that Yoga is inseparable from Hinduism. I was nonetheless a bit startled to receive, for example, an email from a teenager in India thanking me for my “heroic” act of recognizing that Yoga is historically and essentially Hindu. After coverage in the Indian press, my exhausted inbox received many similar messages.

Stefanie Syman deserves credit for raising the issue of the American commercialization of Yoga in her book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. But now The New York Times reports on a movement called “Take Back Yoga” that seeks to reassert the Hindu roots of Yoga. As Paul Vitello reports, the group is “mounting a campaign to acquaint Westerners with the faith that it says underlies every single yoga style followed in gyms, ashrams and spas: Hinduism.”

Before diving into the terms of the debate within the world of Yoga, Vitello briefly juxtaposes me with New Age guru Deepak Chopra. Interestingly, Vitello cites Professor Loriliai Biernacki of the University of Colorado, who points to a range of spiritual practices and beliefs rooted in Hinduism but increasingly common in American today, including reincarnation, meditation, karma, and even cremation. “All these ideas are Hindu in origin, and they are spreading,” she told the paper. “But they are doing it in a way that leaves behind the proper name, the box that classifies them as ‘Hinduism.'”

I take that as a vindication of my argument from an unexpected source. I am not so deluded as to think it will end the debate. I just sent a warning to my inbox.

Confessionalism: The Past Meets the Future in Georgia

Well, it looks like Georgia Baptists had a debate worth having. Associated Baptist Press reports that the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to separate itself from a church that has called a woman to serve as co-pastor. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the recommendation that the convention oust the church, but the debate must have been interesting.

Meeting November 15-16 at Albany’s Sherwood Baptist Church, the GBC took the action in keeping with its adoption of the Baptist Faith & Message as its confessional basis. That confession of faith, adopted as revised by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, states: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

The church, Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, is one of the most venerable congregations in the state convention. For decades, it was the very epitome of the GBC establishment. Louis Newton (1892-1986), who served as president of both the GBC and the SBC, served for decades as the congregation’s pastor, beginning in 1929. Now, the church is considered no longer in fellowship with the GBC on the basis of its violation of the confession of faith. The recommendation to remove the church came from the GBC Executive Committee.

The debate, as reported in the press, got to the most basic and urgent issues. Michael Ruffin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, argued that the GBC was practicing “selective creedal application” of the Baptist Faith & Message. In his words:

There are many, many, many more provisions in the Baptist Faith and Message . . . . I don’t want the GBC to become even more creedal in its application of the Baptist Faith and Message than it has on this one score. We really should consider the arbitrariness of such an application. I think we also ought to consider the possibility that if we get serious about holding every Georgia Baptist Convention church accountable to every line in the Baptist Faith and Message as we are this one, we’ll soon have no churches left.

It appears that Michael Ruffin is right. This is an example of selective creedal application. The GBC removed another church, First Baptist Church of Decatur, for the very same reason just last year. The issue of a woman serving as pastor has been the only issue on which the GBC has taken such an action in recent years.

But, is selective creedal application wrong? The answer to that has to be both yes and no. No denominational body is equipped to deal with every issue in every meeting. The issue of a woman serving as pastor is a public statement that presented the GBC with an unavoidable decision. It would either stand by its own confession of faith, or it would, in effect, decide to abandon its own confessional identity.

Dr. Ruffin was honest in arguing that even as the GBC was undertaking a “selective creedal application” of the Baptist Faith & Message, he did not want the convention “to become even more creedal in its application of the Baptist Faith & Message than it has on this one score.” His argument is well recognized as stating the case against any regulative application of the confession of faith. His argument did not carry the day, nor should it have, but he presented his argument with consistency and honesty.

The truth is that denominational bodies will have to be more expansive in applying their own confessions of faith, or they will inevitably find themselves to have become an amalgamation of churches that are no longer standing together in common beliefs and doctrines. That would be a tragic abdication of responsibility.

The reality is that even greater challenges are certain to come. Doctrinal deviation is a real and present danger, as Southern Baptists have learned over the past half century and more. The future will require all Christians, Baptists included, to be more clear about our beliefs and common confession, or we will lose our theological integrity and Gospel faithfulness.

The application of confessional accountability undertaken by the Georgia Baptist Convention this week is a reminder of how Baptists hammered out their understanding of confessionalism in times past — and a sign of things even more difficult sure to come.