Category: Cultural Analysis

Red Cupology

It is hard to imagine we have reached a point where something as insignificant as a disposable coffee cup could generate such controversy among evangelical Christians. When Starbucks recently decided to remove pictures of Christmas trees, reindeer and snowflakes from their 2015 “holiday” cups it trigged a national outcry by Christians across social media sites that went viral in just a short period of time. Why so much attention given to a cup, a disposable cup? It was the result of one self-proclaimed evangelist, on a YouTube video, who said that all Christians should be offended by what he perceived as an “attack” by Starbucks against Christianity and Christmas. There is a sad incongruity in recognizing that here we have a man who identifies himself as an evangelist, but yet considers the removal of winter themes from a disposable cup as the most important message the world needs to hear. A message apparently so profound that it has collected over 12 million views.

If Christians truly perceive the removal of these drawings on a cup as representing an attack against Christmas, it is highly likely they have completely missed the reason for the Christmas celebration. It is difficult to recall any account of Christmas trees, reindeer or snowflakes in the biblical narrative known as the Christmas story; probably because they simply are not there. This points to the fact that Starbucks does not, nor has it ever, claimed to make the birth of Christ their central theme of the Christmas season. It is not as if Starbucks had previously designed their cups with pictures of angels, stars, manger scenes and shepherds.

When we fix our eyes on trivial issues it distracts us from the significant issues which are glaring us in the face every day. We are bold about posting a video to Facebook of a man declaring how offended we should be about a cup, but we shy away from sharing the gospel with our family, neighbors and co-workers who desperately need the hope that Christmas brings. So eager are we to shout our outrage at a company which has never claimed to be a theological institution, but we never speak a word to the impoverished person on the street corner who has lost all hope in anything. What message do we as Christians want to convey this Christmas season; the message that we are deeply sensitive to the scribbling on a disposable cup or our overwhelming joy in the message of hope and salvation that the Christmas season brings every year?

Instead of being offended by the removal of Christmas trees and reindeer, let’s consider the significance of a red cup. A red cup which points us to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ that we celebrate each time we partake in Communion. The cup Christ was born to drink so that His blood might enable the forgiveness of sins to those who believe upon Him. You may be offended by the Starbucks red cup, but it seems to be the most fitting color to represent the true meaning of Christmas than any cup design previously created by Starbucks.

The Age of the Designer Family

Since the rise of Hollywood, we have witnessed our culture set their dreams on creating what has become known as the definition of a “perfect” family.  For many years creating this ideal family involved factors which were largely outside of our control. But the post-modern world is enabling people to come closer to making this dream into a reality by overcoming former barriers through advances in medical research and the revolutionary shift in moral standards.  What was once thought to be impossible is now becoming possible and more importantly, culturally acceptable.

For the past several decades an individual or family no longer needed to settle for the interruption of a new child at a time which is inconvenient, they can simply have an abortion.  The professional career woman can remain committed to her career and couples can maintain their desired lifestyle, waiting for a more convenient time to have children.  A recent article told the story of woman who decided, with her husband, that the cost associated with having a new child was not in the best interest of their family who would most certainly experience a decrease in their luxurious lifestyle; perhaps having to sell their vacation home or reduce the family vacation to only two weeks.  In this particular case the married couple decided to actively take steps to prevent a pregnancy, but it demonstrates the reality of a cultural belief which prides itself in emphasizing the priority of personal autonomy and the supposed connection to individual happiness.

Additionally, the advances in medical technology allows families to determine the suitability of a new family member prior to the child’s birth; that is before they become “officially” part of the family.  No longer must a couple be burdened with the high maintenance requirements of a physically disabled child or take the risk of having a child with a high probability of genetic disease.  In essence, individuals are now free to choose the acceptance of this lifestyle based on an informed decision or make the decision to simply try again with the hope of better results next time.  In other words, it increases the degree of personal autonomy when it comes to designing the family.

In a society where people are given the option to personalize nearly every available consumer product, this concept has not been lost even when it comes to having children.  So it is not surprising to learn the latest development in the progress towards family design is gender selection.  While the previously mentioned features of modern day family planning provide the ability to reject the undesirable they are incapable of allowing for the individualized selection of the preferred qualities in a child.  Yet, the increasingly popular medical procedure of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), originally designed for the purpose of assisting parents with infertility issues, has become the gateway for personalized, family design.

Unlike artificial insemination, which involves conception within the womb, IVF involves the conception of the baby in a laboratory environment, which eventually leads to the implantation of an embryo into the womb.  While there is nothing inherently immoral or unbiblical with IVF, in a culture which is experiencing a rapidly changing moral revolution, it opens the door to an entirely new set of moral and ethical concerns.  According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, it was reported that across the U.S. an increasing percentage of parents are paying the $15,000 to $20,000 fee for IVF, not due to infertility problems, but rather for gender selection¹.  As the article explains, this process includes the creation of multiple embryos which are then tested for both genetic diseases and gender prior to being implanted in the womb. This allows parents the ability to select an embryo which has both the desired gender and also the least risk for contracting a genetic disease.

For the Christian worldview, which understands life beginning at conception, this presents a significant problem, not because of conception outside the womb, but rather the selection of an embryo.  By definition the selection of an embryo means there are some embryos which will not be selected.  This naturally leads to the question of what happens to those remaining embryos; a question of vital importance for the Christian who views this as a decision which affects the future of human lives.  In most cases, couples with no desire for additional children are limited to the choosing between either having them destroyed, donated to medical research or donated to another couple for implantation.  Sadly, the first two options are most commonly chosen because the third option creates an entirely new set of ethical considerations. As revealed in a different article by KJ Dell ‘Antonia, appearing in the New York Times, the latter option is challenging because it is difficult for parents to consider the existence of a child (their child) who carries their DNA, but belongs to someone else².

So what we are witnessing is the intentional creation of multiple human lives outside the womb, for the sole benefit of allowing parents to choose the gender of their next child at the expense of other human lives.  For the Christian, the more disastrous realization is that these parents are, in essence, choosing the sanctity of one child’s life above the lives of his or her siblings.  Yet, if an embryo is merely, in the words of the NYT article, “tiny little balls of cells that, with a lot more time and a whole bunch of luck, will someday become children,” then the moral implications are non-existent and it no longer matters what happens to the other embryos.  For the family mentioned in the earlier cited WSJ article, what matters is that they “already had three boys, who had all been conceived naturally” and they “wanted to ensure their next child was a girl.¹”  What matters is that we can now have a family of our own design.  Yet it is also significant to note, at the same time these embryos are considered expendable, they are also being defined as male or female.

This topic not only causes us to consider the moral implications of these procedures, but it also reveals the yearning shared by every human being to be free.  It is the desire to be my own person, to create my own world and ultimately define myself in order to experience happiness in life.  If happiness is confined to my current circumstance or situation in life, then controlling my environment affords me the best chance at experiencing personal joy.  If what I believe will bring me joy and satisfaction is a family with three sons and a daughter, then I want the ability to make this a reality.  In a secular age, operating outside of the biblical worldview, this reaction should not come as a surprise.  If this really is “your best life now” then it would be illogical for us to not be constantly pursuing increased personal autonomy, in order to fulfill personal happiness.

Fortunately for Christians, the biblical worldview teaches us that our happiness is not based upon our current circumstances, but in the knowledge of the eternal, sovereign God who “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).  Ultimately, our joy resides in the knowledge of our condition as people who have been redeemed through the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross who will one day experience a perfect, everlasting joy made complete in the new heavens and the new earth. In a culture which is constantly seeking new methods of producing happiness, this is a joy which transcends any circumstance we could possibly experience in our fallen world.

When we consider the implications of the current moral revolution, our concern will not be whether the culture continues to pursue new methods of producing happiness, but rather how far they are willing to extend the moral boundaries in order to produce this happiness.  A culture prepared to accept the killing of babies in the womb and the destruction of unwanted embryos in the name of personal happiness, is a culture which is on the path of accepting anything to achieve this end.

The recent release of the Planned Parenthood videos, created widespread knowledge about the selling of body parts from abortions for the purpose of medical testing. However, if this is considered morally acceptable, how long before medical technology makes it possible to use these same body parts to provide necessary transplants for babies still in the womb?  If the heart of an aborted baby can be preserved for medical research what would prevent it from being used to replace the defective heart of a baby before it is born. The moral implications of such a notion are staggering.  Imagine a consumer market created for the sale of healthy body parts from aborted babies; some of which may have been conceived merely for this purpose.  This may sound unthinkable, but when the culture’s response to the Planned Parenthood videos is one which says “those body parts were going to be discarded anyway” it leaves the gate open to using them for any purpose.  But again, when a culture embraces the position that human beings in the womb are merely a grouping of cells which do not yet form a human life, even what seems outrageous can be justified.

In the coming months and years we will see just how far the culture is willing to go in order to achieve their dream of the “perfect” family.  Welcome to the age of the designer family.

¹ Reddy, Sumathi, Fertility Clinics Let You Select Your Baby’s Sex, The Wall Street Journal, Aug 17, 2015
² Antonia, KJ D., Unused Embryos, to Donate, Destroy or Debate, The New York Times, June 17, 2015

Understanding the First Presidential Debate

With the Presidential elections just over a year away, the political landscape will soon be dominated by debates, speeches, interviews and campaign advertisements. The first of many debates occurred last night and offered much to be desired when one considers the meaning of the word debate. At best it was an exhibition of talking points and buzz word. While there is a sense of disappointment in the moderators for not creating an environment which afforded the candidates an opportunity to engage in necessary, in-depth deliberations, nonetheless it is not an event which should be completely undervalued or dismissed; especially given the extensive number of candidates now bidding for the Republican ticket. There are several noteworthy points which we should take away from this first debate.

In terms of what the debate provided us, it is probably best to identify it as merely a preview of the contending candidates which confirmed what most people likely already knew about each opponent. It provided what one might expect from a forum where candidates were limited to a one minute response. Yet, despite the limited response time we can often learn a great deal about someone when they are required to respond to potentially difficult, comprehensive questions within the constraints of short period of time. There is significance in observing the reactions of the candidates, each of whom are contending for a position which routinely encounters situations requiring immediate, decisive responses, sometimes leading to expansive ramifications for the country. This debate may not have provided us with a better understanding of how these candidates intend to fulfill their campaign commitments, but it did provide the viewer with a big picture overview of their overall demeanor and posture in a high-stakes environment.

While last night did not necessarily produce any winners or losers, it did reveal those who are able to articulate their convictions about a particular topic outside of the standard Republican Party talking points and phrases. In a party specific debate, the goal of a candidate should not be to articulate their similarities to the other candidates, but rather the distinctive marks which separate their approach to the topics. Those who were able to progress the conversation beyond the one liner phrases and buzz words which already define the Republican Party presented themselves as ones who will be worthwhile to watch in future debates, especially when provided ample time to articulate the issues in greater detail.

When we consider the overall structure of this debate itself, it is interesting to note the rationale behind the decision of Fox News to limit the debate to a two hour time block with only a one minute response time per candidate. Yet, what must be understood is that like every other cable news network, Fox News is competing for viewers, which requires a programing structure capable of accomplishing this goal. Therefore, we can only assume that the producers considered these time limits to be the breaking point for a large majority of their targeted audience. Yet, this does not represent a critique of the news networks so much as it does on the American culture and the ever shrinking attention span of Americans when it comes to significant matters such as the political scene. For many Americans the idea of watching a two hour discussion, even about issues which affect them daily, seems overly daunting especially on a Thursday evening during prime time television. It is inconceivable that anyone would think twice about watching a three hour football game, a two hour movie or an all-day marathon of Downton Abbey, but somehow spending two hours listening to a debate between people, a group from which many will one day select their next leader, seems uninteresting. The limitation of one minute responses could be associated with the goal of the moderators to cover a wide range of topics with the seventeen candidates within the short two hour window of time, but it could also be the result of a culture which seems disinterested in topics which cannot be reduced to a 144 character Twitter feed.

The Christian worldview understands that each person will one day give an account for how we spend our time, our resources and even how we voted in an election. We realize in voting for candidates that there will never be the perfect candidate, nor do we expect that the best candidate will be an individual who holds completely to our own worldview, but what is important is that we make the best choice based on our knowledge of the individual. A decision which comes not based on what anyone or any group would have us to believe is the best candidate, but rather one which is based on our own evaluation and assessment of the facts. To do this means that we must spend time to understand these issues which will be at the forefront of the campaigns and make an informed decision to vote for the person most capable of leading America in the right direction.

The Christian Role in the Environment

Most Christians are quick to dismiss the term environmentalism from their vocabulary because of both its association with an unbiblical worldview and politically charged, activist movements.  This guarded approach towards environmentalism is healthy, yet it often leads to the dismissal of any conversation regarding the Christian’s responsibility in caring for the environment. It is as if the environmentalist movement has forced Christians into complete silence on this topic because we rightly desire to avoid insinuating our concurrence with the dominating worldview held by many of those in the movement. So instead of engaging these opposing worldviews we simple avoid the conversation all together, which often leads to Christians being labeled as indifferent about environmental care.  Our lack of conversation conveys a perception that Christians simply believe this is a disposable planet which is not deserving of our attention.

Nevertheless, as Christians we must understand clearly what the Bible teaches about this issue because it is one which has and will continue to confront us on a daily basis. What then should be the response of Christians to the claims of the environmental movement?  What does the Bible teach about our role in caring for the environment? While the modern day claims of global warming, rising CO2 emissions and pollution are not specifically mentioned in the Bible, there are specific principles which we derive from Scripture which are able to guide us through the process of developing a Christian worldview on the environment. More specifically, there are three timeless principles through which any Christian living in any time and any place can develop practical methods of environmental care.

 Man’s Role in the Environment

First, we must realize that mankind is not merely a passive creature on earth, but that we do have an active role in caring for the environment. In Genesis 1 we are provided with the full creation account, part of which is the forming of man and woman in the image of God and placing them in the Garden of Eden. Almost immediately afterwards God gives them several commands indicating what, not only they, but all of mankind are now to do as part of God’s created order. They are namely, to “be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth,” “subdue it” and “have dominion…over every living thing” (Gen 1:28). In other words, have children, spread out and rule over the earth as those who have been created in God’s image. In the ancient world, the face or image of a ruler would be sent to the farthest ends of the kingdom in order to demonstrate to the people that his authority had reached that place. Thus, as those made in the image of God, we are a living testimony to the fact that God’s reign has reached the uttermost parts of the earth.

Scripture also teaches us something which in some cases in our culture will get you in trouble; that men and women are superior to the rest of His creation. Practically speaking, what is there in all of the creation to which mankind can be compared? There is clearly something about the human race which is unique and different from the rest of creation whereby we would never think to ask a dog about the moral implications of murder. There are certain attributes and characteristics of human beings which simply would not allow us to draw even the slightest similarities to animals, except our common connection as a creation of God.

Yet, while we are superior to the rest of creation, we must realize this status does not provide carte blanche authority to rule outside of the divine ordinance of God. It begins with recognizing that there is a creation owner and it is not us. “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, the world and all who dwell in it” (Psalm 24:1). Ownership belongs to the One who merely had to use His words to create all living things and what belongs to us is simply the role of a steward. All of mankind serves as a manager, overseer and caretaker, all of whom, like any steward, will one day be required to give an accounting for their management.

Stewardship does not view the earth as needing to be preserved within its original condition, but it speaks to utilizing all that it is capable of producing within the boundary of avoiding neglect. The man who was given one talent in the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:15-30) was rightly punished for not using the talent, but simply preserving it in the original condition; doing nothing with it. The master did not give resources to the three servants simply for them to observe, but for them to use and produce a return. The ingenious ways mankind has learned to use the earth’s resources should be applauded because of the vast technological advances and improved medical technology now available to most of the world. The immense benefits realized by these advances have led to a once unknown list of opportunities for advancing the gospel. Using the earth’s resources is part of the command to steward, but within that same vain it must be remembered that misusing these resources is to be labeled an unfaithful servant.

This one word of stewardship should encompass all that we think about our role in caring for the environment. It speaks to both the how and the why of environmental care. It forces us to hold creation with the same regard as the owner because one day He will provide the final evaluation as to whether it was managed in a way acceptable to Him. What better motivation is there for people to have an interest in caring for the earth’s resources? If there is no higher authority to which we must give an account, beyond equal members of the human race, then what is our motivation? Would it not be easier to fully expend the earth’s resources without regard for the consequences of our actions? If there is no Creator, if there is no owner and if there is no accountability then why expand the time or energy to even discuss this topic?

Yet, we must talk about this topic because as the first command given by God to those made in His image, it is clearly important to the Him whom we are to give glory in all that we do.  Therefore, we must think together carefully as Christians about how practically we should be exercising this role as a steward.  This is our motivation as Christians and it is one which serves as the best motivation for any person because it involves accountability to someone greater than the rest of society.

The environmentalist motivation which is based on saving biodiversity may be convincing to the scientist and biologist who care about species, but to the average person in the world that argument will hardly raise an eye. The claims of the earth becoming unsustainable for human life will only gain enough interest if the scientific evidence is inconclusive. Christianity offers the strongest motivation; accountability to an eternal Creator.  It means we care about the environment when it is popular and unpopular.  It is not based on a movement or an emotional appeal, but on timeless biblical truth.  So when we are told that Christians do not care about the environment, our response should be that we not only care, but we really care because of the One to whom we must one day give an account.

In our next segment we will consider the root of the environmental crisis.

Dysfunctional Sunday Mornings

What are your plans for Sunday morning? A question which would once have been answered predominately with the single word “church” now solicits a multitude of answers.  Sunday has become just another day of the week.  Another day to sleep in, work on the yard, exercise, shop, play sports and participate in local events.  The Sunday morning car ride alone will reveal this drastic change.  For some Christians, these observations invoke visceral reactions, which spawn comments about the increasingly secularization of the culture and the desire to reinstate the period of time when it was socially unacceptable to do anything except attend church on Sunday morning.

Yet, why is this our initial reaction when we observe disregard for religion?  Is it really our desire to fill churches with people, who given a choice, would much rather do anything except attend Sunday morning worship at church?  While the secularization of our culture has resulted in devastating circumstances, we can admit that there have been some benefits, such as the removal of any social stigma associated with not attending church. In a society where all people are in essence “required” to attend church in order to maintain a good social status in the community, the challenge is greater in distinguishing between the true worshipers and those who are seeking personal gain. Yet, is it not the true worshipers that we should desire to fill the pews each week in our worship services?

The woman at the well in John 4 highlighted a long disputed issue between the Israelites and the Samaritans, concerning the physical location where worship was to take place.  Jesus responded by saying “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23). God’s desire is for the gathering of “true worshipers” who share a genuine heart longing to give glory and praise to Him. Why should we approach worship any differently than God? Why are churches determined to seek the desires of man in the worship service? The worship service is not for unbelievers, it is not for entertainment, it is not for our enjoyment, it is not for us, but rather at the core of the worship service is giving to God what He is owed. Yes unbelievers will attend, yes Christians will be blessed and yes Christians should find joy in worshiping their Creator, but nonetheless the sole purpose is not to receive, but to give.

Nevertheless, there is an ever increasingly man-centered emphasis on the worship service which has appeared in subtle, yet compromising ways. Acceptable worship is no longer being defined by God through His Word, but rather it has been replaced by individual interpretation based on whether the music, the preaching and the atmosphere feels like worship or resulted in an enjoyable experience.  However, if God is not viewed as the sole authority on worship, then we have elevated man as the object of worship. One of the first churches we attended after moving into the Washington D.C. area had a long-time member who told me the reason he enjoyed the church was because he liked the accent of the pastor. Perhaps if more serious thought was given to my question his answer would have been different, but the truth is people use these factors to define their satisfaction with the church and particularly Sunday morning worship.

Your emotional state after worship is not the test of genuine worship.  When it comes to worship; forget yourself.  When you sing songs of praise are you glorifying God?  When you hear the preaching of God’s word are you being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:3) so that you might worship Him through being sanctified and becoming more like Christ in the way you think?  The desire of every Christian should be to locate a church where the worship service fosters an environment which allows us to engage in proper, undistracted worship as God rightly requires.

When the purpose of the Sunday morning service extends beyond this, the church becomes no more relevant then a local country club. Churches which lack a high view of God in worship will eventually be reduced to a place where anything and everything will be used as a means for enticing people to fill the pews, all under the auspices of bringing the gospel to as many people as possible.  The worship service will be reduced to a casual, light-hearted gathering with top rated music albums and a short devotional; all carefully choreographed as a professional production, with the idea of making God look attractive to the world.  Despite these so called good intentions,

if the church fails to demonstrate a high view of God, it will not matter how many unbelievers in the pews hear the words of the gospel because the glory of God will appear inconsequential and so will the need for a Savior to save us from the penalty of sin.

Unbelievers are incapable of worshiping God as true worshipers, so why are we surprised when they are turned off by the music, by the preaching and by the seemingly boring nature of a worship service?  Why would we ever choose to diminish the worship service from God’s level to man’s level in order to please those who are at enmity with God?  The cultural shift towards the religion of “no thank you, I’ll pass,” should not lead us down the path of compromising the standard God has established for His own worship.  The worship service is not for unbelievers, it is for believers. Unbelievers should be welcomed when they chose to attend, the preacher must compel them to come to Christ and we should certainly pray for them to come to a saving knowledge of Him, but we do not gather for their sake.  The purpose of the worship service is to worship God and in the words of Paul, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).

Evangelism is not the central role of Sunday morning worship, but rather it is the God ordained role of every Christian who should each week be continually equipped to conduct ministry. When the worship service is centered on Christ, it will point people to Christ, but when it is centered on man, it will point man to himself. Martyn Llyod-Jones once said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it.”

When it is social pressure which influences church attendance, it invokes artificial worship, but when church is optional, it reveals the true heart of the individual.  When people are attracted to a church because it looks like the world with only a speck of God added, they will lack the gospel, but if they are attracted because of a longing to worship God, they truly understand the gospel.  So let us not be surprised when the world rejects what the true worshipers do every Sunday morning and be careful to ensure our worship is headed in the right direction; giving to not receiving from.