Month: November 2016

Aiming at the Right Target

This week Fishing for Leviathan welcomes a guest blogger from sunny Southern California, Tiffany Oesch. She’s a dedicated health enthusiast, mother of three, and wife to the very lucky editor of this blog. Enjoy her unique take on contemporary culture! -jco

mirror2We’re sick … and as much as I love Essential Oils, even my precious diffuser can’t cure this. Some of the symptoms are obvious; others are difficult to see.

I’m certainly not the first person to recognize technology as a potential idol, but in many of the current critiques, an essential point is missed. Our culture is obsessed with new advances, sure. We crave The New, we sacrifice for it, and we patiently and eagerly spend time understanding its workings and dream about the possibilities each new gadget affords us.

But the technology itself is not the problem. Not exactly.

With every cultural advance, two options open up for the user: We can either use the technology to love our neighbor in better way or use it as another tool to destroy him. In this sense, I’m speaking of digital technologies as tools. A hammer is not a moral evil. But you know all that. So what is the problem?

The Apostle Paul’s battle with the sin of the flesh, that internal ego that seeks to satisfy one’s innermost desires, is the very same stomach we have for ourselves. The insatiable ego yields poor answers to some of our most pressing questions. Man wants to be known? He creates something that can know his interests and predict his needs. He wants to be served? He creates something to serve him. He wants to have command of information? He becomes master of something that knows everything.

We’re stuck in the strange place of worshipping both our self-designed image and our real selves, side-by-side! We are making an idol of our own avatar, falling madly in love with the image in the mirror. Oh the irony! Phones, computers, Google, they’re all part of the choir that sings our praises and gives us what we want.

We are in danger when we sail cultural waters without knowing where lie the reefs. We are in danger not because of the devices themselves, but because of the lie they consistently, even urgently, tell us: You have power! Even activity that looks productive or positive may be a smokescreen that obscures where our hearts really reside. Can not the heart deceive the mind? Jesus himself said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Mt 15:8) Therefore, “Let us test and examine our ways,” as Jeremiah said (Lam 3:40). Or, as Paul admonishes in 2 Cor 13, “Examine and test yourself.” Even Solomon warns: “Guard your heart for everything you do flows from it” (Pr 4:23).

Ultimately, the problem isn’t how we’ve dealt with things (social media, smartphones, interactive technology). The problem is how we’ve dealt with God. This is crucial because Christians confess that God is fount of all good things. The outward profession of religion, however remarkable, is not enough. The heart must turn from inward addiction of pleasing itself to a spiritual desire to please God. God’s first commandment is to have no other gods before Him. He knows it’s our #1 battle.

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We were created to worship. Yet often, when we read that commandment, we check it off our list because our culture has moved beyond the sun god and stone figurines. We deceive ourselves that idols don’t exist, and we are even greater fools if we fail to recognize that we are usually our most cherished idol – American or not.

Idolatry doesn’t happen because we think we are the best, it comes because we think we are the Total.  In other words, the life of idolatry is the inward obsession with ourselves, believing that the world exists for our own happiness. Such belief turns us into gods of destruction, dependent on no one and irresponsible toward everyone. Devices and social media serve this narrative.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t how we’ve dealt with things (social media, smartphones, interactive technology). The problem is how we’ve dealt with God.

Therefore, Christians are better served by evaluating the condition of their own heart rather than fretting over the goods or evils of a social technology. Christian freedom isn’t the freedom to serve oneself, it is the freedom to deny oneself and serve God. Christian freedom is the ultimate breaking of the ego.

One of my greatest hopes is found in 1 John 1, that when I confess my sin, He who is faithful and just will forgive my sin and cleanse me from all unrighteousness”  (1 Jn 1:9). He creates in me a pure heart. He turns my heart’s orientation to its proper North Pole. When I see my sin the way He does and submit to His truth, I become more receptive of His great work.

The beautiful thing about embodied Christian community is that you can’t hide behind an avatar. You are confronted to claim the avatar idol or humble yourself as a broken vessel. Either way, you are loved for the raw being that you are; you are challenged to grow from what you were; and you can reflect the love of God by being the hands and feet of the Lord Jesus Christ.

-to

 

tifoTIFFANY OESCH
Born and raised in the great State of Texas, Tiffany studied at Concordia Texas and Concordia Chicago, respectively, graduating with a BA in Religious Studies. She’s worked at various educational institutions, including a facility for troubled youth in New Braunfels, TX, and Yale University in New Haven, CT. In 2009, she received her Masters degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Currently, she is a dedicated full-time mom of three children and is a Young Living consultant. She’s been married to her husband, Joel, for eleven years. She loves smoked meats, puns, and Pitch Perfect (1 and 2).  -jco

 

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why We Hate to Love Facebook

shore1After watching the post-election apocalypse and its fallout, I found myself more interested in the posted reactions of my Facebook network than the results themselves. I’m not a committed disciple of digital social networks, though I often follow at a distance just in case I might hear or see something interesting from the rabbi or its followers. And, if you’re anything like me, this week was just too good to pass up. Like an overturned car on the highway, we crane our necks to see if there is any blood on the pavement or a rumpled sheet covering a broken body—and then we’re disappointed when there’s nothing juicy to behold.

Part of my disillusionment with social media is due to the fact that we haven’t established any consensus about what Facebook actually is/does for those who use it. There are some social networks, including a fascinating one in China, that try to be everything for everyone and almost succeed. In the US, this is the best we got—and spoiler alert—it’s not good.

We love Facebook because it affords us a glimpse of salvation. We have come to believe that Facebook really can solve many of our fundamental needs as humans. We can communicate, generate, and mobilize. Our voices are heard … or at least our words are sent out into the ether.

We hate Facebook because it affords us a glimpse of salvation. We also are beginning to realize that such promises come with steep consequences, because the human experience cannot be delivered or received through a computer screen.

We use Facebook:

As therapist. Is there any question that herds of millennials choose Facebook as their corporate therapy session last Wednesday, the day after the election? They plopped on the couch and vented a season’s worth of frustrated expectations to anyone with an Internet connection. There is something remarkable going on here because all users post under a certain assumption—they assume they have an audience, one that wants to listen. It’s one of the charming things about its design. When you have your own ‘posse’ you assume it empathizes with you and shares your concerns; never mind the ‘friends’ who wholly disagree with your conclusions. They don’t matter. After all, this is your therapy session, not theirs.

As community center. Some people use Facebook as a way to connect with other folks in the community; it’s a tool to bring people together for events or special occasions. I don’t find fault in this use. In fact, Facebook has become the new church door—the news and announcements of a community for the sake of the community. If these announcements lead to deeper face-to-face relationships with your church and your neighborhood, then I’m all in.

The problem, of course, is that this is only a sliver of what Facebook does. It’s terribly tempting to arrive for the info and get sucked into the gravity of all the other junk. To ignore its multi-dimensional pull is like saying, ‘I get Playboy because of the great articles.’ That might even be true for some people, but(t)…

As water cooler. Call it our fascination with being amused. We go to the water cooler to discuss gossip. Was the dress black and white or blue and gold? Seriously, Brad—get back with Jen already. Don’t worry, the Packers run defense is trash, didn’t you see what the Cowboys did to them? Did you hear? Gina is pregnant and Tommy is the father. He used to work on the docks.

For those coming to the water cooler, what could be more of a downer than a person who’s interrupting your cat video by trying to motivate you to do something about the sexual exploitation in southeast Asia?

As country art fair. It’s a market. It’s a place where you sell your stuff, from facial cleanser to technology/theology blogs. And like other markets, you may recognize a few people here or there, but your primary goal is to come in, sell some things, buy some things, and get the heck out. Even Instagram works this way—you take pictures and send them out to the universe. Those who like them are curators; they act as agents of validation who subjectively measure the beauty, usefulness, or charm of a particular item–which somehow becomes objective fact. In fact, when we post pictures of our dinner on Instagram or Facebook, we are selling our lifestyle to others for their consumption … get enough likes and your lifestyle rating goes up. People have bought your goods. Your life has meaning.

As chalkboard. Call it the flip-side of the therapy session, this one is also difficult to take from the outside looking in. On the more benign side, a person uses the chalkboard model whenever he/she posts an interesting TED talk or chart about the rise in killer caribou in the Northwest Territories (see RISK board). The more problematic versions are when people find it essential to explain why their opinion about anything should be made the law of the land. Has anybody actually ever shifted their vote because of a really clever (or informative) post about another candidate? How many of us go to Facebook to get scolded?

The chalkboard is where the lecture takes place. If your students (read: contacts) don’t listen to the lecture, well, thank goodness Facebook can still be used for other purposes (see above: As therapist).

When everyone comes to Facebook with different rules for how it should be used ‘appropriately,’ why should we be surprised at the volume of the shouting? It’s akin to someone standing up in the middle of a sermon (someone else’s chalkboard) and shouting, ‘Hey everyone! Look at this cheeseburger I just ate!’ (art fair). Meanwhile, two friends in the back are giggling over a Jimmy Fallon video and insist on sharing it to everyone in their pew (water cooler).

Any one of these uses, I suppose, might be useful. But at least do the hard work of recognizing that other people do not come to metropolis of Facebook for the same reasons as you…and that might be the reason they are not so receptive to the comments you make. Even more so, imagine the wide breadth of personalities in your friends list…it’s likely you don’t even know all the people in that list. They see your comments on their news feed. Their silence may be just as telling as those who bravely enter the fray to challenge one of your ideas.

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Embodied relationships are the only way forward. Only in a face-to-face experience can you gauge the willingness of a person to engage in a particular topic. Only face-to-face experiences push back in real time with real feedback. Facebook only exacerbates the echo chamber, and if our generation is ever going to make progress they are going to have to leave their tightly constructed narratives about the world by actually going out into it.

Each of the above treatments falls flat; they are but one poor solution to a human need. Facebook is only a D-minus therapist. It might be a C-plus marketplace or water cooler. But adding all these fragmented, broken parts together does not give you a healthy community or act as a suitable replacement for the real person who works in the next cubicle. Your ‘real life’ friends may not be A-plus therapists either, but they are far more essential to the human experience by virtue of their actual presence.

I suggest this simple tactic:

  1. Figure out how you are using Facebook.
  2. Understand how others are using it in specific instances.
  3. Say, ‘Oh’ once you realize 1) and 2) aren’t the same.
  4. Go ask someone to join you for lunch and talk to them.

Ultimately, only a Savior can empathize with our frustrations. Only the incarnate Son can provide you with a sense of unshakable dignity. Only Jesus can instruct us with absolute notions of truth and reality. Only the Messiah can holistically heal the whole person. Only a fully God, fully Man can fully answer humanity’s deepest need. So let’s not ask too much from the folks at Silicon Valley and let’s ask more from ourselves.

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Christian Community is the Answer.

I’ve decided not to openly promote this one on Facebook. Too much noise there right now and I felt a quiet contribution might be more in order. This is for those looking for a thoughtful base for conversation—not a lecture.

 Christian community is the answer.

So you hate the President-elect. Christian community is the answer.

So you feel anxious and afraid for yourselves, your neighbors, your friends and loved ones. The threat may be very real indeed, for now we find out if our President-elect is really a caricature or a leader. Christian community is the answer.

From its inception, the Church-community has been a sanctuary for outliers, misfits, scoundrels and others on the run. Christian community is where you find grace and peace in the midst of deep uncertainty because the tomb is still empty and Christ remains on the throne.

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Your calling has not changed – you are to bind up the wounded, give ear to the hurting, protect the innocent, and love the despised. Your call has never been to riot, to disparage, to insult or to defame. He is your president, whether you like it or not. The question is: Will you also lift him up in prayer? Defend him against unfair attacks even when you hold him to account for the things you find despicable?

Our President-elect is also despised (perhaps more so than any man walking, and certainly more than you), and he hasn’t even taken the oath of office yet.

The call of Christian community is not optional. The Body of Christ takes no favorites on when or where to apply the two central commandments of the faith: Love God. Love Neighbor.

 

So you love the President-elect. Christian community is the answer.

So you feel like the country is finally headed back in the right direction, however you define ‘right.’ Christian community is the answer.

No politician will save you. Sure, there are moments when presidential decisions change the course of the republic. Yet God is neither caught unawares nor unprepared … and every government, every republic, must bow down to the King of Kings at the end of time. The Lordship of Christ is absolute and all hope we find in other sources is bound to dry up. This includes hope in the (once or) future greatness of the United States.

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Christian community is the answer because it reminds us that salvation is found in nothing but the cross of Christ. A politician will never lead you to salvation. This or that candidate will not only disappoint you; their flawed character is an absolute guarantee. Salvation comes not by the health of an economy or employment number, nor does it come by the appointment of a judge to the Supreme Court.

Christian community is the answer because it is a reality established by Christ, not something we choose or create for ourselves. It exists under his authority and by his command.

Christian community reminds us that in our press for strength and power, we necessarily require the weak as we bear together the burden of being creatures with but a cloudy view of the ongoing march of God’s salvation history. And that salvation history is the only history that has ever mattered.

 

So you voted with a heavy heart. You were caught in the terrible place of voting for the lesser of two evils (or, at least two different versions of moral ineptitude), and even now, you’re not sure if you voted for the right candidate – because there was no right candidate. Christian community is the answer.

So you’re frustrated because you’re treated like a pariah by one side, and by the other, the gleeful victors falsely see you as an ally in days to come. Christian community is the answer because only in a community of faith, you understand that there is no sinless candidate—and therefore, no perch of unstained virtue by which you can vote with an utterly clean conscience. Both votes were votes for sinners. Each vote was cast by a sinner. And in Christian community, all of us can hear the absolving word of God that washes away the filth we feel with every election cycle.

Voting, especially in America, is a weighing of evils. Let’s not add to them after we face the consequences (good and bad) of pulling the ballot lever. Christian community is ultimately the only place where evil is identified for what it is: All that is opposed to the will of God.

Christian community is the answer. In the Church-community, you can admit that sometimes it’s difficult to know what the will of God is. You can admit that because we are responsible bearers of grace.

Christian community is the answer because it is the Body of Christ in the midst of death and egoism.

And for those of you who have been reading this post, thinking, ‘Wasn’t it the Christian Church who gave us Donald Trump through the white evangelical vote?’ The answer is:

  1. No. Too simplistic an answer. Let’s challenge ourselves to think deeper and with more nuance.
  2. No. The Church transcends a pastor’s message or a synod’s position paper. It is the embodied presence of Christ on earth until he returns. And even if a church or collection of churches implored a populace to vote for a certain candidate, we still (down to every last one of us) bear the free responsibility to cast a vote. Treating an entire demographic as one monolithic entity is not helpful … it’s lazy.
  3. No. Treat every person like a thinking, reflecting human being. You do not have access to their reasons for voting until you speak to them face-to-face and ask them.

The face-to-face life. Also found in the Christian community.

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Speaking Wisely About the Gospel

This is the second post in a two-part series. You can read the first post here.

owl1Theology, in part, is a hedge. It keeps us from saying blatantly inaccurate things about God. But, as I detailed in my last post, this hedge can grow and grow until the truth it is trying to preserve becomes utterly obscured by its leaves. This shouldn’t be surprising, since part of human nature is to preserve and protect that which we hold dear – including our views about God. Whenever a precious doctrine is under threat, our worldview is threatened and action must be taken. A wise man doesn’t allow a fire that’s consuming his home to ‘run its course’; he gets a bucket, douses it, and then shores up the damaged area.

So the goal is to use theology properly. Put another way, theology exists to serve God’s Word. Godly discernment informed by Scripture can recognize when an innovative doctrine falls outside the boundaries of established orthodoxy. Discernment should send up the red flags when you hear nonsense like, ‘if you’re a Christian then God wants you to be rich!’ If no flags are flying, it’s time to spend more time in the Word. The problem is that this example of bad theology is like the fire running up the side of the house—it’s obviously dangerous.

But what about theological termites?

Theological missteps are so common that it forces one to wonder if theology is a necessity, or just an invention by fallible man which screws up the inherent beauty of the gospel narrative. Let’s first talk about the importance of theology and then we’ll address the tricky nature of the gospel message itself. Both require the same strategy: careful and precise talk.

I’ve heard, more than once, someone say to me, ‘I don’t care about theology—all I need is the Bible.’ What these people are saying is well-intentioned truth wrapped up in a set of false assumptions. If I understand their concerns correctly, they are suggesting that:

  • There is no substantive connection (only a contrived one) between the Bible and Christian theology.
  • The Bible comes from God and theology comes from man.
  • Too many people place so much emphasis on theology that they forget the basic tenets of Christ’s teachings.

Important concerns, no doubt. I do, however, want to offer some polite objections in corresponding bullet points.

  • All talk about God is theology. It’s quite literally ‘God word’ or ‘God talk.’ Theos-logos. Therefore, when I read the Bible I am necessarily reading theology because it is God’s talk to humanity, His very Word. The connection between the Bible and theology is not artificial; it is absolutely necessary and fundamental to our Christian faith. I imagine that most people think of theologians when they think of theology—and yes, there are some really bad ones. But just because there are bad drivers on the road doesn’t negate the usefulness of car manuals.
  • Therefore, there is some theology that comes from God directly—He gives us instructions about how we may speak of Him. For example, Jesus offers in Mt 6, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father,…’” To make things more complicated, theology is also a human work in that men and women use to build connections between several different parts of Scripture. In fact, whenever we are connecting two passages of Scripture we are doing the work of theology. These frameworks keep us from pulling singular verses out of context.
  • Extreme emphasis on theology to the detriment of Scripture can no doubt lead to the erection of white-washed idols. I would suggest, however, an equal and opposite truth: A willful ignorance of biblical theology can keep us from maturing in the faith.

As you can see, everything depends on how you define theology. Theology, as ‘God talk,’ is a useful aid to those who are striving for maturation in the Word of God. By reading another theologian’s perspective, we open ourselves to the possibility that our own reading is ensconced in a particular culture that may or may not be as closely attuned to Scripture as we think. The theologians of the Global South are currently acting as a necessary foil to an entire northern European tradition of reading Scripture in a certain narrow way … what is true on a regional scale is also true on an individual scale. I need to critically engage my neighbors understanding of Scripture, so that I might compare it to the biblical text myself—humbly evaluating whether or not my own interpretation of Scripture needs revision.thinking

This does not give us license to fit God into our own box for our own purposes. There are better interpretations than others—but without a moment of critical self-reflection (usually opened to us by another’s point-of-view), how are we going to recognize the blind spots in our own ‘God talk?’ Perhaps, if I may be so bold, God uses our neighbor—our fellow Christian brothers and sisters—to sharpen iron … to gently correct the ego-centrism that naturally surfaces when I read the Bible. And this particular sharpening leads us to approach all Scripture, then our neighbors, with deep humility.

Can this approach work when denominations argue about the nature of the gospel? Perhaps. I mentioned last time that I had twin concerns about the law-gospel hedges that we build. On the one hand, I’m nervous whenever someone adds behavioral markers to their presentation of the gospel, as to muddle the distinction between law and gospel. On the other hand, I’m uncomfortable with those who would preach gospel without acknowledging the deep commitment to discipleship that Jesus himself demands, post-net-dropping. If you’re confused, so am I. It’s a difficult tension.

One way out might be to uncover the various ways we use certain terms, so that in future conversations about ‘theology,’ ‘grace,’ and/or ‘obedience,’ we might be more understanding of the theological commitments our Christian brothers and sisters might have.theo

Careful language about the gospel, then, means drawing out the different ways the term is used, and I think many of these can be helpful.

We can mean several things by the gospel…

  • The understanding of a gospel as a specific genre of writing. E.g., The Gospel of Matthew.
  • The broadest meaning from the Greek term (evangelion), which is simply, ‘good news.’
  • The kernel or core of the good news, ‘Jesus saves fallen humanity through his life, death, and resurrection, restoring the divine-human relationship apart from any human work’ (I’m usually setting up camp here).
  • The trajectory of the gospel, complete with the prologue and epilogue. This presentation might include the failure of man to live up the demands of the Law, Christ’s sacrifice to justify us before God, and our ongoing discipleship in this new identity[1].

Being careful is critical here. If we read too fast or in isolation of the other understandings, one person might be using #4 and his neighbor might be hearing #3. And if the neighbor isn’t fluent in other uses, he/she might just reject the conversation as a hidden form of works righteousness. Context matters, too. It’s more useful to use #3 when speaking to those under heavy burden of the Law or to those burned by the Church. Conversely, #4 can be emphasized for those Christians seeking to move from spiritual infancy to a more robust, mature faith.

It is of utmost importance to define your terms. Even the Bible itself uses crucial words in different ways depending on context. Perhaps we might be served to ask the simple question, ‘When you say gospel, what precisely are you referring to?’

Do you get my point? The Christian Church is all the better when we are doing the necessary work of talking theology, evaluating theology, and listening to theology. The Church is at its best when it does this work in direct interaction with Scripture itself, so that all our statements about God and His gospel are verified in the one place we can turn to for reliable words about our Creator: The Bible.

I’m convinced that our pedagogical efforts will show real fruit if we (in conversation with other Christians, non-Christians, seekers, atheists, or whoever) take the extra time to define our terms. Actually, the more nuanced and deep you get into theology (like most other subjects), the more definitions become absolutely critical to understanding.

Theology is important. The gospel is even more so. Ask your conversation partners to clarify their understandings of these terms so that your shared ‘God talk’ is, in fact, godly.

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[1] I think this is a helpful way to read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. He spends the first half of the book urging Christians to connect the grace of God found in the #3 sense of the gospel to the ongoing call of Christ.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.