After two days of Easter feasting with my extended family in Bakersfield, Tiffany and I braced for the long journey back to south Orange County. Googlemaps politely informed me that the trek was only 170 miles, but Googlemaps has never seen the Oesch kids in Sugar Mode. After all of the stops, breaks, and…yes…even changing flat tires (the epic 2015 nightmare), the trip usually tops out at an oh-so-wonderful four-and-a-half-hours.
This year was different. The kids were asleep, the parents were awake (enough), and the roads were clear. I feel like I can count on my hand the number of times my wife and I have been able to have a long, thoughtful conversation without interruption. When we hit Grapevine, Tiffany looked over and took advantage of the opportunity by asking, ‘What’s your favorite Bible story?’
Such a simple and wonderful question. I just started rattling off a few possibilities, quickly realizing that I love different passages for different reasons. Unexpectedly, the first one I mentioned was Paul’s time in Athens, recorded in Acts 17.
Paul spends the necessary time to acknowledge, even appreciate, the cultural influences of the people he wishes to engage. As a fellow who has been known to wander in and out of art galleries from time to time, I can envision the slow thoughtful stroll of the apostle moving to and fro between the marble sculptures of ancient Athens. A troubling walk, to be sure, when a shepherd sees sheep that have gone astray.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17.22-23).
In his words to the Areopagus, Paul never once surrenders the primacy of the gospel message. And yet, he’s willing to appropriate the insight and clarity of Greek cultural artifacts. This is amazing to me. Paul actually quotes pagan philosophers/poets in support of his Christian apologetic later in his discourse.
Sometimes false prophets proclaim deep, profound truths. Sometimes they can uniquely observe the filth in the fishbowl.
Louis CK is one of my favorite comedians precisely for that reason. Sure, he’s crass and taboo-breaking. One minute he has me laughing out loud on a crowded plane flight, surely interrupting seat 15C’s attempt at breaking her personal best Sudoku time. The next minute, he says something that is so utterly repulsive that I instinctively turn the volume down … in my headset.
In his most recent Netflix special, he opens with the following two topics for his stand-up comedy routine: Abortion and Suicide.
Everyone laughs when he introduces the topic of abortion because they’ve expected Louis CK to talk about all the things no one wants to talk about. He delivers on that front in spades. Yet I also think that Louis CK is running intellectual rings around the people he’s entertaining. They’re laughing at his quirky delivery, his penchant for employing just the right metaphor, his ability to say one thing then disagree with himself two sentences later. But I think he’s feeding them potent medicine with the candy. He sneaks kale into the brownies.
This particular false prophet is busy at work laying out a simple truth. He’s communicating a fundamental ethical dilemma on a profound level, shaming his crowd—and perhaps himself—by laying out the bare naked options when considering something like abortion. According to Louis CK, either abortion is simply the dispelling of unwanted junk (his language is a bit more colorful) or it’s murdering babies. You do not get to hide in the lukewarm equivocating middle zone; it simply does not exist. It’s either one or the other. [caution: coarse language]
If you watch Louis CK carefully during this show, he occasionally reveals his mastery over the audience with a knowing smirk. His art has multiple dimensions. At the top is basic comedic entertainment–he knows how to make you laugh. Just below the surface is devastating social commentary (that is directed toward the crowd itself!) He uses misdirection to lay out a terrifying reality to the delighted crowd, and the crowd’s laughter confirms his achievement. They don’t even know that they are the joke. He has essentially made them admit that abortion is murdering babies. Louis CK, in a stroke of genius, joins the crowd in solidarity … offering reasons why this barbarism is necessary.
For the orthodox Christian, abortion is horrifying. Abortion is the endgame of a death-laden culture. Western secular culture has operated with a single-minded determination to eliminate all forms of theological tyranny for the precise purpose of destroying any form of virtuous living. The culture may be cloaked in flowery language of ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ and ‘choice’ but once you strip away all the aesthetics, the dominant cultural message is this: Yes, you have our permission to destroy yourself.
No restrictions on sexual behavior. You may destroy yourself and others in this way.
No restrictions on drug use. You may destroy your physical self, too.
No social mores on language, decency, or virtue. You may destroy yourself and bring society down as a whole.
Louis CK recognizes the endgame and, to his credit, takes the position that’s nothing if not consistent. He concludes, ‘Life isn’t that important.’ If life isn’t that important, then the moral law that protects life and society may be discarded as window dressing. If God does not exist, everything is permissible.
For your Easter reflection, consider this false prophet’s words. Of course, I am not defending his conclusion that abortion should be left to the sole discretion of the mother—but I am asking us to consider the stark choices we are left with in this day and age:
Either we are people of life, or we are people of death.
Either we sacrifice ourselves to preserve life in its dignity, or we choose our own path to destruction.
Either we worship God and submit, or we worship ourselves and act accordingly.
No one wants to hear that they are a willing party to death. But unrestricted freedom will always drive one to that end.
For Christ-followers, we’re more than people of life. We are people of the resurrection. We hate death so much that our central claim as Christians rests in hope that those things that were once wholly dead can be made alive again. People of the resurrection recognize that a man’s heart naturally bends toward death, and therefore, we submit ourselves to an authority who can reshape, remold, re-bend our heart toward the Life Giver.
Being under authority is the single doctrine that the contemporary world cannot tolerate. It’s also the only possible avenue toward meaning and value. Being under authority subdues the ego while dignifying the person. It murders you and heals you in the same instant.
People of the resurrection consider life as precious, so their lives are naturally imbibed with a sense of duty to others. Christianity necessarily cuts across the grain of the pagan culture, speaking that this life matters because we have been given responsibility for it as creatures of the Creator. The Christian life calls for service, even rejoices in it. That’s what living people DO because that’s who living people ARE. Our living bodies bear the witness of Christ’s death and resurrection (II Cor 4) as the central feature of our identity. Indeed the call of the Christian is to be conformed to the likeness of the Son; the Son who lived, died, and lived again. He IS risen.
Bearing this identity gives us supreme freedom, a different kind of freedom, to proclaim God’s truth and go boldly into a world that is filled with false prophets seeking when and where we can appropriate a culture’s insights as useful to the kingdom. Free to fear God, free to serve one another … that’s a full to-do list. But you’ve got time.
After all, you only live twice.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. 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.