Who Is the Enemy in the Hunger Games?

catching fireThe previews and posters for Hunger Games: Catching Fire implore us to “Remember who the enemy is.” But who or what is the enemy in this series?

Author Suzanne Collins describes a dystopian future where the remains of the United States have fallen under the oppressive control of The Capitol which rules the twelve districts of Panem from which it obtains resources to finance its lavish lifestyle. To maintain control, the Capitol hosts annual Hunger Games where they select two tributes from the children of each district to fight to the death in an arena for the entertainment of the nation. The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen from District 12. She volunteers as a tribute in the place of her sister and fights in the games, eventually emerging victorious alongside her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark. Their victory becomes a powerful symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and has the potential to unite the districts in revolution.

The villain of The Hunger Games is the Capitol and its blood-scented ruler President Snow. Before entering the games Peeta says, “Only I keep wishing I could think of a way…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” And later, after the death of a tribute Katniss contemplates, “I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.” The Hunger Games series seems poised to tread familiar territory – a group of unlikely, semi-reluctant freedom fighters are out to overthrow oppression; see Star Wars, Harry Potter,  Braveheart, etc.

Yet Collins is a different kind of author and The Hunger Games is a different kind of story. Collins’ grew up with war. Her grandfather was gassed in World War I and her uncle received wounds in World War II. When she was 6, her father left to fight in Vietnam and she struggled with his absence. Upon returning, he endured nightmares that lasted his whole life. Her family moved around with the military, spending time at West Point and Brussels. Her father took every opportunity to educate her about the realities of war. A family trip to a castle which she imagined would be “fairy-tale magical” became a lesson on fortresses. She says, “My dad’s holding me back from the tour to show me where they poured the boiling oil, where the arrow slits are. And then you’re just like, wait a minute! This isn’t what I had in mind.”

Collins’ inspiration for the Hunger Games came one night while flipping television channels between reality television and Iraq war coverage. Concerned about the desensitizing effect of television on younger viewers, she decided to write a series that would educate teens about the realities of war – like her father did for her. She says, “If we wait too long, what kind of expectation can we have? We think we’re sheltering them but what we’re doing is putting them at a disadvantage.” She rejects any attempt to morph her books into an allegory for the struggles of adolescence, saying, “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war for adolescents.”

Enter The Hunger Games. The world created by Collins is devoid of anything transcendent. There are no churches, no mosques, no temples, and no religious beliefs of any kind. Religious names have disappeared; Michael, Mohammed, and Mary are replaced with Primrose, Peeta, and Plutarch. There is no expectation of life after death or any purpose beyond the daily struggles of existence. Katniss’ initial exchange of herself for her sister is noble but she fights in the arena simply to survive. She helps others along the way so she can live with herself should she escape. Neither she nor anyone else is fighting for love, truth, justice, liberty, goodness, or any other transcendent quality. Even the desire for freedom is grounded in dislike of the Capitol’s oppression, not any belief about the right of humanity to be free. The general motivation of those who oppose the Capitol seems simply to be: Capitol bad, anything else better. When Katniss asks what people want to replace the Capitol with, she is told a republic with elected representatives because it worked in the history books. A far cry from Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” or the bold declaration of inalienable rights each human is endowed with by their Creator that inspired the first American republic.

For all its cruelty and vanity, The Capitol is an inadequate enemy for Collins. The real enemy of The Hunger Games is war. That is why Panem lacks anything transcendent. Love, justice, liberty, religion, etc. are not worth fighting for because the ultimate problem is the fight itself. As the series continues this is why each character in the story becomes morally compromised; war dirties us all. This is why the body count rises exponentially; war spares no one. This may be why many readers left the final book of the series “Mockingjay” feeling disheartened. As the top reviewer on Amazon states, “When I first closed the book last night, I felt shattered, empty, and drained.”

This is not Harry Potter’s fight for love which, though it claims many lives, ends with love victorious and the world a better place. Readers and viewers alike will wrestle with the question: Is the world of The Hunger Games a better place after Katniss’ efforts or has the enemy of war ultimately won?

There is much to commend about The Hunger Games. Collins creates a fascinating world with compelling characters and a narrative that sucks the reader in and refuses to let go. It also pushes back against the glorification of violence and the emptiness of the media in our culture. Katniss herself has good qualities; she sacrifices herself for her sister, serves others (if occasionally for selfish motives), takes responsibility for her family, faces adversity with courage, and possesses unique talents and abilities.

Yet Katniss is a hero without conviction. She is largely motivated by survival, anger, and pragmatism and is not guided by any purpose, truth or standard beyond herself. She exists in a world that lacks any meaning or higher cause worthy of sacrifice. Should war and conflict be vanquished in Panem, will the people have anything to live for besides a higher standard of living?

The gospel story is different. It features a hero who believed so strongly in love and justice that he died a violent death so both could triumph. He gave us a world full of meaning, lives with incredible purpose, and a cause that makes every sacrifice worthwhile. Yes, there will be war, conflict, and struggle. But when the author of the gospel is finished writing the story of this world, we will not be disheartened but will have inexpressible joy that goes on forever.

-Brian

Interview of Suzanne Collins from New York Times

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Fox News & Awkward Jesus Debates

fox-newsLast week, Fox News anchor Lauren Green interviewed Reza Aslan, a scholar with multiple degrees in religion who is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. The subject of the interview was Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and the attitude of the interview was tense. Green couldn’t get past the fact that Reza was a Muslim writing a book about Jesus. She opens the interview with this question:

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

Aslan responds with a list of his academic qualifications and Green says again,

“It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”

Later, Green again brings up Aslan’s Muslim faith by equating his book about Jesus with a committed Democrat writing a book about Ronald Reagan; it appears that in Green’s mind he is simply too biased to write an objective book. Therefore, the book and its conclusions should be dismissed. Aslan defends himself by repeatedly citing his degrees, knowledge, and academic positions which give him credibility to write such a book.

Needless to say, this makes the interview painful for any casual observer to watch. The site buzzfeed.com posted the video of the interview which promptly went viral with the title, “Is This the Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” It attracted over 5 million views and was shared and liked by nearly 800,000 Facebook users. Zealot shot to number one on Amazon’s U.S. bestseller list and The Westbourne Press who publishes the book is now rushing to print more. If Lauren Green set out to marginalize Aslan’s perspective on Jesus (which she may or may not have intended to do) she has actually energized it for a few days.

Aslan’s assessment of Jesus in the interview (and by extension the book) is that he was:

“a real political revolutionary who took on the religious and political powers of his time on behalf of the poor and the meek, the dispossessed, the marginalized; who sacrificed himself in his cause for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves and whose death ultimately launched the greatest religion in the world.”

Those familiar with the Historical Jesus project probably hear echoes of John Dominic Crossan in Aslan’s response. In the end, Jesus turns out to be another left-leaning political revolutionary, organizing the down-trodden masses against the powers oppressing them. Amazon.com’s users are divided over the book; the vast majority gave it either 5 stars or 1 star.

Jesus is a real, historical figure. In fact, he is probably THE real, historical figure of human history. Therefore, he is accessible not only to Christians, but to Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, and eccentric rap artists. People are going to interpret Jesus according to their own worldview and preferences. Then they are going to take great delight in telling us that Christians have Jesus all wrong. This includes the professor who tries to shock his evangelical undergrads by trotting out tired and dubious “facts” showing Jesus to be a nice social activist who never thought of himself as God. It includes an author like Deepak Chopra who promotes Jesus as an inspirational spiritual guide and mystical teacher of peace and love. It includes news media that gleefully report on a new lost gospel or ancient shard of pottery that will reverse everything. It includes the Muslim who calls Jesus simply a prophet, the agnostic who calls him an ethical teacher, and the television prosperity preacher who calls on him for a blessing.

All misguided interpretations have two fatal flaws. First, they fail to produce a Jesus who fits the facts. Aslan’s social revolutionary Jesus may have had a winning personality and great influence, on par with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Abraham Lincoln. But there is no way he could have led devout Jews to worship him as God,  inspired Christians to embrace death claiming his resurrection, and won followers from the nations for 2,000 years. Second, they ignore or marginalize the most ancient and accurate source we have on Jesus: the New Testament. They make much of spotty secondary sources, Gnostic writings dated centuries later, arbitrary scholarly opinions, out of context passages, and modern cultural preferences in creating Jesus. So it should come as no surprise that he looks different than the Jesus the church has preached for millennia.

As Christians, we should stop being shocked and upset when others interpret Jesus differently. It is going to happen. Because our faith is based on a real person, it is subject to investigation – even flawed investigation. We don’t need to marginalize or flee from those with differing views, but rest confidently in the Jesus found in the Scriptures. There have been thousands of interpretations of Jesus since he walked the earth, but only one has endured and will continue to endure – the Jesus of the Bible.

If you want to know who Jesus is, read your Bible. Even the most stubborn of scholars is forced to admit that the New Testament is the most ancient and comprehensive source we have on him; some books being written within 25 years of Jesus’ death. Zealot will fade from memory but the New Testament will remain because it is far older, far more accurate, and far more compelling than anything else we have. Our conversations with others who disagree with us about Jesus don’t have to be as embarrassing or as tense as the Fox News interview. If someone comes to you with a different Jesus, graciously listen to them and point them to the only Jesus that endures the ages, fits the truth, and changes lives.

-Brian

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Slaying Popular Myths and Misrepresentations of the Crusades

crusadesHistory helps define us. Whether a person knows a lot of history or a little, what they do know shapes their understanding of themselves and their world. Blacks in America are shaped by segregation and slavery; Jews by Israel and the Holocaust. America’s view of government is shaped by both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Kentucky Basketball and Alabama Football are shaped by their histories of coaches, players, and victories.

Since God reveals himself in historical events and even entered history Himself, Christians – more than most – are shaped by history. Whether it is Roman Catholics standing on centuries of accumulated tradition, Protestants extolling the courage of pioneer missionaries, or a twenty-something looking back on his fundamentalist upbringing with angst, Christians look to the past to define their future.

The problem with history is it can be adjusted. By including some pieces and ignoring others, we can create a history that fits our liking. That might mean tweaking a story so the church looks ignorant and dangerous, collecting all incidents of religious violence and presenting them without context to encourage secularism, or labeling certain periods to make us think more highly of them (the Enlightenment) or think less highly of them (the Dark Ages).

The Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries are one example. Few historical events stir the consciences of Christians and ignite their opponents more than the Crusades. Nearly 2,000 Christians have participated in the Reconciliation Walk, a journey retracing the route of the first crusade during which apologies are offered to Jews and Muslims. In the year 2000 Pope John Paul II offered an apology for the church’s history of violence, most notably the Crusades. A brief search of atheist websites finds the Crusades invoked repeatedly as evidence of the inherent violence of religion. After Anders Breivik – a terrorist in Oslo, Norway – linked his crimes to the Crusades, Bill Maher couldn’t help but opine, “Christianity is perfectly capable of coming out of its dormant phase and once again becoming the violent, bloodlusty religion it was under the crusades.”

Are the Crusades the darkest sin of the church, requiring an apology from Christians and excusing hatred directed toward the West? Do they reveal the true end of all religious devotion and unmask what lies in the hearts of fundamentalists? In a word, no. History is far more complex than popular portrayals of the Crusades reveal. Let us look at three myths about the Crusades that fuel both apologies and animosity.

Myth 1: The Crusades were an unprovoked attack on a peaceful and enlightened Muslim world. Ancient Christianity flourished in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor. The cities of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Damascus, and Carthage were centers of church life and leadership. However, by the 8th century, Christianity was on its way to extinction in all of these places because of an upstart new faith – Islam. Islam did not win converts by persuasion; it won them by conquest. All non-Muslims were expelled from the Arabian Peninsula. Then Syria fell to the advancing armies, followed by Persia, much of India, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, southern Italy, and Spain. The Christian populations often faced the choice of conversion, slavery, or death. Others were taxed severely and prevented from building churches, praying or reading Scripture aloud, riding horses, or being armed. Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were seized, sold into slavery, and tortured. Muslims were poised to overthrow the Byzantines leaving the door wide open to Europe. As Rodney Stark points out, “…by the time of the First Crusade, Christendom had been fighting a defensive war with Islam for more than 450 years.”

Myth 2: The Crusaders went because they wanted land, wealth, and blood. If they had wanted wealth and land, the Crusades were a poor way to pursue those ends. If profit was their goal they would have responded to Pope Alexander II’s call to drive the Muslims out of wealthy Spain. Instead, they sold their holdings, borrowed funds, and impoverished themselves to make the journey. The Crusader kingdoms themselves were kept afloat only by support from Europe. So why go? Europe’s knights and nobles, in the words of Stark, “were both very violent and very religious.” The promise of the Pope that their sins would be washed away and that they could rescue the very place where Christ had walked was powerful. Most would lose their lives and gain nothing in return. Of the 130,000 who left in the first Crusade, only 15,000 would survive to Jerusalem.

Myth 3: The Crusaders’ crimes were excessive in the era in which they lived. The Crusaders had been taught since childhood to make war. They were violent, they looted, and they plundered – and this was normal for war in the 11th century. It is easy to pass judgment standing on nearly a thousand years of moral progress but much harder to imagine the world in which these men lived. They didn’t get a nice paycheck and pension for their service. They were not well-supplied and well-disciplined. And the Muslims they fought against were just as cruel if not more so. Baybars, Sultan of Egypt, after taking the city of Antioch ordered all the inhabitants enslaved or killed. 17,000 men were murdered and tens of thousands of women and children were made slaves. Much of the conduct of the Crusaders was barbaric by today’s standards, but normal for the time in which they lived and often exceeded by the armies they fought.

Does this mean the Crusades were good and the Crusaders right? No. It simply means history is complex and its events must be understood within their context. It means both apologizers and criticizers need to proceed with more caution. It means popular views must be overthrown in favor of accurate views. The Crusades shape many Christians’ and non-Christians’ views of the faith. Let us be sure it shapes us and them correctly. Stark summarizes it well when he says:

The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. The Crusades are not a blot on the history of Christianity.

-Brian

Many of the insights for this article came from this excellent book:

triumphThe Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion by Rodney Stark, published by HarperOne, 2012.

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An Unexpected Journey: Bilbo, Jesus, and Us

the-hobbitBefore the epic and wildly popular Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote its prequel, The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey. The first of three films retelling this beautiful tale was released in December 2012. The reviews of critics, LOTR fans and casual movie goers are conflicting and varied. No matter what one might think of The Hobbit as a film or novel, there is more than a bit of wisdom to be gained from this story.

Hobbits live in a beautiful little country called the Shire; they build cozy homes in the sides of hills called “hobbit holes,” complete with fire places, large pantries and rooms just for sitting. They grow vegetables and flowers, eat more than five meals a day and enjoy each other’s company under fireworks with music and ale in hand. Hobbits don’t venture outside the Shire. Hobbits don’t go on adventures. They are content to live their quiet lives eating, gardening and laughing.

Generations before, the home and wealth of the Dwarf people (a race separate from Hobbits) was stolen by a monstrous and merciless dragon, leaving them to aimlessly wander the earth. A company of 12 Dwarves decide to reclaim what is rightfully theirs and reestablish the Dwarf kingdom. However, they cannot do it alone. They need a spy, a burglar…a Hobbit. One morning, a wizard appears on the doorstep of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. This wizard invites Bilbo on an adventure.

That night, an obnoxious, bearded bunch of Dwarves invades Bilbo’s tiny Hobbit hole, inhale every last bit of his food and offer him a place in the company. They explain the dangers and rewards of their quest. They show him a map, detailing the length and difficulty of the journey. They give him a job description. Bilbo quickly and firmly refuses, leaving the Dwarves feeling defeated. But, as morning dawns, the curious call of adventure gets the best of Bilbo and he takes off to join the Dwarves!

As days turn to weeks and months, the journey proves more than Bilbo bargained for. The dangers are far worse than he imagined. The food and drink is never enough. Rain and wind are colder and crueler than in the Shire. There is always a dark, evil creature they must escape or outwit. The Dwarves are less than pleasant company and ungrateful for Bilbo’s help.  On more than one occasion, Bilbo’s small size and inexperience gets him into trouble, making him no help at all and saddling the Dwarves with an extra burden. He quietly mourns the loss of his pleasant life in the Shire and earnestly believes he will lose his life before returning there.

At one point, the entire company is taken captive and Bilbo is separated from all the Dwarves in captivity. They escape, but Bilbo is nowhere to be found. With a stroke of luck, Bilbo also escapes and has a chance to abandon this awful journey and head home to his warm, dry hobbit hole. The Dwarves would never know. He emerges from a cave, just in time to overhear the Dwarves discussing him, wondering if he had left them and some claiming it was probably for the best since Bilbo had not proven useful. He appears, startles the Dwarves and is asked why he returned to the company. This is his answer:

I know you doubt me, I know you always have, and you’re right. I often think of Bag End. I miss my books, and my arm chair, and my garden. See, that’s where I belong; that’s home, and that’s why I came, because you don’t have one… a home. It was taken from you, but I will help you take it back if I can.”

The inborn need for and love of home almost kept Bilbo from the journey: the confidence of belonging somewhere, the luxury of owning things and the satisfaction of building a meaningful life. He already enjoyed all of these benefits. Journeying with the homeless Dwarves awakened Bilbo to things he took for granted. His new affection for home stirred him to spend himself completely so a group of large, rude, inconvenient and uninvited guests who did not fully appreciate or believe in him could have a home of their own.

We often don’t contemplate what it meant for Jesus to leave heaven and come to earth. We might assume because He is God, it was part of His plan and He willingly came, it wasn’t a big deal.  From eternity past, Jesus had enjoyed perfect fellowship with His Father, ruling at His right hand. He never suffered hunger, rejection, loneliness or pain. Coming to earth was no vacation. It was a dark, lonely journey where Jesus forfeited the praise, privileges and position of heaven to save us. Even on earth, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). Our home, the one God intended for us, was stolen by sin. The only way to guide an ungrateful, rebellious race to the home they would tirelessly search for and never find was to send One who had a home and desired to share it. This is Scripture’s grand narrative: God steering His creatures home through Jesus.

C. S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Every human being has the desire for another home that cannot be satiated or explained away. Christians know this home; Paul (someone else familiar with homelessness for the gospel’s sake, 1 Corinthians 4:11) reminded the church in Philippi of our true citizenship (3:20). Today, we are far too easily satisfied with our earthly homes. Jesus said “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold[a]and will inherit eternal life.”(Matthew 19:29)

Have you written off the prospect of God calling you to leave your dream house, the highly rated schools, your BFFs, the convenient shopping, family and abundance of weekend activity options to proclaim the One who offers a heavenly home to the spiritually homeless? Foreign missionaries will tell you they miss their house with a roof, friends who speak their language and familiar restaurants. In the same breath they will tell you they have lost nothing compared to the home God is preparing for them in glory.

Which home are you more in love with?

-Emily

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The Undeniable Ugliness of Human Nature

In Joseph Conrad’s classic novel The Heart of Darkness, Marlow, a steamship captain, journeys up the Congo River at the end of the 19th century to bring home the sick and dying Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is a station chief renowned for his command of language, his intelligence, and his ability to generate large quantities of ivory. Yet when Marlow pulls his boat up to Kurtz’ residence, he is shocked to find the yard decorated with severed human heads on poles. Marlow observes:

…there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which, when the pressing need arose could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say.

The lawless jungle had taken a civilized man and turned him into a brutal savage. Conrad sharpens the picture when Marlow goes to visit Kurtz’ fiancé after he dies. In the midst of her grief, she says, “…of all his promise and of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remains – nothing but a memory.” And again she says, “Men looked up to him – his goodness shone in every act.”

Classic literature digs deep into human nature including its often brutal ugliness – something lacking in many present-day novels. Whether it’s Melville’s Moby Dick, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, many of those who wrote in the past were well acquainted with the ugliness of human nature when the restraints of law and society were removed.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a small piece of a much larger tragedy. When the Congo was taken by King Leopold II of Belgium as a colony in 1885 he grabbed as much profit as he could in the form of ivory and rubber. The Europeans who went there found no restraint – governmental, social, or religious – to their behavior in gathering ever greater profits. Murder, starvation, disease, and a plummeting birth rate combined to cut the native population of the Congo in half in just 23 years. The good, noble, civilized men – like Kurtz – were responsible for the deaths of over 10 million.

The story of Ilanga – one woman who experienced the brutality personally – will illustrate its ugliness. Her village was busy with crops when soldiers came and pulled them from their fields and homes. She reports:

When we were all collected the soldiers brought baskets of food for us to carry, in some of which was smoked human flesh… We then set off marching very quickly. My sister Katinga had her baby in her arms and was not compelled to carry a basket; but my husband Oleka was made to carry a goat. We marched… each day until the fifth day when the soldiers took my sister’s baby and threw it in the grass, leaving it to die, and made her carry some cooking pots. On the sixth day we became very weak from lack of food… and my husband, who marched behind us with the goat, could not stand up longer, and so he sat down beside the path and refused to walk more. The soldiers beat him… Then one of them struck him on the head with the end of his gun, and he fell upon the ground. One of the soldiers caught the goat while two or three others stuck the long knives they put on the end of their guns into my husband. I saw the blood spurt out, and then saw him no more… Many of the young men were killed the same way, and many babies thrown into the grass to die.

These events in the Congo vividly display the depravity of human nature. Yet though they are not even a hundred years old they are nearly forgotten. We have moved on to the depravity of the latest pop star and convinced ourselves we aren’t so bad.  Yet 10 million killed in the Congo, eight-hundred thousand dead in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Holocaust under Nazi Germany, present day killings in the Sudan and Syria, and the empty eyes of millions of children sold into sexual slavery remind us there is something ugly in human nature. Laws restrain it, society pressures it, religion commands it, yet it remains.

We may protest, “Not me! I wouldn’t do those things!” Can we be so sure? It’s easy to believe in our goodness from the comfort of a suburban American living room. But what if we experienced real horrors in our life? What if the restraints on our various lusts and desires were suddenly removed?

Wrestling with his wicked deeds as he floated down the Congo River, Mr. Kurtz offered a final assessment with his dying words – “The horror, the horror!” If we were to be confronted with the sum total of all of our sin and its horrifying consequences our assessment may not be much different. All of us have inherited a corrupted and sinful human nature. Wayne Grudem writes:

This inherited tendency to sin does not mean that human beings are all as bad as they could be. The constraints of civil law, the expectations of family and society, and the conviction of human conscience all provide restraining influences on the sinful tendencies in our hearts. Therefore, by God’s common grace, people have been able to do much good… But in spite of the ability to do good in many senses of that word, our inherited corruption… which we inherited from Adam means, that as far as God is concerned we are not able to do anything that pleases him… every part of our being is affected by sin – our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts, our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies.

When surveying the havoc wrought by his own sin, the Apostle Paul exclaimed in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He looked into his own heart and was left with despair. Yet he goes on to write: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus Christ was the one who could deliver him from the ugliness of human nature he saw within himself. Only Jesus can repair the corruption of the human heart.

Our hope isn’t found in a 6 step plan to be better people. It isn’t found in small lifestyle changes. It isn’t found in learning from the consequences of our actions. It isn’t found in progressively better laws with a big enough police force to enforce them. It isn’t found in foolishly patting ourselves on the back for being better than Hitler, the guy on the sex offender registry, or that crazy uncle on his fourth marriage.

The only hope for the ugliness of human nature is a Savior.

-Brian

Information on the events in the Congo including Ilanga’s story comes from: Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

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Don’t Hate On the Tiger Mom

Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and mother of two, published her controversial and highly criticized memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in 2011. It chronicles her journey of parenting daughters the Chinese way on American soil. Rather than allowing children to become self-indulgent, underachieving drains on society (her perception of Western children), Chinese parenting aims for the child’s highest success in every endeavor at all costs for the glory of the family.  Chapter one opens with bullet points of things Chinese children are never allowed to do, including: attend sleepovers, watch TV, choose their own extracurricular activities or get any grade less than an A.

Since their toddler days, daughters Sophia and Lulu followed rigorous routines to pave their way to elite futures, academically and musically. Instruments dominated non-school, non-homework hours. Chua cashed in some of her pension funds to buy Lulu one of the finest violins in the world. On every vacation, the first order of business was securing the hotel lounge piano for practice. These practices were frequently punctuated with harsh remarks from Chua such as: “If you don’t get this perfect, I am going to burn your stuffed animals!” and “Oh my god, you are just getting worse and worse.” This intensity drove both daughters and Chua to shouting matches, public embarrassment and icy distance. Chua admits that being hated is part of being a Chinese parent but is ultimately worth it.

Did her method succeed? Both daughters are music prodigies, straight-A students and fluent in Mandarin. Such accomplishments might convince any parent of this strategy. One might expect her book to end victoriously with a ten step plan to copy her success. Instead, these five lonely sentences end her story:

“Given that life is so short and so fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest? We all have to die, but which way does that cut? In any case, I’ve just told [my husband] that I want to get another dog.”1

After accomplishing world-class results parenting her daughters, Chua is left pondering what it means to fully live in light of life’s certain end. Sure, her daughters have every success any parent could hope for, but in the quiet corners of her mind she is left wanting.

It’s easy to criticize her. We American Christian parents would never demand so much from our kids in such demeaning ways. We also want the best for our children but express it differently. Rather than berate them, we praise them endlessly. Instead of hyper-scheduling their days and months, we let them decide what they want to do and divide up taxiing duties with neighborhood moms. When it’s time to prepare for tests, think about college, compete or behave, we make deals and offer incentives (video games or cars), hoping for the best outcome. Children might forgo family dinners, church activities and even homework along the way; as long as they are well-behaved, moderately successful, attend church on occasion and are above all happy, we’ve done a good job – right? If so, why does parenting leave many Christians asking the same questions as Chua?

Both parenting strategies are problematic and lacking. One idolizes the family’s success; the other idolizes the child’s individual success. Neither strategy employs life-giving methods for God-glorifying ends. Neither strategy points parent nor child to Christ.

Because purpose and identity are found in Jesus, Christians do not have to subscribe to the world’s parenting methods. Tedd Tripp observes:

“You want your child to live for the glory of God. You want your child to realize that life worth living is life lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Your methods must show submission to the same Lord.”2 (emphasis mine)

It should not surprise us that “good church kids” grow up with similar habits, goals, worldviews and issues as non-church goers. God is often an add-on in Christian households rather than the focal point. While most Christian parents would affirm the quote above, their practices oppose it. Jaws drop at Amy Chua’s behavior, but are children served any better when they are affirmed as privileged, moral centers of their own universe?

Scripture consistently teaches that only God can quench the thirst of every soul, parents and children included. The Psalmist declares, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore (16:11).” In John 10:10 Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” All satisfaction, joy and purpose are found in Him, not in raising phenomenal kids or being phenomenal kids. As parents, we are responsible for organizing the lives of our children to reflect the gospel as the center of life. To do anything else teaches them the world’s offerings are better than our Savior.

Academic prestige and financial success are deceitful dreams to pass on, as are high self-esteem and extracurricular happiness. When Jesus is the goal of parenting, we are free not to demand our children bring home good grades; we are free to say no when they covet the newest, most expensive clothes. If children misbehave in public or lose another competition, we are not devastated. When they come home crying because they’ve been bullied, there is no retaliation or pumping them up about how great they are.  When a friend’s child is smarter, more popular and better looking, we thank God for the eternal, not temporal, work He is accomplishing in our children for the kingdom. God’s word is robust enough for the task and more satisfying than the world’s answer to child-rearing.

Short cuts don’t exist in raising children who worship Jesus with the whole of their being. This counter-cultural approach to parenting will cost enormous amounts of time, peer approval, affection from your children and many tears. The pay-off is a home structured around the worship of an eternal King, turning out generations who live for Him and not worldly success.

The violin and good grades will get a child far, but will they satisfy? Birthday parties and good manners are fine things, but can they sustain faith in Christ?  As Chua observes, we all die…will getting another dog fill the void until that day and in the days that follow?

-Emily

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  1. Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, pg. 229.
  2. Tripp, Tedd. Shepherding a Child’s Heart, pg. 71.

Loving Some Leviticus: Christians and the Mosaic Law Part 4

In the first part of our series we examined the problems Christians face when attempting to understand the Law of Moses found in the first five books of the Bible. In the second part, we looked at some false assumptions we bring to the text. In the third part, we explored the message of the first five books of the Bible – known as the Pentateuch. In this final part, we will discover what the specific laws mean to us.

One of the most important things any Christian can do is to read through the entire Bible. If the Bible is what we claim it to be – the Word of God – then failing to read through it as a Christian is either prideful arrogance or sinful laziness. If God has spoken, how can those who claim to love Him fail to devote themselves to knowing, treasuring, and applying what He has said? They simply cannot.

Most Christians would agree. The problem is when we begin to read the Bible we typically start in Genesis. Genesis leads to Exodus and Exodus leads to…well… a lot of complicated legal material that seems terribly irrelevant at some points and scandalously shocking at others. Many sincere Christians have attempted to read through the Bible only to get bogged down in the Mosaic Law and surrender. The excitement of the Exodus is replaced with tedious descriptions of rashes and sores which may or may not be a leprous skin disease. However, we must read and understand the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). The rest of the Bible takes its cues from these books. Without the Pentateuch, the words of the prophets, the songs of the psalmists, the life and death of Jesus, the struggles of the church in Acts, and the letters of Paul will not make sense. So how do we read the Mosaic Law without ending up as confused as a husband buying clothes for his wife?

First, we must remember that the laws are part of the story Moses is trying to tell. They are not a randomly included list of do’s and don’ts, but a selection of laws to help the author of the Pentateuch make his bigger point about the importance of faith. The laws work to that end by teaching us how Israel related to God under the Sinai covenant. John Sailhamer says:

The laws give the reader a realistic picture of the nature of Israel’s worship and fellowship with God. The collections of laws give the readers an insider’s view of what God required of Israel. The sacrifices help demonstrate the nature of sin as a barrier to humankind’s relationship with God and what must be done about it. Hence, as can be seen by reading the various collections of laws, the notion of sacrifice and the analogous problem of sin are of central importance to the author.

The laws show us a genuine relationship with God was possible. They show us the holiness of God and the seriousness of approaching Him as sinful humanity. They demonstrate that all of life comes under God’s sovereign rule and His care extends even to the details of the lives of his people.

Second, the laws show us Israel’s falling into sin due to their lack of faith. In Exodus 19:6 God’s desire is for Israel to be a kingdom of priests who would believe in Him. This is a covenant resembling the one God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. But unlike Abraham, the people are afraid of God and lack the faith to approach him (Ex. 20:18-21), so God supplies the Law. Israel goes from a nation of priests to a nation with priests. Then the priests lack faith and fail by creating a golden calf in the absence of Moses (Ex. 32). Therefore God gives the priests the priestly code of laws (Ex. 33-Lev. 16). Then the people lack faith and make sacrifices to goat demons (Lev. 17:7). Therefore God gives the people the holiness code (Lev. 17-26).

As Israel’s faith fails and they fall into sin, God adds Law. This is why Paul says in Galatians 3:19, “Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions…” The Law prevented Israel’s lack of faith from dissolving the nation into the sin of the cultures around them. However, the Law is unable to completely make up for their lack of faith (Num. 14) and the entire generation of Israelites – save two – perishes in the wilderness.

Finally, the Law demonstrates the justice of God. The individual laws are not meant to be read as instructions for all people in all times and in all places. Rather, they are the application of the justice of God to the specific situations found in Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. The lives of the ancients to whom the Law was given are so far removed from our own it is impossible to determine everything God intended to accomplish by giving these specific laws. Sailhamer explains:

…the laws in the Pentateuch show what divine justice looked like in actual situations…the goal was to allow the narrative context to disclose an insight into the way God sees our tangled lives. The laws do not answer the question “What should we do in cases like this?” but rather the question “What did God think about specific cases like these and how, or what, can we learn about justice from him?”

We are better able to apply God’s justice to our own circumstances as we understand how it was once applied to the nation of Israel. This may be why the blessed man of Psalm 1 is the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” As we meditate on the Law we become more aware of the character and holiness of God, our own sinfulness, and our need for His mercy and grace.

All Christians need to read their Bibles, but they don’t all have to get stuck in Leviticus. When we understand the place of the Law in Moses’ whole message about faith, the depth of Israel’s sinful failure to believe, and God’s character and justice as shown in the Law, the first five books of the Bible will take on new life for us. It will leave us longing for a new covenant of faith (Deut. 30:6) and the Prophet King who will change everything (Num. 24:7, Deut. 34:10, Gal. 3:19). When we begin to read and understand the Law this way, we may even find ourselves loving some Leviticus.

I want to be sure and give credit where credit is due! Most of my thoughts about this series have been formed through careful interaction with the Pentateuch itself and three books:

Sailhamer, John H. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation. Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 2009

 

 

Sailhamer, John H. The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992.

 

 

Meyer, Jason C. The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology. B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN, 2009.

 

 

 

-Brian

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