Politics, Society, and Human Nature

It’s safe to say, I think, that our culture is polarized. Not only are there are strong disagreements amongst people regarding politics and various societal issues, but we seem to be less and less capable of viewing those with whom we disagree as human beings worthy of respect. Instead of thoughtful dialogue, we have media outlets that serve one point of view or another. If you’re more to the left on the spectrum, there’s CNN or CBC. However, if you’re more to the right, there’s Fox News or Rebel Media. Rarely do voices from one perspective meaningful engage directly with the voices from another perspective. Neither seems very willing. It probably wouldn’t be good for ratings, social media attention, and their bottom line.

But is it all about political differences? Are we only talking about the policy differences between Republicans and Democrats or between the Liberals and the Conservatives (or the NDP or Greens)? Have you, like me, ever wondered where this polarization comes from? How do opposing positions become so deeply entrenched? Why does it seem as though people are, more than ever, at one another’s throats?

This week conservative podcast host Ben Shapiro discussed this very question and I thought his analysis was insightful and very helpful. You can watch the clip below. While the context is the US political situation, I think if you watch it all the way through you can see how it applies more broadly.

Essentially, when we think about politics, culture, and how we as a society deal with one another, some key questions to ask are: What does it mean to be human? What is human nature? Are human beings basically good and trustworthy or do we need to acknowledge that each of us contains both good and evil, right and wrong? How we answer these questions–and not everyone operates with the same answers in mind–matters because our answers impinge on the way we think we ought to organize society, government, and our relations with one another.

More and more, it’s clear that different and competing visions of human nature lie beneath different views of political authority and societal norms and expectations.

The Christian worldview makes clear that human beings are a mixture of good and evil. When God created human beings in his image, he said it was very good. But not long after the creation of humankind, things went awry. Sin entered the picture. People became enemies, both of one another and God. The image has been cracked and marred by selfishness and disobedience. The question is what happens to the way we think about society, culture, and politics when we ignore the realities of human nature? I don’t have all the answers, but it’s a question we should be asking.

Here’s Shapiro’s video.

Screens, Safety, and Being a Parent in a Media-Saturated Age

Sometimes I long for the days when our homes had not only one TV, but a big, bulky, and, let’s face it, immovable one.

You know what I mean. I’m talking about those CRT (cathode ray tube, for those interested) TVs that were basically large pieces of furniture.

Why do I occasionally long for such times? Or perhaps the time when we didn’t have streaming services and could mindfully curate our kids’ DVD collection?

I’ll answer with a number: 8.

That is, in our home there are 3 smartphones, three laptops, one smart TV, and a Nintendo Switch Lite. Eight screens being used by five people. Eight devices on our WiFi network. Eight windows into the surrounding world that give us unfettered access to news, opinions, hours of TV shows and movies, games, and, if we’re not careful, quite profoundly inappropriate content including but not limited to pornography.

I bring this up because when I was a kid my mother had a much easier job of monitoring my media consumption. Indeed, I remember begging to stay up until after one more commercial break. Those were the days of scheduled rather than streaming TV shows. Looking back on the concern people had about the violence on an 80s show like The A-Team, the word quaint comes to mind.

As a parent, it’s a complicated venture, trying to discipline, guide, and monitor your kids’ screen time. Everything you can try has its drawbacks and limitations, whether it’s the Circle, Canopy, Covenant Eyes, or old fashioned “parental” commands. Unless you simply choose to unplug altogether, which is an increasingly unrealistic option in our hyper-connected, online world.

For our part, we’ve cancelled Netflix until later in the summer. We’ve cancelled our subscription to Disney+, so it won’t renew next month. Helpful as that is, it doesn’t solve all the issues we have as parents. There’s still the mindless rabbit hole of YouTube for our kids to fall into. Don’t get me started on our boys’ favourite YouTubers.

The truth is, no software or app, no matter how efficient and effective it is, can be the silver bullet to protecting your kids when they’re online. Pornogaphy is an obvious culprit, but the fact is there are other kinds of objectionable content. This even includes children’s content, which is now often being used to push and even indoctrinate kids into ideas contrary to a biblical worldview. These days this usually involves issues of sexuality and gender identity. It means that we have an episode of Blues Clues featuring an animated Drag Queen singing a song about a Pride Parade. This means that as a parent I no longer have the luxury of assuming, for example, that all of the children’s programs and movies on Disney+ are good for my kids. But does this mean I shouldn’t subscribe to Disney+ at all?

Perhaps we need another way of thinking about it. See, as a parent, even if I choose not to subscribe to Disney+ or other streaming services, I still can’t guarantee my kids’ safety. I can no more protect them from bad ideas and false narratives than I can from all physical dangers or illnesses. As much as I might like to do so. Unless I’m going to do everything in my power to keep my kids in some kind of cultural and social bubble, they are inevitably going to be exposed to stuff that can hurt and confuse and lead them astray.

So maybe my job isn’t to keep my kids safe from everything objectionable but to teach them to be wise, to be good, to be discerning, and to teach them to think biblically. Because eventually I want them to be wise enough to make sound decisions on their own. Yes, I can teach my kids why (and not just that) pornography is evil, but since I can’t prevent them from ever being exposed to it or tempted by it, I want to position them as much as I can to make smart, life-giving choices. Yes, I can do my best to pass on my biblical worldview, and live out my faith as genuinely as I can, but they’ll still have classmates, friends, neighbours, and eventually co-workers who have a very different understanding of the world. And so they need to learn how to adjudicate between competing narratives.

Trying to keep our kids 100% safe from all the erroneous, misleading, and, ultimately, unbiblical opinions, narratives, and worldviews out there is a fool’s errand. Maybe it always has been. Only now thanks to the internet our increasingly secular and even pagan culture is simply that much more accessible and that much more challenging for parents to manage. For my part, I confess that I have not done (and probably won’t be able to do) this perfectly. I know well the frustrations of all the parents out there when it comes to dealing with kids and screen time.

Since this is the case, it seems to me that even if we take certain protective measures to keep our kids away from specific kinds of media content, we still have the responsibility of teaching them how to navigate with biblical wisdom whatever it is they do encounter on their screens. And whether the screen in question is a tube-style TV permanently planted on a living room floor or a smartphone we take with us wherever we go, maybe this should have been our approach all along. Perhaps the point was never to keep our kids safe, but to prepare them for a world often inimical to the Christian faith by teaching them to be biblically wise curators of the media content that comes their way.

Some Things to Read on How Christians Approach Culture & Politics

We live in confusing times. Navigating the cultural landscape as people of faith is not always easy. What kind of posture do we adopt?

I thought this article on “The Question That Dictates How Christians Approach Culture and Politics” by David French was insightful and worth reading. He asks, “Does the primary threat to the church come from within or without?”

Daniel Darling has an article that builds on David French’s here.

As Christians, we owe it to ourselves, our families and friends, and our larger communities to increase our thoughtfulness and capacity for having nuanced conversations on important cultural issues. Many of the voices out there—on the left and the right—are loud and divisive. I think Jesus calls us to an alternative posture.

Sexuality, the Christian Faith, and Life in a Cardi B Culture

If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But, of course, when people say, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,’ they may mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of’. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.

C.S. Lewis

Recently American hip hop artist and social media personality Cardi B made headlines and drew both praise and ire for a performance at the Grammys best described as pornographic. She was performing her hit song, “WAP,” which itself is a pornographic acronym I won’t type out in full here. To be honest, my feeling is not so much one of moral outrage or disgust as it is of sadness. Because this is a young woman made in the imago Dei, created with worth and dignity by a loving Creator, who is willingly objectifying herself in front of millions (Maybe only thousands? Who watches the Grammys anymore anyway?). Not only that, but given that the Grammys are an ostensibly “family program,” Cardi B is effectively communicating to young girls that this is how to express your femininity and personal freedom. And to boys? Is she not communicating that this is how they ought to view women, as objects of pleasure worthy of exploiting?

We live in a culture of many contradictions, not the least of which is about sex. On the one hand, our culture tells us that experiencing sexual pleasure is so important that we must do so in any way we can. Suggest a moral boundary and you will either be laughed at as prudish or accused of violating someone’s rights. Indeed, in one way or another, indulging our sexual desires is the pinnacle of human freedom and self-expression in our culture. On the other hand, those who want to indulge every sexual whim and proclivity think Christians (and the morally conservative) make far too big a deal about sex. Sex and sexual desire are natural, after all, right? So what’s the problem?

In Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, there is a direct correlation between sexual depravity and idolatry. The rejection of the God of biblical revelation leads not only to the worship of created things but also to expressing this worship, in part, through sexual immorality. The latter always leads to the former–sometimes, indeed, the latter expressly includes the former.

For instance, in the days of ancient Israel, sleeping with shrine prostitutes was a part of the practice of worshiping the gods of Canaan. When on the verge of entering the Promised Land, Moses commands the Israelites to eliminate all of the objects of Canaanite worship. In Deuteronomy 7:5–6 he says to tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn their carved images. For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be his own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.

Reading such a passage, one thing we need to understand is that the rituals practiced by followers of Baal and Asherah were not harmless or admirable or noble. In Amos 2:7 we read that A man and his father have sexual relations with the same girl, profaning my holy name. In context, this is a condemnation of shrine prostitution. Both a father and his son have had sex with the same shrine prostitute as part of a religious ritual. It’s precisely this sort of activity that Moses’ commands on the eve of entering Canaan were meant to prevent.

We see the same connection between idolatry and sexual immorality in the New Testament. Here’s what the apostle Paul says:

For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. Therefore God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.

Romans 1:18-25

Now, there’s a lot going on in this passage. But one thing is clear. When people reject God–whose existence is known to everyone–and effectively worship created things rather than the Creator of all things, sexual impurity and moral depravity follow.

Our Western culture is secular. God is no longer a part of the equation. We don’t need to look outside ourselves to find meaning and truth; instead, we turn ever inward, to our own feelings and desires, whatever they are and wherever they lead us. And because of this, there is no standard by which to measure whether anything is morally objectionable. It brings to mind a low point in the history of Israel, seen in Judges 21:25, where  it says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him.”

Everyone did whatever seemed right to him. Isn’t that where we are in our culture? Doesn’t everyone simply do what is right in their own eyes? Without an external authority, a king, in this case God, then what stops anyone from indulging in whatever desires they have?

I think of a passage from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: One character asks another, “If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?”

Without accountability and the knowledge of impending judgement, what are we capable of doing?

The above quotation from C.S. Lewis speaks of the notion of shame. But when we can do whatever we want, there is no need for shame. Or to feel shame. Or to regard our actions and behavior as shameful. There is no moral arbiter beyond whatever we desire. And even though many find them offensive, these words below of the apostle Paul, continuing from the verses above, draw this point out explicitly:

For this reason God delivered them over to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error.

Romans 1:26-27

There are forms of sexual activity which are indeed shameful. Just because we desire something doesn’t mean it is right or good or beautiful. But they may seem that way to some because either they have explicitly rejected God or hold to a distorted view of God, one not found in Scripture.

Of course, the Bible has much more to say about sexuality than this.

In Genesis 1 and 2 we see a much different picture of human personhood and sexuality. There, human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creative action:

So God created man
in his own image;
he created him in the image of God;
he created them male and female.

Genesis 1:27

The relational, personal God of Scripture created relational, personal beings. Us. So the thing to see here is that having been made in the image of God, we can only truly understand ourselves if we also acknowledge God as our Creator.

Then we have this:

Then the Lord God made the rib he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. And the man said:

This one, at last, is bone of my bone
and flesh of my flesh;
this one will be called “woman,”
for she was taken from man.

This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.

Genesis 2:22-25

In my life I have also known shame because of sex, because of how sexuality is exploited by severing it from its God-given purposes. What person in our culture hasn’t at least been minimally exposed to pornography? I guess all you need to do is watch the Grammys these days.

Yet, having been married for nearly 19 years, let me say, without getting too personal, that I know exactly what this passage is talking about when it says Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.

So anyone who accuses Christians of being “anti-sex” miss the point entirely. Rather, sex in its proper context is a beautiful gift of the Creator. Only when we separate sexual intimacy from the moral horizon in which God is our Creator does sex degrade into something shameful. The man and the woman in Genesis felt no shame. Sin had yet to enter the world, separate humanity from intimacy with its Creator, and therefore distort the intimacy we were made to have with one another.

A culture in which Cardi B is not only free to perform a pornogaphic dance to a pornographic song with another woman, but is celebrated and admired for doing so, is clearly getting closer to reaching the apogee of having rejected God as Creator and moral judge. When people elevate their most sinful inclinations in the name of personal self-expression and freedom, they are truthfully more enslaved than ever. And for those of us who are followers of Jesus, who acknowledge God as Creator and moral judge, our first response shouldn’t be outrage at such displays but sadness over how individuals lovingly designed by God have, by rejecting him, also rejected their own humanity and the dignity and beauty that are intrinsic to it.

Where are the Dividing Lines?

Let’s take a brief inventory:

Trinitarian versus Arian.

Calvinism versus Arminianism.

Infant baptism versus believer’s baptism.

Cessationism versus continuationism.

Young earth creationism versus old earth creationism.

Complementarianism versus egalitarianism.

Church organs versus guitar and drums.

Carpet versus tile.

Ok. So those last couple of examples might have been a little facetious. Churches never fight over music or buildings.

Right. Ok.

But my real question is: At what point do differences between Christians become something worth dividing over?

I could add to the above list more current hot-button cultural talking points such as Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, COVID restrictions, masks, and vaccines, Liberal or Conservative, and Democrat or Republican.

I don’t think I have ever seen politics and culture have as profound an effect on Christians and churches as much as I have over the last few years or so–and maybe especially over the last year. I know it’s always been a reality, but with COVID-19 it feels like everything has gone up several notches. Whether the last year has simply exacerbated pre-existing differences or has given rise to new ones, I don’t know. But it’s incredibly frustrating and discouraging as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.

What differences are fundamental and which are secondary? How do we define what we might call a “gospel” issue? Because not every conflict or issue listed above ought to carry the same theological weight. So, how do we weigh these matters?

Part of what I am wondering is how much difference of opinion can exist within one congregation, in one body of believers? If in one congregation you have significantly different political perspectives, can people of such deep but differing convictions still serve together for the sake of the kingdom? What about theological differences regarding the age of the earth and how to read and interpret Genesis 1 and 2? What if two people in a group of believers reach different conclusions? Can they still serve in the church alongside one another, pray together, and worship together?

At what point do differences become intractable? And is this always necessarily a matter of conviction or is it sometimes relational rather than theological? That is, might it be that the issue is more about my inability to accept that someone else doesn’t share my view which I hold so strongly?

In other words, can I accept someone else as a brother or sister in Christ even if they don’t believe everything exactly as I do? And where do I draw the line? Or better put: how do I determine where to draw the line?

Are Christians destined to gather only in groups where there is agreement on virtually every issue, both theological and cultural? Are we only comfortable having fellowship with Christians who never challenge our assumptions and ideas?

Look, I’m not saying that a Christian can never have a good reason to leave a church or even switch denominations or traditions. I am a trinitarian who thinks Arianism was heresy. I am a continuationist with respect to spiritual gifts. What I am asking is how we make that determination. What is our standard? And before you say our standard is the Bible, remember that people reach very different conclusions based on their interpretations of Scripture. Not that I disagree with saying the Bible is our ultimate guide to faith and practice, just that it’s a little messier than simply making that assertion.

Maybe I can put it this way. What was Jesus praying for in John 17? In case you don’t know what I mean, John 17 contains what is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays for his disciples and for those who will believe because of their ministry. After he prays for his disciples, he goes on to pray this way:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

What kind of oneness is Jesus praying about for his disciples and future followers?

Better yet: Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? What would that look like?

I think of what I read elsewhere in the Bible too.

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

What sort of unity is Paul talking about? And is it the sort of unity that can exist between believers who do differ from one another on some matters? Can unity even exist if there aren’t differences? Without differences, isn’t unity simply uniformity?

Paul’s words also point to the underlying relational aspect to unity. Such unity requires humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness. This unity requires effort to maintain. It is grounded in the very unity of the trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Given the current tenor of cultural conversation on divisive issues, and the inability of many to have such conservations in a civil and winsome way, ought not the church, by the power of the Spirit, be able to provide a better example about how to deal with differences? Rather than join the arguing, are we not able–together!–to bring more light than heat thanks to the gospel of our Lord Jesus?

Perhaps more of us who say we are followers of Jesus ought to turn the above passages from John and Ephesians into prayers of our own. Maybe then we will more clearly see what unites us rather than what divides us.