Sunday, November 27, 2011

In Which I Simultaneously Tackle Religion and Politics

As this rather biased article a friend pointed out to me shows, a good deal of the front-running candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination are keen on getting our laws to match up more closely with Christian "morality". (This just from the candidates' responses, not the editorializing) This idea, which has been around for decades (especially since the establishment of the Moral Majority in the 70s), is known in some circles of debate as "legislating morality". Here is my position on it. I'm going to take apart this idea in a two-pronged fashion, explaining why it's a bad idea politically and why it doesn't line up with the Christianity they claim to represent.

Note: Before I get into all this discussion of what government is "really about", let me state that my view is that the purpose of government, on the highest level, is to promote and preserve the liberty, legal equality, and physical welfare of all the people under it. There is plenty of room for debate on how far in either of these directions it should go, which I won't get into.

The Political Side

As I previously argued during the whole Scott-Walker-collective-union-bargaining debacle in Wisconsin earlier this year, doing politics based on put-together ideologies (whether economic, political, or religious) is disastrous business. Steadfastly trying to govern your way, based on your particular ideology, which is right because you're right because it's absolute truth, leads to an inability to compromise and, in our democracy, an inability to get anything done that is becoming increasingly obvious in the higher levels of our government. Willingness to compromise and a pragmatic concern for the welfare of everyone involved in decisions are essential to successful government. According to centuries of political philosophy the state exists to serve the people living in it--not any particular ideology. Making policy decisions based on ideology replaces these with a "principled" stand for what you believe is right and a primary concern with upholding the purity of your views above those who disagree with you. I'm sure you can think of examples of what this looks like.

And, unfortunately, I think religion-based ideologies are the worst for this, because at heart your religious worldview isn't arrived at by a series of perfectly rational thought-steps that others at least have a chance of following but by a leap of faith that others simply have not taken. The way an evangelical Christian like myself processes the world--in relation to an almighty God who sustains and redeems everything--is very different than how a Muslim thinks about things, which in turn is very different than how a nonreligious person sees the world. I shouldn't need everyone to accept Christ for my political views to simply be intelligible to them.

This difference in viewpoints when everyone is keeping their religion to themselves, or engaging in friendly, unofficial conversation about worldviews--it's freedom of religion in action. But this completely changes when one religion legally imposes itself over all others. For one thing, if you take the candidates' desire to make civil law line up with "Christian law" to its logical conclusion, then of course the first such law you should legislate is the greatest commandment in the Bible: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Matthew 22:37) Whoops, that goes completely against the first amendment. It's almost as if it was specifically written to prevent religion from legally establishing itself like this.

Quite simply, religion is one thing that people have never, ever been able to agree on in thousands of years of searching. But politics demands agreement, or at least sufficient agreement and compromise to allow government to carry out its responsibilities. I think at least some of the troubles our government seems to be having in getting even simple things done lately are a result of attempts to turn once-conciliatory political dialogue into inevitably fiery and dogmatic religious dialogue. I hope this has convinced you that basing political views solely on religious views is a bad idea. I say "solely" because I think political and religions worldviews will inevitably intersect, but there has to be something that allows for understanding, for compromise.

But, you may say, as many of my intelligent friends who are Christian and Republican-leaning have, all politics is based on ideologies. Either you're basing your views off a Christian ideology, or something else. Like I said before, it's absurd to try to separate your political views from your faith--particularly Christian faith that ultimately changes every part of your life. Of course Christians will look at politics differently than non-Christians. But for reasons I'll go into detail on below, letting your faith guide your political participation doesn't just mean reading a list of the laws you support out of the Bible.

The Religious Side

As bad as trying to codify Christian "morality" into civil law is from a pragmatic political standpoint, it's even worse from a spiritual standpoint. Firstly, as I explained in the conclusion to my series on the Old Testament, being ruled by law is a hallmark of the old covenant, not the new one under which we now live. As Paul explains in Romans 6, we are no longer slaves to sin under the law but slaves to God under grace. (This is a paraphrase of verses 14-18) From a spiritual standpoint, trying to obey the laws, or trying to get others to do so, is futile and even counterproductive as focusing on the should of the law distracts us from the get-to of the gospel. This is Paul's central message in much of his letter to the Galatians. This is why I keep putting "morality" in quotes, as under grace the term becomes somewhat nebulous. The law is a yoke that the Jews were unable to bear (Acts 15:10) even with all they had going for them to do so, and it's pure pride to think we can do any better.

But I'm not trying to save people by obedience to the law!, you might say, I'm just trying to help them live more moral, Christian lives by setting guidelines that keep them on the right path. Well, if you make laws that correspond to more commonsense teachings of Jesus you might get away with it, but where to stop? Remember that God's standard is pure perfection. You agree that murder should be illegal, but according to Jesus getting angry at your neighbor is just as bad as murdering them. So if you're trying to get civil law to line up with Christian "morality", you should penalize yelling at someone the same as killing them, right? And if you get it passed everyone will obey the law and we'll have no more anger, right? And if you decide to stop somewhere before that, aren't you forsaking the teachings of Christ?

As soon as you start pushing laws that climb closer to the standard of perfection (or even laws that purport to defend the Christian view of life or marriage) you get into the kind of ideological politics I mentioned above. You lose the ability to reason with anyone who sees things differently than you unless you manage to convert them to your particular understanding of who God is. They might come to view Christianity as a pushy set of "shoulds" and judgments on those who don't obey, as so many do today for this very reason. And for Christians who may agree with the basis of the law, what difference does it make for them, since they would practice (or at least attempt to) whatever behavior the law was trying to induce anyway? Sanctification, the process of becoming more like Jesus and wanting to obey His commandments not out of obligation but out of love and joy, is founded on a relationship with Him (John 14:15) and enabled by His power, not our own. (Philippians 2:12-13, Romans 8:13) The motivation for us to live differently and become more like Jesus comes from within (the Spirit living in us), not from without (threat of legal punishment). Nowhere in the New Testament do we hear Jesus or any of the apostles praising laws that aid believers' sanctification or wishing they they were different so as to do so. If the only thing keeping someone from a life of theft is the threat of punishment by the law, what good does that law do him from a spiritual standpoint? Absolutely none!

Indeed, Jesus is surprisingly disinterested in politics. I believe the only recorded political statement He ever makes is in Matthew 22:21: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's." I want to be the last to put words into Jesus' mouth, but He seems to hold a view of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world as being quite separate. Indeed, in John 18:36 He says, "My kingdom is not of this world." A bit of context: at that time the Jewish view of the foretold Messiah was a conquering earthly king who would set them free from their Roman oppressors and reestablish the greatness of the pre-captivity Jewish nation. Jesus' total failure and even outright refusal to meet these expectations was a big part of the reason so many people doubted Him and ultimately had Him killed. To Jesus it doesn't matter which earthly kingdom (i.e. country/state) you belong to: only whether you're a subject of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of this world. Jesus didn't spend time talking about any earthly kingdom but the heavenly one He came from and invites us to, right here and now.

Likewise Paul in describing his ministry says in Ephesians 6:12: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." He's fighting spiritual, not physical, powers in his ministry. Not much more to be said. It's surprising that he says this considering how many times he was thrown in jail or almost killed for his faith; he never prays for God to change the laws that keep getting him persecuted for his ministry.

But what about in Romans 13:1-7, you may say, where Paul says that governing authorities are appointed by God? Surely this means our politicians and laws should be "Christian"? Think about this verse in context: Paul wrote during the reign of emperor Nero, an active persecutor of Christians (persecutor as in feeding them to lions, not preventing them from organizing prayer in public schools). To anyone who thinks Obama is the Antichrist...just look at Nero. And don't forget that it was the governor Pontius Pilate who ultimately sentenced Jesus to death. So clearly Paul doesn't mean that governments will always appear overtly "Christian", but that no matter what their authority comes from God and they are His instrument. Paul goes on to say that Christians should give obedience and due respect to government (possibly part of loving your enemies), unless ordered by law to sin or prevented by law from obeying the commands of God. And even then, he says nothing about trying to change or do away with such laws--nor does any other part of the New Testament. I'm not trying to say that Christians should stay out of politics (they didn't have much of an opportunity to participate in Paul's time, hence the lack of treatment of the issue), but clearly it's a relatively low priority in a Christian's life and should be approached with the above facts in mind.

Finally, an addendum from talking with my friend, whose input I was waiting on before posting this. He and I turned out to agree more than I expected on this issue, but his perspective was of course different. He gave me a picture of the sphere of influence of the church and the state as a Venn diagram--intersecting in some places (some aspects of public life, like helping the poor, come to mind), but mostly separate. After all, the church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), whose kingdom is not of this world and who came to redeem the world by self-sacrificial love, not by taking power over it. Putting on the church the task of forcibly conforming the world around it to God's will makes it an instrument of the old, law-based covenant, not the new grace-based one. It is the state that bears the sword (i.e. the power to devise and enforce laws over the public; Romans 13:4), not the church. They are very separate entities and conflating them is detrimental to both. (The effects of this philosophy on the church could be the subject of a whole other post)

So hopefully I've made my case for why seeking to align civil law with Christian "morality" is all-around a bad idea. With most of the Republican frontrunners for the 2012 election expressing some kind of desire to do so, this issue has never been more relevant. I wish Christians in politics were better known for their honesty, integrity, and compassion than for their "holy wars", blind ideological rhetoric, and inability to compromise. I can't say I expect anyone holding this kind of view to read this post and have their mind changed, but I hope that it has given you some stuff to think about and some good talking points in conversations on the subject.


While laying out this post I thought of another question that is likely more relevant to liberals than to conservatives. What about seeking to make laws that help the weak, elderly, sick, or poor, like Medicare and social security, in keeping with Jesus' call to love the "least of these"? A few thoughts on this subject:
  • I don't think this is a bad idea in principle, as this is arguably part of the role of governments. I would say that the government is currently not doing its job of promoting liberty and equality for everyone by helping the rich get richer at everyone else's expense, and pursuing the opposite goal (raising up those who cannot help themselves) is more desirable. However, just as in the conservative case, making this issue your sole political imperative and blindly pushing for such laws with nothing but commands of Jesus to back you up is not the right response. (I don't see this nearly as much as I see the former case) Again, Jesus didn't try to rearrange earthly kingdoms to be fairer to the poor but preferred the direct approach to helping them.
  • Remember that laws like this provide help not just out of your pocket, but everyone's. Programs based around income redistribution might make things "fairer", but they tend to help some at others' expense, not creating any new wealth. "Forced charity" is an oxymoron. Voting for laws that help the poor is no substitute for loving people yourself.
Addendum #2

A few weeks ago I had a very edifying and respectful Facebook conversation (which is a very rare and precious thing) with a high school friend who has relatively fundamentalist views on this topic. Since then, I have shifted my position slightly. If politicians like Rick Santorum want to try to legislate a more Biblical morality (because all legislation has some kind of a "should" behind it), there is nothing instrinsically wrong with that. The problem isn't when politicians base their political stances on Biblical principles, but when they do so poorly, misguidedly, and uncompassionately. Simply justifying your position with Bible verses, "God's plan", or thinly veiled references to Biblical teaching is an example of how to do this. This kind of rhetoric is fine for letting God direct your own life (Jesus said He would incite division, after all), but is worse than useless in politics where not everyone shares your faith and they may come to resent you and the God you claim to represent for imposing it on them.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

You're in a Chair in the Sky!

This half-obligatory Thanksgiving post is a partial paraphrase of a sermon from my church from last December. Specifically, one that showed the following video featuring a comedian named Louis C.K. on Conan O'Brien: Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy. Warning: some minor foul language. But a hilarious and relevant commentary on how entitled we as a culture feel: we complain the in-flight wi-fi doesn't work when we're sitting in a chair in the sky! My pastor used this as a lead-in to one of my favorite Bible passages, Ephesians 2:1-10:
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
 God raised (past tense) us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places with Jesus! If you believe in Christ, you really are in a chair in the sky! (Spiritually speaking) Our amazing position in Christ, he then argued, should be enough to blow your mind every day and fill you with gratitude and joy. We testify to the hardness of our hearts by treating life as mere routine.

This realization of how good things really are is what I think Thanksgiving is about. Not just how amazing modern technology is like Louis C.K. went on about, but how much we've been blessed in our family, our relationships, our place in life, and above all the mercy God showed us giving His son for our sake. Be blessed this Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Truly "Immersive" Gaming

With signs pointing to the current generation of game consoles sticking around a while longer, the biggest innovations of the "big three" console manufacturers in the last few years has arguably been the development of motion-based gaming technology. Nintendo's Wii has had it since its release and received some upgrades like the WiiMotionPlus and in the last few years Microsoft's XBox 360 and Sony's Playstation 3 have gotten the Kinect and the Playstation Move, respectively. The point of motion-control systems like these, if I may paraphrase, is to give players more novel or intuitive ways of interacting with games that often more closely mirror the actions being performed in-game. Instead of aiming by moving a control stick, you can aim by pointing the controller at the screen. Instead of pressing buttons to make your character perform actions, you can now trigger them by doing something that at least superficially resembles the desired action.

I don't deny that these control systems are really cool, even when used for their intended purpose of game control. (Hackers have done some really amazing things with Nintendo's and Microsoft's hardware) The well-known danger is that the coolness of the motion control can sometimes become a substitute for overall quality in the rest of the game, leading to gimmicky, bargain-bin games that rely on the novelty of the control scheme (which might suck anyway) and aren't terribly special in anything else. Even Wii Sports, which comes bundled with the Wii, and its successor Wii Play are well-implemented and fun for an hour or two at parties, but are rather short on depth.

But what about when these new control schemes are applied to the latest in a series of solid games known for their fantastic gameplay, charming graphics, music, and all-around immersive experience--case in point, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword? Fans have been anticipating it for its 1:1 sword control, but now that it's out the response to the controls has been mixed. (Gamestop famously gave it 7.5 despite critics saying the reviewer just didn't understand the controls) Yesterday I found a discussion on Reddit from a disappointed fan; if you don't want to slog through it all, just read the comment that caught my attention:
I'm enjoying the game so far, but in a way I find the motion controls less immersive. When I play with a traditional controller I can easily lose myself in the game. Pressing buttons is like breathing for me. I don't have to think about it. But in SS so far I have been frequently made aware of myself holding the controller, thinking about how I need to move it around, and that brings me out of the game.
He found the motion controls less immersive? It's an interesting theory--players are supposed to be able to get more into games if they're identifying their actions with those of the player character, but this fan found mirroring Link's actions distracting from the game. Pressing buttons and moving control sticks on a traditional, ergonomic controller may seem boring compared to swinging the "Wiimote" like a sword, but it's so easy that gamers (myself as an example) are able to form mental pathways that map the actual manipulation of the controls to muscle memory. You don't have to think "press right bumper" or "contract right index finger" to reload, you just do it. It's a different kind of immersion that is broken by the complex motions involved by motion controls. In light of this, I don't see motion controls making much progress out of the realm of "casual gaming" anytime soon. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Humble Introversion Bundle

Maybe you've heard of those "Humble Indie Bundles" they've been periodically releasing the last few years. Apparently the latest one just dropped, featuring a pack of games by indie British game developer Introversion. The basic model is that you pay however much you want for the games (including nothing) and select how much you want to go to the developers, two charities, and the site itself. To foster a spirit of competition, it tracks the donations by OS (currently Windows is the most tight-fisted, and Linux users are the most generous) and the top donors. It seems like a pretty cool business model and I recommend checking it out.

As for the games themselves, I've tried a few and they've been worth my payment. Crayon Physics is a pretty brilliant sandbox-puzzle game that lets you literally draw in your solution and let the game's realistic physics engine take over. Reminds me of a video I saw a few years ago of similar drawing-based physics being demoed on a whiteboard, which I thought was the coolest thing ever at the time. It's especially great when played with my Wacom tablet. To get it and one other game, you need to donate at least the average donation, another smart touch. I've also tried Darwinia, an odd RTS-type game with similar aesthetics to Tron or Synaesthete, and a Windows-only demo of a procedural city generator that creates lifelike street plots of cities that will never exist in seconds. Very shallow and not a full game, but promising. I have yet to try DEFCON, a satirical strategy game simulating the cold war, and Uplink, which apparently simulates Hollywood-style hacking. If you're into smart, offbeat-type games, I would follow this site. (It's free if you want, after all)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Evangelism and Entertainment

Note: For reasons discussed herein, this post was written on the evening of Friday, November 18th, hence the apparent anachronisms. Take the content of this post as personal opinion, and with a grain of salt.

In less than 24 hours the biggest evangelistic event ever at the U of M, PULSE Twin Cities, will hit the field house. This may come as a bit of a surprise to those of you who were just expecting a free Owl City concert. Indeed, from the large amounts of promotion for it around campus and online all I could gather is that it's a concert (free for students, unknown for non-students) featuring Owl City, Family Force 5, and Grits with some kind of important message of hope. My perspective in Cru, however, assures me that besides the music there will be gospel presentations and other Christian content as in excerpts I've seen of PULSE events at other campuses. For Cru this is pretty much the event of the year and many of my friends have been inviting their friends all kinds of ways and changing their profile pictures in excitement for the big day tomorrow.

I won't be there. Indeed, for the past few months I've done my best to turn a blind eye to all the hype leading up to PULSE. "But why, David?" you may ask. "This is the fulfillment of the Great Commission, turning the campus back to God!" I can't argue with this statement, and certainly not with the gospel to be presented at PULSE--which is why I will be waiting to put up this post until it's safely over, its impact made. But I feel that eventually, this needs to be said.

My uneasiness with PULSE and events like it (like the Maze of a year ago, which was indisputably pretty amazing) isn't with the matter of of the gospel message it seeks to spread (which is truly wonderful and life-changing) but with the manner of its operation. Like I said above, pretty much all even a very curious person can deduce from the abundant promotion of the event is that it's a free big-name concert, perhaps with some kind of agenda. (Most free things around campus have one) I expect that for people at PULSE who aren't "in on" the background of the event, the gospel message of the whole evening will come as a surprise, as it did with the Maze. To put my issue with PULSE in the simplest possible terms, it feels like a bait-and-switch. The big draw of the event (free Owl City concert!!!1!11!!) is not the main point of the event (the gospel message). To a Christian like me it's obvious why this promotional decision was made: to make the event more inviting/appealing to nonbelievers so more will come and hear the gospel. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Have "Jesus" and "gospel" become bad words? Are we so concerned with removing barriers to the gospel that we hide the gospel itself until we have a safe-sized audience? Are we Christians more concerned with numbers than the Biblical model of evangelism? I have no doubt that the gospel presented at the event will be real and authentic--like I said, I'm concerned with the manner, not the matter. The subtext of the decision to promote PULSE solely as an Owl City concert is this: "Many of the people we're trying to reach don't like the gospel. If we promote this as a big gospel presentation, they won't come, so let's promote it as an Owl City concert so they will come and hear the gospel!" If people don't like the gospel to begin with, how do you think they'll feel when they feel tricked into hearing it? (To my Christian readers, imagine if it were CASH [The campus group for humanists and atheists] putting on this event instead of Cru) Another interpretation might be that it's combining the gospel with some great music to make it more appealing. It's the gospel. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, came to earth as a man, loved us personally and perfectly, took the just penalty for our sins on Himself so we could have a life-giving relationship with God, and defeated death to let us know that in Him we will have eternal life! It's the best news of all time; what can we do to make it more appealing?

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." - Romans 1:16

"But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." - 2 Corinthians 4:2 (emphasis added)

Let's look at some early gospel presentations. In the first ever Christian sermon in Acts 2, Peter is speaking to an audience of mostly Jews in Jerusalem. At first he's explaining why he and his friends have been acting crazy and speaking languages they never learned (as Pentecost just happened), but he soon sets into a detailed explanation of Old Testament prophecy and how Jesus fulfilled them in recent happenings.

Fast forward to Acts 17 where Paul is speaking to an audience of Greeks in Athens. He doesn't cite any scripture here, but instead quotes their own philosophers and poets, tying parts of Greek pagan worship in to the one true God.

The difference between these gospel presentations shows the need to be culturally sensitive in how we share with nonbelievers. One thing I noticed was that Peter and Paul focus on things their audiences believed that were true (Old Testament prophecy or correct views of God) and relate them to the truth of the gospel, rather than tearing down their false beliefs to "make way" for the truth. Telling random people why they're wrong tends to put them on the defensive, especially today in the culture of "your views are as valid as mine", so this approach should be very appealing today. It's not pretty when people try the opposite.

But this aside aside, notice what Peter and Paul don't do. They don't start talking about something popular until enough people show up, then break out the gospel. Beyond connecting the gospel to listeners' already-held beliefs, they didn't try to make it more appealing--they trusted in the Holy Spirit to make it come alive to people.

As I finish this post, PULSE is (presumably) wrapping up. I pray that people who don't yet know the love of Christ would meet Him there. At the end of the day I am happy this event is happening because I know God will work through it, which is why it's so hard to criticize. My comments above have been more concerns about what could be happening under the surface from my search for the root of my uneasiness, and less my informed and decided judgment of the situation. My last word is this: it's critical to know where God's will stops and our implementation of it begins--to be aware of our surprisingly passive roles as "earthen vessels" bearing the glory of God for the world to see. No one came to Christ because of a fantastic concert or a silver-tongued speaker. God sends His laborers into His harvest field. Go and make disciples.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Minor Change in Direction

I'm well aware that I've been doing a lot of faith-focused posts recently, including quite a bit of heavy theology. While I'm not ashamed of this and truly enjoy writing about God, I never intended this blog to be about any one thing--hence the hodgepodge of objects in the header image.

So, to break from this tradition I'm going to shamelessly plug a cool computer game! Specifically, Audiosurf. It resembles a cross between hyper-fast futuristic racing series F-Zero and an earlier indie game, Synaesthete. Unlike Synaesthete, Audiosurf is not free (the full version costs $10), but it's well worth the modest price.

Playing some DragonForce should be anyone's first reaction to this game.
The big draw of Audiosurf is, of course, its ability to dynamically generate tracks by analyzing any song you select. The result is that you can literally play (as a game) your favorite music. Colored blocks come at you in time with the beat, and when the music gets louder or faster the track changes to hotter colors and everything speeds up. Calm, acoustic music is largely an uphill climb in blues and purples, while intense metal becomes a frenetic downhill of orange and red. The track bobs up and down to the ebb and flow of the music, various cool visual effects sync up to it, and the thrill you get just before the start of a steep section is similar to being on a roller coaster.

The gameplay has two main modes. In Mono (pictured above) you simply ride the track, picking up colored blocks and avoiding gray ones. Matching colored blocks gets you points--bigger matches equal more points. On the easiest difficulty it's pretty laid back, but on Ninja the track is congested with gray blocks you have to avoid, a tough test of reflexes and precise control. The other main mode has no grey blocks, but multiple colors of blocks that must be grouped together to form matches as well as some special powerups. There are five different "characters" (game modes) to play which all give you special abilities like storing blocks and dropping them at will, erasing everything of a certain color, or controlling two cars at once. This mode is more cerebral and making complicated matches requires some strategy. These modes provide some variation to the gameplay, but mostly this game's replay value is limited by your music library--finding songs that will translate to exciting and varied tracks is a fun challenge.

The graphics are fairly simple by modern standards, but fully 3-D and undeniably pretty. The tracks are laid out as winding, multicolored ribbons that stretch out ahead of you for virtual miles. The ability to plug your own music into the game and experience it rather than just listen to it raises Audiosurf a step up above the sea of music games that have been popping up in the wake of DDR and Guitar Hero and makes it well worth checking out, if only the demo version. Definitely recommended for music and puzzle game lovers.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Answer is Love

Buckle your seatbelts, interblog. Tonight I'm going to walk through an entire book of the Bible. You heard/read me right. A whole book. All in one go.

Don't worry, it's just the book of Jude. (25 verses)

The first two verses are the standard greeting found in the New Testament letters--the sender, the recipient(s), and a greeting. Similar to the To, From, and Subject lines of an E-mail, actually. From these we see it was written by Jude, the brother of James. (Probably the brother of Jesus; Jude humbly doesn't make the connection, instead calling himself "a servant of Jesus Christ") The recipients, "those who have been called, those who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ", is extremely non-specific; Jude might have intended the letter to be copied and passed around among churches like a chain latter.

And after the greetings, Jude launches into a 14-verse verbal assault against false teachers occupying well over half the book. In verse 3 he mentions he'd have preferred to write a nice, fluffy letter about their salvation, he "felt [he] had to write and urge you to contend for the faith." In verse 4 he explicitly warns about false teachers in their midst, seeking to replace the gospel with an excuse for licentiousness. Defending the gospel against corrupt teaching was a common theme of Peter and Paul's letters as well; we can be thankful for their devotion to making sure the churches got it right. It was especially scary as the New Testament as a compiled volume didn't exist yet; the churches mostly had oral teaching on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and whatever the apostles left them with. When the apostles left to plant churches elsewhere, the "baby churches" were vulnerable. We all tend to forget or live without the gospel on our own anyway; just imagine how hard it would be to hold on to it with someone charismatic trying to alter it into such pleasant lies.

In the following verses, Jude gives numerous warnings about the justice reserved for those who reject the Lord, citing Old Testament examples like Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain, and Satan and his angels. Verses 12 and 13 poetically compare false teachers with drifting clouds, uprooted trees, "wild waves of the sea", and wandering stars.

Then in verse 17 he gets to the practicals. This is the part of the book that really struck me. After finishing warning them of these men, I would have imagined his advice for the churches might have been something like "rebuke these godless men and their teaching, and cast them out of your midst." Shows how much I know. His advice is amazing:

But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.
Jude's advice isn't to rebuke the false teachers, practice some apologetic arguments to counter their words, or reject them from the churches--it's to continue building their faith and be filled with the Spirit in order to love these people. The quality of the love varies--show mercy to some, "snatch" others from the fire--but the point is to defeat false teaching with love, not aggression or carefully crafted arguments. And if this is how they were to treat unbelievers in their midst trying to alter the gospel, how much more fellow believers with whom they didn't see eye-to-eye?

The best thing the gifts of wisdom and knowledge have taught me is when to use them--and when not to try. Words of wisdom can help someone plagued by questions, or they can deepen interpersonal rifts. The love of Christ is more important than being "right". Maybe I'm just reminding myself of this fact, but this blog is an overflow for my brain and I've been thinking around this topic a lot lately. Good night.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. - 1 Corinthians 13:2

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Old Covenant and You

After far too long, it's about time I wrapped up the three-part series I started over a month ago on the Old Testament. In the first part I argued that the Old Testament is of critical importance for every Christian and we can't afford to brush it aside just because it's more challenging than the New. In the second part I unpacked the two main covenants, or agreements, in the Bible: the old covenant, or "law", and the new covenant, or "gospel". Finally, I'm going to try to get a bit more practical by tackling the question: what is the relationship between Christians today and the old covenant? Having already been saved by faith, are we still supposed to try to obey the law as part of imitating Christ? Luckily I have a bit of help on this one as this post will largely be a summary of a conversation I had with my pastor a few months ago on the subject. (Assuming I can decipher his cryptic notes) Partly because of this difficulty and partly because it's just very shaky theological ground, please take what I write here (especially at the end) as speculation, not established theology. But with so much confusion about the Old Testament today, I feel that something needs to be said.

One of my main takeaways from meeting with my pastor was the revolutionary nature of the gospel not just in its depth (deeper than our darkest sin), but its breadth--it is freely available to absolutely anyone for their salvation. Contrast this to the old covenant which was specifically for God's "holy nation", the Jews. Paul muses on this in Ephesians 3:4-6:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
That the gentiles (non-Jews) were now part of God's plan of salvation was a surprise for the earliest, Jewish Christians. (Acts 11:18)

So between the old and new covenants we see a big difference not just in the terms of the human side of the agreement (obey the law perfectly vs. repent and believe), but also in the parties involved: the old covenant was just for the Israelites, God's "chosen nation", but the new covenant is for everyone. This leads into the other main thing I remember from the conversation. My pastor outlined six purposes he and other church elders had discerned for the law of the old covenant. (I think there is one more that he forgot, but these seem fairly complete)
  1. To show that everyone is a sinner and convict them  of their sin. (Romans 3:19-20) The law is God's standard and failure to adhere to it perfectly is sin, imperfection that God in His perfect justice and holiness cannot tolerate.
  2. To increase (or heighten) the trespass (or guilt) of our sin. (Romans 5:20, 7:13) As circular as it sounds, another purpose of the law is to make sin more sinful! Perhaps to demonstrate how much God hates sin.
  3. To show us how to walk in God's ways. (Deuteronomy 8:6) The law told the nation of Israel how to live in right relation with God in the land He was going to give them.
  4. To set Israel apart from other nations as God's "holy nation". (Exodus 19:5) 
  5. To give life by obedience to it, as mentioned last time. (Leviticus 18:5)
  6. A shadow of the reality to come. This anticipation is explained in retrospect in Hebrews 8-10, which compares Jesus to the high priests of the old covenant. The high priests functioned as intermediaries between the people and God (for they were too afraid to approach Him themselves in their sin; Exodus 20:19) and offered sacrifices for the sins of the people. By coming in the flesh and dying, Jesus was like the perfect high priest, able to perfectly act as intermediary between us and God (because He was God) and able to forgive sins by His blood, unlike animal sacrifices. (Hebrews 10:4)
These purposes help us make some sense of how the Old Testament law relates to us today. Basically, purposes 3 through 6 listed above no longer apply to our situation in Christ.
  1. We have something better than a list of laws to show us God's ways: we have God himself, in the person of Christ, whose life is the ultimate example of the "Christian life" and whose teachings are for the new covenant, not the old.
  2. The distinction in God's eyes between the "holy nation" of Israel and the gentiles is no more. (Romans 3:22) In contrast to Exodus 19:5, Peter refers to a large group of Jewish and gentile believers as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation". (1 Peter 2:9) There is no longer any notion of people being "inside" or "outside" God's fold. Now everyone is inside.
  3. As I've hit on before, because of sin no one is justified by the law; grace is our only option. (Galatians 3:11) In Romans 15 the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem gather together to determine whether to hold gentile believers to the old covenant law. They restate this, realizing the futility of trying to be saved by the law. Verses 10-11 say:
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
  1. The terms of the old covenant served their purpose as a shadow of the reality to come, but now in Christ the reality is here! This is the joyful message of Hebrews 8-10: Christ is the culmination or fulfillment of the temple and sacrifice traditions of the old covenant. As an illustration of this, Matthew 27:51 mentions that when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple, which separated the holy of holies (where the spirit of God dwelled and the high priest only went in once a year with a rope tied to his waist and bells on his feet in case he died) from the rest of the temple was torn in half. The message is that we no longer need a temple and high priest and sacrifices to connect with God: Christ is our high priest and our sacrifice, and we can enter into His presence at any time with no fear of being struck dead.
As Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, He did not come to nullify any part of the law; it is still intact to show us the depth of our sin per purposes 1 and 2 above. (Romans 3:20) But for the reasons above, our situation regarding what we do about the law has completely changed. Certainly our response to hearing the law should not be to try (and inevitably fail) to obey it, which leads only to despair and death. Rather, by admitting this, repenting the sins it convicts us of, and believing in the Son, we are saved by faith. Christ's self-offering did what the law was powerless  to do because of our sinful state. (Romans 8:3)

So, finally, we get to application. What do you take away from all of this? That since we are saved by faith and not by the law, we can do whatever we want? By no means! (Romans 6:15) Christ made us dead to sin and alive to God, so we are simply called to live as we truly are. By abusing His grace we deny who we are and abuse the gift of salvation. So, then, does the law serve as a goal or guideline for how we are to live "by the Spirit", having already been saved? (Note: This is where the mostly solid theology stops and the sanctified speculation starts) Again, because of the differences in our situation listed above, I don't think this is the case.

Specifically, we must consider the "holiness" laws that are based on purpose four above. My pastor broke these up into four main categories: food laws, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and laws relating to temple practices and sacrifices. I don't think (again emphasizing my lack of certainty) that these laws apply to the universal church today for the reasons given above: these laws are part of the yoke that "neither our fathers nor we [the Jews] have been able to bear". And what do we stand to gain by following them? Certainly not salvation or relationship with God, for we already freely have those.

But I have to stop here, for the accusation commonly leveled at Christians that we "pick and choose only the parts of the Bible we like" is becoming far too relevant. At this point I'm not nearly certain enough in this reasoning to be certain that there is nothing in these laws that applies to us today. So, as a cop-out, I'll make the easier statement that we primarily learn how to live by Christ's example and our relationship with Him, not by the law. That we should follow Christ's teaching before the laws is evident from how He authoritatively added to or qualified the law in His ministry. Similarly the writings of the apostles in the New Testament, written in light of the new covenant, should be considered for guidance in living as a Christian before the writings of the Old Testament that are in light of the old covenant.

But again, the whole point of the new covenant is that its terms for us are not a list of rules like the old, but belief (John 6:29) that leads to repentance and salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). Our biggest concern should not be for how well we are obeying God but how close we are in our relationship with Him. For a Christian who is already forgiven for past, present, and future sins, disobedience is harmful insomuch as it damages this relationship with God. And the natural result of the relationship is not machinelike adherence to the law (which is primarily a list of don'ts, not dos) but transformation in every area of our lives to make us more like Christ. (Ephesians 5:1)