Thursday, May 31, 2012


Last Saturday I was watching a movie with my family because my uncle was an extra in it. It was a recent one called Higher Ground, about a woman's lifelong struggle with faith in a close-knit community of "Jesus people". Anyway, throughout the movie I kept picking out things I didn't like about how Christian faith and practice were portrayed, idly thinking about biblical arguments on why they were wrong. Then Romans 2:1 hit me like a hammer:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judged the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
That took the wind out of my sails. Regardless of whether my criticisms were true or not (and they aren't even important), I was only increasing my own guilt by making them. I think this applies pretty broadly to Christianity in general. The language of negation, James Hunter argues, is nihilistic; it adds nothing to a conversation but only takes away. The redemptive work of the church in the world is all about building up and restoring creation; tearing down is not the focus. Clearly condemnation, even when it is true, must be used sparingly and carefully by the church.

So, this post: "metanegation". The negation of negation. Hopefully the last outright condemnatory post I will ever write. As Jesus shows numerous times with the Pharisees and in the temple, negation does have its place in the Christian life, but of course Jesus did not come to expose the Pharisees for the proud hypocrites they really were; He came that we may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10) I believe Jesus showed that loving your enemies (enough to die for them!) can be more powerful and more God-glorifying than fighting them. Sometimes love does take the form of telling people what they're doing wrong, but this should never be our first impulse. I'll close with one last verse that I think is applicable, Ephesians 4:29-32.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Friday, May 25, 2012

On The Shack

Well, I have finally read this book that apparently made quite a few waves in the Christian subculture in the past  few years: The Shack. I was interested in it because I'd heard many things about it, both good and bad--a scathing critique I can barely remember but made it sound a step above The God Delusion, and plenty of gushing praise for it. How could I resist?

If you haven't read The Shack, the basic plot is that a man has suffered a terrible tragedy and consequently is slipping in his relationship with God. At the request of a strange note, he returns to the shack that is the center of his trauma and there meets God face to face. Over most of the rest of the book, which reminds me of Greek philosophers in its extensive use of dialogues to teach, he comes to grips with the pain and resentment he's been carrying and experiences God's radical love for him even in the midst of great sadness. I'm not so much going to review this book as I am going to critique what is false in it and then say what I did learn from it.

The thing that has so many people up in arms about The Shack is the meeting God face-to-face part, which is a bit more literal than what you see in the Bible--God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are portrayed as an African-American woman, a Middle-Eastern man, and an Asian woman, respectively. I would totally agree with the cries of heresy at the theological issues this raises, except that (spoilers!) it's all a dream. The portrayal of Jesus is of course about as accurate as a 21st-century author can know how to make it, and remember that God the Father is not male in the same way men are, but in His relationship to the rest of the Trinity and to creation. Portraying "Papa" as a jolly African-American woman is just as inaccurate as any other human portrayal would be. (He lampshades the traditional imagery of the bearded old man) The same with "Sarayu", the Holy Spirit--I'm willing to forgive the human portrayal in the name of artistic license and the fact that it's a dream. Having Mack spend a weekend talking to Jesus and two intangible spirits would rather change the story; satisfying the critics who say it's a skewed portrayal of the Trinity by portraying God slightly more accurately as a three-headed person would change it quite a bit more.

That said, The Shack has its share of problems not in what happens, but in what is taught. And this book can get fairly heavy-handed at times, especially as it convinces you to set aside your judgment with its extreme appeal to emotion; the story behind Mack's "great sadness" is one of the saddest things I have ever read. Young often seems to be using the rather high platform offered by portraying the Trinity as human as a kind of super-soapbox to get stuff of his chest.

Relationships are never about power.--p. 106
This line and the ensuing conversation struck a chord with me after my studies of James Hunter. Later on pages 124-125, Young makes clear that he thinks interpersonal power and hierarchy have no place in the church, or in the Trinity. He views the existence of any kind of asymmetrical relationship in the Trinity as a "chain of command" (122). I would call it more a "chain of loving submission". It is the differences in how the Father, Son, and Spirit relate to each other that gives them distinct identities rather than being three identical persons of God. Of course Christians should avoid the use of coercion in their relationships, but Young seems to consider power/authority and coercion to be equivalent. This view gives Christians who do have power (i.e. all Christians) no help as to how to wisely use it to glorify God.

I don't create institutions--never have, never will.--p. 179
On a similar note, Young again takes the neo-Anabaptist view here, trying to separate the church as some kind of non-institutional, other-worldly enclave. Jesus goes on to say that He is "not too big on religion, and not very fond of politics or economics either." That's quite a social agenda Jesus has! And my posts on Hunter have hopefully covered the dangers of connecting revelation with a social agenda. Young's beefs with the church become pretty obvious on the previous page: "'My church is all about people...' Not a bunch of exhausting work and a long list of demands, and not the sitting in endless meetings staring at the backs of peoples' heads, people he really didn't even know.

Remember that people expected the real Jesus to be a political revolutionary who would overthrow the established Roman order to restore Israel's former glory, and He pointedly defied these expectations. This anti-institutional bent is not seen anywhere in the gospels, and indeed the church was, from its inception, an institution with multiple levels of leadership (Peter, Paul, the other apostles, Timothy, Titus, and countless others), discipline (1 Corinthians 5), and many commands and rules. Young takes what he's seen of abuses of the true identity of the church and draws a radical and false conclusion from them.

I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it.--p. 120
Uh... "It is mine to avenge; I will repay."--Deuteronomy 32:35 If God doesn't punish people for sin, then either there is no justice in the universe or the responsibility falls to us, and then the most hateful, judgmental Christians like Westboro Baptist aren't going far enough. Thank God for His perfect justice! Young seems to view God as being virtually all love while downplaying His other attributes (God's wisdom is, interestingly, portrayed as a separate, non-God person), a misconception that is distressingly popular these days.

Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy.--p. 149
That's Jesus saying that, as a response to "What would Jesus do?" His subsequent explanation of this is rather opaque, to say the least. I see this part and raise it Ephesians 4:15: "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." Again in Philippians 2:5: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." If we aren't supposed to be like Christ, then what was the purpose of His life leading up to the crucifixion? (For He was teaching from His own nature)

I could go on. The Wikipedia page on the book links to several conservative critiques of it. But I personally hate critiques like this one that just dissect something line by line and explain what is wrong with it. If this were all I had to say about the book, I wouldn't have written this post. But reading The Shack was a great exercise in discerning truth from lies, and there was plenty about it that I enjoyed. The joyful, affectionate interactions and, at times, banter between the members of the Trinity, while not at all an accurate definition of perichoresis, nonetheless helped me understand more of how God is love and the nature of the loving relationships between the members of the Trinity (inscrutable though they are). Also a shoutout to a line from when Mack is helping Sarayu tend a fractal-designed garden: "I love fractals, so I put them everywhere." I certainly like to think God finds fractals pretty cool. they're like the ultimate Easter eggs of the universe.

But most of all, this book and its central purpose of attempting to reconcile God's loving, all-powerful nature with personal tragedy (the tagline is "Where tragedy confronts eternity") have helped to expand my picture of how God's will and ours work together, and make it a bit less contradictory. Specifically, on page 165, "Papa has never needed evil to accomplish his good purposes. It is you humans who have embraced evil and Papa has responded with goodness." It was around here that I realized a bit more of how our free will can coexist with God's sovereignty. God's wisdom and insight are such that He is able to perfectly accomplish all He wills while leaving us free to choose in every circumstance. God's will envelops and surpasses ours like a river does the stones it flows over.

And so, I am glad I read The Shack. I don't know that I'd recommend it, especially to the less analytically-minded, and if you do read it keep your Heresy Firewall up at all times. But if you read it with a discerning and open mind, it's a nice look at the spiritual climate of a pretty big movement in Christianity (the emergent church) as it is today. (Or rather, five years ago)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christianity and the World

This post is the last of three summarizing the essays of James Davison Hunter's book, To Change the World. The previous two can be found here and here.

Hunter's first two essays were, as he would say, largely negational in that they served to point out and explain the mistakes commonly makes when dealing with culture and with power. The third essay is arguably the most important as it is where Hunter summarizes the common paradigms the church holds and lays out the groundwork for an alternate paradigm for engaging with the world; to be "in" the world but not "of" it.

First, the goal: "for Christian believers, the call to faithfulness is a call to live in fellowship and integrity with the person and witness of Jesus Christ." This faithfulness is not a detached, monastic life of personal piety but is embedded in our cultural, political, economic, and personal context. Living out this challenge of faithfulness requires us to understand this context, the "character of our times". And in America, this task has never been more difficult. Though we are the most powerful and influential nation in the world, the culture that underlies all of our various institutions is fragmented, jumbled, and confused. Americans are "committed and hopeful" but also "strongly distrustful of the major institutions" and "confused about their own nature and purpose in this life."

Each of the "political theologies" described in the previous essay sums up the challenge to faithfulness in America differently. For conservatives it is the tide of secularity; for liberals it is inequality; for neo-Anabaptists it is the corruption of the church by the spirit of this world. These are all very real challenges; where they are mistaken is in how they present their chosen issue as the problem the church faces, over and above the others. Hunter believes "there is not one single challenge to Christianity that eclipses all the others in importance." He presents two challenges that, while not all-encompassing, require immediate and thought-out attention from the church. These are the challenges of difference and dissolution.

The challenge of difference is as old as the church: how do we as Christian approach and relate to the world at large that is at heart completely different from the coming Kingdom? In our pluralistic society that has no dominant culture save the mainstream mass of blandness in which everyone partakes but does not take pride, this question is more pressing than ever.

This pluralism or marked difference between the church and the world poses challenges for Christian faith. Our heterogenous culture removes the social supports for faith that once existed in the age of "Christendom". "Strong and coherent beliefs require strong institutions enveloping those who aspire to believe." More than ever before, our tendency is to drift away from authentic faith toward ambivalence and uncertainty. "While is it possible to believe in God, one has to work much harder at it because the framework of belief is no longer in place to sustain it." And, of course, difference also brings with it the challenge of syncretism, keeping one's faith true to God and free of compromise with other worldviews.

The other, more recent challenge is that of dissolution--the dismantling of the basic assumptions that connect us to reality. Our civilization is founded on the assumption of a strong link between words and the realities they represent. As I argued in a previous post, this assumption has problems of its own. Whatever the case, modern thinking is increasingly eroding this link away. At its mildest, this line of thinking rightly questions the strength of the association between words and the world, but in more extreme forms it questions our ability to really know anything outside our minds.

This brand of out-of-control skepticism is very dangerous. If the meanings of words become fluid and open to interpretation, we lose our ability to talk about any of the concepts or values on which our civilization is founded. "The forces of dissolution lead us to a place of absence, a place where we can never be confident of what is real, what is true, what is good; a place where we are left wondering if nothing in particular is real or true or good." The aforementioned pluralism has also contributed to the confusion; the gaps in correspondence between the words in different languages loosen the connection between word and reality.

Modern trends in communication and technology also contribute to the challenge of dissolution. It "shrinks" the world, making geography and spatial reality less important in how we experience life. Television and, even more so, the internet compartmentalize the world and put the parts together in incoherent ways. The profit-seeking nature of communications companies mean that entertainment becomes the primary way of representing just about everything, and advertisements get jumbled in with real content in increasingly sneaky ways. It's a testament to the spirit of our times that it's possible to feel closer to a celebrity you will never meet than to your next-door neighbor.

"An environment that is constituted by surface images and simulations and that is fragmented and flattened cannot help but undermine the reality to which Christian belief and faith point. The words we use simply fail to have the same kind of traction they once did." Some Christians recognize the cultural forces behind this decay of meaning  and resist them, but many more innocently go along with it.

Basically, Hunter argues that the world is in a period of change faster and more sweeping than any before it. The cultural field is ripe for the development of a nihilistic worldview, which he defines as "autonomous desire and unfettered will legitimated by the ideology and practice of choice". One of the best and most hard-hitting sentences of this essay is, "In America, nihilism of this kind tends to foster a culture of banality that is manifested as self-indulgence, acquisition for its own sake, and empty spectacle that makes so much of popular culture and consumer culture trivial".

To meet these challenges, the church needs more than sincere faith: it needs wisdom and a plan for engaging the modern world in light of these challenges. Here Hunter draws correspondences between the three "political theologies" described in the last essay and three more general paradigms for pursuing faithfulness in the world: "defensive against", "relevance to", and "purity from". Recognizing these paradigms has been one of the most helpful parts of the book for me.

"Defensive against" seeks to retain the distinctive character of Christian orthodoxy within the world at large even as Christianity continues to exert much less overt influenced on culture than it did, say, 100 years ago. One side of this goal is the development of "parallel institutions" mirroring the world's systems of music, education, media, and so on. The other is a mindset of conflict against the world and a desire to reclaim lost cultural ground via evangelism and direct opposition to perceived enemies of the Christian faith and worldview. They seek to re-enshrine God in the social order and, by doing so, heal a fallen culture. This paradigm is, of course, held by conservative Christians and fundamentalists.

"Relevance to" tries to keep Christianity connected to the pressing issues of the day, and adapt or "resymbolize" it to be a better fit with modern culture. (Hopefully while still retaining correct doctrine) Like "defensive against", this paradigm has tended to have a proprietarian relationship with American culture, feeling a spiritual pressure to pursue social and political change in the form of humanitarian reform and policy change. It is relatively unconcerned with the purity of its doctrine, which is seen as a "conversation". Its goal is to redeem Christianity in the public view, but its methods are generally vague and highly marketed to fit in with the culture at large.

"Purity from", like "defensive against", seeks to preserve the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, but differs in that it effectively views the world as a lost cause, fallen to sin and unredeemable until Christ returns. Its focus is instead on reforming and redeeming the church to restore its authentic Christian witness and "city on a hill" status. It views the church as essentially different from and separate from the world, an insular enclave to be zealously protected. In this, it hold to an even stronger "us-versus-them" mentality than "defensive against".

Hunter then moves on to how each of these paradigms addresses the challenges of dissolution and difference. To "defensive against", difference seen as a real or potential threat to doctrine to be guarded against. The term "Judeo-Christian" has come to represent the range of acceptable differences defended by conservative Christians. "Relevance to" tries to downplay or deny difference, or change the church's public face to minimize it, risking the loss of the distinctiveness of Christianity in the process. "Purity from" views difference as spiritual darkness, and for the church to separate itself as a community of light.

The challenge of dissolution is the task of reconciling the Word and the power it once had with the modern world. "Relevance to" is willing to renegotiate the meaning of the Word to remain applicable to the world. It is more concerned with what the church does than with what it believes. "Defensive against" fiercely defends the truth of the Bible against any attempts to undermine it, but at the same time has been quite willing to co-opt and exploit the technologies that have contributed to this undermining. The gospel and Christian life are put through the same blender of information that characterizes the mainstream media, which somewhat confuses its message. "Purity from" simply retreats from anything that damages the integrity of the gospel. They try to fight this confusion through incarnation, the "unity of belief and practice", but only within a liturgical or church context.

In summary, all three paradigms pursue various means to minimize the tension between their faith and the world. "Defensive against", in its attempts to reshape the world to better fit its faith, has manifested itself in "ways that are, on the one hand, aggressive and confrontational, and on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential." Being "relevant to" the world tends to come at the cost of losing the distinctiveness of authentic Christianity. And the pursuit of "purity from" the world, has led to the disengagement of parts of the church from large areas of life. The question remains: "How can one be authentically Christian in circumstances that, by their very nature, undermine the credibility and coherence of faith?"

After all this criticism, Hunter stops to affirm the good the church is still doing in the world. Where the Bible is taught, the love of Christ is shared, and the Spirit moves through people, God is very much at work and real good is done. What the church lacks is leadership that deeply understands these times and can offer a more adequate vision of faithfulness for them. Rather than directly addressing the aforementioned two challenges, these paradigms have focused on secondary problems (i.e. politics and shaping culture), blaming their failures on just "not being Christian enough".

Hunter then takes a moment to unpack the term "formation" as he uses it. He means more by it than simply sharing the gospel and observing spiritual disciplines. it is the task of holistically making disciples who are able to flourish and cultivate faithfulness in every area of life. The problem for many American Christians is not that their faith is weak or inadequate, but that they have been largely shaped and formed by a culture and a world that are increasingly incompatible with their faith.

A role of the church in this task of formation, then, is to provide an alternative culture to the world's. Formation that renews all of life requires a culture that reaches into every area of life. Creating this community is less natural than it used to be and requires a good deal of intentionality--I think of the Christian expression "doing life together" as an example of this. This vision of this culture/community is nothing less than God's plan of shalom. He presents an interpretation of the Bible, previously shared during Spring Break, based around shalom as God's original design for creation, the loss of shalom in the fall, and His restoration of it through Christ. And the church is part of this restoration!

The tension between the clashing natures of the church and the world, which the three paradigms all try to deal with in their own ways, is irresolvable, he argues, a fact we'll have to live with this side of heaven. Peter describes this tension in his first letter. In the one hand, we are "aliens and strangers in the world" (1 Peter 2:11) and a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation". (2:9) On the other, we are supposed to be subject to the institutions of this world (2:13-17). How do we do this? One of my favorite quotes in the book, by Miroslav Volf, goes: "Christian difference is...not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old." It's the challenge of being "in the world", but not "of the world".

Hunter recognizes that "culture and culture-making have their own validity before God that is not nullified by the fall". It is dangerous to merely see culture-making as merely a means to an end, evangelistic or otherwise. Our God-given responsibility to develop and steward creation, fallen though it may be, is still in effect. Our task of "world-making" also means seeking out and affirming expression of truth, nobility, justice, or beauty outside the church--putting the aphorism "all truth is God's truth" into action.

But at the same time, we should realize that while contributing to culture and creation is good in God's sight, it is not inherently salvific; we cannot build the Kingdom of God ourselves, but instead God Himself will establish it for eternity. Believing otherwise tends to lead to thinking in terms of trying to "take over" culture or win the "culture wars", the effects of which don't need to be restated. Here the neo-Anabaptist school of thought is correct in its critique of the Christian left and right's Constantinian attempts to shape culture after their own vision, but it goes too far in suggesting that culture-making has no spiritual significance at all. Any good brought about by this work is a result of caring about something more than creating good--simply honoring God and recognizing His role as the creator of all things.

At the same time, we must keep in mind that though the fall is not complete and hopeless, it does affect every area of life, and so all worldly institutions exist as "parodies" of God's true redemption. Cities, states, economic systems, education, and other systems are all pale shadows of how it is going to be, and by making them the ends toward which we strive, we commit idolatry. Our vision of God's true shalom shows these institutions for what they really are.

So even while affirming the good in the world, the church must recognize its corruption and distance itself from all that is fallen in its institutions, systems, and philosophies. But this resistance does not simply mean decrying all the evil you see and preaching hellfire down on it; "subversion is not nihilistic but creative and constructive." In other words, the church resists the evil in the world by constructing and presenting a better alternative.

Formation, then, also entails learning to live this alternate reality of faithfulness in the midst of a fallen world. We are not just saved by Christ from our sins, we are also saved for the purpose of partaking in God's original mission of shalom. This entails being able to discern everything in the world that does not fit into shalom and reflect in life this vision of peace. Hunter sums up the enactment of this vision in the church with a fourth paradigm: "faithful presence within".

"Faithful presence" is somewhat more difficult to grasp today because technology has been weakening the very idea of "presence". Formerly nearly all interactions were carried out via direct physical presence in a concrete place; the presence and the place were both important. Today cell phones, television, and the internet allow us to be present everywhere and yet nowhere, and radically alter (even devalue) the notion of place. "Consciousness, experience, identity, physical presence, and the landscape around us, in short, are disembodied through these technologies." This in addition to the weakening association between word and world in the challenge of dissolution.

The Bible offers a radical contrast to this. In the creation narrative, God spoke, and it was so. This is the ultimate in connecting Word and world. God's word have absolute authority and ring with absolute truth. Likewise Jesus taught the truth with authority on earth. In general, God's word as enacted in a particular time and place in history. The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate example of this: God actually becoming man and stepping into the space and time He created. From here we get to Hunter's central argument in this essay: incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of difference and dissolution. specifically, the incarnation of God's word of love in us, the church. Time to unpack what that entails.

For an example, we go into a summary God's faithful presence to us. Hunter makes four points here: God actively pursues us, He identifies with us, He offers us true life, and He makes this life possible by His self-sacrificial love. The goal of this faithful presence is to restore our relationship with Him. To God we are the "other", just as the world outside the church is "other" to us. and so, just as God has been faithfully present to us, we seek to be faithfully present to Him, pursuing Him not as a means to some higher goal but as the highest goal to which we aspire.

Likewise, faithful presence also means that we are fully present to each other, to people both inside and outside the church just as God loved us while we were still in our sins. We have to get over the temptation to view the "other" as danger or darkness. We also seek to be faithfully present to our tasks (more on that in my previous post) and within our spheres of influence, or within the scope of the power we've been given.

This all sounds well and good, but though Christians can agree on the need for unity in the church, the three common paradigms tend to split on the matters of work or social influence. "Relevance to" focuses largely on maintaining ethical behavior, which while good, is not terribly revolutionary or distinctive; there are plenty of highly ethical people who know nothing of Christ out there. "Defensive against" claims to want to keep God as the lord over all of life, but its approach to work unintentionally contributes to a hidden dualism. As I mention in my previous post on work, a common tendency of evangelicals is to view the "kingdom significance" of work as stemming from its role as a platform for evangelism--instrumentalizing work as a means to spiritual goals. "Purity from" has an even more distinctive view on work, regarding it almost as a necessary evil, a means to support oneself, one's family, and the church with no spiritual significance at all. Consequently, it fails to provide any help for Christians employed outside the church in how to be faithfully present in the majority of their waking lives.

He moves on to the matter of leadership, defined in part as "a set of practices surrounding the legitimate use of gifts, resources, position, and therefore influence (or relational power)". (You can see how much more thorough Hunter is than my cursory summary of him) We all operate in multiple spheres of influence in which we may be leaders or followers. It's hopelessly simplistic to simply divide people into the "leader" and "follower" camps, between those who have influence and those who don't.

Hunter's interpretation of the "go into all the world" command of the great commission of Matthew 28:16-20 is that the church is being sent not just to every nation but into every area of social life and structure. In one sense or another, we are all missionaries. And "every area of social life" does include the higher echelons; some Christians will be called into positions of power.

This introduces a new tension between the humble, servant leadership exemplified by Christ and the apostles and the elitistic, status-driven system of power in the world. In this system, "status" is measured more by quality then by quantity and is not very easily transferable between individuals, which is a big part of its prestige. People with status tend to be jealously protective of it and their social circles. This dynamic of exclusion is antithetical to the kind of community Christians are called to develop. So, then, to the extent that we exercise leadership, we must recognize and live with this tension of power, rejecting the systems of elitism and celebrity that tend to surround social status in America.

In light of this, Hunter says that a community of faithful presence must meet peoples' essential needs for faith, hope, and love--in other words, meaning, purpose, and affection or belonging. "The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness--not just for Christians but for everyone."

Obviously much of the character of the modern world is antithetical to these ideals and practices. In our "market society", the rationale and language of capitalism spill into every area of life, even faith ("church-shopping"). This pragmatisation of everything is fundamentally nihilistic (remember his definition of nihilism as "autonomous desire and unfettered will legitimated by the ideology and practice of choice"). In other words, everything becomes about what we want, what is best for us. Faithful presence is an assault on the spirit of this present age--not a negational, equally nihilistic one like fundamentalism has become but a "bursting out of new creation from within it".

Hunter gets even more practical next, describing some practical ways he sees for individuals in various fields to practice this theology of faithful presence. I won't go into all the examples he gives, but here are summaries of a few:

  • An automotive company that frames its business around the question, "what do we owe our customers and employees?" and helps pay for college education for its employees' children.
  • An art gallery in Washington, D.C. with art inspired by and presented to the people of Anacostia, an area of the city highly stigmatized by poverty and violence.
  • A Kansas city business that "mentors" people instead of managing them.
  • A tech entrepreneur who invests his profits in projects that "foster human flourishing and the common good".
  • A grocery store cashier who greeted her customers warmly and by name every day and ended her conversations with them by promising to pray for their families, to the point where people would endure huge waits to get into her line.
These are just examples; there is no single strategy for enacting faithful presence. This is a challenge to be undertaken both by individuals and institutions--remember that the ignorance of the role of institutions was one flaw that dooms so many attempts by Christians to "change the world". It is the very challenge of truly being the church in the modern world, and a "quietly radical" alternative to the three previous paradigms for engaging with the world.

We see a great example of faithful presence in the Bible, in the Babylonian exile as documented in Jeremiah. The Israelites, having been deported back to Babylon, we hoping and expecting that God would soon rescue them and restore them to their old status. But the prophet Jeremiah had different news. He told the Israelites to settle down, start families, and plant vineyards, because they would be in Babylon for quite a while. This did not mean that God had given up on Israel, but that their exile was the place where God as at work. They were even supposed to work for the good of their captors (29:7)! God called them to be not defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the culture in which He'd planted them, but faithfully present within it.

Hunter believes that this approach is illustrative of how we should engage with the world around us. Like the Israelites, we are to be committed to the welfare of the cities in which we reside, even if they are indifferent or hostile to us. Faithful presence is a recognition that we share a world with others and a decision to partake in its flourishing--not just leave it to burn.

He then sums up the tensions the church must not just accept, but cultivate. First, within itself: the desire to do good and its own mistaken tendencies in manifesting that good. A huge part of addressing this tension is abandoning the Constantinian approach the church has used for so long in dealing with the world, seen today in language like "redeeming the culture", "advancing" or "building" the kingdom, or simply "changing the world". He thinks it is time to leave such language behind, along with its ressentiment-driven political methods of engagement and "culture war" mentality. And within the church, schisms and differences between denominations must be held lightly. The church seems almost made for these schisms (have you ever heard of two denominations deciding to merge?), but where they exist these differences give us a chance to love and tolerate "the other" in our midst.

And, as discussed earlier, the church must cultivate the tension between itself and the world. This means pursuing the world in love even while acknowledging all its evils and fallenness, the same way God has pursued us. It means offering an alternative culture of plausibility in which faith can flourish. Rather than rejecting the idea of the church as an institution, it means embracing it as the only institution that can really offer an alternative culture than the popular one.

And finally, back to the title: "to change the world". A dangerous starting point, since it's based on "the dubious assumption that the world, and thus history, can be controlled and managed", which risks making the pursuit of a specific culture or course of history the end goal and expression of our faith and God a means to achieve it. All the good the church has done and continues to do in the world is a side effect of its true purpose of worshipping God and honoring Him in all we do. Christ's victory on the cross over the powers and institutions broke the "necessity" of history and society and proved that with God, truly anything is possible. "It is this reality that frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in their cities."

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Christians at Work

I'm at a pretty exciting point in my life now. I've been completely done with college for just over a week, and I will be starting at Seagate in just over two. It's nice to have three weeks to relax, clean out my apartment, and process one of the biggest changes I'll experience in my life: the shift from being a student to being a "responsible adult", working a "real job", whatever you want to call it. So I've been thinking a lot on how I will continue to live my life for the Lord of my life in this new context of work. That question is the subject of this post.

A view on work that's been floating around the culture of American Christianity, if not really articulated often, lately goes something like this. Your job is a fantastic gift from God. This is because He has provided you with a network of relationships and put you in a sphere of influence to provide you with many fruitful opportunities for sharing His gospel of life. Invest in these relationships and keep working  with your coworkers so that they might know the truth through your authentic witness and be saved.

A related outlook on work that has been influencing me lately goes like this: I am truly thankful that God has gifted me with a skill that commands quite a premium salary in today's world--computer programming--and the opportunity to put it to use in a satisfying job. I can't wait to start pulling in a paycheck so that, by careful budgeting and financial planning, I can give as much of it as possible away to my church, my friends in ministry, and other worthy causes.

I tried to make both of these ideas sound as good as possible, but they are related in how they are both mistaken: they both make the earthly practice of work a means to a spiritual end--evangelism or the gift of generosity. Underlying this is a division of different vocations into "spiritual" and "secular" camps and the conception that one is more important or significant than the other. In reality, Jesus has sent us into "all the world" (Mark 16:15) and, with a few exceptions (hit man, drug runner, professional con artist...) we can't really say there are places a Christian "shouldn't" work.

Don't get me wrong--it's great that work gives us chances to share the gospel or support great ministries. But there is more to it than that. God "worked" to create the heavens and the earth (Genesis 2:2). Jesus worked as a carpenter for most of His earthly life. (Mark 6:3) Even before the Fall when everything was perfect, Adam had work to do in the garden of Eden. (Genesis 2:15) The curse means that our work will be filled with toil, frustration, difficulty, pain, and conflict (Genesis 3:17-19), but the original God-given purpose of our work--participating in God's creative work--has not changed. In our work we mimic not only God's creativity, but also His character. I believe that legitimate work is intrinsically glorifying to God, whatever else comes of it. This also implies that we should pursue excellence in whatever work we do--do you think Jesus did shoddy work as a carpenter? Do you think God cut some corners when He was making the world? (Well, there is the existence of cats, but that's another issue)

A few things to note: by "work" I don't just mean a job you get paid for. I am continuing to do research with the same project I did my honors thesis on; I don't get anything from it except my name on a paper, but I still consider it work. Stay-at-home moms work harder than many 9-to-5 wage earners. Second, it's probably not a good idea to wait for God to reveal to you exactly what He wants you to do with your life, closing every other door. God's calls to people in the Bible to specific jobs or ministries are relatively rare (but usually extraordinary, which is why they're so well-documented in its pages); in general, the command is "whatever you do, do it to the glory of God." (1 Cor. 10:31) And finally, I wanted to mention that work's being exhausting isn't always because of the fall. I know this from the inimitable feeling of peace and satisfaction you get from kicking back and resting after a hard day's work well done. This feeling is, I think, completely Biblical.

So whatever you do with yourself, whether it be in, with, or outside the church, know that your work is meaningful in the coming Kingdom apart from whether it wins anyone to Christ or pays for a well in Africa. (Though these things might motivate us to excellence in what we do) As a software programmer, I attempt to imitate God's creativity, order, and love for building complicated things in my work. An artist might convey or cultivate an appreciation for the beauty of creation. And so on. It's not my place to prescribe how others should go about their work; it's up to all Christians to discover how to glorify God wherever He puts them.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Diablo III (not a review)

With the releases of Mass Effect 3 and Diablo III this year, I've been doing a lot of critical thinking about the game industry recently. This is a topic I could (and hope to) go into a lot of detail on. I'm not nearly as serious a gamer as I used to be; partly this is because I have less time and other things to do now compared to 10th grade, and partly it's because thanks to ongoing trends increasingly few games are worth it for me. In general, the gaming experienced (at least for big-ticket games) is becoming increasingly publisher-oriented instead of gamer-oriented. For now, I will leave you with this article about how the biggest problem with Diablo III isn't the constant server problems but the fact that you now need servers to play a single-player game at all.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Einstein, Champion of Christianity and the American Way

My friend just shared this on Facebook and I got the best laugh I've had in weeks. I couldn't resist reposting it here.
A liberal Muslim homosexual illegal immigrant ACLU lawyer professor and abortion doctor was teaching a class on Karl Marx.
“Before the class begins, you must get on your knees and worship Marx and accept that he was the most highly-evolved being that the world has ever known, even greater than Jesus Christ.”
At this moment, a brave, patriotic, pro-life, Eagle Scout Navy SEAL champion who had served 1500 tours of duty and understood the necessity of war and fully supported all military decisions made by the United States stood up and held a rock.
“How old is this rock?” he asked.
The arrogant professor smirked his PhD smile and smugly replied “4.6 billion years old, you stupid Christian.”
“Wrong,” said the brilliant war hero. “It’s been 5,000 years since God created it. If it was 4.6 billion years old and evolution, as you say, is real… then it should be an animal by now.”
The professor was visibly shaken and dropped his copy of The Origin of Species. He stormed out of the room, his eyes full of liberal crocodile tears.
The 500 students all applauded and registered Republican that day. An eagle named “Small Government” flew into the room and perched atop the American flag and shed a tear on the chalk board. He reminded the students of the necessity of the 2nd Amendment and encouraged them all purchase firearms. The pledge of allegiance was read several times, and God himself showed up and enacted a flat tax rate across the country. Ronald Reagan watched all of this with great joy, smiling from the heavens.
The professor lost his tenure and was fired the next day. He mysteriously lost his life later that year and the coroner found that he died from chronic atheism. The university used the money that would have paid his salary to demolish the biology department building and erect a statue of Rocky in its place.
And the name of the brave patriotic soldier? Einstein.
I'm sure you've seen (and are maybe a bit tired of) the viral posts this one is parodying. A common Christian misconception of these posts it addresses is the belief that, in James Hunter's words, "If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly enough with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world." I used to think that if I could just form the right argument and convey God's truth well enough, any opposition to Christianity would just melt away. How ridiculous. It also points out most of the cultural issues around which conservative Christianity has framed its ministry in the world.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Calvinism and Arminianism: Round Two

Well, here we are again. Since I posted my first essay on the Calvinism-Arminianism debate last summer, it has become one of this blog's most beloved and popular entries. I'm really thankful that people have been so blessed by it. It's good to hear that I really am using the gifts of intellect that God has given me to bless others and build up the church, and not just indulge my curiosity or speak eloquently into the void of the internet. Now, nine and a half months and a few major spiritual revelations later, I'm revisiting the debate to correct the mistakes of the first essay and (hopefully) shed a bit more light on this point of contention.

By way of a quick summary (though I really recommend the first post for all its flaws I'll get to soon), I basically looked at the five points of Calvinism and the counterpointing articles of remonstrance, weighed their relative merits, and explained which side of each I fell on. (Except total depravity, which has only one side) I also did a tangent on how God exists outside of our perception of time, which led into my key point, that God's free and sovereign will, and our free will, are mysteriously able to coexist. This seems self-contradictory on its face and I may never fully understand it on either side of Heaven, but I still believe it now.

Part of the inspiration for this post was the point-counterpoint feature Relevant Magazine (which does a pretty good job of engaging modern culture from a Christian perspective) did on Calvinism and Arminianism, where one writer from each viewpoint explained their position. They were pretty good and enlightening, but I felt like neither writer really fully understood the other viewpoint, instead arguing against some degree of a straw man. The Calvinist writer seems to think Arminianism is infused with humanism, and the Arminian writer asserts that if Calvinism is true, then God predetermines acts of evil; or that if everything is part of God's plan to bring Himself glory, then nothing is truly evil. The Arminian writer also seems to focus on God's love to the exclusion of His other attributes; God is love, but He is much more than that.

Additionally, I would break with them both on the very first question in the interview: "Why do these debates matter to ordinary Christians?" I believe that they do not. The common ground of Calvinism and Arminianism includes every doctrine and teaching necessary to live as fulfilled and authentic Christian. Most of all, I'm glad that both writers acknowledge that salvation by faith alone is not on the debating table. The tension caused by Arminianism's insistence on the role of human free will and Calvinism's branding it as humanism seem unwarranted. If someone is rescued from drowning, it doesn't matter whether they are floating unconscious or actively reaching for the rope--they are in no way responsible for their being saved and completely dependent on the rescuer for life.

The three issues on which the views disagree--the nature of God's sovereign election, the extent of Christ's atonement, and the efficacy of the Spirit's calling, are entirely spiritual issues that need not inform how we view God or live for Him. He is still infinitely glorious, salvation is effected by His work alone, and we gain eternal life by our faith in Jesus alone (among other truths). The Calvinism-Arminianism debate is a great example of why having a perfect theology is (thankfully) not a requirement for salvation. I'm returning to this issue solely because of my bottomless curiosity.

With that said, on to the other thing I wanted to address: the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. My treatment of this point has been bugging me lately; in my first essay, I came up with such a weak argument for it that I was able to conclusively disprove it. I don't think this is how theology is supposed to work, so I found an extremely well-thought-out and researched essay on limited atonement with the help of a friend. So well-thought-out, in fact, that it has helped sway me to its point of view. Hopefully now I can give this point of contention the treatment it deserves. Since they are all closely related, I'll be touching on the U, I, and P of Calvinism again as well.

To start, I took a step back from the essay or any other argument from someone else and looked purely at the Biblical data. This involved putting every verse I could find on the subject onto about 40 cards, laying them all out, and processing them until things started to click. I was able to isolate the four main tensions, the four "yet"'s that I think help to drive the big debate.

Note: Google's new Blogger interface has a bug that makes it difficult to add links, so you're unfortunately on your own to look up all these Bible references.

God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), yet not everyone is saved. (Matthew 7:13-14)

This tension gets to the heart of God's sovereignty. If He desires everyone to be saved, what does it mean that not everyone is saved? Is God being insincere? Is He not in control? Since it raises questions like these, both Calvinism and Arminianism have found answers for this. Calvinism says that "all men" in 1 Timothy 2 is better understood as "all kinds of men"; the classic Arminian response is that while Jesus did extend God's salvation to everyone, not everyone freely chose to believe in God and so not everyone is saved.

I don't like either of these answers. I can't believe in good conscience that God doesn't really want some people to be saved; that seems to undermine His loving character. On the other hand, what I didn't seem to realize about the Arminian view last year is how much it weakens God's saving grace and Christ's atonement. It's basically implying that our refusal can defuse Christ's death on the cross for us, cause it to "not work", and paints a picture of a God whose best-laid plans are readily subverted by the exercise of our free will. Either way, an answer to this tension must reconcile the difference between what God wants to happen and what actually happens. Traditional responses use the idea of multiple, differing wills: with Calvinism we have God's "revealed will" as distinct from His "secret will", and in Arminianism it is God's will over and against ours.

I already addressed this tension pretty well last year. My response focuses on Romans 9:22-24, which I will quote again:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
I hadn't noticed the parallelism in this verse last time--"vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" and "vessels of mercy" "prepared for glory". The analogy used in previous verses is that of earthenware vessels being made for different purposes. I wouldn't say God has two different wills, but He does have two desires--to display His wrath, and display His mercy. Though they are very different on our end, they are both part of God's overarching desire to glorify Himself.

I will stop here to acknowledge that this is a very hard teaching to accept. This is what opponents of Calvinism like to call "double predestination", the idea that God predestines people for hell as well as for heaven, which I think is loosely held by Calvinists largely because of its difficulty to swallow. I really don't think there is any functional difference between "single" and "double" predestination; if you  take one, you get the other. The alternative would be God predestining His elect for salvation, and leaving everyone else to decide for themselves, which is (pardon the expression) just plain weird.

But anyway, this idea is understandably hard to accept. "I believe in a God of love", many Christians say. The idea of hell in general is very unpopular of late and many Christians (most notably Rob Bell) look for ways to soften its impact or significance in Christian theology. (I recommend Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle as a much better treatment of the subject than this aside) The thought that God predestines some people to hell without giving them a choice (though my non-contradicting view of God's will and ours would argue that this is a misrepresentation) is even harder. Hell is tragic because evil itself is tragic, and the fact that the alternative is an unjust God who lets the most evil among us to share in eternal life is little conciliation. How I think about it now is that God sincerely wants every single person to be saved and enjoy eternal life with Him, but those who reject Him he is ready and willing to cast out, knowing that the display of justice will also enhance His glory. Hopefully that helps at least a little.

Anyway, on to the second tension, which turns out to be much happier...

We are all commanded to repent (Acts 17:30), yet repentance is a gift from God. (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25)

This one was new to me and gets back to the nature of free will. If God is the one who gives us repentance and all that comes with it as a gift, how then can He command us to repent? Put the other way, the command to repent implies some action or initiative to be taken on our part, to obey--and if repentance is something we do, then how is it a gift? The Calvinist view, again putting all the initiative on God's side, argues that Christ's death not only purchases our salvation but also secures the conditions for it, including repentance. The Arminian response is to again take the universal command to repent as evidence for universal atonement--that Christ died for everyone and now everyone is called to freely accept Him and be saved.

This one was really confusing me until I remembered that God doesn't always command us to do things we are able to do--e.g. "be perfect" in Matthew 5:48, or the entire law in general; the purpose of the law is to show us that we are sinful, not for us to obey it (Romans 5:20). In light of this, I would say that God commands us to repent, and that repentance is to be real and freely given, but He also gifts us with the ability to obey the command and repent. This is an example of the grace He extends even to those who don't yet have Christ.

Jesus loses no one the Father gives to Him (John 6:39-40, 10:28-29), yet it is possible for those He died for to be "destroyed". (Romans 14:15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 2 Peter 2:1)

This tension is one half of the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement; a clear example of Jesus dying for people who are ultimately not of God's elect. The Calvinist view focuses on the meaning of "bought" as being more phenomenological (based on visible, external factors) than spiritual; in the words of one theologian, “The non­elect enjoy many benefits that accrue from the atonement but they do not partake of the atonement.”

For a while I thought the Arminian position on this tension seems the most convincing; on this and the next one, it really seems to take the relevant passages (some of them, anyway) at face value. Jesus died for some who will be "destroyed". I envisioned a distinction between Jesus dying for someone and that person being elected or "given" to Jesus. This seems to resolve the tension, except it flies in the face of verses like Romans 8:32, which draws a direct line of reasoning from Jesus dying for us to our being graciously given "all things", including salvation. More on this in the last tension.

Then, as I considered the Calvinist view further, the outward-appearance-of-salvation view began to make more sense. Since, as Ephesians 2:8 beautifully says, we are not saved by anything we ourselves do, whether inwardly or outwardly, but only by faith in the atonement of Jesus, there will always be at least a bit of fuzziness in knowing whether we ourselves are saved--how much more when trying to know for others! The only way to be absolutely certain we are saved is to remain faithful until the end. In light of this, it's much more feasible that Paul is using terms like "bought" and "died for" with the highest level of certainty we can have about each others' salvation--which leaves room for people who really appear to be Christians, but later fall away.

This point is also pretty scary and sobering--as I said last time, the idea of strong, mature Christians later turning against God and the church frightens me. But these mentions of the possibility of falling away aren't meant to scare people, but to encourage the church to be loving and considerate to the faith of weaker believers (the context of Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11) or to warn and exhort the church to cling to the truth rather than to false teachings (the 2 Peter verse). The worst possible response to these verses is to start worrying over whether or not you are really saved. 1 John 3 talks about how to tell if we are children of God or of the devil. If we believe that Jesus is the Christ (5:1) and cultivate a habitual lifestyle of righteousness, we have nothing to fear.

The extent of the atonement: Jesus died "once for all" (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 10:10) and for the whole world (1 John 2:2), yet He gave Himself up for His bride the church. (Ephesians 5:25)

This is the heart of the limited/universal atonement debate. Both sides have strong Biblical arguments for their view, as that essay shows. Picking one view requires you to somehow deal with all the evidence for the other. I'll try to carefully lay out both sides before explaining my position.

A key verse for the Calvinistic view I missed last time is Romans 8:32:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
The chain of logic goes like this: if God gave His son for us, then He will give us all things, presumably including salvation. You can't separate the gifts. Also, 2 Corinthians 5:14 says that those for whom Christ dies died with Him, and Romans 6:5-8 makes clear that those who died with Christ will also live with Him. It is very difficult to read the Bible as saying that those for whom Jesus died can remain lost and die in their sins The Calvinistic view also points to verses like John 10:26-29, Acts 20:28, Ephesians 5:25, and Titus 2:14 that indicate exclusivity in Jesus' sacrificial act. For a different kind of argument, if Christ died for His bride the church, then dying for those outside the church is kind of like polygamy.

The Arminian view simply points to verses like Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, and 10:10; 1 John 2:2, and 1 Timothy 2:6 which all use universal language in referring to the extent of Christ's atonement: "all", "the world", etc. It also points of that the verses cited above to say Christ's death was for the church do not say it was only for the church. Again, Arminians would say that Christ died for everyone, but His death is only efficacious for those who freely accept Him.

Like in the previous tension, the Arminian view seems to have simplicity on its side, and this had me convinced for a while. If Christ died for all, then He died for all, right? Well, it turns out that Greek has a somewhat more nuanced definition of "all" than some translations would suggest. The passages cited by the universal atonement view use one of three words to indicate the universality of Christ's death: πας (pas), κοσμος (kosmos), and εφαπαξ (ephapax).

πας is a very common word in the New Testament that is translated many different ways, including "all" and "all kinds of" (Matthew 4:23, 12:31, Acts 10:12, and Revelation 21:19, to name a few). So the "all kinds of men" rendition of such universal verses really is plausible. Kosmos, similarly, just means "world". Obviously the pharisees did not mean in John 12:19 that absolutely everyone was following Jesus. Or if Jesus died for the sins of the world (John 1:29), but Jesus said His disciples were not of the world (John 17:16) can see the need for a more nuanced definition of "kosmos" that isn't always universal.

Ephapax is the hardest one. This one appears just five times in the Bible (Romans 6:10, 1 Corinthians 15:6, Hebrews 7:27, Hebrews 9:12, and Hebrews 10:10) and is used either to say Jesus died for sin "once for all" or that he appeared to over five hundred people "all at once". I'm still not entirely sure how these verses don't prove universal atonement, but they are not mentioned in the extremely scholarly and well-researched essay that otherwise provides good support for the position, so I think they may not simply mean that Jesus died once for every single person; perhaps "once and for all" would be more accurate.

And finally, distasteful as it may seem, limited atonement makes a surprising amount of sense if you take the idea of God's election (which, again, is strongly supported by scripture) to its logical conclusion. If God is really sovereign, will He not do everything necessary to enact the salvation of those He chooses to save? If the elect really have been exclusively chosen for salvation, it makes sense that they would also be exclusively chosen to partake in Christ's death for sins.

And so, I find myself a four-point Calvinist--just not the usual four points. (Limited atonement is the one usually left out) Irresistible grace, the idea that those God chooses to save are saved apart from their own choice or willingness, which can do nothing to impede their salvation. While it is true from a certain point of view, I think it negates the role our free will really does (paradoxically) play in effecting our salvation.

I hope you don't get so bogged down in all this theology that you miss the big picture of which this debate is only one small part. Studying it has helped me to appreciate how powerful, awesome, and merciful the gospel is. When we were lost in our sins, rightly condemned to death for our treason against the God who made the universe and our souls, He gave up His son so that we could be reconciled to Him and even adopted into His family. What an amazing gift the gospel is! Understanding this and really appreciating it is much more important than having all your theological ducks in line.

Addendum 7/1/2012: After more thinking and debating, I am back to unlimited atonement. I realized that limited atonement's money verse, Romans 8:32, also uses πας, so by my logic it could be rendered "He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all kinds of things?" The absurdity of this got me completely fed up with noodling around with the various possible meanings of Greek words. I later realized that this verse furthermore isn't actually drawing an if-then relationship (if God gives Christ up for someone, then they receive all things, even salvation) but simply using Jesus as an example of God's perfect, amazing generosity as an encouragement to faithfully expect more glorious blessings beyond our salvation (such as the things in verse 30). I am still going to question the meaning of one word: namely "for". I think there is a difference between Christ's death being intended for you (which is true of everyone) and His death being effective for you (if you are saved), just as there is tragically a difference between God intending all people to be saved and their effectively being saved.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Christianity and Power

This post is the second of three summarizing the essays of James Davison Hunter's book, To Change the World. The first can be found here.

The second essay focuses on power--the nature of it and of the church's relationship with it particularly in America. It is a delicate subject because on one hand, fulfilling God's creation mandate in the world necessarily involves the use of some kind of power over creation, and in using that power we reflect God's creative and redemptive power. On the other, abuses of the creation mandate have led to some of the worst acts of domination, exploitation, and destruction in history. Central to this tension is the question of how the church views and uses the dynamic of power.

The next chapter is one of my favorites and captures many of the problems I see with the American political climate of the 21st century. Hunter argues that as society becomes increasingly pluralistic and consequently fragmented, the main thing holding it together in a cohesive whole has been the coercive power of the state. In other words, as cultural consensus has decreased, our reliance on politics and the state to solve disputes and bring about cooperation and agreement has increased. The result is a phenomenon that he terms "politicization", or a tendency to turn to politics to solve more and more public problems. This trend has been especially acute since the New Deal era which saw the government taking responsibility for many new areas of peoples' lives. "The language of politics (and political economy) comes to frame progressively more of our understanding of our common life, our public purposes, and ourselves collectively and individually."

The most visible way this politicization has manifested has been the turn in social matters to ideology--"the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments." When consensual agreement in a dispute cannot be reached, groups turn to the state to impose their ideology on the other side. Matters of family, education, science, communication, and even sex have become matters of ideology to be argued in the political arena. Meanwhile, the democratic idea that everyone is involved in politics means that these ideological divisions extend outside of government to the whole nation. Politicization means that "we find it difficult to think of a way to address public...problems or issues in any way that is not political." the increasing role of government means that "it is far easier to force one's will on others through political or legal means or to threaten to do so than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them."

Hunter then introduces one other relevant term--ressentiment, a French word combining the concepts of resentment, anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge. It is "grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged" to the point where the sensed of injury become central to a group's identity. Understandably, it often leads to a "discourse of negation", the need to tear down, prove wrong, or exact revenge on the wronging party. Ressentiment, Hunter argues, "has become the distinguishing characteristic of politics in modern cultures".

The church, he says, has gotten itself quite involved in this trend. As he noted in the first essay, the church's most visible form of engagement in America has been political. Some individual Christians are politically indifferent, but Christian churches and ministries that are concerned with social issues, because of politicization, increasingly involve themselves in the political process. "As a consequence, faith too has become highly politicized." In the following three chapters Hunter lays out three prominent "political theologies", ways the church in America has related itself to politics and to power. All are based on a formative vision, or "myth", an idealized view of how the church and society should be that shapes its strategy of public engagement. he starts with the Christian right.

The central myth of the Christian right is the classic "America as a Christian nation" history. With the American founding as their main reference point, they note that the world used to more closely reflect conservative Christian values and beliefs than it does today. They believe their deeply held values are therefore under challenge or even attack by the world of today and want to try to return America to its former righteousness. They view Christianity's legacy in America as a positive one, and the effects of bringing Christian values into government as beneficial.

Their perceived harm, then, is being wrought against America by the forces of secularization. To quote Dr. Lawrence White, "The soul of America is dying." They perceive a threat of a sweeping, deliberate liberal-secular takeover of the government, the courts, and the culture. They therefore take a defiant stand against secularization and all who support it (oppose them). They also perceive more personal harm against the Church and its people--the "war on Christianity" or "war on religion".

This perception of threat has led to a rousing call to action for Christian conservatives and carried with it a palpable "us-versus-them" mentality. James Dobson calls it a "civil war of values", saying "There are only two choices. It really is that clear. It's either God's war, or it is the way of social disintegration." They view themselves as one side of a battle for America's soul and very survival. The response consists of calls to prayer and action, most often political action. They see a direct line of reasoning from Biblical truths to legislation and voting, claiming that Jesus would vote for their values were He around today. Because so many of the problems they see are social problems and the trend of politicization, it is perhaps understandable that much of their action would be political in nature.

This turn to politics to save the soul of America has led to the Christian right putting a staggering amount of trust in the political process. They believe that by politics they can reclaim the culture, protect and renew their cherished values, save the very institutions of marriage and family, end the indecency in media, "affirm the national relationship with God", and "make America a land of individual liberty, respect for family integrity, public and private virtue, and private enterprise." More recently some conservative Christians have displayed a more restrained view of politics, instead focusing more directly on reclaiming culture. However, their underlying myth, logic, and tactics are the exact same--their imagery is that of counterattack and the language is still that of loss, anger, and desire for conquest of America's values.

A quick note: I may have been letting my biases through there just a bit, but I think I did pretty accurately sum up (and even skip over) some of the force of Hunter's summary of the Christian right. In this chapter and the next two, he tries to present as neutral a picture of the three political theologies as possible, supported by very numerous quotes by the movements' leaders. (Not embarrassing or mistaken quotes--speeches and phrases that sound like rallying cries) His depiction of each faction begins by sounding fairly reasonable and slowly moves to describe their more extreme elements--this seems to happen more quickly with the Christian right than with the other two. With that said, let's move on to the Christian left.

The central myth of the Christian left is a combination of the gospel of God with the Enlightenment/French revolution ideals of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." It is related to secular progressivism which believes in the power and responsibility of humanity to change society for thed good of everyone. Whereas the Christian right focuses on Christianity's role in the founding and moral development of America, the Christian left focuses more on its role in the social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries--abolition, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and more recently the gay rights movement. Its heroes are figures like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and so on. Its influence in public affairs peaked around the mid-20th century, when it was commonly believed to represent the definitive "Christian" voice on social issues. The decline in influence of this liberation-oriented wing of the church in the 1980s occurred partially because it had achieved many of its goals in the fields of womens' rights, civil rights, and the Vietnam war. After the 2004 election, it saw a resurgence in prominence as the Democratic party embraced the language of faith as an answer to the Christian right's seeming monopoly on the religious high ground.

Whereas the Christian right seizes onto parts of the Bible commanding moral uprightness and condemning idolatry and debauchery, the Christian left is more inclined to focus on teachings of Jesus and the prophets calling for justice, compassion to the poor, and care for the needy and oppressed. Its perception of harm, then, is harm done to the poor, oppressed, and socially marginalized/disadvantaged. Once this is understood, its rhetoric and methods are actually surprisingly similar to those of the Christian right. Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners, has said, "God is angry with the world because of the statistics of poverty" and elsewhere, "God hates inequality." Rather than a war on religion, they see a "war on the poor".

Since so much of their discourse seems heavily informed by the tactics of the Christian right, it is somewhat ironic that the Christian left also bases itself largely on its opposition to conservative Christianity. They think influential conservative Christian leaders have "hijacked" or "bastardized" their  faith; rather than seeking to take America back, they want to "take [their] religion back"; rather than feeling threatened by secularization they feel threatened by the Christian right. In their opposition they resort to similar tactics of name-calling and negation, and this is where the ressentiment of the Christian left really becomes visible. Like the Christian right, they claim to represent God's purposes in America and pursue these purposes via partisan political tactics. Though they criticize the Christian right for promoting Christianity as a "civil religion" by translating Biblical commands into legislation, they engage in the exact same practice in their crusade for social justice. In doing so both groups confuse the modern democracy of America with the divinely mandated theocracy of Israel.

If it isn't already clear, the Christian left strongly opposes the Christian right, even partially defining itself by this opposition, but its "framework, method, and style of engagement" is very similar to that of conservative Christianity. And just like their conservative counterparts, they are in danger of being co-opted or instrumentalized by a major political party, in this case the Democrats, for its own power-seeking ends. Now for the third "political theology", something completely different, neo-Anabaptism.

Neo-Anabaptism shares some characteristics of the Christian right and left--conservatives' decrying of the fallen moral state of America, and the left's wariness of the human consequences of unrestrained capitalism, as well as its general demographics and contempt for the Christian right. Where it sharply diverts from both of these groups is in its sweeping distrust of the state and rejection of the use of coercive force to advance its goals.

The central myth of neo-Anabaptism is not any vision of America, but that of the first-century apostolic church and "authentic" New Testament Christianity. This myth was central to the original Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century, which rejected both the Catholic church and the mainstream reformation for not going far enough. One manifestation of this was its rejection of infant baptism which was accepted by Catholics and the new protestants and call for people to be baptized again as adults--hence the name. The radically countercultural Anabaptist tradition continues with groups like the Mennonites and the Amish, but neo-Anabaptism is a more mainstream attempt to bring the principles of these traditions into the modern world.

A central belief in neo-Anabaptism is on the distinct "other-ness" of the church as an authentic, Christlike community of believers within the world, but distinct from it--the vision of the first few chapters of Acts. For them it is important that Christianity grew up not simply independent of the state, but in a hostile and even persecuting political environment. They view the Christian right and lefts' turn to politics and more generally the "Constantinian error", then, as the perpetuation of a centuries'old heresy and a deadly compromise of the church's distinctive witness to the world. They also see it in the church's embrace and use of American capitalism in its own methods. They seek to understand the "injury that the church has done to itself" in these heresies and view the church's "dual allegiance" to Christ and the political economy of American democracy and capitalism as a "yoke of slavery".

The harm that neo-Anabaptism perceives then, is committed by the church against itself and its authentic Christlike witness, and its goal is to recover this witness. Where the Christian right emphasizes Jesus' moral teachings and commands, and the left His desire for justice and care for the poor and marginalized, neo-Anabaptists emphasize Jesus' submission to God's will and servitude to those around Him, rejection of worldly or political power, and His ability to stand His ground even while remaining pacifist.

It views the state as, as best, a necessary evil, one that holds the world together, but holds it away from God. The Christian church, for them, is defined in large part by its distinction from and conflict with the powers of this world. The use of coercion or force over others is viewed as completely antithetical to Christian practice. John Yoder, one of the leading neo-Anabaptist thinkers, explains: "The political novelty that God brings into the world is a community of those who serve instead of ruling, who suffer instead of inflicting suffering, whose fellowship crosses social lines instead of reinforcing them."

If I haven't made it clear, neo-Anabaptist thought views the church as sharply distinct from, and antithetical to, the world and its ways. They have an acute sense of being "aliens and strangers in the world" which extends to their "city on a hill" definition of the church as a whole. Loyalty to the church trumps citizenship in the world, and simply being the true church is more important to it than any kind of social or political engagement.

This all makes it more ironic and even puzzling that neo-Anabaptism still has plenty to say about the church and politics. It still has a political definition of Jesus (albeit one that emphasizes His resistance to the political order) and defines the church in much the same way. Hunter says "Yoder goes so far as to argue that the only suffering that has spiritual meaning is political suffering." Though its goals are starkly distinct from those of the Christian right and left, neo-Anabaptism is still highly politicized in its thinking, still uses the language of politics to describe itself while remaining blind to its baggage.

And so in many ways neo-Anabaptism is even more negational than the Christian right or left. In its wake-up call to the church, it finds little to admire or praise in Christians or the world. Its negation is directed inwardly rather than outwardly like that of the Christian right, but the end result is largely the same: "a political theology that reinforces rather than contradicts the discourse of negation so ubiquitous in our late modern political culture."

With all that said, Hunter goes on to evaluating the three political theologies. He starts by affirming their concerns and motivations as legitimate. The Christian right is correct to worry about the corrupting effects of secular culture on faith and families, the Christian left is right to be concerned about the dominant political witness of the Christian right as well as inequality and the negative effects of capitalism, and neo-Anabaptists are right to be worried that the church is becoming too worldly and forfeiting its "salt and light" status. All three politicize these concerns, and none question the causal link between the roles of the church and of the state. All three are based on central myths that are at best skewed or overly narrow, and at worst just plain wrong. He concludes that the public witness of the church in modern America has largely become a political witness.

Next, he responds to the trend of politicization in our democracy. He draws a distinction between "democracy" and "the state". Democracy resides in an elected political class and its relationship with citizens, the kind of politics you hear about in the daily news. The state is a massive bureaucratic organization that actually makes decisions and turns politics into action, and is not a perfect extension of the will of the political class. Elected officials are subject to popular sovereignty, but most of the people wielding the power of the state are not elected officials and so the state is not directly subject to electoral will.

Further, there are no real political solutions to many problems people care about; the simply cannot do everything that people have come to ask of it. Laws cannot instill values or morals in people and they often create more problems than they solve. He quotes Mitt Romney, which is especially significant now, as saying "We have lost faith in government. Not just in one party, not just in one house, but in government." Most politicians today seem (understandably) to be trying to build voters' faith in government.

He also argues that politics is ultimately about power. By politicizing their witness, the Christian right and left have also politicized the very values they seek to promote, made them part of the American political economy of power, and made it almost impossible for politics to actually produce those values. This is the irony mentioned on the cover of the book. Another irony is how pursuing their public goals as political issues has become a substitute for directly working to advance these goals themselves.

And so, the tragedy of these political theologies is that by focusing on politics, the church really has lost sight of correct theology and its authentic witness. Its identity is at least partly built on the ressentiment and negation that have come to characterize politics. Hand in hand with this comes a lack of affirmation of the positive and the good, especially among conservative Christians and neo-Anabaptists, the latter of which have little to say that is constructive to those outside their church community. "The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians...unwittingly embrace the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry."

More generally, the very ideal of a political "myth" to base a theology on is a dangerous one. As interpretations of the past, these myths are not falsifiable. Their ability to infuse particular this-worldly actions with other-worldly significance, especially with multiple competing myths out there, has led to the problems described above.

And so, the church needs a new paradigm for public witness and its treatment of power. Hunter makes several observations about the nature of power. First, he argues that power in some form or another is inherent to all humans--power both over creation and over each other. By its very nature, power is asymmetrical, the ability to act on others or to deprive them of their ability to act. The most obvious expressions of power today are political and economical, but symbolic or cultural power--the ability to define what is real, good, or significant in a situation--can be even more fundamental and effective. In short, power is inescapable; it is not everything, but it is a part of everyone and every relationship.

He makes three more observations. The first is that that power tends to become an end in itself, turning towards its own preservation. The second is that "because it is inherently relational and asymmetrical, power always generates its own resistances." And the last is that power always creates unintended consequences. The more power we have, the more difficult it becomes to control and master.

In light of this, the neo-Anabaptist directive to renounce all power seems mistaken, reflecting a truncated view of what power is (as only political and economical). Try as we may to see the church as a completely free and egalitarian community, it is also an institution and, by its very nature, possesses and uses power, as do the people in it. This is why "Any effort to draw a sharp line between the church and the world cannot help but result in failure." The church is caught in this tension between existing in the world and being the other-worldly body of Christ.

There is a big temptation to try to resist or minimize this tension. The political theologies of the Christian right and left do so by associating divine revelation with specific social/political agendas so that by pursuing power in the world they are also remaining faithful to God; the neo-Anabaptists withdraw from the world and its practices as much as possible. The crucial question the church must face is "to the extent that it has space to do so, how will the church and its people use the power that they have."

On the way to a "postpolitical witness" in America, the church faces two main tasks. The first is to disentangle the life and identity of the church from those of the nation. "Christianity far too comfortably legitimates the dominant political ideologies and far too uncritically justifies the prevailing macroeconomic structures and practices of our time". In its common view of morality and social practices the church has also come to closely resemble the world at large. (I am now reminded of the "Faithbook" posters in the cafeteria where we ate on Spring Retreat). The way that parts of the church have linked their sense of purpose and future to the success of political ideologies. Neo-Anabaptists are right in decrying the continuing erosion of the boundaries between the church and the world.

The second task for the church (and, I think, all Americans) is to decouple the "public" from the "political". This means decreasing our expectations of the range and extent of problems that politics and really solve, recognizing the flaws, limitations, and dangers of the political approach, and looking for other ways of engaging society. Hunter even recommends that the church simply remain silent for a while until it can engage in and even discuss politics in ways that aren't all about power.

He then moves to the more commonplace "social" variety of power and how Jesus approached it in His ministry. It's significant that Satan in Matthew 4:8 offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, implying that he has dominion over them all. Hunter concludes that "the spirit that animates worldly power...naturally tends toward manipulation, domination, and control." This is the power that Jesus came to break, to disarm (Colossians 2:13-15). On the cross, He exposed them for what they really were and made possible an entirely different way of approaching power.

Hunter pulls out four characteristics of Jesus' "social power". First, it was derived entirely from His intimacy with and submission to His Father. He mentions His submission to the Father repeatedly in the gospels; John 12:49-50, 14:10, and 5:19 and 30 to name a few. This also applies to His power to work miracles, which He submitted to the Father during His temptation in the desert.

Second, He consistently rejected worldly concepts of status and reputation, and was consequently ridiculed and ultimately killed. His associating with tax collectors and "sinners", the bottom rung of society; His washing His disciples' feet; and ultimately His becoming human and dying an ignoble death all spoke to His rejection of reputation.

The third characteristic of Christ's use of power was simply love. This is the one Christians tend to be most familiar with. In 1 John we read that God is love, and that Jesus's sacrificial death on the cross is the supreme example of what love is. In His life, all of His uses of power were smaller versions of this love. He was always giving Himself up for others, never seeking to defend His resources or His status.

And a fourth characteristic was the way Jesus dealt with all people, Jew, gentile, or even Samaritan, equally and noncoercively. Even with people who were rejected by "proper" Jewish society and treated with contempt, Jesus was just as loving, tolerant, and self-sacrificing. "Violence, coercion ,and revenge were never legitimate means for bringing about God's purposes."

Hunter concludes by noting that one consequence of focusing only on political and economic forms of power is that we tend to forget about other forms of power that wed all use every day. We get caught up in matters of political power that have little effect on our own lives rather than using the power wed have to serve God. The kingdom of God is really an "upside-down" kingdom in that it turns the power structures of the world on their head. "In contrast to the kingdoms of this world, his kingdom manifests the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate." To serve in this kingdom, we must become like the King. How more specifically Christians can do so is the subject of the third and final essay.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Who is the antichrist?

Another post requested by my small group. Today we got to 1 John 2:15-27, a wonderful passage about holding onto the Truth you've been taught and (returning to James Hunter's kind of speaking) maintaining an authentic Christian witness in a world hostile to God. It also mentions an "antichrist" three times and was, I think, one of the foundations for the theology in the Left Behind books. The idea of "antichrist" proved to be a slightly confusing one, so here I am trying to clarify it a bit. For starters, here is everything the Bible has to say about the antichrist.
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. - 1 John 2:18
Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist--he denies the Father and the Son. - 1 John 2:22
But every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. - 1 John 4:3
Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. - 2 John 7

And that's it. The same Greek word, αντιχριστοσ ("antichristos"), is used in every instance. I could have sworn a book other than John's epistles mentioned the word, but apparently not. Anyway, this word is thrown around a lot, so I'm going to try and address it here: who is the antichrist? Well, luckily I get the news, so I know the antichrist is Barack Obama. Or Oprah. Or Ronald Reagan. Or just about anyone you like. Like I said, the word is thrown around a lot.

The first question to ask in a treatment of this subject is: is there one Antichrist, or many antichrists?Or both? The singular Antichrist-with-a-capital-A seems to be the most popular; when you hear about the Antichrist, it's usually some preacher applying the term to a public figure, or in the context of left Behind. 1 John 2:18 captures the tension: first the antichrist (the capitalization varies between translations) is coming, then many antichrists have already come. 1 John 2:22 and 2 John 7 both seem to say that anyone who is against Christ (literally anti-Christ) is the antichrist. 1 John 4:3 warns of the spirit of the antichrist. The question, then, is how to put these four verses together into a cohesive whole.

I would say that the Bible definitely argues for the existence of many antichrists (with a small a), whatever else you believe. They are already among us and were around in the time of the early church. Again, to get what it means, just break up the word: anti-Christ. Mark Driscoll argues that this means anyone who does not believe in Jesus ("He who is not with me is against me", Matthew 12:30). But I'm not sure this is exactly what John is getting at with this language. One of the purposes of 1 John is to fight the false teachings and teachers that were such a problem for the fledgling church. The context of the first two verses, John 2:18-27, is revealed in verse 26: "I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray." In 2 John 7 "antichrist" is equated with "deceiver". In light of this, I would define "antichrist" (with a small a) as someone who does not acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, and teaches or influences others to believe likewise. These are the kinds of people John is warning the recipients of his first epistle about.

How does John say to respond to antichrists? Kick them out of the church? Burn them at the stake? No.  I'll put up the entire passage.
18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
24 See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is what he promised us—even eternal life.
26 I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.
John doesn't tell the readers to hunt down these liars and get rid of them. In verse 20 he assures his readers that "you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth". As pastor Steve says, the best way to spot a counterfeit is to be very familiar with the real thing. The best defense against false teaching is to know the truth--to "know what you believe, and why". He responds to these antichrists by appealing to the truth of the gospel that they still possess, to kindle the flames of the Spirit by which they were anointed. By the way, the term "anointing" calls back to the Old Testament practice of setting someone apart for a special task or mission; Israelite kings were anointed to be king, for instance. In this sense, we are anointed to be bearers and teachers of the Truth.

That leads into the other possible definition of "Antichrist", the one with a capital A. Again, it is possible (and I think easier) to simply interpret all five of John's uses of the word as referring to these false teachers. It is also possible to interpret the first usage in 1 John 2:18 (and maybe the one in 4:3) as referring to one individual. I think proponents of this view might equate the Antichrist with the beast from the sea in Revelation 13 who blasphemes God and deceives almost the entire world into following him. The sense of expectation in 1 John 2:18 and the metaphorical, yet oddly specific descriptions in Revelation have led to a lot of guessing as to who the Antichrist is; depending on who you ask, it's just about any public figure--maybe even the guy who cut you off in traffic.

And there we come to the big practical problem with this interpretation. Once you believe in a singular Antichrist who will lead the whole world astray and serve as a nemesis to Christ, it seems to become almost irresistible to decipher the clues and figure out who it is. And do you get this discourse of negation where Christian leaders very publicly denounce so-and-so as the Antichrist, and of course so-and-so really isn't and all the fearmongering comes to nothing and Christianity looks just a bit more like a religion of crazies to people. It's in a similar vein to preachers who claim to have calculated that the "end of the world" will happen in a few months or years. (The end of the world is currently scheduled for December 21st, 2012, if you haven't heard. You may notice how no one every predicts the end of the world as hundreds of years from now.)

Anyway, this discourse of negation and denunciation is antithetical to how Christ taught and ministered--you could almost say it is "anti-Christ". It is not loving or truthful, but vicious and slanderous. Yes, Christ did denounce Pharisees and teachers of the law, but for one thing He was completely certain in what He was saying (unlike anyone who says X is the Antichrist) and second these denunciations were not personal attacks or attempts to discredit in order to gain credibility or clout, but were directed at the Pharisees' actions and ways of life, not their identities. If they let go of their pride and believed in Him, He was quite willing to accept or work with them. (See Nicodemus in John 3, or Paul in general) Do people expect someone named as the Antichrist to apologize and stop being the Antichrist?

So my point is that singular Antichrist or not, it really doesn't matter right now. If there's one thing I can conclude from Revelation (besides that the new Earth is going to be amazing), it's that God seems to have how He's going to get us there pretty well planned-out and we need not concern ourselves with what we can bring to the table in His plan--certainly not about how we can work out His redemption of creation here and now. Even if that is how it will be, I think our response should be the same as for the antichrists in the world now: to cling to the truth, treasure it, and proclaim it, not seek to discredit and damage those with whom we may have valid reasons for disagreeing.

Until next time, may you know what you believe and why you believe it.