jasonbwatson

January 25, 2017

Authentic Christianity

Recently my family and I visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. I had been there before but my children had not. I had explained to my son ahead of time that there was something unique about the exterior of the house. It appears to be made of stone, but it is actually wood. Through a process called rustication, the wooden plans that side the house are cut with beveled edges periodically and then, while the white paint is still wet, fine sand is thrown onto the wood. The result is that it gives the appearance of stone blocks. This is both creative and effective, and for the purposes of architecture there is nothing wrong with it. However, it got me thinking about other things that are not what they appear to be–and specifically about the times that I cause myself to appear to be something other than what or who I am. As I pondered this I began to consider what it means to practice authentic Christianity.

If you google that phrase you will find plenty of hits. There are books and sermons by that title as well as plenty of blog posts and articles. I found a number of thoughts that were particularly helpful for me.

In one such message, titled “Authentic Christianity,” Steven Cole tells a story that was contained in a 1984 issue of Reader’s Digest. A bishop who had just had a cup of tea with a parishioner commented, “I’m glad to see in what a comfortable way you are living.” The churchgoer replied, “Oh, bishop, if you want to know how we really live, you need to come when you’re not here.”

That is funny, of course, but it is also true. How many times do I straighten things up and do my best to create the right appearance when there will be company coming over–particularly company whom I want to impress? Maybe that is no big deal really, but it is a big deal when we do the same thing with our lives, living differently at different times depending on who is around and whom we are trying to impress.

In that same message Cole said, “Unfortunately, a lot of Christians live that way, keeping up a good front to impress others with their spirituality. But if you knew how they really live, you’d find that they are faking it. They don’t live as authentic Christians.”

Several years ago Megan Hill wrote an article in Christianity Today about authenticity, with the subtitle “Do we Christians even understand what the buzzword means?”

In that article she suggested five principles for being an authentic Christian:

  1. Authenticity proclaims the reality of the Gospel – “Being authentic means that God and His Word define what is real,” she wrote.
  2. Authenticity doesn’t excuse sin. She writes:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love was the memoir of a woman seeking an authentic life. Its first page bears the motto: “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”

But for Gilbert, living authentically includes adultery, hedonism, blasphemy, and so on.

Gilbert’s type of authenticity is easy for Christians to reject. Her sins are “obvious.” But are we on guard against more subtle sins? …

Selfishness, love of men’s praise, lack of joy can all lurk, undetected, around our authentic edges.

  1. Authenticity seeks the good of the Body. “We live transparently, not to unload our own burdens and thus walk more lightly alone, but to intentionally share the burdens of others and carry them to the same grace that liberated us.”
  2. Authenticity honors wisdom. “Christians seeking to be authentic rightly value humility. We recognize that we are broken. But sometimes, in our quest to avoid the appearance of pride, we question our God-given ability to shine the light of wisdom.”
  3. Authenticity points ahead to a perfected future.

John Piper once said in an interview,

Here is the big issue: How do you go about living the Christian life in such a way that you are actually doing the living, doing the acting, doing the willing and yet Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is decisively doing the living and doing the acting and doing the willing in and through your acting and willing and doing? …

[W]hen I stood behind that pulpit, I wanted to preach by the Spirit. I wanted to preach in the strength that God supplies. I wanted to preach in a way so that I could say: “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Corinthians 5:10). I didn’t want to get up there and do nothing. It is my job. I am supposed to preach. I must preach. And yet the devil can preach. People can preach without the Holy Spirit. But that is not the Christian life.

Someone has said, “Sincerity is the key to success. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

But we have no business faking Christianity. The Bible is full of passages that tell us what authentic Christian living really is and looks like. Consider the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit or Paul’s writing about the new life in Christ in Ephesians 4 and 5 for starters.

So, food for thought from two perspectives:

First, am I examining myself and striving to live an authentic Christian life? We are not “playing a role.” I recently read a dual-biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. When I finished I told my wife I enjoyed it but if she wanted to continue to think of them as the lovable characters from The Andy Griffith Show I would not recommend reading it. Both men were tortured individuals with deep personal demons. They were, of course, actors–and very talented ones. That is what they were paid to do and they did it well. But we, Christians, are not to be actors. We are not to “play the part” of a Christian at certain times or put on certain appearances. We are to be like Christ.

Second, are we teaching our students, our own children, our co-workers and colleagues, friends and fellow church members, to pursue authentic Christianity? We do not want them to throw sand in wet paint, so to speak. We want them to be genuine, authentic Christians.

January 18, 2017

Church Convictions

This Friday will be the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America. As always, inauguration day will include a number of festivities and many “big names” will be involve din various ways. One of those who will not be involved, however, is Charlotte Church.

Church is a Welsh singer who became well known at the young age for her incredible voice. Her first album was released the year Church turned 12. The album sold millions and made Church the youngest person to ever have a number one album on the British crossover charts. She released a “best of” album at the ripe old age of 16. I would think it would be fair to call Church the Jackie Evancho of the early 2000s. (That comparison is appropriate in another way too, as will be seen shortly). About a dozen years Church made it known that was transitioning to pop music and, to be honest, I do not remember the last time I head anything about her until last week. I own all of her early CDs and enjoy them. I was shocked to discover that she is now 30 years old! Apparently she has still been performing and recording since I lost track of her but, also apparently, not in a manner or style I would much care for.

So what brought Church into the news last week? She was invited to perform for the Trump inauguration–and she very publicly declined. On January 10 Church tweeted to Trump, “Your staff have asked me to sing at your inauguration, a simple Internet search would show I think you’re a tyrant. Bye.” The Huffington Post took Church’s suggestion and did a simple internet search. They found a December 2015 tweet saying calling Trump, “A Sith death eater…….and an amoeba. I really, really detest him.” On a British talk show in 2016 she said, “I don’t hate anybody, but I hate that man.”

Those remarks would actually make it seem rather odd that Church would even be invited by the Trump team.

Church, of course, is not the only performer to have said no to performing for the inauguration. According to a January 15 article in Business Insider these artists have also reportedly declined invitations: Elton John, Céline Dion, Garth Brooks, Kiss, Moby, Andrea Bocelli, David Foster and Rebecca Ferguson. Half of these names, by the way, beg the question of why someone who campaigned on the motto “Make American Great Again” would even invite them. Does the United States really not enough of its own musical talent that British, Canadian, Italian and Welsh performers need to be imported? Not that I have any objection to international talent, mind you, it just seems odd to invite them to sing at the inauguration of the U.S. president. I guess I have never thought about it before, but I do not picture U.S. artists being invited to perform for the inauguration or coronation of other nations’ leaders. (This is not unique to Trump, of course. Barack Obama’s inauguration included Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Gabriela Montero–a Chinese-American born in Paris, an Israeli-American and a Venezuelan now residing in Spain).

None of this is the point of the post anyway. The point is that Church and the others have exercised their right not to provide services on behalf or in celebration of a person they do not like and/or disagree with–strongly, it would appear. If I were Charlotte Church and I believed that Donald Trump was a tyrant then I would decline too. In fact, if nothing else, I respect Church and friends for standing by their convictions and not accepting an invitation to perform at a very visible and, I imagine, very well compensated event because of their stance regarding the individual being inaugurated. After all, performing at the inauguration would imply approval of Trump, or at least an acceptance. Her voice is Charlotte Church’s business, it is how she makes her living, it is, in a manner of speaking, the service she provides. Still, though, it is hers and she should have the right to decide when, where and for whom to sing, should she not? Besides, it is not like there are not other performers who can provide songs for the inauguration. Garth Brooks said no but Toby Keith said yes. Charlotte Church said no but Jackie Evancho said yes. And so it goes.

Here is the question though, and the real reason for this post: why is it okay for a musical artist to say no to a request from (or on behalf of) the president-elect of the United States, to perform at one of the most unique and meaningful events in our republic, but it is not okay for a baker to decline to make a cake or a hotel to decline to host an event or a printer to decline to print t-shirts?  We have all heard the accounts of individuals who did these things, and others, because their convictions are that homosexual marriage is wrong. Accordingly, they did not want to participate in or appear to approve of homosexual marriage ceremonies (or other events that violated their conscience and/or religious belief). It is not like there are not other bakers who can make cakes, florists who can provide flowers, hotels that can host events and printers that can print t-shirts or flyers or whatever, so why cannot those individuals who would have to violate their conscience in order to comply with the request act in accordance with their beliefs? Does someone have to rise to the level of celebrity to have these rights? Does there need to be a track record in the Twitter-sphere of one’s objections to a lifestyle or belief? Sadly, the truth is more along the lines of someone has to be opposing what is seen as acceptable and right by the liberal left, the collective of people who celebrate tolerance and inclusion but fail to practice the same when it comes to them being tolerant of those who not agree with them.

Aaron and Melissa Klein were bakers in Oregon who chose not to bake a cake for a homosexual wedding. The resulting publicity, fines and court cases cost them $135,000 and their business. What will their choice cost Charlotte Church, Elton John or Garth Brooks? I think it is safe to say it will cost them nothing. In fact, the media publicity for them has been positive, praising them for refusing to perform for Trump. (On the other hand, there has been media attention toward Evancho that is questionable and even negative in light of the fact that she has chosen to perform despite having a transgender “sister”).

An article in the December 31, 2016 issue of WORLD entitled “Fair of foul?” examines legislation targeted at including sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in non-discrimination policies and laws. According to the article there is a split among some evangelical leaders over whether such legislation should always be opposed or whether it should be supported so long as there is religious exemptions in the law. I come down on the side of it being always opposed. Religious exemptions, after all, usually only apply to businesses, not individuals, and even then usually only to businesses of a certain size. In a statement issued December 14, 2016 more than six dozen religious leaders expressed their opposition to SOGI laws of any kind. Why? “They argue that SOGI laws violate privacy rights and freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and association….” Quite right.

So again, if the convictions of a Church (namely, Charlotte) can allow her to decline a invitation to sing for a presidential inauguration, why cannot the convictions someone learned at church (namely, Bible-believing and teaching churches) not also be respected? What do we gain from making something do something against their will after all? Nothing of value. Nothing we should really want to gain in the first place. If Charlotte, Andrea, Elton and Garth can act according to their convictions, Aaron and Melissa should be able to do the same thing. Anything else is simply intolerant.

January 2, 2017

My Year in Books — 2016

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Well, I did it—I read fifty or more books for the tenth consecutive year. It was a close call this year though, as I ended with only fifty-one. So, here it is, the annual review of my year in books (grouped by genre, not by the order in which they were read).

The first book in read in 2016 was Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré. Despite my fondness for thrillers and spy novels, this was the first le Carré novel I have ever read. It was enjoyable and captivating and I suspect I will read additional le Carré works in the future.

Other fiction I read in 2016 included the following: Behind Closed Doors by Elizabeth Haynes, an interesting book that keeps you wondering at times about who is telling the truth while also providing an accurate and uncomfortable look at life for those who are victims of sex trafficking; An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin, which was a fascinating look into the world of fine art as well as pleasing tale (though it does contain some unnecessary an explicit sex scenes); The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl, a story about a bookaneer—individuals who stole manuscripts of books by famous others to have them published abroad without the permission of the author, thus making vast sums for publishers and the bookaneers who sold them—trying to get Robert Louis Stevenson’s final novel; Conversion by Katherine Howe, a creative novel that provides astute insight into the circumstances that created the Salem Witch Trials by interweaving stories of that event with a modern re-telling of similar events taking place at a girls’ school located on land where the original events occurred; Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, which provides a keen look into World War II from the perspective of women in occupied France, including the difficulties they faced, the choices they had to make and the incredible ways in which they worked to defeat the Nazis; Mark Pryor’s Hollow Man was a well-written story that also causes the reader to give serious thought to things he might do for personal gain, that he would never ordinarily imagine doing, when given the right set of circumstances, while also providing an insightful look at the consequences of choices; The Black Country by Alex Grecian uniquely combines Civil War America with coal country England and a Scotland Yard murder investigation in late 19th-century Britain and it, too, provides insightful consideration of the consequences of choices; Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Truth Be Told is part of a series of novels written by Agatha Anthony, Mary Higgins Clark and Ryan, and it includes a unique twist on home foreclosures and fixing bank books while also interweaving a cold case; The Whistler is probably John Grisham’s best effort in recent memory, far better than last year’s Rogue Lawyer and better than Gray Mountain, though he decided, for the second novel in a row, to make one of the main characters a lesbian—despite that adding nothing to the story; I do still enjoy Grisham’s teen series, and 2016 included Theodore Boone: The Scandal; and Natchez Burning by Greg Iles was a gripping and angering look at atrocities committed by white supremacists in the Deep South in the 1950s and ‘60s, combined with a taken-from-the-headlines storyline about bringing the perpetrators to justice some fifty years later—but the book starts to assume credulity from its readers near the end and when Iles proved either unable or unwilling to wrap up the story in nearly 800 pages I had little interest in reading the other two books in what I learned is actually a trilogy.

Jeffrey Archer released both the sixth and seventh (and final) installments of The Clifton Chronicles in 2016, Cometh the Hour and This Was a Man, and I read them both. I continue to enjoy Archer’s writing and any of these books could be read enjoyable as stand-alone novels, though it was a pleasure to read all seven. As always, I read a number of James Patterson books in 2016 and I continue to find them to be delightful mental vacations where the good guys always win in the end. Last year’s selections included Private Vegas, Private Paris, Private India and The Games, all part of the Private series (and all written with co-authors), NYPD Red 4 continued that series, and Alert and Bullseye continued the Detective Michael Bennett series (and those were also all written with co-authors).

One work of fiction I read in 2016 was a book I probably never would have picked up on my own but found to be a fascinating read after it was loaned to me by a friend who thought I should read it: The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. The story was based on true events during the extreme drought in 1950s Texas and gave me not only a greater appreciation for what those ranchers went through but for ranchers and ranching in general.

I found myself in the rather unusual position of enjoying all of the “classics” that I read in 2016, something which has been a rarity, and they spanned a range of “classic” categories. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is particularly haunting precisely because it is a true story. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper deserves to be a classic in my opinion and while it may not be entirely accurate, it does offer a glimpse into the changes that European settlement brought to Native American life in America. As I read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon I felt like I was watching an old black and white cops-and-robbers movie with classic film noir vibes. It is really the first book of that genre I have ever read and I suspect there will be more in my future. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, was somewhat different than I expected and it offers an abundance of opportunity for thought and discussion about marriage, the long-lasting implications of hasty decisions made in the pursuit of lust, the hypocrisy so many of us are guilty of when it comes to expecting to be forgiven for grave wrongs but are so reluctant to forgive similar failures in others and the despair that can result when it seems there is no hope left. And finally, C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is indeed an easy-to-read but deeply insightful look at the failures of fallen humans and the methods employed to tempt us.

As always, there were a number of biographies and autobiographies that made my list in 2016. The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther and The Daring Mission of William Tyndale are both by Steven Lawson and a part of the Long Line of Godly Men series. The serve as good introductory overviews of these men but the writing lacks polish and precision at times. Jonathan Horn’s The Man Who Would Not Be Washington was a very readable, thorough and honest look at the life of Robert E. Lee. Nina Burleigh’s The Stranger and the Statesman is mostly a biography of James Smithson, though it necessarily interweaves some biography of John Quincy Adams and tells the story of the Smithsonian Institute’s founding. Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power is a superb biography of George H.W. Bush and George Vecsey’s Stan Musial is a terrific telling of the life of that baseball great (whom I was also privileged to meet more than twenty years ago). Margery Heffrom’s Louisa Catherine provided a fascinating look into the life and character of Mrs. John Quincy Adams, a first lady whom I knew very little about. Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick irritated me for the first half of the book, as it seemed that he was either assuming facts not in evidence or ignoring the facts that were in evidence when making assertions about Benedict Arnold. However, he then shifts course and writes one of the more probing observations of human character I have ever come across in a single paragraph. And Richard Zacks’ The Pirate Hunter was a fascinating tale of Captain Kidd, the famed “pirate.” If Zacks’ account is correct, Kidd may be one of the most unfortunate men in history.

In her autobiography In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park provides both valuable insight into what it is like to grow up in North Korea and a gripping account of what she and her family went through to escape the Hermit Kingdom. And as one of the original Little Rock Nine, Carlotta Walls LaNier offers an understanding of what it was like, and the commitment it took, to integrate the all-white schools of Alabama in A Mighty Long Way. David Ring, John Driver and David Wideman combined to write a moving account of David Ring’s life told from the perspective of David Wideman, who became (and remains) a close friend, in The Boy Born Dead. If you have heard of Ring and think you know his story, I would suggest that you do indeed only think you know his story until you have read this book. Elizabeth Vargas showed tremendous personal strength and courage in writing Between Breaths, an autobiography that focuses primarily on her fierce struggle with anxiety and alcoholism—all while appearing in front of millions of people every day on Good Morning, America, 20/20 and ABC World News Tonight. If you think alcoholism is purely the result of weakness and lack of effort this book will surely disabuse you of such a notion.

In the areas of spiritual growth, theology and Bible study I read a lot on the Sermon on the Mount in 2016, including all of John MacArthur’s The Beatitudes: The Only Way to Happiness and James Montgomery Boice’s The Sermon on the Mount. (I also read much of Thomas Watson’s The Beatitudes and volume one of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, but since I did not read all of the first and my copy of the latter includes both volumes in a single book, I did not count either). Eric Ludy’s God’s Gift to Women is written for a target audience of teenage males, but it provides worthwhile instruction on how God intended men and women to relate to one another and men to treat women in particular. John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which is particularly relevant amidst the feminism and redefining of gender roles and identities that is so prevalent in our world today. Along those same lines, Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Helper By Design is a book about God’s design for married women that would likely set any NOW member into fits of histrionics.

A couple of books that did not really fit in any other categories: Letters to Lisa by John Van Dyk provides helpful ideas for Christian teachers in an easy-to-read style, since it is written as correspondence between Van Dyk, a professor at Dordt College, and his daughter during the beginning of her teaching career; Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player continues Lencioni’s series of helpful parable-style books on business and management but for some reason includes profanity in the tale that adds nothing to the book and will likely offend some of his readers; and Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura is a book I do not know how to categorize, as it is equal parts Japanese history and accounts of Christian persecution, literary and art criticism and spiritual meditation. I have not read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, which is the basis of this book, and I suspect Fujimura’s work will be more meaningful to those who have read it.

So, that was my year in books. I think I may have left a few books out of this summary, but then I always do. Perhaps something here will catch your attention or pique your interest and you will explore new books in the upcoming year as a result. Happy reading!

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