All You Need is Love, But What is Love?

A recent survey said that only 9% of American adults have a “biblical worldview.”  I’m generally skeptical of polls unless I know how they were done.  After looking into this one, I wonder if I fall in to the 91% of American adults who don’t have a “biblical worldview.”  Why?  In their definition of “biblical worldview” the word “love” was nowhere to be found.  Maybe they thought “love” was too hard to define to base a survey on.  If so, I can understand because love is a complicated thing.

In this survey, “love” was not in the definition, but “absolute moral truth” is, which bothered me not because truth is a bad thing, but because moral law is what condemns us.  Moral law would still exist if Christ had not died for us.  The Gospel, or Good News, of Christianity is that we can be saved despite failing to follow the law. Truth without love is like describing Easter and leaving out the Resurrection.  If we have not love, we have nothing but condemnation.  Love is essential.

But what is love?  Love means many things to different people and is a word people like to leave undefined or use to mean whatever sounds good.  Often people agree that “we should all love each other” without knowing what exactly they’re agreeing on.

Confusion about what love is has been around for a long, long time.  The Bible itself talks about several different kinds of love, making a “biblical worldview” definition harder.  In English translations of the New Testament, the word “love” shows up over and over again, but the Bible wasn’t written in English.  I’m no Greek scholar, but what follows is how I personally understand “love,” and I hope it clarifies rather than confuses.

In Greek, there are at least 4 words for love, including these three:

  • Eros – sexual or passionate love
  • Phileo – this is a root of “Philadelphia”, literally the city of brotherly love.  Loosely, phileo means an affection for people who are “brothers,” who we like because we admire something about them, or because they are like us.
  • Stergo – This is a love toward kindred or family, typically between parents and children.  This love is like a loyalty to those we are related to by blood.

These words and ideas were part of the culture in which Jesus lived, died and rose again over 2,000 years ago.  However, the writers of the New Testament Bible couldn’t line the meaning of these words up with what they wanted to say about Jesus.  Therefore, they took a little-used word – agape – and poured new meaning into it.

A Better Love
Agape is epitomized by the act of Jesus dying on the cross, but also by His selfless love for others repeatedly demonstrated in the gospel records of His life.  Agape is putting the interests of others above the interests of yourself, even if there is no benefit to yourself, or even if there is a significant cost to yourself.  Even if those others don’t love you.  Agape motivates acts of benevolence or charity.

Why is love so important to a Christian worldview?  Not only because if God didn’t love the world, He wouldn’t have sent His only son, but also because if individual Christians leave love out of their worldview, they use “absolute truth” as a reason to judge.  Love that requires sacrifice may be less popular than love that doesn’t, but without it there is no cross.

As I see a Christian worldview, this kind of love is absolutely essential.  From it comes a framework of the entire history of God’s relations with man in three phases: love rejected, love redeemed, and love restored.

Love Rejected
While vague “love” is popular, true agape love is not.  When I took a college class on Interpersonal Psychology, one of the topics was the multiple meanings of love. The professor explained the multiple Greek words used for “love”, but when he got to “agape” he asked if anyone in the class could explain because he didn’t “understand” it (or so he said).  I raised my hand, answered by describing the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, and was snickered at by much of the class.  The professor smiled at me and moved on to the next topic.  He probably set up the same situation every semester.  So, yes, not only does the world often not know what “love” means in a Christian sense, but they actively ridicule it when it’s explained to them.

From Adam and Eve right to the modern day, agape love is the bonds that mankind seeks to break and find their own way.  In an earlier post, I wrote that the “bonds” and “cords” that the world tries to break free from in Psalm 2 are the laws of love for God and for our fellow man.  Jesus summarized all the commandments of the Bible as: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[1]

I recently wrote that “the problem with every person individually is that they are unable, no matter how much external pressure is put on them, to treat other individuals the way they should be treated.”  People like to ask or demand that others practice agape love, but usually for the benefit of themselves.  It is not in our nature to demand it of ourselves first whether or not anyone else reciprocates.

Love Redeemed
People also usually like the idea that every person gets what they deserve – but we are less likely to talk about that for ourselves than for others.  The justice of God demands that anyone who refuses – at any time – to love Him and to love their neighbor should get what they deserve.  He does not miss anything but is perfect in His justice.  Jesus had to live the perfect life of agape love, under the loving guidance of Our Father, not so we won’t have to, but because we can’t.  Without Christianity and without love, the world would never be able to overcome the “Love Rejected” stage.

Christianity is not judgement, but the only way of escape from it: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). If man had not rejected love, Christianity wouldn’t be necessary; but also, if Christianity does not restore mankind to agape love, it’s pointless.  Jesus, by willingly giving the ultimate sacrifice of Himself, satisfied God’s perfect justice and perfect love simultaneously.

By rising from the grave, He is able to share with us the power of agape love, which governs and redeems the other loves:

  • Eros – So many of the personal and societal problems in the world are driven by unconstrained eros.  In agape, God provides boundaries within which eros benefits, rather than harms, humanity.  See an earlier post on Godly Offspring for how God prevails over unconstrained eros even when we fail.
  • Phileo – Unconstrained phileo, which can become what we call tribalism, is behind a lot of the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other group conflicts in the world.  This also is nothing new – God through His Son will redeem us.  I wrote about agape overcoming tribalism in an old post about Jesus reaching out to Zacchaeus the tax collector.
  • Stergo – Families might be expected to be the easiest places to love each other, but they are often where passions run hottest.  James 4:1 says “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”  Only agape provides what is needed to bridge the divide, a love to govern stergo.

A Christian in our world has a restored relationship with God but is only able to practice agape love imperfectly while awaiting a new body in a new heaven and a new earth.

Love Restored
The Bible does not contain a lot of specifics about the eternal life that Christians inherit and it is often misunderstood.  For example, those who think of Christianity as a set of rules that make us “perfect” think they are right to ignore the hope of heaven.  C.S. Lewis says sometimes “our notion of Heaven involves perpetual negations: no food, no drink, no sex, no movement, no mirth, no events, no time, no art.”[2]

But thinking of heaven as love restored helps understand it better.  Elsewhere Lewis reframes heaven as: “When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.”[3]  By obedience he means obedience to loving God and man, and in heaven every person’s ability to love will be as the laws of nature, as reliable and predictable as the rising of the sun every morning or the return of leaves to the trees in the spring.

Also, we will not become something entirely other than what we are now, like an angel, but will be transformed and perfected, while retaining our individuality.  Pastor Tim Keller explains that “Our future, glorified selves will be continuous with who we are now, but the growth into wisdom, goodness, and power will be infinitely greater.”[4]

This is a future worth having.

How to Have This Love
For those who agree that the agape love we lost is the love we need back, Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  He offers a world where every individual person uses their individual talents, gifts and creativity in the best interests of others.  All you have to do is agree to do the same, redeemed by His sacrifice and empowered by His Spirit to do the will of the Father.

How do we accept this offer?
“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” – Romans 10:9-10

If you haven’t already, ask Him to be your Lord and Savior.

Nobody is more or less Christian than Jesus makes them.  No doctrine or experience can replace a loving, personal relationship with our Maker and Lord, who guides and empowers us to love as He does.  If we have not love, we have nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).  Fortunately, in Christianity we have His agape love if we will accept it above all other, lesser loves.  Christianity is not Christianity, and we are not fully ourselves, without it.

[1] From Matthew 22:37 and 39
[2] Lewis, C.S.  The Weight of Glory (1941).  P. 107
[3] Ibid.  P. 43
[4] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  P. 170

Compel Them to Come In, But How?

[Note to readers: Other than this note and minor edits this is the third post from a short-lived, now-defunct blog from 2011.  The first two are here and here, and this one builds from those.  I’m considering adding in some similar work to the new site – let me know what you think!]

Luke 14:23 “Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”

This verse is part of a larger parable about how the master invited many, but many of those declined the invitation.  So, the master, wanting a full house, asks the servant to go outside the original invitation list and bring in whoever will come.  However, the use of the word “compel” has led members of the church over the centuries to use the verse as justification for the use of violence to bring people into the church.

Observing the methods of the state and other Christian sects of his day, even Saint Augustine – one of the most influential writers in all of Christian history – used this verse and other “proof texts” to justify force.  Augustine argued that Christ used force to compel Saul (who became the Apostle Paul) to believe in and follow Him and therefore provided a precedent (text here).  Augustine’s arguments were copied in defense of the Spanish Inquisition and other blemishes on the historical record of the church.  Essentially, this verse has been used to justify the means toward an end.

Critics of Christianity have, of course, jumped on the opportunity.  Christopher Hitchens, one of the “New Atheists”, makes statements like “The real axis of evil is Christianity, Judaism, and Islam”, and that religion is “the main source of hatred in the world”.  The evidence comes from well-known historical events, and incidentally these arguments have helped sell a lot of books.

However, is “Christianity” the culprit, or are people the problem?  Did some followers of Christ get the wrong message?  Could Augustine have been wrong?  Are all those who claim to act for Christ really being faithful to Him?  Is it logical, or even responsible, to blame the actions of a group of people on a person they claim to follow, even if the one would clearly disapprove of them?

Isn’t lumping all Christians, Muslims, and Jews in with the most violent examples of people who claim those faiths like lumping all atheists in with Stalin or Mao?  Because some practice a perverse form of the original philosophy, does that make the whole philosophy rotten?  Is the philosophy at fault?

The Bible is very clear that there is a distinction between those who call themselves Christian and those who actually are – a distinction that many who criticize “the church” ignore.  Matthew 7:21-23 says: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

The Bible is also very clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  Nobody’s perfect, or even close.  Most of the Bible is the story of the failures of people who can’t follow the will of God, but that God loves and accepts them anyway.  More failures should not be a surprise, and the church would be wrong to ignore them – but instead these are evidence that man needs help, and that God’s capacity for forgiveness is vast.

Apparently the “New Atheists” find themselves in an interesting position.  They are actually in agreement with Jesus, who saved his harshest words for those who used the church for its own purposes and twisted His commands.  He hated hypocrisy, and called out hypocrites in public quite often, calling them a “den of thieves”, and a “brood of vipers”, among other names.  From this perspective, “Christianity” is not the culprit of these crimes, but some people calling themselves “Christian” are the culprit.  Or, another perspective: Christopher Hitchens’ “hypocrite” or “demon” is Martin Luther’s doctrine of “Simul justus et peccator” (simultaneously righteous yet still a sinner).

So, what does all this mean for the modern church?

A better interpretation (unless you are an Inquisitor or a New Atheist) of “compel them to come in” is found in Matthew Henry’s commentary on Luke 14:23, which says “compel them to come in, not by force of arms, but by force of arguments.  Be earnest with them; for in this case, it will be necessary to convince them that the invitation is sincere and not a banter; they will be shy and modest and will hardly believe that they shall be welcome.”

In Jesus’ day, a Gentile would have been shocked to be invited into a Jewish community, and likely would have been apprehensive or suspicious.  As I wrote earlier, the people who were not on the original guest list might need some convincing.  After all, Jehovah had always been the God of the Jews, and there was a good degree of history between the two groups.  Would an outsider need a compelling reason to come in, or would a simple hello suffice?

Exactly what these compelling reasons are is too large an issue for this post, but I’ll say that if force or reason (alone) is the method of compulsion, the church will likely be full of people like the man who follows Jesus because his neighbor was struck by lightning (see my last post).  Their brain is convinced, or they are afraid to say no, but they aren’t really committed.  A church full of these people is not likely to be “compelling” to the next generation of churchgoers.

The larger issue is the pressure the church has always faced to increase membership, and if the results don’t come, there’s a big temptation to find a way.  After all, if hell is a terrible place, and we don’t want people to go there, don’t the ends justify the means?  However, God supplies the means, and ignoring them shows a lack of faith, not a strength of conviction.  The Inquisitor is not a hero of the church, but a villain.  God tells us how He wants the church to witness to the world, and it does not involve violence.

In our desire for “results”, we often become like the disciples in Mark 9:14-29.  Unable to drive out a spirit, the disciples became agitated.  The problem?  Jesus reminds them: “This kind can come out only by prayer”.   Disciples of God are supposed to accomplish God’s ends by God’s means.

God’s chosen means do not depend on reasoned arguments and force of strength, “But God chose what the world considers nonsense to put wise people to shame. God chose what the world considers weak to put what is strong to shame.”  (1 Cor 1:27) When preaching to the Corinthians, Paul “didn’t use intellectual arguments. That would have made the cross of Christ lose its meaning.” (1 Cor 1:17) This is, of course, the same Paul that Augustine says is the precedent for conversion by force.

The church has sometimes pursued an end by force cannot be achieved by reason or forceful compulsion, but must be catalyzed by God Himself.  As I pointed out in my first post, if being witness to incredible supernatural events cannot compel belief, why would so many believe that logic or force could compel belief?

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”  (1 Cor 1:25)

Supernatural Claims of Natural Men

[Note to readers: Other than this note and minor edits this is the second post from a short-lived, now-defunct blog from 2011.  The first post is here.  While working on the next set of new long form posts, I will re-post what ended up being only 3 apologetics-focused posts from 2011 each Saturday.  I’m considering adding in some similar work to the new site – let me know what you think!]

John 12:28 – [Jesus said] “Father, glorify Your name.  Then a voice came from heaven, saying “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.”

Have you ever heard a voice from heaven?  If you did, how would you know to believe it?

When this voice spoke, the hearers still had to decide whether or not to believe it.  In John 12, not everyone on the scene had faith that this voice was actually God.  Not everyone who heard it decided that this God deserved their obedience.  As in my last post, these people were eyewitnesses to a supernatural event that many today would be thrilled to see, to “prove” God’s existence.

Suppose someone on the scene looked up at the sky and said: “Who do you think you are?  I don’t know who this ‘Jesus’ guy is, and I sure don’t know who you are – why should I follow you?”  The voice from heaven responds with a bolt of thunder, and this poor man is now a dead smoldering heap.

Now, the man next to this one could be thinking: “I really should follow this Jesus person, because if I don’t, the next bolt could be for me.”  Perfectly rational, a solid example of reason.  But, this reason is not the same as faith.  This man’s other response could be: “Jesus really is the Son of God, and deserves my loyalty.  I’m grateful that He is willing to accept me as I am.”  Did the lightning really provide convincing evidence of this?  Are there still other alternatives?  Could the voice have been some other deity trying to gain followers?  Perhaps, so therefore this second response is more like faith than reason.

Even faced with overwhelming evidence, “reason” does not power a decision to truly make a decision, “faith” does.  Reason can lead a horse to water, but it can’t make him drink.  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8)  (Not to have a predestination argument here, but I think most Christians would agree that faith would be meaningless without grace, and vice versa – and that either or both come from God to one who does not deserve or earn it)

Claims contrary to Christianity also require a supernatural faith (albeit one without a source), and here are two examples:

1) “There is no God” – Some say that if he exists, he should show himself.  Of course, as we have seen, even those who claimed to know Jesus Himself and witness his miracles say this would not convince a skeptic who decided not to believe.  Also, how does one prove God does not exist?  Europeans used to believe there was no such thing as a black swan because they had never seen one – until they traveled more of the world.  They could never prove that black swans did not exist, but they could (and did) believe it.   To prove it, they would have to be personally present in all parts of the universe at all times simultaneously – in essence, they would need to be God to prove that all swans were white.  “There is no God” cannot be proven by reason, but a skeptic can claim that they have not witnessed God in their experience, and that they have faith that God does not exist outside their experience.

2) “Man is the result of purely natural processes” – If “natural” is that which science has explained, and “supernatural” is everything else, it turns out that this is a claim about the supernatural, not a claim that there is no supernatural.  If you change “observed” to “observable” in Merriam-Webster’s definition of “supernatural” (“of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe”), you see this distinction.  Merriam-Webster takes for granted that all things “supernatural” will become “natural” through scientific advancement in the way the current majority thinks they will.  The consensus in Galileo’s day was that everything revolved around the earth – but the consensus was proved wrong.  Proving that man is purely natural requires that the current thinking on evolution is correct, and that nothing outside of current knowledge could ever possibly over-turn it.

However, in the words of GK Chesterton, “Science knows nothing whatever about pre-historic man; for the excellent reason that he is pre-historic.”  The “evidence” for one species changing into another is based on deductions from historical fossils, not on eyewitness accounts.  In modern labs, we have seen species mutate and acquire new traits, but we have not yet seen lab results of a monkey (or anything else) mutating into a man.    The theory of human evolution makes a lot of claims about the history of mutations across species.  It takes the observed changes within a species, and assumes that over millennia these mutations lead to one species changing into another, then another…  It claims that future evidence will inevitably support current evidence, in spite of the fact that evidence for evolution has been overturned repeatedly in history.  What I was taught in middle school was different than what I was taught in college.  If the historical track record is not that good, why have faith that the future track record will be perfect?  Evolutionists refer to the process of discovery by trial and error consistently as “progress”, but is it always?  Unless you already know beyond any shadow of doubt what you are progressing toward, how do you know you are progressing?

I’m not claiming to have dis-proved evolution here, but only to show that to prove it beyond a shadow of any possible doubt is beyond the power of reason.  It’s another black swan.

So, the claim that there is no supernatural, is a claim about the supernatural.  These are claims that would require supernatural means to prove.  They require seeing the future and the past.  To believe a supernatural claim without supernatural evidence requires faith.  It is beyond reason and proof.  To me, the evidence and the logic do not live up to the claims they want to support.

Some may say I’m stretching here, and providing a no-win situation for the materialist, but even if scientific advancement somehow demonstrates in a lab everything that evolution claims, evolution still falls short because it is not really a theory of origins.  It is a theory about how the current inhabitants on Earth grew from previous ones.  But where did the original ones come from?  Why does the universe follow certain patterns and laws?  Where did those come from?  Scientists would simply have moved from taking evolution on faith to taking these answers on faith, and making assumptions about the future evidence.

There will always be such a thing as the “supernatural”.  Although science will continue to advance, the amount of total knowledge in the universe will always be larger than the quantity of human understanding.  All people speculate about what’s out there in that realm we can’t reproduce in a lab.  Many people have dogmas about what’s in that space – evolutionists believe that everything they do not understand yet will confirm that there is no God; religious people of all types believe that there is enough evidence in the world we’ve already observed to warrant the possibility of a God.

All people have faith – just in different things.  Materialists fail to explain how man, as a mere complex set of materials and chemical reactions, consciously and intentionally goes about his life pondering deep thoughts about the origin of himself, while an earthworm does not bother.  Christians – even the authors of the Bible – fail to explain how some consciously and intentionally choose faith when in the presence of miracles, while others do not (other than to say that “God did it”).

On the one hand, you have the supernatural claims of natural men.  They claim two things: 1) that they (and you) are the accidental result of millennia of chemical mutations, and that these chemicals follow rules that they do not know the origins of (yet); and 2) that the chemicals in their brain “believe” without a doubt that they can predict that what they do not know will confirm what they currently know and believe.  This future evidence will prove their current belief, which was itself the result of a chain of accidental chemical reactions (but apparently under the purposeful control of some unknown thing that seeks to convince you of your mere natural chemicalness).

On the other hand, there is a written record of a man who claimed to be from that supernatural realm, who sees the future and the past, who knew there were black swans.  How many there were.  Where they were.  And that the Europeans would eventually find them.  This man asked for your belief – which set of claims is more reasonable?

“Come near to God and he will come near to you”
– James 4:8

Faith Takes More Than Proof

John 20:30-31 “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name”
John 12:37 “But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: “Lord, who has believed our report?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

[Note to readers: Other than this note and a title change (it was originally “A Paradox of Proof”), this is the unedited opening post from a short-lived, now-defunct blog from 2011.  While working on the next set of new long form posts, I will re-post what ended up being only 3 apologetics-focused posts from 2011 each Saturday.  I’m considering adding in some similar work to the new site – let me know what you think!]

Everyone has a point of view – and in modern times that often leads to a blog.  I am starting this blog to put some thoughts out there.  I am not a professional philosopher or minister.  However, I felt I needed a forum for sharing ideas – and hopefully improving mine and others.

People by nature want to persuade others of their rightness.  For example, John, the disciple of Jesus, wrote a book for a specific purpose – to persuade anyone listening “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”  In the same book, John says that miracles were performed for this same reason – and that many were not convinced.  In fact, John says this failure to convince was intentional on God’s part.  Whatever your beliefs, have you ever been frustrated when someone just won’t come around to your view, no matter what you said?  Would you be more frustrated if you were told that any argument you could make wouldn’t be good enough?

In John’s gospel, he claims to be a first-hand witness of several miracles performed by Jesus, climaxing in the resurrection of one Lazarus, who was apparently dead for so long that “there is a stench” (John 11:39).  John spends a lot of time setting the scene — many people had gathered to comfort Martha and Mary, the sisters of the deceased — pointing out that Lazarus had his own tomb, which indicates he was probably affluent and well-known — this event was to be very public.  The result when Lazarus came out?  John says many “believed in Him”, but many others did not believe, and some saw Him as a threat – resulting in his crucifixion.

John, writing for the specific purpose of creating belief, tells us the ultimate miracles are not enough to generate belief in everyone.  “Proof” does not always convince, and those who disagree hold their beliefs as strongly as those who agree.

Every day I am confronted by those who propose a purely naturalistic world where the supernatural is not allowed in.  Miracles do not exist, and never did.  Mankind was created through an unknowing process of natural selection and is a type of animal, although perhaps a special animal.  They have just as much conviction as I do.  I could argue against these views – what G.K. Chesterton called a “dogma of materialism” because proving it would mean disproving every claim about a supernatural occurrence that any human has ever claimed.  This is, of course, impossible.  (If you have a link, or links, to a page, or multiple pages, with all this evidence, please post it).  It is a matter of faith, however much proponents of evolution and other “scientific” issues claim overwhelming evidence and vast consensus.  It takes faith to fill in the gaps in the evidence.  Those who disagree with me are obviously willing to accept these gaps.

On the other hand, we have the oral and written testimony of many people reporting many supernatural things over the centuries.  This includes John’s records of many first century miracles.  However, John also testifies that a man raised from the dead was not enough to convince the skeptics on the scene.  This man, Lazarus, even became the target of death threats, because he was evidence that threatened the well-being of those who made their living off the established religion.

If you are a Christian – what argument can you make that is better than raising a man from the dead, then following that up by raising yourself from the dead?

The best anyone can do is state their case, get feedback, question and/or refine the message, try again, and hope.  However, there is more to proof than meets the eye.  There is more to life than cold reason.  People have reasons for believing what they do and acting how they act.  The Apostle Paul says “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood…”  (Eph 6:12).  Nothing I can write, do, or say is guaranteed to convince anyone, but it might.  In the meantime, it should make for some interesting, character-building discussion.  I hope my mind is changed on occasion.

If you agree, encourage, refine, and participate.  Take heart that Chesterton also said: “When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all of Christendom.”  If you do not agree with what I write, say why.  Provide details.  Stay on topic.  But don’t shoot the messenger.

Redeeming the Wire

Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.  The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose.”
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted…”

[Note to readers: This is a re-post from a now-defunct blog where I posted a handful of things in 2011.  I made only minor formatting and reference changes.  I think it serves as a good transition between the last new post and the next, and is as timely as ever, with some of the issues mentioned not even making headlines anymore despite possibly getting worse.]

Solomon, the son of King David, was famous far and wide for his wisdom.  Kings, Queens and wealthy men traveled far to see his riches and learn from him.  The book of Ecclesiastes, by one theory, is Solomon’s testimony to these visitors that all their earthly pursuits are “vanity”, or fruitless efforts that produce no lasting results.  Pleasures create desires for stronger pleasures, instead of fulfillment.  Kingdoms and buildings could be lost by foolish descendants or conquered by enemies.  Legacies can be forgotten.  Nothing is forever, and thinking it was is like trying to catch hold of the wind.

To illustrate his point, Solomon points first to nature, then to mankind.  In chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes, he writes about the wind going one way, then the other.  Rivers flow to the sea, but the sea never gets full.  Everything runs in a cycle that doesn’t have an obvious long-term purpose or effect.  In the famous passage in chapter 3, he argues that mankind follows similar cycles.  We are born; we die.  We cry; we laugh.  We gain; we lose.  We love; we hate.  There is no apparent master plan, no sense that humans really progress in any way that matters.  True, we gain technologically, but we never fundamentally change how we relate to each other, or our vain ambitions.

Solomon concludes: This realization can be very depressing!  “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”  (Eccl. 1:18)

I have often felt depressed watching the world as well, but never more so than after watching what has become my favorite TV show – HBO’s The Wire.  Yes, my favorite show of all time is also the most depressing, by far.  Since it is based in nearby Baltimore, many friends insisted I see it to “learn about the city.”  Because of the persistent language, violence, and sex, the show is certainly not for everyone.  To give you an idea in case you have not seen it, here are some of the major themes and events of the show, which could apply to many inner-city neighborhoods (minor spoilers of course, but the show is so well-written it would still be worth watching – if you don’t want spoilers, skip the bullet points):

  • Drug dealers work openly on the streets, and the cops are powerless to mount any significant resistance.  The drug dealers are better funded by far than the police, and the Federal government hardly has enough resources to deal with terrorism, so can’t be bothered with “low-level” drug dealers (who happen to be destroying entire sections of the city).  The picture is so bleak that one of the show’s story lines contemplates that it would be better if they just stopped fighting illegal drugs – would it result in less murders, better treatment programs, etc?
  • Many cops are violent, corrupt, or more concerned with their own promotions and pleasing their political masters than enforcing the law.  The cops that aren’t corrupt are hamstrung by those that are, and by legal and procedural hurdles.  It’s not enough to have an eyewitness to a drug deal or murder if they aren’t willing to testify, and the police can’t protect them.  One of the main characters – and perhaps the best at actual police work – takes out his frustrations with “the system” on himself through alcohol abuse, and on his family through adultery.
  • The leaders of a dying longshoreman’s union look the other way as shady characters pay them massive amounts of money to smuggle whatever they want into the U.S.  They turn around and use this money to pay for political influence in an effort to create new jobs and revive their industry.  A current Maryland Congressperson is even mentioned by name.
  • Politicians use the city as a stepping stone to larger ambitions, and find out that most of the city’s worst problems are beyond anything they can do anyway.
  • Generations of economic despair have turned the school system into a waste of time for most children, who stand a far better chance at a “job” in the drug trade than in any legitimate business.  Kids who manage to show up are often passed from one grade to the next, to meet political goals required to get Federal funds.

Not bleak enough for you yet?  If you research the show, you find that nearly all of the people, circumstances and events are based on real life — the show was created and written mostly by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore city homicide detective.

The Wire’s creators admit their show is about human institutions; institutions that have failed to produce any real progress in inner cities.  There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” – just a failed police department, school system, newspaper, and government.  The impact is felt by the citizens – whenever you start rooting for someone who looks like they will improve their lives, or try to go against the decadent grain, it usually ends badly.  Nobody “wins” in the end.  The show provides no solutions and just leaves people depressed and hopeless – like Solomon might have predicted.  The closing montage of the series shows that one generation of players is simply replaced by another.

“One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.  The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose.”

Evidence of the cyclical nature of human behavior is not limited to TV shows about inner cities.  Since I work in the investment industry, cyclicality is very familiar to me.  I’m currently reading a book about investing by Howard Marks, where he writes: “In investing, as in life, there are very few sure things.”  But, the one thing he is most sure of is: “Rule number one: most things will prove to be cyclical.”[1]  Why?  “The basic reason for the cyclicality in our world is the involvement of humans…people are emotional and inconsistent, not steady and clinical.”[2]

Marks argues that, in investing, the best course of action is not to fight against human nature and assume it has changed, or will change.  He argues the best course of action is to take it as a given, and work around it.  He also argues that investors (and people) who think this way are “often lonely.”

Why is this?  Because people – all kinds of people, religious ones, non-religious ones – want to assume that mankind is getting better.  It’s not popular to suggest that it’s not.  The reason watching the cyclical futility of the world, especially when it’s viewed in extreme close-up like in The Wire, is because it contradicts our wishful assumptions that mankind has, or will eventually find, solutions to our problems.

Acting on these assumptions, political scientists of all stripes tell us that we’ll eventually find a system that works, and turns the cycle into a relentless upward trend toward utopia.  However, until this system actually exists in the real world, it’s not “science” but “faith”.  As Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.  But, in practice there is.”  Economic and political theories rise to prominence when they have promise on paper, but they eventually confront the basic reality of human nature, in practice.

Belief that this world can be perfected – that human nature can be overcome systematically – goes against the wisdom of the Bible and the lessons of history.  Wishing it to be true won’t make it true, and acting as if it is true is almost certain to be dangerous.  The church is no exception – history is full of examples of disastrous results when the church tried to pursue utopia on earth.  As Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

One theory passes away, and another theory comes; But the earth abides forever.

Unlike Howard Marks and the writers of The Wire, Solomon proposes a fundamental answer: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.”  (Eccl. 12:23) The commandments that summarize all of God’s law are: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Solomon knows the key to joy in this world – in contrast to despair – is to stop trying to create a master plan. Instead, trust that God has a master plan and has given you what you need to know. I’m not aware of any Scripture that tells anyone to seek the “hidden meaning” behind it all, and then take action only after you’ve figured all that out. Scripture does not say there is an ideal political system, other than a future monarchy in heaven, under God. Scripture does give specific commands. That’s because He thinks that’s better. In spite of how bad the world looks, and how meaningless it seems, history is moving toward a grand conclusion and you have a part in it. Inability to accept it is a lack of faith. Instead, remember your Creator while you have time on earth.

Draw near to God and allow Him to change you, then act on God’s love for you by loving people.  God wants His followers to focus on specific people – “neighbors” – not abstract people or future world orders.  After all, “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”  (2 Peter 3:10)  If we know God can return at any time, why focus on a distant future instead of what can be done today?

Christianity is not intended to “fix” this world.  It will not create jobs for everyone, or make the economy perfect; it will not make all substance abuse go away; it will not make all politicians altruistic; it will not make all the schools produce model citizens; it will not make all journalists noble.  But neither does any earthly solution.  Thinking this is God’s will is like grasping after the wind, and is a distraction from His true purpose – to redeem individual people into citizenship in a new world, making them like strangers and aliens in this one, which is temporary.  We will find perfection in the next world, not this one.

I am not saying that Christians have no stake at all in making this world a better place.  What we do know about God’s plan for this world is that He wants to transform people in a way that will provide a glimpse of the next world.  He doesn’t need perfect people here, but changed people.  People who will share God’s personal love and produce specific results, here and in eternity.   The Wire, ironically, provides a great example.  Donnie Andrews[3], the real-life inspiration for one of The Wire’s most notorious characters, met Christ while in prison.  He is now working to give kids another path in Baltimore, “through mentoring programs, a summer camp and jobs training”.  For most people, heaven is just another Utopian dream on paper, but changed lives are far better evidence of its existence than mere words.  Even Ed Burns, one of the show’s creators, says “I’m quite jaded, but I believe in Donnie.”

To Andrews, it’s not about fixing the system.  “We have to get together as a community. We have to stop blaming the mayor. We have to stop blaming Obama. It’s our community. It’s our responsibility. It’s our city,” Andrews said. “We know who’s selling dope in our neighborhood, we know who’s shooting who. Don’t point your finger at the police, ‘You’re not doing your job.'”[4]

As for the old Donnie Andrews who inspired a merciless killer in a TV show?  “That person was buried 15 years ago,” he says.[5]  The Bible says Christians can show the world a path to a perfect world, but also that they have to be willing to give up this one.

To me, watching The Wire was a message to put less faith in this world.  To realize worldly progressivism doesn’t mix with Christianity.  There is no solution for “the world”, but there is a way out.

[1] Marks, Howard.  The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor (2011).  P. 67
[2] Ibid.  P. 68
[3] Donnie Andrews died in December 2012.  Michael K. Williams, the actor who played Omar Little, the Wire character based on Andrews, died in September 2021.  Michael’s death gained far more media attention than Donnie’s.