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.

The Narrative Doesn’t Know It All

This morning many were learning of the passing of Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, at 84.  No human other than Jesus is perfect, but Powell was in more than one way an important figure in U.S. military and government matters for years.  Many, including myself, mourn his passing.  In my case, an experience in undergraduate journalism school involving Powell was a huge lesson to me on the use and power of narrative, of storytelling, often as a way of simplifying the world to make it digestible, but also as a way of influencing.

This news also provides an opportunity for a timely detour before continuing the “He Who Laughs” post.  Soon, God willing.

Loose Ends
This blog began with a post, “42 is Not the Answer”, about mankind’s search for answers to “life, the universe, and everything” in a fictional supercomputer called Deep Thought.  They were left with “42”, or not much of a narrative.

As I wrote in “Godly Offspring”: about the story of Genesis 38, “Judah had created his own narrative to explain his misfortune as Tamar’s fault, when it was really God’s judgment for the sins of Judah and his sons.”  However, Tamar’s children became ancestors of Jesus!

In “Man in Need of an Ally”, Zacchaeus was condemned based on being reduced to a representative of a narrative used to simplify a complex social and political situation.  Jesus loved Zacchaeus, forgave him, and now he has eternal life!

Narratives are everywhere and are enticing and powerful.

Some of my favorite quotes deal with the danger of narrative and the need to be aware of it:
“It’s not what you don’t know that kills you, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.” ― Mark Twain
“Beware of single cause interpretations – and beware the people who purvey them” – Jordan Peterson
“In my experience, the more I know about a subject, the less I’m impressed with related media coverage” – Howard Marks

The examples below are not intended to show that one political party is good or the other is bad.  That would be an unhelpful, divisive narrative.  Politics is a sometimes-dirty game, and the media are sometimes enablers – on both sides.  The point is that people often believe in, and act on information they believe is reliable but that is always incomplete and sometimes inaccurate.  Also, sometimes the information is intentionally incomplete and inaccurate.  The dots of the pointillistic narrative are never the full picture and sometimes aren’t the right color.  I confess this applies to everything I write, but perhaps particularly to some of this post.

Narratives push us to forget that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes, not through states, not between political parties either, but right through all human hearts.”

Influencing the Blame Game
In 1995 and 1996 the U.S. government, just as they are now, were fighting over more spending and how to pay for it, resulting in two “shutdowns”, one for 5 days and the other for 21.  Around this time, a member of the White House staff came to our journalism class to talk about the experiences of an “insider”.  One thing he shared with us was that Bill Clinton was on the verge of backing down from the shutdown confrontation but decided to continue digging in when Colin Powell announced he would not run for president in 1996.  Powell had bi-partisan support as a man of character and military expert and was expected by many pollsters to win.  However, he had no desire to be president, citing a lack of passion for it, and an unwillingness to put his family and friends through the potentially painful process.  Clinton, knowing the other Republican challengers weren’t as strong, knew the political damage of continuing the government shutdown would be minimized.  Clinton also knew he had help in managing that.

The other thing shared by this guest speaker was that the reporting of polls about attitudes regarding the shutdown was being misrepresented.  Many media outlets were reporting that most voters “blamed” the Republicans for the shutdowns of the government.  What we were told though was that the question – as presented to those answering the poll – was about who is “responsible” for the shutdowns.  So, if you answered “Republicans” to the poll because you were convinced that they were doing the right thing by protesting either the amounts or specifics of the spending proposals, the poll reported it as “blame”, not as a conscientious objection.  By changing one word, “responsible” which is less of a value judgment, with “blame” which assigns a clear, negative, value judgment, public opinion was swayed.

As noted in an earlier post, More Than Truth, I saw very few examples of outright lying while in school, but there were some.  In this case, the public had no idea of these two things, which were told openly to a classful of future journalists.  The narrative was created, put on the hook, and swallowed by many voting fish.

All of the Above
Another example is narratives around the “Global Financial Crisis” of 2007-2008.  This was an extraordinarily complex series of events, set up by years of blunders by possibly millions of people, yet still some pin the blame on just a handful of “bad guys” who represent the Bogeymen of “the rich”, “deregulation”, “regulation”, “big banks”, “house flippers”, etc.   But what if the answer could be “all of the above”?  The best evaluation I’ve read is a memo called “Whodunit” by Howard Marks, a widely followed investor who is known as a balanced thinker.  It’s 13 pages and you can read it here (memo link), but who reads 13 pages of anything anymore?  Especially something designed to extinguish partisan fury-inducing narratives, rather than inflame them?  I’ve summarized Marks’ memo in the past as saying “regulation tied the gas pedal to the floor, while deregulation disabled the brakes,” but really any explanation vastly oversimplifies one of the most complex sagas in financial market history. Something like a Global Financial Crisis was not caused by the butler.

This does not just happen with once-in-a-lifetime events.  In the financial press, billions of dollars of daily transactions in the stock and bond markets are reported as “Markets were Mixed Today on Wall Street”.  Never mind that much of modern trading doesn’t even take place on Wall Street, or that all days could be called “mixed”.

A common topic today is “what’s wrong with the labor market?”  Like the Global Financial Crisis, there are competing narratives and the truth is probably a combination of “all of the above”, rather than any one cause.  One reason less people are working is because we’ve had a pandemic, and many, many workers have passed on, or remain sick.  That’s difficult to talk about in a “professional” meeting.  Government policy plays a part, but which government caused, or sustained, a global shortage of workers?  Does U.S. policy explain other countries’ shortages?  Many workers simply retired earlier than planned, helped by higher housing prices and stock market values.  For some, day care is not available. For some, they have prioritized other things.  The list goes on and on.  “All of the above.”

These are just samples from my experience, but referring back to the Howard Marks quote above -“In my experience, the more I know about a subject, the less I’m impressed with related media coverage” – I expect you have many more examples based on your knowledge of other subjects.  And here we must be careful about Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Love Requires Humility
Like many topics on most days, much of today’s media coverage of Colin Powell’s death will be a battle of narratives.  Exactly how much integrity did he have?  What do they mean he “died of Covid complications”?  Who is to blame?  What kind of president would he have been?   This discussion is good when it is done in the right Spirit, but unfortunately it often isn’t.

I’ll chime in on the debate with “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and note that only God has a full picture of Powell’s life.  I pray he found his hope in Jesus and for comfort for his family and friends.  No person deserves to be treated as an incomplete narrative.

I’ll also follow that up with a twist – all narratives are flawed and fall short of the glory of God.  Only God has a full picture of every life, and I pray we find our hope in Jesus.  No person deserves to be judged based on an incomplete narrative that they get shoe-horned into.  As they say, Be Kind, you never know what someone is going through.

Each of us is an intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic.  In my examples, I’ve shown some of my own biases. Forgive me.  Here Ephesians 4:1b-2 has guidance for us, where Paul, writing from prison, urges “you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In humility we seek to view other’s biases and narratives as different than ours, not worse.  In addition, sometimes we might view something as a flaw just because it is a difference.  Just as we are not perfected instantaneously in this world, neither are others and we must be patient.  In love, we walk as God has called us, putting other’s needs above our own, because this is how we grow in unity and fruit of the Spirit.

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Cor 4:6

Jesus is the Answer and He does not fall short of the glory of God.  Inject Him into your narrative as you would a grain of salt.