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For ‘PG-13-Rated’ Content in Stories, How Far is Too Far?

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For ‘PG-13-Rated’ Content in Stories, How Far is Too Far?

This article was featured by Speculative Faith.

When will we know the answer to the question, “How far is too far to delve into secular culture and adult content in stories?”1

When Christ returns.

No, that’s not a cheesy youth pastor joke. We’ll never stop talking about these things. There will always be another caveat to add, another angle we haven’t explored yet, another cultural development that throws a wrench into our precisely-drawn lines in the sand concerning swearing, violence, and sex. . . .

Read more on speculativefaith.com.

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What Women Do and SBC 2019

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What Women Do and SBC 2019

The Southern Baptist Convention 2019 was a momentous occasion. Not only had I never attended before, but everything from the resolutions to the panels to the coffee dates were alive with the whirlwind of change.

Sexual abuse.

Racial reconciliation.

Women’s roles in the church.

No one was afraid to talk about the SBC’s dirty laundry. We didn’t always agree, but that was okay. We talked about all of it in painstaking detail and invited the whole world to watch. Then we voted that sexual abuse and racism were grounds for expelling churches from the convention. And I couldn’t be more proud of our leadership for their humility and resolve in these areas.

While remaining steadfast in conservative, Biblical principles and complementarianism, I saw men—leading men—affirm the value and voice of women in the church. At the SBC Women’s Leadership event, our president, J.D. Greear, expressed his excitement about the new generation of women and change we are ushering in. And while he was glad for what has already taken place, he reminded us that we are only starting to scratch the surface.

The SBC (along with other conservative denominations) are just beginning to see the effects of the minimization of women in churches—especially in the South where legalism over leniency is more common. And I would have to agree fully with Greear—there is much to be done, not primarily in the convention but in church culture.

I was in a state of awe during the convention. There was so much to see, hear, learn, and read. I couldn’t have done it all if I’d wanted to. And I was just so darn happy to see change finally taking place in so many areas, I didn’t immediately feel where it was still lacking. But as we drove out of town on Thursday morning, I finally put my finger on it.

No one asked me what I do.

You know those moments when you get stuck at a table with a bunch of people you don’t know? You’re forced to make small talk, ask where they’re from, what they do, how many kids they have. But people in the church don’t ask women what they do unless they’re alone.

I asked my husband how many times he had a chance to tell someone he’s a philosophy professor and PhD student. It was so many, he’d lost count. When he asked me the same, I recounted the one time I told someone about my various writing endeavors—at the women’s leadership event. It was at a place where there were no men at the table and women only had eyes and ears for one another.

That realization stung deeply. All the implications crashed down around me. I could list all the reasons why they ask him and not her, but there was one that stuck out to me above all the others: they already knew. Or they thought they knew, and they didn’t care to know more.

All the people at those tables and booths subconsciously assumed I was a stay-at-home mom and my husband had a real job. And I assumed right along with them. Don’t think I’m trying to be high and mighty in my critique here. You can bet I did it too. I am guilty of not wanting to hear about other women’s kids and schooling choices because I think (wrongly) that it’s boring and ordinary. Nor do I immediately assume they have something they do outside the home or in their spare time. It’s not something I would ever have admitted to until now since it’s mostly subconscious.

But here’s the thing—I am a stay-at-home mom. My husband really does have a job outside our home. I change diapers, cook the food, fold the laundry (sometimes), and then some. And all those things are extremely important. There were seasons—and rightly so—of my life where that is all I did, and all I was able to do because my kids were little.

But that isn’t the whole story for me. I am a woman who loves the church and the people in it. He has gifted me as well as every woman to serve his church in some capacity. He has gifted you, sister, to serve the body for the sake of the kingdom.

I have things that I do apart from my family. And if we were honest with ourselves, we look a lot more like the Proverbs 31 woman than we usually give ourselves credit for. We care for our homes, our families, start businesses, use our teaching/serving/leading gifts in a multitude of venues, and pretty much git it done.

I know a lot of men in SBC churches who think very highly of women. Some of them even read theology books written by the opposite gender. But I can’t help but wonder if they would think to ask that woman, the one sitting at a table with her husband, what she does.

This is a glorious season of change in the church. Let’s all work together for the sake of the gospel.


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Part Two: Tempering Involvement in Culture

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Part Two: Tempering Involvement in Culture

**Click here to read Part One**

Overcorrecting Subculture

I’ve lived in four different states in the US and visited ten countries around the world. God has been gracious to show me how different cultures and subcultures can greatly impact the way we live out our faith. I want to focus on two specific cultures that I have the most experience with: First, where I was born and raised in Southern California, and second, where I have lived the last eight and half years in the Bible Belt of the South (Kentucky for six years and Texas for two and a half).

As I’ve said, it is human nature to overcorrect problems within our subculture. There are two main ways we do this as individuals. First, we observe the subculture around us and think that it is right, then demonize and stereotype people outside of it. Here are some overly simplistic examples: “Southern California is so much more enlightened than most of the US. I’m so glad I don’t have to live in the South with all those racists and fundamentalists.” Or, “The South is so much more grounded in its history and the Bible. I’m so glad I don’t have to live around all those crazy liberal feminists on the West Coast.”

The second way we overcorrect is to observe the subculture we live in, think it’s wrong, and then jump ship entirely, usually into a very different subculture with it’s own set of problems. Here are some examples: “Southern California is way too progressive and the churches are so shallow. I wish we could go to one of those churches that sings only hymns, offers Sunday school, and has a potluck after service every week.” Or, “The South is so legalistic and they hate women. I wish I could go to a more inclusive community in California where I can serve anywhere or teach anyone.”

These examples are trite, I know. But you get my point. No culture is perfect because everywhere you go, there will be sinful people there. There will be sinful you there. Yes, sometimes the answer to a problem is to jump ship. God can use discomfort to call you away from a place. But just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s time to quit. This is where temperance, critical thinking, and more importantly prayer comes in. Temperance is needed to say, “I know there is a problem with my community but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water and think the solution is doing the exact opposite.” Critical thinking is needed to ask questions like, “I feel like there is nothing good about my community, but I know that can’t be true. What is good and what is bad? What is salvageable here? What needs to go?” Prayer can enlighten your path more than any virtue or critical thinking ability. There will be times when your options ahead look perfectly equal and you really have no idea what to do. Thank God for his Spirit that directs our hearts and minds toward wisdom.

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Part One: Tempering Involvement in Culture

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Part One: Tempering Involvement in Culture

Temperance and Secular Culture

How far is too far to participate in secular culture? How far is too far to pull out? Can I let my kids read Harry Potter? Should I go live on a farm in the middle of nowhere to escape secular culture?  

I’m not actually going to answer any of those questions specifically. But I do want to talk about one of the virtues we use in answering these questions (and others) for ourselves and our families.

This is an age old conversation, but an important one. I don’t really plan on saying anything new here, but merely to cast this in a virtue ethical light that is rarely seen in the evangelical church. First let me quickly define some terms.

  • Temperance: The ability to moderate your actions. Most Bible translations refers to this as “self-control” in the lists of the fruit of the Spirit.

  • Virtue ethics: Focuses on the virtue or moral character—the heart, dispositions, and habits—of a person rather than on external actions and duty (deontology). We can see this in scripture in many places, most notably in the Sermon on the Mount.

  • Aristotle’s Golden Mean: Virtue is the mean between two extremes—the opposing ends being vices of excess and deficiency. This principle can be seen many times in the Bible when it talks about not turning aside. Such as Deut. 5:32, “Be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you are not to turn aside to the right or the left.”

aristotlesgoldenmean

There are two common dispositions towards American culture that I see in the church at the moment (and for all time really, but I’m going to speak only into modern, western society). One is unrestricted (or nearly) indulgence in secular culture which can lead to further sin and idolatry. This is the “excess” side of the golden mean scale. The other is total (or nearly) abstinence from secular culture which often leads to legalism and self-righteousness. This is the “deficient” side of the golden mean scale. Both are vices, not virtues.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking at this point. Most orthodox Christians attempt to find a balance between participation in and abstinence from culture. We don’t always draw the line in exactly the same place. I would agree with that. It’s even a good thing that we don’t all make the exact same choices with our cultural diet because some disagreement, as long as it is civil, builds up the body of Christ.

So then, why say those vices (a lack of temperance) are common? Although it is generally known that we should find balance with our participation in secular culture, there’s real confusion about how to express such temperance. Confusion comes from our evaluation of our subculture and the human tendency to overcorrect when we see a problem. More on overcorrecting subculture in Part Two.

Christians are not taught how to think critically. Most evangelical seminaries do not even offer classes in the basics of philosophy (i.e. critical thinking, logic, metaethics, etc.) whereas Catholic and Orthodox seminaries require them. (Rabbit trail: Why is that important? I could go on and on about that, but I’ll keep it simple. Lest you think “human philosophy” is all evil, recall that logic is a kind of science that says if A and B contradict each other, they can’t both be true. Seeing as God does not contradict himself, it’s safe to conclude that God is logical, and we should strive to be as well. We should not believe contradictions.)

Our church congregants as well as our church leaders typically have no training in how to think critically. And how can we rightly discern the balance of such things as cultural involvement without those skills? We usually don’t. We overcorrect into vice which leads some to cultural indulgence and idolatry and others to cultural abstinence and legalism. Then we sit back and judge those who overcorrect in the other direction. Without temperance, we will not only fall, often unknowingly, into vice, but we will have a complete lack of grace for others who simply fall differently.

Let me give you an example of these two things.

Indulgence (excess vice): The community of Christians who write and read science fiction and fantasy, like myself, varies widely. There are those who make great effort to think critically about how far they should go with their writing and reading and how closely it should resemble that of the secular market. Then there are others who, upon seeing the problems with abstaining from much of pop culture, delve headlong into the fantasy world without restraint. Some of their fiction includes sex and the use of explicitly dark magic by protagonists. They see themselves as critical thinkers because they dodge the bullet of “legalism.” Yet, in their new found freedom from fundamentalism, they display an utter lack of critical thinking against indulgence, seeing it as good or the lesser of two evils. Cultural indulgence in general is prone to either deleting parts of scripture or twisting the meaning to fit certain needs. By some of these well intentioned readers and authors, I have been accused of being a fundamentalist due to articles like this one that tell of my position on sexual purity. (Not to be confused with the purity movement which uses shame to keep young people from premarital sex.)

Abstinence (deficient vice): In some circles I run in, lifestyles such as homeschooling, stay-at-home moms, and even patriarchy are commonplace. For the right family and the right child, homeschooling is prudent. And not only am I a stay-at-home mom, but I think it’s a blessing for any mom to be able to stay with their child when they’re an infant and toddler. Yet, where the indulgent delete or twist scripture, the culturally abstinent tend to stretch the commands of the Bible like silly putty so that they are no longer recognizable. For example, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go.” This becomes the basis by which they advise others that public school is inadvisable or even immoral. Worse is the petrifying fear within the American conservative community of radical feminism. The overcorrection against such liberalism can be drastic and horribly unbiblical. Was the baby not thrown out with the bathwater by Paige Patterson, former president of a Southern Baptist seminary, when he advised a female student who had been sexually assaulted not to go to the police? In this conservative subculture, I have been labeled by some as erring in indulgence due to my stance on women’s roles within the church because I affirm their need to use their God-given spiritual gifts in accordance with scripture. Their role should not be defined by Bible-belt culture. Ironically, this view is shared by at least some professors at the theologically orthodox Southern Seminary.

I point out how I have been labeled by these subcultures not to merely complain or to show that I must be in the right because I think I fall in the middle of the two and, therefore, must have the virtue of temperance. But, instead, I want to illustrate that they can’t both be right. We can’t all be right, especially when we believe such contradictory things. I said before that disagreement, as long as it is civil, builds up the church. We must have temperance paired with grace if we are to flourish in unity. Knowing that it is in our nature to overcorrect into vice, grace is required for others who do the same in a different direction.

Pray that God grants his people temperance, wisdom, and understanding in this area. Ask also that we would learn to be more gracious to our brothers and sisters who are different from us.

**Click here to read Part Two**

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Looking for a clean read?

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Looking for a clean read?

After my article, The Dark Alleys in Young Adult Fiction went live, there was a lot of confusion over whether I was advocating censorship of speculative fiction as a genre. The status update on the Facebook post read, "Many parents think any book is better than TV, but the fantasy in some young adult fiction leads our kids to places we would never want them to go.”

I think whoever wrote that status to accompany the article probably meant sexual fantasy since that was what I was writing about. I meant only to advocate parental awareness of the sexual content in YA fiction. It was my goal to help parents and teens continue reading clean stories and equip them with the tools to find those books. Are you unsure if your child should be reading sci fi and fantasy? Check out my article on the topic at Speculative Faith

Yet since there was a lot of confusion about sci fi/fantasy genres, I've compiled a list (with the help of H. Halverstadt) of resources for finding speculative fiction written by Christian authors. I have not read all of these books, so please do not take this as my stamp of approval on the individual books you find on these sites. I encourage you to use the guidelines at the end of the Dark Alleys article linked above for every book you or your child picks up. Just because it's labeled "Christian" doesn't mean it's clean. You can also follow me on Goodreads where I frequently review fiction (and non-fiction). 

Authors, if you write clean speculative fiction, please feel free to spam my comments with links to your website!

Sites:

Lorehaven Library

Realm Makers Mobile Bookstore

Unicorn Quester

H. Halverstadt Books

Superversive SF

Noblebright Fantasy

Enclave Books

Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Bulletin

Lasers, Dragons, and Keyboards

Revell

Castle Gate Press

Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Facebook group

Christian Speculative Fiction Facebook group

Christian Books - Connecting Readers and Authors

 

Tips: 

Request that your local Christian bookstore carry more speculative fiction or a specific book.

Ask the library in your city to buy certain books/authors.

Found an author you like? Check their website for book reviews and recommendations.

If you're still unsure about a specific title, look up their publisher. They may have a content standard on their website. 

 

 

 

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Female Lust Survey Results

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Female Lust Survey Results

I recently took an anonymous survey on the topic of female lust. The point of this post is to discuss my survey, it’s results, and what some of my own conclusions are.

Testimonies of sexual addiction of more than ten friends in the past decade have made me rethink what I’ve been taught about lust. Thirty-one women filled out the deeply personal survey, and now more than ever, I think this is an issue that women in the church can no longer ignore. We have become isolated and alone in our temptations and sins which cripples our ability to overcome them.

We also persist in defining lust based on the more well-known sexual thought life of men. Are men and women really different in this area? I think they are. Take for example this article on love and respect by Douglas Wilson, this Newsweek piece on the emerging trend of feminist erotica, and this article from NY Times about the words men and women use when they write about love. Additionally, here is a study on the differences between children living in intact biological families versus homes with same gender parents. Their study found that children with lesbian mothers were eleven times more likely to be touched sexually than children in intact biological—opposed to children with gay fathers who were three times to be touched sexually than children in intact biological families. I discuss this briefly in my review of The Last Closet in which Moira Greyland writes about her childhood under the parentage of pedophiles. 

 

Here are a few stats from this survey:

  • 29 out of 31 struggle with lust

  • 25 out of 31 have dealt with sexual addiction at some point in their life

  • 25 out of 31 have masturbated

  • 22 out of 31 think that masturbation is wrong

  • 29 out of 31 say their lust is exacerbated by literature and television

  • All are Christian

 

Some weightier issues:

When asked if they had someone to talk to about their struggles with lust, the majority said they have only confided in their husband. More than half of the single women had never spoken to anyone about it. Is it any wonder why women are suffering alone in the church while men openly acknowledge the universal temptations for their sex? This can also be one of the reasons some women wonder if they are gay. (Ex: If lust is truly a man’s struggle, does it mean I’m gay because I struggle with it too?)

When asked if they have ever lusted while looking at another woman, 42% answered yes. But the question was more nuanced. It read, “Do you ever look at another woman (or picture) and lust, unsure of the cause, but on close examination realize it's because you want to be like her and not homosexual thoughts? Ex: See a picture of a female model in lingerie, lust, and imagine you are her while seeking sexual satisfaction from a male partner or masturbation.”

I believe this is one of the most misunderstood occurrences. As women, we are emotional and relational. Our lust tends to center around relationships—at least that's how it normally starts. So why lust when seeing a picture of another woman? This is another instance that would lead someone to think they are gay. But I propose homosexual thoughts are not at work here. Women want to be desirable and desired. Most women would say they are discontent with something about their physical appearance, so they assume their husband (or future husband) would be happier if they looked more like her. Whoever she is. We want to be her. We want what she has: a more attractive body, sexual freedom, attention from men. There is lust at work here, but the root of this sin is envy.

Another question on the survey read, “Do you ever feel burdened or tempted to be burdened by modesty or monogamy?” Surprisingly most people answered no. But I think that is due to not having examined this overmuch. After dialoguing with a friend about this, she was able to come to a striking conclusion:

“I think for me the real root of it is envy, but not even like I said that she’s sexualized so I want to be too, but I’m envying her sin honestly. Sounds crazy, but bear with me. I’m envying her sin in that she has the ‘freedom’ to be immodest and sexual and make herself a sexual object if she wants to. I think it’s a deep root of feminism in thinking that ‘freedom’ she has is something to be desired and to envy rather than chains of sin. So our response to that envy of her perceived freedom in her sexuality is to run out and immediately express our own in whatever way we can because we’re responding sinfully to wanting what she has. Even though it’s sin. It comes a lot I think in me from viewing modesty as a burden when I’m not thinking rightly so I envy those women who are free from that ‘burden’”

God’s plan for sex has been ravaged by humankind. Our individualistic culture embraces any new idea about sexuality and reproduction, resulting in high rates of abortion, sex-trafficking, along with generations of over-sexualized children and teens. With the invention of film, television, and eventually the internet, came a people obsessed with one thing: sex. Everything is about sex. Advertisements use it to sell food, fashion, even technology. Pressure is placed on the arts to include sexual tension (if not actual sex) into anything and everything they create. We cannot escape it. But we can talk to each other, keep one another accountable, and pray for purity.

I address this further in my article, Every Woman's Silent Struggle: Fighting Lust with Sisters in Christ, on desiringgod.org concerning the issues facing the church and what we can do to help other women struggling with lust.

Also, check out my defense of censoring sex in literature (a follow-up of my YA fiction Desiring God article) and where you can look for clean fiction

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What If Your Kids Don't Read Fantasy

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What If Your Kids Don't Read Fantasy

Featured by Speculative Faith

Are unsure if your child should be reading fantasy? You may be asking the wrong questions. 

"I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with a mature Christian friend about their uncertainty of the role of fiction and imagination.

They may know it’s good in a nebulous sense, but what should they do when their child suddenly has an appetite for fantasy? What if they ask to read Harry Potter?

They don’t consider themselves fundamentalists, yet they think fantasy poses a real threat to their child."

Read more on Speculative Faith's website.

 

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The Need for the Critical Thinking Christian

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The Need for the Critical Thinking Christian

Click here to read part one on critical thinking by guest blogger and in-house philosopher, Tim Jacobs. Subscribe to his philosophy YouTube channel here.

What radio station is safe for your kids? What movies are safe? Many Christian parents find these to be easy questions. Christian radio doesn’t have any swearing or sexual content. VeggieTales is not only safe but gives Christian morals, right? I hate to break it to you, but both are frequently not safe. Christian critical thinking has been lulled to sleep by blindly accepting anything with a “Christian” label. When we watch other things on TV, we have our mental filters active, trying to see if its good for our kids or not, but if it’s Christian, or Disney, then we check our filters at the door. This is harmful because it means that the Christianity our children are learning is one of moralism and Christianized American self-fulfillment.

VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer apologized in 2011 for teaching moralism instead of gospel Christianity.

"I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. . . . And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have." (Source: Patheos).

So, the most popular Christian cartoon teaches the Oprah god. What does this mean? Kids are learning that self-esteem and self-fulfillment are our goals in life and God will help us get them so long as we’re nice.

What about Christian radio? The song “Free To Be Me” by Francesca Battistelli ranked #1 on Hot Christian in 2009 and was nominated for a Dove award in 2010. It was so catchy many of you will recognize its chorus:

'Cause I got a couple dents in my fender

Got a couple rips in my jeans

Try to fit the pieces together

But perfection is my enemy

And on my own I'm so clumsy

But on Your shoulders I can see

I'm free to be me

Notice what this says. Perfection is my enemy. Really? What’s good about this sentiment is that the song encourages us to not despair in failures and faults, but this song goes further by glorying in these faults. It says that I’m the kind of person who has faults and with God I am free to be that way. That’s what theologians call antinomianism, or cheap grace, an understanding of grace as to be permissive instead of transformative.

“Free to Be Me” is now becoming dated, but the theological atrocities ubiquitous in Christian songs is so pervasive on the radio that I would rather turn it off than listen. When DJs who have no theological training besides Americanized Christian culture come on and try to give advice, it comes out as what Phil Vischer described when he said, “We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore.”

This same problem is present in “Christian” TV, music, movies, social events, spirituality books, novels, and greeting cards. The solution is to not trust the label “Christian” any more than you should trust the label “organic.” After all, the National Review reports that false advertising of organic foods is not uncommon. The profits outweigh the penalties. It shouldn’t surprise us then that popular “Christian” music artists like Jennifer Knapp come out as being homosexual or popular author and pastor Rob Bell comes out as a universalist.

2 Peter 2:1 says, “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies.” Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15).

How do we guard ourselves against false teaching? Cultivate critical thinking instead of censorship. Censorship oversimplifies matters by saying, “This group is good and this is bad.” Life is more complicated. Things generally have a mix of good and evil. Critical thinking takes a detailed look at which elements are good and which are bad. It doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It also doesn’t drink the tea without straining out the leaves. Critical thinking doesn’t blindly accept anything. In censoring children, you don’t allow them to build their own defenses. Instead, watch TV or listen to music with them and show them the good and the bad that are present. This trains them to be critical thinkers always on their guard and not as liable to poor influence.

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Forgotten Virtue

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Forgotten Virtue

Please welcome guest blogger, philosopher extraordinaire, and my husband, Tim Jacobs! Subscribe to his philosophy YouTube channel here.

 

I’m a Christian professor of philosophy at a state school in Houston, and at the beginning of each class I conduct an anonymous worldview survey. Only 20% of my students believe morals are objective and not created by individuals or society. About 33% say same-sex marriage is not permissible. About 52% say that abortion is not permissible, the majority adding the caveat that it is permissible in cases of rape or incest. About 60% say they are Christian. Why is it that 60% are Christian but only 20% believe in objective morality?

If Christians do not learn their worldview from church, they will learn it from society. Sunday School is dying and giving way to house groups that focus on application at the exclusion of learning. Don’t get me wrong, “life-on-life” accountability and support groups are valuable, but if Christians are not learning robust Christianity in the first place, their application will be of a largely secular worldview.

 

An example of a concept that is missing from the worldview of many Christians is the idea of virtue. We all think virtue is a good thing and have a vague concept that it means something like “goodness” or “holiness,” but that is hardly helpful. In order to understand what a virtue is, we must first understand that intellect separates humans from animals. The intellect has two components, cognition and willing. Cognition includes understanding, judging, and reasoning. A person can practice these and become very intelligent, but this does not make them good.

The will on the other hand is the seat of desire and making choices. This is different than saying that the will is emotion, for even animals have emotion. Yet, animals cannot make choices and only function in a stimulus-response way. This is why we do not say that a lion has committed murder when it kills another animal, nor do we say that a dog is a thief and a vandal when it eats my homework. Animals do not have moral status. Because humans have a will and can choose, they can develop habits of choice and can choose to either follow their emotions or lead their emotions.

A moral virtue is a habit that makes its possessor good. It is a character trait and disposition to act in a certain way. A virtue is not a mere habit, for we can have bad habits or useful habits that are morally neutral. A virtue is a habit that is intentionally cultivated by reason to achieve the ultimate purpose of a human life, namely the imitation of Christ. This is not to say that every good choice has to be well thought out. On the contrary, a lot of thinking may go into the first choice, but repetition of the same choice develops a habit, or a second nature, so that we can react in good ways without having to think about it every time. Practice makes perfect, you might say, and in this way you can see real change in your life.

God is interested not in creating a bunch of people who fulfill their duties and check off good behavior. He is interested in the person you become. Of course, a good person will do good things, but we are to become Christlike in character, not just in outward action. What does this look like? Here's some application.

 

First, the culture tells us to follow our heart and that love is something we are struck with and have an obligation to follow. “Love at first sight” and the obsessive addiction of infatuation are patterns of following emotion, or “following your heart.” Do your emotions control you or do you control your emotions? Let wisdom lead your heart. Is it wise to pursue a relationship with this person? If not, then it doesn’t matter how you feel about them. Keep reminding yourself of wisdom, and your emotional addiction will eventually subside. Culture, however, will tell you to follow your heart.

After a repetition of the right choices, your emotions will develop habits. Do you have a habit of thinking about what you are entitled to and what others ought to do for you? If so, then when you see injustice, you will likely feel the emotional habits of frustration and being offended rather than of pity and mercy. Do you give to the poor? If not, when you see the poor, you will habitually feel apathy. If you do, then you will habitually feel love. The way you respond to situations gradually grows your emotional response. Think first. Act second. Feel later. If your choice is habitually bad, then instead of cultivating virtue, you cultivate vice.

 

Second, obedience to God is not just about checking off your duties, going to church, sharing the gospel every once in a while, giving tithe, and volunteering for some ministry. Many will go to hell who have done these things well. The real question is whether they have done these things out of virtue, out of the love of Christ, or out of self-righteousness, trying to feel righteous by fulfilling external duties. Christ says that the motive for obedience to commands is the prime virtue of love, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Fruit of the Spirit is a list of virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22–23). It is not a list of duties. In the Sermon on the Mount virtue plays a significant role, discussing how murder and lust are in the heart and not in mere action, and we should love our enemies. The Sermon climaxes in the Golden Rule, which is a tool teaching us that love of others is the most important virtue (Matt 7:12–14). Jesus saves his most scathing rebukes for religious people who have all their ducks in a row and fulfill all their duties while neglecting the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, faithfulness—all of which are virtues (Matt 23:23). The Bible is saturated with discussion of virtue. If you read the Old Testament through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount, you see that God’s intent the whole time has been to restore people to the imitation of God’s character as the image of God.

People should certainly follow their duties even when they don’t want to. Imagine a person who has a duty they dislike, but with great effort they do it anyway. This is morally praiseworthy. Unfortunately, without a consideration of virtue in our Christian worldview, we often think that this is all obedience has to offer. Obeying God usually entails doing something we really don’t want to do. This is a poor conception of the gospel life. Instead, imagine a person who so desires to do the right thing, that they don’t even think of it as a duty. They have developed such a habit of doing the right thing that it is natural for them, and they actually enjoy doing the right thing. It is not enough to do the right thing. We must love doing it. This is how we must imagine Jesus, the most human human.

 

Third, because virtues are habits, every choice is significant. In a situation where you can choose to act in love or apathy, cowardice or courage, diligence or laziness, whichever choice you make makes it a little easier to make that same choice next time. Before you know it, you’ve developed a habit and have changed your moral character and disposition. It is dangerous to say, “Well, it’s okay just this once.” After the first time, the second time will be easier. Before you know it, you’ve fallen down a slippery slope. This brings a sense of healthy fear in doing anything less than urgent, radical, whole-hearted obedience. The greatest commandment is a virtue, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37).

Since virtues are character qualities and dispositions, when you develop morally good or bad habits, you are changing your personality. As habits are formed by practice, this also gives hope for change. Most change takes place one step at a time. Take the first small step towards obedience and repeat it until it is as easy as habit. Growth takes place in small steps over a long period of time. Since virtues are habits ordered by reason to the imitation of Christ, they will more often than not begin by resisting emotions. You won’t feel like obeying. This is what it feels like to have reason lead emotion. However, this should only be a phase. Gradually, as the habit of choice develops, the emotional habit will as well. As C.S. Lewis says, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him” (Mere Christianity).

Addendum on Grace

No discussion of virtue is complete without discussing GRACE. Without grace, we can grow in virtue, just like how a blind, three-legged dog can get better at walking. Your non-Christian neighbor may be more patient, hospitable, or hard-working than you. This is legitimate virtue, but only in a crippled sense. It aims generically at human perfection, but not specifically at finding that perfection in the imitation of Christ. It is not true to say, "Non-Christians cannot do good deeds." In fact, Jesus says, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:11). Jesus verifies that non-Christians can do good things.

Why do I emphasize that Non-Christians can do good? I have three reasons. First, because my whole aim is to fight against the oversimplified, greeting card Christianity that is full of catchphrases that sound close enough to the truth to dull the critical thinking of Christians and lead them away from a robust Christian worldview. Instead, I seek clarity and precision in my love of truth and wisdom, which leads to my second point. Verifying that Non-Christians do some  good (just look at all the self-sacrifice after Hurricane Harvey) helps us ask what sets Christians apart. If we don't verify the good of Non-Christians, that not only cuts off our witness with them, it excuses our own mediocre moral actions as being "at least better than them." Third, verifying the common grace God gives to all to restrict humanity's evil serves to highlight special grace, which is the thing that separates Christian virtue from Non-Christian virtue.

Grace changes both the goal and the cause of our efforts to be moral. Because of grace, we cultivate virtue for the imitation of Christ, not for self-righteousness, self-fulfillment, or even the good of society alone. Grace enables us to pursue not merely the generic perfection of human nature but its specific perfection in the imitation of Christ. Paul says everyone knows God from creation (Ro 1:19–21), and everyone has a basic understanding of morality in their conscience (Ro 2:15). However, without grace, they cannot submit to Christ as savior, cannot be motivated by love of Christ, cannot act for the sake of the glory of God, and do not have the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who works in us to sanctify us and recover the image of Christ in us. Progress is promised, despite our failures (Eph 1:4). This is the goal of salvation. You will grow in virtue, however slowly, if you have the Holy Spirit in you. This is grace, that every step forward was pushed from behind.

One last note on growth. PRAYER is magic. I've often asked myself why God didn't give us magic. It's because he's got it and we just need to ask him to use it. You know that bad habit you can't seem to kick or that good habit that never seems to stick? Pray and be patient. If you don't believe in prayer, pray that you will. If you don't have patience, pray that you will. If you don't believe anything that I've said, pray that you will.

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The Dark Alleys Part Two

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The Dark Alleys Part Two

In November 2017, my article, The Dark Alleys in Young Adult Fiction, was published on desiringgod.org. I had a mishmash of reactions when it hit social media. It wasn’t until recently that I fully comprehended where all of that negativity was coming from. In my initial excitement (and apprehension) that my article was live, I neglected to fully digest the status that accompanied the facebook post—the status I didn’t write.

It read, “Many parents think any book is better than TV, but the fantasy in some young adult fiction leads our kids to places we would never want them to go.”

Did you catch it? “. . . the fantasy in some . . .” Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I read fantasy, write fantasy, breathe fantasy. In defense of whoever wrote this, I think they were referring to sexual fantasy, and not the fantasy genre. But some people didn’t read it that way. Instead, my article, meant only to discuss the amount of sexual content in YA fiction, was taken by some to be advocating censorship of speculative (sci fi/fantasy) fiction. It’s an unfortunate mistake, but I assure you it was unintentional. In fact, I think engaging with speculative fiction is morally good and God glorifying. (Check out this blog post for clean speculative fiction books and resources. Unsure if your child should be reading sci fi and fantasy? Check out my article on that topic at Speculative Faith.)

There were also many who disagreed that sexual content should be censored at all. I'd like to spend some time unpacking my stance on that more. Even if we don't agree at this end of this post, I hope my stance will at least make a little more sense.

So why advocate censoring sexual content (instead of critical thinking which is my usual MO)? Shouldn’t young adult literature be realistic? Shouldn’t it address those issues that affect teens and preteens the most? Well yes and no. Teens do need help with those things, but sadly, the well intended attempts to help often end up doing exactly the opposite.

Before I get into the nitty gritty of why, I would like to tell three stories that will put this into better perspective.

A few years ago, my husband and I went through foster care training with the intent to adopt a girl who already had her parental rights terminated. With two small children at home, the only limitation we placed on our application was no history of sexually acting out toward younger children. We inquired after every girl under the age of twelve in the state—but not one child met that requirement.

Back in college, a “perfect storm” of sexual confession hit my life. All at once, six girl friends poured their hearts out about their struggle with masturbation and porn addiction. All of them had grown up in loving Christian homes, and had been secretly struggling with a slow-growing addiction from as early as six years old. Years later, at least five more women told me similar stories. These Christian women had been fighting alone, afraid to confess lest they find out that no one else had the same struggles. Sadly, many of them drew their sexual inspiration from literature.

Propelled by the confusion following my article and armed with the stories of my friends, I sought out more women to take a survey on female lust. (Check out the survey results.) I was sure the idea that only men have this struggle was dead wrong, that we isolate ourselves by not discussing it, and that we make true repentance unattainable by misunderstanding how the female brain is wired. Thirty women took the survey. 90% struggled with lust, 80% have at one time in their life been addicted to sexual sin, and more than half of them drew sexual inspiration from literature. (I would like to say now that these findings do not mean that I am advocating censorship of all literature. Please continue to read! I am saying that we should be aware of temptations, address them with wisdom and maturity, and seek to be obedient to Christ in all things.)

Here is a testimony from one woman who took the survey early on before I made it anonymous. (She has given her permission to use this quote.):

“I spent a lot of time at the public library and I came across a series of books.... They were not hard core romance novels. It was very light romance but the seeds of lust were planted. I would fantasize about different interactions with the main character of the books. Nothing sexual. Just innocent at first. But I learned that I could conger up these scenarios in my mind and make believe and that lead to other things as I got older. Once you've seen hard core porn you need something more and more perverse. And the perversion got worse and worse. I needed dirtier and nastier stuff to make me feel what I needed to feel.”

So back to the questions at hand. Why advocate censorship of sexual content in literature specifically? If you read the article on Desiring God’s website, you might recall the quote by Stephen King that says, “A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over her skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold.”

King understands the power of literature better than many readers and authors. Reading a book is not the same kind of experience as watching TV. Although they both tell stories, books will always have a power over the mind and body that TV never will—especially for women. I’m not going to try and convince you that men and women are different, which is unpopular in our culture. Equality and sameness are different things. So without going down that rabbit trail, I will just say that women are emotional creatures. When it comes to sex, we are less likely to seek visual stimulation like men are. We care more to be desired and desirable—and not always in a sexual way.  

Look at that King quote again. I believe he’s saying that through modern storytelling methods of showing (not telling) by using internal and external sensations, a reader can feel what the character is feeling. They can taste, hear, smell, see what the protagonist is experiencing. You will never have the same kind of reaction when you watch a film. It will never take you as deep, or make you fall in love as hard as a book will. This is a wonderful thing! Unless the author uses this power irresponsibly, or worse yet, uses it against the reader in order to wreak havoc on their heart (perhaps for the sake of creating that money making, late night, can’t put it down, full of tension, page turner).

Trust is earned. It’s not given freely. When I read, I’m putting my very heart into the hands of a stranger. And yet I continue to do it. But it is a trial run. If that author proves not to be trustworthy, I might not recommend their book to others. Or if I feel their story is leading me to sin, I will put it down and not finish the story at all.

So how can I as a writer help teens think through these pressing issues if I don’t talk about them? Well that’s just it, I never said writers shouldn’t write about sex or romance. It’s the how that’s key here. 

Writers, this is for you!

Helping teens figure out biblical ways of dealing with sexual feelings is good and necessary. But since our culture and our teens are bombarded by sex on every side, it's easier than ever to fall into porn addictions and habitual masturbation. Something as simple as using internal and external sensations in an effort to show rather than tell (as is expected for modern commercial fiction) can lead to lust and the reader flushing hot and cold right along with the protagonist. 

In my writing, I show rather than tell 95% of the time. Yet, there are moments when being explicit in that way will not lead the reader in a deeper understanding of what to do with the feelings, but simply exaggerate the temptation. I know it’s a fiction writer sin to advocate telling over showing, but a tiny percentage of telling is what’s going to lead a teen closer to Christ. Showing in those moments of sexual tension creates in them a thirst for more titillating fiction that may not care for their hearts nearly as well as you do. And that is the real goal here: to care for their hearts with every scene, sentence, and word that is written.

Cover art above was designed by JT Wynn from Stage and Story!

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 Good Friday: Reflections on Luke 23:34

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Good Friday: Reflections on Luke 23:34

The God man hung suspended above the crowd on a device constructed to slowly torture a man to death. The eyes of those who had laid palm branches along the road crying, “Hosanna!” as he’d ridden into town only days before looked up at him–-but not in love. Not in admiration or respect. Their hearts were full of pride––pride in dominating the man who claimed to be the messiah.

Perfection himself had come to serve and be slain. He had come in all humility, foregoing all the worship he deserved in order to perform the ultimate act of love. For these sinners. For the very people who sought to destroy him, and in so doing become their own gods.

And yet Christ saw through this. He knew not only the depth of their sinfulness, but of their ignorance. And despite their hard hearts, he loved them still. He cried out for their forgiveness even as he struggled to draw breath. Even as four inch nails cut into his flesh.

In that moment, Christ’s body was weak. Shattered. Wasting away. He was feeling the full effect of this humanity that he’d robed himself in. But he didn’t sin. As the full weight of the pride of his captors bore down on him, he remained humble. He looked out on the crowd and loved them. They broke him, but his heart was broken for them. What a glorious picture of the God man! Both fully God and fully man until the very moment of death.

What would we have done in that moment? Beg to die? To be released? Or would we be overwhelmed with anger, bitterness, or self-pity––feeling as though we deserved better treatment, that we were entitled. The irony is that if we hung there, we would deserve no better. We’ve sinned, and we deserve to die. And yet the only sinless man who has ever walked the earth humbly gave up what he was entitled to––worship by the crowd––in order to show the greatest act of love of all time. To die for them.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

 

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Authentic Repentance

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Authentic Repentance

This article from Christianity Today is a pretty offensive one considering the trending authenticity in American churches right now. But I'm a huge fan of not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Ever since attending an "authentic" church years ago, I've seen time and again how it's crippled the faith of some believers. Once struggles and sins are confessed to a friend, repentance is sometimes forgotten altogether.

And now, this trend has invaded mommy culture like crazy. Isn't it important not to try to portray your life as perfect when it's far from it? Absolutely! (Here's where we don't throw that baby away!)

All those times I yelled at my kids today because they were driving me crazy? My fault. We all know we can't make our kids perfect no matter how hard we try. But I can fight the temptation to yell, and instead teach them the gospel through proper discipline.

And I'll be the first to authentically say that the piles of dishes and laundry are not always a result of being truly overwhelmed. In fact, most of the time (at least in my home), they're a result of laziness. Which is sin that should change.

Now please don't hear me say that having dirty dishes is a sin. Far from it! There are always seasons of life that require it, in fact. The point is, we shouldn't even be asking ourselves whether or not our homes are too messy. We should be examining our heart and motives for why we do the things that we do (or don't do). 

So by all means, be authentic. Confess your sin to a trusted friend, and then repent. 

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