Buying the Cow (Purity, Idolatry, and Words Have Meaning)

Woman Milking a Red Cow by Karel Dujardin, c. 1650

Woman Milking a Red Cow by Karel Dujardin, c. 1650

 

Rachel Held Evans’ recent post, “Do Christians Idolize Virginity?”  got me thinking about the ways we talk about purity, chastity, and virginity, and how frankly awful some of them are. Let’s take a look:

 

“Lost my virginity”

Forget looking at sex (and abstaining from sex) in terms of a spiritual practice done for the good of our relationship to God. Forget the wisdom of delaying sexual gratification. Virginity is a thing, a commodity that can be lost.

A commodity whose loss reduces the value of the (former) virgin.

Not too long ago, this was a very real concern. A potential bride was either disqualified or at least lessened if she was not a virgin. Actually, this is still a major concern in many cultures, to the point that honor killings have happened in the U.S. over suspected premarital sex.

 

“Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

These days, anyone who calls a woman a cow had better have swift legs or a good, tough chin. I mean heavyweight champion good. And where’s the male equivalent? “Why buy the bull when you can get the $#!* for free?”

Seriously, though, this one is doubly offensive. It paints men as sex fiends and women as chattel, a role that first century Christians moved beyond, but which we slid back to over the course of time.

(Compare the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Greco-Roman house codes, and you’ll see how progressive he was. Today he may look old-fashioned, but he didn’t write those letters today, or to post-feminist information-age citizens of modern democracies, did he?)

Had my wife and I not waited, I would still have married her. What I wanted wasn’t just sex. What I wanted was her, by my side, as my wife, for life. This stupid, offensive livestock analogy is disproven every day as couples who did not wait get married, and stay married, and have good marriages.

The analogy really does hearken back to the days when women were property. First they belonged to their fathers, and then they were (effectively) sold to their husbands. Sometimes there was a dowry involved, sometimes a bride-price, but always a commercial transaction.

And as with livestock, a woman who wasn’t ‘brand new’ and ‘untouched’ was of lesser value, she was, to use the most offensive phrase of all …

 

“Damaged Goods.”

Dear Lord, grant me the patience to not become physically violent when I hear that phrase. Violently ill is okay, though – I’m perfectly fine puking on whoever refers to a woman as “damaged goods.” And it’s always a woman. I’ve never heard a man referred to as “damaged goods” (or a cow, for that matter).

This reduces the woman below the level of livestock, to mere merchandise. A cow is at least a living being, capable of some basic emotions like contentment, fear, and pain. “Damaged goods” is like a couch that’s been clawed by a housecat, or an X-Box with the red ring of death.

 

“Losing my virginity” is bad enough, but “Cows” and “Damaged Goods” are just plain degrading. This is no way to talk about Godly chastity. This is no way to talk about our fellow Christians. And this is definitely no way to talk about our daughters, sisters, and friends.

 

Advertisements

Does ‘Treasures in Heaven’ mean a Church Savings Account?

As good Christians, we praise thrift and hard work, earning and saving. Do we sometimes go so far?

Jesus told a parable that may apply.

16 And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive.

 17 And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ 

18 Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 

19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ 

20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ 

21 So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

– Luke 12:16-21 (NASB)

I know we have to take care of our families, that is clear. And it logically follows that as churches, we should handle our finances carefully, too.

But do we go too far sometimes?

I especially wonder why some churches have a year’s worth of expenses (or more) squirreled back, and give only a pittance to poor relief each month. Granted, this is probably better than being mortgaged to the hilt, and unable to afford to help people, but is it really Jesus’ ideal?

I’m not advocating consumerism, borrowing money to build huge, super-modern Church buildings, paying celebrity pastors six figures, and generally reveling in our American bling. I can’t see any justification for that, honestly.

But might our focus be just a little bit off? Might our thrift be impeding our generosity?

I guess I shouldn’t raise these sorts of questions without at least trying to give some kind of answer.

And my answer is: a church’s finances should be guided by their situation and by prayerful consideration of how to address that situation, always keeping in mind that doing good is more important than looking good, and that true security comes from God, not a fat bank account.

Growing churches sometimes have to borrow money to expand. I don’t think it’s ever good for a church to be in debt (see Proverbs 22:7), but sometimes a church might have to do it. Sometimes borrowing money might even be a leap of faith.

However, I’ve personally been a part of two churches that experienced splits/mass defections (before I got there) over building big new buildings on credit. In both cases, many of the most vocal proponents of the expansions ended up leaving, even though the expansions happened.

I wasn’t there, so I won’t pretend to know anybody’s motives, but it wasn’t an ideal situation. Honestly, it was more of a minefield. It certainly soured me on churches borrowing money.

As for the other extreme, I see nothing wrong with a church saving up large sums for major expansions or needed renovations. It’s better than borrowing, if the church can do it.

And as for general savings, I think a church should have enough money saved back to weather an emergency (whether that’s unexpected repairs or an economic downturn that reduces giving), but not a death spiral.

If a church enters a period where its incoming offerings are consistently falling behind its costs, there’s a deeper problem. Maybe membership is declining. Maybe the church became too dependent on a few large donors, and one of them has gone. Maybe there’s major inefficiencies in how the church spends its money.

In any case, something needs to be addressed. And the real problem will get addressed faster if the church doesn’t have a year’s operating expenses sitting in the bank waiting to be drained.

Ultimately, a church that doesn’t interact with the community, that hoards its resources while ignoring the needs just outside its well-manicured lawn … that church is missing a great opportunity, like the rich man and his barns.

Transformations (New Year, New Me?)

There are a few transformations coming up in my future (in two to five weeks, I’ll no longer be a father-to-be, but the father of a newborn). There are also a transformations I’d like to intentionally undergo. I know New Year’s Day was a month ago, but anything that’s going to stick is going to have to be ongoing, not a one-time thing.

I want to transform from the kind of person who lets a lot of time slip through his fingers without knowing where it went into the kind of person who moves efficiently from one thing to another. I want to be the kind of person who chooses what he’s doing intentionally, rather than just bouncing aimlessly from one thing to another, like I’m following links on TV Tropes or Wikipedia.

Second, I want to transform my physical conditioning. Over the course of 2012, I let myself get pretty out of shape. I slowly started building back up in November and December, and I plan to push myself further. I really don’t like exercise that much, but I have a kid coming, and I’ll need to be up to speed for playing with her, carrying her, carrying all her stuff (car seat, diaper bags, toys, etc).

Third, of course, I want to transform myself into someone who has done the data collection and analysis necessary for a PhD. I hope to get my degree by the end of the year, but even if I don’t, God willing, I will finish my data collection this year.

Fourth, I want to transform my imagination. Too long I have been content with an imagination that is tied to conventional cultural messages about redemptive violence.  Too long, the stories I think in terms of have been violent ones, where good overcomes evil through force.

I do believe in self-defense, and I do believe in military action in extreme circumstances (such as World War II). But I don’t believe that battle is ever glorious. Not consciously, at least. But it appears that idea lurks in the back of my mind, and it needs to go.

I’m not talking about an exorcism or amputation. I don’t want to cut that idea out with a knife – that’s a pretty violent image in itself. I want to replace it. I want to heal it and redeem it. And that will mean finding new stories, creating new stories, and thinking in new stories.

Ultimately, this one is as important as my physical health. I have a daughter coming: what will I teach her about heroism? What will she aspire to? I will play a big role in shaping that, and I need to be sure I’m steering her right.

Means and Ends (Neither Kant nor Machiavelli)

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Niccolo Machiavelli famously said, “In judging policies we should consider the results that have been achieved through them rather than the means by which they have been executed.” The ends justify the means.

Immanuel Kant argued in favor of the old Latin maxim, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.” The means justify the ends.

But I don’t believe we can, in good conscience, stand by either maxim. As moral beings, especially as people of faith, we have a responsibility for both our means and our ends. We must balance the rightness of our methods with the most likely outcomes.

It’s easy to brush off Machiavelli. “The ends justifies the means” sounds like something a movie villain would say.

Until national security is on the line.

Until George W. Bush is talking about “enhanced interrogation” and “indefinite detention” (without a trial, of course)

Until Barrack Obama is talking about (or rather, trying very hard not to talk about) using Predator drones to blow up civilians in nations we aren’t even at war with.

But as Christians, we can at least try to avoid that one. We can set our feet down and join Kant in defending the old saying, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.”

But what does that mean? Does that mean being so focused on “biblical” roles in marriage that you treat spousal abuse like it’s a matter of the wife’s submission, as John Piper does below (from his entire demeanor, he either has no concept of what an abusive relationship is really like, or he has no empathy. I think both may be true, given his view of God).

When we focus on what is “right” according to scripture, and then use that to justify hurting “sinners” (such as denying them their [secular] civil rights, advocating discredited and medically dangerous therapies, or advocating for harsh criminal penalties against them in African countries),  we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we let our idea of “biblical” gender roles blind us to abuse in marriages, in families, and in churches, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

Even if we are not blinded, if we ignore or minimize suffering (as John Piper is doing above), we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we use our interpretation of scripture (without the humility to question whether we might be wrong, reading the Bible in translation, 2000+ years later, in a totally different cultural context) as a weapon, or an anesthetic that prevents us from feeling the pain of others, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

But we’re not doing what’s right. Not really. And our means, no matter how righteous we may thing they are, are utterly and totally tainted by the pain we cause.

Our righteousness is like filthy rags to God. That’s not just a redundant restating of Romans 3:23. It isn’t a declaration of Calvin’s “total depravity.” It means that our rightness, our self-justifications, our focus on “doing the right thing” no matter what the cost to others … is just filthy.

And the world sees this. It’s not the gospel that’s offending them. It’s our warped Kantian-Calvinistic logic, our weaponized righteousness. And it should offend them.

I Didn’t Build This

During the campaign, the President made a lot of people mad by pointing out that every business owed its success to factors beyond its founders’ brains and hard work. He used the ill-worded (and frankly insulting) phrase, “You didn’t build this.”

Thanks to the wide availability of video-editing software, we got to hear that clip again and again and again. Well, once more won’t kill you.

Okay, now that you’ve watched it, let me ask a question. I promise it’s related.

We have so much. So why do we begrudge every tax dollar that goes to the poor? Why do we cling so tightly to the idea that we have earned all we have?

Maybe it reminds us that all we have comes from God, that we could just as easily have been born in Sri Lanka, in a village with no clean water, and helplessly watched our siblings, and later our children, die of cholera or dysentery.

We could have been born in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, and been caught in the genocide of their civil wars.

We could have been born in North Korea, and been crushed under the boot of a multi-generational dictatorship.

We could have been born to a fourteen year old single mother in an inner city, a girl who might read at a fourth grade level. To a mother that will never finish high school, will have no support from the father, and who may or may not have support from her family.

We could have been that young mother. A mother who will have to live on welfare and what little she can earn without a degree, and who will forever earn the scorn of respectable middle-class American Evangelicals as a “welfare queen.”

But we weren’t. We were born to families that didn’t have to worry about contaminated water, or genocide, or secret police, or grinding poverty and alienation. We were born in a country with the rule of law, modern infrastructure, and functioning social safety nets.

We didn’t choose to be born in the developed world, nor did we build it prior to our birth. And we didn’t build our parents, or choose them. Heh, maybe John Calvin isn’t 100% wrong, after all. We didn’t build these things in our home countries, but we can help build them in the developing world, through organizations like World Vision.

So, yeah, the President’s right (as much as I like to criticize him).

I didn’t build this. God did.

No matter how much hard work I put into, well, anything, I would have had no chance if I’d been born just one continent away. And the ugly truth is, neither would you.

A Point of Clarification for all the Internet Prophets

xkcd comic #386, Creative Commons

There might be someone, somewhere in the U.S. who’s being persecuted for being a Christian, but it ain’t you or me.

Calling things out on the Internet is not brave unless you live in Iran, North Korea, China, or a similar country where you could face actual consequences for your words beyond other bloggers being mad at you.

Yeah, I know how ironic that statement is, appearing on a blog. But this blog isn’t some great act of courage on my part. It doesn’t make me a ‘virtual martyr’ even if people start flaming me.

If I post what I believe (complete with Bible verses to “back it up,”) and people criticize me, I’m not suffering persecution for our Lord’s sake. I’m just getting flamed online.

If I was blackballed from my profession for being a Christian, like a man in our church was when he lived in the Soviet Union (back when it still was the Soviet Union), that would be persecution.

If the army seized our church building and used it as a stable and a brothel (for maximum desecration – sexual immorality + human trafficking!) that would be persecution.

That happened to a church I volunteered at once in Lithuania. They got the building back after Lithuania declared its independence from the USSR. It took them a while to clean the place out, but they did. The same congregation had been worshiping in secret for decades. That’s persecution, and that’s standing firm for Christ.

But getting flamed? Not persecution. Posting ideas on the Internet? Not enduring hardship for Christ. Comment-bombing Rachel Held Evans’ blog with the same comment over and over … that’s just obnoxious.

Long story short, until God calls you to lie on one side for 390 dayss and use nothing but dung for your cooking fire, stop bellyaching. You aren’t Ezekiel, and neither am I.

Where Ayn Rand Went Right (Prophets and Bullies)

We must call evil “evil.”

We must have the courage to speak up.
We must not give evil the sanction of our silence.

Now, I’m no Objectivist. I’ve talked about where Atlas Shrugged went off the rails.

And unlike former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, I don’t think Objectivism is compatible with Christianity. But if Balaam could learn from a donkey, surely we can be humble enough to learn from a mid-century social darwinist.

But the truth is, it is far too easy to let things slide, either to keep the peace, or because we don’t want to damage our favored candidate’s chances, or because we just don’t want to make a fuss.

But evil grows best in silence and darkness.

I truly believe that we must start within ourselves, with the beams in our own eyes (Matthew 7:3).  Otherwise, we become hypocrites, whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27). And we must temper our boldness with compassion and empathy, lest we become cruel ourselves.

This means we must have the courage to call out the people in power, not pick on minorities and the marginalized just because they’re easy targets. THAT is the difference between the prophet and the bully. And THAT is the difference we must never forget.

But we must take hold of the courage to speak up. We must call out actions, plans, policies, and institutions. Even if they are popular. Even if they are done “to protect American lives.” Even if we voted for the guy doing them. Especially if we voted for the guy doing them.

We must speak out … even as we remember that the people committing these terrible acts are beloved children of the same God that made and loves us.