It’s not cheating if …

“I’m letting myself go … but it’s just for today!” This is a very common phrase I hear when I go out to eat. Heck, it’s a phrase I often use, myself, whenever I go to a fancy restaurant or just happen to be eating something extremely delicious with a bunch of friends. This phrase becomes even more common when it involves someone who is on a diet and decides to give him/herself a day off the diet in order to indulge in whatever decadent food is there. This idea of having a “cheat day” or “cheat meal” is quite common in a lot of material about dieting; it understands how hard it is for people to stay disciplined to a limited number of calories for an extended period of time.

Cheat days

I find the idea of the cheat day quite fascinating because at the heart of it, the cheat day recognizes just how much we are prone to give into temptation. On one hand, this term has been coined with the word “cheat,” meaning that allowing oneself a day to indulge every week is cheating and that constantly sticking to a low calorie diet all the time would be even better if done without cheating. On the other hand, the whole point of the cheat day is to say that it’s okay to have a day to eat more decadently without feeling guilty because otherwise, one might be tempted to quit the diet, or worse, go on a complete binge of decadent food.

Basically, cheat days are a “bend but don’t break” approach, somewhat similar to approaches that are often suggested for other tasks that require discipline such as taking planned breaks while working or having designated off-days when working out. What’s different in these two cases, however, is that the break from the activity actually has additional benefits. A break from can help refresh your mind and give new perspective when returning to the work, and days off from working out gives your body time to rebuild muscle. Based on my understanding and research (basically some Googling) of cheat days, the only “benefit” is reduced temptation to stop dieting/go on a binge eating rampage. But is this really how we should approach the occasional indulgence of food? “It’s okay to let go every once in a while because it’s better than really letting go and completely giving up on a diet.”

Why all this fuss about “cheat days?”

Recently, there were two blog posts written on opposite ends of the same topic, unhealthy approaches to eating. On one hand, there is over-eating, gluttonous eating, and on the other hand, there is under-eating, which is often associated with having an eating disorder. (As a side note, I recognize that I’m oversimplifying things quite a bit. Over-eating and under-eating do sometimes go hand-in-hand, and eating disorders are extremely complicated. Unfortunately, there’s not enough time in this post to delve into details nor am I really one to speak much on this.) As discussed in both blog posts, neither of these is simply to be identified simply by looking at a person’s weight. While weight can be an indication of habitual over-eating or under-eating, these unhealthy approaches to eating are often linked to other issues of the heart, such as body image or escaping stress just to name a few.

What I dislike about the current way that our culture approaches “cheat days” is that it feeds into many of the issues of the heart that come with gluttonous eating and eating disorders. “It’s okay to indulge once a week because you’ve dieted so well the other six days that you’ll still be net minus 200 calories for the week and on your way to a better body.” “It’s okay to eat something fatty today; you deserve something tasty after all those nasty kale/quinoa/beet/insert other healthy veggie juice drinks.” (For the record, I have nothing against kale/quinoa/beet/other healthy veggies or juice drinks) Cheat days don’t even begin to address the heart related issues that come with unhealthy eating; rather they exist only in the framework that has already bought into the idea that the heart related issues will be solved through eating or not eating. More explicitly, the cheat days mentality has already accepted that a person who is struggling with under-eating because of a body image issue will only be happy once that body image goal is met. Similarly, the cheat days has ceded that a person who is struggling with binge eating because of stress he/she will only feel better by over-eating. The next step in both cases is just to try to control the eating amount. Only the symptom is addressed, not the root.

There are a few natural follow-up concerns with only addressing the symptom of excessive over-eating or under-eating. How much can I go over my normal amount on a cheat day? If I can just grit it out and not cheat at all, wouldn’t that be better? What happens if the symptom is fixed, but the underlying issue persists, won’t it all just collapse?

This makes sense, but why are you trying to ruin a good thing? Lots of people do this and are losing weight and getting healthier. Just let people eat how they want to eat.

For the record, I don’t find anything wrong with the simple practice of having certain meals where one would eat more or more decadently than he or she usually does. This does have the practical effect of encouraging people not to binge eat or give up on trying to eat healthy, which is good as well. My main point is that cheat days, as we’ve constructed them, undersell the beauty of food and what food means to us as humans. Instead of appreciating what God has given us in food, we view it merely as a means to please ourselves and get what we desire. Food is meant to be enjoyed as a gift from God and a reminder of our dependence to God. What the cheat days mentality does is place ourselves above food, giving us the power to eat or not eat it as a means to control our body image, stress, and more.

Okay, so you don’t like this construct, but you like the practice. What do you propose instead?

In a Gospel Coalition blog post title “Toward a Theology of Dessert,” (http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/toward-a-theology-of-dessert/) the author proposes that we consider “dessert as feasting.” She introduces an interesting biblical framework for understanding how we eat; there are three primary modes of eating: feasting, fasting, and ordinary. While I’d love to go into more depth about this, for now, let’s just focus on feasting. In the Bible, we see God calling us to feast as a way of celebrating His goodness and provision for us. For example, Leviticus 23 lists out the seven feasts (Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles) in which the Israelites are to partake. In Revelations, we are told that in the new Jerusalem, we will partake in the “feast of the Lamb.” In the story of the prodigal son, when the son returns, the father kills a fattened lamb to eat and throws a party for his son’s return. In these examples, and more, we see food as a celebration of God and what he has given us.

With this in mind, I believe a more appropriate perspective on cheat days is to consider feasting as the times when we can “let go.” I don’t have a particular definition in mind for what constitutes a feast in our context, but this could include times of eating with friends, celebrating a birthday, housewarming parties, and more. Rather than viewing times we indulge as a cheating from the norm and something simply to be done to prevent further backsliding, feasting tells us that these are normal and celebratory occurrences. After all, it’s not cheating if God wants us feast.

Final Remarks

I feel there’s quite a bit more to say about understanding God’s desire for us to have times of feasting, but perhaps that will come in another post. Having a mindset of feasting retains the positive practical aspects of cheat days, while also providing a better understanding of food’s purposes and limits. I’m not going to pretend that this change in mindset will somehow solve the many of the heart issues that lie beneath unhealthy eating approaches. Those heart issues, ultimately, are not things that will be solved by food, period. What feasting does do, as a mindset, is recognize that ultimately all things point to God, and hopefully in this tiny way, will remind us that the heart issues are ultimately resolved in finding God.

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Should We Pray With Patients?

The patient was abruptly, unexpectedly, and neurologically devastated, leaving his family stunned and grief stricken.  There was little else for the ICU team to offer, even as we worked to do everything physiologically possible to sustain life.  It was late at night and as we stood in the room listening to beeping monitors and the running motors of IV pumps, the family mentioned in passing that many people were praying for him.  So I asked them two simple questions: Are you Christian? Would you like me to pray for you?  They answered yes to both.  I led them in a short prayer, expressing no more in terms of medical prognosis or aspirations for therapy than had already been offered, but also asking for strength, wisdom, and a clearer understanding and experience with God himself.  The family was marginally but visibly relieved and calmed by it, and we continued on with the grueling task of caring for the patient.

As anticipated, the patient passed away several days later.  After the family left, their nurse told me, “They could not stop talking about that prayer.  They said that of the dozens of physicians they have interacted with over many years, not a single one ever offered to pray with them.  It meant a lot.”

Modern healthcare is conflicted about how to approach faith and illness.  On the one hand, rising pressure to improve patient satisfaction must recognize the importance of faith in the lives of patients; in one small family practice study, 48% percent of patients wanted a physician to pray with them (even though 68% never had a physician discuss religious beliefs with them).   On the other hand, the secularization and humanism-ization of medicine can use the ethical mandate to respect patient autonomy as an excuse not to engage in matters that could be controversial (such as faith).  Fear of “abuse of paternalistic power” in the physician-patient relationship or fear of invoking religious ritual and methodologies that are virtually impossible to hypothesis-test can create a “chilling effect” on the inquiry and expression of religious belief by healthcare workers even when no hostility or indifference is there.  It is as if medical practitioners find it hard to believe that faith not only exists, but that it could possibly matter more to patients than the field of medical therapeutics itself.

The earliest practitioners of medicine were clergy members.  In virtually every culture, ministers of medicine began as… well, ministers.  After all, what can be a more compelling reason to drive us to our knees than helplessness in the face of suffering?  Though modern medicine can explain the physiology of how we decay and die in excruciating detail, it is certainly not equipped to answer the question of why we do.  This observation alone should explain why questions of faith contend to occupy the center of a patient’s attention and not simply the periphery.

The next time you are in a small group or a prayer gathering, try to count how many times health-related concerns come up for prayer.  Illness afflicts our minds, hearts, and souls as readily as our bodies.  Healthcare workers are compelled to take hours of training in cultural sensitivity, mindfulness, and meditation; shouldn’t we be similarly compelled to attain and encourage proficiency in spiritual need assessment, willing to offer prayer when requested instead of retreating in indifference?  Shouldn’t this be true in all the “helping professions”?

Seeing

Sometimes I am afraid of faith.

Sometimes I like my doubts, cup them close to my chest, build them one atop the other like blocks of safe cold plastic, a buffer between myself and the howling fire of Spirit and heart that I have come to know as God.

The scariest, biggest change in my Christianity since graduation is that God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Gospel Worldview have spun wildly out of my control. At Princeton, it was nice to think about the Gospel. I sorted things out in neat creation-fall-redemption-glory narratives, applying them to foreign policy issues and my own struggles with thesis and sabbath and relationships.

Most of the time, I had the worldview in my hands. I tinkered with a pair of lenses, zooming in and out, polishing the filters, thinking “Ah, let me upgrade a bit with this theological tidbit, decorate with this song, fine-tune with a verse or two or three…” I delighted in the way things worked out, made sense, fit so well with my Sunday school years of knowing who Christ was and what He wanted.

I liked the Gospel Worldview, but never asked what the Gospel Worldview was really for.
That is, I held a pair of glasses without putting them on.
I got the worldview, but didn’t look deeply at the world.

A little over a year ago, I prayed to see God’s face. A friend of mine had surprised me with a crazy story about seeing Jesus, and I was like, OK man you’re really charismatic, cool. Yet his story caught me off guard. It challenged me, first because my immediate inclination was to scoff, Uh okay SURE you saw Jesus… Sure….  and second to think, Wait, why not? Isn’t Jesus real and risen and alive? Why couldn’t he have seen Him? Why couldn’t I see Him? Why don’t I ask to see Him? Do I really want to? Do I believe enough to even ask?

A huge hunger started to rise in me. If my friend could see Jesus, then to hell with skepticism, I wanted to see Him too. I started praying hard, saying God if You are real, SHOW ME. God if Your Kingdom exists, open my eyes. I want to see it, alive and real, personal and touchable and flowing and afire. SHOW ME.

I used to think, living by the Gospel Worldview means that I will come to the Middle East and be a journalist and tell stories about truth and redeem bigoted American narratives that end up harming our country more than keeping it safe. I will tell people that other people are also people, and in that the broken will be restored. God will be glorified, things become the way they should be and we will all have peace and praise the Lord.

I came here asking God to show me what He saw, thinking it would be simple, that I’d just implement everything in my formula of faith!

Then He answered my prayer.

Do I know that I am seeing as God sees? That’s crazy talk. I really don’t know at all. But I am seeing the world differently from how I ever saw it before, and I think it started around the same time as my prayers. I see myself as smaller and weaker and more incapable than I ever realized. I see darkness and suffering all around. I try to put up familiar defenses, go on Facebook, go shopping, eat something, drink, go out with friends, read a book, go to bed, turn it off,
but I can’t.

I go to fancy Abdoun, the expensive part of Amman where expats drink Starbucks and buy designer makeup. I get a pedicure and start talking to a Filipino woman who quickly becomes my friend. She’s telling me about her family back home and the years since she’s been back. She’s quiet and gentle, light brown freckles on her furrowed-brow face, and paces her words slowly. “I was live-in maid for two years, ma’am,” She tells me. “My madam she was not good. I had no food,” she says. How could you have no food? What do you mean? I mean you lived! Two years! “Just bread, ma’am.” Bread and nothing else, her income withheld, her family on the other side of the world, shut inside a Jordanian house confused and alone,
she scrubs my feet and tells me.

The Gospel Worldview is making my head reel, my heart spin, my spirit gasp for breath.
I want to paint my nails and pay for gloss and walk away fine and free.
The Gospel Worldview is making me look at my sister holding my heel in her hand. It’s raising my heart rate and twisting my guts, a voice pounding in my head: Beloved, don’t be alone. Beloved – I see her in a corner room in the dark, nibbling a piece of bread, afraid – Beloved, you are my daughter.
I see you. 
I know you.
Do not fear.

Christianity has become really scary this year because I often think I’m a psycho. I walk around wanting to ignore the world around me but my limbs and ears and eyes and mouth and hands and feet do the opposite. I want to curl up in my bed or get on a plane to fly away, pretending none of this exists. Instead I go into a refugee camp and sit on a piece of Styrofoam on the floor. I meet little girls and gangly boys who ran across the Syrian border and are thirsty for water and life. They are trapped in a camp in the middle of a desert, and they tell me to tell their stories. “I need baby formula for my daughter,” a twenty-year-old mother tells me. She touches my arm and I nod, grabbing my pen, writing things down. There are sharp rocks beneath the plastic tarp on the ground; there is trash surrounding the water spout outside; the sun is hot and sand is blowing into my eyes; there is not a single piece of green and the air smells like sad and still surrender.

I want to close my eyes, but in Christ, who I asked to change me, I can’t.
At nights I teach English to friends and brothers and uncles from Darfur. They tell me they’re sick, they went to the hospital, it costs 3000 JD for an operation, what to do? I have no answer. I’ll pray?
In Zarqa another woman, slender and laughing and dear, asks me where I’m from, what I’m doing here, why I am sitting and taking photographs in a Syrian refugee home. “I want stories,” I tell her. “I’m a journalist. I came here because I like stories. Jordan is not great, there are many problems, but everyone has a story.”

She is quiet, then looks up. “Do you really want to hear?”
She tells me about how it feels to huddle in a basement, rocks tumbling over your head as bombs destroy your world above.
How it feels to come up and find that your husband no longer exists – no, that he does, but is lying before you with head and arms separated from body, blood spilling out, staining and clouding your eyes
How it feels to be afraid with no end
To have soldiers come and cut people up, using a knife to saw apart pieces of their bodies, and not letting you cover your children’s eyes
How it feels to then listen to your baby daughter scream
in fear, in terror, night after night

How it feels to come here alone
How it feels to be unwanted and unprotected, because any man could come and take and hurt and rape and force you any day or any night, and no one would do anything, they are too busy, there are too many of you, everyone is in need, everyone is crying, everyone is desperate, we just don’t have enough

How it feels to be so afraid, but to go on, step by step by day by week by month by year,
How it feels.

The Gospel is freaking me out because I cannot stop listening, cannot rip myself away, my eyes are about to bleed yet I sit, I nod, I take notes, I touch her hair, I pat her arm, I kiss her cheek goodbye saying Allah ma3ki, God be with you. God be with you, sister, sister after sister after sister after sister,

I go home and pray.

It’s hard to write about Jordan because half the time I am toppling over with feeling and the other half I am trying to be numb. The numb thing doesn’t work, usually just builds up until I find myself sitting in my room, folding laundry, defiantly calm, and a familiar voice nudges me. Beloved, what are you doing?
I am living, Lord, I am fine, leave me alone, I am fine, I am fine OK just leave me alone.
Beloved, don’t harden your heart
I am not! I am OK! I am folding my laundry and I went to Princeton and I know what I’m doing, I’m writing stories to fix the world and I have a solid Gospel Worldview to keep my good perspective, please do not bother me –
Beloved, open your heart
GO AWAY, LEAVE ME ALONE WITH MY FREAKING HEART OF STONE I LIKE IT THAT WAY I SWEAR
Beloved, who am I?

Then something grips my heart and I am on my floor in tears. My vision is blurred but there is a gasping clarity as face after face after face passes before me, the mothers and sisters and fathers and brothers and friends that I swear I just want to forget but I cannot forget. Their stories and names are blazing in my heart, I try to sleep but cannot because I’m thinking how dark it must be in the camp, how cold it is in the Sudanese homes, how deep and clutching are Loneliness and Fear, yet a voice speaks at once quiet and thundering in my chest,
Beloved, I have not forgotten you.
Beloved, I am for you, not against you.
Beloved, you are Beloved 
Beloved, do not fear, I see you, I hear you, I save you, you are not alone.

Am I insane? I pray more than ever before but in a way I never wanted to, desperate and crying, my voice blending into His, praying things only a lunatic would believe. Things like, The world will spin back into Goodness. Our God is strong and alive and real. Jesus is our Shepherd who hears His children’s cries. My dear ones who are so alone, He hears you! He knows you! Do not be afraid.
Part of me laughs – what the hell are you doing, why are you on the floor, seriously will tears do anything?
Most of me just can’t stop.

I pray until my breath is gone.
I pray, and then ludicrously, ridiculously, I believe.

Christianity terrifies me this year because it’s making me see the world in striking glaring clarity. I see Wrong that weighs me to the ground. I pray without dignity, face on the floor, gross and desperate and blubbery. I want to be steel-hearted, strong and fearless – instead my heart is like baby food, mush soft, feeling in a million directions for every stranger crouching alone on the street. I find myself crouching next to them, asking for stories, inviting another stab into my self. Mouna tells me that her husband beats her. Nabiha says she cannot find even 3 JD for the ointment needed for her right eye. It rolls upwards, glazed over, deformed and glassy, and the Gospel pushes me to ask: What is this? What happened? More stories flood out, alcohol and beating and fear,
I am tired, listening.
But I still see.

I don’t know if this is the right Gospel Worldview or not. It’s nothing like what I expected. It is 0% orderly. It is the opposite of the control and self-assurance I once had in my understanding of the world and God and redemption, salvation, glory,  etc.

But it’s the Gospel I am finding, the Gospel that I cannot refuse: I see dark in the world, yet I see Christ as well. I see Him bright and strong and lovely in those my former self would have disdained. I see Him in the faces and stories of the lonely and fearful walking numb through life in every direction. I see life as short and terrible and fearful, but then lit ablaze by the beauty of men and women who are so clearly made in His image, who it is so wrong to ignore. I prayed to see God’s face and I think I am seeing it in the people all around me, each one afire with dignity, holy in their reflection of Him. I am believing against all odds that He will beat darkness away from us, that He shepherds those who surrender to Him, that He is great, mighty, real, alive, that He saves.

In that I place all my hope and strength. I rest on my knees, hands empty, eyes open, speechless.

Risk and Stewardship

Risk (n.): exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance

This dictionary definition of risk scares a lot of people. Who would want this “exposure?” Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we never had to take any risks? Maybe.

In many settings, there exists a concept of “no risk, no reward.” Some examples:

  1. You’re at a casino playing roulette. Taking a small risk of choosing one color means that if you win, you double up your money. However, if you choose a single number (a very risky move since you have a low chance of winning), and actually win, you multiply your money by a factor of 36.
  2. You’ve been given some money to invest. Putting it in risky stocks will yield higher returns if the stocks do well, but investing in a safe government bond will not yield nearly as much return (but will also not lose, disregarding inflation).
  3. Your doctor recently told you that you need to stay away from gluten in foods, but your favorite food has a little bit of gluten in it. If you take the risk of eating it and it doesn’t affect you, you reap the rewards of its deliciousness.
  4. You’re buying shoes online and notice that they’re cheaper than the ones in stores, probably because you can’t try them on. If you take the risk of buying them online and they actually do fit, you’ve saved yourself money.
  5. You’re currently in New York at a stable job that you find unfulfilling. A job offer comes your way that’s higher paying and would be in an industry that you’ve always wanted to work in, but it’s in Chicago. If you take the job, you run the risk of losing touch with your close friends in New York but if you’re able to move on and find a new community in Chicago, then the positive career move is a great reward.

An interesting thing that all five of these risks have in common is that the “safe” option is not necessarily riskless. Here’s why:

  1. If you put the money on a color instead of on a number in roulette, you are risking the potential of winning 36 times your bet.
  2. If you put all of your money in government bonds, you are risking the potential of higher returns in stocks.
  3. If you don’t choose to eat your favorite food, you are risking the potential of harmless deliciousness if the food would actually do nothing bad to you.
  4. If you choose to buy shoes in store instead, you are risking the potential dollars saved by shopping online for shoes that could also fit just as well.
  5. If I had chosen to stay in New York, I would have been risking the potential of a more fulfilling job and a new community.

Many people will react to this by saying, “Well, no. Risking something certain for something uncertain is foolish. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely wisdom to this, but on the other hand, what is certain? (Ecclesiastes 8:7)

Therefore one way to view our life is that it’s full of risk because we have no idea what plans God has for us, other than that they are good for us (Jeremiah 29:11). This may seem daunting, but instead of calling it a “risk-filled” life, we can also generalize this idea to the more familiar idea of Biblical decision-making. In every decision we make in our lives, big or small, we are both uncertain of God’s will in the matter as well as the outcome of each choice. I still remember the valuable lesson I learned about this during Spring Retreat of my freshman year. The speaker told us that sometimes, we just need to have faith that God will redeem our choices and just make a decision (Romans 8:28). For me, that says that sometimes I just need to take that risk instead of being paralyzed by indecision (which is also a decision in itself, but is one that is often driven by doubt). But is it really that big of a risk when we have a God who has already won the battle and promised us an inheritance through His son?

———

That’s about as much wisdom as I can offer on decision-making/risk-taking in a Biblical context. But I also wanted to touch upon financial risk and stewardship in Christianity because I’ve been asked more than once how one “invests” as a Christian. First, the dictionary definition of invest:

Invest (v.): expend money with the expectation of achieving a profit or material result by putting it into financial schemes, shares, or property, or by using it to develop a commercial venture

Just to clarify this definition, investing is not only buying stocks, property, etc. but is also putting money in a savings account (it’s a “financial scheme”). Investing is not putting your money in a checking account or putting cash under your bed.

What does the Bible say about this?

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)

God wants us to be wise with our finances and resources. We are definitely called to be wise and save our provisions when they are abundant so we can access them when we need them later. But how should we save? What is allowed?

Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land. If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie. Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.
Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well. (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6)

I must admit, I pretty was surprised to find this verse in the Bible. Solomon essentially describes here in Ecclesiastes the financial concepts of hedging and diversification of risk. Because we don’t know what God has planned, we are to diversify our investments (and not just financial, since “sow your seed” can be applied to other things/actions as well) because we “do not know which will succeed.” Finally, the Parable of the Talents speaks more to this:

“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (Matthew 25:24-27)

Therefore, whether it’s our spiritual gifts or our material gifts, God has given both to us. We are called to invest in and develop these gifts rather than be lazy and let them sit stagnant in the ground.

Even though the Bible has given us general guidelines on investing, what is allowed and not allowed eventually comes down to intent. Some types of investing are similar to gambling in that the returns are primarily determined by luck, and these should probably be avoided. Another heart check (that I will admit that I sometimes fail) is to ask yourself “Why am I investing in this/doing this? Is it to ‘make a quick buck’ or is it with the intent of growing God’s gifts?” The answer to this, as well as one’s risk appetite, can differ among people and determine whether investment decisions are wise or not.

I’ll leave you guys with a link to a secular explanation of why risk isn’t always bad because of the potential lost by not choosing to take a risk. I also know that many people are more risk averse than I am so I would love to hear your opinions on this!

“Risky? yes, there is so much risk if I don’t do it.”

Reflections on “Gospel Worldview”

I want to take this chance to share a few reflections on the idea of “gospel worldview” as we Manna-ites (and many who have benefited from such works as Al Wolter’s Creation Regained) often conceive of it, in terms of a story consisting primarily of four major plot-points: Creation. Fall. Redemption. Glory.

As a pushback against the a-historical existential approaches we may have been used to before college, it is certainly an advance to realize that the gospel is not simply a time-less message calling people to a moment of existential decision (although it certainly includes that), but an on-going story of God’s work in the world in which we may find ourselves playing a part. Over the past year, however, I have come to realize that there are also significant lacunae in such an approach that desperately need to be addressed if the “narrative gospel” we hear in gospel worldview is actually going to move beyond the realm of “theoretical framework” to something that actually gives people a story to live in and for. These thoughts are actually still quite scattered in my mind, but I hope that trying to articulate some of theme here might spark some fruitful discussion on the issue.

Please note that I am in no way criticizing the idea of a “gospel worldview”. My hope is to draw out implications of the idea that might not have been considered enough among the evangelical communities in which such a notion is now taking root. I’m trying to ask the “What Now?” questions that hope to point us beyond the “anti-dualism”, “pro-cultural-engagement” rhetoric that tends to characterize much of the conversation to address the kind of questions that practically confront us once we’re trying to live our lives.

Thesis 1: Beyond Epistemology

Evangelical discussions of “story” have been quite popular, but often without specifying which story we ought to be living in. Creation-fall-redemption-glory certainly does a good job of abstracting out of the historical narrative of the Scriptures, but it also does not substitute for the almost-2000-years of church history that have happened ever since and which constitutes the continuing story of God’s work in history. It is one thing to make the epistemological point that one ought to be thinking more in the categories of “story” and “narrative” instead of “systematic theology” and “existential decision” and a different thing to actually get to the story or theology itself.

In other words, in “gospel worldview”, we are given the lineaments of a story, but we are actually lacking the story itself. Hopefully, this point will become clearer as we continue.

Thesis 2: Beyond Evangelicalism

Part of the reason evangelicalism is having a problem getting “beyond epistemology” is that, in a large part, its fundamental story is one that repudiates the value of stories. As such, even when it has shifted to trying to think of things in a “storied” format, it will nevertheless remain in the world of epistemology rather than take seriously what its own epistemology implies: taking tradition seriously. A large part of this has to deal with the fact that American evangelicalism was birthed as a part of a particular tradition – that of political liberalism – for which the rejection of tradition is part and parcel of its own “tradition”. Writers like Andy Crouch and Jim Skillen can push the the “good of politics”, but not to the extent that they get down to the real questions of political philosophy: how ought we to live?

Consider, for instance, Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith’s reviews of Crouch’s Playing God and Skillen’s The Good of Politics, two recent books on politics and power that have recently been published. In the former, he notes how Crouch’s attempt to push back against the dominant Nietzschean “myth” of power as primal conflict fails to mention that it is precisely this “myth” that also underlies the Hobbesian, Lockean, and Rousseau-ian ideas of “social contract” that lie at the foundation of the American political experiment. In the latter, he notes that, appeals to “creational norms” and the “common good” end up underwriting what looks like “a pretty standard liberal democratic game”.

But does “engaging in politics Christianly” equate to “politics as usual” in a liberal democracy? (This is, by the way, why Eric Gregory’s class on Christian Ethics spends most of the second half addressing the question of “Christianity and Liberalism”. It is among THE questions of our day and age.) The answer is not clear. The problem with contemporary “gospel worldview” approaches to the question, however, is that they are often blind to the fact that this is even a question, owing to the own foundational narratives we tell ourselves without thinking. We need to be aware of the structural conditions in which we live, that we may be aware of the perennial temptations that may come as a result of them and what that might mean for our witness as Christians today. For that, we’re going to need more specific stories. In other words, we need to take history and tradition a lot more seriously than we have before.

Thesis 3: Beyond Swimming the Tiber

Some of the most cogent contemporary critiques of liberalism, unsurprisingly, come from Roman Catholics who trumpet the importance of “tradition” over and against the mere procedural rationality that tends to characterize approaches dominant within the context of liberal democracy. Those who trumpet this view have a particular narrative of church history which informs contemporary thought and behavior, one expressed quite powerfully by thinkers and writers such as Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) or Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation). Simply put, these narratives seem to paint church history in a way that puts the “fall” at the Reformation rejection of Catholic tradition in favor of “sola Scriptura” and the cultural malaise in which we find ourselves today as an unfortunate working-out of the implications of those intellectual decisions which found their roots in the intellectual debates of late Medieval Scholastic philosophy. (There are also Calvinist/Reformed versions of this, with Arminians typically getting the short end of the stick. This is not to mention various Anabaptist approaches – read: Hauerwas/Yoder – which will locate the “Fall” as far back as the onset of Constantinian Christianity.)

While the distinct advantage that many self-consciously confessional approaches hold over your generic evangelical one is the fact that they are self-consciously aware of the particular historical narrative they are living in (although how true this is in the context of American society is up for contestation. At the very least, they are in theory committed in a way that many evangelicals are in theory not.), these – with Catholic narratives like MacIntyre’s and Gregory’s included – often fail to adequately grapple with the reasons that liberalism came to be attractive in the first place: the problem of being unable to adjudicate between the various meta-narratives being offered by differing confessional traditions.

In short, merely adopting the standpoint of one or another confessional tradition is an insufficient antidote to the problem of putting flesh on the bare bones of the gospel-worldview framework that confronts us today. This is, interestingly enough, the approach that characterizes another Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, whose 2007 book A Secular Age challenges the ways in which scholars have traditionally approached the questions of secularism and religious pluralism that are part and parcel of this conversation about liberalism and story.

Thesis 4: The Importance of (Trinitarian) Theology

Without spending too much time bringing up various -ology’s which might confuse more than contribute, I want to make the hypothesis that any real solution to the current malaises that confront us today are going to require innovative re-articulations of the perennial truths that have grounded the Christian faith from the very beginning. Indeed, part of the reason that “narrative” approaches to the faith work in the first place is that in Jesus Christ God’s future has telescoped forwards into the present so that through the Spirit, we can know that the workings-out of history will have the contours we affirm it has. It is Trinitarian theology that underlies a narrative approach to the faith that takes seriously the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, presence (in the Eucharist), and second coming in our past, present, and coming future.

In other words, if we want the concrete historical story we tell to be faithful to the God whose image we claim to reflect, we are going to have to do some serious reflections on what that God is like in order to understand who we are and where we stand in history. In particular, I might add, we are going to need ecumenical theological reflection that transcends the countless divisions among theological traditions and finds a way of articulating a coherent meta-narrative for all Christians to identify with and live out. This will not be easy. The Enlightenment attempt to do this by doing away with tradition is the intellectual forefather of much of contemporary evangelical (and liberal!) theology today. How to affirm their goals while avoiding their mistakes will be a challenge for our generation to face.

Thesis 5: A Woe-fully Inadequate Attempt

I do not want to end this post on “story” without at least attempting to offer a bare outline of a kind of stories we might be able to tell about about ourselves and where we stand in church history.At the same time, however, I want to emphasize how inadequate my feeble attempts to do so are.

Christians in the West are, after a long period of cultural hegemony, finally confronting the reality that the values of Christianity and those of the broader society at large have less and less in common. Indeed, we are at the same time realizing that much of what we thought we had in common might not have actually been compatible after all. The privatization of faith, the divide between the “religious” and the “secular”, “faith” and “reason”, the social organization of churches into “denominations” and their role in public life – these and more are legacies with which we Christians today have to grapple, asking again and again the question of whether walking in these ways is compatible with the truth of the gospel. The task before us is not so much the task of coming up with “distinctively Christian” ways to engage in previously taken-for-granted tasks, but to push back against the individualizing forces of modern society so as to recover the reality of a historical community testifying to the world of the presence and love of the One God who dwells in and among us. We do what we do as members of the ekklesia (“called out ones”/”church”) of God, whose gifts are not for ourselves, but for one another and for the world as sign, foretaste, and instrument of the kingdom that is already-but-not-yet. Who we are must be grounded in who we will be; and what we do must be grounded in the holistic vision of human flourishing of the new heavens and new earth.

Democratic liberalism was an attempt to curb the violences of the past in which competing visions of human flourishing clashed to the extent of shedding blood in search of their realization. Our danger is the opposite: instead of fighting and dying for various ideologies that might lack the universality of the Kingdom of God, it is all-too-easy for us to lapse into the complacency of living lives which do not quite appreciate what it is that is worth living: to experience the particular ennui we know as “boredom”, to partake of the activities we call “entertainment” in search of – not responsibility nor self-transcendence, but “fun”. The message of the cross and “dying to self” are translated into terms of suffering under various societal obligations instead of the existential risks of positing what it means to be human; to chase the ladder of success because one knows not what else to do instead of sharing the deep self-knowledge that allows one to truly empty oneself and take on the form of a servant.

As I have said, this is abut a woefully inadequate attempt to start a conversation that I think needs to happen. We who care about “gospel worldview” need to get past the “lens” part to realize that we are born into an ongoing story of how God is working in the world, and how merely having the right “lens” doesn’t actually help you navigate where you are in that story. Indeed, recovering that story is actually quite difficult in a world which emphasizes how everything that is worth having in life can merely be bought or sold, a world that tries to convince us that the dominant narrative we ought to be concerned about is the narrative of ourselves and what “experiences” we’ve had or “successes” we’ve attained. That we are not the primarily determinants of our selves and future might be the first truth we need to hammer into ourselves. We were born with histories and backgrounds, and these histories and backgrounds hold claims over us that we cannot so easily deny, even if they also find their transformations in Christ. This great cloud of witnesses hovers over us as we run, walk, or stumble through our own race. Will we persevere?