Problems in Postmodern Thought


Postmodernism names the philosophy that characterizes the contemporary world—perhaps mainly in places where people have the luxury of thinking about things that may not put food on the table. It comes from modernism, which gave us the idea that religion and values belong in a private space, isolated from the secular arena where people with differing values can safely get along and wars will be avoided.

Postmodernism has concluded that modernism and the secular arena are part of a grand narrative, one among many. These are stories that a group of people tell themselves to explain their existence and to inform their decisions. The secular arena where people keep their values private to avoid conflict is just part of another grand narrative.

Postmodern thought gives a voice to contrasting grand narratives. This can be really good. In theory, it should allow those who believe other explanations to communicate them and be better understood. One of those grand narratives that contrasts with modernism is the biblical worldview of Christianity, but there are others. Some postmoderns say that any grand narrative is oppressive to the individual. In a way, they are saying each person gets to write xxx own grand narrative. (See what I did there?) That way lies a communication impasse.

Postmodernism has a valuable point. It has also been taken too far. Some have said that not only do conflicting narratives coexist without any way to resolve the conflicts, but this means that language itself lacks inherent meaning. If that’s true, then why bother posting anything on Tumblr? But these voices even mock the idea of truth. That’s too far. It leads into the black hole of nihilism.

Problem 1: Reality

A place where postmodernism runs into trouble is where postmodern thinkers meet real life. People know that what you eat can kill you or it can nourish you. Many other choices you make are similarly decisive. Reality cannot be reinvented to match a narrative. It seems to have a mind of its own. That’s why people like Brandon Sanderson (not to mention some of the creators on Tumblr) write great stories that must nevertheless be considered to be fiction. It’s not a person like me imposing or oppressing those who would see things otherwise, it’s the reality we share. Looking the other direction, they are opposing themselves to reality.

Another way to approach the problem is logic. The law of noncontradiction says that under normal circumstances, two things that contradict one another cannot both be true at the same time. Postmodernism hates laws that would claim to cross the dividing line between grand narratives, but reality is persistent. There are many buried and unburied dead who resisted it. Here’s where logic and postmodernism disagree: contradictory narratives can’t both be true at the same time, and truth means a correspondence to reality as the universe actually exists.

Problem 2: Forcing a Paradigm Shift

A second problem postmoderns are having now involves the adjustment of a grand narrative. A paradigm shift occurs when a grand narrative is adjusted to better fit reality. When sufficient real and clear data accumulates to show that a grand narrative no longer adequately explains our existence, then the grand narrative itself gets modified. This can be a messy process, since the grand narrative is treasured part of what forms a community, and the community as a whole will need to be satisfied that the change is justified. Notice that these shifts occur with the accumulation of sufficient data. This is data from reality, the way we find things in the world (water is wet, things fall when dropped, dead person comes back to life and gives explanation, etc.).

The problem some postmoderns are having stems from a paradigm shift that they have adopted for themselves. For some it may be even more revolutionary than a paradigm shift: the wholesale rejection of an older grand narrative and the adoption of a new one in conflict with the first. The more extreme example is the same as leaving one community and joining a different one.

The desire for a paradigm shift can arise from the accumulation of sufficient data against the original grand narrative. But more often (it seems), the desire arises when someone gives credence to narratives of some kind that conflict with the grand narrative of their own community. Everyone experiences certain distresses through life, and a community’s grand narrative explains and helps to cope with it. If a person in a time of distress turns instead to conflicting narratives outside the community, it may seem like the accumulation of evidence requiring a paradigm shift.

These troubled/troubling postmoderns generate a problem by attempting to coerce (oppress?) those in their original community into adopting their new paradigm shift or into joining their new community. An example is in order.

When a person speaks, an action is done. The action and the speech patterns used to accomplish it are formed within the framework of the grand narrative of the community where the action is done. It’s easy to see that a Christian praying to an inanimate object like a statue would violate the Christian faith. Here are two other examples. First, a Christian referring to Jesus as “she” would be contradicting the biblical grand narrative provided in Luke 2, which says that “Mary gave birth to a son.” That would be a serious conflict, bringing into question the person’s identity as an authentic member of the Christian community. The community would have a responsibility to correct the indivdual or else the community would risk losing its own cohesive identity. Second, a Christian referring to a male as if he were a female, or a female as if she were a male. This is probably a less serious conflict, possibly like a person seriously claiming that “up” is “down” and “down” is “up” while insisting on spending all day suspended in an inversion chair. Maybe the inversion chair is the only way the person can be comfortable and feel “natural.” Maybe the person even thanks God for the inversion chair as a divine blessing. But that doesn’t give this person any standing to insist that an entire community change its language. “Hey, what’s down?” More sensible for one person to adjust.

But it could also be more serious. If a Christian has had chronic pain for years with no apparent end in sight, certain jurisdictions now allow the person to commit physician-assisted suicide. What if that person demands that the faith community give its blessing to this? Oh c’mon, it’s only a little paradigm change. But the Bible says, “You shall not murder,” even when it’s yourself. 

Likewise, if a Christian becomes convinced that he/she was born in a body of the wrong sex, makes physical and behavioral changes, and insists that the Christian community (especially family) change its actions (including speech) to show acceptance, this is a demand for acceptance of a paradigm change. Jesus even quoted Genesis 1:27 as the authoritative divine institution of marriage and family (Mark 10:6-9) as part of Creation, permanently connecting it to the essential created binary nature of human beings. That’s an unalterable part of the Christian paradigm. Other parts can help the person cope with the unfortunate suffering involved, but the person would be oppressively coercive (besides insensitive) to insist that members of the Christian community act in a way that contradicts their treasured beliefs.

We’re considering this as a postmodern problem. Linguistic (language-oriented) misgendering of Jesus is a matter of contradicting sacred Scripture. But if we leave out the religious aspect, it’s the same as contradicting a number of historical documents, like saying Abraham Lincoln was a black man. But linguistically misgendering a person currently occupying space on Earth is not only contrary to what the Bible says. It runs up against that pesky postmodern nemesis called reality. Any community experiencing real life on Earth might have a problem accepting a change of behavioral norms meant to communicate the opposite of the way things actually exist. The only way I can see around this problem would be to convince the community to change the gender referent in language, so that when a person uses a word like “he,” the gender referent is no longer to the person’s male sex, but some subjective self-conception in the person’s mind (”gender identity”?). That would be a change indeed, making public civil communication difficult, probably impractical. It would also shift the paradigm from a correspondence to objective reality toward correspondence to subjectivity. How can what seems real for only one member of the community become accepted reality for the rest? Even that seems coercive: the one attempting to force the many, and without the advantage of observable reality.

Unfortunately, these issues have been brought into political and civil discourse through a campaign of, well, coercion. Maybe that wasn’t the intention of some. But the overall issue here is that a postmodern perspective of things is supposed to avoid coercion and oppression.

Ways Forward

A recognition that communities and narratives interact can be helpful, but there seems to be some tenacious quality in humanity that wants to contradict and assert the individual as his own master and lord. Beware!

Here are some possible solutions for the postmodern who is caught up in problems like the ones I mentioned above. In addition to what’s below, a good policy is to respect foreign communities. In the timeless words of Billy Joel, “And when you’re home Darling all you’ve got to be is you But when in Rome do as the Romans do.”

About Reality

  • Learn the timeless rules of logic and use them, but don’t worship them.
  • Have an open mind toward reality. What constrains you tomorrow may be different from today, but some things are just the way they are, no matter how you may feel about them.
  • Notice how well any narrative corresponds with what you see to be true through your own every-day experience and that of your community.

About Forcing a Paradigm Shift

  • Observe the accumulation of evidence against the usefulness of your paradigm(s). Try to be open about it and talk to your community.
  • Respect your community. Don’t try to coerce it, but consider its wisdom. This is where you belong. These are the people who love you.
  • If you’re suffering, look for solutions within your community, and be openly critical about suggested solutions from other communities. Their narratives may contradict the narrative of your own community, but in some respects they may not.
  • If you have become convinced that your community’s paradigm is wrong, you have three choices: leave the community altogether (Gulp! Really necessary?), provide your sufficient contrary evidence to convince your community of a paradigm shift, or reconsider your conclusion.

The Nature of Man(kind) and a Helpful Distinction

People have been writing and speaking about worldviews for some time. Everyone has a worldview, and it can change over time. Part of that worldview is what the person believes about human beings.

People can have dramatic disagreements about the nature of man. This results in practical differences concerning what ought to be done. For example, one person considers all human life to be sacred under God. Another considers a person’s desire to engage in wanton sexual activity without responsibility to be more sacred than human life. As a result, they disagree about what to do with the human beings that are conceived by such activity. How valuable is human life? For some people it depends on whether you can hear their screams when they are murdered. Or whether you can hear them call out for their mothers and ask for help breathing. Or whether they have “intersectionality.”

That may have seemed harsh, but it’s not meant to come across that way. It illustrates how a person’s view of mankind makes a profound difference in the person’s actions and words. It also makes a difference in the way a person responds when his deficiencies are noted by another.

We quickly jump to motives when we see or hear something we don’t like in another person. I do it too. The accusation usually thrown around in these times is “hate.” It’s convenient, because it ends discussion, which can be difficult. Hurling the label makes it unnecessary to continue interacting with the “hater.” So what was once simply “being wrong” has now become a justification for ad hominem dismissal. Judge for yourself: is it more loving to patiently correct someone who has made a mistake, or to slap on a label like “hater,” possibly try to injure the person’s reputation and livelihood, and then congratulate oneself on removing one more oppressor from the ranks of society? Shouldn’t be a hard question.

This is the crux of what I want to explore here: making mistakes. This is also part of human nature. Our problem is that we forget this. Sometimes we fail to allow others the grace to grow after a mistake through correction, or even repentance. We unreasonably act as though the person should have been perfect, as though we don’t really believe that human nature is sinful. Or as the common excuse says it, “nobody’s perfect.” Maybe we’re willing to apply this to ourselves, but forget it when dealing with this “offender.”

The other part of our problem is when we make mistakes ourselves. How would you like to be treated by others? In the heat of the moment, we all would probably want our mistakes to be overlooked or ignored. But I think most of us can see that it’s better when we are given an opportunity to correct our mistakes. If the mistake is some wrongdoing, we would really want a chance to repent and receive forgiveness for it. But when we first learn about the wrongdoing, that’s not how we feel about it.

Some people believe that humanity is basically good at the core. The Bible says that mankind was created good through-and-through, but now the situation is completely reversed. The reversal happened in the events told in Genesis 3, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This really bothers some people. Why should we be held accountable for someone else’s mistake? It sounds unjust. But then we commit wrongs of our own and show the kind of nature we have inherited. Some people still reject that man is basically evil. That makes the distinction I’m about to describe very hard to accept.

There is an important difference between three kinds of wrongness. They are all wrong in relation to the same thing: God’s moral code. (Without that, there can be no objective morality.) But they are still different from one another in important ways. The three kinds of wrongness are perversion, corruption, and defect.

Perversion is defined by Websters as “the act of perverting; the condition of being perverted.” Definition 1-a of pervert as a verb says “to cause to turn aside or away from what is good or true or morally right.” There are related definitions, but they are derived from this meaning, where we see that there is an agency involved in perversion. That is, someone or something with the ability to will decided to take action and pervert something else.

Webster mentioned “what is good or true or morally right” in the second definition above. That can be easily understood as the original design of God in creation, before the Fall into sin. So things or people in a perverted condition have been intentionally twisted from their original good. Because of this, perversion is one kind of evil.

Corruption is a similar word, and in fact Websters refers to it in connection with perversion. But there is not necessarily any agency when something is corrupted. If you drive your car on the salted roads of New England or the upper Midwest, you will see in a few years how the car’s body becomes corrupted by rust. Bury a standard two-by-four in the wet ground, then check on it after a while, and it will have been corrupted with rot. Unlike perversion, not all forms of corruption necessarily have a moral implication. Websters’ first definition says, “to cause to turn aside or away from what is good or true or morally right.” This certainly has a moral implication, but in this case, definition 1-a given by Webster is really a derived from the more general definition 1-c: “a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.” It seems likely that they are placed in this order due to prevalence of usage.

Corruption can therefore be another kind of evil itself, as when a person in authority is corrupted by bribes or prejudice (much like perversion in this case), or when a child’s character is spoiled by immoral, evil influences. But corruption of human beings can also be simply a result of evil. One example is illness, whether physical, mental, or emotional. Without the corruption that entered Creation with the Fall into sin, our hearts could keep beating forever. Our minds would remain clear. The way we feel would always make sense in full agreement with our physiology, and would support our daily interactions and activities instead of making it hard to live in our vocations.

A defect is defined by Websters as “an imperfection or abnormality that impairs quality, function, or utility.” It seems insulting to say that a person has a defect, but it’s really no worse than saying the person has been perverted or corrupted. Here we commonly understand congenital birth defects, such as missing or duplicate appendages, conjoined twins, and ambiguous sexual organs. On a smaller scale, there are genetic defects, and there are also mental or emotional defects. Often a defect is imposed after birth, making it similar to corruption: a baby is tragically dropped or abused, a child is neglected, leading to mental or emotional problems that manifest in destructive choices or behaviors, etc.

Where the words perversion and corruption imply certain origins of the problem, the word defect focuses on the problem more than its cause. Any of these words can be used in an insulting, hurtful way, but they also all have beneficial uses when talking about the effects of sin on human beings. These words relate to the worldview that human beings are fallen creatures of God.

Secularists espouse an atheistic worldview that rejects the Fall and its resulting anthropology, or view of mankind. It’s difficult to convince anyone that humans are perfect in our actions, decisions, and words because these are plain for others to see and hear. But secularists have managed to convince many people that our emotions are just fine, and should always be trusted. Consider in The Return of the Jedi Luke’s certainty that there was still something good in his father, Anakin. Throughout the Star Wars saga, the story reflects the way our culture invests great trust in the purity and truth of our emotions. The same can be said for many recent stories.

The Biblical worldview has a different understanding of our emotions. Naturally-conceived humans are entirely subject to the effects of sin, whether corruption, perversion, or defect. Not only our bodies, minds, and emotions, but even the part that secularists completely deny: our souls and spirits. Every part of a human being has been affected. The corruption is thorough.

When another person points out our defects, corruptions, or perversions, we don’t like to hear it. This is a good thing. It shows that we still realize there’s a difference between right and wrong, and we’d rather be right. Yet the fact of sin remains. Any affect of sin is certainly possible for us, and it’s better to have a truthful self-perception or even to repent of any and all guilt than to continue deceiving ourselves about our own nature.

Hearing about our faults makes us feel bad about ourselves. It leads to a negative and more accurate self-image. But we don’t like to feel bad. We don’t like a negative self-image, especially when it’s accurate. We’ll like it much less to be eternally deprived of God’s presence and good gifts, to suffer where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The answer to all of this is found in the one human who has no sin, but suffered anyway to atone for our guilt before God. In Christ Jesus and nowhere else do we find healing for all of the pathologies we suffer: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. He doesn’t cause limbs to regenerate each Sunday. He doesn’t deliver us from our inclination to disordered affections all at once. St. Paul prayed that He would take away the thorn in his flesh, but the Lord answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Our weaknesses then becomes strengths and blessings through Jesus Christ. We can repent of our guilt, resist sin, and live with a good conscience, while also having an accurate understanding of who and what we are as beloved creatures of God. Jesus calls it “bearing a cross.” The day is coming when we will lay these crosses down. All the effects of sin will be gone. We will be fully comfortable in our own skins, because they will be perfect and untainted. The same goes for our minds, emotions, souls, and spirits. We will be and remain in the glorious presence of God, and Jesus will wipe away every tear.

Communication Conundrums

Full disclosure: I have no answers. I sometimes have guesses. Guesses are not the same as assumptions or even opinions, as far as I know. If you disagree, please correct me by sending a copy of the dictionary entry of a reputable dictionary. Okay, that’s out of the way.

There are two people, A and B. Here are some examples of how they can try communicating about something. Each example refers to the same situation. At the risk of seeming to set up straw men, these examples must be simple. This is not meant to imply that anyone is right or wrong, smart or not. Rather, this is meant to model what can happen when people try to interact with different ideas about what’s happening.

Example 1 (simple, harmonious)

A: The light in the bathroom was left on.

B: No, it wasn’t.

A: Let’s go check.

B: Looks like I was wrong. Good thing you noticed.

Example 2 (simple, extreme dissonance)

A: I feel the light in the bathroom was left on.

B: No, it wasn’t.

A: How dare you attack my feelings?

B: Let’s go check.

A: You have no respect for me, you B-‘splainer. Now leave me alone. I can’t talk to you if you won’t listen.

Example 3 (subtle, extreme dissonance)

A: The light in the bathroom was left on.

B: No, it wasn’t.

A: Can’t you hear what I’m saying without correcting me? The bathroom light is useful when you’re in there, but it has no use whatever when you leave! If we don’t do something about that, I just won’t be able to handle the rest of the day, or possibly even rest at night…

B: Is this still about the light? It’s off. I could…

A: I’m telling you, it will be on my mind! And I think the manager at the hardware store also doesn’t like me. That’s where we always go for light bulbs, but now we’ve run out, and it’s just all wrong. We’re wasting what’s left, and…

B: Should I check? I’ll go check.

A: Oh, now I’m so stupid you won’t believe me. That’s right. Just assume I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Example 4 (subtle, mild dissonance)

A: The light in the bathroom was left on.

B: Do you want to talk about it? Or should I go check?

A: Don’t you believe me? I keep finding it on when I walk down the hall, and it seems that someone is always forgetting to shut it off. I worry about things like that all day. …

B: Then I’ll go check. Be right back. … You were right, it was on. I shut it off. Okay?

A: No, it’s not okay. This is becoming a real problem for me. You need to hear me out! I guess I do want to talk about it.

B: Okay, then. Go ahead.

A: …

Example 5 (simple, mild dissonance)

A: I feel the bathroom light was left on.

B: Okay, so…

A: Well, don’t you think that’s important?

B: I don’t think it’s on, but let me check…

A: That’s not the point. It’s been left on a number of times, and I’m fed up with it. It’s just not right that I have to keep shutting it off every time I walk by. How can we live like this? I think we’re even out of bulbs in the closet!

B: Go on.

A: …

What to do?

Hopefully it’s clear that in most of these examples, one person wanted or needed a certain kind of encounter, and the other person didn’t immediately catch on to that. That’s the dissonance. In Examples 4 and 5, person B realized eventually that person A wasn’t bringing up a factual data point for discussion.

When one or both people have some amount of emotional heat built up, how can each person help to ensure that the dissonance is minimized?

Now for my guess. If somehow each person can perceive exactly what sort of encounter is needed or intended by the other, then it will avoid extreme dissonance. It might be as simple as saying, “I need to tell you about something,” rather than saying something that could be taken as an invitation to dialogue. Lacking that, how can the other person detect it? Because if it is not detected, the dissonance will be extreme.

The light bulb example here is a little outdated if we are using LED bulbs, and it may seem decidedly domestic. However, this issue isn’t limited to domestic interactions. It can occur between any friends or colleagues. As I mentioned in the introduction of this post, I don’t have answers. Only guesses. I’d be happy to hear the guesses of others.

Dear Haley

Dear Haley,

I was so glad you received my last email, and very happy to hear from you. It’s also excellent to feel a solid connection to your pastor. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. But let me tell you, even if your pastor’s personality ends up rubbing you the wrong way, it’s still a comfort to know that he’s the one God sent to bring you His word. You may not know why at those times, but it’s still a comfort.

There’s only enough space in one message to say something about the first problem you mentioned: when members don’t seem to care much about the mission of their church. It’s always hard to see that, but we have to remember that there’s a lot we may not see. Read Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 sometime to see the variety of spiritual gifts that may exist in a church. Not all of them will be visible all the time. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters will be shy, for example. But if they spend some time each day praying for the various branches of ministry in the congregation, they are contributing just as much as a person who brings a friend to church every other week.

Another thing that can happen is when church members lose their focus on the whole mission of the Church. They may think that only one or two aspects of Christ’s mission are important, and ignore the others. They may even take offense when someone speaks about another aspect of our mission as important and worthy of our attention. This is one way that the devil sows seeds of strife in our Lord’s Church.

A slightly skewed perspective in one or more people paired with an attitude lacking in love can magnify the sins of other Christians instead of covering them up (see 1 Peter 4:8). Bad news travels faster than good news, and gossip faster still. James chapter 3 warns us sternly about the damage that can be done with the tongue. Damage to ourselves, to others, and to the whole body of Christ. I suppose that some churches go through hard times because wagging tongues have unjustly damaged their reputation or the pastor’s reputation.

Haley, my advice is to be careful about how and where you express your frustrations concerning other members. If you speak directly to some of those members who seem less dedicated, someone is certain to learn something important! Either you will learn more about them or they may be re-energized in their appreciation for God’s gifts and their dedication to His mission. Be sure to let me know how it goes.

I’ll have to touch on your other comments in another message. Until then, may our Lord keep you in the palm of His almighty and gracious hand.

In Him,

Uncle Ed

Hi Uncle Ed,

Thanks so much for your advice about talking to other people in the church! I wasn’t sure how to approach one woman, so I told her that I wanted to help in the church, but wasn’t sure what I could do. She told me that she prays every night, including the pastor, his family, and even the sister church 25 miles away and their school. She also makes a point to pray for the synod and all our missions. I never would have known this if I hadn’t asked her. At her suggestion, I’ve made a list of people and things to pray about at church.

The strangest thing happened, too. I was praying for an opportunity to share my faith with someone at work. Would you believe that three days later, the opportunity just fell into my lap? I don’t know what will happen next with my coworker, but at least I can be sure he’s heard about Jesus. Maybe next time I see him I’ll invite him to my church.

Now more than ever, I think it’s important that our church members work together. Maybe it will be daily prayers for some of us, but I know that God can provide the opportunities we need to do things too. If only I could get everyone else as excited as I am about sharing the gospel!

It sounds like you’ll be writing about something else in my previous message, so I won’t add much to this one.

Blessings to you through Jesus!


Dear Haley

Dear Haley,

I’ve heard that kids born since 1995 are hard for someone like me to reach, so I hope you’re one of those who actually checks your email. As someone born four decades before you, I still think email is the best thing since sliced bread. (No, I wasn’t around when sliced bread was invented. That’s just an expression.) If you do read this in between checking your Instagram, Facebook and Twitter messages, please let me know! I’d love to hear back from you.

The reason for my message is my joy at hearing from your grandfather (my brother) about your conversion to the Christian faith about five years ago. I want to encourage you to keep at it, because even though it’s not easy (nor is it supposed to be easy), it’s very much worth the effort.

It sounds strange for me to say that there’s effort involved in being a Christian, but nothing could be more true. Of course I find great comfort in the fact that I had very little to do with becoming a Christian. I was the dead clay, the Holy Spirit was the potter, and His divine hands worked through the gospel and holy baptism to bring me to spiritual life. Yes, there’s a lot of comfort in that.

Later I learned how He not only “called me by the Gospel” and “enlightened me with His gifts,” but also “kept me in the true faith.” The calling and enlightening were all Him, but to me it has been a personal challenge to stay in the true faith. Maybe your grandfather told you about my youth. I was confirmed in the Lutheran church. Memorized the Small Catechism and everything. But by the time I graduated from high school, my priorities were askew. It took about ten years for me to realize that. But what a joy it was when I finally paid attention again to the things that are most important! That’s why I wanted to reach out to you with a word of encouragement. Keep at it! Don’t give up!

Receiving God’s forgiveness of my sins and the personal promise of eternal life is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’m thrilled to say that it keeps happening every week when I go to church. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I pray that you have the same joy, and that the Holy Spirit will also keep you “with Jesus Christ in the one true Faith.”

Affectionately yours in Christ,

Uncle Ed

Hey Uncle Ed!

I got your message. It was a treat to hear from you, because it’s been such a long time. When did I see you last? Was it at Tom’s confirmation? I must have been 8 years old then. Or were you at his wedding, too? That would have been ten years ago. Your message brought back a lot of good memories.

Things have been okay here. My church was only started as a mission about five years ago, and we live in a place where everyone seems more concerned about having a good time than thinking about serious things. So it’s been a battle for the church, and it’s still pretty small. My pastor is great, though. He actually visited my house after the first couple times I went to church there! The mission work keeps him very busy, but I can tell he loves it and cares about his congregation. That must be the way Jesus was. I love to hear about Jesus.

But honestly, there are some things that bother me too. Some of the members at church are recent converts like me. (You remember I was never confirmed as a kid, right?) We’re doing our best to pitch in and help Pastor Haas when we can, though there’s not much time in the day for it. But some church members don’t seem to care much about helping the mission, and they tend to be life-long Christians! How can that be? I don’t want to think they’re hypocrites, but sometimes it looks that way. Sometimes their priorities look the same as the feel-good neighbors around us!

Another thing that bothers me is that when I bring my friends to church, they don’t understand what’s so great about it. It’s like they don’t really pay attention to what we’re hearing and singing. My friend Jordan even called it boring.

Then there’s all the “business” that happens at church. We’ve been talking about ways to advance the mission, but every time it comes up in a forum, we have an argument about money. Why are we talking about that in a church? Don’t we have better things to do? I just want to get on with things and tell others about Jesus.

Sorry to unload on you, but I guess you touched a nerve. I do have the joy you mentioned to know my Savior, but it sure comes with a lot of baggage. How can you stand it?


An Honest Atheist Reaction to the Gospel

I’ve been hoping to find something like this for a while.

Polly Toynbee writes the following excerpts for the Guardian against the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia.

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus’s holy head every day that you don’t eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion’s breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.

She concludes as follows.

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.

Let us be careful not to overgeneralize, but what Ms. Toynbee writes seems to represent more than her alone. She may not see a distinction between the teachings of present-day Evangelicals and the old Evangelicals of the Sixtheenth Century, but I know that there are differences among the doctrines of atheists. She represents only one point of view. C.S. Lewis probably represented a different atheist point of view before his conversion to Christianity.

Variations in atheist doctrine notwithstanding, I am thankful that Ms. Toynbee has written these words, because they clearly and pointedly express exactly the problem she has with the Christian faith and with Christians. Perhaps she is not far from the Kingdom of God. I pray that she, like Lewis, is drawn into it.

To Sift You As Wheat

Before his betrayal by Judas, Jesus told his disciples what would happen. To Peter in particular, He said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31–32, NKJV)

Notice that Jesus’ comfort was “but I have prayed for you,” not “but Satan will not be allowed to have you.” In fact, Satan was allowed to have Peter, if only for a time. I’d like to consider what Satan did with Peter during that time.

Before we do, though, let’s address those who inwardly snicker at the first serious mention of Satan or spiritual things, as though they were fairy tales and myths. At this point we will let them depart in peace from us and from Dr. Luther, who earnestly wrote, “He seeks to burst us, who are a part of Christ, and the bond of that Word, with which Christ binds us, asunder. Therefore we should not cease to beware of his snares. Christianity is a continuous struggle, not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, as Eph. 6:12 says. One should not act smugly.” [1](LW 30:258)

It began when Peter denied being any associate of Jesus, or even knowing Him. He was given three opportunities to confess his Lord before men, and each time Peter chose not to. This denial was not the sifting that Jesus mentioned. It was only the tool by which Satan would gain leverage over Peter. The sifting was not done in an outward or visible way. It was done internally and mentally. Here’s how the evangelist Mark describes it. (14:66-72, NKJV)

Now as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came. And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with Jesus of Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you are saying.” And he went out on the porch, and a rooster crowed.

And the servant girl saw him again, and began to say to those who stood by, “This is one of them.” But he denied it again.

And a little later those who stood by said to Peter again, “Surely you are one of them; for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.” Then he began to curse and swear, “I do not know this Man of whom you speak!” A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And when he thought about it, he wept.

The next thing we hear about Peter comes after Jesus rose, about two and a half days later. Mark 16:7, NKJV: “But go, tell His disciples — and Peter — that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” Notice that there is a distinction between the group called Jesus’ disciples and Peter. This distinction was made not first by Jesus, but by Peter himself in his denial of Jesus. Peter had sworn an oath, “I do not know the man.” That excludes him from being a disciple.

The sifting began with the temptation and the denial, but it did not end there. We are not told what happened during the next 60 hours or so, but things have been written about it.

Many people consider Peter to be the equivalent of a faithless heathen at this time, so that if he had died, he would have been eternally condemned under God’s law without a savior. It’s true that Peter had disavowed Jesus, and that Jesus had earlier taught clearly, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32–33) Undoubtedly this was on Peter’s mind during those long hours. It would be surprising to find that he enjoyed much rest.

Yet the same Jesus who never said that Satan’s request was denied also said, “But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail.” It may seem extraordinary that Jesus should pray for a disciple, but it’s not. In fact, He does just that in John 17, and not only for his apostles like Peter, but for all who believe on the basis of their teaching. In connection with Peter, His prayer included at least one request, which He revealed to Peter: “that your faith should not fail.”

In fact, Peter was sifted as wheat by Satan. It doesn’t seem too much to believe that Jesus’ prayer was also granted: Peter’s faith did not fail. So then what happened? It’s implied by Jesus’ words, “when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” Jesus never left Peter, but Peter left Jesus in a sense, for a while. It’s not revealed exactly what this means in relation to Peter’s status as a child of God, except for Jesus’ prayer “that your faith should not fail.”

While Peter was suffering these two and a half days of sifting, Jesus himself experienced the apex of agony under the justice of God against the world’s sin. He would not forsake Peter, so He paid the price: his own innocent life, taken at the hands of the wicked. But pay it He did, and satisfied all of God’s wrath against human sin. During those same hours, Peter was sifted. This sifting is comparable, maybe sometimes identical, to mental illness.

A mental illness can be considered clinically, the way a physical disease or injury may be considered. That is both a strength and a weakness of modern medical science, for while there are treatments to help the mentally ill, its source is not a natural part of creation. The malicious sifting by our spiritual enemy is not taken into account nor even addressed by medically altering the victim’s brain chemistry. Yes, the effects of the sifting can be partly mitigated, but the source of the problem remains.

When mental illness is only considered as a material problem (meaning physical and/or mental), the material treatments available often help in real ways. These can make the difference between coping, and agony or misery. They can allow time for healing to take place. But like all injuries and illnesses, mental illness also has a spiritual dimension.

Illness should not be considered a “spiritual” problem without explanation. Peter had a spiritual problem: denying a connection to Jesus. But that serious sin was also forgivable through Jesus’ death. We can suppose that he experienced what would now be called a mental illness after that, a despairing depression. It would have been like a hole in his existence, a hatred of himself; a sense of shame so deep that the slightest reminder of human failure would pierce his own soul, whether the failure was his or not. It’s a wonder that he did not take the path of Judas, because the thought would have occurred to him. What stopped him? We can only answer by remembering the prayer of Jesus.

Calling Peter’s problem “spiritual” may imply to modern minds that it was imagined, or worse yet: subjective. That would mean that Peter’s spiritual condition or status before God was in jeopardy or worse entirely because of Peter’s own will, words, or actions; that it was all taking place in Peter’s head or heart. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Peter was under attack from the outside, not from the inside.

Peter was being sifted by a malicious will bent on his fall and eternal destruction. But Satan could care less about Peter, except that that Peter was Jesus’ most vocal supporter. Satan wanted to turn him as he had turned Adam and Eve, and so undermine absolutely all the good that God has done. He wanted Peter in hell not for his company, but to be a trophy.

Yes, Peter had a spiritual problem, and that problem has a name: Satan. We all have that problem. Satan is the enemy. He’s a deceiver and a murderer. He wants us to think that there is no hope, that God could never forgive us. He wants us to be overwhelmed by guilt, right after he has led us to the sin that produced it. He wants us to remember only those words of God that condemn sinners, and forget every word of pardon and forgiveness. He wants us to spiral through hopelessness, self-loathing, self-destruction, addiction to behaviors or substances, and many other paths of misery. He’s an expert at managing our influences: keeping away the wholesome while strengthening those that continue or accelerate the spiral. He hand-tailors negative spiritual feedback loops for his victims’ weaknesses, and does all he can to keep them plugged in. That’s the spiritual problem that Peter had.

This fact alone can encourage us as we suffer Satan’s spiritual attacks. 1 Peter 4:15-16 (ESV) says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” And in Dr. Luther’s explanation of this, he writes:

When faith begins, God does not forsake it; He lays the holy cross on our backs to strengthen us and to make faith powerful in us. The holy Gospel is a powerful Word. Therefore it cannot do its work without trials, and only he who tastes it is aware that it has such power. Where suffering and the cross are found, there the Gospel can show and exercise its power. It is a Word of life. Therefore it must exercise all its power in death. In the absence of dying and death it can do nothing, and no one can become aware that it has such power and is stronger than sin and death. Therefore the apostle says “to prove you”; that is, God inflicts no glowing fire or heat—cross and suffering, which make you burn—on you for any other purpose than “to prove you,” whether you also cling to His Word. [2](LW 30:126)

There’s one important difference between suffering in this kind of spiritual problem and the misery of hell itself. We may think that there’s no hope, no joy, no contentment to be had in the depths of our earthly despair, but we are wrong. This only the simulator of hell, crafted with diabolical intent for each victim. We may not see any hope, joy, or contentment, but it’s all there, just waiting on the other side of our time of sifting. And God’s purpose for that sifting is different from Satan’s. Satan is no more than a tool, and used in a different task than he would like.

Peter’s sifting ended when Jesus dragged a net containing 153 fish to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and Jesus reversed Peter’s threefold denial. “Simon, do you love me more than these?” “Lord, you know all things; You I love you.” (John 21:17, NKJV)

When Peter returned to Jesus, Jesus accepted him with open arms, for when Jesus suffered and died on the cross, it was for sinners like Peter and everyone else under Satan’s attack. All of Peter’s spiraling doubts, self-loathing, and despair, those tendrils of Satan’s influence, found their match in the forgiveness of Peter’s sin. Thereafter, the sifting that Satan had done turned into a blessing. In retrospect, it showed Peter the difference between the chaff and the wheat in his own character.

Those today who suffer the sifting of the enemy in the form of mental illness can take comfort in the fact that it’s limited by our gracious Lord, who has also prayed for us. The time of sifting will end, and God will somehow show it to be a blessing. Until then, all facets of the disease should be addressed, whether material or spiritual. Material treatments are provided through medical doctors and psychological counselors. Modification to behavior, environs, and habit help to limit negative influences and encourage positive ones. It’s important to recognize and remember the spiritual dimension in all of this, because the root problem is our sin coupled with the enemy’s attacks. The only possible solution for such a problem took place on a cross, and there are only three ways that God has promised to deliver its benefits: his word of forgiveness, holy baptism, and the sacrament of the altar. Any treatment strategy that ignores that dimension of the problem is hamstrung from the start.

[1]: Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 258). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[2]: Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 126). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Responsible Pet Ownership

Imagine a billion-dollar company called Responsible Pet Ownership. Their stated purpose? To provide essential services and education that will improve the lives of pets and their owners. Too many pet owners find themselves overwhelmed with the responsibilities of providing nutritious food, adequate exercise, and the attention that pets need for a quality life. Some of these beleaguered pet owners never asked to have such a responsibility, yet once they do, their lives become encumbered with the expectations of society and the needs of their pets. Puppies or kittens on Christmas morning are certainly cute and cuddly, but after only a month of pet ownership, many of these families struggle, and soon realize that their lives will never be the same.

Responsible Pet Ownership is here to help. When prospective pet owners need assistance to find the right pet for themselves, when they need some training or even supplies to get themselves on the right track, they can turn to Responsible Pet Ownership for the vital support they need.

These services are especially important for pet owners from the lower social classes. They are the ones who find pet ownership most burdensome. In far too many cases, the additional responsibilities of a pet have hindered a poor child or family from escaping the clutches of poverty. Since Responsible Pet Ownership provides essential social services for people in these conditions, the company receives a subsidy from governmental entities. The federal government has subsidized the work of RPO with over half a billion dollars over a year for these services. In this way, Responsible Pet Ownership fills the gaps in service provided by traditional veterinarians.

But the use of tax money invites public scrutiny and much criticism. Some people claim that since more pets are brought into an RPO office than come out, something dishonest must be taking place there. Is the business taking tax money and enriching its leaders without providing the services it claims to provide? Are the services really necessary? Is it providing those services in an ethically acceptable way? There are faith-based organizations that object in principle to the mass euthanization of animals, claiming that this is the true purpose behind Responsible Pet Ownership. Some go as far as claiming that behind closed doors, RPO is a secret partner with other corporate interests, especially pharmaceutical companies. Instead of euthanizing and disposing of the unwanted pets, the claim is made that RPO is selling them alive on a black market, for the purpose of vivisection and experimental drug testing. (Vivisection was promoted in the earlier days of the Progressive movement, inspiring the practices of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.)

In recent years, the pitch of the controversy surrounding Responsible Pet Ownership has risen. Citizen advocacy groups have engineered “sting” operations in which they pose as pharmaceutical company buyers and meet with RPO executives, recording the meetings with hidden cameras. These videos have been published online for the world to see. These groups claim they are doing the public service that the mainstream media ought to be doing. As a result, the traditional media organizations have portrayed their work as muckraking sensationalism, and reported the information as a controversy rather than an exposé. In the minds of those who suspect RPO of unethical practices, this has damaged the reputation of the traditional media, and confirmed their suspicions.

Yet the furor about the ethics at RPO has emboldened former employees to come forward and reveal what has really been happening in their so-called “puppy mills.” According to these former employees, RPO workers have lied to customers, saying that their pets have a terminal illness, or did not survive routine procedures. The company’s justification for this is that the customer will be better off without the burdensome responsibility of pet ownership. Meanwhile, the healthy pets are taken and sold on the black market for experimentation. Those that are not healthy enough for experimentation are sold into the pet food market.

These embarrassing claims have been mostly ignored by RPO media representatives and executives. Instead, the company focuses on how essential their services are for the community, and the good they do for the lower social classes by freeing them from the long-term responsibilities of pet ownership. It also stresses that any pets taken from their home situations of neglect and malnourishment are better off without a lifetime of suffering. Meanwhile, RPO has engaged in an intensive effort to rebuild its brand using social media. It has encouraged a campaign of re-posting memes that say, “I stand for Responsible Pet Ownership.”

When pressed on-camera, the CEO of Responsible Pet Ownership has followed the company line. Off camera, she has expressed frustration. “Look, we are dealing with pets here, but these people are treating us as though our business were based on seducing downtrodden women into physical peril with life-long sorrow and guilt, or killing defenseless human beings! We have our problems, but we’re not that bad.”

God Doesn’t Need an Hour of Your Time

Sometimes I have the impression that some of God’s people think they’re doing something for him when they show up for church on Sunday, whether fulfilling an obligation or doing Him a favor. Other times I have the impression that some of God’s people think they have come for a purpose comparable to watching a football game. When the score becomes badly lopsided in the fourth quarter and the result seems certain, it’s fine to spend game time raiding the kitchen for chips or beer. What could you possibly miss?

It’s important for God’s people to realize that He doesn’t need anything from them. You do him no favors by showing up on Sunday, and you have no obligation to turn over 59 minutes, 59 seconds of your precious Sunday morning to Him. He can do just fine without that, thank you very much.

It’s also important to realize that when we come to church expecting to be entertained, diverted, or otherwise “pulled in” to Sunday worship, we’re badly missing the point and depriving ourselves of something much greater and (dare I say it?) far more important that football. You can’t measure eternal life by quarters, or slow it down with time-outs.

So if God doesn’t need you there, and you don’t go for the entertainment value, is there any reason to attend church on Sunday?

Yes. Yes, there is.

First, let me clarify: I’m not saying that God will only give eternal life to those who came to church faithfully on Sunday. A presumable case in point was the penitent thief on the cross. But understand this: God doesn’t give eternal life to people the way a state fair vendor hands over a corn dog.

Lutherans should already understand the term “means of grace” in a common way. These are means by which God imparts His spiritual gifts to us. They involve common, outward, earthly things; even apparently unspiritual things like water, human language, bread, and wine. Anyone not paying attention to what God has said about this stuff should yawn at this point. But those who care more about what He says than about their own ideas of worship should sit up and pay attention. Baptism, the gospel message, and the Lord’s Supper are not idly called means of grace. For us, they are nothing less than the keys to paradise. If someone gave you the keys to a Ferrari or an F22, would you dare to complain about how boring and ordinary they look, or how unlikely it seems that they would really work? Because of what God imparts through them, the means of grace are themselves the most precious thing we can hope to receive on Earth, ever.

That’s what the Sunday service is for. It’s where you get to receive from God such valuable treasure that you can’t even hope to appreciate it properly. The structure of the service, which we call the liturgy, developed organically over centuries of use by God’s people, to address the shifting conditions of the world with the unchanging gifts of God in the means of grace. Those gifts don’t change, because the needs of humanity don’t change. We remain lost sinners without them. We need Jesus. They provide Him to us in the most comprehensive summary form available, right in the Sunday divine service.

We don’t come to church to serve God. He comes to church to serve us, because that’s how sinners receive eternal life. That’s what we mean by the term “Divine Service.”

Special Challenges of the Church in the Present Day


What do you notice that’s different from present-day American religious conversation when reading Acts 17:16-20? It fairly jumps out at me that the people in Athens wanted to know what Paul had to say. They wanted to hear him. What passes for communication today is not the same. People may not mind if you post something near to your heart on Facebook or Twitter, or even if you try to tell them something that you think they need to hear for their eternal well-being. But will they listen? Will they read? Or will they scroll by in their hurry to find something that they really want to hear?

As it happens, the next verse in Acts explains why things worked out as they did in Athens. “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” So Paul gave an impressive and impassioned sermon, and while some of the hearers believed and wanted to know more, many quickly concluded (wrongly) that they had heard enough to know that Paul was not worth any more of their time. Sound familiar?

I’d probably expect a similar reception in today’s university setting, which may be the closest thing we have to Mars Hill in Athens. But in the previous chapter, Paul had much better success in a town called Philippi. There he and his companions brought their message to a place they supposed to be a prayer gathering. Did they think the people there were praying to the living God? Probably not, because it was their first stop in Europe. If Philippi had a synagogue, they would have gone there. At least the synagogue worshippers had the scriptures, but those gathering for prayer in a pagan land would be praying to pagan gods. Or am I missing something? Yet that’s where Paul and company thought to begin speaking about the true God. In other words, they were directly contradicting and correcting their hearer’s deeply-held spiritual views.

And it worked, at least for Lydia and her household. The place they went was outside the city gate at the riverside. One of the things that made this a natural gathering spot would be the riverside itself. I recall somewhere a commentator saying that women would gather in such places to handle the laundry needs of their family. Maybe someone like Lydia would have a slave to do most of the work, but this is speculation. What we see is that it worked.

Is there such a place today? If Lutheran missionaries went to the “place of prayer” in our own American towns and began teaching things contrary to what the people thought was true, how would it go over? It seems that would-be missionaries are under pressure not to contradict what other people believe. Maybe you have felt that pressure yourself.

Or you might say that the present-day gathering place is online. It’s certain many people spend a lot of time there, grazing through a myriad posts but generally consuming nothing. That’s the problem. The message of the Gospel is something that must be presented and consumed. The chief activity with online message board or social media communication is not thoughtful reading, but scanning, scrolling, and maybe reacting emotionally to one or two things. It’s like having an open bag of potato chips on the kitchen counter. By the time dinner rolls around, the bag is somehow empty, and you’re not sure if you’re really hungry anyway.

In a world of incessant scrolling and intensely personalized consumption, how does the Church communicate the Gospel? Thankfully, there is still such a thing as friendship. The most powerful communication is between a Christian and his neighbor. Yet at some point we must cross the invisible line and say something that challenges our heathen neighbor to his toenails. It’s almost certain the Christian will be unfriended. What then?