Homosexuality, Abortion, and Racism (pt. 1)

As I have been working out some thoughts on why, given the choice between only these two options, I prefer to support homosexual marriage in American law rather than forbid it (here and here), a couple of related questions and criticisms have been raised.

In general, these tend to ask why a Christian sense of morality shouldn’t inform our political posture as much as anyone else’s secular sense of morality informs theirs. In particular, people have been suspicious that arguing for laws that run counter to the religious preferences of Christians might leave us no room to argue in favor of our other Christian positions such as opposition to abortion.

I do not find this line of argument persuasive.

First, there is a difference between arguing for a “Christian” position and arguing for a position on Christian grounds. If the only argument we have to make is a Christian argument, then a pluralistic society should reject those arguments. Moreover, to see that such a rejection is right in our political context is simply to affirm that religious liberty is good for all faiths, including Christianity.

And, in assessing whether my “Christian” position should be enforced more broadly I am not setting aside my Christian convictions. Instead, I’m asking what it looks like in a given situation to love my neighbor as myself and to do unto others as I would have done to me. In a pluralistic society, my ethic of Christian love dictates that I do not impose my religious law on another–just as I would not have their religious law imposed upon me.

In the case of abortion, asking these questions creates a network of issues that complicates what is otherwise a simplistic and insufficiently Christian pro-life position, but they do lead inevitably to a recognition of abortion as an injustice that should be rooted out of society.

Asking these questions complicates the issue of abortion because we do have to ask what it means to love the pregnant woman as ourselves. This question is too little asked by pro-life groups, and folks who are theologically and politically conservative here tend to take too little stock of the systemic issues that both lead to unwanted pregnancy and lead to termination of it. Loving the pregnant neighbor means more than forbidding her to end the pregnancy.

But in complicating the issue it does not pull us away from protecting the life of the unborn child–because we have to ask, also, what it means to love this unborn neighbor as ourselves and to do unto him or her as we would have done unto us.

In fact, I would argue that protecting the unborn child and standing up for civil equality are two instantiations of the same posture of protecting the powerless, defending the outcast.

However, the more compelling parallel to my mind is between homosexual marriage and interracial marriage as the latter was at first forbidden then gradually allowed, and now is generally accepted–at least in theory–all by Christians and for Christian reasons. We’ll look at this tomorrow.

Reimagining Education

Last night at a parents’ open house, I was exposed to the work of Ken Robinson for the first time.

Robinson is attempting to lead the charge to entirely reconceptualize what we’re doing in education. The current model has as its impetus the preparing of people to serve an industrialized world, and it has as its goal the production of university professors.

But how do we prepare people to join in a different world, a different economy, and to capitalize on other sorts of gifts that are not professorial in nature?

Here is a nice, animated intro to the sorts of things he’s pushing us to consider:

He also gave a 2006 talk at TED that has become rather legendary:

These talks resonated with me for a couple of reasons.

One chord they struck is associated with the persistent nagging feeling I have that seminary is a really weird way to prepare people for pastoral ministry. This has long seemed to me predicated on an idea of “preparedness for ministry” that is strangely university-like in its understanding of education, and perhaps too much a child of the enlightenment in its anticipation that the educated mind will produce an enlightened actor.

The other reason I listened with interest is that Fuller is in the middle of an MDiv curriculum review. Here we are wrestling, in the narrower context of theological education, not only with the particular questions of what sorts of classes we want to teach, but also with the larger concerns of how to fit our product into the 21-century world.

What does it mean to be a school that does not exist for the perpetuation of school, but some other purpose outside itself–in our case, women and men equipped for the manifold (and boy do we ever mean “manifold” these days!) ministries of Christ and his church?

What do you think? [How] Does Seminary education need to change to take better account of not only the changing world but also who we are as people?

True Grit

Last night I was finally able to break away and see True Grit.

Dear Christians, stop making movies. Stop writing books. Go ahead. Put your cameras down. Fold up your laptops.

Now, go watch True Grit, Ladykillers, and O Brother Where Art Thou?, and learn from Joel and Ethan Coen how to tell the Christian story in popular media.

The film begins with an invitation to recognize that the biblical world is operative here: a citation of Proverbs 28:1 from the KJV, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.”

This raises all sorts of interesting questions–is there something especially apropos in this film’s particular bad guy being chased by a girl? Should we supply the second half of the proverb to epitomize our heroine, “but the righteous are bold as a lion”?

As is so often the case in Coen Brothers films, the place of God in the storyline is undergirded by the soundtrack. In this case, the music for Leaning on the Everlasting Arms provides the wordless motif. But again, are we supposed to supply the words ourselves? “What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms?” Cf. the Proverb quoted above.

The composer/ arranger of the film’s music, Carter Burwell, had this to say, ““Ethan and Joel and I had the same idea—a score rooted in 19th-century hymns. The songs Mattie would sing if she had time for such frivolity. Our model was the hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, composed in 1888 by Anthony Showalter, an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dalton, Georgia, and used memorably in the film The Night of the Hunter. This, together with other hymns of the period, forms the backbone of the score, which grows from church piano to orchestra as Mattie gets farther and farther from home.”

As the voice of the grown-up heroine (25 years after the events of the film) introduces the story, she says of the man who murdered her father:

    No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong. You must pay for everything in this life, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.

As we follow Mattie on her quest for justice, we are acutely aware that hers is not an errand of grace, and in the end she must pay a price for the justice she seeks.

The performance of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is oscar-worthy, and Jeff Bridges somehow manages to pull of the role of drunk hero. Who’d have thought?!

The Coen Brothers have done it again. This is a fantastic film.

The Upside Down Economy

Over at WorkingPreacher.org, you can find the first in a series of four commentaries on 1 Corinthians that I’ve written. [UPDATE: Ok, so it's actually the second week. I lost track. First week is here.] This week: how the gospel turns the economy of the world on its head–and what that might mean for those of us who like to think that we can find God within the cultural currents of our day.

We need to be careful, especially when we start flocking to influential leaders like pastors… or bloggers (?!)…

May the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ subvert all our efforts at world domination, turning them into instruments of cruciform service. Amen.

Bread People

“Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

Sunday is reorientation day. Not only is it the day that Christians have traditionally set aside for worship, in that sacred space and sacred time we have developed reminders–reminders of our story, reminders of our identity, and reminders that the story we tell is, in fact, our identity.

If we’re doing it right, our coming together calls us beyond the walls that divide us, beyond the particularities by which we distinguish ourselves from fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

If we’re doing it right, our coming together draws us to Christ, not simply to remember that God has accepted me, but to remember that God as accepted me as God has accepted us.

The gathering is not first and foremost a coming together of individual parts, sewn together however we might, to create some sort of Frankenstein. The body is the thing (because Christ is the thing) and I’m a member of it.

And so when we take the bread each week we are reminded not only that Christ gave his body so that we might live (we are a cross people!) but that we are that body which was given and therefore one with one another. We are united to Christ and inseparable from the family of God with whom we worship, and inseparable from the family of God that is worshiping down the street and around the world.

We must not lose sight of either. We are the people of the cross–the narrative of Jesus’ death is the narrative of our people; and, being united to the crucified one makes us a people, a family, a body.

So coming off of a week of storied theology where we’ve wrestled with some issues that are highly contentious within the church right now, here is a piece of reorientation and remembrance–not only of who the Christ is whom we are all striving to serve, but who we ar together in that one Christ’s body.

Take and eat–together.

Take and drink–together.

And let us together proclaim this Christ as we await the day when he comes again.

Alternative Body Politic: Christians & Tucson

In case you missed it, Tim Suttle has launched his writing partnership with The Huffington Post, and he hit the ball out of the park.

His first post was a Christian response to the Tucson tragedy, but more than a response to the tragedy itself, Tim’s post was a call to Christians to remember our story, remember our identity, to hope and to trust that God is faithful.

Here’s a quote:

    The most basic tenet of Christianity is that the future of God has broken into the present time through Jesus Christ. Thus we are not victims of the way things are, but we are now free to participate in God’s redemptive project. We may have limited capacities, but we have the ability to choose the future we wish to enact. Our response to tragedy cannot be one of cynicism, skepticism or despair. It must be the response of hope and healing.

Go and read.

Great work, TIm!

Sex Inside Out

Or, “Do we not judge those inside the church? But those outside God judges.”

Or, “Master, is now the time when you’re going to restore the Kingdom to the United States?!”

This past week I think I may have caused more than a few of my readers whiplash. On the one hand, I have been writing about sexuality (More Sex pt. 1, More Sex pt. 2, plus and earlier post, God & Sex) and articulating in my own little way a quite traditional view of Christian sexuality.

Then on Thursday I come out with a post, distancing myself from the pastor who says the Supreme Court has created war between Christians (of which he’s one) and the gays whom he “loves”–a distancing that includes not only my disdain for the “war” language, but also disagreement about whether the discrimination between homosexual and heterosexual unions should be perpetuated in the legal system.

How does someone with what are fairly traditional Christian views on sexuality distance himself from political efforts to enforce these values on the rest of society?

Theologically, there are a couple of reasons for my bifurcation.

On the side of sexual ethics in particular, the apostle Paul draws a distinction between exercising our judgment on those outside the church and those inside: those who are outside, God judges, what do I have to do with that? he asks in 1 Corinthians 5.

We have a responsibility to police ourselves that we do not have with respect to those who have not joined themselves to the household of faith.

Second, throughout the Gospels and Acts we confidently distance ourselves from those silly disciples who thought that Jesus was going to inaugurate a war against the Romans and thereby bring about the reign of God. And yet, when we come to our own politics we too often anticipate that Jesus is going to exercise his authority in order to impose our political will on our opponents. Really? Is now the time that Jesus is going to restore the Kingdom to Israel… er… the United States?

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the driving dynamic of Christian love to which we are called in Jesus’ teaching is to do unto others as we would have done to us, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be like God who causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike.

I believe that this teaching transforms how we ask the question about our relationship to homosexuality and law.

The questions we ask are not, “How do we make people conform externally as much as possible to the law of God,” but instead, “What does it look like to do unto my homosexual neighbor as I would have done to myself? What does it look like to extend blessing and grace to my homosexual neighbor like the God who blesses them with the provision of this world day by day?”

This final set of theological concerns bleeds into the practical.

We are living in a pluralistic world. We have to figure out how to work toward a just society with other people who do not share our religious beliefs. These guiding principles of “how do I do as I would be done to?” and “How do I love as I would be loved,” and “How do I extend the capacious blessing of God?” must displace “enforcing the law of God as I understand it” as our public disposition.

Finally, there is the pragmatic reality that we do not enforce the law of God, and do not want it enforced, through civil means. We do not in general continue to agitate for the institution of laws against premarital sex and adultery. Why not?

In asking that question, I think we uncover that at least in part (a) we do not actually want the state enforcing sexual ethics between “consenting adults”–even when it is truly damaging to a victim as in the case of adultery! but more importantly (b) the reason for enforcing this homosexuality agenda has more to do with what we find personally distasteful or at least something we could never imagine ourselves falling into–in contrast to the heterosexual sins that we no longer appeal to our government to enforce.

Here, I’m tempted to start listing the myriad ways in which people who are legally married might have been married in the sight of God, though they don’t believe–is that false swearing by God’s name really such a good thing? Etc. etc.

I think that the best idea of all is for the government to get out of the marriage business altogether–civil unions for all, irrespective of sex (or no sex at all), and church weddings being none of the state’s business and not civilly recognized.

But in the mean time, so long as the government has laws about marriage, I feel compelled as a Christian to see that the blessing attached to them attend to even what conservative Christians might call “the just and the unjust alike”.

Barth on God-Talk and Church Proclamation

Welcome to week 3 of #Barthtogether (Church Dogmatics §1.3.1). I’m enjoying this slow wade into the Church Dogmatics. And in particular, the exercise of attempting to stretch my mind around Barth’s understanding of the word of God is an important challenge. Here is where Barth has so often–right at the outset!–been left behind by more conservative Christians because he does not simply say that the words on the page of the Bible are the word of God.

Why won’t he just come out and say that? It think the reason is articulated when Barth differentiates between secular and sanctified; their distinction is not a state in which they exist or a subject matter about which they speak, or a realm they occupy. Instead, their differentiation is an event, “The ongoing event of the final distinction, the event in which God Himself acts…” (p. 48)

This event is, of course, tied to the creation of the church, which is the body of Christ, because God elects that body as his own sacred space, we might say. But that church is sanctified as an on-going act of God’s holy-making action–and that holy-making action must apply also as something that occurs to the church’s proclamation. God makes the human words holy that would not be holy without that act (p. 49).

In locating proclamation in the broader life of the church, Barth places himself squarely within a Protestant, even what we might with the right qualifications even call “evangelical”, mold: preaching is the presupposition of service for the world, teaching youth, and even theology.

But it’s Barth’s definition of preaching that is so vaunted as to cause me to step back and scratch my head over the dissonance between this theological ideal and what I experience in reality. Preaching is where God the king speaks through the mouth of God’s own herald, and is therefore God’s own speech, to be acted on by God’s subjects.

It is often the case that when theological interpreters of the New Testament today speak of the NT, they refer to its “totalizing theological claims.” The God spoken of, and actions performed, create a demand on the reader to respond in faith. This, says Barth, is the substance of our preaching as well: in the event, God speaks and demands response (p. 52).

A couple of points will follow from this overall picture of the need for God to be at work for the preaching to be the word of God. First, since what is needed is the act of God, God is free to speak in surprising places, to use surprising words and means to speak to people. You might think Balaam’s ass, you might think foreign priests like Melchizedek.

Another point that follows is that neither preaching nor any other churchly function conveys grace simply by doing it–they are only means by which God may choose to administer grace. The “event” of grace, of speaking, of truly demanding, is the work of the spirit as words are spoken (as sacraments are given, we might add), and not bound to the event as such. The grace is bound to God.

A third point that follows is that “modernist dogmatics” ultimately fails because it does not finally know that people have to listen to something outside ourselves–to a true God–rather than simply reflect on our experiences.

And here is where the value of Barth’s view comes into play in our own context as well.

As we grow continually more aware of the different ways that various cultures have spoken about God, and interpreted God through the lenses of their own time and place, we have to continue to find ways to speak of God’s revelation in the Word as something that truly comes from God and draws us into our own culture-bound reflection.

If the words are simply the words of people and fully explicable on that score, than there is no Word to be proclaimed. But if God has in fact revealed, if Christ is in fact the revelation of God, then revelation is not merely possible but has in fact occurred and can in fact be assumed.

And then, we can have hope, hope that there is a God beyond who speaks, who is known, who has made himself knowable to the people of the earth. And with such hope, we can respond in the obedience of faith, knowing that our labor is not in vain because we have heeded the living voice of the true and living God.


I am indebted to Michael Bird for alerting me to what is definitely the greatest comment yet made in review of my work, and perhaps rates somewhere in the top 100 comments ever made in an academic book review.

Jane Heath of the University of Aberdeen writes:

    Kirk’s passionate chronicle of the evils of some Reformation emphases in exegesis of Romans may be somewhat one-sided self-flagellations of his own church tradition. Yet his monograph is very welcome for both its exegetical and systematic insights, which provide a new and useful vantage point for the scholarly endeavour as it continues to stand under the long shadow of the sixteenth century. (ExpT 122(4): 202-3)

“Self-flagellations”?! Outstanding!

In all seriousness, the review does a very nice job of dealing with a short space in which to communicate the point and tenor of the book. Thanks for the good work, Jane. (You know? Jane Heath also happens to be the maiden name of my mother-in-law… Very disorienting…)

Telling the story of the story-bound God