Audience of One: How We Kicked God off the Stage in Worship

What would happen if we were to subtly change the way the church goes about worshiping God? What if we were to remove an emphasis on the objective truth of the Bible and place a subtle emphasis on personal experience? What if we did this in a way that on the surface seemed like we were worshiping God, but in the end actually removed God from worship and put us on the stage instead?

I am afraid that is exactly what is going on in many congregations across America. We are seeing popular pastors abandon Biblical authority in honor of individual subjective experience (Rob Bell and more recently and to a different degree, Andy Stanley). What bothers me the most, is that I think there are many pastors and worship leaders with good intentions, who are taking us down the path of looking for subjective experience instead of objective truth in weekly congregational worship.

For me, this can most clearly be seen in the rhetoric of “Audience of One” on the lips of pastors and worship leaders. Typically the “Audience of One” illustration is described this way: We gather for worship and it seems like the audience is the congregation and the actors or entertainers are the musicians, worship leader and pastor. But in this illustration, the roles are redesigned to account for God in the room. The congregation becomes the actors in worship, God is the audience, and the musicians, worship leader, and pastor are all prompters whose function is to provide the script by which the congregation performs worship.

Cool concept right?  It sounds cool to say that “God is the only audience we seek.” But is it right? More importantly is it Biblical? Before you assume I’m crazy, hear me out. I’ll explain to you that when we say, “Audience of One” that the whole illustration is a complete misunderstanding of worship that ultimately moves us away from an emphasis on truth from God (God’s Word) to our own subjective experience of “worship” and personal interpretation of that experience. My real concern is that we may have just kicked God off the stage and replaced Him with pathetic individual experiences of worship that are more about us than they are about the God of the Bible. Like I said hear me out.

 

I want to level a serious contention: What if the illustration of God as the “audience of One” in our services was originally a thought experiment designed to introduce a philosophy that would eventually  come to be known as existentialism to Christianity? Think I’m off the mark? Let’s look at where the illustration originated.

Audience of ONE_ How WE Kicked GOD off the Stage of Worship(1)

The History behind the Phrase. The concept behind the phrase “Audience of One” first appears in Soren Kierkegaard’s book, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”  Kierkegaard in his own words:

 It is so on the stage, as you know well enough, that someone sits and prompts by whispers; he is the inconspicuous one; he is, and wishes to be overlooked. But then there is another, he strides out prominently, he draws every eye to himself. For that reason he has been given his name, that is: actor. He impersonates a distinct individual. In the skillful sense of this illusionary art, each word becomes true when embodied in him, true through him—and yet he is told what he shall say by the hidden one that sits and whispers. No one is so foolish as to regard the prompter as more important than the actor.

Now forget this light talk about art. Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolishness of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as an actor, and the listeners as theatergoers who are to pass judgment upon the artist. But the speaker is not the actor—not in the remotest sense. No, the speaker is the prompter. There are no mere theatergoers present, for each listener will be looking into his own heart. The stage is eternity, and the listener, if he is the true listener (and if he is not, he is at fault) stands before God during the talk. The prompter whispers to the actor what he is to say, but the actor’s repetition of it is the main concern—is the solemn charm of the art. The speaker whispers the word to the listeners. But the main concern is earnestness: that the listeners by themselves, with themselves, and to themselves, in the silence before God, may speak with the help of this address.

The address is not given for the speaker’s sake, in order that men may praise or blame him. The listener’s repetition of it is what is aimed at. If the speaker has the responsibility for what he whispers, then the listener has an equally great responsibility not to fail short in his task. In the theater, the play is staged before an audience who are called theatergoers; but at the devotional address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense, God is the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to: hence here the customary audience is wanting. The speaker is then the prompter, and the listener stands openly before God. The listener … is the actor, who in all truth acts before God. (Kierkegaard, Søren, trans. Douglas V. Steere. Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 180-189.) * bold print and underline added for emphasis

Existentialism: A Shift to the Subjective Human Experience Over Objective Truth.
Soren Kierkegaard is regarded by many as one of the first existentialist philosophers. Though, the word “existentialism” never appears in any of his works, the concepts of existentialism are core to many of his writings. In a nutshell, existentialism emphasizes the right of the individual to discover truth for themselves. Truth doesn’t come from an objective outside source (Like the Bible, institutional religion, society, etc.) but through individual experience and our subjective interpretation of that experience. Because of this, there is actually a broad spectrum of philosophers who can be classified existentialist, but would hold a different understanding of life (Nietzsche was another early existentialist philosopher).

Kierkegaard was really one of the first to press this idea into many different areas of society, including Christianity and religious practice.  You may have noted in the quote above, that it is said of the actor, who is pretending to be someone else, that “each word becomes true when embodied by him.”  At it’s core, Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy focuses on the individual to give the world meaning. In other words, an individual’s experience, and subsequent interpretation of that experience is more “authentic” and “meaningful” than objective truth. (Where have I heard those buzz words before?) To say it in terms of the illustration, the prompt (the sermon? the scriptures? he doesn’t tell us) isn’t true until acted out by the actor. Indeed, the prompt line become true “through” the actor. The actor’s experience is what defines truth for Kierkegaard. There is no truth in the prompt itself, only in the experience of the actor.

In Kierkegaard’s illustration the church goer is transitioned from a passive audience member to the main actor in the worship service.  The actor’s experience is where truth is produced and God now fills the role of the audience… an audience of One.

HOW DID THIS GET INTRODUCED TO THE CHURCH? I think that through ignorance that the “audience of one” terminology became common language to talk about how worship leaders are to lead in worshiping God.  What sounds cool often gets repeated. I’ve heard musicians such as Matt Redman, Big Daddy Weave, and others use the illustration. I am also aware that there are several books on “worship leadership” by authors that I very much respect that use the “audience of one” illustration as a description for worship leadership.

What effect has this had on the worship service? We have elevated to congregation to the stage to perform “for God.” So now, your experience of worship determines it’s worth, not God’s worthiness.  Now each individual is an actor for the sake of God who is our “true” audience… We have moved the emphasis of worship from objective truth of God’s Word in the pulpit to subjective experience in the pew.  In Kierkegaard’s view, the Bible isn’t true, unless it is acted upon by an individual, and thus experienced subjectively. While many of our pastor’s and music leaders wouldn’t say this out loud, we have used the metric of personal engagement and experience to determine the “quality of worship” (despite supposedly having an “audience of one”).

The flawed analogy: Why does God have to be the audience? Intentional or not, I believe Kierkegaard’s analogy is flawed. In the illustration that Kierkegaard gives, we have only two ways of seeing the room and all the participants. 1. Either God is the audience, the worshipers are actors, and the pastor is the prompter or 2. The audience is the congregation and the pastor is the actor and God is not present. (A not so subtle point of  Kierkegaard illustration: God is present as the audience or not at all).

WHAT IF THE ILLUSTRATION IS WRONG? Is there another way to see the room on Sunday morning? If you will notice the one thing really missing from Kierkegaard’s illustration is the Word of God.  It would be missing because Kierkegaard’s writing was trying to supplant the idea of “objective truth” and replace it with “subjective experiential truth.”  The Bible has long been understood to be objective truth (it is true weather you believe it or not).

What if we correct Kierkegaard’s view of the devotional service with the scripture as central? Has God not been present all along? Was he not always on center stage? Was the role of the pastor to ever entertain at all or was it to declare the word, work, and majesty of God through the Word of God? Was the role of pastor not to provoke our hearts to worship all along, not because God is in the audience but because God has commanded and invited us to worship Him?

Now let’s get down to the Scripture. Isn’t God the one who has invited (even commanded) us to worship Him (Exodus 20:3-5)? If we’d just read the Bible we’d see a divine plan of redemption unfolding where we who were separated from God, have no right or ability to reach up to God, but God reached down to us through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, making payment for sin, rising from the dead, so that those who come to Him in genuine faith and repentance are reconciled to God (Romans 5:8). The very heart of worship is who God is (Revelation 4:11) and what He has done to reconcile us to Himself (Isaiah 61:10).  Even those who have rejected Jesus and will find themselves acknowledging that he is worthy of all glory and honor (Philippians 2:9-11).

Isn’t God at the very center of the stage of worship in Heaven? (Revelation 4:11, 5:12-14, 7:9-12, 19:1-10, Isaiah 6, etc.)  You won’t and can’t have an “audience of one” in Heaven because God is the only act! You will fall on your face and you will worship because He is worthy! If anything we will be part of the audience applauding Him. His glory demands an audience of worshipers (Luke 18:40)! 

What if we meant something other than worship by “audience of one?” If you mean to say that, “Gods opinion of you is the only one you care about,” do you not recognize the emphasis on a subjective individual experience in that statement as well? Would you not recognize that God has given us each other to be the voice of reason, accountability, and reminder of who He is (1 Timothy 4:12, Matthew 18:15-20)? I care about God’s opinion of me, but I also recognize that He judges my heart better than me and this attitude might be more about resisting accountability than it is about truly seeking the Lord.

If you mean to say, “Only God can Judge you perfectly,” then I think you are right (Romans 14:4). But there is a huge difference between God as a just judge and God as your audience. Judges render verdicts, audiences by nature observe and applaud (or heckle)… either way the verdict of a judge is more serious than applause of an audience.

I pray that we would all be aware that God is a just judge and we would strive to have pure hearts, but not in the way that Kierkegaard suggests. I would that we had them in the way that Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount. I would love to have a pure heart that doesn’t do deeds so as to be seen by others, but to be seen by God (Matthew 6:1-6) and simultaneously loves to do good works that are seen by everyone and point to God (Matthew 5:13-16).  Only God can judge a heart like that and to be clear only God can create a heart like that in me (Ezekiel 36:26, Psalm 51:10, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Jeremiah 24:7) . I reject the “Audience of One” illustration for worship because it is a dangerous philosophy that removes God from the act of worship and puts us center stage.

For more on the topic of an undue emphasis on the individual subjective experience in American Christianity check out this previous blog post: Who are you really worshiping?

Pragmatism, Principles, and Politics

It’s been a crazy election year. We are a few days away from a presidential election and many folks have asked me for my opinion. Generally I make it a rule not to write about politics. I had a passion for it when I was younger and enjoyed opportunities like Missouri Boy’s State to learn more about our great country and how it worked. Yet as I’ve grown into adulthood the cynic in me has taken over and I’ve found myself bored with politics and have subsequently left the discussion up to those who were more passionate… until now.

pragmatism. principles. politics.jpg

Lets talk politics and Christianity for just a minute. There is this sentiment that one’s religion need not interfere with politics. That is the position of senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate and choice for Vice President. It’s also a very religious statement. It’s religious simply because he said he could do something with his religion… forget about it when he makes political decision.

Folks have turned this around to say that we should check our religion at the ballot box. They have said, in effect that THEY know better than ME on how to practice MY religion (tell me that’s not a religious statement)... But let’s be honest, Tim Kaine’s religion doesn’t permit him to do that, he does it in defiance, not compliance to the faith he claims. He claims to be Catholic and his Pope (or any Pope before him) hasn’t said “check your Catholicism at the ballot box“… His church has a long history of standing against abortion (One of the issues that Kaine holds personally and religiously but doesn’t let interfere with his political life).

All this chatter about checking your religion at the ballot box is an attempt to persuade you to embrace an otherwise unappealing candidate by ignoring a major disagreement you have with them. It should be seen as manipulative and underhanded. Politicians don’t get to define YOUR religious beliefs and you should not fault them for theirs (if you could find one that held their beliefs with any sincerity).

Now let’s talk Pragmatism (it IS in the title anyway). There are folks out there who will tell you that you have to vote a certain way because you don’t want Hillary to win or you don’t want Trump to win. This is where I think a lot of evangelical pastors and theologians have compromised their principles. I don’t mean that flippantly so let’s investigate pragmatism for a moment.

Pragmatism is the philosophy that whatever works is “right.” So in essence the “end” justifies the “means.” So practically speaking you might vote for a particular candidate to get a certain end such as, “prevent Trump from blowing us all up” or, to “prevent Hillary from appointing liberal activist judges to the supreme court.” You cast a vote for someone you dislike (means) in order to get a result that you will be pleased with (end).

The problem with pragmatism is that for the Christian, the means matter just as much as the end! This is why I said some of our pastors and theologians have compromised their principles… they have endorsed a corrupt means… voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil. 

It is not as though we don’t have a guide for such situations. We have a Savior who was perfectly obedient, even where we would choose not to be. Can you imagine Jesus casting his ballot for Trump? How about Clinton? Would he choose the lesser of two evils? Is there another way?

There is another way. The way where the means matters just as much as the end. Jesus faced temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). He was promised the world as his kingdom without the cross (end), all he had to do was worship the devil (means). Yet He rejected this and chose the cross out of obedience to God and the cross became the means by which you and I can be saved from our sins (end)!

You see, the silly thing about pragmatism is that when you apply it to something like politics, ethics, or religion it breaks down because as you change the means… you change the end. You won’t just prevent Hillary or Trump by voting for one against the other, you will also be endorsing Hillary or Trump.

Now let’s talk about Principles. Principles are those beliefs that you hold at the foundation of your being. You build your personal actions based off of your principles. If you are a Christian you have deeply held principles that will come up every election cycle. You have principles about life, marriage, poverty, justice, and more. Anyone who tells you to ignore your principles and vote for them is telling you that your principles don’t matter… and if you vote for them against your better judgement… your principles really don’t matter. But that was because YOU gave up your principles when you voted against your conscience.

Now you’re going to tell me that you are stuck. You have two options and you don’t like either one. You can’t vote for Hillary because well, you don’t need me to tell you, you’ve got tons of reasons. Now you know you also can’t vote for Trump, again you don’t need me to campaign for or against these folks. You’ve seen the media. You’ve formed your opinion… You don’t think you can go into the ballot box, cast a vote, and come out clean.

You do have another option.Vote based on your principles, even if this leads you to a third party candidate. You can vote for someone else. It may feel like you are throwing your vote away but in the last several elections nearly half of the people who voted, voted for a candidate who lost… You see that’s the thing…. Someone will lose! What if you vote for Hillary or Trump and they lose? You might be able to wash that off, but what if you vote for Hillary or Trump and they win? What will you tell your children when they ask? History won’t remember the loser only the winner. 

In a few weeks when we know who will be the next president I’m sure that God will still be on His throne!  However, the ballot box says just as much about our principles (or lack there of) as it does about the folks who are running for president.

Anyhow to those who asked. That is my 2 cents on this election. Hope it helps.

Who Are You Really Worshiping?

Dear Christian Brother or Sister,

We live in an highly individualistic and consumer culture. As Americans we celebrate ourselves to a fault. The perceived upside is we tend to get our way and even when we don’t, we vent about it on social media like toddlers who were just told they had to share their toys.

who

That’s the culture… it shouldn’t be you. Your first allegiance isn’t to yourself, it’s to the one who created you, sought you, and paid for your sins… You belong to Jesus (I Corinthians 6:19-20). If you pray as Jesus taught his disciples in the Model Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), you don’t ask for “My” will to be done, you ask God for HIS will to be done. That includes being willing for God’s will to be done in every aspect of your life. It’s a submission phrase. You are submitting yourself to God. It’s not about YOU, it’s about HIM.

What disturbs me is that there is talk going around  these days that says, “I can worship God anywhere, I don’t need the church.On the surface it sounds good. Our culture of individuality and consumerism would confirm this… But would JESUS

Like all heresy there is a hint of truth to it. You CAN worship God anywhere. Jesus implied as much when talking to the Samaritan Woman (John 4:25). Paul and Silas sang songs and worshiped from prison (Acts 16:25). So there is plenty of precedent to say that the place of worship doesn’t matter as much as WHO you worship and maybe HOW you worship. Though to be clear in these instances it is not the consumer driven preference of the worshiper that determines the place of worship…  It is the ability of the object of worship, GOD Himself, to transcend space  (theologians call this omnipresence).

But would Jesus say, “YOU don’t need the church”? That is totally different than saying “GOD can be worshiped any where.” You see the real question is has he given you the freedom to choose to worship in isolation when there is a church available?

To be sure the church is the people, not the building. Perhaps that is where the hangup is for most people. If you were just saying you don’t need a building to worship, I totally agree. However, If you mean to say that you don’t need an accountable community of other believers to worship God the way He intends… I disagree. We were designed to come together in an accountable community known as the church.

I’m having a hard time finding an example of where we called to separate ourselves completely from the church according to our personal preference in the scripture. Christianity was never meant to be practiced in isolation. Even the early church sent missionaries out TWO at a time to establish churches. It is really difficult to honor the great commission in isolation (Matthew 28: 19-20). How do you exercise your spiritual gifts or function as part of the body of Christ without other believers present (Romans 12, I Corinthians 12)? Finally if you are a true believer, why would you not want to be part of something that Christ loves so deeply (Ephesians 5:25-31)?

This talk about worshiping God apart from the church really has me confused as to who you are actually worshiping? You might actually be worshiping nature instead of God, or travel ball, or TV, or Family, or a host of other things. I get it. I like those things too, but not enough to separate me from worshiping God with my local church. I need those people and according to 1 Corinthians 12 they need me too.

So if you’ve been using the excuse that “I can worship God from anywhere” as an opportunity to hit up the golf-course, the tree stand, or just sit in your undies and watch football on TV,  you might want to ask yourself,  “what god am I worshiping?”

Rescuing the Blessing

I grew up in a Christian home and so we always had a blessing before our meals. Somewhere along the line I became a bit antagonistic towards the blessing. I thought for sure that it was just a cruel and unusual way for our parents to delay a much anticipated meal for a few more moments. In those days I was hitting growth spurts and consequently was experiencing what I thought was “hunger” in a whole new way.

REscuing-1

Part of me wondered why we brought out this tired old ritual three times a day. We thanked God for food that I had seen my mother purchase at the grocery store. We often said the same tired prayers weather rhyming or just very short like, “Thank you God for our food, Amen.” We went for short whenever we could get by with it… After all we didn’t want our food to get cold.

When I was on my own I admit, I let the blessing slide, except for a few occasional pious moments in the college cafeteria, but that was mostly for show or obligation. In my coldness I never could really wrap my head around why we were thanking God for food that I picked up off a shelf or out of a cafeteria canister. And maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe calloused blessings come from those who don’t really know about their food.

In my mid-twenties things began to change. I was awakened to the reality that food doesn’t magically appear on a grocery or pantry shelf. While reading Genesis I came to the realization that God was the inventor of some pretty cool stuff… like taste buds. Not only had he invented taste buds but all the stuff that they can taste. I really enjoy coffee now (an aquired taste I know). Part of me chuckled at God hiding the coffee bean inside of berries like a well hidden Easter egg… can’t wait till they figure this out. Then there are things like tree nuts, peanuts (which aren’t true nuts), strawberries, and other fruit, not to mention bacon, steak, bacon, fish, bacon, etc. (oops almost forgot… bacon).

Not only did God invent all of these flavors that we can mix and match creatively in our dishes, but he also sustains them. Do you know how difficult it is to grow some of these things? I got into gardening back when I thought it would be easy… you almost need a chemistry degree if you want to get your soil PH just right. Then there are bugs you have to worry about and if not bugs, disease (my squash plants were almost wiped out because my neighbor’s squash had a disease… It was a sad year).

Even though fruit literally grows on trees, trees are complex systems in and of themselves that often require diligent provision and maintenance. If the frost hits middle Florida at the wrong time of year the Wall Street Journal will report it and your orange juice will cost you more. When hail falls from the sky, pro-longed droughts occur, and other “acts of nature” we see it reflected on the super market shelves both in cost and volume (supply and demand I guess). You stop eating your sandwich with tomatoes because Wendy’s can no longer sell it to you at a decent price with a tomatoes slice on it. 

But does that register when we pray? Do we see all of these things as in the hands of God? Do we thank him for the taste of bacon (because I don’t know if it’s really that smart to ask him to bless it to your body). Do we thank him for inventing this really weird beast with four stomachs that makes really tasty meals like steak and brisket (sorry if you’re a vegetarian)? Do we thank him for the ability to work and provide for those we love? Do we thank him for those who have provided for us, when we were too young or unable? Do we thank him for the ability to taste?

Recently I read Psalm 104 as part of my devotional reading plan. Part of it stuck out to me and reminded me to rescue the blessing from becoming a hurdle to get past to a divine moment to be savored:

	You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
		and plants for man to cultivate,
	that he may bring forth food from the earth
		and wine to gladden the heart of man,
	oil to make his face shine
		and bread to strengthen man's heart.
(Psalm 104:14-15 ESV)

 

Do Tattoos Matter?

“Is God against tattoos/ body modification?” The question came to me simply enough last year when one of my students came in and shared an experience they had at another church. The youth pastor got up and started railing against tats… This particular teenager felt a little uneasy because they had several family members with tats. So I took some time and we explored what the Bible really does say about tats and body modification.

There are many reasons to not get a tattoo, but the bible doesn’t provide us with God’s explicit thoughts on the subject (It’s not the 11th commandment). The word tattoo is mentioned one time in the whole Bible. In the context it means “to write on yourself.” So if you did that in middle school with a pen then I’m pretty sure you’ve already broken this commandment … but let’s take a serious look at the verse about “tattoos” and use this as an exercise in understanding how to read the Bible in context.

“You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:26-28 ESV)

It is important to understand that the book of Leviticus was written to the nation of Israel and was written with the priests especially in mind. The gist of the whole book is to not look like the pagan cultures around. It is for a specific group of people that lived at a specific time in history. We can learn a lot from it, but we do so at a distance. We are not traveling through the desert about the enter the promised land that is full of pagan people who do these things.

The command prohibits cutting your body for the dead and marking yourself like the people around them were doing. The idea is that when someone died, evil spirits would be around, so you would disfigure yourself so as not to be recognized by the evil spirit. The tattoo stuff implies that you are getting inked with the name of a false god or demon… all of these commands are in the context of how people worship idols and fake gods…. So if you were planning on getting a lotus flower tat to honor the Hindu god Shiva… then I’d say God isn’t pleased with your tat (and that’s really just common sense… based on the first and second commandments). In the book of Revelation we see something similar with the Mark of the Beast (Revelation 13:16-17), to get THAT tat you are permanently marking your body saying that, “I belong to Satan.” So God’s definitely against that… but in those cases I think your bigger problem is your heart that that is living in rebellion to God, not the ink in your skin.

This command in Leviticus doesn’t forbid EVERY kind of cutting and tattoo, only those that are in service to false gods. Because this verse alone doesn’t forbid all tattoos/ body modification, etc. some people appeal to the New Testament where the Apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth that their bodies are the “Temple of the Living God” (1 Cor. 3:17, 1 Cor. 6:19, 2 Cor. 6:16). The logic follows that if your body is the temple of God, then you shouldn’t mark it up with tattoos (or any body-modification for that matter). The problem is that none of those passages actually say anything like that. In context they say, “God doesn’t need a temple like pagan God’s because you’re the temple.” “Don’t sleep around because if effects you more than you think.” And “Don’t worship false idols, it’s absurd to put an idol in the temple to the one true God.” … Nothing about body modification/ tattoo’s, stitches, heart surgery, stints, pacemakers, braces, fillings, etc…. “Your body is a temple” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misquoted passages of scripture. Seldom do I ever hear it quoted in context, most often it is used to beat someone up.

I actually have it on good authority that God is pro body modification. Every little Jewish boy around 8 days old got a permanent cut called circumcision. The difference was that this cut (body modification) was at the hands of someone else and it was to honor God (not an idol). The first big argument in the church was actually whether or not the church was supposed to force new converts to get this cut. In fact some people were going around saying, “you’re not a real Christian unless you have this painful body modifying cut done.” Check it out for yourself in Acts 15.

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
(Acts 15:1-5 ESV)

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”(Acts 15:19-21 ESV)

So do you see what is going on here? Someone is going around saying that unless you get the permanent mark on your body, you cannot be saved! (Sounds like a twisted parallel to the message my student heard, “you can’t have a tat and be saved”).  Indeed somebody else stands up and points back to the law of Moses (the law of Moses included the first 5 books of the Old Testament, including the book of Leviticus). The council makes a distinction here and says rather than forcing them to keep all of our customs and laws (which were peculiar to them as a nation), we are going to separate the national law from the moral law… The only thing we ask of someone who converts to Christianity is that they act morally.

This is very important by the way because someone one day is going to take something obscure out of the Old Testament Jewish rituals (which I think all foreshadow Jesus and are worth understanding) and say, “Why do you eat shellfish when they are unclean, or do you wear clothes made out of two types of fabric, etc when the bible says you shouldn’t.” The answer is easy and simple… because I’m not a Jew. God doesn’t require us to do that. Acts 15 tells the story.

I think in the same freedom afforded you to eat bacon affords you the freedom to get a tattoo provided you don’t get one as an act of worship to a false god or idol. I think you would need to ask yourself the question, “Does this honor God?”

For the record. I don’t have tats. I don’t plan on getting any. I don’t want my kids to have them (until they are out on their own and they can make their own decisions)… but all for extra biblical reasons and as a point of personal preference.  Read carefully, I have not made a case for why you should get a tattoo, only that what you have on your skin does not indicate what has or has not happened in your heart. The real body modification that needs to take place for all of us is in the heart (Deut. 30:6, Romans 2:29).

Something you should know about karma

So it’s become REALLY popular to talk about karma in our culture. We hear about “bad karma” and “good karma.” I’ve heard people make threats like “karma is going to get you.” I even had one friend tell me that he believed in karma because it offered a sense of justice. I countered that karma seems like its about justice when we see the bad guys suffer, but it looks a lot different when the bad guys see you suffer.

You see, karma is more than classical “cause and effect” or “sowing and reaping.”  It is a fatalistic understanding of the “universe,” in that those who suffer deserve their suffering because of the evil they have done in the past.  Inversely those who prosper have earned their prosperity due to the good they have done in the past.  This is certainly more than “what goes around, comes around,” especially when it is applied children. I mean pause for a moment to think about kids suffering with leukemia.  Do they deserve that? Karma says they do. What about children born into poverty who die of preventable diseases? You see in some places around the world, a belief in karma enables people to pass by those who are suffering and call it “justice” for the sins committed in past lives.

If you haven’t guessed already, I don’t believe in karma.  But I serve a growing population of young people who do “believe” in karma, at least on a surface level.  Most when challenged to lay the blame somewhere for children with leukemia come up woefully short and hopefully abandon the scheme.  The problem is that it is marketed on the show’s they watch.  (Turn on the TV tonight, pick a random sitcom and see how long it takes for the word “Karma” to pop up… It will happen more often than you think.) And while marketed, it is often presented in terms of “what goes around, comes around.”

In a sense, karma IS about justice.  The real problem is when it crosses over to answering why injustice happens in the world.  The night I typed this, there was a man on the news who killed his kids.  Karma says he’ll get what is coming to him.  However, it also says that those kids got what was coming to them as well.  But then you have to ask, “What did they do?” A belief in karma indicates that they must have done something terrible in a previous life. Karma answers injustice by calling it justice for something done previously.  Ultimately in the system of Karma, injustice does not exist.  We all get what we deserve.

Does a man reap what he sows? … sometimes, but that isn’t karma.  That’s more like a law of nature, not of life.   If you mess with a bee you, you might get stung.  If you plant and cultivate and apple orchard, you might get apples.  But if someone attacks me for my apples, nobody is reaping what they sowed… It’s injustice.  Isn’t it about time that we put karma aside and look at true justice which comes from God the giver of life and the avenger of those who have been wronged. (Romans 12:19).

If you have a chance read John 9 where Jesus refutes his disciples understanding of karma.

Sex, Tatoos and Resurection (A Theology of the Body)

I was challenged and inspired by my pastor’s sermon last year. While dealing with the issues of the heart he also took time to address body posture in worship.  We often as Western thinkers have a tendency to set up a false dichotomy between body and soul. (As if our soul were just a mere part of us or though our body were just an extension of who we really are.)

We tend to gloss over the way scripture speaks of the body opting instead to think of our bodies as “earth suits” instead of an indivisible aspect of who we are. However, from Genesis to Revelation we are reminded that we are very much physical beings with bodies that interact in a physical world. We are made from the dust as physical beings and that will forever impact how we interact. And “forever” is not an exageration. The gospel demands a physical body. Jesus was born of a virgin, crucified for our sins, buried, raised from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and now sits at the right hand of the father making intercession for us.  We believe in a bodily resurrection.  Disembodied souls aren’t a Christian notion.

Our bodies were given us to enjoy and celebrate God’s creation. That’s why we get to enjoy eating apples and the gift of sex inside of marriage. Our bodies were given to us to worship God… Posturing our bodies in worship is a natural expression of who we are and who we were made to be.   Indeed without posturing ourselves to God we can miss the full benefits of corporate or private worship. Before you get upset, please understand that kneeling has been understood as a right response to God for ages and so has raising your hands. It’s not a new thing, it’s actually a very old thing.

I think we miss intimacy with God when we fail to worship him fully with our bodies. But that is so much more than just raising your hands to your favorite Christian anthem. Worship with your body also involves discipline like making sure you’re well rested on Saturday night before Sunday’s service. It means withholding food for short periods of time as a fast to submit my will to God. It involves the taste and sensory experience of the bread and wine for the Lord’s supper.

Listed below are a few resources that have helped develop my  theology of the body.