The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-1692
As a college student I was required to take a course on the arts called "Man and the Arts” and I hated it. College students have a vicious habit of renaming courses and due to many of the paintings and statues covered in the class this one was derisively called ‘Man and his Parts.”
As I’ve grown older I’ve developed a love for religious art. My favorite painting is Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas painted in 1601-1602. Caravaggio himself was no saint. Four years after he completed this painting he was sent into exile for killing a man over a tennis match.
I just purchased a reproduction of this painting for the Narthex of our church. The bodily resurrection of Christ is a core belief of Christianity. There are so many things that intrigue me about this painting. I love the realism of the painting, the fact that Caravaggio chose to focus on the humanity of Jesus portraying Christ without a halo or the ephemeral glow that some artists used.
Nicknamed “Doubting Thomas,” St. Thomas doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He is a rational man carefully considering something as totally irrational and unfathomable as a resurrection. Faith hasn’t always come easy for me. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the virgin birth or possibility of resurrection. In this painting Jesus is actually carefully guiding Thomas’ finger into the wound on his side. Rather than rejecting Thomas for his doubts, Jesus helps him to believe. While Thomas may be the only disciple who actually admitted his doubts, two other unnamed disciples look over his shoulder also looking for proof that something so hard to believe could actually be true.
The other story that comes to mind is the account in Mark 9 of a man who asks Jesus to save his son from life threatening convulsions. What parent can’t identify with the man’s agony and desperation. Jesus asks him if he believes that he can heal his son and the man replies “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Jesus then heals his son showing that he’s okay with weak faltering faith. I often find myself praying in the spirit of this man’s honest plea for help. Doubt isn’t the enemy. It’s simply a door some of us must go through on our way to faith.
The poscast, produced by Mike Cosper of Christianity Today, follows the trajectory of Mark Driscoll, a tremendously gifted speaker and visionary whose character flaws overwhelmed him and then destroyed his network of churches, many of which have reemerged with healthier leadership models.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned so far from this podcast.
Pastors need to be teachers and shepherds, not CEOS. This is not to say that an effective pastor doesn’t need organizational skills and a compelling vision, but first and foremost pastors need to be teachers and shepherds. There are gifted pastors who have strong character, the ability to teach, a shepherd’s heart, and the skills of a CEO. Many such pastors build large churches that have far reaching influence for the Kingdom of Heaven. But other pastors are tremendously successful, not because they are wired to be pastors but because they are programmed to be CEOS. They succeed because they know how to articulate vision, sell products, and build organizations. These kinds of pastors often have seasons, sometimes very long seasons, of what appears to be very successful ministry. I have no doubt that things of great spiritual significance occur at their churches, but all too often they end in tragic meltdowns that bruise scores of their followers and tarnish the reputation of Christ.
Pastors need to be kind and gentle. Driscoll was an amazing communicator, at times a great teacher, at times a tender shepherd, and at times a tyrant. There was an underlying meanness that couldn’t he couldn’t hold at bay. Scripture (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6- 9) says that they shouldn’t be quarrelsome, conceited, arrogant, given to violence, or quick-tempered. Conversely, Paul wrote that pastors needed to be gentle, temperate, patient, and models of self-control.
Pastors need accountability. Good pastors are servants, not Kings. They serve rather than rule. Jesus told his disciples that whoever wanted to be great among them must become a servant. Servants don’t place themselves over others, rather they arrange themselves under others. In nearly every story like Discoll’s of spectacular collapses in ministry there is a history of a lack of accountability.
God doesn’t give up on people and I pray that God will act redemptively so that the skills of people like Driscoll and many others can once again be used to advance Christ’s kingdom and draw people to Jesus. I also pray for God’s protection in my own ministry because the sins that led to the downfall of others live in my heart as well.
I hadn’t heard of critical race theory (CRT) until a year ago when a pastor in another community reached out to me fearing the loss of his job over critical race theory. He had given a sermon acknowledging the existence of systemic racism and his board pushed back demanding that he publicly denounce critical race theory. At the time I thought it was an odd isolated event. Boy was I wrong! Opposition to critical race theory has become a litmus test for political and in some cases, theological orthodoxy. I’d like to suggest two poor reasons for Christians to oppose critical race theory.
The first is a lack of awareness about what it is. It’s the latest in a long series of philosophical boogey men used to motivate or distract Christians. It’s used to motivate us to connect with a certain political agenda, or to distract us from things of much greater importance, for example, addressing issues of social injustice. It’s similar to attaching the labels “socialist” or “communist” to something. We may not understand whatever it is that they are opposing but we experience a knee jerk reaction against the terms used to describe it. It’s a form of rehashed McCarthyism. Once the label sticks the argument is over. This trick has been in place since the days of FDR as a way of ginning up opposition to the policy initiatives of Democrats. I think it is fair game to question or oppose the policies of either party but they should be honest discussions based on the merits of the policy, not on scare tactics and red herring.
Critical race theory is an academic or legal framework that has been around for about 40 years. It’s a concept used to show how discriminatory practices become incorporated into many of our social institutions, sometimes even unintentionally. Take sentencing laws for cocaine use as an example. “Crack” is the form of cocaine most likely used by members of the black community due to the fact that it is relatively inexpensive. Federal law requires a mandatory 5 year sentence for anyone caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine. Powdered cocaine of the form preferred by most white users. It takes 500 grams of powdered cocaine to get the same sentence. This sentencing disparity has all sorts of negative consequences for black families, one of which is the high incarceration rate of young black men adding to the number of single parent households living beneath the line of poverty. There are similar examples of systemic racism in housing laws, banking practices, and access to a number of government subsidies.
Opponents of critical race theory have equated it with “hating America” or “accusing all whites of being racist. While this may be true of some people who use or promote critical race theory, it’s not endemic to the theory itself. One can love America and still be honest enough to acknowledge that there are areas where we have room to improve. The concept stated in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” is a noble aspiration that we should all aspire to, but we need to be honest about the fact that some of the same signers produced a constitution that counted black slaves as only three-fifths of a human being.
The second reason for opposing critical race theory is so that we can ignore our responsibility to correct injustices wherever we find them. People of faith have a moral duty to care for people who are marginalized. Jesus announced his earthly ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah’s clarion call for justice. He stood up in the temple, opened a scroll to Isaiah and read,“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) In Matthew 25, Jesus clearly stated when we address the needs of people who are oppressed it is as though we are helping him directly. Conversely, he also made it clear that to ignore matters of injustice is as serious as turning a cold shoulder to Christ himself.
For Christians, and people of all faiths, critical race theory isn’t something to be opposed. It’s something to be understood and used to create a more just world.
In the Gospel of Luke (chapter 18) Jesus tells a story about a destitute widow who had experienced a grave injustice. In the culture of her day women weren't typically allowed to plead their case in court. When women such as this had problems a male family member had to go before the judge to present their case. The fact this woman went before the judge all by herself indicated that she was all alone with no one to speak on her behalf.
Jesus tells us two things about the judge. He doesn't respect God and he doesn't care about people. Those are the two motivations for a judge to render a just decision, but in this case he has no incentive to render a just judgement. He's a selfish, narcissistic leader with no reason to come to the woman's defense.
But she wears him down by coming before him day after day begging for justice against her adversary, and the corrupt judge finally relents and grants her request.
This is a parable of contrast. It's also called a lesser/greater parable, if this lesser thing is true, how much more is this greater things true.
Luke tells us up front what the parable is about. "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up." Luke pairs the following two ideas together, never give up and always pray.
Jesus closes the parable with these words. "And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
If an unjust judge responds to a plea for justice because a destitute widow wears him down, how much more will our loving heavenly father hear our cries against the injustices in our word.
Facing injustice? Always pray. Don't give up.
In response to those who insist on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese-virus, Eugene Cho, the incoming President of Bread for the World, an evangelical organization that lives out the Bible’s commission to care for the poor, recently tweeted:
This is not acceptable. Calling it the “Chinese virus” only instigates blame, racism, and hatred against Asians—here and abroad. We need leadership that speaks clearly against racism; Leadership that brings the nation and world together. Not further divides.
Here are four reasons why I urge followers of Christ not to call COVID-19 the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus.”
The most obvious reason is that the virus already has a name that is widely accepted and recognized around the world. It’s not as though we need to come up with something to call it so that people will know what we are talking about. We use names to identify things, and since this disease is easily identified by its official name, those who insist on calling it the “Chinese” virus must have some other purpose for doing so. I fear that it is usually a thinly veiled effort to make a political point, to infuse our shared struggle with racist division, or to align oneself with a political movement rather than an effort to identify the illness.
Let us consider the ideals inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. The inscription is taken from the The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus, in which she personifies America as:“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles.”
It’s especially interesting to note the context in which the poem was written. Lazarus penned the poem in 1884, one year after the Chinese Exclusion act of 1883.
Lazarus’s vision of America resonated with Ronald Reagan, a president once adored by the very constituency that now insists on blaming China for this virus. In a speech given on the eve of his first election he said: “I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining city on a hill, as were those long ago settlers … These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still a shining city on a hill.”
This wasn’t just a passing theme in his bid for election; Reagan came back to this ideal in his farewell speech to the nation, saying: "I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese” virus stigmatizes the very people being welcomed by Lazarus and Reagan. I love the America that embodies their vision.
These aren’t just patriotic ideals; they were, in Lazarus’ case, Jewish, and in my case, Christian, ideals. They are values that reflect the teaching of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus.
Using “Chinese” to identify COVID-19 isn’t unChristian in the sense that anyone who has used this phrase can’t be a Christian, but in the sense that it doesn’t comport to the teachings and example of Jesus. It doesn’t line up with the vision he proposed for life in the Kingdom of Heaven; nor with the manner in which he called his people to live. The issue isn’t can I use this term; the issue is should I use this term—does using it reflect the heart of Jesus?
The term “shining city on a hill” isn’t merely a patriotic or political phrase, it’s a reference to the words of Jesus, who in his most important sermon said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Clarifying what it means to be a shining city on a hill, Christ added, “In the same way [that a city on a hill casts a welcoming light], let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” The point that Jesus is making is that by doing good deeds we help people find their way into the Kingdom of Heaven. The heavenly city in Christ’s mind is a place where strangers are greeted as family, and where even our enemies are loved (Matthew 5:43-47).
It’s unhelpful to the Gospel
COVID-19 is an opportunity for Christians to exemplify selfless love and to attract people to the gospel message of Jesus Christ: a message of selfless love, forgiveness, and redemption. We need to rid our language and behavior of racism such as this and anything that makes it more difficult for people to come to Christ, as well as anything that makes it more difficult for us to come to Christ.
I think that the current situation with COVID-19 offers Christians a wonderful opportunity to point a frightened world to Jesus Christ, and to offer them his comfort. I urge followers of Christ not to use language that may defeat this purpose. Let us aspire to the words of the Psalmist who wrote, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
* A version of this post was published by Red Letter Christians
I’m doing a series on tough issues facing the church in the decade ahead. Last week our topic was Truth in an Age of Disinformation. Who’d have thought that a 30 minute sermon on the ultimate nature of truth in the universe would be so hard to do? It’s a deeply philosophical topic and I am not a deeply philosophical person. I only remember one thing from the philosophy class that I took in college. One day the professor, a wise old man revered on campus, looked out the window and in a very somber tone asked, “What makes a cow a cow?” Then he answered his own question, “Cow-ness.” I grew up on a farm where we raised a few cattle and I already understood the nature of cows. I got a “C” in the class.
That being said, my approach to this topic is more practical than philosophical.
My question was, “How do we know what is true in a world that bombards us with disinformation?”
I always identify the “big ideas” of my messages up front and for this message I settled on two.
Philosophical Big idea: God is the source of truth and he will help us to know it.
Practical Big Idea: We need to have our guard up to disinformation, and form our opinions based on what is actually true.
Some think that we are entering a major new era in history similar to the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment. They call the new era an era of post-truth. In 2016, The Oxford Dictionary picked “post-truth” as the word of the year, its usage increasing by 2000% in 2016 alone. The definition of the post-truth era is a time when objective facts are less influential in shaping our opinions than emotion, ideology, or personal belief.” It’s time that coined the term, gaslighting, burying people in misinformation.
This is the air that we breathe. How do we as Christians live in a post-truth world?
Some Practical Advice
Understand the tendency for emotions to obscure facts. The more emotional we are, the harder it becomes for us to perceive facts and allow them to shape our opinions.
Understand confirmation bias, the tendency to seek information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. A 2016 study by PEW Research analyzed 376 million Facebook users’ and their interactions with over 900 news outlets. The study confirmed that we seek news outlets that confirm our existing beliefs, and discount facts or news that challenge our views.
Learn to recognize disinformation. The BBC interviewed a panel of 50 experts about the major challenges of the 21st century and many of them named the “breakdown of trusted information sources” as one of the biggest challenges facing the world. Much of this misinformation is designed to incite our emotions and obscure the truth. Cable news. social media, talk radio, and even Russia are appealing to our emotions, not to do what is best for us, but to do what is best for them.
The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Russian attempts to sow discord and division in the United States found that 2016 alone, Russia generated 3,400 Facebook and Instagram advertisements, over 61,500 Facebook posts, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 10.4 million tweets, to deceive and divide us.
As an example of the impact of false information PEW cited a fake news story about the death of a CEO which caused market value of his company to drop by $4 billion.
The onslaught of disinformation is fueled by bots, software that interacts with the internet to feed us information, including misinformation, that conforms to our preexisting opinions and interests. The Intelligencer reported that over 60% of all internet activity in non-human, clicks generated by bots.
Snopes, FactCheck, and PolitiFact are great sites for testing the accuracy of sensational claims found online or in social media.
Don’t share sensational information that you can’t verify. Did you know that Bill Nuy the Science guy got arrested for selling drugs to children? NOT. False stories like this spread like wildfire on the internet.
According to a study by MIT of 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, “Falsehoods almost always beat out the truth on Twitter, penetrating further, faster, and deeper into the social network than accurate information.” In fact, they found that false stories reach 1,500 people 6X faster than true stories.
Just this week a FaceBook “friend” posted an article falsely claiming that Christianity Today is funded by George Soros. Another example of fake news that spreads rapidly online. The same is true of a picture of a Congresswoman supposedly receiving training in a terrorist camp, another story shared by a friend that is easily debunked.
Sharing obviously incendiary material about a person or organization is bearing false witness, a sin making God’s top ten list, wait, make that the top six!
Biblical Principles Related to the Living in a Post Truth Era
God is the source of truth. Truth does exist and God is its source. In John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Suppressing the truth messes us up. In Romans 1:18-25, Paul writes “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness….They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”
It is possible for us to suppress the truth and when we do it always leads to destruction and disobedience. In the case of Romans 1, it led to idolatry and all that went with it.
Embracing truth sets us free. The following verses attest to the fact that there is freedom in accepting what is true.
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31,32
We can discover God’s truth by:
Praying for guidance.
“Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior and my hope is in you all day long.” Psalm 25:4-5
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1:5
Studying our world
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” Psalm 19:1,2
“And the heavens proclaim His righteousness.” Psalm 50:6
“...since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” Romans 1:19, 20
Reading the Bible
“The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.” Psalm 111:7
“All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.” Ps 119:160
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” John 17:17
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” IITimothy 3:16
Listening to the Holy Spirit
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:12,13
Following Jesus Christ. John 1:14,18:37; 1 John 3:18
“ ...speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ...” Ephesians 4:15
Jesus answered, ”...the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” John 18:37
“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” I John 3:18
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
Next Week's Message Polarization & the Age of Outrage
Jesus taught that our attitudes and actions toward immigrants reflect our attitudes and actions toward him. In the Gospel of Matthew (25:35-46) Jesus said “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Stranger is the New Testament word for foreigner or immigrant. He makes this statement in a way that should be a wake up call to Christians.
His point is that how we treat immigrants is among the most important measures or our righteousness.
Those who heard his words were puzzled. They asked, “Jesus, when were you an immigrant, and when did we invite you in?”
Jesus responded, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.”
Then Jesus shifts his eyes to a group he refers to as “the cursed” and says “Depart from me...I was a stranger and you did not invite me in.” He condemns this group to eternal punishment but offers the previous group eternal life.
I don’t believe this passage teaches that deportation is always an act of evil, and I certainly don’t believe that all who disagree with me are bound for eternal punishment. But I strongly believe that Jesus is paying close attention to our attitudes toward immigrants, and that he considers our attitudes toward immigrants to be our attitudes toward him. We know this to be the case because he said so.
As our culture wrestles with how to fix our broken immigration policy, Christians should be mindful of the words of Jesus. We should insist upon an approach that treats immigrants the way we would treat Jesus.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Wow, it's been way too long since I've taken time to post. I'm trying to develop a healthier lifestyle and that has involved time on the treadmill. An unexpected benefit has been the discovery of some great podcasts. My two favorites are Theology in the Raw by Preston Sprinkle and Q Podcasts with Gabe Lyons.
"This blog is my way of connecting with people at Central and beyond to encourage them to make their space in the world more like Heaven."
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog reflect my thoughts and opinions as an individual, not the formal positions of our church. Central includes people with a wide range of opinions on important issues like those addressed in my posts. It is also a place where we can discuss these issues with civility and grace.