Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

There is a new cultural apologetic that is fast becoming the go-to argument to ensure affirmation and approval of previously immoral activities.  And it is an argument taken straight from the Bible:

Love.

Without a doubt, love is the ultimate ethic.  We are told that the greatest commandment is to love (Deuteronomy 6), and when asked, Jesus agreed it was the greatest of all commandments (Mark 12). 

By now we are all familiar with how homosexuality and gay marriage shifted the entire cultural debate by making it about the affirmation of loving relationships.  Two blogs ago I detailed the argument made by pedophiles in favor of pedophilia, namely that it was a “loving” act.

Now enter assisted suicide.

Consider the following headline from National Public Radio:  “How a Woman’s Plan to Kill Herself Helped Her Family Grieve.”  Now, before we go any further, what is the obvious slant?  Her assisted suicide was all about her concern for others, and the feelings of others.  It was all about,

…love.

The woman featured in the story was diagnosed with Alzheimers.  She decided to end her life before it took hold  - a “collective experience that [she and her husband] and the people they loved all went through together.”  A memorial service, of sorts, was held on the front end.

“It was just so obvious that this is about as good as it gets for a human exit,” her daughter said.  “She was surrounded by everyone who loved her, they were telling her how and why they loved her.  This was not a bad way to go.”

Two days later her mother went into a bathroom and drank a drug overdose.

Speaking of her mother’s death, her daughter added, “It made it less like a grieving process and less like a sort of horrible thing that had happened, and more like something that made sense and felt right and actually had some joy to it in its own way.”

Let’s bracket off death for a moment, though suffice it to say it should never be sanitized in such a way as being anything less than the evil it is.  It is horrible.  Alzheimer's is horrible.  The fall of humanity and all of creation is horrible. 

And, of course, life is not ours to take.  Not through the murder of others, or the murder of ourselves.  All life is sacred, and we are not the Lord of life – not even our own.

Let’s also bracket off the joy that can come from serving someone, to the end, who has Alzheimer's.  I’ve seen this, up close and personal.  My father-in-law cared for my wife’s mother to the end through the ravages of this disease, and horrific and trying as it was, there was more beauty in his love and care for her than anything I have ever witnessed.  And now, some time after she has passed, if you were to ask him, he wouldn’t trade a day of it.

But let’s do talk about love.

The problem with using the idea of love to affirm homoerotic behavior, to redefine marriage and family, to justify pedophilia or assisted suicide is that it isn’t really “love” that we’re talking about.

At least, not the biblical idea of love.

The Christian idea of love is not simply an emotional state or feeling.  It is the turning of a heart away from self and toward another in a way that is filled with empathy and affection, grace and truth, selflessness and sacrifice. 

But that’s not all.  Any and all such horizontal extensions of love flow from its vertical moorings, which is love for God.  That love is described plainly in the great “Shema” passage of the Old Testament (called that because the opening line, “Hear,” is the Hebrew word “shema”).

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:4, NIV)

As mentioned above, Jesus used that very text to affirm the greatest commandment for human life.  When asked which is the greatest commandment, this was the reply:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31, NIV)

Love for others is rooted in love for God.  We love God with all of our hearts, souls, mind and strength, and from that, our neighbor.  But if we “love” our neighbor in a way that is antithetical to a love for God and His commands, then it is no love we show.  Such love is mere sentimentality, adrift from truth, driven by the uncertain and often deceptive waves of emotion.  In the end, it is simply whatever we “feel.”

So applaud the new cultural apologetic in that it is talking about love.

But then add to the conversation by defining it.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“How a Woman’s Plan to Kill Herself Helped Her Family Grieve,” Alix Spiegel, National Public Radio, June 23, 2014, read online.

“Religious leaders unite to condemn assisted dying law,” John Bingham, The Telegraph, July 15, 2014, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

A Vision for the Arts

*Editors Note: Before he left on his summer study break, the director of the Arts team at Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), Kristina Gray, asked Dr. White if he would tape a message for a gathering of artists they were planning later that summer. Unscripted and in a single take, he shared from his heart in a way that ended up deeply moving the arts community at Meck. We thought you would enjoy reading the transcript of what Dr. White recorded.

Kristina asked me to bring a word to you, as part of the arts team, and left it wide open for whatever I wanted to say. But really to encourage you and let you know how much I appreciate you and…so…that was an easy assignment.

You know, back even before Meck got started one of the aspects of the founding vision was that  it would be a community of artists and that the arts would be celebrated, would be put forward, would be used.

There was an old, old, old song called “Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?” and there is a sense where the church used to be the patron of the arts. All the way through the Middle Ages and such.

And then somewhere along the line we kind of got screwed up and we began to give the arts back to the world. And the church got stripped of it and it became just four walls and a Bible.

Well, four walls and a Bible is fine but we lost all of the arts: we lost dance, we lost music, we lost painting, we lost the aesthetics that are done with lighting and sound. We lost the arts – it’s like we gave it away.

And yet the arts are arguably (in terms of film, video and all that) the strongest way to convey a message to our world today. More so now than ever.

In my book, The Rise of the Nones, I talk about how there’s a shift (and I’m not alone in this) in our culture back to the Medieval in some ways. In the Medieval era people were spiritually illiterate, paganism abounded, they were biblically illiterate; and because of that, there needed to be new ways to reach them.

And so what you find in the great cathedrals throughout Europe is extensive use of stained glass. And when you see the stained glass it tells the story – sometimes all the way from creation through the end of time. Because that was the only way people could “get it.” And I’ve argued that I think that the arts today is the stained glass of the church.

You tell the story in a way that people who are spiritually and biblically illiterate “get it.” Through video, through a song, through light, through dance, through drama, through…well the arts are almost limitless.

That’s how it’s gonna happen.

And I tell you, you sneak past the defenses of the heart a lot quicker and easier than I ever will. And the other thing that you do is that even if that’s not the task at hand for that particular day or service, by the time you get through doing what you do collectively, I’ve often likened it to moving the ball all the way down the field to the 2 yard line. And then when I get the ball at the 2 yard line almost any idiot can score from there.

And so you’re the ones that moved it down the field that far. And I so appreciate you.

And I’ll tell you something else that I love about our team: I travel a lot and I see a lot of artists, a lot of named artists, and it can be disillusioning. And I’ve been in a lot of churches and seen what the artist community is like; and I’m so proud of our team. So proud of how Kristina has led and others have led but here’s what I love:

We have always valued character over talent.

Now, I would put our talent against anybody. But that’s not what matters most to us. And so when I can be sitting there in a service or rehearsal, and I see somebody at a camera or somebody singing a song or somebody in a sound booth and I know they walk with Christ;

…and I know they have a character of humility;

…and I know they’ve got a towel draped over their arm;

…and I know they gave up time from work or whatever to be there;

…and I know that when they’re singing those words or doing whatever it is that they’re doing that it’s sincere and authentic;

…and when I see somebody doing drums;

…and I know that they’re drumming for Jesus;

…I mean, I know it;

Oh my gosh.

That’s what really makes something anointed. That’s when I think that God gives it a special dose of His presence. I think it’s one of the reasons we’re growing so fast and changing so many lives. It’s why you can walk out of every baptism service and you can see all those people being baptized and you can feel like that’s the fruit of your labor.

Because it is.

It’s the fruit of all of our labor and nobody’s more important than somebody else. I mean the person who’s fixing the sound or on the camera or doing the lights or putting up the chairs are just as important as the person singing the solo or doing the guitar rip.

And the other thing I love about you is that you know that too. It really is a team. It’s community.

So…I’m proud of you. I’m so glad we’re doing this together. So glad for the creativity and the freedom we’re all giving each other. And so glad that God is honoring it by changing so many lives.

So that’s all I really have to say. But I for one, am really proud of you. So thanks for letting me talk.

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Freefalling

The widespread cultural debate regarding the morality of homoerotic behavior, not to mention gay marriage, has ended.  Those who remain opposed have had their opposition effectively quarantined to the realm of religious faith and private opinion.

My own views on the matter were laid out in a six-part blog back in 2011, the first of which can be read here with links to the other five on the sidebar as well as at the bottom of each post.

Early on in the debate, the idea of a “slippery slope” was introduced by many, concerned that the arguments being used in favor of the acceptance of homoerotic behavior and gay marriage could be just as easily used for polygamy, bestiality and pedophilia.  After all, once you redefine family into whatever people want it to mean, make “love” or “attraction” the ultimate ethic in terms of appropriate relationship, then you have very little keeping you from applying that to almost any kind of relationship.

This caused an outrage on the other side, who said in no uncertain terms that this was reprehensible to even consider.

Yet we now know that soon after gay marriage began its victory lap through the courts, cases advocating polygamy – using virtually the same arguments that the courts had accepted for gay marriage – became legion.

And yes, now comes the wave to accept pedophilia. 

Consider this statement:

“Pedophilic interest is natural and normal for human males.  At least a sizeable minority of normal males would like to have sex with children…Normal males are aroused by children.”

This statement did not come from some fringe group easily dismissed by either side.  It was “one of the central claims of an academic presentation delivered, at the invitation of the organizers, to many of the key experts in the field at a conference held by the University of Cambridge.”

Yes, Cambridge.

Other presentations included, but were not limited to, “Liberating the pedophile; a discursive analysis,” and “Danger and difference: the stakes of hebephilia.”

(*Hebephilia is the sexual preference for children in very early puberty, typically 11 to 14-year-olds.)

Little wonder that one of the attendees, Tom O’Carroll – a multiple child sex offender and long–time campaigner for the legalization of sex with children and former head of the Paedophile Information Exchange – wrote later on his blog, “Wonderful!  It was a rare few days when I could feel relatively popular!”

As Andrew Gilligan of the Telegraph noted, amid all of the concern over child sex abuse in the Eighties, “unnoticed amid the furor is a much more current threat: attempts, right now, in parts of the academic establishment to push the boundaries on the acceptability of child sex.”  As Gilligan notes, “With the Pill, the legalization of homosexuality and shrinking taboos against premarital sex, …[to some] sex by children [is] just another repressive boundary to be swept away.”

Their argument?  See if this in any way sounds familiar. 

Ken Plummer, emeritus professor of sociology at Essex University, says “The isolation, secrecy, guilt and anguish of many pedophiles are not intrinsic to the phenomen[on] but are derived from the extreme social repression placed on minorities.”

Wait, there’s more language you might find familiar:

“Pedophiles are told they are the seducers and rapists of children; they know their experiences are often loving and tender ones.  They are told that children are pure and innocent, devoid of sexuality; they know both from their own experiences of childhood and from the children they meet that this is not the case.”

And here’s the final bit of the argument:

“…’childhood’ itself is not a biological given but an historically produced social object.”

So let’s recap:

*pedophilia is a normal urge for some people so it shouldn’t be condemned

*outlawing sex with children is just a repressive, discriminatory boundary

*it’s okay if it’s within the bounds of a loving relationship

*the children involved are consenting, so anything consensual is acceptable

*childhood itself is a social construct, just like marriage, and therefore is not subject to any transcendent rules or safeguards

Stunned?

So was I.

But I was equally stunned by something else.

I was stunned by the lack of outrage from the very people who expressed outrage that the arguments they used in favor of the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage were being used to promote pedophilia. 

But then again, how could they? 

It was, after all, their argument.

But I am prepared to say they were right about one thing.

There wasn’t a moral slippery slope created by the redefinition of acceptable human sexual behavior, marriage and family. 

We’re not slipping.

We’re freefalling.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“’Paedophilia is natural and normal for males’: How some university academics make the case for pedophiles at  summer conferences,” Andrew Gilligan, The Telegraph, July 5, 2014, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

A Spiritually Transformed Life

I was whipping through the channels on the radio one night as I was driving home from a long and tiring day when I came upon one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard. It had a different feel than most music, with tin whistles and guitars and mandolins and accordions, and certainly a vocal with a different accent. Its name was "The Valley of Strathmore," and it was performed by the Scottish band Silly Wizard. When the soothing, lovely voice of a young woman named Fiona Ritchie came on the air, I learned I was listening to Thistle and Shamrock, a syndicated radio show which specialized in Celtic music. I've never been the same since.

Celtic music led me to Celtic history, Celtic history led me to Celtic spirituality, and Celtic spirituality led me to Celtic pilgrimages: the rocky crags of Skellig Michael rising seven hundred feet out of the North Atlantic off the coast of Ireland; the Holy Island of Lindisfarne rising out of the North Sea off the Northumberland coast of England.

The most important was to Iona. I want you to take that particular pilgrimage with me.

The five-hour drive from Glasgow to the Isle of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful trips you will ever experience. Driving past Loch Lomond and into the highlands, before cutting west to the coast via ferries and one-lane roads, will bring you face-to-face with explosions of mountains marked by countless waterfalls pouring off their sides, cascading into valleys of vivid green. When you come to the Hebrides, you see that green run straight into the bright blue of the sea - no transition, no melting into each other - just side by side in stark, beautiful contrast, leading to countless islands built of jutting rock serving as tiny sanctuaries of land and hill.

As I boarded the ferry for the final leg of my journey, a short cross over the water with Iona and its medieval ruins in full view, it was as if I were crossing over into another world. I felt a kinship to the place, as I did when I first stepped out on to the moors of England. Indeed the two places do not seem dissimilar. Both separate you from the world. The sky envelops you, the wind runs wild and free, and you are thrust before God and God alone.

Iona is, for me, a spiritual place.

It feels like you are standing on the edge of the world, alone with your spirit before the Spirit, in nature's great monastery where buildings are only a part of the cloister. But why is this small island, only three miles long and half as wide, set apart from all others for pilgrims such as us? Because of one man, and the community he unleashed. Columba came to Iona from Ireland in 563. Although related to one of the ruling families of Ireland, Columba left his native land and founded the famed monastery of Iona. Columba brought Christianity to much of Britain, and according to Adomnan's Life of St. Columba - written by Adomnan, the ninth abbot, on Iona before his death in 704 - was purported to work such miracles as calming storms and raising the dead. By the time of Columba's death, sixty monastic communities had been founded throughout Scotland. It is said that Columba left Ireland for Iona to make penance for a conflict he felt responsible for instigating that resulted in over three thousand deaths, with the hopes of reaching an equal number for Christ. He succeeded.

After Columba's death, pilgrims made their way to Iona, specifically to visit the shrine of Columba, which can still be entered to this day: a little stone building just to the side of the west door of the restored abbey. They would also come to see the large standing crosses, now iconic to Celtic Christianity, with their deep engravings carved into the stone and the circle around the arms. The crosses actually marked the path to the shrine, with the oldest and most famous of them all, St. John's cross, just outside the entrance.

Columba and his heirs labored from their stronghold on Iona until repeated Viking raids made the treasures of their island too vulnerable to loss. They bought land in Kells, Ireland, and moved their locus of activity there. Yes, the famed "Book of Kells," so associated with Ireland, is actually believed to have been created on Iona. After Columba's spiritual descendants left in the 800s, the abbey fell into disuse until a Benedictine abbey and Augustinian nunnery were established there in 1203. Though built on the site, little of Columba's original church was able to be preserved. This, too, fell into disuse after the Reformation.

Yet pilgrims continue to make the trek to Iona, seeking a sense of spirituality, along with a connection to a vast history of worshiping saints. The island lends itself to that, not least of which through its restored twelfth-century St. Oran's Chapel and the nearby ruins of a similarly aged nunnery. Because of Iona's place in Celtic Christianity, centuries of kings are buried on its grounds, including the famed Duncan and his murderer, Macbeth. You can still see the medieval "Street of Death" that leads from the ferry landing to the abbey where bodies would be carried to their final place of reset. An ecumenical community was founded in 1938 by George Macleod which sought to restore the abbey and reestablish an ongoing worshiping community within its walls, which exists to this day.

When I first went to Iona, I did not know what meaning it would hold for me. I suspected that it would remind me of my affection for the earthy and physical nature of Celtic spirituality. I had a sense that I would resonate with the deep history and ancient nature of the place, particularly its vestiges of medieval life.

All this turned out to be true, but there was something more.

Deeply rooted within Celtic spirituality are what are known as "thin places." The Celts believed that the other (spiritual) world was always close to us, but that it was at these places that the veil between the two worlds - the material and the spiritual - was lifted. Islands were particularly noted for their "thin" nature. "Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle on the crest of a rock, that I may see often the calm of the sea," Columba wrote. "That I may see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course."

Iona is, to me, a "thin" place. And as the symbol of Celtic spirituality to this day, it should be. Avoiding pantheism (the idea that God is everything), as well as panentheism (the belief that God is in everything), the ancient Christian Celts saw God through everything. The reality of God's immanence ran strong and deep within their spirits. A deep awareness of God's presence informed their daily life to such a degree that any moment, and any task, could become the time and place for an encounter with the living God. They simply assumed that God was present, and lived accordingly. Iona brings that presence to bear on all who land on its shores.

After checking into the small inn, one of only two on the island, I would recall the simple but compelling nature of faith the Christian Celts embraced. Consider the daily task of rising and starting their fire. The act would be accompanied by the following prayer,

I will kindle my fire this morning

In presence of the holy angels of heaven.

Then, throughout the day, with every endeavor - from the milking of the cow to the cooking of a meal - the presence of God would be recognized. At the end of the day, when the fire was banked for the night, the last prayerful recognition of God's immanence would be offered:

The sacred Three

To save,

To shield,

To surround,

The hearth,

The house,

The household,

This eve,

This night,

Oh! this eve,

This night,

And every night,

Each single night.

Amen.

To the Celtic soul, God could be seen as revealing himself in every occurrence of life. John Scotus Eriugena (810-877), arguably the greatest thinker the Celtic church produced, liked to speak of the world as God's theophany (the visible appearance or manifestation of God). And this presence, perceived and looked for in everyday life, was deeply personal.

This was the lesson of the Celtic soul: they opened themselves fully to God.

But this was no passive quietism. Iona was the beachhead on which Christianity came to Scotland and Northern England. Yes, Augustine came to Canterbury a few years later, and St. Ninian before either of them, but Columba was the real evangelist. Under his leadership, Iona was never some cloistered community that retreated from the world to contemplate and pray. It was the fortress from which Christianity would assail the world. The contemplation and prayer were the spiritual calisthenics that developed a muscular approach to mission. This raises a significant issue; it is only a spiritually transformed life that will transform the world.

Put another way, if you wish your one and only life to be active in the world, then Christ must be active in you.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

About Dr. James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

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