I feel bad that I haven’t had my teeth cleaned at the dentist in over two years.
I feel worse that that streak comes to an end today.
I feel bad that I haven’t had my teeth cleaned at the dentist in over two years.
I feel worse that that streak comes to an end today.
A Christian understanding of revelation provides a basis for science and it limits science all at the same time.
Because God designed the world to reveal God, the world’s creativity and order can be studied and analyzed. There is an objective universe which can rightly make the subject of evaluation and investigation. There are spiritual truths for us to see in the farthest galaxies and divine disclosure in the smallest quarks.
But because of our own blindness and ignorance we should not think that science answers all our questions. Or even the most important questions. There are some truths, including particular truths about God and salvation and spiritual realities, that require God to speak more clearly.
Science is good and necessary but it is not final or absolute. To know God and his ways we need God to use his words. Science can leave us without excuse, but only the Word can save.
I don’t know if modest is hottest, but I do know that modesty is biblical.
It is one of the marks of the confusion of our age that so many teenagers and young adults are more ashamed to dress with modest reserve than to very nearly undress entirely. Even after we give full throat to the necessary caveats–being pretty (or handsome) is not a sin, working to improve your appearance does not have to be vanity, the line between modest and immodest is not always black and white–we are still left with the undeniable biblical fact that God considers modesty a virtue and its opposite a vice.
Here are five biblical reasons Christians should embrace modesty as a God-designed, God-desired good thing.
1. Modesty protects what is intimate. There is a certain strand of feminism which says women should be proud of their sexual prowess and that any insistence they cover up what they don’t feel like covering up only serves to reinforce patriarchal notions that men have the right to determine what women do with their bodies. But the Bible’s call to modesty is not based on the supposed naughtiness of the female form. God’s good command to cover up is not meant to punish, but to protect. As Wendy Shalit writes, “The pressure on girls today to take sexy selfies comes out of a culture that routinely equates modesty with shame, instead of recognizing it for what it really is: an impulse that protects what is precious and intimate.” The common refrain of the bride–“do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 2:7)–is a call from one woman to a group of single women to save sexual arousal and sexual activity for its proper time, with the proper person, in the proper place.
2. Modesty accepts that our bodies also live in community. What does that mean? It means that while it sounds nice to say, “It’s my body. If I want to let it all hang out, that’s my business.” This is to forget that our bodies exists in a wider network of relationships, just like our speech does, and our actions, our will, and our desires. How we dress is not determined by how others wished we would dress. And yet, it would be sub-Christian to act as if the spiritual state of those around us was inconsequential.
Before going any further, let me state this as clearly as possible: men are responsible for their adultery, for their fornication, for their pornographic viewing, for their lust, and for their (heaven forbid) sexual assault, regardless of how a woman dresses. The Bible does not enjoin modesty on either sex because the opposite sex is simply incapable of keeping its pants on and its thoughts in check. Listen men: if Potiphar’s wife were to barge in and dance a bare-bellied jig on your kitchen table and strip you down to your birthday suit, you would still not be excused in committing adultery with her. The absence of modesty in one party does not justify the absence of restraint in another.
Having said all that, does not the law of love suggest that we should want to avoid enticing others into sin? The phrase “with lustful intent” in Matthew 5:28 is translated by some scholars (D.A. Carson among them): “so as to get her lust.” The meaning, then, instead of being about lust in the man’s heart, would be about the man wanting to get a woman to lust after him. Whether one accepts this minority position or not, it’s still a fair application to think that Jesus’ statement forbids us from having a heart attitude that lusts and a heart attitude that wants to be lusted after. Some people want to see pornography and others want to be pornography. Maybe not in a literal sense, but there are men and women who crave the power, the attention, and the status that comes from being noticed and sought after. This entices others to sin and is in itself sinful.
3. Modesty operates with the Bible’s negative assessment of public nudity post-Fall. From Adam and Eve scrambling for fig leaves (Gen. 3:10), to the dishonorable nakedness of Noah (Gen. 9:21), to the embarrassingly exposed buttocks of David’s men (2 Sam. 10:4), the Bible knows we inhabit a fallen world in which certain aspects of our bodily selves are meant to be hidden. Indeed, this is precisely what Paul presumes when he speaks of “our unpresentable parts” which must be “treated with greater modesty” (1 Cor. 12:23). There’s a reason momma called them private parts.
4. Modesty embraces the strong biblical admonition to refrain from sensuality. Sensuality (Gk: aselgeia) is a distinguishing characteristic of the flesh and one of the marks of the pagan world (Gal. 5:19; Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:21; 2 Pet. 2:2, 18). Does the word give us exact instructions on where good taste trips over into sensuality–how long skirts can be, what sort of bathing suit to wear, or whether beefy men need to run around shirtless when its 60 degrees in Michigan? No. But surely we can agree that it is not uncommon for men and women to dress in ways which only add to the look and feel of our culture’s ubiquitous sensuality. If the word aselgeia suggests sexual excess (TDNT), we would do well to consider whether the desire behind our deportment is to starve this sensual beast or to sate it.
5. Modesty demonstrates to others that we have more important things to offer than good looks and sex appeal. The point of 1 Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3-4 is not an absolute prohibition against trying to look nice. The prohibition is against trying so very hard to look good in all the ways that are so relatively unimportant. The question asked of women in these verses–and it certainly applies to men as well–is this: will you grab people’s attention with hair and jewelry and sexy clothes or will your presence in the room be unmistakable because of your Christlike character? Immodest dress tells the world, “I’m not sure I have anything more to offer than this. What you see is really all you get.”
Let me state the obvious: the Bible has no pictures. There is no inspired how-to manual for getting dressed in the morning. There are matters of culture, conscience, and context which surely come into place. I have no checklist to check off before you head out the door.
But if the Bible is to be believed, this whole business of modesty is not irrelevant to Christian discipleship. Our bodies have been bought with a price. Therefore glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:20). Which means we don’t show everyone everything we might think is worth seeing. And it means we won’t be embarrassed to keep most private those things that are most precious. Shame is a powerful category, in the Bible and in our own day. The key is knowing what things we should actually be ashamed of.
G.K. Chesterton on the miserable state of those who despise what they cannot fully leave behind:
They cannot get out of the penumbra of Christian controversy. They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being Anti-Christians. Their whole atmosphere is the atmosphere of a reaction: sulks, perversity, petty criticism. They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.
Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows now what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. . . . It would be better to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda than to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside and help or to go outside and forget. (The Everlasting Man, 10-12).
The severest critics of Christianity are those who, having walked away from the faith of their younger years, cannot help but camp out in the driveway of orthodoxy and throw bricks at the house they once inhabited.
If you are going to read just one out of print book with a terrible cover this year read C. John Sommerville’s devastating little book How the News Makes Us Dumb (IVP 1999). I read the book soon after it came out. It was wonderfully iconoclastic then–and that was before the ascendancy of the internet and social media. The news examples are hopelessly out of date (they were already in 1999), but the media criticism is as relevant as ever.
Sommerville’s main point is not the news is dumb, but that we are dumb for paying so much attention to it (11). We have become conditioned to think that the really important stuff of life comes to us in a neat 24-hour news cycle. Worse than that, in our mobile-digital age most of us assume that news is happening every second of every minute of every hour of every day, and if we tune out (or turn off our phones) for more than a few hours (minutes?) we will be rendered out of touch and uninformed. That’s dumb.
The solution is not better news, but less of it. The problem is with the nature of news itself. The news is all about information. It’s about what’s trending now. It rarely concerns itself with the big questions of life. It focuses relentlessly on change, which, as Sommerville points out, gives it an inherent bias against conservatism and religious tradition (50-54, 60-62, 135). Our soundbite/twitter/vine/ticker-at-the-bottom-of-the-screen/countdown-clock/special-report culture of news encourage us to miss the forest of wisdom for the triviality of so many trees. As Malcolm Muggeridge once observed: if he had been a journalist in the Holy Land during Jesus’ ministry he probably would have wasted his time digging through Salome’s memoirs (54).
Of course, not all news is pointless. There are long form essays, insightful commentaries, skilled journalistic exposes, striking documentaries–all of these can come under the category of “news” and all of them, when done excellently, can point people to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Sommerville’s not even against the here-today-gone-tomorrow bits of news. Neither am I. The Lord knows–and so does the internet–that I’ve written blog posts on current events before, and every Monday I post two or three minutes of silliness, for no reason except to laugh a little. The news doesn’t have to make us dumb, but if we don’t take the necessary mental and habitual precautions it almost certainly will.
Constant attention to the news will not remind us of the weight of glory. We will end up expending our emotional and intellectual energy on a thousand things that prove to be unimportant. Let your weekly magazine sit for three months; you won’t care to read half of what’s in there. No one wants to read yesterday’s paper. It’s old news. More than that, most of it is insignificant news. Not insignificant to the people in the middle of the latest tragedy or travesty, but insignificant in the scope of human history and nothing more than background noise for your crazy busy life. Go read Time from six years ago, or six months ago or six weeks ago, and you’ll be amazed how little of what’s in there even matters any more.
How the News Works
Christians talk a lot about having a world and life view whereby we can discern the news from a biblical perspective. That’s a wonderful goal, so long as we are discerning about all the subtle ways the nature of news itself distorts our view of reality.
“Well,” you may say, “I don’t care if the news is fundamentally flawed. How else am I supposed to know what is going on? I don’t want to be ignorant about the state of the world.” But you already are. Even if the news is accurate—and Sommerville provides dozens of examples of major papers trumpeting exactly opposite headlines on the same day, sometimes within the same paper—how could it possibly keep us truly informed about two hundred nations and seven billion people? This is one of Sommerville’s most powerful points: “It turns out being informed really means knowing what the people around you are talking about. Our reality is the news, not the world” (43).
The news doesn’t keep anything before us for long. Are the racial tensions exposed by Ferguson no longer an important issue in our country? Of course not, but most people will quickly move on to something else because the news will move us to something else. In the world of news there is little proportion. Today there will be breaking news, special alerts, and another must-read. How can we possibly know what really matters when everything matters to the very utmost every day? “News is addictive, and if we want to regain an active intelligence, it will mean getting over the idea that news keeps us informed in any grown-up sense of that term” (131). We are already ignoring virtually everything happening in the world. So if we have to ignore something, let’s work hard to make sure it’s the ephemeral and not the eternal.
Putting First Things First
So what’s the answer? How do we prevent the news from making us dumb?
Sommerville does not argue for a complete repudiation of the news, and neither do I. But we must keep the news in its place. Most of us would do well to read the news less often. We would be wiser, happier, and more useful if we read more books and fewer blogs, if we read older stuff, if we read the good stuff—the lasting stuff—first instead of last. Put down the phone and pick up a book. Get more worked up about the Bible and less worked up about this afternoon’s internet brouhaha.
And for those of us who blog, let’s make sure it’s not all Duck Dynasty, Miley Cyrus, and the latest slice of evangelical gossip. I’ve written plenty about hot topics from homosexuality to Hobby Lobby to the emergent church. But hopefully there’s something of lasting biblical reflection in those posts, and hopefully there’s much more to the blog than pop culture and current events. If nothing on my blog could be useful outside America and nothing will be worth re-reading a year from now, then I am of all bloggers most to be pitied. Popular perhaps, but not, in the long run, particularly helpful.
I’m not against sports and entertainment. I’m not against political punditry and cultural commentary. I’m not against all news. As gospel people we are great lovers of good news! But unless we see what the modern phenomenon of news is and what it does and what it conditions us to expect, we will be unthinking in our consumption of the news and unreflective in our digestion of the same. The news will make us dumb unless we are smart enough to merely nibble on it as snack and look for our daily sustenance somewhere else.
After writing this post, a mutual friend pointed out that Joe Carter has also written on this topic. I commend his reflections to you as well.
An oldie, but still a goodie. The context: the men of the family are trying to impress their wives with sentimental gifts, and the wives are trying to prove they can’t be wooed so easily. Mom and Dad Huxtable are up last. Enjoy.
For several years we’ve had a part-time pastoral internship program at University Reformed Church. This year, for the first time, our interns work full-time. The bulk of their time is spent in four areas:
1. Reading and writing
2. Ministry observation
3. Personal ministry (they do for others)
4. Personal discipleship (they receive from the pastors)
Under the first category, our interns read several books. Actually, many books. And many papers (relatively short papers–2000 words). You can see below what they will read between now and the end of May.
They will read portions of Lectures to My Students (Charles Spurgeon), Spiritual Leadership (J. Oswald Sanders), and 9 Marks of a Healthy Church (Mark Dever). These selections are for discussion only. The other ten books are read in their entirety and require a written paper.
Our interns tend to be recent college graduates who have not yet gone to seminary. We try not to duplicate the reading they do in seminary. We don’t teach languages. We don’t do church history. We don’t attempt to do what full-time professors can do better. We focus instead on books that touch on the practical side of ministry (yes, I know all theology is practical). Having said that, we want our interns to be squared away on the basic theological categories. We also want them to be challenged with some heavier reading than they probably do on their own.
1. Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity. Biblical, historical, and rich. We thrown the interns into the deep end first.
2. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Short, but substantial. If pastors don’t understand the salvation and atonement, they aren’t ready to be pastors.
3. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. Well written and still relevant.
4. Robert Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible. Nicely organized. A good introduction hermeneutics, genre, textual criticism, and the doctrine of inspiration.
5. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship. A good blend of worship theology and praxis. Helpful for interns to see where a more traditional liturgy comes from and why it makes sense.
6. David Helm, Expository Preaching. Best book on the how-to and how-come of expository preaching.
7. Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church. PCA-centric, but useful for anyone in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition.
8. Timothy Witmer, Shepherd Leader. Puts a good theology of eldership into hands on ministry practice.
9. D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited. Balanced and wise. Provokes good discussion.
10. David Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict. I am more decidedly Reformed in a couple areas, but the format effectively presents the key issues in missiology today and points the reader in a good direction.
The list of assigned books gets tweaked year by year. In the past, we’ve assigned a few of my books, but it’s hard to write an honest paper for the guy who wrote the book. Other books we’ve assigned over the years include: Exegetical Fallacies (D.A. Carson), Worship by the Book (D.A. Carson, ed.), The Church of Christ (James Bannerman), Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands (Paul Tripp), Preaching and Preachers (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones), The Message of the Old Testament (Mark Dever), The Courage to Protestant (David Wells), A History of Israel (Walter Kaiser), Biblical Eldership (Alexander Strauch), A Praying Life (Paul Miller). The pastoral interns also study our church’s confessional standards, though that is covered more extensively in our membership class.
I am strongly opposed to providing our kids with alternate worship experiences all the way through high school. They ought to be worshiping with adults, with their families, in “big” church, not having a special service tailored to their teen demographic.
I am a believer in parents bringing their children, even young children, with them into worship. Our kids can pick up more than we know. And even if the content is beyond them, they will learn some songs, pick up some liturgy, and see their parents worshiping Christ.
I’m a proponent of families worshiping together.
I’m not a proponent, however, of taking a good principle and making it an absolute rule. Moreover, I’m not in favor of making other Christians feel like the truly biblical (or Truly Reformed) position is to have your kids of all ages with you in church at all times.
This is where history helps put things in perspective.
In sixteenth century post-Reformation Scotland, church attendance was mandatory. Kirk sessions took their responsibility seriously to see that the Sabbath was observed and the people attended the preaching of God’s word. And yet, they were not absolutists.
One significant portion of the congregation was systematically excluded everywhere from Sunday sermons. While sermons were central, the elders knew that they had to be audible to be effective, and so they barred babies and very young children from attendance lest they disturb the adult hearers—a factor that must be borne in mind when trying to gauge actual church attendance in early modern Scotland.
The Glasgow sessions designated eight as the cut-off age; Aberdeen prohibited “young bairns [children]…not at the school and not of such age and disposition as they can take themselves to a seat when they come to the kirk, but vague [wander] through the same here and there in time of sermon and make perturbance and disorder.” These children were to be ‘kept at home, for eschewing of clamour and disorder in the kirk.’
Kingsbarns’s session ordered them not only to be kept away from the kirk, but also to be shut up indoors lest parishioners be troubled by the “running up and down of little ones and young children on the Lord’s day in the time of sermon.”
Perth’s session in 1582 actually ordered warding (gaoling) and a 6s 8d fine for ‘bairns that perturb the kirk in time of preaching’ instead of being kept at home. Such rulings would obviously have reduced church attendance quite considerably, since the adult caretakers would have had to stay at home with their young charges. Sessions routinely excused absenteeism by parents, nurses, and other servants for this reason. (Margo Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland)
Do I think children under eight should be barred from attending worship? No. A sixteenth century Scottish provision does not need to be our rule (and there is evidence that some Scottish parents disregarded the rules and were fined for bringing their naughty children to church!). But it does suggest we should not make it seem like bringing every child into the service is the only responsible choice for theologically serious people. Just as important, it suggests parents of small children should cut themselves some slack–and we should do the same–if church is interrupted for them or even made impossible at times because of the demands of little ones.
And while we’re at it, we should thank the Lord for nursery workers.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) to Pope Eugenius:
You have been made a superior. For what? Not to domineer, I suppose. Therefore, highly as we think of ourselves, let us remember that a ministry has been laid upon us, not a lordship given. Learn that you need a hoe, not a scepter, to do the prophet’s work (quoted in Calvin’s Institutes, IV.xi.11).
Now read that again. And one more time, slowly. And pray it through. Down in your soul, and up to God.
“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).