Holy Sarcasm?

questionmark26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

1 Kings 18:26-27 (ESV)

For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!

2 Corinthians 11:19 (ESV)

At its root, “sarcasm” means “the rending of flesh,” for “flesh” in Greek is sarx. Here, of course, it applies to feelings, not skin. Even so, it is a harsh practice, as anyone who has felt its sting can attest. So some believers might rush to the judgment that sarcasm has no place in Christian writing and speech. After all, following the Golden Rule, who would wish to be on the receiving end of sarcasm? So how could one be warranted in using it?

The problem with condemning sarcasm is that Elijah and Paul used it in godly fashion. The former entered into a theological duel on Mount Carmel, one in which he demonstrated the power of Yahweh over the fictitious god, Baal. When the false prophets failed to elicit fire from heaven to light their sacrifice, Elijah suggested sarcastically that maybe they needed to yell to get his attention or that perhaps he was simply away in the “bathroom.” These were not genuine suggestions; Elijah did not believe in either of them. He merely raised them to embarrass the idolaters.

In Paul’s case, the Corinthian church, which he had founded and to which he had written before, was sliding into heresy. The church had fallen under the thrall of “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13), and the people were proud that they had followed their lead “up to the next level.” Paul made fun of their folly by saying they were so sharp that they were able to work with people who enslaved, devoured, defrauded, looked down on, and battered them (2 Cor. 11:20). He then “confessed” that he was simply too weak to handle that feat (2 Cor. 11:21). It was sarcasm, pure and simple.

Of course, these verses do not encourage sarcasm, much less demand it of God’s people. Some find it constitutionally awkward, if not virtually impossible. Many are convinced that it is always unnecessary, essentially counterproductive, stylistically arrogant, and spiritually toxic. But if they dismiss it utterly, then they rebuke Elijah and Paul – an act of arrogance in its own right.

Certainly, one can overdo it. Indeed, some people trade on an excess of sarcasm, and their presence exhausts the patience and joy of all their listeners. But there is a countervailing danger: Today’s Church has drunk deeply at the well of political correctness and the cult of inviolate sensitivity. In so doing, they have stifled and disarmed prophets, condemning them for “wounding” sinners. They forget that the biblical prophets par excellence used harsh invective of many sorts to make their points. And unless the Church desires to turn its back on them, it should leave the way open for some practice of sarcasm.

Truth or Triangulation?

6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, capitalwill you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Acts 13:6-12 (ESV)

One school of politics lives and dies by the following maxim: there are no politics without polling. Leaders without scruples look for ways to please the greatest number of people with the least amount of conviction. This method, known as triangulation, operates by locating extremes, pinpointing the middle position, and developing a policy based upon the projected “center.” In order to be most effective, this relativistic approach depends upon advisors to determine the popular course of action. But the tactic runs aground when confronted with its archenemy: truth.

Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus, was a shrewd politician and seemingly a student of triangulation. As the chief provincial governor, he understood well Rome’s imperial dictum: peace through strength, peace at all costs. Like his other Roman contemporaries, he was probably a religious skeptic. Eager to understand his constituency, the proconsul enlisted a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas (also called “Bar-Jesus”) most likely to help him interpret the Jewish mindset and understand public perception about spiritual matters.

When Barnabas and Saul landed in Salamis, the governor invited the apostles to present him with “the Word of God” (vv. 6-7). Fearful at what the preaching of the gospel might do to his prominence in the proconsul’s inner circle, Elymas sought to prevent God’s men from receiving a hearing. Paul condemned the sorcerer for touting magic over ministry, and Elymas was struck blind. Sergius Paulus responded in faith following this remarkable event. Notably, however, it was not the miracle alone that amazed him. Rather, he “was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (v. 12). Evidently, the gospel preached by Paul and Barnabas impressed the governor who witnessed its power over both spiritual and temporal realms.

Seemingly courageous men sometimes wither in the presence of power. In his book, Kingdoms in Conflict,[i]  Chuck Colson describes how during his service in the White House, he saw angry constituents wanting to give President Nixon a “piece of their mind” become sheepish when they were finally told, “The President will see you.” “Invariably,” Colson writes, “the lions of the waiting room became the lambs of the Oval Office.” When presented with these opportunities, Christians cannot afford such timidity.

Perceptive public officials may be more interested in theology than the modern evangelical church suspects. Like the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, some governmental leaders may begin their career as mere pragmatists. But when confronted with the objective truth of the Christian gospel, they might begin to see that the Bible rightly understands the solutions to the problems of the real world. By God’s grace, even the leaders of cities, states, and nations can be “astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”

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Endnote

[i] Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: William Morrow & Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 307.

Responding to the Paris Attacks and Muslim Youth Radicalization

Western Europe is still reeling from the terrorist attacks that struck Paris on the evening of Friday, November 13, killing 129 people and injuring over 300 more, many critically. Political leaders are discussing appropriate responses to follow up on France’s initial airstrike against Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State that has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

franceDetails are emerging about the eight gunmen who carried out the attacks, all in their 20s or 30s. They appear to include at least five French citizens, including the Abdeslam brothers, Salah and Brahim, who lived in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, described by Belgian authorities as a “breeding ground for jihadists.” Two others were born and bred in Paris, the target of their attacks. Another of the terrorists was a Syrian national who appears to have arrived in Greece and registered as a refugee in October.[i]

An obvious question that arises from the above details is the motivation of the eight young Muslim terrorists. US Secretary of State John Kerry offered an answer:

They are in fact psychopathic monsters and there is nothing, nothing civilized about them. So this is not a case of one civilization pitted against another. This is a battle between civilization itself and barbarism and fascism. Both at the same time.[ii]

This analysis is wildly off-target, completely ignoring any religious dimension to the motivation of Muslim terrorists. The fact that a US government official of Kerry’s stature and influence could so misunderstand the situation is itself a matter of great concern.

What are the factors that led these young Muslim men to undertake such violent acts, and what are the factors that are driving so many other young Muslims to commit themselves to fight for the Islamic State caliphate?

Elements in the radicalization process

There is a central idea fuelling Muslim youth radicalization: young Muslims travelling this path are following a particular conceptual role model that praises activism for Islam, jihadi militancy, and death for the sake of Allah. A range of intersecting elements underlie this core idea.

The first is the problem of radical preachers in some mosques, as revealed in the “Undercover Mosque” series of documentaries produced for Dispatches in the UK some years ago.[iii] It is very likely that some mosques and their preachers attended by the Paris attackers, especially in the Molenbeek area of Brussels, were a source of some of their radical ideas.

The subversive role of such preachers is exacerbated by easy access to radical Islamic websites and social media sites. Jihadi groups such as the Islamic State are very skilled at hooking impressionable young minds through social media. From time to time such sites are banned by governments, but others quickly emerge in their place. Such websites create the ingredients for a further key element reinforcing the radicalized role model: a peer group of real-life and virtual radicalized youth which adds fuel to the pressures on young Muslims.

Sadly, parents sometimes also provide a radicalized role model. The father of one of the much discussed 15-year-old jihadi brides from Bethnal Green in London who joined the Islamic State in Syria was filmed taking a very active part in one protest led by the notorious radical preacher Anjem Choudary.[iv] Many young Muslims are brought up in family contexts where rabid anti-Westernism is a key part of family discourse. This is likely to have been the case in the Abdeslam family, which provided two of the participants in the Paris attacks.

A further radicalization role model for young Muslims is provided by the prophet of Islam himself. Muhammad is a complex character, but during the last 10 years of his life in the city of Medina, Islamic sources, such as the prophetic traditions or Hadith and the authoritative biography of Muhammad or Sira, record that he developed the doctrine of jihad, plundered trading caravans, sanctioned the beheading of perceived enemies, and endorsed forced concubinage.

How to respond to the radicalization process

So what can be done to prevent the radicalization of Muslim youth in the West, and thereby to prevent attacks such as recently took place in Paris? To some extent, responses can be linked with the above factors producing radicalization.

First, there should be a mechanism for monitoring sermons in mosques which have a history of questionable preaching. This practice is already followed in some countries, including Muslim countries, such as in Singapore, Pakistan, and Egypt.[v]

Second, radical preachers should be prosecuted and, where possible, deported, as was the case with Abu Qatada, who was expelled from the UK to Jordan,[vi] and Abu Hamzah al-Masri, who was extradited from the UK to the United States to face terrorism charges.[vii] At the same time, Western governments should take steps to limit access to radical websites. Civil libertarians will be uncomfortable with any suggestion of censorship of sermons or websites, but these are unusual problems that require extraordinary solutions.

Furthermore, citizenship should be withdrawn from dual nationals found guilty of involvement in radical groups, as is being explored by Australia and France.[viii] This should also apply to parents involved in radicalization of their children. At the same time, there is an urgent need for re-education programs for returning jihadis and their brides.

Finally, moderate Muslim leadership needs to address the elephant in the room: the role of Muhammad as a model for jihadi activism. This issue is barely touched upon in public discourse and, when it is broached, it is usually addressed in hushed tones and from an oblique angle. But there is little doubt that radical Muslim youth look ultimately to the example of their prophet during his years in Medina. It cries out for a full and free discussion.

As for Christian responses, the church must work with government and other social institutions in addressing this crisis along the above lines. The potent cocktail of ingredients that lead young Muslim youth down the path of radicalization debunks a simplistic explanation that has been popular amongst church people, namely, that Muslim youth radicalization simply results from their alienation from majority society, which must bear the major responsibility for the result. No other marginalized religious minority community produces hostile and radicalized youth in this way. Islam is a special case, a fact that should be acknowledged and acted upon by church and state alike.

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[i] “5 Terrorists Identified, One by Shot-Off Finger,” November 15, 2015, RT Website, https://www.rt.com/news/322155-paris-terrorists-identities-revealed/ (accessed November 18, 2015).

[ii] Nahal Toosi and Eliza Collins, “Kerry Calls Paris Attackers ‘Psychopathic Monsters,’” November 16, 2015, Politico, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/john-kerry-paris-visit-215941 (accessed November 18, 2015).

[iii] Ole Olsen, Dispatches – Undercover Mosque, February 5, 2011, https://vimeo.com/19598947 (accessed November 18, 2015).

[iv] Jake Wallis Simons and Chris Greenwood, “Exclusive: Father Who Blamed Police for Not Stopping his Daughter Joining ISIS Attended 2012 Rally Led by Hate Preacher Anjem Choudary and Attended by Lee Rigby Killer,” March 26, 2015, Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3013703/Father-jihadi-bride-schoolgirl-attended-2012-Islamist-rally-attended-Lee-Rigby-s-killer-led-preacher-Anjem-Choudary.html (accessed November 18, 2015).

[v] Khalid Hasnain, “MYC to Monitor Friday Sermons in Mosques,” May 27, 2015, Dawn, http://www.dawn.com/news/1184519 (accessed November 18, 2015); Christa Case Bryant, “Islam, scripted: Egypt Reins in Friday Sermons at Mosque,” April 28, 2014, Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2014/0428/Islam-scripted-Egypt-reins-in-Friday-sermons-at-mosque (accessed November 18, 2015).

[vi] “Abu Qatada Deported from UK to Stand Trial in Jordan,” July 7, 2013, BBC Website, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-23213740 (accessed November 18, 2015).

[vii] “Radical Cleric Abu Hamza Jailed for Life by US Court,” January 9, 2015, BBC Website, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30754959 (accessed November 18, 2015).

[viii] James Bennett, Eliza Borrello, and Chris Uhlmann, “Government Promises Laws to Strip Citizenship from Dual-Nationality Terrorists Within Weeks, Amid Debate within Cabinet,” May 26, 2015, ABC Website, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-26/government-promises-laws-to-strip-citizenship-from-terrorists/6498300 (accessed November 18, 2015); “France to Strip 5 ‘Terrorists’ of Nationality,” October 6, 2015, The Local, http://www.thelocal.fr/20151006/france-to-strip-nationality-from-five-terrorists (accessed November 18, 2015).

Is Art Appreciation Part of the Christian Worldview?

The subject of artwork has caused its fair share of controversy among followers of Jesus. From opposition to religious images by Byzantines in the eighth and ninth centuries to debate among the Reformers over what forms of art were acceptable, StainGlassCHistoryChristians have long differed over the role of artwork in a Christian worldview. But amid the debate, believers have almost always agreed that art appreciation is part of a Christian worldview. That belief stems from the Bible itself, which says much related to aesthetics, artwork, and creativity. Consider the following:

God is the ultimate artist. There can never be a creative act more magnificent that God’s fashioning of the universe. Genesis 1-2 provides details related to color and light and notes that the trees God created were not present merely for food but as objects “pleasant to the sight” (Genesis 2:9). Imaging God, Christians have contended, surely includes imitating His creativity through artwork.

In the Old Testament, God assumed there would be visual artists among His people. At the construction of the Tabernacle, He appointed Bezalel and Oholiab “to devise artistic designs” (Exodus 31:4). Again at the building of the Temple, artists were required to fashion the intricate particulars of the design, from carving 15-foot cherabim of olivewood (1 Kings 6:23) to engraving “all the walls of the house” (1 Kings 6:29). When God commanded Moses in the wilderness to fashion “a fiery serpent and set it on a pole” (Numbers 21:8), He presumed there was a metalworker to craft the bronze serpent.

Scripture celebrates all five senses as means of experiencing God’s good creation. Song of Solomon 1:1-5 illustrates this well, with the Shulamite woman extoling the touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight of her lover. The God who created all five senses intended for His people to use them all, including the viewing of artwork, to appreciate His handiwork.

— Although the New Testament isn’t as explicit in its commendation of artwork, Paul commanded the Philippians to set their minds on “whatever is lovely” (Philippians 4:8). Surely that command includes the appreciation of artistic beauty.

Revelation’s descriptions of heaven assume God’s people have cultivated a taste for things that are aesthetically beautiful. Foundations “adorned with every kind of jewel” (Revelation 21:19) and the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal” (Revelation 22:1) clearly appeal to mankind’s desire for artistic beauty.

Of course, the Bible warns against using artwork for idolatrous purposes. That is made explicit in the Second Commandment (Exodus 21:4), and the harmful effects of ungodly artwork are illustrated in the account of Israel’s making a golden calf (Exodus 32). Further, Scripture’s emphasis on the word as God’s primary means of communicating with humans (e.g., Romans 10:17) precludes using art as the only expression of our faith.

Still, Augustine of Hippo was right when he argued that the good, the beautiful, and the true are really one in the same—and they are all of God. Christians have taken that reality to heart through creating artistic expressions as diverse as Sistine Chapel frescoes painted by the Roman Catholic Michelangelo, the Reformation’s simple Bible illustrations and depictions of “secular” life, and the countless paintings, ceramics, and sculptures created by believers today. So the next time you take brush, pencil, chalk, clay, or any other artistic tool in hand, remember that you’re participating in a rich Christian tradition.

The Bible and National Borders

National immigration policy is front and center in public discourse around the world, most prominently in the West, to which many are fleeing. In a presidential election season, Americans are sharply divided over what should be done about the millions of illegal or “undocumented” residents coming from the south. Europe is trying to cope with waves of Syrians and North Africans either fleeing conflict or seeking a better standard of living. Some are drowning as their boats capsize in the Mediterranean. Others are hit by trains in the rail tunnel beneath the English Channel. Some nations are strengthening their borders; others are opening their arms to vast numbers of newcomers. So what should a Christian accept or prescribe?

afenceNot surprisingly, the Bible does not provide a clear template for setting quotas, issuing work visas, deporting offenders, and such. For one thing, the governments and rules in play in ancient times were widely divergent, some theocratic, others imperially profane. On the harsh side, we see God’s order to the Israelites to sweep the house clean of Canaanites. On the tender side, we find prescriptions of kindness for the “stranger” and “sojourner.” Furthermore, early populations were often sparse, tribal, and mobile, ill-suited for the firm lines we see on political maps of the world. City-states such as Athens and Nineveh were more typical than nation states.

Still, there are general principles informing the debate, items which suggest a country’s right to control its borders:

  1. Jurisdiction: In Mark 12:17, Jesus tells us to render to Caesar his due, and in Romans 13:1-7, Paul says we must submit to governmental authorities. Rulers are rulers by virtue of jurisdiction over territory.
  2. Citizenship: In Acts 25, Paul claims his rights as a Roman citizen to have a hearing in Rome. Citizenship is a prerogative of the state, which can and must stipulate who does and does not qualify for it.
  3. Particularity: In Genesis 11, the Lord confounded the languages of mankind to discourage the vanity and treachery of a monolithic world. When we, in effect, erase borders by not enforcing them, we risk losing the “separation of powers” essential to the political economy of fallen man.
  4. Core Values: Time and again, the Bible describes the central standards of a culture, whether the YHWH worship of Israel, the Law of the Medes and the Persians, or the Hellenism of Alexander’s “offspring.” They range from evil to splendid, but there is no society without them. Ironically, a nation which opens its borders wide to those who do not share its core values dilutes the very qualities which made it an object of desire in the first place. By embracing those with toxic ideologies, a nation will commit cultural suicide.
  5. Property. In Proverbs and Deuteronomy, there are warnings and, indeed, curses regarding the movement of a neighbor’s boundary stones. The ownership of real estate is sanctioned by God, and trespass is a genuine offense. We may not just walk anywhere in the world we please, doing what we please on whichever plot of land we choose to visit. And, indeed, to breach a national boundary is typically to trespass on private property as well.
  6. Refuge. Under God’s direction, the Israelites set apart cities to which those guilty of manslaughter might flee relatives who sought blood vengeance (Number 35:6-32). Hezekiah dug a water tunnel from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam to prepare Jerusalem for an Assyrian siege (2 Kings 20:20). Both acts were predicated on the need for walls to maintain the integrity and safety of the residents.
  7. Finitude. There is one God, and we are not He. A nation cannot do every nice thing, for its resources and its ability to impose intrusions upon the populace are limited. If all charitable immigration decisions were good, then the more the merrier, but this would be chaotic nonsense.

Of course, none of this specifies whether, when, where, and to what extent immigration is desirable or even obligatory. Rather, it suggests that being “Christlike” is not the same as saying anything goes.

The Book of Judges and Modern America

While every section of the Bible is relevant for people living in every period of history, sometimes a particular section of Scripture takes on special relevance for people in a specific place and time. Through studying Judges with a small group at my local church, I have come to wonder whether the final section of that book, chapters 17-21, may have Biblepagessuch special relevance for modern America. A postscript of sorts to the entire book, this section illustrates the extent to which Israel had come to resemble the pagan Canaanites around them. The parallel between some of Israel’s actions in Judges 17-21 and news headlines in modern America is striking. Consider the following:

1) In Judges 17-18, a man who called himself a priest of the Lord performed forbidden services for God’s people in order to gain money and, more importantly, social acceptance. An obvious comparison can be drawn to so-called Christian ministers today who perform same-sex weddings for the same reasons.

2) Judges 19 and 21 reveal an Israelite cultural milieu that contributed to sexual assault. Chapter 19 recounts the gang rape of a Levite’s concubine while drawing an implicit comparison between Israel’s city of Gibeah and ancient Sodom. Chapter 21 recounts the kidnapping and forced marriages of more than 400 women with the approval Israel’s leaders. Though the parallel is not exact, this calls to mind the situation on some US college campuses, where a culture awash in sexual immorality also seems to contribute to sexual assault. A National Institute of Justice report says as many as 18-20 percent of female college students may experience some form of sexual assault.

3) In Judges 19, a human being is dismembered with various body parts sent to different sections of the nation. It’s difficult not to relate this to the series of videos released by the Center for Medical Progress showing Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of fetal body parts obtained through abortion. Apparently baby remains routinely are shipped across the country in the name of fostering scientific research. One unfortunate difference between ancient Israel and modern America though is that such violence sparked universal outrage among Israelites while too many Americans seem to yawn and move on.

The author of Judges was intent to illustrate that things previously thought to occur only among Canaanites were now occurring in Israel. Without too much imagination, one can see a parallel “Canaanization” occurring in America.

This bleak picture should, first of all, lead the Church to sound a call for national repentance. As the author of Judges notes more than once, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). Indeed, without godly leaders pointing a nation in the right direction, moral chaos will prevail. The present is an opportunity for Christians to provide such leadership—which brings us to a hopeful note, for Israel eventually turned back to God under Kings David and Solomon, with the author of 2 Samuel observing, “David administered justice and equity to all his people” (8:15). God’s people should take the present darkness as a call to action. Though America has descended into a striking parallel with Israel’s decline, we must pray and work for a parallel revival.