Mark Coppenger

About Mark Coppenger

Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, director of the Seminary's Nashville extension, and managing editor of Kairos Journal. He received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University. He has published several books and has contributed to such publications as Teaching Philosophy, Touchstone, American Spectator Online, and USA Today.

Personas

David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.” Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

(2 Samuel 12:19-20)

Politicians, jurists, administrators, psychology professionals, and the public at large are trying to sort out what it means to be a “transgender person,” and, naturally, the focus falls upon the term “transgender,” its denotations and connotations.[i] But essential insights rest upon the less exotic but richer term, “person,” and David’s response to the death of an infant son is instructive in this connection.

personasThe word “person” comes from the Latin persona, meaning “mask” and referring to the role one plays in a drama.[ii] The two notions—“mask” and “personhood”—seem to clash, for, as we hear it, to be a person is a good thing but to don a mask is the stuff of “hypocrisy” (based on the Greek for “speaking from under cover”). Hence expressions like, “Let’s lay aside our masks, get real, and be authentic.” But there is a deeper and admirable sense of persona, one which informs our appreciation for personhood. It concerns the roles, the behaviors, we select as our own, congruent with our character.

In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan rebuked David for his adultery with Bathsheba, whose husband’s death David had facilitated. Nathan announced God’s judgment that the child would die. In response, David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them” (vv. 16 and 17). He was a broken and humiliated man, and his pleas were sincere. But when God said “No,” the king got back to work. He may have felt like moping or pouting, but he got up, cleaned up, and moved on. Such were the choices he made, the personas he assumed.

The Bible is full of persona shifts: Nebuchadnezzar’s loss and gain of sanity in Daniel 4; Peter’s transitions from defender to coward to apostle in the Gospels; Demas’s forsaking Paul in 1 Timothy 4. In each case, the subject chose to “play a different dramatic role,” to engage the world differently. Everyone does this to some extent, and properly so, whether adopting a pastoral tone at the hospital bedside, cheering wildly at a football game, speaking deferentially to the traffic cop, shushing the kids when mom is trying to field a phone call, or exchanging pleasantries with a stranger on the plane.

This is not phoniness, but rather an outworking of values, commitments, and priorities. Indeed, the “authentic” person who just goes with his moods and tendencies, gushing, whining, or muttering out whatever he feels at the moment, is childishly random, not maturely ordered. In contrast, consider the Greek or Roman actor who, in turn, assumes different personas in the course of the play, all in the service of the story being told. He doesn’t simply grab whatever mask he feels like wearing to “do his own thing.” Similarly, individuals exercise their personhood in service to a narrative. At best, it centers on responsible stewardship of life under the reign of a righteous and loving God. At worst, it ignores God and enthrones unholy, toxic agendas. That is a choice one makes.

Today, it is popular to say that one must play this or that (allegedly) hard-wired sexual role in a particular cultural drama—for instance, a transgender part in the great hedonistic/liberation narrative. But neither roles nor plays are inescapable. Both human reason (as in Xerxes’ discovery that Mordecai rather than Haman was honorable in Esther 6 and 7) and spiritual quickening (as in the case of Lydia, whose heart was “opened” in Acts 16) can effect a revolution in perspective and behavior, and it is the task of the church to commend both of these God-given avenues to human flourishing.

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Endnotes

[i] For instance, the American Psychological Association takes pains to delineate the variety of ways in which “transgender persons” identify themselves—for instance, “genderqueer,” “androgynous,” or “two-spirit.”  See “Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression,” http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx (accessed September 3, 2016).

[ii] See, for example, these masks used in a modern rendering of Plautus’s Roman comedy, Bacchides, http://www.neh.gov/divisions/education/featured-project/roman-comedy-in-performance (accessed July 29, 2016).

A Christian Nation on First Impression

In 2008, Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote a surprising piece entitled, “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.”[i] He built part of his case on first impressions:

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away.

I thought of Parris’s account when reading recently a series of reports written some 180 years earlier by a Frenchman visiting the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville. His hefty Tocquevillebook Democracy in America chronicled his impressions, which were basically favorable. He’d seen the fruit of the French Revolution, and now he was reflecting on the outcomes of the American Revolution. He didn’t give our budding nation a clean bill of health, for Andrew Jackson, famous for pushing the Cherokees on a Trail of Tears, was in the White House, and the Civil War that would end slavery was decades away. Furthermore, he was skeptical that the arts could rise to European levels, but he was impressed with the spirit of the people, a spirit he found to be informed by their faith. In his estimation, they had “brought to the New World a Christianity” he could not “depict better than to call it democratic and republican . . . From the beginning, politics and religion were in accord, and they have not ceased to be so since.”[ii]

He noted that “the sects in the United States are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same.” He granted that there must be hypocrites and those who followed “their habits more than their convictions,” but concluded, “America is . . . still the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.” [iii]

He admired the separation of church and state, but insisted religion should “be considered as the first of their political institutions” for “it singularly facilitates their use of” freedom. He went on, “I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion—for who can read to the bottom of hearts?—but I am sure they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks.”[iv] Not surprising, for, in his view, it was “religion that gave birth to the Anglo-American societies: one must never forget this; in the United States religion is therefore intermingled with all national habits and all the sentiments to which a native country gives birth; that gives it a particular strength.”[v]

He went on to say that Islam could not support an America,[vi] and lamented the comparative loss of faith in his homeland: “I am ignorant of what one would have to do to give back the energy of youth to European Christianity, God alone could do it.”[vii] And while giving the predominating Protestantism its due, he was pleased to report, “America is the most democratic land on earth, and it is at the same time the county where, according to trustworthy reports, the Catholic religion is making most progress.”[viii]

Psalm 33:12a says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” and, arguably, Tocqueville saw this truth reflected in some measure in America. Of course, we must ask what he would see if he returned today, either to America or to his native Europe. What evidence would he find of Christian devotion and its concomitant blessedness? Were his investigations discouraging, we could at least join him in a hope for revival, all the while granting that “God alone could do it.”

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Endnotes

[i] Matthew Parris, “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God,” Times, December 27, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/matthewparris/article2044345.ece (accessed March 18, 2016).

[ii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 275.

[iii] Tocqueville, 278.

[iv] Tocqueville, 280.

[v] Tocqueville, 406.

[vi] Tocqueville, 419, 420.

[vii] Tocqueville, 288.

[viii] Tocqueville, 424.

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.

St. Augustine and ISIS

botticelli-st-augustineEach week brings news of fresh horrors in the Middle East as ISIS extends its stunningly evil sway in the region. Through rapes and beheadings and countless indignities, these barbarians have brutalized and tormented essentially anyone who’s not ISIS, including Christians. Those of us in safety marvel at the courage and grace that believers have shown, whether by simply abiding in the land, or reciting Scripture at the moment of their execution.

This past week, while reading again the opening chapter of Augustine’s City of God, I was struck by its pertinence to this current situation. Rome was collapsing under its own decadence and “barbarian” invasion, and this great empire, which had slaughtered not only our Savior on Calvary, but also His followers in the Coliseum and Circus Maximus, was blaming its troubles on the Christians. Augustine set out to demonstrate that this was nonsense, and in the course of his argument, he spoke of the character, thinking, and deeds of believers who had undergone great persecution. In so doing, he appealed to Scripture:

  1. To those dismayed that God made “his sun rise on the good and on the bad, and sends rain alike on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45), he explained that a system which blesses believers only misleads and corrupts all concerned. As for sufferings, it depends on what you make of them, and what they make of you, for “the fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw and clears the grain.”
  2. To those who muzzled themselves lest their words offend and provoke retaliation, he said that a believer may be blameworthy if, as a “watchman” (Ezekiel 33:6), “he recognizes, but ignores, opportunities of warning and admonishing those with whom the exigencies of this life force him to associate.” (It may be that “he evades this duty for fear of offending them, because he is concerned for those worldly advantages, which are not in themselves discreditable, but to which he is unduly attached.”)
  3. To those mourning the loss of security and material goods, he reminded them, “We know that God makes all things co-operate for good for those who love him” (Romans 8:28), and that, though impoverished, they may be “rich in the sight of God” (Luke 12:21). Besides, hunger can teach Christians “to live more frugally and to fast more extensively.” And should they be killed, “Christians know that the death of a poor religious man, licked by the tongues of dogs, is far better than the death of a godless rich man, dressed in purple and linen” (Luke 16:19ff.)
  4. If they lacked a decent burial, they found themselves in the good company of those pictured in Psalm 79:2: “They have set out the mortal parts of thy servants as food for the birds of the sky; and the flesh of thy saints as food for the beasts of the earth.” If they landed in prison, they shared the fate of Daniel (Daniel 1:6).
  5. Since some had found themselves impressed with a culture that glamorized suicide as a way to escape torture or to “keep oneself pure” from rape or moral compromise, he urged that they submit to Exodus 20:13 (“Thou shall not kill”), which forbids “self-slaughter.” Society at large may honor such figures as Cato and Lucretia for murdering themselves to avoid humiliation, but Christians must not follow suit.

Augustine concluded the chapter by noting that as horrible as their persecutors may be, the people of the “City of Christ the King,” must “bear in mind that among these very enemies are hidden her future citizens.” Indeed, the Saul is a striking case in point: Once an accessory to murder, he became the Church’s leading missionary and theologian. And who knows but what an ISIS foot soldier could one day find the Lord and preach the gospel fearlessly at great peril.

Anarchy Not an Option

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

Romans 13:1-5

From the city park camps of the Occupy movement to impromptu protests organized by the leaderless Internet-based group Anonymous, a distinctive mask has been showing up everywhere, one identified with Guy Fawkes, a terrorist who attempted to blow up the houses of Parliament in 1605.1 Those who wear it are not known so much for a particular cause, but for a general contempt for authority, and that puts them at odds with the teaching of Scripture.

guyfawkesWhen Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the Emperor Nero was on the throne, the Nero infamous for his persecution of Christians. One might expect Paul to speak dismissively of the emperor, reserving his call to submit for believers in happier realms. But in the face of great difficulty under Roman rule, the apostle pressed his fellow saints to be respectful citizens as best they could, even though this was the very state which had crucified their Savior, Jesus.

Perhaps this was simply the counsel of prudence, given the numerical weakness of the Christians in the empire. Or perhaps it was a matter of priority, with evangelism and church planting coming first. By this interpretation, Paul was concerned that the nascent church not waste its time and energy on good projects while neglecting the best project for its day. But Paul does not ground his command in peculiar circumstances; rather, he ties this duty to the revealed truth that government, per se, is God-ordained.

Of course, this command is not an absolute, for the same passage provides a job description for the emperor, one which could render his rule illegitimate should it become so devoid of justice and decency that it resembled, for example, the Third Reich or ISIS. Thus Christians rightly praise Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s fatal effort to eliminate Hitler. But the default position must be one of obedience to law and deference to authority. Accordingly, the burden of proof lies upon the one who urges civil disobedience over one issue or another in the name of righteousness, and not upon the one who says his fellow citizens should comply with the government’s directives.

In this vein, the pastor must not stir the pot of insolence or lawlessness when riots are impending, but rather appeal to cooler thinking, due process, and patience, pointing to the opening verses of Romans 13 for the higher authority which authorizes the lower authority. Yes, there is a time for resistance and even revolution, but that time comes much later rather than sooner. And whatever protest God’s people may mount—unlike the “Guy Fawkes” crowd—they don’t wear masks, but rather stand and let themselves be identified as voices of dissent, not as self-indulgent, even cowardly, belligerents without constraint.

 

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Endnote:

1 The popularity of this mask stems from the 1980s, when Alan Moore and David Lloyd created a series of graphic novels, from which issued the movie V for Vendetta. The main character, an anarchist, wore a Guy Fawkes mask featuring a big grin, big mustache, and rosy cheeks. “How Guy Fawkes Became the Face of Post-Modern Protest,” Economist, November 4, 2014, http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/11/economist-explains-3 (accessed February 26, 2015).

What Does the Bible Say about Murmuring?

Recently, I reread the book of Numbers, but this time in one sitting. What struck me the most was its talk of murmuring, and I started to look for other occurrences of that practice in the Bible. Sure enough, I found them elsewhere in Old Testament Law, Prophets, and Writings, as well the New Testament Gospels and Epistles. Some translate the Hebrew and Greek words as “complaining” or “grumbling,” but the phenomenon is essentially the same.1

thoughtsSo what are we to make of murmuring? Is it good or bad? Well, in the biblical context, it depends. In Exodus 16, we read that the children of Israel were expressing displeasure at their desert diet, comparing it unfavorably with what they had in Egypt. In response, God didn’t destroy them for their ingratitude. Rather, in verse 12, He told Moses, “I have heard the grumbling (telenoth) of the people of Israel. Say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” Instead of punishing them, He gave them manna and quail. Granted, He wasn’t pleased with their subsequent mishandling of the bounty, but at least His initial response was accommodating.

Sometimes, murmuring is a wakeup call for church leaders. We read in Acts 6:1 that, as the young church was growing, “a complaint (goggusmos) by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” In response the Twelve chose seven men, including Stephen, to tend to this problem, and the results were great.

Still, the overwhelming witness of Scripture is that murmuring is toxic and seditious. Numbers 14 is a particularly pointed example. After the people balked at entering the Promised Land, despite the positive report of Joshua and Caleb, the Lord brought down the hammer of judgment. He asked Moses and Aaron rhetorically, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me.” And then He instructed them to tell the people, “Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward which have murmured against me.”

So while there is a place to express dissatisfaction with church affairs, murmurers must be very careful that their dissent is holy and not merely peevish. Furthermore, they should ask themselves whether their complaints are cowardly and gossipy, fomenting insurrection without respectful, face-to-face expression of concern to the allegedly offending party. To express such unholy dissent is to join the rogues’ gallery of murmuring Pharisees in Luke 15 and 19, or the Philippians to whom Paul had to write, in Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling . . .”

When we think of grave sins, our minds more readily turn to murder, larceny, adultery, and such, but we mustn’t miss the offense in murmuring. Grumbling may have a righteous source, as when a pastor doesn’t do much or when what he does is unscriptural, including his preaching. But there are honorable ways to deal with frustration (see Matthew 18), and when we initiate or join in a chorus of unhappy talk, we likely displease the Lord.

 

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Endnotes:

1 The word in Numbers appears as “murmur” in the KJV and RSV, as “grumble” in the NIV and ESV, and as “complain” in the HCSB and GNT.

Though the Hebrew words for such crankiness (lun, telenoth, ragan) sound a little punchy, the English word “murmur” builds on the sound of a chorus of discontented voices, the sort you hear in a movie when some disturbing news hits the crowd and they turn to each other expressing dismay in a torrent of indistinct utterances.

The NT Greek word which translates as “murmur” (and “complain” and “grumble”) also partakes of onomatopoeia, pronunciation mirroring the real thing (as in “boom” and “crackle”). It’s gogguzo, reflecting the hurly-burly of contentious conversation or the surge of unhappy chatter in a gaggle of observers (the word “gaggle” going back to the noise a “herd/flock” of geese makes).