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The Political Jackass

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Here’s a perfect way to get everyone hot and bothered: talk about politics on a religion website. But we’re talking about the things that make us act like jackasses, so we can’t skip politics.

The Political Jackass is not the person who votes for a specific candidate. Nor is it the person who cares deeply about politics. It’s the person who is rigid in their adherence to some political view, party, or official. Is this you? I’ll confess that it’s been me.

The problem with the Political Jackass is rigidity. When something is overly rigid, it will not bend. When pressure is applied, it can’t bend, so instead it cracks. This is exactly what has happened in our political landscape, and that includes within the Church.

“Many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.”

Right now, we are politically polarized. Mention Donald Trump at a dinner party and the only guarantee is that you won’t hear an apathetic response. Identify yourself as a Republican or a Democrat and the people around you won’t be indifferent. Ryan and I have become convinced that many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.

You might think that rigidity lies at the heart of Christianity. But you’d be wrong. Sure, there are concrete truths and unchanging realities. But over the last 2,000 years, Christianity has thrived in a shocking variety of settings, cultures, continents, political regimes, and time periods. Christianity thrived while ancient Rome tried to stamp it out. It adapted when it was legalized under Constantine (and later became the official religion). When the “barbarians” destroyed Rome, Christianity was flexible enough to transform the new rulers. Christianity was at home in Charlemagne’s empire even while it flourished in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It has found a way to make people feel at home in fundamentalist churches, modern megachurches, pentecostal churches, and tiny house church gatherings.

As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.

“As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.”

Over the millennia, Christianity has shown remarkable flexibility. The current trend of divisive rigidity on the part of conservatives, progressives, and liberals in the Church is causing us to crack. And it’s making us less like Jesus.

Since the drama of the 2016 campaign and election, we have all been especially tuned in to the increasing polarization in America and the negative effects of our extremely partisan news outlets. The whole thing feels like a reality TV show, which shouldn’t be surprising since we have a reality TV star for a president and receive much of our news from TV shows.

While Jesus walked the earth, there was political polarization as well. There were Pharisees who believed that salvation would come in response to their radical obedience to the Law. There were Sadducees who found their salvation in a political alliance with their Roman overlords. They were given status and control over the temple in exchange for complying with Roman politics. There were even Zealots who believed that salvation would come through a revolutionary Messiah who would violently defeat the pagans who held them in exile.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus didn’t align with any of these camps. In other words, every political affiliation was wrong. Jesus wasn’t at home in any of them. Not one had it right. Should it surprise us that the same is true now? Could we possibly imagine that Jesus would register to vote as a member of any political party?

Jesus was then and is now offering us a more beautiful path forward. It’s not the way of polarization. It’s the way of love. Central to it all is not a news show or a political party. Central to it all is a table. He’s more likely to invite us to join an actual party than to register for one. He’s more likely to invite us to join our supposed enemies for a meal than to feed into the polarization.

Affiliate with any party you want. Vote for whomever you want. But don’t assume that Jesus is on your side and against anyone else’s. He’s for us—all of us. He wants our hearts, not our sound bites or talking points. The path forward is not found on a news show, let’s stop acting like it is.

Don Freaking Quixote

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In Miguel De Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is a knight on a quest. He is brave, chivalrous, and relentless. You won’t find a more committed knight in any of the classical literature. But there’s one problem: the entirety of his knightly career is misguided.

Whenever he engages in brave combat, he is always confused and always mistaken. In one famous episode he charges ahead to attack a windmill with his lance, believing the windmill to be a giant terrorizing the countryside. It doesn’t end well, but Don Quixote doesn’t learn anything from the encounter. He manages to miss the fact that they were never giants; he was fighting against windmills the entire time.

Throughout the classic novel, he attacks the innocent and wins meaningless prizes. He is sincere in his passion and utterly fearless. But it all means nothing, because he is misguided from the moment he steps out the door. Don Quixote’s life is tragic—not because he was a hero who fell tragically in the end, but because his every brave endeavor was tragically foolish from beginning to end. The story is humorous, but if Don Quixote were a real person, we wouldn’t be laughing.

Hard as it is to say, I believe Don Quixote is a good parable for much of the modern Church. It’s a caution for all believers throughout history (from Israel to the Modern Church). God’s people have a propensity to drift from the main thing (relationship with God and others) to empty things. This is why the prophets spoke tirelessly against Israel’s wanderings and Paul wrote letters to correct drifting churches.

One of the effects of the Fall is that our human hearts have to fight hard for the things that matter. It doesn’t come naturally. But another effect of the Fall is that we end up fighting for the wrong things. And fighting in the wrong ways. Brokenness prevails, even in hearts that have been redeemed.

I’d love to leave it at that, but I have to go a step further. I am Don Quixote. I pursue so many things with a righteous zeal, but many of those things turn out to be weird, insignificant, or harmful. I can never tell in the moment. (Honestly, I can’t say for sure if jackasstheology.com is just a place for me to be a jackass. I’m not even confident that’s not true for this post I’m writing right now.)

I wish I weren’t Don Quixote, but I know I am. And I’m positive I’m not alone. How many of the areas in which we Christians have scolded, reprimanded, and diminished people could be considered “close to the heart of Jesus”? Be careful how quickly you answer.

“Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Nothing had mattered more in his life than defeating those giants. But the giants were just windmills. Is it possible some of the battles we are fighting are just as misguided?”

As Ryan and I have started Jackass Theology, it’s honestly been difficult for us to look at our own tendencies and the emphases of the American Church and not see much of it as misguided. Maybe we haven’t gone full Don Quixote, but it seems clear that we’ve been charging more than a few windmills.

What’s actually being propagated and protected is not Jesus himself, but a subculture produced by followers of Jesus. Not Jesus, but a derivative of Jesus, with all of its own battles and preoccupations. This is nothing new, but the Pharisees are a reminder that derivatives can be dangerous!

The problem, of course, is that Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Those windmills were real giants to him. Nothing had ever mattered more in Don Quixote’s life to that point than courageously battling that particular giant. The error lies not in his sincerity or passion, but in the misguided nature of his pursuits.

Where do you draw the line? What battles do you consider worth fighting? And who do you see yourself fighting against? (Are you always the hero of your own story?)

Might future generations of Jesus followers look back at our preoccupations and wonder how we could have gotten so concerned over these things?

More importantly, might Jesus disagree with the things we spend our passions on? Having encountered Jesus in the four Gospels, does it seem like he’d be uptight and restrictive about the same things we are, fighting all of the same battles we devote ourselves to?

And really, should we be devoting ourselves to any battles? Or should we just be pursuing Jesus and the people he has placed in our lives to love?

Heroes & Villains

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Stories can be compelling. You listen to people long enough and you realize that nearly every conversation is a form of storytelling. Some are like, “Dude, the other day I was moving my grandmother into her house and we dropped the dresser down the stairs! That sucked!” Protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution.

Others are more subtle in their plot line. “Did you hear what so-and-so said about such-and-such? Can you believe that?” It isn’t some super long narrative, but it is a narrative, told by a narrator.

Narrators get to decide who the heroes and villains of each story are. When your friend tells you “so-and-so said such-and-such,” the intonation of their voice, the purse of the lips, and the roll of their eye tells you what you should think about the story. They are immediately, even if unintentionally, offering you a hero or a villain.

Marital counseling brings out the 9-year-old in everyone. This is why marriage counselors like to meet with both partners. When it comes to conflict in a relationship, each person truly believes the other is to blame. If you only get one side of the story, you will often be wooed into perceiving the other spouse to be the villain. Even the worst and most obvious of offenses (e.g., marital infidelity) can be understandable depending on who controls the narrative.

You know who else does this? 9-year-old boys. I know because I have two. They tattle and twist, shift blame, and point fingers until they are blue in the face. Every time they are offended or hurt or frustrated it is at the hand of the other. They are constantly jockeying to get my wife and I to demonstrate that we do in fact love one of them more than the other.

In the Church, we have our heroes and we have our villains too. I read a critical article from the Gospel Coalition Australia on “the dangers of the Bethel Church,” which outlined the pitfalls of their global healing movement. The author says “Jesus Culture, Bethel Music, and Awakening Australia” are “gateway drugs” to Bethel’s weak theology and cultish revivalism. As much as I love the Gospel Coalition (and I really do), the voice in this particular article sounds awfully similar to my pre-pubescent twins. There’s so much finger pointing and so little charity.

This whole “unreliable narrator” phenomenon is actually happening right now as you read this article. In this story, I am the hero, sent to fight all the jackassery that turns us against our fellow believers and makes us feel justified in magnifying other people’s shortcomings like bad caricature artists. Meanie heads like the Gospel Coalition are the villains in this chapter because they oppose the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17. Of course, there’s always another way to tell the story.

If narrators are unreliable, who can we trust? What is true? Who are the real HEROES and VILLAINS?

Actually, this is the wrong question, derived from the wrong job description. Our primary mandate is LOVE: love of God, love among believers, even love of one’s enemy.

Jesus spent a long time going over this.

If narrators are unreliable, who will help us discern these things? Who CAN we trust? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not. Justice must get to the bottom of who did what to whom. Insurance companies need to calculate percentage of culpability, but love doesn’t need that. In fact, love can be given, and is best received, when it isn’t deserved in the slightest (insert the often told but never old story of “The Prodigal Son” in Luke 15).

If the Bible tells any story, humans have a single job: Love. Love God. Love others. God has a more complicated role. He must love. He must judge. But he is far more qualified, and is way better at seeing through our BS.

In the biblical story, human beings often play the role of the villain (with some help from the adversary). God is the hero.

“We are all unreliable narrators. So how will we determine who is the hero and who is the villain? Fortunately, loving human beings doesn’t depend on accurate story telling. Justice does, but love does not.”

Sure, we have our moments when we get to play like heroes. People at Bethel worship Jesus with passion. It’s contagious. GLOBALLY CONTAGIOUS! In that way, and many more, they are my heroes. Leaders and pastors at the Gospel Coalition fight for the clarity of the gospel, and much more. Their passion for Jesus has carried me through very low seasons in life and ministry. But if I need to choose which child of God is the favorite, I can’t. I love them both. They are for now Spirit and Flesh. Which means for now, they are hero and villain. As am I.

We’re All a Little Amish

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Judah Smith recently announced “church in the palm of your hand” in the form of his new Churchome app. We have the technology to easily connect everyone, so why not do it?

I thought of a few reasons. When I first saw Smith’s announcement post, I laughed. Honestly, I thought for it might be satire. How could this be serious? Smith’s video claimed:

“We’re passionate about connecting people with God and each other and this is maybe the most effective platform we’ve ever used in doing so… People can actually build real, tactile relationships all over the world.”

I wondered, “Does he even know what the word ‘tacticle’ means? Or ‘real’?” Right away I saw so many tweets and comments and articles confirming my instincts to shoot this thing down. It was a misguided attempt to be relevant and it’s dangerous.

But then I thought about it a little bit. I talked to some of my friends. I talked to Ryan. And with a little reflection I came to a more profound realization: I’m a huge jackass.

The thing is, churches have historically been slow to adopt new technology. We’re embarrassingly late adopters. But why?

Where would you draw the line with churches utilizing technology? Is it bad for a church to utilize a website? A podcast? An Instagram account? Most of us would say no. But each of these things were slowly and reluctantly picked up by churches.

The same thing happened in the world of education (Christian and otherwise). A few early adopters starting offering classes online, and everyone else mocked them: “They don’t care about students or education, they’re just trying to make a buck.” But then a few more colleges started offering online classes. And then a few more. Now, almost every college offers online classes. But they have found a way to offer real value through a non-traditional platform. Is this the best possible way to do it? Maybe not (though you could make a legitimate argument for it). Is it valuable? Basically every college and tons of students think so.

When radio first became popular, a group of pastors were actually fairly cutting edge in utlizing radio ministries. They saw the potential to reach millions and had a lasting impact because they decided to use that technology to carry the gospel.

When Mr. Rogers first saw television, he was appalled at the way people were using it to degrade other human beings. But he saw its potential, so he dedicated his career to investing in human dignity through this new technology. Here’s the remarkable thing: Mr. Rogers went to seminary because he was going to be a Presbyterian minister. But while all of his classmates graduated and went on to preach thousands of sermons, Fred Rogers started a kids television show. There’s absolutely no way that all of his classmates’ sermons combined had anywhere near the impact of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He didn’t talk about Jesus on the show, but he utilized technology in a way that embodied Jesus’ mission and message, and he impacted millions of lives. (I can’t watch “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” without balling all the way through—something I have done several times already).

All that to say, I was a jackass for mocking Judah Smith. For one thing, I made huge assumptions. I mocked his use of “real” and “tactile” for app-based interactions, but later I learned that his app can connect you with in-person gatherings. He knew what the words meant; I just made uncharitable assumptions. I think Judah Smith knows what church was designed to be, and I think he sees a way that technology can help to facilitate that.

“If we don’t think Judah Smith can use an app to facilitate interactions, then we’re being Amish. And we’re allowed to do that. But we’re not allowed to be jackasses about it.”

Here’s the thing. We’re all using technology in all of our churches, whether it’s instruments, sound systems, projectors, websites, or whatever. We have just drawn a line regarding how much is too much. That’s a total jackass move.

Think of the Amish: they’re known for totally rejecting technology. But it’s not true. Once upon a time, things like wagons and pulleys and even shovels were new technology. The Amish use all of those things; they just got to a point where they decided to avoid all technology developed after 1800 (or whenever, I have no idea). And good for them. As long as they’re not being jackasses about it.

So the thing is, if we don’t think Judah Smith can use an app to facilitate interactions, then we’re being Amish. We’re choosing an arbitrary cutoff for which technologies are compatible with the gospel. And we’re allowed to do that. But we’re not allowed to be jackasses about it. I was. And I’m sorry.