This past week, Matthew Arbo argued very intelligently in an essay for the Gospel Coalition that Christians should not support capital punishment. I’m writing this essay to disagree with Matthew. Though we know each other personally and interact regularly over Twitter, I find that I need more than 140 characters to engage meaningfully with his very well-crafted argument. Ah, but wait! I have a blog. And so it begins.

I should start by noting that Matthew Arbo is more educated, more intelligent, and more philosophically inclined than me. If those facts alone end the argument for you, so be it. But as my high school football coach said, “At least you try hard.” Though I do not claim to be Arbo’s intellectual peer, I do hope to make some thoughtful contribution to the debate through my analysis and critique of his argument.

I write as a cautious supporter of capital punishment. Cautious, because as Arbo deftly points out, the application of this penalty within American jurisprudence leaves much to be desired. I basically agree with the entire second section of Arbo’s essay, in which he surveys the practical problems of racial bias and misapplication of evidence in death-row cases. He concludes that these are “reasons enough to place a temporary national stay on capital punishment” – with which I can heartily agree. However, that’s different than saying that the death penalty itself is objectively wrong. My own position, as I’ve discussed here, is that the death penalty is just in principle though it may be unjust in application. That’s the position I’ll seek to advance in this counter-essay.

Arbo’s contention is that “Christians… should not support [the death penalty],” and he divides his reasoning into three categories: philosophical objections, practical objections, and theological objections. Leaving aside the practical category – since I agree entirely with his points in that area – I’ll focus my counterpoints on his philosophical and theological arguments.

Philosophically, Arbo makes three main points:

  • Execution doesn’t settle the debt of justice: killing the wrongdoer can not reestablish the state of affairs that existed before the murder took place.
  • Capital punishment doesn’t have a pedagogical/restorative purpose: “The dead do not learn from their mistakes.”
  • Capital punishment doesn’t serve as an effective deterrent.

As it stands, I agree with all three of these points. A thoughtful Christian affirmation of capital punishment must affirm that capital punishment cannot undo the injustice of the crime committed, nor teach the offender, nor deter all like crimes. A Christian affirmation of capital punishment rests upon a philosophical foundation that Arbo seems to snub in his argumentation: the doctrine of the imago Dei. If human beings bear the divine image, the taking of a human life is a grave offense, unlike any other. In cases of murder, the death penalty is not required, but it is justified because of the imago Dei. And thus we turn our attention to theological considerations.

At the outset of his theological argument, Arbo seeks to put the burden of proof on those who disagree with him:

If one wishes to base one’s justification for capital punishment on the Old Testament’s lex talionis (eye for an eye) principle, then one must demonstrate how death as a punitive measure is morally right, since the civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ.

In this statement, Arbo has made a category mistake, for the earliest instance of lex talionis – especially as it pertains to the death penalty – is Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Genesis 9 is neither civil nor ceremonial law, but is prior to both. Genesis 9 is a covenantal text. The very next verse is a restatement of the cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). Some biblical scholars categorize Genesis 9 as a “covenant of creation,” in which God pledges his faithfulness never again to destroy the earth: “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). This covenant is made with ALL of humankind, not just with one people: “God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’”(Genesis 9:17). Therefore, Genesis 9:6 cannot be summarily dismissed as “civil or ceremonial law” which is fulfilled in Christ. And, perhaps even more importantly, the justification for lex talionis in Genesis 9:6 is exactly the doctrine of imago Dei: “…for God made man in his own image.”

The burden of proof, then, is on Arbo, not on those who disagree with him. Instead of blithely dismissing appeals to Genesis 9:6 as “far too paradoxical to accept,” he must show with cogent theological reasoning why the covenantal ordinance established in this text has been set aside. Broad, sweeping generalizations of “civil and ceremonial law” won’t do.

Arbo makes a similar category mistake when he asserts that “Christian advocates of capital punishment will also have to reckon with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:38–41, where he makes clear this retaliatory interpretation of the law was incorrect.” But most interpreters understand Jesus to be talking about a personal ethic, not a state ethic. Turning the other cheek to Vladimir Putin makes for bad geopolitics. If retribution is wrong in any and every case – including in national defense – then let’s just turn over the keys to the nearest dictator. (Or maybe we already have? But that’s another post). I surmise Arbo knows his Augustine well enough to respect the Christian just-war tradition, which is rooted in exactly this distinction. While persons are not justified in waging war, nations are. Likewise, capital punishment by the state heads off the temptation toward personal vigilante justice and retribution.

What’s odd about Arbo’s argument is that he seems to conflate arguments against capital punishment with arguments for wisdom in its application. To say it another way: a defender of capital punishment can agree with 70% of Arbo’s assertions in his essay. Without reading into his intentions, it seems he’s adopted a rhetorical strategy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – marshall any and all objections to the death penalty, in principle or application, and imply that they add up to “Christians should oppose the death penalty.” But this just isn’t so. For instance, when he argues, “Governing authorities are sometimes required to use force to uphold the law and secure peace, of course, but nothing constrains them to kill offenders in order to do so… Neither is the Christian insubordinate or disrespectful in pleading for measured clemency,” I find myself saying, “Yes and Amen!” But this is not an argument against the death penalty. It is an argument for wise jurisprudence and faithful Christian witness. And it’s an argument that works equally well for my position as for his.

One final point before I conclude. Arbo ends his essay sounding a note that’s being sounded far and wide in Christian circles these days – the note that “the Christian faith is fully and entirely pro-life—beginning to end.” This idea is being trumpeted as a de facto case against the death penalty, as if a Christian cannot be “consistently pro-life” without being anti-death-penalty. However, I have not yet seen cogent argumentation to back up this assertion. I was hoping that Arbo’s essay might fill the gap, but it didn’t (or it hasn’t yet; perhaps this response will spur fuller treatment). I consider myself someone who is “fully and entirely pro-life,” as well a supporter of the death penalty in principle. I don’t think I’m the only one. Therefore, I plead with all who are repeating this “consistently pro-life” trope:

  • Please distinguish clearly between Christian opposition to the death penalty in principle and Christian opposition to the death penalty in application (or, just admit that the main objections are practical/applicatory, and let’s focus our Christian activism there);
  • Deal meaningfully, exegetically and theologically, with Genesis 9:6;
  • Show why the basic assumptions of just war theory (state ethic vs. personal ethic) don’t apply to the death penalty as well.

Perhaps this work has been (or is being) done somewhere, and I’m just not aware of it. If so, feel free to point me there in the comments section. And then I’ll take Arbo to task for not quoting such work in his essay.

In the end, Arbo has made necessary arguments against the death penalty, but his arguments are not sufficient to establish his conclusion. I say this with humble gratitude for Matthew Arbo as a friend, a brother in Christ, and one of the church’s bright intellectual and philosophical minds. My critiques of his work are offered in charity, with the expectation that he may in fact answer every single objection in this post by breakfast tomorrow. And if he does, I trust I will have served the Lord’s people well by giving him the opportunity.

Good Pictures, Bad Pictures // Kristen A. Jenson and Gail Poyner // Richland, WA: Glen Cove Press, 2016

Back when pornographic magazines were sold behind the gas-station counter, parents could perhaps afford to deal with porn reactively rather than proactively. But in these days of smartphones and ubiquitous wi-fi, a proactive strategy is the only option. Your kids need to hear about porn from you before they encounter it at school or at a friend’s house. And now there’s a great new resource to help you: the book Good Pictures Bad Pictures.

Porn is a $97 billion global industry, and it’s growing rapidly. At the peak of Playboy magazine’s popularity in 1975, it had a circulation of 5.6 million; in 2016, 107 million people in the U.S. visited an adult website every month. One out of every nine internet search requests is for porn. According to Time magazine, the average boy encounters pornography in some form by age 11. But here’s the good news: though 40% of children ages 10-17 have been exposed to online porn, it usually happens accidentally. In other words, your kid isn’t seeking porn. Rather, porn is seeking him. Porn marketers want to push their way into your child’s life early – especially if he is male – so they can hook him as a consumer for life. If you can prepare him for battle with a proactive strategy, you can counteract the negative effects of porn before they wreck your child’s sexual and emotional future.

But how do you talk about porn with young kids? Porn is so dark – so evil – that it’s tough to know how to discuss it without compromising a child’s innocence. Kristen Jenson and Gail Poyner understand – and they’ve given us a resource to help. Poyner is a licensed clinical psychologist and therapist. Jenson is a best-selling author and anti-porn activist. Together, they’ve put together a children’s book that tackles the subject squarely yet sensitively. Using the concept of “bad pictures,” they help kids understand in a simple but honest way what pornography is. And they teach kids neuroscience in the process! The book explores the difference between the “feeling brain” (the limbic system) and the “thinking brain” (the prefrontal cortex), helping kids understand how addiction hijacks the brain’s reward system. After reading this book, your kids won’t just know to say “no” to porn; they’ll understand why porn can initially seem exciting or interesting, and why that can be so dangerous.

In the Introduction (intended for parents), Jenson and Poyner explain why they wrote the book:

We wrote Good Pictures Bad Pictures as a tool to help parents begin a dialogue about pornography before kids become interested in it and while they still see their parents as a credible source of information. In other words… to get in first and immunize kids against the very real harms of “picture poison…” Internet filters are important, but not enough. When it comes to kids and pornography, ignorance is risk… A child’s brain is more vulnerable to porn because it is designed to imitate what it sees. Additionally, a child’s brain has less ability to control those imitative impulses. Viewing pornography can alter the brain’s neural pathways… Today’s Internet pornography goes way beyond the nude, still photos of men’s magazines. It has metastasized into a hundred thousand variants of degrading violence, including rape, sex with children, group sex, and horrors we won’t describe here… That’s why kids must develop their own internal filters. We call it porn-proofing: empowering kids by teaching them what pornography is, why it’s harmful to their brains, and how they can minimize its impact once they have been exposed.

 Even the book’s art is thoughtful. “When I asked myself the question, ‘How do we illustrate a book for kids about pornography?’” writes Jenson, “I knew I wanted the illustrations to be in watercolor. They needed to be classic and soft to counter the harshness of pornography; and real, not cartoonish – I didn’t want to risk trivializing this serious problem.” The book ends with a five-step plan that’s simple, easy to remember, and empowers kids to reject porn when they encounter it.

Good Pictures Bad Pictures is intended for 7-8 year olds. It will work with kids up to about age 11 or 12, but will likely “miss” with teenage readers, who will prefer a more mature treatment of the issues. If you’re looking to porn-proof your kids early, this book is an absolutely wonderful resource. I earnestly recommend it. Get it. Read it. Pass it along to others. You’ll be glad you did.

Here’s a link to the book’s website, where you can learn more and order a copy.

Today (29 Jan 2017) I preached a sermon titled “Politics in Exile,” from 1 Peter 2:13-17. Below are quotes and links to the sources I used in this sermon.

Quote from Tacitus, Roman Historian, 55-117 AD

Yet no human effort, no princely largesse nor offerings to the gods could make that infamous rumor disappear that Nero had somehow ordered the fire. Therefore, in order to abolish that rumor, Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians, who were infamous for their abominations. The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius; and though repressed, this destructive superstition erupted again, not only through Judea, which was the origin of this evil, but also through the city of Rome, to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated.

Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted… they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps. Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle… people began to pity these sufferers, because they were consumed not for the public good but on account of the fierceness of one man.

Source: World Civilization reader at Washington State University, accessed here

Quote from Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

Source: University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center, accessed here

Sermon Recap: Because of the gospel, we are…

  • Free to Submit (v. 13-14)
  • Free to Subvert (v. 15)
  • Free to Serve (v. 16)
  • Free to Honor (v. 17)

Listen to the entire sermon here

For years, I’ve been looking for a clear, simple, charitable treatment of the key theological differences between Protestants and Catholics. Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo have finally produced such a book, and it’s a refreshing and insightful read.

The Unfinished Reformation is only 171 pages including endnotes. That means it’s the kind of book you can read in a weekend. And yet, Allison and Castaldo don’t compromise depth for the sake of brevity. They offer plenty of theological rigor, appealing to primary sources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, and Calvin’s Institutes. More importantly, they recognize important intellectual pre-commitments that are in play for readers on both the Protestant and Catholic sides of the table. Their first chapter begins: “Catholic and Protestant teaching frequently suffers from selective quotation without regard to official documents and without taking into consideration how religious ideas influence the faithful.” Amen and amen. Both Protestant and Catholic readers will be pleased with the tone and tenor of this book as it traces key points of agreement and difference.

Allison and Castaldo begin their work by identifying ten areas where Protestants and Catholics stand together. After establishing this common ground, they proceed to outline key areas of difference. They frame each difference as a question (for instance, “What is the Church?” or “How Do the Sacraments Work?”) and then show how each tradition answers that question. The authors write as unashamed Protestants. But Castaldo’s Roman Catholic roots and Allison’s academic integrity motivate them to represent the Catholic point of view cogently, charitably, and accurately. Roman Catholic readers will find no hint of polemic, caricature, or oversimplification; only a clear, nuanced treatment of Catholic theology and practice.

Within Coram Deo Church (and others like it), many worshipers have come to evangelical convictions after being raised in a Roman Catholic heritage. For such people, the ability to winsomely and intelligently discuss areas of agreement and disagreement is crucial. Why might your parents see your evangelical awakening as a decision to leave the faith? Why might your family members react negatively when you don’t baptize your child in the Catholic tradition? The reasons are theological. And understanding each other’s theological convictions can lead to more fruitful, constructive, and charitable conversations.

The danger of a book like this is that it’s bound to leave some readers on both sides of the aisle disappointed. After all, we’ve been arguing about the merits and demerits of the Reformation for five centuries now. It’s impossible to capture 500 years of ecclesial history in 200 pages. So to some, The Unfinished Reformation may seem a little bit… uncomplicated.

But in my opinion, that’s precisely the book’s strength. Without sacrificing theological precision, it keeps things simple and basic. And that’s exactly what many people are seeking: an easy-to-digest, reliable tour guide to the key differences between Protestants and Catholics. This book may not qualify you for a master’s degree in theological studies… but it will certainly help your conversations at Thanksgiving dinner.

Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).

The biggest problem with good Christian books about sex… is the lack of them.

I don’t mean that Christians don’t write about sex. We have, and we do. But our writing tends to be thin and simplistic. Christian writers have mostly failed to engage the significant cultural narratives about sexuality and personhood that frame the context for modern thinking. As Jonathan Grant puts it, something about our cultural moment “makes the Christian vision of sexuality seem naïve and unrealistic at best and downright repressive at worst, even to many young Christians.” And THAT’S the problem the church needs to tackle. Generally speaking, we do provide moral instruction. But that moral instruction is often divorced from a coherent narrative framework that makes it meaningful.

That’s the gap Grant seeks to fill with his excellent book Divine Sex (Brazos Press, 2015). It’s a thoughtful book, a meaningful book, even a compelling book (as its subtitle claims). Why? Because Grant deeply understands both the biblical vision of sexuality and the modern cultural context in which we are seeking to live out that vision.

The basic conviction of this book is that Christian faith and secular culture exist in complex interrelationship. This creates both challenges and opportunities for discipleship. The first part of the book considers the following questions: what is the modern self, and how does it approach sexual relationships? How has our cultural moment shaped what we think and do in this area? Having identified the signs of the times and their influence, the second part will propose an alternative Christian vision of personal identity as the basis for a practical model of formation, one that integrates issues relating to sexuality and relationships (Grant, 25).

In other words, Grant is going to place his discussion of sexuality within the larger category of personhood. Sex is something that persons do, and so our vision of sexuality is integrally bound up with our understanding of the self. Set within that context, it becomes clear that a counter-cultural vision of selfhood is crucial to a Christian sexual ethic.

Part One of Grant’s book, titled “Mapping the Modern Sexual Imaginary,” sets out to name the cultural influences that shape the modern self and therefore the modern vision of sexuality. By drawing heavily upon academic sociological research, Grant makes this part of his book almost unassailable – this is just the way things are, and the studies prove it. He focuses on five features of our cultural landscape that shape our thinking about sex:

  • Individualism: We live in a “culture of authenticity” which encourages us to create our own beliefs and express our own unique identity. Because we are shaped by individualism, we find ourselves caught between intimacy and autonomy, unable to sustain deep commitments for fear that they will keep us from being “true to ourselves.”
  • Freedom: We have been taught to understand freedom as unrestricted, unrestrained personal choice. Because of this (mistaken) thinking, we are caught in the “freedom trap,” desiring total autonomy and self-determination, but cut off from the mentorship and deep friendship that can actually help us grow into full maturity.
  • Consumerism: Modern capitalism trains us to acquire, consume, and move on, with novelty as our guiding impulse. Under the influence of consumerism, people and relationships become commodities. “What we do with things, we will inevitably do with people.”
  • Hypersexuality: Our culture has reduced sexuality to sex. This causes us to use sex as a “happiness technology,” emptying sex of its deeper meaning and losing our ability for relational intimacy. In a porn-ified world, “We become performers and consumers rather than genuine participants.”
  • The Loss of Transcendence: The naturalistic, scientific view of the world as a closed system has undercut our sense of meaning or purpose in the universe. We live with a “low horizon.” Because of this loss of transcendence, we lack a coherent vision for life and for sexuality, and we are left with the narrow utilitarian goal of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. We see relationships as transactional. “Our bodies become pleasure machines.”

This section of the book isn’t exactly encouraging. The mal-formative sexual influences around us are many and powerful, and Grant describes them cogently. After reading his bleak portrayal, readers will be ready to embrace a deeper, more thoughtful, more holistic strategy for Christian discipleship. And that’s what Grant sets out to provide in Part Two: Charting a New Course for Christian Formation. He wants us to think in terms of counter-formation: not just teaching basic doctrine, but shaping a “Christian social imaginary” that envisions a whole different kind of life.

This second section is the brilliance of Grant’s project. Rather than focusing on simple moral instruction, Grant wants Christians to embrace the thick, coherent vision of human personhood that grounds the biblical sexual ethic and gives it meaning and significance. The Bible gives us a new vision, a new story, a new community, and new practices.

  • A New Vision: The biblical sexual ethic is rooted in a comprehensive vision of life which is eschatological (focused on the future kingdom of God), metaphysical (grounded in a vision of ultimate reality that anchors our lives now), and formational (virtue-shaping, not merely rule-following). “The Christian vision of sexuality is less like putting out ‘Do Not Walk on the Grass’ signs and more like marking out the boundaries of a field so that the game of life can be played well and with conviction… Our hearts must be truly captivated by the goodness of the Christian vision of life, so that our whole self is drawn toward it, or our commitment to live in tune with it will be brittle.”
  • A New Story: Modern culture is a powerful storyteller. It offers us a steady diet of “sexual scripts” that reinforce a particular narrative of sexuality. In contrast, Christians need to practice “narrative discipleship” – immersing ourselves in the story of the gospel in a way that counteracts our culture’s sexual scripts. “The single most important thing you can do for your family and church community may be… [to] develop a strong common story.”
  • A New Community: As ground zero for Christian counter-formation, the church needs to be a thick, deep, formative context, not just a weekly social gathering. God’s family needs to nurture its spiritual children – not just by teaching truth, but by shaping virtue and forming identity. Particularly important in this process is the role of exemplars – mature living examples who embody the faith and can provide a pattern for others to follow.
  • New Practices: Evangelical Christianity tends to under-emphasize habits and rituals. Grant quotes Richard Rohr’s quip that we don’t “think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Therefore, we need Christian counter-practices that prepare us for alternative ways of imagining and living. Disciplines such as prayer, personal Bible study, immersion in small-group community, embodied worship, and solitude help to train us for life in the kingdom. Rather than just expecting these practices to happen, the church needs to become a laboratory where these habits can be built and explored together.

As helpful as Grant’s overall vision is, the real genius of this book is in the details. A sentence here or a paragraph there will stop the reader cold and provoke an awakening of new insight. The margins of my copy are filled with scribbled exclamations like “Yes!” and “Finally!” and “This is good.” Here are a few examples:

  • Whereas contemporary culture thinks about sex mainly as an experience, Scripture and Christian tradition have always thought about it in terms of virtue or character. Christian sexuality is primarily something we are becoming rather than something we do.
  • “Chastity” is a deeply misunderstood concept today. We tend to associate it with sexual celibacy, but chastity is a virtue that relates equally to singleness and marriage; it is not directly about sex at all. Chastity is… emotional sincerity or integrity, by which we express our feelings honestly.
  • The way we disciple people within the church… sets out clear moral rules, rather than thinking about how we might become the sort of people who actually live by these convictions. The flaw in this cognitive approach is its assumption that everyone is morally mature and has the power to do whatever he or she chooses to do.

Grant’s theological vision of of singleness is beautiful and compelling. His observations about “social or affective sexuality” are amazingly perceptive. And his nuanced distinction between “desire for sex” and “sexual desire” will fuel fresh hope in those seeking to live with sexual integrity.

Last week, one of my friends went to a youth event where the speaker challenged teens toward sexual purity. It was the standard “save sex for marriage” talk. Such messages, though true and necessary, will have less and less persuasive power in the modern social imaginary – which is why we need the excellent resource Jonathan Grant has given us. If you want to talk meaningfully about sex… if you need to redeem your own thinking about sex… if you long to disciple others into a vision of Christian sexuality that’s beautiful and compelling… you need Jonathan Grant’s book on your shelf.