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Right off the bat, I’ll own that this title is pretentious. But I just had this realization, and I think it’s profoundly true. I’ll need to improve my titling skills, because while this post should be broadly relatable, I’m sure the title scared most people away. But not you, dear reader. Thanks for giving me a chance here.

The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. (Follow me on this—I promise it will pay off.) For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tend to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). And some of these works claim to be compilations of writings from still others. Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published several books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could save our world? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens and dismantle our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Keller or Wright or Lewis. When I think about it, it’s extremely binary. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

What is this pull I feel to identify with some authors over others, as though I need to check [favorite author]’s views before I know what I believe? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away with deeper understanding and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with an author’s arguments? How does it help me to be able to claim to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Are we not perpetuating the problem by relying on a few individuals to do our thinking for us? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you never really know what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself,” to use a Kierkegaardian phrase. With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Kierkegaard was extremely controversial in his day, and cartoons like this were often printed in newspapers, where he was mocked for his pants and curved spine. People tend to be uncomfortable with those who challenge the norms.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. And your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good. IT’S US OR THEM! RIGHT NOW! Our figure head has made this or that statement, so fall in line!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian way of reading things. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits. It’s not about blind adherence, it’s about the journey.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by blindly following your tribe’s voting guide or statement of faith. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

[If you want to give Kierkegaard a try, I recommend starting with this fantastic biography, or this brief but helpful guide to his thought.]

Earlier this week, a group of 21 Egyptian Christians, members of the Coptic Church, were beheaded. The accusation against them: they were “people of the cross, members of the hostile Egyptian Church.” This unfathomable act was carried out by ISIS—an act of barely veiled evil, supposedly done in service to God. Religious people everywhere (most Muslims included) are horrified at this and other atrocities committed by the Islamic State.

As I hear about this beheading, I am in the middle of my semester, in which I am teaching two courses that give me two unique perspectives on this event. On the one hand, I am teaching about the persecution endured by the Christians in the first three centuries. On the other hand, I am teaching through the book of Revelation. The church history course gives historical perspective; the Revelation course gives eternal and theological perspective.

In talking about the early church, we have been looking at many examples of Christians who bravely met their death. From sometimes sporadic and sometimes full-scale persecutions under Roman emperors to persecutions in China, India, Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East for most of Christian history, persecution has been the church’s constant companion. Paul promised: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). And he meant it. Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have tribulation,” but he also went on to say, “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Throughout history, many of our Christian brothers and sisters have boldly chosen death over disgrace, martyrdom over apostasy. Most of these martyrs didn’t actually have to die: there was a simple escape from their painful deaths (often preceded by torture). All they had to do was renounce Jesus. And yet that simple act was more than they could bear; death was a far more attractive option.

Despite numerous attempts throughout church history (and apparent victories in specific areas at specific times), evil has not been able to stop the followers of Christ from, well, following Christ—from picking up their own cross and accepting death on behalf of their Lord. As Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

These 21 men bravely joined the prestigious ranks of those who have demonstrated that Jesus matters more than their own lives. As Hebrews says, these are people “of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38).

At the same time, I’ve been teaching through the book of Revelation. Though there is much disagreement about the nature and timing of Revelation, the book was originally written to seven churches on the verge of intense persecution from the Roman empire (or “Babylon,” as Revelation refers to it). The letter of Revelation was written to keep them standing strong in the face of persecution. Some churches were in danger of flirting with the evil empire, and Revelation calls them to remain faithful. Other churches were about to suffer for their faith, and Jesus says to them: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

Standing firm as a faithful witness to the reign of Jesus—even in the face of death—is a key theme in Revelation. Revelation calls all Christians to be ready to lay down our lives rather than deny Jesus in our words or our actions.

In calling us to be faithful witnesses to the point of death, Revelation is calling us to follow the example of Jesus. Towards the beginning of the book, John hears an announcement of “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” who has “conquered” (5:5). And as John turns to look upon this conquering, kingly Lion, he seems something startling: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (v. 6). What John sees interprets what John hears. Jesus is indeed the King, the conquering Lion. But the way in which he has conquered is by dying as a sacrificial Lamb. This then sets the stage for the followers of the Lamb.

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

Throughout the book of Revelation, the followers of the Lamb are called to “conquer” in the same way the Lamb conquered: “They have conquered him [the dragon: Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11). It is fascinating that in Revelation, the same event in which Satan and the evil empire are said to conquer over God’s people (11:7, 13:7)—namely, martyring them—is also the event in which the martyrs are said to conquer Satan and evil (12:11). The evil empire believes that it is conquering by killing the saints; the saints are assured that they are conquering the evil empire by dying. We are reminded of Paul’s words:

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Faithful witness is the call throughout Revelation, and martyrs throughout history have answered this call.

So as I heard about ISIS beheading 21 Christians and referring to them as “the people of the cross,” I thought: they got that exactly right. People of the cross indeed. People who are willing to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. And as I heard of one of the ISIS soldiers claiming, “we will conquer Rome,” I thought: they got that exactly wrong. They are siding with Rome, with Babylon, with the beast, with the evil empire. And the men they beheaded are the ones who truly conquered Rome.

Because our Christian brothers went to death for the sake of Jesus’ name, choosing faithful witness to the lordship of Jesus over their own lives, evil was conquered on Sunday. Just as in the crucifixion of Jesus, evil has been conquered in the very act by which it meant to conquer.

So to our Christian brothers who defeated ISIS: Thank you for reminding us that Jesus is better than life. Thank you for showing us that death is not defeat, that those who remain faithful to death will receive the crown of life. We are inspired by your allegiance to the slaughtered Lamb, and we are resolved to follow the Lamb into the heavenly city, where he has already wiped every tear from your eyes (Rev. 7:17, 21:4).

Now that attention has turned from Miley to the civil war in Syria, people everywhere are wondering: Should America intervene?

The cause for intervention, of course, stems from August 21, when Syrian President al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against rebel forces, leading to the death of over 1,400 people including several hundred children. (Evidence that al-Assad is responsible is still inconclusive.) Should the U.S. intervene against Syria? Even though Obama is pushing hard in favor of an attack, the response from the American people has been an overwhelming “no.”

news.yahoo.com

news.yahoo.com

According to one poll, 7 out of 10 Americans are not in support of a military invasion, and Christians of all denominations (Catholics and Protestants) have been united against a military intervention. Even conservative Evangelicals, who in recent years have been the most eager for military intervention in the Middle East, are largely opposed to a U.S. backed invasion of Syria.

But why?

While I too join my Christian brothers and sisters in opposing a military intervention, I’ve been less than enthusiastic over some of the reasons people give for not intervening.

For instance, some say that America shouldn’t intervene because it wouldn’t advance American interests. Maybe it wouldn’t, but we are all made in God’s image and advancing the interests of one particular nation (possibly at the expense of people in other nations) doesn’t seem to vibe with a Christian worldview.

Or, we should not intervene because it would cost too much money. This is true, but I think we need to ask deeper questions. Let’s say that an invasion would cost 10 billion dollars and thousands of lives were spared, then we could morally argue that it was worth every penny. The question isn’t so much is it expensive, but will intervention accomplish peace? More specifically: should Christians support the use of violence to confront evil?

I’ve already argued where I stand on this, so I won’t belabor the point. Another related question is: how will an intervention affect the kingdom of God in Syria? Christians need to think theologically and ecclesiologically—not just politically—about the potential western invasion of Syria.

Syria has a long, rich Christian tradition. Currently, an estimated 10-15% of the population are Christian—many of them are former Iraqis who fled to Syria after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (2003) nearly decimated the Christian church. If the U.S. does in Syria what it did in Iraq, it will most probably wreak havoc on our brothers and sisters, who will be killed, maimed, tortured, exiled, and raped. Even worse, if the U.S. helps topple the Syrian government, this will create a power vacuum that will most certainly be filled by Islam extremists, who will further propound the violence towards Christ’s bride in Syria.

Religious historian Philip Jenkins rightly concludes:

If the U.S., France, and some miscellaneous allies strike at the regime, they could conceivably so weaken it that it would collapse. Out of the ruins would emerge a radically anti-Western regime, which would kill or expel several million Christians and Alawites. This would be a political, religious, and humanitarian catastrophe unparalleled since the Armenian genocide almost exactly a century ago.

Even if a Western invasion was inexpensive, even if no Americans would lose their lives, even if it would hugely further American interests, and even if success was guaranteed, I would still oppose a military invasion. How could I support something that will rip apart the body of Christ?

But do we only care about Christians who are, or will, suffer? Shouldn’t we also care for the non-Christian people who are suffering?

Yes, absolutely. The global community should do something. But I don’t think that either a military strike or doing nothing are the only two options. Traditional just war theory teaches that war should be waged as a last resort; that is, after all other nonviolent means have been exhausted. Has America exhausted all those means?

US BorderUnited States citizenship is a hot issue. Many people in the world would love to become US citizens. And many people inside of the US are trying very hard to keep them from becoming US citizens.

Now, like almost every other American, I admit that I did nothing to earn or deserve being born in the United States (and thus becoming a US citizen).[1] I also acknowledge that statistically the odds of me being born in the United States were not in my favor.

I was born in 1983. According to the United Nations 2012 Revision of the World Population Prospects,[2] there were 646,453,000 people born between 1980 and 1985. Of that number only 18,331,000 were born in the United States. So, I basically had a 3% chance of being born in the United States. This was slightly better than my chances of being born somewhere in Central America (a lower 3%), but slightly worse than my chances of being born in Pakistan (4%). I probably should have been born in China (an 18% chance) or India (a 19% chance).

Almost everyone in the world would admit that there are advantages that come with being a U.S. citizen. As a Christian, I think it is only fair to ask myself, “How am I using those advantages for the sake of the gospel?” and “Will I be held responsible if I do not use those advantages properly?”

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the talents. In the parable, a man puts a certain amount of his wealth in the hands of his servants before going on a journey. We are told that he gives to each of his servants according to their ability. When the master returns, he asks for an account of what his servants did with his money. Those servants that were faithful with what they were entrusted with are praised by the master and then given even more responsibility by the master. The servant who was not faithful has his talent taken from him, and he is thrown into the outer darkness.

Harsh as it may seem, this parable reflects the reality that God expects his people to make good use of the abilities, opportunities, and resources he has given them. I believe that my US citizenship is one of the “talents” God has given me. In light of this, I decided to ask myself hard questions to see if I was being faithful with this particular “talent.” Here are some of the questions I asked myself:

1)    Am I using my money and my ability to generate income for the sake of the gospel? In 2011, the median household income in the United States was $50,054. In 2011, 33% of the population of India lived on less than $1.25 a day; in Kenya 43% lived on less than $1.25 a day.[3] Those of us in the United States are filthy rich compared to the rest of the world. Am I giving faithfully to my local church? Am I giving generously to groups seeking to further the kingdom of God? Are there areas in my life were I can cut back on my spending so I can be more generous?

2)    Am I making good use of my time? Because of technological advances my family does not need to spend hours each day carrying water or gathering fuel to heat our home. What am I doing with that free time?

3)    Am I taking advantage of my religious freedom to share Jesus with my neighbors? I live in a country where it is legal to be a Christian. Am I actively engaging with people who don’t know Jesus or am I am content to just hang out with other Christians? Am I taking advantage of the freedom to share my convictions with others?

4)    Am I participating in the political process in a way that makes Jesus look good? I live in a country that allows its citizens to participate in the political process. Am I participating in a way that promotes peace? That works to defend the poor and the oppressed? That confronts greed? That encourages the love of friends and enemies alike?

Of course, there are many such questions that we should be asking ourselves. These are only a few. My hope is that Christians living in the United States will begin to see that their US citizenship is not primarily a “right” but a “talent” that God has entrusted to them for the sake of the gospel advancing.

 


[1] If they were still alive I would definitely thank my great-grand parents for hopping on that boat that brought them here.

Over the last 48 hours, our government has released several warnings about increasing terrorist activity against the United States. Several U.S. embassies have been closed and panic is beginning to swell across America.

But I am not panicked. I am not nervous, scared, or worried that my freedom is under threat. Because I serve another Ruler, One who reigns over America and the Middleterrorism East. I can smile at the terrorist threat and say: Let them come.

Let them come.

Come, come, Oh terrorist. My freedom was purchased by the blood of my Creator and He won’t let you take it. It’s not for resale. Freedom is bought by dying, not by killing. And my freedom to live and die and love is eternal.

Come, come, visit the land of my exile with bombs and rockets. Here’s my flesh: take it! But you cannot have my soul—it belongs to Another.

You can blow me up, but I will never die. If you kill me, I win. My life is not bound to my passport, and my fate is not connected to a flag.

You cannot crucify me. I’ve already been strapped to a wooden beam.

You cannot bury me. I’ve been buried with the One whom earth could not hold.

I cannot die. I’ve already died and been raised with the One who conquered death by dying.

Death, death, where is your sting? Oh terrorist, your weapons are too weak. They do not sting. They only itch. They are a nuisance to my earthly comfort.

Discomfort me, Oh terrorist. Take away my pillow. Blow up my yacht. Crush my car. Mosquitoes are a nuisance. They cause me to itch. They ruin my comfort. But my soul has no blood to suck.

You’re missing the mark. I do not belong to a kingdom of this world. Dig up the gates of hell and throw them at me. Even those don’t stand a chance. You can burn my bios but you can’t singe my zoe.

Come, come, Oh terrorist and inject me with suffering. It too has been redeemed. Transformed from an itch into eternal glory. The more I suffer the stronger I become.

Obi Wan: “You cannot win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful that you could possibly imagine.”

Jesus: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Come, bury me in the ground, Oh terrorist. Plant my grain with your bombs and watch it grow. Fire harder and nurture the fruit.

But your tactics are not wholly lost. There’s a hidden gem in your plan. Your bombs, your fear, your hatred are destroying us. They have wormed their way into our soul and poisoned our freedom. They’ve poised the soil and rotted our fruit. Oh terrorist: You’ve waged a war and you are winning.

Because your hatred and violence has been returned in kind.

My enemy, my enemy, instead of loving you we hate you. Instead of turning the cheek we have loaded a gun. Our bombs are bigger than yours and our anger has snuffed out our love. Your bombs have fallen to the ground and produced rotten fruit:

Vengeance

Hatred

And Violence.

Oh terrorist, your plan has worked. Did you intend it this way? You have lured the Bride of the Lamb into her neighbor’s house and she has found a lover.

John the seer: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.”