The Cooked Books of the Fallen Man
There are two ways to think about your position on any given matter. You can think about how good or bad your position is, and you can think about how good or bad it makes you to hold that position. And most of us experience a mixture of that thinking at any given time. Few of us think about our positions in purely one set of terms or the other.
But some of us tend more to consider our positions in terms of whether our positions are good or bad, while others of us tend to be more concerned with whether holding a position makes the position holder good or bad. So, for instance, you might have an abortion opponent who believes that opposition to abortion is a good position, arguing with an abortion defender who believes that his defense of abortion makes him a good person. Having a difference of opinion, in this instance, is compounded by having a difference of perspective and approach, so that each is baffled by the arguments the other is making.
To the extent that this is true it is a helpful insight into the moral economy that accounts for the newly widespread support for transgender developments.
There are several important implications, if, as I suggest, many of us are prone to keeping a sort of moral ledger in which we keep our accounts of virtue, a record of the ways in which our positions make us good.
First, much of the moral currency tracked in that ledger is a matter of positions held, rather than actions taken (remember that some of us feel strongly that merely holding a position can make you good or bad.)
Second, the value assigned to that particular type of moral currency is proportional to the perception that holding the position is somehow contrarian. The value of the moral good, as with a physical good, is diminished by mass production. If everyone holds the position it is of little value and is scarcely worth adding to the moral ledger. This is why the invention of hordes of spectral opponents is often a feature of the liberal narrative: it is an effort to artificially prop up the value of the liberal position long after that position has culturally prevailed.
Third, opposition might make you feel more morally affluent (because your position is not a universally shared good) but opposition that actually succeeded in proving that your position does not make you good would have a bankrupting effect on your ledger. The moral ledger keeper has a need/fear relationship with opposition.
Fourth, there is an avarice for moral advantage among those who keep a moral ledger, a greed for more moral credit. And, where that avarice provides the motivation, there will be great interest in those positions that offer the greatest return at the least personal expense.
The transgender moment in America looks like the product of infernal designs, being perfectly shaped to appeal to the moral ledger keeper. Holding the position that young people should be encouraged to reject the gender assigned to them at birth for a preferred identity makes for, by a certain accounting, very valuable moral currency. And the cost associated with this position is borne entirely by the afflicted. But, and this is the devilish genius of it all, holding the position allows you not just to morally profit from the pain of the afflicted, but to pretend that it is no affliction at all.
The gospel, of course, is a great blow to the moral ledger keeper. It sweeps the books away with majestic scorn. And the cultural influence of the gospel is directly and indirectly evident in all those who put more emphasis on whether a position is good or bad than on whether holding a position makes you good or bad.
You would not expect evangelical Christians to keep the moral ledger. They are people who know that “all have fallen short,” that all of their righteousness is “as filthy rags,” and that only the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is worth keeping track of or invoking.
But try this thought experiment: Imagine that a great many of your neighbors began treating monopoly money as though it had real value. You would be bemused and dismissive. You would regard people fighting over the scraps of paper and shake your head in disgust. You would wisely observe that they were energetically pursuing it but that you never saw them spending it.
But something funny would happen after a long enough time. With their sustained interest in the monopoly money a niggling doubt would arise in you. You would begin to wonder if you might be missing something. Maybe the monopoly money didn’t have any value to you, but considering all of the effort you saw being expended in pursuit of it could you really say that it had no value at all?
And then one day you would stumble across a little wad of monopoly bills, overlooked and available, free for the taking. And your reason would tell you that it’s nothing more than colored paper that should be disregarded. But something deeper than your reason would make your heart race at the sight of it. This thing that is deeper than reason would start sweating with urgency and would ask you to grab it, telling you that it might be worthless but that there could be no harm in adding it to your wallet.
This, I think, is what happens with Christians who find themselves taking positions that contradict all their previous convictions. They could not resist the allure of some moral currency they could enter into a ledger they had not previously thought to keep. And their commitment to that ledger will, by degrees, end up taking them further and further from Christ.
That being the case, the ministry of pastors and parents has to be considered in terms of its impact on the economy of the moral ledger keeper. It is certainly necessary to affirm the truth and to refute lies, but doing so can exacerbate the problem when our loud advocacy for a particular position has the effect of driving up the perceived value of the opposing position to the ones holding it. Every time I argue my opposition to the transgender movement, those who support it express a dismay that is belied by the pleasure they feel in seeing their moral stock go up.
If the very act of opposing the position, however thoughtfully, logically and irrefutably, only has the effect of strengthening our opponent’s resolve by increasing the value of his portfolio, what is left for us to do?
The answer is not in direct opposition. It is somewhat counter intuitive and sideways.
We must insist on the gospel. That's it.
We must teach people to distrust the books they have kept. We have to make them feel that they have been self-serving accountants in a company more messed up than Enron ever was. We must break the spell that their grubby stash of monopoly money, the catalog of all their "righteous" positions has held over them. And we do this by lifting Jesus high. It is only at the foot of the cross that I am able to appreciate that I have been adorned in filthy rags and it is only there that I am willing to reconsider the positions I had believed made me so good.
Preacher Say What? August 2016
From time to time I want to give you some insight into what I'm thinking and what's shaping my thinking by giving you suggestions about something to read, something to hear, something to learn, and someone to follow.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance
The author begins his book by acknowledging that it might be presumptuous for one so young to be writing a memoir, but everyone who reads the book will be glad he didn't wait any longer to publish it.
It's not really so much a memoir as it is an immensely insightful and sympathetic window into a huge, but largely voiceless, swath of America as told through the experiences of one man.
I read the book in one day and cried at a number of places in the narrative.
A word of warning: there is a lot of profanity in the dialogue that he records. It's undoubtedly authentic, but it can make for a very uncomfortable reading experience.
And his insights into the intersection of the Christian faith and the subculture he came from are fascinating and challenging, but they can also feel like an indictment. It's a little hard to read portions of the booking without feeling defensive.
Giants & Pilgrims
The husband and wife team of Betony and Tim Coons are Giants & Pilgrims. Their two albums are full of thoughtful and moving songs that deal with life and faith. I love the music, and the lyrics are worthy of the effort you put into listening. And if you like the music you need to go to their website and follow the blog for the benefit of their artwork.
Thriving in Babylon, Larry Osborne
In this training post on RightNow Media, Larry Osborne uses the life of Daniel to help us see the many ways in which our life as believers can actually thrive in what seems like an increasingly hostile setting. Watch the 37 minute video of excellent biblical teaching and answer the questions.
And if you have not yet signed up for RightNow Media why haven't you. Furnace Brook has a subscription so that the library of thousands of hours of excellent Bible material (think the Netflix of Christian faith formation) will be available to the people of Furnace Brook for free. Sign up today!
Thom Rainer, President LifeWay International
In addition to being the head of LifeWay International, Thom Rainer is the author of several indispensable books. But I would encourage you to follow him on twitter and facebook because he does a great job of providing advice to the church that manages to be helpfully applicable and saturated in biblical wisdom at the same time. I never have to regret the time I spend paying attention to him.
And his self-effacing humor makes him even more appealing.
Furnace Brook Wesleyan Church Blog