Why the Last Shall be First

A recurrent theme in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels is the so-called “upside-down kingdom”—the idea that the stations of human beings in the next world will be the reverse of what they are in this world. For example, in Luke 9 we read that “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest’” (vs. 46-48). And in Matthew 20:16 Jesus sums this up by saying “the last will be first and the first will be last.”

I have long wondered why God set it up this way. Why should the least here be the greatest in the kingdom of God?  And for a long time my best answer was that there is a certain beauty in this—that God would choose this way of doing things for aesthetic reasons. Such irony, after all, makes for a more compelling artistic narrative, right? I still think this is true, but now I believe the fundamental reason is more straightforward. It has to do with our proper place as creations of God. In short, we were made to serve, to be God’s subjects. This is a fundamentally humble role, of course. And although plainly biblical, we are chafed by it because we are naturally prideful. (Even many Christian organizations which claim to emphasize servanthood only do so by using the term “servant” as an adjective describing “leadership,” a fact which shows just how problematic “servanthood” is from a marketing standpoint.).

Human beings, like all other beings in the universe, were created to serve God. And as rational, conscious beings, we were designed to choose to serve God. Such humility is, as I have argued in several places, our proper place and highest virtue (as indicated by the Kenosis passage in Phil. 2:5-11). To be among the least, in an intentional and voluntary way, is to demonstrate the will to serve, a desire to assume one’s proper place in a universe ruled by a sovereign God. In short, then, what I am proposing is that the reason for the “upside-down” kingdom, that the last will be first and the least will be greatest, is that choosing to serve effectively demonstrates the will to fulfill one’s created purpose, to do the job God made us to do. Such a commitment, therefore, isn’t just symbolically or metaphorically “great.” It really is true greatness.

The irony we see in this is only due to the fact that, as fallen human beings we are so disinclined to recognize our proper place of humble subjection to God. We have a natural, sinful tendency to want to be first and to have others serve us, not vice versa. And the overwhelming majority of human beings act accordingly. From such a perspective, Jesus’ teaching is strikingly paradoxical and counter-intuitive. But, again, if God is the sovereign ruler of the cosmos who has created all people to serve him, it’s not really paradoxical at all, nor should it be counter-intuitive to those who have embraced and fully interiorized his lordship. It is neither paradox nor even irony. It is just a basic fact of reality.

The Best and Worst of 2020

It has been an eventful year. On top of the Covid pandemic, we’ve endured some personal losses but nothing that God will not redeem for great good. As usual we are closing out the year with summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, food, and family.


Film Experiences

Jim:  With Covid restrictions preventing us from going to the theaters, we watched all of our films this year at home, in many cases catching up on films from previous years. For me, the biggest disappointment was The Lighthouse, which is well acted (by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) with tremendous cinematography but ultimately an aimless, oppressive narrative. A more successful attempt at twisted horror is As Above So Below (2014), which could be described as American Treasure meets Blair Witch Project in the catacombs of Paris. Dante would be proud . . . maybe.  I was mesmerized by the docudrama Wormwood (2017), which is another film that features a dark psychological trip of sorts, as the principle subject, Eric Olson, seeks to get to the bottom of the death of his father, Frank Olson, who supposedly committed suicide while working for the CIA in 1953. Whoa. Finally, I highly recommend the surprisingly profound My Octopus Teacher, which chronicles the relationship between filmmaker Craig Foster and an octopus off the coast of South Africa. Ever been moved to tears by a mollusk? I was.

Amy: This year has been predominantly about escape when it comes to my viewing habits. I find true crime and detective shows oddly comforting when stressed or sad, inspiring the idea of justice being achievable. Some of my faves this year were Criminal UK and Unbelievable. I also fell down the rabbit hole of The Crown: Season Four, going back and forth between watching and researching the true events. Social Dilemma was terrifying and nearly had me throwing all our phones and devices in the toilet. Emma and Rebecca were period piece highlight and disappointment, respectively. I fell in love with The Unicorn as one of the few shows set in the South I have ever enjoyed.


Food and Music

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year: This year my favorite food experience was a two-parter. First, I loved watching the Great British Baking Show with Bailey and Andrew and then I enjoyed celebrating Andrew’s victory in our competition to predict the winner by going out with Andrew and Bailey at a local restaurant with a good friend as our server. Otherwise, our culinary experiences, like many others, were homebound. Sampling the variety of bakery creations the kids concocted was almost worth all of the clean-up. My traditional birthday meal at Chesapeake’s in Knoxville with Jim, my parents and sister and brother-in-law was especially meaningful this year’s challenges.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year: I’ve continued to enjoy the recent spate of female singer-songwriters, including Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers, and Madison Cunningham. I appreciated the bold adventurousness of the new Morrissey album, I am Not a Dog on a Chain. The new Dylan album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was a wonderful surprise. Even more surprising is the fact that the album’s 16-minute closer, “Murder Most Foul” became the first #1 song in the 80-year-old legend’s career. Like millions of others, I was thrilled with both of Taylor Swift’s studio albums released this year—Folklore and Evermore, which are really a time-released double album (a la Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac). With these albums, Swift further cements her status as one of the best songwriters of our time, a fact that is sadly missed on many people, whether due to latent sexism or a simple failure to study the lyrics of her songs. But I digress . . .  My most exciting musical discovery this year was the band MeWithoutYou. I regret to confess that I’m late to the party with these guys. But, man, has it been fun doing the deep dive into their seven albums . . . just in time for the band to announce they are calling it quits.



Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  Watching two frustrated sports franchises finally break through to win championships in the NFL (Kansas City Chiefs) and Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) was gratifying. Normally I wouldn’t pull for an L.A. team, but after knocking at the door for several years and being denied by the cheating Houston Astros a few years ago, it was good to see the Dodgers finally reach the mountain top, especially for Clayton Kershaw, who by all accounts is an admirable Christian guy.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  Like so many things this year my favorite sports moment was bittersweet. Because of my work schedule I don’t often get to see my kids play, but I enjoyed cheering on Sam in his final soccer game of the year. Though it was heartbreaking to see Eastbrook lose in overtime in the sectional playoffs, Jim and I couldn’t be prouder and look forward to watching him play next year for our favorite college coach, Gary Ross.

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year:  Seeing the Saints going down against the Vikings (again) in the post-season was tough to take last January. But far more painful than that was watching our son, Andrew, break his arm during a basketball game a few weeks ago. Happily, orthopedist Dr. Daniel Edwards at Marion General Hospital worked his magic on our young man, and Andrew is on the mend and will hit the courts again as soon as the cast is cut off.

Amy’s Most Painful Sports Moment of the Year:  Because of Covid restrictions on the number of people who can attend kids’ games, I was not able to be at Andrew’s game when he fractured his arm. But seeing Andrew’s courageous response and the excellent care he received was a definite positive.


Good Reads

Jim:  My most underwhelming read of the year was Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi book Dune. Just couldn’t get into it, but I’m glad to have read it. I’ve benefitted from digging into Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which is disturbingly apropos for our time. I also appreciated Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies, which was inspired by, and takes its title from, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. I’ve also enjoyed working through two classics—Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War and Dante’s Inferno.

Amy:  The highlights of the year were James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** by Mark Manson. The latter book was an especially refreshing read. Despite the crudeness of the title, the book spoke to me in a profound way, both as an individual and as a parent. I intend every one of my kids to read it and recommend that you do the same. And if you don’t care to take my recommendation, then frankly, my dear reader, I don’t give a #@%!


Best 2020 Family Memories

Jim:  Our family retreat with my in-laws’ extended family in July was awesome. As always, we divided into teams and had some thrilling competition. I also enjoyed building a barn in Knoxville with my father-in-law and getting to know his mischievous cows, Lulu and Dottie.

Amy: Generally, the time we’ve spent together as a family, with Bailey home more than usual, was special. My niece Rachel’s wedding was definitely a highlight. And my supervisor’s traditional African wedding was a wonderful experience with Jim, Bailey, and Sam.


Best Kids’ Quotes of the Year

  • Maggie: “I have a zit on my soul.”
  • Andrew: “I think of our time on earth as a terrible sleepover where you just want to go home.”
  • Maggie: “Unlike humans, dogs deserve to be loved.”
  • Bailey: Regarding his initiation into the world of alcoholic beverages: “It’s like I’ve discovered a new primary color.”
  • Maggie: “I want my own guitar so I can get one of those straps and walk around with it in the woods and be one with nature. Wait . . . I hate nature.”


New Year’s Resolutions

Amy:  This year has presented Jim and me with some of the most profound challenges of our lives. Next year my hope is that more of my challenges will come from within as I seek to grow in mind, body, and spirit.

Jim:  To pray every morning on my knees.


Happy 2021 everyone!

Unconditional Forgiveness

This Christmas we once again celebrated the arrival to earth of the Messiah, whose mission was to achieve forgiveness of the sins of humanity. Naturally, then, the Advent season should prompt us to reflect on our own sins as well as how we may “pay forward” Christ’s work to others. This involves forgiving one another’s sins.

But to what extent should we forgive others? Should our forgiveness of others’ sins be unconditional? There is some debate about this among Christian theologians and ethicists. For example, Doug Geivett maintains that forgiveness is properly premised on the repentance of the offender, and the writer of this article takes the view that a Christian may forgive the unrepentant but need not do so. Similarly, Roger Olson maintains that unconditional forgiveness is a supererogatory act (above and beyond the call of duty). Then there is Lewis Smedes who took the view that the Christian should be willing to forgive unconditionally. I’m inclined to agree with Smedes, maintaining that the Christian should always and in every case forgive those who sin against them, whether or not they ever repent or apologize. While we have a duty to confront those who sin against us, their failure to repent is not grounds for our withholding our forgiveness. (Also, importantly, this view does not entail that we must maintain a relationship with those whom we forgive.)

Here are some reasons why I take this position. First and foremost, there is the model of Christ’s unconditional forgiveness. Jesus forgave even those who were crucifying him, obviously without repentance, praying “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). This a major reason why I find it difficult to imagine that on Judgment Day Jesus will say to me, “You know, Spiegel, one thing you really got wrong is you were just too forgiving.” I certainly can imagine Jesus correcting us for failing to confront people for their sin (cf. Mt. 18:15-17). But rebuking us for being overly forgiving strikes me as absurd.

Secondly, God’s commands to forgive others are unqualified. The Apostle Paul tells us to “Put on . . . compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12-14). This point is powerfully illustrated in Jesus’s parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, which concludes with an absolute injunction to forgive others and a sobering warning of coming judgment “unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).

Thirdly, consider the Golden Rule. All of us desire to be forgiven by others when we sin against them and not only when we apologize. We naturally desire grace in such cases, the extension of mercy even prior to our repentance. After all, it is sometimes such mercy which prompts our repentance and a deeper resolve to live rightly. Therefore, if we should treat others as we would want others to treat us, then we should extend forgiveness unconditionally.

Finally, forgiving others unburdens one’s soul. Nothing oppresses the mind like a grudge, which as someone once said, is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Unfettered resentment corrodes the soul and adversely affects one’s relationships and personal well-being, while forgiveness is beneficial to one’s mental health and physical health. So forgiveness is very much in one’s own self-interest.

Many Christians maintain that forgiveness is properly contingent on the offender’s confession or apology. Why? I believe one reason is the sheer difficulty of forswearing condemnation of someone when they have been abused or otherwise treated in a severely unjust way. It is not easy to surrender resentment in such cases, which is why absolute forgiveness is an act of profound faith and, therefore, a blessed thing, worthy of eternal reward.

Perhaps another reason is that forgiveness seems to let a person “off the hook” and leaves them somehow unaccountable for their sin. But this is not so, since we are all subject to God’s judgment in the end, as we are told repeatedly in Scripture. In Ecclesiastes are told, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14). Similarly, Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Even if I am completely forgiving of someone, that person still must give account to God for what they have done to me. And this should be a great solace to us, further inducing us to freely forgive others.

Like everyone else, this past year has provided me with plenty of opportunities to be resentful and hold grudges against those who sinned against me. But I rest in the knowledge that God is a perfect judge. Whether I forgive someone, God will still punish or discipline the offender, perhaps even severely. As Jeremiah says, “The Lord is a God of retribution; he will repay in full” (Jer. 51:56b). How could my personal condemnation or grudge ever improve upon God’s perfect justice anyway? This is another reason that resentment is a fool’s game.

This year I have spent a lot of time meditating on Psalm 37, which begins with these powerful lines:

Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;

for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.

Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:

He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun. (Ps. 37:1-6)

These are reassuring and inspiring promises, which effectively fuel the Christian’s will to forgive. In the end, God will have his perfect way with the wicked as well as with misguided fellow believers who sin against us. And if we really have been treated unjustly, he will vindicate us eventually (as he did Joseph in Genesis 50, Daniel in Daniel 6, and, of course, Jesus himself). So we need not fret that justice will not be done or that evil will triumph. God will set things right. Let us forgive unconditionally, then. To do so is an act of great faith, guaranteeing reward in the next life and peace of mind in the present.

Remembering my Friend, Ben Arbour

Aristotle said there are three kinds of friendships: those based on utility, those based on pleasure, and those based on a shared commitment to the good—wisdom and other moral virtues. Most of our friendships fall into the first two categories. Aristotle tells us that rare are those friendships truly grounded in a mutual pursuit of virtue. So I consider myself blessed to have had several of these friends. Humanly speaking, they are the principal reason I display any virtue or wisdom myself. Such friends are absolute treasures, benefitting us not only here but for all eternity. Because the joy and blessings they bring are so immense, losing them is especially difficult. Last week I lost such a friend—Ben Arbour, as he and his wife, Meg, perished in a car accident near their home in Fort Worth, Texas.

It was nine years ago that Ben introduced himself to me at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I was instantly struck by his exuberance, wit, and sharp critical mind. “You and I have a lot in common and we need to get to know each other,” he declared. Thus commenced our friendship, which he initially characterized as a mentoring relationship. But the truth is that I learned more from Ben than I ever taught him.

An irrepressible extrovert, Ben had a list of friends whom he would regularly call to discuss whatever was on his mind. And he constantly had a lot on his mind. Sometimes he would hit you with an argument he’d just dreamed up. Sometimes he would have a list of topics to discuss. Other times he would simply have a question. These conversations often pertained to some philosophical point, whether concerning the metaphysics of God and time, the ethics of human sexuality, or a practical implication of Berkeleyan idealism, but just as often his concerns were theological, ecclesial, or pastoral in nature.

I was just one person on Ben’s list of regular interlocutors. His philosophical-theological motor never turned off, seemingly even while he was at work, appropriately enough, as finance manager at Sewell Automotive. And sometimes he would begin these phone conversations by saying, “Jim, I have some great news.” To which I’d reply, “Yeah, what?” Then he would declare, “Jesus has risen from the dead, our sins are forgiven, and we will live forever with him for all eternity. Isn’t that great?” Indeed. And this reminder would suitably frame the discussion, debate, or goofy banter that would follow, just as Ben’s entire life was framed. He was a pure Gospel man.

Ben was also a multitrack thinker, known among his friends and colleagues for playing video games on his iPhone while attending highly technical conference presentations. The first time I witnessed this, I figured Ben was simply fatigued and had tuned out of the presentation. But when the speaker was finished and invited questions from the audience, Ben immediately piped up with the several apposite and incisive comments. This was typical for Ben, as I would eventually discover. It was also Ben’s routine, when especially intrigued or unsatisfied with the presenters’ responses to his questions, to pursue the discussion with the speaker outside of the conference room. And on at least two occasions he followed the presenters into the bathroom while doing so. I am thinking specifically of Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff, who, I am sure, handled Ben’s indefatigable questioning with grace and good humor.

Another fundamental aspect of Ben’s personality was his love for people, especially fellow Christians. He had a voracious appetite for fellowship, which always included rich conversation, clever wit, and good food. Ben was expert at two of these, and he tried to be a decent chef. I can’t say he always succeeded. But he did try. Thankfully, Meg more than made up for whatever Ben lacked in cooking skills.

Ben was also a sports fan, especially, and rather determinedly, of baseball. He frequently made known his conviction that baseball is the best of all sports (a conviction I share, so the matter occasioned no debate between us). Though seemingly trivial, somehow even this conviction of Ben’s was theological, and this carried through even to his rooting interests. For example, in the most recent World Series Ben pulled intensely for Los Angeles just because he was aware that Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw is a committed Christian.

Ben was a great family man—a dedicated husband and father, and it was a joy to see him interact with his four sweet kids. In my last visit with the Arbours two weeks ago, I was struck by Ben’s tender, Socratic interaction with his youngest son, Noah, about some theological point. Ben’s fatherly care, his readiness to help Meg around the house, and the whole Arbour family dynamic of hospitality were a tangible testament to the man’s humility and genuine servant heart. “Mi casa es su casa,” Ben would say. And he meant it literally. The Arbour house constantly buzzed with guests, all of whom seemed to be special friends. One of Ben’s greatest pleasures was connecting his friends with one another. This was not merely some extrovert compulsion or professional networking but a ministry of catalyzing koinonia. It was a spiritual gift that easily surpassed that of the most socially inclined pastors I have known. Almost unconsciously effected, it was borne out of Ben’s boyish joy in the people of God.

Many a devout Christian talks a good game when it comes to intentionally and compellingly integrating the Gospel of Christ into every aspect of their life. Ben Arbour actually did this—to the delight of many and to the annoyance of some but to the benefit of everyone. Those who were close to Ben know how he was always encouraging, even when offering critical push back. Our final conversation two days before he died provides a good case in point. I had shared with Ben the possibility that I might take a teaching job at a school in Asia, which would require my being away from my family sixteen weeks each year. Rather than bluntly asserting that this was a bad idea, Ben simply said, “I don’t think I could handle being away from my wife that long. But maybe I’m just weak in that way.” This humble way of registering his reservations was particularly impactful. And it vividly illustrates the beauty of Ben Arbour as a third-level Aristotelian friend and faithful Christian brother

At this point I am still in the stage of grief that sometimes lingers in outright disbelief. It seems impossible that Ben is really gone. Eventually it will sink in, and I will grow accustomed to the fact that this world is no longer graced by his presence. In the meantime, I consciously remind myself of what Ben repeatedly reminded me: Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, our sins are forgiven, and we will live forever with him for all eternity. Crushing as it is for those of us who love them, Ben and Meg have together begun the next phase of their everlasting lives with Christ. Even now I can hear Ben’s voice: “Isn’t that great?” Yes, Ben. It surely is.

An Antidote for Election Anxiety: Lessons from Proverbs 11

Reading through the book of Proverbs lately, I have been struck by how many passages are directly relevant to our times, especially heading into tomorrow’s elections. Among the many apropos themes in Proverbs, several are to be found in chapter 11. Here are some thoughts on some of these.

The Lord detests dishonest scales,
but accurate weights find favor with him.

There has been much talk of potential fraud and corruption with regard to the presidential election. While we all hope none of these worries will be realized, judging by the corruption elsewhere in the American politics, we cannot rule out the possibility that it will happen. But if it does, even if those who perpetrate such “dishonest scales” get away with it for now, they will eventually be found out and judged, if only in the next world. No one really “gets away” with anything.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
but with humility comes wisdom.

During this election cycle, as always, there has been much ballyhooing by many candidates, touting their own capacity to achieve justice and goodness in this country. In some cases, it does seem to be vicious pride, which will only bring disgrace in the end. Sadly, real humility seems rare in politics (as well as throughout the rest of mainstream American culture), though as we are reminded here, humility is the way of wisdom.

The integrity of the upright guides them,
but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.

The righteousness of the blameless makes their paths straight,
but the wicked are brought down by their own wickedness.

In the age of the “me too” movement we have seen many popular and powerful people brought down or undermined by accusations of sexual abuse and harassment. This includes some prominent politicians, including both of our current presidential candidates. Surely many other perpetrators are living with anxiety over whether eventually they will be publicly accused. But those who have remained pure and lived with integrity are free of these worries.

Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath,
but righteousness delivers from death.

The righteousness of the upright delivers them,
but the unfaithful are trapped by evil desires.

Many are prognosticating serious unrest following tomorrow’ elections, whatever the results. Some business owners in major cities are boarding up their storefronts, while others are arming themselves. Such tangible means of preparation may be appropriate, but they are not sufficient protection “in the day of wrath.” God protects his own—those who faithfully obey and honor him—and even the strongest human bulwarks against attack are fallible. This goes for the formidable American military as well. God could quickly bring this entire nation to its knees if he so willed.

Hopes placed in mortals die with them;
all the promise of their power comes to nothing.

For all of the passion we might have for certain politicians, religious leaders, or entertainers, they are all mere mortals who are destined to lie in a grave somewhere or be reduced to ash in an urn. Even the most powerful leaders eventually perish. All of the triumphs of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon Bonaparte ultimately achieve little for them. As Jesus said, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” (Mk. 8:36).

With their mouths the godless destroy their neighbors,
but through knowledge the righteous escape.

11 Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted,
but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.

12 Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense,
but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.

In our culture the “mouths of the wicked” are seemingly on display everywhere—from media distortions and fake news to slander and personal abuse on social media. The godless (as well as believers who act godlessly) are destroying their neighbors all over this country. Through what knowledge can “the righteous escape”? By refusing to partake in such destructive verbal practices.

14 For lack of guidance a nation falls,
but victory is won through many advisers.

Perhaps one thing about which those on the left and the right can agree is that for many years the United States has suffered from a lack of wise guidance. We might also agree that because of this our nation is on the brink of collapse.

19 Truly the righteous attain life,
but whoever pursues evil finds death.

20 The Lord detests those whose hearts are perverse,
but he delights in those whose ways are blameless.

These two couplets capture much of the essence of the Bible’s central moral message. Those who live righteously—who consistently obey and honor God with their thoughts, words, and actions—will flourish, if not in this world then at least throughout eternity. But those who live ungodly lives never find lasting peace in this world and are destined for destruction in the next world.

21 Be sure of this: The wicked will not go unpunished,
but those who are righteous will go free.

So whatever the election outcomes, and no matter how chaotic the unrest which follows, we can rest in the confidence that everyone will be held accountable. The wicked will ultimately not get away with anything. The righteous will ultimately be rewarded. God is a perfect, all-seeing judge. This is why we can trust the promises of this psalmist who echoes some of the themes from Proverbs 11:

“Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land” (Ps. 37:7-9).

Roadtrip for America

As voting continues in one of the most contentious elections in our nation’s history, I have seen many posts, tweets, and stories in which Christians are defending, some even celebrating, their choice to hold their noses and vote for Joe Biden. I say they are holding their noses because: 1) I can’t imagine a universe in which he would be anyone’s dream candidate and 2) many of them have expressed that this is a vote against President Trump rather than for the Biden/Harris ticket.

I can relate. Four years ago, I was faced with a similar dilemma: vote for a morally corrupt candidate who stood for everything I oppose, including participation in the physical assault and victimization of countless women or vote for Donald Trump. Nothing about Trump appealed to me—his personality, his appearance, his mode of communication, his history of adulterous behavior. But while these are all important characteristics to consider when choosing a friend or a spouse or somehow to take a cross country road trip with, I wasn’t sure how many of them should be criteria for choosing my President. In the end, providence intervened and the death of a close family member prevented me from voting, though I was heavily leaning toward voting for neither candidate and writing in a candidate whom I felt embodied my ideal leader. I have done this before: in 2008 I chose Condoleezza Rice.

This election, however, I will be voting for one of the two major party candidates, and with chaos in our streets, our civil liberties under attack and our most vulnerable being killed on a daily basis, I will be proudly voting for Donald J. Trump in hopes that he will continue to defend law and order, including the brave men and women in blue whatever the color of their skin, defend the Constitution and protect the sanctity of life. Four years ago, I was doubtful of his commitment to these values, but he has proven to be a man of his word in the face of historic challenges all while combating inexcusable treatment by the media and his political opponents. Coming to this decision has been a journey for me so I would like to share some of the thoughts and events that have led me to this position.

I know that for many of you, a vote for four more years of President Trump is an unforgivable sin so here is a brief list of the issues which compel me to make that choice.

  • Abortion: Do I really need to say more? Many say, “You can’t vote based on one issue.” Would you have said that to those who chose to vote Republican in 1860 when slavery was the primary issue? They are children and they are being murdered. Every day. By the thousands. Not only that but the lives of countless women, often young and often abused, are being ruined by this “choice.” President Trump attended the March to Life, cut funding to Planned Parenthood, and has promoted adoption and foster care reform.
  • Corruption: It seems clear that Joe Biden has enriched his family over his decades of time in government and is in fact guilty of the very quid pro quo behavior he has accused the President of while the President has donated his entire salary and has taken significant hits to his net worth while in office.
  • Enslavement of minorities: Government assistance has become government dependence and incentivized the destruction of the nuclear family in minority communities, not to mention the 1994 crime bill which led to the mass incarceration of blacks for non-violent drug offenses. President Trump has invested in black communities, historically black colleges and universities, and overseen the lowest unemployment rates for minorities in history.
  • Civil unrest and infringement of our basic civil liberties: I put these together because it has floored me to see on one hand the churches and businesses being closed, children being deprived of their education and the mental and economic health of millions being put at risk while rioters and vandals have been allowed to roam the streets and destroy and terrify communities.

This isn’t even mentioning the steps the President has taken to improve our national security, avoid foreign wars, bring our service men and women home, ensure the proper care of veterans through VA reforms, renegotiate numerous international trade deals, and strengthen federal laws against animal cruelty.

I hope that my defense of my choice for President doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I know that your choice certainly won’t mean that for me. We can argue and scratch our heads at one another’s reasoning or perceived lack thereof, but for my part, I don’t doubt the sincerity and good intentions of many on the other side of the aisle. I know that we are all on a journey of thought, keeping some positions, changing others and it is important to respect that process. Maybe when it’s all over, we can go on a road trip across this beautiful country of ours. Maybe we can invite the President, though I’m guessing Trump will call shotgun.

Philonous Songs

In terms of my creative calling in this world, I am most fundamentally a writer. Before I knew anything about teaching, scholarship, or the formal disciplines of philosophy and theology, I had a strong sense that writing would somehow define my life. This awareness even preceded my conversion to Christianity as a teenager. And almost immediately upon my conversion, I began to pursue this aspect of my calling. During my college career, the contours of my future writing career came more fully into view as I discovered the field of philosophy and eventually adjusted my professional aims in that direction. For the last 25 years I have been publishing my work, mainly in the scholarly realm. But all along I have been a lover of music as well and have developed my songwriting craft as a hobby. I estimate that I have written some 350 songs. Many of these I have recorded, others I have played live in various venues, but most have not been heard by anyone.

So, to ensure that most of these saw the light of day, back in August I began posting demos of my songs on YouTube, which you can check out here. I recognize that I am, at best, only a serviceable guitarist and vocalist, but these demos are about the songs, not the particular performances. I have been posting one song per week since mid-August, and I intend to maintain this pace until I exhaust my inventory and then, perhaps, simply post songs as I write them.

Since in most cases I have not provided any background or explanation regarding the songs, I thought it would be a good idea to do so here. But first, an explanation for my pseudonym. The name “Philonous” derives from two Greek terms, philo and nous, which together mean “love of mind.” This moniker is not original with me but was coined by the eighteenth century Irish Anglican bishop George Berkeley, whose metaphysical idealism has had a more powerful impact on my thinking than anything besides the Christian Gospel. I believe Berkeley’s idealist thesis—that “to be is to be perceived”—offers the best philosophical lens through which to view this world and to make sense of it in biblical terms. Metaphysical idealism asserts that mind is most real, and that everything else is somehow dependent upon and an expression of that mind. Jonathan Edwards, among many other great Christian thinkers, held the same conviction. So I am just one in a long line of Berkeleyans dating back more than 250 years. For more on recent Berkeleyan scholarship, you can look here and here and here.

But I digress . . . sort of. The point is that the Philonous pseudonym is purposeful and reinforces the idea that the entire cosmos, all of human history, and each of our individual stories, are literally the thoughts of God made public. We are all actors on the divine stage, and God is directing this drama with exquisite care and intention to create the most beautiful story possible. I find this to be not only philosophically and theologically rich and insightful, but also an especially inspiring aesthetic perspective which charges all human endeavor and every subject matter with significance.

So that’s a bit of background. Now here are some brief annotations regarding the first dozen songs posted on my YouTube channel:

  1. State of MindThis is my Berkeleyan “anthem” which I deemed to be an appropriate launching song for my YouTube channel because, as I explained above, the metaphysical idealist thesis has driven so much of my thinking about all aspects of the cosmos and human existence.
  2. Government ManThis one was borne out of exasperation with government ineptitude. Politically, I am a conservative/libertarian (or classical liberal, depending on which categories one prefers), and this song reflects that perspective like a few other songs I’ve written over the years.
  3. Little Hitler – As I explain in the song’s description on YouTube, this song is about original sin (echoing such biblical passages as Genesis 6:5 and Jeremiah 17:9, which also are hyperbolic in their emphasis on human depravity). As you might already know, this one caused a bit of controversy a while back. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can look here and here and here.
  4. What it’s Like to be BornThis song is not as straightforwardly about religious conversion as it might appear, though it certainly concerns that as well, obviously playing with Jesus’s metaphor of rebirth. Here I try to highlight the oft-overlooked aspect of this metaphor—that such rebirth is both joyful and painful.
  5. Let’s Start Our Own CountryI have written at least three versions of this song, the first back in 1988. Because the lyrics have always related to current events, the song always dates itself. So I wrote new lyrics for this version this past summer.
  6. Jesus Never Let Me Down – I wrote this one after the fallout from the “Little Hitler” controversy. I have been a Christian forty years, and Jesus has yet to let me down even once. And he is not letting me down through this recent trial, which is very small compared to what other Christians have suffered and are currently suffering around the world.
  7. Out of the Question – This is a sort of wordplay that poses a variety of questions which, though all significant, are in some way or another self-answering. Thus, the answer in each case comes “out” of the question. Even the title is a twist, since the phrase usually means something very different, something along the lines of “beyond consideration.”
  8. Define it AwayThis song is a critical commentary on a cultural trend among leftists to redefine terms and concepts in such a way as to warp or hide certain truths. It is also intended to be comical, though those on the political left will likely be more annoyed than humored by it.
  9. Bend the Rules – I wrote this one many years ago in response to a friend who repeatedly challenged certain standards within our local church and eventually left the church out of exasperation.
  10. What’s Wrong With the Media – This song is a critique of certain aspects of much of the contemporary American media. Obviously, many media outlets and reporters are still doing good, admirable work. The song highlights disturbing general trends.
  11. Secret – I wrote this song about twenty years ago after the death of a good friend. I am convinced he was murdered, but his death was ruled a suicide. Thus, my friend’s murderer “got away with it.” Yet, alas, in the end that killer won’t really get away with anything.
  12. Rainbow – Many years ago I wrote this song about a good friend after hearing some people observe that he always seemed to be living under a cloud and was depressing to be around. The truth was, and is, that he is a beautiful and interesting person, even if most people can’t see this.

Homeland Security

So the past few weeks have been . . . interesting. I feel like the end of August was like a micro-2020 for the Spiegels. We were just going along like any other fall and “Wham!” out of nowhere came a life-altering event.

If you haven’t heard, on August 24, Jim was unexpectedly fired from his tenured position at Taylor University, after 27 years, countless awards and accolades, not to mention decades of relationships and investment. If you want to know more, you can read any number of articles on what happened. Several news outlets have covered the story, including the New York Post, The College Fix, Religion News Service, Ministry Watch, the Todd Starnes Radio Show, and Taylor’s student newspaper The Echo. All I will say here is that Jim is not guilty of any moral failing and has been given the support of an enormous number of Taylor faculty, staff, students and alum.

While I doubt that many of you have experienced the exact same scenario, I am sure you can relate to the feeling of the rug suddenly being pulled out from underneath you. The one-moment-everything-is-fine-the-next-you-are-falling-teacup-over-kettle feeling that comes with a late night phone call, an unexpected diagnosis, or a disappointing fall from grace.

It seems appropriate that I am writing this on the eve of one of our nation’s collective rug-pullings. Anyone old enough to remember can tell you where they were on September 11, 2001 just like generations before us could tell you where they were on December 7, 1941 (the Pearl Harbor attack) or November 22, 1963 (the JFK assassination). I was making pancakes and my sister called. She thought it was just a small plane, and then news started coming in on the radio (we didn’t have a TV at the time). To this day, when I am listening to the radio and I hear confusion in the background, a jolt of fear runs through my veins.

So I am only a few weeks into processing this major life event, which, as major life events go, I have to say is not my favorite. However, it has already taught me something that perhaps I should have learned years ago: “On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.” Think you have a solid career ahead of you? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the company goes under. Maybe you underperform and they let you go. Maybe you post a song on YouTube and they fire you. Think you have a secure retirement? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe a pandemic breaks out and you get trapped in your assisted living facility for months on end.  Maybe you get swindled out of your life savings. Maybe the stock market crashes, taking your dreams of days spent on the golf course with it. Think you have years of health and happiness ahead of you? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the test comes back malignant. Maybe the other driver doesn’t see the light turn red. Maybe she decides she doesn’t love you anymore. Our achievements, our possessions, our future plans, hopes and dreams. They are all sinking sand. Nineteen years ago, buildings full of people and all of their hopes and dreams crashed to the ground in a heap of rubble and ash.

But there is a solid rock on which to stand. This rock is sure and unmovable. It will not give way and is the cornerstone on which our faith is built. That doesn’t mean it is comfortable. Or even predictable. It is, however, a rock to which we can cling. It is Christ. He is perfect when I am not. He is sure when I am uncertain. He is steadfast when I am weak. This side of heaven, I can hold fast to Him in times of trouble and use Him as a landmark in times of plenty. On the other side of heaven, He will be the foundation on which my eternity is built. Christ is my ground zero. He is my homeland security. Here I stand. I can do no other.

Unmasked by Masks

As we live through one of the most divisive eras in our nation’s history, I think there is something on which we can all agree, that being that 2020 has been one crazy ride and it ain’t over yet. Perhaps you, like me, have listened to the stories of our grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and WWII with just a tinge of envy or seen turmoil and uncertainty of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War era through the eyes of our parents and wished we could have witnessed history in the making as they did. Well, be careful what you wish for, kids. So far, in one year, we have seen a global pandemic, the near-total shutdown of our national economy, and violence and unrest erupting in our streets at unprecedented levels. When we think of those who came before, who lived through deprivation, unspeakable loss and seismic culture shifts, we often think of the ways in which those experiences shaped their character. And this, of course, is true. We all have the crazy (great-) uncle or aunt who lived through the lean times of the 1930s and 40s who saved every Cool Whip container and random scrap of metal because “You just never know when that might come in handy.”

But let us consider for a moment not what we become as a result of our experiences, collective and personal, but rather how our experiences say what we have become. Ironically, I see no greater example of this unveiling than in the various responses to mask mandates; how we react to being asked or required to cover ourselves reveals a great deal about what lies beneath. Here are a few of my observations.

Despite slogans such as “We are in this together.”, nothing seems further from the truth. We seem determined as a nation to label and subdivide ourselves and others as much as possible. You are a masker or an anti-masker. You are a fearful sheep or someone who has no regard for the lives of others. Prior to masks being mandated more broadly, there was a literal visible divide amongst us as we bought groceries, went to church, or stopped at the post office. As someone who is skeptical of the necessity of masks, I felt the stares of those wearing them and felt the instant connection of eye contact with those around me who were unmasked. Now we can argue about masks vs no masks some other day, but my point is no issue should prevent us from extending basic courtesy and respect to one another. Grown women should not yell at small children whose parents have chosen not to put masks on them and they should also not destroy displays of masks or, worse, urinate in stores that require you to wear them. We should look at one another and assume that we are pursuing what seems like the most rational course of action and move on. Isn’t this the era of you do you? I understand that if you are someone who believes that my not wearing a mask is a danger to you there would be a certain resentment on your part, but that’s where personal responsibility comes into play. Just as I choose to avoid stores that require masks while respecting their right to enforce that policy, you have the right to avoid spaces where masks aren’t required. In the age of grocery store deliveries and Amazon, you could avoid leaving the house all together. With the stricter guidelines now regarding masks, I find myself staying home more to avoid having to wear one.

In the course of my job, I meet with people from all over the socio-economic spectrum throughout the day. I look for ways to genuinely sympathize and identify with each of them. Not in a fake I’ll-just-nod-my-head-so-I-sell-you-some-life-insurance way but truly looking for common ground or at least sympathizing with their perspective even if I don’t share it.

Whether you have created a decontamination chamber in your foyer and require your family to strip down every time they enter the house or you are currently on Zillow researching properties in Wyoming and preparing to permanently live off the grid, our current situation should have us all unified in one thought: death comes for us all. What form it will take is unclear. But it will come and I believe that when it does, we will be unmasked before our Creator and asked to justify our actions here on earth. I for one have enough to be ashamed of in my thoughts, words and deeds. I don’t need to add pride, resentment, or unkindness regarding mask mandates to that list. So let’s all look for ways to make the world a little brighter, a little warmer. Smile big under that mask; pray for others while washing your hands and maybe when the masks finally come off, in this life and the next, we will be happier with who we see in the mirror.

Christian Joy

In Galatians 5 we are told that joy is a fruit of the spirit, a virtue that is an important mark of the Christian life. We also know from such passages as 1 Cor 9:24-27 and 1 Tim 4:7-8 that we must train for godliness. The development of such virtues as patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control and joy is largely intentional, a product of spiritual discipline. So how does one train to be joyful?

Surely, one important part of our training for joy, as for all of the virtues, is imitating Jesus. So what was the nature of his joy? One thing we know for sure is that Jesus’ joy was not based in this world. In fact, Isaiah 53, a prophetic messianic passage, tells us that Jesus was “a man of sorrows.“ Why was he a man of sorrows? Ecclesiastes 1:18 provides a clue: “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” This disturbing truth follows from the fact that ours is a tragic world where virtue is hated and vice is pervasive. The most righteous people are often the most hated. This is one reason why righteousness is very rare (as Jesus says, the path is narrow and few find it). Being most righteous, Jesus was therefore destined to be hated. And being omniscient and maximally wise, he was also destined to be maximally grieved and sorrowful.

What, then, could be the nature of the joy of Christ given his perpetual condition grief and sorrow? It would have to come down to his hope for the future—an anticipatory grasp of what lay ahead for him. Christian joy, it turns out, is future oriented, a fact that was perfectly personified in Christ. As the writer of Hebrews notes, “for the joy set before himself he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).

As fallen human beings we are constantly tempted to seek joy in this world in the form of all sorts of things—job satisfaction, marital happiness, friendships, professional accomplishments, peer recognition, family harmony, physical pleasures, and creature comforts of all kinds. But those are all idols, false gods, since joy is borne of another world. In fact, joy comes only through the denial of the foolish pleasures of this world and embracing (not trying to avoid) its sorrows. This is why C. S. Lewis says joy is actually a kind of longing. Perhaps it is itself a species of sorrow—the sorrow that comes of longing for our eternal home with God. In any case, Christian joy is deeply connected to our Gospel hope.

This suggests another important way of cultivating the virtue of Christian joy and that is by studying biblical eschatology—the Scriptural teaching about the “last things.” It has been said that there is more teaching about eschatology in the Bible than about any other branch of theology. Whether or not that is accurate, it is clear from the abundance of eschatological biblical content that God wants us to dwell on our future hope, to reinforce our faith and to increase our joy. As with Christ, he sets this joy before us that we might be better motivated to endure the crosses we carry in our own lives.

Specifically, it appears that God wants us to know that: 1) the future is written, set in stone as much as are past events (he transcends time and knows the end from the beginning) and 2) the future is good, perfectly good for the people of God. We do know, from such passages as Matthew 24; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; 2 Tim. 3:1-9, and the book of Revelation that the end times will be painful, even excruciating for many Christians. But like childbirth this will all be for a good purpose, as God will be purging sin—punishing the wicked and purifying his people, preparing us for union with our Savior at the great wedding that will take place at the inauguration of his perfect Kingdom. The more we focus on this, the more we will find contentment in this troubled world and truly take hold of Christian joy.