The Penitent Thief: Why His faith Was Great

One of the most remarkable passages in the Holy Week Gospel narratives regards the responses to Jesus on the part of the two criminals crucified on either side of him. Luke gives us this account:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:39-43)

It is clear from Jesus’ response to the second criminal that this man has been forgiven and will not be condemned in the afterlife. Some people might find this disturbing, since this man has demonstrated relatively little faith and repentance, which are crucial to a biblical concept of salvation. But there are several things to note about the faith of this penitent thief on the cross.

For one thing, he declares his faith in Christ publicly, and as Jesus said in one of his earlier discourses, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven” (Mt. 10:32). Secondly, the thief demonstrates genuine repentance, acknowledging his life of sin when he says “we are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” As is clear from Scripture, there is no salvation without repentance (cf. Acts 2:38), so it is crucial that this man demonstrate true penitence. Although his remaining time on earth was very short at this point, he repented to the extent that he was still capable of doing so.

Thirdly, the penitent thief declares his faith in opposition to his fellow thief, who
“hurled insults” at Jesus. Apparently, the penitent thief himself had also verbally abused Jesus, given Matthew’s crucifixion account, where we read that just as the chief priests and teaches of the law mocked Jesus, “in the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Mt. 27:44). So after initially joining his fellow thief in mocking Jesus, the penitent thief had a change of heart, culminating in his plea to Jesus to remember him in the next world.

Fourthly, the penitent thief declares his faith that Jesus is indeed a king, citing Jesus’ coming “kingdom.” This he does despite Jesus’ extreme humiliation, having been beaten to a bloody pulp, and now writhing on a cross with a sign above his head mocking the very idea regarding which this thief is testifying sincere belief. Perhaps at this time even Jesus’ own disciples, who, with the exception of John, had by this time scrambled into hiding, would have been rather skeptical of Jesus’ messianic kingship. But not this penitent thief. He believed despite all appearances to the contrary. Now that is faith.

Some Observations Regarding the COVID-19 Crisis

Here are some of my thoughts on the Coronavirus crisis or, perhaps more accurately, thoughts on how some people have been responding to the crisis.

    1. During the past several weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, I’m sure we have all heard and read some interesting claims about the virus and its likely consequences. One of the more hyperbolic claims I’ve seen was made two weeks ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Paul Friga, who said, “there is no doubt we are in one of the most turbulent and challenging times in American, and world, history.” That’s a strong claim. I suppose it depends on what he means by “one of the most.” If death toll is a key indicator of a turbulent and challenging time, then it is worth noting that throughout history there have been about forty wars, forty famines, twenty plagues, and seven genocides that have produced more than one million fatalities each. And the fatalities of more than a hundred of other wars, plagues, famines, genocides, and natural disasters have each exceeded half a million. Compare these figures to the COVID-19 crisis where worldwide fatalities total less than 80,000 to date. This number will surely continue to climb, but just how many will die from this virus is difficult to estimate at this point. Death toll prognostications vary wildly. So Friga’s claim is actually quite uncertain, notwithstanding his confidence. The lesson here is that, tempting as it might be to make strong (even world historical) assertions about the severity of our current crisis, it is probably best to refrain until we have sufficient data to warrant doing so. Otherwise, one risks exacerbating public fear and anxiety, which, for all we know, might already be out of proportion with the actual danger posed by COVID-19.
    2. By advising severe social distancing in the form of lockdowns and limited travel, the U.S. federal government is widely represented as taking the “safe” approach. After all, by doing so, we slow the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve” of infections so that our health care system is not overwhelmed. This is surely a laudable concern, but it is only one factor in an overall equation. In fact, strong social distancing is not unequivocally the “safe” approach, because this risks a national economic depression (not to mention a potential epidemic of clinical depression) and perhaps even a global economic catastrophe, which also would mean massive loss of life. So the curve-flattening social-distancing strategy is not obviously the “safe” option but itself is a significant gamble. Another potential risk pertains to how this approach could backfire and actually exacerbate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As one Ivy League physician has argued, there could be more fatalities in the long run due to severe social distancing, since this diminishes the development of “herd immunity” within the population. This is a controversial suggestion, of course, since it runs against the current of popular wisdom about the pandemic (which explains why this author chose to remain anonymous). But, given all of the uncertainty at this stage, this possibility should not be ruled out.
    3. Much of the ostensibly empathetic concern on the part of institutional leaders and, especially, politicians and media personalities (I’ll resist the temptation to name names) strikes me as insincere moral grandstanding. Some of what I have seen on social media during this time falls into this category as well. Just as my awareness of the reality of this trend was beginning to gel in my mind, a colleague of mine shared with me his own thoughts along these lines:

Sometimes it seems like individuals and institutions in our culture are so conscious of the history that they’re making while they’re making it that it affects history itself. It’s like every historical event becomes one great big cultural selfie, as our primary concern in the midst of any event is to document our feelings and “stories” as we make and experience them. I wonder if all the historical testimony that we leave like that for posterity will do little more than convince later historians how unreliable our own historical testimony about ourselves really is, except for its reliability in showing clearly what a bunch [of] narcissists we all really were. For that our testimony will be utterly reliable. And who can blame those later historians if they conclude that we were a generation who was so busy turning everything into our own historical selfies that we never actually really lived in history.

This strikes me as a profound, if disturbing, insight about our culture. It has been said that adversity doesn’t build character so much as it reveals it. Perhaps our current crisis will be valuable for what it teaches us about ourselves, however painful those lessons might be

Some Additional Benefits of Social Distancing

The last week of shut-downs, cancellations, and other social distancing measures due to the COVID-19 virus have been dizzying and surreal for many folks. Surely the days ahead will bring more confusion, frustration, and opportunities for criticism. So it might be helpful to dwell on some of the positive aspects of the current situation. After all, we can be confident that, as Scripture says, God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11) and that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). So, aside from the obvious end of “flattening the curve” in the spread of the COVID-19 virus, what good could possibly come from the radical social distancing mandates that we must now observe? Here are some possibilities.

One benefit regards our relationships. As we spend more time at home we will have more opportunities to connect with family members and close friends. Even in families where parents are committed to “quality time” with one another, the busyness of daily life can make such times hard to come by. With school shut-downs and fewer events to take us out of our homes, that means we will have a lot more such time—perhaps more such time than we ever wanted. But using this time to really reconnect with one another can be a blessing.

Another benefit is time to read! Like many folks, I am continually frustrated with my lack of time to read as much as I would like. Well, the social distancing policies are going to change that! I’ve already made a list of some books that I want to plow through which under ordinary circumstances I would have no time for until Summer break. Love it. I recommend that you do the same.

A third benefit is that the social distancing policies invite us, or perhaps even force us, to reassess our values and identify potential idols in our lives, especially as regards the emphasis we place on social engagements, shopping, entertainment, and personal freedom. We live in a hyperactive society, and all of the additional down time could serve as a valuable corrective. Blaise Pascal famously remarked that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Well, now we have a chance to develop this discipline of solitude, a rarity in American culture.

Finally, social distancing provides us an opportunity to contemplate our own mortality and finitude. For all of our power and ingenuity, human life nevertheless remains fragile and tenuous. Our astounding technological achievements can create a false sense of control and invulnerability. The COVID-19 virus shatters that illusion. To consider how something so small that it is invisible to the naked eye is crippling our technologically advanced civilization is quite humbling. Such a global lesson in humility is immensely valuable, reinforcing the biblical perspective that “the Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples” (Ps. 33:10).

Should Christians be Winsome?

During these days of division and discord one often hears admonitions that Christians be “winsome” in their speaking, writing, and interaction with others. For example, look here, here, and here. In some cases I have heard fellow Christians advocate for winsomeness as if it were a fruit of the Spirit or even a cardinal virtue.

It is important to achieve clarity about what it means to be winsome and when it is appropriate, because calls to winsomeness are increasingly common and often function as conversation killers. Such admonitions can be disingenuous, content-dodging tactics as opposed to sincere pleas for virtue. In a post-truth culture—as some have described contemporary American society—the substance of an assertion may be deemed less important than how it is said. A focus on process may stand in the way of actual communication about content and real insights about issues and solutions to problems.

So what does it mean to be winsome? The American Heritage Dictionary defines winsome as “charming, often in a childlike or naïve way.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to be winsome is to be “charming and attractive in a simple way.” And the Oxford Dictionary says a winsome person is “attractive and pleasing with simple qualities.” Other lexicographical accounts associate winsomeness with such qualities as sweetness, gentility, or an engaging presence. Let’s keep these traits in mind as we consider whether we should consider winsomeness to be a Christian virtue.


Was Jesus Winsome?

When considering the appropriateness of any character trait for Christians, perhaps the first question to ask is whether Jesus Christ himself displayed the trait. After all, Christians are called to emulate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). He is our moral exemplar. But when we search the Gospel narratives, what do we find? Surely, Jesus was often winsome in his interactions with some people, especially the humble, needy, and disabled. You might say that with those who were humble, meek, and repentant, he showed himself to be humble and meek, from his interactions with children (Mark 10) to his healings of the sick (Luke 4-5; Mt. 8-9) to the mercy he showed the adulterous woman (John 8) and the humble thief on the cross (Luke 23). But the traits he displayed in his interactions with the proud, haughty, and deceitful were quite a different matter. On these and other occasions Jesus often proved to be harsh, confusing, cryptic, and judgmental—in short, rather unwinsome. To illustrate with some examples, Jesus was not particularly winsome when:

  • he cleared the temple court with a whip and overturned tables (John 2)
  • he pronounced woes on the rich, well fed, and jubilant (Luke 6);
  • he invited people to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6);
  • he called the Pharisees harsh names such as “fools,” “liars,” “snakes,” “vipers,” “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” and “hypocrites” and declared that they were greedy, self-indulgent, and wicked sons of the devil who “do not belong to God” (John 8; Mt. 23);
  • he said, “whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Luke 8);
  • he pronounced woes on the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (Mt. 11);
  • he called the people an “unbelieving and perverse generation” (Luke 9);
  • he said to one of his followers, whose father had recently died, “let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9);
  • he said he came to bring fire on earth and to bring not peace but division, even within families (Luke 12);
  • he referred to Canaanite people as “dogs” (Mt. 15);
  • he said to Peter, “get behind me, Satan” (Mt. 16);
  • he repeatedly preached on and warned of hell for the unrepentant, unforgiving and even the wealthy (Mt. 18, etc.)
  • he cursed a fig tree (Mt. 21); and
  • he pronounced woes on the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Luke 11; Mt. 23), and when one of the Pharisees said he felt insulted by what Jesus was saying (Luke 11:45), Jesus doubled down with more woes, culminating in the assertion that that generation would be held responsible for all of the murders of prophets in all previous generations (Luke 11:50).

This is not exactly the stuff of winsomeness.


The Apostles

Next, we may ask whether the apostles and biblical writers were winsome. Starting with the Apostle Paul, clearly he was winsome in many of his writings, particularly in the salutations and closing remarks of his epistles, as well as, for example, in his beautiful discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13 and throughout much of the book of Ephesians. In many other places, however, his tone is stunningly harsh, particularly when correcting doctrinal errors and rebuking people for various sins. For instance, in the book of Titus, Paul condemns the legalism of “the circumcision group,” and about them he writes, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-13). And in his letter to the Galatians he says about these same people, “I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12).

In several of his epistles, Paul strikes a very severe tone regarding believers who were either acting immorally or condoning sin. To believers in Corinth, he said, “you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” (1 Cor. 5:11). And in one of his letters to the church at Thessalonica, he gave a strong warning against idleness, recommending that if anyone is unwilling to work, then he should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10). In that same letter, Paul recommended a severe response to those who did not heed his instructions, saying “Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14).

As for Peter, his letters are also marked by stern instructions, strong rebukes, and harsh warnings. In one of his letters he castigates false teachers in the harshest terms, warning that they will be condemned (2 Pet. 2:3). He goes on to call them “slaves of depravity” who are “an accursed brood” that “are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed” (2 Pet. 2:12). James, too, sometimes strikes a severe tone. In his epistle he refers to his readers as “foolish” and “adulterous,” and he issues an especially harsh remonstration to wealthy people when he says, “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you” (James 5:4-6).


When to be Winsome?

This is just a sampling of instances in which Jesus and the Apostles are not winsome but, in fact, quite the opposite—stern, severe, harsh, judgmental, and even offensive to their hearers and readers. And we could enumerate myriad similar instances of unwinsome words and behaviors of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. Add to this the fact that nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to be attractive, charming, sweet, or genteel. Perhaps the closest we can come to finding a biblical endorsement of winsomeness is in Galatians 5:23, where Paul includes “gentleness” in his list of the “fruit of the Spirit” or moral virtues. But the fact that Paul himself is often quite the opposite of gentle—including in that very same epistle—shows that this trait is not, as Kant would say, a “perfect duty” for Christians—it is not the sort of moral virtue for which there are no appropriate exceptions. There is a time for gentleness, and there is a time for toughness and even severity.

Another biblical defense of winsomeness might be made based on the fact that Jesus strongly encourages childlikeness, a trait that is associated with winsomeness. In fact, Jesus says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). So isn’t this essentially an endorsement of winsomeness? First, it is important to note the context of this passage. Here Jesus is responding to the disciples’ question about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In the parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:48), which suggests that his main point concerns the virtue of humility, as opposed to simplicity, much less the sort of charming naïvete that is often associated with winsomeness. Secondly, some commentators interpret Jesus’ idealization of children here as having mainly to do with the attitude of trust that we are to place in him, a readiness to believe and submit to the authority of God just as a child trusts her parents and naturally recognizes their authority. Other commentators, such as Johannes Weiss, have suggested that what Jesus had in mind when he set up children as a model in Matthew 18 is their directness, lack of self-consciousness, and their especially keen perception regarding certain matters which are often lost on adults. In any case, even if Jesus did mean to endorse winsomeness with this teaching, he cannot have intended this to be a perfect duty, admitting of no exceptions, since he himself was often quite unwinsome, as we have already seen.

So what are we to conclude from all of this? I would say that while winsomeness does seem to be an admirable trait in many contexts, it is not a trait that Scripture recognizes as a moral virtue. This is evidenced by several facts. First, there are no biblical commands to be winsome. Secondly, Jesus acts and speaks on many occasions in very unwinsome ways. Thirdly, many biblical writers, in both the Old and New Testaments, often write in very unwinsome ways. This suggests that, like so many human personality traits and modes of conduct, the appropriateness of a winsome manner or style crucially depends upon the social context or situation. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, it is indeed good to be winsome. But on certain occasions it is also appropriate not to be winsome. Sometimes it is good to be stern or severe rather than gentle and sweet. Sometimes it is appropriate to speak or write in cryptic or complicated terms rather than to be simple and childlike. And sometimes it is even okay to be harsh, offensive, or off-putting rather than charming or attractive.

Of course, this raises the critical question, when is it appropriate to be winsome and when is it appropriate not to be? Like any serious, substantive question regarding the moral life, this calls for wisdom and cannot be answered with a simple formula or algorithm. But we might be able to glean one general guideline from the psalmist who says of the Lord, “to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd” (Ps. 18:26). This passage is itself somewhat cryptic (and thus unwinsome!), but one thing we can gather from it is that God’s responses to people vary according to the purity of their own hearts. This might also explain Jesus’ own varying treatment of people, as he is typically direct and straightforward with those who approach him with pure, sincere, humble hearts. But those who are devious, presumptuous, and arrogant he treats very differently. Indeed, if we look back through the above list of instances in which Jesus behaves unwinsomely, it is usually in response to such people, especially the Pharisees and teachers of the law. So the lesson we might draw from this is that in our own dealings with people it is often appropriate and desirable to be winsome—perhaps usually so. But when dealing with the deceitful, insincere, presumptuous, or arrogant it might likewise be appropriate or even most advisable to be stern, severe, cryptic, off-putting, or even harsh—in a word, to be unwinsome. Indeed, such a response might constitute truly gracious speech, depending on the context.

Courage, Faith, and a Little Bit of Crazy: Reflections on Entering the Corporate World

There are leaps of faith one takes in life which take all three. Getting married. Having kids. Jumping out of airplanes, though I think marriage and parenthood take a lot more courage, faith, and crazy. At 45, I thought I was past making those big leaps but last summer I proved myself wrong. Obviously, Jim and I are still happily married and our baby-making days are behind us. I didn’t go parachute jumping, though at times it felt like I had. Ironically the scariest decisions I’ve made in decades involved protecting people from the risks and dangers of life.

After years of staying home with the kids and struggling on one income, we knew it was time for me to find a full-time job. I loved being home with the kids, most of the time anyway; anyone who tells you they “loved every minute of it” has either forgotten a lot of minutes or is lying. To be honest, I have never seen myself as someone who would have a career. If money weren’t a factor, I would have been happy to stay at home. But with a kid in college and three to follow, that wasn’t in the cards.

So, after twenty years of odd jobs and false starts, I set out to get a job. I had some ideas of what I would like to do and what I thought I would be good at. I cleaned up my resume and waited. And waited and waited and waited. I had known it might be tricky for me to get my foot in the door, but I won’t lie—my pride took a hit. Out of desperation, I went to an interview with American Income Life, a life insurance company I had never heard of.

I sat through the interview thinking, “There is no way in a million years I am going to do this.” I studied for my licensing test thinking “I’ll do this while I look for something else.” And I prayed “Lord, if you don’t want me to do this, please help me to FAIL this test.” And I repeated that prayer many times during the 60+ hour weeks of training to become an insurance agent, right up to the point where I fell in love with my job and the people I work with and serve.

I won’t bore you with all the details of my job. I’ve done that to my family enough already. But I do want to share a few lessons I’ve learned over the last seven months. Hopefully they will speak to you next time life requires a big leap on your part.

Lesson 1: Don’t let plans get in the way of following the path God has clearly laid before you. It’s hard to believe all the friendships, opportunities, not to mention paychecks, I would have missed out on if I hadn’t taken this job.

Lesson 2: You are never just a missionary. You are always getting back as much, if not more, than you are getting. In the office and when I’m meeting with prospective clients and policyholders, I’m always looking for ways to make their day a little better. But I can’t count the times someone has offered a kind word just when I needed it the most; a glass of water or a shared laugh or a cry. Try not to be too selfish to help when you can, but pray to be humble enough to take help when it’s offered. You never can tell where that help is going to come from. I’ve spent many a delightful afternoon with clients thinking I was there to help them only to realize they were the ones that lifted my spirits or brightened an otherwise gloomy day.

Lesson 3: Don’t quit. That’s all you have to do. When I hear of the amazing things people in my office and company are accomplishing, the common thread that runs through all their stories is that they didn’t quit. That’s it. Of course there are times when quitting is the prudent thing to do, but we are capable of so much more than we think we are. Just keep going and you will surprise yourself.

Lesson 4: You are never in a holding pattern. You might feel like you are living in limbo but there is no such thing. I spent twenty years at home, changing diapers, doing laundry, etc. and assumed that I wasn’t acquiring any additional marketable skills. But when I came to work for American Income Life, I realized I had developed mad skills in hard work, patience, and persistence that I definitely didn’t have in my twenties.

I sell life insurance but in reality there is no such thing. There is no insurance that gives you the future for which you are planning. I can help you protect your family’s financial future in the event of your death. But I can’t prevent that death. Or all of the unexpected bumps along the way to that death. But sometimes those bumps and detours and unexpected side trips turn out not be detours at all. Sometimes it takes a while to realize you are headed in the right direction after all. It just takes a little courage, faith, and, of course, crazy.

The Best and Worst of 2019

It’s been another exciting year, and we want to thank you all for reading and, if applicable, posting comments on our blog. Once again, we would like to close out the year with some summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, food, and family.


Film Experiences

Jim:  Most of the new films I saw this year were good. The biggest loser of the year was Joker. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix’s acting is superb, but the script is poor, the violence is gratuitously graphic, and the plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Ugh. But a big thumbs up for the film Us, which is freaky scary but somehow fun at the same time. From here on out, I’ll be seeing every Jordan Peele film as a matter of principle. I enjoyed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and consider it an appropriate finish to the nine-part saga that took four decades to complete. But the best film I saw this year was Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a superbly written who-dunnit which isn’t impeded by its star-studded cast. A close runner-up was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Who can build a comical, poignant, and redemptive story around a despondent fading Hollywood star and the Manson murders in the ill-fated summer of 1969? Quentin Tarantino, that’s who.

Amy:  Several of my best movie experiences were with Jim this year so we have quite a bit of overlap with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, though I wasn’t as keen on it as Jim, Knives Out, which I thought was great, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I did have some small screen experiences that were quite good: Unbelievable, Great British Baking Show, The Good Place, and Monk were a few of the shows I enjoyed this year.


Food and Music

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year:  Like most exceptionally delightful food experiences, the one that tops my list this year was a combination of delicious food, wonderful company, and conversation enjoyed in an ideal setting. Jim, some of the kids, and I were invited to join a graduating student and his family for dinner at Bluebeard in downtown Indianapolis. The food was simple but quirky in its creativity (roasted cauliflower and mint!) but one of my favorite parts of the evening was that rather than ordering individual meals, we got a few bites of everything. It was a night we won’t soon forget shared with people dear to our hearts. A close second was a breakfast shared with Sam while visiting him in Bolivia. A good croissant with homemade jam is hard to beat but throw in a son you haven’t seen in months who can’t wait to share with you all of his adventures and it’s a meal to remember.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year:  This was an exciting year for new album releases by many of my favorite artists, including the Black Keys’ solid but not ground-breaking Let’s Rock, the Avett Brothers’ sometimes preachy Closer Than Together, and Taylor Swift’s Lover, which I reviewed on this blog a few months back. My favorite album of the year was Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride. It is a rich, thoughtful, and memorable record—perhaps the band’s best, which is saying a lot. But the highlight of the year for me was seeing Bob Dylan in concert at Ball State’s Emens Auditorium in November. This is the sixth time I’ve seen Dylan in concert, and I continue to be amazed at his endless rearrangements and reinventions of his songs. Incredible.



Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  I loved watching Drew Brees break two NFL records in the same game two weeks ago, as he eclipsed the all-time career touchdown passing mark and had the all-time highest completion percentage for a single game (29 for 30!) in the New Orleans Saints’ defeat of the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football. Incredible.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  I watched Andrew play a lot of basketball this past winter which is always a treat, especially when there is fresh popcorn involved. He also treated me to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the NFL playoffs which was a pleasure.

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year:  The New Orleans Saints were robbed of an NFC championship and Super Bowl appearance due to a blown pass interference call against the Los Angeles Rams last January (which did result in a league rule change, which I guess counts for something). This makes for the second consecutive year in which the Saints have finished their season in heartbreak fashion, as the 2017-18 season ended with the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Ugh. The retirement of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was another disappointment, but hope was renewed by the emergence of Jacoby Brissett as a solid starting quarterback, only to be dashed by a rash of injuries to several Colts offensive players. Oh well.

Amy’s Most Painful Sports Moment of the Year: Seeing Joe Maddon dismissed as the Cubs manager was a knife to the heart. Andrew Luck’s retirement has seen my interest in the Colts fall to zero, having grandfathered him after Peyton.


Good Reads

Jim:  As usual, most of my reading this year pertained either to classes I was teaching or publication projects I was working on. Regarding the latter, I read dozens of journal articles and book chapters on divine and human agency, in preparation for a book chapter I’ve nearly finished on George Berkeley’s view on the subject. As for new reads for classes, I enjoyed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, a work that is especially intriguing because it was written during the final years of Bonhoeffer’s life when he was wrestling with one of the most excruciating of moral issues, namely how to respond to a tyrannical national leader. Knowing that Bonhoeffer ultimately took part in a plot to kill the Nazi Führer casts a fascinating light on his discussion of the legitimacy of civil disobedience. My favorite book among those I read this year was James Waller’s Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing—a work that is as insightful as it is disturbing regarding human nature.

Amy:  My reading this year is clearly delineated into two eras: pre-working and post. In the first category are some of my favorite reads in quite some time: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis,  Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and several by P. D. Wodehouse. The post-working era is dominated by books on sales and business which I would never have predicted enjoying but which have taught me a great deal, both professionally and personally. A few favorites have been: Sell or Be Sold and Be Obsessed or Be Average by Grant Cardone, The Entitlement Cure by John Townsend, and The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make by Hans Finzel. I also listened to the entire Harry Potter series while driving for work and loved every magic filled minute of it despite the fact that J. K. Rowling uses the word “sniggered” entirely too often.


Best 2019 Family Memories

Jim:  Like his older brother, Bailey, did a few years ago, our son Sam spent the Spring semester living in La Paz, Bolivia attending Highlands International School. It was fun to witness his personal development through this experience and especially thrilling to hear him speak Spanish fluently upon his return in June. Then this past Fall semester we hosted a friend that Sam made during his time in Bolivia. It was fun knowing that the experience here in the U.S. for Sam’s friend would be as life-changing as was Sam’s experience in Bolivia.

Amy: I got to visit Sam in Bolivia this spring which was a thrill. Being gone so much for work this fall has honestly made any time with the kids feel like a gift, except when I’m tired and they are being annoying—ha ha. Our Christmas felt special with Bailey home from college and watching the kids connect with one another more as adults than kids; their shared humor, conflicting opinions, and overall weather-beaten affection is something to behold.


Best Kids’ Quotes of the Year

As usual, most of the best quotes of the year come from Maggie:

  • Maggie: “What’s the difference between a Presbyterian and a normal person?”
  • Bailey: “I could spice up cardboard and make it taste better than anything you’ve ever eaten.”
  • Maggie: “If you don’t do anything wrong, then you won’t get caught doing it.”
  • Maggie (Regarding my giving her some spending money): “Dad, you’re like a young male grandma.”
  • Maggie (after my sugar-holic daughter hypocritically lectured me about the sugar content in a food product I was buying): “I don’t obey the rules, but I know the rules.”


New Year’s Resolutions

Amy:  To continue to introduce more discipline into my time management. To figure out how to keep up my love of reading and cooking despite working full-time. To be ambitious in my Bible reading plan for this year.

Jim:  To pray more, to fast more, and to remember that this world and our time in it is, as Kanye West puts it, a “God dream.”


Happy 2020 everyone!

A Christmas Day Reflection

On this Christmas day I have been reflecting on our unity in Christ, which seems increasingly threatened by divisions within the American Church, especially due to disagreements over political issues. This prompted me to think about the following possibility. Suppose, upon our arrival in the Next World, we ask Jesus, “Who was right regarding those early 21st century American political issues which divided us so much, even those of us who followed you, Lord? Was it the conservatives or the progressives?” What if Jesus replies, “Both sides were right and wrong about many things” and then he proceeds to itemize the insights and errors on both sides, to which we respond by saying, “Wow, it’s all so clear now. Why didn’t we see this during those days when we were so caught up in all of those political squabbles?” Then what if He says, “because it was not my will that you would see these things clearly but rather to test you and mature you through such disagreements. Those issues, vital and important as they were, served primarily as means of interpersonal engagement, to catalyze the forging of your souls, to build virtues of patience, generosity, perseverance, humility, and grace. In short, your political debates functioned as props on the stage of human life, the main focus of which was always about making you all more like me, though even you, my precious children, at times lost sight of this. But don’t worry about it, guys. For all is well now. And all manner of things is well.”

What if that is how it will go down in the Next World? And suppose we somehow could know now that this was God’s main purpose regarding all of the political strife which currently grips our nation. How might this change the way we approached all of these divisive issues?

Bonhoeffer on Telling the Truth

In the final years of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked on a book on ethics and was never completed, though he made substantial progress on it. It was eventually published posthumously. In his Ethics, Bonhoeffer discusses the question, what is meant by telling the truth? And in the course of addressing this question, he also considers what it means to lie.

Bonhoeffer begins by recognizing that there is a general demand for truthfulness, but he notes that the context of relations is crucial for understanding the demand. Thus, for example, a parent’s claim on a child is different than a child’s claim on the parent when it comes to truthfulness. There are many things that an adult understands about a given subjects that simply cannot be comprehended by a child, and this has implications for just how much a parent is duty-bound to communicate to a child.

The truthfulness we owe God is both truth in principle and concrete, since God has placed us in real, concrete relations with one another. And this is a deeply moral matter because “the ethical cannot be detached from reality,” and when we speak we express an account of reality. Therefore, Bonhoeffer says,

the real is to be expressed in words. That is what constitutes truthful speech. Every word I utter is subject to the requirement that it shall be true. Quite apart from the veracity of its contents, the relation between myself and another man which is expressed in it is in itself either true or untrue. I speak flatteringly or presumptuously or hypocritically without uttering a material untruth; yet my words are nevertheless untrue, because I am disrupting and destroying the reality of the relationship between man and wife, superior and subordinate, etc. An individual utterance is always part of a total reality which seeks expression in this utterance. If my utterance is to be truthful it must in each case be different according to whom I am addressing, who is questioning me, and what I am speaking about (360).

Significantly, then, Bonhoeffer essentially affirms what is known as the correspondence theory of truth. On this view, dating back to the ancient Greeks, a statement is true if and only if what it asserts corresponds to some actual or “real” state of affairs.

Context is crucial when it comes to truthful speech, Bonhoeffer tells us. “Every utterance or word lives and has its home in a particular environment” (361). This is why it is very difficult to say what actually constitutes a lie. “The usual definition of the lie as a conscious discrepancy between thought and speech is completely inadequate. This would include, for example, even the most harmless April fool joke” (363). So, Bonhoeffer says, “joking has nothing whatever to do with lying, and the two must not be reduced to a common denominator.”

Nor can we define lying as “deliberate deception of another man to his detriment,” since this would imply that even the deception of an enemy in war is wrong. Bonhoeffer concludes that “the lie cannot be defined in formal terms as a discrepancy between thought and speech” (364). In fact, he says, such discrepancy is not even a necessary condition for lying, since one may be quite truthful when intentionally misleading someone, such as through omissions or ambiguity.

The truth about lying, says Bonhoeffer, exists “at a far deeper level than in the discrepancy between thought and speech.” The essence of lying consists in consciously denying God’s reality, whether through speaking or otherwise. Note that this follows directly from Bonhoeffer’s correspondence theory of truth and Bonhoeffer’s conviction that what is real is just is what God has made actual—the world which God has “spoken” into existence (cf. Gen. 1).

It further follows, then, that a “lie is a contradiction of the word of God, which God has spoken in Christ, and upon which creation is founded. Consequently, the lie is the denial, the negation, and the conscious and deliberate destruction of the reality which is created by God and which consists in God, no matter whether this purpose is achieved by speech or by silence.”

Again, “God’s reality” is the world which God “spoke” into existence. The world is, as it were, God’s speech, his public word. So when we deny, negate, or misrepresent reality, we contradict God’s words. To lie is to directly challenge the Lord, perhaps even to implicitly declare oneself to be God. Here we see why lying is such a serious thing and why the trait of being a consistent truth-teller is a significant moral virtue.

Bonhoeffer’s account also helps us to understand a few things about the biblical account of Satan, the ultimate challenger of God and his reality. In Scripture we learn that Satan is fundamentally a liar and called by Jesus “the father of lies.” Without a proper understanding of the significance of truth and truth-telling, the moniker of “liar” might appear to be a random or even petty vice with which to identify the arch enemy of God. However, when we understand that truth is God’s reality and that a lie constitutes a fundamental challenge to God, we recognize how appropriate this description is, as is the very name of Satan’s, which means “deceiver.”

Bonhoeffer’s account also highlights the significance of Jesus statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). We learn in John’s gospel that all things were made through Christ (Jn. 1:3), and the Apostle Paul tells us that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ (Col. 1:16) and that “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). In short, Christ is the ontological ground of all that is. So we might even say that he essentially is reality. And this is to say, on Bonhoeffer’s account of truth, Christ literally is truth.

These insights place a premium on truth-telling that is seldom acknowledged, perhaps because lying is so common. Evidently, we are natural born liars, and most people lie on a regular basis. In one sense, this shouldn’t shock us, since Scripture tells us that we are all innately moral rebels. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and we challenge God every time we sin, whether by lying or in other ways. But in another sense, the essentially Satanic nature of lying should shock us and even terrify us about our natural moral condition. Whenever we lie, after all, we are essentially doing Satanic work.

These points should reinforce our commitment to honesty, sincerity, and truth-telling. While there are certainly plenty of appropriate contexts for discrepancies between belief and speech, such as when joking, as well as when playfully deceiving in non-verbal ways (e.g., in athletic contests and surprise parties), genuine lies are an affront to the Lord and should not be a part of our lives.

Review of Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body

Every so often there appears a book which provides such an insightful cultural diagnostic that you wish everyone would read it. For me, Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body (Baker, 2018) is one such book. Pearcey’s thesis is that numerous problematic trends in our culture, from the pro-choice movement to transgenderism to the hook-up culture, are all driven by a low view of the body. Specifically, a philosophical concept which she calls “personhood theory” serves as the common rationale for these movements. Personhood theory, she says, “presumes a very low view of the human body, which ultimately dehumanizes all of us” (p. 20).

Through most of history it was generally understood that to be a human being is to be a person. But in the 20th century—especially the early 1970s—philosophers began to differentiate these two things, introducing the body-person dichotomy. This concept was pivotal in the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion throughout the country (proposing that the fetus is human but not a person under the 14th amendment).

From there, the body-person dichotomy has driven secular views on many other issues, including, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, homosexuality, transgenderism, and the hook-up culture. Pearcey says, “Christianity holds that body and soul together form an integrated unity—that the human being is an embodied soul. By contrast, personhood theory entails a two-tiered perspective that sets the body against the person” (p. 21). (Thus, it is important to note, Pearcey does affirm mind-body dualism. What she is critiquing is body-person dualism or, which is what she dubs “personhood theory.”)

The biblical, Judeo-Christian view is teleological, seeing purpose in the human body as well as the rest of nature, since it is designed by God. The modern root of personhood theory is Darwinism, which sees all of nature as an “amoral mechanism.” According to Pearcey, “if the body has no intrinsic purpose, built in by God, then all that matters are human purposes.” This means that the human body may be “manipulated and controlled to serve the human agenda, like any other natural resource” (p. 24).

This view is dehumanizing, because it implies that mere humans do not have rights.  Only persons do. But a constant theme throughout Scripture is that our bodies matter.  Nature is good. Our physical beings are created by and treasured by God.

Christianity emerged in a cultural context dominated by a low view of the body, due to the influence of Platonism and Gnosticism. With Jesus’ ministry of physical healing, his own physical resurrection, the Pauline concept of the body as God’s temple, and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, among other things, the Bible puts a strong emphasis on the inherent sacredness of the human body. In the early modern period, the ideas of Descartes and Kant undermined this biblical view. More recently, Darwinism and contemporary materialistic philosophies rejected it altogether, and as our culture embraces materialism we see its dehumanizing effects.

Pearcey discusses some of the practical ways that personhood theory and its low view of the body are manifested in contemporary culture:

  • Euthanasia: If the body is separate from the person, then if an individual’s cognitive functions are gone the person is gone. So terminating the life of their body is acceptable.
  • Physician-Assisted Suicide: If the body is separate from the person, then I can dispose of my body whenever I autonomously choose to do so.
  • Infanticide: Since a newborn baby cannot reason and has no self-concepts, it is not yet a person and therefore may be destroyed.
  • Hooking Up: If the body is separate from the person, then I can freely involve my body sexually with others, and this need not affect me personally. Sex is just something I do with my body.
  • Pornography: If the body is separate from the person, I can view and even act in pornographic videos, since these are just bodies.
  • Prostitution: If the body is separate from the person, I can sell my body or use others for sex, since these are just our bodies.
  • Homosexuality: If the body is separate from the person, then my sexual desires and preferences are more important than my biology (genetics and genitalia) in determining who I may have sex with.
  • Transgenderism: If the body is separate from the person, then my biology is irrelevant to my actual gender.

Pearcey notes several bizarre and problematic implications of the personhood theory. One of these is that it undermines women’s rights. If a “woman” is no longer defined biologically, then we cannot identify sex-based oppression. Moreover, even biological “men” can claim that their women’s rights are violated if they identify as women, just as such individuals are permitted to use women’s bathrooms in many states.

The influence of personhood theory has been vast in Western culture. Yet no one can agree on exactly what constitutes a “person”! Philosophers have proposed all sorts of conditions and criteria, but there is no consensus. In contrast, on the Judeo-Christian view that all humans are persons, there is clarity as to who are persons, and it is scientifically verifiable. For this reason, Pearcey maintains that the body-person dichotomy is anti-science.

Love Thy Body provides a much-needed constructive critique of a prevalent perspective in contemporary American culture. Although it contains many significant philosophical insights, the book is written in a semi-journalistic style which is fit for a popular audience. My only critique is that it is that the book is a bit heavy with examples which illustrate Pearcey’s points such that the discussion sometimes seems repetitive. It could have been tightened by 50 pages or so. But this is a relatively minor flaw which should not dissuade readers. I highly recommend this book!

Taylor Swift’s Album Lover: A Review

I didn’t become a “Swifty” until the summer of 2017. After basically ignoring her music as presumably vacuous pop drivel, I decided to give her music a chance and began listening to, well, all of her stuff. It didn’t take long for me to realize she is exceptionally talented, especially as a songwriter. The clincher for me was her song “The Lucky One” from her Red album (which I consider her record best to date). It is a brilliantly crafted piece about the tragedy of celebrity fame, which so many crave but which typically oppresses and often destroys those who achieve it.

I regard my awakening to the genius of Taylor Swift as also an awakening to my own latent sexism. I had allowed the fact that she is a very attractive female to keep me from taking her seriously as an artist. In subsequent conversations with several men, I have sensed a similar tendency in them, and some have admitted this to me. Anyway, lesson learned.

One of the things I find most impressive about Taylor Swift’s songwriting—in addition to the clarity of her lyrical themes and her uncanny knack for musical hooks—is her insight into human nature. Many of these insights, of course, concern negative aspects of human nature (e.g., selfishness, dishonesty, unfaithfulness, fickleness, etc.), but she often celebrates human goodness as well. Regardless of the relational context, Swift is reliably observant and a powerful commentator on the human condition.

These gifts are on full display in her recently released seventh album, Lover.  Over all, I think it is about as strong as anything she’s done before. But stylistically it is the least she has advanced from one album to the next. Her progression from country to electronic pop over the course of her first six albums is impressive, but Lover ends that evolution, parking somewhere between 1989 and Reputation from a stylistic and production standpoint.

Personally, I like the fact that there are actual drum kits used on several songs. It adds to the albums energy and also makes for some variety. The title track is especially rich because of this, effecting an ambience reminiscent of some spacious 1950s-era ballads.

Some highlights, it seems to me, are “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” “Paper Rings,” and “ME!” But, lyrically, “The Man” stands out—one the best songs you’ll ever hear regarding gender double standards. “Cruel Summer” is extremely catchy, featuring wonderfully sassy background vox. Delicious. “I Forgot that you Existed” and “You Need to Calm Down” are vintage Taylor Swift digs. Great songs.

“Cornelia Street,” “The Archer,” and “Soon You’ll Get Better” provide a contemplative touch to the album that was mostly absent from her last two records. The latter song concerns Swift’s mother’s continuing bout with cancer. I don’t know how she sang it without crying. I suspect those were some emotional recording sessions.

The weakest tracks are “False God,” “I Think He Knows” and, especially “It’s Nice to Have a Friend.” Those would have been solid B-sides, but they’re not needed on this album, which would have been a tighter, more consistently strong record without them—and still 50 minutes long.

So Lover is another fine effort by popular music’s best young songwriter.  To sum up my feelings about Swift’s music these days: It isn’t hate. It isn’t indifference. It’s just love.