Monthly Archives: October 2009

Of Facebook and Twittering Birds (or rather Tweeting)

Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and blogs are so much a part of our lives today that it has become difficult to imagine the world before online social networking.

Much has been written on the topic of social networking over the Internet, and some of the articles on this topic have been engaging and even instructional. I don’t intend to add any original contributions to this issue from a theological perspective, but rather would just like to call to mind some of the principles dictating our use of these tools. To this end, I propose asking ourselves three questions:

1. Is it ultimate?

When your time and effort is consumed with such activities, and you suffer from withdrawal symptoms when you abstain from their use for a period, then I would argue that it is ultimate. You have elevated it to a position in your heart that compels you to dedicate the majority of your time to it, and that causes you to hunger for it in its absence. That position is reserved for God alone. Anything or anyone else that occupies that position is an idol. To be proud of your addiction to social networking sites (or to any other idol for that matter) is a derogatory offense to God, because you are taking pride in your rebellion against him. Some people wear this (addiction) as a badge of pride, but it is in reality the slavery chain of sin.

Also, it is easy to fall into the trap of ignorantly elevating a means of glorifying God into an end. Some might see Facebook as an efficient way to keep in touch with people and minister to their needs – but if all you ever do is spend time on Facebook and not with the actual people themselves, then I don’t think I’m too far off the mark when I denounce that it has become an end.

2. Is it wise?

The Bible constantly calls for us to make the most of our time, using it wisely, because the days are evil (Eph 5: 16). Some people regard Facebook as an effective tool to reach as many people as possible with some truth of the gospel. I agree that if the tool is there, and it’s already filled with so much nonsense, having a shred of truth there can only help some. But then I would ask whether it’s the best use of the time you’ve been given. This is something that each must decide for himself. I’ve personally worked out that Facebook is great for dropping a comment here and there (especially birthday wishes), engaging in the occasional banter, and organising events. I used to look at Facebook statuses and photos, before I realised I would hardly talk to most of the people I was looking at (which begs the question why they’re on my ‘friends’ list). So I’ve also tried to cut this down to closer friends and relatives. This in turn has freed me up to use my time for more profitable pursuits, whether it’s reading a book, doing that extra bit of studying or research, and meeting up with friends in person.

3. Is it narcissistic?

In other words, do you use social networking tools to bolster what people think of you? Is it an expression of your own vanity? The word comes from the Greek legend of Narcissus. Using the Wikipedia description, Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a  pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away and changed into a flower that bears his name, the narcissus.

There’s a lesson to be learnt here. Are you so in love with yourself that you must announce to the world everything that is going on in your own world, or should that only be reserved for a few close friends and those who sincerely ask you? Occasional status updates are not a bad thing, but if you seem to be updating something about yourself every hour or two, with trivial comments like ‘eating a kit kat bar’, ‘staring at book’, ‘thinking of her’, you might want to consider the motives behind these comments. People don’t generally blab out loud in public about what they are feeling or doing. The same might be somewhat true of the tweeting world, although I do leave some negotiating room for legitimate expression of one’s self. Another common expression of vanity I’ve observed is that of posting ‘profound’ statements, which in fact make no sense and only serve to add to your ‘mystique and intellect’.

What exactly is the problem if your use of Facebook and Twitter is an expression of your narcissism? I think it serves to increasingly turn a person’s focus in on himself, such that his every waking thought is preoccupied with himself. And the consequences of this are not dissimilar to those of Narcissus, who was unable to ‘consummate’ his love. In other words, loving yourself leads nowhere but increasing self-despair. You can never satisfy yourself with yourself. Also, it doesn’t encourage humility, which C.S. Lewis helpfully explains as not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. And if we truly desire to be Christ-like, then we ought to make progress in humility. And for the record, I just can’t imagine Jesus tweeting, “praying on mountainside. will select 12 disciples in a moment” or “walking on water. will update when I reach boat”.

Some concluding remarks

Some of you might disagree with what I have had to say. Some might even reckon that my blogging is in some ways narcissistic, in that I think everyone ought to listen to me. I can’t deny that some selfish motive along those lines does exist somewhere within my sinful heart, but by the grace of God I hope the three questions above might be a useful guideline in deciding the manner in which we use social networking sites for the glory of God.

The true treasure of the church

“The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.” – Luther, Thesis 62

Luther, who sparked off the Reformation when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, was highly indignant at the Roman Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences. The warped theology behind these indulgences was that they were some form of treasure to be purchased and stored in one’s treasury of merit. This treasury of merit was to appease the anger of a righteous God and thus escape his judgment. But the problem was many were left uncertain and fearful of whether they had enough treasure to ‘buy off’ God.

Against this, Luther proclaimed justification by faith by grace alone. Man did not, and could not, earn sufficient treasure to appease the wrath of God and escape the judgment to come. The only treasure of enough value to do so cannot be earned or deserved. It is given to the undeserving. And the Church is the means by which God dispenses this grace of salvation to everyone. The treasure of the Church lies not in the grandeur of the building, the assets of the people, the skill and intellect of the preacher, the warmness of the community or the richness of its heritage, but solely consists of the grand, rich, wise, loving and timeless gospel of Jesus Christ, who came to us full of glory and grace and truth.

This is a treasure that does not diminish and cannot be willfully taken. It is given to us in ever increasing measure by God. The church does not need to hoard and safeguard this treasure, but it must prize this treasure, and this treasure is best prized when it is given to those who do not have it.

Trees don’t have branches simply because they are trees

Mark 4:30-32
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

A common interpretation of this parable is that the kingdom starts small but becomes the biggest reality. While I think there’s some validity to this interpretation, I think it is rather more valid for the parable that goes before this.

Instead, because Jesus seems to emphasise the difference in both stature and size of the mustard seed and the tree it grows into, I am led to interpret this parable from a redemptive-historical point of view (I’m pretty sure there’s a nice phrase for this). The mustard seed of which he talks about is the smallest of all seeds on earth, and likewise, Jesus who became man, became the lowliest of all men on earth, taking the very nature of a servant. He came to serve all men, effectively placing himself at the bottom of the worldly hierarchy of man. Yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the largest of trees. Likewise Jesus died, and by his death the kingdom of God would established. His death bought a people into his kingdom. His death sounded the death knell of the kingdom of Satan, whose power was bound up in the power of death.

And this tree which becomes larger than all the garden plants, puts out large branches SO THAT the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. The branches are not there simply because it’s a tree. The branches are also there for the birds to find a place to rest. Who are the birds of the air? My educated guess on this would be that this refers to all believers, although I’ve also heard that it refers to the Gentiles.

This certainly helps to bring out some of the nuance behind Jesus’ statement in John 12:23-24:

Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

By the death of the king, the kingdom grows, that all men may find rest in Christ, and that Christ might be glorified.

Our work is not first and decisive

Another blog I follow is the Desiring God blog. There are different contributors to the blog, and it’s a pleasure to read all of them. Piper’s post today caught my attention, not just because of its title, “One of the Most Important Principles in Reading the Bible”, but because it’s particularly relevant to my study of the gospel of Mark at church with a bunch of other guys.

As Piper frames the issue:

Sometimes readers of the Bible see the conditions that God lays down for his blessing and they conclude from these conditions that our action is first and decisive, then God responds to bless us. That is not right.

If you’ve ever read the gospels, they are certainly full of commands and conditional promises, and it’s easy to misconstrue them as Jesus’ main point. But we fail to notice that God fulfills these conditions himself in Christ. Piper concludes:

This is one of the most basic things people need to see about the Bible. It is full of conditions we must meet for God’s blessings. But God does not leave us to meet them on our own. The first and decisive work before and in our willing is God’s prior grace. Without this insight, hundreds of conditional statements in the Bible will lead us astray.

Let this be the key to all Biblical conditions and commands: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13). Yes, we work. But our work is not first or decisive. God’s is. “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

I recommend you read the whole post here.

Some musical musings

What sort of songs ought to characterise a healthy church?

I would like to argue that if a healthy church is characterised by a proper understanding of the gospel and its outworkings, then our songs ought to reflect such a balance of theology. As the proclamation of the gospel is central to repentance and faith, so we should often sing about the gospel, and how in it the fullness of God is revealed in Christ in our hearts by the Spirit. And as the outworkings of the gospel, as the name implies, works out from the gospel message itself, so our singing should also be one of response to the implications of the gospel for our lives.

But where should the balance between these two things be?

I think to be safe, we ought to sing about the message of the gospel more frequently than sing our response. I argue for this because we are humanly prone to falling into a works-based righteousness, which is no righteousness at all. Given our propensity for such legalism, if we sing enough about our response to the gospel, and if it is true that our theology is very much informed by what we sing, then soon enough we will confuse the response for the message. The message will no longer precede the response, as is the biblical pattern, but the response becomes all in all.

Take “This is my desire”, “You Alone Are Worthy of My Praise”, “Hear These Praises” or “Draw Me Close”. All very valid songs. But I would only use one per setlist. Why? Well, if you look at them lyrically, they are all a response to some revelation. Problem is if you don’t actually reveal something, then singing these songs are like mouthing empty platitudes. You generally can’t walk up to some random stranger on the street and say “I love you” with any degree of honesty. Going back to the original issue, if all you ever sang was some variant of “You Alone Are Worthy of My Praise”, you would quickly forget why exactly. And then soon after, the way you relate to God becomes very much grounded in the act of singing that you’ll respond in a certain way to God. And if we are consistent people, we will then try to respond in the way we’ve just sung about. And then the only relationship we have with God is one of acting in the way we’ve just sung about, instead of one grounded on the objective truth of Christ crucified. We are turned inward onto the way we act.

Speaking of these “I Worship You” songs, I’ve always found an oddity about them. Guys who have dated before at a very young age might identify with this, although this occurrence might persist even with age. There’s this strange thing about girls always wanting to hear their boyfriends say the magic words – “I love you”. Namely, doesn’t it get tiresomely formulaic after a while? I’ve always stressed that there must exist some exponential diminishing return with each use of the phrase. The reason for this is simply that, for humans, love isn’t an end in itself. It’s always some response to some truth or work. And unless there is some telepathic bond between boy and girl, I would think women appreciate such revelations of love infinitely more when some good reason is attached to them and they are accompanied by appropriate acts. Moreover, more often than not, the phrase acts as a cover up for laziness on the guy’s end to carefully consider why he actually loves her and how he should demonstrate it. Likewise, perhaps it’s time to abandon the phrase “I worship you” and actually get on with proper worshiping, proclaiming the truth of God and responding with appropriate deeds.

Leadership vacuums and mega-conferences

One of the blogs I read on a consistent basis is written by a Christian called Doug Wilson. I don’t agree with everything he says, but his rhetoric is pretty sharp and witty and many of his posts do prompt you to think and, occasionally, laugh at the idiocies and fallacies we humans are capable of. Anyways, here’s something that caught my attention today. In his post, he talks about the kinds of troubles that arise in churches and families. One of the two troubles he points out is as follows:

The second kind of trouble is caused because of weakness (or perceived weakness) on the part of the leadership. Challenges, objections, querulous inquiries, and accusations are all made, and they are made simply because those making them think they can get away with it. No other reason is necessary. Nature abhors a vacuum, and always seeks to fill it. Human nature abhors a leadership vacuum (or perceived leadership vacuum) and will seek to fill it.

He then cleverly illustrates this trouble with a marriage example:

A husband and wife go to a family conference in which Husbandly Perfection is extolled and taught with a high-gloss finish put on it, and the husband in question is an ordinary schmoe with a job, three kids and very discontented wife, and so the drive home from this conference is a cold one, with her glaring at him most of the way. When the thing blows up later, it is not because he is a terrible husband. It is because she knows he will put up with it. She talks to him this way because she can. When this is happening, the particular result sought is not really the issue, but rather a demonstration of who really gets to set the agenda around here.

And a church example:

In a church, let us say that the complaints are about _________________ (fill in the blank with “the liturgy,” “the music,” “the preaching,” or “other”). And remember that we are not in category one discussed earlier, where the liturgy is Godforsaken, the music an offense to the heavenly angels and the preaching the kind that could not find its way out of a paper bag. Suppose the liturgy is okay, the music okay, and the preaching okay. It turns out that the average church is not capable of being above average. But the average church is capable of being okay.

When the criticisms are leveled, the point is not whether there is room for an average church to grow, mature, and improve. Of course there is always room for that, and a good place to start is by not subsidizing criticisms that place the average church on an impossible treadmill. The pastor doesn’t preach like John Piper. So? The congregational singing does not sound like a bunch of Welshmen having a revival in a hall with fine acoustics. Not a problem. The average church can’t compete (and it is not a competition anyway).

And that is the truth, isn’t it? The average church can’t compete with the best ones around, but it’s not a competition! I find one of his conclusions rather striking, and reckon it’s pretty sound wisdom:

The widespread availability of media-savvy Christianity, conference Christianity, talent-cluster Christianity, and so on, is that it has precisely the same effect on the attendees that going to the Husbandly Perfection conference had on that poor, murmuring wife earlier. When people visit a place that is rich in resources, teaching talent, and so on, like your average mega-conference, there are two possible results. One is that it makes the attendee more equipped to be a loyal and faithful parishioner to a faithful but average pastor back home. If that is the case, then have at it. Go to the conferences. But if all it does is set up invidious comparisons, then that person needs to quit going to conferences.

You can read the whole article here. For the record, I don’t know who Girard is myself. But I wouldn’t consider that a major stumbling block in understanding the gist of his post.

Good old fashioned economics



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