Join John Stonestreet for a daily dose of sanity—applying a Christian worldview to culture, politics, movies, and more. And be a part of God's work restoring all things.
We Can’t Control COVID (Or Much of Anything Else)
In early March, the University of California San Francisco held a panel discussion of infectious disease specialists on a new virus that had, at that point, killed 41 Americans. These experts not only estimated that 60 to 70 percent of America’s population would eventually contract the virus, but that our best attempts to contain it, either through lockdowns or contact tracing, would be, in their words, “basically futile.”
Today, nine months later, the predictions of this particular panel of experts have turned out like most other COVID-19 predictions: right on some things, wrong on others. It’s not clear just how effective all of the quarantining, lock-downing, social distancing, and masking has been in reducing the number of infections, or why, despite more data, our assumptions about COVID-19 remain largely unchanged. And, of course, we’ve yet to reckon with the economic, educational, and mental health consequences of the policy paths we’ve chosen.
What is clear, more clear than ever in fact, are the base set of assumptions we now operate from as Westerners and Americans. Catastrophes like COVID always reveal worldview. To borrow a phrase philosopher Craig Gay uses in his book The Way of the Modern World, we are “practical atheists.” A subtle, operational-level form of secularism, practical atheism is not necessarily to believe that God does not exist. Rather, it’s to live as if God does not exist.
Professor Gay identifies two features of a culture operating from a deeply engrained practical atheism. First, there is an illusion of control. If there is no Higher Power determining the course of human events or judging the morality of our actions, the world is a place for us to make and remake according to our wishes. Grand leaps in science, medicine, and technology only deepen the faith we put in ourselves.
At the heart of our illusions of control is the assumption that world is totally understandable. We actually believe, Professor Gay says, not only that we can “comprehend reality in its totality,” but that “we are capable of rendering it stable and predictable.” In other words, we will ultimately make the world “work for us.”
That’s a really attractive proposition, of course. However, what happens when we face something beyond our understanding, something that is an existential threat to the “convenient fiction” of our control? Like a global pandemic? The answer can be seen in how so many U.S. governors approached last week’s Thanksgiving holiday: travel restrictions and curfews, bans on indoor gatherings, shaming even the idea of family gatherings for everyone, not just those at higher risk. The Governor of my home state of Colorado said that gathering with family for Thanksgiving was like “putting a loaded pistol to Grandma’s head.”
How quickly we went from the “we acknowledge we can’t control this” of the UCSF panel of experts to the “we absolutely can and will control this” of elected officials. The shift from “most of us are going to get sick but let’s care for and protect the vulnerable” to “everyone must avoid getting sick at all costs” is a significant one. Now, if anyone contracts COVID, it’s not because it’s a novel virus we don’t understand, but because someone failed. Practical atheists want control. When control is lost, someone is to blame.
This brings up another characteristic of “practical atheism” that Professor Gay rightly identifies: anxiety. Anxiety is the inevitable reaction when we realize just how out-of-our-control this fallen world is, and how fragile our shoulders – which now bear the weight of the world without God – really are.
It’s here that we see how much "practical atheism" has permeated the Church. Even for Christians who worship God on Sundays, it’s hard not to give in to promises that our doctors,
Ordinances Banning “Sexual Orientation Change Efforts” Are Unconstitutional, Says 11th Circuit
Many Christians, especially when it comes to LGBT-related issues, have bought into what might be called “the inevitability thesis.” Nearly everything in our culture has convinced them to assume that it is futile for anyone to resist their same-sex attractions. And, any attempt to help someone, especially young people, reduce their behaviors and attractions is just as futile, and probably even illegal.
After all, many believe, legislatures have adopted and courts have upheld bans on such things. Pastors, youth pastors, Christian-school teachers, entire counseling degree programs at Christian colleges and seminaries, and plenty of parents have embraced the “inevitability thesis” when it comes to LGBT issues, and now refuse either to address these questions at all, or, if they do, it’s to counter the cultural consensus they assume has been settled.
A ruling last week from the 11th Circuit court challenges the inevitability thesis.
In 2017, the city of Boca Raton and the county of Palm Beach in Florida joined a growing list of jurisdictions that have adopted bans on “Sexual Orientation Change Efforts.” By ordinance, licensed professional counselors are prohibited from treating minors with the goal of “changing [their] sexual orientation or gender identity.” When Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton, two licensed counselors, challenged the ordinances in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, their chances of success seemed slim to none. After all, similar bans had already been challenged and upheld in the 9th and 3rd Circuit Courts.
Judge Britt Grant of the 11th Circuit, however, sided with Otto and Hamilton. The counselors told the court that the ordinances “infringe on their constitutional right to speak freely with clients,” including those who have sought counseling because of “sincerely held religious beliefs conflicting with homosexuality.” Judge Grant found these free-speech restrictions of the ordinances to be “presumptively unconstitutional.”
While Judge Grant acknowledged that the kind of therapy Otto and Hamilton practice to be “highly controversial,” which is why dozens of states and municipalities have banned it, the ordinances applied only “to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.” The First Amendment, Judge Grant clarified, “has no carveout for controversial speech.” Despite the government’s “legitimate authority to protect children,” speech, no matter how controversial, “cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them.”
“If the [therapists'] perspective is not allowed here,” Grant concluded, “then the [government’s] perspective can be banned elsewhere.” In other words, what’s sauce for the goose could easily become sauce for the gander. Thus, speech should not be restricted merely because some people object to what is being said.
Not only does Grant’s decision create what’s called “a conflict in the circuits,” making it all the more probable that the Supreme Court will have to consider the issue, there is an implicit lesson for anyone tempted by the inevitability thesis. After California and other jurisdictions passed laws restricting what counselors could discuss with their clients, many Christians and Christian institutions chose to conform to ideas and practices they knew to be wrong, so as not to put their licensure, accreditation, or some form of the state’s blessing, at risk. The pressure they felt was, of course, real, but they were mistaken to think there was no further legal recourse available. A similar mistake was made a couple years ago by a Christian adoption agency who had been told they had to place children with same-sex couples. A judge decided against the state in that case as well.
Of course, it
Os Guinness' First Book on the 60's Counter-culture Still Rings True
Os Guinness is a renowned scholar and accomplished author. He sits down with John Stonestreet on the BreakPoint Podcast to receive recognition for a republishing of his first book.
In The Dust of Death, Os outlines the trappings of a liberal movement that hadn't yet reared an overwhelming influence in society. He shows the strategy and forecasts much of the modern challenges we face to our freedoms in America.
Emmanuel! Readings for Advent
Yesterday marked the start of Advent. Officially, at least according to the Church calendar, it’s not yet Christmas. Officially, it’s Advent. This time of preparation is among the most important seasons of the Christian calendar. Reflecting on the God’s promises throughout history, first to Israel and then to the Church, is a remarkable way to cultivate and reinforce a Christian worldview in our hearts and minds.
For nearly two millennia, Advent has called Christians to understand life between the two bookends of God’s redemptive acts in Christ: His Incarnation, when the Word became flesh, and His coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Advent is a time to recall God’s utter and unstoppable faithfulness to His people. Though Israel failed to keep its covenant with God, made at Sinai and renewed on several occasions afterwards, He always intended to keep His covenant with Abraham, that “through your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” That offspring was, of course, Jesus Christ.
Throughout Church history, reflecting on God’s faithfulness has led to the inspiration and production of many great hymns, including the one most identified with Advent, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The lyrics of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are taken from what are called the “O Antiphons.” An antiphon is a phrase or short sentence recited or sung either before or after a psalm or other passage of Scripture.
The “O Antiphons” belong to Christian antiquity. Roman philosopher Boethius, who lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, alludes to them in his writings. One scholar suggests that, “in some fashion, the O Antiphons have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church.” And, since at least the eighth century, the “O Antiphons” have been set aside for the week preceding Christmas Eve, December 17 to 23.
The O Antiphons, like the hymn they produced, offer a journey through salvation history. Each Antiphon includes both a Messianic title, a reminder of who Christ is, and the invitation, “Come,” a reminder of our helpless state and need for divine rescue.
Christ is the Wisdom of God (Isaiah 11). He is Adonai, the Lord our lawgiver and judge, who will save us (Isaiah 33). He is the root of Jesse’s stem, whom the Gentiles will seek (Isaiah 11). He is the Key of David, who unlocks the doors of our prison. He is the Radiant Dawn, the light that shined upon the people who dwelt in darkness (Isaiah 9). He is the King of the Nations (Isaiah 2). And of course, He is Emmanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7).
This sort of theological profundity, which cannot be found on any of the 24-hour Christmas music stations, is worthy of our silence, reflection, and meditations.
My Colson Center colleagues have prepared a free, downloadable booklet featuring an explanation of each of the O Antiphons, a short meditation on their meaning, and quotes from Christians throughout history on the wonder of Advent. The booklet is called Emmanuel: Readings for Advent. Come to breakpoint.org to receive this gift from our team to you and your family.
Exploring these remarkable statements about the nature and work of Christ is a wonderful way to intentionally engage with the season of Advent.
BreakPoint This Week - Are COVID-19 Vaccines ethical?
John Stonestreet and Shane Morris recount what they're thankful for this Thanksgiving season . . . and then wade into the deep waters of the ethics surrounding the upcoming COVID vaccines, whether they use fetal stem cells and whether it is ever ethically acceptable to take an innocent life, even for a so-called greater good. The good news is, major Christian organizations and ethicists have given the green light to two of the upcoming vaccines . . . but not a third.
Also in this week's episode, a federal circuit court has enjoined local ordinances that forbid so-called gay "conversion therapy." Clearly, the law is not settled, and John urges Christian counselors, churches, and institutions not to cave into the cultural narrative that our urges and desires define who we are.
They wrap up the show encouraging Christians to observe the season of Advent--and have some recommendations to make to bless you and your family.
Advent in a Time of COVID
Black Friday will be different this year, thanks to COVID-19. Instead of a single day of sleep-deprived consumers trampling security guards for flatscreen TV’s, it’s more a couple weeks of online over-marketing. While the presumed decrease in physical violence is certainly an improvement, the additional appeals to fill the voids in our hearts and minds with material goods isn’t.
If there were ever a time that we needed less distraction and more focus on what really matters, it’s now. In such a context, the next four weeks is, for followers of Christ, a gift. Sunday is the beginning of the season of Advent, a time set aside in the Christian calendar to reflect on the coming of Jesus into the world.
The Latin word adventus, from which the word “Advent” is derived, literally means “coming.” Positioned as it is, in the weeks before Christmas, Advent places Christ’s first coming into the world, in a manger in Bethlehem, within the larger historical context of redemptive history and the long promises of God to send a Messiah. At the same time, Adventus is the Latin translation of the Greek word parousia, which is used repeatedly in the New Testament to describe Jesus’ second coming, when He returns in glory at the end of the age.
Prior to this usage by Paul and other New Testament authors, parousia referred to the arrival of the Emperor in a city or a province. When notified of his coming, citizens would scramble to properly greet this very important person, preparing great feasts, and dressing in their finest clothes.
The original readers of the New Testament not only would have understood parousia in this context, they would have seen it as an explicit rejection of Caesar’s claim of lordship. While Christians today think and talk of the Lordship of Jesus Christ in personalized terms, such as “have you made Jesus Lord of your life?” the earliest Christians understood it as a public, definitive, and risky proclamation. In other words, to say “Jesus is Lord” is to say, “Caesar is not.” By using parousia to refer to someone other than the Emperor, Christians were saying something about who was really in charge.
This backdrop is essential to understand why so many early Christians became martyrs. Rome would tolerate various and eccentric religious beliefs and practices. At times, they’d even incorporate alternate religious celebrations and beliefs into their own. What would not be tolerated, however, were rival allegiances.
Nearly two millennia later, Christians must still clarify their allegiances. We, too, are tempted to give ourselves to would-be Caesars. Our false gods may be more subtle, but through the prevailing culture they exert power over our thoughts, imaginations, and loyalties. Unless we are intentional, we will worship them. While our would-be lords rarely demand, at least in overt terms, that we deny the lordship of Jesus, they are most effective in distracting us from ever thinking about what the lordship of Christ means and requires.
Advent invites us to prepare to greet the One who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” through whom “all things were created.” We, too, are asked to prepare through prayer and generosity. We, too, are asked to array ourselves in our “finest.” Not in garments but in truth, love, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
To prepare this way, not only to remember Christ’s first coming but to anticipate in hope His second coming, is every bit as culturally subversive as using the word parousia was two-thousand years ago. It’s a way of living as if Jesus is Lord. Because He is.
For a list of resources, podcasts, books and ideas for Advent, visit us at breakpoint.org.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Fresh and honest
I have enjoyed the perspective of John Stonestreet for many years. I am grateful for the research and Biblical applications shared here!
We have and will continue to pray for our country, but I suggest that we don’t stop after the election because no matter outcome there is still going to be unrest and division. We will need to pray even harder.
18000 Christian Refugees
The problem is that the reason we stopped immigration was due to Muslim immigration. Until we can vet the immigrants we have stopped immigration of all religions to prevent terrorists from being brought in.