The Church is Flooded with St. John Rivers

I’m getting pretty close to the end of Jane Eyre.

I already know the basic story because I’ve seen so many film adaptations. And even though I did remember not liking the character of St. John in the movie versions, I assumed his Calvinistic evangelicalism was written so as to be dismissed by a modern reader. I assumed he would be more likable in the book. I assumed a modern prejudice against the clergy had crept its way into the script-writer’s heart but the book would redeem him.

But he is actually worse in the book.

His desire to be a missionary is not an errand of affection for God or man. His desire to take Jane with him is one due to her usefulness and has no semblance to even the shadows of betrothed love. He means to use her in coldness as a companion and aid. His lack of love is nothing in his own estimation. And his estimation is calculating.

When she refuses to go as his wife, he throws heaps of guilt onto her heart. He assumes her life would and could only be one of “dissipation.” Only if she takes up the missionary cause with him and is his “help-meet” in his ambition to be numbered among those saints celebrated for their sacrifice, will life be well spent.

He is cold. He is hard. And he seeks to shame her. His missionary zeal is all about him. He deigns to affect concern for Jane when warning her that rejecting the cause he is bound to just might send her to hell.

As I read his pleas, I could help but imagine many admiring him and nodding in agreement, though the reader is supposed to be appalled. But there is so much of the church crammed into the character of St. John Rivers. And enough lodged in my own heart to make me uneasy. He holds religion with zeal and has set his face like flint on the mission. But he lacks affection and we see it clearly in the way he handles Jane.

The church is flooded with St. John Rivers.

Why I Alternately Love and Hate This Movement of Christian Manliness

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” – Gal. 3:1-3

It just hit me. I know why I alternately love and hate this new movement of manliness among evangelicals and especially the YRR. At least one reason. It has taken me a while to get my head around this call to manliness. Or at least begin getting my head around it.

There is an undeniable need for grown men to stop acting like boys. And yes some of them need to toughen up a little. Sensitivity does not preclude toughness of character and spirit. Indeed the mixture of the two is strong drink we could all use.

But it’s all law. Law upon law. It is characterized by what men must do and need to do and should get busy doing. It lacks graciousness because it is a message of almost pure law.

And so I love it because deep within me is a Matt, who loves the law and longs to wield it like a weapon on others. And for some reason I even want to beat my own self up with it.

But I hate it because it is a ministry of death and destroys the spirits of those to whom it claim to be a balm. It reeks havoc on the soul. Or worse – it creates chest-thumping bullies who construct personas of toughness and manliness who look down on all who need to hear the message of manliness. I hate it because I put on this cloak of pretension and deride those who I claim to love. Even myself.

And for some reason we think the gospel of grace is the thing. Unless we are on this subject.

Random Thoughts

1. This post by Kevin DeYoung about Bell’s book is good and respectful.

2. I read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure again this past weekend for sermon prep. It is hard to get over his genius.

3. I don’t trust people who don’t eat bacon.

4. My son, who is five, and I played catch with a ball and our gloves for the first time the other day. Very special time. Each sound of the ball hitting the glove was an echo of my Dad and I doing the same.

5. Advice: Don’t eat at a chinese restaurant where the sugar packets are from Captain D’s.

6. The Young, Restless and Reformed segment of evangelicalism is one characterized by smackdown.

7. My kids are so disobedient. I keep telling them to stop growing up and they just keep on doing it.

8. I got to spend time with some of my former students from Mississippi this past Saturday. I am still reeling from the joy of seeing them and watching them walk in faith.

9. Some are arguing that we should do away with nuclear reactors because of the possible meltdowns due to the earthquake in Japan. Whereas, I would argue we should do away with earthquakes.

10.  Whoever is making the decision about retaining Daylight Savings Time does not have any young children.

Rethinking the Criticism of the American Dream

If you were to do a short cursory study of what people mean when they talk of the American Dream, you would get a few different answers. Some would speak in terms of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Others would look at the term as coined by Historian James Truslow Adams from the book, Epic of America, which he wrote in 1931. In it he wrote,

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Changes in the culture have altered the connotation of the term in question and made it a term of derision as well as a term of continuing endearment.  But no matter what you read, you would continually see the American Dream as summed up with three ideals even if the words themselves were not used. These three ideals pursued are freedom, prosperity and success. Other ideals could be added but these are a sufficient enough portrait and are generally what is pictured when the American Dream is celebrated by those who want to pursue it; foreign or domestic. It is also what is so roundly criticized by American evangelical pastors.

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There was once a time when, as a youth pastor, I would often tell my students to not fall for the lie of the American Dream.  My desire was for them to want something far more rich than what the world had to offer. So that is what I would say to them. And then I would get in my car and drive home to my house of either 3 or 4 bedrooms, and at least 2 baths. Usually I would then sit on a couch and relax with my wife, watching a movie or just talking. I might even walk over the yard if the air was cool and crisp. Usually I would look up in the sky shining bright over the physical manifestation of a mortgage.

In other words, I was telling my students to not pursue the very thing I had already achieved.

Actually, it was worse. I probably scared them when I talked about the dangers of the American Dream. I made it sound like if they went after the American Dream, they were compromising their faith. You don’t have to say it to communicate it. I painted a picture of filthy lucre which looked suspiciously like the people who gave the most to keep the ministries of the church afloat and would usually be the most generous at Christmas to my family.

It sounds awful because it was. And I wish I could go back and temper my language a good bit. But that’s impossible, so this little essay. This is not a penance so much as a pointing and saying, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes.” Or as you will see, the Emperor has plenty of clothes.

When I say, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes”, it is not a reference to any particular person. I do not dislike those preaching this message so much as I hate the memory of my own voice preaching and teaching it. I am talking about the criticism leveled against the pursuit of the American Dream. It is leveled in books, sermons, conference messages, blog posts and throughout social media. And yet I have seen very little in the way of questioning the message. So here is my small attempt to speak into the present milieu. Here is my attempt to not only defend the pursuit of the American Dream but critique the lesson that says the American Dream is in opposition to the Christian life.

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The criticism of the American Dream fails on multiple levels. Not just one. The following is not comprehensive but I hope it is a beginning in bringing some sober reflection on how we motivate people and what our message really is. Here are two reasons why we, evangelicals need to temper our criticism of the American Dream and those who may be pursuing it.

First, it fails because it assumes if you are in pursuit of the American Dream you are compromising – you are choosing one thing over another. Not only does this assume the worst of people who want freedom, prosperity and success but it fails logically. Our faith is not static. And you do not have to baptize the American Dream to say the American Dream is not evil and compatible with Biblical Christianity. The problem would be if someone said ‘no’ to Christ because of their pursuit of the American Dream. This is, of course no peculiar position the American Dream holds. Anything sought over and against the Christ can be detrimental. Even ministry. Our problem is never the American Dream, it is the heart that would pursue anything over Christ; whether it be food, sex or money. But food, sex and money are great things that Christians can pursue and still be faithful, which is why this criticism fails.

We have now become so accustomed to the guilt we harbor regarding our relative wealth that we can only read the story of the Rich Young Ruler as a manifesto against the American Dream. When in actuality it is a statement against seeking justification in anything other than Christ. This is the great mistake of so many thousands of pulpits throughout our land. Mistaking the problem. The problem was not his wealth. It was his attachment to it. Wait. No, the problem was that he sought to justify himself. He did not walk away merely because he was wealthy. He walked away because he rejected Jesus. Even the poor can do such a thing. Cue the thief on the cross who mocked Jesus.

My guess is we, who are married, would not tell single people to quit dreaming the marriage dream. That would be cruel. Nope. But we might say, ‘In your pursuit of the marriage dream do not neglect the dream of a life of faith in Christ alone.” Good? I thought so. What stops us then from saying the same in regards to the American Dream. Maybe it will be hard and require some nuance and explanation but it just might be worth it. Just as we would not want to be hypocritical about the marriage dream and push an unnecessary discouragement, the same is true for freedom, prosperity and success. And this brings us to our second reason the evangelical criticism of the American Dream fails.

Second, it fails because the ones who decry those who would pursue this dream have homes and cars and jobs and cell-phones and furniture and money to eat out. The pastors who rail about your pursuit of the American Dream take their wives out for dinner and go on vacation. They have mp3 players, DVD players, computers and microwaves. They have central heat and air. They pay for their house to be repaired. They have degrees from educational institutions. They have more than one pair of shoes, plenty of clothes and machines to wash them. If any of the above is lost or stolen or worn out they can use their savings account or insurance to replace the above. They are respected in their profession and are invited to conferences based on their abilities and success. And they are free to do so under the laws of this land. Some send their kids to private school. Some have cable. None go hungry.

They are living the American Dream.
Please understand, this is no criticism of those things listed above. Almost all of those who are reading this enjoy a great deal of these which are the accoutrements of the American Dream and do so with thankfulness to God. No pastor or Christian is necessarily wrong in doing so. What is wrong is to enjoy these things – these results of the American Dream – and then rail against some abstract notion of it for others. What is wrong is to stand in front of a group of people having achieved the American Dream and then tell others how wrong they are for pursuing the same. Just as it is wrong to rail against the wealth of Americans from an iPhone, it is wrong to rail against someone’s pursuit of the American Dream from the comfort of being right in the middle of it.

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Maybe pursuit is the wrong word. Our language in all of this is may be faulty. Since we are certain we should not idolize the American Dream, maybe we should use that language so their is no confusion. “The Christian should not idolize the American Dream.” That works. And it works on two levels. First it makes the heart the issue and not some outside thing. Second, it frees us from an unnecessary guilt due to what you have. You could call it the pursuit of the ‘Edenic Dream’ that our first parents bequeathed us. It is nothing new.

You must see, the heart has always been the problem.  Not freedom. Not prosperity. Not success. The American Dream is not the problem. And it is strange. Strange, because everyone would admit there are men and women, who reject the American Dream and have black hearts. This should tell us something. Our hearts – you know, where the problem lies – is always looking for something else to be the problem. The American Dream. Alcohol. Education. Sex. Dancing. Tobacco. Choose something…anything, and we will turn it into the problem.

So this is not a call for you to pursue the American Dream. Almost every reader has seen the dream become reality and has known nothing else since birth. No, this is a call to make the heart the issue. To stop distracting from the real issue. This is a defense of what all of you already have but what you call everyone else to reject. To stop heaping unnecessary guilt on the faithful. This is simply a pointing and saying, “The Emperor has plenty of clothes.”

Taking Long Looks

“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything…” – Flannery O’Connor

Having read this quote for the first time about 12 years ago, I am surprised it is just now getting under my skin. But the very fact it has is perhaps proof of it’s truthfulness. Though I read novels, I am prone to not take long looks at most things. Like most Christians, I am quick to judge. Well, I am just quick period. I am quick to decide on the goodness or badness of something. I make rash judgments on people and books and everything. I want everything done quick. Food. Stories. Conversations. Trips. Blog posts. Downloads. Uploads. Health. Answered prayer.

So, I’m part of that elite evangelical group known as “Everyone.” We don’t take long looks at anything because it requires a reigning in of ego. The long look asks us to submit ourselves to the fact we have limited knowledge. We can guess and speculate but really we are just ignoramuses.

The BP oil spill is a good example. We were right to be concerned. But we were wrong to talk and act as if we knew the ending. We spoke about the spill as if we knew for certain what all the effects would be. And we knew, of course, they would be catastrophic. And so we handed out judgment diffused with anger like those without hope. In other words we freaked out and acted as if the Gulf Coast would be irreparably harmed. And we did all of this at the beginning of the story. But now? The oil cannot even be found. The beaches are pristine. And little microbes are “eating” up the oil that is below the surface. We should not have been so quick to think we knew the end of the story before we finished the first chapter.

Novels, of course are stories. And they should teach us something here. All the stories we love seem to have a crisis moment where we are forced to either have hope or dispense with it. And then as the story moves along, the characters change and the drama takes on a redemptive form. Hope emerges from the ashes of crisis. Our heart soars. Thankfully, we have looked long into the reaches of the final pages.

Our stories are similar. Not only have we as believers emerged from the slavery of sin and death and crossed the river on dry land into life and love with God, our Redeemer. But we continue on into a story that never ends. We move “further up and further in” as Lewis showed us in one of his novels. The story has not yet ended. We not only want others to take the long look into our lives, we naturally fall in this direction when thinking about ourselves. The cliché rings true. God isn’t finished yet. The story is not over. That is, unless you are without hope and cannot look long into the stories about and around you.