In this week’s rather packed episode, we’re going to talk about:
Off-colour jokes about Jesus, and how Christians should respond;
Why ‘community standards’ is a fiction used to silence the community;
How you can only flourish in the public square as a Christian by pretending to be someone else; and
Whether our God-given desires are a good basis for evangelism.
(The last three of those topics are in response to questions or comments on our recent post about ‘the myth of the public square’.)
As always, we hope that what follows encourages and stimulates you to bring the gospel to bear on everything in our lives today, and to share that gospel with others. And we hope that you’ll share this newsletter (and podcast) with others, and urge them to sign up!
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Jokes about Jesus
TP: Some context for our overseas listeners—recently here in Australia, on a TV chat show called The Project, a gay comedian made a quite vile and vulgar joke about Jesus, which I won't repeat here. Most of the other panelists on the show laughed.
After a subsequent outcry and protests from many people, the hosts issued an apology the following evening saying: “We want to acknowledge the particular offense and hurt that [the joke] caused our Muslim and especially our Christian viewers.”
A public protest has now been organized in a few weeks’ time by a group of Christians and Muslims, to express their outrage and to call for the show to be axed.
Philip, will you be going to that protest?
PJ: I certainly wouldn't be going to that protest. I would ask people not to do that.
I wouldn't go because I believe in free speech. And you can't believe in free speech and at the same time protest when somebody speaks freely. We've argued here over the last few weeks that people should be free to say things, even things that are offensive to you, even things that challenge what you believe—because how do you know the truth if you stop people being allowed to say things?
Furthermore, jokes about Jesus are not new. There's the famous one about ‘Alexamenos worships his God’, which is a 2nd or 3rd century piece of satirical graffiti depicting a Christian man worshipping a crucified man who's got a donkey's head on (image below). There's nothing new in jokes against Christians. And there's nothing new in our society being opposed to Christianity and making fun of Christians. We should expect it because we follow the Crucified One. And I think Christians should get used to it.
TP: Yes, the goal is not to get our hands on the lever that opens the trapdoor and drops people down into perdition; we don't want to join with the ‘cancellers’. But we can point out that their attitude to these things is grossly inconsistent and hypocritical.
PJ: Yes, that's certainly worth pointing out—the terrible hypocrisy of saying they don’t want to cause any hurt to any people, but they don't really mind attacking Christians and hurting their feelings. You’re right that we shouldn’t respond with censorship or ‘trapdoors’, but we should be able to point out that it's hypocritical to talk about ‘sensitivity readers’ and hate speech, and at the same time to constantly say things that are insensitive and hurtful to Christians (of which this joke is just a recent and gross example).
There's also cowardice. That is, they would never dare to make the same joke about Muhammad. Why? Because Islam is a minority? No, that's not the reason. It's because the Muslims would retaliate.
I remember some years ago, they wanted to have a ‘Bible Frisbee Day’ at New South Wales University—that is, have a frisbee competition using Bibles as frisbees. And so I went and saw them, and I offered to provide Bibles for them. They were slightly surprised. And I said, “I'll also provide the Quran so that you can use both the Bible and the Quran in the competition.” And once that came out, the whole idea got dropped. They didn't mind playing frisbee with the Bible, but they knew doing it with the Quran would lead to violent repercussions. That's where Islam and Christianity are very different.
So when Islam and Christians join together in protest, it should warn you that there's a problem here.
TP: No, it's not really the way Christians think (or should think) about how Christianity and the state interact. It's a more Islamic way of thinking about the issue, because in Islam, church and state are one; there's no difference. It's perfectly consistent with an Islamic way of viewing the world that you would have a protest and try to get your hands on the levers of power to ban certain speech and impose religious sensibilities from above. It's not really consistent with a Christian way of thinking about society—although of course, Christians have fallen into it a various points in history.
PJ: We have, but we mustn't do it personally. We're told by the Lord Jesus to turn the other cheek. And at that point, we're very different to Islam. We are preaching the Crucified One, who has risen from the dead and rules the universe. But we are called upon to suffer for the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ, not to retaliate. The trouble with turning the other cheek, of course, is that it looks as if we don't care, when, in fact, we do care. But we shouldn't be taking our care for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ into that kind of retaliatory action or suppression or censorship.
TP: So how would you respond when someone blasphemes or tells a really off-colour joke about Jesus or says something that is offensive to you personally?
PJ: Well, there are several ways you can do it. One of the ways is to say, “Well, the funny thing about Jesus is everybody always wants to crucify him.” So I've taken it back to the gospel, and I've put you on the defensive.
It's all right to express my hurt. But the trouble is, when you express your hurt, then people say, “Yeah, well, but you've hurt us as well.” And so it becomes a hurt competition. How hurt are you? Are you more hurt than I am? So I'm not sure that's the way forward.
You could raise the free speech question, and try to demonstrate their hypocrisy by saying, “Well, that's really interesting. Would you say that about Muhammad or have you got a good joke about Muhammed?” You can point to their cowardice and hypocrisy.
I had a friend at school called Michael Benjamin. Michael was a very popular man. A quiet man, but a very popular man. And I saw in the end why it was: every time people said anything negative about someone, Michael would always interject and say, “You know he's one of my close friends, don't you?”
I didn't know he had that many close friends; I was not even sure that Michael knew that person. But I'll tell you what—it was a great stopper for people gossiping. It's a very clever answer. So when someone says something like that, I say, “Well, you know, Jesus is very important to me, don't you?” That means for you to continue with this joke, you have to do it intentionally hurting me. Most people at this point just stop saying anything even though I haven't told them to stop. And so that’s how I use the Michael Benjamin defense.
TP: Speaking of how we interact with others publicly—we received a number of really great emails in response to our piece about the ‘myth of the public square’. One was from my good friend Phil, who writes about the phrase ‘community standards’, and how it gets used in the public square these days. He says:
I heard an interview on the BBC last week where a Christian woman who was a possible front runner for the leadership of the Scottish ruling party got hammered because her views were out of touch with ‘community values’ or accepted ‘community opinion’—by which they meant her view that kids should really have a mum and dad, that marriage is between a man and a woman, that killing babies in the womb is wrong, and so on.
It's the same with Facebook; it cancels people who don't meet ‘community standards’. But who decides this? It's not a poll of majority opinion or based on feedback received. It's decided by a small committee of executives somewhere in the Facebook offices, yet it's asserted as accepted community standards. The more that the media and the ruling elites assert that these are ‘community standards’, the more everyone accepts it and quietly moves to the sidelines because they're out of touch.
I think this is very insightful. It's a way that the current controllers and dominant voices within the public square, who really are just a small group of people, define what is acceptable within the public square–it’s ‘community standards’, by which they just mean, our standards. It’s another attempt to set the acceptable terms of discussion, and so silence certain people and certain arguments.
Pretending to be someone else
Also on the ‘public square’, Lewis wrote in to share an article he had written a little while ago called, There is no public square: the secularist myth of neutral ground (see details below). Lewis argues that the public square–this mythical space–is really the endpoint of the failed Enlightenment project. The Enlightenment wanted to say, “Look, just by our own rational inquiry, we're going to be able to find justice and truth. We can figure these things out for ourselves, using our unaided human intellect.” But of course, the project failed. All that resulted was interminable, unresolved debate between competing viewpoints. And Lewis’ point is that the ‘public square’ is kind of the endpoint and demonstration of this failure; it’s a marketplace for that interminable and unresolvable debate to keep going.
Lewis goes on to point out that the public square must therefore function on the basis of the lowest common denominator of shared assumptions (since we're all coming to this debate with our different assumptions). And that in the end, the people who control that space determine what those assumptions will be, and what the agenda of discussion will be. Here’s a brief quote from his article:
Try as we might, we cannot free ourselves from our particular perspectives. This has two consequences for the public square. First, the public square will necessarily take the shape of the particular perspective that created it and, so, is not a neutral space. Second, if the rules of engagement in the public square inhibit the expression of your own particularities because, according to Nagel, you cannot be divorced from your particularities, then you cannot participate in the public square without pretending to be someone else. People embody traditions, so the public square is not neutral toward traditions other than the one that created it.
For liberal society, that means the people most comfortable and fluent in public affairs will either be those who share the particular subjectivity or tradition of the creators of the public square or those who can easily pretend to be someone other than who they really are, who can live as someone whose tradition is not the foundation of their rationality, who can reason one way in public and another way at home. As a result, all subjective viewpoints other than the dominant one become private.
PJ: So he’s saying that I’m not allowed to come into the television debate and say, “Well, I'm a Christian, and I believe God, and God actually says XYZ” because that's not one of the assumptions that is allowed in the square.
TP: Exactly, even though as a Christian, that's foundational to everything I actually believe and want to say in any debate. The whole way I think about everything is founded on the truth of God and of Jesus Christ, but it can't base what I’m saying in the public square on that foundation, because that assumption is not allowed. And so I have to pretend to be someone a bit different than I am. I can maybe reveal a bit of my Christianity, but only those bits that are consistent with the very limited secular assumptions of the ‘public square’.
Here are the details of Lewis’s article for those who want to chase it up:
Jones, Lewis. “There Is No Public Square: The Secularist Myth of Neutral Ground.” We Are Pilgrims: Mission from, in and with the Margins of Our Diverse World, edited by Darren Cronshaw and Rosemary Dewerse, UNOH Publishing, Dandenong, VIC, 2015, pp. 129–138.
Are our God-given desires a good basis for evangelism?
TP: I’ve also been having a really good interchange about evangelism and our ‘God-given desires’ with Mark from Pennsylvania. Here’s one of his emails that captures his question:
I've been thinking on your comments about the Keller center in this week's podcast. It sounds like you were challenging the "subversive fulfillment" idea Keller and others (e.g. Dan Strange from Oak Hill) often champion. Their argument seems be that sin hasn't totally eroded our fundamental desires (which reflect our true created nature) but involves seeking for those things in created things rather than the Creator. The famous Augustine quote about being restless until we find our rest in God sprang to mind. We want rest but can't find it in the way we want.
Thus, the apologetic method is to say yes, no, yes... yes to the fundamental way in which a person still retains the image of God (expressed especially in terms of God given longings), no to our twisted desires and misplaced hopes, and then yes to the way Jesus truly fulfills them. Biblical references to support this might include Jeremiah 2 - we want for water but turn from God and go to broken cisterns.
Being an adopted US Presbyterian and a WTS grad this kind of thinking is now in my blood, but you caused me to question whether it’s truly Biblical or Calvinistic to speak this way. Do I need a blood transfusion?
This is also very much the approach of Sam Chan here in Australia—the idea that there are God-given desires and aspirations expressed in every person or in every culture, and that evangelism should be alert to them, and craft the presentation to resonate and appeal to those desires, even while critiquing them. It’s sometimes also called the Resonance-Dissonance-Gospel approach.
I’ve written about this approach already, back when this newsletter was called ‘The Payneful Truth’ (see details below in the PS). As I said in that piece, there are ways in which a Yes-No-Yes trajectory can be a quite legitimate way to describe what is happening in gospel proclamation. In some ways, you could say that Two ways to live has a Yes-No-Yes shape:
Yes: God is the ruler and creator of the good world we live in; we were created to rule and steward and enjoy this good world under him; this resonates with us to some extent, because we do still experience the world as a good and ordered place.
No: we also experience the world as fallen and frustrating, because we all reject God as our ruler and seek to run our lives our own way. Our rebellion leads to God’s punishment—now (in the terrible mess we make of our lives and the world) and in the future (in death and judgement).
Yes: but God sent his Son to die for our sins and to rise as the ruler, offering us forgiveness and new life (our response to this being repentance and faith).
So what’s the problem with applying the Yes-No-Yes approach to our ‘twisted desires and misplaced hopes’ as Mark puts it? I suggested in that earlier piece that without care, it can easily diverge from the way the apostles preached the gospel. It can focus on the symptoms of our rebellion (that our desires are frustrated) rather than on the disease (that we have rejected God and are under his judgement). And so the gospel can become a story about how God sent Jesus to fulfill our deepest longings, rather than a proclamation of the lordship of the crucified Christ who died to take the punishment we deserve, and who calls on us to repent for the forgiveness of sins.
I won’t repeat the argument of that earlier piece here, but it is worth saying a little more about the subject of desires. Do we have deep-down longings and desires that are fulfilled in the gospel?
We need to start by asking: what is a desire?
‘Desire’ (in the sense we’re talking about it) is a transitive verb. It’s an attraction towards, a longing for, a wanting of … something: a cool glass of water, safety amidst danger, a beautiful thing or person. This means that ‘desire’ itself is neither intrinsically positive or negative: it all depends on what is being desired, and in what way and for what purpose. (This is reflected in biblical usage. ‘Desire’ or ‘passion’ can be positive; very often it is negative, because of our sinfulness.)
So you could say (quite rightly) that the ability to desire things is part of our God-given nature, and that some of our desires are ‘good’ (at least in part) because they are called forth by the good and desirable world that God has created us to be part of. The ‘goodness’ of desires lies in the good and beautiful things (and people) we long for, not in the desire itself. Desire has no innate content or direction; it depends for its goodness or evilness on our perception of something being desirable, and on our purposes in desiring it.
So desire is complicated. It is inseparably connected to our knowledge and perception of what is good or evil, and to our purposes and intentions in wanting things. In classical theological terms, our desires (or affections) are intrinsically connected with our reason and our will.
The Reformers understood this. They argued that you couldn’t split desire from reason or will—as if they operated separately, or as if one was less fallen or sinful than the others. They insisted that our entire complex personality in all its facets was inescapably lost and trapped in sin. This is the doctrine of ’total depravity’—not that we are all as evil as we could possibly be, but that that no part of us has escaped the corrupting effects of sin. (We won’t go into the details here, but they argued this against Roman Catholicism, which taught that we are sinful and fallen but not so far fallen that we are not capable of climbing back towards God with the help of the Church via our reason. If a properly instructed reason could be put to good use by our wills, then we could want and choose what is right, and merit salvation.)
The Reformers were right to argue for ‘total depravity’ because it is what the NT consistently teaches. Romans 1:18-32 is a key passage, as is the argument of Romans 5-8, Ephesians 2, Galatians 5 and James 1. The consistent witness of the NT is that our rejection of God, the suppression of the truth about him, results in every aspect of our personality becoming distorted and corrupt: our reasoning becomes vain, our hearts are darkened, and we are given over to desiring perversity and evil. In the striking words of Rom 1:28, “And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind, to do those things which should not be done” (my translation).
This is why we are captive to evil desire, and why the ‘desires of the flesh’ are always and invariably ‘contrary to the Spirit’ (as Gal 5:16f says). Our fleshly desires are inseparable from our fleshly perception of what is good, and our fleshly intentions and purposes. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, we have said, “Evil, be thou my good”, and thus our deepest longings and desires are anti-God, just like our deepest knowledge and our deepest intentions.
This is also where some versions of the Yes-No-Yes approach come unstuck. They speak as if there were some good ‘God-given desires’ lurking down in the basement of our personalities waiting to be brought out into the light—as if there is a corner of our souls that really does want God and want his goodness, and that all we need to do is disabuse people of the twisted and false way they are going about this, and point them to where these deep-down desires can now be fulfilled.
It would be better (and more biblical) to say that my deepest desires are driven by my deepest reasonings and my deepest intentions—all of which are in service of the fundamental truth about me: that I have profoundly rejected the truth of God, and have made the ridiculous choice to install Me as the centre and rationale and ruler of my life. This is my deepest knowledge, choice and desire: to reject God and to love Myself as the greatest good. There’s nothing underneath or beyond this.
This means that even my desires for the good things of God’s world—food, sex, relationships, satisfying work, meaning and purpose in life, freedom, justice—end up being corrupt desires, because they all exist in service of my foundational knowledge and choice, which is the sovereignty of Myself. This basic fault in my knowledge (that I am more important than God) results in me mis-knowing everything about the world and mis-desiring it. The foundations are rotten, and everything we desire or choose is therefore also corrupt in some way.
This, it seems to me, is where cultural engagement with people’s desires fits into evangelism.
We can point out that there are indeed good things in God’s world to be desired and enjoyed, but that our consistent inability to do so is intrinsically connected with the deepest truth about ourselves—our rejection of God. In that sense, the gospel addresses our deepest longings by declaring to us that our deepest longings are corrupt and self-centred and anti-God, that we are under God’s judgement because of this, but that God has sent his Son to redeem us.
This is what we’ve called elsewhere kategoria—the critique of the world that exposes the folly of its rejection of God, as an introduction to the great gospel news of what God has done to save and forgive and bring new life.
There is much more to be said, particularly on the question of where persuasion and argument fit into this. I’ve written about these things before (see below), but no doubt we’ll return to the topic in due course.
Some quick links to those other articles.