Sacred, Worldly, and Common

Dear Church Family,

This past Sunday, in the first sermon in our series in the book of Genesis, I emphasized the “spiritual antithesis” which exists between believers and unbelievers. One of the key elements of this spiritual antithesis that we talked about was presuppositions. Believers and unbelievers have different presuppositions when they are seeking after truth. Unbelievers presuppose that things like their experiences or expert opinion are foundational to understanding truth. In contrast, believers presuppose that the Triune God exists and that He has spoken to us in the Scriptures. Therefore, those who are born of God presuppose that the Scriptures are true, while those who are not born of God have other presuppositions.

In speaking to this distinction between believers and unbelievers, the Bible often uses the term “the world” to speak of unbelievers. Sometimes, “the world” may simply refer to the earth, or all humanity in general (e.g. John 1:10; 3:16). In other contexts, “the world” refers to the unregenerate, unbelieving part of humanity which is opposed to Christ and His Church (e.g. John 15:18; 17:14: Romans 12:2). In fact, though I haven’t done a precise word-count, it seems to me that this latter use is the predominant one.

This is an important teaching of Scripture. There are only two kinds of people on this planet: those who are “born of God” and those who are “of the world” (1 John 4:1-8). This was one of the main emphases of the sermon this past Sunday. One thing that I did not address on Sunday, however, was the importance of a third category when thinking and speaking of things other than people. While still maintaining the biblical, two-fold distinction between people (regenerate and unregenerate), it is helpful to think about a three-fold distinction in other areas: sacred, secular, and worldly. Let me explain.

Sacred

According to Merriam-Webster, the first definition of “sacred” is “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity.” To use a biblically term, those things which are “sacred” may also be called “holy.” According to this definition, we can call certain people “sacred” or “holy” (i.e. believers). But, we may also apply this definition to other things. The Lord’s Day (Sunday) may be called “sacred.” And, we may even call some of the things that Christians do “sacred” (e.g., Sunday morning worship, family and private worship, etc.). We may also apply this term to certain vocations and offices. Ministers, elders, and deacons in the church are called to sacred offices in which they perform sacred functions.

Unfortunately, when people think about the term “sacred,” they often think in terms of the time-worn debates between “sacred” and “secular” music. In this debate, one side tends to argue that sacred is good and secular is bad, while the other side tends to argue that we ought to make no such distinctions between the two with respect to music. I won’t try to wade into that debate at this point, but would simply like to make this distinction: some things are rightly deemed “sacred” in that they are dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of God.

Worldly

Typically in the Scriptures, “the world” refers to sinful, immoral things – those things which are opposed to God. Jesus taught His disciples that because they have been chosen out of the world, the world hates them (John 15:19). Paul writes that we should not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). He also exhorts Titus to teach believers to deny ungodliness and worldly desires (Titus 2:12).

Again, sometimes the term “world” in Scripture is amoral, referring simply to the created order or humanity. In this sense it is not good or evil, it just is. However, in Scripture, the terms “world” and “worldly” often do carry a moral connotation. And so, John Newton could write in Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, “Saviour, if of Zion's city I through grace a member am, Let the world deride or pity, I will glory in Thy name: Fading is the worldling's pleasure, All his boasted pomp and show: Solid joys and lasting treasure, None but Zion's children know.”

Thus far then, we have these two biblical categories of sacred (holy) and worldly (sinful). These are good and appropriate categories when we are thinking in terms of people. There are only two kinds of people: those who are born of God are sacred (holy) and those who are not born of God are worldly (sinful).

But now, here’s the rub. In order to think and speak about things other than people (things like art, culture, or vocation) we need a third category. Certainly some aspects of art, culture, and vocation fall into one of these first two categories. We may rightly say that some aspects of art (pornography), culture (slavery), and vocation (prostitution) are worldly and sinful. And, we may rightly say that some aspects of art (hymnody), culture (worship), and vocation (church office) are sacred or holy. But, what about those things that don’t necessarily fit neatly into one of these two categories? For that we need a third category.

Common

Unfortunately, though the true definition doesn’t bear this out, many people equate the term “secular” with the term “worldly.” Because of this, and because of the heated “sacred-secular” debates, instead of the term “secular” I prefer the term “common.” Technically, I use “common” as a synonym for “secular,” but because of all the baggage associated with the latter term, let’s just stick with common.

In labeling something “common,” I refer to those things which are neither “sacred” nor “worldly” – neither holy nor sinful in and of themselves. A helpful way to think about this is to think about those things which both believers and unbelievers share in common. When I listen to classic rock on the radio, that is not necessarily a sacred or a worldly endeavor; however, it is something which I may enjoy together with an unbeliever. When I attend a baseball game, I am participating in a cultural activity which is neither sacred nor worldly; however, it is something which I may enjoy together with an unbeliever. When I served as an infantry officer in the army, I shared that vocation with unbelievers who were also serving for the defense of our country.

This is not to say that there isn’t a difference between how a Christian listens to music, enjoys a baseball game, or works in his or her vocation. There is indeed a difference, but it is not an objective difference, but a subjective one. Indeed, the Bible exhorts all Christians to do everything that they do as unto the Lord: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:23-24). Thus, when a Christian serves in the military, or shops in the grocery story, enjoys a baseball game, changes a diaper, or fixes a sink in their vocation as a plumber, we are commanded to do so as though we were serving Christ, not men, and certainly not ourselves.

At the same time, these things may be called “common” in that the Christian shares them with unbelievers. Subjectively, the believer and the unbeliever will engage in these activities with different motives and from a different heart. Objectively, however, because the Bible doesn’t tell the proper way to change a diaper or fix a sink, these are what we may call “common” activities.

Conclusion

There are several reasons for my writing about the concept of “the common” at this point. For one thing, it is one of the concepts that we learn in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 4, we will learn about those of the line of Cain (the unbelieving line) who are the ones who are the city-builders, musicians, and the forgers of bronze and iron implements. These are activities which the believers shared in common with the unbelievers.

More importantly, however, I want to protect us – as a church – from two erroneous and opposite extremes that may ensue from the understanding of the spiritual antithesis which exists between believers and unbelievers. Both erroneous extremes understand that “the world” is opposed to Christ and His people, but one seeks to withdraw while the other seeks to transform. On the one extreme, some believers try to create Christian cultural ghettos – to withdraw from the world and carve out “sacred niches” for ourselves. On the other extreme, some believers try to “Christianize” every form of art, culture, or vocation – to transform the common into the sacred.

There is much more that could be said concerning the importance of understanding the three categories of sacred, worldly, and common. And, wisdom is necessary for applying these categories to the life of the Church and the life of the Christian. However, I have found that these categories are extremely helpful in thinking about the work of the Church, the life of individual believers, and our witness to the world.

Understanding the category of “the common” maintains the distinctiveness of the Christian witness, while continuing to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-15). In order to maintain our saltiness, we must remember the spiritual antithesis which exists between believers and unbelievers – between the sacred and the worldly. However, in order for our saltiness to be effective, we must also engage in common activities – live in the world, even as we are not of the world (John 17:15-16).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John: Believing, Loving, Living

Dear Church Family,

We’ve just returned from a wonderful family vacation. We drove over 3,800 miles in our van, took over 1,500 pictures, and spent 15 nights in a tent. Those statistics don’t adequately describe, however, the beauty of all that we saw in Yellowstone National Park, Salt Lake, Mesa Verde National Park, and the Grand Canyon. Even the pictures don’t do justice to what we were able to see and learn.

We were also able to visit and worship with three different churches while we traveling. While on vacation, we make it a priority on the Lord’s Day to visit a local church and worship with them. It’s one way that we can maintain the normal cycle of Sabbath worship, and it is a great opportunity to meet other Christians. The best part of vacation, however – for me anyway – is getting the opportunity to spend a lot of continuous time together as a family.

In particular, while camping, our vacation family worship took on a unique flavor (kind of like the food). In addition to all of our camping gear, we made sure to pack a couple of Trinity hymnals, so there were times where we would be sitting around our campsite, or driving to a hot spring in Yellowstone and singing hymns together. Over the course of the last three weeks, we studied together John’s first epistle. [I’m not trying to paint an overly-pious description of our family vacation – we struggle like everyone else in finding consistent times for family worship; and please don’t think that we were just continually walking around national parks studying the Bible and singing hymns. However, because we were all on the same schedule, we did find it easier to worship together as a family while on vacation.]

As it turned out, this study in 1 John was a great help and contrast to some of the various different non-Christian philosophies and religions that we ran into during our travels. At the end of each of our family worship times, Stacie would write down a couple of notes about what we learned that day. The thing that was most readily available for note-taking was the back of a receipt. So, with my K-Mart receipt in hand, I thought I’d share with you a brief summary of the lessons that we learned from 1 John as a family while on vacation. These are the abbreviated notes based upon the discussions that we had, but hopefully you’ll get the picture.

1 John 1:1-10
- Confess Sins
- Walk in the Light

1 John 2:1-11
- Keep commandments
- Love your brother

1 John 2:12-24
- Stay in the Church
- Confess the Son

1 John 3:1-12
- Fix our hope on Jesus’ return
- As children of God, practice righteousness

1 John 3:13-24
- Love your brothers in word, deed, and truth
- believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ

1 John 4:1-6
- Test the spirits: Jesus came in the flesh, listen to the Scriptures

1 John 4:7-21
- Love God and one another
- Confess that Jesus is the Son of God

1 John 5:1-12
Based on the power of Jesus’ baptism and death:
- Believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God
- Love God
- Keep His commandments

1 John 5:13-21
- Pray according to God’s will
- As one who is born of God, don’t sin
- Guard yourself from idols

Conclusion

The purpose of John’s first epistle is explicitly stated in chapter 5, verse 13: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” In this way, 1 John is different from the Gospel according to John. John’s Gospel account was written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). John’s Gospel was written to bring salvation, John’s first epistle was written to bring assurance of salvation.

Thus, as you peruse the notes above from 1 John, three major themes emerge which are intended to teach Christians about the three aspects of the Christian life that are intimately related: right doctrine, right relationship, and right morality. Or, said another way: what you believe, who you love, and how you live.

As I mentioned above, this study was very helpful for us as a family, particularly in the context of interacting with all sorts of different people who do not confess that Jesus came in the flesh or listen to the Scriptures (1 John 6:1-6). Christians are different from the world: we are called to believe differently, to love differently, and we live differently.

As we go about our daily lives, let us strive to make these differences apparent. Let us strive to make all three of these differences apparent in our interactions with unbelievers. Unfortunately, we sometimes only emphasize one or maybe two of these differences in our Christian witness. We do so to our own detriment and the detriment of those with whom we interact.

So, let us show the world that we believe differently: we confess that Jesus came in the flesh, that He is the Christ and the Son of God, the Savior of sinners. Let us show the world that we love differently: we strive to love God in all that we do, and to manifest that love of God in our sacrificial love for our brothers. Let us show the world that we live differently: we seek to honor God with our lives by keeping His commandments.

In these ways we will bear true testimony to the Christian faith, and we will gain assurance that we do indeed have eternal life.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

What's In a Story?

Dear Church Family,

One of the most helpful books that I have read concerning how to watch, understand, and interpret movies is a book by Brian Godawa called Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment. Godawa is a screenwriter, and he is also a Christian. Thus, the three main parts of his book (Storytelling in Movies, Worldviews in Movies, and Spirituality in Movies) provide helpful insights for how believers can more discerning in their watching of movies. He devotes a chapter each to existentialism and postmodernism, and how these themes are presented in various contemporary movies.

The most helpful chapter in my view, however, is his chapter 2, “Redemption.” In that chapter, he lists the nine basic structural elements of a story. In our Men’s Movie Night, we are using these nine elements to guide our discussions after viewing the movie. Surprisingly, after sorting out these elements in the analysis of a movie, the main point of the movie is sometimes not what one thought it would be at first.

The Structural Elements of a Story

According to Godawa, the nine structural elements of a story are as follows:

(1) Theme: This is the moral of the story. It can usually be stated as “x leads to y.” Many movies contain more than one theme, but usually one is predominant. The author, screenwriter, or directory constructs the other elements of the story in such a way as to support, illuminate, and drive home the theme. That is why, when seeking to analyze a movie using these nine elements, I find it best to examine the other elements first, and then try and discern the theme at the end.

(2) The Hero: The hero is the main character, the one that the story is about. The hero is usually pretty obvious on the surface; however, sometimes, the character that we thought was the hero actually turns out to play simply a supporting role. Usually, the hero is the one who undergoes some kind of change in his perspective by the end of the story.

(3) The Hero’s Goal: The hero is usually driven to the point of obsession to achieve some goal. It is this strong desire that drives the story.

(4) The Adversary: The adversary is the external opponent of the hero and the hero’s goal. The adversary represents the contrasting belief system of the hero. Most often, this results in a clash of worldviews between the hero and the adversary.

(5) Character Flaw: Where the adversary is the external opponent of the hero, the hero also has an internal opponent: the character flaw. The adversary blocks the hero from achieving his goal, but the hero’s character flaw holds him back from achieving it. The character flaw of the hero can be described as his inability to recognize what he truly needs. Once the hero discovers his need (as opposed to what he wanted), how he responds determines what kind of story it is. If the character responds to the revelation of his need appropriately, the story is a comedy or a drama; if he responds inappropriately, it is a comedy or a tragedy.

(6) The Apparent Defeat: There is almost always a point in every story where all the attempts on the part of the hero to achieve his goal are frustrated to the point of total futility. This is the ‘apparent’ defeat – sometimes called ‘the gauntlet’ or the ‘visit to death.’ At this point in the story, it seems that all is lost.

(7) Final Confrontation: Otherwise known as ‘the obligatory scene,’ the final confrontation is when the hero and the adversary meet face to face and their worldviews come into conflict. This can be a physical or a verbal face-off.

(8) Self-Revelation: Usually near the end of the story or movie, the hero learns where he was wrong in what he desired all along. He realizes that what he wanted was not what he needed. Through the self-revelation of the hero, the writer is trying to communicate to the audience how they should or should not live.

(9) Resolution: Also called the denouement, the resolution is the short epilogue to the story showing what results from the hero’s change or lack of change. Often, the tension of the story is typically resolved in the resolution.

The Book of Jonah

I’ve been thinking about these nine elements of a story this week because of our Men’s Movie Night. But, I’ve also been thinking about these nine elements of a story because of the sermon this coming Sunday. This coming Sunday, we will conclude our sermon series in the book of Jonah with a look at Jonah, chapter 4.

In the fourth chapter of Jonah, we see the last three elements of the story. There is a final confrontation between ‘the hero’ (Jonah) and ‘the adversary’ (God): Jonah lashes out in anger to the Lord. [Please note that I am using the term ‘adversary’ in a purely literary manner in that God’s view of the world is starkly contrasted with that of Jonah.] Then there is the intended self-revelation. That is to say, God intends for Jonah to learn something about himself, but Jonah refuses to learn the lesson. In this way, the story of Jonah actually takes on a tragic element in the end.

Finally, in the last verses of the book, there is some resolution in that God does instruct Jonah concerning His own true nature; God reveals certain aspects of His character. But, the book of Jonah never really finds complete resolution. When you get to the end of the book, it feels like something’s missing – there is a definite lack of resolution. There’s a reason for that. It’s intentional. But if you want to know why the story of Jonah doesn’t resolve, you’ll have to wait until Sunday! [In mass media communications, that’s known as a hook.] See you on Sunday.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Man of Steel and the Importance of Heroes

Dear Church Family,

My wife and I recently saw the latest iteration of the Superman movie installments Man of Steel. Having been a fan of just about every other Superman movie before it (except for maybe Superman III, the one with Richard Pryor – what were they thinking!), I think this most recent one is my favorite. And that’s even taking into account that my wife and I watched a Superman movie marathon series while waiting for our daughter to be born ten years ago, but that’s another story altogether.

Man of Steel

There is much to commend this latest movie, Man of Steel. It is most certainly an origin story – in fact, Kal-El/Clark Kent isn’t even called “Superman” until the end of the movie, about the time he starts work at the Daily Planet. Yet, in this movie – unlike the others – there is a greater emphasis on his other-worldly origins as we learn more about the politics and problems of his home-world of Krypton. So, there is a greater emphasis on his biological identity, while revealing the character development of his earthly parents through flashbacks.

This movie also has a much more realistic ‘feel’ to it, and I don’t mean that the special effects and CGI is better in this one than in its predecessors, which it most certainly is. No, I mean that there is a shedding off of the ‘slapstick’ comedy, while Kal-El is portrayed as a hero with real flaws – wrestling with who he is, why did God make him this way (he actually asks his earthly father this at one point in the movie), and what’s his purpose. One might say that he has to grow in wisdom and in stature in order to understand his purpose and fulfill his role in this world.

Now, it might be very easy, at this point, to transition into the idea that Superman is a messiah figure who points to the one true Messiah. As C.S. Lewis points out, most all of our man made stories are reflective of the one true story of redemption. There’s also the fact that the Superman character was created by two Jewish immigrants in 1938. This has caused some to speculate about the messianic imagery in a religious sense, or more socially, how the Superman character was crafted as an immigrant figure whose desire was to fit into American culture as an American.

Whatever the intention of his original creators, the Superman of Man of Steel is (in my mind, at least) something different. Certainly, there are religious overtones throughout the movie. At one point, Kal-El speaks to a minister in church sanctuary (replete with stain glass windows of Jesus behind him) as he wrestles over whether or not he ought to turn himself in to General Zod in order to save planet earth.

Superman and Plato

But there are two aspects of this movie that come to the fore unlike they do in any of the previous tellings of the story. Peter Lawler, professor of government at Berry College and former member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, has written two very interesting articles that, I think, capture these very well. [By the way, though the President’s Council on Bioethics no longer exists, their reports and papers are an amazing collection of thorough study and insight.]

In “Reading Plato with the Man of Steel,” Lawler argues that Man of Steel is all about Plato’s Republic. In fact, at one point in the movie, during his growing up years, Clark Kent is reading Plato’s Republic, and then picked on and beat up by some neighborhood boys. Afterwards, he explains to his father how he had to restrain himself from fighting back. Lawler writes,

Superman is only here to help us, not redeem us, certainly not to save us from our sins or from death. And he doesn’t have any deep insight into the meaning of life or love. His life, like each of ours, is shaped by choice and chance. He has extraordinary power that falls way short of omnipotence. He’s a man born to love and die—not a god. Superman’s Kryptonian father predicts that the people of our planet would regard his only begotten son as a god, but that we did not do. We’ve never become so Nietzschean or whatever that we’ve come to think a merely Superman can replace our need for God himself.

In this respect, as a fleshing out of some of the issues raised in Plato’s Republic, Man of Steel wrestles with the proper role of government in shaping its citizens, the importance of individual freedoms, the effects of state-mandated child-development (as opposed to the family), when is military force (or any kind of force, for that matter) appropriate and just, what is the role of the military, etc. Indeed, the societies of Krypton and American/Western culture are compared and contrasted as each must deal with ethical and moral decisions that have been thrust upon them.

Superman and Masculinity

The other aspect of this movie, one which I was delighted to see, was the emphasis on the role of masculinity and fatherhood. In “Superman Has Two Dads!” Lawler writes,

Two of the three heroic “role models” in the film act mainly as dads, and the third—Superman himself—is who he is largely because of what he was given by those two dads. We’re reminded that fatherhood is less directly biological than motherhood, but that makes being a father a freer and arguably more sacrificial choice. The foster father, in fact, is more of a father than the biological one.

This is where Man of Steel, in my view, sets itself head and shoulders above any previous iterations of the story. True masculinity and manhood is defined by learning self-control, learning to defend the weak, learning to sacrificially love others. This kind of masculinity can’t be forced or coerced, it has to be developed through parenting, training, and mentoring. Though his human father is physically weaker than him, Superman is only able to be the hero that the world needs as he learns to emulate the strength of character which is instilled in him by his foster-father. [On a side note, the Lois Lane of Man of Steel embodies true femininity to a greater extent than any that came before her, as well. She is strong, but like both of Superman’s mothers (Kryptonian and Earthly), her strength is not manifested in her own self-promotion (like the previous Lois Lanes); rather, her strength is manifested in nurturing and protecting those she loves.]

The Necessity of Heroes

This element, the evaluation and esteem of true masculinity (with all of its difficulties and conflicting, inner turmoils), is what makes Man of Steel such a great movie. In our day, the idea of ‘a hero’ has fallen on hard times. People seem to think that we have no more need for heroes. Everyone’s flawed, no one’s perfect, so why even try to live up to an ideal – why even try to embody that ideal that others may look to you? What’s the point of striving after virtue, if no one ever seems able to obtain it? We look for character flaws in all of our heroes of history, eviscerating them of anything that they might teach us other than: no one is as good as you thought they were.

But, we need heroes. In contrast to postmoderism’s murder of the hero, the Bible admonishes us as Christians to “remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). What is true for Christians with regard to our faith, is true of all human beings with regard to virtue. We need heroes.

As Jor-El (Superman’s Kryptonian father) says to his son, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” And, as Jonathan Kent (Superman’s Earthly father) says to his son, “You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.”

I teach my boys that they are “Men In Training.” I tell them that the strength and wisdom and initiative that God has given them is meant to be used to help and defend those who are weaker – never for their own self-promotion or self-aggrandizement. And, though I often don’t get it right, I try to embody and live out that ideal before them – even as I try to point them to other men who embody and live out that ideal. Man of Steel embodies that ideal. Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman is not our Savior. He is not Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who rescues the souls of men. But, he is a hero and heroes are important.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch