Subsidized Blasphemy

Only a few years ago Denmark abolished censorship of pornography, and for now—until the rest of the “civilized” world catches up—it is reaping rich profits in the pornographic export trade. Denmark has an established church (Lutheran), to which over 90 per cent of its people belong.

But neither Christianity nor a respect for the sentiments of believers appears to have much influence on the Danish government. On August 11, several thousand Young Christians (a Danish group with Pentecostal inclinations) held a march in Copenhagen to protest Danish film director Jens Jørgen Thorsen’s projected hetero-and homosexually pornographic fantasy to be called The Love Affairs of Jesus Christ. The Young Christians specifically condemned the funding of this as yet unproduced film by the Danish treasury, to the extent of a 650,000 kroner subsidy (approximately $117,000).

Only in a world that has become indifferent to questions of historical fact and intellectual honesty is it necessary to remind ourselves that the only available source of the life of Jesus, the Bible, consistently portrays a man whose purity and sinlessness of life were recognized even by his adversaries. Only an age obsessed with sexuality as ours is can overlook the evident fact that no one involved in sexual immorality could have passed himself off as a spiritual leader among first-century Jews. Thorsen’s movie will have to be drawn from a depraved imagination, not fact, for its theme, as he describes it, will run absolutely contrary to all historical truth.

How can a nominally Christian government subsidize a project that deliberately sets out to be not only dishonest but hideously blasphemous? If we reread what Paul says in Romans about those who “thinking themselves wise,” forgot God, became fools, and were given over to a depraved mind, we will recognize in the Danish situation a graphic illustration of Paul’s analysis. How else can we explain the fact that an enlightened, “democratic” government plans flagrantly to outrage the deepest feelings of its Christian citizens—even if they be only a small minority, not the 90 per cent who have been baptized into the state church?

We know that Denmark, where a small minority of Muslims live as itinerant workers, would not dare to produce a vulgar blasphemy on the life of Muhammad. If it did so, many people around the world would judge that it had asked for the riots and film-hall bombings that would certainly result. Ordinary human decency would certainly hold a government back from similarly outraging members of the Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu faith. But the fascination of mocking the Son of Man seems too great for even “democratic” governments to resist today, just as it was for an authoritarian one in Jesus’ day.

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Walter Ulbricht, 1893–1973

Walter Ulbricht, who died this month, was the architect of the D.D.R. (East Germany) and notorious for the Berlin Wall. Even more significant was his rigid Marxism-Leninism, which left East Germans spiritually desolate.

Ulbricht, a man of humble origins, came from Leipzig. His father was a socialist with a liking for drink, and his mother left the Lutheran church to conform to the socialist view of religion. It was at the dinner table that young Walter first became familiar with the class struggle. Outside, prostitutes walked the streets and the affluent came “slumming” for an hour or two.

In the preface to Verduin’s book The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, H. L. Ellison views the rise of Communism as the judgment of God on the sacralism and churchianity of the West. Marx himself was a product of such an environment. Men like Ulbricht remind the Church of its calling to speak the truth in love to all men and to keep itself unpolluted by the world. Or, to paraphrase Paul’s words in Romans 2:24, Beware that the name of God is not blasphemed among unbelievers because of the practice of the Church.

Watergate And Religion

In a syndicated column that has been widely circulated, Associated Press religion writer George W. Cornell says, “Moral theologians cite a kind of ‘White House religion’—a personalized piety detached from its social demands—as a factor in the Watergate affair.”

An attempt is made to “keep religion out of politics,” Cornell says, and he quotes theologian Gabriel Fackre of Andover Newton Seminary as saying that this “White House religion” “seeks salvation of souls but allows the damnation of society.” This attitude, says Rabbi Balfour Brickner, a Reform Jewish scholar, stems from evangelistic revivalism, which separates religion from “affairs of the market place, the courthouse, the political arena or the business office.… Watergate … may … restore social action to the churches and synagogues of America.”

Baptist pastor Peter McLeon of Waco, Texas, asks: “What I want to know is this: what were all those preachers doing in the White House on Sunday morning? What were they preaching? And Philip Potter, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, comments: “In Watergate we have clean-cut, good-looking people, devoted to private religion, but … defective in moral sensitivity.”

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The charges are clear: revivalism and a personalized piety helped produce the climate of Watergate. What should evangelicals who believe in revivalism and personal piety say in response?

Let’s look first at some facts. What about “all those preachers … in the White House on Sunday morning”? Since Mr. Nixon’s inauguration in 1969 there have been 240 Sundays and 40 Sunday services. This means there were no services on 200 Sundays. And in the election year of 1972 there were no Sunday services at all! There were twenty-seven Protestant, six Roman Catholic, and two Jewish speakers. For the other five services there were no speakers. Of the speakers, it can hardly be said that all or most came from the circles of “revivalism” and “personalized piety.” Norman Vincent Peale led the list; he spoke three times. Cardinal John Krol, Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, spoke twice. Billy Graham spoke twice; a third time he shared the program with a Jew and a Catholic. The rest of the speakers represented a broad spectrum. Among them were the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, R. H. Edwin Espy, and social actionist Archbishop Humberto S. Medeiros of Boston.

There are two things we as evangelicals want to say about Watergate and religion. First, John Dean, Jeb Magruder, and the Watergate burglars are self-confessed law-breakers just as Daniel Ellsberg is. Evangelicals who are committed to Scripture must agree that the Watergate break-in, the subsequent cover-up, the Ellsberg theft of the Pentagon papers, the publication of these papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post, the break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist—and also, to bring in another current topic, the lying reports about U. S. bombings in Cambodia—were all immoral actions that must be condemned.

The second point we wish to make is that none of this can be laid at the door of revivalism and pietism. Evangelical evangelists including Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, Finney, Moody, Torrey, and Graham, have always preached against such sins. Billy Graham put it clearly: “Lying, cheating, stealing, fornication, and adultery are always wrong. They are a breach of God’s law no matter who does them.” The Watergate and Pentagon Papers malefactors operated on the principle that the end justified the means, a principle that Hitler’s Eichmann used so murderously.

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Evangelicals believe in ethical absolutes and have always said that good ends must be secured by right means. They reject the relativism of Joseph Fletcher, a theological liberal who has said: “Only the end justifies the means; nothing else”; and, “Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively.” If such non-“revivalists” as John Bennett, Eugene Carson Blake, William Sloane Coffin, Philip Potter, and Robert McAfee Brown had preached at the White House, they would not have advocated prescriptive ethics with its absolutes.

The Watergate and Pentagon Papers malefactors may have had plenty of religion; what they lacked was genuine Christianity and obedience to the Ten Commandments. If they had refused to lie, cheat, and steal, there would have been no Pentagon Papers case and no Watergate. If the principles advocated by revivalists and pietists had been upheld, there would have been no need for a Senate investigating committee (which, we might add, has on the whole produced a regrettable spectacle in which prejudice and an accusatory attitude seem to belie claims of objectivity).

Those involved in the “affairs of the market place, the courthouse, the political arena or the business office” cannot separate these from their religious convictions. The nation needs regenerated people, and this is the business of “revivalism”; and it needs keepers of the Law of God, which is at the heart of a pietism that emphasizes ethical absolutes.

Not Seeing Is Believing

The empty tomb stands like a huge chunk of concrete blocking the highway of unbelief. It boldly questions the assumptions of naturalism on the one hand and of syncretistic theology on the other. Christianity asserts that God is Spirit, but not in any Platonic sense, for the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Christianity is open to an open empiricism that is willing to face all the historical evidence, not one that has taken the pseudoscientific “leap of faith” that says metaphysical questions are impossible.

Usually when we look at the end of John’s Gospel we particularly notice Thomas’s doubt and Christ’s physical appearance before him. But “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” It is not that our Lord demands from future disciples a blind leap of faith, but that their faith will depend on eyewitnesses rather than direct observation.

In chapter 20 John gives us his personal testimony concerning the resurrection. He outruns Peter to the empty tomb, but Peter, impetuous as ever, rushes in first. They find no body, only the linen cloths and turban that had wrapped it. The way these cloths were situated, with the cloth for the head lying apart and still “rolled up,” led John to believe in the resurrection. It proved to the disciples that no body snatcher had carried away the corpse. Instead, they find evidence of supernatural activity. In Luke’s Gospel we have what seems the conclusive argument against any theory other than bodily resurrection.

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The disciples were skeptical when Jesus appeared to them, and they thought he was a spirit. But in Luke 24:39 he reassures them: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Then we have that realistic and poignant statement of verse 41, that they disbelieved and wondered for joy. They were so taken aback by the literalness of the resurrection that they simply could not believe their eyes; sometimes a surfeit of empiricism can have its problems!

We can face a self-crucifying and absurd world with the shout of victory—Christ is risen—and its corollary, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Man’S Work Done?

It’s an interesting commentary on our times that we celebrate Labor Day with leisure. Many people think that this is quite appropriate, that with all our technology work should be regarded as a thing of the past anyway. Some speak disparagingly of “the work ethic,” as if labor these days were done more out of habit than necessity. Paul’s command “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” is regarded as out of date: machines can do our work, so why should anyone go hungry simply because he has no employment? That’s the way the reasoning goes.

The environmental crisis is a major reminder that the pronouncement of death upon physical labor was premature. It turns out that many of our technological achievements have been at the expense of the environment. We did not finish our work; we cut corners and didn’t clean up after ourselves. Now the uncared-for chores have begun to catch up with us, and there is such an accumulated buildup of waste and imbalance that the situation looks almost hopeless.

It appears, then, that our growing leisure time may be due not so much to less work to do as to needed work that is left undone. Our ecological problems require education and legislation but will not be ultimately solved in those areas. Many, many people will have to roll up their sleeves again. As God told Adam, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground.”

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Many people faced with increasing leisure are learning, moreover, that non-work is not what it was cracked up to be, and that work is perhaps not as bad as it seems. We may yet discover that work is good for man!

A Royal Priesthood

In First Peter 2:9, Christian believers are called a royal priesthood; Revelation says we are “kings and priests” (1:6). The New Testament concept of the priesthood of all believers lost ground as the Church developed a complex hierarchy and sacerdotal system in the Middle Ages, buit it was recovered and proclaimed with a new intensity by Martin Luther at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.

Unfortunately, as Protestantism has developed, there has been a tendency merely to supplant the sacramental priesthood of the medieval church with an “academic” or “rhetorical” priesthood, presiding from the pulpit rather than from the altar, but still monarchically presiding. Where the slogan “priesthood of all believers” is heard, the emphasis is more often on the egalitarian note, on the all, than on the vital connotations of priesthood. Christians can indeed go directly to God through Jesus Christ and have no need to resort to another mediator. But if we merely stress the fact that all believers can have personal access to God, we overlook a cardinal point.

A priest is one who performs religious functions for others. In many religions, there must be a priest because the others are not qualified to perform these functions for themselves—they may lack knowledge, ordination, ceremonial purity, or some other necessary requirement. Members of the New Testament community, by contrast, know that God is no respecter of persons, and that they need fulfill no elite qualifications before they can approach God. But if this is all they know, then while they are qualified to exercise a priesthood, they may well be failing to use their prerogative.

To speak of neglecting to “perform religious functions for others” sounds strange to evangelical ears. But it should not, for there are legitimate religious functions that it is our privilege and duty, as Christian believers, to perform for others. We are familiar with intercessory prayer: that is a priestly office, just as Christ himself, the great High Priest, “ever lives to make intercession” (Heb. 7:25). And evangelization, too, is a priestly function, something that people cannot, under normal circumstances, perform for themselves, for “How are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).

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There are other things that ordinarily a believer cannot do for himself, or cannot do as well as they should be done. In the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance, the word of absolution, telling the repentant sinner that he is cleansed of his guilt, is pronounced by the priest. Protestants know that the Bible contains confident assurances of pardon that can be found, read, and spoken by any believer, because they are part of the New Testament message, not of an ecclesiastical rite.

However, it frequently happens that even in Protestant circles the assurance of pardon, which is so central to New Testament proclamation, can become formal so that, practically speaking, it is only ritually pronounced during the Sunday service after a similarly formal prayer of general confession, and many pew-sitters never realize that both should apply to them. Any believer who knows the Scripture ought to be able to give needed assurance to a troubled fellow Christian. On a person-to-person basis, and specifically applied to a problem afflicting his conscience, this will frequently minister far more effectively to his personal need than a ritual assurance in church. This too is a priestly “function”—and privilege.

As evangelicals, we are grateful that God permits us ready access to him in Jesus Christ. But we should not forget that this access is—among other things—to enable us to fulfill a ministry to others, not merely to “speak for ourselves.” Until we realize and practice this, we fall short of realizing the New Testament vision of a royal priesthood.

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