Entries Tagged as 'Culture'

Good News–No Cocaine Was Involved!

If you are wondering what I am referring to, please read this article. I thought about waxing eloquent about how debased America's popular culture is, but I am so bumfuzzled by this "news" piece that all I can do is throw up a link and hope Al Mohler, Russ Moore, or Denny Burk takes the time to say something worthwhile about this little cultural nugget.

Playing God in the Womb

GodIn a recent article, NY Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof discussed the concept "When we play God with our own species." Kristof brings back to the forefront the ever-changing status of medical technology for genetic screening of embryos.

The opening premise of the article was a trip that Kristof took to India where he encountered Americans looking for potential surrogate mothers. The potential savings is tremendous to have an international surrogate, even if a little questionable. The money quote follows the opening context. Kristof writes, "Ultimately, that kind of surrogacy could be mixed with genetic screening of embryos—to weed out babies of the ‘wrong’ gender or with the ‘wrong’ characteristics—to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance. Yes, all this gives me the willies, too."

I for one am glad that Kristof gets the "willies" from the idea of combining surrogacy and genetic screening "to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance." I hope the rest of us get the willies at that idea as well. Kristof then presents one of the most pressing issues in ethics today as he writes, "So some of the most monumental decisions we will face in the coming years will involve where we draw the line making some genetic tinkering legal and some illegal."

At this point in the article, it looks like Kristof is quite in touch with ethical issues, especially for a newspaper columnist. My problem is that he moves from description to prescription as the article unfolds. Kristof presents one of the newest ethical challenges in the realm of the unborn as he describes preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This procedure "allows a couple to test embryos that have been created in vitro when they are roughly 3 days old. PGD is now used principally to test for serious genetic diseases, including Down syndrome and Tay-Sachs. But it could equally be used to test for milder risks." While this procedure is exclusively for in vitro embryos, similar types of tests exist for babies in utero. Such tests can also determine the gender of the baby and potentially other genetic predispositions. The end result is that some parents might "opt out" of continuing the life of the child in hopes of getting a "more suitable child" the next time.

Near the end of the article, Kristof offers his vote for the role of PGD and other genetic screening. He writes, "As for genetic screening, I would accept PGD to cull embryos at risk for medical problems. And my vote is to allow parents to use PGD to choose the sex of a child in the United States, although I would feel differently in countries like China and India where the son preference could create a huge shortage of girls. What should cross the line into illegality is fiddling with the heritable DNA of humans to make them smarter, faster or more pious—or more deaf. That is playing God with our species, and we should ban it."

I appreciate Mr. Kristof’s effort in establishing some sort of ethical standard in this controversial realm; however, I believe he has missed the mark in a few of areas. Let’s first look at the rationale used in the argument and then draw some biblical perspective into the debate. First, I get the "willies" when I read the words "I would accept PGD to cull embryos…." Wow! Are we to the point of culling humans? Merriam-Webster defines "to cull" as "to reduce or control the size of (as a herd) by removal (as by hunting) of especially weaker animals." I did not realize we had reached that point with the human race. To Kristof’s benefit, I do not believe he meant it entirely in this sense, but the other definitions of the word do not fit the context. On the other hand, he very well may have intended exactly what he said.

Second, the PGD test and others basically can only tell that the child is "at risk" of having a certain condition—they cannot confirm the existence of that condition. Thus, "well-intentioned" parents could end the life of a perfectly healthy child who only showed signs of a certain disease but did not actually have it. Again, this is a tragic situation.

Third, why is it right to end the lives of children who have certain medical conditions? Is a child with Down syndrome more likely to have medical issues and learning disabilities? Certainly. Does that mean that such children cannot live productive lives? By no means! We recently reconnected with some friends from North Carolina after having moved away 7 months ago. They have a child with Down syndrome. I only got to see him in the church setting, but my wife was able to observe him in a preschool setting during the week as well. Having not seen him in over 7 months, I fully expected him to be the same, hard-to-control but loving child I knew before we left. To my surprise, he had advanced significantly in the span of several months. He was able to feed himself without difficulty and perform simple tasks without immediate supervision. I was astounded. Even though his parents were encouraged to terminate the pregnancy upon finding out that he would probably have Down syndrome, he has proven to me that children with serious medical conditions can lead fairly normal lives. It may take extra work and a few more tears, but isn’t that what parenting is all about?!

Fourth, Kristof offers a situational approach to gender selection that is based upon regions of the world. Gender "culling" would be appropriate, in his opinion, in countries like the US where parents are typically open to having both boys and girls. However, it would be inappropriate in China and India where girls would almost always be eliminated due to the population controls already in place from those governments. Now why in the world would this be right in some parts of the world and wrong in others? I propose that Kristof sees it this way because he employs some form of consequentialist ethics in all areas. In essence he is saying that our decisions regarding right and wrong should be based on the circumstances at the time and how the consequences of that decision will play out. In this case, the consequences of gender selection in the US would be minimal (he assumes); however, the consequences of gender selection in China would be devastating to the subsequent generations because there would not be enough females to continue the Chinese population into the next generation. While this may seem reasonable on the surface, let us turn the question around. What if it were determined that a certain abnormal gene predisposed someone to be a journalist? Since we know that journalists (especially of the blogging type) do little more than stir up trouble, it is in the best interest in the US to cull out children who are predisposed to be journalists because we already have plenty to keep the profession going. However, China is lacking journalists to stand up for freedom of speech; therefore, it would be wrong to cull out those children. You say that’s ridiculous! Of course it is. But there is little more logic in Kristof’s reasoning. If we apply a consequentialist approach to ethical decision-making, then we could justify almost anything we want.

What does Scripture say about PGD, genetic screening, and gender selection? Well, not really anything. Suffice it to say that such technological advances didn’t hit the streets during the times of the prophets or apostles. Scripture does speak, however, to the issues of life and death and speaks specifically about life in the womb. In Psalm 139:14 the psalmist says, "I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well." The prophet Jeremiah records God’s proclamation, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer 1:5).And in Isaiah 49:1, the prophet states, "Listen to Me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb; from the body of my mother He named me." These passages clearly speak to God’s knowledge of the child in the womb and His handiwork in crafting them together. Thus, it is not man who forms the child, but the Father himself who does the handiwork. Who are we to play God in the womb (or in the Petri dish)?

For those who would consider following the advice of Mr. Kristof and being open to the idea of gender selection, then admonish you to consider who is the author of life. Is it man or is it God? If it is God, then let Him do His job.

*While not the point of this post, there are also issues related to in vitro fertilization that should be taken into consideration as a part of the argument. I will attempt to address those issues in a later post. Suffice it to say, we need to be grateful for technological advances in modern science and medicine; however, not all things are profitable.

Harry Potter: What Think Ye?

As you are probably aware, Harry Potter is all the rage these days. In the last couple of weeks, the final book in the series and the fifth movie have been released. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has, as of July 23, grossed $207,866,865 at the box office. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 10 million copies in its first weekend. In other words, both are enormous financial successes and bona fide cultural phenomena. 

Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have enjoyed a somewhat awkard relationship with the world's most famous boy wizards. There are some who are huge fans of all things Potter. Others are afraid that the books and movies are spiritually dangerous, mostly because magic plays such a central role in the stories.

I am curious what you think about Harry Potter. Are you a fan, or are you uncomfortable (or even opposed) to the books and movies? I would love to hear your opinion, no matter what they are. A few ground rules are in order:

1. Keep it above-board. Although there is a lot of debate about Harry Potter among Christians, I am assuming that strong believers hold to all opinions on this issue. So if you are pro-Potter, please do not label others as ignorant or fundamentalist. Likewise, if you are anti-Potter, please do not assume those who differ from you are spiritual compromisers (or worse).

2. Please do not make an anonymous comment. I want names–at least handles–on this one. If you make a fly-by, idiotic comment, I will torch it. You have been duly warned.

3. Please tell me whether or not you have read and/or watched any Potter books/movies. Just to keep us all honest.

I will see how much discussion is generated, then will offer my own opinions in a few days. Promise. 

Hell: It Is Real!

On July 13, ABC aired a special on their program 20/20 dealing with the subject of hell. A little over a week ago, I posted about the upcoming program and promised a review/critique of the program in a forthcoming post. Well, here it is.

I watched the program last Friday and recorded it with the intention of watching it a second time prior to writing a response. However, after watching the program, I didn’t find any real necessity in watching it again. There was one obvious agenda in the program, and it came through loud and clear. The agenda was to affirm that hell is real—sort of. The overarching message was that hell exists on earth. We have all experienced, witnessed, or at least heard about horrendous circumstances that show the apparent inequitable distribution of pain and heartache around the world. As a result, the producers of the program were hoping to show that we can all agree that hell exists in one form or another right here among us. The two goals surrounding this "reality" should be to avoid it if possible and provide relief for those who are suffering through "hell on earth" whenever appropriate.

Numerous examples were cited during the program, including Nazi extermination camps in World War II, military torture at the hands of unjust captors, genocide in Sierra Leone, and other horrific events. Certainly these events and others mentioned in the program could be considered hell on earth. Perhaps some would even believe that a literal hell could be no worse than these actual events experienced on earth.

Three extended profiles of individuals and their views of hell were striking. The first involved Ulysses Handy, a man convicted of a triple homicide that involved an unpaid debt. Upon his arrest he pled guilty and was sentenced to three consecutive life terms, avoiding the death penalty due to his guilty plea. At his sentencing, he stated, "I know there are people up in here that are hurt. Pain is a part of life. Deal with it. Get over it." Interestingly, he grew up in the Catholic church and remembers being taught about hell. He has since dismissed the teachings of Roman Catholicism and denies the existence of hell. In addition, if there were a hell, he said that he is not afraid to face it.

The next profile was about a man, Matthew Dovel, who claims to have been to hell and lived to tell about it. Actually, he claims to have experienced two near death "voyages." The first one as a boy took him to heaven where Jesus told him that he needed to return to earth. The second experience took him to hell where he experienced pain and burning until he was lifted up out of hell by the back of his neck. The second experience changed his life, and he shares his experiences with anyone who will listen.

The final profile featured Carlton Pearson, a former charismatic minister who shared pulpits with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. While watching a news report about atrocities in Rwanda, he had a crisis of faith and could not understand why a loving God would eternally punish sinners in hell. The final step came with the death of his grandmother. At that point he gave up on the doctrine of hell. "I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that’s customized for unbelievers," he said. "You can't be happy. And how can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother?" He sums up his new view of hell by stating, "People who believe in hell create it for themselves and others. Religion won’t let you love yourself. Religion is the accuser of the brethren…. It’s religious dogmas that tell you [that] you are not good enough—not God enough." As a result of his new understanding of hell, and ultimately his endorsement of universalism, Pearson lost his congregation of 6,000 and now ministers to a congregation of 300 in space leased from the local Episcopal church.

So what should we believe about hell? Revelation 20:11–15 gives the most vivid picture of final judgment and unbelievers being cast into the lake of fire. Jesus referred to hell and judgment a number of times, including in Matt 25:30, 41, 46; Mark 9:43, 48; and Luke 16:28. Wayne Grudem defines hell as "a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked" (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1148). The argument laid out in the program against a literal hell of eternal punishment was that a loving God could not send someone to an eternal hell. This is probably the most common argument against a literal hell. Ultimately, such an argument pits the love of God against the justice of God as if the two attributes were mutually exclusive. So how do we affirm both God’s justice and his love when it comes to hell?

The question of simultaneously affirming God’s love and justice warrants no simple answer, but we do not have time to write a book either. In essence, both love and justice are communicable characteristics of God that are further defined by his perfection. Thus, both love and justice (or righteousness) are perfect in God. Grudem defines God’s attribute of love as "God eternally gives of himself to others" (Grudem, 198). He defines God’s justice as "God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right" (Grudem, 203). Looking at these definitions, we see that God’s love manifested itself in the most perfect way through the sacrifice of his Son for our sin (Rom 5:8). His justice is most clearly manifested in his hatred of sin and his love of holiness. But how do these work together? B. B. Warfield offers an interesting description of the work of God’s justice in relation to his love:

While reiterating the teaching of nature as to the existence and character of the personal Creator and Lord of all, the Scriptures lay their stress upon the grace or the undeserved love of God, as exhibited in His dealings with His sinful and wrath-deserving creatures. So little, however, is the consummate divine attribute of love advanced, in the Scriptural revelation, at the expense of the other moral attributes of God [e.g., justice], that it is thrown into prominence only upon a background of the strongest assertion and fullest manifestation of its companion attributes, especially of the divine righteousness and holiness, and is exhibited as acting only along with and in entire harmony with them. God is not represented in the Scriptures as forgiving sin because He really cares very little about sin; nor yet because He is so exclusively or predominatingly the God of love, that all other attributes shrink into desuetude in the presence of His illimitable benevolence. He is rather represented as moved to deliver sinful man from his guilt and pollution because He pities the creatures of His hand, immeshed in sin, with an intensity which is born of the vehemence of His holy abhorrence of sin and His righteous determination to visit it with intolerable retribution; and by a mode which brings as complete satisfaction to His infinite justice and holiness as to His unbounded love itself. (Warfield, Studies in Theology, 111–12)

Following Warfield, God’s love works within the bounds of his other moral attributes and is accomplished through their perfection as well. Thus, God’s love does not trump his justice, nor vice versa. Millard Erickson notes the infinite nature of sin that deserves infinite punishment because sin raises "a finite will against the will of an infinite being" (Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 1247). As a result, we can hold to a literal, eternal punishment for sin in hell and a perfectly loving God at the same time.

One point that the commentator of the 20/20 program correctly asserted was that when you pull hell out of the equation for religions that believe in it, the rest of the religion unravels. This is very true of Christianity. If we dismiss hell, then we might as well dismiss the substitutionary atonement, the righteousness of God, heaven, the nature and value of suffering, the value of life, and a handful of other doctrines. The remaining "religion" would be a man-made system of beliefs with little need for divine revelation. Those that dismiss hell have created a religion in their own image.

I, for one, acknowledge a literal hell, described in Revelation as the lake of fire. I believe that Scripture teaches this doctrine, and that we do not have the right to pick and choose which teachings of Scripture we will believe. For those who dismiss the doctrine of hell, I point you to Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Tim 4:3–4, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths." May we not be ear-ticklers in an age that doesn’t want to believe in hell.

Hell: Is it real?

ABC will be airing an interesting story called "Hell: The Fear and Fascination" this Friday, July 13 on their 20/20 program. It will include interviews with an assortment of people including an unrepentant murderer who says he is not afraid of hell and a United Church of Christ minister who says that people who believe in hell create it for themselves and others.

The UCC minister is Carlton Pearson, and he once shared pulpits with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. According to Pearson, his study of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures led him away from a belief in hell and the substitutionary atonement. "I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that's customized for unbelievers," he said. "You can't be happy. And how can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother?" He also believes that the Bible is not "the literal word of God, but a book by men about God, with primitive men prone to mistranslations, political agendas and human emotions." His current efforts include promoting his new book, The Gospel of Inclusion, which is his take on universalism. A quote from his website reads, "The closest to knowing God you will ever get in this life, is knowing the innate divinity of your own Self and Soul."

ABC’s website has a teaser story that ran on Good Morning America Sunday morning. The full 20/20 story will run Friday, July 13 at 10:00 EDT/9:00 CDT. I hope to run a follow-up after the program airs.

The Next Step for Reality TV

Last night, I was watching "Nightline" on ABC and saw a truly disturbing story on a new reality television program to be hitting the airwaves in the Netherlands this Friday. The title of the show is "Big Donor Show" (or at least that is the English equivalent). The premise of the show is that three contestants will vie for the sympathy of the organ donor and the television audience in order to receive their votes and get the kidney. The donor is a 37-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer. Rather than going through the normal process of donating her organs, she wants to meet the recipient before she dies. The producers agree that the program is tasteless, but they want to draw attention to the poor system of organ donation in the Netherlands (according to the story, the founder of the television station airing the show waited for 13 years to receive a kidney through normal procedures).

While the issue of organ donation is certainly one that needs to be addressed, using reality television to "outplay" other contestants for a kidney is horrendous. Nathan Finn wrote an article expressing his disdain for another reality program that played on the contestants’ greed. This reality program plays with the contestants’ lives. No longer is the prize a sum of money that could change someone’s life. This prize will give someone life.

Has our society lost its moral compass? Did we ever have one to begin with?