*This post is just me thinking out loud. Likely no moral to the story to be found.*

Doing some research I came across a NYU academic journal article from preeminent social theorist Zygmunt Bauman. Bauman specializes in issues such as modernity, morality, and consumerism. His words on identity struck me. The globally-recognized scholar wrote:

Indeed, if the modern ‘problem of identity’ was how to construct an identity and keep it solid and stable, the postmodern ‘problem of identity’ is primarily how to avoid fixation and keep the options open. 1

In other words, the modern idea of identity is attempting to define oneself in order that one might truly know who they are – and to derive stability in that definition. Conversely, the postmodern idea of identity is to flee from any sense of definition. It wants fluidity and, in Bauman’s words, “commitment-avoidance.” The traditional sense of identity is viewed by postmoderns as too durable, too permanent, and too restrictive. This contrast leads Bauman to summarize, “Modernity built in steel and concrete; postmodernity, in bio-degradable plastic.” 2

We see an example of this shift toward disconnected, amorphous identity with society’s current argument about gender, specifically whether biological males can use the public restrooms of biological females. The very argument exists because of the postmodern idea that one’s identity can change simply because of how one feels about his or her own personhood. Don’t let your anatomy determine identity. That’s too fixed, too “steel and concrete.” Indeed, you may feel differently in the future. Keep your options open. That’s why popular culture doesn’t even blink when a celebrity declares he or she has freely moved from heterosexuality to homosexuality to bisexuality then back again (or that he is now a she, or vise versa). Where moderns think that person confused, postmoderns wonder why all the hubbub. Why commit to even a sexual orientation if you don’t have to – you might feel differently later?

Bauman calls the idea of free-floating identity a recent invention, and if being encumbered or tied down by identity is a problem, it’s been one literally from our births. No one comes into this world unencumbered or disembedded. You are born with a gender, a family, a skin color, in a town, a state, a country; you will have a childhood, an education, friends, etc. Factors such as these “embed” identity into us. They “encumber” us to the world in an inalienable way. I am male, white, an Arrington, son of Gene and Betty, brother to Jodey and Kally, a West Texan, Plainview Bulldog, Baylor Bear, etc. 3 No matter how I feel about them, these things tie me to the world I live in – they are the “steel and concrete” I cannot avoid.

I’m with my Polish sociologist friend, identity-in-flux-due-to-feeling is not only a modern-day invention, it’s a myth. I can change my personhood as much as I can change my gender, my race, or my history. The irony is that postmoderns, for whom seeking some kind of stability in life is a high value, by re-defining identity are actually running from the very thing they want. Even in Christian circles, studies show that millennials want a church experience tied to history, creeds, and older elements that give the sense of permanence and fixity. They are seeking something which defines them more than their immediate experiences.

It makes me wonder if many of our current struggles and heated conversations between moderns and postmoderns are rooted in a genuine disagreement with how we define identity, and who’s right? 4

Notes:

  1. https://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/tourist/Baumann-pilgrim-tourist.pdf, 18, accessed May 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. I recognize my chief identity-marker is rooted to the Person and Work of Christ. I am listing factors that any American can identify with: skin color, place of origin, educational background, etc.
  4. And no, this isn’t a place where both sides can be right. ;)

No, Stephen King isn’t a pastor. I don’t believe anyone would confuse him with one. I think King himself would gladly acknowledge that reality. What you cannot deny is that he is both a prolific and successful writer. For years, good friends recommended I add his book On Writing to my reading list. So last week I grabbed it. Let me be clear, I have no illusions I’m a writer (I’m a speaker) but I am intrigued about writing better. I loved reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and William Strunk’s classic The Elements of Style, so I thought King’s book would at least be interesting. Man, was that an understatement. On Writing was absolutely fascinating! One of the reasons I enjoyed King’s book were the parallels it offered to sermon creation. Let me highlight one example concerning editing.

King speaks about the need to jettison anything in your creation that doesn’t move the story along. He writes, “If it works, fine. It if doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, ‘Murder your darlings,’ and he was right.” 1 Too harsh? Hardly. What is true of writing novels is true of writing sermons. Far too often preachers deliver bloated, chunky, or dense messages which are difficult for the congregant to process simply because sermonizers refuse to cut things from their manuscripts. This is the classic example of a preacher being more in love with his content than its reception. It’s hard not to be. The finalized sermon manuscript is akin to having chest full of golden nuggets after dirtying yourself in the depths of the earth for the better part of a week. You love what you find. It came at a price. Plus, you believe that all of these discoveries will truly help your recipients (I mean, they are gold aren’t they?).

The problem with that is it’s not true. Many nuggets we think we need (our darlings) really aren’t needed. Indeed, they may be:

  1. Unaligned with the main idea of the sermon,
  2. Overkill a point or idea we’ve already explained,
  3. Give too much detail which loses our listeners,
  4. Be too theologically obtuse for people to think through,
  5. Or just a bad idea that we think is a good one.

Whatever the reason, if it doesn’t serve the listener it doesn’t serve the sermon. Cut it. The struggle is that preachers become emotionally attached to their content. King writes, “When a novelist is challenged on something he likes – one of his darlings – the first two words out of his mouth are almost always Yeah but.” 2 I hear the same things from preachers. Heck, I hear the same thing from myself. I try to defend the reason [X] should be in my sermon with a stable of Yeah but’s. Not to mention, in my heart, I’m protesting: I worked hard for that nugget! I came up with that nugget! I love that little piece of gold! My sermon should have every piece of gold I found! But great preaching is not only deciding which nuggets you bring with you in the pulpit but which nuggets you leave behind.

My fellow preachers, take King’s advice, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” 3

 

Notes:

  1. Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, New York: Scribner, 2000. 197.
  2. Ibid, 226.
  3. Ibid, 222.

I hear it quoted by many American Christians, especially during election seasons: 2 Chronicles 7:14.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Attached to this verse are pleas for different groups to change their wicked ways. Sometimes it’s applied to American Christians, American politicians, American politicians who are Christians, or just America in general. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter. They’re all mistaken.

I know this may upset some well-meaning believers who have cited this verse time and again when things look morally bleak across the land they love. It’s all the more confusing when, say on social media, fellow Christians respond with a hearty “Amen,” retweet your post, or click the Like button in a spirit of solidarity. But it still doesn’t remove the fact the biblical text is being misapplied. To be direct, 2 Chron. 7:14 has nothing explicitly to do with the United States. Nothing.

How so? When in doubt, always look at a Scripture’s context. We first notice 2 Chronicles is an Old Testament book which deals with God’s original (or Old) covenant people, the Israelites. That should be a big clue as to why the USA doesn’t factor into this passage. It gets clearer as we examine the immediate context. 2 Chron. 7 follows King Solomon’s dedication of the Temple he built on behalf of Israel. Verse 12 says God spoke to Israel’s king in a dream saying Israel should obey the Lord’s covenant with them. If the Israelites do, they will enjoy the blessings of the covenant which includes a fruitfulness of the physical land itself.

Look at how Deuteronomy 28:1-6, 8 details Israel’s obedience to the old covenant and the physical blessings it entailed.

And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out…And he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Clearly this is an Old Testament passage to an Old Covenant people with a call to be faithful to the Old Covenant promises in order to receive Old Covenant blessings (see a pattern here?). The King of Israel and his people are to keep covenant with Yahweh and in doing so, God will bless them, even the very land of Israel itself.  2 Chron. 7:14 is simply referring to these Old Covenant promises. Now the immediate context of v. 13 makes better sense. God says if Israel disobeys he will “shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people.” Blessing and cursing is literally tied to the land itself.

But how come American Christians don’t quote that part of the verse? In the ESV v. 13 is actually the first part of the sentence which v. 14 completes. This only demonstrates how 2 Chron. 7:14 is explictly a command and promise for Israel. They are the “my people” in context. It’s about Hebrews in ancient Israel, not modern-day Christians in America. Old Covenant people receiving Old Covenant promises, not New Covenant people receiving New Covenant promises. For the record, the Gospel of John demonstrates that for New Covenant believers, these promises and blessings are fulfilled in Jesus. Christ is the better Temple, People, sacrifice, high priest, etc. This is where, once again, Bible readers (and quoters) should understand at what stage each biblical book is in the progressive revelation of salvation history. The text at hand is Chronicles not Corinthians.

This also demonstrates that quoting 2 Chronicles 7:14 and applying it to the USA isn’t so much a historical blunder (although many would argue that as well) but a theological one. It’s mixing apples and oranges. It’s confounding two covenants that, while one builds on the other, are still different covenants – with different peoples of God that were/are dealt with in different ways by God. In the New Covenant, the church replaces ethnic Israel as God’s people. Peter refers to Christians essentially as the true Israel calling them “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Removing 2 Chron. 7:14 from your quotation arsenal won’t really change much in what you hope for the United States. You can still call fellow Americans to repent of their sins. You can continue hoping and praying for a national revival where fellow citizens come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to remove the fact that our national history clearly had Judeo-Christian moorings in its founding. You also can continue to love America and think it’s a special place – one blessed by God. All of those things can still be true without quoting 2 Chron. 7:14. The only difference is you won’t be using the Bible incorrectly.

…and don’t get me started on Phil. 4:13. 😉