Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Archimedes the social engineer

"Give me a lever long enough, and a place to rest it, and I can move the world." -Archimedes, c. 215 BC

If you've been tracking my most recent trajectory in these blog posts, the following will come as no surprise to you.  If you have not, I suggest you go back at least to the post titled "Review" and possibly back to "Jesus was not a rationalistic humanist" and catch up.  What follows is a lengthy argument that takes on much of what is happening in our current society.  My argument comes to a point later in this post when I discuss the Marriage Amendment that will be on Minnesota's ballot this fall.  That is not my ultimate goal, however; my ultimate goal in this post (and largely in this blog) is to make a cogent argument for a view of the Bible not as an ancient resource book, but rather as the authority that dictates the nature of reality to those who would follow Jesus.

It's not that our culture has surrendered the truth.  That would imply a struggle, a desire to maintain truth.  No, our society has not fought for the truth.  Instead we have chased whatever shiny objects flutter past our vision.  As a society we have a bad case of attention deficit disorder.  We are fascinated by whatever is new, whatever is trendy.  We would like to think that we are people of integrity, that our values don't change, but integrity and constancy don't get much press.  It's hard to post about integrity on Facebook and get people fired up.

So instead our public conversation tends toward those things that are novel and a little bit controversial. Not a lot controversial, but just a little bit.  This is important.

If our public statements fly in the face of the commonly shared assumptions of society -- what George Orwell in the book 1984 called "groupthink" -- we are perceived as outcasts, pariahs, or idiots.  So instead we take a position just a little outside the groupthink and we stand up boldly, as if we were revolutionaries or rebels for a really good cause.  People who are on the other fringe of the groupthink dislike what we say, and there's a little flash and a little controversy, but other "revolutionaries" come to our defense and so the momentum builds.

The idea is simple.  If you're going to move a heavy object -- like, say, a society -- you don't try to move it a long ways all at once.  Instead you place a fulcrum close by the heavy object, get a long lever, and move the society just a little bit.  What you need are the following:
  • A mover, that is, someone to move the long end of the lever -- in other words, a group of people committed to ideals far outside the targeted society, willing to work for repeated small changes in a single direction.  Currently this is the goal, for example, of most of Ron Paul's supporters in the presidential campaign.  They know their goals are far outside the current thinking, but they are dedicated and willing to try to shift the groupthink a little bit at a time.
  • A lever -- usually involving communication tools that can shape public opinion.  In past decades, the press was a pretty good lever, though it was slow.  The advent of television-for-entertainment speeded things up a bit because a new idea could be both edgy and entertaining if you handled it right.  The internet opened up all kinds of levers.  Right now social media is an amazing lever, and fast.
  • A fulcrum.  This is the key.  You need a solid place, however temporary, to rest your lever.  A fulcrum is an issue or a position just outside the groupthink of the targeted society.  Fulcrums are not important in and of themselves -- in fact, they're really throwaways.  But you need them to give the lever a place to rest so it can shift society.  You'll need a bunch of successive fulcrums -- a bunch of successive places to rest your lever, each one a little farther from the place society was resting originally.  In the moment, the fulcrum masquerades as the real goal.  But in the big picture, the cause of the moment is a fleeting thing.
  • An object to be moved -- in this case, a society with no firm commitments to an unbending truth.  If society is anchored by habits, perceptions, and preferences, all you need to do is change people's habits, perceptions, and preferences.  In a rationalist, humanist society, that's not hard.  Just change people's perceptions of what makes sense, and then change their perceptions of what is good for humanity.  This is the state of our society.  By and large, we have few unbending truths; instead, we have a morass of habits, perceptions, and preferences that have shifted enormously in the last few decades.
Now, this tactic of social engineering works in ways I like and in ways that trouble me.  So, for example, people stand up to oppose sex trafficking, and I applaud that.  People post about the need for justice, the need to stop child prostitution, the need to deliver slaves from bondage (which exists today in the world more than it ever has, sadly).  And I applaud.  But there are also causes that trouble me.

No example is clearer at the moment in our society than the unstoppable march of those who are advocating greater acceptance of homosexual activity as a normal, accepted part of society.  Advocates for greater acceptance of homosexual behavior in our society have done a stellar job of using this just-outside-the-groupthink tactic.

Starting about forty years ago, advocates for homosexual acceptance began to assert positions just a little ahead of and outside the groupthink.  So, hard on the heels of the heterosexual revolution, about 1970 we began to see Gay Pride parades.  What had been a largely underground and unacknowledged lifestyle suddenly became a public spectacle.  Most of the population moved from denial of the reality of homosexuality to fear of "those people."

By the late 1970's a few gay and lesbian partners were bringing lawsuits to have partner visitation rights in hospitals and the right to claim insurance benefits for their partners.  In the 1980's AIDS terror swept the world and the movers found a new fulcrum to appeal for compassion.  (Tom Hanks starred in the 1993 movie Philadelphia, which was a brilliant move in this direction.)  In the late 1990's we saw increasing pressure for gay couples to be allowed to adopt children.  Madonna kissed Brittany Spears on stage in 2003 and it was hugely controversial for a week or so.  By 2008, however, Katy Perry could release "I Kissed a Girl" and the song rocketed to #1.  In Katy's words, "It was a subject matter that was on the tip of everyone's tongue at that moment, so it was kind of like a snapshot of things that were happening in 2008."  Also a few years into the 2000's, gay characters became standard fare on sitcoms.  In just a generation we went denial and fear about homosexuality to every television watcher feeling like they knew a funny, sympathetic gay character personally, and inviting them into their living rooms week after week.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not advocating a return to the days of fear and denial about homosexuality.  And of course I am absolutely opposed to violence and bigotry against anyone.  Period.

This November, my state (Minnesota) will vote on a constitutional amendment to "define" marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.  Fifty years ago this would have been a "duh?" moment -- totally unnecessary, as any other definition of marriage would have been unthinkable.  But today it's a serious question.  Given Minnesota's history of being sympathetic to more liberal values (at least in the population-heavy Twin Cities metro area, that politically more often than not wags the rest of the state) it's quite possible that Minnesota will be the first state to defeat such a constitutional amendment once it's on the ballot.

Back to social engineering.  We've reached the stage in the cultural manipulation where people who hold to more traditional values (like defining marriage as between one man and one woman) are beginning to be ridiculed, labeled "primitive" or "squeamish" and certainly "prudish."  So recently a friend of mine -- yes, a friend; I do not have to agree with all the things my friends believe or post -- posted this on Facebook.  Notice how any conclusion but the preferred one leads back to name-calling, and the preferred conclusion (homosexuality is accepted) leads to affirmation.

If you take some time and work through the flowchart, you'll notice that every argument ranged against the preferred position is a straw man -- a simplification of a complex argument.  There are, in fact, some powerful arguments against the idea of gay "marriage."  But this flowchart is a good example of a cheap way to win an argument: when you use simplified versions of your opponent's arguments and then topple these "straw men," people who haven't thought things through very well believe you've won the argument.  The attack is effective.

People are afraid of being bigoted, of being small-minded.  Rightfully so.  We hate the idea of being perceived as uncaring.  Heaven forbid that we should be out of touch or stuck in the past.  And worst of all, if there is a group that has been hurt, defamed, abused, or wounded, we don't want to be part of the problem.  I share these concerns, and I don't want to be a bigot.

But I don't want to give up the truth, either, not even by accident.  I don't want to be swept along in a shifting groupthink that is being shaped by someone else's priorities.  Without a firm place to stand, without something outside the groupthink that orients us to the truth, we will be swept away by people who have a clear goal in their minds.  We will believe we're becoming more enlightened, more compassionate, more open.  But will we recognize what we've lost along the way?

For Jesus' followers, the Bible has to be that firm place to stand.  I'm not talking about a wooden literalism or a fear-mongering that uses the Bible to throw stones.  I'm rather advocating a view of the Bible that says, "Here is the way God has chosen to reveal himself.  It is greater than I am; it is beyond my understanding.  I will choose to submit to it, rather than picking and choosing what parts I accept and obey.  I will choose to study it, to learn it, to know it in its entirety, and by knowing this word, to come to know the God who reveals himself here."

The Bible's revelation of God's character centers in Jesus.  So the first task for someone pursuing a firm truth to stand on is to come to know Jesus, to study him and his words and his actions.  Then there are interpretations of Jesus and the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection that make up the rest of the New Testament.  Then there is the Old Testament, that provides context and history and anticipation.  So the Jesus follower takes it all seriously and does not discard any of it.

(By the way, it is dangerous and difficult to start with Genesis and begin to know scripture from "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ..." onward.  For one thing, there's just too much creationist / darwinist baggage in this approach.  The Bible's message centers in Jesus, and it's much better to start there, perhaps with John's gospel, which oddly enough begins "In the beginning was the Word ..."  Maybe John intended this all along.)

It is very popular today to say, "Of course I take the Bible seriously.  But there are some parts -- the laws in Leviticus, or the brutality in Judges, or the polygamy, or the misogyny, or the mythology -- that I just can't accept."  So you get well meaning, compassionate people who claim to take the Bible seriously but dismiss whole swaths of it.  "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality" is one example of this attitude in action.  Never mind that Jesus said not one jot or tittle of the Law and the Prophets (meaning the Old Testament) would pass away (see Matthew 5:18).  Never mind that Jesus upheld marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman (see Mark 10:6-9).  Never mind that the earliest witnesses to Jesus had clear things to say about seeing homosexuality as God's intention.

Some of you are thinking, "Yeah, Jeff, but what do you do with the texts that condemn you?"  At least I hope some of you are thinking that.  There are many texts that condemn me.  My greed, my lust, my sloth, my self-centeredness -- all these are offenses worthy of death, according to the Bible.  And I believe this is true with all my heart.  I have money in bank accounts that draw interest, and according to the laws in Leviticus this is a shady practice at best.  I take that seriously.  The Bible calls me to critique my own actions, and more often than not, to come before God in an attitude of repentance.  As a pastor, as a father, as a man, have I done enough to build strong marriages, to oppose divorce, to stand for the needs of children who end up living every other weekend with the opposite parent?  The Bible speaks clearly against divorce.

I am guilty on all these counts.  But that does not mean that I should deny the truth and say, "I'll just do whatever I want."  Nor should I say, "Oh, well, none of us is perfect so people can redefine marriage any way they want."  The problem with these statements is that they assume truth starts with us, who we are, how we're created, rather than with a creator who has revealed himself to us in a clear word.  Fact is, if we believe we have the power to redefine marriage, we have surrendered biblical authority and we might as well just try to do our best figuring things out as we go.

The Bible speaks a hard word to my sin, and yours.  We stand convicted -- but not condemned.  The Bible's message goes on from our sentence, our conviction, to record how Jesus' whole purpose in coming was to open up the "kingdom of God" -- the rule of God as absolute sovereign -- in our lives.  God's sovereignty over us and our sin changes the game.  Instead of simply condemning and discarding us like a broken iphone, God redeems us.  He places our death sentence on Jesus.  This is why the cross stands at the focal point of the Bible.  But it does not stand alone; it is constantly paired with the empty tomb, with Jesus' resurrection.  The just sentence of God on our sin was death; Jesus took our sentence to the cross.  But the power and love of God was stronger than death, stronger even than merciless justice, and Jesus rose to life again.  So the sovereignty of God over us leads not only to justice and death (taken by Jesus on the cross) but to new life for both him and for us.

This is why the Bible calls the message about Jesus "good news."  Jesus takes our condemnation on himself, and in exchange gives us the gift of "abundant life" (see John 10:10).  What this means for us is that when we find ourselves in patterns the Bible describes as outside God's intentions for us, our response as Jesus' followers is not license, to say we can do whatever we want; that is rebellion against God's word.  Our response is not simple-minded "love" that simply affirms every desire of our hearts; that is foolishness.

When we confront our own behavior and see that God's word has described what we do as outside his desires for us, our response is to turn away from those actions.  The Bible calls this repentance.  We acknowledge our brokenness and our need for someone to save us from ourselves.  We turn to God in recognition that we are unable to obey his word, and we need to be forgiven, healed, redeemed, restored.  We are, of ourselves, broken.

There are places in my life -- in my management of money, in my management of time, in my relationships, in my sexuality, in my appetites for food and entertainment and the next new thing -- that I seem to be beyond healing.  I am so broken that I cannot fully turn away from these things.  I am, the Bible says, like a dog returning to its vomit.  But I can't seem to stop.

How then do I respond?  This brokenness leaves me helpless at the foot of Jesus' cross.  It calls me again and again to repentance, not as an occasional recognition of my sinfulness, but as a lifestyle.

This is one reason those who take the Bible seriously must be very cautious about affirming homosexual marriage.  If we are not careful, we will contradict God's word and by doing so, affirm something God says is outside his desires for us.  Then we will be guilty of cutting people off from repentance and the possibility of restoration.

I know how this argument will be taken in the current debate.  It will be reduced and pigeonholed and dismissed.  The biblical word about our sin and our brokenness and our need for redemption is not a sound bite; it is not something you can reduce to a protester's slogan or spray paint on the wall in an alley.  I know the hard word this speaks to my gay and lesbian friends.

I grew up in a family that did a lousy job of showing affection.  I was raped by a neighbor kid when I was eight.  Sexual matters were verbal taboo in our household.  Believe me, though homosexuality is not my struggle, I know what it is to wrestle with broken and twisted sexuality.  The worst possible outcome for me would be for someone to affirm me in my brokenness, to applaud my sin.

As Jesus-followers, we need to think beyond the slogans, to steep ourselves in God's word and not accept easy labels or easy answers.  We need to be radically loving of every person, no matter what sin or what problem they struggle with.  We need to be radically open to the world in all its diversity.  We must be uncompromising about the immense value and wonder of each person, affirming their identity as a very good creation of a loving God, and reaffirming their value again because Jesus died for them.

But we do not need to tell each person (not even ourselves) that we affirm every choice they make.  We cannot allow ourselves to squander our birthright -- the truth of the word of God and his revelation in it -- in order to shift with the changing tides of public opinion.  There is simply too much at stake -- and I'm not talking about the Minnesota State Constitution.


  1. Thank you for a more cogent and faithful discussion than I have read in the years since we as a country and church have had this discussion. I have sat though meetings in the last week that were filled with so much fervor and anger with much quotation of scripture but without any discussion on how and why any scripture has hold over us. This was refreshing, thank you for continuing to be faithful, even if I might disagree with you on some points.

    1. Garrett! Thanks for your comments. I appreciate what you say, and even more that you are engaged in thinking about the issues. Great to hear from you!

  2. Wow! An amazing thoughtful, thought-provoking answer to one of the biggest issues of our time. Thank you, Jeff, for your honesty and your boldness. It is exactly the right balance of truth and love as you delve into what is behind the redefinition of marriage.

    1. Thank you. "Exactly the right balance of truth and love" is high praise, but I pray that these thoughts can move the discussion deeper.


    The great upheavals which precede changes of civilizations such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples. The true historical upheavals are not those which astonish us by their grandeur and violence. The only important changes whence the renewal of civilizations results, affect ideas, conceptions, and beliefs. The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited groundwork of its thoughts.

    The present epoch is one of these critical moments in which the thought of mankind is undergoing a process of transformation.

    Two fundamental factors are at the base of this transformation. The first is the destruction of those religious, political, and social beliefs in which all the elements of our civilization are rooted. The second is the creation of entirely new conditions of existence and thought as the result of modern scientific and industrial discoveries.

    The ideas of the past, although half destroyed, being still very powerful, and the ideas which are to replace them being still in process of formation, the modern age represents a period of transition and anarchy.



    1. Deep, deep stuff. This matter of the downfall of civilizations and the morphing of ideas in that process has fascinated me for a long time. Thanks for the quote!

  4. Excellent job, Jeff. I may repost this on my own blog. Thanks, and peace to you.

    1. Thank you. Feel free to repost -- if possible I'd just ask that you include a link back to this blog. Blessings!

  5. Jeff, you know my feelings on this discussion. I am 52 years old (almost). I used to believe differently on this issue, but have come to accept Gay people as creations of God. You and I know and have known people who were born this way. I still believe we choose what sins to condemn and which ones to condone. In my mind, this discussion just serves to drive others away from Jesus and cloud the important message of salvation with cutural baggage. Women, Blacks, Jews, Gays, all have been persecuted throughout time. Gays are just the current targets. When I was a kid, divorced people were shunned and women were not allowed to preach or hold positions in the church. This was all "according to the Bible". Was it wrong to change this position? I think not. I will not vote to prohibit people from being happy. That is not my charge in this World. Do we have something more important to discuss? How about inclusion for all people in the family of God...the way they are? I am always impressed by the fact that the older people are, the more accepting they are of others. With age comes experience and wisdom. It could happen to you!

    1. Jeff,

      By "It could happen to you" I merely meant you could change your opinion...NOT that you would become wise. Just wanted to make sure this was clear. I try to be funny sometimes and it doesn't spin the way I intend!


    2. Jon, thanks for your response -- and no worries! I understood your humor and got a chuckle out of it. I think the reason I wrote what I did was precisely, as you say, "we choose what sins to condemn and which ones to condone" -- I want to get away from making that choice based on my own opinions or the whims of social consciousness and hold myself to the external standard of the Bible's witness that has stood the test of time far better than my momentary opinions or the shifting tides of political correctness. I appreciate your advocacy for welcoming all people and share that desire for radical hospitality. I know you and I agree on that! Thanks again for taking the time to read and share your reflections!

  6. Very well thought out and compassionate argument, Jeff. The biblical direction on homosexuality is consistent from Genesis to Revelation.
    At a personal level I have a niece and a nephew that are struggling with same sex attraction. I found the book "Homosexuality and the Christian," by Dr. Mark Yarhouse to be extremely helpful.
    At a secular level, recent studies coming out of the University of Texas at Austin indicate that children raised in a "same sex" household are far more at risk for a host of problems that children raised in a household with a mom and a dad.
    Like so many other issues that touch the church we must balance love for God and love for our fellow humans. Not an easy task. Thanks again for your insightful post.
    Bruce Powers

  7. Bruce,

    Thanks -- and thanks for the additional resources. In the end I believe that fully, wholly loving God will lead us to most fully loving our neighbor, if we focus on the fullness of Jesus (not the smarmy cultural version) and learn from him what it is to truly love our fellow humans. What we usually call "love" for our neighbor is too often simply a weak-tea tolerance or simple unthinking affirmation of all options in the name of wanting others to be happy. And the neighbor happily drives off a cliff.

    I so appreciate your intentionality and thought on these things, and your faithfulness and compassion as well!