Thinking Biblically about Diversity

Diversity is an intrinsically complex concept. It is not redundant, nor a case of circular reasoning, to say that there multiple ways to think about diversity. The term itself invites as many perspectives as there are readers who would pause long enough to think about its meaning and implications. Diversity earns this intrinsic multivalence because creation itself bears witness to a God whose creativity and artistry know no bounds. Unfortunately, the concept of diversity may evoke conflicting and contrasting emotions from readers of different backgrounds. For some, it evokes a long struggle toward belonging. For others, it evokes pressures to become hospitable, at times against one’s will. Some embrace diversity; others resist it. Some prefer the comfort of homogeneity, while others have not been exposed to realities that challenge their presuppositions.

As a person who grew up on a tropical island in the Caribbean, I have witnessed the beauty of nature and the diversity in nature. However, my experience was limited to the reality that tree leaves can only be one color: green. I admired the ingenuity and imagination of artists who added colors to the trees in magazines and calendars that came to our shores from North America. I was a first-year student at Asbury Seminary, in the fall of 2001, when Dr. Reg Johnson invited me and couple of other students to join him on a road trip to Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. During that trip, I discovered that creation had expressions of beauty and diversity that went beyond what I had come to know and experience. The colors of the leaves were real!

This experience shattered and reshaped my worldview in ways that allowed me to develop a posture to appreciate diversity in other areas of life, including the Bible. This leads to the question: What does it mean to think biblically about diversity? How does thinking biblically about diversity shape our posture to life? Scripture portrays, embraces, and promotes diversity. A survey of God’s interaction with humanity from Genesis to Revelation reveals that diversity plays a central role in the unfolding story of God’s people.

Theological and Anthropological Diversity

The story of creation demonstrates the first and perhaps the most important aspect of diversity. Diversity—in this context, plurality—exists in the Godhead. A way of interpreting the creation account in Genesis is to view it as a polemic against other nations and their polytheistic practices. Judaism rests on the core belief that Yhwh alone is the true God. This reality is etched in the opening words of the covenant God made with Israel, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:2–3, CEB). Israel’s religious practices, liturgy, and worldview have their starting point in this conviction. This belief finds a solemn expression in the Shema, “Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut 6:4, NLT). Given Judaism’s stance on monotheism, it is significant that the term used for God in Gen 1:1, Elohim, is in a plural form. The plurality in the Godhead is expressed further, as a self-referent, in the story of the creation of humanity: “Let us make humanity in our image, as our likeness” (Gen 1:26). One finds similar language in Gen 11:7, in the narrative of the Tower of Babel: “Let us go down”; and in Isa 6:8: “Whom should I send, who will go for us?”

In the New Testament, the plurality in the Godhead is further demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1–4). However, Jesus’s contemporaries struggled to make sense of his identity. He acted in ways that only Yhwh could, and did things that only Yhwh could do (e.g., Mark 2:1–12; 4:35–41). While the answer to their questions was evident, a significant shift was required for them to get a full grasp of the theological reality that Yhwh had now revealed himself through his son, Jesus (John 20:28–31). In addition, the Old Testament attests to the activity of Spirit of Yhwh in the context of God’s relationship with humanity (Gen 6:3; Judg 3:10; 6:34; 1 Sam 10:6; Isa 11:2). In Luke-Acts this is further developed as Luke narrates the Spirit’s activity in the lives of the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus and his disciples. As the resurrection and ascension affirm Jesus’s claims of being one with the Father, so Pentecost affirms Yhwh’s continuing presence through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believers.

Consequently, the New Testament writers will use for Jesus language that the OT associates with Yhwh (cf. Jas 4:12 and 5:9; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Pet 1:11). One should not take for granted the theological challenges the children of Israel, and even Jesus’s followers, had to overcome when thinking about who God is vis-à-vis the role of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Plurality in the Godhead is a counter-cultural reality with important theological implications. The great I AM exists in community.

Diversity is evident in creation itself. The narrative speaks of God’s creation of every genus (kind, type) of trees, birds, and animals. The refrain that echoed through the creation narrative reads, “God saw how good it was!” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25 CEB). The differences between types in nature are expressions of God’s creativity. The creation of humanity, male and female, in God’s image and likeness, was supremely good (1:31)! The parallel creation narrative in Gen 2 sheds additional light on the crucial role community plays in what it means to be human: “It is not good that the human is alone” (Gen. 2:18 CEB).

Multicultural Diversity

The narrative of the Tower of Babel plays a crucial role in discussions about diversity in the Bible. The narrative depicts a monolingual and monolithic group united in purpose. Unfortunately, it was a misguided and misplaced endeavor. While it is clear that humanity was created in God’s image, Scripture is also clear that humanity is not God and should not attempt to usurp God’s place. The words used by the people at Shinar echo the creative language that God himself used: “Let us make …” (Gen 1:3); “Let us build … and let us make a name of ourselves” (Gen 11:4). The text conveys a sense of unity that is driven by a desire for self-sufficiency. By appropriating Yhwh-type creation language, the text may also be conveying a potential desire, intended or unintended, to replace God with self. This is like Adam and Eve’s predicament. The movement of God’s coming down also contains echoes from the Fall narrative (Gen 3). There is also a parallel between God’s responses (cf. Gen 3:20–24 and 11:6–8). God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden. God mixed up the language of the people and dispersed them throughout the earth.

God’s actions in the plain of Shinar are an act of grace, not a punishment. By creating linguistic diversity, God protects humanity and rescues them from a self-destructive path. This mirrors his purpose in expelling Adam and Eve from the garden. He is protecting them from the possibility of living forever in their current state (cf. Gen 3:22). The dispersion at Babel also forces humanity to fulfill the initial mandate to fill the earth (Gen 1:28). The geographic dispersion and linguistic differences will naturally give rise to cultural and other forms of diversity.

As Jesus’s coming justifies God’s actions in the garden and fulfills his purpose for humanity to live forever in a redeemed state, so the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost reaffirms linguistic diversity, making possible the proclamation of the good news of the resurrected Christ. The God who came down and mixed up humanity’s language at Babel is the same who came down at Pentecost and enabled the Galileans to speak in other languages. It is worth noting that the verb the LXX uses to describe God’s action at Babel (συγχέω, sygcheō) is also used in Acts to describe the people’s confusion to the miracle they witnessed in Jerusalem (Gen 11:9; Acts 2:6).

The Church as a Diverse Community

The Bible depicts the people of God as a diverse community. When God delivered Israel from Egypt, the people that came out were a homogenous group. Exodus 12:37–38 reads, “The Israelites traveled from Rameses to Succoth. They numbered about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A diverse crowd also went up with them along with a huge number of livestock, both flocks and herds” (CEB). This implies that the community that ratified the covenant at Horeb and became God’s people included outsiders who were not Israelites.

The ethnic diversity within Israel is also evident in Moses’s choice of a spouse. In Num 12, we learn that Moses married an Ethiopian woman. Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses’s choice and experienced God’s displeasure as a result. The text is conspicuously silent about what happened to Zipporah, the Midianite, whom Moses sent back to her father (Exod 2:21; 4:25; 18:2). One wonders whether he faced criticism as well about Zipporah, and sent her back as a result. At least, this suggests the presence of underlying tensions in the community.

This multicultural trend will be a defining characteristic of God’s people. Rahab of Jericho will be brought into the community (Josh 6:22-27). Ruth, the Moabite, will experience the goodness of Boaz as a kinsman-redeemer. She became an ancestor (great-grandmother) of Israel’s king par excellence, David (Ruth 4:18–22). It is no coincidence that when David was running for his life, he entrusted his parents to the care of the Moabite king (1 Sam 22:3–4). In fact, Jesus, the Messiah, heralded as Israel’s truly greatest king, is multicultural through and through. The Gospel of Matthew shines a spotlight on the foreign women in Jesus’s ancestry. Rahab and Ruth are joined by Tamar, the Canaanite, and by Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, whom Matthew refers to as the former wife of Uriah the Hittite, in the genealogy of Jesus, the son of David.

These accounts demonstrate that the idea of Gentiles’ inclusion in the story of God’s people is not a novelty of the New Testament. It is also not an abstract idea, but something that mattered on a personal level. At the dedication of the Temple, when Solomon petitioned God to “listen to the foreigner who isn’t from your people Israel, but who comes from a distant country because of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm …” (2 Chron 6:32–33, CEB), he is aware of his extended family. Jesus’s indignation in the temple court area can be viewed in this light as well (Mark 11:15–17). Israel was chosen to be a guiding light to the nations. A pattern of disobedience, followed by exile and occupation, led to a self-serving reading of the law that misinterpreted God’s purpose for choosing and setting them apart. Such interpretation of the Law created a posture of self-sufficiency that gave rise to segregation and ostracism.

The poor, the foreigner, the immigrant always had a role to play in Israel. They lived amid Israel. The oppressed had a role to play in the story of God’s people. They were God’s people. Only a diverse community can effectively reach out to a diverse world. The genius of Jesus’s ministry was his willingness to break down the perceived norms of purity and challenge the status quo. He boldly entered the realms deemed unclean, showed genuine love and compassion, and challenged sinners to a life of holiness. The genius of the apostles’ mission to Samaria was their willingness to lay hands on and touch those categorized as untouchables. The genius of Peter’s ministry was his willingness to be obedient and enter the home of Cornelius. The genius of the church of Antioch was its multicultural membership and leadership that funded and organized a missionary endeavor that touched all of Asia Minor and Europe. It is no coincidence that the heartbeat of that endeavor was a dual-citizen, multicultural, polyglot named Saul in Jewish circles, and Paul in Greco-Roman settings.

Thinking biblically about diversity means that we need to embrace our differences as gifts bestowed by a creative God and Father who calls us to live in community. We need to learn to live together in harmony in spite of these differences. We need to approach diversity in a way that demonstrates our commitment to embody our mission as the people of God, holy, chosen, yet broken. We need to embrace our place on the margins with the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed. In Rev 7, John describes a vision of the multicultural church before the throne. This passage can be translated, “These are those who are coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14). This suggests there is movement between heaven and earth. It also suggests that the multitude is coming from earth toward God’s throne waving palm branches and celebrating God’s power to deliver from the social ills that plague humanity. “The one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore” (7:15–16, CEB).

Thinking biblically about diversity means that we need to live and minister in such a way that John’s vision of the multicultural church gathered around the throne meets Jesus’s prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is heaven. John’s vision is not simply a conceptual eschatological depiction of the church. It is a real picture of how the church is and should be today. Thinking biblically about diversity should cause us to live as active members of this multicultural church here and now.

Thinking Biblically about Diversity

Diversity is an intrinsically complex concept. It is not redundant, nor a case of circular reasoning, to say that there multiple ways to think about diversity. The term itself invites as many perspectives as there are readers who would pause long enough to think about its meaning and implications. Diversity earns this intrinsic multivalence because creation itself bears witness to a God whose creativity and artistry know no bounds. Unfortunately, the concept of diversity may evoke conflicting and contrasting emotions from readers of different backgrounds. For some, it evokes a long struggle toward belonging. For others, it evokes pressures to become hospitable, at times against one’s will. Some embrace diversity; others resist it. Some prefer the comfort of homogeneity, while others have not been exposed to realities that challenge their presuppositions.

As a person who grew up on a tropical island in the Caribbean, I have witnessed the beauty of nature and the diversity in nature. However, my experience was limited to the reality that tree leaves can only be one color: green. I admired the ingenuity and imagination of artists who added colors to the trees in magazines and calendars that came to our shores from North America. I was a first-year student at Asbury Seminary, in the fall of 2001, when Dr. Reg Johnson invited me and couple of other students to join him on a road trip to Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. During that trip, I discovered that creation had expressions of beauty and diversity that went beyond what I had come to know and experience. The colors of the leaves were real!

This experience shattered and reshaped my worldview in ways that allowed me to develop a posture to appreciate diversity in other areas of life, including the Bible. This leads to the question: What does it mean to think biblically about diversity? How does thinking biblically about diversity shape our posture to life? Scripture portrays, embraces, and promotes diversity. A survey of God’s interaction with humanity from Genesis to Revelation reveals that diversity plays a central role in the unfolding story of God’s people.

Theological and Anthropological Diversity

The story of creation demonstrates the first and perhaps the most important aspect of diversity. Diversity—in this context, plurality—exists in the Godhead. A way of interpreting the creation account in Genesis is to view it as a polemic against other nations and their polytheistic practices. Judaism rests on the core belief that Yhwh alone is the true God. This reality is etched in the opening words of the covenant God made with Israel, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:2–3, CEB). Israel’s religious practices, liturgy, and worldview have their starting point in this conviction. This belief finds a solemn expression in the Shema, “Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut 6:4, NLT). Given Judaism’s stance on monotheism, it is significant that the term used for God in Gen 1:1, Elohim, is in a plural form. The plurality in the Godhead is expressed further, as a self-referent, in the story of the creation of humanity: “Let us make humanity in our image, as our likeness” (Gen 1:26). One finds similar language in Gen 11:7, in the narrative of the Tower of Babel: “Let us go down”; and in Isa 6:8: “Whom should I send, who will go for us?”

In the New Testament, the plurality in the Godhead is further demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1–4). However, Jesus’s contemporaries struggled to make sense of his identity. He acted in ways that only Yhwh could, and did things that only Yhwh could do (e.g., Mark 2:1–12; 4:35–41). While the answer to their questions was evident, a significant shift was required for them to get a full grasp of the theological reality that Yhwh had now revealed himself through his son, Jesus (John 20:28–31). In addition, the Old Testament attests to the activity of Spirit of Yhwh in the context of God’s relationship with humanity (Gen 6:3; Judg 3:10; 6:34; 1 Sam 10:6; Isa 11:2). In Luke-Acts this is further developed as Luke narrates the Spirit’s activity in the lives of the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus and his disciples. As the resurrection and ascension affirm Jesus’s claims of being one with the Father, so Pentecost affirms Yhwh’s continuing presence through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believers.

Consequently, the New Testament writers will use for Jesus language that the OT associates with Yhwh (cf. Jas 4:12 and 5:9; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Pet 1:11). One should not take for granted the theological challenges the children of Israel, and even Jesus’s followers, had to overcome when thinking about who God is vis-à-vis the role of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Plurality in the Godhead is a counter-cultural reality with important theological implications. The great I AM exists in community.

Diversity is evident in creation itself. The narrative speaks of God’s creation of every genus (kind, type) of trees, birds, and animals. The refrain that echoed through the creation narrative reads, “God saw how good it was!” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25 CEB). The differences between types in nature are expressions of God’s creativity. The creation of humanity, male and female, in God’s image and likeness, was supremely good (1:31)! The parallel creation narrative in Gen 2 sheds additional light on the crucial role community plays in what it means to be human: “It is not good that the human is alone” (Gen. 2:18 CEB).

Multicultural Diversity

The narrative of the Tower of Babel plays a crucial role in discussions about diversity in the Bible. The narrative depicts a monolingual and monolithic group united in purpose. Unfortunately, it was a misguided and misplaced endeavor. While it is clear that humanity was created in God’s image, Scripture is also clear that humanity is not God and should not attempt to usurp God’s place. The words used by the people at Shinar echo the creative language that God himself used: “Let us make …” (Gen 1:3); “Let us build … and let us make a name of ourselves” (Gen 11:4). The text conveys a sense of unity that is driven by a desire for self-sufficiency. By appropriating Yhwh-type creation language, the text may also be conveying a potential desire, intended or unintended, to replace God with self. This is like Adam and Eve’s predicament. The movement of God’s coming down also contains echoes from the Fall narrative (Gen 3). There is also a parallel between God’s responses (cf. Gen 3:20–24 and 11:6–8). God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden. God mixed up the language of the people and dispersed them throughout the earth.

God’s actions in the plain of Shinar are an act of grace, not a punishment. By creating linguistic diversity, God protects humanity and rescues them from a self-destructive path. This mirrors his purpose in expelling Adam and Eve from the garden. He is protecting them from the possibility of living forever in their current state (cf. Gen 3:22). The dispersion at Babel also forces humanity to fulfill the initial mandate to fill the earth (Gen 1:28). The geographic dispersion and linguistic differences will naturally give rise to cultural and other forms of diversity.

As Jesus’s coming justifies God’s actions in the garden and fulfills his purpose for humanity to live forever in a redeemed state, so the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost reaffirms linguistic diversity, making possible the proclamation of the good news of the resurrected Christ. The God who came down and mixed up humanity’s language at Babel is the same who came down at Pentecost and enabled the Galileans to speak in other languages. It is worth noting that the verb the LXX uses to describe God’s action at Babel (συγχέω, sygcheō) is also used in Acts to describe the people’s confusion to the miracle they witnessed in Jerusalem (Gen 11:9; Acts 2:6).

The Church as a Diverse Community

The Bible depicts the people of God as a diverse community. When God delivered Israel from Egypt, the people that came out were a homogenous group. Exodus 12:37–38 reads, “The Israelites traveled from Rameses to Succoth. They numbered about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A diverse crowd also went up with them along with a huge number of livestock, both flocks and herds” (CEB). This implies that the community that ratified the covenant at Horeb and became God’s people included outsiders who were not Israelites.

The ethnic diversity within Israel is also evident in Moses’s choice of a spouse. In Num 12, we learn that Moses married an Ethiopian woman. Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses’s choice and experienced God’s displeasure as a result. The text is conspicuously silent about what happened to Zipporah, the Midianite, whom Moses sent back to her father (Exod 2:21; 4:25; 18:2). One wonders whether he faced criticism as well about Zipporah, and sent her back as a result. At least, this suggests the presence of underlying tensions in the community.

This multicultural trend will be a defining characteristic of God’s people. Rahab of Jericho will be brought into the community (Josh 6:22-27). Ruth, the Moabite, will experience the goodness of Boaz as a kinsman-redeemer. She became an ancestor (great-grandmother) of Israel’s king par excellence, David (Ruth 4:18–22). It is no coincidence that when David was running for his life, he entrusted his parents to the care of the Moabite king (1 Sam 22:3–4). In fact, Jesus, the Messiah, heralded as Israel’s truly greatest king, is multicultural through and through. The Gospel of Matthew shines a spotlight on the foreign women in Jesus’s ancestry. Rahab and Ruth are joined by Tamar, the Canaanite, and by Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, whom Matthew refers to as the former wife of Uriah the Hittite, in the genealogy of Jesus, the son of David.

These accounts demonstrate that the idea of Gentiles’ inclusion in the story of God’s people is not a novelty of the New Testament. It is also not an abstract idea, but something that mattered on a personal level. At the dedication of the Temple, when Solomon petitioned God to “listen to the foreigner who isn’t from your people Israel, but who comes from a distant country because of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm …” (2 Chron 6:32–33, CEB), he is aware of his extended family. Jesus’s indignation in the temple court area can be viewed in this light as well (Mark 11:15–17). Israel was chosen to be a guiding light to the nations. A pattern of disobedience, followed by exile and occupation, led to a self-serving reading of the law that misinterpreted God’s purpose for choosing and setting them apart. Such interpretation of the Law created a posture of self-sufficiency that gave rise to segregation and ostracism.

The poor, the foreigner, the immigrant always had a role to play in Israel. They lived amid Israel. The oppressed had a role to play in the story of God’s people. They were God’s people. Only a diverse community can effectively reach out to a diverse world. The genius of Jesus’s ministry was his willingness to break down the perceived norms of purity and challenge the status quo. He boldly entered the realms deemed unclean, showed genuine love and compassion, and challenged sinners to a life of holiness. The genius of the apostles’ mission to Samaria was their willingness to lay hands on and touch those categorized as untouchables. The genius of Peter’s ministry was his willingness to be obedient and enter the home of Cornelius. The genius of the church of Antioch was its multicultural membership and leadership that funded and organized a missionary endeavor that touched all of Asia Minor and Europe. It is no coincidence that the heartbeat of that endeavor was a dual-citizen, multicultural, polyglot named Saul in Jewish circles, and Paul in Greco-Roman settings.

Thinking biblically about diversity means that we need to embrace our differences as gifts bestowed by a creative God and Father who calls us to live in community. We need to learn to live together in harmony in spite of these differences. We need to approach diversity in a way that demonstrates our commitment to embody our mission as the people of God, holy, chosen, yet broken. We need to embrace our place on the margins with the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed. In Rev 7, John describes a vision of the multicultural church before the throne. This passage can be translated, “These are those who are coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14). This suggests there is movement between heaven and earth. It also suggests that the multitude is coming from earth toward God’s throne waving palm branches and celebrating God’s power to deliver from the social ills that plague humanity. “The one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore” (7:15–16, CEB).

Thinking biblically about diversity means that we need to live and minister in such a way that John’s vision of the multicultural church gathered around the throne meets Jesus’s prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is heaven. John’s vision is not simply a conceptual eschatological depiction of the church. It is a real picture of how the church is and should be today. Thinking biblically about diversity should cause us to live as active members of this multicultural church here and now.

The Crowded Road to Emmaus

Not long ago, a friend shared with me how a series of unexpected difficulties impacted her life. She couldn’t understand how these things could happen to someone like her. She said she believed in God, but was feeling doubtful that God was concerned, or even aware, of her problems and this led her to really question God’s love in these difficult times. In the most trying of circumstances, in the most difficult of situations, where is God? Much closer than you think.

Luke’s Gospel recalls the story of Cleopas and his companion who went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Passover and instead left after attending a funeral (Luke 24:13–35). Luke turns the spotlight on these two as they are walking home after witnessing Jesus’s death and burial. For them, the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus is dark and depressing.

The account begins on the afternoon of the first Easter. Jesus is risen from the dead, but the two companions had not seen Jesus for themselves. They had only heard others talk of the resurrection. As they left Jerusalem that afternoon, they were full of lament and sorrow. Just a week earlier, the people hailed Jesus as a hero as he entered Jerusalem. All over the city that week, people celebrated the Passover, one of the highest, holiest days in the Hebrew year. The remembrances were full of emotions of sorrow for the enslavement of their ancestors and thankfulness for God’s provisions. The culmination of that week was the farce of a trial that Jesus faced and his subsequent torture, humiliation, and public crucifixion. The traveling companions were reeling from the seemingly destroyed hopes of the movement they knew could change the world. In just a few short days, everything they knew was turned upside down. They were hurt and confused. Like my friend, they were full of questions, doubts, and fears.

Have you walked a road similar to the one these companions walked? Perhaps you know the hollowness of walking away from the graveside of a loved one who died much too soon. Maybe you have felt a sense of confusion and betrayal as those in power committed a miscarriage of justice by killing an innocent person. We have all felt the sting of broken promises and the grief of failed relationships. Many of us can relate to the hunt, anger, and despair that the two companions were feeling that day. Pain, bitterness, and confusion are so widespread that we walk with them on a crowded road to Emmaus.

We continue to witness senseless violence perpetrated against the innocent increase at an alarming rate. The headlines are full of stories of leaders who earned peoples’ trust only to destroy that trust through an abuse of power and position. Though there is optimism in some parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to steal lives and livelihoods. It seems like every time we see a ray of hope, the news is clouded with uncertainties and more confusion. The Road is crowded, indeed.

However, just like the two companions, we do not walk the road without hope, no matter how dark and difficult the circumstances. Jesus appears to the companions and asks why they are so troubled. When they explain their situation to him, Jesus gently chides them and gives them the most remarkable of lessons: “He interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27). Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly why the two travelers could not recognize Jesus on that road. However, it is important to remember that Jesus was with them as they journeyed. Though they were confused, hurt, and skeptical, Jesus walked alongside them showing them the truth and the way. He didn’t send away the doubting and confused duo but accompanied them on their journey.

The fact that Jesus was walking this road alongside them is significant. Jesus was not in the tomb. Nor was he in the temple, showing off to the religious leaders that he was right all along. He was not in Herod’s palace nor in Pontius Pilate’s headquarters gloating about who really won. Rather, Jesus was with the hurt, confused, and skeptical. He walked alongside them, showing them the truth and the way.

The modern-day, metaphorical Road to Emmaus is undeniably crowded. However, not all of those who walk this difficult road know that Jesus is with them. Just as Jesus walked with people who were hurt, doubtful, confused, and skeptical, today’s followers of Jesus—empowered by the same Holy Spirit—have the privilege and the responsibility to do the same.

Pistis (Faith) Conversations in New Testament Scholarship

Mark Twain once said, wryly, “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.” Many Christians, including myself, would have much to disagree with in Twain’s description, but one thing he got right about virtually all modern readers of the English Bible—they assume that “faith” is about “beliefs.” Now, there must be some connection between “faith” and “belief”—hence the historical Christians creeds begin with credo, “I believe in.” But is there more to faith than belief?

While this is an “evergreen” conversation in biblical and theological studies, several significant studies have been published in the last decade or so on faith language in the New Testament and its world. Two broader conversations that have inspired these works are “divine and human agency” in the Bible and the infamous pistis Christou debate. Divine and human agency involves questions about how biblical writers imagine and construe what roles humans play in religion and salvation, and what roles divine agents play. In the past, scholars have focused on keywords and concepts like law, works, justification/righteousness, covenant, and grace. But lately it seems that the Greek terminology pistis (often translated as faith) has been pushed into the spotlight.

Faith in Action

If Twain’s pithy soundbite had a modern nemesis, it would be Teresa Morgan. Morgan wrote a major tome in 2016 called Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Church (Oxford University Press). Morgan’s study is wide-ranging, almost encyclopedic, but by the time one finishes the book, it is clear that in Paul’s time pistis pointed to a social quality in most of its usage: “it is inherently relational and characteristically expressed in action towards other human beings” (472). Therefore, it would be natural, even necessary, to translate pistis often as “loyalty,” “faithfulness,” or “allegiance.” This is a crucial insight as we think about biblical faith language, because many readers of the Bible today have learned the false notion that “faith” is the opposite of doing, and that doing leads to the sin of works-righteousness.

A kind of precursor to Morgan’s work can be found in Zeba Crook’s monograph, Reconceptualizing Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean (de Gruyter, 2004), especially Crook’s fifth chapter on patronage and benefaction. Crook argues that, today, we tend to view religious “conversion” as primarily a psychological phenomenon, involving changing of “beliefs” as we move from one religion to another. But when the New Testament writers engaged with “conversion” they viewed it as having a core social dynamic, namely, the shifting of one’s loyalties (i.e., pistis) from one group to another. Conversion was not simply about adopting new beliefs; rather, it included severing ties to old communities, patrons, and “friends,” and adopting new social ties and allegiances. Conversion, for all intents and purposes, was as much a social phenomenon as it was a personal belief.

Neither Crook’s nor Morgan’s work is meant to leave personal beliefs completely out of the equation of religious formation, experience, or expression. Rather, their works seek to examine as carefully and as accurately as possible the meaning of pistis as it was commonly used in the ancient world. Broad usage simply refutes any idea that pistis was simply about “belief.” It was generally understood that this was a relational word. To get up to speed on the conversation about the meaning of pistis, I encourage you to read Matthew Bates’ 2020 article in Currents in Biblical Research: “The External-Relational Shift in Faith (Pistis) in New Testament Research: Romans 1 as Gospel-Allegiance Test Case.” Also, check out Peter Oakes’s important article, “Pistis as Relational Way of Life in Galatians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 40 (2018): 255–75.

Faith, Allegiance, and King Jesus

Within the body of scholarship on faith language in the New Testament produced in the last decade, no work has made a bigger splash in the life of the church than Matthew W. Bates’s provocatively titled book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Baker Academic, 2016). In June of 2015, Matt emailed me out of the blue—we hadn’t known each other well before that—and told me he would be visiting family in Portland, Oregon, where I live. Matt told me he was publishing a book related to pistis and wanted to chat with me, since he knew I was also working on a book on pistis. We met for burgers and talked pistis. Little did we know his book would drop like a bombshell. Bates, much in line with Crook and Morgan (though not dependent on either of them for his ideas), made the case that the expected human response to the gospel according to the New Testament is not “faith,” if by that one means mental assent or affirmation of certain concepts like the Trinity or the resurrection of the body. Bates argues that it is much more appropriate to translate pistis as “allegiance,” the language of loyalty and commitment that is fitting for a message about following a king (Jesus).

One of the missing pieces, then, of the equation of how we interpret pistis in the New Testament involves how we understand Jesus, not just as savior, but also Lord and King. Bates explains, “We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of ‘faith’ (pistis) as ‘allegiance’ in relation to salvation. Jesus as king is the primary object word which our saving ‘faith’—that is, our allegiance—is directed” (67). Bates has a book trilogy planned, and his second book has already come out: Gospel Allegiance (Brazos, 2019) where he further explores the dimensions and dynamics of this “faith as allegiance” proposal.

Faith Language in Paul

You might not be surprised to know that the lion’s share of attention in the recent pistis conversations in scholarship has been given to Paul’s language and formulations. Over the past half century, the so-called pistis Christou debate is responsible for much of that discussion. (We will return to pistis Christou a bit later.) But there have been a few outliers, like the chapter on “The Meaning of Faith in Paul’s Gospel” in Douglas Campbell’s monograph, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel (T&T Clark, 2005). In many ways, Campbell was a precursor to Morgan’s “external-relational” approach to pistis, though this aspect of Campbell’s book received little attention since it was not one of the key points of his book.

Another important discussion of Paul’s faith language appeared in Michael Gorman’s Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Eerdmans, 2015). One can see how Gorman was anticipating Bates’s work when Gorman writes, “[A]lready in the first Christian century the apostle Paul wanted the communities he addressed not merely to believe the gospel but to become the gospel, and in so doing to participate in the very life and mission of God” (2). Part of Gorman’s argument involves Paul’s advocacy for the virtues of faith, hope, and love (1 Thess 1:3). Faith, hope, and love were not just teachings Paul handed over on paper for them to memorize for a theology test. Rather, “for Paul God is a missional God, the one whose goal is to impart this faithfulness, love, and hope to humanity so that human beings come to share in the life and character of God” (65).

In 2019, Jeanette Pifer published her University of Durham dissertation, entitled Faith as Participation: An Exegetical Study of Some Key Pauline Texts (Mohr Siebeck). As the title suggests, Pifer urges that for Paul, pistis is not primarily about thinking or believing, though such things are not left out either. Primarily Paul was referring to a relational dynamic of participating in Christ, what she calls “self-involvement,” which also includes “self-negation.” A key text for Pifer is Gal 2:20 as pistis refers to becoming one with Christ in cruciformity, which necessarily includes negation of self (“I no longer live”). In her own words, “Faith is self-negating when the believer looks away from the self, discovering his or her insufficiency, weakness, and neediness” (219). This leads to reliance on Christ through pistis-participation: “As a responsive, and not an autonomous, act, faith is a continuous surrender to and dependence on the gospel” (219).

Just about the time that Pifer released her monograph, I also published a book called Paul and the Language of Faith (Eerdmans, 2020). My research question was similar to Pifer’s: What does Paul mean when he uses the language of pistis? I agree with Pifer that pistis often has a relational, participatory orientation in Paul. But I take a bit of a different approach to pistis in general than Bates and Pifer. I argue that pistis is an elastic term in Greek, able to cover a range of meanings depending on the situation. I mark out three common uses of pistis language: believing faith (which has a more cognitive orientation), obeying faith (which is close to “allegiance”), and trusting faith (which is a kind of “kitchen sink” use that covers the whole spectrum from belief to obedience). One has to discern, in each usage, where the author (in this case Paul) falls on that spectrum in his rhetorical statement.

Another key argument in my book is that around the time of Jesus and Paul, Jews started to use pistis as a way of referring to relationships of goodwill, mutual benefit, and obligation, which aligns closely with Jewish covenant. The fact is, Jews did not use the language of covenant much in the Second Temple Period, so I surmise that pistis became a way of talking about that. If that is true, it has some interesting implications for Paul’s usage.

A final key study that is worth bringing to your attention—again published recently (2020), is David J. Downs’s and Benjamin J. Lappenga’s The Faithfulness of the Risen Christ: Pistis and the Exalted Lord in the Pauline Letters (Baylor University Press, 2020). This is a book that resurrects (pun intended!) the pistis Christou conversation, but genuinely offers a fresh approach. While some argue for the objective genitive reading (pistis Christou as “faith in Christ”), and others prefer the subjective genitive reading (“faithfulness of Christ” in his life-giving death), Downs and Lappenga put a new spin on the subjective genitive: pistis Christou as the “faithfulness of the risen and exalted Christ.” They do not see the “faithfulness of Christ” as a one-and-done action of Christ in the past, according to Paul. They view it as the risen-and-reigning Christ’s continuing faithfulness toward all those who participate in him by pistis.

(If you need to catch up on the pistis Christou conversation, check out the important essay collection edited by Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle, The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies [Baker Academic, 2009].) Also, I have a status quaestionis essay called “Paul and Pistis Christou,” in the Oxford Handbook of Pauline Studies, ed. M. Barry Matlock and Matthew V. Novenson (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Final Words

If you haven’t paid attention to the lively conversations about pistis and faith in the New Testament, there is no time like the present! The best place to start is Bates’s Salvation by Allegiance Alone. If you want a more challenging, but highly rewarding study, read Roman Faith and Christian Faith by Morgan. And I hope you will take a look at my own Paul and the Language of Faith. I am fascinated by the fact that many of us working on this subject did our research independently (without even knowing who else was asking the same questions), yet we all came to similar conclusions. Truly there has been a revolution taking place, overturning the assumption that faith is equated with “belief,” and supporting the more relational, participatory, and missional nature of this language, especially in Paul’s letters. ¡Viva la revolución!

Sabbath…And It Was Good

Time is the first thing marked holy in Scripture. After all of the light and darkness, land and sea, stars and moon, birds and sea creatures, after all that God created and saw and called good, God rests, and the time itself is marked as holy.

When God gives Israel a set of commands to shape a way of life, he commands the observance of rest. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” In the list of holy things they are to protect—human life, created goods, our relationships, our neighbors’ relationships and goods and lives—time is listed too. Protect the holiness of time.

We might even say that Jesus remembered the Sabbath on Holy Saturday. Resting in the tomb, he hallowed time again.

Time is holy. Rest is holy. The current North American culture doesn’t believe this. And don’t get me started on how much academic culture doesn’t believe this. Or, if they do, they hide it well. In this year of pandemic, I dare say we have even, in some ways, gotten worse. Whenever we try to carry on with the standards and expectations we have always had, even though we now have fewer people to help or more pieces to consider or changes to make in order to meet new safety restrictions, the result is that maintaining what we had been doing takes more work than it ever has. Yet we continue trying to meet those same standards, whether self-imposed or given to us by authorities. In some cases, extra burdens have been added. In order to stop students from traveling and potentially contracting the virus, schools have canceled breaks.

So I write in defense of rest. I encourage you, dear reader, to remember the Sabbath.

I admit to my bias here. I have been practicing Sabbath—a full day of rest every week—for nearly fifteen years. I backed into the practice, but it has changed my life and shaped my relationship to time and work for the better. This includes having practiced during college, seminary, and a doctoral program, so what I suggest can be done.

Exodus and Deuteronomy provide two different reasons for remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. Exodus 20:8–11 tells Israel to remember Sabbath because God rested on the seventh day after six days of creating work. The practice of Sabbath rest is commanded because God himself rested. When we rest, we imitate God and live in the order and rhythms that God established. Deuteronomy 5:12–15 tells Israel to remember Sabbath because God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. They are no longer slaves, so they need to not act like slaves. They need to rest sometimes.

I think of these two reasons as a command to rest because we need to remember two things: (1) We are not God. (2) We are not slaves. Humility and freedom. First, we rest in order to ground ourselves in humility. We need to remember that we do not keep the universe running. We can take a day off in the week, and the world will not stop spinning. We are not the center of the universe. God rested. God. The one who actually does keep the universe running. Resting embraces our limitations as created beings. By stopping, we both acknowledge our finiteness and live within the limits God gave us for our flourishing. Think about this: Taking a nap is an act of humility and an embrace of creatureliness.

Second, we celebrate our freedom. We are not slaves. Christ freed us at the most fundamental level from sin and death, and that means we have also been freed from everything else that is outside of God’s order. In short, we are not slaves to our work. You, dear seminarian, are not a slave to your homework. You, dear professor, are not a slave to your next deadline (or even to your grading). You, dear pastor, are not a slave to every demand of your congregants. You, dear reader, are not a slave. Slaves cannot choose to rest. You can. In this context, choosing to have ice cream on a Sunday afternoon can be an act of celebration. Playing frisbee for an hour is an act of resistance to the slavish order of the 24/7 world, a declaration of freedom in Christ.

It takes commitment, but life with rest is infinitely better than life without it. Rest is part of God’s created order for the universe and facilitates human flourishing. It is humility and freedom. It brings joy, refreshment, attunement to God (for how can a person hear God if she is always busy?). Rest is part of the rhythm God intended. So put this down and go rest awhile.

Writing: An Act of Faithful Discipleship

There is an inherent need in Christian life and ministry to write. From seminary essays submitted for class to the sermons and devotionals written in the pastorate, the written word is an expression of what we think and believe about the Christian life. As a professor teaching practical theology and Wesley studies, it isn’t unusual for a student to ask how they can write better—and, praise be, not always following a grade they weren’t thrilled with!

Writing is a craft. It takes practice to develop and hone the skills indicative of any genre of writing. I tell my students there are several easy things to address. Pay attention to format and style conventions. Use the active voice. Keep things simple, but not simplistic. Proof-read. Even better, find a trusted friend, family member, or colleagues who will be a helpful proof-reader.

Ultimately, though, improving our writing means engaging an idea with clarity. Writing is not just putting ideas on paper. The writing process demands we think about what we know in order to communicate it to others. A thoughtful piece of writing does three things. It expresses what our thesis is, demonstrates how the idea informs and shapes our thinking, and communicates why the idea is important.

Writing on an idea and sharing its relevance are likely internal, inherent motivators for persons pursuing formal theological studies. The fields of theology, biblical studies, and church history are ripe with ideas. These ideas are the fodder for those of us who seek to preach, provide pastoral care, and help mature persons in faith. But it can be that second aspect of writing, demonstrating how we understand the idea as a result of engagement and critical reflection, that can be the most challenging aspect of the writing task.

I observe three common traps that ensnare students. The first two traps are opposite sides of the same coin. In the first case, the essay does not engage any text or author at all, while the second relies on a wide, maybe even vast, variety of sources. The result is, even if written well, the essay does not offer the kind of disciplined, engaged reflection with a text required at the graduate level. The third trap is the use of an excessive number of quotes or long passages. It may even include some biblical passages used to augment the thesis as presented. This trap, unfortunately, leaves the writer of the essay voiceless, with no real opportunity to share what they understand.

Maybe the highest learning curve for seminarians to scale in their academic writing is constructing a conversation with the texts and authors that inform the thesis of an essay, sermon, or devotional. Asking the “how” question in a variety of ways can help open up this essential conversation. How does this scholar of the required reading ground my work and understanding of this concept? How does this quotation help me see further than I did previously? How does this idea help me uncover truths that were hidden or partially in view until now? How does this text resonate with my experience? How does it cause dissonance? How do I respond to this concept in light of what the author has had to say and the ministry God has called me to?

Choosing relevant quotes helps create a dialogue with a given text. Interacting with the chosen quote creates a conversation that allows you, the writer, to share what you think. Include a quote or its most essential aspect that addresses the point you are trying to make. Unpack the quote. Explain it, discussing it in your own words. It might be that your dialogue with the source means discussing the strengths or weaknesses of the idea. Give an example that supports the claim being made or contradicts it.

A text and its author might be your primary conversation partner, but interacting with them doesn’t mean you necessarily agree. It’s possible to point to another author or source for a contrasting point of view. Or it could even mean amending the idea for a particular circumstance. In these cases, it is a good rule of thumb to see if the parameters of the assignment allow for this kind of further discussion. It might be that, in a shorter piece focusing on a particular concept, there just isn’t room to entertain the conversation further.

As an act of faithful Christian discipleship, writing provides the opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of an idea by engaging in dialogue with relevant texts from across the centuries. Seminary and graduate theological studies require that you demonstrate your thinking about course materials through writing. It is appropriate preparation for when your parishioners ask you about an issue because they believe you to be a reliable and worthy example for their own formation and discipleship.

The Trinity as Practical Divinity: John Fletcher

John Fletcher, from the 1760s to his death in 1785, was recognized along with John and Charles Wesley as a major leader in Methodism. Born in Switzerland, he came to England in 1750, became a Methodist in 1753, and was ordained in the Church of England in 1756. His parish in Madeley became a center for Methodism. In 1781 he married another prominent Methodist leader, Mary Bosanquet, and sadly died of tuberculosis in 1785.

Fletcher was a gifted theological defender of Wesley’s theology and is best known for his series of Checks to Antinomianism, widely read by Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic well into the nineteenth century. But our attention here will be on his theology of Trinitarian dispensations, most fully developed in his The Portrait of Saint Paul, completed in 1779.

The relation of this aspect of Fletcher’s theology to that of John Wesley has been the subject of academic dispute, with gifted scholars on both sides of the debate. For our purposes we can simply note that Fletcher saw himself as faithfully developing Wesley’s theology, and that his ideas joined with those of the Wesley brothers in shaping subsequent Methodism.

We are fortunate to now have a thorough and insightful examination of Fletcher’s Trinitarianism in J. Russell Frazier, True Christianity: The Doctrine of Dispensations in the Thought of John William Fletcher (Pickwick, 2014). What I will do here is provide a brief outline drawn from this excellent study.

After an initial chapter discussing the milieu of Fletcher’s theology, Frazier argues that its foundations are in God’s love for all creation. This love “causes grace to take precedence in divine-human relations; prevenient grace is the keystone of Fletcher’s theological system” (57). In contrast to the Calvinist “disparity between grace and nature,” Fletcher “argued for their correspondence” (54). Prevenient grace enables persons to know God, which is the precondition for persons to be aware of their need for repentance. Thus, human knowledge of God is progressive and has its source in prevenient grace (57).

At the heart of Fletcher’s thought is a dynamic theology of history with Christ as the goal, with the particular goal for humanity restoration to the image of God (59). Like Wesley, Fletcher believed that there was a covenant of works prior to the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall. But Fletcher further develops the covenant of grace by arguing it unfolds historically in three dispensations or ages—that of the Father is marked by “the promise of a Redeemer,” that of the Son begins with John the Baptist and anticipates the coming of the Spirit, and that of the Spirit begins at Pentecost and awaits the second coming of Christ (61).

Central to Fletcher’s vision is that God acts in each of these dispensations to redeem humanity, and humans are enabled by grace to respond. This holds together the sovereignty of God (in which grace enables humans to respond and directs history toward its goal) with human freedom (enabled by grace, we then respond to God).

Against some critics of Fletcher, Frazier insists this Trinitarian dispensationalism is not a “chronological modalism” but a “trinitarian pattern of the disclosure of God in history as God accommodates divinity to the human condition, which results in various degrees of the knowledge of God” (90). “God desires to reveal as fully as possible but only as fully as human beings are capable of receiving” (78).

This is more than a theology of history. “Salvation history occurs at two levels: a macro or universal level, which entails the divine effort to redeem humanity, and a micro or personal level in which the doctrine of dispensation functions as an order of salvation. The micro scheme reflects the macro scheme” (62). Thus Fletcher’s Trinitarian dispensationalism “reflects both the progressive nature of God’s revelation in the history of humanity and the progressive nature of God’s restoration of individual human beings in the image of God with the goal of Christian perfection” (63).

This means the truth of God is revealed both in history and to each human life progressively, and persons are enabled by the Spirit to respond to the degree of truth they have. Yet these are degrees of one truth: “the gospel is one, and Christ is the foundation for each of the dispensations,” because Christ is the truth (85). Thus, the faith of righteous heathen, faithful Jews, awakened sinners, those justified, and those entirely sanctified varies in degree but not in kind, as all are responding to degrees of the same truth.

Frazier devotes an extensive chapter to each of the three dispensations, covering both their universal and personal levels. In this short article I can only recommend Frazier’s analysis and insight in theses chapters and urge persons to read them for themselves.

It might seem that Fletcher’s dispensational theology is a bit abstract, but that is not the way Fletcher saw it. For him it was practical divinity in the Wesleyan spirit. Frazier identifies this as its central purpose: “God has, through history, accommodated divine revelation to the limitations of finite human capacity and calls Christian ministers to accommodate themselves to their hearers (congregants) in order for them to appropriate the Christian message” (211).

In any congregation there are persons in different stages along the way of salvation: “sinners, awakened sinners, believers” (213). Frazier shows that Fletcher’s sermons are filled with addresses to each of these categories under a variety of synonymous terms. Fletcher believed that in “order to minister effectively, ministers need to have understanding of the three stages of faith” (220), not only for “preaching, but also” for “every aspect of ministerial practice” (221). Likewise, mature members of the parish have a responsibility to accommodate to those who are less mature.

God’s gracious accommodation to humanity is rooted in love. Likewise, ministers should practice accommodation with those to whom they minister, because the “reigning characteristic” of ministry is love (222).

Discipleship after COVID: Field Preaching

Recently I was reminded of an old Peanuts cartoon. Linus and Sally are walking together with their lunch boxes. Over the first three frames, Sally says, “I would have made a good evangelist. You know that kid who sits behind me at school? I convinced him that my religion is better than his.” In the final frame, Linus asks, “How’d you do that?” to which Sally responds, “I hit him with my lunch box!”

Most Christians I know have desperately missed their church during the COVID-19 pandemic. But one thing most mainline Protestants don’t seem to miss is evangelism. And part of the reason they don’t miss it is that many imagine that evangelism is pretty similar to Sally’s understanding. The result is that many mainline Protestants have been more than happy to embrace an idea falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Everywhere you go preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”

For Wesleyans and Franciscans, this sentiment is entirely problematic. Franciscan scholars find no evidence Francis ever said these words. Furthermore, the phrase goes against the overarching sentiment of his ministry, the focus of which was preaching. Remember St. Francis thought proclaiming the gospel with words was so important that he preached to the animals! As for Wesleyans, the phrase cuts against the heart of the church’s evangelistic task to announce the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and his coming kingdom.

In this series, I’m exploring how various aspects of discipleship may change after COVID-19. In the previous article, I discussed the Methodist practice of family worship. Family worship was the Methodist practice of gathering all in a household, be it family, guests, or farmworkers, whoever was in the house that day, to pray, sing, read the Bible, and hear a short exhortation. In many ways this practice was as important to Methodism as society meetings, class meetings, and field preaching, for it was in family worship that people first learned to discuss their faith, to pray out loud, and to preach. The Christian life was learned in the Methodist home and then confirmed in society and class meetings. Today many Christians seem eager for local churches to facilitate the bulk of discipleship and family nurture. As more people are vaccinated there will be a rush to return to “normal” church life. But Methodists would be wise, I argue, to reimagine what family worship looks like today and stop outsourcing key aspects of family discipleship to local churches.

In this article, I want to think about how evangelism may shift after COVID-19. For Methodists, the heart of evangelism has always been the announcement of the gospel story. In early Methodism, evangelism began in field preaching. Field preaching, the practice of preaching anywhere outside a church pulpit, is often seen as the archetype of Methodist evangelism and it was the setting in which most people first encountered Methodism. Importantly, people who came to field preaching were invited to engage the gospel in a deeper way at the smaller and more personal society and class Meetings where they were further evangelized. But the most personal place for conversation about the gospel and what it means to be a disciple took place in family worship and in pastoral visits by preachers and class leaders.

Evangelism after COVID will still model this move from large and impersonal gatherings toward more intimate conversation but I think the emphasis may shift. Over the past fifty years, the emphasis in mainline Protestantism has been either to ignore evangelism entirely or to emphasize large group evangelism. Denominations that continue to denigrate evangelism will continue to decline in membership and become more and more irrelevant on the religious landscape. But movements that embrace the imperative to evangelize may shift in three key ways after COVID.

First, the place of initial encounter of the gospel will become more digital. The Holy Spirit is still alive and well, inviting people into a relationship with the living God. But most people will shift to an online exploration of Christianity instead of in large “Billy Graham Crusades” or even in visiting worship services. Churches and movements that thrive in the coming years will have vibrant online evangelism that exposes people to Christianity and sets the stage for further exploration.

Second, vibrant churches will offer a user-friendly process into a more personal conversation in small groups, both digital and face to face. Zoom has transformed Christian small groups forever. While many groups will go back to in-person small groups, my guess is vibrant churches, instead of just leaving an open chair at small groups for guests, will leave an open Zoom meeting for any who want to check out a group as well as for regular attenders who are either sick or traveling. Furthermore, many churches will keep some Zoom-only meetings for people who want to explore Christianity but who are apprehensive of the in-person setting.

Finally, vibrant churches will train their members to share their faith well. Instead of leaving personal evangelism to pastors, laity will claim their role as the church’s primary evangelists. They will be able to articulate what and why they believe and also be able to invite people into the life of faith. This most personal and important type of evangelism has and always will be personal, but it too may become more digital after COVID. But my guess is it will remain primarily a face-to-face activity.

In summary, evangelism will remain a process of engaging the Christian story in ever more personal settings, but digital formats and intentional training will become increasingly important to vibrant churches.

Embracing Evolution

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery story with one of my sons who was young at the time. As I was unloading the cart onto the belt, I looked over at my son who was staring at a magazine cover. I certainly don’t expect much in the way of morality from tabloids, but the one that my son was looking at had a particularly revealing image of a woman on the front. Trying to play it cool and not make the incident worse than it had to be, I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Look at this toy over here, pretty neat, huh?” My son didn’t move. In fact, like a deer glued to the headlights of a car, he was motionless in front of the magazine rack.

“Is she a mommy?” he asked, looking at the busty figure.

Oh boy. How do I respond to that? I patted him on the back again and said a bit more forcefully, “Come on bud, let’s not look at that.” But he didn’t budge—totally frozen to the floor. This time I grabbed his shoulder and started pulling him away and tried to explain how we shouldn’t look at that kind of thing. And as I was dragging him from the tabloid he just stared at the magazine and said, not in a voice of defiance, but of pitiful sadness, “But I want to look!”

While I was struck with how honest and open my child was being, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on under the surface. Where did that come from? Why was my son—who normally couldn’t sit still if his life had depended on it—standing there in a catatonic state of visual consumption? What I now know is that he was encountering something that all adult men intuitively come to experience; my son was seeing something that was visually stimulating coupled with a sensation of testosterone. This surge of hormone—which men experience at a rate tenfold that of women throughout their lives—pulled him toward the tabloid stand. And much like a game of tug of war at a family reunion, he was caught between a dad who wanted him to look away and a body that wanted to stay right where it was.

He was far too young, but if he only knew the destructive power that those images can bring and where his urges came from then he could more easily reorient his actions toward healthier—and holier—living. Is simply having knowledge about where we come from a perfect shield from sin? Of course not. But one first has to know where they come from before they can get to where they want to go.

Knowledge Is Power to Change

An essential benefit of adopting an integrative understanding of evolutionary theory and our Christian faith is that we become better able to recognize who we are and why we tend to have certain behaviors. And this knowledge of our biological and environmental pasts may actually lead us to becoming more whole—and holier—individuals.

Not long ago I was at the doctor for a regular checkup and he noticed a weird blemish on my skin. He started to ask mild questions that became more and more serious as the conversation went on: “Have you noticed this spot on your back changing?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“How long has the spot been there?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” (I’m terrible at caring about my health). Then I noticed the questions began to change.

“Is there a history of cancer in your family?”

“Well, I guess so. My brother had melanoma on his leg.”

“Matt,” my doctor said, “Why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning?”

What I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I am painfully aware of now, is that my family’s medical history—not just mine, but my relatives’ and ancestors’—really mattered for assessing current problems in my health. Thankfully, everything worked out fine, but this interaction with my doctor was a tangible example to me of how important is my past. When we come to have knowledge of our roots, we come to have knowledge of our current situation. When thinking of how our ancestry affects our lives today, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson—in his book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives (Delta, 2007)—observes:

Our unique attributes evolved over a period of roughly 6 million years. They represent modifications of great ape attributes that are roughly 10 million years old, primate attributes that are roughly 55 million years old, mammalian attributes that are roughly 245 million years old, vertebrate attributes that are roughly 600 million years old, and attributes of nucleated cells that are perhaps 1,500 million years old. If you think it is unnecessary to go that far back in the tree of life to understand our own attributes, consider the humbling fact that we share with nematodes (tiny wormlike creatures) the same gene that controls appetite. At most, our unique attributes are like an addition onto a vast multiroom mansion. It is sheer hubris to think that we can ignore all but the newest room. (70)

If we indeed come from a long history of ancestors—some of whom include animals that, right now, seem very distant to us—then just as a medical doctor might ask us if cancer runs in our family, we might ask questions about behavioral traits that run in our lineage. In a strange but understandable way, it actually matters what the nematode appetite was like. It matters that our hunter-gatherer male relatives had frequent sex and abandoned families in search of more mates. And it matters that our ancient female relatives decided to feed their offspring at the expense of other hungry children. Thus, a major step in developing a vibrant Christian life is recognizing that our biological and environmental proclivities that express themselves in negative and positive ways are steeped in our ancestral history.

Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution! How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (Council Oak, 2007), has a helpful way of presenting why understanding our roots and teaching it to our children is of the utmost importance for Christian development. Dowd discusses his idea of mismatched instincts—the concept where one’s natural tendencies don’t align with modern life—coupled with what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls supernormal stimuli—the notion of unnatural and exaggerated temptations (Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose [Norton, 2010]). Together, this is what Dowd and Barrett are saying: Many of our instincts, from the desire to eat to the drive to have sex, were incredibly important to our ancestors—both human and pre-human. It’s because of those instincts that we are alive today. We should be thankful for them.

Sometimes I remind my classes, most of which are made up by nineteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, that they should be thankful that their grandparents got frisky forty years before they were born. When I make that pronouncement, their reaction is unanimous: “Ahh, Dr. Hill, we don’t want to think about that!” If I’m being honest, half of the reason I say it is to get that reaction. The other half is that I’m very serious. If our grandparents didn’t have a strong libido, we wouldn’t be alive today to be disgusted at the thought of their sex drive. Those drives and desires, from base urges to complex inclinations, are what fueled human development and allowed us to out-compete other organisms who didn’t possess the same instincts. In other words, the ancestors of those who didn’t want to eat all the time and have sex all the time are not here to tell their story. Humans, by cultivating some proclivities from natural selection, can develop a practice of restraint. Here I use food and sex as main examples because they are, quite obviously, two drives that are common and prominent among us. Indeed, there are a host of other instinctual drives we could also discuss, be it feelings of empathy, acts of altruism or self-preservation, and violence.

While it’s obvious that we have these instincts, sometimes they seem out of place given contemporary circumstances. For instance, child mortality rates have plummeted in just the last 150 years, making unnecessary, from a reproductive standpoint, the need to conceive as often as possible. Yet this doesn’t mean that the incessant drive to try to conceive a child has gone away. It’s like a retired race car driver who—still recalling the days when he needed a powerful engine for racing—drives around his block in his Bugatti. The desire to race is still part of his identity, but the need to race has long passed.

While not all drives that we have are antiquated like this—as some evolutionary drives are positive in nature, even today—the same logic applies to the consumption of food today. While famines and starvation are very real for many people in the Majority World—a concern we ought not overlook—most of the problem with contemporary hunger has to do with food distribution not food shortages. Humankind is producing an amount of food that far surpasses what history has seen before. A few hundred years ago, people had to be able to retain fat so that when winter or droughts came, they wouldn’t become emaciated or starve. Today we have immense storage structures and methods to protect against this threat. Before modern advances in agriculture, our food storage was put away in our stomachs, waists, and thighs. In other words, being able to get “fat for the winter” was a real thing. Now we just get fat.

It cannot be overstated that the instincts of Homo sapiens who were living ages ago were incredibly necessary in helping us survive to reproductive age. But now, in the twenty-first century, many of these instincts are mismatched, given advances in human technology, agriculture, and medicine. We simply don’t need to eat all the time or have sex all the time. As a result of such changes, there is now a need for temperate behavior—a behavior that, in an ironic way, does not come naturally to us.

Fries are the Pornography of Food

Many of our mismatched instincts, when combined with supernormal stimuli, are a recipe for moral and spiritual disaster—i.e., for unholiness. If you’re wondering what Barrett means by “supernormal stimuli,” let me explain it with an example.

Burger King french fries are the pornography of food. Here’s what I mean: Have you ever walked by a room where someone was cooking bacon? It’s absolutely irresistible. You start salivating and looking around to figure out where the smell is coming from. There are good reasons for this. Bacon is high in protein and fat and has the calories to provide energy for a long time. And our ancestors were selected after generations had lived and died for such sustenance. So, in a sense, we are hardwired to love fatty foods. We’re almost—and this word is important—imprisoned by fatty foods. And Burger King french fries are our food-warden. I remember when my friend and I were sixteen years old and Burger King had just put out a new style of french fries. They figured out something about evolution and capitalized on it. Instead of having more potato as their new ingredient, they had more oil and fat—a nearly irresistible temptation to our sixteen-year-old instincts. They capitalized on the fact that we were hardwired to search after fat, salt, and sugar.

I say that french fries are the pornography of food because both fries and pornography work on similar human desires. French fries are food-like substances that are ultimately unhealthy for us; pornography is a sex-like icon that is likewise unhealthy for us. French fries have all the glamorous and seductive parts of food—the fat, the salt, the sugar—but none of the substance that provides long lasting enjoyment or health. Pornography, in much the same way, possesses the glamorous and seductive aspects of a sexual relationship, but is at its core shallow and vapid—it is neither sex nor a relationship. It shouldn’t surprise us then that both french fries and pornography are highly addictive. As a pastor and a professor working with college students, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to counsel people who have dependencies on food or pornography. Whether it be health complications or broken families, the supernormal stimuli that contemporary humankind faces are very destructive.

Remember, these supernormal stimuli are just that: supernormal. They aren’t “natural.” They’re conjured up in a lab full of people who know how to manipulate in us these ancient but no longer necessary proclivities. Advertising agencies know that Homo sapiens have evolved to desire copious amounts of sex and be attracted to visual stimuli. So sex is used to sell everything from blue jeans to bicycles. The fast-food industry knows that Homo sapiens have needed fat, salt, and sugar to survive—that we fall into a kind of trance when we smell bacon or fries—so they sell food products that are nearly irresistible. Humans are in a predicament. We exist in a world in which we encounter both our mismatched instincts from ages ago and the supernormal stimuli of the twenty-first century. Deirdre Barrett expresses the problem in this way:

The most dangerous aspect of our modern diet arises from our ability to refine food. This is the link to drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. Coca doesn’t give South American Indians health problems when they brew or chew it. No one’s ruined his life eating poppy seeds. When grapes and grains were fermented lightly and occasionally, they presented a healthy pleasure, not a hazard. Salt, fat, sugar, and starch are not harmful in their natural contexts. It’s our modern ability to concentrate things like cocaine, heroin, alcohol—and food components—that turns them into a menace that our body is hardwired to crave. (Waistland: A (R)Evolutionary View of Our Weight and Fitness Crisis [Norton, 2007], 26)

See, our problem is a chimera of sorts—a Greek mythical multi-faceted creature composed of mismatched instincts combine with supernormal stimuli. It is a cocktail of temptation unprecedented in humankind’s history. This chimera is difficult to combat, and—besides contributing to our gluttony, lust, self-indulgence, and other negative proclivities—it leads us to develop habits in our lives that pull us away from Christian virtues, from holy living. But combat it we must, and the more we learn about where we come from, the more we are able to do so. We believe God’s Spirit dwells with us, that we can be transformed and renewed; we can become better than we are. We are not prisoners to our instincts, no matter how strong negative instincts seem to be.

Embracing Evolution

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery story with one of my sons who was young at the time. As I was unloading the cart onto the belt, I looked over at my son who was staring at a magazine cover. I certainly don’t expect much in the way of morality from tabloids, but the one that my son was looking at had a particularly revealing image of a woman on the front. Trying to play it cool and not make the incident worse than it had to be, I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Look at this toy over here, pretty neat, huh?” My son didn’t move. In fact, like a deer glued to the headlights of a car, he was motionless in front of the magazine rack.

“Is she a mommy?” he asked, looking at the busty figure.

Oh boy. How do I respond to that? I patted him on the back again and said a bit more forcefully, “Come on bud, let’s not look at that.” But he didn’t budge—totally frozen to the floor. This time I grabbed his shoulder and started pulling him away and tried to explain how we shouldn’t look at that kind of thing. And as I was dragging him from the tabloid he just stared at the magazine and said, not in a voice of defiance, but of pitiful sadness, “But I want to look!”

While I was struck with how honest and open my child was being, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on under the surface. Where did that come from? Why was my son—who normally couldn’t sit still if his life had depended on it—standing there in a catatonic state of visual consumption? What I now know is that he was encountering something that all adult men intuitively come to experience; my son was seeing something that was visually stimulating coupled with a sensation of testosterone. This surge of hormone—which men experience at a rate tenfold that of women throughout their lives—pulled him toward the tabloid stand. And much like a game of tug of war at a family reunion, he was caught between a dad who wanted him to look away and a body that wanted to stay right where it was.

He was far too young, but if he only knew the destructive power that those images can bring and where his urges came from then he could more easily reorient his actions toward healthier—and holier—living. Is simply having knowledge about where we come from a perfect shield from sin? Of course not. But one first has to know where they come from before they can get to where they want to go.

Knowledge Is Power to Change

An essential benefit of adopting an integrative understanding of evolutionary theory and our Christian faith is that we become better able to recognize who we are and why we tend to have certain behaviors. And this knowledge of our biological and environmental pasts may actually lead us to becoming more whole—and holier—individuals.

Not long ago I was at the doctor for a regular checkup and he noticed a weird blemish on my skin. He started to ask mild questions that became more and more serious as the conversation went on: “Have you noticed this spot on your back changing?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“How long has the spot been there?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” (I’m terrible at caring about my health). Then I noticed the questions began to change.

“Is there a history of cancer in your family?”

“Well, I guess so. My brother had melanoma on his leg.”

“Matt,” my doctor said, “Why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning?”

What I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I am painfully aware of now, is that my family’s medical history—not just mine, but my relatives’ and ancestors’—really mattered for assessing current problems in my health. Thankfully, everything worked out fine, but this interaction with my doctor was a tangible example to me of how important is my past. When we come to have knowledge of our roots, we come to have knowledge of our current situation. When thinking of how our ancestry affects our lives today, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson—in his book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives (Delta, 2007)—observes:

Our unique attributes evolved over a period of roughly 6 million years. They represent modifications of great ape attributes that are roughly 10 million years old, primate attributes that are roughly 55 million years old, mammalian attributes that are roughly 245 million years old, vertebrate attributes that are roughly 600 million years old, and attributes of nucleated cells that are perhaps 1,500 million years old. If you think it is unnecessary to go that far back in the tree of life to understand our own attributes, consider the humbling fact that we share with nematodes (tiny wormlike creatures) the same gene that controls appetite. At most, our unique attributes are like an addition onto a vast multiroom mansion. It is sheer hubris to think that we can ignore all but the newest room. (70)

If we indeed come from a long history of ancestors—some of whom include animals that, right now, seem very distant to us—then just as a medical doctor might ask us if cancer runs in our family, we might ask questions about behavioral traits that run in our lineage. In a strange but understandable way, it actually matters what the nematode appetite was like. It matters that our hunter-gatherer male relatives had frequent sex and abandoned families in search of more mates. And it matters that our ancient female relatives decided to feed their offspring at the expense of other hungry children. Thus, a major step in developing a vibrant Christian life is recognizing that our biological and environmental proclivities that express themselves in negative and positive ways are steeped in our ancestral history.

Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution! How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (Council Oak, 2007), has a helpful way of presenting why understanding our roots and teaching it to our children is of the utmost importance for Christian development. Dowd discusses his idea of mismatched instincts—the concept where one’s natural tendencies don’t align with modern life—coupled with what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls supernormal stimuli—the notion of unnatural and exaggerated temptations (Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose [Norton, 2010]). Together, this is what Dowd and Barrett are saying: Many of our instincts, from the desire to eat to the drive to have sex, were incredibly important to our ancestors—both human and pre-human. It’s because of those instincts that we are alive today. We should be thankful for them.

Sometimes I remind my classes, most of which are made up by nineteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, that they should be thankful that their grandparents got frisky forty years before they were born. When I make that pronouncement, their reaction is unanimous: “Ahh, Dr. Hill, we don’t want to think about that!” If I’m being honest, half of the reason I say it is to get that reaction. The other half is that I’m very serious. If our grandparents didn’t have a strong libido, we wouldn’t be alive today to be disgusted at the thought of their sex drive. Those drives and desires, from base urges to complex inclinations, are what fueled human development and allowed us to out-compete other organisms who didn’t possess the same instincts. In other words, the ancestors of those who didn’t want to eat all the time and have sex all the time are not here to tell their story. Humans, by cultivating some proclivities from natural selection, can develop a practice of restraint. Here I use food and sex as main examples because they are, quite obviously, two drives that are common and prominent among us. Indeed, there are a host of other instinctual drives we could also discuss, be it feelings of empathy, acts of altruism or self-preservation, and violence.

While it’s obvious that we have these instincts, sometimes they seem out of place given contemporary circumstances. For instance, child mortality rates have plummeted in just the last 150 years, making unnecessary, from a reproductive standpoint, the need to conceive as often as possible. Yet this doesn’t mean that the incessant drive to try to conceive a child has gone away. It’s like a retired race car driver who—still recalling the days when he needed a powerful engine for racing—drives around his block in his Bugatti. The desire to race is still part of his identity, but the need to race has long passed.

While not all drives that we have are antiquated like this—as some evolutionary drives are positive in nature, even today—the same logic applies to the consumption of food today. While famines and starvation are very real for many people in the Majority World—a concern we ought not overlook—most of the problem with contemporary hunger has to do with food distribution not food shortages. Humankind is producing an amount of food that far surpasses what history has seen before. A few hundred years ago, people had to be able to retain fat so that when winter or droughts came, they wouldn’t become emaciated or starve. Today we have immense storage structures and methods to protect against this threat. Before modern advances in agriculture, our food storage was put away in our stomachs, waists, and thighs. In other words, being able to get “fat for the winter” was a real thing. Now we just get fat.

It cannot be overstated that the instincts of Homo sapiens who were living ages ago were incredibly necessary in helping us survive to reproductive age. But now, in the twenty-first century, many of these instincts are mismatched, given advances in human technology, agriculture, and medicine. We simply don’t need to eat all the time or have sex all the time. As a result of such changes, there is now a need for temperate behavior—a behavior that, in an ironic way, does not come naturally to us.

Fries are the Pornography of Food

Many of our mismatched instincts, when combined with supernormal stimuli, are a recipe for moral and spiritual disaster—i.e., for unholiness. If you’re wondering what Barrett means by “supernormal stimuli,” let me explain it with an example.

Burger King french fries are the pornography of food. Here’s what I mean: Have you ever walked by a room where someone was cooking bacon? It’s absolutely irresistible. You start salivating and looking around to figure out where the smell is coming from. There are good reasons for this. Bacon is high in protein and fat and has the calories to provide energy for a long time. And our ancestors were selected after generations had lived and died for such sustenance. So, in a sense, we are hardwired to love fatty foods. We’re almost—and this word is important—imprisoned by fatty foods. And Burger King french fries are our food-warden. I remember when my friend and I were sixteen years old and Burger King had just put out a new style of french fries. They figured out something about evolution and capitalized on it. Instead of having more potato as their new ingredient, they had more oil and fat—a nearly irresistible temptation to our sixteen-year-old instincts. They capitalized on the fact that we were hardwired to search after fat, salt, and sugar.

I say that french fries are the pornography of food because both fries and pornography work on similar human desires. French fries are food-like substances that are ultimately unhealthy for us; pornography is a sex-like icon that is likewise unhealthy for us. French fries have all the glamorous and seductive parts of food—the fat, the salt, the sugar—but none of the substance that provides long lasting enjoyment or health. Pornography, in much the same way, possesses the glamorous and seductive aspects of a sexual relationship, but is at its core shallow and vapid—it is neither sex nor a relationship. It shouldn’t surprise us then that both french fries and pornography are highly addictive. As a pastor and a professor working with college students, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to counsel people who have dependencies on food or pornography. Whether it be health complications or broken families, the supernormal stimuli that contemporary humankind faces are very destructive.

Remember, these supernormal stimuli are just that: supernormal. They aren’t “natural.” They’re conjured up in a lab full of people who know how to manipulate in us these ancient but no longer necessary proclivities. Advertising agencies know that Homo sapiens have evolved to desire copious amounts of sex and be attracted to visual stimuli. So sex is used to sell everything from blue jeans to bicycles. The fast-food industry knows that Homo sapiens have needed fat, salt, and sugar to survive—that we fall into a kind of trance when we smell bacon or fries—so they sell food products that are nearly irresistible. Humans are in a predicament. We exist in a world in which we encounter both our mismatched instincts from ages ago and the supernormal stimuli of the twenty-first century. Deirdre Barrett expresses the problem in this way:

The most dangerous aspect of our modern diet arises from our ability to refine food. This is the link to drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. Coca doesn’t give South American Indians health problems when they brew or chew it. No one’s ruined his life eating poppy seeds. When grapes and grains were fermented lightly and occasionally, they presented a healthy pleasure, not a hazard. Salt, fat, sugar, and starch are not harmful in their natural contexts. It’s our modern ability to concentrate things like cocaine, heroin, alcohol—and food components—that turns them into a menace that our body is hardwired to crave. (Waistland: A (R)Evolutionary View of Our Weight and Fitness Crisis [Norton, 2007], 26)

See, our problem is a chimera of sorts—a Greek mythical multi-faceted creature composed of mismatched instincts combine with supernormal stimuli. It is a cocktail of temptation unprecedented in humankind’s history. This chimera is difficult to combat, and—besides contributing to our gluttony, lust, self-indulgence, and other negative proclivities—it leads us to develop habits in our lives that pull us away from Christian virtues, from holy living. But combat it we must, and the more we learn about where we come from, the more we are able to do so. We believe God’s Spirit dwells with us, that we can be transformed and renewed; we can become better than we are. We are not prisoners to our instincts, no matter how strong negative instincts seem to be.

Embracing Evolution

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery story with one of my sons who was young at the time. As I was unloading the cart onto the belt, I looked over at my son who was staring at a magazine cover. I certainly don’t expect much in the way of morality from tabloids, but the one that my son was looking at had a particularly revealing image of a woman on the front. Trying to play it cool and not make the incident worse than it had to be, I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Look at this toy over here, pretty neat, huh?” My son didn’t move. In fact, like a deer glued to the headlights of a car, he was motionless in front of the magazine rack.

“Is she a mommy?” he asked, looking at the busty figure.

Oh boy. How do I respond to that? I patted him on the back again and said a bit more forcefully, “Come on bud, let’s not look at that.” But he didn’t budge—totally frozen to the floor. This time I grabbed his shoulder and started pulling him away and tried to explain how we shouldn’t look at that kind of thing. And as I was dragging him from the tabloid he just stared at the magazine and said, not in a voice of defiance, but of pitiful sadness, “But I want to look!”

While I was struck with how honest and open my child was being, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on under the surface. Where did that come from? Why was my son—who normally couldn’t sit still if his life had depended on it—standing there in a catatonic state of visual consumption? What I now know is that he was encountering something that all adult men intuitively come to experience; my son was seeing something that was visually stimulating coupled with a sensation of testosterone. This surge of hormone—which men experience at a rate tenfold that of women throughout their lives—pulled him toward the tabloid stand. And much like a game of tug of war at a family reunion, he was caught between a dad who wanted him to look away and a body that wanted to stay right where it was.

He was far too young, but if he only knew the destructive power that those images can bring and where his urges came from then he could more easily reorient his actions toward healthier—and holier—living. Is simply having knowledge about where we come from a perfect shield from sin? Of course not. But one first has to know where they come from before they can get to where they want to go.

Knowledge Is Power to Change

An essential benefit of adopting an integrative understanding of evolutionary theory and our Christian faith is that we become better able to recognize who we are and why we tend to have certain behaviors. And this knowledge of our biological and environmental pasts may actually lead us to becoming more whole—and holier—individuals.

Not long ago I was at the doctor for a regular checkup and he noticed a weird blemish on my skin. He started to ask mild questions that became more and more serious as the conversation went on: “Have you noticed this spot on your back changing?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“How long has the spot been there?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” (I’m terrible at caring about my health). Then I noticed the questions began to change.

“Is there a history of cancer in your family?”

“Well, I guess so. My brother had melanoma on his leg.”

“Matt,” my doctor said, “Why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning?”

What I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I am painfully aware of now, is that my family’s medical history—not just mine, but my relatives’ and ancestors’—really mattered for assessing current problems in my health. Thankfully, everything worked out fine, but this interaction with my doctor was a tangible example to me of how important is my past. When we come to have knowledge of our roots, we come to have knowledge of our current situation. When thinking of how our ancestry affects our lives today, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson—in his book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives (Delta, 2007)—observes:

Our unique attributes evolved over a period of roughly 6 million years. They represent modifications of great ape attributes that are roughly 10 million years old, primate attributes that are roughly 55 million years old, mammalian attributes that are roughly 245 million years old, vertebrate attributes that are roughly 600 million years old, and attributes of nucleated cells that are perhaps 1,500 million years old. If you think it is unnecessary to go that far back in the tree of life to understand our own attributes, consider the humbling fact that we share with nematodes (tiny wormlike creatures) the same gene that controls appetite. At most, our unique attributes are like an addition onto a vast multiroom mansion. It is sheer hubris to think that we can ignore all but the newest room. (70)

If we indeed come from a long history of ancestors—some of whom include animals that, right now, seem very distant to us—then just as a medical doctor might ask us if cancer runs in our family, we might ask questions about behavioral traits that run in our lineage. In a strange but understandable way, it actually matters what the nematode appetite was like. It matters that our hunter-gatherer male relatives had frequent sex and abandoned families in search of more mates. And it matters that our ancient female relatives decided to feed their offspring at the expense of other hungry children. Thus, a major step in developing a vibrant Christian life is recognizing that our biological and environmental proclivities that express themselves in negative and positive ways are steeped in our ancestral history.

Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution! How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (Council Oak, 2007), has a helpful way of presenting why understanding our roots and teaching it to our children is of the utmost importance for Christian development. Dowd discusses his idea of mismatched instincts—the concept where one’s natural tendencies don’t align with modern life—coupled with what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls supernormal stimuli—the notion of unnatural and exaggerated temptations (Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose [Norton, 2010]). Together, this is what Dowd and Barrett are saying: Many of our instincts, from the desire to eat to the drive to have sex, were incredibly important to our ancestors—both human and pre-human. It’s because of those instincts that we are alive today. We should be thankful for them.

Sometimes I remind my classes, most of which are made up by nineteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, that they should be thankful that their grandparents got frisky forty years before they were born. When I make that pronouncement, their reaction is unanimous: “Ahh, Dr. Hill, we don’t want to think about that!” If I’m being honest, half of the reason I say it is to get that reaction. The other half is that I’m very serious. If our grandparents didn’t have a strong libido, we wouldn’t be alive today to be disgusted at the thought of their sex drive. Those drives and desires, from base urges to complex inclinations, are what fueled human development and allowed us to out-compete other organisms who didn’t possess the same instincts. In other words, the ancestors of those who didn’t want to eat all the time and have sex all the time are not here to tell their story. Humans, by cultivating some proclivities from natural selection, can develop a practice of restraint. Here I use food and sex as main examples because they are, quite obviously, two drives that are common and prominent among us. Indeed, there are a host of other instinctual drives we could also discuss, be it feelings of empathy, acts of altruism or self-preservation, and violence.

While it’s obvious that we have these instincts, sometimes they seem out of place given contemporary circumstances. For instance, child mortality rates have plummeted in just the last 150 years, making unnecessary, from a reproductive standpoint, the need to conceive as often as possible. Yet this doesn’t mean that the incessant drive to try to conceive a child has gone away. It’s like a retired race car driver who—still recalling the days when he needed a powerful engine for racing—drives around his block in his Bugatti. The desire to race is still part of his identity, but the need to race has long passed.

While not all drives that we have are antiquated like this—as some evolutionary drives are positive in nature, even today—the same logic applies to the consumption of food today. While famines and starvation are very real for many people in the Majority World—a concern we ought not overlook—most of the problem with contemporary hunger has to do with food distribution not food shortages. Humankind is producing an amount of food that far surpasses what history has seen before. A few hundred years ago, people had to be able to retain fat so that when winter or droughts came, they wouldn’t become emaciated or starve. Today we have immense storage structures and methods to protect against this threat. Before modern advances in agriculture, our food storage was put away in our stomachs, waists, and thighs. In other words, being able to get “fat for the winter” was a real thing. Now we just get fat.

It cannot be overstated that the instincts of Homo sapiens who were living ages ago were incredibly necessary in helping us survive to reproductive age. But now, in the twenty-first century, many of these instincts are mismatched, given advances in human technology, agriculture, and medicine. We simply don’t need to eat all the time or have sex all the time. As a result of such changes, there is now a need for temperate behavior—a behavior that, in an ironic way, does not come naturally to us.

Fries are the Pornography of Food

Many of our mismatched instincts, when combined with supernormal stimuli, are a recipe for moral and spiritual disaster—i.e., for unholiness. If you’re wondering what Barrett means by “supernormal stimuli,” let me explain it with an example.

Burger King french fries are the pornography of food. Here’s what I mean: Have you ever walked by a room where someone was cooking bacon? It’s absolutely irresistible. You start salivating and looking around to figure out where the smell is coming from. There are good reasons for this. Bacon is high in protein and fat and has the calories to provide energy for a long time. And our ancestors were selected after generations had lived and died for such sustenance. So, in a sense, we are hardwired to love fatty foods. We’re almost—and this word is important—imprisoned by fatty foods. And Burger King french fries are our food-warden. I remember when my friend and I were sixteen years old and Burger King had just put out a new style of french fries. They figured out something about evolution and capitalized on it. Instead of having more potato as their new ingredient, they had more oil and fat—a nearly irresistible temptation to our sixteen-year-old instincts. They capitalized on the fact that we were hardwired to search after fat, salt, and sugar.

I say that french fries are the pornography of food because both fries and pornography work on similar human desires. French fries are food-like substances that are ultimately unhealthy for us; pornography is a sex-like icon that is likewise unhealthy for us. French fries have all the glamorous and seductive parts of food—the fat, the salt, the sugar—but none of the substance that provides long lasting enjoyment or health. Pornography, in much the same way, possesses the glamorous and seductive aspects of a sexual relationship, but is at its core shallow and vapid—it is neither sex nor a relationship. It shouldn’t surprise us then that both french fries and pornography are highly addictive. As a pastor and a professor working with college students, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to counsel people who have dependencies on food or pornography. Whether it be health complications or broken families, the supernormal stimuli that contemporary humankind faces are very destructive.

Remember, these supernormal stimuli are just that: supernormal. They aren’t “natural.” They’re conjured up in a lab full of people who know how to manipulate in us these ancient but no longer necessary proclivities. Advertising agencies know that Homo sapiens have evolved to desire copious amounts of sex and be attracted to visual stimuli. So sex is used to sell everything from blue jeans to bicycles. The fast-food industry knows that Homo sapiens have needed fat, salt, and sugar to survive—that we fall into a kind of trance when we smell bacon or fries—so they sell food products that are nearly irresistible. Humans are in a predicament. We exist in a world in which we encounter both our mismatched instincts from ages ago and the supernormal stimuli of the twenty-first century. Deirdre Barrett expresses the problem in this way:

The most dangerous aspect of our modern diet arises from our ability to refine food. This is the link to drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. Coca doesn’t give South American Indians health problems when they brew or chew it. No one’s ruined his life eating poppy seeds. When grapes and grains were fermented lightly and occasionally, they presented a healthy pleasure, not a hazard. Salt, fat, sugar, and starch are not harmful in their natural contexts. It’s our modern ability to concentrate things like cocaine, heroin, alcohol—and food components—that turns them into a menace that our body is hardwired to crave. (Waistland: A (R)Evolutionary View of Our Weight and Fitness Crisis [Norton, 2007], 26)

See, our problem is a chimera of sorts—a Greek mythical multi-faceted creature composed of mismatched instincts combine with supernormal stimuli. It is a cocktail of temptation unprecedented in humankind’s history. This chimera is difficult to combat, and—besides contributing to our gluttony, lust, self-indulgence, and other negative proclivities—it leads us to develop habits in our lives that pull us away from Christian virtues, from holy living. But combat it we must, and the more we learn about where we come from, the more we are able to do so. We believe God’s Spirit dwells with us, that we can be transformed and renewed; we can become better than we are. We are not prisoners to our instincts, no matter how strong negative instincts seem to be.

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