King David: Warrior and Poet After God’s Own Heart (10)

David-slays-GoliathDavid and Goliath (1 Samuel 17)

A Pebble that Rocked the World

So all of the pieces are now in place for this fraught confrontation.  The Philistine’s have attempted to force Israel into a lose-lose situation.  King Saul has countered by sending not Israel’s champion, but a mere boy, thus confounding the original scenario.  And young David now stands before the giant Goliath with only his sling and five smooth stones.

Up to this point the only reference to God had been made by David: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (verse 26b).  No one else has shown the slightest awareness of a power beyond that which faced them in the frame of the giant.  But David had clearly been thinking primarily about the living God.  It is in this moment of truth that David confidently makes his position clear.

45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

It is here that the Christian Pacifist eagerly exclaims “See!  This Bible passage denies the efficacy of weapons, teaching instead that it is only God who must fight our battles!”  This is said in spite of the absolutely undeniable facts that:

  1. David will strike down Goliath in a violent assault and then use a sword to decapitate him
  2. The “carcasses of the Philistine army” upon which the birds and animals will feast will be created by the swords and spears of the Israeli army as they slaughter the fleeing Philistines.

Let’s continue in the Biblical text to see if these two statements are indeed true.

48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.  50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.  51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.

david--goliath-granger-decapitate

David and Goliath – Granger

The Biblical text has unmistakably confirmed the first point above.  David defeated Goliath by striking him at a distance using a sling and stone.  He then uses the giant’s own sword to perform the coup de grâce by decapitating the stunned man.  Yes, God was certainly acting in this moment (as He does in all moments).  However, His purposes are here achieved through worldly flesh and blood wielding weapons that stun and kill.  It is not a spiritual head that David displays to the shocked Philistine army, but rather the bleeding head of what a few moments before was their supposed invincible champion.  It was before that terror that they turned and ran.

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran. 52 Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath and to the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the Shaaraim road to Gath and Ekron. 53 When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.  54 David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem; he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.

Point number two is now confirmed.  For, it is the Israeli army, wielding their swords and spears against the fleeing Philistine army that produces the slaughter.

How then are we to interpret David’s statement that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”  The unavoidable conclusion is that it is not only by “sword or spear that the Lord saves.”  That is, if we place all of our confidence in the physical weapons of war we cannot possibly prevail.  Rather, we must provide for our own defense in this physical world while also clinging fast to God’s Word, seeking to be led in those terrible decisions by His Spirit.

This point is eloquently made in a rather surprising place, a recent article titled “Monster Movies Teach Us Key Truths About The Human Condition.”

Life is a choice of monsters: war and its attendant horrors, or conquest, devastation, and greater suffering at some later time; private property, with its temptations to fraud and greed, or crushing, unsustainable bureaucracy and universal poverty; morality with its taboos and potential for prudery, or a chaotic sewer where no one takes responsibility for his actions. Perfection will never be achieved because mankind simply lacks the power to change either his own nature or the nature of the world around him.

Make no mistake, we and our leaders face terrible, fraught choices today.  We will have to decide on incomplete information and act when the full scope / depth of the consequences cannot be foreseen.  So, we are all unmistakably bound to an ancient man from the Old Testament in our responsibility and frailty.  Thus must we, with David, use all of our God-given capabilities while trusting in God’s promises and clinging to God’s grace.

I realize that the above are “fighting words” (so to speak) to pacifists.  They may counter by claiming that the bloody God of the Old Testament has been superseded by the loving God of the New Testament.  I have already carefully considered this line of reasoning (as well as numerous others, in six blog posts) and found it to be unsustainable.

So, yes, as Christians, God is with us.  But in the vast majority of cases He expects us to actively do our part as opposed to engaging in passivity.  The above Scriptural passage and many others make this point abundantly clear.  Therefore, there were, are and will be situations in which, while we trust in the Lord, yet we must also take the battle to the enemy ourselves.

King David: Warrior and Poet After God’s Own Heart (9)

DavidGoliath1David and Goliath ( 1 Samuel 17)

David Volunteers to Face Goliath

David’s three oldest brothers serve in King Saul’s army.  David (recall, the youngest) traveled back and forth between tending his sheep and Saul’s army to bring provisions to his brothers and news of his brothers’ back home.  On one of these visits David heard Goliath shouting “his usual defiance” (verse 23).  David is appalled by the situation, and immediately inquires as to how it will be resolved.

26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

David’s three brothers “burned with anger” (verse 28) at his presumption, followed by cruel personal attacks on his character and motives.  David is undeterred by his brothers’ contempt, and continues to speak out about this inexcusable situation.  In fact, David raises such a commotion that soldiers report this situation to King Saul.  This is where we will pick up the story.

31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.  32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”  33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lionand the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”  Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”

The Central Mystery

The central mystery here is just why King Saul would allow David to face Goliath as Israel’s champion.  What seasoned warrior would be moved by what surely appeared to be the extreme overconfidence and braggadocio of this young man?  What king would place the fate of his nation into the hands of such a foolhardy youth?  In many cases the assumed answer appears to be that, somehow, perhaps by God’s intervention, King Saul was convinced against all practical good judgement.  I think it’s probable that a far more sinister motivation was behind Saul’s decision.

Prior to young David’s unexpected proposal there had appeared no way out of the Philistine’s trap.  It’s made clear in the text that no-one in the Israeli army believed that they could possibly defeat Goliath in single combat.  I have no doubt that there were many courageous men in Saul’s army that would have been willing to die for their nation.  However, the consequences of their death is what made them shake in fear; that being “you will become our subjects and serve us” (verse 9).

David’s offer provided a way out.  Imagine that the Israeli army had determined a clear champion who would face Goliath.  Thus, they would have accepted the premise of the Philistine’s challenge.  So, had the Israeli champion been killed (which they believed to be a certain outcome), honor would have dictated that they surrender to become subjects of the Philistines.

But, now imagine that the Israeli army choses an obviously inadequate but willing “champion,” such as a young boy.  Now the tables will have been turned.  If Goliath refuses to fight he can credibly be accused of cowardice.  However if he kills the boy, in what possible sense can the proposed agreement’s terms possibly have been met.  For, Goliath will not have defeated the Israelite’s best champion, but rather a pathetic little boy.  Thus, the entire scenario would have been invalidated, allowing the armies to meet en mass.

Under this hypothesis King Saul’s offer to put David in an adult’s armor (verses 38 and 39) becomes completely reasonable.  For, what could be more pathetic than the sight of a boy coming out to face Goliath in armor that is clearly too large, thus emphasizing the smallness of the Israeli “champion.”

Thus, from King Saul’s perspective, certain defeat and enslavement of the nation could be avoided through the sacrifice of one young boy.  He grasped this opportunity eagerly.

King David: Warrior and Poet After God’s Own Heart (8)

david&goliath-michelangelo

Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo

David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17)

Background

The modern story of the story of David and Goliath is that one of the Bible’s most awesome, complex and evocative events is juvenilized and spiritualized into near irrelevance.  Banished from view are the terrors, the heroism, the cowardice, the faith and the folly that lives within the text.  All that is allowed to remain is a simple morality play in which the weak defeats the strong.  But, if we dare to carefully reexamine the actual Biblical text what emerges obliterates these carefully constructed bounds.  If I can recapture even a small sliver of the power living within this story then I will be greatly comforted.



Verses 1 – 11 set up the situation which eventually will lead to David and Goliath’s confrontation.  The armies of the Philistines and the Israelites (under King Saul’s leadership) face off against one another.  Each army occupies a hilltop, with a common valley between them.

The Philistines then send our a champion, Goliath, to challenge the Israelites.  This challenge falls within the category of “champion warfare,” in which “the outcome of the conflict is determined by single combat, an individual duel between the best soldiers (“champions”) from each opposing army.”  The theoretical utility is to spare the lives of soldiers in both opposing armies.  However, the losing side is expected to then peacefully submit to terms of, generally harsh, defeat.

In verses 4 – 7 Goliath’s physical size is described in great detail.  He stands almost ten feet tall.  His helmet and armor weighed approximately 125 pounds and the iron point of his spear weighed 15 pounds.  What is here described is a truly monstrous giant of a man whose brute physicality would easily overpower that of even the strongest individual  in the Israeli army.  Verse 11 summarizes the impact of Goliath’s challenge:

On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

From the Philistines’ perspective a brilliant “win-win” scenario has been created.  That is, either the Israelites will become demoralized because they failed to send their own champion into combat or they will send a champion who will certainly be defeated by Goliath.  In both cases the Philistines will have obtained victory with minimal to no cost.

And so, a humiliating stalemate ensued, with day after day (40 in total, see verse 16) the Israelis being taunted by Goliath.  The cumulative stress and shame over this time period can hardly be exaggerated.  For, with each passing day the Israeli refusal to accept this challenge increased their sense of dishonor.  Had the Philistine army attacked en mass total Israeli defeat would have been almost certain.

It is at this point that an absolutely unexpected act of God, delivered through the faith and prowess of a young boy, changes everything for all time.

King David: Warrior and Poet After God’s Own Heart (7)

david-in-saul's-courtThe Spirit of the Lord Comes Upon David in Power (1 Samuel 16)

God Provides for David’s Education

King Saul seeks the relief of music because “an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him” (1 Samuel 16:14).  One of his servants recommends David primarily because he “knows how to play the lyre” (1 Samuel 16:18).

David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”  Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.  (1 Samuel 16:21-23)

And so, God’s education of David is moved from the pastures to the king’s court.  At this point David is nothing more to King Saul than a servant who fulfills a small but significant role.  But from David’s perspective the experience is absolutely essential as God prepares him to assume eventual kingship over Israel.

An active and curious mind such as David’s would have soaked up the behaviors, relationships and politics of the court.  He would also have observed how power was wielded and how subjects sought to influence that wielding.  And, critically, he would have been able to observe King Saul “up close and personal.”  Thus, Saul’s strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies would have been visible.

Clearly, God is providentially intervening on behalf of David to prepare him for the deadly challenges that lie ahead.  However, significant space is being left for the application of David’s own human capabilities.  The implications concerning God’s acts and our responsibilities will thus be a crucial focus as David’s story unfolds.

King David: Warrior and Poet After God’s Own Heart (6)

The Spirit of the Lord Comes Upon David in Power (1 Samuel 16)

Dura_Synagogue_WC3_David_anointed_by_Samuel

Dura Synagogue – David Anointed by Samuel

David Anointed as King

We pick up the story where Samuel is reviewing Jesse’s sons.  One by one the Lord rejects them.  When, apparently, the supply of sons is exhausted, Samuel asks the obvious question.

Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”  “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”  Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”  So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.  Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”  So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.  (1 Samuel 16:10-13a)

Imagine David’s life up to this point in time.  He was the youngest of eight sons, living in a small village.  Thus, to him fell the lonely and dangerous task of tending the family’s sheep.  David could not have had any worldly expectation of great responsibility or glory in his future.

And yet, this lonely and dangerous responsibility for the family’s flock of sheep had prepared David for this unexpected moment.  For, as David says in the very next chapter:

“Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear” (1 Samuel 17:34b-36a).

Consider the responsibility that David, alone with his flock, bore when a dangerous predator attacked.  There was no-one else there to take responsibility or to later use as a scape goat for failure.  No, either he stepped into the breech, placing his own life at deadly risk, or the defenseless sheep would be lost and his family’s source of sustenance depleted. These decisions had to be made and acted upon in time spans measured in minutes if not seconds.

Is this not practical training for a highly effective and savage warrior?  I use the word “savage” after careful deliberation.  Consider, particularly given the available weapons at that time, what it would take for a boy to slay a lion or bear all by himself.  What but the application of highly effective savage violence could possibly win the battle?

And yet, this violence was the exception.  Certainly for long periods young David observed the beauty of God’s creation.  He also watched the quiet lives of the sheep, as they were born, grazed peacefully and then died.  Could these experiences but have fueled the passionate poet in David’s soul?

bouguereau-david-the-shepherd-1895-210x300x72

David the Shepard – Bouguereau

In all of this, David must have found tokens that led him towards a great and abiding love for God.  In his victory over predators ten times his size, a trust in God’s purposes.  And, in the beauty of creation’s vastness and complexity an understanding of his own limitations.  It was in this state of unknowing preparation that David lived.  This Bouguereau painting compellingly captures this dichotomy between David’s savagery and gentleness.

And then, literally out of the blue, the prophet Samuel shows up asking to meet David.  The Scripture does not make it clear that David understood what was the significance of this anointing.  However, he could not but have noticed the Spirit of the Lord coming powerfully upon him.

David’s anointing can be seen as a metaphor for our salvation.  For, just as David was being prepared as the founder of an eternal Kingdom well before he had any inkling of this life-purpose, infinitely more so, through Jesus Christ:

he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:4-6).

I Know that my Redeemer Lives!

Piero_della_Francesca_-_Resurrezione

The Resurrection – Piero della Francesca

Easter, 2017

I know that my Redeemer lives;
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, He lives, who once was dead;
He lives, my ever living Head.

He lives to bless me with His love,
He lives to plead for me above.
He lives my hungry soul to feed,
He lives to help in time of need.

He lives triumphant from the grave,
He lives eternally to save,
He lives all glorious in the sky,
He lives exalted there on high.

He lives to grant me rich supply,
He lives to guide me with His eye,
He lives to comfort me when faint,
He lives to hear my soul’s complaint.

He lives to silence all my fears,
He lives to wipe away my tears
He lives to calm my troubled heart,
He lives all blessings to impart.

He lives, my kind, wise, heavenly Friend,
He lives and loves me to the end;
He lives, and while He lives, I’ll sing;
He lives, my Prophet, Priest, and King.

He lives and grants me daily breath;
He lives, and I shall conquer death:
He lives my mansion to prepare;
He lives to bring me safely there.

He lives, all glory to His Name!
He lives, my Jesus, still the same.
Oh, the sweet joy this sentence gives,
I know that my Redeemer lives!

King David: Warrior and Poet After God’s Own Heart (5)

David-W&PThe Spirit of the Lord Comes Upon David in Power (1 Samuel 16)

Background

David’s story begins with the Lord sending Samuel to a small village, Bethlehem, to visit an insignificant family, Jesse’s, to anoint a new King of Israel.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”  But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”  The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.” (1 Samuel 16:1-3, RSV)

This passage immediately creates tension within the Christian reader.  For, to all intents and purposes, the Lord is here directing Samuel to engage in deception to obscure his actual mission.  The theological issues associated with this and numerous other instances of, apparently, God-approved dishonesty are subjects of hot debate.

Christian Perfectionism

What I will here address is the intersection between this issue and the concept of “Christian perfectionism,” which is currently defined in Wikipedia as:

Christian perfection is the name given to various teachings within Christianity that describe the process of achieving spiritual maturity or perfection. The ultimate goal of this process is union with God characterized by pure love of God and other people as well as personal holiness or sanctification. Various terms have been used to describe the concept, such as “Christian holiness”, “entire sanctification”, “perfect love”, the “baptism with the Holy Spirit“, and the “second blessing“.

Certain traditions and denominations teach the possibility of Christian perfection, including the Catholic Church, where it is closely associated with consecrated life. It is also taught in Methodist churches and the holiness movement, in which it is sometimes termed Wesleyan perfectionism. Other denominations, such as the Lutheran and Reformed churches, reject teachings associated with Christian perfection as contrary to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.

As an orthodox Reformed Christian I reject this theological concept.  However, my personal decision in no way diminishes the powerful hold of perfectionistic thinking within Christian communities, most definitely including those that are theoretically based on Reformed theology.

My experience with this concept requires a more specific discussion.  That is, many Christians, regardless of their theological background, have an insatiable need for some clear “mark” of their saved status.  Thus, they are inexorably drawn towards ideas that promise to deliver such a distinctive mark to their lives.  In the circles within which I generally travel, these marks are sought and obtained through secular politics.  In other circles these marks may be dominated by personal prosperity or ecstatic experience (e.g., “speaking in tongues”).

In all cases though, since each and every living human is bound under the curse of sin, these marks of Christian perfection must allow their bearers to discount reality.  This result is generally obtained through use of one or a combination of the following strategies.

  1. Narrow down the scope of morality to such a small a sliver of life that it becomes manageable to presume perfection.
  2. Identify a source of presumed “moral perfection” and then slavishly adhere to that source’s guidance.
  3. Massively overestimate your own inherent wisdom and goodness, to the point that anyone who criticizes or even disagrees with you can only be motivated by stupidity and/or evil.

This need arises from two primary sources.  The first is a profound distrust of God.  That is, distrust that God’s promise of salvation by grace alone can be counted upon.  The second is human pride.  That is, the determination to take responsibility for, or at least contribute substantively to, your salvation.  Thus, Christian perfectionism is a salvation by works theology that simultaneously pulls down God and raises humans.

In all cases this error distorts and destroys Christian life.  One key means by which this destruction occurs is through moral competition.  That is, Christians seek to measure their progress towards (or actual achievement of) perfection by comparing themselves to others.  One description of this destructive dynamic is found in a recent post criticizing “The Benedict Option.”

That leads me to my critique. Many of the families who come together to form these communities believe they are being obedient to God or purer in faith. But what begins as a good desire turns into a measuring rod. Families begin comparing themselves to one another and to those outside the community. Who can be more rigorous, and hence more faithful?

R.C. Sproul well describes the disastrous consequences of this concept through two human encounters.  In the first, a nineteen year old who has been a professing Christian for one year claimed that his sanctification (to perfection) exceeded that of the Apostle Paul’s.  In the second, a woman has deluded herself to believe that, due to her state of Christian perfection, any sin that she might commit could be only “unwillful.”

Returning to the Story

What, you may well ask, does any of this have to do with the Biblical passage concerning Samuel?  Well, this.  The Lord God communicated a specific mission to Samuel that, while part of His eternal decree, would yet be accomplished within the constraints of this fallen world.  That is, the Lord would not miraculously intervene to protect Samuel from King Saul.  Thus Samuel, in order to remain alive to accomplish his mission, was directed to use deception to obscure his true purpose from the king.  Samuel could have argued that God’s own Ninth Commandment prohibited him from this action, and thereby avoid the obligation to pursue God’s chosen end.

That is, Samuel could have placed his own need for moral perfection above God’s direction to accomplish a mission.  Although Samuel may have felt self-justified, in reality he would have been disobedient.  Samuel rather chose to pursue God’s purpose within the constraints of this fallen world and without presuming to school the Lord on morality.

job stormThen the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? (Job 38:1,2, NIV)

These situations are anathema to Christian perfectionists.  For, if you have raised your own morality as an idol to which is tied your salvation, you simply cannot violate that belief without destroying the ground upon which you imagine your salvation to stand.  This logical contradiction can immobilize Christians, with disastrous results.

As we move through David’s story this tension between acting in pursuit of God’s will and maintaining the illusion of personal moral perfection will be seen many times.  Thus, there will be additional occasions to meditate upon this crucial issue.

King David: Warrior and Poet After God’s Own Heart (4)

David_SM_MaggioreBeginning David’s Story

I will enter into David’s story without covering King Saul’s ascension to the throne as Israel’s first king and his ultimate rejection by God (see 1 Samuel chapters 1 through 15).

Note that, although the Lord has rejected Saul, Saul still continues to reign for an extended period.  Thus, God’s providential plan in this case occurs over time as opposed to suddenly.  Here again, we are witness to God’s sovereign ends being implemented within the context of human will and action.  Thus, we are being asked to hold two apparently contradictory concepts within our minds as David’s story unfolds:

  1. all of eternal import and first causes has been decided before the beginning of time
  2. we still are given the gift of exercising our wills to good or ill.

In my previous reflection on God’s Acts of Providence my emphasis was on, as stated, God’s acts.  In this study of David’s life God’s providence will remain at the forefront.  However, the emphasis will shift to human will and action.

The pacifistic, narcissistic and perfectionistic modes of thought that currently dominate our culture are aligned to deliver a people who are demoralized, pessimistic and irresponsible with regard to the challenges that press powerfully upon their civilization.  Therefore the story of David, a mere man who yet rose to the awful challenges that continually pressed upon himself and his nation has particular relevance.  David fulfilled his purpose not because he was passive, egotistic or perfect, but rather because, as he aggressively used all of his God-given capabilities, he also trusted in God’s promise and clung without ceasing to his hope in God’s grace.

“The Strange Persistence of Guilt”

38cb7cf1a3608458634fI recommend this profound meditation by Wilfred M. McClay on “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.”  Over the past few years I’ve been struggling to understand what appears to be ever increasing levels of troubling, even bizarre behavior within Western Civilization.  This article comes closer to providing a workable hypothesis than anything I’ve seen.
And yet, in the end, even this inspired meditation appears to fall short.  For, after making a powerful case that Western Civilization is failing due to rejection of its Judeo-Christian foundations, Dr. McClay ends by, apparently, recommending a “social utilitarian” perspective for rediscovery of religion’s value.
I argue that the PC(USA) and many other denominations have already pursued this path to utter failure.  That is, we have argued that the value of Christianity is its usefulness as a tool (only one among many others) by which to identify and then advance the social good.
What Dr. McClay may not understand, and many of our denominational leaders certainly do not understand, is that Christianity’s power for advancing the social good is a consequence of actual, real belief.  And, without that real belief as a first thing, Christianity can’t be anything more than a derivative, inefficient and unreliable vehicle for social change.
It is only through real belief in Christianity’s foundational truths made available to flesh and blood people that there is any hope for humane social change.  Neither you nor I can presume to know or control the paths of God’s providence working through a Christian community.  I attempted to explain this point in a recent blog post.

The ensuing events that built Western Civilization were filled with violence, cruelty and injustice, which is not surprising to a Reformed Christian.  But, somehow, by a Divine Providence that transcends human understanding, out of this chaos of sin there yet emerged a culture that began to affirm the value of each human being as an individual, unique creation of a Sovereign God.  And, from that affirmation grew a civil tradition that, incompletely and imperfectly, sought to advance those humane values.

And so, we come to the crux of our current predicament, that being the increasing inhumanity in our supposed pursuit of social good (as profoundly explained by Dr. McClay).

What makes the situation dangerous for us, as Fredriksen observes, is not only the fact that we have lost the ability to make conscious use of the concept of sin but that we have also lost any semblance of a “coherent idea of redemption,” the idea that has always been required to accompany the concept of sin in the past and tame its harsh and punitive potential. The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.

May God bless and empower us in these troubled times.