Much ado about the Mikado

My earliest Gilbert and Sullivan memory is seeing a poster for our local amateur operatic company’s production of something called, The Mikado. The memory is distinct–a two-tone (this was the 80s) “oriental” (read: bamboo motif) page pasted in the front window of a neighbors’ home. Amateur opera was–at least at that time–quite popular in middle class England. And nothing is more quintessentially English than the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.


Recently the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society has come under fire for its production of The Mikado. You can read the details here. The central assertion is that it is racist–more precisely racial caricature.

Seattle Times writer Sandra Pian Chan points out:

When people of other races don costumes and makeup to play the role of an Asian person, that’s yellowface. Racial caricature — even when done with the purest of artistic motives and sincere love of other cultures — is still racial caricature.

I have no interest in defending the artistic merit of the Mikado since (a) I am not a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and (b) because I haven’t seen The Mikado. Quite a number of people–most all of them Asian Americans–I respect have publicly stated their opposition to the production on the basis of its racism and I, for one, am unable and unwilling to dispute that characterization.

At the same time, there is something disturbing about consigning cultural artifacts to the dustbin of history simply because the way they represent a person, culture, or event seems (or is in fact) either inaccurate or offensive or both (i.e., you guessed it, The Mikado). At the risk of drawing a lot of ire, bear with me as I consider a couple of observations.

As a cultural artifact The Mikado represents a snapshot of nineteenth century England. This is an England flush with Imperial aspirations, wealthy by way of mercantilism, militarily dominant across the known world, and all but unfamiliar with Asian, especially Japan. This is Britannia, which rules the waves. Of course ignorance of Japanese culture is exuded in The Mikado, how could it not be? The writers and the audience had never been there. In other words, the “Japan” in The Mikado isn’t really Japan at all–its a representation of an idealized Japan that exists to serve the deeper satire found within the piece. 

Must a piece of art be accurate in order to be artistic?

We are forced to ask a question: must a piece of art be “accurate” in order to be artistic? I think not. The are plenty of classics art that do not meet that most modern of all standards: accuracy. They are, as are all things, representative of the times in which they were written.

A second concern has been the issue of “yellow face”–the practice of non-Asians (usually whites) portraying Asians (often stereotypically) in artistic productions (usually by use of cosmetics). Obviously it is offensive to a person of one ethnicity to have someone of another ethnicity caricature them, but it’s not always a given that this is what is happening when a person of one race represents someone of another.

William Shakespeare set many of his plays in an Italy he had likely never visited. Granted, Italian culture was more well known in Elizabethan England than Japanese culture was in Victorian England. His actors spoke no (or little) Italian and portrayed people of a distinctly different ethnicity. The difference–why no one calls for Romeo and Juliet to be banned–appears to be the degree of similarity between Shakespeare’s Italy and what we know of Italy at the time. If there was a wider disparity, would we demand that Shakespeare be adapted? Probably.

All in all, I am warily sympathetic of calls to somehow alter revise productions of The Mikado. At the same time, I recognize too that calls to censor, alter, revise, or otherwise change pieces of art fail to honor the art as it was created. Perhaps the better way forward is more fully understanding the limits of cultural artifacts as well as their purpose in today’s culture. In other words, The Mikado is not being offered as an introduction to Japanese culture. Instead, it’s being offered as an example of nineteenth century English operetta with all the limitations that that entails.







The pastor’s marriage


Our marriages are meant to be our first ambition in life. When we marry we make a vow to love our spouse exclusively until we die. That vow informs every decision we will make the rest of our lives….In the same way, if we are married, we have made a vow. That vow informs every decision we make. The pace of the church, and our commitments, take into account our call to be a sign and wonder for Christ through our marriage. We publicly vowed to make visible something invisible (the love of Jesus for His church) through our physical, earthly relationship.

For this reason, if we are married, our first ambition is not our work as pastors or leaders. It is Jesus and our marriage. These are inseparable commitments for all married people – especially leaders. All our fruit for Christ flows from this fountain of love.


Pete Scazzero




A Christian third way between decision and determinism

Marriage redefinition continues to be a critical issue before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will vote on it later this week. Ironically, no one has framed the issue quite as poignantly as same-sex marriage supporter Mark Achtemeier: “This is an unprecedented spiritual disaster that is taking place beneath our noses.”[1]

He’s right–however, not in the way he intended. Speaking to the Covenant Network–a GLBT lobby organization in the PC(USA)–Achtemeier claimed that nothing less than the gospel is at stake in denominational deliberations on marriage. Continuing to affirm the traditional Christian teaching on marriage–that it is a covenant between a man and a woman–would “undermine the credibility of Christian witness for a generation.”[2] I disagree.

Achtemeier employs what J. Todd Billings has referred to as a “correlationist” approach in his understanding of human sexuality.[3] This sort of approach–common, in different ways, to both liberals and evangelicals–attempts to “correlate” the Christian message with the pulse of the culture.[4].

“This is an unprecedented spiritual disaster that is taking place beneath our noses.” -Mark Achtemeier

Like many correlationists, Achtemeier has no problem jettisoning the baggage of traditional ways of reading Scripture as a church: “After generations of erroneous teaching, it is within our grasp to move our beloved church to a truthful witness.”[5]

The problem underlying Achtemeier’s critique his presupposition that the pureness of Jesus’ teaching have become encrusted with layers of Pauline interpretation, not to mention centuries of reflection by dominant culture readers. To find the true message of the New Testament it is necessary to “leap over” the tradition and get back to the New Testament.

Moving beyond the hubris of such a position, one is struck by its implausibility. Let us grant that prior generations of readers of Scripture were not perfect—no stretch of the imagination. Let us also grant that they were, in their own unique and culturally-influenced ways, guilty of sin. Despite this, they are still the church. And it is clear–at least to me–that we are as guilty of our own sin and just as subject to cultural myopia as prior generations have been. Indeed, that is why we require tradition: to enable us to see beyond our own limited perspective. As Roman Catholic G. K. Chesterton put it,


Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.[6]

In their defense, progressives wish to step outside of their cultural moment too. The problem is that they wish to appeal to the future–a future that is, by its very nature, yet to be and therefore unknowable to all except God. Traditionalists will be “on the wrong side of history.” In a way, this is an appeal to the tradition of subsequent generations and based on the false presupposition that we can somehow know what the future will be. It was Hegel who originated the phrase “wrong side of history,” it was quickly co-opted by the Marxists, and that such a phrase is possible points to the view of history that underlies it.[7]

To the progressive, there is a perfectly marked out trajectory of human progress and those who history lauds are those who align themselves–as apparently has Mark Achtemeier–with the arch of that history. The prophet Amos said: “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land–not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (8:5). Our current moment is not the fulfillment of Amos’ words. It is, however, reminiscent of the underlying principle: it is easy to marginalize or even to compromise the witness of Scripture, even with the best of intentions.

Traditionalists have not paid significant enough attention to the pastoral implications of a change of theology of human sexuality. We need to be clear that this is not simply an issue of hermeneutics, theology, and cultural observation. We must be clear that the traditional teachings and practices of the church have resources enough to provide for the full life of which Jesus spoke for all people, including those with same-sex attractions. What we do with our bodies matters. We are not simply souls who connect to Jesus and then use our bodies as we wish and as gratifies us. Speaking to that tendency in the ancient world, Paul wrote:

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”[8]

The church has become captive to culture. We have divided along the lines of decision verses determinism. Traditionalists often posit that being “gay” is simply a lifestyle choice. Progressives often argue that being “gay” is the product of biology–an unchangeable orientation. Both of these explanations is overly simplistic. Choices and experiences are involved in sexuality as is our biological make up.

What the church is missing in our discussion of human sexuality is any notion that there is a third way of conceiving of this that is different from decision or determinism. That third way re-appropriates the ancient church’s understanding of the Christian life as one of practices and beliefs that inculcate virtue into the life of Christian through the communion of the church. This is needful, of course, far beyond simply the issue of our human sexuality. As the church moves into a post-Christendom culture, it is vitally necessary that we develop practices that will sustain us as a missionary people in the midst of skepticism.


[1] Mark Achtemeier, “You Will Know Them by Their Fruits.” Address to the Covenant Network. Available online at: (accessed 17 June 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Todd Billings, “Catholic and Reformed: Rediscovering a Tradition.” Pro Ecclesia. Vol. XXII, No. p. 135-136.

[4] Billings notes, “[T]hey start with our own cultural agenda, questions, and needs, and then correlate an answer from the Bible in those terms.” p.137.

[5] Achtemeier, “You Will Know Them by Their Fruits.” Address to the Covenant Network. Available online at: (accessed 17 June 2014).

[6] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

[7] Jonah Goldberg, “The Empty Threat of Future Judgment.” National Review (March 2014) available online at: (accessed on 17 June 2014).

[8] 1 Cor 6:9, ESV.

The virtue of self-acceptance


It is often said today…that we must love ourselves before we can be set free to love others. This is certainly the release we must seek to give our people. But no realistic human beings find it easy to love or to forgive themselves, and hence their self-acceptance must be grounded in their awareness that God accepts them in Christ. There is a sense in which the strongest self-love that we can have, in the sense of agape, is merely the mirror image of the lively conviction we have that God loves us. There is endless talk about this in the church, but little apparent belief in it among Christians, although they may have a conscious complacency which conceals the subconscious despair which Kierkegaard calls ‘the sickness unto death.’

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal


I wonder how effective we are at helping people to experience the deep love God has toward them in Christ?

If Tim Keller is right that flourishing and effective congregational ministry can only happen where people repeatedly encounter and experience the love of God in the gospel, then surely this has to be at the heart of the church’s ministry.

Moreover, this communication of God’s love for us has to be married with the Christian virtue of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance isn’t a virtue in our society. We favor self-improvement–you can make yourself into anything you want to be if you only try hard enough, buy and use the right product, and surround yourself with the right people.

Self-acceptance means coming to the place where you’re able to accept yourself as you are. You can only get there through coming to accept God’s unconditional electing love that chose you just as you are not on the basis of your idealized self or even your future self. No. God saved you because he loves you. And he loves you because he saved you. File that under the category of “mystery.”

The unlived life

Everyone has dreams. Some abandon them. Others embrace them. Some try and fail. Others fail to try. Many find a new success in their failures. It wasn’t the success they thought they’d experience. It was a peculiar success whose genesis lay in the failure of their first dream.

Entrepreneurs know this. They try ten things, eight of them fail. They re-invest in the two that don’t.

Stephen Pressfield’s book The War of Art is a must-read for anyone seriously committed to taking any sort of risk in life, not just for the creatives for whom the book was written. He writes, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands resistance.”


It’s resistance that makes us put down the book proposal we’ve almost completed. It’s resistance that smacks us in the face when we sit at the computer to write our sermon. It’s resistance that gently whispers that we could never do what we’ve always dreamed of doing and what others say they can see us doing.

Our society is ordered around distraction: “we live in a consumer culture that’s acutely aware of [our] unhappiness and has massed all its profit-seeking artillery to exploit it. By selling us a product, a drug, a distraction” (War of Art, 31). What’s easier: two hundred words or two hours on Facebook? What’s more important?

Spend some time today thinking about what you really want to do with your life. 

The Dawkins Pedophilia Brouhaha


It’s been said that no publicity is bad publicity. Richard Dawkins is in the news for his recent comments on pedophilia. In an interview the famous evolutionary biologist noted that the “mild pedophilia” he experienced as a child did him no “lasting harm.” You can read the full story at Salon.

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

As a general rule, it is true that it is futile to judge our ancestors by our current standards, however I’m not sure I’d say that Dawkins childhood was really in another “era.” And while the sort of pedophilia he describes may have happened in that era, it was not acceptable then as it is not now. The difference is that then, just as Dawkins is now doing, society would have hushed it it up and minimized it, telling the child to “get over it.”

It’s hard to be angry at Dawkins. He is, in many respects, a victim who is still living in the narrative of the 1940s and 1950s during which this event took place.

10 Evangelical Distinctives

I recently wrote a post asking whether–and if so, how–the Presbyterian Church (USA) is evangelical. This generated some interesting conversations about what the word evangelical really means. In light of these conversations, I thought it worth exploring the variety of perspectives on the evangelical movement.

One of the most significant leaders of modern evangelicalism was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman, served for many years as Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London.

ImageIn 1971, Lloyd-Jones preached a series of messages at the Conference of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He had, for many years, been involved with the British Inter-Varsity Fellowship, itself associated with IFES. Note: my employer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, is the American arm of IFES.

During this time Lloyd-Jones had grown concerned with what he perceived as a watering down of the gospel message. He took the opportunity to address this when spoke.

Years later his messages were published by Banner of Truth as What is an Evangelical? 

Lloyd-Jones argued that there are ten distinctives that provide definition to the notoriously fuzzy word, “evangelical.”

Here they are with my commentary added in italics. Note: Lloyd-Jones represents a conservative, separationist evangelicalism. On the other hand, John R W Stott (whom we’ll look at later) represented a more moderate evangelicalism that was able to survive and thrive in a mixed (broad) church.

  1. Entirely subservient to the Bible. The evangelical attempts to live his life in submission to Scripture as thoroughly as possible. He is, as John Wesley put it, ‘A man of one book.’ 
  2. Evangelical before all else. The evangelical has a great loyalty to the evangelical way of following Christ than to the denomination of which she may be a part. If forced to choose, the evangelical will always follow his convictions.
  3. Watchful. The evangelical is aware that she has to evaluate, discern, and measure all teachings in the church against the rule of faith, the Word of God. 
  4. Distrustful of reason. The evangelical places a higher value on revelation than reason. He sees the work of the philosopher as necessarily limited since it does not have access to the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.
  5. Always takes a low view of the sacraments. Evangelicals recognize only two sacraments, not allowing things like marriage or ordination to become sacraments.
  6. Takes a critical view of history and tradition. Lloyd-Jones writes, “The evangelical believes in the principle of discontinuity.” In other words, the church has a tendency to fossilize spirituality and many of the divisions are the result of evangelicals removing themselves from bodies who life and practice was no longer compatible with evangelical belief and practice.
  7. Always ready to act on his beliefs. The evangelical finds it impossible to compromise or to remain in a place that requires him to compromise his beliefs.
  8. Always simplifies everything. Lloyd-Jones contrasts the evangelical with the Catholic. The reformed belief in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture holds that the Bible can be read and understood by the ordinary reader. There’s no requirement to read the Bible through the church’s magisterium or through some other interpretive lens. There is, according to Lloyd-Jones, a “plain meaning” rooted in historical context and authorial intent.
  9. Always concerned with the doctrine of the church. The chief purpose of the evangelical is finding a denominational body that is theologically pure: “His idea of the Church is that it consists of the gathered saints.”
  10. Emphasis on re-birth, personal holiness, and the Christian life. “He is not interested in dead orthodoxy, he is not interested in Protestant scholasticism.” Instead, he cares about being re-born of the Spirit and following Christ as his disciple.

Lloyd-Jones’s list is longer than mine would be. However, I think it is helpful to consider that his position is representative of many evangelicals today. This can be helpful in understanding why some evangelicals find leaving a denomination that appears to them to be corrupt, a no-brainer.

Are there really two marriages? (Part Two)

In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage.

Yesterday I rehearsed Jones’s historical and theological objections to the connivance of state and in marriage. I will argue today that Jones fails to recognize that marriage is, for the Christian, necessarily the union of religious belief with the physical world:


….Marriage matters because we are embodied and what we do with our body matters.

The church has affirmed over the centuries—almost with no exception—that marriage exists not only for the mutual aid and comfort of husband and wife, but also for the procreation of children.

“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”[1]

We’d likely all agree that a marriage may be legitimate without children being born to the couple—having children does not a marriage make. However, it is a relatively recent innovation to believe that childbearing and marriage are totally unrelated.

Jones seeks to trace the changing nature of matrimony as grounds for a continued development of marriage to include same-sex couples. For example, in the ancient world marriage was simply the exchange of property with the consequent production of progeny.

Today marriage has become simply, “formalizing and cementing a romantic attraction.” It is emphatically not about having children. If it were, we would not allow “celibate, infertile, post-menopausal, non-producing” people to be legally married.

The reference is to restrictions on marriage, principally state laws that forbid consanguinity but that fail to forbid marriage between people unable to conceive. To derive a mandate for the church simply by the absence of state law on the matter is not a terribly good way to do affirmative theology.

As a pastor, were a couple to ask me to marry them and state up front that they would not be sexually intimate with one another nor would they even consider attempting to conceive, I would likely not marry them. Marriage is intrinsically linked with both sexual intimacy and with procreation. That some are unable to conceive doesn’t invalidate the rule, rather it’s the exception that proves it.

In all, Jones fails to build a compelling case for changing the nature and definition of marriage either in the state or in the church. He assumes that since people will always be gay—which is true—we should incentivize gay monogamy in the context of marriage. On the surface this may appear sound. However, Jones’s contention fails to consider that in the Christian view it is not simply that homosexual polyamory is wrong, but that all homosexual practice is not only inconsistent with Christian holiness, and is detrimental to human wholeness. To change marriage means more than “live and let live,” it necessarily encourages destructive behavior and, moreover, will inevitably lead to restrictions on religious groups that fail to recognize the appropriateness of same sex marriage.

[1] Book of Common Prayer

Are there really two marriages?

[This is part one of two discussing Tony Jones’s series of blog posts compiled as, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011) and available on Kindle.]

In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage. The church would conduct a rite that refers exclusively to the religious or sacramental nature of marriage, and the state would ratify a legal agreement between two people, known as civil marriage.


Jones builds his case on the basis of what might be a called a strict separationist—even Anabaptist—view of the relationship of the church to the state. Jones’s argument is plausible, but is relies in places on a view of both the church and of the state that is problematic.

A central pillar in Jones’s argument is his discomfort at clergy acting as agents of the state in the case of marriage. This is an objection I am hearing with increased frequency, even outside anabaptist churches. He writes, “…almost all of them [pastors and priests] express extreme discomfort at this situation, for it actually requires the clergyperson to act as an extension of the state.”  Further, “…that conflicts with the theology held by many pastors, Calvinist and Arminian, Protestant and Catholic.”

At first glance, Jones’s argument seems compelling. On further examination, we’re forced to ask whether Jones has, in fact, gotten it backwards. Is the cleric really an agent of the state or is it the other way round? Is the state an agent of the church or at least offering sanction for a rite of the church that the state finds beneficial? In reality, neither is fully the case and perhaps that’s why marriage is often something of a mystery to modern and postmodern people—it presupposes that the spheres of religious belief and law can peacefully coexist and together accomplish a societal good.

Moderns and post-moderns—really, hyper-moderns—presuppose what Richard John Neuhaus referred to as the “naked public square.” That is to say, they presuppose a sharp division between religion and public life. Religious considerations ought not to shape public policy since religious knowledge is not universal and is questionable as a legitimate type of knowledge. Public policy is empirical and verifiable, religious knowledge is simply internal and subjective.

In arguing for the separation of religious and civil marriage, Jones appeals to the “two kingdom” view: “Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. And the Apostle Paul expands this idea in the book of Ephesians, writing about the spiritual realm as opposed to the physical.” Jones’s reading of Jesus and Paul is, perhaps, a bit over the top. That the kingdom of God is not something currently apprehensible to the senses is not the same thing as saying that God is unconcerned with this world. It is surprising that Jones reaches this conclusion since later in the book he reveals himself as a panentheist. That is, Jones believes that “God indwells all of creation.”

Jones further claims that Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Locke all follow in the steps of Jesus and Paul by making a distinction between the church and the civil magistrate. Clearly blog posts are not the best context for discussing precisely what this differentiation means, but suffice it to say that Jones is clearly here unable to give a cogent rationale for his sharp division of the two. He fails to realize that marriage is necessarily the union of religious belief with the physical world.

…To be continued…

Don’t be like Jesus…

Every so often I a well-meaning soul will write something along the lines of, “Don’t be a Christian. Be Christ-like.” Their intent is probably good–trying to create distance from the cultural caricature of Christians–but the statement is fundamentally flawed.


The message of Christianity is so much more than, “be like Jesus.” Being like Jesus is, after all, something that we can probably manage. It’s a moral statement. It means be kind, be sacrificial, be justice-seeking, etc.

There’s something of a cottage industry of scholars and popular writers who have baptized their own prior beliefs by appealing to Jesus.

The message of Christianity is more than be like Jesus. Instead, the message of Christianity is that we are to be in Christ:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…

So writes Paul in his letter to the Galatians (2:20). He further concludes his letter to the Romans (16:7) with the greetings:

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and fellow prisoners. They are well known [among] the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

Simply being like Jesus is not enough. In fact, being like Jesus is impossible. Instead, being united to Christ is the essence of Christianity. Indeed, only those united to Christ will be able to live in the kingdom of heaven.