Flags, badges, uniforms, and liturgies are inescapable. It’s not whether we will have them but which ones we will have. This week we’ve had a helpful illustration of this phenomenon on our national stage. Trump did his Trump thing at a recent rally when he daydreamed momentarily about NFL owners firing the “sons of bitches” who won’t stand for the national anthem. Part of what we are witnessing is the junior high-ing of American discourse. This is a middle school boy showing the girls what the chewed up food in his mouth looks like, and all the girls working up their best gag faces and shrieks. At the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate what’s going on either. We have two competing religions fighting for control of America, and neither one of them is Christian.
The Two Modern Religions
Trump represents American Deism and the middle school girls on the left represent American Pop Polytheism. Like all religions, these two have flags, badges, uniforms, and liturgies that are sacred to their faith. The American Deists believe in truth, but it’s a deistic notion of truth that’s fairly vague and ambiguous and believes that peace and happiness comes from everybody being true to old fashion American values, whatever they may be and let’s not worry about it too much. Therefore, there’s a certain studied obliviousness inherent in this religion. The American Deists have claimed the American flag and to a lesser extent want to make room for some of the old southern symbols, including guns, “god,” country music, trucks, football, hunting, fishing, do it yourself, fix it yourself, build it yourself, leave me the Hell alone (roughly in that order), and the badges and uniforms and flags that come with this religion are old school Americana, blue jeans, bikinis, boots, and the military. The bad guys are communists, Muslims, and liberals. All the old statues getting taken down are attacks on this old vague notion of American Deism. On the whole, American Deism is a whole lot closer to Christianity than Pop Polytheism, but that’s partially because mainstream American Christianity is so compromised with nationalism. The thing to note here is that patriotism (love of land and neighbor) is a Christian virtue, but nationalism is another gospel. And while I would argue that it is still possible to display Christian patriotism and important to do so, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so in a way that is clearly distinguishable from the nationalists. But this is an old problem. We are to honor the king but not worship him.
The American Pop Polytheists are necessarily relativists. Relativism is always polytheistic. This religion teaches that peace and harmony and progress come through appeasing all of the gods. This commitment shows up in their choice of high priests, currently homosexuals and cross-dressers – which is what the so-called “transgenders” actually are – cross-dressers. The great heresy of polytheism is a dominant god, which creates oppression for the weak, and therefore, minorities must be given a voice, protections, and special rights. This is what they mean when someone is said to “radicalize” – it means someone came to believe that they were actually right, that their god is superior to all the others. Bad guys are people who think they are right, excepting the middle school girls hovering over everyone of course. So their flags and uniforms are the rainbow flag, scratch and sniff multiculturalism, Buddhist prayer flags, transcendental meditation, holiness through food fads, and gender bending hair and clothing styles. I call it “Pop Polytheism” because it’s still fairly superficial and pretend. Real multiculturalism would be OK with female circumcision, arranged marriage, and the occasional beating of wives and daughters by their fathers and brothers and uncles. Pop Polytheism encourages so-called diversity through cultural edginess – pink hair, body piercing, exotic makeup, ripped jeans, and cross-dressing (of various degrees). Polytheism thrives on perceived and perpetual grievances, in other words the old fashioned feud. There must be crisis; there must be hurt feelings; there must be a constant disturbance demanding that I hover and nag. This is the religion of middle school girls (no offense to any actual middle school girls out there). Speaking of which, of course one of those aggrieved classes of people is women, and therefore abortion is a fundamental right for the Polytheists because women must have the power to decide whether or when they want to be mothers or not. Evolution did women wrong foisting motherhood on women, and therefore abortion is the power to push back against evolution (and patriarchy). One of the other perpetually aggrieved classes in modern America is black people and therefore Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem is sacred. In the recent dust up, Trump blasphemed one of the gods of the Left’s pantheon, igniting a worship war between these two competing false religions. One insists on the goodness of kneeling during the national anthem; the other insists on the goodness of standing during the national anthem. Christians ought to be strongly inclined to stand for the anthem, until or unless there is no way of doing so without being seen as going along with the American cult.
Pop Paganism & Real Paganism
One of the ways you can tell that both of these religions are pagan is by the fact that both have taken to cutting themselves artistically. Many of the ancient pagans did this specifically for the dead: “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28). This is actually quite a bit like Dr. Seuss’s story where Mr. Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town selling star tattoos to an envious, ruthless, endlessly striving tribe of Sneetches. A booming tattoo removal business is already on the rise in the West. But unlike the humanistic ending Dr. Seuss gives to his story of the Sneetches, the reality is that fleshly striving always ends in bloodshed. Cutting and piercing and tattooing are always lead-ups to violence, murder, and war in a culture, even if the cutting you got was in the shape of Hebrew letters and you got it at a discount. You can’t do violence to the image of God and pretend everything is fine and normal. You can’t flirt with paganism and not actually at some point become pagans. And at some point it doesn’t really matter which paganism you went in for, the deistic paganism, the polytheistic paganism, or the pop Christian-lite paganism. Paul told the formerly pagan Galatians that if they submitted to Jewish traditions in an attempt to be truly justified, they would be turning back to the slavery of paganism (Gal. 4). This is because they would be saying that the blood of Christ is not enough. Every form of paganism is always slavery because apart from the blood of Christ, guilty consciences demand blood and suffering. Apart from Christ, people are haunted and afraid because the wages of sin is death. Apart from Christ, people live in fear – fear of missing out, fear of failure, fear of loneliness and isolation, fear of consequences, and of course, fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15). Other people come to be seen as threats, and we envy them, hate them, and strangely enough, even imitate them. Sin demands blood, cutting, piercing, pain, and death – but only the death of Jesus is sufficient for our sins. All other blood is defiled and only provides temporary relief.
What this means is that all of these badges, flags, and uniforms are signs of atonement and justification. The guilty human heart grasps for signs that everything is OK. I served in the military. I participated in a war protest. I fly my rainbow flag. I fly my American flag. You wear those shoes, those glasses, that hair cut, that piercing because you desperately want to know that you are accepted, that you belong, that despite your sin and guilt and shame, you can still be someone, that you are still loved. In a pagan culture, the badges and flags and uniforms are all about atonement and justification – they are alternative sacraments, signs of false peace, joy, and happiness. This is fundamentally why Christians must reject their badges, flags, and uniforms as alternative sacraments. Our identity is in Christ. We have died and our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Our badge is baptism; our flag is a feast; our uniform is Christ.
At the same time, remember that all idolatry is loving something good in the wrong way. It’s divinizing something created. It’s trying to trick life out of something that only gets its life from the Living God. So too with all these badges and flags. To the extent that they are merely parts of creation to be enjoyed or not, there is certainly freedom in Christ, but when the culture around you is insisting that there is something holy, something sacred, something divine going on, we have the duty as Christians to give them a hearty horse laugh. If someone has you over for dinner and breathlessly explains that the meat was offered to the goddess of free-range, hormone-free chickens, Paul says to decline the offer, not because there’s anything wrong with the meat but for the sake of the one who thinks it’s holy.
Also, don’t miss the fact that there are hordes of Syllvester McMonkey McBeans working this system selling everybody their preferred uniforms, badges, and flags. Be different! Be unique! Be yourself! And come buy your peace and justification (along with everyone else) for just $19.99 (plus tax). People are literally spending billions of dollars to get their sacraments, their indulgences, to keep up with the party, choosing sides, competing, imitating, and striving. Everybody is paying their tithe to the system in the form of concert tickets, game day tickets, movie tickets, and the uniforms and badges that match the gods they serve. Shopping malls, movie theaters, and stadiums are the cathedrals of the modern world, and we spend our Sabbaths in them being discipled, trained, stirred up, and sent out again into the world on mission. It’s not whether you will worship or have any gods, the only question is which god will you worship?
All Things to All Men?
So what are we to do? Do we just go Amish? As Francis Shaeffer might have asked, How should we then comb our hair? The Bible says that we are called to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood in Christ, a separate people in order to minister the gospel in word and deed to our lost and dying world (1 Pet. 2). The Bible doesn’t call us to leave the world, but it does insist that we not love the world, in the sense of identifying with it, in the sense of being friends with the world – that’s enmity with God (Js. 4, 1 Jn. 2:15). And at the same time, God made all things, and in Christ, God is in the process of remaking all things, making all things new. Nothing is unclean; all good things are gifts from our Father and sanctified by the word of God and prayer. And we still have to get up every morning and put something on. What do we do?
The Bible gives us a number of different images, pictures, and exhortations with regard to our place in the world. The Israelites “plundered the Egyptians” when God set them free. But remember that five minutes out of Egypt they built the golden calf with those same riches. They were supposed to build the tabernacle, but they built an idol. We’re being extremely naïve if we think we won’t be tempted to do the same thing the pagans are doing with the treasures God bestows upon us from the world. Gideon tore down an idol in the middle of the night. St. Boniface did the same thing when he realized that the center of Germanic paganism was the sacred Oak of Thor. So he got out his battle-ax and chopped it down. When Thor didn’t strike Boniface dead, the pagan tribes turned to Christ. Was Boniface becoming all things to all men? Yes, but not in the way the phrase is often used. Becoming all things to all men is for the purpose of “winning some.” The whole point is to be willing to sacrifice your personal preferences in order to communicate the gospel as clearly as possible. Boniface realized that the “sacred” oak was the central stumbling block, so he sacrificed his personal safety and chopped it down. Or remember young Daniel who was faithful and courageous as an exile in Babylon, stubbornly committed to obeying God in a foreign land, no matter the consequences.
But what about my hair? Well…
- You need to want to be holy. Do you want to be holy? God says that we must be holy as He is holy, and without holiness no one will see the Lord. Do you really want to be holy? Have you asked God to make you holy? Ask God to do whatever it takes to make you holy. You can’t want to be holy if you don’t love Jesus. Everything in the Old Testament was sprinkled with blood to make it holy. Blood is the payment, the ransom, the love and life God desires. Christ’s blood makes everything clean, but clean and set apart to be used for Him. We love Him with all that we are. Everything is a sacrifice of praise. You were sprinkled with the blood of Christ. Your body is holy. You are a temple. So let everything you do praise the Lord.
- Get wisdom. In all your getting, get wisdom. All who hate wisdom love death. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the fear of the Lord is hatred of evil, which includes all pride, arrogance, and perverted speech. Do you hate evil? Are you cultivating a fierce hatred of all perverted speech and pride? Or do you secretly wish you could be as cool as them?
- Think and pray hard. Don’t think with your feelings, your passions, your lusts, your appetites. Trust God, read the Bible, think about it, and pray some more. And when someone challenges you to re-think something, don’t resent it.
- Honor your father and mother, and the fathers and mothers in the church. Ask older women what they think of the new hairstyle you’re thinking about getting, the cut of your skirt, the piercing you’re considering. Ask an older man what he thinks of how you present yourself. If you’re afraid to ask, why?
- Be harder on your self than other people. Jesus doesn’t say that we must not judge – He rather insists that we judge rightly, appropriately, and use the same measurement on others as we do for ourselves.
- Ask the awkward questions. Why are you wearing that? Whose team are you on? Be innocent children with regard to evil.
- Remember Moses, Gideon, Daniel, and Boniface. Don’t play nice with false gods. Which god are you identifying with? Where is your atonement, your justification, your identity found? Prepare for the backlash and expect God’s blessing.
- Remember that the earth is the Lord’s; nothing is evil in itself. But don’t allow anything (as much as possible) to become a stumbling block for others.
- Becoming all things to all men to win some is not a license for doing whatever you want. It’s what you’d be willing to sacrifice for a chance to share the gospel of Jesus.
Often Christians are sinfully simplistic. They just want to know if something is sinful. In Ezekiel 16, God gives His bride a nose ring. Ta-da! You can’t say it’s wrong. Ok, fine: you can get a nose ring as soon as you fly a rainbow flag on your front porch. You see? The rainbow is even more clearly a Christian symbol, but at this point in history, if you or I fly a rainbow flag it just means “supportive of homosexuals.” It doesn’t matter what I personally mean by it. You could make the same point with certain modern slurs. What might have been acceptable and communicated clearly in one culture can come to mean something else confusing or unnecessarily offensive in another. So it’s not enough to say that you found a Bible verse. Unless God has expressly commanded us to do it, we really must use wisdom. You can’t wave that flag and insist that’s not what you mean by it. Now when Ken Ham lit up the Ark Encounter with the rainbow, everybody knew what it meant. That’s the kind of cultural leadership Christians need to strive for. We are required by God not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Strive for clarity in all things. Make your life shout praise to Christ. Long for holiness. Love the truth.
[Note: This is a slightly expanded version of a presentation I gave at Collegiate Reformed Fellowship last night.]