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Hong Kong’s Lesson for Beijing . . . and the West

Economic Vitality and the Christian Worldview

September 13, 2019 • John Stonestreet

Last week, the government of Hong Kong finally withdrew a proposed extradition law that sparked mass protests which have rocked the territory and rattled Beijing for weeks. However, if Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam thought that withdrawing the extradition law would end the protests, she was mistaken. Over the weekend, demonstrators continued to rally, march, and wave the U.S. flag, while chanting “Resist Beijing, Liberate Hong Kong!” and—get this—“Pray for us, U.S., pray for us!” Their chants highlight not only a Christian dimension in their protests, but the potential impact they believe Christianity can have on the Communist Party’s dictatorial rule, both in Hong Kong and throughout China. While the protests were initially sparked by the extradition law, it’s clear that deep dissatisfaction with life under Beijing is keeping the flames burning, especially as the Communist Party attempts to strengthen its grip over Hong Kong. One protester told the Los Angeles Times, “The whole system in Hong Kong is rotten, from top to bottom. We want to tear it down and start fresh.” In the midst of all this, Communist Party leaders know what many of the commentators and so-called experts in the West have long forgotten: That the ideas about justice and freedom that motivate many of the protesters in Hong Kong are rooted in Christianity. How can we be sure Communist leaders know this? Because of a 2011 study by the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. As one Academy member put it, “…we were asked to look into what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.” After researchers studied everything from a “historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective,” they “realised that the heart of [the West’s] culture is [its] religion: Christianity . . . The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.” That’s quite a conclusion, to which an official of the Academy added, “We don’t have any doubt about this.” Chuck Colson pointed out eight years ago that the connection between Christianity and the success of the West has created a conundrum for Beijing. As he put it back then, Communist Party officials know that “the industriousness and creativity of the West was born out of the Christian worldview, which sees every individual created in the image of God, desiring freedom, creative in nature, motivated by civic duty and love of neighbor.” At the same time, China’s actions in Hong Kong and Mainland China reveal that the Communist Party sees all religions, and Christianity in particular, as dangerous rivals. If Jesus is Lord, then Xi Jinping is not. As Chuck Colson also said, if Beijing “truly opened its doors to Christianity and unleashed the creative and spiritual potential of its people” the result would be even greater prosperity and “growing global and economic clout.” But that prosperity and clout would come “at great cost to the power of the Communist dictatorship.” The crackdown across mainland China and the attempts to control Hong Kong suggests the Chinese government wants what it cannot have: To enjoy Western creativity and economic vitality while simultaneously suppressing Christianity—the historical source of this Western creativity and vitality. And just as Beijing can’t have it both ways, here’s a note for all Western leaders: Neither can we. As the people of Hong Kong sing their hymns and chant their slogans, they’ve made it clear they are not willing to trade their freedoms and loyalties, especially their religious freedoms and religious loyalties, for what Xi and company are offering. Before I leave you today, I want to tell you that we have a free webinar on Wednesday September 18th with none other than Os Guinness, about his new book, “Carpe Diem Redeemed.” Register here. You won’t want to miss it.

Prenatal Testing, False Positives, and Abortion

January 19, 2022 • John Stonestreet

Imagine a pregnant mother, recently informed that her baby may have a rare genetic condition. She now faces a future caring for a child with an intellectual or physical disability, added financial stress, and perhaps even a shortened life. Certain dreams and hopes she harbored for her preborn child have been dramatically altered. To make matters worse, many women in this challenging situation face intense pressure from medical professionals and family members to have an abortion. Some even describe how they were forced to defend the decision to not have an abortion, particularly to medical professionals who assume that a disabled child should not be allowed to live. But what if the prenatal test that sparked this whole series of events was a false positive? In fact, what if this test returns false positives 85 percent of the time? According to a shocking new expose in The New York Times, an investigation of companies manufacturing and promoting prenatal tests for rare and serious conditions has concluded that certain prenatal tests, tests which lead to countless abortions, are “usually wrong.” Up to a third of expectant mothers in the United States will face this scenario, claimed the article, which featured stories of mothers who received positive test results for debilitating chromosomal conditions. Many of these mothers considered abortion until they discovered through more invasive follow-up tests that the initial screening results were false. Of course, even when accurate, test results in no way alter the inherent value of a human being. Still, many women do not bother with follow-up testing and trust the results of these prenatal screenings, which manufacturers advertise as “reliable” and “highly accurate.” But these tests are neither “reliable” nor “highly accurate,” according to The Times analysis. Instead, screenings for several rare conditions yielded false positives 85 percent of the time. A few of the screenings, such as the test for Prader-Willi syndrome, were wrong 90 percent of the time. Millions of women, conclude the authors, have “been misled by a wondrous promise that Silicon Valley technology has made…that a few vials of their blood, drawn in the first trimester, can allow companies to detect serious developmental problems…” These false promises are made via incredibly dishonest advertising. Medical giants like Quest Diagnostics and Myriad Genetics use phrases like “total confidence,” “clear answers,” and “information you can trust,” while failing to publish data on how well their tests perform. Instead, these companies use cherry-picked numbers to make them appear more accurate than they are. Despite their criticism, The New York Times appears to join in on the deception, at least in regards to one prenatal test. Repeatedly, the authors assure readers that prenatal tests for Down syndrome are reliable. Yet, a 2014 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that around half of the positive Down syndrome screenings for low-risk pregnancies turned out to be false. For trisomy 18, a similar condition, up to 60 percent of screenings yielded false positives. Adding to the tragedy of these false positives is another number: Nearly 70 percent of babies in the US who test positive for Down syndrome in the womb are aborted. That number is even greater in other Western nations. It’s terrible that many of these children may not have had the condition their parents so greatly feared. It’s even more terrible that this culture has decided that people with disabilities are better off dead. The real name for this way of thinking is eugenics, something that didn’t end with Nazi death camps in Europe and forced sterilization in the United States. The deadly logic that follows the idea that some humans are “defective” and “not worthy of life” is still with us, only now it is gussied up, sanitized, and medically justified for the 21st century. Our society has become a real-life version of the movie, Gattaca, in which a “perfect” society is built, not by eliminating defects, but by eliminating people. While The New York Times deserves credit for exposing a dark underbelly of the prenatal testing industry, the authors of this article ultimately have bought into the same deadly premise. The problem is not, as they suggest, merely bad testing. It is in deciding that some people are “defective” and then working to eliminate them. Both history and science fiction warn where this kind of thinking leads. The issue is not the bad science behind modern eugenics, but rather the bad idea behind all eugenics. It’s an idea that has claimed victims throughout history and must be rejected no matter how accurate our tests are. Christians have faced down dehumanizing practices before, since the church's earliest days rescuing abandoned Roman babies. They were inspired and animated by a better idea: that every human being is intrinsically valuable because they bear the image of God.

The Art of Dying Well

January 18, 2022

We live at a rather unusual time in history, not least of which when it comes to death. Death is inescapable in every age, of course. Still, until fairly recently, death was a much more present reality in people’s lives. Infant mortality was high; women died in childbirth at much higher rates; different kinds of accidents claimed the lives of men, women, and children, not to mention infections, parasites, and diseases. A major difference in the past was that people tended to die in their own beds. In-home funerals were common. In fact, many homes were built with a coffin door to facilitate moving bodies in and out of the house. Much changed with the advent of antibiotics, which extended lifespans, and with the professionalization and institutionalization of medicine and the funeral industry. When people became gravely ill, they were sent to hospitals. When they died, they were taken to funeral homes. Death was increasingly hidden from immediate experience, allowing us to more easily ignore it and its inevitability. Though in many ways, the pre-modern world had a far more realistic understanding of life and death than we do today, that doesn’t mean they better grasped the hereafter. Of the various views possessed by ancient cultures about what happens after death, there are only a few basic options. Some cultures believed that humans became spirits after death, either as ghosts or as ancestral spirits to be worshipped. Other cultures believed in a more substantive afterlife, particularly those cultures with more elaborate mythological systems. For some, it was believed to be a dreary and desolate existence, even those not actively being punished for their sins. Others saw the afterlife in more favorable terms, especially if one belonged to the elite or ruling class. Many visions of this kind of afterlife included the prospect of judgment. Asian cultures were among those who held to some form of reincarnation, in which the quality of someone’s next life was determined by how well they lived this one. The meaning of life within these systems was to grow spiritually to a point where one could escape the cycle of reincarnation and lose individual existence. The only other real option, one typically held by philosophers and intellectual elites, was that death meant the end of personal existence altogether. This essentially materialistic view was held by diverse groups such as the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and the Sadducees of Second Temple Judaism. These alternatives offered little hope for people facing the inevitability of death. Even those with a relatively positive vision of the afterlife sought to delay or prevent death. For example, Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, built a magnificent tomb for himself, full of goods set aside for his use in the afterlife. But, he also sought an elixir that would allow him to live forever. (Ironically, the elixir he tried contained mercury, which may have hastened his death.) Overall, when it comes to death and the afterlife, the assessment by the author of Hebrews sums up the ancients well: people were held in slavery by their fear of death. Christianity changed all this. The Gospel proclaimed that God became man to take upon himself the punishment due to us, to die on our behalf, and to be raised from the dead as death's Conqueror. By faith, we are united to Him, and His death, resurrection, ascension into heaven, and glorification are made ours. Death is a defeated enemy, no longer to be feared by those who follow the one who already faced and overcame it. We follow the One Who can lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. For the early Christians, these were not mere platitudes. Thus, many faced martyrdom with joy rather than renounce their allegiance to the One who died for them and rose again. Others tended the sick during terrifying epidemics, in complete disregard for their own lives, seeing death from sickness as simply another form of martyrdom and a doorway to a better life. Their hope stunned their pagan neighbors. Second-century church father Tertullian observed that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” The pagan world had never seen anything like this. Even the philosophers, who viewed death with such indifference, struggled to grasp how Christians faced death when simply burning a bit of incense to the emperor could avoid it. In the modern world, the Christian tradition of the ars moriendi, the art of dying well, has been replaced with the art of attempting to ignore death. Though modern technologies make this possible in all kinds of new ways, they do nothing to help us face the fear of death. This was made plain again throughout the global COVID-19 pandemic. Once again, the world needs what only Christianity offers: the promise of resurrection, a Guide to lead us past the gates of death, a world beyond this one in which all that is sad is made untrue, and a hope that cannot be shaken by the circumstances of this world.

Truth and Discernment for This Cultural Moment

January 14, 2022

An old Chinese proverb says that if you want to know what water is, don't ask the fish. Why shouldn't we ask the fish about water? I asked that question to a group of high schoolers years ago, and they replied, "because fish can't talk?” No, you don't ask fish about water because fish don't even know they're wet. Fish don't know anything other than the water. Culture is to humans what water is to fish. It is the air we breathe, the environment we think is normal. Because of this, we often forget that culture could be different than it is unless we travel to another culture or take note of a cultural change. That means we tend to accept culture as it is, rather than asking whether culture is good or bad. That's why it's so important that Christians find ways to step out of culture from time to time, to intentionally look at and evaluate our cultural moment. So often we get distracted by the noisier stuff in our culture and lose sight of what’s important. But, as Brett Kunkle and I discuss in our book A Practical Guide to Culture, the louder parts of our culture are rarely the most important parts of our culture. In recent years, our cultural moment has become more and more relentless. We are pounded by issue after issue, such as addiction, the rise in suicidal ideation, the ever-growing list of identities and acronyms, and the onslaught of social media dominating every moment of every day. The issues are like pounding waves. They seem endless, and we feel them. However, there are also aspects of culture that we don't feel. Like the ocean, in addition to the waves we see and feel, there are undercurrents we barely notice until they sweep us out to sea. These currents lurk beneath the surface, dramatically altering the landscape of our culture. One of the most significant cultural undercurrents is what historians and scholars call “the age of information.” We live in a noisy world that is saturated with content. Today, you will likely encounter more information than someone who lived hundreds of years ago would have seen in their entire lifetime. The sheer amount of information available to us is stunning and historically unprecedented. Information is not neutral. Information carries and communicates ideas. These ideas may be true or false, but they are not neutral. Ideas matter. Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas have victims. In other words, the age of information is also the age of ideas. Ideas have a source. This means we also live in an age of competing authorities. Certain existential questions become more important in certain cultural moments. One of the most significant questions that has emerged in our moment is, "who can I trust?" This is no small question. How can we glean the good when there are so many bad ideas floating around? The obvious reaction to the age of information is to think that what we need is truth. And, of course, we need truth. But, if true information is added to a sea of information, it can easily get lost, part of the white noise we experience on a daily basis. The Apostle Paul’s prayer for the church at Philippi is one we need to claim as our own in this cultural moment. Paul prayed for this church that "their love would abound more and more in truth and in all discernment.” We need truth, and we need the skills to navigate all of the ideas, the competing authorities, and the information of this moment. The word for that is discernment, the ability to distinguish between what is true and false, what is genuine and counterfeit, what is good and what is evil. This is one reason I encourage families to have World Magazine in their homes. WORLD has proven to be, in my home, a reliable source of discernment in this age of information. In addition to the print magazine, their digital resources and podcasts are committed to analyzing the events of our world through the lens of Biblical truth. WORLD is one of our closest Colson Center partners. For a gift of at least $20 this month to the Colson Center, we will provide a year’s subscription to World Magazine, as well as access to their digital resources, podcasts, and the brand new World Opinions. If you're already a subscriber to WORLD (and I hope you are), the subscription can be given to a friend, family member, or neighbor. I contribute weekly to the WORLD podcast, The World and Everything in It. I'm grateful for our long partnership and grateful that they've made it possible for the Colson Center to extend this incredible offer to you.