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News, Science - General

Genetically-engineered babies have now been born

Human experimentation has been happening around the world for the past four decades, with research scientists actively carrying out experiments on human embryos. The stated objective, in usually something noble-sounding: to learn more about human biology, or to possibly treat some disease conditions. And while few scientists will admit to an interest in cloning people, or in actually producing genetically-altered individuals, this is the direction our society is heading. Indeed, modern society does not value unborn babies enough to protect them, and at the same time society is terribly afraid of genetic abnormalities. Under these conditions – little respect for unborn human life, and little respect for those with genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome – it would seem human cloning and gene alteration is inevitable. But it isn’t acceptable yet. That became clear when, on November 26, 2018, the scientific and medical world reacted in horror to the announcement by Dr. Jiankui He at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he had created modified human embryos. These embryos had been implanted in their mother, and in early November, twin baby girls had been born in China. This was a world-wide first – the first genetically-edited full-term human babies.  What happened Ever since the 1970s introduction of in vitro fertilization of human eggs with sperm outside the womb, the stage was set for scientists to experiment on such embryos. Many people, mindful of the special nature of humans at every level of development, protested against such work. Even some scientists were nervous about the implications of these experiments. However, for many, the concern was only that individuals damaged in laboratory experiments should not be allowed to develop to term. They were okay with the human experimentation – they just didn’t want these babies to be born. As a result, a general understanding was reached between ethicists and scientists, that no experiments on embryos would continue longer than 14 days – at this point these embryos were to be destroyed. The 14-day limit was chosen because it is at this point that the embryos begin to develop specialized tissues and thus becomes more obviously human (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). But as the experimentation has become more sophisticated, scientists have begun to promote the idea of a longer timeline for their investigations. Thus, a conference was held in May at Rice University at which 30 American scientists and ethicists discussed “whether and how to move the [14-day] boundary” (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). About the same time, Nature magazine published an announcement concerning such research:

“At present, many countries …prohibit culture [of human embryos] beyond 14 days, a restriction that reflects the conclusions of the 1984 UK Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology (also known as the Warnock Report. Whether this rule should be relaxed is currently being debated” (May 3, 2018 p. 6, emphasis mine).

Scientists are clearly seeking to relax the rules governing their studies. “Germ-line changes” Research on human embryos has continued worldwide since those early days. However, all parties once agreed that on no account should modified embryos be implanted into a mother and be allowed to develop. The reasons included society’s disapproval of experiments on people, but especially because such individuals would carry “germ-line changes.” Changes to most cells in the human body have no impact on future generations – these changes die with that individual. However, changes to the gametes (egg and sperm) are called germ-line changes because these modifications will be passed on to each subsequent generation. It is not that the scientists involved actually object to germ-line changes. The problem is that they want their results to be predictable and “safe.” Any uncertainties could lead to catastrophic results, ensuing hostile public opinion and big lawsuits. It would be far better to proceed cautiously. Thus, it is illegal in the US and many other countries to alter genes of human embryos or gametes. However, within the last decade, another new biomedical technology has appeared on the scene that has drastically streamlined gene editing in numerous organisms. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology has made gene editing much easier and much more precise.* Obviously, it was a mere matter of time before someone used this to try his hand at gene editing in human embryos. The scientific community offered no serious objections when Dr. Jiankui He of China presented an account of such work at a conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York during the spring of 2018. At this conference, Dr. He discussed the editing of embryos from seven couples. However, at that point, this man made no mention that any of these embryos had been implanted into their mothers. Dr. He “edits” babies to be HIV-resistant According to a Nov. 28 news item at Nature.com (David Cyranoski's "CRISPR-baby scientist fails to satisfy critics") Dr. He recruited couples in which the male was HIV positive but the female was normal. Individual sperm cells were washed to remove any viruses and the cells were injected into eggs along with CRISPR-Cas9 enzymes carrying a gene for resistance to HIV infection. A total of 30 fertilized embryos resulted of which 19 were deemed viable (able to live) and apparently healthy. These were tested for the CCR5 mutation which confers resistance to HIV infection. From one couple, two of four embryos tested positive for the mutation. One embryo carried the mutated gene on one chromosome and a normal gene on the other, while the other embryo carried the mutation on both maternal and paternal chromosomes. These embryos were implanted into the mother who successfully gave birth to twin baby girls early in November. No information was forthcoming on the fate of the other embryos, although Dr. He now says that another woman may be pregnant. The response of the scientific community has been shock and horror. But why are they so horrified? Is this not what they have been working towards? The scientific community is afraid because the risks of this procedure at this preliminary stage of research, are substantial. There are, at present, major questions as to whether the genetic modifications will actually have the desired effect. A well-known problem is that the CRISPR apparatus sometimes cuts the chromosomes at other places as well as/ or instead of the desired location. This off-target effect has been found to be a major problem in some studies. In addition, most genes are known to influence a number of seemingly unrelated traits. This phenomenon is called pleiotropic impact of one gene on other genes. These risks are particularly serious when we consider that these are germ-line changes, that will impact subsequent generations from this individual. Response The same Nov. 28 Nature.com news item declared:

“Fears are now growing in the gene-editing community that He’s actions could stall the responsible development of gene editing in babies.”

Indeed, a commentator on one website reflected that “if this experiment is unsuccessful or leads to complications later in life … [it could] set the field of gene therapy back years if not decades.” In view of these concerns, many individuals and medical and scientific institutions released statements expressing condemnation for this gene-editing work. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, declared that the NIH “does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.” The Chinese Academy of Sciences declared that Dr. He’s work “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law." A colleague and friend of Dr. He suggested that the gene-editing work lacked prudence, that it could, unfortunately, serve to create distrust in the public. Obviously, an important concern on the part of the scientists was that the promise of this technology not be rejected by the public. Dr. David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute (heavily involved in CRISPR research), insisted of He’s work: “It’s an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society.” Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, summed up the feelings of many colleagues when he said:

“It’s possible that the first instance came forward as a misstep, but that should not lead us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider [a] more responsible pathway to clinical translation.”

In other words, many scientists seek to continue to pursue the goals also sought by Dr. He, only the rest of them will proceed more slowly and carefully. Conclusion It is largely Christian objections to treating human embryos as things, rather than as persons (made in the image of God), that has led to the ethical rules that control this research. It is a vestige of our Judeo-Christian heritage which limits scientists from just doing whatever they want. They have to obtain permission from ethics committees to conduct their particular research program. Of course, Christians want to see this work made completely illegal, but if political realities make such a ban impossible, then we can still seek to restrict this work as much as possible. It is interesting that a news feature in Nature (July 5, 2018 p. 22) articulated the fascination and unease that some scientists derive from this work. Bioethicist Dr. Jennifer Johnston of the Hastings Center in upstate New York, reflected on the respect that the human embryo commands even in secular observers:

“That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings …..  It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.”

Are there any good results from this controversy over genetically-engineered babies? Perhaps there is one. The event may cause more people to pay critical attention to the experiments that are, every day, conducted on human embryos. Let the whole world know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, from the very first cell onward, and manipulation in laboratories should have no place in our society. For further study * For more on this topic, see: Dr. Helder’s book No Christian Silence on Science pages 32-39 for a discussion on Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (ie. CRISPR). Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s book  A Crack in Creation: the new power to control evolution, page 281. Dr. Helder's article, providing further background to CRISPR, Natural Firewalls in Bacteria

Music

Why so much Rap is Reformed

Evangelist Ray Comfort once said of Rap, "I love hearing it...end." He's not alone. Many Christians don’t think much of Rap, partly because as musical form it just doesn't appeal to them, but also because of its association with thugs and pimps and gangsters who seem to dominate this music form. There is a reason these slimy sorts gravitate towards Rap music: in it’s barest form Rap requires less musical ability than some other genres. You don’t need to sing, or play a musical instrument; the performer only has to rhyme in rhythm. Of course, Rap isn’t always so stripped down, and it can involve all sorts of instruments. But what sets it apart – it’s focus on the verbal over the musical – is also what makes it appealing to thugs whose creativity only extends to the many words they can rhyme with "ho". But there’s also a reason that Rap is a favorite form for many thoughtful, insightful, and very Reformed artists. It’s because this musically sparse medium gives primacy to the word. Christian pop is sometimes mocked as “7-11” music (because it's said to have the same 7 words repeated 11 times in a row) but Reformed rap is lyrically dense, and some artists have made use of this words-focus to see just how deep a song can go. For example, Reformed rapper, Shai Linne has a song titled The Hypostatic Union, about how Jesus became a man. Here’s a small excerpt:

Can you truly understand fallen man's dilemma? See, only a human can substitute for human lives But only God can take the wrath of God and survive. See the humanly unsolvable obstacle? With God all is plausible, nothing's impossible. True haters'll fight it but the story is certain Two natures united in one glorious person Jesus, the God-Man, official soul reaper The hypostatic union – it gets no deeper

Grammy winning artist Lecrae is another example of this Reformed Rap presence. In Just Like You he begins by noting in his rebellion he didn’t want to be like God, but wanted to be God – like Adam and Eve, he refused to listen, and wanted to replace God. But in this, the last verse, he tells the story of his repentance.

I wanna be like you in every way, So if I gotta die everyday Unworthy sacrifice But the least I can do is give the most of me Because being just like you is what I'm s'pose to be They said you came for the lame, I'm the lamest I made a mess, but you say you'll erase it, I'll take it They say you came for the lame, I'm the lamest I broke my life, but you say you'll replace it, I'll take it.

There’s a reason thugs like Rap. But this same words-focus is also the reason why Rap is an effective musical medium for a serious exploration of God’s greatness. Below are a few examples of just how serious, and how deep that exploration can be. Even to those who think Rap sounds like noise, there's something below that's bound to impress. Here is some of the very best of Reformed Rap. On beauty The first example here might technically be a "spoken word piece" but it is the opening track of rapper Shai Linne's album The Attributes of God (and is accompanied by music). It features his wife Blair Linne. Listen to this – really hear the words – and see if you don't tear up, even if just a bit. Beautiful indeed. https://youtu.be/1kY9In41R1A On fighting complacency In the next example, Reformed rapper Tedashii samples from a sermon by John Piper to send a message to all of us who are too comfortable with our sins. https://youtu.be/vs1Sq7M7cIU On tackling temptation Like Tedashii's Make War, 116 Clique's Temptation is "battle music" - an appeal, particularly to young men, to get serious about living their life to Christ, no matter the cost. Whether you like Rap or not, who can help but be impressed with the message being sent? https://youtu.be/4NMYhi9-tLY On standing with God when it really, really isn't popular One last example: Bizzle put out a song to respond to two Grammy-awarding winning secular rappers, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, after they released Same Love, which promoted homosexuality and gay marriage. Bizzle's song used the same backing beat as Same Love, but presented God's thoughts on sexuality. It garnered quite the heated attention! Bizzle ended up getting death threats but he didn't back down. https://youtu.be/V9KQ4_uH1RA

Culture Clashes, Theology

May I judge?

I hear repeatedly that we’re not supposed to judge another.  Young people express themselves this way, and that’s not surprising – after all, not judging others fits hand in glove with the postmodern dogma of tolerance that’s so rampant today. Different strokes for different folks, so let the other be; who am I to say that what you’re doing or thinking is wrong…. I’ve heard Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to provide Biblical justification for the position, for Jesus told His disciples:

“Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).

Case closed: do not pass judgment on another. Inconsistent But the Internet is full of comments passing distinctly unfavorable judgments. These leave me puzzled.  We’re quick to repeat the mantra "do not judge" but judgments abound. Something is not consistent here. This sort of thing happens more often. In our relatively small community we hear numerous details of what happens in the life of the person in the next pew, or in the congregation up the road.  And very quickly we have a judgment ready on what we hear. It affects what we say to one another, and affects too how we think about or treat the person(s) about whom we heard a story. Do not judge rashly A quick judgment is simply unbiblical. Solomon put it like this:

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).

The Lord in the 9th commandment gave the instruction not to “bear false witness against your neighbor,” and the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the instruction of this command with this confession:

“I must not … condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard” (Lord’s Day 43).

That counts for what we say on Facebook too. We do well to repent before God and man of our easy judgmentalism and seek to learn that God-pleasing habit of doing to others as we’d have them do to us (Luke 6:31). As we hate being on the receiving end of perceived gossip or slander, so we need studiously to avoid being on the giving end of gossip or slander. Test the spirits This does not mean, however, that I’m to be neutral concerning all I hear. The postmodern mantra that I’m to be OK with whatever anybody else thinks or does is simply not biblical. Consider, for example, John’s instruction to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). So much gets said, and people believe so many things.  But I’m to test whether what they say and believe is “from God.” John emphatically wants us to have an opinion on that – and then reject what is not from God. Testing, of course, involves so much more than hearing one thing and swallowing it dumbly as the final word on the subject. Testing involves listening carefully, understanding the details and circumstances, and then evaluating in the light of the revelation of the Lord of lords. You’re meant to have a considered opinion. That’s why, in 1 Cor. 5, the apostle Paul was emphatic to the Corinthians that they needed to pass explicit condemnation on the brother in their congregation who lived in sin, sleeping with his father's wife. They were not to be neutral on this man’s behavior but were to take a stand and excommunicate him. That’s because in this instance the details were abundantly clear (it wasn’t hearsay but indisputable facts evident to all parties), and so the saints of Corinth were obligated before God to form a judgment and carry it out. That obligation was so self-evident that Paul put the matter in the form of a rhetorical question: “is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Judging: that’s your duty…. Jesus wrong? Is Jesus wrong, then, when He in the Sermon on the Mount tells His disciples, “Judge not, that you be not judged?” (Matthew 7:1). Actually, Jesus does not tell us not to have a judgment on what we hear or see.  Instead, Jesus’ point is that we’re not to judge rashly. That’s clear from Jesus’ next line, “For” – yes, note that connecting word!

“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged...” (vs. 2a).

If you are quick to condemn another, do not be surprised when others will be quick to condemn you;

“...and with the measure you use it will be measure to you” (vs 2b).

So if you hear one side of a story and condemn before you’ve heard the other side, be prepared to have folk condemn you on hearsay before they’ve heard your side of the story! Similarly, if you, from a self-righteous height, condemn others' behavior while you are yourself entangled in sin, do not be surprised that you’ll find no sympathy when others find out about your sin. Jesus puts it like this:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (vs 3).

That, Jesus adds, is hypocrisy (vs 5). As long as you try to hide skeletons in your own closet, you are in no position to draw attention to skeletons you think you see in someone else’s closet. Clincher But Christians are not to hide skeletons in their closets! True Christians are repentant of their sins, and confess those sins to God and to those they’ve hurt by their sins. Then you’ve pulled the log out of your own eye – and at the same time have great understanding and empathy for another’s weaknesses and failures. Then you’ll test the spirits, and you’ll have an opinion on what you hear, and carefully avoid condemning the other in a spirit of lofty self-righteousness – and certainly avoid trumpeting your condemnation to John Public. The person who knows his own weaknesses and failures will instead sit down beside the sinning brother to show him his wrong and lead him on the way back to the Lord. It’s Galatians 6:1:

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”

Judge? May I judge another? It depends on what you mean by the word "judge."  I am not to condemn rashly and unheard. But I am to have an opinion on my brother and help him in the way the Lord wants him to help me.

This article was first published back in 2014. Rev. Clarence Bouwman is a pastor in the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church.

Sexuality

Is Porn more like heroin, or driving a car?

Explaining why it's evil to our non-Christians friends

*****

In recent weeks, I’ve come across what seems like a multitude of articles on the subject of pornography, especially articles focused on the fact that more and more teenagers and children are now viewing pornography on a regular basis. The latest piece to catch my eye came from Rod Dreher on The American Conservative website. At one point, Mr. Dreher writes a paragraph in which you can almost hear him weep in sorrow as you read it:

“This society has a death wish. I wish I had some idea how it could be saved. What concerns me most of all right now is the horrifying complicity of conservative, even conservative Christian, parents in the spiritual, moral, and emotional ruin of their children and of their moral ecology because they, the parents, are too damn afraid to say no, my kids will not have a smartphone, I don’t care what they and society think of me.”

I hope that readers will share his sorrow, and that it might induce parents who have perhaps been blasé to take a long, hard look at their situation and take whatever action they can to protect their children’s innocence. The issue of pornography is a difficult one to even talk about, but we must. I want to consider the societal phenomenon, addressing what I believe is one major way we are being deceived, and how we can communicate the nature of that deception to our non-Christian friends and neighbors. It’s not just a problem for children I would assume that all Christians reading this know instinctively that pornography is wrong. At the same time, I am also aware that we can often fall into the world’s way of thinking on issues, and that this can mean that we accept its solutions to problems and fail to see the real issue. One of the ways we are doing this around pornography is increasingly seeing the major problem as being its spread to children, rather than pornography itself. Of course the spread to children is a massive problem, but it is not the problem. Here’s an example: an article by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic quotes one of the world’s biggest “porn stars” expressing concern that we’re not doing enough to stop pornography getting in front of children. Yet the same article states that “accessing hard core porn is (properly) legal.” This now seems to be the default position: pornography is fine for adults, but we just need to keep it from children. Now it is of course true that pornography filtering down to children is a very great evil. Young minds are more susceptible to habit-forming from new stimuli in ways which adult minds are perhaps not. Nevertheless, if we concentrate all our efforts on simply stopping pornography getting into the hands of children, we miss the point completely. For the problem is not primarily that pornography is falling into the hands of children, but rather that as a society we have opened the floodgates to allow porn in and normalized it. It is absurd to think that it is possible to normalize something like this, and for it not to filter down to children. Children, by their very nature, want to grow up to be adults, and they often want to do adult things before their time. So if we have largely normalized pornography amongst adults – and we have – then no amount of paywalls and banning of smartphones or anything else is going to make much difference. We have become a pornographic society, and children, who aspire to do what adults do, will generally find ways of getting their hands on it by hook or by crook (though of course responsible parents will take as much action as they can to prevent their children coming into contact with it). Drugs? Or driving? Look at it like this. There are two types of activity that adults seek to protect children from. First, there are perfectly good activities that we want them to grow up into, but for which they need to come of age before we allow it. For instance, driving a car. Then there are activities which are bad in and of themselves, and which we try to protect them from not just because they aren’t old enough to do them, but because we don’t ever want them to do them. Taking heroin would fall into this category. So which category does porn fit into? Is it like driving? Or is it like heroin? Is it something a child should one day be able to do, only not just now? Or is it like heroin; something that no sane parent would ever want their children to get into, no matter how old? If our culture puts it in the same category as driving a car, something to be avoided as a child, but something that is perfectly normal once you turn a certain age, then it can be safely said that we have lost all moral compass and are quite sick. If, on the other hand, we see it in the same category as heroin, then at least we would be acknowledging it as a problem to be dealt with. But why don’t we want kids seeing it? Sadly, I would say that we have moved in the last ten years from treating it in the heroin category to the driving category. “We don’t want you to touch it now, but of course there will come a time when it becomes your right to consume as much of it as you like,” is essentially the message. And yet the schizophrenic nature of this is obvious when you think about why it is we don’t want children seeing it. Isn’t it because we know it pollutes their minds? Isn’t it because we instinctively know that it demeans and degrades them? Isn’t it because we are well aware that it will give them a terribly unhealthy and warped view of the opposite sex? Of course it is, but are we really naïve enough to think that it doesn’t have the same sorts of effects on adults? But they’re adults, and we can’t stop their rights, can we? And, of course, if we did enact a law that bans it all, such a law at the point we currently find ourselves at would be as effective as King Canute commanding the sea to go back. What I am suggesting is that our culture urgently needs to stop looking at the main problem as being one of trying to prevent pornography falling into the hands of children. That is only byproduct of the much larger problem society needs to acknowledge: the normalization of pornography among adults.

Rob Slane is the author of “A Christian and Unbeliever Discuss: Life, the Universe and Everything.” A version of this article first appeared on SamaritanMinistries.org and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.


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