Listening In: Daniel Darling

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with author, pastor, and ministry leader Daniel Darling.

Daniel Darling is the vice president for communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s also the author of several books including Teen People of the Bible. However, today we’re going to talk about his latest book The Dignity Revolution. You know there are a lot of words we use that don’t always have clear definitions. Love and liberty come immediately to mind. Gay activists for example have popularized the idea that love is love, ignoring thousands of years of Christian tradition saying that not all love is the same. My love for my wife for example was different than my love for baseball or vanilla ice cream. Dan Darling tells us that the word dignity is another of those words that Christians need to recover in an era in which state sanctioned suicide can be called a death with dignity. We need to recover a biblical understanding of the word dignity, rooted in the core biblical doctrine that we were created in the image of God and that reality is what gives us dignity. Daniel Darling had this conversation with me from the studios of the ERLC in Nashville

Daniel Darling, welcome to the program. It’s great to chat with you about your new book The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity.

I’ve got to tell you, Dan, I found the book really helpful especially in this one sense you know there’s a lot of books out there that talk about God, you know the nature of God, theology, but not a lot of books that talk about the nature of man. I guess what you might call a biblical anthropology. Is that while you were trying to do here?

DAN DARLING, GUEST: It really is. I mean, I’ve always been fascinated by the way that the Bible describes humanity. The elevated sense that the Bible gives the humanity. I mean, think about the way Moses describes creation in Genesis 1 and 2. For the rest of creation the rest of the natural world, it says that God spoke it into existence but he pauses and he says when it comes to creating humans that he used the language of God reaches with his hands to the dust of the ground and literally sculpts humans and breathes into them the breath of life and of course humans are created in the image of God. And then you know King David in Psalm 139 says that every human being is knit by God in the womb. I mean and so I’ve always been fascinated by that and I also think that Christians really have lost some of that in the sort of practical theology and we need to recover a more robust anthropology and a robust theology of the body, if you will.

SMITH: Well, you’ve said a couple of things, Dan, that I want to drill down into a little bit. One of the things that you said was that even in the creation narrative you observe what is there which is that God made all of creation in one particular way, he spoke it into existence but mankind is special and he made mankind differently than he made the rest of creation. And of course the language that the Bible uses is that we’re made in the image of God. Can you be specific about what that means? What does it mean to be made in the image of God?

DARLING: Well, first of all, we have to acknowledge that there’s a lot of mystery there we don’t know all that that means but what we do know, first of all, is that humans are neither God nor are they animals. They’re neither gods nor animals. But secondly we know that being made in the image of God gives does two things for us. First of all, it gives us an elevated dignity. In other words, that because we’re made in the image of God we are exalted above the rest of creation. But secondly it gives us responsibility that as his image bearers we are to go into the world and fill it with his glory, we’re to create, we’re to subdue the earth. So in one sense it tells us that we’re not animals, right? In another sense it tells us that we are not God. We are created to live for God. And so I think there’s a lot of implications there for what it means.

SMITH: Well you say that you we’re neither God nor animals we’re in between an exalted place in God’s creation and you know it’s interesting, Dan, that this is not rocket surgery, as our friend John Stonestreet is fond to say. I mean in some ways this is like Bible Study 101 or Theology 101 that we’re made in the image of God, that God made us, he shaped us from the dust, he breathed life into us. And yet we seem to have forgotten that. This is not something other than kind of in passing we talk about a lot in the church and yet as you rightly said it’s right at the very central part of the creation story and it has tremendous implications. And we’ll get to some of those implications later but what I want to ask you is how did we lose that sense? How did we forget what was so plain in the biblical narrative?

DARLING: You know I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. I think one is there’s sort of a bifurcating of body and soul. I think there’s kind of a — not to be too academic — sort of a neo gnosticism that creeps its way in where you know we will prioritize spiritual things and of course we want to do that. We want to say that you know that we are spirits and our souls matter. And so I think even some of our talk like when we talk about missions for instance or we will say like you know nothing matters except your spirit or your soul or things like that. I think we lose a sense of what our bodies mean, what it means to be human, which I think is dangerous right now because I think increasingly the world is asking itself what does it mean to be human in an age of technology and age of innovation. I think people are asking what is it what does it mean for me to be human. And the Bible has the richest most beautiful vision of humanity. It tells us not only that we’re creating the image of God and we have worth and dignity, but it also tells us the reason why our humanity is so corrupted. It tells us that sin entered the world, that we do violence against each other, and then it also gives us the cure in Christ to accomplish what as the second Adam, what the first Adam cannot accomplish, he restores our humanity and restores us to our image bearing purposes.

SMITH: Yeah. And who was it, Daniel, that said that the glory of God is man fully alive and that’s a part of what you’re getting out there, right?

DARLING: That’s exactly right. And even sometimes we’ll say things like, you know, whenever people sin, well they’re just being human. Actually sin is a distortion of our humanity. It’s to be subhuman. When when Eve was tempted by the serpent, the promise was you could — not just that you be like God because you know humans already made to reflect the image of God, to be godlike in some capacity, but the promise was that you will actually be your own god. But in offering that lie, the serpent actually made Eve’s subhuman. You know, Eve is supposed to have dominion over the animal kingdom. Here she’s taking orders from an animal. And so to sin is actually to be subhuman, is to almost be animalistic. And you see this in the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible that the beast, the evil one is represented as what? As an animal, as a beast, as a dragon. And so Jesus comes to restore us to our full humanity, if you will.

SMITH: Well, you know, I wonder too, Daniel Darling, if you had any thoughts about what Darwin might have done to this conversation. If Darwinism and evolution might be playing some role and us losing this biblical vision of anthropology.

DARLING: I think it has played a huge role in so much that most Christians would reject social Darwinism, you know, the survival of the fittest, that the powerful prey on the weak and only the strong survive. But we kind of have a soft Darwinism that creeps into even even our interactions when we value people simply for their utility, for what they can bring to the table. And the Bible says that humans have dignity regardless of the utility. They have dignity even after the fall, they have dignity regardless of what they’ve done, regardless of their giftedness, regardless of anything like that. And it’s a kind of a rejection of Darwinism.

SMITH: Dan there are a couple of stories that you tell early in your book that kind of made some of the issues come alive for me and clearly had an impact on you. And I’m wondering if you would maybe recount them for our listeners. One of them is the story of Dr. Seuss and one of his books and how that kind of shaped your thinking a little bit.

DARLING: (10:38) It really did. Theodore Gisele, who is Dr. Seuss, he was a cartoonist and he was a supporter of the Allied cause during World War II, supporting Franklin Roosevelt Winston Churchill, and you know the Allied powers against the fascists in Europe. But he was more than patriotic. In fact, he drew cartoons that depicted, for instance, Japanese-Americans as sort of less than human in really racist ways at a time when Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put internment camps in a way that we look back and in horror at that we did that as a country. In fact you can go look at some of his cartoons and I think you know anybody that would see that they would be appalled by that. Well, later in 1953 after the war he had a chance to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and he got to meet survivors of the atomic bomb. And that proximity to people he once thought were less than human changed his heart and his mind. And he grew to love the Japanese people. So he was very remorseful and he wanted to apologize so he came back to America to apologize in the only way that he knew how. He wrote the book, the children’s book Horton Hears A Who and he dedicated it to those survivors. And in that book is a powerful line that says a person’s a person no matter how small. And so I just think it’s a powerful testimony of what proximity to people that you think are less than human can do to change your view of humanity.

SMITH: And I think we should be clear that Dr. Seuss and even that idea person is a personal matter how small is — that doesn’t come necessarily from biblical theology but it’s at least is not antithetical to biblical theology at least as far as he took it there.

DARLING: Yeah. Yeah. There’s no evidence that he was a believer. He grew up Lutheran, but I don’t think he ever made a faith commitment. And you’re right. Sentiments like that, that a person’s a person no matter how small or the idea that every person has dignity. You don’t have to be a believer to believe that. But I would argue that those sentiments borrow from Christian theology. That in fact when the UN declaration, when the UN was formed after World War II and they created the UN Declaration on Human Rights they brought the world’s leading ethicists together and philosophers and they crafted this great document that talked about human dignity.

They agreed that they needed the document but they could not agree on the moral basis for it. And I would argue as a Christian that Christianity is that moral basis. In fact, Timothy Shah who studied civilizations, he’s a historian and philosopher at Georgetown has said that without Christianity there’s really no evidence of human dignity in much of history or civilization.

SMITH: Daniel Darling, there’s a second story that I want you to talk about because it has meaning for you, because it is very relevant to our conversation. And I must also say that it has meaning for me as well. And that is the story of the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem there. Talk about that museum and sort of the meaningfulness of that museum and what they remember, what they commemorate there relative to what we’re talking about.

DARLING: Yeah it really does. So I had a chance to visit that a few years ago—my wife and I did. We were on a trip with some Christian leaders over to Israel. And you know Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Museum there in Israel. And you know just going through there is such a moving experience. It’s hard to believe that this happened not that long ago—not that many decades ago, how a people group is systematically targeted for death.

And one of the things that was just powerful to me was, you know, you’re watching this grainy footage of, you know, innocent Jewish people being lined up in front of trenches and being shot into these trenches—shot and killed just randomly because they’re Jewish, because they’re not considered human. And for me, my family is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, and you know my family came over here to the United States, both sides, about the turn of the 20th century. But I think what if they had not come over at that time? What if they’d waited a generation? It might very well have been my grandparents being shot into those graves. And one of the things that really, really just haunted me about it was the museum does a good job of saying it how German society changed in their attitude toward the Jewish people. In other words, they didn’t get up one day and say, “Let’s exterminate, kill off six million people.”

It was slowly—it was first this people group was scapegoated for the economic problems and loss of national pride. Then they were ghettoized and kind of treated as the other. And then if you look at pop culture and some of the ways that they were depicted as less than human, as sort of animals. And once you have a people group that you consider to be less than human, you can justify just about any atrocity to that people group.

And we like to say today, well, we would never do something like that. But when we look around, we have to say, okay, what people group are we doing that to? So, for instance, when we talk about the unborn, we talk about them in clinical terms like they’re fetuses or they’re clumps of tissue, and we deny them their humanity. Or even in the way—even though immigration is a very complex issue—you know, sometimes the way we talk about immigrants as if they’re not people or less than human. Or the way we talk about the elderly when we use terms like euthanasia that sounds just so clinical and okay. But what we’re doing is we’re eliminating a people group. And so I think it’s a really important lesson and for me a powerful and personal one.

SMITH: Well I’ve got to tell you, Dan, when I read that passage in your book it brought — I, too, have been to Israel and seen that museum and you describe in some detail this — it’s almost like, you describe it like a planetarium and it really is like a planetarium that you walk down into. And you see the stars along with pictures of little children who were lost in the Holocaust. And then when you — which is very powerful in and of itself, and then when you come out though you come out into a garden and there’s a statue there. There’s a statue of a man with his arms wrapped around some little children who went into the gas chambers with the children so they wouldn’t be afraid, so they wouldn’t be scared.

And I got to tell you, when I went to Israel I was thinking, well, I’m going to get to walk where Jesus walked and I’m going to get to see the Sea of Galilee and all that sort of thing. I was more moved by that image than anything else I saw in Israel and I think part of the reason is the reasons that you’re talking about here. It’s that it reminded us of the dignity of even the smallest of children and the courage of folks who stood against that as well.

DARLING: It absolutely does. And that part that you described with the stars is so haunting and moving and piercing and you just see up close the depravity of sinful humans. And the thing that moved me also was when you come out into that garden there’s just a special area that marks off Gentiles that risked everything to save Jewish people. In other words, these were people that risked their reputation, their lives, everything to say, hey, there’s a people group over here who’s being marginalized and targeted for death and I’m going to risk everything to save them.

And when I looked at that list it was a list of courageous heroes but I also think there should have been more. Imagine if the whole world had risen up and I wondered about, you know, let’s say 30, 40, 50 years from now when our great-great-grandchildren or whatever are walking through a museum of some of the things that happened today. Would we be on that list? Would we be the kind of people who said I’m going to risk everything to stand up and risk everything for the vulnerable. I hope we would be.

SMITH: Well, all of this, Daniel, is to say that these ideas that we’ve been discussing about you know theology and you know a biblical anthropology, they sound kind of you know highfalutin and abstract but they really do have real world implications. The Holocaust, of course, just being one of them. Another one was the civil rights movement. You devote a chapter to race. And one of the things that I love about that chapter is you reminded us that during the civil rights movement many of the activists would hold up signs that said simply I am a man and reminding the world that merely being a human being was enough to warrant the rest of the world showing them dignity.

DARLING: That’s exactly right. You know, Martin Luther King used the language of human dignity quite a bit in his preaching, in his speaking. And that’s exactly what he was doing. He was saying to white powerbrokers, if you will, can you look at us as full human beings. Not look at us as a problem or as outside agitators or a thing to be solved. But can you see our humanity? He was gathering with sanitation workers in Memphis which is why he was in Memphis. And they wore those sandwich board signs that said I’m a man. And I think today as we think about race and it’s a difficult topic to think about racial reconciliation, racial unity. But I do think it’s a gospel issue. I think it’s an issue that if you believe in human dignity, if you believe in what God is doing through the gospel and bringing every nation tribe and tongue together as we see in Revelation 5 and 7, then I think as Christians it’s imperative for us to really work toward it. And what we’re essentially doing is saying those of us who are in the majority culture saying to our minority brothers and sisters we see you. We see your humanity. We are not passing you by but we’re looking at you and seeing you and listening to you and in all of your humanity.

SMITH: So there’s the issue of race, we’ve touched briefly on the issue of life and abortion. I want to pivot a little — and of course there’s obvious implications there,Daniel, to the idea of human dignity on the abortion issue and I don’t want to gloss over it but I do want to move along to a couple of other areas that I was fascinated to hear your discussion, for example, about poverty and work as having a locus, if you will, a touch point with this idea of human dignity. Can you say more about that?

DARLING: It really does. I mean when you think about Genesis and you read Genesis 1 and 2 where it describes the creation of humans, one of the things it says — Moses ties work to being created in the image of God. So you have the passage where it says — he stops to say here’s all this creation but there was no humans, there was no humans to work it. And then you immediately see after he describes Adam and Eve being created in the image of God, the work that they’re tasked with doing, they’re tasked with ruling over the animal kingdom, with naming the animals, with stewardship over the world. Work is an essential part of our identity of our dignity. We work because we have a God who works. We create, we innovate because we have a creating and innovating God.

Now in a fallen world, work can be corrupted. As God said after the fall, that essentially the ground will now fight back. Work will be harder and more difficult. Sometimes work is more futile. And so that can go in two ways we can have two bad attitudes about our work. One work can be all-consuming and we can make work an idol and we cannot rest as God has instructed us in the rhythms of life to rest. And when we do that actually we are assuming a godlike status. We’re saying that you know the world can’t afford to have me resting because it has to have me keep running the world. And so work can be bad that way.

SMITH: Yeah, they can’t get by without me.  

DARLING: Yeah. The other bad when we think about work is that we think work doesn’t matter. And I think sometimes there’s a problem in Christian circles that we sort of see work as a means to an end, maybe a way to get money for tithing or a way to evangelize or maybe to feed our families. But the Bible says the actual work we do matters to God. It’s a godlike function. It’s a form of worship in the form of you know subduing the earth. And so I think work is very much tied to our dignity.

SMITH: What’s the role of the ideas that we’ve been talking about here, Daniel, the human dignity in marriage, sexuality, and identity?

DARLING: Well, that’s a very good question. I have a whole chapter on that and I think you have to think — we have to go back to the idea that we are not our own gods, that we were created by a creator who designed us for a purpose and a reason. And I think the temptation since Eden is to try to worship ourselves, to be our own gods, and this is why you see the Old Testament after Genesis really talk a lot about idolatry because one of the ways that we turn away from our creator is we create our own gods and worship them because works of our own hands instead of worshipping the creator. One of the ways we do this today is we worship ourselves. I think the biggest false idol in America is the one in the mirror. And we like to think that we know better how to run our lives than God does. But it never ends well that way.

Frank Sinatra saying you know I Did It My Way but if you ask people and if you look around the world, how is that working out? It’s not working out very well. We’re not good gods. We were not created that way. We’re not good masters of our own fate. There’s more joy and more fulfillment in living for the one who created us and I think that matters with our sexuality. I think the sexual revolution is telling the lie that you will be most happy if you can fulfill every desire with whoever you want whenever you want it. But we’ve seen the fall out of that and it’s not pretty. I think there’s a lot of damage with broken families, there’s broken hearts, there’s a lot of disillusionment. There’s many times of violence, sexual violence against women. The sexual revolution has made these lofty promises that it cannot fulfill. And the Bible tells a better story for our sexuality than we can tell for ourselves. God has a better design for our bodies than we would design for ourselves. And I think when we understand that and we realize that then we are most happy. And thankfully Christ has come in the flesh to rescue us from our own enslavement to our own desires and has freed us from the prison of self and can give us the power to live the way we were created to live.

SMITH: Daniel Darling, we could talk all day about these issues and I found the book really helpful and fascinating. But I want to just sort of bring our conversation to a close with another story that you tell towards the end of the book. You started off with the story of Horton Hears A Who and the and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. And you close the book with the story of the zong. And I’ve got to admit that if I’ve ever heard that story, I didn’t remember it. Can you remind us again what that story is all about?

DARLING: Yeah, so the Zong massacre was something that happened in Britain and actually one of my friends, my British friends told me about this I thought it was just a powerful story. But it was a British vessel named the Zong that in 1781 it ran out of drinkable water as it was making its way from Africa to Jamaica as part of the slave trade. This obviously due to poor planning and due to you know nautical errors and all those things on the part of the captain and the crew. But what happened was because they ran out of resources, the crew threw overboard all the — most of the slaves. Like 133 slaves, including 54 women and children. And by the time they reached Jamaica only 200 Africans survived. Became the Zong Massacre and one of the interesting things was when the ship owners got back to England they tried to cash in an insurance policy because slaves then obviously were considered property. The insurance company disputed the claim but they lost. But one of the effects of that case was that it really catalyzed in Britain a movement against the slave trade and really awakened the — started to awaken the conscience of evangelicals in Britain to say wait a minute these are human beings that by law, by definition are considered property and this is not right. And sort of was kind of the early seeds of the abolition movement in England. And you know we look at that and say man, I can’t believe they considered people of color to be property. But, again, it’s a cause for us to look around in our world and say who are the people in our society, what people groups are we tempted to treat as property or not considered as full humans. What are some of the laws that don’t recognize the humanity of certain people groups and how can we work to change this.

SMITH: Well, Daniel, one of the things — two things I took away from that story one is what you just said that you know what a tragic story it is and how could we have possibly thought the way we thought then. But the other thing I took away from that story was, if I may put it this way, even though the story was tragic, from our perspective it’s hope because we did change. We did realize that that kind of behavior was not only wrong but horribly wrong and not going to be a part of our culture and society anymore. And that I found to be encouraging. And it sounded to me like you included that story, it seemed to me that you were including that story maybe to make that point that you know what we have lost this understanding of human dignity. But all is not lost. Maybe we can recover. Is that one of your points?

DARLING: That’s exactly right. I think it’s exactly right. We should not think that you know that the assaults on human dignity that occur today will always happen. It’s possible for us to change hearts and minds. We have to work hard. We have to think like Wilberforce did to take the long game. It took him 20 years to abolish the slave trade in Britain. We need to not give up on these fights. And I do see that there’s a possibility for the church to recover this robust idea of human dignity and in many ways the church is doing this. I think one of the things that encourages me is you know if you think about almost every place in the world where there’s disaster, where there’s famine, where there’s war, where there’s just great human need, you don’t have to look closely to find the body of Christ there, the church there in some form or fashion, people who have risked everything to go be among the vulnerable. And this is what the church does. The church at her best, when she lives out this vision of human dignity comes alongside the vulnerable. We show the world just a tiny glimpse of what the kingdom of God will look like in full when Christ returns. If we’re to be the outpost of the kingdom of God, we’re showing the world what does the kingdom look like and what is the king like.

SMITH: Daniel Darling, thank you so much for your book The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity. I found it very nourishing and I know many others will too. So thank you for the energy and the time, the sacrifice that you put into this book.

DARLING: Well, thank you Warren. I appreciate it and thanks for having me on to discuss these things.

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