Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Intelligent Design and the Judge

The decision has been handed down, and it is probably no real shock that the judge in the ID court case in Dover, PA has ruled against ID being taught in the classroom.  I argued before that the details that gave rise to this case were probably weak, and a little silly, and I am sure there will come another court battle in the future on better and more solid ground.  Yahoo.  HT: ID In The News

What surprised me the most were some of the comments coming from the judge.  I must admit that when I first heard some of these excerpts quoted on the radio news, I just about flipped out of my seat.  So here is the judge’s take on the parents and school board members driving the ID issue:

It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

Maybe judges often accuse plaintiffs or defendants in a case of lying, I don’t know.  But this is especially egregious.  It reveals a profound prejudice on the part of the judge in which he seems to believe that no motivation on the part of a religious believer (probably just Christians) can also have real and legitimate scientific value as well.  If it comes from a believer, it must be just religion and thus a private matter and not something suitable for the public square.  It appears from this excerpt that what was at trial in the judge’s mind was the teaching of religion in the public square, and not the actual science involved in the case.

It will be objected here, as it often is, that ID is religion and not science.  My point is that that accusation is a separate issue than what was presented in the Dover case, and it seems to be a premise snuck in by the judge.  I had a friend who was called to testify in the case, and at the last minute was taken from the witness list because Michael Behe preceded him and had apparently done a bang-up job with the science.  Maybe the judge was sick that week.

Here is more of the measured and thoughtful ruling at a point in which the judge is preempting the “activist court” charge:

Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial.

Honestly, if I had ever used the words “ill-informed” or “breathtaking inanity” in any of my graduate papers to describe an opposing point of view, I would have been chastised severely as letting colloquialisms and personal hobbyhorses get in the way of serious critique.  Is this language worthy of a serious opinion?

And to say that the factual backdrop has been “fully revealed” is just nonsense.  The judge had an agenda and his ruling makes that abundantly clear.

To put a fine point on that accusation, the judge went on to declare that teachers simply can not critique the theory of evolution in the classroom.  For what must be the umpteenth time on this blog, are we comfortable with a single, state-mandated position forced on students and teachers in any field of education?  The judge’s words:

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID.

Round two can’t be too far off…

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Intelligent Design Counfounds Another Author

I was perusing a few sites I visit looking for juicy post topics when I ran across this article by one J.M. Tyree called, “Malevolent Design: Intelligent Design isn’t just bad science, it’s bad religion” on The Revealer, a generally informative website dedicated to religion in the media and news.  At first I had hoped for an interesting take on the possible extensions of Intelligent Design like a plurality of gods, an über-intelligence, or something else novel (near the end of the article, the author finally made it to the surmises of a malevolent designer).  Instead, I got a barrage of bad research, bad thinking, and the same old hackneyed responses to ID.

In a few ways, you could tell the author had done their homework on some of the general philosophical background involved, but unfortunately, most of that research had nothing to do with the background of ID.  More on that below.  For instance, the author quotes Duane Gish as a defender of ID.  Talk about a stretch for a straw man.  Here is his quote:

"How are you going to explain that step-by-step by evolution, by natural selection," says an ID proponent named Gish. "It cannot be done!"

Note two things (besides Gish not being part of the ID cadre of scientists).  First, Gish’s quote regards gradual macroevolution, not design.  Second, it is clearly used as an inflammatory device within the article and not in a means conducive to charitable representation.

Now for the bad thinking.  Instead of dealing with the scientific claims of ID, the author quickly morphs into the classic stand-by reaction to theism: the problem of evil.  The reason this is a bad leap in reasoning is that ID does not make moral claims on the design and current shape of the universe.  Certainly many of its adherents are theists, and they would make such claims, but ID is about the science of “specified complexity,” and other, biological, mathematical, and chemical realities.  And as so many of ID’s defenders have pointed out, the science of ID does not make any claims stemming from or leading directly to any specific religion.  ID’s claims are not moral.

One of the core passages in the author’s train of thought:

Hume, a notorious antagonist of religion, wrote in carefully and artfully constructed forms like the quasi-fictional Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777), perhaps in order to avoid trouble with the authorities. There, Hume put forward what are now considered the classic objections to the teleological argument, which also apply in spades to ID. The most devastating objection is that even if you assume the world was designed, it does not appear to be designed by a very nice deity. Bearing in mind that the Christian God must be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, wouldn't there be some way for God to prevent events like the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, or Nagasaki? As Hume pointed out, if he can't, he's not all powerful, and if he won't, then he's not all good. Theologians do have answers for these problems -- God must allow the universe to proceed in an orderly fashion, and an orderly universe appears to require storms, earthquakes, and volcanos -- but the answers are not very satisfying when confronted with the epic scale of human suffering.

It is fine if someone wants to write on the problem of evil and the teleological argument, but they should pick the right context.  The author makes the religious jump himself (I don’t know if J.M. is male or female), and then claims ID is religious by its very nature.  A little disingenuous.  This is a little bit like me picking on the recent spate of Christmas-in-the-public-square issues and arguing for the return of prayer in public schools.  There may be some connection on some level, but it is the wrong argument to make given the context.  

Either the article is about the science of ID, or about providence.  If the author wanted to deal with the problem of evil and providence, he should have dealt with a segment of ID’s supporters and their theology rather than painting ID with a theological brush and assuming there is no difference between the science of ID and the theology of Christianity.

Additionally, this quote highlights the jump in reasoning made by the author from scientific and mathematical claims to religious and moral claims.

Speaking in religion's own terms, ID is not only an argument from design, it's also an argument for providence, God's good guidance of the universe, human history, and individual moral choice.

The author is apparently assuming ID is a kind of theology and hence is responsible for answering all the religious issues held by the author.  Again, some who like the ID movement will make the jump from the science to providence, but ID doesn’t do that.

What happens in this article is nearly universal in ID’s critics.  Instead of taking a real look at the scientific claims, they summarily dismiss even the possibility of ID being a science and then proceed with a self-derived sense of justification to the ad hominum attacks.  As an example:

Yet aside from its nonentity status as a scientific theory -- a "theory" must be provable or disprovable ("falsifiable") by experiment, therefore Intelligent Design doesn't qualify…

And macroevolution and atheism are “provable or disprovable…by experiment”?  As I have noted elsewhere, using the notion of “falsifiability” is a slippery one for a theory whose primary premises are just as philosophical as anyone else’s.  And besides, those who understand ID could remark that there are highly developed mathematical models in support of ID’s contentions that can be tested in this fashion.

The argument is called "irreducible complexity," a term that along with the even more voodooish "specified complexity," forms the bedrock of ID's pseudoscientific vocabulary.

I guess you win if you label your competition as “voodooish.”

Instead of being something thoughtful or something that addresses some of the real issues out there surrounding ID, this article seems to simply be a way for the author to get some frustration off of his chest.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Authentic Spirituality?

I wish I could take credit for the following idea, but I heard it today listening to the latest edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. The executive director, Ken Myers, is a sharp and broad-reaching cultural critic, and the basic thought on “authentic” faith belongs to him.

He wondered out loud while introducing a segment on the recent surge in Wicca and neo-paganism, about how the word “authentic” has been applied lately to religion and spirituality. It is an idea that is often used (and was one point in the discussion about neo-paganism) to reject historical Christianity, or at the least, to reject institutionalized forms of Christianity. Instead, people who search for “authentic spirituality” usually walk away from historical faiths in favor of newer, more personalized faith practices and beliefs.

One point the interviewee made about her book on Wicca is that its tenants tend to be very person-specific and fairly malleable. Wicca, along with so much of American spirituality, gives its believers the chance to make religion in their own image.

Myers’ comment was on the ironic linguistic twist involved. “Authentic” literally means something that can be authenticated-something that is demonstrably real and objective. We still use “authentic” in this way to describe things like artifacts or art, as in an “authentic Navajo pot” or the “authentic self-portrait by the artist.” The point is, the label “authentic” describes the genuine article.

But now, and this is no less true in evangelical circles, “authentic” means “subjective.” The upshot is that people are ostensibly searching for the real thing when in fact they are looking inward and creating a cheap reproduction of what is truly spiritually authentic.

In the recent evangelical reaction against the church growth movement and the evil specter of Modernism, have we bastardized the term “authentic”? Have we helped lead people out of the church and the embrace of orthodoxy just so they can craft their own faith in search of the supposedly authentic?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Book Review: C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea

Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.
Victor Reppert’s book, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, is a relatively short, but philosophically rigorous book. The fundamental burden of the book is to explicate Lewis’s argument found in his Miracles, sometime called the argument from reason, and defend it against some contemporary trends in philosophy. Reppert takes an almost deceptively simple argument against naturalism and reveals it as the powerful apologetic tool that it is.

Lewis’s fundamental claim is that rational inference cannot be explained in purely naturalistic terms, and because it is obvious that rational inference does occur, that is a reason to reject naturalism. The title of the book is a self-confessed spin-off of Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. The deliberate connection in the title juxtaposes Dennett’s contention about the fundamental realities of reasoning and Lewis’s. Dennett argued that the best way to build knowledge was through the use of “cranes” and not “skyhooks.” Cranes are ideas and theories built on previous, naturalistically achieved, theories. A skyhook is a derogatory term for theories explained in terms of the supernatural or non-natural, and which, as the title implies, have no real grounding. Lewis’s contention is that there is something fundamental about the way reason works that turns Dennett’s idea on its head.

The first obstacle Reppert works to overcome is what he calls a biographical objection. He notes that many of the objections to Lewis’s philosophy are attacks on Lewis the person and not on his ideas. As legend has it, this argument of Lewis’s was once attacked and (apparently) trounced at a meeting by Elizabeth Anscombe. As the legend goes, Lewis basically gave up his apologetic writings after this apparent embarrassment. But as Reppert details, Lewis not only replied to Anscombe’s objections in an updated version of Miracles, Anscombe openly admitted that the second version was much more rigorous and harder to critique.

This section of the book was helpful to me in that I think many people’s objection to Lewis as a serious philosopher are biographical and not technical. His reputation as a favorite of evangelicals and as the author of children’s books has colored the view of many. In all honesty, I don’t see the need for the seeming bifurcation between serious thinker, religious thinker, and popular author. I think we need more serious and rigorous thinkers, not less, writing popular books than we might have now.

After a helpful chapter on apologetic arguments in which Reppert classifies Lewis as a “critical rationalist,” the philosophical defense begins in ernest. The first objections he deals with are the original objections posited by Anscombe. She critiqued Lewis’s original formulation by arguing that non-rational reasons may give rise to rational inference (Lewis originally used the term “irrational”), and that paradigm cases of reasoning may serve as an example of good and bad rational inference. Later in the book, Reppert continues to defend the argument from reason against more contemporary objectors. He deals with critiques concerning the explanatory power of non-physical causes, and what he calls the inadequacy objection.

Essentially, the inadequacy objection is that when naturalistic/materialistic reasons are found for any explanatory gap, they are the best and most sufficient explanations for phenomena. So, non-physical explanations, by their very nature, fall short. This chapter, along with its specific intent, provides a solid philosophical look into an answer to the “god-of-the-gaps” objection to theism.

Theism, and all the science and philosophy surrounding it, is often rejected as a point of view that will naturally be discarded when a better, materialistic, explanation is discovered. So is the case in this book with rational inference. Lewis and Reppert argue that it cannot be explained by naturalism, and thus is a reason to reject it. Naturalists reply that the non-natural explanation is a stopgap measure that will simply fade away when science has caught up with itself: we used to explain thunder as God doing something or other in the heavens, and now we know differently. It is, so the argument goes, the same with rational inference.

But Reppert’s point is that the argument from reason is no “god-of-the-gaps” argument. Instead of being an argument simply from an ignorance of natural explanation, it is a positive argument about the only good philosophical explanation for rational inference. In other words, if the argument from reason holds, there is logically no naturalistic explanation for the exercise of reason.

This same point can be made in the case of Intelligent Design, and recent work in the area of testable models of nature that infer (or abduct, if “abduct” is a verb) the existence of an intelligence. The straw man argument against ID is the claim that it is a “god-of-the-gaps” point of view that will disappear with the next scientific advancement. But that misses the point entirely. The point is the same as Reppert’s-if the argument holds, naturalism will never explain our origins or our apparent design.

I would highly recommend this book with one simple caveat: be prepared to think. It was a more philosophically rigorous book than I expected. I refuse to call this caveat a warning: it is a challenge and an encouragement to think a bit more deeply about Lewis, about apologetics, and about how your mental faculties work.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Intelligent Design and the Role of Explanation

This is a wonderful example of apologetic interaction with the culture at large.  It is an opinion piece written by Douglas Groothuis regarding the typical take on Intelligent Design in the Denver paper, The Rocky Mountain News.  HT: World Mag Blog

One excerpt:

When Darwinists refuse to admit intelligent cause as a possible explanation for specified complexity, this only reveals that they define science such that intelligent causes are disallowed in principle. But this approach is not a discovery of science itself. It is rather a philosophical commitment to materialism (the belief that reality is reducible to impersonal physical laws).

This passage addresses one of the more crucial issues raised in opposition to ID.  Often ID’s opponents will regard an explanation that goes beyond the natural/physical realm as no explanation at all.  In other words, good explanations describe an event or process (or whatever) by other physical events, objects, processes, etc.  Any attempt to produce an effective explanation outside the physical realm is an effort in futility.  Non-natural explanations are not explanations at all.  (See Victor Reppert’s book, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea for a developed engagement with this physicalist view of explanation.)

This view, though, reveals more about the typical assumptions built into the edifice of modern science than it does about the nature of explanation.  If we begin with the assumption that physical causes are all that exist, then any attempt to explain data without appealing to other physical data will be dismissed out of hand.  But, as Reppert points out in his philosophically rigorous book, exclusively physical explanations fall apart rather quickly.

If a naturalistic scientist is a fan of the N.Y Jets, his potential glee at them drafting a good quarterback next season is not at all explained by physical facts.  Intent, belief, and other non-physical realities do a better job of explaining an emotion or reaction like glee than other, “lower down the chain,” physical explanations.  Glee is not adequately described as having a causal chain beginning with neurons.

Analogously, for the scientific community to deny non-physical explanations for apparent design, is for them to say more about their philosophical presuppositions than their scientific rigor.  And, as Dr. Groothuis points out in his article, it ends up being a straw man argument anyway.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Links Sans Context 12.9.05

Chad has some very thoughtful things to say in reply to Plantinga’s “Advice to Christian Philosophers.”  It is a new blog to me and looks good.

Adrian is talking about Charismatic gifts and cessationism.  He links to what looks to be a thoughtful article on the contemporary issue of prophecy.

Another new blog to me by Doug Wilson-this post deals well with McLaren’s A Generous Orthodxy.

Dr. Steve Cowan is writing a short series of posts on the role of apologetics and philosophy in the church.  This post in particular is about their roles from behind the pulpit.

Darrell at Disert Paths is writing a series on Christian mysticism.  This post has some good thoughts on the roles of small groups and Christian communities in directing mystical experience.  We are beginning a conversation on the post-throw your hat in the ring.  HT: Out In The Sticks

Steve has written another in his string on evangelical theology.  Check out his thoughts on why evangelicalism might be so short on tools dealing with suffering.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Pastors and Plagiarism II

Rich at BlogRodent recently posed some thoughts on my post on pastors and plagiarism. I was forming this response when it became too ginormous for a comment. So here is the latest post on pastors and the problem(?) of plagiarism.

BTW-Rich is a former Chi Alpha minister-so am I. It is good to hear from another AGer and especially from someone who was part of one of the most dynamic and quality ministries in the AG!


Thanks for your thoughts-they have been provocative and a great help for me in thinking through this issue. In fact, I have a few things to throw out there in reply.

I agree with you that because there is only so much Scripture and it is preached over so often, we are unlikely to “come up with anything new.” In fact, one of our tasks is to be dedicated to theological unoriginality. So, if I may not say anything genuinely original this weekend, what guidelines should I use to avoid plagiarism?

To begin with, I can’t be held responsible for citing someone I have not read. I may be responsible for reading the important scholars and pastors, but you cannot be culpable for something out of your control. I have never really read Tertullian, and am likely not to.

Intent is, I think, a big deal. My friend profited off of me when he could have called me and put me in touch with the editor. His motive was profit, and therefore wrong. If I borrow from the “masters” with the intent of sounding like a master without giving credit, I believe that intent makes it wrong.

More commonly, I think pastors borrow from other popular ministers because it cuts down on their prep time. In my opinion, that is a wrong intent. The primary job of the pastor is shepherd manifest most directly by theological and biblical leadership behind the pulpit. If I get another pastor to do that for me, that intent has made my action wrong.

If a pastor does their homework in study and prayer, and utilizes tools or skills from another, then there may not be plagiarism. As an example, I do not publicly credit my seminary teachers on a regular basis for the tools they gave me, or for pointing me in certain directions. (I do, however, credit them if I repeat something they said specifically or tended to say a lot-ut back to my point.) If I learn something in class about how the Greek language works or how a theological argument works, then I do not need to credit the tools I have been given. And most of the text in a commentary may fall into that general category. They are written to bring the pastor and student up to date on the latest take on the original languages. (But even then, if I borrow a specific or poignant thought from an exegetical commentary, I will cite it.) But if I read a book in preparation for a sermon and borrow an actual point made about an issue or a passage, I am bound to credit that person.

I just don’t think a pastor can or should gloss over plagiarism by appealing to the “it has already been done a million times” defense (not that you did that).

Spiritually Specific
I believe that we can hear or read points from another minister and use them to great effect in our congregations and their specific situation. But, it is negligent of a pastor to simply “use” another pastor’s material and hope it has the same effect for them it had for the original pastor and church. How many copy-cat churches have simply repeated Warren’s or Hybel’s sermon series because their churches got big using those sermons, and hopefully theirs will too?

Even if a pastor allows their sermons to be used as a kind of public domain, does that exempt the next pastor from the moral and spiritual requirement of connecting their passage, their God and their congregation on the weekend?

Academic Expectations vs. Pastoral Expectations
I can imagine some disagreeing with me by arguing that what is expected of a scholar writing an article is different from what might be expected from a pastor behind a pulpit. Though I would grant a few differences-there may not be the same expectation of universal familiarity with the average pastor-I think the principle still applies.

For example, a scholar who submits a paper for review will have it rejected if she cites a major figure or argument in the field and does not properly cite it. Likewise, if a minister manages to convince her congregation that she came up with the doctrine of the atonement, she has committed a serious sin.

Additionally, if we expect our scholars and “masters” to be rigorous, why should we expect our ministers to be sloppy?

Congregational Expectation
What is assumed by a congregation when they listen to their weekly sermon when it comes to plagiarism and citation? I do not mean to talk about what they actually expect-that is a statistical question-I mean what kinds of expectations are they due? Should they expect the sermon they are hearing to be a carbon copy of the latest and greatest sermonizer and his series from six weeks ago? Should they expect a sermon that is taken largely from another pastor’s sermon spoken at a conference last month? Should they expect their pastor to be producing largely “original” material taken from commentaries, books, conversations, current affairs, tools and skills learned in seminary, and their own spiritual lives?

Maybe I have stacked the questions a bit, but I think the answer is fairly clear.

Openly Christian or Deeply Christian?

The recent popularity of The Lord of the Rings and now Narnia has spurred many conversations and articles about the “Christianity” of the books.  While neither author made their worlds and fantasies explicitly Christian, (in fact, they both openly claimed the works were not attempts at Christian apologetics), there is no denying that the authors openly and unashamedly wrote from Christian worldviews and orthodox positions.  Their theology made the worlds they created, and their worlds reflect the great themes and truths of the world the way God has created it.

The primary problem with spin-offs and much of Christian fiction today is that very little of it is as theologically informed as Middle Earth or the timeless Narnia.  A good deal of it tries to cover up this foundational shortcoming by being explicitly Christian, but even then, without a sound and robust theological base, it fails to be enduring.

After a long battle over the rights to make the Narnia movies in a way true to the books, there are Narnia spin-offs appearing.  “A Narnia Without Lewis or Aslan” deals with one such book.  From the author near the end of the article:

Since we're supposing, I suppose that what would bother Lewis (and what should bother us) is not that the book isn't "Christian," but that it isn't any good. It's flat, predictable, and utterly undistinguished. It is hard to imagine that a story this lifeless would have been published had there been no Narnia hook.

This insightful quote points to an extremely important issue with Christian worldview living-the point is not to put a Christian veneer on a normal life, but to live a deep and meaningful Christian life wherever we happen to be.  And in the case of literature, a children’s book that hopes to mimic the power of Lewis’ Narnia without the Christian worldview will fall flat, and a work that hopes to be Christian but relies only on the veneer will likely suffer the same fate.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Planting Churches in Church-Sparse Areas

"Distant Neighbors" Gazette.com

I was interview recently by our local religion writer about the relative differences between Colorado Springs zip codes and the varying concentration of churches. The area we are planting in, the 80906 area in the article, is a fairly sever mixture of the wealthiest part of town and the most economically depressed area of town-and is the least populated by churches. Add to that a major Army base just one exit south on the highway and our downtown one exit north, and you have an interesting mission field.

I thought the article picked up on the issues well. The church planting "guru" quoted in the article, Steve Pike, was our local church planting director who helped us get Quail Lake started.

I would love to know some of your thoughts or experiences regarding planting churches in wealthy and/or economically depressed areas.

Friday, December 02, 2005

How Do We Fix It?

In response to a recent post on Oprah and the kinds of spiritual role models our Christian culture has, Bob and Steve have posed some questions that are at the same time of terrific importance and terrifically difficult to deal with.

Bob said:

If our culture is in a negative level of spiritual interest and understanding, then what is the best tactic for moving it up into the positive? It can't be "talking above their heads," but it can't be capitulating to the ignorance either!

Steve said:

So my question after reading your post and Dr. Groothius': How do we change it? Whenever I criticize different teachers on TV or radio (Oprah, Joel Osteen, James Dobson) I am playing precious chips with my congregation. It seems they buy so much of this stuff hook, line, and sinker! How do we change that?

So the question stands: How do churches reach their people with a Christian worldview? The answer is clearly enormous, and all I want to do here is begin an engagement with a few thoughts that are hopefully just as practical as they are theoretical.

Worldview Teaching From The Pulpit
In my own sermonizing, I have found the worldview concept to be a helpful and fruitful tool. As I pour over a text and my notes, reflecting on how some specific biblical stories or concepts relate to a broader Christian worldview has enriched my own teaching (at least in my mind it has…). A pastor can never be in control of what people hear or absorb, but maybe we can be a little more deliberate about relating Christian worldview concepts to people. And of course, these concepts land most effectively when laypeople have a chance to engage them in their own lives.

For example, we recently went over Jeremiah 17:19-27 in which the prophet creates an image of crowded streets on the Sabbath and the rightful king’s inability to enter Jerusalem. As a result, the Sabbath concept we talked about was clearing our hearts and minds of the clutter of our pagan culture and freeing up our mental and spiritual attention for the rightful King.

A small step, admittedly, but most of them are.

Pastor as Thought Leader
This is a big-picture point, but an important one nonetheless. David Wells makes a devastating critique of the modern pastorate in his books No Place For Truth and God In The Wasteland in which he juxtaposes the community role of the pastor in early American and English Puritanism with that of the modern evangelical pastor. Suffice it to say the later does not stack up well. For good reasons and for not so good ones, the typical evangelical pastor is not seen as any kind of serious thought leader in their communities. As a result, people do not tend to think of the pastor or their pastor’s sermons and writings first when they do any kind of serious thinking about the world. They are much more likely to think of the talking heads on cable news or their favorite periodical.

The solution? Maybe we should expect pastors to be better educated, more well rounded, and more conversant with the important matters in life than many of them probably are. I suspect some pastors deserve the parochial image they have in the eyes of their congregation.

Just an initial set of thoughts to maybe get some juices flowing…

Christian Scholarship and The Authority of Scripture

I have just started reading “Shaping a Christian Worldview: The Foundations of Christian Education” by many of the faculty at Union University. The book is intended to be an engagement with the idea of higher education and its relationship to a Christian worldview. I must say, so far the work has been very thought provoking. One of the early essays tackles the problem of being a serious and rigorous scholar and holding to the authority of Scripture at the same time. Can believers in the ultimate authority of Scripture be academically rigorous and honest?

The author of the essay, George Guthrie makes a couple of helpful foundational remarks. First, the idea of any kind of authority from which scholars perform their work is more ubiquitous than many would admit. The accusation that Christians cannot perform scholarly duties honestly, leaves the clear implication that everyone else can because they are free from the fetters of a myopic authority structure. But, are they? What of postmodern deconstructionism, naturalism, Neo-Darwinian evolution, Marxism, etc.? Each of these paradigms acts as authority structures from which many scholars do their work and out of which many of them refuse (or fear to) stray. Christians are not the only scholars working from an authority structure.

Secondly, the implication is made that a Christian worldview and its authority structure is inherently at odds with the fruits of scholarly labor. Though much of fundamentalist isolationism in the past may have thought that and put that across to the rest of the world, good Christian theology has always taught the unity of truth: all truth is God’s truth. Christians can and should engage serious and honest work done in all fields of the academy with an eye to God’s truth.

Then Guthrie engages Grenz and the recent Postmodern turn in recent evangelical theology (so popular in many Emergent church circles). His critique of Grenz rests on a point I had never seen before. Guthrie states, “Grenz has moved his doctrine of Scripture out of a foundational position for doing theology to a subcategory of pneumatology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” (28) Fascinating insight. What that means is that no longer is the message of Scripture a starting point in a Christian worldview, it is a result of various interpretive communities.

This, of course, falls prey to all the straightforward critiques of postmodernism. Why choose one community over another? Why believe there is any inherent, cross-cultural message in Scripture at all when another community might believe it is so much debris?

But in Guthrie’s assessment, another recent development in hermeneutics by Vanhoozer has helped solve some of those problems. Vanhoozer’s theory is a speech-act theory of interpretation in which God did deposit eternal truth in Scripture as He interacted with it, and as we interact with God’s speech, so to speak, we interpret and live out God’s deposited truth. (Doubtless this is a simple version of Vanhoozer’s thesis.)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Pervasive Pastoral Plagiarism?

I was talking with a friend recently and he happened to mention that the senior pastor at his church “does Bill Hybels’ stuff” for his sermons. From time to time, I am impressed by how many pastors repeat or simply copy the sermons of famous pastors who sell or make their sermons generally available. Another friend of mine is a pastor of a mega-church and he has told the story a handful of times that his first few series were point for point right out of Rick Warren’s first series at Saddleback.

I am seriously wondering about the problem of plagiarism among pastors. Plagiarism is not only illegal, it is unethical and it is a fairly heinous sin. How many pastors even see things that way, and does the label “plagiarism” even apply to sermons?

I was plagiarized once. I had put together a detailed set of notes and handouts for an adult Bible study on Spiritual Formation. Unbeknownst to me, the tapes of the sessions were being shipped off to an associate pastor in another town (a good friend of mine, actually). He proceeded to teach the same series and received an offer to have an article on the subject published. In his words to me, “I was going to send him to you, but when I found out how much it paid, I went ahead and wrote the article.” That’s right-he actually conveyed the whole thing to me as if it were a funny anecdote.

What that told me then, and what I think has been confirmed several times since, is that many pastors don’t even know the word “plagiarism” much less are the capable of applying the concept to their sermonizing.

How should pastors apply the ethics of borrowing and citing sermons when so many of them are available for free (radio, internet, podcasting, etc.)?

To at least begin the reflection, I think it is incumbent upon pastors to do their own work for their congregation for their time and place. No doubt we will hear or read points that apply to our weekly sermons, but we need to be careful to attribute quotes, thoughts, or a train of thought.

One take on this issue is that it is simply lazy for a pastor to simply repeat someone else’s sermon. What about their role as prophet-as one who speaks for God to their congregation’s situation? That takes actual prayer and work, and pastors who fail to do that do a serious disservice to their flocks.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Let The Christmas CDing Begin!

Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.
Every year, my lovely wife and I have our own little tradition of buying a new Christmas-themed CD. Some years are a hit, and others are, well, disappointments of a ginormous (to use a Ferrell neologism) proportion. This year’s selection is a kick in the pants. Dig That Crazy Christmas by The Brian Setzer Orchestra is a fun and upbeat rock-a-billy take on a lot of Christmas classics.

Inspired by Strong Bad’s “Bottom Ten,” I am inclined to list the top 6 Christmas CDs we own and the bottom two major disappointments.

Top 6:
1. When My Heart Finds Christmas, by Harry Connick Jr. Several numbers on this CD are making their way into the category of contemporary Christmas standards.
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Good, simple combo work. This contains the original recording of “Linus and Lucy.” I have to admit my nostalgia probably pushes this up the rankings a bit.
3. A Dave Brubeck Christmas, by Dave Brubeck. Just a man and his piano.
4. Christmas Peace, by Elvis Presley. This is a 2-CD set of many of Elvis’ early gospel-style recordings of traditional Christmas hymns, as well as plenty of others. Some might find it a bit “campy,” but I enjoy it.
5. Harry for the Holidays, by Harry Connick Jr. Not as complete a CD as #1, but still a great addition to the collection.
6. Dig That Crazy Christmas, by The Brian Setzer Orchestra. It looks like this year was a hit!

Bottom 2:
2. Christmas With The Rat Pack. My overall reaction to this CD can be summed up with, “eh.” I had high hopes for this one, and very little of the CD lived up to them.
1. Celebrates A Gospel Christmas, by Ray Charles. Stay away-stay very far away. We bought this, again with high hopes, during the recent Ray Charles craze and were laughing all the way home. The recording is amateur, the choir is amateur, the drummer is really, really bad, and Ray sings on only a few of the tracks. Ouch!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Christian Carnival #97 Is Up

Thought Renewal: Christian Carnival #97, Part 2

Yours truly can be found in part 2 of this week's Christian Carnival. Way to go, Lyn Perry, for all the obvious hard work!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Take Me To Your Leader-Or To Oprah...

Our local newspaper recently ran this article on Oprah as a kind of spiritual teacher in our age. My first reaction to these kinds of religious realities in our day and age involves a knot in my stomach and a growing sense of depression and inevitability. I find it extremely telling that many people find someone as religiously uncommitted and yet spiritually so public as Oprah to be their best spiritual guide. How did we get here?

I would not be surprised if the church has brought some of this upon itself. We have become so “relevant” to pop culture, I wonder if most simply don’t see a substantial difference between their local mega church and Oprah. Add to that the dismal statistics on the church’s trust level with the general populace, and you have a recipe for invisibility.

Additionally, it speaks to how shallow our culture at large has become. People no longer grasp the depth of spiritual and eternal issues, and they feel perfectly comfortable learning about them in the same places they learn decorating and personal hygiene tips.

UPDATE: Some further thoughts on the big O and the "theological stupification" of American christians can be found at the ever-thoughtful Culture Watch.

Strike a Blow for Public Morality!

Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.
It is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. The NFL arbirtator has upheld Owen's suspension from the Eagles. The kind of ego Owens is and respresents is a virus on culture.

Each and every mega-ego in the last handfull of years in the NFL has caused destruction to every team they have been on, and their careers have hit the toilet to join their personalities.

Where is Warren Sapp? If you have seen him, he belongs at Weight Watchers. Where is Keshawn "Just Give Me the D*** Ball" Johnson? Who cares anymore? What happened to Randy Moss? He is too concerned about his coiffure to run routes down the middle, so he is quickly fading into nothingness. And where will T.O. be next year? Wherever it is, I can guarantee now the cancer will follow.

Postmodern "Moral Reasoning"

I must admit that on my way home from teaching my Intro to Ethics class, I caught a portion of the Dennis Prager Show. For those of you who might despise talk radio, Prager is probably the most reasonable and clear-headed host out there, and one who could easily stand on his own outside of the talk show format. In any event, he was interviewing Chris Matthews of Hardball fame about a recent speech of his at the University of Toronto. Some of his comments on Islamofacism and the Iraq war have caused a bit of a stir. The most prominent of them being:

"The period between 9-11 and (invading) Iraq was not a good time for America. There wasn't a robust discussion of what we were doing," Matthews said. "If we stop trying to figure out the other side, we've given up. The person on the other side is not evil. They just have a different perspective.”

What I was privy to on the Prager show expanded on his point. Matthews argued that the wrong moral stance to take in the face of Islamic absolutism was moral absolutism. In his opinion, the right response to moral absolutism was moral “fuzziness” (his word) and a refusal to label them in any significant moral way. He had his own convoluted version of “If you do X, you are with the terrorists.” He kept on arguing that reacting with moral judgment is exactly what the Islamofascists wanted and they were getting it because we have labeled them as evil.

And, in typical postmodern fashion, Matthews kept on arguing with Prager that we can only think and act in “tribal” ways and we don’t have the ability to reason morally outside our tribes.

In reaction to Matthews, listen to this quote from the J.P. Moreland article cited below:

I am…convinced that postmodernism is an irresponsible, cowardly abrogation of the intellectual duties that constitute a disciple’s calling to be a Christian intellectual and teacher….Faced with such opposition [intellectual differences] and the pressure it brings, postmodernism is a form of intellectual pacifism that, at the end of the day, recommends backgammon while the barbarians are at the gate. It is the easy, cowardly way out that removes the pressure to engage alternative conceptual schemes, to be different, to risk ridicule, to take a stand outside the gate. (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Vol 48, No. 1. pp. 87-88)

To apply Moreland’s basic complaint ethically, not only is it a faulty ethical strategy to react to moral evil with moral timidity, it is itself immoral. It is not, as many postmoderns claim, morally superior to refuse to draw a line in the sand. It is cowardly. Certainly there is room for “understanding” moral evil, but the wrong conclusion is that understanding those who are different from us should result in a refusal to morally categorize their behavior. For Matthews, and so many others like him, the “understanding” move is a “get out of moral reasoning free” card.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Things We Think Are Biblical

I have thought a lot about the dismal statistics concerning our basic biblical illiteracy. It doesn’t take long to run into some pretty depressing numbers, and most depressing is the reality that the numbers inside the church are not all that different than the numbers outside the church.

Recently, though, one specific stat caught my eye in a new way. Barna’s research has revealed that 82% of the population believes that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible, and that in the church we have been able to correct that false notion by one percent. As another one of Barna’s studies puts it:

The most widely-known Bible verse among adult and teen believers is "God helps those who help themselves"…

This not only speaks to our basic lack of knowledge, but to what we think is biblically sanctioned. We Americans have been inoculated with an individualistic and entrepreneurial attitude to the point where we have equated a secular, pagan value with our Christian values. God not only is not in the business of helping those who help themselves, He is actually in the business of reminding us how utterly incapable of taking care of ourselves we really are.

The proper counter-move to this false idea is twofold: an understanding of original sin and the extent of total depravity, and an understanding of the absolute freedom there is to be found in trust in God.

Psalm 1 says:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Jeremiah 17 echoes this truth and explains why we cannot trust in human hearts (including my own!):

Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the LORD....
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?

Our trust in our abilities is too great. Our strengths and potentialities far underdetermine the trust we put in ourselves. That is a recipe for disaster.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

J.P. Moreland: Postmodernism & Truth - Apologia Christi

J.P. Moreland: Postmodernism & Truth - Apologia Christi

I wanted to give a link to Apoligia Christi for posting this snippit of Moreland's recent article on Postmodernism and truth. It is being publised along with a handful of other essays on the topic in the book Whatever Happened to Truth?. The other essayists include Albert Mohler and Kevin Vanhoozer.

The excerpt AC quotes is priceless. As a teaser:

"...postmodernism is an immoral and cowardly viewpoint such that persons who love truth and knowledge, especially disciples of the Lord Jesus, should do everything they can to heal the plague that postmoernism has and inevitably does leave...."

Well...at least you know where he stands on the issue.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A New Kind of Reaction

There has been an experiment in book blooging going on at A New Kind of Conversation. It has been fun and interesting to watch it develop and grow, and I hope its format will prompt other book styled blogs in the future.

I have been watching and reading closely (for the most part) the emergent and postmodern themes with great interest and a recent post on Postmodernism and Apologetics has caught my eye in several ways. So you may have to forgive the tongue-in-cheek title to the post, but it is intended with respect to the work done on the blog.

Myron Penner titles his post “Postmodern Apologetics?” and lays out his argument for how apologetics ought to morph given the realities of our new pomo world. First I want to note that I agree with much of the focus and tone of the post. His emphasis on apologetics being about people and not arguments will receive no criticism from me, and his view that Paul and the apostles relied on the power of the Holy Spirit more than their native reasoning capacities will receive the same assent. What I do want to note, though, are ideas that seem ubiquitous in emergent writing on modernity vs. postmoderninty. The fundamental problems with the emergent critique and subsequently with their conclusions are: false dichotomies (what Carson calls “wretched antitheses”), straw men, and “being hoisted by their own petards.” The best way to go at this is to reply to a few sections of the post.

Penner writes:

Søren Kierkegaard is the first modern thinker to perceive the deep-seated disparity between the modern scientific paradigm and biblical Christianity, and he subsequently argues vigorously that Christianity cannot be assimilated to modern science and philosophy as modern apologists wish.

I am not intimately familiar with all the standard apologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, but I am not sure of whom he speaks. The apologists I am familiar with, many of whom can be easily recognized as carrying the evidentialist or classical flags of modern apologetics, do not wish the assimilation of the faith to science. There is a fundamental difference between using the tools provided by modernism and science and wishing your faith’s assimilation to them.

Do any of the emergent writers wish the assimilation of their faith to Postmodernism? Do they want to use the alleged tools provided by postmodern critique, and would they balk at the notion that their usage of those tools entails their assimilation to a fundamentally thin philosophy? The answer to both issues is more than likely “yes.” And if so, you cannot have it both ways: if you can use tools from your toolbox without being assimilated, another thinker can do the same.

Penner continues:

From the Christian point of view, the truth about Christianity cannot be found in modern-styled objectivity. Not only does the essence of Christianity concern the desperate need of humans and God’s gracious (and personal) response to our need, but it also starts with the assumption that human being (including human reason) is unable to save itself. Christian truth presumes to master us, rather than to be mastered by us. In this case, whenever I try to establish the fundamental reasonability of Christianity in modern terms I remove its fundamental “offense” to reason and transform Christianity into something domestic, with nothing other than a cognitive claim on my life.

It may be true that the truth about Christianity cannot be found in modern-styled objectivity, but that is a heavily loaded sentence. What does “found in” mean? Does it mean “completely encompassed by”? If so, then he is probably right, and again, I don’t know of any serious apologist who would disagree. Does it mean modern-style objectivity “cannot capture any significant truth”? Given the rest of the essay, I doubt this is what he means, but if it is close, I think it is false. “God exists” is not only a proposition that carries existential weight (per postmodern apologetics), but it is a proposition that conveys a truth statement about the way the universe actually is regardless of any existential assent. It is objective (objectively true or false).

I do agree that there have been threads of apologetic teaching and training (maybe substantial threads) in the American church that have assumed a kind of “cognitive-alone” approach to belief, and he is right that that needs to be corrected.

Penner writes:

Christianity, however, is a way of being, or what Kierkegaard calls an “actuality”—a way of living with and before God—and not just a cognitive event involving intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It involves the acts of God Himself in response to our condition as sinful persons and requires our being saved from this condition of brokenness and sinfulness through a total response that can only be described in theological categories like sin, repentance, and salvation the necessarily relate to the subjectivity of human being. These personal categories cannot be assimilated into the objective discourse of modern science and point to subjective realities that are more appropriately dealt with in sermons.

Until that last sentence, hear a hearty “amen.” But that last sentence seems to assume things about contemporary apologetics that do not seem to me to be true. First, I am not sure that the implied equation between “science” and modern apologetics is fair. Using “science” in the place of “apologetics” communicates falsehoods about the goals and means of modern apologetics and attempts to communicate things about apologetics that are not the case.

It is true that the personal nature of belief and spiritual experience cannot be assimilated into “science,” but it is not true that it cannot be adequately handled by modern apologetics. I have cut my apologetic teeth on some of the grandest alleged perpetrators of modern apologetics, and I have always been reminded in their writings and their lectures that people and their real lives are at the core of what they do.

Even more Penner:

I also want briefly to mention one other important problem with using modern (objective and universal) apologetic arguments to defend Christianity, though there are others as well. Modern objectivity refuses to acknowledge the ethical dimensions of arguments, and treats them abstractly and a-contextually, and ignores the personal and social dimension of reason.

Again, I think this is an unfair equating of “science” and “apologetics.” Some of the best known modern apologists have argued for God’s existence and His moral ordering of the human existence using the undeniable ethical realities of our lives. As an entire branch of theology and philosophy of religion, Natural Law, is often used as a tool with which to engage the ethical structure of life.

I can’t stop quoting!

Arguments never mean anything until they are used by persons in a social context to do something, and one may use a perfectly valid argument with all true premises to do something unethical (like, for example, belittle or domineer someone). A modern, objective approach to apologetic arguments also inclines Christian apologists to overlook the fact that their arguments may be used to support an oppressive and socially unjust form of Christianity, and therefore to that degree fail to justify actual Christianity.

I want to address two things in this excerpt. First, arguments do mean something before they are “lived out.” As above, an argument for the proposition “God exists” carries value that transcends any and all existential reaction. What I think Penner intends to convey is that those arguments do not take root in our lives and belief systems until we are ready to pattern our lives after them. And with that kind of assertion I can readily agree.

Secondly, in response to the argument that modern apologetic approaches can lead to oppressive forms of Christianity, the best response is, “so what?” Literally anything can be used as a justification for oppression, including the rampant “political correctness” foisted on all of us and propped up by postmodern sensibilities. Should we then reject those sensibilities for exactly the same reason? That argument against modern apologetics proves nothing.

Give yourself five extra-credit points if you are still with me:

But what if we modeled our apologetic heroes after apostles and not analytic philosophers? What if we made love, and not modern rationality, the hallmark of our defense of Christianity, and took kerygma, not logic, as the form of our apologetic discourse?

This is a clear example of a false dichotomy. Modern rationality does not necessarily exclude love, and kerygma does not trump logic.

Penner concludes his post by outlining a positive approach to what he envisions as a good postmodern apologetic. It is late and any further thoughts on his post will need to wait.

Links Sans Context, 11.17.05

Steve continues to amaze me with his ability to stay on the bleeding edge of web technologies. He has a provocative post on meditation and brain health at Out In The Sticks. It is a wonderful place to beging thinking about what is Christian meditation and how it is/may be different than other forms. Great new look, by the way!

Jeff at Dawn Treader concludes his conversation with a molecular biologist. If only we all were as proficient in our blogging as he...

Between Two Worlds posts on the controversial issue of evil and the existence of God. I have run across a few who have made the argument that the existence of evil is actually a kind of argument for God's existence, and BTW deals with William Lane Craig's version.

My old blogging buddy Bob at Vanguard Church Blog reminded me of the New Kind of Conversation blog book by posting on Postmodern Apologetics. Check it out and join the conversation.

I recently reviewed Piper's book God Is The Gospel. Scot McKnight deals with it and his experiences with Piper. It is worth a read.

And as a second mention, I look forward with great anticipation to the future of my friend's new blog Is This Thing On?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Building Character, Shaping a Life

The longer I live, the more I am convinced by the idea that the virtues we build into our lives affect the ways in which we know the world. Academically, this is often called virtue epistemology, but I think there is a strong biblical foundation for this notion as well. The more virtue we have in our lives the clearer we see the world and our proper places in it, and the more vice we have in our lives, the more cloudy our vision of Christ and our relationships become. In time I hope to deal with a few of the traditional virtues one by one, but to begin making my case, I want to cite a couple of biblical passages. First, Malachi 3:13-15:

"Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, 'How have we spoken against you?' You have said, 'It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.'"

This kind of conversation occurs a lot in the OT, and relatively often in the short book of Malachi. So what does it indicate? It shows, and I picked this instance because of its clarity, that those living in rebellion against God don’t have the moral wherewithal to see it. Sin has deadened their moral senses. In my own semi-technical short-hand translation of the Hebrew, the conversation goes like this:

God says, "You have told people to disdain me."
The people respond, "How have we told people to disdain you?"
God hits "play" on the DVD and we watch as the people say, "You should disdain God."

A supporting passage in the NT can be found in 1 John 2:11:

But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

It is not just that when we are sinning we are sinning. Our sins actually blind us to the moral structure of the universe-they "turn out the light" so to speak.

The inoculation of virtue into our characters is more than a matter of looking like Mother Teresa-it is a means by which we can better grasp the world around us and the spiritual realities of God and His creation. You want to have a better ethical and epistemological grasp of things? Become more loving, humble, courageous, chaste, hopeful, temperate, more just.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Book Review: God Is The Gospel, by John Piper

I am not an old man, and I have only been pastoring for a little over a decade, but I am already weary with the evangelical church’s thirst for relevance. There is a clear biblical mandate to make disciples, preach the Gospel to every nation, and to become all things to all people, but far too often, the form that takes is one that gives up too much theologically. We are too prone to neglect the core realities of the Gospel of Christ in our pursuit to make it palatable to the rest of the world.

John Piper’s God Is the Gospel is a candle in the doctrinal darkness that we seem to be in far too often. Piper’s call in this small but thoughtful book is to reestablish God as the center of his good news-God gave us himself because he is the best thing we could be given. Right from the very beginning, the Reformation theology Piper is so famous for is right on the surface and clearly guiding his work. I do not consider myself particularly reformed, but I appreciated deeply the God-centered focus of the book and Piper’s willingness to be theologically straightforward.

On the opening page, Piper’s focus is clear, “The acid test of biblical God-centeredness-and faithfulness to the gospel-is this: Do you feel more loved because God makes much of you, or because, as the cost of his Son, he enables you to enjoy making much of him forever?” (11). This sentiment sets the tone for the rest of the book. Piper does not deny that we take great joy in our salvation and that God does make much of us, but the purpose and progression of sanctification should lead us to the reality that the greatest joy we can have is making much of him. Not long after this thesis statement, Piper explains what he means with the phrase “God Is the Gospel,” “When I say, God Is the Gospel I mean that the highest, best, final, decisive good of the gospel, without which no other gifts would be good, is the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment.” (13)

Through much of the rest of the book, Piper focuses on this theme of the glory of God revealed in Christ. Though the biblical notion of the “glory of God” can be wide-ranging and difficult to pin-down in an easy to grasp fashion at times, Piper does a wonderful job of explicating the notion and encouraging the reader to take pleasure in God and his glory.

Though it is not an academic work, it is well cited and researched. His ability to be conversant with the Puritans was clear, and I appreciate the way he quoted and handled Edwards. It is good for us pastors and contemporary Christians to be reminded that we have a rich and “relevant” theological history that back beyond a couple of decades. The theologian Thomas Oden has written that he has become hesitant to, “trust anyone under ‘three hundred’,” and that he believes “[w]e should be passionately dedicated to unoriginality.”[i] I believe Piper would add a hearty “amen!”

If there are any drawbacks to God Is the Gospel, they would be in its chapter and section format. Though I believe that chapters broken into smaller sections can aid a reader, especially a busy reader, there were too many sections within chapters that were too small. At times, there were as many as four sections on a set of opposing pages, and from time to time their proliferation became a hindrance to the flow of the argument.

But ultimately, that is a small matter. I would heartily recommend God Is the Gospel as a wonderful and rich reminder of the core of our lives and the life of the Church: the glory of Christ in his gospel.

I would like to thank Mind and Media for the opportunity to review this work, and Crossway Books for the complimentary copy.

[i] Guinness, Os and John Steel, eds. No God But God. (Moody Press, Chicago: 1992). pg. 191, 200.

Friday, November 11, 2005

I Got Sloganized!

Slogans-our friend or foe? We are marketed to in slogans, we are told what politicians think in slogans, we are told how to vote in slogans, we are informed about the rest of the world in slogans, churches market in slogans…surely they are a useful tool?

I don’t think so. I have taken to the rather useful habit of labeling something a “slogan” if it is a useless bite-sized piece of information which is, on the surface of things, intended to convey information, but in actuality ends up halting the critical thinking process. If a deep or complicated subject has been “sloganized” it has been co-opted by slick marketers to get you to agree with them and their product without any thought or reflection. So can the church be “sloganized”? I don’t think so. Has it been? You bet.

So what prompted this little diatribe? I ran across this little website that creates random slogans out of any word you type in. I typed in “Phil” and received in return:

“The Incredible, Edible Phil”

I really don’t know what that means…

HT: Tim Merrill

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Is this thing on?

Is this thing on?
I have to welcome a friend to the blogosphere-after this little adventure, spamers and flamers will not even leave a mark...

Monday, October 31, 2005

"Christian Pop Culture": An Oxymoron?

I recently posted on the sad state of Christian Pop music, and I was thrilled to get a handful of like-minded responses as well as a string of great suggestions on good bands. One of the comments was from Kenny:

I think that the problem is just about "Christian pop culture" (a contradiction in terms) and how this culture demands that everything be watered down into the Prayer of Jabez and the Purpose Driven Life and can't deal with any real content. It doesn't encourage artists to show their struggles. It also allows artists to become popular without really being any good musically.

I think he is right on the dot with this insight. I think there are some productive ways of thinking about the phrase “Christian pop culture” as being an oxymoron. What kind of traits and virtues does pop culture provoke in general?

Pop culture, the kind we encounter in grocery lines, on TV, and in the movie theatre rewards things like: fame for fame’s sake, shallow thinking, sound-byte discussion, herd mentality, concupiscence, covetousness, lust, influence as an automatic result of fame, gluttony, relatively blind obedience, style over substance, historical myopia, age discrimination (no respect for elders), and so on.

None of which are compatible with a Christian worldview. So what are we doing to our Christian culture if we inject into it things like Christian celebrities and protean Christian niche markets? Well, one result many of us seem to agree upon is that it makes Christian music fairly one-dimensional and pathetic.

And what in the world does it mean to our culture to have Christian celebrities? Do they command the same kind of following that movie or TV clebs command? Doesn’t being a celebrity automatically demand you exude a certain amount of pride and/or arrogance? And if you were a humble person, wouldn’t your celebrity status demand a certain amount of pride?

Anyway, just a handful of thoughts.

Strangest Saint

For about four years now, our group/church has performed our own little homage to "All Saint's Day." One of our members, Eric Lind, does a little research to find a saint with a, how shall we say it, strange story. This year's was a doozy. If you haven't heard the story of St. Joseph of Cupertino, the 11 minutes or so of this mp3 should be worth the listen.

St. Joseph of Cupertino

Saturday, October 29, 2005

God on Relevance

I am currently teaching through Jeremiah, and this passage caught my eye this morning. Jeremiah is struggling with his call, the judgment going on all around him, and the personal pain it has put him through. He complains in the passage preceding this one that he has separated himself from common society for God’s sake, and that he is feeling the effects of being alone. When God replies, he lays a mild rebuke at the feet of the prophet. Then in Jeremiah 15:19 God says:

“If you return, I will return to you,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not
what is worthless,
you shall be as my mouth.
They shall turn to you
but you shall not turn to them.”

That last phrase in the New Living Translation goes like this:

“Let your words change them. Don’t change your words to suit them.”

Jeremiah is struggling because he is different than the surrounding culture. God attempts to comfort and edify his prophet by telling him in essence, “and don’t let that change.”

I want to know your thoughts. What impact does a passage like this one have on our tendency to want to be “relevant”?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Should Evangelicals Even Be Allowed To Vote?

As a life-long resident of Colorado Springs, and as someone who has grown up in the shadow of New Life Church, there is so much to comment on in this piece of journalism by Tom Brokaw on NBC called, "In God They Trust." But for various reasons, I will limit myself to just one little item.

Near the end of the broadcast, Brokaw began to press the issue with Pastor Haggard that evangelicals would like to have more national politicians reflect their views. Brokaw was clearly communicating the fear of many that politicians might actually do so. On balance, I thought Pastor Haggard replied well. (And in all honesty, I thought Brokaw did a decent job of fairness himself through most of the piece.) In response, Haggard pointed out that in our political system, “we” think we are right, “they” think they are right, we all present our best case, and voters get to decide with whom they agree. Sounds pretty straightforward to me.

But Brokaw pressed the issue further. He wasn’t at peace with the idea that evangelicals might take their personal, religious convictions into the voting booth, and he was especially not happy with politicians who reflected those values-he brought up the fear that some have of an evangelical theocracy.

The final line of the documentary was telling. And by “telling” I mean as transparent as saran wrap. Brokaw concluded with, “but if they gain control of Congress, they won’t need a theocracy.” Brokaw, in what is becoming an unhappily common mental practice, was trying to swap labels like “narrow” and “intolerant” for the idea of “people who disagree with me.” He was attempting to stick them on a Christian group because they happened to vote for candidates that, according to his acute journalistic insight, fit “very narrow” guidelines. Haggard again replied well by appealing to the public square of ideas. But noticed what happened. By implication (deliberate, I assume), Brokaw said that conservative, evangelical Christians were wrong for thinking they had right ideas, and for voting for candidates that reflected their set of values.

Now, if Brokaw is to avoid the label of hypocrite, he must then argue that he, and those with whom he agrees, do not believe they have right ideas, and that they do not vote for candidates that reflect their values. But certainly Brokaw does not believe that. I am just as certain that Brokaw, and those with whom he feels in league with politically, believe they are voting for stances on issues they would label right or correct (if even to say that their supposedly tolerant views are right), and for politicians who will attempt to implement their rather narrow set of guidelines.

So what did happen in that one, little line? Without any argument, without any of the mental work necessary to address issues, principles, or theories, Brokaw attempted to label those with whom he disagrees out of significance. The move is called ad hominum-it is the oldest, cheapest, and in reality, the commonest argument around.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Rant Warning...

Why the heck is popular Christian music so contemptibly boring? Why is it that I find more provocative lyrics and better musicianship on the local hard rock/alternative station? Why is it that people who are supposed to be writing music out of ineffable praise to the Creator of the universe can’t come up with a single interesting or thoughtful lyric?

I am bewildered, befuddled, and utterly frustrated out of my mind! I imagine this kind of scenario taking place between a Producer looking for the latest and greatest thing in Christian music and Young Christian Rock Star (wearing the requisite hipster-retro t-shirt, beaded choker necklace, the “livestrong” bracelet over his old “W.W.J.D.” bracelet, and trucker-style baseball cap barely covering their mop head).

Producer: I’m looking for the next great Christian rock band.
Young Christian Rock Star: Jesus loves me, and so he, like, made me play, like, my guitar.
Producer: I think you might be right for our demographic.
Young Christian Rock Star: Huh?
Producer: What is your sound? We are looking for something cutting edge enough to be liked by twelve to fourteen year old evangelical girls, but mainstream enough to be endorsed by Focus on the Family.
Young Christian Rock Star: I would say we are, like, a mix between Pearl Jam and, like, Third Day.
Producer: Aren’t they the same band?
Young Christian Rock Star: Huh?
Producer: Do you have any songs you have written? Anything you do good?
Young Christian Rock Star: You know that, like, one mediocre worship song that has been remixed, like, a dozen times?
Producer: I think I catch your drift…
Young Christian Rock Star: We do, like, a praisin’ version of it that is, like, a mixture between, like, Pearl Jam and Third Day.
Producer: I think you might be right for our demographic.
Young Christian Rock Star: Huh?

Where is Steve Taylor when you need him?!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Divorce Parties: The Next Inevitable Step

ABC News: Many Throw Parties to Toast Divorces

Apparently a growing trend among women is throwing a party to celebrate the end of a marriage and the start of a "new life." This seems different from taking a recently divorced friend to dinner or golfing to console them. The parties are for the purpose of celebrating-feeling joy and happiness at the end of a marriage.

Putting aside all the situations in which reasonable people would see possible merit in divorce, I think this reality exemplifies well the next inevitable step in our shameless culture. Instead of allowing an appropriate measure of shame and guilt to do its moral work in our lives, we strive effortlessly to make the shameful acceptable and the guilty asuaged and vindicated. An appropriate moral reaction to divorce (even divorce in extreme and horrible situations) should contain a great deal of remorse.

Replacing remorse with glee dulls our moral senses, our ability to reason morally, and thus the ethical shapes of our lives. We become more reprobate and feel better about it all the time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Critics of ID Make the Same Errors Over and Over

Review of "Creationism's Trojan Horse" by Johathan Witt

If you have the time and inclination, this is a great review that helps put the story straight-what exactly is the relationship between ID, the Discovery Institute, and the Plot To Take Over The World By The Evil Creationists.

HT: Wittingshire

Monday, October 17, 2005

Why James MacDonald Is Not Emerging

Leadership Blog: Out of Ur: Why James MacDonald Is Not Emerging (Part 1)

I don't know off-hand who James Macdonald is, but I like this post. His description of why he has not "become emergent" resonates well with my own reasons. Take this entry under #2:

We are expected to obey our Master and to accept His Word without equivocation. Cavalier questioning of the explicit statements of Scripture regarding the necessity of the new birth, the priority of biblical proclamation or the binding authority and sufficiency of Scripture cannot build a stronger, more Christ-honoring church no matter how sincere the messengers. Critiquing the church is good; disregarding or diminishing the revealed truth of our Founder is not good, no matter how ‘nice’ the people are who do it.

Sounds good to me. I am not exactly sure why questioning without answering (or even really wanting to or attempting to answer) is all the rage right now, but it is clouding a lot of good judgment out there.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Are We Rediscovering Theology?

Trying to fall asleep tonight, I ran across this new blog by Leadership Magazine. Based on what I have seen just in these few minutes, I am looking forward to watching their future entries with interest.

One entitled, “Theology Is Back” caught my eye. I am please to hear that there may be a contingent of young pastors who see the deep importance in theology and its application to real life, but the floppy influence of emergent thought and pomo culture couldn’t help but come to the surface. In noting the manner in which theology was important to his particular congregation, the pastor noted:

“We’re dealing with a new breed of college students coming in with a lot of questions. And they’re theological questions,” said Rusty. “They’re looking not so much for answers, but for discussion, for acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the questions.” Questions such as: Where is God? Is a tsunami an act of God? Was Katrina a random consequence of weather patterns or an intentional judgment by God—and if so, what exactly was he judging? Why is my sister dying and I’m not?

That is not at issue for me-many people need to know they can be safe asking those kinds of questions and wrestling with those issues. (Except that, speaking as a former college pastor, I think college students have always had these questions.) It is the next step in the argument that doesn’t make sense to me. The blog continued:

These questions are unlike the theological questions of a generation ago (Is the Bible best described as ‘human’ or ‘divine’, or by the term ‘authoritative,’ ‘infallible,’ or ‘inerrant’?) Many of the theological questions a generation ago proved divisive, separating Christians into competing camps.

This is certainly the wrong conclusion. First, we should note that the debates listed in the quote and so presumptively dismissed were, in some very important ways, the results of the very questions the parishioners were asking in the first quote. If you want to seriously wrestle with God’s revelation in light of these questions, you are going to begin asking yourself how to take Scripture: is it metaphorical? mythical? inerrant? erroneous? Frankly, if someone does not do the work to answer this second set of questions, the “answers” to the parishioner’s questions remain nothing but hallow emotionalism and opinion.

Second, it is popular in pop-theological circles right now to label the debates of “a generation ago” as divisive and separatist. The presumption in this slogan is false: division is not an evil. How exactly are the divisions of a generation ago different than real answers to the parishioner’s questions, and if those debates are attempting to separate good answers from bad, exactly how is that bad thing? In other words, if two of us answer the parishioner’s questions in two different ways (and ways that are not totally reconcilable), how is that not divisive? The parishioner will need to decide between the two answers if they are truly seeking resolution. (I can hear the rebuttal now, “They don’t need to decide between the two. They can accept the mystery and live in awe of God.” I am not a neophyte to these kinds of discussions, and honestly, if someone is seriously asking questions, they are typically not interested in mysterious and evasive answers.)

I find it encouraging that young pastors are finding the importance and import of theology, but if they do not yet see the crucial role of the previous generation’s debates, have they really discovered theology at all?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Are We Becoming Afraid to Say What God Says?: The Truth About Theological Particularism

I ran across Jeremiah 12:14-17 the other day, and it got me to thinking. The passage is a little hard to grasp at first because of the use of pronouns in most translations, but paraphrases and some contemporary translations make it clear. The Message puts the pertinent part like this:

Once I've pulled the bad neighbors out, I will relent and take them tenderly to my heart...Then if they will get serious about living my way and pray to me as well as they taught my people to pray to that god Baal, everything will go well for them.

The point of this passage is the truth about the particular nature of the Gospel message. God does not tell Jeremiah He will show compassion upon their pagan neighbors if they return to their lands, learn to dialogue like civilized (postmodern) people and worship their gods sincerely. God (and the prophets, the apostles, the wisdom literature, etc.) is not shy about the particular nature of the Gospel-there is no god but God and He is the only way to salvation.

Many today express distaste for words like “particularism” and its ugly cousin “exclucivism.” They say the words and theologies behind them are too unkind, restrictive, and not generous enough for a loving God. But certainly a couple of realities have been missed, not least of which is who or what is being excluded. To listen to the critics of the orthodox position of the unique nature of the Gospel, you would think it was designed to exclude people from the Kingdom. Nothing could be further from the truth-it excludes false Messiahs.

Another reality that seems to be missed is that God is not afraid to talk in these terms. Quite obviously, God thinks that worship outside His revelation is idolatry and that idolatry destroys souls.

So what are we to make of current pop-theologies that are afraid to speak in terms of the truth of the Gospel as revealed in Scripture, or afraid to speak in terms of true and false religion generally? We are to conclude that they may lack the courage of Scripture and the courage of their own faith.

The generosity of the Gospel is not shown in demurring about truth, but in its call to “whosoever will.” Even in Jeremiah, in the midst of so much lamentation and impending doom and judgment, God calls out to the pagan nations to receive His eternal compassion and become members of His kingdom.

Friday, October 14, 2005

What Are We Making Of Ourselves?

This weblog from the prolific Al Mohler is definitely worth the read. It deals with and details the growing biblical illiteracy among American Christians. Some quotes from the weblog and from the Barna research it cites:

Researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli put the problem squarely: "Americans revere the Bible--but, by and large, they don't read it. And because they don't read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates."

Some details not surprising to those who have run across these kinds of studies before:

Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can't name even five of the Ten Commandments….
Some of the statistics are enough to perplex even those aware of the problem. A Barna poll indicated that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.

This, I think, is indicative of a deep and profound problem within American church circles today. As the culture goes, so goes the church. We have become so enamored with relevance and the latest and greatest in cultural movements, that we have become their slaves. Mohler continues:

Christians who lack biblical knowledge are the products of churches that marginalize biblical knowledge. Bible teaching now often accounts for only a diminishing fraction of the local congregation's time and attention. The move to small group ministry has certainly increased opportunities for fellowship, but many of these groups never get beyond superficial Bible study.

Youth ministries are asked to fix problems, provide entertainment, and keep kids busy. How many local-church youth programs actually produce substantial Bible knowledge in young people?

For various reasons, we have decided that being a church in America today means being relevant to the culture. And while we are to reach out to the lost, relevance is neither a biblical nor a sound theological notion. Relevance entails capitulation and requires a protean soul. The Gospel is neither.

This will upset some of my readers and interlocutors, but this is the core disease with the Emergent church movement. Its reform does not begin where the great and lasting reforms of history have begun-a theological corrective. It begins with cultural corrective and then moves to its theology. That particular flow of influence is equivalent to making the same mistake the worst portions of the seeker sensitive movement made-making the masses sovereign instead of the message. Ironic, if you ask me.

A couple of books that are absolutely terrific on this particular issue:

Os Guinness, No God But God.
Dorothy Sayers, Letters To A Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments For The Relevance Of Christian Doctrine.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Journal Review-Spiritual Counterfeit Project

SCP Journal
Volume 28:4-29:1 2005
“Soul Traps of Thought and Culture”

This is the first time I have been exposed to the Spiritual Counterfeit Project ministry and their journal. After doing some reading on them and what they do, I am impressed with their goals and longevity, and am glad to have such people involved in this sort of ministry. There has been, and will continue to be, a great need for Christians to do the sometimes hard but necessary work of addressing the issues of spiritual deceptions.

I was provided with their latest journal as well as their latest printed newsletter for review.

The journal itself is well produced. I was impressed with the quality of the cover, the layout, and the general form of the contents. It contained a (supposedly) complete list of back issues and their contents for purchase. I found this a positive addition in that many people who are dealing with or struggling with these sorts of issues would likely be interested in picking up articles that cover certain topics.

This journal edition contained three articles: The Soul Under Siege: Part II by Lee Penn, From Old Gnosticism To New Age: Part I by Alan Morrison, and The Suicide Option: When Life Has Lost Meaning by Josh Ong. Each article was very informative and extremely well researched and cited. There is no lack of follow-up potential within each set of topics dealt with.

The first article was a bit of a surprise to me in that I was anticipating an article of more theological focus than it turned out to be. The thrust of this article was a description of the players and potential players in the New World Order and a tide of growing global spiritualization/mysticism. The first third or so was devoted to setting a political scene within which a potential global scheme might come to the surface, and the last two-thirds of the article was devoted to establishing a connection between that political analysis and a New Age-style New World Order. Again, this article was very well researched, and I do not doubt many of the political ties that the author makes. But I did not think the link between the first theme and the second was as tight as it could have been. The most straightforward connection in the article comes on page 10 when the author notes that many global leaders hold to a view of how social change happens: “via a dramatic event that shapes a new consensus of that is possible and desirable. Groups and agencies that act as [catalysts] can build this new consensus creating a New World Order from the rubble of the old regime.” The very next paragraph is the logical connection: “These leaders are following a trail blazed for them by New Age theorists.” The rest of the article then proceeds to argue for a very real New Age-style New World Order. Though the research was clearly in-depth and thorough, I was not entirely convinced by the argument.

The next article is a well-done intellectual history of Gnosticism and its contemporary incarnations. Along the way, the author takes time to engage the various forms of Gnosticism and Neo-Gnosticism from a Christian worldview, and this helps the article reach its potential goal of elucidating the differences between Gnosticism and Christianity. The strengths of the article lie in its research, order of argument, and importance of topic. Many researchers and theologians have noted that Gnosticism has survived through the ages in many forms, and this piece does an admiral job of detailing and documenting much of that. If there was a portion of this article I wasn’t convinced by it was some of the biblical application. At one point the author contrasts the body of Christ with what he labels the “body of Antichrist” and the point and biblical support seemed just a bit stretched.

The last article is a much more personal reflection by one of their staffers on his own experience with suicidal tendencies. The article combines his own present reflection on the issue, several of his journal entries during that period of his life, and then ends with some reflections on aspects of the current culture that lend to suicidal tendencies in the youth culture today. I would highly recommend this article for anyone who is or who knows a young person struggling with this extremely difficult issue.

The newsletter I received was also a wonderful resource. It contained two pieces. One was an insightful reflection on the differences between the original War of the Worlds and the recent Spielberg version, and the other was a shorter piece on the importance of picking justices for the federal court system. Both articles were well written and well reasoned. What I am supposing was the primary purpose of the newsletter, presenting the ministry’s news and work for those struggling with relevant issues, was well highlighted.

Overall, I found this journal to be a thorough and insightful resource that would make a wonderful addition to anyone’s library that is interested in or involved in ministry to people struggling with different spiritualities and religions.

I would like to thank SCP for the journal and the newsletter, and Mind and Media for the opportunity.