Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Reviewer for Mind and Media

mindandmedia reviewer
Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.

It is always exciting to read good books and share your thoughts-how great is it to do it "officially" and even get a free book or two out of the deal?

Check it out here.

Friday, August 26, 2005

What is a Christian to do?

I have recently been dialoguing with Bob Robinson about postmodern philosophy and the church world, and as a result of our conversation, I thought it helpful to expand on a couple of thoughts. I have always appreciated the thoughtfulness of our exchanges and the fruit it has born in my thinking. This post is a result of our discussion, but it rests on what I see as a general sense of things in the emergent church, or schools of thought that approve of much of pomo philosophy.

In our discussion about the possible role of pomo philosophy, I have made some pretty straight-forward and blanket statements.

For example, pomo philosophy argues that community is deeply formative-gives us our ethics, metaphysics, and human nature-and that kind of deep formation does not jive with Christianity.

I still wholeheartedly believe, especially given the distinction between understanding pomo culture and assenting to pomo philosophy, that there is no room for pomo philosophy in the Christian worldview.

Bob then countered, wondering if I wasn’t brushing Postmodernism aside too quickly without giving it fair play:

I think it is would actually be more intellectual if Christians did not simply write off pomo as wrong-headed and wash their hands of it all. In doing so, these Christian thinkers would miss the important lesson to be learned: Christianity has always been about "community," we are actually mandated to created such communities to "make disciples...baptizing them...and teaching them."

So, I think Christian thinkers, if they want to intellectually deal with postmodernity, need to have a more nuanced strategy than just simply creating what may be a false dichotomy--"there is no room for pomo philosophy in the Christian worldview."

As I respond, I want to emphasize that this is not intended to “lambaste” Bob. What he has expressed is part of a much larger whole in the evangelical world today, and that is what I want to address. I want to talk about two issues: Pomo philosophy and community, and what the intelligent thing is for the Christian to do in such situations.

Postmodern Philosophy and Community

The statement that is made often as a defense of the usefulness of Postmodernism is, “the importance of community has been recovered.” That, as is so often asserted, is not a Postmodern view. A more accurate representation of a Postmodern view of community is something like, “our communities and cultures are formative.” Now we need to define terms.

What the typical evangelical means by “community is important” is far from novel, wholly in line with all good Christian theology for 2000 years, and completely biblical. We are the body of Christ, should behave that way toward one another and the outside world, and represent Christ to the culture at large. It means we assimilate the Gospel that was communicated long ago into our present-day lives. We don’t need Postmodernism or any of its philosophical baggage to re-learn that lesson.

The evangelical, orthodox Christian view of community is one thing; the Postmodern view of community is entirely different.

When I say, “community is formative,” there is a world of difference between “important” and “formative.” “Formative” in this context means that our communities and cultures actually form, or create, our views on all the important things: ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, religion, etc. We do not-and for many pomo thinkers it is impossible to-receive useful information about these issues from outside our communities. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, for an American to receive any useful (or salvific) information about the first century Jew, Jesus.

Recognizing that there are literally dozens of other issues like this one, I want to reassert and restate one of my original proposals: “community is formative” is inconsistent with “community is important.” One is a Postmodern view, the other is an orthodox Christian view. The two cannot meet without seriously damaging the content and intent of one or the other.

Which brings me to my second point.

What is the intellectual thing to do?

Fundamentally the answer is that the Christian should strive to understand a philosophy, theology, or cultural trend on its own terms, treat it charitably, take it seriously, and asses it on its own terms. When Christian thinkers and writers conflate “important” with “formative,” they are not treating pomo philosophy on its own terms and taking it seriously. For instance, if we really took Rorty seriously, truth would be “what our colleagues let us get away with.” Clearly not a view Christ would take. If we took Derrida seriously, there “is no text.” Then there is no communicable Gospel. It seems to me there is no common ground on those two points.

Being taken with popular, and thus incomplete, treatments of Postmodern philosophy may get some “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd, but we need to ask a difficult question-is Postmodernism a useful gift or a Trojan Horse?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Latest In the ID Controversy: Scientists Behaving Badly

I have said in the past that the opponents of Intelligent Design boil down to people who are scared to death of their science and philosophical conclusions, and who spend their time at ad homonim attacks; they smear ID scientists, try to label them with nasty names, and brush them aside. I have taken some smack for that, but I think a recent series of events shows this to be the case.

Richard Sternberg was an editor at a journal that published an article on ID by Stephen Meyer. He is no longer in that role because his fellow “scientists” in the Smithsonian smeared his name and his education and got him removed from his position.

Sound like a story line written up in a fundamentalist, evangelical tabloid? Try the Washington Post. Here are some of the important segments of the article:

Within hours of publication, senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institution -- which has helped fund and run the journal -- lashed out at Sternberg as a shoddy scientist and a closet Bible thumper.

"They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists," said Steinberg, 42 , who is a Smithsonian research associate. "I was basically run out of there."

The underhanded child’s play was so pervasive, an independent investigation was launched to protect Sternberg’s academic integrity.

An independent agency has come to the same conclusion, accusing top scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History of retaliating against Sternberg by investigating his religion and smearing him as a "creationist."

"The rumor mill became so infected," James McVay, the principal legal adviser in the Office of Special Counsel, wrote to Sternberg, "that one of your colleagues had to circulate [your résumé] simply to dispel the rumor that you were not a scientist."

One possible “out” for the Smithsonian accusers is that Sternberg is a Trojan horse-a religiously educated nut-job in a real thinker’s (read “scientist”) clothing. But that one, though tried, didn’t work either:

Sternberg is an unlikely revolutionary. He holds two PhDs in evolutionary biology, his graduate work draws praise from his former professors, and in 2000 he gained a coveted research associate appointment at the Smithsonian Institution.

Ouch! So, how about accusing him of faking the review process?

He mailed Meyer's article to three scientists for a peer review. It has been suggested that Sternberg fabricated the peer review or sought unqualified scientists, a claim McVay dismissed.

You be the judge as to who is behaving like a rational scientist.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Alt Church - Who/What Is It, and What Does It Mean?

A thought provoking article showed up in the local paper recently concerning the growing trend of people leaving the traditional church experience for their own, home-grown and individual churching. The article is titled “The Road Less Traveled” and discusses what is sometimes called the “Alt Church.” It may be described in this way:

Some Christians are forsaking familiar churches and cobbling together their own mix-and-match path to God. They worship on mountaintops and laptops, in business suits and tank tops. Most often, they worship in small, tightly knit groups and can be found across Colorado Springs any day of the week.

These Christians would say they’re not so much “unchurched” as “alternativechurched.” They don’t think they need trained clergy or large congregations to find the face of God: All they need is desire and faith. George Barna, evangelical Christianity’s most respected researcher, says these alt-churched Christians will change Christianity forever — and force some churches out of business.

My knee-jerk reaction when this kind of issue is raised is to categorize the personalized Christian as someone who is simply lazy and too disgruntled to be happy anywhere but inside their own head. But the stats and information conveyed through the article put a different perspective on it for me. Here are a few excerpts:

Others are radically spiritual. Barna’s research organization, the California-based Barna Group, suggests that many of these alt-churched Christians pray more, give more money to charity and know their Bible better than their church-attending counterparts.

And again:

“These are what we would classify as the most spiritually minded and spiritually passionate people around,” said Thom Black, Barna’s partner.

So this is not your “Creaster” crowd suddenly becoming statistically significant. They appear to be sincere and spiritually active Christians who have simply decided to detach themselves from the body of Christ to one degree or another. And lest you think this is a dwindling trend, Barna has done some pretty extensive research, is publishing a book on the subject, and has some interesting things to project.

Barna suggests this group, which he calls “revolutionaries,” will experience staggering growth. Although about 70 percent of American Christians saw the church as their “primary means of spiritual experience and expression” in 2000, Barna estimates that number will drop to as low as 30 percent by 2025. Another 30 to 35 percent will find a spiritual home in smaller faith-based communities such as house churches; still another 30 to 35 percent will get spiritual nourishment from Christian books, movies and concerts.

One prescient pastor was quoted:

“When the home-schooling movement was gathering steam, I used to joke that the next step toward Christian isolationism was to home church ourselves,” said Ed Rowell of Tri-Lakes Chapel. “I’m not joking anymore.”

I like that thought in this context-a worry about “Christian isolationism.” Most of us evangelicals hail from an ecclesiastical tradition in which the primary reaction to dislike of our surroundings is to circle the wagons-we cut ourselves off from the culture at large.

The same pastor went on to say:

“Evangelism has so stressed the individual aspect of salvation that we have become neglectful of the communal aspect of what the Bible calls sanctification, or spiritual maturity,” Rowell said. “We’ve changed from a ‘we’ theology to a ‘me’ theology. Being a follower of Christ is personal, but it is not private.”

I am going to write up some thoughts on this, but I would love your input. Are you an Alt Churcher? Do you have the drive to disassociate yourself from the church community? If so, what considerations brought you to this point?

Stand To Reason Weblog-On Emergent


There are a couple of good posts and concerns on the STR weblog about the emergent church movement. I like the fact that they have used their position in Christian apologetics to engage Emergent and open honest dialogue (see their radio archives, for instance).

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Does Our Tone In Public Debate Matter?

This is a great short column by the astute Marvin Olasky concerning the phenomena recently dubbed, “South Park Conservatism.” (I think it requires a free registration.) The essay contends that though there may be plenty of conservatives who fit the bill and who use sarcastic, sardonic, and even crass and offensive humor to get their point across, there is a different standard for the Christian-conservative or liberal. In response to a point Ann Coulter made at a college speech about not caring what people thought about her he writes:

And yet, while it doesn't matter what people think about us, it does matter what people think about Christ. Sophisticates showed contempt toward Paul's words in Athens (Acts 17), but some listened. What if, instead of arguing logically, he had ranted?

And a little later:

How would Paul act in today's culture? How, for that matter, would 18th-century members of the religious right like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry? I suspect they would still be firm but courteous, displaying bravery without bombast.

I know it is obvious we live in a short-minded and sound-byte culture in which most pundits and advocates cannot be heard above the din without becoming more radical or outrageous, but Christians have a different standard to uphold.

As Kierkegaard once said, we have an “audience of one.” Maybe we should keep that at the forefront of our conversations when we address cultural and political issues from a Christian point of view. How would that change the way “evangelical representatives” sounded on cable news shows or on paid advertising during an election season? How would that change our tone when we write books, blogs, or letters to the editor?

Our job, if we are to be specific, is to witness to the truth. The work of the Holy Spirit is to open the hearts and minds of people-we do not carry that burden.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Da Vinci Code-Will the Movie Match Up With History?

It appears some Catholic groups are lodging an “official” complaint to the makers of The Da Vinci Code movie. And even more interesting, it may be the case that they are listening.

If you have been aware of this issue at all, you know that there are many competent rebuttals of Dan Brown’s historical fallacies. His history is an issue, really, only because he asserts at the beginning of the book that all the history he cites is true. It is amazing the power that one little phrase in an introduction can have. People are willing to question centuries of settled and known history about the Church and Christ because a fictional author with a vendetta says otherwise.

Anyway, if you are looking for more resources on the history referenced in The Da Vinci Code, this mp3 of a lecture done by Dr. Craig Blomberg is as useful as it gets.

The Role of the Holy Spirit/The Role of Reason

To tackle this issue is to tackle one of the perennial questions that has faced the Church for ages, and I make no claim of “answering” it in this little post. But I do think I would like to throw a couple of ideas out there resulting from some of the comments and back and forth on the last couple of posts.

First, when working out the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, and more specifically, the life of the mind, I think it is useful to ask, “How does the Holy Spirit work?” I think there are two basic answers: through the gifts and abilities of God’s people and miraculously. If that, or something like it, is true then it is incumbent upon me, a believer striving to be faithful, to use my gifts and abilities as best as I possibly can.

Now I believe every human has been created with the capacity to reason-it is part of being an image bearer of God. If I fail to work that mental muscle to the best of my ability, it is not all that different from being gifted as an evangelist and refusing to evangelize. Therefore, I should strive to think as well as I possibly can.

This point of view cuts against the grain of what is usually thought of as the work of the Holy Spirit. Typically people believe that the H.S.’s work is excluded to the realm of the miraculous. What I am arguing for is a both/and kind of view. The H.S. works miraculously and through the lives and actions of believers submitted to the Lordship of Christ. In this case there need not be any conflict between the two.

The point is often raised that there are sometimes sharp and irreconcilable differences between people when they “use reason.” And thus, it is said, we cannot rely on reason but only on faith. One of the things I think that objection misses is that there are sharp and irreconcilable differences between people who believe on “faith alone.” What then? Equally sincere and religious people hold to certain things on faith in Jesus Christ, but they often conflict with each other. We are left with the same problem, and thus it is not a very good argument against “using reason.”

Disagreement between equally intelligent and faithful people is an interesting issue all by itself, but note that disagreement does not by fiat mean the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. Because people disagree does not make postmodern relativism true; disagreement does not negate the usefulness of the process of reasoning; and disagreement over issues of faith does not mean there is not one true Faith out there.

So what do we do when people disagree? The nutshell answer is, "think some more."

Thinking through issues or “using reason” to the best of our abilities is something we could use more of in this world and not less. It is a tool God has graciously given His creation so they can understand Him and His world better-it is a tool that can and should be used to great practical, pastoral and theological advantage.