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...." 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...