Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Evil, Bloody Religion

Dinesh d’Souza, a wonderful public thinker in our age, has written a great little article [ -Blogger seems to be tripping over links right now] confronting and dispelling one of the most widely disseminated falsehoods of our day: religion is one of the most violent and bloody things that has happened to humanity. According to such authors as Richard Dawkins, religion needs to be done away with and all will be well (read-Christianity especially needs to be done away with) .

The slogan is that religion has killed more people through the ages than anything else. D’Souza remarks:

The best example of religious persecution in America is the Salem witch trials. How many people were killed in those trials? Thousands? Hundreds? Actually, fewer than 25....It is strange to witness the passion with which some secular figures rail against the misdeeds of the Crusaders and Inquisitors more than 500 years ago. The number sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition appears to be about 10,000. Some historians contend that an additional 100,000 died in jail due to malnutrition or illness.

These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.

D’Souza goes on to make the observation, made by many, that more people have been killed in the name of atheism in the last 100 years than in all the religious conflicts in the last 2,000.

I am indebted to the CU philosophy grad student email list for this link and for this professors incisive response to D’Souza’s assertions:

The basic argument is that atheism has killed tons more people than religion.
(Okay, holding my tongue about that...)

It is not hard to hold your tongue when there is nothing intelligent to say in response except to repeat the tired old slogans about evil and bloody religion.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pastors-Their Role in the Church, Their Role in the Culture

I recently picked up America’s God by Mark Noll and ran across an idea early in the book that struck a chord for me. Several authors have written about the decline of the position of clergy in the American culture. It was once the case, in colonial and later history right through the 20th century, that the local minister was the resident expert on nearly every issue of importance and a highly respected individual. Recent surveys show that pastors and priests no longer hold a position like that in our contemporary culture.

Most of the time, when people lament this reality, it is framed in terms of anti-intellectualism and popular perceptions of ministers picked up from scandals and televangelists. I think these analyses have a lot going for them, but Noll brought something to this table I found interesting.

He noted that local pastors were held in high esteem in large part because of the theology of early America. Because, theologically speaking, the role of pastor was a position of high calling and esteem within the body of Christ, it became a public reality that ministers were held in high esteem.

Advancing Noll’s comment to current trends in ecclesiology and theology, one of the factors that may be leading to the diminished cultural role of the pastor is the diminished role he or she plays within the church. With evangelicalism’s thirst for everything contemporary, while corporate authority structures have been allegedly “flattened,” giving more of a team atmosphere to employees, our ecclesiology is following suit. If American people want to feel empowered and have a significant role in the direction of a church, it seems evident to many that we should flatten the authority structure, thus implicitly (if not explicitly) reducing the status and role of the pastor. We are, after all, a nation of priests, aren’t we?

Is the flattening of the church structure a good thing, bad thing, or mixed bag? Has it helped lead to the relative irrelevance of pastors in the culture at large? Has this trend in evangelicalism traded an ecclesiology gleaned from Scripture for one pulled from today’s best sellers?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Richard Baxter and Pastoral Preparation

I was flipping though my copy of Baxter’s Reformed Pastor this evening and ran across the following quote concerning the preparation of the pastor’s heart and mind before preaching:

Therefore, go then specially to God for life: read some rousing, awakening book, or meditate on the weight of the subject of which you are to speak, and on the great necessity of your people’s souls, that you may go in the zeal of the Lord into his house.  Maintain, in this manner, the life of grace in yourselves, that it may appear in all your sermons from the pulpit,--that every one who comes cold to the assembly, may have some warmth imparted to him before he depart.

I want to highlight a couple of thoughts raised by this brief quote.  First, read a book—a good book.  Pastors and church leaders should not just be reading books on contemporary marketing practices or leadership models.  They should be reading books like Baxter’s.  There is a depth to the soul they create as we interact with people who were close to God, serious about their souls and their minds, and serious about shepherding the flock all at the same time.  I can always tell when I am not reading.  As I prepare sermons, the books that have sunk into me sometimes come out in amazing ways.  Their depth of insight becomes part of the insight my congregation benefits from.  If all I read is written by sports coaches, leadership and marketing gurus, and newspaper columnists, then that is the “depth” the congregation will languish under.

Second, what Baxter means by congregants leaving with “warmth” is wrapped up in the consolations of the Gospel of Christ.  Baxter strikes a note over and over in this work in which he admonished pastors to be solidly doctrinal, and to pass that along to the flock.  One of the primary themes, in fact, is the necessity of catechism, or the teaching of right doctrine to the lay people.  If the pastor is not serious about right doctrine him or herself and serious about communicating it, the congregants will not leave with “some warmth imparted to them.”  The last thing Baxter intends to convey by “warmth” is a feeling of niceness or goodness left after a good story or two.  

Friday, December 01, 2006

Book Review: Is The Bible Intolerant?

Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.
A review I posted on Amazon:

This book is a wonderful and easy to read resource that counters many of the slogans used to deny the truth claims of Christianity or the Bible. Often your garden-variety skeptic will say things like, “the Bible has been changed so many times we can’t trust what we have,” or, “more people have died because of religion than any other reason,” and use such good-sounding slogans to ward off any serious argument. Orr-Ewing’s book does a masterful job of dealing with such claims head-on, and in this way it makes a great read for both Christians and skeptics.

There is more to the book than just anti-sloganeering. Orr-Ewing also deals well in the realms of comparative religions--being especially well versed with Islam and the Qur’an--biblical criticism, and philosophy. For example, the author does a wonderful job of addressing the criticism that Scripture is homophobic. While noting the values inherent in such a charge, she speaks well to the biblical witness on human sexuality. She notes that the biblical view is far from culturally conditioned. The surrounding cultures in the times represented by both the Old and New Testaments were very open with their homosexual, and other sexual, practices. Both Testaments represent a very counter-cultural view for their times, and it just happens to be the case that the biblical view on human sexuality is again deeply counter-cultural. There was nothing culturally conditioned about its view when it was written, and there is no good reason for its view to be altered now that it is again.

This is one of those wonderful books written by a serious theologian that addresses several pertinent issues in a manner accessible to most every reader. I highly recommend this book to any skeptic honestly seeking answers to their questions and to Christians looking for a solid apologetic resource.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship, Appendix: Youth and Doctrine

In support of our thesis that principle (or theology and doctrine in our case) is far more practical and important than pragmatism from the pulpit, enter Time Magazine. Apparently one of the latest trends in youth ministry is to return to the fundamentals of theology and doctrine, and to help students encounter God on a much more meaningful, and might I add, substantive, level.

Isn’t it ironic how the basic principles of the Church for 2000 years seem to rise to the surface no matter how much make-up and propping we put over it?

Two snippets from the article:

Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination. Their conversion has been sparked by the recognition that sugarcoated Christianity, popular in the 1980s and early '90s, has caused growing numbers of kids to turn away not just from attending youth-fellowship activities but also from practicing their faith at all. In a national survey recently released by Barna Group, a polling firm that tracks religious trends, only 33% of kids 13 to 18 responded that they attend a youth-group event regularly--a 3% drop since 1998. And while nearly 75% pray each week, that number has declined 9%.

Then there is Christian Smith, the Notre Dame sociologist recently known for his profound study, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

The vast majority of teens who call themselves Christians haven't been well educated in religious doctrine and therefore don't really know what they believe…

Monday, October 30, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 5: Life Application Sermons

Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4

In this post I want to tackle a possibly controversial topic. It is my belief that when pastors try to be too “practical application” oriented in their sermons, the paradoxical but inevitable result is that their sermons apply to fewer and fewer people. The solution to sermonizing that is nothing but storytelling and “life-application” is sermonizing that is exegetically grounded. I believe that when we let the text do the speaking, the Holy Spirit is able to take the Word and apply it to each and every life far better than I could if I worried too much about applying it for people.

This first struck me as a real problem with “story-telling” preaching several years ago sitting under a pastor who had a gift for connecting with people, and who genuinely loved the members of his church. I enjoyed him personally, and was enjoying the prospect of sitting under his preaching. But just a couple of weeks in, I knew I wasn’t taking anything home with me. His sermons were comprised of story after story and a few thoughts thrown in from books on coaching. As I listened to his stories, it dawned on me that exactly zero of his “life application” attempts had any kind of real connection with my life.

The reason was that he narrowed the focus of his sermons to the list of stories he could come up with for his topic, thus excluding the congregants whose lives did not fit any of the contexts of the tales.

On the other hand, over the years I have spent pastoring, teaching, and sermonizing, the greatest results I have seen or heard from sermons came after a minister opened Scripture and let it do the talking. It is absolutely incredible what a passage of Scripture can do when it is allowed to do all the work. Recently I spoke on 1 Kings 19 and focused on how God worked with the depressed and hopeless Elijah. My primary point concerned the “low whisper” (how the ESV translates “still small voice”) in which God spoke to His prophet. After the service, a bunch of us went out to eat, and people were talking to me about the sermon and what they got out of it. To my pleasant surprise, they did see and comprehend what I put across, but they were all drawn to other parts of the passage that were read aloud in service and dealt with, if even on a cursory level. God spoke to people because the service let Him do the talking and applying.

The overarching point, I believe, is this: practical application without principal is practically useless. It is the principals in Scripture that do the work of transforming the heart and mind, and they can only do their work if the minister behind the pulpit is dedicated enough to do their homework theologically and biblically and brave enough to get out of the way.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 4 - Truth vs. Grace?

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In this post I want to discuss the outcomes of discipleship. If we are trying to disciple people (or ourselves), then surely we can come to some kind of conclusion regarding what looks like success.

I was recently perusing a blog dedicated to discipleship and noticed that many of the posts and large chunks of the discussion were dedicated to service—both to the community and to the rest of the world. In fact, a recent edition of Christianity Today contained an article describing a growing trend among college-aged evangelicals in which they are more than willing to give up a consumerist lifestyle in order to serve the needy across the world. More and more young people are willing to embrace relative poverty to engage with social justice.

There is a catch, however, with this crowd of young people, and it is the catch with all action/service oriented discipleship. The article notes:

Unfortunately, many students today exhibit theological confusion. "Too many college students are not convinced about the exclusive claims of Christ and the eternal lostness of humanity," says Terry Erickson, InterVarsity's director of evangelism. "Students today are more grace-oriented than truth-oriented." Erickson notes that young people on missions trips today may not be articulating the gospel's promise of eternal salvation through Christ's death on the Cross as clearly as they are demonstrating their concern for social justice and compassion for the poor.

In other words, these missionaries are trading truth for grace. In such a scenario, we find ourselves meeting the earthly needs of people who will die and be lost for eternity because we were soft on spiritual truth. It is a wonderful and necessary thing to meet physical and economic needs; it is a necessary thing to meet spiritual needs.

The fundamental problem with seeing service or action as discipleship is that it is entirely possible to be engaged in service without following Christ. And if we are engaged in service and not following the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we are not engaged in Christian discipleship. I take it to be fundamentally true that someone cannot be an advancing disciple of Christ and reject/neglect His and Scripture’s truth claims about the nature of the human soul and spiritual realities.

Don’t get me wrong. Service and action are necessary results of discipleship. Paul says we are saved to do the works God planned for us: “He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Eph. 2:10)

So if we can “do things for God” without actually being a disciple of Christ, what would constitute something in our lives that would guarantee or certify discipleship? The first things that come to mind are the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, isn’t that exactly how they are delivered to us? The flesh does certain things, but the Spirit of God does other things. Therefore, we know the Spirit of God is at work within us when those things are in our lives. In addition, I would add the virtue lists of the New Testament. Again, these lists have everything to do with character that is formed more by Christ than by this world.

On one level it might seem simplistic to say that a disciple of Christ is someone who is longsuffering; they are patient people. But, if you have ever had your patience tried, and failed at being patient, you know that when the rubber hits the road, there is nothing simplistic about it at all. In fact, you might reflect and say that the only way you could have been patient in certain circumstances is with a kind of divine aid. Add to this forgiveness, humility, joy, repentance, or peace, and you have a list that sounds only like Christ and sounds almost nothing like me.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 3: Barriers to Following Christ

Post 1 Post 2

In this post I want to raise two important barriers to Christian discipleship. My wife and I were recently in a neighborhood showing of The Truth Project. It is a DVD series intended to convey the Christian worldview, especially to Christians and spiritual seekers. The conversation that followed fascinated me when it came to reflecting on belief formation in general and Christian discipleship specifically.

As a result of our conversation, and many others I have had with Christians and non-Christians over the years, I see at least two serious barriers to becoming thorough followers of Christ: individualism, and our current attitude toward authority.

The two attitudes are closely related but have a subtle distinction in this context. By individualism I intend to convey the idea that many people in our culture consider themselves the most important guide in the formation of their spiritual beliefs. Most people would not consider themselves the primary source of good information on biology, constitutional law, quantum theory, simple math, or many other things, but they do when it comes to spiritual truths. The belief that spiritual matters are not true in the same way that science is true creates the intellectual space in most people to consider themselves to be their own experts on spiritual matters. If, however, we believed that finding spiritual truth is akin to finding quantum truth, we might not be so haughty.

In addition, our current attitude toward authority keeps us from listening seriously to the teachings of the Church, theologians, or any spiritual authority (e.g. the first reaction of many people to the expression of authority is negative). Very simply, we are in a culture that has a basic, and rather deep-seated, distrust of authority. Again, we do not necessarily have that reaction to the resident authority on molecular biology or astronomy, but such terms as “ethical authority” or “religious authority” strike us as oxymoronic.

Why are these problems for Christian discipleship? First of all, finding spiritual truth is not, in a significant way, unlike finding truth in anthropology or astrophysics. All three fields make propositional statements about the structure of reality, and there are better and worse reasons for believing one theory or another. Holding a false belief about anything this fundamental is a barrier to progress. Secondly, individualists who distrust religious authority are less likely to find the right path when they have wondered down the wrong one. Not only will they need to have the wherewithal to reason through their errors, but they also need to be convinced that there are errors at all in the world of the spiritual.

These are a pair of the challenges that face the church of Jesus Christ today. Our pews are filled with latent and fully aware individualists. Our streets are filled with cultural Christians who have no good reason to take anybody’s word but their own when it comes to their spiritual beliefs.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gender Variance, Baby!

This blog by Albert Mohler cites a couple of articles in Florida and California in which school children are being subjected to a view sometimes labeled “gender variance” where children are not “forced” into traditional gender roles, but encouraged to construct their own genders from a very young age.

As Mohler notes, this is a dramatic and profound worldview shift. Right at the foundation of the issue is the conflict between a Christian view of humanity where personhood is essentially a given and the postmodern view where personhood is essentially constructed. This postmodern view reflects the rampant individualism and narcissism inherent in our current culture. Not only will we not let “the man” tell us who we are going to be, we won’t even let our own genetic make up tell us what gender we will be! Instead of resting in the “givenness” and grace of our creation in the image of God, we are left to drift on the currents of our shifting culture and mores. Though many might argue that this postmodern view allows us to become who we really want to be, and is actually empowering, it leaves us in a mire of moral confusion with no real ground to stand on. Has our culture, which has been finding itself for decades, become more mentally healthy and grounded or less?

Reincarnation Conundrum

This latest Q&A at Dr. Science is priceless. This philosophy student asks a rather observant question about the plausibility of reincarnation. Dr. Science's answer is priceless--especially the first line.

Q: I'm a student of esoteric spiritual philosophy at a community college, and am puzzled by theories of reincarnation. If the population of the world keeps steadily increasing, how can we all be reincarnated from the smaller number of people who lived before? And why do so many people insist that in their former lives they were kings and queens, when obviously royalty were the vast minority?

A: I've got a secret for you, Bob. Most people are really, really stupid. The delusional few insist they are reincarnated versions of Louis the Fourteenth, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc or John Wilkes Booth are probably borderline schizophrenics. The only form of continual re-birth that has been proven is "Reintarnation," which is a common in Arkansas and insures a steady supply of hillbillies.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Virtual Narcissism

In another project that I am involved in at the moment, I have been reading a lot about online/virtual communities. A popular argument is that given the judicious use of technology and interaction, virtual communities can be as rewarding, if not more rewarding, than face to face communities.

One of the arguments usually made to support the value of getting to know people online is that I am able to find people who match my interests and values better if I look for them online. If I were left to just the people I come in contact with on a regular basis, I might be left with a pretty small group of real friends.

First, the act of creating communities among those who are very much like me is inherently narcissistic. I go to MySpace, my favorite forum board, Goggle some topic I am fond of, and find someone to talk with. It all begins with me and what I find interesting and important. Part of what is so valuable with face to face communication is that if forces me to interact with people unlike myself, people I do not presently like, and people with whom I have a very difficult time communicating. It forces me to grow.

Secondly, one of the values of face to face friendships is that they make me expand and step out of my personal likes and dislikes. A good friend will help me become a better person, in part, by being different than I am. If I am to enjoy their company, I am going to learn how to interact with them on a deep and meaningful level.

If I am buried in virtual communities of people who are mostly like me, and find most of my relationships in these circles, I lose out on these real and meaningful benefits of face to face interactions.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Intelligent Design In The Square

I have a personal theory that is gaining speed all the time. Naturalists, atheists and well-meaning agnostics have a sense of academic and intellectual entitlement that leads them to believe they have a corner on the market of truth and science. It has lead many of them to become intellectually lazy. Theists and Christians have been on the receiving end of the academic blows for the past several decades (if not centuries) and have become all the stronger for it. As a result, many of them present superior arguments and demeanors in public debate when serious academic issues are at stake.

To put a fine point on it, when I say they present “superior arguments,” I mean they actually present arguments about the issues and not about the people involved. Many of the “arguments” against views that overlap with theistic views today are, frankly, ad hominum and off point.

Case in point.

In a recent edition of Think Tank on PBS, Dr. Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, was on to present the Intelligent Design point of view. His interlocutor was Dr. Michael Ruse, Director of the Program in the Philosophy of the History of Science at Florida State University and a leading Darwinist. In the first few minutes the host asked Meyer if he could distinguish ID from Creationism. He did a very good job of doing so. He then asked Ruse to rebut or respond to Meyer’s assertion.

How long do you think it took for Ruse to argue that because Meyer and other ID proponents were theists of one stripe or another that their theory should be rejected? If you read the transcript, you will scroll through about 4 pages of material (most of it introductory). In fact, Ruse revealed all his philosophical cards early on in the interview:

Nevertheless, I would want to say, for both creationism and intelligent design theory, there’s a deeply, deeply, antiscientific, anti naturalistic attitude which ultimately goes back to the bible being read more literally than traditional Christians would read it.

In other words, to be scientific in any publicly acceptable meaning of the word is to, by definition, be a naturalist. This ubiquitous opinion is exactly why Johnson’s and the Discovery Institute’s famous “Wedge Strategy” is so on point—the first battle to be won in this debate is philosophical.

Ruse was not shy in his evaluation of ID’s basic flaw:

I think you’re profoundly mistaken, I think you are often more religious than you let on, I think that you do try strategies to get around the separation of church and state, I think all of those things. But I think that you are deeply sincerely, if misguided evangelical Christians. So that is very much where I come from, and that’s where I feel at least we can meet there. Now let’s get back to the science.

And this after dwelling on the topic of religion which he and the interviewer raised as real defeaters for the ID case.

To this particular point in the discussion, Dr. Meyer has made it clear that the premises of ID are not theological, and to damn it for its possible theological implications is what he called a “fashionable way of avoiding our arguments.” And of course, Ruse rejected that point while continuing to make theology and religion the issue. By the time Ruse accuses Meyer of possibly being a “misguided evangelical,” Meyer has stated in no uncertain terms, at least twice, what the basic scientific position of Intelligent Design is: is design in nature apparent or real? To this same point, Dr. Ruse’s only rebuttal has been ad hominum: you and your kind are Christians and not naturalists.

Dr. Meyer has also, by this point, revealed the flaws in Ruse’s reasoning. First, Ruse dislikes a possible philosophical/theological implication of ID, and thus rejects the scientific arguments. That is a little bit like arguing: I really want to be able to fly, so I am going to reject the science of gravity. (ID is not a natural law like gravity, but the point is analogous—avoid the premise by denying the implications of the conclusion.)

Secondly, Ruse commits the ‘guilty by association’ fallacy. Because Meyer is a practicing Christian (the interviewer questions him on his religious beliefs at least twice), his motives are devious and his science is inadmissible. I have a friend whose mother would not let him grow a mustache because, she believed, all people with moustaches were “hiding something.” Dr. Ruse has a moustache. Am I justified, based on his reasoning, and taking a cue from my friend’s mother, in believing that he is hiding something?

I am willing to believe that there are serious Darwinists and Naturalists out there who are actually doing scientific and philosophical work on ID, but every time an expert is pulled out of the queue, even on a serious program like Think Tank, they never do.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Reflections On Discipleship 2

Part 1
First of all, thanks to all who have contributed so far to this thread of posts!

As a result, I want to focus briefly on a couple of issues.

First: An associate pastor friend of mine and I were talking about discipleship and we both were in agreement when it came to the necessary component of what gets modeled from behind the pulpits of the church. Rich noted in the comments to the last post that more often than not senior pastors see discipleship as something that they can relegate to an associate over C.E. and that a few people will choose to engage in. Frankly, if the senior pastor is not growing in discipleship, that lack will show in their ministry, and the church will follow suit. If maturity in Christ likeness is not a value to the ministry of a church, the church will not value it either.

Dallas Willard has noted that discipleship is not for the specially gifted or for those who desire to be discipled; it is the most basic and fundamental activity expected of every Christ follower. Where do we get this notion that discipleship is for the egg-heads and intellectuals among us? Wherever we got it, it has done a great deal of disservice to the Church.

This kind of modeling behavior does not only take place from behind the pulpit but in deliberate relationships as well. We learn what it means to live a Christ like life not just from learning the life of Christ, but from watching the lives of those who are further down the path than we are.

Second: I don’t know how long we can continue to pretend to “do church” when Scripture is not the center piece of our services. Due to a lot of forces out there, not the least of which is the church-growth/seeker-sensitive set of models, the role of Scripture has diminished in our churches. The more preachers I hear, the more I fit their sermons into one of two categories: Personal Soapbox and Glorified Self-Help. In both cases Scripture is given a nod as the minister grabs some small portion of Scripture to support the sermon on either the evils of [pick your demon] or the practical blessings of adding Jesus to your busy life. “With Jesus, it will all be better!”

Leave the self-help to the self-help gurus. Give people Jesus Christ and watch Him put their lives in order.

The result of this kind of preaching is a biblically illiterate culture of church-goers who are clearly not any kind of serious impact on our culture. Augustine changed his world by feeding his flocks true doctrine and, for example, going into great theological depth concerning issues like lying. John Wesley told a young preacher he was lively but shallow and that the only way to deepen himself as a preacher and a Christian was to read the classics (by which he meant Plato, Homer, Hume, Pascal, etc.) And I think we would agree that Wesley clearly made an impact.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Keep that Religion To Yourself!

In this timely blog entry, Robert George and Patrick Lee respond to a new book about science, religion and politics. In Challenging Nature, Lee Silver contends that the view that embryos are humans is inherently theological in nature, and thus does not belong in the public square. According to George and Lee, Silver:

insists that our views about the humanity and dignity of the human embryo are grounded in religious beliefs. He accuses us of concocting a scientific sounding case against embryo-destructive research in an effort to impose our religious beliefs on others while evading the constitutional prohibition of laws respecting an establishment of religion


Silver says that the claim that human embryos are human beings at an early stage of development is “hidden theology.”

George and Lee then analyze this claim by splitting it into two possible assertions. First, they say, Silver could be saying they hold their view of embryonic status as a theological view and are hiding that fact behind scientific sounding arguments. George and Lee appropriately dismiss that argument as ridiculously ad hominum. In the second place, Silver could be saying their argument depends on a theological premise whether they admit it or not.

The rest of the article is a phenomenal critique of this second argument by Silver and a great position paper for the full human status of embryos. What I want to comment on is the prevalence of Silver’s conclusion in our political culture.

It is assumed in a growing number of circles that religious points of view have no place in political dialogue. The form this is currently taking is actually quite frightening. As Silver’s position serves to show us, if you believe a human being is a human being, you are a closet religious fundamentalist and do not deserve the status of public thinker.

And it is not just the debate about embryonic status. Take abortion, or the Intelligent Design argument. Because the conclusions of many are in line with orthodox Christian theology, those conclusions ought not to be considered. It’s a classic “guilty by association” point of view. This argument (as the blog above shows) and the consequences of this view are absurd.

The argument is a kind of conspiracy theory on one level. It goes like: if you hold a belief that overlaps a belief consistent with Christianity, you are not being honest about your theological fundamentalism and you need to be “outed” as someone who should not be listened to (no matter your actual argument or evidence). Another way of putting it: it is impossible to come to conclusions consistent with Christianity and not be a dishonest fundamentalist.

The consequence is the strangling of serious ethical dialogue. According to Silver’s argument, the argument of the judge who presided over the Dover ID case, and the positions of many in the public eye, there are views that simply do not belong in the public square. And that is, as presented above, a deeply myopic and naïve view to hold. If scientists and public figures like Silver cannot seriously interact with a view contrary to their own, deal with the premises, come up with counter arguments or revise their own arguments, then they are probably susceptible to the charge of being intellectually dishonest.

Another problem at the root of this problem is another gigantic issue—the pervasive and pre-reflective religious relativism in our culture. Religious views are personal and not applicable to the real world; scientific views (as held by naturalists) are the only allowable views in public dialogue.

But that is a whole other set of thoughts.

Rabbit Trail: I am growing in my conviction in a theory of mine. Because Christians and theists have been perceived as the riffraff of public intellectuals for so long, they have had the time and incentive to develop better and better arguments for their points of view. Intellectuals like Silver and the Dover judge have grown intellectually sluggish with their supposed academic dominance over that “medieval” point of view. As a result, it will not be long before most of the serious and great thinkers in our culture will be theists of one stripe or another. I guess Darwin was right…

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship--Part 1

I was recently asked to take part in a Commission my denomination is putting together on Christian Education and Discipleship. I am very excited to be a part of this for several reasons, but primarily because discipleship is at the heart of my calling. God called me and constructed me to be a discipler and teacher, and now I have an opportunity to mix with others of the same mindset from across the country and hopefully combine some of my ideas with theirs. It promises to be a terrific learning and growing experience.

But what I want to do here, partly in preparation for our meetings, is to spend some time brainstorming on Christian Discipleship. I hope to create a small online think tank on the issue for at least a while as we share our ideas, experiences, and hopes for the growth and maturity of the Church. Feel free to share any thoughts on where you agree, disagree, or have something to add.

To get us started, here are some of my initial thoughts on the issue in general.

First: a focus on discipleship is sorely needed in the evangelical church. The statistics on what young people believe about the facts of Scripture and theology are deeply depressing, and the overall impact of the evangelical church in the culture at large is arguably minimal.

Second: nominal Christianity is rampant and dulling our senses to our need. Because most people in our culture (if the polls are to be believed) have a vague sense that they believe in God, their understanding of their need to know Christ intimately is nearly nil. The problem is not much less in our churches.

Third: discipleship is not for the spiritually gifted. It is a fundamental expectation of each and every Christ-follower. The early church was careful to pass along correct doctrine, catechize its new and young members, and expected all to be a follower of Christ in word and deed.

Fourth: discipleship is not just a destination, but also a journey. We cannot accomplish discipleship in a 6-week course. We also cannot look at discipleship as something that “happened” at some point in our life. Both the destination and the journey are crucial. We cannot remove the targets of relationship with Christ and knowledge of God, and we need to whet appetites for the lifelong journey that is following Christ.

Fifth: discipleship requires biblical literacy. I, along with some others I have read recently, am convinced that a great deal of the nominalism, and hence ineffectiveness, in the Church today can be traced back in large part to biblical illiteracy. We simply cannot actually answer the question: What would Jesus do?

Sixth: discipleship will be greatly aided with the resurgence of the spiritual disciplines in the evangelical world. The disciplines are not about rote activity or vain repetition—they are about putting our hearts, minds, and bodies in a place where they can be touched and used by God.

What else?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Encouragement for Pastors of Smaller Churches

Between Two Worlds: Encouragement for Pastors of Smaller Churches

These are some great thoughts concerning preaching the Word and the size of your church. We place so much emphasis upon size that we often miss the point John Piper makes to the question about small churches that teach doctrine--Jesus told Peter three times to feed my sheep. The command is pretty straight forward and independent from congregational size.

It is easy for us to get on the bandwagon of size and internal (within our own church circles) influence, but is that really what pastoring is about?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Evangelicals and the Bravery of Naming Heresy

.: That Which Stands Under :.: Contemporary Christianity and Heresy

This, in my opinion, is a good question. Why is it so hard for the evangelical church to call those within its ranks heretics when they preach and teach such things?

Are evangelicals too culturally relevant to rest on a deeper docrtinal morring? Is there any good definition of "evangelicalism" in the first place? Are we being eatten alive by our own antiintellectualism?

The Christian and Anger

In my sermon last weekend I made a statement or two about anger and the Christian life that provoked a discussion or two. In the general context of developing Spiritual Disciplines and the specific context of Colossians 3:1-17, I made the statement that Christians should strive to never be angry.

Admittedly that is a provocative, if not hyperbolic, statement. The discussion it elicited had to do with specific cases when actual wrongs are done and Christians must act, or the example of Christ in the temple turning over the seller’s tables. Certainly, many people were saying, there are cases when we ought to be angry at sin and strive to rectify it, and even the life of Jesus provides an example justifying “righteous indignation.”

I don’t want to try and settle the matter here, but rather provide a couple more thoughts for discussion. First of all, I know what I said was provocative--it was deliberate. I am glad people are now thinking and talking about the work of Spiritual Disciplines on their souls and their emotional states. Secondly, I would like to throw a couple of thoughts out there concerning the Christian and anger.

In the specific context of Colossians 3:1-17, Paul gives no quarter. He does not encourage the believer to “put off” anger in all cases except a handful in which we all know every reasonable person has a right to be angry. If what I said was provocative, it is because what Paul said is provocative. Having said that, however, I think it can be reasonably assumed, in a larger biblical context, that the point is to be able not to sin, even when we are angry. After all, the direct command is, “Be angry and sin not.” (Eph. 4:26)

But what is that direct command about? Is it about giving me the wiggle room to be angry, or is it about the injunction to not sin? Ultimately, I imagine the point is that I learn not to sin, not specifically about when I have a right to be angry.

And then there is Christ’s example of “righteous indignation.” It can be argued, and not dismissed lightly, that I am almost, if not entirely, incapable of being righteous in my indignation. If I am honest with myself, most all my anger, even at the wrongs and evils of sin and rebellion, is full of sin.

Is anger, especially when it is fraught with sin, a lack of trust in God’s providence? Is anger not only justified in certain circumstances, but necessary, for the attentive believer?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Destructive Virtue

I believe there is a virtue alive and well in our culture that is destroying us. It has come to dominate the social, religious, moral, political and legal landscapes and is by its very nature corroding the fabric of our souls. The virtue of Tolerance is killing us.

I of course mean Tolerance in terms understood by the majority of our culture today: it is the state of character where we put up with any behavior or belief and consider it morally OK as long as it is not intolerant. One might dispute my use of “virtue” to describe Tolerance, but I use it because that is exactly how it is understood today. To not draw real moral distinctions or to avoid moral judgment altogether are traits of character prized in our milieu.

The reason it is so corrosive is it allows a person to feel virtuous while at the same time leading a life of debauchery and general engagement in vice. All we need now to be good people is Tolerance. As long as we do not judge the actions and beliefs of others, we can do what we please with ourselves and be good. Living my life is now a matter of narcissistic pragmatism, and I am now justified in pursuing every whim as long as I allow you to do the same.

Chastity is no longer a virtue to us. Intellectual Honesty isn’t either. We will look long and hard to find the virtues of Moderation, Courage (especially the moral variety), Patience, and Hope. Love is a sickly and sycophantic shadow of its real self. And good luck finding the value we place in the virtue of real, objective and world-engaging Faith.

You are good as long as you are Tolerant.

But express a second of moral clarity, an ounce of judgment for evil, and you are no longer worthy of our culture’s approbation. As soon as real evil and real sin is labeled as such, Tolerance will come crashing down around you.

We are allowing ourselves to be rusted from the inside out, and our Brave New Virtue is doing it to us.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Out Of The Mystery...And Right Back In

Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.
The basic burden of Leonard Sweet’s book, Out of the Question…Into the Mystery: Getting Lost In The Godlife Relationship, is to express the absolute centrality of relationship with God. For Sweet, knowing God is far more than just knowing the right kinds of things about God, but is about living a life of deep and meaningful relationship with God. Each section focuses on different forms of our relationships: with God, God’s story, other believers, those of other faiths, and so forth.

At times this book has a lot to offer. There are moments when Sweet expresses the interaction between “head knowledge” and relationship well, and, I argue, rightly. The opening sentence of the chapter “The Truth in Text” says, “The gift of life is to know the truth, and not just intellectually, but to experience its power and impact.” (98) In several other places he simply makes the point that following Jesus the way he wants to be followed is not just about doctrine but faith; not just about creed but trust.

Overall, I would say the second half of the book is more helpful than the first. The fundamental problem, however, is that Sweet sets up his argument and builds his foundation in the first half. The arguments and foundation are, for the most part, pretty thin and unconvincing. Sweet makes a move over and over in the first 100 pages of the book that I originally labeled as false dichotomies, but the more I read and discussed it with friends, I turned to labeling them “unhelpful and unnecessary distinctions.” There are literally dozens of these kinds of statements, but a brief taste will suffice:

“Belief is Plato; faith is Jesus.” (10)
“Is it better to believe, or to follow?” (13-chapter subtitle)
“The Christian church was created, not to preach doctrine, but to preach Jesus.” (24)
“Biblical faith is not about living a moral life.” (59)
“Truth is not certainty, nor is it doubt—both of which reject Christ.” (69)
“The Christian message is not a timeless tablet of moral principals or a code of metaphysics.” (74)

Each of these statements are intended to put across the necessity of relationship and faith, but they do so in a way that can actually lead the reader in the direction of seeking faith instead of knowledge, which is, ultimately, an absurd position to hold.

Take for instance the statement “The Christian church was created, not to preach doctrine, but to preach Jesus.” Sweet’s intent is to argue that many churches may ignore the person of Jesus and teach only catechetic dogma. But that is not what he says and what he says doesn’t make much sense if we unpack it just a little bit. Let us say I want to preach Jesus, so near Christmas I preach he was born of the virgin Mary. But then I need to back up because the virgin birth is a doctrinal affirmation. Now jump to Easter when I want to preach on our future hope based on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But then I need to change my approach because the resurrection is doctrine.

The position, as actually stated, is silly. I literally cannot preach Jesus without making some kind of doctrinal statement. If I try to preach Jesus without doctrine, I do not preach the Jesus of the Bible and we are suddenly on a completely different playing field. Doctrine, right doctrine, about Jesus is essential to preaching the person of Jesus Christ.

In addition to this category of affirmation in the book, Sweet falls into the trap of believing that truth as we know it now (correspondence to reality/objectivity) is a recent creation, and that the early church and early philosophers had no conception of objective truth. He says, “Until a few centuries ago, ‘truth’ had no independent status outside of relationships with and obligations to God and to others.” (67) There seems to be a consistent lacuna in the theological view he represents—there is no knowledge of the philosophy of Aristotle, Socrates or Plato. To Sweet, and others with similar views, the notion of Truth was novel to Descartes and other Modernists. They seem to not know what the three ancient Greek giants taught about objective truth.

Did the early church teach doctrine as “truth” or were they simply a community of relationships? “The first Christians didn’t proclaim a creed or a statement of faith; they didn’t demand assent to a list of facts; they proclaimed the Cross; they proclaimed the Resurrection; they proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of Christ.” (9) As an initial observation, Sweet says the early church didn’t have doctrines except for the ones on his list. Secondly, we know that the earliest NT documents contain creedal formats that were not a creation of the author, but a reflection of what the Church already taught. Additionally, during the first 200-300 years of the Church the process of catechism was rigorous to say the least. It might be legitimately argued that catechism was more prevalent in the early church than it is now.

Ultimately, it is silly to think I can have a serious relationship with someone I am not required to have specific knowledge about. Can I relate with my wife without knowing important and personalized details about her? Can she essentially be just any woman? Can I express my relationship with her (analogously: declare the Gospel of Christ) without knowing those details (analogously: without basic doctrine)?

Why am I being this critical of the book and the way it presents its case? I have a friend who grew up Christian and has since turned her back on the church in favor of a more personalized spirituality that is more drawn to Buddhism than to Christ. Her journey has lead her to reading and appreciating the writings of Emergent and liberal Catholic authors. The reason she reads them is that they give her the space she needs spiritually to reject the claims of Christ on her life in favor of a Christ that is not about doctrine or theology. As a result, she may still hold a personal claim on Christ as presented by authors like Sweet, without believing in her need to cling to Christ only.

One may rejoin that any reader of any book can take out of it what they want, and that might be true. But when a Christian author makes it this easy for me to reject the doctrine of Christ in favor of a personalized Christ who makes no particular claim upon me, then I believe the primary error is with the author.

When we come to a point where we think we can have a meaningful relationship with a person we are not required to actually know, we have strayed too far from the biblical witness of the person Christ. For that reason, I cannot recommend this book as a useful tool in building that relationship.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dude, Where's My Twentysomething?

One of the more disturbing trends in the American church today is how many young adults disappear from church between graduating from high school and their early thirties. Undoubtedly there are several good ways to analyze and deal with this issue, and I am hoping some of my readers may have some of their own insights. Recently Brian McLaren has taken up the issue and an article of his is previewed in a recent blog post in Out of Ur. More extensively, Paradoxology has interviewed Sara Cunningham, the author of “Dear Church: Letters From A Disillusioned Generation.” Her book is all about the attitudes of twentysomethings and their general sense of disaffection with the church.

Part of what I really appreciated in the interview was the author’s openness to twentysomethings being pushed back on by older generations. At times there is a tendency among youngish authors to imply that their frustrations with “institutional” church are nigh unassailable and are problems their parent’s church cannot answer. Cunningham’s attitude was much more irenic: she clearly and openly states the realities of disillusionment while noting the need to remain an active and maturing part of the church.

A couple of points in the interview were interesting to me. The interviewer, DesertPastor, asked several questions regarding “institutional church.” This exchange was interesting to me:

Q: Local churches are undoubtedly "communities of flawed humans" - as you point out in the book. Does this change when it comes to alternative expressions of "Church"? And if not, what dangers do such alternative communities of faith face?

A: You're opening the door for a crucial point here. Alternative faith communities face the exact same dangers as the traditional church. ANY approach to faith can become institutionalized. For example, if there is even an implied suggestion that "truly authentic churches should meet in homes," we institutionalize house churches. If there is an implied suggestion that "truly relevant pastors should read Relevant Magazine," we institutionalize Relevant.

Now, of course, I don't deny that there are core habits and practices that DO produce spiritual growth. Things like devotion to prayer, worship, study of Scriptures, and community. But when we place rigid expectations that people pray at our 6 a.m. prayer services, that they buy up our recommended worship CDs, that they read our devotional materials, that they attend our Wednesday night services, we may short-circuit their otherwise natural tendency to pursue other experiences that God has customized for their growth.

The church must always--ALWAYS--guard against institutionalization. It takes away from our love of personal transformation; our love of craftsmanship!

On one level, Cunningham hits the nail on the head-there is no avoiding institutionalization. Any expression of Church, alternative or not, will on some level be systematic and deliberate. Though I come from a non-liturgical tradition, we still have our own form of liturgy though we never name it as such.

But on another level I think there is more to be said about institutionalization. Cunningham believes it stifles individual spiritual creativity, but I am not sure she intends that to be applied to every form of institutionalization. Later in the interview, she notes this about liturgical expressions of faith after telling us that more and more twentysomethings are making their way toward liturgy:

A: Liturgy, on the other hand, speaks to us of a timeless, unchanging God who is not reliant on magic tricks or aces up the sleeve to get people into his congregations. There is something proven, and therefore credible, about practices that extend back to ancient times.

Liturgy, properly understood, is the absolute height of institutionalization. It is literally the systematic expression of worship that, in its more orthodox forms, really does “force” the faithful to worship at 6:00am, 7:00pm, on the Sabbath, during Lent, on Ash Wednesday, etc.

In other words, and I think this is generally true of twentysomethings who write about their evangelical church experience, the institutionalization they are accustomed to is something they think is hallow and the institutionalization they find novel is non-trivial.

Now, there really may be something to that. Maybe the evangelical church threw out the baby with the bath water when we reacted against liberal mainline theology in the late nineteenth century. Critical and irenic analysis is called for when working on the difference between a “typical” evangelical institution and the ancient/future thrust popular in many circles.

I look forward to reading more on this issue, as it is of genuine concern for me. Is the rift between young adults and their churches a maturity issue? Is it a cultural issue? Do most leaders in our churches really lack that much understanding of the younger generation?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"Yeah, I'm calling from, like, my motorcycle."

I saw something last night I have never seen before. It was about 8:30pm, dark, and I was driving alongside a guy on a motorcycle talking on his cell phone. It wasn’t a bluetooth earpiece, it was just a normal cell phone wedged between his right shoulder (throttle hand) and ear.

Have cell phones become so ubiquitous and commonplace that we no longer think of them as an impediment to interacting with the world around us when we really need to be paying attention? There is no way this guy was safe on his bike and cell phone at the same time, but the awkward physical position and noise level didn’t phase him one bit. Is it really too much to ask to hang up while you are driving a bike and call your buddy back when you reach your destination?

Maybe I am being a bit curmudgeonly, but are we becoming way too accustomed to having life the way we want it when we want it? If driving a motorcycle at night is not enough to make us postpone a possibly pointless conversation, do we have our priorities all askew?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

New Blog on the Church and Pomo Culture

the church and postmodern culture: conversation

If you are interested in the future of the American church, the Emergent movement and their intersections with postmodern culture, this looks like it might be an interesting blog to keep tabs on.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Emerging to Where? From What?

I often look at Relevant Magazine with a slanted eye, but the article, For Change’s Sake, caught my attention. In it, Brett McCracken poses a small set of crucial-but as of yet unanswered-questions to the emergent church movement. What he really wants to know is, why? and, where to? The emergent movement has been clear that they are reacting to the infiltration of Modernism in the American church, but that has been shown to be mostly a canard comprised of a handful of bad experiences and overreactions. The substantive criticisms the emergent movement level at Modernism are typically philosophically and historically under-informed. Where they are strong is when they note the captivity many in our culture are in with regard to consumerism and the consequent thinning of life. But is postmodernism the answer?

McCracken notes:

Before we push on and proclaim an emerging new church, perhaps we ought to first think hard and fast about where we’ve come from and why we need to leave it behind.

It is the tendency of many enamored with Postmodernism and the emergent movement to not think deeply about Modernism and its pros and cons. Typically, straw men are erected the summarily torn down. For example, it is common for postmodern Christians to decry the failure of Cartesian Foundationalism. If Descartes failed, the conclusion is that Modernism is a failure. Never mind the general consensus of Christian philosophers that Cartesian Foundationalism is a general failure, but that some form of modest foundationalism is not. It is a stereotypical case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater without even investigating the baby.

Then there is the penchant of the emergent movement to embrace uncertainty. McCracken writes:

There are many things we can talk about regarding the “emerging church,” which is good because the movement itself is all about conversation. Talking about what the emerging church is or could be is the emerging church: An ongoing ontological conversation. But that is both a good and bad thing, because putting “conversation/dialogue” on too high a pedestal can be problematic. The emerging church has reacted against its former self, which unfortunately didn’t allow for all that much open dialogue or meta-critique. But the reaction—at least to me—has gone too far, frequently embracing postmodern uncertainty and conversational ambiguity to the point of absurdity.

Add to that the tendency to side-step direct questions and the avoidance of direct answers even on topics Scripture speaks to clearly.

Controversy is routinely avoided at all cost, and identity often comes more from what "emerging" isn’t than what it is....The Church, before it can really emerge into a new significance, must continually check itself: Where have we come from, where are we going, how will be get there, and most importantly—why? If we don’t understand this, we are in serious trouble.

A movement claiming the future of evangelical Christianity will not get far if it is infiltrated with postmodern relativism, deconstructionism, obscurantism, and ambiguity. At least, I hope it doesn’t.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cold Call Story: Grinding Theological Axes Over The Phone

I just got off the phone with an idiot. He found my number in association with a religious organization and proceeded to ask me if he could ask a question about the Trinity. Feeling like this might be a chance to talk through what is a hairy and sometimes difficult issue, I listened to his question. As a pastor, I have received several calls and had several conversations about difficult biblical issues, so it does not take long for me to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This guy was chaff.

He asked me a legitimate question about a single passage of Scripture that to him seemed to be the final word on the Father being the only God. I replied by saying that the entire NT deals with all three members of the Trinity as God, and that a single verse that names only one or two of them is a bad basis for determining doctrine and excluding the rest of the Trinity.

He then proceeded to lecture me about how the NT nowhere treats the Holy Spirit as God, and later in the conversation, admitted that Jesus is not God but the first created being. His hang up was neither personal nor legit-he called under false pretences to grind a theological axe and waste my time.

He refused to answer my question about why he called except to tell me he wanted to know why I was associated with this cult-like heresy. He claimed to be a Bible student, but when I asked him what his background was or where he went to school, he literally hemmed and hawed with no answer. Apparently he has hit on the truth by himself in contradiction to the history of the orthodox church. Chances are, he is either a zealous individual looking for Christians to yell at over the phone, or he is a part of some kind of school or “church” that does this as their form of outreach or training.

Besides basing his entire theology of the Godhead on a single verse, his reasoning was fraught with logical errors. For one example, he replied at one point to my appeal to 2000 years of orthodoxy that just because people believed the earth was flat for 3000 years doesn’t make it true. His rejoinder is basically right, except that 3000 years from now we will all still believe the earth is basically round. Why? Because we have really good evidence for that fact. Likewise, we have really good evidence for the truth of the Trinity over his “novel” Arianism.

He also dipped into the screed about how evil that 2000 year-old Church has been, killing thousands of people through the centuries. I replied that those actions, though horrible, have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the Church’s doctrine. He replied, “Oh yes they do!”

And the kicker is that he began demanding “a single verse” in the Bible that taught that Jesus was God, that the Holy Spirit was God, or anything close to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Take it from someone who had locked horns in “Scripture quoting mêlées” before-that would have done no good. He was clearly ready to “defeat” any verse or passage I leveled at him (I had already given him several in my opening statement-which he never addressed). So I asked him if he was ready to defeat every passage I would give him or if he would listen to any of them. His reply, “Just give me one verse!”

So, for those of you who are still stuck in the mire of the Athanatian Creed and the general orthodoxy of an evil Church, I am sorrowed to inform you have you have been duped into the clutches of a horrible cult.

I’ll see you at the next meeting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Does God Lose Arguments?

I am in the middle of reading Leonard Sweet’s, Out of the Question…Into the Mystery, and without giving away my overall impression which shall be saved for a future review, I was just reading one section that really caught my attention.  In the context of dealing with the story of Abraham offering Isaac, Sweet brings up the topic of how often biblical characters, specifically prophets, argued with God and appeared to win their cases.  As a short list, Moses, Jacob and Abraham all argued with God and he appeared to change his mind.

In all this, Sweet’s point is that our genuine interaction with God is found in relationship and not in belief or doctrine.  In support of this point, he quotes a book by Conrad Gempf.  Gempf notes that disputing with Jupiter or Allah is likely to end badly for the human and disputing with Buddha will result in him chuckling at our missing the point of unreality.  But,

“when you start arguing with Yahweh, he smiles, rolls up his anthropocentric sleeves, and starts to look interested.  The strangest thing is that he likes losing the arguments even more than he likes winning them.”

My first reaction was, “is ‘losing the arguments’ the right way of putting that?”  Does God ever ‘lose’ an argument, and if so, what does that mean about the biblical God?

I have to admit that these passages concerning those who wrestled with God or argued with him are fascinating, certainly full of meaning, and possibly very hard to wrap our theological selves around.  So how ought I to approach these passages?

I think a first rule of thumb, contrary to Sweet’s intent, is that God never loses.  If Sweet and Gempf intend to mean that God loses arguments in the sense that his original plan is exposed as wrong, shortsighted, or faulty in some fashion by a human, then I think they may both be way outside of the biblical witness of the nature of God.

One hermeneutical rule of thumb is that we ought to interpret the difficult passages in light of the clearer passages, and it is clear in Scripture that God is omniscient.  Thus, it would not be in keeping with Scripture’s clear witness if we hold to a notion that God loses arguments in ways analogous to how I might lose an argument.

Maybe a good place to begin when looking at these kinds of passages is the exercise of God-given free will combined with an obedient relationship with God.  If I am sure God never mistakes the effects of his actions and the set of current circumstances, then I am inclined to believe that ‘arguments’ with God are more about the display of human will and affection than of genuine argumentation.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe Abraham was sincerely debating God over Sodom and Gomorrah, but because God’s ‘original plan’ was not wrongheaded, then I might more easily believe the conversation was intended to bring out Abraham’s affection for Lot and other humans than it was to correct God.

Nothing easy about these passages.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Logical Extension of Pluralistic Secularism?

Dutch Court OKs 'Pedophile' Political Party

In this story we learn that a Dutch court refused to ban a political party from registering whose platform is to lower the age of sexual consent from 16 to 12. Of the three known members, one was convicted of sexually molesting an 11-year-old 20 years ago. The reasons for this ruling sound very American.

"Freedom of expression, freedom ... of association, including the freedom to set up a political party, can be seen as the basis for a democratic society," Judge H. Hofhuis said in his ruling. "These freedoms give citizens the opportunity to, for example, use a political party to appeal for change to the constitution, law, or policy."

According to the judge, voters are the final moral authority when it comes to political parties and the laws of the land.

"It is the right of the voter to judge the appeal of political parties," he said.

There were dissenters to the ruling to be sure, and their objections ranged from their view that children had the right not to be presented with this political view to the further harm the very existence of this party could do to past victims of pedophilia and sexual abuse.

Noteably missing from the story's presentation of the opposing opinion is the moral evil of pedophilia. The legal stance was about rights and harm (and certainly rightly so), but not about inherent morality.

This appeal to rights is ubiquitous in our own culture as well, and though it may or may not lead to the establishment of the 'Americans United For The Sexual Liberation of Minors' political party, it does not have the power to prevent it either. We have come to a point in our cultural psyche in which 'rights' are the last word on any contested legal issue, and all one needs to do in order to have their way is to claim a 'right'. For some reason, that appeal seems to have the force of divine utterance for us. It is more powerful than moral arguments, but as we see in this Dutch case, it cannot settle an inherently moral issue.

The opponents to the Dutch ruling are right that children have some kind of right to be protected from pedophiliac political propoganda, but in a world comprised of nothing more than competing claims to 'rights', children have no more right to not be raped than rapist have to rape children. So who decides? Well, judges do. And it is not surprising that in cultures that value pluralism and tolerance, judges will tend to rule on the side of more tolerance and not less-we are multiplying rights instead of limiting them, no matter what they are.

That reality, however, leades to inherently absurd realities. Because our Western European cultures are becoming more and more relativitstic and natrualistic all the time, we end up living in cultures that believe on some level that pedophiles have a 'right' to be a political presence and that children have the right to not be subjected to their message. Think of San Francisco during the NAMBLA parades. The absurdity is we believe that two contradictory 'rights' should be public realities at the same time when one of them is clearly morally abhorrent. Oftentimes the way we release this mental and moral pressure cooker is we claim that NAMBLA has the 'right' to march and that parents have the option, if they so desire, to keep their kids inside during the parade of depravity. "Just decide not to watch," "Change the channel," we argue believing that that absolves us from our moral namby pambyism.

What needs to be regained is a public square that is not afraid of drawing moral distinctions. Pedophilia is evil, and it is a moral good to protect our children from the actions and messages of its proponents. Hence, in a morally centered pluralistic society, the rights of the children outweigh the rights of the molesters and they should be refused the right to form public politicial parties.

Dostoyevsy was right. Despite every complicated and extended attempt to prove him wrong, he was right when he put these words in the mouth of Ivan, "When God is dead, everything is permitted."

A culture built on nothing but a pluralism of rights is literally absurd. A culture built on rights adjuicated by a supernatural, objective, and enduring source is reasonable, healthy, moral, wise, and utterly necessary.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Christianity and Consumerism

Leadership Blog: Out of Ur: From Lord to Label: how consumerism undermines our faith

This is a great excerpt of an article regarding the current state of Christian consumerism. The author states:

When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity....Approaching Christianity as a brand (rather than a worldview) explains why the majority of people who identify themselves as born-again Christians live no differently than other Americans.

The author's opinion is that idolatry may not be the primary problem as much as "living to consume" is at the core of the corruptive influences of consumerism. The article reminded me of de Tocqueville's warning that democracy/capitalism, though the best form of government, can distract people from "heavenly mindedness." In other words, we are distracted from the deeper matters of our souls by our material booty.

Despite all her current shortcomings, the Church can and should be a bastion of soulishness and virtue. We can still be a place where the soul is fed above the promptings of our consumer-trained felt needs.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Destroy Life To Create It

Embryonic Stem Cells Turned Into Sperm

In an ironic twist of science, embryonic stem cells have been used to create sperm and give birth to live mice, most of which grew to adulthood. So which is it-is the product of sperm and egg a life in the womb, or is it fodder for scientific research? If embryos have to be destroyed to gather their stem cells, is it a major conceptual lacune on the part of the scientific community to see the beginning embryo as fodder and the end result as life?

The article contains this required plug about the potential of embryonic stem cells:

Stem cells have the potential to develop into any tissue type in the body and could therefore be used to develop a wide range of medical therapies.

Someday, we will all no doubt be saved through the sacrifice of our children.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Moral Fascination vs. Moral Exemplar

A recent interview in the Mars Hill Audio Journal with Carson Holloway piqued my curiosity regarding morality and Naturalism/Materialism. Holloway’s interview focused on the inability of Darwinistic Naturalism to support a flourishing political or cultural ethic. Holloway argued that if we remove God from our metaphysic, we eliminate everything that flows from His existence, including a robust theory of human nature and ethical grounding.

At one point in the conversation, Meyers (the host) and Holloway dealt with how Christianity and Darwinistic Naturalism might view Mother Teresa. The both argued, and I agree, that without a non-natural grounding for ethics Mother Teresa is a moral fascination and not a moral exemplar. If our material self is all we have to gauge ethical behavior, we might say that some form of an “ethical median” is normal and natural in the strictest sense of the word. Additionally, unusual moral behavior, such as Teresa’s, which is overly charitable and unnaturally beneficent, is nothing more than non-normal behavior. Her behavior can be described as “charitable” or “altruistic,” but both those terms and their synonyms lose all normative force; they are merely descriptive and not prescriptive.

In the rubric of Naturalism, a father can point to Mother Teresa and tell his son, “She is altruistic,” and it is nothing more than a description of behavior. Logically speaking, he cannot wish his son to rise to her level of morality, or hope that his own ethical shortcomings can be alleviated by her example.

If, on the other hand, as under Christian theism, there is a non-natural standard of ethical behavior, what “comes naturally” to me, or what the “ethical median” is in my particular culture, can be gauged and judged as either better or worse. Our father can point to Mother Teresa, say the same thing to his son, and mean that he wishes his son to be “as good as that.” If nature is all we have, ethical terms are descriptors; if Christian theism is true, ethical terms have normative/prescriptive weight.

All this to say that Christian theism accords with our deep intuitions about describing Mother Teresa’s behavior. Very few of us would imagine that tales of her story and lifestyle are nothing more than descriptions of a moral freak of nature; we naturally and rightly take ethical terms to have prescriptive force.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Taming The Trinity

That whole “Trinity” thing is getting a little outdated and needs to be punched up for our postmodern, enlightened times.  Thank goodness for a delegation within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who have offered some alternate references to the Trinity beyond the traditional moniker of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  The LA Times provides this explanation of the proposal and several reactions within the PC(USA).  The author of the article, K. Connie Kang, says:

…leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are suggesting some additional designations: "Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb," or perhaps "Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River."

Then there's "Rock, Cornerstone, and Temple" and "Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace."

The phrases are among 12 suggested but not mandatory wordings essentially endorsed this month by delegates to the church's policy-making body to describe a "triune God," the Christian doctrine of God in three persons.

A reaction from a pastor:

The Rev. Mark Brewer, senior pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, is among those in the 2.3-million-member denomination unhappy with the additions.

"You might as well put in Huey, Dewey and Louie," he said.

That is how it struck me as well.  The crafters of the document respond:

Daniel L. Migliore, a member of the committee that spent five years crafting the report, said critics miss the point.

"What we are speaking of is supplementary ways of referring to the triune God — not replacements, not substitutes," said Migliore, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

And the primary reason for proposing these supplementary references to the Triune God?  Because the traditional formula is patriarchal.  The LA Times article contains this explanation and quote from the document:

Written by a diverse panel of working pastors and theologians, the report noted that the traditional language of the Trinity portrays God as male and implies men are superior to women.

"For this and other distortions of Trinitarian doctrine we repent," the report said.

Wow-the Church is now repenting for language that refers to God taken straight from Scripture.  This belies the deep penetration of postmodern philosophy amongst the drafters of the proposal.  Postmodern philosophy places the entire value and truth of belief within communities and sees power as the greatest evil on earth.  As a result, if something smacks of the exercise of power, and patriarchy is the devil of postmodern power, it must be opposed.

So it is not too shocking that a delegation from within the PC(USA) has gone to this kind of length in order to repent for what is a total misconstrual of biblical language and theology.   Never mind the fact that the Bible is not patriarchal (in the exercise of power sense of the word).  What must be paid attention to is our culture’s current tide of sensibilities and we need to “repent” of those pieces of Scripture and orthodoxy that may offend those.

When culture determines our take on Scripture, everything is fair game and orthodoxy becomes meaningless in a whirlwind of fads and sensibilities.

(Thanks to: Apologia Christi)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Students Fail At Virginity

A recent study by Harvard found that the majority of students who pledge virginity (read “True Love Can Wait” and similar campaigns) recant and are sexually active within a year. They also found that the details of who actually pledged and who subsequently had a sexual encounter was hard to pin down. It says:

The analysis also found that 52 percent of adolescent virginity pledgers in the 1995 survey disavowed the virginity pledge at the next survey a year later. Additionally, 73 percent of virginity pledgers from the first survey who subsequently reported sexual intercourse denied in the second survey that they had ever pledged.

The author concludes that adolescents' self-reported history of sexual intercourse is an unreliable measure for studies of the effectiveness of virginity pledges.

It appears that the guilt factor makes this kind of study difficult, possibly to the point of being too erratic to draw clear conclusions from. But I am not surprised that the stats on students who fail in their virginity pledge might be more than half. Anecdotally, as a minister engaged with youth during the time of the “True Love Waits” campaign, I can vouch for the study’s results.

Some analysis is available in a recent Breakpoint, and an op-ed piece in the NT Times by Lauren Winner (need a subscription to read). Colson and Winner point out a couple of items that help to explain these sad results. First is the pledge’s reliance on an individual’s will power, and second is the apparent failure of teen’s communities in supporting the pledges.

The first reason is a solid theological one. We American evangelicals still believe, all too blindly, upon our individual powers of the will. We still believe, in the face of overwhelming social and theological evidence that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” False. Paul tells us over and over that our wills are not only broken, they are turned against God and a Christ-like lifestyle. Any simple pledge to do something as dramatic as remain (or “newly become”) a virgin until marriage needs to contain theological backing and biblical support.

The second reason, the failure of the community, is another indictment against the contemporary church. Most youth groups today are nothing but adolescence maintenance and surrogate parenting. When teenagers graduate from high school and their youth groups, they are woefully under prepared for both college and adult life. Because they have been incubated in youth groups that keep them at a 13-year old theological level, it is no wonder they fail so spectacularly when they exit the incubator.

To be sure, there are youth groups that are the exception to the rule-if that is you, then do what I do and blame “the other guy” or “that other youth group down the street.”

I would like to add to this mix the complete lack of spiritual formation and discipleship of youth in our churches. It is crucial when it comes to the practicalities of life that young Christians learn the theology of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Do we attempt to teach them the Christian virtues? The fruit of the Spirit? Do we create atmospheres where the entire body of Christ is encouraging spiritual maturity or where we unwittingly endorse the chasm between adult Christian faith and the Youth group?

Monday, July 03, 2006

"Truth and the New Kind of Christian"

I recently finished R. Scott Smith’s book, Truth and the New Kind of Christian. In it, Smith tackles the theological and philosophical underpinnings of postmodernism, what is sometimes called post-conservative evangelicalism, and the Emergent church movement. In many significant ways, we discover in his book, they are all of the same family.

Ultimately the book is very well done, written in an irenic tone (one of the back-cover endorsements is by Tony Jones, one of the Emergent leaders Smith engages and critiques), and is finally an overwhelming critique of the postmodern philosophical underpinnings of Emergent.

Philosophically, Smith’s work is aimed at the postmodern language games endorsed and played by post-conservatives and Emergent authors. Smith knows whereof he speaks. He deals fairly with their works, as far as I can tell, and concludes that they all assert the philosophical belief that we are all “within” language and can’t get out.

At this point it is worth noting that most Emergent reactions to that kind of assertion is that they are only engaging in dialogue, are not trying to take a hard-and-fast position on something so philosophical, and therefore are not susceptible to that kind of critique. But, as Smith so adeptly and trenchantly notes, “I propose, however, to show that their views are inconsistent with orthodoxy, by trying to take their views more seriously and consistently than I have seen them do.” (pg. 143)

One critique in his book I had not run across before was the charge of idolatry. If reality for every individual is the result of linguistic and/or communal construction (as he shows they believe), then we cannot know God as he really is, but instead we construct him through our language. Hence, postmodern Christians “must be idolaters” (pg. 145) because they cannot but make God in their own image. If either there is no objective reality or we cannot know objective reality, God cannot be revealed; he must be constructed, thereby violating the first two of his own Ten Commandments.

The conclusion? A Christian faith that is postmodern in its theology is far from orthodox and leads to these kinds of absurd conclusions.

It is one thing to reflect seriously on postmodernism as a descriptive context for certain segments of our culture (I still don’t believe it is as all-encompassing as sometimes described) and as a pastoral exercise. The step from cultural description and pastoral concern to ecclesiological prescription, however, is completely unwarranted and ultimately disastrous.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Salvo Mag-New Resource


This looks to be a good resource in the near future. It is unfortunate they don't offer an online version, but there is nothing wrong with dropping a few bucks on a good subscription. The editorial board looks very promising. This is from their mission:

Blasting holes in scientific naturalism, marveling at the intricate design of the universe, and promoting life in a culture of death.

Critiquing art, music, film, television, and literature, interrupting mass media influence, and questioning the sanity of our consumerist lifestyle.

Countering destructive ideologies, replacing revisionist fictions with undeniable facts, and paring away political correctness.

Debunking the cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed the notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded our appetite for transcendence.

Recovering the one worldview that actually works.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Focus On The Family's Truth Project

Faith at Altitude: Truth and Dare

I am a little dissapionted that I didn't hear about this local conference before it was held-I would have loved being there. I did receive, however, a promo DVD with snippets of the sessions and an overview of the project. It is all very well done and put together, but I had one reservation stemming from what little I saw on the DVD. I wish they had steered clear of some of the social advocacy issues they tackled head-on. It is not that I necessarily disagree with the positions they took (I probably agree with FOTF more often than not), but in my opinion building a worldview means building philosophical and theological foundations instead of political positions. The political positions inevitably follow, but we ought to be theological first and political second.

I am currently going through a study of Jeremiah with our church and I am struck from time to time by his ability to raise political havoc while being wholly committed theologically and completely uncomitted politically.

Maybe someone out there has seen the full set of materials and would like to comment on their usefulness and quality?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Calvinism and Irenic Encounters

I have seen this article referenced a couple times today, and when I got a chance to read it I appreciated the tone and demeanor taken by the two interlocutors regarding Calvinism/Reformed Theology and, what is in essence, general evangelical theological standards.  Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson, two university presidents in the SBC school system, interacted about the role of Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention and its role in the call to evangelize.

These two displayed an irenic spirit, and it seems a good grasp of the issues at hand.  As a non-Calvinist in my theology, I resonated with at least one of the points made by Patterson, the non-Calvinist in the debate:

But Patterson also said there are several areas of concern he has with “some Calvinists”:

-- the notion that if “you are not a Calvinist then you must be an Arminian.” He said he is neither.

I would modify that to say, “if you are not a Calvinist then you must be Pelagian.”  In some of my less irenic encounters, that is the bifurcation drawn by some deeply serious and evangelistic Calvinists.  But Patterson is right.  The evangelical theological world is not so easily divided into the orthodox Calvinists and the unorthodox Heretics.

Monday, June 12, 2006

George and Singer at Princeton

On the Square: Robert George about Singer and Debate

This is a great article on several levels, not the least of which is the chance to get "on the inside" just a bit in what looks to be a generally congenial relationship between two intelligent people who could not hold different views.

Reflecting on Failure and Morality

It might be the result of a deep-down dower disposition, but when I saw a philosopher opining about failure, it caught my attention. Christopher Tollephsen remarks on a handful of possible implications drawn from failure, the more interesting of which to me was in the realm of philosophical ethics. His primary examples are two powerhouses in the field.

In philosophical ethics, two of the most important treatments of failure are those of Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, in their somewhat different essays, both titled "Moral Luck." Williams, for example, argues in his essay that in some cases it is only success or failure that justifies or disjustifies an agent's choices.

In other words, we are not in a position to judge an act morally until the outcome is known. We cannot tell the future and the “luck” of events will decide whether a decision was justified. Again Tollephsen notes:

Were this so, moral judgment would be hostage to the possibility of failure, a point Nagel argues for as well: many ventures are morally justified in part by whether they succeed or not, but success and failure depend upon much that is not in our control and that is intrinsically unforeseeable; the inevitability of failure thus conditions our moral lives in deep and possibly disturbing ways. Moral luck just is this phenomenon of being held morally responsible for what is beyond our control.

In contrast to Williams and Nagel, he concludes:

I think that the moral to be drawn is precisely the one Williams and Nagel urge we give up: the thought that morality is a matter of the heart.

I become more and more of an Aristotelian every time I read of such moral conundrums. While I do not think there is theological space to completely lay aside certain utilitarian ends or deontological concerns, I think more and more that morality has primarily to do with what I can directly affect-my heart.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Rockies, Christianity and Intolerance

This is a fascinating article about the Colorado Rockies and the Christian influence in their ranks.  A couple of observations about the article are in order.

First, I think it is phenomenal that a professional team of any sort is willing to say they draft and hire with character in mind.  Whether they like to admit it or not, professional athletes are powerful role models in our culture and their lifestyles matter.  It also is a glimmer of hope for the value of virtue in a pragmatic and consequentialist world.  Granted, the Rockies’ management argued that character is turning into wins, and are thus still very pragmatic.  I said it was a glimmer.

Second, the amount of apologizing and back-peddling that seemed necessary in the article was stifling to me.  As soon as the Rockies were “outed” as Christians they needed to defend themselves against intolerance.  Prejudice against Christianity remains the only accepted bigotry in our culture.