Monday, December 17, 2007

The Power We Wield

In case you haven’t been paying attention, we really do live in a Brave New World.

My favorite segment in the ethics classes I teach is our time spent on bioethics. I tell my class at the beginning of the semester that I am going to blow their minds in a few weeks, and sure enough, it is not hard to get stunned reactions out of the unsuspecting students.

Along those lines, comes this story from the Washington Post. For decades now, scientists have been manipulating bits and pieces of DNA for all kinds of reasons (a sizeable portion of the food you buy has been modified for some reason). But now, scientists have the ability to create whole strands of DNA, or create the right combination of chromosomes that when implanted in the right way can “recreate” the host DNA structure.

Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to "boot itself up," like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.

What does this mean? As with almost all biotechnologies, it is a double-edged sword. Many of the applications can be harmless, silly, or genuinely helpful. Imagine scientists in their lab coats creating simple “bugs” to do their bidding when stimulated in the right way. The article notes companies that do just that:

LS9 Inc., a company in San Carlos, Calif., is already using E. coli bacteria that have been reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce a fuel alternative from a diet of corn syrup and sugar cane. So efficient are the bugs' synthetic metabolisms that LS9 predicts it will be able to sell the fuel for just $1.25 a gallon.

At a DuPont plant in Tennessee, other semi-synthetic bacteria are living on cornstarch and making the chemical 1,3 propanediol, or PDO. Millions of pounds of the stuff are being spun and woven into high-tech fabrics (DuPont's chief executive wears a pinstripe suit made of it), putting the bug-begotten chemical on track to become the first $1 billion biotech product that is not a pharmaceutical.

Imagine that! Your next suit might not mean the discomfiture of sheep somewhere in Ireland. Your next fashion statement might be fabrics woven from the excretions of artificially created bacteria in Tennessee.

But as fate would have it, there are at least two deeply serious problems. The first is frightening on a practical level, and the other is frightening on a more fundamental level.

While the government regulates harmful microbes and bacteria (in the noble goal of avoiding super-bugs, biological Armageddon, and things like that), the regulations do not apply to the DNA structures required to build them. And, as it turns out, you can find instructions on how to create those on the Internet.

ETC is a kind of biotechnology watch-dog group. Their program manager, Jim Thomas, notes, “The fact is, you can build viruses, and soon bacteria, from downloaded instructions on the Internet.”

The more fundamental problem has to do with the meaning of life. Not the kind of “meaning of life” intended when existentialists opine in their angst, but the kind of “meaning of life” that actually defines who and what we are.

Along with a technology that has the power to create completely fabricated and pre-designed life come the looming evils of eugenics. In the case that one is tempted to dismiss the radical realities of large numbers of individuals or governments deciding how people should look when they are born, keep in mind that less than 100 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of forced sterilization for the mentally handicapped. And who needs to recount the eugenic horrors of the Nazi regime? On a more immediate level, advances in biotechnology have lead to a new wave of abortions of children with downs syndrome. It may not produce the same visceral reaction that the Nazis and their genocidal policies receive, but that is eugenics nonetheless.

More than ever before, we need to wean ourselves from our addiction to technological and scientific progress for the sake of it. We have grown comfortable with scientific advancement—after all, its promise and much of its delivery has been to the ease of my life.

We need to listen to those in the public square who call for deep, careful, and even time-consuming thought on what it means to be human, and how these technologies either need to be regulated or simply disallowed.

And in addition to that, we need the Christian church to step up and meet the challenges of our culture. Instead of piddling with postmodern sensibilities and the consumer fancies of the people around us, we need to meet these deep and disturbing realities head-on with all the tools the Church has at its disposal.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Stem Cells and Politics

In the tussle and bustle of stem cell politics, there are those who make their stand for political reasons, and there are those who are more likely to make their stands for ethical and scientific reasons. With the recent breakthrough in stem cell research, not only can the scientific and ethical requirements be met, but some of the political views are now dinosaurs, on their way to extinction.

At least one political dinosaur on the NYT editorial board has decided to look directly into the plummeting comet and shake his or her fist. Here I stand, I can do no other! The scientific reason researchers have backed embryonic stem cell research so vociferously is that it has the potential of pluripotency—their stem cells can possibly be harvested and chemically manipulated to match any problem in any human body. The political reasons for backing embryonic stem cell research are much more fuzzy. Ethically, of course, the debate is difficult because, as the editor so calmly put it, “Religious conservatives deplore the research because tiny, days-old embryos are destroyed.”

The editorial is full of high-minded language about scientific potential and possibility. And it is true. Researchers in the field of embryonic stem cells see a great deal of possible application. On the other hand, researchers in the field of adult stem cell research have seen over 80 real-life actual applications and solutions to a wide range of disease and sickness. So far, embryonic stem cell application has resulted in no known cures, and a lot of benign tumors (Embryonic stem cells, when actually applied, don’t turn off their growth rate at the right time; they become tumors). I would argue that those in the shoes of the NYT editor are not backing embryonic stem cell research for scientific reasons.

Ethically, there is literally no debate over the use of adult stem cells. And all smarmy dismissals aside, there are serious ethical questions about the destruction of embryos for their stem cells. The current breakthrough not only has the benefit of the science of embryonic stem cells, it has the benefit of the morality of adult stem cell research. If the new research pans out, it is literally the best of both worlds.

And politically? My view is that in the dance between politics and truth, truth should lead and politics follow. For this poor dinosaur, however, their politics lead them into the La Brea Tar Pits of history.

Gospel of Judas Revelation

Last year there was a great brouhaha raised with the National Geographic Society’s publication of the Gospel of Judas. According to the scholars who translated it, it was a critical look into the belief system of Christianity (Judas was a good guy, and so on), and according to the buzz on the street and among the blogs, it was a kind of blow to the credibility of Christianity.

The blog buzz has been answered over and over (granting that the scholarship of the translation was right). Now, it turns out, the scholarship has been called into serious question. April D. DeCondick, a professor of Biblical Studies at Rice has published a new look into the translation of the Gospel of Judas and written a piece for the NYT detailing some of the serious problems with the original NGS’s publication.

Among other things she notes:

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”


Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

At the end of her article, she notes that the NGS broke a handful of academic protocols when handling an ancient text. Instead of making it available to the appropriate community, the NGS carefully controlled their release. Instead of blowing up copies of the text to make them easier for others to read, they reduced them by 56%.

It is a short piece, so I will leave the rest of the details to you.

HT: Is This Thing On?

Monday, November 26, 2007

You Can't Argue With Success?

I was trying again this morning to listen to some of the local Christian music stations, and did not receive any surprises. The reason I don’t listen to popular Christian music is that I find most of it (what gets air-play) trite, shallow, and woefully homogenous. Not only is there not much originality out there, there is very little depth. This morning, one fellow was thanking God for “being by his side.” He also noted how God kept him safe as a child and then “let me go.” Just like a good, hands-off earthly father, God raises us, lets us leave the nest and then wires us money when we get desperate. From a religious tradition that has produced the best music the world has ever heard, we are currently an embarrassment to our heritage.

Reflecting on this, it dawns on me that there is at least one serious culprit to the state of affairs in Christian pop music, and that this culprit is also complicit in why many evangelical churches are in the same place.

This simple practical equation rules the day not only in our culture at large, but among many Christians in position of leadership and influence as well:

Money = Success = Right

If a Christian band comes along, sells a lot of CDs and has a successful tour, producers and companies are prepared to copy that success to make more money. And because we are good American Christians, we like to tag on the thought that we must be putting the right message across if Christians are buying the CDs and t-shirts. As a result, more and more of the music sounds the same and because homogeneity is friendly to radio stations, the plainness spreads like a virus.

The same is true if you follow the trends in evangelical ecclesiology. I use the word “ecclesiology” loosely here. Where our forefathers once wrestled with the question of what a rightly-ordered church looked like, we now wrestle with how to unblinkingly assimilate corporate structure and managerial trickery into the body of Christ. How did we get here? A very small handful of churches successfully assimilated church and corporate success, and because of the equation above, became very influential.

As a result, we have homogenous churches, many of whom have very little character or depth. Being different doesn’t sell very well. Being like the other big guy on the block but with a different colored building does tend to sell.

Is there a solution? I think there is, but it will have to rise like an underground swell from individual musicians, artists, pastors and churches dedicated to what God called them to be in the culture God placed them. The lure of money and success has too much of a hold on us generally to hope for a sweeping correction. Individuals will need to show some spiritual courage and refuse to drink the kool-aid. Christian leaders and influencers will need to have the moral and intellectual wherewithal to pay attention to the character and nature of God and be driven by what he wants done in the here and now.

Like the wise parent responding to their teenager telling them that everyone else is doing it, I think God wants to tell us, “you are not everyone else!”

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Stem Cell Breakthrough

The latest news in stem cell research is very encouraging both on a scientific and an ethical level. Scientists in Japan have recently found a procedure they believe will give adult cells the kind of pluripotent ability possible in embryonic stem cells. In other words, scientists (including Ian Wilmut of Dolly fame) believe they have found a way to benefit from the potential of embryonic stem cell while avoiding all the ethical concerns.

What is most encouraging to me in this article and in others I have perused is the sense that the scientific community seems poised to embrace this development with a significant amount of gusto. For all the years while adult stem cells have been successfully applied and embryonic stem cells have failed, all the press and money have gone for the embryonic stem cell research.

More ethical issues lurk around the corner, however. According to the article, this breakthrough puts us one step closer to human cloning. In fact, according to a recent U.N. study, we might only be 20-30 years away from living, breathing, lab-created human clones.

There is still a lot of ethical work to be done!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Only a Philosopher...

While reading Flew’s book, There is (no) a God, I read this anecdote about a lecture by Wittgenstein on the Oxford campus. Wittgenstein is a very influential, if not difficult to understand, philosopher in 20th century thought. This story buttresses my theory that philosophers can be some of the funniest people around.

I personally witnessed Wittgenstein in action at least once….His announced subject was “Cogito ergo sum,” derived, of course, from the French philosopher Rene Descartes’s famous statement “I think therefore I am.” The room was packed. The audience hung on to every one of the great man’s words. But the only thing I can now remember about his comments is that they had absolutely no discernible connection with the announced topic. So when Wittgenstein had finished, Emeritus Professor H. A. Prichard got up. With evident exasperation, he asked what “Herr Wittgenstein”—the Cambridge Ph.D. [Wittgenstein has earned] was apparently not recognized at Oxford!—“thought about Cogito ergo sum.” Wittgenstein responded by pointing at his forehead with the index finger of his right hand and saying only, “Cogito ergo sum. That’s a very peculiar sentence.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

Antony Flew's Tergiversation

On the occasion of Antony Flew’s new book, There is (no) a God, there has been a small flood of comment from both sides of the aisles: Christians seem very pleased that one of the most respected philosophical atheists of the past century has come to a form of deism, and atheists are not so pleased. When Flew originally produced his transition for an interview with Philosophia Christi, the Christian reaction was quite excited. But now with the publication of this new book, the atheists are having their say.

First of all, I heard about this NYTimes piece on Flew through the CU graduate philosophy e-mail list. The message said that this article is about “Flew’s conversion to Christianity.” The author of the e-mail clearly did not read to the third paragraph where the author noted, “Flew still rejects Christianity.” The e-mail got it wrong for reasons inherent in most of the atheistic reaction to the whole matter: they would rather label and personally attack him than deal with any of the argumentation behind his change of mind.

Before discussing certain portions of the NYTimes article by Oppenheimer, I think it is useful to mention that it appears that Flew did not have as much to say in his own book at it might seem. Through Oppenheimer’s research, he seems to have discovered that much of the book was ghostwritten for and edited through Flew, instead of the other way around. It also does seem that Flew suffers from a certain kind of memory disorder that keeps him from remembering names and dates. Although that is a little disappointing to me (I am currently reading the book), a couple of other things should be noted. Many more books than we are aware of are ghost written and very little is made of it. If the author has the final editing say about what is published, we tend to not be too upset. Secondly, if the philosophical tables were turned, I am not so sure memory lapses about names and dates would matter all that much. And thirdly, by the time Oppenheimer reaches that point in the article, his severe personal distaste for what Flew has done is transparent. The article he writes is the worst form of sophomoric ad hominum bludgery possible.

Oppenheimer attacks the academic qualifications of Flew’s coauthor, Varghese by noting he has none in particular. Oppenheimer’s qualification to asses the arguments involved, according to his byline, is that he, “is [the] coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative and editor of The New Haven Review. He last wrote for the magazine about the Hollywood acting coach Milton Katselas.” Not exactly who I would pick to asses the facts if Alvin Plantinga converted from Christian Theism to deism.

Throughout the article (and the book cites several other similar examples of this kind of behavior on the part of leading “new atheists”), Oppenheimer treats Flew like a doddering old fool. These excerpts are only a taste of what Oppenheimer’s journalistic training has taught him about assessing a situation:

Flew himself — a continent away, his memory failing, without an Internet connection — had no idea how fiercely he was being fought over…

With his powers in decline, Antony Flew, a man who devoted his life to rational argument, has become a mere symbol, a trophy in a battle fought by people whose agendas he does not fully understand.

When at last Flew speaks, his diction is halting,…

This is all in contrast to the one brave atheist who tried to keep Flew in the fold:

Richard Carrier, a 37-year-old doctoral student in ancient history at Columbia, is a type recognizable to anyone who has spent much time at a chess tournament or a sci-fi convention or a skeptics’ conference. He is young, male and brilliant, with an obsessive streak both admirable and a little debilitating.

According to Oppenheimer’s account, Carrier is the genius who is on top of things, and Flew is the puppet who has been coerced into belief in his old age. In fact, Oppenheimer is quite clear about Flew being coerced:

But it seems somewhat more likely that Flew, having been intellectually chaperoned by Roy Varghese for 20 years, simply trusted him to write something responsible.

Intellectuals, even more than the rest of us, like to believe that they reach conclusions solely through study and reflection. But like the rest of us, they sometimes choose their opinions to suit their friends rather than the other way around. Which means that Flew is likely to remain a theist, for just as the Christians drew him close, the atheists gave him up for lost.

Seriously? Flew was blindly lead by the hand for 20 years like a diminutive German attracted to a crazy woman’s candy house in the middle of the forest?

And then there is this gem of cultural projection:

Flew also had a longstanding affinity for conservative politics — he was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher — that made him unusually approachable for some Christians. In the light of his natal comfort with religious folk and his agreeable politics, Flew’s eventual alliance with Christians doesn’t seem so strange.

So apparently, we should not be surprised that an old man, barely able to speak or think clearly should wind up in the hands of Christians because he has a “longstanding affinity” for conservative politics. Not only is that the kind of childish assertion I would disallow in my college-level philosophy papers, it is factually false. For the first several years of his adult life, Flew was a card-carrying member of the Communist party.

So the article was a farce.

So far, the book has at least been enlightening. The first few chapters and sections are dedicated to the various steps in his philosophical atheism, his core arguments, and the reactions he received from all sides. For me, the book has been far more educational than this ridiculous article. I am actually getting a clearer grasp of his atheism than I had before.

The core principle Flew asserts in the beginning of this book is that we all have a duty to follow the evidence where it leads. He may have done exactly that for very real and meaningful philosophical and scientific reasons. If you are to believe Oppenheimer, however, we should follow evidence until it points us toward a God. Then we should start flinging mud.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Open Letter to the Holiday Display Task Force

This is too crazy to pass up. There are those out there who still don’t think there are concerted efforts across the country to rid Christmas of all Christian overtones. Here we have another example of absolute goofiness by a city council just 2 hours north of here.

And so far, the prize for trampling on First Amendment rights goes to Fort Collins, Colo., which is considering banning red and green lights from city property because they might be linked to religion.

The city's Holiday Display Task Force soon will make recommendations to the City Council on a policy that allows only white lights and "secular" symbols such as icicles, snowflakes and unadorned greenery.

I love that touch: Holiday Display Task Force. What kind of training and special qualifications does it take to make it onto the Holiday Display Task Force? What is boot camp like for these lovers of everything Scrooge? Do you need to have a signed copy of The God Delusion?

Apparently you can be discriminated against based on red/green colorblindness. In fact, I would like to submit an open letter to the Supreme Director of the Fort Collins, Colorado Holiday Display Task Force:

Dear Sirs and/or Madams—

I applaud your sense of civic duty and willingness to volunteer your time in what is doubtless one of the great struggles of our time: the color of Christmas lights. My personal delight at your efforts is marred only by the unfortunate geographical reality that I am not within your fine Municipality’s taxing district so that I could revel in the fact that the next time I purchase a Hitchens book, a percentage of my cost would support your valiant cause.

Nonetheless, I am mildly concerned about my personal prospects of being admitted into your fine Task Force in the future (if I felt I had what it takes to join your superlative ranks). You see, red/green colorblindness runs in our family. I, personally, do not have a severe case, but am worried nonetheless. Additionally, my nephew certainly does have red/green colorblindness, and I am concerned that he might feel discriminated against if your Task Force focuses only on red and green lights. What did he ever do to you to be excluded from your Holiday Display Task Force like that?

There are a lot of lights out there, like orange, blue, white, blinking (which might discriminate against me because of my migraine headaches), those kind that change colors when you plug them in, purple, and many more. Maybe your Holiday Display Task Force might consider expanding their color and variation considerations so I (and the dozens in my position) might not feel so left out.

Thank you for your gracious consideration, and God-speed!

Fighting for the Cause-


Monday, November 12, 2007

Church Planting to the Extreme!

If you don’t know anything about church planting theory, this story will act as a really good primer into the faddish and surreal world that is how you ought to grow your church. If you have suggested this form of church planting theory, this might give you a chuckle or two as you critique the various marketing and leadership mistakes made by the young church. If you have had this form of church planting theory imposed upon you, laugh along with me as we enjoy the reductio ad absurdum in hilarious harmony.

Mini-Church Acts Mega: Lark News

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — On Sunday morning at Horizon Christian Fellowship, a 15-member worship band cranks out praise songs and the pastor preaches with the aid of stadium lighting and jumbo-size screens. But the church, which is only eight months old, has an average attendance of just 28.

"If we build it, we believe they will come," says pastor Rick Allen, 26, a recent Bible college graduate.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Oops! My Bad!

What do you do when you have been the national, even worldwide leader of a particular vision of doing church, and you discover that your methods did not live up to the hype? How about if you have profited from franchising your numerical success across the evangelical world only to find out you were headed in an unprofitable direction the entire time?

If you are Bill Hybels and Willow Creek, you write a book and confess.

I don’t mean to be too sardonic. I am glad Hybels and his executive pastor are coming out and revealing the results of their recent study with humility. They took an extensive look at their marketing-style, consumer and program-driven way of doing church and discovered that the massive numbers they (and others) boast in their church do not indicate genuine discipleship. You can catch a glimpse of the report at Out of Ur.

The blog notes:

Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”

They quote Hybles later:

Hybels confesses: We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

I think what I am most concerned with is how shocking this appears to be to the evangelical world. For years I was a bit of a black sheep in some pastoral circles because I refused to believe that marketing the Gospel to fickle consumers with testimonials and slick shows was a good way to go.

I think the shock value in this apology is a result of the enculturation of the evangelical pastorate. Because it really can produce large numbers, large budgets, and large national recognition, we have bitten down on the belief that looking and acting like a fast-food restaurant is in accord with Christian witness and discipleship. Because we are so eager to put numbers on our “successes,” we are naturally drawn to reproducible church-packages like moths to a flame. In his under appreciated book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson refers to this attitude as "Ecclesiastical Pornography."

I am interested to see how large the reaction market to this is going to be. Where there was money to be made in books and seminars about how church needs to be done, in the wake of this apology I am guessing there will be a lot of money to be made in books and seminars telling us again—with the opposite emphasis, of course—how church should be done.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Banning Bibles In Beijing

This recent piece ran in the New York Sun describing the Chinese government’s attempt to ban Bibles from the Beijing Olympics:

The organizers of the 2008 Olympic Games in China have put the Bible on the list of items that athletes are banned from bringing with them to Beijing, we learn from a report in the Catholic News Service, picking up an item in the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport. This would seem to undermine claims by a Chinese government official, Ye Xiaowen, who told Reuters last month that China would accommodate the religious needs of visiting athletes. The Chinese official claimed to Reuters that restrictions on Bibles were intended "to prevent illegal vendors from driving up prices, which are kept extremely low by government subsidies." Only a Communist would buy that economic explanation, which makes no sense.

Has anyone read 1984?

In any event, the NYS interviewed a democratic reformer from China who happened to be a Catholic. Not only did he understand the weight of what was at stake, but the NYS seemed to grasp it as well:

An editor of the Sun asked whether the same [persecution essentially] applied to those fighting for freedom in Hong Kong and China. Mr. Lee replied, "As a Catholic, I don't mind dying. I go up to heaven. I know somebody is up there, guiding me." It is the fear of sentiments like that that no doubt explains why Chinese Communist authorities would try to keep the Bible out of their country. Once it gets in, there is no telling where the ideas will spread or what will be the consequences.

Exactly. I wonder what those consequences might be…

HT: Stand To Reason

The Christian Faith Lifts the Human Cause

I have been making my way through Dsouza’s book, What’s So Great About Christianity, and thoroughly enjoying his kind of defense of the Christian faith and worldview. Essentially, he (and others as well) argues that the Christian worldview is the necessary intellectual underpinning for the values and institutions we believe advance the human condition. In clear opposition to this view is the “new atheist” line that, as Hitchens puts it, “religion poisons everything.”

In a recent column, Dsouza remarks on a recent debate he had with Hitchens. He says that at one point in the Q&A, an enlightening question came from the crowd:

One of the most interesting questions in the debate was posed to Hitchens by a man from Tonga. Before the Christians came to Tonga, he said, the place was a mess. Even cannibalism was widespread. The Christians stopped this practice and brought to Tonga the notion that each person has a soul and God loves everyone equally. The man from Tonga asked Hitchens, "So what do you have to offer us?" Hitchens was taken aback, and responded with a learned disquisition on cannibalism in various cultures. But he clearly missed the intellectual and moral force of the man's question. The man was asking why the Tongans, who had gained so much from Christianity, should reject it in favor of atheism.

I think this is a powerful confluence of events. Dsouza is defending the humanizing worldview and intellectual rigor of the Christian faith, Hitchens is taking the opposite view, and a clear example of Dsouza’s position appears in person from the developing world. In his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Phillip Jenkins takes a sociological survey of the spread of Christianity and concludes that contrary to what we tend to hear “on the street,” Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds beyond the growth of other world religions. And, to add insult to injury, the forms of Christianity most popular around the world are of the charismatic/supernaturalist sort.

As Jenkins notes specifically, and as came out implicitly in the Dsouza debate, there is a powerful ethno-centrism among western liberal atheists. Hitchens and others clearly believe they are more intellectually and culturally advanced than religious believers, not to mention religious believers in backwards nations.

That ethno-centrism has lead to a serious information gap: the new atheists are totally unaware of how the Christian faith and worldview is advancing the cause of humanity across the globe. They apparently do not want to recognize the lifting effects of Christianity, either in another culture or in our own.

Monday, November 05, 2007

How Christianity Built The West

I picked this book up after reading one of D’souza’s articles on the new atheists, and how backwards they seem to have reality. While there are some points where I feel he overreaches the singular value of this book, I think it is an important kind of argument to make for Christianity in light of the spate of atheists writing about how evil religion in general and Christianity in particular is.

It is not a book about traditional arguments for the existence of God or the historical reliability of the Bible, but in the vein of Rodney Stark, it is a demonstration of how foundational the theology and worldview of Christianity is for the world of scientific advancement, human rights, and political pluralism. Contrary to the “new atheist” line, Christianity is not only not evil, it is culturally necessary for the values we hold dear today.

D’Souza argues, among other things, that the notion of the value and inherent rights of every individual is a Christian innovation. In addition, the value of scientific reasoning is due to Christian theologians and dedicated believers who searched nature for God’s laws and glory. In one provocative citation, D’Souza notes that medevial scientists were theologians who turned their attention from God and Scripture to nature.

If for no other reason, the book is worth its effort when it debunks the notion that science is an advancement beyond Christianity, and that the fabled “war” between science and religion is finally being won by atheists who “do” science apart from the coercive attention of the Catholic Church. I especially enjoyed his chapter debunking the standard mythology of Galileo. I have read about the real story a couple of times, but he goes into the greatest depth, describing the geo-political realities and Galileo’s stubbornness in a convincing manner.

As someone who keeps in touch with Christian apologetics, I enjoy watching this kind of argument for the truth of Christianity rise to the surface. If you believe a true worldview will enhance the lives and cultures of those who follow it, this book will be a great insight into how Christianity (necessarily) shaped our most treasured traditions.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Infant Christians; Infant Leaders

Aristotle argued that in order to flourish as a human being, you need to cultivate the virtues. He further argued that the best way to understand how the virtues work is to observe and imitate the virtuous. If you can’t find virtuous people in your life, you need to find them quickly.

Gordon MacDonald notes in his article, So Many Christian Infants, that we have a shocking lack of mature and wise believers running around in our world. He says:

Now mature, in my book does not mean the "churchly," those who have mastered the vocabulary and the litany of church life, who come alive only when the church doors open. Rather, I have in mind those who walk through all the corridors of the larger life—the market-place, the home and community, the playing fields—and do it in such a way that, sooner or later, it is concluded that Jesus' fingerprints are all over them.

I think he is exactly right. We should not confuse jargon-laden with wise and mature. Being a disciple is about following Christ through the real world, not acting at church.

One possible solution to spiritual infancy MacDonald offers is mentoring. The older, wiser Christians who have learned a bit about what it means to be alive in this culture as a faithful Christ-follower should deliberately model that wisdom and behavior to younger Christians. Aristotle might be proud of that option.

However, MacDonald notes what he thinks is a lack of willing and able mature Christians who can fill that role. Let me offer another set of possible mentors where I think we fall woefully short.

By very definition of the calling and office, pastors must be people who resist the rising tide of Christian infancy. They are the ones God has called to lead people through their relationships with Christ; through their struggles in seeing the world the way God wants us to see it; through their wanderings in and out of Scripture; through their stuttering attempts at prayer and devotion; through their journeys as souls infinitely precious to God.

More often than not, however, the modern-day pastor is expected to know just enough about how to visionize and market to be dangerous. They are expected to be dim shadows of their corporate counterparts, who read and reference more books by professional sports coaches than by the pillars of orthodox theology. To know what Phil Jackson says about leadership is more relevant than what Spurgeon said.

How can we follow in spiritual virtue a class of people who are no longer expected to be spiritually deep and virtuous? I teach drum lessons, and I often tell my beginning students to listen to and imitate good drummers on the radio. That trick works because on your average song good drummers play at about 50% of their real capacity. And because radio singles utilize only a fraction of a good drummer’s skills, they are able to play the song really, really well.

I love to listen to a pastor who is much deeper than a single sermon. I can usually tell whether there is a reservoir from which the pastor is drawing, or if they purchased a powerpoint sermon from the internet. One of those two sermons models for me what it means to be spiritually mature, and the other leaves me fat and happy as an infant feeding pre-chewed, spoon-fed food.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Who will replace Billy Graham?"

Hearing about the Billy Graham television special tonight got me thinking about the public place of Christians in our culture today. God continues to grant us the presence of Graham, but D. James Kennedy recently passed away, and we were recently reminded of the life of Mother Teresa through a Time Magazine article detailing the struggle of her dark night.

These figures, and others like them in their generation, tend to represent a Christian public figure who is public because of their devotion to their faith. In my classes at a secular college, when you mention Mother Teresa, there is still a general recognition of her faith tied to her life’s work in India. When Graham and Kennedy are remembered as Christians visible to the public at large, it tends to be in the context of their orthodoxy and their passion for evangelism. These guys were and are pastors in a recognizable, biblical sense and that is how the world knows them even if the culture can’t associate that category with them.

Excluding recent scandals, the evangelicals who are visible to the public eye now tend to be those who are known for their corporate acumen. This new breed of pastoral leader is much easier for the culture at large to categorize because we are very comfortable with the notions of manager and CEO. There are exceptions to be sure, but I just don’t know that there are currently any individuals who are in the public eye for being pastors in the biblical sense of the word.

There is another category of visible Christian, but that ilk tends to be prosperity, self-help preacher who, in my opinion, lost any semblance of orthodoxy a long time ago.

Why is this the case? I think there are two, symbiotic reasons. First, our culture has simply changed. We are losing our corporate capacity to categorize “pastor.” Our common church culture is further and further in our past, and we are moving more and more in a secular direction. So, it could be argued, even if there are visible pastors out there, our culture would not know exactly what to do with them except to maybe marginalize them.

The second reason is that pastors have followed the cultural trend. Conventional ecclesiastical wisdom is more influenced by corporate technique than by biblical mandates and definitions. According to some best-selling books about church, the sizes of our parking lots have more to do with our weekend “success” than the careful handling of Scripture and souls. And as the pendulum swings to an inappropriate extreme in one direction (the corporatization of congregation) so it swings to another inappropriate extreme in the form of social gospel emergent leadership. As emergent logic tends to go, if our culture is more accustomed to political liberalism than theological orthodoxy, the appropriate response is to pick up the former while dumping the latter. We must be relevant, after all.

Sometimes the students I teach at Christian colleges wonder who will replace Billy Graham. I think we are long way away from “replacing” the role Graham has played in our world. But a good first step would be for the evangelical world to recapture the profoundly transforming, world-changing, and even outrageous, category of pastor.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Teresa's Dark Night

A new book chronicling the correspondence and interior life of Mother Teresa, Come by My Light, has spurred an article in Time magazine in which her doubts about the faith are highlighted. I did not expect it, but the article does a pretty good job of at least surveying the opinions of those who realize her doubts are an inevitable part of growth in the Christian faith. As soon as Christians began commenting on their walks with God, they openly and faithfully described those seasons in life in which God felt distant. Commonly referred to as the “dark night of the soul,” it is a universal experience among those who seek a deeper and stronger personal walk with Christ.

What may not be explicitly stated in the article is that more often than not, the faithful pilgrim comes out of the dark night into a deeper and almost inexpressible relationship with God. Instead of being some kind of deep realization that God does not exist, it is a passage into an intimacy with the Creator that many have a hard time describing once they get there.

The Christian reading about Mother Teresa’s doubts should not be discouraged—far from it. They should be encouraged that another follower of Christ went through their own season of doubt and questioning. We are not alone when we struggle and question, and the way to the other side—a deeper relationship with Christ—is through the issues we face, not around them.

In addition, Christians should take comfort in the fact that there is a great cloud of witnesses about us who testify to this reality of faith, and of God’s existence, grace, and love.

Predictably, however, is the quote from one of our village atheists, Christopher Hitchens. His position is that her doubts are proof that religion is a fabricated illusion. Time notes:

Says Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, a scathing polemic on Teresa, and more recently of the atheist manifesto God Is Not Great: "She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself."

In his gift for impaling himself on his own arguments, Hitchens seems to posit that doubts about a belief belie their falsehood. I wonder how he would handle the actual change of position for Anthony Flew, the rigorous and philosophically respectable former standard bearer for atheism? His doubts about the coherence of atheism in the face of the argument for Intelligent Design lead him to openly move away from his former position to a form of theism. The professing atheist can only write more and more books professing their faith and deepening the pit they have dug for themselves (to paraphrase a bit).

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Assembly of God/Evangelicalism: Identity?

Some of you might know that there is change brewing in the Assemblies of God, and that there are a lot of people, especially younger ministers, who are wrestling with what it means to be part of this denomination. One blog in particular, FutureAG, is acting as a clearinghouse for discussion and comment as well as prayer. I am very appreciative for this effort, and applaud its demeanor as being part of the AG and part of the effort to lead the denomination into further health in the future.

Many of the issues faced by the AG right now are also of larger concern to evangelicals. One post in particular, Identity Crisis, strikes one of those chords. As evangelicalism sways like a tree in cultural winds, what defines our roots? What keeps us in place and keeps us united in common cause? In addition to the thoughts in that post, I would like to throw some of my thoughts on the table as well.

One of the primary concerns for the AG is what is known as its “doctrinal distinctive”: speaking in tongues. From time to time this doctrine has been emphasized to the detriment and maybe even the exclusion of the other, more universally orthodox, doctrines. Paul notes:

“The truth is that the key to the Pentecostal movement was never tongues but a passionate pursuit of God for an empowering work of the Spirit to carry forth the Great Commission of Jesus.

Meanwhile, as we held tightly to our distinctive doctrine, we gave up many of the things that really made early Pentecostalism special. Our distinctive doctrine became all that defined us and the real character, contribution, and impact of the movement was lost.”

I think it is true that an overemphasis on a single doctrine has hindered us by narrowing our vision too much. What would, in my opinion, broaden our vision is a much deeper emphasis on the core doctrines and theological development available to Pentecostals. Theological work, when done correctly, broadens the vision of a denomination or a movement and sinks roots that stand the test of time. Documents like the Westminster Confession and the Nicene Creed have acted as solid foundations for millions of believers over nearly, well, thousands of years. And as cultures come and go, those theological works have proved up to the task of handling any one of them. I am not sure we have that kind of body of work behind the AG just yet.

In my view, the primary mistake in the trajectory of the AG has been in trying to rekindle feeling and emotions as a foundation for our present and future growth and in identifying our denomination too closely with that particular kind of spirituality. We may have, from time to time, mistaken the sovereign move of the Holy Spirit in the form of revival with emotionalism. Emotionalism is a poor foundation for anything, and hoping to control the Holy Spirit or recapture “what was” just doesn’t work.

Paul also notes:

“If the AG is going to continue to grow in the future, we need a paradigm that can better reflect the unique qualities of our past -- qualities that could better fit a post-modern paradigm than a modern one.”

I am not sure exactly what that would entail—qualities that fit better in a postmodern paradigm than a modern one. But I would add the caveat that we need to think critically and thoroughly about the philosophy of postmodernism before we dine with that devil.

Paul finishes his thoughtful post with a string of questions:

“What do you think? What is it that truly defines us? Why are we in this fellowship with each other?”

The very fact that these questions should be taken seriously betrays our need as a movement to strengthen the foundations upon which we call ourselves a fellowship.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Where Have The Young Pastors Gone?

Where have the young ministers gone? More and more I read statistics that show the pastorate is graying across most evangelical denominations. And in my personal experience, more and more young ministers do not want to make their tie to a denomination too firm, or they just avoid it altogether. One seminary professor I spoke with recently remarked that we were not facing a demographical problem in the near future; we are smack in the middle of one. In his words, in ten years there will not be enough pastors to head up the churches we have now.

Why is this happening? I would love to hear from some who either know pastors in this category, or are in it themselves.

Some thoughts on what I think is going on.

Often as denominations grow they become overly bureaucratic and entrenched in their ways. Young ministers sometimes find themselves in the unenviable position of accepting their grandfather’s culture and fitting into a top-heavy system, or bucking the trend and fighting tension along the way.

Often an “old guard” confuses theological and doctrinal integrity with cultural norms they are comfortable with. Instead of discerning the things that just simply change with time apart from doctrinal cornerstones, they may confuse the two causing more tension and frustration in younger ministers trying to reach younger generations.

There may be far too much individualism built into a younger generation of pastors. Where previous generations may have been more amenable to accepting the “way things are” and working with the system, the last two or so generations have been raised on cultural flux and change for the sake of it. They are used to change to a degree that they may grow to dislike stability, which is far from a good thing.

The calling of pastor is a pathetic shadow of what it should be. The last several decades have seen the degrading of the biblical calling of spiritual shepherd to a specialized and under trained form of marketing guru. I am convinced that most evangelical pastors, if asked to describe their role as pastor, would sound more like business executives and therapists than spiritual shepherds. If being a pastor now means you could do a similar job across the street for three times the pay, then why exactly should one become a pastor?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Are Christians As Inflexible As They Say We Are?

It is my contention that Christianity, when it is full-blooded, is simultaneously reflexive, reasonable and faithful. The tools of reason and analysis are actually built into and intended to be used by the faith system of Christianity. If God has given us intellectual tools such as reason, and if all truth is God’s truth, the Christian has nothing to fear by examining all things in pursuit of their faith.

In a recent column, Dinesh D'Souza cites Stanley Fish (whose NT Times blog requires subscription) and some recent comments of his critiquing the recent spate of atheist anti-Christian literature. A significant part of what they both have to say question the unflinching dogmatism of these popular authors as compared to the constant reflection of Christianity. Fish, while discussing their analysis of Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, notes that their indictments of inscrutability and intransigence upon Christianity fail. The text itself, and Christianity in general, contain the kind of reflection and even skepticism they say it doesn’t. D’Souza notes:

Fish comments, "What this shows is that the objections Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens make to religious thinking are themselves part of religious thinking. Rather than being swept under the rug of a seamless discourse, they are the very motor of that discourse."


Fish observes that while religious people over the centuries have dug deeply into the questions of life, along come our shallow atheists who present arguments as if they first thought of them, arguments that Christians have long examined with a seriousness and care that is missing in contemporary atheist discourse.

What seems to be lost on most critics of Christianity is that it contains a long and powerful tradition of theological and philosophical development. The dogma of Christianity necessarily includes the tools of self-analysis and reflection – if we are noetically broken creatures, our faith requires constant attention. The reigning dogma of popular atheism is apparently marked by self-satisfaction, inflexibility and myopia. I would not be surprised if it were true that no other tradition in human history has offered more to the advancement of the human mind than the Body of Christ.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Theocracy Ahead!

I did not know this (but am not surprised) that there is an organized effort to “Blog Against Theocracy.” One post in particular caught my attention this morning. In it the blogger is concerned that evangelicals are making their way into schools through biblical literacy initiatives and Intelligent Design. One of the blogger’s arguments against evangelicalism in schools is their stated goal of global evangelism. He even quotes from the doctrinal statement of my denomination, the Assemblies of God.

This growing criticism of “theocracy” is an interesting one to me. First of all, I don’t think the, “they evangelize people” argument carries any weight. Any group with serious convictions is trying to gain adherents, and the more they gain, the happier they will be. No doubt, Bloggers Against Theocracy would like more people to hold their views than fewer, and they are actively evangelizing them. As a consequence of their own argument, they should be legislated out of our schools.

On a much more interesting note is the claim that Christians in the public square constitutes a breech of the “separation of the church and state” doctrine. Since there is no such thing in our Constitution, this is a political/philosophical view. What are the presuppositions that lead to this view?

One might be the fact/value distinction which holds that religion is a private value that does not make truth claims about reality, and thus cannot be considered with seriousness in the public square. On the other hand, secularism has a grip on the facts of the world (science, etc.) and is the only serious contender for the public mind. This simple sweeping away of religion has been attacked on several levels, and when we learn what it means to know things and have them correspond with reality, there is nothing that excludes religious knowledge. Science (naturalistically understood) does not have privileged access to the world.

Another presupposition might be that religion – Christianity in particular – has been proven false. But this view would just be naivety and wishful thinking.

Another would be that religion is not open to thought, reflection, or even modification. As a result, a culture “ruled” by religion would be disastrous to open thought and dangerous to dissenters. And since we value an open and thinking society, religion needs to be relegated to the margins. But this again is a mistaken notion of Christianity. No doubt there are a plethora of examples where “fundamentalism” or other forms of Christianity have denied the life of the mind, but they would be the exceptions to the rule, not the rule. For example, the University system so prized by free-thinkers was established by the Church as an institution of innovation. It was Catholic universities that taught the sun was the center of the solar system; medieval universities constantly critiqued and analyzed doctrine and refined theology. One of the reasons we know Thomas Aquinas and not his predecessors was his innovation on their work.

Christianity, where it is allowed to flourish according to its own worldview, is currently less of a threat to free-thought than secularism. After all, who is trying to exclude whom from schools?

I think that when all the reasons for the separation of church and state (as opposed to this short list) are laid on the table, they all fail for good reasons. Religious views have just as much legitimate access to the public as do secularist views.

New Evangelical Political Litmus Test!

I am not against political involvement by evangelicals as such, but from time to time I wonder if certain segments of the evangelical world have their focus on the right targets. On a basic level, I believe the Christian faith necessarily has political consequences. But when explicitly Christian organizations exist only for lobbying purposes, I get a little uncomfortable.

The new head of the National Association of Evangelicals is moving in a direction probably deemed as mild heresy by the former president, Ted Haggard. (Ironically, during Haggard’s tenure as president of the NAE, their offices moved from D.C. to the campus of New Life Church.) Cizik’s policy matter de jur is global warming. It is so important to Cizik that:

Not content to merely repeat his mantra about global warming being "a moral and spiritual issue," he dropped a major political bombshell.

"The National Association of Evangelicals," he declared, "has every intention of making [global-warming legislation] a litmus test for evangelical support."

Not surprisingly several evangelical organizations have requested that the NAE reign in Cizik and his politicking. If this sounds too much like something that happens between political parties, don’t be too shocked. This is how the NAE, and its liberal doppelganger the NCC (National Council of Churches) have been set up. The article notes:

To counter the NCC’s influence, the NAE established its Washington office in the 1970s, and in the 1980s expanded its lobbying role. Cizik became vice president for government affairs in 1997. Groups belonging to the NCC were barred from joining the NAE.

The Kingdom of God here on earth is often a many-splendored thing!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Intelligent Design - Darwin's Black Box

Our church has started an Intelligent Design book club, and we chose Darwin’s Black Box as our first book. As someone who has been a fan of ID for a while, I feel a little ashamed to say I haven’t read this seminal book until now.

But now that I have started it, I have a couple of simple observations right off the bat. First, I am enjoying how non-religious the argument is so far. There is a chapter at the end of the book about “Science, Philosophy, and Religion” but so far the argument is nothing but biochemistry. It has always irked me that the ID argument is rejected out-of-hand, labeled a “religious argument.” That kind of a priori and ad hominum maneuver is indicative of a position that does not want to be debated in public. In addition, that kind of labeling keeps the real issues – the scientific and philosophical issues – from being dealt with seriously.

The second issue is related to his famous notion of irreducible complexity: the idea of minimal function. In part this states that not only do all the parts of an organism need to be in place all at once for it to function, but all the parts need to be the right parts. The fact that not just any set of amino acids will do for the construction of proteins is a rather powerful addition to irreducible complexity. Using his analogy of the mousetrap, it cannot be constructed from a tongue depressor, a crowbar and a ballpoint pen spring. To function, the mousetrap needs to have all its constituent parts be the right parts. This reality makes the chance origin of life without intelligent direction all that more improbable.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Endnotes, Academic Pressure, and Darwinism

Some books take a long time for me to get through because I get all caught up in following endnotes and tracking down other resources. I think I read the best endnote I have ever read in a tremendous book I am reading, For The Glory of God, by Rodney Stark.

In his chapter on “God’s Handiwork: The Religious Origins of Science,” endnote 179 occurs in a section introducing evolution, Darwinism and science. In the middle of critiquing the thin science of Darwinism, these sentences shows up: “My reluctance to pursue these matters is based on my experience that nothing causes greater panic among many of my colleagues than any criticism of evolution. They seem to fear that someone might mistake them for Creationists if they even remain in the same room while such talk is going on.” The first sentence was tagged with endnote 179, which intrigued me because there was no direct quote.

The endnote: “I was advised by several colleagues that to criticize evolutionary theory would damage my ‘career.’ This merely hardened my resolve to suffer no more of this arrogant occultism.”

Yeah, baby. Yeah!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Irony of Postmodern Power

I don’t mind being a little alarmist from time to time. After reading one of the latest Breakpoint Commentaries by Chuck Colson, I feel like sounding one of those alarms. The essay dealt with a now “old” story about rampant relativism among our churched youth. What caused Colson to write this essay was a story that linked that relativism in some middle school kids to their parents and pastor. Speaking for one of their worldview trainees, “Centurions,” Colson relates this story:

Everything was going fine until the group reached lesson 10 [in their youth worldview training course]. Lesson 10 leads the kids through a series of choices to learn to recognize the difference between matters of truth and matters of taste. One of the choices, “believing Islam, Buddhism or Christianity,” flashed on the screen.

Our Centurion—I’ll call her Joanne, told me what happened next: “The students went nuts. All but one of the eight leaders completely balked at the concept of distinguishing Christianity as true and other religions as false.”

Joanne learned that several of the seventh graders had talked to their parents or pastors over night. But the result of those conversations was shocking. One girl had written a paper that night on “why we shouldn't hurt others feelings by claiming our way is right.” One young lady had met with her pastor, who told her no one can be sure of truth. “It is all perspective,” he said. The students agreed that they should not offend others by saying Christianity is true. Only one was prepared to teach it.

I think it is very simple: a person who has lost a sense of truth either becomes the pawn of power or a power-player himself or herself. When the concept of a truth that exists outside a person or a culture is lost, all that is left is propaganda and power.

It is one of the great ironies of postmodernism. Pomos are quick to say they react against the power plays of Enlightenment truth with something more able to listen, dialogue, and flex. Though truth has been used as a concept to oppress in the past, there is absolutely no necessary connection between the concept of objective truth and coercion. Conversely, where there is only culture, convention, or personal conviction to appeal to—as is the case with postmodern relativism—there is only power. As a brief example, I may argue that my view of justice and fair play is superior to yours, and the evidence I muster in support of my claim has nothing to do with who is closer to reality. The only way to implement my view is to become more powerful than the other. There is no convincing or argumentation in a postmodern, relativistic world, there is only emotivism and assertion. As a result, there is a necessary connection between postmodern relativism and coercion.

Young people who grow up with the mush of relativism have doomed themselves to insignificance. They have condemned themselves to being pawns in propaganda games with nothing substantial to appeal to in order to counter the views of others. “I don’t feel that way,” is not a counterview—it is a feeling.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sermons for Sale!

Also from the most recent edition of my denomination’s journal, comes a small news piece concerning the proliferation of websites dedicated to producing sermons for pastors. (Unfortunately, this item is not on-line.) The basic concern of the piece is plagiarism among pastors. I have written about pastors and plagiarism before, and what caught my attention this time was the number of sites out there dedicated to this sort of thing, how creative and detailed they have become, and lucrative some of them are.

Among the sites listed are,,,, and The article notes that earned 1.7 million since its inception in 2004.

The author ponders whether copying a sermon off a website is plagiarism, and though he doesn’t come down hard in one direction, he notes that many do not feel plagiarism is committed if the pastor pays for the sermon.

Though that might be technically correct, I think there is more at stake with the integrity demanded between a pastor and congregation than whether they paid for the sermon or not. I believe the rightly implied and inferred subtext to a sermon given by a pastor is that it is the pastor’s work for this congregation at this time. I believe that copying a sermon or buying a sermon breaks this implicit relationship, and is thus unethical behavior.

One line in the journal article said that a “time-strapped” pastor might need resources like these websites to create their sermons for them. I think this comment betrays a fundamental problem in the pastoring world—pastors who are too busy being executives to pastor. The biblical role of shepherd/pastor is unfortunately only a subtext in the world of advice to pastors in the current evangelical world. One of the primary jobs of the pastor is to prayerfully and as expertly as possible handle Scripture. Something might have gone awry if a pastor is too “time-strapped” to do that from week to week.

Monday, June 11, 2007

What to do with Spare Embryos?

A great biotech watchdog organization, The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, recently put out this press release regarding legislation and the use of “spare” embryos.

June 7, 2007 – Chicago, Illinois – The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity (CBHD) calls upon the President to exercise both his moral resolve and his presidential prerogatives and veto immediately the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007. This bill unhinges any restrictions on funding embryonic stem cell research derived from “discarded” embryos that result from excessive fertility procedures.

The debate over this bill misleadingly presented the source of embryonic stem cells as medical waste and thus of no consequential value. The growing number of Snowflake children seriously questions the nature of this assumption. CBHD Director, C. Ben Mitchell, PhD, comments: “Human embryos belong in nurturing wombs, not in dissecting dishes in a research lab. Killing human embryos for their stem cells is a form of biotech cannibalism that we must not countenance as a civilized society.”

While the Center applauds the House for rebuffing recent efforts to legalize human cloning research, we strongly urge members of Congress to examine the overwhelming evidence of successful trials of non-embryonic derived stem cell treatments. Mitchell comments, “We cannot permit good intentions to blur the moral boundaries of science. Compassion must be informed by ethics.” Thus, the Center calls upon Congress to approve legislation upholding its own interest to “prioritize research with the greatest potential for near-term clinical benefit” by supporting proven non-embryonic stem cell research initiatives that offer genuine medical assistance to those suffering from these difficult conditions.

I must admit a personal wavering from time to time when it comes to the use of “spare” embryos that are simply wards of the local utility company. But the more I reflect, the more I object to the notion of “spare embryos” itself, and am worried about the direction legislation is taking toward them. Since when has any human being been “spare”?

As the release notes, the number of snowflake babies is growing, and should be seen as not just a viable option, but as the primary objective. What we should be doing with these frozen embryos is finding ways to encourage their adoption, not their destruction.

There is no distinction Here

I am right now sitting in a bagel/coffee shop in my neighborhood taking care of my Monday work. The gal sitting directly in front of me sat down with her coffee and work, and when the young lady showed up with her bagel she asked her if there was anything else she needed. Without even looking up, the older gal dismissed her with a condescending wave of her hand.

This caused me to reflect on a passage we dealt with recently in church. Colossians 3:11 states:

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

In addition, Galatians 3:28 says:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In addition to the obvious sense that God created us all, no matter our position in the world and sees us all through the same eyes of love and forgiveness, I am struck by the first word of Colossians 3:11: “Here.”

The world is supernaturally efficient at erecting barriers between people, but here there are no barriers. The world loves to draw ad hoc distinctions between people, but here they simply do not belong.

The Church is an amazing thing. Here all that matters is Christ and the grace he has shown to each and every one of us. In here we tear down barriers that dominate the world around us.

If I don’t pay attention to it, I will become a child of my culture and will see people through the lenses of discrimination and prejudice. How have my eyes been tinted in this way? What barriers within me need to be broken down, so that when I encounter the world as a Christ-follower, or when I walk through the doors of the church, there is no distinction here?

UPDATE: The gal sitting across from me is now on the phone talking about her church experience this weekend. Lord, help me be an honest and genuine witness to your love!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Genes, Environment and Moral Determination

My denominational journal, Enrichment Journal, has a wonderful article on the issue of genetic makeup and behavioral determination in general, and on the search for a “homosexual gene” specifically. The article does a wonderful job of dealing with the state of the science on the issue. Though there have been a handful of rather publicized studies done that purportedly show that homosexuality is a genetic (and by strong implication unalterable) trait, none of them have stood up to scrutiny. (The video link gives you more information than the article excerpt.)

There are a couple of very important points that are not often dealt with when the issue of the behavior of homosexuality and genetic make-up are raised. First of all, if we want to morally justify some behavior based on the genetic foundation for that behavior, it is logical to extend our justification then to other behaviors that have a stronger genetic base than the first behavior. For example, there is more evidence connecting certain genetic markers to violent behavior than to homosexuality. If we want to use genes to justify homosexuality, it is reasonable to expect us to justify violent behavior to a greater degree. If I am OK with homosexuality based on the science, then I am really OK with violence.

The fact that most people don’t want to take that logical step—even those with a vested interest in the connection between genes and homosexuality--means the real issue is not about genetic make-up at all. The question of behavior (outside of extraordinary cases of pathology) is irreducibly a moral question.

Genes are not destiny. They may predispose someone to be an abuser given the right environment, but we rightly hold that person to a higher moral standard, and consider them morally responsible for their actions. This moral standard necessitates that we assume the person genetically predisposed to violence has the wherewithal to obey a higher, non-physical law. We expect him or her to overcome genes and environment and obey a moral precept.

Even the language we use to describe this moment of moral decision is revealing. We may colloquially rephrase that last sentence to say, “We expect him or her to disobey genes and environment and obey a moral precept,” but that would be technically false usage. “Disobey” in the first usage is loose in its meaning while “obey” in the second is strict—we equivocated. We cannot obey something that does not give binding orders. Cancer does not order (in a moral sense) cells to reproduce uncontrollably; civil governments do order citizens to not kill each other.

When encountering this very touchy and sensitive issue in the public square, we need to be clear on our moral reasoning. Though there clearly are genetic and environmental predispositions, those do not necessarily predetermine behavior. If they did, moral culpability would be a completely different notion than we rightly hold it to be.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Hitchens, The Great God Debate, and Evidence

There is a wonderful post at STR concerning Hitchens' recent book and debate about religion and the existence of God. If you don't know, Hitchens' book is God is Not Great, and is the latest is a string of anti-Christian books. (A wonderful pastor who has engaged him in debate blogs here.)

One of Hitchens' claims, as Melinda notes at STR, dates back to Hume--extrodinary evidence is needed for the "extrodinary" claims of Scripture. The implication is that the evidence required to support Scriptual claims cannot be produced. STR quotes a former philosophy professor of mine (Dr. Gary DeWeese) dealing with Hitchens' remark. It is worth a careful read.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ted Haggard, A Tell-All Book, and Evangelicals

The man with whom Ted Haggard had his affair, Mike Jones, has written a book describing their liaison and the fall-out that resulted from the “outing.” His book tour begins soon in New York, but then he quickly makes his way to Denver. But not to Colorado Springs. The two major bookstore chains here have denied book signings. According to the stores here, the decision is about business and even community health.

“Although the (Colorado Springs) stores will be selling the book, they did not feel that there was enough community interest to support holding a book signing,” said Carolyn Brown, director of corporate communications for Barnes & Noble.

A Borders spokeswoman said bringing Jones to Colorado Springs “would have opened up a wound just healing. This would have not created a comfortable environment for the author, our customers who live in this community or our staff who also live in the community.”

The article in The Gazette details Jones’ feelings on the subject, and in all honesty, the whole thing is awful.

Being a pastor in Colorado Springs, I am asked from time to time what life is like in the wake of Haggard’s fall. (It was interesting enough before it.) I typically respond in honest regret about several things, but the wake of this tragedy is clearly larger than just being a pastor here. Jones himself is of the opinion that this story raises larger issues about the evangelical church itself.

“But the biggest thing in this book is that this is much more than Ted Haggard. This is about the evangelical church in America.”


There is a rash of “hate evangelical Christians” out there, and it is a highly-contagious condition. Evangelicals are easy and socially-acceptable targets in our culture today, but is it really true that the actions of one man say something about the evangelical church at large? The complex answer in this case, I think, is “yes,” but not in the way Jones means it. But complexity and nuance might get me in trouble.

The straight-forward answer is, “no.” The actions of one man do not comment significantly on evangelicalism. Though he was relatively influential, his actions were his own. To the extent that he agreed to or diverged from orthodoxy is also his matter, and not a reflection on a larger movement. Though there are many like Jones who would like to comment on evangelical belief and homosexuality through the lens of Haggard’s double-life, time and reality won’t let that stick. God’s truth, whether spoken by an evangelical pastor, a Quaker wife, or an Orthodox priest, will always be true no matter the cultural context, or the latest scandal.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Coffeeshops and "Third Places"

In this great little article by David Swanson, the importance of what have been called the “third places” is highlighted. A “third place” is a niche in a society between the home and the church where people find themselves relating. In some cultures it may be a bar or a pub, a lodge, or a neighborhood park. In our culture, it tends to be the local coffee shop.

Swanson notes one of the characteristics of a place like this as opposed to a church gathering:

Not only don't I know who I'll bump into at the coffeeshop, chances are, they won't look like me. While many churches tend to attract people who are similar, the coffeeshop doesn't have a target demographic....Our church is a highly structured and very busy suburban environment where spontaneous interaction with friends rarely happens....At the coffeeshop, however, I can count on bumping into someone who will be up for some conversation.

The “third place” offers an atmosphere that a church or even a home cannot, and it invites people a church or a home cannot. Is there a way for the church to engage in what the author calls “coffeeshop discipleship”?

It seems to me that there may be a great deal of upside to a third place where discussion and social circles can be more free-flowing than in a pre-structured environment. They might be great places for small groups, for planned discussions, and for impromptu meetings. Just recently I had a good discussion with a young man in a local coffee shop simply because I was sitting there reading a book.

HT: faith-journey

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Churchill and Academic Freedom

The infamous Ward Churchill is in the news again as the current CU Boulder president has noted that he should be fired. Predictably, there are a lot of professors taking Churchill’s side in this argument, not a few of them trumpeting the “catch-all” freedom of speech defense.

If there is still any confusion about this issue, Churchill should be fired for doing what any student or applicant would be kicked out of school for doing—plagiarizing and falsifying information in your school records. Churchill is not an academic in any serious sense of the word. He is a myopic political ideologue.

And if there is still any confusion about whether the school has a leaning in Churchill’s favor, consider the case of acclaimed history professor, Phil Mitchell. A highly awarded and tenured history professor, Dr. Mitchell was fired from his position for using the book, In His Steps in a religious history class. (In His Steps is the turn-of-the-century book that inspired the “WWJD” question.) Without any defense from the faculty senate (which cannot let go of Churchill) and without much ink spilled in the press, Mitchell was let go.

This is another example of a theory I have concerning Christians in the Academy. Not only is it a calling by God for a committed Christian to be an active and winsome part of the Ivory Tower, but they face an atmosphere that is currently making them the leading thinkers and researchers in the English-speaking world. When a Christian academic needs to argue their point every step of the way and win their positions of tenure and publication, they will certainly come out sharper and brighter than those who have it easy. Churchill will be able to find a position at just about any major University, not because he is convincing, innovative, and thoughtful, but because he is a poster boy for so much of the academic establishment.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Christians and Literary Theory

The book, Shaping a Christian Worldview, is a good compendium of essays ranging from foundational, “big picture,” essays to a list of essays addressing specific areas of discipline and what it would mean to shape a Christian worldview among them. One of the more interesting essays is by Barbara McMillin and is on the Christian worldview in the area of literary criticism.

To begin with, I approach this arena with a great deal of skepticism and even distaste for theories such as Deconstructionism and Marxist literary theory. With my prejudices firmly in place, I was pleasantly surprised by a practitioner at a Christian university who thoughtfully engaged several types of interpretive theory and saw things to be learned from each. The value of what McMillin drew from each theory ranged from genuine positive lessons, to the conclusion that a theory can be easily seen as vacuous when compared to a Christian worldview.

I like the sense from a Christian academic that her students need to be positively exposed to every prevailing point of view in their field if they are to be ready to engage the ivory tower. Christian English professors who know nothing about Feminist Literary theory will not teach at Princeton.

I also like the conclusion that when thoughtfully compared to a robust Christian worldview, other theories fall apart. I personally see little to no lasting value to postmodern deconstruction unless you are willing to throw away fundamental concepts like human personhood, God in Christ reconciling the world, and truth.

One great lesson drawn from her essay, and from this book as a whole, is that Christians need to engage every corner of the academic world, no matter how far-fetched it may seem or be. Another lesson, just as valuable, is that there may not be truth in everything. A point of view may be so skewed, that the only worth to be drawn from it is the invaluable lesson about what to avoid.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Falwell Haters

G.K. Chesterton opened his essay, “A Defense of Humility” by stating, “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.” So it is with the death of Jerry Falwell and those who were not fans of his. No person is perfect, and since Falwell was a person, I think we can safely say he wasn’t perfect. And being in the public eye for as long as he was meant he did things many people were not thrilled about. It is one thing to disagree with someone, but in our culture’s atmosphere, the way non-Christians “disagree” with Christians has turned, in Chesterton’s words, “exhilarating.”

The kind of vitriol being poured out against him in death is sub-human and deplorable. As one prominent example, the (basically) conservative atheist, Christopher Hitchens was interviewed on Anderson Cooper 360 yesterday. Part of the transcript reads:

COOPER: Christopher, I'm not sure if you believe in heaven, but, if you do, do
you think Jerry Falwell is in it?

CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "VANITY FAIR": No. And I think it's a pity there isn't a
hell for him to go to.

COOPER: What is it about him that brings up
such vitriol?

HITCHENS: The empty life of this ugly little
charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most
extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just
get yourself called reverend.

Hitchens has his reasons, and I agree that Falwell’s pronouncements after 9/11 were out of place, but the point is broader than that.

All you need to do in our culture to get your head cut off is stand up for orthodox Christian values. Even in death, those who cannot countenance the idea of Truth or the existence of God are eviscerating him. And on a larger scale, one of the greatest evils in the world today, if you listen to them, is the very existence of the Christian religion.

Christ was right when he said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10:34). The simple truth of his existence and uniqueness will sharply divide people—even divide them over the coffins of Christ’s followers.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Progress

I was talking with a pastor friend of mine just a few days ago, and he expressed a frustration I have felt from time to time regarding discipleship, spiritual formation, and the progress people make or don’t make. After spending almost two years with a group of young guys in a small group specifically geared toward spiritual growth and formation, he described the amount of progress he had seen by lifting his hand and making the “zero” gesture with his thumb and finger.

How often have we seen that exact thing in the lives of the people we work with, pastor, pray for, and live life with? It has to be one of the most disheartening realities in ministry—people who don’t progress in their walk with Christ.

Why does this happen, and what should be done about it? First of all, I think we all know that true formation to the image of Christ is something only the Holy Spirit can do. We can pray, work, and be as intelligent and clever as we want to be, but if a soul is not ready or open to growth, it probably won’t take place. That being said, however, pastors and leaders need to be as prayerful, intelligent, and attentive as possible when discipling people. The primary job of the spiritual director/mentor/coach is learning how God made a person, where God put that person, what God has given that person, and where God is taking them. From there, the wise director can lead the disciple on a journey of profound discovery and growth.

I had a really ugly experience with a “coach” in which this fundamental rule was broken. He ended up pigeon-holing me based on his latest conference notes, telling me I needed to reevaluate where God had put me (because I didn’t fit neatly into his latest conventional wisdom), and in the end, he questioned my calling. Needless to say, I did not experience the grace of the Spirit in the growth of my soul.

Secondly, there is another difficult reality to note with spiritual growth. In his wonderful little book, Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland speaks wisely to the difference between “being conformed” and conforming myself. The first, the biblical principle, happens solely on God’s time and in God’s way. He does the conforming. The second, the way we like to handle things, requires that we wrest control from God’s hand, time and power. When I try to conform myself (or others), I formulate spiritual growth, erect unreasonable expectations for “input and output” (five days of Scripture reading=a deeper relationship with Christ), and anticipate the same from others. This is a recipe for disaster, confusion, and frustration.

When I allow myself to be conformed, however, the frustration is on the front end. I usually need to wait longer than I want. I tend to see fewer results in the short-run than I would hope for. But when God is allowed to do his work in his way and time, the pay-off will be more than I can even now imagine or hope.

These simple thoughts probably do not go very far in alleviating my friend’s frustration. I think he is a wise and prayerful pastor and leader, but the willingness of the disciple to be discipled…that is a different matter altogether.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ethical Relativism and Moral Reasoning

I haven’t blogged in a long time, and I can blame the holiday season on most of that. The rest of it is just my own schedule and some added time-constraints.

One of those—in a really good way—is that I am teaching an Introduction to Ethics class at a local community college. I am enjoying the teaching, the interaction, and the students, so there is nothing to complain about there. I do, however, have a conundrum I need to process.

Ultimately, how do you teach people who have breathed the air of pre-theoretical relativism and find themselves as simplistic subjectivists how to think clearly? I was prepared for a lot of reactionary relativism, but I am taken back a bit by some of the consequences of their ethical system.

It is my early contention (maybe someone can change my mind on this), that growing up to be a simple relativist softens the mind and discourages clear thinking. Instead of recognizing the value of good and bad arguments, the fact that disagreement exists is, for the simple relativist, proof of their relativism. The reaction to anything that is labeled as “good” or “right” is met with the allegedly discussion confounding response, “good for whom?”

Forget whether there is, say absolute ethical truth, the loss of the very notion of “absolute truth” severely discourages any real, critical, reasoned, engagement with a position. If something deep inside a person’s cognitive structure tells them not to “judge” another position, or that there is no way to discern any substantial difference between ethical systems, their thought process has then, as a matter of necessity, ceased. One of the consequences of ethical relativism is that there cannot be any real, actual disagreement between points of view (arguing about slavery is on the same preferential level as arguing about favorite colors). And I believe that consequence to have very real, mind-numbing realities in the ethical structures of simple relativists.

I guess one might say, from the point of view of a kind of Aristotelian view of human teleology and flourishing, that this actually constitutes a good argument against ethical relativism. If it does actually stunt a person’s reasoning capacity and hinder critical engagement with life, then it cannot be good for human flourishing.