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.