Saturday, December 13, 2008

And All the Philosophy Students Said, "You Said It, Bro."

Sorry all I have right now are quotes I run across. But here is a good one from Bertrand Russell.

"The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to seem not worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Spurgeon on Sermons

Great quote from Charles Spurgeon on sermons:

I would sooner preach the dullest sermon that was ever preached than preach the most brilliant that was ever spoken if I could by that poor sermon lead you quite away from myself to seek the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the one thing I care about. Will you never gratify me by enquiring after my Lord and Master? I long to hear you say, "What is the man talking about? He speaks about a Savior; we will have that Savior for ourselves. He talks about pardon through the blood of Christ; he speaks about God coming down among men to save them; we will find out if there is any reality in this pardon, any truth in this salvation. We will seek Jesus, and find for ourselves the blessings which are reported to be laid up in him." If I heard you all saying this I should be ready to die of joy.

(Sermon 1698, Dec 24th, 1882)

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Leading Cause of Death In Spain

LifeSiteNews reports that the leading cause of death in Spain is now abortion. In a nation where there are no real restrictions on abortion, the report notes that, “the equivalent population of a mid-sized high school disappears every three days. Every twenty days the death toll equals the annual number of people killed in car wrecks. The total death toll, more than a million Spaniards since 1985, is the equivalent of multiple Spanish provinces.”

Some of the rest of the report:

Abortion is now the number one cause of death in Spain, and represents the most common type of violence against women in the formerly Catholic country, according to a new report by the international Institute for Family Policy (IPF).

The report, which was issued on the International Day of Violence Against Women, notes that Spain has one of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe, allowing women to kill their unborn child for "psychological" reasons at any time during their pregnancy.

Under Spain's practically nonexistent restrictions, abortions have more than doubled since the mid 1990s, climbing from 51,006 in 1996 to over 120,000 in 2007. The abortion rate is now approaching one in five pregnancies (18.3%), according to the report.

Although purely elective abortions are not technically legal under Spanish law, the vast majority (97%) were undertaken due to a purported psychological or physical risk to the mother.

Undercover investigations by Spanish media in late 2007 showed that abortion clinics in Spain maintain financial ties with psychologists who automatically issue assessments to abortion clinic customers stating that the woman is psychologically at risk from her pregnancy.

Our nation’s laws may be headed in the same direction with the likely enactment of FOCA (the Freedom of Choice Act). What is FOCA and what does it do? There is a great detailed description of it on the Between Two Worlds blog with links to the legal statues and legislation behind it all.

Bottom line, FOCA will eliminate all legislated restrictions on access to abortion, effectively putting us in the same legal boat as Spain. And as we now see with Spain, the old canard that the broader the liberty to chose abortion the fewer there will be, is totally without any merit.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Reading Old Books

I rarely make New Year’s resolutions, but I have already decided on my goal for 2009.

I recently became a little tired of reading about the things John Wesley wrote, and broke down and purchased his collected works. I have only had a chance to scratch a couple of surfaces, but I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Wesley on Wesley.

As a result, I have decided to read one book or work at least 100 years old for every other book I read. There are a few on my shelf I have been through before that I intend to read again like Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (it is honestly one of the most stimulating books I have ever read) and works new to me like Augustine’s City of God.

There are several I have read before but will not read again in 2009, so I am looking for a few good ideas. Do you have any suggestions? I am open to just about anything from Cicero to St. Patrick to Chaucer to Edwards to Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Plantation.

If you have a suggestion, please elaborate on its value to you.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More Egg On The Face

Craig Blomberg wrote a good post on what passes for biblical engagement in the once reliable National Geographic magazine. Over the last few years, NG has become more and more myopic on historical detail surrounding the life of Christ and the early church, manifesting itself in their infamous apology for their reporting on the Gospel of Judas. They were so anxious to produce a document that discredited the Christian faith, that their scholarship went right out the window.

Blomberg’s present issue is with a report on Herod’s slaughter of infants in Bethlehem.

But, gratuitously, and highlighted by a quotation box, they insert the claim that Herod almost certainly did not kill the babies two years old and under in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. The sole reason given is that the report of this massacre occurs only in the Gospel of Matthew.

Blomberg goes on to detail the reasons why this is a simplistic view, and to recount much of the scholarship that has gone into supporting the detail that Herod did slaughter infants.

The big issue, in my view, is that the naturalistic presupposition built into most of our scientific world creates a blind spot where serious scholarship is done opposing an atheistic worldview. If we can all agree that we can begin as metaphysical naturalists, then we can a priori ignore all those crazies who disagree.

HT: Between Two Worlds

Monday, November 24, 2008

Digital Reading

USA Today reports that Random House is going to publish more of its books in digital format to meet a growing demand for digital reading. I have to admit I don't get it.

What is the benefit of reading a book digitally? I would rather have a real, "flesh and blood" book in my hands. Some say a digital book has an advantage in that it is searchable--you can find any word you want. But, isn't that what a pencil is for? There is just something fulfilling about a physical library growing as you read new books and they find their proper place on the right shelf. Its a great day when you need to reshuffle books on other shelves so you can make room for the latest tome on some other shelf. It means I need to get used to a new configuration of shapes and colors in my library. I can't imagine just having one device sitting all by itself on a coffee table. Seems boring to me. I love those moments when I need to search my shelves for old bookmarks because I have too many books going at the same time. A digital bookmark is too intangible to be of any value to me.

Do you purchase and read digital books? Have you purchased a digital reader? Am I a bilioluddite?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Orthodoxy Still Kickin' It At 100

One of the most thrilling works of Christian biography, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, was published 100 years ago. I say “thrilling” because Chesterton’s style of writing and journey into the faith make for very enjoyable and enlightening reading. Often frustrating to hard-core philosophers, and hard to read for many modern Americans, the book remains a classic, and a must-read classic at that. The truths put across are timeless and Chesterton’s wit is without peer in our world today.

In honor of the 100th birthday, I thought it would be fun to quote some of the gems in the book. Before I get specific, however, one “large picture” issue struck me over and over. As a Christian, Chesterton knew his culture so well he was able to quote its movers and shakers in almost every conceivable field of influence, understand them to a rather profound degree, and then skewer them. And all this in a daily newspaper. We need these people again.

As Chesterton opens the book, he apologizes for foisting another book on the public. But this one was asked for. After writing Heretics and attacking other popular philosophies, he was challenged to defend his own. Thus Orthodoxy was born. His fundamental defense was this:

“I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me….I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it.”

Coming to faith in Christ was not a triumph on his part, it was coming home to the truth he was made to find. In many ways, this is the doctrine of grace. We do not construct the truth of the Gospel, we are given, by God’s prevenient grace, the blessedness of seeing it. God made it; we accept it.

Looking For A New Gospel?

More and more I am beginning to think the primary problem with the emergent movement is that it asks the wrong questions, even silly questions. I imagine this stems from a driving need many emergents have to break out of what they see as an oppressive modern worldview and find new, irenic and inviting ground. But, in their critique of the last wave of theology, they have swung the pendulum to an extreme the other way and have unchained themselves from reason altogether (to paraphrase a famous syphilitic).

In the land of deconstruction the questions are no longer posed in terms of the relevance of the Gospel to this or that culture, it is the question of whether the Gospel needs to be new and remade. The cultural shift has gone so deep, so the argument goes, the old ways of defining doctrine and the Gospel have been exposed as unsalvageable. We now know we didn’t know anything back in those crazy halcyon days of the Enlightenment.

The latest set of silly questions comes from the Emergent Village blog. In this rather navel-gazing post, the author wonders about the emergence of a new gospel altogether. And in what is becoming standard fare, he sets it up with some straw man burning.

I wonder if post enlightenment overemphasis of Logos (as the written) has not resulted in the Modern inability to appreciate conversation, mystery and metaphor, and ultimately grace?

If anyone conversant with theology over the last 500 years thinks Protestantism has under-appreciated grace, they need to have their libraries examined. In addition, if anyone has pressed a Calvinist lately on the matters of predestination and free will, then they will have a much better sense of how appreciated mystery and metaphor are in our modern theological world. To say that grace and mystery are finally being grasped by the emergent movement is to be naïve and disingenuous.

But all that is set up for a couple of questions.

And whether blogging is not an expression of a need to return to some of the pre-modern ideas of “The Word”.

What limitations with the written are not overcome by the blogging paradigm? Are we repeating our mistakes?

If the gospel is both message (content) and medium (form), how is it “incarnating” into socially networked online culture? Is it in fact possible to “become flesh” in a virtual, non-physical environment?

The last pair of questions have real potential for reflection, but the author’s worries about blogging being significant in reforming the Gospel are a little silly. I don’t think that the activity of blogging is a matter for concern—the wondering question of whether blogging in the emergent universe will help bring a new gospel “incarnated” in a virtual world, is.

Let’s wrestle with communicating the Gospel with new media and figure out how to do it well. In fact, let’s communicate the free grace of God to whomever will click-on and read. Let’s not look forward to a day when we have altered the grace of God because we have found a new medium that communicates differently from the last new medium.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Great Quote On Preaching

Found this in a great new book, Preach the Word.

What could be more full of meaning?--for the pulpit is ever the earth's foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is that the storm of God's quick wrath is first described, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is that the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Endorsing In Dutch

The World Wide Web (sounds so antiquated, doesn’t it!) has turned our real world into a very small place indeed. My wife is constantly telling me to be careful about what I post, mostly because she is worried about plagiarism or someone becoming so irritated with me that they will want a “face-to-face,” as they world of high finance and mobs.

I wrote a review for Timothy Keller’s book, The Reason for God, and posted it on Amazon. I recently received this comment:

Hi Phillip, did you know that the publisher of the Dutch translation of The Reason for God put part of your comment on the back cover? It goes like this: "Dit boek is ontstaan in de smeltkroes van New York City, maar het spreekt rechtstreeks tot iedereen met bezwaren tegen het christelijk geloof." Thought you might like to know. :)
Louis Runhaar (translator of TRfG)

I am a little rusty on my Dutch, so I went to every web-surfer’s surrogate for actually learning a language. Bablefish spit back a translation very close to the original. My line read:

“This book has been forged in the realities of cosmopolitan New York, but has clear application to anyone who has objections to or is answering critics of the faith.”

The translation read:

“This book has arisen in the crucible of New York City, but it speaks directly to everyone with objections against the Christian belief.”

I am proud of my Dutch endorsement.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

My Favorite Bible Quiz of Them All

Spoiler Alert! If you are all anxious about taking the FFRF Bible quiz, some of the results below will give away a few answers. But if you are like I was in 8th grade algebra, you probably want to look at some answers before you go through the stress of the test yourself.

I scored a respectable 37 out of 50, which in a public high school today is technically an “A for Awesome!” The only reason I didn’t score better is that I am a little rusty on my bizarre OT legal details, and I tend to read Scripture in its textual and historical context. I’ll overcome those roadblocks next time.

Without going on interminably about pulling texts out of context, misrepresenting, anachronisms gone wild, and chronological intolerance, here are some of the gems.

3. What is God's name?
Jealous. --This is a petty self-described insecurity from a supposedly all-wise leader.

I got this one wrong, because "Jehovah," the German derivation of God’s answer to “what is your name?” was silly of me.

12. According to the bible, what is God not able to do?
Repel chariots of iron. So much for omnipotence.
"And the Lord was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron." (Judges 1:19)

The people in the coffee shop around me are looking at me oddly while I laugh out loud.

13. According to the bible, where does God live?
In darkness. --How can the "God of light" live in darkness?
"Then spake Solomon, the Lord said that he would dwell in the thick darkness." (I Kings 8:12. Repeated in II Chronicles 6:1) "And he made darkness pavilions round about him, dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies." (II Samuel 22:12) "He made darkness his secret place; his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies." (Psalm 18:11) "The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice . . . clouds and darkness are round about him." (Psalm 97:1-2)

“Jammin’ RV” wasn’t an answer, so I got this one wrong too. It might have helped this test if FFRF had someone capable of abstract thought put it together.

17. After Jephthah was victorious in battle, what sacrifice did he burn on the altar, as he had vowed to the Lord?
His virgin daughter. --Another example of family values from the "Good Book." Jephthah's nameless daughter is burned as a sacrifice in order to appease the wrath and flatter the vanity of God, who tacitly accepts and never denounces this horrible practice.

I’m guessing a word-search on something hideous and no time to read the story.

21. What reason did God give for tormenting Job?
"Satan dared me, so I destroyed Job for no reason at all." --This is a damning confession. In a court of law, this would be enough to convict God of the highest reckless crimes against humanity. In addition to ruining Job's livelihood and inflicting him with a debilitating illness, God murdered his 10 children and his servants--"without cause."

It might be that I only have a dozen or so translations, but none of them put the words, “Satan dared me, so I destroyed Job for no reason at all” in God’s mouth.

28. How should you feel when you dash babies against the rocks?
Happy. -- Is this "pro-life"? This is one of numerous examples of god-ordained genocide. Even if you coldly feel there is justice in killing the innocent infants of people deemed "evil" by your religion, would you be happy to do it, as the bible declares? If this is not evil, then what is?

This kind of reasoning is why it is (should be!) so easy to see through FFRF’s argumentation.

48. Do the Ten Commandments prohibit incest or rape?
Answer: No

They also don’t prohibit ignorance or smarminess, but they clearly should!

Imagine No Religion, It's Pretty Hard, Even If You Try

I was innocently making my way though one of the more heavily-traveled streets in town, when this confronted me out of nowhere. It is a billboard, part of a national campaign, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation announcing that we should “Imagine No Religion.” It made me chuckle, because I instantly guessed it was deliberately placed and timed. It is probably not a coincidence we are close to Christmas, and certainly not incidental that is it just a few minutes away from two megachurches and Focus on the Family. Then , viola!, our local paper runs a small article.

"This is an alternative message that people need to hear in Colorado Springs, the hotbed of the Christian right," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the billboard's sponsor, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit association with 12,000 members.

"The purpose is to bring free thought and alternative view of religion to people."

I love that people believe Colorado Springs is a kind of evangelical Mecca complete with our mass gatherings, dress codes, and theocracy. By the latest statistics I saw as a church planter here, about 85% of the city is technically “unchurched.” For those bad at statistics, that means they are “not churched.” And no one let me in on the “hotbed” part of it. A lot of the Christianity I am aware of is pretty luke-warm. Sure, some of the politics are a little rabid, but the Christianity does not always run as hot.

I was right about the product placement.

The foundation chose the North Academy Boulevard site because it's minutes from Focus on the Family, and the nonprofit's members hope the billboard will influence the religious views of Focus staff and visitors, Gaylord said.

And for some reason, the author of the article was concerned about the Christian taggers out there. “The billboard could be a lightning rod for vandalism,” he wrote, probably thinking about the rabid homeschoolers who sleep on hotbeds. (Of course, I’ll have to eat my words if one of them makes it out there after curfew.)

In all seriousness, I used to work with the freethinkers when I was a campus minister, and though they were great folks it turns out they were free to think about anything except the possible truth of or value of religion. Ironically, a nation with Christian roots (however deeply you want to send those roots), has produced a social and political climate where people are free to imagine any religion or lack thereof they want and carry those convictions into the public square. If the free thinking group at FFRF is to be taken seriously, we might not be able to imagine any kind of religion in the public square. It seems that the “free thought” and “alternative view of religion” proposed by FFRF is actually quite myopic and restrictive.

FFRF has an online Bible quiz. I hope to take it and report the results. Have fun!

Maybe the Kids are not our Future?

STR has posted a great link with interviews of new college students asking if their youth group experience prepared them for college. The interviews were done by CPYU. Here is one telling excerpt from the interviews.

CPYU: As you reflect on your church youth group experience, what are some things you wish your youth group would have done more of to prepare you for college?

Alysia: My youth group was fairly useless in preparing me for college. A short course in different religions helped me, but what helped me more was attending Worldview Academy for two summers. The challenging of my faith and teaching me the apologetics, leadership, and evangelism helped the most--especially by helping me determine why I personally believed in Christianity and by giving me the tools to help share that with others.

CPYU: Understanding the challenges that college life brings, what are some things you wish your youth group would have done less of?

Alysia: My youth group was a place where the leaders were trying everything from games to parties to entice people to come, but they wouldn't dive deep into any theological or social topic. We were treated as intellectual babies and thus never grew to understand the importance or the relevance of the Christian faith. College provides ample opportunities to challenge a person's faith without offering a safe environment to handle questioning why you believe what you do. I wish that my youth group had done less games and forcing people to be there and had done more training us in deeper matters that we would find more useful. The youth group at my church has since started to change its focus toward those deeper matters and is giving the new youth tools to help them understand how to interact with culture as Christians. When they started this their attendance numbers grew. I wish that the change had happened sooner. The leaders of my youth group needed to stop trying their best to draw people to the group and allow God and the Bible to touch people's lives. The leaders did not allow God room to work.

I don’t think I could have scripted or wished for a better answer as to what is wrong with our youth group culture. As a college/young adult associate pastor, I once tried to implement worldview curriculum across the age-specific ministries of the church, and the only age to balk was the youth pastor. He was sure his kids would never need that kind of thing.

If you have a youth pastor, send him or her this link and then follow up.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Stupid Googlers

Much has been made recently of an Atlantic Monthly article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? and a book by Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation. James Bowman in The New Atlantis reflects on them both in his article, Is Stupid Making Us Google?

The primary premise in all three is contrary to much of our conventional wisdom regarding the consequences of technology. They all argue that it is more than likely that the use of current technologies is actually making us dumber.

Though more quality information and materials are at our fingertips than ever, people (especially young people) on the internet spend less and less time reading good books, thinking through real trains of thought, and skim over most of the information they read. In addition, this virtual skimming is taking us more and more away from the weightier and more transformative act of reading good books. We overwhelmingly replace online Plato for Facebook.

Concerning some of the educational consequences, Bowman notes:

As The Dumbest Generation rightly notes, “the model is information retrieval, not knowledge formation, and the material passes from Web to homework paper without lodging in the minds of the students.” Generally speaking, even those who are most gung-ho about new ways of learning probably tend to cling to a belief that education has, or ought to have, at least something to do with making things lodge in the minds of students—this even though the disparagement of the role of memory in education by professional educators now goes back at least three generations, long before computers were ever thought of as educational tools. That, by the way, should lessen our astonishment, if not our dismay, at the extent to which the educational establishment, instead of viewing these developments with alarm, is adapting its understanding of what education is to the new realities of how the new generation of “netizens” actually learn (and don’t learn) rather than trying to adapt the kids to unchanging standards of scholarship and learning.

I share his alarm that a significant portion of education philosophy is not digging in its heels and remaining steadfast in the light of cultural changes for the worse. Not all change is good, and we need the discernment and strength to resist bad change. He goes on:

Like redefining education as the acquisition of information-retrieval skills, this is to go with the flow of youth culture, which begins by throwing off the yoke of the past and rejecting the sort of self-denial necessary to acquire the more difficult sort of educational accomplishments.

So education becomes more and more narcissistic as we retrieve information without allowing ourselves to be changed by the wisdom to be gathered by dealing with ideas and differing opinions. As anyone who has done this knows, if you search long enough, you can find any headline to support any position you desire.

This especially worries me in the context of the Church, or as some have called it, the context of the “people of the Book.” If our youth in general are losing the patience and cognitive capacity to comprehend trains of though longer than 30 seconds in duration, and are losing the patience to read books for longer than two or three minutes at a time, how are they to adequately comprehend the Gospel of John? For that matter, how are they to take in the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Christ?

Can we be content with Christian discipleship based on sound-bites and “headlines”?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Kids Are Our Future!

I have argued before in this blog (here, here) that the only social virtue recognized by our secular progressive culture is tolerance. Tolerance is supposed to cover everything we need as a culture. After all, what could be wrong with allowing others to believe and behave however they want? The problem is that our virtue of tolerance is not grounded in any significant view of truth, and as such, tolerance becomes the truth. In other words, tolerance is it: it is all you need to be a virtuous person. As a result, tolerance (and social truth) are controlled by the social and cultural influence peddlers. In this world, the loudest group of people, majority or not, really does rule.

One of the ironies of tolerance is the unforeseen consequence of hatred. People who aren’t like “us” are not to be tolerated. The hatred is often latent in the words and deeds of sophisticated adults, but young people don’t have the same cognitive mechanisms. What the parents have learned to disguise, kids learn to embrace. Bad ideas always go downhill.

Emily Bazelon reflects on this unfortunate reality in her recent article in Slate, Embarrassing Obama Kids.

I suppose I should applaud the strength of their convictions. But the dark side to their partisanship is the traitor-bashing. Our kids are raised on a steady diet of tolerance, but, given the chance, they signal allegiance by turning on whomever they can pin as a bad guy. They don't get many chances at that, really. There just aren't a lot of enemies in their lives. Railing against McCain supporters functions as a safe outlet for hostility and even hatred. For my sons Eli and Simon and most of their friends, die-hard Republicans are an abstract concept. They know people who differ from them by race and ethnicity and religion, and they get that it's not OK to judge by those categories. On their soccer team are kids who are working-class rather than well-off, and I think they also understand that class isn't a flag to rally around either. They may have met a libertarian or two, but they've never talked politics with a serious conservative.

And so I fear the election is teaching them not only about the joy of supporting an appealing candidate but also about the more vicious pleasures of despising the other side—with a zeal that's usually off-limits to them. Also during the soccer carpool, the kids discussed a pumpkin with Obama carvings that had gotten smashed, and one of them said, "It must have been those McCain-loving teenagers." Which led to a gleeful discussion about fighting back with bombs and guns. I winced. As did one of my colleagues over drawings her 3-year-old son did at synagogue this weekend. At first, he drew a stick figure with its arms raised. "That's Obama," he said to nobody. Then the stick figure reappeared, lying prone. "Dead McCain," he muttered.

She is naturally bothered by the narrow view of politics her kids have, so she takes action. She shows them a video of kids singing about voting, and she doesn’t get the result she was looking for.

In an effort to pull them back from the partisan abyss, I showed my kids the utterly winning video of the kids from the Ron Clark Academy of Atlanta who are singing, in a nonpartisan friendly fashion, about how "You can vote however you like." After watching this interview with them, Eli triumphantly pointed out that they are almost all Obama supporters. "Now can we watch that video where they say that John McCain talks like a dump truck?" he asked. Oh well. At least it will all be over by the time they finish eating their Halloween Obama candy.

I don’t think parenting or social circles are ultimately to blame here. It is a worldview that has no room for moral and social absolutes and rests all its laurels on simplistic tolerance. Political partisanship is becoming messiah worship in large part because people have no room for a true Messiah. Moral right and wrong are political ideals now because people are losing the cognitive ability to reason through actual moral right and wrong.

It’s not all that surprising that kids are reflecting this kind of unthinking partisan hatred. They make great barometers for the worldviews they are surrounded by. Adults may be able to wiggle their way out of the crasser bits of their beliefs, but kids can’t.

HT: First Things

Monday, November 03, 2008

When Life Begins - The Politics, The Reality

Robert George has done some terrific work on the matter of abortion and the meaning of “person” and when life begins. His latest major work, Embryo, with philosopher Tollefsen is a thoughtful treatment of the biology, law and philosophy of abortion and personhood. One of George’s latest offerings on the issue is worth quoting at length. Addressing the current fad of treating life as a “mystery” he says:

Yet is Speaker Pelosi correct? Is it actually the case that no one can tell you with any degree of authority when the life of a human being actually begins?

No, it is not. Treating the question as some sort of grand mystery, or expressing or feigning uncertainty about it, may be politically expedient, but it is intellectually indefensible. Modern science long ago resolved the question. We actually know when the life of a new human individual begins.

A recently published
white paper, “When does human life begin? A scientific perspective,” offers a thorough discussion of the facts of human embryogenesis and early development, and its conclusion is inescapable: From a purely biological perspective, scientists can identify the point at which a human life begins. The relevant studies are legion. The biological facts are uncontested. The method of analysis applied to the data is universally accepted….

Why, then, do we seem so far from a consensus on questions of abortion and embryo-destructive research?

Perhaps because the debate over when human life begins has never been about the biological facts. It has been about the value we ascribe to human beings at the dawn of their lives. When we debate questions of abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, we are not really disagreeing about whether human embryos are human beings. The scientific evidence is simply too overwhelming for there to be any real debate on this point. What is at issue in these debates is the question of whether we ought to respect and defend human beings in the earliest stages of their lives. In other words, the question is not about scientific facts; it is about the nature of human dignity and the equality of human beings.

On one side are those who believe that human beings have dignity and rights by virtue of their humanity. They believe that all human beings, irrespective not only of race, ethnicity, and sex, but also irrespective of age, size, and stage of development, are equal in fundamental worth and dignity. The right to life is a human right — therefore all human beings, from the point at which they come into being (conception) to the point at which they cease to be (death), possess it.

A common error these days is for people to convert the question of when a human life begins from a matter of biology to a matter of religious faith or personal belief.... In view of the established facts of human embryogenesis and early intrauterine development, the real question is not whether human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages are human beings. Plainly they are. The question is whether we will honor or abandon our civilizational and national commitment to the equal worth and dignity of all human beings — even the smallest, youngest, weakest, and most vulnerable.

Pushing the issue off as a “mystery” or “above my pay grade” is not only disingenuous, it is dangerous. The political maneuver recently was to brush aside the issue by saying you were personally against it, but publicly for the right of choice. This issue is too important to lay aside or treat as politically unimportant. There are utterly innocent lives we are dealing with, and a culture of life or death we are constructing.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I (Still) Belong to the Assemblies of God

It has been documented on this blog and in several studies (here, here) that the evangelical pastorate in general and the Assemblies of God in particular are losing young pastors. Much is being said and written on the topic of why this is happening, and my denomination has even started to study the phenomenon and prepare a response. Personally, I came to a serious crossroads about 5 years ago where I had to decide between staying with the AG and planting a church, or changing my life’s direction and moving forward with something more like the Calvary Chapel movement. Through it all, I remain AG.

This, however, does not mean I think the AG has everything right either doctrinally or culturally. In fact, one reason I keep my credentials and pay my dues is I think the AG is a worthwhile organization to pour my efforts into, even if they are reforming efforts. In the light of some of the things being said out there, I would like to reflect for a few minutes on why I stayed with the AG.

Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
Let’s get the 800lb gorilla out of the way first. I believe in the basics of the AG position on this doctrine. Scripture shows believers have the expectation of a second baptism after conversion in which there is a special filling of the Holy Spirit. The apostles taught it, practiced it, and Paul corrected its use without stopping it. My stance on the book of Acts is that it is not just historically descriptive, but indicative/prescriptive of church practice through the ages. I do not pretend to believe there is a 1-to-1 dynamic between the early church and contemporary church, but it contains theological guideposts nonetheless, and this means one of those guideposts is the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

That being said, we need to do some serious theological and hermeneutical work on this doctrine. The practice of this doctrine has largely been left in the hands of charismatic and sometimes wild and crazy ministers who set the pattern of what it means to “receive the Holy Spirit.” Instead of a culture of practice, we need a theology of practice—an orthopraxy focused on speaking in tongues and baptism of the Spirit in general. Most people who reject the doctrine of baptism of the Holy Spirit are primarily rejecting the poor practice of receiving the Holy Spirit. As a pastor, I cannot tell how many times this comes true once one or two layers of resistance to this doctrine are peeled back. Parishioners tend to have a problem with the doctrine because they have been burned by the practice.

I suspect the same thing is true of many ministers. I grew up in the AG, and though my personal experience was far from the stereotypical “fire and brimstone,” I have seen and cleaned up after my share of rotten practices. After a few years of the wrong youth camp speakers, confused kids, and a lack of doctrinal correction, I am not surprised when a young pastor moves on without the AG.

The AG is one of the largest and most influential denominations on the planet (one of the largest worldwide denominations in the second largest Christian movement—Pentecostalism is second only to Catholicism across the globe). And in all honesty, this puts a ton of pressure on us to get it right. We can’t be satisfied with a “shoot from the hip” mentality when it comes to any of our doctrinal positions, much less the ones we consider our distinctives.

The Denomination
Much is also made of whether denominations are of any use anymore, or if they naturally and necessarily lead to divisive denominationalism. To the first count, I think denominations broadly understood will always be with us and will always be necessary. To the second count, I think the answer can be no.

There are some, primarily among the emergent movement, who are rigidly anti-doctrinaire and who see the doctrinal divisions of denominations as a sin. Once a little thought is applied, however, I think this view is a little naïve. To take a stance on, say, the uniqueness of Christ is to align yourself with others who think the same way. (I will deal with the topic of irenic encounter below.) If you refuse to take a position on this issue, you align yourself with those who do the same. If you consider Christ unique, you stand with orthodox Christianity though the ages. In other words, any stance on any issue—even if it is a “non-stance”—aligns you with some group of people. And in broad terms, all denominations do is put those people together for similar causes.

There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. In fact, I think it can be argued from Scripture and from reason that the only logical and rational thing to do is to align with what you think is the truth of the matter. Even those who don’t want to take a stance on truth believe that their position is the true position. There is just no getting away from doctrinal fraternity, no matter what set of positions you want to take.

Though it is true that denominations are sometimes used to exclude others or make other Christians look less holy than ourselves, denominations do not necessarily lead to this behavior. In fact, the traditional and healthy Christian position on doctrinal truth is humility, not arrogance. I really don’t care if First Church of Such and Such down the street creates an atmosphere of us versus them, I won’t do it.

In addition, I do not see an elitist attitude among the current AG leadership, and I don’t see it on the local level among the pastors and leaders I respect. This tells me—and my own practice tells me—I can belong to a denomination and love my brothers and sisters in Christ all the same. To young ministers who complain about denominationalism because they know some divisive pastors—get over it.

Freedom Within These Bounds
I like what others have called the pastoral entrepreneurship valued in the AG. We were born on the backs of church planters and missionaries, and we had the DNA of innovation bred into us at an early age.

[Insider’s note: I have always said the departments in the AG that have this right are World Missions and Chi Alpha, both of which are very focused and highly motivated missionary endeavors.]

One seasoned pastor told me more than once that no matter what happens at our denominational meetings, we can go home and do church the way God called us to do church. This, I believe, is a strength.

But we may be struggling to maintain this vision. In my opinion, much of the AG culture became stuck somewhere in the 1950s-1970s, and has not yet become comfortable with moving ahead. This is certainly a generalization, but it is a significant enough reality to make some things hard on younger ministers. Why should a younger pastor be expected to look like a young pastor 30 years ago? Are we keeping a forward-looking focus as we train young ministers to do what God called them to do in this culture and not another? I don’t know if I have any clean answers to these questions, but I think they should be dealt with.

The Arminian/Wesleyan Tradition
For those who are more theologically inclined, I have always appreciated the doctrinal atmosphere given to us by our broader theological heritage. The more I study it, the more convinced I am of an Arminian/Wesleyan view of the doctrines of God, Christology, and salvation. Among other things, we are pressed forward into the world with the Gospel of Christ to preach the truth to as many as possible. I like being part of a denomination where I can have just about as many missionaries from around the globe as possible come and interact with our congregation. It is true I can become an independent pastor and maintain this practice, but I would then lack the network created by the AG. And if I want to maintain the AG’s network of ministry and leave the denomination, is that not a kind of ecclesiastical welfare?

Here again is where I think the denomination as a whole can provide better grounding for the AG and for evangelicalism. I believe our schools should pour more effort into the theological development necessary to answer the issues we face today. What of the doctrine of hell? How can we articulate this difficult doctrine in our world in a way that is faithful to Scripture and enlightening to our culture? What about open theism? Some believe the Arminian view naturally leads this direction, and I disagree. The AG needs to take a serious stance on the future knowledge and efficacious activity of God. What about other religions and salvation through Christ? The smaller our world becomes (and the more influential Oprah becomes) the more this is a serious problem for our people. Why hasn’t the AG set forth a thoughtful and pastoral effort on this front?

I think our theological heritage provides the resources necessary to move ahead in theological and pastoral development, but I just don’t see much of it happening.

In the end, I will sign my papers this year and pay my dues. I do not believe we are perfect, but neither will I make a “best of the possible options” argument. I think there is more to us than that.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Which Jesus is Your Favorite?

Which Jesus is your favorite? We may not be fans of the Jesus of the Liberation movement, holding an AK-47 and redistributing wealth, but we do have our favorite culturally influenced Jesus. Maybe it’s “Jesus meek and mild,” or the Jesus that belongs to one political party or another. Some of us like the Jesus who stands up for the oppressed and poor, and others of us like the Jesus who teaches, corrects and reproves.

Whichever one you feel drawn to, enjoy this clip of an utterly hyperbolic, yet pretty funny, portrayal of Jesus in cultural captivity.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Ridiculous Religulous

There is a small and smarmy documentary in a couple of theatres right now by Bill Maher called “Religulous.” If you know anything about Maher’s leanings, you already know all you need to know about a film by him investigating how ridiculous religion, specifically Christianity, is. Certainly this is destined to be among the great intellectual artifacts we leave our grandchildren right alongside “Borat” and “High Karate” cologne. I often thank God for people who see movies like this one so the rest of us don’t have to. The STR blog cites a review from National Review and notes:

...Maher thinks he knows so much more about the target of his opprobrium than he actually does. He makes his first mistake in the first line of the movie by referring to the “Book of Revelations” — it’s not plural — and it just snowballs from there.

Within a few minutes Maher is denying not just the divinity of Jesus Christ but his actual historical existence, a question disputed by almost no credible scholar. You can argue that it is difficult to believe in Jesus’s existence considering that primary records for his existence are recorded by only a precious few devoted disciples who recorded his allegorical teachings in detail as well as the social unrest they inspired. Then again, if that’s the standard – you probably don’t believe Socrates either.

It should be at least a little embarrassing that Maher hasn’t done much of the hard work necessary to actually tackle these issues. But then again, one man’s shame is another’s glory.

Another review of the worldview behind the movie is done by D’Souza. D’Souza notes that though Maher takes the tried-and-true road of finding the weakest and easiest targets, it doesn’t always work.

You get the picture: Maher is in search of weak opponents that he can embarrass. Still, it’s remarkable how many of them get the better of him. On one occasion Maher interviews a Jesus actor at a Holy Land Experience who seems like a carefully selected dummy. But when Maher asks him to explain the Trinity, the actor says it can be understood in the same way that water appears in three quite different forms: in a solid form, as ice; in liquid form, as water; and in the gaseous form of water vapor. Maher is completely stumped by this and rendered speechless.

In another segment, Maher talks to some blue collar guys worshipping at a Trucker’s Chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina. They are overweight and poorly dressed and they cannot answer all his questions, but one says that he used to be a drug addict and “I gave all that up when I got saved.” At the end of the discussion, just before Maher’s triumphant exit, the truckers hold hands and pray for Maher. This is the sole moving moment in the film, and in a way that Maher doesn’t realize, it raises these simple people entirely above his snide sophistication.

D’Souza’s conclusion:

Ultimately he is an intellectual coward who relies on the argumentum ad ignorantium—the argument that relies on the ignorance of the audience.

Missing Young Evangelicals

For several years now the evangelical movement has been bleeding young people. As this post from STR points out, there is hysteria out there, but there are good reasons to be concerned. STR cites several studies including one from my denomination, the Assemblies of God, which don’t look good. Even when they are averaged and taken conservatively, we may be losing about 50% of our young people after they leave high school. STR concludes:

It's safe to conclude the church is losing a significant portion of its young people for some period of time. Even if we take Barna's lower numbers and then cut 10% off to be extra conservative, we're still talking about losing half of our young people.

To some, the answer is the direction the emergent movement is going. A better answer is to look at youth and college ministry through different lenses and actually disciple these kids. Before they leave their families, familiar church surroundings and social networks, they need to be grounded in their relationships with Christ. A more detailed answer would be, well, much more detailed. Maybe you have some more thoughts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Why We Never Cite Wikipedia

I would never recommend watching the Colbert Report, but this is actually pretty clever. I think you would do better with your time reading a good Dr. Seuss book, or building a paper-mache "famous noses" collection. But a friend clued me into Colbert's effort to "unendanger" elephants by changing their numbers on Wikipedia. I thought that was actually quite clever. I hunted down a related video about what he calls "Wikiality" and am now posting it for my online students as an example of why we never, ever, cite Wikipedia in our papers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Secret Shoppers, Meet Your Next Paycheck

So what is next in the world of churches driven by the retail market? Where will the next set of cutting-edge churches learning from the greatest corporate execs go? How does a church obsessed with its “street-cred” make sure it is passing the grade? Well, with mystery worshipers. What the church really needs are OCD consultants traveling across the country secretly grading churches on all the really important things like the quality of the parking lot stripes and the stains on the carpet. No kidding.

Mr. Harrison, a 51-year-old former Assemblies of God minister who launched his secret-shopper service in 2006, charges about $1,500 plus travel expenses for a site inspection, worship-service evaluation and detailed report.

And in true corporate model fashion, churches are graded on all the crucial matters Jesus would be thinking about if he walked into your church.

"Thomas [Harrison] hits you with the faded stripes in the parking lot," says Stan Toler, pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City, who hires a secret shopper every quarter. "If you've got cobwebs, if you've got ceiling panels that leak, he's going to find it."

Hold on—it gets even more incisive:

One weekend this past summer, Mr. Harrison drove up to Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, in a bright-red rented Chevrolet. Armed with a digital camera, he trolled the church's grounds and its new $13 million sanctuary, snapping shots of weeds growing in the parking lot, loose lighting fixtures and a fuse box missing a lid. "Please cover as soon as possible," he wrote in his 67-page report.

Lest I accidentally insinuate this is a trite profession, Harrison does get to the heart of the matter when grading the sermon. After all, churches safeguard the things once and for all delivered to the saints. I don’t think I could describe the average evangelical sermon better than he does in this report:

The message is appropriate and meaningful. It is challenging and inspiring.

The weeds in the concrete received more attention.

I don’t want to accidentally insinuate this is a trite activity—I want to be as obvious as possible. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have both bad and ridiculous consequences. With the advent of secret worship shoppers, the corporate model of meeting the felt needs of the culture fast-food style has finally reached a new height on the mountain of ridiculousness. Who in the world needs to hire self-important and overly critical worship shoppers? I get those on almost a weekly basis for free.

Here’s another idea. How about, instead of hiring a man who got his start in the secret shopper business trolling pizza joints in Oklahoma (true!), a church hire a trusted theologian from their denomination’s seminary to show up in their Ph.D. regalia, sit on the front row, and make sure that what is said from behind the pulpit coheres with say, Scripture.

Radical, I know. But then, this consumer-driven church world needs a few more iconoclasts.

HT: Between Two Worlds

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Arminian Theology Defended--Finally!

My theology is specifically Pentecostal, and more broadly Protestant and Arminian. As such, I don’t necessarily fit easily into the more “acceptable” trends in evangelical theology. As I listen to and read some of the leading evangelical theologians, I know Arminianism is often derided as semi-Pelagian or Pelagian. (Never mind the general stance toward Pentecostal theology from the same circles!) I have never believed that good Arminian theology is Pelagian or semi-Pelagian, which is one reason why I have appreciated this book by Roger Olson so much.

As the title suggests, his goal is to debunk the most popular myths about Arminian theology, lay out a basic explanation of what good Arminian theology is and defend why it is part of the evangelical, orthodox stream of Protestantism. This issue is important to me, so I am chewing through the book slowly. And to aid me in my reflection, I am going to try and blog through the highlights of the book. The writing should help solidify and refine my own views on these issues, and hopefully act as discussion points for the topic as a whole.

Among Olson’s starting points is a definition of Arminian theology in reference to Reformation Calvinism:

When Arminianism is used, it will connote that form of Protestant theology that rejects unconditional election (and especially unconditionally reprobation), limited atonement, and irresistible grace because it affirms the character of God as compassionate, having universal love for the whole world and everyone in it, and extending grace-restored free will to accept or resist the grace of God, which leads to either eternal life or spiritual destruction. (pg. 16-17)

Olson will argue later in the book something I have argued over and over with my Calvinist friends: the debate between Arminian theology and Calvinism is primarily about the character and nature of God, and not primarily about free-will and determinism. Contrary to the caricatures, Arminianism does not begin with a philosophical notion of free-will and work to a theology of salvation. It begins with a theology of God’s nature and his interaction with humans, and winds up affirming a libertarian form of free-will.

Olson makes an important distinction at this point that weaves its way throughout the text. There is a difference between “Arminianism of the head” and “Arminianism of the heart” (what I will call evangelical Arminianism). The “of the head” variety is that part of Arminian theology that takes its cues from Enlightenment philosophy, affirms the fundamentally sound rational and moral capacities of each human, and ends up as semi-Pelagian. Evangelical Arminianism denies the basically good or in-tact capacities of the human heart, and affirms the necessity of God’s gracious activity. Instead of a coercive and limited act of God’s grace, however, Arminianism affirms the doctrine of prevenient grace. God acts before the human to enable their dead capacities to respond freely and willingly to God’s grace.

Unlike the unkind caricatures, Arminianism affirms grace, total depravity, and humanity’s utter dependence upon God. It is a little disingenuous to paint Arminian theology as heterodox by saying it denies these basic theological truths.

What I didn’t like about the Introduction.

Olson associates several contemporary theologians with the Arminian point of view, including Stanley Grenz and Clark Pinnock. I am totally sure I do not consider myself an open theist, and therefore I do not associate myself with Pinnock. I have read some of Grenz’s stuff, and am not sure I want to be put in that camp either. I believe Arminianism does not need to degrade to open theism or a form of pluralism that is in accord with the movement of the emergent church.

And this is where I hope to find the rest of the book to be solid ground. I affirm an Arminian theology that holds to the future knowledge (and even proactive activity) of God, and the particularity of Christ. So far, Olson is on that track as well.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Who Is A Person--Legally?

On the Colorado ballot this time around is Amendment 48, sometimes called the “Personhood Amendment.” It is a very simple amendment, stating that in all the appropriate places in the Colorado Constitution, the term “person” or “persons” shall apply to any human being from the moment of fertilization. Clearly, this will have profound consequences on the pro-life/pro-choice debate, and once it is given some thought, some possibly radical legal and legislative consequences.

This amendment gets right to the heart of the pro-life issue. Not too many people argue anymore that what is in the womb of a human mother is not biologically human or potentially human. Because the DNA evidence is insurmountable, the debate has now largely moved to the social or legal status of the fetus/embryo/zygote in terms of whether it is a person with all the rights and privileges thereof, or not.

Most pro-life positions contend that what is in the womb is “human” in the sense that it ought to bear all the social and legal rights we grant all out of the womb humans. What is in the womb is human life, the deliberate taking of innocent life is always murder, and therefore, the deliberate taking of innocent life in the womb is murder. Probably not too many people will argue with parts two and three of the preceding sentence, so it is part one that is at stake.

Amendment 48 will, at least legally, answer that issue.

Should a pro-lifer vote for it? My short answer is “yes.” If you are pro-life in the sense outlined above, this amendment is a legislative move totally in concert with your philosophical and theological convictions. It is not an overreaching religious belief because it does not make any explicit religious appeal, and can be defended on totally non-religious grounds. Thus it does not breech any serious worry of the separation of church and state. (For the record, I find that concern highly suspect anyway.)

Many worry about its passage because some of the ramifications of this amendment could be far-reaching and even radical. Will the state then need to prosecute both mothers and doctors for murder? Will Planned Parenthood become an “illegal” organization? Will pharmacies which distribute abortion inducing birth control be complicit in murder? Some argue that Amendment 48 is unwise because of these potential consequences. But is that a valid concern?

In general, if a law is in right relationship with reality, it should be enacted. Even if it causes us pain as we grow accustomed to it, truth is more important than practicality. Take, for example, a world where a product called, “Kansas-Style Whole Grain Bread,” is lethal. This bread is unusually tasty and even very cheap to purchase. Families have been feeding it to their kids for years, and though there have been worries that childhood mortality rates may be connected with the bread, it has not been proven until now. It is in the state’s best interest that families and kids are protected from this nefarious whole grain bread, but to enact legislation outlawing it would be devastating to many sectors of the economy. It is worried that family farms will go under, bankruptcies will increase to a level that will threaten local banks, employment will tank as distributors and grocery stores quit selling the popular product. We can imagine a world where the ramifications are broad and even painful, but we probably consider the legislation more important than the consequences.

Secondly, I don’t have to answer all the potential consequences before I take a principled stand on an issue. I may not be able, for example, to detail all the economic ramifications of outlawing gambling in Las Vegas, but I can be totally rational coming up with a good argument saying it should be outlawed. Likewise, proponents of Amendment 48 do not need to detail exactly how all the laws regarding murder will work in the future in order to support the amendment.

In fact, if one is deeply concerned about murder laws now applying to abortion cases, they need only to look at the some two-thirds of U.S. states that already have fetal murder laws on the books. It is the case in most states that if you are careless behind the wheel and hit a pregnant woman, killing both her and the unborn child within her, you can be guilty for double homicide. How vastly different would these new laws in Colorado be if Amendment 48 is passed?

This amendment is a big one. It potentially carries a huge package of philosophical dynamite, but sometimes existing structures need to be brought to the ground.

Friday, October 03, 2008

I Was Plagiarized

With the availability of sermons and sermon helps over the internet—for free—the problem of pastoral plagiarism is more pronounced than ever. I was plagiarized, and I know it because the guilty party proudly, if utterly ignorantly, proclaimed it to me face-to-face.

A little over ten years ago I taught a series based on Summit Ministry’s Understanding the Times curriculum and added my own module on truth in a postmodern world. A pastoral friend three hours north of me thought it sounded like a good series, his mom sent him the tapes, and he taught my material class for class. As fate would have it, a member of his church was an editor for a pastoral magazine. He asked my friend to write an article based on the postmodern material. And here is where it gets fun.

My friend told me the story, said he was about to send the editor to me (because he knew he didn’t do the work and probably couldn’t have) until he heard the article paid. Then, he said, he went ahead and wrote the article. There was jovial laughter all around.

Just this past month, his article appeared in the footnotes of our denomination’s latest journal in the Editor’s Letter at the front of the edition. My old friend is now being cited as a kind of expert/good source on this issue.

What should I do? Reactions from friends and family range from writing him a frustrated letter and demand he clear the record to suing him for (what is likely provable) plagiarism. Chances are pretty slim my plagiarizer will be tapped as an expert on these matters and asked to write more articles on the subject, but what if he is?

I don’t know yet what benefit I will receive by pressing this issue. I must admit I am frustrated at what plagiarism has done to my material, but I’m not sure any official action will gain me anything. On the other hand, I believe this is a serious issue among most pastors. Maybe I am a little cynical at times, but I don’t think most evangelical pastors have the chops to do their own work and apply it to their own congregations. If the tape, CD, podcats and mp3 market disappeared tomorrow, how many pastors would have anything to say the following Sunday?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Emergent Worship?

Recently there has been a growth of worship coming out of the migration of young people into Reformed theology. People enthralled with Piper, Edwards and Calvin are touring the nation writing and singing songs like "Indescribable," and "How Great Is Our God." Add the David Crowder Band on top of Chris Tomlin and Passion and throw in a mix of hymns being redone, and you have a recipie for a new generation of worship.

Where are the emergent worship song writers? Maybe you can point me in their direction, but I have a hunch. There probably aren't many (or even any) who are genuinely emergent, becuase there is no one to worship if emergent theology is to be believed. According to emergent leaders, there is a god who is our most important conversation partner, the great moral example to people who just need to do the right political things to be OK, and one who needs a 5 year break in talking about homosexuality, but not a transcendant and incarnate God who graciously extends His love to unlovable creatures.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Scourge In Our Age

In her speech on Wednesday night, the Republican nominee for Vice President, Sarah Palin, referred to her 5-month old baby as, “perfectly beautiful.” Just about every parent of an infant would say that, but what makes her statement extraordinary is that Trig has Down syndrome.

Abortion is an epidemic and smear on our culture, but the reality is even worse among pre-born children diagnosed with physical and mental disorders. With the advent of prenatal testing for pregnant women of all ages, 90% of children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. We are deciding what “normal” people look like and the kinds of kids we want to raise, and we are disposing of the rest.

What makes this form of abortion especially abhorrent is that it is not only murder, it is murder in the name of eugenics. Eugenics is the act of deciding what kinds of people are superior to others, who deserve to live, and marginalizing the rest. The most blatant form of eugenics is the legacy of the Nazi regime, which underwent a bloody policy of genocide and medical experimentation. Not only did the Nazis try to rid the world of Jews and Gypsies, they rounded up the mentally and physically handicapped, experimented on them, took them out of the normal stream of society, and exterminated thousands.

In the same morally audacious category is the current trend of aborting the same kinds of people the Nazis tried to rid the world of. In the article cited above, the accompanying video quotes the couple as worrying about the world in which their child will grow up. If there are fewer and fewer of her type around in the near future, they worry the world will be less accepting and loving of her. And I think their fear is well-founded. If we are this intolerant of these pre-born infants, how long will it be before we are that intolerant of them after they are born?

The nebulous and propagandistic slogan, “choice,” is a really bad way to justify eugenic murder. Part of what makes morality a discipline is that sometimes the right choices are hard. Families who chose to give birth to and raise a special needs child make some very hard choices, but often tell stories of unbounded and surprising love. “Choice” is lesser moral good than life, even when that life is different than ours.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Sermons We Endure

Last week our church hosted a missionary couple and over lunch one of them told me something fascinating. He referred to my sermon that morning and said that it had been years since he heard an expositional sermon. In other words, as he further explained, it had been years since he heard a sermon in which the minister opened the Bible, took a chunk of Scripture and explained it to people. The fact that this came from a missionary is important: in our denomination missionaries “itinerate.” That means they travel from church to church raising their support and are often in 4-6 different churches in a month.

They had not heard a sermon serious about a passage of Scripture in years.

I have actually heard this often in recent months. My style of preaching has always been expositional. So much so (to prove the depth of my commitment), we recently spent two years in the book of Jeremiah, and it was probably the most powerful two years of work I have ever done. As more people become accustomed to my style, they tell me it has been a long time since they needed to open their Bibles in a service or that they are excited that they hear people in the sanctuary flipping the pages of their Bibles during the sermon.

What is your experience? I worry that the “non-biblical” sermon is becoming more and more common in our evangelical services. A decade or two ago it was probably the influence of the seeker-sensitive movement with its self-help pop-psychology approach that dethroned the Bible in our pulpits, and today my guess is that the social liberalism and literary deconstruction of younger evangelicals and emergents is behind much of it. (A sermon on being green and recycling is, in my opinion, not a sermon but a platform—it’s not hard to find those mp3s on many church websites.)

Frankly, if the Bible isn’t the primary source and Jesus isn’t the primary target on any given Sunday, then what are we doing and why are we doing it? My basic contention is that what happens in the church should be the kind of thing that can only happen in the church. If you have accomplished something that could have been done at a political rally, a local community organization, or anywhere else, then what you have done, no matter how nice, wasn’t really church.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Emotional Deconstruction

Many in the emergent movement are fans of deconstruction. They may be drawn to the promise of new theological and sociological horizons promised by deconstructing the recent past, but as Jonathan Brink notes, that may come with a price. For him, deconstruction is an emotional endeavor. As soon as we begin to call beliefs into question, we are bound to experience things akin to anxiety, even fear, as the things we were brought up with fall off one by one. As a good deconstructionist, he notes that the more people he reads and encounters, the more conclusions he comes in contact with.

Problem is, the older I got the more I realized that there isn’t really one great conclusion. There’s several conclusions.

He even sees problems with other points of view:

You see, the more I walk down the path of deconstruction, the more I’m beginning to see the holes in the fabric.

But, he assures us, we shouldn’t worry too much about his deconstruction. He doesn’t apply it to Scripture, only the interpretations of Scripture.

And to be clear, I’m not talking about deconstructing Scripture. Oh what a beautiful gift is Scripture. I’m deconstructing human attempts to understand Scripture.

That is a nice reassurance, but I am curious about how that gets fleshed out. It seems to me it will be difficult to protect Scripture from the blade of deconstruction while deconstructing the interpretation of the thing. So when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no person comes to the Father except through me,” and someone takes that to mean, “Jesus is the only way to the Father,” how is the second subject to deconstruction without immediately subjecting the first?

Deconstruction is a dangerous path to walk down for a believer who might be described as one of the “People of the Book.” How can we avoid subjecting Scripture to the deep subjectivity of this interpretational technique? After all, it is a compilation of books written by people who, for the most part, are now dead, and who, every one of them, was part of a radically different culture from anyone alive today. Scripture is tailor-made for deconstruction.

It seems to me that deconstruction has few to no upsides and suicidal downsides. Each alleged positive has an analogue in thoughtful analysis, and each downside does nothing but cut its own throat. In other words, it is possible to get all the gains of deconstruction without committing intellectual hari-kari. Concerning the downsides, a theory that alleges interpretive value is in the reader and not in the text leads to obvious and unavoidable absurdities. Deconstructionists disagree with that all day long, but that only makes their position even that much more ironic.

As for possible upsides, as Brink notes, there is the promise of openness to different conclusions and different points of view; even an irenic interaction with new ideas. Fundamentally, I see no difference between that and thoughtful analysis aimed at the truth. The deconstructionist may retort, “ah, but we do it with humility.” To which I might say their definition of humility needs to be reconstructed. Humility does not refer to truth, it refers to character. Humility does not forbid a person from sound and firm belief, it forbids them from vanity.

I also experience an emotion with deconstruction: intellectual repulsion.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Apologetics: Dead Yet?

With the rising of the emergent church movement and talk of living in a postmodern world, the subject of apologetics has been all the rage in some circles. Some are happy to declare traditional apologetics irrelevant in our new world where the best thing a Christian can do is invite another to share in their story. On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that the rational defense of the faith not only serves the purpose of discipleship, but even evangelism. In his recent article in CT, God is Not Dead Yet, William Lane Craig argues that apologetics are not only not irrelevant, but as useful now as they have ever been.

After Craig assesses the bulk of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, he asks, “Why Bother?” Craig makes the bold and provocative assertion that we do not live in a postmodern world, despite all the declarations to the contrary. In fact, he argues, to bend the subject of Christian apologetics to postmodernism would be catastrophic as it would reduce the truth of Christ to just another voice among a cacophony of views. He notes:

This sort of thinking is guilty of a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that's not postmodernism; that's modernism! That's just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can't prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist.

As a matter of practical fact, I think Craig is right. I have students who are knee-jerk relativists until they come face to face with reality themselves—they learn they can’t really live out the relativism they have been muttering about religion and ethics most of their lives. But, on the level of belief, I may not be inclined to agree with Craig wholeheartedly. I think the relativism in our culture has lead to an unusual condition where most people (especially most younger people) are content to live with the deep cognitive dissonance Craig cuts through with his evaluation. In other words, more and more people are content to live as if the world is not relative (morally or religiously) while believing (on at least some significant level) that it is.

Nonetheless, Craig is right to remind us of the social, evangelistic, and even discipling benefits of the apologetic tasks. I think if we dismiss it as no longer relevant, we do ourselves more harm than good.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Shack: Don't

This brief entry in the Christianity Today blog, Out of Ur, documents some of the various reactions to the vastly popular novel, The Shack. I would like to add my voice to those who think this is not only an amateur piece of fiction, but also a really, really bad piece of theology.

You can find point-by-point remarks on the book’s various and multiple problems elsewhere, so I want to highlight two overarching problems I found with the book. First of all, as fiction it is able to lure the reader into a false sense of security. I believe the average reader takes in fiction through a different set of filters than they might a non-fiction work on something like the doctrine of the Trinity. As a result, readers are able to sugarcoat the toxic pills in the book by thinking to themselves, “after all, it’s only fiction.” Instead of thoughtfully engaging the concepts in the book (and there are plenty of clear, theological concepts in the book), a reader is more inclined to swallow the pills as part of the literary effect. No matter their form, bad doctrinal positions are bad doctrinal positions, and if a book can get someone to swallow bad doctrine without reflection, then…well, you can imagine what I think.

Secondly, and this is raised in Out of Ur, an author should never try to put too many words in God’s mouth or try and represent the Trinity too closely. The great pieces of Christian fiction over the centuries have approached God with great care and sparring explanation. The theology in those books is worked out in “real life” among humans who are struggling to understand and live out their faith or lack thereof. The more an author puts words in God’s mouth, the more they are in danger of saying things God would never say. Well over half of The Shack is dedicated to God speaking. Admittedly there are some touching moments—even really well-done moments—but there is too much wrong in the book for those moments to save it.

Life is too short to labor over something like this for the hope of enjoyment or edification. If your friends are reading it and you are worried, I suggest you read it. If you are a leader in your church and the other congregants are reading it, I suggest you do the same. If you want to write frustrated blog posts about the poor state of theological education and communication in our world, then definitely read it. Otherwise, pick up Pilgrim’s Progress, or Lilith, or The Man Who Was Thursday, or Out of the Silent Planet, or the Lord of the Rings, or…

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Precious Death

Standing there in the Critical Care Unit, it was sobering to watch her caress his hand, probably like she caressed it for years. He had died twenty minutes earlier, but she sat there surrounded by friends showing her love and devotion to her life-long husband the only way she knew how.

There is something precious about the passing of a life-long Christian spouse. It’s not easy; it’s not to be taken lightly. But there is something unique about it.

As their pastor, I was called in early in the morning while he was dying and had a chance to talk with family and friends and pray with him. He had just enough strength left to be aware of me for a little less than a minute. He listened to me as much as he could, and I learned again in that moment there is nothing small or flippant about prayer. They called again about three hours later to let me know he died.

Several times she said they were soul-mates, and no doubt they were. They were married to each other for decades—the example of the kind of marriage being lost at an alarming rate. Together they were committed to Christ and to their local church through thick and thin—an example of the kind of dedication to faith and community so rare in our Christian world right now.

So when he died, that is the kind of life he left behind. That is the kind of life she shared with him and stood as a monument to there in that hospital room. When she took his hand, it was a hand she knew. It was hers as much as it was his. She sat next to a man she knew and loved through every season in life, and though death separated them for the moment she still loved him.

And then there is our confidence in his faith in Christ. He died a child of God, which means he is no longer confined to that hospital bed connected to respirators, IVs and monitors. She knew, and we were able confidently to encourage her, he was with his Savior. The apostle Paul says we long for our heavenly dwelling as we groan under the weight of this life. As more of our friends, mothers and fathers exchange this life for the next, the more attractive our heavenly reunion becomes.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
Psalm 116:15

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Take Me To Your Leader

This is a good post about the spate of "Jesus and Corporate Leadership Tips and Tricks" literature out there in the evangelical world: Jesus is not a CEO.

To add to what the author said, I think one of the fundamental errors most pastoral leadership litertature makes is beginning with an assumption akin to philosophical pragmatism.

Pragmatism is a distinctly American philosophy, "who can argue with success?" It is a view that sees success and numerical results as more important than abstract concepts like "truth" or "morality." The most recent philosophical pragmatist, Richard Rorty, famously wrote, "truth is what your peers let you get away with."

Though very few evangelical pastors are hard-core pragmatists, they are primarily concerned with measurable results nonetheless. And that makes them vulnerable to bad philosophy.

Enter the concept of Jesus as corportate leader. If successful corporations are our measure of accomplishment, and we want to be successful leaders following Christ, we are tempted (deeply tempted) to view Jesus as a successful corportat CEO.

Ultimately, it is a deep corruption of the life of Christ and the Kingdom of God here on earth.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Next Breed of Evangelical Leaders

At the National Religious Broadcaster’s convention recently, Dr. James Dobson lamented the passing of several prominent Christian leaders who have been activists for several social causes. With the deaths of people like Ruth Graham and D. James Kennedy, and several others getting closer to the ends of their careers, Dobson wondered what was going to happen to broadly conservative Christian activism.

“The question is, will the younger generation heed the call? Who will defend the unborn child in the years to come? Who will plead for the Terri Schiavos of the world? Who’s going to fight for the institution of marriage, which is on the ropes today.”

Dobson, Kennedy, Colson and others have made great social strides in several ways, but more often than not their causes have either explicitly or implicitly been tied to political activism. According to some culture watchers, the younger breed of evangelical is less apt to align themselves politically, or at the least, less apt to openly associate with conservative politics. The article goes on to note:

Christian activists and other observers of the movement say that the next generation of leaders isn’t as interested in polarizing debates and wants to broaden the evangelical agenda beyond divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage. “Who in the next generation will be willing to take the heat, when it’s so much safer and more comfortable to avoid controversial subjects,” Dobson said.

Among that next generation of evangelicals is the emergent movement. If you follow it closely, you know emergents claim to have avoided the same political “errors” of their predecessors. But they have, in fact, committed the same error on the other side of the political aisle. If you are looking to avoid political entanglement, they are not much more help.

I agree with Dobson that our culture needs a new generation of evangelical leaders to stand up for the right things. Here are some thoughts on what ought to characterize those leaders.

First, they need to resist relativism in all its substantial forms. Epistemological and religious relativism are slow-acting poisons that destroy their consumers from the inside out. The Christian worldview needs some form of objectivism to really do its work.

Second, they need to be committed to Jesus Christ and him crucified: from behind pulpits, in vocation, in the public eye, in personal witness, and in family life. For instance, some have gone the route of substituting social justice for the theology of atonement, and are going the way of 19th century theological liberalism. We need to regain a full-orbed sense of being a Christian in this world (including social causes) beginning with the clear messages of the nature of Christ and the nature of humanity. Despite all appearances, those are not mutually exclusive goals.

Thirdly, the next wave of leaders needs to keep their kingdoms straight. Good theology will inevitably have social and political consequences. Political activism without good theology reduces to propagandizing. A major mistake Christians make (in both political directions) is treating parties and figures as surrogate messiahs. “If only Senator So-and-So is elected, then we can get some real work done for the Kingdom of God” is a confusion of kingdoms. In reality, the church often flourishes most when the powers that be are openly opposed to it. Maybe that is because in those seasons Christians have a better grasp on the true identity of their Savior.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no specific distaste for Christians making their views open to political debate and public vote. What I don’t like are the tendencies that sometimes comes to the fore when Christians get too tied to politics. The kingdoms of the world are fading away, but the Kingdom of our Lord will last forever.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Rise of the "Nones"

A recent survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life has made quite a splash in several circles. Among other things, the study shows that there are significant numbers of people switching religions or religious affiliations during their lifetime. One may grow up Baptist, but it is becoming more likely that they will spend most of their adult life as unaffiliated with a denomination or a religious title.

In USA Today, Stephen Prothero has some insightful things to say about how the religious landscape is changing, and aside from some rather silly political barbs, I think he has some important things to say. First of all, he is right when he notes:

The USA is rapidly becoming a culture of customization.

Not just with our careers, fast food and clothing, but with our own brands of spirituality as well. He also notes what may be the vital reality for churches to understand:

The key subplot here is the rise of "nones," a category growing faster than any other religious group. Of all adults in the USA, 16% say they are religiously unaffiliated, while 7% were raised that way. Moreover, 25% of younger Americans (ages 18-29) report no religious affiliation at all.


What does the rise of the "nones," particularly in Western states and northern New England, demonstrate? Not the sickness of religion in general but the health of a new kind of religion — a more personal and less institutional form often parading under the banner of "spiritual but not religious," an option that, among my Boston University students at least, seems as popular as the smoothie stand in the student union.

So the “nones” are not committed to nothing, or even to atheism, but to not being committed to a denominational or religious structure. Due to whatever sets of reasons—dissatisfaction with the authenticity of churches and pastors, recent moral scandals, the way churches spend or don’t spend money, or just the raw individualist drive—more and more people are avoiding close association with churches.

But there was another finding that Prothero noted:

Another story buried in the data of this new survey is the power of evangelical Protestantism, and particularly non-denominational churches. Of those surveyed, 44% called themselves "born again" or "evangelical" Christians, and among religious options non-denominational Protestantism is one of the fastest growing.

So there may be some bright spots in this after all. But the question needs to be posed and answered well: what is a church to do in this kind of atmosphere?

HT: Albert Mohler

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"New" Sins

The Vatican has issued an updated list of sins.

I first became aware of this news item the other day, and what impressed me the most about it was the seriousness with which the Vatican is taking bioethics and the frontiers of biotech. Among the expanded list of mortal sins are: genetic modification and carrying out experiments on humans.

This raises at least a couple of really interesting issues. First of all, in what sense are these “new” sins? I might be wrong, but the tag “new” seems to be something that has come from the reporting and not necessarily from the Vatican, but it is, after all, an updated list of sins. And in that sense at least, they are “new.”

It might be that the action of genetic modification is new. We just didn’t have those technologies 50 or 100 years ago. But humans still “sinned” while experimenting on other humans and enacting eugenic projects on large or small scales.

While it may be true that humans have sinned in these ways in different forms in the past, I think it is important to these new technologies to be labeled the same way we would label the Nazi experiments on prisoners. The way human experimentation was done decades and centuries ago wrenches our emotions and sympathies when we see the brutal and bloody equipment used and the grainy photographs of the horrible results.

Now, we can experiment on humans in very clean and clinical environments that illicit emotions of friendliness, reason, and progress. The photographs of the humans are tiny, unrecognizable circles of stuff in petri dishes that fail to arouse our sympathies.

Thus, it is important for theological organizations like the Vatican, to label these actions for people.

The second issue is a bit broader. More and more denominations and church organizations should be just as clear about these things. We all need to be doing the work of exegeting culture and applying the timeless truths of Scripture and the Christian faith to the important issues of our day. Before the technology goes too far to be stopped (some may say we are there already), we need to apply real and critical reflection to the technologies and consequences.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Attitudes on Tithing

This article is an interesting view into the world of church finances in our local newspaper. The premise is that tithing and giving are down in local churches, and it details a few reasons why that might be the case.

First of all, there really are several statistics that show this to be the case across the board. Fewer and fewer people are giving to churches. One reason detailed in the article was:

Young people don’t give as regularly as their parents might have, and many people of all ages are giving to charities rather than to religious organizations.

There seems to be a “bang-for-your-buck” mentality on a certain level. It is easy to see the impact of a food bank or a clothing give-away, but young people may not as readily “see” the benefits of giving to a church.

This raises the question of why Christians give. Do we give to churches because we expect them to be social welfare programs? Churches should not shirk their responsibility there, but that is not why believers ought to give.

Another anecdote in the article:

“If your church is going to have a bigscreen TV, what is the point?” Cruz said.

This church-hunter was growing tired of the opulence of megachurches. I can certainly see his point, but it is a point that should be pressed. How much spending is too much for a church? A bigger TV for the youth group? A $10,000 bank of stage lighting? Really comfortable chairs in the sanctuary? My sense is that Mr. Cruz’s tolerance for spending would be different based on what he personally found beneficial to his family. Who really wants churches to go back to wooden pews?

Again, there is nothing wrong with churches being good stewards, but, again, this raises the question of why Christians ought to give. Do we give so we can tell a church board how to spend our money?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Good Short Discussion on Truth and the Emergent Movement

This is a great video of three very solid thinkers discussing postmodernism and the emergent movement. They say several things that need to be said and heard about the necessity of truth (what Schaeffer called “true truth”) for a Christian worldview and the inability of the emergent movement to handle it.

Much of the emergent reaction I have seen to this clip is a little silly. Many accuse the presenters of having never read any of the basic emergent literature when they, in fact, discuss what they read specifically in the clip. I have also found that to be an emergent tactic when you find a soft spot—“you didn’t really read what he wrote.” And even more emergenty is the smarmy sigh of disappointment that the presenters were not irenic or circumspect in presenting their views on the matter.

But this is one of the core problems with an emergent point of view. Because of their postmodern commitments, they are unable to take a serious stand on anything except a stand against anyone who takes a stand on anything. To them, a catch phrase like “irenic” is synonymous with, “you can’t make judgments.” And that, to be sure, is a really bad place to begin building serious and life-transforming theology. Not only is it a view that commits suicide (it is itself a judgment), it is not what any emergent thinker actually believes or practices.

What the world needs is not more fuzzy thinking about god-in-general or spirituality-in-general. It needs Christians who know how to speak the truth in love—beginning with the truth, and also beginning with the love.

I read a commentary on Mark 8 the other day that I thought summarized well one of the places where the emergent movement is going wrong. In the context of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus’ acceptance of the title, Jesus’ description of his life and then his description of the life of the disciple, the scholar wrote, “A false view of Messiahship leads to a false view of discipleship.” In other words, if we are unable to come to grips with the truth Jesus spoke about himself, our life of following Christ will miss the mark.

But that doesn’t sound irenic to me.