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.