Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Rank of Religion in Colorado

In a lot of circles, Colorado Springs is thought of as a kind of evangelical mecca. After all, with several mega churches and several internationally known parachurch organizations in town, how many people could be left here that are not Christian?

As it turns out, a lot. And not just in Colorado Springs, but in all of Colorado. As a church planter I was subjected to a lot of demographic information several years ago, and was shocked to learn that according to a couple of different surveys, as much as 80-85% of Colorado Springs considers themselves “unchurched.” And now, according to a Pew Forum study, Colorado ranks 41st in a study ranking the importance of religion in peoples’ lives. Barna, the religion writer for the Gazette reports a couple of the details, and is understandably surprised.

I was once in a conference in Denver where one of the speakers was a pastor. He had pastored in Denver and moved on to pastor in several locations around the world. His comment about Colorado was that it was some of the hardest ground to plow for a church.

What does this mean for the life of the church in Colorado? In Colorado Springs?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Dentists and Pastors

I heard a commercial for the umptheenth time this morning on the radio. It was a testimonial for a local dentist. The patient was saying, “What I want in a dentist is someone who can relate to me…make a personal connection…make me feel better.” Now, I can appreciate the need to not be intimidated by the dentist, but…seriously? Don’t you want certification? Licensure? A degree from a non-Caribbean university? Experience and insight?

And then I wondered if this is part of what is wrong with evangelicalism today. I could easily imagine that commercial changing ever so slightly and becoming a testimonial for a church. “What I want from a pastor is someone who can relate to me…make a personal connection with me…make me feel better.” Why not biblical wisdom and expertise? Why not experience with the presence of God in this broken world? Why not a proclaimed of truth in a world of error?

Maybe I just had too much of a headache on the way to the office this morning.

Emergents (De)constructing Houses

I have stated in the past, and will continue to argue that the emergent church movement (and whatever forms it takes on now) is, well, silly. And by silly, I mean without any real grounding in substantive reflection or biblical work. Most emergent types have a passion to reach a world without Christ, and that is obviously a good thing. But they tend to hitch their stars to orbit-less asteroids. Emergent would rather ask questions and deconstruct than be so intolerant and reactionary as to provide an answer or two to very straight-forward questions or issues.

The latest case in point is a pair of blog posts at Christianity Today’s Out of Ur. The first is by a leading emergent pastor, Dan Kimball, who admits he was wrong in the past about church buildings. He used to think them out of date and a relic of Christendom, and now (surprisingly he now has a healthy church meeting in a building), he sees their value. I’m glad Kimball has leveled off a bit about church buildings – clearly lots of good churches do a lot of good, God-honoring things with buildings.

But we can’t leave it there.

Ken Eastburn, a house church movement leader (one of the latest evolutions of the emergent movement), wrote back. Though Eastburn respects Kimball, he corrects several points Kimball made in favor of house churches. Very heady stuff indeed.

The result? A really silly and totally unnecessary exchange. A mouse masquerading as an elephant. A conversation that has a simple and obvious solution, but which will not reach said solution given the starting points of the emergent mind.

The root problem in this little debate is that a lot of the emergent movement and its off-shoots haven’t bothered to ground themselves theologically or philosophically. By their very DNA, they would rather not. So, as a result, we get tempest in teapots about the relative merits of church buildings and house churches, with each claiming their pitcher’s mound as the high ground.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nazareth - Archeology and the Bible

It has been common for skeptics to point to the lack of a first-century Nazareth in order to chip away at the authenticity of Scripture. Recently, however, it has been found.

Israeli archaeologists said Monday that they have uncovered remains of the first dwelling in the northern city of Nazareth that can be dated back to the time of Jesus.

The find sheds a new light on what Nazareth might have been like in Jesus' time, said the archaeologists, indicating that it was probably a small hamlet with about 50 houses populated by poor Jews.

The act of pointing to a lack of archaeological evidence as a kind of proof that the Bible is historically inaccurate is a little dangerous. By the very nature of the science, the lack of archaeological evidence is not yet hard proof for anything.

And as has been seen in the last century, time and time again the sites and people skeptics said did not exist came crawling out of the desert floor.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nagel and Intelligent Design

At the Discovery Institutes's blog, Evolution News & Views, they make note of the philosopher, Thomas Nagel's view specifically on the Dover legal battle, and generally on ID and science. An excerpt from the blog (and a simple argument that ID is science):

Prominent philosopher and legal scholar Thomas Nagel, an atheist, endorses an argument that is obvious: if the argument against intelligent design in biology (Darwinism) counts as a scientific argument, then the argument for intelligent design in biology must count as a scientific argument, because the two differing conclusions are just the negative and affirmative denouement of the same argument. That is of course not to say that one or the other argument about design is true; it is merely to say the obvious: that for either to be true, the question of intelligent design must be a scientific question.

For the full post.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Taking Christianity Seriously?

I have often wondered why our culture at large reserves special distaste for the Christian religion. It tends to come to the fore this time of year, but it exists year-round. How do political commentators get away with claiming that Christianity is the most dangerous religion on earth? How is it that Christian symbols seem to be singled out as targets during holidays?

I have a new theory – it is because Christianity is the only religion our culture takes seriously.

Every other faith is viewed as a matter of personal spiritual fad. None of them, according to popular culture, make objective claims on a human life and none of them are exclusive. Now, all of this would be news to all these religions, but our American culture has reduced them in this way. As a result, Christianity stands alone in the eyes of the populace as the religion that makes objective moral and exclusive religious claims.

If I am right, maybe we have something to celebrate: a few of the core truth claims of the Christian faith remain.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Berlinski’s book is a masterful romp through the pretentions of modern secular atheism and scientism. It is surprising on many levels. First of all, though Berlinski claims no religious affiliation, he is no water-boy for scientific naturalism or Darwinism. Then his broad grasp of the science involved is impressive. Someone who clearly keeps up with the literature (knows several Nobel laureates in the sciences) and who understands it all, Berlinski has a useful perspective as he critiques everything from gradual Darwinian processes to string theory to molecular biology. And on top of it all, his dry and cutting sense of humor adds to instead of detracts from his philosophical acumen.

As I progressed deeper into the book, I was reminded of the boy who famously cried out that the emperor had no clothes. Not only does Berlinski deny the general, and often unsupported, claims of the secular Darwinian project, he skewers it. He deals with the usual suspects – Dawkins, Harris, Dennett (he reserves special distaste for Dennett), and Hitchens – and he deals with the real mathematicians, biologists, physicists and so forth. Sometimes critiques of the New Atheists suffer from the vapidity of their subject matter. If the book you are critiquing is without real substance, what else can be said? But Berlinski has the capacity to discuss and analyze on every level.

As an interested follower of the subjects Berlinski covers, I appreciated his ability to make the complex understandable without making it sound simplistic. His firm grasp of the details enables him to talk of the grand scheme with authority and insight. If you are interested in the issues raised by the New Atheists or the Darwinian project, this is a wonderful and insightful read. If you would like to have a fresh perspective on the place of science in our culture from someone who considers himself “part of the church” of science, Berlinski’s book will not disappoint.

Great Advice on Reading Good Books

Douglas Groothuis has some good advice on reading books.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Global Warming and a Planetary One-Child Policy

Much has been made of this piece of journalistic tripe over the last couple of days, so I thought I would go ahead and read it. Mercifully, it is short. The basic claim is the same uber-radical claim made by progressives over the past several decades – the real problem with humans is humans. There are just too many of us, and we are slowing killing the planet and each other (and those are ranked in the right ontological order for them). In her frighteningly titled “The real inconvenient truth,” Diane Francis reports:

The "inconvenient truth" overhanging the UN's Copenhagen conference is not that the climate is warming or cooling, but that humans are overpopulating the world.

A planetary law, such as China's one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate currently, which is one million births every four days.

Whether Francis knows exactly what that entails, you ought to know. China’s one-child policy is in practice a recipe for three things: millions of state-sponsored and enforced abortions, a severely declining female birth rate, and hundreds of thousands of abandoned malformed and disabled children. In other words, a state-enforced one-child policy means in actuality that girls and “unwanted” children are aborted and abandoned at unusual rates. But, it seems, none of this is a problem for Francis. And as is typical, we humans need to take a cue from our intelligent plant and animal ancestors.

The world's other species, vegetation, resources, oceans, arable land, water supplies and atmosphere are being destroyed and pushed out of existence as a result of humanity's soaring reproduction rate…. Humans are the only rational animals but have yet to prove it.

On one level the only appropriate response to this is a good chuckle and casual dismissal. On another level, Francis is allegedly one of “the only rational animals” but apparently needs a quick lesson in reason. Francis is wrong on every assumption – she assumes the entire planet’s human population is growing at an unsustainable rate, she assumes China’s policy is environmentally driven and successful, she assumes it is a good thing to have this kind of “planetary law,” and she assumes the moral high-ground belongs to population control advocates.

It is flatly false that the planet’s population is growing out of control. The smart (and outside the inner circle of politically correct scientific coercion) view is that most of the world is in a demographic winter. Only certain segments of the world’s population are growing. Most of them are deeply religious groups and countries in the developing world. So, as argued before, population control like this on a planetary level is de facto eugenics.

China doesn’t care one whit about the environment. They force families to have only one child because their command and control economy can’t keep up. It’s an old story, really. When Stalin’s Five Year Plans couldn’t feed his entire population, he decided the best thing to do was stick with the Plan and slaughter tens of millions of peasants. Francis might be on-board.

Without going too long, it is simply not true that the population control advocates have the moral high-ground. First of all, the radical predictions over the last 50 years have failed to come true. Obama currently has a Science Czar who predicted in the 60s and 70s that the East Coast would be unlivable and the Mid-West would be an arid dust bowl – all by 1985. And we still listen to these people? Secondly, the plans advocated by population control advocates are, pure and simple, an effort to eliminate “other people.” Eugenics is eugenics is eugenics.

By the way, Diane Francis has two kids.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Wisdom Calls

Proverbs 9:1-6

1 Wisdom has built her house;
she has hewn her seven pillars.
2 She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.
3 She has sent out her young women to call
from the highest places in the town,
4 "Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!"
To him who lacks sense she says,
5 "Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
6 Leave your simple ways, and live,
and walk in the way of insight."

Wisdom built a house. Where do I dwell?
Wisdom set a table and prepared a banquet. Where do I eat?
Wisdom sent messengers to get my attention. To whom do I listen?
Wisdom calls me in. Who has my attention?
Wisdom asks for the simple. Am I too arrogant to heed?

How my daily life answers these questions determines whether I will live and walk in the ways of insight.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

New Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines

Dr. Francis Collins is an intriguing if not complicated figure. He is a self-proclaimed evangelical, ardent proponent of theistic evolution, former head of the Human Genome Project, and now the director of the NIH. He and the NIH recently announced the approval of 13 human embryonic stem cell lines suitable for federal funding. Those who are worried about the implications of using human embryo stem cell lines will probably not be set at ease with the vague language Collins employs. In the NIH press release, he states:

"In accordance with the guidelines, these stem cell lines were derived from embryos that were donated under ethically sound informed consent processes. More lines are under review now, and we anticipate continuing to expand this list of responsibly derived lines eligible for NIH funding."

According to an interview in the Washington Post, there are dozens more lines in the pipeline waiting the vetting process. In response to ethical concerns, Collins stated:

"I think that there is an argument to be made that what is being done is ethically acceptable…even if you believe in the inherent sanctity of the human embryo."

I would be pleased to see an argument for this very thing that does not rely on utilitarian calculations, and that takes seriously the claim that human embryos are human persons with all their human rights intact. To my knowledge, and in the literature I have read on this announcement, Collins does not make any such case. So then, as a scientifically responsible position, I believe Collins’ statement falls flat.

Ultimately, what continues to confuse me is the very issue raised in the NIH release.

“Researchers hope that eventually cells differentiated from hESCs may be used to treat a myriad of diseases, conditions, and disabilities and to test the safety of new drugs in the laboratory."

So far, no clinical treatments have been documented as a result of human stem cell research whereas adult stem cells have been successfully applied to dozens of different diseases and conditions. And the creation of Chemically Induced adult Pluripotent Stem cells (CiPS) has, in my mind, settled both the scientific and ethical debate.

HT: Albert Mohler

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Public Appeal of the Manhattan Declaration

Our ethics class at CCU read and discussed the Manhattan Declaration last week, and we had a lively interaction about the broad claims as well as the specific details contained in this “declaration of Christian conscience.” It would be well worth your while to read it through (about 7 printed pages) just to see what over 200 thousand people have signed their names to (as of 11/30/09).

One of the larger issues which caught my attention shows up in the “Declaration” section. They write:

We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image. We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person.

Two things jump out immediately. This is clearly a Christian document arising from historical Christian faith, and leading to unapologetically Christian concerns. I guess that is no particular surprise.

But it is also a document that makes a public argument – though Christian, it purports to stand for issues which are for the “good of all who bear his image” and which are grounded in “natural human reason” and the “very nature of the human person.” I like that move. Though the Declaration does quote Scripture, its argumentation is rooted in natural law concerns.

If Christians claim to have a grasp on truths that matter to everyone regardless of creed, they should hold to them.

Which is Darwin's Legacy?

In this, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, much has been made of his contribution to science. Not much has been heard about his contribution to society. To follow up his seminal work, The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote The Descent of Man to outline his social science. He knew it was controversial enough to distract from his science, so he made the wise move to separate the two. As a result, 200 years later, we mistakenly think of him as a natural scientist only. The typical understanding is that his disciples misapplied his natural science to the social sciences, and all kinds of horrors resulted which are not applicable directly to Darwin.

Time magazine recently interviewed journalist Dennis Sewell about the social consequences of Darwin’s theory. The brief interview is revealing on a couple of different levels.

Q:Should we reassess Darwin's legacy?
A:Bicentennial celebrations have portrayed Darwin as a kindly old gentleman pottering around an English house and garden. What that misses is the way his ideas were abused in the 20th century and the way in which Darwin was wrong about certain key issues.

Sewell’s picture of Darwin appears to be a mixture of the man and the myth. The myth is that his “ideas were abused.” The true man “was wrong about certain key issues.” I’ll say. When a scientific luminary argues for a greater evolutionary gap between blacks and whites than between apes and blacks, I would say that is being wrong a certain key issue.

Q:You believe that Darwin should continue to be taught in schools. But how can we teach Darwin and also teach that humans are somehow exceptional in the natural world? Wasn't his great breakthrough to show that humans, like all animals, share a common origin?
A:I think we have to decide what status we are going to give to the human race. Most of the world's religions hold that human life is sacred and special in some way. In teaching our common descent with animals, we also have to examine what is special about human beings, and why they deserve to be treated differently and granted certain rights.

The Time interviewer turns out to be a fundamentalist true believer. Harrell (the Time reporter) can’t quite wrap himself around this embarrassing problem. But Sewell is exactly right! A bedrock problem with Darwin’s theory is that there is probably no significant difference between animals and humans. As a result, it is not the case that animals get raised to the level of human, but that humans get demoted to the rank of animal.

The most obvious and horrific results of Darwin’s own social views were the eugenics movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries culminating with the Nazis.

Q:We understand now that eugenics was an illegitimate science, so why even worry about it today?
A:The thinking behind eugenics is still present. Many senior geneticists point to a genetically engineered future. As the technology for this falls into place, there has also been an explosion of the field of evolutionary psychology that tries to describe every element of human behavior as genetically determined. What we will begin to see is scientists arguing for the use of genetics to breed out certain behavioral traits from humanity.

What the Time reporter does not know is that eugenics is alive and well, just not under the epithet “eugenics.” Sewell is right to be wary of our technological capabilities and the possibility of breeding certain people out of the human race. Already, in the U.S., 90% of fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. In Western Europe, 11-14% of fetuses with any diagnosed genetic defect are aborted. I have argued (very convincingly, might I add!) that all “population control” programs are eugenic by nature. The only demographic segments around the world not experiencing a demographic winter are the poorest, the religious, and minorities in western nations. China’s “one baby” population control policy has become an effective war against women.

But back to Darwin. The quote I have seen most often from The Descent of Man is telling.

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; …We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick;…and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment….Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man….Hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

You Don't See This Every Day

File this one under, “don’t try this at home.” From some information in John G. West’s, Darwin Day In America, I tracked this guy down. Apparently Giovanni Aldini was convinced that enough electricity applied to a sufficiently fresh corpse would produce “reanimation.”

Aldini traveled all over Europe publicly electrifying human and animal bodies, and his performances were extraordinary theatrical spectacles. In 1802 Giovanni Aldini came to London with a spectacular demonstration. Such spectacles performed on humans (and ox heads) produced repeated, spasmodic movements of facial muscles, arms, and legs. He stimulated the heads and trunks of cows, horses, sheep and dogs. An eyewitness reported: "Aldini, after having cut off the head of a dog, makes the current of a strong battery go through it: the mere contact triggers really terrible convulsions. The jaws open, the teeth chatter, the eyes roll in their sockets; and if reason did not stop the fired imagination, one would almost believe that the animal is suffering and alive again".

The most famous experiment took place at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1803, on a hanged man named George Forster. Anatomical dissection had formed part of Forster’s death sentence, but no one could have visualized quite the violation that Aldini was going to inflict on him. Before a large medical and general audience, he took a pair of conducting rods linked to a powerful battery, and touched the rods to various parts of the body in turn. The results were dramatic. When the rods were applied to Forster’s mouth and ear, “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” When one rod was moved to touch the rectum, the whole body convulsed: indeed, the movements were “so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation”.

In a not unrelated item, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written during this period.

For more info.

Christian Living When The Going Gets Tough

Chuck Colson, Robert George and Timothy George have authored and released a Christian manifesto of sorts, The Manhattan Declaration. It is a call for serious Christian living in our current cultural climate – almost a call for civil disobedience. It identifies several areas where they think core beliefs are being compromised by the culture at large, and the general tone of the document can be summed up in this arresting final thought:

We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's.

About 150 Christian leaders from all three major orthodox confessions signed the document upon its release last Friday. I am considering signing it myself, so it is sitting on my desk for digestion. But in the mean time, I ran across this article in the NYT and thought it deserved some comment.

Apart from the expectedly typical progressive smarminess just beneath the surface, the article cites a law professor at George Washington University, Lupu.

Ira C. Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University Law School, said it was “fear-mongering” to suggest that religious institutions would be forced to do any of those things [pay taxes or support social schemes against their conscience]. He said they are protected by the First Amendment, and by conscience clauses that allow medical professionals and hospitals to opt out of performing certain procedures, and religious exemptions written into same-sex marriage bills.

The stance that religious speech is automatically protected by the First Amendment is naïve to the extreme given the current climate of other western democracies. First Amendment or not, pastors and conscientious objectors are in and out of prison for violating their nation’s current politically correct fads all the time. (And if that’s not provocative enough for you, I decided last week that hate crime laws are, by logical extension, necessarily hate speech and hate thought laws.)

Lupu added that the real tension comes into play when religious organizations “provide social services to the public.” And he is right. Catholic adoption agencies on the east coast have had to shut their doors because they refuse to adopt to homosexual couples. A camp in New Jersey lost its non-profit status when it refused to perform a gay marriage. The notion of “social services” can and will be defined so broadly as to include anything – I guarantee it. My church runs an active food pantry in conjunction with a handful of non-religious social organizations. We support a couple of local elementary schools throughout the year. Do we count as a target for political intolerance?

I typically don’t react to Christian manifestos with much lasting interest, but this one is a real consideration for me, and I fully expect it to have real consequences for those who sign and support it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reflecting On Preaching

Written at a point of personal crisis, Why Johnny Can’t Preach puts across ideas and arguments that reflect a crisis in the larger evangelical world. T. David Gordon decided to put these ideas on paper while facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, so there is an air of urgency to the work. He wanted to discuss why preaching (specifically among evangelical and reformed circles) is so bad. I, too, feel his sense of urgency.

The book begins with the sobering revelation, “Part of me wishes to avoid proving the sordid truth: that preaching today is ordinarily poor.” Drawing on his teaching, preaching, and academic background in media ecology, Gordon proceeds to lay out the case that most preaching misses all the foundational homiletical principles. The most glaring of which may be what is labeled “Evangelical Tone,” or the sense that the preacher is proactively proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.

The middle two chapters make the case that Johnny can’t preach because he can’t read and he can’t write. We live in a culture that creates a kind of “aliteracy”: pastors can read, but they can’t read for meaning or significance. In addition, pastors by-in-large can’t communicate well in writing. And if our future pastors enter seminary lacking these foundational tools, all the theological and homiletical training in the world can’t save future pulpiteering tragedy.

Gordon ends up arguing for training our missing “pre-homiletical sensibilities” in seminary and Bible colleges. He is most assuredly right. Without an analytical eye to deep reading for meaning and flow, and without the ability to sift through the insignificant to get to the significant, expositing a text becomes an exercise in futility.

While there is a lot to commend, Gordon fell a little short on treating Johnny’s inability to write. His short chapter on this issue dwelt entirely on telephone conversations, and I am sure there is a lot more he could have said. I addition, Gordon placed a lot of weight on the usefulness of yearly reviews of the pastor’s preaching by his congregation or peers. If the trained preacher lacks the necessary skills to tell good preaching from bad, how can the untrained public be any better?

All in all, however, Gordon’s book is a tremendous work and deserves to be read by those who are interested in reviving the Church through Christ-centered and life-giving preaching.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Keep all that old-timy Bible reading to a minimum!

In a recent article for Christianity Today, Yawning at the Word, Mark Galli tells of what seems to be a growing trend in evangelical churches. The article opens with this auspicious story:

When I preach, I often quote the Bible to drive home my point. I think it more persuasive to show that what I'm saying is not merely my opinion but a consistent theme of Scripture. And to avoid the impression that I'm proof-texting or lifting verses out of context, I quote longer passages—anywhere from 2 to 6 verses.

When I did this at one church, a staff member whom I'd asked for feedback between services told me to cut down on the Scripture quotations. "You'll lose people," he said.

The stories continue, and Galli continues:

It is well and good for the preacher to base his sermon on the Bible, but he better get to something relevant pretty quickly, or we start mentally to check out. Don't spend a lot of time in the Bible, we tell our preachers, but be sure to get to personal illustrations, examples from daily life, and most importantly, an application that we can use.

It's easy to see how this culture has profoundly reshaped the dynamics of preaching and teaching. All the demands have been placed on the shoulders of the preacher, so anxious are we to meet needs and stay relevant. No longer are listeners asked to listen humbly to the proclamation of God's Word, in all its mystery and glory. To be sure, we want the preacher to begin with the Word—we're Christians after all—but only as a starting point, and only as long as he moves on to things that really interest us.

Though Galli is frustrated by this trend, he is not so hard on it as I might be. Galli rightly notes that the Scriptures ought to be at the core of our churches and our teaching, and that our congregations should learn a proper respect for the place and power of the very word of God. I am finishing a great little book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, and I will have more to say about this topic in a review.

But here, in keeping with the spirit of evangelical relevance and keeping my use of the Word to a minimum, may I say this. If you have taught your church to be comfortable with Scripture in the background behind your illustrated sermons, flashy power points and tips for success…


Darwinian Hegemony

This is a fascinating insight into the current state of affairs with Dawinian theory: A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. There you can download the list of hundreds of scientists who have signed the following:

"We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

HT: Constructive Curmudgeon

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Abortion and Public Funding

There is a great deal of debate right now, as a subset of the health care debate, about whether abortion is or ought to be covered by a taxpayer funded program. Over and over, reports and studies show us that the current plans do cover abortion, but the moral debate obviously is not over. Salon’s Broadsheet posted the “10 Reasons Abortion Must Be Covered.” It begins:

Abortion should be covered by health insurance. We say this, we sense this, we assume this. We insist that abortion is simply a medical procedure -- and that it, therefore, merits coverage.

Calling abortion “simply a medical procedure” is like saying murder is “just another way to use a knife.” Medical procedure or not, it is the ethics of the issue which matter in this case, and outside of some polling concerns and worries about a “slippery slope,” the post is not that interested in raising the central ethical question. Among the 10 reasons, Lynn Harris lists these.

1. Abortion is legal medical care.

2. Abortion is common, mainstream medical care.

Both of these considerations only beg the question. It is true that in most cases in most states, abortion is legal, but again, that side-steps the fundamental ethical issues. By this reasoning we might be able to say that because euthanasia is legal in Switzerland (it is, and it is a growing business), the government has a duty to financially provide for doctor assisted suicide. The legality or illegality of any act does not settle the moral question.

5. Covering abortion makes abortion safer.

This is a standard chestnut pulled out at every opportunity. As more real statistical work is done, the more the claims of the tens of thousands of deaths by back-alley abortions becomes an urban legend. It just has not been proven (it has been asserted abundantly!) that legality makes for safety where there was none before.

7. Excluding abortion from coverage sends us down a slippery "moral" slope.

Here the author is worried that if we begin to look at these provisions through the eyes of a particular moral view, then we will be down a path of removing all kinds of other legal protections as a result of that view. That may or may not be the case, but if there is at least one immoral act we can exclude from taxpayer funding, I don’t think this is a compelling reason not to try.

Monday, October 26, 2009

ID Conference, Free and Open Debate

A handful of us are on our way to an ID conference this weekend hosted by The Shepherd Project in Castle Rock, CO. I am looking forward to hearing some of the “heavy hitters” and listening to the interaction that will undoubtedly be there. One of the presenters, Dr. Groothuis, lets us in on some of the latest hubbub:

The organizers of the October 30-31, Castle Rock ID conference (The Shepherd Project) have had their web site hacked and atheist groups are threatening to protest the event. What basis could there be for protesting a voluntary event that raises scientific challenges to Darwinism? I would never consider protesting a pro-Darwinist event.

In any event, we may be in for a wild ride.

On one level, I am looking forward to being at an even that might be protested by the establishment. I feel so rebellious! One of my email taglines comes from G.K. Chesterton about 100 years ago, “Today, defending any one of the cardinal virtues has all the exhilaration of a vice.” And so it is now with defending open and free scientific debate.

In know for a fact there will be thoughtful philosophers of science at the event ready to listen and engage like adult human beings.

Apparently, the lower evolved classes have another way of engaging ideas different from their own.

I have a theory, expounded on this blog from time to time, about a current, broad cultural reality. In the last few decades, evangelical Christians have been honing their academic skills, acquiring legitimate Ph.D.s, reading and analyzing atheists and other religions, and all in all becoming serious thinkers motivated by a rational worldview. On the other hand, atheists in the public square (and some in the academy) have become so elitist, myopic and settled in their perceived cultural power, they are no longer pressing themselves intellectually. They don’t read serious Christians, most of their attacks are straw men, and they look down on views different than their own rather than engage and critique them. Their cultural elitism has made them mentally slow. (Keep in mind, this is a generalization…there are plenty of exceptions.)

It appears both ways of reacting to ID will be present this weekend: thoughtful critique, intellectual myopia.

If this happened in a clinic...

Man arrested in death of his unborn child.

My only question is, Why?

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Biblical Anthropology

An anthropological view is, I am more and more convinced, a worldview changer. It is one of those assumed (or developed) points of view that ends up guiding just about everything else, even one's theology. The world is different if humans are basically good, basically bad, or some kind of hybrid of the two.

This video is a great little introduction by Dr. Groothuis from Denver Seminary to Pascal's, and I think a biblical, anthropology.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Preachng as a Spiritual Discipline

There is growing blow-back against "traditional" church meetings and the act of preaching as proclomation. For a whole slew of reasons, usually related to emergent-friendly concerns, many evangelicals are rethinking the act of gathering as a church, and the actual impact of preaching as typically understood.

Craig Brian Larson has a wonderful article in ChristianityToday.com that answers some of these issues, and rightfully places "listening to preaching" as a necessary discipline in the life of every believer.

A handfull of thoughs from the article:

Preaching brings us before God's Word in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who indwells the gathered church.

Good preaching rescues us from our self-deceptions and blind spots, for left to ourselves, we tend to ignore the very things in God's Word that we most need to see. Preaching is done in community, covering texts and topics outside of our control.

Good preaching contributes to spiritual humility by disciplining us to sit under the teaching, correction, and exhortation of another person. This strikes right to the heart of individualism, which is such a plague on the church.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Screwtape Letters - The Audio Book

The more I reflect on and reread The Screwtape Letters, the more I am struck by its insight and power. Now it has been made into an audio drama, which should help make it a bit more accessible to more people.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Idols and their Moral Consequences

At least two sex scandals have reached the surface of the mainstream press and the entertainment world lately – Roman Polanski’s drugging and rape of a 13-year old and David Letterman’s multiple affairs with staffers. What is most telling about these scandals is not necessarily that they happened, but that those who come from inside the media and entertainment swamps are nonplussed. Not only that, but many of them are finding ways to excuse the adulterous, manipulative, and vile behavior represented in these two cases. Whoopi Goldberg defended Polanski’s pedophilic sodomy as not being “rape-rape.”

How is it people can stare blatantly immoral behavior in the face and shrug their shoulders? At least in part, it happens when people have replaced their natural moral core with the idolatry of image. Certain people who represent certain ideologies become more important than moral truth. So as a result, moral outrage is reserved for people “on the outside” of a political and cultural system while genuine immorality is dismissed because the person, the image, or the ideology is more important.

Our idols form and shape our characters, moral sensibilities and personalities. If then our idol is image as presented in our current media-saturated world, our moral sensibilities will be changed to fit the demigod of fame. Famous people get away with murder (literally and figuratively) because the supporting media structure idolizes fame at the cost of all other concerns. In addition, scores of your average Joes and Janes suffer the same psychologically debilitating consequences. The image presented by Letterman’s fame is more important than marital fidelity to his wife and his fatherly example to his child. What is worse, the fact that Polanski made a few films loved by the film industry excuses him of drugging and raping a child. By what they excuse, these people tell us what they love.

So what is the cure? In the end it is simple – replace all our idols with the Only Wise God. In light of these realities, I was struck by Ephesians 4:17-20 this week:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!

Monday, October 05, 2009

A New Jesus Manifesto

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola are a pair of interesting, if not provocative, Christian authors. Apparently they run the blog, A Jesus Manifesto. The Manifesto itself, has a lot to say about Jesus, belief and the life of the church, and not all of it makes sense. Here are a few quotes and thoughts.

Seek a truth, a value, a virtue, or a spiritual gift, and you have obtained something dead.

This strange and self-defeating sentiment is quite popular among young evangelicals and their theological leaders. You mean if I seek a truth like the one you just presented, I have found something dead? This is bumper-sticker kind of thinking that doesn’t help the discourse about Jesus at all. Everything listed in that little sentence finds their life and light in Jesus Christ, and he had no problem asking us to seek these things in their right contexts.

What is Christianity? It is Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less. Christianity is not an ideology. Christianity is not a philosophy. Christianity is the “good news” that Beauty, Truth and Goodness are found in a person. Biblical community is founded and found on the connection to that person.

This is another nice-sounding slogan that doesn’t hold water for the Christian. Thought it is true that we do not equate the substance of Christianity with “ideology” or “philosophy,” both find their fullness as they become alive in Christ and Scripture. And again, right after saying it is not an ideology, they provide an ideological view of Christianity. I have no problems with that, except they don’t want to be associated with an ideology while, at the same time, propounding an ideology.

The person of Jesus is increasingly politically incorrect, and is being replaced by the language of “justice,” “the kingdom of God,” “values,” and “leadership principles.”...Justice apart from Christ is a dead thing.

This thought I like. Too much of evangelicalism is slipping out of orthodoxy into orthopraxy, as if the two are incompatible. I have never understood the drive among so many to dismiss the creeds while they insist on doing good deeds. Sweet and Viola are absolutely right: deeds without creeds becomes in quick fashion dead works.

What God the Father was to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is to you and to me. He’s our indwelling Presence, and we share in the life of Jesus’ own relationship with the Father.

This statement seems to me to be pressing up against an actual heretical view. If we take it extremely metaphorically and charitably, then maybe we can let them slip past. But in every significant sense of that sentiment, it just isn’t true. Jesus wasn’t God because the Father indwelt him – he just was God. And we do not have the indwelling of Jesus, but of the Holy Spirit (if we are going to think carefully about it). And in addition, that indwelling is nothing like the deity of Jesus Christ.

Maybe you have a few more thoughts on something I think, on the whole, is not a very useful manifesto.

Let The Luddites Howl!

A prep school in the North East, Cushing Academy, has decided that books are a quaint and outdated technology from the past. Therefore, they have just unburdened themselves of their library, replacing it with flatscreens, laptop stations and a $12,000 espresso machine. Seriously.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does Subjectivism Lead to Nihilism?

I recently read this quote from an interview Dinesh D’Souza had with Stanly Fish for his book, Illiberal Education. Stanly Fish argues that:

They worry [the opponents of his educational philosophy] that there will be young people walking around acting in a random, nihilistic way, or perpetually perplexed about life. But that doesn’t follow from my position at all. I’m just saying that our standards are acquired through socialization. My critics assume a world in which persons are not socialized. Actually, it is impossible to live without standards. The only question is, where do standards come from, how are the realized, whose standards prevail?

If you don’t know who Stanly Fish is, he is a rather notorious English/literature/religion educator who writes frequently for the NY Times. He is notorious, in part, because his brand of subjectivism is not always easy to nail down. He argues that we can realistically discuss objective moral values, but that they are always subjectively applied give any and every social context. The above quote was published when he was an English professor at Duke in 1991.

The first sentence of the quote strikes me as frighteningly prescient, which make Fish’s position naïve. Eighteen years later, and I think the argument that subjectivism does create a bunch of perplexed nihilists is pretty much done. I think it is inevitable that this level of subjectivism leads to an unhinged randomness about life. If the only real question is where our “standards come from,” given time, the only answer students will have is “me.” That is a bad place for value, standards and meaning in life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Do Christians Cherry-Pick The Bible? Pt. 2

In his short article on this complicated topic, it seems Barna takes the position quoted at the end of the piece:

The Rev. Kent Ingram of First United Methodist Church, which is within a denomination undergoing its own internal squabbles over gays in the church, views the Bible to some degree as a Rorschach ink-blot test – what we see and choose to emphasize in it tells us more about ourselves than anything else.

“We read the Bible to defend our orthodoxy,” Ingram said.

This position is a kind of appeal to relativism: different people appeal to the same document to support different points of view; therefore, there really isn’t much else to say. Far from being an argument against the other pastors in the article who allegedly cherry-pick from Scripture, it is the ultimate justification for cherry-picking. Ingram’s apparent deconstructionist/reader-response version of interpreting Scripture might argue that cherry-picking is all there is. If the Bible doesn’t shape our orthodoxy, then our “orthodoxy,” or presuppositions about God and the spiritual life shape the Bible. If we then become those kinds of interpretive authorities, the only right thing to do is affirm what we agree with and deny what we don’t.

In the end, this view of reading any document doesn’t settle any questions. It avoids the substantive questions of what the original authors intended, what principles are being communicated, and how should I best understand this piece of literature, and replaces them with an appeal to the subject – an appeal to the reader’s preconceived feelings about things.

Every reader carries their culture, upbringing and their prejudices with them when they read anything. But the decision to turn those subjective realities into interpretive devices is ultimately self-destructive. A goal of good reading is to challenge those preconceptions and wrestle with the truth.

So while it is true that some do read the Bible to defend their orthodoxies, it is not true of most serious Christians. We read the Bible to find its orthodoxy.

But there is still so much more to say.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Do Christians Cherry-Pick the Bible?

The religion reporter at the local paper, The Gazette, recently did a short piece titled, “Is Bible an all-or-nothing proposition?” The piece was precipitated by the recent move in the ECLA regarding homosexual lifestyles and marriage, and was intended to ask the question whether Christians cherry-pick from the Bible. Barna notes:

The crux of the issue comes down to the Bible — or, more specifically, how one views it. Is it the literal word of God, and if so, shouldn’t the faithful follow everything in it? You might be surprised by how some religious leaders answer the question.

Several Colorado Springs evangelical pastors I interviewed contend that the Bible is the absolute word of God, yet they acknowledge that they dismiss or de-emphasize various biblical passages.

In other words, they cherry-pick the Bible. (To be fair, most everyone else does, too, but biblical literalists sometimes criticize other Christians for not accepting Scripture in its entirety.)

After very short blurbs from each of three interviews, Barna accuses the pastors of cherry-picking from Scripture. The only minister not accused is the one who agrees with the premise of the article.

So, is it true? Do Christians simply agree with those portions of Scripture they find comfortable and gloss over the rest? Because this is such a serious, not to mention complicated issue, I am going to split my thoughts up into a couple of posts (at least).

First of all, let me say I feel the accusation. I have spent my entire adult life dealing with Scripture, and there are still plenty of stories and passages I don’t know exactly what to do with. But, after my time in Scripture and the development of my own belief system, I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis when he says in Mere Christianity that the God of Christianity is far too uncomfortable to be made up by us. So, if we believe in someone who betrays our natural comforts, chances are good we aren’t making him up or cherry-picking according to our own pleasures.

Secondly, the Bible is not a simplistic document that can be handled with simplistic notions. The Christian Scriptures contain the legal and cultic (cult = having to do with the practice of religion) documents of an ancient middle-eastern people, the religious documents of a theocracy, history, prayer and wisdom books, prophetic oracles, spiritual biographies, epistles, apocrypha, and more. Each literary milieu comes with all the standard hermeneutical principles, just like we would expect to use when comparing the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Emerson, and Emilie Dickenson. It would be simplistic silliness to “exegete” all three of those authors the same way. So it follows it is simplistic silliness to exegete Leviticus, Psalms, Jeremiah and Paul in exactly the same ways.

Therefore, we need to avoid the phrase, “I take the Bible literally.” You don’t. Even if you say you do, you don’t. What should be asserted is something more like: I take the Bible seriously, or, I affirm all the Scriptures affirm. Take for instance my belief that I take the Bible seriously and Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I don’t take that to literally mean that the sky speaks like humans speak. Taking it seriously avoids the silliness of taking it “literally,” and yet allows me to believe what the original author intended to say. The complexity and beauty of creation reveals to me a God.

But, of course, Barna is not that worried about my hermeneutical method and metaphor. He wants to know about the biblical injunctions about homosexuality. So then we will need to continue…

Monday, September 21, 2009

What Was Important to Mother Teresa?

The LHC book club is reading the biography of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light. Early on, I was moved by a powerful insight into her deep and primary motivations for doing what she did. How do you think the average person would answer the question, What were the most important things Mother Teresa did? More than likely, we would get answers along the lines of her compassion and "social justice" work.

According to her, however, two things were at the root of what she did. First, she prayed. When she suffered, she prayed. When she anticipated suffering, she prayed. She asked everyone she wrote to to pray for her.

Secondly, she wanted to satiate Jesus' thirst for the love of souls by leading the poorest of the poor to Him. She was an evangelist with almost no equal.

In other words, the compassion was the means to her own ends of leading people to Christ.

Do the current "social justice" movements in evangelical and main-line circles have it exactly backwards?

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Way To Win An Argument Today

Worldviews have consequences – sometimes inevitable and destructive consequences. There is an argumentative move being made more and more in our culture that is about as irrational as it gets. What is so infuriating about it is that it is pervasive and persuasive among sizeable chunks of our population.

It probably has a formal name I don’t know, but I am going to call the move “Emotional Sabotage.” (It could also be an instance of the non sequitur, the ad hominem, or some version of a genetic fallacy.) The Emotional Sabotage happens when instead of dealing with the claims or ideas of someone with whom you disagree, you attack their emotional or psychological stability instead. Though it is a natural and unreflective reaction many times in the heat of the moment, it is abhorrently childish in thoughtful conversation. This argumentative move is driving me nuts because it is about all we hear right now, often times from alleged Ph.D.s.

Without even dealing with the embarrassment that is Jimmy Carter, let’s move to a more influential and “mainstream” voice, Maureen Dowd. The pull-line from her column, “Boy, Oh, Boy,” says it all: “Joe Wilson’s outburst in Congress revealed one thing: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.” The rest of the article fares no better in the rationality or logic department. It is one long ad hominem attack on Wilson making him out to be a racist with only one-half a sentence devoted to whether Obama lied or not. She says he didn’t. Case closed.

So, the pull-line is the argument. Someone disagreed with an African-American, so he is a racist. That’s on par with arguing: You disagree with the usefulness of hypnosis, so you are an anti-Semite. Or: You disagree that chocolate is the best ice cream flavor, therefore you are a pedophile.

Dowd pulled the Emotional Sabotage, and it seems to have taken over the debate regarding the actual details in the bill and the facts contained within. Whether Wilson or the President is right on the merits is not an actual question for Dowd – all she wants to do is make you afraid to disagree with her side and be labeled something vile.

But, I would argue, the Emotional Sabotage is the inevitable result of a worldview Dowd and others likely hold. Theirs is a more morally and religiously progressive point of view, which entails the belief in the ultimate authority of the individual. Without a non-subjective and intolerant reality to deal with, they are left more and more with only “their” sets of preferences, which end up outweighing facts. The symbolism meaningful to them outweighs all argumentative considerations, because all they have left is their symbols. Literally, the only moves they have left are appeals to their symbolic social gestures. Therefore, the worst sin that could be committed is not to mistake reality or the facts of the matter, but to disagree with their social sensibilities.

So it is frustrating, but not surprising, that many in the public discourse have only the Emotional Sabotage or its corollaries in their philosophical tool boxes. May it not be with those who follow Christ – those who believe in the ubiquitous truth of God.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Preaching In The New World

With all the cultural sensitivity among evangelicals, there is a lot of talk about the form and shape of church as well as sermons. What role does the sermon play in our world today? What about the role it plays even the lives of the average believers?

In a post on the Out of Ur blog, David Fitch offers some thoughts on current preaching myths, and the beginnings of some thoughts on where preaching ought to be headed. Part of what he says in the way of direction:

The bottom line is once we preach for formation, where God’s truth is birthed in and among us, we become shaped for his mission in the world. We can see things we didn’t see before. We act out of assumptions we didn’t have before. We imagine what God is doing in ways not possible before. And a little congregation becomes a powder-keg for mission and the harvesting of fields ready for the gospel.

I can appreciate the importance of this insight. I have made a deliberate effort almost every sermon for a couple of years now to pay attention to the “spiritual formation angle.” And all I mean by that is that I try and answer the prophetic question – how do we now engage with God’s character and will in this particular area? We preach the truth of God’s word, and we strive to bring people into spiritual spaces where they want to and will encounter God.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wesley, Pastors, Reason and Logic

I recently picked up John Wesley’s Address to the Clergy. I had a great time reading it through, being motivated by almost everything he said and laughing out-loud at the silliness of our own age.

Imagine an Address to Clergy being written (or Power-Pointed) by a leading minister of our day. What specific advice would it include? What kinds of traits and habits would it tell clergy they would need to have in order to be good and effective pastors?

Here is just a smattering of the first three or four pieces of advice from Wesley to clergy:

To begin with gifts; and, (1.) With those that are from nature. Ought not a Minister to have, First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness? Is not this necessary in an high degree for the work of the ministry? Otherwise, how will he be able to understand the various states of those under his care; or to steer them through a thousand difficulties and dangers, to the haven where they would be?

Secondly. Is it not highly expedient that a guide of souls should have likewise some liveliness and readiness of thought? Or how will he be able, when need requires, to "answer a fool according to his folly?" How frequent is this need!

Thirdly. To a sound understanding, and a lively turn of thought, should be joined a good memory;

Fifthly. Some knowledge of the sciences also, is, to say the least, equally expedient. Nay, may we not say, that the knowledge of one, (whether art or science,) although now quite unfashionable, is even necessary next, and in order to, the knowledge of the Scripture itself? I mean logic.

Wesley mentions many other things, including knowledge of history and geometry.

Honestly, has our culture changed so much that now none of these things are mentioned when it comes to a healthy and effective pastorate, or have we dumbed-down the role of pastor so that these things just aren’t on our radar screens anymore?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Idols as Makers

The thoughts of the 115th Psalm are some wonderfully culturally and spiritually provocative thoughts. The Psalmist argues that those who make and worship idols become like them.

Those who make them become like them.
So do all who trust in them.

One of the most provocative commentaries on these words I have run across comes from Marshall McLuhan’s, Understanding Media. It is in this book that he makes the famous assertion that the medium is the message. A large part of his argument is that the use of technology is necessarily an extension of and formation of our “nervous system.” We cannot engage with technology without being shaped by its form long before we even deal with the message.

The ancient idol makers of Psalm 115 crafted gods out of metal and stone, and thus created technologies and mediums for spiritual use. McLuhan notes:

To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it….By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian is the servomechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his clock.

Great fodder for thought!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Tony Jones and Sexuality

One of the emergent leaders of years past, Tony Jones, has been creeping further and further away from classical Christian orthodoxy and into some territory that Christian history does not look on with favor. Besides denying the doctrine of the Trinity, Jones is obsessed with aberrant sexuality. One glance at the larger blog will serve as evidence. There is nothing un-Christian about paying attention to a theology and anthropology of sexuality, but I’m not sure he is looking at the issues from an angle that will produce useful conclusions.

In any event, his positions on sexuality have been accused of being the first steps in a slippery slope, and in this video he responds.

To the matter that slippery-slope argumentation is fallacious, I think we need to be careful about what we mean. I know it is a form of argument that can be pulled out of a person’s pocket at any moment to be used as a scare tactic, and that often the reasoning is rather non sequitor, but that does not make the argument automatically fallacious. There is work out there that establishes forms of “slippery-slope” argumentation that is not fallacious, but in the sense in which Jones is using it the real proof is in the pudding. Can we point to actual, real-world examples of slipping slopes when a society’s attitude toward sexuality, family and marriage change? I think so. Slippery slopes do exist.

But a more fundamental error he makes is to shift the biblical and ethical burden to “monogamy” from “heterosexual.” Despite the machinations of some theologians, Scripture is abundantly clear both in the text and the context that God’s design for sexual expression is within monogamous heterosexual marriage. Jones has reached a point where “monogamous” is the key ethical term, and the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are either synonymous or superfluous. They can be swapped out without any change in the rightness/wrongness of the concept. I think he has put all his ethical eggs in the wrong basket.

Ironically, Jones’ current position may be an example of the result of a slippery slope. I think it can be argued that his original and laudable impulse to read our current culture and learn from it has turned into one of the classic theological mistakes: his cultural sensitivity may have slipped into culturally-driven exegesis.

HT: Constructive Curmudgeon

Monday, August 31, 2009

Are we becoming a nation of stupid voters?

That may sound like a question asked in anger by a losing political party, but in fact, more and more sociological work is being done that answers in the affirmative. One recent essay by Mary Grabar makes that case. One of the more frightening anecdotes she tells (it is frightening because it is all too familiar), is of a surgeon and medical student at a townhall meeting debating health care reform.

One young student, a Doogie Howser type, cocksure in his white coat, was convinced that he was on the right side of compassion and “social justice.”

The surgeon, who was not wearing the doctor’s coat, argued against the government encroachment into the relationship between doctor and patient. He admitted that there are problems with health care currently, but argued quite logically and ethically against the extreme measures of the bill. He cited his experience of working in a government (VA) hospital. He said that competition means good service for patients and gave examples and reasons.

The med student accused him of “trying to make a profit.” (The good doctor had said he treats at least a couple of children of illegal aliens a month for free.)

As the surgeon understandably became increasingly frustrated in the debate, the med student used techniques that are now common in the classroom: emotional sabotaging tactics under the cover of “conflict resolution.” Acting as if the surgeon were an unreasonable child (or more likely senile), the student said, “Let me crystallize this …” The tone was condescending.

Grabar is not alone in her observations of students and younger voters. Begining with Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, we have recently seen a slew of works devoted to the dumbing down of the newest set of 20-somethings. Among my favorites are Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation and Tim Clydesdale's The first Year Out (not to mention the seminal works done by Niel Postman).

Health Care: Right vs. Good

Among the ethical issues which are invariably part of the push for health care reform, is the question of whether health care is a right. We may all want all people to be covered with adequate and useful health care, but to use the word "right" is to invoke all kinds of political realities and social responsibilities. So it really does matter whether it is actually a right alongside things like the freedom of speech or the freedom of religion.

On his prolific blog on bioethics, Wesley J. Smith comments on an article posted on First Things by Dr. Eric Chevlen (a medical doctor). It touches on the rights issue as well as other hot-button topics like rationing.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jesus and the New Evangelicals

Modern evangelicalism is drinking deeply from the waters of postmodern and contemporary sensibilities. And depending on who you read, that is a good thing, or the one thing that will eventually destroy the movement. It is possible to understand the current postmodern culture well and address it through the lens of traditional Christian faith, or you can use the culture as a template for reimagining the Christian faith. Many in the emergent movement, and some in the seeker-sensitive movement are doing the latter, and it doesn't please John MacArthur.

The Jesus You Can't Ignore begins strong. In his introduction, MacArtuhr outlines the pressing reasons for writing the book. The more he encounters and reads the new evangelicals, the more he worries they are giving up on the central and defining components of the faith for irenic encounters with those who disagree deeply with Christian faith. His introduction to the book centers on the leading thinkers of the emergent movement and the recently published, Evangelical Manifesto. MacArthur argues that both strains of modern evangelicalism are soft on everything that matters and strong on ideas that are dangerous to the faith.

The rest of the book extends his thesis through the life of Christ. Jesus wasn't "nice" the way many construe niceness today. He confronted, even instigated arguments with, false teachers believing and teaching that false doctrine was dangerous to the human soul. Even when the encounters resulted in repentance and belief, Jesus was never less than straightforward about the truth of the Gospel (e.g. his encounter with Nicodemus). Where writers like McLaren and Campolo seek for dialogue with other faiths, glossing over the distinctives of the Christian faith, MacArthur argues that they could not be further from the example of Christ.

The strength of the book lies in MacArthur's overwhelming biblical evidence for his point. Chapter after chapter, he outlines and does the exegesis necessary to describe several scenes from Jesus' life and how he encountered false teaching. From the obvious encounters to the Sermon on the Mount, the book is loaded with biblical evidence. In fact, the evidence is so overwhelming, I think it puts to bed the soft-headed emergent idea that Jesus was first of all nice to others and never confronted them with the truth. If they want that idea to be taken seriously, they need to engage with the scenes portrayed and explained in this book.

The weakness of the book was that MacArthur didn't, to my taste, engage the emergent authors directly. Early on he quotes them a few times, but after the second chapter, they are non-existent. The premise of every chapter is aimed directly at refuting what he sets up early, but I think the book would have a greater impact if he kept up with the citations.

Overall, this is a great book directed at one of the defining issues in evangelical theology today: will postmodern philosophy define our theology as well as our culture? MacArthur's answer is basically, "God forbid!" and he backs it up well.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Ordering of Our Affections

I have recently started Naugle's new book, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives, and am already excited. I enjoy good books that combine Christian spiritual formation and sound thinking, and this one falls smack in the middle of that category. So, unless I radically change my mind, this book is worth the price and a good, slow read!
The book's website is here.

Peter Singer: Both Right and Abominably Wrong

It is said by many that health care reform is a social justice issue - and I agree. As soon as the government takes over your healthcare, your name is forgotten and you are reduced to a set of statistics on a bureaucrat’s actuarial table. Government encouraged (read "counseled") euthanasia for the old and infirm increases as do abortions in tricky pregnancies (in all nations with government run health care), death rates for curable diseases and cancers rise because the medication is “too expensive” for the “people” to pay, doctors get paid less, lines increase at emergency rooms, and on and on.

Peter Singer, ethics professor at Princeton, recently wrote a long piece in the New York Times Magazine on “Why We Must Ration Health Care.” As a radical utilitarian, Singer believes that most, if not all, ethical decisions can and should be reduced to a kind of numbers game. If X number of people are benefited, a few less than X are hurt, and the cost is proportionate to X, then the action is ethical. Both famous and infamous for many things, Singer certainly has one thing right: decisions made on the governmental level are by their very natures utilitarian. People are stacks of numbers to be weighed against budgets and other stacks of numbers. I have argued in my ethics classes that this is not only the most feasible form of decision making for a federal government, it is likely the only one they use.

So Singer is right – a government run health care program would be utilitarian in nature, making health care decisions according to charts and graphs. And then Singer is wrong – this is not the best way to handle human beings.

Tellingly, Singer chastises President Obama for not using the word “rationing”:

In the current U.S. debate over health care reform, “rationing” has become a dirty word. Meeting last month with five governors, President Obama urged them to avoid using the term, apparently for fear of evoking the hostile response that sank the Clintons’ attempt to achieve reform.

You have to give Singer credit for telling it like it is. Then (ironically) Singer raises one issue that opponents of expanding government health care raise often. If the current government run plans are awful and bankrupt, what good will expanding them do?

In the public sector, primarily Medicare, Medicaid and hospital emergency rooms, health care is rationed by long waits, high patient copayment requirements, low payments to doctors that discourage some from serving public patients and limits on payments to hospitals.

Then a couple of fundamental ideas from his argument:

Rationing health care means getting value for the billions we are spending by setting limits on which treatments should be paid for from the public purse.

If the U.S. system spent less on expensive treatments for those who, with or without the drugs, have at most a few months to live, it would be better able to save the lives of more people who, if they get the treatment they need, might live for several decades.

Singer agrees that deciding who gets the meds and who doesn’t is not an easy thing to do, but luckily he has an equation to help us.

Nevertheless this approach to setting a value on a human life is at least closer to what we really believe — and to what we should believe — than dramatic pronouncements about the infinite value of every human life, or the suggestion that we cannot distinguish between the value of a single human life and the value of a million human lives, or even of the rest of the world. Though such feel-good claims may have some symbolic value in particular circumstances, to take them seriously and apply them — for instance, by leaving it to chance whether we save one life or a billion — would be deeply unethical.

In other words, it makes us feel good to believe that every human life is of “equal” or “infinite” worth, but in reality we know better.

As a first take, we might say that the good achieved by health care is the number of lives saved. But that is too crude. The death of a teenager is a greater tragedy than the death of an 85-year-old, and this should be reflected in our priorities. We can accommodate that difference by calculating the number of life-years saved, rather than simply the number of lives saved.

The next several sentences go on to do the grim utilitarian math of ages of the patients, their average life expectancies, and how “we” get a bigger bang for our buck saving a 17-year old instead of a dozen 85-year olds.

Singer’s article is replete with half-truths, loaded language (all the bad guys are labeled “conservative” and all the good guys have no political monikers and work at respected Universities), and massaged conclusions. But here is what we can take away from what he writes. He is absolutely right that government run health care is by necessity the rationing of a scarce resource, and that disembodied bureaucrats will be making health care decisions for you. He is abominably wrong that this is OK.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The New Eugenics

And you thought eugenics died with the Nazis! You silly American. Eugenics not only has its modern roots in early 20th century progressivism, it is alive and well among, of all people, our new Science Czar. In some circles at least, his past published works supporting doping the water supply to sterilize entire populations and encouraging forced abortions are coming back to haunt him. Well, sort of.

President Obama's "science czar," John Holdren, once floated the idea of forced abortions, "compulsory sterilization," and the creation of a "Planetary Regime" that would oversee human population levels and control all natural resources as a means of protecting the planet -- controversial ideas his critics say should have been brought up in his Senate confirmation hearings.

Holdren, who has degrees from MIT and Stanford and headed a science policy program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for the past 13 years, won the unanimous approval of the Senate as the president's chief science adviser.

Maybe he has had a kind of conversion and now believes in your right to chose to have a child without a government permit? Not so. William Dembski weighed in on this issue making the point that he has not recanted. Our Science Czar still believes in government controlled eugenics – the act of deciding who gets to be born, who should be aborted, and who should be euthanized. It is, after all, for the common good.

But Dembski makes a further point. Scientists like Holdren consider themselves the priests of the new religion, Materialism. They alone see the problems of the world, and then proceed to act as our saviors. With cool scientific precision, they will (scientifically) solve our problems if we will only do what they say.

Holdren nevertheless represents the powerful new caste of scientists who have appointed themselves the guardians of humanity and the priests of a new social order. Their agenda and pretensions would be transparently obvious except that, with the mantle of their scientific expertise, they intimidate ordinary people from asking the right questions and thereby exposing their aims. Their strategy is always the same: Scientists have discovered a problem that, as their models and data (often falsely) demonstrate, is on the verge of getting out of control; now, if only we do exactly as they say, we'll avoid catastrophe.

Who knows exactly how much sway Holdren will have in the new administration, but the question has to be asked and answered, why appoint a eugenicist in the first place?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

ID Conference in Castle Rock, CO

The Shepherd's Project is hosting an Intelligent Design Conference on October 30-31 just north of the Springs. A slew of important thinkers will be there including Meyer, Behe and Dembski. For the registation price (wow!) you can't miss it.

HT: The Constructive Curmudgeon

Doing the Christian Life

Sometimes nobody puts it like George MacDonald puts it:

It is to the man who is trying to live, to the man who is obedient to the word of the Master, that the word of the Master unfolds itself. When we understand the outside of things, we think we have them: the Lord puts his things in subdefined, suggestive shapes, yielding no satisfactory meaning to the mere intellect, but unfolding themselves to the conscience and heart, to the man himself, in the process of life-effort. According as the new creation, that of reality, advances in him, the man becomes able to understand the words, the symbols, the parables of the Lord. For life, that is, action, is alone the human condition into which the light of the Living can penetrate; life alone can assimilate life, can change food into growth.

From a sermon titled, "The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

God and Temptation

A little theological reflection on the nature of God as described in James 1:13-15. In essence the passage says we should not succumb to blaming temptation on God because he is not tempted by evil and cannot tempt anyone.

First of all, what is temptation? A working definition might be, “it is the seductive presentation of evil to my will through my mind or senses.” As “seductive” is it a lure, an attraction to me. It is something some part of my will wants to engage in. I may even see some benefit in it, exactly because it is seductive. There are evils that present themselves to me that are not seductive. Serial killing is in no way a lure to me – there is nothing within me that thinks that might be fun or beneficial. So temptation cannot simply be the presentation of evils, but of seductive evils.

As a “presentation of evil” it is something contrary to God’s moral will in my life that I become aware of through any set of means. I cannot be tempted by an evil I do not know about or am not thinking about. But if I see it, am told about it, reflect upon it, or become aware of it in any way, it is a potential evil that is presented to my will.

Is temptation itself a sin? I don’t think so. Dallas Willard states in Renovation of the Heart that, “Choice is where sin dwells.” If I choose to engage, I then sin. And I might add that if I chose to allow myself to be tempted, I sin.

So James says God cannot be tempted by evil. That is because by His very nature there are no seductive evils in the world. God, as omniscient, is aware of all evils - all thoughts and behaviors contrary to his moral will, but he is repulsed by all of them.

Therefore, it is contrary to God’s very nature to tempt anyone. God is repulsed by all evil, and therefore cannot and will not attempt to lure anyone into evil. No action of God’s in my life is a temptation; they are all good. If, however, I sin as a result of what God is doing in my life or in the world, it is because I am drawn away by my own desires (James 1:14-15).

This takes us to a couple of important conclusions about Christian maturity. First of all, growth in the Christian life is not a matter of getting rid of temptations as such, but of the changing of our desires. As our desires change, it will be the case that fewer and fewer evils will be temptations, but to focus on getting rid of the temptations first is putting the cart before the horse, and becoming a bit of a works oriented legalist.

And secondly, how should our desires change? They should become like our Heavenly Father’s desires, for he is good and there is no change in his character. God in Christ is our example of the formation of our desires here on earth.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A New Direction for Bioethics?

In the past, I have mentioned my appreciation for the latest couple of incarnations of the President’s Council on Bioethics. If you read any of their reports over the last 10 years or so, it is clear they were a group of thinkers from across the ideological spectrum, and many of them I would consider world-class thinkers on these issues. One worry some watchers had with the new administration was that the Council would be disbanded and something a little less diverse put in its place.

As it turns out, at least the first part of that worry has come to pass. Colleen Carroll Campbell at the Ethics and Public Policy Center reports on the latest change and why it happened.

Last month, President Barack Obama quietly disbanded the President's Council on Bioethics, a deliberative body whose changing cast of erudite and ideologically diverse members had spent the past eight years thinking through today's toughest moral questions. Members received only one day's notice of the council's dissolution, forcing them to cancel a planned meeting and leave unfinished several major reports that were due to be released soon.

The stated reasons for disbanding the Council were interesting to say the least.

According to White House press officer Reid Cherlin, the council was "a philosophically leaning advisory group" and Obama wants a new bioethics commission that focuses less on discussion and more on forming consensus around "practical policy options." As University of Wisconsin law professor and Obama ally Alta Charo explained, the old council "seemed more like a public debating society," whereas Obama's new one will help him form what the Times described as "ethically defensible public policy."

Campbell shares my concerns about the possible new direction of a new Council. It is my view that these issues require intense and (sometimes) protracted philosophical discussion before reasonable public policy is put in place. So to disband an organization due to its philosophical nature that by its very nature is a philosophical endeavor seems a little disingenuous to me.

Campbell is also concerned that if a new Council is erected around public policies, it will be nothing but a rubber-stamp group of pundits for whatever policies are promoted by the administration.

Obama's desire to see his policies backed by expert "consensus" more likely will be realized with a new commission composed of like-minded political liberals steeped in utilitarianism than with the brainy, diverse and unpredictable crew that populated the now-defunct council. Ensuring uniformity of thought among one's ethical advisers may make the president's job easier, but it will do little to benefit the diverse nation that he serves.

We shall see.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge

I hope to blog a lot more as I read through this book, but I have to take this time to simply say that Dallas Willard's new book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, is a tremendous read. Willard, who knows his way around both philosophy and spirituality, writes what I consider to be a foundational book for his work on spiritual formation and discipleship.

In what are fairly easy-to-read terms, Willard describes how spiritual knowledge has been lost in the academy and in our culture, what consequences that has for us all, and why spiritual truths count as knowledge as much as anything else does.

As a side note, I would like to see an emergent's reaction to Willard's clear stance for Christian particularity and his stance against epistemological relativism.

Who is More Catholic?

This is the kind of thing that can happen when you sell your soul to politics. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has written a piece reflecting on President Obama’s visit to the Vatican, pontificating (pardon the pun) on how Obama is more Catholic than the Pope.

Where, oh where, does one begin to mock such childish fawning? (And the article is full of the requisite fawning.) First of all, President Obama is not Catholic. The Pope is. Strike one. But of course she means that the President represents Catholic teaching and ideals better than the Pope does. Well, not exactly. What she means is that the President represents the polling data from American Catholics better than the Pope does.

In truth, though, Obama's pragmatic approach to divisive policy (his notion that we should acknowledge the good faith underlying opposing viewpoints) and his social-justice agenda reflect the views of American Catholic laity much more closely than those vocal bishops and pro-life activists. When Obama meets the pope tomorrow, they'll politely disagree about reproductive freedoms and homosexuality, but Catholics back home won't care, because they know Obama's on their side. In fact, Obama's agenda is closer to their views than even the pope's.

So here is the rub: when politics trumps substance, substance and truth become the results of polls. Kennedy argues in her piece that the Pope and Catholic teaching ought to conform themselves to American Catholics and their latest polling data. And may I say how intolerant and culturally insensitive that is.

Why shouldn’t the Pope conform his views to African Catholics? Asian Catholics? Why not Mexican Catholics? Why do American Catholics have pride of place?

Yet polls bear out that American Catholics do not want to be told by the Vatican how to think.

Well, Kennedy is not actually interested in the views of American Catholics. She is primarily interested with their views as they align with her own elitist views. Her article becomes more and more myopic, selfish, and bigoted the more we think it through.

What Kennedy is unable to grasp is that there are truths, even theological truths, beyond the scope of her personal preferences. There are truths about the world which refuse to conform to her polling data, or the coffee-klatch of her cocktail circuit.

The beauty of the church is, in part, that it will outlast, out-think and out-influence such parochial relativism.