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 na├»ve 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