Thursday, August 26, 2010


In order to be relevant, churches have laid down the scalpel and sutures of theology and picked up the water weenies and squirt guns of practicality.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mental Character

I must admit I am not David Brooks’ biggest fan, but a friend sent me a link to this op-ed piece of his, “A Case of Mental Courage.” I had commented on facebook that when a culture is no longer able to think clearly, it becomes a slave to the tyranny of inanity. In response, he mentioned Brooks’ article.

I really do think Brooks is right when comparing the culture 200 years ago with ours:

In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.

This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There’s less talk of sin and frailty these days.

In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions.

He goes on to make a few allusions to how this works out in the political sphere. And may I add that the vast majority of political speech is riddled with horrific thinking: it may be persuasive or expedient or pragmatic or emotive, but it is by-in-large not thoughtful.

Mental character, as Brooks puts it, is a virtue we sorely miss and one we will pay the price for losing over time. Without it, we are left to the whims of the best admen or the most attractive public face or the loudest megaphone. With it, no amount of grandstanding will unduly move us and no amount of pressure and persecution will take our lives off the truth.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Smiting Scripture Gaffe

Each week in service we read a passage of Scripture together as a congregation during our worship. It is often a wonderful moment, reminding us of some goodness of God or of living as his people. This week was especially exciting, so I thought I would share.

As one of our songs ended, we had prepared a space for the reading and the first slide came up:

Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked,
from that noisy crowd of evildoers.

They sharpen their tongues like swords
and aim their words like deadly arrows.

They shoot from ambush at the innocent man;
they shoot at him suddenly, without fear.

The Scripture reference read, “Psalm 63:2-4.” The text, however, came from Psalm 64.

I had two thoughts simultaneously: This has to be the wrong passage, and, I hope there isn’t any more to this. By then the slide changed to reveal the rest of the passage.

They encourage each other in evil plans,
they talk about hiding their snares;
they say, "Who will see them?"

They plot injustice and say,
"We have devised a perfect plan!"
Surely the mind and heart of man are cunning.

But God will shoot them with arrows;
suddenly they will be struck down.

He will turn their own tongues against them
and bring them to ruin;
all who see them will shake their heads in scorn.

Long one, isn't it? Try reading it front of the congregation...slowly.

One of our worship leaders dutifully read through the end of the passage. The others stopped talking to keep themselves from laughing openly. The next song was a slower, thoughtful song, and it was at least a verse before one of the singers was able to join in.

And who, might you wonder, was at the root of our “Smiting Scripture Gaffe”? The youth pastor. Surprised?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

We Make The Idols, The Idols Make Us

In her provocatively titled article, “What is Reality TV Doing To Us?” the prolific and thoughtful Christine Rosen thinks a little bit about the degradation of human relationships as evidenced in the popularity of reality TV shows – the flotsam and jetsam of the TV world (which isn’t saying much to begin with!). She notes:

If a culture gets the celebrities it deserves, what does it say about ours that we are so embedded in the ersatz lives of housewives, wife-swappers, and the prodigiously fertile?

While her reflections are primarily sociological, my concerns are primarily moral. These TV shows are the kinds of cultural artifacts that are both a reflection of and partial cause of our morally illiterate culture. According to cultural theories that begin with the need for individual and social virtues, it is important to have moral exemplars among us – moral heroes if you will. So while there will be plenty of human refuse around us, that may not make up the majority of our social influence. There will people among us who exemplify moral courage, integrity and honesty, wisdom and moderation.

Few to none of the “stars” (either reality or otherwise) are what we would call moral heroes. Can we even describe moral heroes any more, much less recognize them in our public lives? Instead, they cater to the lowest common denominators among us encouraging the basest forms of self-indulgence, hedonism, and arrogance. We begin to learn that self-indulgence is a kind of personal good while we watch people who are either already unusually wealthy or who are on TV becoming wealthy receive the attention and adoration of the media culture. The hedonism in these shows is so transparent and unquestioned that we are becoming inured to its presence. Where we might have blinked at simply PDA a while ago, it now takes the growing commonality of homosexual PDA to grab our attention. And then we learn to be arrogant when we have nothing to boast about. Nothing but our self-absorbed individuality is needed to be proud of ourselves. The more pathetic we become, the prouder we become of it.

And because the media culture saturates our lives, they form our only really influential idols. For those who are saturated with TV and entertainment news, they may have no other significant sources of lifestyle-modeling. How is it a relatively healthy family can raise kids that look and sound like the trash on TV? Because the influence of the one doesn’t hold a candle to the influence of the other.

And as Christians we can note that the influence of the weekly service and “daily devotional” lifestyle will not even come close to breaking the lifestyle influences of reality TV. More and more Christians are better qualified to answer the question, “What would Simon Cowell say?” than “What would Jesus do?” And if that is true, then what are we as the Body of Christ becoming to this world?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Christian Belief and the Simple Skeptic

This blog post at STR on Christianity and skepticism resonates well with a lot of the back-and-forth I have seen over the evidence for Christianity. Often the skeptic is adept at a handful of specialized arguments that cast doubt on belief, but then may struggle to provide positive evidence for a belief they want to espouse.

The excerpts below apply to the “simply doubting skeptic” and not to a more robust project of positive evidence for a non-theistic position, but they are provocative nonetheless. The simple skeptic shakes Christians far more than he or she ought.

Critics of Christianity - or any other number of issues - sometimes think that skepticism is the default position toward our claims. Always posing questions and doubt, but never offering support for these. They think skepticism is a safe default position despite an argument offered them.

Many critics of Christianity pose counterarguments and rebuttals of our claims. But some merely pose questions to sow seeds of doubt and think they've done enough to dismiss Christianity. Doubts and questions do not constitute counter-evidence.

And again…

This is a simple matter of epistemology and reason, not unique to Christianity. Any position supported by evidence and arguments should be met by critics with reasons and arguments of their own. If they only respond with skepticism, they've done nothing at all to to negate any of the justification for the other view. At this point, one view has evidence to support it, and the other - and skepticism is a position about a view - has none. The position that has been justified has the rational advantage. The one that hasn't, doesn't.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Another Outbreak of Adult Stem Cells

I have argued in this blog for a while now that when it comes to the debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research, the adult cells have the embryonic cells beat on every count. Then comes this headline published several places, but here in the LA Times, “Adult Stem Cell Studies Ahead of Embryonic Research.” The article goes on to mention (and link to) a few of the many clinical successes already known as a result of ASC treatments. As for ESC research it continues to show “promise” and is being worked on in certain spinal cord applications. The long and the short of it (for now), is that ASC research is a success and ESC research is still a promise.

The next consideration is that ESC research destroys embryos – they cannot survive the process of having the stem cells removed. So, depending on your view of the personhood of the embryo, ESC research is tantamount to a form of abortion. Hence, it seems that ASC research has both the scientific and ethical edge.

Another consideration is that ESCs have a potentially wider range of application than ASCs. They might be able to do more for more people, so the research (necessarily including the creation and destruction of embryos) is justified based on the potential good it can do. If we find a way for one embryo to be used in the treatment of, say, 100 patients with 100 different conditions, is it worth the destruction of possibly tens of thousands of embryos in the process?

I don’t agree with that kind of fairly crass utilitarian thinking, and am inclined to be on the side of ASC research that harms none, actually accomplishes real-world treatments, and continues to develop as a multipotent form of medical treatment.