Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Problems with Undefined Marriage

I’m not the only one who has argued that once the traditional definition of marriage is gone, then any combination of marital union is, in principle, possible. We were mocked, of course, as alarmists. Here is the first foray I have seen by the cultural left to add polygamy to the acceptable forms of marriage (by no small thinker, by the way).

SINCE the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, Americans have enjoyed unprecedented freedom in their lifestyles and private relationships. The decision held that states could no longer use the criminal code for social engineering, dictating the most intimate decisions of citizens in their choice of partners and relations. But even as states have abandoned laws criminalizing homosexual and adulterous relations, they have continued to prosecute one group of consenting adults: polygamists.

Jonathan Turley goes on to argue that it was only right for the Court to keep the government out of other people’s private business “so long as they do not harm others” and now this protection, initially intended for a pair of homosexuals, should be extended to consensual polygamous relationships.

First, I think it should be noted that the cultural conservatives were right in every regard: if the traditional definition of marriage is removed from the institution, then every imaginable permutation of relationship is possible under a now undefined label of marriage. Why limit it to two? Turley thinks we shouldn’t. Why limit it to adults? To humans? (The charge of speciesism is on the rise in many culturally left circles.)

Turley notes that Scalia dissented from the Lawrence decision by making this very point. But, Turley disagrees on the grounds that, “There is no spectrum of private consensual relations – there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others.” In other words, Turley thinks it misses the point to list and explicate all the possible marriage permutations because there are no such specific rights, just a general right to private, non-harmful behavior. By arguing thus, Turley ends up agreeing with Scalia, he just refuses to name the possible marriages we will want to allow in the future. It doesn’t make his point at all to simply not list them.

So the point seems made by both Turley’s positive argument for polygamy and his failed attempt to argue against Scalia: it will not end at polygamy. By removing the traditional definition of marriage (life-long, monogamous, heterosexual), no suitable definition has been put in its place. And without a definition there are no boundaries.

The attempt is often made to redefine marriage using vague terms like “adult,” “consensual,” and “love.” Who is to say who an adult it? In many cultures that age reaches down into prepubescence. What of cultures in which arranged marriages are made between children. Are the consensual adults in this case the parents and not the marriage partners? Is that OK with Turley? “Adult” doesn’t help us solve the problem of the slippery slope.

“Consensual” is a radically slippery term. On one end, some feminists argue that even traditional marriage necessarily includes rape. On the other end, the SIECUS (what is left of the Kinsey Institute, and very influential in sex education curriculum in public schools) argues that pedophilia is only wrong because our social norms have seen it as shameful in the past. The correction to shameful pedophilia is not to get rid of the pedophile but the shame. “Consensual” doesn’t help us either.

“Love” is not a definition – it is an emotion. Mom and son love each other. The members of NAMBLA love little boys. It is too broad and broadly applicable a term to be of any help defining any relationship out of bounds for our modern marriage sensibilities. It is not help to Turley either.

And then, finally, there is the old chestnut (and new bumper-sticker) that every sexual practice is OK as long as it doesn’t harm others. This line suffers from some of the same semantic malaise we rehearsed above. I would like to have Turley or others sufficiently define “harm” so as to allow polygamy and homosexual marriage while disallowing incest or bestiality. But without going into great detail, it has been noted in study after study that the much more common, but no less harmful, act of fornication, harms plenty of other people.

Single motherhood (which, outside of adoption, happens because of sexual behavior) is the single greatest predictor of poverty, criminality, prison time, socially dysfunctional behavior and unemployment. And those are the kids, not the moms. So, all that harmless sexual behavior that we shouldn’t say anything about has radical, negative and mesurable consequences.

I just don’t believe there are actions we engage in that don’t touch other lives, and negative behaviors, no matter how private, will have negative effects on others.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Christian and Skepticism

Proverbs 14:6 “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding.

I recently heard the philosopher, John Mark Reynolds, remark that a right understanding of skepticism might be closer to our current notion of wonder. As a true, even classical, skeptic, he argued, someone is on a genuine quest for knowledge, truth and wisdom and thus is dissatisfied with simplistic or obviously short-sighted explanations of things. They are “skeptical” because they are plumbing the depths of a thing, not because they are perpetual disbelievers and critics.

On the other hand, he so creatively noted, most modern skeptics are more like the 5-year old who asks “why is the sky blue?” and because they don’t understand the answer, they keep asking “why.” It is a perpetual cycle unthinking disbelief. These folks (my take now) are quick to grab onto bumper-sticker beliefs, claim some sort of privileged position of objectivity and declare themselves the smartest people in the room because they can respond with “why” to every assertion and argument. Always asking, always challenging, never really getting anywhere.

This section of Scripture in Proverbs 14 is evidence that the Christian view of skepticism is more like what Reynolds described – a wonder about the world and a genuine seeking after the truth of a matter. The Christian skeptic anticipates answers and solutions while the scoffer (a modern-day skeptic) despises and doesn’t always understand answers and solutions. The Christian skeptic is a seeker of wisdom, not just a critic of everything he or she hears.

I often find it ironic that one charge repeatedly leveled at the Christian faith is that it is a “blind faith” and is by its very nature opposed to knowledge. I can’t remember how often I have been told with that superior air of finality, “Christianity is faith, atheism is science.” The clear implication being, “Christians are children and we are adults.” And while we can produce plenty of individuals who might fit the bill of simplistic faith, the worldview of Christianity is exactly the opposite. In fact, later in Proverbs 14, the writer says, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” (vs. 15) If the Christian is to be true to their own worldview, then they are required to give thought to what they believe and how they live.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Mushy, Fuzzy God?

I received this in an email newsletter the other day:

God is not a Christian

We should in humility and joyfulness acknowledge that the supernatural and divine reality we all worship in some form or other transcends all our particular categories of thought and imagining, and that because the divine -- however named, however apprehended or conceived -- is infinite and we are forever finite, we shall never comprehend the divine completely.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers, but I find this meaningless. From beginning to end it is full of nice-sounding puffery, but fails to provide any good insight into who God might actually be.

First of all, why would God be a Christian? Christians are humans who are followers of Jesus Christ. The title is category mistake masquerading as profundity.

Humility is not the same thing as ceasing to think about issues and draw boundaries, distinctions and judgments. Humility is more about a disposition to the truth, not our refusal to distinguish the truth from falsity.

The idea that the divine transcends all our categories is a popular way of stopping thought about who or what the divine really is. In one way Tutu is right, but in significant ways he is wrong. It is true, as the Christian tradition has always taught, that our conceptions of God are analogous – not exhaustive. Being analogous means we have a grasp on true ideas, but only a grasp. It is true that God is love, and that love has boundaries, but we will not know completely what that means until the next life. Where he, and so many others, goes wrong is concluding we can’t know anything about the divine with certainty.

We can know with certainty that the divine is not both triune and not triune in the same way at the same time. We can know with certainty that salvation is not both through martyrdom and not through martyrdom at the same time. The list of contradictory beliefs between different religious systems is longer than we care to acknowledge in our age of religious tolerance and to brush them aside with a slightly dismissive wave of the hand is to treat every religion on the face of the planet as insignificant and unserious. No religious system of any consequence ought to be happy with his assessment of their beliefs and practices.

This email was produced by the Emergent Village. I am frustrated, but not all that surprised, that this seems to fit well with their vision of the Christian religion.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Moral Outrage or Pop-Psychology?

The Casey Anthony trial has elicited a lot of powerful reactions from a lot of people, from the circus of the media coverage to the apparently shocking verdict of not-guilty. Now, let the cultural assessment games begin. Why were we obsessed? Why (in the minds of many) did the jury let someone so obviously guilty go free? What do we do with mothers and families that seem to be so negligent of their children and grandchildren? One recent column provides an initial set of thoughts on why we are so fanatical about, even angry at, Anthony.

That said, the real sad and unspoken truth is the reason why everyone’s been obsessed with this trial: because demonizing Casey Anthony makes us feel better about ourselves. The screams, shouts, and cries of outrage aren’t just damning Casey for what we perceive to be her actions, but in a weird way putting ourselves up on a pedestal for…well, not being Casey Anthony. Through the expression of our frustration, we bury our transgressions and sins by shoveling mounds of hate onto her.

So why are we so angry? It could be that like so many other things, we’re letting out anger and frustration over unrelated things and attributing it to this trial. Maybe we carry an insecurity that requires us to show other people that we’re a good person, and we think that rage against what we perceive as a great evil will do just that. Perhaps there’s something deep down that’s frustrated with Casey Anthony getting away with the unthinkable while we face consequences every day for far lesser misdeeds and mistakes in our own lives. Regardless of the reasons, all this anger can’t be healthy.

Though Marshall hints at our sense of justice and moral outrage being one of the reasons we are upset at the verdict, the cultural picture he paints is one largely devoid of genuine moral categories. Instead of our reaction being prompted by justice, we are psychologised into a box of “unhealthy anger.” His view of moral reaction, though common today, is radically shallow. It exchanges pop-psychology for moral reasoning and leaves us all poorer as humans than when we began.

Let’s try a different approach to our reaction.

We are indelibly moral creatures hard-wired to react against what we view to be a moral tragedy. We react against the moral wrong because we believe the good, beautiful and the true ought to win more often than they lose. Our anger is entirely healthy as long as it is moral indignation and leads us to work on a better way of doing things where justice is done more often. Moral outrage is not about me, it is about objective moral values and their integrity in our culture. I react, not because I want to demean another person, but because a moral law has been broken and I have the inescapable sense that something needs to be done about it.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Motivations and Reasons for Belief

The philosopher, writer and blogger, Mike Austin, has some important thoughts on belief in God. Particularly in the differences between motivations to believe God exists and reasons to believe God exists. He writes:

In my own case, I am partly motivated to believe that God exists and seek to live life as a follower of Christ because it works. I honestly believe that I flourish, my family flourishes, and I have a part in helping my community flourish as I seek to live out my faith in daily life. But there are many ways of life that work for individuals to one degree or another. I am also motivated to believe because I think that good reasons for such belief are available. The upshot is that while the possibilities concerning the afterlife can motivate people to believe in God, we should also consider what reasons can be given for and against the truth of such belief. From my own experience, when difficulties come, it is not enough to say "Belief works for me." Rather, I want all of my beliefs, including those about the supernatural, to be true. That, at least, is what I seek.

He is right that the distinction is important for both believers and non-believers to understand. While the accusation is sometimes made that Christians may believe for “fire insurance” – that they will simply avoid hell or wind up in heaven – that should not be mistaken for reasons why someone may believe. And while it can be the case that practicality or eternal consequences can be motivators for belief, they will not last long without a strong foundation of reasons to believe.

So, two things present themselves to me. First, the skeptic should carefully weigh their attacks on faith and aim at reasons and not motivations. And second, the believer ought to buttress their motivations for belief with good, solid reasons.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Correcting Bad Ideas, Clearing the Path for Formation

The Good and Beautiful God: Falling In Love With The God Jesus Knows

James Bryan Smith

C.S. Lewis once wrote to a friend that people like him, who are interested in spiritual matters, typically all make the same mistake of talking a lot about it and almost never doing anything about it. Smith’s book – and the trilogy – sets out to change things. And he does a wonderful job.

In fact, you might say there are two things accomplished in these books at the same time. First of all, Smith addresses a lot of core issues in our understanding of Christian spirituality, and secondly, he associates these chapters with practical instruction in the spiritual disciplines. The form of these chapter pairings are roughly: a misunderstanding and how to rightly understand it, and then how to engage in a practice that will actually bring your life in line with the right understanding.

The first target of Smith’s book is captured in his subtitle, Falling In Love with the God Jesus Knows. To that end, Smith raises several common misunderstandings about God. The first chapter, “God is Good,” sets the stage for the template of the rest of the book. Smith discusses what he considers to be the false narrative of the “Angry God” and follows up with the correction of that notion. God is good, and the better we grasp this truth, the deeper our spiritual formation will run.

One of the unifying concepts in his book is that our spiritual formation is stunted by our misconceptions about God. If we misunderstand who God is and what he is like, we will relate to him and to his kingdom improperly, and thus we will fall short of what God intends for us. I think there is a lot to be said for this idea, and it leads the reader through a very helpful set of discussions about God and who he is.

The second target of Smith’s book is something that sets it apart from many books on spiritual formation. For each misunderstanding/corrected understanding, there is a corresponding activity for the reader to engage in. They are what Smith calls “Soul Training” exercises, and are crafted to be done in the support structure of a small community of people doing the same things. It is good to read a book that combines the “why” of the principles with the “what” of habit so well.

I have not yet completed the trilogy, but it is off to a great start. The book will be especially helpful in small-group and one-on-one discipleship settings where people will be able to engage in some of the disciplines in a supportive and intelligent fashion.

[Review on Amazon]

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Does God Command Rape in 2 Samuel 11-12?

Does the God of the Bible condone and/or command rape? I asserted below that I have been told as much, though no particular evidence has been produced to that end. In the comment section, I was told that in the story of 2 Samuel 11-12 God commands rape. Let’s see if that is true.

That section of Scripture tells the story of one of David’s most grievous sins – he takes another man’s wife as his own and arranges for the husband’s death. In response to this radical injustice, God sends the prophet Nathan into him to tell him what will be the consequences of his actions. As far as I can tell, the only passage that would be used to say that God commands rape here is 2 Samuel 12:11:

Thus says the LORD, 'Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun.

As I asserted below, context has a lot to do with what this passage actually says. David took another man’s wife from him, and there are textual hints that she might have been a more than willing party to their behavior. David did not rape Bathsheba – their sex was consensual. In response, David is told that several of his wives will be taken away from him and given to his neighbors and they will be brazen about their sexuality. David took Uriah’s wife, his wives will be taken. No rape indicated, hinted at or explicitly mentioned in either scenario.

We might get hung up on the idea that God will give David’s wives to his neighbors. Here it is helpful to have a sense of how the OT communicates things like punishment for sin. There is reciprocity here to be sure, but the phrase, “I will take your wives” is shorthand for the natural flow of events which will result from David’s behavior. The OT understands God as punishing sin, so it has no problem assigning the reciprocity to God’s judgment. It need not be a heavy-handed judgment, as if God is forcibly removing women from David’s home and handing them over to violent rapists. In fact, that reading is directly contrary to the plain sense of the text.

In addition, the verb for, “shall lie with,” shakab, is a very common Hebrew verb in the OT for consensual sex (it is such a straight-forward verb that if often means literal sleep with no sexual overtones). It is, in fact, the same verb used in 2 Samuel 11:4 to describe the meeting of David and Bathsheba. In neither instance is rape explicitly mentioned or implicitly hinted at.

The plain, straightforward, and natural reading of the 2 Samuel 12:11 text is that David’s wives will be unfaithful to him just as he was unfaithful to them. It takes a strained and quote-mining reading of the text to conclude that it supports the idea that God commands or condones rape.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Technology and the Church

Christians have often been called “People of the Book,” and there is no doubt that recent technologies are changing the landscape of the printed book, so are there inevitable consequences for believers who are tied to the authenticity of and interpretive work done in a book? Lisa Miller thinks technology may pose a serious threat to the very existence of the church itself. She titles this piece, “How Technology Could Bring Down the Church.”

She has a point. It appears that the more available the Bible has become both in print and in virtual form, fewer and fewer Christians read it any more.

According to a 2010 survey, more than a third of born-again Christians “rarely or never” read the Bible. Among “unaffiliated” people - that is, Americans who don’t belong to a religious congregation - more than two thirds say they don’t read the Bible.

Is it really a stretch to believe that our general trend to define genuine engagement down from face-to-face conversation all the way to tweets, will leave the Bible exempt? It shouldn’t surprise us that more Christians read large chunks of the Bible less. While it is becoming more popular to “share” favorite or inspiring verses online, that limits us to our software-induced character limit. Since when had a serious thought been limited by 140 characters?

Skeptics are not exempt from this malady. Often the quotations (or misquotations) used to attack the faith are short, misunderstood, and out of context.

Christians need to recapture the virtue of reading and taking the Bible seriously. Though I don’t believe the church as a whole will crumble under the weight of virtual communities, its value to the individual can be seriously threatened by the thoughtless and unreflective believer.

Skeptics on the Horns of Their Dilemma?

The biblical skeptic or the atheist will often cite some powerful sounding and emotionally tugging ideas in order to argue that the God of the Old Testament, and thus the God of the Christians, is a genocidal maniac. Often it is said that he condones genocide, and the Canaanites are a popular example of God’s wickedness. I was even told recently that he condones rape, though I can think of no specific evidence to support that claim.

Here are some thoughts on why the skeptic falls short here, or at the very least, has a tremendous amount of the argumentative burden to bear.

First of all, these claims are often in the form of “quote-mining,” or picking and choosing texts, pulling them out of context and misrepresenting them. This claim of mine does not say that there are no such verses or passages that sound like the skeptic wants them to sound, but I argue that they are misrepresentations of the overall picture. If the skeptic wants to talk about ancient near-eastern literature and culture, let them do the intellectually honest work of trying to understand it before they misunderstand it. In the end, the skeptic’s claim will be much stronger if they do the literary work to understand the works they are trying to eviscerate.

Secondly, I wonder if the skeptic is trying to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to these claims. More often than not, the same skeptic who makes the moral monster claim is the same skeptic who disbelieves in God because of some form of the problem of evil. So, in one instance it is said that God simply does not do enough to alleviate the evils we see and experience in this world and in the other instance, God is rotten for dealing harshly with ancient, evil, cultures.

Imagine a culture in which many of the first-born children are sacrificed alive on the brass arms of a demon-god over a pit of fire. Imagine the same culture in which, because their primary deity repeatedly rapes his sister while she is in the form of a cow, religious rape and incest are not just condoned but institutionalized. If you can imagine a culture that contains such injustices and horrors, you have imagined the Canaanite society. And one need not go to the biblical record to see that. The archeological evidence stands on its own.

So, what should a God do with such rampant evil? If the skeptic is consistent, he in a pickle. Either God escapes the problem of evil by dealing with real evil, or he escapes the moral monster accusation by justly judging an evil culture. I am no expert on formalizing arguments, but hopefully the following encapsulation helps to communicate the horns of this particular dilemma.

First, the skeptic usually holds to two claims about the existence of God simultaneously: 1) God does not exist due to some form of the problem of evil (eg. God does not intervene to our satisfaction when we see evil), and 2) the God presented in the OT is a moral monster for judging some cultures.

Second, to take one of the most common examples of the skeptic, the Canaanites, they were objectively evil and we know as much from extra biblical evidence.

Third, as a result of their own beliefs and historical evidence, the skeptic is impaled on the horns of their own dilemma. Either God did judge evil and therefore the problem of evil is shaken, or God justly judged an evil culture and therefore the moral monster accusation loses its force.

Are there ways out of this problem? There are, but I don’t think any of them are attractive.

To begin with, the skeptic could deny the Canaanites were the unjust, misogynistic, slave-holding culture I am claiming them to be, but that would require a lot of unique historical work. All the evidence points to them being a pretty rotten culture and a bad place to be if you were not among the powerful.

The next possible move might be to accept the historical data but adopt some form of cultural relativism – what we view as unjust or morally evil, was simply normal and acceptable to them. But cultural relativism is the philosophical version of moldy Swiss cheese, and this position would logically commit the skeptic to accepting pre-Civil War slavery and power-rape as “OK for them.” Not a tenable, or desirable, position. In addition, how many skeptics are willing to be that consistent?

The next set of moves seem to all fall into the same category – denying one or more aspect of the two claims attributed to the skeptic. For example, they might still hold to a version of the problem of evil, but deny the legitimacy of any and all biblical evidence about the events it records: rule them out of play simply for being recorded in the Bible. Or more specifically, the skeptic might be willing to admit into evidence all the “nasty” bits of the biblical record, but deny the reliability of the context and theology of the Bible. But that denial requires more than just skeptical assertion, it requires real literary work on the documents themselves.

Or they may still hold to the moral monster view and claim that the Canaanites (or other similar cultures) were not given a chance to change. God simply commanded that they be wiped out. The best record we have of these events in question, the Bible, does not support that claim. God often tells his people that after centuries of waiting patiently for the Canaanites to turn to him, it is time for judgment to come. The record, so selectively cited by the skeptic, claims God to be unusually patient.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Is God a Moral Monster? Abraham Sacrificing Isaac

Recently, I have been working my way through Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?” It looks to be a promising book, and so far he has tackled some thorny issues very well. What I like about a book like this, is it is not afraid to take a close and honest look at some of the more contentious and difficult issues of the Christian Scriptures. Let’s face it – in the climate of the New Atheists the OT has become a popular target and it is incumbent on Christians to at least deal with the challenges. Not every charge leveled against the OT by the New Atheists is worth time and effort, but some are and Copan has taken up the task.

The first topic that really piqued my interest was the matter of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. In all honesty, that is a difficult passage to deal with. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son of promise, and Abraham essentially says, “OK.”

One of Copan’s first moves is to examine the text of Genesis 22 itself. Though this seems like an obvious thing to do, it is actually rarely done by stone-throwers. Through the text he arrives at four reasons why the event is not the child-abusing horror it is often made out to be. The one reason he lists that I found particularly convincing is that the whole event is described as a “test.” As such, the point of the story is not to actually take the life of Isaac, but to test Abraham’s trust in God. It appears God’s plan includes not actually taking Isaac’s life, and as such, the story does not include that particular indictment of God.

But Abraham seemed ready and willing to go through with it. Doesn’t that in and of itself make the story unpalatable? At this point, Copan cites the ethicist John Hare and a thought experiment. Abridging the thought experiment, imagine a world with different rules for life and death – like a world in which you were assured of being raised stronger and healthier if you were killed at the age of 18. The wise choice would be to have killing parties at 18, and the less wise choice would be to continue to live less strong and less healthy.

As odd as that may sound, it speaks to the plausibility structure of Abraham at the time of God’s command and what that structure actually made of his rational choice. The story itself tells us that Abraham believed God was able to raise the dead, that Isaac was a specific child given to him by God (the “child of promise”), and that Abraham fully expected the both of them to return home. Because Abraham believed in a God who would keep his promise made to him through Isaac and that he was able to raise the dead, his choice to sacrifice his son was not irrational, but an act of trust in God.

And as it turns out, Abraham trusted God, God had no intention of letting Isaac die at his father’s hand, and God did fulfill his promise through Isaac.

Seen through the lens of naturalism, the story of Abraham and Isaac seems worse than incomprehensible. Seen through the lens of the text itself and the existence of God, we can come to terms with what happened and why.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Beginning to Reflect on the Spiritual Disciplines

LHC is currently going through a coordinated curriculum dealing with the spiritual disciplines of the church, and it is prompting me to think a little more closely about what they are, how we engage with them and what they do (and don’t do).

There are a lot of good definitions and descriptions out there about what they are, and I have compiled my own kind of simple description from several of them. The spiritual disciplines are deliberate activities designed to put us in God’s way.

They are deliberate. We do not grow and mature as Christians on accident or from circumstance to circumstance. If we allow our soul’s formation to simply happen to us, we will be not be unformed spiritually, but malformed. Instead of the malformation available to us through our day-to-day lives, we decide to engage in activities designed to bring us closer to God and the kinds of things he wants to do with our lives.

They are designed. By this I mean there is a tried-and-true historical method we can be a part of. I do not believe it is the case that every activity is a spiritual discipline, though to the properly disciplined every activity becomes an act of worship and discipleship. So, prayer, for instance, is designed and guided by the Scriptures and tradition instead of the whimsy of personal experience. And in this way our experiences grow deeper and deeper as we step into God’s ocean instead of wading in our kiddy pool of subjective reality.

They put us in God’s way. I need to come up with a better analogy, but this one came to me years ago and it still communicates my point. The spiritual disciplines are not the things that “make us better people,” they are the things that get us out of the way and allow God to do his job of transformation. For example, if I want to be hit by a car (I told you it was a bad analogy), I will never succeed by sitting at my keyboard and thinking about it. But, if I get up and walk the few blocks to the interstate and put myself in the way of oncoming traffic, I will likely succeed. It’s the walking that makes the difference.

The spiritual disciplines are like taking a walk to put ourselves in God’s way. Sitting here thinking about life with God is nearly useless. But if I begin to take steps in the right direction there is no telling what God can do. The spiritual disciplines are those steps. They are not magic. They are not instant miracle cures to vice. They are the ways in which God gains access to me – to every part of me – so he can overcome my brokenness and make me into the image and likeness of his Son.

Thursday, February 03, 2011


A lot of people are calling for civil debate in the public square right now, and it has caused me to wonder exactly what we mean by and expect from civil debate. What do you think are the necessary components of a “civil public debate” and what do you think the outcomes ought to be?

Does civil debate necessarily include “niceness”? Can we deeply disagree with each other and still be civil? How?

I believe civility in the public square requires the presence of actual arguments. More often than not we hear personal invectives thrown about and we see emotions on sleeves, and I think discussions like that necessarily exclude civil debate. Civility may require a truth beyond the reach of our personal preferences so the discussion can reach beyond our emotions and avoid the ad hominem.

Is it possible to be respectful of a person with whom you deeply disagree and still vigorously disagree?

Another mistake we make too often today is equating disagreement with hate. If I disagree with the validity of your position or the morality of your behavior, that does not necessarily mean I hate you. It may in fact mean I am interested enough in your well-being to talk about our disagreements.

Do we expect the outcome of civil debate to always be agreement? A preponderance of agreement? A deeper understanding of each other?

Any (civil) thoughts?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

When is the Last Time You Thought About Self-Deception?

I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life
By Gregg A. Ten Elshof
Eerdmans Publishing, 2009.

It may happen more often than you realize, and you are probably aware of it more often than you are willing to admit. We deceive ourselves often, in many ways, and for all kinds of reasons. Ten Elshof has written a provocative book covering a character trait we don’t always deal with. It is a readable, insightful and even wise book. We need to think more often about how and why we deceive ourselves about our behaviors and beliefs, and we need to think more about how to handle our forms of deception.

But there is a twist. Is it possible that some measure of self-deception is not just a benefit, but a God-given benefit? Ten Elshof thinks so. I was originally leery of his attempt to defend a certain level of self-deception, but he handled the matter very convincingly. It now seems obvious to me.

The book opens with a brief overview of the matter of self-deception. Ten Elshof shows that it has been a long time since philosophers and the Christian tradition have paid attention to the matter, even though it used to be a topic of real concern. He sets the stage about our personal deal-making and then moves to five ways we self-deceive.

But we are not left without help. After a couple of rather deflating chapters (the honest reader will probably feel deflated), he begins to show us the ways through. First of all, self-deception may not be the end of the world – at least at first. And secondly, there are very good ways of working around self-deception to a healthy grasp of the truth about yourself.

Of particular value to me were the sections on avoiding group-think and the approach he calls, “Avoiding Hyper-Authenticity.” When Christians try to change their behavior through the imitation of Christ, are we being hypocrites? After all, we are behaving in ways inconsistent with who we “really” are. Isn’t that a form of self-deception as well? The hyper-authentic person comes “as is” and is brutally open and honest about who they are and what they feel. But is that just an excuse to avoid change for the better? Ten Elshof’s discussion at this point is very straight-forward and wise.

This is a great book on a neglected topic.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Margaret Sanger Speaks From The Grave

The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, was a eugenicist. While the public face of Planned Parenthood has softened over the last couple of generations, the purpose of the founding was to reduce the number of births among the poor and minorities. And, it seems, though Sanger is long dead, she is getting her way.

According to statistics released by the city of New York, nearly 40% of all pregnancies in the city end in abortion. If that isn’t enough of a bloodbath for you, the rate among black women is nearly 60%. The abortion agenda is doing what slavery never could – it is creating our own self-imposed holocaust by beginning with minority and poor children.

The study goes on to show:

The breakdown by ethnicity is, perhaps, even more startling. Almost 60% of all pregnancy outcomes in NYC for African-American mothers were abortions; among Hispanics, 41.3%. Asians and whites had relatively low percentages of abortion outcomes (22.7% and 20.4%, respectively).

And we should keep in mind that there are organizations making money hand-over-fist because of these kinds of stats.

No matter how unpopular the message seems to be in public, churches need to continue to stand for the dignity and personhood of the unborn and support efforts to stem the tide of abortion in our nation and world. This isn’t a political matter tied to R’s and D’s, it is fundamentally a moral matter tied to the health of the family and the human soul.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Who’s Afraid of Discourse?

If you have not heard of it, the Manhattan Declaration is an ecumenical public document stating the basic, historical Christian position on the sanctity of life, marriage and civil responsibility. The whole statement can be found here, and is worth your time if you are interested in these things. The document is argued well, has a reasonable tone, simply puts forth a brave and clear Christian position on a few of the more controversial issues in our culture today, and calls for civil discourse. So, naturally, it has its enemies.

Enter the cultural left.

Apple has banned the Manhattan Declaration iPhone app from their App Store. Here are some of their reasons:

Apple is telling us that the apps' content is considered "likely to expose a group to harm" and "to be objectionable and potentially harmful to others."

More and more, the cultural class that claims tolerance as its greatest virtue shows itself to be the most intolerant of all. It is not just that the bulk of the cultural left is favorable to both abortion and gay marriage, it is that they have lost all ability to discuss them with reason and civility. Instead of arguing against the details of the Declaration, its detractors want to censor it and call it bad names.

The Declaration itself, on the other hand, is a tremendous example of the Christian mind and conviction in the public square. Instead of resorting to name calling or censorship, the Christian thinks out-loud. The Christian has faith in the truth and in the practice of God-given reason.

In addition, the Declaration is a great example of Christian action in the public square. If the Christian truly believes that truth is a freeing and beautiful thing, the act of standing for the truth is an act of compassion for their neighbor. It is a weak and sickly “love” indeed that placates people with false and destructive hope.

I encourage you to engage with the Declaration, and if you feel able, sign it.