Thursday, April 27, 2006

Counseling is a Theological Matter

A seminary student preparing for the pastorate expressed to me his passion for preaching and one-on-one discipleship. When I asked him what involvement he foresaw himself having in counseling, he replied that while he saw it as an important ministry, he didn't have great interest in it nor did he think he was particularly gifted at it. I followed up by asking him what distinction he made between counseling and the personal discipling about which he was enthused. His knitted brow indicated that he was seriously pondering the inquiry and after a few moments he admitted that he really didn't know.

As is the case for many Christians, this young man was operating with a conception of Christian discipleship and counseling as two distinct tasks. According to this way of thinking, discipling someone involves teaching them how to grow in their relationship with God. This includes instruction in such things as how to interpret the Bible, have personal devotions, witness, and practice other spiritual disciplines. It might also entail helping someone overcome overt patterns of sinful living and thinking. Discipleship, in other words, deals with the "religious" or Godward dimension of life.

Counseling, on the other hand, concentrates on the resolution of intra- and interpersonal problems that we face in the rest of our lives; things like marital conflict and disappointment, depression, anxiety, parenting issues, addictive behaviors, etc. We might say that whereas discipleship addresses a person's relationship with God, counseling focuses on his or her relationship with himself and others. Items in this category are the province of therapy and must be handled by those with formal clinical education in various psychotherapeutic models of human personality and motivation. 

When stated in this manner, the false dichotomy should be apparent. To slice life and people up into religious and non-religious compartments lacks biblical warrant. All of life is infused with religious significance because it is lived coram Deo, before the face of God. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that more believers than we'd like to think operate with this truncated view of discipleship with the tragic consequence that the gospel seems woefully irrelevant to where most of our lives are lived. Oh, we may look to the Bible for inspirational nuggets of consolation and general encouragement. But we don't expect it to speak to the details of our lives with potent specificity. We doubt its adequacy to diagnose and transform us. We have learned the ways of the therapeutic nation well.

I'm in the midst of doing a lot of reading and reflecting on the relationship between theology and counseling. One of the articles I reread this week is David Powlison's Answers for the Human Condition: Why I Chose Seminary for Training in Counseling Powlison makes the case that counseling is essentially a theological matter and offers a broad and narrow definition of what counseling is:

Broadly speaking, from God's point of view, counseling is as broad as "the tongue." Every word out of every mouth communicates values, intentions, and worldview; "the mouth speaks out of what fills the heart." All human interactions are essentially counseling interactions. Counseling, then, is either wise or foolish. Some words are rotten, destructive, misleading, unnourishing (Eph. 4:29a); other words are constructive, timely, true, loving, grace-giving (Eph. 4:15, 29b). No words are neutral.

More narrowly, counseling is any conversation intended to influence, guide, or help another person solve a problem in living. A lawyer, a financial advisor, a college counselor in high school, a friend to whom you pour out your heart, a pastor, and a psychotherapist may each offer counsel (the explicit or implicit content) and do counseling (the relational and change processes).

Commenting on the inherent moral and theological aspects of all counseling, Powlison notes:

All counseling uncovers and edits stories; what is the true "metanarrative" playing in the theater of human lives? Stories differ. All counseling must and does deal with questions of true and false, good and evil, right and wrong, value and stigma, glory and shame, justification and guilt. The answers differ. All counseling explicitly or implicitly deals with questions of redemption, faith, identity, and meaning. The redemptions offered differ.
The article is worthwhile reading for all believers but those considering a seminary education in counseling should profit from the list of sample questions Powlison suggests prospective students ask of faculty and students.

Speaking of theological education as it relates to counseling, not long ago I lauded Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for revising its counseling program to train students in biblical counseling. I was pleased to learn from a friend (Thanks, Hans!) earlier this week that two lectures David Powlison gave to SBTS counseling students earlier this month are available as MP3 downloads (Lecture 1, Lecture 2).

Powlison had invited students to email him questions, concerns, criticisms, and objections about biblical counseling before the event so he could respond to them during their meeting. He arranged the issues they raised into the following six categories:

1. The nature of Scripture: Is Scritpure a manual for counseling?
2. Biblical counseling and medical/biological problems
3. The relationship between David Powlison/CCEF and Jay Adams/NANC
4. Common grace, science, and general revelation
5. Employment opportunities for biblical counselors
6. Intra-departmental tensions at Southern

Powlison gave thoughtful and thorough responses to all of these areas except the sixth since he did not have firsthand knowledge of the specifics involved. After each of his presentations he also responded to questions and comments from the audience.

In all likelihood you won't be able to listen to all that Powlison has to say in one sitting but I encourage anyone interested in offering Christ-centered counsel to make time to listen to and seriously consider his.

"They Got it Right"

That's what David Beamer, whose son Todd was killed aboard United Airlines Flight 93, has to say after viewing "United 93." Concerning the importance of the film he writes in today's Wall Street Journal:

This film further reminds us of the nature of the enemy we face. An enemy who will stop at nothing to achieve world domination and force a life devoid of freedom upon all. Their methods are inhumane and their targets are the innocent and unsuspecting. We call this conflict the "War on Terror." This film is a wake-up call. And although we abhor terrorism as a tactic, we are at war with a real enemy and it is personal.

There are those who would hope to escape the pain of war. Can't we just live and let live and pretend every thing is OK? Let's discuss, negotiate, reason together. The film accurately shows an enemy who will stop at nothing in a quest for control. This enemy does not seek our resources, our land or our materials, but rather to alter our very way of life.

I encourage my fellow Americans and free people everywhere to see "United 93."

I plan on heeding Mr. Beamer's encouragement. Do you?

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Atheist Chat

I'm not sure why, exactly, but atheism fascinates me. I used to spend a lot of time in online chatrooms, particularly those antagonistic to Christianity. (Come to think of it, that was most of them.) During that time I made "friends" with a handful of atheists who displayed a willingness to do more than hurl insults but rather to discuss matters of faith and philosophy intelligently and civilly. One of those dialogue partners frequently engaged Christians in debate yet was reluctant to offer an argument in support of his own position. His rationale for this was that since he was a negative atheist (one who lacks a belief in God but does not assert that God does not exist), he was making no assertion and therefore was under no obligation to offer a defense.

This is a very common ploy but I think it's flawed. Objections to Christianity are not acontextual. They arise from alternative systems of belief which have their own presuppositions about the nature and limits of reality and human knowing, and how it is we should live. What's often needed is for the Christian to unearth the implicit worldview from which objections arise rather than simply responding as though the atheist's starting point is neutral or the default position that does not stand in need of defense.

Here's an excerpt of an exchange with the atheist I mentioned above, whom I'll call Raven. To his credit, he saw the problem with having to defend the assertion that God does not exist so he sought refuge in the more modest claim that he does not believe that God exists. However, if one listened closely, he or she could detect that Raven spoke as though he was doing more than merely describing his mental furniture.

Raven: How would you define atheism in the philosophical sense? The reason I ask is that I find myself having to defend my definition time and time again, and not to Christians as you might think, but more often to self-styled agnostics.

KP: I’d define atheism as the belief that there is no God or gods. I know some try to make the “a” prefix (no) modify “theism” (a belief in a God or gods) but that is not the etymology of the word. You’ve said yourself that atheism is an ontological and not merely an epistemological position, haven't you?

Raven: I opt for the two-pronged definition: disbelief and denial. Yes I have. That has always been my understanding.

KP: And if it is ontological, isn't it making an assertion about what is? If not, then it is merely describing one's belief system and is therefore epistemological.

Raven: I checked Barnhart's Etymology tonight and it defines the word as disbelief. I'm really not sure that atheism, in the negative/implicit sense, does make an assertion.

KP: Then in what sense is it ontological and not simply epistemological?

Raven: Barnhart does not define it as disbelief but allows it.

KP: In what sense is it ontological if it is only describing one's psychology?

Raven: As atheism is a position on existence, not knowledge of existence, wouldn't it be ontological?

KP: But if it’s a position on existence, then it’s making some sort of claim about the nature of reality.

Raven: Yes, positive atheism makes a claim. But does negative atheism make a claim?

KP: If I define atheism simply as a lack of a particular belief I’m not making an ontological claim but an epistemological one; namely that person A does not hold this belief.

Raven: Obviously I'll have to do some more study on this.

KP: That's why I think the negative atheism argument ends up reducing to subjectivism.

Raven: Yes, perhaps it does at that.

KP: It's simply a description of a person's psyche but says nothing about anything outside the individual's mind.

Raven: Very good point.

KP: Granted, it's a pretty good attempt at avoiding having to defend anything, but it doesn't say anything except about the person claiming to lack the belief.

Raven: Well, I can't in all honesty declare that a God does not exist. I'm not one to cut my nose off to spite my face.

KP: I think you've hidden behind that "I'm not making any claims" position while still wanting to regard it as ontological. The two don't fit.

Raven: I see your point.

KP: Had that ever occurred to you?

Raven: Yes, it had.

KP: And how did you try to resolve the tension?

Raven: I haven't as of yet.

KP: And what if you cannot?

Raven: I'll burn that bridge while I am crossing it.

KP: :-)

Raven: As I see it, if I have to abandon the notion that my particular brand of atheism is ontological, so be it. The effect is minimal.

KP: But then would you be able to say that others who don’t share your brand of atheism are irrational or without justification?

Raven: That remains to be seen, though to be honest, I do feel that the positive atheism position is irrational and without justification.

KP: So what would cause your position to differ from subjectivism?

Raven: We'll have to wait and see.

KP: Do you see any difference now?

Raven: No, should I?

KP: I meant do you see anything that would distinguish that form of negative atheism from subjectivism?

Raven: Not off the top of my head, no.

KP: Would you be willing to live with that?

Raven: I'm willing to 'live' with anything I may discover.

KP: If everything ultimately reduces to subjectivism, then nothing is actually discovered. I'd like to talk with you more about this topic and hear how your thinking unfolds.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Church of Scotland Backs Use of IVF Embryos for Stem Cell Research

A committee appointed by the Church of Scotland has decided that embryos originally created for in vitro fertilization may be destroyed for stem cell research as long as they are under 14 days old. The reason? Embryos at this stage of development don't have the "moral status" of humans.

According to this article in the Scotsman:

[The committee's report] says that although for some in the church "the embryo already has the same human dignity as a person who has been born", the majority of the working group took the view that "the moral status of the human embryo is not established until some time into its biological development after conception".
Unfortunately, the article doesn't mention the reasoning offered in support of this assertion.

The same committee opposed cloning and the deliberate creation of embryos for stem cell research "except into serious diseases and only under exceptional circumstance". But this is inconsistent. If the committee really believes that human embryos have no moral status prior to 14 days old, why not recommend that human embryos can be created for stem cell research under any circumstance as long as they are destroyed prior to day 14 of their existence?

The Church's position, regardless of how vehemently it may deny it, reduces to an affirmation that human life is not inherently valuable. Rather, only those members of the species who have reached an arbitrarily decided upon level of development are worthy of society's protection.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Paul Tripp & Tim Lane on How People Change

I recently recommended a church-based discipleship curriculum produced by the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. Here's a brief interview with Paul Tripp and Tim Lane about their soon-to-be-released book, How People Change, upon which the first module of the curriculum is based.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Just One More Thing

I had no idea who David Allen is until I followed a link Justin Taylor provided to an interview with the productivity expert. From what I've read so far I think I could benefit from reading his book Getting Things Done. When asked what key concept he hopes someone coming to his material for the first time will grasp, Allen says that people must capture, clarify, and manage the multiple commitments we make with ourselves and others. "Most people simply don’t realize how many commitments they have made and the level of stress and distraction they live with when they are not responsible to them. They’re trying to sit on top of this horse, but they find themselves being driven by the horse instead of guiding it."

I plead guilty. I tend to naively (and at times impulsively) agree to requests made and/or opportunities presented because in the moment I consider them in isolation from everything else going on in my life. "It's just one event" I tell myself. "How much time could it consume?" What I often fail to take into account is the cumulative effect that all of those "little" appointments can have. I've readied myself for many such engagements with resentment and a resolve to streamline my schedule in the future. Perhaps one day it will stick.

The reasons for my taking on a variety of commitments are varied. I think that, at least to some degree, I'm sincerely motivated by a concern for people and a desire to be of help to them. Another contributing factor is my curious mind. I have a lot of interests and when an opportunity arises that sounds exciting, I'm easily snagged. But, I know that there are far less noble factors at work as well. Sometimes I say "yes" because I fear what others will think if I say "no." I sacrifice wisdom on the altar of the fear of man.

David Allen's comments made me think about those of Richard Baxter the Puritan preacher whose Christian Directory I've been reading. In his directions for "redeeming opportunity" he advises:

Endure patiently some smaller inconvenience and loss, for the avoiding of greater, and for the redeeming of time for greater duties: and let little things be resolutely cast out of your way, when they would draw out your time by insensible degrees. The devil would cunningly steal that from you by drops, which he cannot get you to cast away profusely at once; he that will not spend prodigally by the pounds, may run out by not regarding pence. You shall have the pretences of decency, and seemliness, and civility, and good manners, and avoiding offence, and censure, and of some necessity too, to draw out your precious time from you by little and little; and if you are so easy as to yield, it will almost all be wasted by this temptation....And as in our yearly expenses of our money, there goeth near as much in little matters, not to be named by themselves, and incidental, unexpected charges, of which no account can be given beforehand, as doth in food, and raiment, and the ordinary charges which we foreknow and reckon upon; just so it will be with your precious time, if you be not very thrifty and resolute, and look not well to it: you will have such abundance of little matters, scarce fit to be named, which will every one require a little, and one begin where the other endeth, that you will find in the review, when time is gone, that Satan was too cunning for you, and cheated you by drawing you into seeming necessities.

As I come to terms with the likelihood that I have already lived more life than I have yet to live, I regret the irretrievable time I've squandered and realize how desperately I need discernment, discipline, and self-control to make use of the gift of time. At times my vision is so clear but it doesn't take long for the cataracts to form again and once again I immerse myself in trivialities rather than invest in the kingdom of heaven.

Increasingly I find myself praying with the psalmist: "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."

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The Pastor as Theologian

I heard someone tell the story of a young boy and his father walking leisurely through an old cemetery. The boy got a little ahead of his father and stopped to read a headstone. Upon doing so, his little jaw dropped and his eyes grew large. "Daddy, Daddy!" he called, "There are two men buried in this grave!" When he caught up to his son and read the gravestone himself, the father saw the reason for the youngster's confusion. The inscription began: "Here lies pastor and theologian...."

Unfortunately, there are many (including some pastors) who think that pastor and theologian are mutually exclusive callings. Here's Part One of a series Al Mohler has begun on the pastor as theologian. In it he appropriately laments a trend by which I'm greatly troubled as well - the relegating of theological rigor to the realms of academia:

These developments have caused great harm to the church, separating ministries from theology, preaching from doctrine, and Christian care from conviction. In far too many cases, the pastor's ministry has been evacuated of serious doctrinal content and many pastors seem to have little connection to any sense of theological vocation.

All this must be reversed, if the church is to remain true to God's Word and the Gospel. Unless the pastor functions as a theologian, theology is left in the hands of those who, in many cases, have little or no connection or commitment to the local church.

Dr. Mohler's commentary brought a pet peeve to mind. I've cringed on numerous occasions when I've heard preachers introduce a doctrinal or theological explanation apologetically (and I don't mean in the sense of defending the faith). It's as though they're ashamed of or embarrassed by their responsibility to help people understand and apply what God has revealed. Such apologies serve only to perpetuate the faulty notion that theological understanding is a necessary evil to be tolerated rather than soul-nourishing truth to be sought and savored.

The Lord knows there are many things for which those of us who are pastors should apologize to our people but being theologically driven is not one of them.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Goodbye, Paiderastia?

I was pleased to discover this morning that the pro-pedophile blog I referrred to last week is no more. I wonder if this is the result of Google's initiative or if the perverse bloggers simply jumped ship?

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Christ is Risen!

My family and I had the bright idea to attend a 7 AM Resurrection Day service at another local church. It sounded so good in the planning stage. We'd go to sleep early Saturday evening, awake at 6 and be on the road by 6:45. We¹d be home by 9 and then we¹d have breakfast, read the paper, and perhaps catch a nap to refresh us for this afternoon's activities.

The execution was not as smooth. We did manage to retire early last night but three fourths of our number had a restless night's sleep, which made getting up tough. I anxiously watched the clock, counting down to departure and when it looked as though we wouldn't make it on time, I displayed why it is I need a living Savior. Needless to say, the ride to the church was not accompanied by our singing Christ the Lord is Risen Today. But that was one of the songs with which we celebrated the living Lord when we finally made it (on time, no less) to the service.

How, I wondered, could I lift my voice in praise only minutes after venting my frustration when getting what I wanted was threatened? But as a 120-voice choir sang The Power of the Cross followed by The Hallelujah Chorus, I asked a different question. How could I not joyfully sing of such a wonderful, patient, deliverer who gave himself not only to pardon, but to change sinful people like me.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Google Hosts "Boy Love" Blog

Stacy Harp of Active Christian Media is another using the power of the Internet to safeguard children from pedophiles. She has been very busy of late trying to persuade Google-owned Blogger to cease offering its service to a group advocating sexual relationships between men and boys. A number of news media have taken note of her efforts including World Net Daily which reported the following two days ago:

A marriage and family therapist intern is trying to convince Google to drop a website from its popular, free blog host that promotes "boy love," sexual relationships between men and adolescents.

Stacy L. Harp of Orange, Calif., told WorldNetDaily one of the readers of her weblog pointed out the site, called "Paiderastia: The Boy Love Revival."At the top of its homepage, the site explains it's all about "erotic/mentor/spiritual love between adolescents and adults."

Harp said, however, that not long after she exposed it yesterday morning, the "Paiderastia" site removed its most recent posts, including one dated April 9.

Also removed, according to Harp, was a podcast – a file with a radio-style report – that mocked the FBI. It was created through the podcast provider Liberated Syndication.

The site now begins with a Feb. 15 post that outlines the "Boylove Code of Ethics," which includes this rule: "Intimacy with a boy should never develop into a sexual relationship without the boy fully consenting and understanding the social, legal, and health implications of the relationship."

Harp, who also has a company called Active Christian Media, said that as "somebody who has recovered from child sexual abuse and has been working for four years as a therapist" she got "ticked off" when she saw the "boy love" website.

Harp spoke with a secretary at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., but was told she must go to the company's help-desk page online and fill out a complaint.

Harp had done that before with another complaint – when homosexual activists slandered her online – and got no response.

Google's Mountain View, Calif., office has not responded to WND's request for comment.

U.S. officials hunting child predators have considered websites like "Paiderastia" low priority because they are not explicit. But Harp fears such sites could lure children.

"It plays into the normalization of it," she said. "The more you have it out there the more it's available for children to see. Children are easily influenced."

Today, the contributors to Paiderastia are making a desperate attempt to take the moral high ground, claiming to be the victims of an attack by "certain conservative outlets, theocrats that have little respect for rational thought and freedom of speech." If you can stomach it, read the whole thing. From the comments left so far, it's obvious that their opposition consists of more than religious conservatives.

Check Stacy's blog for updates.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation Online

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation now has a website. Most of its features are still under construction but this is bound to become a site worth visiting frequently for thoughtful faith (or faithful thought) provocation. (HT: The Pearcey Report)

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William Dembski to Leave Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – A leading activist for the intelligent design movement is leaving the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

William Dembski had been on the job just one year as the school's director of a new Center for Science and Theology. Dembski announced his resignation this week to become research professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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The Sound of Muzak

Maybe I just need more excitement in my life but I found this article about Muzak, the company that provides public background for countless retailers, very interesting. I've done my share of singing along to instrumental versions of popular songs while shopping but I had no idea how much thought goes into the selection of what is played and when.

The creators of Muzak's programs are known as "audio architects." There are twenty-two of them and all but two of them are in their twenties or thirties. It's their job to design musical packages according to the specifications of their clients. For example:

some customers want to establish different moods at different times of the day; some want current hits to repeat frequently, as they do on Top Forty radio stations; some want programs that are closely geared to the seasons. At some retailers, one of the biggest changes occurs at closing time, when the music becomes louder, more intense, and presumably more likely to include lyrics that could be mistaken for profanity. That’s an after-hours program, designed by Muzak’s audio architects for employees who restock the shelves.

One architect interviewed for the article said that with the proliferation of instrumental renditions she couldn't tell by listening to only one song whether it was produced by Muzak. But:

“...I could tell if I listened to the flow of a few. The key is consistency. How did those songs connect? What story did they tell? Why is this song after that song, and why is that one after that one? When we make a program, we pay a lot of attention to the way songs segue. It’s not like songs on the radio, or songs on a CD. Take Armani Exchange. Shoppers there are looking for clothes that are hip and chic and cool. They’re twenty-five to thirty-five years old, and they want something to wear to a party or a club, and as they shop they want to feel like they’re already there. So you make the store sound like the coolest bar in town. You think about that when you pick the songs, and you pay special attention to the sequencing, and then you cross-fade and beat-match and never break the momentum, because you want the program to sound like a d.j.’s mix.” She went on, “For Ann Taylor, you do something completely different. The Ann Taylor woman is conservative, not edgy, and she really couldn’t care less about segues. She wants everything bright and positive and optimistic and uplifting, so you avoid offensive themes and lyrics, and you think about Sting and Celine Dion, and you leave a tiny space between the songs or gradually fade out and fade in.”

The article concludes with the observation that public background music is, for many of us, a continuation of the background noise with which we fill our private moments and quotes a member of Muzak's marketing department as identifying silence as their biggest competitor.

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Another Long-Lost Gospel to be Released

With all the media attention surrounding the publication of the Gospel of Judas, it's no wonder that news about another ancient document that sheds light on the historical Jesus and early Christianity has been overshadowed. Thanks to Doug Groothuis for announcing the release of the Gospel of Brutus. But don't click that link yet!

Princeton religion professor Elaine Pagels, a consultant on the publication of the Gospel of Judas, has an op-ed piece in today's New York Times. I found reading it first, greatly aided my understanding of Groothuis's report. I recommend that you read them in that order as well.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Scot McKnight on the Gospel of Judas

I hoped Scot McKnight would weigh in on the Gospl of Judas and I wasn't disappointed. In the first in a series of posts, he suggests how Christians should respond to the hype:

Now, I’d like to make a suggestion: apologetically speaking, we can only do two things — compare these texts to the canonical Gospels and say “they are really different” (no one denies this). And in saying that some will be done because “really different” means “really wrong.” If you’re honest, this proves nothing: we might be dead wrong in believing those canonical Gospels as the ones that tell the truth. So, second, what do we do? I suggest this: the only substantial argument against the alternative Gospels is a confidence that God’s Spirit directed the Church (inspired the texts and preserved the texts and led the Church to recognize the texts) to the canonical Gospels.

But, along with this we can say this: the text is late, the orthodox Christians said The Gospel of Judas was nonsense, and the theology (which is clearly gnostic) is not 1st Century Jewish/Galilean. No one can dispute any of these three points.

Monday: I’ll sum up Scene I in the text.

This should be good!

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"I Don't Believe in the Resurrection of the Body"

And what could be a more fitting follow-up to a post on Gnosticism than a poll indicating that most Americans don't believe in the resurrection of the body?

Only 36 percent of the 1,007 adults interviewed a month ago by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University said "yes" to the question: "Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?" Fifty-four percent said they do not believe and 10 percent were undecided.

"This reflects the very low state of doctrinal preaching in our churches," said Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

"I continually am confronted by Christians, even active members of major churches, who have never heard this taught in their local congregations," Mohler said. "We have a lowest-common-denominator Christianity being taught in so many denominations that has produced a people who simply do not know some of the most basic Christian truths." (HT: Slice of Laodicea)

Today, Mohler offers further analysis of the poll's findings on his blog:

The survey found strong support for other fundamental Christian doctrines among the general population. The great exception was belief in a personal resurrection.

I did find the survey most interesting (and alarming). These surveys do not reveal the inner life of the persons polled, nor their actual beliefs. Persons tend to respond with what they believe Christianity to teach. On most central matters, the majority of Americans respond in a generally orthodox manner. This does not mean that they are convictional and confessing Christians, but it does mean that they have some personal identification with Christianity and that they know at least something of the doctrinal shape of the Christian faith.

A glaring exception like this lack of belief in a personal resurrection probably demonstrates a profound lack of theological knowledge beyond the bare essentials known to the public. There was strong affirmation of the physical resurrection of Jesus (63 of those polled), so a generalized anti-supernaturalism does not seem to be operating here.

Instead, this is further evidence of the doctrinal evasiveness of today's churches. My firm guess is that the vast majority of Americans simply have no idea that the Bible clearly teaches a doctrine of personal resurrection and that the claim is central to the Gospel itself. Whose fault is that?

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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Extreme (Judas) Makeover

Two months ago I put up a short post referring to the Gospel of Judas. Today, a lot of people have visited the blog as a result of searches for the ancient document. The spike in traffic is no doubt due, at least in part, to an article in today's New York Times from which the following are excerpts:

An early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of what is known as the Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years. The text gives new insights into the relationship of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him, scholars reported today. In this version, Jesus asked Judas, as a close friend, to sell him out to the authorities, telling Judas he will "exceed" the other disciples by doing so.

....The most revealing passages in the Judas manuscript begins, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover."

The account goes on to relate that Jesus refers to the other disciples, telling Judas "you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." By that, scholars familiar with Gnostic thinking said, Jesus meant that by helping him get rid of his physical flesh, Judas will act to liberate the true spiritual self or divine being within Jesus.

Unlike the accounts in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the anonymous author of the Gospel of Judas believed that Judas Iscariot alone among the 12 disciples understood the meaning of Jesus' teachings and acceded to his will. In the diversity of early Christian thought, a group known as Gnostics believed in a secret knowledge of how people could escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came.

Scholars believe that the extant manuscript was written around 300 A.D. while the original was written in the previous century. Nevertheless, this recently discovered gospel is said to give "new insights" into the relationship between Jesus and Judas.

Here is double-think at its best. The biblical gospels are frequently rejected as reliable witnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus on account of their allegedly having been written so long after the events they record. I guess that as long as a document written even later than the biblical gospels (such as the Gospel of Judas) contradicts their testimony, time between event and recording ceases to be material (no Gnostic pun intended).

You can learn more about the "lost gospel" at and read excerpts here. The National Geographic Channel will also air a special about the find this Sunday evening.

That reminds me. Mars Hill Audio's Ken Myers recently posted a thoughtful essay called "An Ancient Modern Confusion" in which he contrasts the biblical doctrine of creation with the Gnostic heresy and illustrates Gnosticism's contemporary appeal. As are Myers' other reflections, it's worth reading.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hollywood Moses

Robert Halmi, Sr., the producer of ABC's upcoming miniseries "The Ten Commandments," boasts: "This will be the most biblically accurate telling of the story to date. I insisted on accuracy." I've seen the preview and, in light of Halmi's claim, can't help wondering why Moses looks half the age he was when he led the Hebrews out of Egypt. Then again, Halmi also says that the great thing about the Bible is that every day it's interpreted in a different way. So, how exactly does he know that his interpretation is the most accurate?

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Are You SURE You're an Agnostic?: The Need for Dialogue-Evangelists

In an article titled "Preaching to the Secular Mind" (Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 1995) Tim Keller proposes that churches include more pre-evangelistic apologetics in their preaching, classes, and overall ministry. I really like one of the ways he suggests that this be done. He suggests that every church commission a cadre of "dialogue-evangelists" who work either one-on-one or in groups with regularly attending seekers. Here's how he envisions their role:
These persons must be trained much more thoroughly than lay evangelists were in the past. For example, they will need to be trained in apologetics and will engage in lots of such pre-evangelism discussions. They will give seekers books to read that address their intellectual problems or spiritual condition. They will occasionally form "seeker groups" that meet for two to four evenings to discuss the Christian faith. An individual evangelist should try to maintain relationships with one to five non-Christians who are coming to the church.
Keller thinks that as the culture becomes more secular, a presuppositionalist apologetic will be most effective; particularly what John Frame calls the "offensive" side of presuppositionalist apologetics which Keller describes as follows:
Offensive apologetics shows the non-Christian that the problems of his own position are far, far greater than any weaknesses in the Christian position. Offensive apologetics is highly personal and interactive. Instead of making the non-Christian sit still for a long chain of reasoning, it goes right in and begins to ask questions in a Socratic way. It reveals the arbitrary and (usually) unconscious nature of their own faith assumptions and the inadequacies of their own world views.
This approach is incremental and will not likely lead to on the spot conversions. It can, however, leave someone thinking and perhaps they will, at a later time, be readier to give Christianity a patient hearing. By pointing out the unbeliever's willingness to embrace contradiction, we can try to help him see that his rejection of Christianity is not really motivated by a concern to preserve logic and rationality but by his determination not to have God over him. Thus, an initially philosophical conversation can lead naturally to a discussion about the nature of sin and its effects on the mind.

Here's a partial log from an online exchange I had with a self-professed agnostic that I think illustrates the apologetic method Keller commends:

Dubious: Belief in a god is superstitious and narrow-minded.

KP: I take it you're an atheist.

Dubious: Actually, I am agnostic.

KP: And what do you mean by that?

Dubious: Well.......I’m still waiting on proof that any gods exist or don't exist. And if the Judeo-Christian god does exist I would not worship him.

KP: Why is that?

Dubious: The god of the old testament is a god of war. I am a pacifist. I don’t like the thought of bashing babies’ heads against rocks or killing "everything that liveth."

KP: And where do your ethics come from?

Dubious: Why does it need to stem from a god? I am raising very kind, polite children without having to subject them to a boogeyman.

KP: You didn't answer my question.

Dubious: You’re right. I get it from my own heart and head.

KP: So, in other words, there are no acts that are inherently wrong?

Dubious: Yes, exactly.

KP: So, the things you object to about the OT portrait of God are not wrong. It's just that you don't like them, right?

Dubious: That is right. They considered them proper at the time.

KP: But isn't that to assume that God didn't tell them to do these things?

Dubious: No, it doesn’t. That is only what the bible says. The Israelites may have made the decision on their own and attributed it to a god. I was not there I don't know.

KP: Although you identify yourself as an agnostic, don't you function as an atheist?

Dubious: Yes, primarily. But I am open to the fact that one or more gods do exist. I like proof.

KP: Then you’re not really beginning from a stance of neutrality, are you?

Dubious: I start from the available facts.

KP: Although you present yourself as open-minded, in fact, you’re already inclined toward the belief that there is no God.

Dubious: Yes I am. Everything I have seen leads me to believe there is no god; that god is a crutch for those who can't handle reality, i.e., death, responsibility for one’s own actions, the unknown.

KP: Then you're not really an agnostic, after all. To whom would one be responsible if there is no God? And how do you know what "reality" is?

Dubious: One question at a time. You are responsible to yourself, your children, society on the whole - trying to make the world a better place.

KP: And who determines what is "better"?

Dubious: I knew you would bring that up. I personally just do the best I can by my own standards.

KP: If morals and values are in fact person-relative, then there really is no state of affairs that is objectively "better" than any other. So how do we unite in this goal of making the world a "better" place?

Dubious: Point taken. Nothing is quite as good as we would like it to be.

KP: But according to your philosophy, nothing is "good" at all. It is only good for ME.

Dubious: We make the world a better place by being tolerant of others.

KP: Why is tolerance a virtue? Why is that any better than intolerance? You can't seem to escape speaking of values as though they had some objective existence; as though there is some fixed standard against which all else is measured.

Dubious: An act of kindness to another is good for all.

KP: But what determines what "good" is? And why should we seek what is good for all?

Dubious: I personally seek it because I want to. (It seems like I did these rounds in Philosophy 101.)

KP: So, others are not wrong if they don't choose to seek it; if they want to seek the pain of others?

Dubious: If the person receiving the pain wants it. If not, then the person is pushing their own ideals on another.

KP: And what's WRONG with that?

Dubious: I guess I do believe in a universal standard of sorts.

KP: That was my point.

Dubious: You win.

KP: Your proposed relativism is unlivable. On a daily basis you act as though what the Bible says about there being true good and evil is true. But this is inconsistent with your functional atheism. For in a materialistic universe, there could be no such thing as a universal standard of morality.

Dubious: I don't believe in true good and true evil as in the bible.

KP: What I meant was, you believe that there is objective good and evil; there are universal standards of some kind.

Dubious: There really isn't a standard; only what I believe the standard should be. Back to that reality thing.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Church Based Discipleship Curriculum from CCEF

Last Friday and Saturday I went to College Church in Wheaton to receive training in the use of the first component in a church based discipleship curriculum produced by the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. It's called the Transformation Series and consists of three parts: How People Change; Helping Others Change; and Change and Your Relationships. Two years ago a group from our church traveled to Columbus, Ohio for training in the second part(based on Paul Tripp's excellent book, Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change) so it was a treat to have the training in our backyard this year. If your church is in search of material that will help believers understand and apply a biblical model of Christ-centered growth in grace, I can't recommend these resources highly enough.

Paul Tripp and Tim Lane, whose soon to be released book How People Change is the basis for this second component, led the two days of instruction. They explained that the Transformation Series is designed to help fill two gaps that frequently exist in the lives of Christians. The first they called a ministry gap. This is the space between our superficial, casual relationships with other believers and the formal ministries and meetings of the church. We often fail to recognize the daily opportunities we have in our own families and friendships to help each other make progress in the purpose for which God saved us - conformity to Christ in thought, attitude, and behavior.

The second gap is what they call a "gospel gap." Our grasp of the gospel's relevance to our lives is clear with respect to the past (conversion and forgiveness) and the future eternal hope which is ours in Christ, but, as Paul Tripp noted, "The closer the gospel gets to the here and now, the fuzzier it gets." How, for example, does the gospel apply to daily trials and blessings such as marital conflict, physical suffering, affluence, job loss, family crises, parenting pressures, achievements, and financial difficulty? If we're not intentionally thinking biblically about these things, our responses to them as well as the ways we seek to help others facing them will be informed by some other philosophy of life which will not facilitate growth in the grace and knowledge of Christ.

One of the strengths of this curriculum is its emphasis on the communal aspect of sanctification. One of the lessons called "Change is a Community Project" challenges our tendency (at least as American believers) to conceive of and pursue godliness in very privatized and individualistic ways. As long as we're having our personal devotions and attending weekly meetings (with people we scarcely know and to whom we'd dare not expose our true selves) we delude ourselves into thinking that we're doing all that God requires of us.

Paul and Tim reminded us that this is far from the biblical picture of Christian living. God, who exists as a triune community invites people into community with himself and each other. And it is in the context of relationships with each other (with all their messiness) that he reveals the idols that have captivated our hearts and does his gracious, powerful work of transformation. The fear that often motivates us to be unapproachable, superficial, and detached from other Christians evidences that we crave security, approval, and acceptance more than we do spiritual maturity.

Preparing to participate in this weekend was intense and painful. In addition to having to read David Powlison's Seeing With New Eyes, we also had to read all of the curriculum lessons and do the assignments for each lesson. I say this was painful not because of the amount of work but because of the insight I gained into my own heart. It's easy to quote Calvin's observation that the human heart is an idol factory. It's much more difficult, however, to examine what's coming off your own production line. Working through this material heightened my awareness of the inner pantheon of functional gods that captivate my affections and detract from my worship of the true God revealed in Christ. Consequently, a renewed gratitude for the message of the cross with its promises of pardon and hope for change overwhelmed me.

I'm grateful to the folks at CCEF for these valuable resources and hope that many in the body of Christ will avail themselves of them. You can find excerpts from the two existing modules at the page linked to in the first paragraph of this post.

I'd appreciate hearing the impressions of others who have participated in either of the training sessions.

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