Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Culture, Compassion, and Compass: Responding to Anti-Christian Media

In a current Christianity Today article titled "When the Media Became a Nuisance," New Testament professor Darrel Bock offers helpful advice on how Christians can constructively respond to blockbuster books, documentaries, and motion pictures that challenge the truthfulness of the Christian faith. As he points out, a critical necessity is equipping:
Rather than seeing new media reports as conspiracies to rail against, why not see them as opportunities to discuss faith with friends and neighbors who will find them intriguing? Only we mustn't do so with an angry or dismissive tone. Rather, we ought to respectfully explain the historic Christian view. Becoming equipped for such discussions may require seminars organized by local churches. Imagine churches working together to help believers contend for the truth in their communities.
The reason Dr. Bock has to urge us to employ our imaginations to envision this kind of equipping is it happens so rarely. What a contrast this vision is to the several emails I've received urging me to boycott the film The Golden Compass. I'm sure those who circulate such missives mean well but hopefully we will not think that we are satisfying our calling to be redemptive agents in the world by trying to organize mass protests via the Internet. Clicking "forward" and "send" is certainly less time consuming and mentally taxing than the activity Darrel Bock commends but it is not nearly as effective in advancing God's kingdom.

Thinking about our propensity to opt for demonstrations over dialogues reminded me of lines I marked years ago in J. Daryl Charles's book, The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church's Moral Vision. In it, the author laments American evangelicalism's lack of a mature theology of public life and moral persuasion. Referring to Os Guinness's Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do About It, Charles writes:
Evangelicals, he notes, have frequently concentrated their efforts in domains that are peripheral to society rather than central. Correlatively, they have relied heavily on populist strengths and rhetoric rather than addressing "gatekeepers" of contemporary culture. Moreover, and critical to the viability of an evangelical social ethic, we have sought to change society through political and legal means rather than contending in the marketplace of ideas at the intellectual level. Thus, evangelicals have tended to rely on "a rhetoric of protest, pronouncement, and picketing" rather than on moral persuasion.
Johnson adds:
The relative inattention to winning a person's mind and way of thinking, an inattention that tends to depreciate a long-term strategy of building relationships and addressing moral-philosophical complexities, has lasting results that are counterproductive to evangelicals' mission to the world.
I intend to see The Golden Compass, not only because it looks like a spectacular piece of filmmaking (at least as far as special effects go), but because I want to be able to speak intelligently with the people around me who will see it. I also wish to speak compassionately.

In an excellent article titled "
Why We Can Neither Boycott nor Ignore 'The Golden Compass'" (HT: The Pearcey Report), David Dunham addresses this point, drawing lessons from Francis Schaeffer's evangelistic method which involved deconstructing a person's unbiblical worldview (a process Schaeffer referred to as "blowing the roof off"). Dunham notes Schaeffer's insistence that compassion accompany this activity, quoting from The God Who Is There:
These paintings, these poems, and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they live; yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.
Dunham adds:
That is probably the greatest lesson we can learn from Dr. Schaeffer. You can never share the gospel with someone whom you do not take seriously as a human being; and they will never want to listen to you if your words are not truth and compassion mixed together. There church, and individual Christians in particular, have over the past several centuries struggled greatly with this kind of evangelism. We have often found ourselves more interested in turning up our noses, mocking, belittling, and boycotting the culture, but Schaeffer would have us to find compassion for the culture. So he says, “As I push a man off his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care about him. Otherwise I will only end up destroying him…” We must have compassion.
Yes I am angry that Philip Pullman wants to “destroy Christianity!” But in his books (which have been adapted into a full length motion picture, released today) I also sense that there is a man who hates God, who is honest about it, and who needs the gospel. I will find in some of his major fans similar feelings of religious disdain. How I share the gospel with them will need to start with recognizing this factor and lovingly tearing down the worldview that supports it as I bring them the gospel. What Schaeffer does so well is to remind us that the culture is part of life, where people’s worldviews are expressed, and though we would often criticize and demean culture it can and should actually be part of how we do evangelism.
Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian is a good example of the kind of action those I've quoted above call for. He recently led discussions of Philip Pullman's trilogy at two local libraries. He has also assembled a list of informative posts he wrote while making his way through the books.

Yes, imagine. Imagine a day when emails calling believers to boycott expressions of unbelief are overwhelmingly outnumbered by invitations to learn how to thoughtfully engage those who produce and consume them. I know, it's a stretch. But imagine.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ken Myers on Incarnational Living and Cell Phone Usage

I can't think of any ministry fund-raising letters I enjoy reading more than those from Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. The reason why is because unlike so many communications soliciting financial support, Ken's correspondence does not consist of glowing reports of ministry successes, manipulative emotional ploys, and dire pleas for large sums of money. Honest communication of ministry expenses is accompanied by appeals to those who appreciate the value of what the folks at Mars Hill Audio are doing but this is done tastefully and with respect. Each letter also contains thought-provoking reflections from Ken that invariably lead me to further ponder the beauty, profundity, and integrity of God's creative and redeeming activity in Christ.

I received one of those letters yesterday in which Ken made the following observations about the implications of God, the Son, assuming human nature:

More than just a logical precondition for the Atonement, the Incarnation also establishes the trajectory for our new life as a truly human life. There is a theological link between confidence in the full humanity of Jesus and a recognition of the ramifications of our salvation across the full range of our own humanity, across all of the ways in which we engage God's creation.

Much of modern culture, with its Gnostic undertones, alienates us from creation and its givenness. Theologian Colin Gunton sees the affirmation of the Incarnation as essential to our enthusiastic participation in creation and therefore in cultural life. "A world that owes its origin to a God who makes it with direct reference to one who was to become incarnate -- part of the world -- is a world that is a proper place for human beings to use their senses, minds and imaginations, and to expect that they will not be wholly deceived in doing so."

Christians have the only account of human and natural origins that can give cultural life meaning. But even after 2,000 years of opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation, many contemporary Christians persist in believing in a Gnostic salvation, a salvation that has no cultural consequences. In such a dualistic understanding, our souls are saved, the essential immaterial aspect of our being is made right with God, but the actions of our bodies -- what we actually do in space and time -- are a matter of indifference if not futility. Salvation is an inward matter only. It affects our attitudes and some of our ideas. But insofar as our cultural activities have any Christian significance it is as mere marketing efforts -- things we do to attract others to our essentially Gnostic salvation.

Believing in a gospel that has few earthly consequences is, ironically, just the sort of state our secularist neighbors would wish us to sustain. They, too, are dualists, believing that religion may be a fine thing for people, so long as they keep it private. Their secularism isn't threatened by Christians as long as they aren't too "Incarnational." As long as the cultural lives of Christians aren't significantly different from those of materialists and pagans, secularism is safe. Christians may pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," but as long as they don't actually do anything that demonstrates how such a petition should affect their political, economic, and cultural activities, the Enlightenment legacy is safe.
Of course, calls for the lifestyles of Christ's followers to be markedly different from those of their unbelieving peers are not uncommon. Unfortunately, what is all too uncommon is the kind of theological reasoning to which Myers appeals. How frequently do we consider, let alone discuss, the implications of our confession that the Word became flesh for the routines, practices, and relations that we consider mundane and of little consequence? Of the three areas Ken mentions - politics, economics, and cultural activity - I think many believers have given at least some thought to how our faith should affect our decisions in the first two perhaps because the ethical dimensions of politics and economics are more apparent. However, when it comes to cultural activity in general, I think our efforts are largely limited to figuring out what is OK or not for us as Christians to participate in. Certainly, there is need to give thought to such things for we are commanded to "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them" (Eph. 5:11) which requires being able to identify such deeds. But what of the countless seemingly innocuous activities that occupy so much of our time? Is there a particularly Christian or "incarnational" way to engage in them?

I searched on Mars Hill Audio's printable files in hope that they had posted the letter from which I quoted above. Unfortunately, they haven't. However, while there, I did come across an article Ken Myers wrote for the Dallas Morning News titled "How Would Jesus Call?" in which he makes the following claim with which I fully agree:

With few exceptions, religious people have not given enough thoughtful attention to the social and cultural consequences of emerging technologies. When technical devices are used for obviously immoral purposes (e.g., pornography on the Internet), Christians express concern. But church leaders and theologians give far too little attention to the subtle ways in which technologies reshape our lives and thereby re-configure our moral understanding of the world.

Technologies are usually developed to make a particular task more convenient, and convenience is valuable. But it is not the only valuable thing, and it is up to individuals and communities to determine when an increased level of convenience is actually a hindrance to other human values.
Myers goes on to make a plea for incarnational cell phone usage:

Cell phones, for example, make it easier for us to have immediate access to others and to remain perpetually accessible. But certainly there are times when cell phones should be turned off or left at home. Some restaurants now require guests to disable their cell phones while dining. This shows respect for the ambience of their dining rooms and honors the desire of other diners not to be forced into the role of eavesdropper.
I'd like to suggest that Christian people in particular give some attention to cell phone etiquette. A thoughtful set of manners regarding cell phones could be a small but significant way of reducing the sum total of dehumanizing behavior in American culture. Such manners could demonstrate the high value Christians place on embodiment, expressed in our doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection.
What could cell phones possibly have to do with the Incarnation? Both involve the significance of physical, embodied presence before others. The presence of another person before us is a kind of moral claim, asking for the recognition appropriate to a fellow human being. Likewise, when we make ourselves present to others, we are showing respect. Thus when we visit someone in the hospital or in prison (a situation Jesus alludes to in Matthew 25) instead of just phoning or sending flowers, we demonstrate by our presence a higher level of regard for their well-being.
The idea of presence is an important one in Biblical religion. In his second letter, the Apostle John writes, "I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face." The Church is called the ekklesia, the assembly, the place where believers are present to one another to encourage one another to love and good works.
By contrast, holding a telephone conversation while walking down the street or up an aisle at the supermarket pointedly ignores the presence of others. The importance of physical presence is thus de-valued. It also poses a kind of challenge to passers-by.
I wouldn't be surprised if some believers initially reacted to this line of thought negatively, considering it too theological, theoretical, and/or picayune. But I suspect that if that is our reaction, it is because we are not accustomed to being challenged to think and live in a manner that is thoroughly and consistently Christ-centered.

By the way, the latest volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal arrived in today's mail. I'm a happy man!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Stand to Reason Videos

Stand to Reason has a library of short videos featuring Greg Koukl addressing various apologetic issues on YouTube.

Reason as Evidence for God

I recently recommended Doug Wilson's book Persuasions: A Dream of Reason Meeting Unbelief, to someone in our church who was looking for apologetics reading. Unlike most books about the reasonableness of the Christian faith, this one is written as a narrative, reminiscent of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Each chapter follows the main character, Evangelist, who, while on his way to the City, encounters travelers heading in the opposite direction toward the Abyss. Each traveler represents a non-Christian worldview or philosophy of life, and in the course of his exchanges with them, Evangelist both defends the Christian faith and identifies the problems with their alternative perspectives.

After reading the book, my friend shared his reactions via email. Overall, he was impressed by Wilson's argumentation and felt he did a very good job of substantively addressing important issues in relatively little space. My friend did, however, take issue with how Wilson, via Evangelist, addressed an atheist named Mark. My friend said:

With Mark, for the Evangelist to argue that reason, being a product of random forces, cannot be trusted, nor said to produce a "true" or "false" result is, while technically correct, not a very persuasive argument. It's possible that the chemical reactions resulting from random processes that Mark calls reason are really just random processes, but in the end, it doesn't matter in terms of whether the atheist should believe in God.

Since I devoted some time to responding to my friend's criticism, I thought I'd make my effort serve double duty by posting an edited excerpt of my reply below:

The argument from rationality for the existence of God is one that C. S. Lewis popularized in his book Miracles and that contemporary Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert (author of C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason and owner of a blog devoted to discussion of the argument) have advanced.

One has to keep in mind that the dispute between the atheist and the theist doesn't consist merely of disagreement about particular facts but is in actuality a clash of worldviews, systems of interpretation that rest on certain presuppositions about the nature of reality, the sources and scope of human knowledge, and ethics. All of these are intertwined and interrelated. What one believes in one area has consequences for another. For example, if I assume that reality consists exclusively of matter and material processes, a necessary consequent is that there are no such things as objectively existing moral truths. Likewise, claims to knowledge of moral absolutes would be inconsistent with the belief in such a universe. What the argument from reason asks is, given our belief that we are able to form true beliefs that correspond to the world outside our minds and that we are able to make reliable inferences and deductions, what kind of universe best accounts for or grounds these phenomena.

In Miracles, Lewis contrasts the naturalist and the supernaturalist. The former, he says, contends that reality is a closed system in which every state of affairs can be explained (at least in principle) in terms of some prior state of natural affairs. He writes (quotations are from the 1978, Collier Books paperback edition):

What the Naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can't go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord. Inside that total system every particular event (such as your sitting reading this book) happens because some other event has happened; in the long run, because the Total Event is happening (6).

Lewis maintains that all that is necessary in order to demonstrate that naturalism is false is to identify something that operates independently of the system.

If Naturalism is to be accepted we have a right to demand that every single thing should be such that we see, in general, how it could be explained in terms of the Total System. If any one thing exists which is of such a kind that we see in advance the impossibility of ever giving it that kind of explanation, then Naturalism would be in ruins (12).

He then sets out to demonstrate how reason fits the bill as one phenomenon that cannot be accounted for in completely naturalistic terms and is therefore evidence that nature is not all that exists.

Lewis starts by stating that the possibility of knowledge and science depends on the validity of reasoning. When we use words like "therefore," "must be" and "since" with respect to beliefs of which we are certain, we are only correct to the extent that our beliefs actually correspond to what is the case outside our minds. "But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them -- if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work -- then we can have no knowledge" (14). He quotes J. B. S. Haldane: "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true...and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms" (15).

Lewis proceeds by stating that in a sentence such as "Grandfather is ill today because he ate lobster yesterday," the word "because" indicates a cause and effect relation. Eating the lobster had the effect of Grandfather being ill. In a sentence such as "Grandfather must be ill today because he hasn't got up yet" (and we know that he has characteristically been an early riser), "because" does not indicate cause and effect (not rising early isn't what caused Grandpa's sickness). Rather, "because" here indicates the reason for our belief that Grandpa isn't feeling well.

Lewis notes that this relation is what logicians call Ground and Consequent. According to a purely naturalistic or materialistic (in the philosophical sense) scheme, all our beliefs are simply physical events that are the effects of prior physical (and non-rational) causes. And, as Lewis points out, "a train of thought loses all rational credentials as soon as it can be shown to be wholly the result of non-rational causes" (26).

The argument from reason sets before us two sets of presuppositions and asks which set provides the necessary preconditions for what we all take for granted, namely the validity of reason and our ability to form true beliefs about the extra-mental world. On one hand there is the belief that mind and rationality emerged from non-rational material processes in which case our beliefs are not the results of processes of reasoning but are thrust upon us by our biology. On the other hand is the theistic presupposition that rationality has always existed and is ultimately behind life. The atheist rejects belief in the existence of God in the name of rationality and science. However, he or she holds to a worldview in terms of which rationality, logic, and knowledge are unintelligible. In his review of atheist Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, noted Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers a condensed version of the argument:

From a theistic point of view, we'd expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable. God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge. But from a naturalist point of view the thought that our cognitive faculties are reliable (produce a preponderance of true beliefs) would be at best a naïve hope. The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology. In fact he'd have to hold that it is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It's as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.

If this is so, the naturalist has a defeater for the natural assumption that his cognitive faculties are reliable—a reason for rejecting that belief, for no longer holding it. (Example of a defeater: suppose someone once told me that you were born in Michigan and I believed her; but now I ask you, and you tell me you were born in Brazil. That gives me a defeater for my belief that you were born in Michigan.) And if he has a defeater for that belief, he also has a defeater for any belief that is a product of his cognitive faculties. But of course that would be all of his beliefs—including naturalism itself. So the naturalist has a defeater for naturalism; naturalism, therefore, is self-defeating and cannot be rationally believed.

The argument from reason is what is formally known as a reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity) argument that seeks to demonstrate the absurdity of a position when taken to its logical ends. It's somewhat of an involved argument but I think it's actually quite sound regardless of whether or not a particular person is persuaded by it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

More Than Preaching: A Vision for Shepherding People

I trace my serious interest in counseling issues to the one required course in pastoral counseling I took for my Master of Divinity degree. I distinctly remember one class session in which the professor, a professional counselor, advised us that when we moved to a new congregation as pastors, we should try to make acquaintance with two professionals in the area to whom we could refer people - a Christian physician and a Christian psychologist. The physician I understood. However, I found the assumption that as pastors we would be capable of helping people with minor squabbles but in need of referring those with serious problems to psychological experts puzzling, to say the least. Here I was at a theological institution committed to equipping its students with the necessary skills for understanding and applying the Word of God so as to address people about the most important issue in their lives, their standing with respect to God. Yet, at least in this class, the impression was being given (unintentionally, I'm sure) that that same Word was largely irrelevant to significantly helping people resolve the lesser problems of life. Unfortunately, I have spoken with students who were majoring in counseling at evangelical seminaries who have expressed disappointment that they were not taught how to make substantive use of the Scriptures in the course of counseling.

My reminiscing was stirred two days ago while reading an article from a past issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. It's an interview with John Street conducted by David Powlison called "Exegete the Bible; Exegete the Person" (Volume 16, Number 2, Winter 1998). At the time of the interview Dr. Street was Senior Pastor of Clear Creek Chapel in Springboro, Ohio. He's now a member of the faculty at the Master's College.

Recalling the deficiency of his own seminary training Street says:

I was trained through seminary to be a pulpit-oriented pastor. By that I mean my primary role would be that of preaching. Occasionally I would make home and hospital visits and do evangelism, but I had very little to do with individual people and their problems. What problems I did handle as a pastor were minor disagreements or marriage struggles. Basically I was taught that a pastor was not capable of handling anything else.

After I completed seminary I took biblical counseling training, which was required of me as an associate pastor. The Lord humbled me and began to place within me a real burden for not just preaching but for shepherding people. My early biblical counseling training gave me a vision for shepherding people that I had not had. In one sense I had it, but it was very impersonal and from the pulpit, ministering the Word of God to a large crowd. A colleague and I joke about this now. He says, "As I look at it, it's easy to preach. You're not going to have somebody object to what you say. But when you get into a counseling situation where you're sitting across the table from somebody and trying to minister the Word of God, and the ugliness of their sinful nature raises its head and they argue and object and make excuses and blame-shift and run away from the problem, now you're in a struggle." Preaching is not the struggle. I think it's easy compared to working through problems with people.
When asked to select one passage that anchors the way he thought about counseling in the context of Christian life and pastoral ministry, Street cited Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:

In that scene he is passing the baton to the leadership of the church, a non-apostolic generation like us. When he addresses them, he's addressing me. He's saying, "Here's what I want you to do in terms of ministry." He sets his own life up as an example. In Acts 20:20 he says, "I preached publicly and then went from house to house." He talked about the fact that for three years "I went to each of you, day and night with tears." I did not have that perspective at all coming out of seminary. My view of the ministry primarily was forty hours a week in the study, some occasional administration, making some evening calls on people, hospital visits, and preaching and teaching on Sunday. That was it. The rest of the time was preparation and isolation and reading all my books. Oh, my, ministry seemed so easy from that perspective! Who wouldn't want that?

I think a lot of guys escaped to that because they were scared to deal with counseling problems. I was.
I wonder how many seminary-trained pastors could share Dr. Street's testimony. Are our seminaries equipping men to be powerful preachers but impotent physicians of the soul?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Isaiah 53 Debate This Sunday

On Sunday, October 28th, Chosen People Ministries will webcast a debate between Dr. Michael Brown and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach originally held in June of this year. The debate, titled "Did Jesus Die for Our Sins?", focuses on the interpretation of Isaiah 53.

Dr. Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from NYU and is the author of several books including the four-volume series Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus and What Do Jewish People Think about Jesus? He is the founder and president of ICN Ministries.

Rabbi Boteach, named "the most famous rabbi in America" by Newsweek, is the host of the popular television show Shalom in the Home. He has also authored numerous books including An Intelligent Person's Guide to Judaism and Judaism for Everyone.

View the debate here anytime on Sunday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Groothuis on Impersonal Education

Doug Groothuis considers the implications of a Christian view of personality for pedagogical practice and lists a number of examples of the "degradation of persons in American education." Regrettably, many of the elements he identifies are characteristic of theological education.

Not content with simply pointing out the problem, Groothuis proposes the following correctives:
1. Students and teachers live not too far from each other or perhaps even on the same compound. They spend protracted time together in many different situations, as Jesus did with the disciples.

2. Class sizes are fairly small, such that students get to know each other and the teacher is allowed into the lives of the students and vice versa.

3. Class timing is more elastic, more kairos oriented and less chronos dominated.Few institutions allow for such oddities. Most that approximate these ideas are probably not "accredited" by an official agency. This would include the L'Abris worldwide and ministries that are similar.
Jesus said that a fully trained disciple (i.e., learner) will be like his teacher (Luke 6:40). Therefore, truly Christian education has the formation of character and not the transmission of information as its ultimate goal. Groothuis's vision is consistent with this end. I hope more Christian teachers and institutions catch it.

To Everyone Who's Sent Me One of Those Inspirational Chain E-mails

I did what you told me...I sent the email prayer to 12 people like you said. I'm still waiting for that miracle.

For a more substantive rant against Christian chain e-mails, see my Forward If You Love Jesus.

A Congregation of Customers

The Wall Street Journal's Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews James B. Twitchell's Shopping for God:
Choosing a religion, he argues, is much like choosing any other product--from breakfast food to beer. He sets out to determine why the "spiritual marketplace" in the U.S. seems so hot right now, and, more pointedly, why evangelical megachurches have become, well, so mega. His theme can be summed up in one of the book's smug chapter titles: "Christian Consumers Are Consumers First."


If you can find a way of seeing religion primarily as a form of consumerism--skipping the (how to put it?) faith and truth part of religious belief--then Mr. Twitchell's analysis makes some sense. And in fact there are churches out there self-consciously engaged in marketing. They hire consultants and public-relations experts to "grow" their flock, and they obey a market discipline. Mr. Twitchell notices a sign hanging in Mr. Hybels's megachurch office that quotes Peter Drucker, the business guru.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Spiritual Battle After Sexual Sin

In a CT article adapted from a message he gave at Passion '07, John Piper gives gospel-grounded instruction in withstanding Satan's onslaughts after sexual sin:
The problem is not just how not to fail. The problem is how to deal with failure so that it doesn't sweep away your whole life into wasted mediocrity with no impact for Christ.

The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.

I have a passion that you do not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. But mostly I want to take out of the Devil's hand the weapon that exploits your sin and makes your life a wasted, worldly success. Satan wants that for you. But you don't!

What broke George Verwer's heart back in the 1980s, and breaks mine today, is not that you have sinned sexually. It's that this morning Satan took your 2 A.M. encounter—whether on TV or in bed—and told you: "See, you're a loser. You may as well not even worship. No way are you going to make any serious commitment of your life to Jesus Christ! You may as well get a good job so you can buy yourself a big widescreen and watch sex till you drop."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Idols of the Heart and "Vanity Fair"

At last, David Powlison's masterful article, Idols of the Heart and "Vanity Fair" (PDF), is online! This is one of his works to which I frequently return and which I've long wished was available on the net so others could readily access it. It's a profound, practical look at the relevance of the recurring biblical theme of idolatry for understanding motivation. Here's Powlison's introduction:
One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences? Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.

One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question. Why is idolatry so important in the Bible? Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures. So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?

The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question. How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior? In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially-shaped?
Reading this article will help you understand why C. J. Mahaney credits Powlison with being the "living guy" from whom he's learned the most about sanctification and Elyse Fitzpatrick, in Idols of the Heart, thanks him for reconfiguring her thinking about idolatry. (HT:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

God Delusion Debate Audio

Audio of the Richard Dawkins - John Lennox debate is available:

Part 1 (47:28, 13.6 MB)
Part 2 (44:01, 12.62 MB)
Part 3 (27:28, 7.87 MB)

(HT: Steve Bishop)

Michael Horton on Osteen's Gospel of "God Loves You Anyway"

In connection with Michael Horton's appearance on 60 Minutes' segment on Joel Osteen, The White Horse Inn is offering a free audio download of a program that addressed faith and the gospel. Dr. Horton's opening commentary on Joel Osteen's message is outstanding. Here's a transcribed excerpt (which I later realized is taken from Horton's essay "Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study"):
Instead of accepting God's just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers to just reject guilt and condemnation all together. Quote: 'If you will simply obey His commands, He will change things in your favor. God is keeping a record of every good deed you've ever done. In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you're taken care of.'

Now, it may be Law-Lite but make no mistake about it, behind a smiling boomer evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God's wrath or justice there's a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, good news to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news. The sting of the law may be taken out of the message but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God's holiness.

So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that he smiles when he says it. In its therapeutic milieu, the sins we need to avoid are failing to live up to our potential and failing to believe in ourselves and the wages of such sins is missing out on our best life now.
The audio also includes a conversation with D. A. Carson about the newly formed Gospel Coalition

Thinking Biblically about Life's Problems

Two new publications are forthcoming from Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation faculty members Paul David Tripp and Ed Welch. Click on the pics for more details. (HT: Mark Combs)

Girl Talk's Carolyn Mahaney interviews Elyse Fitzpatrick, author of Love to Eat Hate to Eat: Breaking the Bondage of Destructive Eating Habits, about a biblical perspective on anorexia and bulimia (Part 1| Part 2).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Joel Osteen Making the Network Rounds

Joel Osteen was on Good Morning America today promoting his new book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day. His wife, Victoria, is scheduled to make an appearance on tomorrow's broadcast. The strong of stomach can view a video of the segment here. In a brief interview, Robin Roberts asked Osteen's wife how they met. Victoria recounted that fateful day when Joel came into her family's jewelry store to buy a battery for his watch and added "He says I've been taking his money ever since." To make sure that viewers understand that this was an attempt at humor, Victoria explained with seemingly nervous laughter, "That's his joke." I agree, Mrs. Osteen. That was awkward.

Reading the comments at GMA's site I learned that Osteen was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment last night (video and transcript available here). This is more in-depth than the GMA piece. If you can only watch one, watch this one. No softball questions here. Reporter Byron Pitts points out, for example, that none of the seven principles laid out in Osteen's new book, mention God or Jesus Christ. Osteen replies:
"That's just my message. There is scripture in there that backs it all up. But I feel like, Byron, I'm called to help people…how do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? And these are principles that can help you. I mean, there’s a lot better people qualified to say, 'Here’s a book that's going to explain the scriptures to you.' I don’t think that’s my gifting." So, the pastor of America's largest church, who is influencing people around the globe, admits that he is not a gifted Bible teacher?

The 60 Minutes piece also includes an interview with Westminster West's Michael Horton who calls Osteen's message a "cotton candy gospel" that can be summarized as "God is nice, you're nice, be nice."

Coincidentally, this morning someone left a comment on a two-year old Osteen-related post in which he claims to have attended Lakewood Church for almost two months while visiting the US from Africa. Jorge contends that, contrary to critics, Osteen does preach Jesus and salvation while admitting that Osteen plays down "other aspect[s] of Christianity" such as the doctrine of hell. There's no doubt that Osteen preaches a Jesus (as did false teachers in Corinth) and a salvation from such things as poverty, negative thoughts, and low self-esteem. But to the extent that he de-emphasizes human sin, divine holiness, the necessity of repentance and faith, and the mediating work of Christ, he is preaching neither the biblical Jesus nor the biblical message of salvation by grace through faith.

UPDATE: Tim Challies reviews Osteen's new book. I think Tim is right about the reason for Osteen's mass appeal:

I think the secret to Osteen's success is this: he teaches self-help but wraps it in a thin guise of Christian terminology. Thus people believe they are being taught the Bible when the reality is that they are learning mere human wisdom rather than divine wisdom. Osteen cunningly blends the wisdom of this age with language that sounds biblical. He blends the most popular aspects of New Age and self-help teaching with Christianity. And his audience is eagerly drinking this in.
Had I done any blog reading over the weekend I would have learned about the 60 Minutes interview from Justin Taylor who points to a series of essays titled "Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study" written by Michael Horton after his interview with the news program.

Michael Spencer hits the proverbial nail on the head in his reactions to the 60 Minutes piece:

As much as I would like to join those who say that Osteen is a simpleton who doesn’t know what he’s doing, a close examination will show that at every point where there is a choice between being part of the church or departing into heresy, Osteen sticks with the church where there is money to be had and departs from the church where there is a faith to be confessed. He’s a heretic, even if he is a believer, and he communicates a purposefully false trivialization of the person and work of Jesus Christ in favor of a man-centered motivational message of self-improvement.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Recent Discovery

Philosopher Victor Reppert, whose book, C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, I referred to two posts ago, has a blog appropriately called dangerous idea. (HT: The Stuff of Life)

"The God Delusion" Debate

Richard Dawkins will engage John Lennox (Reader in Mathematics and Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Green College, University of Oxford and author of God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?) in a debate tomorrow (10/3) between 7 and 9 PM CT. The debate will center on Dawkins' views as expressed in his best seller, The God Delusion and their validity over and against the Christian faith.

Moody Broadcasting will live stream the event. Additional information is available from the debate's sponsor, Fixed Point Foundation.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Dawkins Talk Recap

For the sake of at least one inquirer and anyone else who's interested, I thought I'd give a brief report on how things went with the discussion of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion at our local public library almost two weeks ago. My friend and coworker, Tim Hunter, and I got the idea for the event while browsing a catalog from the library announcing various classes and lectures that would be offered as part of their adult programming. Seeing the variety of perspectives represented (a class on numerology especially caught our attention) prompted us to consider how we could utilize that forum to engage people in the community with a thoughtful Christian perspective. I frequently consider what the contemporary analogues to the first century marketplace are. In what public venues are people willing to hear and discuss ideas of great consequence? I think bookstores and libraries are natural answers because, for the most part, those who frequent them care about ideas.

Since Dawkins' book has proved to be of such great national interest (falling short of a year on the New York Times' bestseller list by only a week), it seemed a reasonable choice for a library event.
Our intent was not to give a gospel presentation but rather to chip away at the plausibility of Dawkins' argument in hope of getting people to think critically about his position and, perhaps, to open lines of communication with people willing to discuss the issues further beyond the scheduled event.

Fifty-three people registered for the program though only about 50 showed up with 15 of that number being from our church. Prior to our getting started the library's coordinator of adult programming informed us that someone had called earlier that day complaining that the library was hosting such an event because "only one side would be presented." I was hoping that the caller would be there to offer an opposing viewpoint but if he or she did attend, they didn't offer any rebuttal to anything we offered by way of critique of Dawkins' position. Admittedly, we were slightly nervous about the potential of having hostile audience members but that wasn't the case. The conversation that did take place after our presentation, even with those who seemed sympathetic to Dawkins, was mutually respectful and enjoyable.

Making efficient use of the 90 minutes we were allotted was challenging. We wanted to allow adequate time for Q & A but we also had a lot of material to cover. We assumed that most of the people in attendance would not have read the book and that assumption proved correct. In our introductory remarks we noted that we were the kind of people that Richard Dawkins hopes would be converted to atheism upon completion of his book. We went on to explain that neither of us had such an epiphany as a result of reading The God Delusion but not for the reason Dawkins offers. According to him, "dyed-in-the-wool-faith-heads" are immune to reasoning on account of years of religious indoctrination including dire warnings to avoid "Satanic" books like his. Tim and I said that while we have arrived at a different conclusion than has Dawkins, we nevertheless are in agreement with him that the discussion of whether God exists is worthy of discussion in the public arena and are therefore grateful to him and the spate of atheist authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris who have helped bring the topic to the forefront of public discourse.

We went on to point out another area of agreement with Dawkins, namely that religious beliefs should not be afforded such a privileged status that their being questioned or critiqued is regarded as inherently offensive. We said that while we think that people should be treated respectfully, we think it's misguided to insist in the name of respect that we take a position that counts all religious beliefs as equally valid or true. We added that we think we should be able to argue the merits of various religious systems while being respectful of those with whom we disagree. As Christian theists, we are persuaded that Christianity is true just as adherents to other religious and/or philosophical beliefs regard their beliefs as true which means that regardless of our position, we consider beliefs that contradict those we hold to be true, to be false.

We spent a little over an hour giving a chapter by chapter overview of the book followed by our critique which concentrated on Dawkins' pre-scientific materialistic philosophy, his failure to distinguish between science and scientism, the inconsistency between his Darwinian account of morality and his repeatedly speaking like a moral realist or absolutist, and his failure to even acknowledge the theistic argument from rationality as presented by C. S. Lewis in Miracles and more recently by philosophers such as Victor Reppert in his C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason and Alvin Plantinga in numerous writings including his review of The God Delusion for Books & Culture.

By the time we got through our presentation we had about 25 minutes left for discussion during which time someone said that though Dawkins might overstate the case, he does have a valid point about the atrocities committed on account of religious beliefs. We responded that it is not religious belief per se that causes violence but rather what is believed that is the crucial issue. Another participant voiced frustration with every religion trying to prove that it's better than the others and made an appeal for tolerance. To this we reiterated that if we are to take religious claims seriously, we can't say that they're all accurate descriptions of God and the world regardless of the fact that they are, in many cases, mutually exclusive.

Following our presentation we had some opportunities to talk with a few folks who thanked us for our efforts. The library's program coordinator sent us a very encouraging letter of appreciation in which she reported that numerous patrons told her how much they enjoyed the event. This, along with the number of people who showed up, makes us optimistic about the potential for offering related talks in the near future. We've already started thinking about what other books we might use.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Dawkins Talk at the Library

If you're in the vicinity of the Northwest suburbs of Chicago and you're looking for something to do this Thursday evening (Sept. 20), our church's youth pastor, Tim Hunter, and I will be presenting a critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion at Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling, IL between 7:00 and 8:30 pm. The event is free but registration is required. You can register online or by calling the library at (847) 459-4100.

Many thanks to Steve Bishop whose compilation of Dawkins-related links has proven to be a valuable resource.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"This is my Qu'ran!": The Muslim Joel Osteen

Gene Edward Veith:
Islam now has a televangelist, Amr Khaled, with millions of fans. He preaches an upbeat, anti-terrorism version of Islam, speaking not only on TV but in huge halls, projecting his messsage on gigantic screens, giving humor-laced sermons, and Qu'ranic tips for successful living. The Egyptian preacher is currently on a speaking tour of the United States. He is being called the Muslim Joel Osteen.

In other words, Amr Khaled has adopted the tactics of the church growth movement and American evangelicalism in order to spread Islam!

In fact, what this article describes sounds just like what goes on in many ostensibly Christian churches! While we should appreciate his non-murderous approach to his religion, as we posted a few days ago, this kinder, gentler Islam just might catch on in our culture. And churches, many of which have watered down their Christianity into a treacly soft drink, may be ill-equipped to do anything about it.

The Knife Cuts Both Ways: Thoughts on Atheism

Reading through Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion today, I couldn't help but chuckle at the following:

Many religions, for example, teach the objectively implausible but subjectively appealing doctrine that our personalities survive our bodily death. The idea of immortality itself survives and spreads because it caters to wishful thinking. And wishful thinking counts, because human psychology has a near-universal tendency to let belief be coloured by desire...
I suppose that tendency to allow desire to color belief would be completely universal if there were no atheists. Of course, Dawkins insists that he's not espousing a belief system. He simply disbelieves in the existence of a supernatural, personal deity. Macht recently exposed the problem with that kind of thinking in response to Dawkins' likening of the assertions "God exists" and "There is an invisible unicorn in the room":
As I've said many times, a theist's religious beliefs are not merely a belief in god. It is much more a way of life, a set of values, a set of practices, and a view of the world. I've also pointed out that this applies to atheists as well and this is why we find different kinds of atheists. By comparing belief in a god to a belief in an invisible unicorn in an attempt to show that he merely disbelieves, he is saying that he believes that belief in god is totally cut off from the way of life, the set of values and practices and the view of the world of its believers. I'm suggesting that this view is very naive - people's religious beliefs are more like a web and their belief in god is nothing like the proposition "There is an invisible unicorn in the room."
Commending Macht's analysis, Jeremy Pierce adds:

What atheists are rejecting when they reject theism is not mere theism. They reject a whole set of beliefs and values, a way of life, a kind of community, a view on the meaning and purpose of life, and so on. They reject the fundamental conception of how most people in the world today and throughout history have seen the significance of their lives and how they live. That does seem to me to be disanalogous with merely not believing in an invisible unicorn that someone else tells you is in the room.
T. M. Moore, in a post appropriately titled On Dis(guising)belief makes a similar point:

Those who claim to be atheists, unbelievers, or disbelievers give the impression that, because they don't believe in the God of the Bible, they don't "believe" at all. They're guided by "logical coherence" and "views" that "make sense," apart from anything so nebulous, credulous, and irrational as faith. But, in a real sense, there's no such thing as an unbeliever or a disbeliever -- or even an atheist, for that matter. All non-Christians believe in something, and all people hold to some ultimate "views" and beliefs which serve for them in the same role the God of the Bible does for Christians. They may only believe in the reliability of unaided reason, or hard science, or mere intuition, or whatever, but believe they do, and they should not be allowed to disguise the fact or nature of their personal faith by referring to it as unbelief or disbelief. Rather, it is another belief, another faith, an alternative worldview that is as much dependent on ultimately unprovable presuppositions as is faith in Jesus Christ. The debate, therefore, is not between belief and unbelief, but between different systems of belief, and the onus falls on each to demonstrate, across a wide range of questions, which is the most logically coherent, which makes the best sense, and which is, in fact, absurd.
I move that we coin a new (though admittedly more awkward) descriptive term for at least some atheists - "aworldviewists" - since they apparently "disbelieve" in the existence of their own conceptual framework.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Goldsworthy on a Heretical Hermeneutic

Quietism is a term with a history, but I will use it loosely to describe the tendency to overspiritualize and dehumanize Christian existence, including the way we use the Bible. We have seen it in the 'let go and let God' holiness piety. Overall, it is an inclination to downplay the function of our humanity in life, as if our relationship to God is almost entirely passive. It leads to strange aberrations, for example in the matter of guidance. Just as the historic heresy of Docetism either denied or ignored the humanity of Jesus, so quietism tends to leave our true humanity out of the reckoning. The quietist's docetic Christian is one who 'doesn't make any decisions because the Holy Spirit makes them for us'. Such a person is also likely to construct a docetic hermeneutic of Scripture. The human characteristics of the biblical documents are ignored. Historical and biblical-theological contexts are regarded as irrelevant. If a text 'speaks to me' in whatever way, the careful exegesis of it is dismissed as cerebral intellectualism. The gospel is neatly eclipsed by what exists beneath a veneer of spiritual commitment. Such quietists would be offended if it were suggested that they denied the humanity of Christ. But the gospel can only be the gospel if it is the message of the Word-made-flesh. We can effectively deny this vital truth simply by ignoring its implications in the way we use the Bible and in the manner of our lives.

- Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation, pp. 168-169

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Recommended Reading for Cultivating a Christian Mind

Byron Borger at Hearts & Minds BookNotes lists his top picks for books on the Christian mind. I join him in wishing that "every church library and Christian leader's bookshelf included a few of these." Of course, I'd add Harry Blamires' The Christian Mind. (HT: Steve Bishop)

Friday, August 31, 2007

Salvo on the Media

The third issue of Salvo magazine, the theme of which is "Under the Influence - The Media and Their Messages," is en route to subscribers. You can take a peek at its contents here.

Art Link Letter

Philosopher Roger Scruton reflects on Art, Beauty,and Judgment:
Art is being privatized, with each of us striving to remain faithful to visions of beauty that we are no longer confident of sharing outside the circle of our friends. One cause of this is the democratic culture, which is hostile to judgment in any form, and in particular to the judgment of taste. The prevailing attitude is that you are entitled to your tastes, but not entitled to inflict them on me.
Tom Gilson thinks Scruton is helpful in explaining why bad art gets good treatment.

Andy at Think Christian
points to a Touchstone Magazine article about why evangelical authors aren't writing books of lasting literary value and what they can learn from Flannery O'Connor.

Joseph Torres at Kingdomview highlights the intro to an article by Dawn Xiana Moon:
We have become irrelevant.  Many contemporary Christians tend to make one of three errors when dealing with art: One, we declare anything that doesn’t explicitly proselytize, anything that depicts brokenness without redemption to be depraved or unworthy of Christian notice. Or two, we decide that the secular world really does have better art, so we copy it, boldly and without apology or thought into our own creativity. Or three, we try so hard to be relevant that we adopt the attitude and worldview of the culture that surrounds us—instead of being the proverbial salt and light, we end up as dust with nothing to offer in the way of hope, because there is only a perfunctory difference between those of us who claim to follow Christ and those who don’t.
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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Calling and Challenges of Christian Higher Ed.

David Dockery, president of Union University and author of the forthcoming Renewing Minds, discusses key challenges of Christian higher education with Christianity Today:
Our calling is for faculty and students in these programs also to learn to think Christianly about business, healthcare, education, social structures, public policy, recreation, and yes, about homes and churches as well. For to love God with our minds means that we think differently about the way we live and love, the way we worship and serve, the way we learn and teach, and the way we work to earn our livelihood.
Earlier this month Justin Taylor read a pre-publication volume of Dr. Dockery's book and gave it an enthusiastic review.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Megachurches, Misery, and Music

I admire Gene Veith. From the years that I've read him I haven't known him to be one to exaggerate or thoughtlessly commend things for others' consideration. He also seems to be the kind of guy who uses all caps with reservation. So, when he told readers "You simply MUST read this article" by Sally Morgenthaler, author of Worship Evangelism, I took heed and advise you to do likewise. In it, Morgenthaler explores how effective churches focusing on a worship-driven model of evangelism (one in which the worship service is considered the best means of witnessing) are at actually attracting lost people. She also looks at the simultaneity of an increase in the number of megachurches in the U.S. and a net loss of church attenders nationwide.

One of the things Morgenthaler emphasizes is the need for Christians to be willing to give ear to the attitudes and perceptions of the unchurched (I really don't like that term because there are plenty of unsaved though "churched" individuals) about us. As an illustration of those perceptions she includes the following excerpt from an article written by a non-Christian journalist after attending what Morgenthaler calls "one of the largest, worship-driven churches in the country":

The [worship team] was young and pretty, dressed in the kind of quality-cotton-punk clothing one buys at the Gap. 'Lift up your hands, open the door,' crooned the lead singer, an inoffensive tenor. Male singers at [this] and other megachurches are almost always tenors, their voices clean and indistinguishable, R&B-inflected one moment, New Country the next, with a little bit of early '90s grunge at the beginning and the end.

They sound like they're singing in beer commercials, and perhaps this is not coincidental. The worship style is a kind of musical correlate to (their pastor's) free market theology: designed for total accessibility, with the illusion of choice between strikingly similar brands. (He prefers the term flavors, and often uses Baskin-Robbins as a metaphor when explaining his views.) The drummers all stick to soft cymbals and beats anyone can handle; the guitarists deploy effects like artillery but condense them, so the highs and lows never stretch too wide. Lyrics tend to be rhythmic and pronunciation perfect, the better to sing along with when the words are projected onto movie screens. Breathy or wailing, vocalists drench their lines with emotion, but only within strict confines. There are no sad songs in a megachurch, and there are no angry songs. There are songs about desperation, but none about despair; songs convey longing only if it has already been fulfilled.
Morgenthaler calls the kind of worship the journalist described "Worship for the perfect. The already arrived. The good-looking, inoffensive, and nice" and adds "No wonder the unchurched aren't interested."

Ironically, the desire to make worship attractive by insisting that we only sing positive, upbeat songs, leads to a revulsion because unbelievers know that life isn't like that. Much of our contemporary hymnody (using that term loosely, of course), in its zeal to get to the joys of redemption, frequently skips over the misery, disappointment, and corruption characteristic of a world under the curse on account of humanity's sin.

The inescapable fact that many don't seem to want to consider is that when style dictates, there are simply some dimensions of our human experience (not to mention a biblical perspective on life) that will go unacknowledged or glossed over. That's why the thought of deciding what style of music will be dominant in a local church based on a poll of the musical tastes of its "target audience" is problematic. No one musical genre is capable of adequately conveying the broad range of human emotions with respect to God or, for that matter, the spectrum of God's attributes. Contrition and lament, for example, are biblical themes that probably don't get much air time in churches committed to an easy listening, pop style. Cries of repentance don't fit well with major keys and beats you can tap your toe to (try, for example, to retain the feeling of Psalm 51 using the tune of "Zippity-do-da.") Likewise, schmaltz is woefully inadequate for communicating the Lord's holiness, wrath, and majesty. Despite the frequent and voluminous cries that style is neutral, it seems clear to me that when style drives, theological considerations have to ride shotgun. Insisting that we sing things a certain way means there are some things we will not sing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Surprising Source of Our Religious Malaise

While there are numerous factors contributing to rampant biblical illiteracy in the West, Ben Witherington claims that the lion's share of responsibility belongs to an unlikely suspect:
Reading the book of Acts together with reading the budget reports of most churches today is an exercise bound to cause depression. The "me" culture of the West, bent on radical individualism has been endorsed, even co-opted and taken over and baptized by the church. Rather than countering the narcissism of the culture, we cater to it, with all sorts of 'needs' based preaching and teaching that is long on 'how to's' and very thin on Biblical substance. But frankly 'how to' doesn't help if you don't first know 'what for' or even 'why bother'.
What's wrong with needs based preaching? First of all in a culture immersed in constant advertisements and sales pitches, most people in the West have no idea what their real needs are. They can identify their wants, and they mistake them for actual needs. All the while that most profound of all needs, the need for God and for actual knowledge of God leading to relationship with God goes begging.

In other words, I am laying a large share of the blame for religious illiteracy in the West on the Church which has failed in the prime mandate of making disciples of all nations, failed in the mandate to train up sufficient Spirit-filled, Biblically adept proclaimers of God's Word who will win some by being winsome, leading outsiders into a life long pilgrimage of learning in the school of Christ. We need look no further than in the mirror to find one of the sources of our religious malaise.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ken Myers on the Church's Cultural Carelessness

I've been a satisfied subscriber to Mars Hill Audio Journal for many years. When the cassette-carrying envelope arrives in the mail every other month (I know, I'm a dinosaur opting for cassettes instead of mp3's or CD's) my day is made. If I had any complaints, it would only be that I wish it were issued monthly rather than bi-monthly but that's just because I enjoy it so and hate having to wait for the next volume. I suppose the exercise in patience is good for me. Actually, when I consider that the quality of the journal would most likely suffer from shortening the span between volumes, the wait is worth it. Through his conversations with guests from diverse areas of expertise as well as his thoughtful commentary, Ken Myers provokes me to consider implications of the faith I profess in ways that I had not previously.In a recent letter to subscribers, Ken restated the convictions that motivate his work and made some noteworthy yet disturbing observations about the state of the Church. Here's an excerpt posted with permission:
For fifteen years, I have guided the work of MARS HILL AUDIO with the belief that the shape of cultural life really does matter; that faithlessness can take cultural as well as personal forms; and that, because cultural life matters, the Church must often strive to be counter-cultural. I have learned a lot in those years, and I have changed my mind about a number of things. But there are two conclusions with which I started this project (based on previous study and observation) which have been remarkably reinforced. The first is that what is called "modernity" is essentially incompatible with Christian faithfulness, that what makes modern culture distinctively "modern" involves a rejection of important Christian beliefs and practices. The second is that one of the greatest temptations faced by the Church and her leaders is the desire to be approved by the world, that the evangelistic motive can produce a dangerous preoccupation with "getting along," with being "winsome." When the Church gives in to this temptation, the result is a form of cultural captivity in which the Church is simply a chaplain to some cultural status quo, reducing the consequences of faith to personal, "spiritual" matters, but incapable of encouraging a truly counter-cultural stance except at the margins.

As I have read the books written by my guests, talked with them, and with pastors and lay-people around the country, I have come to a deeper conviction of the truth of the first point above. And as I have looked at the books that sell really well among Christians, as I have watched the churches and parachurch groups with large and growing constituencies (some of them, admittedly, short-lived), and as I have talked with younger Christians whose experience and assumptions have been shaped only by "culture-affirming" institutions, I sense a growing level of uncritical identification with contemporary culture. While there are a number of wonderfully insightful books by Christian authors who see the underlying dynamic of many cultural conventions (books about technology or commodification or narcissism or our addiction to entertainment or the state of modern marriage), the insights of such prophetic thinkers seem to be ignored by celebrated Christian leaders, and hence by most Christians. It is easier to keep a big church program running if you don't introduce too much cognitive dissonance between what you say on Sunday and what advertisers and entertainers and professors and miscellaneous experts say the rest of the week.

Of course many good things happen even in churches that are culturally assimilated, just as many good things happen in churches that are culturally disengaged. But bad things in people's lives that are culturally induced and sustained are much harder to deal with when believers aren't ready to recognize that the Church's ways need not be the world's ways. Churches that are culturally careless will not be likely to nurture disciples capable of recognizing cultural disorder outside the church. So, for example, a congregation that adopts contemporary media techniques without reflection is unlikely to produce people alert to the limitations and liabilities of mass media. The church with a food court is unlikely to foster thoughtfulness about the deep cultural losses sustained by modern eating habits. The pastor committed to "entertainment evangelism" will never be able to convey the wisdom in Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and other similarly prophetic books.
I, too, frequently lament most of the items situated on the bestseller shelves of Christian bookstores. Money and time spent on these would be so much better invested in resources like the Journal. It won't give you more "how to's" or steps to spiritual victory or building a successful church. What it will give you is rich food for thought about what fidelity to Jesus Christ (both individually and corporately) should look like in our cultural setting. A subscription would make a wonderful gift to a pastor or any believer interested in thinking and living in a more thoroughly Christian manner. You can learn about receiving and/or giving a demonstration issue here.