Tuesday, May 31, 2005

What Are Pastors Reading?

Through sleep-deprived eyes I read the results of George Barna's most recent survey while waiting to board my 6 AM flight yesterday. The survey asked pastors what three books, read over the last three years, had the most influence on them. I was thinking about blogging on the findings but will direct you to Tim Challies' thoughts on the matter [HT: Between Two Worlds]. Tim asks, "If pastors don't read theology, who does?" and makes the following disturbing observation:

It seems obvious that the trend away from theology begins at the leadership level and filters down through the church. If only 9% of pastors have been influenced by a theological book in the past three years, how much less the average layperson?


Andy Crouch at Christianity Today has an interesting take on the benefits of an increasingly visual culture:
Those of us with a professional interest in words tend to bemoan the rise of the image. Yet I'm more hopeful about visual culture than I am about, say, current musical culture, which the iPod is increasingly turning into a solitary experience of customized consumption. For the most part, visual technologies are restoring human beings to our God-given role as communal culture creators.
He's also hopeful that increased "visualcy" will lead Christians to take beauty more seriously:
The art world of the 20th century was often suspicious of beauty, preferring provocation and disruption. Worse, Christians in the 20th century often just ignored beauty—and many still do, considering that the only institution that produces uglier printed material than most church bulletins is the federal government.
Read the rest here.

Home Again

I'm back in Illinois after spending the Memorial Day weekend in the Big Apple. The Lutheran school I attended from kindergarten through eighth grade celebrated its 60th year and I was invited to preach at the church service capping off the weekend's events.

There was a dinner dance Saturday evening where I caught up with friends I haven't seen for many years. My fifth grade teacher, who had taught at the school for almost 28 years, was honored and time was given to her past students to recount humorous memories as well as to express words of thanks for her influence. The first person to speak took what immediately came to my mind about my former teacher. She had a lazy left eye that looked off to the side when her right eye was looking straight ahead. She capitalized on this abnormality by situating her desk such that her left eye could see what was going on in the hall while her right eye monitored the class. We were never sure when she had an eye on you so we didn't try to get away with too much. Sometime between then and now she had corrective surgery and at 68 is just as vibrant as I remember her being when I was a kid.

I'm an uncharacteristically light sleeper the night before I have to preach. Fortunately, I don't preach weekly. Last Saturday, at about 2 AM I was tossing and turning, in part due to an old clock on the dresser of the room in which I was sleeping. Each "tick" was a voluminous reminder of the passage of time and the sleep I wasn't getting. I finally got out of bed and relocated the antique timepiece to another room. That got me thinking about the variety of ways we try to eliminate reminders that we're aging.

One of the things I read before flying to New York was an article about plastic surgery by Christine Rosen called "The Democratization of Beauty." Rosen refers to a trend among thirty-somethings called "age dropping." It's a plan to store up beauty for later decades by having "an increasing number of carefully calibrated nips, tucks, and peels performed in their thirties so that they don't end up....without an adequate supply in their winter years." Rosen observes that "age dropping" and other trends "suggest....a diminishing tolerance for imperfection and aging."

Spending time with my mom (who is, thank God, in very good health) in the house I grew up in, sleeping in the bed that belonged to my late grandparents, seeing childhood friends with teenaged children, preaching in the church I used to attend chapel services at every Wednesday with other children in uniform, and celebrating my forty-first birthday made me quite aware of my journey toward the grave at a pace that seems to have picked up considerably. Yes, we can move ticking clocks and get various parts of our anatomies nipped and tucked, but we can't fully eliminate the reminders that we have grown and are continuing to grow older. As I reflected on all this I thought of another fitting text for the occasion - Psalm 90: 12: "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."

Friday, May 27, 2005

Athens in Cyberland

Before recounting Paul's address to the Areopagus, Luke offers the following parenthetical description of the Athenian climate: "Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17:21). This once great city was a draw for people who trafficked in ideas -especially those hot off the mental press. New philosophies were to Athens what fashion is to Manhattan's Seventh Avenue. This reputation for being a city populated by people with a craving for novelty was long-standing. Richard Longenecker, in his commentary on Acts, cites Cleon, a fifth-century BC politician and general, as telling his fellow Athenians: "You are the best people at being deceived by something new that is said."

There is nothing new under the sun, including our ravenous desire for what is novel. Aren't we frequently driven by the lust (and I don't think that's too strong a word) for something new? I think about the time I've wasted glued to some cable news channel fearful that I might miss a breaking story or further developments of a major story already out. In an attempt to keep the viewing audience tuned in, it's not uncommon for the hosts of one news program to talk with the host of the following program. Hannity & Colmes, for instance, after saying about everything that could possibly be said about the major story of the day will ask Greta Van Susteren what's coming up on her show. "Well, Sean, we'll be covering the latest breaking news on the story you've been talking about," she says. Translation: "I'll be taking a few more swings at the horse you and Alan just beat to death." Still, I watch just in case there really is something new.

The hunger for newness is also quite apparent in the church. How many times have you heard someone, after hearing a sermon, say with disappointment, "He didn't say anything I didn't already know" or "I didn't learn anything new"? Those of us charged with the task of preaching and teaching are equally afflicted by the quest for the uncommon. We may, at times, be embarrassed to declare familiar truths to God's people, forgetting that informing is only one goal of biblical proclamation. Reminding believers of what they already know is of equal value. Understanding this is what led Peter to write:
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder (2 Peter 1:13, ESV, emphasis mine)
The Athenians would love the blogosphere. Some items on others' blogs made me consider how blogging appeals to the Athenian spirit and may even nurture it. Last month Justin Taylor, with tongue in cheek, began a post commenting on a year-old article with these words:

I know blogging is supposed to be cutting edge, commenting on the latest article to appear and what not. I’m also aware that my blogging credentials might be revoked for highlighting an ancient article (from 2004). But I’m willing to take that risk.
In an insightful piece called Recovering Wisdom in the Blogosphere Joe Carter wrote:

Almost every blog has an archive listed by date and category but the average blog reader will never take advantage of this resource. Why? Because we assume that anything that was written in the past (i.e., last month) will be of little relevance today. We accept the absurd notion that the latest news is more necessary for understanding our times than the past. But, to paraphrase the historian Arnold Toynbee, the blogger trying to understand the present is like the man with his nose pressed against the mirror trying to see his whole body.

In addition to making us intolerant of what is old and known, our craving for the current can train us to readily dismiss anything that requires sustained attention. I speak from experience. The confession of an anonymous commenter in response to one of my previous posts could easily be mine:

The scary thing for this "cognitive tourist" is that I find myself scanning for and reading the shortest blog entries and articles most of the time. Even if a blog entry title is something that peaks my interest I will most likely skip it if it looks too lengthy! I almost skipped over [your post] due to it's length... sad, I know. With so many great blogs out there and great links one is left with the sense that there is just no time to stop and think too long. You just have to keep going and going so you don't miss anything, but in the end you end up digesting very little.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Thank You, New York Times!

I'd like to thank the New York Times for providing an excellent illustration of the faulty thinking I referred to yesterday in today's editorial. The article faults President Bush for imposing (there's that word again! It appears three times in the brief piece) his theological beliefs concerning the humanity of embryos on our pluralistic nation.

Concerning President Bush's statement that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research would "take us across a critical ethical line," the Times says:

Never mind that this particular ethical line looms large only for a narrow segment of the population. It is not deemed all that critical by most Americans or by most religious perspectives. Rather, the president's intransigence provided powerful proof of the dangers of letting one group's religious views
dictate national policy.
Apparently, the Times would have us play ethics by the numbers. Right and wrong are determined by straw poll. We don't have to turn far back in our history books to find proof of where that kind of thinking leads, do we? Beyond that, the Times is being disingenuous in suggesting that the only reason for concluding that human embryos are individual human beings is religious. Prior to the politicization of the issue with Roe v. Wade in 1973, numerous textbooks on embryology and reproduction pointed to conception as the beginning of an individual's life as evidenced by the following quotes appearing in Frank Beckwith's Politically Correct Death:

[A]ll organisms, however large and complex they may be when fullgrown, begin life as but a single cell. This is true of the human being, for instance, who begins life as a fertilized ovum. (Dr. M. Krieger, The Human Reproductive System, 88 [1969])
The formation, maturation and meeting of a male and female sex cell are all preliminary to their actual union into a combined cell, or zygote, which definitely marks the beginning of a new individual (Dr. B. Patten, Human Embryology 43 [3d ed., 1968])
The Times editorial goes on to say:
The president's policy is based on the belief that all embryos, even the days-old, microscopic form used to derive stem cells in a laboratory dish, should be treated as emerging human life and protected from harm. This seems an extreme way to view tiny laboratory entities that are no larger than the period
at the end of this sentence and are routinely flushed from the body by Mother Nature when created naturally.
The conviction that embryonic life should be protected is only "extreme" if one begins with the premise that the value of any particular human life is proportionate to its size. But that's sheer nonsense. Our obligation to protect another human being from harm does not increase with his or her size or maturation. If anything, the reverse is true. The more vulnerable a person is to being oppressed and mistreated by those more powerful, the greater our responsibility to protect him or her.

To argue from the fact of spontaneous abortions (the natural expulsion of zygotes from the womb) to the conclusion that the intentional destruction of embryos is therefore moral, is to commit what's called the naturalistic fallacy. Many of the degenerative diseases that proponents of embryonic stem cell research are hoping to cure occur naturally but I don't think the Times would therefore conclude that it would be moral to afflict individuals with those diseases if we had the ability to do so. What's the difference?

The editorial proceeds to advance its discriminatory agenda when it says:
These blastocysts, as they are called, bear none of the attributes we associate with humanity and, sitting outside the womb, have no chance of developing into babies. Some people consider them clumps of cells no different than other biological research materials. Others would grant them special respect but still make them available for worthy research. But Mr. Bush is imposing his different
moral code on both, thereby slowing research that most consider potentially beneficial.
How foolish and/or deceitful can one be? Blastocysts bear all of the attributes associated with humanity at that stage of human development. The issue isn't what some people consider them. The issue is what they actually are. Some people consider members of certain minority groups inferior. Some consider children desirable sexual partners. Some consider the Holocaust a fictitious event. Others even consider it a good event. What do any of those statements tell us about the objects of consideration? Nothing. But they tell us much about those doing the considering.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Rational Religionists and Scientific Mystics

Volume 73 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal arrived today. I try my best to keep my composure when others are in the office but when I see that white mailing pouch I want to rip into it like a kid into candy.

In the first segment Ken Myers plays clips from past interviews with Richard Neuhaus, Nigel Cameron, Carlos Gomez, and Michael Uhlmann concerning the value of human life and bioethics. The conversation with Nigel Cameron took place in 2001. I believe it was in that same conversation that Cameron opined that the evangelical pro-life movement is driven more by sentimentality than by theological reflection. I think that explains why we get more worked up about abortion than embryonic stem cell research. "Cute" is hardly the first adjective to come to mind when confronted by a picture of an embryo.

Anyway, at one point in the segment Ken Myers referred to the writing of Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis, which prompted me to check out the site. There I found a number of essays by Cohen including his contribution to a series called "The Embryo Question."

Points made in the second part of the series are related to yesterday's post and a previous post on alleged religious neutrality. Cohen explains why framing the current debate over embryonic stem cell research as a conflict between religion and science "glosses over many important complexities."

....matters, of course, are not so simple. Religious opponents of embryo research make their moral argument by appealing rationally to the facts of modern embryology. And rational scientists make their moral case by appealing emotionally to the hardships of loved ones suffering from dreaded diseases. To understand the embryo research debate and the larger human ideals at stake within it, we need to explore more precisely what it means to be “rational.” We need to explore the nature of human reason and the limits of human reason. And we need to confront the fact that reason alone cannot fully explain why things happen the way they do, or why we should believe in the first principles—like human equality—that we hold so dear.
Cohen divides advocates of embryonic stem cell research into two categories - scientific mystics and liberal revolutionaries:
The mystics argue that “personhood” arrives at some murky point along the continuum of development. They appeal to our moral sentiments in claiming that 8-cell embryos should be available for research while 8-pound babies should not be. And they assert that somewhere along the way usable embryos become inviolable infants, even if we cannot say exactly when. But this sensibility—which may be true—is not very rational. It is surely not a scientific argument grounded in biology, but a moral feeling about who is equal and who is not. The scientists are often the mystics, even if they would never admit it.
The more revolutionary defense of embryo research involves the rejection of the very principle that all human beings possess equal worth, and the assertion that human dignity depends on possessing certain attributes—like a developed neurological capacity or a certain number of cells. This view does not abandon reason to follow sentiment; rather, it attacks the very premise that dignity is intrinsic rather than conditional. It attacks the first principle of equality upon which modern democracy is based. It dissents from the idea that “all men are created equal.”
Read the full article here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Hiding Behind Science

Prompted by today's Beyond the News commentary by Al Mohler and Melinda Penner's post on two bills before the House of Representatives, I called my state representative's office today to voice my opposition to H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. This bill would extend federal funding for research using embryos created by in vitro fertilization but no longer wanted by their parents. Congressman Kirk backs the bill.

A press release at Representative Kirk's website quotes him as saying: “We need to pass legislation opening more opportunities for federal stem cell research to accelerate cures for these diseases. With stem cell research now happening overseas, we have a moral obligation to find cures here at home.” Sounds to me like Rep. Kirk is relying on foreign countries as the moral compass for United States policy: "Since they're doing it, we have a moral obligation to do it too!" Never mind that what they're doing is immoral. I seriously doubt that if foreign countries were killing the homeless and using their body parts for medical research that promised great potential, Congressman Kirk would argue that the U.S. has a moral obligation to follow suit. Before we jump on the international bandwagon, we should make sure it's heading in the right direction. No one doubts the obligation to relieve and prevent suffering where possible. The dispute is over the lengths to which we should be willing to go in order to accomplish that. Like many others, I believe that we should pursue those means which do not sacrifice the lives of some for the sake of others.

The above-mentioned press release also quotes Representative Judy Biggert (also from Illinois), a senior member of the House Science Committee, as saying, "It’s time we allow researchers to go where the science leads and not where the politicians dictate." Proof positive that one need not understand science in order to be a member of the Science Committee. Congresswoman Biggert would have us believe that we are so at the whim of technology that we blindly follow wherever it leads. There are at least two problems with this. First, I doubt that if pressed, Ms. Biggert would argue that we should make use of whatever technological abilities we possess. All sorts of devastation could be justified using that reasoning. The greater problem, however, is that science doesn't lead anyone anywhere in the sense that Ms. Biggert suggests. We lead science. It does not have a life of its own. Our interests, desires, values, and goals determine the direction of our inquiry. Science does not, nor can it, tell us what we must do. Let's not fool ourselves. If we end up sacrificing the most vulnerable members of our species for the sake of others, it will not be because "science has led us." It will be because we chose the course.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Absolutes and Arguments

Today in The Revealer Jeff Sharlet faults the New York Times' Michael Sokolove for failing to challenge Senator Rick Santorum's perspective on the role of faith in the lives and thinking of America's founding fathers in a profile of the politician appearing in yesterday's paper. Sharlet takes issue with Santorum's portrait of many of the founders as men of faith who sought to establish the nation on "traditional values" and attributes Sokolove's failure to correct this rewriting of history to the NYT's bending over backwards to treat Christian conservatives fairly.

I'll not get into the debate over history. What interests me more is something Sharlet says about the nature of moral absolutes and argumentation. He says:

A moral absolute can only derived from an absolute authority, beyond the realm of argument. Santorum "rejects" the very absolutes he claims to uphold by offering reasons -- i.e., the non-absolute work of human minds -- in their behalf. Once Santorum engaged in the debate over gay marriage by suggesting that one reason for opposing it was that it could, in his imagination, lead to bestiality, he abandoned the concept of a moral absolute, a truth so self-evident it requires no explanation. Unlike Santorum, an almighty Lord does not need to resort to the illustration of "man on dog" to lend authority to his decrees.
What I find puzzling is the claim that anyone who believes in absolute moral truths belies that claim by offering reasons for them. To the best of my knowledge there is nothing inherent in the concept of a moral absolute that precludes reasons being offered in its defense. If, in fact, God's character is the foundation of both objective moral truths and rationality, then it shouldn't strike us odd that sound reasons can be offered in defense of the ways in which he has commanded us to conduct ourselves. To do so is not to lend authority to those moral dictates but simply to illustrate the consequences and absurdity of violating them.

Moral argument can be a means of reminding people of what they do know but which, for various reasons, they'd prefer not to keep in mind. The Bible refers to this as suppressing the truth in unrighteousness but even if one rejects the Bible as an authoritative source, reflection upon our own lives as well as those of others should make us aware of the great capacity we have for self-deception. What atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel writes about his own fear of religion in The Last Word is applicable to the question of moral knowledge:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that (p. 130).
In the concluding chapter of his book What We Can't Not Know, J. Budziszewski distinguishes between those who are honestly confused about moral matters and those who would only like to think they are. The former "rarely need more than reminders and simple clarifications: reminders of the moral principles which have been shoved aside, clarifications of the ones which have been distorted." Concerning the latter he notes:
The main reason it seems so difficult to clear up honest moral confusion is that most moral confusion is not honest. People do not fall into profound error about the basics of morality by accident, and the fault never lies entirely with their deceivers. Yes, someone may put out his foot to trip them - but they shut their eyes, pretend they don't see it, and take a fall. In such cases, the reminders and clarifications which ought to clear up the error don't work, and the reason is not that they are logically inadequate, but that the one who is deceived does not wish to be undeceived. The instant his rationalization for moral wrong has been exploded, lo, he has thought of another one. Its premises may be completely opposed to the premises of his previous rationalization, but this does not bother him; any port in a storm! In fact the "any port in a storm" sort of reasoning is so common in cases of willful confusion that it provides a rule of thumb for identifying them (p. 211).
Moral absolutes don't depend on arguments for their authority for in that case they would be contingent. What arguments can do is remind us of what we already know but would rather not.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research and the Question of Compassion

With South Korea's recent announcement of successfully creating embryonic clones from the skin cells of diseased patients and talk of an impending bill pushing for federal funding of research using "excess" embryos from fertilization clinics, embryonic stem cell research is once again a major news item.

Below is a letter I wrote to Newsweek in response to their July 9, 2001 cover story on the subject. Even though it's four years old, the points made remain relevant to the current debate.

The original article is no longer available online. While searching for it, however, I did come across an elementary school curriculum written to be used in tandem with the Newsweek issue. Its introduction reads:
This week's Newsweek raises philosophical questions about what constitutes human life and about the nature of humanity. Among other topics, students will read about stem cell research; the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, who will stand trial for crimes against humanity; and the brutal slaughter of Jews by their Polish neighbors in 1941.
Working with this content, students will explore the themes of Humanity, Responsibility and Decision-Making. Activities involve defining a human being, evaluating their own responsibilities as citizens and exploring the process of decision-making.
The class activity tagged to the article on embryonic stem cell research illustrates the confusion that surrounds the process. Students are given a chart with two columns labeled "Human" and "Not Human" along with the following instructions: "In the column labeled "Human," list the arguments that stem cells are, in fact, human. In the other column, list the arguments that they are not." This gives children the false impression that the debate is over whether stem cells are human beings when in actuality that's not what's in question. Opponents to embryonic stem cell research do not maintain that individual stem cells are human beings. Resistance is due to the fact that the human embryos destroyed in the process of extracting stem cells are distinct human beings.

To further clear the fog surrounding this critical issue, check out Joe Carter's "The Bioethics of Therapeutic Cloning: A Brief Primer on the Issues."


In her cover story, "Cellular Divide" (Newsweek, July 9), Sharon Begley presents a superb example of the logical fallacy known as false dilemma. This occurs when only two alternatives are presented when in actuality three or more options exist. Concerning the divergent views of embryonic life, Ms. Begley writes:
If you are a passionate right-to-life activist, you see in the cells an incipient human life, one deserving all the rights and respect of any other human…If, though you suffer from a currently incurable disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer's or love someone who does, then those cells look very different; they look like the seeds of hope, tiny miracles able to dance on the head of a pin.
This suggests that either one contends for the humanity of the pre-born and is therefore unsympathetic toward those afflicted by various degenerative diseases or one's life is touched by disease (either directly or by association) and he or she denies that the embryo is a distinct human being deserving of protection. This is patently false.

I'm sure Russell Saltzman would be perplexed to learn that everyone must fit neatly in one of these two camps. Although he got nowhere the media coverage that celebrities like Michael J. Fox and Mary Tyler Moore received, Russell, a Kansas City minister with diabetes, testified before a Senate committee expressing his opposition to stem cell research. Ron Heagy is further evidence of the false dichotomy Ms. Begley presents. Having become a paraplegic at 17, it can hardly be said that he is disinterested in advances in medical technology. He too voiced his opposition to the federal funding of stem cell research before the Senate committee. "I'm not opposed to research," he said, "I'm not opposed to walking again. I'm just opposed to the process." Then there's Anton-Lewis Usala. It's ridiculous to categorize him as an overzealous pro-life advocate with no personal interest in the hope held out by stem cell research. Usala, a medical doctor and research scientist, also has diabetes yet considers the pre-born life that would be terminated in harvesting stem cells human beings who should not be exploited for the benefit of others in the race. "For the first time," he testified, "the perceived right of the government will supersede the right of the individual."

Russell Saltzman hit the nail on the head when he noted that the critical question is whether the human embryo is a human being or a "mere bit of research material." It is clear from Ms. Begley's article that proponents of this controversial scientific research deny the former. Even Sen. Orrin Hatch whom Ms. Begley describes as "as anti-abortion as they come," inconsistently denies the personhood and rights of the embryos whose stem cells would be harvested. "A frozen embryo stored in a refrigerator in a clinic just isn't the same as a fetus developing in a mother's womb." Unfortunately, Sen. Hatch does not tell us how this is at all ethically significant. Sure, the embryo and the fetus in question are not in the same environment. But what does that have to do with the humanity of either of them? They are both distinct human beings with gender and unique genetic identities. What I'd like to know from Sen. Hatch is since when is physical location determinative of whether an entity is human? Is a human being in a refrigerator less a human being than one somewhere else? Changing where something is doesn't change what it is. If I drive my car out of the garage and park it in my dining room, it's still a car.

The only other difference between the embryo and the fetus is that they are at different stages of human development. But again, this is morally irrelevant. Humans do not become more human with the passing of time. To say that an embryo is different from a fetus is analogous to saying that an infant is different from an adolescent. Both are different points on the continuum of human development.

Begley also quotes Irv Weissman, a biologist at Stanford University. Like Hatch, Weissman appeals to the location of the embryos as if it had any ethical significance. According to him, "Anyone who would ban research on embryonic stem cells will be responsible for the harm done to real, alive, postnatal, sentient human beings who might be helped by this research." Obviously, Weissman doesn't regard the embryos as real people, but on what grounds? Scientifically, there's no doubt that the embryo is alive. The fact that it is prenatal is again an appeal to the stage of maturation, which we have already seen has nothing to do with whether or not a particular being is a human being. And if one argues that one must be sentient in order to be worthy of protection, then we'd best all start sleeping with one eye open.

Ms. Begley concludes by noting that banning stem cell research, while upholding an "extreme view of the sanctity of life," would be at the expense of "doing all we can to improve the lot of the living." This assumes, of course, that human embryos are not human beings and should therefore be used as objects for the benefit of others. All that remains is for Ms. Begley and others of like mind to offer logically and ethically compelling arguments for their position.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Imposing Left Morality: Erwin Lutzer Answers John Spong

In today's Chicago Tribune, Dr. Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor of the Moody Church, responds to an essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong ("Political pulpit - The Bible as weapon in the culture war") that appeared in last week's Sunday paper. Spong, singing the well-worn chorus of "separation of church and state," took issue with conservative Christians who, according to him, are seeking to impose their naive, unscholarly (read contrary to the Jesus Seminar) interpretations of Scripture on the general populace. Lutzer notes:
What Spong fails to point out is that the liberal left also seeks to impose its agenda on the rest of us. The three examples he gives--same-sex marriage, abortion and the Terri Schiavo case--all point to a conflict of opinions, and no matter which side one takes, somebody is imposing his morality on someone else.
Concerning the privatization of religion he writes:
When I visited the People's Republic of China in 1984, our tour guide justified the government's policy on religion by arguing for a separation of church and state. She said that religion was free to operate in all of those areas that were not controlled by the state. When we probed more deeply, she said that religion was a private matter and that the people of China were free to be as religious as they wanted to be "within their own minds."
and asks:
....if religion is deemed to be private, who is to say that the day might come when it is completely restricted to houses of worship, eventually to our homes, or even limited to our own minds?"
Read the rest here (free registration required)

Friday, May 20, 2005

Enough, Yet?

If you haven't had enough about the phrase "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist," (and even if you have) Vincent Cheung's thoughts on the subject deserve a read. [HT: Resource Blog]

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Moore on SBTS's Shift to Biblical Counseling

Listen to Dr. Russell Moore, Dean of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explain Southern's reorientation of its counseling curriculum and respond to students' questions.

Moore says there is a major recasting of biblical ideas into psychotherapeutic categories that is completely changing the way many pastors are doing ministry. There must be more to the church, he says, than the attitude of"The answer to those who want to be saved is the gospel, and the answer for those who want little problems resolved is some prooftexts, and the answer to those who are really dealing with the big problems is outsourcing." [HT: Mere Comments]

The Da Vinci Code Movie

Last year our church offered a four week class on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to prepare Christians to intelligently engage friends and family members reading the book. Given the book's success (112 weeks on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List and # 4 this week) next year's film adaptation starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, is almost certain to be a hit. View the trailer here and the schedule of worldwide release dates here. [HT: Between Two Worlds]

Losing Sleep Over the Sith: Musings on the Movie

I apologize in advance for any incoherence in thought, grammar, or spelling. I didn't climb into my bed until 3 this morning after attending a midnight showing of Revenge of the Sith with our youth pastor, leaders, and members of the youth group. There were about 20 of us total. It's not that I really wanted to see it, you understand. I just thought it would be good for our young people to see one of the older members of the pastoral staff taking interest in something of such interest to them. OK, that's the sleep deprivation talking. I was as eager as any of them to see how and why young Anakin Skywalker transformed into James Earl Jones, I mean, Darth Vader.

After getting seated we had about 45 minutes to wait for the film to begin. I spent some of this time taking note of the myriad of enthusiasts costumed to tribute their favorite characters. One young woman had a bagel on either side of her head. (I didn't see if they were still intact after the movie.) Carrie Fisher would be honored, I'm sure. Of course, there were Vader's and Obi-Wan's of all sizes along with much cooler light sabers than Hasbro's original. A group of teenagers took turns wielding their fluorescent weaponry in choreographed and non-choreographed swashbuckling in the front of the auditorium receiving cheers and jeers depending on their skill.

I also had plenty of time to wax nostalgic. Had it really been almost 30 years since I was the age of many of these kids? The years seem to have flown by at light speed. I was now watching the finale in a cinematic story I started almost three decades ago. A sobering thought. But this wasn't the extent of the philosophical reflection spawned by my moviegoing excursion.

In the climactic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin, Anakin says to his former teacher "If you are not with me, you are my enemy." I don't think anyone familiar with the gospels can hear that and not think of Jesus' words "Whoever is not with me is against me" (Mt. 12:30; Lk. 11:23) but I think it's more likely that Lucas intended this line to evoke thoughts of George Bush. He may have lived long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away but Obi's response suggests he'd be right at home in 21st century America: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes." Translation: Absolutist thinking belongs to the malevolent and power-hungry. They're dangerous and not to be trusted. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? As if it weren't bad enough to be likened to fundamentalist jihadists, those who believe in absolute truth are now Sith!

Perhaps George Lucas intended it to be humorous, but this dialogue masterfully illustrates relativism's incoherence. In the same fight scene Obi warns Anakin that his new master is evil (might Obi have some repressed Sithian tendencies?). And what is the whole light and dark side of the force thing if not absolutist? I don't recall Yoda, or any other Jedi master for that matter, ever exhorting someone to choose whatever side of the force appealed to them. One of the factors that has made the Star Wars saga so captivating is that it appeals to our knowledge that the distinction between good and evil is real and that the former's triumph over the latter is the way things ought to be.

Ideology aside, I had a great time despite having to fight off sleepiness which was no fault of the movie's. I'm grateful for George Lucas's creative imagination and willingness to persevere in order to bring his vision to life. I've enjoyed the near 30 year ride.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

All The News That's Fit to Survive

Today's New York Times is a virtual cornucopia of Darwinian entertainment:

An editorial not so cleverly refers to the intelligent design movement as "The Evolution of Creationism."

Harvard professor of cognitive science Steven Pinker speculates as to the evolutionary explanation for both homosexuality and opposition to it in his op-ed contribution. Here's an excerpt:
Homosexuality is a puzzle for biology, not because homosexuality itself is evolutionary maladaptive (though no more so than any other sexual act that does not result in conception), but because any genetic tendency to avoid heterosexual opportunities should have been selected out long ago. Perhaps "gay genes" have some other compensating advantage, like enhancing fertility, when they are carried by women. Perhaps the environments that set off homosexuality today didn't exist while our genes were being selected. Or perhaps the main cause is biological yet not directly genetic, like differences in hormones or antibodies that affect the fetus while it is developing.
Just as puzzling is the existence of homophobia. Why didn't evolution shape straight men to react to their gay fellows by thinking: "Great! More women for me!" Probably the answer lies in a cross-wiring between our senses of morality and disgust. People often confuse their own revulsion with objective sinfulness, as when they dehumanize people living in squalor or, in the other direction, engage in religious rituals of cleanliness and purification. An impulse to avoid homosexual contact may blur into an impulse to condemn homosexuality.
Finally, the Science section features a new book by philosopher of science and biology professor Elisabeth Lloyd in which she rejects 20 leading theories concerning the evolutionary function of a certain aspect of female sexuality.


Yesterday I listened to conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham tell her audience of a serious decision she must make in the next week. It has to do with whether to undergo chemotherapy to treat the breast cancer she was recently diagnosed with. One of today's morning shows reported that 36-year-old Australian pop star Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer this week. Of course, we don't have to turn on the television or radio to hear of another victim of this ravaging disease in one of its multitudinous forms. Cancer doesn't only afflict high-profile people. If cancer has not yet intruded upon your life or the life of someone you love, it most likely will - an unpleasant though realistic thought.
Two weeks ago I attended one of the quarterly pastors' roundtable discussions hosted by the local Biblical Counseling Center. The guest speaker was Judy Asti, author of A Spiritual Journey Through Breast Cancer. In 1998 Judy was diagnosed with level 3 (out of 4) breast cancer. The following year she underwent aggressive chemotherapy, radiation treatments, a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. She introduced her talk with the following statistics from the National Cancer Institute:
  • More than 1,400,000 NEW cases of cancer (all kinds) will be diagnosed this year in the U.S.
  • One in 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.
  • One in 2 men will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.
  • An estimated 213,000 NEW cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed this year.
  • 1,700 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.
  • More than 41,000 patients will likely die of breast cancer.
  • At today's rate, 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.
These numbers dramatically made the point Judy was trying to get across. Cancer will, in some way, affect the lives of everyone in our congregations. The focal point of her talk was how churches can effectively serve cancer patients and their families. She and her husband Pierre, who works at the Center, spoke with evident fondness and appreciation for the church family that rallied around them through dark and uncertain times. Judy described cancer as "a ride of terror" and said that for many Christian patients the most prominent fear is not that of death but of what the disease will to do them and of what will happen to their family if they die. Judy called the period following diagnosis and during treatment "a time of heightened spiritual awareness" in which one must confront issues like God's sovereignty, mortality, and the evaluation of one's life. Listening to her was not only informative. It was faith-nurturing. I heartily commend her book to you if cancer has become a part of your life.
One of the points Judy made is that the American church has an anemic, if not non-existent, theology of suffering. Years ago I heard John Piper give a series of lectures (which, if you're familiar with Piper, are really sermons by another name) on suffering in the life of the pastor and his people. I don't recall the exact quote but he said something about his desire to teach his people to so know God that when they are called upon to suffer, they do so well to His glory. I know the widow of a man who died of cancer. She's told me of how his faith bore much fruit in his dying days, of how he grew more bold in telling others about Christ. She also told me of his firm assurance that even in this God had a purpose and was to be trusted. His wife and adult children were left with the memory of their beloved husband and father dying in faith and suffering well. What a legacy. I pray that I may so know the Lord and that I can be instrumental in others so knowing Him.
"Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" is a minor-key hymn in a church that prefers a strict diet of major-key choruses but it is a song that must be sung if we are to be faithful to our Lord and of benefit to His people.

Monday, May 16, 2005

I Don't Have Enough Faith...Part III

When I wrote the first post in this thread, I had no intent of making the book by Geisler and Turek my focus. Rather, I wanted to concentrate on what I consider to be problematic with the saying whose popularity among Christians precedes its being used as the title of their book - "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist" (or its variant "It takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a Christian"). In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn't have made any reference to the book. Nevertheless, comments from Michael and Tony piqued my curiosity about the book, leading me to do some research.

As I didn't have it in my possession, I checked online in hope of finding an excerpt that might address the distinction between biblical and unbiblical understandings of the nature of faith. Amazon's excerpt didn't contain anything relevant to my question but I did note the following sentence in the book description: "All worldviews, including atheism, require faith. I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist argues that Christianity requires the least faith of all because it is the most reasonable." Faith, as presented here, is obviously unreasonable belief. Unsure of whether this was a description provided by the publisher, I then checked Crossway's site which confirmed this as their chosen promotion of the book. The following is the full text of the description:

I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist argues that Christianity requires the least faith of all worldviews because it is the most reasonable. The authors lay out the evidence for truth, God, and the Bible in logical order and in a readable, non-technical, engaging style. A valuable aid to those interested in examining the reasonableness of the Christian faith, Geisler and Turek provide a firm challenge to the prior beliefs of doubters and skeptics.
As Tony noted in his comment, in the interest of reducing an opponent's position to absurdity, one may, for the sake of argument, adopt his or her assumptions and show their logical consequences. While I don't share the atheist's definition of faith as irrational or unwarranted belief, for example, I may nevertheless say to my atheistic friend, "Even if I did define faith the way you do, it would take more faith to be an atheist and here's why." Wanting to see if this was the stance Geisler and Turek take, I headed off to the bookstore today and at last procured my own copy (thereby disproving any suspicions that I was subtly calling for a boycott). From my reading so far, it seems that the authors are not merely adopting a concept of faith foreign to that of the Bible for the sake of argument, but are stating their own position.

In the book's introduction, after making the claim that "the atheist has to muster a lot more faith than the Christian" (p. 26), the authors explain what they mean:

We mean that the less evidence you have for your position, the more faith you need to believe it (and vice versa). Faith covers a gap in knowledge. And it turns out that atheists have bigger gaps in knowledge because they have far less evidence for their beliefs than Christians have for theirs. In other words, the empirical, forensic, and philosophical evidence strongly supports conclusions consistent with Christianity and inconsistent with atheism (p. 26).
Earlier in the introduction, the authors describe the late Carl Sagan's well-known assertion that "the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be" as "the ultimate statement of faith in atheistic materialism" (emphasis in the original). They then write: "How did he know that for sure? He didn't. How could he? He was a limited human being with limited knowledge. Sagan was operating in the realm of probability just like Christians are when they say God exists."

My original question remains. Is the concept of faith presented above compatible with faith as described in Scripture? Does one get the impression from the Bible that the amount of faith required is inversely proportionate to the scarcity of evidence? If the answer to this question is "no," which I think it is, is it really helpful to speak in such terms in our apologetic and evangelistic conversations with non-Christians? Wouldn't it be better to explain to them what it is that the Bible is speaking of when it uses the term and how that differs from blind faith? While looking for the quotation from Schaeffer's The God Who is There that I included in a previous post, I came across the following passage in which Schaeffer was determined to make that distinction:

Of course, faith is needed to become a Christian, but there are two concepts concerning faith. The two ideas of faith run like this: One idea of faith would be a blind leap in the dark. A blind leap in which you believe something with no reason (or, no adequate reason), you just believe it. This is what I mean by a blind leap of faith. The other idea of faith, which has no relationship with this, none whatsoever, is that you are asked to believe something and bow before that something on the basis of good and adequate reasons. There is no relationship between those two concepts of faith.

The biblical concept of faith is very much the second and not the first. You are not asked to believe in a blind leap of faith. The Bible teaches that there are good and sufficient reasons to know that these things are true. - Volume I, The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, pp. 181-182

None of this is designed to discredit either of the authors or the totality of the volume they authored. I only wish to think with other believers about how we may most faithfully and accurately present a biblical perspective to those to whom we commend and defend the gospel of Christ.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

On Faithful Semantics (I Don't Have Enough Faith... Part II)

In response to a recent post advising Christians to refrain from saying things like "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist," Michael at Grace Sublime! commented: "Personally, I think you're making a issue out of a non-issue. I think the title is tongue in cheek to illustrate the irrationality of the atheist."

Although I was tempted to respond immediately, I decided to allow some time to pass in order to seriously consider whether my post was, in fact, picayune. I've decided that it wasn't, so I thought I'd take space here to further develop my thought on the matter.

I agree with Michael that the intent behind using the phrase in question as a title of an apologetics book was most likely to humorously display the irrationality of atheism. But that only serves to illustrate my point. Used in that context, "faith" is that which is required in proportion to the irrationality of a belief. The more irrational the belief, the more faith required. By saying "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist," I may mean "Atheism is irrational and therefore I can't bring myself to believe it," but what I'm actually saying (and what the atheist will understand me as saying) is that faith is the capacity to believe the absurd.

Actually, my purpose wasn't to target the book by Norm Geisler and Frank Turek. I've not read it but from what I've heard from those who have, it's very good. My concern was, and remains, Christians carelessly using biblical terms in unbiblical ways, thereby perpetuating and contributing to misconceptions about biblical Christianity. We often talk about the importance of context for understanding a particular verse. Likewise, a Christian's understanding of the meaning of such words as "faith" should be derived from the usage of that word in the entirety of Scripture. There is, in other words, a canonical context that should govern how we define and use words like "faith." This is a function of biblical authority. When we converse with those whose concept of faith is contrary to that of the Bible, and adopt that usage ourselves, we are neither aiding them in their understanding nor faithfully representing the biblical perspective we are seeking to commend.

Francis Schaeffer frequently noted the ambiguity of the word "god" and the need for Christians to clarify what they mean by it. He writes in The God Who is There:
As Christians, we must understand that there is no word so meaningless as the word "god" until it is defined. No word has been used to reach absolutely opposite concepts as much as the word "god." Consequently, let us not be confused. There is much "spirituality" about us today that would relate itself to the word god or to the idea god; but this is not what we are talking about. Biblical truth and spirituality is not a relationship to the word god, or to the idea god. It is a relationship to the one who is there, which is an entirely different concept. - Volume I, The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, p. 159
The point Schaeffer makes about the word "god" is applicable to the word "faith." The Christian's concept of faith is constrained by God's revelation in Scripture. Of course, we can't prevent unbelievers from attaching alien concepts to biblical vocabulary. We can, however, do all in our power not to encourage such unbiblical thinking by refusing to adopt its linguistic practices ourselves.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

OD'ing on Oprah & Therapism

Steve Salerno, author of the forthcoming Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, writes on the side effects of the empowerment movement in today's National Review Online:

The larger point is that, with the gods of empowerment cheering in the background, society has embraced concepts like confidence and self-esteem despite scant evidence that they're reliably correlated with positive outcomes. The work of legitimate psychology notables Roy Baumeister and Martin Seligman indicates that often, high self-worth is a marker for negative behavior, as diagnosed in sociopaths and drug kingpins. Furthermore, self-esteem may be expressed in the kind of braggadocio -"I'm fine just the way I am, thank you" - that actually inhibits personal growth.
Read the rest of "Overdosing on Oprah" here.

I'm reading a related book in snippets - One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance. Its authors, Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, M.D., reject what they call the doctrine of "therapism" which:
....valorizes openness, emotional self-absorption and the sharing of feelings. It encompasses several additional assumptions: that vulnerability, rather than strength, characterizes the American psyche; and that a diffident, anguished, and emotionally apprehensive public requires a vast array of therapists, self-esteem educators, grief counselors, workshoppers, healers, and traumatologists to lead it through the trials of everyday life. Children, more than any group, are targeted for therapeutic improvement (p. 5).
I'm still in the first chapter ("The Myth of the Fragile Child") in which the authors also cite the research conducted by Roy Baumeister et al. The study found no significant connection between feelings of high self-worth and academic achievement, interpersonal relationship, or healthy lifestyles. Sommers and Satel write:
On the contrary, high self-regard is very often found in people who are narcissistic and have an inflated sense of popularity and likeability. Such self-aggrandizing beliefs, said the authors, exist "mainly in their own minds." Furthermore, those with exaggerated estimates of self-worth often become hostile when others criticize or reject them. "People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others," the authors concluded (pp. 31-32).
I think a persuasive case can be made that therapism has invaded the church and, in many cases, has become the hermeneutic lens through which we understand the gospel. It is therapism that leads some to insist that implicit in Christ's commands to love God with our whole selves and our neighbor as ourselves is the mandate to love ourselves. Therapism leads us to believe that unmet needs rather than craving hearts are the cause of our sins. Therapism advocates forgiving primarily because of its therapeutic benefits contrary to the Bible's emphasis on our extending forgiveness because we have been mercifully forgiven by a thrice-holy God through the blood of His Son's cross.

Therapism is a powerful expression of the spirit of our age which we must understand if we are to heed the call not to be conformed to it. The following quote from Wendy Kaminer's I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions evidences that the world is watching:
Although many, if not most, religious books are published by religious presses and speak to subcultures of believers, especially conservative Christians, they partake in prevailing mainstream notions about goodness, health, selfhood, and social relations (p. 123).

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

I Don't Have Enough Faith....

It's not my intent to dissuade anyone from reading the book by the title but I think "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist" is a very unhelpful utterance for Christians to make. While it might make us feel like we've made an effective point in our defense of Christianity, it actually presents the nature of faith in an unbiblical manner. Think about it. "Faith" as used in that catch phrase is synonymous with either wishful thinking or gullibility. It's equivalent to saying, "Yeah, I admit you have to be naive to be a Christian but you have to be even more naive to be an atheist." This substantiates the mistaken notion of faith unbelievers already entertain and portrays faith and knowledge as being unrelated if not in opposition to each other. In a related post on STR's blog, Greg Koukl noted: "In today’s culture, people take 'faith' and 'belief' as religious wishful thinking, not the kind of intelligent step of trust the Bible has in mind when it uses those words."

I just finished reading Geerhardus Vos's Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments in which he offers the following description of biblical faith and its relation to knowledge. He also demonstrates the impossibility of another misleading slogan - "No creed but Christ": 

Faith presupposes knowledge, because it needs a mental complex, person or thing, to be occupied about. Therefore, the whole modern idea of preaching Jesus, but preaching Him without a creed, is not only theologically, not merely Scripturally, but psychologically impossible in itself. In fact knowledge is so interwoven with faith that the question arises, whether it be sufficient to call it a prerequisite, and not rather an ingredient of faith.

The very names by means of which Jesus would have to be presented to people are nuclei of creed and doctrine. If it were possible to eliminate this, the message would turn to pure magic, but even the magic requires some name-sound and cannot be wholly described as preaching without a creed. The vogue which this programme has acquired is to some extent due to the unfortunate, and altogether undeserved, flavour clinging to the term 'creed', as though this necessarily meant a minutely worked out theological structure of belief. That is not meant, but belief there must be before faith can begin to function, and belief includes knowledge. This knowledge may have been gathered gradually, almost imperceptibly, from countless impressions received during a briefer or longer period of time, but epistemologically it does not differ from any other kind of mental act however acquired. To be sure, mere knowledge is not equivalent to full-orbed faith, it must develop into trust, before it is entitled to that name (p. 389).

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Counseling in Two Minds

Texas theologue weighed in on the counseling curriculum change at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary I mentioned yesterday. Here's an excerpt:
Furthermore, I am astounded at how naive the Christian critics are and how truly "modern" they are. Psychology is simply not a neutral, objective, scientific discipline no matter how much its practitioners try to employ the same methodological rigor as the hard sciences. Psychology is very subjective. Psychologists are really theologians - and most of them are very bad theologians as they adopt views of anthropology, sin, and salvation that are very much contrary to the teaching of the Bible. Psychologists cannot really escape the influence of presuppositions, and secular psychologists begin with presuppositions that are unbiblical - a high view of man, a dismissal of the seriousness of sin, atheism or distorted views of God, etc. Therefore, attempts to integrate Christian theology with secular psychology will often result in syncretism. This is not to say that we have nothing to learn from secular psychology - because of common grace, unbelievers may sometimes be right. But we must adopt an approach to counseling that lets Christian theology drive the agenda - not vice versa.
What's to account for secular theories of human nature and motivation functioning authoritatively in the theorizing and practice of many well-meaning Christian therapists? Nancy Pearcey identifies a large part of the problem in Total Truth. In response to the question of how committed Christians can be so blind to inconsistencies between their vocational practice and their professed faith she answers:
Because they often undergo many years of professional training in a secular setting where they have no opportunity to develop a biblical worldview. In fact, they know that if they did express a biblical perspective, it would be a barrier to getting into most graduate schools. And so, most believers learn to compartmentalize their lives, absorbing the reigning secular assumptions in their field of study, while maintaining a devotional life on the side in their private time (p. 98).
Christianity ceases to be a unified, comprehensive framework for interpreting all of life. Instead, it functions only as a code of ethics or personal piety. When this happens, some other, unbiblical lens (or "story") inevitably takes over as Pearcey warns:
The danger is that if Christians do not consciously develop a biblical approach to the subject, then we will unconsciously absorb some other philosophical approach. A set of ideas for interpreting the world [and that includes people] is like a philosophical toolbox, stuffed with terms and concepts. If Christians do not develop their own tools of analysis, then when some issue comes up that they want to understand, they'll reach over and borrow someone else's tools - whatever concepts are generally accepted in their professional field or in the culture at large (p. 44).

Eat, Drink, and be Mournful?

Eric Svendsen at Real Clear Theology has posted Part I of a series exploring the transition from the joy with which the early church celebrated the Lord's Supper to the somber introspection found in many evangelical churches today. Wow. Maybe someone is finally going to put Paul's instruction regarding self-examination in context. [HT: Resource Blog]

Monday, May 09, 2005

Southern Seminary & the Care of Souls

In September of 1996 Christianity Today ran a sidebar titled "Schools Grapple with Sharp Rise in Psychology Students." The story reported the rapidly growing number of Christian graduate schools and seminaries offering psychology or counseling programs and raised the question of what effects this trend might have on the schools themselves. James Guy, then dean of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that in light of this phenomenon seminaries had to ask themselves what profession they were emphasizing: "Are we training mental-health professionals who are Christians, or are we training ministers with knowledge of mental health?"

I am glad to learn that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has opted to emphasize the latter. Beginning in the fall, the school's approach to training in counseling will be founded on the conviction that the Bible is sufficient for conceptualizing about and treating the issues of the heart with which people struggle. According to the Baptist Press News:

The new vision was approved overwhelmingly by the faculty on Feb. 2, distinguishing the seminary’s counseling philosophy from its former “pastoral care” model that seeks to prepare therapists for state
licensure by “integrating” secular psychology and biblical training. According to Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration, the seminary’s vision for counseling embraces a Gospel-centered and church-focused approach.

The new direction is not a new degree program. Rather, it is a wholesale change of emphasis built upon the view that Scripture is sufficient to answer comprehensively the deepest needs of the human heart, Moore said. Its aim is to equip pastors and counselors to work in local churches, he said.
Moore says the church needs:

....pastors and leaders who understand depravity and the Fall to the degree that they are able to see the ways in which fallen human self-interest often masquerades as objective ‘science’ -- especially when this ‘science’ seeks to explain and prescribe a cure for the fallen condition of humanity.
Southern's president, Al Mohler states:

In this psycho-therapeutic age it is really important that we think as Christians -- that we employ authentically Christian thinking, biblical thinking to human life, and that we do this in a way that, without apology, confronts and critiques the wisdom of the age and seeks the wisdom that can come only from God and from God’s Word.

To say I admire Southern Seminary's decision is a gross understatement. I applaud it wholeheartedly and pray that their decision will lead other evangelical institutions of higher theological education to rethink their training. It takes integrity to resist the enticement of offering programs for which there's a sure market. It takes boldness to be willing to lose respectability in the eyes of the psychological establishment by saying "We'll no longer play by your rules." It takes humility for a reputable institution to reflect upon its curriculum, conclude that it is incompatible with its theological convictions, and thoroughly revise it so as to bring it into greater conformity to its profession. Humility is also required to face the ridicule bound to come from both Christian and secular quarters. The latter is reflected in headlines like this one from the Louisville Courier-Journal: "Baptist seminary shifts counselor study to Bible over science."

It puzzles me that in the midst of all the (necessary) clamor about the importance of understanding the Christian worldview and its distinctiveness from competing explanatory stories, the evangelical church is relatively silent when it comes to the hegemony of secular psychotherapeutic theories of human nature. Perhaps this muteness is the result of our having become intoxicated on the strong drink of the spirit of the age. It profits us little if we strain out Darwin yet swallow Maslow, Rogers, Beattie, Bradshaw, or any others all too eager to provide answers other than that offered by the Bible to the question, "What is man?"

Whose Story Are We In?

Jeff at Texas Theologue asks that question and notes how the over-arching narrative of Scripture should alter how we think about relevance:
Too often, evangelical Christians make our own personal story primary. We begin to think that it's all about me - about me being happy, successful, peaceful, healthy. It's all about my problems, my marriage, my finances, my job, my kids, my anxiety, my lack of self-discipline, etc. So we think, "The sermon that the pastor preaches this morning had better be relevant to my life." The preacher tries to oblige this hypothetical listener. So, he preaches "how to" sermons to "felt needs." He decides to preach on 10 steps to a better marriage, 10 steps to financial freedom, 10 steps to raising Christian children, 10 steps to freedom from anxiety, 10 steps to more self-discipline, etc.. Then he searches the Scriptures for passages that he can use for these messages. He will find some Bible passages to address these concerns. But the preacher will also be disappointed, because he will not find as much as he hoped for. The Bible was not written to address the stories of autonomous, individualistic, self-absorbed 21st century Americans. When preaching focuses on our stories it ends up taking passages out of context and missing the main point of what the Bible is all about. Some Scripture passages are preached on hundreds of times while other passages are totally ignored because they don't seem relevant to today's listeners. That is what happens when we try to make the Bible relevant to our

Instead, we should concentrate on trying to figure out if our lives could be relevant to the story of God. The Bible tells a story about a holy and loving God who is working for the salvation of His people through His Son, establishing and expanding His Kingdom on earth, working in all things for His glory and our good, and commissioning and sending out His people to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to all peoples on earth. The story is even broader and bigger than this brief summary. The greatest adventure in all of life consists in learning about this story and then following Jesus' radical call to be a part of this story. Truly relevant preaching must call people to leave their small, self-absorbed story behind and to figure out how they can play a role in this much larger and grander story. If we can get people to adopt this perspective, suddenly the whole Bible becomes alive and exciting, not just the few prooftexts that talk about marriage, finances, child-raising, or anxiety.
Our stories are subplots in a narrative whose main character (and author) is the triune God. In a previous post I sought to show how the recognition of this humbling fact should play out in our thinking about counseling, a topic I intend to deal with more in the near future.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Grateful for My Mother's Legacy

I enjoy putting people in touch with books that benefit them. I've likened it to the satisfaction a matchmaker must feel when he or she sees a happy couple whose meeting they arranged. In part, my joy comes from having someone else share in what for me is a source of great delight. Sometimes I consider while reading that I'm reading for others as well as for my own pleasure and edification. We never know how the ideas that we take the time to pour over will prepare us to be of help to others. Therefore, reading is a stewardship of sorts. It can be a means of equipping us to be better lovers of God and our neighbor.

Though I think of it often, today I'm especially mindful of my great gratitude to my mother. My love for reading and learning is the result of her influence. She read to me often when I was growing up and went so far as to record bedtime stories for me on evenings when she had to be away. She saw to it that I had a subscription to "My Weekly Reader" early on and I eagerly looked forward to ripping open the new books when they arrived in the mail. When I get flustered by my children's persistent "Why's," I remember how patiently my mother endured my curiosity and even encouraged it. How glad I am that she didn't pour water on the flickering flame of my inquisitiveness.

My mother didn't become a follower of Christ until after I became an adult but in God's good providence she nurtured gifts and interests now employed in God's service. Through mine, her life touches others (including any who enjoy reading any of my ramblings) to the praise of God's glorious grace in Christ.

Friday, May 06, 2005

What I Learned from HT:

I've learned a valuable lesson about cross-cultural communication from my brief experience in the world of blogging.  It's a lesson I hope will make me more sensitive to and patient with non-Christians and new believers with whom I share biblical truth.

Blogdom was such an overwhelming environment.  I was an outsider, an alien.  There was so much I didn't understand and I wondered if I ever would.  Actually, I still feel that way.  I have much to learn.  One of the things that puzzled me was the meaning of two letters, "HT," I kept seeing at the end of posts.  Sometimes they were in parentheses, sometimes in brackets.  Always, they were followed by a colon and a link to another site.  This was evidently an abbreviation for something - but what?  I quickly exhausted my creativity trying to guess what this might mean. One day, it dawned upon me to inquire of the oracle of Google and my search was over!  I eventually found out that "HT" stands for "hat tip" and is a way of acknowledging another blog through which you became aware of another site about which you're posting.  (If that is helpful to just one uninitiated blog reader then my suffering was not in vain.)

I've frequently opined about how important it is that we not resort to Christian lingo when talking with those to whom we're trying to explain the faith, assuming that they will understand what to us is now so obvious.  My relatively trivial quandary about the meaning of two letters brought that point home to me in a personal way.  I had entered a community, a culture, if you will, that had an unfamiliar way of communicating; one that I needed to have translated.

I get frustrated sometimes trying to answer my own kids' questions about God. For some strange reason, terms like "hypostatic union," "essence," and "nature" don't play well with them. My impatience is borne out of having to leave that which has become comfortable and familiar to me in order to help another understand.  My frustration, at times, is also the result of the unsettling question of how well I really understand something if I can't explain it without the use of certain catch phrases or shorthand.  I think that's a question we need to ask ourselves and each other frequently.

Whenever I tip my hat in future posts or see someone else tipping theirs, I hope to be reminded of this important lesson.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Why Would an Unbeliever Root for the Religious Right?

OpinionJournal.com editor James Taranto answers:
I suppose it is because I am put off by self-righteousness, closed-mindedness, and contempt for democracy and pluralism--all of which characterize the opposition to the religious right.
Read the rest here (free registration required).

More on Winner

Thanks to Gideon Strauss I just learned that Lauren Winner (see previous post) has a blog and a website.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

What Hath Sex to do with Theology?

In her essay titled "Creed or Chaos," Dorothy Sayers wrote: "....it is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology." I was reminded of that quote by an article about and interview with Lauren Winner in the current issue of World Magazine.

Winner is an evangelical who, five years ago, raised quite a stir (not to mention eyebrows) with an article at Beliefnet.com titled "Sex and the Single Evangelical." In it she admitted to being sexually active and suggested that the church reconsider what the Bible actually says about premarital sex instead of assume that it already knows.

Winner has since become persuaded that the Bible does indeed confine sexual activity to marriage, a conviction she defends in her new book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Gene Veith quotes Winner:
But as I wrote, I realized there was a good reason that Christian conversations about sex always circled back to marriage. What sits at the center of Christian sexual ethics is not a negative view of sex; the Christian vision of marriage is not, at its most concise, merely 'no sex before marriage.' Rather, the heart of the Christian story about sex is a vigorously positive statement about sex: Sex was created for marriage. Without a robust account of the Christian vision of sex within marriage, the Christian insistence that unmarried folks refrain from sex just doesn't make any sense.
Responding to a question about how churches can do a better job of teaching about sex Winner says:
One thing we need to do is give a richer, more theologically robust account of chastity. It's not enough to say "Paul says don't fornicate."....Rather, he is seeking to preserve, restore, and protect God's vision for humanity and sexuality, laid out at the opening of Genesis.