Friday, October 28, 2005

Asking, Listening, and Speaking is an excellent apologetics site I've pointed readers to before. I subscribed to their monthly email newsletter and received the November mailing just a few minutes ago. It begins with a brief discussion of the importance of patiently listening to the questions of those we're seeking to lead to Christ as well as of asking good ones ourselves. Francis Schaeffer is quoted in the email as saying:
If I have only an hour with somebody, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking them questions so that in the last five minutes I will have something to say which really speaks to them. Instead of speaking past them, I want to speak to them.
What pastoral wisdom! Yes, we are to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us but knowing how to speak requires knowing how to listen. Schaeffer realized that taking the time to hear people out is every bit as important as speaking the truth to them for in so doing we can embody the compassion of Christ. Being people who take the time to sincerely know people by asking probing questions and being willing to listen to their answers can be a powerful witness to our frenzied, multitasking, and increasingly impersonal society.

Memo to Christianity Today: Context, Context, Context

Each issue of Christianity Today contains a page called "Reflections: Questions to Stir Heart and Mind" filled with quotations about a particular subject. November's subject is poetry. The following quotation caught my eye because, as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm teaching a class using Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth and it so beautifully illustrates the fact/value dichotomy she says is responsible for the marginalizing of Christian faith from the public square.
Reason is the prose by which we understand the real world; religion the poetry by which we try to give it a meaning that makes it psychologically and spiritually endurable. - Richard John Neuhaus, forward to Faith and the Life of the Intellect, edited by Curtis L. Hancock & Brendan Sweetman.
According to this quotation, reason is the means by which we arrive at factual knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, doesn't give us truth about the way things really are. Its role is limited to that of a coping mechanism by providing arbitrary values.

I was surprised when I read this since Neuhaus is the editor of First Things, an impressive journal that addresses the interface between faith and public policy. I went to Amazon's site, hoping that the book for which he wrote the forward was searchable online and, lo and behold, it is. As it turns out, this line is not representative of Neuhaus's own thought. Rather, it's part of his description and rejection of the artificial division between religion and rationality. Here's the sentence in its larger context:

That tragedy is a primary source, if not the primary source, of the bifurcation with which we are still living. It prepared the way for the dogmas of a more militantly secular Enlightenment, decreeing that faith and religion have no legitimate place in what counts as truly public reason and knowledge. Many Christians have, mistakenly I believe, been happy to go along with this bifurcation. What counts as public reason, meaning mainly "science" in one form or another, deals with the "isness" of things; religion and theology with the "oughtness" of things. Reason is the prose by which we understand the real world; religion the poetry by which we try to give it a meaning that makes it psychologically and spiritually endurable. As the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio observes, ancient philosophy aimed at wisdom and opened to wonder. Most of what is called modern philosophy, following the tragic bifurcation, despairs of wisdom and shuts the door on wonder (x).
The quote, therefore, is properly attributed to Neuhaus but taken as it is, isolated from its context, it leads the reader to believe that he is actually endorsing a view with which he is in stark disagreement. Not only that, inclusion of this quote could lead one to believe that Christianity Today is advocating such a view itself. The funny thing is that Total Truth received a CT Award of Merit for the best Christian book in the area of Christianity and Culture.

We Must Not Choose Between Spirituality and Theology

I recall being alarmed and befuddled by the results of a survey of more than 800 lay people, pastors, and seminary professors published in Christianity Today (subscription required) in 1994. Participants were asked to identify and rank the top five qualities that the ideal pastor would possess. Lay people responded that spirituality was the most important trait, followed by relational skills, character, communication skills, and theological knowledge. I was amazed by the disconnect. How could spirituality be so highly valued at the same time theological understanding was esteemed so little?

Yesterday I was reminded of this tragic disconnect when I read the following paragraphs in Eugene Peterson's Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology:

Spiritual theology is not one more area of theology that takes its place on the shelf alongside the academic disciplines of systematic, biblical, practical, and historical theology; rather, it represents the conviction that all theology, no exceptions, has to do with the living God who creates us as living creatures to live to his glory. It is the development of awareness and discernments that are as alert and responsive in the workplace as in the sanctuary, as active while changing diapers in a nursery as while meditating in a grove of aspens, as necessary when reading a newspaper editorial as when exegeting a sentence written in Hebrew.
Some may want to simplify things by keeping the spiritual and throwing out the theology. Others will be content to continue with the theology as usual and forget the spiritual. But the fact is that we live only because God lives and that we live well only in continuity with the way God makes, saves, and blesses us. Spirituality begins in theology (the revelation and understanding of God) and is guided by it. And theology is never truly itself apart from being expressed in the bodies of the men and women to whom God gives life and whom God then intends to live a full salvation life (spirituality).

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Blog and the Pendulum

My thoughts about the merits of Christian blogging are in a constant state of flux. I know one should never say never but I think it's safe to predict that my voice will never be added to those of some who paint what I believe is an overly optimistic, quasi-utopian portrait of the medium and its potential. I think there needs to be far more question asking of the sort Pastor Mark is doing in the aftermath of GodBlogCon. I can usually be found traveling in the opposite direction of the latest evangelical bandwagon so I agree with him when he says "It's always good to be skeptical of group-think." (I just hope not too many others start thinking that way because then I'll have to rethink my position.)

On the other hand, the fact that I'm writing this post is evidence that I don't consider blogging a total waste either. Sure, there are days when I ask myself, "Why did you ever start doing this?" (at which point I reread my first post) but my frustration and skepticism have not won out. I do think there are valid reasons to continue my efforts. Two things happened this week that shored up that confidence.

Sunday morning as I walked down our church building's main corridor I saw a young man who moved out of state eight months ago with his family. For numerous reasons I was saddened to say good-bye to Mark and his wife, Raquel. They're a delightful couple who are just fun to be around. Both of them were actively involved in ministry and they are a teacher's dream! They are edge of the seat learners who consistently displayed a yearning to understand and apply God's word to their lives as well as gratitude and appreciation for those who taught them. I fondly remember receiving calls from them prefaced by "I hope I'm not bothering you..." in which they asked for clarification about something in the Bible or help with how to effectively minister to family and friends. Believe me, "interruptions" like that are most welcomed by this pastor.

When I first saw Mark I thought nothing of it because it seemed so "right" for him to be at church. In a matter of seconds I did a double take when it dawned on me that his family was no longer in the area. In the brief moments we had to catch up with each other Mark told me that unbeknownst to me I had been keeping in touch with him. It turns out that he and Raquel stumbled across the blog and have become regular readers. How gratifying it is to know that even from a distance I can continue to play a small part in their growth! I also had the pleasure of having them sit in on the class I'm teaching using Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth. Just like old times.

The other situation that moved me to the positive side of blogging happened yesterday when I received an encouraging email from someone I don't know who has become a regular reader. She's a Christian who has been blogging for a few months but only recently discovered Christian blogging. Prior to that she says the Blamires quote in the banner captures how she was feeling in the blogosphere. It means a lot to me that she took the time to express appreciation and gratitude and it's an example I want to follow.

So, at least for this week, when I ask myself "To blog or not to blog?" I'll choose the former.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ms. Brown Goes to Washington: Atheists Get a Lobbyist

The Secular Coalition for America, a non-profit political organization for atheist groups, has hired former Nevada state senator Lori Lipman Brown as its congressional lobbyist and national voice. Her mission:"to educate the public about mistaken notions regarding atheists while making sure religion doesn't get a ringside seat at issue debates."

Brown is quoted as saying: "My beef is with people who have taken [religion] out of the 'sacred' sphere and used it instead as a political tool. Having done that denigrates religion." That sounds at first as though she esteems religion and wants to safeguard it against being abused. But not so quick. The article goes on:

Brown has strong convictions when it comes to keeping religion out of government. She would like to spread the word that even people without religion have morals. Brown believes the secular people her group represents can work side by side with religious people.
In other words, religion is fine as long as it stays in its place - the private sphere. As long as your religion is confined to personal ethics and feelings it's OK. But if it maintains, as Christianity does, that it is a source of knowledge and thus has bearing on all aspects of life including social issues, then it has overstepped the bounds secularists have established. And all this is done in the name of rationality, neutrality, and objectivity. Ms. Brown will be seeking to influence public policy issues such as stem cell research, access to emergency contraception, and physician assisted suicide and well she should. But she and those she represents should readily admit the philosophical (dare I say, "religious"?) system that guides their reasoning (see my previous post, I Believe in Matter Almighty). [HT: The Revealer]

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Pearcey Report

Today marks my son's 9th birthday and as traditional at the Plummer household, the birthday person gets to select the menu for the evening meal. That means we're most likely in for McDonald's or pizza. (I'm pulling for the latter.)

I was very pleased to learn just a few minutes ago (by way of
Tim Challies) that something else was born today - The Pearcey Report! Rick and Nancy (Total Truth) Pearcey have launched a site of news, comment, information, and worldview. It just so happens that Tim is responsible for designing the site and, as you would expect, he did a great job.

Here's an excerpt from Rick's welcome message:

...nothing written here shall be deemed more important than how each one of us live and work day in and day out -- How we raise our kids, the choices we make, the culture we create, the assumptions we think through, the behavior we affirm or let slide. A disconnect in areas such as these has been known to turn fairly normal people into seedbeds of opportunism for PR sharpshooters, image magicians, money-grubbers, and influence-mongers of all stripes of religion and irreligion (and ever the twain shall meet). We would just as soon see a world without that junk littering the landscape.
Oh, my son arrived home a few minutes ago, read what I was typing, and informed me I was wrong on both counts regarding the menu. Oh, well.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"It's Not About Brew!"

Rick Warren has a new publisher - Starbucks! From USA Today:
Coffee drinkers could get a spiritual jolt with their java in the spring when Starbucks begins putting a God-filled quote from the Rev. Rick Warren, author of the mega-selling The Purpose-Driven Life, on its cups.
It will be the first mention of God in the company's provocative quote campaign, The Way I See It. In 2005, Starbucks is printing 63 quotes from writers, scientists, musicians, athletes, politicians and cultural critics on cups for company-run and licensed locations to carry on the coffeehouse tradition of conversation and debate. Warren says the idea of a grande pitch for God as creator came to him after seeing a Starbucks quote on evolution from paleontologist Louise Leakey. Because Starbucks solicited customer contributions for 2006, Warren sent his in. On Tuesday, Starbucks spokeswoman Sanja Gould confirmed that it would be used. The cups carry a disclaimer that the opinions "do not necessarily reflect the views of Starbucks."

Here's the quote:
You are not an accident. Your parents may not have planned you, but God did. He wanted you alive and created you for a purpose. Focusing on yourself will never reveal your real purpose. You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Only in God do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny.
[HT: The Revealer]

The Gospel Is Bigger Than We Think

Trinity professor of biblical and systematic theology, Graham Cole uttered one line in a brief conversation that I will never forget. He said, "We are creatures before we are Christians." Today, former Trinity prof Scot McKnight makes the same point with a few more words, all of which are worth reading carefully. Scot notes that the problem for which the gospel is the solution is only properly understood if Creation, rather than the Fall, is our starting point:
It is common to begin, rather abruptly, with the Fall and to see humans as sinners in need of forgiveness. I do not dispute either that we are sinners or that we all need forgiveness. Sometimes, so it seems to me, our sin is understood as little more than a legal standing or a judicial sentence against us, and that means that forgiveness follows in line: it, too, is understood as little more than a standing or judicially.
But, both of these problems — how we understand sin and how we understand forgiveness — are created by beginning at the wrong place.  Instead of beginning the gospel story with the Fall, I am suggesting we begin with the Creation of humans, both male and female, as Eikons of God. That is, as made in the image of God (imago Dei). The gospel begins, and only begins, because humans are Eikons of God.
Instead of seeing humans first and foremost as sinners, we need to see them as Eikons of God, created to relate to God, to relate to others, and to govern the world as Eikons. The Fall affects each of the previous: our relation to God, our relation to others, and our relation to the world. Humans, then, are cracked Eikons. There is all the difference in the world in depicting humans as simply sinners and seeing sinfulness as the condition and behavior of a cracked Eikon. Humans sin, but their sin is the sin of an Eikon. They can’t be defined by their sin until they are seen as Eikons.

The gospel, when it begins with Creation, is God’s work to restore and undo and recreate (whichever image you might prefer) what we were designed by God to be and to do. To begin here means the gospel is about restoring Eikons rather than just forgiving sinners. This gospel is bigger and it is bigger because the human condition is bigger than a Fallen condition.
I came across this gem during a study break and I couldn't resist pointing others to it. I don't anticipate posting much more for the next few days as I have a pressing deadline breathing down my neck. I hope the rest of you can enjoy life on the outside!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Bad Press for Planned Parenthood

Peggy Jo Connor allegedly beat her pregnant friend and neighbor with a baseball bat, led her into a wooded area, and sliced her abdomen open in an attempt to steal her unborn child. When I learned of this grizzly crime on this morning's Good Morning America, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the text at the bottom of the screen read something along the lines of "Woman Tries to Steal Unborn Baby" (emphasis mine). I've come to expect network coverage of such stories to refer to the unborn as a fetus so as to avoid personalizing and humanizing him or her but that wasn't the case here and I was glad.

Curious, I decided to search Google's news engine for the accused's name to see how other news sources were describing the crime. I was further surprised to find that most of them also referred to the life in the mother's womb as either a baby or a child.  Just for the heck of it I decided to search for the phrase "unborn baby" at Planned Parenthood's site. The sole result was a letter from Planned Parenthood to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt objecting to the content of a HHS website including its allegedly "anti-choice" language. Among PP's complaints:

In its definition of menstruation, the website states that "if the egg is fertilized, this lining will nourish and protect the unborn child." "Unborn child" is not medically correct language; embryo or fetus would be accurate.
The website defines abortion as "ending a pregnancy before a live birth occurs by removing the fetus or unborn baby from the uterus." Again, there is an agenda inherent in the language used.
Understand that Planned Parenthood is simply seeking to be neutral and unbiased in their insistence upon the use "medically correct language." Planned Parenthood would have us believe that "unborn child" and "fetus" are mutually exclusive categories which is as inane as claiming that it's incorrect to refer to an octogenarian as an adult. I wonder if Planned Parenthood would object to calling unborn humans "offspring." That is, after all, the meaning of the Latin word from which the English word "fetus" is derived.

Order! Order!: Conversing with an Atheistic Evolutionist

KP: Would you say that all knowledge is founded on faith?
Nihil: No. I would say that all knowledge is to some extent uncertain, although in some cases that uncertainty is so small as to be negligible.

KP: But isn't all knowledge founded upon certain basic beliefs that are incapable of being scientifically verified?

Nihil: Depends on what you mean by verified, and your criteria for accepting something as "verified." Almost any statement you can make about the world is based on some presupposition. Even the idea of making a statement assumes that it is somehow meaningful and useful to do so.

KP: OK, let's take your means of verification. Can the foundations of science be verified empirically?

Nihil: Prediction, when it is possible, says something about the underlying foundations of the scientific method. It does not verify them absolutely, but it certainly suggests that science is, in some cases, on to a "real" phenomenon.

KP: What of the principle of induction, however. Can you offer a rational justification for it? Or what of the laws of logic - are they empirically verifiable?

Nihil: The rational justification is in the results we get by applying the method. Logic...yes, it can be empirically verified in some aspects. We can search for cases of observable phenomenon that do not follow ordinary logic whether we find them or not is a different question. 

KP: That the principle of induction works is not the same thing as offering an explanation for why it does, is it?

Nihil: Ah! I see. You want to know why? That's another question. Demonstrating that something works does not tell you much, by itself, about WHY it works. 

KP: So science believes that induction will work in the future because it has done so in the past. But this is simply to assume the principle.

Nihil: It is reasonable to expect that what has worked well, consistently and specifically in the past will continue to do so, unless something obvious has changed. Of course, we cannot prove that what "worked" in the past will do so in the future. That would be a logical fallacy of some sort.

KP: But why is it reasonable to expect that what has worked well, consistently and specifically in the past will continue to do so? 

Nihil: Because most of the time that is exactly what happens. The best guess about the future is that it will have a high degree of consistency with the observable present and known past. Why would we expect something that has worked consistently and specifically to suddenly fail?

KP: You really haven't answered my question by saying that most of the time that is what happens. All you've done is again assume the inductive principle. I'm asking for a rationale for believing in it. 

Nihil: The reason to believe it is because it gets results, it yields specific and consistent knowledge. The result is what matters. To me, a method which is capable of explaining observed events, in some cases well enough to make absolutely accurate predictions, is as proven as proven gets. The principle of induction may or may not apply, or may apply to some things and not others, I guess...but it produces the results we need. By using it, we generate valid knowledge. That's the rationale, more or less....

KP: And why do you think it yields results? Why does it work so well?

Nihil: I think it works as well as it does because it is somehow in accord with the actual material world...scientific methods provide a way for our brains to study the world systematically....maybe it "translates" between the external world and our internal world of thoughts, feelings, etc. I think it works because it's really onto something about the natural world.

KP: And why do you think the natural world is like that?

Nihil: I have no idea, and I cannot imagine what the "why" question means in this context. Actually, I do not think there is a "why."

KP: What don't you understand about the question?

Nihil: I cannot see how the question "why is the natural world the way it is" has any meaningful referent....I don't really understand what it is asking. My guess is that it's somehow based on the idea that here is purpose and intent in the natural world, or on an analogy between daily human experience and the larger natural world.

KP: Doesn't science concern itself with offering explanations for what is observed in the natural world?

Nihil: Yes, it does. 

KP: So is it outlandish to ask why it is that the natural world operates in a seemingly orderly fashion?

Nihil: No, it's not outlandish at all - and physicists can give you an explanation, of sorts, but I suspect that it would not answer the question to your satisfaction. The explanation will generate another "why" question. Why this explanation of order and not another? And why is there any order at all?

KP: I know there are physicists who would offer an explanation but I was really interested in your particular thoughts.

Nihil: It's actually pretty complicated, of course, because there are two questions at work. First, why is there order (assuming there is, which is a fairly safe assumption) and second, why do we perceive order. (It is at least arguable that order is something created or synthesized by the brain and "mind." I don't take that view myself, but the idea that perceived "reality" is a transaction between the nervous system and some essentially unknowable "external" reality is worth considering.)

KP: And then the question of why there is order in the brain could be asked. But what position DO you take?

Nihil: As to why there is order...I will have to give that some thought. I still don't think that the question is quite right. I'm not sure what a meaningful answer would be. There's order in the brain because the brain evolved to process information and it evolved to process information because information processing had survival value.

KP: I wonder why that question is so bothersome to you.

Nihil: Which one...why is there order, or why is there order in the brain? "Why is there order in the brain?" can in principle be answered, I think. Why is there order anywhere in nature? That's a different kind of question. The physicists answer it, and yet they do not because one can always say that they have explained how order works without explaining why it works that way. 

KP: I meant the question of order in the natural world. Inquisitiveness has survival value as well yet there are some questions that you think are not worth asking.

Nihil: Not all questions are meaningful. Not all questions can have meaningful answers. Because it is possible to think of a question does not mean there is any answer.

KP: Can you give me an example of such a question?

Nihil: Inquisitiveness has survival value, but that does not mean it will be efficient.

KP: Can you give me an example of a question for which there may not be an answer?

Nihil: "Why is the world the way it is?" might be a good example. "What is god?" might be another. "How should we live?" might be yet another, though as much out of too many answers as too few.

KP: You say "might." Are you uncertain?

Nihil: Of course. How can anyone possibly rule a question out as "absolutely meaningless"? Besides...meaningful to whom? And in what context? And it is possible that a "meaningful" answer could come along at some later point?

KP: So when you said that not all questions are meaningful, you were speaking only in terms of yourself?

Nihil: No, not only myself. I think some questions are in fact not meaningful at all. I cannot prove that contention, either in logic or by empirical investigation. It is probably true. Probably. 

KP: And what is the basis for your belief that that is probable?

Nihil: I have to sign off for the night. See you tomorrow, I hope?

KP: Sure, I should be on at some point. Good night.

Nihil: See you then. Good night.

Learning to Lament with Each Other

Weeping with those who weep is a biblically-commanded expression of Christian love. Yet, it's something that we often do poorly if at all. Often, we try to immediately stop the tears of those who are sorrowing and that to alleviate our own discomfort. Doug Groothuis has words worth reading on suffering well with others.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Trying Something New With Comments

After being flooded with spam comments, all of which start off with flattering words like "Great blog you've got here!," I was toying with the idea of turning off the comments completely. This morning I discovered that Blogger has a word verification feature that requires anyone wishing to leave a comment to type a series of displayed characters before doing so. This is supposed to circumvent automated spamming. So, I'll experiment with that first. I'll just have to learn how to cope in the absence of all that "sincere" praise.

A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin (Proverbs 26:28)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

When Gaining Weight is Good: Redefining Ministry Success

In a recent conversation with fellow Free Church pastor Lee Eclov, I mentioned this interview with Richard Foster and Dallas Willard about spiritual formation. That prompted Lee to paraphrase something Willard said in the Summer '05 issue of Leadership Journal about how pastors measure success. Lee was kind enough to forward the exact quote later that day and I'd like to share it with you. Here it is:
Pastors need to redefine success. The popular model of success involves the ABCs—attendance, buildings, and cash. Instead of counting Christians, we need to weigh them. We weigh them by focusing on the most important kind of growth…fruit in keeping with the gospel and the kingdom.

Friday, October 07, 2005

In Recovery

From what I've read, it's customary to begin a post explaining why you've not been blogging for a while with an apology but if I were to do that it would be insincere so I won't. Apologies are appropriate when there has been an infraction of some kind but I don't think that's the case when one takes a hiatus from blogging. Now, when I move over to paid subscriptions and I miss a few days, then I'll apologize. 

Anyway, the demands of ministry as well as the necessity to get more pressing writing done have kept me away from this venue. At first I was slightly anxious about not having anything new to post but I soon got over it. I also didn't miss my regular trips to sitemeter and TTLB to see my ranking. I even fell behind in keeping up with my daily reads of the blogs I subscribe to via Bloglines

Overall, the time away was good for me. It helped me refocus on what’s really important and where my priorities should lie (a lesson I am forever in need of being taught). The time away also helped me realize the necessity and benefit of not waiting until life’s pressures force me away from being computer-bound but to take intentional steps to see to it that I do not allow technology to become my master. I took a small step toward this yesterday. I previously had my email program set to check for mail every 15 minutes. I’ve changed that to 45 and may up it to 60. My easily distracted and curious mind has frequently been sidetracked by the notification of new arrivals in my inbox. Too often I stopped what I was doing to read and immediately respond to the new messages, wondering why, at the end of the day, I didn’t get as much accomplished as I had hoped.

Among the blogs I made it a point to catch up with were some interesting posts related to the problem of media saturation:

Milton Stanley humbly articulated what I too have to confess -- “I’ve been spending way too much time on the computer and far too little time in prayer."

Al Mohler commented on this article by Lowell Monke about the adverse consequences of children spending excessive amounts of time on computers:

Computers have their place, and can be great learning tools for certain subjects. But children are now spending far too much time staring at electronic screens and “learning” through digitalized programs of study. Dancing electronic dots have replaced human interaction. Monke understands that education requires far more than this – and that what happens on the playground is important too.
(I shudder to think what I would be like if I had been exposed to computers at such an early age.)

Thanks to
Macht for linking to Byron Borger’s impressive bibliography of books “that can help us think Christianly about cyberspace and computer science.”

Finally, in an Outtake item he called “
Info Addicts,” Joe Carter cited a Ball State University study that found the average person spends more time using media devices than any other activity while awake. According to one of the researchers:

Television is still the 800-pound gorilla because of how much the average person is exposed to it. However, that is quickly evolving. When we combine time spent on the Web, using e-mail, instant messaging and software such as word processing, the computer eclipses all other media with the single exception of television.
Joe’s reference to information addiction brings to mind a vivid mental image that popped into my head not long ago. I'll set it forth for your consideration in the form of a question. Are bloggers analogous to a room full of bulimics feeding each other?

Bon Appetit!