Sunday, November 27, 2005

IM One Another

A few hours after posting the link to a contemporized letter from Screwtape last week, I heard a real-life example that further illustrates how important it is for church leaders (and for that matter, all Christians) to understand how heavy use of information technologies is shaping the minds and practices of those we’re seeking to help mature in the faith.

In a gathering of pastors last week, one young man who works with people in their 20’s and 30’s related how readily many of these folks share the very intimate details of their lives on a website that bills itself as a community of online diaries and journals. Some make 3 or 4 entries a day, recording their fears, failures, frustrations, and disappointments. Yet, according to this pastor, they rarely speak about these issues with others. Borne out of his sincere desire to better understand and minister to his people, this young pastor has made a habit of regularly reading their contributions to their virtual journals and offers biblical counsel, often via email.

I was fascinated as I listened to him describe how widespread this phenomenon is. He said that many of the men he deals with are lacking in social skills and are much more comfortable communicating through the Internet. As an example of this, he told us of one young man who, while in college, regularly instant messaged his roommate while they were in the same room. My immediate reaction, upon hearing this, was to laugh. The image of two guys tapping away at computer keyboards in order to “speak” to each other sounded at first like something out of a comedy. However, looking into the face of the pastor telling the story made it clear that this was no joke. I felt ashamed for finding this scenario humorous. Tears are a much more appropriate response. What a graphic depiction of alienation and loneliness this is – two bearers of the divine image, endowed with the wondrous gifts of language, speech, hearing, and facial expression which God gave us in order to experience the joys of knowing and being known – choosing instead to avert each other’s gaze and fix their eyes on screens. Painfully aware that there is something wrong with us, we try in vain to cover our nakedness with electronic fig leaves.

What is even sadder is the likelihood that these men are representative of countless others who daily traffic in various communication technologies yet exist in a state of personal isolation. How do the “one another’s” of the New Testament get fleshed out among people more comfortable LOL’ing than actually laughing together? God does not command us to :-) with those who rejoice and :-( with those who weep but to actually enter into each other’s joys and sorrows thereby representing Christ to each other. 

I don't offer these thoughts from a stance of superiority or self-righteousness but as one who is often ashamed of and frustrated with my own foolish use of communication technologies. How should the fear of the Lord manifest itself in my thinking about and use of high-tech gadgets that promise to keep me well-informed, connected, and entertained? How do I use these things in a manner consistent with my professed beliefs about creation, sin, the image of God, and sanctification? The Bible tells us to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. In our day of ubiquitous cell phones, voicemails, emails, computers, PDA's, and mp3 players, the church should aim to help believers use these items with wisdom and love. I was the recipient of such counsel recently. When I mentioned to my friend Tony at Theological Meditations that I was seriously thinking about getting an mp3 player, he offered the following word of warning:
...having an mp3 player can help to redeem the time that is usually wasted by driving or standing around. I use mine while sorting packages at UPS. I'm able to listen to it without compromising my job performance. There's one thing I've noticed at work. I get irritated with some people who come up and want to talk to me while I am listening to an excellent audio message. It's like I want to be an intellectual sponge and avoid opportunities to befriend co-workers. This misses the whole point of why I am listening to the messages, i.e. to reflect the goodness, truth and beauty of Christ to a lost world around me with a view to God's glory. Anyway, just beware of this tendency if you get one.

With the staggering statistics about how many people are ensnared in Internet porn, it's understandable that most of the exhortations we hear concerning information technology involve the moral content of the medium. We have to continue to sound that warning while also encouraging more thoughtful reflection about what other forms faithfulness to Jesus should take in how we use technological tools. Using them in humanizing rather than dehumanizing ways can be a powerful part of our witness to the world.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Screwtape Letter for the Media Age

Erik Lokkesmoe imagines what kind of advice C. S. Lewis's Screwtape would give his neophyte nephew today:
Good news! The latest commendations have arrived from the Council of the Pit. You impress the lower-downs, my zealous Wormwood. They have heard of your schemes on the Noise Proliferation Committee (NPC). Indeed, places of solitude and moments of silence grow ever more scarce in the Enemy's vast and vulgar dominion. Oh, what euphoria to see his insufferable creatures rush to fill the dead air with a cacophony of cell phones and muzac, leaf blowers and manipulated car exhaust pipes, 24-hour news and I-Pods. Those nauseating humans cannot escape their self-made dungeon of din!

My pride bubbles like brimstone, Wormwood.

It is down-wrong delicious that you are able to entice your assignments into believing that quiet and solitude are a waste of time, even harmful to their pursuits. We must be the demon in the whirlwind, invading their private space, cluttering their innermost being with commotion.....
I trust you understand what is at stake. If allowed to contemplate the empty pursuits and hollow activity that often fill their days, there is no telling what horrific changes they may make in their lives. As long as the volume is high and the lights are flashing, there is little danger of this. But when allowed to face things as they really are, stripped of the comfort provided by our dizzying distractions, our subjects often choose against our ways.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Back from ETS

Despite a few traveling glitches in both directions, my trip to Philadelphia for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society was great. As usual, I cut it close getting to O'Hare to catch my eastbound plane so I was slightly relieved to learn that my 9 PM flight was delayed until 10:45 even though that meant I wouldn't be getting to Philly until close to 1 AM. Unfortunately, shortly after I got to the gate it was announced that the flight had been cancelled. Passengers were directed to the United Airlines customer service desk which was appropriately situated beneath the towering skeleton of what used to be called a Brontosaurus. I waited in line for about 2 hours to be rebooked on a flight leaving the next morning. Fortunately, my time on line was made more enjoyable by the fact that I was standing in front of two professors from Moody Bible Institute who were also on their way to the ETS meeting.

On the return trip I got to the airport too late to check my bag and was informed that I would have to be rebooked on a flight scheduled to leave four hours later. This was a blessing in disguise since this was a direct flight into Chicago whereas my original flight connected with another in Richmond, VA. At the security checkpoint I was told that I had been selected for a full body search. Since I thought I wasn't leaving until 8, I wasn't too upset. After being wanded and patted down I proceeded to the gate after indulging in a slice of Sicilian pizza (hard to find in the heartland) and a Pepsi. It's a good thing I didn't go wandering off because to my surprise my name was announced to board the 5:05 flight! This was too good to be true. Not only was I on a direct flight but now I'd arrive in the Windy City even earlier than planned. My excitement was short lived. When the baggage claim carousel for my flight came to a halt and my bag was nowhere to be found, I found out that due to my being selected to be personally searched (which included my luggage) my bag was placed on the flight after mine which wasn't scheduled to arrive three hours later. By now I had had my fill of airports. There was no way I was going to wait. The only alternative was to have the baggage delivered to my home somewhere between midnight and 4 AM. I slept on the couch so I could quickly answer the doorbell or phone when the delivery person called which was a little after 1 AM to tell me that he couldn't find my address. The story ends happily, however, as my bag and I were finally reunited about 30 minutes later.

But enough of my traveling woes. ETS was wonderful! I'm tempted to say that this was the best meeting I've attended and I'm pretty sure that my use of the superlative isn't just because this was the most recent. What made it so enjoyable? It was most definitely the opportunities I had to spend with old friends, to make new ones, and to introduce new ones to old ones. That's not to say I didn't greatly appreciate the intellectual and spiritual stimulation provided by the presentations I attended. I got to attend all of the sessions I wanted to and wasn't disappointed by any of them. However, what left the greatest impression on me was how good it was to be in the company of fellow believers who take ideas seriously yet who also know how to laugh heartily. 

Here are a few of the highlights of my excursion:
  • Shortly after entering the room in which the first session I attended was being held, I heard a familiar voice say, "Mr. Plummer!" It belonged to Stand to Reason's Greg Koukl, a good friend I hadn't seen since ETS met in Toronto in 2002. Later in the week I saw his wife, Steese, and met their adorable little girl.
  • I also enjoyed meeting two other members of the STR team - Brett Kunkle and Alan Schlemon. It's enough to make a guy think about moving to southern California!
  • In order to cut hotel costs, I shared a room with a seminarian from our church, his dad, and another father and son. I enjoyed getting to know these brothers but I have to say that the four of them really can snore. Of course, they said I was sawing logs too but I never heard myself! (For more on conference snoring, see Scot McKnight who also bunked with a group of guys in Philly.)
  • Patrick Smith is an apologetics buddy who's now teaching Bible and theology at Michigan Theological Seminary. His was one of the first familiar faces I saw when I walked into the book display area. It was really good catching up with each other.
  • Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's Dr. Eric Johnson gave a paper on Augustine's contributions to a Christian psychology. Though I wasn't able to attend his presentation, he did give me a copy of his paper and we had a stimulating conversation about the role of theology in truly Christian counseling. Dr. Johnson is one of the leaders of a new ETS study group devoted to psychology, counseling, and pastoral care as well as a member of the executive committee of the Society for Christian Psychology.
  • I was able to personally express my appreciation to some bloggers I make it a point to read regularly. Between Two Worlds' Justin Taylor was there as was the A-Team Blog's Roger Overton (a.k.a. Murdock). Check out Roger's posts on sessions he attended here, here, and here.
  • David Wayne, the Jollyblogger, had to drive to Philadelphia for a class Thursday evening but was kind enough to drive up earlier in order for us to have lunch together. He accompanied two friends of mine from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and me (technically, we accompanied him since he drove) to a local eatery where we talked theology, family, and had more than our fair share of laughs. I've succeeded in persuading David to join ETS. That way he can join us next year for the whole meeting to be held in Washington, D.C. where the theme will be "Christianity in the Public Square."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Quiet For a Few Days

I'm off to Pennsylvania this evening to attend the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. I anticipate being computer-free until Saturday and therefore don't plan to make any contributions to the blog until at least then. However, should I be able to get my hands on a laptop, I just might break my silence.

I've marked some presentations and panel discussions I'm eager to attend including a dialogue between J. P. Moreland and John Franke on theological and philosophical perspectives on truth and knowledge, a panel discussion about homosexuality and evangelical foundations for pastoral care in which CCEF's Ed Welch will be presenting a biblical counseling perspective, and an exchange between some of the contributors to the book Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views (which for some reason didn't make the program but I have the word of a reliable source that it's going to happen). 

And then there are the books! I'm taking a short "to buy" list consisting of Common Grounds by Ben Young and Glenn Lucke (Am I the only person not to have read this one yet?), a new volume by James Beck and Bruce Demarest called The Human Person in Theology and Psychology, and David Wells's latest - Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. Of course, just because a book isn't currently on the short list is no guarantee that it won't be coming back with me.

If all of the above weren't enough to get me excited about the trip, David Wayne, the Jollyblogger, and I have made luncheon plans. I'm looking forward to that just as much as anything else. Until I blog again.

Mechanics, Scientists, and Intelligent Design

Today's New York Times has an interesting article in the Science section about the recent Kansas Board of Education decision to define science in such a way that it is not limited to naturalistic explanations. Prior to this the state's standards defined science as "a human activity of systematically seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us" and restricted science to "explaining only the natural world, using only natural cause" because "science currently has no tools to test explanations using non-natural (such as supernatural) causes." The new definition calls science "a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena." 

According to the Times, the old definition reflects the traditional view of science that the political right now wants to change. However, David Wells's research of other states' educational standards (HT: Jason Engwer) reveals that Kansas was the only state to define science primarily as "seeking natural explanations." Wells says:
The definition of science in the current Kansas science standards is unlike any other in the U.S. By defining science first and foremost as "seeking natural explanations," the current standards subtly shift the emphasis in science education from the investigative process to the end result. This shift is out of step with modern science education, which gives priority to the activity of formulating and testing hypotheses."
As expected, the article contains a number of alarmist quotes from scientists desirous of defending the philosophical precommitment to naturalistic philosophy. A physics professor at the University of Kansas says, "The only reason to take out 'natural explanations' is if you want to open the door to supernatural explanations" and a Harvard professor of history of science says that the deletion of "natural explanations" means that now, "anything goes."

One comment that struck me as particularly interesting was that offered by Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas. In support of understanding science as being confined to the search for natural explanations, Weinberg states that a scientist's seeking natural explanations is analogous to a mechanic who searches for mechanical reasons for a car's malfunctioning. I don't think this is a good analogy at all. First of all, an auto mechanic searches for mechanical problems because he or she knows how automobiles were created (or more appropriate for this discussion - "designed"). A mechanic is justified in restricting his search for answers to why a car isn't working to mechanical explanations because he knows that cars were built by other humans using mechanical principles. But in the case of the debate over the legitimacy of intelligent design theory, the question of origins is exactly what is at issue. Scientists are not justified in restricting themselves to natural explanations unless they, like the mechanic, know how the objects of their study were produced.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Preaching to Rational Creatures: A Lesson from the Puritans

Thanks to Peter Bogert at Stronger Church for posting this quote from Joel Beeke's chapter in the book Whatever Happened to the Reformation?. I thought readers of this blog would appreciate it as well.

First, Puritan preaching addressed the mind with clarity. It addressed man as a rational creature. The Puritans loved and worshiped God with their minds. They viewed the mind as the palace of faith. They refused to set mind and heart against each other, but taught that knowledge was the soil in which the Spirit planted the seed of regeneration. Puritans thus preached that we need to think in order to be holy. They challenged the idea that holiness is only a matter of emotions.
The Puritans preached that a flabby mind is no badge of honor. They understood that a mindless Christianity will foster a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectual gospel will spawn an irrelevant gospel that does not get beyond "felt needs." That's what is happening in our churches today. We've lost our Christian mind, and for the most part we do not see the necessity of recovering it. We do not understand that where there is little difference between the Christian and non-Christian in what we think and believe, there will soon be little difference in how we live (245-246).
If that wasn't enough to make me want to read the book, I see that David Powlison contributed a chapter called "A Flourishing of Fresh Wisdoms: The Call of the Hour in the Ministry of the Word."

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

New Book from David Powlison

A trusted bibliographic informant notified me that David Powlison, editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, has authored a new book, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community. This is all the information I could find. It should be available in a few days. I can't wait! 

UPDATE: Minutes after posting the above I received in the mail a publication of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation called Seasons. This issue features a brief interview with Powlison about his new book. Here's his response to the question, "Why this book? Why right now?":
I think the time is right for a book that takes a new look at what biblical counseling is at its best: a way of talking and acting that moves us toward God and one another. Speaking Truth in Love is the most practical book I have written, but also the most comprehensive. I think many people are looking for something deeper, more profound, and more redemptive from the community of Christ than what they have experienced. They have glimpsed what it could be like to live in a community where the faith, love, sacrifice, and wisdom that God has given one person flows towards others so that the whole community grows together. Speaking Truth in Love is a guide to speaking and living together in this redemptive way.

"This is My Pin."

I continue to be surprised by the number of visits this blog gets from people who have done a search for Joel Osteen. If you have arrived as the result of such a search, you may be interested in this. [HT:Tim Challies]

Saturday, November 05, 2005

"Girlcott" Prevails

The student-led protest against Abercrombie & Fitch has persuaded the retailer to stop selling several objectionable t-shirts. Yesterday A & F issued a statement that reads in part:
In recognition that these t-shirts might be found to be objectionable to many young women, who are among our best customers, we contacted Heather Arnet, Executive Director of the Women & Girls Foundation, and offered to discuss the issue with them. We recognize that the shirts in question, while meant to be humorous, might be troubling to some.
How long do you think it will take for A & F to forget this lesson?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Al Franken the Originalist?

I woke up from dozing in my living room chair just long enough to catch Al Franken on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno last night. When Leno asked his thoughts about Supreme Court Justice nominee Samuel Alito, Franken replied that he has some "scary" ideas like that of a woman having to inform her husband before having an abortion. He also said that Alito believes in "the right to bear machine guns," adding that he doubts the framers of the Constitution ever envisioned anything like that. I wonder what he thinks they envisioned about a mother having the state-protected right to kill her unborn child.

Girlcotting Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch once again reveals its penchant for raunchiness, this time by selling t-shirts for young women with "Who needs brains when you have these?" strategically printed on the chest. In response, a group of high school girls in Allegheny County, PA are "girlcotting" (as opposed to boycotting) the retailer. Emma Blackman-Mathis, one of the leaders of the group, told Newsday, "We're telling [girls] to think about the fact that they're being degraded. We're all going to come together in this one effort to fight this message that we're getting from pop culture."

Unfortunately, those messages are sent to girls long before they reach high school. This summer as my wife and I searched for back to school clothing for our daughter, we were frustrated by how difficult it was to find t-shirts that didn't have some objectionable wording on them. If they weren't inappropriately suggestive, many communicated self-centered, anti-authority attitudes that we don't want our young lady identifying with.

That reminds me. One of the ways Christian retailers have tried to encourage young girls and teens to dress modestly is by producing t-shirts with their own message emblazoned on the front: "Modest is Hottest!" While I appreciate the motive (assuming that more than commercialism is at work), I think the method is worth questioning. It seems to me that there's something wrong with trying to persuade Christian young people to adopt modesty on the grounds that it is the superior path to "hotness." 

Regardless of how effective the Pennsylvania girlcott is, the young organizers are to be applauded for their willingness to swim upstream. I hope other bloggers will draw attention to what they're doing and let them know that they have our support.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Ancient Truth, A Modern Hymn: The Power of the Cross

It's easy to forget that what we now consider classic hymns of the faith were once new. If you'll permit my use of some Arian phraseology, there was a time when "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and (my personal favorite) "And Can It Be" were not. The remedy to weightless worship music isn't simply singing songs from the past (though I'm certainly opposed to doing away with them) but creating new ones that herald biblical truth with fidelity and beauty.

Yesterday, Al Mohler pointed to "The Power of the Cross" by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend as reason to be optimistic that we are "entering a great new era of hymnody." In his account of the song's genesis, Keith Getty says:
Over the past couple of years, we have been working through the Apostles Creed and writing hymns teaching the fundamental beliefs of Christianity.
The Creed teaches that ‘He suffered under Pontius Pilate’, and in communion we are commanded to ‘remember his death ‘til he comes’. In the New Testament, Paul and the Apostles often preached and prayed in more detailed and visual ways about the cross, turning all of our senses to Christ’s sufferings and their significance.
Stuart and I considered how the reality of His sufferings should penetrate our worship services and were challenged by the need to explain the overwhelming significance and implications these have for our lives. In our congregational worship the sufferings of Christ have often only been given a surface glance and it is hardly surprising that the theological meaning often remains confused:
‘This the power of the cross
Christ became sin for us
Took the blame,
bore the wrath
We stand forgiven at the cross.’
Our hope is that the hymn; "The Power of the Cross" will be a resource to the church as a declaration of what we believe; a challenging reflection on Christ’s sufferings and a powerful song for Easter or Communion services.  It is also our hope that people will be challenged again by the wonder and the power of the cross.
You can listen to this glorious hymn in its entirety here (click on "Listen online now").

ETS, Anyone?

Two days ago I received the 2005 Evangelical Theological Society Membership Directory in the mail. My name isn't listed. Why? Because once again I failed to renew my membership in time to be listed. I've since taken care of that minor technicality and just recently finalized my travel plans to attend the 57th Annual Meeting to be held in Valley Forge, PA.
A friend asked why I attend these gatherings and I thought of three reasons right off the bat:
  1. I get to catch up with friends I only see at ETS meetings.
  2. I enjoy listening to the papers and interacting with others working in subject areas in which I'm interested.
  3. Books, books, books! Christian publishers are out in force with drastic reductions off retail prices.
Are any other bloggers planning to attend? Please let me know and perhaps we can arrange to meet.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare

Phil Johnson's excellent, myth-busting series of posts about spiritual warfare (which began here and wraps up here -but be sure to read the intervening posts) reminded me of what I think is one of the best contemporary books on the subject - David Powlison's Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare (Baker, 1995). In it, he critiques what he calls ekballistic modes of ministry, offering the following explanation:

I will describe the demon-deliverance movement using an invented term that might seem awkward at first glance. But it will carry the freight and highlight the distinctives that most need serious debate within the body of Christ. I will use the term "ekballistic mode of ministry," with the acronym EMM for short. Ekballistic comes from the Greek word ekballo, which means to "cast out." From ek--out--we get "exit." And from ballo--to throw or cast--we get "ballistic."

In the gospels when someone suffered an unclean spirit, Jesus showed mercy by casting it out. The practice of casting or driving out spirits captures the most distinctive feature of contemporary deliverance ministries, or EMM. Proponents say that Christians and non-Christians often require an "ekballistic encounter" to cast out inhabiting demons that enslave us in sexual lust, anger, low self-esteem, substance abuse, fascination with the occult, unbelief, and other ungodly patterns.
Powlison later makes an important distinction between moral and situational evil, noting that demonization is consistently portrayed in the gospels as belonging to the latter category:
"All those who had afflictions [the sick and demonized] pressed about Jesus" (Mark 3:10, NASB). Demonization is in fact recognized and identified by its expression through miserable conditions, such as blindness, deafness, paralysis, dementia, and seizures. Sins, such as unbelief, fear, anger, lust, and other addictions, point to Satan's moral lordship, but never to demonization calling for EMM. People are victims of demonic sufferings, just as they are victims of lameness, blindness, or purely physiological seizures.
As Powlison notes, demons were consistently cast out in order to alleviate suffering, not to morally improve people "except as the miracle prompt[ed] grateful faith in Jesus." Powlison also notes the different stance Jesus took toward those who were demonized and those practicing sin. Those in the former category he healed. Those in the latter, he called to repentance.

Unfortunately, Power Encounters is no longer in print. Why? My guess is that it was too biblical and not sensationalist enough for the Christian market. Unlike many popular treatments, Powlison puts the activity of Satan and his minions in its proper context--a universe governed by an absolutely sovereign God. That alone is enough to cut sales. Now, had he thrown in a few "warfare prayers" and a guide for how to put on the armor of God each morning, I'm sure the book would be sitting on the shelf of your local Christian bookstore. Anyway, if there's any way you can acquire this volume, I urge you to do so. This is a potent antidote to all the superstition and sensationalism surrounding this important topic. Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks the book is valuable.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Comment Policy

I'm grateful to those who stop by and leave thought provoking comments intended to further fruitful discussion and understanding about the topics that arise. How I wish that I could interact with each one at great length but time doesn't allow. My failure to respond to a comment is not necessarily an indicator of my lack of interest or appreciation in what was said. I read and, in many cases, ponder readers' responses to my benefit. On the other hand, I do not appreciate commenters whose sole intent appears to be to make snide personal attacks. These do nothing to promote edifying dialogue and therefore will be regarded as spam and routinely deleted. Courteous, well-reasoned dissenting views are welcome but flaming won't be tolerated.