A Prayer for Those Suffering from Unrequited Love

God of all comfort,
you know the pain of broken relationships.
Many of your own followers left you
at the time of greatest need.
You know what sin has done to us.
That is why you came to save us,
at such a great cost to yourself on the Cross.

 

Grant comfort to your servant [insert name],
who is smarting from rejection.
Give him patience in his grieve
and wisdom for other relationships,
through your life-giving Spirit
and in Jesus’ holy name.
Amen.

Jesus for Agnostics

Agnostics of the world, dare to know! Do not be content with an easy ignorance about what matters most. Life is too short for postponing the pursuit of truth. If you are not sure whether or not God exists, then please think through and study out the matter. Read the works of those who argue that God does exist and that his existence is the most important reality we face. I have written a rather comprehensive defense of the Christian faith called Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 2011). I offer over two-hundred pages arguing for the existence of God; I do this by looking at theories of  cosmology and design, as well as moral, ontological and religious experience. Also consider watching one or more of the debates done by William Lane Craig with atheists such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others. Craig is an eloquent defender of Christianity and a high-level philosopher. Mathematician and philosopher, John Lennox is worth watching in debate form as well, especially his debate with arch-atheist, Richard Dawkins,

A lot is at stake. More consequences flow from the existence or nonexistence of God than from any other question. If a personal and moral God exists, then life has objective meaning—for time and eternity—and there is hope for the universe and for your life. If this God does not exist (as affirmed by atheism and pantheism), then there is no objective meaning and there is no hope for the universe, since it is ungoverned and unaccountable to a Creator. Death is the end of everything.

Even if we question whether life has meaning, none of us can live as if it had none. We care for our loved ones and value them. We oppose immoral acts such as rape and genocide. If you take life to have any meaning beyond your immediate experience, then you are on the side of theism against atheism. Follow that up.

Yes, there are many God-candidates. However, the basic options come down to a personal God or an impersonal God. The latter is more like a principle, force, or substance than a being with thought, value, and volition. An impersonal God cannot satisfy our longings for love. It cannot even give value to human beings as persons, since the highest reality is amoral and impersonal (and, thus, uncaring). 

Christianity, alone among the religions, claims that a personal and infinite God came into his creation through Jesus Christ two thousand years ago by being born in an obscure village in ancient Palestine. God, who created humans in his image, took that image on himself by becoming man—the most remarkable man in history. In his name, people curse and in his name people bless. In his name, the faithful are baptized, married, and buried. Jesus is the most influential man in history, inspiring not only evangelism, but philosophy, art, literature, hospitals, universities, and a plethora of humanitarian causes. But why?

The ancient record of the New Testament depicts Jesus as a miracle worker. The blind saw, the deaf heard, and the dead were raised to life again. Jesus preached the gospel was preached to poor, to the rich, and to everyone in between. Jesus was hailed as a teacher with unimpeachable authority. The greatest minds of the day could not out-think him. The greatest sinners of the day could not escape him. He dined with them and brought the good news to them—tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and the like. 

He died young, but not unexpectedly. He was a man born to die—innocent of any wrongdoing but convicted as a criminal. He was crucified, not as a martyr for a cause, but for the sins of the world. Only in his death and his death-defeating resurrection could eternal life be found by those who trust in him and follow his teachings and example. As he proclaimed and asked:

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26).

You agnostics, it is in your best interest to determine whether this greatest story ever told is true. If it is true, as I believe it is, then everything rides on your response to it. You have to do something with Jesus. He is that kind of man. Consider a few of his statements:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Matthew 16:25).

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13-14).

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

Agnostics! Dare to investigate the claims and credentials of his remarkable and eternally significant man—this man who claimed to be the divine Lord and Savior of the world. Knowing him is life eternal. 

Encounter

Essay written in about 1978 for a college course

at the University of Oregon (Eugene). Unedited from that time.

It was the disturbing spring quarter of my first year in college [1976]. The cavorting of the wild ruffians in my dormitory waned as the stillness of the maturing evening guaranteed a lessening of their activity. Having separated myself from them, I was now quite alone in my room, even though on any other night I would have found myself taking part in the activities of my companions. Having dispensed with my more mundane studies, I sat gazing at my imprisoned fish companion as he swam his circuits of impossible escape. The welcome quietness vaunted me to a high level of contemplation. I reached for the volume that had completed captured my interest through my History of Modern Philosophy class: The Portable Nietzsche. The ripening of my mood demanded that I again embrace the deeply disturbing prose of this infamous philosopher.

Existentialism was a word that I could barely define three months previous, but now it had become the object of my infatuation. Nietzsche was the prophet of its most iconoclastic side, screaming of the death of God (whom we have killed) and exhorting the shipwrecked individual to fly above the sickening weakness of man-qua-man and thus aspire to the realm of the absolutely autonomous Antichrist-like “Overman”. This message was hammered into my psyche in no uncertain terms. In relentless fashion this progenitor and personification of atheistic existentialism was dynamiting the last vestiges of my tottering and vague theistic conception one by one. The impediments of tradition were jettisoned. Overman beckoned.

These warring thoughts had made an unexpected entry. They surreptitiously gained power in my thinking. They were new, alien and incorrigible – sucking everything into their vacuum. My journey into philosophy had occurred quite accidentally during my first quarter when, while groping for classes, I captured a Social Philosophy course that fit neatly into my schedule. Most of my present state of being had its origin in this innocuous event. But as the year progressed I could no longer objectively analyze the schools of thought I encountered; I had to live them. After all, they represented some of the deepest thoughts of men concerning the very meaning of existence. This could not be taken lightly. Philosophy was not written solely to fill college lecture rooms or generate opaque dilettantish arguments.

This deepening of my philosophical investigations (no matter how embryonic they may have been) had also lead me into various religious philosophies, particularly those of the mystic East. But these theologies were savagely swallowed up in the urgency of the moment. I was impassioned with anti-theology.

After consuming a few hours worth of Nietzsche I laid the book down, bowing to fatigue. Yet any physical tiredness was superseded by the uniqueness of my predicament. How had I arrived at this position? This man, seventy years gone, whose name I could scarcely spell or pronounce, had exacerbated every hidden bit of despair in my consciousness, mixing it with a Dionysian excitement that left me in uncharted regions – regions where God no longer mattered. I faced the abyss, unaided by hope in the traditional sense. Providence could no longer afford me any relief. Everything would not just eventually work out. These sorts of optimistic maxims were destroyed because I was being existentialized. I was looking beyond dependence, for I was totally free to myself and from God. I had quickly arrived at an unexpected crossroads. This “philosophy” had transcended its ordinary title. The pompous aloofness that this definition connoted was obliterated. This philosophy had to be lived, not pondered, experienced not analyzed, embraced and not entombed in the graveyard of inaccessible erudition.

But wasn’t this all too ridiculously serious? Wasn’t I but a freshman just scraping the surface of philosophical inquisition? How could I have arrived at such a position? These thoughts did little to allay my anxiety; in fact, no comfort was allowed whatsoever. This was the existential dilemma. The comforting fluctuation of intellectual agnosticism was no longer permitted, for Nietzsche had adroitly dismantled its shallowness.

Epigrams besieged me with pure poignancy rising up from uncharted depths of thought-colliding and cannibalizing each other, yet all the time miserably failing to integrate into a coherent system. I navigated without bearing, craving stability in a metaphysical wasteland. As confusion and frustration oftentimes manufacture the intellectual recline of a recuperative depression, I was progressively aghast at the incessant insurrection of my psyche. I was granted no rest. My respect for social sanction had been shaken over the course of a few years of interest in radical leftist politics, but now a more iconoclastic mental revolution was underway which avalanched and destroyed the very bulwark of my presupposition: Was there any real order in life? Where was the overriding and underlying purpose and meaning? What is really left when God has vanished? My often clichéd-like questions had disappeared and been replaced by ones which evinced a new earnestness and seriousness. This was no game. Truth eluded me, yet I craved it. Where did it hide? Could life ever vouchsafe enough time for me to discover it? Was eternity long enough? I was choked in the straitjacket of human finitude. Would even the most dedicated emulation of “the intellectual” ever assure me of certitude in any area of my life?

I sat motionless at my desk, prideful of my understanding of such a difficulty philosopher, yet quivering at the consequences of my understanding. I reread the title of the book: The Portable Nietzsche. How fond I was of toting it around with me, letting the unenlightened know my status! This dreadfully misunderstood philosopher, whose core of atheism most people refused to take seriously, had become part of my identity. Yes, I had understood what I had read and it refused to give me rest.

Yet rest is a necessity for a productive college life so, after jotting down a few painfully brief notes in my journal concerning my turbulence, I waited for sleep to remove me from this predicament. It did not comply to my wished; my subconscious was not so easily placated.

After the darkness of the room and my mental and physical fatigue had given me sleep, a strange dream began-one that would continue where my waking thoughts had ended. My feelings of complete solitude were deepened as the scene of my dream was my very room. Surprisingly, my late night ruminations were not directly manifested in the dream, but the subtlety of its content was striking. The extreme lifelike quality of this chimera added intensity to an otherwise commonplace scene. Reacting to a small tapping sound I left my bed and stood before my lone third story window. What greeted me was, by itself, not a particularly gruesome or frightening sight, but its location accentuated the bizarreness of its appearance. My stare had been reciprocated.

A nondescript face shrouded in darkness appeared in the window. But I lived on the third floor. How and, more importantly, why would anyone climb to this absurd position? Or did they have to climb? My questions ended as I awoke from my abbreviated encounter. The terror of discovering this incongruent face was limited to a short few seconds in “dream time” but the underlying bizarre and haunting presence that the face represented was to remain.

I stared at the ceiling. The murky shadings of my box-like room enfolded me in a blanket of terrorizing solitude. I had rejected that presence that secretly sought me. I was completely alone. My conscience, even in its tremulous condition, held back tears – besides, they were useless. That hideous new conscience also halted prayer, for I was commencing the execution of God. In this state self-pity was unattainable. I hated God as a nebulous word, a by-product of weak generalizations, but I dreaded his concreteness, for if he existed he knew all – even this special agony: the agony of an existential autonomy that was rejecting him.

At this frozen moment time succumbed to ego and perished in thought. All existence ceased but my own. This anguished, fragmented self was infinitely separated from all. It despised its own company but had no other. It loved its despair; it clung to it with desperation. The brute reality of this situation could not be avoided. It was zero hour.

Shivering out of bed I hit a light. Then, grabbing a pen and paper, I began the impossible task of recording these maddening thoughts. The pen, squeezed by clutching fingers, began its jagged flight over the blankness of white. Fearing the dissipation of this bothersome brain-work I wrote with frenzied determination. The blankness of a few pages was conquered, the blankness of my soul was not. No degree of descriptive elegance could manifest the ineffable. The visceral danced with the cerebral in a desultory dirge. Heightened emotions which had gone unvented tore me asunder. Could this ever be explained – should it? Would I ever want to promote such horror in another? The danger of sleep now equaled the confrontation of wakefulness and my bed was as much of an enemy as my writing pad.

Emptiness. The avenues were blocked. Things had become existentialized to the supreme degree. I was my only real audience – and my only motivation. But I remembered that man hidden in a book I had tried to forget. Shelved in a dark corner of my room was a work by Kierkegaard. I had previously ridiculed him in a philosophy essay with gleeful abandon. He was in the other camp, like the face in the window. Though an existentialist, like Nietzsche, he had nothing more central to his philosophy than the belief in, and the encounter with, God. My scorn for him went beyond a personal animosity over a philosophical position; it went to the core of his message. My antithetical attitude toward him was more a protection from his disturbing thoughts than a judicious analysis of them.

A slim volume was now in my hands, one from which I had previously fled. Its title, alienating to most at first blush, characterized my condition: The Sickness Unto Death. I leafed through to a random page and began reading. My reading was of a queer nature. It was not the vicarious enjoyment received through the admiration of the author’s style and/or message. After reading a few sentences I knew at the roots of my being that I must not sink into that merely aesthetic trap. This was not the breed of book that could be read for aesthetic gratification. Nor could it be read simply to add another title to a list of books read which supplies the dilettante with another piece of pseudo-intellectual baggage. I could not so maliciously insult the author by adopting any of these positions. Instead, I listened to the sermon, a sermon unlike any that I had experienced. The moral prodding did not come from the sententious admonishments of a dogmatic moralist, but form the profound observations of a perceptive and honest man. The pages became mirrors luminously reflecting and magnifying the exactness of my precarious posture.

The book spoke of a despair so acute, so piercing, that the God-rejecting individual internalized his despair by putting it onto the singularness of his being. He cherishes his despair because it is his and his alone. His pride drives him to unheard of heights of suffering. In this state, even if God in heaven would make himself directly known, offering to banish the suffering, the individual would reject him, opting instead to cultivate his odious despair. A reversal had occurred, the book was reading me, picking me apart with scrupulous exactitude.

I was laid bare – dissected and amazed. Was this newly discovered vital message a disclosure of Providence or a mere chance occurrence activated by my self-made freedom in a random universe? Legions of interpretations besieged me. I could not escape them, but I could escape the box that enclosed me.

It was early morning now. A time of roaring silence for me. Stark aloneness followed me out my door, down the three flights of gray stairs and on into the street. The hint of a new day loomed. I walked without direction as a physical automation possessing a mental maelstrom. Was I free to respond to this call to decision? What could I do with this awesome moral prodding? Yet I continued to love my autonomous despair with nauseating stamina. I had discovered the unthinkable: God was dead. Or was he? What was causing this crisis? Why was I thinking what I was thinking? No one could answer my query, no one except myself, or… God.

An occasional jogger broke the dawn’s quietude. The melodious tones of freshly awakened birds filled my path but failed to provide even an ounce of inner harmony. My gait was hulking but constant. The gravity of my thought had seemed to increase the gravity on my body. I carried too much to bear.

Chalkboards were filled and erased in my mind. A regiment of seminal thinkers fought to gain my attention. Their ideas, which had only recently gained my attention through the classroom, cartwheeled in my head. Karl Marx frowned and jabbed me, reducing the sum total of my experience to economic factors. My thoughts of God were nothing but a bourgeois illusion to him. Sigmund Freud appeared and spoke of my overactive superego. He labeled my thoughts about God as neurotic. Nietzsche doomed me to atheistic freedom. He instructed me to rebuke the God I could not destroy… And there was that melancholy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. There was an infinite chasm between he and the others. He urged me to seek God with all of my heart and to stand naked and pleading before the creator, free from excuse. He was a Christian.

It was now nearing sunrise.

After an indeterminate period of time I discovered myself at the highest point on campus: the top of a hill next to the Student Union Building. I awaited the sunrise with passionate expectation. Feeling unalterably drained I desired renewal. Sunrises had always reminded of the beauty and intensity of the cosmic drama: the drama of creation and of its helmsman. I was dwarfed by the spectacle. Awe and mystery colored my perceptions as a tiny bit of red grew into a radiant orb of transformation. The final instant of night gave way to the newness of day. Tingling with a vague feeling of reverence, I signed deeply. My quest had not ended. Resolution had net yet appeared because the agony remained, but something had been beheld in a new and stunning way, something that I could never deny or rationalize into oblivion. My moral existence was not to gather any more strength from the defiance or denial of the divine.

Woodstock Fifty Years On

Woodstock happened a half century ago this month. I mean the rock concert, which was actually not held in Woodstock, but no matter. “Three days of fun and music,” as the owner of the property famously put it. The music spilled over into day four, when Jimi Hendrix, the headliner, played to a small and burned out group of several thousand at 9:00 AM. “Woodstock” supposedly defined the counterculture and what being a hippie was all about. The New Yorker recently ran a review of a 38-CD set which chronicles nearly every minute on stage of that mythic event. (No, I won’t be buying it.) So, having been a hippie and having seen the movie—I was too young (12) and too far away (Alaska) to attend—I offer a few reflections.

In case you missed the basic facts: The festival drew tens of thousands more people than expected, gate crashers forced it to become a free concert, the resources on hand were quickly exhausted, and it rained and rained, reducing the venue to a huge mud field. This great mass of hirsute humanity experience the best rock and folk music of the day (no jazz, sadly) by Santana, The Who, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, partook copiously of illegal drugs, immoral sex, and generally tried to “blow their minds” in the process. Joni Mitchell wrote a haunting song about it called “Woodstock,” (which is by turns anthemic, optimistic, and nihilistic), although occluded roads forbid her come.

Woodstock was hailed by some as a new Eden, a utopia, a temporary hippie paradise of music, free love, and a vision of a possible future for America. Half a million youth shared their goods (and drugs and bodies), got along well in tough circumstances, and experienced a respite from the rest of “straight” and “square” society. “It really is a city,” said one agog man on microphone. Woodstock, by this view, was the antidote to the Viet Nam war and the “plastic” keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society.

The Jefferson Airplane’s song, “Volunteers of America” affirmed that we “got a revolution” because “one generation got old,” but “this generation got soul and had no hesitation at all.” How successful was this revolution, of which Woodstock was the epitome?

While Woodstock was relatively peaceful and idealistic, other gigantic music festivals were not. An eighteen-year-old man was murdered near the stage by a member of the Hell’s Angels during a Rolling Stone’s performance at the Altamont Festival in 1969. In an act of unbridled and unequaled stupidly, the Hell’s Angels (aptly named) had been hired to do security. This event was widely hailed as the end 1960’s idealism. Of course, profiteering and egotism was never lacking from the production, promotion, and performance of such events. Original sin was not erased, nor even diluted.

The public nudity and sexual expressions at Woodstock represent an attempt to return to the garden without the mediation of Christ. Nudism has historically been an attempt to regain innocence without redemption. We don clothes in public because of the shame of sin, as Genesis teaches (Genesis 3). The body is not shameful, but sexuality in a fallen world needs to be guarded.

Woodstock did not regenerate America. Nor was it a pilot plant for a better world. It did give us some memorable music and an emblem for the impossible: peace on earth without Jesus at the center. I wonder how many Christians came who were interested in evangelizing the hippies. The Jesus movement was underway by this time, so it may have happened. No Christian rock groups performed at Woodstock, since Christian rock was still in its infancy. Pioneers Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman had yet to establish careers.

Woodstock was instrumental in legitimizing non-Christian forms of spirituality. The concert began, not with a pastor’s invocation, but with Swami Satchidananda, surrounded by meditators in traditional Indian garb, giving the official opening remarks and leading half a million American youth in chanting “OM.” He would later be known as “the Woodstock Guru” and was a leading figure in bringing yoga and Hinduism to America. The film Woodstock depicts a yoga teacher giving techniques to induce an altered state of consciousness through extreme breathing. Still, in 1969, yoga was an exotic practice. Today, it is mainstream and a supports a gigantic industry (consider yoga pants and mats), with its essential roots in Hinduism often obscured by the hawking of its purposed physical benefits. This domestication of yoga has done as much to bring the East to the West as any other factor.

The brilliant leader of The Who, Pete Townsend, performed at Woodstock and was a follower of the guru Meher Baba, who is credited as “Avatar” on their signature rock-opera album, Tommy (1969). Athough he advocated no particular religion, Jimi Hendrix exuded the mystical sensibility of a Gnostic or animistic sort, fueled by hallucinogenic drugs. He performed “Voodoo Child” at Woodstock, which he deemed in other settings as “a new national anthem until we can get a better one.”

The New Age movement was budding at Woodstock and the concert did much to speed it along the way to the “Me Decade” (Thomas Wolfe) of the 1970s, to prominence in the 1980s, and to mainstream status in the last twenty-five years. America has never been the same. Pew Research tells us that 25% of Christians believe in reincarnation. Oprah Winfrey is considered a spiritual guru to her millions of fans. Many Christians practice yoga without a second thought—or even first thought—concerning its origins or spiritual dangers.

The term psychedelic was coined to give a favorable interpretation of drugs that were technically called hallucinogens. The latter term means a chemical substance that when ingested produces hallucinations—that is, something that artificially produces delusions. But the term psychedelic connotes a substance that when ingested enlivens or augments the psyche. The Jefferson Airplane reveled in this notion in “White Rabbit,” which was performed at Woodstock, hauntingly sung by Grace Slick. The last lines of the terrible poetry are:

When logic and proportion

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the White Night is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s off with her head

Remember what the Dormouse said

Feed your head

Feed your head

Francis Schaeffer observed that the ideology of drug taking in the counterculture required an “escape from reason”—as in the death of “logic and proportion” in “White Rabbit”—in order to find some ultimate meaning apart from either Christianity or in any rational philosophy. As Schaeffer wrote in How Should We Then Live?

Timothy Leary, for example, said that drugs were the sacraments for the new religion. Of course. . . this drug taking was really only one more leap, an attempt to find meaning in the area of non-reason. Charles Slack, writing of his long relationship with Leary, reported in Timothy Leary, The Madness of the Sixties and Me (1974) that Leary had said to him, “Death to the mind, that is the goal you must have. Nothing else will do.”[1]

This optimistic take on hallucinogenic drugs mostly died out by the mid-1970s and was replaced by recreational use and a return to pure hedonism. But it’s hard to keep a strong drug down. Hallucinogenic drugs are making a comeback.

In How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, best-selling author, Michael Pollan advocates for “blowing your mind” once again.  The psychedelic-drugs-open-up-mystical-realities people never really went away (a lot of them went into computers), but the claim has come back with more establishment backing of late.[2] Some boosters of these drugs call them “entheogens,” taken from the Greek for “the divine within.” It’s Woodstock 2.0, this time with much of “the establishment” behind it. And, of course, pot is legal all over this land, and stoner speak befouls the air.

Christianity offers a worldview and way of life more true, rich, and bracing than anything the neo-romanticism of Woodstock has to offer.  Christians admit that we are a long way from the garden, but that we cannot find our way back unaided. Jesus Christ is the way back and the way forward, since he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). The church, not any festival, is the pilot plant for a new order of being in the world in which true worship is returned to the Creator based on the mediatorial work of his Son and applied to our condition to us through the Holy Spirit. Here is the deepest loving fellowship. The taste of heaven on earth is experienced as we devote ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

 

[1] Schaeffer, Francis A.. How Should We Then Live? (L’Abri 50th Anniversary Edition) (Kindle Locations 2543-2546). Crossway. Kindle Edition. The best book-length treatment of the counterculture is Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).

[2] Michael Pollan Drops Acid—and Comes Back From His Trip Convinced See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/04/books/review/michael-pollan-how-to-change-your-mind.html. On the idea that certain drugs lead to enlightenment, see Os Guinness, “The Counterfeit Infinity” in The Dust of Death.

Another Campaign Season

As we enter another season of political machinations, shouting matches, and incendiary idiocy, consider some meaningless phases that are and will be thrown in our faces.

  1. “I’ll fight for you.” How? Who is the “you’?
    2. “The rich must pay their fair share.” What is that? Who is rich? Why?
    3. “The American people want…” How do you know? Which ones? Should they want it?
    4. “When elected, I will do X.” Maybe you won’t be elected. You may want to do X, but will you? Can you do X? Can anybody do X, like end poverty in America.

You fill in the rest. Hold your nose as you engage your mind.

And, as always, read George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” and On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. And never forget that Jesus was the ultimate and implacable enemy of all cant, evasion, and prevarication. He was, after all, Truth Incarnate.

 

The Good News is that Most of the Bad News is Wrong: A Review of The Myth of the Dying Church By Glen Stanton

Church leaders can become discouraged, or even desperate, when they hear repeatedly that “the church is in decline” or “we are losing the youth,” or even “we are one generation from the death of Christianity.” The sources of these Chicken Little reports may be anecdotal, informal, or from respected sources. Consequently, Christian workers may be dispirited, since they are trying to buck deep trends in reaching the lost and keeping the found. The declinist narrative seems to fit the coarsening of American popular culture, the debauchery of legal decisions on abortion and same sex marriage, and our general sense of malaise and fatigue.

Although I am something of a professional curmudgeon, I must say that the good news is that most of this bad news is wrong.  The United States is certainly not experiencing a religious revival. Nor can we be happy with larger cultural trends, which come under God’s judgment. As the prophet Isaiah warned:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20).

Still, according to several significant indicators, Evangelical Christianity is not losing ground in America. Reports of its decay, or even demise, are greatly exaggerated. We should thank Glenn T. Stanton for making this case in his new book, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World. Stanton, author of eight previous books and director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, makes a convincing case that the stats demonstrate growth; he is even optimism about the state of the church in America and the world. I will review some of his findings and add insights of my own.

To start, it has been known for at least twenty years that the  “secularization thesis” is false. This sociological theory, which was propounded in the 1960s, claimed that as societies became more modern—that is, more industrialized and pluralistic—they became more secular as well. Church attendance would decline. Christian beliefs would dry up and blow away in the winds of modernity. Liberal theologian Harvey Cox even wrote a book called The Secular City (1965) which celebrated a secular version of Christianity, which was no Christianity at all. More radically a “God is dead” theology (or a-theology) sprung up to accommodate this inexorable trend toward unbelief and atheism. The cover of Time Magazine sported the words, “Is God Dead?” on April 8, 1966.[1]  Beatle and wannabe philosopher, John Lennon famously said in 1966 that “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. . . . We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.”  The December 26, 1969 cover of Time said, “Is God Coming Back to Life?”

Sociologists such as Peter Berger, who had championed the secularization theory, later admitted it was wrong. He notes that some societies became more secular as they modernized, as in Western Europe, but many, such as America, did not. Berger, a confessed Lutheran, was happy to report the failure of his theory. This is old news, but new news to many who will read Stanton’s book.[2]

More recently, headlines tell us of “the rise of the nones” and that churches are in decline, partially because of this. What of the nones? This category describes those who claim no religious affiliation. They may or may not be atheists. On surveys, when asked for their religion, they will check “none.” They are sometimes called “nons” since they are non-affiliated. Their numbers are up, but what does it mean? Stanton, citing Ed Stetzer primarily, tells us that the nones are just being more honest about not being involved with the church. Stetzer calls this a “clarification” more than a decrease in church participation. That is, if she has almost no association with, say, the Baptist church of her youth, instead of identifying as “Baptist,” she says she has no religious affiliation.

More good news is that we are not losing young adults to the secular world in droves. Yes, some teenagers who go off to college stop attending church during that time. This may be part of exercising their independence and trying to get their sea legs as an adult. That doesn’t excuse their behavior, but many will return to the church, especially after they marry and have children. Further, fewer are failing to be involved with the church than is often reported. Stanton cites sociologist Christian Smith, the preeminent expert on the faith of teens and young adults, to make his case.

In more old news that is new news to many, Stanton reports that Christianity is not declining but exploding in what is called “the global south,” particularly in Africa. Here he draws mostly on the work of prolific  historian Philip Jenkins, whose 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity alerted many to this heartening trend. But both Islam and Christianity are growing in African. Both oppose secularism, but neither can be reconciled to the other. These two most influential missionary religions will vie for the future of Africa in our century.[3] As I write, thousands of Christians in Nigeria are being martyred by Muslims. Muslims and Christians compete with each other using very difficult rules and strategies.

One other misleading factor should be noted. Some research claiming the decline of Christianity lumps all churches together in the data. But when liberal and conservative churches are sorted, it is clear that liberal churches (those that compromise biblical truth to be relevant) are in decline while evangelical churches overall are not. This, too, is old news, going back to Dean Kelly’s book 1972, Why Conservative Churches are Growing. But, the trend Kelly noted continues. Stanton speaks of the steep and rapid decline of an evangelical church that shifted its doctrine to accommodate LGBTQ morality.

I commend Stanton for bringing this research to a wider audience. His chapter on how to read social science research regarding religion is quite helpful, since so many are bamboozled by misleading research. Stanton writes: “I am a huge fan and advocate of teaching young people and adults apologetics and worldview. . . . But some of those offering help with apologetics—the very pursuit and explanation of truth—are ironically some of the biggest offenders when it come to the false Chicken Little narratives” (p. 165). As an apologist, I was challenged when I read this. After reading this book, I conclude that I have sometimes erred in this way, but I am happy to accept the good news that I was sometimes too pessimistic.

Stanton’s chapter, “The Holy Spirit is not Asleep At The Wheel,” offers an encouraging theology of the Holy Spirit’s power to advance the gospel no matter what the obstacles or the odds against it. Stanton reminds us that, as Jesus said, “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18). Who knows what Christians might do and how the church would grow if Christ’s followers fully submitted themselves to be filled with the Spirit of Truth? However, the book suffers from a few weaknesses, which, if addressed rightly, can help the church grow even stronger.

First, the author tends to put the cookies on a low shelf intellectually. The main points are repeated too often, and the sense is that the reader has to be cajoled into thinking hard about the matters at hand. I am all for popularizing important information, but some readers may feel a little insulted and wish that the author got to the point more quickly.

Second, despite the good news that much of the bad news is wrong, there is much bad news about the influence of Christianity in American culture that the author doesn’t take up in any detail. Church participation is one thing, but orthodox beliefs and intelligent social engagement are another. Stanton does note that “a very slight majority of evangelicals today say they believe many religions can lead to eternal life” (p. 47. Oddly, he does not give the exact percentage, but does rightly say that “is very troubling…” (p. 47). Indeed it is, since Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God and because the Gospel must be preached to the nations (Matthew 11:27, 28:18-20; John 14:6; Acts 1:8, 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5).

Many evangelical churches are weak in doctrinal preaching and apologetics. Even if many high school students come back to the church after college, it is a tragedy that many of them abandon the church during the time when they are most in need of the intellectual resources that only a robust Christian worldview can give them.

Third, Stanton does not address the rise of the “new atheism” of the past fifteen years or so. Led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett (the group’s only real philosopher) and the late Christopher Hitchens, the new atheists have galvanized many unbelievers in the West to be more militant in their unbelief and to attack Christianity (and all religion) as not only false, but dangerous to society. For example, biologist and atheist scion, Dawkins likened parents teaching their children religion to child abuse. The rhetoric is often vitriolic. Some bookstores now have a separate section for “Atheism,” which usually come after the Philosophy section.

The wind may be out of the sails of the New Atheism, but it has motivated atheists to attack religion more aggressively. I am not sure that this movement increased the percentage of atheists or merely recruited more them for combat. Perhaps it is both. But, given the publication books such as Religion for Atheists by Alain De Botton and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris and in light of the rise of atheist clubs on college campuses, Christians should take this seriously as a challenge to a rational Christian faith. I recently talked to a young man for two hours who had lost his faith to the arguments of the new atheists. I endeavored earnestly to show him that none of these arguments held water. The arguments of the new atheists are neither new nor strong, but they are influential.[4]

Of course, Stanton’s book is not a work of apologetics, so we should not expect him to respond to specific attacks on Christianity. Still, it seems that he has discounted some rather significant recent anti-Christian trends that affect people’s willingness to come to Christ.

Despite its weaknesses, The Myth of the Dying Church is a tonic to the popular defeatism and pessimism that dogs too much of evangelicalism in the United States. Of course, even if everything is getting worse, we soldier on in the glad service of the gospel, come what may because “The gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18).

[1] See L. Lilly Rothman, “Is God Dead?” At 50” Time, 2016. https://time.com/isgoddead.

[2] For a careful look at secularization theory, see Harold Netland, “Secularization, Globalization, and Religion,” Christianity and Religious Diversity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015).

[3] Buddhism is the third most significant missionary religion. See Netland, “Buddhism in the Modern World” in Christianity and Religious Diversity.

[4] See Douglas Groothuis, “Understanding the New Atheism, Part I: The Straw God” at bethinking https://www.bethinking.org/atheism/understanding-the-new-atheism and Douglas Groothuis “Understanding the New Atheism, Part II : Attacking the New Testament” at bethinking: https://www.bethinking.org/atheism/understanding-the-new-atheism/2-part-2-attacks-on-the-new-testament. For an in-depth defense of the existence of God, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).

Testimony

At some point in a life deeply lived, one cannot go back. The tracks are laid and now set in concrete that cannot be broken or laid once again. To rethink it all would be a betrayal, and a betrayal of this sort is unthinkable. One simply is what one is—and more so than before, since the weight of the past increases daily on the present.

Innovation is not excluded or anathema, but it can only occur within the framework of the given. Nothing else can be taken, but the given. Repentance is required, but has its limits, given the weight of one’s past. Still, Christ is the supernatural Lord.

One’s unique life must press itself on itself and on others—or the life is not gaining gravity and force. One wants to be “a force for good in the world” (Coltrane), and one cannot relive the past and make a new self.

This is not fatalism; it is providence, the sculpting of the self and presented to one’s world—before the face of God.

Jesus for Muslims

Mohammad claimed to be the last and greatest prophet, having received a revelation from God, which became known as The Koran. He wanted to restore pure worship of one true God and be rid of all idols.  Going against the Bible, he claimed that Jesus was a prophet, but not God Incarnate. All must submit to Allah in every area of life and have a strict pattern of obedience: (1) confess God and Mohammad as his prophet, (2) give a percentage of one’s income to the Mosque, (3) go on pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime, (4) pray five times a day, (5) observe the Ramadan fast every year.

Muslims hope that their good works will outweigh their bad works so that they may attain eternal paradise. If not, they go to hell forever. But no Muslim can be sure, unless they die in a jihad. Then paradise is assured. It is a place of earthly delights oriented toward male desires. But Allah is not there, since he is utterly transcendent. To associate anything with Allah, especially Jesus, is the unforgivable sin, according to Islam.

Jesus claimed to be a prophet, but more than a prophet. He was the revelation of God himself in the flesh, full of grace and truth. Jesus proclaimed, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9). Instead of denying crucial teachings in the Bible, Jesus fulfilled the biblical promise of the coming Messiah, who would rescue his people and establish a Kingdom that could not be shaken. Jesus taught that there was one true God and that he made the Father known to the world.

Instead of demanding that his followers be saved by adding up good works, Jesus offered himself as the only way to God and faith as in him the way of forgiveness and eternal life.  He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). While Islam denies that Jesus died on the Cross (against all historical evidence), Jesus wascrucified in our place and for our sins. By turning away from our selfishness and toward him in faith, we receive what we could never earn through good works. We find new life to live each day in the power of Christ within us! Unlike the Islamic paradise, God’s final Kingdom is a place of fellowship with God himself. He will raise us up and fill us with the joy perfect love.

Jesus for the Nominal Christian

Nominal means “in name only.” Some politicians, rightly or wrongly, are called RINOs: Republicans in name only. That is, they are not true Republicans. If there is a true and normative Christianity, then not everyone who says she is a Christian may be a Christian. Jesus warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” knows the living God.

We name ourselves many things, rightly or wrongly—a friend, a father figure, a good citizen, and a Christian. Before discussing what a true Christian is, let us consider some nominal versions.

A nominal Christian does not self-identify as anything other than a Christian. She is not an agnostic or Buddhist or Muslim or anything else.

She may consider herself a Christian because she believes in God. Perhaps she thinks Jesus was a master teacher, and she wants to love people. She prays, she was raised as a Christian, and she has spiritual experiences. She even becomes involved in religious events occasionally, such as church attendance or Christian concerts.

A genuine Christian will believe in God, esteem Jesus as a master teacher, want to love people; she will pray, have spiritual experiences, be involved in religious events, and more. However, she will not rest on how she was raised to define his identity. She might have been raised in an aberrant form of Christianity or no longer believe the true Christianity in which she was raised. She will certainly not deem herself a pretty good person, whose works are pleasing enough to God to merit heaven, since no one can be saved by the works of the law.

Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, called his followers to repent of their selfish sinful ways and turn to him as Lord. This was no small thing, no mere addition to life, no mere religious preference. Jesus’s first disciples rightly called him Lord and Master. Jesus cannot be domesticated. He issued radical statements. Anyone who wants to be his disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him. His disciples worshipped him. A nominal Christian merely compliments or salutes Jesus.

Rather than worrying about how to get on in life (with a dab of religion here and there), Jesus told us to seek first his Kingdom of love and service to our neighbor. We are to love our enemies and be eager to help the least, the last, and the lost—just as Jesus was.

Jesus summons us to deny ourselves and die to sin because he died for us on the cross. On that cross, he said, “Father forgive them.” Jesus’ true followers cast themselves on God’s mercy by having faith in what he has done for them through his death and his resurrection from the dead. They do not trust in their own goodness to earn salvation or lean on their own strength to do good works.

If we name the name of Christ as the Jesus and Bible intend, we will be born again and become a new creation, eager to do what is good and to worship God with his church in spirit and in truth.

 

Detecting False Dichotomies that Hinder the Mission of the Church

Jesus excelled in reasoning and never committed a logical fallacy. Nor did he give his followers the option of intellectual slackness. The Holy Spirit would lead them into truth and give them the wisdom they needed. Studying with Jesus for three years meant learning to think on their feet.  But today, many Christians accept a logical fallacy that saps the church’s witness. It is called a false dichotomy.

Some affirm that the church should not engage in apologetics, but, rather, preach the gospel. They set up the relationship as “ether apologetics or gospel preaching” and affirm gospel preaching at the expense of apologetics. But this is a false dichotomy, since both preaching and apologetics have been staples of Christian practice in the early church and through the centuries. The relationship of these two ideas is both/and, not either/or. To hold this false dichotomy hobbles the mission of the church.

Consider another either/or mistake. Some write off apologetics by saying, “Rational arguments do no good in convincing an unbeliever of the gospel. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.” Thus, it comes down to the disjunction of rational arguments or the Holy Spirit. Since they want the Spirit’s work to prevail (and not the flesh), we deny apologetics. Yet what if the Holy Spirit works through rational arguments? If so, there is no disjunction. In the teachings of Jesus, the early church, and throughout the history of Christianity, we find sinners convinced of the truth of the Gospel through the use of apologetics of one kind or another. The best-selling author Lee Strobel was convinced to become a Christian by a careful investigation of the evidence. The fine film, “The Case for Christ” recounts this intellectual adventure. According to Jesus, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26. Thus, it is not surprising that he often employs sound arguments to convince people of the truth of Christianity—although the hard-hearted can turn away from the best evidence for the Christian faith.

Finally, consider the nature of Christ. Heretics claim that Jesus is either God or human, not both God and human. Docetists say that Jesus was divine, but only appeared human. Muslims say that Jesus was human and not divine. On the contrary, the Bible affirms, and the creeds concur, that Jesus is both God and human. He is the God-man.

The divine Word became flesh in human history without ceasing to be divine (John 1:1-3, 14; Philippians 2:5-11). Orthodox Christian faith affirms that Jesus is one person with two natures; he is both divine and human. There is no either/or.

One of the most common errors in thinking is false dichotomy. Sadly, Christians are not immune to them. We must take seriously the commandment Jesus said was first and greatest—to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37-38). We love God by consecrating our minds to him. We take his commandment seriously by avoiding false dichotomies and all errors in logic. We must scrupulously avoid all sloppy, lazy thinking. The stakes are high indeed. Affirming a false dichotomy regarding apologetics, social action, the Holy Spirit, or the nature of Christ has dire consequences.

 

 

 

 

 

Apologetics and Ethics at Denver Seminary

God’s mission is to establish his Kingdom on earth by building up his church and by blessing the world with the saving knowledge of God and his ways with his creation. God’s mission to bring shalom to a rebellious and groaning world, wracked by sin but not beyond redemption.

Can a seminary degree contribute to these grand ends? I think so. In fact, I know so. That is why I have invested my life at Denver Seminary since 1993, teaching apologetics, ethics, and philosophy. Our graduates are now pastors, high school teachers, missionary educators, writers, professors, lawyers, and tentmakers.

You can expect this from our Master’s Degree in Apologetics and Ethics:

  1. You will find a solid foundation in the Bible, theology, and church history.
  2. You will engage with our much-admired and much-emulated mentoring program in which students develop their ministry skills and Christian character through personal relationships with mentors.
  3. You will interact with our warm and academically accomplished faculty, including Dr. Craig Blomberg, a world-class New Testament scholar and defender of the reliability of the Bible.
  4. You will develop a Christian worldview, apologetic, and moral

philosophy fit to respond to the needs of our time.

  1. You will learn to write well in your Apologetics and Ethics courses, because of the care given to all your written work.

This program is led by Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., who teaches courses on ethics, apologetics, and C.S. Lewis. Dr. Groothuis has served Denver Seminary since 1993. He is the author of twelve books, including Christian Apologetics, Philosophy in Seven Sentences, and Walking through Twilight. He has published over thirty papers which have appeared in academic journals such as Philosophia Christi, Religious Studies, and theJournal of the Evangelical Theological Society as well as articles in magazines such as The Philosopher’s Magazine, Christianity Today, and the Christian Research Journal.

Read Kevin’s testimony with the apologetics and ethics program at Denver Seminary.

Before going to seminary, I worked for a large, multi-site church. As I continued to advance in my role, I felt convicted to further my education. At the time, my influence exceeded my competence. I was hungry to better equip myself to handle the growing skepticism toward Christianity that I experienced in culture. Considering Denver Seminary’s strong reputation with apologetics and ethics, I knew that it would be the perfect fit for me. However, I was afraid to leave behind everything in order to move out west to Denver, Colorado.

Upon becoming a student, my fears of leaving behind the safety of my previous role were immediately silenced. (And being a stone throw away from the mountains also did not hurt.) The environment at Denver Seminary was exactly what I needed. Unlike any previous institutions that I attended, the professors at Denver Seminary took a proactive role in shaping my life. They challenged my beliefs, introduced me to important thinkers, and helped prepare me for the next phase of God’s call on my life.

The Apologetics and Ethics program equipped me to wrestle with life’s toughest questions like the problem of evil or how to handle moral issues of faith. Professors like Dr. Douglas Groothuis and Dr. Craig Blomberg challenged me to defend truth, but to do so with a heart of redemption. The training was rigorous, to say the least, but it was also met with a lot of laughs and even time spent outside of the four walls of the academy with professors or fellow classmates.

Since graduating, doors have opened for me in ways that I had never expected. Going to Seminary was a personal decision but having a school like Denver Seminary added weight to my resume and has allowed me to be selective when considering employment. I would not trade my time at Denver Seminary for anything. And there is not a day that goes by that I do not rely on my Seminary education or the relationships that were formed.

Kevin B. Santiago, MA
www.ChristianGuard.com

Dave Barry, Dogs, and Holy Week

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! —Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:16

Dave Barry is a funny writer who has made me laugh for years.

I seldom laugh out loud when I read, but I did so many times when reading Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Rock Songs. I love dogs. So when Dave Barry writes a book about dogs, Lessons from Lucie, I want to read it. When Dave Barry gives an author event in Denver, I want to see him.

Kathleen and I drove to the historic Trinity United Method Church (built in 1888) in downtown Denver for the event. We both received copies of Dave’s new book, which came with the ticket price. She read portions of the book to me as we waited for Dave to appear. We both laughed. We were impressed by the old and large sanctuary and its gigantic pipe organ, which is still in use. Thank God for that.

I predicted Dave would make a comment about it being strange that he was in a church for the event. He did, saying it made him a bit nervous. Why would that be? Maybe he was thinking that a holy place was no place for hilarity (not true) or perhaps he has bad memories of a church. Dave then spoke of several life lessons he has learned from his old mutt, Lucie, such as its good to make friends and to let go of anger. Kathy told me she was so happy that I got the tickets for us. Me, too. But that is really not why I am writing this essay.

Before Dave Barry took the stage, the pastor of the church came to introduce himself and welcome us. Before he said anything, I wondered how he would make the most of this time to address this audience of about three hundred people, who were in church, but not for a regular service of worship. I thought of what I would say. It was not what he said.

After introducing himself, he said that having Dave Barry was a great way to begin Holy Week. Why, I thought? He did not say. He could have said that laughter is a gift from God or mentioned a cause of laughter in the Bible. He didn’t. Then, like a good pastor, he invited people to the Easter service, but said nothing about the resurrection. He only made a lame joke—a case of bad humor. He also invited us to the Good Friday service, which would feature Mozart’s Requiem. I heard some sounds of delight and expectation from the crowd. But nothing was said of Christ’s death on the cross. That is the meaning of Good Friday. That was the occasion for Mozart’s work.

While the pastor skipped over the significance of Good Friday and Easter, he did make clear his church’s stance on LGBTQI issues. He asked if people had heard about the controversy in the United Methodist Church. I raised my hand along with many others. I knew what would come next. The denomination of which he is a pastor recently ruled to affirm traditional standards in sexual conduct and marriage. This pastor assured us that his church, on the contrary, opened its doors to everyone. That meant more than letting LGBTQI folks in the door. Every church does that. He meant not taking a stand for traditional morality. I did not applaud, as did most of the others there. Then, finally (after about three long minutes), Dave Barry appeared.

As much as I enjoyed the evening of Barry’s humor, I could not shake the Pastor’s comments. What an opportunity to invite people to his church and to say something about the incomparable good news of the Gospel! It would not have to be a sermon. In just a few minutes, he could have said something like this:

Welcome to our historic church, built in 1888. We are happy to host Dave Barry tonight. God knows how to laugh and Dave helps us laugh with him. I’m not here to preach a sermon, but we warmly invite you to remember Christ’s death for us this Friday at our Good Friday service, which features Mozart’s Requiem. On Sunday, we will celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection from the dead. You will hear that wonderful organ behind me. Now, let’s welcome Dave Barry.

How long would that have taken? How difficult would it be to at least mention the whole point of Good Friday and Easter? But to this pastor, stating his unbiblical view of sexuality was more important than speaking of the founding and constitutive events of Christianity. But that moment has passed. Dave Barry was funny, but said nothing about the Gospel. Who would expect him to do that? He was not there for that, but if he was a Christian he might have said something. The pastor said nothing. He only tried to make people laugh, come to church, and proclaim his views on gender. I can only wonder if the church services themselves would be true to the events of Good Friday and Easter. At least Mozart on Friday would be good.

This eats at me. May I never miss an opportunity to confess the faith given once for all to the God’s people, never miss an opportunity to insinuate biblical truth in unlikely settings, and never miss a chance to witness to the only truth that can set anyone free for eternity.

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!—Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:16.

What is Cyberspace?

I wrote this essay for a dictionary a few years ago. Despite all the changes in the Internet world, I think it is still pertinent. We need to understand our technological times and do what pleases God and blesses his creation.

The term cyberspace typically refers to the whole gamut of computer-mediated modes of communication that are permeating and transforming society in numerous ways. The prefix “cyber” comes from the discipline of cybernetics, the study of self-regulating systems (usually computer systems). Cyberspace is the space or place where humans and computers interact and connect in manifold ways. This neologism was coined by novelist William Gibson after reflecting on a teenager’s immersion in a video game. The boy was situated both in literal space (before a screen) and in the virtual space of the computer game. In this sense, one “enters” cyberspace mentally and imaginatively. To use concepts from philosopher Michael Polanyi, one’s “focal awareness” is in cyberspace (whether it is a video game, chat room, web page, or full-fledged virtual reality) while one’s “subsidiary awareness” is on the keyboard, the controls, or the computer screen. This parallels a surgeon’s use of a probe to explore portions of the human body not otherwise accessible and visible. Her “focal awareness” is on the region made visible by the probe; her “subsidiary awareness” is on the moving of the probe itself.

The pertinence of cyberspace to apologetics is at least threefold. First, some cyberspace enthusiasts hail cyberspace as a realm of exhilarating freedom where one can leave the body and attain transcendence through technological means. Some extol virtual reality technologies as opening up an alternative world free of conventional morality and the frustrating limits of physical objects (or “meat space”). Although these technologies are still in their early stages, they allow (or will allow) percipients to immerse themselves in a simulated and convincing cyberspace environment to one degree or another. This is accomplished by means of a bodysuit equipped with sensory modalities such as sight, sound, and touch. One may “interact” with some wholly computer-generated settings or entities or with other body-suited participants (or some combination thereof). Even beyond this scenario, some have claimed that human consciousness itself can be duplicated through software and loaded directly into cyberspace. This was explored in the horror, science-fiction film, “Lawnmower Man.” This utopian vision represents a kind of techno-gnosticism: one escapes the perils of the living organism (flesh) by immersion into the mechanism of cyberspace (silicon). The “soul” is freed by being digitized and injected into cyberspace. (Naturally, a crash or corruption of the hardware would ensure one’s digital oblivion.)

According to a Christian worldview, these far-flung claims—in addition to their technological implausibility—present a counterfeit soteriology and are riddled with philosophical conundrums. Whatever benefits cyberspace may offer for the rapid transference of information or for some simulations, it remains a human artifact, not a source of salvation. Redemption is only available from outside the cursed and fallen environs of a world east of Eden and still awaiting its final liberation (Romans 8:18-25).

On this front, the Christian apologist should marshal two related arguments. First, the physical world, while fallen, should not be fled as inherently evil. The Scriptures affirm the created goodness of the universe (Genesis 1; 1 Timothy 4:1-4), and the Incarnation (John 1:1-3; 14) ratifies that goodness in the person of Jesus, who is truly human as well as truly divine. The attempt to escape the body into an amoral realm of unlimited potential is both to betray our created purpose as God’s image bearers (Genesis 1:26-28) and to replay the ancient error of seeking self deification when we are but finite and fallen mortals (Genesis 3:5; Ezekiel 28:1-10). The second apologetic argument is that, while we are physical creatures who may await a glorious resurrection of the body if we follow the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15), we are not merely physical beings. Jesus and the apostles taught that there is an immaterial element to the human person that interacts with, but is not reducible to, physical states. In addition to the unified biblical witness, contemporary philosophers such as J.P. Moreland and Richard Swinburne have convincingly made this case. If the mind or soul is a substance distinct from the body, the notion of transferring human consciousness (understood as reducible to brain function) into physical software is inherently impossible. For the same reason, the claim that sophisticated computers will eventually attain consciousness is wrongheaded. (One philosopher has predicted that computers will so transcend human abilities that they will retain us only as pets.) Matter cannot generate consciousness. Although artificial intelligence (AI) is capable of tremendous computational power, it is not sentient.

Second, the Internet as a source of information on diverse religions, worldviews, and cults affords the apologist with both opportunities and dangers. Quality control on the Internet is minimal; anyone with a web page can post anything. In his research, the apologist must develop a good sense for what is trustworthy information (such as official web pages for new religious groups) and what is not (hoaxes and amateur apologetics sites). Moreover, one should not substitute on-line research at the expense of pertinent printed materials, such as standard reference works, which have had more editorial filtering and are more legitimate.

 

Third, as Quentin Schultze has argued convincingly, the conditions of cyberspace, if engaged in uncritically, tend to undermine a life of virtue. With its emphasis on information over wisdom, efficiency over moral character, spin over authenticity, the present over received tradition, and virtual realities over the physical realities that provide the ambiance for communion and community, cyberspace poses a threat to the kind of Christian character that is essential to authentic apologetic endeavors. Since winsome apologetics demands both solid arguments and a humble and wise demeanor, apologists should be on guard that their cyberspace activities do not short-circuit the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Galatians 6:16-26). For example, although email makes it easy to engage in heated, rapid, and thoughtless disputes (sometimes called “flame wars”), the representative of Christ should flee such temptations to impatience and anger in order to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15; see also 2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Furthermore, many high-powered and popular video games trade on heinous violence (such as shooting innocent elderly people) and graphic sexual scenes. Some “first-person shooter” games employ the same technologies used in computer simulations by the US military to break down a soldier’s reluctance to kill on the battlefield. Evidence indicates that some teenage murderers, influenced by these games, adopted this mentality in their homicides. Since Jesus warned that sins of anger, lust, and violence begin in the mind (Matthew 5:21-30), such video game simulations should be rejected as irreconcilable with the life that God blesses. Apologists should recommend wholesome and wise recreations in their place.

 

References:

  1. Groothuis, Douglas. The Soul in Cyberspace. 1997; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock reprint, 2001.
  2. Grossman, Dave, Gloria DeGaetano. Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movies, and Video Game Violence. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999.
  3. Heim, Michael. Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
  4. Houston, Graham. Virtual Morality. Leicester, UK: Apollos/InterVarsity, 1998.
  5. Schultze, Quentin. Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

On Audio Books and Paper Books

Let all things be done unto edifying. –1 Corinthians 14:26, KJV

Each medium shapes the content it conveys. Or, more memorably, if overstated, “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan). How, then, do paper books differ from and audio books? One can read a book G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics. The same content can be heard on an audio book, such as through Audible.com. However, the medium matters for understanding.

The book is in one place at one time. It is a token of a type. My copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There is one of many individual books, all of which bear the same content and title.  It is not wafting in “the cloud” and cannot be downloaded to a portable device. It is portable, though; but the larger it is, the less portable it becomes. Try putting my book, Christian Apologetics (752 pages) into your suitcase. You won’t have room for much else. However, the tome can be used as a doorstop, for weight training, and for self-defense.

Books age. The pages yellow, tear, and fall out. Books can be annotated. Their pages accommodate and welcome your comments, cross references, highlights, underlining, and coffee spills. Books may be autographed by their authors. As such, books can be markers of memories. When I was a freshman in college, I wrote marginalia in my copy of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in the middle of the night after awakening from a strange dream. Next to a passage on the despair that resists God, I wrote, “This is happening to me tonight.” You see, the book was reading me. The Holy Spirit of truth was illuminating the words and apply them to the depths of my soul.

The copy of Pascal’s Pensées that I used for my doctoral dissertation was worn beyond what its spine could endure. Pages tumbled out and had to be stuffed back in, often not in the right place. It did not age well. But I could not dispose of the book. A student offered to give the book a new spine. A spiral binding (a kind of exoskeleton) now secures the pages for posterity and my further research.

Books can be objects of anger. In a fit of rage, you can throw a book across the room, as I have done—even in the classroom. (I have never thrown a book atanyone.) One projectile of shame has been Blue Like Jazz, which holds the record for most public abuse. Another is No Argument for God. I have left this practice behind, but there are surviving witnesses to my excitations. You can throw audio recorders, Kindle readers, and laptops across rooms, too. Of course, doing that is a tad more expensive.

Books are placed somewhere, since they are discreet objects in the external world. They are part of a physical environment and contribute to an ambiance. They also have a distinctive smell, which is immediately obvious when you enter a used book store (or my basement). Whether they are out of order or in order, they enter the visual, tactile, and olfactory senses. My dog, Sunny, sometimes rests his head on a pile of my books in my study. If he wants to be with me, he often has no choice.

Audio books are not books, but recordings of books. They were first recorded on vinyl records, then on cassettes, CDs, and now mostly on line. I have a magnificent set of speeches by Winston Churchill, which were recorded on several records, dating back many decades. This sounds better: Amazon also houses some of his speeches in the cloud. The Bible was recorded on vinyl to give the visually-impaired audio access to Holy Writ. It was later put on cassette, CD, and was later streamed on the Internet. I spent countless hours listening to Alexander Scourby (1913-1985) read the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. “Scourby has the greatest voice ever recorded,” said The Chicago Tribune. While listening in my car about twenty years ago, I heard his reading of Jesus’ fiery condemnation of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, taken from Matthew 23. It gave me chills because Scourby captured Jesus’ disgust with pompously false religion so tellingly. His incomparable recitations are still available.

Literary critic, Sven Birkerts critiqued the audio book twenty years ago in The Guttenberg Elegies, finding the very nature of the medium problematic. When he wrote, audio books were limited to cassettes, which are bulkier and less easily listened to than audio books on line. But his comments are still apt; so, I will reflect on them.

Listening is different from reading, even if the intellectual content is identical. When you read, you may supply a voice to the text, especially if you have heard the author speak. I find this true when I read anything by Os Guinness, whose speaking and writing are distinctive, profound, and well-entrenched in my consciousness. But if you are reading Plato, there is no determinative voice to hear in the written words, although you could supply one—perhaps Charlton Heston. Or, y0u may simply read along with no voice in mind.

However, when listening to an audio book, a voice—the professional reader, or in some cases the author—is assigned. You have no choice in who reads it to you, but you may avoid certain audio book readers and be inclined toward others. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesusis read by the author, the late Nabeel Qureshi. This is fitting since he had a pleasant voice and because the book is the story of his own conversion. Things may get confusing, though, if a female reads a book by a male author or vice versa.  For example, Kate Redding reads Francis Schaeffer’s book, He is There and He is not SilentBut, perhaps, this should make no difference. Schaeffer’s own voice was a bit high-pitched and raspy, but always insistent. Redding’s voice is sure and authoritative. It seems to work.

As we try to comprehend ideas, we must often retrace our steps. In conversation, we may say, “Can you say that again?” or “Do you mean so and so?” A printed book (or a Kindle book) allows us to read at our own pace, to stop and ponder, and to go back and reread sections of the book. The book itself has no pace, no speed of exposition. The reader supplies that. The audio book sets its own pace, although it now gives us the option of speeding up or slowing down the rate of reading. At the extremes, the voice no longer seems human at all. Words are recited at speeds and with tones unknown to normal speakers. I occasionally speed up the speech because I want to get more information more quickly. But at what cost is this to understanding the content or to an aesthetic appreciation of the voice?

Audio books allow you to backtrack, but it is unwieldy in relation to what the paper book allows (and encourages). Of course, we often listen to audio books in settings—as while driving, eating, or exercising—in which our hands are not free to handle a paper book.

 

Television: Agent of Truth Decay

This is excerpted from Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay(InterVarsity Press, 2000).

First, television emphasizes the moving image over written and spoken language.  It is image-driven, image-saturated, and image-controlled.   …When the image overwhelms and subjugates the word, the ability to think, write, and communicate in a linear and logical fashion is undermined.  Television’s images have their immediate effect on us, but that effect is seldom to cause us to pursue their truth or falsity.  …As Kenneth Myers stresses, ‘A culture that is rooted more in images than in words will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language.’

Second, [television brings] a loss of authentic selfhood…the self is filled with a welter of images and factoids and sound bites lacking moral and intellectual adhesion.  The self becomes ungrounded and fragmented by its experiences of television.  …Postmodern illiterates live their lives through a series of television characters (better: shadows of characters), and changing channels becomes a model for the self’s manner of experience and its mode of being.  Moral and spiritual anchorage is lost.  The self is left to try on a pastiche of designer personae in no particular order and for no particular reason.

Third, television relentlessly displays a pseudo-world of discontinuity and fragmentation.  …The images appear and disappear and reappear without a proper rational context.  …This is what Postman aptly calls the ‘peek-a-boo world,’ – a visual environment lacking coherence, consisting of ever-shifting, artificially linked images. …Without any historical or logical context, the very notion of intellectual or moral coherence becomes unsustainable on television.

Fourth, the increasingly rapid pace of television’s images makes careful evaluation impossible and undesirable for the viewer, thus rendering determinations of truth and falsity difficult if not impossible.  With sophisticated video technologies, scenes change at hypervelocities and become the visual equivalent of caffeine or amphetamines. …This means that one simply absorbs hundreds and thousands of rapidly changing images, with little notion of what they mean or whether they correspond to any reality outside themselves.  …Habituation to such imposed velocities tends to make people intellectually impatient and easily bored with anything that is slow-moving and undramatic – such as reading books…experiencing nature in the raw, and engaging in face-to-face conversations with fellow human beings. …The overstuffed and overstimulated soul becomes out-of-sync with God, nature, others, and itself.  It cannot discern truth; it does not want to.  This apathetic attitude makes the apprehension and application of truth totally irrelevant.

Fifth, television promotes truth decay by its incessant entertainment imperative.  Amusement trumps all other values and takes captive every topic.  Every subject – whether war, religion, business, law or education – must be presented in a lively, amusing or stimulating manner.   …Even off the air, people now think that life (and Christian ministry) must be entertaining at all costs.  One pastor of a megachurch advises preachers that sermons should be roughly 20 minutes in length and must be ‘light and informal,’ with liberal sprinklings of ‘humor an anecdotes.’  Just like television, isn’t it?  The truth is that truth, and the most important truths, is often not entertaining.  An entertainment mentality will insulate us from many hard but necessary truths. …Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles held the interest of their audience not by being amusing but by their zeal for God’s truth, however unpopular or uncomfortable it may have been.  They refused to entertain but instead edified and convicted.  It was nothing like television” (p. 283-292).

When Indifference to Sin is Sin

Jesus, who was never indifferent to sin, who died for our sins, taught that at the end of history indifference to “the least of these” will be judged as literally damnable. Read Matthew 25:31-46 in light of the darkness of today, in light of an anti-infanticide bill failing to pass in the Senate.

As we have failed to care for and serve “the least of these,” we have failed to care for and serve Jesus himself. This is sin. This is the most egregious sin. This sin in rampant, is epidemic in America: the sin of abortion and now, more and more, the sin of infanticide. Say it: Baby Killing!

If you fail to care about sending this, what do you care about. How is your faith being demonstrated and verified by your good works? Read James again:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder (2:14-19).

We should shudder if we do nothing, shed not one tear, give no money, and pray no prayers for the plight of the unborn and newly born in our sad, sick, and deceived culture.

What you can do.

  1. Master the pro-life arguments and the refutation of pro-abortion arguments.
  2. Teach and preach and debate the truth about abortion whenever possible.
  3. Befriend and help women with unwanted babies.
  4. Pray for godly change. See 1 Timothy 2:1-5.
  5. Pray against ungodly laws and politicians. See Psalm 2 and 94.
  6. Give time and money to pro-life causes, political and educational.
  7. Consider adopting an unwanted baby

Renounce the sin of indifference.

Jesus was not indifferent to sin. He died to atone for sin. Those who confess to belong to him and to have their sins forgiven, must never be indifferent or complacent about sin. How much more abhorrent must the sin of indifference be when it is indifference to the most defenseless and voiceless among us? We cannot and must not be indifferent to the slaughter of the innocents, those unborn and newly born human beings who are killed or left to die in our midst.

God knows and feels all of this–far more than we do. He will settle the score and put the world to rights in the End. Before then, we must work and pray. Then work and pray more.

 

Book Review: Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

There have been too many attempts to link Christianity to something else in order to jazz it up—as if the Gospel itself was not sufficiently compelling. Those both on the liberal and conserve ends of the theological spectrum—and even those in the middle—have been guilty of this. The “Christian atheism” of the middle 1960s took this to an absurd extreme. Jesus has been likened to a CEO, a therapist, a salesman, and so on, in order to pad his paltry resume. At best, these efforts highlight something in Jesus not previously apparent. At worst, they deny Christianity and replace it with an ersatz religion that has no gospel at all (see Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 1:6-11). Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord of the cosmos, does not need to be jazzed up. Nor does Christianity need a make over.

Robert Gelinas avoids these pitfalls by showing that jazz can teach much about following Jesus. In fact, we should “compose a jazz-shaped faith.” Gelinas, a Denver pastor and graduate of Denver Seminary, neither twists the gospel, nor forces jazz into an alien religious mold. Instead, he finds in jazz deep and fascinating themes that resonate with the adventure and challenge of Christian living. Although he is not a musician, Gelinas discovered jazz in college and loves “the gospel in jazz.” Readers of this revealing book will come to know more of jazz and more about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

After recounting his initiation into jazz, Gelinas briefly explains the nature of the music. Louis Armstrong said, “Jazz is jazz,” but this does not go too far. Jazz grew largely out of the music of African-American slaves. African music was mixed Christian themes learned from their oppressors. “Pain gave way to the blues, and the blues gave way to jazz—they are all connected.” Gelinas, an African American, says that “to talk about jazz it to talk about race”—and the plight of African Americans, who were, in the words of Ralph Ellison, “un-free in a free land.”

The origin and nature of jazz is a deeply contested subject. While one cannot deny that jazz was born and grew up from the African American experience, it has roots and variations that place it beyond any one racial ethos. Gelinas never claims that “jazz is black” or that non-blacks have not contributed greatly to jazz. However, his narrative overemphasizes the racial element somewhat. Later in the book, Gelinas states that “jazz was produced by those who were ‘un-free in a free land,’” thus excluding those musicians who were freer in a free land because they were not black. White musicians such as Benny Goodman (who led one of the first racially integrated jazz bands), Harry James, Dave Brubeck, and many others filled out the multicolored pallet of jazz. Despite this minor caveat, Gelinas explores a vital aspect of the music: jazz as form of life seeking freedom and justice for those wrongly denied it.

Jazz displays many creative, ennobling, and beautiful elements. Gelinas emphasizes its roots in the blues, syncopation, improvisation, ensemble cooperation, and creative tension—all modes of being that should be applied to the Christian life.

The blues are rooted in the pain of living in a fallen world, but refuse to wallow there. The old slave songs and spirituals lamented a life lived in chains, but transcended the bondage through song itself, and hoped for those chains to unbound one day. The blues roots of jazz give it a gritty sense of hope for a fallen world crying out for redemption. We, too, should see life for what it is, lament the losses, but press on with vision for better things through the power of God today and tomorrow and in the End.

Syncopation is what makes jazz swing. The jazz rhythm emphasizes the off beat, and, as Duke Ellington put it in a song title, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” To transpose this to the Christian life, syncopating means emphasizing the off-beat, finding novelty, and having “en eye and ear for that which goes unnoticed and unheard in life,” as Gelinas puts it. Jesus syncopated when he what saw others missed and reached out to the socially invisible or ostracized. A jazz-shaped faith does the same thing: it learns how to swing.

Improvisation is also constitutive of jazz. “Improvisation is what allows jazz to exist in a continual state of renewal,” Gelinas notes. A player improvises within the theme of a piece of music, but brings something new and distinctively his or her own to the old. Louis Armstrong went so far as to say, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.” Every jazz solo is an adventure of self-expression that must, nevertheless, harmonize with the self-expression of the other musicians. This collaborative aspect of jazz is what Gelinas calls “life in concert.” Each musician contributes something unique himself or herself, but never in isolation from the larger group. The metaphor from jazz is rich for Christian existence. We must find out own voice (or calling), but never merely for our own sake, but for the sake of the group (the Body of Christ) and before the audience (the listening world of unbelievers).

Thus far, I have been appreciative of Gelinas’s explanation of jazz themes and how they radiate models of Christian living. He gets inside of jazz and pulls out some hip chops. As a jazz lover and Christian, I say, “Pastor, you swing!” However, as a philosopher, I must address a few missed notes found in the chapter “Creative Tension.” Gelinas rightly emphasizes that jazz thrives on tension and does not fear it. Being creative—as genuine jazz always is—means being willing to risk on stage. If one improvises on a melody, one may miss the melody entirely. Wrong notes are hit—and then cannot be hidden or retracted. As jazz critic, Ted Gioia puts it, jazz is “the imperfect art” because it requires composing on the spot during solos; those accompanying improvise as well. Gelinas tells of John Coltrane’s pursuit of musical excellence and the tensions he had to face and overcome in that musical and spiritual journey. So far, Gelinas is solidly in the groove.

But he goes out of key by applying the ideas of tension and especially paradox to Christian living and theology. One the one hand, a tensionmay pull us in two directions simultaneously and to good effect. For example, Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. There is no contradiction here. We should not escape cultural involvement (Matthew 5:13-16), but we should not be defined and defiled by the ways of the fallen world (Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17, etc.). As Gelinas notes, a suspension bridge stays up precisely because of the tension supporting it.

Nonetheless, when Gelinas speaks ofparadoxeshe threatens to undermine the coherence and truthfulness of Scripture, theology, and of apologetics. Gelinas writes that “I believe in absolute truth, and I believe that truth can be known.” Moreover, he believes the Bible is true. Yet Gelinas claims that the Bible affirms many paradoxes. He cites James Lucas’s ominously entitled book, Knowing the Unknowable God: “Resist your enemies andlove them; ignore hypocritical spiritual leaders andobey them…” Gelinas calls these paradoxes “impossible possibilities,” which, of course, sounds contradictory. Gelinas writes that “I no longer read books that offer the Scriptures devoid of seeming contradictions. I take them for what they are—the words of the most creative being in the universe.” Yet he affirms that the Bible contains no real contradictions. Can we make sense of this?

A contradiction occurs when one statement is logically incompatible with another statement. Consider: (1) Doug Groothuis can play the tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and (2) Doug Groothuis cannot play tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” If someone told you that both (1) and (2) were true, because this is a paradox (and not a contradiction), you would send them off to the woodshed for more practice in logic. There is no reason to think that the conjunction of (1) and (2) could be true without some plausible way of resolving the oppositionbetween (1) and (2).

Now, if the Bible is true in all that it affirms, it cannot contradict itself (or any truth outside of what is stated in the Bible). One may try to rescue or protect the Bible from apparent contradiction by invoking the category of paradox, but unless there are plausible ways of resolving the paradoxes, they appear more like flat-out contradictions. And if any two statements contradict each other (in the Bible or elsewhere), they cannot both be true. At least one of them must be false. Even Charlie Parker would improvise his way out of that kind of tension.

This issue is tremendously important for theology and apologetics. A necessary criterion for theology is that Scripture must be viewed as a system, a coherent set of truth claims. If any theology affirms that a proposition is both affirmed and denied in Scripture, then that theology is contradictory; and it is, therefore, false. In apologetics (the rational defense of Christianity as true and knowable), noncontradiction is likewise a necessary criterion for truth. In commending the Christian worldview, the apologist must present it as a logically coherent model of reality. For example, the apologist cannot claim that the idea of the Incarnation (Christ as both human and divine) is an irresolvable paradox and hope to draw anyone closer to Christianity through reasoning. Apologetics needs a strategy to argue that the doctrine of the God-Man is logically coherent. (On this, see the section on the Incarnation in Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest’s Integrative Theology.)

One can appreciate Gelinas’s recognition of paradoxes in the Bible and his desire to stay true to Scripture by not imposing a false coherenceupon biblical teaching. One can also agree that the Christian life presents us with some difficult existentialtensions. However, if one is left with a Bible rife with irresolvable paradoxes, then there is no reason to think that Scripture affirms truth that is absolute, noncontradictory, and knowable (as Gelinas commendably does). As the philosopher Gordon Clark said, “A paradox is a Charlie Horse between the ears.” As such, paradoxes should be dissolved, not embraced.

Gelinas does briefly write dealing with paradoxes by finding a tertium quid(third way), but he does not seem to realize that this strategy resolvesthe paradox. (The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a master of this method.) Soon after mentioning the tertium quidstrategy, Gelinas continues to write of “embracing tensions.” But the tertium quid strategy releases tension by providing a logically satisfying solution to the apparent contradiction (that is, paradox).

Despite my philosopher’s complaint against about five pages of this 218 page book, I applaud Pastor Gelinas’s creative, knowledgeable, and winsome way of bringing jazz and Christianity together.

 

What is This Thing Called Love?

Originally posted on 7/13/2015

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

Cole Porter wrote the lyrics. Frank Sinatra sang the song. This gem out of the great American songbook captures something of the age-old quest for the meaning of love. Yet today love is nearly the most vexed word in the English language, taking second place only to the word God, which has been the most defiled by ignorance and arrogant redefinition. Given that love now supposedly justifies same-sex marriage and other sexual engagements outside of heterosexual marriage, let us consider its meaning.

Love is love, we are told, as if this argued in favor of same-sex marriage. Love is a human emotion, but that does not ground it in moral reality. As St. Augustine argued long ago in The City of God, our loves are warped by sin. As he writes in The City of God, chapter 28:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.  The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.  For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.  The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.”

We may love the temporal more than the eternal, the flesh more than the spirit, the world more than God. Our loves are confused and untrustworthy when left to themselves. We may even love deviancy over morality.

God is love, teaches the Apostle John. God’s character is holy love, not mere sentimentality or an endorsement of all human attraction or affection. God is perfectly good and free from all ignorance and distortion. He is holy in that he is above and beyond his creation, living in perfect righteousness. Hence, when God revealed himself to the prophet Isaiah, the angels worshiped him.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1-4; see also Revelation 4)

Isaiah’s response was not to rejoice that a tame God of had shown up. Rather, he cried:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).

God is holy, holy, holy. The threefold description is a Hebrew figure of speech meaning the uttermost, the maximum, the zenith.

Many know Jesus’ statement of his mission in the Gospel of John. But let us look at it again in its fuller context to understand what love really means. Jesus said to Nicodemus:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:16-21).

Jesus came to demonstrate love in the darkness—the darkness of evil. He did not come to ratify our preferences or to confirm our wishes. As God incarnate, he came to shine light into darkness, to condemn sin as sin (rebellion against God and his creation order), and, in love, to offer forgiveness and new life. Love has an object; it does not bless the darkness. That is what the denizens of darkness do.

The darkness not only rejects Jesus, it also paints him in false colors, making Jesus a chameleon for cultural trends. This is not the Jesus who is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8; see also Malachi 3:6). This is not the Jesus who can reconcile us to God and make us his servants. This is a counterfeit Christ, who is heralded by counterfeit apostles. Listen to Paul:

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough (1 Corinthians 11:4).

These false teachers must be exposed:

And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (1 Corinthians 11:12-15).

These purveyors of falsehood will have their reward. There error is not small. As the prophet Isaiah declared:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight (Isaiah 5:20-21).

Good and evil are determined by the character of God, the Creator and Designer of the universe and of human beings. We are not free to improvise on the principles of morality. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic The Abolition of Man, “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”

But what, more specifically, is this thing called love? Paul, again, tells us in clear terms:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

Out of his own matchless love, Christ died to forgive and restore sinners. Love is God’s response to human sin. If we deny acts and thoughts that are truly sinful, we deny God’s claim of love to forgive and renew sinners. Let us listen again to Paul:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4).

It is God’s kindness that reveals and condemns human sin, which issues from within a woman or man. As Christ said:

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person (Mark 7:20-23; see also Romans 3:14-26).

If it were not for the God of the Bible, we would not know who we are and what we have done in rebellion against God. God is kind, not cruel, to disclose this to us, his wayward children.

What, then, is God’s response to the slogan love is love when meant to endorse same-sex marriage and non-heterosexual activity in general? God cannot love what cuts against his character and the order and design of his creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. As the crown of creation he made women and men in his image and likeness, male and female, and God commissioned them to have dominion, cultivate the earth, and come together as husband and wife (Genesis 1-2). Sexual error is due to the fall of humanity. When creatures took it upon themselves to heed the voice of the lie and promote themselves above their Creator (Genesis 3).

God’s authoritative pattern for human sexuality is not open-ended. It is not a matter of subjective feeling or of cultural condition or of legal ruling. Jesus ratified the Genesis norm when he proclaimed:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:1-6).

God joins together male and female in marriage. No other arrangement is God-ordained, and no other pairing has his blessing

God’s love is demonstrated in sending Jesus to atone for our sins and set us right with God. God’s love is further revealed in his judgments of our sin as sin, so that we may repent and embrace God’s ways on earth and in eternity. God’s love, then, will never endorse, sanction, or bless anything that goes against his holy nature or against the nature of human beings he created in his image and likeness. However, when erring mortals turn against God and make themselves the authority, horrible things happen, as Paul teaches:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:18-32; see also Leviticus 18; 1 Corinthians 6:9-12).

The desires of these God-rejecting people suffered corruption, no matter how strong the desires may have been. Intensity of attraction—erotic or otherwise—does not morality make.

Some misguided scholars have attempted to blunt the force of this passage by claiming that Paul is only condemning some kinds of homosexuality. This is alien to every English translation and to the Greek text as well. Further, no biblical text outside of Romans endorses any homo-erotic behavior, let alone same-sex marriage.

By now, the reader should discern that God’s love does not extend to practices or institutions that God explicitly forbids in the teaching of the Bible, which is his living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Rather, those who come to Christ and name him Lord must repent from their former ways of living in sin. The first word of the Gospel is repentance. After Jesus was tempted by the devil, he began his public teaching by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus charge to his followers after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven stress repentance as well:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).

In the first of his 95 Theses (1517), the Reformer Martin Luther wrote:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

In the name of Jesus Christ, no Christian is allowed to condone what Christ himself condemns—all sexual immorality. One aspect of sin-causing behavior is sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual monogamy. When men and women are drawn to repent and confess Jesus as Lord, they will live lives of repentance as they seek to please the One who saved them from sin, death, and hell. This is a life of love. But not all that claims to be love from God is love from God. Paul’s famous love passage clarifies this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).

Love is paramount. If so, we must get it right, lest love is drained of its glory. Love is positively shown in patience and kindness; negatively, love does not envy, boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not selfish, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and does not delight in evil. But there is one more positive statement about love that puts everything else into context: Love “rejoices with the truth” (v. 6). The Message translation says that love “Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth.” The majestic King James Version says, that love “rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”

Love’s rejoicing in the truth of God about sexuality forbids rejoicing in what God forbids. We cannot stand with God when we stand against God’s truth about love.

Ministry Defining Moments

Some events solidify your understanding of who God made you to be. They crystallize a sense of mission and personal meaning. When the shepherd boy, David, killed the Goliath, the Philistine giant, David’s ministry was defined by zeal for God and courage. His reputation was grounded in his God-given abilities.

Another such moment was when Saul of Tarsus encountered a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus, who was trying to stop Saul from preaching the Gospel, Saul stared him down, got him out of the way, and won the leader to Christ (Acts 13:1-12). From now on, in the Book of Acts, Saul is known as Paul and takes the lead in the nascent Christian mission to Jew and Gentile. Again, his reputation was grounded in his God-given abilities.

For me, as a teacher and writer, two ministry-defining moments stand out. In the spring of 1977, I wrote an apologetic letter to the editor of the University of Oregon newspaper. One of my professors, an embittered religious studies scholar named Jack Sanders, wrote a letter in response saying I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I should have known better since I had taken his class on ancient religion. I then realized that my Christian witness would be contested by people in authority. I wrote another letter. My calling as a defender of Christianity began to be grounded in my God-given abilities.

In about 1981, I was preaching on a passage in Malachi at Orchard Community Church. During one point of the message, I sensed that a lot more was going on than what I had prepared to say. The Holy Spirit was applying the text in a palpable way. That changed my preaching forever, as did commendation from the congregation on my preaching. My preaching were further grounded in my God-given abilities.

There are more, of course. But consider events in your life that have shaped your identity as a Christ-follower. Ask the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal to you the truth of your calling and his glory in your calling. Perhaps you need a ministry-defining moment. Seek God. Seek the well-being of his church, for whom Christ died. See the expansion of his Kingdom. May God ground your ministry as you find your God-given abilities and a place and time to use them.

Who we Lost and What they Gave

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. -Psalm 115:16, KJV

As one year turns into another, much is made of those we have lost. Death has no victory for those who entrusted their lives to Jesus. Because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul can taunt death itself by writing, “Death where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?” We do not grieve our losses in the same way as those who have no true hope.

Still, we grieve, and we reflect. Two people died this year who gave me immeasurable assistance as a writer: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. Let me eulogize both with a literary focus.

James Sire was editor of InterVarsity Press for many years. He was instrumental in getting the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness into print. No writers in recent memory have influenced me more than these two. They gave me knowledge and courage to defend and apply Christianity in the world of ideas, culture, and politics. I am grateful to Dr. Sire for this. He was not only an editor. His own books, particularly, The Universe Next Door profoundly shaped thousands of readers. Through five editions, it addressed the ins and outs of the Christian worldview compared with other worldviews such as deism, atheism, and existentialism.

Dr. Sire read a book proposal from a young campus minister in 1983, who proposed a book critiquing the rise of Eastern religion and the occult in American culture. That young man had few credentials beyond a philosophy degree, a few years of campus ministry experience, a smattering of graduate classes in theology, and a few book reviews. But the well-seasoned editor sensed a need for such a book and took a chance by offering Douglas Groothuis a contract. My book was originally entitled, The One for All: The Convergence of Pantheism in the West. This rather pedantic title was wisely changed to Unmasking the New Age (1986), although that phrase was never used in the book. It was my first and my best-selling book. It is still in print.

Jim and I interacted on book projects over the years. He would comment on my manuscripts and I would comment on his. We appear in each other’s footnotes often. The few times I was with him face-to-face were delightful.

When I received my contract for the book, I had begun dating Becky Merrill, who joined the same campus ministry with which I was involved, The McKenzie Study Center in Eugene, Oregon. Becky said that she would edit my chapters before I sent them to InterVarsity. I accepted, with more than a literary interest in mind. Although I resisted some of her edits at first, I came to learn that she made my writing and thinking better. She also made my whole life better. We were married in 1984.

Becky, or Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (her author name), came to write two superb works on gender roles and relations in the church: Women Caught in the Conflict (Baker, 1994) and Good News for Women (Baker, 1997. She co-edited a major academic volume called Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity Press, 2004). She also contributed several chapters to my book, Christianity That Counts (Baker, 1995). We co-wrote a number of essays as well. She wrote many popular and academic articles, mostly on biblical egalitarianism. Arguably, she was the leading thinker on biblical egalitarianism in her prime.

Becky edited all my books up through my magnum opus, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011), which was my tenth. She had an uncanny ability to get the heart of things; she clarified and beautified my writing. If anything was unclear to her, she would put the dreaded question mark in the margin. She also corrected not a few errors, bad judgments, and verbosity. There will never be another editor like her for me. My last two books have been written without her. My last book was about losing her: Walking through Twilight (InterVarsity Press, 2017). I read part of Philosophy in Seven Sentences to her shortly after it came out in 2016. After reading a passage I thought was clever, she looked at me with an expression I learned to recognize without any attending words. “It’s too cutesy, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes,” she moaned. Her editor’s sense was there, but her words were not. I take some of her editorial sensibilities with me as I write and rewrite. “What would Becky think?” But it is not the same.

In 2018, we lost two superb editors and writers: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. I lost a friend and I lost a wife whose contributions to my writing were inestimable. Therefore, I give thanks and I grieve. And I will continue to write, God helping me.

 

 

 

Who Reads? Why Read?

“I should read. But I don’t have time.” I heard this while browsing a bookstore (as I often do on Sunday afternoons). His expression was sad and resigned—wistful. Here he was, bobbing in an ocean of books—perhaps to buy a gift—and wondered if he would read. Notice he did not say, “I need to read more.” I can say that.  A young person confessed to me that he doesn’t read at all. Sadly, I wasted a gift of one of my books to him before I knew this. This soul expressed no regret or longing in his declaration of ongoing illiteracy. In fact, this individual has a college degree. I guess that reading thing was now out of the way.

At the end of final’s week in the spring of 1977, I saw a student who lived in my apartment building walking down the hall carrying about two feet of books which he held in both of his cupped hands. I said, “What are you doing?” He replied, “I’m throwing them out. The term is over.” I countered, “No you are not. Please give them to me.” He did, thus sparing a walk to the dumpster one floor down. I’ll never forget the stupefied expression on his face.

In recent years, many bookstores are not primarily book-stores. The Barnes and Noble chain stores now have knickknacks, puzzles, games, and more. This is not true for The Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver. Their non-book items fit the feel of books—cards, pens, journals, and so on.

People do read. . . what is on their phones. Yesterday, I saw a man crossing a busy intersection while both walking his dog and looking down at his phone. I felt sorry for the dog. But reading a text message or a Facebook post is not the same as settling into a book, that ancient and low-tech object. Screens change words and images endlessly. They are restless. Books have one set of messages per page. They stay put so you can stay focused.

Books have an embodied history as objects in space and time. I treasure my first copy of The God Who is There by Francis A. Schaeffer, which I bought at the University of Oregon bookstore in the fall of 1976, shortly after becoming a Christian. Schaeffer’s intellectual courage and range of interests captivated me and helped chart my own calling. I own another edition and have heard the book on audio, but that is not the same. Books like this are part of the furniture of our homes and of our souls. My home decoration theme is books.

Christians, of all people, should be readers. If we are going to outthink the world for Christ, we need to be knowledgeable about what matters most.

Christians, of all people, should be readers. If we are going to outthink the world for Christ, we need to be knowledgeable about what matters most. As Vernon Grounds said, “We should be masters of one book (the Bible) and readers of many books.” Time alone with a significant book can transform you for the better by opening your mind to truths about history, theology, philosophy, culture, geography, painting, and architecture that you will not simply pick up on Facebook or Instagram.

Can you sit still long enough to make headway through a book? A teenager confessed to me that he could not do so. He had just heard me give a lecture at Summit Ministries. I said, “Get J. P. Moreland’s book, Love Your God With All Your Mind.Then sit in a quiet room by yourself for one hour and read the book. Just one hour. If you do this, you can develop a discipline of reading.” The young man warmed to this and said, “You are good at talking to people.” I relished that comment and hoped that he would become a reader.

God has given me more discretionary time to read and study than most humans. I do what I love. I have time to read. I have time to write. It is easy for me to say, “Read more!” Still, with only a few changes to your life, you can read more and read more deeply. Try an hour by yourself with no distractions. This time, take Philosophy in Seven Sentences in with you, and let me know what you think.

 

 

Brief Social Commentary: Radio Lab

Public radio has a program called Radio Lab. Today, they took up artificial intelligence. But the form of the program is odd, interruptive. Speakers are often interrupted by other voices. The interjected comments may be parenthetical or substantial.

Call me peevish, but I loathe being interrupted when I speak, even if it is an accident. I try hard to never interrupt anyone else—unless that is the only way to say anything to them. This program often does not allow speakers to complete their own sentences—or at least much of the time.

If this is the new normal, I want to stay abnormal—one voice sentences. Why do they do this anyway? Perhaps because we are an interruptive, conversationally impatient, and rude culture.

The audio technology allows these interruptions to be seamless, which almost sounds like a contradiction. No voice is talking over another voice, at least I don’t think so. I did not–could not–listen to the whole program, even though the topic, artificial intelligence, was fascinating.

These digital interjections depersonalize those “interviewed,” if we could call it that. Sound data is collected and manipulated by Radio Lab. If they ask me for my sound data, I shall decline. I will sometimes even pause to start or finish a sentence correctly. And I don’t want my voice completing someone else’s sentence.

Philosophy of Technology in Six Ideas

As I prowl around bookstores, I find a gaggle of books on managing technology overload. One after another fall of the presses and make their way on the shelves and into my hands. Some, I buy; most, I pass over. Often, I think, “I noticed that twenty years ago.” I did not predict Google or Facebook or Wikipedia, of course; but in my unread book, The Soul in Cyberspace, I did exegete the medium qua medium, noted some of the internet’s strengths, but warned of ways it could diminish the good life that God wants us to live. Here are six words that capture some of the insights I find repeated again and again in these new books.

  1. More is often less. Humans can profitably interact only with a limited amount of data and sensory stimulation. We must limit our exposure to internet (and all) electronic media because, unless we are careful, it will addle and unravel us. It may even stupefy us, even as we twitch and click away.
  2. The medium is the message. As Marshall McLuhan wrote 50 years ago, each communications media shapes its message according to the dictates of the form of communication. An image communicates differently than the spoken word, the spoken word, differently than the written word, and so it goes. Attending a worship service cannot be translated truthfully by watching it on line.
  3. Efficiency is overrated and may be dangerous. Many good things come slowly, such as strong and vibrant relationships, handcrafted furniture, and skill in playing a musical instrument. All too often, modern technology accelerates without regard to quality. Downloading a PDF of a book can be done quickly; but perhaps finding a hard copy and enjoying its un-electrified slowness is what you should do. It is more efficient to use a program to put comments on students’ papers. However, writing with pen and ink is more personal and embodied. Yes, it is slower—and better (if you have the time).
  4. Resist quantification over qualitative concerns. Technologies trade on numbers. How many likes did your Facebook post receive? People may like it for the wrong reasons. How many people follow your tweets? How can you maximize exposure to your blog? What is left behind, too often, is the quality–the objective nature–of what is available online. What might God think of your essay, your poem, or your cartoon? Does what you put on line contribute to human flourishing.
  5. Virtuous engagement online requires abstention. We often give too much of our time to the on line world. Our very souls are shaped by its speed, its fragmentation, its instantism. Thus, we are wise to retreat, to unplug, to desist, to desert it. Leave your phone in the car when you go shopping or when you meet a friend at a coffee shop. Designate hours and days when you are off line entirely. You will gain a new perspective on your on line life by going off line. You will notice what slipped into the background: friends, pets, nature, the Bible, prayer needs, and more.
  6. Every new communication technology gives and takes away. There is no sheer advantage. The telephone and radio extend the voice, but take away the physical presence. Early users of telephones were rattled by a disembodied voice coming from far away. The internet opens up the world to us, but may separate us from the people in our midst. Hence, “the absent presence” of much of life today. How can someone listen to you when they are texting someone elsewhere? Electronic music files make music available nearly anywhere, but the sound quality is worse than a record. And when you can listen to music through your ear buds in public, you will not be as aware of the world around you. You may not see the tears in a stranger’s eyes or hear a sound of distress in your midst.

My miniature essay fails to address the evil algorithms out there, the good and evil of big data, and other empirical matters worthy of concern. Nevertheless, my six ideas cover much of what is being written about today, twenty years after I warned about the down side of technologies. My inspiration was and is thinkers such as Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Muggerridge, and Jacques Ellul. Take some time away from Facebook, Instagram, et al, and read them, please.

 

A Prayer Guided by the Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven, I come as your child.

May your name (all that you are) be hallowed—deemed holy by me and by all your creatures.

Your Kingdom be manifested here and now as it is eternally in heaven.

Give us today what we need, physically, spiritually, economically.

Forgive us when we do not hallow your name, when we use your hallowed name in vain or with malice.

In humility, since we sin and are forgiven through Christ, let us forgive those who hurt us, ignore us, and use us.

You alone will keep and settle the score.

Give us wisdom to not dwell where vice is contagious nor where virtue is mocked.

Deliver us from compromise with evil, from that which makes you, O Present One, seem absent.

We pray this because you have all power to establish your glorious Kingdom forever.

Amen.

Lessons from Seven Churches

I found my home in Evangelical Anglicanism in early 2007. My denomination is the Anglican Church in North America (ACNC). I visited Wellspring Anglican Church and never left. As I reflect on my church life, I am grateful to several churches for their faithfulness to God. My list is not inclusive of all the churches I have attended. Having been a Christ-follower for over forty-two years, I will recount a few ways in which God has led and sanctified me for worship and service. Perhaps my reflections will edify you and stimulate you to enter deeply into the life of the church that Christ bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

I cannot remember my first church experience. My parents had me baptized as an infant at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Anchorage, Alaska in 1957. I am grateful for my parent’s concern and the church’s faithfulness to its doctrine. My first memory of this church was of attending a Sunday school class for a short time. I went a few times, but my parents didn’t insist on it. I was involved in a junior high school group with First Presbyterian, but don’t remember any biblical teaching—at least nothing that made an impression.

The church conducted my father’s funeral in November of 1968 after his death in a small plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. The pastor, whose name I forgot, said that Dad served those who “worked with their hands.” Indeed, he did. He was Business Manager for Labor’s Local #341 at the time of his death. He had been the first president from 1958-1968. In the summer of 2008, I attended a fine service at First Presbyterian and had lunch with the Pastor and his family. It was a sentimental time for me. However, I did not come to know God in Christ through this church.

During my first year of college, God opened my soul to this truth through reading and witness. When I returned to Anchorage from Greeley, Colorado, half of my friends had become Christians. Both sides wondered what I would do. After many conversations with Christian friends and some remarkable experiences, I professed Christ in a public meeting and was soon baptized at Abbot Loop Community Chapel, the first church I knew well. Abbot Loop was a large and growing Pentecostal church. Nearly all my Christian friends attended there.  It was part of a movement that affirmed “the fivefold ministry” of Ephesians, chapter four. As such, the church had an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. Given my nearly non-existent church background, I had no other ecclesiology to compare this with.

From Abbot Loop, which I attended in the summer of 1976, I learned the importance of evangelism and expressive worship. When my friends converted, they gave up drugs, sex outside of marriage, alcohol, and secular rock music. So did I. I heard preaching for the first time and began to learn the Bible. The first sermon I ever heard was an exegetical and theological disaster, however. We were told that Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins referred to two kinds of Christians: regular Christians and those who were “in the bride of Christ.” The bride-Christians, because of their zeal for the Lord, would be spared the Great Tribulation. The others would have to suffer through it, but could be saved in the end. The preacher said that he was not yet “in the bride,” but sought it out. It was a dramatic moment in the message and one that, most likely, made nearly everyone nervous about their eschatological status. I was, and I had just become a Christian a few days before that. I questioned my salvation much that first summer of my Christian life, despite my desire to live as a committed Christian. It seemed that my spiritual experiences did not match those of others, and I wondered—and worried.

In the fall of 1976, I began my second year of college in Eugene, Oregon. I attended First Baptist Church. There I heard excellent preaching and grew in the knowledge of Holy Scripture. I made friends with serious Christians and was involved in church every way I could. First B (as we called it) was not just non-Charismatic, but anti-charismatic. So, I left tongues and the quest for the miraculous behind in favor of Bible study, strong involvement in the college group, and a growing interest in apologetics and all aspects of Christian belief and practice. Jack MacArthur was our senior pastor and preacher. He was a grand orator and read his hour-long sermons. I ate it up. He had a capacious vocabulary and strong opinions, like his more well-known son, John MacArthur. Dr. Jack preached a series on the charismatic movement and one on cults. From Dr. Jack, I learned the confrontational nature of Christianity. If the Bible is true, then the defining doctrines of Mormonism and Christian Science are false. The Bible was the guide. If something was unbiblical, it was untrue. I will forever be grateful for First B and Dr. Jack, despite my later re-embrace of the charismatic dimension of Christianity.

After graduating from the University of Oregon in 1979, I attended Orchard Street Community Church, a small congregation that grew out a house church that started in the early 1970s as part of the Jesus Movement. We met in another church on Sundays. Many of the members lived in community homes, although I never did. Orchard was part of no denomination, but was strongly Evangelical. The ethos emphasized simple living and community. Coming Together in a World Falling Apart was a book that influenced the church. Our service included worship, a sermon, and periodic communion, sometimes served by non-leaders. (I led communion once, but am trying to forget that.) After the sermon, we took a short break and came back and were seated in a circle. Our repertoire for this largely unstructured time was prayer, silence, singing, and saying what was on our heart. The Quakers inspired us in this. Sometimes, people thought they had “a word from the Lord.” My anti-charismatic days were over  and I began to learn the meaning of silence.

The leadership asked me to join the preaching team in 1980. In baseball argot, I was the equivalent of the fourth starting pitcher. I was assigned a text to preach exegetically. I learned to submit myself to the text and was critiqued formally by other preachers. I also received encouragement from others in the church. During a sermon on a text in Malachi, I felt the power of God in preaching. There was a holy hush that was filled by God himself. I then knew that when I preached the Bible after careful study, the Spirit could work far beyond what I anticipated. My aspiration is to preach “as an oracle of God” (1 Peter 4:11).

Stuart Smith was one of our pastors and became a lifelong friend. He was an able teacher, a gentle spirit, and a man whose cheerfulness and determination continues to amaze and inspire me. Stuart suffers from a rare degenerative condition that progressively robbed him of his physical strength, but only deepened his spiritual strength. My chapter, “Rejoicing in Lament,” in Walking through Twilight, is about my dear friend.

Geneva Chapel was the Christian Reformed Church that Rebecca, my departed wife, and I attended during my two years of graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin (1984-86). Although I have a Dutch last name, I am half Italian and had no history with this fine denomination. When we visited, we both sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit through the worship. People were friendly and liked my last name. At Geneva, we found stability and dependability in both the leadership and in the church members. I was introduced to liturgy, although less involved than what I now experience at, Wellspring Anglican Church. One Sunday, I served as “liturgist,” which meant that I selected a few hymns and Bible readings. I liked that. Little did I know how significant liturgy would become. Geneva also asked me to preach several times. After one sermon, a man said, “I think you missed your calling. You should be a pastor.” I was encouraged by this but continued to pursue a more academic and campus-ministry-based service. However, I would continue to preach over the years in many churches. Besides preaching, the Spirit has made me more pastoral over the years of study, suffering, and living.

While on sabbatical from Denver Seminary in 2006, Becky and I lived in Sun City West, Arizona. At this time, I served as a part-time pastor at Covenant of Grace Fellowship in Phoenix, a nondenominational, charismatic church.  The pastors, Len and Sharon Griffin, are long-time friends and earnest servants of Christ and his church. I served this fellowship through teaching, preaching, and mentoring. Sadly, Becky was too ill to attend the services or events. Covenant of Grace was a haven for many African immigrants, particularly those from Liberia. I was impressed by the church’s willingness to adapt to a new people group who unexpectedly began to attend about fifteen years ago. Their worship was expressive and charismatic. At the time, I was more reserved. Len and Sharon reviewed my time of service there. Two things stand out. First, I could improve my introductions to sermons. True enough. Second, I should be more expressive in my worship. True enough—although this took some time to learn. Now I endeavor to throw myself into worship as much as I can, regardless of how I feel.

I will unfairly skip several churches which benefitted Rebecca and me over the years and conclude my ecclesiastical journey with my present fellowship, Wellspring Anglican Church, in Englewood, Colorado. After returning from my sabbatical in Arizona, I visited Wellspring because of my growing interest in liturgy and because it was pastored by two outstanding Denver Seminary graduates, Billy Waters and Rob Paris. While in Sun City West, Becky and I attended the Saturday afternoon service at Crown of Life Lutheran Church, which was only a few blocks from where we stayed. We appreciated their liturgy and welcoming spirit. One of the pastors quipped that when we attended, it lowered the average age in the congregation to eighty. (Sun City West is a retirement community.) After my first visit, I have never attended any other church, unless I was traveling, sick, or preaching elsewhere. I found my home after a long sojourn through many churches with many strengths and some weaknesses. Let me explain, starting with preaching.

As an intellectual Evangelical, preaching is essential to my appreciation of a church and my spiritual growth. The truth of Scripture should be carefully and convincingly expounded. This is nonnegotiable. Many years ago, Becky and I visited a reputable and large church in Seattle. The pastor was renowned as a superb preacher. He was not. He was an excellent speaker, but we referred to his messages as “balloon sermons.” They were colorful, but quickly floated up in the air and out of sight; they lacked gravity. I have heard some of the best preachers, and I have heard not a few bad ones. (One message I heard contained five logical contradictions.) For a time, I felt almost a spiritual obligation to dislike most sermons, because my standards were so high—and, often, because I was so arrogant, thinking that I could do better. This is never true at Wellspring, except for the occasional visiting preacher coming from outside our denomination. The sermons (or homilies—I’ll explain that shortly) are biblically based, exhorting, and encouraging.

Rob Paris planted a new church a few years ago, so our regular preacher is Billy Waters. Billy is the best preacher I have sat under. In his messages, I always feel the warm urgency of the gospel. He encourages and exhorts; it is not one or the other or neither, but always both. Pastor Billy casts a consistent vision for the church and, by God’s grace, Wellspring is glorifying God through worship, formation, and mission. We want to serve our local community and plant churches throughout Denver in gospel-deficient areas. We serve the underserved in Englewood through our food bank and medical services.

But why did I use the word homily and refer to my Pastor as Father Billy?  A homily is one aspect of the church’s liturgy. It is vital, but it is not necessarily the most significant part of the service. Since the enactment of the liturgy happens in several well-orchestrated stages or movements (and never without the Eucharist), the homily cannot go on forever without robbing the other aspects of the service of their sacred significance.

I have written a short primer on liturgy called, “Liturgy for the Low Church,” which can be found on line, so I will not belabor the elements of it here. The homilies in my church usually last no longer than twenty-five minutes. These are not “sermonettes for Christianettes.” However, as my pastor says, “Even if I preach a C- sermon, I know that the Gospel is proclaimed throughout the whole service.” (He never preaches C- sermons, by the way.) Everything of spiritual significance does not depend on the skill of the preacher or the quality of the sermon, as it often does in non-liturgical churches.

Rebecca noticed that for several years that when I returned from a Sunday service, I was often angry. (She was usually too ill to attend with me.) Much of my dismay was due to my own arrogance or judgmentalism, but not all of it. I never feel that way now. Thanks be to God!

Each church along life’s way has helped sustain and deepen my Christian existence. I am grateful for all of them. Perhaps this recounting of my journey will encourage you to find and commit to a godly church. Church involvement for the Christian is not optional. How can you believe that Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18) and not be a living, growing part his unstoppable church? Christ bought the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Since it is that important to God, should it not be important to you?

 

 

 

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” Film

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is a recent film about Fred “Mr.” Rogers. Mr. Roger’s hosted a long-running children’s program called “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” I cried through most of it because of the man’s simple, Christian goodness.
 
Before seeing the trailer a few months ago, I never took the man seriously, although I knew little about him. For a snide teenager, he was easy to parody. I was too old to have watched the program as a small child. What I found from the film is that Fred Rogers (who I already knew was an ordained minister) was a genuinely kind and gentle soul, who loved children and thought that TV could be a ministry to children, who were so often abused by stupid or violent children’s television.
 
Mr. Rogers could speak the truth to power with gentleness. In a touching scene, he addresses a congressional hearing to advocate for the continued funding of PBS. The arrogant Senator preceding is disarmed by Mr. Rogers simple apologetic, most of which comes from reciting a children’s song. Sen. Arrogant said, “Mr. Rogers, you have your twenty million.”
 
Fred Rogers’s program was slow-moving and stayed slow-moving even as the media world went from speed to speed until everything was hurdling toward nothing of value.Mr. Roger’s spoke slowly and deliberately. The program addressed challenging themes such as death, divorce, and even assassination. The message was simple, but profound: Everyone is special and should be treated as a neighbor. No, this is not the gospel, but it is true. Mr. Roger’s found a ministry without a church’s pulpit. I am grateful that he did.

Leaving the Curmudgeon Behind

Leaving the Curmudgeon Behind

“The Constructive Curmudgeon” was the name of a blog I had for a number of years, starting in 2005. (It is still accessible online, although dormant.) I had called myself a curmudgeon for years, but I wanted to avoid being a mere nay-sayer or pestering pessimist. Thus, a constructive curmudgeon, I thought, would sound out idols, dismantle pretense, and say what others knew but would not say, as in “The emperor has no clothes.” A constructive curmudgeon is something of a prophet, discerning hidden irrationality and self-interest in the name of truth. I enjoyed the book, The Portable Curmudgeon for this reason.

Further, a curmudgeon would summon us to a higher standard and try (when possible) to re-construct what he was called to de-construct (not in the Jacque Derrida sense). So, if I critiqued a contemporary practice in the church (such as multi-site churches) I offered something better (on-site pastors). I hope I usually kept a good sense of humor and didn’t take myself too seriously. However, I was sometimes (or often) bitter and peevish, being annoyed at too many things that did not matter that much. In this, there was no room for Christian love.

Why would I even own the title curmudgeon? I care about precision on thought and language. I am not an aesthetic relativist; some music, painting, poetry, and literature are better than others—and I wasn’t afraid to say so and why. Some arguments—even when used by Christians—are bad and need to be refuted. Better arguments need to be given. Lazy thinking and speaking needs reform, and I am a reformer (I hope).

Curmudgeons may use ridicule, sarcasm, and overstatement in their complaints and condemnations. These have a place in the virtuous soul, but may incline one to be acerbic and acrimonious. Grammarians can easily become so high-minded that they become highfaluting and haughty. One book of grammatical rebuke is called The Dimwit’s Dictionary. Little charity is found therein.

I’ll keep my old blog on line with its original name, The Constructive Curmudgeon, but I am resigning the title of curmudgeon, since it doesn’t fit who I am becoming as a Christian. I will continue to be a stickler on spoken and written language, especially with my students, who pay my school to learn to be better commutators. I will continue to check footnotes for accuracy of style. (The record so far is seven mistakes in one footnote.) I am a philosopher, so I will continue to seek out and try to refute bad arguments—especially bad arguments about what matters most, such as God, salvation, and morality. However, I sense myself changing, and want to change more.

Cultivating and practicing love, as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13, does not leave much room for curmudgeonly habits. If love is “patient and kind” it is not impatient or cruel. I have often said, “I have no patience for this garbage,” before ridiculing the garbage-producer. I should be gentle instead. A good curmudgeonly insult can also produce pride, which is antithetical to love. Curmudgeonly critique can easily become “arrogant and rude,” two more traits incompatible with love. Rather, I must “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Love does not “insist on its own way” and is, thus, not irritable.

Curmudgeons pride themselves on their taste, not merely their knowledge. As T. S. Eliot put it, “educated taste” is an apt goal (since there are objective aesthetic values), but it need not be worn on the sleeve or used as a weapon. If you like the music of Kenny G or John Tesh, or Yanni (and/or their more contemporary analogues), then I should let that go and be more concerned about your spiritual life (and my pride at being a jazz snob). Curmudgeons may delight in what is wrong, since it gives them a chance to show off their exquisite insults. A powerful insult, such as Churchill’s best, may deflate pride, pretense, or outright lies. Jesus insulted the Scribes and Pharisees, as recorded in Mathew 23. But Jesus was sinless. We are not. Paul writes that love does not delight in what is wrong, but rejoices with the truth. Of course, Jesus did not delight his fiery words.

Being filled with love through the Holy Spirit is better than exercising mere wit, something the devil himself possesses. (Consider how he used Scripture to entice Jesus.) Some of the wittiest put downs are best kept quiet—for the sake of love. Love goes the second mile and blesses its enemies, even those who offend our impeccable tastes. Love covers a multitude of sins—and grievances of taste.

Suffering with my wife through her long and horrible disease made me more sensitive to the suffering of others and made me hungrier to love in the power of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace. . . .”  I want to hold my peace more often, build up more than tear down, encourage more than discourage, edify more than criticize. I want to exchange my acids for balm and my sharp tongue for a warm heart. However, I am still planning to write more installments of “How to be an Idiot” but only if it can be done in love.

 

 

 

Gramarians, Dim Wit dictionary. Not a misanthrope. Wit, over statement, peevish

Advice to Christian Apologists: Being Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

Jesus exhorted us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37-39). Explaining, commending, and defending the Christian worldview is not limited to experts; it is the call of every Christian (1 Peter 3:15-16). Arguing that Christianity is objectively true, compellingly rational, and existentially engaging over the whole of life is essential to Christian witness. Our salt and light must not be hidden, Jesus teaches. Since all Christians should be witnesses to the reality of the Gospel, every Christian is an apologist. Some excel at this task and others do not. All Christ-followers are called to worship God. We do not single out a group called “worshippers,” as a subset of all Christians. However, some are much more genuine, clear-eyed, and whole-hearted in their worship than others.

“Since all Christians should be witnesses to the reality of the Gospel, every Christian is an apologist.”

We are sent out as sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16). Because of this danger, Jesus instructed his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus also instructed his followers to be witnesses who are wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Wise words matter for our mission. We do not want to mislead or muddle the Gospel. The word apologist aptly describes one who makes a case for Christianity. However, this word often connotes a biased presentation given for vested interests. The apologist is taken as a huckster, a propagandist, a shady salesman. Woe to the Christian who fits this description.

Since the word apologistis redundant for the Christian and because it carries unneeded opprobrium, I suggest we use it sparingly, if at all. Once a week, I am introduced as a “Christian philosopher,” on a secular radio program. I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy and teach the subject full-time. I am also a Christian. Yes, I have written much on apologetics, and this term designates a particular field of study. But none of my degrees are in apologetics. All them of are in philosophy. Thus, I do not advertise myself as an apologistper se.

Whether or not one has degrees in philosophy, it is wiser to explain and defend the Christian worldview without using the word apologeticsor apologist—if possible. Of course, some have received graduate degrees in apologetics. Good for them! My school offers one, and I direct the program. There is no reason to hide this. The church does not recoil from this term, by and large. But the non-Christian world is suspicious of it. Argue for Christian truth, by all means, but avoid being stereotyped. Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. What does this mean, besides not stereotyping yourself as an apologist?

Apologists should be wise as serpentsby being cunning and clever, but without sin. You can wisely insinuate Christian truth into unlikely places if you are enterprising and ethical. This was Paul’s aim: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20;NIV).

Deception, however, must be avoided. Just as Christ-followers must avoid being deceived, so must they shun deceiving others. As Paul writes;

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:8; see also 1 John 4:1-6).

When writing to the Thessalonians, Paul assures them that “our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thessalonians 2:3, ESV). For example, public lectures on apologetic themes should not use the bait and switchmethod found in advertising. A customer is lured in by one product only to find that selling another product was the real purpose of the advertisement. If this is morally questionable in business, how much more should apologist shun this technique which borders on lying?

I was once guilty of this myself, if only indirectly. In 2009, I gave a talk at a local college called, “The Deniable Darwin,” in which I challenged the sufficiency of natural selection to explain the bacterial flagellum, a molecular machine. The ministry that sponsored the event told me they wanted a woman in their group to give a short testimony after my talk about her Christian conversion. I did not suggest the idea, but agreed to it. Not long after the event, I realized that her testimony had little to do with my talk, which was limited to an apologetic against Darwinism and an argument for a Designer. In other words, it was a piece of natural theology, not a defense of the gospel per se. After all, not every apologetic event needs to be evangelistic; it can be pre-evangelistic, as the masterful apologist, Francis Schaeffer, put it. Some in the packed room may have felt that my talk was simply a set up for the testimony. This was untrue, but it may have seemed that way. But if being “wise as a serpent” precludes deception, what does in it include?

“Not every apologetic event needs to be evangelistic; it can be pre-evangelistic, as the masterful apologist, Francis Schaeffer, put it.”

In the early 1980’s, a friend and I taught a class at the University of Oregon in a program that allowed non-faculty to teach for-credit courses if they were approved by a professor. We knew the head of the sociology department, who signed on for us. Our subject was comparative worldviews. We used James W. Sire’s classic, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue(originally published in 1976 and now its fifth, and last, edition.) Each term, I would create a flyer advertising the course and put it up all over campus, staple gun at the ready. My copy said that “evangelical and orthodox Christianity” would be compared with other worldviews, such as naturalism, deism, pantheism, and more. My elder brother in teaching said, “Take out evangelical and orthodox” and just put ‘Christian.’ It will attract more people.” He was “wise as a serpent.” I was not as wise at that point. Today, I have grown in that grace.

How might apologists be “innocent as doves”? The contrast between serpents and doves seems unbridgeable. The cunning are not innocent, are they? Jesus thinks otherwise. The Messageparaphrase renders it, “Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.” Defenders of the faith should never be con men or operators. We should seek no advantage for our cause outside of what is virtuous. Paul knows that even those with bad motives may still proclaim the true gospel, but he does not commend that.

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).

Being innocent also pertains to what should not be known. Paul tells the Romans that, “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (Romans 16:19). There are some things that apologists should not know, in some cases even about the worldviews and practices they attempt to refute. Jesus says to the church, “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, I will not impose any other burden on you” (Revelation 2:24).

Earlier in my career, I wrote much about the New Age movement. My research was extensive over several years, and I read some unsavory stuff. However, I tried to never read anything not necessary to my apologetic against the New Age worldview (pantheism, monism, reincarnation) and for Christianity. When I studied particularly dark subjects, I prayed for protection and read the bare minimum necessary. Further, I have studied very little about Satanism, since I had my hands full with my other research and discerned no call to minister in that area. I take seriously Paul’s admonition: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

Having been an apologist for the last forty years, I could give much more advice. I have only highlighted the need for defenders of the faith to be wise, but innocent, witnesses to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Without these values, apologetic arguments, no matter how powerful, will sit unused and be ineffective. But when we pay heed to Jesus, our arguments will find their home in the hearts and minds of those who need his saving grace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Providence on the Cheap

The Bible’s teaching on providence is that an infinite-personal and triune being governs the cosmos. This being, God, is never outwitted or surprised. He is Lord of heaven and earth. His purposes will be achieved, despite the turpitude of humans east of Eden.
Providence on the cheap appeals to a historically-ungrounded and perverse notion of “karma.” The teaching of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism claims that an impersonal mechanism punishes and rewards humans according to their actions. But karmic effects on only obtain between one’s lifetimes (reincarnation), not within one. That is, everything one experiences in one incarnation is the result of previous incarnations. What one does in this incarnation will have its effects in the next lifetime. Further, this system is impersonal; it functions automatically and without moral evaluation or moral agency. (This itself is a philosophically problematic idea, which I have addressed in Christian Apologetics, chapter 25.)
However, Americans apply karma to one’s lifetime. One author even writes of “instant karma,” to explain a good circumstance following a good deed of his. This is nonsense and contradictory, given the rigors of karma and reincarnation in the Eastern systems of thought. Worse yet, Americans, by combining loosely Christian ideas with Eastern doctrines, imagine that karma is administered by some personal and knowing being. But this is alien to Hinduism and Buddhism. Moreover, Christianity denies karma and reincarnation, but affirms the resurrection of the dead–for punishment or redemption (Daniel 12:2; 1 Corinthians 15).
God’s providential governance of all history and eternity is that of a moral administration, judge, and savior, through Jesus Christ. No one can build up good karma to merit anything before God. God demands perfection. There is only one life available to get right with a holy God (Hebrews 9:27). It was only the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ that makes atonement and brings reconciliation between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). Whatever good works are wrought by the Christian are not the basis of salvation, but rather the fruit of salvation.
Let us give up providence on the cheap, which is an illicit blending of Eastern doctrines and the one true Gospel of Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16). Herein is truth, peace, and meaning.

Kierkegaard on Sin

When I read the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in the spring of 1976, it opened the doors of myself that eventually lead to Jesus and his Gospel. In this excerpt from Philosophy in Seven Sentences, I explain Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin—a concept that showed me to myself for the first time. 


Kierkegaard on Sin

Kierkegaard is now ready to spring the trap. He says that “despair is sin.” It takes two forms.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair. The emphasis is on before God, or with a conception of God; it is the conception of God that makes sin dialectically, ethically, and religiously what lawyers call “aggravated” despair.

The self is divided against itself in two ways, which are two sides of the same self. The first state of sin is to give up willing to be oneself. This is “intensified weakness,” which may sound odd but is not. One may shrink back from any task at hand (inward or outward) by hiding in excuses, such as “To err is human” or “Nobody is perfect.” These statements are true, but not the kind of truth the self should be satisfied with. The self is a movement and is not static. We know what an error is, and we do not praise it. We know what imperfection is, and we do not praise it. We embody both error and imperfection regarding moral intensions and actions. Kierkegaard will not let us rest in the popular phrase “mistakes were made.” We wonder how all these mistakes occur by themselves and without agents making them. Weakness is intensified when we play the victim when we are not the victim. I once accidently hurt a young playmate of mine. It was not traumatic to him, until his mother appeared. He then threw a fit over the egregious injury I had so unjustly caused him. His weakness was intensified.

The second state of sin is when we will to be ourselves in despair. We continue in a pattern of life that is less than ideal, with no hope of reform or renewal. People may say, “I’m just a big eater [meaning: glutton]” or “I will never get organized,” but they will to be this way—and without hope. Yet the conscience is not clean; it is not satisfied with chronic tension and disappointment. It is resigned to its condition but still feels guilt. Think of Friedrich Nietzsche’s defiant boast in Thus Spoke Zarathustra where he speaks of a life considered well-lived. This is a life so well-lived that one could bear repeating it eternally. Of the whole life one can affirm “Thus, I willed it.” Nietzsche said yes to the overcoming self, the self which is free from excuses but also free from scrutiny outside the self. For Kierkegaard the Nietzschean self is no self at all. This is because the essential dynamic of despair has been dissipated in the pure, untrammeled will. (The apostle Paul calls this “will worship,” and it is thus a form of idolatry.) But surely the will can go wrong. If so, then the will in itself cannot correct the will.

Nietzsche deftly illustrates Kierkegaard’s idea of “defiance.” To ignore or to repress is not to defy. Defiance pits itself against something. Nietzsche, in the voice of “the Ugliest Man” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, says,

But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. This most curious, over-obtrusive one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have my revenge or not live myself. The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness should live.

This defiant despair is not just found in Nietzsche and a few others. I know it from the inside out. As I mentioned, I was assigned The Sickness Unto Death in a history of modern philosophy class. When I began to read that book I found that it was exposing the deepest dynamics of my soul. Through my study of atheists—such as Nietzsche, Freud and Marx—I thought I had dispensed with God. However, I could not fully suppress my awareness of God (see Romans 1:18-21). Yet I did not want to submit to this God. Rather, I would will to be myself in my despair. As a rebel against God, I wanted to be a witness against him. Kierkegaard made me distressingly clear to myself, which was the reason for his book. This literary, philosophical, spiritual experience opened a tightly shut door that a few weeks hence led to my confessing myself as a sinner and Christ as Lord (see Romans 10:9; John 1:12-13).

We still hear the word sin quite a bit, and most of the lingo is not very compelling. Augustine has already deepened our understanding, but we will face a daunting challenge to conceive this concept aright. Most references to hell today are glib and unthinking. Some years ago a cartoonist drew a strip called Life in Hell, which had nothing to do with the place Jesus Christ warned about. Why this flippancy? This old, grave word was evicted from its home and is now acting as a vagabond, casting about for some shelter far from its native country. The ghost word sin now alights on notions such as mistake, miscue, false guilt, and needless shame. It finds no grounding in gravitas. According to the oracle of Google, there is a group named “The Sinners” and another called “Sinner.” But Kierkegaard does not discuss it in the way that Billy Graham or Rick Warren does, although all three hold to the historic Christian doctrine of sin. Nor does Kierkegaard resemble the approach of Jonathan Edwards’s much-excerpted (and much-misunderstood) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Kierkegaard labors to explain and treat sin in existential-psychological categories, but without denying or compromising the church’s historic confession of humans as sinners. (He deals with original sin in The Concept of Anxiety, which is a companion to The Sickness Unto Death.) Kierkegaard sought to look inside the human condition to sound out its often obscured depths: its desires, its despair, and its possibilities. He feared that people could easily lose their selves in a labyrinth of popular dead ends but still receive the applause of the crowds and the money of investors and customers.

Groothuis, Douglas. Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic (p. 136-139). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

A Christian Apologetics Manifesto (19 Ways to Ignite Apologetic Passion)

On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it—Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:9).

This is a manifesto to ignite the holy fire of apologetic passion and action. As did Jeremiah, we should have “fire in our bones” to communicate and commend Christian truth today (Jeremiah 20:9). This manifesto is not a sustained argument or a detailed development of themes. Rather, as a manifesto, it proclaims a short series of interrelated propositions crying out for both immediate and protracted reflection, prayer, and action. These challenges issue from convictions formed through my nearly thirty years of apologetic teaching, preaching, debating, writing, and Christian witness.

Because of (1) the waning influence of the Christian worldview in public and private life in America today, (2) the pandemic of anti-intellectualism in the contemporary church, and (3) the very command of God himself to declare, explain, and defend divine truth, I strongly advise that the following statements be wrestled with and responded to by all followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

  1. Christian apologetics involves the presentation and defense of Christianity as an integrated worldview that is objectively, universally, and absolutely true, reasonable, knowable, and existentially pertinent to both individuals and entire cultures. Apologetics involves rebutting unbelieving accusations against Christianity (2 Corinthian 10:3-5; Jude 3) as well as giving a constructive and persuasive case for Christian theism (Philippians 1:7; 1 Peter 3:15).
  2. Any intellectual discipline, church practice, or teaching that minimizes or denigrates the importance of apologetics is unbiblical and must be repented of (Matthew 4:17; Acts 17:16-34; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; 1 Peter 3:15; Jude 3). The degradation of apologetics can only lead to the further vitiation of the life of the church. “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
  3. The fundamental issue for apologetics is not how many apologists one has read, or what apologetic method one embraces (although that must be worked out carefully). Rather, the essential issue is whether or not one has a passion for God’s transforming truth—reasonably pursued and courageously communicated—and a passion for the lost because of the love of God resident and active in one’s life (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1). Like the Apostle Paul at Athens, we should both be “greatly disturbed” because of the rampant unbelief in our day. We, like that great apologist, should also be intellectually equipped and spiritually prepared to enter the marketplace of ideas for the cause of Christ (Acts 17:16-34).
  4. The apologist must be convinced of the truth, rationality, pertinence, and knowability of the Christian worldview, which is derived from Holy Scripture as it is logically systematized and rightly harmonized with general revelation (truth knowable outside of Scripture). This is an intellectual goal for a lifetime as the disciple of Christ seeks to love God with one’s mind and take more and more thoughts captive to obey Christ (Matthew 22:37-40; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). The apologist should never rest content with an ad hoc or piecemeal worldview, as is so typical of those afflicted with postmodernist pastiche sensibilities.
  5. In light of (1), (2), (3), and (4), fideism—the claim that Christian faith finds no positive warrant from reason or evidence—should be rejected as unbiblical and harmful to the great cause of biblical truth (Isaiah 1:18; Matthew 22:37-39; Romans 12:1-2). Fideistic confessions such as “I just know that I know in my knower,” do little to challenge unbelief or induce unbelievers to consider the saving truth of the gospel. Moreover, members of other religions can use the same technique to attempt to support their false beliefs. This is especially true for Mormons, who rely so heavily on subjective feelings to verify objective claims. Fideism strips Christianity of its rational witness to the reality of God’s holy revelation to humanity.
  6. Any theology, apologetics, ethics, evangelism or church practice that minimizes or denigrates the concept of objective, absolute, universal and knowable truth is both irrational and unbiblical. As such it must be rejected and repented of. Thus, the postmodernist view of truth as socially constructed, contingent, and relative must be rejected by Christian apologists. Anything that might be true in postmodernism can be found elsewhere in better philosophical systems. What is false in postmodernism (the vast majority of it) is fatal to Christian witness. Without a strong, biblical view of truth apologetics is impossible.
  7. The work of the Holy Spirit in bringing people to saving faith should not be artificially separated from faithful apologetic engagement. Many Christians wrongly think that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is exclusively non-rational or even irrational. The Spirit is free to win and woe unbelievers in a host of ways—including dreams, angelic visitations, healings, visions, meaningful coincidences, and so on—but we must remember that He is “the Spirit of truth,” as Jesus said (John 16:13). There is no reason to separate the work of the Holy Spirit from rigorous and skillful argumentation for Christian truth. The Holy Spirit can set the redeemed mind free to argue logically and winsomely; he also reaches into the unbeliever’s soul through the force of arguments. Apologists should earnestly pray that the Holy Spirit will make them as intelligent and knowledgeable as possible.
  8. All apologetic endeavors should manifest the virtues of both humility and courage through the empowering of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8; Galatians 5:16-26). If we have been bestowed by Almighty God with truth to defend rationally, this is because of God’s grace, not our own goodness (Ephesians 2:1-8; Titus 3:5-6). There is no room for pride, which goes before a fall. If Almighty God has bestowed us with saving truth to defend rationally, we should take it to the streets and not shrink back from appropriate encounters with unbelief. There is no room for cowardice. As Paul counseled Timothy, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
    Humility should not be confused with uncertainty or timidity. One may be confident in one’s worldview and defend it publicly without being arrogant. The grand apologist, G.K. Chesterton explains this perfectly and memorably.
    But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.
  9. Apologetics must be carried out with the utmost intellectual integrity (Titus 2:7-8; James 3:1-2). All propaganda, cheap answers, caricatures of non-Christian views, hectoring, and fallacious reasoning must be avoided. Sadly, some apologetic materials are too cavalier for serious use. One should develop competent answers to searching questions about the truth and rationality of Christian faith. This demands excellence in scholarship at all intellectual levels, even the most popular. This cognitive orientation takes time, money, and sustained effort. It will not happen by watching television or by otherwise wasting our limited time. Christians must thus cultivate the virtue of studiousness in order to grow deep in their knowledge of God, the Christian worldview, and how to bring the Christian message to bear on unbelief.
  10. The artificial separation of evangelism from apologetics must end. Many evangelistic methods die when those evangelized ask questions related to apologetics. Therefore, all evangelistic training should include basic apologetic training as well. The Apostle Paul serves as a model for us in that he both proclaimed and defended the Gospel in the Book of Acts (Acts 17:16-34; 19:8-10). Jesus also rationally defended his views as well as propounding them.
  11. Apologetics is meant just as much for believers with doubts and questions as it is directed toward unbelievers. Therefore, Christians with doubts should not be shunned or shamed, but given good apologetic arguments (as well as pastoral care) in dealing with their intellectual struggles. When follows of John the Baptist came to Jesus with John’s questions about Jesus’ messianic identity, Jesus did not rebuke them, but provided evidence for why John should believe that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 11:1-11). Jude also counsels us to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22). One way to show mercy to the doubter is to build him or her by giving reasons for Christian faith. The apologetic witness of the church is strengthened tremendously when Christians gain rational assurance that their faith is indeed true and cogent.
  12. Since all Christians are called and commanded to have a reason for the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15), Christian teachers, pastors, mentors and educators of all kinds are remiss if they avoid, denigrate, or minimize the importance of apologetics to biblical living and Christian witness. The commonly heard canard, “No one comes to Christ through arguments” is patently false. Many people, such as the apologists C.S. Lewis and John Warwick Montgomery, were drawn to the gospel through apologetic arguments. By God’s grace, I have been able to help unbelievers see the truth and rationality of Christianity through apologetic arguments. Well-respected Christian philosophers and apologists, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland concur. Not all Christian teachers are equally gifted in apologetics, and some will emphasize this discipline more than others; but none should minimize the necessity of apologetics or preach around it when the biblical text requires otherwise.
  13. Those outside of the leadership positions mentioned in (12) should humbly but boldly request that apologetics be made a constitutive part of these institutions if this is not already the case and pray to that end. We must stimulate each other to love and good deed in his area (Hebrews 10:24).
  14. In light of (12) and (13), Christian colleges, seminaries, and churches should incorporate apologetics into their institutional/educational life, mission, and vision. Specifically, every Christian high school, college, university, and seminary should require at least one class in apologetics for every degree in their curriculum. Sadly, this is not now the case for most institutions of Christian learning. Moreover, every discipline should be taught from a Christian worldview, since all truth is God’s truth. This has significant apologetic value in and of itself. Duane Litfin, President of Wheaton College, has written very insightfully on this practice with respect to the Christian college.
    Christian education within the church, especially the junior high level and above, should become more intellectually serious and thus more apologetically oriented. Classes should be taught by thoughtful teachers who engage students to outthink the world for Christ. These settings should become more like prayerful classrooms and less like chattering religious coffee and donut centers. Along these lines, churches should invest significantly in church library that is well stocked with books on apologetics and other topics.
  15. Mission agencies should insure that their missionaries are adequately trained in the apologetic issues and strategies required for their place of service. The Great Commission requires that Christ’s followers disciple the nations by teaching them everything Jesus taught his original disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Since Jesus prized the life of the mind and defended this theology and ethics rationally, Christians should bring the best arguments for Christianity and against non-Christian religions to bear on the mission field. The nations cannot be discipled apart from the full orbed teaching and defense of the Christian worldview as it relates to all of life.
  16. Because apologetics is meant to be the presentation and defense of Christianity as true, reasonable, pertinent, and knowable, competent apologists should attempt to offer their arguments in as many public venues as possible. Therefore, qualified Christian apologists should learn to become public intellectuals: thinkers who have mastered their material and are willing and able to enter public discourse and debate in a way that challenges and engages the non-Christian mind as well as galvanizes other Christians to hone their apologetic skills. Areas of apologetic engagement include the following:
  • Writing letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines.
  • Writing op-ed pieces for newspapers.
  • Calling talk radio programs.
  • Engaging in public debates and dialogues on religious and ethical issues, particularly in university campuses, where young minds are being forged for a lifetime.
  • Making apologetic contributions to interactive web pages.
  • Writing books oriented to those outside the typical evangelical market, published by secular publishers if possible.
  • Creating apologetics tracts for specific events.
  • Any other creative outreach—drama, poetry, cinema, and more.
  1. Christians should also labor to present reasons for faith in as many private settings as possible. Many who are not gifted as public speakers or writers can shine in their interpersonal Christian witness. This can include apologetic encounters such as:
  • Inviting people into one’s home for apologetic messages and discussions.
  • Giving apologetic literature to friends, family, and coworkers.
  • Writing letters to friends, family, and coworkers explaining and defending Christianity.
  1. Young Christians with an aptitude in philosophy and academic pursuits in general should be encouraged that these disciplines are just as spiritual as anything directly church-related. For example, being a Christian philosopher at a secular college or university is just as godly and spiritual than being a pastor, missionary, or professor at a Christian institution (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). As the Dutch statesman, theologian, and journalist, Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine!'” One may prudently apply one’s apologetic skills in these settings and extend the Christian witness.
  2. All apologetics ventures—whether in writing, speaking, or dialogue—should be backed by personal prayer by the apologist and supporting prayer of the church (Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Certain apologetic ventures—especially those that deal with the occult and false religions—may require fasting in addition to prayer (Matthew 6:18-20; Acts 13:1-3).

May we who are redeemed through the blood of the lamb and who yearn to proclaim, explain, and defend the gospel of Jesus Christ take as our charge the Apostle Paul’s rousing conclusion to his glorious exposition of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

 

Death and the Fall

Nothing screams, “This world is fallen,”louder than death. We were not created to die, but to live with God and each other in natural harmony and to develop creation in God’s will.

We were not made to have our souls leave our bodies. But that happens at death. The run up to this departure is seldom peaceful. It is not natural. The body wants to live. It was created to live. But it must die. It may die piece by piece, ability by ability, word by word. Those who die slowly must take a long and unbidden passage into darkness.

The body wants to live. It was created to live. But it must die.

In dying slowly, not all parts or functions of the body fade or fail at once. The eyes may see, but the brain does not know what is seen. The legs may be strong, but there is no sense of balance and no where to go, since agency is gone. The mouth can chew, but there is no coordination to bring the spoon to the mouth. The vocal chords are in working order, but the brain cannot make them speak or sing. No, death is not like turning off a machine.

My wife will receive a rich welcome when her soul leaves her body. But the process of leaving that body behind–after years of glacial decline–is torture. One second with Jesus Christ will dwarf all her pain and fulfill all of her longings. When she is gone, I can think of this beatitude and thank God for it. But I cannot experience it with her. Only her lifeless body will be left in a dying world; it must be prepared for burial by people we do not even know, whose services I have already paid for.

Sacramental Theology Under the Sun

“How do you fit those two things together?” I paused before answering. I do this more as I age. She and I, along with another bright student (with her dog, Samson), were talking about theology, spiritual formation, and dogs—as we enjoyed craft beer at Living the Dream Brewery.  The two things needing fitting together were sacramental theology and the Ecclesiastes kind of life, which is so much of my life.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes, 9:11; KJV).

Life is unfair and unpredictable for the most important matters. Understanding escapes us, even as we thirst for it.

Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it (Ecclesiastes 8:17-18; KJV).

Under the sun, we walk in the fear of God, committing much to mystery, trying to enjoy what God gives—and takes away.

Sacramental theology, as I tried to tease it out, affirms that the world is full of heaven; the natural speaks of the supernatural; life is rich with symbolic meaning; the finite mediates the infinite. God is with us, in us, and for us. We experience this most dramatically in the Eucharist and in the Spirit-led preaching of Holy Scripture. Consider Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion teaching on communion.

XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. . .

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.

Sacramental theology speaks of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist, but also of God’s presence in and through all areas of life. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Or, as the hymn sings, “This is my Father’s world. He shines in all that’s fare.” So, then, how can a theology of Ecclesiastes faith amidst the ruins of a wrecked world be squared with a sacramental faith that claims God’s good presence everywhere, but especially in the two sacraments (Eucharist and baptism)?

God does vouchsafe his presence and direction through nature, friendship, reading, and much else. He is always there, always here within us. But God sometimes hides himself (Isaiah 45:15) and keeps his own counsel, leaving us dry and dusty—and even desperate. Hence the many sad reflections of Ecclesiastes and elsewhere in the Bible. We should try “read the signs of the times,” while knowing that much of it is indecipherable.  This is our lot “under the sun,” our way in a fallen and groaning world that yet awaits its full redemption (Romans 8:16-23).

The sacraments, on the other hand, are not indecipherable. They ring out in sight, touch, and taste. Their meaning is biblically fixed (however much we wrangle about that) and durable. They are the substance of two thousand years of Christian practice. The elements of these practices—water, bread, wine—are common, not esoteric. We don’t need a French deconstructionist to interpret them for us (or anything else). These elements become symbols that mediate the sacred for us through the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth. They are God-ordained, not invented by mere mortals. Nor are they subject to revision. Their meaning is fixed, solid, and reliable—week after week, month after month, year after year. Of this, we can be certain. The sacraments of the church anchor us in the eternal. We may be tethered to eternity as we are blown around by a world that often makes little sense, the Ecclesiastes world “under the sun.”

The church’s sacraments remain true and holy, real no matter what assails us, even though,

 the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11; KJV).

And yet, the Gospel is true, no matter what. Christ is Lord, come what may. God has given us his symbols and practices to root us in him in a rootless world, to train us to remember what the world wants us to forget. The more forsaken I feel, the more I cling to the realities that the sacraments reveal to us. For now, that is how I combine Ecclesiastes and sacramental theology. Thank you for asking, my young student. Perhaps we will talk again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

40 Years of Classroom Stories

While hanging out with some students from Denver Seminary, I recounted some of the funniest and oddest experiences in my many years of teaching. I told them I would write an essay on this.

Good teachers want students to learn well. We earnestly endeavor to prepare well and create an atmosphere where knowledge happens. But things go wrong or surprise us.

In about 1995, I was role playing as a Hindu philosopher in my apologetics class. I was making a case for non-dualism (or pantheistic monism) and the students were trying to refute me. It was quite philosophical. I had yet conceded nothing when a student asked, “Would you like to accept Jesus as your Savior?” I was incapacitated by hilarity, as was the class.

A few years ago, a student made a remark about me liking Kenny G (knowing my true feelings). I walked out of the class and then came in the back door. The student had panicked and was looking for me outside. The class was hysterical.

Many years ago, I suffered through being in class with a student who was both clueless and talkative. He or she waved her hand eagerly to make another long and inane comment. She then called out to me. I said, “I was trying to ignore you.” She then made her inane comment, nonetheless.

A student asked me a question that was obviously covered in the reading for that day. I asked, “Did you do the reading?” The student answered, “No.” I said, “Then I don’t have to answer your question.”

Before I banned laptops from the classroom about ten years ago, I passed out a piece of paper saying that students would not go on line while they used their computers to take notes. I asked them to sign this and turn it in to me. At this a student stood up and yelled, “You are treating us like high school students.” I replied, “You and I and the Dean will talk about this later.” Not being deterred the student said, “We don’t have to take this: Revolt!” I looked out at the horrified class and said, “If any of you want to revolt with this student, you can leave the class and we will all talk to the Dean later.” The student later apologized and the tension dissipated.

During a doctrinal oral examination, another professor and I probed a student about the present existence and location of Jesus after this resurrection. The student was flummoxed and did not have the categories to respond. He looked more panicked and frozen than a deer in headlights. My colleague said, “I feel like we are doing dental work here, trying to pull the answers out of you.” The student later retook part of the examination and passed. He now knows where Jesus is (besides in his heart).

I made many comments on a student’s thesis in philosophy. He responded to all of them, but neglected one. I gave back his thesis and told him to attend to what he omitted. I also said that as a penalty, he had to take me to a baseball game. He did.

At the break during a class, a student came up to me and said that my button-up shirt was buttoned unevenly. I corrected that in the men’s room.

In apologetics, I pretended to be a jazz saxophone player named Zoot. Zoot asked that the class give him an argument for the existence of God from the existence of a saxophone. They did, and Zoot was impressed.

I was teaching a very large and long class on apologetics on a week night. To keep people interested, I brought a Frisbee to class. When I wanted someone to answer a question, I threw it into the class. Whoever caught it had to answer the question.

One student turned in a paper in which he misspelled both my first and last name: Douglass Groothius.

I was reading a student paper on the philosophy of technology and thought, “This is quite good. This is me!” The hapless student copied two full pages from my book, The Soul in Cyberspace.

When teaching at Metro State College, I received the worst paper I had ever seen. It was terribly written, except where it plagiarized from an atheist web page. The student also wrote, “Because I am a Christian, I am a relativist.” I call this paper F cubed. F for writing. F for plagiarizing. F for logic.

In a history of philosophy class, I assigned a paper on Kant. One of the students turned in a paper on Descartes instead. Oops.

I saw a student looking down at the floor next to her desk and moving a piece of paper on the floor. “Marina, what are you doing?” She said, “There is a spider on the floor and I want to save him.” She then put the spider piece of paper and put him out in the hallway. I’m not sure how long he survived there, though.

I am sure more stories will come to me, but these may amuse you.

 

Movie Thoughts on “God’s Not Dead, 2”

God’s not Dead, 2 (2016)

A teacher is accused of proselytizing in the classroom simply because she answered a student’s question about whether Martin Luther King’s nonviolent protests were influenced by Jesus. The teacher affirmed it and quoted a verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

When word gets out, the teacher is vilified as preaching in the classroom and must take her case to court. She is assigned a young, inexperienced, but tenacious lawyer.

I won’t give away the plot. Rather, let’s consider some of the strengths of the film.

1. The lawyer decides that it is crucial to give historical arguments that Jesus existed and that the Gospels are credible. The plan is that the teacher could cite the saying of a teacher in history. Thus, we hear testimony from the real Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace at some length. Rice Brooks, the apologetic mind behind the film, and Gary Habermas gets to say a few things.

2. Like the first God’s not Dead, someone stands for Christ under pressure, this time the school teacher.

3. The lawyer representing the teacher destroys the claim that “the separation of church and state” has any bearing on the case, since it is not in The Constitution.

However, the plot and logic of the story have weaknesses.

1. The teacher is said to have broken a law by mentioning Jesus in class. That law is never stated or even paraphrased. Thus, we don’t know if she violated any law. I find it unlikely that an historical reference to Jesus as part of answering a student’s question could be construed (even by the ACLU) as illegal. Instead of legal specifics, it is set up as Christianity verses secularism, which is far too vague. US Courts don’t work that way.

2. I am not a judge or a lawyer, but I find it hard to believe that the judge would have permitted some of the behavior in the courtroom. It strained belief.

3. The tables are turned dramatically near the end of the film, and was nothing less than rhetorical genius. The move was a reductio ad absurdum. I won’t say more. However, the maneuver seemed to have nothing to do with the legal issue at question (inasmuch as we can figure that out).

All told, “God’s not Dead, 2,” was more believable than the first installment. It was moving in places. The acting was believable. Since I don’t sink to the absurdity of giving stars (unless a magazine, which shall not be named, makes me), I simply recommend this movie for Christians, seekers, those hostile to Christianity, and for believers in other religions.

4 Reasons Why Leaders Should be Readers

Christian leaders need to direct and inspire through their knowledge and character. I here assume you are not reading romance novels or graphic novels. Leaders should be readers, among other things. Why?

1. Reading deepens your awareness of life. You can see things with other eyes and expand your awareness. God’s people need perspective.
2. Reading helps you not to be a sucker, to be sucked into superficial fads, bad ideas, and general stupidity.
3. Reading helps you love others better, because you have more meat to offer them.
4. You need to be an example of intellectual rectitude and studiousness.

How can this be done?

1. Limit time online. Kindle is good for some things, such as reading while traveling and for capturing text. However, the book affords its unique charms for understanding. See my chapter, “The Book, the Screen, and the Soul,” in “The Soul in Cyberspace.”
2. Find time alone and without distraction to read. Perhaps “a clean, well-lit place,” or in messiness (as I do).
3. Ask thoughtful friends what they are reading.
4. Haunt bookstores for books. Duh.
5. Check the New York Times Book Review.

What to Read

1. That which deepens your calling.
2. History: for perspective on today.
3. Philosophy: sharpen your critical thinking prowess and knowledge of worldviews and the history of ideas.
4. Psychology: better understand yourself and others.
5. Poetry: the kind you can understand.
6. Apologetics: learn to defend your faith wisely.
7. Ethics: for moral discernment.
8. Social commentary by smart people.
9. Everything related to the Bible.
10. Science, especially what is written from the Intelligent Design viewpoint.
11. Classic literature: Plato, Aristotle, Pascal, so much more.
12. Literature: enliven your imagination through story.
13. Spiritual writings: deepen your relationship with God.

That should keep you busy for some time, good time.

26 Tips to Writing Badly

Writing badly comes naturally to most, but these tips will help you become awesome in your epic badness.

  1. Don’t proofe read .
  2. Who cares what the difference is between a semicolon and a comma?
  3. Use common terms over and over, such as “great,” “nice,” “awesome.”
  4. End a paragraph whenever the mood strikes you.
  5. Ignore word limits. Express yourself as need be.
  6. Don’t read “gifted” or “classic” writers who have endured through history. It might rub off on you.
  7. Write with many distractions going on around you. It helps you be creative. (I hear that this helps people with ADD, though.)
  8. Only fulminating fussbudgets care about the difference between em-dashes and hyphens. Innovate – yeah…
  9. Never risk going over people’s heads when you write. Go for the lowest common denominator—or lower.
  10. Use worn out, cliché phrases. First and foremost, everybody is used to them, so it’s cool.
  11. Mix metaphors. Everybody does it.

    In “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” Bryan A. Garner offers this classic example of a mixed metaphor from a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament:

    “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.”

    Isn’t that cool?

  12. Capitalization is UP to You. Don’t fuss over any Rules in the matter.
  13. Never consult style or grammar guides. Why cramp your expressive style with stupid rules? Instead read cool books about the new uses of language, which have been marinated in the internet.
  14. creative. with. periods. W.h.y. n.o.t??!!…
  15. Use commas, or, not. Up to you.
  16. Being fussy over complete sentences is a sign of anal-retentive fascism. Keep your grammar out of my bedroom!
  17. Imho, use text talk in writing, lol. U r entitled to it. K?
  18. Always be breezy, never serious, cuz, like, why be inhibited?
  19. Instead of finding the right work combination to articulate an idea, use extra punctuation!!! Why not??
  20. Throw in quotation marks “randomly” to express a knowing skepticism for no reason.
  21. Read Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. Do everything he says not to do.
  22. Embrace obfuscation.
  23. For all intensive purposes, don’t fuss over getting sayings right. It will wreck havoc on your style and undermine the tenants of your writing.
  24. Never turn in a paper to Douglas Groothuis or any other curmudgeon who insists on obeying rules, developing an elegant style, or mastering documentation. These people are so 1970s!!! lol; omg.
  25. Any noun can be verbed. Example: The Governor smokescreened that issue.
  26. Boldface whenever you There are no, like, rules.

Easter Life and the Facts of History

Easter commemorates and celebrates a historical event unlike any other: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But what is the significance of the resurrection? And how can we know it really happened?

The four Gospels report that Jesus predicted his death, burial, and resurrection. He was born to die. All of his wondrous teachings, healings, exorcisms, and transforming relationships with all manner of people—from fishermen to tax collectors to prostitutes to revolutionaries—would be incomplete without his crucifixion and resurrection. Shortly before his death, “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priest and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). Peter resisted this grim fact, but Jesus rebuked him. There was no other way (vs. 22-23). For, as Jesus had taught, he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

And give his life he did, on an unspeakably cruel Roman cross—impaled for all to see before two common criminals. We call this day Good Friday because it was good for us; but it was dreadful for Jesus. Before I became a follower of Christ, I always associated this day with the Alaskan earthquake on Good Friday, 1964, one of the largest ever in North America. I was there in Anchorage. After the death of Jesus, the earth quaked on the first Good Friday as well, heaving with a significance that far exceeds any geological upsurge in world history. As Jesus’ disciple Matthew recounts: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split” (Matthew 27:50-51). When the guards at the crucifixion experienced the earthquake and the other extraordinary phenomena, “they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” (v. 54). Yet another miracle was waiting, waiting—as the dead Messiah was pried off his bloody cross, embalmed, and laid in a cold, dark tomb, guarded to the hilt.

We call this day Good Friday because it was good for us; but it was dreadful for Jesus.

All seemed to be lost. The one who had boldly claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), the prophet who had announced that “God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)—this man now had died. The man who had raised the dead was dead.

On the first day of the week, two women, both named Mary, came to visit the tomb of their master. They had stayed with him as he died; now they visited his tomb in grief. Yet instead of mourning a death, they celebrated a resurrection announced by an angel, who rolled back the stone sealing the tomb and charged them to look at its empty contents. He then told them to tell Jesus’ disciples of the resurrection and to go to Galilee where they would see him. As they scurried away, Jesus himself met them, greeted them, and received their surprised worship (Matthew 27:8-9). He directed them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v. 10).

The rest is history, and it changed history forever. The fact that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection puts the lie to the notion that the idea of Jesus’ resurrection was concocted at a later point to add drama to his life. Women were not taken to be trustworthy witnesses in courts of law at that time (although Jesus always respected them). If someone had wanted to create a pious fraud, they never would have included the two Marys in their story. Moreover, all four Gospels testify to the factual reality of the resurrection. They were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) or those who consulted eyewitnesses (Luke and Mark); they were people in the know, not writers of myths and legends (see Luke 1:1-4; 1 Peter 1:16).

After the resurrection, the gospel of the risen Jesus was quickly proclaimed in the very area where he was crucified. This upstart “cult” would have been easily refuted by someone producing the corpse of Christ, which both the Jewish establishment and the Roman government had a vested interest in doing, since this new movement threatened the religious and political status quo. But we have no historical record of any such thing having occurred. On the contrary, the Jesus movement grew and rapidly spread. Christian Jews changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. Pious Jews would never do such a thing on their own initiative, because it would set them against their own tradition and their countrymen. Nor would they have ceased offering the prescribed sacrifices their Scriptures required had not Jesus proven himself to be the final sacrifice for sin, the lamb of God (see John 1:29 and the Book of Hebrews). The resurrection best accounts for this change in their day of worship, their manner of worship, and the transformation at the core of their lives. Moreover, the two key rituals of the earliest church—communion and the baptism—both presuppose the historicity of the resurrection and are very difficult to explain without it.

The two key rituals of the earliest church—communion and the baptism—both presuppose the historicity of the resurrection and are very difficult to explain without it.

The Apostle Paul, a man revolutionized through an encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9), taught that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Paul listed many witnesses of the risen Christ, some of whom were still living when he wrote (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), and confidently affirmed that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (v. 20). He also proclaimed that Jesus “through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).

Easter is the core of Christian faith and life. Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no gospel message, no future hope, and no new life in Christ. With the resurrection, Christianity stands unique in all the world: no other spiritual movement is based on the resurrection of its divine founder. When Jesus announced, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 10:25), he meant it and he demonstrated it. Let us, then, leave our dead ways and follow him today and into eternity.

Looking Back to an Old Typewriter

What difference might a typewriter make on one’s writing style; might it even affect one’s thinking itself? We are what we write, and how we write is shaped by the device on which we write. Consider Nicholas Carr’s reflections on Nietzsche’s use of a primitive typewriter.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” (The Atlantic, July/August 2008).

            Selectric is the name of an IBM electronic typewriter that awkwardly sits on a table in what should be the dining room. When I type, I hear the sounds of inscription. I see the words appear in front of me on a real sheet of paper. The touch is lighter than on a manual typewriter, but it is percussive. It pounds the letters into place and moves on. It is like playing drums and writing at the same time, although there is no steady beat. Maybe it is more like avant-garde drumming.

Machines like this are not easily portable. They are connected to nothing outside of their power cord. They are not made anymore, like the Hammond B-3 organ. Every major jazz organist plays a B-3. How many writers use an electric typewriter? Some still use manual models, which I learned from the delightful film, “California Typewriter.”

The Selectric was famous for being a dependable and correctible typewriter. A little key allowed you to backspace to a mistake and then strike the errant letter, which was (somewhat) erased. Then you typed the proper letter. Bad typists like me appreciated that.

Unmasking the New Age (1986), my first book, was half written on an early computer and half written on a Selectric that someone had rented for me. I wrote several other articles and reviews on the Selectric as well. But after getting my now extinct Kay-pro, the great beast was forgotten and all was written on computer—until I spotted a garage sale in my neighborhood. That is when the Selectric came back into my life.

Kaiser-Permanente will likely be stunned when they receive a typewritten letter from me protesting their decision not to cover a medical test. But mostly, I sidle up to the hulking black box to write letters to friends. So far, no recipients have complained. Some have applauded. None have typewritten back.

The Selectric selects the way I write. Corrections are not easily made. So, I think more before I write. Deleting a whole sentence is not easily done. I have not returned to the world of white out, a substance with which I never made piece. I think some of it from decades ago is still under my finger nail. If I must delete a lot, I strike through with dashes. That is ugly, but gritty. Tom Hanks types this way on his manuals; so I can, too. Knowing that I can resort to grittiness frees me from fear of error. Typing forbids you to move text around—something that is second nature to us now. You are committed to a sequence. If I want to return to a topic from several topics ago, I have to bring it up again. This is a little more like a conversation than typing on a computer, where cutting and pasting (to hark back to a literal practice) is simple.

My Selectric also has sentimental value. The muscle memory comes back. I think of typing out my lecture outlines for my class, “The Twilight of Western Thought,” when I worked in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon. I think of short essays I wrote to my fiancé, Becky Merrill, one of which was on the ontology of kissing. That has, tragically, been lost to history (I think).

I won’t be sending publishers any hard copy written on a typewriter. My black beauty does not have spell check. Nor can it insert links. Adding footnotes would be annoying. I remember those dark days. I won’t lug my typewriter into the office and then back home again. It is more of a fixture and part of my house. However, I would gladly have one in my office if could procure another good one at a decent price.

Perhaps I gave hypergraphia—at least a mild case—but I don’t suffer from it. I live it. When a colleague mentioned my productivity amidst the misery of living through my wife’s dementia, I replied, “I write in order to survive.” I write about many topics on various devices. Each device—computer, typewriter, pen and ink—shapes how I write. Perhaps that is worth pondering, since words will last forever and cannot finally be taken back.

 

 

Truth, the Universe, and You

By Douglas Groothuis and Elizabeth Johnston

Intellectual sobriety is rare. When pressed to think at all, many act like drunken sailors forced to take a philosophy quiz. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt called this, well, bullshit in his miniature best-selling book, On Bullshit. Page one says:

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.”

He understands the bovine excrement metaphor to mean communication that does not care about truth. Liars have a greater concern to get reality right—and then to claim the opposite. To lie, as Mortimer Adler puts it in Six Great Ideas, is to “willfully misplace one’s ontological predicates.” That is, I know that X is P and I say that X is not-P. I deny what I should affirm. This is the work of the liar. Exponents of BS, however care not whether his ontological predicates match reality. He speaks and writes for other reasons. Impressing people, persuading people, deceiving people, and hearing himself talk are among them.

Truth seekers and truth tellers are neither deceivers nor BS artists.

One should never get over a concern for truth, since lies lurk everywhere. Believing the truth with wisdom allows us to navigate reality far better than heeding the counsel of lies and BS. A man who is true to the truth need seek no lies. He is disarmed and rearmed by reality and will not try to falsify it. Truth makes its demands, if we have ears to hear. Consider its inescapable demands.

  1. A statement is true if it corresponds with the reality it describes.

Example: God exists.

  1. A statement is false if it fails to correspond with the reality it describes.

Example: God does not exist.

  1. For a statement to be true, it must cohere with every other true statement in the universe. That is, no true statement can cohere with a false statement, since they contradict each other.

Consider an example.

S1: It is objectively wrong to murder.

Since it corresponds to reality, this assertion is true. Subjective preference and derivation from a sociological sample do not influence its veracity. Its truthfulness is inherent. Thus, consistency with every other accurate pronouncement is a must.

Meet Goober; he is a materialist. Actually, Goober is a muddled materialist. He correctly holds S1 to be true, but he also believes:

S2: Materialism is true.

Materialism is an all-encompassing worldview. Denying not only God’s existence—but also everything abstract or spiritual—it insists that only matter exists. Thus, materialism cannot supply a moral authority beyond the mere facts of chemistry, biology, and physics. Normative claims have no logical place within that paradigm—befuddled believers in a materialistic worldview notwithstanding. Therefore, S2 does not cohere with S1. What else must be true if S1 is true? Consider:

G1: God is the source of moral authority.

G1 is true because God is the personal and immaterial evaluator of all things. He defines the meaning of good and evil based upon the moral perfections of his character. Human beings possess intrinsic dignity and the right to life because they are created in God’s image. Murder transgresses this intrinsic dignity and the right to life. As a consequent, murder is morally wrong. Therefore, the following two assertions do not cohere:

S1: It is morally wrong to murder.

S2: Materialism is true.

This is because the following affirmation is true:

G1: God is the source of moral authority.

Therefore, the following two statements cohere:

S1: It is morally wrong to murder.

G1: God is the source of moral authority.

Lest one take this analysis to be laborious and obvious, the point is a sharp one: A proper mindset accepts only affirmations that cohere with one another. Anything one believes to be true must be in accord with any other true statement in the universe. Let us remember:

  1. God is one.
  2. Truth is one.
  3. All truth is God’s truth.
  4. Errors are many.

Therefore, the wise will eschew BS, endeavor to find the truth, and will not contradict it by lying. God is watching. All truth is his, although he shares it with all who pursue it. Jesus, Truth Incarnate, declares:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

 

 

13 Ways to Live a Thoughtful Life for Christ and His Kingdom

Spiritual formation, becoming more like Jesus Christ in thought and deed, requires a renewed mind (Romans 12:2) that avoids worldliness (1 John 2:15-17) and pursues godliness (Matthew 5:1-18; 6:33). Our sanctification through the Holy Spirit requires an ongoing dependency on God. We are to grow in the knowledge of God and of the workings of his Kingdom (Matthew 6:33). We are to see ourselves (James 1:25), our place in the church (1 Corinthians 12-14), and the broader culture (1 Chronicles 12:32) in light of his Word.

To this end, here are some principles and recommendations in how to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

  1. Remain faithful in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, which are God’s cognitive revelation of himself and the ways of salvation (2 Timothy 3:15-16). Acquire and use study aids such as one or more study Bibles. I recommend The Apologetics Study Bible, The Reformation Study Bible, The NET Bible, and The NIV Study Bible. Of course, there are many other tools such as commentaries and other helps. The excellent commentaries of John Calvin and Matthew Henry are available online.
  2. Discern your unique calling as a Christian. No one can do everything, so we must concentrate our energies where we are gifted and in accordance to God’s leading. I highly recommend Os Guinness’s book on this vital topic, The Call. See also John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life.
  3. Be involved in a Bible-believing and Bible-teaching local church, and seek to serve through what you have learned. Biblically, we are responsible to use what we know wisely and for the glory of God. We should not hide our gifts under a table, but employ them to build up the church and witness to the world (Matthew 5; Ephesians 4:15). Specifically:
    1. Develop adult education classes on the Christian worldview, biblical interpretation, theology, apologetics, and social issues.
    2. Make sure your church has some way of preparing high school students for college. Many churched teenagers either put aside their Christian convictions or lose them during this time. For how high school students in the church tend to think, see Christian Smith, Soul Searching. Also consult the essay “Faithful Christianity in College” by Douglas Groothuis and Sarah Geis at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/2013/04/09/faithful-christianity-in-college/
    3. Be involved as a mentor to those who can benefit from your gifts. Try to find a suitable mentor for yourself as well (Proverbs 27:17; 2 Timothy 2:2).
  4. Develop your skills at speaking, teaching, and conversation. American linguistic culture is ugly, sloppy, and lazy. Instead of blending with the inarticulate herd, broaden your vocabulary, work on articulation, and listen to the people with which you are speaking. On writing, see the classic Elements of Style by Stunk and White. On public speaking, see Stand Like Lincoln, Speak Like Churchill by James Humes. Consider joining a Toastmasters club to refine your speaking skills.
  5. Read thoughtful Christian books, both classic and contemporary. While we often emphasize popular books, we should not forget time-tested classics written by Augustine, Calvin, Pascal, and Jonathan Edwards. Twentieth-century writers such as G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, John Stott, J. I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, James Sire, and Os Guinness make for hearty and rewarding reading as well.
  6. Certain periodicals are also edifying. For keeping the pulse of contemporary evangelicalism, see Christianity Today. Political and cultural issues are carefully addressed in First Things, which now has a rather strong Catholic focus. To stay abreast of cults, religious movements, apologetics, and ethics read The Christian Research Journal. Relevant is a popular magazine, which is aimed at millennials. However, I find it a bit trendy and superficial.
  7. Be aware of secular culture and non-Christian religious expressions through your reading of periodicals and books. I also read the Sunday New York Times and The New Yorker for sophisticated secular views—and, in the latter case, for their superb cartoons. Commentary is excellent for conservative Jewish views. This is a resource for discerning what non-Christian books you should read, as is The New York Times book review. I also check Harpers, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, and Wired to look for significant articles. I find browsing at bookstores especially helpful, if you can find a brick and mortar bookstore. I am grateful that the Denver area has three locations of The Tattered Cover Bookstore.
  8. Carefully and prayerfully consider your use of all electronic communications media. These often sap our knowledge and divert us from godly habits of the heart. Consider engaging in a protracted media abstention in which you eliminate a commonly-used electronic system for a week to ten days. It will profoundly change your view of technology. See my book, The Soul in Cyberspace. For my more recent thoughts see my interview with Tim Challies at: http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/challies/the-soul-in-cyberspace-an-interview-with-douglas-groothuis-11603254.html Consider also the thoughtful, secular book, Hamlet’s Blackberry. For a broader historical and culture critique read Neil Postman’s magisterial work, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. The best book on television is Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. See also my article in The Christian Research Journal, “Understanding Social Media” at: http://www.equip.org/PDF/JAF2333.pdf. For a more scholarly paper, see Douglas Groothuis, “Christian Scholarship and the Philosophical Analysis of Cyberspace Technologies,” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 4 14 (December 1998): 631-640. This is on line at http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/41/41-4/41-4-pp631-640-JETS.pdf.
  9. Listen to thoughtful radio programs and podcasts. Many gifted Christian teachers and preachers can be heard in this manner. Redeem the time by listening to them in your car, or while exercising, or when you cannot do anything else, such as when you are ill. An excellent source of cultural criticism from a Christian or Christian-friendly viewpoint is Mars Hill Audio, hosted by Ken Myers, author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Eerdmans, 1989). Some audio books of thoughtful books are available for purchase or from a library.
  10. Take periods of time—either short or long—for silence. Our culture is too noisy and over-stimulated. We need quiet to compose our bodies and souls before God in cognitive meditation, prayer, and rest. As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak (3:7; see also Habakkuk 2:20).

Consider Denver Seminary for further education. I head the MA in Apologetics and Ethics. We also offer a Certificate in Apologetics and Ethics (10 semester hours). See https://denverseminary.edu/academics/masters-level-certificates/ for more information.

As someone who has been laboring to develop a Christian mind since I became a Christian in 1976, I challenge you to think well for the cause of Christ and to even out-think the world for Christ!

Book Review: Dynamics of Spiritual Life

Books grounded me during my early Christian life. Along with The God Who is There by Francis Schaffer, Pensées by Blaise Pascal, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, and The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, The Confessions by Augustine (and many others), Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life offered a historically and theologically rich charter for living the Christian life in all its dimensions: individual, church, and culture. To this day, I know of no other book in this category. How pleased I was a few months ago to find a student at Denver Seminary reading and lauding this magnificent book.

I was in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon.  During that time I read Lovelace’s book. Most of my ministry time was spent in preparation for teaching. During the early 1980s, I taught from Dynamics in a yearlong course for upper division credit in Sociology. It was called, a bit pretentiously, “The Twilight of Western Thought.” Given the fear of micro-aggression, the advent of “equality officers,” safe zones and trigger warnings for those fragile souls traumatized by ideas not their own, this course would never be taught today. You see, it was taught from a Christian perspective. Free of any discrimination against non-Christian students or their work, Dynamics explained the Christian worldview in relation to other perspectives. True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it does not avoid them at all cost. That is how the head of the sociology department saw it, so he sponsored the class.

"True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it dose not avoid them at all cost."

What a feast it was to teach through every chapter of Dynamics of Spiritual Life. My copy is decorated with color markings, underlining, marginalia and my own index placed on the inner front cover. As C. S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, the literary person rereads his great books.  In his introduction to Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word, he says that the older books should not be neglected for the new. This work, now thirty-six years old, deserves to be read and re-read.

Dr. Lovelace approaches the theology of renewal as a church historian, who draws wisely from many movements and thinkers, of whom Jonathan Edwards features prominently. While Reformed theologically, Lovelace appreciates the best of the Protestant traditions and accepted the ongoing power of the charismatic gifts. His winsome and sane approach stimulated me to rethink and eventually leave behind the cessationism I had picked up from the Dispensational theology I was taught in a Baptist Church. I found one could be a Calvinist Charismatic, and so I have remained.

The book proceeds in a linear and systematic fashion by considering the nature of renewal in some depth. He is not writing about revivalism specifically, although he cannot ignore that. Rather, he addresses the conditions for renewal given what the Bible and church history tells us. In Part I, Dynamics of Renewal, Lovelace measures the current situation (1979),  for the church, looks at biblical patterns of renewal, the preconditions for renewal (knowing God and our sinfulness), primary elements of renewal (our status in Christ), secondary elements of renewal (mission, prayer, community, theologian integration, and disenculturation). Renewal in the Church is the second and longer part of the book, and offers a cornucopia of insight on “the sanctification” gap, how revivals go wrong, the nature of orthodoxy and ecumenism, the Christian and the arts, a biblical account of social action, and “the prospects for renewal.”

Lovelace’s reflections are deeply biblical, theologically rich, and spiritually heartening. Consider one example. His discussion of justification and sanctification is deeply biblically, clear, and cogent. Our theology of justification and sanctification is foundational to any Spirit-led renewal in the church and in culture. Twenty years after I taught this material, one of my students emailed to say how significant this was in forming her young Christian life. I often return to this reality in my Christian experience. I am accepted in Christ, justified by his righteous and am loved. That is the foundation. From that foundation, I seek to grow in grace and truth, depending on the Holy Spirit in all things. Francis Schaeffer’s modern classic, True Spirituality, makes these same points in a bit more detail.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more. Dynamics of Spiritual Life, though written in 1979, can help chart the way. I cannot think of any book as profound, wise, and challenging on these matters. Yes, it is high time to reread this modern classic. Thanks to InterVarsity for keeping it in print all these years and thank you, Richard Lovelace for this work of love and erudition.

5 Truths Billy Graham Taught Us

On Billy Graham

Gordon MacDonald, friend and Chancellor of Denver Seminary, mentioned to me that it is likely that few students at my school know much, if anything, about Billy Graham. It is for those not acquainted with the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century that I write these words.

Billy Graham knew his calling and stayed true to it in active ministry for over 60 years. He drew huge crowds through his crusades, a word we do not use today for mass evangelism. These events included congregational singing, celebrity testimonies, and preaching by Graham.

He was blessed with a commanding, but not imposing, presence. He had a strong voice, was good looking, and later wore his hair a bit long. All this added to his distinctive presence. He preached the biblical gospel in every message and around the world. I encourage you to watch some of them online. You may be moved to get saved again (or for the first time).

Graham ended every service with an altar call, asking those who wanted to “receive Christ” to come forward to pray with workers at the front of the stage. Thousands and thousands did so over decades. These services were often televised nationally. I remember seeing part of one in my home in Anchorage, Alaska, sometime in the 1960’s. Sadly, my father did not want to watch much of it.

Graham did much more than preach, however. He led an organization with integrity: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Society. It publishes a magazine called Decision, produces films, and uses every available venue to preach the Gospel. I recently received an evangelistic card in the mail written by Franklin Graham, Graham’s son. I gave it to an acquaintance at a pub. I hope he read it.

A number of books were written by Graham, the most noteworthy, perhaps, was Peace with God. I gave his book, How to be Born Again, to a good friend of our families back in about 1977.

While he never strayed from his vocation as an evangelist, early in his career, Graham took a stand against Communism, because it was godless. (He later preached in The Soviet Union.) He supported the Civil Rights movement and was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. He also supported the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Understood more broadly, Graham was at the heart of Evangelicalism in the middle to late twentieth century. He and Dr. Carl F. H. Henry founded Christianity Today. Henry was one of his theological advisers. Graham’s winsomeness helped Evangelicalism emerge from a narrower Fundamentalism. He spent pastoral time with every president from Truman to Obama.

Graham lived out his ministry almost entirely without scandal. The worst of it was when he was recorded speaking of the Jews having a monopoly on Hollywood. He apologized and deeply regretted it. To my mind, the remark is not even anti-Semitic. I think it was only derogatory.

Graham was above reproach. Later in life, he regretted not spending more time with his family, pursuing more education, and not studying the Bible more. But, who lives to an old age without some regrets?

In her book, To Me, It’s Wonderful, Ethel Waters recounts her attendance at a Graham rally. Miss Waters was a successful jazz singer who was committed to Christ, but not involved much in the church. But she attended the crusade day-after-day and deepened her Christian commitment. She would later sing at these events and testify to the saving power of Christ. Her signature song was “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a reference to Jesus’ teaching about not worrying in Matthew 6:25-27.

What can Billy Graham teach us?

  1. We must never forget or underestimate the power of the gospel. We must stay true to it. Explain it. Proclaim it. Defend it. Apply it. Graham did.
  2. We should be above reproach, never cut corners, and never play around with sin. The greater the influence we have, the worse the fall.
  3. We should find our calling and stay true to it. The church is called to evangelize, but some are better at it than others. I am more of an apologist than an evangelist, but I try to keep the gospel at the center of my work.
  4. We should capitalize on every opportunity, use every venue, and employ every means to speak the truth in love about our God of truth and love.
  5. Like Billy Graham, we should stay humble. Despite his fame, he never sought the spotlight simply to increase his celebrity. His remarkable success did not go to his head. Whatever our successes, may they never make us proud.

Prayer

God of the harvest,
we pause and remember a great man of God,
remembering his virtues and his achievements,
all of which came from the Holy Spirit of truth.

Lord, may we be like him as he was like Christ.
In Jesus’ saving name,
Amen.

8 Simple Ways to Be a Good Neighbor

It does not matter how good your apologetics arguments are if no one listens to you. The Apostle Peter says to have an apologetic for everyone who asks you about your faith (1 Peter 3:16). How might we create situations in which people ask us?

One way is by being a Christian neighbor, by neighboring well. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to be a neighbor to the person in front of us. The expert in the law passed by because the Samaritan was not in his social group. In a way, everyone is our neighbor, but God has us where we are for his reasons (Acts 17:28-29). We tend to associate more based on affinity (people like us) than on proximity (the people next door, down the street, or on the corner). We often do not even know our neighbor’s names and they do not know ours.

We tend to associate more based on affinity (people like us) than on proximity (the people next door, down the street, or on the corner).

Jesus calls us to be good neighbors whether or not this leads to apologetics and evangelism. It is a simple imperative of love. Our neighbors may be quite different from us. So be it. Since relationships trump programs for making friends and presenting the gospel to others, how might we be more open to our neighbors, especially non-Christians?

I cannot say I do this well, but since I was convicted and encouraged by David Runyon’s recent sermon, here are some ideas.[1]

  1. Spend more time in your front yard or on your front porch, if you have either. Decades ago, front porches were more important than back porches. My back porch is expansive. But I don’t meet anyone there. The front porch is tiny. Still, my wife and I can sit there and greet neighbors.
  2. Admire your neighbor’s dogs or other pets. People usually love their pets and enjoy talking about them. Our neighbors sometimes bring their dog over to play with Sunny, my dog.
  3. Don’t immediately shut your garage door when you come home. Look around outside to see if there is someone to greet or help.
  4. Consider common places in your neighborhood. My neighborhood does not have individual mail boxes, but rather a common mail station with many individual slots. Hang out there.
  5. Have people over for meals. Be hospitable. Be convivial.
  6. Have or attend block parties. I realized recently that our difficult neighbor is the one who sponsors the block party every year! I don’t.
  7. Mow your neighbor’s lawn or shovel their snow. I have not done this in our new house, but our neighbors do it for us! I dig that. They know of our struggles with my wife’s dementia. So, they help.
  8. Ask a neighbor out to dinner or lunch. I am going to do this with our kind neighbors who shovel and mow. I have given them a gift card, but sharing a meal is more personal. I also know that they both have some intellectual issues they would like to discuss, but it hasn’t happened yet.

I realize that some people, myself included, have troubles that don’t allow them as much hospitality and social interaction as they might like. God understands that

Realize that some neighbors won’t want to get to know you. They, like so many, are too busy. But this should not stop us from trying. We have been given many cogent arguments for Christianity, but we need people to hear what we have to say. And we need to hear what they have to say. Isn’t your neighborhood a good place for that?

See Jay Pathak and David Runyon, The Art of Neighboring.

[1] Dave Runyon is the co-founder and director of CityUnite, which helps government, business, and faith leaders unite around common causes. This is from http://www.artofneighboring.com/about.

Obituary for James Sire (1933-2018)

When I took the course, “In the Twilight of Western Thought: A Christian Response,” at the University of Oregon in 1978, we read a book called The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue (InterVarsity Press, 1976), by James W.  Sire, editor of InterVarsity Press. I was a young Christian, who had been reading Francis Schaeffer and wanted to get more grounded in Christianity as true, rational, and pertinent to life. I did not want to fear investigating any other religion or worldview. After all, why be a Christian unless you know it is true and will stand up to criticism?

Winsome and accurate, The Universe Next Door taught me the meaning of worldview and the world views of Christian theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and the New Consciousness (later called New Age). (Later editions contained a chapter on postmodernism.) After reading this book, I feared no other worldview and wanted to learn more about all of them. I have done so for the last forty years. Universe was immensely readable and helpful.  Unlike many books on worldviews and apologetics, Jim’s love for literature shined through. He was, after all, a professor of English before coming to InterVarsity Press as head editor.

I would later go on to read and teach from all five editions of this path-breaking book and come to know Jim Sire as my editor and friend. Dr. Sire and others at InterVarsity Press took a chance on a young and relatively unpublished writer and campus minister. They offered me a contract for my first book, Unmasking the New Age, which was published in early 1986. He likewise edited my second book, Confronting the New Age (1988), and I interacted with him in his capacity as editor until he left to lecture full time around the world.

I read nearly all of Jim’s subsequent books, and used several as textbooks, such as Habits of the Mind (2000) and Scripture Twisting (InterVarsity, 1980). Universe has never gone out of print; it has been used as a textbook in many colleges, universities, and seminaries; and it has been translated into a number of other languages. I’m sure he found much delight in this, as did his readers.

Jim was kind enough to give me an endorsement for Truth Decay (InterVarsity Press, 2000): “Written with brilliance and clarity that is highly unusual among both defenders and critics of postmodernism.” I was also honored when Jim asked me to look over several of his manuscripts. I endorsed his recent book, Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Is Really Believing (although I wasn’t smitten with the title). But enough about how James Sire helped me. You can tell how much he meant to me.

Jim was the father of the Christian worldview movement. Loosely defined, this movement is made of writers, speakers, and educators who advocated that Christianity be understood and promoted philosophically. C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were key as well, but Sire consolidated the Christian view in a clear and captivating way. Christians should be able to explain what the Bible teaches and what the church has always affirmed according the rudiments of Christian theology and confession. However, worldview isn’t an in-group way of explaining Christianity. It is not a catechism. Rather, it specifies broad and neutral conceptual categories that can be applied to any belief system, not simply Christianity. Although he refined it in subsequent editions of The Universe Next Door, I still appreciate Sire’s first definition of a worldview.

Christians should be able to explain what the Bible teaches and what the church has always affirmed according the rudiments of Christian theology and confession.

A set of assumptions (or presuppositions) held (either consciously or unconsciously) about the basic makeup of the world.

A worldview answers such questions as these:

  1. What is the nature of ultimate reality? Is it matter, God, or ideas?
  2. How does the universe work? Is it a closed system or open to divine reordering through revelation and miracle?
  3. What is the meaning of history? Is it haphazard, linear, or cyclical?
  4. What is the basis of morality? Is it God, the self, or society?
  5. What is the human condition and is salvation possible?
  6. Is there an afterlife, and, if so, what it is like?

Before Jim wrote The Universe Next Door, he was instrumental in the writing careers of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness, two giants of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism. Both applied the Christian worldview skillfully to apologetics and social criticism. He edited Guinness’s first book—his unmatched critique of the counterculture, The Dust of Death (1973). In the case of Schaeffer’s Death in the City (InterVarsity Press, 1969), Sire shaped a manuscript from a series of explosive lectures Schaeffer gave at Wheaton College. Sire also wrote an incisive introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Schaeffer’s modern classic, The God Who is There (original publication, 1968). The 2006 of Schaeffer’s gem, The Mark of the Christian, is introduced by Sire as well.

In recent years, some critics, such as James K. A. Smith, have disparaged the idea of presenting Christianity as a worldview. They charge that it is too conceptual, reductionist, and lacks a confessional element. But the idea of a worldview was never meant to replace systematic theology, liturgy, or the corporate confession of the church. The principal strength of worldview is for apologetics and cultural criticism. Yes, some of the recent books on worldview are superfluous, but that is not the fault of James Sire.

I tell my students that discerning a non-Christian’s worldview is crucial to knowing how to bring the gospel to them, since it allows us to find points of common ground as well as areas of disagreement. Further, as Sire himself demonstrated in his public lectures and interactions with unbelievers, we must be sensitive to the particular human beings before us, by asking the Holy Spirit to give us intellectual and emotional insight that is fruitful for Christian witness.

Discerning a non-Christian’s worldview is crucial to knowing how to bring the gospel to them, since it allows us to find points of common ground as well as areas of disagreement.

James Sire, especially later in life, became something of a mystic. He was hardly a stilted worldview-brandishing rationalist (in Schaeffer’s use of the term) with no room for personal communion with the living God! He wrote two books on meditating on the Psalms: Learning to Pray through the Psalms (2006) and The Psalms of Jesus (2007). His later writings spoke more of spiritual experience.

Jim and I were not close personal friends, but we fondly communicated over many years and appreciated each other’s work. He always signed his letters or emails with, “Cheers, Jim Sire.” We enjoyed being together the few times we were. I met him for the first time in 1983 at a Christian’s writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon. While teaching a seminar, Jim said, “We have one of our InterVarsity Press author’s with us.” He meant me, even though I had only signed the contract for Unmasking the Age. That was kind. We exchanged a few emails in recent years and I’m happy that I thanked him for his work in a hand-written card some years ago. (Hint: I suggest you write cards or send emails to authors who have meant much to you. See 10 Ways to Write a Meaningful Card.)

I knew Jim to be a warm and genial man, both quick witted and ready to laugh. He was a prolific author, an expert editor, a smart Christian statesman, and an ardent follower of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. Thank you, Jim, for your life and work. Thank you, Jesus, for giving this man a long, full, and productive life in your service. Cheers!

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Muslims and Christians: How to Get Along?

They both believe in one personal and transcendent God who has sent his prophets into the world. They both believe in sacred writings that record the prophetic revelations. They both believe that Jesus was a prophet who was sinless and born of a virgin. And they both worship with these beliefs firmly in place. We are speaking of Muslims and Christians, whose members comprise the two largest monotheistic religions in the world.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have become fascinated with the beliefs and practices of Islam, which is thefastest growing religion in the world, with approximately 1.3 billion adherents. Increasingly, Muslims are immigrating to the West. In various American cities, it is not uncommon to find mosques — many of them newlybuilt — and to see women in the traditional Muslim dress mingling with American women dressed quite differently.

In light of this, many Westerners wonder what do Muslims believe and why. They also question the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but merely in different ways? Should Christians seek to present their beliefs to Muslims in the hope that the Muslim might forsake Islam and embrace Christianity? Or is this simply a waste of time at best or rude at worst?

Many instruct us to be “tolerant” and to refrain from “proselytizing” anyone. In the name of tolerance, some people say that Christians and Muslims should coexist without trying to convert (or otherwise challenge) each other because “Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” This, many believe, should be good enough for Muslims and Christians. Many also believe this arrangement is good enough for the God they both worship as well. If both religions worship the same God, why should they worry about each other’s spiritual state?

Religion, God and Truth

If indeed Muslims and Christians worship the same God, there would be little need for disagreement, dialogue, and debate between them. If I am satisfied to shop at one grocery store and you are satisfied to shop at another store, why should I try to convince you to shop at my store or vice versa? Do not both stores provide the food we need, even if each sells different brands? The analogy is tidy, but does it really fit? Deeper questions need to be raised if we are to settle the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. First, what are the essential teachings of Christianity and Islam? Second,what does each religion teach about worshipping its God? Third, what does each religion teach about the other religion? That is, do the core teachings of Islam and Christianity assure their adherents that members of the other religion are fine as they are because both religions “worship the same God”?

In When Religion Becomes Evil (Harper. San Francisco, 2002), Charles Kimball argues that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God. Kimball rightly observes that truth claims are foundational for religion. But he claims that believers err when they hold their religious beliefs in a “rigid” or “absolute” manner. So, he argues, when some Christians criticize the Islamic view of God (Allah) as deficient, they reveal their ignorance and bigotry. Kimball asserts that “there is simply no ambiguity here. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are talking about the same deity” (p. 50). This is because the Qur’an affirms that Allah inspired the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. Moreover, the Arabic word “Allah” means “God.” Are Professor Kimball and so many others who echo similar themes correct? In search of a reasonable answer, we will briefly consider the three questions from the last paragraph.

Christianity and Islam: The Claims, the Logic, and the Differences

First, what are the teachings that each religion takes to be absolutely true? Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably. Islam denies that God is a Trinity — that one God eternally exists as three co-eternal and equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).[1] Islam also rejects that God became a man in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18).[2] These doctrines are cornerstones of Christianity. But God cannot be both a Trinity (Christian) and not a Trinity (Islam). This is matter of simple logic; it has nothing to do with religious intolerance or being “rigid.”

 Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably. Islam denies that God is a Trinity — that one God eternally exists as three co-eternal and equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

For Christianity, humans are corrupted by an inherited sinful nature that cannot be overcome by any human means (Ephesians 2:1-10). But Islam denies that human have a deeply sinful human nature, claiming that we sin because we are merely weak and ignorant.[3] Christianity teaches that salvation is secured only through faith in the achievements of Jesus Christ — his life, death, and resurrection (John 3:16-18). Islam, however, implores its followers to obey the laws of the Qur’an in the hopes that they will be found worthy of paradise.[4] Since these two views contradict each other, both views cannot be true.

Different views on worship

Second, how does each religion say worship should be offered to God? Muslims deem worship of the Trinity to be polytheistic and, thus, blasphemous. Worship of Jesus—whom they deem only human—is anathema. Yet these beliefs are essential for Christian worship. One must worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Worship requires assent to the truth of God (the Trinity), belief in the gospel, trust in Jesus Christ, and submission to God’s will. While Muslims emphasize submission to Allah (“Islam” means submission), they do not submit to the God revealed in the Bible. This exposes another irreconcilable difference between Islam and Christianity.

How Islam views Christianity and vice versa

Third, what does each religion make of the other one? Muslims and Christians have historically tried to convert each other, since they both view adherents of other religions to be misguided. Islam seeks converts worldwide because it believes Allah is supreme over all and must be so recognized. Christians are commanded to take the gospel into all the nations and to baptize converts into the name of the triune God of the Bible (Matthew 28:18-20).

Neither Christianity nor Islam can logically endorse the other religion’s distinctive claims and practices without denying its own.

Much more needs to be discussed concerning Muslim and Christian relations in a religiously pluralistic world. However, we must conclude that despite their common monotheism, Islam and Christianity have very different views of God, worship, and mission. Therefore, it is unreasonable to claim that they worship the same God. Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably.

NOTES

[1] See The Qur’an, Surah 112:1-4, which denies that God “begat” a son. Surah 4:171 commands Muslims to not say “three” with respect to God; see also Surah 5:73. However, the Qur’an claims that the Christian doctrine of Trinity affirms that it is comprised of the Father, the Son, and Mary (Surah 5:116). The Bible, however, never attributes deity to Mary. For more on how the Qur’an understands Jesus and the Trinity, see Chawkat Moucarry, The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 184-195.

 

[2] See The Qur’an, Surah 5:115-18 where Jesus is reported to have denied his own deity; see also Surah 9:30-31.

 

[3] See Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Vancouver, BC: Regent University Press, 1997), 89-90. 

 

[4] See the Qur’an, Surah 36:54; see also Surah 82:19. 

7 Principles of Technogesis

“If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.” So goes the Chinese proverb. By extension, if you want to understand the strengths and weakness of American culture do not ask an America. Why is this? To walk through life, we must take some things for granted, such as driving on the right side of the road or standing in line at the grocery store. However, God calls us to be discerning citizens of heaven and earth. Worldliness is a constant danger. To paraphrase David Wells, worldliness makes the godly look odd and the ungodly seem normal. The way of the fallen world is the way of the unregenerate flesh and its works. Paul warns us to avoid the works of the flesh by being filled with the Spirit.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Acts of the flesh can become habitual patterns of life and so recede into the background. They seem normal. Everyone does them. For example, selfish ambition is often seen as the engine of success: sell yourself, put yourself first. The humble are the losers. They do not inherit the earth.

Worldliness may also throw its invisible net around us through the uncritical use of technologies, particularly communications media. Facebook, for example, might make us jealous or feed illicit erotic desires. The sinful may become normal for us.

Media may dull our senses to things divine and may enmesh and ensnare us in habits of the heart and mind that are earthbound. Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist (trained in rhetoric and literary criticism), wrote that “We become what we behold.” Or, as Scripture says, we resemble the idols we worship or we resemble the God we worship.

To avoid worldliness and to embrace godless, we ought rightly to evaluate the cultural givens, testing them for truth-worthiness and asking how they may be used for human flourishing and the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Technological awareness also makes life more interesting and is another fun way to annoy your friends. Consider several principles of interpreting technologies in light of Christian character and Christian mission. I call this technogesis.

  1. Every technologies both extends and contracts human communication. The telephone extends the voice over distances far greater than a shout or even the stentorian capacities of a George Whitfield or L. Dwight Moody. However, the visual presence is removed. Thus, all nonverbal aspects of communication vanish. Skype allows us to protect our images around the world, but it still cannot bring the whole person with it.

In light of this, consider what the best form of media may be for particular kinds of communication. Hearing a sermon with other Christians in a church involves the whole person. Hearing the sermon on the radio or a podcast does not—useful as that may be.  You should not only send a text when you should shed a tear with someone who is suffering.

  1. Each medium has biases and prejudges. The text message or tweet has a bias toward speed and brevity. It is prejudiced against developed exposition and argument. Donald Trump releases may of his ideas and even policies on tweets. Had he lived to see it, this would have even shocked Neil Postman. The printed page has a bias toward recording thoughts through words in a linear fashion. Of course, the page can be fill with incoherence and randomness, but those values are better served by the Internet.

 

  1. With the development of technologies, there are always winners and losers. The carriage industry suffered with the advent of the automobile, as did the blacksmith. The original radios were large and took a central place in the home. They were well-crafted pieces of furniture. Now they are relicts, and how many families gather around a radio to listen to news and entertainment. Ear buds have radically individualized and miniaturized entertainment. With the coming of computer writing, typewriters become relics, whatever their virtues may have been. I wrote half of my first book on an IBM Selectric, the King of automatic typewriters in the 1980s. I could feel and hear the impressions of the letters on the paper. I could see most of the workings of the machine. It was not the black box, about which I could know nothing about its inner workings. What did I lose when I stopped writing on typewriters (as I did for all my many undergraduate papers) and switched to a computer?

 

  1. Technologies cater to extant assumptions and help reinforce them. Since Americans like to take technology with them, cell phones became smaller and more portable. However, that boomeranged when they became too small to manipulate. Now they are larger and some opt for even larger tablets for most of their communication. Since Americans love screens, technologies have put them everywhere—even on phones and watches. Many years ago, there was a cartoon called Dick Tracy, who sported a small screen on his wristwatch!

 

  1. Technological innovation is always a tradeoff. Consider e-books. What is gained in portability is lost in presence and heft. A book is a discrete object in the world. It has a history it carries with it. I have the first copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, which I purchased from the University of Oregon book store in the fall of 1976. I have the same information in other token of the type of this book. Yet there is only one artifact that carries the meaning of this book. E-books are electronically searchable, a great boon to research. You can add notes. And yet…the book possesses virtues untranslatable into digital forms.

 

  1. Many media encourage the passive consumption of its content as opposed to the creative engagement of culture. Amazon video gives me access to myriad films and television programs. Watching (some of) these may be relaxing or touching. Some of the films may be great art. Because of my wife’s dementia, watching video and some old TV shows is one of a small number of activities we can share. Since Becky’s mental abilities are decaying, she cannot create or engage very much. She used to read, write, edit, sing, and more. I am grateful for the availability of this entertainment. It also makes me weep when I see her sitting in front of the screen by herself. Has it come to this? Yes, it has, although we search for others activities.

In Culture Making, Andy Crouch argues that we should try to create more culture than we consume. Play catch with a kid instead of buying him a video game. Enjoy no-tech meals with your family, paying attention to the preparation of food and the setting of the meal. Write a personal card instead of posting factoids on Facebook.

  1. Communication technologies encourage using culture instead of receiving it. According to C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, to use a book or an image or a song is merely functional and utilitarian. One may read to “kill time,” God help them. Contrariwise, to receive a book or an image or a song means to submit to it, to consider it for what it is in itself. You pay your respects to a cultural artefact, such as a Mark Rothko painting in The Denver Art Museum. You linger at leisure. The Internet has a prejudice against receiving anything—although it is possible, say if you are watching a masterful jazz performance by Pat Martino.

My seven reflections are more suggestive than detailed. There are, doubtless, other principles for technogesis. These, however, should serve us well as we try to be in the world, but not of it.

Recommended reading

  1. Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies.
  2. Andy Crouch, Culture Making and The Tech-wise Family
  3. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace. First Christian critique of the Internet—which no one read.
  4. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.
  5. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.
  6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man.
  7. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, The Technological Bluff.
  8. Lassie: The First Fifty Years (1993).

Means and Ends in Education

In a fallen world, we confuse much—lust with love, pleasure with goodness, and even good with evil (Isaiah 5:20). Means and ends are often confused, and sometimes with dire results. Wise living requires clarity on this.

An end is what we want to achieve by our actions. It could be a job, a relationship, a political office, or an academic degree. In other words, it is our goal. We sometimes say, “The end goal is X.” If so, we consider means (or strategies) by which to reach this end (or outcome). If I want to write a book as my end, I consider the means by which to bring this about—research, writing, and rewriting. It is absurd to claim that one’s end is to write a first draft of a book and nothing more (unless one deems this therapeutic). Similarly, one sharpens a knife to make it better for its purpose—to cut or pare or penetrate. One does not sharpen it to simply have a sharp knife.

Put formally, this is the concept I am after:

X is a means to end Y if:

  1. X is necessary to achieve Y, but may not be sufficient.
  2. It is usually the case that X is one of several factors to achieve Y. These factors are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for achieving Y.

Consider some cases. The curriculum for a university is the means by which to achieve the end of being granted a degree. Thus, each class is designed and executed to contribute to the completion of a degree, which is itself a means of attaining knowledge, skill, and responsible citizenship. Thus, one attends classes as means to an end, which is to graduate; but one graduates in order to achieve the end of being a more educated and well-rounded individual. This means-ends chain was the vision of universities in the United States until about 1950. Few institutions of higher learning hold to this today. They have defected and become training mills and mere big businesses.

However, many students believe that passing the class is an end. When in college, I saw a student put his freshly-graded paper into a garbage can, much to the disgust of his friend, who quickly fished it out and began lecturing him. On that theme, at the end of my sophomore year in college, I saw a resident of my apartment complex slowly walking down the hall with a stack of books, which were secured by his two hands at the bottom and his chin at the top. There were over ten of them. He was headed for the garbage, since the term was over. (I can still see his clueless face forty years later.) I intercepted the literary crime in progress and commandeered several of the books for myself. (His trek to the trash was especially stupid, since our apartment complex was one block from a used bookstore.)

The end of all our being and acting should be human flourishing according to the principles, practices, and disciplines of the Kingdom of God. God is the original and originating good. All our goodness comes from him and rests in him. Concerning the cares of life, Jesus said:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

Thus, the totality of our lives should be a means to the end of seeing God’s Kingdom manifest on earth and radiate into eternity. Paul affirms essentially the same truth:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The writer of Ecclesiastes sets our activities before our ultimate End.

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

To sum up our three writers: Our duty to God is to seek the manifestation of God kingdom, so that God will be glorified. That grand vision and mission demands that we not confuse means and ends.