Suffering Well With Others

Many of my friends are suffering terribly in different ways. Bad news is breaking forth everywhere. This is likely true for you as well, whether you discern it or not. Through this manifold of variegated tragedies it strikes me that many of us fail to minister to our friends who are suffering. We say and do things that hurt more than help. We dispense acid rather than balm. By and large, we do not know how to lament and grieve with others—although some saints excel in this grace. Popular culture teaches us next to nothing in this regard. It has no time for such realities. In the wake of the recent horrors (such as ISIS) and given my many friends, relations, and students who are suffering deeply (from bereavement, marital crisis, cancer, and chronic illness), let us consider briefly a few ways to suffer well with others.

First, we ought to pray for wisdom before speaking or communicating in any form with one under the pressures of loss. Ask God to give you the heart and tongue that heals—or at least doesn’t multiply the pain. Consider a few egregious examples. Someone loses a spouse only to hear someone ask within a few weeks of the spouse’s death, “Are you grieving well?” Is this some kind of test? One should grieve with the sorrowful heart, not ask it for an internal audit. Or consider this. Someone is diagnosed with cancer and is trying to reorient their life to handle this. A member of the person’s church says, “Oh, if I had to have chemotherapy—just shoot me.” The dear person who received this body blow is now preparing for chemotherapy with courage and hope. Remember what The Book of James says about the power of the tongue (James 3:1-12).

Second, one should not over-interpret the dire situations of a fallen world by trying to read God’s mind. This only makes for hollow comfort. Yes, God will bring good out of evil for his people (Romans 8:28), but we don’t quite now how he will do this. As Os Guinness writes in his superb book, Unspeakable, the silver lining of a dark cloud—if we can even find it—does not explain the full meaning of the suffering. In light of this, we must learn to silently stew in our ignorance instead of spewing forth our pious pronouncements on the specifics of divine providence. Job’s friends went wrong only when they broke their silence in his presence and began to speak without knowledge.

Third, learn to lament with people. Study the Psalms of lamentation and the many laments in Scripture, such as those uttered by King David, Paul, Solomon (Ecclesiastes) and supremely Jesus himself, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” A lament is the cry of the anguished soul before God, which displays puzzlement as well as anger. It expresses disorientation in search of reorientation. However, a lament is directed to God and before the audience of God, “the audit of Eternity,” as Soren Kierkegaard put it. Listen to the stories of the suffering and identify with them. Say un-profound, but appropriate, things like, “I am so sorry” and “That is terrible.” The American South has expression that captures this perfectly: “I hate it for you.” I hate the fact that two marriages are being ripped apart and are may be dying. I hate the fact that my friend’s spouse is going through chemotherapy. I hate it for all of them, and I should show them that I hate it. I hate it because I love them.

We should never try to tell people that losing a spouse or having cancer or facing a divorce isn’t really so bad. It is bad, very bad. This is a fallen world, a world that is still groaning in anticipation of its final redemption (Romans 8:18-26). As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in his moving and profound meditation, Lament for a Son, we must sit on the mourner’s bench with the suffering and lament with them. This in itself provides a kind of comfort.

I am but babe in this healing skill—suffering well with others. Will you join me in the school of lament? Will you learn to sit on the mourner’s bench before God and with those whom you love?

Undermining Truth in God’s Name

Undermining Christian mission is a constant threat, on the horizon and already in the midst of churches, seminaries, and Christian organizations. Our call, our sacred duty and privilege, is to proclaim, explain, defend, and apply the truth of the one true and living God, and to endeavor to do this in every area of life and thought. As Francis Schaeffer so often affirmed, “The Lordship of Christ covers all of life and covers all of life equally.”

Seminaries can undermine their very reason for being—making known the truth of God. If so, they deserve a millstone around their necks, not a crown on their heads. One assured way of deconstructing the mission of God is to deny propositional truth and knowledge as belief aptly supported by reasoning and evidence.

Just today I listened to the concerns of a student at a seminary—not my own—who was told that the theories of George Lindbeck should be embraced. The truth-decaying, knowledge-undermining philosophy of postmodernism (or post-liberalism) is welcomed and dissent is not allowed. Truth Decay, my 2000 jeremiad and apologetic, takes this on, but let me reiterate.

Professor Lindbeck and his followers (such as the late Stanley Grenz) deny that the affirmations of Scripture are true in the sense of matching objective reality. Scripture gives us the rules for shaping the church. It cannot speak beyond that as to mind-independent states of affairs. This view is theologically deadly; it is funereal in tone, if popular among benighted advocates.

First, this view commits the fallacy of false dichotomy, which is, perhaps, the most commonly practiced fallacy today. Yes, the Bible tells us how to live for God: Love God and neighbor according to biblical revelation and godly character. Rules are required. But rules are only worth following if they work with the grain of the universe and cohere with the mind of God. Christ calls me to serve “the least of these” because as we do, we serve Christ himself. The rule is tied to the reality, the objective, Christological state of affairs.

Second, all sixty-six books of Holy Scripture affirm a propositional and correspondence account of truth. A proposition is what an indicative statement means. Statements can be read or affirmed in various languages because they share propositional content. I often have my students say aloud “Jesus is Lord” in as many languages as they can. Despite the differences in words and sounds, they mean the same thing (however slight the difference in nuance). A proposition stakes out the facts—either rightly or wrongly. Yahweh is the true God. Baal is not. Jesus is the way. Buddha is not. If a proposition corresponds to the reality it describes, then it is true. This is the metaphysics of truth, what truth is. Without this understanding, Christians can only talk to themselves—and not make much sense of it either.

Third, the mission of God is to reveal the truth of God so that it is known and obeyed (Matthew 28:18-20). For this, we need knowledge, not mere belief. A truth claim can only be knowledge in a person if that claim matches reality (Jesus is Lord) and if one has adequate justification for that claim (the claims and credentials of Christ).

I address all this is great detail in Truth Decay and Christian Apologetics. For now, I exhort all my readers to not be blown by every wind of doctrine, but to be firmly rooted in the truth of Scripture. Truth is nothing to play with; revelation is nothing to reject through shoddy thinking.

Sensorium, Amusement, and You

Hard drives are serviced; automobiles are repaired; houses are cleaned; iPhones are fixed. But what of our souls? How does our mental and sensorial equipment work? Do we need a tune-up or a complete overhaul? Might we relate better to reality if our minds and senses were better attuned to the good, the true, and the beautiful?

Our relationship to the world is mediated by our sensorium, a rare term which illuminates areas often left in darkness. A sensorium is the inner place where we sense and try to understand the world. One man’s sensorium is very aware of logical arguments; another man’s sensorium is weak on logic, but highly attuned to nuances in painting. One woman’s sensorium is drawn to human suffering; another woman’s sensorium is more drawn to female fashion. My sensorium, through years of listening to and reading about jazz, can hear a John Coltrane saxophone solo even when it plays softly in the background in a restaurant or bar. Another soul can quickly discern the difference between Celtic and Gaelic music. About this I know nothing.

Our sensoria naturally vary given our eyesight, hearing, and other faculties. However, they are also malleable–subject to corruption and subject to reform. Those aspiring to virtue will desire to know the world in the ways it ought to be known. Thus, certain habits of the heart should be cultivated; others should be refused. If I want to deeply enjoy well-cooked food, I need to develop a taste beyond McDonald’s fare. If I want to keenly appreciate music, I need to expand beyond popular tunes. And so it goes. Taste ought to be educated; there is more to reality than what you prefer.

The enemy of the well-tempered sensorium is an overdose of amusement. Cultural critic, Neil Postman warned of this in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). When every areas of life must be amusing (on the order of television programs), then serious discourse fades from the scene. (A-muse means not to think.) Glibness replaces sober assessment and being clever becomes more important than being intelligent. Our sensoria are sullied by the saturation of amusement until we only accept what is entertaining or stimulating. What is dry or abstract has no place in us or for us. This mentality, Postman warned, debases discourse in every area of life. We have been amused to death.

Those with a taste for reality should manage their sensorium carefully. In a fallen world, we can attune ourselves to accepting error and to rejecting truth. However, the sanctified sensorium is a sanctuary for knowledge and goodness. Amusement has its place, but not every place. Step one in reforming the sensorium is putting amusement in its place. Habits of clear thinking flow from un-amused moments of reading, thinking, conversations, and prayer. Perpetual amusement leads to cognitive laziness and stupefaction. Let us rather heed Scripture’s advice and be “transformed through the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2).

Buddhism, Nondualism, and Christianity: Preliminary Thoughts on Love and Ontology

There are many worldviews on offer, but all cannot be true, given logic and experience. One test for any worldview is whether or not it makes room for and supports the reality of persons and of love. Theravada Buddhism and nondualistic Hinduism seem to fail this test, while Christianity passes it.

Theravada Buddhist ontology (that of original Buddhism) teaches that there are no substances, only attributes that arise and pass away ceaselessly. This makes personhood (with its enduring self: a continuant) impossible. If personhood is impossible on this ontology, so then is love, since love requires a lover a loving and a loved (a triadic arrangement by necessity).

On the other hand, nondualistic ontology (that of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism and Zen Buddhism) affirms that there is a substance (Brahman), but that this substance has no qualities or attributes: Nirguna Brahman. So, there is purportedly a Universal Self, but lacking any determinable nature, since there are no qualities. (Keith Yandell rightly argues that the idea is incoherent; if something exists it must have at least some qualities or features of its existence.) But a substance with no qualities cannot allow for persons either, since there is but one substance (no pluralisty; all is one) and that substance cannot be considered personal. If it were personal, it would have the qualities of personality. If nondualism disallows persons, it excludes love as well.

Thus, both Buddhism and nondualism evacuate reality of persons and love, each in its own way: attributes without substance (Buddhism: all is many) or substance without attributes (nondualism: all is one).

Christianity asserts that God is one substance in three persons (one and many). God possesses both essence and attributes. God is personal, even tri-personal (without being tri-theistic). Love, therefore, has an ontological rootage and explanation. “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16).

Therefore:

  1. If love is real and valuable, a worldview should be able to explain or account for it and not eliminate it. This is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the truth of a worldview.
  1. Neither original Buddhism nor nondualism can fulfill (1)
  1. Therefore, both original Buddhism and nondualism are false.
  1. Christianity, however, can account for the reality of love, based on the very character of God as love.
  1. Therefore, Christianity fulfills (1) and passes a necessary test for the truth of a worldview.

On the Word “Porn”

Ross Douthat wrote it in his book, Bad Religion. On Sunday, February 15, 2015, a New York Times writer, Bob Morris, wrote it in a column on cute animal videos. The word is “porn,” which was once short for pornography. Another word for it was “smut.”

Douthat wrote of “travel porn.” I nearly fell over when I read that. What could it mean–smut across the world? No. It meant travel literature that gives one pleasure. Brown writes of “cute animal porn,” and he is not referring to bestiality. He means animal videos that one enjoys.

Why this use of porn? Pornography is the written or visual expression of illicit eroticism. It is indecent and can be addictive. It is bad pleasure: hollow, cheap, degrading, and dirty. But now pornography is considered just another form of pleasure. The sting is gone. If this is the new meaning, then “porn” can be attached to anything that is pleasurable. Who wants more “golf porn”?

Language reflects the mindset of a culture. A culture awash in hedonism wants its porn everywhere, since its desires have been uprooted from moral reality. Nothing we enjoy should be porn. Desires were meant to aim at the good, the true, and the beautiful. The desired should be the desirable. When porn is the norm the self is shorn of life.

Principles for Engaging People on the Truth of Christianity

Apologetics is a large topic. I know. I wrote a 752 page book on it called Christian Apologetics. However, several foundational principles can equip you to interact wisely on the matter whether Christianity is true, rational, and pertinent to live. Here are a few.

1. Listen to what they think about Christianity and to what their own worldview is and why.
2. Be patient. Try not to rush in with the Gospel at a the wrong time.
3. Explain those aspects of Christianity that are pertinent in that discussion.
4. Live a life that causes people to ask you what you believe and why.
5. Know the content of the Bible.
6. Study the religions and worldviews that are most available in your situtation, so that you are ready to discuss them.
7. Whether or not you are a philosopher or professional apologist, read apologetics books regularly. All Christians are to be defenders of the faith (1 Peter 3:1`5-16).
8. Evaluate your own Christian worldview to find where it is strong and weak. Work on making the weak places stronger.
9. Pray at all times (Eph. 6:19).
10. Work with others who are apologetically engaged. Contend together for the truth.
11. Give people some appropriate literature to read, but do not throw books at people. That is a waste of money and is overly aggressive.
12. Perhaps suggest that your interlocuter read some portion of the Bible that fits with the conversation.

Why We Should Avoid Celebrity Gossip

For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 2 Corinthians 12:20

 

While some godly people are very well known, and might be considered celebrities, most very well known people of today–I do not mean giants of history such as Winston Churchhill–possess almost nothing worth us knowing about. As Daniel Borstin said, “They are well-known for being well-known.” Their biographies–or factoids–are vanity of vanities. Their makeovers, their cars, their idiosyncrasies are not worth knowing about.

Yes, they are made in God’s image and need Jesus Christ’s righteousness for eternal life. In that sense, they are valuable. But how much weight they have gained, whether or not they are pregnant, who they are sleeping with, is mere gossip. And gossip, the Bible tells us, is sin. Sin should be repented of, in order to please God and free us up to do God’s will in his power.

Moreover, celebrity watching wastes time. Listen to Moses, from Psalm 90:

10 The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span [a] is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

11 Who knows the power of your anger?
For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.

12 Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

13 Relent, O LORD! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.

14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.

16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.

Life is short, a vapor. Eternity is long, an infinity. Life should be lived under the audit of Eternity, not in terms of celebrity gossip or any worldly thing (1 John 2:15-17). As Pascal said, our passionate interest in the trivial and our lack of concern for the eternal, evidences a very strange disorder. Let us repent and live for what matters most.

Fifty Shades of Sin

Time Magazine, in the February 16 edition, tries to understand the film, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It releases on day before Valentine’s Day, ironically enough. This film, spawned from the best-selling books (100,000,000 sold so far), speaks to the state of the American soul and body.

I know little of this, and by choice. I opened to a page of one of the books at the check out of a grocery chain and read a page of perversity. That was enough, too much. The Cinderella of this story gives herself to a sadist for her keep. She is a kept and abused woman who consents to it all: bondage, domination, injuries–taken and received. Human beings were not meant to do such things to each other.

Time, of course, cannot bring itself to condemn the film. It has neither the moral authority or discernment to do that. Christians can and should evaluate it, since we have been given a revelation of what is good and evil.

As R.J. Rushdoony said years ago, when a culture rebels against God and his creation mandate (Genesis 1:26; Psalm 8), it immerses itself in sexuality. Sex is severed from family and culture-creation for the glory of God. Sexuality is exalted above all other concerns and personal qualities. As such, virtue is lost and vice is embraced. Every quirky and kinky orientation and activity (see Leviticus 18) is justified because of the thrill it gives empty selves in an otherwise meaningless world. Nerve endings speak louder than conscience.

Illicit ecstasies (if that is even achieved through evil actions) have their cost–human flourishing under God. The Apostle Paul explains it all in Romans, chapter one, verses 18 and following. By denying the Creator, the creature is left only with itself, untethered from ultimate authority and meaning. Idols beckon and bludgeons their worshipers, who consent to its perversions.

Here we are: “Fifty Shades of Grey.” This is no grey area where we pick our pleasures. No, it is perverse, unhealthy, and sinful. It offends the God who created us as sexual beings; it debauches us as sexual beings; it enriches the sad and sickening souls who peddle this pornography.

If you have read any of the books, there is hope. God calls everyone, everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Jesus cried, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:11). The love and justice of God, shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (the sinless One), can overcome all evil. Come to Christ, for forgiveness, for a new life lived according to the Master’s Book. Come and learn to enjoy virtue, self-discipline and the true meaning of love.

Notes on Writing Cards

1. Use your own handwriting. Chose a tasteful pen. Write slowly.

2. Write for consolation, encouragement, or to share you life with a close friend. Or write strangers whose work you appreciate. I often write musicians, authors, business owners, and others. They almost never write back. The exception is Peter Brötzmann.

3. Ponder and pray before you write. Why be in a hurry? This is not the Internet.

4. Perhaps adorn the card with stickers or your own drawings. There was a “letter art” movement decades ago. We should restart it.

5. Although I always want my cards to be reciprocated in some way, I almost always write more than I am written to–at least since my mother died. If someone never writes back after two or three cards, I usually give up.

6. Be creative in conveying truth and love in this way. It can mean much to many. I know.

God and Writing

Writing for Publication is a course at Denver Seminary that I have been teaching and loving since 2000. We always use Elements of Style, “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, as well as other writing on writing well. Theology is also our concern, as it should be in all areas of life (Matthew 22:37-40). Thus, we reflect on the purpose and meaning of writing. It begins with The Word.

The divine Word of John 1:1 is the foundation for all rational ordering and communication. Men and women were created to listen, learn, speak, and create culture. God spoke to them, they spoke back, and eventually they began to inscrible their ideas. God wrote the Decalogue himself. The prophets spoke truth for life, and it was later written down, since it was the revelation of the Logos. The Bible is God’s writing for us as recorded by numerous writers at different places and at different times. “Living and active” is how The Book of Hebrews describes itself and the entire canon of Scripture (Hebrews 4:12)

Authors should take care, as did the biblical writers. Luke tells us in his prologue that he carefully investigated all the pertient writings about Jesus and set forth his account so that the reading might have certainty about the events described (Luke 1:1-4). The Book of Ecclesiastes commends the writing of Soloman by noting his care in composing the wisdom of that book (Ecclesiastes 12:9-12). I could go on.

Follower of the Logos made man (John 1:14, 18), must be people of truth in a world of lies. Character matters here and everywhere. Knowledge and clarity should be our aim in all writing, whether about the Bible or jazz or painting or literature. We all write before the face of God. This true and living God calls for our best at all times in his strength, so that he be honored and his glory become global. This can not be done on the cheap. One cannot fake it and keep one’s integrity.

With the Logos above us, before us, behind us, beneath us, and for us, let us think and write as if our words are inscribed in the mind of God. They are.