Hospitality During the Corona Virus Crisis

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines—Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out.

Although I am an introvert who doesn’t fear long hours alone in study and writing, I long to welcome people into my home. After long years of my residence being more of a hospice than a home, it has been recently transformed into a bright and warm place for others—a place for hospitality. That means a place to offer food and drink, a place for studying and a place for intellectual exploration as I show people around my capacious library and offer to loan books. In the last sentence, I kept writing a place. But now, in virus lockdown, this place is only for my wife, myself, and my dog, Sunny. Any hospitality I now offer is crimped by aloneness. Even time outside is hampered by fear of contagion and the ill-named “social distancing.”

Hospitality is the public outgrowth of love. Compassion and caring always moves outward, towards the other in hopes of friendship, fellowship, service, and community. As Pascal said, “Respect means put yourself out.” How much more does love mean “put yourself out”? Hospitality is a Christian virtue and without it, there is little if any spiritual life in the church and witness to the world. The Apostle Peter writes this:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:8-9).

So many other texts could be cited, but we need to realize that the imperative to be hospitable is rooted in God’s own hospitality in offering us hospitality through Jesus Christ. The eternal Son took on a human nature and dwelt among us full of grace and truth, making the Father known (John 1).

Hospitality means welcoming or restoring someone into our good graces—or at least offering this. We can extend kindness to others through all the media available to us and perhaps reach into the lives of others we have neglected. We may seek reconciliation with those with whom we are estranged, as Jesus taught us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. Since “love covers a multitude of sins,” we should not hold others sins against them. By so doing, we become hospitable and refuse to grumble. Even in our aloneness and retreat, we can ponder and pray about the meaning of hospitality being eager for its return to our homes, schools, places of worship, and our life together.

 

 

Crisis, Virus, and Ideology

With social media, anyone can post anything about anything. You are your own editor, publisher, and promoter. Everyone is an expert or can pose as one. Or perhaps the idea of an expert is dead. Since ethos is essential in persuasion, let me “speak as a fool” (as Apostle Paul put it) about myself before making some comments about crisis, virus, and ideology.

I speak for no organization. I am not an ordained minister, not a physician, and not a scientist. I belong to no political party. I am an evangelical Christian who is a philosopher, author, and professor. I am sixty-three years old and have been a Christian since 1976. I have taught full-time as a professor of philosophy since 1993 and have been an adjunct professor at three secular colleges. I have published and taught on many topics, including the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of technology, theology, moral philosophy, social issues, postmodernism, theology of culture, Jesus, Blaise Pascal, and political philosophy. I’ve been around the block a few times. So, here are a few reflections on responses to the current pandemic.

I see people’s political views eclipsing their reasoning and this concerns me greatly. Conservatives are tending to downplay the crisis, fearing that it is some kind of ruse for liberal politics. Criticisms of the President’s handling of the corona pandemic are taken to be merely political. Some seem to think that if you voted for Trump and are not a Democrat, you must never criticize him. Or they think that if you criticize Trump, you support a far-left ideology. That is the fallacy of a false dichotomy. That is not how reality or democracy works. Facts are more important than ideological conformity. Being ideologically blinded is marked by at least four tendencies. (1) You dismiss out of hand views contrary to your own. (2) You consult only news and opinion sources that share you views. (3) You see the world in only stark binary terms (us and them). (4) You are quick to attack the motives of those you disagree with.

For some, measures taken by governments to hinder the spread of the virus are taken as a gateway to totalitarianism. As a conservative, I have long criticized statism—the notion that the state is the central institution for order and meaning in society. Other forms of government are just as important as civil government: self-government (virtue), family government, church government, school government, and the governments of private organizations. However, the state or civil government has its proper place and—because of its coercive power—can accomplish much that the private sector cannot. Thus, when lives are at stake, it is appropriate for the state to restrict activities, such as closing down businesses, taking economic measures, and restricting public meetings. The public good demands this and all decisions cannot be left to private choices. Remember what Apostle Paul wrote about civil government.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:1-5).

This does not give the governing authorities carte blanc permission to take away basic human rights or to control the church. May it never be! Scripture tells us of godly people standing up to the state (Exodus 1; Acts 5:26). Citizens must sometimes rise up against tyrannical governments or secretly disobey them. (On this, see Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto.) But the issue today is not so much about civil liberties, as it is about public health and common sense. If the mayor of a city limits the operation of businesses—even though there are only a few reported cases of corona virus in the state—that is no reason to accuse her of tyranny. Rather, the she should be complimented for being conservative in protecting the health of citizens. When the stakes are high—dying of the virus—the measures should be aggressively conservative, because so much is at stake. This is Prudential Reasoning 101.

In times of crisis, critical thinking is often a causality. But the greater the crisis, the greater the need for cool heads—and for warm hearts, wise action, and faithful prayer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus On Publicity and Public Virtue

We live in the great age of endless self-promotion. Anyone can ego-cast through the Internet by projecting images, talking points, endorsements, slogans, memes, pseudo-events, and more. But what is genuine virtue, and how should it be manifested in public? Followers of Jesus must seek out another way that avoids the dangers of image manipulation and various forms of puffing oneself up before the masses.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount charts another path for his followers. After he sees the crowds who are following him, he sits down to kindly teach them what the world would never forget: the beatitudes.

 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
  Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
  Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
  Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
  Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:3-12).

These God-bestowed blessings are countercultural, but they define Christian virtue. I commend to you John Stott’s book, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, to elucidate these profound teachings, but suffice to note that the God-blessed life in Christ is one of God-focused gentleness, humility, and good works, even to the point of experiencing blessing in persecution for following the way of blessings. This way of life ensures blessings that move far beyond this present age, extending into the age to come in which the meek will inherit the earth and all who mourn before God will be comforted.

Jesus goes on to teach that this pattern of existence has public implications. Individuals can experience the divine endorsement as they follow Christ in meekness, mourning, peacemaking and more, but these spill over into the marketplace, the highway, the school, on capitol hill, and everywhere.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).

Blessed people are salt (seasoning and preserving society) and light (exposing darkness and giving a medium for sight). Their virtue is to be public. This is holy publicity based on public virtue, not worldly publicity based on clever advertising. Virtuous influence is based on godly character and not on worldly celebrity—being “well known for their well knowness,” as Daniel Boorstin put it in The Image (1961).

Paradoxically, not trumpeting your virtue leads to godly influence through the discipline of secrecy. Later in the sermon, Jesus says:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:1-4).

We ought not seek our reward through the attention we receive by doing good works. God knows our hearts and our acts and will respond accordingly, with or without the attention of the world. Our good lives and good deeds come through being people of the beatitudes. There is no need to announce it with trumpets or through the internet or to seek the honor given by others. If we do, we forfeit the way of Jesus and any true effectiveness we might achieved.

God wants the kind of publicity that comes when his people submit to his rule, are filled with his Spirit, and obey his Word. Public virtue comes from private devotion and the discipline of secrecy. Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount by seeing the crowds who came to him. This perfectly holy man drew many people to himself through nothing but his virtue. We should do the same in his holy power.

Letting others know how you can serve them is apt. Reporting on how God is using your gifts is fine. Selling yourself is neither. Let us follow Jesus.

 

 

 

 

Presence

You and I need media to communicate with one another. Speech is one medium to bring thought into oral expression. Writing is another medium to bring thought into the world through inscription of various kinds. When electricity was pressed into communicative service long ago, new media were added to the human scene: telegraphy, radio, telephones, television, cell phones, and the Internet.

All mediation creates a new environment, which changes the communication and changes the people communicating. Those who first used telephones felt it odd that a voice could be so radically separated from a human being who was speaking somewhere in the general vicinity.

Electronic mediation allows for informational extensions beyond that of the immediate. I have FaceTime with a friend in Czech Republic, because we cannot meet at the local pub for now. However, all these electronic mediations separate as well as unite. FaceTime shows me a face and gives me a voice, but I cannot shake hands, put a hand on a shoulder, or pick up the kinetic subtleties I would experience if I were in a room with my friend. Moreover, I depend on the camera to give me the angle of vision. When face to face, I can move around the room, literally lean into the conversation, and communicate with my full body in ways not available through face time. Mediation gives, and mediation takes away.

Now let us open our Bibles. The Apostle John ended two of his three letters with a desire we may read over too quickly.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 12).

I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face (3 John 13-14).

John realizes the limitations of quill and parchment—that ancient kind of mediation that we understand as pen and the paper—and now, more and more, as keyboard and the screen. His realization was based on his experience of the Incarnation itself, as he tells us.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete (1 John 1:1-4).

The Apostle, Paul, said much the same in two places.

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (Romans 1:11-12).

Paul was about to write the book of Romans, the most thorough account of Christian theology in the entirety of holy Scripture. Yet even that was not the same as seeing the recipients of his letter. Paul yearned for the “mutual encouragement” that comes from face-to-face fellowship. He writes the same to his young charge, Pastor Timothy:  “Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1:4).

Examples like this could be multiplied. They reveal that personal presence cannot be replaced by any medium of communication. Being with someone is not identical to any other form of communication. I am not devaluing letters, emails, texts, or even tweets. However, we gain wisdom when we understand the nature of the medium we are using—its weaknesses and its strengths. But we should not be so deceived as to think that the on-line classroom is exchangeable for the in-person classroom or the on-line church service is exchangeable for the in-person church service. Presence matters because matter matters. It matters to God, and it should matter for us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Thus, we should practice the presence of God and practice the presence of other people.

For more on these ideas, see Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997).

A Revolution

Here is a revolutionary activity: listen to people who experience suffering beyond your reach. Do not try to put their experience in your categories. Stifle any cliché responses. Rather, listen; then, listen again.

Try to walk in their limping shoes. Try to live in their imprisoned body. Then, be quiet, and listen. Ask questions. Do not try to repair anything right away. Thousands of others have already tried and failed. They are sick of hearing pat answers.

Then, commiserate. Do not say, “It isn’t so bad.” How do you know? How can you know? You are a stranger to their misery and anguish. But you can be a compassionate companion along life’s way. Do not even say, “I understand.” You probably do not.

But, you can be the one in a hundred who dares to suffer well with others, to enter into their misery with no game plan, with no sure path to healing, and with no agenda apart from love.

Coming Soon! The Groothuis App

No more need for the living Groothuis, who can be irascible and curmudgeonly. After all, he can only be in once place at one time. We have now digitized him so that you can have him 24/7/365 without the need to navigate his quirky personality. All you need of Groothuis without Groothuis, thanks to new technology.

That’s right. From videos, articles, books, and interviews, we have captured his core ideas, illustrations, and even jokes (at least the good ones)! No need to actually read any of his books or articles. Hey, some are long! Just get the app, ask a question, and Groothuis own (simulated) voice will answer the apologetics or philosophy question—and in less than three minutes. Unlike real life, when Groothuis would often pause to think or find the right word or even say nothing, all Groothuis App answers come pause-free. You can even vary the rate of voice, just like on Audible.

Only $5.99 per month.

 

Texts, Graphics, and Culture: On the Decline of Reading and Civilization

Inscripturation is part of being human, or at least it has been for a long time. We inscribe words on bark, papyri, codices, human skin (tattoos), books, magazines, bracelets, and automobiles. These are the media for our messages. We use pens, markers, pencils, printing presses, and spray paint to do our writing. These are the tools by which to inscripturate. We employ graphics for our inscriptions done by various tools on various media. You are reading this online and in a font. The headline of this essay is larger and bolder than the text. A few words have already been placed in italics.

Patterns of inscripturation tell us much about ourselves. Consider books. Most thoughtful books from thirty or more years ago had few subtitles, lacked boldface, and relied on the words themselves (as semantic abstractions) for the meaning—rather than relying on the variation of typeface, odd spacing, or special effects. The text in a book does not move around on the page and cannot be altered apart from annotations. It is ruthlessly linear and requires decoding (reading). We might find endnotes or footnotes, none of which stand out on the page.

Consider books today. Some remain similar to books published thirty years ago, with their unadorned text and high volume of information per page. But many books ape the sensibilities of a computer screen when online. I am now reading an insightful piece of Christian social criticism, which considers how renewal might take place in our postmodern world. I have other books by this thinker. However, the book does not trust its words to do the work of knowledge. Each page has several different graphical effects to make its points: different colored text, boldfacing, and indented text. It is annoying and interrupts the flow of thought rather than ensuring it.

Why is the book thus marred? The assumption is that readers are conditioned by the activity on screens and will be reluctant to submit to the discipline of pure textuality. They need headlines, call-outs, textual variations, and other brain candy in order to remain remotely conscious through the ardor of deciphering the meaning of the inscriptions.

The book I am reading does not plug in. There is no internet connection. It is not an e-book. It is the equivalent of an e-book—or a paper book in e-book drag.

This kind of graphic clutter has been accruing for years. A Hal Lindsey book from about thirty-five years ago that had almost as many words in subtitles as words in the main text. (His failed prophesies are best forgotten, but Christ will come again.) The special effects cater to and encourage intellectual impatience and the skimming mentality. Here we face a vexing challenge.

All writing must be aimed at an audience. If the audience is addled by screen addiction, it will be difficult for readers to adjust to unmoving, linear, and demanding textuality. Yet we ought want these souls to learn from good books—books like the graphically cluttered book I am now reading and which prompted this essay. At the same time, we ought to challenge readers to bear down, turn off the phones, turn off the music, and let themselves be immersed in reading worthwhile words for long periods of time.

I know that none of my books will be pocked by multiple typefaces, odd spacing, and different colors. I will stick with what I know best for what I do. I will write words crafted for meaning. I am not against apt graphic illustrations, subtitles, italics once in a while, and so on. But when text hypertrophies into a riot of contending inscripturations, we lose too much of what matters most in writing. In so doing, we betray our literary patrimony (and perhaps without evening knowing it) and become high- functioning, digitally-savvy, well-informed illiterates.

 

 

 

The New Age Jesus

Those enamored of New Age spirituality usually find in Jesus a kindred spirit. Rather than exiling Jesus to the legendary lore of religious imagination or debunking him as a messianic pretender, New Age writers see Jesus as an enlightened master who manifested a divine power—a power potentially available to all who enter the New Age.

The New Age movement is not a conspiracy but an eclectic configuration of spiritual seekers who have despaired of finding personal and cosmic satisfaction in either religious orthodoxies or secular materialism. Instead, they have turned to unconventional and esoteric sources in the hopes of finding what they seek in the ambiance of the mystical, magical and metaphysical.[i] Given these tendencies, the Jesus of orthodox Christianity may seem inadequate. Jesus must be rescued from a pedestrian and parochial orthodoxy that demands he monopolize the deity.

Jesus in the New Age

Because of its diversity, the New Age has no single view of Jesus, but it offers a family of related views whose common factors may be summarized.

  1. The New Age highly esteems Jesus as a spiritually attuned or evolved being who serves as an example for spiritual discovery and evolutionary advancement.  Jesus is referred to by various positive terms and titles including Master, Guru, Yogi, Adept, Avatar, Shaman, and Way-show-er.  He is revered along with other religious leaders such as Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, and Lao Tze.
  2. Many argue for the separation of Jesus the individual person of history from the universal and impersonal Christ Consciousness, or Christ Principle. His consciousness of God and miracles were evidence he tapped into a higher level of consciousness. But if Jesus tapped into this cosmic power, he did not monopolize it.  New Age philosopher David Spangler, echoing the ancient Gnostics, said that, “The Christ is not the province of a single individual.”[ii]  As Joseph Campbell put it in his best-selling book The Power of Myth (1988), “We are all manifestations of Buddha consciousness or Christ consciousness, only we don’t know it.”[iii]  Christhood comes through self-discovery; we may all become Christs if we tap into the universal energy, the Christ consciousness.
  3. The orthodox Christian affirmation that Jesus is the supreme and final revelation of God is questioned.  Although Jesus is respected, he is not worshiped.  Janet Bock complains that “the position that Jesus was the only ‘Son of God’ . . . is, in effect, a limiting of the power of God, a shackling of divinity to one physical form for all eternity.”[iv]
  4. Jesus’ crucifixion, if accepted as historical, is not deemed essential to restore the spiritual wholeness of humanity.  Jesus’ suffering on the cross is either rejected as unhistorical or reinterpreted to exclude the idea that he suffered as the Christ to pay the penalty for human wrongdoing in order to reconcile people to a holy God. Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader of The Church Universal and Triumphant, states emphatically that the idea of a blood sacrifice is “an erroneous doctrine,” actually “a remnant of pagan rite long refuted by the word of God” and never taught by Jesus himself.[v] Since the New Age worldview denies both human sinfulness and a personal God who is ethically perfect, Jesus’ crucifixion loses its traditional significance.
  5. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is denied or spiritualized to remove them from the realm of the physical and the historical. Many others besides Jesus are recognized as “Ascended Masters” on the spiritual plane. Joseph Campbell interprets the Ascension to mean that Jesus “has gone inward . . . to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all tings, the kingdom of heaven within.”[vi] For Campbell, Jesus does not ascend to the right hand of the Father but descends to the divine depths of the collective soul.
  6. The idea of Jesus’ Second Coming is spiritualized and democratized to refer to the evolutionary ascent of an awakened humanity. Soli, billed as an “off planet being” channeled through Neville Rowe, offers this esoteric insight: “You are God.  You are, each and every one, part of the Second Coming.”[vii]  The notion that “this same Jesus” (Acts 1:11) who literally and bodily ascended to heaven will himself return in like manner on Judgment Day is rejected as narrow-minded literalism (see also Philippians 3:20-21). Furthermore, final judgment after death is denied in favor of reincarnation.
  7. New-Age thinkers accept extra-biblical documents as sources for authentic information about Jesus.  Although the Bible is often cited, its function is secondary to other texts.  Instead, the spiritually inquisitive often turn to alternative records of Jesus’ life.  This quest for a “lost Christianity” follows several routes converging at key points.

Many believe that Gnostic texts provide a trustworthy record of Jesus as a spiritual catalyst who came to awaken the spark of divinity locked in our bodily prison. Self-knowledge, or gnosis, is the means of salvation. Since people hear of titles such as The Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter, many assume the Gnostic materials are historically trustworthy documents that were expelled from orthodoxy by defensive clerics. Professor Elaine Pagels, long an advocate of Gnostic materials over the canonical Scriptures, recently drew attention to The Gospel of Thomas in her best-selling book, Beyond Belief (2003).

Another strand of revisionism harks back to a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, published in 1894 by a Russian journalist, Nicholas Notovitch. This book claims to unveil an ancient Tibetan record of Jesus’ “lost years” (between ages 13 and 29), which he spent studying, teaching and traveling in the mystic East. This Jesus bears little resemblance to the biblical Jesus.

Others find the key to Jesus in the ancient Essene community at Qumran, near the Dead Sea.  Claiming to base their interpretation on the Dead Sea Scrolls or other material, they see Jesus as part of a mystical remnant preserved from the Jewish fundamentalism of his day. Shirley MacLaine writes that “Jesus and the Essenes, with their teachings on love and light and cosmic laws along with the Golden Rule of karma, sound very much like metaphysical seekers in the New Age today.”[viii]

These esoteric materials are often augmented or eclipsed by revelations thought to originate beyond history entirely. Channelers or mediums receive messages about Jesus from personal spirit beings. Others, such as Edgar Cayce and Rudolf Steiner, keyed into an impersonal plane of higher consciousness called the Akashic Records or the Collective Unconscious, to extract a picture of Jesus not in harmony with that of the New Testament.  The popular three-volume set A Course in Miracles (1975), popularized by Marianne Williamson, claims to have been dictated by Jesus himself. Yet it denies historic Christian teachings such as original sin, the sacrificial death of Christ, reconciliation with God by faith in Jesus, and a literal heaven and hell.

  1. When the Bible is cited with reference to Jesus, an appeal is made to an esoteric dimension lost on those holding traditional interpretations. The Bible must be decoded to discern its secret substratum. So, when Jesus said that John the Baptist was Elijah, he was saying that John was the reincarnation of Elijah, not that John simply came with the same “spirit and power of Elijah” without being literally Elijah (Luke 1:17).[ix]  When he said, “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he really meant the soul is divine, not that the kingdom was breaking into history through Jesus (Luke 17:20-37).[x]

In the New Age, Jesus is understood apart from biblical moorings and placed in an alien intellectual and spiritual atmosphere. He is a Christ without a cross or physical resurrection, preaching a gospel without repentance or forgiveness, before an audience of potential equals who have no sin and are in no peril or perdition. Is this the genuine Jesus?

Is the New Testament Reliable?

Before considering the claims and credentials of Jesus, we should consider the reliability of the New Testament, since New Age sources impugn its integrity. The New Testament is often undervalued because of its antiquity and its manner of compilation. It is deemed unreliable because of the number of translations and editions. Some will reject its authority by saying, “Well, it has been translated so many times.” Yet the New Testament is the best-attested collection of literature from antiquity. Some 5,366 partial or complete Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been recovered, dating as far back as the end of the first century. This plethora of manuscripts gives scholars ample material for reconstructing the original texts. No doctrine is affected by the small number of variant readings listed in modern Bibles.[xi] Although numerous translations of the New Testament are available, each modern translation appeals to the best ancient manuscripts available. They do not simply refer to the latest in a succession of translations. In fact, as time goes on more and more manuscripts are uncovered by archaeologists.

The date of the original composition of the New Testament books is quite close to the events described—in most cases, not more than a generation. We know that nearly all the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were in circulation by the end of the first century, because early church theologians such as Ignatius and Clement (writing at the turn of the century) refer to them or quote them. The original writers of the New Testament were also in a good position to ascertain the truth of their research, being either eyewitnesses (such as the apostles Matthew, Peter and John) or (like Luke) privy to eyewitnesses. Luke’s affirms that the material he used was “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” that he might present an “orderly account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:2-3).[xii]

Concerning the canonization of the New Testament, New Age writers protest is that it was the product of a fourth-century theological elite which excluded legitimate sources such as Gnosticism for purely self-serving reasons. But this scenario doesn’t bear historical scrutiny. The canonized documents were not given authority as much as they were recognized as already functioning in the churches with authority. These books predate the church councils that canonized them by several hundred years. They were not produced or altered ad hoc. Furthermore, books were excluded from the canon for specific reasons, such as late date of composition, questionable authorship, doctrine at odds with the primitive “rule of faith,” and lack of use in the early church; they were not rejected for merely political motives.[xiii]

In light of this evidence, the burden of proof lies on any other purported record of the life of Jesus that contradicts the New Testament. Can the New Age revisionist documents bear historical scrutiny?

Testing New Age Documents

The New Testament is far better attested than Gnostic texts. The Gnostic texts are second- or third-century documents that editorially alter an already existing orthodox view of Jesus. None of the Nag Hammadi texts, for instance, is an actual gospel of the form of the canonical Gospels. Rather, they are largely metaphysical discourses that for the most part bear little resemblance to the New Testament either stylistically or theologically.[xiv]

The Notovitch material (claiming to reveal “the lost years of Jesus”) was roundly condemned as unreliable by such noted orientalists as F. Max Muller and others shortly after its publication because of its contrived and unhistorical character. Despite continued interest in The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, the supposed Tibetan original manuscript has never been available for scholarly study; there exists no adequate verification of its existence, let alone its credibility. Most scholars have flatly rejected it as a fraud. It is better to have 5,366 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the hand than (at most) one exotic manuscript lost in the Tibetan bush.[xv]

Claims that Jesus was an Essene do not hold up either. The Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls were not proto-New Agers. Rather, they were monotheistic Jews who, despite sectarian idiosyncrasies, affirmed human sinfulness, an eternal hell and a predestinating, personal God. Despite some similarity between Jesus’ teachings and the Essenes’ (due to their common belief in the Old Testament), there is a deep rift between them concerning asceticism, ethics, salvation and other issues. The Essenes were not New Agers, and Jesus was no Essene.[xvi]

With regard to channeled material, we should question why credence should be given to a revelation with no historical verification over documents with considerable historical verification—especially when channeled sources deny the central tenets of what Christians have affirmed for two thousand years. Because of this danger, the Apostle John warns: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). He goes on to encourage his readers to test the purported revelations by their views on Jesus; if they reject the biblical Jesus, they must be rejected as false messages, whatever their supposed source (1 John 4:2-3; see also Colossian 2:8).[xvii]

The simple fact is this: The evidence supports the reliability of the New Testament over the materials concerning Jesus given weight in New Age circles.

The Claims and Credentials of the Christ

But who is the Jesus of the New Testament? He speaks with a voice of authority based on both his claims and credentials.

Jesus calls himself God’s “one and only son” who was sent in love by the Father to bestow eternal life to those who believe in him (John 3:16). No other shares that status. This is no idle matter, since Jesus goes on to say that “whoever does not believe [in Jesus] stands condemned already because he has not believed in God’s one and only Son” (v. 18). Peter declared:  “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul affirms that “Christ Jesus” is “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9; see also Ephesians 1:18-23).

Another authoritative affirmation comes from Jesus’ lips: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; see also Matthew 11:27). In context, the exclusivity of this statement cannot be honestly avoided, although some, through “esoteric interpretation,” assert that Jesus is not speaking of himself as the way, but of the impersonal “I Am presence” (or God) in us all. Such interpretive innovation, often practiced in New Ager circles, is the result of “world-view confusion”—an entirely alien philosophy, in this case pantheism, is superimposed onto the text.[xviii]

Esoteric interpretation is countered by common sense. If nothing stated in the text indicates the esoteric meaning, and we have good independent evidence indicating that the document is written in code language, what grounds can be given to support the esoteric interpretation, besides wishful thinking? Although the Bible is not always easy to understand, no secret code is needed to decipher it.[xix] Peter warns of those who distort the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).[xx]

By what credentials did Jesus back up his claims? Because those involved in the New Age movement grant the reality of a paranormal, dimension that affects the natural realm, they should be impressed with Jesus as an unsurpassed wonder worker. Jesus restored the blind, deaf, dumb and leprous, cast out demons with a word, commanded the elements to obey him, and summoned Lazarus from the grave. In the grandest miracle of all, he himself rose from the dead on the third day, just as he predicted. There would be no Christianity without the Resurrection.[xxi] A reading of the Gospels will disclose Jesus as another shaman or mystical holy man. He is far greater.

Jesus never claimed to tap into an impersonal realm of power. His demonstration of power was thoroughly personal. Jesus miraculous power was grounded in his identity as God’s only Son, his relationship to God, the Father, and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit. His miracles displayed his compassion and integrity. This is seen when declared that a crippled man’s sins were forgiven—an act only God could perform—and backed it up by healing him on the spot (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus healed both soul and body, and in the process forgiven the man’s sins, declaring the prerogatives of deity.

The sheer number, power and attestation of Jesus’ miracles put him in a category by himself; but the miracles alone are not sufficient to establish Jesus as Lord. We must also consider Jesus’ unrivaled authority as a teacher; the certainty of his words regarding his mission, his identity and the need for human response; his fulfillment of prophecy;[xxii] and his love toward those he came to rescue. These factors show Jesus as a man of integrity and compassion as well as a man of power. He claimed to have the power to save the lost, whom he loved.[xxiii]

Jesus’ View of Salvation

Jesus was on a redemptive mission. However, New Age theology to the contrary, his mission was not to convince humans that they were really divine. He declared, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus understood being “lost” as sinfulness.  He catalogued thirteen items of infamy—such as adultery, greed, impurity—as “coming from within” and making a person unclean before a holy and personal God (Mark 7:21-23). Where the New Age sees a sleeping god, Jesus finds a tempest of transgression. It is no wonder that Jesus often warned of the horrors of hell (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31).

Jesus presented himself as the answer. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Speaking of his impending crucifixion, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Christ’s crucifixion offers something alien to a New Age theology, which understands God as an impersonal and amoral Force, Principle or Vibration. From this perspective, humans all partake of the divine essence, but the ultimate reality is impersonal and inhuman.  The Great Void makes no friends and sheds no blood. Yet we all yearn for loving relationships with other persons, for love, intimacy and acceptance.

We find our highest meaning in the inter-personal realm, not the im-personal realm. The Cross of Christ announces God’s sacrificial love toward us. God’s uncompromising holiness demands that a price be paid for sin: Jesus goes to the cross to bear that penalty. Yet God’s love provides a sinless sacrifice for a guilty race. As Paul said:

When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love toward us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Finding the Genuine Jesus

The gospel of Jesus Christ is an objective claim on every individual (Acts 17:30). Christ offers the life we crave but which we cannot achieve by looking within ourselves. He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Although Jesus singled himself out of the spiritual crowd through his exclusive claims and unmatched credentials, he issues an inclusive invitation:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  (Matthew 11:28)

Christ promises and provides rest from the futile human quest for Christhood. We may, by his grace, become his friends, but never his peers. We must surrender our quest for autonomy, turn from our selfishness, and turn toward the only one who can forgive our sins, give us eternal life, and equip us for good works for the glory of God. The first word of the gospel is repentance. Jesus said, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). If we admit our sin, repent of our wrongdoings, and put our faith in the sinless sacrifice of Jesus, we can find eternal life—beginning now and continuing for an eternity in paradise with Jesus. Only through faith in Jesus can a new age truly begin (2 Corinthians 5:17).[xxiv]

[1] For more on the New Age as a movement and a worldview, see Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill,: InterVarsity Press, 1986), and Douglas Groothuis, “New Age Spiritualites,” in Christopher Partridge, Douglas Groothuis, eds., Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 278-280.

[2] David Spangler, Reflections on the Christ (Glasgow, Scotland: The Findhorn Foundation, 1977), 103.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 57. This material, based on an interview with Bill Moyers, was also made into a PBS television interview, which is still shown during pledge drives.

[4] Janet Bock, The Jesus Mystery (Los Angeles, Calif.: Aura Books, 1984), 112.

[5] Mark L. and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Science of the Spoken Word (Livingstone, Mont.: Summit University Press, 1986), 86-87.

[6] Campbell, 56.

[7] Quoted in Otto Friedrich, “New Age Harmonies,” Time, December 7, 1987, 66.

[8] Shirley MacLaine, Going Within (New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 1989), 181.

[9] See Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 95-98.

[10] See Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 227-228.

[11] See Groothuis, Jesus, 38-41.

[12] For more on the reliability of the New Testament see Groothuis, Jesus, 17-63, and F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents—Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987).

[13] F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), and Groothuis, Jesus, 307-312.

[14] For more on the historicity of the Gnostic texts see Groothuis, Jesus, 102-118.

[15] For more on the lost years of Jesus see Ibid., 119-151.

[16] For more on Jesus and the Essenes see Ibid., 152-180.

[17] For more on channeling see Ibid., Jesus, 181-214.

[18] See James Sire, Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 23-30, 127-44.

[19] On proper biblical interpretation see Gordon Fee and Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 2nded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993).

[20] For more on esoteric interpretation see Groothuis, Confronting, 87-91; Groothuis, Jesus, 282-284; and Sire, 107-115.

[21] See Groothuis, Jesus, 272-282, and Gary Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), especially Part I.

[22] On Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, see John Ankerberg, John Weldon and Walter Kaiser, The Case for Jesus, the Messiah (Chattanooga, Tenn.: The John Ankerberg Evangelistic Association, 1989).

[23] For more on the claims and credentials of Christ, see Groothuis, Jesus, 237-260.

[24] On coming to terms with Jesus, see Groothuis, Jesus, 285-306.

The Vapidity of Pop Spirituality

My Audible.com subscription offers free audio for “finding bliss” every day. Out of curiosity—and not in hope of edification—I began to listen as I exercised at the recreation center. This bliss-promising offering ill fit with my audio books by Os Guinness, C. S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, Francis Schaeffer, and their edifying kin. My interest didn’t last more than about two minutes (my crap detector was ringing too loudly in my ears to go on), but during that time a sense of spiritual disgust came over me. Oh, the vapidity and vacuity of the pop spirituality of bliss, yoga, self-esteem, mindfulness, and the rest!

To truly live in, and through. and by the Spirit, to be spiritual, comes only through faith in, submission to, and friendship with the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who has mercifully come to us in the flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus warned of false Christs and counterfeit gospels, as did his Apostles (Matthew 7:15; Colossians 2:8; 2 Peter 3:16; 1 John 4:1-6). Christ confronted the twisted, but pious, religiosity of both the Scribes and Pharisees with the gospel of repentance from dead works and faith in himself as the source of eternal life (Matthew 4:17; John 3:16-17). But what is pop spirituality?

I have studied New Age spirituality for many years. When I began research just after my conversion in 1976, the worldviews and spirituality of Hinduism, Buddhism, and occultism were beginning to flower like a poisonous plant. Yoga was viewed as a bit exoteric and exotic. Buddhist mindfulness were not mainstream. But even then, when these Eastern philosophies hit American soil, they tended to be diluted by American values and ideals—especially our optimism and boosterism. Today, we are sold a pop spirituality that fails to rise or fall to the level of any one religion, but which combines religious ideas with American sensibilities to form something nearly insufferable. Let me explain.

Second, pop spirituality is simplistic and deceptive. Real peace, it claims, can be found merely by practicing yoga, visualizing what you want, or cultivating a new, positive self-image. The program I heard told the listener to say, “I am grounded. I am grounded.” But you may not be grounded in the good, the true, or the beautiful. You may be about to run aground into one of the many unpleasant realities out there. You might intone “I am grounded” over and over and not realize that your children are strangers to you, your wife is having an affair, and the IRS is about to ambush you. Worse yet, you can feel at peace but not be at peace with your neighbor or with your Creator. That is no small matter.

You might intone “I am grounded” over and over and not realize that your children are strangers to you, your wife is having an affair, and the IRS is about to ambush you.

Third, pop spirituality can be dangerous when it plays with spiritual practices not grounded and sanctioned by the one, true God. Any so-called meditative practice that shifts your mind into intellectual neutral provides an opening to deception and even spiritual bondage. It is one thing to de-stress a bit through getting relaxed and not worrying about life. Jesus told us to ponder the birds and the flowers, remembering that if God cares for them, he will care all the more for us (Matthew 6:25-34). It is something else entirely to “let go of your thoughts” and enter a state without judgment or evaluation.

The mind is as much a battleground as it is anything else. Since “the heart” includes the mind, consider this wisdom: Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (Proverbs 4:23; see also Philippians 4:8). We guard our hearts through treasuring the truth and resting in the God of all truth, not by emptying our minds or letting it run free. The enemy of our souls is all too eager to find a mind idling in neutral and to shift it into reverse and over a cliff (John 8:44). Surely, we can do better. It is the truth of Jesus that sets us free (John 8:31-32). We do not find freedom by floating on the dangerous sea of consciousness without Jesus as the anchor of our souls (Hebrews 6:19).

Pop spirituality must give way to cross spirituality, the way of Jesus himself.

Pop spirituality must give way to cross spirituality, the way of Jesus himself. He is too wise to assume that we are fine the way we are and that he merely provides a means to our own autonomous ends. No, he calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and to follow him (Luke 9:23-26). And while the gospel is simple, it is not simplistic or one-dimension, unlike pop spirituality. You can never get to the bottom of God, Creator, Designer, Redeemer, Judge. The Christian life is a deep voyage into meaning, truth, and life. In self-denial, there is self-liberation. In truth, there is love. Even in suffering, there is meaning. Abandon vapidity, all you who enter here!

 

 

 

 

 

On the Decline of the Footnote: Another Declinist Lament

Serious reading and study has been my fate and pleasure since I began college in 1975. Along the way, footnotes became my friends. Before college, I flitted with a few books here and there, mostly related to my interests in music and the counterculture I read the pop rock magazine called Cream and the more serious Rolling Stone. I read a book or two by Aldous Huxley. By looking up big words, I could whip off a sesquipedalian once in a while. I also enlisted them in writing for the West High School newspaper, The Eagle’s Cry (1973-75).

My writing in college required genuine research and official documentation. Enter the footnote. Since I was now philosophy major (after two years in journalism), my professors assigned papers—many papers. I wrote eighty-five pages of papers (on an electric typewriter, no less) in one quarter. They are all in my files somewhere.

As I began publishing in magazines and then writing books and academic articles, I had to master the fine art of the footnote. Gary North, a fiery and prolific writer, claimed that we could win the culture war through footnotes! That was an overstatement, but I mostly agreed. (In the preface to one of my books, I encouraged the readers to consult the footnotes, since I had spent two days rechecking them.)[1] Christians should out-think and out-write the world for Christ and his Kingdom. That requires thorough and proper documentation—and it was laborious before the word processor.

Thus, the footnote has been my nearly constant companion in the world of ideas. My first wife, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954-2018), edited all my published work through Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011). She was fastidious to ensure that the footnotes were shipshape. Christian Apologetics has well over a thousand footnotes. (I prefer footnotes over endnotes, since footnotes allow you to read the citation more easily than turning to the end of the chapter or the end of the book or article.)

Sadly, this old philosopher has noted a decline in the quality of the footnote in recent years. Of course, footnotes can just be flubbed—dates of publication are incorrect, titles misstated, page numbers are off. But, I detect a general shift in the specificity and—the authenticity—of footnotes. I will speak primarily of footnotes in publications, not in student papers, thousands of which I have graded. Concerning these efforts, I have two points First, too many students get creative or sloppy in footnotes. Be creative in your use of sources? Yes. Be creative in the form of the footnote? No! (The same goes for grammar, of course.) And concerning sloppiness—is it ever good to be sloppy? The student record for errors in one footnote (at the time of this writing) is six. Second, and on the happy side, I am proud of my student who correctly planted three footnotes in one sentence! Now on to professional publications.

Citations should almost always invoke the original source. Thus, if you quote Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900), you cite the primary work, such as The Anti-Christ, from whence the quote comes. What if you find a juicy quote in a book that cites Nietzsche? If so, you hunt down the original quote for yourself. Libraries and inter-library loan still exist. Only rarely do you write, “as quoted in…,” which means you have not seen the original source. Relying on someone else’s primary research is not advisable, except rarely as when the original source cannot be tracked down. However, if your footnotes says, “as quoted in…,” you need to give the original citation, so the reader can know what the primary source is, even if you have not seen the primary source in the original form.

Sadly, I now often find footnotes that refer to a secondary work for a primary citation that omit the bibliographic details of the original source. So, we might read:

  1. Frederick Nietzsche, as quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 198.

That is inexcusably incomplete, because I gave the original source reference in Truth Decay. Therefore, it should be cited.

Pandemic is another footnote infraction—omitting the original date of publication of a book. When I read a footnote, I want to know when the book was first published because it places the work in a narrative of the author’s other work and in a general climate of intellectual opinion. It is rather important to know that C. S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain (a philosophical work) well before A Grief Observed (a lament over the death of his wife, Joy Davidman). Consider this footnote:

  1. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 16.

Lewis died in 1963, so that cannot be the original date of publication; that is, unless it is a posthumously published work—which it is not. Properly formatted, the footnote should read thusly:

  1. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (orig. pub., 1940; New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 16.

Yet another error is the missing footnote or the sin of omission. Most writing that directly quotes an author should include a footnote, unless the quote is common knowledge, such as “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” But much common knowledge is not true. Many cite Blaise Pascal as writing, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in every person that only God can fill.” It is a profound statement, but he never wrote it. Rather, it is a paraphrase of a longer and more philosophically nuanced quote from Pensées.

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.[2]

My last bleat targets the content of footnotes. Historically, a footnote refers to a written source, usually published. Occasionally, a footnote will cite an unpublished manuscript. Now, I am finding footnotes to YouTube videos, which, of course, are not written sources at all. I found this in the otherwise excellent Competing Spectacles; Treasuring Christ in the Media Age (2019) by Tony Reinke. If the video is of an expert speaking on their expertise, this is forgivable. But, still, published sources, given their legitimacy, should have the priority.

I could belabor the point pedantically. Some of my readers may have already rendered that judgment about this essay as it stands. Nevertheless, the footnote can be a loyal advocate for truth about what matters. Therefore, let us respect it by using it virtuously.

 


[1] I forgot which book. If you read this footnote, then hooray.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. A. Krailsheimer (New York; Penguin Books, 1966), 75.