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.