Brief Social Commentary: Radio Lab

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophy of Technology in Six Ideas

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

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

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

 

A Prayer Guided by the Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven, I come as your child.

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

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

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

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

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

You alone will keep and settle the score.

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

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

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

Amen.

Lessons from Seven Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” Film

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

Leaving the Curmudgeon Behind

Leaving the Curmudgeon Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Providence on the Cheap

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

Kierkegaard on Sin

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


Kierkegaard on Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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