5 Truths Billy Graham Taught Us

On Billy Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can Billy Graham teach us?

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


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

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

Against Art Forgeries

I sent this to The New York Times on November 5, 2013. It was in a response to an editorial defending art forgeries. It is a short essay on ethics and aesthetics, but never published—until now.


Blake Gopnik’s defense of art forgeries “as the art lover’s friend” is an impressive piece of sustained sophistry. All seven arguments he offers fail miserably.

First, if a forgery can fool an expert, it can give the rest of us pleasure. Gopnik thinks this is good. But pleasure does not justify deceit, nor does pleasure define the meaning of art.

Second, the forger may reveal what the copied artist might have himself done; he may even reveal the artists inner essence. Lying imitations have nothing to do with artistic continuity or revelations.

Third, forgeries are justified because artists often use assistants. This is a false analogy, since the artists authorized these assistants, unlike forgers.

Fourth, art forgeries can “tame our absurd art market” by bringing down prices. This comment—if true—has no force, and it purely utilitarian. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Fifth, forgeries endorsed by art experts teach us that “connoisseurship is not to be trusted.” This is illogical. Everyone already knows that connoisseurs are fallible. But they may be fallible and generally reliable, like all merely human judges.

Sixth, because some ancient cultures endorsed the copying and augmenting of valued artworks, this justifies forgeries today. On the contrary, these copies were culturally-authorized and well-accepted—and not forgeries. Seventh, much of 20th  Century art, such as Duchamp’s, “set out to undermine idea of unique authentic, hand-touched works of art.” This is true, but irrelevant. Duchamp’s ready-mades were not forgeries, because he did not claim to make them.

Gopnik’s ambitious essay fails to marshal any good arguments. We await a better apologist for artistic deception.

On Making the Abnormal Good

This morning on NPR, I learned of a documentary about a pioneer in the transgender movement. When the interviewer asked about her life, the documentarist calmly replied that for a time she worked in “the sex industry” in Times Square. She then took a twelve-year-old, lesbian runaway “under her wing.”

Leaving aside what rights transgender people should have, think about these descriptions. “Sex industry” makes normal prostitution and all its degradation–the scaring of intimacy, the reduction of intercourse to commerce, the diseases that plague the promiscuous, and the chains the pimps put on the prostitutes, the abortions the pimps demand. “Sex industry” indeed–remove the stigma, the sin, the pain; it makes normal the abnormal and wrong.

What does it mean to take a twelve-year-old girl “under her wing.” I’d rather not think of it. Perhaps this woman helped this girl in some ways, but not in the best ways.

This world of woe is abnormal because of the fall. We are all damaged goods, but goods we are. Prostitution and gender dysfunction are the sad effects of the fall, not things to celebrate. Without the norm of heterosexual monogamy, there would be no Western Civilization. But now, the pillars shake, threatening an old foundation (See Psalm 11). Gender is divorced from biology and the abnormal becomes normal and even preferable to many. The healing balm of Jesus Christ is denied since the bleeding wound is ignored.

Transgender people have rights because they are human beings, created in God’s own image. We should love them and anyone who cannot seem to find a home in their biology. As Francis Schaeffer wrote in The God Who is There, “We should have compassion for the homophile,” using a word no longer in the cultural currency. Love, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “rejoices in the truth” (I Corinthians 13). We should speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) in the power of the Holy Spirit. We should not speak lies in love, thinking the abnormal to be normal and good. We should not speak the truth in hate, thinking that our correctness justifies bitterness. We should weep, but not let the tear corrode our Christian conscience.

What is the Take Away?

Another new phrase has pressed itself upon us: “the take away.” To “take away” was used to refer to stealing or removing something from its place. Now it means what is valuable out of a larger whole. “What was the take away from that book, film, sermon, lecture, etc.?” The “take away” is what someone finds important or worth remembering. My take away is what suits me.

This new phrase concerns me, since it is another expression of reductionism and over-simplification—something like an executive summary. The executive has no time to read the whole document, so another person reads and summarizes it for her, usually in bullet points, (whose only job is to over simplify and place things in a rather random sequence).

Book, films, sermons, and lectures require serious scrutiny. Consider what is being offered and who is offering it. You may need to experience something you did not want to take away. Perhaps a film takes away your naiveté about religion or jazz or dogs. You got more than you expected. Perhaps you received something you would like to take away from your awareness, but you cannot because it is larger than you are.

I had a student who kept asking me to put things in “a nutshell,” to which I would often reply, “Dave, there is no nutshell for this concept.” It would be wrong to ask, “What is the take away from The Gospel of John?” because we should want all of it. There is no Cliff Notes version of the Bible or of Homer.

Truncated information may lead to loss. “The take away” often takes away needed knowledge. We want the skeleton without the meat, the blueprint without the building, the recipe without the meal. Thus, please take away the take away.

Being a Public Intellectual for Christ

Historian Paul Johnson in his book Intellectuals defines an intellectual as someone who cares more about ideas than about people. True that was for Rousseau and Sartre, but the category is wider than smart selfishness. I take intellectual to be a morally neutral noun, which refers to one well-versed in critical thinking and knowledgeable about one or more heady subjects. An intellectual might write about baseball, as did George Will, but I doubt we would call anyone who had a deep knowledge of baseball and nothing else, an intellectual. Intellectuals may be either sequestered in their academic discipline or public intellectuals who interact with the broader culture. Philosopher Bertrand Russell was a world-class philosopher and wrote some technically challenging books. But he was also a (rather poor) social commentator of some note, especially in his later years. But being a public intellectual does not necessarily mean that one is prudent or worthy of emulation. Publicity does not guarantee profundity.

Publicity does not guarantee profundity.

A public intellectual writes and speaks for a broader audience while retaining the high ground of knowledge. He or she may not hold an academic position, but who is a regular social commentator. George Will and Charles Krauthammer are examples. However, most social commentators are not intellectuals, however much publicity they generate. Some, such as Ann Coulter, trade more on looks and barbs than on intellect (although she is no dummy). Some, while knowledgeable and quick-witted, like Mark Levine, are too caustic to reach a larger audience. I agree with the man’s positions most of the time, but I cannot take him as a model of winsomeness.

Some academics address the wider public. Princeton law professor and overt Roman Catholic, Robert George comes to mind. Given his academic prestige, he bears a gravitas lacking by commentators in the public realm.

Os Guinness, to my mind, is Evangelicalism’s greatest living social critic and public intellectual. While holding a doctorate in sociology from Oxford, he was not called to the college, university, or seminary full time. While a superb preacher and a man of orthodox conviction, he was not called to the pastorate. Rather, he refers to himself as a speaker and writer, who “interprets the world for the church and the church for the world.” To that noble end, he has worked for both secular and Christian institutions, and started The Trinity Forum, a discussion-based ministry that reaches into non-Church settings, including business, education, and politics.

In light of these reflections, what might a public intellectual for Christ look like? Consider three qualities.

First, you must be a genuine intellectual in some subject, who is up for the task, and have no illusions about your strengths and weaknesses. Higher degrees usually help but do not insure competence. Along the way, you need to build some measure of recognition as a thinker. That is, you need to be legitimized in the sight of the public. Higher academic degrees from secular universities serve this end well.

Second, you must have strong, solid, and settled Christian convictions and be able to articulate them to the non-Christian world. You may have a theology degree but unable to bring a Christian worldview into public places. Or, like Os Guinness, you may have no theological degrees and excel at this.

Third, you need to find public venues without being a shameless self-promoter. In the secular world, the Czech philosopher Slavoj Žižek has a wide following outside the academy. But has won it, partially at least, by being a media-hungry, bloviating buffoon.

Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips (Proverbs 17:2).

Finding “a public” is an art and should not be pursued without prayer (Ephesians 6:19).

Professors Making Their Mark: A Thought Experiment

Professors want to make their mark on the world, their profession, and on their students. They spend years perfecting their talents and often receive far less remuneration than those in more lucrative fields who prepare for careers in far less time (such as lawyers). They often sacrifice money (and security, at least before tenure) for meaning. The vicissitudes and foibles of academia are aptly recorded in places like The Chronicle of Higher Education. We read of scholars in the limelight, on the witness stand, in print, out of work, promoted, demoted, outraged, accused, excused, and, of course, always wanting to be taken seriously—to make their mark.

Let us engage in a thought experiment tailored for the humanities, where written papers are necessary for students. What if a professor’s imprint was limited to one thing, a thing seldom discussed in The Chronicle (or anywhere else, for that matter), but something paramount to all of their students: the professor’s comments on their papers. What if all the copious documentation of personal achievement of the curriculum vitae were wiped away and all that remained was what these various scholars wrote on their student’s work? What would remain? It is these words, never published or celebrated by the guild, that often strike into their student’s souls, imprinting them for life—for good or ill.

I vividly remember a comment that Professor Arnulf Zweig (a Kant scholar) made on a portion of one of my undergraduate philosopher papers: “This is an assertion, not an argument.” He was exactly right. I had stated an opinion without rational support. It was not philosophy at all. I cannot count the number of times I have written just that line on my students’ papers. It inflicts a wound that can heal the mind. While struggling to come up with a doctoral dissertation chapter that would please my advisor, I was thrilled to find a short vertical line next to a few sentences of my text besides which Professor Robert Herbert had written, “Good patch.” I lived on that for weeks. A bit later, he remarked that an entire chapter was “heartening.” This has become of one my favorite words. (And eventually the dissertation, “To Prove or Not to Prove: Pascal on Natural Theology,” was accepted in 1993.)

I cannot here expand on my philosophy of professorial comments on student efforts, but I simply commend to you the thought experiment. What if every professors’ written worth were gauged only by comments he or she wrote on student papers?

Apologetic Non-Starters: Arguments to Avoid in Defending Christianity

Apologetics is a necessary discipline for the Christian faith. Jesus and the Apostle Paul regularly defended their beliefs through rational arguments. The Apostle Peter tells us to be ready to give a reason for the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). This lost world needs to hear and believe the gospel of God. So, when unbelievers ask questions about the truth and rationality of Christianity, we must be ready with sufficient answers, trusting in the Holy Spirit to apply the message to their souls (Acts 1:8).

However, some apologetic arguments—no matter how sincerely or repeatedly stated—are nonstarters. They fall flat and do not serve the cause of Christ simply because they are bad arguments. Four of these arguments are so common and so detrimental to the cause of rational Christian witness that they need to be addressed. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his play Murder in the Cathedral:

The last temptation is the greatest treason;
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.[1]

Defending Christianity as true, rational, and pertinent is right; to do so for the wrong reasons is wrong.

Nonstarter #1: Since we do not know everything, no one can disprove the existence of God. God might be somewhere outside of our knowledge. Moreover, if we knew everything—which is the only way to disprove God—we would end up being God ourselves and, thus, atheism would be false!

Although starting from a legitimate insight, this argument extends its claim too far. Proving a universal negative is more arduous than substantiating a universal affirmative. A man once insisted to me that the Bible contained the sentence, “God helps those who help themselves.” (Sadly, many Christians believe this as well.) I denied this and informed him that I had read the Bible many times, but never read those words. He replied, “It must be in there somewhere.” Proving that the Bible does not contain this statement was considerably more difficult than proving that the Bible does contain the statement: “God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son” (John 3:16). (This encounter occurred before computer searches made things simpler.)

However, the existence of God is not like the placement of a statement in the Bible. God is not a finite, empirical object that can be perceived in the way that a sentence is perceived. God is not directly visible under normal conditions. (Theophanies—or divine appearances—occur in Scripture, but are unpredictable. However, at death, we will all see God.). Arguing for or against God’s existence is, therefore, a more involved and multidimensional endeavor.[2] Simply appealing to people’s ignorance as finite beings in no way by itself shows that unbelief in God is not justified. Moreover, one need not know everything to deny the existence of some objects. The belief that there are no unicorns is rationally compelling, even though I cannot rule out the possibility that a flesh-and-blood unicorn may be hiding somewhere. The odds are tremendously against unicorns being anything other than a fantasy animal. So one does not have to know everything even with respect to perceptible objects in order to rule out the existence of some types of entities. The same argument applies to centaurs, fairies, pro-life Democratic candidates for high elected office. Nevertheless, the astute apologist should argue that if the unbeliever has not sufficiently investigated the case for the existence of God, then she is not in a good position to deny God’s existence or even to remain skeptical.

Just as the person who has heard only a few pieces of jazz music is not qualified to make an aesthetic judgment on jazz, so the philosophical neophyte is in no position to make an informed and wise judgment about God’s existence. Serious intellectual work needs to be done, especially given the potential benefits and losses relative to one’s relationship to the God of Christian theism: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).

Nonstarter #2 People do not die for a lie. But the apostles died for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, so they must have died for the truth.

On the contrary, people do die for lies all the time in our fallen world. The Muslim hijackers of September 11, 2001, died for the belief that they would be rewarded for their savagery with attending virgins in paradise. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker still believing in Nazism.

The problem with nonstarter #2 is that it is nearly true, but it misses the truth nevertheless. The truth is something like the following: People do not die for what they know to be a lie, unless they can find some tremendous advantage in so doing. Therefore, it makes no sense to think that Jesus’ first disciples went to their deaths for their belief in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah, if they in fact knew he was moldering in a tomb. One might argue that they created the idea of the resurrection out of whole cloth in order to benefit themselves in some way, but this does not hold water. There is no evidence that they would have bettered themselves in any earthly way by this tactic. Nor is there any reason to think that they should believe themselves to be in that advantageous position even if they were not. Preaching a dead messianic pretender as the Lord of Life had no sales potential whatsoever. Even if these benighted religious opportunists thought that the scheme might work, they would have surely recanted in the face of the sword. But there is no evidence that they did. As Pascal so wisely put it:

The hypothesis that the Apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny this story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost.[3]

Nonstarter #3: Evolution (meaning Darwinism) cannot be proven because it is not scientific. Science demands repeatable and empirical observation: things that can be observed through a microscope or a telescope or chemical reactions in a test tube. Therefore, evolution is unscientific and has no final claim on reality.

The true insight in this argument is that Darwinism is based on forensic considerations about the distant past. One cannot observe speciation or life coming from non-life (abiogenesis) as part of experimental science. Yet scientific enterprise encompasses far more than repeatable or directly observable matters. It considers singularities such as the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of species, among others. Science addresses both present day operations, such as virus mutations, and events in the remote past, such as geological formations, animal and human migrations, and so on. These are all properly part of science.[4]

This “it isn’t really science” approach to origins can only yield intellectual parity (or a kind of stand-off) with the Darwinian account. The claim is that neither option is really scientific nor can either be proved; but one can have faith in either. If so, Darwinism and a biblical view of creation are on an even footing. But there is considerable empirical evidence at both the macroscopic and the microscopic levels for intelligent design in nature.[5] Present day observations of the bacterial flagellum along with the principles of design detection warrant the inference that it was designed in the distant past, even though we cannot observe any such designing activity in the present. We may not see the cause of the design, but we can discern the effects of design through scientific observation and reasoning.

Nonstarter #4: You cannot argue with a changed life. A Christian’s testimony is the most powerful and irrefutable apologetic. (Some say it is the only apologetic needed.)

The germ of truth here is that Jesus Christ does radically change people for the better. We are “new creations” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). If there were no evidence of moral and spiritual change (and continued faith and growth) in Christians, Christianity would be refuted, since it predicts such things. Francis Schaeffer earnestly argued that Christians, as the bride of Christ, must bear fruit through their status as God’s justified and sanctified children.[6] Moreover, Christianity has been, on balance, a far better force for good than for evil in history. Christians outlawed the slave trade, promoted education and hospitals, gave women the vote, and more.[7]

Nevertheless, there is much more to apologetics than telling one’s testimony, no matter how dramatic. Even if God has brought powerful changes for the better in our lives, the unbeliever may still question the source of the change. The effect is real, but what is the cause? Some wonder if belief may act as a placebo. Even though the new birth is available only by the reception of the Gospel through the Holy Spirit (John 3), positive life changes occur for many non-Christians as a result of new beliefs or behaviors. They, too, have testimonies. Mormons are noteworthy in this respect.

But where Christians differ from Mormons and others is that they have a whole toolbox of apologetic arguments at their disposal. A strong testimony and a godly life since conversion must be supplemented with the ability to give honest answers to the unbeliever’s honest questions about the existence of God, the problem of evil, the reliability of the Bible, the claims of other religions, and so forth.

In order for a Christian to defend the faith given once for all to the saints (Jude 3), he must never commend this glorious gospel with shabby or hollow arguments. God has something far greater in mind for us: believing the right thing for the right reason.

[1] T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (New York: Harcourt, 1964), (44).

[2] See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994) and J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987).

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. Alban Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), (310/801).

[4] See Norman Geisler and Kerby Anderson, Origin Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987).

[5] See William Dembski, The Design Revolution (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[6] Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality, 30th anniversary ed. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001).

[7] See Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).

Two Cheers for Curmudgeons

I first learned the word curmudgeon from Keith Yandel, my philosophy adviser at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. He may have been referring to Kant, although I have heard he was, at times, a funny (if not fun-loving) philosopher. The Oxford On-line Dictionary defines curmudgeon as:

A bad-tempered or surly person.

This captures the impatient, fussy, and even outraged tone of curmudgeonhood, but is constricted and unfair. A curmudgeon is not merely someone in a bad mood (although I have been in a bad mood since entering first grade). Thus, I offer this definition:

One undaunted by fashion and unwilling to accede to acedia or to coddle the complacent and who fears not being acerbic or humorous in so doing.

Being a philosopher and curmudgeon (my old blog was named, The Constructive Curmudgeon), I come to praise curmudgeons as well as to be curmudgeonly concerning curmudgeons.

My first cheer is that curmudgeons are not cowed by popular culture or received nostrums. They abhor “homo up-to-datum” (Daniel Borstein) and seek to shine unfashionable light on those blinded by digital darkness—even if it hurts their unfocused eyes. As Simone Weil wrote, “To be relevant, one must speak of eternal things.” Thus, “One undaunted by fashion and unwilling to accede to acedia or to coddle the complacent and who fears not being acerbic or humorous in so doing” (to quote myself), will, if needed, critique what is taken for granted today, such as PowerPoint, Wikipedia, Google, bad religion, and (always) television. At best, and rarely, a curmudgeon may be a prophet of sorts, speaking truth to power, prestige, and popular delusions. The canonical prophet, Amos, was in a divinely-inspired bad mood when he said this.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (Amos 4:1).

And he goes on. High society fashion meant nothing to the caustic Amos.

Perhaps a curmudgeon, at her best, is a prophet without the prophetic mantle of revealed religion. I take Neil Postman—especially in Amusing Ourselves to Death—to have been to have been curmudgeonly prophetic in his secular analysis of the cultural implications of a world wired for instant information. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was Christian social critic—and much more. He could be stern, but never bellicose. Perhaps he was a bit of a curmudgeon in his weariness with worldliness in the church and godlessness in the culture. He was prophetic, to be sure.

A second cheer wells up in my throat: curmudgeons are morally courageous in their critiques of commonplaces. Sticklers for grammar (prescriptivists), for instance, are pilloried as linguistic prigs and snobs and as reactionaries and rebels against the present and future by nearly-anything-goes descriptivists. Opponents abound, and may be uncivil. Grammarians are unbowed and perhaps even empowered by such jabs.

I may be stretching the definition too far, but Lynn Truss is a good-natured and funny curmudgeon concerning commas, semicolons, colons, and all things of punctuation. While reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves (notice the ambiguity caused by the omission of the Oxford comma), you learn much, laugh a lot, and want to imitate her way of being a stickler. She is a constructive curmudgeon.

More seriously, a curmudgeon may take on moral and cultural matters in order to unmask ethical pretense and posturing. There is none better than Os Guinness. Haddon Robinson, writing in Christianity Today, once called Guinness “a professional curmudgeon.” At the time, I was offended by this, since it seemed to label Guinness as a bit of a cultural and theological fussbudget. That, Os Guinness is not. While he does not bear fools gladly, he is kind if insistent, offering critique and constructive insights from a deeply biblical perspective. He is our greatest living Evangelical social critic and a man of deep conviction, talent, and courage.

The cheers stop at two. Some curmudgeons (including myself) need to hear a critique and a reprimand. While reading Robert Hartwell Fiske (d. 2016), who had penchant for rude titles, such as The Dimwit’s Dictionary, I discover both a sharp sense of grammar and style and a mean spirit. In Silence, Language, and Society: A Guide to Style, Meaning, Grace, and Compassion, Fiske shows little compassion on those he criticizes (or savages). He is frequently caustic and always unforgiving. He knows his enemies (all descriptivists and especially Merriam-Webster dictionaries, which are descriptivist) but does not try to make them his friends. As the Apostle Paul wrote (in the best of style), “love rejoices in the truth.” It cannot rejoice in falsehood or even in mediocrity of spirit in all its implications. But Paul begins his love definition in 1 Corinthians 13 by writing, “Love is patient and kind. It is not arrogant or boastful.” Curmudgeons can be patient and kind, even in their surliness, but only if that surliness (vis-à-vis Amos, John the Baptist, and Jesus) is sanctified in virtue.

Therefore, to all the curmudgeons who are undaunted by fashion, morally courageous, and critical without being cruel, I must shout out three cheers. But most of us get only two (at best). May God have mercy on all curmudgeons.

Principles for Pastoring Animals

A pastor cares for his or her flock by tender concern, prayer, and insight into his parishioners. But one may be pastoral without being called to be a pastor of a church. I know a young man who graduated from Denver Seminary who has never held a pastoral position, but who is more pastoral with friends, family, and strangers than most pastors I know. He recently befriended a lonely man dying from a neurological disease and continued to pastor him until his death. Matt is a pastoral non-pastor. Sadly, we find non-pastoral pastors. I will argue that ordinary Christians can be pastors to animals. Certainly, there are no paid positions in this field, but life is bigger than a salary.

An old stanza from old poem by Frances Alexander sets the tone:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Animals and humans were created by God to live together in harmony. Of course the fall and the flood changed all that, but all the living kinds that God created remain good, as Genesis 1 teaches. Paul the Apostle, of course, agrees:

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

The Bible tells us that humans alone bear the image of God (Genesis 1:26), and that this image remains after the fall (Genesis 9). Since man is the image of God, it cannot be irradiated. This hard break between humans and the rest of God’s creation does not imply that men and women can treat animals anyway they wish. Animals are not mere fodder for human whims.

Along with all creation, animals are owned by God and display aspects of God’s character. God invokes his design of the animal kingdom in answering Job from the whirlwind (Job 38-42). Our Lord, Jesus Christ, tells us to consider God’s care for creatures:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they (Matthew 6:26).

Humans have more value than the birds, but that does not imply that the birds have no value. If they lacked value, Jesus teaching would fall flat. God commanded ravens to bring Elijah food while he was in an area east of the Jordan River (1 Kings 17:4-6).

God has made a covenant with all of creature, not merely humans. As he told Moses:

Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark (Genesis 9:9-10).

Both man and beast are accountable to God and recipients of his grace.

Through the prophet Hosea, God further promises a future covenant for the animal creation.

In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety (Hosea 2:18).

Without developing a whole theology of the animal world, I offer a few principles for how Christians can show pastoral concern to animals, whether or not they interact with them regularly and directly.

First, animals deserve prayer. As God’s creatures, we should desire their well-being in relation to our own flourishing. Sometimes animals must be sacrificed for human good. The Creator gave us dominion over them (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 8) and they do not have rights equal to our own. Yet the dog, the horse, the pig, the lion, the elephant are part of the company of the living.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (Romans 8:19-22).

There are here intimations that animals will be part “the freedom and glory of the kingdom of God,” but I will not pursue that. Suffice to say that the frustration of creation calls out for prayer for the repairing of the world.

I often pray for my friend’s horses, my dog, other pets, and wild animals. My prayer is expanding to cover the global plight of many animals, particularly dogs that are abused in puppy farms and through dog fighting. Animals used for food are often kept in painful conditions before their slaughter. I am no vegetarian, but this needles cruelty finds no justification in a Christian worldview. The animal scientist Temple Grandin has developed humane ways to treat such animals. These examples, and myriad others, are issues of justice. While we cannot side with activist groups such as PETA, who deem animals as valuable as humans, we can work and pray for the human treatment of animals. I commend the Human Society and pray for them and their work. We may also offer prayers of thanksgiving because circuses no longer exploit elephants, creatures too noble to be mere means to human entertainment.

Second, an animal pastor works to strengthen the animal-human bond and to honor the death of beloved animals. Pets are now often put down in their owner’s homes, so the farewell may be less traumatic than in a clinical setting. Several years ago, I went to the home of a young couple who called the vet to euthanize their storied dog, Emma, who had lung cancer. I said goodbye to Emma (who waged her tail when I entered the house) and with her owners. It was a pastoral visit. Many who lose their pets feel ashamed to grieve so strongly for animal or think they must endure this alone. This ought not to be. An animal pastor helps shepherd this communion of beings through life’s terrible transition to death. I show affection to the dog, thanking him or her for her life. I look into their eyes. Of course, I express consolation to the owners and pray with them before or after the sad event. And I keep them in my prayers. Sending a consolation card to the bereaved is a loving gesture also.

After the death of a friend’s dog in 2011, I wrote the following prayer, which I often send to those in a similar situation.

Prayer for One Grieving Over the Loss of a Pet

I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.
I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?—Ecclesiastes 3:17-22, King James Version.

Oh Creator of all living things, and Giver of every good and perfect gift, we thank you for the gift of living creatures. You have made each thing according to its kind, each finds its place in your creation. You have given us dominion over the earth and put living things into our care, including our pets. We thank you for these animal friends, and while we know they cannot provide the fellowship given by members of our own kind, we thank you for the love and joy that comes from these fellow creatures.

We ask you now to comfort the master of a beloved pet who has gone the way of all flesh. All the living will likewise die, and the death of one of your image-bearers is far more consequential than that of a dog or cat. Yet the master grieves the loss of an animal companion, one put in his or her care. Fond memories of pet’s can last a lifetime. We ask that the manifold sorrows of this veil of tears not overwhelm the master, that life without their beloved pet would find healing and that the memories of this unique creature would bring happiness and consolation even in light of the bitterness of loss.

In the name of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep.


Third, an animal pastor blesses animals. He is benedictory. I have written on the philosophical meaning of benediction elsewhere on my blog, and it is vexing to encapsulate. A benediction is somewhere between a command and a wish. “May you find peace,” is a benediction. In the Anglican liturgy, members of the congregation greet each other by saying “The people of the Lord,” after the confession of sin and assurance of pardon. In the Bible, a benediction endeavors to confer divine well-being on a person, family, or nation. Consider this passage:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Hebrews 13:20-21).

Since animals partake of God’s covenants, and since they are given to us a good creations, we should bless them; that is, we, in a holy state of mind full of love, should desire their best. I cannot resist another anecdote.

Recently I was asked contribute to a video project on the subject of the biblical equality between men and women—a subject my wife and I have written and spoken of much in the last two decades. When entering the house, I first greeted my old friends who were sponsoring the project. But I then noticed a diminutive white ball of dog fluff named Abbie, who, I was told, was advanced in years. Abbie had a slight limp, but was friendly and affable. I greeted her by holding her head in my hands, getting down to her level, and blessing her. We hit it off. During my 45-minute interview, Abbie lay down next to me and relaxed (off camera, sadly). When finished with the interview, I said goodbye to my human hosts. But Abbie was stranded underneath about ten feet away underneath a step too high for her to surmount. She looked balefully at me with anticipation. We reunited and said goodbye. The hosts remarked that she did not act that way with other strangers to the house. I know why. I was her chaplain.

The Roman Catholics developed a liturgy for “the blessing of the animals.” Although I am a loyal Protestant, the Catholics have us beat on this. Catholics observe the blessing of pets and animals on October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, or on a Sunday nearest that date. I take the following from an on-line article, “Blessing of Animals” by Kevin E. Mackin, O.F.M.

At Franciscan churches, a friar with brown robe and white cord often welcomes each animal with a special prayer. The Blessing of Pets usually goes like this:

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.

Even if Protestant church do not adopt this practice (maybe a few have), the sentiments are applicable to any Christian’s relationships to pets and other animals.

My theology of animals and how to pastor them is inchoate, but it is growing the more I observe and reflect on the animal kingdom all around us. Consider applying these three principles to your life with the creatures outside your species but under God’s care.

First Principles of Technogesis

These are the numbers of the men armed for battle who came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the Lord had said. . . . from Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do—200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command (2 Chronicles 12:23, 32).

My computer did not recognize the word technogesis in the title. As a term of art, it escapes ordinary dictionaries. In fact, I may have invented it! Technology plus exegesis (or interpretation) forms the heady neologism. I define it thus:

Technogesis: the skill of understanding the nature and effects of technological artifacts and technological systems in relation to humans, culture, and nature.

Humans are tool-using creatures. Of course, other species also use tools; crab-eating macaques, Capuchin monkeys, and crows are just three examples. Yet, humans have no peers in the created order. And their capacity to develop tools is accelerating at an alarming pace. With the ascent of electronic technologies (electronic lights, telegrams, radio), human tools crossed a threshold, especially as they were electrified and mass-produced.

Before the telegraph, information traveled no faster than a steam-powered train. Before then, smoke signals could be seen over a broad distance, but they said little and vanished in a puff of smoke. The radio and telephone isolated the human voice (and other sounds) from a full-orbed environment even as they extended the reach of the voice far beyond its unaided ability. To invoke Neil Postman, these changes are not additive, but ecological: they alter the systems of culture. A few televisions are a novelty. Most people do fine without them. But when television becomes an integral part of life, with TVs displacing pianos and radios in the living room, television become a phenomenon, a taken-for-granted element of life, which becomes and remains unquestioned. Thinking technogetically helps us grasp the effects that technology has on human culture and provides insight here. Consider television briefly

People tend to watch more than they read. National and international news must be shaped to fit the limits of television. Politicians must be presentable on television to be elected. Abraham Lincoln—great in spirit, but ugly in face—would have won no primaries. He was not photographic, but that mattered little at the time since images were not widely distributed. But today, being telegenic is highly valuable for presidential candidates. Read the luminous and pellucid prose of Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death on the ecological effects of television in education, politics, religion, and more. Groucho Marx said he found television quite educational. When he walked into a room with the television on he left and read a book. One could go on about the boob tube, but take another example: the Polaroid camera.

The novelty of this camera was that it took and developed photographs by itself. It delivered its image instantly. There was no need to send film in the mail to be developed and have it sent back, a process that took several weeks (as I remember). The image quality was inferior to many other cameras, but its immediacy made if popular for several decades. The advertising slogan captured its allure: “The camera does the rest”—the title of a new book about its fame and digital defeat. Because my mother (who lived far-away in Anchorage, Alaska, and never owned a computer) wanted more photographs of her son and daughter-in-law, she sent us a Polaroid camera. Her logic was impeccable. Polaroid photographs are easier to take than the non-instant alternatives. Sadly, this didn’t improve our picture-taking habits appreciably; but I kept the little-used camera in its original box. It still works. Today I took three shots, two for a friend and one for myself. But why bring this up?

How we create and share images forms us, usually unconsciously, but decisively. Technogesis asks how this works out in our minds and culture. When I took a photo of Morgan recently in a breakfast restaurant, I had to haul out a rather large object (compared with a smart phone) depress a real button (not touch a screen), and wait for the film to appear amidst the fanfare of that distinctive Polaroid sound (one of its most endearing qualities). Then we waited about fifteen minutes for the film to develop while in a black pouch. Because these actions are slow and deliberate—because things can go wrong because of the steps involved—they add weight to the event of producing an image of someone. Today, the novelty of the event secures it in our minds. When images are instantly produced and available through smartphones, their value plummets and their mark on reality recedes or disappears. The things and people whose images they are may evaporate as well. A million selfies erodes the self.

Having mused a bit on television and photography, here are some first principles of technogesis. They are suggestive, not exhaustive.

First, in any situation you find yourself, look and ask how long the technologies you find have been around. In my writing room, where I now sit, I have a computer, a printer, a stereo, a sleep apnea machine, an electric humidifier, and electric lights. Now ask how the removal of any of these technologies would affect your life. If you are old enough (as I am), you remember days before computers and printers. I wrote all my undergraduate papers on a typewriter. There was no spell-check or delete function (beside white-out or a correcting ribbon). Thus, I thought much more before committing ideas to the page (not screen). I did not send files to my professors electronically. I handed in stapled papers to the professor and got them back with comments (usually). I could expand on this, but it is obvious that the medium of creation affected the matter created. Similarly, when I hand write a card, I slow down to think more before I write, since errors must be crossed out in ink. Putting a pen to paper literally gives a different feel to writing. I do not chose a ready-made font, but print (I forgot how to write in cursive) in my own way.

Second, bring what is in the background of your daily life into the foreground. Almost everyone drives a car, so our engagement is as automatic as the transmission. Technogesis asks how the car affects our sense of self and others. By simply not listening to any audio while driving will reveal much about our attitudes toward driving and our perception of other drivers and people. I often drive in silence, which gives me more space to pray and observe, not merely cars, but the people in them. Your conversation with a passenger improves when it does not have to compete with the radio. Further, by ignoring the controls for car audio (which are getting more complicated), you will drive more safely.

Third, ask those from other countries to reflect on the American way with technology. Outsiders have insights, since they are not habituated to our ways. Years ago, Os Guinness spoke of a visitor to America from a tribal culture who claimed that Americans had “gods on their wrists,” since they looked at their watches so often. When people wear watches, this changes their sense of time and place. Those without time-keepers, keep time differently. No one in the Bible wore a watch, nor did Martin Luther.

Fourth, develop the skills of technogesis by reading astute critics of technology. Pondering the insights of writers such as Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman, Malcolm Muggeridge, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, and, more recently, Sherry Turkle gives one new perspectives on what we take for granted. I read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman in 1987 and have never viewed television—or any image-based communication—the same since.

Fifth, use old technologies to get their feel. I have alluded to the delights of the Polaroid, but consider another example. I bought a working IBM selectric typewriter in 2014 at a garage sale. From 1979-84, I wrote many lecture outlines, articles, and half of my first book on one these proud machines. They were the top of the line typewriters in their day, mostly because of the correction key and the light touch. While carrying my old friend to my car, I was surprised at how heavy it was. Moving such a device required strength and forethought. It was moving a piece of furniture. This material anchorage in space gave typing a more physical and visceral feel. While my computer is a black box to me, I can see how the letters strike the paper on a selectric. I am inscribing, not putting pixels on a screen.

My selectric was a hit at a recent Christmas party at my home. I set it up on a table and encouraged guests to type something to record the event on paper. Some adults were curious and pecked out a few lines. But the children delighted in it, savoring its strange sounds and exposed workings. A six-year-old carefully typed out Mississippi. Her older brother said, “Dad, can we get one?” I leave it to my reader to explore the significance of this vignette, but it illustrates how fascinating it may be to use an outdated technology.

Technogesis is both enjoyable and commendable for reading the signs of the times. Those who simply go with the technological flow may drown without knowing it. This is because the use of their devices unconsciously become part of their way of life, a taken for granted habit. But unconscious habits may become bad habits. Technologies might rob us of well-being even as they increase efficiency.