The Vapidity of Pop Spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

On the Decline of the Footnote: Another Declinist Lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Candidate for the Presidency, on Abortion

“I believe that abortion rights are human rights. I believe that they are also economic rights. And protecting the right of a woman to be able to make decisions about her own body is fundamentally what we do and what we stand for as a Democratic Party. Understand this: When someone makes abortion illegal in America, rich women will still get abortions. It’s just going to fall hard on poor women.” From the New York Times.
Here are some points against the madness

  1. What grounds human rights, Mrs. Warren? Do you create them out of whole cloth? Are they determined by those in power? If human rights are objective and universal, then they need to be philosophically grounded in more than individual or collective preference or power. God alone is the guarantor of human rights.

 

  1. God has made all humans in his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:25; 5:1-3). As such humans, at every stage of development or decrepitude, have

an Intrinsic,
Incommensurable,
Inexpugnable, and
Incorrigible
right to not be murdered.

  1. Yes, Mrs. Warren, if abortions are harder to get or made illegal in some states if Roe V. Wade is overturned and the abortions laws go back to the states (where they belong constitutionally), then more wealthy women may have easier access to illegal abortions. For example, a woman who can afford it may travel to another state that allows abortion if her state forbids it.

However, this is absolutely irrelevant to the essential moral question of the rightness or wrongness of abortion. If an act is unjustifiable killing, which abortion is, then it should be illegal for the sake the the innocent and voiceless living human beings who are being killed. Laws against abortion can help restrict its occurrence. They cannot eliminate it, since illegal means are available. Perhaps heroin procurement and use is easier for wealthy Americans than for poor Americans. But that is irrelevant to making heroin use illegal.

  1. If abortion is, in fact, “what we do and what we stand for as a Democratic party,” I advise one of two actions. A. Reform the Democratic Party or B. Leave it and work for a more morally sane party or be an independent (as I am).

Why I Am an Evangelical Egalitarian

I became an egalitarian through a long study of the issue in the early 1990s. My first wife, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954-2018), led the way through her research and writing, but we thought through every aspect of the issue over many years—first to come to the position of egalitarianism and second to defend it from frequent and multifaceted attack. Rebecca’s earthly work is over, but I sense a need to continue to encourage gifted women to serve God with all their abilities, even despite opposition from other Christians. As a Christian man with some influence through my writing and teaching, I offer this brief statement—not as a thorough defense, but as a statement of principles and as an outline of an apologetic for egalitarianism.

An evangelical egalitarian believes that gender, in itself and in principle, does not restrict women from any position of leadership in the church or society. Nor does gender determine a women’s subservient place in the home under the authority of her husband. As Rebecca put it:

Evangelical egalitarianism, or biblical equality, refers to the biblically-based belief that gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails a believer’s gifting or calling to any ministry in the church or home. In particular, the exercise of spiritual authority, as biblically defined, is deemed as much a female believer’s privilege and responsibility as it is a male believer’s.

As Rebecca and I thought this through we realized there were several obstacles to clear. A non-egalitarian believes that women, as women, cannot legitimately hold some positions of leadership in the church nor are they equal partners in marriage.

Non-egalitarians were called traditionalists until about twenty years ago when they coined the term complementarian. The latter term, however, is a misnomer that does not distinguish the view from egalitarians simply because both views consider men and women complementary to each other. The burning question is whether men, as men, have some unique authority over women. Egalitarians deny this. So, the better and more descriptively accurate term for the non-egalitarian is hierarchialist. Granted, this does not sound appealing, but it is truer to the position.

First, any such claim will be rejected as “feminism” by many evangelicals and thus associated with liberal theology and politics. Rebecca and I called feminism “the F-word.” But we found that the egalitarian view predated secular feminism and was held by leading evangelicals in the nineteen century. The secular feminism of the 1960 and onward has had no effect on our being egalitarians. We both tended towards being contrarians and curmudgeons, so going with the cultural flow never appealed to us (see Luke 16:15). Rebecca addressed this at length in Women Caught in the Conflict (Baker, 1994). This book was a prolegomena to her direct defense of egalitarianism in Good News for Women (Baker, 1997).

Second, egalitarians need to wrestle with texts that seem to contradict the claim that women should have access to leadership in the church and mutuality in the home (especially 1 Timothy 2:11-15). Rebecca and I held to biblical inerrancy on the order of the classic Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of 1978, which was endorsed by stalwarts such as Francis Schaeffer (1912-1985) and Carl Henry (1913-2003), two of my heroes. But, on the other hand, complementarians (as they call themselves), must come to terms with the many passages that depict women leading, prophesying, and teaching (such as Judges 4-5, Acts 2:17-18, and Acts 18).

There are formidable exegetes of impeccable evangelical prestige on both sides of this issue, but I am convinced that no biblical text forbids women from leadership in the church or from having an equal voice in the home as a matter of eternal and cross-cultural principle. Now is not the place to cite authorities or give footnotes, except to note a multi-author volume edited by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Ronald Pierce, Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity, 2004). Rather, let us consider one theological matter, which is crucial and decisive.

Complementarians are committed to saying that God restricts women from some positions of leadership because of their gender. This view leads to the following.

  1. Women are equal to men in their essential human being as females.
  2. Women are barred from some leadership roles simply because they are females.
  3. Therefore (A): Women are unequal to men because they are female human beings.
  4. Therefore (B): Women are both equal to men in their human being as females and unequal to men in their human being as females. This is a contradiction and is, therefore, false. That is, the conjunction of (1) and (3) is necessarily false.

Since 1-4 shows complementarianism to be contradictory, there are only two possible ways to address the issue and be logically consistent concerning women and their authority.

  1. Women are equal to men in their essential being; therefore, there is no basis to restrict them on the basis of their female human being. This is the biblical equality position.

 

  1. Women are to be restricted based on the basis their female human being. This can only be justified by saying they are not essentially equal to men in their human being. Women lack, in their essential being, something men have in their essential human being. That means they are inferior to men. This is the older theological view of women in relation to men, a view today’s complementarians usually want to reject.

Complementarians, qua complementarians, cannot affirm (1) or (2). However, these are the only logical choices they have, given that I have ruled out their essential “equal in being, unequal in function” principle as illogical. Therefore, they are stuck in a logical pickle. Biblical equality provides the way for them to be un-pickled—that is, logically consistent.

The biblical equality view avoids these insuperable difficulties by saying that men and women are equal in their essential human being and that being a woman in and of itself never restricts a woman from exercising leadership gifts. (However, in some specific situations it will not be wise for a woman exercise some of her gifts, since this would produce unnecessary controversy.) The use of gifts is determined by God-given ability and the Spirit’s call on someone’s life.

While the final case for women’s equality rests on the Bible, I (and we) cannot deny the testimony of faithful, godly, and gifted women today who serve Christ and love his word. As a seminary professor since 1993, I have taught and gotten to know many women who are skilled in preaching, teaching, and leading. I have seen them win preaching awards, excel academically, and serve in churches where they sometimes do receive the respect they deserve. During one doctrinal interview, my colleague said to a woman we were examining, “I would love to have you as my pastor.” I concurred. During another doctrinal examination, I once asked a seminary student who held the complementarian view if he thought God had gifted some women with leadership skills equal to that of men. He agreed. I then said, “Let that haunt you.” I hope it has haunted him into changing his position.

 

Losing our Letters

Amazing as it may seem to many of us now, human beings wrote letters to each other before the arrival of electronic mail. My mother did. Along with her letters (sometimes typed on a typewriter, sometimes in longhand), she sent me clippings from another print medium that is in jeopardy—the local newspaper. She sent clippings about my high school friends, the moose are taking over Anchorage, Alaska, and other noteworthy items. She was a lifelong and consistent correspondent, and thus a dinosaur. Her Christmas cards arrived a month in advance. God bless her for it. But there are a few far younger “dinosaurs” out there, including one of my students who hates email and cherishes letter writing (“my correspondence,” as she affectionately calls it).

  What do we lose when we exchange email—or incessant cell phone chatter—for the sending and receiving of letters? We all know what we gain from email and cell phones—speed of communication, instant access, and more. But what features of a good life do we forfeit in the process? As with all communicative technology, there is a trade-off between gains and losses.

  For one thing, we tend to replace reflection with rapidity. Email is fast, very fast—and often, too fast. No intermediary object is required for an email. We type letters on a screen and launch them into cyberspace. With letters, we must inscribe symbols onto a page, a distinct physical object that takes up space and which has a marked history of its own. Writing by hand takes time, and is, therefore, inefficient given contemporary quantitative standards. However, the time and effort is takes to write a letter demands a slower pace and allows for more deliberation on what one is writing. In days of yore, many a letter was written only to be torn up and thrown out because one thought better of it. Or perhaps it was tucked away as memorabilia.

  In an email age and texting age we may be losing a literary fixture: the collection of noteworthy people’s correspondence, as The New York Times noted in Rachel Donadio’s essay, “Literary Letters, Lost in Cyberspace” (September 4, 2005). I have read books made up of the letters of C. S. Lewis (who was always in good form), Francis Schaeffer (the consummate thinking pastor), and others. It is not unusual to find the letters of literary figures or philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell, bound for posterity or included in biographies. The letters between painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, released in 2006, are voluminous, and worthy of some reflection—even though neither was known for their writing. This is explored in Letters Like the Day by Jennifer Sinor.

  “Men of letters” were almost invariably men (or women) of letters. Letters of note tended to be saved or duplicated. Emails, on the other hand, are so multitudinous and so disposable (click or “oops!”), that often they are not translated into a more permanent form. (Digital storage is less permanent and more fragile than paper, since it often decays, is fragmented, or becomes unreadable due to new software. I took this up in The Soul in Cyberspace way back in 1997).

  Letters carry the literal touch of the person who wrote them. Even a typed letter is signed. It is crowned by the signature: one’s own name in one’s own hand. If a letter is handwritten, the sign of the personal is made more manifest. In writing a letter recently (a rarity, I admit), I realized that I seldom write by hand more than a few sentences at a time, usually on my student’s papers. Besides that, I may make a list (for shopping items or articles due to editors), check boxes for various purposes, or fill out forms. My handwriting is not superior. I do not write cursively. I print. It is slow and cumbersome. I must work at making my inscriptions legible. Nevertheless, our handwriting—heavenly or ghastly or somewhere in between—is our creation, the inscription of our identity placed on receptive material. We may choose the type of pen, color of ink (or inks), and make idiosyncratic notations. Yes, email gives us a plethora of choices, such as fonts, emojis  (now animated), text size, pasting photographs, and so on, but these are pre-selected for us by others. They are not created by us specifically for another. The manner of writing itself—apart from its overt intellectual content—may be revealing. A good friend of mine told me that her mother discerned the disheveled state of her soul not by the content of her writing, but by the contours of her handwriting.

  Simply because letters are irrepressibly personal, most of us still get a small thrill from finding a letter in our mail box addressed to us in handwriting, and not machine produced. These letters often have a telltale thickness, indicating that it houses several pages, folded and written by human hands. Perhaps we should send and receive fewer emails, yell into the cell less often, and instead give and receive the small but tangible joy a letter can afford. Perhaps—to consider something quite radical for most—we should even work on our penmanship as a way of working on our relationships. Perhaps.

Tales of Plagiarism

The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Recorded from the early 17th century, the word comes from Latin plagiarius ‘kidnapping’—Oxford online dictionary.

The eighth of God’s Ten Commandments is “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). The ninth is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Lives well lived under God avoid theft and lies. Virtuous people honor others’ right to their property and strive for veracity over mendacity in their words. Plagiarism violates both the eighth and ninth commandments, as well as being driven by what the tenth commandment forbids as well—covetousness. Incidentally, the penalty for kidnapping, which is the Latin root for plagiarism, under the Mosaic law was death (Exodus 21:16).

God alone knows all the word kidnappings that have occurred under the sun, but professors and writers have their tales of plagiarism. So, I will tell of a few—none of which are tall, all of which are true, and all of which are told in my words. 

My school and many others use a technology for detecting plagiarism in student papers called Turnitin. Their motto is  “Education with Integrity. Your culture of academic integrity begins with Turnitin.” I thought it began with honesty, but we’ll let that go for now. This digital conscience arose with the opportunities for plagiarism in the online word. Plagiarism required more work before the Internet—reading books and copying by hand what they said. Now it is so simple: cut, paste, arrange. Thus, the technologies fight each other, as they often do. 

I don’t bother with Turnitin. I tell my students at Denver Seminary that they are Christian adults who should not cheat. And if they do, God will get them. I have not used it at other schools, but I did detect a blatant example a few year ago while at Metro State University teaching Introduction to Ethics (how fitting).

The paper began with barely intelligible prose. That was enough for an F. He said that he was a moral relativist because he was a Christian. That, too, was enough to merit an F, but it got better/worse. The next two pages defended relativism in clear (if unconvincing) philosophical prose. I entered a few of these oddly placed sentences into Google and found the material at an atheistic web page. Plagiarism merits an F as well, so this paper was an F-cubed. In other words, its failure was overdetermined. It was a kind of perverse achievement in academic ineptitude. Poor soul.

As I was reading a paper written for me at Denver Seminary, I thought, “This is good. I really agree with this….Oh, this is me!” The benighted student has copied two pages from my vastly ignored book, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997) verbatim and without attribution. A tense discussion with the student followed. He uttered excuses, but no apologies.

Some books supposedly written by Christian celebrities are not written by them, but by unnamed authors. Ghost writing is common and not a few publishing houses are haunted. A man once confessed (although I don’t think he felt guilty) that he had written a book for a well-known Christian personality with no little social clout. I challenged his ethics. He was paid for his work, he said, and the practice was common. The same could be said for mercenaries and hit men.

I was once asked to write a book for a famous Christian “author.” Of course, this is, strictly speaking, impossible. You cannot author a book you do not write. The rationale was that the author was busy with other things and more people would read it with his or her name on the cover than with someone else’s name (the real author) on the cover. I was not enlisted to this cause, suffice to say, since I am not a utilitarian.

One could go on, but I give one more personal anecdote. I received an email from someone asking me to look over a manuscript which the author hoped I would co-write with him. Although the book was not under contract, the wily fellow had gotten (or pretended to get) several notable authors to endorse his writing. I wished the man well but declined since I was too busy with other projects to consider co-writing a book. He responded by assuring me that he did not expect me to write anything. I could simply add my name as an author! That would be good for me, for him, and the Kingdom of God, of course. I don’t know what happened to his manuscript.

I said that plagiarism breaks (at least) three of the Ten Commandments: not to steal, not to bear false witness, and not to covet. But can I plagiarize myself by reproducing my writing from one venue in another venue without saying so? I take it that I cannot steal from myself, since I have a right to dispose of my own property as I wish (within moral and legal limits). However, if I repeat writing done for one publication in another publication without mentioning this, I am, in a sense, lying, since the assumption by the reader is that this is new material. However, one might argue that if it was first published on your blog, it doesn’t count as being published or that you have reworked the material considerably, so the original source need not be mentioned. Well, maybe. While writing Walking through Twilight, my editor noted that some of what I wrote had appeared on my obscure blog years earlier. Apparently, they have Turnitin or something equivalent. Thus, a footnote was added. I get the point. (Now it would have been worse if I had cribbed something I wrote from a periodical that paid me for my work and which held the copyright.)

Other authors have been more egregious in self-plagiarizing. I know of an apologetics book that was lifted almost entirely from a book previously published by the author. (I don’t mean that the same ideas were rewritten. That is fine. I mean that they were copied word-for-word.) No mention was made of this. The implication is that someone—me in his case—could buy the derivative book without knowing of this duplication. If so, the buyer would be defrauded, since the presumption is that a book is made up of new material, unless otherwise stated.

Self-plagiarism, it seems, breaks the commands not to lie and not to covet. An author republishes himself without telling the reader because he wants more recognition, or more money, or both. By giving the wrong impression about the newness of the material, the author is lying. While breaking two of the Ten Commandments at once isn’t as bad as breaking three at once, it is still morally wrong in my book. And as James warns us, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). 

A question of identity remains, however. If I copy word-for-word from an unacknowledged source (my own or another’s), that is plagiarism. But what if I appeal more to the spirit of the original source, and not the word? If my source is not my own previous writing, it should be referenced (unless it is common knowledge). However, if I am reiterating my own ideas that have been previously published, I don’t take the standard to be quite as high. We all repeat ourselves, so we don’t have to say, “As I said before…” all the time.

God calls us all to be above reproach as truth tellers (Ephesians 4:15). That is the highest standard. May we not sink below it through plagiarism, no matter how popular or common it might be. 

Religious Liberty and the Disintegration of Social Discourse

The following was recorded as part of Millington Baptist Church’s live Underground Sessions event on October 5, 2019. The topic of the event was Religious Liberty and the Disintegration of Social Discourse.

Follow the link to listen to the podcast.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/religious-liberty-keynote-christians-religious-liberty/id1479292290?i=1000452690830

Woodstock Fifty Years On

Woodstock happened a half century ago this month. I mean the rock concert, which was actually not held in Woodstock, but no matter. “Three days of fun and music,” as the owner of the property famously put it. The music spilled over into day four, when Jimi Hendrix, the headliner, played to a small and burned out group of several thousand at 9:00 AM. “Woodstock” supposedly defined the counterculture and what being a hippie was all about. The New Yorker recently ran a review of a 38-CD set which chronicles nearly every minute on stage of that mythic event. (No, I won’t be buying it.) So, having been a hippie and having seen the movie—I was too young (12) and too far away (Alaska) to attend—I offer a few reflections.

In case you missed the basic facts: The festival drew tens of thousands more people than expected, gate crashers forced it to become a free concert, the resources on hand were quickly exhausted, and it rained and rained, reducing the venue to a huge mud field. This great mass of hirsute humanity experience the best rock and folk music of the day (no jazz, sadly) by Santana, The Who, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, partook copiously of illegal drugs, immoral sex, and generally tried to “blow their minds” in the process. Joni Mitchell wrote a haunting song about it called “Woodstock,” (which is by turns anthemic, optimistic, and nihilistic), although occluded roads forbid her come.

Woodstock was hailed by some as a new Eden, a utopia, a temporary hippie paradise of music, free love, and a vision of a possible future for America. Half a million youth shared their goods (and drugs and bodies), got along well in tough circumstances, and experienced a respite from the rest of “straight” and “square” society. “It really is a city,” said one agog man on microphone. Woodstock, by this view, was the antidote to the Viet Nam war and the “plastic” keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society.

The Jefferson Airplane’s song, “Volunteers of America” affirmed that we “got a revolution” because “one generation got old,” but “this generation got soul and had no hesitation at all.” How successful was this revolution, of which Woodstock was the epitome?

While Woodstock was relatively peaceful and idealistic, other gigantic music festivals were not. An eighteen-year-old man was murdered near the stage by a member of the Hell’s Angels during a Rolling Stone’s performance at the Altamont Festival in 1969. In an act of unbridled and unequaled stupidly, the Hell’s Angels (aptly named) had been hired to do security. This event was widely hailed as the end 1960’s idealism. Of course, profiteering and egotism was never lacking from the production, promotion, and performance of such events. Original sin was not erased, nor even diluted.

The public nudity and sexual expressions at Woodstock represent an attempt to return to the garden without the mediation of Christ. Nudism has historically been an attempt to regain innocence without redemption. We don clothes in public because of the shame of sin, as Genesis teaches (Genesis 3). The body is not shameful, but sexuality in a fallen world needs to be guarded.

Woodstock did not regenerate America. Nor was it a pilot plant for a better world. It did give us some memorable music and an emblem for the impossible: peace on earth without Jesus at the center. I wonder how many Christians came who were interested in evangelizing the hippies. The Jesus movement was underway by this time, so it may have happened. No Christian rock groups performed at Woodstock, since Christian rock was still in its infancy. Pioneers Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman had yet to establish careers.

Woodstock was instrumental in legitimizing non-Christian forms of spirituality. The concert began, not with a pastor’s invocation, but with Swami Satchidananda, surrounded by meditators in traditional Indian garb, giving the official opening remarks and leading half a million American youth in chanting “OM.” He would later be known as “the Woodstock Guru” and was a leading figure in bringing yoga and Hinduism to America. The film Woodstock depicts a yoga teacher giving techniques to induce an altered state of consciousness through extreme breathing. Still, in 1969, yoga was an exotic practice. Today, it is mainstream and a supports a gigantic industry (consider yoga pants and mats), with its essential roots in Hinduism often obscured by the hawking of its purposed physical benefits. This domestication of yoga has done as much to bring the East to the West as any other factor.

The brilliant leader of The Who, Pete Townsend, performed at Woodstock and was a follower of the guru Meher Baba, who is credited as “Avatar” on their signature rock-opera album, Tommy (1969). Athough he advocated no particular religion, Jimi Hendrix exuded the mystical sensibility of a Gnostic or animistic sort, fueled by hallucinogenic drugs. He performed “Voodoo Child” at Woodstock, which he deemed in other settings as “a new national anthem until we can get a better one.”

The New Age movement was budding at Woodstock and the concert did much to speed it along the way to the “Me Decade” (Thomas Wolfe) of the 1970s, to prominence in the 1980s, and to mainstream status in the last twenty-five years. America has never been the same. Pew Research tells us that 25% of Christians believe in reincarnation. Oprah Winfrey is considered a spiritual guru to her millions of fans. Many Christians practice yoga without a second thought—or even first thought—concerning its origins or spiritual dangers.

The term psychedelic was coined to give a favorable interpretation of drugs that were technically called hallucinogens. The latter term means a chemical substance that when ingested produces hallucinations—that is, something that artificially produces delusions. But the term psychedelic connotes a substance that when ingested enlivens or augments the psyche. The Jefferson Airplane reveled in this notion in “White Rabbit,” which was performed at Woodstock, hauntingly sung by Grace Slick. The last lines of the terrible poetry are:

When logic and proportion

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the White Night is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s off with her head

Remember what the Dormouse said

Feed your head

Feed your head

Francis Schaeffer observed that the ideology of drug taking in the counterculture required an “escape from reason”—as in the death of “logic and proportion” in “White Rabbit”—in order to find some ultimate meaning apart from either Christianity or in any rational philosophy. As Schaeffer wrote in How Should We Then Live?

Timothy Leary, for example, said that drugs were the sacraments for the new religion. Of course. . . this drug taking was really only one more leap, an attempt to find meaning in the area of non-reason. Charles Slack, writing of his long relationship with Leary, reported in Timothy Leary, The Madness of the Sixties and Me (1974) that Leary had said to him, “Death to the mind, that is the goal you must have. Nothing else will do.”[1]

This optimistic take on hallucinogenic drugs mostly died out by the mid-1970s and was replaced by recreational use and a return to pure hedonism. But it’s hard to keep a strong drug down. Hallucinogenic drugs are making a comeback.

In How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, best-selling author, Michael Pollan advocates for “blowing your mind” once again.  The psychedelic-drugs-open-up-mystical-realities people never really went away (a lot of them went into computers), but the claim has come back with more establishment backing of late.[2] Some boosters of these drugs call them “entheogens,” taken from the Greek for “the divine within.” It’s Woodstock 2.0, this time with much of “the establishment” behind it. And, of course, pot is legal all over this land, and stoner speak befouls the air.

Christianity offers a worldview and way of life more true, rich, and bracing than anything the neo-romanticism of Woodstock has to offer.  Christians admit that we are a long way from the garden, but that we cannot find our way back unaided. Jesus Christ is the way back and the way forward, since he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). The church, not any festival, is the pilot plant for a new order of being in the world in which true worship is returned to the Creator based on the mediatorial work of his Son and applied to our condition to us through the Holy Spirit. Here is the deepest loving fellowship. The taste of heaven on earth is experienced as we devote ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

 

[1] Schaeffer, Francis A.. How Should We Then Live? (L’Abri 50th Anniversary Edition) (Kindle Locations 2543-2546). Crossway. Kindle Edition. The best book-length treatment of the counterculture is Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).

[2] Michael Pollan Drops Acid—and Comes Back From His Trip Convinced See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/04/books/review/michael-pollan-how-to-change-your-mind.html. On the idea that certain drugs lead to enlightenment, see Os Guinness, “The Counterfeit Infinity” in The Dust of Death.

Another Campaign Season

As we enter another season of political machinations, shouting matches, and incendiary idiocy, consider some meaningless phases that are and will be thrown in our faces.

  1. “I’ll fight for you.” How? Who is the “you’?
    2. “The rich must pay their fair share.” What is that? Who is rich? Why?
    3. “The American people want…” How do you know? Which ones? Should they want it?
    4. “When elected, I will do X.” Maybe you won’t be elected. You may want to do X, but will you? Can you do X? Can anybody do X, like end poverty in America.

You fill in the rest. Hold your nose as you engage your mind.

And, as always, read George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” and On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. And never forget that Jesus was the ultimate and implacable enemy of all cant, evasion, and prevarication. He was, after all, Truth Incarnate.

 

The Good News is that Most of the Bad News is Wrong: A Review of The Myth of the Dying Church By Glen Stanton

Church leaders can become discouraged, or even desperate, when they hear repeatedly that “the church is in decline” or “we are losing the youth,” or even “we are one generation from the death of Christianity.” The sources of these Chicken Little reports may be anecdotal, informal, or from respected sources. Consequently, Christian workers may be dispirited, since they are trying to buck deep trends in reaching the lost and keeping the found. The declinist narrative seems to fit the coarsening of American popular culture, the debauchery of legal decisions on abortion and same sex marriage, and our general sense of malaise and fatigue.

Although I am something of a professional curmudgeon, I must say that the good news is that most of this bad news is wrong.  The United States is certainly not experiencing a religious revival. Nor can we be happy with larger cultural trends, which come under God’s judgment. As the prophet Isaiah warned:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20).

Still, according to several significant indicators, Evangelical Christianity is not losing ground in America. Reports of its decay, or even demise, are greatly exaggerated. We should thank Glenn T. Stanton for making this case in his new book, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World. Stanton, author of eight previous books and director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, makes a convincing case that the stats demonstrate growth; he is even optimism about the state of the church in America and the world. I will review some of his findings and add insights of my own.

To start, it has been known for at least twenty years that the  “secularization thesis” is false. This sociological theory, which was propounded in the 1960s, claimed that as societies became more modern—that is, more industrialized and pluralistic—they became more secular as well. Church attendance would decline. Christian beliefs would dry up and blow away in the winds of modernity. Liberal theologian Harvey Cox even wrote a book called The Secular City (1965) which celebrated a secular version of Christianity, which was no Christianity at all. More radically a “God is dead” theology (or a-theology) sprung up to accommodate this inexorable trend toward unbelief and atheism. The cover of Time Magazine sported the words, “Is God Dead?” on April 8, 1966.[1]  Beatle and wannabe philosopher, John Lennon famously said in 1966 that “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. . . . We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.”  The December 26, 1969 cover of Time said, “Is God Coming Back to Life?”

Sociologists such as Peter Berger, who had championed the secularization theory, later admitted it was wrong. He notes that some societies became more secular as they modernized, as in Western Europe, but many, such as America, did not. Berger, a confessed Lutheran, was happy to report the failure of his theory. This is old news, but new news to many who will read Stanton’s book.[2]

More recently, headlines tell us of “the rise of the nones” and that churches are in decline, partially because of this. What of the nones? This category describes those who claim no religious affiliation. They may or may not be atheists. On surveys, when asked for their religion, they will check “none.” They are sometimes called “nons” since they are non-affiliated. Their numbers are up, but what does it mean? Stanton, citing Ed Stetzer primarily, tells us that the nones are just being more honest about not being involved with the church. Stetzer calls this a “clarification” more than a decrease in church participation. That is, if she has almost no association with, say, the Baptist church of her youth, instead of identifying as “Baptist,” she says she has no religious affiliation.

More good news is that we are not losing young adults to the secular world in droves. Yes, some teenagers who go off to college stop attending church during that time. This may be part of exercising their independence and trying to get their sea legs as an adult. That doesn’t excuse their behavior, but many will return to the church, especially after they marry and have children. Further, fewer are failing to be involved with the church than is often reported. Stanton cites sociologist Christian Smith, the preeminent expert on the faith of teens and young adults, to make his case.

In more old news that is new news to many, Stanton reports that Christianity is not declining but exploding in what is called “the global south,” particularly in Africa. Here he draws mostly on the work of prolific  historian Philip Jenkins, whose 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity alerted many to this heartening trend. But both Islam and Christianity are growing in African. Both oppose secularism, but neither can be reconciled to the other. These two most influential missionary religions will vie for the future of Africa in our century.[3] As I write, thousands of Christians in Nigeria are being martyred by Muslims. Muslims and Christians compete with each other using very difficult rules and strategies.

One other misleading factor should be noted. Some research claiming the decline of Christianity lumps all churches together in the data. But when liberal and conservative churches are sorted, it is clear that liberal churches (those that compromise biblical truth to be relevant) are in decline while evangelical churches overall are not. This, too, is old news, going back to Dean Kelly’s book 1972, Why Conservative Churches are Growing. But, the trend Kelly noted continues. Stanton speaks of the steep and rapid decline of an evangelical church that shifted its doctrine to accommodate LGBTQ morality.

I commend Stanton for bringing this research to a wider audience. His chapter on how to read social science research regarding religion is quite helpful, since so many are bamboozled by misleading research. Stanton writes: “I am a huge fan and advocate of teaching young people and adults apologetics and worldview. . . . But some of those offering help with apologetics—the very pursuit and explanation of truth—are ironically some of the biggest offenders when it come to the false Chicken Little narratives” (p. 165). As an apologist, I was challenged when I read this. After reading this book, I conclude that I have sometimes erred in this way, but I am happy to accept the good news that I was sometimes too pessimistic.

Stanton’s chapter, “The Holy Spirit is not Asleep At The Wheel,” offers an encouraging theology of the Holy Spirit’s power to advance the gospel no matter what the obstacles or the odds against it. Stanton reminds us that, as Jesus said, “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18). Who knows what Christians might do and how the church would grow if Christ’s followers fully submitted themselves to be filled with the Spirit of Truth? However, the book suffers from a few weaknesses, which, if addressed rightly, can help the church grow even stronger.

First, the author tends to put the cookies on a low shelf intellectually. The main points are repeated too often, and the sense is that the reader has to be cajoled into thinking hard about the matters at hand. I am all for popularizing important information, but some readers may feel a little insulted and wish that the author got to the point more quickly.

Second, despite the good news that much of the bad news is wrong, there is much bad news about the influence of Christianity in American culture that the author doesn’t take up in any detail. Church participation is one thing, but orthodox beliefs and intelligent social engagement are another. Stanton does note that “a very slight majority of evangelicals today say they believe many religions can lead to eternal life” (p. 47. Oddly, he does not give the exact percentage, but does rightly say that “is very troubling…” (p. 47). Indeed it is, since Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God and because the Gospel must be preached to the nations (Matthew 11:27, 28:18-20; John 14:6; Acts 1:8, 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5).

Many evangelical churches are weak in doctrinal preaching and apologetics. Even if many high school students come back to the church after college, it is a tragedy that many of them abandon the church during the time when they are most in need of the intellectual resources that only a robust Christian worldview can give them.

Third, Stanton does not address the rise of the “new atheism” of the past fifteen years or so. Led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett (the group’s only real philosopher) and the late Christopher Hitchens, the new atheists have galvanized many unbelievers in the West to be more militant in their unbelief and to attack Christianity (and all religion) as not only false, but dangerous to society. For example, biologist and atheist scion, Dawkins likened parents teaching their children religion to child abuse. The rhetoric is often vitriolic. Some bookstores now have a separate section for “Atheism,” which usually come after the Philosophy section.

The wind may be out of the sails of the New Atheism, but it has motivated atheists to attack religion more aggressively. I am not sure that this movement increased the percentage of atheists or merely recruited more them for combat. Perhaps it is both. But, given the publication books such as Religion for Atheists by Alain De Botton and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris and in light of the rise of atheist clubs on college campuses, Christians should take this seriously as a challenge to a rational Christian faith. I recently talked to a young man for two hours who had lost his faith to the arguments of the new atheists. I endeavored earnestly to show him that none of these arguments held water. The arguments of the new atheists are neither new nor strong, but they are influential.[4]

Of course, Stanton’s book is not a work of apologetics, so we should not expect him to respond to specific attacks on Christianity. Still, it seems that he has discounted some rather significant recent anti-Christian trends that affect people’s willingness to come to Christ.

Despite its weaknesses, The Myth of the Dying Church is a tonic to the popular defeatism and pessimism that dogs too much of evangelicalism in the United States. Of course, even if everything is getting worse, we soldier on in the glad service of the gospel, come what may because “The gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18).

[1] See L. Lilly Rothman, “Is God Dead?” At 50” Time, 2016. https://time.com/isgoddead.

[2] For a careful look at secularization theory, see Harold Netland, “Secularization, Globalization, and Religion,” Christianity and Religious Diversity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015).

[3] Buddhism is the third most significant missionary religion. See Netland, “Buddhism in the Modern World” in Christianity and Religious Diversity.

[4] See Douglas Groothuis, “Understanding the New Atheism, Part I: The Straw God” at bethinking https://www.bethinking.org/atheism/understanding-the-new-atheism and Douglas Groothuis “Understanding the New Atheism, Part II : Attacking the New Testament” at bethinking: https://www.bethinking.org/atheism/understanding-the-new-atheism/2-part-2-attacks-on-the-new-testament. For an in-depth defense of the existence of God, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).