On the Word “Porn”

Ross Douthat wrote it in his book, Bad Religion. On Sunday, February 15, 2015, a New York Times writer, Bob Morris, wrote it in a column on cute animal videos. The word is “porn,” which was once short for pornography. Another word for it was “smut.”

Douthat wrote of “travel porn.” I nearly fell over when I read that. What could it mean–smut across the world? No. It meant travel literature that gives one pleasure. Brown writes of “cute animal porn,” and he is not referring to bestiality. He means animal videos that one enjoys.

Why this use of porn? Pornography is the written or visual expression of illicit eroticism. It is indecent and can be addictive. It is bad pleasure: hollow, cheap, degrading, and dirty. But now pornography is considered just another form of pleasure. The sting is gone. If this is the new meaning, then “porn” can be attached to anything that is pleasurable. Who wants more “golf porn”?

Language reflects the mindset of a culture. A culture awash in hedonism wants its porn everywhere, since its desires have been uprooted from moral reality. Nothing we enjoy should be porn. Desires were meant to aim at the good, the true, and the beautiful. The desired should be the desirable. When porn is the norm the self is shorn of life.

Christianity and Autonomous Reason: Drawing an Important Distinction

The secular philosophy textbook I use for Introduction to Philosophy classes proclaims that philosophy exercises one’s rational autonomy. Nascent philosophers are told to think critically by thinking for themselves. Some think that this embrace of philosophical autonomy conflicts with Christianity. Christians believe that we are created by and fully dependent upon God, redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus, and we now belong to him. We are not our own; we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). Is Christian faith not then the very antithesis of autonomous reason? If philosophy is, in essence, an exercise in autonomous reason, but the Christian worldview proclaims that we are not autonomous, then how could Christians, in good conscience, be philosophers?

When reading Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics literature, it is common to see warnings against or critiques of autonomous reason. Some of the most well-known minds in recent years caution against such independent cognition. For example, in his relatively new and brilliant The Doctrine of God, John Frame argues:

And in fact nothing at all can be validated from autonomous reason…such reasoning leads to a rationalist-irrationalist dialectic, which destroys all knowledge. For that pottage, much of the church has forsaken its birthright, God’s personal word (20).*** 

Although he draws a radically different conclusion than Frame, James K.A. Smith also warns against the idolatry of autonomous reason (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 65).

In these sorts of warnings, autonomous reason is usually understood to mean that the reasoner is operating without depending on or acknowledging God. Rationally autonomous individuals believe that human reason is capable of functioning just fine without appealing to God or to his Word. According to many Christians, this sort of thinker places human reason above, or metaphysically prior, to God. In other words, the rationally autonomous individual assumes that he or she is more important, or central, than God. We are alleged to make this mistake each time we place confidence in our ability to reason to the conclusion of or truths about God.

To help clarify this concept of metaphysical priority, we can think of the relationship between a ship and a ship-builder. If a ship is to have any success at sea, the ship-builder needs to have carefully built it to be buoyant and watertight. Furthermore, the ship owes not just its seafaring success, but its very existence to the ship-builder. Therefore, the ship-builder is metaphysically prior to the ship. The ship-builder must exist before the ship can exist. Since God is our creator, he is metaphysically prior and more centrally important than we are. When God is ignored, human reason is revered as the ultimate authority. In opposition to this brazen, secular approach, the comparatively pious alternative is thought to be a reason that consciously recognizes and explicitly submits to divine revelation.

But something is quite wrong when we claim that human reason necessarily equals the impious autonomous reason. Are we really being impious or idolatrous any time we reason without directly thinking about God? What about when we do math equations or think through possible outcomes of a new business strategy? Critical thinking is rational and autonomous, but it seems strange to equate this exercise with impiety. Surely these intellectual activities cannot all amount to idolatry!

Epistemology (how we know what we know) and metaphysics (the nature of reality itself) are simply being confused. Our cognitive activity can function to a certain extent quite apart from our recognition of our origins. To use the previous ship example, the captain of the ship does not have to know or even think about the ship’s builder to sail the ship. However, if the captain is a close and personal friend of the ship’s builder, then the captain might acknowledge and fondly recall the builder while sailing. But the captain’s thoughts about the builder does not necessarily affect the practical task of sailing. They are both sailing “autonomously” in the sense that it is they who are doing the sailing.

An important distinction needs to be made here. A thinker can be autonomous in two important senses. The first sense is metaphysical. An individual who was created by God can nevertheless deny this truth and live as though his or her reason reigns supreme in the universe. So, this person holds that he or she has ultimate autonomy. If we were not actually created by God, then this holds true. The second sense is epistemological; it relates to how humans come to know. It is a claim to functional, or local autonomy. To understand the difference, consider two individuals, both created by God: Person A, who acknowledges this truth, and Person B, who denies this truth. Person A and Person B can each draw the same conclusion about a given math problem, using the same reasoning processes independently. Person A did not have to invoke or even think about God to do so, and person B did not go off the cognitive rails due to failure to acknowledge his metaphysical dependency on God. It seems that both Persons A and B engaged in what could be termed functionally autonomous reasoning. I call this epistemic autonomy. In other words, both individuals simply thought for themselves, without the aid of any other human or without appealing to God. At no point did either person need to contemplate her own origin, or determine to whom she owes her ability to solve math problems. The autonomy in this case is not necessarily autonomy from God, but is certainly autonomy from other people. It is simply independent thinking. An exercise in epistemic autonomy does not equal or entail an exercise in or belief about metaphysical autonomy.

So, complaints about “rational autonomy” or “autonomous reason” tend to conflate two vitally distinct issues, metaphysical and epistemic autonomy. Metaphysical autonomy is simply untrue, given the case for God’s existence. We do owe our existence and ability to function to our Creator. Not even the most Enlightenment-friendly theist would adhere to metaphysical autonomy, because it makes no sense to say both “God reigns supreme” and “My reason reigns supreme” in the same sense of supremacy. The theist by definition believes in the former, so the latter cannot be true. Metaphysical autonomy is simply a non-issue among Christians. There is no debate here.

Now we turn to epistemic autonomy. Rather than stating that “My reason reigns supreme,” the Christian engaging in epistemic autonomy could say instead, “I am exercising my God-given critical faculties in order to gain knowledge.” Autonomous reason in this sense addresses reasoning processes (epistemology), not the origin of that reason (metaphysics). In order to think well to the glory of God, the Christian philosopher should have no problem with functionally autonomous reasoning, or epistemic autonomy. After all, this is how we test Christianity’s truthfulness, as well as any other worldview or proposition. Given my distinction, then, one can be convinced of his metaphysical dependence on God, while harmoniously engaged in the task of epistemic autonomy. The metaphysical claims of Christianity are thus perfectly compatible with the rational nature of philosophy.

Furthermore, there should be no discomfort present when a Christian professor encourages her students to pursue epistemic autonomy in their studies. All this means is that the students are to be encouraged to think well, critically, and to attain their own justification for their beliefs. There are simply some things, like logic or our own mental states, we can come to know “on our own” in the local rather than the ultimate sense. If rational autonomy necessarily entails the denial that God gave us our rational abilities, then Christians sin each time we balance our checkbooks, teach a child the difference between a square and a triangle, or report to a family member about how we feel at the moment. But this is thankfully untrue. All humans are rational beings, made in the image of a rational God (Isaiah 1:18). Let us use that rationality to buttress our faith with justification for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). Praise be to God for the ability to think for ourselves.

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***I highly recommend John Frame’s thinking and work in general, even though I do not agree with him on everything.

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Principles for Engaging People on the Truth of Christianity

Apologetics is a large topic. I know. I wrote a 752 page book on it called Christian Apologetics. However, several foundational principles can equip you to interact wisely on the matter whether Christianity is true, rational, and pertinent to live. Here are a few.

1. Listen to what they think about Christianity and to what their own worldview is and why.
2. Be patient. Try not to rush in with the Gospel at a the wrong time.
3. Explain those aspects of Christianity that are pertinent in that discussion.
4. Live a life that causes people to ask you what you believe and why.
5. Know the content of the Bible.
6. Study the religions and worldviews that are most available in your situtation, so that you are ready to discuss them.
7. Whether or not you are a philosopher or professional apologist, read apologetics books regularly. All Christians are to be defenders of the faith (1 Peter 3:1`5-16).
8. Evaluate your own Christian worldview to find where it is strong and weak. Work on making the weak places stronger.
9. Pray at all times (Eph. 6:19).
10. Work with others who are apologetically engaged. Contend together for the truth.
11. Give people some appropriate literature to read, but do not throw books at people. That is a waste of money and is overly aggressive.
12. Perhaps suggest that your interlocuter read some portion of the Bible that fits with the conversation.

Why We Should Avoid Celebrity Gossip

For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 2 Corinthians 12:20

 

While some godly people are very well known, and might be considered celebrities, most very well known people of today–I do not mean giants of history such as Winston Churchhill–possess almost nothing worth us knowing about. As Daniel Borstin said, “They are well-known for being well-known.” Their biographies–or factoids–are vanity of vanities. Their makeovers, their cars, their idiosyncrasies are not worth knowing about.

Yes, they are made in God’s image and need Jesus Christ’s righteousness for eternal life. In that sense, they are valuable. But how much weight they have gained, whether or not they are pregnant, who they are sleeping with, is mere gossip. And gossip, the Bible tells us, is sin. Sin should be repented of, in order to please God and free us up to do God’s will in his power.

Moreover, celebrity watching wastes time. Listen to Moses, from Psalm 90:

10 The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span [a] is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

11 Who knows the power of your anger?
For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.

12 Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

13 Relent, O LORD! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.

14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.

16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.

Life is short, a vapor. Eternity is long, an infinity. Life should be lived under the audit of Eternity, not in terms of celebrity gossip or any worldly thing (1 John 2:15-17). As Pascal said, our passionate interest in the trivial and our lack of concern for the eternal, evidences a very strange disorder. Let us repent and live for what matters most.

Fifty Shades of Sin

Time Magazine, in the February 16 edition, tries to understand the film, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It releases on day before Valentine’s Day, ironically enough. This film, spawned from the best-selling books (100,000,000 sold so far), speaks to the state of the American soul and body.

I know little of this, and by choice. I opened to a page of one of the books at the check out of a grocery chain and read a page of perversity. That was enough, too much. The Cinderella of this story gives herself to a sadist for her keep. She is a kept and abused woman who consents to it all: bondage, domination, injuries–taken and received. Human beings were not meant to do such things to each other.

Time, of course, cannot bring itself to condemn the film. It has neither the moral authority or discernment to do that. Christians can and should evaluate it, since we have been given a revelation of what is good and evil.

As R.J. Rushdoony said years ago, when a culture rebels against God and his creation mandate (Genesis 1:26; Psalm 8), it immerses itself in sexuality. Sex is severed from family and culture-creation for the glory of God. Sexuality is exalted above all other concerns and personal qualities. As such, virtue is lost and vice is embraced. Every quirky and kinky orientation and activity (see Leviticus 18) is justified because of the thrill it gives empty selves in an otherwise meaningless world. Nerve endings speak louder than conscience.

Illicit ecstasies (if that is even achieved through evil actions) have their cost–human flourishing under God. The Apostle Paul explains it all in Romans, chapter one, verses 18 and following. By denying the Creator, the creature is left only with itself, untethered from ultimate authority and meaning. Idols beckon and bludgeons their worshipers, who consent to its perversions.

Here we are: “Fifty Shades of Grey.” This is no grey area where we pick our pleasures. No, it is perverse, unhealthy, and sinful. It offends the God who created us as sexual beings; it debauches us as sexual beings; it enriches the sad and sickening souls who peddle this pornography.

If you have read any of the books, there is hope. God calls everyone, everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Jesus cried, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:11). The love and justice of God, shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (the sinless One), can overcome all evil. Come to Christ, for forgiveness, for a new life lived according to the Master’s Book. Come and learn to enjoy virtue, self-discipline and the true meaning of love.

Notes on Writing Cards

1. Use your own handwriting. Chose a tasteful pen. Write slowly.

2. Write for consolation, encouragement, or to share you life with a close friend. Or write strangers whose work you appreciate. I often write musicians, authors, business owners, and others. They almost never write back. The exception is Peter Brötzmann.

3. Ponder and pray before you write. Why be in a hurry? This is not the Internet.

4. Perhaps adorn the card with stickers or your own drawings. There was a “letter art” movement decades ago. We should restart it.

5. Although I always want my cards to be reciprocated in some way, I almost always write more than I am written to–at least since my mother died. If someone never writes back after two or three cards, I usually give up.

6. Be creative in conveying truth and love in this way. It can mean much to many. I know.

God and Writing

Writing for Publication is a course at Denver Seminary that I have been teaching and loving since 2000. We always use Elements of Style, “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, as well as other writing on writing well. Theology is also our concern, as it should be in all areas of life (Matthew 22:37-40). Thus, we reflect on the purpose and meaning of writing. It begins with The Word.

The divine Word of John 1:1 is the foundation for all rational ordering and communication. Men and women were created to listen, learn, speak, and create culture. God spoke to them, they spoke back, and eventually they began to inscrible their ideas. God wrote the Decalogue himself. The prophets spoke truth for life, and it was later written down, since it was the revelation of the Logos. The Bible is God’s writing for us as recorded by numerous writers at different places and at different times. “Living and active” is how The Book of Hebrews describes itself and the entire canon of Scripture (Hebrews 4:12)

Authors should take care, as did the biblical writers. Luke tells us in his prologue that he carefully investigated all the pertient writings about Jesus and set forth his account so that the reading might have certainty about the events described (Luke 1:1-4). The Book of Ecclesiastes commends the writing of Soloman by noting his care in composing the wisdom of that book (Ecclesiastes 12:9-12). I could go on.

Follower of the Logos made man (John 1:14, 18), must be people of truth in a world of lies. Character matters here and everywhere. Knowledge and clarity should be our aim in all writing, whether about the Bible or jazz or painting or literature. We all write before the face of God. This true and living God calls for our best at all times in his strength, so that he be honored and his glory become global. This can not be done on the cheap. One cannot fake it and keep one’s integrity.

With the Logos above us, before us, behind us, beneath us, and for us, let us think and write as if our words are inscribed in the mind of God. They are.

Books on the Philosophy of Technology

Techology bewitches, seduces, entrances, and benefits us. Since it lies in the background of our thinking and acting, it remains invisible–despite its daunting powers. A wise person will interpret oneself and one’s context in order to live according to the Goos, The True, and the Beautiful. To that end, consider these works on the culture-shaping and mind-shaping powers of technology. These books, unlike so many others, are not about efficiently using technology, but about not letting technology use us.

Classic Works

1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. 1985. The best critique of television ever written.

2. Neil Postman, Technopology. 1990. His theoretical work on how technology shapes and often debases cultures.

3. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. An early and astute evaluation of the hidden influence of technology, given the value of technique.

4. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word. 1985. A brilliant work explaining the decline of writing in light of the ascent of the image.

Recent Works

1. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows. 2009. Explains how the Internet is adversing effecting our thinking. Special emphasis on neuroscience.

2. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace. 1997. An early work critiquing the Internet. Perhaps a bit of a period peace, but it does explain fundamental categories of technological interpretation.

3. Quentin Schult, Habits of the High Tech Heart. 2002. A thorough and thoughtful assessment.