What is Cyberspace?

I wrote this essay for a dictionary a few years ago. Despite all the changes in the Internet world, I think it is still pertinent. We need to understand our technological times and do what pleases God and blesses his creation.

The term cyberspace typically refers to the whole gamut of computer-mediated modes of communication that are permeating and transforming society in numerous ways. The prefix “cyber” comes from the discipline of cybernetics, the study of self-regulating systems (usually computer systems). Cyberspace is the space or place where humans and computers interact and connect in manifold ways. This neologism was coined by novelist William Gibson after reflecting on a teenager’s immersion in a video game. The boy was situated both in literal space (before a screen) and in the virtual space of the computer game. In this sense, one “enters” cyberspace mentally and imaginatively. To use concepts from philosopher Michael Polanyi, one’s “focal awareness” is in cyberspace (whether it is a video game, chat room, web page, or full-fledged virtual reality) while one’s “subsidiary awareness” is on the keyboard, the controls, or the computer screen. This parallels a surgeon’s use of a probe to explore portions of the human body not otherwise accessible and visible. Her “focal awareness” is on the region made visible by the probe; her “subsidiary awareness” is on the moving of the probe itself.

The pertinence of cyberspace to apologetics is at least threefold. First, some cyberspace enthusiasts hail cyberspace as a realm of exhilarating freedom where one can leave the body and attain transcendence through technological means. Some extol virtual reality technologies as opening up an alternative world free of conventional morality and the frustrating limits of physical objects (or “meat space”). Although these technologies are still in their early stages, they allow (or will allow) percipients to immerse themselves in a simulated and convincing cyberspace environment to one degree or another. This is accomplished by means of a bodysuit equipped with sensory modalities such as sight, sound, and touch. One may “interact” with some wholly computer-generated settings or entities or with other body-suited participants (or some combination thereof). Even beyond this scenario, some have claimed that human consciousness itself can be duplicated through software and loaded directly into cyberspace. This was explored in the horror, science-fiction film, “Lawnmower Man.” This utopian vision represents a kind of techno-gnosticism: one escapes the perils of the living organism (flesh) by immersion into the mechanism of cyberspace (silicon). The “soul” is freed by being digitized and injected into cyberspace. (Naturally, a crash or corruption of the hardware would ensure one’s digital oblivion.)

According to a Christian worldview, these far-flung claims—in addition to their technological implausibility—present a counterfeit soteriology and are riddled with philosophical conundrums. Whatever benefits cyberspace may offer for the rapid transference of information or for some simulations, it remains a human artifact, not a source of salvation. Redemption is only available from outside the cursed and fallen environs of a world east of Eden and still awaiting its final liberation (Romans 8:18-25).

On this front, the Christian apologist should marshal two related arguments. First, the physical world, while fallen, should not be fled as inherently evil. The Scriptures affirm the created goodness of the universe (Genesis 1; 1 Timothy 4:1-4), and the Incarnation (John 1:1-3; 14) ratifies that goodness in the person of Jesus, who is truly human as well as truly divine. The attempt to escape the body into an amoral realm of unlimited potential is both to betray our created purpose as God’s image bearers (Genesis 1:26-28) and to replay the ancient error of seeking self deification when we are but finite and fallen mortals (Genesis 3:5; Ezekiel 28:1-10). The second apologetic argument is that, while we are physical creatures who may await a glorious resurrection of the body if we follow the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15), we are not merely physical beings. Jesus and the apostles taught that there is an immaterial element to the human person that interacts with, but is not reducible to, physical states. In addition to the unified biblical witness, contemporary philosophers such as J.P. Moreland and Richard Swinburne have convincingly made this case. If the mind or soul is a substance distinct from the body, the notion of transferring human consciousness (understood as reducible to brain function) into physical software is inherently impossible. For the same reason, the claim that sophisticated computers will eventually attain consciousness is wrongheaded. (One philosopher has predicted that computers will so transcend human abilities that they will retain us only as pets.) Matter cannot generate consciousness. Although artificial intelligence (AI) is capable of tremendous computational power, it is not sentient.

Second, the Internet as a source of information on diverse religions, worldviews, and cults affords the apologist with both opportunities and dangers. Quality control on the Internet is minimal; anyone with a web page can post anything. In his research, the apologist must develop a good sense for what is trustworthy information (such as official web pages for new religious groups) and what is not (hoaxes and amateur apologetics sites). Moreover, one should not substitute on-line research at the expense of pertinent printed materials, such as standard reference works, which have had more editorial filtering and are more legitimate.

 

Third, as Quentin Schultze has argued convincingly, the conditions of cyberspace, if engaged in uncritically, tend to undermine a life of virtue. With its emphasis on information over wisdom, efficiency over moral character, spin over authenticity, the present over received tradition, and virtual realities over the physical realities that provide the ambiance for communion and community, cyberspace poses a threat to the kind of Christian character that is essential to authentic apologetic endeavors. Since winsome apologetics demands both solid arguments and a humble and wise demeanor, apologists should be on guard that their cyberspace activities do not short-circuit the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Galatians 6:16-26). For example, although email makes it easy to engage in heated, rapid, and thoughtless disputes (sometimes called “flame wars”), the representative of Christ should flee such temptations to impatience and anger in order to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15; see also 2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Furthermore, many high-powered and popular video games trade on heinous violence (such as shooting innocent elderly people) and graphic sexual scenes. Some “first-person shooter” games employ the same technologies used in computer simulations by the US military to break down a soldier’s reluctance to kill on the battlefield. Evidence indicates that some teenage murderers, influenced by these games, adopted this mentality in their homicides. Since Jesus warned that sins of anger, lust, and violence begin in the mind (Matthew 5:21-30), such video game simulations should be rejected as irreconcilable with the life that God blesses. Apologists should recommend wholesome and wise recreations in their place.

 

References:

  1. Groothuis, Douglas. The Soul in Cyberspace. 1997; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock reprint, 2001.
  2. Grossman, Dave, Gloria DeGaetano. Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movies, and Video Game Violence. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999.
  3. Heim, Michael. Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
  4. Houston, Graham. Virtual Morality. Leicester, UK: Apollos/InterVarsity, 1998.
  5. Schultze, Quentin. Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

On Audio Books and Paper Books

Let all things be done unto edifying. –1 Corinthians 14:26, KJV

Each medium shapes the content it conveys. Or, more memorably, if overstated, “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan). How, then, do paper books differ from and audio books? One can read a book G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics. The same content can be heard on an audio book, such as through Audible.com. However, the medium matters for understanding.

The book is in one place at one time. It is a token of a type. My copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There is one of many individual books, all of which bear the same content and title.  It is not wafting in “the cloud” and cannot be downloaded to a portable device. It is portable, though; but the larger it is, the less portable it becomes. Try putting my book, Christian Apologetics (752 pages) into your suitcase. You won’t have room for much else. However, the tome can be used as a doorstop, for weight training, and for self-defense.

Books age. The pages yellow, tear, and fall out. Books can be annotated. Their pages accommodate and welcome your comments, cross references, highlights, underlining, and coffee spills. Books may be autographed by their authors. As such, books can be markers of memories. When I was a freshman in college, I wrote marginalia in my copy of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in the middle of the night after awakening from a strange dream. Next to a passage on the despair that resists God, I wrote, “This is happening to me tonight.” You see, the book was reading me. The Holy Spirit of truth was illuminating the words and apply them to the depths of my soul.

The copy of Pascal’s Pensées that I used for my doctoral dissertation was worn beyond what its spine could endure. Pages tumbled out and had to be stuffed back in, often not in the right place. It did not age well. But I could not dispose of the book. A student offered to give the book a new spine. A spiral binding (a kind of exoskeleton) now secures the pages for posterity and my further research.

Books can be objects of anger. In a fit of rage, you can throw a book across the room, as I have done—even in the classroom. (I have never thrown a book atanyone.) One projectile of shame has been Blue Like Jazz, which holds the record for most public abuse. Another is No Argument for God. I have left this practice behind, but there are surviving witnesses to my excitations. You can throw audio recorders, Kindle readers, and laptops across rooms, too. Of course, doing that is a tad more expensive.

Books are placed somewhere, since they are discreet objects in the external world. They are part of a physical environment and contribute to an ambiance. They also have a distinctive smell, which is immediately obvious when you enter a used book store (or my basement). Whether they are out of order or in order, they enter the visual, tactile, and olfactory senses. My dog, Sunny, sometimes rests his head on a pile of my books in my study. If he wants to be with me, he often has no choice.

Audio books are not books, but recordings of books. They were first recorded on vinyl records, then on cassettes, CDs, and now mostly on line. I have a magnificent set of speeches by Winston Churchill, which were recorded on several records, dating back many decades. This sounds better: Amazon also houses some of his speeches in the cloud. The Bible was recorded on vinyl to give the visually-impaired audio access to Holy Writ. It was later put on cassette, CD, and was later streamed on the Internet. I spent countless hours listening to Alexander Scourby (1913-1985) read the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. “Scourby has the greatest voice ever recorded,” said The Chicago Tribune. While listening in my car about twenty years ago, I heard his reading of Jesus’ fiery condemnation of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, taken from Matthew 23. It gave me chills because Scourby captured Jesus’ disgust with pompously false religion so tellingly. His incomparable recitations are still available.

Literary critic, Sven Birkerts critiqued the audio book twenty years ago in The Guttenberg Elegies, finding the very nature of the medium problematic. When he wrote, audio books were limited to cassettes, which are bulkier and less easily listened to than audio books on line. But his comments are still apt; so, I will reflect on them.

Listening is different from reading, even if the intellectual content is identical. When you read, you may supply a voice to the text, especially if you have heard the author speak. I find this true when I read anything by Os Guinness, whose speaking and writing are distinctive, profound, and well-entrenched in my consciousness. But if you are reading Plato, there is no determinative voice to hear in the written words, although you could supply one—perhaps Charlton Heston. Or, y0u may simply read along with no voice in mind.

However, when listening to an audio book, a voice—the professional reader, or in some cases the author—is assigned. You have no choice in who reads it to you, but you may avoid certain audio book readers and be inclined toward others. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesusis read by the author, the late Nabeel Qureshi. This is fitting since he had a pleasant voice and because the book is the story of his own conversion. Things may get confusing, though, if a female reads a book by a male author or vice versa.  For example, Kate Redding reads Francis Schaeffer’s book, He is There and He is not SilentBut, perhaps, this should make no difference. Schaeffer’s own voice was a bit high-pitched and raspy, but always insistent. Redding’s voice is sure and authoritative. It seems to work.

As we try to comprehend ideas, we must often retrace our steps. In conversation, we may say, “Can you say that again?” or “Do you mean so and so?” A printed book (or a Kindle book) allows us to read at our own pace, to stop and ponder, and to go back and reread sections of the book. The book itself has no pace, no speed of exposition. The reader supplies that. The audio book sets its own pace, although it now gives us the option of speeding up or slowing down the rate of reading. At the extremes, the voice no longer seems human at all. Words are recited at speeds and with tones unknown to normal speakers. I occasionally speed up the speech because I want to get more information more quickly. But at what cost is this to understanding the content or to an aesthetic appreciation of the voice?

Audio books allow you to backtrack, but it is unwieldy in relation to what the paper book allows (and encourages). Of course, we often listen to audio books in settings—as while driving, eating, or exercising—in which our hands are not free to handle a paper book.

 

Television: Agent of Truth Decay

This is excerpted from Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay(InterVarsity Press, 2000).

First, television emphasizes the moving image over written and spoken language.  It is image-driven, image-saturated, and image-controlled.   …When the image overwhelms and subjugates the word, the ability to think, write, and communicate in a linear and logical fashion is undermined.  Television’s images have their immediate effect on us, but that effect is seldom to cause us to pursue their truth or falsity.  …As Kenneth Myers stresses, ‘A culture that is rooted more in images than in words will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language.’

Second, [television brings] a loss of authentic selfhood…the self is filled with a welter of images and factoids and sound bites lacking moral and intellectual adhesion.  The self becomes ungrounded and fragmented by its experiences of television.  …Postmodern illiterates live their lives through a series of television characters (better: shadows of characters), and changing channels becomes a model for the self’s manner of experience and its mode of being.  Moral and spiritual anchorage is lost.  The self is left to try on a pastiche of designer personae in no particular order and for no particular reason.

Third, television relentlessly displays a pseudo-world of discontinuity and fragmentation.  …The images appear and disappear and reappear without a proper rational context.  …This is what Postman aptly calls the ‘peek-a-boo world,’ – a visual environment lacking coherence, consisting of ever-shifting, artificially linked images. …Without any historical or logical context, the very notion of intellectual or moral coherence becomes unsustainable on television.

Fourth, the increasingly rapid pace of television’s images makes careful evaluation impossible and undesirable for the viewer, thus rendering determinations of truth and falsity difficult if not impossible.  With sophisticated video technologies, scenes change at hypervelocities and become the visual equivalent of caffeine or amphetamines. …This means that one simply absorbs hundreds and thousands of rapidly changing images, with little notion of what they mean or whether they correspond to any reality outside themselves.  …Habituation to such imposed velocities tends to make people intellectually impatient and easily bored with anything that is slow-moving and undramatic – such as reading books…experiencing nature in the raw, and engaging in face-to-face conversations with fellow human beings. …The overstuffed and overstimulated soul becomes out-of-sync with God, nature, others, and itself.  It cannot discern truth; it does not want to.  This apathetic attitude makes the apprehension and application of truth totally irrelevant.

Fifth, television promotes truth decay by its incessant entertainment imperative.  Amusement trumps all other values and takes captive every topic.  Every subject – whether war, religion, business, law or education – must be presented in a lively, amusing or stimulating manner.   …Even off the air, people now think that life (and Christian ministry) must be entertaining at all costs.  One pastor of a megachurch advises preachers that sermons should be roughly 20 minutes in length and must be ‘light and informal,’ with liberal sprinklings of ‘humor an anecdotes.’  Just like television, isn’t it?  The truth is that truth, and the most important truths, is often not entertaining.  An entertainment mentality will insulate us from many hard but necessary truths. …Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles held the interest of their audience not by being amusing but by their zeal for God’s truth, however unpopular or uncomfortable it may have been.  They refused to entertain but instead edified and convicted.  It was nothing like television” (p. 283-292).

When Indifference to Sin is Sin

Jesus, who was never indifferent to sin, who died for our sins, taught that at the end of history indifference to “the least of these” will be judged as literally damnable. Read Matthew 25:31-46 in light of the darkness of today, in light of an anti-infanticide bill failing to pass in the Senate.

As we have failed to care for and serve “the least of these,” we have failed to care for and serve Jesus himself. This is sin. This is the most egregious sin. This sin in rampant, is epidemic in America: the sin of abortion and now, more and more, the sin of infanticide. Say it: Baby Killing!

If you fail to care about sending this, what do you care about. How is your faith being demonstrated and verified by your good works? Read James again:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder (2:14-19).

We should shudder if we do nothing, shed not one tear, give no money, and pray no prayers for the plight of the unborn and newly born in our sad, sick, and deceived culture.

What you can do.

  1. Master the pro-life arguments and the refutation of pro-abortion arguments.
  2. Teach and preach and debate the truth about abortion whenever possible.
  3. Befriend and help women with unwanted babies.
  4. Pray for godly change. See 1 Timothy 2:1-5.
  5. Pray against ungodly laws and politicians. See Psalm 2 and 94.
  6. Give time and money to pro-life causes, political and educational.
  7. Consider adopting an unwanted baby

Renounce the sin of indifference.

Jesus was not indifferent to sin. He died to atone for sin. Those who confess to belong to him and to have their sins forgiven, must never be indifferent or complacent about sin. How much more abhorrent must the sin of indifference be when it is indifference to the most defenseless and voiceless among us? We cannot and must not be indifferent to the slaughter of the innocents, those unborn and newly born human beings who are killed or left to die in our midst.

God knows and feels all of this–far more than we do. He will settle the score and put the world to rights in the End. Before then, we must work and pray. Then work and pray more.

 

Book Review: Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

There have been too many attempts to link Christianity to something else in order to jazz it up—as if the Gospel itself was not sufficiently compelling. Those both on the liberal and conserve ends of the theological spectrum—and even those in the middle—have been guilty of this. The “Christian atheism” of the middle 1960s took this to an absurd extreme. Jesus has been likened to a CEO, a therapist, a salesman, and so on, in order to pad his paltry resume. At best, these efforts highlight something in Jesus not previously apparent. At worst, they deny Christianity and replace it with an ersatz religion that has no gospel at all (see Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 1:6-11). Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord of the cosmos, does not need to be jazzed up. Nor does Christianity need a make over.

Robert Gelinas avoids these pitfalls by showing that jazz can teach much about following Jesus. In fact, we should “compose a jazz-shaped faith.” Gelinas, a Denver pastor and graduate of Denver Seminary, neither twists the gospel, nor forces jazz into an alien religious mold. Instead, he finds in jazz deep and fascinating themes that resonate with the adventure and challenge of Christian living. Although he is not a musician, Gelinas discovered jazz in college and loves “the gospel in jazz.” Readers of this revealing book will come to know more of jazz and more about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

After recounting his initiation into jazz, Gelinas briefly explains the nature of the music. Louis Armstrong said, “Jazz is jazz,” but this does not go too far. Jazz grew largely out of the music of African-American slaves. African music was mixed Christian themes learned from their oppressors. “Pain gave way to the blues, and the blues gave way to jazz—they are all connected.” Gelinas, an African American, says that “to talk about jazz it to talk about race”—and the plight of African Americans, who were, in the words of Ralph Ellison, “un-free in a free land.”

The origin and nature of jazz is a deeply contested subject. While one cannot deny that jazz was born and grew up from the African American experience, it has roots and variations that place it beyond any one racial ethos. Gelinas never claims that “jazz is black” or that non-blacks have not contributed greatly to jazz. However, his narrative overemphasizes the racial element somewhat. Later in the book, Gelinas states that “jazz was produced by those who were ‘un-free in a free land,’” thus excluding those musicians who were freer in a free land because they were not black. White musicians such as Benny Goodman (who led one of the first racially integrated jazz bands), Harry James, Dave Brubeck, and many others filled out the multicolored pallet of jazz. Despite this minor caveat, Gelinas explores a vital aspect of the music: jazz as form of life seeking freedom and justice for those wrongly denied it.

Jazz displays many creative, ennobling, and beautiful elements. Gelinas emphasizes its roots in the blues, syncopation, improvisation, ensemble cooperation, and creative tension—all modes of being that should be applied to the Christian life.

The blues are rooted in the pain of living in a fallen world, but refuse to wallow there. The old slave songs and spirituals lamented a life lived in chains, but transcended the bondage through song itself, and hoped for those chains to unbound one day. The blues roots of jazz give it a gritty sense of hope for a fallen world crying out for redemption. We, too, should see life for what it is, lament the losses, but press on with vision for better things through the power of God today and tomorrow and in the End.

Syncopation is what makes jazz swing. The jazz rhythm emphasizes the off beat, and, as Duke Ellington put it in a song title, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” To transpose this to the Christian life, syncopating means emphasizing the off-beat, finding novelty, and having “en eye and ear for that which goes unnoticed and unheard in life,” as Gelinas puts it. Jesus syncopated when he what saw others missed and reached out to the socially invisible or ostracized. A jazz-shaped faith does the same thing: it learns how to swing.

Improvisation is also constitutive of jazz. “Improvisation is what allows jazz to exist in a continual state of renewal,” Gelinas notes. A player improvises within the theme of a piece of music, but brings something new and distinctively his or her own to the old. Louis Armstrong went so far as to say, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.” Every jazz solo is an adventure of self-expression that must, nevertheless, harmonize with the self-expression of the other musicians. This collaborative aspect of jazz is what Gelinas calls “life in concert.” Each musician contributes something unique himself or herself, but never in isolation from the larger group. The metaphor from jazz is rich for Christian existence. We must find out own voice (or calling), but never merely for our own sake, but for the sake of the group (the Body of Christ) and before the audience (the listening world of unbelievers).

Thus far, I have been appreciative of Gelinas’s explanation of jazz themes and how they radiate models of Christian living. He gets inside of jazz and pulls out some hip chops. As a jazz lover and Christian, I say, “Pastor, you swing!” However, as a philosopher, I must address a few missed notes found in the chapter “Creative Tension.” Gelinas rightly emphasizes that jazz thrives on tension and does not fear it. Being creative—as genuine jazz always is—means being willing to risk on stage. If one improvises on a melody, one may miss the melody entirely. Wrong notes are hit—and then cannot be hidden or retracted. As jazz critic, Ted Gioia puts it, jazz is “the imperfect art” because it requires composing on the spot during solos; those accompanying improvise as well. Gelinas tells of John Coltrane’s pursuit of musical excellence and the tensions he had to face and overcome in that musical and spiritual journey. So far, Gelinas is solidly in the groove.

But he goes out of key by applying the ideas of tension and especially paradox to Christian living and theology. One the one hand, a tensionmay pull us in two directions simultaneously and to good effect. For example, Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. There is no contradiction here. We should not escape cultural involvement (Matthew 5:13-16), but we should not be defined and defiled by the ways of the fallen world (Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17, etc.). As Gelinas notes, a suspension bridge stays up precisely because of the tension supporting it.

Nonetheless, when Gelinas speaks ofparadoxeshe threatens to undermine the coherence and truthfulness of Scripture, theology, and of apologetics. Gelinas writes that “I believe in absolute truth, and I believe that truth can be known.” Moreover, he believes the Bible is true. Yet Gelinas claims that the Bible affirms many paradoxes. He cites James Lucas’s ominously entitled book, Knowing the Unknowable God: “Resist your enemies andlove them; ignore hypocritical spiritual leaders andobey them…” Gelinas calls these paradoxes “impossible possibilities,” which, of course, sounds contradictory. Gelinas writes that “I no longer read books that offer the Scriptures devoid of seeming contradictions. I take them for what they are—the words of the most creative being in the universe.” Yet he affirms that the Bible contains no real contradictions. Can we make sense of this?

A contradiction occurs when one statement is logically incompatible with another statement. Consider: (1) Doug Groothuis can play the tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and (2) Doug Groothuis cannot play tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” If someone told you that both (1) and (2) were true, because this is a paradox (and not a contradiction), you would send them off to the woodshed for more practice in logic. There is no reason to think that the conjunction of (1) and (2) could be true without some plausible way of resolving the oppositionbetween (1) and (2).

Now, if the Bible is true in all that it affirms, it cannot contradict itself (or any truth outside of what is stated in the Bible). One may try to rescue or protect the Bible from apparent contradiction by invoking the category of paradox, but unless there are plausible ways of resolving the paradoxes, they appear more like flat-out contradictions. And if any two statements contradict each other (in the Bible or elsewhere), they cannot both be true. At least one of them must be false. Even Charlie Parker would improvise his way out of that kind of tension.

This issue is tremendously important for theology and apologetics. A necessary criterion for theology is that Scripture must be viewed as a system, a coherent set of truth claims. If any theology affirms that a proposition is both affirmed and denied in Scripture, then that theology is contradictory; and it is, therefore, false. In apologetics (the rational defense of Christianity as true and knowable), noncontradiction is likewise a necessary criterion for truth. In commending the Christian worldview, the apologist must present it as a logically coherent model of reality. For example, the apologist cannot claim that the idea of the Incarnation (Christ as both human and divine) is an irresolvable paradox and hope to draw anyone closer to Christianity through reasoning. Apologetics needs a strategy to argue that the doctrine of the God-Man is logically coherent. (On this, see the section on the Incarnation in Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest’s Integrative Theology.)

One can appreciate Gelinas’s recognition of paradoxes in the Bible and his desire to stay true to Scripture by not imposing a false coherenceupon biblical teaching. One can also agree that the Christian life presents us with some difficult existentialtensions. However, if one is left with a Bible rife with irresolvable paradoxes, then there is no reason to think that Scripture affirms truth that is absolute, noncontradictory, and knowable (as Gelinas commendably does). As the philosopher Gordon Clark said, “A paradox is a Charlie Horse between the ears.” As such, paradoxes should be dissolved, not embraced.

Gelinas does briefly write dealing with paradoxes by finding a tertium quid(third way), but he does not seem to realize that this strategy resolvesthe paradox. (The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a master of this method.) Soon after mentioning the tertium quidstrategy, Gelinas continues to write of “embracing tensions.” But the tertium quid strategy releases tension by providing a logically satisfying solution to the apparent contradiction (that is, paradox).

Despite my philosopher’s complaint against about five pages of this 218 page book, I applaud Pastor Gelinas’s creative, knowledgeable, and winsome way of bringing jazz and Christianity together.

 

What is This Thing Called Love?

Originally posted on 7/13/2015

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

Cole Porter wrote the lyrics. Frank Sinatra sang the song. This gem out of the great American songbook captures something of the age-old quest for the meaning of love. Yet today love is nearly the most vexed word in the English language, taking second place only to the word God, which has been the most defiled by ignorance and arrogant redefinition. Given that love now supposedly justifies same-sex marriage and other sexual engagements outside of heterosexual marriage, let us consider its meaning.

Love is love, we are told, as if this argued in favor of same-sex marriage. Love is a human emotion, but that does not ground it in moral reality. As St. Augustine argued long ago in The City of God, our loves are warped by sin. As he writes in The City of God, chapter 28:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.  The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.  For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.  The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.”

We may love the temporal more than the eternal, the flesh more than the spirit, the world more than God. Our loves are confused and untrustworthy when left to themselves. We may even love deviancy over morality.

God is love, teaches the Apostle John. God’s character is holy love, not mere sentimentality or an endorsement of all human attraction or affection. God is perfectly good and free from all ignorance and distortion. He is holy in that he is above and beyond his creation, living in perfect righteousness. Hence, when God revealed himself to the prophet Isaiah, the angels worshiped him.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1-4; see also Revelation 4)

Isaiah’s response was not to rejoice that a tame God of had shown up. Rather, he cried:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).

God is holy, holy, holy. The threefold description is a Hebrew figure of speech meaning the uttermost, the maximum, the zenith.

Many know Jesus’ statement of his mission in the Gospel of John. But let us look at it again in its fuller context to understand what love really means. Jesus said to Nicodemus:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:16-21).

Jesus came to demonstrate love in the darkness—the darkness of evil. He did not come to ratify our preferences or to confirm our wishes. As God incarnate, he came to shine light into darkness, to condemn sin as sin (rebellion against God and his creation order), and, in love, to offer forgiveness and new life. Love has an object; it does not bless the darkness. That is what the denizens of darkness do.

The darkness not only rejects Jesus, it also paints him in false colors, making Jesus a chameleon for cultural trends. This is not the Jesus who is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8; see also Malachi 3:6). This is not the Jesus who can reconcile us to God and make us his servants. This is a counterfeit Christ, who is heralded by counterfeit apostles. Listen to Paul:

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough (1 Corinthians 11:4).

These false teachers must be exposed:

And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (1 Corinthians 11:12-15).

These purveyors of falsehood will have their reward. There error is not small. As the prophet Isaiah declared:

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.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight (Isaiah 5:20-21).

Good and evil are determined by the character of God, the Creator and Designer of the universe and of human beings. We are not free to improvise on the principles of morality. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic The Abolition of Man, “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”

But what, more specifically, is this thing called love? Paul, again, tells us in clear terms:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

Out of his own matchless love, Christ died to forgive and restore sinners. Love is God’s response to human sin. If we deny acts and thoughts that are truly sinful, we deny God’s claim of love to forgive and renew sinners. Let us listen again to Paul:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4).

It is God’s kindness that reveals and condemns human sin, which issues from within a woman or man. As Christ said:

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person (Mark 7:20-23; see also Romans 3:14-26).

If it were not for the God of the Bible, we would not know who we are and what we have done in rebellion against God. God is kind, not cruel, to disclose this to us, his wayward children.

What, then, is God’s response to the slogan love is love when meant to endorse same-sex marriage and non-heterosexual activity in general? God cannot love what cuts against his character and the order and design of his creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. As the crown of creation he made women and men in his image and likeness, male and female, and God commissioned them to have dominion, cultivate the earth, and come together as husband and wife (Genesis 1-2). Sexual error is due to the fall of humanity. When creatures took it upon themselves to heed the voice of the lie and promote themselves above their Creator (Genesis 3).

God’s authoritative pattern for human sexuality is not open-ended. It is not a matter of subjective feeling or of cultural condition or of legal ruling. Jesus ratified the Genesis norm when he proclaimed:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:1-6).

God joins together male and female in marriage. No other arrangement is God-ordained, and no other pairing has his blessing

God’s love is demonstrated in sending Jesus to atone for our sins and set us right with God. God’s love is further revealed in his judgments of our sin as sin, so that we may repent and embrace God’s ways on earth and in eternity. God’s love, then, will never endorse, sanction, or bless anything that goes against his holy nature or against the nature of human beings he created in his image and likeness. However, when erring mortals turn against God and make themselves the authority, horrible things happen, as Paul teaches:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:18-32; see also Leviticus 18; 1 Corinthians 6:9-12).

The desires of these God-rejecting people suffered corruption, no matter how strong the desires may have been. Intensity of attraction—erotic or otherwise—does not morality make.

Some misguided scholars have attempted to blunt the force of this passage by claiming that Paul is only condemning some kinds of homosexuality. This is alien to every English translation and to the Greek text as well. Further, no biblical text outside of Romans endorses any homo-erotic behavior, let alone same-sex marriage.

By now, the reader should discern that God’s love does not extend to practices or institutions that God explicitly forbids in the teaching of the Bible, which is his living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Rather, those who come to Christ and name him Lord must repent from their former ways of living in sin. The first word of the Gospel is repentance. After Jesus was tempted by the devil, he began his public teaching by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus charge to his followers after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven stress repentance as well:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).

In the first of his 95 Theses (1517), the Reformer Martin Luther wrote:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

In the name of Jesus Christ, no Christian is allowed to condone what Christ himself condemns—all sexual immorality. One aspect of sin-causing behavior is sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual monogamy. When men and women are drawn to repent and confess Jesus as Lord, they will live lives of repentance as they seek to please the One who saved them from sin, death, and hell. This is a life of love. But not all that claims to be love from God is love from God. Paul’s famous love passage clarifies this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).

Love is paramount. If so, we must get it right, lest love is drained of its glory. Love is positively shown in patience and kindness; negatively, love does not envy, boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not selfish, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and does not delight in evil. But there is one more positive statement about love that puts everything else into context: Love “rejoices with the truth” (v. 6). The Message translation says that love “Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth.” The majestic King James Version says, that love “rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”

Love’s rejoicing in the truth of God about sexuality forbids rejoicing in what God forbids. We cannot stand with God when we stand against God’s truth about love.

Ministry Defining Moments

Some events solidify your understanding of who God made you to be. They crystallize a sense of mission and personal meaning. When the shepherd boy, David, killed the Goliath, the Philistine giant, David’s ministry was defined by zeal for God and courage. His reputation was grounded in his God-given abilities.

Another such moment was when Saul of Tarsus encountered a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus, who was trying to stop Saul from preaching the Gospel, Saul stared him down, got him out of the way, and won the leader to Christ (Acts 13:1-12). From now on, in the Book of Acts, Saul is known as Paul and takes the lead in the nascent Christian mission to Jew and Gentile. Again, his reputation was grounded in his God-given abilities.

For me, as a teacher and writer, two ministry-defining moments stand out. In the spring of 1977, I wrote an apologetic letter to the editor of the University of Oregon newspaper. One of my professors, an embittered religious studies scholar named Jack Sanders, wrote a letter in response saying I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I should have known better since I had taken his class on ancient religion. I then realized that my Christian witness would be contested by people in authority. I wrote another letter. My calling as a defender of Christianity began to be grounded in my God-given abilities.

In about 1981, I was preaching on a passage in Malachi at Orchard Community Church. During one point of the message, I sensed that a lot more was going on than what I had prepared to say. The Holy Spirit was applying the text in a palpable way. That changed my preaching forever, as did commendation from the congregation on my preaching. My preaching were further grounded in my God-given abilities.

There are more, of course. But consider events in your life that have shaped your identity as a Christ-follower. Ask the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal to you the truth of your calling and his glory in your calling. Perhaps you need a ministry-defining moment. Seek God. Seek the well-being of his church, for whom Christ died. See the expansion of his Kingdom. May God ground your ministry as you find your God-given abilities and a place and time to use them.

Who we Lost and What they Gave

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. -Psalm 115:16, KJV

As one year turns into another, much is made of those we have lost. Death has no victory for those who entrusted their lives to Jesus. Because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul can taunt death itself by writing, “Death where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?” We do not grieve our losses in the same way as those who have no true hope.

Still, we grieve, and we reflect. Two people died this year who gave me immeasurable assistance as a writer: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. Let me eulogize both with a literary focus.

James Sire was editor of InterVarsity Press for many years. He was instrumental in getting the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness into print. No writers in recent memory have influenced me more than these two. They gave me knowledge and courage to defend and apply Christianity in the world of ideas, culture, and politics. I am grateful to Dr. Sire for this. He was not only an editor. His own books, particularly, The Universe Next Door profoundly shaped thousands of readers. Through five editions, it addressed the ins and outs of the Christian worldview compared with other worldviews such as deism, atheism, and existentialism.

Dr. Sire read a book proposal from a young campus minister in 1983, who proposed a book critiquing the rise of Eastern religion and the occult in American culture. That young man had few credentials beyond a philosophy degree, a few years of campus ministry experience, a smattering of graduate classes in theology, and a few book reviews. But the well-seasoned editor sensed a need for such a book and took a chance by offering Douglas Groothuis a contract. My book was originally entitled, The One for All: The Convergence of Pantheism in the West. This rather pedantic title was wisely changed to Unmasking the New Age (1986), although that phrase was never used in the book. It was my first and my best-selling book. It is still in print.

Jim and I interacted on book projects over the years. He would comment on my manuscripts and I would comment on his. We appear in each other’s footnotes often. The few times I was with him face-to-face were delightful.

When I received my contract for the book, I had begun dating Becky Merrill, who joined the same campus ministry with which I was involved, The McKenzie Study Center in Eugene, Oregon. Becky said that she would edit my chapters before I sent them to InterVarsity. I accepted, with more than a literary interest in mind. Although I resisted some of her edits at first, I came to learn that she made my writing and thinking better. She also made my whole life better. We were married in 1984.

Becky, or Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (her author name), came to write two superb works on gender roles and relations in the church: Women Caught in the Conflict (Baker, 1994) and Good News for Women (Baker, 1997. She co-edited a major academic volume called Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity Press, 2004). She also contributed several chapters to my book, Christianity That Counts (Baker, 1995). We co-wrote a number of essays as well. She wrote many popular and academic articles, mostly on biblical egalitarianism. Arguably, she was the leading thinker on biblical egalitarianism in her prime.

Becky edited all my books up through my magnum opus, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011), which was my tenth. She had an uncanny ability to get the heart of things; she clarified and beautified my writing. If anything was unclear to her, she would put the dreaded question mark in the margin. She also corrected not a few errors, bad judgments, and verbosity. There will never be another editor like her for me. My last two books have been written without her. My last book was about losing her: Walking through Twilight (InterVarsity Press, 2017). I read part of Philosophy in Seven Sentences to her shortly after it came out in 2016. After reading a passage I thought was clever, she looked at me with an expression I learned to recognize without any attending words. “It’s too cutesy, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes,” she moaned. Her editor’s sense was there, but her words were not. I take some of her editorial sensibilities with me as I write and rewrite. “What would Becky think?” But it is not the same.

In 2018, we lost two superb editors and writers: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. I lost a friend and I lost a wife whose contributions to my writing were inestimable. Therefore, I give thanks and I grieve. And I will continue to write, God helping me.

 

 

 

Who Reads? Why Read?

“I should read. But I don’t have time.” I heard this while browsing a bookstore (as I often do on Sunday afternoons). His expression was sad and resigned—wistful. Here he was, bobbing in an ocean of books—perhaps to buy a gift—and wondered if he would read. Notice he did not say, “I need to read more.” I can say that.  A young person confessed to me that he doesn’t read at all. Sadly, I wasted a gift of one of my books to him before I knew this. This soul expressed no regret or longing in his declaration of ongoing illiteracy. In fact, this individual has a college degree. I guess that reading thing was now out of the way.

At the end of final’s week in the spring of 1977, I saw a student who lived in my apartment building walking down the hall carrying about two feet of books which he held in both of his cupped hands. I said, “What are you doing?” He replied, “I’m throwing them out. The term is over.” I countered, “No you are not. Please give them to me.” He did, thus sparing a walk to the dumpster one floor down. I’ll never forget the stupefied expression on his face.

In recent years, many bookstores are not primarily book-stores. The Barnes and Noble chain stores now have knickknacks, puzzles, games, and more. This is not true for The Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver. Their non-book items fit the feel of books—cards, pens, journals, and so on.

People do read. . . what is on their phones. Yesterday, I saw a man crossing a busy intersection while both walking his dog and looking down at his phone. I felt sorry for the dog. But reading a text message or a Facebook post is not the same as settling into a book, that ancient and low-tech object. Screens change words and images endlessly. They are restless. Books have one set of messages per page. They stay put so you can stay focused.

Books have an embodied history as objects in space and time. I treasure my first copy of The God Who is There by Francis A. Schaeffer, which I bought at the University of Oregon bookstore in the fall of 1976, shortly after becoming a Christian. Schaeffer’s intellectual courage and range of interests captivated me and helped chart my own calling. I own another edition and have heard the book on audio, but that is not the same. Books like this are part of the furniture of our homes and of our souls. My home decoration theme is books.

Christians, of all people, should be readers. If we are going to outthink the world for Christ, we need to be knowledgeable about what matters most.

Christians, of all people, should be readers. If we are going to outthink the world for Christ, we need to be knowledgeable about what matters most. As Vernon Grounds said, “We should be masters of one book (the Bible) and readers of many books.” Time alone with a significant book can transform you for the better by opening your mind to truths about history, theology, philosophy, culture, geography, painting, and architecture that you will not simply pick up on Facebook or Instagram.

Can you sit still long enough to make headway through a book? A teenager confessed to me that he could not do so. He had just heard me give a lecture at Summit Ministries. I said, “Get J. P. Moreland’s book, Love Your God With All Your Mind.Then sit in a quiet room by yourself for one hour and read the book. Just one hour. If you do this, you can develop a discipline of reading.” The young man warmed to this and said, “You are good at talking to people.” I relished that comment and hoped that he would become a reader.

God has given me more discretionary time to read and study than most humans. I do what I love. I have time to read. I have time to write. It is easy for me to say, “Read more!” Still, with only a few changes to your life, you can read more and read more deeply. Try an hour by yourself with no distractions. This time, take Philosophy in Seven Sentences in with you, and let me know what you think.