Coming Soon! The Groothuis App

No more need for the living Groothuis, who can be irascible and curmudgeonly. After all, he can only be in once place at one time. We have now digitized him so that you can have him 24/7/365 without the need to navigate his quirky personality. All you need of Groothuis without Groothuis, thanks to new technology.

That’s right. From videos, articles, books, and interviews, we have captured his core ideas, illustrations, and even jokes (at least the good ones)! No need to actually read any of his books or articles. Hey, some are long! Just get the app, ask a question, and Groothuis own (simulated) voice will answer the apologetics or philosophy question—and in less than three minutes. Unlike real life, when Groothuis would often pause to think or find the right word or even say nothing, all Groothuis App answers come pause-free. You can even vary the rate of voice, just like on Audible.

Only $5.99 per month.

 

Texts, Graphics, and Culture: On the Decline of Reading and Civilization

Inscripturation is part of being human, or at least it has been for a long time. We inscribe words on bark, papyri, codices, human skin (tattoos), books, magazines, bracelets, and automobiles. These are the media for our messages. We use pens, markers, pencils, printing presses, and spray paint to do our writing. These are the tools by which to inscripturate. We employ graphics for our inscriptions done by various tools on various media. You are reading this online and in a font. The headline of this essay is larger and bolder than the text. A few words have already been placed in italics.

Patterns of inscripturation tell us much about ourselves. Consider books. Most thoughtful books from thirty or more years ago had few subtitles, lacked boldface, and relied on the words themselves (as semantic abstractions) for the meaning—rather than relying on the variation of typeface, odd spacing, or special effects. The text in a book does not move around on the page and cannot be altered apart from annotations. It is ruthlessly linear and requires decoding (reading). We might find endnotes or footnotes, none of which stand out on the page.

Consider books today. Some remain similar to books published thirty years ago, with their unadorned text and high volume of information per page. But many books ape the sensibilities of a computer screen when online. I am now reading an insightful piece of Christian social criticism, which considers how renewal might take place in our postmodern world. I have other books by this thinker. However, the book does not trust its words to do the work of knowledge. Each page has several different graphical effects to make its points: different colored text, boldfacing, and indented text. It is annoying and interrupts the flow of thought rather than ensuring it.

Why is the book thus marred? The assumption is that readers are conditioned by the activity on screens and will be reluctant to submit to the discipline of pure textuality. They need headlines, call-outs, textual variations, and other brain candy in order to remain remotely conscious through the ardor of deciphering the meaning of the inscriptions.

The book I am reading does not plug in. There is no internet connection. It is not an e-book. It is the equivalent of an e-book—or a paper book in e-book drag.

This kind of graphic clutter has been accruing for years. A Hal Lindsey book from about thirty-five years ago that had almost as many words in subtitles as words in the main text. (His failed prophesies are best forgotten, but Christ will come again.) The special effects cater to and encourage intellectual impatience and the skimming mentality. Here we face a vexing challenge.

All writing must be aimed at an audience. If the audience is addled by screen addiction, it will be difficult for readers to adjust to unmoving, linear, and demanding textuality. Yet we ought want these souls to learn from good books—books like the graphically cluttered book I am now reading and which prompted this essay. At the same time, we ought to challenge readers to bear down, turn off the phones, turn off the music, and let themselves be immersed in reading worthwhile words for long periods of time.

I know that none of my books will be pocked by multiple typefaces, odd spacing, and different colors. I will stick with what I know best for what I do. I will write words crafted for meaning. I am not against apt graphic illustrations, subtitles, italics once in a while, and so on. But when text hypertrophies into a riot of contending inscripturations, we lose too much of what matters most in writing. In so doing, we betray our literary patrimony (and perhaps without evening knowing it) and become high- functioning, digitally-savvy, well-informed illiterates.

 

 

 

The New Age Jesus

Those enamored of New Age spirituality usually find in Jesus a kindred spirit. Rather than exiling Jesus to the legendary lore of religious imagination or debunking him as a messianic pretender, New Age writers see Jesus as an enlightened master who manifested a divine power—a power potentially available to all who enter the New Age.

The New Age movement is not a conspiracy but an eclectic configuration of spiritual seekers who have despaired of finding personal and cosmic satisfaction in either religious orthodoxies or secular materialism. Instead, they have turned to unconventional and esoteric sources in the hopes of finding what they seek in the ambiance of the mystical, magical and metaphysical.[i] Given these tendencies, the Jesus of orthodox Christianity may seem inadequate. Jesus must be rescued from a pedestrian and parochial orthodoxy that demands he monopolize the deity.

Jesus in the New Age

Because of its diversity, the New Age has no single view of Jesus, but it offers a family of related views whose common factors may be summarized.

  1. The New Age highly esteems Jesus as a spiritually attuned or evolved being who serves as an example for spiritual discovery and evolutionary advancement.  Jesus is referred to by various positive terms and titles including Master, Guru, Yogi, Adept, Avatar, Shaman, and Way-show-er.  He is revered along with other religious leaders such as Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, and Lao Tze.
  2. Many argue for the separation of Jesus the individual person of history from the universal and impersonal Christ Consciousness, or Christ Principle. His consciousness of God and miracles were evidence he tapped into a higher level of consciousness. But if Jesus tapped into this cosmic power, he did not monopolize it.  New Age philosopher David Spangler, echoing the ancient Gnostics, said that, “The Christ is not the province of a single individual.”[ii]  As Joseph Campbell put it in his best-selling book The Power of Myth (1988), “We are all manifestations of Buddha consciousness or Christ consciousness, only we don’t know it.”[iii]  Christhood comes through self-discovery; we may all become Christs if we tap into the universal energy, the Christ consciousness.
  3. The orthodox Christian affirmation that Jesus is the supreme and final revelation of God is questioned.  Although Jesus is respected, he is not worshiped.  Janet Bock complains that “the position that Jesus was the only ‘Son of God’ . . . is, in effect, a limiting of the power of God, a shackling of divinity to one physical form for all eternity.”[iv]
  4. Jesus’ crucifixion, if accepted as historical, is not deemed essential to restore the spiritual wholeness of humanity.  Jesus’ suffering on the cross is either rejected as unhistorical or reinterpreted to exclude the idea that he suffered as the Christ to pay the penalty for human wrongdoing in order to reconcile people to a holy God. Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader of The Church Universal and Triumphant, states emphatically that the idea of a blood sacrifice is “an erroneous doctrine,” actually “a remnant of pagan rite long refuted by the word of God” and never taught by Jesus himself.[v] Since the New Age worldview denies both human sinfulness and a personal God who is ethically perfect, Jesus’ crucifixion loses its traditional significance.
  5. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is denied or spiritualized to remove them from the realm of the physical and the historical. Many others besides Jesus are recognized as “Ascended Masters” on the spiritual plane. Joseph Campbell interprets the Ascension to mean that Jesus “has gone inward . . . to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all tings, the kingdom of heaven within.”[vi] For Campbell, Jesus does not ascend to the right hand of the Father but descends to the divine depths of the collective soul.
  6. The idea of Jesus’ Second Coming is spiritualized and democratized to refer to the evolutionary ascent of an awakened humanity. Soli, billed as an “off planet being” channeled through Neville Rowe, offers this esoteric insight: “You are God.  You are, each and every one, part of the Second Coming.”[vii]  The notion that “this same Jesus” (Acts 1:11) who literally and bodily ascended to heaven will himself return in like manner on Judgment Day is rejected as narrow-minded literalism (see also Philippians 3:20-21). Furthermore, final judgment after death is denied in favor of reincarnation.
  7. New-Age thinkers accept extra-biblical documents as sources for authentic information about Jesus.  Although the Bible is often cited, its function is secondary to other texts.  Instead, the spiritually inquisitive often turn to alternative records of Jesus’ life.  This quest for a “lost Christianity” follows several routes converging at key points.

Many believe that Gnostic texts provide a trustworthy record of Jesus as a spiritual catalyst who came to awaken the spark of divinity locked in our bodily prison. Self-knowledge, or gnosis, is the means of salvation. Since people hear of titles such as The Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter, many assume the Gnostic materials are historically trustworthy documents that were expelled from orthodoxy by defensive clerics. Professor Elaine Pagels, long an advocate of Gnostic materials over the canonical Scriptures, recently drew attention to The Gospel of Thomas in her best-selling book, Beyond Belief (2003).

Another strand of revisionism harks back to a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, published in 1894 by a Russian journalist, Nicholas Notovitch. This book claims to unveil an ancient Tibetan record of Jesus’ “lost years” (between ages 13 and 29), which he spent studying, teaching and traveling in the mystic East. This Jesus bears little resemblance to the biblical Jesus.

Others find the key to Jesus in the ancient Essene community at Qumran, near the Dead Sea.  Claiming to base their interpretation on the Dead Sea Scrolls or other material, they see Jesus as part of a mystical remnant preserved from the Jewish fundamentalism of his day. Shirley MacLaine writes that “Jesus and the Essenes, with their teachings on love and light and cosmic laws along with the Golden Rule of karma, sound very much like metaphysical seekers in the New Age today.”[viii]

These esoteric materials are often augmented or eclipsed by revelations thought to originate beyond history entirely. Channelers or mediums receive messages about Jesus from personal spirit beings. Others, such as Edgar Cayce and Rudolf Steiner, keyed into an impersonal plane of higher consciousness called the Akashic Records or the Collective Unconscious, to extract a picture of Jesus not in harmony with that of the New Testament.  The popular three-volume set A Course in Miracles (1975), popularized by Marianne Williamson, claims to have been dictated by Jesus himself. Yet it denies historic Christian teachings such as original sin, the sacrificial death of Christ, reconciliation with God by faith in Jesus, and a literal heaven and hell.

  1. When the Bible is cited with reference to Jesus, an appeal is made to an esoteric dimension lost on those holding traditional interpretations. The Bible must be decoded to discern its secret substratum. So, when Jesus said that John the Baptist was Elijah, he was saying that John was the reincarnation of Elijah, not that John simply came with the same “spirit and power of Elijah” without being literally Elijah (Luke 1:17).[ix]  When he said, “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he really meant the soul is divine, not that the kingdom was breaking into history through Jesus (Luke 17:20-37).[x]

In the New Age, Jesus is understood apart from biblical moorings and placed in an alien intellectual and spiritual atmosphere. He is a Christ without a cross or physical resurrection, preaching a gospel without repentance or forgiveness, before an audience of potential equals who have no sin and are in no peril or perdition. Is this the genuine Jesus?

Is the New Testament Reliable?

Before considering the claims and credentials of Jesus, we should consider the reliability of the New Testament, since New Age sources impugn its integrity. The New Testament is often undervalued because of its antiquity and its manner of compilation. It is deemed unreliable because of the number of translations and editions. Some will reject its authority by saying, “Well, it has been translated so many times.” Yet the New Testament is the best-attested collection of literature from antiquity. Some 5,366 partial or complete Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been recovered, dating as far back as the end of the first century. This plethora of manuscripts gives scholars ample material for reconstructing the original texts. No doctrine is affected by the small number of variant readings listed in modern Bibles.[xi] Although numerous translations of the New Testament are available, each modern translation appeals to the best ancient manuscripts available. They do not simply refer to the latest in a succession of translations. In fact, as time goes on more and more manuscripts are uncovered by archaeologists.

The date of the original composition of the New Testament books is quite close to the events described—in most cases, not more than a generation. We know that nearly all the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were in circulation by the end of the first century, because early church theologians such as Ignatius and Clement (writing at the turn of the century) refer to them or quote them. The original writers of the New Testament were also in a good position to ascertain the truth of their research, being either eyewitnesses (such as the apostles Matthew, Peter and John) or (like Luke) privy to eyewitnesses. Luke’s affirms that the material he used was “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” that he might present an “orderly account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:2-3).[xii]

Concerning the canonization of the New Testament, New Age writers protest is that it was the product of a fourth-century theological elite which excluded legitimate sources such as Gnosticism for purely self-serving reasons. But this scenario doesn’t bear historical scrutiny. The canonized documents were not given authority as much as they were recognized as already functioning in the churches with authority. These books predate the church councils that canonized them by several hundred years. They were not produced or altered ad hoc. Furthermore, books were excluded from the canon for specific reasons, such as late date of composition, questionable authorship, doctrine at odds with the primitive “rule of faith,” and lack of use in the early church; they were not rejected for merely political motives.[xiii]

In light of this evidence, the burden of proof lies on any other purported record of the life of Jesus that contradicts the New Testament. Can the New Age revisionist documents bear historical scrutiny?

Testing New Age Documents

The New Testament is far better attested than Gnostic texts. The Gnostic texts are second- or third-century documents that editorially alter an already existing orthodox view of Jesus. None of the Nag Hammadi texts, for instance, is an actual gospel of the form of the canonical Gospels. Rather, they are largely metaphysical discourses that for the most part bear little resemblance to the New Testament either stylistically or theologically.[xiv]

The Notovitch material (claiming to reveal “the lost years of Jesus”) was roundly condemned as unreliable by such noted orientalists as F. Max Muller and others shortly after its publication because of its contrived and unhistorical character. Despite continued interest in The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, the supposed Tibetan original manuscript has never been available for scholarly study; there exists no adequate verification of its existence, let alone its credibility. Most scholars have flatly rejected it as a fraud. It is better to have 5,366 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the hand than (at most) one exotic manuscript lost in the Tibetan bush.[xv]

Claims that Jesus was an Essene do not hold up either. The Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls were not proto-New Agers. Rather, they were monotheistic Jews who, despite sectarian idiosyncrasies, affirmed human sinfulness, an eternal hell and a predestinating, personal God. Despite some similarity between Jesus’ teachings and the Essenes’ (due to their common belief in the Old Testament), there is a deep rift between them concerning asceticism, ethics, salvation and other issues. The Essenes were not New Agers, and Jesus was no Essene.[xvi]

With regard to channeled material, we should question why credence should be given to a revelation with no historical verification over documents with considerable historical verification—especially when channeled sources deny the central tenets of what Christians have affirmed for two thousand years. Because of this danger, the Apostle John warns: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). He goes on to encourage his readers to test the purported revelations by their views on Jesus; if they reject the biblical Jesus, they must be rejected as false messages, whatever their supposed source (1 John 4:2-3; see also Colossian 2:8).[xvii]

The simple fact is this: The evidence supports the reliability of the New Testament over the materials concerning Jesus given weight in New Age circles.

The Claims and Credentials of the Christ

But who is the Jesus of the New Testament? He speaks with a voice of authority based on both his claims and credentials.

Jesus calls himself God’s “one and only son” who was sent in love by the Father to bestow eternal life to those who believe in him (John 3:16). No other shares that status. This is no idle matter, since Jesus goes on to say that “whoever does not believe [in Jesus] stands condemned already because he has not believed in God’s one and only Son” (v. 18). Peter declared:  “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul affirms that “Christ Jesus” is “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9; see also Ephesians 1:18-23).

Another authoritative affirmation comes from Jesus’ lips: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; see also Matthew 11:27). In context, the exclusivity of this statement cannot be honestly avoided, although some, through “esoteric interpretation,” assert that Jesus is not speaking of himself as the way, but of the impersonal “I Am presence” (or God) in us all. Such interpretive innovation, often practiced in New Ager circles, is the result of “world-view confusion”—an entirely alien philosophy, in this case pantheism, is superimposed onto the text.[xviii]

Esoteric interpretation is countered by common sense. If nothing stated in the text indicates the esoteric meaning, and we have good independent evidence indicating that the document is written in code language, what grounds can be given to support the esoteric interpretation, besides wishful thinking? Although the Bible is not always easy to understand, no secret code is needed to decipher it.[xix] Peter warns of those who distort the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).[xx]

By what credentials did Jesus back up his claims? Because those involved in the New Age movement grant the reality of a paranormal, dimension that affects the natural realm, they should be impressed with Jesus as an unsurpassed wonder worker. Jesus restored the blind, deaf, dumb and leprous, cast out demons with a word, commanded the elements to obey him, and summoned Lazarus from the grave. In the grandest miracle of all, he himself rose from the dead on the third day, just as he predicted. There would be no Christianity without the Resurrection.[xxi] A reading of the Gospels will disclose Jesus as another shaman or mystical holy man. He is far greater.

Jesus never claimed to tap into an impersonal realm of power. His demonstration of power was thoroughly personal. Jesus miraculous power was grounded in his identity as God’s only Son, his relationship to God, the Father, and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit. His miracles displayed his compassion and integrity. This is seen when declared that a crippled man’s sins were forgiven—an act only God could perform—and backed it up by healing him on the spot (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus healed both soul and body, and in the process forgiven the man’s sins, declaring the prerogatives of deity.

The sheer number, power and attestation of Jesus’ miracles put him in a category by himself; but the miracles alone are not sufficient to establish Jesus as Lord. We must also consider Jesus’ unrivaled authority as a teacher; the certainty of his words regarding his mission, his identity and the need for human response; his fulfillment of prophecy;[xxii] and his love toward those he came to rescue. These factors show Jesus as a man of integrity and compassion as well as a man of power. He claimed to have the power to save the lost, whom he loved.[xxiii]

Jesus’ View of Salvation

Jesus was on a redemptive mission. However, New Age theology to the contrary, his mission was not to convince humans that they were really divine. He declared, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus understood being “lost” as sinfulness.  He catalogued thirteen items of infamy—such as adultery, greed, impurity—as “coming from within” and making a person unclean before a holy and personal God (Mark 7:21-23). Where the New Age sees a sleeping god, Jesus finds a tempest of transgression. It is no wonder that Jesus often warned of the horrors of hell (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31).

Jesus presented himself as the answer. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Speaking of his impending crucifixion, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Christ’s crucifixion offers something alien to a New Age theology, which understands God as an impersonal and amoral Force, Principle or Vibration. From this perspective, humans all partake of the divine essence, but the ultimate reality is impersonal and inhuman.  The Great Void makes no friends and sheds no blood. Yet we all yearn for loving relationships with other persons, for love, intimacy and acceptance.

We find our highest meaning in the inter-personal realm, not the im-personal realm. The Cross of Christ announces God’s sacrificial love toward us. God’s uncompromising holiness demands that a price be paid for sin: Jesus goes to the cross to bear that penalty. Yet God’s love provides a sinless sacrifice for a guilty race. As Paul said:

When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love toward us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Finding the Genuine Jesus

The gospel of Jesus Christ is an objective claim on every individual (Acts 17:30). Christ offers the life we crave but which we cannot achieve by looking within ourselves. He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Although Jesus singled himself out of the spiritual crowd through his exclusive claims and unmatched credentials, he issues an inclusive invitation:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  (Matthew 11:28)

Christ promises and provides rest from the futile human quest for Christhood. We may, by his grace, become his friends, but never his peers. We must surrender our quest for autonomy, turn from our selfishness, and turn toward the only one who can forgive our sins, give us eternal life, and equip us for good works for the glory of God. The first word of the gospel is repentance. Jesus said, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). If we admit our sin, repent of our wrongdoings, and put our faith in the sinless sacrifice of Jesus, we can find eternal life—beginning now and continuing for an eternity in paradise with Jesus. Only through faith in Jesus can a new age truly begin (2 Corinthians 5:17).[xxiv]

[1] For more on the New Age as a movement and a worldview, see Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill,: InterVarsity Press, 1986), and Douglas Groothuis, “New Age Spiritualites,” in Christopher Partridge, Douglas Groothuis, eds., Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 278-280.

[2] David Spangler, Reflections on the Christ (Glasgow, Scotland: The Findhorn Foundation, 1977), 103.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 57. This material, based on an interview with Bill Moyers, was also made into a PBS television interview, which is still shown during pledge drives.

[4] Janet Bock, The Jesus Mystery (Los Angeles, Calif.: Aura Books, 1984), 112.

[5] Mark L. and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Science of the Spoken Word (Livingstone, Mont.: Summit University Press, 1986), 86-87.

[6] Campbell, 56.

[7] Quoted in Otto Friedrich, “New Age Harmonies,” Time, December 7, 1987, 66.

[8] Shirley MacLaine, Going Within (New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 1989), 181.

[9] See Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 95-98.

[10] See Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 227-228.

[11] See Groothuis, Jesus, 38-41.

[12] For more on the reliability of the New Testament see Groothuis, Jesus, 17-63, and F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents—Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987).

[13] F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), and Groothuis, Jesus, 307-312.

[14] For more on the historicity of the Gnostic texts see Groothuis, Jesus, 102-118.

[15] For more on the lost years of Jesus see Ibid., 119-151.

[16] For more on Jesus and the Essenes see Ibid., 152-180.

[17] For more on channeling see Ibid., Jesus, 181-214.

[18] See James Sire, Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 23-30, 127-44.

[19] On proper biblical interpretation see Gordon Fee and Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 2nded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993).

[20] For more on esoteric interpretation see Groothuis, Confronting, 87-91; Groothuis, Jesus, 282-284; and Sire, 107-115.

[21] See Groothuis, Jesus, 272-282, and Gary Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), especially Part I.

[22] On Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, see John Ankerberg, John Weldon and Walter Kaiser, The Case for Jesus, the Messiah (Chattanooga, Tenn.: The John Ankerberg Evangelistic Association, 1989).

[23] For more on the claims and credentials of Christ, see Groothuis, Jesus, 237-260.

[24] On coming to terms with Jesus, see Groothuis, Jesus, 285-306.

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.

Fire in My Bones

“Without fire, nothing.” I often say this to my students in the context of motivation for ministry. I have felt this fire for over four decades. It has gotten me through many rejections, depressions, and my own foolishness. “Fire in my bones,” comes from the prophet Jeremiah, a man with a rather miserable ministry of declaring God’s judgment. He was “the weeping prophet” and was often in trouble with the rebellious people of Israel. Yet through it all, Jeremiah wrote:

You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
or speak anymore in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot (Jeremiah 20:7-9).

The observant reader will note that this prophet was angry with the one who made him a prophet. He would rather do something else, since the cost is so high and painful. But, indeed, he cannot! I have sometimes decided to serve God even when I did not like him very much. He is my Lord, whatever my feelings may be. I’m grateful that I have not felt this way for some time now.

Similarly, when Paul entered Athens, he was upset at their idolatry. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Athens was not at the height of her glory, but was still a center of philosophy and learning. It was the home of Zeno, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as well as being a center of culture given its architecture, poetry, and more. Yet Paul was more exercised by its idolatry than by its celebrated achievements. As a loyal Jew, he knows that God commanded his people not have no other God besides himself and to not make idols (Exodus 20:4-6; see also Romans 1:18-32; Isaiah 42:8).

But instead of throwing a theological tantrum, Paul channels the first in his bones into courageous and brilliant witness. Luke tells us that because of his “distress,” Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). He went on to give his classic apologetic address at Mars Hill, in which he continues to reason with his well-educated and philosophically-astute audience (Acts 17:22-34).

Many more examples of “fire in the bones” can be culled from Scripture. Instead of doing that, let me say that this divinely-authorized fire is never bombastic, arrogant, or mean-spirited, since that would mean grieving the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:13-26). Rather, the fire is a holy intensity to explain and promote the truth of the living God, come what may. Let me reflect on what this idea has meant in my life and ministry.

The fire is from God, not myself. I ask God to give it to me and to protect me from vainglory and self-promotion. As a writer, teacher, and preacher, I want to make a wide, deep, long and holy mark on the world. That cannot be done through the work of the flesh and the ways of this fallen world. I have long said that we should pray that our influence would never exceed our competence or our calling.

The fire burns even when all else is dark. At the worst times of my journey through my first wife’s dementia, I still yearned to see God’s truth shed abroad in people lives and in the world at large. Yes, the fire dwindled a bit at times, but it could not be put out. What else could I live for? After many defected from Jesus’ ministry, he asked Peter

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69).

During many years of hardship and fatigue, I would often intone this verse about myself from Ecclesiastes, “The grasshopper drags himself along” (Ecclesiastes 12:5), which is part of a poetic description of the trials of aging. But the grasshopper still had fire in his exoskeleton. Now, thank God, that is no longer my go-to verse; but the fire remains. I used to sign my letters to a good friend as “The Grasshopper” and he would address me as such. Now that I am experimenting with happiness, I’ve asked him to give up that appellation and I no longer use it myself. (See my essay at Christianity Today, “The Risk of Happiness.”)

The fire is a creative spark for ministry. Paul told the Romans: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). Yes, I teach at a seminary where many other Christians minister. I write for magazine for which many other Christians write. I preach at churches were many other Christians have preached. But I seek to bring Christianity places where it is rare or scares, such as in secular publications, in the secular classroom, and talking to those who may seek quite far from the gospel. Ecclesiastes has encouraged me in this.

Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
  Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

Sow your seed in the morning. . . .
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well (Ecclesiastes 11:3, 6).

What the text advises for finances, I apply to ministry ventures. I ask if I can speak at a Buddhist university. They ignore me (twice). I submit a creative article to a secular philosophy magazine. They say Yes! And so it goes, the first remaining constant in my ventures, however quixotic they sometimes seem. (See my article, “Casting Your Bread on the Waters” from The Christian Research Journal).

If you have no fire for the things of God, ask him for that fire. Jesus promised:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:7-12).

One way to acquire the fire is to discern and emulate its works in others. Of course, the biblical characters of Jeremiah, Paul, and, of course, Jesus, will warm turn up the heat in our cool bones, but there are many exemplars down through history. I have found that the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer (1912-84) to be exemplary. He had fire in his bones, but also tears in his eyes. It could write in The Great Evangelical Disaster that “truth demands confrontation,” but add “loving confrontation.” I recommend, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Colin Duriez (Crossway, 2008).

Whatever it takes, find the fire—and you will never be the same. Nor will the world be the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

In Conversation with Dr. Donald T. Williams

Dr. Donald T. Williams is a friend of mine, a kindred spirit, and a Renaissance man, being well versed in literary studies, philosophy, and theology. He can recite sections of classic poems and novels from memory and even composes sonnets on airplane rides. Professor Williams is the author of nine books and has written the most extensive exposition and analysis of C. S. Lewis’s theology (Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis) as well as a book on Tolkien called, An Encouraging Thought. The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. Because I am one of the sad people who could never read Lord of the Rings and have been feeling bad about it for forty or more years, I read An Encouraging Thought and was encouraged by it. Perhaps I can bluff my way through Tolkien a bit now.

He holds a BA in English from Taylor University, an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a PhD in Medieval and Renaissance Literature from the University of Georgia. He is the R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. I was intrigued to see how he would answer the following questions. You will be as well. I encourage you read his books, see him lecture, and invite him to speak on the many subjects about which he is competent.

Bold print = Douglas Groothuis, Professor at Denver Seminary and author of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive case for Biblical Faith and other books

light print = Donald T. Williams.

  1. What is God’s calling on your life?

When I was in high school I had a really good pastor, Paul R. Van Gorder (later an associate teacher with Radio Bible Class).  He did such a good job of explaining the Scriptures and showing the majesty of their theology, the beauty of the Christ they presented, and the practical relevance of their teaching for life, that I found myself praying, “Lord, it would be really neat if someday you would let me do for others what this man is doing for me.”  That was the first hint I had that I might be called to the ministry.

But I learned later that it was not the beginning of that calling at all.  By the time I was in college, I loved Jesus, the Gospel, and the Bible, and thought that there was nothing I would rather do than preach them, teach them, and write about them if God would open the doors.  And it seemed that He was doing so.  It was only later that I learned what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”

The day I graduated from seminary (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, June, 1976)), my father took me aside.  “Your grandfather,” he said, “always wanted a son to go into the ministry.  But I was not called in that way.  Then when you were born, he took you into his arms and said, ‘This is the one.  This boy will be the answer to my prayers.’  He died when you were five.  And I have never told you this, because I did not want it to influence you—if you were called, I wanted it to be from the Lord and not from some pressure we had put on you.  But today, I think I should tell you this story.”  

Make of that what you will.  I was floored.  I still don’t think I have ever quite gotten over that moment.  And I am forever grateful for my pastor’s example, my grandfather’s faith, my Dad’s wisdom, and God’s grace, without which the other factors would have been wholly in vain. 

  1. How would you describe yourself as a scholar and communicator?

As a scholar I am truth-driven, and I think that truth is never fully seen as truth until it is seen in relation to God and His glory, which means being seen in relation to Christ.  So I don’t fit very well into the scholarly world, even the Evangelical scholarly world.  I am always trying to promote Renaissance (a recovery of the life of the mind), Reformation (a recovery of sound doctrine), and Revival (a recovery of vital Christian spirituality).  I’ll pursue those goals through any medium open to me, whether it be a book, a scholarly article, a sermon, a lecture, a conversation, or a poem.  I consider them all of a piece.  I hope each one gives some small glimpse of the Vision: the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  

  1. Do you really read Lord of the Rings every year, and if so why?

I read The Lord of the Rings twice the year I discovered it, 1968, and have read it almost every year since (I think I’ve missed two or three).  I’ve written a whole book on why: An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018).  In brief, it keeps me grounded in the ability to see the world as it is: full of goodness and beauty by its creation but corrupted and fallen, subject to horrible evil but never without hope because “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.”  It is the setting of a Quest that is “not wholly in vain.”  I am subject to melancholy and pessimism and need to be reminded that there is a Light from beyond the circles of the world that Sauron’s clouds can never put out—not just by being told that it is so, but by being shown it: by having the reality of it presented to me through incarnational imagination.  

  1. What should every Christian know about the power of the imagination?

C. S. Lewis taught that reason is the organ of truth, and imagination is the organ of meaning.  Reason tells me whether a proposition corresponds with or contradicts other propositions I have come to accept—more importantly, whether it corresponds with or contradicts the world itself.  That correspondence is truth.  But without imagination I would not know what those propositions meant in the first place. I think he was right. 

As I said above, I don’t just need to be told the truth; I also need to be shown it.  When imagination faithfully does that, it makes it possible for us to have meaningful truth, which not only convinces us but moves us.

For more on this topic see my essay “Meaningful Truth: The Critical Role of Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 31:6 (Nov./Dec. 2018): 34-37.   

  1. If you could design a college curriculum for the humanities, what would it include?

Latin.  Logic.  The classics.  Scientific literacy.  Competence in all those skills, not just exposure to them.  Then as much history, philosophy, and literature as you can fit in on that foundation (assuming these course are not taught by Post-Modern ideological hacks more interested in indoctrination than education). 

I’ve heard admissions counselors from seminaries, law schools, and journalism schools consistently give the same advice to college students:  out of English, Philosophy, and History, major in one and minor in one of the other two.  That will be the best preparation for graduate study you can get.  If it’s taught right, it’s also pretty good preparation for life.  If you know how to think and you are not always reinventing the wheel when you do your thinking, i.e., not doing it in a vacuum but in the light of what we have learned over the years, you can excel at just about anything.

For more on this topic, see my essay “To Spread His Glory: Four Theses on Christian Education,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 32:4 (July/August 2019): 30-34.

  1. What do you find most important about the work and life of C.S. Lewis?

Nobody ever has outdone Lewis as a role model for the integration of reason and imagination.  We have some really good rational apologists.   We have not done so well as an Evangelical movement in fostering those who work with imagination.  But what nobody in any movement has ever done as well as Lewis is show us both working in tandem the way they are supposed to do.  You get superb rational arguments in the popular apologetics advanced by means of apt analogies that come from the imagination (the hall and rooms of a house for the church and its denominations).  You get rational apologetic argument seamlessly embedded in works of fantasy like Narnia (Professor Kirk’s use of the Trilemma, Puddleglum’s use of the ontological argument with the Green Witch).  Neither set of books would be as good without the cooperation of both reason and imagination.  

I’ve written a whole book on this and other reasons why Lewis matters:  Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Press, 2016).    

  1. What is the biggest mistake Christians make in the realm of the intellect?

It is twofold.  First we despise the intellect, and then we over-react to that rejection of it by trying too hard to be seen as respectable by our secular peers in the academy.  For too many of our Evangelical intellectuals, that quest for respect drives our work more than the quest for faithfulness.  It is a pathology we see playing out again and again.  Respect from the enemies of truth is not affirmation; it is shame.  

  1. What are the five books that have influenced you most and why?

It is hard to say if these are really the top five—a number of others are complaining loudly that they have an equal claim to be in the list.  But these five were certainly very important in my development.  In chronological order of composition:

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  I was prejudiced against it when I first read it, but I discovered to my surprise not a man in love with religious determinism but a man in love with the glory of God and the grace of Christ.  He also bases his systematics on being the greatest exegete of his generation.  Even if you don’t always end up agreeing with him, you need to learn these things from him!

Sir Philip Sidney, Defense of Poesy.  The foundation of a Christian approach to literature and to education.  The philosopher has the precept, but he is “so misty to be conceived that you may wade in him until you be old before you find sufficient reason to be honest.”  The Historian deals with concrete reality, but is limited to what has been and cannot talk (as a Historian) about what ought to be.  “Now doth the peerless Poet perform both.”  Like the Historian, he deals with a story conveyed by concrete imagery, but unlike the Historian and like the Philosopher, he is free to pursue the Ideal.  Thus he wins the prize in pursuit of “the end of learning,” which is “virtuous action.”   I wrote a whole book, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012), trying to show why this matters.

C. S. Lewis, Miracles.  Not Lewis’s most popular work of apologetics (that would be Mere Christianity), but in my mind his best, the most profound, and most stimulating.  This is how apologetics should be done.  He not only teaches you the content of apologetics; he teaches you (by example) the craft.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.  We already discussed this book above.

Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There.  I’ll discuss this book below.

Honorable Mention:  Augustine, Confessions; Dante, The Divine Comedy; Baldassare Castiglione, The Boke of the Courtier; Shakespeare, Works; John Milton, Paradise Lost; Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise on the Religious Affections; Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems; G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man;  Robert Frost, Poems; C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man; The Chronicles of Narnia; The Space Trilogy; Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge.

9. Who is the most important author that Christians never read?

It’s getting to be Francis Schaeffer.  I used to teach a course called Humanities 103, which was a survey of Western culture heavily informed by Schaeffer’s cultural apologetic, required of all freshmen.  For a quarter of a century after his death, they would start out knowing that he was an important apologist and opponent of abortion, and a few would have already read him.  Starting about ten years ago, they would never even have heard of him without that course.

Why does it matter?  Schaeffer understood that in a post-Christian, post-truth world, Christians could no longer afford to be ignorant of issues once the province only of philosophy majors.  He understood how worldview impacts life and culture.  He understood that unless we are presenting the Gospel as “true truth,” we are not presenting the Gospel.  He understood that unless the Lordship of Christ touches all of life and all of culture, it is an empty slogan.  He understood these things with a combination of cultural insight and biblical faithfulness that was unprecedented in his day and which we have not seen since.  We still need very much to hear his voice.

We should read all of Schaeffer, but we should start with The God Who is There and True Spirituality, the books he held as the foundation of all his work.  Later provocative books like The Great Evangelical Disaster or The Christian Manifesto read very differently as the extensions and applications of principles laid down there than they do in isolation.  Schaeffer might have been naïve to expect people to read his books in the order he preferred, but friends of his work today will do well to urge their students to read The God Who is There first and often.

Dr. Williams’s latest book is The Young Christian’s Survival Guide: Common Questions Young Christians are Asked about God, the Bible, and the Christian Faith Answered (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2019).