Monday, June 9, 2014

Geerhardus Vos' 5-Volume Reformed Dogmatics May Surprise You


Geerhardus Vos wrote his Reformed Dogmatics in Dutch, by hand, in 1896. Fourteen years later some unknown individual transcribed Vos’ work into print in Dutch. For the last 103 years this printed work has been inaccessible to theology students who never got around to learning Dutch. It is to the high praise of Logos Bible Software that this important work of Reformed theology is now being made available in English. At this point, only the first volume, encompassing Doctrine of God proper and the first 80 pages of the second volume, dealing with Anthropology have been made available to those who have purchased this set.

Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics holds two big surprises for its readers in terms of its clarity and its format.

As to the first surprise: the book’s clarity. Amongst my fellow seminarians the name Geerhardus Vos conjures up impressions of great, rich biblical theology. But it also brings memories of a borderline incomprehensible writing style. Those who have read Vos’ Biblical Theology or his seminal Pauline Eschatology may relish the opportunity to learn once again from the master. They may not, however, be too excited about actually reading it, as Vos doesn’t have a reputation for being the most lucid of writers.

Because of this reputation, right out of the gate, the greatest delight I had from reading Reformed Dogmatics was in the undeniable clarity of the writing and argumentation that Vos employs. It is common to think of Vos as primarily a biblical theologian. His most important works that have been published so far have been in this vein. But the simple clarity of Reformed Dogmatics causes me to wonder if his true passion might have been in the systematics courses that he taught for so many years.

I am quite certain that Richard Gaffin deserves much of the credit for his work on the final form of the translation. I know that Dr. Gaffin is experienced at translating from Dutch into English, and his skills are put to excellent use here.

The second surprise of Reformed Dogmatics is its format. The book is not written in a traditional way (as one might find in say, Calvin’s Institutes or Bavinck’s own Reformed Dogmatics. Instead, the book is written in a question-and-answer format more similar to Turretin’s Institutes. At first I was distressed by this, feeling initially that I was reading class notes or scraps of ideas. This is thankfully not the case. When Vos gives a brief answer, it is welcome. And when he gives long answers it is because a lengthy case needs to be made. The format is welcome because it contributes to a sense that the answers have been carefully organized. I quickly grew used to it.

If I was to make one complaint (and this would be minor) it is that many of the questions that Vos raises are not symmetrical. There is something thoughtful and thorough about the sorts of questions that Turretin raises in his Institutes that seem to be missing in Vos’ own work here. This means that some subjects seem to be covered a bit more thoroughly than others. As an example, Vos asks the question, “How do you refute Sabellianism?” and he gives a four-part answer that is succinct, well organized, and exceedingly helpful. But there is no similar question for the converse error of Sebellianism—in this case Tritheism. This may be because tritheism simply is not a realistic option, but neither should Sebellianism be. In a systematic treatment, I do think that addressing this question would have made sense.

Vos was slightly younger than Herman Bavinck, whose own Reformed Dogmatics we know all too well. It seems that Vos’ discussions of numerous loci of theology (especially divine passibility and atemporality) line up very happily with those of Bavinck. If Bavinck reflects the mainstream of Dutch theological thought it would appear that Vos reflects a similar approach to theology, albeit with a different didactic method. Many students I have talked to find Bavinck’s discussion of some issues hard to follow, as he spends much time talking about other views before he gets to discussing his own view. In this respect Vos presents a contrast to Bavinck in terms of his brevity and clarity.

It is my hope that support and interest in Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics will continue to grow in the Reformed community. I am enthusiastic to have the guiding voice of Geerhardus Vos added to discussions not only of Biblical Theology but Systematics as well. It is a subject which Vos taught for many years and one which those of us who were not his students firsthand now know he was ably suited to.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Believing is Hard

Jamie Smith's book How (Not) To Be Secular is a shortening, a condensing, and an attempt at simplifying Charles Taylor's 900 page behemoth A Secular Age. I have only begun reading Smith's book, but something important has stood out regarding Taylor's approach. Taylor basically says that when most western people think of secularism today they're thinking of a neutral, nonsectarian space or standpoint. But Taylor says that society today is a different kind of secular -- what he calls "secular3." He says that a society is secular3 "insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested)."

This is a bit like the toothpaste in the tube problem. There was a time when exclusive humanism was implausible to the vast majority of people. They just did not live in a world where denial of the supernatural made plausible sense of the world to them. However, once exclusive humanism did become plausible, that humanism became an ever-present, haunting possibility. Christian belief has therefore become more challenging because other approaches to reality now exist as plausible alternatives which didn't exist before.

What Smith does early on in the book is point out that the problem of belief cuts both ways. Yes, it is harder to be a Christian today than it has ever been before, but it's also equally hard to be an unbeliever, too. He uses the work of David Foster Wallace as representative of the fact that life is much more muddy, grey, and difficult than either the New Atheists or Religious Fundamentalists would portray it to be. There is an ongoing transcendent haunting that takes place in the heart of the skeptic. People yearn for transcendence, but they largely despise the source of transcendence. This yearning for transcendence is everywhere around us and easily demonstrable. There is truly a deep, yearning hunger within humanity for more than what we can see. But there is a cynicism and an infectious pessimism that essentially says that we cannot have this transcendence that we want because we no longer find it to be plausible. This yearning, then, is interpreted by some (one thinks of Richard Dawkins) as a sickness or a parasite that humanity must find a way to shake.

Viewers of the TV show House may recall that the nihilistic lead character, Gregory House, goes into every situation with a head-first rationalism and almost always enters conversations with religious individuals trouncing them with rationalism and mocking them for their beliefs. But nearly every time he in some measure reaches the end of the episode and finds himself rebuffed for his cynicism and a bit in doubt about whether he really understands what life is like. This metaphysical tension never quite goes away on the show.

One episode in particular features a priest who doesn't believe in God. He is an atheist. In one poignant moment at the end of the episode, House, being his usual self, tells the priest, in spite of the massive amount of coincidences that went into his healing, "Don't worry your life will go back to sucking soon enough. Everything that happened can be rationally explained." To which the priest responds with a measure of doubt in his voice, "I know. It's just... a lot of coincidences." The atheist is shaken in his faith. The atheist, the skeptic, the unbeliever, will always be haunted by transcendence because he was made to know God and yet lives in a time in which it is culturally plausible to reject that being who can rationally account for transcendence.

This is what it is to inhabit the secular world today. It is hard to be a believer, sure, but it sure is hard to be an unbeliever, as well, constantly dogged by the memory of a transcendent and holy God. The people we meet need to hear that there are answers to their questions and they need to hear us without shame or embarrassment tell them that God's Word has the answers they are looking for. But they also need to hear us say that we know that the search for answers isn't always easy, and we don't always have the answers to every question, and that's okay. Part of the challenge of living in this day and age is that the answers don't always come easily.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: The Last Days of Jesus by Taylor and Köstenberger

Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor haven’t broken the world of scholarship wide open with The Final Days of Jesus (and that's a good thing!). They haven’t done anything controversial or scandalous with this book. They haven’t chosen to repeat the liberal skeptical tropes that we’re used to seeing from people like Bart Ehrman, and as such we’re unlikely to see Taylor and Köstenberger on the evening news or being interviewed on Nightline (is that show still on?). Instead, this book The Final Days of Jesus presents a helpful introductory timeline of the last week of Jesus’ life straight from the biblical record.

The book is organized by days of the week, beginning with Sunday, March 29th, A.D. 33 and going until Sunday, April 5th, A.D. 33. Each chapter contains the biblical material of what occurred on each day of the week leading to Christ’s death along with helpful commentary by Dr. Köstenberger. Just as an example of how the chapters are laid out, Friday, April 3rd A.D. begins with a section on the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. It is followed by all of the biblical accounts of this event from Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-52, Luke 22:47-53, and John 18:2-12. This is followed by a section of commentary on these events from Köstenberger and a map of the area of Gethsemane and showing the path that was probably taken from Gethsemane to the palace of the high priest. Next in the chapter comes the Jewish trial of Jesus with its relevant Scripture passage from John (since he’s the only one who records that event) just as the previous section was laid out and so on. In this sense, the book is interested in bringing out details, discussing harmonization issues, and keeping things as narratively driven as possible.

All of this does seem somewhat academic, I’ll confess. What comes out of the reading, however, is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to really drink up what the Scriptures say, laid out in a helpful, chronologically structured book. It isn’t long. It isn’t hard reading. It also isn’t excessively defensive in the apologetic sense (though harmonizations between accounts are dealt with, when necessary, in a secondary way), which I think your average reader will appreciate. They approach the biblical record acknowledging slight differences in the way the authors record the events. But they encourage readers to adopt “a charitable rather than critical reading,” which they say “demonstrates that the evangelists are each accurately referring to the same thing rather than contradicting one another.” This is a refreshing approach compared to the mainstream NT scholarship that dominates in the academy today.

Although I had this review written last week, I purposely decided to keep from publishing my review of it until after the Easter weekend. I’m a Presbyterian and we’re famously obnoxious for our rebellion against the church calendar (as well as publicly beating our breasts at times: "Thank God I am not like these other men who observe the church calendar!"). But my reason for waiting until after Easter was not to grate on the nerves of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who would expect this sort of thing to go online before Easter. Rather, I did it because this book isn’t just important to read at Easter. The death and resurrection of Jesus is not merely something to think about during the month of April. These events are central to the whole of redemptive history. They are the glue the holds the covenants of God and His promises of New Creation throughout the Old Testament prophets together. As such, they deserve our attention throughout the year. My hope is that Christians will be motivated by this book to not merely “get in the Easter spirit” during one particular season of the year, but that every Sunday would be an occasion for us to meditate and think upon the death burial and resurrection of Christ. A book like this is just the tool to help us do that. I commend this book to be used by Christians all year long.

[This book was provided by Crossway to me for review purposes.]

Friday, April 11, 2014

Book Review: New Testament Biblical Theology by G.K. Beale

A New Testament Biblical Theology was a book 22 years in the making. One could argue that Beale’s commentary on Revelation alone would be enough to cement his place of importance among the great exegetes (Reformed or otherwise) of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The commentary is an excellent picture of how to read the New Testament and Old Testament faithfully in light of one another. If this is true of his Revelation commentary, his New Testament Biblical Theology is further confirmation of the exegetical prowess of a theologian who no longer needs to prove himself.

Even beginning with the subtitle of this book, G. K. Beale makes clear that he is no dispensationalist. Rather, Beale (like Ridderbos and Vos before him) sees the Old Testament as something that is not to be set in contrast to the New. It is to be seen as a continuation or “unfolding” of what was already there in seed form in the Old. Of central importance to Beale’s project is developing upon Vos’ own conviction that the message of new creation is the central focus of the Old and New Testaments. He says explicitly where this volume stands in relation to Vos: “The present volume is my attempt to develop further Vos’ program, since he never wrote a full biblical theology of the NT” (20).

Beale spends the first chapter buttressing his own conviction of how the Old Testament “storyline” (5) can be summarized:
The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance his kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory (62).
This quote is crucial for comprehending the rest of the book. All parts of the OT, then, serve to move with and build upon this dominant, overarching metanarrative. Notice the eschatological tone that the Old Testament takes on when it is read in this light: the Old Testament storyline has direction, movement, and inertia, moving from creation, to fall, to new creation, and this tone dominates the rest of Beale’s work in NTBT.

This Old Testament metanarrative, of course, unfolds into the New Testament, which Beale summarizes as follows:
Jesus’ life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit have launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new-creational reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God’s glory (188).
The central theme of new creation isn’t replaced by this NT storyline, of course, but rather brought to fruit. The entire book is particularly interested in “trac[ing] out these major eschatological and biblical-theological notions” (188). The notion of “new creation” for the purposes of displaying God’s glory dominates the book, receiving special attention at the end in chapter 28.

Richard Gaffin, who was similarly building upon the work of Vos and Ridderbos, argued that “history has reached its eschatological realization in the death and especially the resurrection of Christ” (Resurrection and Redemption, 13). Beale is in agreement with this sentiment, and it shows in how he structures the remainder of the book. Out of the 10 parts into which the book is organized, the term “new Creation” appears in the title of 7, which are geared toward exposing God’s new creational purposes in different redemptive-historical areas. Beale doesn’t simply argue that new creation is central and then structure his work as though it were not so. Rather, for Beale the Old Testament, as well as the New, reveals the progressive outworking of God’s new creational purposes. In this schema, the death and resurrection of Christ become the inauguration of that new creational purpose, and the second coming of Christ becomes the consummation of that new creational movement. There is no downplaying the centrality of the resurrection to what Beale is arguing. Whenever the term “new creation” is used by Beale, it is nearly impossible to separate it from “resurrection,” although there may be redemptive-historical differences between them. There is not one without the other. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may already be a student of Beale’s predecessors.

If there is any misstep in the whole work, it may be in chapter 15, his chapter on the Inaugurated Latter-Day Justification. In one part of that chapter, Beale discusses the relationship of works to final justification. In the process, he makes an odd statement on page 518, where he says, speaking of Romans 2:3–10 :
It seems best to understand Paul’s statement in verse 13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” to refer to the final judgment when those who have faith in Christ and possess good works, though not perfect, will be “justified” or “vindicated” on the basis of those works (italics added).
Beale’s affirmation here that the final eschatological judgment will be “on the basis of” the believer’s good works rather than “in accordance with” the believer’s good works is difficult to reconcile with his prior affirmation of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to believers (see 471–477). When Richard Gaffin, who holds a similar view of final justification to Beale, speaks on the subject, he says what seems to be quite the opposite: “[I]n that future judgment, their good works will not be the ground or basis of their acquittal.” I will leave it to readers to make sense of how the rather odd statement in question fits into Beale’s overall perspective on justification; I am quite at a loss to discern the answer myself.

Even in light of the above-cited shortcoming, this book really is a treasure trove of biblical-theological and redemptive-historical insights. Reading this book during my first year of seminary was profoundly formative, and it increased my confidence that the Bible could be read as a whole elegant tapestry and not as a patchwork quilt. Even in light of the above-mentioned confusing statement regarding final justification, I would still recommend this work highly. The fact that this book is now available in a searchable format on Logos further increases its high value to both pastor and student. Even if one doesn’t plan to read it all the way through, it can be very helpful to use the Scripture index and see how Beale works with particular texts in their redemptive-historical context.

Being able to read the numerous Scripture references on the fly simply by hovering over them is a feature so exciting that I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I own a physical copy of this text, with highlights all over the place and writing in the margins, but the truth is that—at 1,000 pages—it’s quite cumbersome for a bus trip or even a ride across town in a backpack or briefcase. Being able to put this on my iPad with Logos, and read the Scripture references immediately within the text, all in a searchable and digital format, is well worth the repurchase price tag. If you have this book and find yourself using it already, don’t hesitate to pick it up on Logos.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Evangelicals Seeing the Fault Lines

Rachel Held Evans quit evangelicalism. For like, three days, anyway. But she's back now. Angered at the Christian response to World Vision's change/non-change of its policy on same-sex marriage, she is evidently apoplectic. "Instead of fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, I want to prepare tables in the wilderness, where everyone is welcome and where we can go on discussing (and debating!) the Bible, science, sexuality, gender, racial reconciliation, justice, church, and faith, but without labels, without wars." I've said this before, but this really just sounds like she's describing the liberal mainline churches. She wouldn't have to fight any culture wars over there, at least. They've already capitulated, so there's no war to be had. But I digress. That isn't to be my focus.

I'm intrigued by the idea of someone dropping evangelicalism. If RHE did "step away" from the evangelical table, how would that look any differently for her? The last I read, she doesn't even go to church (much like the Blue Like Jazz dude or Rob Bell or my friends who were reading Brian McLaren back when it was hip). There is no "evangelical roll call," after all, where you can remove your name. There is no President of the Evangelicals who will note your departure. It is no denomination with a written set of views that you can compare to see who does and doesn't belong. The idea of evangelicalism has really been precariously held together over the past fifty years with a bit of shoe-string and duct tape. As long as everyone who called themselves "evangelicals" believed and behaved like evangelicals were supposed to, the movement had some assumed identity.

But things have begun to visibly splinter. Some, such as RHE, desire to keep the name of 'evangelical' but allow and even celebrate unrepentant sinners (note that I say unrepentant). This has become something of a fault line for the movement. Others think that "the bible" itself is up for debate. Yet another fault line. Women's ordination... you guessed it. Fault line. Issue after issue have crept into the evangelical discussion until one day evangelicals raised their heads, looked around, and realized they were running a china shop over the San Andreas Fault line. The problem, of course, is one of definition. As Trueman tautologically put it, "If evangelicalism has no boundaries, then no boundaries [can be] transgressed."

Way back in the olden days (2011 to be exact) Carl Trueman released a prescient little book titled The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In that book he argued that evangelicalism is bound to fail as a coherent movement because it cannot agree on what the "evangel" even is. This problem will become progressively more evident as cultural pressures push in until some just can't take it anymore:
There may be a bright side to evangelicalism's decline. When the fog has lifted and it becomes clear that all talk of evangelicalism as a clearly defined movement was a category mistake...then new alliances may emerge...Once various groups are no longer competing for ownership of the evangelical brand, they might be able to assess one another in a less defensive manner...The cultural referee is about to call time out on evangelicals and evangelicalism, if not traditional religions entirely. No evangelical leader or organization can prevent it. The gay lobby, militant secularists, and atheists who deride any religious belief as distasteful will force Christians either into capitulation to their demands or a sectarianism that thrusts us to the margins. Abandoning the myth of the evangelical movement can only help us, as it will free us to be who we truly are and to speak the gospel in all of its richness as we understand it. This is what our day and generation needs. 
Carl Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, pg. 40-41.
Trueman is right. Groups who are not content to let evangelicals remain on the sidelines are forcing them to take sides on all of these issues. Some are capitulating or assimilating, following a hybrid, Borg-like ethic that (in their minds) looks like the old evangelicalism (because it embraces "love"!) but functions like moral libertinism (because it doesn't know how to tell anybody "no"!). The rest are left calling themselves evangelicals, functioning in the older ways with historical precedent, but all the while being slandered by the Borg (who claim to only want peace and no war) as unscientific, misogynistic, racist, justice-hating troglodytes. This uneasy union of evangelicals has been destined to fall because it is a boundary-less coalition without creed or confession or standards of any kind. It's been a gentleman's arrangement up to this point, you might say. RHE holds a significant voice within what one might call emergent evangelicalism. The fact that she spent three days wanting to get out of town over the evidently non-negotiable issue of gay marriage says something about how deep the fracture has grown.

I'm with Trueman. The sooner Christians realize that the term "evangelical" is empty, nebulous, undefined, and unhelpful, the sooner Christians can start to be honest about their views and engaging with one another in a way that allows authenticity and (almost paradoxically) less infighting.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Looking for Nutrition at the Drive-Thru

All over the Christian world, critics are rising up to discuss Darren Aronofsky’s new film Noah. Alan Kurschner says the film is straight-up blasphemy. Ken Ham complains that recommending the movie, at all, conflicts with Christian consistency in arguing against abortion. Barbara Nicolosi says that the film contains “dumb, oversimplified liberal utopia nonsense." The list of complaints goes on.

Just to show that I’m not a huge fanboy (nor a full-on hater) of the film, before proceeding further, I’ll post my response when somebody, elsewhere, wanted to know what I thought of it (especially with reference to Nicolosi’s piece linked to above):
I just saw it a couple hours ago. I loved the first 2/3 of the movie. It was a visual spectacle. We may never see the flood rendered in such artistic beauty and simultaneous horror again. There were scenes reminiscent of Gustav Dore's pictures of judgment. I also didn't mind the rock people. I look at this film as another flood story comparable to the Epoch of Gilgamesh. It isn't accurate, but it is an opportunity to think about God's wrath, about coming judgment, and about the truth that God really did wipe mankind from the face of the earth because of its evil. 
Also, the complaint that Noah is a left-wing "environmentalist" in the film ignores the fact that God placed Adam in the garden not to trash it and make it uninhabitable, but to have respect for it because he respected the creator. As Beale says in his New Testament Biblical Theology, Adam was placed in the garden to be a prophet, priest, and king. Part of his priestly duty was caring for the garden as well as the animals. The original environmentalist (properly defined, of course)! Frankly, the complaint that she makes calling it "oversimplified liberal utopia nonsense" shows that the one writing is more influenced by her own political tradition than what the Bible says about man's relationship to the creation. 
But the last 1/3 of the movie? A true mess. The decision to turn Noah into the film's antagonist was an interesting but horrible decision. Aronofsky must have seen it as an opportunity to explore Noah's motives or something, but it just came off all wrong. 
The story was already dark. Aronofsky made it unnecessarily darker. Although I sort of like the idea of a theatre full of nominally religious people looking for something "positive and encouraging" and instead being given an existential schooling. All in all, it was amazingly made, beautiful to behold, horrific in its depiction of judgment, and not such a great story by the end.
Although I’ve been interested in seeing the movie for years (ever since I heard it was being made) I am not a fanboy. I am critical of the film, but I try to criticize in a balanced way, keeping in mind that it is a movie and taking it for what it is intended to be. The criticisms I am seeing from many conservative bloggers (whom I do love and respect as my brothers and sisters in the Lord) remind me of the person who goes into McDonalds expecting a healthy, delicious, well-balanced meal containing all four food groups and then storming out in anger when they wonder why everything is greasy and there isn’t any tofu on the menu. The desire for good food is good, but they are looking for it in the wrong place!

Anybody who goes to see a movie (any movie)…a religious movie, a secular movie, a good movie, a bad movie… should not expect a heaping helping of truth. As with all art that is produced by sinners it’s going to get some stuff right and some stuff wrong (often intentionally so). Sometimes the art is self-consciously dumb like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. Sometimes it takes itself very seriously (think of Michaelangelo’s statue of David or every movie ever made by Christopher Nolan).

Furthermore, to accuse this movie of blasphemy seems a bit confused. Perhaps somebody wants to accuse Darren Aronofsky himself, personally, of blasphemy, but does he actually believe the things being depicted in the film? I doubt it. It's fiction. It doesn't say "based on a true story" in the credits. In fact, the only things that this movie and the Bible share in common are a flood and a few characters' names. I don’t think Aronofsky actually believes there were rock giants who protected Noah while he built the ark. He is a filmmaker, not a documentarian. A visual artist, not a journalist. A storyteller, not an eyewitness. And in the case of Noah, his storytelling isI would concedenot in top form. The director himself claimed that this is the "least Biblical biblical film ever made." Some have taken this as an opportunity to condemn the film, but in fact it shows that there is a self-awareness that this movie isn't trying to present the actual story, but a radical rewriting. In point of fact, this movie has more in common with Lord of the Rings than anything we find in the Bible.

While I’m at it, I want to just mention in passing that comparing a book to a movie is like comparing a painting to a statue. It’s two completely different mediumsboth art. To make a statue of the Mona Lisa might (and that's a huge "might") be interesting, but it would also be something completely different from the originalperhaps barely worthy of comparison.

I’m not interested in defending Noah as great art, or as an accurate religious statement. I don’t have to. It’s just a movie. It is not the preaching of the Word, it is not the Sacraments, and it is not prayer. These are the means that God has given his church for her edification and upbuilding. It is in these areas that Christians should demand theological integrity and where battle-lines should be drawn. If you are taking a youth group to this movie (or any movie) because you want them to be fed spiritually, you're out of your mind. (The same goes for taking them to Newsboys concerts as well, by the way.)

I’ve written previously that Christians expect too much from their music, and the same is true of movies. When you go to the Waffle House, expect waffles. When you go to the steak house, understand that they serve steak there. And when you go to a cinemaplex, whose walls are covered with posters with giant robots, wizards, and men shooting webs out of their hands, understand that this place is meant to do one thing well: entertain.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Keeping Your Head Above Water in Seminary

I won’t hold myself up as the pinnacle of time-management. I’m not perfect, and I don’t claim to be. However, I'm quite a few semesters into school and haven't lost my mind yet. I'm getting my assignments in on time and doing well in classes. I often get asked how I have time to read books beyond what we're assigned in class. I may be well-adjusted enough to give a few tips. I've had to become organized out of necessity. I'm the kind of person to get easily stressed out if I have too many things on my plate. I want to do everything well and if I know I have things undone it drives me crazy until they've been handled. My first tip, of course, is don't waste hours and hours of your time watching sports. If that's not enough, you may need to just read on and see the rest of what I say.

My first year of seminary was very stressful. This was for a variety of reasons - the same sorts of problems and concerns that occupy most seminarians that I hang out with, really. I’m not special or unique. But my prone-ness toward stress drove me to find ways to be more efficient with my time. Leon Brown has written a blog post where he highlights the importance of time management in Seminary. In light of the topic he’s brought up I thought that I would share a few of the most important practical changes (most of them tech-related) that I’ve made in my life that have been used by the Lord to maintain my sanity. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it is the big four.

E-Mail
When you click to read your e-mail, what do you see? Are there a couple that are waiting to be cleared out, or are there 3,000 that are there to stay? When I first came to seminary, after reading an e-mail I would just leave it in my inbox unless it was junk or spam. I didn’t sort it, and I relied on my memory when I needed to go back to something in an e-mail at a later date.

What changed my life was using an app that lets you file your e-mails you want to save, delete the ones that don’t matter or have your email sent back later. I use Mailbox for iOS. I won’t go on and on about this, but if you use an e-mail app that still leaves your inbox filled with thousands of e-mails you need another system. This program encourages you to have a zero inbox. Probably the most important thing about this program is that you can set the e-mails that you need to respond to later (but don’t have the time) to return to you at a later time when you can deal with it. It forces you to confront what is in your inbox. This means that any time there is something in your inbox, it is something that needs to be dealt with. It saves you time down the road and—more importantly—saves you from the mental energy of trying to keep track of e-mails you need to deal with in your mind.

The Seminarian’s Calendar
If you have a calendar app on your computer and aren’t using it, I don’t know how you get through the day. When I first started at RTS I didn’t do well with time management. I didn’t think very far ahead. I took the semester one week at a time and didn’t think much further ahead than that. It was a mess and resulted in a couple of final papers that had been cobbled together over the course of a couple weeks instead of being allowed to simmer throughout the semester. By the second semester, though, I’d figured out that I needed to sit down for a few hours with all of the syllabi from every class and write in the due dates for everything. Every reading, every paper, every quiz…everything. I use the default Calendar app on my Mac as well as a program called Fantastical.

One of the best things I’ve done with projects that are due at the end of the semester is to create an event at different stages along the process to confront me with reminders and set milestones. These events essentially ask me how I’m doing on assignment X or Y. You don’t want to turn in a last minute paper. Last minute papers stink. They smell like desperation and commentaries. Working on your paper at stages throughout the semester helps to prevent that.

As an example, I actually have a paper for Isaiah-Malachi that is due on April 11th. I created an event for Feb. 28th in Fantastical that says, “Have a thesis and outline written for Isaiah-Malachi paper.” I then created an event on March 21st that said, “Have rough draft written for Isaiah-Malachi paper.” These are stages in the creation of a paper that you don’t want to leave til April 7 to get started on. At this point, all I have to do for that paper is to go over the rough draft and clean it up. I’ve removed the stress from the equation by working on it in chunks through the semester. Use your calendar apps to keep you on your toes!

Also, when each week starts I go through and have every day planned out. I print out my schedule for my wife while walking through it with her. It helps her out and it gives me an opportunity to think about my week before it happens. I tell myself how to spend my day before it starts. If I followed my base impulses I’d just watch cats playing Super Mario Bros. on You Tube until it’s bedtime. Seminarians shouldn’t live like that. Every day that we spend is precious. There shouldn’t be wasted minutes. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be relaxation or times of rest. But it does mean that most of our time is already spoken for.

Dropbox
I don’t know if you should use Dropbox, or Google Drive, or whatever. I haven’t tested all of them. I use Dropbox and I’m happy with it. Several times a day I use Dropbox for at least something. I use it to e-mail class notes to a classmate who was sick, to check something from the class syllabus (you don’t just carry those around with you, do you?) on your iPad, to print off an assignment that’s due, or to open a PDF to study off of even if you forgot to transfer it before you left home.

Another reason to use Dropbox? Your computer could crash. How many semesters of work will you lose if your computer drops dead? Probably a lot. And that’s a lot of tears. Having a cloud backup is a nice cozy security blanket for your schoolwork. If you have a desktop computer at home that you use and a laptop that you also use, it keeps files between them synched constantly. No need to transfer files from one computer to the other. It’s a time saver. It’s a thought saver. With Dropbox you spend less time worrying about stuff and more time focusing on your projects, lessons, sermons, etc. that are keeping you busy already.

And while you’re at it, keep your Dropbox organized. Create a folder for each semester of the school year and subfolders within each of those for the classes you have that semester. Stay organized so that you have to use your brain less to remember where you kept stuff. Click on the picture above to get an idea of how I keep mine organized.

Half of time management is keeping yourself well organized. Know your week ahead of schedule. Know your semester before it begins. Know your long-term projects and create reminders to work on them throughout the semester. Do not save your papers until the week they’re due.

Be (willing to be) a B Student
I don't remember where I heard this, but somebody once told a group of seminary students, "For some of you, it would be a sin for you to not get an A. For others of you, it would be a sin if you did get an A." The point this person was making was that school is not supposed to be more important than everything else in your life. If somebody is capable of getting an A without upsetting the balance of the universe, they should aim for an A. But if getting an A means throwing your family under the bus or neglecting the church, you need to recalibrate things.

Use the extra time your efficiency is carving out to look at your kids. Talk to them. Hold them up in the air and stare at them. Kiss your wife. Be present. Be alive. Enjoy your family. Take them to church. Pray with them. Read Lord of the Rings with your kids at bedtime. Oftentimes seminary students wait until the semester is over to pay attention to their families. I don’t care if you’re taking 17 credit hours and preaching on the weekends, you probably need to come to terms with the fact that God didn’t call you to Seminary exclusively to be an A student. I’ve never heard of a church that wanted to know a man’s GPA from seminary before hiring him. God definitely called you to keep your family together and to minister to your wife. And while you’re at it, grit your teeth and let your wife go to women’s groups in the evenings when it’s possible. Watch the kids for her. Take a load off of her back. Give her one chance during the week to meet other people who aren’t little kids who want to watch Magic School Bus 24/7!

Conclusion
E-Mail inbox zero. Calendar apps. Dropbox. Be willing to be a B student.

That’s it. Those are the four things that have taken the chaos of my semester and given me some structure and stability. Everyone is different, and everyone’s personality requires different things to function well. For me, I can’t be thinking about a thousand things at a time. I can only be any good at one thing at a time, and that means bringing structure out of the chaos.

Know what your priorities are. Act in ways that move you towards accomplishing your priorities. Don’t play video games until the important stuff is done. Pray like you’re dependent on God (you are). Act like he holds you responsible (He does).

Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review: How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell

There are two kinds of seminarians: those of us who think they don’t need to hear what How to Stay Christian in Seminary has to say, and those who know they do. Many of us are part of that first group. We like the academic stuff, right? Give us a warm old Puritan before a modern Christian living book filled from beginning to end with stories and illustrations any day. We know how to talk about God’s grace. We know that we're sinners and can explain the ins and outs of the noetic effects of sin. Well if we know these things already, why should we read a book with a name like How to Stay Christian in Seminary? Isn't a book like this for somebody who just can't cut it? The answer is that, for the most part, as seminarians our biggest problem is not an issue of knowing.

As much benefit as seminary brings, it can also be dangerous for our souls. It’s true. If you’ve been at any seminary for any amount of time, perhaps you’ve seen temptations in your own lives unique to this particular season. We can be tempted to partition our lives into academic and spiritual compartments. We can also experience the temptation to "stuff your head with more than your heart can digest." We can even lose the vision of why we came here to seminary in the first place; the calling that brought us here to begin with. We may be tempted to neglect our families and simply bury our face in the books. "I'll see them when the semester is over," we may say. Hopefully these do not strike any of us as minor temptations.

The fact is, our professors try very hard to make these classes connect with our hearts and not only with our minds. They meet with us for prayer and to talk about spiritual challenges in our lives. Our participation in local churches encourages us to pursue intimacy with God through His Word and prayer. It also pushes us to be a part of the church and to serve her. Even with all of these positive influences, the temptations are still real, and often we need somebody who has been there before to gently prod, remind, and to warn us.

There are things which ought to penetrate the heart and practice of the average seminarian. This book is intended to help you, to identify potential problem areas, and to enable you to develop strategies and disciplines that can make seminary a time of growth instead of diminution. Yes, it’s a Christian Living book. No, it is not the hardest thing you’ve ever read. No, reading it won't necessarily give you the bragging rights you so deeply yearn for. But please understand—this book is written for you. None of us are too good to read this book.

How to Stay Christian in Seminary is currently on sale for $1.99 on the Kindle.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her

I have a confession to make. I might have been the worst arminian in the history of arminianism. Long before I knew what Calvinism was, and long before I’d ever heard of TULIP, I believed in a form of definite atonement (DA). I had reasoned that if God knew who was going to believe and who wasn’t, that Jesus must have only borne the sin of those he knew would eventually believe, otherwise hell would be populated with atoned for and forgiven people. Furthermore, I believed that Jesus’ prayer in the Garden for those who would eventually believe meant that he planned to only die for them on the cross. The difference between then and now is that I believed God’s knowledge of believers was based on a passive foreknowledge, not on any sort of decree. It was a terribly sloppy soteriology, and I had no worked-out doctrine of atonement to help me make sense of it all, but I do think this admission means I might have been the worst Wesleyan-Arminian that ever existed.

Many new Calvinists struggle deeply over the question of the atonement: was it universal, with the intention of trying to save all mankind, or was it specifically intended to redeem the elect? For me, this was a relatively inoffensive doctrine once I came around to the other four points of the beautiful flower of Calvinism. I found the idea of atoned for and forgiven people burning in hell be a far more unthinkable and offensive doctrine.

The editors of this present volume define definite atonement as follows: “in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit” (33).

In some ways its difficult to review From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (FHHCASH). The book is 700 pages, with 23 chapters written by 21 authors, each organized under one of four areas of interest. Part I is geared towards addressing historical concern in relation to DA. In Part II nearly 200 pages are devoted to addressing DA in regard to specific Scriptures. Part III is intended to deal with the systematic issues related to DA. Finally, Part IV of the book deals more closely with DA from the perspective of evangelism and pastoral care. The difficulty of reviewing stems from the variety of authors, the sheer number of chapters, and the fact that this is a blog post, not a theological journal that can run 30 pages in length and detail every argument. In the end, readers will have to forgive my brevity and resistance to summarizing every chapter.

All in all, I think that the editors plotted the map well when they considered the structure of such an ambitious book. One need only look at the Table of Contents to get the impression that the editors tried to cover definite atonement from as many relevant angles as could be done. My first impression of FHHCASH was to think of this as an introduction to definite atonement, which was a mistake. While there are certain chapters I would direct someone to if they wanted to understand the issues, the book can get quite complex towards the middle (as it should, for such an important issue). With regard to beginners, if one begins even with chapter 1, they will find that the authors assume a certain familiarity with the subject on their reader’s part. It is in that sense that I would probably recommend a neophyte begin at the end of this work; particularly the last two chapters. One of those chapters is by Sinclair Ferguson and addresses pastoral issues related to assurance and what bearing DA might or might not have on it. The other chapter is by John Piper and deals with the larger scale question of what bearing the truthfulness of DA has on the chief end of the church to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

One of the most important questions I asked myself while reading this book was whether the arguments of hypothetical universalists were being represented fairly. The authors are quite conscientious about using actual arguments from actual theologians with opposing viewpoints. Men such as Amyraut, John Davenant, John McLeod Campbell, Karl Barth, Bruce Ware, and Mark Driscoll are names that frequently come up throughout. They are quoted extensively and the authors seem to fairly engage with their viewpoints. I have read some reviews where others have said misrepresentations and caricatures are used in the more polemical sections of this book. The places where that may happen is in those sections where general perspectives (I'm thinking of a few places in Letham's chapter that stand out in my memory) are engaged with and not specific authors. I understand this temptation, but thankfully most of the polemics in this book are dealing with the actual views of actual theologians whose books are actually in print.

I already stood persuaded that definite atonement is taught in Scripture before I read this book. I am not an unbiased reviewer. That being said, I think this will probably become the book that opponents of DA will need to interact with in the future. Primarily, I think this is because From Heaven He Came and Sought Her engages with the best opponents of DA in a way that (I think) is fair, rigorous, comprehensive (in its scope), and pastoral.

Will the collective argument set forth in FHHCASH persuade those who hold to hypothetical universalism? Certainly not all of them. I know a few proponents of HU who are reading this book now, and I am quite eager to see how they interact with FHHCASH, and especially to see if they feel their best works were fairly engaged by the various authors.

If you already believe in DA, is there any reason for you to read this? I can think of a few ways that this book will function for those who have already come over to the good side of the force:

  1. You will come away from this book with a more robust understanding of Hypothetical Universalism. It’s more sophisticated than most of us give it credit for! It may surprise some of you to know that defenders of HU do more than just quote John 3:16 until their heads fall off.
  2. 
You will come away from this book with a more robust understanding of Christ’s work on the cross.
  3. As you're reading this book you will probably find yourself worshipping the God who has perfectly purchased and atoned for his people. If you don’t then you’ve got some ice-cold blood running through those veins.
  4. 
You will have a future resource for thinking about “problem texts” (we know they’re there!) that defenders of definite atonement need to be prepared to discuss.



I loved the book. I knew I’d love it before I read it based on other reviews, the blurbs, and the hype. There are weak(ish) chapters (Hogg and Haykin), there are truly informative chapters (Djaballah’s chapter on Amyraut—whose works are only available in French stands out, along with the chapter by Gattis on the debates at Dordt), and then there are chapters that are absolutely essential reading (Letham, Motyer and Garry Williams). Even the relatively “weak” chapters here are still important reading and helpful, but if somebody is going to browse the book and read some things and not others, I would make sure that Motyer’s chapter and Letham’s chapter receive their special attention.

As I said before, I strongly suspect this will become the go-to resource for years to come with regard to definite atonement. Believers in DA will find their appreciation of the atonement reinforced by this book. Opponents of DA will find numerous sparring partners here as well. The Gibson Brothers have done a great service to the church by editing this volume. Also, it’s officially the prettiest book that I own.

Amazon Hardback
Amazon Kindle

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nobody Expects Kool-Aid or the Spanish Inquisition!

Let's pretend we live in a world where there is a group of people who think that drinking Kool-Aid is a moral evil, and let's assume that this is a deeply held belief for these people. Let's also assume that they believe that it is a moral evil even to help someone else drink Kool-Aid. And let's also assume that part of their deeply held religious belief is that God will judge them if they do these things that we've just spoken of. In this scenario, these Kool-Aid abstainers have a moral compulsion to abstain from something: namely, the drinking or helping others to drink Kool-Aid.

Along comes Kool-Aid Man, and he wants Kool-Aid. "Oh yeah! I want some Kool-Aid! Fill me up, Kool-Aid Abstainer!"

"Please, sir. Go to another vendor. If I help you get this substance, I'll be in violation of what God has told me to do."

"Oh no!" says Kool-Aid Man. "I'm an open-minded and tolerant man. In the land of Kool, they teach us to be like that. That being said, I will only drink Kool-Aid if I can get it from you."

"Please," says the Kool-Aid Abstainer. "If you make me do this thing, I believe I will be judged by God!"

In this scenario, maybe you think Kool-Aid Abstainer is a nut job and a bigot. And perhaps he is, for all we know! But what kind of person does Kool-Aid Man have to be to actually make this vendor give him something when he knows that Kool-Aid Abstainer thinks it is morally wrong for him to do so? The question is not whether Kool-Aid Abstainer is misguided or unkind. The question is, if Kool-Aid Man could go somewhere else, why doesn't he?

You can judge Kool-Aid Abstainer all you want (plenty do!), but at the end of the day, Kool-Aid Man's conscience is not violated by Kool-Aid Abstainer's unwillingness to oblige him. In fact, if Kool-Aid Man is a respectful, open-minded, tolerant person who cares about the conscience of his neighbor, he should find another place to get his Kool-Aid. Perhaps Kool-Aid Man justifies his insistence by claiming that it's his right, and maybe it is, according to the magistrate. But it says something about Kool-Aid Man that he would force Kool-Aid Abstainer to oblige him: namely, he believes that his own desires are more important than what he is doing to Kool-Aid Abstainer's conscience.

When modern people look back at the Spanish Inquisition, there are particular things about it that they find deeply offensive. But perhaps among the most offensive is that these authorities forced people to say and do things that were against their consciences. They forced them to lie. They forced them to recant deeply held religious beliefs, and they did so by the forceful and coercive hand of the state.

It is not a stretch to say that Kool-Aid Man, as open-minded as he claims to be, and as tolerant as he likes to think of himself, has no respect for Kool-Aid Abstainer. In point of fact, Kool-Aid Abstainer has never asked Kool-Aid Man to do something wrong even in all his years of prohibiting Kool-Aid Man from drinking his favored substance.

It is one thing for a person to be prevented by the magistrate from doing what they want to do. It's quite another to use the same magistrate to force the other person to do something that that person doesn't want to do for moral reasons. Meet Kool-Aid Man... the new modern Inquisitor.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Growing From a Maximus to a Lawrence

The summer after I graduated from High School was the most carefree and memorable time of my life. It was filled with camping and driving my truck all over Kansas with friends, listening to Tom Petty, and dreaming about the future. It was also the summer that I saw the film Gladiator. I was just a teenager. I'd never seen a real film epic. I didn't know what a proper film epic was like. The closest thing to an old Hollywood epic I'd seen was The Sound of Music. I saw Gladiator, and my favorite thing about the film was the triumphalism of it all. The movie gave you a bloodlust for Commodus, and in straightforward Hollywood fashion it was satisfied by the end. There was a triumphalism and a victory and something that gave me, as a young man launching in to the world, a sense that the world was also mine for the conquering. It sounds so dumb now, but that's really what the world looked like to me back then.

A year later I had an opportunity to see Lawrence of Arabia. By this time I'd had in my mind an impression of what a grand Hollywood epic would be like. The film was a huge disappointment to me. At first it was exciting, but the film ended with Lawrence very unhappy and broken. It didn't appeal to me because I wanted victory, clashing swords, and happy endings.

Soon after, I watched Ben-Hur (the one with Charleton Heston) and basically expected to see Gladiator again. I was shocked by how liberally Gladiator borrowed from Ben-Hur, and so I thought I could predict the film's formulaic ending, but was again disturbed when I realized this was a film that dwelt on the brokenness of its protagonist and dissatisfaction with the revenge that was being sought throughout the movie. This time, I got it. This time I understood that something was wrong with me. I wanted flashy Hollywood spectacle and considered something inferior that was actually offering a mature exploration of human brokenness.

As a young man, I wanted the flash and the victory. Now I'm in my thirties, and I know that doesn't make me a wisened old man, but I have had my share of both beautiful and painful experiences in life. I've been to my father's funeral. I've failed at things I've tried to do. I've held my baby boy in my arms as his last breath left his body. Even those closest to me don't realize I've wept great tears more times than I can count. Life hasn't been the way I thought it would be when I was a fresh-faced High School graduate. It's a beautiful and painful world we live in. Tonight, I watched Lawrence of Arabia again. Peter O'Toole is such an amazing actor, I became lost in his performance.

For the second time in my life I watched the part where Lawrence has to shoot the man he went back through the desert, risking his life to rescue - Gasim was his name.  I don't know about the real T.E. Lawrence, but the Lawrence in this movie never recovered from the moment he had to shoot Gasim. He was never the same man. A hardness came upon him. He could never go back to being the person he was before. Maybe it wasn't wrong what he did - he was administering justice, after all. But it changed him, regardless.

The point I'm trying to make is that now I realize that life isn't Gladiator. We get hurt, and we don't always heal. We change and grow. We don't stay the same, and yet paradoxically we don't move on, either. Part of growing up involves experiencing life as it comes and having the perspective to see how you've grown through it without resentment or bitterness, trusting God's providence in it all. This is a lesson I wasn't ready for, coming out of High School. It's one I'm still trying to get used to.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Compartmentalize your Music

[This post is filled with generalizations. You will be able to think of exceptions to my generalizations. I'm absolutely self-aware in this regard. With that being said, let the unfair, broad generalizations begin...]

On Sunday night, the Grammy's took place. I won't report on proceedings, because that is for other websites to do. But during Macklemore's performance of the song "Same Love," 34 people got married in front of the watching world by Queen Latifa. Some of these couples were straight, most of them were gay. The song itself is making a political and moral statement. Here's just a sample:
The right wing conservatives think it's a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don't know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don't know
It was Andrew Fletcher who once said, "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws." In spite of the many problems and contradiction in the song, "Same Love" has become the public popular face of a quickly shifting morality in the northwestern hemisphere today. I watched the performance of this song on YouTube the next day, and I couldn't help but think that the performance was phoned-in and obnoxiously preachy. If conservatives are accused of shoving their morality "down the throat" of everybody else, liberals are now guilty of the same.

Tom Barnes (who I do not believe is a Christian of any sort), writing over at Policymic, seemed to see just how preachy the music and performance were, as well.
But just as pop music's social consciousness is becoming increasingly performed rather than felt, so too was this performance flawed. It was one of those deliberately crafted "beautiful" TV moments where the audience can see all the strings, but has to applaud because the "APPLAUSE" sign is on. 
Those 34 couples became stage props in the most absurd publicity stunting in the history of the Grammys. The performance lacked all the emotional subtly and storytelling mastery apparent in the track's music video and the lyrics themselves. Instead, it substituted these elements with show biz cheese. How was that performance supposed to support the cause? I can imagine no skeptical homophobe saying: "Yes, gay marriage should be legalized because I want to see more people mass married by pop musicians." That's because even the Grammys knows that, increasingly, people want to see their politics in their rap songs, and that they care less about genuine artistry.
Genuine artistic (that nebulous idea!) integrity, in other words, is taking a backseat, now, to message in mainstream music. You would be forgiven for reading the previous section and seeing simply a critique of an artist who is overstepping into sanctimonious territory. But then Barnes says something that everyone needs to hear about the musical climate of the day:
Either way, this is what audiences seem to want from music. They want hip-hop clean and poppy with smooth-tongued argumentative elegance. They want hopeful tracks like "Same Love" and swanky, light and playfully critical numbers like "Thrift Shop." This style won over albums that offered transcendent, visceral and artistic expressions, like Kendrick Lamar's good kid m.A.A.d. city, which is a more proper rap album when compared with The Heist, which is, at its core, a pop album. The Grammys seem to want to pretend that isn't the case.
The struggle between artistic integrity and preachy messages is not something that only exists in the rap music world, but the Christian music world, too. I get lots of flack from friends who don't like that I pick on Christian music. (This is going to be one of those posts. Sorry.) If you want to hear that the state of the Christian musical union is strong, go listen to something more positive and encouraging.

But as a Christian, I listen to commentary from this writer in the midst of the rap world and I immediately think of the music that I, as a Christian, am supposed to like. The stuff I'm expected to get behind. And even if I don't like it, I'm supposed to throw my support behind it because these "artists" have a good message, or worse yet, they "mean well." For many Christians, music is as invested with weight and importance as the word preached is supposed to be. This isn't surprising, considering the vast majority of Christians listen to far more music than they do Biblical preaching.

The fact is, Christian music artists are supposed to be artists, not necessarily preachers. This doesn't mean they can't have a biblical message, but it might mean more subtlety if one is to be a good artist. I can list on a couple of hands the names of artists who self-identify as Christian who, in my opinion (that dreaded subjective word!), seem to balance art and message well. But the stuff I hear on Christian radio, when I am subjected to it, is so overt, so shallow and preachy (on the message side), so sugary and mainstream (on the artistic side) that it really has jettisoned any pretentions of artistic integrity.

Many Christians are fine with music that is artistically shallow. They don't see the harm if the lyrics are good. Most hymns are in this category. As are my CDs of the Westminster Catechisms set to music. They're an excellent way to learn biblical truths or memorize Scripture, but this is far from good art and doesn't pretend to be.

This is not what gets played on Christian radio.  The lyrics of most mainstream songs are filled with platitudes so shallow that if we tried to dive into them our brains would be spilled across the bottom of the pool. There is no way to accurately or fairly paint an entire musical scene. There is variety out there. There is really, really good stuff out there. But when I turn on that positive and encouraging station (which, again, seems to represent the mainstream of what Christians in America are listening to), most of what I hear is the Christian equivalent of Sunday night's Grammy performance.

Is there a way out? Well, I'm no artist. In many ways, I'm like an armchair quarterback who knows a bad pass when I see one but could never throw the ball, myself. But my gut tells me that Christians need to start listening to good music and stop worrying so much about the message. ("Heresy!") And they need to make sure that the pastors in their churches are feeding them well from the Scriptures. This, of course, might require that Christians not be afraid to hear something they disagree with on the radio and to sort wheat from chaff as they're listening, but they should already be doing that.

Yes, I'm calling for Christians to compartmentalize. Christians need to know where they should expect to be spiritually fed and where they should not expect to be fed. I remember years ago, Rich Mullins (Christian musician par excellence) was speaking at a concert, and here's what he said:
It's so funny being a Christian musician. It always scares me when people think so highly of Christian music, Contemporary Christian music especially. Because I kinda go, I know a lot of us, and we don't know jack about anything. Not that I don't want you to buy our records and come to our concerts. I sure do. But you should come for entertainment. If you really want spiritual nourishment, you should go to church...you should read the Scriptures.
Christians today spend more time being "fed" through a medium trying to be a hybrid of "art" and "preaching" than they actually do with the God-given means for growth that's been provided. God has given the church three primary means of grace already: The Word (read and preached), Sacraments (baptism and the Lord's supper), and Prayer. Creating a functional fourth category of "Christian Music" has only resulted in a theologically diluted and artistically compromised category of music that is musically and theologically mainstream in the worst possible sense of the word.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Everyone Catechizes.

My wife and I inherited a bunch of children's books from some friends a while back. In the midst of the stack was one book called Everyone Poops. The book was intended to show little kids that it isn't weird or scary to go potty. Very cute book. Also full of defecation. It isn't reading for the weak of heart or the full of stomach, but your kids will probably laugh all the way through it.

Last night I had to do a late run to Wal-Mart. As I was entering the store a woman and her two daughters were leaving. I heard them singing something together, and my heart leapt as I considered that maybe, just maybe, this woman was singing a catechism song with her daughters (I have quite an imagination!). I was, of course, disappointed, as I drew nearer to discover that this woman was not impressing on her daughters the importance of knowing the Lord, or reciting Scripture. Instead, they were singing a song by Katy Perry:
Cuz I am a champion / And you're gonna hear me roar!
I know what you're thinking: "defecation," the music of Katy Perry... this is the part where Adam is going to tie it all together. You already see the connection. Well, hang in there a bit longer.

This woman and her daughters were singing an anthem of grrrll power. An ode to personal independence. A sugary, fist-pumping trip down pop music lane. As I walked past them, I chided myself for the initial flight of fancy that gave birth to this moment of disappointment. Cynicism is an infallible defense against disappointment, and I let myself slip. I've already decided not to make the same mistake twice. But what struck me, almost immediately, was the realization that Everyone Catechizes. This woman really was catechizing her daughters.
"You shall teach [God's words] to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deuteronomy 11:19).
I don't mean to judge this woman. I waste my time with my own children all the time, doing trivial silly things and making them experts in Star Wars lore. I am not the example I wish I was of how to educate one's children in the way of the Lord. Like most of my classmates at Seminary, I wasn't raised on formal catechisms. My point is not to say, "Be a good parent! Stop being so bad!" My point is that we need to be aware that we don't get to choose whether to catechize our kids or not.

I speak to people often who say they don't want to catechize their children with something like the Westminster Shorter Catechism because they simply didn't learn it themselves like that. Some of them say that a formal teaching method like that just isn't appealing. There are other reasons too, of course, but the point is that everyone catechizes their children. Everyone tells their children what matters most, either with their lives, or with their words, or with the songs they sing coming out of Wal-Mart. As parents, we must become more self-aware and purposeful.

The question, then, is not whether you, as a parent, will catechize your children; everyone catechizes! The question is, with what will you catechize them?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

An American Fundamentalist Reviews Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

I don’t think it’s very imaginative on a reviewer’s part for every writer coming from England to get compared to C.S. Lewis—in fact, it’s a tad embarrassing. I must confess, as an example, that to these untrained eyes and ears, N.T. Wright just sounds like C.S. Lewis. And in many ways, so does Francis Spufford. Though you might say Spufford sounds like C.S. Lewis if Lewis needed a swear jar.

His Use of Language
I am quite self-aware that the criticisms I make of this book will no doubt reinforce the negative things Spufford already suspects about fundamentalist American Christianity. I realize it, and yet I move forward with much trepidation and almost as much embarrassment as he seems, himself, to have in commending Christianity (see his introduction, quoted below).

While I was reading Spufford’s book, I tried to imagine writing a review without making reference to Spufford’s very self-conscious use of profanity throughout. Alas, it felt irresponsible to review it without warning the queasy reader that this is a bit more Wolf of Wall Street than it is My Little Pony—at least in terms of the language. Spufford uses the f-word 17 times. The s-word appears 9 times. Other less offensive, more PG-language is peppered throughout. Spufford writes here as more author than pastor, more man-on-the-street than official spokesperson. He seems to recognize the impropriety of his language in the introduction when he attempts to offer an explanation for his manner of speaking:
Why do I swear so much in what you are about to read? To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness. But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony. I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m [f---ing] embarrassed. (Kindle, Loc 102)
I have no intention of stepping on the toes of people who consider language like this to be a deal-breaker. I recognize that for many it is, and that is why I mention the language here in my review. It is helpful to remember that Mr. Spufford is not a church leader or a theologian. He’s just an average Christian Englishman who is trying to tell people that Christianity makes sense. I really don't want to come down hard on him for the language. For my own part, I am not offended by crass language. But I do think there are places where I expect it and places where I do not. I like to keep my life neat and compartmentalized like that. In that sense I sympathize and agree that a little restraint might have helped some readers to be less distracted. My guess is that this book isn't really written for a "churchy" audience.

The Book's Purpose and Strengths
In Unapologetic, Spufford is concerned with demonstrating that Christianity (as its cover says) makes "emotional sense." The book is written from an existential angle. Spufford is not doing a Greg Bahnsen here. He is not doing a William Lane Craig or a James White. He is doing something closer to what you might see in the approach of an apologist like Ravi Zacharias.

Spufford’s book meanders a bit (much like a certain author seemed to do in Mere Christianity). But he is at his strongest when he is assaulting the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the New Atheism. Numberless authors, including Alister McGrath have done this before, but Spufford’s writing has a virility and bite that is missing from the writings of other, perhaps more gentlemanly authors. I’d like to pretend that his occasional colorful language is not part of that bite, but I do suspect that it is.

Spufford talks very clearly about the human need to recognize our own guilt. Too many people spend their lives "ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame" (Kindle, Loc 507). People should stop wasting their time on denial and admit "there's some black in the mixture." I'd be happy to quote this chapter in the future. He makes good points, and I appreciated his willingness to urge people to stop making excuses or justifying themselves.

At one point, Spufford addresses the now infamous atheist bus billboard that declares "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." But Spufford beautifully (and in a rather gritty, explicit, narrative way) asks how this is a comfort to those who aren’t beautiful and healthy and young and privileged. What of the broke person whose life is in the gutter? How is this message good  news for them? asks Spufford. It is no comfort, of course. But Spufford offers a counter-proposal:
A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it, with your fingers firmly out of your ears, and all the sounds of the complicated world rushing in, undenied (Kindle, Loc 260).
In another place, Spufford speaks critically of naturalistic evolution. His words are welcome:
The moral scandal of evolution is not that it contradicts some sweet old myth about God knitting the coats for the little lambkins: it’s that it works by, works through, would not work without, continuous suffering. Suffering is not incidental to evolution. Suffering is the method. The world wobbles onward, you might say, on a trackway paved with little bones. But that understates the issue. There is no trackway—there’s just the way the world happens to go, lurching one way, lurching the other. The whole landscape is little bones (Kindle, Loc 1130).
It is moments like these when Spufford shines brightest. He is quite aware of and drives home the reality of human pain and wants Christians and atheists alike to take seriously the reality of human suffering. He isn’t saying anything brand new that you couldn’t find elsewhere, but his language has a flair that renders him extremely quotable. You could come to this book, look around for a couple minutes, and find some fantastically quotable one-liners.

Problems
Where Spufford is weakest, however, is in his positive theological case (which is pretty serious and composes a huge chunk of the book). If you read this book for his positive theological content, you’ll be horrified if you come from a conservative background like myself. Rather than Original Sin, Spufford speaks of (again, showing an unnecessarily crass hand) HPtFtU ("Human Propensity to [F&#$] things Up"). Much like Rob Bell did in Love Wins, Spufford neglects to mention any vertical aspect to sin (at least from what I could tell). This is a big omission, of course, since sin between persons stems from a deeper relational rift between man and his creator. Addressing the HPtFtU is just putting a band-aid on an infection unless the underlying condition at the base of it all is addressed.

Some other miscellaneous complaints (none of which are minor): Spufford appears to believe in theistic evolution. He also expresses what seem like pantheistic sentiments, and at times speaks like a deist ("No matter how remote you believe God is from the day-to-day management of the cosmos—and for me He’s pretty damn remote…" Loc. 1082) and even as a fideist. He says Christians need to move beyond worrying about sexual sin. "Where consenting adults are concerned, we ought to be as uninterested in lists of forbidden sexual acts as we are in lists of forbidden foods" (Kindle, Loc 2215). In one place he says that the book of Genesis is "no good to us as history, as almost all Christians know (except for some really stubborn Americans)" (Loc 1243 and footnote).

Spufford also rejects the idea of hell. He is a universalist. In addition to holding to this highly aberrant theology, he has the temerity to think that his rather novel form of Christianity is in the majority or that he speaks for the average Christian. An example of his rhetoric:
Hell is still popular...but not with actual Christians, any more. Crazy avant-gardists that we are, we went ahead and decided to do without it some time ago. The majority of us have not believed in it for several generations. It isn’t because we’re wimpy modernizers who can’t stomach the more scaly and brimstone-rich aspects of our inheritance. It’s because, from the beginning, hell conflicted with much more basic aspects of the religion, and our collective understanding finally caught up with the fact. Those posters you occasionally see on buses and rail platforms threatening you with unquenchable fire come from a tiny faction of headbangers. We don’t like them either. (I myself would rather have the atheist bus any day.) I promise this is really true. No more hell! It’s official!
He speaks of hell as more a form of social control than a truth about God. Of course, I disagree with him quite strongly, and he gives no Scriptural support for his position except for some conveniently vague references to God's love. It is very tempting to interact with Spufford on this point. Time permitting, I may do that eventually.

Spufford’s mysticism and spirituality is off-putting to my own conservative Presbyterian sensibilities. At one point early in the book he goes on and on about meditating in the quiet of the church building and sensing one’s smallness in the scale of things. I found that part of the book about as exciting as listening to someone tell me about their dream they had last night. All this summary is to say, the book is not without its shortcomings, and the shortcomings aren’t insignificant.

Conclusion
After reading the first two chapters of the book, I had originally intended to write an extremely positive review with some cautions about language and about slightly unorthodox ways of speaking. I loved what he was doing. I even found a charm in his irreverence and found myself envying his freedom in speech and his way with words. He is funny where one should be funny, cutting where a good cut is needed, and deadly serious about the pains and sufferings in this life where many orthodox writers seem to gloss things over just a bit.

But Mr. Spufford began to lose me in the third and following chapters. The book seemed to veer from arguing that Christianity "makes emotional sense" contra the new atheists to arguing much like other contemporary authors that Christianity has evolved and transformed into something much more "stomache-able" now than it used to be. There is much to interact with in this book, and because a new semester of school is just around the corner, I haven't the time to interact with it in detail. I grew more and more disappointed with the book as it went on, from a theological perspective.

I had thought this would be a fresh, basically orthodox apologetic for the Christian faith. Instead, the book ends up being just another recurrence of the old liberalism with a very nice coat of paint. If this had been released four years ago it would fit in with other writings from the Emergent wing of evangelicalism, but at this point even that fad has faded into disinterest. I have no doubt that Mr. Spufford's writings may very well reflect the direction of postmodern British Anglicanism, but thankfully global Anglicanism appears to be pushing back the other way. My recommendation is, come for the first two chapters. Enjoy the meat, spit out the bones, but don't finish the book unless you just absolutely yearn for closure.



In the end, a discerning reader could find much here to appreciate. I really have my misgivings about this book as a positive apologetic or evangelistic tool, however. Mark Dever, in his book The Deliberate Church, speaking of evangelism, says that "what you win them with is what you win them to." In that sense, I have real misgivings about pastors recommending this book to their people. If we take the teachings of the Bible seriously, then we do not want the vision of Christianity that Spufford is presenting to win the day. Again, a massive amount of discernment and critical appraisal could go a long way to helping someone to benefit from Unapologetic, but for the most part, Christians and unbelievers alike would do well to stay away.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life by Stephen J. Nichols

I am a long-time Dietrich Bonhoeffer fan. I have been since I read The Cost of Discipleship as a 17 year old newly minted Christian. His challenge that “When Jesus bids a man come, he bids him come and die” has stuck with me all these many years. He has been a fellow traveler with me, and I feel as though I spent time with him in Flossenburg Prison, having read his letters. It is with great excitement that I finally got around to reading Stephen Nichols’ book Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life [WTS Books/Amazon], and I am glad I finally did. Keeping book reviews brief is always a challenge for me. Instead of saying everything there is in this book, I’ll try to give a sense of Nichols’ structure and a few of the highlights. 

Bonhoeffer’s foundation for the Christian life is the cross (26). Nichols begins with Bonhoeffer’s christology, followed by his ecclesiology, both of which, as many have noted before, loom very large in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Under this heading is Nichols’ chapter on Bonhoeffer’s view of community. This may have been my favorite chapter, where Nichols summarizes Bonhoeffer’s insistence that the church must come to grips with her own weaknesses and the weaknesses of her members. If Christians could permit themselves to be appropriately disillusioned, this communal realism could go a long way to helping the church. I found myself overjoyed in reading this chapter. It is filled with needed correctives, in my opinion.

Nichols goes on to summarize Bonhoeffer’s three essential disciplines of the Christian life as “reading and obeying Scripture, prayer, and the practice of theology” (26). In discussing these three essentials of Bonhoeffer’s, Nichols spends time discussing his doctrine of Scripture in chapter 4. Nichols rightly identifies his doctrine of Scripture as a linchpin issue in the debate over Bonhoeffer’s questionable status as a conservative. Offering an important caution, that “We need to be careful in these debates over who gets to claim whom, so that we so not do injustice to these figures in their own contexts,” (80-81) Nichols nevertheless concludes that “Bonhoeffer should not be counted among theological liberals. He was a theological conservative” (81). He goes further, claiming that Bonhoeffer is an evangelical, measured by the Bebbington four (82). There are certainly remnants of neo-orthodox elements in Bonhoeffer’s theology, but I think that Nichols is right. Based on everything I’ve read from Bonhoeffer (4 books, 2 biographies, and a collection of essays by him) I agree with his conclusion.

His chapter on prayer (chapter 5) contains some interesting nuggets that are worth chewing on, particularly in his insistence that seminary students should be force to pray and taught to pray. Bonhoeffer also saw an important relationship between how we read Scripture and how we pray, and the two ought to go together. Nichols later says and then quotes Bonhoeffer: “If we do not have a Scripture-saturated approach to our praying, we risk becoming ‘victims of our own emptiness’” (108). A Scripture-less person’s prayers will be filled with himself, and a prayer less person’s Scripture readings will be nothing more than intellectual exercises.

Nichols then discusses (in chapter 6) Bonhoeffer’s third essential, asking the question of how the Christian is to “think theologically and then live theologically” (27). Bonhoeffer encouraged his students and readers to not pit theology against the Christian life, but to integrate the two.


 Practicing the three above spiritual disciplines would never lead, in Bonhoeffer’s way of thinking, to an isolated or monastic existence. Instead, theology works its way out into community. While it is popular today in theological circles to emphasize community, Bonhoeffer offers some helpful and sound counsel that Christians would do well to heed, whether they think the contemporary emphasis on community is simply a fad or is here to stay.


Nichols, in summarizing Bonhoeffer’s “worldly Christianity,” (chapter 7) is careful to bring out what Bonhoeffer really means when he uses that phrase. Nichols summarizes Bonhoeffer by saying that Christians should be neither monastics, nor “cultural Protestants.” Instead, Christianity must ask something of its adherents. It must challenge churchgoers in deeply personal and costly ways, while at the same time insisting that they not cease their callings or jobs.

Nichols discusses Bonhoeffer’s view of freedom (ch. 8) “disguised as service and sacrifice” (27). Anyone who has read his book The Cost of Discipleship (which he later came to regard as too legalistic) knows that Bonhoeffer is adamant in his insistence that the Christian life is one that requires self-denial and sacrifice. For Bonhoeffer, however, love (ch. 9) is the thing that “accents” all of the above disciplines and expressions of faith lived out.

What makes Nichols’ book great is his willingness to let Bonhoeffer’s own ideas breathe. Reading Bonhoeffer can be maddening sometimes because he lived in such intense and formative times. The atmosphere of all his writings and sermons is thick with ominous threat both politically and to the Church. Knowing his biography first often brings some needed context - something that not all readers can have the luxury of exploring. Nichols does a nice job of pulling out the disparate elements, though, and giving the reader a nicely formed whole. I very gladly place it on my shelf along with my collection of other Bonhoeffer books, and I think that I will find myself turning it to it often.