Saturday, January 10, 2015

Some Podcast Recommendations

As a seminarian, one of the most important things I currently do is itinerant preaching. Nearly every Sunday morning I walk out to my old Toyota, kick the tires, adjust the mirror, and drive four hours round-trip to some distant part of Mississippi to minister in churches on the preaching circuit. It's a wonderful privilege, but as those who do long commutes know, your long road trips can be complete time wasters if you aren't purposeful about how you're going to use your traveling time. What I'm trying to say is that if all you do is sing Taylor Swift songs while driving to your destination, you may very well be doing what John Piper calls "Wasting Your Life."

While I like to listen to the Bible and audiobooks, one of my favorite things to do when I travel is to listen to podcasts. Anymore, I rarely listen to music. If I'm not praying or talking out loud to myself about the sermon that I'm preparing to preach, I'm listening to others talk. I also like to turn on my bluetooth speaker in the kitchen while making a meal and listen to something while I'm preparing food.

I think this is a worthwhile blog post because I know many of my classmates who don't listen to podcasts at all, and it got me thinking that there must be a lot of people out there who have never even thought of listening to podcasts before.

Since I spend so much time listening to them I figured I'm moderately qualified to make some recommendations of my favorite podcasts for others to get some ideas from. I'll list the podcast and then comment a bit about it, explaining why I like it.

Podcast App: Instacast
First of all, if you have an Apple product, I recommend you run as far away from the pre-installed, default app for podcasts, (simply titled "Podcasts"). It's horrible, it's slow, it has a bad interface. Just run for the hills. Instead, pony up $5 and get Instacast. I love it, it's easy to use, and there just is no program I'd rather use to manage my podcasts. I can't praise it highly enough.

My favorite feature isn't unique to Instacast, but I pretty much listen to every podcast that I listen to at double speed. I'm so used to hearing everyone talk quickly that I lose my mind if I hear them talk at normal speed. Because of this feature I can listen to nearly 8 hours of material every Sunday while driving to preach, which I think is a great use of my time.

Theology Podcasts:
Albert Mohler -- The Briefing
I listen to The Briefing every day. Now, I'm no transformationalist or Kuyperian. I grow frustrated with Mohler's constant hammering on worldview, and he seems to only talk about homosexuality and abortion. When I met him at RTS this past Fall I told him (half-joking) that he is the reason I had to explain what homosexuality is to my 9 year old daughter. Why do I still listen to every episode? Frankly, he's still interesting, and I don't read a ton of news or watch TV news, so he gives his take on what's the most important thing going on that day, and to me that's valuable.

James White -- The Dividing Line
Sometimes White talks about issues I'm interested in (Islam, Roman Catholicism, Calvinism), the rest of the time he talks about stuff that I've heard him hammer on a thousand times before. Nevertheless, I always find it interesting to see the sorts of theological debates that pop up around White and listening to how he deals with them.

Reformed Forum -- Christ the Center
Here at RTS we have great professors, many of whom were student at Westminster Theological Seminary. But even so, frankly, there just isn't enough Vos and Van Til in my life. Enter Christ the Center, where the crew get together usually to interview a seminary professor on a new book or on an interesting theological subject. Think of it as your weekly dose of meaty Reformed discussion. I highly, highly recommend this podcast to my fellow seminarians. These are advanced discussions going on at Christ the Center and can help you to become well informed on current topics that are worth thinking about.

Tom Rainer -- Rainer on Leadership
I graduate from seminary in a little over a year (Lord willing). This podcast gives seminarians a taste of the real life, boots on the ground struggles that pastors face. When I first got here, all I wanted to do was talk theology, but the closer I get to actually going out into the world and dealing with real people in real churches, the more I crave the practical discussions from old warhorses who have seen some stuff... the kind of stuff that turned their hair gray. Listening to this podcast will convince you that being a pastor is hard, and in ministry you will meet people who think you have the easiest job ever and will make tremendous demands on you. Rainer helps you to think through what you will say yes to, what you will say no to, how you will lead others, and how you can look after your own family in the midst of it all.

Justin Brierly (Premier Christian Radio) -- Unbelievable
I only listen to this podcast when I'm interested in the people he has on. But usually he has very interesting people in to debate both sides of the issues. This past week he has Al Mohler on to debate Chris Date on the subject of hell. A few weeks ago, Pete Enns debated David Intone-Brewer to talk about inerrancy. This is a diverse show that almost always has subjects for debate that interest me. This is another show that's highly recommended (I usually skip the last half hour after the debate is finished).

Dave Harvey -- Am I Called?
This is another one that I only listen to when I'm interested in the subject or the person he interviews. But I recommend keeping up with this one.

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals -- The Mortification of Spin
I like listening to Carl, Todd, and Aimee do their round-table thing. It seems like they've finally stopped doing the thing where they'd insert random music clips in the middle of the show, which I'm grateful for, and they seem to be maturing into something they're comfortable with as time goes on. I am usually very interested in their discussions, though I almost listen more for the camaraderie than anything else.

News and Arts Podcasts
I don't watch TV news. Aside from the fact that I'm one of those cord-cutters who does everything online and truly has no television subscription at all, TV news can make you feel constantly panicked and send your anxiety through the roof. If you feel that way at all, try doing it like me. Get your news in bite-sized chunks, throughout the day, and let someone else filter through it for you.

NPR -- Hourly News Summary
A new episode goes up every hour, so make sure your app isn't downloading every new episode. But this is a good one just to check in on the news throughout the day without going to news websites or switching on the television. I usually listen to one in the morning and one in the mid-afternoon. If you listen at 2x, each episode only takes 2 minutes to listen to, so it's a good use of your time.

NPR -- NPR Topics: Story of the Day
These are hit or miss. Don't set them to automatically download, but check in to see if you're interested in the episodes as they go up each day.

WNYC -- Radiolab
This is very interesting, modern storytelling. If I could figure out a way to do a theology-related podcast and do it in a way that was as interesting as Radiolab, I would be on it in a heartbeat. Whenever I listen to this show, I always find myself thinking, "You know, somebody could explain the hypostatic union in a way that's as interesting as the way these guys are explaining talking to whales in today's episode."

Alec Baldwin -- Here's the Thing
Listen. Whatever you might think about Alec Baldwin, the man is a masterful interviewer. If you're the kind of person who writes blog posts littered with personal pronouns and you struggle with valuing the views of others in personal conversation, this is a great show for you. The man just knows how to get others to open up and talk about their lives. I (that dreaded personal pronoun!) once heard a great conversationalist say that there is nothing people like more than hearing the sound of their own name. Alec Baldwin completely tickles his interviewees' need to be valued and heard and models wonderfully how to take a real, (seemingly) genuine interest in others.

This American Life
The most popular podcast on the internet. Seriously, if you like storytelling, this is for you. It's also for you if you want to learn to be a storyteller (or at least somebody who wants to see clear communication done well). Ira Glass has spent 20 years learning to tell stories in a way that is gripping and now he could do it in his sleep.

It was probably Jay, okay? I'm one of the guys who thinks it was probably Jay somehow. I mean, he knew where the car was, but he couldn't keep the rest of his story square!  What's up with that? If you don't know what I'm talking about but you'd like to, start listening to Serial. It's a podcast that tells one story in detail from the first episode all the way to the last. This past season just ended.

When Alex Bloomberg left This American Life, he left with the intention of starting his own podcasting company. This show is basically him chronicling the creation of his podcast company, from his first embarrassing pitch to an investor to the struggle to find a name for his company, he brings his listeners along every step of the way as he starts up his business.

Reply All
In connection with the previous podcast mentioned above, Reply All is the first podcast launched by Bloomberg's podcast company. It's a show where they basically explore interesting things about the internet. They've done eight episodes now, and I find it very enlightening.

NPR -- Planet Money
This podcast is way more interesting than the name lets on. It basically is a show about the invisible forces that keep our society running. It's not just about money, it's about human motivations, decisions, and how to understand the stuff that connects everyone who lives in our world today. Way more interesting than I'm making it sound. And the episodes are only 20 minutes long, which is a great selling-point.

Dork Podcasts
I am a dork. I am a geek. I have a serious theologian side to me that loves to preach and loves to write, but I have another side to me that doesn't come out here at Bring the Books, and that is my video gamer/sci-fi lover side. Nearly everyone I know is into sports. They go to sporting events, they spend six hours or more a weekend watching college teams battle it out. But homie don't play that. I want to make Mario jump on bad-guys' heads and I want to listen to people talk about how much they like doing that. As such, when I want to unwind and forget about the pain of the world, I listen to these kinds of podcasts. I do think there is restorative value in entertainment and having hobbies, and frankly video games is my hobby. Here are my favorite podcasts in this area:

IGN -- Nintendo Voice Chat
Jose Otero, Brian Altano, and Peer Schneider love Nintendo as much as I do, and so I love to listen to them talk about what's going on in the world of Nintendo. They are pathetically obsessed with collecting every Amiibo (which I have no interest in doing), but hearing these guys get so OCD about collecting makes me feel better (I grade myself on the curve) about virtually every other feature of my own personality.

WIRED -- GameLife Podcast
This show is short, sweet, to the point, and is what I listen to when my other favorite shows have already been listened to. This show is interesting because it isn't specific to any one gaming system, and so listening to this show can give you an idea what's going on in the larger gaming culture.

Chris Hardwick -- The Nerdist
These guys basically interview famous people and ask them questions that people usually wonder about but are afraid to ask. I loved listening to Sam Raimi admit that Spider-Man 3 was "awful" and learning that his favorite pastime is gardening avocados. Honestly, it made me want to start growing avocados too, even though I don't eat them.

WIRED -- Geek's Guide to the Galaxy
I just mentioned this in my last blog post. Even when I disagree with the people they interview, the show is undeniably interesting. Christians can often be a cloistered people who usually only have conversations with themselves. Listening to shows like this can often give you an idea how people outside your own circles think and talk to one another. When I listen as a Christian I usually listen for the things that they take for granted in their discussions.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Geek's Guide to Being One-Sided

In the latest episode of The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy (a podcast that I normally enjoy because I'm a geek) two "experts" in the Bible (Robert Price and Richard Carrier) joined David Barr Kirtley to discuss the new Ridley Scott film Exodus: Gods and Kings. I was interested in what these "experts" (one of them a former baptist minister/member of the Jesus Seminar, and the other a humanistic expert in Roman history) would say about the movie. I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that the experts they called in were unbelievers who consider the entire Exodus narrative to be total myth.

Pick a Side!
In some places, this bias is helpful and even welcome. In particular, when it comes to discussing the film's curious relationship with rationalism, Carrier and Price observe (helpfully, I think) that Ridley Scott's decision to try to follow the narrative of the Bible, but with a naturalistic slant hurts the film's overall narrative and doesn't even end up making scientific sense. As they observe (rightly), it's better for somebody to decide whether they're going to portray the events as the text portrays them or don't portray them at all. Instead, Scott tries to do what Price and Carrier refer to as the 20th century Protestant Rationalist thing by saying that the events happened but can all be traced to naturalistic causes (49:30). As naturalists, they mock and laugh at the liberal approach that wants to offer a glib hat-tip to the Bible but also have a philosophical sophistication that will appeal to the modern scientifically minded person (liberals end up doing neither, of course).

The Gullible Ancients
If you've listened to the episode and you know me, then you will perhaps guess that I was far less impressed with the rest of the discussion. Early in the episode, Carrier talks about whether there even would have been naturalistic thinkers in 1300 BC Egypt. He presumes ancient people to be tremendously naive when he says that the average person would be prone to believe claims of people who said they spoke with God: "The average person on the street would be like, 'Oh you saw God and he spoke to you? That must be for real!' That was the order of things" (8:00-9:30). The narrative, of course, presumes that the actual people Moses is speaking to will not believe him. "But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The LORD did not appear to you'" (Ex. 4:1). Why would Moses have a concern that he will be met with skepticism if the people were so naive and prone to believe anyone who claimed to have a word from God? The most obvious answer is that the people Moses was speaking to were far less naive than would serve Carrier's purposes. Richard Carrier simplifies the mindset of the ancient people turning them into a manageable caricature, but one far more gullible than Moses himself knows them to be in the context of the narrative.

Of course, the problem with Carrier is ultimately foundational. In his mind the text itself cannot be offered as evidence that the people were not gullible since only a gullible person would believe that these people were not gullible. Carrier, however, as a perfect example of gullibility himself, doesn't see anything naive in his own unprovable anti-supernaturalistic foundational assumptions which preclude the text as evidence of anything.

Constant Smug Laughter
Subjectively speaking, what really bothered me about the discussion was the smugly dismissive way that Carrier in particular laughed throughout the episode whenever Price or Kirtley would bring up those who actually believe that these events took place. Near the beginning of the episode Carrier laughs off the film as horrible history since there was no evidence that the Hebrews ever even lived in Egypt (6:50). "That's just something that was made up in Jewish literature centuries later." Later, Carrier almost seems unable to control his laughter even at the thought that somebody might actually believe the Exodus narrative to be historical. Kirtley asks if it would be possible to make a movie of the Exodus where God comes off as heroic instead of as a scary monster, which again causes Carrier to giggle extensively. Because he doesn't see God as heroic, he chooses to laugh at anybody who can see God as heroic in Exodus (36:00). His laughter reaches an almost fever pitch when they discuss why on earth people would need to place lamb's blood over the doors if God is all-powerful. Why require lamb's blood when God could just by fiat decide not to kill the Israelite children? Of course, any possible answer to this doesn't even seem cross their minds. I suspect that they know that it could conceivably make sense that God would require people to perform gestures for both didactic and symbolic reasons, but again - that isn't as funny and doesn't make them look as smart.

The Inconsistent Irrationality of Pharaoh
Price and Carrier don't use equal weights and measures in their complaints about the Exodus narrative. For instance, at one point Price complains that Pharaoh is made by God to be "irrationally stubborn" (32:40) in the Exodus narrative, but then he argues that Pharaoh's refusal to give the Israelites straw to make bricks is irrational (45:50). He offers this irrationality of refusing to help the Israelites make bricks as evidence that there is nothing remotely historical about the narrative. One wonders how it is possible for Pharaoh to be acknowledged as "irrationally stubborn" and then have his irrationality criticized as nonsensical. Price would like to have it both ways, of course: Pharaoh is irrational through and through, yet he clearly can't be real because he behaves irrationally toward the Israelites.

Listening to the Other Side?
Later in the podcast, Kirtley asks his panel members how religious believers reconcile God killing "innocent children" during the final plague against Egypt. The answers they give are all caricatures. They seem to not know how "religious people now explain it." Carrier himself admits that he has no idea how real believing interpreters deal with the text. It's at this point that I just paused the narrative and said to myself, "This is the part where they will now make up unfair, simplistic, ludicrous explanations and then attribute them to people who believe these events to be historical." (By the way, if I find the time, I may offer a post where I mention some of the views that Carrier and Price failed to consider, but that is not my purpose here.)

Carrier, to begin with suggests that some with a "medieval mindset" would see the death of the Egyptian children as just recompense for the Pharaoh's own murder of the Israelite boys in Exodus 1:22. Unable to come up with anything better, he passes the baton to Price, who admits to having "never actually heard them wrestle with it" (32:50). This is curious, of course, since Price supposedly spent years involved in apologetics and even had a degree in systematic theology. And during his "orthodox years" he never once wrestled with this question or heard anyone else wrestle with it? Rather than deal with anybody's actual approach to the narrative Price takes the opportunity to opine on the subject of hell and then talk about how the Bible's narrative doesn't make sense to him. It would be more honest for them to simply say, "I am a supposed expert in systematic theology, but I'm not open minded enough to read believing commentators on this passage, so I can't answer your question."

Concluding Thoughts: A Plea for Fairness
I definitely think that this episode of Geek's Guide to the Galaxy would have been far fairer and way more interesting to have a fair-minded Christian or Jewish theist who isn't a screaming fire breather and would be willing to offer their own side of the discussion. I can think of believing experts who are also movie lovers and would be eager to engage in such a discussion in a winsome way. Instead, GGG decided to turn the discussion over to two naturalists who see the Exodus narrative as myth and aren't even experts in the Old Testament. In the process they missed out on the chance to be exposed to the opinion of someone who approaches the Old Testament far less combatively.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Light Will Die

I love sci-fi. And for all its plot holes and logical problems, one of my favorite experiences this last year was seeing the film Interstellar. You watch the movie and you initially think you have it pegged: “This is a sci-fi adventure about a man fighting to save the human race. This is just another straightforward popcorn-munching Christopher Nolan movie.” But the film also deals with deeper religious, metaphysical, and emotional themes about fatherhood and survival that makes it about more than the raw narrative itself. There is something transcendent about the film, because the filmmaker is trying to reach beyond himself and his own life.

Throughout the film Michael Caine’s character frequently quotes Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” where he writes: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I always misunderstood the poem. I guess I always thought it was a poem about living life with ferocity and strength. In either case it was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, so I dismissed it.

I was out for a run this morning and was listening to the Interstellar Soundtrack (because I’m a truly strange person). The last track of the album is the cast of the film reading Dylan Thomas’ poem in its entirety. I don’t think I’d ever read it completely and when I heard the last line of the poem, for the first time realized this is a poem about dying. This is a poem about a man watching his father die and he’s trying to tell him that it’s right for him to fight and scrape and claw against death because death is unnatural, and what is natural is to resist the encroaching darkness. I realized that just like Thomas' poem, Interstellar is a movie about dying.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It resonates with me. I myself sat next to my own father’s hospital bed as I watched him die. I too wrote a poem (it was awful but captured my heart) because I had no other outlet for what I was feeling. I hear in this poem the cry I wanted to let out but lacked the skill to actually pull off. The film is like sitting next to a dying mankind wishing to see it fight against a similar encroaching darkness. But in the end, Dylan Thomas' father, and my own father, both died, despite their fighting and clawing. What does that say for the human race in Interstellar?

Now, because Interstellar has this unavoidably naturalistic bent and almost begs you to think that this physical world is all there is (MINOR SPOILER: everything in the film ends up having a natural explanation), thinking about the film constantly gives me this encroaching sense that the light is dying, and there is no way, in natural terms, to stop it. We really will all die. The world will eventually fail us and we will fade like lights extinguished. We will not win the battle against the dying of the light. And even if utopia happens, and even if we find other planets to live on and create new life there, each and every one of us will die. Our light will go out. We get a finite number of years to exist, and that’s it. Even though the film tries to wax optimistic, its anti-supernatural undercurrent leaves the viewer, at the end of the day, convinced that he will not escape death and the light will not win. The film quotes Thomas' poem in an optimistic and motivating way. Maybe, perhaps there is some way that we will be able to keep the darkness of non-existence at bay, even for a day longer... but because naturalism can't answer mankind's deepest need for transcendent meaning, the optimism rings hollow.

In an odd way I am thankful for this sense of doom that comes with watching Interstellar. It gives us an existential taste of what the alternative to the message of the Gospel is. Naturalism says, "We can cheer ourselves up for the moment if we try very hard, but darkness is coming, and at the end of the day it will win. In naturalistic terms, the universe will die in the cold and the darkness, and we will all fade into non-existence." As T.S. Eliot said so well in his poem The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

This is the end of naturalism. A hopeless whimper.

In the Gospel message Christ says, “Your life will end. You won’t win this fight (in this life) against the dying of the light. Not in physical terms. But believe in me, and I’ll give you new life, and you’ll find that I raged against the dying of the light so that when you lose that battle you’ll find the completion of the new life that I’ve given you fulfilled.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Crucified on a Boogie Board

John Pavlovitz has written a blog post that has been reprinted by Relevant, and because of that it has been given a great deal of visibility. In the article Pavlovitz proposes to extract from the “crucifixion” of Rob Bell some sort of lesson about modern Christianity. When he begins with the words “It’s often been said that we Christians eat our own,” you know that his argument is definitely going to involve playing the meanie card. You can almost write his conclusion for him.

Lots of bands have a way of manipulating the audience into demanding that they come back for an encore. One of my favorite recordings is of one of U2’s live shows where Bono just says, “Let’s cut out all of the encore stuff where we leave and then you cheer for us to return and instead, we’ll just play the rest of our set.” I love it. So refreshing, honest, and respectful of the listeners' time.

I want to do something similar. There’s a script I’m supposed to follow in order to establish with the reader that I’m winsome, friendly, a nice guy. If I don’t, then anyone who reads this will just say that I’m another hater and that my opinion can be written off (hopefully not — this is the same crowd that supposedly loves dialogues, after all). I’m sorry, I sort of want to do the whole thing where I apologize for all the “mean” people in Evangelicalism (God knows they’re out there!) and where I say some of the good things that Bell has done and talk about how Oprah’s not so bad. However, before this post is over, you and I know that I will, of course, end up doing the predictable thing where I say, “But…” and then disagree. Let’s skip all that. I’m a nice guy, it’s true… yada yada yada… Please love me!

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to what I really want to say: If there has been a “crucifixion” of Rob Bell (and I’m not exactly sure that his new TV show, nice beach house, boogie board, and nights sitting barefooted with Jack Johnson around the fire pit really feel all that much like being crucified —I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been crucified before. Maybe it’s not so bad.), what it says about modern evangelicalism is not that evangelicals are big meanies who punish those who go against “the script” as Pavlovitz puts it. Rather, the supposed "crucifixion" of Rob Bell shows that theology does still matter to large segments of the church, and that leaders within evangelicalism believe, by and large, that some subjects are still worth contending for. Now that seem like the more charitable conclusion to be drawn here.

Over and over again throughout the article, Pavlovitz dodges the substantive problems that people have been bringing up with regard to Bell's two-plus year old book. For instance, when he discusses the Love Wins episode, his conclusion is not that Hell (sans post-mortem salvation) is evidently something that most evangelicals today believe is taught in Scripture but Rob Bell denied that important belief. Such a conclusion would be far too accommodating and wouldn’t fit Pavlovitz’ goal of trying to shame Bell’s dissenters and lift up Bell as some sort of martyr dying upon the altar of questions and confusion.

Instead, he concludes that Bell’s error was that “he didn’t stick to the script” (ah yes, so many blog posts and books talked about how “off-script” Bell had gotten…). Or as he puts it elsewhere, “He only asked people, to ask the questions.” It’s such a cliche. And I don’t even think that the emergent crowd really can possibly believe its own press at this point, either. Do Bell’s readers really think he was “only” asking questions? I read the book numerous times over. The book is filled with propositional statements intended to inform the reader and to persuade of his position that post-mortem salvation is a live possibility. He quotes church fathers and does word studies — all in order to dislodge from his readers the historic orthodox (such a dirty word!) position. Bell had a case to make and he did his best to make it. As did the best of those who responded to him (Kevin DeYoung, for instance).

In another place Pavlovitz reductively states that “[Bell] simply reached conclusions that he isn’t supposed to reach, and that really pisses off Church people.” (Wait, Bell reached “conclusions” in his book? I thought he was just asking questions…) I can only speak for myself and those immediately around me, but the whole Bell situation never "pissed" me off; rather, it was a doctrinal error to be addressed that morphed more recently into a sad cautionary tale.

In addition, Pavlovitz' statement ignores the fact that the best people who wanted to engage with Rob Bell did so with references to the issues at hand, not with regard to the narrative that he wasn’t in line with. Let me give you an example: When Francis Chan wrote Erasing Hell, his argument was not, “But Rob Bell isn’t saying what he’s supposed to say!” (in fact, I’m not even sure he mentions Bell by name). Instead, the argument was, “Here’s what Scripture says, and here’s why the denial of this thing that Scripture says is detrimental to the faith.” Will Pavlovitz allow someone to disagree with the substance of what Bell has to say without taking personal pot-shots and calling him a “venom-peddler”? If he is a magnanimous Jesus person who wants to occupy the moral high ground here without slipping into obvious and radical hypocrisy, he really ought to give Bell’s dissenters the benefit of the doubt.

It would have been more honest for Pavlovitz to simply say, “Look, Bell took a chance and told us what he really thought of the possibility of salvation after death, and his view clearly hasn’t caught on.” That, at least would be a simple but fair reading of the situation. Instead, he characterizes Bell’s dissenters as “venom-peddlers” (a “venomous” phrase if there ever was one) and calls them “unforgiving” (has Rob Bell even asked for forgiveness? Pavlovitz states quite clearly that he has not).

This narrative coming from whatever wing of evangelicalism Pavlovitz, Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, etc. think they speak for is unsustainable. The only way to have a whole movement centralized around questions without answers, the sound of one hand clapping, and books written like haikus is to have a prior, assumed orthodoxy to leech off of. Evangelicalism as it currently exists has sustained itself on the remnants of an orthodoxy that has been its lifeblood for all of its existence. Eventually, if this crowd has its way, and all the meanies go home and stop caring about doctrinal health in their churches, well there won’t be an orthodoxy left to feed on. It will just be history to study and reminisce about. At that point, what will their movement be? I can’t answer that question completely (I might suggest they start by looking at the mainline denoms), but the words “healthy,” “sustainable,” and “robust” are hardly what come to mind.

Friday, October 10, 2014

7 Ways I Get My Kids to Listen Carefully During Scripture Reading

I used to be afraid to read stuff in the Bible to my kids (ages 8, 5, 4, and 1). I thought it would bore them and then they would beg me not to read the Bible to them ever again. If this happened, I feared that they’d be inoculated against Scripture for the rest of their lives. Because of this concern my routine was to pick a story from the Bible that I thought they'd find interesting and then read it to them. I cherry-picked what my kids were getting, assuming that I knew what they would and would not like.

A few months ago, however, I ran out of novel ideas. Favorite narratives and stories stopped just popping into my head and my creative juices started to dry up. So I did what any red-blooded Reformed pastor in training would do… I gave up and just started reading the Bible straight through. A few months into our experiment we have read the entirety of Genesis all the way through Deuteronomy. This next week we’re going to have a “Peutateuch Party” so they can celebrate reading the Torah together as a family. They love it—which honestly surprised me. In fact, they love it so much that if there is a night when I might try to skip the reading they will get very upset and even cry. They find all of it interesting—even the laws about stoning disobedient children or the death-penalty for man-stealing in Exodus 21 (it led to a discussion about slavery that I should have expected).

One night, after reading some of these laws in the second half of Exodus, Amos asked me, "Can we even use these laws today?" I hesitated but decided not to avoid what could have been a complex discussion. Because of Amos’ tricky question we got to discuss in very simple language the three-fold division of the law. I then asked them to put what we’d talked about into practice by helping me see the moral law in the prohibition against cursing one's parents or premeditated murder. The fact that the discussion went so well showed me that I have really underestimated my children, and wish I had started reading straight through the Bible with my them sooner. I wonder if there aren’t more parents out there who are short-changing their children as well.

Here are seven simple things that have helped me with bedtime Bible reading. Perhaps you will find some of them to be helpful as well:

1) Before I start reading, I run back over what we read the night before. I fight to keep their minds in the narrative flow. Reminding them and forcing them to remember begins to engaging them in what comes next before you even read it aloud.

2) I read to them with the lights out. My goal isn't to put them to sleep, it's to free them from distractions. When the lights are on there are things to play with and siblings to torment. When the lights are out and they're laying in their bed, the distractions slip away - it's just them and the words you're reading. 
3) I read from my iPad (because it's really hard to read a regular book in the dark). A Kindle Paperwhite will work just as well. If you’re feeling daring use a flashlight, but be warned that they’ll want to take it from you and play with it. 
4) Don’t rush in your reading. It's better to be slow and clear than in a rush. Hurrying tells them that you're bored with what you're reading. Go slow and savor—even the weird stuff. Read it like it's important (because it is!). 
5) I stop a lot and try to say what's being said in a different way and get them to talk about it. Your goal isn’t to jam another reading into their heads—it’s to teach them the importance of Scripture and to start helping them to see it all from the big picture. Help them understand the Bible. Also, to keep them engaged, stop often and say their names and ask them questions as if you care what they think while you’re reading (because you do!). 
6) Constantly point out to them their need for Jesus and their own fallenness. When the men and women in the Bible constantly fail over and over again, don’t let it become a morality tale where your child stands in moral superiority over a fallen and failed person. Instead, point back to Genesis and remind them who their representatives were and that by nature we’re in the same boat as these fallen people. Then point forward and show them that all the while God was preparing a rescue in Jesus. 
7) Prepare for weird questions. The readings about man-stealing in Exodus 21 led to a frank discussion of slavery and how massive amounts of African people had been brought to America against their will as slaves. It’s admittedly not an easy conversation to have with little kids. Other times sexually explicit scenes come up via euphemisms. The story of Judah and Tamar is pretty difficult, and I’d be lying if I said that reading the story of Lot and his two daughters wasn’t super awkward. But the younger ones won’t get what’s really happening in those narratives, and the older ones may just have their opportunity for “the talk” arise out of a reading of the Bible (which, considering our culture today, sure beats the far inferior ways our kids could be learning this stuff).

It’s important to remember that the way you feel about the Scriptures will be the way your children learn to feel about them too. It isn’t your intentions they’ll pick up, it’s you're beliefs and actions. Children are very perceptive and can tell if you’re just teaching or reading to them out of duty. They can tell if you’re bored with what you’re reading, or if you are absolutely gripped by it. You may need to ask the Lord to help you to be transfixed by the passage you are reading so that your children can see the urgency of the message as well. There is nothing more powerful that you can do for your children than to teach them through your own affections, words, and actions that the Bible is the most important book they will ever encounter.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Concerning Prophet Fatigue

There's been a video circulating in Christian circles that is funny and at the same time calls out someone's erroneous teaching. It has 1.8 million views, and picks on a popular teacher. You know what's coming... a lecture on humility.

Every time that something sweeps through the Reformed blogosphere, whether it be the video of Bill Cosby telling Victoria Osteen what he thinks of her senseless babbling, or whether it's respectfully reported news of Mark Driscoll stepping down for a short period of time at Mars Hill, the response is predictable. A few days after the social media life-cycle has run its course, the humility contests begin. Blog post after blog post, social media post after social media post from guys who want you to remember that even if you do have good theology you're still no better than Victoria Osteen or even arguing that Christians are keeping people from coming to Christ with our public mockery of error when it happens.

There is almost a cottage industry of guys whose seeming job is to give everyone a lecture soon after any stretch of time when error gets publicly called out. Calling out the guys who call others out is a predictable (and absolutely ironic) part of the life cycle of any controversy in modern theological discourse, and I must confess, I'm fatigued by it.

We should want to be balanced in how we respond to errors within the Christian community, and I don't want to be known as a nasty old grump any more than the person next to me does. I also understand the desire of some to create balance in the world. After all, there's nothing classy or winsome about a dog-pile. We also do know that there are people out there who are just downright mean and give the healthy well balanced folks a black-eye. At the same time, in the book of Acts, after Paul called out Peter for his destructive decision to give the Judaizers the time of day, Paul didn't sit down and go, "Now listen, everyone. I know that was some nasty business back there, but let's just remember that we're all Judaizers deep down, etc..."

We get it, we get it... you're very humble and you want us to be as humble as you are. And someday we'll hopefully get there. But in the meantime, remember that in our own day and age, it's hard to be one of the "Truth Guys." Not only is it tremendously counter-cultural to care about truth (at all!) or to call out error, but when you do so you often risk get sniped by your very own or accused of pride. Just remember, "Humble Guys," you're no better than the "Truth Guys" when you call them out for calling others out.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fearing the God Who Rescues?

In Mark 4:35-41 we are confronted by the narrative of Christ’s stilling of the storm. It may be a familiar narrative, but if we pay close attention we will nonetheless be gripped by it. We should be especially keen to notice that the fear of the disciples is so intense that they even have the nerve to rebuke Jesus Himself. In their words we see that they believe they are going to die (see v. 38). Notice that when Jesus stills the storm and the danger has passed there is a new counter-intuitive reaction from the disciples: great fear.

Many have seen the numerous parallels between this miracle of Christ and the story of Jonah, but it is still worth mentioning, I think. Recall that in Jonah, as in Mark 4, there is a great wind (Jonah 1:4; Mark 4:37). In both storms an important passenger sleeps in the boat (Jonah 1:5; Mark 4:38). In Jonah the sailors “fear a great fear” while Christ identifies the disciples as “afraid” (Jonah 1:10; Mark 4:40). In Jonah the storm is eventually stilled by a work of God’s power, just as it is in Mark (Jonah 1:15; Mark 4:39). As a final parallel, notice that in Jonah the sailors don’t stop fearing after the danger passes. Instead, the passage says that their fear was transferred from the storm to Yahweh (Jonah 1:16). Let me suggest that this is precisely what happens in Mark 4:41.

This group of men believed they were going to die. I have had moments when I thought I was going to die and know from experience that this is a tremendous amount of fear. But to then be described after the danger has passed as being “filled with great fear,” that speaks volumes as well. This response isn’t unusual in the Gospel of Mark. It is common, when people have seen Christ’s miraculous work, for them to react with fear. (For example, Mark 5:15; 6:50; 9:6; 16:8)

The stilling of the storm was an extraordinary moment in the ministry of Christ and an amazing rescue, but the greatest rescue that God ever brought in Scripture was in the work of His own Son upon the cross. At the cross Christ did what he came to do, rescuing all of those who ever had or would believe on him (John 3:16). He brought peace with God. But there is a fearful aspect to the cross as well.

The cross does bring us peace with God, but it comes at great cost (Col. 1:20). God treated his own son as a sinner should be treated; He showed His Son no mercy. He showed the world how He regards sin. The cross is the rescue of God that says to us that God’s character is impeccable. It says that God will not be trifled with; he will not ignore evil; he will punish sin. Because of these things He is a God to be feared.

When you reflect on the rescue that Christ brings, what is your response? Is it serenity? Peace? Joy? Let me suggest that if you are in Christ those are all appropriate responses to the rescue that Christ has brought. But that response ought to always be tempered by the complementary recognition that God’s justice, holiness, and righteousness come out most clearly at the cross.

Those of us who stand at the foot of the cross should do so with mixed emotions. We’re right to rejoice and be glad. But we are also right to “fear greatly” when we gaze upon the suffering of the son even as it is the substance of our own rescue.

[This article was previously posted at the Christward Collective. You should check them out.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Seminarian's Perspective on the Logos Reformed Gold Package

Accordance and its Limitations
For the last three years I have been an Accordance (Bible Software) user. I use Accordance for all of my original language study and profit immensely from having such a powerful set of tools (most of which I have barely scratched the surface of) at my disposal. I also use it for reading commentaries alongside of my Scripture readings — and find these modules very easy to use together.

However, I also have some other things in Accordance that don’t work too well with the format. I have Calvin’s Institutes, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (2 Vol.), the writings of John Milton, St. Thomas’ Summa, and other miscellaneous works of theology. Accordance shows its strength both in its speed and when dealing with original language material, but it shows a massive area of weakness when it comes to handling or searching anything that isn’t Biblical material or commentaries. Simply put, in my opinion, Accordance just wasn’t made for reading most books. It's hard to search them, it's hard to navigate them, and it's hard to even open them to read them in the first place. I'm sure there is probably a way to bookmark my place in them, but I've never figured it out.

Logos Fills the Void
This is where Logos comes in. Logos is Bible software that’s been around for a long time, but with the release of the Reformed starter packages they have begun receiving some extra attention from Reformed bloggers like myself. I was recently given access to the Reformed Gold package by Logos with no conditions attached. That means that I don’t necessarily have to write anything nice if I don’t have anything nice to say. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t intend this to be an informercial. Instead, I want to offer some thoughts that may help you to decide if you should buy Logos — and especially the Logos Reformed Gold package.

Most of the students here in Seminary seem resigned to the fact that no matter how much they love paper books, or may bewilderingly associate electronic books with Gnosticism, they will probably need to get some kind of software to digitize their Bible study and reading. The question for most is if they need to commit to one particular format, and if so, which one? I won't give a firm answer to that question, but I hopefully have some helpful thoughts on the matter. After spending a couple years with Accordance and the last six months or so using Logos, I do want to mention the four advantages of Logos as I see them.

Four Strengths of Logos
First, Logos is the best for an all around library. I mentioned already that Accordance is a very weak format for reading anything that isn’t the Bible. Do not buy Accordance because you want a nice, portable version of Augustine’s Civitatem Dei that you can pick up, put down, and come back to later. The format (even in the portable iPad version) just does not work well for such books, nor does it have actual page numbers, making citation of books in Accordance, if not impossible, at least a huge pain in the neck.

This leads to my second point, which is that in contrast to Accordance, Logos gives you actual physical page numbers. This means that you don’t have to dig around for a new, funky 21st century citation style involving location numbers or anything like that. You just cite the page number of the particular edition you are reading in Logos. It’s all very nice. Also on that point, copying and pasting from Logos into a document you're working on automatically comes with the page citation in whatever format you set up (except for Pages, which evidently doesn’t like pasting citations). That’s very nice, and something that makes research papers that much less painful.

Third, searching within books in Logos is extraordinary. I have tried to do book searches in Accordance and have yet to figure out exactly how it works. As I’ve mentioned, the format just isn’t friendly to that kind of study. Maybe there are ways to do it in Accordance that I have yet to discover, but at this point I don’t do it. In contrast, once Logos has had a chance to compile its search library (which can admittedly take some time after each update, depending on the size of your library), it is very easy to search for scripture citations or references within all of your books and commentaries. Coupling this with the ability to group your books into “Collections” which you organize according to your own tastes, those with larger libraries can choose to only search for a particular reference in their Systematic Theology books or in their Biblical Theology books or in their Commentaries, making your searches as focused as you want. Learning to do collections isn’t easy, and involves digging around through web forums over at Logos, but once you’ve done it you will be glad you did.

Fourth, Logos has a really well-made iOS app. One of my classes for the Fall at RTS has us reading Andreas Kostenberger’s book A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. I thought about buying a used physical copy from Amazon but instead bought it for Logos at full price. Why did I do this? Well, frankly it’s a large book. It is a book I will be reading all semester long. I don’t like lugging around big books. I look forward to being able to go to school and conceivably sit down and just open my iPad Mini to get a bit of my school reading done. No pressure, just wherever I find myself to sit down and get in some reading. The iOS Logos app is the reason this is possible, and I like it a lot. Unlike the desktop version, which has a long startup time (hint: just never close it and leave it running in the background and then you won’t notice), the iOS version on my iPad Mini is snappy, fast, and involves almost no waiting. You can read your books without downloading them, just reading them in the cloud over Wi-Fi or you can download them to read later when you’re out in the boonies. However you use it, the iOS app is very good, minimally glitchy, and makes for a great reading experience. The desktop app is great for searching and studying, but the iOS app means that you almost feel you can sit down and enjoy the book as a book, not just dig through it for quotes or information.

The weakness of Logos is related to its strengths. It's great at searching what can be an incredibly large library of material, but that takes computing power and time. As such Logos, when it first starts up, can take several minutes if it hasn't been updated recently. Also, the original language modules in Logos, from my perspective, have a steeper learning curve than they do on Accordance. My final complaint, once again, relates to the size of the library in that looking for books is not intuitive. You have to know the name of the author to search for it, or you have to have used it recently and have your library set to show most recently used first. These aren't deal-breakers by any means, but they do mean that you will have to be purposeful in how you use the software.

What Kind of User Are You?
Perhaps a seminary student may have a friendly benefactor who wants to bless them with some Bible software and gives them a choice. If someone finds themselves in such a situation, which should they pick? Well my answer is that it depends on what they’re going to do and where their interests are. If you are into history and commentaries or systematics but aren’t much of a language guy, I actually think Logos is the best pick. But if you’re into the languages exclusively and don’t see yourself building much of a digital library I still might recommend Accordance (with a few language-specific modules) over Logos.

How I Balance Accordance/Logos
I will actually mention how I use my own Logos/Accordance set up, which is a bit of a hybrid. I use Accordance for my Bible study and language study. It’s fast and easy to use without a lot of bells and whistles (unless you want them). But I absolutely use Logos alongside of Accordance. The two are not enemies on my computer. I play to each of their strengths in the way that I use them. I keep a window open with my Bible study stuff from Accordance — and I keep another window open where I look through the many commentaries and systematic theologies that come with the Reformed Gold package. I see them as complementary.

Speaking specifically of The Reformed Gold package, it comes with so many books that it can almost be overwhelming. It comes with some really fantastic things such as Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, the Lewis Ford Battles translation of Calvin’s Institutes, as well as the complete works of John Owen, Louis Berkhof, John Bunyan, B.B. Warfield, and Richard Sibbes. It also comes with some extraneous stuff that I’ve never heard of but that I plan to explore when I find the time. Some of the material is a bit dated. For example, Kittels was a very impressive resource for a long time, but with the work of James Barr (see his book The Semantics of Biblical Language), it is now evident to modern students of Greek of the New Testament that the methodology employed in Kittel’s 10 volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is fundamentally flawed. It’s a valuable resource and still has value, for sure, but it’s also hardly cutting edge any longer.

Where to Start?
I can’t tell somebody what would be best for them, but I can hopefully at least give somebody an outline as to how to approach things. If someone is interested in the Reformed Gold package (or any of the packages for that matter), I would begin by going to Logos’ website and installing the free base app on their computer. Grab some of the free modules from their web page and start there. See if you like the program and how it runs. Try out the search functions for yourself. Fiddle around with the iOS app, which I do think will impress most who try it out. If you have the money and are looking to have a nice searchable library that you can take anywhere with you, Logos is a really strong choice that deserves serious consideration.

[Update (8/27/14)]: I would highly recommend reading the comments below by R. Mansfield, who is an employee of Accordance. He has corrected me on many of my statements regarding what Accordance can and cannot do. We would do well to remind readers that this perspective offered above is of an average user who has not taken any classes on either platform. My perspective here reflects my own "non-expert" experience with both, and so should be read in light of that.

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.