Friday, June 5, 2015

The PCA In the Horns of a Dilemma OR Why Does the PCA Have a Confession At All?

North Texas Presbytery and Tennessee Valley Presbytery have put forth overtures to the PCA General Assembly this year suggesting the creation of a study committee regarding the recreation clause of the Westminster Standards. Others have already pointed out that there is probably a hugely widespread misunderstanding among those coming into the PCA about what was meant by these clauses, and addressing that isn’t my purpose here today. Rather, I want to suggest that the PCA needs to be reminded of why it has a confession to begin with.

What is a confession? And why do we have them? R.L. Dabney defines a confession as “a summary statement of what some religious teacher or teachers believe concerning the Christian system, stated in their own uninspired words.” The case for the use of such confessions is two-pronged: a) It has biblical precedent, and b) it makes practical sense.

There are examples of creeds (albeit inspired creeds) in Scripture (Phil. 2:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:11-13). Joseph Pipa, Jr., in his article “The Confessing Church,” argues that confessions are not only biblical, but that they are commanded. He does so on the basis of 2 Tim. 1:13-14. While it is hard to see a specific command for confessions in this passage, it is easy to see how confessions might nevertheless be a means to keeping this particular command of Paul. In this regard there is something to be said for pragmatic arguments in favor of confessions. [1]

Samuel Miller makes his case for the use of creeds in his booklet “On the Utility and Importance of Creeds.” Miller makes multiple arguments in favor of creeds, but among his strongest is his argument that creeds play a practical role in the life of the church: namely, they make unity possible.  “Without a creed explicitly adopted, it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church, and more especially a large denomination of Christians, can maintain unity among themselves.” And so creeds are a means of keeping unity among the people of God. Because the practical purpose of the creed is to promote the unity of those who hold to it, Miller says that creeds “always ought to contain a number of articles besides those which are fundamental.” The result of this process is a creed that is not merely composed of the bare essentials of the faith, but also of those things that the creed’s adherents cannot live in harmony without clarifying.

The PCA currently finds itself in the horns of two problems: (I) the problem of “good faith subscription” and (II) the problem of common exceptions. As Overtures 2 and 9 before the 2015 General Assembly point out, exceptions regarding the “no recreation” clause are so commonplace as to barely register a reaction in most presbyteries.

With regard to the first problem (I), the PCA requires subscription to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, but it does so on the basis of “good faith” (BCO 19-2). This phrase “good faith,” of course, introduces a slippery element of subjectivity. The problem being that what one person might be able to affirm in good faith may be different than what another might be able to affirm in good faith. The result of this form of subscription is that doctrinal standards will actually have an unspoken, unofficial confession within the Westminster Standards, and that unspoken “good faith” confession, at the practical level, will effectively become the new de facto standard of the denomination.

The second problem (II) is the common-ness of exceptions in the PCA. Because the confession is held by its adherents to accurately reflect the teachings of Scripture, “An exception to the Confession, from the point of view of the Church confessing, is an exception to the teaching of Scripture.” [2] This implies that any exception with the standards ought to be regarded by the ruling body as a very serious and troubling issue. From the position of the confession’s adherents, the person who takes exception with the confession is taking exception with the teaching of Scripture and must now decide if the disagreement with Scripture is serious enough for them not to form a ministerial relationship. Currently exceptions are both expected (some men go so far as to question your honesty if you say you don’t have exceptions) and are seen as no big deal to many. This, of course misses the seriousness of an exception.

For some, the question of confessional subscription is one of looseness of subscription — of how closely a man may or may not hold to the written document. David Coffin, however, argues that this gets the dilemma all wrong: “the debate about subscription is really a conflict about which articles ought to be subscribed to, not the strictness, or looseness, of the subscription.” [3]

In light of this helpful point, perhaps the best and most practical thing to do in the PCA is to take steps that will make allowable exceptions to the Confession and Catechisms exceedingly rare or else difficult to get past the Presbytery. This can either be done by (A) moving to a form of strict subscription (instead of “good faith” subscription) while removing the parts of the confession that are the most common sources of exceptions. Or this can also be done by (B) moving to strict subscription while keeping the Confession and Catechisms just as rigid as they already are. The practical result of (A) would be a less robust confessional environment that makes room for a broader coalition of men (“A Big Tent”) who will presumably be required to take less exceptions and presumably will encourage greater unity in terms of confessional adherence. The practical result of (B) would be a smaller denomination that is more tightly bound together in terms of Confessional adherence but also, perhaps, with a greater claim to historic Reformed pedigree.

The answer as to what to do about the two problems mentioned above [(I) and (2)] will require soul searching on the part of the leadership of the PCA, and answering what to do is certainly above this writer’s pay grade. Many would argue that none of these options are viable and that the status quo should probably end up ruling the day. Whatever the case may be, the current environment is not conducive to the unity in truth that a creed is intended to promote.

[1] Carl Trueman argues that Paul, in 2 Tim. 1, is referring to something resembling a confession of his own here, though he doesn’t go so far as Pipa in arguing that confessions are here commanded. See Carl R. Trueman. The Creedal Imperative (Kindle Locations 1121-1122). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
[2] David F. Coffin Jr., “The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription,” in The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, ed. Peter A. Lillback (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 340.
[3] Coffin, 337.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

17 Ways To Glorify God

Most good Presbyterians know the first question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "What is the Chief End of Man?" The answer, of course, is that man's chief end is to "glorify God and enjoy him forever." If you read John Piper you've already gone over this hundreds of times before.

Thomas Watson, in his book Body of Divinity, offers a commentary on this question and its answer. In doing so Watson offers 17 ways in which the Christian glorifies God. I will give the bullet-point list of ways that Watson lists along with one quote and one Scripture reference that he mentions in his larger discussion. I do so in the hopes that readers will be encouraged to glorify God in their own lives and also to read the whole of Watson's answer in the book for themselves.

Watson says that we glorify God...

1. By aiming purely at his glory. "It is one thing to advance God's glory, another thing to aim at it." (see John 8:50)

2. By an ingenuous (innocent - unsuspecting) confession of sin. "The prodigal charged himself with sin before his father charged him with it." (see Joshua 7:19)

3. By believing. "It is a great honor we do to a man when we trust him with all we have, when we put our lives and estates into his hand; it is a sign we have a good opinion of him. Faith knows there are no impossibilities with God, and will trust him where it cannot trace him." (see John 3:33)

4. By being tender to God's glory. "When we hear God reproached, it is as if we were reproached." (see Psalm 69:9)

5. By fruitfulness. "Though the lowest degree of grace may bring salvation to you, yet it will not bring much glory to God. It was not a spark of love Christ commended in Mary, but much love." (see John 15:8)

6. By being contented in that state in which Providence has placed us. "When grace is crowning, it is not so much to be content; but when grace is conflicting with inconveniences, then to be content is a glorious thing indeed." (see Phil. 4:13)

7. By working out our own salvation. "God has twisted together his glory and our good. We glorify him by promoting our own salvation." (see Phil. 2:12)

8. By living to God. "The Mammonist lives to his money, the Epicure lives to his belly; the design of a sinner's life is to gratify lust, but we glorify God when we live to God." (see 2 Cor. 5:15)

9. By walking cheerfully. "The people of God have ground for cheerfulness. They are justified and adopted, and this creates inward peace; it makes music within, whatever storms are without." (see 2 Cor. 1:4)

10. By standing up for his truths. "God has entrusted us with his truth, as a master entrusts his servant with his purse to keep." (see Jude 3)

11. By praising him. "Praise is the quit-rent we pay to God: while God renews our lease, we must renew our rent." (see Psalm 86:12)

12. By being zealous for his name. "Zeal is a mixed affection, a compound of love and anger; it carries forth our love to God, and our anger against sin in an intense degree." (see Rev. 2:2)

13. When we have an eye to God in our natural and in our civil actions. "We glorify God, when we have an eye to God in all our civil and natural actions, and do nothing that may reflect any blemish on religion." (see 1 Cor. 10:31)

14. By laboring to draw others to God. "We should be both diamonds and loadstones; diamonds for the lustre of grace, and loadstones for attractive virtue in drawing others to Christ." (see Gal. 4:19)

15. When we suffer for God and seal the gospel with our blood. "God's glory shines in the ashes of his martyrs." (see John 21:18-19)

16. When we give God the glory of all that we do. "As the silkworm, when she weaves her curious work, hides herself under the silk, and is not seen; so when we have done anything praiseworthy, we must hide ourselves under the veil of humility and transfer the glory of all we have done to God." (see 1 Cor. 15:10)

17. By a holy life. A bad life dishonors God. "Though the main work of religion lies in the heart, yet our light must so shine that others may behold it." (see Rom. 2:24)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gyges' Ring is Real

Have you heard of Gyges' Ring? Plato spoke about it in his book The Republic. Here is how Plato relates the discovery of this ring:
According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
This isn't exactly the 'One Ring' from Lord of the Rings. It doesn't make you tired. There's no dark lord out to ruin you if you over-use it or anything like that. No horsemen are coming to get you if you have it. Nothing like that. It's a symbol of absolute freedom from responsibility for one's actions. Gyges' ring is Plato's own way of asking what a good person is like. Plato says that a just person is someone who would live their life the same whether they are wearing the ring or not. Such a person, says Socrates in Plato's dialogue, would be the kind of person who isn't a slave to their appetites.

Anyone who is reading this blog has probably been into the darkest, deepest, most horrifying depths of the internet. That place where the trolls come out to play and the monsters are real. That place where people actually behave like the disgusting monsters that they are on the inside. I'm speaking, of course, of the comments section on YouTube. Abandon hope all ye who read such a comments section - or nearly any comments section on any website, for that matter. It isn't just that people are irrational and mean, but they are frankly boorish, rude, uncaring, and cruel. It turns out that an anonymous citizenry really is as terrifyingly evil and irresponsible as we might fear.

A month ago, This American Life did a story about internet trolls, and one of the interesting things they talked about was a woman who was so tormented by trolls that someone actually found a picture of her father, started a Twitter feed in his name and with his picture and started tweeting cruel messages to her about what a failure and disappointment she was to him. Predictably she was totally aghast and heartbroken and brought to tears by this anonymous person's "joke." Anonymity allowed him to behave in a way that I trust he never would have behaved in the physical real world.

I am here to tell you (and you probably already know this) that Gyges' ring is real. And everyone with an internet connection has it. We now live in a society of where nearly everyone can behave as they want with virtual anonymity. Remarkably, the troll who tormented this woman I just spoke about on Twitter actually had a conscience and ended up apologizing over the phone to the woman with tears. He realized he had crossed a line and behaved like a ghoul. He took off the ring and realized that, at least in some sense, there is an obligation for all of us to treat one another with respect and kindness, whether we get caught or not.

How do you behave on the internet? How do you talk to other people online? How long do you pause before you push the "submit" button on a comment or before you push "return" after writing a Facebook comment? How big is the disconnect between the things you are willing to say to people face to face and the things you are willing to type to them? One definition of the word integrity points to the principle of undivided wholeness; I would suggest that having integrity with regard to the internet means that the person you behave as when you're wearing Gyges' ring ought to be the same person you are when you aren't wearing it.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"You Are Quite Wrong"

I used to celebrate that the emergent church has gone the way of the buffalo. With Rob Bell jumping the shark and Brian Mclaren's "marriage" of his son to another man it had outed itself as at best a reincarnation of old-school 20th century liberalism and at worst another vehicle for moving large numbers of people out of the church. But the reality is, the ethos and theologically unorthodox impulses haven't disappeared. Even more nefariously these impulses have been incorporated as a part of modern evangelicalism's already sickly emaciated theological assumptions. Perhaps the greatest lasting rhetorical aspect of the emergent methodology was its constant insistence that it was only asking innocent questions.

A few months ago one defender of emergent theological experimentation claimed that one of the godfathers of the emergent movement was publicly crucified. His sin?
  • "He deviated. He dared to ask questions. He challenged the status quo. He moved against the grain."
  • "He asked a ton of really natural questions about reconciling eternal punishment with a loving God."
  • "In the now infamous and pivotal volume that caused the Church to break-up with him, Bell didn’t give many answers. He only asked people, to ask the questions."
  • "He’s admitting the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith."
In all of these propositional assessments of how Bell was treated, of course, the author seems to assume that mere questions without propositions can be benign. Is it possible for mere "question" asking to be totally innocent? Certainly. You could be asking someone a genuine question and seeking an actual answer. But there is another kind of question-asking that is intended to expose absurdity and turn people away from a particular belief or series of beliefs. Jesus dealt with this exact method of questioning, and he saw right through it.

Near the end of the book of Mark during his confrontation with the leaders in Jerusalem Jesus is confronted by a series of adversaries, each with their own agenda. In the middle of this series of challenges, the Sadducees come to him and offer a challenge of their own (Mark 12:18). They want to argue that the resurrection is an absurdity, and they do it by means of narrative, telling the story of a woman who, for various reasons related to the levirate law (Deut. 25:5) has married a series of seven brothers, each of them dying and leaving her childless. The Sadducees ask Jesus whose husband she will be at this supposed resurrection that is coming. This is a hard question with a great deal of emotional and rhetorical force.

Notice the structure of the rhetoric employed by the Sadducees. They never once make a propositional statement (except when setting up the background of the story they're telling). Everything that they say is either story-telling or question-asking. They're just daring to ask "the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith," aren't they? They're only asking "a ton of really natural questions." And yet Jesus says to the Sadducees, "Is this not why you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?"

The Sadducees might just as well respond, "How can we be wrong? After all, we're just trying to start a conversation. We're just asking questions. How can a question be 'wrong'?"

It is also obvious to Jesus what the story is meant to accomplish. It's meant by these people who are "just looking for a conversation" to illustrate in vivid fashion just how silly or problematic the idea of someone being resurrected actually is. Of course, they have underlying assumptions (unstated) that Jesus has to deal with, and he does so first by reminding the Sadducees that heaven is not a place of marriage, and second by reminding them from the Scriptures that "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (12:27). Their problem, according to Jesus, is that their underlying, unstated theological assumptions are wrong and that they don't know their Bibles (v. 24). A truly deadly pair of problems that afflict far too many. Some even find it embarrassing that churches today still employ Jesus' methodology of quoting 2,000 year old Scriptures to settle theological and ethical disputes.

In spite of the supposed 'innocence' of such questions, Jesus responds to them that they are wrong. Contrary to the insistence of many, you can set forth a series of mere questions and stories and still be "quite wrong" (v. 27).

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Myth of the Gullible Ancients

One belief that is ubiquitous among those who write off Christianity is the suspicion that the persons who lived in biblical times were highly gullible. When I was an atheist teenager I looked down on the Biblical authors because I thought they didn’t understand the physical world and thought that it was inhabited by fairies and trolls at every turn. I found comfort in writing them off in this way. Richard Carrier in a recent episode of ‘The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ said that "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.” It is common to hear the Israelite ancients referred to contemptuously as superstitious and gullible individuals. To anyone who knows the Bible this is, of course, a laughable generalization.

As I read the Bible each night with my kids one of the things I try to instill in them is that these are not stupid superstitious people, and this is easy to prove. It takes no manipulation of the text or reading in information that isn’t there; it rests on the surface and can be scooped up without any digging at all. Almost every time a miracle happens in the text I try to point out to them the amazement people have. Tonight in 2 Kings 4 we read about Elisha and the Shunnemite woman. We got to the part where he tells her she will get pregnant in spite of her husband’s advanced age and the woman says, "O man of God, do not lie to your servant." I asked them why she said this and my oldest daughter was very quick: "Because she knew that getting pregnant would have been a miracle, just like with Abraham's wife.”

My daughter was referring, of course, to Sarah’s unbelief (Gen. 18:12) — and Abraham’s unbelief (Gen. 17:17) — at God’s promise to give Abraham a child in his old age. He and his wife laughed at the thought that she would ever have a child. Why? Because old ladies don’t have babies, and Sarah knew this fact just like we do today. These were people who believed in the regularity and stability of the natural order. The sort of people who laughed when a miracle was promised. They didn’t believe that God’s existence meant that the universe was a place of pixies, fairies, confusion and flux.

Skepticism is a frequent response to the miraculous in Scripture. Think of Moses, who expects skepticism when he comes to the Israelites claiming to speak for God (Exodus 4:1). Or think of when Jesus healed the blind man and the text says “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight” (John 9:18). Or think of Thomas who famously said “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). Dead men don’t come back! These ancient, unsophisticated people which no knowledge of Newtonian physics or string theory react to the miraculous with the sort of healthy skepticism that we normally associate with Sherlock Holmes or Gregory House. Skepticism. From such gullible people! Perhaps they weren’t as gullible as modern folks cartoonishly imagine them. Perhaps people need to be educated on what gullibility really looks like.

Being sophisticated enough to know that miracles are weird and rare and out of the ordinary shouldn't preclude miracles.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Would Jesus Curse an Out-Of-Season Fig Tree?

What follows is an e-mail I sent in answer to a question from someone at a church I preached at this past week. I'm posting it for the benefit of anyone else who may have similar questions.

Thanks for asking me the question you did today about Mark 11:13, and especially your question about why Jesus would curse a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs if it wasn’t even the season for figs. As soon as I got home I looked into your question (a very good question) and I want to give you some information that I was able to find.

Specifically I am going to share with you a some insights from R.T. France's commentary on Mark, which I found very helpful. France points out that according to some horticultural expert, although it wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus would have still found little tiny green figs called paggim. “It may be then that these were what Jesus was hoping for, especially if the tree had…a particularly well-developed show of leaves” (France, 440). However, France says he is unable to evaluate these claims since he isn’t a plant expert. In reality France actually believes that Jesus’ demand of the fig tree is unreasonable, but like with other parables the reasonableness of every detail of the act isn’t what’s important but rather, the symbolic meaning of the act. Here’s what France says:
Mark has significantly focused the problem by the comment, "for it was not the season for figs.” …Without this clause, if Jesus might reasonably have expected to find ripe figs and was disappointed, his actions, even if still unusual, might seem more justified…For Mark, Jesus’ frustration was horticulturally unreasonable. He tells the story not because it offers a model for reasonable [plant care] but because of its symbolic value. A tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfill; so, too, is Israel. And just as Micah, speaking for God, described his disappointed search (equally unreasonably at the other end of the growing season) for the ‘first-ripe fig for which I hunger’ (Mi. 7:1), so Jesus on his initial visit to the temple has found all leaves, but no fruit. His summary verdict on the ‘braggart’ fig tree is a verdict on the failure of God’s people and is of a piece with his developing polemic against the ‘barren’ temple.
France pointed to Micah 7:1, and it appears that in that passage God is also seeking figs at a time when they aren’t in season. Here’s the passage:
Woe is me! For I have become
as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. 
It seems like Mark has mentioned that the figs are out of season perhaps even specifically to parallel God’s condemnation of Israel in Micah 7:1 with what Jesus is doing. In the Micah passage God can scarcely find any righteous men in the land; this clearly is true in Jesus’ own time as well. I actually think that drawing a connection between Jesus and Micah 7:1 makes Jesus' actions make more sense. He acts in a way that draws a parallel between his own judgment in the Temple and God’s judgment on Jerusalem. The point becomes less about the expectations we have for our plants and more about the fact that Jesus is judging Israel (remember that the fig tree episodes of 11:12-14; 11:20-26 bookend Jesus’ visit to the unfruitful temple in 11:15-19) as God judged Israel in the time of Micah.

So there are a couple of possible approaches.

1) Jesus may be making a reasonable request of the plant,
2) or he may not.

Both are textually and horticulturally plausible, depending on which fig expert you ask about it. I’m actually fine with both. With the unreasonable request, it would seem to reflect more clearly that Jesus intends to copy God’s judgment in Micah 7:1, where God can’t find a “first-ripe fig," but I’m sympathetic with those who say that Jesus would still have expected to find something on the vine indicating fruitfulness.

I’m curious whether this satisfies some of your own curiosity. If not, feel free to let me know. I can keep digging!

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Not-So-Modern Yearning for Male Friendship

“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!” (2 Sam. 1:26-27).
It isn’t unusual in our own day and age to see people lamenting the loss of the masculine friendship. In a lot of ways it isn’t hard to see why: not only does our society seem to be exchanging real-world, face-to-face relationships for the online, impersonal, Facebook-style relationship, but increasingly there is pressure on men especially to become distant and independent from their peers. In more recent trends, biographers of famous figures search the journals of their subjects combing them over for homoerotic overtones or hints of impropriety in their masculine relationships. Modern men increasingly fear having their sexuality challenged in this way or being misunderstood by others. Increasingly, the path that many men (even godly upstanding men) choose is the path of least resistance: isolation, solitude, independence, and loneliness.

Yet whenever I talk with other men about this problem, I sense that they do yearn for close friendships - that they don’t want to live in isolation. I have spoken with numerous men who, upon reading David’s lament for Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1, resonate deeply with David’s loss. David has not only lost King Saul, whom he loved and respected in spite of his horrendous failings, but he has also lost his best friend in all the world. As someone who moved several states to attend Seminary I have discovered that even in a place where so many around me have much in common, true friendships are hard to come by, and don’t just grow on trees. To lose a true friend is no small thing.

As many of us read of David’s loss we may feel an even deeper sorrow. We have experienced a loss of our own, in our day and age: in a sense we have lost the ability to know David’s loss. What David is speaking of may be so foreign to us that we are only able to experience David’s friendship and sorrow vicariously. We perhaps think, “I may never have such a friend, and I may never know such a loss, and yet it brings me comfort to think upon David himself baring his soul for those around him to hear.” We should be encouraged by David’s example that we should not choose the easy path of isolation in our personal relationships, but to do the hard work of spending time with other men and opening ourselves to the kind of godly, masculine relationship we see modeled for us here by David and Jonathan. Those who do know what it is to have a godly and intimate friendship with another man should thank God that he experiences such a gift. Whatever our experience might be, there is a comfort in knowing that such an intimacy and closeness is possible between men who are friends and fellow sojourners in this difficult journey called life.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Concerning Theologian/Scientists and Scientist/Theologians

How tempting it is to speak on subjects that we really don't understand! Especially when we know just enough about the subject to sound like we know what we're talking about. Consider the ease with which scientists slip back and forth between playing with science and playing with metaphysics. Think, for instance, of Stephen Hawking's book The Grand Design, where he argues that God's existence is not necessary and attempts to do so on scientific grounds.
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
Hawking does his best to give scientific-sounding arguments for this conclusion, but at the end of the day one has to ask how one could ever come to such theological conclusions from physical observations without making some sort of metaphysical assumptions at the beginning of the whole enterprise?

It isn't only scientists, however, who are guilty of moonlighting as poor theologians. Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. Consider William Lane Craig, who almost a year ago pointed out in answer to a question on his blog that the "evidence for inflation" is confirmed by the research of the BICEP team.
The team went to great lengths to ensure that the polarization pattern detected was not due to error in instrumentation or the influence of cosmic dust or galactic factors.
Earlier that week, Craig appeared on Fox News arguing that the BICEP team's research confirms "the Christian view of the universe." He also spoke with Kerby Anderson on the subject. Inflationary expansion, of course, serves as a powerful confirmation for the cosmological argument for God's existence, which argues that if the universe had a beginning, it must have been God who was the cause of that beginning. This argument is a favorite arrow in the quiver of many Christian Apologists. This may be exciting for the moment when the news emerges, but things get less exciting when backpedalling becomes necessary.

The New York Times, in an article posted yesterday, says that things have changed since March of last year: "Now a new analysis, undertaken jointly by the Bicep group and the Planck group, has confirmed that the Bicep signal was mostly, if not all, stardust, and that there is no convincing evidence of the gravitational waves. No evidence of inflation." Is God's existence now more likely? Less likely? Has anything changed? If inflation is no longer "confirmed" does that mean Christian theologians will need to wait for further research before they can feel comfortable telling people that God exists?

As time goes on, I suspect more and more that theologians are far better off speaking of that which they know and not having an apologetic methodology that can be buttressed by one team of scientists only to be thrown into disarray the next moment when that team's flawed methodology is later exposed.

Earlier this week in one of my classes, my homiletics professor, Dr. Charlie Wingard, made an important comment in passing. He said, "In your preaching, when you give an illustration or an argument, never pretend as if you're a scientist or a doctor if that isn't your area of expertise. Inevitably someone in the audience will know better than you and you will lose your credibility."

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.]