Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why I Think Theology Has Sharper Words for Science

One of my first posts for CiC dealt with a NY Times article on the so-called 'humility' of scientific investigation. I challenged that humility then, and I challenge it now. For the NY Times has again offered us some reflections on this point, the focus this time on trying to justify the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva and its physics that are 'all about the search' and not about the results. What makes me so indignant toward this moral posturing? I'd like to say it's my fear that science might disprove God exists, but sadly that's not the case.

On the right is Martin Heidegger's breathtaking thesis on what he calls the 'essence' of modern technology. I am well aware Heidegger is not all the chatter when it comes to conservative theology (though phenomenology, the school of thought he did so much to advance, is still an up and coming enterprise within it, as many of my friends at New College endeavour to show us soon). But what he has to say about technology has fundamentally shaped the way I think about it. Indeed, it makes so much darn sense that I have grown increasingly impatient with scientists who style themselves to be 'all about the search' and blissfully unaware of what that search will produce - and produce is the right word, as I hope to show in a moment.

Let me sketch one point this book defends. Heidegger argued that modern technology in its very essence is radically differentiated from pre-modern technology. He calls pre-modern technology technique, and goes on to explore what this newly-arrived word 'technology' actually signifies. To risk oversimplification, here is what technology means: it is the interpenetrating of knowing and making, the co-penetration of science and art, which for the modern world means that our science is inescapably 'folded' not just toward increasing information (i.e. describing the world, its causalities, etc) but also increasing power over the world.

The form this power takes is the technology that modern science makes not just possible, but inevitable. In crude language, then, modern technological science is about the conquering of non-human and human nature. That this initially may not sound such a bad idea (nature is nary our friend, often our enemy, right?) is because, as Heidegger so perceptively shows, we moderns have embraced a modern metaphysics and self-understanding that places human self-realisation, our freedom from all that hinders, i.e. our autonomy, at a premium. This radical self-willed autonomy, in turn, is, when it boils down to it, the sole moral justification for further technological advancement. In a word, science and autonomy justify one another. They generate a reciprocity, a symbiosis, that philosophically speaking silences any alternative moral ontologies or frameworks from challenging their self-sustained enterprise.

There, I risked it. Oversimplifying that is. So, if you follow at all, and agree at all, then what does theology have to say to science? My initial thought is: a lot more than 'no, really, I think we are compatible!' and similar deferential nonsense.

What theology needs to realise instead is that science as it is currently organised and practised (no matter the well-meaning scientists, to whom we may as well ascribe the best of intentions) upholds the kind of self-possession and self-making that is anathema to Christian theology understood as a total horizon of understanding.

The second would be grasping what humility is. Humility is not wonder paired with ignorance. It is not a psychological disposition that blesses your every good intention proceeding to action. For Christians humility happens first in and through embrace of our creatureliness. Creatureliness in its essence is the acknowledgment of an existence dependent upon true essence. Scientists can be humble in this sense, I have no doubt. Science, however, cannot - cannot, that is, as it is currently practised and understood. For humility Christianly understood is a vantage point or form of living and participating in (and not above or over) the world God has created. It is not about self-possession. It is not about stripping the world, becoming its lord, and discovering our true destiny. Which is what science is folded toward - and why I think theology has sharper words for it, beyond compatibility theses, far away from 'non-overlapping magisteria' evasions.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review: The Gospel According to Lost by Chris Seay

It is clear that author Chris Seay is a huge fan of Lost. He summarizes the show well in The Gospel According to Lost and navigates what could be a confusing five seasons with ease and clarity. My wife and I have been watching Lost from Episode 1 and thus I felt qualified (and excited) to review this book. Typically with a niche book such as this, I find myself saying "this book isn't for everyone, but fans of _________ will enjoy it".

However, I don't feel I can even say that, because all the things that make Lost such an arresting show are missing from this book: deep philosophical questions, challenging theological themes, and a joy in both the mystery and the revelation. Also missing from the book: the Gospel. The "good news" of salvation and forgiveness of sins through the work of Jesus in his death and resurrection was mentioned explicitly once, but that seems a little scarce for a book with "The Gospel According to" in the title.

One of the things that sets Lost apart from other television is the fact that you can tell that the writers are steeped in science, philosophy, literature and theology and it comes out in the writing. I was expecting to find the same intellectual rigors in this book, but was disappointed. This book read more like a collection of blog entries, each focusing on a character or two from the show. Rather than a logical progression through Gospel themes drawn out from the show, each chapter took a disjointed character snapshot and then somewhat awkwardly turned their dominant personality trait into a spiritual reflection. Unfortunately, for a show that so perfectly crafted deep and complex character arcs, this formula made them all seem one-dimensional.

The Gospel According to [fill in the blank]-type books are a strange breed to begin with. It takes a well-studied author (of both his subject matter and relevant philosophical and theological ideas) who can draw the themes of the Gospel out of fictional literature or film without it feeling forced or contrived. Unfortunately this is the very trap into which the book falls. Indeed, I finished the book feeling like nothing significant has been said about the Gospel (or Lost, for that matter).

If you're looking for a brief character study of each of the major players from Lost, you may enjoy this book. If you're looking for an intelligent way to introduce the Gospel into the conversation with diehard Lost fans, you will probably be disappointed.

This book was a free review copy provided by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

"By thine own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne."

From CiC (and Charles Wesley) to you: Merry Incarnation Day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top 10 Books I Read In 2009

I know this is quite cliche', but it's the Christmas season and all of us slip into the cliche' at some point during December. So I'm going to use my pass on this one: the top ten books I read this year. You may notice that not all the books that make the list were published this year. This is because this is the first year I've been on a serious reading regimine, thus I had some catching up to do in books from past years as well.

Before we begin, I am greatly obliged to those publishers and bookstores who have made much of my reading possible this year through providing free materials for review. We hope your trust in Christians In Context was not without return. Notably, I must thank InterVarsity Press, NavPress Publishing Group, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Tyndale Publishing and the Westminster Bookstore.

10. Finally Alive - John Piper
A beautiful and much needed book for Christianity, John Piper deals thoroughly with the rebirth, regeneration, and new life of the Christian. It is exhaustive without being exhausting or intimidating (as Desiring God and some of his other works can be at times). A great place to start to understand the Reformed position on God's role in our salvation.

9. Tactics - Greg Koukl
This may be the least well-known book on this list, but Greg Koukl (host of the weekly Stand To Reason radio program) has written the perfect handbook on apologetics. He is not answering specific challenges leveled at Christian apologists, rather his book addresses techniques (or tactics) for making a defense for the Christian faith in a way that is honest, charitable and winsome. This book is uniquely helpful.

8. Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) - Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
If there were two cultural movements that generated the most Christian books this year, I am guessing it would be the New Atheism (from without) and the Emergent church (from within . . . Sorta. Maybe. Even they would probably equivocate here). Why We're Not Emergent is a good introduction to the debate though it's obvious which camp they are coming from.

7. Hollywood Worldviews - Brian Godawa
As a Christian in the movie industry, Brian Godawa is uniquely positioned to write this book. Even for those of you who don't spend much time talking or thinking about worldviews, this book has much to benefit from. In particular the first and last chapters lay out some excellent guidelines and principles for watching and engaging with Hollywood and it's culture. This book was well written, even better thought-out, and I endorse it to anyone who likes movies. I'm assuming that's all of you.

6. Total Church - Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
This book will not be for everyone, but for those in church ministry this is a must-read. While not a revolutionary book on how to "do church", it gives a wonderful picture of how a healthy church "does life together". (Shoot me for using those phrases) Do you believe church is simply meeting once a week? You must read this book. Do you believe it is something much more? You will love this book.

5. Hidden Worldviews - Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford
In Hidden Worldviews, Authors Steve and Mark deal with what they call "lived worldviews". These lived worldviews include such ideas as individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism and salvation by therapy. Every chapter details both the truth or good as well as potential problems of each worldview before drawing a conclusion. In this manner, the authors present a very even-handed treatment of each idea without sounding alarmist or too "Chicken Little". A very refreshing read and quite unique in it's approach and subject matter.

4. The Reason For God - Timothy Keller
Dealing with some of the biggest and most common objections to Christianity, Tim Keller has written one of the best apologetic books for Christianity that I have ever read. So good, in fact, that I have not been able to keep it in my possession since reading it because I've been perpetually loaning it out.

3. Blue Like Jazz - Donald Miller
Yes, as I warned, this book is the best example of how behind I am on my reading. I'm sure this was on everyone else's list five years ago but better late than never I suppose. And I certainly see what all the hype was about. Don talks about his own spiritual journey in a very existential manner, but there is enough orthodoxy in here to keep even a doctrinal stickler as myself mollified.

2. When Helping Hurts - Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
Steve and Brian have written the best book I have ever read for the Christian and poverty relief. This book is full of insights from two guys that have seen it work on the ground level. Insights like: how poverty of all sorts is linked to man's fallenness, the different stages of poverty and the different ways they need to be addressed, and how we perpetuate instead of alleviate poverty by just throwing money at it. This book is greatly needed and will become more important in the coming years as celebrity poverty aid and social justice gospels grow in popularity.

1. Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl - N.D. Wilson
I am well aware that my number one book is probably not on anyone else's list or even on their radar. And it is their loss. While not everyone liked this book as much as I did (Pastor Lee), no other book this year made me goose-bumpy or made me laugh and cry at the same time. His writing evokes emotion like the best fiction, scratches the brain like the best philosophy, and stirs a love for Creator and creation like the best theology. His thoughts come out jumbled and scatter-shot, but in the end he paints a beautiful word picture.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Should We Care About the Virgin Birth?

Yes.

But at least one pastor has a few comments that seem to indicate otherwise. In this post, Paul Janssen's main point is to ask his readers about the role the virgin birth plays in their Christian lives. But in the process he mentions two things that pretty much all of us know: (1) that pre-Christian religions had virgin births; (2) that Matthew mistranslated Isaiah 7:14 when he substituted "virgin" for the OT's broader, "young woman". He doesn't say for sure, but Janssen is apparently skeptical of the NT's accounts.

Well, I took issue with the post in a comment there that I figured might be worth reproducing here for those of you who are generally interested in this issue or who share his assumptions. I hope it helps:
    Paul,

    Three things:

    (1) What other virgin births are you thinking of, specifically?

    (2) You say that most of us are aware of Matthew's mistranslation of Isaiah 7. For one thing, properly speaking it would be the LXX's mistranslation more than Matthew's, since he sticks very close to the LXX in that quote.

    But more importantly, the Gk. parthenos, which most certainly means "virgin" in English, is quite a reasonable translation of the Hebrew almah. Almah only occurs a handful of times in the Hebrew Bible, but in all but one case it most certainly refers to an unmarried woman (i.e. a "virgin"), and in only one case is it possible for it to refer to a married young woman, [and even there] it really could go either way (that reference escapes me right now, because my old computer broke so I don't have my BibleWorks, and my good commentaries are in my office!).


    All that to say this: to say that all of us recognize that Matthew has mistranslated Isaiah 7:14 is, well, wrong for both of the reasons that I gave

    (3) I should also add that Matthew 1:18-25 paints the picture of Jesus basically being adopted by Joseph- that is where the text wants us to go, I think, despite that it doesn't actually use the word "adopted". Remarkable then, isn't it, that our Lord's adoption into the line of David is seen as enough for him to be truly David's son, no less than if he were physically born of a descendant of David. Why is this remarkable? Because, of course, we Gentiles were not in the line Abraham, yet we receive the promises given to him. We sinners were also not the true sons of God, but we were adopted by the Father. If adoption is good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for us. Virginal conception points to the nature of our Lord and to the precedent he sets for us in beautiful ways.

(HT: Kevin DeYoung, who responded in greater length and detail on his blog- my version is something like the cliffnotes of his.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I know as I write this that I am heading for some controversy as what I am about to suggest has already garnered some significant push-back from my own wife and mother in law. However, I also know there are some theologically-minded thinkers out there, and I wanted to get some opinions or counter-arguments for my current position.

I am the worship pastor for Redeemer Church in Omaha, Nebraska and this past Sunday was the last Sunday before Christmas. Now, much to the disappointment of my wife and the surprise of others, I only included one Christmas carol in our Sunday worship set list ("Angels From the Realms of Glory"), though I did include a couple songs that we sing during the rest of the year that focus on the incarnation ("Here I Am To Worship", "Love Came Down"). My dilemma is as follows:

There seems to be a shortage of Christmas carols that are theologically accurate, deep and significant and lyrically well-written as worship is considered. While most of the Christmas carols carry a lot of sentimental religious significance for most of us because we sing them every year around Christmas, I find at least some of them wanting when compared with the songs (both hymns and modern worship) that I choose for services the rest of the year.

My criteria for such songs is as follows:
  1. Theological accuracy
  2. Theological depth and significance (In other words, even if it's true, is it weighty?)
  3. Theological breadth (In other words, do we have to wade through a bunch of sentimental lines to get to one nugget of truth?)
  4. Lyrical beauty (In this I often focus on the refrain. Are we repeating a line that bears repeating and encourages worship?)
If you don't believe me, go back and read the lyrics for "Away In a Manger", "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem", "We Three Kings" or "Silent Night". Even considering the second-tier songs that some may not consider Christmas carols we have songs such as "Do You Hear What I Hear?", "I Saw Three Ships", "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" and "Little Drummer Boy". I feel like most of these songs fail on at least point #3, where we must muddle through a lot of poetic imagery to get to the significant theology of the songs.

Of course, anyone inclined to disagree with me will simply say I am picking songs that prove my point, and they may have an argument. However, I find carols such as "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing", "Angels In The Realms of Glory" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" to be the exception rather than the rule.

Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas carols. I still remember distinctly my frustration and surprise the first year I tried to find good Christmas carols to incorporate into a worship set. Most Christmas carols seem to be a genre to themselves, even when compared with the hymns from the same time period. There is, in general, more poetic imagery simply there to set a tone than to communicate something theologically significant. Much of it is a retelling of a historical event, but again, not in the theologically deep ways that we find in the hymns regarding the crucifixion and resurrection.

Feel free to respond but please be nice in the conversation, I am being intentionally incite-ful as much as insightful in this post. After all, I'd love to be proven wrong and have more songs to use in church next Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On War, Rights, and Obama's Nobel Speech

I've (all too inadequately) posted on the problematic theological notion of inalienable rights, on the 'politics of Jesus' in favour of non-violence over just war, and on the question of Christian political theology or ethics. This recent response from Prof. Stanley Hauerwas (another frequent citation of mine) on President Obama's 'remarkable' speech for the Nobel Peace Prize seems to tie several of these threads together. Here are a few excerpts I wish to highlight:
But there is a deep conceptual issue that he does not raise concerning war. That issue is: how do you know a war is a war? He begins with the claim that war in one form or another appeared with the first man. One assumes he’s referring to Cain and Abel. But what happened between Cain and Abel was not war. It was murder. His lack of clarity about what distinguishes war from other kinds of violence becomes the basis for his claim that because evil exists then war is necessary. Thus his suggestion that war is simply “there,” requiring acknowledgement. To recognize the necessity of war is to simply acknowledge history. But that is simply an assertion without argument.
And this:
Of course the idealism that is shaping his justification for war is extremely dangerous. Thus his claim that a “just peace” should be based on the inherent right and dignity of every individual. He then underwrites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a basis for accomplishing the peace that war makes possible. But to make rights the rationale for going to war will make war even more difficult to control. It may be, as he maintains, that peace is unstable if most rights are denied. But it is just as likely that claims for rights will lead to what some call war.
These suggestive comments require some unpacking, I grant that. That they require unpacking should not excuse us from thinking seriously about them as Christians. We are nearing the celebration of the birth of Christ, the 'Prince of Peace' and God Incarnate. What have we still to learn from Him? Maybe it is not non-violence. Maybe it is. But I know this much: it is not merely a 'private' message. His reign is so much bigger than that.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Santa loves me, this I know

This morning I was listening to a radio DJ take calls from little boys and girls who were sharing what they'd asked Santa for this year. I was only listening briefly, but after one little girl gave her wish list, the DJ said, "Thanks for calling, Santa loves you".

Santa loves you? I am nearing my 28th Christmas (only 23 or so that I remember) and I don't remember Santa's love being part of his lore. Perhaps it is there in the background as an assumption, but his predominant characteristic seems to be a rewarder of the good kids and (at least in theory) a reprimander of the bad kids. Santa always seemed more impersonal and karmic than loving to me.

Am I reading too much into this? Or is John Granger's insight on movies somewhat true of the Santa lore as well? "When God is driven to the periphery of the public square, the human spiritual capacity longs for exercise, and it often finds it in the 'suspension of disbelief' and activity of the imagination."

Could it be that when we drive a God of love (and a God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked) to our periphery, we shape our cultural myths and stories to fill that void? Or am I just making too much out of what a disc jockey said on the radio? Discuss.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Keep Christ in Christianity

Thanks to the generous folks over at Baker Books, I will soon be posting a dual review of Michael Horton's Christless Christianity along with his sequel, The Gospel-Driven Life. While the former offers a diagnosis of the slipping Gospel in the American church, the latter details the solution. However, since I am barely half way through Christless Christianity and have already left a great deal of ink in the book, I felt compelled to share some of the highlights thus far.
"Far from clashing with the culture of consumerism, American religion appears to be not only at peace with our narcissism but gives it a spiritual legitimacy." (p. 20)

"Exemplifying the moralistic and therapeutic approach to religion, Osteen's message is also a good example of the inability of Boomers to mourn in the face of God's judgment or dance under the liberating news of God's saving mercy. In other words, all gravity is lost—both the gravity of our problem and of God's amazing grace." (p. 71)

"The old-time religion may have been legalistic, adding its own rules and regulations to God's law, but at least it recognized that God commanded certain things. Today it is less about measuring ourselves against God's holy will than about helping make good people better through good advice." (p. 110)

"Hitching our wagon to the spirit of the age, whatever we call it, always leads to one form or another of culture-Christianity—in other words, to our native Pelagianism." (p. 111)

"We do not preach ourselves but Christ. The good news—not only for ourselves, but for a world (and church) in desperate need of good news—is that what we say preaches better than our lives, at least if what we are saying is Christ's person and work rather than our own. The more we talk about Christ as the Bible's unfolding mystery and less about our own transformation, the more likely we are actually to be transformed rather than either self-righteous or despairing. As much as it goes against our grain, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for justification and sanctification." (p. 118)

The Image of God in Man and Christ

The Bible speaks of the image of God in two ways. Gen. 1:27 says that humans are made in the image of God. Col. 1:15 says that Christ is the image of the invisible God.

The creation of humans in the image of God means, among other things, that humans in some way reflect something of the nature of God. Thus, the plural God creates not just a man, but man and woman. Thus, God mediates his authority over the earth through his image-bearers (Gen. 1:28). But sin marred that image and introduced a creation-wide curse.

Jesus was not created, but is and always was the perfect image of God. What sinful man marred, sinless Christ displayed perfectly as the incarnate Son of God. The authority of God over not only the earth, but indeed over all creation, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, is expressed in that perfect image, Christ. Christ, not Adam, is the firstborn over all creation.

So how do these two relate?

The answer comes in our being adopted by God the Father by means of being incorporated into Christ. We are not sons and daughters of God along with Christ, but in Christ. Thus "...in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority." (Col. 2:9-10). Paul explained Christ's headship over all rule and authority in 1:15-20, only to say that humans are filled in Christ and his fullness here in ch. 2. 3:9b-10 relates it back to Christ as Image of God: "...seeing that you have put off the old man with its practices and have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator."

Put simply, Christians are adopted by the Father through our incorporation into the Son so that the image of God in man is renewed in the Son's perfect image. Put even more simply, my life is Christ's life. So the foundation of Christian living in Col. 3, before any specific moral command, is this: "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God...For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Col. 3:1, 3).

For all who follow Christ, the image of God in man is no longer the old sin-marred image from Eden, but the untainted image of the Son. That perfected image is what we strive for and what the Spirit points to in our every day attempt at sanctification.

This is also why we don't long for a return to Eden; we long for the New Creation, when our lives in Christ will look much more, well, Christly. Spiritual new creation surpasses the old creation, even before sin. Adam didn't look like God in Gen. 1 nearly so much as we will in Rev. 21.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Review: Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word by Douglas Sweeney

If you can't judge a book by its cover, perhaps you can by its subtitle. At least such is the case with Douglas Sweeney's new Edwards biography, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought. I went into this book expecting detailed discussion of Edwards' use of Scripture in pastoral ministry, and I did get some of that. What I got was hagiography-as-spiritual-teaching. Sweeney's biography is a short (200 pages of 1.5 spaced font with lots of skimmable footnotes), readable introduction to Edwards' life and thought aimed at Christians who want to learn from "the greatest American theologian".

Insofar as this was Sweeney's goal, it was well-accomplished. After laboring through Marsden's authoritative tome, I breezed through Sweeney's work in a couple days- this from someone who reads with painful slothfulness. For that matter, Marsden's endorsement of Sweeney's book is proof-positive that it is at the very least a faithful treatment, as is Kenneth Minkema's.

And why shouldn't they endorse it? The biography covers each major portion of Edwards' life with brevity and clarity. Perhaps more impressive is Sweeney's remarkably lucid summary of some of Edwards' most important works (including Freedom of the Will and The End for Which God Created the World, et. al.) in the course of one short chapter. Further, each portion of the book is laced with extensive quotations from Edwards himself, so much so that I wonder if I have read more of Edwards' own writing in Sweeney or in Marsden, despite the latter's far greater length. The reader walks away with a real sense of Edwards' writing and preaching, and hopefully a hunger for more.

Still, even in a biography so consciously aimed at Christians, must we never critique the subject? So for example, Sweeney of course admits that Edwards owned slaves, but he does so with almost pitiful apology- as if Edwards was an older brother and Sweeney heard someone making fun of him. Or take his discussion of Edwards' removal from his Northampton pastorate, where Sweeney refrains from criticizing any of Edwards' actions. The closest he comes is this conclusion:
The Great Awakening proved divisive. But it also crystallized the crucial importance of conversion and of living life with eschatological urgency. Whatever one thinks of his personality or his ministerial methods, Edwards' genius for conveying these priorities was great. As we will see further below, moreover, his courage in living them out was greater.
One wonders what the author in fact does "think of his personality or his ministerial methods". Was Jonathan Edwards really all genius and courage?

Sweeney's biography will be useful to the Christian who wants an introduction to the life of Edwards. He finishes the work with seven theses that seek to apply Edwards' model to modern church life, and these may actually be the most helpful part of the book. Even if more focus on Edwards' "ministry of the word" (the title really did mislead me in this regard) and balanced assessment of Edwards the man would help, I would still be glad to pass this book along to the Christian wanting to learn from Edwards. For my part, I hope that more Christians will seek to do just that.


NB: This book was given to me for review by InterVarsity Press free of charge.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Church You Know PSA's

Here's some funny, poignant satire from some of my brother's friends:

On Tithing:



On Worship:



On Being a Part of the Body of Christ:



On What Jesus Would Do with $50,000:




There are a few others, too, but these are my favorites. For the rest, search "The Church You Know" on youtube and just start following the recommendations.

As an aside, these videos are Christian satire done right. Genuinely funny, genuinely poignant, all without being so condescending that I get too angry at the satirist to bother listening.

The 6 Essential Truths of the Gospel, According to Piper

Click here for a really worthwhile use of three and a half minutes.

Though I should say that there probably should be more in there about kingdom. Still, helpful stuff.

HT: Glen

Update:

Peter Leithart has some helpful words that correspond to my critique here: "Jesus, in short, talks about justification by faith all the time. Justification by faith is the gospel of Jesus. Because 'justification by faith' means 'Your king comes.'" Click here for the whole thing.

HT on the Update: James Grant

Friday, December 11, 2009

Inalienable Rights? False.

'Indeed I want to argue that America is the only country that has the misfortune of being founded on a philosophical mistake--namely, the notion of inalienable rights. We Christians do not believe that we have inalienable rights. That is the false presumption of Enlightenment individualism, and it opposes everything that Christians believe about what it means to be a creature.' From Stanley Hauerwas, 'Abortion: Theologically Considered'
You can find the rest of the (somewhat dated) article here. My purpose is to draw attention to the notion of subjective or inalienable rights, which is enshrined in our beloved Constitution, but which I (also) believe is a fiction, and which I think Christians ought to find theologically promiscuous.

I wrote last week about the 'Manhattan Declaration' and its wholesale, unflinching appropriation of inalienable rights as theologically based in the imago Dei. I've never been to a Bible Study where our discussion of Genesis 1, Philippians 2, heck, all of Paul's letters, devolved to the recognition that we all should have religious liberties, rights to property, and rights to download pornography and not be held legally culpable. That's meant to be provocative, yes, but it has its purpose as well. It should show us how defunct, how handicapped, how theologically nonsensical American political theology often is. And should force all of us to rethink some of our basic principles and allegiances.

I agree with Hauerwas that this was America's founding philosophical mistake. But it was also its theological mistake, borne from the good intentions of mostly well-meaning Christians. There is a not so fine line between accepting political reality as-is and having to accept the role of prophet within and against it. America in its essence implies far more theological problems than our Americanised Christianity is able, at times, to admit. I don't think that's a scholarly point either. Christians should feel that in our bones every time our fellow Christians try to justify their inalienable rights on the basis of the Gospel that calls men everywhere, at all times, daily, to die.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Book Review: God Is Great, God Is Good

The New Atheists have been getting a lot of attention lately; first from the general public because of their writings, and then from the Christian community because of the general public's interest. And just as the ideas of the Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett have spawned several books, so the rebuttals of Christian academia have also been the fodder for many publications in the last year or so.

God Is Great, God Is Good is one of the finest examples of this mini-genre and it brings together some of the sharpest minds in Christian apologetics. Names like Michael Behe, Gary Habermas, and William Lane Craig offer their best defense for Christianity against the charges of the New Atheists. The diversity of authors in this book is perhaps both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness: strength because each author can focus on their respective field, and weakness because there is a noticeable absence of a clear train of thought from one chapter to the next.

While the flow of a single-author sort of book is missing, the structure of the book in the way the essays were grouped was quite appealing and seemed to address the general categories of challenges from the New Atheists well:
  1. God Is (God's existence)
  2. God Is Great (God's creative design)
  3. God Is Good (God's goodness)
  4. Why It Matters (A shift from theistic issues generally to Chrstianity specifically)
These authors certainly are nicer (and at times more academic) than the New Atheists have a reputation of being. Love them or hate them, however, the New Atheists seem to connect with something in their audience when they are at their most acerbic, sarcastic, and down-right nasty. There is a side of me that wishes that someone would sink to their level and deal with their charges in like form, but it is certainly to Christianity's credit that no one yet has done so.

All in all, God Is Great, God Is Good is a great book from many great writers addressing the challenges levelled by the New Atheists. While a few of these ideas and arguments may be over the heads of some, this book is a perfect introduction for someone who is ready to tackle the hot topics of the debate but is unfamiliar with the major players or where to get started.

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press Academic.

Why Twilight Is So Bleeding Popular (Yes, pun intended)

Though I have not seen any of the Twilight movies yet, I found this article by John Granger to be completely fascinating and on point about popular entertainment.

Touchstone Archives: Mormon Vampires in the Garden of Eden:
"I suggest that the Twilight series is something for thoughtful people to be aware of and to think seriously about, first, because of its remarkable hold on the imagination of American readers and movie-goers, but second, and more important, because of the reason these books are so popular: They meet a spiritual need. Mircea Eliade, in his book The Sacred and the Profane, suggests that popular entertainment, especially imaginative literature and film, serves a religious or mythic function in a secular culture. When God is driven to the periphery of the public square, the human spiritual capacity longs for exercise, and it often finds it in the 'suspension of disbelief' and activity of the imagination that are available in novels and movies.

The books and films that satisfy this spiritual longing most profoundly are the ones that have religious content of some kind, sometimes any kind. Not just The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia but also Harry Potter and The Matrix contain symbolism and religious notes that resonate with readers and moviegoers.

People are drawn to, and many are consumed by, those books and movies that most engagingly and convincingly deliver or smuggle in this religious content and mythic meaning. Not surprisingly, though, this meaning cannot tear down or even challenge the golden calves of our modern moral landscape."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Augustine: Creation Is Screaming At You

Creation is a great book. He set before your eyes the things He has made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Augustine, Sermon 126.6
Perhaps. Incarnation. Crucifixion. Resurrection. This voice, 'Word' in John's Gospel, is not in any case forgotten by Augustine. What is creation screaming? At least one thing: you are creature, frail and fraught. Start your questions there.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mary Did You Know, Reconsidered

"Mary Did You Know?" is one of my least favorite of all Christmas songs. Most times I hear the "Mary, did you know..." refrain, I want to respond, "Nope." Of course she didn't know that Jesus would "one day walk on water" and "calm the storm with his hand". The whole idea is absurd.

Some friends of mine and I have talked about some of the stranger things that Jesus did that Mary wouldn't have known, and the possibility of adding them into a new version of the song. Below were a few of our ideas- tell me what you think:
  • "Mary did you know that your baby boy would rub some mud in a blind dude's eyes?"
  • "Mary did you know that your baby boy would make a whip to clear the temple?"
  • "Mary did you know that your baby boy would say the Pharisees were whitewashed tombs?"
  • "Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day curse a fig tree?"
  • "Mary did you know that your baby boy would say that you aren't really his mother 'cause his disciples were his real family"
  • "Mary did you know that the church fathers would have councils about your baby's divine/human essence?"
It might take some extra work to get the phrasing on the melody down on some of them, but you could make it happen. Any other ideas are welcomed...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Guides to the Mountain of the LORD

Consider Micah 4:1-2:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.'
2,000 years ago, this began to be fulfilled in our hearing. The "mountain of the LORD" is a euphemism for the temple mount in Jerusalem. When Jesus came along and proclaimed himself to be the new temple (Jn. 2:13-22) then died and rose again so that sinners like you and me could come to God with confidence, the mountain of the LORD was established as the highest of the mountains. The nations are indeed coming to Jesus, and they have been ever since the gospel made its initial forays out of Jerusalem and toward the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8).

But Micah 4 is yet to be totally fulfilled. The nations are certainly not beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, as v. 3 predicts as part of the prophecy. Like all prophecy that is fulfilled in the NT, we have to see it in the framework of inaugurated eschatology (i.e. that the kingdom is here, but it is also not yet). The nations are coming to Jesus, the True Temple, but not as fully as they one day will. The kingdom is here. The kingdom is not yet.

What strikes me this morning as I read in Micah is the means by which God has decided to bring people to that True Temple. God brings sinful people to Jesus through other sinful people. Indeed, it is the very mission of the Church to take the hands of sinners and guide them to Jesus.

This is a point that I easily forget in my daily Christian walk, especially as a pastor. It is not my job to fix or heal people. It is my job to take them to the Great Physician who in turn will do the work, not unlike the friends of the paralytic in Mk. 2:12. They don't heal the paralytic themselves. Indeed, they can't heal him. They bring him to Jesus, so Jesus can heal him.

This is the task of all Christian ministry. The Good Shepherd stands ready to guide his people. Helpless sheep lead helpless sheep to his care. Jesus makes the chief of sinners into an apostle, and the apostle in turn gives him the glory- for he did the work (1 Tim. 1:12-17).

The Christian minister is a guide to the mountain of the LORD. The mountain is lifted up. We just show people how to get there.

On the Manhattan Declaration

This post is in response to the Manhattan Declaration, along with three interpretations of it. Like most ‘evangelicals’ in the USA I am deeply divided over the relation of church and state. Yet, having read (enough of) my Hauerwas, O’Donovan, Yoder, Grant, Milbank, I know when to smell a rat. This is what troubles me. Three pillars of the MD are:
1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life;
2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and;
3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.
Set aside possible good intentions for the moment. Why do theses 3 points sound so, well, American? Because they are. They are not, it seems to me, pillars based in the Gospel. They are not pillars based in any major strand of historic Christian political thought.

To take but one example: appeal to the imago Dei in (1) is distressing to me. Since when has the image of God ensured us ‘inherent rights of equal dignity and life’? If anything, I thought the imago Dei, set in the context of the creation story, showed just how much life was a gift, and so not a right.

And yet the drafters of the MD show no regard whatsoever for the historically variegated interpretations of what the imago Dei teaches us Christians. Instead their appeal is to human rights language, in complete neglect over how human rights (as a concept) puts the challenge to Christian theological tradition in the most striking way. Do Christians have nothing to say to this dubious concept? Do we not have two millennia of tradition based in natural right, which has emphasised the very good moral question, not ‘what are my rights’ but rather ‘what is right’? Don't we want to start there?

In this vein, I fail to understand why the MD has the unflinching support of American Christian leaders whom I respect. Justin Taylor says it is a ‘well-reasoned natural law rationale’ – is it? No not quite. It is not natural law, but new natural law. The kind of natural law advocated by people like Robert P. George and John Finnis – a version of natural law that does not find the law grounded in nature extra nos, but in the human person. Taylor may very well believe this is a far superior natural law theory to that espoused by the majority of Christian thinkers (not to mention classical, scholastic, Reformation and even some early modern thinkers, Christian or not) throughout history, including many today. But well, can you say as much? Should we not address why the Christian tradition thought (and to a large extent, still thinks) differently? Or justify why the MD is all too conveniently and worryingly wedded to the political philosophy of that remorseless, incorrigible late-modern experiment, the United States of America?

Then there is the response, voiced by other evangelicals like Chailles and John MacArthur, which shows reservation for this joint statement on the basis of the Gospel – i.e. Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not have the Gospel right, so how could we in good conscience sign MD? Frankly I’m just befuddled as to why this matters – American evangelicals seem so very eager to enlist Catholic support in their moral majority campaigns. When someone tries to justify on paper why they agree, however, it becomes clear that no one really can say. Is it for political expediency that we rally the votes of those who don’t have the ‘Gospel’ like we do? That’s dubious enough, but let me press things further: what, I should like to know, would this group of dissenting evangelicals change about the MD? My fear is not much. For to critique this document requires that they demonstrate historical debt to the Western and mostly Catholic theological tradition, which for good or ill is the solitary mother of our now-gone-prodigal Western political philosophy. But the very American MD just does not promote such critical reflection. It does not help us Americans see what might be wrong with the way late-modern liberalism, i.e. America and its First Amendment, defines morality in terms of rights.

The third response is to those like Halden, who vigorously critiques the MD on the basis of its pursuit of cultural hegemony. Halden is very Hauerwasian in his position, and for this I am very satisfied. It is a political message that needs to be heard, but I worry is not being heard, in churches and in small groups across the American evangelical spectrum. What I do not find appealing about Halden’s position, however, is that it fails to help us think about America within the wider context of modernity and the world. What would happen if American Christians saw America for what it was? That it directly opposed the Western political theological traditions of an older Europe? That it implies a history of progress that treats democracy as the sine qua non of any good political theory, without which the ancients (with their foolish kings and hierarchies) could not sustain a reasonable and thus (for today) politically relevant discussion? The cultural hegemony button is a good one to press in criticising the Church. But is it the only button? Should we not also press the political factors that in many ways force Christian political participation to operate in this way? It seems to me, in fact, that the MD is doing exactly what Charles Taylor advocates faith communities do in this rabid modern political climate – and did not Hauerwas enthusiastically endorse Taylor's thesis, after all?

All this I submit with some reservation, of course. Following Thanksgiving it may seem a bit unkind that I should sound so un-American and raise so many problems with those older and likely wiser than myself. The question invariably turns to this: how should Christians in America act politically? I confess I have no real good answers. But this does not in any way mean that Christians in America should capitulate to the prevailing political lingo in an effort to express themselves, in an effort to be culturally relevant. But what did others think? Did the MD rub anyone else the wrong way? Am I way off in where it offended?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Two Kinds of Popularity

Tim Keller, drawing from a letter from Calvin to a hot-tempered preacher friend, has some good wisdom for preachers (and really, for every Christian), on what kind of popularity is good to seek, and what is vainglorious:
    There are two very different motivations for adapting and accommodating our message to the sensibilities of a group of people. The first motive is ‘ambition’ — we do it for our sake, for our own glory and approval. The other reason we may accommodate people is for their sake, so that we can gradually win their trust until they become open to the truth they need so much. The first motive will so control us that we will never offend people. The second motive will help us choose our battles and not offend people unnecessarily.
Read here, including the relevant section from Calvin's letter.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Saturdays with C. S. Lewis: - Unsatisfied Desires, and their Satisfaction

"Some Saturday C. S. Lewis" was introduced and explained here. A couple weeks ago I quoted the beginning of of the scene where Aslan creates Narnia from The Magician's Nephew, and promised that I would continue that scene. Alas, I forgot my copy of that book, so you're stuck waiting a little longer. The following is a quote from Mere Christianity, which I'm still happy with because it fits nicely with my previous post on hopeless Christianity and one that is scheduled to go up on Monday. Enjoy.

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were not meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Benefits of Salvation: A Thanksgiving Reflection

Many of you this last Sunday no doubt heard your pastor say something like, "Make sure to not let Thanksgiving pass you by without using it as an opportunity to truly thank God for His kindness to you." I hear something like that just about every year, yet I admit that I typically fail to heed the advice. This year I decided to buck my lamentable trend and do some reflecting on thankfulness and share it with my adult Sunady School class. The following thoughts have grown out of that reflection.

I can't back this claim up with scientific data, but I have a feeling that most of us do not appreciate the massive place that thankfulness is supposed to play in daily Christian living. The Bible sees thankfulness as both the right reason for Christian living (Deut 6:4-12, where the reason for the Law's centrality in the home is God's past gracious work) and part of the necessary means of pleasing God (Col. 1:9-14, where "giving thanks" in v. 12 is an adverbial participle of means, subordinate to the call to "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him" in v. 10). Indeed, says the Apostle, "abounding in thanksgiving" is part and parcel of "walking in Christ Jesus" (Col. 2:6-7).

The paramount object of truly Christian thankfulness is our salvation in Christ. Inherent in this is the recognition that salvation is God's work, not ours. We are saved by grace and faith alone, and since this was totally by God's own doing, we are uniquely thankful to Him.

Further, thankfulness is one of the main ingredients in a life that is truly centered on the glory of God. What is thaknfulness to God if it is not the praise of His goodness and His greatness as seen in His work? The very nature of this is a God-centered attitude, which of course should be primary for us.

With that in mind, I have come up with what I hope is a helpful if not exhaustive list of some of the aspects of the salvation that God has worked for us that deserve our thanks. There are more passages that could go with each aspect, but I picked the ones that came most easily to mind. Here is the list:
  • Eternal Life - Jn. 3:16
  • Knowledge of God - Jn. 17:3; Jer. 31:31-34/Heb. 8:8-12
  • Access to God - Heb. 4:14-16
  • New Creation - 2 Cor. 5:17
  • A New, Fleshly Heart - Ez. 36:26-27
  • Incorporation into Christ - Rom. 6:4-11; Eph. 2:4-7
  • Election by God from Before the Foundation of the World - Eph. 1:4
  • Forgiveness of Sin - Eph. 1:7
  • Peace with God - Rom. 5:1
  • Peace with Every Other Christian, Regardless of Usual Human Separations - Eph. 2:11-22
  • Justification Before God - Rom. 3:24
  • Propitation for Sin - (i.e. Jesus Receives the Wrath of God in our Place) - Rom. 3:25
  • Freedom from Slavery to Sin - Rom. 6:17-18
  • Membership in God's Kingdom - Col. 1:13
  • Victory Over Satan and Demons - Col. 2:15
  • Adoption into God's Family, so that God is Truly our Father - Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5
  • The Indwelling Holy Spirit - Jn. 16:7, 13
  • Being Filled with the Fullness of God in Christ - Col. 1:9-10
  • Hope & Future Glory - Col. 1:5; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; Rom. 8:18-25
  • Joy - Phil. 4:4
  • Reception of God's Love - Rom. 5:8; 8:37-39; Eph. 2:4; 3:18-19
  • The Ability to Praise God's Glory - Rom. 11:33-36; Eph. 3:20-21; Phil. 1:9-11
My prayer is that somebody can use this list as a guide for some Thanksgiving reflection tomorrow. If this post feels a day early, that's why: if anyone does want to use it, they now have time to print it out and have it on hand before tomorrow morning. My Sunday School class read through every one of these passages together and I found myself thrilled as I listened to the overwhelming benefits of being in Christ from one text after another.

I can think of no more appropriate way to end this post than by quoting Eph. 3:20-21: "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What the Church Really Needs...

Speaking of great quotes, my dad put up this one from Dallas Willard's The Great Omission, and I thought it was, indeed, a great quote:
    Now, some might be shocked to hear that what the "church" -- the disciples gathered -- really needs is not more people, more money, better buildings or programs, more education, or more prestige. Christ's gathered people, the church, has always been at its best when it had little or none of these. All it needs to fulfill Christ's purposes on earth is the quality of life He makes real in the life of His disciples. Given that quality, the church will prosper from everything that comes its way as it makes clear and available on earth the "life that is life indeed...

    So the greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as "Christians" will become disciples -- students, apprentices, practitioners -- of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from Him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence. Will they break out of the churches to be His Church -- to be, without human force or violence, His mighty force for good on earth, drawing the churches after them toward the eternal purposes of God?
My dad also added some of his own comments. Go check out his full post.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Grace Quotes...



For those of you who have noticed the "not so new" quotes which have been added to the top of the site under the banner, I wanted to share with you where I've been getting them. I've had the pleasure of accessing just about all of them from Grace Tabernacle Church out of Lake Como, NJ. Their site features a section called "Grace Quotes." It might be the largest database of Christian quotes on the internet. I can't thank them enough for putting this together. If you're looking to be edified, head on over and look up one of their 500+ categories.

Here's a short vignette from their Pastor, Randy Smith....

Have you ever seen one of those Christian calendars that have great quotes from the Bible or other Christian leaders? Have you ever wished that you could access a database full of great Christian quotes that are topically arranged? Perhaps you want to learn more about a truth of theology or Christian concept. Perhaps you are a pastor looking for that perfect quote from a well-known Christian that succinctly illustrates an important Bible verse or theme. If so, you will love this resource. Grace Quotes is a compilation of thousands of Christian quotes arranged over hundreds of topics. The sources are from solid, well-respected theologians, authors and Christian heroes from across the centuries. It has taken years of research to compile and my hope and prayer is that it becomes for you an invaluable tool to grow in the knowledge of our awesome God and further the ministry He has entrusted to your care...

Coming Soon: Augmented "Reality"

NPR's On The Media aired a story this past weekend about the future of Augmented Reality (AR) technology. You'll have to give it a listen (it's about 5 minutes long) and decide for yourself whether the story is credible or incredulous, but according to experts at think tanks and institutions like MIT, this technology will soon permeate our society, allowing individuals to wear devices that will be able to censor images and even other people at the discretion of the wearer.

The futurists and AR engineers can see it now: you'll be walking down the street with a thin, futuristic looking pair of glasses on, experiencing reality in a whole new, amazing way. Your software will have your friends' images captured and will alert you to their approach, even in a large crowd of people. Others, those with whom you may have a known disagreement with or dislike for, will also be recognized and you will be warned to avoid them. The glasses will also be able to block out advertisements and obscene images, and may perhaps even be able to project other images in their place, images that you find more palatable. Parents could keep their children from being exposed to sexual images or political ideas, ensuring that the apple falls closer to the tree than ever! Teachers could cause the software to randomly project formulas, equations, and elements on blank walls, improving standardized test scores. What an exciting future, right?


I want to be careful not to decry new technology as such. Amish I am not. I don't think the advent of the internet necessarily means the downfall of our societies, nor do I think that there are not any positive uses of such a technology as AR. Perhaps there are some ways in which AR could help people in certain lines of work as they go about their daily task. In fact, as I think about it, there are probably thousands of ways such a technology, once developed, could be harnessed to promote peace and prosperity. I'm not at all competent to write on the uses of AR. I will, however, offer some theological thoughts related to this technology. Keep in mind, I am basing my comments on the mp3 story linked above, which talks about the frontiers of AR and not about its current capacities. So what preliminary theological reflections does the prospect of AR technology raise? Let's assume the dream of the futurists and wonder what it would mean for us as the people of God.

First, there is a real sense in which accepting the Lordship of Jesus Christ means accepting the world as it is given to us. By pursuing a technology which allows an altering of our sensory perceptions of the world, we choose to shut our eyes to this world, which is God's. I am sure that some could marshal "Christian" arguments for using AR to censor out things that pose threats to Christian purity. This reasoning must be rejected, however, because Jesus Christ reigns not over an abstract, ideal world, but over this world with all of its sin and lasciviousness. The Christian is called to love, serve, and even confront this world as it is, not create a world that is more suited to their particularities.

Second, and this is merely an expansion on the first point, our second-highest calling is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Elie Wiesel said that the opposite of love was not hatred but indifference. Surely by censoring out those with whom we disagree we would avoid all sorts of conflict and the much-dreaded awkwardness of social interaction. Would this lead to a more peaceful, loving world? I think not. Surely those who are fighting with each other in some sense affirm the existence and legitimacy of the other party. Those who block others out completely deny the very existence of the person whom they are called to love. This would be a futuristic version of passing over to the other side of the road (Luke 10:25-37). Pharisees everywhere could rejoice at the advent of AR, not realizing that it isn't the opposing political opinions or harsh words from others that defile a person, but the hatred and sin that proceeds from our own hearts.

Finally, assuming it could ever achieve the dreams that scientists and engineers have for it--and given the undeniable marvels of modern technology it is not insane to grant them at least this possibility--some applications of AR technology might imply nothing less than a loss of hope for this world. When we want to change our perception of reality, effectively deceiving ourselves, we may have reached the point where we no longer have hope that anything redemptive can occur in this world. We no longer believe that our dialogue with others or our words to them (or their words to us!) can be the sacramental voice of God. We no longer believe that a broken world can be redeemed. In fact, I think that we are saying that there is not only no hope (or at least there is less hope) for the world, we are saying that our actions and words are of little or no importance.

Even if this news story is kind of silly, even if the reality of this technology is far-fetched, there is a serious development of AR being attempted by some of the brightest minds in our society. If this is the application of some of our best, what does this say about us as a society and as individuals? Is there something to all this, even as a way to see the truth of the human condition? I think it's possible and it makes theological sense: we are still those who want to be our own Lord, we are still those who love ourselves first and foremost, and we are still those who are unaware of genuine hope. This is reality that cannot be augmented, except by the Lord of this reality.

Book Review: We Become What We Worship by G.K. Beale

I've had We Become What We Worship in my wish list for months now, so when the opportunity came to review it for free, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, there have not been many books that I was so predisposed to like that have been such a struggle for me to finish. Not because of poor writing or a disagreement with the author, but rather in part due to my own expectations, as the author's intent was to write "a biblical theology of idolatry". This is a well-written and thorough treatment of idolatry that is quite academic in nature.

This book grew out of a message G.K. Beale delivered entitled "What You Revere You Resemble, Either For Ruin or Restoration" and he has certainly done his research. The hangup of the book for the average reader is that he takes us step by step along the same journey of study with him which turns the book into a monster of biblical exegesis . Of course, the average reader was not Beale's audience to begin with, and the academic community stands only benefit from this biblical exegesis on idolatry (which, again, was his expressed intent).

I basically agreed with his premise two pages into the first chapter, but he spent a chapter each on building his case from the Old Testament, Gospels, Epistles, Revelation, and even the intertestamental/apocryphal books. Beale first began to formulate his thesis during an extensive study of Isaiah 6, thus his first chapter focuses solely there for his opening argument. The first 250 pages are spent building a textual argument for his ideas before finally getting to a very good (but all too short) 60 pages of application and conclusion.

While this book was well-researched and written, it will be too in-depth for the average reader and is best suited for pastors preaching on idolatry and the academic community. But if they ever come out with a Clif Notes version, I want to be at the top of the list.

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press Academic.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chris Faris Reviews Twilight: New Moon

My C. S. Lewis post, if you cared, will be up tomorrow. In the mean time, my ever-insightful brother has a great review of the second Twilight movie. Not that I've read or seen any of it, but his plot summary line alone should indicate that the review is worth a read: "The Twilight Saga: New Moon is about a 104 year-old mentally retarded pedophile who falls for a personality-less emo girl."

I think I'll save the 10 bucks and just enjoy Chris's review.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cassidy: Amish Vampiress of the Tribulation

There's not usually a point in linking to Challies because so many of you no doubt already him. But I find in myself no power to resist mentioning what might just be the greatest post in that blogger's history.

What is this great post, you ask? Well, Tim Challies has crafted the ultimate Christan novel: Cassidy: Amish Vampiress of the Tribulation.

If you like making fun of Christian culture even a little bit, I implore you with everything within me to go read the post, which includes the back cover description and an excerpt from the book itself.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Might As Well Face It, I'm Addicted to David Platt

I first learned about David Platt, like so many, by watching this sermon from the SBC conference, which is absolutely one of the best sermons I've ever seen or heard. No doubt part of what makes it so good is the fact that some 30 year old gives a humble, stirring, and totally biblical wake-up call to the many seasoned pastors who undoubtedly were and are content to "die in their religion", to use his phrase. In any case, if you haven't seen Platt's call to "die in our devotion", you need to take the 40 or so minutes and watch it- especially if you are in ministry.

My excitement about that sermon led me to read this interview (HT: JT) where Dr. Platt reminds us of the simple yet easily forgotten truth that the only thing any of us has to offer is the Word of God. That's it. So we must remind ourselves constantly that "the Word does the work." My interest was piqued all the more.

From there I've become a full-blown addict. I have now gone through a number of sermons from some of the series' at the church where Platt pastors. Most of them are good, but I particularly want to commend his four week series on Ruth, which is absolutely amazing.

Perhaps what it is that resonates most is that Platt is relatively unremarkable: he just knows the text really well and tells people what it says while making broad theological connections and maintaining good-but-not-flashy dynamic. No real bells and whistles- just the Word of God presented with clarity and passion. All of this and the fact that he is rarely funny makes me think of Platt as basically a younger John Piper, though I suspect he'd reject such a prestigious comparison in the Reformed world.

Anyway, go listen to or watch his stuff. It's fantastic, and it'll nourish your soul.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hopeless Christianity

F. F. Bruce, commenting on Col. 1:23, says,
    Indeed, to hold fast to hope is throughout the NT an indispensable condition for attaining the goal of full salvation to be revealed at the parousia of Christ. It is difficult to distinguish between hope as an inward attitude and the object of hope: now the one idea, now the other, is uppermost. The one implies the other. Hope in both senses forms an essential element of the gospel...
True on all counts.

And yet in evangelicalism today, hope appears to be the overlooked step-child in Paul's threefold summary of Christian values: faith, hope, and love. Everyone knows that we need to love more, and the Reformed evangelical world is good at emphasizing faith in Christ and his finished work. But hope is too often a sight unseen.

Perhaps it is because of that Reformed emphasis on Christ's work being finished, or perhaps it is because Americans have little need of hope considering how well we're living. In any case, I for one have never been a part of a church that effectively emphasized Christian hope.

Consider the account of the Thessalonians' conversion in 1 Thess. 1:9-10: "...and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come." When was the last time you heard someone's conversion described not only as their turning from idols, but as their expectant waiting for the return of Christ? I hear about the desire to go to heaven, but not the desire for heaven to come to us.

This troubles me for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that Col. 1:4-5 says that the Colossians' hope was the basis for their love and faith. So I wonder: is it even possible to develop love and faith without Christian hope? Somehow I doubt that for the Colossians it just so happened to work out that way--something normative seems to lie beneath all this.

Perhaps the reason why hope is so important is because it frees Christians from being married to earthly goods. The one who is sure that her treasures are in heaven and that her life is hidden with Christ will find that shrugging off earthly treasures makes perfect sense. With such realizations comes the freedom to love with abandon and to have faith in God's ability to work.

The significance of this truth for the church is massive, especially considering the ceaseless conversations about how to become truly missional. Maybe all of our talk of church forms and structures and strategies only complicate the issue. Maybe what we need is Christians with steadfast hope in the return of Christ. Maybe this will embolden our witness.

So how do we go about developing hope? That will require more thinking, and another post somewhere down the line. But diagnosing the problem seems to be a good place to start.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Saturdays with C. S. Lewis - "A Voice Had Begun to Sing" Part 1

"Some Saturday C. S. Lewis" was introduced and explained here. The following is the first part of a narration from The Magician's Nephew, the prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of narrative time, but the sixth in terms of authorship order. The scene below comes about when most of the main characters are in a dark void on an unknown earth. The whole scene is too long for one Saturday post, so I will continue it at least one more week, maybe two. Sorry to leave you hanging like that.

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. The horse seemed to like it too: he gave the sort of whinny a horse would give if, after years of being a cab-horse, it found itself back in the old field where it had played as a foal, and saw someone whom it remembered and loved coming across the field to bring it a lump of sugar.

"Gawd!" said the Cabby. "Ain't it lovely?"

Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn't come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out--single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bonhoeffer's Ethics 1

Out of the books I've read in 2009, Bonhoeffer's Ethics has stuck with me more than any other. I'm not all that well-acquainted with the discipline of ethics, but I thought it was curious when I saw that Bonhoeffer had written a book on the subject. I associated books of the type with analytic philosophers, not 20th century neo-Orthodox, German theologians. I was right to be intrigued, for Ethics contains a radical re-framing of the whole discipline--a deconstruction, even, of modern ethics. Bonhoeffer saw this work as his one major, unique contribution to the field of Christian theology and I have to agree, so I will take some space here to provide summaries and reflections on the work in the coming weeks. I would encourage you to grab a copy of Ethics and read along. Bonhoeffer is always edifying and, in this case, very stimulating.

The key, in my opinion, to understanding the whole work is to get the first few pages (nay, the first few lines) in your head as the hermeneutical guide. Bonhoeffer writes, "The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge." When I read this, I was both excited and scared; who in their right mind would want to "invalidate" all ethical reflection? Bonhoeffer isn't motivated, however, by any postmodern quest to deconstruct for deconstruction's sake. His goal is to be true to the biblical narrative of Genesis 1-3. He goes on to provide an interpretation of the Fall, in categories of existential estrangement. In our original state, he writes, we were one with God and we knew only God, and knew all things in God and God in all things. God was our "origin" and we lived our lives in dependence upon him. God knew good and evil, but we knew only God and this was a felicitious existence. In our uprising and deception, the eating of the forbidden fruit, we took this knowledge of good and evil upon ourselves and became our own source and origin and this meant the total dissolution of our life. "Man's life is now disunion with God, with men, with things, and with himself."

One of the effects of this existential estrangement is shame, something which permeates all of human life and endeavor. Shame is simply awareness of our separation from our origin, and a longing to return. The human response to shame is both concealment and exposure and both serve to confirm our shame. In all relationships, art, and communication we both expose our shame as we show forth our longing for unity and restoration, but we also must continually cover this shame. (Interesting aside: Bonhoeffer seems to posit that our subconscious self is the fruit of our covering ourselves from ourselves.) This shame cannot be overcome except through the final shaming of forgiveness of sins, where our sin and estrangement are both exposed and done away with in restoration to God and man.

Distinguished from shame is conscience, which Bonhoeffer defines as the estranged man's desperate attempt to maintain unity with himself. Disunited with his origin, conscience summons the man to a false type of unity with himself, by categorizing everything in terms of what is forbidden and what is permitted. What is permitted is good and what is forbidden is evil, and there is no real, positive commandment. In a sense, conscience operates wholly on the presupposition of disunity and shame--it claims to be the judge of good and evil. This achieved knowledge of conscience becomes the basis for relationship to God and others, whereas in our original state this relationship was reversed.

It is in the New Testament, with Jesus as the central point of discussion, that Bonhoeffer sees a "world of recovered unity." The Pharisees (men of conscience in every age) are essentially ethicists, and not shabby ones at that. They take their duty to make decisions and judgments with utter strictness, and they are not beyond refined, nuanced reflections on ethical matters. These men define themselves by the decisions they make and so they must force Jesus to be similarly defined. Jesus will have none of it and this, Bonhoeffer says, is why Jesus so often seems out of touch with his questioners--evasive, missing the point, detached. Jesus leaves the world of conflict behind him, according to Bonhoeffer, and lives in unity with God, doing the will of God. While the Pharisees are humans par excellence, taking conscience with utter seriousness, Jesus lives in humble and simple obedience to the will of God (like Adam and Eve before the Fall). Bonhoeffer explicates this contrast in terms of judging, proving, and doing.

Jesus commanded his followers not to judge (Matt 7:1). The Pharisees do not merely judge unrighteously; in fact, their judgment may be in line with sound principles. However, the fact that they are judges is the essence of man's disunity with God. The Pharisees had actions, too, they were not passive. Springing from disunity as their deeds did, however, meant that they were hypocrites. True action is action that recovers the lost unity, action that does "the will of God." With each ethical pronouncement, the Pharisees served to further confirm the disunity.
With the call to judge not, Jesus is essential summoning man back to his origin. Rather than make pronouncements, we live in a simple obedience to the will of God.

The New Testament also exhorts us to prove the will of God (Rom 12:2). This answers the question that was naturally raised at the end of the last paragraph: "Are we supposed to just say a prayer and do the first thing that comes to our mind? Is this what Bonhoeffer would have us think ethical reflection is now to consist in?" No, the Bible says we must "prove" the will of God. And here Bonhoeffer gets to the crux of the matter:

"The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task."

For Bonhoeffer, the will of God is not something that can be codified nor does it come from our own hearts or minds. It is the directive for action (or passivity) that comes to us from the living, personal God. Too "prove" the will of God, we must first be located in Christ, being conformed to His nature. This is not something that happens gradually or permanently, but we must every day raise the question anew: "how here, today and in my present situation I am to remain and be preserved in this new life with God, with Jesus Christ"? And once having raised this question, having humbly sought God, we must take action, believing that God gives us knowledge of His will. Having taken action, we can do nothing to assure ourselves or others that we have done the right thing in an ethically-sticky situation. Instead, we submit ourselves to the (gracious!) judgment of God. This is what Bonhoeffer calls the "simplicity of doing."

What exactly does this "doing" consist in? Bonhoeffer makes a series of distinctions. 1. True Doing vs. False Doing: Man's deed must be set within the deed of God, or it is not to be regarded as doing (Bonhoeffer interprets the "nothing" in John 15:5 as literally as possible). 2. Action vs. Judgment: these are irreconcilable opposites. The judge places himself above the law, and applies it to others. The doer of the law submits to the law and takes action. 3. Hearing vs. Doing: These are no irreconcilable opposites, but rather inseparable realities. It is impossible to separate doing from hearing and hearing from doing. No one can possess the word other than in doing it. So there is both a false doing (action apart from the will of God) and a false hearing (hearing the Word of God that doesn't issue forth in true action).

Bonhoeffer closes this section with a reflection and summary entitled "Love." He asks, what is love? His answer is that "God is love." Who is God? Where do we find Him? In Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ reconciliation comes to man and happens to him, in Jesus Christ we come to know the love of God. We did not know it before, but we know it in Jesus. In Jesus we return to our origin and, presumably, Bonhoeffer has set us up for what ethics will look like for the man who has recovered his unity with God (or perhaps, the man who has been recovered to unity by God).

I'm curious for those who have read this far: what are your initial thoughts about a book on ethics that tries to negate ethics as a "system" and instead summons us to a daily quest after the will of God that is different in every situation, different for every individual? What theological or philosophical questions does this raise?