Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tom Fuller: An email crossed my computer way back in February of 2008. The email was from the editor of a unique project and the invitation it contained was exciting – the opportunity to contribute a meditation to a new and unusual Bible project.
As an author I am always interested in new opportunities to use my craft. As a pastor I am always excited to help promote the teaching, understanding, and application of God’s Word. When I took a look at the subjects, the choice for me became obvious right away – worship.
My wife and I started leading worship at a then small Calvary Chapel in Santa Barbara California back in 1978. We met in the YMCA and were so poor that even to mike my guitar I had to jury rig a holder to my vocal microphone stand! That didn’t stop us from falling in love with worship. We’ve spent the last thirty-plus years learning about and helping people come into the presence of God. Having the chance to put some of those thoughts down in a permanent form was a wonderful blessing. I accepted the invitation right away. Then came the hard part: how to present worship in a meaningful way in just a few hundred words!
The guidelines for my worship meditation read: “Through worship, we find a way of reflecting back to God His glory. Worshipful environments are places where God's people can express their adoration to Him through various mediums.”
The words “worshipful environments” stuck out at me. What are some of the places and situations in the Bible where worship was the focus?
I first thought of Joshua. In Exodus 33:11 there is a great statement about Moses’ young assistant: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.” The “tent” was the tabernacle in the wilderness – God’s presence among His people, the children of Israel. While Moses conversed with God, Joshua stood by – he wasn’t the main focus there, God was. But when Moses left to speak God’s word to the people, Joshua stayed behind, perhaps to linger in the afterglow of God’s presence. There was something that held Joshua. He didn’t just visit God’s presence, or even just spend time with God. Joshua refused to leave God’s tent at all!
I thought of our headlong flight in and out of the presence of God on Sunday’s. We rush into church just in time for the music to start. We’re hassled and hurried and try to close our eyes and focus on the Lord but our minds are moving so fast that before we know it the music is over and the sermon has begun. Instead, what would it be like if we never left God’s presence? I’m not talking about walking around singing praise or with eyes closed. But I am talking about living a life where God is right beside you all the time – where you live in his presence. You may not be in conversation constantly but you remain in proximity to the almighty.
Next I thought about one of my favorite Bible people: Jehoshaphat. In 2 Chronicles 20 Jehoshaphat had come from a place of major error and God’s discipline. He may have thought that his positive response would save him from difficulty, but in reality it merely prepared him for the battle to come. Old enemies approached and threatened to destroy his nation. Jehoshaphat reacted with fear, and then faced God. He sounded the alarm and invited everyone to join him in seeking the Lord. The answer came from an unusual source with a very unusual method of fighting. Jahaziel came along to give God’s answer to their plea. The man was descended from Asaph, David’s worship leader, and he told Jehoshaphat that they need not fight in the battle to come. Instead of taking up spears, they were to take up songs of praise. In this wonderful miracle the singers sang and the enemies dropped like flies.
How many times do we fret and worry and panic when trouble hits? If we would only come before God with honesty, then sing before Him with all of our hearts. What victories would we see? More importantly, we could be still before Him, casting our cares to Him, running into His strong tower, being enfolded in his wings. What peace we would see in the midst of the storm?
Finally, though, my mind went to another section of Scripture – one not used often to teach on worship. At the time I was teaching through the gospel of John and remembered Mary. In John 12, as Jesus’ crucifixion approached, he joined His good friends Martha and Mary for one last meal before the trial. While others may have enjoyed the time, oblivious to what was to shortly transpire, Mary did something shocking – she took a jar of very expensive ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair. It says “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
There was something so all consuming about what Mary did. Yes, she anointed Jesus for burial. But thinking about all that Mary did, I could sense that something much more beautiful was taking place. I imagined her feeling the jar in her hands – a year’s wages in one flask. I could hear the sound of her breaking the jar open, I could feel the ointment on her hands as she approached the Lord. What expression was on the Lord’s face as she came near, then bent down on her knees? Then the soothing cool ointment applied to the warm flesh of a Savior – whose feet would soon feel the sharp pain of a Roman nail. The smell of the nard filling not only her nostrils, but the entire house!
It got me to thinking about the all consuming nature of worship. Jesus was to die for her –t o take the blame for her sins, and ours. Worship, I realized, isn’t just about living in God’s presence, it isn’t just about focusing on God as we see Him move on our behalf and give us peace. Worship is the expression of a whole life given wholly over to the One – the Lamb of God, who will always bear the scars of our sin, but whose hands are always held out to us in love.
That’s when I knew this would be my text. It wasn’t the most obvious choice, but an unusual passage fit this unusual project.
I hope you enjoy reading my meditation on worship. You can find it in the 10th week of Pentecost. I pray it spurs you to study, meditate, and worship – like you’ve never done before!
You can get more info on me from my website: http://www.tomfuller.net/ or my church site: http://www.calvarychapelnewberg.org/.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Tyndale has avoided this trap and subsequently the new NLT Mosaic Bible is a very beautiful and unique Bible that follows the church calendar year beginning with Advent (See an 84 page pdf if you want to see just how beautiful). The Mosaic portion draws art, quotes, and reflections from various Christian traditions from every continent and in every century.
The Mosaic Bible is actually two books in one and, given my aversion to themed Bibles, I initially thought it would be better separated as an NLT Bible and a Mosaic Study Companion. However, the NLT Bible and the Mosaic portion are nicely cross-referenced so that you can easily find passages on a specific topic from the church calendar or art inspired by a text (for instance).
Mosaic is a broad sampling from the Christian traditions, though I feel the editors were careful to ensure that the material used actually pertained to the subject matter. This was a potential pitfall as they were using excerpts from writings by such notables as Karl Barth, Albert Einstein, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren, Erwin McManus, Sufjan Stevens and even J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, Lord of the Rings is in here). While some of it feels a little forced at times (perhaps in an effort to be relevant), it is not so much so that it becomes distracting.
Michael Spencer from imonk.com had a helpful caution to Mosaic readers about the excerpt selection: "A section that oriented the reader to the various traditions and their historical roots and theological distinctives/commonalities would have been useful in seeing just how Athanasius and Brian Maclaren “fit” into a common Christianity. If a user of Mosaic is committed to a “generous orthodoxy,” the approach of Mosaic is positive, but if someone buys the Bible and is in a church where Maclaren or Catholics are denounced or ruled out of orthodoxy, there will be confusion."
If most readers are like me, we have largely ignored the church calendar year. However, my wife and I were both so impressed with this Bible that we plan on working through the church calendar together this year. If you have never observed the church year, would like to become more familiar with it, or would like to better understand the wide range of influence from church history and tradition, this might be a good place to begin.
Check back tomorrow for a guest post from one of the contributors of the NLT Mosaic Bible and again in early October for a chance to win your own copy!
This is why, if I were so gifted, I would be making movies today. Movies that put the themes of the Gospel, of fall and redemption, of substitutionary atonement, on the silver screen in a way that makes it real and palatable to the average viewer. And this is why I loved Hollywood Worldviews by Brian Godawa so much.
Godawa is a Christian in the industry, making (and thinking about) movies with just such a motivation in mind. Without endorsing all movies wholesale, Godawa makes an argument for the value of movies to instruct, inform, and simply reflect the God-given creativity in the creature and the beauty of creation around us. Speaking of finding the value in movies, Godawa says, "Because all truth is ultimately God's truth, we can find what we think is true in a movie and dissect what we think is false".
Godawa goes straight to the hot-button topic for the Christian concerning movies, addressing "Sex, Violence and Profanity" in Chapter 1. His key point about such issues is that "context makes all the difference between moral exhortation and immoral exploitation of sin". In following chapters he begins to address the Hollywood worldviews such as existentialism, postmodernism, and other worldviews. These chapters were some of the most personally enjoyable, as I saw many movies I've watched in a completely different light.
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.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
My last post discussed the significance of death to 'who we are' as creatures rather than, say, base matter and machine. The point was to draw attention to competing narratives within the modern world. Beneath the guise of so much scientific pretension lurks an account of reality and human identity which is anathema to Christian faith. It is so for many reasons, but the one I identified was its refusal to incorporate death as in some sense integral and ineradicable for our experience as creatures. Not so for Christian faith. Despite our longings for peace and labours for life, no Christian may look upon the importance of our physical death as moot and avoidable. Such is a theological perversion against which the cross and bodily resurrection of our Lord stands in testimony.
Today's article is not about death but about life, that is, artificial life. Several points struck me. There Is No Analogy For This. My heading is in response to the article's discussion about the potential for designer babies. So one quote:
'What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?' Drew Endy, scientist.Provocative statement. In some sense already true. We 'design' perhaps not so directly as the scientist wishes, but in our choice to terminate the lives of those we deem undesirable or unfit for life. We wait for something better. Something more human. It is, in so twisted a way, not the overcoming of nature's tyranny, but our own tyranny of choice. So the analogies dissolve. Quote two:
'If you build a bridge and it falls down, you are not going to be permitted to design bridges ever again....But that doesn't mean we should never build a new bridge. There we have accepted the fact that risks are inevitable' D.E.The editorial continues: 'He believes the same should be true of engineering biology.' As the bridge, so the human. Matter to Matter. If at first you don't succeed - as though this were the only wisdom science can adopt.
Any serious revulsion toward synthetic forms of human life should not be revulsion on the basis of its technological impossibility. Maybe it's possible, maybe it's not. That is never the issue. Rather it must be revulsion on the basis of its truthfulness: what about it testifies to true things, and what about it perpetuates lies. This is pre-scientific thinking. Not post-scientific scrambling to explain what just happened.
The last thing I noted was the justification for this research. Again the fact that it is inevitable and therefore must be faced - to clothe it in the language of the highest ideals - is meant to spur us on to the kind of post-scientific scramble that I just mentioned. The article will have us believe that anything less is a retreat into the past. This is wrong. There is no mythical retreat into the past. What the narrative of technological advance refuses to recognise, however, is that forms of resistance against technology can participate in true history as well. I have heard some philosophers and scientists speak about the potential to 'un-invent' the atomic bomb. What it looks like to for Christians to resist the fallacy of 'scientific progress' in pursuit of alternative forms of living is not only practical but necessary theology. Even if it costs us the luxuries that that science seeks to entice us with.
I'll leave it there for the moment. The issues require much more attention that anyone one person can give. I just hope we have Christians thinking about these things.
*Spencer, Michael. 'A Life of its Own: Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?' The New Yorker. 28 September 2009.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Which reminds me- "TGC" is short for "The Gospel Coalition", and in a hat tip, its new blog. Add it to your reader. We're only a week in and it's had some really good stuff.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and riviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquerered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Savior on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting him, and saying what has been written against him of old: “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting.”
This exceptional fact must be tested by experience. Let those who doubt it become Christians."
–Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word
Thursday, September 17, 2009
So says most of the scholarship on the OT and the Ancient Near Eastern world from the last fifty or so years. Which makes John Oswalt wonder: since for a long time even liberal scholars agreed that Israelite religion was mostly unique (even if it was wrong about God and the world), why this recent shift? And more importantly, is this newer wave of scholarly consensus correct? Does or does not the Bible present a religion that is essentially similar to or different than other ANE religions?
This is the question that drives The Bible Among the Myths (which by the way should be re-titled "The Old Testament Among the Myths" - but Dr. Oswalt is an OT scholar, so we'll give him a break). Oswalt's answer is that despite undeniable ritual similarities, at its core OT religion rests on a fundamentally different worldview than do other pagan religions. Whereas all truly "mythic" thinking relies on a worldview of continuity (i.e. all things that exist are part of each other so that there are no distinctions between deity, humanity, and nature- everything is "continuous"), OT religion is built on transcendance (i.e. deity, nature, and humanity are not all parts of each other and God exists outside of, above, and in control of all time and space). This is the central claim of the book.
And it is a claim that Oswalt makes successfully. The tricky thing about this argument is that, as Oswalt well recognizes, there really is considerable surface similarity between OT Israelite religion and the surrounding paganism. Thus the task becomes to show how these similarities are indeed only surface and not essential. Oswalt is effective on this point, and concludes by arguing that since the Bible is indeed totally unique, it is best to believe the OT witness that God had revealed it. How else do we explain the appearance of such thinking?
Since The Bible Among the Myths is mostly a book about backgrounds, one of Oswalt's more impressive accomplishments is his consistent eye to both theology and modern cultural relevance. I often found myself thinking not only about what the Bible says God must be like, but really and truly who God is relative to our world still. So, for example, anyone who reads this book will have a much fuller understanding of the kind of thinking that drives paganism of all sorts, whether it is ancient Ugaritic religion, established Hinduism or sloppy American New Ageism.
And yet I also had one major frustration with this book. Oswalt emphasizes the line that separates humanity and deity transcendance (and thus in biblical religion). Since the fundamental claim is that these two are distinct and that God is therefore a person, not simply a shared part of the stuff of existence, Oswalt emphasizes God as a First Cause who then lets humans make real decisions instead of manipulating them. But the more Oswalt emphasizes this, the more it starts to sound like Deism. If humans are so irreproachably free, does God actually come to interact with his creation at all? And if he does, then how does he preserve humanity's total freedom in the process?
The answer is that he doesn't! It is too apparent from too many OT texts that God, at least at times, violates human volition. Calvinists and Arminians both believe this (only Open Theists do not) and it needn't compromise transcendance. Oswalt returns to this poor point enough times that one even wonders if there is any aim secondarily at theological argument-winning. In any case, Oswalt seems to have tried to bail out God and his Book more than they need to be at this point.
Still, I recommend The Bible Among the Myths with only limitied reservation. It is a useful introduction to the surrounding issues and a solid defense of the one at hand. I should warn that at times there is some theo-historical jargon to deal with that is a bit technical. This will be difficult for the least experienced readers. But most should be able to wade through it and get Oswalt's central point, which is one well worth making and knowing.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
I recently had another pastor tell me that the in-depth, formal study of systematic theology would be a waste of my time and would not have a real benefit for the church. When I tried to engage yet another pastor in discussion about theology he remarked flatly, “theology is boring.” Both of these men hold advanced theological degrees. I am quite certain that these men are not isolated in their sentiments. In our Evangelical (whatever that means) Protestant circles, there are a great number of people who have some serious misunderstandings regarding the role and task of theology in the life of the church. I don’t fault these people entirely. Some commonly held and passed-along assumptions inevitably lead one down the path to either a jettisoning of theological study (these people may still engage in exegesis or “practical theology,” both of which they think are free of the nasty type of stale, impractical, and “boring” theology) or, if one somehow avoids this disillusionment, they become exactly the caricature which the disillusioned have been warning about all along—they become boring, irrelevant, and quite useless to the average person who sits in the fold-up chairs in the rented gymnasium every week. Here are some of the commonly-held assumptions about theology (or about God, for that matter), that lead theology to becoming dead, lifeless, and useless.
Assumption #1: What God reveals is primarily informational and propositional. This assumption generally goes undetected and uncontested in most people’s minds. I would even say that a great portion of the last generation of American evangelicals spent a great deal of time and energy fighting to establish this fact in the minds of seminarians. The problem with this notion of revelation is that it leads to a theology that is primarily concerned with the collection of “biblical data” and the incorporation thereby into a “system” of doctrine. So there are certain biblical facts that are to be read directly out of the biblical text, put together with other facts on the same topic, and synthesized into some type of propositional teaching. For example, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” becomes demythologized into a proposition: “God guides and provides for his people,” then gets matched with other verses saying the same thing, and then the proposition is taught to people as a raw, more "real" form of revelation than any of the texts themselves! In some ways, this method has so much in common with Bultmann that it is quite comical.
Assumption #2: God’s revelation is inseparable from the very words of Scripture. This is obviously an assumption that is very closely tied to the assumption above. In and of itself, this is quite ironic though, because it seems as if you held to Ass. #2, you would tend to shy away what Ass. #1 does when it turns the actual words of God into a supra-historical, timeless proposition or principle. However, these two beliefs or assumptions are able to coexist and cooperate nicely because of a third and final belief about what revelation is.
Assumption #3: Revelation becomes revelation when the human mind grasps or assents to a supra-historical proposition that is embedded in the text (regardless of the genre). The event of revelation happens when someone reads the Bible, grapples with it cognitively, and turns what is written into some sort of proposition about God, an ethical imperative, or perhaps just a normative recording of some past believer’s experience of God.
How do the above notions of God’s revelation turn theology into something boring, useless, irrelevant, or perhaps even dangerous? It’s simple, really. They turn the task of theology into the building up of a body of theological (philosophical) knowledge that is either rationalized or left standing as paradoxical. This body of “truths” is then looked to as the end-goal of God’s revelatory actions. So if the Christian can come to some type of embrace and assent of these truths, their life will be transformed. As we all know, however, the mere assent to proposition doesn’t mean that a person has been conformed into the image of Jesus Christ at all. Beyond that, the mere assent to propositions doesn’t equate with biblical, saving faith, does it? Given this version of theology, I can see why many would shy away and want nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, those who abandon this version of theology often resort to sheer pragmatism, moralism, or an over-emphasis on experience. As if we could ignore the issue and move the locus of revelation to the emotions!
Now, before I’m whisked away to Colorado Springs and burned at the evangelical stake, let me say that I’m not denying the propositional element of revelation. I believe that there are certain things about God’s nature, his plan, and our salvation revealed in Scripture. To deny this would be to abandon Scripture altogether. Further, I am not denying the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura, nor am I denying the inspiration of Scripture. These are vital beliefs that, when abandoned, cause the whole task of theology to implode. So I am not trying to adolescently antagonize my own tribe or push the theological envelope. I’m trying to bring to the fore one of the central teachings of Scripture and allow this teaching to save theology from itself. This teaching is simply this: Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the object of revelation.
To put this another way, what God primarily reveals to his church is not propositions, not historical schemes for the future, or emotional experiences, but rather God reveals Himself. God the Father reveals Himself in Jesus Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Revelation--while having propositions that can be made about it, emotions that can be generated in response to it, and historical ramifications that result because of it--is primarily personal. Revelation is what happens when God shows up and reveals himself.
Now, how does this concept of revelation rescue theology? First of all, it takes the burden off of theology. Theology no longer has to do the work of cramming the totality of revelation into human concepts (what a silly task, anyways!). Second, it gives room to the Holy Spirit to be the primary mover in the church. In the broken scheme of proposition-as-revelation, the Holy Spirit was (for all intents and purposes) done with its work when Scripture was done being written, or perhaps when Scripture was authoritatively canonized. In the God-as-revelation scheme, the Holy Spirit is what Karl Barth calls “the subjective side of revelation,” actively responsible for making the event (!) of revelation happen every time the Scriptures are preached or read, or when the Lord’s Supper is taken, or when baptism is administered. Finally, and most importantly in my mind for the future of theology, the notion of God-as-revelation allows theology to be freed up for its proper task: to serve as an auxiliary science to the proclamation of the church. If God “shows up” when his word is preached, theology is no longer burdened with the work that properly belongs to the Holy Spirit. Instead, theology and theologians can turn their sights to the proclamation and ministries of the church and they can do what Barth calls “critical reflection.” God has intimately tied his presence to His Word (Jesus Christ), which is revealed through His Word (Scripture), which is delivered through His Word in the church (preaching primarily, and other church ministry as well). So the church’s task is faithfulness to this three-fold Word. Theology then, becomes the “critical reflection” or evaluative tool of the church. Is she faithful to her Lord? That is the question theology must ask every day. The answer to this question will require intense exegesis and deep understanding of the text, a constant self-doubt in light of our sinfulness, a discerning of the lingua franca of culture, a willingness to learn from those who have gone before, and most of all a reliance on the Spirit’s work of illumination.
When we construe revelation as personal it shifts our view of the role and task of theology, thus rescuing theology and theologian from irrelevance. Further, if the evangelical church and her churchmen could welcome this type of theology back into the fellowship, a new prophetic voice would be present that could ultimately rescue the church from thinking she is being faithful when in reality she may be playing the whore.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
It gets heated in a hurry. Shelton commented on a blog post of hers, and Ms. Castle responds:
- Interfering with a woman's right to control her bodily processes is nothing more than extended rape. A rapist essentially is forcing a woman to bear a child against her will. Laws restricting or prohibiting abortion do the same thing. You may get all misty-eyed over the fate of a fetus, but it's none of your business. Absolutely none! Especially since you cannot, and would not take over the pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing for her. You're not better than the rapist who impregnates her and runs off.
Friday, September 11, 2009
It's been a little while since we've had a giveaway here, and we've never done a free music download, so I emailed the folks from Page CXVI and they graciously offered to allow our readers to download the album for free for two weeks!
So what do you have to do? Relatively little. Just click here, click "ENTER", sign in, and download (the files come zipped, so you'll need to extract them once you download) and maybe even send the band an email to thank them for the promo. I pray that this will be one small way to partner with Page CXVI in their mission to bring the great hymns back to our churches.
Enjoy, and do link this post and tell your friends!
Forgiving costs us our sense of justice. We all have this innate sense deep within our souls, but it has been perverted by our selfish sinful natures. We want to see “justice” done, but the justice we envision satisfies our own interests. We must realize that justice has been done. God is the only rightful administrator of justice in all of creation, and His justice has been satisfied. In order to forgive our brother, we must be satisfied with God’s justice and forego the satisfaction of our own.
(The Practice of Godliness, NavPress, 1996, p. 207-208.)
Thursday, September 10, 2009
I found myself agreeing more often than not with Marin's approach and reasoning, attempting to "elevate the conversation" rather than cut it short. One insightful point was that both the GLBT and fundamentalist communities will often ask closed-ended questions in order to force you to simply "pick a side" in the fight. (Questions like: Do you think homosexuality is a sin? Do you think that someone can be gay and Christian? Are GLBT people going to hell? Hint: there are better answers than a simple "yes" or "no".)
While I agreed and resonated with his approach to love, accept, and build relationships with the GLBT community, there was one full chapter with which I could not agree. When it came time to finally address the passages in the Bible about homosexuality (or the Big 5 as he called them), he considered the particulars, interpreted them into an overarching principle, and then ignored the particulars. In this way, he never addressed the individual verses themselves, bypassing them in a sort of contextual paraphrase with the surrounding verses.
I do feel that Andrew Marin soft-pedalled more than necessary around the homosexuality as sin issue. Since I work in the travel industry, I spend a lot of time around hotel and airline employees where the GLBT percentage is higher than average. Yet I am baffled by the need to treat them any different than any of my other co-workers. I work with one guy who is living with his girlfriend. I work with another who is rumored to be having an affair. Yet I do not feel compelled to go all "fire and brimstone" on them about their sexual deviance. While I am not softening in my mind the fact that they are sinners and in practicing sin, that sin is peripheral when it comes to my relationship with and evangelism towards them. I love my co-workers, I care for them, I want them all to see the superiority and beauty of Jesus. I want them all to believe on Him for salvation.
While Marin (in my opinion) at times erred too far on the side of diplomacy, perhaps he is a product of fundamentalism erring too far in the opposite direction for far too long. This is an important work for the Christian church, not always for the answers he gives, but for the questions he raises and the dialogue he starts.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Here is how I get there. Many will be familiar with the idea behind the featured cartoon. The 'brain in a vat' puzzle has gained currency not least with the recent work of Hilary Putnam. According to Wikipedia, guardians of all sacred knowledge, the idea was first proposed by Descartes. My guess is this is also the premise underwriting the new Willis movie. For the unacquainted, its prevailing question (to which the above cartoon draws attention) is whether we humans are anything other than our brains. Suppose scientists preserve your brain in a vat. They find a way to connect it up so that the brain receives the very same physical impulses as it does from the outside world when contained in the skull. The argument is that your brain would not recognise the difference between the sensation of walking in the sun and the actual bodily act itself; the physical impulses themselves subtract out, and the brain has nothing left to learn or experience. Many types of physicalism rest on this conclusion. The very concept of a human personal identity that is apart from the neuroscience of our brains is an illusion. You = your brain. Therefore, the 'brain in a vat' scenario is conceivable.
The thought experiment is usually applied to debates over scepticism about propositional truths, i.e. how can we ever be sure reality is not an illusion? Rather than go there, I think the corollary observation about what this means for human personal identity is deeply intriguing. Take your best friend. The question to pose is twofold. First we ask what she is: is she her brain? Or is she the projection of your own brain? The latter is solipsism: the belief that one's mind projects all that there is, ergo there is only one mind, yours, and therefore everything else is an illusion. It should be recognised that physicalists are not condemned to such foolishness. They may say 'yes' to the former question, but then suppose this is the case for every brain, and therefore for every person, and so avoid the solipsist trap.
Even so, the fate of personal identity is, for the physicalist, ultimately and inextricably bound up in the fate of the human brain. If the brain dies, the identity of a person in an important sense dies as well. One can certainly remember about that deceased person, and say that his personal identity 'lives on' in memory. But the truth is that aside from this memory, the person does not live on in any meaningful sense. He is dead. Nothing survives. The terminus of personal identity arrives following the death of what makes personal identity what it is. Which is, of course, only the body itself.
Grant this point for the moment. The next thing to ask is this: what if we could preserve or sustain the brain ad infinitum? What if the 'brain in a vat' scenario proved successful? The trailer anticipating the new 'Surrogates' movie suggests this possibility. Let us suppose we could hook your brain up now and let you live through a surrogate, and without the fear or threat of death. You could take on any persona. You could do whatever you truly want. Forgive for a moment that this would probably amount to utter chaos and disorder; that the globe itself would not be able to sustain it, seeing as we would probably lack the resources necessary to give the earth a surrogate as well. These matters set aside, the real question, the theological question is this: do we miss out on anything? do 'we' fail to participate in the reality which God has created?
My immediate answer is adamantly yes. We do. We miss out. Not on trivial matters either. The best analogy I can come up with is this: it is like the child who watches TV twelve uninterrupted hours on a gorgeously warm Saturday. We want to scream NO! Tear apart the blinds. Pull out the cords. Let the glare of a burning sun flood the room. Like this, only infinitely worse, is living a reality that is not real, a brain in a vat. But this gets me thinking some more...
For my 'spiritual cause' is not against the possible development of this kind of technology. We creatures never fall short of imagining new ways to undo our creatureliness. This would just add to the list. No, my business is rather with what this kind of thinking about personal identity appears to profess. The more I have thought about it, the more I have sensed the physicalist position is as paradoxical as it is troubling. It is troubling for obvious reasons. But it is paradoxical in this trouble. We often ascribe doom and gloom to physicalism, as though it accepted death without holding out on the hope of an afterlife. But the thing to see is that physicalism rests not on a cynical and dismissive view of any afterlife, but on an even more audacious and disturbing confidence in the scientific power to preserve life.
And this leads me to think the following. It is essential to who we are as creatures that we live with the prospect of death, and that we also die. To live a reality in which we do not is not to live in the reality in which we find ourselves. There is something to be said about eternal life. But whatever it is, it must follow the truth.
That truth is that humans die.
If Christ has died for me – ungodly as I am, without strength as I am – then I can no longer live in sin, but must arouse myself to love and serve Him who has redeemed me. I cannot trifle with the evil that killed my best Friend. I must be holy for his sake. How can I live in sin when He has died to save me from it?
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The next verses should be something about massive self-glorification through overwhelming power. But of course, the next verses are about the Son of God stooping to the dirty feet of sinful men. He "loved them to the end" says the Fourth Evangelist.
Such subversive and willful self-shaming can only be chocked up to the Father's will. Our Lord insists, after all, that he only does what he hears from the Father (8:29; 15:10). So also his confidence that he was from God and would soon return to Him appear to have been determinative. Unconditional obedience to the Father's will and confidence in his promises led to Jesus doing a job too humble even for most slaves so that his disciples would know his love for them.
We talk so much about strategies for becoming missional Christians. Our mission includes loving the destitute and making disciples of all nations. These two will often go hand in hand, and I am grateful for the groundswell in American Christianity that is saying, "What must we do to lead the lost to Jesus? What must we do to love the widows and orphans and poor?" We ask these questions, and we strategize in response.
Strategizing is necessary at times, but it also can too easily complicate simple matters. If we are to follow the example of our Lord and stoop down to the dirty places to show his love (and we must follow his example), then perhaps we need simply to meditate on who we are in Christ ("knowing that he had come from God"), on our unassailable hope ("and was going back to God"), and on the demands that God places on His followers ("my food is to do the will of him who sent me"). I suggest that if we will do these things, then we will feel the unencumbered freedom that is felt by those who are confident in the living God and His promises. It is faith and hope that will encourage love (cf. Col. 1:4-5 where the links are similar).
And of course, we can only find these things in the Word of God. The Word of God must be our daily supply, and we must drink from it constantly. After watching David Platt's SBC conference sermon and reading the CT interview with him, I have been convicted about how little I actually care about the Bible- how little almost anyone I know cares about the Bible. The Word of God is all we have to offer to anyone. Platt is most certainly right about that. If we will immerse ourselves in it, and if we will do that in community, then we will be missional.
That is, we will, go to the hard, messy places with the glorious love of Christ no matter what the cost. If you can't get excited about that, you need to repent.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Did the Resurrection Happen? by Gary Habermas and Antony Flew read less like an advanced theological textbook and more like a conversation. This is, of course, because two-thirds of this book were originally conversations. The book is divided into three parts, the first of which was basically a transcript of a debate between Habermas and Flew that took place back in 2003 during an event held by the Veritas Forum. This section was an engaging read and altogether too short.
The second part was also a transcribed conversation between Habermas and Flew (long time friends) regarding Flew's journey to theism, an event that sent shock-waves through both sides of the atheism/theism debate. Through both of these sections I was pleasantly surprised to find the conversational style a very accessible read a la Lee Strobel (minus the hint of feigned scepticism).
If one section seemed cumbersome and out of place, it was the third. Written by the editor, David Baggett, it was actually longer than either of the first two sections. Unfortunately, it fell victim to the very intellectual inaccessibility who's absence made the first two sections so enjoyable.
While this book won't be convincing to the most hardline skeptics, Christians and the doubters and seekers of Flew's sort will find this a very accessable read.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Through the ages, the common pattern of the order of worship in the church reflects the pattern of the progress of the gospel in the heart. The gospel first affects the heart by enabling us to recognize who God is. When we truly understand the glory of his holiness, then we also recognize who we really are and confess our need of him. The gospel then assures us of the grace that he proves, and our hearts respond in both thanskgiving and humble petition for his aid so that we can give proper devotion to him. In response to our desire for his aid, God prives his Word. We heed his instruction, knowing that we are both charged to do so and have the promise of his blessing as we live for him. The common liturgy of the church through the ages reflects this sequential flow of the gospel in our hearts.
Bryan Chapell - Christ-Centered Worship, p.99
Friday, September 4, 2009
Recent blog conference on Barth draws some attention to the matter I wish to dispute. But Barth is not to be treated as a figure in the abstract. What circumstances gave rise to Barthian hermeneutics are subsumed under the significance of the resources made available to Christian theologians like him from the New Testament authors onward.
What I mean may be approached like this. The question 'Does God Exist?' appears to be a very good and common sense question. Indeed, for many it obtains as the most determinative, the most preliminary question that ought to be asked prior to any worthwhile theo-logising. Many recent books have been written as though this were so. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion justifies his apathy and ignorance toward all things theological on this singular point. If there is no God, there is no God-ology of which to speak. The discipline is terminated. The theologians disperse. Reason reigns. Etc.
Yet what he and others of his kind do not seem to appreciate is that this question is not a very good theological question. It is not a very good theological question because it presupposes a rather poor theology, Christianly understood.
Not surprisingly, of course, this suggestion of ours excites all sorts of responses in his defence.
The first is predictable: Dawkins is not asking a theological question. Dawkins is asking a scientific question. Or maybe a philosophical question. However one defines the nature of the question, it is a question that precedes any theological work. This is the very intent of Dawkins' departure point.
To which the proper theological response is simply: and? In other words, the dispute is not over what Dawkins intends. It is over what is. Reality that is Christianly understood does not allow for any question to surface from man that does not bear witness concerning man as it pertains to his relation to God. In this sense there appears for Dawkins no neutral ground on which the question 'Does God Exist?' can stand apart from theological orientations toward the God that is now, at the outset of questioning, presumably held in existential limbo. And that kind of god is not the God to which Christianity witnesses. That kind of god is not the God with which Christian theology finds itself wrestling.
Because this God to which Christianity testifies is not one whose existence is like the static and passive objects of ordinary scientific methodology. He is not a chair. Nor even the most dynamic physical processes that hum undetectably beneath the skins of we stubborn creatures. He does not sit twiddling his thumbs at Dr. D's office, awaiting summons to be examined; awaiting to hear whether today he qualifies as patient, or tomorrow he must return, reapply, and repeat his stammering.
Rather. This is a God through whom all questions must traverse. From whom no critical thinking may flee. On whom all rejection must be spilled.
Which returns me to theological epistemology. Any theological epistemology worth its salt will have to do business with the fact that the 'object' of its study is presumably one over which nothing stands and from which nothing escapes. Suggesting that the question 'Does God Exist?' precedes or eclipses all our theological investigations is like to suggest a roving and ravenously hungry lion, now appearing right before us, is first the object of our curious estimations and diagnoses, instead of the imminent lord over our fear-seized will and reason.
Barth stressed as much. He tried to do theology rather than justify theology. I suspect his reasoning to be thoroughly theological on this count. Barth argued that theology follows the activity of God. The Christian theologian is not just so by virtue of her training in any school of theology or in his ascription to certain tenets and creeds, etc. Those are important, of course.
But what precedes theology is not an answer to the question 'Does God Exist?' but rather the grace of God efficient in the life of one formerly wedded to gods other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and most concretely in the face of Jesus Christ. He who treats the former as the one question that determines all other proceeding questions excuses himself from doing good theology, this is true. But this does not hold the science of theology in question. Christianly understood, it merely tells us something about the person who says so and proceeds about his business.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
These stats are not news to many of us. So then how come the foundational assumptions of youth ministry aren't changing?
In reThink, Steve Wright (with Chris Graves) argues that today's dominant model of youth ministry is neither biblical nor effective. Youth ministers need to abandon the "drop your kids off here so we can disciple them" mentality and replace it with one that centers on the biblical model of parents discipling their children. We cannot simply tweak what we are doing to have more or less games or more or less Bible teaching. The problem is deeper: the Bible says that parents are supposed to disciple their kids, so the youth pastor's mission should be to facilitate that process.
This is not to say that youth ministry ought to be eliminated entirely, as some argue. But it is to say that the model is irreperably broken. Thus Wright begins by critiquing the current model, then arguing that the Bible conceives of parents (not youth pastors) passing on the faith to their children (e.g. Deut. 6:4-9; Ps. 78:1-7; Eph. 6:4, et. al.). Since this is the biblical model, the remainder of the book (about half of it) goes through the application of this parent-centered model and concludes with a series of remarkable stories from his church where this has happened.
It is hard to argue with the brunt of Wright's thesis. The stats are troubling (even if we allow room for both statistical variation and the normal wandering from the faith that Jesus predicted in the Parable of the Sower) and the Bible most certainly does conceive of parents' discipling their children. Further, Wright is refreshingly simple, realistic, and aware of obvious concerns (e.g. a youth pastor's obstacles to presenting this new model and non-Christian or uninvolved parents). There are no gimmicks: pray a lot, be biblical and focus on discipleship. A youth ministry book that seriously engages the Bible and advocates no youth ministry pizzazz is rare indeed. reThink is to be commended in all these respects.
But of course there are weaknesses. For one, no where does Wright discuss the thoroughly biblical theme of the church as a family. This is an important omission in a book whose central thesis centers on the biblical relationship between family and church! This is not biblical nit-picking. I wonder how a discussion about discipleship for students with non-Christian or uninvolved parents would change if we recognize that the church is a family. Perhaps one implication is that other godly adults in a church would take on a surrogate parenting relationship to such students. And indeed, while Wright addresses the uninvolved parent situation, he can say little more than, "Well, try and make it happen anyway." There is something right about that, but it is also manifestly incomplete.
Second, since Wright opens with the troubling statistics cited above that he attributes to the broken youth ministry model, I found myself really wanting to know how his statistics significantly differ. If he is right that those stats are the result of a broken model and if his model is the biblical one, then shouldn't it follow that his percentages should be better? This is a strange omission, especially since he actually mentions questions that youth pastors can use to discover their own ministry's post-high-school effectiveness. He has clearly thought about it, so why no numbers of his own?
I came across reThink as I was actively asking foundational questions about youth ministry- the kinds of questions, that is, that Steve Wright asks. For any youth pastor who is doing the same, I heartily recommend this book at least as a starting place. Further, I would ask the youth pastor who is gung ho about the usual youth ministry model to read it and tell me where Wright has misstepped. Even if the biblical picture could be filled in further, I suspect that it would be hard to mount a serious biblical argument against his thesis. For these reasons, reThink warrants serious consideration for most youth pastors, and I sincerely hope it gets that due.
- If hearing the gospel produces hope and hope produces love, we must be diligent to immerse our minds in the gospel by reading of it in the inspired Word, by meditating on its promises, obeying its warnings, memorizing those texts that speak of its blessings, and trusting that it will do for our souls what nothing else can.
Is Using A Minotaur To Gore Detainees A Form Of Torture?