Socrates Meets Descartes


Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Descartes: The Father of Philosophy Analyzes the Father of Modern Philosophy’s Discourse on Method (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007). $12.95, 238 pages.

René Descartes dies and goes to Purgatory. Socrates meets him there and interrogates him about his rationalist philosophy. For good measure, Blaise Pascal makes a cameo appearance at the end of the dialogue.

That is the hilarious setup for Peter Kreeft’s excellent introduction to Descartes’ Discourse on Method, which introductory philosophy students and interested laypeople can read for both fun and profit. Kreeft uses a similar setup for his introduction to other philosophers including Plato, Niccolò Machiavelli, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Descartes is the father of modern philosophy, which is characterized by a “subjective turn” from metaphysics to epistemology. He wrote in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, a conflict that caused many to doubt the peace-making ability of religion and to seek that peace-making ability through rational inquiry divorced from religious authority. For Descartes that rational inquiry involved the application of a rationalistic method to philosophical investigation. The method began by doubting everything until an indubitable foundation of clear and distinct ideas was laid. For Descartes, the first such clear and distinct idea is cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.”

From the indubitability of the knowing subject, Descartes went on to make a rational case for the existence of the mind distinct from the body, the existence of God, and the existence of the material world. Unfortunately, the cogito—at least the implications of the cogito—bequeathed to subsequent philosophy an unsolvable mind-body problem that has convinced many that Descartes’ anthropology is fundamentally wrong. Moreover, far from settling debates, Descartes’ rational method engendered only new debates.

The dialogue Kreeft crafts between Socrates and Descartes fairly lays out Descartes’ the historical context and substance of Descartes’ philosophy, acknowledges what it got right, demonstrates what it got wrong, and leaves open a number of debatable issues for the reader to decide on his or her own. Reading Kreeft on Descartes motivated me to go back and re-read Descartes, whom I first read as an undergraduate philosophy major. For me, an introduction that so motivates its readers has succeeded admirably.

I highly recommend Socrates Meets Descartes.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, June 30, 2011


“Why Are Evangelicals Losing Influence?”

That evangelical influence is waning is probably an accurate self-observation. Yet the blame for this can hardly be placed at the feet of secularism. If evangelical influence is nose-diving we have no one to blame but ourselves. Evangelicals have lost influence not because the culture has become secularized, but because evangelicals have failed to embody the life and teachings of Jesus. Ronald Sider all but predicted this new reality in his 2005 book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.” His argument, based largely on polling data, was that in nearly every appreciable category evangelical Christian reflect the culture at large. The great American theologian Stanley Hauerwas often says the church’s first job is simply to be the church—a teaching that, when ignored, will come back to bite you.

The evangelical church will have its impact on American culture not through political maneuvering, lawsuits, electing evangelical candidates, controlling the arts, or boycotting movies and products, but when evangelicals begin to embody the virtues derived from our faith. Kindness, generosity, peacefulness, hospitality, patience, self-control—these are radical virtues that should define the people called evangelicals. Instead we are largely defined by what we are against (like yoga and evolution).

Popular evangelical leader Rick Warren once noted the church was meant to be the body of Christ, but it seems “The hands and feet have been amputated and we’re just a big mouth.” He’s right. The evangelical church will enjoy great influence on American culture when it once again becomes the hands and feet of Christ, when it begins to act like the church. How this works out is always different in every context, but Jesus taught it always involves two simple things: love God, love your neighbor.

Yep.

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“Ayn Rand Led Me to Christ.” I never thought of atheist Objectivism as praeparatio evangelii, but God works in mysterious ways. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, he is “unscrupulous” in bring us to himself.

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“Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?” In Allah: A Christian Response, Miroslav Volf says yes. Thabiti Anyabwile begs to differ.

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“The religious fanaticism of Bill Maher”:

Secular fundamentalism fills an important void for those who have rejected religion but nonetheless harbor many of the worst instincts that cause certain people to embrace religion. Secular fundamentalism allows non-believers to experience the thrill of religious bigotry without having to put up with the nuisance of religion.

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“5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion.” Well, some atheists believe these myths. Others don’t. Then again, Christians have their own myths about atheists. Someone should write an article about them.

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“An Evangelical Guide to the GOP Primary”:

Evangelicals don’t need a political messiah. They may well support someone who does not have the exact same faith as they do. If otherwise qualified, Mormons such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman should not be ruled out. A person’s religious beliefs are certainly important in politics, but choosing a president is not fundamentally about doctrine.

Whom should evangelicals support? I’ll leave that for readers to decide, but there’s more to the choice than picking someone who shares your values. It’s about the person with the best qualities and vision for presidential leadership.

When do we get an evangelical guide to the Democratic primary?

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“Unmade in New York”:

Not providing formal governmental recognition of two people’s relationship doesn’t amount to denigrating them. Male-female and same-sex unions may have inherently different structures, norms, and social roles and purposes. Imposing marital norms on same-sex unions, where they make less sense, may well be unfair. There are good reasons to keep marriage separate, in law and culture, from other romantic arrangements.

Yet every one of these points had been made as recently as the day the bill passed. Not in National Review, but in the New York Times. Not by a traditional supporter of marriage, but by a liberal proponent of redefining it. Not by social conservatives—but by Katherine Franke, a lesbian left-winger who is director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. In other words, these points are agreeable even to some who would trade the 2,300-year-old intellectual tradition originating with Plato and Aristotle for the 60-year-old liberationist ideology descended from Hefner and Kinsey.

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“Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reminds its leadership to steer clear of politics.” Good advice, it seems to me.

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“Can Unitarian Universalists Make It Another 50 Years?” Probably not. But does anyone really care?

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“Faith in God and Science.” Pastor Brady Boyd talks about praying for healing and going under the knife to repair a pulmonary valve in his heart. In my experience, this both/and attitude is typical of Pentecostal and evangelical Christians, not atypical.

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“Sex and the Church: The Conversations We Need to Have.” The most recent issue of my magazine, Enrichment, is online.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, June 29, 2011


“A religious test for president?” No. How about an economics test instead? I mean, seriously, should we be more concerned that a candidate is a Mormon (Romney) than a Keynesian (Obama)? Jesus didn’t appear to the American Indians, but claiming he did so doesn’t rack up more than $3 trillion in debt in just under three years. From a political point of view, which data point is more important?

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“3 Main Bodies in Christianity Reach ‘Historic’ Agreement in Evangelism Ethics.” You can read the agreement here. Apropos of this topic, I’m reading Elmer John Thiessen’s excellent book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (from IVP Academic).

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“Pope sends first tweet, launching new Vatican site.” Here’s the tweet: “Dear Friends, I just launched News.va Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessings, Benedictus XVI.” Not very catchy, but what do you expect from the 84-year-old CEO of a two-millennia-old corporation?

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On the other hand: “Twitter not blessed by Pope’s presence.”

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“YouVersion’s Volunteer Army”: The best Bible app has a minimal paid staff and a maximal volunteer base. Perhaps this is a good model for church ministry?

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“The Role of Hierarchy in Modern Discipleship”:

As the Great Commission—Jesus’ final address before his ascension to heaven—reveals, the discipleship hierarchy of teachers and students is affirmed until his return, as is the specific content to be taught and learned: the eternally unchanging craft of Christianity. As with all of Christianity-as-philanthropy, what undergoes change is not the forms or structures or content of discipleship, but rather the disciples themselves. Through Jesus’ self-emptying into all those willing to receive him, Jesus redefines the role that they themselves will go on to undertake in the discipleship relationship—the role of the teacher-as-philanthropist.

IMHO, too many pastors get caught up in the hier (or “higher”?) and forget the philia.

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“Does Sunday School Have a Future?” Yes, but apparent without either the Sunday or school parts.

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“Where gay matrimony meets elite sanctimony.”

From a sociological perspective, the ascendancy of the campaign for gay marriage provides a fascinating story about the dynamics of the cultural conflicts that prevail in Western society. During the past decade the issue of gay marriage has been transformed into a cultural weapon that explicitly challenges prevailing norms through condemning those who oppose it. This is not so much a call for legal change as a cause: one that endows its supporters with moral superiority and demotes its opponents with the status of moral inferiority.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Monday, June 27, 2011


“Did I Just Tweak Jesus’ Nipple?”:

For some, this story might seem to reflect a person with no respect for Jesus.  Yet for those of us who know Jimmy, we see it as a divine encounter where a loving God reached past the cloudy confusion of mental illness to demonstrate His love for one of His children.

When we began our ministry in our neighborhood nearly a decade ago, we could not have anticipated that we would have found ourselves in relationship with so many people struggling with various degrees of mental health.  Neither could we have anticipated how deeply so many of them longed for a place of love and acceptance, a place to explore faith without fear or judgment.  For many people with mental illness (who represent a significant number of the poorest of the poor in North America), the church has not been a place of welcome or understanding.  The stigma attached to mental illness is deeply rooted in most Christian circles nurturing an ignorance that makes connecting to these people nearly impossible.  They represent one of the single most neglected “unreached people group” in our cities.  This must change.

And yet, it is not only the mentally ill who need the church to reach out and love them.  We are in genuine need of them.  Encounters like we have with Jimmy and others force us to push our faith beyond intellectual ideals and shallow spiritualities.  They demand that we confront the messy reality of a broken world and rely entirely upon God to reach past the impossible circumstances with His divine grace and love.  Beyond the romanticism that often clouds reality, we must learn to genuinely see Christ in these children of His.  Then we will learn what it means to live the words of Jesus with our lives.

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“Marriage Is a Mixed Blessing”:

WILL the New York State Legislature ultimately put itself on the right side of history by allowing same-sex couples to marry? Many of us in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, amazed at how quickly public opinion has evolved on this issue, are eager for this historic civil rights victory.

My hope comes with some worry, however.

While many in our community have worked hard to secure the right of same-sex couples to marry, others of us have been working equally hard to develop alternatives to marriage. For us, domestic partnerships and civil unions aren’t a consolation prize made available to lesbian and gay couples because we are barred from legally marrying. Rather, they have offered us an opportunity to order our lives in ways that have given us greater freedom than can be found in the one-size-fits-all rules of marriage.

This argument is incoherent to me. If gay marriage is on “the right side of history,” then how can marriage itself be too constraining (“one-size-fits-all”) and in need of “alternatives”?

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“No ‘him’ or ‘her’; preschool fights gender bias”: Biology has a way of reasserting itself over time, so my guess is that this is a losing fight. But you gotta love the name of the preschool: “Egalia.”

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“Returning Evil for Evil: The Snickering Consent of Prison Rape”:

Christians delight in perfect justice, not when it is abused. And those who wink at what disgraces humans and dishonors God should repent. May we love our neighbor and enemy by praying that this abuse stops and that those in positions to make changes do so swiftly.

Amen.

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In “Religious Liberty and the Development of Doctrine in Islam,” Michael Novak makes a prediction:

My prediction is this: By the year 2020, rough and painful human experience will lead the Islamic nations of the Mediterranean Basin to resound with positive cries for democracy, human rights, individual liberty, and the dignity of every man, woman, and child. By 2020, Islamic peoples will be crying out publicly in favor of regimes that allow men and women to act from reflection and choice, and to live as peoples who are free and responsible, and who are eager to show initiative and unprecedented creativity.

Well, let’s hope so.

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“Bachmann” Got ‘sense’ from God to run for office”: Does this mean she’ll win?

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“Should Christians Pursue External Beauty?” Well, doing so is better than the altnerative. Then again…

But while I delight in seeking to be beautiful on the inside and on the outside, I don’t hang my existential coat on this body. The grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit help me cultivate the former and hold the latter loosely. There is no doubt that Kanazawa was on to something in that beauty deserves attention. But that attention should ultimately point us back to God, “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

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“People of Faith”: a roundup of interesting social-science research on topics related to religion.

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“Do iPads Cause Religious Experiences?” Only if your “god” is a nerd. Or a fruitarian.

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“Bristol Palin’s New Book Reveals Heterosexual Agenda.” Ouch.

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 “We Share Responsibility for Coach Tressel’s Fall.” I’m a Trojan fan, so I’m exempt from any responsibility regarding an Ohio State coach. More seriously…

We have accepted the dogma that the significant platform for evangelism afforded big-time athletics is a worthy trade-off for a “minor” unethical means of obtaining it. We have decided to label a deliberate violation of NCAA rules (even debatable rules) a “lesser sin” so that more people will get to hear the gospel at our next sports-related outreach. We say, “Well, he’s not saying anything blasphemous about Jesus.” And, “Isn’t it amazing how many people came to Christ today?”

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Check out my review of Am I Really a Christian? by Mike McKinley. If you find it helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Am I Really a Christian?


Mike McKinley, Am I Really a Christian? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011). $12.99, 160 pages.

Matthew 7:21–23 may be one of the most difficult passages of Scripture for Christians to contemplate. There, people asked Jesus, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” (Evidently, they were Pentecostals, like me.) Instead of commending them, however, Jesus said, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.” These people were self-deceived about the authenticity of their Christianity.

In Am I Really a Christian? Mike McKinley outlines five things all Christians have:

  1. Belief in true doctrine.
  2. Hatred for sin in your life.
  3. Perseverance over time.
  4. Love for other people.
  5. Freedom from love of the world.

McKinley backs up his assertions with Scripture. He uses illustrations, often funny and self-deprecating, to make his points. And he writes in a simple, easy-going manner that makes this book perfect for use by small groups. Each chapter concludes with study questions and suggestions for practical action.

Crucially, McKinley grounds his teaching in grace, not works. “Our goal in this book,” he writes, “is not to ask whether we have done enough to earn God’s love and favor. Instead, our goal is to begin learning how to look for the evidence that God has done his mighty work in our lives.” This goal admirably encapsulates balanced biblical teaching about justification by grace through faith that leads to sanctified works.

Given that 76 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, it is important for American believers to understand what being a Christian really means. Mike McKinley should be commended for helping us ort out this issue.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Usable Quotes from the Book

Jesus taught that the world was divided into two groups of people who would experience two radically different fates in this life and in the next. Those who are his followers will receive abundant life now and eternal blessings in his presence (John 10:10; Matt. 25:34). Those who are not his followers will squander their time on earth and ultimately experience the just wrath of God against their sins for all eternity. Friend, you have a lot at stake in knowing whether you are genuinely a Christian. (14)

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It is true that we need to make a onetime decision to follow Jesus. But a true onetime decision is followed by the everyday decision to follow Jesus. Jesus did not think that it was enough just to superficially identify yourself with him. There is more to being his follower than just a profession of faith. My fear is that too many churches have encouraged people to expect that Jesus will one day say to them, “Well done, faithful servant.” But in fact, they will hear him say, “Depart from me.” Such people will discover the truth only after it is too late. (23)

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What constitutes reliable evidence of regeneration?…

  • Belief in true doctrine. You’re not a Christian just because you like Jesus.
  • Hatred for sin in your life. You’re not a Christian if you enjoy sin.
  • Perseverance over time. You’re not a Christian if you don’t persist in the faith.
  • Love for other people. You’re not a Christian if you don’t have care and concern for other people.
  • Freedom from love of the world. You’re not a Christian if the things of the world are more valuable to you than God. (39)

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 Our goal in this book, in other words, is not to ask whether we have done enough to earn God’s love and favor. Instead, our goal is to begin learning how to look for the evidence that God has done his mighty work in our lives. So let’s get to work. (41)

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 The faith of a Christian, the faith that Jesus says marks the difference between eternal life and eternal condemnation, bears two essential elements: objective content and heartfelt trust. (46)

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 Objective content (47–52):

  1. You are a sinner.
  2. Jesus is fully God and fully man.
  3. Jesus the God-man saves through his death.
  4. Jesus was raised bodily from the dead.
  5. Jesus is Lord.

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The late Leon Morris wrote, “To put it bluntly and plainly, if Christ is not my Substitute, I still occupy the place of a condemned sinner. If my sins and my guilt are not transferred to Him, if He did not take them upon Himself, then surely they remain with me. If He did not deal with my sins, I must face their consequences. If my penalty was not borne by Him, it still hangs over me.” Every believer in Christ must affirm the truth that Christ died a sacrificial death in the place of sinners. (51)

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What does any of this have to do with whether you are really a Christian? Well, I think the question of what Jersey you’re wearing helps us think about sin in the life of a professing Christian. To call yourself a Christian is to say you’ve changed teams. It’s to put on a new jersey that says to everyone that you have new allegiances. But what would you think of someone who put on a new jersey but kept playing for the old team? That’s what we’re doing a Christians whenever we sin. We’re playing for the old team even though we’re wearing the new jersey. Sin for someone who claims to be a Christian is a strange kind of treason. It is taking Satan’s side in rebellion against God even though you’re saying you’re on God’s team. (60; this illustration talks about McKinley’s disappointment when Reggie White stopped playing for the Philadelphia Eagles and started playing for the Green Bay Packers)

Just as believers’ salvation is not their own doing, neither is their perseverance. The amazing grace which saves wretches is the same amazing grace that brings them home. (87)

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Wealth is like anesthesia: it can be a great thing, but it can also be dangerous. If you have a life-threatening wound, you don’t want to be so numbed on anesthesia that you don’t recognize the danger. Anesthesia does not fix your problems; it does not heal your wounds. It just makes you less aware of the problems that you have.

All your wealth is dangerous because it has the power to numb you to your need for God. It has the power to draw your love away from God and deceive you into thinking that it can satisfy and save you. The apostle Paul concludes bluntly, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). (112)

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Friend, anyone who told you that being a Christian requires nothing more than saying a few words or praying a prayer as if it were a magic spell, was dead wrong. Anyone who told you that coming to Jesus would make your life easy, pleasant, and fun, was dead wrong. Anyone who told you that Jesus wants you to be rich, was dead wrong. No, following Jesus means picking up your cross. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (117)

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I once heard a very helpful illustration of what the Christian life should look like from counseling professor David Powlison. He said the pattern of Christian life and growth is like a yo-yo: up and down, up and down. That is pretty depressing, but also pretty true. One day I feel as if I have sin beat; the next day I feel as if I am back at the beginning.

But there is more, Powlison said. The pattern of Christian life and growth may be like a yo-yo, but it’s a yo-yo in the hands of someone walking up a flight of stairs. That is a much more encouraging image. In the day-to-day, we are acutely aware of the yo-yo feeling, the ups and downs of the battle against sin. But we miss the larger picture of growth and maturity that God is graciously working in us—he is carrying us up the stairs. Even our low points are now higher than our high points used to be. (131)

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Friday, June 24, 2011


Robert P. George discusses “the authoritarian impulse” of some modern liberals.

But as liberals around the country—not all, but many, and indeed increasingly many, it seems—abandon support for conscience protection and seek to force pro-life and pro-marriage citizens and institutions to comply with liberal ideological beliefs by, for example, referring for or even participating in abortions and providing facilities or services for celebrations of same-sex sexual partnerships, it seems clear that the Rawlsian ambition has been thrown over in favor of a crusade to establish what might be called (following Rawls himself) “comprehensive liberalism” as the official pseudo-religion of the state.  The impulse to crush the rights of conscience (where conscience is considered in its classical sense of what Newman called a “stern monitor,” and not in the degraded sense of a faculty for writing moral permission slips) to ensure conformity with what have become key tenets of the liberal faith (abortion, “sexual freedom,” “same-sex marriage”) is the authoritarian impulse I mentioned.  (I want to emphasize the words “have become.” Such ideas were no part of the liberalism embraced by such great figures in the tradition as Cesar Chavez, Hubert Humphrey, or Sargent Shriver, just to name some leading liberals from the quite recent past.)

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“Civility Under Fire”:

Our country is grappling with many high-stakes, emotionally charged issues: government spending, war, medical care, collective bargaining rights, abortion, gay marriage. Our democracy cannot prosper if people vilify, slander, and even shout down those with whom they disagree.

We should defend our positions vigorously and with conviction—but with civility. Scripture tells us to always be ready to make a defense for the hope we have in Christ—which leads to the convictions we carry—and yet to “do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:15-16, ESV).

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“Godly politics: neither left nor libertarian”:

But Trinitarian politics mirrors the Triune God of the Bible, who is one God in three Persons (see Anthony Bradley’s column from yesterday on the Trinitarian worldview). He is a true unity that preserves the genuine individuality of each person within that divine community. As we are made in God’s image, we too are created to be true individuals living together in real community. We are individually redeemed but into the body of Christ, the covenant community, the church. A soteriology without a corresponding ecclesiology is not a fully biblical gospel. And a Christian political theory that values individual liberty without giving due respect to community, something as natural and good as the people who compose it, is a merely gospel-influenced, secular ideology.

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“N. Y. Senate doesn’t take up gay marriage bill.” For now. The sticking point seems to be religious exemptions. Religious exemptions? How about First Amendment rights?

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“Why does Kate have three mommies?” This article examines the growth of “nontraditional families” in California. Apropos of this, you might also want to check out “Baby Makes Four, and Complications,” which examines the situation of a single mom who gave birth to a boy with the help of a gay friend, who served as the sperm donor.

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“Kia Sportage Ad Sparks Pedophilia Controversy.” You can see the ad at the link. What it implies is disgusting.

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“Quivering with Fear”

Many of us tend to react with righteous indignation when we read stories of women in foreign countries denied higher education, the chance to support themselves, and the freedom to live independently and make their own decisions.

How do we react when women are denied those same freedoms here in America—by some of our fellow Christians?

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“Women ministers gaining ground in Baptist life.” Good, and about time.

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“When does a pastor tainted by scandal deserve forgiveness?” The Assemblies of God wrestled with this question in the late 1980s because of the high-profile moral failures of Jim Bakker, Marvin Gorman, and Jimmy Swaggart. The answer we came to, if I understand it correctly, is (1) that forgiveness follows repentance and (2) restoration to ministry follows rehabilitation. The problem with the Eddie Long case, in my opinion, is that forgiveness is being conflated with restoration to ministry. Bishop Long should be forgiven if he has repented, but that doesn’t necessarily entail that he should be restored to ministry.

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“Group Drops Case Against Pastor Housing Allowances.” Whew!

A constitutional challenge to the tax-free housing allowances and parsonages provided to thousands of American pastors is over after the plaintiffs who filed the original lawsuit voluntarily requested its dismissal Friday in a California district court.

But the battle is far from over. More legal challenges from opponents of the provision are promised, while a federal commission reviewing the benefit has been asked to determine whether it needs additional protections.

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“13 Questions Leaders Should Ask Themselves”:

  1. Is narcissism 90% of Twitter?
  2. Is social media your newest time-waster?
  3. Are we insulting Jesus with all the books and blogs denigrating his church?
  4. Do you lead your organization too softly?
  5. Are you blinded by your own vision?
  6. Is it time for you to make a personal leadership change?
  7. If you were hired to replace yourself, what would you do differently in your job?
  8. What excites you these days?
  9. Do you need to be more accountable to someone?
  10. What do you pray about?
  11. Is your near-term future one big question mark, or do you have a plan?
  12. Who was the last person you witnessed to that accepted Christ?
  13. Do you read enough books?

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, June 23, 2011


“Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders”:

Evangelical Protestant leaders who live in the Global South (sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and most of Asia) generally are optimistic about the prospects for evangelicalism in their countries. But those who live in the Global North (Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) tend to be more pessimistic.

The so-called “optimism gap” is the top-line finding of this survey, but the whole report is worth a look.

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“New York’s Dangerous Churches—in Schools.”

However, this ongoing conflict is evidence that many New Yorkers are spooked by the thought of people — especially evangelicals — worshipping in spaces created for secular education. The bottom line: What if believers dared to pray for the students and teachers who occupy those spaces on school days?
In a New York Times essay, activist Katherine Stewart explained why she fiercely opposes having a church meet behind the red door of her local school on the Upper East Side. She also attacked the Village Church by name.

“I could go on about why my daughter’s photo should not be made available for acts of worship, or why my P.T.A. donations should not be used to supply furniture for a religious group that thinks I am bound for hell,” concluded the author of the upcoming book, “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.”

“Maybe it’s just that I imagine that that big red door is about education for all, not salvation for a few. Sometimes a building is more than a building.”

It’s funny that a supposed secularist has such a superstitious view of buildings. On a materialist conception of things, how can a building be more than a building? But, whatever…

Expect more of this kind of anti-religious bigotry in the future. It will masquerade itself as a First Amendment argument against religious rental of public space.

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“A Variety of Religious Composition” argues that churches should employ a variety of worship music genres, not just CCM “pop.”

Contemporary Christian worship songs are often beautiful, exciting, and inspirational. But in my opinion, to ignore all other kinds of music does not reflect contemporary life. Such a practice will not only prevent young churchgoers from recognizing and remembering hymns and other sacred music from the past 500 years, it may even produce in them an underdeveloped artistic sense (“Jesus loves little Johnny who plays a guitar, but forget little Billy who plays the trumpet”). This may also make it difficult for young people to enter and function in a culture that still values intellectual achievement and the art of music in all its guises.

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 “People engage electronic media an average of 8 hours a day. Do they really need more at church?” Good question. “Taming the Image” provides an answer:

In a discarnate age, the only option Christians have for presenting a credible, authoritative, and transformative gospel is to embody Christ. We need to be wary of trying to transmit a message of embodiment through a medium of disembodiment. Stephen Downey writes, “A video-streamed sermon on the Incarnation would be ironic at best and offensive at worst.” And when most people are consuming electronic media ad nauseum, then the primary medium for a countercultural church must be an unplugged one.

Adopting and baptizing the new visual technologies is a losing strategy as well. The church will never do it as well as the culture. If James Cameron can spend $500 million, invent a new camera and new 3D techniques in order to produce the most visually stunning film ever recorded, and you can’t remember a single character’s name, do you really think your church budget is going to somehow do a better job of telling the Jesus story with PowerPoint, YouTube clips, or an internally-generated video? Even if you have the budget and artistic talent within your church to make quality films, because it is an image-based medium, it cannot penetrate the surface the way word-based communication can.

The new media techniques being employed in our churches may distract us from being bored in church for a little while, but beyond that they have no staying power because they have little authority. And they have little authority because they reflect the seen reality rather than the spoken truth. Take a great sermon from a hundred or a thousand years ago. When we read it, the message is still authoritative, and often still applicable. But watch a video of your favorite preacher from five or ten years ago and I guarantee it will be somewhat embarrassing. The visuals will take away from the message. Wow, just look at those clothes! The sincerity and theology is obliterated by the dated look of the fashion of the time. The authority of the word is eroded by the overwhelming power of the visual.

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“I’m Quitting Facebook to Join Faithbook Because My WWJD Bracelet Told Me To.” LOL!

In the New Testament, we’re given a picture of the Kingdom people of God who organize themselves around an alternative king, namely Jesus.  The greatest alternative is not a second-rate imitation of things from the popular culture, but rather a community (many communities in local contexts) who together live in a radically different way – the way of Jesus.

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“Church Congregations Can Be Blind to Mental Illness, Study Suggests”:

“Families with mental illness stand to benefit from their involvement within a congregation, but our findings suggest that faith communities fail to adequately engage these families because they lack awareness of the issues and understanding of the important ways that they can help,” said study co-author Dr. Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work. “Mental illness is not only prevalent in church communities, but is accompanied by significant distress that often goes unnoticed. Partnerships between mental health providers and congregations may help to raise awareness in the church community and simultaneously offer assistance to struggling families.”

Didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4)? Didn’t Paul say, “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15)? Didn’t John say, “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4)? It seems like the Church should do a better job in this regard.

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“Liberalism and the decline of a society’s character.” Dennis Prager concludes: “If you want to feel good, liberalism is awesome. If you want to do good, it is largely awful.”

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A Malaysian Muslim group has formed an “Obedient Wives Club.” I tried to get my wife to be obedient to me, but she told me to shut up and take out the trash. And I did.

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“Miss USA Contestants: America in Glamourcosm?”

A rabid fan of both Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom and The Miss USA Pageant (some may know him as Jim Harper) just sent me a link to this YouTube video. In the vid, all the contestants in the just-completed, aforementioned pageant discuss whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools.

I didn’t tally their responses, but just listening to the contenders it seems their consensus answer represents America in microcosm: Most seem to have serious doubts about evolution, but support teaching it along with other viewpoints. It reflects both the overall split within the American public—40 to 50 percent of Americans are creationists, and roughly the same segment evolutionists—as well as the consensus view on teaching human origins: About 60 percent of Americans support teaching both evolution and creationism in public schools.

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In “The decline of country music,” Mark Judge argues, “It’s time to abolish country music. Just ban it outright. It has become a toxin in American culture, retarding the cerebellum of the body politic.” Why? Because  contemporary country music is oh so self-conscious and anti-elitist: “Love of country music says to the world that you are authentic, that you don’t like learned people, and that your attitude imbues you with a special kind of virtue.” Ironically, Judge—who waxes nostalgic for Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn—seems to have forgotten the lyrics to Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”:

I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.

Talk about self-conscious and anti-elitist!

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, June 22, 2011


In “The Dangerous Mind of Peter Singer,” Joe Carter wonders whether there’s an ethical minimum that scholars need to meet before being treated seriously by others:

While it is necessary to consider and debate unpopular views, there should be a minimum standard for ethical discourse whether on the elementary playground or in the lecture halls of Princeton. There are certain moral issues that are all but universally recognized as self-evidently wrong by those in possession of rational faculties. Rape is wrong, torturing babies for fun is objectively morally bad, and the Holocaust was not just a violation of utilitarian ethic, but an event of grave moral evil. If someone cannot meet this basic requirement, they can safely be ignored, regardless of where they received a paycheck.
For far too many years, Singer’s ill-conceived sophistry has been considered and debated by some of our country’s best minds. It’s time to end such silliness. Let’s assign a sophomore philosophy student to rebut his arguments and the rest of academia can move on to squashing the bad ideas being championed by morally and intellectually serious people.

In case you’re wondering why Carter goes so hard after Singer, check out “The Wit and Wisdom of Peter Singer,” in which Carter reveals some of the Princeton ethicist’s very disturbing beliefs:

To give a representative taste of Singer’s thoughts, I’ve selected a few choice quotes from some of his most popular works. There is always the danger that taken out of context the quotes could be misconstrued, which is why I recommend that whenever possible the passages be read in their original. Taken in context only makes his positions appear even more disturbing and absolutely chilling in their banality.

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“The War Against Girls: Since the late 1970s, 163 million female babies have been aborted by parents seeking sons.” In this article, Jonathan V. Last reviews Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl. Last highlights a fundamental contradiction in Hvistendahl’s perspective:

Despite the author’s intentions, “Unnatural Selection” might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion. It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of “choice.” For if “choice” is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against “gendercide.” Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s “mental health” requires it. Choice is choice. One Indian abortionist tells Ms. Hvistendahl: “I have patients who come and say ‘I want to abort because if this baby is born it will be a Gemini, but I want a Libra.’”

This is where choice leads. This is where choice has already led. Ms. Hvistendahl may wish the matter otherwise, but there are only two alternatives: Restrict abortion or accept the slaughter of millions of baby girls and the calamities that are likely to come with it.

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Check out June’s “Ask the Superintendent,” a monthly live webcast in which Dr. George O. Wood—the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God and my dad—fields questions from ministers about issues relevant to the fellowship.

June 21 “Ask the Superintendent” with George O…., posted with vodpod

“The Heart Has Reasons” is a review of Existential Reasons for Belief in God by Clifford Williams. I agree with the reviwer’s assessment of the book, which I have read, and which I hope to review myself at some point in the near future.

As the New Atheism becomes old news, debates about how to best justify faith have been rekindled. Certainly, Existential Reasons can be read as a volley against those who place confidence in reason alone. In Williams’s work, one finds echoes of “postconservative” theologians, who remind us that Christianity is about transformation, not just information. But the genius of this book is that it doesn’t swing the pendulum too far. Or perhaps more appropriately, Williams shows that reason and emotion are not opposing poles on a single continuum at all; each has its place in the cultivation, strengthening, and defense of Christian belief. For those of us who need a faith at once meaningful and reasonable, that is good news.

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“Polling Prejudice Against Mormons: Democrats Worse than GOP”:

…in an era when religious pluralism is an unquestioned element of American culture, it is somewhat baffling that Mormons remain the object of hate. Some may put it down to the rigid beliefs of conservative evangelicals who think Mormons are not Christians, but considering the rude treatment the Mormons have gotten on both Broadway and HBO, it must be considered that some sophisticated liberals may be among the prejudiced 22 percent Gallup has discovered. Indeed, the survey says 27 percent of Democrats said they would not vote for a Mormon as opposed to only 18 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Independents. All of which goes to show when it comes to religious bias, so-called liberals may turn out to be less tolerant than conservatives.

The challenge facing Southern Baptists is whether or not the internal political polity of the denomination can embrace a “blue state” reality without fracturing along the dividing lines of conservative political issues. Advancing the gospel, not proving conservatism, must be the goal.

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“One SBC: Slightly Divided”:

The challenge facing Southern Baptists [and other evangelical denominations] is whether or not the internal political polity of the denomination can embrace a “blue state” reality without fracturing along the dividing lines of conservative political issues. Advancing the gospel, not proving conservatism, must be the goal.

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“Pawlenty’s prominent pastor not a political pawn.” A good article about Leith Anderson’s studied non-partisanship, but what editor approved the alliteration of the title?

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“Until Adultery Do Us Part?”: in which an Episcopal priest argues that questions about adultery need to be asked in pre-marital counseling.

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“Is Revivalist Spirituality Still Relevant Today?” Given that nineteenth-century revivals were also hotbeds of social reform, I should think so.

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“The Geography of the Gospel”:

The gospel also frees us geographically: no longer needing to be in a certain place, known by certain people, on the social mountaintop, we are free to be anonymous, unknown, in the valley. Grace renders a verdict of acquittal not only over our identity but also over our location. A deep rest, a settled “okayness,” lands not only on who we are but also on where we are.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, June 21, 2011


“Why Liberal Religious Arguments Fail.” Over at Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman reflects on what kinds of rhetoric are helping the pro-same-sex-marriage crowd, and concludes that religious argument is not one of them. Instead, personal testimonies are.

Every poll and every wise observer points out that gay-affirming folks have not been winning on account of superior arguments, whether arguments from the Bible or theology or science. They aren’t winning on account of their superior debating skills. They’re winning by being present and visible in faith communities: by coming out in ways that clergy and congregations can’t ignore. Gay people are winning because straight people who love and respect them are coming out right along with them.

The classic instance is the faithful older church woman—a devoted and beloved member of the community—who, at just the right moment in a congregational meeting, stands up and says, “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home. All I know is that ________, my ________, is as dear a child of God as I will ever hope to be.” She then goes on to tell the story of she found out about ________, how they stayed close, and how her heart was changed. Bingo. Are we ready for the vote?

Those of us who oppose same-sex marriage need to pay attention to Laarman’s point. The momentum in the debate over homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular seems to be shifting. This rhetorical strategy seems to be one reason why.

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Of course, the pro-same-sex-marriage crowd hasn’t given up on argument. For a taste of one such argument, which is becoming increasingly common, see “Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?” Expect to see more of this kind of argument in the coming days. Oh, and have a reply ready.

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“Offense and Criticism in the Marriage Debates” takes a meta-look at the attempt to shut down arguments against same-sex marriage under the banner of being offended by them.

The key realization is that offense operates within the realm of reason. When I am offended, I have not simply felt resentment, nor merely intuited a wrong; I have performed a cognitive act, namely, judging based on what seem to me to be good and understandable reasons for that act of judging. Whenever we make a judgment of fact (x is) or value (x ought to be), we commit ourselves to the truth and worth of our judgment. To do otherwise disqualifies us from reasonable discussion, as there would be no reason to be taken seriously if we did not claim that our judgment had worth.

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Maureen Dowd (predictably) mocks Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York for opposing same-sex marriage. George Weigel and Elizabeth Scalia are not amused. Meanwhile, Kathryn Jean Lopez notes the surprisingly positive coverage The Today Show gave Archbishop Dolan on a recent visit to Rome.

Successfully communicating Catholicism [or Christianity] is the same as it ever was: It’s about integrity. As Pope Benedict put it, “It must not be forgotten that believers’ style of life needs to be genuinely credible.” Even more eloquent than Archbishop Dolan’s words on The Today Show was the clear witness of his own humanity and faithful authenticity.

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“When Churches Play at Politics” helpfully explains why churches qua churches should steer clear of partisan politics:

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are not governing blueprints, ministers are not policy experts, and the church is not a place for political advocacy. It is a place to minister to souls, to heal wounds, and to dispense grace. So while ministers certainly have a First Amendment right to express their political views, they should realize that there are substantial costs when the faith to which they have declared their allegiance is seen, with some justification, as merely a tool of a specific political ideology or subordinate to a political party.

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God Wins is Mark Galli’s book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Christianity Today excerpts chapter 1, which deals with two kinds of questions (and Bell’s book is full of questions). Here’s something good to keep in mind about questions:

…questions driven by faith and questions driven by self-justification can sound very similar. Sometimes they can be identical in their wording, but they are not identical in their motives. A question can be grounded in trust in God’s goodness—or it can be a demand for a sign. God is pleased with the former, but not so pleased with the latter.

You can read my own review of Love Wins here.

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“Tiger Dads vs. Sexualized Daughters.” Good stuff for dads trying to raise wholesome daughters in a highly sexualized culture.

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Apropos of the previous post: “Women Who Lost Virginity Early More Likely to Divorce.” Parental choices have consequences in the lives of their children.

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“Fathers: Key to Their Children’s Faith”:

In short, if a father does not go to church-no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions-only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). One of the reasons suggested for this distinction is that children tend to take their cues about domestic life from Mom while their conceptions of the world outside come from Dad. If Dad takes faith in God seriously then the message to their children is that God should be taken seriously.

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“NBC apologizes for cutting ‘Under God’ from Pledge of Allegiance.” Actually, I think NBC left out the phrase, “one nation, under God.” Were they trying not to offend Southern sympathizers and atheists? Stupid, stupid, stupid! Although, to tell the truth, I was offended that NBC inserted a comment about the Masters in the middle of the pledge. Perhaps golf is the new religion that will unite our fractious nation…