Sunday, November 30, 2008

A flaw in comprehension

From The Paris Review, a long interview with Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead and, most recently, Home. She is a Christian and, at one point the intervewer asks her whether she thinks of herself as a "religious writer." Robinson answers "I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not." Later the interview turns to the relationship between religion and science:
ROBINSON
I read as much as I can of contemporary cosmology because reality itself is profoundly mysterious. Quantum theory and classical physics, for instance, are both lovely within their own limits and yet at present they cannot be reconciled with each other. If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.

INTERVIEWER
Are religion and science simply two systems that don’t merge?

ROBINSON
The debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side, many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.

INTERVIEWER
You’ve written critically about Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Is it their disdain for religion and championing of pure science that troubles you?

ROBINSON
No, I read as much pure science as I can take in. It’s a fact that their thinking does not feel scientific. The whole excitement of science is that it’s always pushing toward the discovery of something that it cannot account for or did not anticipate. The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.

The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

INTERVIEWER
But doesn’t science address an objective notion of reality while religion addresses how we conceive of ourselves?

ROBINSON
As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.

The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

Thanks to GetReligion for the reference.

The Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 198

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A day of Thanksgiving to God

Ira Stoll, author of Samuel Adams: A Life, writes about the first Thanksgiving - not the one most of us were taught to remember.
When was the first Thanksgiving? Most of us think of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621. But if the question is about the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the answer is that the tradition began at a lesser-known moment in 1777 in York, Pa.

In July 1776, the American colonists declared independence from Britain. The months that followed were so bleak that there was not much to give thanks for. The Journals of the Continental Congress record no Thanksgiving in that year, only two days of "solemn fasting" and prayer.

For much of 1777, the situation was not much better. British troops controlled New York City. The Americans lost the strategic stronghold of Fort Ticonderoga, in upstate New York, to the British in July. In Delaware, on Sept. 11, troops led by Gen. George Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine, in which 200 Americans were killed, 500 wounded and 400 captured. In Pennsylvania, early in the morning of Sept. 21, another 300 American soldiers were killed or wounded and 100 captured in a British surprise attack that became known as the Paoli Massacre.

Philadelphia, America's largest city, fell on Sept. 26. Congress, which had been meeting there, fled briefly to Lancaster, Pa., and then to York, a hundred miles west of Philadelphia. One delegate to Congress, John Adams of Massachusetts, wrote in his diary, "The prospect is chilling, on every Side: Gloomy, dark, melancholy, and dispiriting."

His cousin, Samuel Adams, gave the other delegates — their number had dwindled to a mere 20 from the 56 who had signed the Declaration of Independence — a talk of encouragement. He predicted, "Good tidings will soon arrive. We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid and protection." ....

He turned out to have been correct, at least about the good tidings. On Oct. 31, a messenger arrived with news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga. The American general, Horatio Gates, had accepted the surrender of 5,800 British soldiers, and with them 27 pieces of artillery and thousands of pieces of small arms and ammunition.

Saratoga turned the tide of the war - news of the victory was decisive in bringing France into a full alliance with America. Congress responded to the event by appointing a committee of three that included Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and Daniel Roberdeau of Pennsylvania, to draft a report and resolution. The report, adopted Nov. 1, declared Thursday, Dec. 18, as "a day of Thanksgiving" to God, so that "with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor." [more]
Sam Adams was one of the leading revolutionaries, a Christian, and, of interest especially to Seventh Day Baptists, a friend of Samuel Ward, and one of the appointed members of the committee that organized Ward's funeral.

'A Day of Thanksgiving' - WSJ.com

The gracious gifts of the Most High God

President Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation, October 3, 1863:
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A.D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Abraham Lincoln

By the President:
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State.
Thanks to Justin Taylor for the idea and the reference.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

With ever joyful hearts

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and bless├Ęd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

Mar­tin Rink­art, c. 1636

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Identifying the differences

In, I think, the spirit of the post immediately below, and of honest ecumenism, Stan Guthrie at Christianity Today, in "All Monotheisms Are Not Alike", suggests that the Apostles Creed is a good test of the differences between Islamic and Christian belief:
  • I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
While Muslims and Christians both ascribe omnipotence to the Creator, only in Christianity is he revealed as Father. "Christians," Timothy George has noted, "predicate something essential and irreducible about God that no Muslim can accept: We call him our heavenly Father."
  • I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
…Although our Muslim friends revere Jesus (calling him Isa) and believe he was born of a virgin and is coming again, they deny his divinity, saying he is one of many prophets. But Christians see him as the second person of the Godhead, in a community of love from all eternity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This is not just a theological disagreement. The deity of Christ is the sine qua non of Christian theology and mission. There is no salvation if Christ is not truly God and truly man. "No one who denies the Son has the Father," the disciple whom Jesus loved stated categorically. "Whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also."
  • … suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.
Most Muslims believe Jesus only appeared to die on the cross. They reason that God would never allow his prophet to suffer such ignominy. But Christianity holds that Christ's crucifixion, which is foolishness to Jew, Greek, and Muslim, atones for sin and offers peace with God. "And being found in appearance as a man," Paul said, "he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!"
  • On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Muslims deny the Resurrection and certainly don't believe that Isa can stand in God's place as judge. But Christians do, affirming Paul's confession that "every knee should bow" to Jesus, "the name that is above every name."
  • I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints …
Muslims also believe the Holy Spirit supported the ministry of Isa, but, being strict unitarians, they deny the Spirit's deity.
  • … the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Muslims have no assurance of salvation. According to Muslim scholar Abul A'la Maududi, "Man will stand by himself—helpless and alone—to render his account, and awake the pronouncement of judgment, which shall be in the power of God alone." This produces fear. Such fear should be alien to Christians, however, who believe that Christ intercedes for us, having entered the Most Holy Place, thus ensuring our firm hope: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God," says John, "so that you may know that you have eternal life."
Let the dialogue continue, but with the Apostles' Creed in hand. [more]

Monday, November 24, 2008

Can't we just disagree?

Alan Jacobs on Pope Benedict and the fruitlessness of most modern ecumenism:
... Pope Benedict XVI has aroused the consternation of the New York Times by appearing to “cast doubt on the possibility of interfaith dialogue.” The Vatican has been making soothing noises every since, but in fact Benedict was stressing a point that he has been making for a very long time: that the whole ecumenical movement of the twentieth century — which was originally focused on creating better understanding among various Christian groups but later morphed into “interreligious dialogue” — has never made much progress, and has never made much progress because it has assumed that the way you have to talk about people you disagree with is by talking largely, or wholly, about points of agreement. “Can we agree that Jesus is the only Son of God? Ummmm, okay . . . Well, can we agree that Jesus is important? Can we agree that there is a God? Wow . . . um, let’s see: Can we agree to support the U.N. Millennium Development Goals? Moved, seconded, passed!”

Benedict, having watched all this going on for many fruitless decades, wonders if we shouldn’t try holding the stick at the other end: what if we try talking about where we don’t agree, and see where that leads us? This violates every tenet — or perhaps the only tenet — of the ecumenical movement, so it’s not going to gain any traction among the professional ecumenists, but still, it’s an interesting and hopeful gesture.
when barry met sally | Culture | Politics | The American Scene

"Arrogant, impatient and insensitive"

Another blog analysis site, Typealyzer, categorizes One Eternal Day as belonging to:
INTP - The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.
I like being among "The Thinkers," but the second paragraph gives considerable pause for introspection and examination.

Typealyzer

Friday, November 21, 2008

Gender anxiety

I submitted One Eternal Day to GenderAnalyzer which attempts to determine the gender of a blog author from the content of the blog. [Or does it just read the name of the blogger?] It's right about me - but the inadequate degree of masculinity it assigns to me has to have been because so much of the content here is from other sources.

Thanks to Holy Coast [whose score is slightly lower than mine] for the idea, which I have stolen entire.

GenderAnalyzer - Determine if a homepage is written by a man or woman

Do some good

The Seventh Day Baptist Youth fellowship has a project: Bricks for Malawi
Funds are needed for bricks to build the maternity ward and three staff houses at the Thembe Health Centre. Malawi’s SDB General Secretary Nedd Lozani estimates it will take 300,000 bricks to finish the project.

Each brick costs 4 cents, U.S.

HOW MANY BRICKS CAN YOU BUY? [more]
Bricks for Malawi

Rediscovering the obvious

When a kid's life at home is chaotic, the school can provide order and direction. Early in the last century urban schools and settlement houses did just that for poor and immigrant children. Schools in middle class neighborhoods traditionally haven't had to do that because students came to them with a degree of purposefulness and direction. But as school populations change, old lessons need to be re-learned. Joanne Jacobs, in "Nagging for Success" reviews a study of inner-city schools that work.
.... In Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, David Whitman finds that ... [t]o give disadvantaged students a shot at college and mainstream success ... schools must teach “not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional middle-class values.”

Whitman looks at six secondary schools that are teaching both academic skills and work habits to low-income minority students.....

What unites the schools above all, though, is “a paternalistic ethos supporting a common school culture that prizes academic achievement.”

Whitman uses the term “paternalism” for a reason. Many of the students at these schools are being raised by single mothers (or grandmothers) who provide unconditional love at home. Maternalism they’ve already got. At the “new paternalistic” schools, authoritative, caring adults demand good behavior as a condition for approval, adopting the traditional father’s role. Paternalistic schools explicitly teach students how to walk in the halls, sit upright in class, listen to speakers, ask questions, take notes, collaborate with classmates, and study for tests. They also teach students to shake hands, tuck in their shirts, and speak courteously using standard English. Street slang is banned. In some cases, the schools support values that parents hold themselves but have trouble enforcing on their own. In other cases, Whitman writes, new paternalistic schools “tend to displace a piece of parents’ traditional role in transmitting values, serving at times in loco parentis.” ....

...The middle schools on Whitman’s list teach basic skills so that students are ready to tackle college-prep classes in high school. But staying on the college track can be tough for students who attend disorderly, do-your-own-thing high schools. ....[more]
Nagging for Success by Joanne Jacobs, City Journal 20 November 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"On His law he meditates day and night"

Long ago, in the '70s I think, I remember reading a book about "How to Meditate Without Leaving the World." In a time when there was intense interest in meditation - encouraged by John Lennon among others - it contrasted the meditative traditions of eastern religion with that of Christianity. Apparently saying "Ooom" and emptying the mind is still in vogue and, moreover, among Christians. Albert Mohler on "The Empty Promise of Meditation"
Should Christians practice meditation? An increasing number of Christians are trying or using Eastern meditation techniques in an effort to direct their spiritual lives. It is no longer shocking to see churches offering yoga and meditation classes, nor to hear some Christians talking about their walks in a labyrinth, time spent in meditation, or experiments with the latest borrowing from the East. ....

The Bible does speak positively about meditation. In the Psalms, David sings of meditating on the Law of God day and night. The biblical concept of meditation is not without reference to thought and content. To the contrary, it is about thinking that is directed by the Word of God - scripturally saturated thought.

This is almost the exact opposite of Eastern meditation, which sets the emptying of the mind as its goal. The Eastern concept of emptying the mind is just not anything close to the biblical vision of filling the mind with the Word of God. ....

Without question, we should meditate upon the Word of God. This should be a part of our regular and constant spiritual discipline. But, this kind of meditation does not lead to an empty mind, nor to the sense of an empty mind, but to a mind constantly more directed by Scripture. .... [more]

The Empty Promise of Meditation

Long overdue

Long, long overdue, but welcome nonetheless, a "Statement about Race at Bob Jones University":
At Bob Jones University, Scripture is our final authority for faith and practice and it is our intent to have it govern all of our policies. It teaches that God created the human race as one race. History, reality and Scripture affirm that in that act of creation was the potential for great diversity, manifested today by the remarkable racial and cultural diversity of humanity. Scripture also teaches that this beautiful, God-caused and sustained diversity is divinely intended to incline mankind to seek the Lord and depend on Him for salvation from sin (Acts 17:24–28).

The true unity of humanity is found only through faith in Christ alone for salvation from sin—in contrast to the superficial unity found in humanistic philosophies or political points of view. For those made new in Christ, all sinful social, cultural and racial barriers are erased (Colossians 3:11), allowing the beauty of redeemed human unity in diversity to be demonstrated through the Church. ....

Bob Jones University has existed since 1927 as a private Christian institution of higher learning for the purpose of helping young men and women cultivate a biblical worldview, represent Christ and His Gospel to others, and glorify God in every dimension of life.

BJU’s history has been chiefly characterized by striving to achieve those goals; but like any human institution, we have failures as well. For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.

In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. ....
Statement about Race at Bob Jones University ~ BJU

What we don't know

ISI offers a Civics Quiz which you can take here: Civics Quiz
Are you more knowledgeable than the average citizen? The average score for all 2,508 Americans taking the following test was 49%; college educators scored 55%. Can you do better? Questions were drawn from past ISI surveys, as well as other nationally recognized exams.
My score: "You answered 32 out of 33 correctly — 96.97%" - but I should have scored 100%, after all I used to teach the stuff. Take the quiz here: Civics Quiz

Civic Literacy Report - Civics Quiz

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pictures

Time Warner is making available Life's entire archive of pictures: LIFE photo archive hosted by Google. They can be used by anyone, free, so long as the use is non-profit. According to the AP:
The new service, available at http://images.google.com/hosted/life, debuted Tuesday with about 2 million photos. Eventually, Google plans to scan all 10 million photos from Life's library so they can be viewed on any computer with an Internet connection.

About 97 percent of Life's archives have not been publicly seen, according to Life.

The photos can be printed out for free as long as they aren't being used as part of an attempt to make money. Time Warner Inc., Life's parent company, hopes to make money by selling high-resolution, framed prints. The orders will be processed through Qoop.com.

Life's archives include photos from the Civil War as well as some of the most memorable moments from the 20th century, including the Zapruder film capturing John F. Kennedy's assassination.
There are many images from before the Time/Life era. The locomotive was photographed in 1900. The general is William Tecumseh Sherman from the Civil War and William Marcy Tweed bossed Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine in New York City. This is going to be a wonderful resource for students and teachers of American history [I taught US History to high school students for many years]. It is fun to just browse among them. Go to the site! To get some sense of the quality of the images, just click on the examples I've posted here.

Thanks to Ryan Sayre Patrico at First Things for the references.

LIFE photo archive hosted by Google

Obama's beliefs

We have a new President - and he will be the only President we have for at least four years. There has been an active discussion throughout his candidacy, and especially recently, about Barack Obama's religious convictions. Is he a Christian?

Our best President, Abraham Lincoln, was of doubtful Christian orthodoxy, and some of the worst Presidents regularly attended worship in undoubtedy orthodox churches. There is no obvious correlation between Christian belief and political wisdom. I agree with the quotation, often inaccurately attributed to Luther, that "I'd rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian," and so don't require doctrinal correctness from my political leaders. Concern about Barack Obama's status as a Christian should not be about politics. I very much doubt that I am going to be very pleased with his Presidency, but the reasons will, I suspect, have little to do with his religious convictions. If Mitt Romney were President it would be the same. The only issue for public service is what implication beliefs may have for the determination of public policy.

Daniel Larison, commenting on what we know about Obama's beliefs, makes this observation:
...Ultimately, the inquiry into Obama’s faith does not tell us much that we didn’t already know, which is that he is a liberal Protestant with an accordingly poor grounding in theological orthodoxy. I have to wonder how much power this critique has unless it is made as part of a general argument for theological conservatism in public life.
All of this discussion is based on an interview Obama gave four years ago to Chicago Sun-Times religion reporter Cathleen Falsani, who asked him some very direct questions about his personal religious beliefs. The entire interview can be found reprinted here and Sarah Pulliam has excerpted some of the relevent portions:
FALSANI: Who’s Jesus to you? (Obama laughs nervously)

OBAMA: Right. Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher. And he’s also a wonderful teacher. I think it’s important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history.

On Sin

FALSANI: What is sin?

OBAMA: Being out of alignment with my values.

FALSANI: What happens if you have sin in your life?

OBAMA: I think it’s the same thing as the question about heaven. In the same way that if I’m true to myself and my faith that that is its own reward, when I’m not true to it, it’s its own punishment.

On Hell

Obama: …There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they’re going to hell.

FALSANI: You don’t believe that?

OBAMA: I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.

I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity. That’s just not part of my religious makeup.

On Heaven

FALSANI: Do you believe in heaven?

OBAMA: Do I believe in the harps and clouds and wings?

FALSANI: A place spiritually you go to after you die?

OBAMA: What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.
There has been a lot of comment on the interview. Several bloggers who did so are quoted and linked here. One of them, Ross Douthat:
.... Given the muddled way in which most Americans approach religion, and the pervasiveness of heterodoxy, I suppose I'm basically with Alan Jacobs: I think that figuring out exactly what sort of things Obama believes about God and Christ and everything else, and how those beliefs may affect his Presidency, is ultimately a more profitable pursuit than arguing about whether he should be allowed to call himself a Christian. Or put another way: I expect my Presidents to be heretics, but I think it matters a great deal what kind of heretics they are.
Obama's Fascinating Interview with Cathleen Falsani | Politics | Christianity Today, Presidents and Heretics - Ross Douthat, Between Two Worlds: Obama's Heterodoxy, Eunomia » Faith And Doctrine

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It's about faithfulness

Jared Wilson deplores the emphasis on numerical growth at the expense of discipleship, worship, evangelism and service:
The megachurches are growing, but the Church is not. Isn't that telling us something? Doesn't that say that all this emphasis on getting big isn't working? It's sucking in consumerist Christians happy with our bells and whistles, but our discipleship is failing, our evangelism is failing, our savoring the supremacy of Christ is failing, our loving our neighbors is failing, our exalting the God of the Universe is failing, not because those things are failures but because we aren't doing those things.

I love Acts 2. I'm not gonna trot out the "It's descriptive, not prescriptive" card, but I will at least mention that a lot of the leaders clinging to "And God added to their number daily" are subtracting the entire rest of the book where the apostles were boldly preaching the gospel, commanding shared-life community, and explicitly exalting the glory of God. They didn't put on a seeker service. ....

Is this jealousy? Am I anti- big churches? Nope. There are just as many, if not more, big churches where the gospel is preached and the community is being discipled and is loving their neighbors as there are small churches that suck on all the things that matter.

And that's my point. It's not about numbers. It's about faithfulness. It's about pastors pastoring and the whole community worshiping. It's about health. It's about following Jesus. It's about trusting God.

Whether you're a tall, grande, or venti church, if your overriding concern is numbers, you're an idolatrous church. [more]

The Gospel-Driven Church: Numerolatry and the Church

Homesick at home

In an interview about the hundredth anniversary of Orthodoxy Lyle Dorsett describes how Chesterton helped him find peace:
I read Orthodoxy at the urging of one of my students at the University of Denver. I was an agnostic, and he was keen on pointing me to Jesus Christ. Although I was quite taken by Chesterton's section on the madness of self-reliance, this "homesick at home" argument absolutely shook the foundation of philosophic materialism I stood on. Materialism was my foundation, but it was never comfortable. Indeed, I never rested there. When Chesterton said that after he became a Christian he finally knew why he always felt he had been homesick at home, the light went on. I recognized that this "longing" for home had driven me to continually seek a more comfortable place to live and companions who could bring me happiness and fulfillment. In fact, the University of Denver was my fifth professional move in seven years. Prior to reading Chesterton, I had begun to assume that I would never find contentment and therefore must settle for a degree of inner desperation. Chesterton, and eventually C. S. Lewis, who admirably addressed the same theme, helped me see that heaven is my home, and Jesus Christ has prepared a place for me there. Oh what blessed hope and peace. [the interview]
One Hundred Years of Wit and Wisdom | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Chronological arrogance

Alan Jacobs corrects some remarkably persistent errors about what our ancestors believed:
... take the still-quite-common belief that people in the Middle Ages, guided by Biblical literalism, believed that the world is flat — Doesn’t the Bible say something about the four corners of the earth? — and had to be corrected by Christopher Columbus and other great navigators of the Renaissance. My friend and colleague Tim Larsen was even at a church once which featured a series of apologies for bad things Christians have done in the past, and one of them was for teaching that the earth was flat.

However, this is nonsense. You can go all the way back to the seventh century and scholars like the Venerable Bede knew perfectly well that the world is spherical. The meme that medieval Christians taught the flatness of the earth was generated by a couple of anti-Christian polemicists in the latter part of the nineteenth century. And by the way, the scholar who made this scam generally known was no devout Christian: it was Stephen Jay Gould.

....[I]n a recent review in the New Yorker of a biography of the Renaissance Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, the wonderful Joan Acocella writes of Bruno’s acceptance of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory of the solar system, and comments on the Catholic Church’s resistance to it: “the Church needed the Earth, the arena of salvation, to be the center of the universe.” ....

Of course it’s reasonable to assume that the medieval cosmology placed Earth at the center of the cosmos because of its importance, but the assumption is wrong. The old Ptolemaic system is built around the idea of the “music of the spheres,” the great celestial harmony created when the planets move in their great dance — and the Earth is the only place not dancing. As C. S. Lewis put it in a long-ago attempt to correct the error that Acocella and countless others are still making, the Earth is “the point at which all the light, heat and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity.”

The center of the medieval cosmos is not the most important place, but the stillest and deadest place, the place farthest from the full presence of God in the Empyrean. And if you doubt this, just read Dante’s Inferno: there the Earth is at the center of the cosmos, and what’s at the center of the Earth? Satan — who has fled there to escape as best he can from the Divine Presence that he loathes.

We moderns like the idea that medieval Christians believed that they were the most important beings in the whole cosmos, because we like thinking that our ancestors were more arrogant than we are. But come on: has anyone ever been more arrogant than we are?

centering | Culture | The American Scene

Friday, November 14, 2008

Pray for the persecuted

Christianity Today quotes from a report about the persecution of Christians in India:
  • In Orissa State, 65 identified people have been killed and 85 are still unaccounted for. Among those killed were one man buried alive near the village of Rudangla; several people burnt to death and others cut into pieces.
  • 117 churches of all Christian denominations destroyed. Not a single Hindu temple has been destroyed – despite allegations of retaliation by Christians.
  • Approximately 5,000 homes destroyed.
  • An unspecified number of Christian businesses destroyed, with the loss of livelihood for their owners.
  • 54,000 people displaced from their homes, forced to take shelter in 14 State-sponsored Relief Camps in Kandhamal District; together with many hundreds living in non-State camps, including 2 ‘camps’ in densely overcrowded buildings in Cuttsack town.
  • It is estimated that about 20,000 are still living in the jungle or have fled to big cities. Some may be living with relatives elsewhere.
  • In addition to the violence in Kandhamal District, 2 other Districts, Japati and Baragras District, have also experienced similar atrocities, including killings, looting and burning of churches and homes. 2 Relief camps have been established for approximately 2,700 people who have had to flee their homes.
India's Anti-Christian Violence | Liveblog | Christianity Today

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"If God does not exist..."

In a Christianity Today article titled "God Is Not Dead Yet," William Lane Craig describes an interesting development among academic philosophers:
The renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in natural theology, that branch of theology that seeks to prove God's existence apart from divine revelation. The goal of natural theology is to justify a broadly theistic worldview, one that is common among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and deists. While few would call them compelling proofs, all of the traditional arguments for God's existence, not to mention some creative new arguments, find articulate defenders today.
He summarizes five of them, including "The moral argument":
A number of ethicists, such as Robert Adams, William Alston, Mark Linville, Paul Copan, John Hare, Stephen Evans, and others have defended "divine command" theories of ethics, which support various moral arguments for God's existence. One such argument:
  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
By objective values and duties, one means values and duties that are valid and binding independent of human opinion. A good many atheists and theists alike concur with premise (1). For given a naturalistic worldview, human beings are just animals, and activity that we count as murder, torture, and rape is natural and morally neutral in the animal kingdom. Moreover, if there is no one to command or prohibit certain actions, how can we have moral obligations or prohibitions?

Premise (2) might seem more disputable, but it will probably come as a surprise to most laypeople to learn that (2) is widely accepted among philosophers. For any argument against objective morals will tend to be based on premises that are less evident than the reality of moral values themselves, as apprehended in our moral experience. Most philosophers therefore do recognize objective moral distinctions.

Nontheists will typically counter the moral argument with a dilemma: Is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good? The first alternative makes good and evil arbitrary, whereas the second makes the good independent of God. Fortunately, the dilemma is a false one. Theists have traditionally taken a third alternative: God wills something because he is good. That is to say, what Plato called "the Good" is the moral nature of God himself. God is by nature loving, kind, impartial, and so on. He is the paradigm of goodness. Therefore, the good is not independent of God.

Moreover, God's commandments are a necessary expression of his nature. His commands to us are therefore not arbitrary but are necessary reflections of his character. This gives us an adequate foundation for the affirmation of objective moral values and duties.
Craig is co-editor of the The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology

Thanks to Gene Edward Veith for the reference.

God Is Not Dead Yet | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Children's books

Dad read stories to me until I could read for myself, and even then. Apparently I told him that I could hear better when he was reading. We lived across the street from the local library and once I had read my way through the children's books, I started on adult fiction, and then history, and on and on. I miss the ability I once had to become so totally inside a story that the outside world for a time ceased to be. The love of reading and the skill of reading go together. Wanting to read is the result of hearing good stories and knowing there are more. Reading well, like every other skill, is the result of practice — of doing it a lot. The child who loves to read is blessed.

Joseph Bottum considers "Children’s Books, Lost and Found", how that category came to be, the books thought of as "children's books," and suggests some additions and deletions from the canon.
...[T]he Victorians ... invented the idea of needing books specifically for children.

This meant, of course, that they had no such books to start with, and so, early in the nineteenth century, they pressed into service a number of adult books that have remained in the shared children’s canon ever since: Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Robin­son Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, and so on. ....

... Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, and Oliver Twist were not written for children, though they quickly be­came identified as children’s books. Genre fiction has always had a tendency to slide down the scale from popular adult book to children’s classic. Many Victorian and Edwardian stories made this move from the grown-ups’ shelves to the juvenile section— Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Count of Monte Cristo, King Solomon’s Mines, The Prisoner of Zenda—but the same process was at work as late as The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954.

Fairly quickly, however, the Victorians realized they also needed to start writing from scratch the stories they wanted for their children. Many of these books have fallen by the wayside—sometimes fairly (good riddance to Mrs. Molesworth’s prim moralizing and W.H.G. Kingston’s fatuous adventures) and sometimes unfairly (Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe is superior Christian storytelling, and G.A. Henty’s boy histories deserve to be revived). Still, a few of those early and mid-Victorian volumes survive: Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, for example, together with Pinocchio, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and Alice in Wonderland.

The real push, however, came with the late Victorians and the Edwardians. Think of all the books from this era that you’ve read and given as Christmas presents, over and over again. Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. The Wizard of Oz and The Wind in the Willows. Peter Pan and Anne of Green Gables. Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbit, A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson: This was the golden age of children’s books.

A few stray volumes got added in later years. The 1935 Little House on the Prairie, for example, though it was set in an earlier time. A sort of silver age is often said to have begun with C.S. Lewis’ 1950 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and continued through Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey in 1961 and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time in 1962. Dr. Seuss found his legs in this era, publishing both How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat in 1957. Three nearly perfect and underrated books arrived in 1956 alone: Dodie Smith’s Hundred and One Dalmatians (better than the movie versions), Nora Johnson’s The World of Henry Orient (much better than the movie version), and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.....
Bottum believes the Harry Potter books were a very good thing and that we are now living in a new "golden age" of children's books. He closes his essay with some suggestions:
Want some Christmas presents to give this year, books you may not know well, drawn from our new canon of children’s literature? Start with the Victoriana of Charlotte Yonge’s serious The Heir of Redclyffe and Lucretia Peabody Hale’s comic Peterkin Papers. Then move to Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals and the poems in X.J. Kennedy’s Brats. And end with some of the great newer stories: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Lives of Christopher Chant, for instance, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Any of them can sit unembarrassed beside The Wind in the Willows and The Just So Stories and Treasure Island and The Tailor of Gloucester—all the books we’ve somehow always known. [read it all]
If you love books, you may well find some noted here that you missed. I did. C.S. Lewis wrote that "No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond."

Update, 11/18 - Today John Piper included this quotation from C.S. Lewis about writing children's books:
I was therefore writing “for children” only in the sense that I excluded what I thought they would not like or understand; not in the sense of writing what I intended to be below adult attention. I may of course have been deceived, but the principle at least saves one from being patronizing. I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.
FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, Kid's Books for Grownups

Sunday, November 9, 2008

He gives power to the faint

On the anniversary of her grandmother's death Noel Piper remembers her faith and witness and also that - at the end - her suffering caused her to wonder whether she was a Christian: "Surely, she thought, if my faith were true and strong, God wouldn’t have let me come to this—too sick and weak to get out of bed. Maybe, she thought, my whole life has been a lie." Now, twenty-eight years later, she describes the lesson her grandmother's experience taught her. It is an important lesson for each of us as our parents grow old and as we are made increasingly aware of our own weakness and vulnerability:
.... Though Satan is never stronger than Jesus, he may seem stronger when we become weaker. When we are weak and sick and old, we may be the most vulnerable of any other time in our lives. And considering that our enemy is wily as a serpent waiting for an opportune moment to strike, perhaps the saints who have remained the strongest throughout life face the greatest temptation when finally they are weak.

I write about Grandmother today for 3 reasons:
  1. Every one of us is older than we used to be, and as more time passes, we will probably become weaker. We need to be on guard against the sneaky lies of our enemy.
  2. We know or will know someone who needs encouragement when life closes in and he or she loses sight of the God who has been known well and trusted deeply until now.
  3. As someone we love draws closer to death, we must never give up praying that God preserve faith strong to the end.
And I—now a grandmother myself—urge you to hide this assurance in your heart:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
[John 10:27-30]
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
[Psalm 73:26]

A Giant In My Life :: Desiring God

Friday, November 7, 2008

StumbleUpon

On a normal day this site gets seventy or eighty visits - about eight or nine return visits each day. But one of my posts, a re-posting of some information about J.R.R. Tolkien's reaction to Nazi antisemitism, was recently linked by StumbleUpon and the result was twenty three thousand visits in about four days. Today, though, things are pretty much back to normal.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Gospel politics

Should Christians be involved in politics? If you read what I post here, you will already know that I think involvement in political action, like our behavior in every other part of life, should be motivated and guided by our faith, applied as conscientiously as we are able. We are subjects of a Sovereign Lord and citizens of a particular country in a particular time. In an article titled "Aliens and Citizens" at Christianity Today, Jordan Hylden discusses the tension. Two short excerpts from a very good essay:
.... Christians have always been caught in the tension between the city of God and the city of man, and negotiating the claims of the two in this already-but-not-yet world of ours has never been easy. But difficult as it may be, no less an authority than Jesus told us that we have to try: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's." Some Christians argue that the gospel is too large if it gets involved in politics, while others (such as liberation theologians) argue that the gospel is too small if it is not first and foremost political. But thinking rightly about gospel politics means not letting either side of the biblical paradox go. ....

The trick is never forgetting where we come from, where our true homeland lies, and which Sovereign we ultimately serve. The second-century Letter to Diognetus described the Christian life in the world this way: "They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. ... They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven."

It's not a bad way to put it. "In this world we have no abiding city," as Scripture tells us—but so long as we are here, our call is to work and pray that our Father's will be done "on earth as it is in heaven." That's gospel politics. [more]
Aliens and Citizens | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

James...brother of Jesus

Biblical Archeology Review reports that the Israeli prosecution in the forgery case is going to lose and that, in all likelihood, the inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," on the "James Ossuary" is authentic.
The “forgery trial of the century” has all but blown up. The trial judge who will decide the case—there are no juries in Israel—has told the prosecution to consider dropping the case. “Not every case ends in the way that you think it will when you start,” Judge Aharon Farkash told prosecutor Adi Damti in open court. “Maybe we can save ourselves the rest,” the judge told her.

In the most recent embarrassment for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the government’s star witness, Yuval Goren, former chairman of Tel Aviv University’s institute of archaeology, was forced to admit on cross-examination that there is original ancient patina in the word “Jesus,” the last word in the inscription that reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” .... [more]
Supporters of James Ossuary Inscription’s Authenticity Vindicated | Daily Bible and Archaeology News

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Will we defend the "smallest...and most vulnerable"?

Robert P. George on "When Life Begins":
When does the life of a human individual begin? Although the question is of obvious importance for our public policy debates over abortion and embryonic-stem-cell research, politicians have avoided it like the plague. ....

Treating the question as some sort of grand mystery, or expressing or feigning uncertainty about it, may be politically expedient, but it is intellectually indefensible. Modern science long ago resolved the question. We actually know when the life of a new human individual begins. ....

Your life began, as did the life of every other human being, when the fusion of egg and sperm produced a new, complete, living organism — an embryonic human being. You were never an ovum or a sperm cell, those were both functionally and genetically parts of other human beings — your parents. But you were once an embryo, just as you were once an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus. By an internally directed process, you developed from the embryonic stage into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of development and ultimately into adulthood with your determinateness, unity, and identity fully intact. You are the same being — the same human being — who once was an embryo.

It is true that each of us, in the embryonic and fetal stages of development, were dependent on our mothers, but we were not maternal body parts. Though dependent, we were distinct individual human beings. That is why physicians who treat pregnant women know that they are caring not for one patient, but for two. (Of course, in cases of twins and triplets physicians are caring for more than two!) ....

...[T]he debate over when human life begins has never been about the biological facts. It has been about the value we ascribe to human beings at the dawn of their lives. When we debate questions of abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, we are not really disagreeing about whether human embryos are human beings. The scientific evidence is simply too overwhelming for there to be any real debate on this point. What is at issue in these debates is the question of whether we ought to respect and defend human beings in the earliest stages of their lives. In other words, the question is not about scientific facts; it is about the nature of human dignity and the equality of human beings.

On one side are those who believe that human beings have dignity and rights by virtue of their humanity. They believe that all human beings, irrespective not only of race, ethnicity, and sex, but also irrespective of age, size, and stage of development, are equal in fundamental worth and dignity. The right to life is a human right — therefore all human beings, from the point at which they come into being (conception) to the point at which they cease to be (death), possess it.

On the other side are those who believe that those human beings who have worth and dignity have them in virtue of having achieved a certain level of development. They deny that all human beings have worth and dignity and hold that a distinction should be drawn between those human beings who have achieved the status of “personhood” and those (such as embryos, fetuses, and, according to some, infants and severely retarded or demented individuals) whose status is that of human non-persons. ....

In view of the established facts of human embryogenesis and early intrauterine development, the real question is not whether human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages are human beings. Plainly they are. The question is whether we will honor or abandon our civilizational and national commitment to the equal worth and dignity of all human beings — even the smallest, youngest, weakest, and most vulnerable. [more]

When Life Begins by Robert P. George on National Review Online