Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Preach the gospel at all times...."

Aaron Rogers, asked in a radio interview how, given the controversy over Tim Tebow, he feels about publicly sharing his faith:
"Well I started playing before Tim, so these are things I’ve thought about for a long time, and I think one thing that I try to look at when I was a younger player, and I mean, in high school, junior college, and Division I, I was always interested in seeing how guys talked in their interviews, talked about their faith, or didn’t talk about their faith. And then the reactions at time, I know Bob Costas at one point was critical about a player thanking Jesus Christ after a win, questioning what would happen if that player had lost, or do you really think God cares about winning and losing. That's all to say that I feel like my stance and my desire has always been to follow a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, who said, 'Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.' So basically, I’m not an over-the-top, or an in-your-face kind of guy with my faith. I would rather people have questions about why I act the way I act, whether they view it as positive or not, and ask questions, and then given an opportunity at some point, then you can talk about your faith a little bit. I firmly believe, just personally, what works for me, and what I enjoy doing is letting my actions speak about the kind of character that I want to have, and following that quote from St. Francis.’’
And Kurt Warner's advice to Tebow:
"You can't help but cheer for a guy like that," Warner told the newspaper. "But I'd tell him, 'Put down the boldness in regards to the words, and keep living the way you're living. Let your teammates do the talking for you. Let them cheer on your testimony.

"I know what he's going through, and I know what he wants to accomplish, but I don't want anybody to become calloused toward Tim because they don't understand him, or are not fully aware of who he is. And you're starting to see that a little bit. ....

"There's almost a faith cliche, where (athletes) come out and say, 'I want to thank my Lord and savior,' " Warner told The Republic. "As soon as you say that, the guard goes up, the walls go up, and I came to realize you have to be more strategic.

"The greatest impact you can have on people is never what you say, but how you live. When you speak and represent the person of Jesus Christ in all actions of your life, people are drawn to that. You set the standard with your actions. The words can come after."
Update 12/2: Apparently the quotation from St. Francis is bogus. Mark Galli:
I've heard the quote once too often. It's time to set the record straight—about the quote, and about the gospel.

Francis of Assisi is said to have said, "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."

This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much, and live the gospel too little. Fair enough—that can be a problem. Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it.

The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age. .... [more]

The pagan origin of Christmas?

As we begin Advent it seemed to me appropriate to once again remind my Christian friends that there is nothing wrong with celebrating the Season. Re-posted from December 5, 2008:

In 2003 Touchstone published "Calculating Christmas", by William Tighe. Since, every now and then, people appear in our churches who fall into the category he defines as "the fringes of American Evangelicalism" and vehemently oppose Christmas or some aspect of its traditional observance, and since atheists are also apt to charge that the day is really a pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, the article may be helpful in setting the record straight. Read it all.
Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.

In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes. [the explanation]
The conclusion:
Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. ....
The Biblical Archaeology Review provides "How December 25 Became Christmas," indicating that the date probably owes more to certain Jewish customs than to any pagan influence.

Touchstone Archives: Calculating Christmas

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The unfortunate influence of John Stuart Mill

Roger Kimball contends that John Stuart Mill's On Liberty won the war of public opinion even though it had been effectively refuted by James Fitzjames Stephen. "Sifting and winnowing" doesn't always work.
.... Mill’s essay was ostensibly about the relation between individual freedom and society. Mill famously argued that the only grounds on which society was justified in exercising control over its members, whether that control be in the form of “legal penalties” or simply “the moral coercion of public opinion,” was to “prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
James Fitzjames Stephen

This part of Mill’s argument quickly attracted searching criticism. The British judge James Fitzjames Stephen, for example, went to the heart of the problem when he observed that Mill assumed that “some acts regard the agent only, and that some regard other people. In fact, by far the most important part of our conduct regards both ourselves and others.” As for withholding “the moral coercion of public opinion,” Stephen observed that “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.”

Stephen’s criticisms of Mill were published in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which appeared about a decade after On Liberty. Many of the criticisms are devastating. Intellectually, Stephen made mincemeat of Mill. But that has hardly mattered. Mill’s doctrines have taken the world by storm, while Stephen has receded to become a footnote in intellectual history.

Why? One reason is that Mill said things that people wanted to hear. Mill seemed to be giving people a permanent vacation from the moral dictates of society. How often have you heard the argument “It’s not hurting anyone else” put forward as a justification for self-indulgence?

But it was not simply what he said about the relation between individual freedom and social control that made On Liberty such an influential tract. Much more important was the attitude, the emotional weather, of the book.

On Liberty is only incidentally a defense of individual freedom. Its deeper purpose is to transform the way we regard established morality and conventional behavior as such. In brief, Mill taught us to be suspicious of established morality not because what it says is wrong (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t) but simply because it is established.

Think about that. The tradition that Mill opposed celebrated custom and established morality precisely because they had prevailed and given good service through the vicissitudes of time and change; their longevity was an important token of their worthiness.

John Stuart Mill
Mill overturned this traditional view. Henceforth, the customary, the conventional was suspect not because it had failed but simply because if was customary and conventional. Consider, to take but one example, what has happened to the word “prejudice.” When was the last time you heard it used in a neutral or positive sense? And yet originally “prejudice” simply meant to prejudge something according to conventional wisdom. It was in this sense, for example, that Edmund Burke extolled prejudice, writing that “prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit. . . . Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”

Mill was instrumental in getting us to associate “prejudice” indelibly with “bigotry.” He wanted to take the wisdom out of the phrase “conventional wisdom.” He repeatedly argued against the “despotism of custom” — not because it was despotic, but simply because it was customary. ....

The fate of Mill’s teaching harbors a number of important lessons. One lesson concerns the relative weakness of reasoned arguments when they are pitted against a doctrine that exercises great emotional appeal. Critics like James Fitzjames Stephen and David Stove pointed out fatal weaknesses in Mill’s teaching about freedom. By any disinterested standard, Mill lost the argument. But he won the battle for our hearts and allegiance. If you think that is a merely academic phenomenon, consider the recent career of the phrase “hope and change.” .... [more]

Monday, November 28, 2011

Danger signs

Danger signs in church leadership. Each point is elaborated in the original post:
One or two of these in isolated instances are likely handle-able. A pattern of any one or any combination of these signs in a pastor or the leadership culture of a church likely indicate a stalled or dying movement.
  1. Insulation from criticism and/or interpretation of any criticism as attacks or insubordination.
  2. Paranoia about who is and who isn't in line.
  3. Need to micromanage or hold others back from leadership opportunities or other responsibilities.
  4. Impulse to horde credit and shift blame.
  5. Progression has become reaction.

"And lo...."

Even in the '60s the networks were completely clueless about the American people. From "The Gospel According to Peanuts":
.... Few headlines about network television make me giddy. Fewer still make me hopeful that all is good in the world. But back in August of 2010, I read the following headline from the media pages with great excitement: "Charlie Brown Is Here to Stay: ABC Picks Up Peanuts Specials Through 2015." The first of these to be made, the famous Christmas special, was an instant classic when it was created by Charles Schulz on a shoestring budget back in 1965, and thanks to some smart television executives, it will be around for at least another five years for all of us to see and enjoy.

What people don't know is that the Christmas special almost didn't happen, because some not-so-smart television executives almost didn't let it air. You see, Charles Schulz had some ideas that challenged the way of thinking of those executives 46 years ago, and one of them had to do with the inclusion in his Christmas cartoon of a reading from the King James Bible’s version of the Gospel of Luke. ....

...[T]he executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. The network orthodoxy of the time assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Bible. ....

As Charlie Brown sinks into a state of despair trying to find the true meaning of Christmas, Linus quietly saves the day. He walks to center of the stage where the Peanuts characters have gathered, and under a narrow spotlight, quotes the second chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, verses 8 through 14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.
.... And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown, Linus concluded. ....

When CBS executives saw the final product, they were horrified. They believed the special would be a complete flop. CBS programmers were equally pessimistic, informing the production team, "We will, of course, air it next week, but I'm afraid we won't be ordering any more."

The half-hour special aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965, preempting The Munsters and following Gilligan's Island. To the surprise of the executives, 50 percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in to the first broadcast. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit; it won an Emmy and a Peabody award. .... (more)
The Gospel According to Peanuts - National Review Online

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How do we know what we know?

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus." [Boswell: Life of Samuel Johnson]
Tom Gilson summarizes the thesis of Alvin Plantinga's new book in the title of his review: "There’s No Good Argument For Design, But Who Needs One?" His description of Plantinga's argument reminded me of the exchange between Boswell and Samuel Johnson quoted above. Gilson on Plantinga:
.... Plantinga’s specialty is in epistemology, the philosophical study of how we know, and how we know that we know. He applies this to the question of whether we can know that nature is intelligently designed, just by examining it. Following detailed and rather technical discussions....he concludes that the arguments in favor of design are not compelling. ....

That argument swings both ways, of course. If Plantinga is right, and if there is no good argument for God in nature’s design, there is also no good argument against God in nature. Plantinga mentions that in this context but he does not dwell much on it. ....

...[I]f there is no design argument, does that mean no design, and no designer? No. For Plantinga it’s much simpler than an argument. Design is just apparent in the world. We can see it, as we can see that the world wasn’t created intact in its current form just five minutes ago, that our memories are at least somewhat trustworthy, that there are other people (other minds) in the world besides ourselves. No argument could prove these things true, yet we know them trustworthy knowledge regardless. These are “basic beliefs:” things we know without having to call upon a string of inferences to support that knowledge.

We can see design just as clearly, says Plantinga.
The same goes if you are on a voyage of space exploration, land on some planet which has an earth-like atmosphere, but about which nothing or next-to-nothing is known, and come across an object that looks more or less like a 1929 Model T Ford. You would certainly see this object as designed; you would not engage in probabilistic arguments about how likely it is that there should be an object like this that was not designed.
(The emphasis is added.) Of course Plantinga knows that perception of this sort can be mistaken. He goes on to analyze ways we can judge whether it is mistaken.... [more]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Truer truth

Peter Wehner on why the response to Penn State demonstrates the reality of moral law:
...[T]he near-universal condemnation toward Penn State is a healthy sign. It demonstrates that moral relativism, while trendy in some quarters, is ultimately unserious, and that even a culture that can idolize non-judgmentalism has its limits.

We all recognize a moral law, whether we admit it or not. Everyone you know believes raping young boys is wrong. Let C.S. Lewis take it from here. "The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard," Lewis wrote, "saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other; the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are in fact comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people's ideas get nearer to that real Right than others."

Professor Lewis went on to say, "If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something — some Real Morality — for them to be true about.

That fact that we don’t always act on Real Morality might be an indication of lack of courage or of not seeing what makes us uncomfortable. But on reflection, we all know these are moral failures on our part.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A "thinking worshiper"

On November 22, 1963 C.S. Lewis died, the news of his death entirely overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy that same day. Jared Wilson writes today about "Three Things I've Learned from Lewis." Two of the three:
1. Wonder. My first introduction to Lewis was not the Chronicles of Narnia, actually, but as a child, Out of the Silent Planet. It was completely weird and wonderful. When I got to Narnia shortly thereafter — I was about 8 or so, probably — I consumed each book one after another lustily, like a compendium of Turkish delight. ....

2. Reason. Even Lewis's fiction is chock-full of logic. "Don't they teach that in schools any more?" the Professor says to the Pevensies when they don't believe Lucy's fantastic story. Lewis's faith was full of wonder but was, also, entirely reasonable, and in the 80's when the apologetic industry was dominated by Josh McDowell and burgeoning creation science (Lee Strobel hadn't hit the scene just yet), I was ingesting The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity. And probably the most influential non-fiction work of his for me is his collection of essays named after "God in the Dock." The article "Myth Became Fact" is one of my all-time favorite short pieces, fiction or non, and offered a complementary weight to one of my favorite lines in Perelandra, which I quote probably way too much in all the stuff I write. (Ransom understood that myth is "gleams of celestial beauty and strength falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.") Lewis helped me make sense of this polytheistic, pluralistic world. His classic trilemma in Mere Christianity just made sense. His own logic and reason is not airtight of course, but he approached Christianity not just as a worshiper but as a thinking worshiper, and he therefore becomes an invaluable asset for relentlessly scrutinizing young men and women who are sorting out their faith. ....

"Emotion, rhetorical persuasion, and social pressure"

Jonathan Leeman doesn't do altar calls and explains why not and what he does instead:
...[W]hy wouldn't I give an altar call? In short, I believe that this particular man-made practice, this 19th-century innovation, has produced more bad than good for Christian churches in the West. The altar call relies on the powers of emotion, rhetorical persuasion, and social pressure to induce people to make a hasty and premature decision. And producing professions is not the same thing as making disciples. Surely a number of factors are responsible for the many nominal Christians that typify Christianity in the West, but I believe that the altar call is one of them. ....

The alternative to giving altar calls is sticking with the practices we see modeled in Scripture:
  • Invite people throughout your sermon to "repent and be baptized" like Peter did in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38). But when you do, don't just stand there waiting with emotionally charged music playing, staring them down until they relent. Rather, make several suggestions about how and where to discuss the matter further.
  • Ask people what they believe when they present themselves for baptism, just like Jesus made sure the disciples knew who he was (Matt. 16:13-17; also, 1 John 4:1-3).
  • Make sure they understand what following Jesus entails (Matt. 16:24f; John 6:53-60).
  • Explain that the fruit of their lives and persevering to the end will indicate whether or not they really believe (Matt. 7:24f; 10:22).
  • You might even explain that Jesus has commanded your church to remove them from its fellowship if their life moving forward does not match their profession (Matt. 18:15-17).
Yes, let's pray hard for conversions. But then let's do everything that Scripture requires of us in the long work of making disciples---a work that generally requires lots of teaching, lots of time, lots of invitations, lots of meals together, and finally the commitment of an entire church body.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Defending — not apologizing for — the faith once given

C Michael Patton explains why, even given C.S. Lewis's departures from what is considered normative evangelical theology, we are inclined to approve of him but not Rob Bell:
.... Here comes the question I got Tuesday night a the Credo House “Coffee and Theology” study: “So why do we love C.S. Lewis but hate Rob Bell?”

This is the great question I hope to answer briefly.

First of all, no one hates Rob Bell (or at least, no one should). But, speaking for myself, I am very comfortable handing out C.S. Lewis books by the dozens, while I don’t keep a stock of Bell’s books on hand. There is not a book that Lewis wrote that I don’t encourage people to read and grow from. Even A Grief Observed, where Lewis attempts to retain his faith in God while questioning everything in the middle of a crucible of doubt and pain, is one of my favorite books to give to people who are hurting. But I doubt I would ever recommend one of Bell’s works to establish someone in the faith. In fact, I might only recommend them for people to see “the other side.” Let me put it this way (and I must be very careful here): While I fully embrace and endorse the ministry of C.S. Lewis, I do not endorse or embrace the ministry of Rob Bell.

You see, while C.S. Lewis has a great deal of theological foibles, his ministry is defined by a defense of the essence of the Gospel. The essence of who Christ is and what he did are ardently defended by Lewis, saturating every page of his books. His purpose was clear: to defend the reality of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. All other things set aside, this is what you leave with every time you read Lewis. The problematic areas are peripheral, not central. One has to look hard to find the departures from traditional Protestant Christianity. They are not the subjects of his works and do not form the titles of his books.

However, with Rob Bell, the essence of who Christ is and what he did seems to be secondary. .... (more)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Climate does change

In about 2005 the advocates of a radical response to "global warming" apparently decided that talking about "climate change" would be more persuasive. In the current print edition of The Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottum and William Anderson explain why.
.... There’s a simple epistemological process by which, as we move up the genus-species tree, we arrive at ideas that cover more cases but convey less information: Lots more mammals exist in general than marmosets in particular, but mammal doesn’t tell us as much about the beast in question as marmoset does. Move up high enough into the linguistic arbor, and you arrive at terms that refer to all but mean none: thing, for example, or being.

Or climate change, as far as that goes. The great emotional gain of the shift from global warming to climate change was that the name had become so generic that nothing imaginable could prove it wrong. Every shift in weather is a confirming instance. The only problem left was the pesky little scientific one that, well, nothing imaginable could prove it wrong. In its public use, in the mouths of activists and the titles of organizations such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the phrase had come to describe something non-falsifiable. ....

.... In politics, the notion that climate change can’t be falsified — everything only serves to confirm it, nothing imaginable can contradict it — has been a marvelous boon. In science, the fact that climate change can’t be falsified seems to prove, mostly, that climate change isn’t science: There’s no way to test for it, no way to quantify it, and no way to demonstrate it. ....

.... Perhaps the greatest reason for any of us to feel skepticism about climate change, however, is the unchanging politics of those who employed it to advance their agendas. Are we wrong to suspect that most global warming activists are merely using global warming as the latest in a long series of tools with which to demand fundamental changes in Western civilization?

Think of it this way: The premise of catastrophe produces the conclusion that the political and economic underpinnings of Western civilization must be discarded. Governments must take control of economies. Capitalism must give way. All decisions must be made by our scientific and political elite, for only they can save us from doom.

Now, in a purely logical world, the rejection of the premise would mean that we don’t have to accept the conclusion. If A, then B and not A together produce nothing. But the people who’ve been lecturing us for more than a decade now about global warming and climate change didn’t start by holding A. They began by holding B — the conclusion, the proposition that Western civilization must change. And it is, literally, a non-falsifiable proposition: If global warming and climate change help lead to it, then hurray for global warming and climate change. If not, well, then, they’ll find something else. ....
Joseph Bottum and William Anderson, "Unchanging Science: Among other things the global warming crusaders got wrong: skepticism is a virtue, not a vice," The Weekly Standard, November 28, 2011, pp. 26-29.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cheerful plagiarism

It would appear that one of my favorite books was largely plagiarized and, moreover, the plagiarist, Robert Louis Stevenson, admitted it. John Sutherland, who has edited a new edition of Treasure Island argues though, that Stevenson did not identify the author from whom he borrowed the most. The admitted sources:
Stevenson insists that, as originally conceived, the story was designed solely for his domestic audience. If so it would explain his cheerful plundering of so many other writers’ material in Treasure Island’s early chapters. “Plagiarism”, he candidly confides in “My First Book”, “was rarely carried farther.” The opening (Billy Bones’s arrival at the Admiral Benbow inn) was lifted, Stevenson confides, from Washington’s Irving’s Wolfert Webber. The juvenile hero (Jim Hawkins) is a conscious nod towards W.H.G. Kingston’s Peter the Whaler. The desert island – and its marooned inhabitant, Ben Gunn – is borrowed from “brave Ballantyne” and The Coral Island. The buried treasure and the map were taken (again) from Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller. Silver’s parrot is taken from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The siege at the stockade on Treasure Island is, Stevenson acknowledges, a loan from Captain Marryat’s Masterman Ready. The grisly skeleton signpost, and coded instructions, to where the treasure is buried are taken from Poe’s “The Gold Bug”. Stevenson is engagingly frank about these borrowings. ....

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Scum of the earth"

From National Geographic's contribution to the celebration of the King James Version of the Bible:
.... Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents' eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death's door or at our wits' end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one's teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago. ....
John Hall, the Dean of Westminster, on why he has resumed reading the KJV:
"There are moments," he says, "which move me almost to tears. I love the story, after Jesus has been crucified and has risen, and he appears to the disciples as they are walking on the road to Emmaus. They don't know who he is, but they talk together, and at the end they say to him, 'Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.' That is a phrase—so simple, so direct, and so powerful—which has meant an enormous amount to me over the years. The language is full of mystery and grace, but it is also a version of loving authority, and that is the great message of this book." .... [more]

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reading books on a screen

Google Books is a project of Google involving the scanning of entire libraries of books and then making them available online. It is extraordinary, making available rare sources, some so rare that only one or two copies are known to exist. A new version of the GooReader is available today at CNET:
.... GooReader turned out to be a pretty nice free e-book reader for Google Books. As you know, Google is into everything, including e-books, and in a big way. It offers quick access to millions of titles, many of them free, and helps you manage your e-book purchases. Its animated 3D graphics give the e-books a realistic appearance.

You'll need to sign in to your Google Account to access Google Books and manage your Library. .... [more]
It will do searches, download pdfs, manage the library on your computer and function as an attractive interface for reading. I searched for "Seventh Day Baptist" this afternoon and within seconds the results included several hard-to-find books [several of them scanned at the New York Public Library]. GooReader can also be downloaded here.

My Kindle comes tomorrow. I have resisted electronic books up to now. We'll see....

Avoiding responsibility

In a very good column, "Let’s All Feel Superior," prompted by many of the responses to the Penn State crimes, David Brooks wonders whether most of us would have done any better.
.... People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, “Blind Spots,” “When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.”

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. ....

Monday, November 14, 2011

This day...

Via The Christian Post, John Stott's Daily Prayer:
Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.

Holy, blessed and glorious trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me.

Almighty God, Creator and sustainer of the universe, I worship you.

Lord Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord of the World, I worship you.

Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the people of God, I worship you.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,

As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever, Amen.
John Stott's Daily Prayer, Christian News

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Feeling good rather than doing good

Feeling good about what you are doing is no substitute for actually doing good. In "Wasted Charity," Amy Sherman reviews Toxic Charity: How Churches Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert D. Lupton:
.... We evaluate our giving, Lupton argues, "by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served."

Short-term mission trips are a case in point. Such "junkets" involve expenditures of between $2.5-5 billion annually, yet produce little lasting change, often displace local labor, and distract indigenous church leaders from more important work. We get more than we give when we go.

Meanwhile, our relief-oriented, commodity-based charity flourishes at home because even though its effects are irresponsible, it feels good to the givers. Lupton grieves that "our free food and clothing distribution encourages ever-growing handout lines, diminishing the dignity of the poor while increasing their dependency."

Lupton does offer some ideas for improvement. He proposes a new "Oath for Compassionate Service" for the charity industry to adopt, much as the medical community has adopted the Hippocratic Oath. Lupton's Oath offers six key guidelines: (1) Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves; (2) Limit one-way giving to emergencies; (3) Empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements; (4) Subordinate self-interest to the needs of those being served; (5) Listen closely to those you seek to help; (6) Above all, do no harm. .... [more]

Friday, November 11, 2011

Created equal?

David Brooks explains when it's socially acceptable for Americans to express superiority over others:
.... Academic inequality is socially acceptable. It is perfectly fine to demonstrate that you are in the academic top 1 percent by wearing a Princeton, Harvard or Stanford sweatshirt.

Ancestor inequality is not socially acceptable. It is not permissible to go around bragging that your family came over on the Mayflower and that you are descended from generations of Throgmorton-Winthrops who bequeathed a legacy of good breeding and fine manners.

Fitness inequality is acceptable. It is perfectly fine to wear tight workout sweats to show the world that pilates have given you buns of steel. These sorts of displays are welcomed as evidence of your commendable self-discipline and reproductive merit.

Moral fitness inequality is unacceptable. It is out of bounds to boast of your superior chastity, integrity, honor or honesty. Instead, one must respect the fact that we are all morally equal, though our behavior and ethical tastes may differ.

Sports inequality is acceptable. It is normal to wear a Yankees jersey, an L.S.U. T-shirt or the emblem of any big budget team. The fact that your favorite sports franchise regularly grounds opponents into dust is a signal of your overall prowess.

Church inequality is unacceptable. It would be uncouth to wear a Baptist or Catholic or Jewish jersey to signal that people of your faith are closer to God. It is wrong to look down on other faiths on the grounds that their creeds are erroneous. ....

Status inequality is acceptable for college teachers. Universities exist within a finely gradated status structure, with certain schools like Brown clearly more elite than other schools. University departments are carefully ranked and compete for superiority.

Status inequality is unacceptable for high school teachers. Teachers at this level strongly resist being ranked. It would be loathsome to have one’s department competing with other departments in nearby schools. .... [more]

November 11, 1918

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, 1914
 First World - Prose & Poetry - Laurence Binyon

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Child abuse and the church

Albert Mohler, writing about the appalling Penn State scandal, draws the appropriate lesson for churches:
.... What about churches, Christian institutions, and Christian schools? The Penn State disaster must serve as a warning to us as well, for we bear an even higher moral responsibility.

The moral and legal responsibility of every Christian — and especially every Christian leader and minister — must be to report any suspicion of the abuse of a child to law enforcement authorities. Christians are sometimes reluctant to do this, but this reluctance is both deadly and wrong.

Sometimes Christians are reluctant to report suspected sexual abuse because they do not feel that they know enough about the situation. They are afraid of making a false accusation. This is the wrong instinct. We do not have the ability to conduct the kind of investigation that is needed, nor is this assigned to the church. This is the function of government as instituted by God (Romans 13). Waiting for further information allows a predator to continue and puts children at risk. This is itself an immoral act that needs to be seen for what it is.

A Christian hearing a report of sexual abuse within a church, Christian organization, or Christian school, needs to act in exactly the same manner called for if the abuse is reported in any other context. The church and Christian organizations must not become safe places for abusers. These must be safe places for children, and for all. Any report of sexual abuse must lead immediately to action. That action cannot fall short of contacting law enforcement authorities. A clear lesson of the Penn State scandal is this: Internal reporting is simply not enough. .... [more]
Baptists particularly need to have very clear standards in this respect since our congregational polity provides no supervising authority.

GetReligion also provides good information in "False idols at Penn State and elsewhere" – The Tragic Lessons of Penn State — A Call to Action

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Taking offense

The governor of the state in which I live has broken a twenty-five year practice by calling the tree placed annually in the rotunda of our state capitol (in December for some reason) a "Christmas" tree. Outrage ensues:
PlaqueWe can always count on Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Madison-based "Freedom From Religion Foundation" to point out how horribly offensive and insensitive this is:
"The reason that it was turned into a holiday tree was to avoid this connotation that the governor chooses one religion over another," she said. "It's essentially a discourtesy by the governor to announce that. He intends that to be a slight and a snub to non-Christians, otherwise he would not do it."
For their part, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has never been all that concerned about offending people. Every year, their contribution to the annual Christmas display in the Capitol Rotunda is a sign that reads: "At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
First Shot Fired in this Year's "War on Christmas" -, Walker says it's a Christmas, not holiday, tree - JSOnline

Monday, November 7, 2011

Behaving badly

The New York Times reports that there is "Widespread Sexual Harassment in Grades 7 to 12." Walter Russell Mead wonders what we would do without such studies:
Teenage boys behaving badly? Via Meadia is indescribably shocked.  But this study may only be scratching the surface.  We also hear distressing rumors that “cool” kids make fun of and belittle others.  “Jocks”, we hear, often mock the lack of athletic prowess of those they unkindly label as “nerds” and “geeks”.  In some schools, there are reports that young people with severe cases of acne are the subject of pitiless mirth.  Middle school, it is rumored, is a particularly vicious social snake pit where cliques of young girls do everything in their power to shame and isolate others who do not meet their standards for appearance and behavior.

Via Meadia is grateful to be living in an age of social science when adults with advanced degrees can give these vital issues the deep attention and scrutiny they deserve. More studies, please, not to mention more polls, more detailed and intrusive regulations, and more sensitivity training. More attention must be paid and more money spent. Immediately.
I've taught in both middle schools and high schools. We don't need studies to tell us that kids in the early teens are probably as uninhibited and as cruel as they will ever be for the rest of their lives. It is, of course, the responsiblity of the adult in the room or the hallway to both teach and enforce civility.

Widespread Sexual Harassment in Grades 7 to 12 Found in Study -, Shock Poll Reveals: Some Teens Are Mean To Their Peers | Via Meadia

A tame God

Via The Inklings:
When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?
C.S. Lewis
Mere Christianity
The Inklings: A tame sort of God?

"Sometimes escapist but never small-minded"

In a review of a new collection of the letters of PG Wodehouse we are given a fascinating biographical account and a description of what makes him so attractive to those of us who enjoy his books:
.... Countless readers of Wodehouse have testified to the way his novels have their own "stimulating effect" on morale, providing not just comic, but almost medicinal effects: the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm, after his defeat in the first world war, consoled himself by reading Wodehouse to his "mystified" staff; the late Queen Mother allegedly read "The Master" on a nightly basis, to set aside the "strains of the day"; more recently, news reports tell of the imprisoned Burmese comedian Zargana finding comfort in Wodehouse during solitary confinement. "Books are my best friends", he confided. "I liked the PG Wodehouse best. Joy in the Morning – Jeeves, Wooster and the fearsome Aunt Agatha. It's difficult to understand, but I've read it three times at least. And I used it as a pillow too." ....

.... In an open letter to some admirers, he admits that his fiction was never intended to fit the criteria of "relevance": "The world I write about, always a small one – one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie Wooster would say – is now not even small, it is nonexistent. It has gone with the wind and is one with Nineveh and Tyre. In a word, it has had it. But I have not altogether lost hope of a revival."

The beauty of this sentence is that it enacts what it says. In a superlative run of clichés – "gone with the wind", "one with Nineveh", "in a word" – Wodehouse revels in, and revives, the contained sphere of an exhausted language (a "small world" of its own) and makes it a little larger. So it is with the worlds of his fiction. Almost lyric in their perfection, sometimes escapist, but never small-minded, they offer what Adorno called "the dream of a world where things could be otherwise". Right until the end, Wodehouse wrote to preserve the world of innocence he never quite grew out of – and to resist a world he never quite grew into.... (more)
Two interesting earlier posts about Wodehouse:
PG Wodehouse: a life in letters

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Culpable ignorance

Alan Jacobs:
I have been thinking a lot about stupidity lately, largely, I suppose, because I spend a good deal of time online. I define stupidity as “remediable but unremedied ignorance,” and few human traits are more evident to a reader of your average website. It is relatively easy to discover that Barack Obama is not a Muslim; that the government of Israel was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks; that the Christian God does not hate fags; that your average everyday evangelical Christian is not simply itching for his chance to take over the government and impose theocratic law upon a nation of vile unbelieving reprobates. Yet people who could remedy their ignorance on these and many other matters consistently fail to do so. This is curious and significant.

Now, many people who hold wrong—even bizarrely wrong—views are not stupid. We do not all possess the means to remedy our ignorance. Throughout the world there are people who are badly educated, who have been taught many untrue things by the only authorities they know, and who have little or no opportunity to check up on those supposed facts. But a great many are culpably ignorant, who, because they do not take the trouble to investigate their beliefs and assess their accuracy, are also (according to my definition) stupid. .... [more]
Alan Jacobs: Against Stupidity

Friday, November 4, 2011


An unfortunate mistake?
An overzealous cleaner in Germany has ruined a piece of modern art worth £690,000 after mistaking it for an eyesore that needed a good scrub.

The sculpture by the German artist Martin Kippenberger, widely regarded as one of the most talented artists of his generation until his death in 1997, had been on loan to the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund when it fell prey to the cleaner's scouring pad.

The work, called When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling (Wenn's anfängt durch die Decke zu tropfen), comprised a rubber trough placed underneath a rickety wooden tower made from slats. Inside the trough, Kippenberger had spread a layer of paint representing dried rainwater. He thought it was art: the cleaner saw it as a challenge, and set about making the bucket look like new.

A spokeswoman for the museum told German media that the female cleaner "removed the patina from the four walls of the trough". "It is now impossible to return it to its original state," ....
Overzealous cleaner ruins £690,000 artwork that she thought was dirty | Art and design | The Guardian

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A brilliant fool

One of the books assigned when I took a Russian history class in the late sixties was Stalin by Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher was a popular choice in those days — one of those Marxists uninfected by Stalinism, popular with the so-called "New" Left. In a characteristically interesting essay, Theodore Dalrymple writes about this particular true believer:
.... He was what might be called a dialectical equivocator, made dishonest by his early religious vows to Marxism. This made him unable to see or judge things in a common-sense way. His unwavering attachment to his primordial philosophical standpoint, his irrational rationalism, turned him into that most curious (and sometimes dangerous, because intellectually charismatic) figure, the brilliant fool. He was the opposite of Dr Watson who saw but did not observe: he observed, but did not see. He was the archetype of the man, so common among intellectuals, who knows much but understands little. ....

One of Deutscher’s collections of essays, always intensely readable, was called Heretics and Renegades....

.... The first essay in the book is an extended review of the famous book The God that Failed, a collection of six essays by ex-communist intellectuals who explain their renunciation of the faith altogether – for Deutscher renegades all. For them, it was not only that communism failed completely to live up to its ideals, but that its ideals were wrong and therefore intimately and inextricably related to the horrors that followed.

For Deutscher, by contrast, the ideal of a society in which people were completely undifferentiated by class, in which a spontaneous abundance arose, in which people produced for use and not for profit, in which no one exercised more power than any other person, remained not what it always was, an adolescent and not terribly intelligent dream, but real, something directly to be aimed at; and never mind if people initially possessed of this vision (the product, usually, of profound and often unbalanced resentment) had so far killed millions of people. They had merely gone about it the wrong way. Deutscher, the most egocentric of men despite a pretended humility, would show them the right way:
He [the ex-communist renegade] no longer throws out the the dirty water of the Russian revolution to protect the baby; he discovers that the baby is a monster that must be strangled.
The death of tens of millions becomes mere dirty bath-water; the baby – presumably the core of the Soviet Union, its ideal, not its practice – is still beautiful.

Deutscher reproached the renegades of The God that Failed for their tendency to abstraction, of uninterest in concrete realities of the world around them, but you can’t get much more abstract than calling mass famines, purges, the gulag, mere dirty water. It is no surprise, perhaps, that a man who can do so has about as much sense of proportion as a young child from whose hand a toy is removed. ....

Deutscher was a fine example of the scholar who knew a lot and understood little (including, or especially, himself). A man may smile and smile and be a villain. A man may read and read, and experience and experience, and understand nothing. [more]
Knowledge Without Knowledge > Theodore Dalrymple

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

If we have to get it all right, we're lost

Trevin Wax confesses to having once been a heretic (of the Apollinarian variety), so, he asks, "Was I not truly converted? Was I an apostate? Up until this point, was I unsaved?" and answers:
...[O]rthodox theology, while vitally important, is not what saves. Don’t get me wrong. We need to be firmly rooted in the Scriptures as we embrace and proclaim the full counsel of God. The church needs the guardrails provided by our creeds and confessions. Far be it from me to ever diminish the need for clarity and consistency on doctrines of first importance, of which the Trinity is a classic example. A non-Trinitarian god cannot save. Likewise, unless Jesus is both God and man, we are doomed.

At the same time, we need to remember that one can be saved by the Trinity without a complete and exhaustive understanding of the Trinity. It’s quite possible to be muddled in our thinking and still be gloriously cleansed of our sins. That’s why Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Richard Hooker, though standing solidly against the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, could affirm that there were Catholics who were justified by faith alone, even though they didn’t have a firm grasp on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In other words, we are justified by faith in Jesus, not justified by our faith in the right articulation of doctrine. ....

Tim Keller is on to something when he points out the way in which reliance on right doctrine can become idolatrous:
“Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god. This occurs when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God himself and his grace. It is a subtle but deadly mistake. The sign that you have slipped into this form of self-justification is that you become what the book of Proverbs calls a ‘scoffer.’ Scoffers always show contempt and disdain for opponents rather than graciousness. This is a sign that they do not see themselves as sinners saved by grace. Instead, their trust in the rightness of their views makes them feel superior.” (Counterfeit Gods, 131)
It’s quite possible to be muddled on doctrine and still belong to Jesus. It’s also possible to have all your doctrinal dots and iotas in line and one day hear Jesus say, “I never knew you.”

It’s not orthodox theology that saves but the God whom orthodox theology describes. It’s the reality that saves us, not our knowledge of that reality. ....(more)
Confessions of a Former Apollinarian : Kingdom People

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Frabjous joy

An appreciation of Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)'s contribution to children's literature, "What Alice did." Richard Jenkyns wries:
Previously, most books for children had been either educational or improving; the only purpose of Alice is to give pleasure. We have grown so used to bunnies in blue jackets with brass buttons that it is hard to remember how comparatively recent such things are. There is no trace of children’s literature in antiquity; animal fables were for grown-ups. Perhaps that is not surprising in a world where books were few and expensive, but it is striking that it was so many centuries after the invention of printing that the change occurred. Here again the accidental nature of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was crucial. It was first written, after all, for a readership of one, and that gives it a lack of self-consciousness that was never quite captured again, not even in Through the Looking-Glass. It has no pretensions to be a masterpiece, and that is one of the reasons that it is a masterpiece. Like A Study in Scarlet, The Screwtape Letters and perhaps the Satyricon, it was tossed off lightly by an author who had little idea how much he had achieved. It is probably the most purely child-centred book ever written. ....

The philosophy in the books is not an awkward adult intrusion into the child’s realm. All children, after all, are intellectuals, insatiably curious; they can spot a dodgy argument (“Alice didn’t think that proved it at all,” is a characteristic sentence) and they puzzle over some of the things that continue to puzzle the wisest of us. Alice shows herself to be a good Cartesian when Tweedledum and Tweedledee suggest that she is part of the Red King’s dream: “If I wasn’t real… I shouldn’t be able to cry.” She explores with Humpty Dumpty the relativity and social context of language: “When I use a word,” he says, “it means just what I choose it to mean,” and she answers, “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.” It would be going too far to say that their debate anticipates Wittgenstein and the private language argument—but not a long way too far. And yet there is no talking here over the child reader’s head. “I only wish I had such eyes,” the White King remarks. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!” Any seven-year old can see that this is (as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out) a hypostatisation of the null class. Of course, she would not put it quite like that. The Cheshire Cat, meanwhile, purports to argue by syllogism: dogs are not mad; dogs growl when they are angry and wag their tails when they are pleased; cats do the opposite; therefore cats are mad. .... (more)
What Alice did | Prospect Magazine

For all the saints

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith
before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus,
be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
The golden evening
brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors
comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of
paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
Thou wast their Rock,
their Fortress and their might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain
in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness,
their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
But lo! there breaks a
yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant
rise in bright array;
The King of glory
passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
O blest communion,
fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle,
they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee,
for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
From earth’s wide bounds,
from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl
streams in the countless host,
Singing to God,
the Son, and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

There are more verses and they can be found here along with the usual setting, Vaughan Williams Sine Nomine.