Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Teens should be learning from the people they are about to become"

From an interview at Psychology Today with Robert Epstein, a psychologist, about his book The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. He argues that the infantilization of teenagers creates most of the problems attributed to adolescence. Selections from the interview:
.... We call our offspring "children" well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago and now extends childhood well into the 20s. The age at which Americans reach adulthood is increasing—30 is the new 20—and most Americans now believe a person isn't an adult until age 26.

The whole culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood, primarily through the school system and restrictions on labor. The two systems evolved together in the late 19th-century; the advocates of compulsory-education laws also pushed for child-labor laws, restricting the ways young people could work, in part to protect them from the abuses of the new factories. The juvenile justice system came into being at the same time. All of these systems isolate teens from adults, often in problematic ways. ....

We have completely isolated young people from adults and created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do something wrong we put them in a pen with other "children." In most nonindustrialized societies, young people are integrated into adult society as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen turmoil. ....

.... The teens put before us as examples by, say, the music industry tend to be highly incompetent. Teens encourage each other to perform incompetently. One of the anthems of modern pop, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, is all about how we need to behave like we're stupid.

Teens in America are in touch with their peers on average 65 hours a week, compared to about four hours a week in preindustrial cultures. In this country, teens learn virtually everything they know from other teens, who are in turn highly influenced by certain aggressive industries. This makes no sense. Teens should be learning from the people they are about to become. When young people exit the education system and are dumped into the real world, which is not the world of Britney Spears, they have no idea what's going on and have to spend considerable time figuring it out. ....

Are you saying that teens should have more freedom?

No, they already have too much freedom—they are free to spend, to be disrespectful, to stay out all night, to have sex and take drugs. But they're not free to join the adult world, and that's what needs to change. .... [more]
Thanks to Anna Williams at First Things for directing me to this interview. She comments:
Naturally I disagree with him about abortion, and I’m not convinced that we should roll back child labor laws or institute the competency tests that he favors. Broadly, however, I think he’s right that the myth of the shallow, irresponsible teenager is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Parents may not be able to give their teenage sons and daughters all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, but they can at least encourage teens to find a job and give them enough freedom to learn from their mistakes, just like adults do. ....
Which means being held responsible for their decisions.

Trashing Teens | Psychology Today

An alternative reality

Christopher Buckley explains why P.G. Wodehouse endures:
.... Walk into any bookstore these days and one finds yard upon yard of Wodehouse, much of it in fresh editions. Why is he so imperishable, fresh as a Wooster boutonnière, when so many other writers of his generation have vanished, long since past their sell-by date? A writer with an eye to literary immortality would do well to consider the Wodehousian oeuvre.

It’s not rocket science. The Master revealed the secret himself in a 1935 letter to Bill Townend, his old Dulwich school chum.... It was a question, he said, of “making the thing frankly a fairy story and ignoring real life altogether.” Wodehouse’s admirer and defender Evelyn Waugh framed it perfectly; or as Jeeves might say, quoting Plautus, Rem acu tetigisti. (“You have hit the nail on the head.”)

In an appreciation of Wodehouse in 1939...Waugh observed of Wodehouse’s characters:
We do not concern ourselves with the economic implications of their position; we are not skeptical about their quite astonishing celibacy. We do not expect them to grow any older, like the Three Musketeers or the Forsytes. We are not interested in how they would ‘react to changing social conditions’ as publishers’ blurbs invite us to be interested in other sagas. They are untroubled by wars [...] They all live, year after year, in their robust middle twenties; their only sickness is an occasional hangover. It is a world that cannot become dated because it has never existed.
That last sentence nails it: Jeeves and Wooster, Lord Emsworth, Psmith, and the rest inhabit an alternative universe, Platonically apart from any real one. In Bertie’s world, the most formidable menace is an inheritance-controlling, match-making aunt. (Not, mind you, that this species is not truly terrifying!) .... (more)
Yours Ever, Plum: The Letters and Life of P.G. Wodehouse - Newsweek and The Daily Beast

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The perfidy of Christians

Robert Ingersoll was perhaps the 19th century's most well-known atheist. A new, approving, biography has just been published. Alan Jacobs notes a review of the book that is critical, not so much of Ingersoll, but of the book's repetition of seemingly indestructible myths:
Few American publishers these days will fact-check an assertion about the perfidy of Christians (or of religious believers more generally). And Yale University Press apparently continues that practice of benign neglect of gross error in publishing Susan Jacoby’s new book about Robert Ingersoll. My friend and colleague Tim Larsen reviews Jacoby’s book....:
.... Christians opposed the use of anesthetics for women in labor because Genesis is supposed to teach that childbearing should be painful. Especially Calvinists, we are informed, believed that “new drugs to ease pain were ungodly.” Alas, this is completely an urban legend perpetuated by an ill-informed atheist subculture. If the warfare-of-faith-and-science myth is the equivalent of thinking that President Obama is anti-American, then the anesthetics clincher to prove it makes one a “birther” in another sense. ....

The first of Jacoby’s two appendices is a letter that Ingersoll wrote against vivisection. This is the humane Bob that we all love at his best. Nevertheless, for Jacoby’s polemical purposes, it is still a part of her enclave’s groundless and twisted conspiracy thinking. She imagines that cruelty to animals was happening because it was “justified by biblical precepts.” It is strange to imagine this counter-factual history in which ministers of the Gospel were giving addresses across the nation in favor of vivisection.

Who was actually doing that? The scientists and medical researchers who Jacoby has heroically benefiting mankind by defying and supplanting the clerics. Who actually founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society? Caroline Earle White, an adult convert to Roman Catholicism (a form of Christianity that comes in for Jacoby’s special ire.)
.... It’s fascinating, in a dreary sort of way, to see how many things people write about religion that they just know to be true, and that are never looked up because editors and proofreaders also just know them to be true. Consider for instance the myth that Christians long believed and taught that the earth was flat. ....

Somebody who already just knows that Christians opposed anesthesia in childbirth will read Jacoby and have that belief confirmed, then will tell someone else, or write it in a blog post, and so we continue to go round and round and round in the circle game. ...
Slander is Indestructible | The American Conservative


Matt Lewis, an early adopter, explains "Why I hate Twitter":
Twitter has become like high school, where the mean kids say something hurtful to boost their self-esteem and to see if others will laugh and join in.
Of course the instant response on Facebook—or anywhere else—can be just as bad. Lewis mentions a better way to proceed:
When Abraham Lincoln was mad, he would famously write people scathing letters. He would then file them in his desk drawer, never to be sent. Abe was lucky he didn't have Twitter.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Truth will out

Another historical myth is exposed. History doesn't always fit neatly into a morality tale. John J. Miller describes the experience of Timothy Messer-Kruse in "What Happened at Haymarket?"—not exactly what he had thought happened, and not what I taught my students.
“In my courses on labor history, I always devoted a full lecture to Haymarket,” says Messer-Kruse, referring to what happened in Chicago on the night of May 4, 1886. He would describe how a gathering of anarchists near Haymarket Square turned into a fatal bombing and riot. Although police never arrested the bomb-thrower, they went on to tyrannize radical groups throughout the city, in a crackdown that is often called America’s first Red Scare. Eight men were convicted of aiding and abetting murder. Four died at the end of a hangman’s noose. Today, history books portray them as the innocent victims of a sham trial: They are labor-movement martyrs who sought modest reforms in the face of ruthless robber-baron capitalism.

As Messer-Kruse recounted this familiar tale to his students at the University of Toledo in 2001, a woman raised her hand. “Professor,” she asked, “if what it says in our textbook is true, that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever connecting them with the bombing,’ then what did they talk about in the courtroom for six weeks?” .... (more)
An excellent question that Messer-Kruse was unprepared to answer but it led him on the kind of historical search that is fascinating to anyone genuinely interested in history. The temptation, of course, is to discount evidence that contradicts what you have believed and want to believe. Thus, for instance, some conservatives cling to a romantic view of the antebellum South. Among the most interesting books I've read are those by authors who set out to prove one thing only to have been compelled to a different conclusion. Miller, in the article, describes Messer-Kruse's discovery that what he had believed was wrong and also the resistance he encountered from many of his labor history colleagues.
.... “They seemed to think that our purpose as historians was to celebrate Haymarket, not to study it or challenge it,” he says. The most provocative attack came a year later, when Bryan D. Palmer of Trent University, in Canada, published a rebuttal to Messer-Kruse. The Haymarket anarchists, he wrote, were “humane, gentle, kindly souls.” Evildoers oppressed them: “The state, the judiciary, and the capitalist class had blood on their hands in 1886–87,” he wrote. Those of us who “drink of this old wine adorned with the new label of Messer-Kruse...may end up with the sickly sweet repugnance of blood on our lips.”

.... “A lot of labor historians think they must be deeply engaged with the prospects and agenda of labor unions,” says Messer-Kruse. “But we have an obligation to represent as best we can the objective reality of the past.”
Messer-Kruze describes himself as being of the Left. His books on Haymarket are The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (2011), and The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks (2012).

In 1983 Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton had a similar experience. They had expected to confirm that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were innocent victims of anti-communist hysteria. What they found was that Julius, at least, was certainly guilty of espionage and that Ethel may well have been. Subsequent post-Cold War evidence has confirmed that conclusion. But their work was not well received by the true believers. Radosh compares their experience with that of Messer-Kruse here. That book was The Rosenberg File, and today it is the definitive book on the Rosenberg Trial.

Allen Weinstein's Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case is in the same category and, if my memory serves, Weinstein suffered the same kind of treatment as the other authors.

The ultimate vindication in each case rested on meticulous attention to all of the available evidence and careful anticipation of every possible objection.

What Happened at Haymarket? - NR / Digital Articles - National Review Online

Friday, January 25, 2013

When is a lie not a lie?

From Kipling, via the current National Review:
In The Second Jungle Book, Kipling describes a conversation between a jackal and a crocodile (mugger). “Now the jackal had spoken just to be listened to, for he knew flattery was the best way of getting things to eat, and the mugger knew that the jackal had spoken for this end, and the jackal knew that the mugger knew, and the mugger knew that the jackal knew that the mugger knew, and so they were all very contented together.”
National Review, Feb. 11, 2013, p. 9.

Over in the Territory

I think I must have first read Charles Portis's True Grit not long after seeing the film version starring John Wayne as marshal. The Coen brothers more recent version is more faithful to the book and I liked it too, but I'm glad there is no necessity to choose between them. The book is best of all. The Western is not a genre I read much but I have re-read this one and I think it transcends the category. Today I came across this description of the actual historical context for the novel:
In the year of the Centennial of the United States, the last of the West left relatively unscathed by the forces of law and order was that part of present-day Oklahoma set aside as homeland for the native Indian tribes. This was a 70,000 square mile territory in which anything went … and usually did. Among what was called the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) there were native law enforcement officers, who upheld the law among their own. But they had no jurisdiction over interlopers of any color, or tribal members who committed crimes in company with or against an outsider, and the Territory was Liberty Hall and a refuge for every kind of horse thief, cattle rustler, bank and train robber, murderer and scalawag roaming the post-Civil War west. Just about every notorious career criminal at large for the remainder of the 19th century took refuge in the Oklahoma Territory at one time or another, including the James and Dalton gangs.

Judge Parker
....Officers of the law were stretched as thin as a pat of butter spread on an acre of toast; by 1875 the situation was intolerable to law-abiding settlers along the Territorial borders, and to the equally-law abiding members of the Civilized Tribes within it.

The man – and those whom he appointed to serve under his authority – who came to the rescue of the embattled and crime-plagued citizens like a 19th century super-hero appeared in the year of the Centennial. Isaac Charles Parker ... was in his mid-thirties, a legalist of impeachable moral character, long experience in Federal administration and government, and deep sympathies for the situation of the Indians. He was also a demon for hard work, which he commenced barely a week after he arrived in Fort Smith. In his first two-month session of his court, he heard 91 cases. Of those convicted, six were condemned to death. The sentences were carried out publicly and en masse – as an encouragement to those considering a life of capital crime to re-consider their career options. In short order, Judge Parker earned the nickname of “The Hanging Judge.” He spent the next twenty-one years on the bench in Fort Smith; the scourge of evildoers, criminals and scoundrels and the highest law of the land. Only a presidential pardon could set aside a Parker court death sentence.

Besides conducting his court with efficiency and dispatch, Judge Parker took other steps in establishing the rule of law rather than the gun. His chief marshal, James Fagan, was authorized to hire two hundred deputy marshals, more than any other state or territory. Parker’s marshals were sent out in teams, acompanied by a wagon for supplies and captured criminals, a cook and a small posse of assistants. Generally, they avoided actually killing a wanted man; a live criminal arrested and brought back to Fort Smith meant a payment of $2.00 a head. The only payment for a corpse was if there had been a dead-or-alive reward posted by a civil authority or an express company – a rare circumstance, but not entirely unknown. And so it went, nearly until the end of the 19th century. .... [more]
Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » History Friday: Bass Reeves and the Last of the Lawless West

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

By consenting adults

Peter Berger writes about some of the religious liberty litigation here and in Europe and considers why those who want limit the role of religion are so passionate. From "Religion As An Activity Engaged In By Consenting Adults In Private":
.... In all these cases the authorities accused of violating the plaintiffs’ rights operate with a definition of religion as a private matter to be kept out of public space. There is here a general issue of government overreach, as clearly illustrated by the (still unresolved) attempt by the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. Beyond that, though, there is a very ideological view of the place of religion in society. In other words, religion is to be an activity engaged in by consenting adults in private. ....

.... There is yet another theme that comes through in the survey data: An identification of churches (and that means mainly Christian ones) with intolerance and repression. I think that this is significant.

Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. ....
Religion As An Activity Engaged In By Consenting Adults In Private | Religion and Other Curiosities

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Chesterton and Shaw

George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton

Alan Jacobs refers to the famous debates between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw:
... Occasionally in the Shaw/Chesterton debates the proceedings would have to stop for a few moments because GKC couldn’t get control of himself: he was laughing too hard at a joke Shaw had just made at his expense. We can wish for a public sphere where the arguments are rougher and the sarcasm more outrageous, but we won’t benefit from it unless we can see, and feel, the point of sarcasm directed at us. ....
One of those debates, "Do We Agree?" [1928], has been largely preserved and placed online. Shaw was a socialist and Chesterton was not. The debate is genuinely fun to read. Shaw and Chesterton agreed about very little but obviously enjoyed each other. In this instance Hilaire Belloc moderated and introduced the debate:
MR. BELLOC: I do not know what Mr. Chesterton is going to say. I do not know what Mr. Shaw is going to say. If I did I would not say it for them. I vaguely gather from what I have heard that they are going to try to discover a principle: whether men should be free to possess private means, as is Mr. Shaw, as is Mr. Chesterton; or should be, like myself, an embarrassed person, a publishers' hack. I could tell them; but my mouth is shut. I am not allowed to say what I think. At any rate, they are going to debate this sort of thing. I know not what more to say. They are about to debate. You are about to listen. I am about to sneer. ....
This is fairly representative of the back-and-forth:
MR. CHESTERTON: Among the bewildering welter of fallacies which Mr. Shaw has just given us, I prefer to deal first with the simplest. When Mr. Shaw refrains from hitting me over the head with his umbrella, the real reason—apart from his real kindness of heart, which makes him tolerant of the humblest of the creatures of God—is not because he does not own his umbrella, but because he does not own my head. As I am still in possession of that imperfect organ, I will proceed to use it to the confutation of some of his other fallacies. .... [the debate]
On The Rules of Public Discourse | The American Conservative [the picture also comes from Jacobs' post], DO WE AGREE?: A DEBATE BETWEEN G. K. CHESTERTON and BERNARD SHAW

Monday, January 21, 2013

On natural law

Martin Luther King, from the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail":
.... One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. ....

We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws ...
Civil Rights and Black Identity

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Based on his book, Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction, David Macaulay narrates:
.... Using a combination of spectacular location sequences and cinema-quality animation, the program surveys France's most famous churches. Travel back to 1214 to explore the design of Notre Dame de Beaulieu, a representative Gothic cathedral. The program tells period tales revealing fascinating stories of life and death, faith and despair, prosperity, and intrigue.
I remember being fascinated by the book which was one of several he wrote and illustrated explaining both construction and the culture that produced the architecture. Another was about the building of a castle.

The program takes a little less that an hour:

"The man without a moral free from moral problems."

Yesterday I was reminded of the C.S. Lewis essays in Christian Reflections, pulled it off the shelf for the first time in years, and am confirmed in the opinion that it is a fine collection. Did Lewis ever write anything uninteresting? Edited, like many of the posthumous collections of Lewis's work, by Walter Hooper, it includes things that had not been previously published. These are quotations from some of them as printed on the dustjacket:
ON Christianity and Literature:
"...the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the World."
ON Christianity and Culture:
"On the whole, the New Testament seemed, if not hostile, yet unmistakably cold to culture. I think we can still believe culture to be innocent after we have read the New Testament; I cannot see that we are encouraged to think it important."
ON Ethics:
"Obviously it is moral codes that create questions of casuistry, just as the rules of chess create chess problems. The man without a moral code, like the animal, is free from moral problems. The man who has not learned to count is free from mathematical problems. A man asleep is free from all problems...."
ON Futility:
"I can understand a man coming in the end, and after prolonged consideration, to the view that existence is not futile. But how any man could have taken it for granted beats me...."
ON Church Music:
"The case for abolishing all Church Music whatever thus seems to me far stronger than the case for abolishing the difficult work of the trained choir and retaining the lusty roar of the congregation."
ON Petitionary Prayer:
"My problem arises from the fact that Christian teaching seems at first sight to contain two different patterns of petitionary prayer which are...pressingly inconsistent in the practical sense that no man, so far as I can see, could possibly follow them both at the same moment."

Friday, January 18, 2013

History or "picture truths"?

Invited by a friend, C.S. Lewis delivered "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" before the students of a theological school. He begins by confessing ignorance of the intricacies of biblical criticism but, nevertheless, the possible usefulness to potential pastors of his opinions: "I am a sheep, telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them. And now I begin my bleating." I first read the lecture in Christian Reflections, where it was first published. It has since been included in other collections of Lewis's work, usually titled "Fern-seed and Elephants." From the address:
.... A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia — which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes — if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church. In his crude, coarse way, he would respect you much more if you did the same. An experienced clergyman told me that the most liberal priests, faced with this problem, have recalled from its grave the late medieval conception of two truths: a picture-truth with can be preached to the people, and an esoteric truth for use among the clergy. I shouldn't think you will enjoy this conception much once you have put in into practice. I'm sure if I had to produce picture-truths to a parishioner in great anguish or under fierce temptation, and produce them with that seriousness and fervor which his condition demanded, while knowing all the time that I didn't exactly — only in some Pickwickian sense — believe them myself, I'd find my forehead getting red and damp and my collar getting tight. But that is your headache, not mine. You have, after all, a different sort of collar. I claim to belong to the second group of outsiders: educated, but not theologically educated. How one member of that group feels I must now try to tell you.

The undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism. The authority of experts in that discipline is the authority in deference to whom we are asked to give up a huge mass of beliefs shared in common by the early Church, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Reformers, and even the nineteenth century. I want to explain what it is that makes me skeptical about this authority. Ignorantly skeptical, as you will all too easily see. But the scepticism is the father of the ignorance. It is hard to persevere in a close study when you can work up no prima facie confidence in your teachers.

First then, whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. It sounds a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives. But that might be just the trouble. A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people's studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious thing about them. If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spend on that Gospel. But I had better turn to examples. .... (more)
Thanks to the Mere C.S. Lewis blog for reminding me of this essay.

C.S. Lewis, "Fern-seed and Elephants"

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Free will

Alvin Plantinga isn't impressed by Sam Harris's argument that free will is an illusion and his review of the book is very interesting. Toward the end of the review Plantinga says that predestination and determinism aren't the same thing and differentiates between two authorities on Calvinism [Calvin being one]:
.... Several Christian thinkers have at least flirted with determinism, motivated for the most part by considerations of divine sovereignty. If God is truly sovereign, truly ruler over all, won't it be the case that whatever happens in the world, happens because he intends it to happen? Indeed, won't it be because God causes it to happen? Reformed thinkers in particular have sometimes seemed to endorse determinism. Some people think of John Calvin himself, that fons et origo of Reformedom, as accepting determinism. But this is far from clear. Calvin did, of course, endorse predestination: but determinism doesn't follow. Predestination, as Calvin thinks of it, has to do with salvation; it implies nothing about whether I can freely choose to take a walk this afternoon. Calvin did indeed have invidious things to say about the freedom of the will; much ink has been spilt on this topic, and the question of just what Calvin believed here is vexed. But as Richard Muller, as good a Calvin scholar as one can find, says, "When Calvin indicates that we are deprived of free choice, he is certainly indicating only that we cannot choose freely between good and evil, or more precisely, we cannot choose between performing nominally good acts in a sinful way and performing them in an utterly good way. He certainly does not mean either that the will … is unfree or coerced in any way; nor does he mean that a person is not free to choose between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon."

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), on the other hand, perhaps the greatest thinker America has produced, certainly did embrace divine determinism. And Edwards endorsed determinism, for the most part, out of concern for divine sovereignty. His idea, ultimately, is that God's sovereignty requires that God himself be the only real cause of whatever happens. In the final analysis, God is the only agent, the only being capable of action, and the only cause of whatever events occur.

Edwards' endorsement is weighty; and divine sovereignty is indeed important; but there are enormously high costs associated with his view. This is not the place for a full-dress discussion, but, just to indicate where the discussion could go, I note two problems for Edwards' view. First, if God is the real cause of everything, then he is also the real cause of sin; he is the real cause of every sinful action. But Christians have for the most part strenuously avoided the conclusion that God is the author of sin. God permits sin, certainly; but does he cause it? Does he cause the wickedness and the atrocities that our sad world displays? Does God cause genocide in Africa? Did he cause the Holocaust? Does he cause all the less conspicuous but nonetheless appalling sins committed by humankind? That seems impossible to square with God's perfect goodness.

And second, we human beings often do what we know is wrong, and are both responsible for so doing and guilty for so doing. But if determinism is true, then on any occasion when I do what is wrong, it isn't possible for me to refrain from doing wrong. And if it isn't possible for me to refrain from doing wrong, then I can't really be responsible for that wrong-doing—not in the relevant sense anyway. We do sometimes say that arterial plaque is responsible for many heart attacks, but that's not the relevant sense of "responsibility." The relevant sense involves being properly subject to disapprobation, moral criticism, and even punishment; no one would consider criticizing or punishing a deposit of plaque. By contrast, if I knowingly do what is wrong, I am indeed properly subject to disapproval and blame. But I am not properly blamed for doing what it was not within my power not to do. On Edwards' view, we seem to lose any notion of human responsibility. These are costs for Edwards' divine determinism, and they are certainly substantial. .... [more]
Johnson and Boswell from Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson:
Boswell: "The argument for the moral necessity of human actions is always, I observe, fortified by supposing universal prescience to be one of the attributes of the Deity." Johnson: "You are surer that you are free, than you are of prescience; you are surer that you can lift up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any conclusion from a deduction of reasoning. But let us consider a little the objection from prescience. It is certain I am either to go home tonight or not; that does not prevent my freedom." Boswell: "That it is certain you are either to go home or not, does not prevent your freedom; because the liberty of choice between the two is compatible with that certainty. But if one of these events be certain now, you have no future power of volition. If it be certain you are to go home to-night, you must go home." Johnson: "If I am well acquainted with a man, I can judge with great probability how he will act in any case, without his being restrained by my judging. God may have this probability increased to certainty." Boswell: When it is increased to certainty, freedom ceases, because that cannot be certainly foreknown, which is not certain at the time; but if it be certain at the time, it is a contradiction in terms to maintain that there can be afterwards any contingency dependent on the exercise of will or anything else." Johnson: "All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it."
"Sir, we know our will is free, and there's an end on it."

Alvin Plantinga, "Bait and Switch," Books & Culture

Monday, January 14, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, which I haven't seen yet, is here reviewed by Paul D. Miller who begins by describing why the film means more to him than it might to many of us:
I served in Afghanistan with the Army in 2002. I served in the CIA as an analyst in the Office of South Asian Analysis from 2003 to 2007. I worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. My entire career has been defined by 9/11 and the aftermath.
He was unable to think of the film as an entertainment. Miller, who is a Christian, on some of the moral issues raised by events portrayed in the film:
.... With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.

Is that just? Are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.

On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12, " 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things—acts of revenge or humiliation—that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act—like using an "enhanced interrogation" technique—is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.

Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. .... [more]

"Spiritual" but not religious

I know Christians who object to being called "religious" based on their understanding of the meaning of that word. If I accepted their definition I would probably agree. But, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines the word, I have no objection:
  1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
  2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
  3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
  4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
There are those who object to the definition for different reasons than those Christian believers. They, according to this account, might be well advised to bind themselves to religion:
Washington (CNN) - Can being spiritual but not religious lead to mental health issues? The answer is yes, according to a recent study.

The study, published in the January edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry, says spiritual but not religious people, as opposed to people who are religious, agnostic or atheist, were more likely to develop a "mental disorder," "be dependent on drugs" and "have abnormal eating attitudes,” like bulimia and anorexia. ....

The practice of being spiritual but not religious is difficult to define and has a number of gray areas. The phrase is generally used to describe people who do not attend church, atheists who believe in some sort of higher power, free thinkers and the unaffiliated. It is also used for people who blend different faiths.

In short, King writes, “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.” ....

With a sample of 7,403 British people, the study found that nearly 19% of England’s population is spiritual but not religious. That number is higher in the United States, where, according to a 2002 Gallup Poll, in a sample of 729 adults, 33% of Americans identified themselves as "spiritual but not religious.” ....

Past academic studies in the United States have come to similar conclusions, said Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor at Stanford University. Most academic research about religion and well-being, said Luhrmann, has found that religion is good for you.

According to Luhrmann, organized religion provides three outlets that benefit churchgoers' well being: social support, attachment to a loving God and the organized practice of prayer.

“When you become spiritual but not religious, you are losing the first two points and most spiritual but not religious people aren’t participating in the third,” Luhrmann said. “It is not just a generic belief in God that works; it is specific practices that work.” ....

Sunday, January 13, 2013

1066 and much more

This is for the Anglophiles among us and particularly for those who enjoy British history. Netflix provides access to many documentaries among which I discovered Monarchy. I've only watched the first two episodes bringing me up to William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings. I am thoroughly enjoying it as it is explaining entertainingly many aspects of that history I didn't have a clear sense of before. From the Netflix description:
Tudor expert and BBC personality David Starkey turns his sharp eye to England's royals in this documentary series that maps the development, from 400 A.D. onward, of Europe's oldest surviving political institution. Beginning with the rise of Alfred the Great's nation-state, Series 1 chronicles the Norman Conquest and Henry II's dominance before delving into the made-for-Shakespeare reigns of three Edwards, Richard II and Henrys IV to VI.
A Google search will find other locations where the series is available, some of them apparently streaming free.

Watch Monarchy (U.K.) Online | Netflix

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Praise God

Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" [Listen to the profane version, but then read]:

Atheists don’t exist. Everyone believes in a god of some sort. Atheists even know that God exists. Chapter 1 of Romans tells us that, and so does a piece of lesser evidence: “Hallelujah,” a song written by Canada’s Leonard Cohen, initially released 28 years ago but decade by decade resonating ever more powerfully. ....

You may note that I’ve suggested listening to “Hallelujah” without the lyrics, because those words that the music never pummels are sometimes sacrilegious. Cohen penned a variety of versions, but the central stanzas offer a union of sex and salvation: Jeff Buckley called the version he used “the hallelujah of an orgasm.” Even apart from that, the lyrics form a brooding, angst-filled, lonely ode to failure, “a cold and broken hallelujah.” But that’s not the biblical hallelujah evident in the last of the Psalms, 150, which rightly starts and ends, “Praise the Lord!”

Great tunes should not be wasted. Second Corinthians 10:5 says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” My corollary: Take every song captive. It’s become a minor hobby for me—I put some words of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and the Doxology to the stirring music of the former Soviet national anthem, and now I offer to the world some improved lyrics to “Hallelujah”:
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, it pleased the Lord.
But You don’t love us for our music, do You?
Sin goes like this: The fourth, the fifth,
Adam’s fall, the major rift,
The baffled king neglecting Hallelujah.
Chorus: Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

Nathan said, “I see your lust.
You violate a soldier’s trust.
Your pride, your pomp, at night they overthrew you.
You steal, you kill, you get your way,
But God has said, your child will pay,
And from your lips He’ll draw the Hallelujah.”
Chorus: 4X Hallelujah

David prayed, “Have mercy, Lord,
You saved me from Goliath’s sword.
Yes, I lived for self before I knew you.
Now, more evil in your sight,
So I give up, I cannot fight.
Mine’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.”
Chorus: 4X Hallelujah

“Blood your hyssop, I’ll be clean.
Wash me so my sin’s not seen.
Give me of your Holy Spirit, will you?
Create in me a new, clean heart.
Give me now a strong, fresh start,
So every breath I draw is Hallelujah.”
Chorus: 4X Hallelujah

“You don’t delight in sacrifice.
You don’t excuse our secret vice.
You want from us a broken spirit, do you?
You’ve shown me what I did was wrong.
I’ll stand before You, Lord of song,
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
Chorus: 8X Hallelujah
1/30/2013: An interesting and perceptive response to Olasky:

WORLD | Take every song captive | Marvin Olasky | Dec. 29, 2012

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom"

There is plenty of evidence in scripture that God is not willing to tolerate anything or everything we think or do, but the fear of God also applies when we are trying to be faithful. Thomas J. Neal, in "Be Afraid":
.... Fear of the Lord is a largely unappreciated gift of the Spirit that, according to Scripture, is the beginning of wisdom. It’s my experience that in preaching and teaching there’s a general tendency to evade all of the dangerous dimensions of faith that threaten our culture’s “I’m okay, you’r okay” ethos, for fear that religion might seem in some way or other to be “negative.”

Fear itself is a natural attitude appropriate in the face of danger, and is associated often with situations that involve some form of risk. Now, there is no doubt that in Scripture we are counseled both to fear God and to not fear God, depending on the context of the counsel. .... But there is another sense in which fear is an apt attitude before the God of infinite awesomeness, grandeur, power, justice and mercy. Being fully aware in the presence of this God, one is motivated to keep the commandments. This mode of fear stands closer to reverence than to cowering or obsequious fear. ....

Holy fear is like the terror of being freely loved by another whose limitless dignity, dreamed into existence by Infinite Mystery, can’t be purchased or stolen but only consented to and reverently received. Such love taught my heart to fear, and such love my fears relieved. ....

...[H]oly fear offers the opportunity to see everything with a mind of reverence, which makes one loathe to trivialize anything or anyone. Second, it sustains a constant awareness that God is attentive to every thought, word and deed.... But for me its most profound effect is in serving as a gentle, yet relentlessly insistent, internal caution against sin; and as a gentle and equally insistent call to repentance after one has sinned. ....
I have revised the introductory sentence having been informed that "Dutch uncle" means the opposite of what I thought it did.

Be Afraid « Neal Obstat Theological Opining

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Former people

Reviewing a new book by a former communist, John Gray wonders why it is that some liberals continue to envision Marxism-Leninism as a worthy idealism that just somehow went wrong:
Discussing the Declaration of the Rights of Toiling and Exploited People promulgated in the Soviet Union in January 1918, in which sections of the population regarded as “former people” were disenfranchised, Vladimir Tismaneanu writes: “It can hardly be considered a coincidence that the term byvshie liudi (former people), which became commonplace in Bolshevik speak, implied that those to whom it applied were not quite human.” ....
“Communism, like Fascism, undoubtedly founded its alternative, illiberal modernity on the conviction that certain groups could be deservedly murdered. The Communist project, in such countries as the USSR, China, Cuba, Romania, or Albania, was based precisely on the conviction that certain social groups were irretrievably alien and deservedly murdered.”
An ambitious and challenging rereading of twentieth-century history, The Devil in History is most illuminating in showing that parallels between the two totalitarian experiments existed from the beginning. Tismaneanu confesses to being baffled by what he describes as “the still amazing infatuation of important intellectuals with the communist Utopia”. “It is no longer possible to maintain and defend a relatively benign Lenin”, he writes, “whose ideas were viciously distorted by the sociopath Stalin.” Unlike Stalin, Lenin showed no signs of psychopathology. Rather than being an expression of paranoia, methodical violence and pedagogic terror were integral features of Bolshevik doctrine. By their own account, Lenin and his followers acted on the basis of the belief that some human groups had to be destroyed in order to realize the potential of humanity. These facts continue to be ignored by many who consider themselves liberals, and it is worth asking why. ....

Tismaneanu’s account of Communist totalitarianism will be resisted by those who want to believe that it was an essentially humanistic project derailed by events – national backwardness, foreign encirclement and the like. But as he points out, the Soviet state was founded on policies which implied that some human beings were not fully human. Lenin may have held to a version of humanism, but it was one that excluded much of actually existing humankind. It was not simply because they could be expected to be hostile to the new regime that priests, merchants, members of formerly privileged classes and functionaries of the old order were deprived of civil rights. They represented a kind of humanity that had had its day. There is nothing to suggest that the Bolsheviks viewed the fate of former persons as the tragic price of revolution. Such superfluous human beings were no more than the detritus of history. If radical evil consists in denying the protection of morality to sections of humankind, the regime founded by Lenin undoubtedly qualifies. .... [more]

Unutterable meaning

Via Sean Curnyn, Abraham Joshua Heschel on music and prayer:
In no other act does man experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape nor an act of being unfaithful to the mind. For the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Ordinary providence

Mollie Hemingway, writing about the necessary focus journalism places on the unusual, gives us this quotation from G.K. Chesterton:
It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.
That reminded me of this:
Clarence Macartney told the story about Dr. John Witherspoon...a signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of the (then) College of New Jersey. He lived a couple of miles away from the college at Rocky Hill and drove horse and rig each day to his office at the college.

One day one of his neighbors burst into his office, exclaiming, "Dr. Witherspoon, you must join me in giving thanks to God for his extraordinary providence in saving my life, for as I was driving from Rocky Hill the horse ran away and the buggy was smashed to pieces on the rocks, but I escaped unharmed!"

Witherspoon replied, "Why, I can tell you a far more remarkable providence than that. I have driven over that road hundreds of times. My horse never ran away, my buggy never was smashed, I was never hurt."

So we must beware of thinking that God is only in the earthquake, wind, and fire; of thinking that manna but not grain is God’s food. Most of God’s gifts to his people are not dazzling and gaudy but wrapped in simple brown paper. Quiet provisions of safety on the highway, health of children, picking up a paycheck, supper with the family—all in an ordinary day’s work for our God.

—Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua: No Fallen Words (reprint: Christian Focus, 2000), pp. 48-49

Monday, January 7, 2013

Lord of the Rings

The first edition of Lord of the Rings published in the United States was an unauthorized three-volume paperback edition from Ace. My first reading copy included one of those along with two of these from the edition authorized by Tolkien and published by Ballantine. When I came to understand the difference I junked the Ace and replaced it [and probably threw away something that became valuable]. Today Lars Walker reminded me of that first full set which I read to death. This is what it looked like, although my copies fell apart long ago.

While in college I bought the 1966 three-volume hard-bound boxed edition from Houghton Mifflin, which I still have, and for a time acquired every new edition that came out, but eventually the proliferation of editions overwhelmed me and I gave up. For a while in the early '70s I had a large poster on my living-room wall that combined the images from the three covers above.

The past is prologue

At The Gospel Coalition three evangelicals are asked "How Do You Use Liturgical Elements in Your Church Worship?" I found their answers encouraging. From Scotty Smith of Christ Community Church in Franklin, TN:
We in Christ Community Church (PCA) are increasingly enjoying the richness of responsive readings and creeds as we develop our liturgy week to week. In our first years we pretty much decried the use of such aids, but we now realize their doxological beauty and benefit. In fact, for many years, the word liturgy was almost a four-letter word in our reactionary infancy as a church family. We wanted to cultivate a free, Spirit-led worship culture, and wrongly assumed that creeds would lead to formalization and dead orthodoxy. In our current calendar year, we are praying our way through the Heidelberg Catechism. We also include prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, responsive readings from the Scriptures, and confession and professions from the pen and hearts of our leadership family. In recent years we have also celebrated the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed as a part of a gospel-driven liturgy. Let me be clear: we still want a “free and Spirit led worship culture,” but now we clearly see the place of responsive readings and creeds as a means of helping us offer our Triune God the worship he deserves and in which he delights.
Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace:
For years most of our singing came up front and lasted about 35 to 45 minutes. As we studied congregational worship throughout history, including in the Bible, we saw that every church has a liturgy. The question is whether or not that liturgy helps people focus on God’s glory in Jesus Christ. While prolonged singing has its advantages, one of the dangers is cultivating a perception that the Holy Spirit only shows up when music is playing, and usually for a long time. So we started occasionally using elements like responsive readings, pre-written prayers, public confession of sin, and creeds. These helped us accomplish a number of ends, all of which are helpful. Scriptural responsive readings root us directly in God’s Word, which fuels our response of singing. Pre-written prayers can bring clarity, specificity, and comprehensiveness to our prayers. Confessing our sinfulness together reminds us all that our need for a Savior didn’t stop when we were converted. Creeds connect us to a long history of saints who have confessed their common faith in an unchanging triune God who has redeemed a people for himself through Jesus Christ. All that to say, we’ve found it immensely helpful to benefit from practices of believers who have gone before us without feeling bound to one particular liturgy or way of doing things.
And from an article about Ken Myers, the editor of the Mars Hill Audio Journal:
.... One of Myers’s recurring themes is the ways in which the dumbing down of the general culture has infected American Christianity and conservatism. These are two spheres where we might expect the work of “preserving cultural treasures” to be taken up. Yet wander into a Mass or worship service in any suburban Catholic or Protestant church and you’ll hear “praise songs” that might have been lifted from Sesame Street or, if the service is High Church, the soundtrack of Phantom of the Opera. It’s hard to believe this is the same religion that inspired Bach and Palestrina, whose choral works are no more familiar to the average pastor or parishioner than the chants at a Kikuyu circumcision ceremony. The liturgy, what’s left of it, is either pedestrian or absurd. (The Shepherd who used to maketh you to lie down in green pastures will now, if you’re a Catholic, “in verdant pastures give you repose.”) Among clergy no less than the laity, a desire for beauty and reflection is deemed prissy and dull.

“I’ve always thought that beautiful art was a great apologetic resource,” Myers says. Beauty is the chief attribute of God, said Jonathan (not Bob) Edwards. “Beauty points to a Creator.” Yet the church, Myers says, “capitulates more and more to the culture of entertainment.”

“It’s a way of keeping market share. But they’re digging their own grave. There’s a short-term benefit, but in the long term the kinds of cultural resources they need to be faithful to the Gospel won’t be there.” ....

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Self esteem or self respect?

Low self-esteem is always a problem, but healthy self-esteem cannot be artificially created and the efforts to do so haven't done anyone good and have done harm. Glenn Reynolds comments that "As an alternative to self-esteem, I would suggest self-respect, which comes from actual achievement and self-knowledge" in reference to this article from the BBC:
About nine million young people have filled out the American Freshman Survey, since it began in 1966.

It asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas - and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being "above average" for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence. ....

...[W]hile the Freshman Survey shows that students are increasingly likely to label themselves as gifted in writing ability, objective test scores indicate that actual writing ability has gone down since the 1960s. ....

Another study by Twenge suggested there has been a 30% tilt towards narcissistic attitudes in US students since 1979.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines narcissism as: "Excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, self-centredness."

"Our culture used to encourage modesty and humility and not bragging about yourself," says Twenge. "It was considered a bad thing to be seen as conceited or full of yourself." ....

"What's really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident - loving yourself, believing in yourself - is the key to success.

"Now the interesting thing about that belief is it's widely held, it's very deeply held, and it's also untrue."

This bewitching idea - that people's lives will improve with their self-esteem - led to what came to be known as The Self-Esteem Movement. ....

Yet there is very little evidence that raising self-esteem leads to tangible, positive outcomes.

"If there is any effect at all, it is quite small," says Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. He was the lead author of a 2003 paper that scrutinised dozens of self-esteem studies. ....

"Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success. Despite my years invested in research on self-esteem, I reluctantly advise people to forget about it." .... [more]

Friday, January 4, 2013

Manners shape morals

David Brooks thinks "suffering fools gladly" more virtuous than not doing so:
Recently I was reading a magazine profile of a brilliant statistician. The article mentioned, in passing, that this guy doesn’t suffer fools gladly. ....

Today, the phrase is often used as an ambiguous compliment. It suggests that a person is so smart he has trouble tolerating people who are far below his own high standards. It is used to describe a person who is so passionately committed to a vital cause that he doesn’t have time for social niceties toward those idiots who stand in its way. It is used to suggest a level of social courage; a person who has the guts to tell idiots what he really thinks. ....

.... Once I watched a senior member of the House of Representatives rip into a young reporter after she nervously asked him an ill-informed question.

She was foolish about that particular piece of legislation, but, in the moment, he looked the bigger fool. ....

Smart people who’ve thought about this usually understand that the habits we put in practice end up shaping the people we are within. “Manners are of more importance than laws,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.” ....

.... In [Jane Austen's] novel “Emma,” the lead character is rude to a foolish and verbose old woman named Miss Bates. Emma’s friend George Knightley rebukes her.

If Miss Bates were rich or smart or your equal, maybe this rudeness would have been tolerable, Mr. Knightley tells her, but “she is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!” .... (more)

Exceeding joyful in all our tribulation

In his final sermon as a minister at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis John Piper taught from II Corinthians 6 contrasting Paul's description of his experience with what happens in a lot of American churches:
"If you entice people with wealth, ... ease, health, chipper, bouncy, light-hearted, playful, superficial banter in your worship service posing as joy in Christ, you will attract people, oh yeah, you can grow a huge church that way. But Christ will not be seen in his glory and the Christian life will not be seen as the Calvary road that it is," said Piper on Sunday. ....

"I turn with dismay from church services that are treated like radio talk shows where everything sounds chipper and frisky and high-spirited and chattering and designed evidently to make people feel light-hearted and playful and bouncy," he said. "I say, don't you know there are people dying of cancer in this room? Don't you know some are barely making it financially? ... And you're going to create an atmosphere that's bouncy ...? I just don't get it. It's not who we are." ....

"You shouldn't ever attract anybody to Jesus like that because if they get attracted they're not coming to Jesus. They're coming to the stuff and the one who can provide it. Thank you very much Jesus for giving me what my fallen, selfish heart always lived for anyway," he said.

The Apostle Paul made it clear that the Christian life is not without suffering such as beatings, hunger, imprisonment and sleepless nights. But in the midst of those hardships, Paul's spirit was never broken and all he could do was rejoice because he had Jesus. ....

What Paul does is show that knowing Christ and having eternal life with Christ "is better than all the worldly wealth and prosperity and health that there is." .... [more]

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The key is making theology enjoyable

Two good critical appreciations of C.S. Lewis in the last few days: an article and an interview:

John G. Stackhouse Jr. explains why C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity worked and continues to work even though, as he says, it "should have bombed." One reason, a reason that was important to me at a point of adolescent arrogance, was because "MC gives you permission to be both intelligent and Christian." From Stackhouse's column:
.... MC works because Lewis was a master at two rhetorical arts, which he combined fluently: argument and depiction. Indeed, his friend Austin Farrer emphasized the latter as his chief talent, and Lewis himself spoke, not only of creating Narnia in terms of "seeing pictures in his head," but of his entire writing career in this way. In the last months of his life, he explained to a friend why he was no longer generating new work. He was ill, but he was not old: only in his mid-60s. The situation was simple, he said: "The pictures have stopped."

Despite Lewis's protestations that he was not a theologian and his profession was a scholar of literature, it must be remembered that his first training was in philosophy and that he evidently took a subsequent degree (and a job) in literature only when he failed to obtain a position in philosophy. Thus we happily find a keen philosophical mind in harness with a lively literary mind—and a literary mind both critical and creative, which is another unusual combination.

MC works, then, because Lewis can both show and tell. He can tell us what he thinks we should think, and then make it appear for us in an image that usually lasts long after the middle steps of the argument have vanished from memory. ....

People today do want arguments, but they want them the way Lewis delivered them: in plain language, about issues that matter, in a methodical step-by-step fashion, and with illustrations that literally illustrate and commend the point being made. For scholars to write this way today is at least as much of a challenge as it was in Lewis's day. .... (more)
And Alister McGrath, author of a soon-to-be-published Lewis biography, C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, in an interview with Will Vaus at HarperCollins' C.S. Lewis Blog, makes a similar argument for CSL's effectiveness as Christian apologist. Excerpts:
.... I was an atheist and I came to faith when I came to Oxford. And I think the thing that really drew me to faith was a realization that Christianity made sense of things. It was an intellectual conversion. And when I read Lewis for the first couple of times I welcomed him as an exponent of rational apologetics. He reinforced my sense that Christianity really does make sense of things. But as I read him I realized there was a lot more than that: a lot about the imagination and a lot about experience, longing, yearning, and that didn’t really make much sense to me. But actually, as I grew older, my vision of the Christian faith began to expand. Now, here is what I don’t know.

Was it that by reading Lewis that my vision of Christianity expanded? Or was it that my vision of Christianity was expanding and I found in Lewis someone who spoke to me at multiple levels?. And you know it could be a bit of both. Lewis is a great dialogue partner. What I found was that Lewis really was a writer who helped me deepen my vision of the Christian faith. And because apologetics is very, very important to me Lewis actually gave me lots of new ideas of how I could defend Christianity. I found him very, very stimulating.

He also enriched my vision of personal faith. ....

WV: What do you think is Lewis’ best book?

AM: I would say it’s Mere Christianity. It continues to be very significant. I think Lewis is the master of the shorter essay and therefore there are a number of essays that would be my top picks. Let me tell you the ones I like best. I mentioned “The Weight of Glory.” I keep coming back to that. I think “Is Theology Poetry?” is awfully good. “The Funeral of a Great Myth” I think is very, very powerful. And there are others I could mention. What I find is that when Lewis is limiting himself to a couple of thousand words, he packs a lot in. ....

WV: What is Lewis’ major contribution as an intellectual, as a writer? And what one lesson do you take away from his life?

AM: For Lewis the key criterion is enjoyment. Lewis makes theology enjoyable. How many people can you say that about, that they make theology enjoyable? It’s a huge achievement. From his life, one thing I learned is that the positions Lewis critiques tend to be positions he once held himself. In other words, he’s passed through atheism, skepticism and so on, and in effect is saying, “I’ve got answers that work for me. Now I’m going to work on those and make them work for others as well.” That in effect is saying, “Here’s a way that God is able to gracefully use our life experience and elevate it.” (more)


Greg Lukianoff, the author of a new book about campus censorship, makes a point with which I very much agree about the danger of inhabiting an intellectual echo-chamber — danger that is at least as great for religious believers as for political ideologues. From the interview at Inside Higher Ed:
...[T]he impact of speech codes, of punishments for mildly offensive speech — and, perhaps most importantly, the attitudes that create these restrictions in the first place — dissuade rather than promote students from talking about interesting hot topics and from having those discussions across serious lines of political, ideological, or philosophical difference.

This leads students to replicate a problem that we see in the larger society whereby the safest course of action to avoid controversy or punishment is to surround yourself with people you already agree with politically or ideologically. This behavior gives rise to group polarization, and, as research demonstrates, polarization leads to more groupthink and less critical thinking. ....

Compelling data show that the country as a whole has physically shifted into enclaves, neighborhoods, and cities of the like-minded. My point about higher education’s role is not so much that higher education is solely responsible for creating polarization, but more that it’s our one institution that could be helping us step outside our Internet and broadcast media echo chambers by teaching the difficult but useful intellectual habit of not only hearing the other side, but actually seeking out the intelligent person you disagree with as sort of a check on our own certainty. ....