“I Used To Believe X For Reason Y…” And the Failure of Intellectual Imagination

thinking homerWe seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others. One of the most glaring (and personally annoying) examples of this is on display in many modern “intellectual conversion” narratives. It could be about any issue really, whether politics, or religion, or broader ethical issues, it’s very common to find a thread along the lines of:

“I used to believe position X for stupid, hateful Reason Y.  Reason Y must be only reason to believe position X.”

As I mentioned, it’s the kind of argument you can find in just about any kind of conversion article. I see it most often with stories about conversion on the issue of same-sex marriage in the church, or just in the culture at large. You’ll find an article by a post-Evangelical, or someone else, that goes something like:

You know, I used to be like the rest of my coreligionists. I used to hate gays, and was taught that they were worse than anthrax. I was very insecure about the issue because I felt that they threatened my whole way of being. If I admitted they were properly human, or whatever, then, my whole world would collapse. But that was because I’d never actually met one. Now I have and I realize that they’re kind, gentle, loving people. Also, I found out there are books with Christians who say that same-sex relationship are okay according to the Bible. I never heard any of these arguments, but now I have. So, I’ve changed my mind.

Now, I don’t bring this up to settle the issue of same-sex marriage and so forth. (Honestly, if you try to argue about it in more than a tangential way in the comments, I’m simply going to ignore it or delete it. That’s not the point.) Nor am I saying there isn’t a case to be made along those lines. What I am saying is that the move that comes next is simply a failure of intellectual imagination. You see, what often follows is something like:

See, that’s where people are. This is the only place they can be. These are the only reasons that someone could hold the position that I used to hold.

Because they used to be hateful and insecure in their former intellectual position, everybody must be. Because their opinion was held on the basis of flawed, prejudiced reasoning, everybody’s must be. What never seems to occurs to them is that you could hold a moral opposition to same-sex marriage all the while having no lack of personal warmth, goodwill, and so forth towards gay people. Or, that you could read some of that same scholarship and simply disagree on other intellectual grounds. And yet that really is the case. It’s like a child who only used to believe that the earth revolved round the sun because his mom told him it was spun about by great strings and wires, but upon discovering that there were no strings and wires, thereby came to believe there were no other reasons to believe such a thing.

Again, this happens in other areas too. There’s many an article on Calvinism or Arminianism that covers the same, familiar steps. “I used to be an Arminian because I thought Calvinists were mean and I’d never read Romans 9. But then I read Romans 9 and met a nice Calvinist.” Or, “I used to be a Calvinist, but then Roger Olson told me about free will and John 3:16. If only people would read John 3:16 and read Roger Olson, nobody would be a Calvinist.”  Of course, these are ridiculously simplified, but you get the point.

This, as I said, is a failure of the intellectual imagination, and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and I’d love others to weigh in on), it’s one that seems increasingly common. I will say that I’m fairly sure that it has something to do with the narcissism of human experience. The story we know best is our own and our human tendency is to shrink the world to fit our experiences. We take our personal stories, and instead of seeing them as one, particular, unique experience, we expand them out and unjustifiably universalize them. Did you have a bad time in a repressive, stale, and abusive Evangelical church? That must be all of Evangelicalism. Did your belief in God’s sovereignty collapse in the face of tragedy? Everybody’s must.

I suppose this is merely another angle on the problem with the absolutizing of personal experience that Alastair Roberts has brought up before and his argument that we maybe need to pump the brakes on how much we press the importance of personal narrative in theologizing. Still, I don’t want to entirely rule out the valid place that our own story has to play in the discovery of truth. My friend Preston had a very thoughtful post yesterday on the idea of midrash in exegesis. Ironically enough, though, it highlighted from a different angle the danger that occurs when we place an overemphasis on our own story as the locus of truth and meaning. By assuming everyone’s intellectual experience must be just like ours, we end up invalidating the intellectual and moral experiences of others that don’t fit our paradigm.

This, as I’ve mentioned before, is another reason to prioritize Scripture in our theological reasoning. As Bavinck reminded us, personal confession and experience is inevitably part of our reflections. Still, by focusing our reasoning and reflection on Scripture, we are submitting our own experiences, logics, and so forth, to the only Story or Word, that has any claim to be comprehensive enough to include, correct, and make sense of them all–God’s own.

Well, once again I’ve rambled far longer than I intended. For what it’s worth, don’t be an intellectual narcissist. Before you go extrapolating your own former experiences, thought processes, and prejudices to those who hold positions you used to, stop, have an actual conversation with them. You might be surprised at the results.

Soli Deo Gloria

Dating Advice You Actually Need (TGC)

I’ve been working in youth ministry in some capacity for roughly eight years, and this is one of the most common questions I’ve fielded from young Christians: “How can (insert boyfriend/girlfriend) and I have a Christian dating relationship? How do we keep it centered on Christ?” As often I’ve heard it, I still love the the heart behind the question. A couple of youngins’ get to dating, and they want to “do it right.” They realize that God is concerned with every aspect of our lives, including our romantic involvements, so they’ve resolved to have a “Christian” dating relationship and sought guidance.

Realizing that practical steps matter, most often they want tips or steps they can take to build their relationship in Christ. “Should we call each other and pray daily? What about a devotional? Should we buy a devotional and go through it together? Maybe have a weekly Bible study?” If the young man’s of a theological bent, he shows up with a potential 10-week preaching series already outlined. (Protip: this last one is definitely not a winning approach.)

At that point, one of the first things I usually tell them is that there’s really no “biblical theology” of dating tucked away the book of Relationships 4:5-20. There are some rather obvious tips like praying for each other in your daily devotions, encouraging each other to read the Scriptures, setting appropriate boundaries (emotional, spiritual, and so on), and pursuing sexual holiness. But aside from that, there’s no real, hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing.

Still, over the years I’ve come to see that there is one key mark of a maturing relationship centered and continually centering itself on Christ: both of you are absolutely committed to each other’s involvement in the local church.

You can read the rest of this over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

What follows is the introduction to a short essay for Canon and Culture. For regular readers, I’ll say that I consider this one of the most important things I’ve written–it’s a message that weighs on my heart, so I hope you’ll take the time to read carefully. Also, I’d like to thank Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who graciously offered comments on it. The smart parts are his. 

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

doctrineofgodA.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But it’s not only it’s not just that need to choose whether or not we believe that’s the problem, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualites being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Love, Pray. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the warmed-over leavings of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God get’s the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology:Divine Action, Passon, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem for the Church’s public, moral witness.

You can read the rest of my essay over at Canon and Culture

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Quick Thoughts on America, the 4th, and The Gospel

This was originally going to be a few quick thoughts on Facebook, but apparently that’s impossible for me. So, here are a four quickish thoughts on America, the 4th, patriotism, and so forth.

1. I love America. It’s my home and I know I’m blessed to live here for a number of reasons whether historical, political, economic, and so forth. The freedoms granted and the high ideals (however poorly executed at times) bound up with the American idea stirs the heart. I’ll admit, I pledge to the flag and still stand when I hear the national anthem. I don’t think loving Jesus, confessing him as Lord of all creation, means I have to hate or disavow my country, or refuse to celebrate it in any way shape, or form. In fact, to refuse to do so entirely may be a form of gross ingratitude towards God. Nor do I think it rules out being a good citizen, praying for my nation, voting, and so forth. In fact, it probably requires those things as part of my duty to love my neighbor through promoting the common good.

2. America is a gift from God, not God. Think that through. God is eternal, self-existent, holy, loving, righteous, pure, omnipotent, gracious and my sole hope, strength, savior, final end, and source of all good. America is not. It is a finite, created, thing and needs to be evaluated as such. It is a “power” that participates both in the common grace blessings of God as well as the fallenness common to both human and non-human reality this side of the 2nd Coming. Those who can’t see the good, glory, and blessing in America’s history and structure have an overly pronounced Nietzschian squint. Those who can’t see the sin, the shame, and darkness in it probably need to take off their Red, White, and Blue colored glasses.

leithart3. America is not “God’s New Israel”, nor is it in any sense analogous to the Church. Without delving too deeply in on the subject, I’ll just say that the only options for orthodox Christians looking to be faithful to God’s word is to see Israel as Israel, or, as I hold, the transnational, universal Church as the Jew + Gentile reality of the new Israel brought together in the body of the Messiah, the True Israel. I’m sorry, but the US figures nowhere in biblical eschatology. Any attempt to paint America’s redemptive-historical place in world history as anything more positive than a modern-day Persian Empire (think Cyrus), used like any other nation in God’s providential ordering of history, is false to the Bible and possibly an ecclesiological heresy Peter Leithart has termed “Americanism.” If this is something you’re tempted towards–especially on American Holy Days where we celebrate our creation myths, laud our national saints, and participate in American liturgical ceremonies–I’d recommend you pick up his book Between Babel and Beast and get to repenting, right quickish. While I don’t follow Leithart everywhere he goes, but it’s edifying and eye-opening read.

4. America is not who we worship at Church. I’ll admit, like a lot of other young Evangelicals, I’m a bit allergic to patriotic services. At an old church of mine, I had to walk out of one in an attempt to hold on to my breakfast because “America! America! All the America!” was the gist of the whole thing. I’ve also got a strong sense that having an American flag up on stage next to the Cross of Christ borders on sacrilege. Still, I’m not opposed to a prayer for the nation (which is biblical, cf. 1 Timothy 2:2), and maybe a song of gratitude or something. That said, if you’re a pastor planning on having a patriotic service, please slow down and consider at least 3 questions before you proceed on Sunday:

  1. Do your parishioners know the theological difference between the Kingdom and the Nation, and the proper ordering of their loyalties?
  2. Would Christians of other nations feel utterly bewildered and unwelcome in your service?
  3. Would people be tempted to conclude that God’s election of America as a nation is the greatest saving event in history, or the life, death, and resurrection of the Son is?

What, then, is the end of the matter? Go ahead and have fun tomorrow. Be grateful. Light off fireworks. Eat good food. But in the middle of the BBQs, parades, and fanfare, remember that God is God, Christ is Lord, and America is a finite, temporal gift to be grateful for, but never worshipped or set apart in the heart as a final end in itself.

In other words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:23)

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Transgender Question

Well, on this week’s Mere Fidelity cast, Alastair, Matt, and I continue our conversation through O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? by wading into the transgender issue that’s been on everyone’s mind of late.

Mere FidelityHere’s the big quote we read at the beginning:

The sex into which we have been born (assuming that it is physiologically unambiguous) is given to us to be welcomed as a gift of God. The task of psychological maturity–for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire–involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems.  Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations.  

Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic (though I suppose that no human being alive has been without some sexual problems) are in no position to pronounce any judgment on those for whom accepting their sex has been a task so difficult that they have fled from it into denial.  No one can say with any confidence what factors have made these pressures so severe.  

Nevertheless, we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits.  Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature–to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given. And that implies that we must make the necessary distinction between the good of the bodily form as such and the various problems that it poses to us personally in our individual experience.  This is a comment that applies not only to this very striking and unusually distressing problem, but to a whole range of other sexual problems too. 

Also, as usual, feel free to subscribe at iTunes, or leave a review or rating. Thanks!

Soli Deo Gloria

Naming the “New Calvinism” And What Counts As One?

Dr. Jones and Daniel Montgomery also authored this very helpful book on grace.

Dr. Jones and Daniel Montgomery also authored this very helpful book on grace.

Over the last few months there’s been an uptick in online conversation about what to call the movement associated with organizations like The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, readers of John Piper, and so forth. Actually, ironically enough, it’s mostly the critics who need a name–most people in the movement don’t really care. Still, some would call them New Calvinists, or Neo-Calvinists, or Neo-Puritans, or for those with sharper knives, even Neo-Fundamentalists. For my money, the best entry into the discussion comes via Dr. Timothy Paul Jones who argues for some sort of “Neo-Reformed” moniker.

After a lively historical intro, tracing why the other terms are all inadequate, Jones says we’d probably have to name it “Neo-Dortianism” since what we’re seeing is a the disembedding of the theology of salvation articulated at the Synod of Dordt (held in response to the Arminian Remonstrants), from its original Reformed home. Still, since that probably won’t get much traction, Neo-Reformed will do:

That said, it seems to me that the most accurate descriptor would be “Dortianism” or, if some prefix must be affixed to denote the distinct contours of the current movement, “neo-Dortianism” (see chart below for this taxonomy). Unfortunately, I don’t expect “Dortianism” to blossom into anyone’s preferred terminology anytime soon.* The events at Dort are too obscure and the term itself sounds too distasteful to end up emblazoned on anyone’s book cover. (Do you really think that Young, Restless, Dortian would have attracted anywhere near the number of readers that Young, Restless, Reformed did?) And so, of the options that are intelligible beyond a handful of theologians and church historians, “neo-Reformed”—though not without its difficulties—probably remains the least problematic nomenclature in an ever-multiplying pool of possibilities. And perhaps part of what the less-than-ideal “neo-” prefix could connote is the spread of Reformed soteriology not only within but also beyond the historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

This movement is best seen, though, as one minuscule current in a much broader stream that may be traced back into church history through an early seventeenth-century gathering of pastors in the Dutch city of Dort. Seeing the Reformed resurgence in this way turns our attention away from the latest parachurch conferences and star preachers and toward a far more vast and variegated history filled with events none of us could have planned and progenitors we would never have chosen. Recalling this crazy history in which the Remonstrants shaped the Reformed and “Calvinism” somehow leaped from caconym to compliment keeps us from slipping into smug self-satisfaction with passing illusions of success. It calls us to remember that we are nothing more than a few grains of sand in a majestic divine plan that’s far greater than any of us but that somehow by grace includes us. It calls us to bow in worship as we remember anew that we serve a God who is inscribing on everyone who rests in him—not only the Reformed but also the partly Reformed, the non-Reformed, the anti-Reformed, and a multi-hued multitude that’s never heard of the Reformation—the only name that ultimately matters: his own name and the name of his crucified Son (Revelation 22:4). “For what do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if everything you have was given to you, why brag as if it wasn’t a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

After that edifying ending, I’m sure you’ll want to read the whole thing here.

There is one question I have, though, and that’s “What counts as a Neo-Reformed type?”

I ask mostly because I’ve never really considered myself having come fully into the “neo-Reformed” or “New Calvinist” paradigm in the usual way. I mean, for me it was “Reformedish” by way Plantinga, Calvin, Vanhoozer, and some Keller, rather than Piper and so forth. (Nothing against Piper.) What I mean is that I was far more drawn in by Calvin’s view of the Supper, union with Christ, and so forth before providence, and only more recently have I been reconciling myself to more classic soteriology. Still, I write for TGC and have a twitter account, so I guess that makes me part of it?  Is it that I’m under 40, male, enjoyer of hoppy beverages, and bearded? (Conditions which all obtained before I considered myself Reformed, thank you every much.)

I guess I still don’t know exactly what makes you neo-Reformed as opposed to simply being new at being Reformed.

Feel free to read the article and then weigh in below!

Soli Deo Gloria

Death Without Hope in Japan’s Valley of the Dolls (Think Christian)

Japan-valley-of-dolls-150x101There’s a village in Japan where there are more dolls than people. Fritz Schumann’s short documentary Valley of Dolls, embedded below, tells the story.

Nagoro, a small town situated in the Shikoku valleys, once was prosperous and lively, thriving off of the local industry connected to the nearby dam. Hundreds dwelt there. When Ayano Tsukimi returned to her home village 11 years ago, though, she found it dwindling, as older residents had passed away and the young had moved out to the cities in search of work.

In order to fill time on her return, Tsukimi decided to make a life-size scarecrow based on her father. Now, 10 years later, she’s made more than 350 of these beautiful and haunting dolls to replace the people who have died or moved away. The figures fill the town.

You can read my reflections on this town over at Think Christian.

Soli Deo Gloria

That One Time I Was On the White Horse Inn: Sustainable Discipleship

Michael Horton and I are #besties.

Michael Horton and I are #besties.

True Story: I had the privilege of sitting in with the great Dr. Michael Horton on the White Horse Inn radio show a little while back. They’ve been going through a series on the state of youth ministry in the church and so they invited me to join with pastor Brian Thomas to chat about the challenges and promise reaching out and ministering to young adults in our context. Here’s the WHI description:

How should we disciple young adults? Though some are aware of the problems with entertainment based youth ministry, many are fearful that content based or catechetical approaches will leave kids bored and disengaged. Is this actually true, or should we challenge these assumptions? I’ll be discussing these important questions with Derek Rishmawy and Brian Thomas. -

So there you go. You can listen to the full audio of that program here:

Or go to their website for the audio and a list of helpful resources.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is it Okay to Pastor the “Small” Problems Too?

single personLast week I had a piece published at the Gospel Coalition on the subject of gluttony, though not the typical gluttony of excess, but rather the gluttony of nice things. I also noted the temptation to that sort of thing present in craft beer, organic, kale, etc. foodie trends that are popular (and that I mostly enjoy!). Well, while it was largely well-received, there were a few nay-sayers.

Why the protest? Well, a few reasons, but the one that really got my attention was the challenge along the lines “You know, you really ought to be dealing with the bigger issue here which is the gluttony of excess. You sit here nit-picking foodies and people who care about their health, but you don’t go after the real obesity epidemic connected to fast food a cruddy foods.” Or again, one that came up a couple of times, “This is the kind of sin that only wealthy, American hipster types with disposable cash would care about.”

What do we say to this? Well, my first retort in a couple of cases was the all-too-obvious “methinks the lady doth protest too much” factor. When you step on someone’s idol–organic or not–they tend to react defensively. But we’ll leave that sort of ad hominem, though likely accurate, argument to the side. Pushing deeper, my question then becomes, “Okay, say the gluttony of excess is the bigger problem. Also, let’s concede that the gluttony of daintiness is the sort of thing that only a middle-class, hipster kid with disposable cash is tempted by. What of it?”

In essence, my question becomes, “Is it okay to pastor the small sins too?”

There is a sort of pragmatism that I find can infect our thinking about pastoral care, preaching, or the witness of the church in these cases. We have this sense that, if the sin isn’t “big” enough, or effect enough people, then we shouldn’t waste our time thinking about it, or addressing it in print. I think this is, quite frankly, nonsense. As a pastor and preacher of the Word of God, I have responsibility to deal any and all issues, big or small, that tempt or draw our hearts away from the Lord. If I only ever addressed the “biggest issues”, I’d probably have to spend every week preaching about sex and money and never get to anything else the Bible addresses, leaving large swathes of the human heart un-addressed.

Beyond that, I have responsibility of thinking of my context. I happen to pastor in an area that has a good chunk of upper middle-class, hipster types with disposable incomes who deal with these sorts of temptations. Am I allowed to address a pastoral word to them? Or do only the majority of Americans, or maybe global citizens need God’s Word addressed to their hearts? Obviously, the question is answered as soon as it is asked. If I followed the logic of only addressing the issues that the majority of people face, I’d never address the challenges that employers, or business owners have, since the majority of people only struggle with the challenges of being an employee. We could follow that logic out in a number of different directions.

The one danger that I would say that pastors need to beware of is using some of these “smaller” issues, or more specific issues, that ding less of your congregation, in order to preach hard on sins that most of your people don’t struggle with. That is a real danger and that’s been at the heart of some of the challenges of inconsistency on the part of progressives on sexuality with respect to same-sex marriage. If you’re going to preach about same-sex sin, you better be challenging your congregation on fornication and divorce as well. And I suppose, if you’re going to talk about daintiness, you better address excess.

Still, that said, don’t be afraid to address the “small” sins. Somebody in your congregation probably struggles with them, others might be tempted by them, and often-times you don’t know the way addressing “smaller” issues will shape the way your people will respond to your preaching on the larger ones.

Soli Deo Gloria

Godzilla and the Salvific Destruction of God (TGC)

la_ca_0505_godzillaGodzilla–King of the Monsters. Born from the fallout of the Bomb, the original incarnation stood as the grotesque apotheosis of the atomic power we’d unleashed in the Second World War. Reflecting the atomic age’s ambivalence about our destructive capabilities, the now-iconic figure would appear in multiple roles across the 20-something movies that were made after Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 film. Appearing as an unmitigated villain in one, the leviathan would play savior against the threat of worse monsters in another, and lesser of two evils in the next. Beyond being fun monster flicks, the movies drawing on the Godzilla mythos represent various answers to the question, “What hath man wrought?”

Reframing the question, Gareth Edwards new Godzilla film recasts the monster as a part of the natural order. Godzilla and the behemoths he fights are ancient beasts from another, wilder, primordial age. They are stand as beings beyond our ken and our grasp. We could not create something of this magnitude and it is folly to think think could control them. They are Other. Indeed, as Ken Watanabe’s scientist character, Serizawa, says in what stands as the thesis line for the whole film, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is under our control…”

Now, before anybody gets the impression that Godzilla is either masterful, or pretentious, it’s not. Edwards knows he’s making a summer monster movie and does a bang-up job of it. Huge, improbable monster fights, the destruction of cityscapes, and cinematic havoc. Still, sitting there in the theater, beholding the devastation, it’s impossible not to let the Edwards’ reframing of the question recast the destruction in a theological light.

You see, because just like the God of Israel, Godzilla brings destruction in order to save.

You can read the rest of this over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria