After the Disco (Or, Some Augustinian Reflections on a Trip to Vegas)

vegas anniversaryThis last week my wife and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary. By the grace of God we’ve managed, however imperfectly, to honor our vows, love each other, point each other to Christ, share a bank account, learn to clean up beard clippings, and put the clip back on the tortilla chips after using them. While there’s plenty to say about three years of marriage learnings, I’d rather take some time to reflect on our celebration–in Vegas.

Yes, just a couple of days after taking our college students on a retreat to focus on the Holiness of God, my wife and I hopped in my parents’ minivan (which, let me say, has legit acceleration and handling) and headed out to the bright lights of Vegas for a couple of nights relaxation and celebration. And yes, for those wondering, there’s enough non-compromising stuff to do there that even a college pastor and his wife can have a good time. Though, I must confess, we lost $1 in the I Love Lucy slot machine out of principle. In any case, we stayed at the Vdara, in the City Center (thank you Hotwire.com!), which was nice because it was in the middle of everything, but as a non-gaming hotel, was still pretty clean and quiet. All in all, it was a lovely little break after a pretty crazy June.

Of course, even though it was a vacation, in the middle of the pool-sitting, eating, walking around, people-watching, and so forth, I was still me, which means that the theological gears kept churning the whole time. What follows are a few, rough thoughts that popped into my head as we Vegased about.

after the disco 2After the Disco: Visions of the Good Life. One of the lessons repeated over and over by types like James K.A. Smith and Kevin Vanhoozer, is that culture is a force that constantly responds to as well as reshapes our desires. One of the main ways it does that is by holding out a vision, or rather various visions, of the “good life”, the life which is truly life, before our eyes and our hearts. These visions are not so much propositional statements like “sex is the meaning of life”, or “money will fulfill you”, but rather they’re portraits, pictures, narratives, and songs that invite you in, and capture your imagination and the affections of your heart. Intellectually you know that statements of the sort made above are shallow and false, and yet, when presented with ads filled with laughing, beautiful, sensual people, clothed in modern finery, cavorting in exotic place, your heart stammeringly mumbles “I want to go to there.”

I go into all of this simply because if it is anything at all, Vegas is one big, high-octane, cocktail of all our culture’s most popular visions, shaken up, stirred, poured out across a city landscape and then lit on fire.

  • Vegas is Money: Cash gets you luxury, the finest suites, the best food, the nicest drinks, and the best entertainment. If you gamble, it even gets your more money!
  • Vegas is Comfort: You deserve the spas, the pools, the comfy beds, and everything that goes into being pampered and all that goes into really living.
  • Vegas is Sex: Just look on the sidewalk, the billboards, the servers, the ads, the clubs, the shows, the…
  • Vegas is Youth: Go to the pool, look at the ads, and everything tells you, to truly enjoy life, you need to be young.

I could go on and on, but, I’ll be honest, when you’re there, in the middle of the beating heart of it all, it’s easy to find your heart starting to beat in sync with the city.

It was fitting, then, that on the way out there, we turned on Broken Bells’ latest album After the Disco, which ended up being a fun yet reflective soundtrack to much of our time there. The title track “After the Disco” in particular caught my attention, especially this one line: “After your faith has let you down / I know you’ll want to run around /And follow the crowd into the night / But after the disco /All of the shine just faded away.” This is the sordid truth behind all other visions of the good life apart from that of the Kingdom of God: eventually the glitz and the shine fades away. If you’ve given your heart over to drink deeply of these visions, eventually the hangover comes, and nothing looks quite as pretty anymore.

StAugustineUse and Enjoyment. All of which reminded me of St. Augustine. See, while I was out there, I actually did a little theological reading (it was vacation!) and was reminded of a very important distinction in Augustine’s thought between uti and frui:

Augustine distinguishes between the final goal of human life, the enjoyment (frui) of God, and the means we use (uti) in order to arrive at that goal (I, i, 1–iv, 9). All that we do or decide not to do must aim at love of God. Everything else we may use only in order to attain that goal. Augustine employs an image to explain what he means. Exiles who wander outside of their homeland are happy only once they are back in their homeland. They do everything in order to return to that land (I, iv, 8). With humankind it is the same. They wander about outside of God, and they must use everything in this world.

–Maarten Wisse, in Willem J. Van Asselt ed. Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Kindle Locations 973-977).

As I sat there eating a very nice breakfast one morning with my wife, it struck me that this was at the heart of what had been nagging at me all weekend as I looked around. See, although Vegas often holds out distorted versions of the various goods mentioned above, most of those goods themselves aren’t bad inherently. Money used wisely and generously can be a blessing. Sex between a husband and wife can be life-giving and joyous. Youth is a gift with particular joys given to all to be valued alongside Age. Comfort can be, well, comforting after hard work and exertion. To be very clear: my wife and I had a lot fun in Vegas. The food was good, the bed was comfy, and we had a lovely time spending time with each other out on the town.

The problem wasn’t so much with the things themselves, but with the place they’re given. In Augustine’s theology, all of these things are good gifts to be used in order to enjoy God as the giver of these gifts. Instead, if Vegas acknowledges God at all, he is the one to be used to enjoy the various gifts as ends in and of themselves. Actually, that’s the source of the distortions. When Sex is the ultimate good to be enjoyed, you eventually come to the point where its natural use reaches its limit; it was never supposed to be more than a gift pointing beyond itself. But when it becomes ultimate, well then, there are no bounds to be observed in your pursuit of it–you have to wring the juice out in every unlawful, twisted fashion you can imagine.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to sex. It’s with anything. If food, or the experience, or comfort, is the ultimate you’re chasing in Vegas, there’s buffets, show upon show upon show, and exclusive spa upon exclusive spa. Incidentally, that’s how they can charge so much–if your coffee is the beginning to your perfect experience, then you’re going to pay the two bucks extra for the exact same cup you get at home.

This is why the lights eventually fade–it never lives up to promise, and the cost eventually takes its toll.

Three shorter observations.

Marriage Changes Things. I felt like marriage changed things for me a bit this time around. Walking around with my wife, my biggest partner in the faith, helped keep the both of us grounded as we saw the beautiful shops and the beautiful people with the beautiful things. Having someone with you who can remind you of the fading and temporal character nature of the things we were enjoying (in the non-Augustinian sense), really makes a difference. I’m not saying that singles can’t go there and have fun without falling into gross sin or something. Still, having the person who most knows your heart, your struggles, your fears, and has your faith in mind can make a world of difference in the way you approach diversion and rest.

People With Stories. That kind of came out as we walked around various shops and restaurants. In one particular case, we sat down for dinner at this hip burger place at the bar (there were no tables available), and had a very lovely time chatting with our bartender. She was a sweet lady, six-months pregnant who talked to us about our marriage, anniversary, time in Vegas, and the blessings of the last few years. It’s easy to forget, everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to run into people with stories and souls who want to be known, loved, and heard. What’s more, even though we didn’t get to share it then and there, opportunities for the Gospel abound–even on vacation.

Stress and True Peace in God. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, though, like my wife and I came off scot-free, using things to enjoy God and loving random strangers for Jesus, as perfect little Christians. Our hearts had to fight off a little Vegas arrhythmia of their own, only in our case, I think we had both temporarily bought into the vision of situational peace. Though everything had been going smoothly enough, there came a moment in the middle of our trip when we realized we weren’t experiencing the peace we thought some time by the pool, maybe a purchase or two, and a nice dinner out were going to provide. Work still loomed. Bodies still ached. The bright lights hadn’t been enough to drown out the dark shadows of certain fears.

So, right there in the middle of the vacation we found ourselves giving it to God and reminding ourselves that He Himself is our peace. Funny enough, it was a little after that we started to enjoy ourselves more freely. Once the expectations of existential peace had been lifted off our vacation, we were to able to receive it for what it was: a good gift pointing to a much greater God. It sounds too picture perfect, but honestly, we enjoyed cheaper food more, laughed easier, stayed out later, and slept deeper that night as Augustine’s exiles, knowing these things were but the tiniest little foretaste of rest to come.

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

Mere Fidelity Cast: Surprised by N.T. Wright

Mere FidelityWell, we finally did it–now that Andrew got back from a jaunt to France, we sat down (figuratively) to chat about N.T. Wright. This will be a two-parter and in this episode we introduce Wright’s work, chat about his popularity, a few criticisms, and so forth. The second will follow up and address Reformed criticisms of Wright’s work. I’ll be honest, this was a fun one that I think you’ll enjoy.

As always, please feel free to share, review, and rate us on iTunes. Also, various show notes are linked over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

God Doesn’t Play Soccer With You (TGC)

soccerLike most suburban kids my age, I played soccer as a child. It’s great, right? Good exercise for young bodies, lessons in sociability, the value of teamwork, sacrifice, frustration, and the joy of a game well-played. It’s also one of the earliest experiences in understanding human choice and action I can remember. Soccer is all about learning to coordinate your own body and mind through instinct and training, as well as that of your teammates and opponents. You pass the ball, they receive it, pass it back, and you shoot. Or they have the ball, you run up, slide-tackle, take the ball, hope the ref doesn’t see it, and you shoot. Such is human agency in little league.

I’ve recently noticed a popular tendency to think of our interactions with God in a similar fashion. Did God do that, or was that me? Did my doctor heal me, or did God? Did I decide to pray, or did God decide that I would pray? We imagine ourselves on a field of sorts, playing soccer with him—either God has the ball to pass, shoot, and dribble, or I do. God might be a much bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter player, and he may take the ball from me at times, or pass it to me depending on the situation. Essentially we’re on the same playing field.

With a version of the soccer-field-God in place, we see disputes flare up as to how God plays the game. Does he monopolize the ball all the time in order to ensure victory, or does he hang back sort of coaching us so we can make real passes and take real shots? Is God totally sovereign and in control of his creation, or does he give us real free will to make choices that matter? We’re then tempted to collapse the tension in one of the two directions depending on our other theological commitments, with disastrous results. Deny freedom and you cut the nerve of moral responsibility leading to apathetic disengagement, while downplaying sovereignty can lead either to panicked efforts or a Hamlet-like paralysis of the will.

I want to suggest, however, that this popular tendency is misguided. While it’s absurd to think we can solve the riddle of human responsibility and divine sovereignty in a short article, there are three classic theological concepts that we must keep in mind if we’re going to avoid the worst mistakes in our thinking on these matters.

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

Sol Deo Gloria

Kevin DeYoung on The 10 Commandments and Moral Orthodoxy

holeinholinessA few weeks ago I wondered aloud about the idea of “moral orthodoxy”–whether there was some sort of corresponding standard of right moral practice that functioned comparably to the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed when it came to theological orthodoxy. Since then, we’ve chatted about the issue with the Mere Fidelity boys, and Trevin Wax has had an extremely helpful post arguing that defending the faith is about life, not just doctrine.

Still, neither of these discussions weighed in on my suggestion that the 10 Commandments ought to be considered as a specific standard summarizing an orthodox Christian moral theology, or whether there was any sort of biblical reasons for thinking it could function that way. Imagine my delight, then, to run across this passage by Kevin DeYoung:

The rule for holiness is the law, in particular the Ten Commandments. Christians don’t always agree on how to view the law (something I’ll say more about in the next chapter), but historically the church has put the Ten Commandments at the center of its instruction for God’s people, especially for children and new believers. For centuries discipleship instruction (catechesis) has been based on three things: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. If you wanted the basics of the Christian faith, you learned these three things. And if you wanted to know how to live a holy life, you followed the law of God summarized in the Ten Commandments.

You may think of the Ten Commandments as a painful memorization exercise for five-year-olds, but the “Ten Words” (or Decalogue) from Exodus 20 are central to the ethics of the New Testament. For Jesus and the apostles, the Ten Commandments provided a basic summary of God’s ethical intentions for everyone everywhere.11 When a rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied, “You know the commandments,” and he listed the commands in the so-called second table of the law (Mark 10:19). The only “horizontal” command he didn’t mention was “do not covet.” And that’s because he wanted to expose the rich man’s greed. True, Jesus used the law in this instance for its convicting power more than anything else, but it still shows the place the Ten Commandments held as a summary of God’s will (cf. 1 Tim. 1:8–11).

We see the same thing in Romans 13:9, where Paul rattles off four of the commandments and makes reference to “any other commandment.” What’s amazing is that Paul says in verse 8, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Then he moves on to the Ten Commandments. Obeying the commandments is how we fulfill the law of love, and love is at the heart of holiness (v. 10). If you care about love you will love to obey the Ten Commandments.

The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Kindle Locations 645-660). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

While DeYoung isn’t looking to weigh in specifically on the question I was asking, his line of argument here seems to give biblical, and especially New Testament heft to my suggestion.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

I Probably Got It From Tim Keller (Or, A Ramble on Plagiarism)

I'm going to re-preach whatever he's saying right now.

I’m going to re-preach whatever he’s saying right now.

My old pastor Mike Erre used to say, “I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I thought I had one once, but then, unsurprisingly I found it in C.S. Lewis.” He was always declaiming the originality of anything he was saying all the while preaching some of the most helpful, creative, biblical sermons I’d ever heard. At first I thought he was just being modest, but as I grew older, read a bit more, and finally had the responsibility of teaching myself, I began to see what he was saying. When it comes to preaching and teaching the Bible, theology, philosophy, or what-have-you, almost everything has been said once before by somebody. I mean, just the other day I was re-reading an old grad-school paper and realized I’d been arguing for something like Calvin’s double-gift theology without ever having read a lick of Calvin.

I bring this up simply because I’ve been thinking a bit about the issue of plagiarism lately. Most of us in the internet blogosphere have. In light of the big plagiarism scandal with several of Mark Driscoll’s works either not attributing clearly-demonstrated dependency on the work of others, or just straight lifting passages, the thing was ugly. What’s more, recent reports seem to indicate that the plagiarization of sermons is on the rise. Pastors are just finding sermons online and  rereading them, or simply parroting their favorite podcasts, effectively doing the same thing.

Now, this raises a number of questions and thoughts for me, so in the, hopefully coherent, ramble that follows, I’d simply like to ask some questions and raise some points for consideration when it comes to the issue of “plagiarism” in blogging, writing, and preaching.

First of all, on the alleged rise in plagiarism, in general, I’m not so sure. I mean, the internet has made it easier to access tons of material and do that sort of thing, but when people talk about the recent rise in it, I’m wondering if certain things aren’t being forgotten. For one thing, we’re more aware of that issue and people are probably paying greater attention now to it. It’s also probably easier to track now than in was before as well. Still, there were plenty of audio tape ministries that probably fed a lot of smaller church pastors with sermons back in the 80s too. Also you gotta consider that because of the internet, Evangelical book/celebrity culture, and so forth, more people are hearing, listening, reading, digesting, and regurgitating the same voices. If that’s the case, it’s not unusual that you’re going to hear the same themes repeated in various sermons in various contexts.

Which raises the issue more formally: what counts as plagiarism in various contexts? Let’s be clear that direct quotes from other people that I lift, copy, and then claim credit for seems to be straight-forward plagiarism. Still, there seem to be some gray areas of confusion. Take citing your sources in preaching. Now, I’ll admit, I tend to like quoting people in sermons because I want my kids to get a desire to read books, it gives some weight, and it’s force of habit from grad school. Still, do I have to mention Tim Keller every time I talk about a “Christ-centered” reading of the texts even though l learned it from him and Edmund Clowney? Or what if I mention the anti-imperial thrust of a certain Pauline text without citing the N.T. Wright commentary I got it from? That doesn’t sound quite right.

Maybe that’s just a function of the preaching context. When you’re preaching, you may not want to go citing a bunch of names and sources because it seems too cluttered. A sermon is not a lecture is not a seminary paper. Your point, in any case, is to preach the text, not Wright’s insight into the text. Or again, in the heat of a sermon, you might make a point about a text and forget who said it so you just preach it. Or what if you have in the general course of study preparation, and so forth, you strike upon an idea, write it down, and completely forget that you originally heard that in a sermon by a popular preacher last year?

A single sermon point might be one thing, but what about a whole sermon structure? For instance, I’ve found myself, at times, hearing a preacher exposit a text in a certain manner that I find compelling and I think, “That right there is something I’m going to preach to my students.” In the few times I have found that I’m following someone else’ basic outline, I think at that point it’s appropriate to say something along the lines of “Joe So-and-So gave me the premise of the sermon I’m preaching this to you today”, or something even more clear. Now, to be honest, I don’t think this should happen very much because it could become a habit you don’t want to fall into. Generally speaking, even when you’re using others’ insights into the texts, you need to be prayerfully working on applying them to your own context anyways. Joe doesn’t know your people and wasn’t called to your church, you were.

More briefly, how do those considerations play out in writing? It seems that a number of those points above would call for some sort of explicit reference. But what about general, widespread concepts, or biblical truths? I’m thinking, for instance, of C.S. Lewis’ analogies in Mere Christianity and his explication of the difference between begetting and making in his section on the Trinity. Lewis got most of that from Athanasius and the other Fathers but he doesn’t do much crediting at all. Is it plagiarism to use the same analogy without referencing them, or just prudence in not wanting to get bogged down even in the writing format? At that point I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s a point when an explanation, or articulation of a text has become the common inheritance of the Christian tradition such that specifying its origin becomes pointless, especially when that’s necessarily where you first heard the point.

At this point it seems prudent to end my ramblings. I suppose it makes sense at this point to issue my own version of my pastor’s disclaimer: if you find me saying anything of intelligence, worth, truth, or edification that I don’t cite outright, just assume I got it from Tim Keller. Beyond that, for other pastors, the best concrete advice I have is do your best to be honest. If you’re worried about a certain instance, err on the side of caution and cite it.

If you have any insights to offer on the subject, please chime in below. This was as much a comment as an invitation to further discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Mere Fidelity Podcast: The End of Nature?

Mere FidelityIn this week’s episode we begin our discussion through some of the questions raised by Oliver O’Donovan’s work Begotten or Made? We’re joined by Dr. Matthew Loftus as our medical expert and contributor, to discuss the issues provoked in this section of text:

When every activity is understood as making, then every situation into which we act is seen as raw material, waiting to have something made out of it. If there is no category in thought for an action which is not artifactual, then there is no restraint in action which can preserve phenomena which are not artificial. This imperils not only, or even primarily, the ‘environment’ (as we patronizingly describe the world of things which are not human); it imperils what it is to be human, for it deprives human existence itself of certain spontaneities of being and doing, spontaneities which depend upon the reality of a world which we have not made or imagined, but which simply confronts us to evoke our love, fear, and worship. Human life, then, becomes mechanized because we cannot comprehend what it means that some human activity is ‘natural’. Politics becomes controlled by media of mass communication, love by analytical or counseling techniques. And begetting children becomes subject to the medical and surgical interventions which are the theme of this book.

As always, feel free to share, and go subscribe to our iTunes RSS. Also, if you have not reviewed or rated us, please take a moment to do so.

Soli Deo Gloria