Category: Things Come Lately

Bugs in “God 2.0″?

September 24th, 2014 — 2:25pm

I give you Lane Filler of Newsday“Isn’t it about time for God 2.0?”

And the response of a local pastor . . .

Dear editor:

The title of Lane Filler’s opinion piece from last evening betrays perhaps more than he realizes. “God 2.0” would (Filler tells us) be an upgrade – but the real question is, who’s producing and/or testing these various iterations? If, as Filler assumes, the iterations originate with us humans, then we should ask who’s competent to decide the features of “God 2.0.” The answer in Filler’s piece is clear enough: an enlightened “we” who “now know better” than all the religious simpletons still stuck in beta. This enlightened caste looms large in Filler’s article – note the flurry of first person plural pronouns. He’s a deep and earnest believer in their pronouncements. He should be. He counts himself in their blessed number.

I’m more interested, though, in his underlying assumption: that the God versions originate with us. I wonder if he’s even aware that this assumption – without which his entire essay is nonsense – is an unproven dogma of materialist atheism. If there is no God and we’re all just making up this religion thing as we go, then there could be such a thing as “God 2.0.” If, on the other hand, we’re not making God but rather He made us, then we don’t get to decide who He is, how He needs to change, or what He’s allowed or not allowed to say and do. In fact, something like real humility might be in order.

The resolution of this “if” question is crucial to everything Filler wants to say, yet he never mentions it – whether from ignorance or hubris, it’s hard to tell. I for one couldn’t care less what he likes about his “God 2.0” until he can show that it’s more than a religious fantasy, a bit of shareware he likes to run when he yearns “for more morality and spirituality.”

Yours sincerely,


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On the Future of Protestantism

May 9th, 2014 — 11:56am

Ah, the busy life of a pastor. I’ve only now (by Internet standards, eons after the event) finished viewing the “Future of Protestantism” discussion held at Biola University on April 30. The participants, as all will know who followed the significant hype leading up to the event and who are still viewing the stream of postgame analysis, were Dr. Peter Leithart of the Trinity House Institute, Dr. Fred Sanders of Biola University, and Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary; the conversation was moderated by Peter Escalante of the Davenant Trust.

Just two quick thoughts, mostly for my own benefit (taking notes while things are still fresh in my mind):

First, while I realize the discussion was perhaps geared in a different, more open-ended direction, I thought it would have benefited from a more clearly defined set of questions. The grist for the interaction was Dr. Leithart’s November 2013 First Things article, “The End of Protestantism” and his opening remarks at the event itself; but this left such a breadth of subject matter that by the end it had become clear that the participants were to some extent talking past each other.

Second, a specific issue that I wish could have been more clearly identified is the distinction between the being and the wellbeing of a Christian church. Dr. Leithart, it seemed to me, was predominantly interested in what qualifies a church to be regarded as a Christian church. He wanted to talk about the boundaries, the circumference of the people of God.

Dr. Trueman championed the issue of the wellbeing of the church, expressing grave reservations not about the brotherhood of the Roman and Orthodox communions but about their faithfulness, about their spiritual health and the health of those who live under their pastoral care. He wanted to talk not about the circumference but about the center of the Christian church, the gospel, and the relative fidelity of various communions to that gospel.

Understandably, then, when it came to talking about theology, Leithart looked primarily to the early ecumenical creeds. These, in his view, establish the doctrinal boundaries of the church. Trueman was concerned that this “relativizes” the subsequent theological developments of the Reformation, placing doctrines such as sola fide and assurance in a “different order” than the early doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Leithart’s rejoinder was to ask if the Reformational doctrines are to become tests of brotherhood; in his mind, this would lead to the “Protestant tribalism” he deplores. This, I think, showed the difficulty in the whole debate: the parties really were talking about different things. The issue of what makes a Christian church is different from the issue of what makes a healthy Christian church. We may not need the doctrines of the Reformation to identify the boundaries of the Christian church (that is a matter for ongoing debate), but I for one would want to argue that these doctrines are enormously important for the health of the church (esse, bene esse, and all that).

Anyway, I hope the discussion continues to the profit of all; it has certainly given me a lot to think and pray about so far.

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What to do with our culture

October 21st, 2013 — 9:17pm

I know a lot of Christians right now who are struggling to come to terms with what’s happening to the moral fabric of our culture. Where are current trends taking us? What does the future hold? How should we respond to what’s happening now, and how should we prepare for the future?

This interview with John Piper and Doug Wilson addresses the questions many of us are asking. It’s long (about two hours), but if you take the time to listen to it, you will certainly profit, and hopefully it will encourage you. There’s a lot to ponder, and (in my opinion) an enormous amount of seasoned pastoral wisdom. You won’t agree with everything either man says, but I think you’ll be impressed by the courage, graciousness, and prudence with which each of them speaks to the moral issues of our time. Enjoy!

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Death by email

February 2nd, 2013 — 1:18pm

Someday I bet we’ll see books with great titles like Death by Email, because it’s hard to believe the people who were smart enough to create email weren’t smart enough to think about what it would do to average workers like me. Think about this. How would you feel if every single day, thirty or forty times a day, someone walked into your office/cubicle/study and dropped a pile of work on your desk? And here are the rules: you can’t close your door, you can’t stop any of these people from walking in or leaving the work on your desk; and in fact you must do something with whatever they’ve left for you (even if it’s just taking it to the trash so your desk doesn’t look like a paper bomb went off at the end of the day). Would you put up with this? No chance. But that’s precisely what happens in my inbox every waking day of my life. And the idiots who invented email never thought that some of us would like to be able – just now and then – to not receive emails. We’d like to be able to do more than post an automatic response like: “Hi, I’m out of the office, but please, keep dumping your stuff on my desk so I can sort it all out when I get back.” Some of us would like to be able to suspend our receptivity for a day or two at a time, and make the sender re-send his or her crap when we actually feel like having our workday invaded by all the work everyone else in the world thinks we should be doing. We’d like a modicum of control. Just a smidge, mind you, a little something to make us feel like self-directed humans again. I say this as an email user, well aware that email is nearly passé. Think of all the other, more efficient ways we’ve found to digitally put work in other people’s workspaces!

[Deep breath.] Sometimes you just gotta rant for a minute. . . .

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In short, yes

April 4th, 2012 — 9:49am

This month’s edition of Ordained Servant Online includes an article by Dr. David Noe bearing the provocative title, “Is There Such a Thing as Christian Education?” Because the stakes are so high in what he has written, I’m responding with a post that is considerably longer than usual.

Dr. Noe seeks to mount an effective (and in his mind, it seems, somewhat overdue) assault on “that last noun-stronghold where the adjective ‘Christian’ shelters and where many thinking Christians wish to keep it protected,” namely, education. The adjective “Christian,” he argues early in his article, has been attached most unhelpfully to all sorts of nouns, not only without adding any real meaning to these nouns, but actually with the effect of muddling their meaning.

What, for instance (he asks), is the difference between bicycling and “Christian” bicycling? Or piano practice and “Christian” piano practice? Or volleyball and “Christian” volleyball? If we cannot discern how attaching “Christian” to such nouns makes any difference, other than to create the misimpression that (say) the motion of bump/set/spike changes because one believes in Jesus, should we not abandon the adjective? But then, why stop here? Is it not in the interests of semantic economy to unburden other nouns, such as “philosophy” and “art”? Doesn’t one read the same text of Gorgias whether one is a Christian or not? Doth not the Christian and the pagan potter throw the same clay? Who then can meaningfully speak of “Christian” or “non-Christian” philosophy or art?

With all of this in hand, Dr. Noe finally reaches out to grasp his intended quarry: there can be (he says) nothing distinctively “Christian” about either the process or the result of the activity for which we employ the noun “education.” For instance, “the fact that I am a Christian would make no observable difference in either process or result when it comes to educating students in Plato.” From this it follows: “the most we can say about ‘Christian education’ is that it is education delivered or provided by Christians. . . . [In saying that, we are] saying nothing distinguishable either about the process or the result of that process.”

I retrace Dr. Noe’s steps in this way, because I wish it to be clear that I have understood him. Quite clearly, in fact. And having understood him, I don’t know which appalls me more: his argument, or the fact that this argument is being presented without so much as a hint that it reflects anything other than the mainstream of thought in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I, for one, wish to register my dissent from Dr. Noe’s argument and his conclusion in the strongest possible terms, and I am fully confident that I am not the only minister in the OPC who would wish to do so.

Is it in fact the case that the bread of “education” simply is what it is, and that being a disciple of Jesus Christ determines nothing more than the jam one prefers on one’s bread? That is precisely what Dr. Noe is saying: the text of Plato is the text of Plato, the teaching of Plato is the teaching of Plato, and while one may dab on here or there the condiment of Christianity, this has nothing to do with the substance of one’s learning, or the process by which it is learned.

What is completely absent from this analysis is a biblically holistic understanding of education. One could, I suppose, reduce “education” to mere data input. One could perhaps even call such data input “the acquisition of knowledge.” What one could not do is derive such an educational model from the anthropology presented in scripture. Man, in biblical terms, is never simply a receptacle for data; he is called to bear the image of God in understanding, discernment, and wisdom; and the formative processes of God’s covenant with His people, especially when they are still young, are all directed at the inculcation not simply of information but of everything meant by wisdom. (As an aside, it is remarkable that Dr. Noe, a classicist, fails even to mention Christian interaction with the classical trivium in terms of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.) Data neither exists in the raw, nor is it ever learned in the raw; it is always discovered and mastered within an interpretive framework (a “worldview,” to deploy the overused term). The same may be said of the development of various skills: all are learned within an interpretive and teleological context, within the context of a worldview. Here I don’t think I can improve on the words of J. Gresham Machen, who said of the “freedom” granted by government schools for hours of religious instruction:

But what miserable makeshifts all such measures, even at the best, are! Underlying them is the notion that religion embraces only one particular part of human life. Let the public schools take care of the rest of life – such seems to be the notion – and one or two hours during the week will be sufficient to fill the gap which they leave. But as a matter of fact the religion of the Christian man embraces the whole of his life. Without Christ he was dead in trespasses and sins, but he has now been made alive by the Spirit of God; he was formerly alien from the household of God, but has now been made a member of God’s covenant people. Can this new relationship to God be regarded as concerning only one part, and apparently a small part, of his life? No, it concerns all his life; and everything that he does he should do now as a child of God.

It is this profound Christian permeation of every human activity, no matter how secular the world may regard it as being, which is brought about by the Christian school and the Christian school alone. I do not want to be guilty of exaggerations at this point. A Christian boy or girl can learn mathematics, for example, from a teacher who is not a Christian; and truth is truth however learned. But while truth is truth however learned, the bearing of truth, the meaning of truth, the purpose of truth (even in the sphere of mathematics) seem entirely different to the Christian from that which they seem to the non-Christian; and that is why a truly Christian education is possible only when Christian conviction underlies not a part, but all, of the curriculum of the school. True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life – those are great central convictions that underlie the Christian school. (“The Necessity of the Christian School”)

This is not difficult to illustrate, using adjectives other than “Christian.” My background prior to the ministry was in law, and there is no doubt that the Bill of Rights is the Bill of Rights whether one studies it at UC Berkeley or Regent University. One could therefore try to make the case that the adjectives “progressive” and “conservative” are meaningless as applied to constitutional jurisprudence. That would be news to the faculty and students at either institution.

Or one might say that because Yale Divinity School and Westminster Theological Seminary use the same Greek New Testament, the adjectives “evangelical” and “non-evangelical” are vacuous in New Testament studies. Dr. Noe actually says something very like this: “Presumably a very bright non-Christian reasoning consistently, diligently and with complete access to the basic data of special revelation, can more often reach sound and valid conclusions than the most devout yet dim-witted believer on the topic of our Lord’s incarnation.” As a plank in his overall argument, I find this simply bizarre: are we really prepared to say that because some non-Christians bring a higher IQ to the Bible than some Christians, and because everyone is using the same Bible, there is no significant difference between a “Christian” and a “non-Christian” understanding of our Lord’s Incarnation? I wonder: should the pastor with an average IQ offer his Sunday school class to the brilliant pagan from the local divinity school, because the biblical data of the Incarnation is the same no matter who teaches it?

Or let us suppose the educational subject matter at hand is sexuality. The facts are the facts, for Christians and non-Christians alike; yet I can hardly imagine a Christian parent who wouldn’t insist on presenting those “facts” within a decidedly “Christian” context. Here as elsewhere, the “facts” are never in the raw; it makes a universe of difference whether they’re learned within the context of the fear of the Lord, or not. If that is true in sex education, it’s true in all education. There is no sphere of learning in which the child of God is not called and commanded to love the Lord his God with all of his mind. There is an educational process that aims at this result, and there is an educational process that undermines it. The one is Christian; the other is not.

Our fathers in the OPC have made this case even more strongly than I have done here. Cornelius Van Til, for example, had this to say on the issue of educational method:

Here, too, the temptation besets us that we should be very keen to watch the methods that are used around us. Now this too is in itself altogether commendable and necessary. It is commendable because every good soldier should know the tactics of the enemy. It is commendable too because perhaps some of the methods used by the enemy may be transformed and used by us. But transformed they must always be. We cannot afford to say that if only we place a different content before our pupils we need not worry about the form because the form is neutral. If a glass has contained carbolic acid you do not merely pour it out in order then to give your child a drink of water. How much more impossible will it be to take a non-Christian spiritual content and pour it out of its form in order to use the latter for the pouring out of a definite Christian-theistic content? The connection between form and matter is too much like that of skin and flesh to allow for the easy removal of the one without taking something of the other. It is incumbent on us to be on our guard with respect to the educational methods of our opponents. We can never, strictly speaking, use their methods. We can use methods that appear similar to theirs, but never can we use methods that are the same as theirs.

So, then, our conclusion with respect to the educational philosophies and the educational policies that surround us is that we must be intensively and extensively negative or we can never be intensively and extensively positive in the Christian-theistic sense of the term. The fundamental principle of the antithesis upon which Christianity is built demands nothing less than that. We must more and more dare to be consistently peculiar in our educational policies. If we dare to be peculiar we will be “peculiar” in the eyes of the world, to be sure, but we will not be “peculiar” in the eyes of God. If we are not peculiar, we will be “peculiar” in the eyes of God and be twice “peculiar” in the eyes of the world. (“Antitheses in Education,” emphasis on original)

These are sage words, and we would do well to heed them for the sake of our children’s children.

Given the idiosyncratic and highly controversial nature of what Dr. Noe has put forward, it is my hope that Ordained Servant will provide opportunity for those who firmly disagree to respond, especially where their dissenting views are well-pedigreed in OPC history.

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Faithlessness almost natural

November 16th, 2011 — 3:50pm

“Modern pluralism not only represents a multiplicity of ways of perceiving and comprehending the world but also a multiplicity of plausibility structures that make those perceptions credible in the first place. Put another way, fragmentation not only occurs among worldviews, but in the social structures that support those worldviews. The number and variety of cultural systems means that the social conditions supporting any particular belief system are necessarily weaker. Belief is certainly possible, but it is necessarily different. The confidence borne from beliefs that are taken for granted typically gives way to belief plagued by ambivalence and uncertainty. The uncertainty is not a matter of insufficient will or deficient commitment but a natural social psychological reaction to weakened plausibility structures. In such circumstances, one is no longer enveloped by a unified and integrated normative universe but confronted by multiple and fragmented perspectives, any or all of which may seem, on their own terms, eminently credible. This social situation obligates one to choose, but once the choice is made – given the ubiquitous presence of alternatives in a market culture oriented toward consumer choice – one must reaffirm that choice again and again. These are social conditions that make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural.” (James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, pp. 202–203)

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Those blasted purists

September 2nd, 2011 — 11:33am

Readers wishing to learn how to make a wax nose out of history should consult Timothy Egan’s article in yesterday’s Times, “Purists Gone Wild.” He recently finished reading Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, a “haunting and entertaining book on Prohibition,” so he tells us, and Okrent’s “gallop through one of the most otherworldly episodes in American history” made our poor Opinionator “shudder at the parallels to this age.”

What, you ask, might these be? Well, don’t strain your imagination. The Prohibitionists make Egan think of “the increasingly unpopular Tea Party” – who else?

What (he asks with Okrent) could possibly have led people a century ago to embrace such a “social engineering nightmare” as Prohibition? “How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions since the first European colonists arrived in the New World?” I confess, my first thought on reading this was what Egan’s question might have to do with Obamacare, but for some reason his mind went elsewhere: how can freedom-loving people be so enamored of a political outfit (think headdresses and barrels of tea) that promises “to amend the Constitution in several ways to take away freedoms”? One such amendment “would prevent gays from ever getting married. Another would outlaw a woman’s right to decide when to end a pregnancy.” And so on.

Which just goes to show what a difference presuppositions make. My assumption (whether shared by the Tea Party, I couldn’t say) is that government is accountable to a higher and divine Lawgiver; that its laws must be good in His eyes; and that where it has not been given jurisdiction to act, it has no authority to act. (I know, I’m about 150 years behind the times, but then, that’s not so very long.) Egan’s assumptions have little to do with transcendent things: his bottom line is a fairly foggy, but all-embracing, notion of individual rights. Government must preserve the individual’s right to act as he or she pleases, without moral imposition. (It’s a fetus, not a child, as any idiot knows – Justice Blackmun said so! And don’t tell me your stupid metaphysical ideas about the non-interchangeability of men and women should have the force of public policy; any fool knows men and women are interchangeable where consensual sex is concerned!) On the other hand (and here’s where the foggy part comes in), government shall ensure the physical and psychological well-being of its citizenry, even if it means doing so by force. If you want to kill one of your children in the womb (my mistake: “reduce” your pregnancy), government will stand by and cheer. It will, however, insist that you use its health care plan to cover the expenses . . . or else. Oh, and if you make too much money, it will tax the hell out of you (at gunpoint, so to speak) to make sure your neighbor’s retirement, groceries, fuel, post office, education, senator’s salary (including retirement), and Xbox Halo are comfortably paid for.

Beware the purists, my friends. They’re everywhere.

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Things I learned from Irene

August 29th, 2011 — 11:16pm

Composed with pen and ink on Monday afternoon, August 29:

As I write this, thanks to storm Irene, we are nearing thirty-six hours without electricity (except what can be run in the window from our van). What’s odd about this little episode of inconvenience is that I’m actually dreading its coming to an end (the Long Island Power Authority assures us it eventually will). I’ve learned – and remembered – some things about the world during the past few days, things that seem valuable enough to record.

Time has slowed to a crawl in the hours since early Sunday morning. The reason isn’t far to seek: I have much, much more time at my disposal. People can’t reach me on either land line; neither is working. They may be trying to email me, but I’m oblivious. Even our cell service has been spotty. The net effect is that I’m not tied to my phones and computer. There’s no way to watch TV or a movie. As in, I suddenly have hours and hours available that would ordinarily be eaten up by a machine. I have stuff to do, but there’s more than enough time to do it all in. I’m briefly removed from the acceleration and omnipresence with which the last two decades of digital technology have blessed us. It brings back memories of a youthful world I once knew, years ago (many years, it seems).

Wonder of wonders, with more time has come more connectedness with people. Yep, it’s true: Dad has more time with his kids when he isn’t sending emails and they aren’t watching a movie. We’ve raked the yard together (twice!), played dominos together, read books, and – shockingly! – enjoyed three meals a day together. My five-year-old commented particularly on this last phenomenon: “Dad, how come you’re eating with us all the time?”

Or let me speak of time with my wife. Deprived of the never-ending voyeurism of Facebook, away from the mental burps of the Twittersphere and the relentless incoming surges of email, we have found ourselves face-to-face – and not out at a restaurant, in our own home! After the kids were in bed last night, we danced by candlelight to 1930’s music (played on a battery-operated radio) in the living room. That would never have happened if the Internet was working.

The connections have been more than just domestic. No one from the church could get a hold of us yesterday, so a family actually came to the house last night to check on us. I can’t express how moving that was. Not a text, not an email, not even a phone call – an unannounced visit. It meant the world. So have the kindly visits since then, dropping off packs of ice for our food supplies. Real-life, real-time, face-to-face community. I mean, it’s not quite the same as a poke on Facebook, but we’ll get all that back shortly.

Did I mention that I met my neighbor? Ran into him out on the street last evening (I haven’t seen this many people out walking in our neighborhood since the block party), and he needed a three-prong adaptor for a pump he was trying to run in his basement. I happened to have one, we struck up a conversation, and by today we were raking our lawns together while our kids played in the leaf piles rained down by Irene. For a moment or two, it was like living in a real neighborhood, where people across the street know each other by name and have something in common besides a ZIP code. Why? Well I, for one, had the time. Nothing else more urgent to do. My brain wasn’t plugged into the data-force that is the modern world. I was . . . available.

So anytime now, the electricity will come back on, and when it does, I’ll rush to post this on my blog, check my email and Twitter accounts, and read the latest avalanche of news. Life at breakneck speed will resume. And I wish it wouldn’t. I wish I could just sit here writing with pen and ink, while my wife sits on the couch near me reading, and my kids play in the yard. I wish the hum in my ears could be the katydids I hear right now, instead of the white noise that usually drowns them out. I wish I could look up through my skylight every night and see the stars the way we did last night, when there weren’t a million lights to push them out of view. I wish the quiet in my soul could go on and on, pouring out in prayer and meditation, study and observation, unhurried love for my family, and unrushed availability to my neighbor. I wish I had the fortitude to live in a world of digital speed and not lose composure. I wish I could ride the storm of hurry and not end up with hurry sickness. Ready or not, the storm’s coming back. Maybe that’s why the Lord sent me these lessons from Irene.

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Website launch!

August 8th, 2011 — 12:10pm

It’s been a quiet summer on this blog. Part of the reason can be found here:

Very excited about this launch!

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Contemporary creed

May 17th, 2011 — 9:20am

Self is god.
Choice is gospel.
Sex is sacrament.

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