Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Tragedy of the Unexamined Life

Coming soon: a series on leadership. What makes a person a great leader? Who are some great leaders? Stay tuned for that.

I talked yesterday about how many of my generation live destructively. I made the case that a worldview, or outlook on life, that creates such a lifestyle needs serious examining. In fact, a worldview that creates such a lifestyle needs serious discarding. One need not be an evangelical Christian with a strong respect for the sanctity of life to know innately that self-destruction is not a good thing. Anyone who has walked a field alone, or swam in warm ocean water, or known the rush of love understands that it is better to seek such moments than to ignore them. Self-destruction pushes us away from the enjoyment of life and moves us toward hatred of it. Those who seek pleasure destructively will find that instead of sating their appetite for living, the quest for undisciplined fulfillment takes it away. Don't believe me? Ask the college student who has binge drunk themself into early liver cancer. Ask the rocker who lives with pain due to a sexually transmitted disease. They'll tell you by their eyes what they might not even say with their mouths.

Those who practice the lifestyle of self-destruction, albeit with a hunger for (generally) carnal pleasure, must sublimate their conscience, moral absolutes, and common sense to do so. This takes awhile. It usually requires one to cast off any sort of serious religious affiliation. That unfastens the conscience from decision-making. It calls for a stern questioning of absolutes. Once those are gone, most anything can be justified. It necessitates a deaf ear to the wise voice of common sense. That's usually the last to go, and when it does, there's really nothing left to keep one from living just how one wishes to live. Do you ever wonder why so few people truly practice religion? I don't think there's any better reason than this: any serious religious movement makes a claim on one's behavior. People do not want that. And so they disavow religion and cut themselves loose to live just as they wish. We evangelicals spend much time thinking through why people don't love God, but it's not terribly complex, in one sense. People wish to live as they want. They can't do that and love God. It as simple as it is tragic.

Once conscience, moral absolutes, and common sense are gone, the only refuge from self-destruction is self-examination. What do I mean by that? I mean a cold, hard, honest look at life. This is the sort of thing that happens when someone close to us dies, or gets in a car accident, or contracts cancer. We think, "That might be me." Then we soul-search a bit. For the first time in a long time, we consider our lives in all their ugliness. For some, self-examination results in the disavowal not of God, but of self-destruction. For many, however, the time of pondering passes quickly, victim to the appetites of human nature. Self-examination, you see, is too dangerous. It reveals the folly of a lifestyle that seeks pleasure in destructive ways and ends. Such thinking cannot last long for the one wanting only their will. Neither will the pleasure. This is the tragedy of the unexamined life.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Human Penchant for Destruction

It's always interesting to try and see things objectively. We claim an objective stance, often, but rarely do we actually succeed in holding such a position. One of the areas in which we humans are least objective is that of lifestyle evaluation. In these days when right and wrong are a matter of taste, not truth, the determination of one lifestyle as objectively "better" than another is hard to come by. Yet it is my contention that if we do try and look honestly at the way people live, we can see certain ways of life as fundamentally better than others and thus reflective of a sound worldview.

Think of the ideal lifestyle of the twentysomething American male, the societal group to which I belong. As it's portrayed in the media, life consists of excess. Chasing girls, drinking, watching sports, taking vacations are all run through the grid of "as much as possible." And yet when one examines these behaviors from most any standpoint, one sees that these patterns of living do not tend to self-betterment. They tend to self-destruction. Sex with multiple partners in various states of consciousness invites all sorts of disease and emotional pain. Drinking mindlessly and endlessly brings early corrosion to one's body and weakens one's ability to perform the basic tasks of life--work, domestic responsibilities, the conduct of relationships. Plunging into pleasure without check, and smothering one's mind in a continual parade of entertainment, takes away one's respect for responsibility and discipline. Far from freeing one to experience true happiness, the lifestyle of indulgence and excess in fact traps many a twentysomething in a shallow, guilt-ridden, wasted life.

This is not even to mention the extremes of the problems outlined above. What above all the twentysomethings who don't make it to the front pages of glamorous magazines? What about the divorces, the births out of wedlock, the abortions, the pill addictions, the pornography addictions, the credit card debt due to unchecked spending, and the deaths that come from mindless partying? What about all the feelings that are hurt along the way, the parental hopes that are dashed, the siblings who yearn for an example but end up estranged? What about the world problems that go untackled, the society that erodes, the families that die off? No, the lifestyle of excess as pursued by many twentysomethings is not equal to others. It is objectively bad. It leads, perhaps slowly, but surely, to destruction. It has no checks, it has no balances, it sees no signposts. It brushes conscience aside and tramples shame, leaving its only helps crushed in the dust. All lifestyles are not created equal. Instead of arguing for this idea, might we consider it honestly? And what about the life philosophy that creates such a life? To guage its validity, don't look to its glamour. Look to its wake. Find your answers in the dust, not the dazzle.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Stopped Time Theory

One of the interesting aspects of life is following the passage of time. I don't know if you're like me, but I struggle to stay on top of the current date. Yes, I'm that bad. I often don't know what date it is. Then, when I find out, I'm shocked. "The 25th! It can't be the 25th! It was just the 12th!" Has that ever happened to you?

After conducting an intensive one-person study over a matter of days, the consumed staff has determined that people do suffer from a phenomenon we call "Stopped Time Theory." People afflicted with this debilitating problem struggle acutely with keeping up with the natural progression of time. They are bound to an unrealistic optimism in which time, for multi-day periods, apparently stops. Sufferers of the disorder commonly discover their symptoms at key points in life, including, but not limited to, bill payment periods, family birthdays, relational anniversaries, paper due dates, and the like. Here's a good way to determine whether you suffer from "STT," as some call it. Have you ever showed up for class, found out you had a test that period, and thought, "That's impossible! It's not the 29th! Isn't it, like, the 4th?" Or, have you ever looked at a bill on, say, the 25th, saw it was due on the 2nd, and calculated the distance between the two dates as much larger than it was? "Oh, I've got like two weeks to pay that. No sweat." If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may well suffer from STT.

The bad news about STT is that if you suffer from it, you are an idiot. You have little hope for a cure besides regular injections of good old common sense, available in large quantities from people you've historically ignored, including, but not limited, your mother, grandmother, teachers, aunts, uncles, older siblings, and all other adults. You will likely have to accept a drastic treatment plan which will include extended sessions with a planner/day-timer/Palm Pilot. These sessions will drain you, but they will also cure you. Then, you will put STT behind you. At least, that's what many survivors say. I said it once, but I can't remember when. Then again, time does pass so quickly, doesn't it?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

I'm in between series right now and so am taking a few days to spotlight interesting things. Today's interesting thing is the Together for the Gospel blog. For those who don't know, Together for the Gospel is a conference sponsored in part by 9Marks ministries and Sovereign Grace ministries. It will be held in Louisville, KY in late April 2006 and will feature such speakers as pastor John Piper, Southern Seminary president Al Mohler, pastor Mark Dever, author C.J. Mahaney, pastor John MacArthur, and others. The conference focuses on the basic idea of the Christian faith, the gospel, and approaches this topic from the perspective of a pastor.

There are numerous cool things about the conference. Firstly, it is bringing together a number of men that God has used to positively influence evangelicalism in recent times. John Piper has changed the way many evangelicals think about the living of their faith, John MacArthur has tirelessly advocated expositional preaching and changed many a mind as a result, and Mark Dever has refigured the evangelical conception of the local church in countless minds. The other speakers are no less significant. Secondly, there's nothing quite like this. The speakers are from all corners of evangelicalism. C.J. Mahaney is charismatic, Ligon Duncan is Presbyterian, Al Mohler is Southern Baptist. Yet all of them share a profound love for the gospel. Thirdly, the material will be uncommonly rich and thoughtful. I can't think of another conference that promises to spur more thought in its attendees than this one.

Fourthly, the speakers have started their own blog. Here's the official word on it, straight from 9Marks headquarters: "Mark Dever, CJ Mahaney, Lig Duncan, and Al Mohler have recently launched a Together for the Gospel (T4G) blog where they will discuss a variety of topics (from preaching to culture to theology) in the context of warm friendship. Their desire is to hold up the gospel as the matter of first importance, demonstrating its primacy by their public cooperation, friendship, and interaction. The T4G blog is a part of this vision, serving also to promote the upcoming conference in April, and continue the conversation afterwards." Sounds pretty cool, doesn't it? Check out the blog, and all the Together for the Gospel stuff, here: www.togetherforthegospel.com. It's a great idea, a great blog, and it will be a great conference.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Don't Believe the Experts

There is a natural tendency in America to unobstructedly believe the experts. To make up our minds, we need know little save what the PhD's tell us to think. There is obvious good and bad in such a tendency. It's right that we value what educated people say about things they study alot. There's an appropriate humility in such deference. Yet we must also balance our trust of the experts with careful analysis of what they say. Do their findings accord with reality? Such is the question we must ask. It is not rare, I think, that we find the experts' discoveries, or the conclusions they draw from their discoveries, to be lacking.

We see one such example in the opinions of educational experts who tell us that the current generation of Americans cannot concentrate in an educational setting for longer than 20-25 minutes. Yeah, that's what the PhD's say. But I think it's bunk. I myself am somewhat hyper and able to multi-task. I love research, which is what I am paid to do, because I can mentally flit all over the place, discover new things, and actually be thanked for it all. I profit from my hyperness. That's a beautiful thing. And yet I regularly sit in lectures that last 90 minutes without a break. Do I find such experiences unbearable? Do my cognitive faculties shut off at the 30 minute mark? Do my eyelids flutter uncontrollably such that I cannot take notes? To each of these questions, the answer is a snorting "no!" Yeah, I get a bit squirmy. Yeah, I have to concentrate hard to stay with the professor. Yeah, I would love to get up and run around every twenty minutes. But that's ridiculous. How can I learn anything if I'm constantly switching my mind off and changing to a new task? Far from what the experts say, it's actually a really good thing that I, a self-confessed hyper person, sit and listen.

As with all of life, there's a deeper issue here. There are certainly psychological and physiological factors at work in the task of concentration, but the primary factor is that of patience. Put frankly, noone wants to be patient anymore. And noone is willing to step up and tell children that they must pay attention--or else. Over against past educational theory, which emphasized the authority of the teacher, it seems the student is the authority nowaday. The student's whims and wishes drive education. Such a philosophy works for shopping. Businesses structure their products according to consumer taste. But this ought not to be so for education, where there is a body of learning to be handed down to students. They ought to be given propositional content to consider that is selected and delivered as best serves their educator, in order that they might profit from their education. The educator, not the twitchy ten year-old, knows best. What happened to such thinking? Let the teacher set the time limit for the lessons, and let the moldable attention spans of the youth follow suit. Trust me--they'll learn. They'll pay attention. Just look at movies--noone has a tough time getting kids to bore their eyes into a film for two hours. Oh wait--what do the experts say about that?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Do Education Experts Lead Us--Or the Opposite?

Hello from the road, everybody. I'm currently in South Carolina on a recreational tour of this most interesting, and warm, state. Posting will be a bit sporadic this week. It will resume en force next week. No series for the time being, though I've got some cooking. Today we're thinking about educational philosophies: to accept or not to accept?

One of the more interesting debates I've had in recent times came in a class on leadership I took a little while back. In the class, my professor argued that people today are conditioned to pay little sustained attention to, well, anything. According to "experts" that he cited, people can only pay attention to a lecturer/speaker for about twenty minutes before they need a break or switch in activity. He used this data to argue that Sunday School classes in churches ought to be discussion-oriented, particularly for people (he noted his wife) who cannot pay attention for long periods of time. His data-fueled educational philosophy, that people can't long stand lectures, drove the way he organized his church curriculum.

As with much of conventional thinking, I would surmise that there is an element of truth here. People today do struggle to stay attentive. We all know why. We do little activity these days that requires sustained, unbroken attention. Mirroring the tv we love so well, we flit from place to place, writing an email here, changing our laundry there, watching a show in between, talking on the phone for ten minutes, and then repeating the whole cycle. At work, or in school, we begin a task, discover it more difficult than we thought, and so switch to another. Then it's time for a meeting, then it's lunch, then we take a call, and so on. We're not just hyperactive with the remote control. We're hyper with our very lives.

All of which does pose a challenge for the church pastors, the elders, who are responsible for drafting curriculum and teaching lessons that engage their congregation. The church teachers do not receive blank-slated listeners when they open the Bible to teach. They teach a people who are continually being conditioned by their world and who thus have their own peculiar struggles and challenges impeding the comprehension and activation of truth. Knowing this, though, are leaders to give way to the culture? Are they to acquiesce to the demands of a jitterbug mind and unfocused intellect? Or, are they to lead the way in helping such devices of learning to focus? This is not a throw-away question. All over the country, and indeed the world, churches are structuring their services according to a postmodern attention span. Is this right? Tomorrow, consumed offers an answer.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Altar Calls

Better than an altar call in which someone makes a one-time decision and then puts their trust in that decision for the rest of their life is the simple proclamation of the gospel and subsequent exhortation to all to believe and live by the gospel. We've become convinced in evangelicalism that noone can be saved without praying a prayer. This is simply not true. Our assurance of salvation does not root in the subjective moment we recall as signaling our repentance. Repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit. He converts us in a blink at some point in our hearing of the gospel. He doesn't work only when we feel it. He regenerates, and we respond. But the timing of our response does not always correlate exactly with His regeneration. Sometimes we struggle to see our salvation. Sometimes depression hides its light from us. Sometimes sins obscure the marvelous work within us. Sometimes we just plain don't know we've become a Christian because we're not yet in a church that can affirm our walk with Christ and offer us assurance based on our lifestyle. To think, then, that we are saved at the first second we feel we are saved is unhelpful.

Better, I think, to lead people to conviction on a regular basis. Better to teach them to rest in Christ's work. It is better for Christians to follow the old Puritan syllogism--I am saved if I believe in Christ and obey Him; I do believe in Him, and I do obey Him; Therefore, I am saved--than to follow their intuition. I remember questioning the day I made a profession. Well, I thought later, did I really mean it? What about the outstanding sins in my life at that point? Maybe I wasn't sincere enough! Maybe I'm not a Christian! Oh, what a terrible state to be in. We evangelicals need to teach people not to trust in a prayer or a walk down an aisle but in Christ! We need to help people root their assurance in their belief and the proof of their belief--their fruit as a Christian. The mark that someone is a Christian is not that they prayed a prayer twelve years ago and had a powerful experience. The mark that someone is a Christian is that they love Jesus Christ, His church, and His Word, and they follow Him in holiness and love. There are countless people out there living like the darkness who think they found they light because they saw it one night. There are lots of evangelicals who are so very, very confused because they witnessed such one-time professions and now think that people are saved who live in gross sin and wickedness. This is deplorable, and at its root lies an "altar-call" and "cheap-grace" mentality.

If you know someone who prayed to receive Christ years ago, and who seemed earnest at the time, but who has since showed no love whatsoever for God, His church, and His Word, do not think them to be a Christian. Many followed Jesus out of excitement and interest. Many claimed to be His. Many became very emotional about Him and professed love of Him. But many of this stripe fell away. Look at John 6. Jesus makes the audacious claim to be the "bread of life" and many fall away. They simply stop following him. What is the lesson here? That many in this world will at one time come forward, pray earnestly, and scribble their name on a card. They will pledge with great emotion to live for Jesus. They will sing, and throw their hands in the air, and go on youth group or college ministry trips. But sadly, terribly, they will one day stop, just as the crowds stopped following Jesus. By the time He got to Calvary, there was almost noone left.

So it is in our day. Many find Jesus and Christianity attractive for a season. But the luster fades, and the world and its pleasures call, and many fall away. How important, then, that we not tell such fair-weather followers that they are saved! We need to faithfully preach the gospel to all, but to preach the biblical truth that works follow from true faith. No exceptions. So, as much as you and I want to believe that uncle Larry and cousin Julie and best-friend-forever Tyler is a Christian because they prayed at one time, we must conform our emotions to Scriptural truth. There is no other option. Let the altar call die, and the gospel ring forth.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Eccentricities of Evangelicalism: the Invitation (2)

The invitation system has achieved almost sacred status in a certain corner of evangelicalism. To those in this corner, being mainly traditionally conservative Baptist churches, to not give an invitation is to not present the gospel and also to prevent people from being saved. This latter effect is what is often most stridently argued and also most heavily flawed. Such thinking stems from an ironclad belief that salvation depends on the actions of men. Not in the sense that works save a person, but in the sense that an outward step must be taken that reflects what is inwardly occurring.

If that last sentence seems a little fuzzy logically, that's because it is. The same people who rail against works-righteousness are those who require an act of man for salvation. Now, don't get me wrong. Conservative evangelicals who teach this don't actually think that what a person does merits their salvation. But they do end up requiring that a certain deed--that of praying a prayer--take place in order for someone to be assured of salvation. In other words, the prayer in which one prays for salvation is built into the mechanism of grace. A convicted sinner will automatically respond in a prayer of confession. To not do so means that salvation has not occurred. Proponents of this viewpoint base their view in Romans 10:9, which teaches that confession of one's salvation must occur for one to be saved.

The exegetical (referring to the passage's core meaning) problem with this line of thinking is that confession is not defined in Romans 10. It could mean confession to God in a prayer, or it could mean confession to God in one's heart. It could mean simply telling other people that one is a Christian. It could mean lots of things, and it need not only mean praying a prayer at the end of a church service. In fact, in the Bible, people most often respond to the news of salvation with baptism. This is the biblical way of affirming and declaring one's faith to the world. Many in the evangelical world have erroneously exalted a prayer or a walk down an aisle and seen these actions as indicative (and almost perfectly so) of salvation. But the Bible knows baptism as the response of a faith-filled heart. Historically, you didn't walk an aisle to show your faith, and you didn't meet with a prayer counselor. You walked to the water, entered it in joyful faith, and walked out of it having declared to heaven and to earth your trust in Jesus. The church today needs to be "baptized" in baptism and to leave its own inventions behind.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Eccentricities of Evangelicalism: the Invitation

Today marks another installment in the "Evangelical Eccentricities" series. I hope it's been somewhat interesting. We look now at the "invitation system" or "altar-call" mentality of many evangelical churches.

Evangelicals have preached what they call the "gospel" for many years. The gospel consists of the proclamation that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and very God Himself, came to earth from heaven, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross to wash away the sins of a rebellious people. His death cleared them of their wrongdoings and His subsequent resurrection brought them eternal life. These benefits are accrued to them when they "repent," or turn, from their sins and believe in this message. This is the gospel, and evangelicals have preached it since Christ walked the earth. In a world of flux and fluctuation, Christians have steadfastly, stubbornly, even, spoken the gospel to their world.

Historically, gospel proclamation involved the statement of the gospel in passionates tones and with hopeful pleading. "Come to Christ," urged Martin Luther in sixteenth century Germany. "Flee God's wrath," thundered Jonathan Edwards in eighteenth century New England. "Believe on Christ!" shouted George Whitefield to a rapt eighteenth century American audience. "Jesus is the savior," said William Carey to the people of nineteenth century India. The telling of the gospel did not begin in recent days. Such action has a long and glorious heritage.

In the nineteenth century, however, evangelicals, led by Charles Finney, supplemented their gospel preaching with the "invitation." Finney urged lost sinners to make "decisions" for Christ, to walk an aisle, pray a prayer, and make a one-time commitment to Christ that would extend through all of life. Finney's tactic, considered strange and unnecessary by many evangelicals in his day, soon caught on. By the twentieth century, it was commonplace for Christians to consider conversion to Christianity as occurring when a person prayed a prayer or signed a decision card. Billy Sunday helped perpetuate this pattern in the early twentieth century and Billy Graham continued it in the latter half of the century. The last four or five generations of Christians have thus grown up believing that a sinner is saved when they pray a prayer, walk the aisle, or sign a card. The effects of this trend are manifold. In coming days, we'll examine them.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Eccentricities of Evangelism: the Lowest Common Denominator Factor

One of the weird traits I've noticed of evangelicals is our propensity for lowest common denominator Christianity. In our beliefs, we often gravitate toward the simple and basic. This is in some ways a positive thing. It's good, I think, to emphasize the essentials and major on the most important. Such action stirs up unity and reminds us of our basic identity: we are Christians.

But this tendency has its drawbacks, too, namely that we tend to cling to what it simple and works best and causes the least fuss. We don't like difficult doctrines, often. We don't like change a whole lot, particularly when said change involves moving to complexity in our theology or church structure. Though we worship the God of all wisdom, we often prefer our carefully constructed ghettos to theological travel through the mountains of truth. Though God has given His church a delicate touch, forming it with great care and nuance, we all too often seize upon a cookie-cutter organizational formula. God has given His church great theologians, but they often are ignored, their books (if they get in evangelical bookstores at all) collecting dust while the latest bookish fad flies from the shelves. So very much of what sells in evangelicalism is sugary and sweet but without substance. This is a sad fact of our little corner of the world.

It's not so with every group of the world. In politics, smart people dominate. Or, more sensitively, smart thinking dominates. Sure, there are populists, but they often go as quickly as they came. Of course, the American academy is predicated upon the exercise of intellect, a quality that has its own drawbacks, for sure. But it remains true that in most spheres one can think of, good thought rules. In evangelicalism, however, good thought often takes a back seat to easy truism. This is part of what plagues evangelicalism. It's also part of what makes it eccentric.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Eccentricities of Evangelicalism: Missions

As an evangelical, it's interesting to describe the work of missions to religious outsiders. Lots of people in this day are somewhat familiar with the fact that Christians try to tell other people what they're about. That's fairly well known by the culture at large. But many people are not familiar with the idea that people voluntarily (and passionately) pack up their belongings and hopes and dreams and move far away with the sole purpose of communicating the Christian faith. In a world where one's beliefs often fail to penetrate into even the most perfunctory acts of life, such impassioned action appears rather strange.

This would not have been so many years ago. For example, Catholics were sending out missionaries like crazy just a few hundred years ago. They went all over the place and were often the first Europeans of any stripe to discover the peoples of American regions. But Catholic missionary activity petered out. One hears very little of it today in the wake of global religious conferences where various religious groups agreed not to proselytize one another. The Mormons still send people to far away places, but they're not a major religious presence in America. No, it's the evangelicals who are most known for commissioning people to go far away to tell people about the faith we hold.

I can imagine that it's very odd for your average non-Christian to hear of this. First of all, it's a huge deal to Christians to do missions. Christians don't simply do them. They do them. They get all whipped up about it and have Missions Weeks and conferences (!) and all sorts of things about missions. They give money to the cause, lots of it, in the more conservative evangelical denominations. These aren't rich people doing this, for the most part. These are your average middle-class family people earmarking a significant chunk of their money to pay for the labor of another. For the missionaries, there's a whole system set up in which they function, with training school, field experience, the assemblage of a "team," and then, of course, the actual work done once the missionaries go out. Then, when they've served for a while, they come back on "furlough" and tell all their supporting churches about what they've done for the past few years. There's this whole self-contained system that your average American has never encountered that fuels missions.

Stranger than any other aspect, though, is the passion that fuels missions. Perfectly able and happy people trek off all over the globe to share their faith, and sometimes die for it. Yet they are not frightened by the prospect. They are happy to go. Many of them want to die if God desires it. They see it as gain. Clearly, there is something strange going on here. Something powerful works in evangelicals to produce this mindset, so antithetical to most any other perspective you find in the world, especially one charmed by the materialistic, self-driven, principleless gospel of postmodernism. Then again, what would you expect from evangelicals? We're an eccentric people.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Eccentricities of Evangelicalism: Symbols

Having looked at the strange, conference-oriented nature of evangelicals, we turn to examine their propensity for symbols.

Evangelicals have long felt the need to litter their lives and spaces with all manner of symbols. The cross, the icthus (the little fish thing), and the trinity symbol are just three examples of symbols popular among Christians today. Take the fish for a minute. For some reason, we put the fish everywhere we can. Now, obviously I know that we do so because we want to be a witness, and we think that putting a little fish on our car makes this happen. While this is fine, it is kind of funny to think about. "Okay, so there's a Caravan, and there's a Christian driving it. Excellent." Not exactly a life-changing revelation for the non-Christian highway driver. And why do we feel the need to self-identify when no one else does? I suppose because we're very passionate about our faith. While that's true, it's still funny that no one else does besides angry evolutionists who affix the little fish with legs to their cars. I mean, there are other very passioante people out there. Yet there are no, umm, little symbolic books on professor's cars, or little symbolic basketballs for basketball coaches, or little symbolic hamburgers for fast-food franchise owners. There's no transcendent little buddha thingie for Buddhists, and no symbol of a man in a celestial virgin paradise for Muslims. It's pretty much just us and our rather angry friends, the evolutionists.

We also do the cross, which has been co-opted by rappers, basketball players, and the urban set. It's actually to the point in popular society that many have a cross tattooed on their arm who may not know even the most basic facts about the symbolic meaning of the cross. It's really very ironic, if you think about it. Christians wear the cross, which was a torture device, around their neck. Then rappers do the same. They wear a little torture device around their neck and think it's cool. Yet no one wears a little stretching rack on their neck. No one wears a gallows. "Yo, did you see that PHAT platinum gallows Eminem had at the Grammys? It was hot!" No, it's the cross that has staying power in culture, largely because of Christians and the trend-setting crowd who likes their symbolic jewelry. Perhaps we can hope that in days to come it will be not simply our jewelry that will influence culture, but our faith.

This isn't a blog against Christians wearing symbols. I have a fish on my car, albeit a fish with one little fin missing, which I suppose might seem to symbolize I have a foot disability. (I don't.) I've long had the fish on my car, and don't mind it being there. I also don't mind at all wearing a cross. That's not something I choose to do anymore, but there's nothing wrong with it. I suppose it's better to wear it not simply as a jewelry piece but as a commemorative piece by which one signifies one's faith. That said, there's nothing wrong with remembering. That's not to say, however, that we evangelicals aren't eccenctric for festooning ourselves with symbols. But then again, eccentricity is part of what makes us us.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Evangelical Eccentricities: Conferences Part Deux

One of the most hilarious aspects of evangelical culture is its love of conferences. It's well established that adults love conferences. After all, conferences are sort of what adults do when it's not cool for them to go to festivals anymore. But one of the funniest things about evangelicals and conferences is the tendency of young evangelicals to conference. That's what we're exploring today.

This thought came to mind after a friend of mine and I were talking about the fall 2005 conference at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN. The church is pastored by a dynamic theologian named John Piper whose passion-fueled preaching has caught the hearts of a generation of young Christians. Bethlehem puts on a fall conference that covered the topic of suffering this past fall. It was this thought of attending that had my friend Will and I rather invigorated about the conference. We excitedly discussed it, and how awesome past conferences had been, until we had worked ourselves into a little conference-based frenzy. I then stopped and asked Will if he realized how strange this conversation would be to a non-evangelical. Here we were, two twentysomethings. We both wear reasonably stylish clothes, listen to "cool" music, go to Starbucks, and do many other things that your average American twentysomething does. With the express exception, of course, that we get VERY excited about the thought of flying for three hours to freezing Minnesota to stay in an overpriced hotel and wake up at a very early hour and go hear a sixtysomething man lecture us for OVER TWO HOURS. Yes, when we pondered it together that fall day, we realized something special: we were strange. Correction: we were very strange.

And yet though we realized our strangeness, discovery did nothing to lessen our enthusiasm. As I write this, I'm looking forward to the upcoming Together for the Gospel conference being staged by a group of evangelical leaders. This conference will be no different than many other evangelical conferences, at least in its structure and general mission. It will involve middle-aged men who bury their noses in, of all things, theology books, and who then preach for very long periods of time to lots of rapt little evangelical conferencers like myself. Now, is that not a party or what? Next time you're bored at work, sit back for a moment, young evangelical, and dream of plenary lectures, breakout sessions, and bad hotel beds. Then, return to work without sadness. Your conference will come.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Eccentricities of Evangelicalism: Conferences

Enough blathering about romance, romantic systems, and all that sort of thing. It's time to change gears, and instead blather about evangelicals and their weirdnesses. This series has been brewing for a while, and I think you'll enjoy it. It's all done in good humor and fun and isn't intended to be any sort of harsh critique.

Of all the sociopolitical and socioreligiousethnic groups out there, evangelicals have to stand as one of the more fascinating to study. I don't think many realize this, but it's true. Many Christians grow up in the church and know only its ways, considering them the standard for all people (minus the whole faith thing, that is). But when you take a step back and look closely at evangelicalism, you realize it's a strange animal. Kind of like when you first saw a monkey up close. It looks normal enough from a distance, but then you get up near its face, and discover that its a strange animal indeed.

One of the primary ways we evangelicals show our kookiness is in our staging of and attendance at conferences. We are a conferencing people. Don't believe me? Pick up World or Christianity Today, two of the most-read evangelical magazines. Count the number of conferences advertised. It's got to be in the high teens per each copy. You don't find this in Time. There's something about evangelicals--presumably their passion and hunger to learn--that motivates them to stage roughly seven million conferences a year. It just isn't quite the same with any other group. Well, maybe literary societies. But they're their own strange animal. Besides lit geeks, who? Retirees? Nope. They'd all fall asleep. Computer geeks? They do a few, but not nearly as many as evangelicals, though they are passionate about pixels. Atheists? Yeah, there's the occasional high-brow event, but their conference planners have a great deal more vacation time than do evangelicals. No, we are a conferencing people--better still, the conferencing people.

We go to conferences about everything, too. If the outside world knew of this, it would think we are even stranger than it already thinks we are. We conference about babies and movies and worldviews and dietary habits and C.S. Lewis and John Calvin and reformation and revival and tongues and spirits and warfare and the tribulation and tv filters and anything else we can possibly think of to conference about. Honestly, if you could find a benefactor, you could make a living just going to evangelical conferences. Southern Baptists own their own conference center! Glorieta! Doesn't the name just make you want to conference?! And you wonder why we conference so much.

Tomorrow--the consumed staff looks at the younger generation and their conference attendance. Also, information on the first ever consumed conference, to be staged with a live band and free mint-flavored toothpicks.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Myths of Christian Romance: Risk-Proofing (2)

How important it is that we as Christians take pains to guard our hearts. It is right both for ourselves and our romantic interest that we do so. Yet we cannot forget that the pursuit of love always involves risk, and more than this, that God has built risk into the process for the continuation of our sanctification. Today, we'll look briefly at the ways in which a man and a woman benefit from risking in romance.

A woman benefits from risking and dating a man by putting her heart out there. She guards it for so long, and this is right. But the wisdom of God calls many a young woman out of singleness, for the betterment of all. In order for this to happen, a woman must risk. There is no way to take this element out of the romantic process. She must risk getting hurt and, to be a little cliched, give love a chance. If she does not, she guarantees that she will never find a man's love. She can pray all she likes, but if she never risks and enters a relationship, she does little to meet a man who will care for her and cherish her in the spirit of Christ's love for His church. Because courtship encourages women to risk only with a man they think they could marry, it discourages many from needed interaction with men. In seeking to protect them from hurt, it removes risk (or puts it at a very high level, initially). The castle that would protect becomes something of a prison.

Men need to risk because God has wired them to be leaders. Being a leader means risking, putting oneself out there, taking a chance, all without any guarantee of success whatsoever. It's a tenuous thing, this risking, but how good it is for men. No one wants to get hurt, but neither do we want to stay static in our faith and life. We want to grow, to learn to persevere, to put ourselves out there and win. We learn so much about ourselves when we men do this. We discover courage in the classroom of romance, a lesson that no textbook or sermon can bring into us. We learn resilience as we experience rejection and yet resolve to fight again another day. We discover great joy when we actually succeed in our relational ventures. None of this is possible without risking. And when asking a girl out on a date means that you are seriously considering her for marriage, guess what?--you're not going to risk much. We need a new paradigm, one with the responsibility and accountability of courtship and the freedom and interaction of dating. So, take a risk. Give "dateship" a second thought.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Myths of Christian Romance: Risk-Proofing

One of the common arguments I often hear in defense of courtship is that it helps to cut out much of the heartbreak that comes with dating relationships. Dating, goes the line, often involves a high level of emotional involvement, often to the point of attachment. Because there is no greater goal to which the couple is working, this tendency is quite unhelpful and even sinful, particularly on the part of the man, who is responsible for leading the relationship and keeping emotions on healthy, unattached pre-marriage levels. Put simply, the couple achieves a level of emotional intimacy that is only meant for marriage. When the relationship ends, as many dating relationships do, both parties are damaged by the experience, having invested much energy and emotion in their now departed flame.

There is great wisdom in courtship's denunciation of this flaw, which is indeed an indictment of poor leadership on the part of many Christian men. Scared of commitment but eager to indulge emotional hunger for another, many Christian men conduct relationships without regard for the woman's heart. This is reprehensible. However, many proponents of courtship go too far in correcting this flaw. Because dating can get overly involved, some say, couples ought not to date at all, because it so often brings harm. They should either be seriously committed or not at all. In the thinking of its proponents, this does much to safeguard against emotional attachment. Couples who enter a courting relationship are thus aware of the commitment they are making to one another and have a structure to which they will stick. So emotions are guided along by a careful process, especially as the couple is urged even as they consider one another to not become deeply involved emotionally.

There is much good in this approach. We think much of the physical sins that befall young couples, but oftentimes we think little of the emotional hurt that results from many dating relationships. Young people simply plunge into relationships and then are quite broken when things don't work out. This is a bad thing, and it is right that we work against it as Christians. However, we must at the same time remember the plain but essential truth that love is risky. It is a part of life, a wonderful part of life, and like much of life, it is not child-proof. The world of adults is risky. Our parents aren't there to cushion our fall, and it's right that they aren't. When we try for jobs, we risk. It hurts not to get a job. When we play sports, we risk. It hurts not to succeed. When we make friends, we risk. It hurts not to be called back. When we apply to colleges, we risk. It hurts to be rejected. But all of this is essential to life, to growing, changing, becoming stronger, and developing character. Risk is often exactly what we need; in fact, it is riskiest to never risk at all.

To apply this more specifically to the topic at hand, it is great to guard against emotional attachment. No, more than that--it's essential. But we must always remember that love is risky. To request the hand and perhaps the heart of a girl is for a man a fearsome thing. To receive his request and give her heart is for a girl a fearsome thing. But in this potent exchange there is beauty. Man was made for woman, and woman for man. The Lord ordained that man would need to pursue a wife. In so doing, He dropped an element of risk right into our lives, and pronounced it good by virtue of the process. Tomorrow, we'll wrap up why risk is so important and thus must not be deleted from the quest for love.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Myths About Christian Romance: Attraction (2)

To finish up my thoughts from yesterday, I'd like to reiterate that attraction does matter in Christian romance. This includes both emotional and physical attraction. One should enjoy the person of one's interest on a variety of levels. Too often, Christians can think that all that is needed for romance to blossom is a firm trust in God and a desire for companionship. Sure, this can and does happen, and we rejoice for whom it works. But there are many for whom this rather passionless formula is lacking.

Picking up where I began yesterday, God made humanity as composite creatures. We are not one-dimensional. We are not simply spiritual beings. To pretend that we are souls who don't float is to slip toward the outer edges of heresy. God made us as physical creatures. He gave us eyes to behold beauty, lips to taste it, ears to hear it. He made us to burn with passion at a certain point, and gave us this passion to drive us into the sunset of Christian marriage. He gave us emotions and personalities which are distinct and nuanced. Many conservative Christians, I think, have lost sight of these truths, and emphasize almost entirely the spiritual dimension of our beings. This is a regrettable mistake, and one that will certainly have effects on our churches, our individual lives, and our refracting of the glory of God.

Most troublesome of all, though, are Christians who decry the role of physical and emotional attraction in romance and who yet have spouses that are either clearly attractive or to whom they are clearly attracted. Nothing kills a good word faster than hypocrisy. To young people, who are seeking to find their way in the world and who use a blend of doctrine and example to do so, nothing could be more damaging to a potential influencer. It's like the man who samples the finer things of life but insists that no one else ought to, for he's tried them and they're far inferior to the everyday and commonplace. Whether leaders know they do this or not, and I'm sure they don't, their lives sometimes seem to invalidate their words. How about this--let's all work to prize the spiritual dimension of romance. The culture has cut it right out of things. Well, let's restore it. But in the process, let's not ignore the distinctive way God made us. We are physical and emotional. This isn't simply a matter of clarification--it is a matter of glorification.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Myths about Christian Romance: the Attraction Question

The series on the optimal system for Christian romance is now concluded. As readers of the blog will note, I've suggested "dateship," in which couples fuse the best elements of both dating and courtship for a careful, thoughtful, and engaging relationship. That's all well and good. Today, I want to look at a common myth related to Christian romance, namely, that physical attraction does not matter.

There has flourished in certain circles the idea that physical attraction need not play any role in the evaluation of another Christian for marriage. Clearly, there is some good to this mindset, chiefly that it pushes people back toward a biblical view of attraction. It's pretty clear to anyone with even the slightest degree of cultural awareness that American society has gone stark raving mad when it comes to physical attractiveness. We wildly overstate the importance of physical attractiveness in relationships. Yet in attempting to correct this heinous trend, Christians can run to the other extreme, as they so often seem to do, and in doing so lose sight of the fact that the Bible does not degrade physical attraction between a husband and wife. One could argue that Song of Solomon was perhaps included in Scripture to prevent this very idea. The Bible does not take a pretend view of humanity. Throughout its pages, people are noted for their beauty and identified as objects of desire because of their beauty. Think of Isaac and Rebekah, David, Daniel, and many others. Of course, this quality can be overblown, and it certainly was at points in biblical history, but we cannot responsibly claim that the Bible pretends attractiveness doesn't exist or even that it degrades it. It simply doesn't.

It does degrade the overvaluing of attractiveness. From Proverbs 31, we know that "charm is fleeting, and beauty is vain." We receive here a cautionary word from the Scriptures that we not overly value physical beauty. This is a difficult task for many of us, but it is manageable with the Spirit's help. Indeed, physical attraction needs to be managed well in order for us to find our mate in this world. If we have an unhealthy view of it, we'll overvalue it, and perhaps wind up disappointed. We might also undervalue it, and wind up disappointed, realizing that we have the task of manufacturing intimacy that might otherwise come naturally to a relationship. I believe that God has given us physical intimacy to draw us like a magnet to a certain someone of the opposite sex. Sure, that drawing will often not look like Hollywood portrays it, but I do think that many of us will experience a profound attraction to the person we love. It will be only a part of an overall affection for that person, but it will be a part nonetheless. God has made us this way. Surely, we must manage our desires carefully. But we must not mute them. Don't believe the old lie that attractiveness matters most. But don't believe its counterpart, that it matters not at all.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Breaking the Impasse: Introducing "Dateship"

Having examined courtship and dating, and having seen each system lacking in some way, it's time to propose another onramp to the highway of sanctified love.

Here's my solution: combine the two. I noted a few days back that the great weakness of courtship is that has a tendency to stunt relational growth between two people. It has a way of removing the nitty and gritty of life and making romance a matter of predetermined, polite, and often frustrating encounters in which neither party gets to know the other the way they need to in order to enter marriage comfortably. Dating poses the perfect solution to this problem. By first engaging in a period of pressure-less dating, and then, if things go well in it, proceeding to courtship, one preserves the best aspects of each system and avoids their pitfalls.

I can say this with confidence because if a couple knows they can get to know one another in a personal way in a dating period, they will surely feel comfortable evaluating the prospect of a courtship period. The dating period, of course, will not be without standards of conduct and ought to have some time limit, even if it's vague. It also should involve friends and church members whenever possible. But neither party will operate under the assumption that if things go well in this period, a shiny little object is procured. Both understand that this is an initial getting-to-know-you period. That removes the pressure of a courtship-only system, but promises the helpful structure and accountability of courtship, should romance blossom.

I might add a significant point, that a "dateship" system (it's better than "courtdate") will do much to encourage initial interaction between the sexes, where courtship alone squelches it. Like I said, girls and guys who think that they need to have everything but the kitchen cabinets picked out to court simply won't do it often. They'll be afraid of taking of such a big step with such little information--and rightfully so! It's ridiculous to ask that of them. No, with dateship, they can take a risk, and go to coffee, and not worry that they've preliminarily indicated an interest in marrying their coffee-consuming friend. This problem, the Achilles heel of courtship, is thus avoided.

So my solution is this: a man should ask a girl he likes on a series of dates. They might even become boyfriend and girlfriend, albeit with clear standards of physical and emotional conduct. They will proceed to date for some amount of time, perhaps a season (e.g., summer), and then evaluate whether they ought to court. If both say yes, then they court for a time, the man having asked the woman's father, and then they proceed through a courtship, and then on to, well, bells or broken hearts. That's my system, the Owen Strachan "dateship" system. Feel free to use it at will, or to not. Either way, conduct your romance to the glory of our great God, with holiness and joy ever in view.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Evaluating Dating

If the problem of courtship is that it has a tendency to stifle normal romantic interaction between the opposite sexes, the problem of dating is that it allows too much. Courtship, if anything, is careful. Dating, as practiced by many Christians, seems without any set structure, any means by which two people thoughtfully think through their relationship and its bigger implications.

This is a big reason for the rise of courtship in certain Christian circles. Many Christians have been alarmed at the way that young people have followed their culture in their dating. Dating is often done without physical standards, parental or church involvement of any type, and a greater goal. It is simply irresponsible and dangerous for two young people in an age where their hormones are working overtime and their emotions want desperately to attach to not give careful attention to the way their relationship proceeds. Strangely, many Christian parents seem unaware of the dangers of dating. Sure, that sounds alarmist. But take a look at the amount of Christian couples who fall into physical sin (often grave) before marriage, and you realize that a change is needed.

The drawbacks of traditional dating are obvious. Usually, a man takes a shine to a girl, generally with too much weight given to her physical appearance, and then asks her out. The two commence a relationship that is neither well-defined or headed anywhere special. Ask the guy about marriage and he's likely to back up a few steps. "Whoa, bro, I'm not ready for anything like that. Chill out--this is just a relationship." The irresponsibility in this statement is obvious. But at the same time, it's interesting that the dating couple often gets to know one another far more intimately than many courting couples. This is so because they do what couples must do before marriage: get to know one another. This can be and often is overdone, but it is essential that couples learn much about their boy/girlfriend before taking significant steps. There are many couples out there who successfully check all the boxes of courting but who, at the end of the process, realize they don't possess adequate knowledge of the other to proceed. There has to be a better way than courting as it's traditionally practiced, and dating as it's traditionally practiced. But what might that be?