Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

A quick word to wish you all a very Merry Christmas. I'm celebrating my first Christmas as a married man, and it's been wonderful. What a blessing to have a second family here in Louisville, one so kind and warm and godly. Bethany and I are looking forward to a day with them. Later this week we travel to Maine where we will be for a week. Should be a very nice time there--Dad, Mom, Rachel, and Lester--can't wait to see you guys!

Again: Merry Christmas to everyone.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Too Busy to Love

Here's a great talk from Westminster apologist and professor Bill Edgar. It's called "A Biblical Theology of Entertainment" and it's nicely done. Speaking at LSU in 2005, Edgar makes the point that it is good and right for Christians to entertain themselves. Speaking of music, art, and sports, he argues that we should enjoy the goodness of this world. We should of course limit our pursuit of entertainment, but there is a rightful place within our lives for simply enjoying things. About the only thing the talk lacked is a discussion of moral principles by which to approach entertainment. That is essential. One audience member asked such a question and Edgar did not really respond sufficiently to it. I'm not sure if he's trying to leave place for individual Christians to work out such issues, or what, but that would have helped the talk.

Towards the end of the talk Edgar makes a great point about being friends with lost people. He mentions the example of George Whitefield, who became good friends with Ben Franklin, and encourages his audience to be friends with lost people not simply to evangelize but because friendship is one of God's good gifts to His creation. I loved this point. It made me think, though, about the calendar week of your average evangelical church. Are not most of us too busy with church activities to actually befriend lost people?

I'm not advocating an ecclesiology (theology of church) that does not place the local church at the center of the Christian's life. I wholeheartedly endorse such an idea. I love fellowship with Christians and seek it out all the time. However, I do think that we can all too easily fill our calendars and our lives with local church programs and functions and so lose sight of the lost people who are everywhere around us. We can fail to enter into meaningful contact with them and thus fail to establish meaningful friendships with them, through which we and they are bettered and through which the gospel is most effectively preached. If you can, listen to Edgar's talk, and consider this point (and others). If you can't, though, think about what I'm saying. Where are your priorities? Do you have any lost friends? Do you have any sustained contact with lost people? If no, then I'm guessing you're like me, and you need to spend more time with lost people and less time with Christians.

Are you too busy to love?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Important Books: A Nation of Victims

The latest book I'll recommend is Charles Sykes's A Nation of Victims. Sykes, a think tank analyst and a radio show host, made an important contribution to public discourse when he published this important book in 1992. The essential point of the book is this: as a nation, America no longer concerns itself with character. Instead, we narcissistically focus on our inflated victimization, being led to this point by self-serving, self-focused psychology. The thesis is strong, well-executed, and the book is a must-read. You will come away from it realizing that you have imbibed far more from secular psychology and the victimization culture than you thought you had.

I can see this trend in my own life. In the past, I've focused so much on my own personal struggles that I've made myself out to be a victim. In reality, I'm not a victim, or not much of one, really. I was unfairly passed over in sports due to my size, but that does not a lifetime of sadness and anger make. We all have hardships. They are a natural part of life and have been ever since the teeth of Adam and Eve first sank into the forbidden fruit. Everyone has some difficulty, some struggle, some hardship in their past. That doesn't make us victims. It makes us humans.

My generation and the one that has raised it are overwhelmingly narcisstic, self-focused, and dramatic. It is as if we are just dying to be stars in tragic movies of our own making. We yearn to be angry and justifiably so. We are desperate for a rebellion to join. We want so badly--so very badly--to be victimized so that we can make a public cause of our victimization. Focused on ourselves, desirous of fame and attention, and oriented to false psychology, we are like the child who, seeking an opportunity to express rage, voluntarily collapses in a heap, weeping and moaning in a fit of its own making. The hilarious thing about all this is that we don't really have much to be upset about. Some do, but most of us are relatively well cared for, happy, and able. We are the strangest of creatures: those who enjoy such peace but fairly beg for pain, if only that we might manifest it to others, and win a hearing in the effort. We need, on a societal level, a mass maturing, and Charles Sykes is here to help us.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Truth Versus Feelings

In doing all of this reading on character, I've been clued in to a key development in postmodern culture: the preeminence of feelings. Feelings have displaced truth as the primary mediator of society. The shift leaves us clueless as to what is actually good for us but all too aware of what we want.

We live in a psychotherapeutic age in which self-esteem is the cardinal, and perhaps only, virtue. How one feels is the most important matter to ascertain. Not, mind you, how one is, that is, how one acts and behaves. No, what is most important to our postmodern world is how one feels. The self-esteem culture has taught us always to take our "feelings" temperature and, more than this, to always pursue feeling good. We want to feel good at all times. Indeed, self-esteem ideology tells us we should always feel good. If someone is making us feel bad, then they are wrong. Perhaps the only thing that society at-large considers truly sinful is the act of making another person feel bad. For such an offense forgiveness does not easily come.

All this has clipped the wings of our culture. We have no ability to speak truth to one another. In our world, drenched in and pervaded by a relentless commitment to self-esteem, there is no place for truth-speaking. Noone is average anymore. Everyone is above average--or just about to be. People who would have been called "bright" a generation ago now are called "brilliant." Youth soccer players now get a trophy whether they won the championship or not. Folks who would have been encouraged to take better care of their bodies (or, alternatively, to "get in shape," a strange and startling phrase nowadays) are left alone in order not to be hurt by truth-telling. Noone wants to be hurt nowadays. Noone wants to be told they need to change and be exhorted to do so. We have no tolerance for the notion that we might need to improve or change or grow. We bristle at criticism and smart after receiving it, whispering ill words to ourselves of the character of those who dare to suggest that we are not fully realized human beings. To say it again, there is no place for truth in our lives.

I recall seeing this matter played out in the film "Emma," which my wife and I watched a little while ago. To cut to the chase, at one point Emma, the main character of the play, castigates a woman who talks too much in public. Now, Emma does so unkindly, and for that she should be rebuked. But the movie presents her unkindness as the most wicked of sins and Emma is tormented long after it. As I've thought about this wrongdoing, which indeed was wrong, I have also thought that Emma was punished not merely for speaking harshly but for speaking truthfully. That is, the woman who prattled on forever was wounded because someone actually told her she talked too much, a fact everyone knew but noone would say. This is an excellent example of a much broader movement in our culture. One should be left alone to oneself, goes the saying. If you're rude, you're quirky. If you're lazy, you're just a little slow. If you're uncouth, you're daring. If you're narcisstic, you're a character. And on and on it goes. We have all these excuses developed to explain away our sins and weaknesses, and we have no stomach for truth-telling. We are in a bad way culturally.

We need the recovery of truth-telling. We need to be told when we talk too much or cry too much or are unkind to others or are lazy or are narcisstic or are selfish. We need to hear such criticism and not bristle. We need to know that we are not called to feel good at all times. We are often called to not feel good. In such a cultural moment, the gospel bears great power, for it is the truth that renders us just as we are, and gives no place to feeling and self-esteem. The gospel shatters the false gospel of self-esteem. We must speak it, and we must believe it, and we must live it, and lead our culture out of its delusional goodness and into the freedom that comes when the truth is told.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Important Books: The Death of Character

Good things happen when you read.

I read for a living these days, and I cannot tell you how beneficial it is. The effort necessary to extract ourselves from the television is worth everything. When we actually sit down and read books, things happen. More specifically, knowledge happens. And knowledge is an incredible thing. Once you acquire a thirst for knowledge, you cannot go back. The practice of discovering truth about the world hooks you, and you have to read more, and understand more, and grow and change. Good things happen when you read.

Good things will happen when you read James Davison Hunter's The Death of Character. Hunter is a sociologist from the University of Virginia who first came up with the idea of the "culture wars" in America. He's an exceptional scholar and thinker and his book on character is masterful. Combining a careful historical perspective with the insightful eye of the sociologist, Hunter chronicles how America has gone from being founded on bedrock virtues to grounding itself in the airy tenets of self-serving psychology. His historical background is very helpful. In several places he compares the classical ethos of the Girl Scouts with the current ethos. The contrast could not be greater. The Girl Scouts, so sweet and innocent in their green vests, are being taught the most heinous principles of psychology and esteem. Hunter uses the Scouts as a grid by which to evaluate the rest of society. He finds that across the board, we have given in to a self-focused, relativist, amoral ethic. You'll have to read it yourself to find out just how much things have changed in America over the last two centuries.

So there it is: a wholehearted recommendation that you read The Death of Character and approach your world with the expert prescription glasses Hunter gives you. You'll be so much more able to see the self-focused, amoral psychologizing that dominates America in our day. More than this, you'll be able to see better how you yourself have imbibed this thinking in your own life. You'll realize as I have (if a product of the public education system and a fan of popular entertainment) that you are way more psychologically focused than you should be. You'll realize that you prioritize your feelings and your self-esteem and your own personal happiness far more than you should. You'll come away a bit disgusted with yourself as you realize that you are not so different from the culture as you thought.

I can think of a number of examples where this idea applies. We have been trained to believe that we deserve happiness. Thus, whenever we're not happy, we instinctively think that something has gone wrong with our circumstances, that something wrong is being done to us. We don't think, as anyone 200-300 years ago would have thought, that the problem lies within us, that we simply need to mature and grow and develop character because we are not owed happiness. It has no debt to us. It's sad to realize for the first time that your own personal ethic is self-serving and feelings-focused. Where we should cry against ourselves, we cry against others and our circumstances. It's too hard, or our boss is too demanding, or we don't feel as happy as we would like to, or we aren't being appreciated for our brilliance, or we're not being affirmed enough. You know, I'm not sure many of us would have survived 400 years ago in colonial America. We would have been hoeing and tilling and getting sick and, psychological as we are, we would have collapsed in a heap on the hard earth, weeping and whining, and America never would have been colonized. We need a return to a stout, truth-driven, morals-based, psychologically minimal, ethic. We need character. We can find it. God will give it to us. May He change us through the reading of His word, through the rejection of self-serving morality, and through the power of the Spirit as we deny ourselves and take up the cross of Christ.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Important Books: Generation Me

Thanks, BC, for your feedback on my reviews. You are a trenchant thinker and I appreciate your words. And it seems you have a bit of the closet sociologist in yourself, as well!

Today's book is a little less scholarly but every bit as potent a read as the other books. It's Jean Twenge's Generation Me, a study of the Millenials, who Twenge terms "GenerationMe" due to the unrelenting narcissism and self-interest of my generation. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, writes from what appears to be a Catholic background and thus brings a strongly moral outlook to her subject. Her book reviews pop culture, primarily, to identify the key attitudes and ideals of my generation. In sum, Twenge finds that we are consumed with ourselves. We've been raised on the sunny optimism of the Boomers to believe that we are all extremely special and talented and that noone and nothing should come in the way of our dreams. It is most important not that we conform to moral standards but that we express ourselves. It is most important not that we confess truths but that we express honest opinions at all times, for honesty (obscenely) trumps morality for Generation X. The book is both revealing and convicting.

I found myself reflecting on my own experience as a GenXer as I read Generation Me and feeling somewhat disgusted at certain aspects of my own attitude. I too can think that I am owed everything in life, that I am extraordinary in every way, that I am the star of a movie that everyone else happens to have a guest role in. When it comes to work, I should have a job that brings me endless happiness and unceasing delight. When it comes to school, I am a student who cannot deserve anything but an A. When it comes to preaching or teaching, my gifts can stand the test of any scrutiny and prove all criticism dead on arrival. When it comes to conversation, I am by far the most interesting person at the table or in the group, and thus I should dominate conversation and give everyone else the privilege of basking in my light. When it comes to sports, I should show my talents and not let the cumbersome presence of teamwork and self-sacrifice deter me from justly demonstrating my true athletic virtue. When I was single, it was unthinkable that any girl should not throw herself at me, so ruggedly handsome, charming, interesting, godly (ha!), and noble a man was I. The very thought that I should be denied full and flowing praise and adulation in any one of these areas was dreadful. If enacted in my life, a stream of excuses, angry comments, and justifications would issue forth, and I would stand, smoldering, the wronged hero sure to strike his revenge as soon as justice gave him his day.

If you're reading this, and you're a member of my generation, you should know that you and I are not nearly as special as we think we are. We just aren't. We've been trained with relentless force to believe that we are all exceptionally talented and wonderful and that's just not true. Most of us aren't great looking, most of us aren't brilliant, most of us aren't charming, most of us don't have great character, most of us aren't nearly as interesting as we think we are. We would all do well to take daily doses of humility and self-awareness and to lay off the self-entitlement meds. We don't deserve an easy road; we shouldn't expect unceasing praise; we should welcome hardship and trial and work through it to forge character. This, after all, is the great price we pay for becoming self-worshippers and easy victims of a mean and self-crushing world. We lose opportunities to grow and change and face down trials and move mountains and crush foes and forge character that lasts and endures. If you are a member of my generation, know your weakness. Resolve to shrug off the worldly narcissism and self-entitlement that you may well be cloaked in and commit yourself to the formation of character for the rest of your days. We all need to stop whining, start working, and work to fashion some true godliness through the fires of life. The Lord Jesus Christ did not have an easy way. Yet He found great reward for holiness. So will we. Let us fight on, and lay off the worldliness that so desperately beseeches us to whine and whimper and fall by the side, victims of our own listless character.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Essential Books: Bobos in Paradise

I have always had a love for sociology. That statement can mean alot of things. Let me say what it does not mean. I do not like at all the Marxist foundations on which the discipline was built, nor do I like much of its contemporary academic manifestations. However, I do like very much the practice of observing culture, which is what some good sociologists do. One such person is David Brooks, a writer for the New York Times who has made a career (and a fortune) from recording his pithy observations of American society in the books Bobos in Paradise and Paradise Drive.

I'm doing this series not simply to type three paragraphs so that my fingers can get exercise, or so that I can tell you what I like, but to recommend books to you. I think that you should read the books I'm recommending and think through them. With that said, I think you should read both of the books mentioned above. In each of the books, Brooks looks at the nature of postmodern society as revealed in its capitalist behavior. To give you my take of his thesis in each work (more or less), Brooks examines the strange nature of postmodern society in which people from divergent ethical backgrounds purchase the same goods and traffic in the same pleasures. This is a fascinating thesis, and Brooks sketches it out in colorful detail. His writing is pure candy for a sociological junkie. He is particularly fond of observing the ways in which globalism and consumer culture brings different people groups together. In Bobos in Paradise he wryly notes how the snotty upper crust and the hippy revolutionaries now share much of the same ethos and, tellingly, shop in many of the same places. This is an important insight, one that makes for great reading.

Have you noticed that? I certainly have. My wife loves the store Whole Foods, a store that draws a strange blend of folks. Look at the parking lot, and you see glistening Range Rovers which get 8 mpg parked right next to 30-year-old Volvo station wagons with fading Grateful Dead stickers. It is a most odd scene and yet it is replicated all over the country. The stridency of the revolutionary message has faded just as the upper crust has gone enviro-conscious, and the resulting mix is quite hilarious. Uptight trophy wives shop next to dreadlocked wanna-be Rastafarians. Only in America, one thinks. And we see this only through the fun and important sociological work of David Brooks, the commentator whose political and moral views I often care little for but whose sociological skill is a treat in itself.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Essential Books: The Closing of the American Mind

Back to book reviews. I've recently read through Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" and was struck by its incisive nature. Put simply, the book is one long expose of the American academy. Bloom, a University of Chicago political philosophy professor who passed away nearly fifteen years ago, wrote this thundering text to address the weaknesses of the postmodern university, with its ironclad commitment to personal autonomy and institutional liberalism.

First things first. Bloom sees the university almost as the church of its students, a role that I would have to reject. Universities as he sees them are designed to inculcate character and virtue, a claim I would not disagree with, but I would sound the note of emphasis on the family. It is the family that is of preeminent importance in morally and philosophically training the child, at least on a basic and medium level of thought. In addition, the church trains the child in the ways of truth and righteousness. Bloom, a homosexual, spoke little of the need for the church to train this postmodern generation. Finally, Bloom's solution for the ills of the modern university, awash in political correctness and hypocrisy as it is, is the "Great Books" curriculum. I don't have a major quarrel with this thinking, but I would have to say that I think change of a far more rigorous nature is needed for the American university to rise to its former level of greatness. The American university was once founded on something, specifically, Christian thought (to varying degrees and with exceptions). The current ideological basis of the system is agnostic liberalism. Is it any wonder that our students, like Charlotte, are wading in excess?

With these things said, the book masterfully diagnoses the culture of higher education today. Bloom is especially good in analyzing the politics of race and sex that dominate today. He rightly sees that tolerance has won sway on college campuses, and he boldly denounces political correctness and the disastrous campus codes it has birthed. He writes fluidly and confidently, assuming the tone of a master thinker looking down over the campus culture and seeing its flaws and foibles. Though as noted above I do not approach the university with the same optimism that he does, I do wholeheartedly agree with his assessment that the modern university has laid aside any pretense of moral and character education and devoted itself to the coddling of students. Bloom wishes the university to teach its students not only a body of thought, but a way to live. This is a commendable aim. It is almost entirely lost in our age. Bloom is spot-on.

I might add that I find Bloom's views on rock music a bit curious (stuffy philosophers tend to look down on fun music, after all), but he is dead-on in analyzing the self-centered transactional nature of contemporary relationships. He has also spotted that many students are little more than professional test-takers with little interest in the riches of academic study. In short, Bloom is a masterful exegete of modern culture, and it is for this reason that I would highly commend "The Closing of the American Mind" to all who wish to better understand the zeitgeist of our modern age. It is essential reading.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Proverbs 7

The book reviews will be posted intermittently over the next month.

Having just concluded a research chapter on the culture's attitude toward sex, I found Proverbs 7:6-27 striking. The chapter is a unique one, for the author uses a dramatic scene to make his point in place of a more, well, proverbial tone. The power in these words is palpable. It is made all the more so because we slowly observe the young man destroying himself. Do you ever feel this way as you observe American culture slowly twisting a knife into itself?

For at the window of my house I have looked out through my lattice, and I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense, passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness.

And behold, the woman meets him, dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart. She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait. She seizes him and kisses him, and with bold face she says to him, "I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you. I have spread my couch with coverings, colored linens from Egyptian linen; I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey; 20he took a bag of money with him; at full moon he will come home."

With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter,or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its liver;as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life.

And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Important Books Series

BCS, thanks for the suggestion about exploring the nature of beauty. Though it would be fascinating to address this question, I want to direct your attention elsewhere. For a while now I've wanted to quickly talk about some books that I've read recently that are culturally important. For the next little while I'm going to do so.

The first book is I Am Charlotte Simmons. Written by Tom Wolfe, published in 2004, the book is a 700+ plus page fictitious work examining the current state of the (elite) American university. Wolfe examines American undergraduate life through the country-bumpkin character of Charlotte Simmons who matriculates at fictional DuPont University, which smells and looks a great deal like Duke University. In fact, let's just cut to the chase: the book is basically about Duke University, albeit with some ideas and experiences Wolfe culled from other universities. Yes, to write this book, he actually went to a number of schools--Duke, Michigan, and others--and lived with students to get a feel for their world. The resulting portrait is quite accurate, if a bit sexualized.

That last line should catch your attention, because if you know anything about coed life, it's that it is sexually oriented in this day and age. However, even in an age drenched in sex, Wolfe overdoes it a bit. He makes it the motivating principle of nearly everything and everyone at college. While many students are driven by lust at college, not everyone is a frat boy or sorority girl. Many, in fact, are not. Wolfe portrays three of his four major characters--a jock, a geek, and a cool frat boy--as motivated almost exclusively by sex. I would agree that all of these stereotyped characters would in real life by sexually interested, but I do not think that all students represented by these characters are as obsessed with sex as their literary representatives.

With that one caveat, Wolfe nails so much of college life nowadays. As a recent college graduate (how long can you say recent?), I can say that Wolfe has well captured the stronghold liberal ideology has over college campuses, the social pecking order that does predominate at many schools, and the drunken debauchery that fuels the social lives of a good number of students nowadays. One should read Charlotte Simmons to understand what the typical coed's life looks like today. It's not a pretty picture, and there's a good deal of objectionable material, but for those who can read with discernment, the picture is quite revealing. In addition, one can read some rap lyrics penned by our very own Mr. Wolfe. They are quite hilarious.

I Am Charlotte Simmons is entertaining, insightful, and generally on the mark. It's over-sexualized, but it makes a powerful point: the postmodern student enters a world dominated by darkness in matriculating at academically excellent institutions nowadays. Where is the church in all this? Indeed, perhaps the saddest aspect of the whole book was this: Charlotte never meets a Christian. Noone reaches out to her as she spirals into moral ambivalence and worse. Perhaps this is because Wolfe cares little for Christians. Or perhaps it's because Wolfe did not encounter Christians engaging the lost people he met at the universities he visited. If so, this is a tragic thought. How sad that Christians would have their own fellowships and associations, conduct their own Bible studies, and go on their own retreats--and never even get to know a lost person. May it never be so with us, and may we not abandon those all around us who are, like Charlotte, plunging deeper and deeper into sin.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Evangelizing Through Beauty, Part 2

Well, the finals are over and I'm back in the swing of things. Good to be back.

I want to suggest based on my previous post that we Christians take every opportunity we can to point out to the outside world that we, like them, love beauty. We are not concerned only with truth claims. We are of course concerned first and foremost with truth claims, but this does not mitigate our appreciation of beauty. When we have established this principle, we may engage the lost person based on what they find beautiful and appreciable in the world. We may state that we ourselves find much beauty here as well. In doing so, we will show people that Christians do not live in a world without color, a world without sunsets, love, and strolls through nature. We will show people that we are the people who most see the world's beauty and who in fact know the source of such splendor.

Connecting with lost people through beauty allows us to present a multi-faceted view of the Christian life that does not contain it simply to certain statements about the Bible. It is essential that our witnessing include these statements--indeed, they are the very marrow of our faith, being the gospel message. However, the Christian faith is not marked by mere recitation of a creed or formulation. The Christian faith involves all of one's senses and draws one into a lifelong study of beauty, truth, and goodness. The Christian faith is not simply an invitation to salvation. It is also an invitation to gaze at God and His created beauty. Those who never see this are those who live shallow and paltry existences, not Christians.

Christians find reason for appreciation in everything. We should communicate this simple fact to the lost person even as we share with them what we find beautiful in the world. Then, when that is established, we may steer our conversation to the One who is both the source of beauty in the world and the Savior for a world gone ugly.