Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Needed: Really, Really Good Writers

I was pulled a bit away from the topic of literature in my last post. Those who read this blog know that I believe that all virtuous vocations are honoring to God and equipped to bring Him glory. My focus this week is not on work more generally, but on the specific need for excellent Christian literature.

If you are a parent of a literate child, or if you are the friend of a talented collegiate writer, do us all a massive favor and encourage said writer to write for the glory of God. It may be that God will call them to other things, but we should nonetheless encourage the development of excellent Christian writing. The word is a powerful unit in society. Christians should not cede the literary sphere to the lost. We should seek to raise up a new literary tradition capable of engaging the hearts, minds, and imaginations of readers of all types and ages.

This will likely take place through a good deal of education, a rich background filled with meaningful connection to gospel-centered Christianity, and and lots and lots of practice. I would encourage Christians who aspire to be writers to get maximal training for their craft. Lewis, Tolkien, and other important authors of the Christian tradition obtained numerous degrees in search of development and excellence. If you are a young Christian writer, seek the development of your skills. Do not think that you should start writing simply because you have good ideas and can craft good prose. Hone your writing. Get excellent training. Try to go to top-level universities where you will be strenuously challenged and comprehensively educated. Do not settle for easy allegory and simplistic metaphor. Your story or novel is not good simply because it is Christian. It needs to be objectively good--no, objectively excellent. Do not make the all-too-common evangelical mistake of thinking that shoddy material is worth people's time simply because it's evangelical. There is no surer way to turn a potential audience away from your work than to make this error.

Develop your abilities, immerse yourself in the body of Christ, and associate yourself with interesting Christians, who think and talk about things and who are a bit eccentric. Draw literary-minded Christians around you and resist the snippety comments from believers who mistakenly think that writing literature is a waste of time better used for more "spiritual" ends. If such sniping persists, gently and kindly list off hundreds of names who were converted to Christ through C. S. Lewis's writings. Then, go back to being creative. Attend conferences, write excellent authors, and study their work. I basically taught myself to write rap lyrics by simply listening to rap with an analytical ear. The same can be done with any discipline.

Tomorrow, we'll look at what good Christian literature should include. With that advertisement completed, for the rest of us who aren't writers, we should find a literary Christian to encourage. Pray for them, push them to merge creativity and orthodoxy, and encourage them. Be a positive presence in their life, remembering the tremendous power God has given literature to express beauty and win hearts. Maybe if enough of us do so, we'll see a Lewis come around in our time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

When Gifting Becomes a Curse

Flannery O'Connor I have never read, but in the paraphrased words of Owen Wilson in the immortal film Zoolander, "I respect her. She's written books, and I've never read them, but I really respect that." Chesterton is also an excellent example for yesterday's post.

On a more serious note, I would like to focus the discussion on Lewis, simply because of the gospel-oriented impact he had. Revivalism and fundamentalism (which I will soon be blogging on) had some strong points, but they were nowhere weaker in their doctrine of vocation. To put it concisely, they created latent guilt in everyone who didn't sign up for "full-time Christian service." Now, I am not debasing ministerial work; I am training to do it, and I pray that all kinds of Christians join me in this work. However, most Christians are not called to the pastorate or the mission field. That is not an accident; it is not a tragedy; it is not a sign of things-gone-awry. It is a wonderful thing when God gifts a person to do a work for His kingdom. In the example of Lewis, we see this powerfully played out. God touched this man, and left him with a literary gift, and the world is a changed place for it.

I wish this blog had a wider readership, not so that I would be known, but so that more might hear this and leave off their latent guilt. It should not be there. C. S. Lewis shows us the ridiculousness of thinking that only pastors can contribute meaningfully to Kingdom work. By orienting his writing around the gospel, he had (still has!) an impact that reached countless thousands who had no interest in sermons or prayer books. So what does this mean for you? It means that if you are gifted to write, then write, and do it for the Lord. If you are gifted to build homes, build homes of great beauty and detail, and do it for the Lord. If you are gifted to philosophize, then do philosophy, using the full range of your intellectual gifts for the Lord. Do all these things with gusto and joy, knowing that the Lord is using you as you work for Him and that He is richly glorified as you fully express the talents given you. He didn't give them to you by accident. If you feel that guilt creeping up to you, then remember Lewis, and know that immense spiritual good may come of those who, regardless of vocation, yield themselves to the exercise of their abilities for the reknown of the Most Holy God.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Whence Cometh the Christian Renaissance?

Think about this: sixty years ago, the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Now this: noone today has a similar effect in the literary world.

That's a sad reality. Of course, I'm not positing Tolkien as an evangelical believer (he was Roman Catholic), and Lewis made his share of theological mistakes. However, the writings of these two men represent the capturing of the Christian worldview by the printed word. These men, who loved and studied literature, communicated with exceptional beauty and ingenuity the richness of Christian thought. They were scholars, trained by years of dogged study to think well and write clearly. They were churchmen, shaped by their contact with the Bible and the teachings of their traditions. Though I have vast theological disagreement with Tolkien, I must say that both he and Lewis spoke far more eloquently and effectively for the Christian worldview than any other literary author since.

It is interesting to note that neither of these men arose out of fundamentalism or revivalism. Each of them arose from distinctively British versions of the Christian faith, Tolkien a Catholic, Lewis an Anglican. While American Christians focused their attentions almost solely on explicitly ministerial actions, these British authors devoted themselves to writing eloquent works of profound depth that spoke to the power of the Christian worldview. Decades later, their legacy endures. Despite its weaknesses, how many countless hearts have been won to Christianity through Lewis's Mere Christianity? Despite its failings, how many minds have been enchanted by Tolkien's vision of Middle Earth? Now, I ask you, where are the literary descendants of these men?

Who will follow in their footsteps? Will anyone? We desperately need pastors, missionaries, and evangelists. But perhaps we also desperately need Christian authors, scientists, and musicians. This week, we'll look at this subject, and ponder the hope of a Christian intellectual renaissance. We'll think about this question that I leave you with: will we Christians so focus ourselves on professional ministry that we lose sight of the fact that a layman writer like Lewis has won far more to the faith than most pastors ever will?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Fighting Feminism

I've noticed a couple of articles recently that touched on a topic I've written about before: feminist conceptions of motherhood. The Boston Globe recently published a piece in which a mother who had returned to the workplace after four years away to care for her children celebrated her career due to its lack of messiness, its ease, and its relative solitude. A New York Times article chronicled the efforts of mothers to fight for better workplace benefits. Both caught my eye, and both prompted me to want to respond to them.

Before I do, let me briefly lay out a very few brief propositions so that I'm not misunderstood.

1) I do not believe it is wrong for a woman to work.
2) My wife works.
3) I do believe that the Scripture-mandated role for women is that of wife and homemaker.
4) There are certain times in a woman's life when it is entirely appropriate to have a job if she wishes--for example, after all of her children are out of the house.
5) Women should sharpen their gifts and abilities through collegiate educations.

I'm sure there are more I could think of, but that's a solid base. With this base in place, I want to say that these articles trouble and even anger me. They represent the modern woman's rebellion against the biblical role for women. There is now a whole generation--no, two generations--who fight with the mothering role. The Globe piece represents thinking that essentially despises the God-honoring work of childraising. Women who have been trained to be careerists will tolerate such duties for a spell, perhaps, but then they must rush back to work, or else the goals the feminist movement has set for them--higher salary, higher achievement, beating men--will go unfulfilled. This trend proceeds from utterly secular roots. It has utterly secular results.

I'm most concerned with Christian women who unwittingly have been trained in the feminist mindset and who thus espouse and live by its doctrines. As is characteristic of so many of us, I don't think that Christian women who live by feminist principles even understand that they are doing so. They have simply been indoctrinated in feminism and raised in a culture in which feminism is simply a matter of fact, and so they live by feminist ideals, all the while obscuring the glory of God and rebelling--whether unintentionally or not--against His created gender roles. It is an ugly thing to see. We can only hope for a recovery of the biblical vision for women and especially that Christian women will cease to assume feminism and begin to practice complementarianism. After all, it is not my view that women should not work, but merely that complementarianism would hold first priority for a woman and that women would esteem and prioritize the role of homemaker.

Men and women are not in competition, but feminism says they are. The biblical vision for women is not oppressive, but feminisim says it is. Like other modern ideologies, feminism is so destructive, and so far-ranging. The idea of complementarianism is of great importance. Christians who downplay the significance of complementarianism are entering dangerous waters. The family is the essential unit of life. All that is proceeds from it. It is thus vitally important to make sure that we understand the Scripture's teaching on the family. It is equally important that we then put into practice those teachings. It's a terrible thing to rebel against God, whether you know you are or not.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Spiritual Warfare in Entertainment

I'm not one to talk much about spiritual warfare. In a practical sense, I don't think the Bible emphasizes it a great deal--at least it doesn't specify the parameters of the war that rages around us. We of course know that there is a great conflict between light and dark here, but we know little of it's actual shape.

I've been reflecting a bit on yesterday's post, though, and I can say that I do think that one of the primary ways Satan seeks to derail us is through distraction and mindlessness. C. S. Lewis has popularized this idea in his Screwtape Letters. I don't buy all of Lewis's ideas, but there is something worth considering there. I've thought about this in relation to Ipods. It used to be that when you walked somewhere, or worked on something, or stood in line, you were more or less forced to engage those around you or, if alone, forced to think and contemplate and perhaps even pray, if you were particularly redemptively minded. Nowadays, though, our favorite artists walk with us everywhere. Long drive in the car? Bring your favorite downtempo cd. Long walk across campus? Don't pray for those ten minutes--listen to that familiar favorite you've heard a thousand times. Standing in line? Don't engage someone in conversation--just turn up the tunes and avoid social interaction altogether. In small ways, we are in a battle to be spiritually minded and to shrug off the quick, the easy, and the entertaining to actually fasten ourselves to something lasting and good.

I love good music and I listen to it daily. But I'm also reminded often of the need to steward the resources available. I must regularly remind myself that entertainment is not the master of me. Such a suggestion is an attack, albeit a quiet, easy-to-heed one. No, I am the master of entertainment, and I must pray that I do not become so mindless, so bored, so desperate for the perpetually blissful state of the entertained that I miss out on quiet moments with my God.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Change by the Turn of a Page

I've commented recently on the need to surround ourselves with beauty. This involves ingesting good material. It also involves not reading superficial and silly material. Turning a page, we find, makes all the difference.

This is a challenging exchange, I must say. Bethany and I subscribe to World magazine. This means that when I pick up World, I automatically laud myself for reading a thoughtful magazine instead of a trashy rag. However, if I'm honest, I de-laud myself for skipping directly to the articles on entertainment and culture. Now, such articles are not wrong by any stretch. I like culture, entertainment can be fun, and World provides a sound perspective from which to think about the two. However, I find that I tend to skip right over important articles on world affairs and other (regrettably and shamefully) boring pieces.

So last night I shamed myself into leaving the reviews and going back to the cover article from this week's issue, which is on modern-day slavery. I came away from the article horrified by what I read. How easy it is for me, a comfortable American living happily in ease and education, to suppose that everyone else lives just like me. How false this is. I suspect that this is one of the primary effects of a mindless, entertainment-saturated culture: we fail to see what is truly important in the world. Focusing on which starlet is entering rehab, we forget the Dalits, the Untouchables of India. Interested in entertaining ourselves, we check up on movie reviews, and skip merrily past the section on child trafficking. We do so forgetting that we are stewards of our eyes. We are not forced to be entertained by culture. We allow it to entertain us.

Entertainment and amusement are not bad things. But they should be moderated. They should not keep us from seeing the brutal realities of this world. Is that not a key scheme of this present darkness, to trick us into thinking the world is a merry, silly, amusement-drenched place? I think it is. Perhaps we will not ourselves free the Dalits, or end child trafficking, but we can tear ourselves away from mindlessness. We can give ourselves even the briefest chance to see anew the sad state of our world. In an age when "news" equals "silliness," that is no small thing. Perhaps change will come simply by the turn of a page.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Boy's First Car

I've been under the weather recently, but I've recovered. My convalescence allowed me to ruminate a bit on a recent development in my life: the need to sell the only car I've ever owned.

This will be a difficult parting, I can tell. Not in a theological sense. I know the answers when it comes to the theology of selling my car. Our life is not our own, and we are not the sum of our possessions. We won't take anything to heaven with us. However, I'm not so worried that about me being a part of the car. On the contrary, my 1995 tan Honda Accord coupe is a part of me.

There are so many memories that come with your first car, especially when you've taken good care of the car and kept it around for a while. Each time I open the car door I'm greeted with a midsized amount of memories. I can remember the day my mother bought me a Bowdoin College decal to put on the car I would one day own. Little did I know that I would own that car at the end of the day. Picking me up from college after my freshman year, my parents discussed with me my prospects of someday getting a car. When we pulled into our driveway, I saw a beautiful tan Honda coupe with a big bow. My first thought, showing the stunning discernment abilities I possess, was this: who is at our home, and why do they drive a car with a blue bow on it? A few minutes later, I was the one who would drive it, albeit without the big blue bow.

The car and I went everywhere together. The memories accrued from those times ride with me each time I drive, like an old friend keeping you company in the passenger seat. Trips to Portland with my friends; riding to church (usually late) with my roommate, Keegan; driving to summer camp to work as a counselor. Driving through the snow, rain, and mush of Maine winter; driving to the store on errands; driving to Louisville in search of education and a degree. Driving my future wife on our first date--thank goodness for a steering wheel with good grip. Running our first errands together as a married couple. In these and so many other reminisces, my car is not simply a vehicle. It's a friend, a trusted one. I guess that's why I feel like I'm putting my favorite pet to sleep. Maybe some of you out there understand. Or maybe you're laughing at me. I understand, but have to reiterate: there's something about a man's first car. Gets in your soul. Becomes a part of you, whether you want it to or not.

Goodbye, Sweet Chariot. It's been a good ride.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Musical Recommendations

It's Friday, and I have some musical recommendations for you. Kevin, thanks for your comment--I will be quite happy to post some book recommendations on beauty in the very near future, and will email you as soon as I can.

I strongly recommend the following two Christian songer-songwriters. First, Andrew Osenga. He writes great songs about the complex character of Christian life in a fallen world. I've recommended him before, but I want to recommend him again, simply because his music is so moving. Go to the link I've provided and click on the album player. Then, listen to "New Beginning" and "Early in the Morning." Beautiful, heartfelt songwriting, and music to match.

Second, Andrew Peterson. I don't know a great deal about this artist, but I know that he's a talented, thoughtful musician who writes songs that resonate with the heart longing for redemption. Go to the link I've provided and open the album player and listen to the cd. Then, with both of these guys, go and buy their music. Your money will not be wasted. It will support thoughtful Christian music made with an eye to beauty and redemption.

Also, go out and get the "Pride and Prejudice" soundtrack. It is intensely beautiful and haunting. Honestly, I can't stop listening to this melodic piano-driven soundtrack. The compositions are elegant, quiet, and moving. Honestly, just buy it. You don't even have to preview it. Anyone who likes good music to study and think by will delight in this piece of art. The only drawback: it's just 40 minutes long. Oh well--just play it through twice. I do.

So there's a few practical ways to bring some beauty into your life. Perhaps you'll join me in enjoying these purchases and in bringing a little melody and elegance into your life. I promise that you won't be disappointed as you do so. Beauty, like the friend who invariably strengthens and encourages you, has a way of leaving its mark on you.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

More On Appreciating Beauty

Good comments and questions from the last post--thanks to all who gave such thoughtful responses. Here are a few humble responses.

To Ryan Hill's question about cultural engagement, I think part of Christian maturity is indeed understanding the culture. To do this, we have to engage it in some form. There is no easy answer to guide us in our cultural interaction. We each have to know ourselves and our sins and then let this knowledge shape the way we approach culture. We keep the concern for holiness close beside us as we listen to music, watch tv, and read literature. With Spirit-fueled discernment, we thus seek to understand our world and to hear its patterns of thought in the media it creates.

Each Christian will have different standards and abilities to handle secular content. The key is to be discerning, to be accountable to others, and to be careful. With that said, there is tremendous value in knowing what the culture thinks and says. Generally, though, you don't need to plunge into secular culture to understand it. You can sample it, and keep your ears and eyes open, and you'll be able to talk with lost people on their level. I don't need to watch much popular media to understand how the MTV generation thinks. I don't need 30 hours a week of secular radio to understand its various worldviews. I don't need to read through whole chick lit series to understand how teenage girls are thinking. A sampling will do. I think that's a helpful starting point.

To respond to KC, good taste is not a virtue. But loving beauty is a good thing. Seeking to make the world beautiful is a good thing. And the cry of artistic relativism is too easy to shout in this modern age when perspectivalism dominates. For example, I am a bad painter. Michelangelo was not. How can we tell? Art critics can you help there. I'll suffice it to say for now that I believe that there are grounds for good art. My wife and I can both play the piano (in a sense), but I will play it very simply and poorly (with one hand) and she will play it elegantly with great complexity and technical excellence. Her piece will be more technically difficult and thus better than mine. My simple rendering of "Jesus Paid It All" with one hand may move you or I, but I don't think it's as good as her more sophisticated performance would be.

In terms of objective standards within a discipline, I think we're misunderstanding one another. I mean simply that disciplines and groups craft standards within themselves by which they judge one another. The operatic community has its own standards for excellence, the spoon-making community has its own standards, the ballroom dancing community has its own standards. These standards may well conform to principles outside of the particular communities, but they are nonetheless shaped by each community.

Riley asked about how far one goes in pursuing beauty. Having been a bit of an extremist in matters of faith already in my young life, I generally seek to avoid extreme conclusions. I think it a good principle to generally push oneself to appreciate the finer things of life while leaving a bit of room to enjoy other media. I try to listen to classical music for a good part of the day, for example, but I'll listen to a little rap or something like that at the gym. It is not my personal mission to reach extreme conclusions. I merely want to go hard after beauty, while avoiding extremism. One can focus hard on health and fitness, and thus steward one's body well, but we all need a little chocolate cake every now and again. So with the life of the mind.

I appreciate Brian's comment about the world not finding ultimate beauty anywhere than in God Himself. I agree with that statement. However, there is much to be said for appreciating "what is true, what is beautiful" and so on as Philippians 4:7-8 tell us. The Reformed worldview understands this essential truth and thus does not close itself out from culture simply because it is not inherently Christian. We are those who see all truth as God's truth, all beauty as God's beauty. We thus work to celebrate beauty and to lead men away from shallow, filthy, and debased existences, pointing them to the common graces of God's world even as we declare the majesty of His special grace as revealed in Christ.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Read Ken Myers, Please

I would encourage all Christians to get ahold of Ken Myers's book All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Myers makes the argument that much of pop culture is shallow and that Christians ought to largely detach themselves from pop culture and instead listen to classical and folk music. These latter two musical types are both anchored in tradition and carry within themselves objective standards of beauty. This as opposed to pop music, the merits of which are found in the glazed eyes of the beholder.

Myers also encourages Christians to turn off their televisions and to read. He notes that Christians have become allergic to the printed Word. He's right on here and in the first point. As I read this book, I was disheartened to learn of rock music's rebellious background and of television's vacuous roots. There's some talk about these ideas in evangelical circles, but generally both of these ideas are mocked instead of considered. I would venture to say that most of us wade so deeply in pop culture that we aren't even aware of its effects. Though we may not know what they are, our lack of attention span, our distaste for advanced intellectual argument, and our need to be mindlessly entertained all disclose the effects of a pop culture mindset.

So do something bold. Go buy a classical music cd. Go buy a good hefty book instead of a couple of magazines. Read the book and listen to the music instead of watching Entertainment Tonight or viewing videos on Youtube or surfing the web to find mindless and shallow "news" stories. Become a thinking Christian, not a blinking Christian. Clear out some space in your life to appreciate beauty and to discover truth. You'll find as you do so that you develop a taste for finer things. Then, pass that Ken Myers book on to someone else, and let the movement grow, and the change unfold.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Need for Beautiful Surroundings

Kind of a quirky title, eh? Well, I'm trying to get at an idea that I'll develop over the next few days. It's probably a familiar one, but I think it warrants continued contemplation. It is this: as Christians, those who appreciate the goodness of God in this world, we need to seek out beautiful things in order that we ourselves would become more beautiful.

I'm not talking about cosmetics or haircuts or ab exercises. I'm talking about beauty as it relates to the life of the mind. We live in an age dominated by pop culture. Pop culture is itself dominated by shallow, cheap and foolish things. Too often, its wares are represented not by a pristine painting but by spray painted graffitti. The past two generations have grown up in a culture that celebrates not the art establishment but the art dis-establishment, the counter-culture, in which anything goes and everything sneers. This is a regrettable shift, and it gives the Christian, charged with the stewardship of God's beauty in the world, the responsibility to seek out that which is beautiful and enjoy it.

I am not calling for a whole-scale rejection of contemporary culture. I am arguing that we Christians need to reject contemporary notions of beauty and exchange them for historical notions of beauty. We have allowed ourselves to accept the idea that Christians are a low-class people who only appreciate the shallow and silly. We ought to avoid snobbery at all costs, but we ought also to identify and appreciate that which is historically beautiful. We'll discuss specific examples later in the week, but for now it's enough to say that where there is edifying and elegant literature, music, media, and activity, we ought to go after it, and become part of society that does not sneer at beauty but prizes it.

Some who know me well will find this idea rather surprising coming from the lips of one who has made a rap cd. I have not at this point rejected my love for rap, but I have seen in recent days how I have unwittingly allowed my personal tastes to be wholly shaped by pop culture. I don't like this. I don't want to be unwittingly shaped by anything, especially when it's secular society that is doing the unconscious shaping. It would do many of us Christians well, I think, to take our minds back for ourselves, to pry the dirty hands of the world off our souls, and to pursue for ourselves and our people the beauty which is everywhere around us. In the process, we will find what we seek. No, more than this, we will become what we seek.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Responses to Questions: Seminaries, Preaching, and Linking

Responses to recent questions (all from Paul Cable):

On preachers not believing the power of the Word

Absolutely, Paul. I think you're right on when you write that preachers don't believe in the power of the Word to change the hearts of men. It is surprising that this is so, because if there is one teaching in the Word of God regarding preaching, it is that the Word of God is incomparably powerful and ideally suited to the transformation of hearts. Think about the Bible's constant message regarding the Word. It is that it is indubitably powerful. Shame on us all for not believing this essential message.

On the quality of American seminaries

When I gave my personal seminary recommendations last week, I unwittingly left out RTS and Covenant. Here, then, are some expanded thoughts on seminaries. When it comes to American seminaries, Master's, RTS, Covenant, Westminster, and Southern all offer, to varying degrees, a Reformed education. RTS, Covenant, Westminster, and Master's are all much smaller than Southern. Why is this important? Because of resources. I think you could go to any of the four just mentioned and get a solid Reformed education, but you'll do so with a much smaller library, higher costs, and more limited campus experience. In addition, with RTS, Covenant, and Westminster, you'll be getting a distinctly Presbyterian education. You have to decide for yourself if that's going to prove helpful. Given that I want to be a Baptist, I thought it made sense to go to a Baptist school. That decision has proven wise, as I now know a bunch of godly and sharp young men who I will, Lord willing, stay connected with for many years to come. Think hard about both colleagues and mentors--who will mentor you? Who will you form friendships with? It's helpful to form your closest friendships and mentoring relationships with those who share your theological commitments. I can see the truth of this statement in my own life.

I guess I would wonder why, if you have a school that offers a generally Reformed perspective like Southern and that is Baptist, you would not go there, particularly when you'll also have cheap tuition, a great library, an extensive campus (nice gym, dorms, etc), and an excellent faculty. Southern's scholars are thinkers and churchmen. Men like Steve Wellum, Tom Schreiner, Al Mohler, Bruce Ware (full disclosure: my father-in-law), Russ Moore, Greg Wills, Tom Nettles, and others are heavy hitters in the evangelical world. These men and others compose the finest Baptist faculty around. Many have seen this. Influential Reformed churches like Bethlehem and Capitol Hill send droves of young men to Southern. There must be 30 or 40 former interns and staff members from CHBC (myself included). Now, do remember that Southern is Southern Baptist, and so that comes with certain traits that reformed previously non-SBC Northerners like myself have gotten used to with time. But if you possess some level of maturity and are able to learn from and worship with those who are not just like you theologically and culturally, then I think the education Southern offers is second to none. For its campus resources, its economic tuition, and its excellent faculty, I recommend it to anyone, and can only pass along that my education has been, with a few exceptions, quite good.

I would not personally recommend Trinity or Gordon-Conwell due to theological shifts among their faculty members (i.e., egalitarianism).

On linking to this blog

Paul, you and anyone else who wants to link to this blog are completely welcome to. No need to ask my permission. Link away, and if you like what you see, tell someone about this humble little blog. It's a ton of fun to get comments from guys like you and to try and think through different issues relevant to Christianity and culture. Thanks to all who make writing on this blog such a fun experience. I do appreciate all who read this. Hope these words were helpful to you, Paul, and others who may be considering Southern and other seminaries.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


After several days of thicker content, one is ready for a good story. Here's a great one I found in William Bennett's The Book of Morals. The story is true. It's set in a small village in Vietnam during the time of the Vietnam War. The doctors are missionary doctors. I've edited it, but it's still powerful.

The doctor spoke some pidgin Vietnamese, and the nurse a smattering of high school French. Using that combination, together with much impromptu sign language, they tried to explain to their young, frightened audience that unless they could replace some of the girl’s lost blood, she would certainly die. Then they asked if anyone would be willing to give blood to help. Their request was met with wide-eyed silence. After several long moments, a small hand slowly and waveringly went up, dropped back down, and then went up again.

“Oh, thank you,” the nurse said in French. “What is your name?”

“Heng,” came the reply.

Heng was quickly laid on a pallet, his arm swabbed with alcohol, and a needle inserted in his vein. Through this ordeal Heng lay stiff and silent. After a moment, he let out a shuddering sob, quickly covering his face with his free hand. “Is it hurting, Heng?” the doctor asked. Heng shook his head, but after a few moments another sob escaped, and once more he tried to cover up his crying. Again the doctor asked him if the needle hurt, and again Heng shook his head. But now his occasional sobs gave way to a steady, silent crying, his eyes screwed tightly shut, his fist in his mouth to stifle his sobs.

The medical team was concerned. Something was obviously very wrong. At this point, a Vietnamese nurse arrived to help. Seeing the little one’s distress, she spoke to him rapidly in Vietnamese, listened to his reply and answered him in a soothing voice. After a moment, the patient stopped crying and looked questioningly at the Vietnamese nurse. When she nodded, a look of great relief spread over his face.

Glancing up, the nurse said quietly to the American, “He thought he was dying. He misunderstood you. he thought you had asked him to give all his blood so the little girl could live.”

“But why would he be willing to do that?” asked the Navy nurse.

The Vietnamese nurse repeated the question to the little boy, who answered simply, “She’s my friend.”

Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Preaching That Crackles

I think much of the problem behind contemporary preaching is that we often try to do everything but simply preach the text. We entertain, offer therapy, and pile on an extra serving of sentimentalism for good effect. The resulting mix is a casserole that, like the one dish noone will touch at the church potluck, lacks savor and nourishment alike.

We need to forget about comedy, forget about amusing ourselves, forget about trying to feel good, and to simply preach the text. We need preaching that crackles. Sunday mornings should be like a lightning-storm in a barn. The Word should thunder from the pulpit as the preacher declares the truth of God's Word and then applies it to the lives of his hearers, believers and unbelievers alike. Avoiding mere restatement, fanciful conjuring, and narcissistic silliness, the preacher is Moses come down from the mountain to speak to the awed assembly. A few days ago, he was Jacob, wrestling with the text, beseeching God to give him the scriptural understanding and affectional passion he so needs to preach. Yes, in a postmodern world, he is John the Baptist, with truth in his mouth and fire in his eyes. He gives you the impression that he could, if providence were willing, shoot some lightning out of his hands as he gestures, not because of his gifting or power, but because he has come into contact with the Word, and lived to tell about it.

But the congregation is Moses, too. Mere feet from us the bush burns, and we are struck down in awe and reverential fear. When we are in the presence of the Word, preached truly and passionately, we do not yawn or sigh or think about sports or cooking or what the kids in front of us are whispering. We are gripped and grabbed and shook up by the Word of God. If it were socially acceptable, we would fulfill our corporate role as Moses and rip our shoes off our feet, for we know that in the presence of the Word we are in holy territory. The Word rightly preached, you see, does not need assistance from humor or cleverness or sentimentality. It is a radioactive document. You and I approach the Bible like it's a nice little book. Early in the morning, we pour cereal and sit down and open up the Bible and read it for a few moments before drifting into thoughts about the day and our clothing and other small distractions. Meanwhile, the Word glows, growing hotter, becoming Babylon's furnace. If we were not like Daniel covered by the grace of God, we would melt. You and I approach the Bible, and we think it's a nice little book that whispers to us. But the Bible will devour us, like Jonah, and spit us out, drenched, gasping for air, not believing what we have just encountered. You and I approach the Bible, and we think it's nice and neat and tame, but we meet God in these pages, and when you meet God, you fall down to the ground as fast as your instantaneously inert limbs will allow you. The Word of God is not tame or boring or silly or comical or maudlin. The Word of God is brute force mixed with radioactive power. You would come to it expecting a cheery word for the day, and you would open it, and your thoughts would drift, and then your loved ones would find you, melted.

You think I'm a little weird, and my writing is strange, but the Bible is powerful, and we don't know it, and we don't live like it, and we don't do devotions like we know it, live it, or like it. Worse yet, our preachers are no better. They think they deal with a tame little book, and they preach tamely. Meanwhile, the Bible sits on the podium, crackling, stirring, ready to spit radioactive power at a congregation filled with weakness. So if you find a preacher that preaches funny things, and sweet things, or boring things, you might take him aside, and kindly tell him that the Bible crackles with power.

If he doesn't believe you, show him your melted cereal bowl.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Humor in Preaching

To put it quickly: I'm not a big fan of it. A little is okay occasionally. But delivering the Word is a fundamentally solemn task.

We need a whole bunch of counter-cultural preachers who do not read Easy Tips For Public Speaking Excellence or some such drivel. That's not an actual title, but I'm sure there are tons of books out there that lots of pastors read in an effort to "communicate effectively." How about "preaching truthfully?" Or try this one: "speaking faithfully?"

You don't need a joke to warm up the crowd. You don't need to splice in humorous and silly anecdotes. You shouldn't tell heart-warming stories that have no relevance to your story, no matter how melting a public speaker you esteem yourself. You should walk to the pulpit, deliver the Word without distraction, and sit back down. Preaching is not an opportunity for sanctified entertainment. Preachers are not entertainers. They are not paid to be charming or witty. They are paid by the labor of the congregation to preach the true and living Word of God such that the redeemed forsake their sins and the unrepentant find the way to forgiveness. They will naturally present a certain type of personality, and that personality may and should be infused with a love for people, a joy in preaching, and a passion for God and His gospel. I am not arguing for personality-less preaching, and I am as bored by passionless preaching as you are. My point, though, is that preaching is delivered in the context of personality and is not a forum for personality. That is a subtle and important distinction. Preaching is about the Word, not about entertainment, fun, and silliness.

We need less comedy and more reverence. We need a whole batch of Lloyd-Jones type of men, who might even growl before they'll smile but who will preach with the passion that only the gospel can produce. If you're not a charming speaker, if you're not quick with a joke, if you don't extract a sob with every illustration, don't despair. You're not wrong for the job. If you preach the Word truly and passionately, you're probably just right.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Reflections on Neil Postman

I recently finished an important work by Neil Postman entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. Written over two decades ago, Postman, a college professor and professed devotee of the written word, argues that our culture is trading its love for the weighty solidarity of the printed and spoken word for the cheap thrill of the television and video screen. Postman's thesis is well argued and the book is highly recommended reading for anyone wishing to understand the culture--and themselves.

Among the points Postman, a board member for the National Council of the Churches of Christ, makes in the book is that Protestant Christianity has wholeheartedly embraced the media culture. This has resulted in the cheapening and thinning of evangelicalism. This is a point worthy of much exploration, and that's what I'll do this week. Today, I'll just say a few introductory words.

The role of humor and lightheartedness in our services troubles me. I'm not advocating stodginess. But I do think that corporate worship, as with all our lives, should be invested with reverence for God. We seem to have lost a sense of reverence in our churches. It is right to want to enjoy God, to bask in His goodness, and to sing gladly His praises. We should balance such approaches with reverence, however. In fact, a serious attitude should fundamentally stamp our services and indeed our very lives. Lying in back of us and everywhere around us is a cosmic struggle for the hearts of men. We are not in heaven yet. We are surrounded by death. Seriousness thus befits us. But our seriousness transcends mere soberness. It is flavored by a sense that God is watching, that God is with us, and that He appraises each moment of our lives. He does not do so unkindly, of course, and so we do not live timidly, but with love for Him. And thus we see that our approach to God and to the life that He creates for us is one that mixes seriousness, soberness, and love. The end result of this admixture is reverence.

Laughter and joy are integral parts of life. But our world loves them too much, and wants to laugh at everything. It mocks unendingly all that is sacred. Think of Seinfeld, Borat, Jackass, Monty Python, Saturday Night Live. All these and so many more programs share a mocking stance towards society. They pool their sneers together and compose a culture that leaves little place for anyone to respect what is sacred, let alone reverence it. They urge us to exchange seriousness for silliness, contemplation for amusement, meaning for nothing. The exchange is a bitter one. We are left with a troubling question. When we're so busy amusing ourselves, do we lose the capacity for reverence?

When life is one long laugh, are we able to hear truth?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Answers to Recent Questions from Comments

BCS asked whether church "cry rooms" show disapproval for children:

I understand the thought behind this question, and I know of one local church here in Kentucky that actually encourages parents to keep their children in the service in order that the mothers might benefit from the preaching. So it's not unheard of to do this. That said, I think it's fine for churches to have "cry rooms." I love children and want them to be appreciated, but they can easily distract an entire congregation from the message. Better to avoid distracting a whole group of people than to keep the child in the service. There are limits to our tolerance of crying and all that.

CLB asked about a Reformed secondary school:

That's a fun idea. I suppose it would be pretty cool to have a Reformed school that would compete with the Grotons and Exeters of the world. So sounds like a good idea to me. It troubles me that Christian schools are known more for simple indoctrination than they are for teaching revealed truth and at the same time teaching students how to think and reason for themselves.

Ryan Hill asked about the state of Gordon-Conwell

Gordon-Conwell has a number of fine scholars, men whose wisdom and intelligence I have personally benefited from. I am thankful for the school's presence and am sure that it continues to turn out a body of godly men to minister in New England and beyond. But I worry about the school, particularly as I know a number of faculty members are egalitarian in their approach to gender roles. This is a deplorable accomodation to culture and one that directly contradicts the literal hermeneutic that must characterize any true Christian (much less a Christian teacher). Though I'm sure it's quite possible to get solid training at GCS, I would encourage students to attend Southern Seminary. Westminster is also solid and Master's is faithful.

Those are some quick thoughts. Leave me a question in the comments section and I'll try to answer it every couple of weeks or so. Do have a fruitful and stimulating weekend.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Christian Presence in Higher Education

Part of the thinking behind Edwards University is that there is a great need for a first-rate school that trains young Christians to think and work in a fallen world. As many evangelical institutions drift to the left, we would greatly benefit from a school that sets high academic and theological standards. While I do not speak a great deal about it, I am unshakably confident in the strength of Reformed Christianity and thus see it as the ideal foundation for such an institution. The Reformed worldview is incredible in its scope. It has a full and mature view of both the Christian faith and the outside world. It is thus an ideal starting point for a university.

We Christians very much need such a school today. We need schools that prepare men and women for ministry, yes, but we need schools that rigorously challenge their students. We don't need another Christian school at which everyone's an A or B student and professors routinely cancel exams or make them open-book. We need a return to the foundations of American education, when schools expected a great deal of their students. We should push against the current trends of grade-inflation and dumbed-down education. Students should be taught to think, not simply to do. They should be absolutely rock-solid in their understanding of theology, philosophy, history, literature, the sciences, and other disciplines. In an age when education is hyper-specialized and narrowly focused, there is a crying need for a school that will broadly educate its charges, and ready them to confront a world set against them. We need such a place. We need such a people. If you're a young Christian academic out there, think about this. You may well be needed in just a few short years.