Friday, September 28, 2007

On Spanglish, and Other Movies I Only Watch Because I'm Married

The title should clue you in as to why I would blog about a touchy-feely chick-flick like Spanglish. I have to admit that I was not exactly losing sleep in anticipation of watching this one. However, a certain Mrs. Strachan very much desired to watch it, and so, lo and behold, I am ready and available to comment on this surprising film.

Made in 2004 by director James Brooks and starring Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, and Paz Vega, the film actually makes a number of noteworthy points. The film does so by offering the audience three-dimensional characters who each possess considerable flaws and strengths. The basic plot--a Mexican woman becomes the maid to a rich white couple--is less interesting than the characters themselves. Sandler is a talented but passive father and husband, Leoni is a narcissistic, image-obsessed wife and mom, and Vega is a traditional woman attempting to give her daughter a good life in the absence of a husband. I found the first two characters the most interesting as they reflect definite cultural realities in the current day. Sandler's character is vocationally a man but socially a boy. He possesses little strength and conviction by which to lead his household and is constantly escaping the home to blow off frustration built up by his high-strung wife, who is simply crying out (unconsciously) for her husband to lead and help her and speak hard truth to her. He fails to do so, meek and nice as he is, and she begins to cheat on him with another man, a man who is strong and confident. This is a great commentary on many men today who are so nice and meek that they have lost all conception of conviction and courage, not to mention leadership.

Leoni's character indicts American women who obsess over body image, social standing, and the approval of others. Essentially, Leoni's character is a study in what talented, strong women become when men do not lead them well and provide a good model of masculine initiative and strength. Such women become shrill and scattered, emotionally tenuous, and frustrated, albeit in a way that defies easy communication. The home looks broken to the movie's watcher, and some would conclude that both of the spouses are at fault, and there is truth to this assertion, but this is primarily an indictment of male passivity. When men abdicate their leadership role, women struggle. Placed in a role they intuitively know is not theirs (90% of Americans today still believe men to be the household head), women go back and forth between frustrated assertiveness and tearful defeat. They have no means of solving the problem on their own, because though they may well have problems of their own that contribute to their husband's passivity, they are not ultimately able to fix the problem. Only their husband can do this, and he can only do it if he realizes that according to the Bible he is to be a rock to his family, a pillar of strength, a model of leadership.

Spanglish, though it might disagree with me on the source of masculine strength, understands this point. It makes a powerful and nuanced statement in a culture awash with confusion over gender roles and basic questions of masculine and feminine identity. There are many funny scenes, nuanced characters, and good lines (and some objectionable content, so consider that), but nowhere does the film make a bigger impact than in its indictment of men for their passivity, their weakness, their boyishness, qualities which bring them--and their families--to their knees.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Gospel Growth Conference

I've mentioned this once before on this blog, but I want to do so again. Matthias Media and 9Marks Ministries are hosting the "Gospel Growth" conference in about a month's time. If you are interested in going, all you need to do is click on this link and read about the conference. Here is a blurb from the website:

"It's hard for pastors not to be mesmerized by church growth. Who doesn't want their congregation to grow? Who doesn't want to see numbers and budgets increasing year by year? And who isn't greatly interested when the latest growth model comes along, the latest research, the latest insight that promises us the key to such growth?

But there's growth and there's growth.

Understanding what the New Testament means by growth, and how that growth happens, sets us free. It liberates us from anxiety and self-doubt, and from the slavery of chasing the latest program."

I might also note for my extensive seminary audience (all six and a half of you) that you get a reduced rate, as do pastors of small churches (this is true). If you are a seminary student and also a small church pastor, then 9Marks actually pays you to come, and gives you a gift bag full of hard-to-find nicknacks--a used J.I. Packer sock, a piece of lint from Charles Spurgeon's coat, and a quill from Richard Sibbes's pen. Okay, I'm kidding about this last benefit, though it would not surprise if one were to find at least one of the trinkets in the neo-Puritan halls of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

In all seriousness (and there's not much left here as we head into fall break, bless its name), you should go to the conference. It is on a great topic, and it will I'm sure be an enriching and challenging opportunity to think hard about the motives and methods of evangelical ministry.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Is Social Conformity a Personal Evil?

This is a hard question to wrestle with. It's one of the main questions I attempt to think through on this blog. How much should we conform to society, and how much should we make our own hay? There are few easy answers to this question.

One thing I am personally able to say with confidence is that it is the duty of a Christian to observe one's social culture with radar glasses specially designed to detect consistencies and inconsistencies relative to the Christian faith. Christians cannot simply assume that the culture surrounding them is neutral--the style of dress, of speech, of music, of recreation, of political thought, and the list goes on. Christians have in the past made the key mistake of thinking that culture is simply neutral and therefore can be embraced wholeheartedly. This problem is common today, as many of the younger generation have embraced the spirit of the age and have acceded (unknowingly) to the American counterculture. Evangelical Christianity and counterculture antiauthoritarianism are strange bedfellows. This is not to say that there is no overlap between the two movements. There may well be. But surely it is right to say that we cannot completely correlate the two movements and assume that we can seamlessly blend them by simply hollowing out nonChristian beliefs and inserting our own. Does not belief influence the way one approaches culture and society? Shouldn't it? Do we have a problem on our hands when we assume either knowingly or unknowingly that it does not? I think we do.

Many Christians, it strikes me, are simply lazy about the culture. They don't want to think it through. They don't want to examine it to see whether its ideals and its practical forms are inconsistent with Christianity. They don't want to think about their style of dress and whether it is respectful or unpleasant to others. They don't begin to think about the morality of NFL football, with its glorification of violence and sometimes shocking injury. Does the average Christian, when he's watching the highlights of various games, think about the fact that many of these men are bludgeoning themselves, subjecting themselves to multiple concussions and injuries that will detract from their ability to care for a family and lead a normal life? Does he think about whether the violence he's watching is acceptable for himself? Does the average Christian woman think about how society has affected her understanding of modesty, of gender roles, and of romance? Many of us, it seems, do not think. We simply accede to the culture and adopt its practices and ideas without thinking. Yes, we avoid the big sins, the career-enders, so to speak, but do we take captive every thought for Christ? Do we pursue God's glory in all things and all days, not just Sunday?

But there is a flip side here, and it is this. There are times when it is good to conform to society and not to buck against it. Conformity is a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad word in today's society (to appropriate shamelessly the title of a children's book from my youth). But it is not the case that conformity to society is inherently evil and harmful. There are many instances in which it is good and right not to run with the spirit of the age and rebel against things simply because one can. It is often good and right and mature to sidestep calls to personally express oneself and instead to demonstrate a calm and respectful spirit. What does all of this mean? Well, it means that we must carefully discern our culture and the worldviews that affect us. We must avoid an embrace of anti-authoritarianism for its own sake even as we avoid an unthoughtful acceptance of whatever culture has to offer us. We need to think and discern and work out matters of everyday life. Each of us must answer the question: is there a good reason for my conformity to culture on this point? Is there a good reason for my failure to conform to culture on this point? Or I am simply swimming with the crowd, whether it be the anti-authoritarians or the conformists? Neither group has it all right; neither group merits the unthinking acceptance of the Christian.

All must be considered; all must be discerned.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Do the Clothes Make the Man: The Formality-Informality Debate

I appreciated very much Ben's kind words and his comment from yesterday about seeing very dressed up people living disastrous lives. This is certainly the case for many people in our world. The clothes--and beyond this, one's outward appearance--often do not tell the story. Many people--this clearly is not a single-sex issue--are hurting and discombobulated who appear to be quite happy and whole.

I think that there are two errors we can make in this debate. First, we can follow past generations and equate dressing up with personal holiness and moral goodness. Two, we can follow this generation and equate dressing up with stifling, heart-killing, conformity-inducing behavior. Both of these approaches are flawed, in my humble opinion. How about a middle way that looks something like this: we recognize that one's clothing style does not necessarily reflect one's holiness. We remind ourselves that image can be manipulated and that clothes are a part of image. At the same time, we also recognize that it is often good to give honor to an event. It is good to dress up for certain things because our clothes can connote respect for the occasion. Our generation tells us this is ridiculous. I think this generational thinking is off-base. While we do not need to think that our style of dress directly correlates to our morality, we also do not need to think that our style of dress has nothing to do with it. Both sides can make their own mistake. Much better, I think, to maturely understand that it is good to conform to certain societal patterns, that it is good to show respect for certain institutions and events, even as we recognize that clothing is an external adornment, not internal compass.

If the Lord gives me children, I want to raise them to understand that it is good to respect social convention, and that it is no great thing to rebel against it simply to rebel, or simply because "the clothes don't make the man." I want them to show respect for others and for events by dressing up for more solemn occasions. I don't want this to go overboard, but I do want it to happen. At the same time, I will work to show them that clothing is not exactly correlated with holiness and that society often goes way overboard in assessing one's character by one's clothing. In this way, I hope to avoid both mistakes--a slovenly, rebellious comportment on one hand, and an uptight, over-serious demeanor on the other. As with most things, this issue requires balanced thinking. Neither the older generation nor the younger generation has it all right. The older says, helpfully, to the young, "respect tradition," while the younger says, helpfully, to the old, "don't exalt it." We need to hear both of these sides and work out how we carry ourselves accordingly.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Cargoes, Sweat Pants, and the Lost Path to Maturity

I recently read through Diana West's new book The Death of the Grownup. I highly recommend it and found it quite stimulating. One of West's purposes in writing is to highlight the immaturity of the younger (and older) generation. According to West, both young and old alike today strive to emulate not the mature and wise but the young and foolish. It's a strange tradeoff that has resulted in the proliferation of "cargoes," as I once heard CJ Mahaney call them, and a generation of immature twentysomethings.

The way one dresses does not entirely reveal one's maturity, and I'm not one to knock cargo shorts. I have a few pairs myself. While a pair of shorts may not immediately disclose one's maturity level, many young people today show their immaturity in many shapes and colors (literally). It is as if the idea of dressing up, of clothing oneself in a way that is decidedly mature and adult, of cloaking oneself in dignity, is lost entirely on American youth. We have inherited the previous generation's distaste for formality and decorum, though we've taken this distaste to new levels. It is interesting to see young people wear sweat pants to public events, as if they were slacks. Yes, sweat pants are the new slacks. Now, I'm all for informality on occasions, and there is a point to be made and recognized about the measure of one's character and identity not being found in clothing. I'm all for that. And as a Christian, it can be helpful in some ways to dress down in order to connect with people and help them to feel welcome. But with all this said, one has to wonder if something is not lost with the current generation. Our informality has not merely corrected our formality--it has overwhelmed it.

I can remember stealing into my parent's bedroom when no one was around and trying on my dad's shoes and shirts. I loved wearing his fleece jacket when it was cold, though my parents had provided me with my own. In the current day, being around an employer who dresses with sophistication has caused me to want to look like a man, not like a teenager. There is something alien and alluring about the world of mature fashion. One senses in encountering a man or woman of sartorial maturity that there is something dignified and different about such a person. One often instinctively wants to be like such a person. There is something good in this. Sweat pants have their place. But so do suits and ties, button-ups and belts. It is not a bad thing for a young man to want to be a man. It is a bad thing for a young man to want to stay a man, and for a man to yearn to go back to his teenage years. We have somehow convinced ourselves that maturity is bad, that aging is graceless, and that teens are to be idolized. We are, I trust, in the process of finding out that we have things backwards.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Final T4G Ad: Dever as 70s Hipster

Here is the fourth and final "ad" for T4G 2008. This is a picture of a young Mark Dever. It's a good picture. I must say, he was a pretty cool guy back in the day. As the ad implies, the years have been, um, challenging. (Fact: when in a verbal bind, the word "challenging" can get you out of all kinds of trouble.) I am of course jesting. Mark is now large and in charge, which is no bad thing. He used to be thin and insouciant, so the tradeoff on the whole isn't that bad. In case you're still reading, I'm not sure what any of the above writing really means. With that, this strange paragraph ends.

As I close out the week, I want to thank Terry for his very kind comment left yesterday. The little series on vocational decision was all-too-brief, but I am very glad to hear that it proved even a little helpful for someone. These are big questions we face in life and they are not often easy to handle. One does so with care and prayer. I am always thankful to receive feedback on this blog, and encouragement is always welcome, and so thanks, Terry, for your words. Hope everyone has a good weekend, and remember to give the T4G website a look if you haven't.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

How a Man Decides His Way

Writing you from beautiful Wake Forest, NC, as I'm on the road and have had little computer access, I want to give a few more thoughts on how a man decides his way in the world. The criteria I posed for a man's vocational decision were as follows:

1) Self
2) Family
3) Society
4) Kingdom of God

In my humble estimation, most men take into account the first factor. Most men consider what they are good at and what they like doing before they begin a career. Some men take number 2 into account, though men must carefully consider whether the amount of work they do is justified. Yes, you may draw more salary, but are you sacrificing time with your family? Is your wife cared for? A man must provide, but he also must no neglect.

Many Christians, I think, forget to take the third factor, society, into account. One should consider how the work one does figures into society. Does it make a positive contribution? Simply because we are citizens of the kingdom of God, the society of God's redeemed, does not mean that we are not citizens of our country. Some Christians and Christian movements have been guilty of so emphasizing the heavenly citizenship that they forget the earthly. We are not in heaven yet, and God has given us a society to be a part of. We ought not to withdraw from it, but to contribute in positive and constructive ways to it. Christian men should thus carefully consider this third factor in choosing their vocation--how will this impact the world in which I live?

Finally, Christian men must wrestle with whether their prospective work advances the kingdom in some way. Most of us will not enter full-time vocational ministry, but all of us can advance the kingdom by speaking the gospel when possible, living righteously, and bringing justice and healing to an unjust and broken world. As men of God and agents of physical and spiritual dominion, we must weigh all these factors and then choose our career before men and, most importantly, before God.

Monday, September 17, 2007

How Does a Man Choose His Way in Life?

This question came up in my brief series on manhood last week: is it wrong for a responsible man to be a toymaker? Asked anonymously, this question prompted much thought on my part over the weekend. I won't yet answer this directly. Instead, I want to try and sketch out a framework by which a Christian attempts to answer this question. This is no perfect framework, but it is nonetheless an effort to provide one.

It strikes me that there are four categories a man must consider in deciding his vocation.

1. Self. A man must consider what talents and abilities he naturally possesses. He should think hard about what he likes doing and whether he is good at doing it. He should take care not to think lazily at this point. He should not merely direct himself to what he likes, but to the profession that allows him to best combine his talents and his preferences. Men should ask themselves whether the prospective profession is a waste of their time and ability or a proper channel for it. Stewardship is the issue here, and each man must answer this question for himself, though with the counsel of friends, family, and his local church.

2. Family. A man should consider how his work will affect his family. He should choose a profession that will enable him to provide financial stability for his family. He should consider how much time a particular job will take him away from his family. It will likely be difficult at times to balance these factors--the need to provide versus the need to spend time with his family--but men can take comfort knowing that God has called them to be providers. However, it seems true that Christian men will often not be the employee who is able to do anything for his company. Christian men understand that their family comes first. All this has to be considered by a man entering the workforce, or preparing to do so.

3. Society. I think many Christians neglect this aspect of vocational consideration. We can so emphasize our citizenship in Christ's kingdom that we neglect our God-given role in society. It is appropriate for Christian men to consider how the work they are doing will affect society. Believers should seek to positively contribute to society. This will mean carefully weighing potential jobs in order to determine which will best contribute positively to society, and which will make a greater difference to others in the long run. Oftentimes, this will mean passing up one good thing for another.

4. Kingdom. Christian men must consider how their work fits into kingdom advancement. We recognize that all that we do either advances or impedes the kingdom. Men must thus take into consideration whether their work not only contributes to society, but whether it contributes to the cause above all others, the cause of the extension of God's glory over all the earth. Men must ask themselves if their jobs lead them to do something immoral and unhelpful. Can we be a gospel witness in our profession? Can we pursue helping others over mere personal enrichment? From a kingdom perspective, is this job a waste of my time and talent? Am I able to use my God-given abilities for God's glory in this job? This is the fundamental question, and the one that must be answered with care.

There's a very humble outline of the factors a man of God should consider in choosing his vocational direction. Even with this outline or others, easy answers will sometimes evade the responsible man of God. Tomorrow we'll look more at how one handles such a situation.

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Deciding What to Do with What Time We Have

This question came up in my brief series on manhood last week: is it wrong for a responsible man to be a toymaker? Asked anonymously, this question prompted much thought on my part over the weekend. Here's my own answer, though I of course do not propose this as the answer, merely the best I myself can give.

It strikes me that there are four categories a man must consider in deciding his vocation.

1. Self. A man must consider what talents and abilities he naturally possesses. He should think hard about what he likes doing and whether he is good at doing it. He should take care not to think lazily at this point. He should not merely direct himself to what he likes, but to the profession that allows him to best combine his talents and his preferences.

2. Family. A man should consider how his work will affect his family. He should choose a profession that will enable him to provide financial stability for his family. He should consider how much time a particular job will take him away from his family. It will likely be difficult at times to balance these factors--the need to provide versus the need to spend time with his family--but men can take comfort knowing that God has called them to be providers. However, it seems true that Christian men will often not be the employee who is able to do anything for his company. Christian men understand that their family comes first. All this has to be considered by a man entering the workforce, or preparing to do so.

3. Society. I think many Christians neglect this aspect of vocational consideration. We can so emphasize our citizenship in Christ's kingdom that we neglect our God-given role in society. It is appropriate for Christian men to consider how the work they are doing will affect society. Believers should seek to positively contribute to society. This will mean carefully weighing potential jobs in order to determine which will best contribute positively to society, and which will make a greater difference to others in the long run. Oftentimes, this will mean passing up one good thing for another.

4. Kingdom. Christian men must consider how their work fits into kingdom advancement. We recognize that all that we do either advances or impedes the kingdom. Men must thus take into consideration whether their work not only contributes to society, but whether it contributes to the cause above all others, the cause of the extension of God's glory over all the earth. Can we be a gospel witness in our profession? Can we pursue helping others over mere personal enrichment? There are no easy answers here, but men of God will wrestle with such questions in figuring these issues out.

There's a very humble outline of the factors a man of God should consider in choosing his vocational direction. Tomorrow I'll offer further comment on these matters.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

A Blueprint for Manhood, A Kilt for Ligon Duncan

Now that's manhood. When you can wear a kilt, and still look like a man, you're a man indeed. This particular repository of vigorous masculinity is none other than Presbyterian pastor Dr. Ligon Duncan, one of the four primary figures in the Together for the Gospel conference. Dr. Duncan, however you interpret his appearance here, is a man of great integrity and leadership ability. He spoke on the Old Testament at T4G 06, and it was not to be missed. I anticipate his next address at T4G 08, at which point I will be receiving appropriate kickbacks for these blog posts. If you see me driving around Louisville in a black Jaguar, well, you and I both will know where that came from, won't we?

In other less kilt-focused matters, I want to conclude my comments on responsible manhood with a few words. I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that only traditional professions are worthwhile. I love the arts, and I have said numerous times that we need Christians who make excellent art for a living. It is no bad thing for a very talented musician, filmmaker, or web designer to ply their trade to the best of their ability. Furthermore, those who enjoy such endeavors (and many others that are unnamed) but who are not considerably gifted in them should not devote an inordinate amount of attention to them. It is my humble opinion that men considering what they should do for a living should consider not simply what makes them happy, what they like, but what will enable them to provide well for their families. There may be nothing wrong with a certain profession, but will it allow a man to provide on a consistent basis for his family? In addition, I would urge men to consider how their profession contributes to society. This need not be the predominant factor in determining vocation, but it should be a consideration nonetheless. To use my previous analogy, I question the value of producing Lego remakes of Star Wars for a living. Perhaps that's a subjective judgment, but I want any children the Lord gives me to make a meaningful contribution to society. There is of course no hard and fast way to determine what is and is not meaningful, but this is where discernment, counsel and fellowship in the local church will make a big difference.

To concretize this, I could pursue a career in Christian rap. Don't laugh--I'm not joking. I have been told that I have sufficient ability to make a go in this profession. Being a Christian rapper sounds fun at times, but as I think about the future, as I think about the best way to use the particular gifts the Lord has given me, I can see that there are other fields which better allow me to use my gifts and position me to contribute to society in a more meaningful and lasting way than Christian rap. This realization does not invalidate Christian rap, and it does not mean that I can't pursue making Christian rap as a hobby. It does mean that instead of long tours, a turbulent life, infrequent paychecks, and a need for a career change once my "coolness" and relevance wears off, I will be able to provide for my family on a stable basis and hopefully make a more widely recognized contribution to some field. Anyway, that's just one personal example of how I play out this principle. Hope that helps you, and your own decision as to whether to pursue Christian rap or not--I know many of you out there suffer from this decision.

With my tongue firmly in cheek, I wish you a blessed weekend.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Acorns in the Wind: Crafting a Blueprint for Manhood

I do not have the space or time to do this subject justice--not to mention experience and knowledge. Two things encourage me to make a humble attempt, however. First, I'm not posing as an expert or know-it-all. I'm merely trying to jumpstart a thought process in the minds of fellow Christians who may or may not have similar concerns. Second, my employer, Dr. Albert Mohler, is writing a book on raising boys to be men that will much more expertly guide Christians in training boys to be responsible, godly, courageous men. Until that book comes out, until the comet of his wisdom strikes the earth, I guess you're stuck with guys like me, and our acorns in the wind, our attempts to craft plans for manhood.

I'm going to go quickly here because I want to get to the college years. Before then, though, suffice it to say that a boy should be trained from birth to be a man. He should be raised and loved by a strong man of God, a man who need not have one particular temperament or personality but who should exhibit qualities of strength, godliness, humility, and gentleness. The boy should be raised to love God, to love the church, to revere his mother, to treat his sisters with care and love, and to beat up his brothers whenever the need arises. On the last point, I'm mostly joking. Brothers should be close, and boys should be taught to love one another just as they would be taught to love their sisters. Manhood does not transfer into loving care toward women and churlish boorishness (or boorish churlishness) toward men. Men can be kind to both sexes, and should be taught to do so from birth. Though mom may be especially close to the boy in his early years, dad should be right there, and should guide him into a gracious but strong manliness as the years go by. He should teach him what it means to be a man, to be a protector, provider and leader of others. He should show him what work involves, and model industriousness before him. He should encourage his son in his studies, whether done in the context of the home or the local school (especially as he gets older). Dad should discipline his son, being watchful over his boy to make sure that he learns not to mistreat others, an instinct inherent in many boys that matures into full-fledged anger and violence as the years go by. Dad should cherish his son, play sports with him, go fishing with him, read to him, and encourage his charge to be mature and responsible in all he does. The boy should come away from childhood enjoying boyhood but very much wanting to be a man--to wear his dad's clothes, love one woman as his father does, take dominion over the earth in distinctly masculine ways.

When the boy gets to college, he should understand himself as in college not to goof off, play video games endlessly, take unchallenging courses, rebel against authority, and devote himself relentlessly to unserious things like sports and entertainment. The boy should understand himself as a man, albeit a young man, who is responsible for cultivating a life of maturity and responsibility. He has time to figure out his path, to be sure, and he should enjoy his years of study, but he enjoys them while seeking to set a course of responsibility for himself. It is on this point that I close, and that we will continue later, but not without a further word. Too many young Christian men have no such understanding of their college years. It is right to enjoy college, to enjoy close fellowship with one's peers, to pursue recreation to some extent, but it is not right to see college as an extended summer camp. It is not good to throw one's youthful energy and zeal into things that do not matter and causes that will not last. Our culture has wholeheartedly accepted the idea that college is a time of unbounded fun and unseriousness, and this is very harmful. As Christians, we should work against this, both by encouraging college students to take life seriously, and by training future men to be men indeed.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Blueprint for Manhood That Does Not Involve Lego Movies

My wife and I watched a bit of a show last night that profiled men who make Lego movies. Yes, you read it right. A Lego movie. It took one man five hours to "shoot" five or six seconds of "film." The "filmmaker" was disarmingly cheerful and honest, confessing to being a nerd and having started his "career" when in high school and friendless. Though I liked him, I couldn't help thinking a central thought: what a waste of masculine energy this is. An additional thought corresponds: there but for the grace of God go I. Even now, being saved and taught, I'm a work in progress, and I myself am striving to live what I say in this post.

God has equipped and called men to be aggressive providers and lords of the earth. He has called us to take dominion both in a physical sense (Gen 1:26-28) and in a spiritual sense (Matthew 28:18-20). Such instincts thrive and are best used when a man accepts his role in life and not only accepts responsibility in a variety of spheres but welcomes it. The man, gifted and commanded by God to be the leader of his family and the provider for his family, becomes in reality what in essence he is by pursuing responsible outlets for his instinct to lead. He seeks a wife, and thus becomes a unit depicting Christ and the church, a role of incredible significance. He and his wife seek children, and thus the man becomes the first representation of God to his offspring and the lord and pastor of his home. He wisely evaluates himself, and then sets out to find work that maximizes the strengths and predilections given him by God for the purpose of work. He makes himself a cornerstone of a church, serving in it, speaking well of it, taking on responsibility in it. In these ways and others, a man becomes in reality what he is essence.

Few men today have such an understanding of manhood, and fewer still have a plan--or have fathers who have a plan--by which this essence will be actualized. In coming days, we will think through a brief plan by which fathers can train their sons to be godly leaders and lords of the earth. For now, by way of introduction, it is enough to note that men who could be fulfilling the above outline for manhood are doing things like those spoken of in the introduction. The poor deployment of manly resources and abilities in the current day is staggering. If you don't believe me, test my hypothesis. When you interact with culture, look to see what men are doing. Are they inhabiting responsible roles and living productive lives? Or are they making Lego movies? And spending countless hours constructing the best fantasy football team? Or composing songs in vain hopes of a record deal? Or playing video games until their eyes bleed? You answer the question--what are men doing?

There is nothing wrong with relaxation and recreation. I don't condemn the above activities and participate in some of them myself. But there is a definite problem when men turn diversions into pastimes. It's one thing to spend a few hours in a week on your hobby, it's another thing to spend night after night on it, neglecting your wife, family, and church. This is happening en masse in the culture, as men take their God-given ambition, aggressiveness, and ability and spend it on diversions that have little lasting effect and lead them away from maturity into immaturity. About the only thing men take seriously these days are unserious things--sports, games, and entertainment. In coming days, we'll look at a plan--a very humble plan, but an attempt at one--that can lead men away from a wasted life and toward a realization of their natural potential.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

With a Gun in the Face, How Do You Answer?

Yesterday I tried to give a very rough systematic outline of some questions to ask a person you know who claims to be a Christian but who gives little evidence of being converted. In thinking over my post, I thought it might be helpful to conclude this mini-series with a few gut-level questions that attempt to drill less systematically but more piercingly to the core of the matter. These are not intended to be systematic, but they are intended to call the wavering and endangered among us to consider the reality of Christianity and to count the cost.
  • If a gun is pointed at your head, and you are asked whether you love and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, what would you say?
  • Your family is hosting a major event on Sunday morning. Do you acquiesce and attend or do you make things awkward and fellowship with your church family?
  • Do you make any attempt to feed your soul with truth? Does entertainment altogether drown out any spiritual activity on your part?
  • When you look at your pastimes, hobbies, and activities, is there any distinguishable pattern of Christian commitment?
  • Do you put off involvement with the church on the grounds that you're too busy right now but will do so one day?
  • Who do you surround yourself with? Do you have a number of strong Christian friends who build you up in the faith? Or do you surround yourself with lost people who offer you no spiritual help and do not challenge you to grow as a Christian?
  • Would you give up your favorite things for the sake of Christian growth? If necessary, would you cut out football, or a close friendship, or "recreational" shopping, or watching your favorite television show or movie?
  • Do you ever, at all, make time to be with God in a devotional sense?
  • Does your Christianity ever induce awkward moments? Do you laugh at every dirty joke that is told? Do you stand up for Christ or Christians in a public setting? Would anyone identify you as a Christian?
The more we can prompt reflection in those around us, the better the opportunity for them to consider Christ and His call. If there is nothing more important than knowing Christ as savior, there can be nothing more important than asking hard questions of those we love--and seeking, and handling well, honest answers.

"My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." (James 5:19-20)

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Seeking Honest Answers: Are You a Christian?

I have been thinking some lately about how we can help family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers determine whether or not they are Christians in the biblical sense. There is much confusion on this topic as many people claim that they are converted with little evidence to back up such a claim. People who are in this position are in a dangerous spot, and we need to help them think their claims through.

Here is a very short list of questions to ask those who claim to be saved but who show little evidence of such commitment. It's not exhaustive but is intended to help start conversation.

Do you love God? In your heart, do you desire to follow Him, worship Him, and obey Him? Does your professed love for God stretch into action? Does it have any practical effect on your life? Would others characterize you as one who loves God? Do you adore God? Do you want to adore Him?

Do you love the Bible? Do you want to follow the One whom it reveals, Jesus Christ, and follow His commandments? Do you enjoy reading the Bible and take nourishment from it? Do you struggle to read it and possess little desire to obey it? Do you care about the Bible? Do you seek to understand how it should be interpreted, or do you care more about how it fits or does not fit with your natural prejudices and opinions? Do you believe that the Bible is true? Is it all true, or are only parts of it true?

Do you love Christians? Or are they like any other people group out there? Does your love take on a practical form? Do you love other Christians more than you love people from your background--your hometown, home state, college or university, athletic team, peer group? Do you desire to serve other Christians? Do you care when you hear about suffering Christians in other countries?

Do you love living out and sharing the gospel? Do you monetarily support other Christians in need? Do you share the gospel with lost people? Do you care if someone is lost? Is that a concern that comes quickly into your mind when talking with another person? Do you pray much for the salvation of lost sinners? Do you want people to be saved? Do you attempt to live out a Christian life in front of other people? Do you inconvenience yourself to present the gospel to others? Do you suffer in any form for the sake of the gospel? Or is your life free of the sting associated with vibrant Christianity lived out in a pagan world? Do you seek to win family members to Christ? Or do you assume they're fine? Do you ask them penetrating questions or do you simply assume that they are saved? When dealing with others, are spiritual concerns first in your mind?

Do you enjoy church and draw nourishment from it? Is church endlessly boring to you? Do you like preaching? Do you see the need to be confronted about your sin? Do you avoid church in order to avoid being "judged" or "condemned"? Do you love interaction with other believers? Do you want to support the local church? Do you want to support missionaries? Does the spiritual good of other people concern you? Is it more important for you to do your favorite things on Sunday or to worship God with other believers? Do you continually struggle with finding the motivation to go to church? Do you want to go to church?

Does the matter of eternity concern you? Do you want to go to heaven? Do you not want to go to hell? Do you believe in heaven and hell? If so, does your belief take any actional form? Do you desire to go to heaven to worship God for eternity? Do you want to go to heaven because that's where your favorite people and things are? Do you think about hell? Do you live as if eternity exists?

Does the Bible shape your ethics and morals? Or do you just go with what you feel at a gut level? Or what your parents told you? When there is conflict between your natural worldview and what the Bible says, which side wins? Do you ever change your mind as a result of reading the Bible? When making political, ethical, and moral decisions, do you consider scriptural teachings, or do you base your decisions on your moral sense? Do you want the Bible to shape your ethics? Or do you not really care? Does the Bible affect what you watch, read, and listen to? Or do you just assume everything's fine? Do you ever avoid or turn off content that is biblically offensive? Do you care if content is moral or immoral in an explicitly biblical sense?

That's a basic starting point. If used well, these questions could provide a starting point from which to engage people you love on the question of their Christianity. They claim it, but you see little fruit. Seek an opportunity to ask them these questions--or questions of your own--that get to the heart of the matter. Email these questions to someone, call a friend, pull aside a family member when you're in town together. Listen well, be empathetic and understanding, and share the gospel.

Turn someone back from the edge.

Friday, September 07, 2007

CJ Mahaney with Hair, Mark Dever in People Magazine, and Other Signs of the Apocalypse

The picture above is of pastor CJ Mahaney and his wife, Carolyn. I assume it's on their wedding day, as it would be rather strange to dress up in one's wedding clothes on any other day. As you can see, it is a T4G promo pic. It is stunning for one reason (and that reason is not the slightly cheesy grins): CJ has hair. Alot of it. I once heard him say that the reason he thinks he is now bald is because his hair grew so long that it strained his roots. I am not sure about that theory, though I am sure that CJ's address at T4G 08 will be as memorable as his previous one.

Let's get to some comments and questions from the week.

Reid asked about Jesus' use of mockery in response to my post on that topic--

Yes, Jesus did indeed use those rhetorical tactics and devices. That is clear. He cut the Pharisees to the bone with His words. He did so, though, to people who were disingenuously opposing Him. He didn't walk up to the average lost person and start savaging them. In addition, He exhibited and passed on a posture of respect to culture and society that we see exemplified by Paul at Mars Hill in Acts 17 and in Romans 13. With this said, it seems that there is some ground for satire and mockery in argumentation. Where is that proper place? Discernment is required--heavy discernment. I cannot say such devices are categorically wrong because of Christ's example, but I can say that one should be careful to use them, and that the apostles and New Testament witnesses do not consistently employ them. Furthermore, the attitude promulgated by the NT does not accord with the posture of mockery that characterizes our culture today. If there is a place for mockery, and I think there is, it is much smaller than that which contemporary culture thinks it to be. Being a nihilistic, pagan society, we take nothing seriously, savage that which is unlike us, and find meaning only in mocking it. That's not good, and we should avoid such behavior.

Al commented on the basis of unity for the T4G conference--

The T4G guys are all reformed, so they share the same soteriology. I think that simple fact does alot to show how they can have doctrinal differences and yet support the same cause executed in very similar ways. There are doctrinal points on which they have disagreement, but the gospel and the Christian faith is not given to us to separate us but to unify us in Christ. T4G attempts, however imperfectly, to demonstrate this reality, and I think succeeds in its vision.

Jed asked about whether Mark Dever or Al Mohler would be landing on the cover of People anytime soon--

So these are the fruits of a Cambridge education, eh, Jed? Salacious interest in appearance and strength? Oh well. In all seriousness, there is no way that I could answer this question seriously, though I can say that Dr. Mohler was once described as "telegenic" by Decision magazine. I'll let you take that for what it's worth. On that edifying note, a blessed weekend to all.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Three Good Reasons to Go to Seminary

Over at Said at Southern, where I'm a co-editor, I recently posted a blog on three benefits of seminary. I didn't intend the post to be an exhaustive list, but I did intend to help people to begin thinking about seminary well. It can be tough to decide whether or not to go--the MDiv is usually long and taxing, one delays entrance into vocational ministry, and one leaves one's local church and home to come to a new place. There are drawbacks to seminary, and it is not for everyone. But after doing a Theology MDiv at Southern Seminary, I can say that the experience is worthwhile, and that I myself was served in the following ways by the opportunity.

You can read the full article at SAS--this is an abbreviated version.

First, seminary polishes and buffs your personal theology. You may have come to seminary flush off the various Piper books and Mohler radio shows and have a heart full of steam and a head full of knowledge. You might actually know a good deal of theology. But that doesn’t mean that you know your theology systematically. A great deal of theology–a great mass of knowledge–amassed without categories or organization is a dangerous thing indeed. In addition, seminary gives you perspective. You learn what is of first-order importance and what is of third-order importance. Before seminary, before classmates who challenge you and professors who train you, you can easily become overly focused on a particular doctrine or idea. We have all met the freshly reformed five-point Calvinist who debates limited atonement as if it were going to usher in the second coming. Seminary does not eliminate such tendencies, but it does educate them.

Second, seminary teaches you a great deal. It would be foolish not to state this matter. If you work hard and do your reading, you will come away from seminary with a body of knowledge that is wide and, to an extent, deep. As I noted before, you may well enter seminary having read a ton of Piper, or a ton of MacArthur, or a lot of Sproul. But many of us haven’t read much philosophy, and haven’t done intensive exegesis of the Greek, and haven’t read six books on the development of modern fundamentalism. Seminary gives us a chance to prepare for a lifetime of ministry by accumulating a store of knowledge. It is an incredible opportunity. Ask your average layman. Many do well to read a theological book a month, let alone ten in four months (if not much more). I should know–I was one before seminary. Life outside of seminary is busy to the extreme, and most of us will not have pastoral jobs that allow us to sit in a plush chair for hours, milking the latest theological publications for cherished insights, a latte by our side, Vivaldi on the stereo. Most of us will be quite busy, and quite thankful that we had three or four years to sit at the feet of godly men and do nothing but learn.

Third, seminary puts you into contact with a wide range of people and beliefs. This is especially helpful for those who come to seminary having served in one church that has a particularly strong philosophy of ministry. It’s good, not bad, to have that philosophy challenged and stretched. If justified, it is a good thing to change your mind and to make friends beyond your home church base and link up with guys who don’t think exactly like you or who aren’t from your home state or college. Much of what keeps Christians apart is provincialism. Too many of us live in a little theological village of our own, a place where the borders are very tightly guarded and where newcomers are strongly mistrusted. In our little village, our personal theology reigns, and everyone else is wrong. Seminary helps to disarm our little villages, to make them friendly places, where we can hold to truth and to our beliefs, yes, but without distrust and contention. It’s a helpful thing for five-pointers to be around four-pointers. It’s a good thing for lifelong Southern Baptists to be around Northern Baptists who have only recently become Southern Baptists. It’s a good thing for premillenial guys to be around amillenial guys, and for the two to talk congenially. All too often we guard our theological territory with a vengeance it does not require. When we do so, we miss out on stimulating, challenging Christian fellowship. Love the truth, and form your theology–but first make sure your theological “village” is a demilitarized zone.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Do Not Be Frightened: Dr. Mohler's Senior Picture

If you read this blog, you've read about the Together for the Gospel conference. If you don't know what I'm talking about, click the link and browse their website. T4G, as it's called, is a conference that encourages pastors to build their ministries on nothing but the gospel, and to find unity with those who do the same. I went to T4G two years ago and loved it. If you are a Christian pastor or interested layman who loves the gospel and loves Christian ministry, I would encourage you to come to Louisville in April 2008 for the next conference. You don't need a certain set of credentials, you don't need to know the right people, you just need to come and fellowship with like-minded men.

With that introduction covered, I would like to point your attention to the above image. This hilarious picture was sent to me by the T4G strategists in a marketing campaign. For those who do not know, the above image is the high-school yearbook photograph of my employer and mentor, Southern Seminary president Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr. Before I graduate, I'll be posting on how Dr. Mohler has affected me, so you'll hear more about my impressions of this man of oak in days to come. For now, though, let me say that Dr. Mohler has happily filled out from his somewhat undernourished teenage years, and though he still has the mind of a nerd, he has none of the appearance. And yes, his glasses were thwarted in their attempt to swallow his face. Strong enough now not only to lift a fork, but to beat up wimpy theologians, Dr. Mohler will be a keynote speaker at T4g, and that alone is reason enough for you--whether you're in chilly Maine, or sunny California, or you go to seminary, or you've never considered it--to sign up for the fellowship-faith-gospel bonanza that is Together for the Gospel.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

In the American Forest, Everyone's a Mockingbird

In evangelical circles, you can always tell who has been to public or private school and who was home-schooled. The simple test is this: does the person mock others? Is he sarcastic? Ironic? That will usually answer your question for you.

I've applied this homemade test lots of times and found my hypothesis proven on many occasions. There are exceptions to every rule, but I have found home-schooled students to be kinder, less manipulative, and more earnest than students from public or private school. The public and private schools attract a predominantly non-Christian student body. In my public school, many kids were from homes wracked by conflict or torn by divorce. Such circumstances, and the common absence of a stable parental situation, combined with the depraved instincts inherent in every person, combined for a climate among students that was generally hostile, unfriendly, and angry. Strong adult authority often countered such a situation, but sadly, I think that the majority of children educated outside of the home experienced something like I did.

The point of all this is that such a climate breeds a culture of mockery, of disingenuity, of cynicism, and that this culture assassinates more virtuous dispositions. There were precious few moments of genuine, shared earnestness in my public school. There was always someone to mock, someone to laugh, and with that, a potentially meaningful moment would be lost. But forget about unsaved, unhappy children. Even in many Christian circles today, mockery prevails. I'm not against cultural awareness by a long shot, but too many of us ape the world's desperation for coolness, and cut down friends, family members, and church members who violate the postmodern code of conduct and commit the unpardonable sin: being earnest and sincere. In such places, people close up and go quiet. Fearing mockery and the shame that comes from being on the receiving end of it, Christians avoid one another and genuine, meaningful exchanges. Far too many of the younger generation have capitulated to the culture of coolness. While they wouldn't allow Friends to dictate their sexual ethics, they are more than happy to allow Seinfeld to set the tone for personal conversation. They do so failing to realize that they have become worldly, and have allowed the culture to condition their dealings with other people. This is a sad state of affairs.

Let's just be honest. Sometimes, home-schooled children suffer ridicule. Occasionally, such ridicule proceeds from demonstrable social awkwardness. Far more often, however, such youth simply display a sense of earnestness and sweetness. I can recall classmates savaging students for being nothing other than kind. We Christians should not ape such behavior. We should not make coolness the greatest social good. We should not sin against others by humiliating and shaming them. We should instead work against the culture of mockery, and allow the hopelessly cool among us to sound the mockingbird's cry. Of course, in today's age, the forest is filled with them, and everyone sounds the same.