Thursday, July 31, 2008

Obama's Youthful Flip-Flopping Tendencies

Over at Justin Taylor's blog, James Grant posted this terrific Dick Morris piece on Barack Obama's tendency to flip-flop on issues. I'm not one to criticize young talent, but this piece does reveal something, I think, about Obama's youth. Put simply, he can't seem to make up his mind.

"Dick Morris has a recent article examining the current presidential race and why Obama has lost some ground. While some of the gain is due to McCain, Morris says that part of the slippage is Obama's fault. In the words of Dick Morris:

"Obama has carried flip-flopping to new heights. In the space of a month and a half, this candidate -- who we don't really yet know very well -- reversed or sharply modified his positions on at least eight key issues:
  • After vowing to eschew private fundraising and take public financing, he has now refused public money.
  • Once he threatened to filibuster a bill to protect telephone companies from liability for their cooperation with national security wiretaps; now he has voted for the legislation.
  • Turning his back on a lifetime of support for gun control, he now recognizes a Second Amendment right to bear arms in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
  • Formerly, he told the Israeli lobby that he favored an undivided Jerusalem. Now he says he didn't mean it.
  • From a 100 percent pro-choice position, he now has migrated to expressing doubts about allowing partial-birth abortions.
  • For the first time, he now speaks highly of using church-based institutions to deliver public services to the poor.
  • Having based his entire campaign on withdrawal from Iraq, he now pledges to consult with the military first.
  • During the primary, he backed merit pay for teachers -- but before the union a few weeks ago, he opposed it.
  • After specifically saying in the primaries that he disagreed with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) proposal to impose Social Security taxes on income over $200,000 and wanted to tax all income, he has now adopted the Clinton position."

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Even a Madman Can Glimpse the Truth: Friedrich Nietzsche on the Death of God

Some of you out there have seen this famous quotation, but it is worth reading again. One of my friends passed it on to me for a lecture I'm doing on truth, and I thought it so fascinating and so insightful, so breathless and beautifully written with such vivid, dramatic language, that I needed to pass it on to you. Read the whole thing.

The madman.— Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"— As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?— Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried. "I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I! All of us are his murderers! But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? And backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?—Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives,—who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed,—and whoever is born after us, for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto!"

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners: they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering—it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—
and yet they have done it themselves!"— It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

--The Gay Science

I of course disagree entirely that God is dead (the thought itself makes me chuckle), and there are other major flaws in Nietzsche's comments (and his philosophy more broadly), but I think that Nietzsche did provide a sound critique of the Enlightenment philosophes and their haughty attempts to refashion the modern mind and its worldview beliefs through autonomous human reason. If one could say that the philosophes announced the death of God relative to the formulation of theological and philosophical thought, one could say that Nietzsche, an atheist German philosopher who struggled with insanity, announced the ramifications of this passing. If God is dead, then man can (no, must) fashion his world around himself. This is exactly what happened in influential corners of twentieth-century philosophical thought, and this line of thinking exerts influence in the current day in manifold ways.

Wisdom from the atheist. Nietzsche's words, though fatally flawed, show us that even a madman can catch glimpses of the truth, if only from a distance and without saving knowledge of it.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Pictures of the Queen

It has been quite a week. Starting last Tuesday and continuing into today, the Strachan family has had the joy of welcoming little Ella Rose into the world. After considerable conference with the Committee on Post-Natal Pictography (names are not available to the public due to the threat of swift retribution), I've included in this blog a few pictures of my little girl. Regular blogging will resume soon and will follow (I promise) my commitment to sharing my thoughts, not my life. Some things need to remain private.

With all that said, the pictures are of our return home from the hospital, our time in the hospital, her Ware grandparents, and a great shot of her at home. On a serious note, we're thankful to the Lord for a safe delivery, a growing little girl, a family that loves and cares for us so well, and the opportunity to raise this girl to know the Lord and participate with us in the great work of glorifying Him.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ella Rose Strachan

She's here.

Ella Rose Strachan--
4 pounds, 15 ounces,
18 inches long,
5 weeks early,
The sweetest thing I've ever laid eyes on.

Bethany went into labor Wednesday morning at 1:30am. After a rather quick trip to the hospital, she was admitted. About seven hours later, little Ella Rose was born without complication. Though five weeks early, she's quite healthy. We are overwhelmed with joy and grateful to God for the safe delivery, the health of the baby, and the privilege of raising this child.

Pictures to follow; blogging may be a bit spotty (I'm guessing you understand).

--Owen for the girls


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What the Mall Does to the Marketplace of Ideas

According to Douglas Groothius in the very helpful Truth Decay,

“The public space of settled communities is replaced by the giant, impersonal strip mall, which serves as a surrogate for the older ideal of a marketplace of ideas. But no ideas are present, because truth repeatedly succumbs to “the evil genius of advertising,” in Baudrillard’s phrase. The mall simulates everything—with high-tech glamour and promotion—and represents nothing, outside of consumerism and commodity.” (55)

We can easily demonize various aspects of our commercial economy and miss their benefits. Strip malls, for example, may not look very nice, but they do provide us with a variety of services in one location. Where else, for example, can you do your laundry for cheap, get some takeout, and schedule a flight to the Bahamas? With this said, though, it is useful to consider what strip malls and malls in general represent in our culture. Raw, unfettered, uninhibited consumption. This does not mean that everyone who visits the mall falls into such a pattern of thought, but the mall environment does make it easy to do so.

I can see a point in my own life when I realized that I shopped for fun. I saw then and believe today that such a posture was not helpful economically or healthy spiritually. Beyond this, those who buy into consumer culture on a wholesale level often seem to trade in their mind in the transaction. That is, people who focus on things--on clothes and digital gadgets and hairstyles and cell phones--often seem to lose an interest in the life of the mind. Think about it--how many techsters do you know who genuinely enjoy reading philosophy? Not many, I'm guessing.

This is not to say that everyone who enjoys tech stuff necessarily becomes thoughtless. Some of my friends love gadgets and also love theology. But in the broader culture, where many people are separated from intellectual disciplines, materialism has taken the place of study and contemplation. To have a full life today in the eyes of many is not to read widely and think deeply but to possess fully. The person whose life is full is not the "renaissance man", but the expert consumer who has what everyone else wants. The people we look up to are increasingly not known for their mind or mental talents, but for their physical and social exploits. These cannot be good developments, especially when considering that Christianity is a decidedly mental faith.

We need to stand for truth, to be careful about technology and how it threatens to transform us, and to reverse the mass cultural exchange in which one trades in one's mind for material goods. We can be a counter-cultural witness by trading in material goods for the life of the mind, for study of what matters, for devotion not to goods but to God.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Does Politics Have Something to Teach Us About Evangelism?

I found this quote from the New Yorker piece on Obama very interesting from an evangelistic standpoint:

"Gradually, Chicago caught up with the rest of the country and media-driven politics eclipsed machine-driven politics. “It became increasingly difficult to get into homes and apartments to talk about candidates,” Rose said. “High-rises were tough if not impossible to crack, and other parts of the city had become too dangerous to walk around in for hours at a time. And people didn’t want to answer their doors. Thus the increasing dependence on TV, radio, direct mail, phone-banking, robocalls, et cetera—all things that cost a hell of a lot more money than patronage workers, who were themselves in decline, anyway, because of anti-patronage court rulings.” Instead of a large army of ward heelers dragging people to the polls, candidates needed a small army of donors to pay for commercials. Money replaced bodies as the currency of Chicago politics. This new system became known as “pinstripe patronage,” because the key to winning was not rewarding voters with jobs but rewarding donors with government contracts."

I'm not concerned with the broader point of this article. I'm interested in what this brief quotation on the public dynamics of inner-city Chicago might suggest about the currents of American society. People, it seems, don't want to be bothered when at home. They want to be left alone. They don't want strangers coming around, knocking on their doors, interrupting their daily routine (or lack of it). They want to be anonymous.

Why am I bothering to work through this? Because it might shed light on how to do evangelism in the current day. I am not one to say that evangelism must be done in a particular way in order to evangelize a particular group of people. While I do acknowledge that wisdom and strategy are a part of witness (see Paul in Mars Hill in Acts 17), I would also say that God's gospel can penetrate human hearts in a variety of ways. People get saved in predictable and unpredictable ways. Street preachers, tracts, door-to-door witnessing, music, friendship--in these and many other ways, the gospel goes out, the Spirit of God moves, and people get saved.

So I would not consign door-to-door evangelism to the woodpile. I think it can be useful and good. However, I think that this quotation instructs we who are the church to reach out in creative ways in a closed-off society. In many places, people don't sit on their front porches (they don't have front porches to sit on), they don't engage with strangers in their homes, they put up signs to discourage solicitors, and they generally want to be left alone when at home. Many of these same people, though, do go to coffee shops and other "third places" to relax in a social environment.

It is my suggestion, then, that we not necessarily jettison door-to-door witnessing, but that we refine our model of evangelism, and try to reach people in natural settings in which they are comfortable being approached by strangers. Joining leagues, playing sports, attending book discussions, going to coffee shops--these are the kinds of things that I think Christians should do, and do evangelistically. Though people like anonymity and privacy at home, they also crave community, particularly because many of them have lost ties to traditional institutions like the church. Men's and women's clubs, mainline denominations, political organizations--all have seen numerical decline in recent decades (see Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone for more on this). And yet as people migrate away from established socializing, they migrate toward unstructured interaction in places like Starbucks. We should see this cultural shift and move into it.

I'm not seeking an evangelistic revolution here (good thing!), but am rather trying to pick up cultural cues for the purpose of effective witness in our age. I wouldn't jettison older methods of evangelism, but I would seek to add newer methods, all for the purpose of glorifying God through the salvation of lost, lonely, isolated, unhappy sinners just like I once was.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

The Week-est Link, July 18, 2008

1. You thought your tryouts for your high school teams were tough? Trying living in California and trying out with the sons of Joe Namath, Wayne Gretzky, and Will Smith.

2. Ever wonder how an album gets recorded? Here's a peek into the recording of the "Looked Upon" album I mentioned last week.

3. How was Barack Obama shaped by his time in Chicago? The New Yorker answers the question in no less than fifteen "pages" of online content. I can't believe that they give this stuff away for free.

4. Future historian of note Matthew Hall surveys a number of important works on the history of religion in the South. A rich field of study, for sure.

--Have a great weekend, all.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Homemaking Is Not Drudgery (Just ask G. K. Chesterton)

I came across these words from G. K. Chesterton while (briefly) visiting the Girltalk blog (impressive sources, ladies!). For those who have not heard of this blog, I highly recommend it. It's probably the best resource out there today for women who want to learn about homemaking from a Christian perspective. Best of all, it's infused with the joy and God-saturated nature characteristic of resources from the world of Sovereign Grace. If you're a woman wondering what Christian homemaking looks like, you could not do better for a blog-based resource than Girltalk.

Chesterton's excellent commentary on the dignity and importance of homemaking, the vocation Christians believe stems from the apostle Paul's comment referring to young women "working at home" (Titus 2:5) :

"[Woman is surrounded] with very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't...."

"[W]hen people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge [at his work]. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean…. I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children [arithmetic], and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.""


Over against cultural derision toward homemaking, a mammoth literary figure affirms the vocation as hugely important. People can speak as they wish, but in my home, the domestic work of motherhood and homemaking will never, ever be spoken of in derogatory terms. How, after all, can I or my family call unholy what the Bible teaches is sacred? My wife does not despise this calling, and neither, I pray, will my daughter.

Of course, when you consider Chesterton's words and the actual responsibilities of a homemaker, you'll struggle not to underemphasize the importance of mothering and work around the house but to avoid overemphasizing it! Those who deride this work, in the end, seem to have less information about what it actually entails than do so many of the women I know. As I said recently in a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:11-15, I am called on a daily level to nurture my email account. My wife, on the other hand, is called to nurture a life, a soul, a person with an eternal existence.

Over against what the culture teaches us, does a Christian woman's work seem weightless and frivolous? You tell me.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Storm and Thunder of Hollywood Adolescence: Or, Why Many Movies Bore Me

Over the last month I've watched several movies that have suffered from a common flaw. It is this: their directors build their stories around adult characters who behave like adolescents. They then stylize their films with all kinds of jump cuts, colorful photos, eye-catching clothing, use of music and sound, and so on. In general, there seems to be a new breed of director in Hollywood, one who expects his audience to be endlessly fascinated by adolescent emotions and experiences and to be tricked by cinematic bells and whistles into thinking that style is substance.

In watching "Atonement" and "The Darjeeling Limited" (okay, give me hipster points for that one), and in reading reviews of "The Wackness" (just out), it became clear to me that the current generation of filmmaker seems personally trapped in adolescence. Why else would so many directors pour their lives into films that chronicle the ups and downs of the pre-adult years? Yet there's the catch--these films, while capturing the struggles of pre-adult life, are actually about adults. Furthermore, our moviemakers seem to think that it will be meaningful for audiences to watch their creations which attempt to ennoble adolescence, to baptize its rather small concerns and focuses as substantive and engrossing.

Here's the thing, though: while it can be fun to watch an occasional chronicle of adolescence (think "The Wonder Years" before it went off the rails), the stuff of true drama and comedy is found in the adult world, where people tackle real struggle and hardship. Heavy questions confront the adult. Difficult decisions besiege the adult. No such struggle exists for most adolescents. Beyond this, it is simply far more interesting to watch adults acting like adults attempt to handle the pathos of life. Think quickly: what would you rather watch--Russell Crowe trying to escape gladiator life to save his wife and son (in Gladiator), or Owen Wilson annoyingly bossing his brothers around on an Indian train (in The Darjeeling Limited)? It is amusing to watch Wilson, for sure (I think he can be hilarious), but it is far more meaningful to watch an adult acting like an adult try to handle the challenges of life.

"Atonement" suffered from the same problem. It presented us with two rather shallow characters living rather vacuous lives, threw a bunch of style into the mix, and then cooked everything in the surefire dramatic oven of World War Two. What was the result? Profound rumination on the sadness of life? Well, there was some of that, to be sure. But there was also a strong lack of concern on the viewer's part for the protagonists (played by James McAvoy and Keira Knightley). Put simply, they didn't do much except sit around on an English manor. Their drama was the drama of adolescents--will he ask her out? I don't know!!--of the sort that is whispered in high school hallways. Yes, the second half of the picture was poetic, but as a whole, the movie's adolescent characters, with their adolescent attitudes, failed to convey any real weight.

What does this all suggest? It suggests that the culture of the adolescent is no great thing for art. I've found the same is true in music. I don't know about you, but as one who sometimes listens to secular music, I find most of it simply boring. Not horrifyingly debauched (though much of it, particularly rap and r&b, is), not scarily nihilistic, but boring. Much of what's avant-garde and much of what's popular today centers thematically around things like breaking up and setting out in life and handling a cheating lover. Boooorrrriiiinnnngg. These are the concerns of adolescents. This is high school stuff. The true power of art is in its depiction of the deeper realities of life, the stuff that you can't plumb in a text message or a conversation on the bus. It's in showing what it looks like for a man to love his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife, or a lost soul to grapple with question of God's existence, or a father to ruminate on his legacy, or a woman to reflect on her empty nest, or a poet to delve into the causes of war. I could go on. This is the sort of thing that compels the artist to make great art.

Don't get me wrong. I found parts of the above movies engrossing and enjoyable. But both of them--and so many others--suffer from characters who are boys in men's bodies and girls in woman's bodies. They are immature, narcissistic, foolish, impetuous, and shallow. They possess little of the depth of an adult, and they are consumed by small things. They avoid the great matters of life and trivialize them when they cannot avoid them. Here is hoping for Christians to seize the day and to make a bunch of art that is meaningful and populated with mature people and mature, compelling existences.

In a culture that is making art that is both secular and boring, we have a chance to be neither.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Books of Note: Ajith Fernando's "The Call to Joy and Pain"

Recently published by Crossway, Ajith Fernando's "The Call to Joy and Pain" (2007) transcends expectations for such a small, devotionally oriented book. There is considerable food for thought in this 180-page text, including many helpful stories, personal reminisces, and exegetical points to ponder. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and would enthusiastically recommend it to readers, particularly those who would like to read more about the book's subject in smaller doses. This is no overwhelming manuscript; Fernando writes with grace and gentleness in a style that is fluid and easy to understand. Seminarians, laypeople, pastors, professors, all will find much to chew on in a book that is small but profound.

It's a bit ironic to read a book on suffering for fun. But one should. Suffering, as most adults know, is not an abstract idea. It is a reality for each of us. Suffering does not come in a one-size-fits-all package. It comes particularized to us. God sends us packages of suffering that challenge our greatest weaknesses and aim directly at our spiritual tension points. Fernando advances this basic theme in The Call to Joy and Pain and returns to it again and again, all the while encouraging the reader on a practical, day-to-day level to fight for joy in Christ in the midst of our personal sufferings. Whether you are fighting cancer, helping someone else through a season of great pain, attempting to grow in patience and love, or simply working through the difficulties of ordinary life, you will benefit from this meditation on suffering.

Most of us seek out meditations--in the broadest sense--on the opposite, of course. That's no bad thing in moderation. But when one considers that pop culture (and even Christian culture) often focuses relentlessly on what is sunny, happy, airy, and light, a gentle but realistic consideration of suffering has much to offer. This is not to say that Fernando's text necessarily involves a descent into the morbid. It does not. Rather, it functions as a wizened fellow traveler on a journey through the wild terrain of this world. For the duration of the text, Fernando comes alongside his readers and guides us with grace through the suffering that surrounds us and the joy that beckons us from the sky above. "Do not avoid this crossing," Fernando's text seems to say, "walk through it. Walk with Christ, and you will make it, and you will be stronger for it."

The text is helpful for countering what one could call a "materialistic ministry" mindset defined by Western ideals of success and productivity. If you are involved in the work of ministry and sense some discontinuity between the biblical picture of ministry and that practiced by many pastors today, you will benefit from this text. It will encourage you (gently) to lay aside your thirst for "success" and will help you to focus your eyes on that which is truly important: imaging the Savior in a fallen world in desperate need of the very One they hate the most.

"[T]he happiest people in the world are not those who have no suffering--they are those who are not afraid of suffering." (55) Powerful words from an excellent text.

Also, please note that Christianity Today named this book one of it's year's best. See here for more (it's under "The Church/Pastoral Ministry").

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Maureen Dowd, a Catholic Priest, and Marriage: It's Actually Pretty Helpful

This post is, I mean. It's entitled "An Ideal Husband" and it's written by notable (and single) columnist Maureen Dowd and published in today's New York Times. In the piece, Dowd cites at length the wisdom of a 79-year-old celibate Catholic priest who speaks annually to groups of schoolgirls on the subject of the ideal husband. If this all sounds a bit strange and irony-laden, it is: a Catholic priest who's never been married giving advice on marriage in a column written by a single (and very untraditional) columnist. Somehow, though, it works.

Here are some thoughts to chew on from Father Pat Connor:

“Never marry a man who has no friends,” he starts. “This usually means that he will be incapable of the intimacy that marriage demands. I am always amazed at the number of men I have counseled who have no friends. Since, as the Hebrew Scriptures say, ‘Iron shapes iron and friend shapes friend,’ what are his friends like? What do your friends and family members think of him? Sometimes, your friends can’t render an impartial judgment because they are envious that you are beating them in the race to the altar. Envy beclouds judgment."

“Steer clear of someone whose life you can run, who never makes demands counter to yours. It’s good to have a doormat in the home, but not if it’s your husband.

“Does he have a sense of humor? That covers a multitude of sins. My mother was once asked how she managed to live harmoniously with three men — my father, brother and me. Her answer, delivered with awesome arrogance, was: ‘You simply operate on the assumption that no man matures after the age of 11.’ My father fell about laughing.

“A therapist friend insists that ‘more marriages are killed by silence than by violence.’ The strong, silent type can be charming but ultimately destructive. That world-class misogynist, Paul of Tarsus, got it right when he said, ‘In all your dealings with one another, speak the truth to one another in love that you may grow up.’

In sum, I think that Father Pat has a number of things right. He blasphemes (and undermines his religion's teaching) when he calls the apostle Paul a "misogynist", but it's clear that he has keenly observed marriage over the course of his life. It is indeed difficult to trust a man, or a person, who has no friends. Some people are shy, but after a while, you have to wonder if there's something deeper going on. Either the person is too picky to actually befriend anyone, or they don't want to be known on a close level that will invite helpful scrutiny. That's not a good trait, and Christians of all people should be known as those who open up their lives to others for analysis and examination.

When the priest mentions that a man who can be dominated is no good, well, that's also common-sense, itself derived from "biblical-sense", to invent a phrase. I'm guessing that for some women, it sounds good to marry a guy you can control. Sooner or later, though, you realize that this is not such a good thing, particularly when some sort of character is required in life (as it is once or twice in the course of life).

Having a sense of humor seems very helpful for navigation of the ups and downs of life. There are times in a marriage, I would contend, when nothing but laughter will help. Husbands and wives who take themselves too seriously end up crashing and burning on a relational level. The ability to laugh at oneself--and the situations one ends up in--signals the presence of humility. If you want to marry a certain guy, and he can never laugh at himself, think hard before you marry him.

Even more important than humor is communication, and specifically, communication that comes out of a desire to create a marriage that fits into the Creator's cosmic plan for this world and reflects the love of Christ for the church. It's good, after all, to talk things through, but it's way better to talk things through from the perspective of a redeemed heart. When God has saved us, we are freed up by the power of the Spirit to not simply say what's on our mind, and get communication going (which is much better than silence on the part of either or both husband or wife), but to communicate lovingly, carefully, helpfully. I don't know about you, but I often laugh--not unkindly--at the way cultural media often depicts marriage. It defines marital love almost exclusively in terms of sex and marital communication almost entirely in terms of total honesty. This is simply not realistic on either front. Communication has to be a careful blend of honesty, thoughtfulness, desire to edify and build up, and love. Leaving one of these aspects out will result in a blend that, like a poorly mixed cake, means well but tastes bad.

Father Pat has some good insights, and I'm glad when anyone out there wants to strengthen and ennoble the institution of marriage. But for a truly strong marriage, one has to turn to the Bible, not out of religious arrogance, but out of genuine desire to know the mind of God for the betterment of one's life, one's home, one's marriage.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

The Week-est Link, July 11, 2008

1. Over at the CBMW blog, Brent Nelson has some helpful thoughts on what Paul's comment on women being saved through childbearing in 1 Timothy 2:15 means. I'm preaching on this passage this weekend, so I found his comments particularly apropo!

2. Sovereign Grace has another leadership podcast up, this one on "The Pastor and His Joy". Sounds terrific (and it will in your headphones, I'm sure).

3. Have you bought the New Attitude Band's new cd "Looked Upon"? No? Do you want to be encouraged? Yes? Then buy the cd, and look out especially for number eleven, "All I Have Is Christ". Extremely powerful and uplifting.

4. An interesting look in on China's upcoming hosting of the Olympic Games from the Washington Post.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Extremely Helpful Thoughts on Whether or Not You Should Do a PhD as a Christian

Following a link from Justin Taylor, I found this blog post by Regent's John Stackhouse extremely helpful in evaluating the often confounding question of whether one should do a PhD. The article targets evangelical students who are (primarily) considering a PhD as preparation for academic ministry, but it is so broad and trenchant that it will be of great help to young Christians considering the PhD as a means of preparation for ecclesial ministry.

I will be blogging on this in the future, when my thoughts are more developed on the subject, but right now, let me quote a section of the piece that will be of particular interest to consumed readers (all should read this, including pastors, so that even if one is not personally considering this matter, one can give good counsel on it):

• "Do I feel I have gifts in scholarship and teaching? Do I feel inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit to pursue the Ph.D. as part of a calling to study and teach? How do I know this is the Holy Spirit?

• How has this calling been confirmed by others and by experience? What does my Christian community think? Would this decision have the enthusiastic endorsement of those closest to me, who know me best?

• How might I serve the Church and the Kingdom of God better with a Ph.D. than without one?

• The Ph.D. is the requirement for most postsecondary teaching positions, but have I considered whether God has gifted and called to teach and research in some other sphere? Have I fully explored my motives, and am I satisfied that I am not interested in a Ph.D. simply to prove something to somebody or to myself, to flee some other situation, or for other unsound reasons? None of our motives is ever entirely pure or unmixed with other motives, but how deep is my self-knowledge about my desire to do a Ph.D.?"

This is tremendously good fruit for thought. Again, read the whole piece, particularly if you are mulling this question over in your mind. I'm encouraged to see a theologian like Stackhouse (and historical theologian Sean Lucas) tackling in a meaningful, practical way hard questions like this which confront students in a highly professionalized (meant in a neutral way) era.

I'll close with this (which I have said before): we need more scholarly pastors. This is the model of ministry that I'm really focused on in my life, and I hope to see many more catch the same vision and invest their time and energy in excellent, thorough, mentally stimulating preparation for ministry such that God's pastors would lead their churches not simply with evangelistic zeal, personal warmth, and administrative wisdom, but exceptional intellectual ability sufficient to function in the truest sense as theologian-pastors leading people into the glories of biblical teaching.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Importance of Bible Memorization, or, the Miracle of the Bible Applied to the Mind

Dr. Andy Davis of the First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina recently spoke at the 2008 National Founder's Conference on "The Importance of Filling Your Life with Scripture." Dr. Davis is a very faithful pastor who emphasizes the theme of Scripture memorization for spiritual growth. I did not attend the conference but enjoyed reading through Timmy Brister's live-blog of the message (which is essentially a word-by-word reproduction of the talk itself). Here are some parts of the message that I found convicting and helpful:

The Bible is a miracle--"I hold in my hand a miracle. The Bible is a miracle, and I challenge you to give me any definition of a miracle that our Bible does not qualify. It was the Word God sent, for faith comes by hearing so that we might be saved. James 1:17 - God chose to give us birth by the word of truth. The Scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:15)."

Feeding on Christ--"You need to meditate on Scripture, not as water through a pipe, but pause and let the words sink into your life. Feed and give food to your inner man. The first and greatest duty is to get your own soul happy in the Lord first by study and second by prayer. Let God speak to you first and speak back to Him in prayer. The goal is personal feeding on Christ."

The Word is like Microsoft (vice versa, maybe)--"I say to you that memorization is the most efficient way to do all of this. Why should you memorize Scripture? God is commending Scripture memory to you, but He is not commanding it. If I was in 1985 offering you a million shares of stock in Microsoft, you would buy it. Memorizing Scripture will make you rich."

Answers to objections to memorization--

"1. I don’t have a good memory. You have a better memory than you think you do. Think of all the numbers and names you know.

2. It will take up too much time; I am too busy. This is the most efficient use of your time. It will bless you in everything you do. Invest your life in the Word of God.

3. I am too lazy, and it’s hard work. The secret to memorization is repetition over time. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat over months. It is hard work, but it is worth doing.

4. I am not very interested; it seems boring. Could the word of God really be boring to you if you are justified by faith? You haven’t seen the glories of the word of God."

There is much more to read at Timmy Brister's blog. Go over there and read the whole thing. You may not immediately begin to memorize massive chunks of Scripture, but Dr. Davis's message will encourage you to think hard about incorporating such a practice into your life. He certainly has challenged me on this matter.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Books of Note: Bob Kauflin's "Worship Matters"

I have recently come into possession of a number of new Crossway titles, several of which are well worth reading. The first is pastor and musician Bob Kauflin's book on worship, Worship Matters (Crossway, 2008). Here's a synopsis of the book from the foreword: "In Worship Matters, Bob leads us skillfully through the Scriptures and through his experiences to better understand the why and how of biblical worship, regardless of the style or form." (11) The point, then, is not to cover the exact shape that biblically informed worship will take, but the reasons for its existence.

The book breaks down into four main parts: the leader, the task, healthy tensions, and right relationships. There are all kinds of helpful points to be found in these sections, as one would expect from a book written by a former professional musician who has a great passion for God-exalting congregational musicality. On one page Kauflin gives suggestions for chord progressions; on another he writes about the proper balance between tradition and innovation. On relevance, for example, he writes that "we need to ask whether the songs, words, arrangements, visuals, expressions, and traditions we're using are saying the things we want them to say--and whether people actually understand what we're saying." (191) After all, Kauflin notes, "we want to proclaim the unchanging gospel in ways our culture can comprehend, ways that will make it easy for people to perceive who Jesus Christ is and how he has changed us." (191) This is an excellent point to highlight, for it shows how Kauflin combines freshness--which we desperately need--with faithfulness, which is obviously our greatest concern as worshippers of the living God.

I think that you should buy the book. Read it and get a better taste of what biblical worship stems from and looks like in the life of the local church. Learn from a man who has sung in the popular Christian a capella group GLAD, who leads thousands of worshippers each week at Covenant Life Church, one of my favorite churches, and who blends humble piety with wise reflection. If you're in a church, give it to your staff. Wayne Grudem, for his part, notes that "The next time I teach on worship, I plan to make this the required text." Bruce Ware says that "Kauflin provides an array of insights and instruction...all of which are wrapped in an overarching theology of the triune God, the gospel of grace, and the centrality of the cross."

Read it for the edification of your own spiritual life, and for the edification of the body whose central task is nothing other than worship of our majestic God.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

The Week-est Link, July 4, 2008

1. The New York Times is chronicling the changes on American college campuses as professors whose careers began in the '60s retire. Perhaps we'll see more of an openness to conservatives in the future. One can hope so.

2. It's Nadal-Federer in the Wimbledon final. How shocking.

3. Historical theologian (the best kind, natch) Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary (a witty critical thinker) muses in a slightly edgy but perhaps needed fashion on the young, restless, reformed movement. By the way, have you bought the book? Weren't you supposed to? Didn't someone (ahem) recommend it?

4. It's President Bush's last fourth of July as president. I'm not sure why that's especially significant for any of us, but I would wish everyone out there a happy fourth. Given that I missed my town's parade earlier, I may just have to pop in a "Band of Brothers" episode here to honor those who secured our national security and happiness. Yes, this is rather postmodern; I do very much hope in the future to take my children to parades and to instill in them a proper love for country and appreciation--a deep appreciation--for veterans and soldiers. If you're a veteran or a soldier and you're reading this, please accept my heartfelt thanks.

On that note, enjoy the weekend, all.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Southern Baptists and Hip Hop: No, I'm Not Making This Up

Just go here and see what I'm talking about. Russ Moore, dean of the 4400-student Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship Southern Baptist seminary, interviews the Christian rapper Flame while guest-hosting the Albert Mohler radio program. For those of you who know little about either of these worlds, let me be your trusty guide and say that they do not often intersect--especially on a nationally syndicated radio program with thousands of daily listeners!

The conversation is fun and informative. Flame shares a good deal of his background, including the tidbit that he was once a "gangsta" rapper (think the sort of stuff that celebrates extreme violence and that sort of thing). Now, however, Flame raps about such diverse topics as hermeneutics and the Trinity. His stuff is not lightweight--trust me on that one. If you have a nice little stereotype fashioned in your mind about hip-hop, check out his music, and see if isn't challenged.

The interview raises the issue of Christians and their identification with secular music. Flame points out that many rappers, though fallen, accurately portray the realities of life in hard places, namely, the inner city. It struck me as I listened to this conversation that there is a real need for Christian art that doesn't simply speak the gospel in familiar musical forms. We need artists who produce music--and all kinds of art--that honestly depicts life in a fallen world, such that non-Christians naturally connect with our music (as much as this is possible, of course--I have no triumphalist social intentions).

How does the fall affect the world? What does brokenness look like in various places? I'm not just asking for "testimony" songs ("I was blind in these ways," and that sort of thing), but excellent storytelling and realistic exploration of themes of a fallen creation. Furthermore, we need stories that don't skip to the answer--the gospel--and leave things there, but that celebrate in majestic songship the reality of life with Christ. I'm thankful that Flame (and others) have begun to make headway in these areas. Here's hoping for many more artists like him, and much broader acceptance within the evangelical community of beautiful, honest, God-glorifying (though not necessarily stereotype-conforming) art.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Applying What We Know About Our Internet Usage to Our Spiritual Lives

Just had a few thoughts from yesterday's piece that covered the Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The article is, I think, a good wake-up call for those of us who frequently browse the Internet. In particular, I think that it encourages us not to compartmentalize our lives. By this I mean that we should not think that our Internet usage is cordoned off from our spiritual lives. What does this mean on a practical level? Let me share.

Yesterday's post touched on a number of other concerns that I have regarding constant Web use by Christians. Today, though, I want to zero in on the problematic question of how our devotional life is affected by the Internet. Put simply, if in our usage of the Web we are training ourselves to concentrate in ten-second bursts, we're going to struggle, I think, to sustain a meaningful devotional life. Devotions are not essential to being a Christian. That is, you don't have to have a thirty-minute time set aside each day for prayer and Bible study to be a Christian. However, most Christians throughout the ages have found that in order to walk closely with God on a daily basis, it is quite helpful to set aside time for these things. In our devotional time, we seek to focus for a period of time on God and His influence on our spiritual lives. Contemplation and thoughtfulness are thus at a premium when it comes to devotions.

Every Christian who has ever tried to do devotions knows that it's hard to do them. Your attention wanders, your concentration drifts, and sooner than you can know it, you're miles away from your church's weekly prayer requests, or Jeremiah's lamentations. How important, then, that in all of our lives, we cultivate mental habits that train us to focus, and not to flit. If you are constantly surfing the web, nibbling on content, I am guessing that you will find it challenging to dig into the Word. If you check email every ten minutes, I would venture that your concentration will easily shift from prayer to distracted thought. Why should it be otherwise? You're training yourself to do just that--to shift.

In seeking to be wise, discerning, disciplined Christians, then, we've got to think hard not just about what we take in, but how we take it in. Most Christians are quite aware of the need to avoid bad Internet content. Few of us, I would guess, are aware of the need to avoid a bad approach to the Internet. As in many areas of life, we simply consume it like the masses around us, thinking little about its effect on our lives.

We should not allow the Internet to shred our devotional lives. If we do surf the Web and check email, we should do so carefully, such that we are capable of deep reflection and sustained attention. Our devotional lives can only be rich if we develop such abilities. Also, though, how can we expect ourselves and others to pay attention to sermons and hymns if we're constantly trafficking in information? If our personal devotional life will suffer from overexposure to the Internet, so too will our congregational participation as members of churches. We'll check in and out of sermons, tune out of the very songs we're singing, and generally regard church with a glazed-over boredom, all the while unaware that it is not church and its offerings that are the problem--it is us and the attention spans we have trained to flit and flicker and fade in and out that are the problem. Shame on us for so often blaming the church and the pastor when it is almost solely we who are to blame.

Do you exhibit these symptoms? I know I do at times. If so, train your senses. Re-think your Internet consumption. Carve out within yourself the ability to focus and think deeply. Your spiritual life--and your church life--can only benefit as a result, and God can only be glorified as another area of one's life opens up to the transforming power of God's Word.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Mind-Transforming Power of the Internet, and Other Slightly Disturbing Thoughts

Nicholas Carr of the Atlantic Monthly has recently written a must-read piece on the suspected effect of Internet usage on one's mind. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" includes a number of provocative selections, including the following, each of which I'll comment on.

The author's current struggle to concentrate--"Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

I have seen this happen in my own life, though I have to read consistently and am thus able (forced?) to counteract this tendency. Without a constant diet of reading, though, I'm guessing that most people who don't naturally love reading will drift away from the practice. We're all becoming skimmers, some of us professional, some of us not. As a race, we seem to be morphing into people incapable of sustained attention.

The effect of surfing on the mind--"As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

This is the way many people seem to operate. My blog posts (including this one) are generally long, relatively speaking. But what is long? Most of them take about two-three minutes to read. The average time people spend on my site, however, is far less than two-three minutes. Part of this is because I do very little to try and hook visitors. Part of it is because people are so technologically restless nowadays that they can't sit still long enough to read a few lousy paragraphs. What does it say about one's ability to concentrate and discipline oneself when attention cannot be sustained for sixty seconds? (Alternate (discomfiting) theory: site is not worthy of much attention. Needfully discarded.)

Testimony from a University of Michigan prof: “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Okay, I give up. If a professor at one of America's elite universities, a school that requires students to read thousands of pages of material before they graduate, cannot read for a minute, how can we really expect anyone to do so? We may not all be in the same boat as this person, but we should take note here. What, exactly, does continual web-browsing and email-checking do to one's ability to concentrate? Does it, perhaps, shred it?

Fascinating story about Nietzsche and the typewriter--"One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

You know, this is a sterling point in an excellent article. I've noticed that writing a letter on nice paper--something I rarely do--tends to draw the best out of me, literarily. I slow down and concentrate. I muse over my words. I don't drop in the chair and bang something out. I measure what I say and attempt to make it excellent. Though I try to do the same thing when I write on the computer (papers, sermons), it's just not the same. I suppose that when convenience and contemplation square off, convenience wins just about every time. The motto of the age?

A sober closing assessment--"Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction."

We need to think about this one. When we surf the web, we're not participating in a passive forum. We're swerving into the Autobahn. It's not a passive medium. It is the definition of active. It has a pace to it, a feel, that encourages us to blitz through page after page, entry after entry, blog after blog. It doesn't every really urge to slow down and think. It explodes our senses with content. Honestly, how does even the best book stand a chance?

I personally think that we who want to think and use our minds for God's glory should preserve the careful reading of books. We should not buy into a culture that encourages us to prey on information and art. We should instead buy books, read them contemplatively, and pattern our mind to think hard and well about things. We should buy books not simply to take material out of them--a worthy act, one I've been paid to do--but to read them, to sit with them, and let them teach us. We should consider good books like wise, delightful grandparents, who require concentration, patience, and investment to benefit from. If we want to learn and to be able to concentrate on myriad tasks, we should not treat our "grandparents" with insolence by beginning a conversation with them, extracting what information we want, and then quickly and rudely leaving them. No, we should sit with them, talk with them, argue with them (it's an analogy, not a reality), and learn from them. Book-reading that abuses books should be avoided; book-reading that ingests information, mulls over it, should be encouraged.

Two final notes. We should be careful about the Web. No, not just in terms of sex and time drain, though we must handle these things carefully. We should be careful about how much time we give to the web and to email. Are we a slave to our inboxes? Do we constantly surf the web, skimming page after page with a dull-eyed gloss? Are we letting the web shape us and the way we think as it robs us of our ability to concentrate and discipline ourselves? We've got to think about these things, and discipline our lives such that we, not the web, have mastery.

Finally, we should think about these matters in light of our churches. What kind of culture do we create in our church through the use of technology? How is an average church service going to seem to the constant web-surfer and email-answerer? Furthermore, if we structure the service to be palatable to such people, what damage do we do to our people? Do we slowly ease out of them the ability to think hard and focus well? There are few easy answers here, but these are questions that churches and pastors and laypeople should think about.

Is Google making us stupid? I'd answer that, but I've got some emails to write, a few blogs to read, a book to gut--would you excuse me?

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