Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lament: A Few Lines

Some of us need to lament our lack of lamentation,
our desire to "move on" without
dwelling in
and reflecting upon
the pain that so grips the world.

Lament: A Few Preliminary Prods

Only man laments. Animals feel pain and express sorrow, but not as we do (although they often deserve our pity). They do not carry these sorrows in the souls, write poems with them in mind, cry out or turn against heaven in their wake. We do all this, as well as philosophize about our painful memories, questions, and accusations. We address God, world, man, and nature--our pain in full--in silent thoughts, by whispers mouthed alone, prayers prayed through tears, through shouts in the public square, as we write books, read books, hurl books across the room, rip books to shreds in fits of pointless passion.

Lamentation is an inescapable mode of the human being, yet humans seldom fathom its depths or mine its resources. No one pursues lament, engaging deliberately in lamentable activities. Yet lament pursues us, dogs us, gets under out skin and refuses to be sweat out, cleaned off, or cleared away. It is in our bones, sometimes as fire, sometimes as rot, sometimes as both at the same time.

It is not simple anger, nor is it simple sorrow; but is rather a strange mixture of both brought to the point of reflection, analysis, and heightened anguish.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End is Near

The signs are everywhere. The end is near--the end of the compact disk. My on-line CD store is going out of business, and I cannot resist buying a few at $4.99, shipping included. Borders and Barnes and Noble have drastically reduced their CD selection. Borders no longer has a discrete jazz section for CDs. I can think of only one Denver-area store with a rich selection of CDs--Twist and Shout.

What does all this mean for music and culture? Music has been increasingly miniaturized and made more portable in recent decades. It has also dematerialized. The preferred form is the MP3, which is a cluster of data stored in various devices. Now the link of the medium and the music is gone. For many years, album art and liner was as significant as the music. CDs retained this to some extent, but on a smaller scale. With MP3 files, there is no container for the music. It just in--somewhere in cyberspace.

Further, music becomes more de-contextualized. The play list replaces the order of pieces on a recording. We shuffle on through. The idea of a concept album--a coherent body of work establishing and developing a set theme--is nearly dead. (In 2007, Neal Morse created a concept album based on the struggles of Martin Luther, but this is now very rare.)

I am reluctant to go the way of the iPod. I do not favor dematerialization, however economically expedient. I cannot bring myself to think of dematerialized books at the moment.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Truth and contradiction

1.0: Contradictory statements cannot be held in tension, since they cannot both be true: A or non-A.

1.1: Nor can they be balanced or celebrated.

2.0: Those who write as if 1.0 and 1.1 are false, should not be taken seriously.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Against the Conventionalist (or Contractarian) Basis for Morality

From C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1943), chapter three, “The Reality of the Law.”

Some people say that though decent conduct does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment, still, it means what pays the human race as a whole; and that consequently there is no mystery about it. Human beings, after all, have some sense; they see that you cannot have real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair, and it is because they see this that they try to behave decently. Now, of course, it is perfectly true that safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other. It is one of the most important truths in the world. But as an explanation of why we feel as we do about Right and Wrong it just misses the point If we ask: "Why ought I to be unselfish?" and you reply "Because it is good for society," we may then ask, "Why should I care what's good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?" and then you will have to say, "Because you ought to be unselfish"—which simply brings us back to where we started. You are saying what is true, but you are not getting any further. If a man asked what was the point of playing football, it would not be much good saying "in order to score goals," for trying to score goals is the game itself, not the reason for the game, and you would really only be saying that football was football—which is true, but not worth saying. In the same way, if a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no good replying, "in order to benefit society," for trying to benefit society, in other words being unselfish (for "society" after all only means "other people"), is one of the things decent behaviour consists in; all you are really saying is that decent behaviour is decent behaviour. You would have said just as much if you had stopped at the statement, "Men ought to be unselfish."

And that is where I do stop. Men ought to be unselfish, ought to be fair. Not that men are unselfish, nor that they like being unselfish, but that they ought to be. The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing—a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.

And yet it is not a fact in the ordinary sense, in the same way as our actual behaviour is a fact. It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behaviour, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of as made, but which we find pressing on us.


A Neil Postman-type question: What problem was twitter created to solve?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Groothuis Preaching

I am preaching on "The Call of the Resurrection," at Wellspring Anglican Church this Sunday (May 15) at 9:00 and 10:35. Visitors are most welcome to this friendly, caring, and biblical church.

Monday, May 09, 2011


Practice the denials that are the basis of greatness.

Concentrate moral and intellectual energies on First Things, things that matter...no matter what.

Deny in order to affirm the primal values of committed and thoughtful work.


“The magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin. Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin—it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen—and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against Him.”
--Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia2ae. 87, 4.


Philosopher Roger Scruton writes a profound and gracefully-written article on Beauty and Desecration, from City Journal.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Outline for My Contribution to a Panel Discussion on Rob Bell, Tuesday, May 3, at Denver Seminary

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary

A Guide to the Rational Analysis of Rob Bell

One of the ways in which the damned will be condemned is that they will see themselves condemned by their own reason, by which they claimed to condemn the Christian religion—Blaise Pascal.[1]

I. The Bible on the Seriousness of Teaching the Bible

A. The office of teacher, preacher

1. Judgment of teachers (James 3:1-2)

2. Preparation for teaching (2 Timothy 2:15; Titus 2:7-8)

3. The need for knowledge in teaching (Malachi 2:7)

4. The danger of false teaching (Jeremiah 8:8; Matthew 15:1-8)

5. The danger of false prophets (Matthew 7:15-23)

6. Satan is the father of lies and must be resisted (John 8:44; James 4:7-8; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

B. The importance of critical thinking as a Christian

1. Love God with all your mind (Matthew 22:37-40)

2. Test the spirits (1 John 4:1-6; 2 Corinthians 11:14)

3. Test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21-23)

C. Theological reasoning

1. Sound exegesis (biblical theology): 2 Peter 3:16

2. Sound theologizing logically (systematic theology): the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)

3. Avoid paradox, enigma, mystery as much as possible: we need to grow in the “knowledge of God”

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.—1 Peter 3:18

4. Theology for the glory of God, the advancement of the kingdom (the mission of God), the good of the church and the world (Matthew 6:33; 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17)

II. The Rob Bell Phenomenon

A. Books: Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Love Wins

B. Nooma videos: short, impressionistic, personality-driven

C. Ethos: undogmatic, exploratory, open-ended, skeptical, often flippant

D. Method or style in theology: raise questions, generate confusion, suggest possibilities; embrace tension and paradox; rejection of rational certainty (see Luke 1:1-4).

Faith: mystery, paradox, speculation, hope

Reason: truth, knowledge, certainty

E. Bell advocates pantheistic books: Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (in Velvet Elvis); Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity (in Love Wins). Against, see Doug Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age.

III. Love Wins: Some Issues

A. Apologetic purpose: win people who have rejected Christianity because of its doctrines of heaven and hell.

B. Good points

1. The earthly and present tense value of the Kingdom of God. Influence of N.T. Wright. See also the work of G.E. Ladd on the Kingdom of God.

2. Addresses texts which seem to teach universalism

C. A few of the many problems with Love Wins

1. Not clear on justication by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8); may deny it

2. Not clear on substitutionary, penal atonement of Christ; may deny it.

3. No rigorous reasoning concerning the afterlife

a. Suggest post-mortem salvation, salvation in other religions (see Ephesians 2:12)

b. Touches on passages without sufficient development

4. Bell seems to advance three propositions in Love Wins

a. Everyone is saved: God wants all to be saved; God gets what God wants.

b. Everyone is not saved. We can refuse God’s love.

c. We don’t know if everyone is saved or not.

5. These statements are inconsistent with each other; they cannot all be true

6. We need better thinking about issues of ultimate concern (Isaiah 1:18)


  1. D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Crossway, 2005). Helps explain some of the weaknesses of the emerging church, of which Bell is somewhat associated.
  2. Douglas Groothuis, “What about Hell?” from The Christian Research Journal. On line at: http://www.equip.org/PDF/DH198.pdf.
  3. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, August, 2011). See chapters on hell and religious pluralism especially.
  4. Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity from the Challenges of Postmodernism (InterVarsity, 2000). Advocates a very different view of truth and epistemology than does Bell.
  5. Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Integrative Theology (Zondervan, 1987-1993). A thorough and rationally sound method of theologizing.
  6. J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle (Zondervan, 2007). Guide to the importance of a Christian mind, spiritual discipline, and charismatic power for ministry.
  7. Christopher Morgan, Robert A. Peterson, eds. Hell Under Fire (Zondervan, 2003). Defends the historic, orthodox view of hell.
  8. Robert A. Peterson on this, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995). His arguments against universalism and annihilationism are found in chapters eight and nine respectively.
  9. Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There, 30th anniv. ed. (InterVarsity Press, 1968; reprint, 1998). A stellar model of apologetic and cultural engagement from an evangelical perspective. Explains the faith/reason dichotomy that Bell employs.
  10. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (1971; reprint, Tyndale, 2001). Modern classic.
  11. T.L. Tiessen, “Hell,” in William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Karkkainen, eds. Global Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 372-376.

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 175/563, p. 84.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Banning Laptops in the Classroom

[First published in The Teaching Professor.]

The classroom should be a consecrated place—a dedicated space for attending to ideas not normally addressed as ardently elsewhere. Strange, good, and serendipitous things happen there. Questions are newly formed, puzzlement gives way to intellectual pursuit, and insights arrive serendipitously. On the other hand, even after earnest preparations, professors can be greeted with vacant stares, wandering eyes, stupefied silences, or irritatingly inept comments. We struggle to win, keep, and enrich our students’ attention.

The classroom the environment should be ripe for teaching and learning. (Neil Postman observed that one is not teaching if no one is learning.) This requires earnest preparation for the professor, but students also need to attend and respond rightly. Critical thinking is imperative for philosophy (my discipline) and does not happen automatically. Teachers can encourage critical thinking in several ways: by giving quizzes, showing appreciation for student’s apt comments, and even by letting them stew in their culpable ignorance. But there is another element changing the classroom and threatening its positive prospects: the laptop and similar portable Internet-connected devices. Academics have weighed the pros and cons of this situation, but let me offer some battle-scarred reflections.

I teach two different kinds of students at two institutions. I teach philosophy full-time at the graduate level at a theological seminary. Here most students can afford expensive technologies. I also teach as an affiliate faculty member at a large city college in downtown Denver. These students are younger and less affluent, and almost never bring laptops to class. Still, they can be distracted by hand-held devices. In this setting, my syllabus states that no device should be used to get access to any outside source, although I allow students who have laptops to them for taking notes.

One of these undergraduates stands out. A young Latina woman sparkled with philosophical curiosity and asked some bang-up questions. After I raised a seeming contradiction concerning atheistic Existentialism’s difficulty in asserting any moral meaning for conduct in a meaningless world, she asked, “Is there any worldview that doesn’t contradict itself?” A philosophy professor can live a few weeks on such utterances. That comment came when did not bring her laptop. With laptop in hand, she sat in the very back of the room, said nothing, and all but disappeared into the machine—another case of the “absent presence” that technology easily affords.

My graduate students are a different story. About ten years ago, laptops began to appear in the classroom here and there. Those busily typing seldom looked at me or at other students or at their books. One student spent the entire semester gazing exclusively at her laptop. In recent years the percentage of laptop users surged to over fifty percent, and the classroom began to change radically in ways I had never before experienced. As Postman would have put it, the changes were ecological, not merely additive. That is, the very nature of the classroom was changing, not just a few isolated elements of it. The laptop users were often absorbed in their machines, and their activities often distracted others. I vainly tried to counter this threat of the absent presence by calling for “laptop down” interludes. When I came to a particularly important point, I would ask that all laptops be closed, so that the students could look up and listen more intently.

But matters worsened. Many students in my Ethics class were sending and receiving emails, shopping, and even checking their eHarmony accounts. This violated the conditions of the syllabus. So, I gave a fifteen-minute lecture (perhaps sermon) on the ethics of the classroom: We are here to learn together, to reflect on the texts, to pursue truth through rationality. We need to attend to each other, develop dialogue, and create a “truth zone.” Laptops threaten all of this.

This impassioned message did little good. My spies reported further infractions. I then drew up a short “covenant” for students to sign, stating that students would only use their laptops for taking notes. As I handed this out, a student publicly rebuked me for being so heavy-handed. We later reconciled, but this short-lived, one-man student insurrection deepened my resolve to do something serious about the creeping plague of digital distraction. (I have since gotten more ammunition from John Medina’s Brain Rules, which argues that our brains are simply not designed for multitasking, in the classroom or elsewhere.) I put the following statement (somewhat edited) in my syllabi the next term, where it has remained in all my subsequent courses.

No laptops are allowed in the classroom. While many students will use them responsibly, many will disappear behind the screens. For this reason, I am banning them from the classroom. The classroom needs to be a zone for knowledge and inspiration. Knowledge needs students and students need knowledge. We need to breathe ideas together without the distraction of alien mediation. Therefore, please print out the class notes for the day and be ready to take notes and discuss the material face-to-face, voice-to-voice, soul-to-soul.

The break was now complete. I would no longer compete with those thin, powerful, and distracting devices. Many students had abided by the rules and only typed class notes. But even then, something was lost in the classroom.

My ban did, however, foreclose some good possibilities. Students would sometimes search on line for items that were pertinent to class. When I mentioned that a Hindu priest had opened a session of congress in prayer for the first time recently, a student asked, “What exactly did he pray?” I gave a rather inadequate summary. Then another student replied, “I found it. May I read it?” He did, and it contributed to our discussion as we analyzed the theology of the prayer. Those kinds of episodes enriched our environment; but they were all too rare. Nor could they offset the significant losses caused by digital diversions. However, if a disabled student needed a laptop to compensate for a sensory difficulty, I would gladly allow for that.

It has been three years since I banned laptops. No complaints have appeared on the anonymous student evaluations. Students say they are less distracted and more focused in class. I note that without laptops they are more engaged with both me and other students. I believe that my step backward into the pre-laptop era was really a step forward into a better classroom. Consider joining me.

  • Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and Affiliate Faculty in Philosophy at Metropolitan State College of Denver. He is the author of The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997).