Sunday, July 31, 2005

Tired Anti-TV Curmudgeon

I won't do this often, but I'm going to bang out a short diary piece related to ministry.

Tonight I lectured on "Television: Agent of Truth Decay" at a Sunday night service at a local church. (The material was largely taken from the appendix to my book Truth Decay.) The crowd was mostly in their early twenties or younger, with only a few grey hairs and other "mature" folks. It was a tough crowd, about 120 strong. I realized early on that I wasn't capturing everyone's attention (believe it or not, this is always my goal in speaking). I was cutting against the grain and taking some time and effort to do it: biblical passages, social science research, theological principles, and other heavy intellectual items. I could not bring the talk down to a lower level (although I could have gone higher). So, I just blasted them as best I could with the best, most passionate arguments I could muster. After over an hour, I answered questions from the floor for about 20 minutes, and then talked with people for over an hour informally. No one was hostile; they were very engaged and asked thoughtful questions.

There was much interest afterward, but I'm not sure how many I reached or touched in the message itself. It was a battle. Much of what I said was utterly at odds with what they have heard and how they have lived. A woman my age afterward told me that one of her young friends said, "I disagree with everything he said!" (That is disturbing, since I quoted or referred to so many Scriptures.) When pressed as to why she disagreed, the woman had no response. She just repeated her outrage. It was sheer emotivism. She has been well-trained by television.

I feel old. But there is a remnant out there. The pastor is only 24 (half my age), but he invited me to speak on this topic and enthusiastically promoted it. He may take some heat for that, but I'm sure he will handle it well. God bless him.

A day in the life of the Constructive Curmudgeon. Selah.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Thinking Straight About Tolerance

[This essay originally was published in Moody Magazine as one of my "Culture Watch" columns, probably in 2002 or 2003.]

The Kingdom of God commands our full allegiance (Matthew 6:33), but the world, the flesh, and the devil nip at our souls and entice us to defect (1 John 2:15-17). Today, many insist that good people never assert that “their religion” is the only way. Rather, we must accept all religions. Such “tolerance” is deemed mandatory in our pluralistic nation. But when the pressure is on, Kingdom people need to be able to think straight about religious tolerance.

A recent cover story in US News and World Report, titled “Faith in America,” reported that 69% of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them. Over half attend religious services at least once a week. Eighty-four percent claim to be Christians, although the numbers of adherents of other religions is rapidly growing. Eighty-six percent of non-Christians say that all religions “have elements of truth.” Only 19% of self-described Christians claim that Christianity is “the only true religion,” while 77% reject the exclusivity of Christianity and instead believe that all religions have some truth. Although Christ is the only way of salvation (Acts 4:12), other religions (especially Judaism) do express some truths, even if they cannot deliver the saving gospel itself. Nevertheless, these statistics reveal a failure of nerve on the part of many Christians.

The US News article mentions that many who claim that all religions have elements of truth also admit that they know little about other religions. This brand of tolerance is based on ignorance rather than on fact. Religions differ radically on significant beliefs, such as ultimate reality, the human condition, and salvation. When one religion teaches what another denies, both cannot be true. Islam denies that Jesus is divine and the Bible repeatedly affirms it (John 1:1-3; Col. 2:9). Both cannot be true. This is reality, not intolerance. When I give lecture called “Are All Religions One?” at secular college campuses, and the students hear an explanation of the differences between religions, many respond thoughtfully and some show an interest in Christ.

What should Christians think about tolerance? First, we need to develop a tenacious commitment to the truthfulness of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17). When our worldview is defined by biblical truth and not opinion polls, we do not become narrow-minded; rather, we find freedom in explaining and defending our beliefs (John 8:31-32; 1 Peter 3:15-17). Ravi Zacharias defends Christianity in many public forums and also shows the willingness to discuss any objections to it during a question-answer time. While not all Christians share his intellectual ability, every Christian can combine strong faith and an openness to dialogue. This often disarms non-Christians who suspect that Christians are unthinking dogmatists.

Second, like Paul, we need to be passionate about people’s salvation (Romans 9:1-3). We cannot pretend that all religions are pleasing to God (Matthew 7:13). However, we can offer people the promise of redemption because the gospel of grace is open to everyone (Acts 17:30).

Third, while we cannot endorse or overlook religious falsity, we can love those of other faiths. Jesus said to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and this includes non-Christians. The gospel never coerces anyone to accept Christ. The prophets and apostles presented God’s truth with integrity and trusted their sovereign God for the results.

Fourth, when people talk of “my God” and “my spirituality” we should emphasize that Christianity is not a designer religion, custom-fit for our tastes. We bear witness to God’s gracious revelation of truth. As G.K. Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy: “I won’t call Christianity my religion, because I didn’t make it up. God and humanity made it, and it made me.” This emphasis helps defuse the objection that Christians are trying to “ram their religion down other people’s throats.” No. We are more like the physician who prescribes a cure for an otherwise terminal disease. The sick need to know the truth about what will save them, not their choice of “religious preferences.”

How should Christians tolerate members of other religions? We should do so by loving them and bringing the truth to them. We endorse their religious freedom, but the gospel never allows us to be indifferent to their eternal destinies.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Islam, Terror, and Logic (Rebecca Merrill Groothuis)

For those wondering how Hollywood celebrities and their ilk come to their views on Islamist terrorism, here is their logic.

Premise: Religion as truth-claim is meaningless.
Conclusion: One religion is as good (or bad) as another.

Premise: Religion as culture is meaningful.
Premise: All cultures are morally equivalent.
Conclusion: Every religion must be equally respected and accommodated.

The obvious realities--namely, that (1) truth-claim is at the heart of religious belief, and (2) religious truth-claims are not morally neutral--are deemed a priori unacceptable. Therefore, the obvious must be assiduously avoided and an alternative explanation set forth.

So the ever politically conventional "liberal" mind falls back on one of its central tenets: the Marxist doctrine that unhelpful and unpleasant human behavior (except, of course, with respect to rich capitalists and fascist dictators) is always due to poverty, oppression and imperialism (typically of the American variety). This, then, must be the cause of the Islamifascist terrorists' zeal for mass murder and suicide pacts. The view from the political left wing simply permits no other perspective.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis is the author of Women Caught in the Conflict and Good News for Women. She is the co-editor of Discovering Biblical Equality.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Three Books That Influenced Me Most

1. Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (InterVarsity Press).

Originally published in 1968. 30th anniversary edition published in 1998. I first read The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer in the fall of 1976, my sophomore year in college--just a few months after my conversion to Christ. It is not an overstatement to say that it revolutionized my view of Christian faith and endeavor. I had spent the first few troubled months of the Christian life not knowing how to think about the great intellectual issues I had been introduced to in my first year of college. This caused considerable distress of soul. But Schaeffer, the savvy evangelist and apologist, wasn¹t afraid of the great ideas. In fact, he argued that the Christian world view is objectively true, rational, and that it offers unique hope and meaning to a post-Christian culture awash in despair and confusion. Schaeffer did not answer all my questions, and I have come to question a few of his judgments (particularly his reading of a few philosophers), but The God Who is There helped spark a grand view of ministry that has never dimmed. We must love the lost, take culture seriously, and outthink the world for Christ!

2. Blaise Pacal, Pensées (various editions).

I have been reading Pascal's profound reflections for twenty-five years, and I don't plan on stopping. I find myself quoting him in my writing and speaking frequently. I first picked this volume out of my mother's collection of The Great Books in the summer of 1977. The volume consists of over 900 fragments of a book Pascal never completed, which would have been an apologetic for the Christian faith. Nevertheless, many of the fragments--some more developed and refined than others--were so brilliant that Pascal's family published them after his death in 1662. He was only 39. Pascal, a celebrated scientist and mathematician, understood that the gospel was the only key that could unlock the meaning of the human condition. His reflections on the greatness and misery of humanity are unparalleled in their wisdom and apologetic power. We are great because made in God's image and likeness; but we are miserable because we are fallen. We are deposed royalty in need of the Mediator, Jesus Christ.

3. Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (various editions).

Although I cannot agree with much of Kierkegaard's religious philosophy (particularly his fideism), this devotional book was pivotal in my sense of divine calling. Kierkegaard aimed to reform the dry and dead Lutheran orthodoxy of his day by stimulating his readers to rediscover the Christianity of the New Testament and to stand naked as individuals before God himself. This book summons the reader to consider their lives before the "audit of eternity" and to order all their affairs so as to "will the good in the truth," without excuse and without wavering and against the crowd, if need be. Through reading it, I discovered that God was calling me to engage the life of the mind as a lifelong pursuit. At the time (1977 or 1978), I did not know what shape this commitment would take, but the Lord's will was made known to me through this remarkable and penetrating book.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Apologetics on the Tube: Exegesis of a Medium

Popular apologist and best-selling author Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith) has ventured into the expensive and tumultuous world of television with his new one-hour program, "Faith Under Fire." I salute his audacity in attempting to create a television program that addresses matters of Christian apologetics and ethics in a national forum. However, the medium does not suit the message. Let me begin to explain this through an anecdote that may serve to exegete the medium.

Before the first installment was aired, I was asked to appear on "Faith Under Fire." I would "debate" Neal Donald Walsh—the author of Conversations with God and several other equally excremental spin-offs—on the nature of God. (Walsh is the sage who claimed God told him that Hitler went to heaven because Hitler did no evil. In m class, I often hurl his book across the room to illustrate points against New Age theology.) I would not shy away from a legitimate debate with such a pantheist. Over the past twenty years, I have written about 1000 pages (give or take a few hundred) critiquing pantheism, and have spoke on this subject hundreds of times. But I refused this request because of its format (and, of course, because of my general animus against television). I was asked to come to a local studio where I would be televised. Walsh and Strobel would appear only on television monitors. I would be part of an eight-minute segment. If it went well, we might be given another eight-minute segment.

This media situation requires some analysis. We would be discussing matters of metaphysics: the nature of God. Strobel, Walsh, and I would interact only through television monitors. No two people would be in the same room together, addressing each other face to face. We would have only eight to sixteen minutes to take up this titanic issue of the ages. If it went to a second eight-minute segment, it would be interrupted by about four minutes of totally unrelated and propagandistic commercials. Without a lot of reflection, I said, "No," and explained why. Now on to the program itself.

Since I don’t orient my life around television, I didn’t plan to watch or record "Faith Under Fire." However, I got a wild hare and decided to watch it, but it started an hour earlier than I calculated, so I only saw about the last twenty minutes, which consisted of a segment on doctor-assisted suicide and another on how faith relates to politics. The program has been billed as having a format similar to the raucous, rude, and ridiculous "Hard Ball." I have never seen this chaotic show, but have heard audio clips on talk radio. It is little more than a shouting match, which excels in incivility above all else. Obnoxious and stentorian voices win; others, no matter how intelligent or learned, lose. That’s television. That’s insanity.

The segment on doctor-assisted suicide consisted of a pseudo-conversation—remember each person is in a different location and their contact with the two others is mediated by only a screen—that never rose above the level of sound bites interjected between interruptions. There was little coherence and almost no argumentation. The format excluded it in principle and by necessity. The segment on faith and politics, "Is God a Democrat or a Republican?" (the question itself poses a metaphysical impossibility and a false dichotomy) was even worse. Cal Thomas, a television veteran with a booming voice and a permanent swagger, was pitted against a slow-speaking and soft-spoken egghead, who worked for a think tank. He was clearly no television veteran (to his credit). Thomas, who has a long history with the Christian right, has modified his views somewhat, as indicated in Blinded by Might, which he co-authored in 1999 (a book worth reading, by the way). But he is still clearly evangelical and politically conservative—just less messianic about the prowess of politics to improve the world. The other fellow was liberal in both politics and religion. There was precious little of any substance exchanged between them. Thomas’ opponent was worried about a Christian theocracy (a ridiculous notion), but Thomas was more concerned to nail him theologically on the supremacy of Christ. I agreed with nearly all of what Thomas said about faith and politics and with his theological position. Nevertheless, he used his media-savvy style (stentorian and rapid-fire rudeness) to bludgeon his quiet, slower speaking, and less combative opponent. Strobel didn’t referee the exchange very well (if that is even possible in this medium).

American evangelicals are populists. They have always labored to reach as many people as possible for Christ using every available means and method. This motivation is praiseworthy, but should be tempered with media exegesis. Some media are not well suited for some topics and issues. Television, as I have argued in Truth Decay, favors the image over the word; it also favors certain kinds of personality (the charismatic, simplistic, telegenic, image-oriented communicator) over character and intellectual ability. Television has little patience for carefully developed arguments or nuances. Consider the first of the presidential debates of 2004. Each candidate was a given a mere two minutes for his opening response. That is 120 seconds to present matters of global import. The exchange with the other candidate brings the total time on an issue to about five minutes. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, each candidate spent about five minutes per sentence. Those debates went on for several hours and, of course, were not, televised. (For more on this, see Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, chapter four.)

Perhaps "Faith Under Fire" would better serve its subject matter if it addressed one topic per program instead of four. Yet even that requires more patience than either television or the television-addled public has to offer. But an hour devoted to one topic would still be dogged by all the intrinsic limitations and stupefactions of this medium that dominates our American culture and the American psyche. If you desire to develop your apologetic prowess do this: unplug, read, and discuss with unbelievers "the faith given once for all to the saints" (Jude 3). The basic principle is this: Eschew television, no matter how well intentioned it may be.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Epistemological epigrams

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis: "Never have so many been so certain of so much about which they know so little."

Doug Groothuis follow-up: "When knowledge is cheap (postmodernist style--we construct our own), certainty is simple, belief is unaccountable, and truth goes down for the count" (see Isaiah 59:14).

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Book Review of "Prophetic Untimeliness" by Os Guinness

Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance. Baker Books, 2003. 119 pages. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis. A longer version was originally published in Denver Journal:

Small books by Os Guinness never contain small thoughts, and this 119-page gem is no exception. Guinness wastes neither words nor thoughts. Since the publication of The American Hour in 1992, a long and magisterial assessment of the meaning and identity of America in God’s providence, Guinness has issued a series of rather short, provocative, and challenging books as well as editing important collections. Although he was once rather dismissively referred to in a review of Dining With the Devil (his dead-on critique of the church growth/seeker sensitive movement) as a "professional curmudgeon," Guinness is better understood as an astute and fearless social critic—and one with a prophetic edge. Ever since his first work—the masterful critique of the counterculture, The Dust of Death (InterVarsity Press, 1973; second edition, Crossway Books, 1994)—Guinness, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Oxford, has, in his own words, "interpreted the world for the church and the church for the world." Like the great British social reformer William Wilberforce, Guinness found his calling as a public intellectual for the cause of Christ, despite urgings to pursue pastoral ministry. (For more on Guinness’s rich understanding of calling, see The Call [NavPress, 1998], which is a college-level course compared to Rick Warren’s popular but elementary book, The Purpose Driven Life.)

Prophetic Untimeliness is, in many ways, quintessential Guinness—forceful without being harsh, sharp without being ascerbic, passionate without being histrionic, serious without being melancholic, and sobering without being deflating—and as such it serves as a fitting introduction to his rich body of work for those not yet initiated. Seasoned readers of Guinness, such as myself, will find much that is familiar, but nothing that is boring. This is Guinness’s arresting thesis: "By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant" (p. 15). In other words, we need a strong and life-saving dose of "prophetic untimeliness" in order to rise to the occasion. Guinness takes this phrase from a self-described AntiChrist and from the Bible. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the anti-Christian atheist philosopher to whom Guinness often profitably refers, wrote of "untimely men: their home is not in this age but elsewhere" (p. 19). The Hebrew prophets evince this sense of being out of step with the times because, unlike Nietzsche, they march to the beat of a different Drummer, the countercultural rhythms of a transcendent God who often gazes at the ways of nations and laughs at their follies (Psalm 2:8). Guinness is not enlisting "Prophets" of the stature of Jeremiah or Isaiah, but "prophets" who "interpret their life and times from a biblical perspective and therefore ‘read the signs of the times’ with greater or lesser skill but never presume the authority and infallibility of ‘This is the word of the Lord’" (21).

The book is divided into three sections, which take up the challenge of responding to Guinness’s distressing thesis: (1) The Tool That Turned Into a Tyrant, (2) Shorn of Our Secret Strength, and (3) Restoring the Archimedean Point. The first section brings what typically remains in the cultural background into the foreground: our sense of time. The modern Western sense of time differs radically from that of earlier ages and from some other cultures even today. Time is quantified ever more precisely by the mechanical clock; it is rendered precise and makes the coordination of events easier. Yet it puts us under pressure to meet its exacting demands. "Time is the ultimate credit card; speed is the universal style of spending" (35). But in our rush for relevance we often forfeit wisdom. Moreover, we falsely think that the new is probably the true and being "progressive" is obviously better than being "traditional." C.S. Lewis referred to this as "chronological snobbery." We thus become historically myopic (if not oblivious) and fail to learn from the past, Christian or otherwise. Yet without an anchor in the past, we become prey to the passing fads of the present and so become unfit to face the future faithfully. As Daniel Boorstin put it, "Homo up-to-datum is a dunce."

The gist of Guinness’s second section, "Shorn of Our Secret Strength" is summarized by the lament that the faith-worlds of great Christian leaders such as Wesley, Edwards, Wilberforce, Spurgeon, Carl Henry, John Stott, and others is vanishing among contemporary evangelicals. "In its place a new evangelicalism is arriving in which therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, end-times escapism crowds our day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, reference to opinion polls outweigh reliance on biblical exposition, concerns for power and relevance are more obvious than concern for piety and faithfulness, talk of reinventing the church has replaced prayer for revival, and the characteristic evangelical passion for missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture" (p.54). But what is the antidote?

The last third of the book charts the way of radical faithfulness and biblical fidelity. It gives no formulas, since formulas are part of the problem for a church in captivity to contemporary culture. The summons is daunting: "Thinking and acting Christianly in the blizzard of modern information and change requires the courage of a prophet, the wisdom of a sage, and the character of a saint—not to speak of the patience of Job and the longevity of Methuselah" (p. 56). We must hear and heed the call of a transcendent God, not culture. We must turn from "sola cultura"—the implicit if not explicit creed of most evangelicals today—back to "sola Scriptura." In so doing, we must be willing to embrace loneliness, as did the Hebrew prophets and to stand "against the world, for the world" before "the audience of One." We need courage, faithfulness, and the Cross of Christ, which "runs crosswise to all our human ways of thinking" (p. 100).

There is no better spokesman for this untimely but godly cause than Os Guinness. Ponder his words, however strange they may seem at first. Then lament over the worldliness and triviality of so much of evangelicalism. Then rise up and challenge the idols of relevance wherever they appear and counteract them by speaking the truth in love, come what may (Ephesians 4:15; 1 John 5:21).

Friday, July 22, 2005

Curmudgeonly Guide to Cultural Awareness

Curmudgeons are picky about media. They don’t just turn things on and let them run in the background. They develop opinions on what is trustworthy, thoughtful, and worth attending to. In our overly mediated culture, we need to develop some discernment over the media we use and how. This is nothing like a treatise on that subject, although one day I hope to write one. This essay simply lists some of my media sources and some brief commentary. I do not discuss books because I have written long annotated bibliographies on that subject. Books are my primary access to knowledge. These are the popular media outlets I frequent, for what it’s worth.

1. Television. I watch almost none—except some Ken Burns specials such as "Baseball" and "Jazz." These can be checked out from local libraries. I suggest engaging in guerilla warfare against television: unplug and unseat televisions wherever and whenever possible. TV-B-Gone is very helpful in this respect. It is a universal remote control that turns off many televisions.

2. Radio: KUVO-FM (89.3). This is Denver’s only genuine jazz station. It is listener-supported. They feature live performances by local artists and many worthwhile programs such as "Jazz Set," "Piano Jazz," and "Billy Taylor’s Jazz." Web page: I have been listening to National Public Radio since the mid-1970s. It is left of center politically, but takes jazz seriously and features some thoughtful, slower-paced news and commentary. Many of their programs are archived on their web page:

In the last few years, I have been listening to more "talk radio," but only when I’m in the car driving somewhere. The most balanced, congenial, and intelligent host is probably Dennis Prager, who is a conservative Jew and an adult convert to political conservatism. Michael Medved is also quite sharp, but a bit more acerbic than Prager. He, too, is a conservative Jew and, like Prager, is very friendly toward evangelicals. Some may write off Michael Savage as an extremist because of his anger and hyperbolic statements. Nevertheless, he is very witty and often courageous in the views he holds. He is not afraid to name evil for what it is (especially regarding the Islamic sources of terrorism) and is a theist of some sort. Sean Hannity strikes me as more of an ideologue than a thinker, although I often agree with him. Nevertheless, he is not very stimulating intellectually. Hugh Hewett is quite knowledgeable and an evangelical, but I find him to be too much of a stentorian and too hyperactive verbally.

3. Newspapers: The Rocky Mountain News and the Sunday Denver Post. I emphasize the editorials and check the "Spotlight" section of the News for popular culture events. My favorite columnists are Thomas Sowell, Mona Charin, Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas, and George Will. Norman Provizer has a column on jazz each Friday in The Rocky Mountain News. Dusty Sanders has a column every other week on jazz in The Denver Post, Sunday edition. I also check The New York Times web page almost daily.

4. Magazines: Christianity Today has declined recently in content (too trendy) and form (it is image-dominated), but is still the main organ of evangelicalism. Books and Culture attempts to the evangelical equivalent of the New York Times Book Review. The results are mixed, but there is some very thoughtful writing. My wife and I find that US News and World Report beats Time and Newsweek for content. John Leo’s regular column, "On Society," is worth the subscription. I also regularly check (but do not subscribe to) Harpers and The Atlantic Monthly for important cultural trends. The Chronicle of Higher Education is a key organ for college professors and administrators. First Things is a very thoughtful journal, which treats matters of religion and culture. The writers are usually orthodox Jews, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics. The New York Times Review of Books is an important source on current books, but not as scholarly as The Times Literary Supplement. The Christian Research Journal is the best source for following and evaluating counterfeit religious movements.

5. Movies: I have seen very few recently—meaning the last 15 years—because they are either: (1) too stupid, (2) too sensual or (3) too violent—or all three or any two of the three. My favorite movies are: "Babbette’s Feast" (Danish, with subtitles) "Citizen Kane" (Orson Wells classic) and "It’s a Wonderful Life" (James Stewart classic).

6. Recorded interviews: Mars Hill Audio, hosted by Ken Myers (author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes): Myers interviews many thoughtful intellectuals and artists in a bi-monthly recording (CD or cassette).

Blog names in flux

A day after dumping "the Constructive Curmudgeon," I have decided to keep it in the subtitle of my blog along with a short explanation underneath. The address remains the same: So, we are watching culture in the hopes of unmasking errors and promoting what is good, true, and beautiful. That is the aim. The experiment continues.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Apologetics Against "The Da Vinci Code"

This is a short apologetic response to some of the more egregious errors of The Da Vinci Code, which will be made into a movie sometime next year. The fact that so many took Dan Brown's factual claims serously is stunning and disheartening. We have much work to do. Maybe someone should create a tract that can be handed at showings of the film, as was done with "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary.

Dan Brown has a knack for mystery and excitement. That is one reason why this book is a huge bestseller and will soon be made into a movie. Another reason for its success is that Brown’s New Age worldview is held by so many Americans. They resonate with his baseless assertions as they are carried along by the adventure that briskly unfolds. However, in terms of literary value, none of the characters are developed in any psychological depth. They are little more than fast-moving cardboard figures spouting mostly nonsense.

This book claims to be an historical novel (although that term is not used), because the first page says, It claims that, "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." When an author claims that Jesus was married, that his wife was considered a Goddess, that the Gospels are mere political creations, and so on, the author owns the burden of proof. But the burden of proof crushes Dan Brown into a pancake. I will list 12 of his claims that are manifestly false. For the details, see Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code (InterVarsity Press, 2004). I will not take up the other errors regarding art and architecture, but will stick to claims related to Christianity. This is a but partial list. Brown's claims are in italics. My responses follow.

1. The canonical gospels do not depict an "earthly Jesus." This is manifestly false. In the most theological of the four Gospels, John, declares "The Word became flesh and lived among us." See the entire first chapter of John.

2. The Gnostic documents that mention Jesus emphasize an "earthly Jesus." Just the opposite is true! They denounce the physical as evil and promote the spiritual. That is the essence of Gnosticism. Those who "know" flee the material realm.

3. The Nag Hammadhi texts are scrolls. No, they are codices (books).

4. There were 80 gospels available at the Council of Nicea to choose from for inclusion in the canon. This is a howler, as the British say. There were at most about two dozen accounts of the life of Christ. Our four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were already well established as authoritative in the ancient churches. Moreover, Nicea did not decide the contents of the canon. Rather, it addressed the question of the relation of the Son to the Father. Agreeing with the ancient texts (the canonical Gospels), it affirmed that Jesus was truly God, one substance with the Father. See John 1:1-3, for example.

5. Constantine controlled the outcome of Nicea. This is simply untrue. The bishops decided matters for themselves according to solid hermeneutical and theological principles.

6. The Dead Sea Scrolls speak of Jesus. No scholar believes this. They address matters related to a Jewish sect group, probably the Essenes. They say exactly nothing about Jesus.

7. There is a "sacred feminine" concept in Judaism. By no means is this true. God is neither male nor female. Gender is applicable only to creation; it does not apply to God. No Jew, living in terms of God's covenant, would worship the earth as a goddess. God alone, who created the heavens and the earth, is to be worshipped. See the First of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).

8. The Bible cannot be verified. This is false. The Bible touches space-time history, which can be investigated rationally. There is no need to take a blind leap into the void. That, in fact, is what Brown wants you to do concerning his "accurate" claims.

9. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. The only support for this comes from the idea that Jewish males at that time had to be married, and that third-century Gnostic documents make the claim. Both ideas are false. Most Jewish males were married, but not all. John the Baptist was not married. There is no internal evidence in the canonical Gospels (all written in the first century) that Jesus was married. In Matthew 19:10-12, Jesus speaks of those who do not marry for the sake of God's Kingdom. He was one of them. The Gnostic documents are third- century fabrications; moreover, even they do not claim Jesus married Mary Magdalene, only that they had a close relationship.

10. The true woman-honoring religion encompasses both goddess worship and Gnosticism. But these two religions contradict each other. Gnostics did not highly honor women. See the last statement in the Gospel of Thomas on that! Women are associated with reproduction and the earth. The Gnostics hated both. There is no earth goddess in Gnosticism.

11. Nothing in Christianity is original; it merely borrowed from paganism, such as Mythraism. This is an old charge and often refuted. Mythraism was probably later than the New Testament documents, was limited mostly to soldiers, and in fact is quite different from the claims of Jesus and the Apostles. See Ronald Nash, God and the Greeks.

12. Sexual desire is viewed as devilish in orthodox Christianity. In no way is this true. God created sexuality for (a) the marriage relationship in itself and for (b) child bearing. Sex within heterosexual monogamy is good, according to the Bible. See Genesis chapters 1-2.

So much more could be argued against Brown’s claims. Suffice it to say that one should not read this book to find any reliable information on the Bible or Church history (or art history, for that matter; but that is another story). Let the reader beware.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Book Review: How Shall We Then Live?

This was first published in Denver Journal, the on-line book review organ of Denver Seminary.

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. L'Abri 50th Anniversary Edition Foreword by Lane T. Dennis. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005. Original publication, 1976. 288 pages.

We should be grateful to Crossway publishers for recently reissuing several important works by Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984). At once an evangelist, apologist, theologian, and social critic, Schaeffer's work inspired a generation of evangelicals to adopt a robust and well-integrated Christian worldview and to live out its convictions courageously. It is a shame and a scandal that some postmodernist-leaning evangelicals have dismissed Schaeffer as an outmoded "rationalist" or "modernist." There is, in truth, nothing outmoded about this remarkable man's passion or vision.

I first encountered Schaeffer's writings a few months after my conversion in the summer of 1976. At the time I was intellectually adrift, unsure of how my faith related to the world of ideas. By reading The God Who is There (InterVarsity Press, 1968) a new, refreshing, and inviting world unfolded before me. Christianity, Schaeffer explained, is not merely something that is personally meaningful and instructive for individual behavior. Christianity is, rather, "true to what is." It speaks credibly to all the things that matter most. Nothing should be shunted aside as merely "secular," since Jesus Christ is Lord of all. The Christian has nothing to fear from the world of ideas because the Christian worldview is sufficient to meet the intellectual challenges posed by secular philosophy or by other religions. Moreover, Christianity offers the world "true truth" (as Schaeffer put it) that cannot be found by any other means. Without this revelation, men and women are lost, both philosophically (they do not know who they are) and morally (they do not know how to live).

Schaeffer's message was heady stuff to young Christian thinkers in the 1970s and early 1980s. He confidently, but not arrogantly, ranged over literature, music, painting, philosophy, theology, and ethics—and seemed to bring it all together conceptually and historically for Christian critique. He painted with a broad and colorful brush, despite his rather lackluster prose. (In his book In Philosophy and Christian Faith [InterVarsity, 1968], Colin Brown referred to his approach as "swashbuckling.") Despite his lack of professorial status or an earned doctorate, Schaeffer became one of evangelicalism's most influential thinkers. To borrow a Quaker phrase, he "spoke to the condition" of many searching people. Furthermore, he lived out his convictions about reaching the lost. He considered himself an evangelist above all. His books, which came later in his life, were forged through conversations with young believers and unbelievers who were trying to make sense of intellectual trends sweeping Europe and the United States, such as existentialism, Marxism, and Eastern thought. These conversations were carried on at a retreat center in the Swiss Alps called L'Abri (meaning "shelter"), founded by Schaeffer and his wife Edith (also an author). The Schaeffers lived out a radical theology of community long before the subject became popular among evangelicals.

In this ambitious book, Schaeffer canvasses nothing less than the history of Western civilization up until the time of his writing. (The book was paired with a film series of the same name that is still available.) On one level, scholars might say that the whole project is pretentious. How could this feat be accomplished in one medium-sized volume, especially when written by someone lacking bona fide academic credentials? But Schaeffer did not attempt an encyclopedic effort, as he makes clear in his "Author's Note." He focused on how worldviews affect cultures, beginning with ancient Rome, whose polytheistic worldview could not support its civilization. I first read this volume and saw the films while in college in the middle to late 1970s. Schaeffer was covering wide swaths of ground, but what he claimed made sense, given my knowledge as a philosophy major who had taken Western Civilization. (Since most universities stopped requiring Western Civilization courses some years ago, it becomes all the more imperative for those so deprived to study this volume.) Reading the book recently, I was impressed by its clarity, insights, and its qualifications and lack of grandiosity.

Schaeffer argued that there is a flow to biblical history (see his Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History) and a flow to extra-biblical history. As Schaeffer states it in the opening sentences of the book, "There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind—what they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives" (19).

Schaeffer spends one chapter each on ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, then moves to the Renaissance, which introduced significant themes into the modern West such as the rediscovery of nature as valuable in itself (seen in its art) and, more auspiciously, the sense of human autonomy from Christian claims on reality as expressed in Scripture. As a man of the Reformation, Schaeffer devotes two chapters to that period, explaining both its history and theological convictions clearly and cogently. He notes that the Reformation worldview was felicitous not only for the church, but for culture as a whole. This is because it challenged ecclesiastical authoritarianism and opened the doors to freedom of religion and representative forms of government—not that this was achieved all at once.

The Enlightenment further developed the Renaissance themes of autonomy from received religious authority and gave anchorage to a more secular worldview. While modern science was inspired by an essentially Christian worldview, which taught that nature was knowable and valuable because created by a good and rational God, secularized science removed God from the picture. This made nature a self-enclosed system, the received view of the institutions of science in the West today. Post-Enlightenment philosophy also lost the sense of unity and purpose given by a Christian worldview and struggled to find any objective meaning in human affairs or the universe as a whole. This was especially evident in existentialism, which heralded the meaninglessness of life as well as the need to assert personal meaning in spite of it all (and for no objective reason whatsoever). While the blush is off the rose of existentialism today, secular postmodernists offer similar answers. They too have escaped from reason into a world of nonsense posing as profundity. (On this see my book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism [InterVarsity, 2000].)

A veteran of the Fundamentalist-Modernist split, Schaeffer also warns of the dangers of theological liberalism, a theology drained of biblical content but replete with traditional theological words. Schaeffer rightly exposes this as little more than naturalism in religious garb. The Bible is not a record of humans groping about in hopes of encountering the unnamable sacred. It is, rather, God's true and rational propositional revelation. Schaeffer further explores the "breakdown" of modern art and culture in general, never without strong feeling for the "lostness of modern man," as he put it.

The last three chapters lament that modern Western society has lost its worldview moorings; it has largely forfeited the Reformation base that helped constitute its greatness. As such, it is imperiled. As Os Guinness put it in The American Hour (Free Press, 1992), post-Christian Western culture is in the throes of a "crisis of moral authority." Without a transcendent source for meaning and law, societies move into either anarchy or authoritarianism, such as Marxism. In spite of this dire situation, many in the West (including many Christians) opt for pursuing "personal peace and affluence" above any passion for justice and goodness that honor God. Schaeffer thus warns of "sociological law" that is cut off from any stable source of meaning and authority, and instead relies on either the assertion of "arbitrary absolutes" based on a fifty-one percent majority vote or the dictates of a statist government that is unaccountable to either the people or to God. If the state declares the unborn (or anyone else) to possess no rights, their rights are taken away by legal fiat. (Schaeffer elaborated on this point in Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, co-authored with C. Everett Koop in 1979.)

Schaeffer also warned that modern culture is susceptible to manipulation through the media, especially through television. "Television manipulates viewers just by its normal way of operating," because its images seem so compelling. The truth, however, is otherwise because the viewer is not granted a pristine receipt of objective reality, but an "edited symbol or an edited image of the event" (240).

What Schaeffer warned about is happening in our midst today. While America's Declaration of Independence declares that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights," society allows abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy. In April of 2005, the world watched as a severely disabled but not terminally ill woman, Terry Schiavo, was dehydrated to death—simply because her legal guardian husband and his lawyer did not want her to live.

One can take issue with Schaeffer at some points. One who paints with a broad bush may blur some themes and obscure others, but the strengths of this book greatly outnumber its weaknesses. How Should We Then Live? remains an incisive and prophetic work that should not be ignored. We need big-picture thinkers (or generalists) to help us orient ourselves historically, theologically, and ethically. Francis Schaeffer was such a thinker. Let us give him the last word. "This book is written in the hope that this generation may turn from the greatest wickedness, the placing of any created thing in the place of the Creator, and that this generation may get its feet out of the paths of death and may live" (258).

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
June 2005

Monday, July 18, 2005

Images, Words, and Time

I sent this letter to the editor of Time magazine (not for publication) about a year ago. Curmudgeons do some quixotic things on occassion, I know. We try to "escape through understanding" (as McLuhan said) much of the time. But sometimes...the fire has to come out (Jeremiah 20:9).

James Kelly
Managing Editor
Time Magazine
Time and Life Building
Rockefeller Center
New York, NY

June 1, 2004

Dear Mr. Kelly:

I read with interest your editorial of May 31, 2004 called "Brokering the Power of the Image." You indeed bare a colossal responsibility for the images you select and reproduce for the masses of souls you influence every week.

Let me give you another perspective on the matter. Some things should not be seen—not merely the extremely gruesome things, but indecent things that do not befit the dignity of human beings (which I believe bear the likeness of God). For example, those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers should not have been photographed. Neither they nor their families would want them to be seen dying in this hideous way. Decency looks away. Some things should not be seen. The same insight applies to the burned bodies of the American contractors in Iraq. This inhumane event should be described, discussed, denounced, and reflected on, but not seen. St. Augustine ruminated on this in The Confessions, Book X, where addresses curiosity as a vice, a sin. He speaks of the urge to see a "mangled corpse," even though it gives no pleasure. That is an indecent thing—to gape at a mutilated dead body. (Augustine does not have funeral visitations in mind—a very different situation.)

I am from Littleton, Colorado, home of Columbine High School. When the demonic apocalypse struck in 1999, reporters were immediately on the scene shoving cameras and microphones into the faces of traumatized teen-agers just minutes after they barely escaped the carnage with their lives. This should have not been done. A friend emailed me from England aghast. She wrote, "Here they would never allow the reporters to accost these children with cameras and microphones." But in America, we must have the images—at all costs, no matter the impropriety or the indecency.

Moreover, images, which dominate American and most western media, are very limited in what they can communicate concerning truth. They cannot directly convey propositions, but instead evoke emotions. Yes, some are telling and unforgettable, such as the photography of the young Vietnamese girl running naked in the streets after being napalmed. But for all their poignancy, images may mislead or overwhelm without informing or educating at a deep level. This image-saturation (if not image-mongering) has lead to the pandemic debasement of intellectual discourse in our country.

Compare the text-to-word ratio of a Time Magazine (or Newsweek) from 1950 to that of today. I reckon that the May 31, 2004 issue of Time had roughly a 50/50 ratio of images to text. The 1950 issue would be dominated by text, not images. But today we are no longer typological society (see Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, on this), eager to wrestle meaning from texts over time. This move away from the text and toward the image (whether stationary or moving) cheapens discourse and fosters intellectual impatience. We think the pictures tell the story when, in fact, they can (at best) tell only half the story. The moral imagination is better served by careful and nuanced descriptions in words than by a raft of images.

Malcolm Muggerridge (a distinguished British journalist) was close to the truth when he said in Christ and the Media, "The camera always lies." As a Christian, I don’t take it to be an accident that God gave us a Book (really 66 varied books) and no photography. Moreover, the Second Commandment (Exodus, chapter 20) warns us to not make images of God. That by itself should serve as a general warning as to their limitations (as Postman notes). For a masterful study of this reality, see Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Eerdmans, 1985). Daniel Boorstin’s classic, The Image (1961) treats the same general subject with great insight as well.

Mr. Kelly, I hope you will consider these points as you reflect on your role as a public gatekeeper.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.,
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review of "What the Bleep Do We Know?"

A few months ago, some long-time countercult apologists and I saw the film "What the Bleep Do We Know?" I knew I would be outraged, since I've written about a 1000 pages (give or take a hundred) against the worldview it advances since the middle of the 1980s. Because this film was (and is) making waves, I thought I would post this review, which is adapted from one on

Instead of commenting on the aesthetics or acting of this film, I will focus the worldview it propagates, which is pantheistic monism (nondualism): all is one; all is divine; we are divine; we are unlimited; we are beyond good and evil. The supposed experts use discredited interpretations of physics, outright frauds (the water crystal revelations), and pronouncements from a purportedly channeled entity (Ramtha) to drive this outrageous point home. However, this worldview is illogical, amoral, and dangerous. Thus, no one should believe it.

1. One expert, a theologian (!) speaks of the terrible idea that there is evil in the world. If the idea is so terrible, it would be evil. So evil would exist after all. This is a contradiction and cannot be true. Ramtha says, "You are not good. You are not evil. You are god." However, no one--outside of a sociopath--can live out this amoral worldview consistently. If you don't think the attack on America on September 11 was not evil, there is simply something wrong with you. If you don't think rape, child molestation, and racism is objectively evil, then you are radically out of step with reality. You need help from outside of yourself.

2. If we "create our own reality," why are we so horrendously bad at it? Why does one the experts (a chiropractor, no less) struggle with his postnasal drip every time he is on camera? Why has JZ Knight (the channeler for Ramtha) aged so terribly in the past fifteen years? They are gods, for God's sake! Why are we gods such underachievers, so retarded? It simply makes no sense. What makes more sense is that we are creatures of God, east of Eden and under God.

3. The view promoted by the film is also dangerous because it uproots us from any stable sense of objective reality--morally, metaphysically, or spiritually. We do not create our own reality; although we are morally responsible for how we live our lives. We have to live in terms of the reality that has been given to us, including our finitude, fallibility, and moral failings. Our conscience may connect us with a Higher Reality, but this Reality will tell us to stop all the silly god-playing. See Genesis, chapter three, for an explanation of this Original Error.

"What the bleep" does this film know? Not much.

For more on New Age views of physics, see my chapter, "New Age Science," in Unmasking the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1986). For more on pantheism in general, see Confronting the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1988). There are two chapters critical of channeling in my book, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Wipf and Stock reprint).

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Christian Apologetics Manifesto: Seventeen Theses

This was first published in a somewhat different form in Areopagus Journal, Volume 5, number 1 (January-February 2005).

This is a manifesto to ignite the holy fire of apologetic passion and action. It is not a sustained argument or a development of themes. (I have written and lectured about these matters elsewhere). It is, rather, a short series of interrelated propositions crying out for both immediate and protracted action. These challenges issue from convictions formed through twenty-five years of apologetic teaching, preaching, debating, writing, and Christian witness.

Because of (a) the waning influence of the Christian worldview in public and private life in America today, (b) the pandemic of anti-intellectualism in the contemporary church, and (c) the very command of God himself to further divine truth, I strongly advise that the following statements be wrestled with and responded to by all followers of Jesus Christ.

1. Christian apologetics involves the public presentation and defense of Christianity as true, reasonable, knowable, and existentially pertinent to both individuals and entire cultures. Apologetics involves rebutting unbelieving accusations against Christianity as well as giving a constructive case for Christian theism.

2. The fundamental issue for apologetics is not how many apologists one has read, or what apologetic method one embraces (although that must be worked out). Rather, the fundamental issue is whether or not one has a passion for God’s truth—reasonably pursued and courageously communicated—and a passion for the lost because of the love of God resident in one’s life.

3. One must be convinced of the truth, rationality, pertinence, and knowability of the Christian worldview—derived from Holy Scripture, logically systematized, and rightly harmonized with general revelation (truth knowable outside of Scripture).

4. In light of (1), (2), and (3), fideism—the claim that Christian faith has no positive connection to reason or evidence—should be rejected as unbiblical and harmful to the great cause of Christ’s truth (Matthew 22:37-39; Romans 12:1-2).

5. Any theology, apologetics, ethics, evangelism or church practice that minimizes or denigrates the concept of objective, absolute, universal and knowable truth is both irrational and unbiblical. As such it must be rejected and repented of.

6. Any intellectual discipline or church practice that minimizes or denigrates the importance of apologetics is unbiblical and must be repented of (Acts 17:16-34; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; 1 Peter 3:15; Jude 3).

7. The artificial separation of evangelism from apologetics must end. Many evangelistic methods die when those evangelized ask questions related to apologetics. Therefore, all evangelistic training should include basic apologetic training as well.

8. Apologetics is meant just as much for believers with doubts and questions as it is directed toward unbelievers. Therefore, Christians with doubts should not be shunned or shamed, but given good apologetic arguments (as well as pastoral care) in dealing with their intellectual struggles (Matthew 11:1-11; Jude 22).

9. Since all Christians are called and commanded to have a reason for the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15), Christian teachers, pastors, mentors and educators of all kinds are remiss if they avoid, denigrate, or minimize the importance of apologetics to biblical living and Christian witness.

10. Those outside of the leadership positions mentioned in (9) should request that apologetics be made a constitutive part of these institutions if this is not already the case.

11. In light of (9) and (10), Christian colleges, seminaries, and churches should incorporate apologetics into their institutional/educational life, mission, and vision. Specifically, every Christian college, university, and seminary should require at least one class in apologetics for every degree in their curriculum. Moreover, every discipline should be taught from a Christian worldview, since all truth is God’s truth. This has significant apologetic value in and of itself.

12. Mission agencies should insure that their missionaries are adequately trained in the apologetic issues and strategies required for their place of service (Matthew 28:18-20).

13. Because apologetics is meant to be the public presentation and defense of Christianity as true, reasonable, pertinent, and knowable, apologists should attempt to offer their arguments in as many public venues as possible. Therefore, qualified Christian apologists should learn to become public intellectuals: thinkers who have mastered their material and are willing and able to enter public discourse and debate in a way that challenges and engages the non-Christian mind as well as galvanizes other Christians to hone their apologetic skills. Areas of engagement include the following:

1. Letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines.
2. Op-ed pieces for newspapers.
3. Calls to talk radio programs.
4. Public debates and dialogues on religious and ethical issues.
5. Apologetic contributions to interactive web pages.
6. Lectures on college campuses on apologetic themes.
7. Books oriented to those outside the typical evangelical market, published by secular publishers if possible.
8. Any other creative outreach—drama, poetry, cinema, and more.

14. Young Christians with an aptitude in philosophy and academic pursuits in general should be encouraged that these disciplines are just as spiritual as anything directly church-related. For example, being a Christian philosopher at a secular college or university is just as godly and spiritual than being a pastor, missionary, or professor at a Christian institution (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). One may prudently apply one’s apologetic skills in these settings and extend the Christian witness.

15. All apologetic endeavors should manifest the virtues of both humility and courage through the empowering of the Holy Spirit. If we have been bestowed by Almighty God with truth to defend rationally, this is because of God’s grace, not our own goodness. There is no room for pride. If Almighty God has bestowed us with saving truth to defend rationally, we should take it to the streets and not shrink back from appropriate encounters with unbelief. There is no room for cowardice.

16. Apologetics must be carried out with the utmost intellectual integrity. All propaganda, cheap answers, caricatures of non-Christian views, and fallacious reasoning should be avoided. One should develop competent answer to searching questions about the truth and rationality of Christian faith. This demands excellence in scholarship at all intellectual levels, even the most popular. This cognitive orientation takes time, money, and sustained effort. It will not happen by watching television or by otherwise wasting our limited time.

17. All apologetics ventures—whether in writing, speaking, or dialogue—should be backed by personal prayer by the apologist and supporting prayer of the church (Ephesians 6:18).

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Television Termination at the Christian "Booksellers" Convention

On July 12, 2005, a friend offered to pick me up and get me into the Christian Booksellers Convention in downtown Denver. I have attended four of these circuses previously when one of my books was being promoted by one of my publishers. This time I was a civilian taking in the show, and what a show it was.

First, books and booksellers are marginalized—literally. The displays that feature bona fide books were at the edges of the huge convention hall. Most prominent were the religious trinkets—Scripture candy, religious "art," religious jewelry, and so on.

Second, nearly everything was advertised by video screens. One children’s video, "Angel Wars," was hawked by a mountain of various screens all showing the same hyperactive, violent, and nightmarish images. It must have taught "family values."

Third, celebry-ism (or celebrity-itus) was evident everywhere. The hall was filled with posters and videos of the sacred images of the hottest authors and speaker, most mugging for the camera shamelessly. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols," said the Apostle John (1 John 5:21).

Yet, by the grace of God (which also held back the "cleansing of the temple"), four things made it bearable. (1) The companionship, wisecracks, and astute comments of my curmudgeonly friend, Douglas Van Dorn. (2) The fact that solid publishers with good books were in evidence, if in the phenomenological minority. (3) I was able to pick up a few free books (and not because I waited in line to have Jerry Jenkins sign one of his). (4) I brought my TV-B-Gone with me. This is a universal television remote control device that turns off most televisions. I have been learning the esoteric skill of temporary television termination for several months now, but this surfeit of screens made it possible to break my personal record for TV kills in one day: thirteen terminations (eleven at the convention and two at restaurant before that). I was able to hit four of the God-knows how-many screens showing "Angel Wars"—a partial victory, but one I savor. One must use this blessed device discretely, since one doesn’t want to be caught zapping the great Idol of our age. The downside is that you have to usually watch the screen for up to a minute to properly aim the device. (It cycles through possible frequencies in sixty-nine seconds).

What does this convention tell us about American Evangelicalism (if that term has any concrete meaning left)?

  1. Jacques Ellul’s observation that the image has humiliated the word in Western Culture is proved true in this domain, which is supposedly the domain of the word, the world of books! The image has triumphed in the minds of most evangelicals…but not all. The remnant remains. (See Ellul’s masterpiece, The Humiliation of the Word. For some reason, I didn’t see this book advertised.)
  2. Most of the evangelical business represented (some did not publish books at all) are dominated not by the virtues and vision of the Kingdom of God, but by consumer preferences. I remember the sad and oxymoronic phrase coined by Keith Green a quarter century ago: "Jesus junk."
  3. Many of the businesses represented were more concerned with personal religion and subjective values than with propagating biblical truth, which is always sharp, living, and active—exposing reality, no matter what the cost (see Hebrews 4:12). While the truth hurts (beore it heals), it may not sell.
  4. Of course, business, in itself is not wrong. Selling worthy Christian books can and should be a wonderful thing, especially considering that so many countries in the world forbid it or even confiscate and burn Bibles, such as Saudi Arabia.

What is the constructive curmudgeon to do? Keep buying and reading thoughtful books. Recommend them to others. Give them as gifts. Mention and quote them from the pulpit. Review them in newspapers, on, and in your blogs. Develop a substantial church library and put it in the front of the church. Turn off as many television sets as possible through TV-B-Gone or by any means necessary. Be an iconoclast by being a bibliophile.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Book Review of "On Bull****" by Harry Frankfurt

This was first published in The Denver Post on June 19, 2005. I hold the copyright. They called it On Bull****.

Harry Frankfurt, On Bull****. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005. 67 Pages. $9.95 hardback.

How often does a tiny hardback written by a prestigious philosopher—the title of which is a rather impolite word—make it to the bestseller lists? How many professional philosophers get interviewed on television and find their books reviewed in the popular press? The answer: almost never. Yet this has occurred with On Bull****, a remarkable (and serious) discussion on a prevalent problem by an insightful thinker.

We have all suffered from being recipients of the book’s malodorous subject matter. Worse yet, we may have caused others to thus suffer by dispensing it ourselves. But exactly what is it? Philosophers revel in questions of definition, clarification, and elaboration. "What is truth, or beauty, or goodness?" they ask. Frankfurt descends the hierarchy of value and instead looks at the bottom of the heap: "What is bull****?" That is, what is this all-too-commonly employed form of communication that provokes our ire or outrage?

The answer is not as simple as one might think. It is not simply lying. Lying, Frankfurt argues, requires careful attention to the truth in two senses: First, in order to lie, one must know what one believes to be true—and then deny it. Second, the successful liar must lie in a way that the lie seems to cohere with things believed to be true. Therefore, the skillful liar must have a broad understanding of what people take to be true. An obvious or otherwise ill-formed untruth just won’t do. But a shrewdly brewed lie may serve the liar’s purpose quite nicely. Such lying, while execrable, is not quite excrement of the bovine sort. Frankfurt likewise scrupulously explores the meaning of "humbug" and finds it inadequate as a synonym.

So what, then, is bull****? Frankfurt is patient in his examination and compelling in his conclusion. To communicate thusly means to speak or to write such that one shows little concern with truth. While the liar must carefully consider truth in order to lie effectively, the cow patty provider communicates for entirely different reasons. He may announce in order to "make a statement." Truth does not really factor in. He speaks with other goals in mind. As Frankfurt observes, "The production of bull**** is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic." This, of course, is not uncommon today, especially when journalists push microphones in front of people’s faces indiscriminately.

Frankfurt lucidly explains that there are philosophical reasons for this problem. Some philosophies "undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry." Therefore, some people abandon the disciplined pursuit of the correctness (factual accuracy) of their beliefs and instead strive only to be sincere about their own beliefs. "Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world," Frankfurt notes, "the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself." Thus autobiography and psychology replace objective reality in the scheme of things. At worst, this kind of intellectually irresponsible behavior can devolve into the barbaric. As Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared, "We do not talk to say something but to obtain a certain effect."

In The Culture We Deserve, Jacques Barzun lamented that philosophy has been "confiscated by scholarship and locked away from the contamination of cultural use." This little volume may help to reverse that trend (since it is a genuine piece of philosophical reasoning, despite its earthy title). May it also deliver us from the fecal contamination of a bullish sort.