Sunday, February 26, 2006

Blue Like Jazz: Deliver Us from Glibness

[Several months ago, I posted an earlier version of the essay that follows. It generated considerable controversy and rancor against me. Given the essay’s excessive vituperation (Miller really exasperated me), I pulled it. Nevertheless, I believe my basic critique was correct, so I now post a somewhat revised version.]

One of my students called to my attention a paragraph in the best-selling book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. The first paragraph (page 103) of his chapter called "Belief" is remarkable for its illogic and glibness. In it—a marvel of confusion, contradiction, and distortion—Miller claims that his struggle with Christianity is not intellectual. He doesn't "do that" anymore. "Smart guys" can prove God exits and other "smart guys" can prove God doesn't exist. The arguments aren't about God anymore, but only about who is smarter, and our knowing writer tells us he doesn't care. Moreover, "Who knows anything anyway"? And if our writer ever walks away from God it would not be for intellectual reasons, but "for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything."

Where does one begin to assess (best-selling) glibness? After thirty years of intellectually and existentially engaging the Christian worldview in relation to the truth-claims of other religions and philosophies, I know that the arguments for and against God's existence are not just ego games or "head trips." There are good and sufficient arguments for the existence of God as the creator, designer, and moral lawgiver of the universe—not to mention arguments the rest of Christian apologetics. Further, the notion that person A can "prove that God exists" and person B can "prove God does not exist" is impossible. To prove something means (roughly) to rationally establish a truth claims as far superior to any contrary claim. Therefore, one could not prove that Bill Clinton was the greatest American president while another person proves that he was not. Miller's language is sloppy and unserious. Maybe he meant something else, but we cannot be sure. The writing evinces an autobiographical and unbuttoned casualness that pollutes so many memoirs today.

Perhaps we should bring into question the recent proliferation of memoirs. Unless you are a saint or a genius or an otherwise historically significant person, why should anyone be interested in a book about your personal life? The writer of a memoir should ask himself a probing and potentially embarrassing question, "Is my life worth inflicting on others in book form?"

"Why knows anything anyway?" writes Miller. What are we to make of this? Does it mean that no truth claims are justified? If so, so much for Miller's own statements. He doesn't know they are true, so why should anyone believe him? If he knows nothing, then how does he know that arguments and counter-arguments concerning God's existence are just ego trips in disguise? Further, the claim is absurd on many levels. Think of the counterexamples. Miller knows that torturing the innocent for pleasure is always wrong. He also knows that he wrote the book called Blue Like Jazz. (The way he misrepresents that transcendently lovely art form called jazz cannot be addressed here.) Miller makes some stupendous knowledge claims in the same paragraph in which he rejects the possibility of knowledge. He claims to know that the only reason anyone does anything is rooted in "social reasons, identity reasons [what does that mean?], deep emotional reasons." It is the case that no one does anything on the basis of settled convictions based on rational reflections? On what basis does Miller claim to know this? He gives none. It is simply his life speaking, his feelings being ferreted out. Autobiography trumps rational discourse once again.

In light of Miller’s intellectual recklessness, we should remember that Christianity is a knowledge claim. It claims that God can be known through certain ways. Christian belief should not be a lucky guess or a reaction like an instinct (as Miller claims in his equally indefensible chapter on faith in which he likens belief in Christianity to a penguin's mating instinct...) To know that P is a special kind of belief; it means that there is some reason, warrant, or justification for P. We are called in Scripture to know God in Christ. Further, we are instructed to make the gospel known through proclamation, defense, and godly living.

One could go on, but what Miller’s abysmal paragraph reveals is another outbreak of the epidemic of postmodern glibness. Miller addresses titanic issues with a smirk and a shrug and a pose. He finds no need to be serious intellectually or to pursue subtleties. After all, he has his "story" to tell. This reminds one of Frankfurt's little book on bovine excrement (On Bullshit)—reviewed elsewhere on this web log. People feel obliged to state opinions on matters of which they know nothing. Moreover, they trouble the air and page with words with no concern for accuracy about the facts; they are more concerned to be sincere about themselves. Indeed. But why should anyone listen to them?

I have two suggestions for Donald Miller—and his myriad fans. First, read a good introduction to philosophy text such as Questions That Matter by Ed Miller and Jon Jensen. This may inculcate a better sense of the power of reason and the history of ideas. Second, read a substantial book of Christian apologetics, such as Scaling the Secular City by J.P. Moreland. This may spark a more intellectually respectful treatment of the rationality of Christian faith.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Doug Groothuis on Cyberspace from JETS

The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) has also put my article, "Christian Scholarship and the Philosophical Analysis of Cyberspace Technologies," 41/4 (December 1998): 631-40, on line as a PDF file. This paper is related to my thinking in The Soul in Cyberspace, but it developed in more philosophical depth.

Pascal on Human Nature

My article from The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, "Deposed Royalty: Pascal's Anthropological Argument" (June 1998) is now on line in a PDF file. If I may say so myself, this is probably my most original piece of apologetics writing. Of course, I am merely expanding on the master's work.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review of "Breaking the Spell" by Daniel Dennett

The New York Times has rightly skewered Daniel Dennett's new book as screed of irrational and question-begging scientistm. The book attempts to debunk religion on the basis of Darwinian explanations.

"Pride and Humility" by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis

Humility is much to be preferred over pride. Pride is a noxious, toxic, nerve-wracking affair—always having to defend a tenuous turf that you know isn’t really yours.

Humility allows you to be comfortable inside your own skin. You realize that it simply is not about you, so you do not require the incessant approval of people. There is no need either to prove yourself or to conceal yourself. You live in response to God—his word, his will, and his everlasting love.

Humility is the only path to lasting freedom from all the anxieties that enslave and terrify the proud in heart.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The US and the UN: What You Won't Hear on NPR

Journalist Mark Steyn has an acerbic, but enlightening essay on the United Nations in the most recent issue of Imprimus, which I recommend you read. I know from Liberian friends that the UN "peace-keeping troops" in Liberia are deeply corrupt and rapidly spreading AIDs.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Madness and Madness

"Men are so inevitably mad that not to be mad would be to give a mad twist to madness."

Blaise Pascal. Pensées. Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, #412/414 , p. 148.

He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God's sight"--Jesus Christ, Luke 16:15 (TNIV).

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Letter submitted to The Daily Camera on Internet Addiction

Thanks to Elizabeth Mattern Clark for her good article on Internet addiction. Humans are prone to excess, obsession, and addiction--with or without technological assistance. And whatever overcomes us becomes our master and we its slaves. Part of the problem the Internet is that many do not realize that the very form or nature of the medium has intrinsic limits and dangers. Living too much in a disembodied world saturated by images and high speed information transfer may disorient our consciousness and remove us from the given goodness of the unplugged and the unmediated world. Thus we forget to attend to our souls in silence, converse with friends, and enjoy creation for what it is.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Westminster Confession, Chapter Three

Of God's Eternal Decree
1. God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.
3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.
4. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
5. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.
6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
7. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.
8. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Saying No.

Take up another challenge: Spend a 24-hour period with no entertainment whatsoever. That means: no TV, no recorded music, no movies, no video games, no internet surfing. Can you divide your life into the entertaining and non-entertaining? There would be more silence, for example. Think about it, then unplug. Enter another world within this world (and above it). Then, please converse about your discoveries with others--or even on this blog if you'd like. Selah.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Super Bowl Boycott

I call on all those reading to boycott the Super Bowl. Have nothing to do with it. It is a debauched institution, although part of the liturgical year of most evangelical churches. Try going to a church service that day that doesn't mention it. (I'm preaching tomorrow and won't mention it, but the worship team probably will...) The Super Bowl is punctuated obscene and juvenile commercials (featuring mega-bimbos everywhere) that appeal to the seven deadly sins. Parents: do not expose yourself or your children to this! Moreover, it is a colossal waste of about three hours. Instead: read a book, pray, worship the King of Kings, call a lonely friend, take a nap (it is Sunday after all). Do something else that counts for eternity. As Thoreau said, "You cannot kill time without wounding eternity." See Psalm 90:12 as well.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ghost-Preaching: Sermon-Stealing and Sermon-Buying

Sermon-stealing and sermon-buying are particularly egregious forms of plagiarism that effect and infect the church more than we might like to believe. Like ghost-writing, these forms of deception are quite popular. One nationally known pastor makes his sermon outline available for $4 a pop. I met with a group of pastors about two years ago who complained that they were tired of the retread sermons they heard in their pulpit by various pulpiteers who were filling in after the loss of their beloved pastor. I assured them that if they wanted me as an interim preaching pastor that the sermons would be my own, for better or worse. I would not be relying on a ghost preacher.

Titus 2:7-8 instructs teachers to have integrity and be serious about their teaching. 1 Peter 4:11 exhorts those who speak to speak "as the oracles of God." That probably eliminates sermon-stealing and sermon-buying. Teachers will be judged more strictly, says James 3:1-2--and not on a curve. As Phillip Brooks said in Lectures on Preaching, preaching is "truth through personality." One refracts God's truth in preaching through the diligence of one's own efforts. This requires grappling with the sacred text through one's own study and prayer--complimented by the prayers of others. It cannot be done on the cheap. While some on-line sermon outlines are hawked as "road tested" (because a famous preacher preached them before a big crowd), a biblical sermon is soul tested in the fires of study, reflection, and prayer. Fire in the bones cannot be downloaded (Jeremiah 20:9). One climbs into the pulpit alone--but before God as the audience of One.

Ghostbusting the Ghostwriters

A new blogger has a short and to the point essay on ghostwriting. I respond in a comment as well. This has been a long-time concern of mine. It is rampant in "Christian" publishing, sadly.