Thursday, June 29, 2006

Two Public Behaviors

While stranded at Elway Toyota today, I noted the rather strange behavior people with time on their hands: a fellow there and yours truly. I thought I was picking up my car, but it was not ready, because it lacked an oil change. This time, I had not brought a book with me to read, as I had in the morning while waiting for the shuttle. (The book was Human Rights, Human Dignity by John Warwick Montgomery.) So, I had about a half an hour to spend (not kill). As Thoreau wrote, you cannot kill time without wounding eternity. So, I staked out a seat as far from the TV as possible. (My T-B-Gone did not work; it's a fallen world.) I scavaged some parts of the newspaper, which I quickly exhaused, finding myself reading obituaries of people I did not know. I was even tempted (briefly) to read a brochure on oil filters--it was getting that bad.

During this time, a stocky dark many was pacing the area in squeeky tennis shoes. He seldom stopped. He simply walked a circuit in the small area of rooms, squeeking as he went. Apparently, the idea of reading something never occured to him. "Our nature consists in movement. Absolute rest is death" (Blaise Pascal). But at least he wasn't comotose in front of the intelligence evaculator (aka, TV). After about one half hour, I was grateful to hear my name called. What do we do with our unexpected "down time," our "waiting time"?

The next public behavior was more extreme and, while comical, a bit unsettling. As I biked down the bike trail next to Colorado Blvd and Hampden in Denver (listening to Joe Satriani), I saw a man running toward a golf ball in the middle of what is usually a very busy four lane intersection. (There is a golf course next to the street.) He quickly set himself and hit the ball back into the course, then ran across the street. Now, I know nothing about golf, except that many are entraced by it; but I do know that a grown man risked life and limb by running into the middle of the street to hit a small white ball back onto a grassy area. Playing golf in traffic! It may be an new extreme sport. As Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also."

Have you noted any odd public behavior recently?

Intelligent Design Marches On

The Center for Science & Culture

Following the evidence where it leads

Dissent From Darwin "Goes Global" as Over 600 Scientists From Around the World Express Their Doubts About Darwin’s Theory

Over 600 doctoral scientists from around the world have now signed a statement publicly expressing their skepticism about the contemporary theory of Darwinian evolution. The statement, located online at reads, "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

The fastest growing segment of the list is scientists from outside the United States. International scientists now represent just over 12% of all signers, and as a group has seen nearly 40% growth in the past four months.

"I signed the Scientific Dissent From Darwinism statement, because I am absolutely convinced of the lack of true scientific evidence in favour of Darwinian dogma," said Raul Leguizamon, M. D., Pathologist, and a professor of medicine at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, Mexico. "Nobody in the biological sciences, medicine included, needs Darwinism at all," added Leguizamon. "Darwinism is certainly needed, however, in order to pose as a philosopher, since it is primarily a worldview. And an awful one, as George Bernard Shaw used to say."

Click here to read the rest.
Peer-Reviewed & Peer-Edited Scientific Publications Supporting the Theory of Intelligent Design

You've probably heard critics of intelligent design claim that design advocates don’t publish their work in appropriate scientific literature. For example, Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, was quoted in USA Today (March 25, 2005) that design theorists "aren’t published because they don’t have scientific data." Of course that simply isn't true. Scientists who advocate the theory of intelligent design have published their work in a variety of appropriate technical venues, including peer-reviewed scientific journals, peer-reviewed scientific books (some in mainstream university presses), trade presses, peer-edited scientific anthologies, peer-edited scientific conference proceedings and peer-reviewed philosophy of science journals and books. The Discovery Institute website provides an annotated bibliography of technical publications of various kinds that support, develop or apply the theory of intelligent design.

Click here to see a list of peer-reviewed and peer-edited scientific publications supporting the theory of intelligent design.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Against Postmodernist Obfuscation

"I have long held that any philosopher who takes the trouble to master the art of writing clearly and is at pains to exercise it, can explain most of the things that matter in philosophy to any reader of intelligence and goodwill, provided that the philosopher understands what he is writing about"—C.E.M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief (1952).

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Blog Holiday: June 26-July 1

There will likely be little or no blog posting by the Constructive Curmudgeon this next week, given the vast amount of things I must do before July 1. Fear not, though, I am (likely) doing other (and more) productive things. Of course, some brilliant and urgent revelation (or, more likely criticism) might come to me unbidden and demand blogification. We'll see.

Pascal on Madness

"Men are so inevitably mad that not to be mad oneself 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.

What does this say about being "well-adjusted"?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bible Evacuation Month: A Devotional Thought Experiment

This is a devotional thought experiment based on the fact that many Christians worldwide do not have Bibles or can only own them illegally. Rebecca is reading The Heavenly Man, a story of a Chinese man’s faith and struggles to serve God under intense opposition. He committed long sections of Scripture to memory and would preach from them from memory, since carrying a Bible was often too dangerous.

For one month, all Bibles and all biblical material on the internet and in other books disappear. There are no biblical texts available. We are thrown back to our memories alone. How would this Bible evacuation affect your daily routines, the teaching and preaching in the church, your email messages, your conversations, your prayers?

Who would miss the Scriptures and why? Who would you seek out to if you wanted to hear the Word of God from memory? (I would go to my wife. She recently memorized seven single-spaced typed pages of Scriptures. I also read that John Piper memorized Romans 1-8.) How much would you have stored in your own soul to draw from? How would the teaching in seminaries change?

(I suggest that in some churches, nothing much would be missed—and I mean “evangelical" churches. These are places where the Bible is seldom publicly read, never seriously exegeted from the pulpit or in adult education, and never committed to memory.)

But you tell me.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Mindless and Meanspirited Screed

Here is an article called "Beware the Yoga Demon! The Christian Right’s fear of self-realization and spirituality," by Mel Seesholtz, Ph.D., that takes on where many other philosophers and apologists and I have posted thoughtful articles. The author commits so many logical fallacies and is so unpleasant, one doesn't know where to begin. So, maybe you, my dear readers, would like to make a few comments.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Above All Earthly Pow'rs" by David Wells

David F. Wells, Above all Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006. 339 pages with index. Hardback: $25. [Originally published in Denver Journal.]

David Wells, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has gifted his readers with sustained theological critique of contemporary culture for over a decade. The previous books in this series, No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), and Losing our Virtue (1998), astutely assessed the loss of theological gravity in contemporary culture by investigating its historical, cultural, philosophical, and theological sources. If I could choose one phrase to summarize his critique in these books, it would be this from God in the Wasteland: “God rests inconsequentially on the church.” That is, the great and awe-inspiring reality of God’s truth, holiness, and power have been eclipsed by the tools and sensibilities of the contemporary world.

Wells’ work is exceptional in its interdisciplinary prowess. A trained theologian of Reformed convictions, Wells reaches deep into history, sociology, philosophy, literature, and cognate disciplines to carefully develop his perspectives, which are offered with a serious pastoral concern.

This is essentially a work of Christology, hence the subtitle: “Christ in a postmodern world.” But in order to present a biblical view of Christ to the contemporary world, one must know something of the structure of that world (see 1 Chronicles 12:32). So, Wells takes up the daunting task of assessing both postmodernity (a set of emerging social conditions) and postmodernism (a cluster of philosophies). To those who have read fairly deeply on the subject of postmodernism, much of what Wells articulates may not be new. Much of it has been said elsewhere. However, he writes so well and documents his claims so deeply that even those well-read in the area will benefit from his analysis. In many cases, the first books to treat new topics are not typically the best. Wells, who does not publish at a frantic pace (as do many evangelical authors who write on postmodernism), has been cogitating on this material for many years. This adds considerable gravity and sobriety to his words. Moreover, this book builds on the solid foundation of the previous three books in the series (and without very much overlap.)

Wells wonders what the evangelical world has to offer a world traumatized by the barbarism of the September 11, 2001, attacks. He laments in his introduction that the evangelical church lacks “a spiritual gravitas, one which could match the depth of horrendous evil and address issues of such seriousness. Evangelicalism, now much absorbed by the arts and tricks of marketing, is simply not very serious anymore” (4). And serious it should become. Above all Earthy Pow’rs, which derives its title—and the alternative spelling of “powers”—from Martin Luther’s famous line in “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” is a valiant attempt to inject Christological seriousness back into the evangelical mind and heart. To those not familiar with this hymn, I will cite a few of the verses that Wells himself quotes.
That word above all earthly pow’rs,No thanks to them abideth.The Spirit and the gifts are oursThru him who with us sideth.

These verses underscore the transcendence of God and the necessity of the church to depend on a transcendent God for its faithfulness. This is precisely what Wells believes is becoming lost in evangelicalism today. But the book is no harangue. To make his point, Wells elucidates the defining features of the postmodern world: how it emerged, what it is, and how Christians should respond to it.

Since one must understand the modern in order to understand the post-modern, Wells devotes one rich chapter to this task, “Miracles of Modern Splendor,” in which he explains the hubristic development of humanistic optimism and material abundance (and materialism) in the West. The following chapter addresses “Postmodern Rebellion,” in which the optimism of the modern period gives way to cultural and intellectual exhaustion, such that many despair of having a unified and meaningful worldview at all. My only concern with this chapter is that Wells argues that natural theology is illegitimate since it “must assume that there is some truth lodged within human experience from which inference can be made which lead into a saving knowledge of God” and thus it “seriously vitiates the necessity for and the role of the biblical gospel” (p. 82). This construal of the project of natural theology follows Barth. But natural theology is better understood as the venture of constructing rational arguments for the existence of God based on nature or conscience. Natural theology appeals to the data of general revelation (which is known to sinners) as a source for building logical arguments (whether ontological, design, moral, or cosmological), the conclusion of which is that the universe does not explain itself, but requires an Author. When successful, the deliverances of natural theology are in no sense salvific, but rather give philosophical support for theism as objectively true. Upon this foundation, apologetics can build the rest of its case for the biblical worldview, including the gospel. (For a treatment of the philosophical revival of natural theology, see James Sennett and Douglas Groothuis, editors, In Defense of Natural Theology [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005]. See also Douglas Groothuis, “Theistic Proofs” in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, eds. C. Campbell Jack, Gavin J. McGrath [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 698-703.)

Arguments for the objective existence of God are, in fact, extremely salutary for those immersed in the subjectivities and irrationalities of postmodern spirituality, which Wells covers in the chapter “Migrations, the Banquet of Religions and Pastiche Spirituality.” This is a deft analysis of postmodern spirituality, which is pluralistic, subjective, pragmatic, and untethered to any eternal verities. Diverse spiritualities are greeted as preferences or options available to spiritual consumers, not as incompatible truth claims that contend for the total allegiance of their followers. In the postmodern world, Christianity itself is readily forced on to this Procrustean bed.

To avoid this mutilation of the gospel, Wells spends the next three chapters—“Christ in a Spiritual World,” “Christ in a Meaningless World,” and “Christ in a Decentered World”—bringing the biblical Jesus to bear on postmodern realities. In so doing, Wells adroitly integrates social analysis, biblical studies, and theological resources. A short review cannot adequately summarize Wells’ Christological competence on these matters, but suffice to say that Wells demonstrates the pertinence of Christ to the lineaments of postmodern life with cogency and gravity. He repeatedly makes clear that the church’s encounter with postmodernism must be rooted in objective truth, a truth that is rooted in the Triune God himself and thus stands over against us as creatures. Wells’ critique also expands a key insight from Anders Nygren’s work, Agape and Eros (1953). Nygren argued that Christianity is centered on God’s revelation of love (agape) to humanity in Jesus Christ, a revelation without which human beings are helpless. On the other hand, “eros” spirituality works from the bottom up: humans find the divine essence within themselves and so within their grasp. There is no need for a transcendent disclosure for human liberation; what is needed is found within the immanent, within the self itself. Postmodern spirituality, Wells argues, is eros spirituality, in Nygren’s sense. It views human nature itself as a mediator of the sacred, as unfallen and basically good, and without need of an ultimate Authority beyond itself. (Although Wells does not cite it, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s recent work, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality [HarperSanFrancisco, 2005] exposits and defends this eros spirituality.) But the gospel, as Wells notes, shatters this pride and proclaims that only as “God reaches down” through Jesus Christ is spiritual restoration possible (see John 1:1-3, 14; Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Corinthian 8:9).

The final chapter, “Megachurches, Paradigm Shifts, and The New Spirituality” might seem like old hat to some, since so many have weighed in on this topic; but given the rich social and theological analysis that precedes it, what Wells has to say is hardly redundant, although it is sure to be controversial. Wells claims that the megachurch and seeker-sensitive approaches to ministry uncritically appropriate the tools of postmodernity—principally marketing to consumer preferences—to the degree that theology becomes largely irrelevant. He observes that liberal and nonChristian religious assemblies have used megachurch growth models to increase their membership considerably, thus indicating that in all these instances people are most likely being drawn more by methodology than by theology. Wells identifies the roots of this methodology in the “homogeneous unit principle” of missiologist Donald McGavran, who claimed that evangelism is most successful when people are not forced to cross any racial or economic barriers in order to come to Christ. The megachurch methodology has extended this principle to apply to generational and educational barriers as well. Thus, these churches target specific groups and tailor their services to fit specific preferences. The underlying assumption is that “the chief barrier to conversion is sociological and not theological” (p. 289). By catering to certain preferences, and avoiding dislikes, people will naturally come to Christ.

One problem with this perspective, Wells objects, is that it is Pelagian; it assumes that people are not embarrassed by their own sin and scandalized by the Cross of Christ. Rather, non-Christians avoid the gospel because churches fail to fit their cultural sensibilities. Wells writes, “Seeker methodology rests upon the Pelagian view that human beings are not inherently sinful, despite creedal affirmations to the contrary, that in their disposition to God and his Word, postmoderns are neutral, that they can be seduced into making the purchase of faith even as they can into making any other kind of purchase” (299). The answer to this theological defection, Wells avers, is a return to revealed truth: “What distinguishes the Church from this [consumer satisfaction] industry is truth. It is truth about God and about ourselves that displaces the consumer from his or her current perch of sovereignty in the Church and places God in the place where he should be” (303).

One is tempted to quote further from this wise theologian and social critic; in fact, I underlined more of this book than any in recent memory. But instead of drawing out this review any further, I instead heartily recommend that the reader purchase and carefully consider the insights of Above All Earthly Pow’rs—and continue to sing the hymn from which the title is taken.

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

"Art for God's Sake" by Philip Graham Ryken

Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2006. 64 pages. $5.99. [First published in Denver Journal.]

A small book on a big topic is a dangerous proposition. It may show disrespect for its subject by bragging that it can be read in a short time, such as Kant in 90 Minutes. (Kant in 90 minutes is not Kant at all.) On the other hand, a short book can thoughtfully introduce a profound subject worthy of further consideration; it may be a primer. Art for God’s Sake is a worthy primer; it addresses the relationship of Christian faith and art in the hope of helping Christians “recover the arts.”

Philip Graham Ryken, Pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and the author of several previous books, including Written in Stone (an insightful study of the Decalogue), has in sixty-four pages outlined a biblical view of art’s place in God’s world. Ryken is moved by the plight of the Christian artist whose calling and work is misunderstood or rejected by the church. He realizes that Christians may be suspicious of art because of their concern for idolatry and their repulsion toward much of contemporary art, which has abandoned the ideal of beauty and revels in the bizarre, the transgressive, and the outright ugly. Ryken also laments that Christians too often reduce art to utilitarian and evangelistic purposes that fail to honor art as art. Further, Christians often laud art that does not take the brokenness of life east of Eden seriously. Quite frequently, Christian art is little more than pious kitsch, which he aptly describes as “tacky artwork of poor quality that appeals to low tastes” (p. 14).

Yet art should be consecrated to the glory of God, and Ryken instructs us briefly to that end. Thus he develops a sound theology of art based on the beauty of God’s creation, our status as creative beings made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), and God’s calling on individuals to create works of art. Ryken ruminates at some length on the significance of the calling of Bezalel and Oholiab, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to be skilled craftsmen in the construction of God’s tabernacle, his beautiful dwelling place (Exodus 31). God “called artists to make the tabernacle, and to make sure that they did it well, he equipped them with every kind of artistic talent. By doing this, God was putting the blessing of his divine approval on both the arts and the artist” (22). Moreover, these craftsmen produced “three kinds of visual art: symbolic, representative, and nonrepresentative (or abstract) art” (33), thus showing God’s endorsement of these forms. These are only two of the significant insights that Ryken draws from the tabernacle.

More generally, “the kind of art that glorifies God is good, true, and, finally, beautiful” (42). While truth and beauty are not identical, contra Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” they belong together. Ryken notes, “The problem with some modern and postmodern art is that it seeks to offer truth at the expense of beauty. It tells the truth about ugliness and alienation, leaving out the beauty of creation and redemption” (43). On the other hand, “A good deal of so-called Christian art tends to have the opposite problem. It tries to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false—dishonest about the tragic implications of our depravity. Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall…” (43). (Ryken does not name names, but he is surely thinking of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings.)

Ryken aptly summarizes this thesis in the concluding chapter, “Beautiful Savior.” “This is the Christian view of art: the artist is called and gifted by God—who loves all kinds of art; who maintains high aesthetic standards for goodness, truth, and beauty; and whose glory is art’s highest goal” (p. 53). He then concludes with a meditation on Christ’s death and resurrection in light of this thesis. The ugliness of human sin required that an all-beautiful and all-glorious God send his Son to become a disfigured and mutilated sacrifice that we might be redeemed. In this sense, “the cross screams against all the sensibilities of his divine aesthetic” (55). Yet this was the only way for redemption to be won: “Sin had brought ugliness and death into the world. In order to save his lost creation, God sent his Son right into the absurdity and alienation. There Jesus took our sin himself, dying to pay the price that justice demanded. It was such an ugly death that people had to turn away” (55-56). But God transformed this ugliness into beauty through the resurrection, in which Christ is given a glorious and triumphant body. In light of these tremendous realities, “we should devote our skill to making art for the glory of God, and for the sake of his Son—our beautiful Savior, Jesus Christ” (58).

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Evidence that Demands a Sermon

[This was published many years ago in Christianity Today, when they still cared about apologetics. Maybe it will light an apologetic fire under a few preachers out there, God willing.]

As a young Christian, I had the privilege of hearing [the recently deceased] Dr. Jack MacArthur preach a series on Christianity and the cults. In addition to his expository preaching, Dr. MacArthur, not fearful of controversy, targeted the cults most active in the local area. Some members of these groups even picketed the church services! Since the various cults such as the Hari Krishnas and the Unification Church were active on the campus I attended, these sermons gave me the apologetic assist I needed in order to face the cultic challenges to Christianity with intellectual integrity. The confrontational nature of the preaching also taught me that in order to stand for Christ as the truth, I must stand against counterfeits of that truth.

Despite this instructive experience, my observation in numerous churches over the years is that apologetics is usually not welcome in the evangelical pulpit. The gospel is proclaimed, but seldom defended in such a way as to resolve the doubts of the faithful or answer the objections of the sceptic. Sermons traffic in truths largely unrooted in rational reflection; preachers often deem such cerebral fare either unnecessary or impossible. But despite its rarity in the pulpit (and elsewhere), the rational defense of Christianity as objectively true is both necessary and possible.

It is necessary because the very idea of objective, universal, and absolute truth is eroding in pluralistic America. In What Americans Believe, George Barna reports that only 28 percent of his respondents expressed a strong belief in "absolute truth." Religion is then viewed as just another personal and subjective choice among innumerable other choices facing American individualists. Such relativists need to be convinced that Christianity is more than just a "lifestyle" or a "religious preference," if they are to surrender to Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn. 14:6).

In our pluralistic setting sermons should set forth the exclusive claims of Christ as rationally superior, not just dogmatically demanding. This means building a reasonable case for the uniqueness and finality of the Incarnation which can withstand critical questions such as: Are the biblical documents reliable? Is Christ significantly different from other religious figures? Can't the pagan be saved? Aren't miracles fables? Isn't God in everyone? As preacher and apologist Francis Schaeffer taught us, "honest questions deserve honest answers," not a rejection of the questions. We should remember that although Schaeffer is best remembered as an apologist, his apologetic ministry grew out of his desire to pastor and evangelize those immersed in modern culture. May his lesson inspire us to do the same. Relevant preaching demands that the sceptical questions of the day be recognized and responded to in the pulpit.

Besides the practical and contemporary necessity, the Scriptures themselves report people of God contending for "the faith entrusted once for all to the saints" (Jude 3). An apologetic for apologetics is that we find apologetics in the Bible itself, often mingled with preaching (see Acts 17:16-31). The preacher Peter gave us this great apologetic charge: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason or the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15).

F. F. Bruce's insightful book, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, bears witness to the various strategies required by the early church to defend the faith amidst the task of proclaiming it. He says: "The men and women who commended the gospel in the first century 'had understood the times': the kingdom of God calls loudly for such men and women today."

It is not only necessary, it is also possible for pastors to preach apologetics in the pulpit. Whatever their level of formal training in apologetics, preachers can benefit from studying the relevant books, both ancient and modern, which intellectually advance Christianity. For instance, Blaise Pascal's Pensees is a neglected masterpiece which repays careful study. Pastors who take up apologetics will deepen their own spirituality by growing in their understanding of Christian truth, how it can lose credibility, and how it can be defended afresh by drawing on both ancient and modern resources.

Considering the demands on pastors, no one should require they become apologetic wizards. But given the severity of the need, the apologist G. K. Chesterton's quip should be heeded: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." Although his quip may not apply to brain surgery, but feeding the starving with something less than gourmet cuisine is no crime. A pastor need not have a Ph.D. in New Testament studies to give a defense of the New Testament as historically reliable. Nor does one need an advanced degree in philosophy to say something intelligent about the perpetually vexing problem of evil.

The preaching of apologetics has two direct benefits. First, the doubting believers in the congregation (often the most thoughtful people) will find that doubt can be eased, if not resolved, because there are reasons to believe. Many in our congregations are praying, "Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief." Apologetics helps answer that prayer. Great doubts, honestly encountered and mastered, can lead to even greater faith. I know a women who had been grieving over a miscarriage whose doubts about God's goodness were assuaged through learning basic theology and apologetics--in an academic setting. "Now that I understand who God really is" she said, "I can trust him."

Second, the preaching of apologetics will challenge unbelievers with arguments and evidence. Instead of simply hearing about Christianity or being urged to accept it, they will receive rational arguments to support it. In a culture which holds Christianity in intellectual contempt, a good deal of pre-evangelism (apologetics) is required before evangelism will stick. Imagine the surprise of the unbeliever who stumbles into a church on Easter to hear a compelling defense of the resurrection of Jesus as an objective fact of history! Instead of hearing only "He is risen!" he hears, "This is why you should believe he is risen!" Or think of the possibilities of a Christmas sermon that no only explains the meaning of the season but answers common objections that the virgin birth is nothing but a myth.

Arguments alone seldom win a soul to Christ, and God's thoughts transcend ours (Isa. 55:8-9). Nevertheless, God also says "Come let us reason together" (Isa. 1:18). Let us honor the God of truth by supplying the pulpits of the land with a faith reasonably proclaimed.

"Our Meretricious Society" by Paul Campos, Rocky Mountain News, June 20, 2006

[I have excerpted the first half of Paul Campos's column, since it relates to the Coulter flap.]

'Writing," observed the French playwright Moliere, "is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then for a few close friends, and then for money."

This aphorism is brought forcefully to mind by the cover of Ann Coulter's latest book, leering at customers from the windows of America's biggest bookstores. As always, the cover features a portrait of the artist as a young tart, blond locks flowing, her size zero little black dress catering to a combination of ideological and erotic perversion that's disturbing to contemplate.

In The New York Times, David Carr doesn't hesitate to label Coulter a literary crack whore, although naturally the editors of that august publication won't allow such an indelicate phrase to appear in its pages. Coulter, Carr suggests, "knows precisely what she is saying" when she says of certain 9/11 widows that she's "never seen people enjoying their husband's death so much."

For Carr, Coulter's habit of making outrageous statements is part of a simple and cynical swindle: say vile things, get lots of publicity for doing so, then sell hundreds of thousands of books as one's reward for performing unnatural intellectual acts on TV.

Prostitution, however, is a tricky business. I can attest that when she was an unknown law student Coulter said outrageous things all the time, in class, in conversation and in print. Was she merely laying the groundwork for selling her honor dear? It seems doubtful.

For what it's worth, Coulter's views have always seemed to me to be sincerely held, to the extent that narcissistic borderline personalities can be sincere. Not all writers are prostitutes, but all writers are narcissists, and Coulter appears to represent an especially acute case of someone who writes in order to be at the center of attention (hence the glossy locks and little black dress).

Nevertheless prostitution is everywhere in our society, and indeed the willingness to sell what shouldn't be sold often helps explain what's happening when one tries to interpret otherwise puzzling events. . . .

Sunday, June 18, 2006

"Feminism Goes to Seed" by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis

[This article was published in 1999. Some of the names mentioned are dated, but the basic argument still holds and applies to the debates recently engaged in on this blog.]

Download a printer-friendly version in PDF.
Modern feminism, which has always left a great deal to be desired, had at least one legitimate concept at its inception in the 1960s and 1970s, namely, the notion that women, as well as men, should have the opportunity to aspire to be all that they can be; it should not be assumed that the fixed essence of femaleness is being in the service of a man. But note that at the root of this eminently reasonable claim is the quintessentially feminist beef that women have always ended up with a mere sliver of the pie of cultural power. Aha! says the antifeminist, all this talk of women using their talents to the full for the general good is a mere rhetorical cover for their real agenda of gaining the upper hand over men—upsetting the balance of power in society at large and in personal relationships. This prospect, of course, terrifies the average man.

Behind the scenes here, manipulating many of these views and concerns like puppets on strings, is the primitive power of the female body over the male. Women and men have always been aware of this sometimes unsavory fact of life. What changes across cultures and history is the use to which this fact of life is put. In times past, when men felt obligated to restrain themselves for the sake of moral virtue and/or social order, those men who found this to be a formidable project (that is to say, most men) fell back on the venerable solution of culturally subjugating women; men evidently figured that if they had power over women, women would not have power over them.

But no matter. Women have always adapted to this arrangement by wielding their sexual power over men in covert, manipulative ways in order to get men to do what they want men to do for them. Women’s submission is often marketed in conservative religious circles as useful for just this purpose: make him feel like he’s the big, strong man in charge and he’ll do anything for you. Feminine wiles in Christian guise.

The essence of feminism is a rejection of this age-old arrangement and an affirmation of women’s right to exercise power directly. One feminism differs from another in terms of what sort of power women exercise in what way, and to what purpose. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, feminist women wanted to exercise political power by voting, as men do. In the 1960s and 1970s, they wanted to exercise personal power by pursuing the vocation of their choice, as men do. Much of feminism today—in apparent capitulation to the pornographic American culture of the last decade—has devolved into the simple, sordid matter of women freely flaunting their sexual power over men. In our sexually careless society, little impetus remains—on the part of either men or women—to control or contain the power of female sexuality.

This is feminism at its worst: the power of “the second sex” reduced to the power of sex. It is as antifeminist as it can get and still be reckoned feminist. It is antifeminist in that—as in all traditional cultures—women are being defined as sexual beings, and men as human beings. It is feminist in that women are ostensibly doing what they want to do (overtly exercising their sexual power), not what they must do in order to accommodate and negotiate the constraints of a male power structure (standard procedure for women in prefeminist or antifeminist cultures). Such a “feminism,” however, easily boils down to women using their sexual power in order to gain some secondary access to the cultural power society normally reserves for men. It is a “feminism” that serves well the fundamental agenda of that unconquerable deity, the male ego.

Until recently in modern American society, there have been two categories of women outside that of the full-time homemaker: the professional career woman and the bimbo, the sex siren. Those two categories, previously assumed to be mutually exclusive, have now merged to form the new feminist ideal: the bimbo career woman, with emphasis on the bimbo. The significance of the career is seen primarily in terms of the opportunities it provides for a woman to have a high-powered sex life, without being financially dependent on her sex partner(s). The popular media are replete with such preposterous heroines, from Ally McBeal (unreal TV character) to Monica Lewinsky (surreal real-life character).

This is feminism gone to seed—along with the rest of our culturally exhausted postmodern society. Nothing means anything anymore. All that remains is recycled silliness. So just enjoy asserting your power—sexual power, that is, the only power women get to have. And don’t hesitate to use it as a weapon if that’s what makes you feel personally empowered.

But the power of postfeminism is fallacious. Women who seek to exercise power by flaunting their sexual power—whether in actual promiscuity or merely in clothing themselves immodestly—end up losing power, the power that comes from possessing personal integrity and winning the respect of both women and men.

(This essay was previously published in The Denver Post, May 13, 1999.)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Modesty, Humility, and Ann Coulter--by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis

In reading the comments vigorously defending Coulter’s self-satisfied and self-promoting pose on her book cover, I was startled to detect more than a whiff of righteous indignation. I daresay the “right” of women to display their body parts—or, perhaps, the “right” of men to engage in frequent optical sampling of said body parts—appears to be as much of a sacred cow in the Christian community as it is in the American culture at large.

There seems to be a strange oblivion at work here. At least one fellow even suggests that Coulter’s get-up would be appropriate attire for a church service. (And to think the apostle Paul was concerned about women displaying their hair!) But how can one reasonably claim that Coulter’s pose is not immodest, I wonder? There is certainly no sense of humility in her stance. And anyone who honestly believes that the focal point of this photo is anything other than an impressive set of bosoms (even the dainty cross around her neck points like an arrow to her cleavage) simply needs to go back to their own planet.

And in what sense is Coulter’s appearance and demeanor even remotely consistent with the spirit of the exhortations given in 1 Peter 3:3-7 and 1 Timothy 2:9-10? To be sure, the cultural context of ancient Greco-Roman society is quite different from our own setting, and what appeared to be immodest and self-promoting in the New Testament churches (braided hair, gold jewelry) is not necessarily seen in the same way today. But, as with any culturally conditioned biblical text, there is nonetheless an underlying transcultural principle that the biblical writer intends to communicate to his readers. The apostle Peter speaks of women who possess an inner beauty, a gentle and quiet spirit that holds courageously to their faith and the knowledge of who they are in Christ. Such women do not feel the need to be sexually provocative in their public attire; instead, they are clothed in humility and grace—a beauty that blesses and edifies. Similarly, the apostle Paul exhorts women to dress modestly and decently and with propriety, as is appropriate for “women who profess to worship God” (just like Ann Coulter, right?). This, in Paul’s mind, stands opposed to a woman adorning and arranging herself in such a way as to attract attention to her physical assets.

Why, then, do so many women who profess to worship God dismiss the apostles’ exhortations and proceed to adorn and arrange themselves so as to tempt and attract? I believe a big part of it is simply a failure of the church as a whole to understand that to have faith in Christ and to walk in his ways is, at the very least, to be counter-cultural. Instead, the church has simply capitulated, assigning to the larger culture a moral neutrality that is entirely unwarranted and unbiblical. American culture revels in the sensual, and images of hypertrophied female sexuality are everywhere. This must be the explanation for why Coulter can rig herself up as she does and still receive the commendation of conservative Christians. In view of the nature of the multitude of images set before us every day, Coulter might even be regarded (by contrast) as refined and discreet. We have simply lost our perspective.

But I am inclined to believe there is another reason women dress provocatively—namely, the elementary law of cause and effect. B. F. Skinner set forth this basic principle some time ago. People tend to do whatever produces the desired consequences. Surely, women dress as they do for the effects it elicits: primarily, the attention and the admiration of men. I suspect that the less a woman feels sure of herself, the more she may feel inclined to clothe (or fail adequately to clothe) herself in this way. I further suspect that the more the womenfolk in conservative churches are disempowered and shunted to the sidelines of the Kingdom mission, the more they are likely to resort to the power of their female sexuality. Nonetheless, a woman who does not enjoy the lustful attention of men can easily seek to remedy this state of affairs simply by reordering her wardrobe. (I, for one, figured this out quite a few years ago.)

Speaking of lust, it strikes me as ironic that culture tends to flip-flop from one extreme to the other on this subject. In the Middle Ages (and today in the Islamic world, which is essentially medieval in perspective), any occurrence of lust was (is) routinely regarded as entirely the woman’s fault. By contrast, in American culture today, no man dares to speak of the need for women to be a bit less heedless in what they reveal of themselves publicly, lest he be branded as having a “problem” with “lust.” Well, duh. Lust is what this firestorm is all about, is it not? If there were no male lust, would women create the effect they create when they display and arrange their body parts thusly? And if they did not create this effect, would they so arrange themselves? No, and no.

A woman can set forth her feminine beauty for the world to see, without also setting off certain predictable responses. It simply goes back to the discretion and modesty enjoined of women by the New Testament writers.

A Paucity of Categories

"Is there really no middle ground between Coulter's little black dress and a big black burka?"--Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.

Media Technologies and Christian Discernment

[This article was published in Christian Camp and Conference Journal, November/December 2004.]

Recently I was privileged to serve as an interim preaching pastor at a large church in Denver that projected the image of the preacher on two large screens to the upper left and upper right of the pulpit. These were used for the preaching outline as well as projecting the image of the preacher. Before preaching there, I wondered what effect this might have on the presentation of the messages. Would people look at my image (which was a split second delayed from the real me) or directly at me? Would I lose eye contact, something so vital for preaching and teaching? Not being part of the leadership of the church, it was inappropriate to simply demand that the screens be turned off. Nevertheless, I wondered about their presence, because I feared that the uniquely personal and unmediated environment would be compromised. Perhaps that technology would better not used. I had the screen turned off during my sermon about television.

How Christians today would not have raised these questions? The technology, which is quite impressive, would simply be welcomed as part of the advancement of technology. The assumption for many is that technologies simply amplify what is already good by electronically enlarging images, distributing data rapidly, and providing wide access to information otherwise unavailable or hard to find. The medium is neutral, and can be employed to the good. If a church or Christian camp offers a web page, someone surfing the web may discover a ministry that they otherwise might never discover. When a graduate of my seminary was a missionary in Ethiopia, he had little access to many of the books and articles available in the United States. Yet he could find much needed material on philosophy, apologetics, and ethics on my web page ( and at many other places on the Internet. This helped substitute for regular library resources.

Christian ministry should be infused with certain theological principles that help us discern how and when to use various technologies. The fundamental question is this: Does the use of this medium fit the purposes of God’s Kingdom? God’s Kingdom advances as rebellious creatures are brought back to God’s truth in order to recognize and serve Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord of the universe (Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1-2). Therefore, any technology should pass through a “truth filter.” The truth filter determines whether or not the medium delivers truth in ways that affect lives for God’s kingdom. I have a tangible illustration. Laptop computers help us retrieve and record information for many purposes. However, they may distract us from ways in which God forms us into more Christlike people. I have a laptop in my office, which serves many functions, such as connecting me to the Internet, allowing me to write quizzes, and so on. However, when a student meets with me, I put the screen down and have a discussion with the student—free of computer distraction. I may end up going on line to get the student a resource pertinent to our discussion, but I do not want to divide my attention between the screen and the soul sitting before me.

Instead of stumbling into technologies unaware, and praising everything new and hi-tech, it is best to develop some specific principles of discernment concerning the strengths and weaknesses of technologies for Christian ministry. Every media technology should be interpreted carefully and not used blindly simply because it is “cool” or affordable or popular. The first and leading principle is that every technological medium affects the message it contains. No medium is an empty shell for content. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan claimed that “the medium is the message.” Interestingly, he was reflecting on a biblical passage that warns that those who worship idols become like them (Psalm 115:4-8). He extended this biblical warning to apply to communication media. We are shaped by our media. Our habits are formed by how we spend our time and with what we attend to on a regular basis (see Psalm 1).

Sadly, most people have forgotten McLuhan’s wisdom (or never understood it in the first place). Nevertheless, the medium always shapes the message decisively. For example, a sermon heard on the radio favors the spoken word over anything written to anything visualized. The same sermon experienced in a church service adds the dimensions of sight and a sermon outline (if the preacher has done his homework). Anything presented in a video format tends to favor graphic images over words. So, on television complicated situations are reduced to no more than a few minutes of attention on the news, all of which focuses on images. The spoken words are minimal and pale in significance to the dominating images. Material in cyberspace involves images and words, but is presented in a format that allows and encourages moving quickly from one web page to another through links and clicks. This medium tends to downplay sustained attention on any one thing, given the very nature of the format. For example, how much reasoned discourse occurs in a chat room? (Some web logs are better in this regard.)

Every year I team up with another professor to administer an examination that tests students’ ability to explain their Christian beliefs. One year a student did poorly when asked to relate biblical texts to the larger history of Scripture. We found that he had studied by using a computer program that printed out acres of isolated Bible verses on various topics. He had collected and memorized biblical factoids, but he lacked a deeper sense of biblical history. We told him to read and study the Bible in book form because this would help him see the larger biblical narrative.

This example brings us to second principle. We must always value the face to face dimension of ministry and never downplay it when it is available to us. Several biblical passages highlight this. Near the beginning of Paul’s tremendous letter to the Romans, he laments that he is separated from the believers in Rome. He writes, “I long to see you that I may import to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is that you and I may be mutually encouraged in each others faith” (Romans 1:11-12, NIV). Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is one of the high water marks of doctrine in the entire Bible, but yet Paul yearned to communicate in person with his beloved church. Similarly, the Apostle John ends his short epistles of 2 John by saying, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12; see also 3 John 13, NIV). Jesus, of course, spent significant amounts of time with his disciples, teaching them the things of the Kingdom by word and by deed. Only after three years of intensive discipleship, did Jesus tell his closest followers that they should not worry about what to say when they were persecuted, since the Holy Spirit would give them the right words (Mark 13:5-11).

Let’s return to the laptop to apply this principle. Many of my students bring their laptops to class to take notes—at least I hope that’s what they are doing with them. However, some students are so entranced by their glowing screens that they seldom look up at me or at other students. In some cases that eye to eye, soul to soul moment is vital to make a point stick. Because of this, I have recently started implementing “no screen times” in my classes. I ask students to put down their screens for a few moments. I am not banning laptops, but trying to tame them—to use them in a way that honors the uniquely personal aspects of ministry and learning.

A third principle for using media technology wisely is that we must distinguish between information, knowledge, and wisdom. Electronic media provide us with an ocean of information on almost anything, but much of it is false or misleading or merely trivial. (Consider all the tripe on celebrities, for example.) Only part of it contributes to our knowledge. To know something means that our belief in something is factual and reasonable. In order to find the knowledge in the information available in media, we need to use it carefully. Often, the best source is a trusted book (which sports a reputable publisher and author), not the Internet (where anyone can post anything). Moreover, reading from a book tends to allow us to focus on one message without jumping around from screen to screen, as is often the case on line. Our goal as Christians is not merely to be “well-informed,” but to be wise in the Lord. Wisdom involves knowing how to acquire knowledge and using our knowledge in a godly way. We should implore God for wisdom in our high-tech day, just as young Solomon did at the beginning of his kingship (1 Kings 3:1-15).
· Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he directs the Philosophy of Religion Master Degree program. He is the author of ten books, including The Soul in Cyberspace (Wifp and Stock reprint, 1999) and Truth Decay (InterVarsity, 2000).

Further resources: Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Wifp and Stock reprint, 1999); Quentin Schultz, Habits of the High-Tech Heart (Eerdmans, 2003); Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Eerdmans, 1985); Arthur Hunt, III, The Vanishing Word (Crossway, 2003).

Friday, June 16, 2006

A Counter-Cultural (and Coulteral) Idea

1 Timothy 2:

9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

Proverbs 30:

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised

Thursday, June 15, 2006

New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics

InterVarsity Press has just released The New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, edited by Campbell Campbell-Jack and Gavin J. McGrath; C. Stephen Evans in the consulting editor. This is a large and rather comprehensive volume. I wrote the entries on the following topics:

1. Theistic Proofs
2. Point of Contact
3. Cyberspace
4. Technology
5. Pascal
6. Gnosticism

The only other similar volume to come out in recent days is Geisler's one man show, Baker's Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (1999), which suffers from the weaknesses of having only one author, however encyclopedic his propensities may be.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pundits, Bellicosity, Publicity, and Christianity

Popular culture revels in the outrageous, the spectacular, and the bizarre. Its pundits are usually hypertrophied, stentorian, egotistical, and generally shameless. This applies to both the left and the right. The volume is high; the epithets are plentiful; the self-confidence (or bluster) is maximal; and careful, respectful discourse is unheard of. (See the AP story that prompted this post.)

Take Ann Coulter's new book, Godless, which attacks liberalism as a false religion. I have not read the book and probably will not--there are far too many other books clamoring for my attention. Coulter is getting much mileage out of her insults against several 9/11 widows who, Coulter claims, are exploiting their husband's deaths for left-wing political purposes. She spares no insult in describing them as "harpies," etc. You have probably already read the details, and I won't give her more press. Her book is #1 at bit higher than Truth Decay.

As a political conservative (but not ideologically so), I agree with some of Coulter's positions. But that is irrelevant. The ends do not justify the means. A nasty comment for a good cause is still nasty and repugnant--as are Coulter's comments about these widows. The widows should not be made immune to criticism simply because they lost their husbands, nor should they be pilloried mercilessly by Coulter or anyone else. Yes, Coulter has a sharp sense of humor, but that, in itself, is no virtue, ethically speaking, however necessary it might be for mass-pundits.

Coulter, who is the closest thing to a "hot babe" the conservatives have in popular culture, shamelessly poses on the cover of her book in a tight, small, black dress, wearing a cross around her neck. She, of course, is not "godless"--she believes in God and wears a cross. Well, Christianity doesn't need that kind of publicity.

In fact, Christianity does not need any publicity at all, as it is commonly understood. The teachings of Jesus (and the rest of the Scripture) should, of course, be taken into the public square. Errors should be refuted and the truth should be commended, but only in ways that honor the heart of the message itself. The Apostle Peter tells us to be ready to give an answer for the hope within us to whoever asks us; but this must be done "with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). We find the Apostle Paul throughout the Book of Acts declaring, explaining, and defending the Gospel with intelligence, love, and tenacity. Even Jesus' prophetic denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees as "hypocrites" in Matthew 23 is followed by his pained lamentation over the sins of his people, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem..." Character must never be sacrificed for publicity, Christianly understood.

Ann Coulter may turn millions of heads, sell millions of books, and be a hot search topic on Google for years to come. She may even be correct in some of her views. Nevertheless, a true follower of Christ will eschew her ethos and take the high road of principled persuasion.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Philosophy at ACC

[This article appeared in the Arapahoe Community College newspaper this week. Tedla is a friend of mine.]

SEARCHING FOR TRUTH, and getting your hands dirty

By Kyle Buss

The bright orange paint of the next room was screamingly visible. The hanging wooden beads clacked together pleasantly as I walked into the dimly lit chamber of Abyssinia. Crowded around several wicker tables were many intense faces ranging from pale, to tan, to dark; each face was being stuffed with fine Ethiopian food, not by forks or spoons, but by bare hands (the traditional utensils of course)! The turmeric smells float around the restaurant’s odd ethnic décor and on Thursday nights they float on the air of Philosophical arguments. That’s because ACC students have faithfully gathered here weekly to discuss that age old fundamental question, “What is truth?”

Jammed right beside Subway off of Colorado and Colfax Ave. in downtown Denver sits the acclaimed double story Ethiopian restaurant known as Abyssinia. Beginning in early March of this year, ACC Philosophy teacher and Ethiopian native Tedla G Woldeyohannes invited students from an independent study course into an open forum for those interested in discussing their enduring philosophical questions. This became an opportunity to do philosophy in an informal gathering and that has been Tedla’s intention in inviting people to meet with him regularly. Each week people seem to have moved on, but new people have taken their place. So what is it that makes this group so attractive?

The group is an open discussion forum where each week someone presents an idea before the group and then it’s discussed. Everyone gets to take a shot at the concept while others wait in silence with ears wide open. In the process, understanding and clarity slowly become unearthed and light comes into the darker parts of ones reality. Scott Clapsaddle, a discussion member relates that, “it’s more of a group argument than a group discussion, but these questions are worth talking about.”

Within the group we find hungry people. Whether that hunger comes from the soul or the stomach, Thursday nights at Abyssinia people are finding food for it. Tedla comments that, “if someone says I really want to understand who I am or how this world works, besides reading good philosophy books, they can ask someone and we can discuss it.” Man’s search for meaning, purpose, relationships, and a full stomach are drawn out here. It’s valuable, but it’s not exactly for the lightweights either.

“We respect other people’s opinions but subject them to merciless and relentless examination. As philosophers we can’t accept any sloppy idea that doesn’t stand up on its own. We are friends of course, and we have room for fun, but truth is a very serious thing we’re after.” Tedla remarked before running to the bathroom to wash the food off his hands.

So, if you are preparing to come on Thursdays be prepared to have your ideas and views challenged and possibly changed. In asking what the group values C.J., a passionate philosopher and ACC student puts it simply, “truth.”

C.J. facilitated Thursday night’s discussion on the topic of Moral Relativism. Wikipedia defines Moral Relativism as: the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect absolute and universal moral truths, but are instead relative to social, cultural, historical or personal references. “I think that’s a bunch of rubbish!” Is an OK response, but be prepared to support your reasons why.

During the discussion, all the arguments for this proposition were argued, and then all the opposing arguments were brought to the table. The group found a venue to voice their own questions and comments, and great ground was broken as deep ethical questions were debated in an open and informal manner. C.J. in a short time has shocked his friends by his pursuit of truth in philosophy. His friends are catching the same fire, even if they can’t convert C.J. from his Vegetarianism.

“It gave me a place where I can share my ideas with my friends and have people think about things that I’m thinking about and we discuss them. And it’s given me an opportunity to grow as a person, in a huge way; more so in a short period of time than any other time in my whole life.” Comments C.J. who in his early twenties is passionately driven to find an answer to that question: What is truth? Philosophy may be the perfect avenue for that; Colfax Avenue on Thursday nights gives that avenue greater credence.

Tedla drives this point home. “Philosophy is not only about pursuing the truth but also embodying and living the truth. Anyone who comes to the group will have a better understanding about what truth is, whether it’s subjective or objective or nothing.” So, if you’re hungry in your soul or belly; whether it’s truth or delicious food on your mind; Abyssinia on Thursday nights is a good place to start.

Wash your hands, gather your questions and head on down. Contact this paper for more information.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Douglas Groothuis review of Duane Litfin, Conceiving the Christian College

Duane Litfin. Conceiving the Christian College. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004. 283 pp. $20.00 (paper). ISBN: 0-8028-2783-7.

Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Philosophy, Denver Seminary.

[This review first appeared in Christian Scholar's Review, Volume XXXIV, Number 4 (Summer 2005).]

Readers of this journal have found in its pages a wealth of discussion on the nature of Christian education, the integration of faith and learning, and the philosophy and theology of the Christian college. Duane Litfin, an accomplished scholar and president of Wheaton College, has enriched this ongoing discussion greatly with this erudite, passionate, deeply biblical, and timely treatise on how to “conceive the Christian college.” It is heartening to find a president of a major Christian educational institution who has reflected so deeply on the foundational issues of Christian education and how the task of a Christian college relates to the broader educational culture and culture at large. This volume will certainly take its place next to other modern classics on the topic, such as The Idea of a Christian College by Arthur Holmes.

Before summarizing and commenting on the essential themes that Litfin addresses, I must underscore that his book takes one on an intellectual adventure. It will not only inform but will also inspire anyone interested in Christian education. This element of the book is rooted in two salient features of Litfin’s approach: (1) his wonder over the riches of Christ and the profundity of the biblical worldview and (2) his enthusiastic vision for distinctively Christian colleges. Although the book is deeply documented and does not shy away from in-depth analysis of various philosophical, theological, and cultural issues, it never bogs down into the pedantic or the pretentious. The writing is crisp, clear, and compelling from beginning to end. Despite the fact that Litfin is the president of Wheaton College, he does not use the book as a springboard to sell his own school. Even when he defends Wheaton against Alan Wolfe’s charge of ideological narrowness, he addresses the issue in a non-defensive manner that attempts to vindicate all evangelical colleges that require faculty members to sign evangelical statements of faith. And while Litfin is committed to evangelical higher education, he is deeply aware of and respectful toward other Protestant traditions and institutions as well as the Roman Catholic heritage in higher education.

Litfin begins by assessing two models of the Christian college. The “umbrella model” attempts to retain a basic Christian identity while not requiring all faculty members or students to adopt the institution’s religious heritage. These schools attempt to retain a particular religious ethos (serving as an umbrella) while allowing considerable diversity with respect to religious beliefs. While this model has its strengths (such as providing a forum for spirited debate on religious matters), Litfin defends the “systemic model,” which aspires to doctrinal consistency (but not uniformity) among its faculty members. These institutions “seek to make Christian thinking systemic through the institution, root, branch, and leaf” (18). This, of course, includes his own institution and those schools that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Litfin carefully explores the strengths and weakness of each model, and concludes that “Umbrella and Systemic institutions must not allow the critics to divide them. Each must stand in support of the other” (33). Nevertheless, the rest of the book develops a philosophy best suited, it seems, for Systemic institutions of the evangelical sort.

The remaining chapters give careful analysis to key phrases often heard (but not often understood or adequately applied) in Christian educational circles. The first of these, discussed in chapter three, is that education should be “Christ-centered.” Here Litfin takes up the challenge to “see more fully whom we serve,” and develops marvelously a biblical Christology for education. Litfin not only addresses key aspects of the person and work of Christ, but also displays a sense of wonder and praise throughout, which is infectious. While keenly appreciating the scholarship and theological acuity of this chapter, I found myself nearly “lost in wonder and praise” after finishing the chapter. In the next chapter, Litfin explores how Christian colleges must “keep the center at the center,” and argues for a deeply biblical “Christocentrism.” Litfin poignantly writes that “Jesus Christ is the only One who can serve as the centerpiece of an entire curriculum, the One to whom we must relate everything and without whom no fact, no theory, no subject matter can be fully grasped and appreciated. Christocentrism is what renders our thinking distinctively Christian” (84).

Chapter five engages “the well-worn shibboleth” that “All truth is God’s truth” (also the title of an excellent 1977 book by Arthur Holmes). Litfin claims that this punchy and pregnant statement has become a lazy slogan for some. To combat this, he explicates “ten fundamental claims” entailed by this statement. I will list them without comment in hope of enticing the reader to investigate Litfin’s concatenation of these ideas: (1) God exists. (2) Through the agency of his Son, God created the universe and all that is in it. (3) We can therefore entertain an intellectual construct called “reality.” (4) This reality is complex and multi-dimensional. (5) This reality, though complex and multi-dimensional, is also coherent and unified, centered upon the person of Jesus Christ. (6) God has created humans with the capacity to apprehend, however fallibly and incompletely, this reality. (7) Genuine knowledge is therefore feasible for humans. (8) Human knowledge of reality stems from two prime sources: special revelation and discovery. (9) We can therefore maintain a distinction between truth and error. (10) All that is truthful, from whatever source, is unified, and will cohere with whatever else is truthful. After reflecting on Litfin’s astute treatment, few will take the statement “All truth is God’s truth” to be a “well-worn shibboleth” anymore; it will rather be taken as a mini-credo and a call to intellectual arms.

Space forbids even an adequate summary of a host of other insights regarding the integration of faith and learning, the balance of institutional commitments with individual freedom, appreciation of the institutional uniqueness of evangelical colleges, and much more. However, a few comments are pertinent on Litfin’s challenge “to preserve the idea of truth,” set forth in chapter six, “A Balanced Epistemology.” This chapter serves as a kind of hinge to the book, since the very notion of objective and knowable truth has been assailed by various skeptical and postmodern philosophies in recent years. If we are to properly “conceive the Christian college” we must properly conceive the very idea of truth.

While many Christian academics (and popular writers) are embracing postmodernism as a proper vehicle for Christian cognition and conviction, Litfin is not convinced. He notes that postmodernist claims about the perspectival nature of belief and the cognitive limitations placed on humans by nature and culture are nothing new. “The notion that postmodernity represents something novel is…shortsighted. Most of its proposals are as old as the history of ideas. Were the ancient Sophists postmodern? Or are postmodernists merely neo-Sophists? The truth is, throughout the centuries these sophistic ideas have repeatedly seen the light of day, and each time they have been weighed and found wanting by Christian thinkers, as they should be again today” (101). Moreover, Christians can grant that knowing is perspectival without accepting the radical perspectivism that makes objective knowledge impossible. The very possibility of disciplined scholarship—scholarship that represents more than mere propaganda—requires a strong concept of objective truth and the imperative of its diligent pursuit by scholars. The Christian scholar must be humble (because we are limited in our knowledge), hopeful (because there is knowledge available in God’s good world), and disciplined (because truth can be hard to find in a fallen world). Litfin strikes the balance and charts a way forward through the postmodern thicket. For this, and much more in this stellar work, we are in his debt.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Nietzsche on "Christian Atheism"

This famous parable by atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) puts to lie to the notion that Christian ethics can be supported apart from the Christian God, as A. Fallaci maintains. I respect her courage and willingness to confront aggressive Islam, but I must reject her "Christian atheism" as oxymoronic and quixotic.


Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him--you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us--for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars--and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Christian Atheist and the Challenge of Islam

Yes, you are seeing the first posted image on my blog. Behold this amazing and arresting visage. This is Oriana Fallaci, a veteran Italian journalist and novelist who has, after September 11, 2001, written on the effects of massive Muslim relocation and lack of assimilation in Europe. A recent The New Yorker (June 5, 2006) has a long and fascinating article by Margaret Talbot about her called "The Agitator: Oriana Fallaci Directs Her Fury Against Islam." She caused a firestore in Italy and in greater Europe with her book, The Rage and the Pride, published soon after September 11, 2001. Her most recent book translated into English is The Force of Reason. I have only begun studying her work, which is passionate and controversial. She calls herself "a Christian atheist," because she wants to conserve Europe's Christian-based culture in the face of Muslim influences. She was interviewed a year ago by The Wall Street Journal: "Prophet of Decline." Front Page Magazine ran a story called "Fallaci: Warrior in the Cause of Human Freedom" by Robert Spencer, which recounts her career and her acceptance speech of an award they gave her in 2005.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Inconvenient Truth about "An Inconvenient Truth"

Although it has not yet been released in major theaters, Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," is already causing a firestorm. For example, film critic Roger Ebert has waxed melodramatic in his praise for it. For those just awaking from a coma, Gore claims that global warming is real and apocalyptic. He, of course, has been claiming this for many years, and argued for it in his book, Earth in the Balance (which I reviewed for The Spiritual Counterfeits Journal years ago). I was skeptical of global warming then and I am now, although I don't claim any expertise on the matter. However, I recommend reading the chapter on this subject in Tom Bethell’s excellent book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

My point about Gore's movie is not necessarily that his thesis is wrong (although I strongly suspect it is). Rather, my concern is that no movie should be viewed as a strong argument for any scientific or philosophical or religious claim. Movies may suggest ideas or stir emotions or put us to sleep or produce any number of other effects, but they cannot give sustained intellectual arguments concerning complex issues. This is because they trade in images and sounds, not in textual argumentation; that is, they cannot sustain the careful exposition of ideas because of their very nature. (“The medium is the message,” once again.) They may contain truth, but the format in which the truth is presented is not adequate for its investigation or verification. This is especially so in an age when images are so easily manipulated through computer technology. Seeing is not believing. Thus, knowledge (justified true belief) is lacking.

Seeing Al Gore and a raft of hand-picked scientists cry, "Doom," may have a profound emotional effect. The ethos of scientific (or pundocratic) presence exudes from smart-looking faces. Some pathos is sure to come through as well, as is the case in all Chicken Little pronouncements. What is decidedly missing is good-old logos: the actual evidence and arguments presented in a way that is amenable to critical thought.

So, while "An Inconvenient Truth" will fan the flames of concern about global warming, by itself, it will do little if anything to contribute to the real debate over this issue. And that is an “inconvenient truth” that very few people are likely to notice.

Words Without Persons

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it"-—John 1:1-5 (TNIV).

AOL had a fit today because my credit card expired. That is, their computer panicked because it couldn’t automatically siphon away what it wanted. So, I clicked their link and went to their "easy" page to update my credit card information. Right. After dutifully entering all the information I had, I found that the page required a PIN number, which I did not have. I even asked my wife who confirmed it. “No PIN, Doug.” She knows about these things. So, I called the credit card company and talked to a real, live human being (the significance of this will be come clear later) who said that only debit cards had PINS. She was sorry; so was I. So much for the easy page. Now, horror of horrors, I had to…call AOL. Getting telephonic information from them is like reaching the bottom of an active volcano, but far less dramatic. They want you to do everything on line, of course. After all, they are America On Line.

No humans answer the phone at AOL. Or it they do, it is a kind of an accident, a worse case scenario. Or perhaps after getting very deep into the "menu options" a human voice might squeak through, but I couldn’t reach any. During the first "conversation" with the robotic-voice trying-to-sound-concerned-and-personal, I hesitated to enter some number, because I didn't understand what was requested. “She” kindly told me that she would now "end the call," but wished me a good day, nonetheless. Thanks, Robotta. The next call was not so terminated, but I was still disconnected somehow anyway. This prompted some fuming to my wife about depersonalized and idiotic technologies. But I still had work to do. The third attempt was successful. The voice was happy to announce that my account was updated and functional. (Before that she lamented that my old card had expired. Oh my.)

Speaking to no one when that no one is pretending to be someone is disorienting to me, a someone. If I had a choice, I would rather hear a straight-up robotic voice taken from a bad 1950s science fiction movie. (Or perhaps it could be the voice of Robot—-an original name there—-on the "Lost in Space" TV program from the 1960s. Yes, I watched the vile tube in my benighted youth...) Yet when the automation pretends to be animated, things just get too bizarre. We already hear far too many voices everywhere aimed at no one in particular, but with great urgency and high volume. These voices haunt us, taunt us, flatter us. But these are humans (one hopes) who are speaking. Even the nasal-toned, lisping correspondents on NPR (the only radio major network I know of to hire horrible speaking voices as regulars) are real humans, however insipid. But, of course, one is not talking to these voices from the radio, the television, the cinema. One listens, or maybe one yells at them (as I do when I hear these egregious and unradio voices on NPR).

But the problem with the AOL pseudo-person is just that. There is no one home, but one must talk to them—I mean it. I find myself snarling, "Yes" or "Credit update" or the like. Why be nice to no one? But, then again, why be mean to no one? The latter just seems right on general principles, a kind of mute but spoken protest against depersonalization.

Now Robotta has a kind and caring and impersonal word for you, "Thank you for choosing the Constructive Curmudgeon. Your reading may have been monitored for quality assurance. Have a nice day and visit us again!"

Monday, June 05, 2006

Significance of June 6, 2006: None.

There is an article in The Rocky Mountain News today (6-5-06) about the significance of June 6, 2006, in which I am quoted. It almost makes it look like I attribute some significance to 6-6-06, but I spent much of my time talking with the reporter saying that the date has no significance biblically, although the number does in The Book of Revelation. That point did not come through clearly in the article. This is the chance you take with reporters, whose stories are sometimes edited in ways they don't like.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Ezekiel, Chapter Eight (TNIV)

Idolatry in the Temple

1 In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign LORD came on me there. 2 I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. 3 He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. 4 And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain.

5 Then he said to me, "Son of man, look toward the north." So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy.

6 And he said to me, "Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the house of Israel is doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable."

7 Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. 8 He said to me, "Son of man, now dig into the wall." So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.

9 And he said to me, "Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here." 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of the house of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of the house of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising.

12 He said to me, "Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, 'The LORD does not see us; the LORD has forsaken the land.' " 13 Again, he said, "You will see them doing things that are even more detestable."

14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, "Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this."

16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the LORD, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the LORD and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east.

17 He said to me, "Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the house of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them."

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Short Review of "The Soul of Christianity" by Huston Smith (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

Huston Smith's worldview should be obvious to those who have read his previous books, or to those who read this one critically. It is perennialism, not Christianity. Perennialists, such as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, and Ken Wilber, hold that all religions share a common mystical and esoteric core: all is one and all is divine. The exoteric trappings of religion--such as their official creeds and Scriptures--may seem to affirm otherwise, but never mind. (That two evangelical authors endorsed this book shows that they either did not understand his perspective or did not find not find his perspective a significant enough departure from orthodoxy to withhold their endorsement.)

Thus, while using words common to Christian faith and appealing to various Bible texts, Smith redefines the meaning of every theological term he uses and imposes an essentially pantheistic and monistic worldview upon the Bible, adjusting it to his perennialist and Procrustean bed for appropriate mutilations.

Smith's very definition of Christianity (p. 33) lacks any reference to Jesus Christ, the incarnate founder of it. This is because Smith's philosophical categories trump the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.

If one is impressed with Smith's rendering of Christianity or if one wants a truer description of it, it is advisable to read the Bible itself as well as to consider books more faithful to what the Bible's basic message, such as John Stott's Basic Christianity and Walter Martin's Essential Christianity. To understand the tactics that Smith and others use in misinterpreting the Bible, see James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting.

I will have a longer review published in The Christian Research Journal in the near future.

Mass Media

Mass media have served as a mass lobotomy.--Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.

The Undiscerning, the Undeserving, and Ridiculous Wealth

Never underestimate the readiness of the undiscerning to reward the undeserving with ridiculous wealth.--Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.

New Book, "Exploring Apologetics"

Christian Schools International has published a book of readings called, "Exploring Apologetics: Selected Readings," which seems to be gauged for high-school students. No editor is listed for the book. The categories of the book are:

Common Objections to Christian Faith: Introductory Readings
Objections to Christian Faith 1
Objections to Christian Faith 2
Objections to Christian Faith 3

Two of my essays are included, "Six Enemies of Apologetic Engagement" and "Christianity Honors Women," both of which have been published elsewhere. The book also features readings from CS Lewis, RC Sproul, Cornelius Plantinga, James Sire, Ravi Zacharias, Charles Colson, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Emerging Church Critique

Charles Colson and his cowriter give some cogent thoughts on the emerging church from Christianity Today: