Thursday, November 29, 2007

Important correction in previous post

A reader pointed out an egregious error in the previous post. I referred to Shelby Steel's book as White Racism, when it is White Guilt. Steele does not believe that white racism is the main race problem today. Please read this superb book.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Slice From An Autobiography That Will Never Be Written or The Year of Reading Dangerously

In March of 1976, I started filling an old blank, lined black book with vocabulary entries. The place was Greeley, Colorado, and I was attending The University of Northern Colorado (for one and only one year, thank goodness). Entering college as an abject ignoramus (my high school GPA was 2.4, and that was because of grade inflation), I found that my textbooks were replete with words I did not know (including not a few sesquipedalians).

I still have this book, and I sometimes show it to my students, whom I always encourage to expand their vocabularies in order to expand their understanding of reality. The book sports 132 pages of entries, starting with "autonomy" and ending (in 1994) with "demotic." Yes, I continue to learn new words (I picked up "gimcrack" from Shelby Steele's stellar, White Guilt), but now write the definitions in the books where I find them. I still often use the dictionary my mother gave me when I went off to college in 1975: The American Heritage. We are old friends.

I have known the general whereabouts of the vocabulary book since 1976, but I only recently found something else within its musty and chaffed covers--a list of books I read in 1981. This was entered near the very back of the book, which I had not entirely filled with new vocabulary conquests. During 1981, I worked in a campus ministry in Eugene, Oregon, called The McKenzie Study Center. I was twenty-four years old, with a Bachelor's degree in philosophy from The University of Oregon (the mail order school). My duties included teaching a class each quarter at the University as part of a special program that let community people teach classes for credit. I also did some evangelism and discipleship. But mostly I read as much as I could on a plethora of topics, all related to my class, "The Twilight of Western Thought: A Christian Response" (Sociology 400). I made about $400 a month, which was spent on rent, food, and books, books, and more books.

What an idyllic life it was. I was single, had very few responsibilities, very few needs, and a wealth of time for study and reflection. My black book records that I read 116 books that year. I cannot make out a few of the titles, but the topics included comparative religion (R.C. Zaehner), the New Age movement (I was researching my first book, Unmasking the New Age), philosophy (mostly Existentialism, Camus, Sartre and William Barrett), theology (Carl Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority), apologetics (Van Til, Schaeffer), ethics, economics, education, art, church history, sociology, and more.

Such a life of classical leisure is far beyond me today, although I have far more time to read than most humans; moreover, few people have probably ever experienced this amount of time for protracted reading. I know, however, that Joseph Campbell (the Jungian purveyor of mythical distortions of Christianity and much else) spent some similar years as a young man. What different trajectories we took. Looking back, I realize that this year of reading dangerously (and the whole period from 1979-84) was formative and foundational for me intellectually. I was an autodidact with a vengeance, untutored by any mentor, unanchored to any controlling ideology (beyond the Christian worldview), and consumed by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge (which I still possess). I had not yet begun to write very much--except in 1983-4 when I wrote Unmasking the New Age--so most of my time was buried in books.

I remember that at some time between 1979-81, the Director of the ministry came into my bedroom/study, where I was hunched over my desk, and said, "You need to get out there and spend time with people!" Well, I did some of that, but books took up most of the time. And I'm thankful that they did. Thanks, Wes, for letting me continue to read.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Being Literate, Becoming Literate

Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.--Ecclesiastes 12:9-12.

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.--C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.

What does it mean to be literate? How many today can attain unto it? For how many is it simply too late, a lost cause?

To be literate means to seek knowledge and wisdom through literature, to live a certain kind of life. A literate person experiences life through the knowledge gained through reading great--and some not-so-great--works; she carries the works within and summons them (consciously or unconsciously) for the thoughts and emotions requisite for any given situation. Being literate expands the vocabulary, the semantics, and the syntax of the soul, allowing more of reality to be appropriated in more ways. It helps one see what is tragic, what is comic, and what is trivial.

This knowledge establishes a friendship with the best that humans have written; it lifts one out of the cave of individual stupor (self-stultification and self-stupefaction) by exposing the soul to fresher air, higher thoughts, deeper feelings. It opens the pores.

For many of the image bearers of God in our day being literate is neither a goal nor a possibility. They have been rendered functionally autistic through the diversions of digital media, hyper hedonism, and pseudo-education that is more concerned with indoctrination than with the invocation of the muse, whose presence can transport us to unexplored lands of truth, even to eternity.

The National Endowment for the Arts laments (again) that reading is in steep decline. How can I provoke in my students the love of learning, the thrill of discovery, the discipline of finding, testing, and applying ideas? How can I commend reading over watching or playing? I can attempt to be a model of a literate man--a very imperfect one, who got a late start, and who chronically feels his ignorance. I can pray for them to awaken, to begin to distain the cave they call a home.

My "Mail Order" Degree

Recently a person with an unctuous screen name made an obnoxious remark about my "mail order" degree (Ph.D. in philosophy, 1993) from the University of Oregon (Eugene). My wife did some research and found this on the University of Oregon web page:

The university is one of only sixty-two public and private institutions in the U.S. and Canada selected for membership in the exclusive Association of American Universities (AAU).

This isn't bad for a "mail order" school!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

JP Moreland on a Wrong View of the Bible in Relation to Knowledge

J.P. Moreland recently delivered a paper at ETS on the problem of evangelical "overcommitment" to the Bible. That may sound strange or wrong, but it isn't. Please read his short description of his paper on his Kingdom Triangle blog and click to the full paper, which I just read and which I find superb and much-needed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

More on Flew Flying the Atheist Coop

Christian journalist, Doug LeBlanc has written a good blog piece on the Flew controversy. It comes down to this: The New York Times tried to smear Flew.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Controversy Over New Anthony Flew Book

Anthony Flew, prestigious British philosopher and nearly life-long atheist, has written a new book called There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. I have submitted a review of it to a newspaper, so will not post it as yet. The New York Times claims that Flew was manipulated by Christians. A recently piece in Publishers Weekly has a statement by Flew denying any manipulation. The book was written with Abraham Roy Varghese, but represents Flew's ideas, Flew claims.

I take this to be a very significant book, one that lays out clear scientific reasons why one should rationally believe in a Creator and Designer God. Flew is not yet a Christian, however--although the book concludes with a dialogue with no less than NT Wright on the deity and resurrection of Jesus. Please pray for Dr. Flew. He is in his eighties, so he needs to cram for finals.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Korean Boot Camp Aims to Cure Web Addiction"

Seokyong Lee for The New York Times

MOKCHEON, South Korea — The compound — part boot camp, part rehab center — resembles programs around the world for troubled youths. Drill instructors drive young men through military-style obstacle courses, counselors lead group sessions, and there are even therapeutic workshops on pottery and drumming.

Lee Chang-hoon, 15, runs an obstacle course at the Jump Up Internet Rescue School. He spent almost all of his time online before his mother sent him to the camp. “Seventeen hours a day online is fine,” he said at the camp.

But these young people are not battling alcohol or drugs. Rather, they have severe cases of what many in this country believe is a new and potentially deadly addiction: cyberspace...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Interview with John Coltrane!

Here is a technology to be praised: a six and a half minute interview with John Coltrane from 1960 on Youtube. There is no video, only audio (plus a slide show of many Coltrane albums and some book covers). He is soft spoken, but articulate; the host is rather flatfooted. But listen to Trane for yourself. I never heard his voice before in a conversation.

Audio from "Intelligent Design: Finding the Signature of God in Nature"

My recent lecture at Denver Seminary (November 8, 2007) is now on line. I used a short clip from Lee Stobel's video, "The Case for a Creator," which is one video I highly recommend because of its educational and apologetic significance.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Given the low level of much of the "discussion" (that is, pointless insults) on this blog of late, I'm taking an indefinite holiday.

For Those Who Think I'm a Luddite

This is taken from my CV:

"I was awarded a technology grant of $1000 in 2001 for creating a fully functional web page for one of my courses. I was the first Denver Seminary faculty member to do so."

Moreover, I am the only Denver Seminary professor (to my knowledge) to have both a web page (since 1996) and a blog (since 2005).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Vidiot Village

Welcome to Vidiot Village!

Your stay will be fully visual, virtual, and value-added. There are no words to heed, nothing to read. We have video phones, video games, video homes for all your vidiocentricities.

You'll experience wall-to-wall, 24-7 vidiography, vidioscopy, vidiomancy, vidiosupremacy.

Look, look, look--always grove to what moves. It all moves--all the time. Never a typographic moment. Never a dead page, mere words. No dead ink. This place glows and grows and glitters.

We have video-volcanos, video tomatos, video tornados!

"You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Technological Losses Add Up: Curmudgeon at Full Tilt (corrected)

That did it. Having experienced another technological loss tonight at the King's Soopers, I must go into a full-tilt, curmudgeonly, ranting rampage. There are so many technological losses; they are so annoying; they are so unnecessary; and no one else seems to care. Or perhaps people care, but are powerless to stop the mindless technological juggernaut.

I did some late-night shopping at King Soopers, thinking it would be an opportune time, since no one else would be there. I stupidly assumed a checker would be there, though. I was wrong. The wonderful automated checkout machines were the only thing open. I had a full cart and the robot wasn't up for it. I drank an organic fruit drink during shopping. I scanned it and threw out the bottle. The robot didn't like that. "Please put the item in the bag," it insisted. Right, you mindless moron. I asked the attendant, but he was utterly clueless as to how to face this emergency. So, I took the empty bottle out and put in the bag. I guess that registered or the assistant ended up doing something. I won't bore you with more problems that ensued, but here is the point. Numerous new technologies rob us of functions better performed by their predecessors (or by mere humans). A regular checker (even the dimmest ones) can understand the idea of an empty bottle. Robots cannot. Consider other losses:

1. Cassettes are superior to CDs for listening to lectures. You simply stop them when you are done and they remain where they were--a determinate spot on the tape. Not so for CDs, unless you keep them in the player. Moreover, most CDs do not have individual tracks for lectures. Thus, you cannot stop where you are to continue.

2. Old VCR machines are simpler than DVDs. Moreover--like the cassette--you can simply stop the video where you are, take it out, and put it back in at exactly the same place later. Not so DVDs.

3. My first printer for my first computer (A Kay Pro, a dinosaur if there was one--and still in my basement) was essentially a typewriter, which typed about 80 words a minute. The quality of the type was impeccable. Yes, it was slower and had only one kind of type. But so what?

4. Many automobile cassette players do not have the old fashioned fast forward and reverse. No, too simple for the Jetsons (yes, I watched cartoons as a benighted youth way back in the last century). We are now graced with an automated function--these things are killing us--that finds the next song or the previous one. This is terrific, except when you want to fast forward or rewind a lecture tape. Then, it does no good at all; and you must find an older, primitive cassette player to actually do the job.

5. Lapel mics work just fine, thank you. But now I sometimes--not too much yet, thank goodness--have to don a bizarre, tormenting device that hooks around your ear and juts out in front of your face (sometimes called a "Madonna mic"). I don't want to wear anything having anything remotely to do with Madonna. And what is the point? I already have my hands free with a lapel mic. Nor do I want to look like a football coach or a jet pilot.

6. Older cars--such as our 1976 Gremlin--had no computers. Thus, they were simpler and easier to fix. Not so for our 1994 Dodge Intrepid, which we ended up giving away in 2003, because its computer problems stumped the dealer and a "specialist." We sold the Gremlin for $300 in 2003.

7. I won't even comment on PowerPoint, since I am able to avoid it entirely when I teach (unless a church demands that my outline be "PowerPointed"--what an ugly word and ugly reality). See the on-line essay, "PowerPoint is evil."

8. Before automated voice messages, one could talk to a human and get information. Now, with endless menu options (which have all "recently changed," so you have sit through an exciting run-down of how the numbers relate to different categories of requests) you are doing well to get any information at all quickly. And consider the so-called "music" you have to listen to while you wait! It is usually right up there with water boarding.

9. Land phone lines sound much better than cell phone connection and land phones sound better than cordless phones.

One can go on. But tell me your stories. Go ahead: rage at the machine.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Christian Yoga Refuted

Denver Journal features a book review by Denver Seminary Philosophy of Religion graduate Priscilla Friedlander. She reviews An Invitation to Christian Yoga by Nancy Roth. Please read this excellent critique.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Intelligent Design: Finding the Signature of God in Nature

I will give this lecture on November 8, at 7:00 PM, at the Denver Seminary Chapel (6399 S. Santa Fe Drive, Littleton, CO 80120). It is part of "The Women's Forum" program, but I think they let in males. I don't plan to come in drag, anyway. The lecture will give the evidence for design in nature, focusing on the microscopic world of the cell. The poster child of the ID movement, the bacterial flagellum, will make another appearance in a short DVD clip, probably from Lee Strobel's superb DVD, "The Case for a Creator." I will give out a detailed outline and leave plenty of time for questions and answers.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Swinging in Class

[This essay was first published in The Philosophers Magazine earlier this year. If you have seen anything like it, let me know. It may be the most original thing I have ever written--for better or worse!]

I am a philosopher, a professor, and a jazz fan. In the midst of a philosophy class, I may wax enthusiastic about the transcendent qualities of a John Coltrane saxophone solo or the preternatural swing of drummer Buddy Rich. These comments are not merely idiosyncratic. They reflect a philosophy of pedagogy that is saturated in jazz sensibilities. The classroom should swing; students and their professor should spend time in the woodshed; the class will jam on philosophical themes deeply rooted in tradition, but be open to new chops.

It is difficult to fit jazz into a tight analytical definition in which necessary and sufficient conditions are stipulated. But jazz is known for at least three salient and laudatory features, all of which translate fruitfully into a philosophy of pedagogy.

First, jazz works from and creatively appropriates a revered tradition, the origins of which are not entirely clear. The call-and-response patterns of African slave songs and spirituals are evident in the ensemble creativity of jazz, for example. But jazz critic Stanley Crouch claims that indigenous African music does not swing. Swing possesses a certain glide or lightness to its rhythmic propulsion that is lacking in other rhythmic patterns. A jazz musician must master the jazz tradition to perform this demanding but delightful music. Listen to the conversations between jazz pianist Marianne McPartland and her musician guests (“cats”) on NPR’s “Piano Jazz’ to understand this.

Crouch also writes that you hear the entire history of the jazz saxophone in the playing of Charles Lloyd. To some extent this is true, mutatis mutandis, for any great jazz instrumentalist or vocalist. Every jazz musician must sit at the feet of the great bands and the virtuoso performers. To learn from such a varied and luxuriant tradition requires extensive study and practice. Jazz musicians speak of this as “time in the woodshed.” The angular, odd, and complex structures of many of pianist Thelonious Monk’s compositions sent Monk and his band mates into the woodshed for extended periods of time. John Coltrane was so fiercely dedicated to practicing that he would often fall asleep with his saxophone; he would also practice fingering when he was not in a situation where he could blow.

Philosophy is rooted in a far longer line of tradition, reaching back to the Presocratics. As such, it demands of its disciples a lifetime “in the woodshed” where they attempt to master its arguments, developments, and applications. The exemplary professor of philosophy (or of any other discipline) immerses himself in that history and finds inspiration from its virtuosi. Perennial philosophical themes of the good, the true, and the beautiful as engaged by philosophical giants become living residents in the soul, not static pieces of information. Teaching these classic ideas year after year is never boring if one engages them as philosophical “standards” (to use the jazz idiom)—treasures to which one repeatedly returns afresh. A philosophy professor who knows and savors the tradition becomes a philosophical contagion, infecting her students with a like passion.

Although I have taught Kant’s epistemology for many years, I return to the woodshed every time I teach it in order to reacquaint myself with this demanding work and to envision novel ways in which to make it clear to students encountering these jaw-dropping ideas for the first time—as well as to expose Kant’s philosophical clams (a jazz term for musical missteps). The woodshed can yield surprises. Just as a jazz musician may deepen his playing unexpectedly after years of performing—as John Coltrane dramatically did from around 1962 to 1965—a philosopher may return to a classic argument and discover something entirely new. After being skeptical of the ontological argument for God’s existence for years, I recently came under its metaphysical spell—while teaching introduction to philosophy, no less—and now enthusiastically present it to my sometimes baffled students.

Second, jazz is, at its best, highly creative in composition and in performance. Although jazz virtuosi are steeped in tradition, they must find their own voice in order to perpetuate that tradition in new forms—that is, to refract jazz through the prisms of their own unique personalities. Finding that voice requires moving from imitation to creation. Basic techniques must become second nature—the fingering of a saxophone, the strokes on the drums—but the artistic voice moves beyond technique and imitation. Jazz musicians must invent their own chops—a term invented by Louis Armstrong that refers to the musician’s distinctive performing abilities. Drummer Art Blakey mastered a chop so distinctive it became eponymous. According to the Impulse Records web page, “Blakey developed a press roll so exquisitely forceful and so unmistakably his that drum manuals give it a formal name, the Blakey Press Roll.”

Philosophy professors, as well, need creativity rooted in routine if they are going to stimulate their students to pursue the truth through reason over a lifetime. Just as jazz musicians need to learn their scales in order to use them as building blocks for their own style, so philosophers and their students require a common vocabulary with which to speak. This tradition is not a museum to visit—a place to polish and read plaques placed in front of the portraits of Heraclitus, Sankara, Locke, Kierkegaard, et al.—but a deep well from which to draw ideas for the ongoing dialectic, which is a kind of intellectual call-and-response performance. By so doing, both professor and students begin to find their intellectual voices. Some philosophical moves are so distinctive they become eponymous, such as Frankfurt counterexamples or Pascal’s wager or Searle’s Chinese room. Neither I nor my students may ever have philosophical chops named after us; nonetheless, a serious engagement in philosophy invokes the virtues of careful creativity.

Third, jazz is, according to the master jazz writer Whitney Balliett, “the sound of surprise.” A well-played piece of jazz music—even the most well-known standard—summons new ideas from jazz performers. The well-known need not be the well-worn, since the musical form, tied to the discipline of the musicians, can always yield something fresh and inspiring. This flows from the inherently improvisational nature of jazz, which involves the creativity of both the individual soloist and the ensemble as a unit. The difference between the two types of improvisation is vanishingly small if not artificial in a tight jazz group, since each musician is so highly attuned to the playing of the other musicians. A jazz musician who listens to and responds appropriately to fellow musicians is said to have big ears. The members of the classic Coltrane Quartet performed nearly telepathically in their ability to anticipate, complement, and inspire each other musically.

The individual and group improvisation of jazz makes it a kind of aesthetic high wire act. True jazz is never canned. Jazz performers compose in public. Ted Gioia calls jazz improvisation “the imperfect art.” Things can go wrong at these altitudes. Yet the possibilities are enticing and elevating. A book by Eric Nisenson dedicated to the improvisational artistry of saxophonist Sonny Rollins is appropriately entitled Open Sky. Even jazz musicians less known for their improvisational prowess may stun audiences and even themselves in moments of spontaneity, as did tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalvas when he soloed for twenty-seven choruses during "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956.

Philosophy in the classroom should allow for and encourage the kind of intellectual serendipity celebrated by jazz. The professor (immersed in the tradition) along with the students (more recently initiated into the tradition) work to comprehend the great ideas in a structured but also free collaboration. With enough woodshed time, the toughest concepts and arguments can be performed winningly through lecture, discussion, and testing. The class readings become the musical score, the professor is the band leader, and the students learn to play the score and improvise on it. The professor needs big ears to read the students’ responses and to inspire them to jam hard on the chord changes (I mean concepts). The whole (students and professor) is greater than the sum of the parts, just as in jazz.

When the chemistry is right, I generate new ideas and experiment before the cats (I mean students). Thinking aloud in public is a performance. Students do it as well. They sometimes surprise me with their chops and I try—in the spirit of jazz—to let them take ideas in new directions. Of course, clams are also produced. But recently a student in my introduction to philosophy class raised an earnest question about the relationship between faith and reason that triggered an unplanned and very fruitful discussion. This kind of improvisation can be exhilarating; it can also fall flat. But in the realm of studied risk lies the promise of new flights into the open sky of rational argument. The idea of jazz pedagogy came to me in the midst of a lecture, and I have been in the woodshed with it ever since.

There are many more chops to develop and traditions to appropriate in drawing out the connections between the artistry of jazz and the artistry of professorial pedagogy. But if we attend to the jazz sensibilities of mastering and extending a tradition through a strong work ethic, if we labor to find our own philosophical and pedagogical voices, and if we savor “the sound of surprise,” we will be well on our way to swinging in the classroom.

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and an adjunct professor at several state and community colleges.

Friday, November 02, 2007

"Majoring in Submission" Exchange

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis has a long response to the comments of Steve Cowan under the post (below) "Majoring in Submission." She defends in more detail her claim that the traditionalist account of gender roles is logically incoherent. Please read it.