Friday, November 30, 2012

Christian Funerals

“Often today two rival theological understandings battle it out for the soul of the funeral. To put it starkly, on the one hand, there is the gospel. The one who has died is an embodied person, a saint ‘traveling on’ to God, continuing the baptismal journey toward the hope of the resurrection of the body and God’s promise to make all things new. On the other hand, there is a more ‘spiritualized,’ perhaps even gnostic, understanding of death. The body is ‘just a shell,’ and the immortal soul of the deceased has now been released to become a spiritual presence among us, available through inspiration and active memory. In this view, the body, no longer of any use, is disposed of, but the ‘real person’ is now a disembodied spirit. It is therefore not the deceased who is traveling, but the mourners, on an intrapsychic journey from sorrow to stability.” Thomas Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Will the Real Enemies of Liberty Please Stand Up!

Those who wave the rainbow flag of
"marriage equality" seek to deprive us of our freedoms
This last election saw ballot initiatives to permit gay “marriage” approved in Maryland, Maine, and Washington. Moreover, earlier in the year President Obama officially come out in support of gay “marriage,” while a ruling from a federal appeals court last August declared that the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, paving the way for gay “marriage” to potentially become legal in every state. 

If gay “marriage” is legalized, will this mean anything for Christians living in America, or will it only affect homosexuals? Will it create more freedoms or less?

According to many thinkers who have studied the issue—Christians as well as unbelievers—the answer is that introducing gay “marriage” will affect Christians and that it will not bring more freedom. Rather, it will bring more government control.

In an article published earlier this week with the Colson Center, I have provided some resources to show why this is the case, and why those who advance same-sex 'marriage' are the real enemies of liberty. I encourage all Christians to read these resources and familiarize yourself with the implications that same-sex “marriage” could have for America. Equip yourself to make the case against same-sex “marriage” when people around you bring it up, as they increasingly will in the days ahead.

To read my article, click on the following link:

Will the Real Enemies of Liberty Please Stand Up?

Introducing The Wise Woman with Literary Analysis Journal Questions

Life is short. The window of opportunity to learn and laugh with our children closes all too soon. With such limited time, we must carefully select which resources receive our attention. 

The Wise Woman by George MacDonald is an elegant little story that speaks with stunning wisdom and authority on many significant subjects: selfishness, pride, and conceit, as well as sacrifice, courage, and compassion. 

Travel through its pages and you will encounter sleek wolves, slobbering hyenas, and an assortment of beasts that go bump in the night. Step into enchanted rooms with pictures that become doorways into the familiar or the fantastic. Witness weak-willed parents who blindly overindulge their children—and reap the destructive consequences of their indiscriminate giving. 

You will also meet a fearlessly loving and wise woman who confronts stubborn ignorance and ugly pride with unflinching discipline, truth, and grace. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

B.B. Warfield and the Quest for Immediacy

B. B. Warfield
Echoing the anti-creational orientation of the classical Gnostics, much of late nineteenth and twentieth-century Presbyterianism  has fed off the assumption that the created order is spiritually ineffectual, and consequently that secondary, mediating causes are at best unnecessary and at worst deeply problematic, especially when such mediating causes are embedded in materiality, as in the sacraments.

This is the standpoint adopted by the great Calvinist theologian B. B. Warfield. In his book, The Plan of Salvation, Warfield asserted that “precisely what evangelical religion means is immediate dependence of the soul on God and on God alone for salvation.” He is critical of any theology that “separates the soul from direct contact with and immediate dependence upon God the Holy Spirit. . . .”  

One sees this antipathy to means again in Warfield’s discussion of sacerdotalism, where Warfield happily separates the work of instrumentalities with the work of God’s Spirit. In their discussion of Warfield, Fred Zaspel and Sinclair Ferguson write that the key question separating sacerdotalism and evangelicalism is the question of divine grace comes to us "immediately or by means of supernaturally endowed instrumentalities - the church and sacraments.” (Fred G. Zaspel and Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, p. 415) 

What is puzzling is that these authors fail to recognize that faith in the evangelical view is also an instrumentality. (See my 'Questions about Sola Fide' where I expand on this important point.) Thus, Zaspel and Ferguson ask, “Does God save men by immediate operations of his grace upon their souls, or does he act upon them only through the medium of instrumentalities established for that purpose?” Their answer to their own question is that evangelicalism “sweeps away every intermediary between the soul and its God, and leaves the soul dependent for its salvation on God alone, operating upon it by his immediate grace.” In practice, this sweeping away of every intermediary would include not only a rejection of sacramentally-mediated grace, but also a rejection of parental and ecclesial nurture as instruments of saving grace. As Zaspel and Ferguson note, “The point at issue is the immediacy of God’s saving activity…The evangelical directs the sinner, in need of salvation, to look to God himself for grace rather than to any means of grace.”

The key word here is “immediacy.” Taking the Zwinglian idea of immediacy to its logical extension, Zaspel and Ferguson follow Warfield in arguing that if salvation is dependent on the ministry of the church then it depends on man. However, we might equally say that if salvation depends on faith then it is dependent on man. If someone replies that this is not the case with faith because faith is a gift, then one could certainly ask: is not the church and her ministry also a gift? Moreover, while Zaspel and Ferguson write that “This ‘evangelicalism’ is, simply, Protestantism”, their position can be contrasted with that of Calvin who, for all his Gnostic leanings, did put a premium on secondary means in a way that Zaspel and Ferguson, following Warfield, oppose.

Further Reading.

'Questions about Sola Fide', by Robin Phillips


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Monday, November 26, 2012

Christianity and Literary Criticism

In an article I wrote earlier in the year for the Colson Center, I suggested that Christians must resist the impulse to “Christianize” texts when doing so means we abandon readings grounded in the interpretative primacy of authorial intent. I argued that the value that literary works have for us as believers does not depend on our ability to wrest from them specific lessons we can apply in our lives. Indeed, to engage with books on a purely aesthetic level is already to be operating under the canopy of the Biblical worldview. We do not have to discover a Christian message in a work of literature before it becomes Christian, any more than we need to do story problems about the dimensions of Noah’s ark before math becomes Christian. Beautiful literature, like math, is already implicitly Christian because of what it is in itself.

Unfortunately, many Christians who desire to apply the Biblical worldview to literary criticism often resemble the evolutionist approaching creation. Just as the evolutionist cannot accept that beauty has any ultimate value for its own sake, and so will try to explain all of nature’s beauty in terms of utility, so Christians sometimes have a hard time accepting that beautiful works of literature have any value apart from their instrumental purposes in helping us to be better people or learn more about God. The liability of this approach is that it holds us back from being able to appreciate art as art. Essentially this approach turns all works of literature into sermons.

To read more of my thoughts on this subject, and what a distinctly Biblical approach to literary criticism looks like, click on the following link:

What Obama Thinks of Liberty

This article was originally published on the Christian Voice website. It is reprinted here with permission.

Obama’s re-election has huge symbolic value, since he epitomizes changing attitudes towards liberty in America. He represents a growing constituency which believes that maximization of liberty means removing all barriers to sexual license.

It is common knowledge that no president has been as virulently pro-abortion and pro-homosexual as Obama. But the real significance of this is that as Obama attempts to overturn centuries of Christian morality, he does so in the name of liberty.

In the case of Obama’s support of abortion, the policies he embraces actually remove liberty from the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. Similarly, his recent support of same-sex ‘marriage’ could see unprecedented restrictions on freedom of speech and even thought. However, Obama pursues these policies in the name of greater freedom for the American people. This is significant since it shows that America is involved in a sea-change shift of what liberty actually means.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fiction and the Christian Faith

In an article published yesterday for my Worldview column at the Colson Center, I talked about the role that fiction (in both books and movies) can play in helping us to grow in Christian sanctification. I suggest that fiction is valuable because of its ability to uniquely simulate the types of lived experiences that lead to wisdom.

Think for a moment about the experiences in your own life that have helped you grow in wisdom, to become a richer, deeper, more complex and well-rounded person. If you are like most people, the experiences that lead to this type of growth are those which force you to wrestle with things over sustained periods of time. Wisdom only comes to those who are prepared to grapple with the pain, confusions, mysteries and ambiguities of being human and living in this type of a world. A day is all it takes to be taught the knowledge of the truth; but to grow in wisdom we must grapple with the truth over long periods of time. Often this is a process that we may not even be aware of, as we brood (often unconsciously) over the things that have happened to us and our friends.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
in The Godfather
The type of wisdom we gain from story likewise arises from grappling with the complexities and ambiguities of experience, but in this case experiences we have shared with fictional characters. Good fiction (whether a novel or film) draws you into the paradoxes that underlie the story, so that even when it is finished the story continues to haunt you, forcing you to brood over it. I have in mind some of the stories of Flannery O’Connor right now, which I always read whenever I travel. These stories are filled with haunting moments that work on the reader long after you have put down the book. Another example would be The Godfather films. I watched these films about six years ago but I am still brooding over the paradoxes of Michael Corleone. What was it that changed Michael from being a nice guy who wanted to live the normal American life, to a murderous lonely gangster?

Another way to make the same point would be to say that the value of good fiction (whether in a novel or a film) isn’t that it teaches you a lesson, at least not in the straight-forward and didactic sense that we would expect from a fable. This is where so many of the recent “Christian films” miss the point completely. Many of these films take cheap short-cuts and simply spoon-feed a quick lesson to the viewer instead of doing the far more difficult (but ultimately, more rewarding and long-lasting) work of taking us on a journey that the viewer then has to come to terms with for himself. Now to be sure there is always some kind of a lesson or logos in every story, but in a good story it is diffused throughout it rather like a lump of sugar that has dissolved throughout the entire cup of tea.

To read about why fiction is important from a Christian perspective, visit my article 'Fiction and the Christian Faith.'

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sacral Secularity

"The public is not so much desacralized as it is de-Christianized to bathe the new secular public in a kind of sacral secularity. New rituals of formation take the place of Christian liturgy and serve quite different ends. The secular is not areligious, just differently religious - a religion of immanence and autonomy.... The advent of modernity and the birth of the secular, therefore, do not entail the creation of a secular public space where the state merely manages temporal goods, distinguished from a private sacred space where individuals and communities are free to pursue a supra-temporal telos. The state does not take a merely temporal regulatory role and leave salvation in the hands of the church; rather, the modern state seeks to replace the church by itself becoming a soteriological institution. It is in this sense, then, that the modern state is a parody of the church: 'The body of the state is a simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ' (RONT, 182). As a result, while political rhetoric may suggest that the state is confined to a 'public' sphere or that the reign of the secular is circumscribed, in fact the modern state demands complete allegiance, and the reign of the secular does not tolerate territories of resistance. The state is happy to absorb all kinds of private pursuits under the umbrella of civil society, but it cannot tolerate a religious community that claims to be the only authentic polis and proclaims a king who is a rival to both Caesar and Leviathan. In such a case, this community's allegiance to its king ultimately trumps its allegiance to the state or empire, and its understanding of the nature of human persons does not fit the normative picture of liberalism. This the state cannot tolerate. It is in this sense that 'every worship service is a challenge to Caesar.' Thus, Cavanaugh defines the state as 'that peculiar institution which has arisen in teh last four centuries in which a centralized and abstract power holds a monopoly over physical coercion within a geographically defined territory.' James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology, pp. 131-133

Saturday, November 17, 2012

East German Wall Pictures

Thanks to my mother, I now have pictures to go with an event I described in the Preface of Saints and Scoundrels.

In the book's Preface I explain how the book grew out of an experience I had when I was eleven years old and traveled to West Germany with my family. One afternoon my dad drove us to the wall separating West and East Germany. The electric fence dividing the free world from the “evil empire” looked ominous and was more than a little freightening for an eleven year old boy.

As we emerged from the car, we were met by a chill, drizzling rain. On the other side of the fence a lone guard stared gloomily at us. The rest of my family had their picture taken in front of the fence but I was too afraid to venture near. Here is a picture of the family (without my Dad, since he was taking the picture).

A few minutes later I plucked up the courage and asked my dad to photograph me next to the terrible barrier, or as close to it as I dared approach. Here I am:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Very Heart of English Christianity

"During a short spell at a cathedral choir school (not as a choirboy, since I sing like a donkey) I had experienced the intense beauty of the ancient Anglican chants, spiralling up into chilly stone vaults at Evensong. This sunset ceremony is the very heart of English Christianity. The prehistoric, mysterious poetry of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, perhaps a melancholy evening hymn, and the cold, ancient laments and curses of the Psalms, as the unique slow dusk of England gathers outside and inside the echoing, haunted, impossibly old building, are extraordinarily potent. If you welcome them, they have an astonishing power to reassure and comfort. If you suspect or mistrust them, they will alarm and repel you like a strong and unwanted magic, something to flee from before it takes hold." Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Sex in Movies: New Installment in Series

A post I wrote in May 2009 about why Christians shouldn't watch sex in movies has recently generated some significant interest. I have written a couple follow-up articles about this issue for the Colson Center in a two-part series on Nudity and the Christian Worldview. To read these articles, and the original blog post which prompted them, click on the following links:
In Part 2, published this morning, I draw attention to some recent studies about the effect that viewing sex on television has on children, and I offer a challenge to those parents who let their children have television access in their own bedrooms.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nudge Theory

In an article for the Telegraph, Philip Johnston explains about Nudge Theory. Nudge theory was developed by the American academic Richard Thaler and has been put into practice by UK prime minister David Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Team at a tune of £500,000 a year.

The basic idea is that government can, and ought, to nudge us to be better people. “Effectively,” Johnston explains, “it is social engineering without anyone noticing, a nanny state where nanny stays hidden behind the curtains. Rather than ordering people around or leaving them to behave in ways that will damage their health or wealth, the state can gently manoeuvre them into behaving sensibly.”

David Brooke’s advocated something similar in his bestseller The Social Animal, which I reviewed here, and which also captured the imagination of Britain’s impressionable Prime Minister. Consistent with Nudge Theory, Brooke’s recommends that the government goes about making us better people with a kind of side-ways approach, prodding us in the right direction or propping up the web of relationships in the private sector. He uses the phraseology “limited but energetic” to describe the government’s role in enhancing social mobility and promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Keep reading...

Friday, November 09, 2012

Scripture in the Age of Google

Touchstone has now put my article from the July/August issue online. That means that people who do not subscribe to the magazine can now read my observations for free. My article looks at some of the changes that have happened with regard to reading and book-making technology, and what implications those changes might have for our engagement with scripture. To read my article click on the link below:

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


“Hyperlinks” wrote Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, “alter our experience of media. Links are in one sense a variation on the textual allusions, citations, and footnotes that have long been common elements of documents. But their effect on us as we read is not at all the same. Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. They encourage us to dip in and our of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them. Hyperlinks are designed to grab our attention. Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distractions they cause.”

Speaking of Scoundrels...

To comfort everyone after last night's election results, Stacy McDonald (The Common Scents Mom) is putting on a content to win a FREE copy of Saints and Scoundrels. The offer is timely, since a good dose of history is often all it takes to put our own nation's struggles (and scoundrels) into perspective.

Stacy has also recommended some of Young Living's essential oil products that seem especially designed for trying times such as these.

To learn about the oils, and what you can do to win a copy of my recent book, click on the following link:

Post-Election Give-Away!

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Realist Vision

In an article I wrote for the Colson Center earlier in the year, I pointed out that vision of the medieval realists was one in which everything in the cosmos portended ultimate significance and in which our images of things were posterior to how things really were in actuality. Thomas Howard summed this vision up in his Chance or the Dance? The medieval vision, he suggests,

“read vast significance into everything. Nature and politics and animals and sex — these were all exhibitions in their own way of the way things are. This mind fancied that everything meant everything, and that it all rushed up finally to heaven. We have an idea of royalty, this mind said, which we observe in our politics and which we attribute to lions and eagles, and we have this idea because there is a great King at the top of things, and he has set things thus so that our fancies will be drawn toward his royal Person, and we will recognize the hard realities of which the stuff of our world has been a poor shadow when we stumble into his royal court…. This mind saw things as images because it saw correspondences running in all directions among things. That is, the world was not a random tumble of things all appearing separately, jostling one another and struggling helter-skelter for a place in the sun. On the contrary, one thing signaled another.”

By contrast, William of Ockham and his fellow nominalists challenged this ecosystem of symbols and denied the existence of universals. For them the world essentially became a random tumble of particulars, all appearing separately. Though we can look back and see in nominalism the roots of modern materialism, the original nominalists saw themselves as magnifying God.

To read more about this, click on the following link:

Saturday, November 03, 2012

On 20th Century Gnosticism

"By the twentieth century, this separation of matter and spirit not only permeated universities like Oxford and Cambridge but had affected the outlook of much of the British church. In the Church of England, it began to be seen as a badge of intellectual sophistication for clergy to water down, and sometimes even reject completely, the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith. The Anglican laity were hardly any better, having imbibed a sentimentalized, moralistic faith that had become unhinged from any spiritual reference point. Even those Englishmen committed to espousing a biblical faith often colluded with the modernist separation of the physical from the spiritual. This false separation resulted in the British church imbibing a Gnostic-like spirituality which failed to see how the world of ordinary things—work, matter, creativity, culture, to say nothing of the universe itself—was spiritually infused and dynamic….The false separation of the physical and the spiritual had led to an unofficial theology which stressed that the fundamental Christian hope is immortality rather than physical resurrection. This notion was reinforced by the Platonic bent of post-Victorian evangelicalism, in which the word “resurrection” began to be used simply as an approximation for the soul’s immortality. It even became fashionable for Anglican bishops to spiritualize away Christ’s own resurrection." Saints and Scoundrels, page 299


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Friday, November 02, 2012

St. John Chryostom on Socialism

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

+St. John Chryostom  (AD 347–407)


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