Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Social Justice and Political Ideology

If the criticisms of progressive Christians are true, the evangelical church, preoccupied with the salvation of individuals, doesn't give a crap about the social implications of the gospel. Now, I've been frank in my criticism of American evangelicalism, but to me this rings false, both from years growing up in the evangelical church and from the well-documented fact that religiosity and political conservatism make one likelier to give to charities and to volunteer. These are probably the best measures available of how much people "care" about social justice. Despite the pernicious influence of this idiot, who is not even a Christian, it seems that evangelicals are doing as well as anyone in addressing the social aspects of the gospel, which is not to say that we cannot all do much, much better.

I doubt that most of the people leveling the charge of evangelical apathy have looked extensively at these stats, but I don't think that this knowledge would change their view. This is because what really riles the progressives is that evangelicals do not share their political vision of justice, and they regard this vision as self-evidently correct. If political philosophy is easy to reason through, then reasonably intelligent people who do not reach the correct political conclusions are not merely wrong, but evil or dishonest. Therefore, in the progressives' view, evangelicals, who tend to be politically conservative, do not hold a defensible, rival conception of social justice; they don't care about it. Politically conservative Christians are equally guilty of this sort of reasoning; I've heard people question whether politically liberal Christians were fit for service in the church. Political philosophy, however, is a very difficult subject, and many well-intentioned, intelligent persons will part company along their journey through it. Our political preferences arise from a complex interplay of factors: upbringing, cleverness, social environment, personal morality and emotional makeup. If I see my political ideas and my neighbor's ideas as arising in this way, I can be his friend and think him a decent fellow even if I oppose his political ideas.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

If CS Lewis Were a Filmmaker...

Well, that is a silly proposition to begin with, because of all the great modern fantasists, Lewis's writing is probably the least cinematic. He gives his opinions of his characters directly, he addresses the reader and he secludes most of the physical action in the background. Filming Narnia is difficult, and the folks who made the first two Narnia films did a particularly bad job of it. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe's faults were mostly mistakes in emphasis and casting, Prince Caspian was both a bad film and a bad interpretation, completely ignoring the primary theme of modern man's descent into a kind of superstitious materialism. I don't plan on seeing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I am very glad that Dr. Lewis doesn't have to.

But if CS Lewis had made a film, I think that it might have looked very much like Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. The similarities between Pan's Labyrinth and Narnia are manifold - the wartime setting, the fantastical experiences of a young girl, elders who mock the reality of these experiences, and its willingness to mix mythologies. And indeed it is the outlook on mythology that Lewis and del Toro seem to share. For the protagonist Ofelia, the world of myth is both a place of escape, and a lens that provides a stark moral view of the common world, a place where she comes to recognize the horror of her father's greed and violence.

Moreover, the fantasy world of Pan Labyrinth is not merely story, it is, from my view, a coexistent reality (I have heard arguments that the fantasy adventures are merely Ofelia's imaginings). Perhaps the most original of Lewis's ideas was his claim that Christianity was "myth become fact," the historical incarnation of ageless redemption stories. This idea is certainly present in Pan's Labyrinth. The film's mythology is not explicitly Christian, but it is highly suggestive of the Christian narrative. Without giving away plot details, it includes a spiritual being taking on human flesh, sacrificial blood as a source of redemption, and restoration to right standing before one's father and king. Interesting, del Toro claims that his film was intended to subvert Catholic dogma; a Catholic friend of his called it a "deeply Catholic film". It surely offers much better spiritual food than the newest Narnia blockbuster.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Politics of Bible Study

Children are guileless readers and hearers of stories. They don't tease apart narrative structures or ponder the historical forces that shaped a work or question authorship. They listen, they enjoy, they often fixate on inconsequential details. We grow older and we learn to read for instruction, for analysis, and quite often, for political purposes. There is a strange kinship between academic literary scholars and some conservative Christians in that they place a strong emphasis on political reading. "One ought to read and laud only those works that are likely to reaffirm values that one already holds, so as to reinforce them, and make oneself a better soldier in the good political fight."

Now, there is some validity to this instruction with respect to the Bible, a book that Christians regard as authoritative on all matters of faith and practice, and that ought to be personally transforming. The problem is that a strong emphasis on the instructional aspects of Bible study often brings bad consequences: a reduction of a literary text to a series of propositions, bad exegesis from a failure to understand the literary aspects of the text, and a discarding of parts of the text whose personal value isn't immediately apparent.

I recently reread the patriarchal narrative of Genesis, which, for my money, is the most satisfying narrative in the Bible. As I read through Robert Alter's translation, I was dumbfounded by Jacob's character arc. I saw a man of cunning and physical means deceived into a marriage he did not want, raise a family whose violent honor he could not control, lose his dearest son, and an old man stripped of his smarts and virility left to cries of self-pity, and die in a land that was not his own. What is the practical purpose of this story's inclusion in the Bible? How can it be a cautionary tale, when its events are so dependent on specific details? Is it a theological treatise? There is theology, but it is buried. No, it is an account of Israel's history, of a unique family whose particular method of unhappiness is difficult to replicate, and of God's faithfulness in using such a family to father His chosen people. What value is that to me? The fact that I still ask the question means that I still harbor suspicion of apolitical reading.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Christmas Shoes and the Social Gospel

The intermittently insightful Patrol Magazine has published a fine flaming of what is perhaps the pinnacle of Christian kitsch, the song "The Christmas Shoes." On the song's aesthetics, there's not much else to say, and yet the article barely touches upon what the song's gravest fault. At the song's conclusion, the narrator, having purchased a pair of garish shoes for a poor child's dying mother, claims that God has sent this child "to remind me just what Christmas is all about."

What Christmas is really all about, it seems, is a one-off act of cheap charity to a grotesque pathetic enough to melt the hearts of a multinational bank of Scrooges. Americans love this. We love to complain about the commercialization of the holiday, we love to complain about the shopping season that begins earlier each year, we love to talk about the comparative blessedness of giving and receiving. Our complaints are valid, and also convenient ways to deemphasize what Christmas really is all about - Jesus coming to Earth as both God and man.

Mark Driscoll has pointed out that we cannot fashion an earthly analogy appropriate for the humility of the incarnation, because any such analogy compares two created things, while Jesus becoming a human is an uncreated being taking on the identity of a created being. The Christmas story is about prophecies fulfilled, mythologies thwarted, enemies defeated, sinners redeemed, and love for enemies as much as for cute children. These things, our true cause for celebration and charity, are not the stuff of Christmas easy listening.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm always a little perplexed by the lay atheists who are really into their atheism, and who spend countless hours expounding upon their atheism. If I were an atheist, I'd be too busy working at a hedge fund*, drinking and chasing women to think much about my atheism. But tonight, my purpose is not to talk about atheism, but to talk about Christian morality. My hypothetical remark gets at a very important question - is religious restriction all that stands between religious people and brazen immorality?

Let's look at my case. If I had entered college an atheist, I would not have had any strong moral objections to the dominant campus social culture, which consisted of drinking oneself into a stupor, promiscuity, and training for the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. In all likelihood, I would have adopted that culture as my own, and would probably have continued in a similar lifestyle for another decade. Having adopted that culture, I would be a fundamentally different person than I am now, one whose view of goodness would be an adolescent hedonism.

As it stands, I entered college a Christian, resisted the dominant culture, and became a person who genuinely believes that greed, binge drinking and cheap sex really do not have a part in a good and happy life. The question posed earlier derives from what I think is a misunderstanding of Christian morality, one that Christians have sometimes perpetuated. It is the idea that Christian morality is designed to restrict and diminish pleasure in order that one may demonstrate one's obedience to God. Of course, Christian morality does place restrictions on pleasurable behavior, but when it does so, it does it toward the end of securing deeper and more lasting pleasure. The Bible condemns adultery - this is to secure the love that can only be found in lifelong marriage. The Bible condemns drunkenness - this is to prevent the foolish behavior in which very drunk people engage. It condemns greed, because greed is destructive to self and to others. And beyond these, it tends to condemn behaviors that are hardly pleasurable to anyone.

Now, this is not to say that I do not want things that are sinful - quite the opposite. But when I recognize them as sin, I recognize that having them would not really contribute to my deepest well-being, and this thought sometimes leads me to reject them, though far, far less often than it should. The point is that Christian morality is not like an invisible fence keeping sheep from the open pasture. To me, it is more like a good teacher, whose pupils leave his classroom not only knowing more, but as different people who want different things.

*There are many fine people who work in finance because they enjoy the challenge of investing. At the same time, there are few professions better suited to the avaricious.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Brief Theory of Modern Church Music

The most common criticism levied at traditional church music is that it is entirely disconnected from the realities of modern life. It is too careful, too remote, too complicated and passionless to ignite the spiritual desires of modern man. It establishes a dualism between life in and out of the church building. What the church needs instead is simple, accessible, welcoming music that does not break with the day-to-day rhythms of the congregation. The continuity of sound will, at its best, inspire continuity of practice inside and outside of the church service.

There is some credibility to this argument. The language and harmonies of Psalms and hymns now sound archaic, and popular taste seems to make the window of what is contemporary smaller every year. Very well then. Historically the rhythms of American popular music have been those of everyday life: on horses, next to the train tracks, at work in the factory. Let us write church music in a style that mimics and then transcends the lives of church patrons.

Unfortunately, art imitates the monotonous suburban life in which everything is clean but nothing is elegant, where there is no terror and no beauty. What we are left with is music with none of the unbearable grandeur of God enthroned, and none of the bloody indignity of God on the cross. One of my favorite films is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose soundtrack is probably more popular than the film itself. The soundtrack is filled with traditional American songs of praise and worship, songs that retain their truth and power far outside their time and place of writing, rugged and dirty tunes that captured the intersection of the present and the eternal. This is what contemporary church music writers ought to strive for.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Selfless Love, Selfish Purity

Two outlooks on Christian decision-making: In the first, one sees the good that might be done, and the abilities one has to realize that good. One acts to maximize the good. In the second, one looks at the corruption and blemish that one might incur by following different courses of action. One acts to minimize the bad.

How this might play out*: Parents are choosing where to send their bright and talented son to high school. They are considering a top-rated public school where their son will meet a racially, economically and intellectually diverse group of students, take challenging courses and have the opportunity to participate in a wide range of activities. There are not many Christian students or teachers at the school, and there is substantial drug use and promiscuity. Alternatively, they consider a small church-affiliated high school where their son will easily be a top student, all students and teachers will be white Christians and there will be few extracurricular opportunities. Parents with the first outlook would most likely focus on the benefits of the challenging environment and choose the public school. Parents with the second outlook would most likely see the potential bad influences of public school students and choose the Christian school.

Reasons why the first outlook is best: There is no precedent among the early apostles for the Christian isolationism that inevitably results from the second outlook; rather, their work carried great risk of physical and spiritual harm. The greatest moral commands are to love God and to love others, not to preserve one's own purity. Finally, the beauty and terror of creation and the bloody facts of the incarnation demonstrate that God himself will permit and suffer great evil in order to bring about great good.

Now, this does not mean that we should chase after every idea we have for doing good. It is, as unfortunate experience has taught me, foolish to date someone with the hope of evangelizing that person, or to attend anonymous lewd parties with the hope that one's mere Christian presence will impart a magical transformation on the place. We cannot calculate odds, but we must act with clear, important objects that have a reasonable chance of succeeding. The alternatives are foolish indulgence, and selfish fear of sins already cleansed.

*This scenario is fictional. The correct decision would obviously depend on the details of schools and people.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pew Religious Knowledge Quiz: Commentary

The intrepid researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have recently published the results of their study on American religious knowledge. Average scores were pretty lousy. The obvious response is a self-righteous rant about how ignorant this country is, but really, what does that teach us? There are more important issues that we should address before concluding that these scores are tragic.

The big preliminary question is what kind of knowledge is most important for people to have in order to have good personal and public lives in a religiously pluralistic society? And my answer is that they need enough knowledge to understand, discuss, compare and evaluate the fundamental values of the most prominent religions, including their own. Shapeless as this answer is, it seems to degrade the importance of the Pew study. The study asked multiple choice questions about religious teachings, scriptures, famous figures and about legal issues surrounding religion. A person could correctly answer each of these questions and nevertheless lack all of the soft skills I listed above.

However, the reverse is not true. These weren't exactly $64,000 questions; they tested very basic knowledge of religious issues that a mediocre high school education and occasional newspaper reading would easily provide. They tested the sort of foundational knowledge that is necessary to have an intelligent discussion about religion and its role in public life. Of course, the importance of the questions varied - one can probably understand Judaism well enough without knowing a thing about Maimonides, but one cannot compare Christian and Muslim views of scripture without knowing the name of the Islamic holy book. It is probably safe to say that people who are unable to answer basic factual questions about world religions cannot compare and assess them either.

If there is a uniquely Christian reason to concerned about these results, it is that the Christian Scriptures themselves are preoccupied with the competing religions of the times in which they were written. From the creation narrative, to the plagues of Egypt, to Elijah's encounter with the prophets of Baal, to the books of poetry and prophecy, the Old Testament presents the God of Israel in contrast to the gods of paganism. John begins his gospel with allusion to both Genesis 1 and the Greek philosophical organizing force of Logos; Paul's evangelism at Mars Hill acknowledges Roman religious life. And our ability to follow these examples begins with a foundation of fact.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Health and Wealth Lite

By now it is more a social requirement than meaningful encouragement; we remind our friends who have lost jobs or family members that God has good and exciting plans for them. We like to quote Romans 8:28 and assume that it indicates that God is working for my good, that my good is material, and it is coming before I really feel any loss.

These are not the ways of the God of the Bible. In Genesis, God promises Abram, a 75 year old man, that he will father a great nation. It is another 25 years before Abram's wife bears a child. He sits by as Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, and then as he is jailed for a sexual assault he did not commit. He allows Satan to afflict Job with loss of property, family and health, and when Job questions his activity, he answers with an unbearable demolition of Job's authority to ask. He allows his own Son to suffer execution and then he commissions his most devout followers to martyrdom.

To be sure, God is good, and his plans are set in motion to redeem the world entire. But redemption is not necessarily for our present circumstances. We may suffer years of disease, unemployment, poverty, loneliness and laborious futility to no end that we ever understand. We cannot expect that God to actively provide for our wants, and we must remember that he does not always provide even for our gravest physical needs. Our joy is in God's presence and God's victory, and neither is yet totally fulfilled.

I have mostly lead an easy life. I have overcome great difficulties, but they have been tasks that I have chosen. And in my troubles, my true friends have not offered empty promises and optimism, they have sat quietly in prayer and in solidarity. I think that this should be our model of encouragement.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Everyone's Fault But Mine

The prevailing human explanations of the world typically have three main components: creation, fall and redemption. They attempt to answer the questions of how we got here and what the world was originally like, how that state was fouled up, and how that state, or perhaps a better one, might be attained. This structuring of worldview yields some interesting comparisons, and I think that one of the most interesting is between secular and religious views of the fall.

Let's consider three secular worldviews: Marxism, the Sanger-Kinsey sexual view and the new atheism. Marxism regards competitive capitalism as the cause of man's fall, and its replacement with cooperative socialism as its remedy. The Sanger-Kinsey view regards Christian sexual morality as the guilty party, and sexual liberation as the great human hope. The new atheists regard religion itself as the primary source of evil in the world. What these, and other secular worldviews have in common is that their proponents will admit no responsibility for the sorry state of the world. It is always some other ignorant and wicked forces who are to blame.

Now, as much as there are irreconcilable differences between the world's great religions, I think that they agree on this - all persons have a share in the fall. The primeval history of Genesis tells three stories in which humankind's attempts to make itself like gods bring the judgment of the true God upon them. While these stories place the blame with specific individuals, Christianity especially has emphasized the participation of all persons in sinning and thereby bringing about God's judgment. This sharing of blame extends even to the teachings of Buddha, who regarded human desire as the cause of suffering - Buddhism's fall.

This, in my view, explains much of the appeal of secular worldviews. It is no fun to suggest that I am a foremost cause of bad in the world. But what is even more interesting to me is the prevalence of a fall story, and of a persistence of global value judgments even in a worldview so thoroughly materialistic and supposedly so value-neutral as the new atheism. It is telling that Richard Dawkins can't simply keep his mouth shut and say that wars and suffering are the result of Darwinian competition and an indifferent universe. I cannot be sure, but this seems to suggest a strong religious impulse even among militant secularists.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Difference Fallacy

If you want to put yourself into a serious depressive state, read the comments section of any remotely controversial article on the internet. Doesn't matter if it's People Magazine or The New Yorker - the commenters are brazenly stupid. On Christian blogs and publication sites, you'll often come across shouting matches between thoughtless legalists and thoughtless libertines about whether or not a certain practice is appropriate for Christians. Eventually, the legalist plays what he thinks is the trump card - "But if we do this, then how are we any different from the rest of the world?" Subtext: And more importantly, how will I look different from the rest of the world?

Of course, Christians ought to live very differently from the rest of the world, seeking to walk each day in the presence of God, to live in gracious freedom from sin, and to work for the renewal of God's creation. But the mechanics of our lives are necessarily going to be very similar to those of other people, regardless of our beliefs. American atheists eat three meals a day, but there is no particular reason for American Christians to eat four. It isn't possible to determine that an isolated practice is sinful simply on the grounds that the world does it.

Now, I do think that most of our practices, even the mundane ones, should be infused with recognition of God's grace. We may eat same food as the unbeliever with thankfulness to God, but we eat with thankfulness to God. We speak the same language, but we speak truth. Our excretory activities, however, are probably identical. We can use the idea that we must be different from the world as incentive to evaluate how and what we do, but it does not by itself say anything about how to make that evaluation.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Christian Hedonism

It's only mid-September and already I've felt the first signs of the onset of winter. I relish this day every year, the first time I can really anticipate winter nights tucked away from the elements, book and drink in hand. I like pleasure. In a better world, there would be no need to say this, but Christianity has an unfortunate history of regarding pain as inherently virtuous, pleasure as probably evil. A better theology of creation regards pleasures as good gifts of God, pain as the unfortunate byproduct of sin, but a problem that will soon be overcome. My prescription for Christian hedonism:

-An attitude of thanksgiving: We recognize that everything that we enjoy is a manifestation of God's grace. We give thanks to God for what he has given us.

-A practice of moderation: We recognize that certain pleasures can become vices, and lead us to foolishness, laziness and neglect of our responsibilities, and so temper our indulgence. We abstain when we are not capable of moderation. We recognize that by statute and by God's command, there are restrictions about when it is right to enjoy some things.

-A willingness to work for enjoyment: We recognize that some pleasures, particularly aesthetic pleasures, require concentration and exertion to enjoy. We recognize that faculties of enjoyment are themselves gifts of God, and are most glorifying to him when fully developed. We concede that we must sacrifice easy pleasures for difficult ones, but we are hopeful that difficult pleasures are more enriching and satisfying than easy ones.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nothing New in the Origin Debate

Stephen Hawking's new book "The Grand Design" is causing a fair stir among people who are unfamiliar with Hawking's earlier writings and the cosmological argument for the existence of God. A portion of the book is excerpted here. Frankly, its conclusions are only a small step from what he's been writing at least since A Brief History of Time - strong anthropic principle collapsing into the weak one, postulation of a multiverse that accounts for fine tuning, possibility of spontaneous creation - he's at least suggested all of it before. Hawking's earlier works often invoked the language of God and creation, but it always sounded to me like a very Spinozan God.

The argument itself is entirely question-begging. If there is indeed a physical law that predicts the possibility of spontaneous creation, then where did that law come from? Should it be regarded as an uncaused cause? Why is regarding it as eternal and uncaused more reasonable than placing a mindful creator in this role? These are the same questions that one should ask every time someone claims that a new variation on origin theory shows that God is redundant.

And one need only ask these questions if the theories that Hawking cites are correct, which is extremely uncertain. Hawking was, in his prime, a monster of a theoretician, who predicted the existence of several astronomical phenomena before any empirical evidence of their existence came to light. The trouble with the multiverse theory is that it doesn't seem to meet the basic scientific criterion of falsifiability - what evidence could hypothetically be produced that would show that the theory is incorrect? Moreover, are the theories that predict a multiverse uniquely capable of explaining other phenomena and physical laws? If not, then why choose these theories and carry the ontological baggage of the multiverse? Why should we think that the different components of the multiverse all have different laws if there is an overriding law for all of them that allows spontaneous creation?

Hawking probably addresses at least some of these latter questions in the book, though I'm fairly certain that we've already seen all the philosophy it contains. He's never been inclined to give more than a paragraph at a time to metaphysical considerations, and there's no reason to think that he's giving them any more thought now.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Banality of Sin

"The Good News doesn't make any sense until you know what the bad news is, and the bad news isn't that we have a few harmless peccadilloes and we screwed up on the way between high school and college or whatever—it's deeper than that. It's unrelenting." - Bill Mallonee

I have some pretty good weeks. I study the Bible several times. I pray nightly and thoroughly. I am kind to most of the people I meet. I avoid gossiping. I might even do something to help someone else. How in these weeks do we avoid self-righteousness? How do we continue to identify as sinners?

Even in my best weeks, I recognize that there is a part of me that is fundamentally opposed to the commands of the gospel. I see lust for glory, fame, wealth. I see opportunities for service wasted. I see anger and impatience. I see a part of me that wants to sin for the sheer sake of sinning.

Many Christians surpass the obvious vices. When we pray for forgiveness, we ask "For what?" Pride sets in, and with it a view that there are good people and there are bad people. The notion that we are responsible for crucifying Christ begins to seem absurd. We must learn to regard sin not as acts but as a state of rebellion that we cannot fully let go in this life.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Two Models of Seeker-Sensitivity

The question arises in every serious-minded congregation - how best to present the gospel to a culture whose view of the Christian faith is often hostile, often ignorant. I dub one common answer to this question "evangelical gradualism." The idea is that most people will respond poorly to straightforward evangelism, they must be coddled into the church. They must be made comfortable being in church building or being among Christians before they are ready to hear Christian teaching. Once they are comfortable in these settings, they are ready to here a light Christian message, probably one that is practical and therapeutic, one that addresses their very real problems, but without the controversial baggage of Christian belief. The hope is that the cumulative effect of spending time with friendly Christians and hearing good, moral messages with allusions to basic Christian teaching will provoke the potential convert's curiosity, leading them to learn about true Christian doctrine, and eventually, to make a profession of faith.

There are two basic problems with this approach. The first is that the gospel that visitors perceive will probably not be distinct or compelling. Someone who attends a string of church social events is likely to see church as a social club. Someone who hears a string of light, moralistic sermons will see the Christian faith as a means of getting one's life in good working order as defined by 21st Century America. The problem is not so much that these things are bad, but that they are available elsewhere. The church should not try to compete with the rest of the world along the lines of entertainment, sociability or the promise of self-help. It will never win. The second problem is that a diet of these sorts of socials and sermons tends to distort the views of believers, choking their own growth.

The second model of seeker-sensitivity recognizes that what the world lacks and desperately needs is truth and grace. It recognizes the urgency of communicating the gospel to people who may only step into a church once in their lives. It recognizes that most visitors will not be fluent in the language of the Christian church. It also recognizes that trying to scare the hell out of people is likelier to yield resentment than repentance. A service that follows this second model will be rich in Christian truth, but will strive to present that truth in a way that non-believers can easily understand, defining basic terminology, conversing with contrary views. It strives to avoid unnecessary offense but recognizes that the Christian message is inherently offensive. And it accepts that no matter how clearly the gospel is presented, many people will still reject it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Last Word on Hipster Christianity

I read Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity this week and while it was certainly a worthwhile read, I have very little to say about it that I didn't say in earlier posts. I reaffirm my remark that my home church is dealing with completely different issues from what McCracken describes, and praise it for avoiding the ploys of the "Wannabe Hip Churches" that McCracken describes.

Dirty Words, Dirty Mouths

In one of the most famous and hilarious routines in American comedy, George Carlin claimed that there are such things as bad thoughts and such things as bad intentions, but no such things as bad words. Much of the humor in Carlin's routine lies in his dismantling of the hypocrisy of media censors who are happy to portray all sorts of vice, violence and horror so long as certain syllables do not come from the television speakers. His judgment of hypocrisy is correct, as are most judgments of hypocrisy. But I argue here that Carlin is wrong in his judgment that there are no bad words.

James is insistent upon the primacy of speech for the Christian. "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless," he writes. So pure speech is important. In Ephesians, Paul prohibits "obscenity, foolish talk (and) coarse joking" among believers. So we now have some idea of what doesn't constitute pure speech. Now, it is extremely foolish to think that avoiding swear words is the extent of keeping a rein on one's tongue. We have all known horrid gossips, braggarts, liars, hypocrites and false teachers who carefully avoid uncouth words.

There is a sophomoric argument (one that I used to advocate) that says that yes, there is such a thing as sinful speech - it is of the kind just described. But a word is just an conglomeration of sounds arbitrary infused with meaning, arbitrarily designated by humans as foul, and so its utterance is not really wrong. The argument is obviously absurd; all words are collections of sounds arbitrarily given meaning by humans, and sentences are collections of words, and their meanings arise from arbitrary human rules of grammar and semantics. So, if the argument holds for words, it must hold for sentences too. But clearly, as most proponents of the argument would admit, there are certain sentences that it is wrong to utter, so there is no reason why it cannot also be wrong to utter certain words in certain contexts.

To spin the argument in a positive direction, we must agree with Paul that there is such thing as obscenity and foolish talk. Now, there are certain words that, because of meaning, phonetics, history and cultural judgment, jettison our statements and conversations into the realm of obscenity and foolish talk.* And so it is generally not appropriate to use these words.

I do believe that there are times that call for coarse conversation. There are times of extreme frustration, sadness and moral outrage that, in my opinion, call for extreme language. I had intended to include a list of examples of appropriate swearing, but that would be all that readers would remember from the post. Ask me my opinion of Joel Osteen some time.

Finally, as you may have guessed, I condemn myself as much as anyone with this post. My language is clean only in comparison to that of mainstream hip-hop. This is, however, a very easy issue to be very self-righteous about, and I think that many people who live and work among Christians don't realize how very easily and unconsciously bad language becomes a habit. Despite my foul mouth, my understanding of the issue has changed dramatically in past years, and my language is much cleaner than it once was and that, I think, is a very big step.

*This is true whether or not those in our company are offended by foul language. It coarsens conversation in any company - that's why bad language holds such fascination even in places where everyone uses it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Noble Agnostic

In Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Worldview?, I mentioned the committed agnostics who are unsure of God's existence. I address the problems of agnosticism here.

I want to be clear that this discussion does not concern those individuals who at present, are uncertain of whether or not they believe in God, but anticipate resolving the matter in the future. This stage is necessary for many people and I wish them all the best in sorting the matter out. No, I am addressing agnostics who claim not only that they do not know currently whether or not God exists, but that there is and will always be of insufficient warrant to decide the question.

In my view, there is good reason to be agnostic on many issues. There are questions that I cannot answer and will probably not be able to answer within my lifetime, but that I have no reason to form an opinion about. For example, I am agnostic with respect to the existence of extraterrestrial life, because I think that our knowledge of the cosmos and of the processes by which life forms will for many years be very limited, and because I do not have a compelling reason take a stance on the issue. (A few people would argue that I do have good reasons to take a stance, but their suggested reasons are almost certainly false, i.e. alien attack is imminent.) There are also issues on which I am currently agnostic and are of practical import, but which I believe I will later have the basis to answer. I don't yet know which professor in my academic department would make the best PhD advisor, but I believe that I will be able to decide the question after a few more weeks of meetings and observation. In general I think that it is acceptable to be agnostic about questions that have little practical significance and good to be agnostic about non-pressing practical questions that one will be able to answer wisely in the future.

The question of God, however, is one of great practical import, and one that new evidence or argument is unlikely to illuminate. The question is ancient and the new arguments pro and contra that arise in philosophical journals are almost always refinements of old ones. If there can be sufficient pre-Apocalytic evidence to decide the question, it is here already. And it is a matter of great practical importance, both in its eternal implications and because to become a Christian, or Jew, or Muslim is not merely to assent to a set of beliefs, but to embrace a way of life. The grim reality is that even though agnosticism is logically sound (one can demand more evidence for anything), and philosophically distinct from atheism, it fails to break from atheism in its practical implications, from atheism's failure to recommend a way of life. Lived atheism and lived agnosticism are the same thing. And if the evidence and arguments surrounding theism are so inconclusive, if there really seems to be a significant possibility that theism is correct, then why should one live as though the question has been decided the other way?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On Good Translation

Three English translations of the first verses of Genesis:

"When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, "Let there be light." - Robert Alter's Genesis

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the Earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." - New International Version

"First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss." - The Message

In poetic quality, Alter's translation is clearly best, its consonance mighty, the interruption of its polysyndeton underlining the power of God's creative word. The
New International Version is not as good, but still highly readable and instructive. The Message's translation of these verses is painful.

My purpose here is not to be critical of The Message, which is a very useful tool for many people who find more traditional translations difficult to read, but to praise Alter's translation, which to me, conveys the truths of the creation myth more strongly than the others because of its poetic sensitivity. It is too common for Christians to treat the Bible merely as a book of propositional truths, or rather, as a book of propositional truths and literary passages to be decoded into propositional truths. The best translation is thus the one that makes the decoding easiest. Such an attitude not only neglects the great pleasure found in reading imaginative literature, but also the unique instructional power of that literature, the way that a story or poem long held in the recesses of memory will one day spring forward to teach and to convict, the way that one can rejoice, suffer and learn with a literary character. To be sure, there are propositional truths to be learned from Biblical narrative and poetry - they complement, but do not supplant the truths that only literature can provide.

Some Christians reflect this attitude in their approach to art as whole. To some minds, good works of art are simply those that affirm things that they already believe in an artistic language that they can easily understand - bad works are those that subvert their values or are difficult. Again, this view neglects the pleasure and instruction of which art is capable. Whether the banality of some current translations of the Bible is a cause or symptom of this attitude I do not know.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Worldview?

Before heading off to undergrad five years ago, I got my share of lectures on the importance of church attendance, the dangers of booze and loose women, and snapshots of the prevailing philosophy of the ivory tower. Even as I took the advice to heart, I was afraid of the intellectual obstacles just ahead, nervous that I would soon see my Christianity besmirched, bludgeoned, and beheaded by the rationalistic arsenal of the academy. I wasn't afraid so much of a single knock-out argument against Christianity as the effect of a battery of small ones, each requiring an evasive ad hoc response, each making the faith a little less plausible while academic atheism stood firm against assault.

Then I got to college. I met plenty of anti-Christians, and I heard the full spectrum of arguments against Christianity. Some of their objections were trivial; some were serious and led me to reexamine my own views. The alternatives, however, did not fare any better. I found the popular academic views to be plagued with problems even greater than those of Christianity.

There are essentially three competing kinds of worldviews in the academy: theism, metaphysical naturalism, and creative anti-realism. Metaphysical naturalism prevails in the hard sciences, while creative anti-realism is nearly dogma in the humanities. Social science folks swing both ways, typically depending on just how scientific their disciplines are. There are a few theists throughout, and a number of staunch agnostics who claim that there is not enough evidence to justify holding any substantial worldview.

Metaphysical naturalism, as held in the academy, usually embraces both a metaphysics - all that exists is the natural, and an epistemology - all that provides knowledge is science. Its epistemology is incoherent, as the claims of metaphysical naturalism are not themselves scientific, and its metaphysics is unsatisfying, for it cannot explain why there is any universe at all, and moreover, why there is a small rock in the middle of it populated by creatures that are desperately seeking meaning beyond survival and reproduction. The usual response to these objections is simply to reject the question, to refuse to seek justification for its incoherent epistemology beyond the practical success of science, and to simply accept that the observable universe requires no explanation.

Creative anti-realism is a good name for a number of views that hold in common that there is no such thing as global truth, because all persons who make truth claims make them from divergent perspectives of culture, gender, history and embodiment. We are therefore creators of truths and of our worlds. It takes a very erudite and sophisticated mind to embrace this idea, because most people recognize that creative anti-realism is itself a global truth claim. Creative anti-realism usually clothes itself in intense moral language, rejecting the truth claims as imperialistic and oppressive. It nevertheless tirades against moral claims, by which its proponents really mean moral claims about sex and substance abuse. Creative anti-realism finds foes in both theism and metaphysical naturalism, and often in rigorous academic disciplines such as physics and logic, what with their annoying (sexist?) claims of universality. The anti-realists often do well in calling attention to the way in which our unique histories shape our views on important subjects, but they slide into silliness and forget that most truth claims are supremely banal.

Now, Christianity has some significant problems of its own, primarily, the problem of how a good, omniscient and benevolent God could allow human suffering, and how, even if miracles occur, it can be rational to believe in them. I think that there are good responses to these objections, and perhaps I will address them in a later post. But Christians should not worry that they are only ones with chinks in their armor.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Addendum to Hipster Christianity Post

The last post provoked quite a bit of response, leading me to realize that I was not clear about what exactly (or inexactly) hipster Christianity is.

Hipster Christianity is a largely a response to the seeker-sensitive movement that has characterized the evangelical church of late Baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers. The seeker-sensitive movement sought to give the church a more contemporary and inviting look for people wary of hymns, fiery sermons, door-to-door proselytizing, enforced tithing and other nasty stereotypes. Large suburban churches, Contemporary Christian Music, flashy children's programming, elaborate multimedia presentations in services, movies like Fireproof and Facing the Giants - these are the tropes of the seeker-sensitive church.

Hipster Christians aren't fond of all that. As McCracken characterizes them, they are usually young people who grew up in seeker-sensitive churches and have rejected a lot of what they found there - the lameness of Christian pop culture (even the mainstream stuff, like Switchfoot), the lack of depth and Biblical teaching in seeker-sensitive churches, the impersonal nature of huge services, the apparent indifference of evangelicals to social justice issues and the homogeneous right-wing views of church members. As a supposed remedy, Hipster Christians tend to have pretensions to intellectualism, to favor small churches with unconventional service styles, to espouse leftish politics, especially with respect to the environment, and especially, to immerse themselves in the cutting edge of pop culture. Hipster Christians are typically into the kinds of bands that get good press on Pitchfork and Stereogum, not what's hot on the iTunes charts, and the kinds of films that play at the dingy arthouse theater, not blockbuster productions. They tend to have liberal arts educations, to live in urban areas, and probably to start families much later than is typical for Christians. Seeker-sensitive churches have tried to follow artistic trends and use them to bring in the public; hipster Christians want to create them, and often to abandon them once they catch on.

As I said in my last post, I identify strongly with certain aspects of Hipster Christianity. There are problems with seeker-sensitive churches, some of which the hipsters diagnose correctly. I like small services, exegetical preaching and weird artistic stuff and I hate the way that some Christians equate Christianity with the Republican party, even though I'm a Republican myself. Simultaneously, I don't like the way that Hipster Christians often condemn their old churches and fail to understand the problems to which they were responding. I also recognize that a lot of the differences are really just matters of taste. I dislike Hillsong, but you're welcome to them. I usually don't like video clips in worship services, but if they help some people learn, that's fine.

I think that the biggest problem with hipsters and with Hipster Christianity is that they tend to discard artifacts of pop culture as soon as they are widely adopted. It's always on to the next band, author, style of worship service, because if a lot of people are into it, it's clearly deficient. And this practice becomes problematic when creating fashions becomes more important than practicing discipleship. If you find yourself saying that an author is very "last year" when the author is in the peak of her popularity, you're too into your image. It's elitist, it's endless and it's contrary to the history and sincerity of Christianity.

I still haven't gotten my hands on the book, but when I do, I will post a full review. I saw an interview with McCracken and it's clear that he's not endorsing or condemning hipster Christianity; he's trying to understand it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hipper Than Thou

Too-attentive readers will note publication a day early. I move tomorrow.

This brief article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal introduced me to Brett McCracken, author of the book Hipster Christianity, an analysis of a new, youthful strain of post-evangelical American Christianity. From that article, and the chapter of the book available on McCracken's website, I gather that he is addressing two separate groups within the church, middle-aged adults seeking to retain younger adults in church congregations, and young adults rebelling against the shortcomings of the evangelical, "seeker-sensitive" churches in which they were raised. From what I've read so far, the book is focused on the latter.

McCracken seems like a thoughtful and tempered, if not especially penetrating writer, and I hope to read his book in the near future. A few preliminary thoughts: I identify strongly with certain aspects of "hipster Christianity" (I scored 79 out of 120 on the "Are You a Hipster Christian Quiz?") - its aesthetic preoccupation, its distaste for the performance aspects of contemporary worship services, its desire for substantive Biblical teaching. There are also aspects of hipsterdom in general that I despise: the fetishism for the new, the exaltation of irony, the obsession with personal appearance. I also think that these don't jive well with Christianity, which demands whole-hearted commitment to ancient teachings. I'm looking forward to getting McCracken's take on the trends.

Also worth mentioning for readers from my home church: We're not within a hundred miles of hipster Christianity. I'm the closest thing you have to a hipster, I'm far from it, and I'm moving away. We are a flyover country church, the young adults we have are firmly in the cultural mainstream, and the ones who are leaving are even more so. Hipsters are striving to be the cultural elite, and that ain't us. Nevertheless, the questions the McCracken is asking hipster Christians, questions about the possible trade-offs between relevance and faithfulness, are questions that are just as relevant to us.

"If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it's easy or trendy or popular. It's because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It's because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It's not because we want more of the same." - Brett McCracken

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Healthcare Mandate

The church has a very strange relationship with bodies. It likes to specify precisely what parts of them can be displayed in public. It is very uncomfortable with talk about some of the more common things that bodies do. It would prefer that you not look at this painting. It would like to forget that God himself had a body for about 33 years. Simultaneously, spend 5 minutes listening to the conversations of churchgoers and you will hear 4.9 minutes of conversation about bodies, namely what is wrong with those of distant relations. The body is hard to ignore.

I exaggerate. The body is of course a part of God's creation declared "good" prior to the fall of man, is capable of great good and of great evil, and is a great part of oneself. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, we may never own our bodies because we did not ask for them and cannot choose to rid ourselves of them save by suicide. Christians can acknowledge this fact and recognize the body as a gift of God. We also recognize that the effects of sin have made our bodies imperfect, subject to decline, disease, and death.

What them to do with this gift? Between neglect and obsession lies the way of care. I think that Christians have, if not a duty, then extremely strong reasons to care physically for themselves and for one another. Let us suppose that there is such a thing as proper bodily function. By striving to maintain this function, one then honors God's intention for the body. Suppose this reason is invalid. Good functioning of our bodies still makes all other tasks in life, even those that we think are primarily mental and spiritual, easier. Try getting work done when you're sick.

Practical steps realizing this duty: healthy diet, regular exercise, abstention from smoking, authentic encouragement of those working toward better health, consideration of careers in health, advocacy for a fair and efficient political arrangement of healthcare (whatever that may be).

I recognize that this is a very easy virtue for some, very hard for others. So it is with kindness, charity, prudence, hope and all the others. Moreover, I recognize that for some people, no efforts can produce good health, and that eventually, all bodies fail. But I'm advocating care, not immortality.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Being a Toy

One of the great triumphs of the now complete Toy Story series is the creation of a imaginary toy psychology, with desires, fears, neuroses, and stages of development. Toy psychology isn't just a projection of human psychology onto plastic objects - it stems from the unique relationship of toys to growing child owners, always threatening to lose a favorite toy, to replace one treasured plaything with another, or to grow too old to play with toys altogether, and always unaware of his toys' self-consciousness.

The Toy Stories chronicle the better part of the life of Woody the cowboy doll, a favorite toy of owner Andy, and the audience's primary window into toy existence. Woody's difficult maturing process is not primarily a matter of learning what his purpose is in that he is a unique toy called Woody, but in learning what his purpose is in that he is any toy at all. He faces the temptations of eternal life in a museum and endless but shallow affection from rotations of small children at a daycare center, but reject each of these, deciding that because he is a toy, his purpose is to serve as the object of an owner's imagination and affection. This is something that Woody knows implicitly at the beginning of the first film, but a belief that the crises of each film call into question, and one that he must eventually make a choice to follow. It is often hard for a toy to pursue that purpose. It carries the risk of abandonment and decay. It is nevertheless the right thing to do, and the only means to a satisfying life for a toy.

I think that this notion of purpose is unusual in contemporary cinema. There are many contemporary films in which characters struggle to find their purposes, but these are usually struggles to find one's purpose insofar as one is such-and-such a person and not some other person. There is very little investigation of the possibility that there is a purpose that all human beings ought to try to fulfill simply because they are human beings. The only markers of "the good life" are then autonomy and authenticity.

Christians of course believe that humankind does shares a purpose, well stated in the Westminster catechism, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." Many ways of life and many activities can fall under this end: work, service, play, worship, creation, learning, love. Fulfilling this purpose is also marked with trials and suffering; it is a difficult choice, and one that we must weigh against other forms of life. I also believe that it is one that allows us to live lives of personal authenticity. Weighty stuff for a kids' movie.

Note: Pixar's two other most recent films, WALL-E and Up, are also films of great spiritual significance.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Demandingness and Christian Ethics

If I were put in charge of determining right and wrong, morality would be very simple, and very easy. Each person would be afforded certain rights: life, property, truth, fidelity in contract, perhaps a few others. All rules would derive from this central principle: Do not violate another person's rights. From this rule, our basic moral prohibitions would arise: do not murder, do not steal, do not break promises, be faithful to one's spouse, do not lie (under most circumstances). Beyond these prohibitions, my ethical system would have no requirements. It would effectively render humans moral by default. After all, it takes a great deal of effort to carry out a major theft, to tell compelling lies, to carry on an affair, to commit a murder, and we do not usually regard any of these things as components of a happy life. Perhaps you too find my moral system tempting.

The moral codes of both the Old and New Testaments contain a fair number of prohibitions, including those that I have included in my system. For me, one of the great difficulties of faith is that Christian morality asks full commitment of oneself to others - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself". Adhering to the prohibitions described above is the smallest part of carrying out these commands.

These demands are brutal. By following them, we lose time, money, dreams, passions, blood. I think that many people reject the faith because of them. And so they reject a world where these commands will be the law of the land and of the heart.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Physical Evolution of Spiritual Man

A common Christian objection to evolution is that this process would render humans, created in the image of God, spiritually indistinct from animals. This objection is fallacious.

If evolutionary theory is indeed correct, then humans and other animals indeed came into being by the same physical processes of genetic mutation, phenotypical realization and natural selection. Moreover, modern humans are the descendants of earlier hominids, which in turn are the descendants of early apelike primates, and so on to the first single-celled organism. There is thus a physical kinship among all Earthly living species.

The anti-evolutionist's argument goes something like this.

1. If evolution is true, then all living species have a common means of physical origin.

2. All creatures with a common physical origin share a spiritual condition.

3. Therefore, if evolution is true, then all living species share a spiritual condition.

4. But all species do not share a spiritual condition, as per Christian teaching and common observation, so evolution is false.

But what is the justification for the second premise? Man's spiritual uniqueness is manifest in his moral sense, his longing for meaning, and his desire and ability to commune with his Creator. These attributes may be enabled by certain neural structures, but their real significance is spiritual, and Christians view them as God's work, either by acts of special creation or through evolution. Even anti-evolution Christians usually accept that all living things are somewhat similar, in their common genetic code, mechanisms of motion and nutrition and their survival needs, among many many other categories. Admitting these physical similarities, they still see man as spiritually unique. Why should they regard origin differently?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

What Does It Mean to Rely on God?

The importance of "relying on God" is a common topic in Christian parlance, easy to dismiss as cliche, difficult to understand, more difficult to practice. What does it mean to rely on God and not on one's self.

I see two broad components to the concept. The first is spiritual, the second practical. Christianity teaches that all mankind is sinful, living in a state of disobedience toward God, and as a result, separation from him. It is God's desire to resolve this separation, and he must eradicate mankind's sin in order to do so. To rely on God is to accept that it is God and not man who atones for and eradicates sin through the death and resurrection of Christ his Son. None of man's good works, earnest remorse or cleansing rituals is sufficient to purge man of the practical habits or spiritual desolation of sin. We learn to rely on God first for salvation.

This reliance should manifest itself in a new way of practical living. To me, this sort of reliance is a much more difficult concept. Whatever my spiritual state, aren't my legs carrying me, my hands cleaning, my work providing the money for my needs? I see three major practices by which Christians rely on God. The first is prayer for all of one's needs. Jesus' model prayer in Matthew 6 includes the request "Give us this day our daily bread," confirming both that it is proper to pray for one's basic needs and that one must do so regularly. It recognizes that even if our circumstances allow us to provide for ourselves, God is the author of those circumstances. The second practice is to avoid worry, as Jesus instructs shortly thereafter. This is a difficult practice, seemingly requiring an impossible mastery of one's thoughts. However, one can certainly recognize oneself worrying, and in those circumstances, focus one's attention elsewhere. Finally, one must not use dishonest means to overcome difficult circumstances.

As individuals describe it, "relying on God" often sounds like a mystical experience, the result of a mysterious sensation of assurance of God's provision. I do not want to deny the possibility of such experiences. But more importantly, I want to emphasize the practical aspects of this idea.

Welcome to The Stone Water Jar

In an effort to get back to writing, I am beginning a new blog dedicated to thoughts on Christianity. I have a tendency to write treatises. Here, I hope to write posts that are frequent, hopefully two per week, and short, less than 300 words, intended to provoke thoughts, not to settle them.

For readers who do not know me personally, I have no clerical or scholarly credentials on subjects related to Christianity. I have a bachelor's degree in chemistry and philosophy, and I'm beginning a PhD in chemistry. In theological matters, I'm an interested amateur. Use good judgment in evaluating what I have to say. I am intending to address an audience of Christians and I will always assume basic familiarity with the Bible and with Christian teaching.

The title of the blog alludes to John 2, in which Jesus turns the water in six stone jars into new wine, foreshadowing the new life to be realized in God's kingdom. May these writings be a part of that realization.