Wednesday, February 27, 2008

An Update - The NPC Convention

We drove 1,100 miles Sunday. Monday, Jonalyn joined three other ladies (Jeanne Stevens, Margaret Feinberg, Sarah Cunningham) for her the start of her six-hour seminar. Her seminar on women and the church: Three hours Monday night and then three hours Tuesday morning. I was a participant in the audience. Lunch. Then ramping up into the seminar on soul differences, Jonalyn and I did together.

We are only one part of several dozen seminar leaders. Yet, Zondervan noted us in their blog update on the NPC. We're honored. And you can listen to our seminar streamed on their website. More here.

Now that our seminars are finished, we can focus on soaking other aspects of the convention. Today we heard a thought-provoking interview exchange between Chuck Colson, Greg Boyd, and Shane Claiborn. I also attended a Bible study by Gordon Fee and then a seminar on Bible translation.

We attended an author dinner last night. I sat beside Tom Dean, who has overseen the Bible Experience project the last 18 months. We talked about life and faith for the whole dinner, including his work with the TNIV.

We're also meeting other authors we've read and heard about, people you would likely recognize. It's amazing to be included with such company.

Approaching well known leaders is always a dubious affair. You never know how they will receive you, perceive you, welcome you. I could name a few people for you (that you would know) who were not very warm, friendly, nor receiving. I've been disappointed and puzzled. But I have approached a couple of people in the last day who were great listeners, heard my appreciation, were interested in what I had to say.

One was John Townsend... who was with Henry Cloud. I'd met Henry before and reintroduced myself. Great guy. Townsend was the same. Yesterday evening, I overhead him walking behind me, so I stopped, introduced myself, expressed appreciation for his work on having a healthy soul and healthy relationships. He was very warm to me and even asked me questions about myself.

The other was Gordon Fee. While others were pressing in for an autograph, I waited my turn to share my appreciation as a fan, not only of his work on understanding scripture, but his theological work on the equality of women. He warmly listened and expressed sincere reception of my appreciation. A knowing looking, a warm handshake... sometimes that's all you need to feel heard.

Moments like that, connecting gratitude to various members of the body who serve at a distance... that's the stuff that sits with me in times when I wonder why I do what I do and whether it is worth it. It's carrying legacy, shining lights, in the company of friends.

Another great voice gone -- William F. Buckley

I had the honor of meeting him briefly at the Muggeridge Centenary in 2003.

Here's today's New York Time article.

BBC article.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Does religion produce an evolutionary advantage?

Is it possible to study religious belief scientifically? It all depends on what you mean by it.

The John Templeton Foundation will be spending $4 million to answer this question:
Is there "evidence about whether belief in God confers an evolutionary advantage to humankind"?
You'll find this in a recent British article published by Ekklesia, "Oxford centre to conduct scientific study of religious belief."

While it will be interesting to see what $4m will produce to answer these questions, the very question is a speed bump.

The study will not determine if God exists, what God would be like, nor even if there are soulish capacities in humans that hungers for God. Rather the study will focus on the biological makeup of the human species to see if there is a biological survival-advantage for believing in God.

Can you see how motivated this is on the side of the atheistic scientist? If they can show that believing in God is biologically disadvantageous, the general public would be gullible enough to believe them despite so many other evidences about the truthfulness of God and religious experience.

This, on my view, is good waste of money because they are asking an uninteresting question. The study assumes, if I'm reading the article correctly, that "philosophical naturalism" is the starting point (This view says that all that exists is the physical universe and all our experience is a result of what can be explained through physics, chemistry, and biology. In other words, there is nothing spiritual in existence.) What exactly do they expect to find?

Science cannot thoroughly explain beliefs, thoughts, ideas, beauty, love, emotions (they can find correlations in the brain, but not the emotion itself), meaning or anything that pertains to the soul. This study is putting science to the task of evaluating unscientific things. What if belief in God does not produce scientific 'survival' or 'advantage' in this study? Does that render God untrue? Or what if God gives us 'survival' or 'advantage' that is outside physical processes? Can science measure that?

Suppose we asked this question, "Does beauty (e.g. flowers, sunsets, rainbows, art, people, etc) give us evolutionary advantage?" Science would find little evidence for it. Beauty in this world appears superfluous. That we have a wide variety of sensual pleasures from taste to sight to hearing to touch cannot be explained as 'evolutionary advantagous' to our 'survival.' Yet, we'd lose a lot of meaning in this world if it wasn't for the aroma of sizzling bacon or the sound of Tchaikovsky's Fifth.

Or make a comparison with marriage. It is biologically advantageous for men to be with woman to procreate through marriage. This allows the species to survive. Yet, someone may argue we don't need marriage for that as we can all just sleep around and impregnate each other. Ah, but the social scientist says that broken homes or reckless parenting does not allow the children to have advantage. So we need intimate bonds to produce that. And then, of course, children are our future and they get to repeat the process.

So marriage on this view has nothing to do with real promises, covenants, love, or even a content quality of life (unless those qualities keep you from depression or disease which would extend your life). It only has to do with 'evolutionary advantage' or the outcome for physical survival. The real meaning of marriage disappears.

Expect with the Templeton study that the real meaning of religion disappears too.

Such is the plight of a civilization that only allows knowledge through natural science, and natural science only done a certain way. It leaves a lot of important elements out.

Regardless of what information this scientific study reveals about the physical aspects of religion in a persons 'evolutionary advantage,' I will predict that it will be far less meaningful than the evidence we already having showing there is a God who benevolently created all humans, showed up among us, and then rose from the dead. In fact, the 'resurrection of the dead' gives us advantage beyond anything science can conjure up, yet it cannot be explained scientifically so it doesn't count. See how quickly faith alone in science alone becomes narrow-minded?

When Solomon said that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, he was onto something. He knew real human meaning in this world comes through physical AND spiritual processes, experience, and relationships.

I'd be glad to accept $4m from the Templeton Foundation to tell them that.... of course, I'd share it with my faithful readers! ;o)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Living with Questions hits Amazon Top 25

I am unsure how frequenly adjusts their top sales books in each category, but this morning, I looked online and found Living with Questions in the top 25! This list is for 'children's books' books, which I'm assuming includes youth. Quick, follow that link before it goes away! :)

That's a reason to celebrate... since it's still morning, I'll toast with a tall glass of OJ.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A New Approach to ID: Ben Stein's "Expelled"

I feel like the last to hear about this...

While it seems some of the Intelligent Design (ID) dialog has been kept out of public discourse through the courts, media, and the academic esbalishment, Ben Stein is taking the idea to the streets in his new documentary-movie, Expelled.

His approach is 'free speech.' The theory of ID may be wrong (if future discoveries rule it out) but Stein's argument is that that is not enough of a reason to 'persecute' those who are intelligently speaking about it in the academy and the public at large. After all, 'Darwinism' may be wrong at some level as well, as we as a culture try to extract more answers from it than it can provide.

I see this movie as a refreshing approach to open up channels of discourse, like the way Gore or Moore opened up discourse on other relevant issues of the day (whether we agree with them or not). After all, cultural ideas sometimes feel as natural to us as instinct, yet they are not. It is always good to examine and re-examine what we believe in light of evidence, experience, and maturity.

Check out the Expelled website, see the trailers, and encourage those you know to attend. The greatest hope I have for this film is cultural awareness, that things are not as cut-and-dried as they seem, and that the common man or women will become more personally responsible for what they believe, rather than just taking the 'expert' or 'establishment' or 'theologian' or whomever's opinion as the permanent norm.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Americans Hostile to Knowledge"

Susan Jacoby wrote a book I'm ordering today:

The Age of American Unreason

American anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism is on a roll.... and many, if not most, Americans don't even think it matters.

Her thesis isn't new... but I'm hoping it will be accessible enough to recommend to those caught with the disease.

Read todays article: Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?

In the article she equates the desire for many religious Americans to see Creationism taught in school as an anti-intellectual approach. I don't think she's familiar with the many intellectuals who are actually part of the debate. But I will admit many in the debate are not open to discourse or a nuanced point of view.

And I do think she is right that we're offering mainstream courses in our colleges on pop-art and rock music, sacrificing the higher arts and culture in standard education.

It can go without saying that this plight is also in the American church by and large. Church is infotainment, a passive collection of people watching a band and a preacher. Then the preacher asks why the ones on the stage are the only ones doing anything. And the people in the pews say that the system has made it that way....

I don't think it's a church problem. I think the weird, passive, too - much - knowledge - is - dangerous attitude in American culture of today is IN the church. So we should expect this from the seats in the pews to the seats in the subway.

And I think Jacoby is right: this is not a generational thing. It isn't about Baby Boomers vs. Gen Yers. Many parents want youth leaders to help fix their kids, when the parents need fixing too.

Like I mentioned a couple of days ago in "The Music Diversion," maybe we need to not simply fast from music, but also fast from television or seeking entertainment to make us feel 'normal.' Maybe we need to work on a creative project or read a Kathleen Norris book (I recommend The Cloister Walk), or Dick Staub's The Culturally Savvy Christian, or even Living with Questions.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Difficulty of "Tolerance"

Well, 'intolerance' used to be a pejorative word for the 'right wingers' even though cultural critics and philosophers pointed out that the use of the word in society is often self-defeating.

In the old days, 'tolerance' is what we do to things that annoy us. The fly buzzing around my desk is annoying, so I tolerate it but I don't kill it. Intolerance is killing the fly.

It is intolerant to enslave African Americans. It is intolerant to kill Jews in the Halocaust. It is intolerant to refuse to hire someone because of their gender.

It is 'tolerant' to say profanity on public media is wrong, as long as you don't kill the person swearing. And it is 'tolerant' to disagree with homosexual practices, as long as you don't kill or slander homosexuals to push your view. It is 'tolerant' to stand in the public square why Christainty or Islam or Buddhism is wrong and shoudn't be practiced by reasonable humans, so long as you restrict those same people from saying the same. This is the old view of tolerance and the most sane version.

But today 'tolerance' and 'intolerance' mean something new. The meaning has been hijacked. 'Tolerance now means 'celebrating with someone who believes or does something opposed to what you believe is right.' 'Intolerance' is saying someone else is wrong.

And that definition of 'intolerance' is far from the mark. We aren't allowed to disagree or take a stand anymore if public opinion (e.g. the media or some high-profile, elite organization) has been swayed enough to say we shouldn't.

Yet even here is an inconsistency. We call it 'intolerant' for someone to picket an abortion clinic. But we don't cry foul when a political candidate says his opponent's view is the wrong one to follow. So deeply in the consciousness of the Western world is incoherence in search of meaning.

Yet, today's versions of 'intolerance' inflicts us all, right and left wing alike, because reason cannot be evaded forever.

We have a different case on our hands this week. In fact, what is so amazing about the recent events at Berkeley is that this bastion of free-thought likely thought themselves immune from thinking. But we all know that as soon as you call someone intolerant, you immediately become judgmental and intolerant of intolerance. You're a victim of your own accusation.

Here's an insightful article: Berkeley Council Becomes Home of Intolerance.

The Music Diversion

I've been saying for a while that music is the #1 drug of choice among teens today. You'll also find this in chapter 1 of Living with Questions.

And when challenging teens to get serious about God, they are eager on the front of their seats. Many want to know how to love him more. But when I ask them to see what it's like to go without their music for one day, the groans begin. "No way!" you'll hear whispered. And some find the task too insurmountable to be realistic.

This is the hard work of following Jesus, to put aside the diversions we use to in the place of Jesus, to whip up our emotional life, distract us from the difficulties, and make us feel 'normal.' This is what addiction is like, and it happens with drugs, sex, and, yes, even something as legal and as celebrated as music.

The New York Times released an article last week called, "Under the influence of.... Music?"

The article highlights the negative messages on the musical airwaves today and the immediate access students have to those messages through MP3 players. Studies show that 90% of American teens have some sort of portable music machine.

What the article failed to mention was the strong addiction music itself can be, apart from the negative messages. In fact, even positive messages in music can be an addiction. For many, it isn't about the message, it's how the song makes us feel as a diversion to the difficulties of life.

If you mentor students or are a parent, challenge your teens to consider a 'music fast' for a day. Then maybe two days. Then maybe a week. Once the addiction and habit is broken, once they begin to understand the real tools to handle life's difficulties and unwanted emotions, then music has less of a hold. In fact, I suspect they would actually listen to it a lot less because it just won't offer the 'satisfaction' it once did.

At least this is what happened to me. It's refreshing to be free of it. Not only do I not 'crave' it like I once did, but I've also cultivated more skills in understanding and critiquing the art form itself. I get more pleasure out of well-crafted and meaningful musics. And find it much easier to turn off the disposable music that parades itself as art.

When addressing music addiction in the church, then we might see a different approach to worship in the church. We might put aside the instruments and speakers that drown out the voices of the Body. We might consider a selectivity to fill the room with better art and healthy music that would make the Psalmist smile.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cedarville Canceling Claiborne

Few people know that in my personal history, I almost transferred to Cedarville halfway through my undergraduate career. I was accepted. Credits transferred. Campus visited. But at the last minute, I did not. Maybe one day that story will be told (it's a good one). My cousin did atttend and graduate from Cedarville. She enjoyed it.

But my reason to not attend Cedarville wasn't because it was too conservative. It would have been a breath of fresh air compared to where I was coming from.

In Today's Christianity Today, they posted "Braking for Bloggers," telling of bloggers, outside the university, who raised such a ruckus that the administration canceled Shane Claiborne's lectures on his mission and social work.

The accusation against him: He's Emergent.

Yet he doesn't identify himself as Emergent.

There are several factors at play here. One, Cedarville is a conservative university... leaning heavily toward the fundamentalist spectrum. It is where Bob Jones University student would consider transferring to find freedom but without being called a 'liberal compromiser' (a pejorative term from early 20th century brand of Christian fundamentalism).

Two, anyone who is trying to live the good news of Jesus that has a different texture to mission than Christian fundamentalism will be suspect. There's little way around it. If you don't use the typical accepted vocabulary, then expect suspicion. I've been at the brunt of it myself with no good Biblical reason, but that I just don't fit the sub-culture.

Three, with the new research and re-examining of the faith through the lens of Scripture and history, anyone who doesn't tow the conservative, evangelical party-line will be considered 'Emergent' (which is another pejorative word for those who still call themselves evangelical but don't tow the party line). It is unfortunate that using the word 'emergent' is the only option, but that's the term many use for lack of a clearer, more nuanced one (since we have to call names and categorize people, right? Right?). It would be like saying anyone who doesn't live on American soil isn't American. So an American citizen studying in Japan would fall under this label. The label is false and hurtful.

I haven't read Claiborne, but I have read about his mission. And I have sympathies with Claiborne as I don't call myself 'Emergent' either, though I've been accused of it from time to time (I even give lectures on nuancing the idea and what's going on in the church these days... the difference between being historical and postmodern, between being Emergent and emergent, between strong foundationalism, moderate foundationalism, coherentism and skepticism, etc.).

I'm trying to follow Jesus the best I can, with the resources I can. And I'm discouraged that so many, who identify themselves "Christian," will use loaded words like "unorthodox!" when something smells remotely unusual to them.

Here's a clear example: Try telling a Baptist that 'church membership is not a biblical idea.' Report back. You may be called someone 'causing dissension in the Body.' You may be called 'uncommitted to the cause of Jesus.' You may be called 'in rebellion to your church leaders.' You may even be called 'unorthodox'.

Yet anyone would be very hard-pressed to find church membership in the Scriptures. I've read articles where the author has prior commitments to church membership and so makes assumptions of the text. But reading the Bible as a first-century Jew, you will not find one mention or even a hint that there was some sort of formal agreement, signing on the dotted line, telling people this was required to be 'inside' the real church.

In addition, even if you did find a hint, it wouldn't be ranked up there with Orthodoxy. You don't find it in the Creeds. At best its a tertiary teaching. My personal view is that we only get it through eisegesis, yet it has become a sacred doctrine of many conservative churches. Are will we willing to exclude, call names, cancel dialogs because of it?

So let's use the term 'orthodoxy' for the true cases of orthodoxy. Some could even say the early Creeds themselves (by which we measure Orthodoxy) aren't orthodox... as there is no mention that Jesus is Jewish and born of a Jew or King of the Jews. We only get the mention that he was God and born of a virgin. Yet without his Jewishness, he can't be Messiah and there is no 'church.'

So let's be careful with our name calling.

One last point that I think motivates the whole enterprise: I think Cedarville is concerned about its constituency, reputation, and financial backing. Instead of stepping into wider vistas of understanding God's work in the world, it is stuck looking over its shoulder at who is following. And I think that shut Claiborne out. If the University is to bow to unwarranted concerns of those on the outside afraid of the dialog of ideas (do those outsiders decry that Darwin's books are in the library?), then why even have a University? We can see how education can quickly go from a center of knowledge into a center for propaganda, massaging our own unchallenged assumptions. Of course, this erodes faith as well and we wonder why our children grow less interested in church... maybe because truth, knowledge, understanding, love, and life are being choked.

This is why many Christians, like Clairborne, are speaking out to make a difference. Lest we forget, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom"... not our 'old time religion.'

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Thoughts on Pregnancy/Miscarriage 2

My first installment of thoughts can be found here.

Realizing we were expecting, I discovered new thoughts arising in me. I realized from a new perspective why the Psalmist says "Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children." I've always been taught that a blessed person has children. Only after realizing I may have a child of my own, I started to think of it in another way.

In no matter what world we live in, ancient or modern, we all acquire assets. And no matter if you are rich or poor, children become assets to a family. They help the family. The carry the family name. They become allies in the struggles of life. Blood is thicker than water, the old saying goes--and we know why. Even if we don't 'click' with our family the way we do with friends, we still gather with family around the Christmas tree. Children are our gathering.

In fact, in context of Psalm 127, which I quoted earlier, the writer uses war-like language to talk about children (do we ever hear that part on Mother's day?). A 'quiver' is a keeper of arrows, which are instruments of death. And these 'arrows,' also known as children, are described like this:

Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one's youth.

Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their opponents in court.

If you can't build an army with money, you birth an army through the womb. This is another way of gaining our 'riches' on earth, a security and a heritage. And the writer says this is part of our heritage from the LORD.

Considering the context in the ancient world, the more children you had as a nation, the more national security you build. National security was a blessing from the LORD. The Jews were fixated on child-bearing (which is why they went to Baal, the fertility god, time and again when they thought Jehovah wasn't enough).

Other thoughts came to mind as well. When driving through Los Angeles recently, I saw teenage mothers, a group of them, all holding their babies, going into an ice cream shop.

Now, aside from the whole foolish fad of 'baby-as-accessory' that a lot of teens consider, I thought about the contribution these young women offered. Even if we project on them a sad scenario--high school drop out, untrained in a specialty to serve in a community, emotionally dysfunctional, short-sighted--God still grants upon them the noble task of mothering.

It is the grace of God that allows even the most lowly and the most foolhardy (and this is all of us, to some degree) to contribute to human life in profound ways. He lets fertility rain on the just and on the unjust.

Thoughout our discussions over the last couple of years about having children, Jonalyn and I read and heard countless reasons why we SHOULD have children, why it isn't a choice, why it is almost a demanded 'blessing' from the LORD. Never did we hear, until recently, that in the last days there will be woe upon those who have children (Matt 24:19). Never did we hear that the blessing may be nuanced.

Little did we hear that each human may have to decide before God what his or her contribution may be. A person may decide to have children and that may be their blessing. Another may work with children as mentor and that may be their blessing. Another may dedicate themselves to service to point people to the kingdom of God, and that may be their blessing.

But it is difficult to think that among the barren and among those who have a choice before them, that children are a 'requirement'--the default position--and that 'blessing' is a demand. Adam and Eve had that demand to fill the earth... but once the earth is filled, is the requirement as firm? And what about Paul's admonish that the single 'serve without distraction'? Can that same principle apply to couples who strive to work together without distraction? Or did marriage itself also require offspring? Is that part of the vows?

And we don't want to pretend that choices are merely a modern convention. 'Birth control' was available in the ancient world as well, when they studied their bodies and understood their rhythms.

It is true that suffering with pregnancy through miscarriage identifies me with many people, many who found nothing in common with me before. Yet this is also a blessing, a holy magnet to new community. And this is part of our heritage and our legacy, this suffering.

Children are a blessing from the LORD. What else would they be? Lets not forget where all our assets derive from! Let's not forget that our heritage is always from the LORD.

It would be disappointing if we say those who do not have children or choose not to have children are not blessed or outside the scope of Jehovah's work.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"The Paradox of the Psalms"

In Kathleen Norris' book, The Cloister Walk, she writes on the "Paradox of the Psalms" and how pain and praise are ingredients that need one another. She says,

The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless. It becomes the 'dreadful cheer' that Minnesota author Carol Bly has complained of in generic American Christianity, which blinds itself to pain and thereby makes a falsehood of its praise.
This rang true for me personally. It's one of those things worth pondering for a while, to fill the time, to evoke some worship among the brokenness--not because it's a duty, but because we find human meaning in it.

So I leave it with you.