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Flotsam and jetsam (1/31)

HT Kevin DeYoung

Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will? Personally, I’d rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don’t think we know which 22-year-olds are going to make the best academics.

  • A WSJ article with the provocative title “Why Rich Parents Don’t Matter” discusses a recent study looking into the impact of socio-economic status on a child’s mental development.

These results capture the stunning developmental inequalities that set in almost immediately, so that even the mental ability of 2-year-olds can be profoundly affected by the socio-economic status of their parents. As a result, their genetic potential is held back.

Merton (1915-1968) is one of the most significant religious writers of the twentieth century and a lasting influence on untold numbers of Christians (and non-Christians) from every tradition and culture. For those of us in the Bluegrass state, he also holds the distinction of being perhaps the most significant religious figure to reside in Kentucky, being a monk at Our Lady of Gesthemeni monastery near Bardstown for twenty-seven years. He is buried there today.

When it comes to a crucifixion no one would argue for beauty in an aesthetic sense. The form of a broken, bled-out human being certainly isn’t pleasing to the eye. And this lack of beauty is most true particularly in a crucifixion where the death sentence is piggy-backed onto a miscarriage of justice. But here, in the gospel account, is kingdom subversion. In one of the most brutal acts of physical horror and treachery on a cosmic scale, God weaves together the elements of beauty.

The movement got started with basic, biblical teaching about the gospel and holistic mission. It picked up speed with a network of projects and organizations committed to orphan care. And to this theological observer, it looks like it may have the momentum to reinvigorate evangelical systematic theology.

Shouldn’t Christian spirituality have something to do with the Gospel?

In a post over at Patheos today, Bruce Epperly suggests that the movie Eat, Pray, Love should serve as an invitation for moderate and progressive Christians to take the spiritual journeys of people more serious. (By the way, is there a more obnoxious label for any group than “progressive”? Is everyone else “regressive”?)

I believe the film and book upon which it is based present an invitation to moderate and progressive Christians to take the spiritual journeys of people more seriously in preaching, program, and outreach. We have not highlighted either our spirituality or theology in ways broadly accessible to the public.

Although I very much disagree that “the quest for self-awareness” depicted in this movie is the quest that “is at the heart of the human adventure,” I actually want to focus on the conclusions that he draws in the second half of the article. Contending that we need to make Christian spirituality more “broadly accessible,” he suggests that moderate and progressive Christians should do three things:

  1. Present a a vision of God that is more accessible. Apparently we’re only supposed to highlight the aspects of God’s character that people will like.
  2. Provide practices that that deepen people’s spirituality. And he leads off here with “easy-to-learn meditative techniques.” Really? Is what you want to highlight in fostering deeper Christian spirituality? No worship, sacraments, Word, Spirit, community, or any of the other things so important to Christian spirituality?
  3. Awaken persons to the connection between heart, hands, and mind. Apparently fluffy spirituality works as long as you help people at the same time.

Maybe I’m being a little too harsh. It was, after all, a very brief article. But I’m picky. If you’re going to talk about how to deepen the spiritual life of God’s people, how to communicate the wonderful “adventure” that is the Christian life, how to communicate to the world what Christian spirituality is all about, you must begin with the Gospel. Apart from the Gospel, spirituality becomes just another “technique” for achieving “self-discovery.” Fortunately, there’s much more to being a Christian than that.

I really like a lot of what’s going on over at Patheos. They’ve had some great discussions recently on a number of interesting issues. This one, unfortunately, was not one of the highlights.

When self-control just isn’t enough

“I’ve just started reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Toward the beginning of the book, they use the analogy of a man riding an elephant to explain human behavior. The man represents our more rational side and the elephant our passionate, emotional side. They go on to explain:

 Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmached.

This is actually a bit overstated because the authors go on to argue that if the Rider pulls on the reins hard enough, he can get the Elephant to change directions temporarily. But, eventually the Rider will grow tired and the Elephant will go its own way. In other words, we can rationally conclude that X is in our best interests, and exert significant will power to achieve X, but if our passions and emotions really want Y, we’re in trouble. If you’re riding on an Elephant that’s going the wrong way, the solution is not a stronger Rider. The solution is convincing the Elephant that it really wants to go the other way.

What I found particularly interesting about this analogy was the way that they applied it to the use of self-discipline. They pointed to a study that placed two groups of college students in two different rooms, who were told that the researchers were studying “taste.” In each room they placed  a tray of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes.  One group of students was told to eat several cookies and no radishes; the other group was told to eat several radishes but no cookies. Despite the temptation, and probably because they knew the researchers were watching, the second group resisted the temptation to eat any of the cookies. After a while, the students were informed that the study was done, but they were now invited to participate in another, “unrelated” study. The students were given a puzzle that was impossible to solve. The researchers then counted how many attempts each student made before giving up. The chocolate chip cookie group made an average of 34 attempts (19 minutes) before giving up. The radish group, on the other hand, gave up after only 19 attempts (8 minutes).

Why did they quite so easily? The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control. In studies like this one, psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource….The radish-eaters had drained their self-control by resisting the cookies. So when their Elephants, inevitably, started complaining about the puzzle task – it’s too hard, it’s no fun, we’re no good at this – their Riders didn’t have enough strength to yank on the reins for more than eight minutes. Meanwhile, the cookie-eaters had a fresh, untaxed Rider, who fought off the Elephant for nineteen minutes.

So, when we exhort people to change through appeals to their self-discipline, we are actually encouraging them down a road that leads inevitably to exhaustion, frustration, and failure. Instead, they argue that the real path to meaningful change requires educating the rider and motivating the elephant.

This has interesting parallels to the argument that we’ve been following in James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. Although Smith uses very different language, he is also arguing that the elephant runs the show more than we like to belive. So, instead of focusing all our efforts on educating the rider, we need to train the elephant. And, how do we do that? Liturgies, of course. You train your elephant – your passionate, affective, desiring, side – through regular, formative practices that shape your desires toward good ends.

Right now my elephant is telling me to get some ice cream. I’d resist, but I did that earlier today when my elephant wanted another piece of cake. Clearly my self-control is worn out after all of that elephant-wrestling. So, it’s really out of my hands.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/14)

Review: The Gospel-Driven Life

Continuing with our series on recent books about the Gospel (you can read earlier reviews here, here, and here), today we’re looking at Michael Horton’s The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (Baker 2009).

Horton divides the book into two sections. The first half deals with how Horton understands the Gospel, and the second addresses how the Gospel informs what it means to be a Christian community. Right away, then, we see that Horton sees Gospel and community as inseparable. As he says, “It is not merely that there is a gospel and then a community made up of people who believe it; the gospel creates the kind of community that is even now an imperfect preview of the kingdom’s marriage feast that awaits us.” (11)

Without a doubt, one of the best things about the book was Horton’s emphasis on the Gospel has as “a dramatic narrative that replots our identity” (12). It isn’t simply a set of beliefs that we must affirm, but it is the historical unfolding of God’s faithfulness that culminates the crossas the fulfillment of “his promise that he made to Israel and to the world by sending his Son for the forgiveness of sins and the inauguration of his new creation” (89-90). And, it’s a narrative that fundamentally shapes and reshapes who we are as human persons. Although most would agree with this, Horton is one of the few who actually takes some time to unpack the narrative as he explains the Gospel. And, for Horton, getting this story right is central to understanding the Gospel. Without the narrative, you will misconstrue the good news.

I also appreciated the way that this emphasis on the Gospel as dramatic narrative led to his use of “news” as a central motif in the book, much of which is structured around sections in a newspaper. Seeing the Gospel as news shapes how we view the Gospel in two ways. First, it makes us realize that the Gospel is something that has already been done, not something that we do.

The heart of Christianity is Good News. It comes not as a task for us to fulfill, a mission for us to accomplish, a game plan for us to follow with the help of life coaches, but as a report that someone else has already fulfilled, accomplished, followed, and achieved everything for us. (20)

This leads to a consistent resistance to understanding the Gospel as something that we accomplish or contribute to. Indeed, he deals with a number of misconceptions about the Gospel, most of which have something to do with shifting the focus of the Gospel from God to ourselves. Rather than finding the good news in God’s faithfulness and glory, we want to make our own transformation . And, in this way, we make the Gospel merely a means to an end – improving ourselves. Instead, we need to see that the “big story” is about God.

But, this doesn’t mean that Horton doesn’t think the Gospel has anything to do with personal transformation. He also contends that if the Gospel is news then it also means that it is potentially surprising, unsettling, and transformative.

If the ‘Good News’ that we proclaim is determined by what we already know—or think we know—and experience, it isn’t really news….It can never throw us off balance or cause us to reevaluate our priorities and interpretations of reality. (20)

So, the Gospel transforms us as we allow the truth of the narrative to sink in, reshape our understanding of everything, and respond appropriately. That’s how Horton explains sanctification (77).

And, I also appreciate Horton’s strong emphasis on the Church as integral to understanding the Gospel. Unlike many books on the Gospel, Horton’s perspective is not limited to or even particularly focused on the salvation of the individual. He absolutely talks about the salvation of individuals, but he presents the good news of the Gospel as being more about the restoration of God’s people to their proper place and role in the world. It’s a vision that is bigger than me, though it does include me. And, his chapter on how the Gospel creates a “cross-cultural community” was particularly engaging.

However, the book does have a few significant drawbacks. First, given Horton’s strong emphasis on the importance of understanding the dramatic narrative, I was startled by how little time he spent discussing the creation narratives and the status of God’s plans and his people prior to the Fall. He does talk about creation, of course, but it plays a relatively insignificant role in his overall account. That’s unfortunate. The dramatic narrative that reshapes my identify must include the plans and purposes that God had from the beginning.

Second, like most of the other books that we’ve reviewed so far, unfortunately little is said about the role of the Spirit in this dramatic narrative. Even when Horton moves on to discuss the transformation that results from the Gospel, he explains it in largely cognitive terms – letting the truth sink in – and says very little about the transforming work of the Spirit. Fortunately, Horton doesn’t make the mistake of allowing this pneumatological lack to devolve into a “just do it” response to the Gospel. That is antithetical to the message Horton wants to get across, and he’s careful to argue that the Christian life flows from the transformative nature of the Gospel. We don’t do it ourselves. But, his presentation would have been significantly improved with greater attention to the work of the Spirit here. And this lack was particularly disappointing given his emphasis on the community as it relates to the Gospel. This, at least, would have been a great place to introduce the work of the spirit in empowering the people of God to be kingdom witnesses in the world.

And, finally, I would have liked to see a more extended discussion of what it looks like for the church to live as heralds of the kingdom in the world. He claims that the church is now a “new political order” (186) in the world, but says very little about what this means, placing most of his emphasis on declaring the truth of the gospel and saying very little about whether heralding the new kingdom might mean more than that.

But, all things considered, this is a very good book and well worth reading if you’d like to understand the Gospel and it’s significance for life and ministry.

Desiring the Kingdom 4

Continuing with our series on Desiring the Kingdom, Smith is now ready to move into the heart of his argument. So, he contends in the second chapter that contrary to our common conception of ourselves, the majority of our behavior is driven by our habits rather than our choices. Indeed, he cites research supporting the idea that only 5% of of human behavior flows from conscious choice. And, this means two things. (1) “Automatic” processes exercise tremendous influence in our lives. And, (2) we’re deceiving ourselves if we think these are limited to mundane or routine behaviors. So, we need to consider how these automatic processes are shaped and the impact that this has on us.

Smith recognizes that we need to distinguish between “thin” cultural practices (mundane, everyday actions with less impact on identity) and “thick” cultural practices (habits that shape who we are). To that end, Smith offers the following definitions of certain key terms:

  • A “ritual” is any action performed routinely.
  • A “practice” is any action performed routinely that is directed toward a particular end.
  • A “liturgy” is a “ritual of ultimate concern” (p. 86)

These definitions are clearly sequential with the latter two embedded in the first. That is, something could be a ritual without being a practice, but all practices are necessarily rituals. What makes the difference is that all practices are intentionally directed toward some end. They are not mundane actions with little or no real significance (e.g. tying my shoes in a certain way), but they are actions that are specifically designed to form us in certain ways so that we will desire certain ends. Thus, there can be no neutral practices, they are all “meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely they grab hold of our loves – they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition” (p. 83). Thus, my practice of kissing my wife every morning before I leave for work is a ritual that forms me to be a certain kind of person – i.e. one who desires his wife. And, much of this happens at a pre-conscious level. I’m not aware that my desires are being shaped and reinforced every time that I do this, but they are.

And, for Smith, liturgies go one step further. They are not simply rituals directed toward a particular end, but they are rituals directed toward an ultimate end. In other words, practices designed to form in us a desire for something that should be our ultimate concern. They are “rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (p. 86). So, a Christian worship service is a liturgy because it is designed to make us into beings who desire God above all else. And, we’ll discuss in the next post that going to the mall is also a liturgy in the way that it shapes our identities and ultimate concerns.

Desiring the Kingdom 3

We are continuing our review series on James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. In chapter one, Smith lays out his argument for the idea that humans are essentially “liturgical animals” – i.e. beings fundamentally determined by desires shaped by habit-forming practices.

He begins with a brief critique of anthropologies focused on the human mind. He briefly discusses the idea that we are “thinking animals” (Greek philosophers, Descartes) or “believing animals” (reformers, world view proponents), and argues that both are essentially rationalistic. Even though the latter critiques the former for an overemphasis on rationality, he thinks it makes precisely the same mistake – grounding human identity in an essentially intellectual activity.

Rejecting these intellectualist anthropology, he argues that we are lovers before we are thinkers:

The point is to emphasize that the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it….One might say that in our everyday, mundane being-in-the world, we don’t lead with our head, so to speak; we lead with our heart and hands. (p. 47)

He then unpacks the significance by arguing that love is “intentional” – i.e. it is always directed toward some object. The task of Christian formation, then, is to identify and explain loves proper object, God and his kingdom, while forming Christians into the kind of people whose desires are properly oriented toward this object.

Having established all of this, Smith is ready to deal with his primary concern. How do you shape/change a person’s desires? What makes it the case that a person’s love is directed toward one object rather than another? And, he argues that this is done through “habits” that can be formed through particular “practices.” Thus “habits are inscribed in our heart through bodily practices and rituals that train the heart, as it were, to desire certain ends” (p. 58). Unpacking and defending the idea of habit-forming practices will be the task of the next several chapters.

He concludes by arguing that  we tend to overemphasize worldviews today. Although he recognizes that worldviews are important, he thinks that we should be more concerned with “social imaginaries,” the ways that the practices in our society shape our pre-theoretical vision of the world, which he thinks are more influential in what we actually love than our worldviews. In other words, we can claim to have a Christian worldview, but if our habits are actually being shaped by cultural practices that are antithetical to that worldview, we will actually have loves and desires that are shaped by the cultural practices, not the worldview.

I suggest that instead of thinking about worlview as a distinctly Christian “knowledge,” we should talk about a Christian “social imaginary” that constitutes a distinctly Christian understanding of the world that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship. Disicipleship and formation are less about erecting an edifice of Christian knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively “understands” the world in the light of the fullness of the gospel. (p. 68)

His critique of worldview-thinking was probably the most interesting part of this chapter for me. Although I have long been attracted to a more Augustinian model of the human person, I had not considered the ways in which an emphasis on worldview might sit awkwardly within that model.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/3)

Does Christian character have apologetic value?

In a recent post, C. Michael Patton argued that “Christianity is not validated upon the character of its adherents.” In other words, he contends that whether or not Christians actually live significantly differently than non-Christians  should have no bearing on whether or not we believe Christianity to be true. He concludes, “Christianity is based solely on the historic person and work of Christ.”

I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about this. On the one hand, you have Patton’s argument that the truth of Christianity is not predicated on the extent to which Christians live out this truth. And, you also have all the sociological evidence supporting the notion that Christians do not in fact live lives that are significantly different from non-Christians. Those two pieces would seem to suggest that Christian character does not have apologetic value. It doesn’t work (i.e. there’s no evidence suggesting that Christian character is noticeably different) and it isn’t necessary (i.e. the truth of Christianity stands or falls without it).

Of course, on the other hand you have the life-changing power of the Gospel and the indwelling of the Spirit. These truths would seem to indicate that if Christianity is in fact true, it should be noticeable. Consequently, Christian character is legitimate evidence for (or against) the validity of Christianity.

What do you think? If you were engaged in an apologetic dispute with someone and they raised the apparent lack of noticeable transformation in the lives of Christians, how would you respond?

Wright Comes out Swinging!

I’ve been interested in the debate that Wright and Piper have been engaging in over the “New Perspective” (or at least Wright’s version of it).  After reading Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, I thought it was only fair to read Wright’s response called Justification. In this book Wright reminded me of Mike Tyson in the infamous Evander Holyfield fight with that whole “ear incident.”  What has been one of the most highly charged polemical books I have read in a long time, Wright simply comes out swinging.  Not because he thinks he is losing, but because for nine rounds he feels as if he has been misunderstood, mischaracterized, misquoted, and misrepresented.  I cannot blame him for coming out and defending his name, and more importantly, his orthodoxy and love for the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the only source of saving faith sinful humanity has to go to find redemption.  The book is well written, and I would contend, the clearest presentation of what Wright has been trying to say.  That being said, I still find his argumentation unconvincing.

He begins by typecasting himself as the loyal friend who is attempting to explain to another that the sun does not revolve around the earth.  He likens adherents of the “old perspective” to those that would rather cling to tradition that to undertake a “fresh” reading of Paul that might jostle the cart of Pauline theological assumptions that have been held since the reformation.  He asserts that those who are attacking him are simply not listening to what he, or for that matter Paul, are saying.  He also likens himself to Luther and Calvin who, against the ecclesiological norm of their day, bucked the system in order to render a right reading of Scripture.  He is surprised to find so many in the reformed tradition taking him to task for the doing the very thing that their heroes did five-hundred years ago.  He goes on to say that the theological framework in which Paul has been interpreted is simply not sufficient.  There is too much emphasis placed on individual redemption and not the redemption of the world.  There is almost no talk of the Spirit’s role in many present concept of justification.  Most importantly for Wright, theologians and pastors are not reading Paul correctly because of a bias that will not fit with their preconceived notions of the law, justification, and Judaism.  He argues that if we silence what Paul actually said so that we can feel better about our theological conclusions, we are silencing Scripture and missing out on the beauty of God’s word.

He goes on to defend several of his assertions.  First, Wright corrects a misunderstanding of Judaism and the law.  He claims that the law was never the means by which people got saved.  For Wright, the Jews were never asking this question.  The more important question in the Jewish community was, “How do we know who is part of the covenant community of Abraham?”  The law provided certain boundary markers to tell who was in the covenant community.  This means that we have mischaracterized the Judaism of Paul’s day.  He also speaks of justification, as the “status” given that one is right standing with God, and a member of God’s covenant family.  Here Wright speaks of the law-court setting in which the declaration of the Judge in favor of the plaintiff only gives a status, not the actual substance of righteousness.   There is no change in the moral character of the one who is justified by God.  This is one of the main points in Wright’s argument for which he attempts to defend exegetically in the second part of his book.  The question that Wright never answers, however, is whether or not believers ever actually get righteousness, or just a status?  If we do actually get righteousness, where does it come from?  His silence may be his answer.  However, Wright never addresses this in his book, but simply says that imputation is not to be found anywhere in Paul.  Something I think he drastically overstates.    I found some of his exegesis here; especially with 2 Cor. 5:21 to be lacking.  He places 5:21 inside of the larger framework of Paul defending his authority as an apostle, and as 5:19-21 as Paul’s explanation of what he is preaching with the authority of an apostle.  This however, does not necessitate the exegetical gymnastics he does to make verse 21 speak of Paul as “embodying God’s covenant faithfulness.”  The change is unnecessary, and is stretching.  Wright also begins to unpack the role of works inside of Pauline theology.  It is at this point that I feel Wright did some of his best work.  Up until I read chapter eight it appeared that, for all his counter claims that he was not trying to “sneak works in the back door,” that that was in fact what he was doing.  In chapter eight he unpacked all of the passages where Paul joins “works” to the eschatological judgment and asks the question, “How do you explain these verses?”  He appeals to the necessity of the Spirit in the life of the believer, as well as the believer’s responsibility to live a life in the power the Spirit provides.  At this point, I’m not sure that Wright is saying anything much different from the reformation, but as trying to elevate the role of Spirit-empowered works to its proper seat.   This was an area in which I was most critical of Wright, but which I feel he defended well.  I’m not completely satisfied as of yet, but have shifted.

The book is a great read.  There are still questions that I wish Wright would attempt to answer.  Although the water still isn’t as clear as I would like, some of the silt appears to be settling.  If you have read Piper’s book, this should be the next one you pick up.