Christian life as collaboration.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tim Keller on Preaching in a Secularized Environment

While the nature and extent of secularization has been questioned of late (see this post on Peter Berger's recent shift in thought), there are few pastors more studied in their approach to preaching the gospel to congregations influenced by secularism than Tim Keller. I remember hearing Dr. Keller teach a course on preaching in a postmodern context with Dr. Edmund Clowney years ago at RTS Orlando. The class was formative for me both as a young student of homiletics and also as someone who would later become involved in cross-cultural communications and global education. That class used to be available online. If you can find, listen to it. Seriously, dedicate the forty or so hours of time needed to get through the whole class. It is worth it.

Dr. Keller spoke at RTS Jackson last week as part of the John Reed Miller lecture series. You can see a list of links to his lectures here (along with past speakers), or you can use the links below. Whether you are a preacher or a layperson who struggles with communicating the gospel in the West (who doesn't fall into this category?), I would commend these lectures to you.

Lecture 1: "What is good preaching?"

Lecture 2: "Preaching to Secular People and Secularized Believers"

Question and Answer: Discussion on Keller's Book on Prayer

Lecture 3: "Preaching the Gospel Every Time"

Lecture 4: "Preaching to the Heart"

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lincoln's Parlor

Friday, November 14, 2014

Scientific Romanticism in Interstellar

I have a piece at the Gospel Coalition this morning that is part review and part analysis of the film Interstellar.

An excerpt:

If Interstellar were a religious text, the dogma it encodes could be called something like “scientific romanticism.” This belief system would hold that science will solve all of our problems one day, even the ones that by definition resist empirical observation and thus exist outside the purview of science (see Sagan’s Contact for another dogmatic specimen). Scientific romanticism works well as a narratival contrivance, but when employed to spice up the lives atheists who otherwise think that they have a clearer-headed view of the universe than those troglodytic believers, it can expose the scarcity of meaning available to those who eschew belief in God.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Without God Would There Be a Theory of Gravity

An interesting piece by Noah Berlatsky entitled "Would Science Exist Without Religion" at the Pacific Standard on the history of science and how skepticism is really a double-edged sword.

Our age is science-infused in a way that may seem counter-intuitive to overly confident post-modernists 10-15 years ago, so how ought we think about science in light of faith. Polanyi, Kuhn, and others have shown that the distinction is not so clear.

Here Berlatsky comments on the somewhat unscientific ideas that provided the foundation for some of science's greatest break-throughs.
The fact that the early scientific greats had numerous loopy ideas isn’t usually seen as that much of a problem. Kepler’s record as both an astronomer and an astrologer can be dismissed with mutterings about the superstitions of the time. The astrology is jettisoned, and the pure science is preserved.
Disaggregating isn’t necessarily always that easy, though. For example, Francesco Sizzi, one of Galileo’s critics, looked through the spyglass too—and where Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter, Sizzi saw nothing. Was this because he had poor eyes, or a bad telescope? Maybe, Lipking writes, “students of vision have repeatedly demonstrated [that] seeing something involves the mind as well as the eyes.” Based on what we know now about science, Sizzi failed to see because he lacked a theory that would put those moons into context.
Galileo, on the other hand, could see because he had the right theory. Evidence does not lead to theory; theory provides the context for evidence. Which means that Galileo’s discoveries came not just from a dispassionate evaluation of what he saw, but from his imagination. And if he imagined those moons of Jupiter, are we still imagining them with him?
Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend notoriously took this kind of reasoning and used it to question the entire scientific program—to argue that there is no categorical distinction between the “correct” scientific worldview (the Earth goes around the sun) and the alternate, “incorrect” ones, except for current fashion and institutional authority. Feyerabend argued that there was no real reason at the time to believe that the telescope showed an accurate view of the heavens; Galileo’s theories were based not on truth but on ad hoc guesses and leaps of faith—as Feyerabend argues, all science.
Lipking steps daintily around that particular gravitational pit; when he discusses Newton’s millenarian religious musings, for example, he is careful to note that the scientist’s breakthroughs “depended on meticulous calculations, not magical thinking.” But the pit still yawns off to the side distractingly. What after all do we mean by “depended”? Newton’s intellectual pursuits were inspired by his religious beliefs, and arguably vice versa. If Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter through his theory, didn’t Newton see gravity through his God? And if so, is the gravity there without the God?

Read the rest here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

John Stott on Christian Leadership

From Stott's book Involvement, vol. 2, the concluding essay entitled, "A Call for Christian Leadership" (247-264). This summary includes some paraphrasing.

Five main ingredients of Christian leadership: clear vision, hard work, dogged perseverance, humble service, and iron discipline:

1. Vision: act of seeing, an imaginative perceptions of things, combining insight and foresight...It is compounded of a deep dissatisfaction with what is and a clear grasp of what could be.

2. Industry: men of vision need men of action. Not enough for Moses to envision the land, he had to gather the people.

3. Perseverance: True work of God thrives on opposition. Its silver is refined and its steel hardened.

4. Service: authority by which one leads in not power but love, not force but example, not by coercion but by reasoned persuasion.

5. Discipline: knowing weakness, the greatness of the task & the strength of the opposition, & the inexhaustible riches of God's grace.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Wave Offering

Four reflections on the election last night:

AP Photo
1. Political trends are true until they are not, and the same can be said of political models and narratives. The past-is-prologue-to-the-present school of analysis fell apart pretty quickly last night leaving many analysts uncomfortably shifting in their seats. Media abhors a vacuum, so they were forced to offer unprepared truisms like, "This is a really big night for Republicans." (New York Times writer Ross Douthat comments on one of the failed models on his blog this morning.) Very few saw this "wave" coming, and the lack of foresight created a welcome scene of humility on some newscasts and elation on others. There is something about such disorientation on public display, the moment when a person is speechless, when there are awkward pauses on the guest panel, when the cellphone alarm inexplicably bleepbleeps in the middle of the newscast. In a world of heavily produced news, one enjoys seeing everyone a bit off their game. (UPDATE: Howard Kurtz talks about why the surprise.)

2. The stories of the Bible often turn on a sudden twist of fate, an unforeseen, but usually foreshadowed, outcome that sets all things to right, or wrong as the case may be. (Samson's hair grew back--who saw that coming!) History often goes where we least expect it, and this tells us something about God's work in the world.

3. As voters, the Christian's work is not finished now that the ballots have been cast. We are called to be an informed electorate, not merely an active one. We would not be able, caring members of our families or circles of friends if we did not take the time to get to know our family members and friends, their personalities, likes, fears, hopes. Likewise, we are not good participants in public life or stewards of our tiny piece of civil authority called a vote if we don't take the time to follow and understand how our representatives and governors are using the power given to them.

Yes, honor civil government as Paul reminds us in Romans 13, but remember that, unlike Paul, you don't have the luxury of saying the government is distinct from you. Caesar is not out there and other. You are a part of the authority structure you are called to honor. With such power comes responsibility (see point #1 in Anne Chamberlin's TGC post last week).

4. God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass (obvious slogan: "Election not elections!"), and this arrangement should provide deep consolation in times of doubt and compelling conviction in times of plenty. Last night's elections initiated a significant shift in the American political scene, one that we ought to hope and pray will increase the peace, prosperity, and general flourishing of humans made in the image of God, both within and outside of the U.S.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What Exile Means

This past summer there was a flurry of discussion (see here, here, and here, and over here) about the threat of a coming cultural exile facing the conservative Western church. I was busy at the time with travel and the happy occasion of welcoming with my wife a new baby daughter into our home, so I didn't get a chance to comment on that discussion until now. Hopefully the distance will provide some perspective.

There is a sense in which the church has always been in exile (1 Pet 1:1), awaiting the full restoration that Christ began in his incarnation but will not fulfill until he returns again. Throughout church history, her experience as an exilic community has waxed and waned, so that it is not entirely inappropriate to speak of exile when the church faces particular moments of defeat or persecution.

For this reason, I can sympathize with Christians who predict a coming cultural exile for the church in the West, one that is marked by prevailing cultural irrelevance. But we ought to consider what that means from a biblical perspective. In the Scriptures, exile is always a direct result of the rebellion of God's people, and its stated goal is, among other things, to cleanse God's people of their home-grown injustice and rebellion. This is clear throughout the prophetic corpus of Scripture, but can be clearly seen in the parable Isaiah tells in Isa 5:1-7. For Isaiah, the coming destruction of Judah and Jerusalem is triggered by their own "wild grapes"--the oppression and exploitation of the poor and the weak in their midst.

The restoration from exile comes on the condition of repentance (Lev 26:40-42; Deut 30:1-10; Jer 29:13). In this way, the city of God will be transformed through exile into the city it was always meant to be, a city of righteousness and faithfulness (Isa 1:26). The people's injustice is the trigger of the exile, and their repentance is the goal of the exile (this is true in the New Testament too, see 2 Pet 3:9).

A cursory read of the biblical prophets shows the priority placed on the people of God for whom exile is a future, present, or past reality, depending on the historical setting of the prophet. Yes, there are multiple oracles against nations, but they are relatively few in comparison to the extensive amount of time and energy directed by the prophets towards God's own people. The prophet Amos was perhaps the most provocative as he rebuked Israel for longing for the "Day of the Lord." The Day of the Lord would be the day when God would set all things to rights, correcting injustice in the world and restoring the faithful. Amos argued that Israel  should not be surprised to find themselves subject to judgment, not blessing, when that day comes:

       Woe to you who long
                for the day of the Lord!
       Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
                That day will be darkness, not light.
                                                        Amos 5:18

Instead of obsessing over the failures of their neighbors, the prophet implores Israel to turn inward. The proper response is not to decry the Assyrians or the Babylonians but to reflect humbly on their own grievous failure and repent.

As the prophet Jeremiah discovered, that is the kind of teaching that gets you thrown in a cistern.

Of course, biblical history shows that both the apostates and the righteous remnant go into exile. For the former group, exile represents condemnation, but for the latter it represents discipline that leads to restoration. We may exhibit a dangerous presumption if we do not inquire as to which group we belong, remembering that the righteous are marked by their repentance.

To be sure, the biblical exile provides vivid imagery. While I am not saying that exile is inappropriate for the current situation of the church in the West, we should be aware of what such imagery implies. If we invoke the notion of exile today, we should be ready to accept that we are indicted by implication.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Star Wars in Three Frames

A compilation of Star Wars-themed dalliances that have shown up on the interwebs.

Star Wars in real-life scenes (one of these is a bit risqué, so fair warning and apologies).

Star Wars in Thomas Kinkade.

And Star Wars without the suspension of disbelief (#twilightoftheidols).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Biblical Inerrancy and the Greener Pastures Fallacy

I have a post over at the Christward Collective that deals with a few issues involved in the somewhat intramural discussion going on about the doctrine of inerrancy in evangelical biblical scholarship. The discussion is worth having, but we need keep a little intellectual and historical perspective.
 I wholeheartedly support the idea that each new generation should confirm the doctrine of Scripture and its authority in the Christian life. Yes, we stand on the shoulders of giants like Augustine, Calvin, Hodge, Bavinck, and Warfield, but at the same time our young pastors and scholars need to be personally impressed with the central role of Scripture as God's unique revelation in this world and that impression needs to be based on both tradition and rigorous personal study. So it is important for us to engage with the challenges to scriptural authority that arise and to revisit and renew our own views of how these challenges relate to the Christian life. It is not enough just to lay hold of tradition, but rather we ought to desire a living faith that is rooted in and blossoms from tradition but is applied in the present life.
Read the rest here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Emotional Apologetics

Today I was reading a year-old review of a two-year-old book that is still relevant and should have more impact than it has had (the book, I mean, though the review is helpful as well).

Francis Spufford's authorial intentions in his book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense will come across as decidedly modest to many Christians of the evangelical ilk.  In the preface, he sets out his less-than-Everestian goal,
What I want to the [Christian] religion's imaginative legitimacy, its rightful (and for that matter inevitable) but nonexclusive place in the domain of what we all dream, hope, conjecture." (xii)
I have long felt that the imagination is the aspect of human life and experience least engaged by the modern church. Apologetics, which should include any defense of the faith, has traditionally been limited to merely empirical or logical argumentation, but the area of human imagination has been woefully neglected by many modern apologists. This might explain the recent shift toward more liturgical traditions and the mystery, history, and formality those liturgies smuggle into our corporate worship. It may also explain the reoccurring popularity of authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as proponents and pioneers of Christian imagination, authors who have yet to be surpassed in typical Christian estimation.

Into the void, Spufford sets out to create space in which he can describe the attraction of the inner Christian experience, and he does it well. I applaud him, mostly for his solid performance in this book, but also for the fact that his project contradicts the modern habit of depicting Christianity and Christians in the worst light possible, one that often does not really fit reality. Perhaps the church is full of sex-obsessed prudes who lack one iota ("yod" to you Semitists) of tact and compassion, but if so, then just about every Christian community I have ever experienced around the world is an outlier.

What is more unfortunate is that well-intentioned Christians often perform a sort of collective "repentance" for crimes depicted as uniquely Christian, when most believing communities I have experienced show no such criminal tendency.

In Unapologetic, Spufford does not provide us with the definitive work on the imaginative legitimacy of Christianity, but he does open a door that I hope many more will enter.

Back to the review I was reading today. Wesley Hill in CT, writing last October. A good teaser:
A few weeks ago I was sitting with a friend, watching a trendy new sitcom that featured a Christian character. Five minutes into the episode, my friend said, "She fits all the stereotypes, huh?" The character was uptight, more concerned about what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms than about the plight of refugees in the Horn of Africa. When we turned off the TV, I said, "Shows like that make me wonder if the writers know any actual Christians."
Not that Christians are never holier-than-thou or hung up on sex. But things aren't so simple for most of us. Along with smug feelings of moral superiority, we also experience shame. We're trying to live up to our ideals for sexual behavior, but many of us are also fretting over how best to support aid efforts in Haiti—or our neighborhoods. While we're worrying about justice, we're also asking ourselves how to have hope despite heartache. The question is, how do we invite outsiders to walk a mile in our shoes? How do we describe what belief feels like from the inside? 
That's the question driving Francis Spufford's book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (HarperOne). Rejecting the need for yet another defense of Christian ideas, Spufford tries instead to paint a picture of what it's like to be a believer. He describes how emotions that are "deeply ordinary and deeply recognizable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience" are precisely the emotions that make up the Christian life.
Read the review here, pick up the book here.

P.S. This book is not an exhaustive "apologetic" nor is it necessarily conservative in its theological outlook. Spufford is no theologian.  As with any book, I suggest you read it with a well-disposed spirit and a critical eye.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Being in the city for the first time is a singular experience. It just happens that the book I am reading, Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, includes a section on the Huangpu waterfront famously know by the Indian loan "The Bund." Mitchell ruminates on the city's electric glory, decadence, and history. In the voice of his character, the novelist Crispin Hershey, he describes the scene:
The Shanghai Bund is several things: a waterfront sweep of ornate Toytown set pieces along the way; a symbol of Western colonial arrogance; a symbol of the ascension of the modern Chinese state; four lanes of slow-moving, or no-moving, traffic; and a raised promenade along the Huangpu River where flows a Walt Whitman throng of tourists, families, couples, vendors, pickpockets, friendless novelists, muttering drug dealers and pimps...

Shanghai, last night, 2014

The sun disintegrates into evening and the skyscrapers over the river begin to fluoresce: there's a titanic bottle opener; an outsize 1920's interstellar rocket; a supra-Ozymandian obelisk, plus a supporting cast of mere forty-, fifty-, and sixty-floor buildings, clustering skywards like a doomed game of Tetris. In Mao's time Pudong was a salt marsh, Nick Greek was telling me, but now you look for levitating jet-cars. When I was a boy the U.S.A. was synonymous with modernity; now it's here. So I carry on walking, imagining the past: junks with lanterns swinging in the ebb and flow; the ghostly crisscross of masts and rigging, the groan of hulls laid down in Glasgow, Hamburg, and Marseille; hard, knotted stevedores unloading opium, loading tea; dotted lines of Japanese bombers, bombing the city to rubble; bullets, millions of bullets, bullets from Chicago, bullets from Fukuoka, bullets from Stalingrad, ratatat-tat-tat-tat. If cities have auras, like Zoë always insisted people do...then Shanghai's aura is the color of money and power. Its emails can shut down factories in Detroit, denude Australia of its iron ore, strip Zimbabwe of its rhino horn, pump the Dow Jones full of either steroids or financial sewage...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Wandering Gospel

I have a post up at the "Leadership Journal" of Christianity Today (full article here) about an experience one recent morning before a class overseas. The post originated in a few lines in my journal that evening, but I am glad it developed into something that could find a home at LJ.
I am standing on a terrace looking across a valley at a small madrasah just about to begin its school day. The children line up begrudgingly, boys pushing one another as boys seem to do everywhere around the world. The girls too act like girls do everywhere, talking in huddled circles, glancing outward, and then talking again.
The dishes from breakfast clink in the kitchen behind me. The remnants of the local breakfast staples—cucumbers, tomatoes, black olives, hard-boiled eggs, and bread—are scraped into a trashcan or kept for later depending on their condition.

Read the rest here.

UPDATE: to get to a copy of the article behind the pay-wall, try this.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jerome in Life, Text, and Art

Since it is International Translation Day today, the Paris Review joins in the global festivities with an engaging consideration by Damion Searls of the great father of translation, St. Jerome himself.

Jerome's skills and opinions in the field of biblical translation have long been known, but he was also a polemicist (he described the heretic Pelagius as “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.") and figure head of a growing cult of personality that blossomed during the Renaissance.

He was born in 331 or 347 in the town of Stridon, possibly in what’s now northwest Croatia; its only mention in history is Jerome’s comment that he was born “in the town of Stridon, now destroyed by the Goths.” He was also by far the crabbiest of the Church Fathers, as befits a man who earned sainthood by scholarship and rigorous asceticism, not working with people. As important a theological polemicist as he was a translator, he fired off letter after letter, volume after volume, from his library in Palestine, written in elegant classical Latin studded with choice insults. To someone who questioned his translations, he countered: “What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learnèd term pestilent minuteness”; a heretic, Pelagius, was “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.”

Yet strangely, Jerome is also one of the most admired saints, even most loved. Maybe it’s not so strange, given the overlap between antisocial scholars and reputation-makers. Three early fourteenth-century forgeries purporting to be by Jerome’s disciples and colleagues, describing his last hours, death, and numerous miracles, were runaway hits in the original Latin and, appropriately, in Tuscan, Sicilian, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Catalan, Danish, and English translation. (Some four hundred manuscripts and thirty-six printed editions are known before 1501.) By the early Renaissance, Jerome was the object of widespread popular devotion, speeches every September 30 giving thanks for miracles, and the adoration of his brother and sister scholars.

In art, St. Jerome became the most popular theme in Renaissance Christian painting after the Annunciation. He was usually shown with a book or two, his red cardinal’s hat, and a lion, because when a lion limped into his monastery courtyard and the other monks fled, Jerome welcomed the beast and called back his brothers to wash and treat its injured paw. They took out the thorns and tamed the lion. (This is an old story, one of Aesop’s fables and probably mis-assigned to Jerome—in Latin: Hieronymus—from the life of the similar-sounding St. Gerasimus.)

Italian artists invented another, even more popular motif around 1400: Jerome penitent in the wilderness, beating his ascetic breast with a stone. This allowed Christian painters to glorify the male near-nude, as they often did with St. Sebastian; and the wilderness setting, along with Jerome’s passing mention of “having nothing but scorpions and wild animals for company” in the desert, let painters indulge in naturalistic portrayals of animals: not just lion, but badger, cheetah, otter, squirrel, goldfinch, heron (three kinds), partridge, snake, snail … One zoologist/art historian has identified sixty-five kinds of animal in Renaissance paintings of Jerome, not counting the imaginary dragon, harpy, and unicorn, and the humdrum, “plot point” animals: camel, donkey, sheep.
Read the rest here, including a bit about Jerome's insistence on a high Mariology.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Conflict of Interest and the New Journalism

File this under notable miscellany.

With the continuing decline of the traditional, conventional media, and the rise of public relations, think tanks, and the decentralizing new media, notions like conflict of interest in journalism are terribly complicated and possibly quaint. Here is a story in the Washington Post by Erik Wemple on Harvard's Safra Center and how it is dealing with the perception problem related to conflict of interest (spoiler alert: create new entities that partner "alongside" the entity being distanced from).

On May 1 of last year, the Safra Center became something more than just a freestanding center of contemplation. Lawrence Lessig, the Safra Center’s director, launched an organization named Mayday Citizens’ SuperPac. According to one account, the idea behind Mayday was to get behind “candidates who want to reform campaign finance.” A laudable goal, perhaps, but also one that puts Lessig, who is also a Harvard University law professor and an influential thinker on technology, in the national political maw.
Even though Mayday is a creature of Lessig’s and not tied to the Safra Center, the political agenda of the center’s director created a perception problem for Williams and other Safra fellows. It’s here that Ron Suskind enters the picture. Author of several books, including the Obama White House-upending “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,” Suskind started as the senior fellow at the Safra Center in the fall of 2012.
As Suskind tells it, this year he began having discussions with Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow about focusing academic resources to the study of what the author calls the “public narrative.” Having written volumes on the U.S. financial meltdown (“Confidence Men”), the war against terrorism (“One Percent Doctrine”) and education/opportunity (“Hope in the Unseen), Suskind had become fascinated with how “narratives” are forged. “The people at Harvard recognized that I was essentially shaping through the reportage public narratives,” says Suskind.
Voila! Suskind is now supervising the Safra Center fellows under the aegis of something called the Project on Public Narrative. In due course, this organization will grow into something bigger under the slightly different title, The Center for Public Narrative, which will be affiliated with Harvard Law School (as is the Safra Center). Though the title is a bit highfalutin for the plain language-adoring Erik Wemple Blog, the implications for people like Williams relate to ethical insulation: Under Suskind’s “narrative” tutelage, Williams no longer reports up to the super PAC-piloting Lessig; the Project on Public Narrative, says Suskind, is structurally “alongside” the Safra Center, meaning that Lessig doesn’t make hire/fire decisions or spending decisions.
The idea is to avoid the perceptions that flow from Lessig’s work with Safra and with Mayday. “For the first day or two when and after the story runs,” says Suskind, referring to the projects of his fellows, “it’s important for Brooke [a fellow and journalist] and others that they have a solid and airtight structure when and if the institutions [criticized in their stories] start to play the games they play.”
Other than showing how perception can play a role in shaping organizational structure, this story (as well as general public perception) operates under the assumption that the associations of the person who writes/contributes to a story influences the outcome of the story. This is especially interesting since we are talking about an industry that has historically espoused a "just the fact, mam" approach to history-writing. In some spheres, authors still have authority.

Secondly and tangentially, I just like the idea of a Project on Public Narrative. Public narratives are important, and we do well to make ourselves aware of the narratives that communities are working with, particularly when the community is our own. I hope this project will provide more than mere "ethical insulation" as Wemple puts it.

Read the rest here.