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June 2007

June 30, 2007

It looks like Evan Almighty is sinking. Thought by some to be a sure-thing summer blockbuster, it garnered some glowing reviews in the Christian media but only lukewarm reviews in the mainstream. With other, better family fare now on the big screen (think Ratatouille which has opened to rave reviews), Evan Almighty is going to be lucky to recover the estimated $176 million it cost to make it. The question is: why?

At FoxNews author Mark Joseph offers his opinion.

In its aftermath, once again the chatter from Hollywood is how, despite another earnest and sincere attempt to make a movie for “those people,” the elusive faith-based audience that came out to see the Passion of The Christ has once again failed to turn out en masse for a movie thought to be tailor-made for them. The problem with such an analysis is that it’s not unlike making a movie featuring blackface and wondering why the African-American audience isn’t interested.

He goes on to list many reasons Christians stayed away. “The inability of Evan Almighty to connect with the faith-based audience … goes to the choices made by the studio, the director and the writers as well as the systemic problems with the way Hollywood has always done business and seems resistant to changing.” He points out several problems with the film itself that may have caused Christians stayed away: the film portrayed conservative political leaders as corrupt; the statement in the film that God is “in everything;” the suggestion that God’s primary concern with humans is random acts of kindness. He also points out some things that happened before the film’s release: Evan posing like Marilyn Monroe holding down his robe; Steve Carrell’s body of work doesn’t give confidence that he’ll play the role well; the film’s director saying he rejects traditional religion, and so on. Certainly some of these warned Christians off. Simply seeing Carrell holding down his skirt made Christians realize that this film would be at least somewhat irreverent. Hearing the director’s comments about his faith realize that he his brand of Christianity was far from orthodox.

But the real problem, I’m sure, is the one Joseph offered first. The studios just do not understand Christians. They think they know what will appeal to Christians, try to give it to them, and then find that they’ve failed. Why? Because they don’t know the audience. They try to appeal to some watered-down, ridiculous notion of what a Christian is and then are surprised to learn that true Christians really bear no resemblance to that caricature. It would be like me making a movie that tries to appeal to Buddhists or environmentalists or Mac users or some other group I just don’t understand. It wouldn’t work. I don’t understand them, have no credibility with them, and there is no reason to suggest that I would produce anything to interest them. If the movie studios want to make movies that appeal to Christians, it might be a good idea to actually create a panel of Christians that can guide them, telling them what will and will not fly with a Christian audience. The studios could save a lot of money this way!

I do know that Christians love to rally behind movies that are actually worth watching—ones that carry a biblical message (or even just a nice message) and eliminate all the raunch. The studios are going to give up on this audience if they can’t find a way to please them. Yet it’s their own fault that they keep missing the mark simply because they don’t understand the audience.

June 29, 2007

School is out! Yesterday my son finished up his last day of grade one and my daughter had her last day of junior kindergarten on Wednesday, so today marks the official beginning of summer vacation. School ends about a month later in Canada than in the U.S. but also begins a month later (the Tuesday after Labour Day).

This is a long weekend in Canada as July 1 happens to be Canada Day. Since that day falls on a Sunday this year, Monday will serve as the day that all the businesses are closed. We don’t have any big plans this year, but will probably just spend the day as a family. And that sounds good to me.

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iPowerWebiPowerWeb, a hosting company I often recommend to my clients, is offering a special deal from now until July 4. A hosting plan that is usually $7.95/month is now discounted to $4.95, based on a 12 or 24-month plan. So if you are in the market for hosting, this is a good opportunity to get setup and to get setup at a very reasonable cost. Click the banner for more information.

Speaking of hosting, I’ve been noticing that things are beginning to slow down a little it around here. When you post a comment now it often takes 30 or 60 seconds for the page to rebuild. I expect this is an indication that I am stretching my server a little bit. Movabletype, the software I’m using, tends to be a little resource-intensive at times. So it may be that I’ll need to move to a new server (again) before long. The problem is that I’m kind of on the edge of the budget hosting and if I move I fear it’s going to dramatically increase hosting costs. But I’ll worry about that when it becomes absolutely necessary.

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Sorry to keep shilling Discerning Reader, but I recently added a preview of a feature that may be of interest to some people here: Mini-Reviews. These will be very short book reviews that will be suitable for including in church bulletins or for archiving in a church library. They will give an at-a-glance look at a particular book, giving people a very brief overview of the book’s content and an idea of what audience is most likely to enjoy it. We expect churches will want to use them either to showcase books that are currently available to borrow in the church library or to showcase books the members of the congregation may wish to purchase. If you make your way over, you can download some samples. Do let me know if you find them useful and if this is something you’d be willing to use in your church.

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Now that Sicko, Michael Moore’s latest film has been released, Americans are bound to hear a lot about the wonders of the Canadian health care system. As I understand it, Moore’s ultimate proposed solution to the American health care conundrum is to adopt a socialized system similar to what we enjoy in Canada. The truth is, though, that the Canadian system simply isn’t all that and a bag of chips. The system works, but it comes with a cost that most Americans would be unwilling to pay: a heavy tax burden.

This article, which a friend sent to me, does a good job of explaining a few of the system’s shortcomings. Despite what Moore says in his film, we do have long waits in the emergency rooms of our hospitals. It is not unusual to wait five or six hours (or more) for basic emergency care. Waiting times for some procedures such as MRIs or mammograms can be so long that people end up driving across the border into the U.S. where it can be done the same day and for a reasonable cost. Some American clinics even advertise to Canadians, letting them know about this alternative. Elderly people also find that they tend to be deprioritized in the system as there are more patients than doctors, more surgeries needed than slots to do them. Many of our best and brightest doctors head to the States where they can begin a private practice and make more money than they could dream of making here. While it is unconstitutional for the rich to receive better care than the poor, the rich can afford to go to the U.S. and have their needs met there. And this is exactly what they do.

I seem to recall Michael Moore visiting Canada during the filming of Bowling for Columbine and declaring that most Canadians don’t lock their doors. This is, of course, a preposterous lie. We lock our doors good and tight, just the same as our American neighbors. Moore is lying again in Sicko. Our health care system is good, but it has some serious problems. It is certainly not the ultimate solution, and especially so if you dislike 45% tax brackets. And I don’t know too many who do.

June 29, 2007

Friday June 29, 2007

Interview: Martin Downes has an interview with Mark Dever.

Humor: Josh Harris shares an important truth.

Books: Trevin shares some good advice on reading and on reading widely.

Politics: Following closely behind the environmental movement, expect to read more stories like this one, suggesting that the best and quickest solution to solving the world’s problems is to begin a program of depopulation (is that even a word)?

June 28, 2007

The term hyper-Calvinist is often used as a pejorative. Almost any Calvinist who adheres to the doctrines of grace is likely to be considered a hyper-Calvinist by at least someone. Frankly speaking, a hyper-Calvinist can be any Calvinist to a person who doesn’t understand Calvinism. So today, just briefly, and because the term has come up a few times in recent weeks, I want to narrow in on a more accurate definition of it. First we’ll look at a few examples of what does not constitute hyper-Calvinism. Then we’ll actually define the term.

While most Calvinists hold to the five points of Calvinism as summarized by the acronym TULIP, there are some who refer to themselves as six or seven-point Calvinists. One person who is known to identify himself as a seven-point Calvinist is John Piper. He does so half-jokingly but does so to communicate a truth that the five points of Calvinism are not exhaustive in a consideration of God’s sovereign saving grace. The Desiring God web site says, “Piper isn’t seeking to add two more points, but is simply calling attention to his belief in the traditional five points (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) in a way that also points toward two additional ‘Calvinistic’ truths that follow from them: double predestination and the best-of-all-possible worlds.” Double predestination is widely considered the sixth-point. It is simply the other side to predestination, that just as God sovereignly chooses those whom He will save, in the same way he chooses those whom He will not save. There are some Calvinists who reject this idea, saying that God chooses His elect while everyone else makes their own choice to be condemned. A six-point Calvinist though, believes that God chooses some for salvation and some for perdition and that He does so not on the basis that some people are better or worse than others, but simply through His sovereign choice.

The seventh-point of Calvinism, at least according to John Piper (and I’m uncertain whether others regard this as the seventh point) is the best-of-all-possible worlds, which “means that God governs the course of history so that, in the long run, His glory will be more fully displayed and His people more fully satisfied than would have been the case in any other world.” Yet even someone who is willing to extend Calvinism beyond the five points is not “hyper.” A seven-point Calvinist is not a hyper-Calvinist.

An Enthusiastic Calvinist, or a person who really, really likes to talk about these doctrines, is also not a hyper-Calvinist. Someone who is an ardent Calvinist, who believes in these doctrines and talks about nothing else is still not “hyper” according to the historic use of the word.

So what, then, is a hyper-Calvinist?

Part of the confusion about this term no doubt arises from the use of the prefix “hyper.” “Hyper” does not refer, as many might think, to enthusiasm or excitement. Rather its basic meaning is along the lines of “excessive or excessively.” You might think of the word hyperactive which means “excessively active.” Hyper- comes from the Greek prefix huper-, which comes from the preposition huper, meaning “over, beyond.” So a hyper-Calvinist is one who goes beyond and over the bounds of what Calvinism teaches (and thus over the bounds of what the Bible teaches). He is excessive in his application of the doctrines. This manifests itself in an over-emphasis of one aspect of God’s character at the expense of another. Hyper-Calvinists emphasize God’s sovereignty but de-emphasize God’s love. They tend to set God’s sovereignty at odds with the clear biblical call to human responsibility. We can see how these are worked out as we look at a concise definition of the term. Phil Johnson, who has done extensive research on this subject very helpfully defines hyper-Calvinists using a five-fold definition. A hyper-Calvinist is one who:

  1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
  2. Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
  3. Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
  4. Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,” OR
  5. Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

As Phil says, “All five varieties of hyper-Calvinism undermine evangelism or twist the gospel message.” So this is the key to understanding hyper-Calvinism: it undermines evangelism and/or somehow distorts the gospel message.

Probably the most distinguishing characteristic of a Hyper-Calvinist is an unwillingness to evangelize at all, or to evangelize without extending a call to accept and believe the gospel. An example of a hyper-Calvinistic confession makes this clear. Article 33 of Articles of Faith of the Gospel Standard Aid and Poor Relief Societies says, “Therefore, that for ministers in the present day to address unconverted persons, or indiscriminately all in a mixed congregation, calling upon them to savingly repent, believe, and receive Christ, or perform any other acts dependent upon the new creative power of the Holy Ghost, is, on the one hand, to imply creature power, and on the other, to deny the doctrine of special redemption.” In other words, they say, to command people to turn from their sin and to repent is to command them to do something they are unable to do for this would deny the doctrine of particular redemption. Yet this teaching is clearly at odds with the Bible’s call for all men to believe. The offer of the gospel is universal and God truly does command all men to heed it. Faith is a duty for all men. God’s common grace extends to all men and, while God does not love elect and non-elect in the same way, the Bible is clear that He does love all that He has created.

Keep that five-fold definition in mind and you’ll have a good idea of what it truly means to be a hyper-Calvinist. Of course I have little confidence that articles like this one will make any real difference. The term hyper-Calvinist is a convenient and baggage-filled one to lob into an argument or discussion. But at least now we know whether or not we truly fit that mold!

June 28, 2007

Thursday June 28, 2007

Video: American Vision has an amusing video dealing with Sam Harris and other atheists.

Marriage: An article at Slate discusses the trouble with engagement rings. Sure it’s a kind of silly tradition, but I don’t think it’s a bad one!

Theology: Mark Dever has begun a series asking where all these Calvinists have come from.

Music: Bob Kauflin has posted the MP3 and chart for a new adaptation of the hymn “Hallelujah, What a Savior.”

June 27, 2007

This isn’t a book review. Though I often refer to a particular book, I mean this more as a series of statements on intelligent design. The concept of intelligent design has undeniable appeal. Forming a kind of middle ground between creationism and evolution, it claims to reconcile the claims of modern science with what seems so obvious to so many—that there is an intelligent force or being in the universe that has guided the design of this universe. Michael Behe is considered a leader within the intelligent design movement and, along with Phillip Johnson, one of its founding fathers. His first book, Darwin’s Black Box, was much maligned by scientists, yet intrigued and captivated many people, including many Christians. In that book, Behe claimed that at a biochemical level, many structures at the very foundation of life are irreducibly complex—they cannot have evolved by random chance but must, therefore, be the product of an intelligent designer. The scientific community largely criticized Behe’s efforts, suggesting that he was simply taking advantage of the ignorance of the general reader when it comes to issues such as biochemistry and genetics. They consider him little more than a rogue scientist and a thinly-veiled creationist who attempts to maintain some level of scientific integrity. In the words of Richard Dawkins, “He’s a straightforward creationist. What he has done is to take a standard argument which dates back to the 19th century, the argument of irreducible complexity…”

In his latest book, The Edge of Evolution, Behe, still holding firm to his belief in irreducible complexity, goes looking for the edge, the border between what can be accounted for on the basis of random mutation and what cannot. He looks for the division between what could evolve and what must have required the intervention of a designer.

To understand Behe’s argument, the reader must be willing to delineate three separate ideas that together form Darwin’s theory of evolution: random mutation, natural selection and common descent. When most people think of evolution, they think primarily of random descent—that all living creatures evolved from a common ancestor. Yet this idea accounts only for the similarities in creatures, not their differences. To account for differences one must look to random mutation and natural selection. After all, we would expect that everything stemming from a common ancestor would bear great similarities. Since this is evidently not the case something must have intervened to create such striking differences between plants and animals, mammals and reptiles, mice and elephants. Here the evolutionist proposes the combination of mutation and selection. Natural selection is, on the face of it, quite innocuous as it merely suggests that organisms which are more fit will produce more offspring that organisms that are less fit. On its own this is evident. Thus the heart of the Darwinian theory is the role of mutation—that certain organisms become stronger or more fit because of random mutations. Until these mutations occur, random selection can do nothing. But once these mutations occur, natural selection separates the stronger organisms, those that have undergone beneficial mutations, from the weak, those that have remained the same or that have undergone harmful mutations.

Because these concepts are unrelated, they must be considered independently rather than as a whole. It may well be that creationists are guilty of sometimes grouping these together and condemning them as a group rather than understanding and critiquing them individually. To write off natural selection in the same way we might write off random mutation is not entirely fair. In his book Behe summarizes what he considers the rational positions based on modern science and these positions would be shared by the majority of proponents of intelligent design. They are as follows: there is compelling evidence for common descent; there is good evidence that random mutation paired with natural selection can modify life in important ways; there is strong evidence that random mutation is extremely limited. Thus Behe and other intelligent design advocates grant common ancestry and natural selection, and grant that mutation coupled with selection can change life. But where they typically draw the line is at the power of random mutation and natural selection. This, Behe says, has been greatly oversold to the public. And so the purpose of his latest book is “to cut through the fog, to offer a sober appraisal of what Darwinian processes can and cannot do, and to find what I call the edge of evolution.” He attempts to define a set of guidelines that will mark the furthest extent of what Darwinian evolution can account for.

As he begins to delimit the edge of evolution, Behe proposes two criteria by which to judge whether random mutation combined with natural selection is a reasonable explanation for a molecular phenomenon. First, he speaks of steps and says that the more intermediate evolutionary steps needed to achieve a biological goal, the less likely it is to be adequately explained in Darwinian terms. If it is but one step from the beginning to the end, it is possible that random mutation can account for this step. But if it is eight or ten steps, it is far less likely. Second, he speaks of coherence suggesting that a telltale sign of planning is the ordering of steps towards a particular goal whereas random mutation is, by its very nature, incoherent. Thus if we see that there must be a series of coherent, necessary steps from the beginning to the end, we realize it is unlikely that random mutation can be the driving force. Behe arrives at the obvious conclusion that “the molecular developmental program to build an animal must consist of many discrete steps and be profoundly coherent.” Thus many animal forms have necessarily been designed. But to what degree?

He finally comes to the moment of truth where he must attempt to define the outer edge of Darwinian evolution. “[We] can conclude that animal design probably extends into life at least as far as vertebrate classes, maybe deeper, and that random mutation likely explains differences at least up to the species level, perhaps somewhat beyond. Somewhere between the level of vertebrate species and class lies the organismal edge of Darwinian evolution.” Combining this book with Darwin’s Black Box, then, we are left to see that the major “architectural features of life—molecular machinery, cells, genetic circuitry, and probably more—are purposely designed.” But the architectural constraints leave room beyond this for plenty of variation and adaptation.

The reader is then left wondering in what ways this intelligent force interacts with the world and how it acts as designer. Here Behe has little to offer, though he does offer the information that he is a fairly traditional Roman Catholic and that, in his view, this designer is God, but a God who functions much like a watchmaker, setting the world in motion and then stepping back to let it run its course. “Those who worry about ‘interference’ should relax. The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws.” He is careful, though, to point out that one does not to believe in God, or the God of the Bible, to accept intelligent design. The evidence of design is, after all, visible in every area of nature. Whether or not a person accepts that there is a God, he must come up with some concept of a designer. Thus Behe’s understanding of intelligent design is perfectly compatible with the idea of universal common descent. But it is entirely incompatible with Darwin’s mechanism of evolution—random variation and natural selection. Other leading advocates of intelligent design are evangelical Christians that span the range of denominations.

Now I’ll be honest and say that I very much enjoyed reading this book. I am no scientist and parts of it went way over my head, but on the whole I felt I was able to follow and to understand Behe’s argument. Yet I must disagree with him and with other intelligent design advocates in several areas.

For all his talk and affirmation of common descent, Behe, with other intelligent design proponents, is unable to provide a single convincing example of anything of the sort. Watching countless thousands of generations of various organisms has yielded only other like organisms. There have been plenty of examples of seemingly random mutation, but nothing that has yielded anything materially different from the sort. Science has still been unable to show that one organism can become another. After countless iterations, Malaria is still Malaria; a fly is still a fly; a monkey is still a monkey. He gives no new or compelling evidence of macro-evolution. Thus I have to reject common ancestry as an evolutionary myth that is completely at odds with the biblical account of creation. With Behe, as with so many scientists, common descent is assumed but unproven. They grant Darwin that one, major point and then argue on the ones that are less significant.

Behe’s conclusions regarding the person or nature of the designer are entirely unsatisfactory and it seemed that he was perhaps unwilling to pay the cost of declaring that God, and only God, could be the designer. This is typical for the intelligent design movement as few people are really willing to take a stand on this point. As a committed Catholic Behe must believe that God is the designer. Why, then, would he give such leeway to believe it could be any other force? And how, as a Catholic, could he suggest that God is now watching the world from afar as it runs its course on the basis of natural laws. When he does attempt to address difficult issues, he still falls short. Though he affirms that we have to conclude that something as nefarious as Malaria was intentionally designed, he does not draw satisfactory conclusions about the kind of designer who would design such a thing. Finally, he does not adequately interact with just how random something can be when we live in a universe over which God claims complete mastery. Related to this, Behe gave little guidance on just how the designer interacts with the creation. How does this person or force function as designer today? Does he simply make the mutations happen that are otherwise mathematically impossible? Or does he express his will in some other way? Behe’s long argument leads to a designer but then drops the ball in actually describing that designer.

So while I certainly do not agree with those who hold forth intelligent design as an explanation of the origin of the species (I am and remain a young earth creationist), I do enjoy reading these efforts and I do benefit from them. It is breathtaking to read descriptions of things so far beyond what the eye can see. It is awe-inspiring to see how fearfully and wonderfully we have been made. The creative genius of God is beyond what we can fathom and even our best attempts to explain and understand inevitably fall far short.

As the evolutionary camp fractures into various factions, and as evidence continues to mount proving that the theory is rife with scientific and logical inconsistencies, those who believe in the the biblical account of the world’s creation would do well to read such books and to learn from them. They must be read with caution and discernment, but when read carefully they can unearth a wealth of information that looks at the very building blocks of life and shows the hand of the creator as clearly there as anywhere else. Look to even the tiniest components and there you’ll see the hand of the creator, there you’ll human depravity, and there you’ll see further proof of the existence and sovereignty of God.

June 27, 2007

Wednesday June 27, 2007

Books: As promised, all the books at the Desiring God store are a mere $5 today. Even John Piper thinks this is crazy. So go and lose yourself in a frenzy of consumerism. You won’t be sorry!

Photo: Though the text accompanying it is a little over the top, this photo tells a story that the media seems to be hiding.

Islam: The NY Times has an interesting article about the etiquette of Jihad.

Theology: The latest edition of the 9Marks eJournal is now available. It focuses on the gospel and challenges to it.

Technology: WSJ reviews the iPhone . “Our verdict is that, despite some flaws and feature omissions, the iPhone is, on balance, a beautiful and breakthrough handheld computer”

June 26, 2007

Tuesdays are review days at Discerning Reader and this week we’ve added five new ones. Because I am reviewing so many books these days, I will only be posting some of them at my blog. The rest will appear over at Discerning Reader and you can read them there if you’re interested.

I’ve written reviews of a couple of popular titles, one coming from a professed Christian and the other from an ardent atheist. Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation is a reader-friendly, popular-level attempt to turn Americans against religion in general and Christianity in particular. I review it briefly and look forward to follow up this review with one of Douglas Wilson’s book-length response. I’ve also reviewed Anne Lamott’s latest book and posted that review here at the blog.

Turning to theology, I offer a brief look at John Blanchard’s extensive collection of quotes as compiled in The Complete Gathered Gold. I also provide a review of an important and controversial volume entitled Pierced for Our Transgressions which provides a biblical defense for the doctrine of penal substitution. This is a doctrine that is under attack in the church today and authors Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach take a firm stand in favor of it.

Though it won’t appeal to all, we’ve reviewed a beginner’s Hebrew grammar entitled Invitation to Biblical Hebrew. Reviewer Scott Lamb says, “If you have a desire to learn Hebrew, let me encourage you to purchase this grammar, along with the workbook and DVDs. Utilizing the deductive approach, the authors instruct you in a concept and then turn you loose to practice it through pages of drills and exercises. As long as you master each chapter before going onto the next, you can work your way into a solid understanding of the grammar and syntax of Biblical Hebrew.”

Next week I hope to have reviews of Douglas Wilson’s Letter From a Christian Citizen, Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, and a couple of other titles. Reviewer Leslie Wiggins has written an excellent review of Shopping for Time by Carolyn Mahaney and her daughters and it will be posted to coincide with that book’s release. And we’ll see what the other reviewers turn in between now and then!