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July 18, 2006

The moment a person forms a theory his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” (Thomas Jefferson)

Last night a reader of this site took the time to send me a link to an article I had somehow missed reading last week. It was written by Dr. Albert Mohler and discussed the subject of “confirmation bias.” Dr. Mohler traces an article written by Michael Shermer of Scientific American as he discusses a study based on this topic. Schermer discusses “A recent brain-imaging study [that] shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias.”

As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.

This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence. Now a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study shows where in the brain the confirmation bias arises and how it is unconscious and driven by emotions. Psychologist Drew Westen led the study, conducted at Emory University, and the team presented the results at the 2006 annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men—half self-described as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats—were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

This is no great surprise, as experience shows all of us that we are much more willing to grant clemency to people whom we like and support than those with whom we disagree. What is particularly interesting about this study, though, is the source of the brain activity that formed these judgments. “The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and—once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable—the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.” What the researchers saw “was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” In other words, when people assessed the statements made by President Bush and John Kerry, they reacted with emotion rather than reason.

Like Dr. Mohler, I am “suspicious of all efforts to reduce human consciousness and cognitive activity to measurable or observable studies of the brain. There is a connection there, no doubt, but biological reductionism (and its close cousin, biological determinism) is a woefully inadequate explanation for human thinking and behavior.” To reduce human cognitive function, thinking, feeling and believing to mere imaging results is clearly inadequate in explaining the intricacies of the brain, the will and the heart. I don’t believe that we can ever neatly map out human reason or that we can ever solve how and why humans love, feel and believe. And yet there is likely some truth in the results of this study, for we are no doubt prone to make judgments based more on emotion than reason. Michael Shermer says, “The implications of the findings reach far beyond politics. A jury assessing evidence against a defendant, a CEO evaluating information about a company or a scientist weighing data in favor of a theory will undergo the same cognitive process.” In other words, confirmation bias can show itself in any number of situations.

Dr. Mohler writes, “We are unquestionably inclined to seek evidence that confirms our bias and to discard or discount evidence to the contrary. There may be biological evidence of this fact (indeed I assume there must be such evidence), but the main factor behind this problem, from a human perspective, is the Fall. The corruption of the race involves the corruption of our cognitive abilities. Confirmation bias is just one more evidence of the Fall; one more reminder that we are fallen creatures whose minds are not only finite, but corrupted. The human mind is truly amazing, but we all have to deal with conflicted thinking, limited knowledge, fragile memory, and emotional influences.”

When we affirm the doctrine of the fallenness of man, we affirm that through the Fall we have been corrupted in every way. The depravity of man extends to every area of his being so that nothing remains untouched. We are unable to use our minds without allowing emotion to interfere with reason. Clearly this poses a threat to intellectual integrity. “The reality of confirmation bias and its threat to intellectual integrity is one reason that Christian thinkers must read widely and think carefully.” Christians bear the responsibility of knowing their sin and thus knowing their proclivity for all manner of sin—even the sin of confirmation bias. For if we are able to admit that confirmation bias is a result of the Fall, we must also admit that it likely comes naturally to fallen men and women and that we are all likely to slip into it from time to time. I did not have to think long or hard before seeing areas where I am prone to make snap judgments and to allow emotion to override more measured reason. And, as the subject of discernment has been much on my mind in recent days, I also see how people to seek to be discerning may be particularly prone to this bias.

Here is an application Dr. Mohler drew from his reflections on the subject: In order to avoid confirmation bias “We must not limit ourselves to reading material from those who agree with us, fellow Christians who share a common worldview and perspective. Instead, we have to ‘read the opposition’ as well — and read opposing viewpoints with fairness and care.” If we are to avoid this bias, we must deliberately stretch ourselves. As I read this I thought back to the review I posted just a couple of weeks ago about the book While Europe Slept which was written by a homosexual. When I posted that review, several people questioned the validity of reading and reviewing such a book. These questions arise often when I read and review books that are written by unbelievers or by those who write from a liberal Christian perspective. Yet I think these books are important, for it is all too easy to delude ourselves, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, into thinking that we are fair and unbiased when the reality may be far different. I believe, like Dr. Mohler, that it is important that we read the opposition. I believe that there is nothing to fear in doing so, provided that a person is well-grounded in the truths of Scripture.

John Calvin, in his Institutes wrote “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” We can look outside the Christian bookstores for truth. We would not look outside a Christian worldview to find eternal truths, but we may still find truths outside the church and perhaps even truths to which Christians are oblivious. To ignore or to reject these truths, especially on the basis of confirmation bias, would be to dishonor God, the very source, the fountain, of truth.

July 17, 2006

There was a time when Christians used militaristic language without shame. In fact, only one or two generations ago, Christians often spoke of being part of an army fighting against the forces of darkness. Hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” were sung often and were sung proudly. But in recent years, this type of language has fallen out of favor in the church. Many feel that this language serves to deter the unchurched from responding to the gospel. They are, it seems, not willing to allow themselves to be conquered by an army.

Brian McLaren discusses this metaphor in A Generous Orthodoxy: “The human race has been conquered by an alien power or powers (Sin, the Devil, and Death are the most common antagonists, although Paul’s more ambiguous ‘principalities and powers’ could also be included). Jesus goes to battle with the alien power(s), and appears to be defeated in death, but his death turns out to be the undoing of the antagonist. In this metaphor, military terms such as battle, defeat, and conquering are predominant.” McLaren advocates rejecting this type of language and replacing it with something more appropriate for our culture. This language, he would argue, is contextual and Christians are under no obligation to describe Christianity with such terms.

But some Christians feel we need to rediscover this military language. Stanley Gale, author of Warfare Witness: Contending with Spiritual Opposition in Everyday Evangelism, is one of these. Warfare Witness is a book dealing with spiritual warfare, a topic that has received surprisingly little attention in Reformed circles. There is a great deal of material available within mainstream evangelicalism that proposes any number of misguided strategies for dealing with spiritual opposition. While there has clearly been a lot of interest in this topic in recent years, Reformed Christians have no doubt been guilty of not paying sufficient attention to it. Gale seeks to remedy this, and does so in a book that is endorsed by Philip Ryken, T.M. Moore and Sinclair Ferguson.

Gale believes that it is beneficial for Christians to have a militaristic understanding of the spiritual battle that rages around us, for this is the language God chose to use. He writes, “Some might not feel comfortable with the military concept and terminology. Yet…this is exactly the way our King and Commander would have us understand the nature of evangelism and approach to the work of witness…All of us enfolded into the king of God, as children of God and heirs of life, are servants of the Most High and soldiers of the cross.”

Gale begins with the Christian’s commission which is, of course, the Great Commission. After His glorious resurrection, and before He left this earth, Jesus gave His people their marching orders in the familiar words of Matthew 28:18-20. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The church is now given the responsibility of “making disciples of all nations.” And the Scripture presents this commission and its fulfillment in decidedly militaristic terminology. Scripture presents the work of redemption in militaristic terms, “in the work of Christ to bring it about, of the church to carry it out, and of individual Christians to live it out.” We see this under three headings: Christ’s Mission, the Church’s Mission and the Christian’s Identity.

Christ’s Mission - From its earliest mention, Christ’s mission was portrayed in terms of combat. In Genesis 3:15 God promises a Savior: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” We see a promise of two combatants with a battle raging between them. The culmination of Christ’s work, portrayed in Revelation, is filled with military language, leading us to see that “our salvation is the result of military intervention by our Lord” in which He performs a mission of mercy, grace and love.

The Church’s Mission - The church’s mission is also described in militaristic terms. We lay siege to the gates of hell. Jesus builds His church against a backdrop of spiritual opposition that seeks to overcome her. “The church operates in enemy territory and contends with enemy opposition.” The church, then, is a body, an army, marching out to war. We are army that fights in victory, not for victory, for the victory has already been won by Christ. We have to be both an invading army and an inviting army, both inviting people to join us and marching out to recruit them. We are to go! “The ‘go’ of our Lord’s Great Commission is the go of invasion. It is not the ‘go’ of a casual stroll or pointless wandering, but the go of military mission.” And when we go, we baptize, recruiting people into active service for the King.

The Christian’s Identity - Every local church represents an outpost of God’s army. Paul refers to those in other churches as “fellow soldiers” and urges Timothy to be a “good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Gale points out that when we were recruited into God’s army, we were given a rather strange set of clothing, not a camouflage uniform, but the brilliant white robe of Christ’s righteousness. We are not to be an army who hides or blends in, but an army that stands out. And our work as Christians is to wage war. “We are outfitted with weapons suitable for the nature of the combat we are called to undertake. Our tactics reflect military strategy, conducted in the wisdom of God. We stand on the truth against the assault of error. We pray against the opposition we face in mission.”

Gale believes that an understanding of this military model provides many benefits. First, it reminds us who we are. We have been rescued and are now called to join the cause of liberation from the devil’s tyranny. Second, it reminds us of our task. To follow Christ means that we are to do what He says and to fight for His cause. Third, it speaks to motivation. We obey the Lord because we love Him, are indebted to Him, and owe our lives and liberty to Him. Because Christ’s motivation to save us was love, we must have the same motivation as we seek out the lost. Fourth, this model reminds us why we fight and exhorts us to fight with God’s weapons in God’s ways. Fifth, it reminds us that we have a mandate and one from which we are often distracted by Satan. We are to stay true to our mission and to realize that we are not at peace but are at war.

“In Christ’s kingdom there can be no conscientious objectors. In Christ’s church, there is no inactive duty. To be a disciple is to be a solider of the cross…The term of enlistment is a lifetime, beginning with conversion, ending with the discharge papers or transfer to the church triumphant in heavenly rest, where we are eager to hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

I feel that Gale does quite a good job of defending his position that the military mandate is inexorably connected with the Scripture’s portrayal of Christ’s redemption, the church’s mission and the identity of the believer. But let me ask you: do you feel that this is a necessary metaphor, a helpful metaphor, or merely a contextual metaphor and one that should likely be abandoned, at least during our time and in our culture?

July 13, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week (or so) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to my left sidebar. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making my readers aware of other good sites.

This week’s King for a Week is Married Life, a blog ministry of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The site features four authors who “hope that through this blog you will encounter a wealth of theologically informed, practical ideas designed to make an immediate difference, ultimately an eternal difference, in your marriage and family.” Most weeks they feature “Romantical Mondays: Starting our Week off Right!,” “Thursday’s Thoughts for Parents,” and “Miscellaneous, but Meaningful, Stuff on Marriage.” There is much wisdom to glean from these men and I’d encourage any married person to read it.

In the coming days you will be able to see the most recent headlines from this blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over the site and look around.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so by clicking on the “suggest” button below the King of the Week box. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

July 13, 2006

A few nights ago, in our time of family worship, we read Exodus 6, a chapter that serves as a prelude of sorts to the plagues which are about to befall Egypt. The chapter begins with God telling Moses that He will soon deliver the Israelites from their centuries of slavery. “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.” God then explains this promise, telling Moses how He would deliver the people. He prefaces His explanation with a simple phrase: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord.’” That phrase, “I am the Lord,” is repeated several times in the first nine verses of the chapter.

This is a passage often pointed to by people who feel they have discovered contradictions in Scripture, for when God says, “I am the Lord,” he also says, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them.” Yet, according to the Bible, God had used that name with the Patriarchs. By saying that He did not make Himself known by it, it seems that He is saying they were not able to see or understand the fullness of the name. But now, by delivering the Israelites, God will make Himself known as Lord. This name, Lord, is the “Tetragrammaton” which is translated into English as either Yahweh or Jehovah. Keil and Delitzsch explain this as follows. “[God] was about to reveal Himself to Israel as Jehovah, as the absolute Being working with unbounded freedom in the performance of His promises.” By revealing Himself as Jehovah, God would reveal something about Himself, namely, that He is a promise-keeping God.

Of all the uses of this phrase in the first few verses of Exodus 6, the one that most caught my attention was the final one. After all of His promises to the people, promises to bring them out from under the yoke of slavery, to exact judgment against the Egyptians, and to bring them into the promised land, God finishes with a small but powerful sentence: “I am the Lord.” As I read it, I paused briefly as I thought it was a peculiar phrase to use. Why, after making so many promises, would God simply state His identity? But as I pondered this, it became clear. I was reminded of some words found in the hymn “How Firm A Foundation” where the hymn-writer, John Rip­pon, asked simply, “What more can He say than to you He hath said?”

That is a good question. In this passage, what more could God have said? Why did He not say more? The reason is simple: God could not say more. There is nothing more that God could say to prove that He would fulfill His promises. He could not swear by anything, for what is there that is greater than Himself? He could not append the words, “I promise” to the end of His statement, for these would be meaningless compared to the greatness of His name. In saying “I am the Lord,” God gave the Israelites all the assurance they could have and all the assurance they ought to have needed. For when God reveals Himself as Jehovah, He is not merely revealing a name, but also His character. The character of God is inseparable from His name. God is Jehovah not only in name, but also in deed.

What more could God say than “I am the Lord?” Nothing. God is Jehovah, the promise-keeping God. We can have confidence that God’s character and His name can never be separated. This was true for the Israelites and it is true for us today.

July 10, 2006

Like all Christians, I love my quiet time. I am always thrilled at the prospect of sitting down during the few quiet moments before a busy day to spend some time alone with God—a few moments one-on-one with my Creator. I love to open the Bible and to carefully and systematically read the Word of God, allowing it to penetrate my heart. I love to sit and think deeply and meditatively about the Scriptures and to seek ways that I can apply God’s word to my heart. I love to pray to God, pouring out my heart in confession, praise, thanksgiving and petition. It is always the best and greatest part of my day. I couldn’t live without my quiet time.

But that’s not reality, is it?

Like all Christians, I sometimes love my quiet time. While I am sometimes thrilled at the prospect of sitting down to spend some time with God, all too often I dread it. I’d rather catch up on the news or spend some time writing or reading a good book or find out how badly the Bluejays beat the Red Sox the day before. My quiet time is often invaded by little children, demanding my time and attention. Too often I hate to make my way through a difficult book of the Bible and dread spending another day reading through the prophecies of Isaiah. Thinking requires more time and effort than I am willing to give and it usually seems that a quick, cursory prayer is enough to make me feel that I’ve done my duty and asked God to bless my day and to forgive me for being a jerk with my kids the night before. I skim Scripture, breathe a prayer, and settle down to my breakfast.

That’s a little closer to reality, isn’t it?

In The Discipline of Grace, Jerry Bridges provides two scenarios and then a question. In the first, he describes a good day. “You get up promptly when your alarm goes off and have a refreshing and profitable quiet time as you read your Bible and pray. Your plans for the day generally fall into place, and you somehow sense that presence of God with you. To top it off, you unexpectedly have an opportunity to share the gospel with someone who is truly searching. As you talk with the person, you silently pray for the Holy Spirit to help you and to also work in your friend’s heart.” We’ve all had days like that. But we’ve also all had days like this: “You don’t arise at the first ring of your alarm. Instead, you shut it off and go back to sleep. When you awaken, it’s too late to have a quiet time. You hurriedly gulp down some breakfast and rush off to the day’s activities. You feel guilty about oversleeping and missing your quiet time, and things just generally go wrong all day. You become more and more irritable as the day wears on, and you certainly don’t sense God’s presence in your life. That evening, however, you unexpectedly have an opportunity to share the gospel with someone who is really interested in receiving Christ as Savior.” Bridges then asks if you would enter into those two witnessing opportunities with a different degree of confidence. Think about it for a moment. If you’re like most Christians, I suspect you would feel less confident about witnessing on a bad day then on a good day. You would feel less confidence that God would speak in and through you and that you would be able to share your faith forcefully and with conviction.

Why is it that we tend to think this way? According to Bridges, we’ve come to believe that God’s blessing on our lives is somehow conditional upon our spiritual performance. In other words, if we’ve performed well and done our quiet time as we ought to have done, we have put ourselves in a place where God can bless us. We may not consciously articulate this, but we prove that we believe it when we have a bad day and are certain that on this day we are absolutely unworthy of God’s blessings. This attitude “reveals an all-too-common misconception of the Christian life: the thinking that, although we are saved by grace, we earn or forfeit God’s blessings in our daily lives by our performance.”

Perhaps you, like me, have too often turned quiet time into a performance. If we perform well for God, we enter our day filled with confidence that God will bless us, and that He will have to bless us. We feel that our performance has earned us the right to have a day filled with His presence, filled with blessings, and filled with confidence. And, of course, when we turn in a poor performance, we feel that God is in heaven booing us and heaving proverbial rotten vegetables in the form of removing His presence and, in the words of a friend, “dishing out bummers.”

Quiet time becomes tyrannical when we understand it as a performance. Bridges provides a pearl of wisdom. “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” Whether we are having a good day or a bad day, the basis of our relationship with is not our performance, for even our best efforts are but filthy rags, but grace. Grace does not just save us and then leave us alone. No, grace saves us and then sustains us and equips us and motivates us. We are saved by grace and we then live by grace. Whether in the midst of a good day or bad, God does not base His relationship with us on performance, but on whether or not we are trusting in His Son.

Greg Johnson of St. Louis Center for Christian Study wrote an interesting tract entitled “Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt” (link). Johnson wrote about something I had only recently realized myself. “That half hour every morning of Scriptural study and prayer is not actually commanded in the Bible.” Imagine that. He goes on to say, “As a theologian, I can remind us that to bind the conscience where Scripture leaves freedom is a very, very serious crime. It’s legalism rearing its ugly little head again. We’ve become legalistic about a legalistic command. This is serious.” We have somehow allowed our quiet time, in its length, depth or consistency, to become the measure of our relationship with God. But “your relationship with God—or, as I prefer to say, God’s relationship with you—is your whole life: your job, your family, your sleep, your play, your relationships, your driving, your everything. The real irony here is that we’ve become accustomed to pigeonholing our entire relationship with God into a brief devotional exercise that is not even commanded in the Bible.” So what, then, does Scripture command? It commands that the Word of God be constantly upon our hearts. We are to pray, to read the Scripture and to meditate upon it, but we are to do so from a joyful desire, and not mere performance-based duty. We are to do so throughout our whole lives, and not merely for a few minutes each morning. Like Johnson, I came to realize that the “goal isn’t that we pray and read the Bible less, but that we do so more—and with a free and needy heart.”

So do not allow quiet time to become performance. View it as a chance to grow in grace. Begin with an expression of your dependency upon God’s grace, and end with an affirmation of His grace. Acknowledge that you have no right to approach God directly, but can approach Him only through the work of His Son. Focus on the gospel as the message of grace that both saves and sustains. And allow quiet time to become a gift of worship you present to God, and a gift of grace you receive from Him.

July 07, 2006

Earlier this week I encountered an amusing but startling article in the blog section of the Palm Beach Post. The author discussed a recent situation involving Victoria’s Secret.

“Victoria’s Secret became the target of breast-feeding activists this week after women in Racine, Wis., and Quincy, Mass., went into the popular women’s lingerie store and were told they couldn’t breastfeed their children on the sales floor.

It’s hard to imagine that Victoria’s Secret, of all places, could be anti-breast—or at least squeamish about the partial exposure of a woman’s breast amid the racks of revealing peekaboo attire on sale.

But it happened. The result: Victoria’s Secret was the target of a nationwide ‘nurse-in’ protest this past weekend called for by a group of angry breastfeeding women.”

I’d hate to be on the wrong side of a group of angry breastfeeding women! I think it could only be worse to be on the wrong side of a group of angry homeschooling women. But I digress. It seems terribly ironic that Victoria’s Secret, a company that has done a great deal to commodify the breast along with every other aspect of female anatomy, refuses to allow women to breastfeed on their premises. As the article says, “Victoria’s Secret, after all, is all about partial, and more-than-partial exposure of a woman’s body.” The company’s advertising shows a lot more exposed breast than is likely to be seen when a woman nurses her child. And what’s wrong with a woman feeding her child in public?

Until six years ago I had never thought much about breastfeeding. My mom, with still a little bit of hippie in her blood (you should see those early photos of her as a mother), raised five children and each of us breastfed for at least a year or two. There is good reason, I think in retrospect, that the five children in our family are all spaced three years apart! I was the second child to be born into the family and so, for at least five or six years of my life, I saw little sisters breastfeeding. I thought nothing of it, for it was as natural as breathing. Babies needed to eat, so mom fed them. If they needed to eat at home, mom fed them at home, and if they needed to eat when we were out, mom fed them in public. Actually, I’m pretty sure mom even fed them in the front seat while dad was driving the car, something that wasn’t forbidden back then as it is today (for good reason, I might add). I called my mother this morning to confirm my memories and she said, “Yes! I fed you guys all over Toronto.” And what’s more, she thought nothing of it. I don’t think it ever occurred to her to do otherwise. She was discreet about it, of course, but was certainly not ashamed to fed us when we need to be fed. There was nothing complicated about it.

Six years ago, Aileen gave birth to our first child. Suddenly, breastfeeding seemed complicated. Aileen struggled with breastfeeding in public or even in “semi-private” conditions (such as when friends were visiting). She would gladly nurse the baby when her girlfriends were present, but when a man entered the room, she would opt instead to drag her friends to a different room. Somehow, between generations, breastfeeding had become shameful. While a few of our friends would, with some hesitation I think, breastfeed when men were present, most tended to camp out in a room by themselves, or at least sat around a corner or with their backs turned.

Aileen recently gave birth to our third child and she still will not feed her in public. If we happen to be in public when Michaela demands her dinner, Aileen will sequester herself in a bathroom or other private area and settle down to feed the baby.

It is not my purpose here to argue for or against public breastfeeding. Ultimately, a woman should confer with her husband and do what makes them feel comfortable. If they are uncomfortable with nursing a child in public, the mother should not feel compelled or obliged to do so. Similarly, if they are unashamed to have her feed the child in public, then by all means, she should do so. The right to nurse in public is protected by the laws of the land, and so it should be.

I found the story from the Palm Beach Post quite instructive. It shows something about our society, I think, that we will gladly tolerate breasts when they are in the context of sexuality, but not when they are in the context of child-rearing. Somehow, over the past couple of decades, public breastfeeding has become taboo. Stores and restaurants routinely demand that breastfeeding moms take their babies to the bathrooms to nurse them there. More and more people seem to regard it as unnatural or disgusting. Victoria’s Secret can plaster the store windows with huge posters of nearly-naked women with their breasts almost fully exposed, but when a woman sitting inside the store discreetly latches her child to a breast, it is regarded as exhibitionism.

My dad has often remarked that television and movies, while routinely showing scenes with explicit sexual content, will almost never show scenes that involve sex between married couples. He does not mean to say that it would be somehow morally superior to show a married couple engaging in sexual acts on the movie or television screen, but simply that it is only a certain kind of unnatural, unbiblical sexuality that our society wishes to see. Satan hates what is natural and good. He loves what is unnatural and evil. When we look at breastfeeding in this context, it makes perfect sense that our society does not object to public displays of breasts when they are in the context of sexuality. Men love to be able to walk past Victoria’s Secret and to see vivid images of other women displaying their near-perfect bodies. But in the context of something that is natural and good, such as a woman nursing her baby, breasts are somehow repulsive. We have exchanged the natural for the unnatural. And I guess we must like it that way.

July 05, 2006

It has been quite a while since I posted a “Feedback Files” article. I guess I have taken to answering more correspondence privately than publicly. For those not familiar with the term, “Feedback Files” refers to the times that I use this site to answer questions sent to me by readers. I’m often willing to research and address questions or theological conundrums. Of course I am really quite unqualified to answer many of these questions (except the ones on web design), but I can at least fall back on a great collection of books.

I recently received a question from a reader who asked “can someone worship (idolize) the Bible?” Is it possible that a person can make the Bible into an idol? She mentioned a Sunday school teacher who had told her, in response to some of her “Reformed answers” to questions on the book of Romans, that he “needed to be careful not to worship the Bible.” And so she wanted to know if it was possible to do so.

In brief, I can affirm that it is entirely possible for a person to idolize the Bible. If I were to place a Bible upon an altar, light some candles around it, and bow down before the Bible, I would be worshipping a collection of paper, ink and leather (or “pleather”). I would be idolizing a created object rather than worshipping God. This would be no better than worshipping the image of a man or animal carved from wood or stone. But this is not what is most often meant when a person accuses another of idolizing the Bible. So today we will take a brief look at “bibliolatry” which we can define as “having excessive reverence for the letter of the Bible.”

I have been accused of being a bibliolater. I’m sure many other Reformed Christians have as well. This charge is most often levelled against a person who affirms the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture. It may also be levelled against a person who affirms the sufficiency of Scripture. Dr. A. William Merrell, in an article entitled “Bibliolatry—A Fraudulent Accusation,” discusses the charge that Southern Baptists are bibliolaters. He makes an insightful observation: “The truth is that those crying ‘bibliolatry’ may be covering their own aberrant view of Scripture.” It is truth that the charge of bibliolatry is most often spoken by those who have the lowest, most liberal theology of Scripture. These people object to what they feel is a woodenness of faith and practice that stems from too literal an understanding of Scripture.

The fact is that we, as sinful humans, have lost our ability to have unmediated access to God. Adam and Eve, before they fell into sin, had the privilege of walking and talking with God. They had direct, face-to-face access to the Creator through which they could walk and talk with Him in the cool of the day. This is a privilege we eagerly anticipate enjoying again when the Lord returns. But in the meantime, polluted as we are by sin, we have severed that direct communication so that we must now rely on the mediated word of God. That word is given to us through Scripture. Merrell quotes John Stott who once said, “God has clothed His thoughts in words, and there is no way to know Him except by knowing the Scriptures. … We can’t even read each other’s minds, much less what is in the mind of God.” And that is the truth. We can only know God through His word. So let’s seek to understand this word and see what it teaches about our attitude towards Scripture.

The Bible, as we commonly refer to it, is the word of God. But it is not the only word of God. God has, after all, revealed Himself in other ways, such as through creation, through visions and through the words of Jesus, some of which made their way into Scripture. John Frame, in Salvation Belongs To The Lord, defines the word of God as “God’s powerful, authoritative self-expression.” That seems to me a good way of defining the concept. God’s word is powerful in that it does more than merely communicate, but also creates and controls. Paul says that the preaching of this word is not only communication but also power. God’s word is authoritative in that it is not only power but also language. God shows his authority over nature by calling things and by giving them names. He has authority over the people He created and He expects that we obey His word. And finally, God’s word is self-expression. The words of God reveal not only his power and authority, but also Himself. Frame says, “the word is the very presence of God among us, the place where God dwells. So you cannot separate the word of God from God himself.”

Did you catch that? You cannot separate the word of God from God himself. The word reveals God. Frame goes on to show that the speech of God has divine attributes. It is righteous, faithful, wonderful, holy, eternal, omnipotent and perfect (most of these are drawn from Psalm 119). These are attributes of God and are, thus, also attributes of His word. He shows also that the word of God is an object of worship, quoting Psalm 56:4 where David writes, “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” The Psalmist repeats this in verse ten, saying “In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise…” “This is remarkable, for only God is the object of religious praise. To worship something other than God is idolatrous. Since David worships the word here, we cannot escape the conclusion the word is divine.”

And, in fact, the word is God, for in the familiar words of the Apostle John we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This verse identifies God’s speech, His self-expression, with God Himself. “The Word that ‘was God’ in verse 1 was not only Jesus, as verse 14 clearly indicates (‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’), but also the speech of God commanding the light to come out of darkness in Genesis 1:3.”

Thus we see a unity between God and the word. God is the word and the word is God. The word is where God is and God is where the word is. God’s word is the presence of God among us. What is the implication of this? We’ll turn one final time to John Frame. “God’s word, wherever we find it, including Scripture, is an object worthy of reverence. I’m not advocating bibliolatry, which is worship of a material object with paper, ink, and so on. The paper and ink are creatures, not God, and we shouldn’t bow down to them. But the message of the Bible, what is says, is divine, and we should receive it with praise and worship.”

It is worth quoting the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith. “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God.”

And so, when we read the word or come under the teaching of the word, we must realize that we are in the very presence of God. We do not worship pen and ink, but we do treat Scripture with reverence, regarding it as the very presence, power and authority of God. If we rely on Scripture, regard it as infallible, inerrant and sufficient, and understand it to have many of the very attributes of God (the attributes that Scripture gives itself), we do not err. And we certainly do not become bibliolaters. I would suggest that it would be very difficult to have too high a view of Scripture. S.M. Baugh, in an article printed in Modern Reformation concludes that “what some may call bibliolatry is not always- indeed, is rarely such.” And I agree. There may be some who make an idol of Scripture, but very few. It is much more likely that our theology of Scripture is too low, too human, too safe.

June 29, 2006

Superman Returns has hit the theatres, bringing the long-awaited return of the Man of Steel to the big screen. And as this movie hits the screen, opening to lukewarm but generally positive reviews, it seems that at least a couple of groups are intent on claiming Superman as their own.

Superman is Jesus Christ. Maybe not really Jesus Christ, but certainly a Christ-like figure. A type of Christ perhaps. It’s obvious, isn’t it? During a recent interview with Wizard magazine, Bryan Singer, Director of Superman Returns proclaimed “Superman is the Jesus Christ of superheroes.” When speaking to Entertainment Weekly magazine he said of this movie, “It’s a story about what happens when Messiahs come back…” Is Superman a Jesus figure? An article at Pastors.com, provided as a sermon outline and written by Stephen Skelton, claims that he is. Skelton says, “Singer is looking to tell the best story he can, and he has consciously pulled from the Gospel story. For us, the result is an opportunity to use the Superman story to share the Gospel.”

Stephen Skelton is the founder of The Entertainment Ministry, a company whose motto is “identifying God’s purposes in popular entertainment.” The company’s website says “we believe many stories that transcend social, racial and cultural barriers today do so because they contain spiritual truth for which all people have a God-given hunger. Accordingly, the ministry promotes a grassroots approach to using popular entertainment to engage a Christian worldview. To that end, we hope these Bible studies not only provide a time of good fellowship but also continue to equip the church with ways to reach the world beyond.” They create Bible studies based on popular television programs and films and ask, “Do you want to engage and energize your class…Do you want to bring Jesus to searchers ‘where they are’… Do you want to model the powerful parable approach of Christ… Then these Bible studies can serve you.”

Here are a few of the parallels to the story of Christ as told in Scripture. Do note that some of these may spoil the film for you, if you are intending to see it. I don’t really know. Because I haven’t seen the film and don’t ever recall reading a Superman comic I am unsure as to whether this is an original story, or a re-telling of an existing story. Skelton premises these quotes with this: “here are some items from the movie that can help you prepare an outreach message on Superman Returns.”

  • “As the story begins, Superman (our Christ figure) has ascended into the heavens. He has returned to his home planet Krypton to see if he is in fact the ‘only son.’ The time he is away from Earth is symbolic of the time between Christ’s ascension and return.”
  • “When Superman comes back, he finds a world much worse off than when he left. Most upsetting, Lois Lane has moved on. She has a fiance and a son named Jason (which is a variation of the name Jesus). There is some imagery here of the Virgin Birth. (Suffice it to say that the movie provides no other explanation—no explanatory conversation or flashback.)”
  • “When Superman arrives to stop him, [Lex] Luthor stabs Superman in the right side with a kryptonite dagger—which recalls the spear that pierced the right side of Christ. Thereafter, our superhero undergoes a brief re-enactment of the march of the Passion. Superman tries to crawl away from his persecutors while struggling under the weight of kryptonite poisoning.”
  • “Despite the deadly danger, Superman lifts this entire kryptonite-laced landmass into outer space, symbolically taking the weight of a world of sin upon himself. As in the Gospel story, this supreme act of sacrificial suffering has disastrous consequences and Superman plummets back toward the Earth—in the crucifixion pose.”
  • Rushed to the hospital, Superman lies near death. In the Daily Planet office, a proposed newspaper headline announces ‘Superman is Dead.’ However, a little later, back at the hospital, the room (like Christ’s tomb) is found empty—and Superman lives!

Skelton concludes, “In terms of Gospel imagery, Superman Returns is more than we could have hoped for. Plus, the film has action, eye-popping special effects (some used for Christic effect), and even a little romance.”

So there we have it. The church has claimed him. Superman is Jesus.

Or is he?

Superman is gay. Maybe not really gay, but certainly a gay-like figure. A type of homosexual perhaps. It’s obvious, isn’t it? In a recent much-discussed article, The Advocate, a popular and influential gay magazine asked “How Gay is Superman?” According to the article, he’s really gay. Or really gay-like, in any case. The article’s author, Alonso Duralde, reflects on why most of the entertainment he enjoyed as a child was geared towards women, and yet Superman resonated with him. “I was addicted to reruns of I Married Joan and old Ingrid Bergman flicks on the afternoon movie. I was the only boy in my sixth-grade class to read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Nothing could make me change the channel faster than an old Rat Patrol or Daktari episode popping up in the middle of my afternoon of TV. So why was I drawn to these heroic tales of adventure and derring-do?”

Duralde suggests three theories. First, like most gay kids, superheroes have to keep their “difference” a secret. “As kids with a nascent understanding of our queerness, a lot of us tamped down our own fabulousness—not to keep Lois safe or to stem the Nazi menace, but to watch our backs.” In Superman he saw a man who was also wrestling with a hidden secret about his true identity. Second, comic books are a lot like soap operas. They are ongoing stories that build one upon the other and often look back to what has happened in the past. “For a gay kid who never got into soaps, apart from the occasional Search for Tomorrow episode with our housekeeper, comics were my first window into labyrinthine story lines that involved numerous characters.” And finally, superheroes are “totally hot.” “If you were a little boy in search of idealized masculine imagery—or a little girl starved for images of strong, powerful women-comic books were often where you got your fill. And a lot of those boys grew up and were inspired to make themselves over in their heroes’ image.”

He concludes, “Not for nothing does gay director Bryan Singer have an eye for how to make the Superman suit most flattering to Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. And rubber nipples weren’t the only way that director Joel Schumacher made Batman and Robin look even more homoerotic than usual in the two sequels he directed. The iconography of superheroes definitely pushes a button or two with many gay men.”

So there we have it. Homosexuals have claimed him. Superman is gay.

Or is he?

Which one is it? Is Superman the ultimate Jesus figure, or is he the ultimate homosexual figure? I’m quite comfortable suggesting that he cannot be both.

I don’t know that anyone can answer if there is something more to Superman than just a superhero. But this I do know: the belief that Superman appeals to unbelievers because they crave a Messiah is not premised on a sound understanding of Scripture. Unbelievers surely crave many things and perhaps even a kind of redemption. But an unregenerate heart, a heart in which the Spirit has not begun to work, cannot crave the Jesus Christ of the Bible. They may crave a false Christ, a Christ of their own making. But not the real Christ. not the Christ who saves. Jesus Himself tells us this. In John 7:7 He says, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.”

What is there in an unbeliever that will make him respond favorably, on a spiritual level, to a Christ figure? According to the Bible, nothing. Until men have been regenerated, until the Spirit has begun to convict them of sin, there can be no move towards Him. There can be no acceptance of Him. There can be no desire for Him or perceived need of Him. Superman cannot be Jesus, the true Jesus, to your unbelieving friend of neighbor.

What is there in an unbeliever that will make him respond favorably, on a carnal level, to a gay figure? According to the Bible, plenty. Until men have been regenerated, until the Spirit has begun to convict them of sin, men will find solace in other sinners. They will find stories that affirm their sin and affirm their sinful choices. And, when looking in stories created by sinful men, they will never have far to look.

Superman isn’t Jesus. But I suppose he could be gay.

June 28, 2006

I wrote yesterday about my experience at the Bank of Canada as I was taught to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit currency. As promised, today I will provide a few brief applications, though I still have much to think about and reflect upon. I do intend to write more formally about this subject at a later time. I went to this meeting looking particularly for parallels between spiritual discernment and the task of discerning counterfeit currency. I was not disappointed. The parallel between these two disciplines is unavoidable. In this article I am going to draw attention to just a few of these.

I was surprised to learn that the Bank of Canada expects all Canadians to exercise discernment with their currency. Despite having exchanged currency countless thousands of times, it had never occurred to me that I ought to be verifying each bill. I had never been told so. While I consider myself a person who values discernment, I had to admit that I had no discernment when it comes to currency and I could easily have been fooled. The literature the bank produces and the message they attempt to convey says “Check your notes! Make it a habit!” We are expected to check each piece of currency that comes into our possession. And clearly, if every person in the country was equipped to discern genuine from fraudulent, and if every person was to verify every piece of currency that came into his possession, all counterfeit money would be eradicated, as would the livelihoods of those who produce it.

Why is it so important that I check each piece of currency? Because once I accept a bill, that piece of money becomes my responsibility. Should I attempt to later deposit this bill in a bank and should the teller find that it is counterfeit, the bill will be confiscated and I will not be reimbursed. What I accept becomes my responsibility. Now there is a difference between taking a bill and accepting a bill. I have the right to inspect and refuse any piece of currency. But once I accept that money, I am responsible for it.

There is a clear parallel here to spiritual discernment. Just as I am responsible for money I accept and later attempt to spend, in the same way I am responsible for the teachings I accept and later attempt to share with others. Thus it is my responsibility before God to inspect every teaching that comes my way. I should test each teaching that is presented to me, refusing to accept any that go against the plain teaching of Scripture. There are tests the Bible provides which will help us discern truth from error. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 exhorts all Christians to “test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” We are first to test, then abstain, and finally hold fast.

Yesterday I mentioned the phrase, “touch, tilt, look through, look at” as a filter through which I can pass a particular piece of currency. These represent four exercises which will draw my attention to the marks of a genuine piece of currency. Similarly, the Bible provides a series of tests we can use to discern truth from error. I have much reflection to do in this area, but I would suggest some good filters we can apply in the spiritual realm are: examining Scripture, seeking the counsel of godly men and women, and seeking the consensus of historic Christianity.

A parallel commonly used by authors and preachers, is that, like experts in counterfeit currency, a person who wishes to be discerning must focus more on what is genuine than what is counterfeit. Before handing me a stack of bills and asking me to sort through them to discern which were fraudulent and which were genuine, Monica taught me about real currency. Having done that, the differences between good and bad were immediately apparent. In the same way, Christians, and even those with a particular gifting or interest in discernment, should focus more on truth than error. The more we understand what is true, the easier it will be to identify what is fraudulent. The more we know about God’s character, God’s ways, and God’s Word, the greater the contrast will be between truth and error.

Monica taught me the defining characteristics of a genuine bill. There were certain markers she told me to look for: fine-line printing, raised print, holographs, watermarks, and the like. By focusing on these markers, most of which are are difficult to duplicate and are thus missing from counterfeit bills, I was able to make quick but confident judgments. A point she conveyed several times is that counterfeiters usually only put in a minimal effort. They seek to make a copy of the original that is only good enough to pass a cursory inspection. Sadly, most people rarely even consider that a piece of currency may be fraudulent and thus are fooled even by the most pathetic effort at duplicating money. It struck me that most Christians are unaware of their responsibility to test doctrine. And yet most false doctrine is remarkably simple to detect and avoid, for it often is built around minimal effort in undermining truth.

While a single twenty dollar bill has a variety of security features, the Bank of Canada does not expect every person to inspect every one of these features. Rather, they suggest that every person choose two or three features and focus on those ones. This keeps the task of inspecting a bill from becoming burdensome. Still, because of the minimal effort expended by counterfeiters, verifying only two of the security features will usually be enough to discern whether a bill is genuine or fraudulent. If inspecting two does not provide enough information, a person can verify the others as well.

A short time ago, the Canadian media focused a great deal of attention on the so-called “Windsor $100 bill.” Several fraudulent $100 bills had been removed from circulation in the Windsor area, but the media attention made it seem as if these counterfeit bills had flooded the nation. Multitudes of stores across the nation immediately refused to accept $100 bills and even today a great many stores refuse to accept any bill higher than $50. Yet there were only a very small number of these false $100 bills and the amount of media attention was completely unwarranted. Fully eighty percent of counterfeit money is in the $10 and $20 dollar denominations, and in recent months there have been a growing number of counterfeit $5 bills in circulation. While many people were worried about fraudulent $100 bills, many $5’s, $10’s and $20’s were no doubt slipping through unnoticed. We see a similar situation in the church. It is quite rare that we are presented with fraudulent teaching that contradicts the most important teachings of Scripture. More often we are faced with issues of lesser importance than the major tenets of the faith. If we look only for false doctrine that contradicts the first-order doctrines, we may allow countless lesser errors slip through.

I went to the Bank of Canada to learn about currency, but learned a great deal about spiritual discernment. It was a valuable exercise and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about spiritual discernment in so unlikely a place.

June 27, 2006

“Federal agents don’t learn to spot counterfeit money by studying the counterfeits. They study genuine bills until they master the look of the real thing. Then when they see the bogus money they recognize it.” I can’t count the number of times I have read quotes similar to that one, taken from John MacArthur’s Reckless Faith. It seems that whenever an author wishes to discuss discernment, he mentions federal agents and the method they use to discern the genuine from the counterfeit. I have often wondered if this metaphor is accurate and whether agents truly do study genuine currency first. Curious person that I am, I decided to find some answers. I called the Bank of Canada, worked my way through various levels of bureaucracy, and eventually arranged a meeting with one of the nation’s foremost experts on counterfeit currency.

I twice missed the Bank of Canada building, one of just five local offices in Canada, before finally spying the appropriate address. There is no sign on the outside of the heavily-tinted glass building to announce what is within. As I entered the sole door, I found myself in a tiny foyer, only a few feet square. The door ahead was barred and an small sign announced that I was to press an intercom button and to announce my business. I pressed the button and stated that I was there to conduct an interview. After checking my name against a list, the security guard unlocked the door and I was permitted to proceed into a bare reception area. The doors locked behind me and a series of locked doors were ahead of me. The occasional person passed through these turnstile doors, but only after swiping a security card. The turnstiles allowed only one person to enter before locking once more. I passed my identification through a small opening cut into a foot-thick glass window. The guard made a copy of it and passed it back to me along with a visitor’s pass. A few minutes later I was greeted by Monica, the expert on currency, and we walked through bare, utilitarian corridors until we found a vacant meeting room.

twenty dollar billMonica was far friendlier than the security guard, though she had to bring along a tape recorder and later mentioned that some poor soul would later make a complete transcription of our conversation. She asked me about my interest in counterfeit currency and I told her about my interest in the field of discernment and the constant metaphors I have encountered that point towards the training provided to federal agents. She seemed interested and decided that she would provide me with a basic rundown of how agents are trained and would then hand me a stack of mixed currency—different denominations, some of which was genuine and some of which was counterfeit—and allow me to test my training.

And so we began. It turns out that John MacArthur is correct. Training in identifying counterfeit currency begins with studying genuine money. There are certain identifying characteristics that are added to each bill printed by the Bank of Canada. These characteristics are necessarily difficult to reproduce. Some are intended to stump the casual counterfeiter, armed with no more than a scanner and color laser printer, and some will stump the more serious counterfeiter, even if armed with expensive, high-tech equipment. She summarized the approach to distinguishing a genuine bill with the phrase, “touch, tilt, look at, look through.” The first step then, is to touch the bill. Because currency is printed on unique cotton-based paper, a false bill will often feel false. She described the most common reaction to the feel of a counterfeit bill as “waxy.” A person may not quite be able to describe it, but it just feels wrong. There are also two areas on a bill where raised print provides a tactile clue to a genuine bill.

Having touched the bill, Monica described the “tilt” features. First she pointed out the holographic stripe which is remarkably difficult to accurately reproduce. When the bill is tilted, this holograph will show all the colors of the rainbow. Additionally, each tiny maple leaf on the bill is color-split, so that it appears in two colors simultaneously. And, when studied closely, tiny numbers identifying the denomination of the bill will appear in the background of this stripe.

The third step is to look through the money. By holding a bill to the light, several features appear. There is a small, ghost-like watermark image of the bill’s main portrait. In the case of a $20 bill, this means that a tiny portrait of Queen Elizabeth II appears immediately beside a more pronounced portrait. Another of these “look through” features is a gold thread woven through the bill that will appear solid when held up against a light source, but broken or staggered if counterfeited.

The final step is to look at. “Look at” features include fine-line printing within the bill’s portrait and certain background patterns. These lines and patterns are so fine that they cannot be adequately reproduced by the casual counterfeiter.

We spent a small amount of time examining security features of some of the older bills that are still in circulation, and the features that are unique to lower denominations of currency. All the while I plied Monica with questions. She provided a thorough and helpful answer to every question I could think of.

That was my introduction to counterfeit detection.

And now my training would be put to the test. Monica placed before me a stack of bills of varying denominations. I knew that some were genuine and some were counterfeit. The first, a twenty dollar bill, immediately struck me as a forgery. Just as she said, it felt waxy and seemed to have been printed on standard pulp-based paper. I tilted it and noted that the holographic stripe was not really holographic at all. Though I was already convinced that this was a forgery, I pressed on and noted that no portrait of the Queen appeared when the bill was held to the light, and the fine-line printed was blurry and imprecise. It was clearly a counterfeit.

The next bill was a genuine five dollar bill. I examined the bill and found that everything seemed in order. The security features were in-place. The print was sharp and hidden features appeared just as they should.

I continued to move through the stack of bills. One bill almost seemed sound, but then I noted the thinnest white edge on the bill, showing that it had been poorly cut from a sheet of white paper.

I soon learned that identifying counterfeit currency is not a terribly difficult task. When a person knows what to look for, when he has been trained to examine the bill for particular identifying characteristics, identifying genuine from fraudulent can be done with great accuracy, even on the basis of only a small amount of training. I successfully identified each piece of counterfeit currency.

I will continue this article tomorrow by sharing some lessons I learned at the Bank of Canada.