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August 02, 2006

I began my post-secondary education by concentrating on the study of both English and history at McMaster University. After only a few months, I found myself increasingly frustrated with the English courses. It seemed my studies were based primarily on what, in theology, we would refer to as eisogesis. The professor would lead us in the study of an assigned story or a poem and would encourage us to read into it whatever we meaning we felt existed within. It seemed the more wild our speculations, the more satisfied the instructor would become. I eventually walked away from these courses, frustrated that instead of finding what the author had really intended to say, we pushed our agendas on their works, making these books or poems say what we wanted them to say. It was an exercise in folly.

It seems to me many Christians do this very thing with the arts, and with movies in particular. There are countless articles in Christian publications dealing with movies, exhorting Christians to engage in popular culture by watching film. Denis Haack, in an article in By Faith Magazine (May/June 2005), asks whether movies “truly help us engage our world with the gospel, or is that simply a thin excuse by Christians who want to justify watching movies?” Answering his own question, he concludes “We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the common grace expressed in film, unless we are content to be deaf to the postmodern generation.” In other words, we need to watch movies if we wish to be faithful ambassadors of Christ in this world. To ignore popular entertainment would be to ignore a God-given means of engaging unbelievers in spiritual conversation.

Haack goes on to say that, while God extends His saving grace to the elect, He also showers creation liberally with common grace that allows creativity to flourish even among those who deny God’s existence. He feels we need to seek out this common grace so we can then praise God for it. “We won’t be grateful for God’s common grace if we don’t have eyes to see it…Reformed Christians dare not be dismissive of culture, nor dare we be dismissive of God’s common grace simply because the film in which it appears is part of the cinema of Babylon.”

But what of movies that glorify sin or that portray what Christians are commanded to flee? Haack tacitly suggests that a Christian can watch anything, provided it does not fall into an area, specific to the individual, that would cause him to sin. “Certainly we must be discerning. We must discern accurately our areas of weakness so we can avoid films with scenes that will tempt us to sin.” Much of this argument seems to depend on motives. Haack says he does not watch movies in order to deliberately expose himself to scenes of depravity, but that he watches movies because he loves them. Because his motives are pure, so too is his participation. Christian maturity, it seems, is necessary to watch and enjoy films.

Through the article the author provides examples from movies that portray incest, orgies, paganism, as well as any amount of sex, swearing and blasphemy. Noticeably absent from the article is any clear biblical support for watching such movies, though he does make a couple of appeals to Calvin. “In his Institutes, John Calvin warns us not to be disdainful of truth ‘wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.’ That is a sobering idea. Just as all truth is God’s truth, so all expressions of grace and glory must be embraced as good gifts of God, even if they appear in packages that are flawed.” Yet it is folly to suppose that Calvin would be an advocate of Christians deliberately placing themselves before the graphic display of sinful acts. Haack appeals to Calvin’s understanding of common grace, but ignores Calvin’s emphasis on avoiding sin.

I often wonder if, much like my experiences in university-level English courses, the redemptive themes in movies are not merely what we read into them in order to justify watching. Do we really watch movies in order to seek out themes of common grace, or do we watch primarily for our own entertainment, or even to feed a human lust that God, in His wisdom, has forbidden us?

I read another article, published at an online periodical, that speaks specifically of The Shawshank Redemption, a movie written by Stephen King that has become something of a modern favorite for many believers and unbelievers alike. The author provides a warning for any readers who may have a “sensitive disposition.” He provides three reasons Christians should embrace this movie, despite swearing, blasphemy, brutal violence and scenes of homosexual rape (though these scenes are non-graphic).

“God is the creator and he is the author of creativity and the arts even before any efforts of the enemy to hijack proceedings.” This seems to indicate that the artist has within him the ability to create art that is good and pleasing to God, but that the enemy interferes with it and makes it something less than pure. Our job as Christians, then, is to examine this art and draw out the redemptive themes that have been placed in it, perhaps inadvertently.

“God’s omnipotence is such that he is able to use whomever he chooses to speak into the lives of whomever he decides - we are speaking of a God who raised up Cyrus to lead the Israelites back to Jerusalem and a donkey, no less, to speak to Balaam, not to mention Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of the church to reach and revolutionize the Gentile world.” Poor reasoning, really. Though God has, in the past, used any number of means to reveal Himself, this does not mean that He will now use movies. I see no biblical support for the understanding that God desires to speak to the believer through film.

“Sometimes our rush to divide the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘secular’ mean we miss God’s attempts to address us through the world of the arts…there is gold to be mined by those with an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to His church.” It strikes me as near blasphemy to suggest that the Spirit is attempting to communicate to His church through film, and to support this idea by quoting the words of God intended to draw us to Scripture. God communicates to His church through the Bible, and to ignore the Bible is to ignore the Spirit. We do not ignore the spirit by staying away from the theatre.

These articles are just two of the multitudes of examples. I think of the books of John Eldredge which are replete with references to movies and which use movies as the foundation for much of the teaching. I think of Bible study series based around The Matrix, Superman Returns and other popular films. Many authors, attempting to engage a postmodern generation, depend on film to provide a link to the culture.

I am increasingly concerned by the way I see Christians embracing film. While films become filled with more and more of the world’s utter depravity, Christians are turning to them for entertainment, escapism or even for spiritual reasons, in ever-greater numbers. As we have seen, there are many ways of justifying this behavior, but I think if we are honest, we have to admit that we watch movies primarily for their entertainment value. Movies are fun. They are a wonderfully effective distraction from the drudgery of daily life. They can transport us to different worlds and make us feel joy and pain that we have no reason or ability to feel in our everyday lives. Haack says “The Royal Tennenbaums allowed me to feel a bit of the brokenness and alienation the books [dealing with divorce] described but couldn’t emote. [They] have been a window of insight into a world I do not inhabit.” But mostly movies are fun.

God calls us to a high standard. God’s instruction to His people, through the Bible, is that they avoid the very appearance of evil; every form of evil. We are to embrace a higher standard of purity and godliness. According to 1 Thessalonians 5 we are to use discernment, the divinely given ability to think biblically about all areas of life, to “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” We are a people set apart, a people who avoid worldliness while seeking to be in the world but not of the world. I see nothing in the Bible to convince me that I can and even should watch the world’s movies in order to engage the culture. In fact, I find the opposite. How can I be an effective witness if I begin a conversation with an unbeliever by proudly proclaiming that I have just watched a movie that is filled with the very acts my faith tells me I must avoid? Will unbelievers not immediately note the inconsistency between what I do and what I claim to believe? How can I have a pure heart, as God demands, when my eyes and are heart are constantly bombarded with scenes of depravity? Why would I deliberately subject myself to these influences?

A clear theme throughout the Scriptures is that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” This is as true of evil influences as it is of good. In the Old Testament, God considered something defiled when it had only the smallest suggestion of evil mixed with the good. Yet today we have turned this principle on its head, suggesting that the smallest glimmer of good, when mixed with abhorrent evil, brings redemption. We seek to redeem what we should not be redeemed. We seek to redeem what cannot be redeemed.

I am not opposed to all movies, but I do believe we need to prayerfully consider if we have allowed ourselves to justify and celebrate what God forbids. There are many movies I enjoy tremendously and with a clear conscience. I acknowledge film can be a powerful, effective medium of communication. But I believe it is of utmost importance that we use discernment when choosing the movies we watch. This is not a discernment that pushes the limits of what we can or cannot see, but a discernment that carefully examines each film in the light of Scripture and asks whether a Christian should watch it. The primary task and calling of the Christian is to glorify and enjoy God in all things. When assessing a film, we should not ask if we can watch it without falling into sin, but whether watching this film will equip or hinder our calling as we seek to bring glory to our God.

August 01, 2006

I hope this article will be the final one in a disorganized and rambling mini-series I’ve written about children. I’ve looked at my understanding of what happens to children when they die, and hope today to explain why I assume my young children to be unsaved. This will not be a theological treatise as much as a personal reflection.

Tedd Tripp’s Shepherding A Child’s Heart has helped formulate my thoughts on this issue. He premises much of the teaching of his book on the understanding that all human beings are worshippers. God created us to worship and we will worship—we will either worship God or idols. Romans 1:18-19 tells us “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” We see there are two responses to the clear revelation of God that is extended to all men. People will either acknowledge and submit or they will suppress. Those who refuse to submit to God will turn further and further from Him and will soon worship idols. These will not necessarily be idols of wood and stone, but may be idols of the heart. In either case, they turn in rebellion away from the Creator. Alternatively, they may submit to God, accept His rule, and live in the joy and freedom of knowing God and of being known by Him. The question is, then, are my children in the former group or the latter?

It seems to me there are three attitudes a parent can have towards the hearts of his children: that a child will have a natural orientation towards God, a neutral orientation, or a natural orientation away from God. I’ll discuss each of these briefly.

Towards God - I grew up in a church culture that held, at least in practice if not in theory, to the understanding that children of believing parents have a natural inclination towards God. Children were rarely challenged with the gospel and much of the teaching in church, home and school was impersonal, dealing more with “us” than with “you.” It was assumed that, unless a child proved otherwise, he was saved by virtue of being born as a child of the covenant. This “presumptive regeneration” led to great numbers of children whose words and actions clearly showed them to be unsaved even though their parents, elders and pastors assumed they were saved and continually assured them of this. And as there were many children, blissfully unaware that their hearts were turned against God, so there must have been many adults in the same state. Not only is this understanding unsupported by Scripture, but plain evidence bears out just how harmful it can be. I am grateful that my parents never held to this, but continually challenged us with the gospel.

Neutrality - The Bible allows no room for neutrality. All human beings, including the youngest children, are either for God or against Him. They either worship God or worship idols. There is no one who is neutral.

Away From God - Ever since the Fall, the natural state of men and women is estrangement from God. The familiar words of Psalm 51:5 tell of David’s reflection on the state of his heart. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” The less familiar words of Psalm 58:3 are no less convicting. “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” From the moment of conception, human hearts are filled with iniquity and seek to go astray from God. The human heart is evil and desperately wicked. Scripture paints a bleak picture of the human heart and the picture begins at the very moment of conception. This is true of my children. They were conceived and born in sin. They sin because they are sinners. They need a Savior.

It is not only Scripture that tells me that young children have a natural disinclination to God. My experience and the experience of many friends and acquaintances proves that a great many children raised in Christian families do not submit to God until years after birth. While it is not atypical for children to express a love of God and to even profess faith in God as young children, more commonly children seem to experience true conversion when they are older. I am one of many Christians who began to pray to God from a young age and who even asked God to save me when I was just tiny. But it was not until I was fourteen or fifteen that I feel I was truly converted and when the faith of my parents became my faith. Suddenly Christianity was not the belief my family held to, but the very truth of God that I knew, loved and accepted. So many of my friends have shared similar stories that I know my experience is not unique. It was not until I was a teenager that I knew I was saved. It was not until then that I feel I truly loved God as Father and Christ as Savior.

I know it is unfair to expect my children to have the same experiences I had. They may profess Christ from a young age, and if they do, I will rejoice. Yet I will also wait patiently, diligently helping them to search their hearts, to ensure they know Christ as Lord and Savior. To this point, none of my children, aged six, three and three months, have professed faith in Christ. They claim to love God and know that they need to love God more than even mommy and daddy. But I have not yet seen true repentance, brokenness or understanding of the gravity of sin. It is entirely possible that one or more of them have already been saved. But I do not assume this to be the case. Rather, I assume that my children continue to worship idols until I see them faithfully and diligently serving God. It seems to me that the task of a Christian parent is to seek to guide children from idols to God. It is to understand that your children will worship something and to shepherd them “as a creature who worships, pointing [them] to the One who alone is worthy of worship.” This is the task I have undertaken.

Until my children express faith in God and provide a credible expression of their conversion, I will continue to share the gospel with them and to shepherd them, as faithfully as I can, to understand that even now they are worshipping something. And when, by the grace of God, they turn to God and submit to Him, I will continue to share the gospel with them, that we may rejoice together in the goodness and faithfulness of a God whose love is so deep and so wide. I have faith that God will save my children, but do not have confidence that He has done this yet. Yet I know that His timing is always perfect.

July 31, 2006

Today is Trade Deadline day in the Major Leagues. My team, the Bluejays, are expected to be “buyers” this year, indicating a desire to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees to win their division. With less than two hours to go, they have not made a move. As I hunted around, looking for clues as to their inactivity, I began to wonder what the church would look like if it ran on a market similar to major league sports. I wonder if it would go a little something like this:

Sun Valley, CA Hot off the wires, the Associated Press reports a blockbuster trade. With the annual ecclesiastical trade deadline only hours away, Bethlehem Baptist Church and Grace Community Church have agreed to a four pastor deal. While early rumors indicated this might be a three-church trade involving Capitol Hill Baptist Church, the final deal is as follows:

Grace will send Pastor-Teacher John MacArthur, Minister of Music Clayton Erb and Associate Pastor, High School Ministry Eric Bancroft to Bethlehem in return for Pastor for Preaching and Vision John Piper, Lead Pastor for Operations Jon Grano and future considerations. MacArthur, widely regarded as the nation’s leading expositor, agreed to waive his no-trade clause in return for an expanded book allowance. Piper, world-class author and highly-regarded preacher, will assume MacArthur’s pulpit and radio duties. We are unable to confirm whether Piper will be expected to transition from the ESV translation of the Bible to the NASB.

While Piper was unavailable for comment, his agent read the following prepared statement: “While he was initially disappointed to hear of this trade, Pastor Piper is looking forward to serving the men and women of Sun Valley, California.” Author of more than 20 books, Piper has been serving Bethlehem since 1980. He is expected to join the staff of Grace Community Church this week. It is believed that Piper’s new contract stipulates that he will not be allowed to raise his hands in worship and will be limited to eight hyphenated words per sermon.

This trade, which had been the subject of rumors for several weeks, addresses pressing concerns in both churches. Sources who wished to remain anonymous indicated earlier this week that, while a deal was close, Bethlehem was unwilling to complete a trade without involving Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace To You. It appears now that Johnson, who has edited most of MacArthur’s major books, will remain with Grace To You and will edit forthcoming books by John Piper. “I am excited about supporting the God-exulting, Christ-centered ministry of John Piper,” said Johnson. Dr. Piper’s next book is expected to hit bookstore shelves later this year.

Grace spokesman Dan Dumas said, “While we are sorry to have to say goodbye to Dr. MacArthur, we know that he will be warmly received by his new church family. We look forward to many years of fruitful ministry with John Piper.” MacArthur has authored over 70 books and has been serving at Grace Church since 1969. Grano is expected to fill a newly-created position in Grace Church.

Meanwhile, in receiving Clayton Erb, Bethlehem addresses their pressing and much-publicized need for a minister of music. “We have three Associate Pastors and a Ministry Assistant, but no Minister of Music,” said spokesman Sam Crabtree. “Clayton will solidify and organize this talented staff.” The addition of a Minster of Music prepares Bethlehem for a busy Autumn and the always difficult Christmas season.

Shortly after the deal was announced, MacArthur was seen smiling as he said farewell to his former staff. He and Erb are expected to be available for duty in Bethlehem as soon as this Sunday. Bancroft, a talented and highly-rated rookie who ranks 11th in the Rookie Report’s 2006 rankings, will be groomed as a possible long-term successor to MacArthur.

Asked what would become of Piper’s decade-long series on Romans, Dumas said, “It is over. We expect Pastor Piper to begin a three-year series on Philemon beginning later this Fall.”

While this trade puts Grace near the salary cap, Bethlehem has apparently agreed to cover a portion of Piper’s salary through the 2006 season.

July 29, 2006

I really dislike rap music, or most rap music at any rate. For some reason, I have only rarely been able to appreciate it as a form of musical expression. I’d like to think that my powers of discernment have decided that this music is somehow inappropriate for Christians, but I think it’s more likely simply a matter of preference. And beyond simple preference, I have long been disgusted by the culture of sex, violence and exploitation that seems to surround the genre.

I believe that music, assembled notes and chords, is morally neutral. I don’t think there is music that is inherently good and music that is inherently evil. Therefore, I don’t think I can consistently believe that there is anything inherently wrong in rap music. It is, after all, words set to music, much like the hymns and worship songs we sing.

I few days ago I finally bought Progression, an album by Curtis Allen who goes by the name Voice. He is a rapper and a pastor, a pastoral intern at Covenant Life Church, to be exact. His music has proven to me that rap can be used to share the gospel and to bring glory to God. The lyrics are consistently biblical and cross-centered. They are even distinctly Reformed. Here is an excerpt from his song “Unstoppable:”

Man, with no umbrella stuck in the rain, I never knew life was so much pain. And it’s hard to maintain same story different person will falter, where more accurate is same idol different altar. A present day mocker, man, the only time it’s appropriate for me to say I am. The situation gets much darker I’m in the hood, and heard about the Lord but unsure of his plan, you can see now I’m probably in a jam, and that was good for me, cuz it left me - hand against hand. I was like “mmnn, mmnn” Lord now I’m just a man, If there’s ever anyone to help I know you can. At that time, what was certain I thought probable and had no evidence of God as unstoppable. I saw nothing but the wicked everything from murder down to drug use to scalping tickets. I didn’t know what I spose to see, what I was looking for, until the day I walked in the local church’s door. I heard the Gospels power never falls and the Savior who’s crucified covers us all becuz he’s

Hook:
All powerful, unchangeable, immovable, unstoppable
The Gospels, the power of, almighty God, though His holy blood.

Shook off my doubts and I came from the streets poutin back to them same streets like how bout them. Reformed essentially, informed more than mentally, I’m living my life’s oddities through God’s sovereignty now. I’m takin all questions when and now, In the hood they like cuz how you change your style, In the church it’s more grace is so amazing wow and to the enemy it’s more how you like me now, I been exposed to bright lights the doctrines of grace, I’m elected, imputed perfected. Becuz of the power of God resurrected and his gift of faith, that when we see his face we’re not rejected. Cuz nothing can stop his plan, and as far as the east is from the west more than time zones man He removes our sins from us even though it’s hard to believe, I plead from Psalm 103 No harm will ever come on we, no harm and that’s from me to you via him to me. We the choice of eternity past, present and next, cuz we the church the unstoppable context and we here as

A couple of weeks ago, Justin Taylor interviewed Voice and just last Friday, Bob Kauflin mentioned him in an article dealing with rap music.

I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed listening to Voice’s CD. While rap is still not my favored genre of music, I do believe that Voice is bringing glory to God through his rapping.

So let me ask you: do you think rap music is inherently evil, or do you feel that even this genre can be used to bring glory to God? Is music morally neutral, or are there some forms that simply cannot be God-honoring?

July 28, 2006

Last weekend the house next to us was given an extreme makeover. Our neighbor, who has three sons with varying disabilities, ranging from autism to dietary problems, was sent away for the weekend and returned to find her house completely renovated. The volunteers who gave of their time for this program did an incredible job. They replanted and resodded the gardens, laid new floors, repainted the entire house, themed the bedrooms and added some beautiful new furniture. We enjoyed watching them do their work and we were there when Barb and the family arrived home. It was a great deal of fun to see their faces, to see their joy, as they saw their new home (If you are interested in seeing some photos from last weekend, you can do so here.).

Because the house was a construction zone for three days, it was not a great weekend for those of us who live beside or around the place. We live in townhouses and my house shares a wall with Barb’s home. Sound travels readily through these walls and of all the neighbors, we had the worst of it. For much of the weekend there was sawing, banging, hammering and talking. Groups of people moved in and out from dawn until long after dusk. Television crews milled about to capture video of the work for the evening news. It was difficult, but the crew seemed to do the best they could to be as sensitive as possible to the neighbors. The only one time I felt compelled to go next door was when hammering at 11 PM kept Michaela from sleeping. I went next door and asked nicely if they would stop the hammering. They apologized and stopped immediately.

We had a great weekend despite the constant noise and commotion. We were thrilled for Barb that she would have the privilege of having her home renovated and were willing to put up with almost any amount of annoyance for her sake. Unfortunately, most of our neighbors were not. On Friday evening, one neighbor called the police to lodge a complaint about the noise, even though it was only 8 PM. The police arrived and, recognizing the work from an article in the local newspaper, said they were unwilling to do anything. They promptly left and, I trust, found more pressing concerns. On Saturday I saw some other neighbors yelling at one of the crew members who had parked in the wrong spot. On Sunday, our neighbors were gathered in small groups, gossiping and muttering to themselves, making “choking” gestures towards the workers. On the way to church we were apprehended by a particularly grumpy neighbor who told us we should lodge a complaint because Barb’s lawn had been laid with new grass and our adjoining lawn had not. Sunday afternoon a neighbor tried to draw Aileen into complaining about the house but Aileen would only say how great she thought the place looked. The neighbor scolded, “I just hope they now take good care of it both inside and out.” We learned from the crew that a rumor was going around the neighborhood that Barb intended to sell the house as soon as the work was done.

It was pathetic. We were shocked. We just couldn’t believe that our neighbors were unable to be happy on Barb’s behalf. Not a single one of them waited outside when Barb returned home. Not a single one offered her any congratulations.

But then I thought back to a sermon I had heard only a week before. My pastor had preached a sermon on Romans 12, on the marks of a true Christian. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” the Apostle writes. The pastor provided an analogy that went something like this: Imagine that you are at a ballgame with a friend. The Bluejays are winning, putting up run after run against the Yankees. With every home run, you and your friend jump up and rejoice together, high-fiving and cheering for the home team. You rejoice with those who rejoice. But then, between innings, a voice comes over the P.A. and announces that someone in the stadium is going to win a new house, a new car, a dream vacation. He announces the level, the section, the row. It is someone in your row! But when he reads the seat number you see that your friend is sitting in that seat. He has won. You have not. Now how easy is it to rejoice with those who rejoice? Suddenly you are overwhelmed with feelings of anger, jealously, discontentment. You pretend to be happy, but inside you mutter and complain. You hate your friend and want what he has been given.

Until that sermon I had never seriously considered just how difficult it is to rejoice with others. But last weekend I saw first-hand why Paul considers this one of the marks of a true Christian. I saw how those who are unsaved simply cannot rejoice with those who rejoice. Instead they react with jealousy and anger, seeking to tear down what has been built up. It was a shocking display of the depravity of human nature.

The neighbors have learned at least one lesson from this weekend. While each house has two parking spots, most of us have only one car. If you look outside today, you’ll see that several of the neighbors now park at a 45-degree angle so their single car spans two spots. That way they can be sure that no one parks in their coveted spaces. I guess this somehow makes them feel better. It just makes me laugh. There but for the grace of God…

July 26, 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.

It is the Christian’s lot to be underappreciated. Whether this is good or bad I don’t know. But I do know that Phillip Way’s site, Pastorway, has to be considered underappreciated. There are few bloggers I’ve encountered that write more consistently and few that write at such length, all the while maintaining such depth. From what I’ve observed, Philip’s efforts in the blogosphere are inextricably connected to his ministry at Maranatha Community Church where he serves as pastor. His daily “Time In The Word” columns (TIME standing for Together for Inspiration, Motivation, and Encouragement) are usually tied directly to a current sermon or sermon series. They are always worth reading. And so I’m glad to nominate Pastorway as this week’s King for a Week.

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. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

July 25, 2006

Over the past few weeks I have noticed a fair bit of discussion in the blogosphere about the subject of influence. Various bloggers have been attempting to define influence and to understand which bloggers are the most influential. This is a surprisingly difficult topic for influence truly is difficult to measure and define.

It is tempting to understand influence in ways that are easily quantifiable. Blogs have long been ranked primarily in two ways: traffic and inbound links. Traffic refers to the quantity of visitors a site receives and a site that receives a great number of visitors is perceived to be more influential than one that receives only a few visitors. Inbound links refer to the number of links to a blog from other blogs. The blog directory BlogStreet says simply, “Influential Blogs are those blogs which are blogrolled by other Top Ranking blogs.” This metric is premised on the understanding that bloggers will link mostly to sites that they consider worthy of attention. By placing a link on their site to another site, they are, in a sense, giving it a vote of approval and admitting influence.

I believe that these are both unsatisfying measures of influence. And yes, I understand that in saying this, I am indicating that a tool like Truthlaidbear is mostly useless. I have long observed that traffic and influence are not always related. It seems clear that it is not only quality or influence that draws readership, but controversy. Blogs that dwell on controversy (and in the Christian sector “controversy” is, unfortunately, often synonymous with “discernment”) tend to attract a lot of readers but I am not convinced that these sites hold influence proportional to their readership. Inbound links should be a measure of influence, but links are often tossed about with little thought, thus reducing their meaning and effectiveness in determining influence. Yet, because they are easy to measure, they continue to be the most common measures.

Adrian Warnock recently proposed several measures of influence. He proposed the following: The number of people who read your site or your “hit rate;” The number of people who read more than one page and then become regular readers; Your ability to send your readers to other websites and/or to cause them to want to buy certain products; The number of people who link to you in a blogroll; How many comments you get; How many other bloggers link to specific posts you write and interact with them; WHO reads your blog – if the leaders of your field pop by and then take your ideas to influence others, you have a bigger direct influence than someone who is read only by “novices;” How much of an impact positively or negatively you have on your readers.” These metrics are generally not easily-quantifiable and are thus, in some ways at least, less satisfying. However, I believe they are also quite useful. I’ll discuss each one very briefly.

The number of people who read more than one page and then become regular readers. I’m not entirely sure what Adrian means by this, but I assume he is discussing the number of pages per visit—how many pages the average visitor reads when he visits a site. This is a reasonable measure of influence, but can be easily upset by the way a blog is constructed. For example, some bloggers prefer to post the complete text of many articles on the main page of the site. A visitor to this site can read several day’s worth of articles without visiting a second page. On the other hand, some bloggers prefer to post only excerpts of each article on the main page. Such blogs will have a much higher number of pages read per visitor, and yet this has nothing to do with influence. Either way, this is very difficult to quantify.

Your ability to send your readers to other websites and/or to cause them to want to buy certain products. Or, put more succinctly, your ability to convince a reader to take a particular action. I consider this an important measure of influence and in many applications the most important measure. After all, for a blog based around politics or selling goods, this is the only measure that really matters.

How many comments you get. This metric is, at least to some extent, a byproduct of the number of visitors a site receives. Yet it is also an indication of the level of interest generated by a site’s posts. However, it can be influenced by the themes and contents of a particular site. When it comes to blogging, controversy generates buzz and excitement. I have often lamented the fact that an article describing some great work of God is likely to receive a lot less attention than an article expressing anger or disgust about another person. Controversy sells.

How many other bloggers link to specific posts you write and interact with them. This is an important measure of influence within the blogosphere and even beyond the blogosphere. After all, a person who chooses to discuss an article written by another blogger is admitting that the other person has some level of influence over him.

Who reads your blog – if the leaders of your field pop by and then take your ideas to influence others, you have a bigger direct influence than someone who is read only by “novices.” In other words, a site is influential if it influences other influencers.

How much of an impact positively or negatively you have on your readers. This one is nearly impossible to quantify, but is intriguing as a somewhat abstract idea. There are certain blogs that almost always leave me encouraged and satisfied while there are others that leave me beaten down and discouraged, even after only a short visit. Perhaps we can extrapolate long-term impact from these short-term experiences.

I think something needs to be added because different blogs have different emphases. For example, a site that directs people to other resources has a different, less-direct influence than one that is based primarily around teaching or exposition. Mitch Ratcliffe, who has done a good bit of thinking on this topic writes, “When looking at influence, we have to dig very deeply into narrow spectrums of network relationships.” He goes on to “contend that there are layers of influence based on different interests among writers, *but* the existing relationships we have with the writer (or podcaster or…) do carry over into areas where they are not necessarily “expert” or consistently writing about. Understanding how those marginal relationships can be amplified is important to seeing into the flow of influence.” In other words, bloggers are not influential within a void, but are influential within a particular area. That area may be as wide as the blogosphere or a sector of the blogosphere, or as narrow as only a small portion of it.

Joe Carter has also discussed influence recently and has determined that the most influential bloggers may be those who link most to others. “John Schroeder makes the intriguing claim that linking is a form of blogging servant leadership. ‘He’s absolutely right about everyone wanting to be a Chief (agenda-setting thinker blogs are one example) and no one wanting to be an Indian (i.e., value-adding linker blogs). While most bloggers tend to be both, I’m becoming more convinced that the truly influential bloggers will be those who spend the majority of their time on linking-style activities. Justin Taylor is a prime example. I work on a university/seminary campus and hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear some version of ‘I heard on Justin Taylor’s blog…’ He’s the kind of servant leader we could use more of in the blogosphere.” Without belittling Justin’s blog (one of my favorites) or Justin (a friend and I guy I want to grow up to be just like, even though we’re about the same age), I disagree with this claim. I do think link blogs like Justin’s hold some type of influence, but surely the greater influence is in the hands of those who write the material these blogs link to! Justin is clearly influential, but I am not convinced that this is a product of the number of other sites he links to.

So how do we measure influence? Truthfully, I don’t know that we can. There are clearly a few blogs in each sector that every other person knows or seeks to emulate. There is not a political blogger in the world who does not know of Instapundit. There is not a Christian blogger who does not know of Evangelical Outpost. These bloggers have somehow become influential and I would like to think they have done so simply by posting large quantities of good information and by dedicating themselves to the task of blogging. I do know that several companies are attempting to create a tool that will analyze the blogosphere and quantify the influence of each blog. I am eager to understand their methodology and to see the results of their efforts. I hope that, within the Christian blogosphere especially, we can have bloggers who do not seek to be influential, but who seek to serve others and to serve the Creator through this task. If He gives influence, may these men and women use it to honor and glorify Him.

As an aside, I noticed that Matt Galloway, who has also invested effort in understanding the blogosphere, has imagined a “Blog Influential trend tool.” “What would a Blog Influential trend tool like? It would have to have a way to set the base to be known Influentials within the area of interest - instead of a doomed to fail attempt at the whole blogosphere.” In other words, a person wishing to understand a particular sector of the blogosphere, but it technological, religious or political, would need to map the trends at only a handful of the most influential blogs. I suspect that Galloway is correct, and that whatever tools are created in the coming months and years, will use this type of methodology to map trends within the blogosphere.

July 24, 2006

Early this morning I finally finished my slow and thoughtful reading of Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace. I rarely dwell so long on a single book, but because of the sheer quantity and quality of Bible-based teaching within this book, I felt compelled to read it slowly and meditatively. It was well worth the effort and the time spent.

Yesterday I read about the importance of disciplining myself to make choices that glorify God. Bridges says that “the practice of putting off sinful attitudes and actions and putting on Christlike character involves a constant series of choices. We choose in every situation which direction we will go. It is through these choices that we develop Christlike habits of living.” I was intrigued by this. I soon thought back to a time a couple of years ago when I discovered, much to my surprise, that I excelled in the not-too-spiritual gift of discouragement. I realized, through God’s work in my heart, that I was often being a discouragement to other people. I tended towards the pessimistic and sarcastic and seldom sought to bring encouragement. And so I put some effort into cultivating a spirit of encouragement. I initially found this to be a difficult task. One would not think it difficult to be an encourager, but I found that it truly was difficult to reverse course. I would be encouraging for a short time but would soon slip back into old patterns. I continued to be a discourager.

One day it occurred to me that I was going to have to discipline myself to encourage others. And so I took the strange and seemingly-artificial step of calendaring time to encourage others. It sounds strange, I know, but I opened up my Outlook calendar and created a 5-minute appointment recurring every three days. The appointment simply said “Encourage!” And so, every third day, while I was hard at work, a little reminder would flash up on my screen. “Encourage!,” it said. And I would. I would take the opportunity to quickly phone a friend or dash off an email to someone I felt was in need of encouragement. This felt very artificial. I felt like a fraud as I, with a heart of discouragement, attempted to be an encouragement to others. But as time went on, it began to become quite natural. I soon found that I no longer felt the same spirit of discouragement within me. Encouragement slowly became more natural. What had begun as a discipline that felt artificial, soon became a habit that felt natural.

There was a lesson in there for me. I agree with Bridges who often says “discipline without direction is drudgery.” Had I disciplined myself to be encouraging without first being convicted by the Spirit of my sin, and I had I attempted to be an encourager without first setting a direction that honored God, I doubt that He would have blessed my efforts. But I believe that He did bless them. I can still be as discouraging as anyone I know, but I also think that discouragement is no longer as quick to arise as it was before. More and more I find that I tend towards encouragement rather that discouragement. After a couple of months I was able to remove the recurring appointment from my Outlook calendar, for encouragement began to come naturally.

Bridges writes, “Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.” I believe this was proven true in my experience. “It is through righteous actions that we develop holy character. Holiness of character, then, is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.” I think there are some who feel that discipline brings about holiness. These are men and women who are unbelievably disciplined. They get out of bed at the same time each day, spent 22 minutes praying and 17 minutes reading the Bible. They feel that this discipline leads them closer to God. But I disagree. It is not discipline or commitment or conviction that makes us holy. Rather, “we become more holy by obedience to the Word of God, by choosing to obey His will as revealed in the Scriptures in all the various circumstances of our lives.” Conviction, commitment and discipline are necessary to making the right choices, but true spiritual growth can come only when we choose to obey God’s commandments, one at a time.

Discipline, commitment, conviction and Godly habits are closely related. It is important that we are disciplined, but only after we have been convicted and have set a direction towards godliness. At this time discipline and commitment can be used by God to work in us His holiness. Discipline is but a means to a much higher, more Christ-like end. It is a cruel master but a wonderful servant.

July 21, 2006

Series - I had considered posting the third part of my series on children who die in infancy, but I’ve decided to hold off until next week. The discussion on the previous two entries continues to go strong, so I thought I would let that carry on before posting the third part. So stay tuned for that next week. At the very least it is bound to be controversial.

Extreme Makeover - A few days ago I mentioned in A La Carte that our next-door neighbor (or next-wall neighbor since we live in a townhouse) is having an extreme makeover done on her house. This is not quite the Ty Pennington variety of Extreme Makeover, but the builders intend to do at least $10,000 worth of work between today and Sunday afternoon. The organization, Walls of Hope, is a charitable organization that helps families by transforming their living space through the efforts of volunteers and donors. We are not exactly sure what they intend to do, but we know it involves a lot of painting, laying new flooring, and so on. Two or three television stations have been hovering around and the family was featured on newscasts last night and this morning.

This family is new to the neighborhood and has somehow already raised the ire of many of the nearby homeowners. We, on the other hand, have already come to enjoy the family and look forward to getting to know them better. Here is the family’s biography from the Walls of Hope website:

Barb considers her children a “wonderful gift”. A mother’s love, however, isn’t enough to properly appoint a home and make it safe and comfortable for four children. Barb and her family have had to move many times over the years. At the end of June, they are moving once again - Barb hopes this time will be the last. Unfortunately, the new family home had mold in the basement and attic as well as other fundamental issues that delayed the move and put undue financial stress on Barb.

As a single mother, Barb makes many sacrifices but is an optimist at heart. Walls of Hope will be helping her and her family make their new space livable and uniquely their own.

Sarah is 17 years old and comes from Barb’s first marriage. Sarah is a straight ‘A’ student and has made the honour role at her high school for 5 straight semesters. Sarah is an enormous asset in the family. [Tim’s note - our children absolutely love Sarah and come spilling out of the house as soon as they hear her voice outside.]

Barb’s 3 sons - David (13), Matthew (12), and Christopher (10) all come from her second marriage. Each of the boys does extremely well academically and each has tested as gifted in some areas.

David is an enthusiastic boy with tons of nervous energy. He is very chatty, a little impulsive but quick to smile and wants everyone to be his best friend.

Matthew is very introspective, a deep thinker and methodical learner. Matthew is meticulous in his appearance and all mannerisms. He is very sensitive but does not show emotion easily.

Christopher is a bundle of energy. He never stops moving and frequently wears out even the hardiest companion. Christopher has a delightful sense of humour but takes a very long time to bond with anyone new in his life. [Christopher has tons of energy but has not yet managed to wear out my son. They can often be seen chasing eachother (or a football) in the yard.]

All of Barb’s sons have a very difficult time dealing with changes, whether big or small.

All three boys have been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - specifically Aspergers. At the same time as this diagnosis was made, the youngest and oldest sons, Christopher and David were also diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. Testing also confirmed Barb’s suspicions that her boys also suffered from Celiac Disease. Barb’s middle son Matthew is also hearing impaired.

Despite all these challenges, Barb believes that anything is possible with enough faith. Walls of Hope has answered Barb’s prayers and will be making the family’s dreams come true with a home makeover on the weekend of July 21 to 23, 2006.

They are an interesting family. Shortly after we moved into our house, the one next to us was placed on the market. We immediately began to worry just a little bit, wondering who it was that would end up sharing a wall with us. After all, a bad neighbor can make living in a townhouse an excruciating prospect. At one point we heard that the family thinking of buying the home had four teenagers, three of whom were autistic. I rolled my eyes and whispered a prayer that this family would find another place to live. But I was soon shocked at my own behavior and repented of it. After all, a person who can hold together a family with three autistic children is exactly the sort of person I would love to meet, for she must be a person of character. We have already benefited from knowing this family and look forward to getting to know them better.

Writing Day - With writing projects piling up around me, I have decided to set aside this entire day to write. I have several formal writing projects I need to take care of before July slips away from me. I am both excited and intimidated at the prospect of having to write for the next eight hours. I think it will be a great discipline and am sure that it will be good for me. I tend to do my best writing when I feel inspired to do so, but I think it is important that I teach myself to write during times set aside specifically for the purpose. I would appreciate it if you would remember me in your prayers today as I try to get a good deal of writing accomplished. I have been praying that God would give me wisdom, discernment, humility and ability, for some of what I hope to do is definitely beyond my natural capabilities.

Weekend - I am hoping to have a quiet weekend. I keep attempting to take my son to a Bluejay game and perhaps I can finally make the time tomorrow. Failing that, we’ll be trying to keep cool and trying to get away from the constant noise that is sure to come with the construction projects next door. And, as always, I’ll be posting here. Enjoy your weekend!

July 20, 2006

In the article I wrote yesterday I began discussing the issue of what happens to children who die in infancy. I looked at the view which states that all children who die are immediately ushered into heaven and I pointed out what I feel to be a serious flaw with that argument. Today I’ll continue this discussion by commenting on the other two positions popular among Christians and end with a statement of my beliefs.

But before I do that, I’d like to return briefly to yesterday’s article. I tried to be as responsive as possible in the comments area, so it may prove valuable to read the comments posted there. I would like to respond to a concern expressed by a couple of people who suggested that the idea of an infant going to hell is repugnant.

I would tend to agree that the thought of a tiny infant in hell is repugnant. Such a view, though, presupposes that people who go to hell are the same age in hell as they were when they died. I think it is more likely that in eternity age will be of little consequence. Those who died old and infirm will likely be restored to when they were more able-bodied and when they were of sound mind. Or so I would think. I would also suggest that infants will be made older. Gene Bridges said it like this: “In heaven, wouldn’t you, in a sense, age up, age down, or both? You would age down in the sense that if you were past your prime when you died, you’d then revert to an optimal time of life—both mentally (in the intermediate state) and physically (in the final state). But you’d also continue to mature—in that same ageless and youthful state—to mature intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” This is speculation, but speculation that seems consistent with what we know of God and of hell. Also, it seems clear in Scripture that, just as not all who are saved will receive the same degree of reward, so all who are condemned will not receive the same degree of punishment. It may well be that children, should they be condemned, will receive a much lighter degree of punishment than those who have committed many more and many greater sins. In my mind this is similar to how Christians are saved by grace but rewarded, at least partially, on the basis of works. Finally, God knows not only what a man has done, but what is in his heart and what he is capable of doing. An infant who died when still tiny, may well have gone on to lead a life in which he committed terrible and horrifying atrocities. God knows. We do not and we cannot.

Let’s turn now to the final two understandings of what happens to children who die in infancy.

The Children of Believers Are Saved

This view is held by many Reformed believers, especially those with firm beliefs in covenant theology. These people believe Scripture teaches that God continues to work through covenants, much as He did in Old Testament times. As God made a covenant with Abraham that extended not only to him but to his children, and thus entered into a relationship with both Abraham and Isaac, in the same way He sets apart to Himself the children of believers today.

This is the view of the writers of the Canons of Dort which says “Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” While it speaks of the salvation of infants of believers, it does not speak about the children of unbelievers.

The Westminster Confession takes a slightly different view, choosing not to explicitly mention the covenant. “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” The question that might arise in response to this answer is “who are the elect infants?” I believe the writers would answer in a similar fashion to the Canons of Dort, indicating that believing parents can have assurance where unbelieving parents can not. In short, this view presupposes that God’s act of election foresaw which children of believers would die in infancy, and He sovereignly elected those children to be numbered among the elect. God graciously provided salvation for these children through His covenant.

I have more sympathy for the view of the Westminster Confession than that of the Canons of Dort. The Confession explicitly states that elect infants will be saved. And I agree that, if God has seen fit to elect children who die in infancy, they must be saved. I believe the Canons of Dort steps outside the clear teaching of Scripture when it says “godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” This is a possibility, but hardly something that is made plain in Scripture.

We Can Have No Assurance

Surprisingly I was able to find little formal and well-articulated support for this view. I find this surprising because where Scripture does not explicitly state a doctrine, we might expect Christians to be slow to speculate. It would seem that this view requires the least amount of speculation. Herman Bavinck believed we could have no assurance saying “I would not wish to deny, nor am I able to affirm.” Cornelius Venema concurs, saying “caution is preferable to the confident denial or affirmation of this possibility.”

The weakness in this view is simply that it is not very satisfying. As inquisitive beings we wish to have answers to all of our questions. Stating that we do not and cannot know does not satisfy our desire to know.

My view

I suppose it would be unfair to do all this research and not indicate what I believe, so I will provide a few thoughts. I grew up in churches that had strong views on covenant theology and believed in the doctrine of presumptive regeneration (which states that children of believers are presumed to be saved until they prove otherwise). The view I was taught was that children who die in infancy and are members of believing families are saved, but that we can have no certainty about the children of unbelievers. I abandoned this view on the basis of empirical evidence long before I abandoned it on the basis of Scriptural evidence. I saw countless spiritual delinquents living with the belief that they were saved simply because they were children of the covenant. The inestimable privilege of growing up in a Christian family was reduced to a license to sin. Parents refused to challenge their children and felt little need to share the gospel with them. When I did turn to Scripture to wrestle with this issue I was not surprised to learn that it cannot be adequately supported. I am thankful that my parents did not support this view and that they constantly challenged myself and my siblings to know and believe and trust the gospel.

After doing much study and reflection on this topic, I find myself simply shaking my head and realizing I am unable to know from Scripture what happens to all infants who die. While I would like to believe that all children are immediately ushered into heaven, I simply do not find Scripture to support the idea that God will categorically overlook the imputation of Adam’s sin that is held against all humanity, and even the tiniest child. It seems to me that those who adhere to the view that all children are saved must gloss-over or downplay original sin, and that is something I cannot do. Children who die in infancy are as fully implicated in Adam’s sin as I am and are thus fully deserving of hell. While that does not necessarily indicate that God will not or cannot save them, I do not find evidence in Scripture that He always will. I also do not find strong support for the idea that only the children of believers will be saved and that all the children of believers will be saved.

What I believe we can know from Scripture is that at least some children who die in infancy will be saved, for the Scripture speaks of John the Baptist who was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb. At least one child was saved before birth. If we are justified by faith as a free gift, and if we believe in our total inability without His grace, surely God, who creates tiny babies, can speak to their hearts in a way that can fill them with the Spirit. If God, through His grace, wishes to save an infant, I’m sure He can. But as to the extent or wideness of this grace, I cannot speak for God does not tell. I would also assume that, just as God is gracious to show mercy to generation after generation of believing families, it is likely that children who die in infancy as members of Christian families are more likely to be numbered among the elect than those who are members of unbelieving families.

And so my view seems to hover between the second and the third. I believe we can have little assurance about the eternal destination of all children, but that we can have some degree of assurance about some children. Scripture does not state that all children are saved and it does not say that all children are condemned. My position falls between these two. I believe, as did the Puritan divines, that “all elect infants dying in infancy go to heaven.” As with the rest of God’s elect, we will not infallibly know who these people are until we are ushered into God’s presence. And at that moment I am convinced that we will all be overwhelmed not by how few there are, but how many. I have concluded that in His wisdom God has chosen not to reveal what happens to all children who die in infancy. Thus it is best not to speculate or to comfort ourselves with false assurances, but instead take confidence in what we do know—that God is just, but gracious. I am left crying out with Paul “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

An article explaining John Piper’s understanding of this issue concludes with reflections on George Mueller’s sermon text after the death of his wife. His three points were: The Lord was good, and did good, in giving her to me. The Lord was good and did good, in so long leaving her to me. The Lord was good and did good, in taking her from me.” This is an attitude of great faith. Mueller knew that God always does good. We must conclude the same, even if God chooses to give us an infant for only a short period of time. I hope and pray that I would have the strength and faith to thank God for the time I’ve spent with my little Michaela, even if He took her from me after only three months. For certainly He was good to give her to me and to leave her with me for this long. Who am I to believe that He could take her from me too soon? He knows best and He does best. This must be my refuge.

Having discussed children who die in infancy, I’d like to turn in another article to a defense of my view that my children are likely unsaved.

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