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September 18, 2007

Brian McLaren shares two gospels, one new and one old.

Those of us who have been keeping a wary eye on the Emerging Church know that to understand the movement we need to understand Brian McLaren. Though it is not quite fair to label him the movement’s leader, he certainly functions as its elder statesman and his writing seems to serve as a barometer for the movement. But anyone who has read his books will know just how difficult it is to pin down what he really believes. So often he is deliberately vague and mischievous and opaque, making suggestions but stopping short of actually saying, “This is what I believe.”

It was with some interest, then, that I read his understanding of “two views of Jesus’ good news” in a pre-release copy of his upcoming book Everything Must Change. In a chapter entitled “How Much More Ironic,” he lays out the gospel as he understands it, set against the gospel as traditionally understood by Protestants. In an endnote he defines this just a little bit further to say it represents a Calvinistic, evangelical Protestant, understanding of the good news.

So here, under four headings, is McLaren’s portrayal of what he calls the “conventional view” of Jesus’ good news:

The Human Situation: What is the Story We Find Ourselves In? God created the world as perfect, but because our primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, did not maintain the absolute perfection demanded by God, god has irrevocably determined that the entire universe and all it contains will be destroyed, and the souls of all human beings—expect for those specifically exempted—will be forever punished for their imperfection in hell.

Basic Questions: What Questions Did Jesus Come to Answer? Since everyone is doomed to hell, Jesus seeks to answer one or both of these questions: “How can individuals be saved from eternal punishment in hell and instead go to heaven after they die?” “How can God help individuals be happy and successful until they die?”

Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus Respond to the Crisis? Jesus says in essence, “If you want to be among those specifically qualified to escape being forever punished for your sins in hell, you must repent of your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. Only if you believe this will you go to heaven when the earth is destroyed and everyone else is banished to hell.” This is the good news.

Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus Important? Jesus came to solve the problem of “original sin,” meaning that he helps qualified individuals not to be sent to hell for their sin or imperfection. In a sense, Jesus saves these people from God, or more specifically, from the righteous wrath of God which sinful human beings deserve because they have not perfectly fulfilled God’s just expectations, expressed in God’s moral laws. This escape from punishment is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love. Those who receive it enjoy a personal relationship with God and seek to serve and obey God, which produces a happier life on earth and more rewards in heaven.

And here, now, is the “emerging view” of the good news under those same four headings:

The Human Situation: What is the Story We Find Ourselves In? God created the world as good, but human beings—as individuals and as groups—have rebelled against God and filled the world with evil and injustice. God wants to save humanity and heal it from its sickness, but humanity is hopelessly lost and confused, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering farther and farther into lostness and danger. Left to themselves, human beings will spiral downward into sickness and evil.

Basic Questions: What Questions Did Jesus Come to Answer? Since the human race is in such desperate trouble, Jesus seeks to answer this question: “What must be done about the mess we’re in?” The mess refers both to the general human condition and its specific outworking among his contemporaries living under domination by the Roman Empire and confused and conflicted as to what they should do to be liberated.

Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus Respond to the Crisis? Jesus says, in essence, “I have been sent by God with this good news—that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her current path and follow a new way. Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now.” This is the good news.

Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus Important? Jesus came to become the savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world’s ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of. All who find in Jesus God’s truth and hope discover the privilege of participating in his ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice. As part of his transforming community, they experience liberation from the fear of death and condemnation. This is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love.

Following his summary of the two views of the good news, McLaren says his readers will recognize that the conventional view is commonly described as “orthodoxy” while any departure from it is heresy. While he affirms that the conventional view has a lot going for it, he says “more and more of us agree that for all its value, it does not adequately situate Jesus in his original context, but rather frames him in the context of religious debates within Western Christianity, especially debates in the sixteenth century.”

Before turning to a discussion of six unintended negative consequences of the conventional view, he makes this statement about conventional theology. “The basic shape of the story is similar despite [denominational or traditional] differences in details: earth is doomed, and souls are eternally damned unless they are specifically and individually saved, and the purpose of Jesus was to provide a way for at least a few individuals to escape the eternal conscious torment of everlasting damnation. Supporters of the conventional view can justify it with many questions from the Bible, and in so doing they bring much of value to light. But many other passages of the Bible are marginalized in the conventional view, and it has proven to entail many unintended negative consequences.”

This book is an attempt to answer two overarching questions: What are the biggest problems in the world? and What does Jesus say about these global problems? Those who know McLaren from his previous books will not be surprised to learn that “Jesus in the conventional view has little or nothing to say regarding the world’s global crises.” Clearly, then, an alternative is needed—an alternative that will allow Jesus to speak to the crises in the world.

But if Jesus did not come to proclaim that He had come to reconcile sinful men to a sinless God through his substitutionary atonement, what then was the central message of Jesus? Well, I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but this seems to be the best summary so far: “When Jesus proclaimed his central message of the kingdom of God, he was proclaiming not an esoteric religious concept but an alternative empire: ‘Don’t let your lives be framed by the narratives and counternarratives of the Roman empire,’ he was saying, ‘but situate yourselves in another story … the good news that God is king and we can live in relation to God and God’s love rather than Caesar and Caesar’s power.’” Another summary of Jesus’ message reads like this: “The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available—the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.” Jesus took that message to the cross, an instrument of torture and cruelty that He used “to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed.”

So, according to McLaren, Protestant theology has had it wrong all along. We’ve missed the message of Jesus by reading sixteenth century presuppositions into the Bible. We’ve read the Bible with faulty lenses and have arrived at a flawed and false view of Jesus.

It seems clear to me that Everything Must Change is another step down the steep path that leads farther and farther away from biblical orthodoxy. McLaren seems to be fully aware of the path he is taking and of the crowd he is taking with him. I fear for them all. It seems increasingly clear to me that the new kind of Christian is starting to resemble no kind of Christian at all…

September 17, 2007

The subject of reading has been much on my mind lately. I love to read but often receive emails from people who struggle to read and struggle to enjoy reading. Thus I thought it might be beneficial to piece together a list of tips to read more and to read better. I hope you find it useful.

Read - We start with the obvious: you need to read. Find me someone who has changed the world and who spent his time watching television and I’ll find you a thousand who read books instead. Unless reading is your passion, you may need to be very deliberate about setting aside time to read. You may need to force yourself to do it. Set yourself a reasonable target (“I’m going to read three books this year” or “I’m going to finish this book before the end of the month”) and work towards it. Set aside time every day or every week and make sure you pick up the book during those times. Find a book dealing with a subject of particular interest to you. You may even find it beneficial to find a book that looks interesting—a nice hardback volume with a beautiful cover. Reading is an experience and the experience begins with the look and feel of the book. So find a book that looks like one you’ll enjoy and commit to reading it. And when you’ve done that, find another one and do it again. And again.

Read Widely - I’m convinced that one reason people do not read more is that they do not vary their reading enough. Any subject, no matter how much you are interested in it, can begin to feel dry if you focus all of your attention upon it. So be sure to read widely. Read fiction and non-fiction, theology and biography, current affairs and history. You will no doubt want to focus the majority of your reading in one particular area, and that is well and good. But be sure to vary your diet.

Read Deliberately - Similar to reading widely, ensure that you read deliberately. Choose your books carefully. If you neglect to do this, you may find that you overlook a particular category for months or years at a time. Al Mohler, a voracious reader, divides books into six categories: Theology, Biblical Studies, Church Life, History, Cultural Studies, and Literature and has some project going within each of these categories at all times. You can draw up categories of your own, but try to ensure you are reading from all of these categories on a regular basis. Choose books that fit into each of these categories and plan your reading ahead of time, so you know what book you will read next and you know what you’ll read after that. Anticipation for the next book is often a motivating force in completing the current book.

Read Interactively - Reading is best done, at least when enjoying serious books, when you work hard at understanding the book and when you interact with the author’s arguments. Read with a highlighter and pencil in hand. Ask questions of the author and expect him to answer them through the course of the text. Scrawl notes in the margins, write questions inside the front cover, and return to them often (and, if the questions remain unanswered, even seek to contact the author!). Highlight the most important portions of the book, or the ones you intend to return to later. As Al Mohler says, “Books are to be read and used, not collected and coddled.” I have found that writing reviews of the books I read is a valuable way of returning at least one more time to the book to make sure that I understand what the author was trying to say and how he said it. So interact with those books and make them your own.

Read with Discernment - Though books have incredible power to do good, to challenge and strengthen and edify, they also have the power to do evil. I have seen lives transformed by books but have also seen lives crushed. So do ensure that you read with discernment, always comparing the books you read to the standard of Scripture. If you encounter a book that is particularly controversial, it may be worth ensuring that you can reference a review that interacts critically with the arguments or that you can read it with a person who better understands the arguments and their implications. You do not need to fear bad books as long as you read with a critical eye and with a discerning heart.

Read Heavy Books - It can be intimidating to stare at some of those massive volumes or series of volumes sitting on your bookshelf, but be sure to make time to read some of those serious works. A person can only grow so much while living on a diet of Christian Living books. Make your way through some Jonathan Edwards or John Calvin. Read Grudem’s Systematic Theology or David Wells’ “No Place for Truth” series. You will find them slow-going, to be sure, but will also find them rewarding. Commit to reading some of these heavy volumes as a regular part of your reading diet.

Read Light Books - While dense books should be a serious reader’s main diet, there is nothing wrong with pausing to enjoy the occasional novel or light read. After reading two or three good books, allow yourself to read a Clancy or Grisham or Peretti something else that never changed anyone’s life. Allow yourself to get lost in a good story every now and again. You will find that they refresh you and prepare you to read the next heavy book.

Read New Books - Keep an eye on what is new and popular and consider reading what other people in your church or neighborhood are reading. If The Secret is selling millions of copies, consider reading it so you know what people are reading and so you can attempt to discern why people are reading it. Use your knowledge of these books as a bridge to talk to people about their books and what attracts them to the ones they read. Use your knowledge of these books to understand what other Christians are reading and why.

Read Old Books - Do not read only new books. I cannot say this any better than C.S. Lewis: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” So be sure to read old books, whether that means classics or whether that simply means books that come from a generation or two before your own. And be sure to read history as well, since there is no better way of understanding today than by understanding yesterday.

Read What Your Heroes Read - A couple of years ago, while at the Shepherds’ Conference, a young man who was in ministry but had not had opportunity to attend seminary asked John MacArthur what he would recommend to this man so he could continue learning and continue growing in his knowledge of theology. MacArthur’s answer was simple: He said that this pastor should find godly men he admires and read what they read. So do that! Find people you admire and read the books that have most shaped them. I have compiled a short list of recommended reading at Discerning Reader. While the content is still a mite sparse, I do hope to add some more lists to it before long. Even in its current form it may be a good starting point for you.

September 16, 2007

Yesterday I finished Iain Murray’s biography of theologian John Murray (there is no relation between the two Murrays) and was struck by John Murray’s insistence on the importance of memorizing the catechisms. I was raised on a steady diet of the Heidelberg Catechism at church and the Shorter Catechism at home and can attest to their value. Murray, being a product of Scottish Presbyterianism, was an ardent supporter of the Shorter Catechism and once said this to a group of children:

Now everyone of you children should know the Shorter Catechism from the beginning to the end without a mistake by this age. Now that’s without joking at all. At the age of twelve you ought to know the Shorter Catechism from beginning to end without even making a mistake. You don’t know what you are missing! Get down to learning it, if you haven’t already learned it! It will not only give you the most perfect human compendium of Christian truth that there is in the whole world, but it will be the finest mental exercise, and it will lay a foundation in your mind and in your life for a hundred other things as well as for true religion. The mere mental discipline of learning it with exactness down to each preposition is one of the best disciplines that we know of in this world in the field of education. The primary reason is to learn it for the purpose of having in your mind a comprehensive compendium of Christian truth, but even apart from that there are a hundred by-products. It will be invaluable to you through your whole life, and not only in this life, but in the life which is to come.

I’ll grant that Murray may have been speaking in some hyperbole when he said that the Catechism is “the most perfect compendium of Christian truth that there is in the whole world,” but I do believe it is a wonderful and valuable summary of Christian doctrine. At this point my oldest child is seven and he does not yet know his catechism. We worked through some of the Children’s Catechism based on the Shorter but did not do all that much of it in the end (primarily, I’ll admit, because the book was so tiny that it kept getting lost!). I do hope, in the future, to work through one catechism or another with the children. I’m sure they’ll hate doing it just as much as I did, but I am confident that as they grow older they will be grateful (as I am now) that their father insisted upon it.

How about you? Do you teach your children to memorize a catechism? Do you consider this an integral part of teaching and training your children? If so, what catechism do you use or do you intend to use?

September 14, 2007

How endless choice is making us endlessly miserable.

A few weeks ago my cell phone went missing. For a few days we looked for it passively, keeping half an eye out for it as we went about our business in the house. It didn’t show up. So for one morning we tore the house apart, looking high and low. We couldn’t find it anywhere. All we knew was that it was last seen in the hands of Michaela, our silly little one-year old. Finally, with a vacation looming (and a vacation that would require over 2,000 miles of driving) we decided we had better give it up for lost and buy a new one. I had a sneaking suspicion that, as soon as I did so, the old one would turn up. My suspicion proved to be well-founded as it look only an hour after I returned home for Aileen to feel a lump in the couch down in the basement and to dig out the phone my daughter had lodged between cushions. Murphy’s Law is alive and well.

When I was in the store and looking for a phone, I was amazed at the variety available to me. There were flip phones and sliders, MP3 phones and Blackberries. There were phones with cameras and phones with video, phones with all kinds of absurd features and the low-end phones with only the bare-bones capabilities (which, these days, still seems to include a camera and a variety of ridiculously stupid games). I eventually decided on one of the cheaper models (though it still does all kinds of things I’ll never need it to do). And then I had to choose a phone plan. There were all kinds of plans available to me. Far too many, really. Each looked pretty good until I looked to the small print. One plan gave all kinds of free minutes, but only to other callers using the same network. Another provided lots of airtime but charges out the nose for call display and call answer. And on and on. After a good hour of work I finally left the store with my new phone. I was far from certain that I had chosen the best one or the right one, but after a while I just had to choose and get out of there.

Interlude: The other day someone saw my phone and asked, “It is a Razr?” [a style of phone manufactured by Motorola]. I chose to hear the question as, “Is it a razor?” and replied, “No, not yet, but it does just about everything else.” Seriously, are we far off from the day when we’ll be able to shave with our phones?

We live in a world of almost infinite choice. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Even just a few generations ago people made do with far less to choose from. But today we demand and expect that we will be able to choose from among hundreds of options. A short time ago someone sent me a short outtake from the movie Borat. I haven’t seen the movie, don’t recommend the movie and hear that it is, from all accounts, not the kind of thing Christians should see. But this clip was harmless and pointed to our ridiculous demand for choice (and Sasha Cohen’s ability to draw out a joke). Standing in a supermarket with a manager, he walks slowly alongside a refrigerator, pausing at each package of cheese and asking, “What is this?” “Cheese,” says the manager. Borat moves to the next one. “And this is…?” “Cheese.” It goes on and on and on. And then, like a typewriter hitting the end of a row, he zips back to the place he started and begins in on the next row of cheese. It goes on and on.

Earlier this summer I bookmarked an article at the Times that discussed this very thing. Choice, it seems, is not the key to happiness, though our consumeristic mindset may beg to differ.

Everywhere you turn there is a mind-boggling parade of clothes, gadgets, financial products, holidays and entertainment. Tantalised by all these buying options, we stockpile our shopping baskets, homes and lives with ever more consumer goods that we probably don’t need or even appreciate. And this isn’t good for our happiness.

“The huge number of choices that assault us every day makes many of us feel inadequate and in some cases even clinically depressed,” says Professor Barry Schwartz, a psychologist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of The Paradox of Choice. “There is vastly too much choice in the modern world and we are paying an enormous price for it. It makes us feel helpless, mentally paralysed and profoundly dissatisfied.”

And who can claim that they haven’t felt dissatisfied after choosing from among so many options? Just last week, with our dryer threatening to burn the house down and our washing machine refusing to spin, Aileen and I headed to the big box stores to shop for a new set. There were so many choices we didn’t know where to begin. We looked to Consumer Reports but were befuddled by the 500+ reviews of machines they list. Is the Maytag THG438447 the same as the THG438448 because Best Buy has the 8 but Consumer Reports only reviews the 7! Is it true that 4 of the 6 brands sold at Future Shop are simply re-branded models of GE appliances? And do we really need sixteen wash settings and 247 dry settings? What’s the difference between a front-loader and a top-loader. Is there any benefit to having a glass door or does the solid door work just as well? “Professor Schwartz believes that the dogma of all Western societies – that maximising freedom and choice increases welfare – is deeply flawed. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if eventually you’ll be able to buy a mobile phone with integral nasal-hair trimmer and creme brulee torch,’ he speculates sardonically.”

I could really use a new torch, and all the better if it integrated with my phone, my nail clippers and my iPod.

“So much choice makes decision-making increasingly complex,” says David Shanks, a psychology professor and the co-author of Straight Choices, a new book that examines how to make the best decisions when faced with a perplexing array of options. We feel bad that every time we do make a choice, it seems we are missing out on other opportunities. This makes us feel inadequate and dissatisfied with what we have chosen. Often, we feel bamboozled and just shove a familiar or prominently displayed brand into our basket. Then we feel useless because we can’t cook gourmet dinners like Jamie Oliver and don’t know what to do with any of these exotic new ingredients. So we end up buying and eating the same meals time and again.

This excess also numbs us to the heady pleasure felt by previous generations when they bought something new in an era when budgets were leaner and consumer goods in shorter supply. All we can think about now is what we still want to buy, rather than appreciating what we have.

Or perhaps instead we’re thinking about what we could have had. This new Olympus camera is great, but I still wonder if I should have bought the Canon. Or the Nokia. Or the… It’s endless. The evidence suggests, says Professor Leppe, that we thrive when we have less choice. “Excess choice is paralysis rather than liberation.” “ ‘It challenges a lot of our beliefs, but it could just be that choice within constraints will make us feel a lot better,’ says Professor Schwartz. ‘We need to live in the moment, appreciate what we have and not think about all the other things that we could choose instead.’”

Even better, we need to live with an eye to the future. We can pile up all the stuff we want here on earth, but we can’t take it with us. But we could still live our lives miserable, always wondering what could have been.

Just a month ago my youngest sister got married and in his speech at the reception my dad challenged Grace and Justin with the thought that the only thing you can take with you when you die is your children. Obviously he didn’t mean it literally, but merely meant to indicate that you must invest yourself in your children and in other people. People are all that you can take with you and it is there that you need to make your investments.

The endless choice we face may be the mark of our culture’s prosperity but the evidence is proving that it just makes us miserable. It seems to me that endless choice makes for endless discontent.

September 12, 2007

Making an impact on the world of social media.

On Saturday I had 11,000 unexpected guests drop by. One of my stories got picked up by Reddit and StumbleUpon, two of the big social media sites, and it ended up on the front page of both sites concurrently. This caused about 11,000 people to drop by my blog in a matter of hours (on a Saturday, no less, when traffic to these sites is probably far less than it is during the week). I was out and about and busy for most of the day so didn’t really notice much happening, but a quick check of my statistics monitoring later in the day showed that about 1,500 to 2,000 people per hour were dropping by while the stories remained on the front pages. This is the first time one of my articles has been picked up by these sites. It was far less thrilling than I might have imagined, especially because it was just a silly story I wrote a couple of years ago that offered nothing at all profound.

I guess there is no real way of knowing if the people who poured in to read the article that ended up on these sites actually stuck around to become regular readers. I’m guessing none of them did, or certainly not many (though if you are the exception I’d be interested to know it). These social media sites have an amazing ability to drive traffic, but I’m not sure how adept they are at driving long-term visitors, especially to what is rather a niche blog like this one. I suspect that most people visit these sites to get a quick entertainment fix and are not looking for any kind of long-term commitment!

It got me to thinking, though, about how Christians might take advantage of social media. After all, it seems that if a story ends up on the front page of Digg or StumbleUpon or Reddit, people click and read. It is no doubt a safe assumption that the vast majority of people using these sites are completely disinterested in anything even resembling the gospel. Most of the stories that show up on Digg (the only one of these sites I tend to keep an eye on) that deal at all with Christianity are firmly opposed to it.

Digg is one of the ways information moves these days. The site has caught on like wildfire and has spawned hundreds of imitators. But none of them have the sheer power of Digg. The term “the Digg effect” refers to the site’s ability to send so many visitors to a particular site that the site’s server can’t handle the capacity and gives up the ghost, at least for a time. A whole mirroring program has been put in place to attempt to make links visible even after Digg has crushed the server. A single story on Digg’s main page can bring in tens of thousands of visitors in a very short time. If a story ends up on Digg and a few of the other sites, well, you do the math.

The concept is simple but brilliant. Wikipedia sums it up well: “News stories and websites are submitted by users, and then promoted to the front page through a user-based ranking system. This differs from the hierarchical editorial system that many other news sites employ.” In other words, individuals post links to stories and the user community gives these stories either a “digg” or a “bury.” The stories with the most Diggs make their way to the front page where they are seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors, producing a veritable flood of traffic. The other social media sites each have their own features, but they work in roughly the same way—users submit stories and they are democratically promoted or demoted.

It is an interesting system. The stories that are promoted are often well worth reading, though certainly they need to be read with discernment and the headlines must be read carefully to ensure the reader knows what he is likely to see when he clicks.

The biggest problem I’ve found is the unbearable stupidity of so many of the comments—and perhaps even the majority of the comments. Digg seems almost incapable of producing good, useful or interesting discussion. This article is a case in point. The article describes the “hero” of the Minneapolis bridge collapse and his efforts to avoid media exposure. His desire for privacy even led him to decline a photo opportunity with the President.

Mr. Hernandez was not available to comment on the offer; Ms. Schwartz said he left town for northern Minnesota late on Friday, overwhelmed by the attention and concerned that his co-workers were being overlooked. He spent the weekend fishing. When President Bush’s staff contacted him to request a photo opportunity, “He was just, like, ‘Nope,’ ” she said.

Here are some of the comments provided by the Digg users:

  • he should have taken him up on the opportunity and called him out on some **** when he was there.
  • He should have gotten an “I’m with stupid ->” t-shirt! :)
  • I’m guessing it was more of a ‘photo opportunity’ for Bush rather than for the kid.
  • Well good for him, coz BUSH IS AN IDIOT
  • lol. Owned. I wouldn’t want to be in a picture with that ******** either.
  • If he was a real man he would have taken the opportunity to speak his mind.

Enlightening, isn’t it? Unfortunately, this kind of discussion is endemic within Digg and other social media sites. And the people who leave such comments are the same kind who are involved in promoting stories to the main page. Needless to say, this means that stupid stories by far outweigh good ones and frivolous content outweighs serious content. A story bashing President Bush is on the fast-track to tens of thousands of visits; one supporting him may as well not even be submitted. Again, some of the stories are certainly interesting and worth reading, but one certainly does need to look for the diamonds in the rough.

And so I wonder if Christians could use Digg and other sites to try to drive people to the occasional good article. Say, for example, that a blogger wrote an article that refuted five of the most common claims of today’s most prominent atheists, or someone wrote an article showing why we can trust the gospels. Or what if there was a ten minutes video clip (with transcript) of John Piper sharing the gospel? Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if these could be promoted to the front page and be seen by thousands or tens of thousands? It would require a coordinated effort, I’m sure, and might even be destined to fail (is it true that there are a very few people within Digg who have an outrageous amount of influence in demoting certain stories?). It would be nice to be able to promote just a few kernels of wheat amidst all the chaff.

For those who participate in social media, I’d be interested in knowing how such an effort might work. I’d be interested in knowing if it is even feasible. Can sites like Digg be salvaged, or are they destined to primarily only ever promote content that is unbearably light, inconceivably stupid? Can Christians hope to make an impact in the world of social media?

September 10, 2007

Avoiding Kids: How Men Cope With Being Cast as Predators

Child Abuse PosterTed Wallis, a doctor in Austin, Texas, recently came upon a lost child in tears in a mall. His first instinct was to help, but he feared people might consider him a predator. He walked away. ‘Being male,’ he explains, ‘I am guilty until proven innocent.’” As awful as it sounds, I sympathize with this guy. As terrible as it might be to see a young child lost and alone, as a man in this society I feel like accusing eyes would be upon me were I to walk up to that child and offer to help. My instinct would probably be to look for an authority figure—a police officer or mall security guard—or a harmless-looking stranger, perhaps an elderly woman or a pregnant mom. These people could help the child without making others assume that they have evil ulterior motives.

Jeff Zaslow of the Wall Street Journal has written a couple of recent articles dealing with our society’s view of men as predators. They are well worth reading (Are We Teaching Our Kids To Be Fearful of Men? and Avoiding Kids: How Men Cope With Being Cast as Predators). He asks, “Are we teaching children that men are out to hurt them? The answer, on many fronts, is yes. Child advocate John Walsh advises parents to never hire a male babysitter. Airlines are placing unaccompanied minors with female passengers rather than male passengers. Soccer leagues are telling male coaches not to touch players.” An ad campaign for Virginia’s Department of Health features a picture of a man’s hand holding a child’s hand with these words plastered over it: “It doesn’t feel right when I see them together.” The message seems clear. “The implication is that if you see a man holding a girl’s hand, he’s probably a predator,” according to Marc Rudov who runs a father’s rights site.

Clearly there are going to be consequences to making people (and children in particular) fearful of men. “Fathers’ rights activists and educators now argue that an inflated predator panic is damaging men’s relationships with kids. Some men are opting not to get involved with children at all, which partly explains why many youth groups can’t find male leaders, and why just 9% of elementary-school teachers are male, down from 18% in 1981.” Children are beginning to be distrustful of men and society in general is becoming increasingly distrustful of men. Men, meanwhile, bear the weight of feeling like they are always on the edge of being accused of some deviant behavior. “The result of all this hyper-carefulness, however, is that men often feel like untouchables.” “While we don’t want sexual predators to harm our kids, we do want our kids to develop healthy relationships with adults, both men and women. Instilling a fear of men is a profound disservice to everyone.”

Here are a few examples of how this is working itself out according to the testimonies of men who responded to Zaslow’s articles:

In Cochranville, Pa., Ray Simpson, a bus driver, says that he used to have 30 kids stop at his house on Halloween. But after his divorce, with people knowing he was a man living alone, he had zero visitors. “I felt like crying at the end of the evening,” he says.

At Houston Intercontinental Airport, businessman Mitch Reifel was having a meal with his 5-year-old daughter when a policeman showed up to question him. A passerby had reported his interactions with the child seemed “suspicious.”

In Skokie, Ill., Steve Frederick says the director of his son’s day-care center called him in to reprimand him for “inappropriately touching the children.” “I was shocked,” he says. “Whatever did she mean?” She was referring to him reading stories with his son and other kids on his lap. A parent had panicked when her child mentioned sitting on a man’s lap.

I’ll admit that I am of two minds about this. On the one hand I don’t want to feel (and don’t want my children to feel) that all men are perverts who are necessarily untrustworthy. At the same time, I have too often seen the harm done to children through predatory men. Though it may be the case that only the smallest percentage of men are predators, the fact remains that the great majority of predators are men. Early on in our marriage my wife and I established a couple of ground rules pertaining to our children (such as not allowing men or boys to babysit our children and being exceedingly cautious about sleep-overs). To use these seemed like common sense rules and not ones born out of a great fear of all men. We are cautious towards relationships between our children and other men, but rejoice when godly or otherwise concerned adults show a genuine interest in them.

I would be interested in hearing from the people who read this site to hear how you cope with these situations.

  1. Would you leave your children with male babysitters?
  2. Would you allow your teenage boy to babysit other children?
  3. Are you immediately hesitant or nervous when a man shows friendly interest in your children?
  4. For the men: if you saw a child standing alone and crying in the mall, would you stop to help the child?
September 07, 2007

Misusing the will of God.

I dedicate this post to you, the person reading it. Before you were even born, God planned this very moment, the moment you would type the address of this site into your browser or the moment you would click a link from another site to arrive right here, right now. It is no accident that you are here today and you can be certain that God has orchestrated all of this so you could learn what I want to tell you today. So get ready.

Does that make you uncomfortable? It sure would make me uncomfortable if I ran into that statement at another person’s web site. But you know what? The statement isn’t too different from ones I’ve read in a selection of Christian books. Consider the dedication from Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: “This book is dedicated to you. Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life. It is no accident that you are holding this book. God longs for you to discover the life he created you to live—here on earth, and forever in eternity.” Don Piper’s latest book, Heaven is Real has a similar statement within it, suggesting that God has so orchestrated your life that you are holding the book at that very moment simply so you could learn from it.

I dislike this kind of statement, and they are becoming all too common. It took me some time, though, to figure out why they make me so uncomfortable. And then, a few days ago, it struck me. These authors are bludgeoning me with providence. They are peering into the unknowable providence of God and are interpreting it for me. And, needless to say, they are interpreting it in their favor.

It seems to me that this error arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the will of God. These men would have you believe that they know and understand God’s will—that God has so ordered providence to show that it is His will that you read the book and learn what the author wishes to teach. Their logic is simple: God is in control; nothing happens without God’s prior knowledge; you are holding this book; God must have orchestrated life in just such a way that you could read the book; He did this because you need to learn what the book teaches (and obey it!). But in interpreting events this way, they are stepping beyond the bounds of what we can know as mere humans.

Let’s back up for just a moment and make sure we properly understand the will of God.

Theologians speak of God’s will in two ways, usually speaking of God’s secret will and His revealed will, or, if you prefer bigger terms, God’s decretive will and God’s preceptive. I generally prefer to speak of God’s will of decree and His will of command. R.C. Sproul says this of the importance of distinguishing between these two wills: “The practical question of how we know the will of God for our lives cannot be solved with any degree of accuracy unless we have some prior understanding of the will of God in general. Without the distinctions we have made, our pursuit of the will of God can plunge us into hopeless confusion and consternation. When we seek the will of God, we must first ask ourselves which will we are seeking to discover.”

God’s will of decree is, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, His “eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” God’s secret will is hidden to us. God chooses not to reveal it to us and it does not figure into our decision making or our interpretation of providence because it is, by definition, secret. So when we speak of discerning God’s will, we do not speak of this, His secret will. This will, predestined before time began, is set in stone and will be accomplished. There is nothing we can do to change it or to alter it. God reveals it as He wills and we are unable to know it beyond His ways of revealing it.

God’s will of command is what He wills for us as revealed in Scripture. It is all those things we are expected to do to bring Him glory and honor. The Bible tells us a lot about this will; it is filled with God’s expectations of those who follow Him. Here are just three of the more general principles outlined for us:

Be Filled with the Holy Spirit - It is God’s will that we be filled with the Holy Spirit. “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:17-18).

Be Sanctified - It is God’s will that we be sanctified and continue to grow more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3a).

Be Thankful - We are to be thankful at all times and in all situations. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

It is this will that we must understand and obey. It is this will that we seek out in Scripture and this will we must be pleased to follow.

So we see that theologians speak rightly of God’s two wills. It is critical that we understand these properly. Far too often people can encourage us to do things that are premised on a supposed knowledge of God’s secret will—His will of decree. And to me, this is exactly what Rick Warren and Don Piper and other authors have done in declaring why we should read their books. They are interpreting providence in a way that is not theirs to do. They are peering into the hidden things and declaring their understanding of them. They are bludgeoning us with a false understanding of God’s providence.

September 05, 2007

Suggestions on organizing and cataloging a personal library.

I am developing what I suspect will soon be an extensive personal library. Though it is currently not all that large, as these things go, it is growing at an alarming rate. When we moved into our current house just over one year ago, I had, to the best of my recollection, four bookcases in my office which left me lots of wall space to hang prints of some of my heroes of church history. I couldn’t quite fit all my books in there (the military history books are still in boxes in the basement) but it did suffice for all of my other books. A year later the three available walls of my office are lined with bookcases, all of which are stuffed to overflowing. I’ve only got room remaining for three of those church history prints. In many places books are piled from the top of the bookcases to the ceiling. I have room along my walls for two more bookcases (though they’ll have to go between my desk and the wall, meaning that my desk will be pressed hard up against the shelves). At that point every wall in my office will be hidden behind bookcases.

While I do collect books, many of these come in because I am a book reviewer. Some publishers are eager to have me read and review their books (with tens of thousands of new books flooding the market each year they are anxious to have anyone review them!) and new titles come flowing in on an ongoing basis. This growing collection has caused me to have to get a bit creative with managing the library, so in response to questions from some of this site’s readers, I thought I’d tell how I keep my library in some semblance of order.

Perhaps it is helpful to first understand the orders of order. In the first order of order we organize physical objects—in this case books. As soon as we do anything with those books, placing them on shelves, sorting them by author, and so on, we have entered into the first order of order. This is helpful, but is best used in combination with the second order of order. In this second order we create metadata, which is information about information. Think of an old-fashioned card catalog—the kind you used to see at libraries. This card catalog contained information about the book, it’s title, author, and perhaps most importantly, the place you could find it. It represented the second order of order. To organize my library I depend on both of these orders of order. I’ll start with the second.

My Library in Bits and Bytes

LibraryThing is a great service that allows you to catalog your books through their web site. A product of this Web 2.0 world, it also encourages social networking, linking the libraries of various users in interesting and creative ways. While I do not often use the social networking features, I’ve found the site indispensable in organizing my library and in creating metadata about my books. If interested, you can see the results here: My LibraryThing Catalog (As a visitor to the catalog you’ll see the books ordered by title. I created a custom view for myself so I see them sorted by entry date so that the book I added most recently is at the top). As of the moment I write this, I have cataloged 1079 books which represents the bulk of my library (I didn’t add some of the older and more obscure theological volumes). Cataloging is a simple process. I simply click “Add Books” and type in a title or an ISBN number. In 99 out of 100 cases, the software will find the book (at Amazon, the Library of Congress, or any other number of places) and all I need to do is click to confirm it’s found the correct one. If I have already added that book it will let me know there is a duplicate in the library. Adding a book takes only a few seconds per title. Every time I receive a new book I immediately add it into my catalog. I don’t put it on a shelf until it has been added to LibraryThing.

When I first began using LibraryThing I had to invest a fair bit of time in cataloging the books. I went through each book in my library, adding the titles one-by-one. It was miserable, but was a necessary evil. If I had to do it again I would use a barcode scanner (which can be had for only a few dollars through LibraryThing).

While cataloging the books is great, LibraryThing does not stop there: it also allows books to be “tagged.” Unfortunately for me, I have not been very creative in tagging books. At some point I intend to go through the catalog to do a better job of this. A tag can be any word at all that describes the book’s content. I have tended to use “categories” more than tags: Christian Living, theology, and so on. What would be better would be to be more specific: atonement, justification, holiness, heresy, and so on.

Once the books are cataloged, I can search quickly and easily to see what I’ve got in my library using the available metadata. The search function will pull up authors, titles, tags, and so on. If I want to see if I’ve got a book by R.C. Sproul, I simply go to LibraryThing, type “Sproul” in the search box, and can see an immediate list of all of his books in my library. If I want to look for a book about a particular aspect of theology, such as the trinity, I could simply type “trinity” into the search area and see what shows up. Had I done a better job with tagging, the results would be better!

My Library in Atoms

After virtualizing my library, adding it to the world of bits and bytes through LibraryThing and creating that second order of order, I still need to deal with the actual books—those big, heavy, tree-based things that insist on being comprised of atoms and insist on taking up space (and a lot of it!). I need to find a way of sorting them using the first order of order and sorting them in a way that is intuitive. I tend to keep most of the books I receive, but do throw out the worst of the worst. There is little point in allowing some of them to keep taking up space. Every now and again I tend to weed through and cull any that have made it through my first filters and are now just taking up space.

I’ve chosen to organize my books on their shelves in this way:

  • Commentaries by book of the Bible. I have a bookcase that starts with the complete Commentary on the Old Testament series by Keil & Delitzsch. That is followed by the rest of my Old Testament commentaries organized by book of the Bible. I then have the Baker New Testament Commentary set (by Hendriksen and Kistemaker) and it is followed by volumes organized from Matthew to Revelation.
  • Church History. I’m not sure why I singled out church history as a category, but for some reason I did. So a church history section follows the commentaries.
  • Fiction by author. I chose to separate fiction from nonfiction and organized my fiction titles by author. This is probably the smallest section I’ve got!
  • Reference books. This is a somewhat arbitrary section of systematic theologies, commentaries on catechisms, and other similar reference books.
  • Everything else organized by author. And then I come to the rest (and the bulk) of my library. This stretches from Abanes to Zwonitzer and everything in between and spans many bookcases. Where I have many titles by the same author (such as John MacArthur) I have organized the titles alphabetically. When I first organized the library I left the bottom shelf of each bookcase empty so I had some room to grow. Needless to say, it has long since grown into that room!

I’m sure my method is not perfect. But it works for me. We can, I think, be very subjective, very pragmatic about this. When I browse through other people’s libraries I see a lot of variety—some are organized very methodically and others seem to be completely chaotic. As long as a person can track down the books he needs his method is a success. This is how I do it and it seems to work just fine for me. A few days ago I had to go through each of the 100 or so footnotes in the manuscript for my upcoming book. The system worked well for me as I pulled book after book from the shelf, never having to look for more than a few seconds for any of the titles.

I’d be interested in hearing how others here organize their libraries and whether you’ve also found value in using a service such as LibraryThing. Do you rely on that second order of order or can you still exist with just the first?