Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

Articles

March 07, 2009

Romans 13

As you know, I’ve been enjoying memorizing passages of Scripture with readers of this site. To this point we have finished Psalm 8, Psalm 103 and Romans 12. We are hard at work on Romans 13. I thought it might be valuable to offer wallpapers for your desktop that tied in to the memorization program (though even if you are not participating you may enjoy them). I had a graphics designer come up with some designs and will link them each time we begin a new passage. Here, then, is a wallpaper you can download for Romans 13.

You can download it in four sizes:

1024 x 768, 1680 x 1050, 1600 x 1200, 1920 x 1200

Not sure how to change your wallpaper? Windows users click here, Mac users click here.

I hope you find them useful. In the coming weeks I’ll post wallpapers for Psalm 8, Psalm 103 and Romans 12.

March 06, 2009

On Wednesday I posited that endless choice brings us endless discontentment. While marketers may try to assure us that a consumer with more options is a happier consumer, evidence seems to indicate that more options mostly make us increasingly miserable. Speaking personally, I can attest that this is true. I don’t want to disparage choice as if being forced to choose is somehow wrong. But plain experience shows that infinite choice does not bring about greater happiness. If anything, the opposite is true.

I began thinking about this as I read news articles about so-called “designer babies.” An article from the BBC says, “LA Fertility Institutes run by Dr Jeff Steinberg, a pioneer of IVF in the 1970s, expects a trait-selected baby to be born next year.” Using a lab technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, his clinic allows parents to choose not only the sex of their child, but also physical traits such as hair color and eye color. Though in the past this technology has been used primarily to screen for inheritable genetic defects, clinics are now beginning to use it to screen for physical traits. By next year we should begin to see the first generation of customized children—children whose parents have ensured that they will be free from genetic disorders and children whose gender, hair color, eye color and even height have been carefully selected.

The ethical dilemmas here are dizzying; they are so plentiful, I hardly know where to begin.

Maybe the best place to begin is with the conscience. I believe any biblically-informed conscience (and even many consciences that know nothing of the Bible) will rebel against this. And rightly so. As Christians we know that God has given conscience as a gift; somehow he has planted within us some knowledge of his law and conscience can steer us away from violating it. And so we ought to listen to conscience. When conscience reacts as strongly as it does when it hears of designer children, we need to take heed.

But I want to look at just a couple of other implications—ones that are related to what I wrote on Wednesday.

Endless choice bring endless regret. When we have fewer options, we are able to have more confidence in the choice we eventually make. If I have only three cell phones available to me, the task of choosing just one of them is relatively straightforward. When I have three hundred phones available to me and each one can be customized with cases, colors, ringtones and nearly everything else, the choice becomes much more difficult. And after I finally make a choice, it is far more likely that I will regret my decision. This is especially so when each of these phones will soon be replaced by something even better; even the latest and greatest is on the verge of utter irrelevance and obsolescence.

How much more so when we think about our children? When we customize our children, we will think of them differently; we will have to think of them differently. Since the dawn of Creation, humans have regarded children as a surprise and mystery. Will he have mom’s hair? Will she have dad’s eyes? Will it be a boy or a girl? We have always had to leave such things in the hands of God. We may wish or hope or dream, but ultimately each child is a gift from God. This is true whether the child is mentally and physically sound with just the physical traits we had hoped for or whether the child is mentally and physically handicapped and with none of the physical traits we may have wished for. Of course genetic testing and widespread abortion have already allowed us to destroy almost every child with mental or physical handicaps. But now this technology is going further so that we are able to choose far more; at the very least we can increase the probability for one or more of the physical traits.

What would cause us to believe that the ability to choose our child’s hair color, eye color and other traits is going to make us happier with the child? Does not the very fact that we can make such choices open the possibility that we will then be able to regret the choice?

Endless customization also leads to discontent because it raises our expectations. If I go to the local car lot and buy a standard model car, my expectations of that vehicle will be far different than if I buy a heavily-customized car. I once saw a television show where a football player was buying a new car. He bought it from a dealer and immediately drove it to a shop where it was heavily customized; the after-market customization cost far more than the original value of the vehicle. And, of course, when the car was ready he looked it over with the utmost care to make sure it had been customized to his exact specifications. He would have been satisfied with nothing less. He had paid for, demanded and now expected perfection.

How could things be any different with children whose importance and impact obviously far eclipse a car? How will a parent react when her customized child turns out to be just as fussy, just as grouchy, just as sinful as any other child? Will this parent not have increased expectations of the child and potentially unrealistically high expectations?

Imagine a mother’s reaction when she pays money (lots of money!) to customize her child—perhaps she has selected a child with blond hair and blue eyes—and finds that the child actually has brown hair with green eyes. Will she demand her money back? Will she still be able to love such a child? After all, this technology offers no guarantees—she may demand a physical trait only to see the technology fail her. Can she live happily with a green-eyed child when all her friends’ children have blue? One British fertility expert warns against “turning babies into commodities that you buy off the shelf.” And this is exactly what we face—children who are commodities who can be carefully customized and personalized. Only if we buy into today’s consumerist mindset could we possibly believe that this will make us any happier or any more content. The reality, I’m convinced, will be just the opposite.

Again, I think the ethical implications go far beyond this, but these are just two implications that grow out of the consumerist mindset so prominent in our culture. Shopping for just one out of hundreds of cell phones may be relatively insignificant, but I think we can see it as just a shadow of the moral dilemmas that we are beginning to face as technology continues to far outpace morality.

February 26, 2009

As you might imagine, I receive a good deal of email from people who read this site. Probably the most common questions I receive (other than those mentioning The Shack) deal with books and reading. I guess I’ve established a reputation as a bookworm and people often ask just how I find time to read all these books, what books I recommend, and whether I’ve developed a system to help me retain information. Every now and then I try to jot down my thoughts and I thought I’d share those today. These are, then, some rather random thoughts on reading. And after I’ve jotted down all of my thoughts, I’d love to hear your tips on reading.

I love to read and have nearly always loved to read and ever since I learned how to do it, it has been a passion of mine; it has been my favorite hobby. When I was younger my parents gave me books by Christian authors like R.C. Sproul and encouraged me to read biographies of great men and women. They modeled a love for reading as both of them constantly read good books. While I merely toyed with the books they gave me dealing with spiritual topics, I positively devoured books on history, and in particular, military history. My love for this subject took me through university and into adulthood. About eight or ten years ago, though, I began to be drawn towards Christian books. As far as I can recall, the first of these I bought was Classic Christianity by Bob George (withhold your comments, please) and it was soon followed by Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? by James Boice. That began a trend that has only intensified as the years have gone by.

It just a few years ago that I decided, mostly on a whim, that I would try to read a book each week for what I hoped would be the rest of my life. Subsequently, I also decided that I would attempt to provide reviews of the majority of these books. My reasoning was simply that through these reviews I could help other people who are interested in reading only a few books per year focus on titles that are worth their while, while at the same time helping them avoid the mountains of trash on the bookstore shelves. I realized that if I were to live for another fifty years, this commitment would mean that I would be able to read over 2500 books before I die. The thought of being able to learn from what God has taught 2500 other people was inspiring. Since I set that goal I have found that I can actually read closer to two books every week, so now tend to read and review around 100 books a year. I suppose this raises the potential to reading over 5,000 books in the next fifty years. I’m going to need some more bookshelves.

What follows is some seemingly-random points about reading. I hope you may find something here a little bit helpful.

First, an encouragement for those who have difficulty with reading. The more I read, the easier it is to read; the more I read, the better I get at it. A few years ago I read four books that discussed godly principles for decision making. Three of them were based primarily on the fourth (and anyone who has read about this subject will know the book I am referring to). Needless to say, it became progressively easier to read and understand each subsequent book. I have found that this is true of any topic. It is also true of reading in general. The more I have dedicated myself to reading, the better I have become at it. I have often spoken to people who have given up on reading because they have found it difficult. To these people I offer this encouragement: press on. Like any discipline, reading will become easier as you dedicate yourself to it. Don’t give up!

A lot of the books I read are short. The majority of the books I read are under 250 pages, and quite a few have fewer than 200 pages. I generally do not discriminate against a book based on its page count, so this is either a product of coincidence or of percentages. It seems to me that the average “Christian Living” book weighs in between 160 and 200 pages. Biographies and books dealing with theology or church history tend to be longer and require greater effort. So obviously the quantity of books I read has something to do with the average number of pages.

I read all the time, or most of it anyways. I watch only very little television (especially after having cut cable), but even when I do, I usually have my nose in a book. I also try to get out of bed a couple of hours before everyone else so I can have some quiet time to read. When I go to the doctor or the barber, I tend to stick a book in my pocket so I can use that fifteen minutes doing something other than reading old copies of People magazine. It is amazing how many ten and fifteen minute periods there are in life that can be used for reading.

Speaking of which, for those who insist that they have no time to read, consider this (and excuse the vulgarity). If you were to read one page of a book per day, you would be able to read at least two of the average Christian Living books in a year, right? And, of course, a bathroom break is the perfect time to read a page or two of a book. So consider: if you were to keep a book in the bathroom and read only when you were, you know, using the bathroom, you could read two books per year. If you were to read only when you were brushing your teeth, you could read another book or two a year. So if you feel that you do not have time to read, why not keep a book in the bathroom and commit to reading it there? Two books a year is better than none!

One of my peculiarities, but one I have found helpful, is reading two or even three books at a time. I used to find that I would sometimes mistake physical fatigue for what was actually a fatigue brought about by dwelling too long on a particular subject. Sometimes when I put down that first book and begin reading a second book, I immediately feel refreshed. It turns out that my mind was tired and this was making my body feel tired. So consider keeping a couple of books on the go, and books that deal with completely different topics.

Here is a basic outline of how I read a book. I begin by giving the book a quick scan, hoping to understand what it is about, what the author is going to attempt to prove and how he is going to set about this task. I read the back cover and the endorsements. I skim over the table of contents and look through the end notes and bibliography. Having done that, I tend to linger a little bit over the introductory chapter(s), since I find this to be the most important section in the book. It generally lays out the basic framework of the author’s argument and lets me know what he is arguing against. I read with a pencil in hand (I buy those clickable Bic pencils by the box) and highlight liberally. I also tend to jot short notes and questions in the margins or at the end of chapters. Points that are important to the author’s argument tend to receive a *, and points that are exceedingly important receive a bigger, bolder *. I often also make a list of important page numbers and questions on the inside front cover of the book. In some cases I’ll make two or three columns of page numbers. By doing all of this, I am making the book my own and not just reading it, but actually interacting with it as I go. This is tremendously helpful for both understanding and retention.

I don’t know if there is an objectively good way of marking books, but I doubt it. So work on a system that works for you and stick with it. But don’t be afraid to mark your books. Again, books are meant to be interacted with.

I’ll be honest and admit that I forget a great deal of what I read. Anyone who tells you otherwise may not be telling the truth (unless he has a Spurgeon-like photographic memory). I used to be discouraged if, a year (or a month or a week) after reading a book, I could barely remember the content. I have since realized that this is inevitable. I focus on remembering what I can and trust that simply because I do not remember the complete outline of a book, this does not prove that a book has not been edifying to me. After all, if this was our standard, just about every sermon would be a complete failure. I trust that the Spirit works in me as I read good books and that He works despite my imperfect memory.

Reviewing books is an excellent way of driving home the main points of a book. It is as good a memory device as I can imagine. In fact, I would encourage every reader to review the books they read, even if those reviews will never be made public. It is a good discipline to think through the main points of the book and is as valuable a discipline to formulate thoughts on whether or not the reader agrees with a book. When you finish a book, why not jot down a short review, even if it is only a few lines, and stick it inside the book? You’ll be grateful later on.

Let me wrap it up this way. I see reading as a discipline, but a pleasurable one. I love it and have found it to be tremendously beneficial to my spiritual life. Reading and writing have together brought me untold benefit. I can honestly say that most evenings there is nothing I’d rather do.

I’ve said my bit. Do you have any tips or tricks or practices that might be beneficial to those who are trying to read, to read more and to read better? If so, leave a comment…

February 25, 2009

snapshots.jpgI have written a lot of articles through the past 6+ years of blogging. Within all of the “every day” have been a few that I consider favorites—articles that, for one reason or another, stick with me even months or years later. I’ve often thought about collecting some of those together and allowing this to serve as a kind of introduction to the site. I finally had opportunity to do just that.

And so I thought I’d offer this, Snapshots & Screenshots as a means of introducing myself and introducing what I write. It is a collection of twelve of my favorite articles; twelve of the ones I remember as I think back over the past few years. Those of you who have been reading the site for a long time may well remember some or all of those; I trust the newcomers will find something to enjoy as well.

February 15, 2009

A couple of months ago I began an effort to memorize Scripture with other people who read this site. My initial projection of having thirty people interested in participating was quickly shattered and there are now more than 1100 participating. Those who have been participating from the beginning have now memorized Psalm 8, Psalm 103 and Romans 12. Speaking personally I can say that the time I’ve spent committing Scripture to memory has been profoundly important. It has been rich in a spiritual sense and has fed my soul. Perhaps best of all, it has really renewed my love for Scripture and my belief in its power, importance and relevance.

I’d like to invite you to participate in this program. It’s very simple. We are focusing on longer portions of Scripture though I am also sending out weekly “Fighter Verses” for those who prefer to memorize shorter portions. This week we are beginning a new passage—Romans 13. It is a great passage that reminds us to submit to those whom God has put in authority over us, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” It tells us to pay our taxes with joy “for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.” And it challenges us to fulfill God’s law through love. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

So if you are not currently working on memorizing portions of the Bible, why not join in? I am convinced that if you make the commitment you will soon realize the blessings.

Every Sunday I send out an email to remind you of the passage we are working on, to let you know about the new Fighter Verse, and to encourage you to press on. If you’d like to participate in the program, just send along your name and email address using this little form. You’re free, of course, to unsubscribe at any time.






February 11, 2009

As you may know, I decided to read through both of the Finding God in The Shack books released this month (two books, two authors, one title). Last week I reviewed the first of these (see: Finding God in the Shack (1)) and in a day or two I will review the second. But first, I wanted to share a few quotes from the book.

It is not lost on me that the majority of the people who vocalized objections to The Shack were Calvinists (Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Yours Truly, etc). Randal Rauser and Roger Olson noted this as well and both make a point of refuting some components of Calvinistic theology in their books. Rauser, a Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary, touches on Calvinism several times, but does so primarily under the heading of “The Biggest Problem in the Universe”—a chapter that deals with theodicy (the justice and goodness of God in the face of suffering). This is, after all, one of the main themes of The Shack and one whose treatment offended many Calvinist readers. Unfortunately, Rauser’s portrayal of Calvinism is, in many ways, just plain wrong. It is offensive and almost libelous at times. I am a Calvinist and have been for many years. Never have I heard anyone claim what Rauser says to be true of Calvinism.

Here are a few examples. I have taken the liberty of bolding a few of the most outrageous statements.

*****

Our first pass at theodicy will consider the possibility that God is not all-loving. While this may come as a surprise to many Christians, this is the position of a major theological tradition called Calvinism. … To be more specific, Calvinists believe that God is perfect in his love, but he chooses not to show this love to all his creatures.

To begin with, the Calvinist believes that God controls all events perfectly, including free human choices. That is, God gives us the desires that we freely fulfill, both good and bad. (Other Christians disagree and think instead that while God can know what we will do in advance, he cannot make us do it if we are truly free.) As a result, Calvinists believe that God could have made the world such that Adam and Eve would never have fallen. It follows that Adam and Eve sinned because God gave them the free desires to sin. Likewise, the Little Ladykiller [the villain of The Shack] sinned because God gave him the will to sin. Everyone who sins does so because God has formed his or her character to do so. As Paul tersely put it, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18). So the reason there is evil in the world is simple: though perfectly loving, God wants there to be some evil!

This Calvinist view raises an obvious question: why would a perfectly loving God desire evil in the world? In order to explain this, the Calvinist denies what many Christians assume: that God loves all his creatures equally. Rather, God’s ultimate concern is to manifest his glory most fully. Therefore, God is concerned to ensure that creation provides the best opportunity for God to display his magnificent attributes. … [A]dversity within creation provides an opportunity for God to display his leadership qualities.

In the midst of adversity God is able to manifest his mercy and love to those creatures he has decreed to choose the good. At the same time, he manifests his wrath and justice to those creatures he has decreed to choose the evil (Romans 9:22-23). Through all good and evil, God’s glory is more fully on display than if he had willed a creation where everyone did his will perfectly. One final point: the same reasoning that applies to the present age applies in eternity as well. There, too, rebellion must be present so God’s fullest display of attributes can be manifest. As such, Calvinists believe that God decrees that some people would reject the offer of salvation so God can rightly damn them eternally and thereby ensure that his perfect wrath and justice are both forever on display.

I confess that I am one of many people who find Calvinism not only unpalatable but nearly incomprehensible. Let’s start with God’s glory. I don’t accept that the only way to have a high appreciation of God’s glory is by seeing God crush human rebellion. There have been many great leaders in history who led their people in peacetime. Couldn’t God have fully displayed his attributes through peaceful rule as well? Indeed, Calvinism is in danger of Manichaeism, the view that good and evil are equal and necessary opposites so that good can only be known to the extent that evil exists. But my biggest problem is with Calvinism’s view of God’s love. Contrary to the Calvinist claim that God only loves some creatures and hates others, I believe that God loves all people (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).

*****

My reaction when reading all of this was, if not anger, real frustration. I hate to think that thousands of people will read such an inaccurate, uninformed, fictitious view of Calvinism (and this by an author who has some credibility by virtue of his position as a Professor of Theology). Even where Rauser is correct, his words often lack the charitable nuance we might well hope for. But in so many ways he is really, really wrong. Not surprisingly, he does not quote any sources; I know of none that would support his statements.

I thought of writing an article to refute some of the worst of these statements. But then I found myself thinking about R.C. Sproul’s book Getting the Gospel Right. Here Sproul exhorts Christians to be careful in the way they portray what other people believe. The context of the book is a defense of the gospel against Catholicism and he says, rightly I think, that Christians often caricature Roman Catholic theology, not taking the time to find what the Church really teaches. It is too simplistic to say “Protestantism is about grace and Catholicism is about works.” I know I’ve been guilty of this myself. Sometimes it is easier to take the little tidbits we have heard from others, assume they are fact, and build a case. But I think we owe it to others to truly understand before we determine that we know the facts.

So when I saw this nonsense that Rauser had passed off as fact, I guess I saw an opportunity to ensure that when I speak out against Arminianism or Open Theism or Catholicism or any other area of poor or false theology, I do so with grace and I do so only after ensuring that I know what I am speaking about. There have been too many times when I’ve failed to do just that.

February 09, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed The Christian Lover by Michael Haykin, a collection of historical love letters sent from one Christian lover to another. Despite feeling like a bit of a voyeur, spying on private communications, I enjoyed reading these letters, and highly recommended the book. But it got me thinking about my relationship with my wife and whether she and I will leave behind any such tangible evidence of our love for one another. We have a few letters from our courtship days, little love notes that we’d sooner die than have anyone else read, but notes that we can’t bring ourselves to throw away. I remember my mother once saying that she and my father once exchanged such letters and we were free to read them…once she and dad were dead. But these letters I sent to Aileen were from our pre-digital days. This was before we both had email accounts. Sure I still write her cards on occasion and seek to share my heart with her on pen and paper, but more often than not, if she and I are far apart, I turn to email.

I wonder what we may be losing in a digital world. Are love letters of this kind becoming relics of an age gone by? Will tomorrow’s young lovers leave behind any “hard copy” evidence of their love? Or will it all be in bits and bytes, emails, text messages and chats? When my hard drive crashes or my cell phone gets lost, am I losing all this evidence of my love for my wife and hers for me?

Is there something inherent in putting ink to paper that makes it more valuable than perhaps communicating by putting finger to keyboard and sending off an email. I began to wonder, what might this book look like in twenty or thirty years as a generation of digital natives grows older? What might we read in The Christian Lover II: Dispatches from the Digital Age?

Well, here is a chapter sharing the letters of John and Kate MacDonald, who were missionaries to China. They are both eighteen now, and these love letters will be exchanged in just a couple of years. This is an excerpt from The Christian Lover II, to be published in 2029:

*****

Following the traditions of the time, John asked permission from Katie’s father Frank before asking Katie to marry him. He did so by text message.

John to Frank:

“I can ask Katie to marry me? I luv her”

Frank to John:

“k”

Records of text messages shows what an important occasion this was in the lives of these two lovers. Just five days later, the morning after she had accepted his invitation, John sent this to Katie:

“kate, had a great time on sat. can’t wait to see ya again soon. byeeeee! ps sorry the ring was 2 big.”

Kate’s response showed how much their relationship was built upon humor and how much joy she found in him.

“lolz! love ya lots. luv teh ring!!!!”

*****

OK, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, I admit. But I do wonder. In all likelihood, such communication would have been quickly erased, lost forever when the cell phone ran out of memory. After all, who keeps endless archives of text messages? In this case maybe it isn’t a bad thing to see it lost. But what about those heartfelt, lengthy, deep emails a husband sends to his wife when he is traveling? They may get filed away in a “Keep” folder, but for how long? How will they be rediscovered 100 or 200 years later? What happens when the hard drive gets corrupted and the file destroyed?

Just the other day I was talking to a friend and asking if, in days past, a person had ever gone to his desk, taken out a pen and writing paper, written “LOL” on that paper, sealed it up, put a stamp on it, and run it out to a mailbox. Probably not. Yet every day I seem to receive an email or two that has no more content than that. And maybe I send one occasionally myself. Is there something inherently light, “unweighty,” about digital communication?

Roy Rosenzweig of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va has this to say: “The disappearance of letters as a source for historians is a huge loss; letters have traditionally been vital to some kinds of historical work — especially political and intellectual history.” I think love letters have been vital for children to learn about their parents and grandchildren to learn about their ancestors. And I wonder if we will be leaving anything behind for the generations that will follow us. We will leave plenty of digital evidence of our existence. But will we leave that heart-to-heart, husband-to-wife evidence that has educated and comforted those who wished to know about their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers?

What a loss it will be if a lack of evidence means that there can never be The Christian Lover II.

January 17, 2009

Here is some good, light fare for a Saturday afternoon.

A few weeks ago we found, on sale, the complete Pixar collection (not including Wall-E). We have had fun going back in time and watching each of these movies. I still remember going to see Toy Story when it was in the theaters and marveling at the brilliant animation—that kind of computer animation was completely new at the time. And then came A Bug’s Life which was rather a disappointment. Toy Story 2 was next and probably ranks as my favorite of all the Pixar films. Monsters Inc. is a close second—a really incredible movie that shows some amazing animation, even by today’s standards (they managed to animate individual hairs in the bodies of those furry monsters). And the series has continued with one great film after another.

The other day I was talking to some people and comparing notes on which was the best of these movies. I thought I’d put it to the vote and make a poll out of it.

Do note that if you are reading this via RSS, you’ll have to click through to the site to actually answer. All voting is anonymous…