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

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

Articles

No Mans Sky and 10,000 Bowls of Plain Oatmeal
September 02, 2016

No Man’s Sky was supposed to change gaming forever. It was pitched as offering players a vast world with nearly endless opportunities to explore and nearly infinite varieties of planets and life to discover. It promised an incredible 18 quintillion (that’s 18 billion billion) planets to find—far more than a million gamers on a million consoles could ever see and experience. Players imagined dedicating endless hours to exploring, communicating, fighting, and trading their way across its massive expanse. The game was delayed and delayed again until it finally released on August 9, 2016. It landed with a resounding thud. And in that thud we can find a fascinating lesson.

No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky’s great claim is that its world is created through procedural generation, “a method of creating data algorithmically as opposed to manually.” Most computer games require a game designer to manually create almost every aspect of its world. They dream it, they plan it, they place each element within it. The sheer effort involved in such work necessarily limits the size of a game and gamers are familiar with running into the edge of playable areas. But procedural generation allows the designer to step aside in favor of algorithms, computer scripts essentially. In No Man’s Sky this algorithm is responsible for generating nearly everything: “star systems, planets and their ecosystems, flora, fauna and their behavioural patterns, artificial structures, and alien factions and their spacecraft.” Early screenshots and demos showed a beautiful world full of interesting planets, unique creatures, stunning vistas. Anticipation was at a fever pitch. Then the game launched.

No Man’s Sky’s early reviews were mixed. Gaming powerhouses IGN and Polygon each assigned it a 6 out of 10, Gamespot and Trusted Reviews a 7, The Guardian and The Telegraph an 8, and Time a 9. The user reviews were far tougher. Just 39% of 36,000 Steam reviews are positive while Amazon reviewers are assigning it an average rating of only 2.9 stars. Recent media reports have focused on the swell of disgruntled customers demanding a refund. A recent Forbes headline declares Gamers Have Every Right To Push For ‘No Man’s Sky’ Refunds.

10,000 Bowls of Oatmeal

What went wrong? While reviewers praise the game for its size and scope, its ambition and visuals, and its ability to provide an experience free from obnoxious loading screens, they critique it for being, well, boring. Procedural generation, the very aspect of the game that is meant to make it stand out, has proven to be its greatest weakness. A procedural universe may be technically impressive but it is also bland, empty, purposeless.

IGN says, “The few hand-crafted moments in No Man’s Sky stand out from the bland procedural universe” and “nothing of consequence ever happens in this vast universe. You’re the only one in it with any agenda or power to do anything of significance.” Likewise, Polygon says, “Before you decide whether or not No Man’s Sky is a game you’ll appreciate, you must ask yourself a single tough question: How much do you value technological wonder over everyday, solid, smart game design?” It laments that “these powerful universe creation algorithms have been grafted onto a game that is, beyond its initial hours, so light on imagination.”

Gamespot declares “The sheer number of possible variations of worlds and wild species is too large to fully comprehend, but because the variety is defined by a computer pulling from a restricted pool of options, animals appear more like slapdash creations than thoughtful constructions.” Other users pointed out that many of the algorithmically-generated animals were nonsensical, dumb, impossible. Clearly, the algorithms stand in stark contrast to the few parts of the game that have been carefully designed by human beings. Players find themselves longing for more design and fewer algorithms.

No Man’s Sky is a dud. In the minds of tens of thousands of disappointed gamers it does not live up to its promises. Indeed, it could not because its procedural generation has resulted in a drab world that is full of planets but empty of purpose. Writing for Motherboard, Emanuel Maiberg makes a crucial point. He quotes Kate Compton, an expert on procedural generation, who describes what she calls the problem of 10,000 bowls of oatmeal. Using procedural generation “I can easily generate 10,000 bowls of plain oatmeal, with each oat being in a different position and different orientation, and mathematically speaking they will all be completely unique, but the user will likely just see a lot of oatmeal.” Uniqueness does not necessarily equal interest or purpose and in this way No Man’s Sky’s users put too much hope, too much faith, in procedural generation. They ended up with those proverbial 10,000 bowls of bland oatmeal. Maiberg compares the game to another recent release, a smash hit.

When Sony came to New York to demo No Man’s Sky they also came with a demo for Uncharted 4, which is the exact opposite to No Man’s Sky in terms of design. Uncharted 4, which is made by another studio of about 300 people, is one of the most beautiful, rich virtual worlds I’ve ever seen. Every leaf and stone in it was hand crafted and placed at just the right spot to create the desired effect. It’s a highly directed experience, where the designers are trying to funnel me from point A to B in a way that feels like an exciting, unique experience, but that in reality is identical to the experience of every other player.

The Lesson For Us All

There’s something to learn here. A world that is procedurally generated is a world that is bland, repetitive, meaningless, boring. Purpose, meaning, interest, and even true beauty come by the mind and careful crafting of a designer. What is true of the virtual world of No Man’s Sky is equally true of the very real world that we inhabit. If there is evidence of purpose, meaning, and interest in this world—and there is in its every part—it stands as evidence, handiwork, of a designer.

Thanks to Dave Drabiuk for suggesting and requesting the article.

No Mans Sky

On Stranger Things and Being a Big Prude
September 01, 2016

Stranger Things is a smash hit, the talk of Twitter and the toast of the town. Its story is captivating, its characters well-formed, its acting first rate, its tributes to the 80’s priceless. With so much buzz and so many friends celebrating it, I figured I’d give it a go. But this isn’t an article about Stranger Things. Not really. It’s an article about being a prude.

I’ve been told I’m a prude when it comes to movies and television. Here’s what that means according to the Cambridge Dictionary: A prude is “a person who is easily shocked by rude things, especially those of a sexual type.” If that’s a prude then I guess the shoe fits because I have a very low tolerance for sex and nudity in movies and television. For that reason I carefully screen them against PluggedIn, Common Sense Media, or IMDB’s parents guides. When I see there will be sex or nudity, I don’t watch it. It’s that simple.

Why am I such a prude? It isn’t because I don’t like to watch movies and shows—I really do. It isn’t because I try to be holier than thou—at least I hope not. I am a prude because when I am exposed to sex and nudity on the screen my conscience immediately sends out signals. Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley say that conscience is an internal early-warning system, “your moral consciousness or your moral awareness turned back on yourself.” Conscience allows me to make moral judgments where I do not have clear revelation from God (“Thou must not watch movies with sex” or “Thou mayest watch movies with sex”) or where I lack the spiritual maturity to properly understand the revelation he has given. In this way conscience is a gift from God given so I can obey him, even in those areas where I don’t have complete clarity.

3 Important Rules

Naselli and Crowley offer three important, biblical rules regarding conscience: Don’t sin against your conscience. Listen to your conscience. Cultivate a good conscience. Those are rules to live by and I’ve attempted to do just that. I have attempted to cultivate a good conscience in the area of entertainment and hope it is consistent with God’s Word. I feel a deep fear of sinning against my conscience—I know that destructive and disqualifying acts of sin inevitably begin with what appear to be the smallest compromises against the warnings of conscience. And so I seek to heed my conscience, to listen for its alarms and to respond appropriately. “God didn’t give you a conscience so that you would disregard it or distrust it.”

I watched Stranger Things through to the end of episode 2. I’ll let IMDB describe what happens just before the credits roll: “A teenage main character is pressured into having sex with her boyfriend. The teen girl is shown undressing to her underwear while her boyfriend watches. Then the scene cuts to them in bed kissing frantically and pressing against each other.” It certainly isn’t the longest or steamiest scene in cinematic history, but it is exactly the kind of scene I have determined I won’t watch, that I shouldn’t watch. I hadn’t seen it coming because I had neglected to consult those sites. I didn’t think to with all the breathless endorsements I had seen in my mostly-Christian Twitter stream. That was my error.

1 Bad Moment

I want to tell you what went through my mind in that moment. My conscience was telling me, “Turn this off. You don’t watch stuff like this, remember?” But at the same time my mind was saying, “But maybe that’s just pride. Plus, that guy watched it. And that guy. And her, too. They all said it was great and they are way smarter and godlier than you. You don’t think you’re better than them, do you? You don’t need to be such a prude!” This internal dialog allowed me to silence the alarm for those few moments. Actually no, that’s not quite true. I didn’t silence my conscience, I ignored it. I ignored it long enough to finish up episode 2 and, later, to turn on episode 3. As it happens, episode 3 begins with that exact same scene. There she is again, there he is again, there they are again. This time my conscience was in full-blown klaxon mode. It wasn’t the explicitness of the scene that set off this alarm but my mere participation in it as the viewer. It was there and I was watching.

There was a potential workaround: Perhaps I could turn my head when those scenes came on or just fast-forward through them. But even here my conscience squawked as I was faced with the reality of what went into creating this production. To create Stranger Things a group of people filmed an actual eighteen-year-old girl actually taking off her shirt and actually simulating losing her virginity to an actual teenaged boy. They did that for our pleasure, for our entertainment, so we could see it. What on this side of hell could justify me, a nearly forty-year-old man, watching a production that involves an eighteen-year-old girl—someone’s daughter, someone’s future wife—disrobing and writhing her way through simulated sex with a manipulative, hormone-driven boyfriend?

1 Necessary Conclusion

I want to watch Stranger Things. It intrigues me. I want to know what happens and how it all resolves. But even more, I want to avoid sin (and do what is right), I want to avoid the very appearance of evil (and find delight in what is good), I want to keep a safe distance from every little compromise that paves the way to a big compromise (and pursue every little virtue that paves the way to godliness). I cannot discount the lingering thought that I am wrapped up in self-righteousness here or that I have messed up my conscience by calibrating it to be too sensitive. I cannot discount the thought that there is freedom of conscience available to me somehow and somewhere. How can’t there be when it seems to be available to so many men and women I love and admire?

But then I had this thought: Maybe God has given me a weak (or is it strong?) conscience here because he knows how prone I am to certain sins and that watching these scenes might provoke interest in them. This could be a special gift to me, and one for which I need to be grateful. And I find that I am grateful. If it is, indeed, God’s gift, it makes it even more important that I accept it, that I listen to my conscience, that I heed it, for in listening to it I am listening to him. Whether watching such scenes is objectively right or wrong, moral or immoral, is beside the point. Whether others can watch such scenes in freedom of conscience is, likewise, beside the point. The point is this: For me it was sin. I sinned when I continued to watch that show even after my conscience accused me. I repented of this. I had to. I repented and received God’s forgiveness.

Naselli and Crowley say “As a general rule, you should assume that your conscience is reliable, even if it isn’t perfect. And since conscience is usually right, the Bible says that we should do what our conscience says until we are convinced from Scripture that it needs adjusting.” Does my conscience need adjusting in this area? Perhaps it does. But until I am convinced from Scripture that I can or should watch such scenes, I have to keep on being a prude. For, as Luther said, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

Stranger Things

War, Women, and Wealth
August 31, 2016

Have you ever noticed that some of our sorest temptations arise around God’s greatest gifts? Food, money, sex, ministry, authority—all of these can be used for such good, yet we consistently find they are attended by such difficulties. That is life in this sinful world, a world in which we turn blessings into curses, gifts into temptations. God’s gifts so quickly threaten to displace the One who gives them.

God does not appreciate competition. We find this all over the Bible, but I found some particularly interesting evidence of it while studying Deuteronomy 17 last week. God had saved his people from slavery and destroyed their archenemy, Egypt. He now reigned as their good and kind king. Yet though he loved his people, he knew his people. He knew that in the future they would demand a new king, a human king. And so hundreds of years before the people cried out for King Saul, God told them who and what their future king must be: He must be a man of God’s own choosing, he must be an Israelite, and he must abide by three important rules: “He must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold” (Deuteronomy 17:16-17).

Did you notice what God highlighted there? He highlighted war, women, and wealth. He prohibited the reckless accumulation of all three. Why? Of all the things that could concern God, why these? It’s not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with any of them. Rather, it’s because of what war, women, and wealth represented to a king and a kingdom in that day and that place. Each of them was a temptation for a king to find his reputation and his security apart from God. In that way they would threaten to displace God from a position that he rightfully claimed for himself. A full-out obsession with any or all of them would be a full-out rejection of God.

An obsession with war. A great army would encourage a king to be self-reliant, trusting that his security is dependent upon his ability to wage war. He would inevitably forget that his security is ultimately from God—God had promised his people that he would care for them, and he had already proven this time and again. A great army would also represent a great reputation since it would make a king look mighty in the eyes of other kings. Yet God’s people were to concern themselves with obedience to him, not conformity to the nations.

An obsession with women. God’s concern here was not first related to sexual lust but political power. In that day a powerful king would marry princesses from other nations as a means of establishing political treaties. These treaties would make the land more secure and strengthen the king’s reputation as a great statesman. Yet God did not want his people to find their security in political alliances, and he did not want his people to intermarry with foreigners, for those powerful and important women would inevitably bring their gods with them. With those gods would come the temptation to abandon the true God for idols.

An obsession with wealth. When it comes to wealth, a king would be tempted to trust in his money to keep him secure instead of trusting in his God. Money could be used to hire or sponsor a huge army, or it could be used to buy off attackers. As for reputation, a king would be deemed especially mighty if he used his wealth to build great palaces, temples, and monuments. But again, God wanted his people to find their security in him, in his covenant promises. God wanted his people to care far more for their reputation in his eyes than in anyone else’s.

No wonder, then, that God warned his kings about the three temptations of war, women, and wealth.

Where are you tempted to pursue reputation in the eyes of the world instead of the eyes of God? And where are you tempted to seek security in things you can accumulate rather than in the promises of God? Where are you tempted to compromise? Can I suggest just a couple of common ones?

Sex, Gender, and Sexuality. Today one big and growing temptation to that kind of compromise is in the area of sex, gender, and sexuality. We read in the Bible the plain truth that “male and female he created them.” But now we are told that sex and gender are fluid, that believing anything less is a terrible form of intolerance and discrimination. There is immense pressure on us to compromise, to allow just a little bit of what they believe into what we believe—just enough to be safe, just enough to be respectable. This is exactly why every politician is jumping on the bandwagon. We can face the same temptation, but that is nothing less than making a treaty with the world. That’s gaining the illusion of security and the wrong kind of reputation through compromise.

Finances. Another grave temptation is in the area of personal finance. We can look to money to establish and enhance our reputation. Big houses, nice cars, designer clothes are all worldly measures of success. They aren’t necessarily wrong, but they do call on us to be cautious, to be wise, to discern the state of our hearts. It is far better to have little while looking great in the eyes of God. And when it comes to security, many of us feel secure when we have lots of money and insecure when we have little. We know God promises to provide for our every need, but find those promises much easier to believe when we have heaps of money socked away in our savings and retirement accounts. If we only believe God’s promises when we already have what we need, we’re missing the point! Our security comes from our adoption by God into his family, not through the size of our bank account.

In the age of kings, wealth, war, women were each a challenger to God. God was content to have his kings weak and chaste and modest, for then they would have to rely on him for their reputation, for their protection. In our age we have challengers of our own. God, through his Word, calls us to find our reputation and protection in him, to be strong in him even if that makes us weak in the eyes of the world.

Note: With all this in mind, go ahead and read 1 Kings 10-11, the account of King Solomon’s reign and downfall. Do you think the author was attempting to highlight any particular obsessions of Solomon? War? Check. Women? Check. Wealth? Check. It’s all right there!

20 Quick Tips to Improve Your Productivity
August 29, 2016

We all want to be productive, right? And no matter how productive we are, we all want to be more productive still. This is good, assuming we have defined productivity in a good way, perhaps something like “Using my gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God” (which, as you may know, is the definition I propose in my book Do More Better). To that end, here are 20 real-world, time-tested tips to improve your productivity.

  1. Be curious. When you meet someone who appears to be especially productive or organized, ask him or her for tips. I have learned a lot by reading great books, but even more by asking others how they manage their time, how they built a system, and how they have learned to be successful in their tasks.
  2. Plan to recite and remember. Use your task management software to remind you to review things you have memorized. I love to memorize Scripture and poetry and have my software set to remind me each day to review a different poem or Bible passage. This habit ensures that they remain fresh in my mind.
  3. Break it down. Be careful of tasks that are dauntingly huge. “Write: A Great Novel” is so giant a task you may never begin, and even if you do, you will be unable to track your progress. Break giant tasks into a series of smaller tasks and work through them progressively.
  4. Use a password manager. We all have a lot of passwords to remember today—passwords for email and Facebook and banking and just about everything else. A password manager can be a very helpful tool. Begin by going online and searching for 1Password or LastPass. These programs will help you remember your passwords while also increasing the strength of your passwords.
  5. Use strong passwords. A bad password is, well, bad. You make a criminal’s life exponentially more difficult if you determine you will use stronger and better passwords. There is much debate as to what constitutes a good password, but whatever else you believe, a good password is one that protects your account and one that you can actually remember. I recommend using four random words strung together. This kind of password is more memorable than a random string of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks and actually offers better protection. A mnemonic device, perhaps a silly little scenario that uses all four words, can help you remember your new password.
  6. Create a not-to-do list. Create a note or document that will contain a not-to-do list. Make this a list of bad productivity habits you are trying to break, and go over this list each week during your weekly review. My not-to-do list includes “Do not drink coffee after 2 p.m,” “Do not leave email open all day,” and “Do not agree to meetings that have no agenda or no end-time.”
  7. Set a time-limit on meetings. Meetings tend to expand to fill the time you give them. You will probably find that you can get as much done in a short and focused meeting as in a long and unfocused one. Be sure that all participants know when the meeting begins and when it ends. Begin on time and end on time.
  8. Prioritize personal devotions. Productivity is fueled by the spiritual disciplines. You are not truly productive if you get things done all day while neglecting your soul. Be careful that your personal devotions do not become just another item to check off your to-do list.
  9. Stop multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is rarely effective and almost never leads to increased productivity. Whenever possible choose a task, take it to completion, and then move on to the next one.
  10. Move around. Sometimes a change of scenery is as good as time off. If you are doing creative work, try bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop, switching every couple of hours. If you usually work from the kitchen table, try switching to a different room for a few hours. The quiet room at the local library is one of my favorite places to hole up for a couple of hours of writing.
  11. Learn to delegate. Delegation is a rare skill, but refusing to delegate can rob you of time you could spend doing the most important things. Think creatively about who may be able to handle some of the tasks that keep you from getting other things accomplished. What may be drudgery to you may be a joy to someone else. What you do poorly someone else may be able to do with excellence.
  12. Track your time. Every now and again it may be helpful to audit your use of time. You can do this manually by simply recording start and stop times in a journal or automatically by using software tools such as Toggl or RescueTime. Auditing your time will show you when and where you are most efficient productive while also showing you when and where you tend to waste time.
  13. Don’t leave email open. Set aside specific times in the day when you will check email, and keep it closed at all other times. Most of us can make do very well even if we check email only once or twice in a day.
  14. Plan to rest. Plan to take at least one day out of every week where you rest from as many responsibilities as you can. If you do not plan this day it will soon get away from you, so plan when it will be and plan how you will use it.
  15. Turn off notifications. Whenever possible turn off notifications on your electronic devices. You probably do not need to be notified every time you receive an email or every time your friends update Facebook. Fight against the distraction that seems to grow with every new generation of software and devices.
  16. Write it down. If you don’t write it down you will probably forget it. Most of us live with the dread that many of our best ideas are forever lost because we forgot to write them down. As soon as you have an idea, get it typed out or down and then get it into your system. You may forget, but Evernote or your Moleskine doesn’t.
  17. Take breaks. Breaks may seem like lost productivity, but they actually enhance your productivity. Schedule breaks into your day and enjoy them guilt-free. The busier your day, the more important they will be. So get up for a few minutes, walk around the block, get hot (if your workplace is cold) or cold (if your workplace is hot), grab a cup of coffee, and get back into it.
  18. Get accountability. Have someone check in with you on a regular basis (perhaps during a team meeting) to ask if you are keeping up with your productivity system. Having something or someone outside the system prompting you to maintain the system will help keep you going when motivation is low.
  19. Don’t send unnecessary email. Sending unnecessary email means you will also receive unnecessary email. Send sparingly and you will receive sparingly.
  20. Exercise. I know it seems counterintuitive, but sometimes the best thing you can do for productivity is to stop trying to be so productive and to spend some time exercising. Productivity is about all of life and requires all of your body and mind. Make sure you make time to get fit and to stay fit.

(If you have read Do More Better, you may recognize this as a bonus chapter from the end of it.)

A Drop in the Bucket
August 28, 2016

I love words. I love language. I love the Bible. I especially love it when these 3 friends meet. This happens often because the Bible—the King James Bible—played such a pivotal role in the development of English. Over the next little while I’m going to take a few Sundays to discuss some common English idioms that have their origin in the Bible. (Do I need to define idiom first? An idiom is an expression that has a meaning unrelated to the actual words that comprise it.)

The Expression

A drop in the bucket, sometimes alternately rendered as a drop in the ocean, is “an insufficient or inconsequential amount in comparison with what is required.” A bucket (or an ocean) contains so many drops that the addition of one more makes no meaningful difference. So if a charity is fundraising for a new building and that building is going to cost $2 million, we might say that a $2 donation is a drop in the bucket—it is inconsequential when compared to the need. So when Italy sued Volkswagen for malfeasance after they lied about their cars’ emissions, the media reported that the $5.5 million fine was merely a drop in the bucket as it represented just 0.037 percent of the American settlement.

The Origin

This phrase originates in Isaiah 40:15 and follows soon after some of the best-known words in all of Isaiah’s long prophecy—words you will recognize from the ministry of John the Baptist and, of course, from Handel’s Messiah:

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah goes on to bring further comfort to God’s people by assuring them that God has not forgotten them, but will come to their rescue and tend to them. And then he says this:

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;

God’s people may have felt intimidated by the mighty nations around them, but in the eyes of God, those nations were like a drop from a bucket. Notice that the original expression is “drop from a bucket” where we tend to say “drop in a bucket.” Apparently God’s concern was the loss of a drop rather than the gain of a drop, though this makes no difference to the meaning. The ESV Study Bible interprets the verse succinctly: “The nations of mankind may seem insurmountable to Israel, but they are as nothing to God.” John Oswalt says the passage implies this question: “What are the nations—so impressive in their glory, and earthshaking in their power? They are the drop of water falling back into the cistern as the bucket is pulled up, the speck of dust on the pan of the balance scales that does not even cause the scales to flutter. Both are ephemeral and neither is cause for a moment’s notice.”

The Application

We tend to use the expression “drop in a bucket” when we feel that our contribution is too small to make a difference—or perhaps, worse, when we feel that another person’s contribution is too small to make a difference. In this way it is an expression of hopelessness or pessimism. But in the hands of an almighty God, no contribution is meaningless—none is too big, none is too small. He is not bound by the limits of what we can offer. God is far more concerned with the state of our hearts than the magnitude of our contributions. See Mark 12:41-44.

When we use the expression in a way consistent with its origin we see that it is not meant to make us consider ourselves but our God. God’s people were so significant in his eyes that he comforted them with this declaration of power: Those other nations are like a drop from a bucket. No matter how difficult or intimidating the circumstances we face, they are but a drop from a bucket in the eyes of a sovereign God. They are but that minuscule drop that falls from the bucket and trickles back to the bottom of the well.

Finally, there is great comfort to be found in the context of the verse, and perhaps especially in the verses that immediately precede it (12-14):

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD,
or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?

Perhaps you would do well to sing these words:

(This is a very nice, moody, alternate version of the song.)

5 Life Lessons From An Olympic Gold Medalist
August 27, 2016

Of all the people you’ve ever seen preach in a Speedo, David Boudia must be the most eloquent. A world-class diver who, after Rio, now has 4 Olympic medals to his name, he often stands with reporters after competitions and does all he can to deflect attention away from himself and toward Jesus. He usually does this by telling how his identity is not wrapped up in being an Olympian or a medalist but in being in Christ Jesus. Just before the 2016 Olympics he released his biography Greater Than Gold. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and wanted to share the 5 big life lessons he communicates.

Don’t live by how you feel, but by what you know to be true. Our hearts and minds deceive us by telling us that we should trust ourselves—our wisdom, our feelings, our instincts—rather than trusting what God says through the Bible. But this is a sure path to pain. “Your old self (before Christ) would live by how you felt. But if you’ve been made new in Christ, you don’t have to live that way. You are free from that bondage.” Pointing to Galatians 2:20 (“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”), he explains that the culture around us teaches us to live by our emotions, to assume that a good life requires pursuing whatever feels good. But this is a lie. What is true is that this kind of good life delivers momentary satisfaction while leading ultimately to heartache and despair.

Take your thoughts captive. Sin is the great enemy of the soul and while it eventually expresses itself externally, it always begins internally. As Christians we need to take our thoughts captive so we can take our actions captive. “As followers of Christ, we are called to battle [sin] valiantly and vigorously. Don’t be passive in the war against sin and resign yourself to the fact that you have no control over your thoughts. You do! God provides grace and will help you in the fight. Our obedience to Christ must be marked not just by how we act externally but by how we think inwardly. You don’t have to give in to sinful thoughts. Take them captive to obey Christ.” Here he points to 2 Corinthians 10:5 which is one of his favorite verses and one he often recites to himself in important moments: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Be process oriented, not results oriented. Of all his life lessons, this is the one drawn most directly from his diving. As he was learning to master his craft, he had to learn the importance of prioritizing process over results. A focus on results may lead to pragmatism, but a focus on process leads naturally to all-around excellence. “So many times in our lives, results are out of our hands and we are dependent on things we can’t control for the outcomes we desire. Learning instead to focus on the process, the journey itself, allows us to focus our energies more on the things we can control. That, in turn, leads to greater fulfillment and more enjoyment as we go through life leaving our ultimate path in the Lord’s hands,” just like it says in Psalm 37:5: “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.”

Put your hope in the right place. Much of Boudia’s story recounts times he was looking for satisfaction in all the wrong things, and especially in Olympic glory. It was only when he found Christ that he found the right place for his hope. “I tried my utmost to find lasting satisfaction and joy in things that were never designed to provide them—in the creation rather than the Creator. I thought the Olympics and a gold medal were a surefire way for me to be happy for life. The result? Destruction, despair, and disillusionment. Fame is fleeting. Riches can vanish in an instant. Pursuing such temporary pleasures may provide some momentary joy, but not joy in its fullest as God designed his people to have it. True joy on earth and eternal joy in heaven are found only in a relationship with Jesus Christ.” Here he points to Titus 3:1–7, one of the New Testament’s great “but” passages where Paul describes who Christians once were and how they once lived before telling of the transformation they’ve undergone since salvation. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared…”

All I have is Christ. The final lesson is the one that summarizes all the others—his utter dependence upon Christ. He has come to rely fully on Christ for his hope but also for his joy, for his identity, for his worth, for his life, for his future. “You can take the gold medal away from me. You can take my health and my career. You can take my particular church. And as much as I love them, you can take my friends and my family. If all I have is Jesus, then Jesus is enough. It’s a scary thought, yes, but true. He is worth every sacrifice you may have to make. He is worth every struggle in this life you may have. The Bible says that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). He is my only hope, and he is your only hope.”

Greater Than Gold is an interesting, meaty, and encouraging read. It’s one you may well enjoy.

How Petra Rocked My Soul
August 26, 2016

When I was a teen, I didn’t know much about Christian rock music, but I did know that it was for losers. Big losers. Big losers who were probably barely Christian at all. Those sad, sorry people listened to those sad, sorry bands playing their silly, shallow little ditties. But not me. No way.

My best friend became a loser right around age 14. I had hopped a Greyhound from Hamilton to the far side of Toronto to spend a weekend with Paul. We sat down to do what boys that age do—probably something destructive—and he popped a new tape into his stereo. “These guys are Christians.” I scoffed. “They’re called Petra. The album is Beyond Belief.” I laughed. What a weakling. It really was beyond belief. He and I used to listen to Duran Duran together. Bon Jovi. Guns N’ Roses. And now we were going to listen to this tripe? Come on. Plus they can’t actually be Christians. Not good Christians, anyway. They play electric guitar! They’ve got long hair, for pity’s sake!

Beyond BeliefI endured it for the weekend, though I’m sure I griped and complained all the while. Or maybe I played along—I don’t exactly remember. But I do remember that moments before I left for home I scrounged up a blank tape and copied just one song—just one song to take home to my friends so we could laugh together. I ended up with the first song on the second side: “Underground.” Then I went home.

Sure enough, I played it for my friends and we laughed. After all, we were Reformed and baptized and catechized—we didn’t need Christian rock. Christian rock was for Arminians or Pentecostals or Baptists—weaklings all of them. It certainly wasn’t for the likes of us.

I played it for some more friends. I played it for my family. I kept playing it until I realized I was playing it for me. This song was saying something to me. At some point I had started to hear the lyrics—to really hear them. I realized “Underground” was a song about professing Christ instead of denying him, of being bold instead of intimidated. That was strong, not weak. Was I willing to stand for Christ? Or was I a weakling? Uh oh.

“Mom! Can you take me to the Christian bookstore?”

I bought the album and listened to the rest of the songs. It started with “Armed and Dangerous,” a song about relying upon God, then went to “I Am on the Rock,” a proclamation of confidence in God. “Creed” was simply The Apostle’s Creed set to music, “Beyond Belief” was about current and future hope, while “Love” was an adaptation of 1 Corinthians 13. And that was just side 1. I listened to it until I wore it out. I listened to it on my ghetto blaster, in my parent’s minivan, on my awesome walkman—whenever and wherever I could. I listened until I knew every one of John’s words, every one of Louie’s beats, every one of Bob’s solos.

I listened until I became a Christian.* Late one night I caught a glimpse of the ugly depravity of my heart side by side with the heart-stopping holiness of God. (A night, as it happens, when I was also reading a Frank Peretti book, but that’s a story for another day.) I was undone. I was redone. I was reborn. All of that parenting and Bible-reading and sermonizing and catechizing had done its work in me, but somehow it was just waiting for one more thing—for news of the warm and personal relationship with God that Petra kept singing about. It was as if their music was saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know you’ve memorized the catechism, I know you go to church, I know you read your Bible. That’s all great. Way to go! But do you know Christ? Do you love him? Will you live for him?” I realized that I didn’t really know him, that I didn’t really love him. I resolved that I would live for him. I resolved to God and the four walls that I would live for him for the rest of my days. And on that night I began a whole new life. Petra had rocked me out of my self-sufficiency, out of my complacency, out of my depravity. Petra had rocked my soul.

*Or maybe I already was a Christian but it was here I determined that I would take my faith seriously and live like a Christian—I’ve never been too clear on that. I do intend to ask the Lord some day.

Petra fans: Remember this epic video for “Beyond Belief?” It was, of course, excerpted from the hour-long movie they created. Also, you purists, don’t bug me about using the “Petra Praise” photo for this article instead of the “Beyond Belief” photo. It proved remarkably difficult to find big, reasonable-quality photos from so long ago. Here, just watch this video of the 2015 “Beyond Belief” reunion and leave me alone.

The Bestsellers
August 25, 2016

I do believe that today’s entry in this series I’ve called “The Bestsellers” will be the final one for a time. “The Bestsellers,” as you know, takes a brief look at Christian books that have sold at least 1 million copies. I have now written about the majority of the books that fit the criteria and intend to circle back as more titles make the list. But before this hiatus, I want to provide an overview of one of the books that is conspicuous by its absence. After all, it is one of the very few that has exceeded not just 1 million copies sold, but 10 million (a feat matched by only 6 others, all of which I’ve covered in this series: The Purpose Driven Life, The Prayer of Jabez, The Shack, Heaven Is For Real, Jesus Calling, and The Five Love Languages). It is Josh McDowell’s apologetic classic More Than a Carpenter.

More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell

Joslin McDowell was born in Union City, Michigan in 1939. He had a turbulent, traumatic, and abusive childhood and departed for college a convinced agnostic. However, he was soon challenged with Christianity’s claims and, as he examined them, became convinced of the reliability and truthfulness of the Christian faith. He professed faith in Jesus Christ. While he had planned to go to law school, his conversion reoriented his life, and he attended Wheaton College and then Talbot Theological Seminary, finishing with a Master of Divinity degree.

More Than a CarpenterIn 1961 McDowell joined the Campus Crusade team but soon began his own Josh McDowell Ministry as a ministry under Campus Crusade. Before long he was traveling the world as an apologist, speaking primarily to college students. In 1972 he published his first book Evidence that Demands a Verdict (which would sell over 1 million copies and which Christianity Today would later place 13th in their list of “The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals.”). In it he made a case for the Christian faith by accumulating evidence based on manuscripts, fulfillment of prophecy, evidence of the resurrection, and so on. He followed it in 1977 with More Than A Carpenter.

Part biography and part apologetic, More Than a Carpenter begins and ends with McDowell’s own story of going from skepticism to faith. The table of contents lays out his evangelistic technique while also displaying a classically modern approach to addressing questions of the faith: 1) My Story 2) What Makes Jesus So Different? 3) Lord, Liar, or Lunatic? 4) What About Science? 5) Are the Bible Records Reliable? 6) Who Would Die For a Lie? 7) What Good Is a Dead Messiah? 8) Did You Hear What Happened to Saul? 9) Can You Keep a Good Man Down? 10) Will the Real Messiah Please Stand Up? 11) Isn’t There Some Other Way? 12) He Changed My Life. The book is short at just 128 pages and carefully prepared to appeal to a wide and general audience. It is just the kind of book many Christians eagerly handed their skeptical or unbelieving friends in the hope they would read it and be convinced.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Like Evidence That Demands a Verdict before it, More Than a Carpenter, was an immediate and long-lasting success. Unfortunately, its release predates the time when the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association was maintaining records, so all I have learned about sales is that in 2013 it was awarded the Diamond Book Award for exceeding 10 million copies sold. The cover of the most recent (third) edition says it has now sold more than 15 million copies while McDowell’s website claims that 30 million copies have been distributed. I take that to mean that many copies have been given away freely.

More Than a Carpenter is a classically modernist approach to apologetics and it is clear that it played a significant role in its time. Many people were persuaded by its arguments and count the book as one of the reasons they professed faith in Christ. It raised McDowell’s status in the Christian world and gave him the opportunity to travel widely and speak to millions, pleading with them to answer the simple question, “Who is Jesus?” In its success it played a key role in popularizing what is known as the “classical” or “evidentialist” approach to apologetics. It was also just the kind of work that postmodern Christians and opponents of Christianity loved to hate, mocking it for laying out so straightforward a path from evidence to profession.

The book underwent a significant revision in 2009 when, joined by his son Sean, McDowell updated some content to reflect questions raised by the New Atheists. It currently has 540 reviews on Amazon where it averages 4.5 stars.

Since the Award

McDowell continues to write and continues to focus on apologetics as indicated by the titles of some of his most recent works: Evidence for the Resurrection (2009), The Unshakable Truth (2010), and Evidence for the Historical Jesus (2011). Sean, also a graduate of Talbot and later of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, appears to be following in his father’s footsteps in many ways and has joined him in several key writing projects.

Sean and Josh McDowell

A Personal Perspective

I first encountered McDowell through Christian music. In the 80s and 90s he was often associated with Christian acts, sometimes traveling with them to deliver a mid-concert devotional. His Why Wait? campaign (based on his 1987 book by the same title) was popularized by his association with a selection of Christian bands. In this video, for example, he introduces a song by Petra (always and forever my favorite band of the era):

At least in my life, that was how I encountered him and how I still know him—as the guy in the sweater who gets to hang out with the greatest Christian bands in the greatest (or was it the worst?) era of Christian music.