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Tim Challies

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culture

3 years 10 months ago
Last week I posted a review of The Death of the Grown-Up by Diana West, a book that takes a hard look at our cultural obsession with immaturity. That review garnered quite a bit of attention, so I thought it might be interesting to go into the archives and pull out a review of another book I read some time ago, one with a fair bit of overlap—Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax. It takes a look at what may well be some of the background to some of this immaturity.

Something strange is going on with boys today. My memories of boyhood revolve around the great outdoors—running through fields with hockey stick guns, climbing trees, playing any and every sport, getting sunburns, heatstroke, ticks, sprained ankles and all the other bumps and bruises guaranteed to come to an active, rambunctious boy. Though today I live in a neighborhood filled with boys, rarely do I see them out and about; rarely do I see them engaging in the activities we’d expect of them. Something has changed. So many boys are inactive and unmotivated.

The changes go deeper than just the activities of young boys. “Fully one-third of men ages 22-34 are still living at home with their parents—about a 100 percent increase in the past twenty years. Boys nationwide are increasingly dropping out of school; fewer are going to college; and for the first time in American history, women are outnumbering men at undergraduate institutions three to two.” This lack of activity or lack of motivation seems to continue through life. Parents, educators and doctors are concerned.

Leonard Sax is a family physician and a research psychologist who has witnessed this change. He has seen it in a close and personal way through his busy medical practice. In his book Boys Adrift Dr. Sax offers his explanation as to why boys and men are failing in school and at home.

He narrows in on five factors: changes in educational models; video games; medications for ADHD; endocrine disruptors; and a lack of good role models. Schools, he says, have begun to focus on academics at too early an age, leaving boys hating education from their earliest days. Programs that focus more on fun and less on academics up to age seven or eight would reap educational dividends. Important also is the distinction between learning as merely collecting facts and learning as experience. Regarding video games he believes that boys today are dedicating far too much time to this form of entertainment. As boys play these games they gain false perceptions of power and inadvertently remove themselves from reality until eventually they prefer the world of video games over the real world. ADHD is vastly over-diagnosed and huge numbers of boys are given medications they simply do not need. These medications have been proven to change the way boys develop and do far more than simply calm down hyperactive children. Endocrine disruptors, and especially artificial estrogens found in plastic bottles and other similar products, are delaying boys’ development (while accelerating girls’ development) and contributing to many associated problems. And finally, boys are suffering from a distinct lack of good and manly role models, both in their homes and in their communities. Each of these five areas receives a chapter-length treatment and in each case the arguments are convincing. Yet the book does not end with only this list of problems, but with the author’s attempts to suggest solutions.

While Dr. Sax does not claim to be a Christian, he shares many things that could easily have their roots in the Bible. For example, in discussing problems with discipline he writes, “Thirty years ago, if a boy cursed his parents and spit at his teacher, the neighbors might say that the boy was a disobedient brat who needed a good spanking. Today, the same behavior from a similar boy might well prompt a trip to the pediatrician or the child psychiatrist. And the doctor is likely to ‘diagnose’ the boy with Conduct Disorder (DSM-IV 312.82) or Oppositional-Defiant Disorder (DSM-IV 313.81). The main criterion for both these ‘disorders’ is disobedient and disrespectful behavior that persists despite parental efforts.’ Is there really much of a difference between a neighbor saying ‘That boy is a disobedient brat,’ and a doctor saying ‘That boy has oppositional-defiant disorder’? I think there is. If another parent whom you trust and respect suggests that your son is a disobedient brat who needs stricter discipline, you just might consider adopting a tougher parenting.” In a similar vein, he writes about problems inherent in making behavioral issues into medical issues. “You can see how the assignment of responsibility differs in these two cases. If your son is a disobedient brat, then your son and you (his parents) have to take responsibility. You have to own up to the problem. You will probably have to make some changes. But if your son has a psychiatric diagnosis, that means he has a chemical imbalance in his brain. He—and you—are no more to blame for that imbalance than if your son were diagnosed with childhood leukemia, right? Psychiatrist Jennifer Harris recently pointed out that today, ‘many clinicians find it easier to tell parents their child has a brain-based disorder than to suggest parenting changes.’”

While Christian readers may find it a bit difficult to read about Dr. Sax’s comparisons between humans and their “primate cousins,” this is one of the book’s few missteps. It is well-researched and thoroughly convincing. Though some of the five concerns Sax lays out may be more important or urgent than others, and while there are many boys for whom only a few of the five will apply, I believe any parent will benefit from reading this book. The lessons he shares are applicable to children who are in public or Christian schools as much as to children who are homeschooled. Al Mohler once called Boys Adrift “essential reading” for parents and I am inclined to agree. If you are a parent blessed with boys or if you are a young man yourself, buy this book and read it. You won’t be sorry you did.

Before I close out, let me share just a couple of other interesting quotes from this book:

Forty years ago, even thirty years ago, there was no shame in a young man choosing a career in the trades. Beginning in the early 1980s-and particularly after publication of the Nation at Risk report in 1983-a consensus grew in the United States that every young person should go to college, regardless. “Vocational education” lost whatever prestige it had, and came to be viewed in some quarters very nearly as a dumping ground for the mildly retarded.”

Traditionally, one of the factors driving Western society has been the fact that women prefer successful, affluent men over men who are less successful. Because men understood that women would be reluctant to marry men who couldn’t comfortably support a wife and children, men were motivated to be successful. That simple mechanism has suffered a double whammy in the past forty years. First, sex has been divorced from marriage. Second-and here’s what’s really disturbing to those of us in the over-thirty crowd-sexual satisfaction has been divorced from women altogether.”

3 years 11 months ago
Where have all the grown-ups gone? It’s a question that has perplexed me. Why is it that young people these days seem unwilling, or perhaps unable, to grow up? What is so attractive about youth, about perpetual adolescence, that is so attractive? My wife and I have discussed these things at length, trying to understand why so many of the young people we know (young people who are really not so young anymore) seem stuck. They are working on second or third college degrees; they are living at home with mom and dad, even into their thirties; they are looking at marriage only in their late twenties or early thirties. What is happening? When I was young I could hardly wait to pass through my teenage years so I could live life as an adult and in so doing I think I followed generations before me. What has happened since?

Diana West has asked the same questions and The Death of the Grown-Up is her attempt at an answer. A book that has generated no small response, it concludes that America is suffering from a case of arrested development and that this will, this must, bring down Western civilization. This is no small claim. Neither is it a popular one (as evidenced by a near 50/50 split in Amazon reviews between 1-star and 5-star reviews). But it is one West manages to legitimize.

It seems that one of the driving forces behind the death of the grown-up was the rise of the teenager. Before the 1940’s, the term teenager was unknown; before this period humans tended to fall into only two groups—children and adults. Exactly when a child transitioned to adult could vary, but what was clear was that there was no intermediate period. Furthermore, children, or those in their teen years, would seek to identify with adult culture—they would seek to behave like adults, to dress like adults, and to be taken seriously like adults. Today the tables have turned. “That was then. These days, of course, father and son dress more or less alike, from message-emblazoned t-shirts to chunky athletic shoes, both equally at ease in the baggy rumple of eternal summer camp. In the mature male, these trappings of adolescence have become more than a matter of comfort or style; they reveal a state of mind, a reflection of a personality that hasn’t fully developed, and doesn’t want to - or worse, doesn’t know how.”

It is teenagers who are respected and teenagers who are envied. Adults now seek to recapture youth and to return to their teen years. They dress like teens, think like teens and increasingly act like teens. This intermediate period between childhood and adulthood, this recent development, is being continually extended. Some organizations today go so far as to suggest that adolescence continues until age thirty. Some go further and suggest thirty-four. Thus a thirty-three year old man or woman should not truly be considered an adult. Any other generation would laugh at the mere suggestion.

After the idea of adolescence became popular, it took only a generation before popular culture, and particularly the medium of television, began to portray age as “square” and youth as “hip.” The dignity of age was replaced with disgust. Where children used to orbit around their parents, today the opposite is true. Parents orbit around their children, “abdicating their rights and privileges by deferring to the convenience and entertainment of the young.” No wonder, then, that people wish to avoid adulthood.

There are consequences to our disregard for maturity. “Even as age has been eliminated from the aging process, they have a hunch that society has stamped out more than gray hair, smile lines, and cellulite. What has also disappeared is an appreciation for what goes along with maturity: forbearance and honor, patience and responsibility, perspective and wisdom, sobriety, decorum, and manners—and the wisdom to know what is ‘appropriate,’ and when.”

Having laid a foundation for the death of the grown-up, West surveys a variety of topics, showing how they are contributing to the downfall of society or how they played a role in the rise of the adolescent. She looks to popular music and entertainment, to parents who need parents, and to a society that values excess rather than control. And then the book takes an unexpected turn. As she moves from the past to the future, West suggests why this matters so much; she turns to the consequences of the death of adulthood and the death of maturity. Focusing on the ideas of multiculturalism and political correctness, cultural forces she believes could only be accepted by an immature society that is willing to pretend that differences are non-existent and unimportant, she suggests that these leave us entirely unequipped to deal with the forces seeking to destroy us. And here she points primary to Islam and to terrorism. She writes about how our immature thinking leaves us unable to grapple with the reality of what we are facing in global Islam. Our society sits passively by, anaesthetized with movies, music, television and video games, while Islam plants deeper and deeper roots within.

The Death of the Grown-Up is a compelling book. While it is certainly not the only book examining the growth of adolescence, it is perhaps the most far-reaching and the most courageous in its analysis of where this will and must lead. If West is correct, our society needs to grow up and needs to do so before it is too late. Yet whether or not you find you agree with her prescription, only a person blind to the culture could disagree with her initial analysis. And on this basis alone this book is worth reading and enjoying. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in understanding the culture we find ourselves in.

4 years 1 month ago
Home. I love home. I love my home and I love the very idea, the concept, of home. God is good to give us home, to give us a place where we can just be, a place where we can center our lives. Think about your home, think about how good it is to have a place of your own, a place where you have your stuff and your people and where you live your life, and you’ll realize what a calling it was for Christ to have no home, to have no place to call his own.

We look at home today, we look at private life, and tend to assume that things have always been as they are now. And yet this is not the case. The home and the private life have developed over time, slowly evolving into what they are today and slowly evolving toward what they will be tomorrow. Home and private life are the twin subjects of Bill Bryson’s new book: At Home: A Short History Of Private Life.

Bryson recently purchased an old Norfolk Church of England rectory as his home and it provides the starting point for his investigations. “Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two. Why not pepper and cardamom, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five?” Those mundane observations and the questions they generated got him started in his quest to understand home. And somehow he makes home, the most mundane place in our lives, utterly fascinating.

If you had to summarize it in a sentence, you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly.” Do you enjoy your home and all its comforts? That’s because we humans have been working tirelessly for all these millennia to make home a place of comfort. Slowly, slowly we have gotten to the point we are at today.

To add structure to the book, Bryson walks through his home, room by room, and allows each room to be the subject of a chapter. Along the way Bryson offers all kinds of fantastic wanderings, meanderings and observations so that each room really is only a starting place. I am sure there are some who get frustrated by all of the author’s wanderings. You’ll have to learn to embrace them because they really are the point of the book. Embrace them, and you’ll come to love them.

Consider this, something he observes while investigating the history of the bedroom.

Your bed alone, if it is averagely clean, averagely old, averagely dimensioned, and turned averagely often (which is to say almost never) is likely to be home to some two million tiny bed mites, too small to be seen with the naked eye but unquestionably there. It has been calculated that if your pillow is six years old (which is the average age for a pillow), one-tenth of its weight will be made up of sloughed skin, living and dead mites, and mite dung—or frass, as it is known to entomologists.

Or how about stairs? Ever paused to think about stairs—how they came to be, and what kind of effect they have on us?

Everybody trips on stairs at some time or other. It has been calculated that you are likely to miss a step once in every 2,222 occasions you use stairs, suffer a minor accident once in every 63,000 uses, suffer a painful accident once in every 734,000, and need hospital attention once every 3,616,667 uses.

He often traces the history of words that we use all the time but think about seldom. Like toilet. Why on earth is toilet water something you daub on your face and something swirling around the bowl and carrying away your waste?

Perhaps no other word in English has undergone more transformations in its lifetime than toilet. Originally, in about 1540, it was a kind of cloth, a diminutive form of toile, a word still used to describe a type of linen. Then it became a cloth for use on dressing tables. Then it became the items on the dressing table (whence toiletries). Then it became the dressing table itself, then the act of dressing, then the act of receiving visitors while dressing, then the dressing room itself, then any kind of private room near a bedroom, then a room used lavatorially, and finally the lavatory itself. Which explains why toilet water in English can describe something you would gladly daub on your face or, simultaneously and more basically, water in a toilet.

He often relies on a subtle sense of humor that often got me laughing out loud. Like here, as he discusses wine:

But it is thanks to American roots that French wines still exist. It is impossible to say whether wines are worse now than they were before. Most authorities think not, but such a desperate remedy is bound to nurture lingering doubts among those who are inclined to have them. What is certainly true is that surviving pre-phylloxera wines have attracted a cachet that has led people to part with a good deal of their money and much of their common sense in a quest to possess something so deliciously irreplaceable. In 1985, Malcolm Forbes, the American publisher, paid $156,450 for a bottle of Château Lafite 1787. This made it much too valuable to drink, so he put it on display in a special glass case. Unfortunately, the spotlights that artfully lit the precious bottle caused the ancient cork to shrink and it fell with a $156,450 splash into the bottle. Even worse was the fate of an eighteenth-century Château Margaux reputed to have once been owned by Thomas Jefferson and valued, very precisely, at $519,750. While showing off his acquisition at a New York restaurant in 1989, William Sokolin, a wine merchant, accidentally knocked the bottle against the side of a serving cart and it broke, in an instant converting the world’s most expensive bottle of wine into the world’s most expensive carpet stain. The restaurant manager dipped a finger in the wine and declared that it was no longer drinkable anyway.

Or like here, when he discusses hygiene (and seriously, be grateful that we live in an age of good hygiene)!

As people adjusted to the idea that they might safely get wet from time to time, long-standing theories about personal hygiene were abruptly reversed. Now instead of it being bad to have pink skin and open pores, the belief took hold that the skin was in fact a marvelous ventilator—that carbon dioxide and other toxic inhalations were expelled through the skin, and that if pores were blocked by dust and other ancient accretions natural toxins would become trapped within and would dangerously accumulate. That’s why dirty people—the Great Unwashed of Thackeray—were so often sick. Their clogged pores were killing them. In one graphic demonstration, a doctor showed how a horse, painted all over in tar, grew swiftly enfeebled and piteously expired. (In fact, the problem for the horse wasn’t respiration but temperature regulation, though the point was, from the horse’s perspective, obviously academic.)

I could go on and on. This book may not change your life, but I am sure you’ll find yourself enjoying it a lot—and hopefully as much as I did. It isn’t quite light reading, but it also isn’t at all heavy. It’s just the kind of book you’ll love to read while sitting through a long flight or while crashing on the couch on a Saturday afternoon.

Really my only complaints with the book are these: Bryson uses the word agreeable a few too many times and he writes (not surprisingly) from the perspective of one who holds to evolution, something that comes through every now and again. Beyond that, it’s just a good, fun, enjoyable, informative read. Buy it for yourself or get it for a gift. You’ll love it.

4 years 1 month ago

Stephen Hawkings’ The Grand Design has shot straight to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers. The book is his atheistic answer to questions like these ones: Why is there a universe—why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Did the universe need a designer and creator? Edgar Andrews was kind enough to allow me to post his review of the book. Andrews is author of Who Made God?: Searching for a Theory of Everything, Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London and an international expert on the science of large molecules. Which is to say that he is well-suited to write a review of a book like this one. Here is what he says about The Grand Design:

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Cosmologist Stephen Hawking sold over nine million copies of his book A Brief History of Time. Now, 22 years later, he has co-authored The Grand Design which immediately hit the No.1 spot in the New York Times best-seller list. But the sequel is so inferior to the prequel in intellectual quality that a reviewer in The Times Saturday Review (London, 11 September 2010) writes: ‘It reads like a stretched magazine article … there is too much padding and too much recycling of long-stale material… I doubt whether The Grand Design would have been published if Hawking’s name were not on the cover’.

So why is the new book a runaway best-seller? Because it claims that science makes God redundant. Let’s take a closer look at the claims advanced in The Grand Design.

Philosophical skulduggery

The introduction asserts that ‘Philosophy is dead’ (p.5) and science alone can provide ‘New answers to the ultimate questions of life’ (the book’s hubristic sub-title). But the authors then produce their own brand of humanistic philosophy, christen it ‘science’ and base their book upon it.

They say; ‘this book is rooted in the concept of scientific determinism which implies … that there are no miracles, or exceptions to the laws of nature’. But ‘scientific determinism’ is simply the philosophical assumption that the laws control all events. I argue precisely the opposite in chapter 11 of my own book Who made God? (WMG in further references).

Again, in chapter 3, They maintain that ‘reality’ is a construct of our minds — implying that there is no such thing as objective reality (Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley had the same idea in 1710 but he wasn’t widely believed). They conclude that ‘there is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality’ and propose what they call ‘model dependent realism’ as a ‘frame-work with which to interpret modern science’ (pp. 42-43). Clearly, an interpretive framework for science cannot be science but belongs in a different category altogether, namely, philosophy.

Since the mental models we construct ‘are the only reality we can know … It follows then that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own’ (p.172). The problem with this, of course, is that it undermines the very concept of reality. Hawking’s ‘reality’ excludes God while my ‘reality’ majors upon God. These two ‘realities’ are mutually exclusive but both (according to Hawking) are equally ‘real’. This is postmodernism by the back door and it is wholly inimical to science, which depends on there being a genuine reality to investigate.

Determinism

The authors also embrace another philosophy, namely, scientific determinism. ‘Though we feel we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets’ (pp.31-32). So we are mindless automatons and everything we do or think is predetermined.

The reality is, of course, that biological processes are overwhelmingly ‘governed’ not by physics and chemistry but by structured information, stored on DNA and expressed through the genetic code. It is information which controls the physics and chemistry of the living cell, not the other way round.

Furthermore, if our minds are simply by-products of molecular processes in the brain, then all our thoughts are meaningless including the authors’ own theories. Thinking atheists such as Bertrand Russell and J. B. S. Haldane long ago recognised and admitted this dilemma explicitly (WMG chapter 16) but Hawking and Mlodinow seem oblivious to it.

Chapter 4 is devoted to explaining the ‘many histories’ formulation of quantum theory proposed by Richard Feynman. This is well done except that by ignoring other formulations of quantum theory the authors give the false impression that Feynman’s is the only valid approach. This is tendentious because they need Feynman’s idea as a springboard for their own multiverse hypothesis. To admit that ‘many histories’ is just one of several equally valid formulations of quantum mechanics would weaken their argument considerably.

Mighty M-theory

Chapter 5 surveys the development of physics during the past 200 years, including general relativity (which describes the large-scale behaviour of the universe) and quantum mechanics (which describes its microscopic behaviour). Although containing nothing new, this is by far the best part of this book.

The chapter concludes, however, with comments on M-theory that rang alarm bells (p.118). In the book’s opening chapter, M-theory is no more than ‘a candidate for the ultimate theory of everything, if indeed one exists’, and is ‘not a theory in the usual sense’ but ‘may offer answers to the question of creation’. Physicist Lee Smolin is doubtful: ‘… we still do not know what M-theory is, or whether there is any theory deserving of the name’ (The Trouble with Physics, Allen Lane 2007, p.146). Indeed, on p.117 the authors themselves admit that ‘people are still trying to decipher the nature of M-theory, but that may not be possible’.

But suddenly on p.118 this intractable mathematical model is somehow transformed into a theory so powerful that its laws are ‘more fundamental’ than the laws of nature and ‘allow’ for ‘different universes with different apparent laws’. This is a huge leap of atheistic faith.

Witches brew

The final three chapters rapidly descend into a witches brew of speculation and misinformation, confusingly blended with normal science. It certainly gave me a mental hangover — and I am no stranger to the territory. It is difficult to discern where science ends and speculation begins, but the key reasoning seem to be as follows.

1. The ‘big bang’ model predicts that the universe began life as such a tiny object that quantum theory must be applied to its origin (p.131). But hold on a moment! Quantum theory has only been validated under normal conditions of space, time, pressure, temperature and so on. We cannot know whether it applies to the supposed conditions at the origin of the universe, when space was intensely warped, time was at best fuzzy, and the pressure and temperature both approached infinity. What we do know is that massive objects do not exhibit quantum behaviour. No one can be sure that a new-born universe would obey quantum theory as we know it.

2.  ‘In the early universe all four dimension [of space-time] behave like space’ allowing us to ‘get rid of the problem of time having a beginning’ (pp.134-135). But if time and space were equivalent, and time did not begin, then space didn’t begin either! The universe was still-born. In fact the authors are appealing to the ‘no-boundary’ model described by Hawking 22 years ago in A Brief History of Time but are economical with the truth. The earlier book makes it clear that the model is valid only in imaginary time, not in real time (see WMG p.121). But here this caveat vanishes and imaginary time is misrepresented as real time.

The narrative then descends into farce. They claim that ‘the realisation that time behaves like space … means that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and doesn’t need to be set in motion by some god’ (p.135). So apparently the universe did ‘begin’ after all, but not in time. Confused? Me too.

3. Picturing the early universe as a quantum particle (something they themselves describe as ‘tricky’) the authors consider how it might evolve from point (state) A to point (state) B by applying Feynman’s sum-over-histories method thus:

‘[Since we are considering the beginning of the universe] there is no point A, so we add up all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition and end at the universe we observe today. In this view the universe appears spontaneously, starting off in every possible way. Most of these correspond to other universes.’

But by saying that point A does not exist they assume that the universe springs into existence somewhere between nothing (point A) and the present universe (point B). This tells us nothing about how or why the universe began; simply that it did begin. We knew that already.

4. Finally, p.180 does offer an explanation of spontaneous creation. The conservation of energy means that universes can only be created from nothing if their net energy is zero, with negative gravitational energy balancing out the positive energy of matter and radiation. This necessitates that a law of gravity must exist. Because a law of gravity exists it must and will of itself create universes out of nothing (no reasoning given).

So gravity is God. Unfortunately the authors have no time to tell us who created gravity (earlier they rule out God because no one could explain who created him). Nor can they tell us why matter and gravity should pop out of nothing, except to argue that ‘nothing’ undergoes quantum fluctuations. However, this requires that (like gravity) the laws of quantum mechanics pre-existed the universe and that ‘nothing’ possesses the properties of normal space, which is part of the created order and cannot be its antecedent.

A grand design? Only in the sense that this book is grandly designed to bamboozle the unwary and cloak atheistic philosophy in the garb of science. Fortunately, the clothes don’t fit.

4 years 5 months ago
If ever there was a book destined to see a lot of negative reviews it has to be Burning Down The Shack. Written by James De Young, professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon, this book takes on the bestselling novel The Shack, telling, according to the subtitle, how “The ‘Christian’ Bestseller is Deceiving Millions.” The Shack has a huge community of devoted fans and many of them will be distressed to see this book, and especially so if it begins to sell well and gain some kind of prominence.

It seems that I should begin this article by reviewing the facts of The Shack. But surely you know them already. The Shack has sold millions and millions of copies, has been translated into a host of languages and has remained on the besteller lists for over 100 weeks; it was self-published by an unknown author and an unknown publishing company and had an initial marketing budget of just a few hundred dollars; it is largely a word-of-mouth success that has seen many pastors buy boxes to give away within churches; it is, in short, an absolute phenomenon, the kind of phenomenon that will some day be a case study in a marketing text book.

This would all be well and good if The Shack was a good book. Sadly, though, it is not. Not only is it substandard in its writing, but more distressingly it teaches theology that is at times sub-bibical and at other times fully anti-biblical. Among its predominant themes are the Trinity, the character of God and the nature of good and evil—themes that strike to the very heart of the Christian faith. And in so many ways it is fully opposed to what is true.

James De Young writes from an interesting perspective—that of a former friend, or acquaintance at least, of Paul Young. He begins his book by providing some important but little-known background to The Shack. In April of 2004 De Young attended a Christian think tank and there Young presented a 103-page paper which presented a defense of universal reconciliation, a Christian form of universalism—the view that at some point every person will come to a right relationship with God. If they do not do this before they die, God will use the fires of hell to purge away (not punish, mind you) any unbelief. Eventually even Satan and his fallen angels will be purged of sin and all of creation will be fully and finally restored. This is to say that after death there is a second chance, and more than that, a complete inevitability, that all people will eventually repent and come to full relationship with God. De Young believes that Young’s belief in universal reconciliation is absolutely crucial to anyone who would truly wish to understand The Shack. It is the key that makes sense of the book and the theology it contains. Though far from the only theological problem with the book, it is the one that makes sense of the others.

Needless to say, universal reconciliation is also the theme of De Young’s refutation of The Shack. He seeks to answer big questions such as “What is God like?”, “Why did Jesus Christ die?”, “Does God punish sin?” and “Does mercy triumph over judgment?” Though his questions range far wider than universal reconciliation, in the end most of them lead back to this foundational component of Young’s theology. The author makes it clear that he is not out to attack Young and nowhere does he do this. Instead, he simply seeks to interact with his theology, with what he teaches through his novel. He does this by going through The Shack chapter-by-chapter, showing what Young did well in that portion of the book and then showing from the Bible where he went wrong. It is quite an effective format that refutes and teaches equally well.

While he does all of this, there is a sense in which he inadvertently displays one part of the reason that The Shack has proven so popular. Where Young could use narrative to subtly teach big theological concepts, De Young has to use the theological lexicon. This puts him at an immediate disadvantage. What Young seeks to make so clear through a story, De Young has to make clear through the language of theology. He does this well, but still shows by contrast how powerful narrative can be.

What I can’t quite decide is who the audience is for this book. Burning Down The Shack is 253 pages by the time the reader has finished the appendices and indexes. It is also occasionally heavy, teaching or refuting significant theological concepts. Maybe I am not giving enough credit to those who read and enjoyed The Shack but it seems to me that if you read that novel and took it to be sound theology, you are not too likely to read a 250-page text refuting it. And then there are people like me who read The Shack and were disturbed by it. But we already know The Shack is theologically deceptive, so why would we need to read a book about it? Having said that, the book is currently ranked in Amazon’s top-6000, not a terrible place to be, so I suppose someone must be buying it. I can’t help but think that if it was 100 (or 200) pages shorter it would have a far wider impact. I suspect, though, that it will largely be read by people who already know of the problems with The Shack. That is too bad, really.

Nevertheless, Burning Down The Shack is a solid book and has a lot to commend it. If you are looking for a resource that interacts with The Shack and does so in a way that is more thorough than my review and more discerning than either of the two books titled Finding God in The Shack, this may be just the ticket. Many supporters of The Shack have suggested that it is only Calvinists who dislike the book. I was glad to see that the lone endorsement for Burning Down The Shack is Paige Patterson (certainly no Calvinist) who writes, “[De Young’s] evaluation of the theology and deceit involved in The Shack is on target and critical for today’s world.” Calvinist or not, lover or hater, if you read this book you will benefit from it, I think.

5 years 1 month ago
It is a rare occasion that I find it difficult to point out any redeeming features in a book-when I struggle to find a single positive to write in a review. Unfortunately Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God is one of those books-one that is so monstrously bad, so hopelessly awful, so wretchedly miserable, that it took concerted effort just to finish it. Heck, even the cover stinks-a pile of religiously-significant books hovering at a strange angle over a plain background. I tell you what: I will concede the font. The book is set in Granjon, a very nice, classical font that is very consistent with the earliest Garamond type faces. It is classy and classical but without being antique. But that is as good as the book gets.

I can save you thirty-five bucks and many hours of your life by telling you that 99% of what Armstrong has to say about God and religion she squeezes into the Introduction and the Epilogue, which together take up just 23 of the 340 pages of this book. There she spews forth what she really believes about God and those who seek to follow him. Though she writes about all faiths, she focuses almost exclusively on Christianity. The reader will learn, among other things: that nobody before modern times was foolish enough to believe that the Bible should be read as fact, as if the Creation account has any value beyond a mythological attempt to describe the world’s beginning; that the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture was unknown until the 1870’s when Hodge and Warfield dreamed it up; that Socratic dialogue with atheists would help us understand how we can be more faithful believers in God; that truth is found not by understanding or believing, but by doing; that the purpose of religion is to discover new capacities of mind and heart; that the danger to religion and the danger to the world is not religious adherents, but fundamentalist believers-those who believe in the exclusivity of their faith and who fall into old beliefs such as the infallibility of their scriptures. And that is just a sampling of a mere 23 pages.

The rest of the book is an extended revisionist look at the history of religion in general and the Christian faith in particular. Armstrong seeks to show that the modern Christian God (I hesitate to capitalize God in the way she uses the name) is vastly different from the “unknown” God of pre-modern times. God was once mysterious and unknown, so transcendent, so other that people could not hope to really know who he is or how he acted. But then modernism had to come along and ruin a perfectly good deity by insisting that God could be known, that he even desired to be known. What the author believes we need to do, of course, is return to God as a mystery, to God as an unknowable force who combines the best of all the world religions. Along the way she pauses to offer a few words about nearly every religious leader and every philosopher who ever uttered God’s name. It is absolutely exhausting and, for simplistic old-school fundie Christians like myself, utterly exasperating. With her facts on the basics of the Christian faith so far from the truth and with her obvious bias, I actually found myself reading deliberately trying not to comprehend, not to retain, what she said. After all, having proven herself utterly untrustworthy in the basics, how could I trust her in anything else?

The Case for God, then, is in no way a case for the God of the Bible or, really, for the God of most other faiths. Rather, it is a defense of making the idea of God respectable again, even if it means radically changing what we mean by that name. It is an absolute mess and easily one of the most boring, most obnoxious books I’ve ever read.

5 years 3 months ago
“My name is Warren, and I’m a recovering evangelical.” There are plenty of books today that begin in roughly this way—biographies by Franky Schaeffer and Bart Ehrman come to mind. But Warren Cole Smith is different in that he remains an evangelical, he remains a professed Christian. His recovery from evangelicalism does not involve tossing away the faith, as others have prescribed. His recovery involves reformation, not of the Christian faith but of its evangelical (and largely American) expression. His quarrel with evangelicals is a lover’s quarrel, not a pitched battle. A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church is “intended primarily for Christian believers, particularly those who might generally fit into the category of theologically conservative, evangelical believers. Though much of what follows is highly critical—on both practical grounds and theological grounds—of the current state of the evangelical church, it is criticism aimed to build up, not to tear down.” It is intended as, and proves to be, a constructive quarrel.

This book comes from a man who has been an insider, an evangelical, for several decades. And it comes from a man who loves the church, not one who wants to phase it out or move on to the next thing. He spends the bulk of this book diagnosing problems within evangelicalism saying that once we are able to name a problem, we are equipped to deal with it. He begins by dismantling evangelical myths (bigger is better, being the foremost of these) and then turns to his description of The New Provincialism. This is a term he coined to describe evangelicalism’s obsession with now at the expense of the past and the future. “We act with no regard to consequence,” he says. “Effects admit no cause. The result is that we live in an age of ideology. We can make up any theory we like about how the world operates, and we look for data to support it.” Here he looks to the Great Awakening and compares it to the revivals and revivalism of our day. He looks next to The Triumph of Sentimentality, his way of describing evangelicalism’s alternative and subjective vision of the world. This brings about discussion of Willow Creek and one of its great successes, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church.

Borrowing and adapting a well-worn phrase, Smith dedicates a chapter to The Christian-Industrial Complex, the seedy relationship between the Christian church and the Christian retail industry. Next up, he looks at Body-Count Evangelism, looking to the rise of the parachurch organization and its role in evangelistic techniques that count success with something as potentially meaningless as a signed commitment card. In The Great Stereopticon Smith begins to channel McLuhan and Postman, pointing out the folly of this, the “one fundamental idea of modern evangelicalism that trumps all others… that method, techniques and technology are morally and theologically neutral.” Through these chapters he powerfully points to many of evangelicalism’s most pressing, most immediate problems.

Smith’s response to all of this may seem weak to some, and especially those who have succumbed to the evangelical spirit of the age. This response, though, is firmly rooted in the local church (which is rarely a local megachurch) so is bound to appear weak. How could it be otherwise? Yet with Smith I believe firmly that the local church really is the hope of the world. The local church is God’s Plan A. Perhaps just a little bit ironically, Smith uses Gospel for Asia as his primary example of an organization that is doing things right (though it is a parachurch organization, its work is planting churches). Ultimately, the solution is to plant churches—reproducing churches that gauge success in ways rooted in Scripture. Though the solution may seem to lack the punch of the chapters detailing the problem, I am convinced that Smith is largely right.

Whether or not you are inclined to agree with the proposed solution to these problems, I am convinced that most Christians will agree with most, even if not all, of Smith’s analysis of the problem. And for that alone, it is well worth the read. This book combines some of the best of the likes of Neil Postman, Richard Weaver and David Wells and also carries shades of Os Guinness and Michael Horton (in Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life). It is powerful and convicting and, perhaps best of all, it displays a wide and diverse range of influences; there is something different about it, something that sets it apart from so many Christian books today. I highly recommend it.

Buy it at Monergism BooksBuy it at Monergism Books

5 years 3 months ago
At a time of global economic crisis, in all of the talk of a subset of that crisis, the housing boom and bust, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the cause of that bust is so very simple. “Behind all the esoteric securities and sophisticated financial dealings are simple, monthly mortgage payments from millions of home buyers across the country.” When the housing payments slowed or stopped, sometimes by necessity and sometimes by choice, the boom turned to a bust. Real estate markets that had seen an unparalleled explosion of growth suddenly saw a catastrophic fall. Behind all the talk of stimulus and bailouts and increasing billions and trillions of dollars is normal people unable to make their $1000 or $2000 monthly mortgage payments.

In The Housing Boom and Bust, conservative economist Thomas Sowell looks to the housing bust and asks the simple, bedrock question: Why did so many monthly mortgage payments stop coming? His answer is as simple as it is lucid. The mortgage payments stopped coming in because during the housing boom, a time where interest rates were at historic lows, mortgages had been given to people whose prospects of repaying them were, at best, very poor. While the banks deserve some of the blame, they were in fact forced to hand out risky loans by government policies that imposed arbitrary quotas set by people whose concern was far more political than economic. These people, in the name of affordable housing and under the banner of political correctness, demanded that loans be provided to people who, under normal circumstances, could not afford them. This pressure caused financial institutions to hand increasingly “creative” (read: risky) mortgages to increasingly risky (read: poor) clients. When normal times resumed and interest rates rose, so too did payments. When payments rose, they became unaffordable and millions of people simply walked away, unable or unwilling to cover the new costs. “Why pay a $500,000 mortgage on a $300,000 home?”, they reasoned. Faced with a glut of foreclosures, banks began to offer homes at fire-sale prices, driving down costs across the market. The bubble burst, the banks began to fail and the government began printing vast quantities of money to stimulate the economy and to bail out the banks. The story continues.

In just 148 pages, Sowell explains where this crisis came from and the events that caused it all to come to a head. Along the way he powerfully exposes the cause of rising housing costs and the folly of affordable housing. As he has done repeatedly elsewhere, he exposes the fallacy of racism in lending institutions, showing that much of the blame must be laid at the feet of politicians. “Politicians in Washington set out to solve a national problem that did not exist—a nationwide shortage of ‘affordable housing’—and have now left us with a problem whose existence is as undeniable as it is painful.” Of course Sowell also proposes a way out of the mess and those who know him will not be surprised to learn that he lobbies for laissez-faire, allowing the economy to sort itself out without massive government intervention.

As he looks to the government’s reaction to the crisis, Sowell’s predominant concern is that the government, led by President Obama, will follow the words of chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. … it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.” The government has an almost unparalleled opportunity to use this crisis to “fundamentally and enduringly change the institutions of American society.” Yet the reality is that, for all their flaws, these institutions have had an incredibly successful track record over the past two centuries, this crisis notwithstanding. “What is now being proposed is to jettison all that for the sake of untried theories, because of an economic situation that has arisen in a relatively few years as a result of government interventions with a terrible track record that have led to a crisis that now provides an opportunity for more of the same—in the name of ‘change’.” As the government increases its control over the American economy it essentially buys up the freedom of its people with their own tax dollars.

In The Housing Boom a Bust Sowell provides a plain-English explanation of the economic disaster and one that anyone can read, understand and enjoy. Though the book must have been written in a hurry, it shows none of the usual marks; instead, it is well-written and well-edited. Published just a couple of months ago but dealing with today’s issues, it reads almost like a newspaper or magazine article. If you, like me, have tried and failed to understand the cause of the crisis, this is the place to begin. Sowell is a steady and trustworthy guide.

 

5 years 5 months ago
It is becoming difficult to keep up with the volume of books coming from the pen of Dr. Albert Mohler. In the past eighteen months we have seen five new books and there is still one remaining for later in 2009 (an original work based on a sermon series, slated for release later this year). Atheism Remix began as the W.H. Griffith Thomas Lectures Mohler delivered at Dallas Theological Seminary early in 2008; He Is Not Silent, a book on preaching, is an original work, written as a book; Culture Shift and Desire and Deceit began as articles written over a period of years, most of which were posted at Mohler’s blog. Each of these books speaks to a different subject that is of importance in our cultural context.

Newly added to the mix is The Disappearance of God. Like Culture Shift and Desire and Deceit, this title had its genesis on Dr. Mohler’s blog, though interestingly, this is not acknowledged anywhere within the book. Like the previous titles, it is a series of articles that speak to a common theme—in this case, dangerous beliefs that point to a new spiritual openness.

If you have read Dr. Mohler’s blog, you will know how good these articles are and how applicable they are to living as Christians in this culture. The book begins with what I consider one of Mohler’s most helpful articles, “A Call for Theological Triage.” Here he explains how to contend for the faith and how to understand distinctions between theology of utmost importance and theology of lesser importance. In later chapters he discusses assurance and perseverance, the doctrine of hell, Christian beauty, the emerging church, church discipline, faith in a post-Christian age, and so on. Here are just a few of the questions this book answers: Is God changing His mind about sin? Why is hell off limits for many pastors? What’s good or bad about the “dangerous” emergent movement? Have Christians stopped seeing God as God? Is the social justice movement misguided? Could the role of beauty be critical to our theology? Is liberal faith any less destructive than atheism? Are churches pandering to their members to survive?

By its very nature as a book that began as articles written over a long period of time, the book does not have a great deal of flow and does not offer a real sense of building an argument. It simply compiles articles and essays dealing with the subject matter. Thus those who keep up with Dr. Mohler’s blog will inevitably have a sense of deja vu when they read this book. I stress this because I think it is important that you know what it is you are buying here. Still, these articles (chapters) are worth owning and worth reading again. Reading this material in a book is far superior to reading it online and there is value, I think, in having it in this printed format. I am glad to have it on my shelf rather than being forced to access it only online.

5 years 7 months ago
Nineteen sixty-six saw the publication of a book titled Why Johnny Can’t Read. Its author, Rudolf Flesh, explained in it that societal changes were leading to illiteracy; children were increasingly unable to read, at least with the effectiveness of the children of years gone by. By the 1980’s, Linden and Whimbey had followed with Why Johnny Can’t Write in which they showed the similar societal trends were now keeping Johnny (a generic name used to refer to any child, male or female) from expressing himself in writing. T. David Gordon has self-consciously titled Why Johnny Can’t Preach after these books because he uses it to argue that the same societal trends that kept Johnny from being able to read and write have kept a generation of ministers from being able to preach. Johnny just can’t preach and Gordon just can’t take it anymore.

It is important to the context of this book to realize that, when he wrote it, Gordon believed he had only months to live. He had stage III colorectal cancer and had roughly a 25 percent chance of survival. “Having been concerned about the state of preaching for three decades, I believed that it would be irresponsible to leave the world without expressing my thoughts about the matter, in the hope that better preaching might be the result.” So this book has the air of a missive penned from a dying man and directed to dying men (though, happily, Gordon’s cancer is now in remission). As he says, “The manuscript is, therefore, at a minimum, heartfelt.”

I can think of at least a handful of books that have called contemporary preachers to task for their weak sermons or the unbiblical focus of their ministries. But this is the only one that comes to mind that takes on conservative preachers in conservative churches—the kind of men who preach expository sermons and who have ministries based on verse-by-verse exposition. Says Gordon, “I don’t intend to throw stones at others; it is the conservative evangelical churches and conservative Reformed churches with which I am primarily acquainted.” This is a look inward, then, and not a look outward.

The reason men cannot preach today, says Gordon, owes not to a lack of caring or a lack of effort; instead it relates primarily to societal changes. The book’s subtitle is instructive: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. In this context media does not refer to mass media, but rather to the many ways in which information or data is communicated to us, the foremost being television.

How bad is the problem? According to Gordon, it is epidemic. “I would guess that of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point; I could say, ‘The sermon was about X.’ Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read. That is, no competent effort was made to persuade the hearer that God’s Word required a particular thing; it was simply asserted.” Ouch. At the very least, this guy tells it like he sees it. He does not allow the preacher to wiggle out by using shortened attention spans as an excuse. “Ministers have found it entirely too convenient and self-serving to dismiss congregational disinterest on the basis of attenuated attention spans or spiritual indifference. In most cases, the inattentiveness in the congregation is due to poor preaching—preaching that does not reward an energetic, conscientious listening. When attentive listeners are not rewarded for their energetic attentiveness, they eventually become inattentive.”

Societal trends, the foremost of which is the dominance of the picture over the word, have led to Johnny’s inability to preach. The problem is the condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at the seminary. The reasons he cannot preach are twofold: he cannot read and he cannot write. Each of these receives a chapter-length treatment. In the first, Gordon demonstrates that Johnny has never been instructed in the reading of texts. He has been taught to read to gather information, to read as a means to an immediate end, but he has never been taught to read with a view to how a text is formed. He reads for content while ignoring construct. “Culturally, then, we are no longer careful, close readers of texts, sacred or secular. We scan for information, but we do not appreciate literary craftsmanship. Exposition is therefore virtually a lost art.” In the second, he channels Neil Postman and other writers in demonstrating that Johnny is fast losing the ability to communicate well with the written word. In fact, by relying so heavily on technologies such as the telephone, he has stunted his ability to communicate with others in face-to-face contexts. Where the written word, carefully constructed, is a valuable medium for weighty content, the spoken word, especially over the telephone or other media, gives itself to levity and to thoughtless discussion.

After offering a few words on content, Gordon gives the beginnings of a prescription, a cure for the ills. He suggests that for Johnny to learn to preach he must, at the very least, have an annual review in which the church will tell him how effective they deem his preaching, he must learn to read texts closely and he must learn the sensibility of composed communication. These may not make him into this generation’s Charles Spurgeon, but at the very least they will give him the tools he needs to preach the Word of God well. “Our culture, at this moment, will not develop these sensibilities, and so Johnny will cultivate them only if he makes some self-conscious and deliberately countercultural choices about how he wishes his sensibilities to be shaped.”

While Gordon is prone to overstate his case at times, and while he may occasionally put preference in the place of law, he has certainly penned a book which stands as an urgent call for men to give themselves anew to the task, the calling, of preaching. It points them to several skills which will, without doubt, help them in their task of faithfully communicating the truths of God’s Word to the ears and the hearts of God’s people. I do think any preacher will benefit from reading Why Johnny Can’t Preach, though I would urge caution in handing it to your pastor—such a gift could easily be misconstrued. And do guard your heart as you read it as I think there is the potential that it could cause you to look unfavorably on your own pastor. Having said that, I think this is a valuable book and one that ought to be widely read.

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