Sunday, April 27, 2008

Evangelicals and Externals

This post is a "musing" that is not so much a finely-crafted essay as it is an online journal entry. (Edited 10:47pm)

I've sometimes bemoaned the fact that we evangelicals tend to over-emphasize externals when it comes to evaluating "ministry effectiveness." We want to know how many people have actually "prayed to receive Christ," how many attended the service/meeting, or how many have participated in various programs, for example.

I've also found myself lamenting the overemphasis on externals when it comes to spiritual formation. When we want to know whether Joe is "growing spiritually" or "walking with God," we ask about frequency of "quiet times," problems with sexual sin, frequency of attendance at Christian activities, or whether they've completed some educational curriculum or another.
Are these two areas connected, and if so, what is the connection?

I think that the two areas may actually be driven by different factors. I think the first area of "ministry success" is measured externally because of the "free-market church" phenomenon here in the United States. Churches have to justify their existence and compete with other churches based on "effectiveness." In this way, a church is no different than a business. So external metrics make perfect sense.

But what about personal spiritual maturity? Why is it conceived of almost solely in terms of behaviors? I don't know the full answer, but here are some possible ones: (1) This is in part driven by the "ministry success" idea -- we need to know how many people are growing and how much; (2) This may be driven by spiritual superficiality. That is, we start with externals becuase they are good indicators of internal maturity and growth, but then we have no idea what might be beyond the behaviors. Once a Christian is having quiet times, going to church, not involved in illicit sexual activities or drugs, and doing all the other things good Christians do, then we think that's "as good as it gets." We simply have no spiritual vision beyond this; (3) We aren't comfortable with ambiguity or unverifiability.

So, I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't measure these things at all, or that looking at behaviors is unnecessary for helping people grow spiritually. I am suggesting that we need to go beyond these measurements and ask ourselves why they have been the (sole) focal point of evangelical ministries for so long. What would be a better way to "measure" the spiritual health of churches and individuals?
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Linkorama: "Sweding," et al.

  1. Heard of "Sweding?" First go here to see a "sweded" version of Star Wars, then go here to find out about the origins of "sweding" in the movie Be Kind Rewind.
  2. To see some kung-fu soccer, go here.
  3. To see all the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, go here.
  4. Timewaster of the Week: Doeo (HT: Neatorama & Evangelical Outpost)

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Review of "Expelled"

I went to see Ben Stein's film "Expelled" this past Friday night. I was surprised by the production quality and rhetorical power of the movie. I learned a bit, but came away a little disappointed and a little confused.

I was confused because I just don't know what to make of "he said, she said" blabber that so typically permeates these debates. For instance, Richard Von Sternberg claims he lost his position at the Smithsonian (as editor of a journal) and had his reputation smeared because he published a paper by Stephen Meyer (ID advocate). I read the reviews and the "other side" claims that this is false, and that he had planned to step down as editor of the journal well before Meyer's article was published. Other claims made by the movie have been contested by opponents. Who do I beleive? Both parties have a vested interest in being right. Neither is objective.

I was disappointed, because the film, while powerful, was ultimately misguided. The only effect I think the film could have is to generate public outrage at these alleged academic persecutions. And then what? Should we have the public demanding that journals publish articles by ID scientists? Should we have university presidents pressured by alumni into hiring pro-ID professors? Academia may not be a democracy, but it sure ain't supposed to work that way.

I wish I could say "Leave it to the journals to decide!" but I'm afraid ID proponents sometimes aren't getting a fair shot. Is everything they submit for publication really that bad? That's hard to believe, given the credentials these men and women possess.

In the end, I think the film did exactly what it was supposed to do -- provide a "Farenheit 911"-style propoganda piece for the ID movement. But in the end, I'm afraid it will generate more heat than light.

Here's the New York Times review, and a response.
Saturday, April 19, 2008

Got Poetry?

I used to love poetry. Then I became a Christian, and I somehow got the idea that poetry was a waste of time. I suppose it was the subtext in all those sermons that fuzzy thinking and oblique talk was devilish. Christians should talk in propositions, like an freshly-starched epistle. Poetry was for people who didn't know what the #&!! they believed.
Coming full-circle never felt so good. I'm rediscovering poetry and my affection for it. It started, I think, by spending more time in the Hebrew Scriptures. Then, I began bumping into Berry, Cairns, Kooser, Hopkins, et al.
If poetry has seemed alien and useless to you, then check out this link to some excellent contemporary poetry.
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Are Forgiveness and Justice Incompatible?

Consider the following propositions:
(1) We should always treat others justly.
(2) We should always forgive others for their wrong-doings.
(3) If we forgive someone, we do not treat them justly.
Each of these propositions seems intuitively correct, but they also seem to form an inconsistent set. (1) and (3) entail the denial of (2); (2) and (3) entail the denial of (1). It seems we can only accept at most 2 of the 3 propositions.
Let's call the acceptance of (1) and (3) RETRIBUTIONISM.
Let's call the acceptance of (2) and (3) ANTI-RETRIBUTIONISM.
Do either of these two view seem attractive to the Christian? Retributionism implies that we should not forgive people when they wrong us or others. Everyone, all the time, should reap what they sow. Anti-retributionism implies that we should always forgive people when they wrong us or others. Wrong actions should never be punished and justice is an out-dated, draconian concept. Neither of these seems wholly satisfying.
Can we somehow reconcile the three propositions? Let's call the acceptance of (1) and (2) the HARMONY VIEW. Now two questions arise: (a) does this entail the denial of (3)? and (b) does this commit us to a logical contradiction or at least an incoherence?
Let's look at the first question. Does the conjunction of (1) and (2) entail the denial of (3)? It does if we define 'justice' in a certain way. The common sense understanding of justice seems to be 'returning like with like," or "treating equals equally and unequals unequally." But perhaps justice is a richer concept than this and refers instead to a way of always treating people in the appropriate way. There are two ways we could go at this point: (i) we could say that the just person knows how to respond to each person on a case-by-case basis -- sometimes retribution and sometimes absolution; or (ii) we could say that forgiving someone of their wrong-doing does not preclude the prospect of punishing them. It seems that (i) won't work, because the conjunction of (1) and (2) demands that we always forgive and always act justly. It simply won't do to say that we may sometimes do one or the other. What about (ii)? This seems the most promising way to harmonize forgiveness and justice.
Consider an illustration. Smith has assaulted Jones and injured him. Smith is apprehended by the authorities, and brought before Jones and a judge. Smith decides that, in order to obey the command of Christ, he must forgive Jones and give up any moral claim against him. However, Smith also believes that the best thing for Jones would be to spend time in jail in order to help him face the consequences of his actions and see his need for change. (Is this too naive?) So, Smith may will both forgiveness and justice (in the legal sense) toward Jones.
So this kind of proposal suggests that the Harmony View does not entail the denial of (3), which answers our first question (a). It also seems to give a felicitous answer to the second question (b) and avoids any logical incoherence. (This is because justice, as defined above, does not preclude forgiveness.)
Whether or not this works, it seems that there should be some way to harmonize (1) and (2), because I think Christianity contains both of these principles. As followers of Jesus, I think we have strong intuitions in both directions. Perhaps my proposed harmonization is a good starting point for this project. Are there passages of Scripture that would provide insight? (I'm sure theologians have written tomes on this topic, but I'm new to it.)

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

God and the Principle of Alternate Possibilities

A commonly held idea about moral responsibility is the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, which says that if an agent cannot do otherwise than X, then he is not morally responsible for doing X. An example might be a case where Smith is involuntarily pushed out of a helicopter and lands on Jones, killing him. Smith could not do anything to prevent his landing on Jones, and it seems clear that Smith is not morally responsible for killing Jones.
Now consider the following scenario:
You are a soldier trying to decide whether to shoot a suspected terrorist. God wants you to shoot the suspect, and will cause you to decide to shoot if you are inclined to make the wrong decision. As it turns out, you decide to shoot on your own and God does nothing.
Are you morally responsible for shooting the suspected terrorist?
The idea here is that you cannot do other than shoot the terrorist, and yet it is unclear whether you are morally responsible for your action. What do you think?
Saturday, April 12, 2008

Is Friendship Selfish?

Consider the following two statements:
(A) All friendships are fueled solely by self-interest.
(B) There are some frienships, virtuous friendships, which are motivated by a mutual desire to promote the interests of the other.

(A) and (B) cannot both be true, can they?

I think that (A) certainly has some intuitive pull. Let me give two reasons we might accept it. First, it seems true that all our actions and pursuits, including friendships, are ultimately fueled by a desire for our own happiness. Suppose you are currently reading this blog. Why are you reading it? You might say, "In order to become wise." (Purely hypothetical.) Then I can ask why you want to become wise. You might say, "Because it will help me make better choices." Why do you want to do that? "Because then I will be happier*." Why do you want to be happy? There is no answer to that question that cannot in turn be analyzed in terms of happiness (or shalom). You can ask a series of "whys" about any action you perform, and it will lead to the same final answer: in order to be happy. So, (A) seems true in that sense.

Second, (A) seems true because this is exactly the type of reasoning that is often (implicitly) employed in discussing the importance of friendship. Consider the benefits of friendship cited in the Bible:

(1) Friends can help me in times of need. (Eccl. 4:9-12 suggests this sort of reason.)
(2) I can learn from my friends and become a better person. (Prov. 27:17 points this out -- "as iron sharpens iron")
(3) I am less likely to perform bad actions (and more likely to do good) when I am with my friends. (This is the idea of Heb. 10:24-25)
(4) I take pleasure in the company of my friend. (Just as Jonathan delighted in David, 1Sam. 19:1)

Perhaps there are other, more altruistic, reasons given in the Scriptures for pursuing friendship, but I will leave that to my readers to explore.

So (A) seems to have some reasons in its favor. But I think it is impossible to deny (B). We all have either seen examples of or experienced virtuous friendship. David and Jonathan seem to be a paradigm case, even considering the "delight" that was involved. Jesus talks of a man laying down his life for his friends. Surely such an act could not be motivated by self-interest. So how do we solve the puzzle? It would be simple to reject (A), and yet it seems to have some truth in it. For the sake of argument, let's postpone the rejection of (A) and try a different path.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chapter 9 suggests a potential strategy for reconciling the two claims (A and B). Aristotle proposes that when we are in a close friendship, our friend is really a second self. How do we make sense of such a claim? Richard Kraut, in Aristotle and the Human Good, suggests that we might think of this in terms of our friends actions and our friends fortunes. Aristotle may mean that when we have a profound influence over the formation of another's character, their actions become, in an extended sense, our own. He may also mean that a friend's good or bad fortune is also our good or bad fortune, by extension. When we consider the connection and influence between a parent and a child, this seems plausible. And while it is not quite as clear with regard to friends, we can still conceive of how such a connection might work.

So how does this help us? Well, suppose that my friend is really a second self, and that his good is therefore my good. Thus, when I promote his interests, I promote my own. So, (A) can be true, and yet I may very well have unselfish motives for promoting the interests of my friend. It just turns out that in loving my friend, I am in fact loving myself. Is this sort of deep metaphysical connection between friends plausible?

As an illustration from Scripture, take David and Jonathan (again). It says that Jonathan was immediately struck with David on their first meeting: "When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." (1 Sam 18:1) Later the authorwrites that Jonathan loved David "as he loved his own life." (20:4) This sort of soul-joining language seems similar to what Aristotle has in mind, even though this passage suggests that such a bond can be formed rather quickly. Similar language is used elsewhere: in Genesis 2, speaking of the intimate relationship between a husband and wife; in Romans 12 and 1Cor. 12 speaking of the bond between believers.

So not only do we see the "extended self" idea in Scripture, but we also see the sorts of moral implications suggested by Aristotle. Reflecting on the Genesis 2 passage, the apostle Paul says "so husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes is, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of His body." (Eph. 4:28-30) So, in a sense, Christ's love for the church is also self-interested! However, Christ is not selfish in loving the church (love is not selfish!). Thus, it seems that husbands are not selfish in loving their wives, and friends are not acting selfishly in pursuing frienships of virtue. So both (A) and (B) can be true at the same time with regard to the same individual.

Does this solution seem plausible?
* When I use the term 'happy,' I am refering to the classical sense of the word. In our culture, it has come to mean something like "experiencing pleasure" or some superficial concept of that sort. I take happiness to be analagous to the concept of "blessedness" Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the Mount.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mad Farmer Liberation Front

A great poem by Wendell Berry that should be read at least once a year.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry

(Originally posted 9/6/06)

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Shot Rings Out In the Memphis Sky

One of my favorite songs by U2 -- in part a tribute to MLK, Jr. To see the video, go here.

One man come in the name of love
One man come and go
One come he to justify
One man to overthrow I

In the name of love
What more in the name of love
In the name of love
What more in the name of love

One man caught on a barbed wire fence
One man he resist
One man washed on an empty beach.
One man betrayed with a kiss

In the name of love
What more in the name of love
In the name of love
What more in the name of love

Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

In the name of love
What more in the name of love
In the name of love
What more in the name of love