Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Spiritual Coffee: Power of Christian Narrative in Fantasy - Against the Myth of Progress and Historical Pessimism - Glorifying God as a Generalist

I really enjoyed today's collection of links. I hope that you will as well. Taken together, these three pieces restore some of the excitement and wonder in exploring God's Creation and the endless possibilities of discovery in the Christian mind and imagination. There is even now a great portion of beauty and glory awaiting us.
(Click on Spiritual Coffee for earlier collections of links.)

James Stoddard's Interior Castle, David Randall (First Things)
The quoted section below is enough to excite interest, especially for those who enjoy C.S. Lewis's fiction or The Lord of the Rings. I usually get the most enduring and satisfying enjoyment out of stories that have a great layer of truth underneath them. When you piece together the fantastic and unusual elements of a story and find they reveal a mystery about reality, you gain something personal and permanent. It is always a delight to discover beauty, but to discover something that is both beautiful and true is priceless.
"James Stoddard ought to be famous for his Evenmere trilogy—The High House (1998), The False House (2000, revised 2015), and Evenmere (2015). He isn’t, unfortunately. The High House received the Compton Crook Award for best fantasy by a new novelist, but The False House and Evenmere haven’t gotten much notice. But the three books are wonderfully written fantasy, and Stoddard is nearly as good as C. S. Lewis at recapitulating aspects of the Christian myth. He isn’t just trying to be another Lewis, either. Stoddard’s trilogy does something new and nifty: It is an argument in fiction that narrative is at the center of Christian theology—that the universe is narrative, that Christ is its sacred narrator, and that narrative is the means by which mankind can understand God. Stoddard’s sustained invention and stylish prose are enough by themselves to earn him a place in the mainstream fantasy canon. But his shift of emphasis from Christian myth to Christian narrative makes his trilogy a major work of Christian fantasy."
[I also find this description of the worldview of the villains to be brilliant. The deception that mankind can achieve a perfect world lies behind virtually all modern false ideologies (and the next link from Al Mohler happens to show what it's like for those ideologies to crash down).]
"The books’ villains are the Society of Anarchists, who are ruthlessly dedicated to establishing a perfect world."
Christ’s Exaltation: The Ground of Our Hope, Albert Mohler (Ligonier)
A succinct picture of Christ's reign and how it provides us confidence both now and for the future, contrasted with the hopelessness of faith in "progress" or perfection of humanity and its disillusioned counterpart, historical pessimism.

"'The twentieth century, it is safe to say, has made us all into deep historical pessimists.' So observed Francis Fukuyama in his seminal 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. What happened? The nineteenth century’s humanistic faith in inevitable moral progress was destroyed on the battlefields of two cataclysmic world wars and in the unprecedented murderous cruelty of Hitler’s gas chambers, Stalin’s gulags, and Pol Pot’s Cambodian killing fields. History seemed to point, not to a golden age of moral progress and enlightenment, but toward an age of unspeakable cruelty backed by technological developments that would stagger the moral imagination.

"Fukuyama demonstrated the failure of historical 'faiths' such as Marxism, with its confidence in the ultimate victory of the proletariat through class struggle and revolution. His analysis of modern historical pessimism was correct, at least in this respect, for secular myths did not fare well in the twentieth century, and most contemporary Americans look to the future with a mixed sense of unease and uncertainty.

"The Christian worldview stands in stark contrast both to the humanistic idea of progress and to modern secular pessimism."

Probably fascinating for anyone who is curious how people like Justin Taylor, Russell Moore, Tim Challies, and departed heroes like Chuck Colson manage to have such diverse knowledge and insight into so many subjects. Carter is careful to say he can only describe his own experience, and that it may not be a calling that applies to many people. Particularly interesting are his conclusions that generalism is artistic, generalism is a personal act of worship to God, and generalism is not primarily pursued for the sake of imparting knowledge to others (although that is a valuable byproduct) but for the sake of beholding the majesty of God in greater and wider detail. The highest reward is a private moment of awe and wonder between the generalist and the Lord.

This line is also helpful and practical for those of us who get stalled out trying to find the perfect way to do things: "sometimes you have to use whatever method works for your personality, even if it’s less than ideal."
"What if we generalists are beckoned to seek knowledge not as a means for some other end but simply as an act of performance before our Creator? This is not to say that the knowledge gained cannot be used for practical purposes or in service of our neighbor. But viewing knowledge-seeking as a performative act done for God and before God frees us to treat it as a form of ongoing artistic worship. Just as David performed for God with leaping and dancing (2 Sam. 6:16) we are free to seek truth, knowledge, and understanding in a variety of areas as a way of glorifying him." [On Sincerity:] "'By validity I mean whether an artist is honest to himself and to his world-view,' Schaeffer says, 'or whether he makes his art only for money or for the sake of being accepted.' If it’s to glorify God as a work of art, generalism cannot be pursued as a means of impressing others with our erudition. For the Christian generalist, the pursuit of knowledge is a performance for God, not an act of pedantry to impress our peers. The validity comes in performing not for the applause of others but for the approval of our divine patron."
"What turns generalism into an art (or at least one major “style” of art) is “sublime pattern-matching,” seeing the interconnectedness of God’s creation in a way that impresses our minds with a sense of awe and veneration of his grandeur and power
"God takes delight not in the discovery of the patterns of his revelation (which, of course, he already knows) but with the way that the process leads us to childlike worship. It is the process that leads us to continuously repeat the prayer of the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler: “O, Almighty God, I am thinking Thy thoughts after Thee!” It’s the pursuit of knowledge and discovery as a way to glorify our Redeemer by becoming increasingly enchanted by his majesty." “What is elementary, worldly wisdom?” Charles Munger asked. “Well, the first rule is that you can't really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang 'em back. If the facts don't hang together on a latticework of theory, you don't have them in a usable form.”

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Does "The Inner Ring" Dominate Your Life? - Summarizing C.S. Lewis's Essay on Relationships and Ambition

I shared the link here to Alan Jacobs contrasting and comparing how C.S. Lewis gave a speech to students with how modern commencement speakers such as Steve Jobs imply moral lessons without acknowledging them. The C.S. Lewis speech Jacobs used was The Inner Ring. For several years I have been passionate about seeing every Christian read it, because it is one of the most important and universal explanations of human nature I have seen.

The longer I observe how people choose to prioritize their lives, which groups they prefer to join, and who they want to spend time with, the more I see Lewis’s insights confirmed. The best value for me has been what Lewis revealed about wrong motives for being a part of
things, which makes us able to recognize those motives in our own hearts and choose to resist them. What it comes down to is the difference between using people and relationships as a means of self-advancement, or valuing people and relationships for their own sake. As Lewis also brilliantly showed, doing the former makes you a prisoner and slave of ambition, rather than enabling you to control it. On the other hand, being authentic with people, doing good work for its own sake, and accepting the people God places in your life can be amazingly liberating.

The whole essay is here, but I’ve done my best to give you an abridged survey of Lewis’s main points identified by headings. All the material below is from Lewis, except for the headings I have added. The last two paragraphs are especially encouraging.

The Longing to Be Inside the Inner Ring

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. This desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society. But it must be clearly understood that “Society,” in that sense of the word, is merely one of a hundred Rings, and snobbery therefore only one form of the longing to be inside.

People who believe themselves to be free, and indeed are free, from snobbery, and who read satires on snobbery with tranquil superiority, may be devoured by the desire in another form. It may be the very intensity of their desire to enter some quite different Ring which renders them immune from all the allurements of high life. An invitation from a duchess would be very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some artistic or communistic côterie. Poor man—it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet Ministers that he wants: it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.

The Longing that Will Dominate Your Life – Unless You Choose to Resist It

My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man.

The Fear of Being Left Outside

Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for... But it is not quite true. … It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

Making the Inner Ring More Important than True Friendship

Let Inner Rings be unavoidable and even an innocent feature of life, though certainly not a beautiful one: but what of our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in?

I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you, yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable.

I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. IN the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.

The Danger of Moral Compromise in Pursuit of the Inner Ring

To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

That is my first reason. Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

The Endless Thirst that the Inner Ring Can Never Satisfy

My second reason is this. The torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical underworld, that of attempting to fill sieves with water, is the symbol not of one vice, but of all vices. It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

This is surely very clear when you come to think of it. If you want to be made part of a certain circle for some wholesome reason—if, say, you want to join a musical society because you really like music—then there is a possibility of satisfaction. You may find yourself playing in a quartet and you may enjoy it. But if all you want is to be in the know, your pleasure will be short lived. The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic.

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.

Becoming Free from the Desire for the Inner Ring

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.

And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.

Spiritual Coffee: Being Christian Without Church or Bible? - Alan Jacobs on C.S. Lewis and Steve Jobs Moralizing - Listening to Christians with Same-Sex Desires

Weekend roundup of three thought-provoking articles for sharpening your thinking as a Christian.
(Click on Spiritual Coffee for prior posts collecting resources for the Christian mind.)

Majority of American Christians Do Not Find Bible Reading and Church Attendance Essential, Chris
Martin (Millennial Evangelical)
Thoughtful reflections on what Pew research shows about how millennials understand Christianity. A majority seem to believe in a Christian faith that requires no church body, Bible reading, or service to other Christians. It's essentially a Christian faith divorced from all religious activities. Think about the implications of that view, and what it means for trying to disciple and encourage millennial-age believers. It's not just a worldview issue, like previous Barna Group research on whether Christians have a biblical worldview. It's an issue that goes to the root of identity and soul - trying to be Christian without being part of the vine. (John 15).
"Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center published some data on what American Christians value in everyday life. The data is fascinating, and I’d encourage you to read the summary here or the full report here. Today, I want to look at just one of the graphs they provide.
"Following “believing in God” the four “essential parts” that received the most votes were: “being grateful for what you have,” “forgiving those who have wronged you,” “being honest at all times,” and “praying regularly.” 
"Obviously, all four of these actions are admirable and should be present in anyone who calls him- or herself a follower of Jesus. Any day of the week I can carry out one of these actions with some success I consider it a good day as far as obedience is concerned. 
"However, the intrigue in this graph is not so much in what is valued, but rather, what is not valued by a majority of American Christians."

Middle-Aged Moralists, Alan Jacobs (Medium.com)
In 1944, C.S. Lewis gave an address at King's College in London that is widely regarded as one of his most valuable messages. The Inner Ring is something every Christian should read (I summarized here the reasons why) because it teaches something penetrating and revealing about what influences and motivates us. Here, Jacobs (a biographer of Lewis and a remarkably interesting writer and professor) focuses on something else: the differences between the way Lewis gave something like a commencement speech and what we find in typical speeches today.
"When C. S. Lewis gave the Memorial Address at King’s College, London in 1944the occasion being very like an American university commencementhe began by commenting, 'When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising. I shall do my best to gratify it.'
"It was a shrewd move. Lewis himself always loathed the pompous didacticism he had found endemic to the English educational system, and expected that his audience would too. 'Everyone knows what a middle-aged moralist of my type warns his juniors against. He warns them against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.' But with a smile on his face, he declared that he would play to type: 'I shall, in fact, give you advice about the world in which you are going to live.'
"Let’s fast-forward about sixty years, to a commencement address at Stanford University. The speaker this time is not a professor but rather a businessman named Steve Jobs and he makes it clear from the outset that he’ll not be doing any “middle-aged moralising.” Rather, he says, “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”
"And yet it’s not clear, when you think about it, that Jobs’s message is any less moralistic than Lewis’s. It just bears a different moral."

You Are Not Your Sexuality, Sam Allberry (TGC)
Video message with a short summary at the link. Allberry is a pastor who has resisted same-sex attraction throughout his life, and can speak from the inside about how to think biblically about homosexuality. This is exceptionally important for Christians. Too often we have missed the difference between disputing a cultural and legal change regarding marriage and sexuality vs. listening to and caring for individual people who have same-sex attractions and desires. Many of us have never really learned to understand what it feels like for people, partly because we are afraid that listening to their feelings will make us just like modernist and post-modernist Christians who affirm whatever someone feels is true. That has caused us to fail at ministering to people with this burden.

We need to understand, and yet remain biblical and Gospel-based in how we handle sharing this burden with our brothers and sisters. We need to excel at loving people while still caring for them in truth and wisdom. I am thankful for pastors like Allberry who can help us do that.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Spiritual Coffee: Christians Defending Criminals - Why John Webster Matters - A Story of Why You Need Limits to Survive

There are quite a few thought-provoking observations in today's links. Click on Spiritual Coffee for prior roundups to sharpen and equip your Christian thinking and enlarge your heart.

I Advocate for Convicted CriminalsCara Wieneke (TGC)
I rarely get to see Christians writing like this about the kind of work I do (I am a criminal defense attorney as well). Many Christians never get a view of what this is like, and Wieneke's story reflects my experiences too. The ugliness and brokenness we see through the criminal justice system is overwhelming. But there are amazing demonstrations of grace - especially the miraculous contrast between grace at work transforming people versus 'business as usual' - that we see as well. What keeps motivating my work is the fact that Jesus never gave us permission to give up on people, and so the Gospel is still a responsibility even toward those whose actions may repulse us. Perhaps especially toward those whose actions repulse us. Sin is horrific. We just aren't shocked by our own sins as much as we are shocked by those we see others committing, and that makes it easy to make excuses for avoiding some people. I thank God for each time He steers me away from avoidance and keeps me attentive to seeing His grace at work.
Wieneke used to wall herself off from feeling the pain of the people involved in her cases. "But after becoming a Christian, my view changed. I began seeing my clients as human beings, and I started feeling the pain and suffering their evil inflicted on others. For every case I reviewed, I felt a small part of the pain and suffering the victims endured. There were times the pain was so great that I considered changing careers. But God kept drawing me back."
She felt overwhelmed and discouraged, but an encounter with a converted man in prison changed that. "He didn’t try to place blame elsewhere for his actions. He didn’t complain about being incarcerated or contemplate ways to obtain his release."Instead, he seemed content with his life. He told me God was changing him, and he seemed almost thankful for his circumstances. He expressed sorrow for the pain he had caused and became emotional when telling me he didn’t feel he was worthy of God’s grace. But he accepted God’s grace and said prison would not be the end of his story. Finally, he told me to take all the time I needed to review his case since he knew he deserved to be sitting in prison.""As I left the prison and walked to my car, it was almost as if the weight had been lifted. No longer did I doubt God was there; no one but God could have been responsible for my client’s transformation."
John Webster: Tribute to a Leading TheologianSteve Holmes (Christianity Today)
Update: Here's a collection of links to John Webster's life and works by Jake Meador (Mere Orthodoxy) [thanks to Matt Crutchmer for sharing]
The author points out that few Christians outside academic circles have heard of John Webster (who entered into his eternal reward this week) and yet demonstrates why we should all be thankful for him. 
"There is an idea around in the churches that studying theology is the surest way to destroy faith. Fifty years ago, that was uncomfortably close to being true. English-language academic theology too often began with an explanation of why traditional beliefs (the Creed, that sort of thing) could not possibly be true, and then constructed some pale imitation out of a passing intellectual fad. John was a leading member of a group of theologians who changed all that."
"If his writing was uncompromisingly intellectual, it was also uncompromisingly Christian. I just picked a book by John of the shelf, and opened it at random. The page begins: 'Christian theology is biblical reasoning. It is an activity of the created intellect, judged, reconciled, redeemed, and sanctified through the works of the Son and the Spirit.'"The authority of Scripture, God's act of creation, our need for atonement and sanctification—all assumed in two sentences."

Detached People Can Only FloatBogumil Jarmulak (Theopolis Institute)
Compelling observations on the necessity of constraints and limits for life to survive, based off the film "Gravity." You may be surprised by how much there is to think about. Jarmulak is a Pastor in Poznan, Poland, and Presiding Minister of the Anselm Presbytery of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches. He quotes significantly from an article by Bronislaw Wildstein in Do Rzeczy. [For the sake of humility, I admit I was not familiar with either of them before reading this. But the article is very good.]
"It turns out that the astronauts could enjoy weightlessness only as long as they were not exposed to it fully. Humans cannot survive in true zero-gravity. We cannot survive in the open space unless we have some artifacts which preserve our lives. The things and forces which limit us or even endanger our lives are the same things and forces which enable us to live and act."
"Precisely because it limits us, gravity puts barriers on our paths, hinders life, also conditions life. 'Human limitations and risks, burdens, and difficulties make up our world. Deprived of them we cannot survive, we fall apart, we perish,' concludes Wildstein.
"Weightlessness is fun, provided there is gravity. Liberty is good, provided we stand on the solid ground."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Why We Crave and Crave - Yet Only One Thing Will Solve It

Thomas Manton:
'The soul is like a sponge, always thirsting, and seeking of something from without to be filled; a chaos of desires. Man was made to live in dependence. Now, of all portions in the world, there is none worth the having, but God himself; nothing else can make you completely blessed, and satisfy all the necessities, and all the capacities, of soul and body..."The Lord is my shepherd:" what then? "I shall not want" (Ps. 23:1).'

-via Banner of Truth Trust

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:26

I cry to you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”
Psalm 142:5

"You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You." Augustine, Confessions (Book I, Chapter 1)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Spiritual Coffee: How Pornography Destroys Pleasure and People - Correcting Others Fairly and Accurately - United Methodists Deconstructed

Today's three resources include professor and author Andy Naselli's seminar confronting pornography use as destroying your mind and ability to enjoy pleasure, along with a solid demonstration that most pornography is produced through sex trafficking. I attended the seminar live, and it was very effective and persuasive. The audio has just been posted online.

(Click on Spiritual Coffee for prior roundups to sharpen and equip your Christian thinking and enlarge your heart.)

Pure Pleasure Men's Gathering 2016, Andy Naselli and Sgt. Grant Snyder (Bethlehem Baptist Church)
This is serious stuff. The truth about pornography is ugly, and some of the content in these audio recordings is intense. Use your judgment in sharing with teens. But they need to know a lot of this. Naselli demonstrates from the Scriptures and from people's experiences
how abusing your sexual desires destroys your ability to think, relate to other people, and enjoy pleasure. In addition, he does a compelling and convicting job of proving that most pornography is actually the result of people being lured into sex trafficking and drugged, manipulated, threatened, and forced to do things on camera. This is serious truth spoken with conviction and concern for the fate of your soul.

Sgt. Grant Snyder, a detective and part of a sex trafficking task force, also gives a chilling and sobering look inside the world of sex trafficking, right in Minneapolis. He shows how people get targeted and lured into it. One of his unforgettable comments is that in the hundreds of interviews he has conducted with people arrested for engaging in prostitution with minors, sex crimes, etc., every single one of them was deep into pornography. It's a sin that only drags you further down and down.

The Gospel in Straw-Men on Chairs, Andrew Wilson (THINK)
Wilson does an excellent job of setting things straight on a recent video by a pastor criticizing the way many view the atonement Christ accomplished on the cross. On top of that, this is really worth your while because Wilson demonstrates how unreasonable and ineffective it is for people to dumb down or misrepresent what other people believe in order to criticize it. He identifies and explains several common errors Christians make when disagreeing with others. He also exposes the limits and distortion that can happen when you try to reduce a complicated theological concept down to a simple illustration or skit. Above all, you must be accurate if you are going to be truthful.
For anyone who wants a thorough comparison and explanation of what various Church Fathers and theologians have believed about the atonement and substitution, chapters 5 and 6 in John Stott's The Cross of Christ are just about definitive.

You may have seen Collin Hansen's article Why I'm No Longer a United Methodist (TGC). To flesh out and expand the understanding of what's happening in America's largest mainline denomination, here is a solid collection of information by Emma Green in The Atlantic. Offered not because I particularly agree with where she's coming from, but because she does an excellent job of providing information and observing a lot of the moving pieces. The contrast between how African Methodist congregations and U.S. congregations are approaching things is significant.
For more perspective, Justin Taylor has excerpts from Timothy Tennent, a United Methodist and president of Asbury Theological Seminary, and a link to his whole report on the conference.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Only Sure Way to Enjoy God Is by Embracing God's Will

This devotion from March 6 in Tim and Kathy Keller's The Songs of Jesus is a particularly clear summary of why the only way to happiness is to trust God to teach us how to live, rather than dreaming up a good life for ourselves.

One caution first: please, let us resolve to avoid any misunderstanding that would wrongly cause us to think that keeping moral standards or doing good works is what brings God's love to us or gives us our reward with Him. Those who love God do good because it enhances their enjoyment of the love God has already given them, and because it pleases Him. But it is certainly true that if you refuse to do good or live a life of integrity, you will spoil and trample your enjoyment of God. You can't enjoy a relationship with any other human being if you are constantly disappointing that person and treating him or her with contempt. Why should we think it is any different with God?

We are accepted by God completely freely, by believing and trusting in Christ's bearing of our sin and suffering judgment for us. We become fully and completely His children through this, before we ever do a single good work beyond believing. But even though you already have that relationship if you're a Christian, you can certainly deprive yourself of all the joy of it by living a life that disdains God's moral character and ignores His words. Therefore Keller is exactly right in saying that to "enjoy a good life... you must live a good life[.]" (emphasis added)

Psalm 34:11-16
11 Come, my children, listen to me;
    I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Whoever of you loves life
    and desires to see many good days,
13 keep your tongue from evil
    and your lips from telling lies.
14 Turn from evil and do good;
    seek peace and pursue it.
15 The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are attentive to their cry;
16 but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
    to blot out their name from the earth.

THE LIE. To enjoy a good life (verse 12) you must live a good life (verses 13-14). This challenges the lie of the serpent in Eden that if we obey God fully we will be miserable, that rich living lies outside God's will, not within it.[29] This lie has passed deeply into every human heart: that we would be happier if we, rather than God, were free to choose how our lives should be lived. But the ultimate good is knowing God personally, and the ultimate punishment is just as personal--to lose the face of God (verse 16), the only source of joy and love, to be "left utterly and absolutely outside--repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored."[30]

Prayer: Father, if I want to love life, I have to love you--and loving you means doing your will with gladness. Shine your face on me--let me know your love--so I can love you for who you are. Remind me that the only loss that is unbearable is to lose you and your presence. Amen.
From The Songs of Jesus (March 6), p. 65.

29 Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p.158. See also Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance: Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2016).
30 C.S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory."
[n.b. I edited Keller's footnotes to make the references to the books clear, instead of abbreviations and ibid.]

Friday, May 20, 2016

Spiritual Coffee: When One Spouse Leaves the Church - Keeping a Tender Heart Toward the Hard-Hearted - Understanding Little Sisters of the Poor

Today’s three links to the best things I've come across in the past few days to feed a Christian mind and heart. Click on Spiritual Coffee for prior roundups to sharpen and equip your Christian thinking.

Blessed Are the Agnostics, Stina Kielsmeier-Cook (her•meneutics, Christianity Today)
Her husband gave up on the church; she stayed. Too often we act like we don’t see people struggling through things like this because we don’t know what to say or do. Listen to how she wrestled with her doubts, her husband’s soul, divided worldviews in parenting, and what she needs from the church. Candid and earnest. These are people we need to listen to and learn to welcome.

Not Hardening Our Hearts Against the Hard-Hearted, David Schrock (davidschrock.com)
Insightful and helpful reflections for understanding the blindness and self-deception in friends and church members who are caught up in sin. How to seek their hearts while guarding your own against becoming jaded or discouraged.
n.b. The quote from 2 Timothy 2:22-25 seems to be missing from the end, right before the prayer in italics. But it’s a perfect complement to the post, so read it alongside.
"When they harden themselves against us, we must pray. In love, our response must not be passivity but wise, repeated strategic appeals to that member of Christ’s body. Matthew 18 is not a quick pitstop that enables churches to get rid of unwanted sinners; it is a long, arduous pathway to restore those who have been and are being deceived by sin."
"Sin is irrational and causes the sinner to make statements and take actions that are mystifying. These words and actions are not “out of character,” as many like to put it. They are tragically “in character,” as indwelling sin comes to the surface. Hebrews 3 reminds us, every believer has blindspots and chambers in their heart which, when released, exude poison.""Often these well-versed believers will make these steps quoting Scripture on their way. We are a twisted bunch and none of us are immune from deception."
"Left unchecked, sin will always go further than we first intended."
"Sin is not innocent or accidental, it is the self-willed desire to go our own way and to persist on the road to destruction. Immediately, hardness of heart—anger in speech, isolation in action, unwillingness to listen, self-justification, and personal advocacy—occur. And more than occur, they increase. Like yeast, sin leavens the whole heart. And thus it needs to be opposed—both internally by the Spirit-filled individual but also externally by the church, when that individual is a beloved member of the church."

Little Sisters of the Poor – Thoughts on the Decision in the Contraception Mandate Case, Mark Movsesian (First Things)
Christians should understand the United States Supreme Court's decision in Zubik v. Burwell, the case involving Little Sisters of the Poor and the HHS Mandate that would have forced them to pay for contraceptives against their religious beliefs. This is a good summary. Some overall high points (from several sources):
  • The Little Sisters asked to be exempt from being required to pay for health care plans that would include providing contraceptives to people, because their religious beliefs prohibit using contraception (additionally, many forms of contraception can act as abortifacients that can trigger rejection of a live embryo by the body after conception).
  • The Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") mandated under the Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare) that the Sisters must pay for the plans and ensure free contraception. No religious exemption was granted.
  • The decision did not settle what kind of accommodation the Little Sisters should receive, but it is nevertheless basically a win for two reasons: 1) the Supreme Court did not say the Sisters can't have an exemption for religious beliefs, but actually sent the case back to the district court with instructions to have the Obama Administration find an accommodation that would fit the Sisters beliefs - which means the Court believes one is possible and that one should be made; and 2) the Sisters had been charged with very heavy fines in district court because they were not cooperating with the HHS Mandate to provide health insurance with free contraception, and the Supreme Court vacated all those decisions, effectively wiping out all the fines and penalties.
  • The decision was unanimous. There was no disagreement indicated among the eight justices.
  • Remarkably, President Obama came out the day after the decision with a statement applauding the decision as a victory for religious freedom, and the President said that there is no need for the Sisters and other religious groups to be required to pay for plans with free contraception, because employees can get free contraception in other ways.
  • As Movsesian notes, it is odd that the President should take that position after his HHS has insisted for five years of litigation that employees have no other options for affordable contraception and that making the Sisters pay for it is necessary. It almost looks as if the administration's objective all along was not ensuring free contraception (which they now admit is already available in other ways) but overpowering religious objections to being forced to participate - a test of whether the government can get away with compelling religious groups to act against their beliefs if it wants to. Thankfully, the answer again is no.

Seven Pearls of Wisdom from Chesterton's Father Brown

I came across The COMPLETE Father Brown Mysteries on Kindle, containing basically everything Chesterton wrote involving Father Brown, for $0.99. There are a number of versions out there labeled as The Complete Father Brown Mysteries, but which actually only contain the first two volumes GKC wrote. (He wrote five.) The one I linked above is really complete, containing all the stories. [There is also a 24-story collection of Father Brown mysteries (thus incomplete) for $0.99 for Kindle which has links to an audio recording of each story and an image gallery. These are in the public domain, so you may be able to track down audio on the Web anyway, but for $0.99 it would save you trouble.]

I’ve written about why these stories are priceless, especially for Christians, here and here. In honor of this latest opportunity, I’m posting seven examples of the brilliance and wit of Chesterton’s little priest detective (avoiding spoilers of the solutions).

Part of the charm and genius of these mysteries is how often they reveal and revolve around genuine spiritual truths. This is entertainment that also forms a Christian mind and teaches wisdom. Quite a few of the tales turn on the fact that outward appearances of respectability may make one person seem above suspicion and another quite guilty. Yet when the emotions and character are examined, it makes perfect sense that even the most honorable appearances can be misleading, while the poorest appearances may cover an honest heart and sincere intentions.

“Have you ever noticed this — that people never answer what you say? They answer what you mean — or what they think you mean. Suppose one lady says to another in a country house, ‘Is anybody staying with you?’ the lady doesn’t answer ‘Yes; the butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid, and so on,’ though the parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair. She says ‘There is nobody staying with us,’ meaning nobody of the sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic asks, ‘Who is staying in the house?’ then the lady will remember the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest. All language is used like that; you never get a question answered literally, even when you get it answered truly."
“The Invisible Man” from The Innocence of Father Brown

"Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down. The kind man drinks and turns cruel; the frank man kills and lies about it."
“The Flying Stars” from The Innocence of Father Brown

“Don’t say anything! Oh, don’t say anything,” cried the atheist cobbler, dancing about in an ecstasy of admiration of the English legal system. For no man is such a legalist as the good Secularist.
“The Hammer of God” from The Innocence of Father Brown

On the reliability of determining truth or lies by measuring the pulse:
“What sentimentalists men of science are!” exclaimed Father Brown, “and how much more sentimental must American men of science be! Who but a Yankee would think of proving anything from heart-throbs? Why, they must be as sentimental as a man who thinks a woman is in love with him if she blushes. That’s a test from the circulation of the blood, discovered by the immortal Harvey; and a jolly rotten test, too.”
“The Mistake of the Machine” from The Wisdom of Father Brown

"And if you don’t know that I would grind all the Gothic arches in the world to powder to save the sanity of a single human soul, you don’t know so much about my religion as you think you do."
“The Doom of the Darnaways” from The Incredulity of Father Brown

“What we all dread most,” said the priest in a low voice, “is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare.”
“The Head of Caesar” from The Wisdom of Father Brown

‘Oh, I am sick of his holy pictures and statues!’ she said, turning her head away. ‘Why don’t they defend themselves, if they are what you say they are? But rioters can knock off the Blessed Virgin’s head and nothing happens to them. Oh, what’s the good? You can’t blame us, you daren’t blame us, if we’ve found out that Man is stronger than God.’ ‘Surely,’ said Father Brown very gently, ‘it is not generous to make even God’s patience with us a point against Him.
“The Insoluble Problem” from The Scandal of Father Brown