Saturday, May 31, 2008

Turning the race into a farce

If the Democratic National Committee (DNC) decides to seat some or all of the delegates from Florida and Michigan, it will simultaneously unite the party and turn itself into a political farce.

If you haven't been following along, here's the backstory: in 2006, the DNC voted to limit the states the could hold primaries or caucuses before February 5
th to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. However, in 2007 both Florida and Michigan decided to hold their primaries earlier than they historically had-- and before February 5th-- in order to increase their influence in the primary elections. Both were warned by the DNC that they must change the dates, and both refused; consequently, both were informed by the DNC that their primaries would not be nullified, as they were then stripped of their delegates. (Click here and here for more on these.)

Both states went ahead and held their primaries, in a pouty insistence that the DNC didn't have a right to its action (which it does). These primaries, however, were not given much attention in the campaigns; John Edwards and Barack Obama did not even register to be on the ballot in Michigan, for example, and almost none of the candidates spent a significant amount of time campaigning in either state-- though Hilary gave both states more attention than her counterparts, perhaps thinking it would be good ground-breaking for the general election in the fall. In one way or another, all of the candidates spoke out in support of the DNC's decision and right to make such a decision. Hilary Clinton was pronounced the winner in both states, although she only won 56% of the vote in Michigan (with a full 40% falling into a nebulous "undecided/uncommitted" category) and 50% or less in Florida. (Of course, in a primary race then those are pretty strong percentages-- but considering that neither of her stronger rivals even gave an effort, it's strikes me as a bit low).

Within a few weeks after these rogue primaries, however, it had become clear to Hilary Clinton that she wasn't the presumptive nominee that she thought herself to be. Suddenly, she changed her tune about the primaries in both Florida and Michigan, claiming that it would be wrong to deny them their voice in the election and that their delegates should be seated after all. That's convenient, since those delegates would be mainly in support of her campaign, which has continued to wash against the rocks over the ensuing months.

But frankly, it would be wrong to seat those delegates. For one thing, both states made decisions that were contrary to the rules laid out by the DNC, and they were both given an opportunity to bring themselves within conformity to those rules. So seating delegates from Florida and Michigan would send a clear message: "our rules don't count if you complain loudly enough." Or even worse: "our rules don't count if the Clintons benefit from them not counting."

Moreover, to seat those delegates would be unfair. Neither Obama or Edwards-- arguably the only other serious contenders at that point-- invested much effort or finances into campaigning there. And for good reason: they had been told that these so-called primaries would not count. They were abiding by the rules of the elections set forth by the DNC, and therefore had no reason to believe that it would ever become an issue. For the life of me I can't understand why Obama isn't shouting this from the rooftops-- unless he's too afraid that it would hurt his electability in those states this fall, which would be a sad reason to hold back.

It reminds me of a parenting philosophy one of my seminary professors espoused: he said, "in our household [a family of five] we make decisions democratically. Everyone gets a vote. But my vote counts six." That works in parenting, but not for national politics.

All of this comes together to make the DNC and the Clintons look ridiculous. Did the DNC set out to look like it was willing to let Bill and Hilary call the shots on this one? Did Barack Obama intend to appear to roll over and ignore a clear-cut situation? Did Hilary Clinton want to offer us one more example of her double-speak? Probably "no" on all counts. Yet, if things play out
like it seems they will, all of these will come to pass.

Two ironies have already come to pass: for one thing, both states would have had all the influence they could have wished had they kept their primaries when they usually had them (early March for Florida; February 5 for Michigan). This year's Democratic primary has drawn out so long that almost every state has felt like they have a large part in the process. All of the hassle and mess about Florida and Michigan was for naught.

For another irony, it turns out that Obama will end up getting a significant number of the delegates even if they ARE seated. All schemes and closed-door agreements aside, Obama scored better than 30% of the votes in both "primaries" without even campaigning there-- including what had to be write-ins in Michigan, where he wasn't even on the ballot. So for all of Hilary's whining about the need to seat these delegates, she still won't have enough delegates to win the nomination, even if they decide to grant them all a place at the table.

This whole situation is a mess; the DNC doesn't need to make it worse by opening the door to making the whole party process even more of a joke.

Monday, May 26, 2008

What's on TV?

A few weeks ago, a blog I read had a post about turning off the TV. The gist of the post was highlighting the fact that Americans watch too much TV (an average of four hours a day, says this blog) and how watching less reclaims that time for other things (like, in this case, de-cluttering your home). Many commenters chimed in with vehement agreement, claiming that TV was "a waste of time" and that there is nothing really worth watching.

While I agree that there is a problem of watching too much TV-- and that there are often better ways to spend time-- I also agree with one commenter who boldly spoke up in defense of television. His argument was that the claim, "There's nothing good on TV" is typical of those who, ironically, don't watch TV (and if you didn't catch the irony: if they don't watch TV, then they won't really know whether there's anything good on, will they?).

His point is a good one: some have argued that we're in something of a "golden age" of television. Cable channels (including premium channels like HBO and Showtime) have invested heavily for the last 10 years or so to gain a place in the primetime and serial TV market. Network TV-- long the dominant play-callers of the industry-- is fighting to maintain even a share of the viewers they once had, who are flying out the door to the cable and premium channels and their programming. This level of competition fell during a fortuitous point (for viewers, at least) in the timeline for the Internet: it was established enough to be a buzz-creator and discussion venue about new shows, but immature enough to not offer a competitive element of its own. So folks could talk about what they liked-- and savvy producers could learn from those discussions-- on the 'Net while returning to the "tube" to watch.

The result is an abundance of creativity and innovation in programming that has been unmatched in any form of media until very recently (more on that in a moment). There are good, engaging serials and dramas (
Lost, 24, Heroes, not to mention the huge successes in the realm of crime dramas, like the CSI: and Law & Order franchises); quirky and clever comedies (The Office appeals to MANY; shows like Rules of Engagement and The New Adventures of Old Christine, though a bit racy, include smart humor instead of simple crass punchlines); and a world of gameshows like we never dreamed when we used to settle for Wheel of Fortune and The Price Is Right (in addition to full-on gameshows, like Deal or No Deal, many of the so-called reality shows are really just elaborate gameshows).

Sure, some "reality" TV is lousy-- but a lot of it is a lot of fun, with emotional, relational, and psychological elements that are surprisingly engrossing (think
Survivor and The Apprentice). Many of the truly successful ones are an elaborate hybrid of The Gong Show and Star Search at a level that we always hoped was possible (maybe on par with The Ed Sullivan Show at times) when we watched those shows faithfully. (I'm thinking American Idol and Last Comic Standing.)

Add to all of that the immense variety of niche programming in the form of
entire channels devoted to things like gardening, history, home improvement, cooking, financial investment, and educational endeavors. "Nothing good on TV"-- have you ever watched the Discovery Channel? You could conceivably watch movies all day long for a week and not watch a repeat-- with a basic satellite subscription. Nostalgic for the old stuff? There are several channels that show re-runs of I Love Lucy and Little House on the Prairie regularly.

As another commenter (on the Unclutterer post) mentions: much of the quality of writing on TV meets or surpasses most of the contemporary fiction for sale, and much of the screenwriting done for film. Americans may watch too much TV, but the snobbish dismissal of TV as a media genre is misplaced.

Watch while you can: I predict that this "golden age" of TV will only last another handful of years. While the 'Net wasn't mature enough to be a competitor as the current TV era was coming of age, it is now: video over Internet is becoming so common as to be passe. Technology in general is "democratizing" media creativity; soon you'll see YouTube filled with independently-produced videos that rival TV in their writing and production. Over the next 5-10 years, video on the Internet will do to TV what blogging has done to printed news; it's not put out of business, but it's certainly not the go-to source for current events that it used to be. Just as every blogger is ostensibly a reporter (if they want to be), soon every amateur videographer will be a producer (if they want to be).

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bits & Tidbits

Sort of a slow week on the blog this week; sorry about that. Here are a few links to keep you busy...

Here's a cool tool for helping you with your Bible memory: This cleverly-named program makes use of e-mail and daily reminders to keep you focused on Bible memory. (HT: Adam)

Sam Rainer has good reflections and summary of a recent Ellison Research study on what sort of churches folks swap to when they swap churches.

PCA Pastor Bob Smallman will hit 30 years serving at the same church in November; read his reflections (written at the 25-year mark) on the long pastorate here. (By the way, PCA Pastor Rob Rayburn also hit 30 years.)

My friend Craig's two posts reflecting on California's decision to legalize "gay marriage" generated a lot of discussion and debate; catch the initial post here, and his followup here. Joe Carter interacts with a lot of data and research on the same topic; check out his thoughts here. Together, there's a lot to think about.

How do you define "failure" in a school? I thought this was already pretty well understood; it's hard to believe that this article is from USA Today, not The Onion.

Wow-- an actually helpful set of disclaimers and identity-markers about evangelicals. This article is a sort of "rubber meets the road" approach to the same problem the Evangelical Manifesto sets out to correct, in brief (and very readable) form. (HT: Joe)

Cleaning out your parents' home has become a major factor in our culture; I found this brief post (and the comments that followed) from Unclutterer to be really helpful.

I'm more glad every day that I'm not in high school anymore. Here's the latest reason why... which is more important: actually being liked, or perceiving that you are liked? Ugh. (HT: Joe)

Teachers in the midst of grading papers will resonate with this one: a community college professor reports that remarkably few students do well in his English 101 classes. (HT: Heidelblog)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Brief thoughts

Here are a few ideas that don't warrant a full post in themselves.
  • C.S. Lewis' second Narnia book (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) has hit the theaters. Some have pointed out that there are some significant changes from the original story line (probably some spoilers in there for some of you). Some people think this is actually an improvement on the story line. Some feel the true meaning of the original has been adulterated. Others are somewhere in the middle. I haven't seen it-- what do YOU think?

  • Hilary's almost certain loss is striking some odd chords-- including the idea behind THIS piece from the New York Times, which argues that the advancement of women will be hurt from her loss. Apparently, Hilary has simultaneously positioned herself as NOT benefiting from the gender question while at the same time answering it. (Being a male, I was obviously ignorant of such high-level ideas.) Ironically, if she has marketed herself on the women's lib vote then she doesn't deserve to win. As my friend Sam Murrell suggested, to vote for Hilary Clinton ONLY because she is a woman (or Barack Obama ONLY because he is black) is to also undercut your own argument opposing others who vote AGAINST them for the same reason. Hilary can't say, "vote for me because it's time to have a woman in the White House" and then hold it against those who vote for her opposition because they don't want a woman President. Logical consistency at its simplest.

  • If you've been tracking with me on the stir and kerfuffle surrounding the General Assembly overture (#9) about Deacons, Deaconesses, and Women, you may be interested to know that Wayside Presbyterian Church in the Chattanooga area has posted a page that aggregates (or at least attempts to) all of the discussion from around the web. You don't have to look far to see the sort of hard-line, slippery-slope thinking I've mentioned. (WARNING: if you love the church and are discouraged by ungodly treatment of pastors and others, read with caution. Many of these discussions are not for the faint of heart.) I DO appreciate their work, especially, in their words, that they "are not making any effort... to sort the articles into 'pro,' 'con,' or neutral. These articles come from several different viewpoints. We are just providing information."

  • Along the lines of the previous item, my personal hope is that the 2009 General Assembly will appoint a study committee to consider what guidelines, if any, ought to be offered as measures of godly character and discussion for those who choose to use blogs, websites, discussion forums, and other Internet tools to debate theological and denominational matters.

  • Following up on my words about the Evangelical Manifesto, Ed Stetzer released the word late last week that Ergun Caner, President and Dean of the Seminary at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School, asked that his name be stricken from the charter list on the basis of his claim that he never signed it. For those who don't immediately make the connection (I didn't), Liberty is the school that the late Jerry Falwell founded and led for many years; ironically, Caner's own website describes him as "a leading voice for evangelicalism on the national stage." For another take on the Evangelical Manifesto, check out this post from Scot McKnight, Professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (UPDATE: see this response to McKnight from PCA Pastor Andy Jones), and this alternative version offered by Dave Burchett, ESPN producer and Christian writer.

  • If you've been following the stuggles and difficulties in the wake of the natural disaster in Myanmar (Burma), you may be interested to know that missions boards and relief organizations are now succeeding in getting funds and other aid into the area. The PCA's Mission to the World (MTW) is asking for financial assistance through its "Minutemen" program; World Vision International is also appealing for help. Both sites have ways that you can donate online.

  • Here's a video I overlooked for my media tidbits on Friday: Possessed, a documentary which gives an amazing look at the worlds of hoarders. Very well done, with no commentary other than what the hoarders themselves offer. You can watch the whole thing online.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Media tidbits

Here's a few things I've been listening to/watching lately:

First, a video (using audio from R.C. Sproul) to discuss whether "Jesus as the only way to heaven" is too narrow:

Here's PCA Pastor Tim Keller speaking at UC Berkeley, addressing the topic of his new book The Reason for God. This is great stuff (if a little long!); keep listening after his talk, because he takes questions for about another hour. If you've never heard Keller answer questions in a public forum like this, you'll learn a lot about public discourse and how to engage others with ideas in a winsome, gracious way.

PCA Pastor Ligon Duncan is interviewed about why Christians should care about the Patristics. Who are the Patristics? What did they do? Why should we care? Pastor Duncan does a great job here of introducing this group of our spiritual ancestors to contemporary believers.

Here's Tim Keller again, this time speaking at Google Authors (a forum that Google provides for its employees and the community around them):

The talks from the Conversation on Denominational Renewal is probably the best thing I've listened to in a while. These five talks cover several topics briefly, and they do an excellent job of debunking the myths of what trouble the PCA is in under the threat of theological variation, and expose the truth about the trouble of misplacing our focus. If you listen to only one, make it Jeremy Jones's talk on "Renewing Theology." (Click on "Who's Speaking?" after following the link...)

Everybody else seems to be linking to this video from Joshua Harris (the I Kissed Dating Goodbye guy) on models of education; and this video from John Piper called "Don't Waste your Pulpit." I might as well link to them also! They're both actually good videos with good points behind each.

Finally, way back in the day I gave my sister a book entitled something like, 101 Things to Do during a Boring Sermon. The funniest one was called "Rapture Bingo" and it provided a Bingo card something like this one. If you got bingo, you were supposed to stand up and shout, "IT'S THE RAPTURE!" (The second-funniest one was "Not the Rapture Bingo" wherein you waited for someone to stand up and shout, "IT'S THE RAPTURE!" at which point you would stand up and shout, "NO IT'S NOT!") Enjoy-- but if I catch anyone playing during one of MY sermons, I might make a sermon illustration out of you!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More thoughts on reading

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about reading in response to a question from one of my blog-readers. A few more thoughts have occurred to me.

On reading books:

  • Keep a list for recommendations. Suggestions for good books to read come up all the time: from blogs, on the radio or TV news, in lectures, from friends. I've found it helpful to make a note of recommendations that I want to eventually follow up on-- even if I don't plan to get the book soon-- and keep a list in one place. This way, I have my list handy when I order books. I've found using an Amazon Wishlist is the easiest way for me to organize these recommendations; since I'll probably buy from Amazon anyway, this makes it particularly easy to choose from my list. (I can access Amazon-- and add to my Wishlist-- through my mobile phone, too-- so it works on the road as well.) It doesn't hurt that this makes for easier gift-giving at Christmas and birthday times.

  • Have options on-hand for "what's next." If you're keeping a list, this makes it a lot easier to have options-- whether you go to the library or buy books yourself. I buy books about once a month, and I rarely order only one at a time; instead, I'll get two or three from my list (which also qualifies my order for free shipping, if I'm buying from Amazon). This way, I have a stockpile to choose from when I finish the book I'm reading.

  • Keep reading. When I finish a book, I start another within 24 hours. It is easy to fall out of the habit of reading, and difficult to get back into it. Reading is exercise for your mind-- so persistent discipline for it is the same as going to the gym. Keep it up.

  • Make notes about what you've read. I've begun to do this on this blog, as you may have noticed. When you finish a book, reflect on whether it was worth reading, what you learned, whether you would recommend it to someone else-- or at least that you read it!

  • Catalog your books. If you buy very many books, eventually you'll amass a collection that can be difficult to keep up with or manage. I've found it helpful to keep my books cataloged in a computer database (I use a free one called Books, which is made for the Mac; there are others for Macs, some for PCs, and online options), but you could do fairly well with just a spreadsheet. Keeping track of the author, title, some publishing data, and other helpful information (like if you've lent your copy out, or the notes you made about it when you finished it) is a good minimum. My database keeps all of this, plus a lot more.
If you really want to learn more about reading books well, I actually have a few book recommendations about that:
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler; How to Read Slowly by James Sire; The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen; and Shelf Life by George Grant.

On other reading:
  • Keep newspapers in check. If you subscribe to a daily newspaper, do you read it every day? We've found that we actually read our paper more because we cut our subscription back to Saturday and Sunday only. We don't have stacks of newspapers piling up as fast as before, so we're more likely to read them. You might find that a re-evaluation of your newspaper subscriptions will keep your reading progress streamlined.

  • Get your news from more than one source. It's hard to get accurate news. While it's tempting to settle for just one news source, it's likely that you won't really get a clear picture of the news, but a mostly editorialized version. I get my news from World magazine, Newsweek, the local newspapers, and the New York Times online.

  • Magazines are good-- in moderation. In addition to my book reading, I also have several magazine subscriptions. I've already mentioned Newsweek and World; I also get Cooks Illustrated, Photo Techniques, ByFaith, and Leadership Journal. Magazines are great for quick, concise articles on specific topics. But they can get overwhelming too-- Marcie gets stressed out with too many magazines coming in, so we keep these in check too.

  • Use RSS feeds for blogs and internet news. If you don't already know about RSS feeds, you should definitely check them out. I keep up with over 100 blogs and websites, and RSS feeds allow me to skim through more than 200 posts and updates daily in what amounts to just 1-2 hours total (and that's spread throughout the day in 10 or 15-minute increments). I don't even bother trying to read a blog that doesn't have a feed anymore-- but I haven't seen one without a feed in recent memory.
Reading is so worthwhile, but like anything worth doing it requires time and discipline. I hope that my suggestions have been helpful to make you a more effective reader.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bits & Tidbits

What is the most crying need of the church in America today? A handful of key thinkers answer this question thoughtfully and helpfully.

I mentioned the various
comments and discussion of the Evangelical Manifesto; you can find some of them here: Os Guinness, Doug Wilson, Darrell Bock, Joe Taylor, Denny Burk, Alan Jacobs, Guinness again, Al Mohler, Ed Stetzer, Justin Taylor.

A great quote from Spurgeon on looking to Jesus, courtesy of my friend Paul Bankson.

My friend Adam has a great list of resources on suffering. 'Cause all of us face it.

Why are some Reformed folk so unpleasant? Thomas McCall of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has some good remarks here; see also this (now dated) post and this Christianity Today article. Shouldn't grace beget grace?

What's going on in Myanmar? And why are we hearing more about it? Note these two posts from Justin Taylor (first, second) about some of the problems. How can the average American local congregation do something to help?

Women and outreach

Does this idea about "women and word of mouth" suggest anything to the church about evangelism and outreach? Could this be part of the reason why there are more women attending church today than men? Does it imply that we ought to put more emphasis on women in our outreach efforts?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tim Keller has it right

In this interesting article from Christianity Today, PCA Pastor Tim Keller claims that the Gospel is more than only justification. He's right-- for generations leading up to our individualistic age, Christians have understood this. It has only been in recent years (and coinciding with-- or due to?-- the individualism of our day) that the concept of salvation has been limited to a one-time experience, an almost gnostic approach to spiritual life.

Here's a key excerpt from the article:
Keller answered this year's question for the Christian Vision Project, "Is our gospel too small?" (The article is not yet available online.) In so doing he took a stab at defining the gospel. "Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from the judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever."
Is God's plan to renew creation part of the gospel message? If so, is it the center of the gospel or a peripheral component of the Good News? Again, how you answer these questions affects how you will live, and how you will expect fellow church members to act.
"When the third, 'eschatological' element is left out, Christians get the impression that nothing much about this world matters," Keller wrote. "Theoretically, grasping the full outline should make Christians interested in both evangelistic conversions as well as service to our neighbor and working for peace and justice in the world."
Your salvation is bigger than just your conversion or justification, and it's bigger than just something that happens to you in isolation from others.

Thoughts on the Evangelical Manifesto

Last week, a document entitled The Evangelical Manifesto was released by a broad group of Christian leaders (by that, I mean leaders of Christianity in various forms) as an effort to raise helpful questions and offer helpful guidance about how we, as Christians, live out our faith as both citizens of the Kingdom and residents in our American culture.

The list of 80 "
charter signatories" and authors includes a lot of names that will be familiar to many Christians: Kay Arthur, Darrell Bock, Stuart Briscoe, Leighton Ford, Os Guinness, Jack Hayford, Max Lucado, J.P. Moreland, John Ortberg, Rebecca Manley Pippert, Alvin Plantinga, Miroslav Volf, Jim Wallis. It also includes many names that won't be familiar, while the titles under them will: President of Dallas Theological Seminary; Chancellor, Northwest University; President, National Association of Evangelicals; President, Bethel University; President, Dollar General; Founder, Leadership Network; President, Liberty Seminary; Former President, Eastern University; President, World Vision International; President-Emeritus, Gordon-Conwell Seminary; President, Wheaton College; President, World Relief; President, Houghton College; President, Institute for Global Engagement; Editor in Chief, Christianity Today International; Founder, Charisma Magazine; President, National Religious Broadcasters; President, Beeson Divinity School. You get the point.

What's laudable about the document is that it offers clarification to a question that there are far too many answers for today: who are the Evangelicals? We hear about them in the news (especially as tied to some political or social movement). The Manifesto clearly asserts that we (Evangelical Christians) ought to be defined more by our theology than our political, social, or cultural agendas. And it goes on to say that, whatever we may differ about, there are many truths we can agree upon-- which it spells out in eloquent terms. It is unashamed of the Bible, of historically orthodox Christianity, and of the plain Gospel of salvation through Christ alone. (Some have suggested that it is not exclusive enough on the "Christ alone" part-- I don't see how the statement, "we believe that the only ground for our acceptance by God is what Jesus Christ did on the cross and what he is now doing through his risen life, whereby he exposed and reversed the course of human sin and violence, bore the penalty for our sins, credited us with his righteousness, redeemed us from the power of evil, reconciled us to God, and empowers us with his life 'from above'" (pp. 5-6) leaves that open to question.) The authors state that, in answer to the question above, we must reaffirm our identity, reform our own behavior, and rethink our place in public life. And in their description of how we might do all of these things, they challenge self-described Evangelicals to handle themselves and others with charity, grace, and humility, leading with a message of affirming what is true before asserting what we are against.

It's interesting to me that the above goals are almost exactly what I have been thinking about lately, and dialoguing with others about. It seems like there is a groundswell of support for exactly these ideas, and this Manifesto is perhaps the first big, self-conscious step in a good direction that the whole of American Christianity might undertake. It's not the only step, nor is it the last step, but it is a very good first step.

The document has come under fire right from the start, naturally-- because these days, it seems like anything that suggests that Christians can actually find common ground with one another, reaching past denominational or theological boundaries and acknowledging the faith and brotherhood of those who don't believe exactly like us, is clearly faulty and problematic in the eyes of a small but vocal minority. I've read a good bit of discussion surrounding this Manifesto, and I'm surprised at how vehemently it has been attacked in some cases. (Some of the attackers admit that they haven't even read the document!) My suspicion is that many of the attackers, by and large, are responding defensively to the suggestion in the Manifesto that their single-issue voting, slippery-slope sectarianism, or separatist fundamentalism is somehow out of accord with Scripture. This, by the way, is based on the fact that much of the criticism is aimed at these issues, and consists of arguments like, "how can they argue that there is a fight more important than abortion?" (which the Manifesto DOESN'T argue). As one commenter said, these critics are reading more into the document than they are reading out of it.

There are some legitimate critiques-- even some that I agree with-- but I don't think these should prevent Christians from embracing this document for what it is: a starting point, a common point. It isn't a complete articulation of what it means to be a Christian-- which is why, for example, there is something left to be desired in the view of participation in a local church-- nor is it a call to do LESS than what we are already doing in our life of faith, generally speaking. It is simply a call to be MORE what we claim to be, and to connect more fully with others who share the same faith.

Perhaps the most interesting attack came from Douglas Wilson. Known for his tendency to provoke strong responses, Wilson accuses the document of handing over the public square to the atheists and secularists (which, I suppose, is what the Manifesto's perspective would look like to a Reconstructionist like Wilson). This attack was interesting to me because Wilson was/is one of the loudest voices accusing the PCA of being too exclusive and not accepting enough of theological variance when it comes to the Federal Vision controversy. (Watch out, FV proponents; it looks like Wilson could be quite inconsistent in this way, much like my friend Jon and I
discussed in the comments of his blog.) One brief paragraph from the Manifesto could have been penned by one of those very FV proponents who came under fire: "Behind this affirmation is the awareness that identity is powerful and precious to groups as well as to individuals. Identity is central to a classical liberal understanding of freedom. There are grave dangers in identity politics, but we insist that we ourselves, and not scholars, the press, or public opinion, have the right to say who we understand ourselves to be. We are who we say we are, and we resist all attempts to explain us in terms of our true motives and our real agenda" (p. 4).

It's worth noting that the self-appointed watchdogs of the PCA haven't commented on this document, although the "blogosphere" is abuzz about it. (In fact, I haven't heard anything about it from anyone in the PCA, that I know of.) I'm curious about why this is so, though I have my suspicions. How about it, friends: what is your take on the Evangelical Manifesto?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Discussing women and deacons

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Philadelphia Presbytery has submitted an overture to the PCA's General Assembly asking the GA to erect a study committee on Deaconesses. That overture has been echoed by the Western Canada Presbytery, and if I'm able to read this sort of thing at all, the committee will almost certainly be erected.

It may be needless to point out that this issue has caused quite a bit of stir and discussion. The PCA's own magazine,
byFaith, has posted a summary of the announcement of the overture and that has generated quite a bit of discussion in the comments. Other, less "official" sources have also hosted a significant amount of discussion as well. A good bit of the discussion is quite helpful, offering finer points and perspectives that would simply be impossible to gather were it not for this Internet/Information Age that we live in.

Sadly, a lot of the discussion has also deteriorated into mostly or totally unhelpful rant, name-calling, and fear-mongering. A few of the points of discussion may be summed up as follows:
  • "Scripture is clear on this matter (OR, arguing that Scripture isn't clear is a sign of our cultural liberalism and feminism)." The thought process here: because the NIV translates 1 Timothy 3:11 with reference to "their wives" instead of (the equally possible) "the women;" and because it translates "diakonos" Romans 16:1 as "servant" because it refers to a woman, then the issue is clearly settled. But who is to say that these translations are filled with cultural bias or the influence of a historical patriarchalism? Anyone who says, "Scripture is clear" has probably only been looking at English translations.

  • "The Book of Church Order (BCO) already prohibits ordaining women as Deacons." The line of thought here: The BCO is a finished, completed document that is utterly faithful to Scripture and never need be changed or amended to be brought closer to the Bible. This is difficult to reconcile with (common sense and) the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says, "All syonds or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both" (WCF 31.4).

  • "The word that is translated 'Deacon' in the Bible for men is obviously translated as 'servant' for women." Thought process: meaning changes substantially, even fundamentally, based solely on gender. This is an interesting foundational principle-- and one I'd like to hear more support for by other examples before accepting, which the arguers haven't provided.

  • "The Apostles' recognition of Phoebe, and other women in the New Testament, was a function of their cultural role-- something that doesn't apply to us." The appeal here is to the historical context, which of course is a fundamental principle in Bible interpretation. The problem is that these same folks will argue that historical context trumps literary context (or the language of the text itself-- see previous bullet) when Phoebe is mentioned, but when dealing with, say, 1 Timothy 3:11, quickly jump to the next argument...

  • "The historical context doesn't apply, since Paul was writing normative principles to Timothy about the qualifications for Deacons." Line of thought: somehow historical context is disposable for any normative portion of biblical text. The problem with that is that it would rule out the context of the deliverance and redemption of Israel out of Egyptian slavery as the setting for the 10 commandments, for example-- which most would agree poses some problems about a classic Reformed understanding of the 10 commandments.

  • "Allowing women as Deacons (even if the Bible permits it) will inevitably lead to handing over all authority in the church to women." The thinking here is a classic slippery slope notion: if one thing is bad or prohibited, then we dare not go near anything close to that thing. (This was a problem that the Pharisees often had, by the way...)

  • "Allowing women as Deacons is granting them authority and leadership that is unbibilcal." The thought trajectory in this argument is that Deacons have authority of the same sort that Elders have, and the Bible forbids women to have such authority. The problems here are rooted in the (mistaken and unbiblical) idea that Deacons are some kind of "Junior Elder" and therefore share in the role of authority with the Elders. But two problems immediately arise from this line of thought: first, the BCO itself defines the office of Deacon as "one of sympathy and service" (BCO 9.1) while it defines the Elder as office of exercising "government and discipline" (BCO 8.3)-- very different roles, one with clear distinction of authority and the other with, at best, less clear distinction. Secondly, the Deacons are "under the supervision and authority of the Session" (BCO 9.2), which begs the question: what authority do they have that, for example, a Sunday School teacher or WIC (Women in the Church) leader doesn't also have?

  • "We already have the WIC; what do we need women as Deacons for?" The idea here being that the WIC serves as a functional body of "Deaconesses" and we should simply let things remain as they are. Here again, there are two problems with this: first, Scripture does not define for us something like a WIC, and if we desire to pattern our bodies of leadership after Scripture then we should be careful about casually assuming that the WIC fulfills a role that Scripture defines for women. Secondly, and more importantly: the WIC is a ministry of leadership, structured specifically to minister to the women in the church; yet, the office of Deacon is broader than just women. Frankly, I learn a lot from women and have benefited from the ministry and teaching of many women-- and I find the suggestion that women should only minister to other women (and children) short-sighted.

  • "We ought to just do like ____ [insert name of a very large PCA church in the south] with the way they handle Deacon's assistants." I was surprised to see this argument made by more than one or two people. The thinking here: So-and-so has figured it out, and they should set the pace for all PCA churches. Again, problems arise: setting aside the very big assumption that the leadership there really has figured it out and has hit upon the perfect biblical solution, what does this have to do with what the BCO says about Deacons and women? But a closer look at the proposed practices reveals the truth: said PCA church's solution is to hire out the work of "serving tables" to outsiders (many of them unbelievers, all of them African-Americans).
I'm not convinced that blogs and discussion boards (mine included) are completely helpful in matters like these. It seems to me that folks are getting so entrenched in their positions, long before GA, that the possibility of healthy, profitable discussion on a study committee-- and even a good appointment of that committee-- is diminished.

I'm not decided about the matter. I've held back from my inclination to dig into the issue and study it to the point of deciding what my mind is about it-- though I'll take the time to do that before GA. But I am struck by this: most of the arguments against the
study committee (summarized above) go against my logical inclinations-- committing fallacies and demonstrating inconsistency frequently-- and these weaken the case against a committee significantly. So I'm obviously in favor of erecting a study committee, even if I'm not decided on the issue of women as Deacons/Deaconesses.

Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised that brothers and sisters in the PCA can't have a more constructive conversation about all of this. As much as anything, reading some of these discussions have caused me to grieve the lack of brotherly love and charitable grace within our denomination, and my heart has frequently been heavy about it over the past few weeks. Why is an overture to study ANY part of the BCO to consider if it is fully and truly based on Scripture so threatening?

One commenter (Scott Truax of Peace Presbyterian Church, Cary, NC) at the
byFaith page summed it up the best: "If we follow Scripture, we have nothing to fear."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Election Fatigue

Another week, another round of a couple more primary elections.

After Tuesday's primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, it became clear that
Hilary Clinton could not win the primary even if the Michigan and Florida delegates were counted (because the numbers simply wouldn't amount to enough) and Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States-- even though Clinton vows to continue with her campaign.

Sure, part of the U.S. is issuing a collective sigh of relief that Hilary Clinton isn't going to be President, and folks in North Carolina and Indiana received the small joy of knowing that their primaries counted for something more than just local elections. But are the rest of us even paying attention anymore? Everywhere I turn, it seems like Election Fatigue has set in firmly.

Of course, we've known for quite a while now that John McCain is the Republican candidate for President; remember him? His campaign strategy has apparently been to keep his head down and let Hilary and Barack destroy each other's public image, while the rest of the country gets more and more tired of hearing their names and seeing them give the same speeches.

This has already been one of the longest campaigns in history-- and the sad news is that we still have six months of campaigning left. Will we make it? Has the long and tedious primary jaded us toward the importance of a Presidential election?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Book Give-Away: a winner!

Back in March (!), I offered a free copy of Andrew Peterson's On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness as a part of the "blog tour" I was participating in. Entry in the drawing was simple: answer a question about how frequently you believe a congregation should celebrate the sacrament of communion, and why.

There were five entries, and I'm pleased to (finally) announce the winner is:

Megan Dunham!

Congratulations Megan... I'll get the book in the mail to you in the next few days.

Thanks to all who participated in the drawing; your answers were interesting and helpful.

More on suffering

Apropos to the wrap-up of the series on the cross yesterday-- the cross in our suffering, the cross in our glory-- I find this quote from the late James Montgomery Boice, who faithfully pastored 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for over 30 years before succumbing to liver cancer:
If God does something in your life, would you change it? If you’d change it, you’d make it worse. It wouldn’t be as good. So that’s the way we want to accept it and move forward, and who knows what God will do?

Paul Bankson)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Essential non-obvious bands of the 80s

Following up on my post from Tuesday, I got to thinking about bands that didn't have one stand-out album that defined them or a part of 80s music, and that also weren't obvious stand-out bands.

Okay, apart from Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, The Police, U2, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson (yes, admit it), Prince, and a few other HUGE bands, which ones were the real essential, non-obvious bands and/or artists?

  • REO Speedwagon. A great band with a big sound, these guys had a clever knack that came through their songs and even their album names-- with albums called things like "You Get What You Play For," "You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish," and "Hi Infidelity." Favorites: Roll with the changes, Time for me to fly, Keep on Loving You, Take it on the run, Can't fight this feeling.

  • Styx. Tons of hit songs came out of this powerhouse, which was plagued by the (apparently common) problem of a frontman with a distinctive talent and sound along with a HUGE ego that eventually made it impossible for the band to stay together. Still, they had a ton of hits (spanning both the 70s and 80s) and their music is still great. Favorites: Lady, Come Sail Away, Babe, The Best of Times, Don't Let It End, Foolin' Yourself.

  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Another band that spanned the 70s and 80s (and 90s!), and another one that churned out hit after hit. While none of their 14 albums had more than two or three hits, the collective result is fodder for box sets and fun greatest hits discs. Favorites: Breakdown, American Girl, Refugee, Here Comes My Girl, Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, You Got Lucky, Don't Come Around Here No More, Jammin' Me, Runnin' Down a Dream, Free Fallin', You Don't Know How It Feels.

  • Men at Work. This band was so quirky, but wow, did they have a great sound-- sort of aussie-rock with a hint of reggae thrown in. The lead singer, Colin Hay, has a great voice (and crazy eyes), and a great sense of self-effacing humor. Favorites: Be Good Johnny, Down Under, Who Can It Be Now? Overkill, It's A Mistake.

  • The Bangles. While they weren't the first all-girl band of the 80s to hit it big (The Go-Gos beat them to it by a year), They had a longer and more successful career, and I think were a tighter band. Favorites: Manic Monday, If She Knew What She Wants, Walk Like an Egyptian, Hazy Shade of Winter.

  • Journey. It's difficult to overestimate the powerhouse that Journey was in the 80s, for me at least. With a career that started in the mid-70s, they had this arena-rock sound that persevered well into the 80s (and is still solid today). Though they seemed to do the unthinkable in replacing Steve Perry as lead singer (see above reference to distinctive and difficult frontmen), the word is that the guy who replaced him (also named Steve) both looks and sounds like him. Freaky. Favorites: Wheel in the Sky, Lights, Feeling That Way/Anytime, Any Way You Want It, Who's Crying Now, Don't Stop Believin', Faithfully, Send Her My Love, Be Good to Yourself, Girl Can't Help It, I'll Be Alright Without You, Only the Young.

  • Genesis/Phil Collins. These two seem to run together-- I have difficulty keeping straight which songs Collins released as solo work and which were done with the band. But it seems like every year or so, there was a hit song from either Genesis or a solo tune from Collins. Favorites: Invisible Touch, Sussudio, Against All Odds, One More Night, That's All, Turn It On Again, Throwing It All Away.

  • The Cars. Another band that got its start in the 70s (noticing a theme?), these guys had sort of a funk/new wave sound to some of their stuff that played well as 80s pop. They were also quick to embrace creativity with music videos in the 80s, which lent them more success. Favorites: Just What I Needed, My Best Friend's Girl, Let's Go, Shake It Up, You Might Think, Magic, Hello Again.

  • Bryan Adams. Fresh from Canada, this guy was another who had a bunch of records with a couple of real hits from each. He had a clean-cut look and a good voice, which lent to his success. Favorites: Cuts Like a Knife, Run to You, Summer of '69, It's Only Love, Please Forgive Me.

  • Hall & Oates. What a great combination of 70s funk/R&B with early 80s pop-rock! These guys churned out the hits too-- every few months there was a new one on the radio. Favorites: She's Gone, Sara Smile, Rich Girl, You Make My Dreams Come True, Kiss on My List, Private Eyes, Family Man, Maneater, I Can't Go for That (No Can Do), Out of Touch.

  • John Cougar Mellencamp. Maybe the worst stage name ever for a rock musician, John "Cougar" broke into stardom with American Fool, which made honorable mention in my list on Tuesday. He has a rootsy, almost country sound (indeed, he sounds more country than a lot of country musicians today), reflecting his Indiana upbringing. Favorites: Jack and Diane, Crumblin' Down, Pink Houses, Authority Song, Lonely Ol' Night, Small Town, Rain on the Scarecrow, Rumbleseat, Paper in Fire, Check It Out, Wild Night, Our Country.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

When to read?

In response to one of my book listings, a member asked me, "you're a busy guy-- when do you find time to read all that you do?"

Fair question, and one that I've had to be creative in answering over the years. Here are some thoughts for folks who want to find more time to read, and/or read more effectively:

  • Take it with you. I rarely leave my home or office without SOMETHING to read-- a book, a journal or magazine, or at least my phone! (I make heavy use of RSS feeds, and my feed-reader syncs with a website that makes it easy for me to read RSS feeds from my iPhone.) If I'm going to be somewhere that there is even the potential for a wait-- restaurant, doctor's appointment, picking up the kids from school, etc.-- I will use that time to read, if I can. BUT not (usually) to the neglect of social interaction with others I'm with.

  • Place your reading in strategic places. I leave books and magazines around the house where I know I'll be when I might have a few minutes to read. I've usually got a stack by the chair where I usually sit in our living room and on my nightstand. (Yes, I also keep some reading in the bathroom.) And I keep something on my desk to grab when I have a minute or two at work.

  • Learn to read multiples. I usually keep three or four books going at once. One of them typically emerges as the "go-to" book of choice, but for some reason I've found that my reading pace slows if I'm only reading one book. If you can train your mind to follow more than one book at once, you'll get a lot more reading done, in my experience.

  • Learn to read efficiently. Not every book is one that I feel compelled to read every single word of. A professor in seminary suggested that, to read more efficiently, a good examination of the table of contents and/or index might suggest some emphases, and you may be able to determine that there are sections (even chapters) that you can skip without missing too much. Another technique: Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph, and thereby determine if the whole paragraph is important to read. (One would hope that this method wouldn't be necessary, because every word should be important, right? But in our day, editing is done with a light hand, if it's done at all, and books are often repetitive.) Two notes here: first, this doesn't work for fiction books! Second, I don't employ this method for most of the books I read, and you may find that, like me, you prefer to read more slowly and absorb a book, rather than skimming it quickly.

  • Know when to stop. Here's a freeing concept: you don't HAVE to finish every book you start! If you find that a book just isn't offering you much, or you think that you've probably gotten the gist of it, feel free to put it down-- for now, or for good. Not all of every book was written for you; some books aren't really suited for you at all, while others will have sections that just don't apply. Discerning when these are true can free you to use your valuable reading time more effectively.

  • Make time to read. This one seems obvious, but most of us have a dozen things that we would do with endless amounts of time that get neglected in day-to-day life. Just like everything else, if reading isn't a priority to you, you won't "find the time" to do it. It helps me to know that, several nights a week, I will read at night before going to sleep. Often, I sacrifice a few minutes of sleep to read a few more pages.

  • Read quickly. Some people have found that taking a speed-reading class is very helpful. Others (like me) just process words rapidly. If Marcie and I are both reading the same article, I usually finish it when she is about two-thirds of the way through it. I don't know why, but I just read fast. If there's a way to develop this, you might benefit from finding it.

Another important thing to keep in mind: part of my job is to read. I'm currently preparing one sermon, plus lessons for two other teaching times-- each week. As a result, I do a lot of study, and a big part of my study is reading. If your job doesn't call on you to read, then it isn't fair to compare your reading habits to mine. There are a lot of people that read much more than I do; it is said that Theodore Roosevelt read a book a day, even while in the White House. A friend of mine reads about 100 books a year-- which is probably twice what I read. I don't find it helpful to compare my accomplishments in reading to others, but simply to read as much as I am able.