Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bad argument styles #2: using labels that don't work

I once worked for a church where a member of the pastoral staff and I didn’t fully agree on theological matters. He might have defined himself (in comparison to me) as more broadly evangelical, while I might have defined myself (in relation to him) as more traditionally Reformed. But when it came to him defining me, the choice was simple.

He called me a “TR”.

If you’ve never encountered the label “TR” before, it means “Totally Reformed” or “Truly Reformed”. This wasn’t the first time I had encountered the label, but it was the first time I had been called one. (And the last, as far as I know.)

When someone is called a TR, it doesn’t really define a clear meaning of who they are, what they think, or where they stand on a position. Rather, it is a judgment waged entirely on one person’s thoughts relative to another person.

So many will use the label TR as a pejorative term: “He’s such a TR” (meaning, “he’s more ‘Reformed’ than me). Others will use it with a sense of theological hubris: “I’m a TR” (meaning, “I’m more ‘Reformed’ than you”). In neither case is the term helpful.

For years, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have had clear and straightforward associations. Over that time,
they have served as categories that we might safely place ourselves (and others) within, which lends great understanding of what we (and others) think, believe, agree or disagree with, etc.

I believe that time has passed us by. I think these labels, like “TR”, are no longer helpful, but are simply used in either pejorative or haughty ways.

As I recently read a book entitled,
A Handful of Pebbles: theological liberalism and the church, this idea (that the labels no longer serve a useful purpose) kept coming to mind. It wasn’t unclear what the author meant by it, but it was clear that he supposed that what he described as “theological liberalism” was all that there was to it.

Is it possible that there are liberal ideas and ideals that (so-called) conservatives might also embrace? Or that there are conservative ideas and ideals that (so-called) liberals might embrace? Whether we are discussing theology, politics, social issues, or economics, I think the lines are blurring.

For example, we have any number of people in political office today who are called “conservatives”-- yet these people are not “conservative” in every way: some may be fiscal conservatives, but social moderates and theological liberals. Similarly, there are many who are categorized as “liberals” who are socially and theologically conservative, but are politically liberal.

And, of course, there is the matter of degree. Whether a person assumes the mantle of conservative or liberal, or more or less “Reformed”, they are doing so in comparison to others. And the problem with association by degrees was best articulated by Tim Keller:

No matter what you believe, there will always be someone to your ‘right’, as it were, who thinks you sold out the Gospel.

Keller went on to illustrate by talking about living in community. So you think you know what vulnerable community is? he asks. Look at the Amish-- they blow us away when it comes to living in an intimate community.

But, Keller says, a people-group like the Auca indians (the group that Jim and Elizabeth Elliot sought to reach as missionaries) will look at the Amish and write them off. You think you know intimate community? How can you-- you have walls! It turns out that the Aucas live in dwellings with no walls, and everything that anyone does is announced. When Elizabeth Elliot left her dwelling to go to the bathroom, someone would announce, “the white woman is going down to the river to urinate”.

We have many, many categories and labels that are quite useful-- but we have a good number (more than we should) that aren’t. So, how can we evaluate our labels? Here are a few questions to ask:
  • Am I labeling an idea, or a person? If I am labeling a person, am I being hasty in casting them into a group that they do not deserve to be in?
  • Why do I feel the need to apply a label or category to this person or idea? Will applying a label or category truly help me (and others) understand their point of view?
  • Is my use of labels or categories gracious and kind, giving credit where credit is due? Or is it something that tears another down or builds me up (or both)?
  • Is the label or category I am using an objective qualification of a particular view or idea? Or is it simply a means of comparing myself or someone else to others?
  • Does my use of labels or categories drive myself and others to Christ and to orthodoxy? Is speaking of someone or some idea in this way a credit to the Gospel?
  • Is my use of labels or categories something I would gladly say to the person I am speaking of? Could I say this to them without embarrassment or qualification? Would the feel honored and understood by my use of the label or category I am applying to them?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Good, funny stuff

When I was a senior (in high school), believe it or not, I was the theater guy. I did all the lights, sound, sets, and production stuff. Charlie Todd was a guy who went to the same school as I did, and I remember him as a seventh grader taking huge interest in all of that stuff, too.

Fast forward 17 years, and
Charlie is now a leading part of a group called Improv Anywhere (which he started). They do hilarious things.

Yesterday I was reading a friend from seminary’s blog, and lo and behold-- there’s Charlie doing his thing:

(HT: Stacey)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fostering and Adoption: how we gave up the family a long time ago

There is an interesting overture before the legislature of Arkansas that, if it succeeds, would put a bill before the state that would outlaw adoption and foster care by unmarried people who live together.

I find it interesting because it is addressing the very problem that, I believe, ended the current debate about same-sex marriage before it started: when we (and by that I mean the “royal we”-- the culture of our nation) granted same-sex couples the right to foster and adopt orphans, we tacitly allowed them to also define themselves as a family. How, then, could we possibly deny them other similar legal rights as a family?

So the people of Arkansas have realized that-- or at least they have recognized that granting same-sex couples (and other unmarried couples as well) the right to adopt, they put the “traditional” understanding of family under threat. This is a pretty bold move, given the widespread acceptance of divorce and even co-habitation in our society.

At the same time, I have to say I’m sympathetic to the response from the “other side”-- in this case, including the social workers and others who want to see the huge numbers of orphans placed with families that can care for them better than the state. Is it not the case that ANY willing parent-- single, unmarried, homosexual-- who will offer love and care for a child is better than none, leaving children in state care?

And this is where the rubber meets the road: if the church dares to demand that such measures be taken (i.e., stripping same-sex couples of the possibility of adoption), we must step up to improve our participation in adoption and foster care ourselves. We are biblically mandated to do so (James 1:27) if we claim to take the practice of our faith seriously. How can we say that unmarried couples must not be allowed to adopt, when they are willing to do what we are not?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bad argument styles #1: The Bait-and-Switch

Closely related to my ongoing discussion on logic is the concept of argument style, which is really a part of rhetoric. As I can, I’ll explore that concept as well. Here’s the first installment.

One of the problems that face us when we’re dealing with arguments and dialogue is that, quite often, one side of the argument has done a good bit more consideration on the topic than the other side. This frequently leads to what I find to be a common problem in theological discussion: the Bait-and-Switch.

The Bait-and-Switch looks like this: Two thinkers walk into a discussion. Thinker one (we’ll call him Tom) is quite familiar with the topic of the discussion, while thinker two (who we shall call Ann) is only vaguely aware of the major points.

In fact, Tom is not only familiar with the topic, but is well-convinced of his position, and has ready access to multiple articles and books that support his view. Ann, on the other hand, has perhaps encountered Tom’s view before; maybe she has even read an article or two. It may be that she has a few reasons to question whether Tom’s perspective is right, but she is, at very least, unwilling to be quick to change her views of what she considers orthodox.

So when Tom encounters Ann, he tosses out a casual question to her that is phrased in such a way as to suggest that the question-- and (here’s the important thing) the
intent of the question-- is objective. Perhaps the question is worded ambiguously, or maybe it contains an asking phrase that requests the opinion of the other in an apparently sincere way.

Ann takes the bait. She answers with a sincere statement of her opinion. She probably shoots from the hip to a fair degree, and she may very well disclaim exactly that. Her answer is brief, but it probably states a good bit (even all) of what she might have to say about the matter.

So Tom sets the hook. If he’s really good at this, he might ask a few follow-up questions that are similarly ambiguous, again appealing for her honest answer. Then he reels her in: she is suddenly blasted with an overwhelming amount of information. It might be in the form of an article cut-and-pasted into an e-mail, or a series of quotes (lots of them-- 15 or more) posted in the comments of a blog post, or the spoken dialogue switches to monologue for a time. The actual form doesn’t really matter-- it’s the result that does.

If Tom gets his fish, then the result is that Ann is sucked into a discussion that she can’t possibly win, and Tom will eventually demonstrate that he is right because his opponent cannot sufficiently out-argue him. (If Ann is smart, she jumps off the hook at the point when the first wave of overwhelming information comes.)

Here’s what is wrong with the above style of argument:
  • It begins with deception. Tom presents himself as sincerely interested in Ann’s opinion, when he is not. He asks a question or makes a statement that is worded to imply objectivity when none is present. Tom has set out to convince someone of his point of view, but acts like he is still arriving at it.
  • From deception it moves to a psychological move on the order of Cialdini: because Ann has invested time and energy into this discussion, she feels obligated to continue. Tom capitalizes on this psychology, binding her into what amounts to a sales pitch.
  • Tom then beats her up and presents her as the defeated foe, which is a straw man fallacy (more on this in a future post). Ann never set out to be his foe, and she never presented herself as a representative for the “other side” of the topic. Yet Tom trumpets the “other side” as defeated because Ann has been defeated.
  • Overall, Tom has forsaken the loving fellowship that he might have with his sister in Christ for the sake of making his point. Deception, head games, and beating her up in argument is not the way to build a friendship, and surely Ann feels like she has been used and abused. Hardly a brotherly model.
I won’t judge Tom’s motives behind this, and I’m sure that what is in the heart of those who frequently employ this approach is not uniform. But I would suggest that one way to counter this instinct is to ask ourselves the following questions:
  • What are my motives in asking the questions I am asking? Have I presented myself as undecided about something that I am actually decided on? If so, why?
  • Am I aware of whether or not my discussion partner(s) are as well-versed on the topic as I am? If they are not, have I graciously extended patience to them as they get up to speed? Have I been careful not to overwhelm them with too many different points of information, or simply too much information?
  • Have I been easy to disagree with? That is, has my spirit been forbearing and gracious toward them, so that they still feel cherished and valued as a fellow believer?
  • Have I represented our discussion as being more than it really is? Have I inappropriately positioned myself or those with whom I am discussing as the final representative of a position or view?
  • Am I willing to be wrong, if I could be shown from Scripture or from other evidence that my perspective is incorrect? If I have succeeded in demonstrating that someone else is wrong, have I been gracious and loving in the way that I exposed error, not lording it over them in a haughty manner?
  • Overall, have I dealt with my discussion partner(s) in a manner that reflects love for a brother or sister in Christ? Would they gladly engage in another discussion with me in the future, even if they knew we disagreed? Would others inside and outside the church consider my manner of dealing with them as a credit to the gospel?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Logic for Theological Discussion (LTD): parts of an argument

One of the fundamental ideas in logic is that in an argument, you have two sorts of ideas (statements) being presented: a conclusion, and one or more premises.

The conclusion ought to be fairly self-evident in definition: that point which the whole of the argument is attempting to demonstrate to be the case.

The premises (and there is almost always more than one) are those phrases or sentences (also known as statements) which are asserted as reasons to believe the conclusion.

Now, let’s talk about truth and what is called “truth value” for a moment. whenever a sentence can be said to be true or false, that sentence has a “truth value”-- and the truth value is whether or not it is true or false. Some sentences cannot be said to be true or false. A question, for example, or an exclamation cannot be disputed as untrue. But a premise MUST be a sentence that can be said to be true or false.

However, it is technically incorrect to say that an argument is “true” or “false”. This is because there is more to whether an argument is a good one or not than simply the truth value of its statements. Rather, an argument can be said to be two things: valid (or invalid), and sound (or unsound).

Validity (whether an argument is valid or not) is based on form alone, not on content. I know what you’re thinking: “is it possible for an argument to have premises that are both true, and a conclusion that is true, and the argument still not be valid?” Good question-- and the answer is yes. In fact, any of the following are possible:
  • A valid argument whose premises are true and conclusion is false.
  • An invalid argument whose premises and conclusion are true.
  • A valid argument whose premises and conclusion are false.
  • A valid argument whose premises are false and conclusion is true.
Of course, it’s also possible to have a valid argument whose premises and conclusion are all true. When that is the case, we say that the argument is “sound.” (All other cases are examples of unsound arguments.)

Validity is a complex thing, and I won’t get into it in detail now. I may dedicate a post or two to it in the future. Let’s assume, for now, that the arguments presented are valid (which is a treacherous assumption in many cases).

The tricky part about soundness in arguments is that there is often one or more premises that are left out-- either because they are implied within the argument, they are unknown factors (either to the arguer or the listener), or because to state them outright would expose the argument as unsound. It is the last case that gets us into the most trouble when it comes to theological discussions.

For example, I overheard a discussion at General Assembly about the meaning of the phrase, “their wives must be women worthy of respect” in 1 Timothy 3:11. Of the two people discussing the matter, one (we’ll call him Fred) was convinced that a naked reading of the English as rendered in the NIV was plain in its meaning-- clearly, thought he, this verse means that the verse is speaking of the wives of Deacons, not women in general. The other fellow (who we’ll call Joe) thought that, since the English is a translation from another language, we must be careful to assume that a naked reading is always accurate; he also felt that the naked reading was problematic because of what is in the original Greek (specifically, that the word translated as “wives” can also mean simply, “women”). The dialogue went something like this:

Fred: Clearly, 1 Timothy doesn’t suggest that a woman may be a Deacon or Deaconess.
Joe: I’m not sure that we can say that with such certainty. Doesn’t that assume a lot of what the translation ought to be?
Fred: Like what?
Joe: Like, what about the fact that the word translated “wives” can also mean just “women”?
Fred: Don’t you think that the Bible is clear?
Joe: Well, I was reading a commentary by a scholar I trust, and he said it wasn’t so cut-and-dried.
Fred: Some have their opinions about what this verse means, but I for one don’t think we should undermine God.

So, here’s the argument as it was stated:

Premise 1: Some people have theories about what 1 Tim. 3:11 means. (Truth value= true)
Premise 2: We shouldn’t undermine God. (Truth value= true)
Conclusion: 1 Timothy does not suggest that a woman may be a Deacon or Deaconess.

So, assuming the argument is valid, is this argument sound, or unsound? Look at the argument in the original dialogue again; is there a missing premise?

I would argue that there is-- though my guess is that even Fred doesn’t realize that it is there. I think the argument really goes like this:

Premise 1: Some people have theories about what 1 Tim. 3:11 means. (Truth value= true)
Missing Premise: My opinion about what it means is the same as God’s opinion about what it means.
Premise 2: We shouldn’t undermine God. (Truth value= true)
Conclusion: 1 Timothy does not suggest that a woman may be a Deacon or Deaconess.

See the problem? Now, this argument (as presented in the “full” version) has lots of problems, including the use of several “fallacies” which we’ll get into next time. But I hope that, even in this brief example, it is becoming clear how arguments work and how the truth can be easily missed or even distorted.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sermon texts for August 2008

In August, we’ll take a little break from Luke after wrapping up the Sermon on the Plain (Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount). During that break we’ll work through a three-part series looking at the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

UPDATE: I’ve adjusted the schedule to reflect Bruce Farrant’s sermon from last Sunday.

Here are the texts for August:

August 3
Luke 6:37-42 -- Dealing with others’ faith
August 10 Luke 6:43-49 -- Dealing with your own faith
August 17 Guest Preacher Bruce Farrant-- Proverbs 18:14; 1 Peter 3:15
August 24 Matthew 26:26-30 -- What is the Lord’s Supper? Part 1: What is it?
August 31 Acts 2:42-47 -- What is the Lord’s Supper? Part 2: When is it?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Bible, authority, and interpretation part 2

Following up on my previous post, I’ll continue my reflections from the fascinating conversation I got to be a part of earlier in the week.

At another point in the conversation, one of these formerly legalistic teenagers commented on the damage that was done through this oppressive environment. Specifically, she said that she felt like no one was given any sense of their right to read the Bible for themselves. Instead, they were told what the Bible taught and what it meant for them.

This is oppressive-- and brings to mind a significant part of the Protestant reformation, which was to translate the Bible into the language of the people (instead of only into Latin), so that people of than the priests and bishops could read it. There is an essential aspect of the faith that comes from reading Scripture; it is the Word of God for the people of God. And it is important that people know their Bibles so that they can test the teachings of others against the Word of God (remember the Bereans, who were praised for this in Acts 17:11).

At the same time, the approach of the leaders in the legalistic community are a good example of how we tend to take sound principles too far, when there is actually a “middle ground” balance needed.

Christians today too often take the “democratization of the Bible” too far; because the Reformers saw that it was important that people other than only the authorities of the church be able to read Scripture, today we have many who have decided that their interpretation of the Bible is as good as anyone’s-- and maybe better.

In fact, not everyone can interpret the Bible equally. Some have been trained extensively for interpreting the Bible-- learning the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, studying the history, archeaology, and peoples of biblical times, training in methods and approaches of how to study and interpret Scripture, and other ways of being trained. Others have read and studied their Bibles many times over, and they simply know the Scriptures well. Still others are, frankly, not familiar enough with the Bible to make the confident assertions of interpretation that they do.

This isn’t to say that not
everyone ought to read their Bibles and, yes, make efforts at interpretation. But it is to say that all of us ought to remain teachable about even those biblical texts that we feel the most familiar with. And when we recognize that an interpretation we have made is at odds with an interpretation that others have made, we ought to be willing to hear the reasoning behind their interpretation with an open mind.

Imagine, if you will, the person who dogmatically insists that his translation of a text, though totally at odds with everyone else, is the accurate one:

Dogmatist: This is what I believe the text is saying...
Elder: I don’t see how you got that from Scripture; instead, I think the text says this...
Dogmatist: You’re wrong. It says what I said.
Elder: Well, let’s consult these commentaries, written by contemporary scholars... and, yes, they disagree with your interpretation, also.
Dogmatist: It doesn’t matter. I’m sticking with what I said.
Elder: Okay, but now I’ve consulted with the historical confessions, and they all assert that your interpretation is incorrect.
Dogmatist: That’s what they think. I know what my Bible says.
Elder: But look here, where the early church fathers wrote about exactly that... and they all say the text means something different.
Dogmatist: They can say what they want, but I still say it means what I said.

This sounds a little far-fetched-- but I’ve actually met people who were so convinced that their interpretation (and it always seems to be a “new” take on something) is right that they are willing to disagree with pastors, scholars, and others over 2000+ years of church history and interpretation of the Scripture. A wise pastor once said to me, “if your interpretation is in complete disagreement with 2000 years of church history, you’re very likely wrong.”

This is one of the reasons why I find the presbyterian approach to “doing church” so helpful. As presbyterians, the default position is that my voice alone is not the final word, nor is anyone else’s. Instead, we constantly defer to one another with humility. As presbyterians, we trust that God is at work in the others in our congregation, our presbytery, our synod, or our assembly, at least as much as He has been at work in us to reveal the truth. There will always be times when it is possible that the larger bodies are wrong-- but then we turn to the greater history of the church and test our perspectives against that. The deference to the higher bodies is always present, and always keeping us accountable for our interpretation.

We must read our Bibles, and we must work at interpretation. But we must also be ready to be shown that we are wrong. If we aren’t, then we have made ourselves the author of Scripture-- for only the author can be utterly certain of the meaning of a text.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Bible, authority, and interpretation part I

The other day I was with a group of people who were talking about an especially legalistic environment that some of them had been a part of as teenagers-- a place where they were literally told what to believe, and that if they disagreed they would go to Hell. The leaders in this environment were, clearly, abusing their authority and making claims that no one person or group has a right to make.

One person commented on the fact that I should get a lot of sermon illustrations from these stories! (He was right...) That got me to thinking about what the real applications really were. I’d like to reflect on two broad applications here, over two posts.

At one point I asked the question of this group: how did your parents (who were all Christians) continue to believe that it was good for you to be a part of this? After all, I said, you would surely come home and tell them all about it.

Their first response demonstrated how powerful the authoritarian environment was:

No, we were told that if we reported on them we would go to Hell.

[Note, by the way, the similar nature of this environment to a classic abusive relationship-- where the victim is told that THEY (the victim) would get in trouble if they told.]

But as they went on, something else became clear. One of them said:

I was glad to be there. I needed a place where I could belong, and this place felt safe-- partly because of the rules.

And there I saw my first sermon illustration: when it comes down to it, we all gravitate toward legalism. We are all legalists.

When we’re offered an environment where the rules are known, it becomes very easy to settle into that. We know where we stand in the pecking order; we are then able to proclaim with confidence precisely why we have merited the favor of God and men.

I think this is what makes grace so threatening, so terrifying to all of us. If the work that earns us favor isn’t our work (through legalism) but Christ’s work imputed to us (by grace), we are actually dependent on something (grace) and someone (Christ) other than ourselves.

This also illustrates why even communities that are defined by Christ’s grace (namely, churches) quickly return to legalism. Dependence is very uncomfortable. Dependence is often humbling, sometimes awkward, and frequently at odds with pride. Someone who is dependent has just reason to lose some confidence in themselves.

Here’s the irony in it all: we are always dependent. Even when we think we have every reason for confidence (as with the group of teenagers who knew exactly their place in the social order of that legalistic community), we are still dependent on something: for the legalist, it is the rules and laws that we subscribe to, and the authority who creates and enforces them.

Legalism-- that idea that “I can earn merit/favor/righteousness through obedience, and take confidence and pride in myself”-- is a lie.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Blog tour: The Children's Extravaganza

Waterbrook Press invited me to participate in another blog tour-- where I read and review books on my blog(s). This time, it is the “Children’s Extravaganza” (their term) which is a set of three children’s books they have recently published.

We read through the books-- of course we read them with Jack and Molly-- and got their opinions as well as forming our own. I’ll take each one in turn and offer sort of a mini-review.

The first book we read was God Gave Us Heaven, by Lisa Tawn Bergren. In it we follow a family of polar bears, with Little Cub asking Papa questions about God and heaven throughout the course of a day. It is a sweet story, and Bergren takes care to answer many important (and complex) questions in a way that is understandable to children. The artwork, drawn by Laura J. Bryant, is fun and cute, and both Jack and Molly liked it. In fact, Jack and Molly liked this book the most of the three. Marcie and I liked it a lot as well, though both of us thought that a few parts toward the end open the suggestion that everyone eventually goes to heaven. Apart from that concern-- and the subtle notion that polar bears have souls and go to heaven because of Jesus, which I don’t consider a huge problem in a book like this-- we liked the book and thought it was very helpful to begin conversations with Jack and Molly about eternal life and heaven. I’ll rank this one an 8+.

Bergren has written nearly 30 titles in the publishing world, and God Gave Us Heaven is her fourth. I hope she will offer us more.

When God Created My Toes was a cute idea-- speculate about what God thought about creating the different parts of the body (which, of course, we know already: He pronounced them “very good” in Gen. 1:31). It was done in rhyme, which made it easier to follow for the kids. While some of the rhymes were a stretch, several of them offered interesting and good insights. Jack and Molly liked it okay, but it wasn’t a favorite for either. And we didn’t love it, either-- mainly because a number of the pictures (drawn by David Hohn, some of which made Jack and Molly giggle) portrayed the children doing mischievous things, which we didn’t think we wanted our kids getting ideas from! Overall, I’ll give this one a rating of 6/6+.

When God Created My Toes and the last book, God Loves Me More Than That, are by Dandi Daley Mackall, who has written many, many children’s books (over 400!), and has other titles published by Waterbrook, as well.

Last, but not least, was God Loves Me More Than That, which we all liked very much. Focusing on how great is God’s love for us (Ephesians 3:17b-18, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”), this book does a good job of offering something of a balance to the many wonderful books that focus on a parent’s great love (think Guess How Much I Love You?). The illustrations (again drawn by David Holm) were terrific-- my favorites of the three books-- and complemented the book so well. I had no parental or theological concerns about this one at all, in either the content or the drawings, and it’s a toss-up about whether this one might not be my favorite of the three. Marcie felt like it might be better for kids a little younger than ours, though Jack seemed to connect with it. I rate this one as a 10.

Monday, August 18, 2008

McCain's grim prospects

If you read very much on the internet-- especially stuff from other Christians-- then you’ve almost certainly encountered a lot of stuff about Senator Barack Obama. If you watch TV at all, or read the newspaper, he’s everywhere. Even Senator John McCain’s own ads call him the “biggest celebrity in the world.”

Even those who oppose Senator Obama, in one way or another, have given him a lot of attention. One of the blogs I read has averaged, it seems like, at least a post a week on why he’s not the guy that should be president. Plenty of Christians will offer great amounts of evidence for why Senator Obama is the worst possible future president for our country.

I almost never hear very much about Senator McCain. I don’t know anyone who is excited about his candidacy, or delighted about the president he would make. I’ve yet to read a well-written, thoroughly developed piece on why McCain SHOULD be president. (Or, for that matter, one on why he SHOULDN’T!)

In fact, the general sense I get-- even from those who strongly oppose Senator Obama-- is, in a nutshell, “I’m not that excited about [Senator] McCain either.”

No one is excited about Senator John McCain. No one is vigorously, zealously behind him. No one is concerned about zealously opposing him. At the beginning of an episode from the last season of West Wing, one of the candidates is told something like, this campaign is all yours-- you won’t even have to mention the other guy’s name. I think that pretty much sums up the status of Senator Obama’s status right now, too.

[Now, that last paragraph is all hyperbole, of course. I’m sure I’ll get some emails about it anyway...]

Senator McCain may have gained a bit of ground at Saturday’s Saddleback Civic Forum. Even there, though, many responses were that Senator McCain’s words were too “party-line” and sounded like he was appealing to that certain group of voters. Senator Obama came off as fresh and genuine to the same group, while others the same thing about him.

So, here’s how it looks from where I sit: Senator John McCain may, indeed, be exactly the man we need in the White House; Senator Barack Obama may, indeed, be the worst thing for Christians in the United States ever. Or both of those assumptions may be totally off. But unless he can get his campaign into a much higher gear (and there’s still plenty of time to do so), Senator McCain is going to become the next Walter Mondale, the next Bob Dole, and the next John Kerry: the “other candidate” who was easily forgotten, because the one who beat him was such a dominant presence. Right now, the election is Senator Barack Obama’s to lose.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Haiku #9

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a haiku-- and, since I’m starting a series on the Lord’s Supper this Sunday, I’ll offer one on that.

Sacrament Supper
Christ’s body and blood for you
in fellowship meal

Wildlife Watch, mid-August

The deer have been moving more and more. Over the past week, I’ve seen does almost every day-- and usually multiple times a day. They are frequently lurking just inside the edge of the woods behind the big oak, and they love to eat the berries and leaves off of the brush out of my office window.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Tragedy and loss

I’ve recently read two posts from bloggers who, somehow, have managed to candidly capture in their posts the shock, the depth of pain, the sense of loss that they have experienced.

Amazingly, both of these writers appear to have written their words even during their experiences. Their words are as beautiful as they are tragic, in part because they are so vulnerable and exposed in them. They are also beautiful because they seem to be inviting others-- not to share their pain, but to understand it.

So many Christians I have known are afraid of pain, many because they have been so sheltered from it. But our world is full of pain, and it is quite likely that more than half of the people you encounter today are facing suffering of some sort. What would you do if you knew of it? How would you come alongside them in their pain? As one friend (who pointed me to one of these posts) wrote, “I am currently working on a doctorate in biblical studies... a Ph.D. does not address this.”

I think the heart of these two ladies is right: to come alongside them, we must understand their pain. We don’t have to share it-- I think many who are the midst of suffering feel strongly that the only way others can understand IS to share it, but I disagree-- but we must understand it. I’m grateful for the vulnerability of these two who, in the moment of their suffering and pain, invite you and me to have a glimpse of what pain looks like, that we might understand.

I invite you to read the stories of:

Rae (AKA SmockLady) who faced her first miscarriage
Denny (AKA Songstress) who lost her husband at age 33

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bible choices

How did you choose the translation of the Bible that you use? What was the process for evaluation? What factors did you consider?

My guess is that many folks “chose” somewhat arbitrarily. Maybe they were given a nice Bible as a gift, and they decided that would become their main Bible. Maybe a friend showed her a study tool in his Bible, and she thought she would like to have those tools as well. Perhaps they’ve simply used the same Bible since they were a child-- and they can’t even remember where they got their Bible!

When I was first beginning at Hickory Withe PC, one of the members asked me, “which Bible translation will you be preaching from?” It turns out that he and his wife wanted to do their devotional reading in the same Bible that they would use on Sunday mornings-- which they wanted to be the same translation that the preacher would be using.

This is a great idea-- and an easy way to make what is becoming a more and more difficult decision: which Bible translation should I use?

There are a lot of factors that go into a Bible translation, and there is an increasing number of useful and good translations. Evaluating them can be tricky.

Thankfully, there is a new website whose intended purpose is to guide people through understanding the different translations: Whether you’re looking for a new Bible, curious about the differences between your translation and others, or wondering what translation philosophy went into the Bible you love, you’ll find a great amount of helpful information over there.

[Full disclosure: I had been meaning to mention this helpful tool already; however, by linking to them today I’m
entered in a drawing to win a free copy of the forthcoming ESV Study Bible.]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Logic for theological discussion

Many readers will know that while I was in seminary, I taught at a small school just outside of St. Louis. Two of the classes I taught were Logic and Rhetoric. (I won’t go into a lot of detail about Rhetoric, but “Rhetoric” means a lot more than the way we hear it thrown around on the news; the study of Rhetoric is actually the study of persuasive communication, which obviously includes a great amount of the communication we have today.) I taught those classes because I had a fair amount of training in both areas, and over the years I’ve picked up a lot about how language, reason, and sound thinking work (and don’t work) in discussions, both formal and informal.

Since beginning seminary, I’ve also noticed a good bit about the nature of theological discussion and debate, as well. In short, I’d have to say that at least a simple majority of the discussions, debates, and conversations I’ve witnessed fairly butchered many of the fundamental ideas of basic reason and logic.

So one of the things I want to do is to start an occasional series of blog posts that look at logic and how it ought to guide theological discussions. I think that a large part of the problem is that many people don’t know what makes an argument for or against a particular position or viewpoint a good or bad argument. That’s a problem that we can fix-- and we should.

(For some people, I did something in the previous paragraph that was a new idea: the notion that an “argument” is actually a neutral idea, and that some may be good and others may be bad. Many of us have been taught implicitly that “arguing” and “fighting” -- or “arguing” and “bickering” -- are essentially the same thing, when they are not. One can offer a good, well-reasoned argument for or against something that is loud, vitriolic, and abusive; another may offer an unsound argument that is pleasant, civil, and gentle. Or vice-versa.)

For starters, here’s a fundamental concept of logic: The way we say things is just as communicative as what we say.

By “the way we say things” I mean their form. Language offers us a number of forms that are important to consider; to name a few:
  • Grammatical form-- often a misplaced comma or a poorly understood semi-colin can change meaning drastically.
  • Syntactical form-- word choice (syntax) is also important, since words usually have a great variety of meanings.
  • Logical form-- moving beyond grammar and word choice, by this I mean the way that sentences, paragraphs, and communication on a much larger scale fit together-- in themselves, and when connected to each other.
  • Forms of ethos and pathos-- how we are sensitive (or insensitive) to embodying character (godly character, sinful character) and emotion in what we communicate, not only by words but by how we say them.
These are just some examples of form. To get a sense of how form matters as much as content, consider the sentence below:

I know you didn’t mean it.

Now, think of how placing accent behind one or another word in that sentence might change its meaning:
  • I know you didn’t mean it. (Implying that others may not know.)
  • I KNOW you didn’t mean it. (Suggesting that it may have seemed like you did.)
  • I know you didn’t MEAN it. (But it hurt anyway.)
Get the picture? Words are powerful. But language is much more than words-- it’s also about how we use them. That’s a fundamental principle of logic.

More on this soon.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Books in July

Well, I came to the end of July and realized that, while I had actually begun a number of books through the month, I didn’t actually finish any of them. So August promises to be a heavier list of mini-reviews, but July is left with nothing to say (at least from my perspective regarding the books I read).

Instead, then, I’ll offer up this brief list of books that folks in my congregation are reporting that they have found to be of great help and interest to them:
  • Putting Amazing Back into Grace by Michael Scott Horton. This isn’t a new book, but there is a new edition out, and several HWPC members have been reading it. Horton does an excellent job of offering an overview of the doctrines of grace, which are pillars of our theological foundations in the PCA.
  • How People Change by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp. This one has (relatively speaking) flown off the HWPC book table, and tells the truths of the doctrines of grace from a decidedly different angle. It is, nevertheless, a great book that offers transforming truths to those who would look for gospel change in their lives.
  • Surprising Insights from the Unchurched by Thom Rainer. This great book, based on Rainer’s research a few years ago, gives an amazing look at what formerly unchurched folks report were the keys to the church having an effective ministry of outreach to them.
  • The Only Necessary Thing by Henri J. M. Nouwen. One of our members just lent me this book, assuring me that I would, as a Nouwen fan, be delighted in this look at prayer and the prayerful life.

Also, I’ve been asked to participate in several “blog tours” or blog reviews of books, so I thought I would mention those books at this point as a teaser:
  • A Handful of Pebbles: theological liberalism and the church by Peter Barnes. Published by Banner of Truth.
  • The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield (the same guy who wrote The Faith of George W. Bush). Published by Thomas Nelson.
  • Three Children’s books by Waterbrook Press: God Loves Me More Than That and When God Created My Toes by Dandi Daley Mackall; and God Gave Us Heaven by Lisa Tawn Bergren.