Conversation Stopper or Starter?

My Tuesday morning reading group began a new book (A Place for Truth) this week. The book is edited by Dallas Willard, but has about a dozen contributing authors, ranging from leading evangelical thinkers like Timothy Keller and Os Guiness, to influential atheists like Harry Lewis and Peter Singer. Each chapter is taken from various lectures, debates, and panel discussions at Veritas Forum events. The purpose of this forum is to address the BIG questions (who is man? what is a good life? is there a reason to live a good life as opposed to a bad one?) in universities around the world. As a matter of fact, the University of Tennessee will be hosting a Veritas event over the next two days!

This book promises to be a great one for group discussion, as nobody is going to agree with everything written in it! It has proved to be quite thought-provoking so far. This week’s chapter, called “Is There Life After Truth?” was by Catholic scholar Richard John Neuhaus. In his exploration of the nature and existence of objective, authoritative Truth, he observed that in the academy today, Pontius Pilate’s question “What is truth?” (John 18:38) is often a conversation stopper, because many in the academic world deny the existence of real truth. Instead, Neuhaus writes, that question should be a conversation starter, because it is one of the most foundational questions of our existence. I couldn’t agree more!

Let me share with you Neuhaus’s description of the modern world:

In a world in which people have stopped talking about truth or have despaired of truth or have agreed with those who say that Pontius Pilate’s question was a conversation stopper and not a conversation starter — in such a world there is no way to deliberate the question how we ought to order our life together. There’s only power and propaganda and grievance and anger and caucuses and anticaucuses and special interest groups and victims and vengeance. That’s the kind of world we increasingly live in, because we’ve stopped believing, or so many have stopped believing, that there is a truth that we can deliberate together.

What a sad state of affairs! Thanks be to God that he has given us his Word, which provides for us a firm foundation on which to stand. There IS such a thing as truth, and it is the Word of God!

If you’d like to join us on Tuesday mornings, we’d love to have you. We meet at 6:30 each week at Perk-Up Espresso. You’re not too late to catch up as we’ve only just started!


Tonight while out running an errand (okay I was picking up some $1 scoops from Baskin Robins!) I flipped to a radio station I don’t usually listen to. I can’t tell you who was on. I can tell you I was absolutely disgusted by what I heard. (And no, I wasn’t listening to country “music”.)

The DJ was talking about how teenage girls are often  pressured into unwanted sexual encounters by their boyfriends. So far, so good. The problem came with her solution.

Her suggestion to fix the problem? Parents should sit down with their teenage children and watch softcore pornography together, to show them what “normal, loving sex” looks like. Otherwise, the boys will only watch the wierd, hardcore stuff and expect their girlfriends to do it to/with/for them.

If only parents would introduce their kids to “healthy porn”, the girls wouldn’t feel so inhibited about “normal sex” with their boyfriends, and the boys wouldn’t try to force them to perform sexual acrobatics.

Wouldn’t that be grand?

Thirst Was Made for Water

The following is an exchange from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, in which a White Spirit (who had been named Dick in life) is trying to persuade his old friend (once an Episcopal bishop but now a ghost) to finally renounce the folly of Liberal theology and embrace the Truth:

‘Well, really, you know, I am not aware of thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.’

‘Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.’ The Ghost seemed to think for a moment. ‘I can make nothing of that idea,’ it said.

‘Listen!’ said the White Spirit. ‘Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.’

‘Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.’

‘You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.’

Book Review: Christianity and Liberalism

“Christianity and Liberalism” by J. Gresham Machen

Today, when most Americans consider the word “liberalism”, we think of a political philosophy or party. In the late 19th and into the early 20th century, however, there was a movement within the Protestant church known as Liberalism. While this religious movement does have some commonalities with political liberalism (a basic belief in man’s goodness and a strong humanitarian ethic, for instance), in their particulars they are really two very different things. It is religious Liberalism which Machen addresses in this book, which was written in 1923.

The main thrust of the Protestant Liberalism movement was a supposed focus on the work and teaching of Jesus, without holding to any dogmatic theological distinctions. In other words, liberals believed that Jesus was the highest moral example for men to follow, and that we should do what he did: Care for the poor, promote peace, and preach a message of love. Doing these things, says the liberal, promotes the betterment of society, but does not require any belief in the supernatural. The Bible is treated as a moral guidebook, but is not the inerrant Word of God. The Biblical claims of Jesus’ virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection from the dead are regarded with skepticism, but are ultimately seen as unimportant relative to the practical application of Jesus’ teachings.

Machen’s main premise is that Liberalism is completely antithetical to Christianity. He then proceeds to lay out an incredible defense of orthodox Protestantism, comparing it at each point with the Liberalism that had gained so much popularity in the churches of that time.

He begins the discussion with an overview of why doctrine is so important, and why inerrancy is non-negotiable to anyone who claims to be a Christian. After all, if the Bible is not true, we have no basis for believing anything about Jesus. If it is true, then we must believe everything it says about Him. Furthermore, the liberal’s claim to hold only to Jesus’ words and deeds is inconsistent with their denial of the supernatural, because Jesus made several indisputable claims to deity (as well as to the authority of Scripture). Essentially, Machen is making C.S. Lewis’ trilemma argument (“Liar, Lunatic, or Lord”) twenty years before the publication of Mere Christianity.

Machen then contrasts Christianity and Liberalism in the areas of several doctrines critical to Christian belief:

  • Our understanding of who God is
  • Man’s relationship with God and standing before Him
  • The person and work of Christ
  • What salvation is and the means by which man may attain it
  • The role of the Church

Because the liberal teaching in these areas is mutually exclusive with the traditional, orthodox positions held by the Church for nearly 2,000 years (and, more importantly, given to us in God’s Word), Machen proposes that, for the sake of intellectual honesty, liberals ought to stop referring to themselves as “Christians”, and instead join or create a different religious sect that more closely aligns with their beliefs. The Christian Church was founded on certain principles, and it is dishonest to represent the Church when one does not hold to those principles. Here’s a useful analogy from the book to illustrate this point:

At the foundation of the life of every corporation is the incorporation paper, in which the objects of the corporation are set forth. Other objects may be vastly more desirable than those objects, but if the directors use the name and the resources of the corporation to pursue the other objects they are acting ultra vires of the corporation. So it is with Christianity. It is perfectly conceivable that the originators of the Christian movement had no right to legislate for subsequent generations; but at any rate they did have an inalienable right to legislate for all generations that should choose to bear the name of “Christian”.

Even more than eight decades ago, “intolerance” was a common buzzword, and a common objection to this claim of exclusivity. Machen counters this objection:

Involuntary organizations ought to be tolerant, but voluntary organizations, so far as the fundamental purpose of their existence is concerned, must be intolerant or else cease to exist.

An example of an involuntary organization is the State. Most Americans, for instance, are naturalized citizens because we were born here. Our Constitution guarantees certain liberties which require tolerance. I am free to worship as a Christian in large part because others are equally free to worship as they choose. But if I were to claim to be a Muslim (a “voluntary organization”), I would have no right to claim as a Muslim that Jesus Christ is God’s son, and that He died for my sins so that I could be adopted as God’s son and a co-heir with Christ. Muslims would be rightly intolerant of that claim, because it is contrary to their core beliefs. But of course I would never do this, and Machen suggests that Liberals extend the same courtesy to Christians. He provides a good secular example of this as well:

Suppose in a political campaign in America there be formed a Democratic club for the purpose of furthering the cause of the Democratic party. Suppose there are certain other citizens who are opposed to the tenets of the Democratic club and in opposition desire to support the Republican party. What is the honest way for them to accomplish their purpose? Plainly it is simply the formation of a Republican club which shall carry on a propaganda in favor of Republican principles. But suppose, instead of pursuing this simple course of action, the advocates of Republican principles should conceive the notion of making a declaration of conformity to Democratic principles, thus gaining an entrance into the Democratic club and finally turning its resources into an anti-Democratic propaganda. That plan might be ingenious. But is it honest? Yet it is just exactly such a plan which is adopted by advocates of a non-doctrinal religion who by subscription to a creed gain an entrance into the teaching ministry of doctrinal or evangelical churches.

The reasons liberals are unwilling to make such a break from the Christian Church are many, but one of the primary motivations is a desire to gain control of the considerable resources of evangelical churches and use them for the advancement of liberal aims. Machen issues a call for conservative Christians to uphold the Truth of the real Gospel and to stand up against the advancement of Liberalism in the Church. This is done in four ways: (1) Encouraging those evangelists and apologists who are engaged in the intellectual and spiritual struggle; (2) set a higher standard of qualifications of candidates for ministry; (3) preach the Cross of Christ at all times, to all people, in all situations; and (4) bring about a renewal of Christian education, beginning in the home.

This book is possibly even more relevant now than it was in 1923. If it weren’t for the language used, one wouldn’t know this wasn’t written last week. Liberalism is alive and well in the Church today, though it goes by many other names now. Modernism has given way to postmodernism, but the struggle is still the same. Satan has no need to introduce new lies when the old ones are working better than ever. Read it. You won’t regret it.

Buy it here. Or, since it is in the public domain, you can read it online for free. As for me, I always prefer the feel of a real book in my hands…

Separation of Church and Sport

An editorial by Tom Krattenmaker appeared in Monday’s USA Today bemoaning what he calls a “faith surge” in the sporting arena. He seems to believe that everyone has a right to believe whatever they want, and to express that however they want, so long as they don’t express in public the belief that theirs is the only correct view. In particular he calls out University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who is a tremendous athlete (winner of the Heisman Trophy) as well as a tremendous and outspoken evangelical Christian. The article is worth reading, especially in light of the fact that Mr. Krattenmaker’s views are very much in the mainstream… it’s postmodernism at its finest.

Krattenmaker’s Article

While I’d love to post my own thoughts on this article, I’m quite exhausted from a very long trip this week. You can, however, read several other excellent responses to this article elsewhere in the blogosphere. Here are some of the best:

Time to Separate Church and Sports? A New Agenda Takes Shape by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

A Separation of Church and Sports? by Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church and author of DeYoung, Restless and Reformed

A Narrow-Minded Pluralist Blitzes Tim Tebow by Erik Raymond, pastor of Omaha Bible Church

To Be Or Not To Be

With one short statement, Bill Clinton displayed perfectly the problem of the uncertainty of language. “Slick Willie” understood the power of language, and was a master at manipulating language for his own purposes. His rationalization of his use of such a simple, everyday word led to his acquittal on perjury charges, because, technically, he never lied.

A decade later, those in positions of power and influence are more manipulative than ever, and language continues to be the primary weapon with which they assert control over those who are content with a surface-level-only understanding of the world around them. Make no mistake: The purveyors of the postmodern approach to language are experts in the execution of mixed-message communicating. Those who wish to confuse the understanding of words in our culture are themselves very much aware of the importance of language, and of the power that can be gained through the ability to control the meaning of words.

Because of the undeniable connection between language and power, we see the effects of “evolving” language most vividly in the arena of politics. We’ve already seen a prime example in former president Clinton. George W. Bush was no less adept in the art of manipulation through language, though he took the “good ol’ boy” approach, as opposed to that of the “cultured academic”. (Don’t let the media fool you; Bush is no idiot, and he advanced a postmodern agenda every bit as much as anyone else). Barack Obama is perhaps the best wielder of words our nation has seen since Daniel Webster. How prescient do the words of George Orwell now appear?

“One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind.” ~ Politics and the English Language, 1946

We are a media-obsessed culture, and our activist media (news, magazines, movies, television, etc) is all too willing to play the role of political mouthpiece disguised as “journalism” or “entertainment”. Francis Schaeffer wrote in How Should We Then Live (1983), “Whoever controls the media controls the culture”, and he’s exactly right. We must always remain vigilant about guarding our hearts against the influence of the world so that we may discern the will of God (Romans 12:2).

As Clinton so eloquently showed us, it is often the smallest words that can cause the most confusion. We know we’re in trouble when words like “is” and “am” (respectively the 3rd and 1st person singular present indicative forms of the verb “be”) — some of the most foundational words in the English language — are dubiously defined. Elementary students are taught the “be verbs” (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been… this is all familiar, right?) early in their education precisely because they are so important to the very structure of our language. Without them we cannot even begin to communicate. Don’t believe me? I dare you to try to make any sort of declarative statement (i.e. – share an opinion or fact) without using a “be verb.” How’s that going for you?

If we are going to make an attempt to declare any Truth claims regarding Christian beliefs or anything else, we must first revisit grade school English class and deal with the word “be” and its various forms.

The word “be” denotes existence. It seems so simple, yet the answer to the question of existence has been the Holy Grail of philosophical thought for centuries. We see this everywhere from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), to Nietzsche and Kirkegaard. Is it any wonder, then, that a word the world has so much difficulty understanding is a word that God uses to describe Himself?

In Exodus chapter 3, when Moses asks God how he should answer if the people of Israel asked for the name of God, the reply was “I AM WHO I AM.” The Gospel of John records several “I Am” statements made by Jesus Christ. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that “he who comes to God must believe that He is.”

I just think it’s amazing that God would use such a term to describe Himself! This puts in perspective the reason why it is so difficult to define “be”. Can words describe the essence of God? As hard as we always try to make them do so, words will always be woefully inadequate for such a task! If God is content to describe Himself as “I AM”, then it is foolish to attempt to add anything to that. There are, however, quite a few words to describe some things that God is not, so I leave you with just a sampling of this list. We could, of course, add to it; like God Himself, this list could go on forever until our entire vocabulary was exhausted.

God is not:

  • Liberal or conservative
  • Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or any other political affiliation
  • American
  • Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, or any other denomination
  • Mad at you
  • Red, yellow, black, white, or any other color, race, or ethnicity
  • Hiding
  • Dependent on anything that can be provided by human effort
  • Describable

Next time we’ll try to delve a little deeper into the nature of God and the postmodern debate.