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Want to Save Free Speech? Listen to Rod Dreher, Jordan Cooper, Issues ETC., etc…

Stefan Molyneux: "Free Speech is All That Matters."

Stefan Molyneux: “Free Speech is All That Matters.”

 

Popular libertarian You Tuber Stefan Molyneux argues with all his rhetorical might that “Free Speech is All That Matters”.

I balk at his insistence. I don’t like the way he puts that. While I find his supporting arguments for this persuasive and important when it comes to politics, overall I wonder about the implications of such words, such devotion. It almost sounds religious to me. Molyneux talks about the importance of humility and self-doubt, but of this he is certain!

Why the intensity of such conviction? In a related comment, Rachel Fulton Brown, University of Chicago professor, interestingly argues that:

“….the freedom of speech enshrined in our national culture was established first and foremost as a freedom to wrestle with religion. Freedom of speech means little without this religious content, which is why cries for contentless “free speech” are so vacuous.”

Versus Molyneux, I would argue that it is only in cultures influenced by Christianity that you get the fruits he so treasures.

So where is the West, guided thusfar by Christian rails, going? Will speech remain free? Is the artistic expression of a florist speech that should be protected, and not extracted as a mere product to be sold? Should local practices of “Christian-only prayer” at public meetings be ruled unconstitutional? (see yesterday’s unanimous decision at the Washington state Supreme Court and the decision by a federal appeals court) Will Christians remain free not only to believe what they want, but to speak their faith in the public square? To practice it not only on Sundays, but in public? What of their schools and universities?

And should we, like the Apostle Paul, insist on our rights by fighting politically – at least to some degree? Or by withdrawing in the hope of being strengthened to “give an answer for the hope that we have” when the world if finally ready to hear – and believe – again? This brings us to the ideas of Rod Dreher, the cultural observer at the American Conservative and a thoughtful Eastern Orthodox Christian. A few days ago, the well-known Christian commentator Albert Mohler had Rod Dreher on his show Thinking in Public to talk about Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option.

benedictoption

It was a fascinating and informative conversation, and one which I would recommend to everyone (I first talked about Dreher’s “Benedict Option” a couples years ago here).

The conversation between the two men ended with the following exchange, always a bit biting for folks like me (I need to hear it though!):

DREHER: …The Lord gave me a second chance, and I would have all your listeners realize that if they’ve got their heads buried in books–I love books, I write books–but it’s no substitute for the life of prayer and service.

MOHLER: Well, a classical historic Protestant can only say amen to that. Thank you, Rod, for this conversation; I’m deeply indebted to you.

That said, earlier in the conversation both men had clearly dealt with the importance of doctrine (note my bold in particular):

MOHLER: I read the articles that you wrote in the beginning, frankly I follow your column very closely at the American Conservative, and we’ve been watching you make this argument out loud for some time. And reading the book, it seems to me it’s significantly different than what I might have expected in terms of some your early articles on the Benedict Option, so let me just spell that out. You began by saying you’re not calling for us to head for the hills—you just used an illustration of heading for the hills—and as I look at those early articles in the American Conservative, it did appear you were calling, more or less—and those are of course partial arguments, just a few hundred words—but it appears you were calling to head for the hills. Nuance that a bit in terms of where you are in the book.

DREHER: I appreciate the chance to clarify this, and in fact my own thinking has been clarified through exchanges with my readers, through talking with Catholics and evangelical friends, and sort of working through these ideas. When people hear, “Head for the hills,” they think, you know, to light out for the mountains and build a compound and sit there and wait for the end. I don’t think we’re called to that. I know I’m not called to that; most people aren’t called to that. But it does mean doing what these monks in Norcia did initially. They were living right there in the town, but they were behind monastery walls. What does that mean for us? It means as lay Christians, we have to build some kind of walls to separate ourselves from the world so that we can continue to go out into the world and minister to people and be who Christ asked us to be. The culture itself is so toxic and so anti-Christian that we’re just not going to be able to make it if we let anybody and anything come into our hearts, into our imaginations. The monks in Norcia say, “We’re called to be monks, but we cannot be for the pilgrims who come to this monastery what Christ asked us to be if we don’t have that time away behind our walls for prayer and study and work.” I want to take that ethic and take it to lay Christian life. We need to have, for example, Christian schools. Not to shelter our kids from any bad idea that comes from the outside, but in order for them to be nurtured and to build that resilience within so when they do get out into the world, they know who they are, they know what they believe and why they believe it. And more importantly, they have participated and built practices necessary to live out this faith and to get the faith in their bones. Because if the faith is only in your head, if it’s only a series of arguments, you’re not going to make it.

MOHLER: You talk about a conversation, rather haunting actually, at a Christian university or college campus where the professors were telling you that so many Christian young people come, and even though they basically hold to some knowledge, genuine knowledge, of Christianity, it’s so superficial that it tends not even to last very long inside what’s defined as a Christian college and university.

DREHER: That’s true. I mean, the situation is horrible with Catholics, but this conversation you’re recalling was on an evangelical campus and the professors were saying, “We try our best; we can only have these kids for four years.” And these are all kids who came out of evangelical schools and evangelical churches. But this is the youth group culture. All it gave them was emotion and having fun. And one of these professors even said to me, “You know, I doubt that most of our kids are going to be able to form stable families.” That shocked me. I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Because they’ve never seen it.”

MOHLER: I thought in reading that, once again, place still matters a great deal—and I mean place not just in terms of geography, but that and social context and social placement—because I think of the students at our school and I think the vast majority of them did see an intact family It was still close enough to them, if they didn’t come from it, then they saw it. But even in talking with students, you realize in concentric rings of their relationships, you get just one ring out, and then not to mention two or three rings out, and it’s very hard to find. And I think that’s so well documented in something like J.D. Vance’s work now. Where once you would have thought that respect for family and a traditional Christian morality and sexuality and all of that would’ve been taken for granted, it’s now hard to find on the ground….

I do not fully share Rod Dreher’s attitude when it comes to how we as Christians should engage the culture. That said, I can certainly say “Amen” to this exchange above. Because, to ape Molyneux, Jesus Christ is all that matters.

When I look back at my own life, I have no idea why I am as ferociously Christian – Lutheran – as I am. Not everyone in my family has kept the faith I hold on to. I think, however, that one thing that was very helpful for me was learning about the history of the Lutheran Church. I am thankful that I learned the content of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism as a child, but the importance of the words found therein really changed for me when I learned about the 1580 Book of Concord, otherwise known as the Lutheran Confessions (not even reading Martin Luther’s Large Catechism in college really helped me like this did).

Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison shows off a copy of his Book of Concord.

Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison shows off a copy of his Book of Concord.

Actually, not even that is the full truth. More accurately, the Small Catechism became much more important to me after I learned about the history of the church that produced the Lutheran Confessions. For me, getting in touch with the living history underlying the doctrines in the Book of Concord was essential. As the Reformed commentator Michael Horton likes to put it, “the doctrine is in the drama”. One notes that this is definitely the case for the church’s book, the Bible. We are creatures who hunger not just for “propositional truths,” but the meaningful stories that help situate the important things we should know.

To that effect, I can’t help but recommend some of the podcasts Pastor Jordan Cooper has been doing on his show lately where he digs into the Lutheran Confessions, giving a good deal of background knowledge along the way.  The Small Catechism does indeed cover the core elements of the Christian faith, and we can never get to the bottom of the truths it contains. That said, as we mature and look to get our bearings in life, I think that knowing more about Bible, church history, and the history of the Reformation is critical in these last days to ground us in the faith.

An Introduction to Confessional Christianity

The Ecumenical Creeds and the Augsburg Confession

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Smalcald Articles, and Luther’s Catechisms

The Formula of Concord

(I’d also be remiss to point out that the fine show Issues ETC. also has done many excellent shows on the Book of Concord).

And that, I think, can’t not be good for any nation, including ours.

undertheinfluence

FIN

 

Images: Molyneux picture from Wikipedia Commons: “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license” ; Pastor Matthew Harrison with BOC from http://mercyjourney.blogspot.com/2009/04/minnie-me-book-of-concord.html

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Certitude vs. Certainty: What Can Neil Gorsuch and Martin Luther Teach Us About Knowledge and Truth?

Judge Neil Gorsuch

Judge Neil Gorsuch

 

Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s widely lauded pick for new Supreme Court Justice, will be big news for weeks to come. Gorsuch is, like Antonin Scalia before him, an “originalist” judge, meaning that he “interprets the Constitution based on its plain language and original public meaning.” (see here)

According to Wikipedia, “originalism is a way to interpret the Constitution‘s meaning as stable from the time of enactment” (italics mine). Stanley Fish however, rightly argues that “[originalism] is not an approach to interpretation, it is interpretation, because what else could you be doing when you’re trying to interpret the words of another except trying to figure out what that other meant by these words?” (italics mine; see more on Fish’s view and my response here). Therefore, the originalist is one who takes the words of the Constitution very seriously.

I suggest that Christians can see this as an opportunity for having discussions about the Bible and what it means for people today (which yes, many people are open to exploring when given the opportunity!). Particularly, we can appreciate how Christians like Martin Luther believed that hearing the words of Scripture not only brings personal certitude, but certainty. The distinction is subtle but important…

certitudecertainty

We will get to that below, but first we need to cover some preliminary ground. Here we go…

How does the judicial philosophy of originalism connect with Scriptural interpretation? The main point is this: like the originalist with the Constitution, the Christian takes the words of the Bible very seriously. And, in a critical difference, he does this not only because these words are thought to be wise, like the Constitution, but because they are believed to be the very word of God.

Not only this, but the Christian even talks about knowing these words to be the very Word of God. And this, of course, means Truth with a capital T. Knowledge. Wisdom. And Certainty. And the really crazy thing? It is not only Christians who know this, but at some level those who hear the word and do not put their trust in it know it as well.

Is this a Lutheran thing to say? Is this a Christian thing to say?

Yes. For example, Martin Luther not only held to a view of the Holy Scriptures that is similar to the way originalists deal with the constitution (directly comparing the Bible to the laws written in societies), but he also believed, contrary to many theologians today, that God made Himself and His will known to all though these words.

Seriously? Again, yes. Lutherans who adhere to the Lutheran Confessions today like to emphasize, along with the giant of 20th century theology Karl Barth, that unbelievers are not able to understand the true meaning of the Scripture (see I Cor. 2:14, for example). Luther, of course, believed that this was true as well in a sense: unbelievers could not begin to discern the depths of the Bible – its spiritual meaning. That said, at the same time he also taught, per passages like John 16:8-11, that the unbeliever could be given real knowledge of the truth though the Scriptures.

bondageofthewillIn his famed work The Bondage of the Will, we see concrete examples of this (all following quotations are from the J.I. Packer translation).

Luther begins his teaching on the nature of Scripture by noting that Isaiah 40:13 “does not say: ‘who has known the mind of Scripture?’ but: ‘who has known the mind of the Lord?’” Not only does God reveal His own mind in the Scriptures, but He also brings clarity:

“the perspicuity [i.e. clarity] of Scripture is twofold… The first is external, and relates to the ministry of the Word [“all that is in Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world”!]: the second concerns the knowledge of the heart [“nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures”!]” (BOTW, Packer ed., 73, 74).

This only gives us a clue of where Luther is going. Later in this book he uses Isaiah 8:20 (“…to the law and to the testimony…”*) to circle back to the importance of the clarity and decisiveness of Scripture. Simply from the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, he marshals passages from Deuteronomy 17:8, Psalms 19:8 and 119:130, Malachai 2:7 and more to make his case. He writes:

“if laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them?… let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.”

Luther goes on to point out that Stephen, in the book of Acts, quotes Isaiah 66:1, “What is the house that ye build unto me?,” to prove to the Jewish council that God did not command his people to build a temple to Him. And here, he notes that Luke writes “they could not resist the spirit and wisdom with which he spake” (Acts 6:10), and that Jesus Christ Himself says of the words His heralds speak, “your adversaries shall not be able to resist.” Luther recalls that in response to Stephen’s words the council “shut their eyes and summoned false witnesses against him” – to which he replied “Ye uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.”

Luther than drops the hammer: “He says that they do resist, although they could not resist”, meaning that they very well knew the truth the external word brought but internally suppressed it in unrighteousness (see Romans 1). With Erasmus (and Rome) in his sights, Luther asks, with great rhetorical effect: “What is this but to say that their actual resistance will show their inability to resist?” (130-131)

In other words they know.

Do we have such confidence of the external clarity of the Bible – and the knowledge of truth that it brings? If not, why not? Should we seek such confidence? If not, why not?

Quoting Isaiah 6:10, “Hearing ye shall hear and shall not understand and seeing ye shall see and shall not perceive”, Luther is absolutely relentless:

“…reveal… how mighty is the dominion and power of Satan over the sons of men, which prevents them from hearing and grasping the plainest words of God, and makes them like men whom an illusionist has mesmerized into thinking that the sun is a cold cinder, or believing that a stone is gold… [Satan is the cause of man’s failure to grasp God’s words, and] if [he] did not do so, the whole world could be converted by a single word of God, hear once; there would be no need of more” (133-134).

From the parable of the sower: "the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart."

From the parable of the sower: “the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.”

Man’s failure to grasp God’s clear words (i.e. trust) does not result from weak understanding, as men like Erasmus claim, but on the contrary, weak understanding is ideal for grasping God’s words (133-134). Of course the Holy Spirit figures into all of this as well, as He works according to and through God’s word…

Can we, if we adopt the more subjective posture invoked by many modern biblical scholars, ever hope to nurture such confidence? That we possess knowledge of the truth and can and should assert the same to others?

Where was Luther wrong?

Is he wrong about the perspicuity, i.e. clarity, of Holy Scripture? Is he wrong about the knowledge that it brings those who hear it?

Today, we are told that even though we as Christians believe in Christ and know Him and His word to be true (and that we grow in this understanding!) this is, really, ultimately about our own personal certitude. In other words, this means that certainty is no longer associated with something that we can call real knowledge, but is actually just individual confidence, assurance, etc.

Regrettably, the fact/value split put forth most aggressively by the 18th c. philosopher David Hume has comes to an ever-greater flowering in what remains of Christendom.

I suggest that even one of the most conservative and respected Lutheran theologians of the last century got inadvertently caught up in this trap, saying the following almost 50 years ago:

“Scientific knowledge is evident knowledge; theology is by no means evident in the same sense, for it deals not with things to be known but things to be believed (τά πιστά). Therefore theology insists that reason that seeks to know theological matters be taken captive…”

The unintended implications of this view, I think, are that we lose Luther’s ability to assert. Luther believed that the Scriptures granted all persons true knowledge – even if that knowledge was suppressed and not understood in its full spiritual sense. And objective certainty triumphed over mere subjective certitude.

What does Christ’s church today believe? When He returns, will he find faith on earth?

Run for your life – to the Word (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11).

FIN

 

Notes:

*Of the Isaiah passage in particular he says it “dispatches all questions ‘to the law and to the testimony,’ and threatens that unless we comply the light of dawn must be denied us” (126).

 

Image credit for Gorsuch:

As a work of the United States Federal Government, the file is in the public domain in the United States.

The sower, Kew Gardens in London. Picture by mira 66, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

 

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Neil Gorsuch, Stanley Fish, Martin Luther, and the Bible: Whither Authoritative Interpretation?

Judge Neil Gorsuch

Judge Neil Gorsuch

A couple days ago, President Donald Trump’s proposed replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was announced. We read in Slate about U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit judge Neil Gorsuch:

“Gorsuch identifies himself as a textualist and an originalist in the tradition of Justice Antonin Scalia, meaning he interprets the Constitution based on its plain language and original public meaning.”

Across the board, American Christians seem quite happy about the decision (see here), and much of this has to do with the fact that Gorsuch is not an “activist judge” but an “originalist”.

What is this originalism and why is it so significant? You can delve into a helpful explanation here, but not too long ago on Albert Mohler’s show Thinking in Public, public intellectual Stanley Fish gave a helpful and very engaging overview of the different kinds of “originalism”:

Justice Scalia and I are—or were, I guess in his case, unfortunately—both originalists, and originalists at least in the context of constitutional interpretation, as someone who believes that basically the act of interpretation is the act of trying to figure out what the text originally meant when it was produced at whatever date. And I would say that that understanding of interpretation—that you’re trying to figure out what some speaker or writer meant—is not an approach to interpretation, it is interpretation, because what else could you be doing when you’re trying to interpret the words of another except trying to figure out what that other meant by these words? Where Scalia and I diverge is that he is a textualist originalist, and I am an intentionalist originalist. A textualist originalist thinks that the answer to the question, “Well what was meant by this text at the time of its junction?” is to be found by examining the text in and of itself independently of any consideration of intention or, Scalia said, independently of any consideration of legislative history. I, on the other hand, am firmly persuaded that the only way to get at the meaning of a text is to figure out what the author had in mind, or authors had in mind, at the moment of its production, and that if you just look at the text in and of itself it won’t tell you anything, or it will tell you too many things. But if you can at least make a good guess based on the available evidence about the spirit of purpose within which this utterance emerged, then you will have a way of determining what the text meant. So that we’re both originalists, but we diverge in the version of originalism each of us follows.

MOHLER: You know that’s really interesting because toward the end of his life, Justice Scalia actually preferred not to call himself an originalist at all, but rather a textualist, which just kind of affirms your analysis there.

NY Times op-ed columnist, Stanley Fish.

NY Times op-ed columnist, Stanley Fish.

FISH: Well yeah, that’s right. His textualism and my intentionalism are both variants of originalism, but originalism is I guess the mothership that houses us both.

MOHLER: So that leads to a couple of questions to me. The first is you said that that is not a method of interpretation, it is interpretation. So how can it be that in the modern academy interpretation is evidently something other than what you just to find it to be?

FISH: Well it’s because people have confused interpretation, and therefore meaning, with communication. Many have observed that any text that has either been uttered or written is available to many interpretations, and that has led people incorrectly to assume that texts or spoken words are irremediably ambiguous. And I would reply no, that’s not the case. The debates about interpretation, the interpretive debates over a text, either written or oral, are always debates about the spirit within which the text emerged—always debates about what the author or authors had in mind. And people who have different answers to that question—what the author or authors had in mind—will then see the text as meaning differently. And there’s been the unwarranted conclusion from that picture of interpretation that interpretation is entirely subjective and can go in any direction one likes. It’s not subjective, neither is it objective in the sense that there’s any machine for producing correct interpretations. What you have to do, and it’s an empirical exercise, is to try to figure out as best you can what the author or authors had in mind. Let me give you an example. My wife and I got off a plane in the small town of Stewart, Newburgh, rather Newburgh, New York, Stewart Newberg Airport at quarter to twelve in the evening, fifteen minutes before midnight, and we were immediately met as we stepped off the plane into the terminal by a sign that said, “Hot panini sandwiches now being served in the Euro Café.” So the question is, “What does that sign mean?” And it’s obvious that the sign could mean at least two things—actually more, but we’ll stick to two. It could mean either, “if you trot down the hall right now to the Euro Café, you will be able to enjoy a hot panini sandwich,” or it could mean, “we have now added hot panini sandwiches to our menu.” So how do you figure out which it means? And the answer is that you have to put yourself in the place of those who produced the sign, and you have to also note that you’re in a rural airport in upstate New York, and that in almost any airport in this country, aside from O’Hare and a couple of others, no restaurants are open at quarter to twelve in the evening. And therefore, through that kind of empirical reasoning, you can figure out what author or authors of the sign had in mind. The text itself won’t tell you, and that’s why I’m an intentionalist, not a textualist.

Fish’s objection to textual originalism is interesting. Clearly, sometimes when we look at a sentence the words and grammar make perfect sense but the sentence could have more than one meaning. For example, in a biblical Greek class I am taking right now, we translated a sentence into English that could have meant either “The slaves were killing the children with the disciples” or “The slaves were killing the children along with (i.e. “and”) the disciples”. We opted for the latter translation! (of course, as I recently heard someone say [Todd Wilken!], sometimes the words “good night” can also mean “leave me alone” but that is a different kettle of fish!)

And, of course, Fish’s example about the panini sandwich is  interesting and illuminating. Context is always an important element of any interpretation, and in the example he gives above, immediate contextual clues and background knowledge, of course, are critical. That said, while I am no expert in this topic, it seems to me that Fish’s objection is handled fairly easily. After all, in trying to make his case for “intentional originalism” I note that he does not use an example from the law. If he did that, of course, any sentence he might give would be surrounded by a great many more words in a document carefully crafted by lawyers or judges to be clear and concrete – aware of the fact that the words we speak and sentences we write are often liable to more than one interpretation.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

And of course, the primary author of the Bible, God Himself, would be aware of things like this as well. As Martin Luther said in the Bondage of the Will:

“…if laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them?… let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.” (p. 126, Packer edition)

When it comes to biblical interpretation, the most important contextual information in interpreting any particular sentence would be the words surrounding that sentence, including the rest of the entire book the words are drawn from (e.g. the book of Matthew). And then, going broader and deeper, we would look to the entire Bible that the church has recognized as the Word of God. Talking about things like geographical, historical, and cultural context are certainly important as well (see the amazing Acts commentary from Keener!), but even here, a great deal of this context can be found in the biblical books themselves. All of this information should give us our primary context for understanding what we read in the Bible.

Furthermore, given our view of the clarity that is found in the Bible, it would be safe to say that when it comes to Scripture, the “original meaning” (i.e. what reasonable persons would have understood the text to be saying) cannot be explicitly divorced from the intent of the biblical authors, and ultimately, the Author (not to say that the understanding of the text’s meaning might not become deeper and more full as time goes on). Not only this, but we will become better interpreters of particular things that God says the more familiar we are will all that He has said. In other words, the more familiar we are with Him (see more thoughts on how we should see the Bible and apply it to our lives here).

Lastly, as Luther never tired of reminding us, all of these biblical words give us Christ, who reveals to us the fullness of God’s heart towards His fallen creatures. The Bible, in other words, is the cradle that introduces us to the Word made flesh, for us.

FIN

Note: minor changes made to text after initial publishing.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

How Can Christian Schools Shine in a “Doubling Down” World?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. -- John 1:5

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:5

 

It has become a “don’t back down, double-down” world.

Many increasingly feel like they are being pushed too far. The “other” is more so all the time… and there is felt to be little truth in them. As time rolls on we seem, as Charles Murray has put it, to be “coming [further] apart”.

No!

No!

Tomorrow, several lawmakers plan on boycotting the inauguration of the President of the United States. In like fashion, pro-life woman, out of step with modern feminist ideology, are being excluded from participating in the Woman’s March on Washington. Many on the left also wish that they could boycott Peter Thiel, whom they consider to be insufficiently gay or not really gay at all. And among calls for government and big business-assisted action, more conservative reporters and news organizations were basically identified as a contagion to be isolated by the New York Times already in last November (right before the election of Donald Trump) for producing “fake news” (see my own analysis on the “fake news” issue – in short, “selective reporting” is a common human practice).

I am therefore not surprised when a Pew study shows that those who are “consistently liberal” in their politics are much more likely than those who are “consistently conservative” to “drop a friend” because of politics.

But politics, as we Christians know well, it is not all there is. For we know of the news that is really important and interesting. That is, the good news that Jesus Christ is the light of the world – the light no darkness shall overcome!

And now is the time for the church to shine!

This doesn’t mean that we can avoid “doubling down” ourselves. It means that we “double down” in a peculiar kind of way, a way that is distinct from the world around us. “Repent!,” in fact, is the language of love. Unlike many harsher phrases, it, even if it is said badly, must not mean “to cut-off” or damn. No. It must look to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

So how, in particular, can Christian schools continue to remain Christian, looking to be that shining city on a hill (no that is not America!) that Jesus spoke of?

And, perhaps, all in the name of evangelism? No!

And, perhaps, all in the name of evangelism? No!

First, we need to realize that, generally speaking, we really are much more eager be kind and patient with those we disagree with than they are us. When people say we are being unreasonable, mean, harsh, demeaning, close-minded, intolerant, etc. – and that they are even thinking about “unfriending” us – we typically want to know just what we are doing wrong. Truly saddened by their evaluation, we want to listen. We don’t want them to feel “unsafe” around us!

But we cannot be so blissfully unaware, so hopelessly naïve. Rather, because it is the truth which frees us, we need to be “anxious for the fray” – loving them by anticipating their moves and planning ahead. After all, when it comes down to it, there is nothing less safe than being outside of Christ and His love – and hence, His people, His beloved bride, His church.

This leads to the second answer, which is the main one: to realize that the positive message we proclaim – Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection that saves from sin, death, and the devil – is a treasure beyond all human comprehension.

Not only does the world not even begin to realize this – the bride of Christ itself, the church, does not even understand just how good this message is. Just like Jesus’ twelve disciples were perpetually clueless and of little faith, the same holds true for us!

And, perhaps, sometimes it takes outside voices to help us see this… Teaching an introductory class to Christianity at Concordia University – Saint Paul for six years now, I’ve been blessed to interact not only with students who are Christians, but also those who are nominally Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, animist, black, white, gay, lesbian, agnostic, and atheist. Given the fact that I try not to water anything down – teaching about both God’s law and gospel – what I hear from many of them has often surprises me.

In sum, I see, from unsolicited words that I have received (they are required to do two-sentence journal entries about anything they want), that God has made helped many of them see more clearly….

Just a few examples from the last year (here is a more complete list of quotes I published yesterday)….

A married atheist-lesbian student wrote to me:

“I have a greater understanding of the salvation Jesus gave when he offered his life as payment for sin. Most importantly, I have a greater respect and admiration of Christianity and the hope and positivity it offers.”

The first week, knowing full well where I stood, she said this to me:

“I don’t know for sure if my religious beliefs will change, but I know the Bible has enriched my life. To me that is a good enough reason to keep pursuing it. Thank you for offering this course with such grace and honesty.”

One of my Jewish students, recalling the required church-visit assignment, noted the following:

Going to this service was quite an eye-opening experience. Reading the Bible over the past few weeks has been interesting, and reading the commentary in the NIV study bible even more interesting… However, hearing the Bible verses, teachings, and lessons from the Church was a whole different experience, especially when you add the community aspect. I can now see why the Bible states that Church is so important. These words could not be more true: “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17)

An animist student writes:

“As someone who knew nothing about the religion, it continues to interest and provide me with a different perspective of certain situations whether around the world, or here at home.  What has st[]uck out the most with me is the love God and Jesus has for human beings… I enjoyed the class and learning about the Christianity faith!  Thank you!”

And then, getting away from all of this “identity” stuff, there are also these general reactions (again, all of these are unsolicited comments from the past year):

  • I enjoyed your class! It has put a new perspective on the bible for me now and has also encouraged me to read it more often!… I adore Concordia university curriculum and even more that there is a theology requirement because if it were not I probably would not have had taken the class. Again, Thank you for everything!!!”
  • “I’m enjoying this class more than I thought I would which is great. My home dynamics are changing around dinner discussions and plans of finding a “home” church, I didn’t like the idea of the school having this class as a requirement, but I think it’s great and everyone SHOULD at some point take this class.”
  • “As I wrapped up my last week, I had a co-worker sarcastically ask me did I really learn anything. I was offended and by the end of our conversation she was in tears with all that I learned and the testimony I told her about of the person I interviewed.” (one assignment in the class is interviewing an active Christian known to the student)
  • “There is a lot about the Bible that I maybe did not put all together before now, but this class has honestly made it extremely interesting and made a difference in how I am viewing reading the Bible.  Like you said in class, I think that many individuals just see the Bible as a what God wants us to do and what God doesn’t want us to do, but looking at the Bible as an epic story of God’s love for us and how He sent His only son here to die for our sins is one of the greatest stories that I have ever heard.”
  • “I have taken many courses and by the end of them, I have generally been able to see how the content contributed to a more well[-]rounded education by adding professional skills and preparing me for career advancement.  I feel like this course is different (in a good way.)  I can see how the content from this course helps me as a human being and prepares me for flourishing as a human being, living a thoughtful and purpose filled life.  I hope you are aware of how much the work you do matters.”
  • “Last night when I was working on my paper I realized that it would be the last week of class and it made me feel a bit sad. I’m not really sure why since I will continue to have God in my life. But I think it might be because this class brought me closer to God. I usually don’t really have time to read and actually study the Bible, but this class gave me a reason to study it and to see the Bible in a different way.”
  • About three years ago, I was confident in my beliefs.  This has since changed. There are events in life that can shake you to your core and make you question everything, even your own existence.  This is where I am now in my life.  Trying to sort through what I believe to be true and what others want me to believe…. Reflecting on this class I see that it was exactly what I needed at this point in time.”
  • “What I did not realize is that this course would become more than a requirement.  At a time when there is so much chaos in the world I have looked for something to hold on to… through this course I have realized something, I can hold onto God…. This course helped me to reopen a chapter in my life that I thought I knew all about. I am so happy that I took this course and took the time to understand the Bible and Christianity better.”
  • “I think with this knowledge [of Christ] I feel safe. I feel as though no matter what I have God on my side, and that’s the most important thing I can take away from this course. I feel with this knowledge I feel comfortable sharing the Bible with others. For there is nothing for them to lose, except gain a relationship with an ever-loving and forgiving God.” (italics in quotes above mine)

So much hope! So much light! So much life! “God,” we Christians know, “is love”.

But how we tend to lose the plot! One might think that it would be obvious for example, even to the world, that there is something wrong with reading the Koran in a Christian worship service (more! – even reading a specific passage from the Koran that asserts that Jesus Christ is not God’s Son!). One might think that it would be obvious, even to the world, that a military chaplain’s first responsibility is not to his earthly masters, but to the glorious, beautiful, wonderful King of Heaven and Earth.

To many it is no longer “obvious” (even if, deep down, they know this…we suppress it!). Not even to many who claim the mantel of Christianity.

So these are the days when we must politely resist those who would gently try to help us be more accepting of supportive of “diversity” (oh, how much is subsumed under that term!) … in part by urging us to establish “safe spaces” at our schools and universities.

The promised Savior: "I am the light of the world."

The promised Savior: “I am the light of the world.”

These are the days where we absolutely must, taking our cue from the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul, run to the Scriptures and test all we hear against them (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11).

If we do not, we ourselves will lose the One who will not lose. The One who scatters the darkness and is the only source of Goodness – Love, Light, and Life.

To conclude, I’ll say “Amen” to another student’s comments (even as she gives me an “Amen” herself):

“The more that I read of the Bible, the more firm and faithful I feel when it comes to God. I have read so many of these passages before but at this time in my life, they seem to be taking a greater effect. I’ve always been a Christian but I am realizing how blessed I am to be a Christian. It really is a faith unlike any other… Kind of like you said it class, that you’re glad Jesus is God.”

FIN

 

Images:

Candle: Sara K, Aphotic Melancholy 1, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

 

 
3 Comments

Posted by on January 19, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Surprising (?) Power of God’s Word: Unsolicited Feedback From the Beginning Christianity Class that I Teach

"Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house." -- Matthew 5:15

“Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” — Matthew 5:15

 

Article summary: I’ve been keeping positive feedback regarding the class I teach now for about five years. I recently read through some of many pages of quotes that I’ve collected, and took out some of the quotes from the year 2016 that I think best sum up the effect this class has had on people’s lives

In general, the class that I teach at Concordia University Saint Paul does not tend to focus on subjective experiences. Rather, the focus is on Jesus Christ and the Bible as our authority – as the infallible Word of God.

That said, experience certainly is not an unimportant thing! I think the author of the course, Jim Gimbel (now President of Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta up in Canada) did a fantastic job designing the course to not only focus on core biblical content, but to also encourage students to interact with and relate to one another (and the professor). As one student put it, “with all the information that is covered in class I believe the way you have things organized and set up in class it works out perfect” (I always let them know I didn’t do it!).

And one of the most rewarding things about teaching an introductory course on Christianity is the unsolicited feedback that I receive regarding how the class has affected the students (and as much as I love being a librarian, I confess I enjoy this teaching even more).

As a Christian committed to the 1580 Lutheran Book of Concord, I’d be considered by many to be a pretty radical guy. And in the class, I try very hard not to dilute anything.

More specifically, this means that even though I do my best to make all feel welcome (as one student puts it, “I feel that everyone is respectful towards all of the different backgrounds we have”), I am absolutely firm about God’s law and gospel. Even though I tell all my students to ask hard questions and push-back – I don’t hesitate to try and “contend earnestly” for the Christian faith, and to remember, as best I can, 2 Tim 2: 24-26:

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

…and to practice, as best as I can, I Peter 3:15-16:

… but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

….whenever I can.

And yet, in spite of what many would no doubt consider a heavy-handed curricular set-up, unsolicited feedback I get from journal entries, emails, and papers (yes, it is possible it is “blowing smoke” to the one in the position of power, though I would contend its usually unlikely, particularly given my praise for the atheists and other non-Christians I’ve had in the class – and the fact that the anonymous, online, end-of-class evaluations rarely contain any negative feedback), always leaves me with the general impression that students….

Appreciate getting informed (despite its being required and the class’s very demanding workload![i]) (italics mine):

  • “There is a lot about the Bible that I maybe did not put all together before now, but this class has honestly made it extremely interesting and made a difference in how I am viewing reading the Bible.  Like you said in class, I think that many individuals just see the Bible as a what God wants us to do and what God doesn’t want us to do, but looking at the Bible as an epic story of God’s love for us and how He sent His only son here to die for our sins is one of the greatest stories that I have ever heard.”
  • I enjoyed your class! It has put a new perspective on the bible for me now and has also encouraged me to read it more often!… I adore Concordia university curriculum and even more that there is a theology requirement because if it were not I probably would not have had taken the class. Again, Thank you for everything!!!”
  • “As I wrapped up my last week, I had a co-worker sarcastically ask me did I really learn anything. I was offended and by the end of our conversation she was in tears with all that I learned and the testimony I told her about of the person I interviewed.”
  • “I’m enjoying this class more than I thought I would which is great. My home dynamics are changing around dinner discussions and plans of finding a “home” church, I didn’t like the idea of the school having this class as a requirement, but I think it’s great and everyone SHOULD at some point take this class.”
  • “Initially hesitant to take the course, but knowing that it was mandatory. I decided why not just get it over with… I can honestly say I’m a better person since taking this course. It’s ironic that prior to this class I would read signs posted on message boards outside of a church and not really give it a second thought. Now when I see the message boards my mind automatically goes through the remainder of the story, of that particular verse of Scripture….”
  • “I really am enjoying this class. I like that I am recognizing the names of people in the bible and the stories now… I like that if someone talks about the Gospels, I []now have a good idea of what they’re getting at.”
  • “I felt [this class] would be a waste of my time because it doesn’t pertain to my degree. To my surprise I came to enjoy the class and felt I learned a lot, regardless of the fact it might not be something I use daily in my future work life. I feel like understanding everyone’s religions and being respectful is a valuable life lesson.”
  •  “….enjoyed this class and learning all about the bible… very appreciative for this learning experience.
  • “Overall the experience of this class was memorable! I have learned more than in ANY other class thus far.”
  • “This class has really helped me to make time for God and to actually read the Bible and focus.”
  • “I was one that really originally thought that the Bible is a nice book with nice people and a nice happy ending. However, its not really the case, reading the Bible has actually opened my eyes with how different the Bible actually is, it’s real and raw! I am enjoying the class.”
  • “I did learn a lot in this course, and I feel better prepared to understand and relate to my Christian friends and colleagues.”
  • “I really enjoyed this class especially because it made me reflect on the teachings of the Bible as well as my own beliefs.”
  • “I must admit I absolutely love this class! haha!”
  • “I am softening myself to the power of religion and understanding the good that comes from prayer and worship…. I actually find myself bringing up religion and God more than ever before in conversations.”
  • “I enjoy this class so much and I wish that it was a regular semester and not a condensed semester there’s so much. I don’t feel as if I’m learning less because its condensed at all I’m really into this class and I don’t want it to end.”
  • “This class has benefited me in more ways than you can imagine. To list [one:] the ability to understand what I stand for.”
  • “I am very pleased with the way you present both the Bible and the Gospel. While you and I clearly differ on points of contention: [millennial reign, confession needs between a pastor and an attendee] – at least we have Jesus in common.”
  • “I have enjoyed this class and will miss having this as part of my weekly routine.”
  • I never looked at things the way I have until we started to analyze them this way in class. It makes me feel better that I am actually gaining more knowledge into the bible and its meaning.”
  • “I am very eager to continue the reading throughout this class and hope I am able to focus a bit more and understand/retain the material compared to when I was younger.”
  • “I’m happy to say that I got much more from this class than I expected. I was raised a Christian, and I did not really expect to learn anything new.”
  • “I can’t express to you how much I appreciate this class and everything you’ve taught us.  I have learned so much within these last few weeks and I wish we could continue the class (without all of the homework)!”
  • “I think we’re all taking this class as a required course, but we all seem to enjoy it and I like that it’s like it’s own bible study, that I never thought I would enjoy.”
  • “…since I have started this class I talk about it with one of my coworkers. We have some great conversations about the bible…”
  • “What a course!… grew up going to church, but I have learned more in these 7 weeks than I have in my 20+ years… Is that a good or a bad thing?!
  • “What a ride it’s been.  I have enjoyed this class so much!… I am so happy I got the opportunity to take this course and to get to know the beliefs and opinions of others.”
  • “Thank you again everything! I REALLY enjoyed taking your class.”
  • “I have found that I am surprising myself with how I am feeling about the material I am learning. Through all of the faith formation and religious exposure I have had throughout my past, I have surpassed everything I have learned just through two weeks!”
  • “Thanks again for an awesome class! I got a lot out of it and am looking at taking another religious course for the summer.”
  • “Throughout the weeks of this course there has been many things that I have learned about the bible and about God. Each week I am intrigued by the amount of information that I have had no know[]ledge about in the past… With this course rapping up here shortly I really want to continue to learn more about Christianity, the bible and stre[n]ghthen my relationship with the Lord.”
  • “I really enjoyed this class. It helped me understand more about being a Christian and God.  I always felt I knew Jesus pretty well because his disciples wrote about him but God was always this mystery to me.  Yeah He is our Father and He sent His only son to save us but I never thought too much more about him till I took this class.”
  • “My past that I learned from and my love for the faith has made this class truly special and dear to my heart…. I really enjoyed getting to talk to people of many faiths and having a professor who has such a deep love of the faith and desire to preserve and teach the Word of God to all people. I loved being able to confess Christ Boldly.”

Experience a degree of personal – even radical – transformation:

  • “I do have a different outlook on life…”
  • Before this class, I was going through the motions of going to church…”
  • “[I] have been really surprised how much more understanding [I]’ve gained from just one week. I admit it [–] this approach has brought life back into what was lost interest.”
  • “This class has motivated me to… uphold my commitment I made to God when I made my marriage vows and when I committed to raise my children in the Christian faith.”
  • “I have lost faith these past few years.  While I’ve always believed in God and Jesus, I didn’t necessarily believe in organized religion… I now see why it is important to take the time out to worship our Lord… in a public setting.”
  • “The more I learn in this class and from your lectures, the more comfortable I am being able to talk about it with others. My family watched the movie Jesus with me and I was able to tell them more about what was going on based on the readings in the Gospels this week.”
  • “Taking this course really has made me want to find a church home and start attending church regularly. As a father of one and another on the way I want to raise my children to have integrity and to Love God. I know as the better my relationship is with the Lord the more I will be able to lead my sons in the direction of God.”
  • “I am actually reading the bible more not only for the class, but i have been reading one new book of the bible every week to read. Thank you for this enjoyable journey this semester.”
  • “…a part of my childhood is being restored, a subject that brought me such great joy is returning, and for me that brings peace…”
  • “I am truly blessed to have been told to take this class because it brought me back to such an important thing.” (after the first week, this student wrote: “This is the week I learned that this course would be far more than just a requirement. It would allow me to reconnect with a childhood happiness; religion.”)
  • “I went in [to the worship service assignment] with an open mind and tried to erase all previous prejudices I had. I left feeling closer to God and ready to start worshipping our Lord once again…”
  • “Overall, this experience has been extremely spiritual. I know it is a college course and I earn credit, however, it was almost like I was engaging in a personal Bible study! I have learned so much about the history of the Bible, and details of Jesus’ accounts…. It really made a huge impact on me, and I am so grateful for this experience.”
  • “I think God has put me in this class at this point in time for a reason. I don’t know the full reason as to why, but I can say for sure it is to learn how to forgive, which it has started to do. I have been praying for a while now to be able to forgive my sons dad, but it wasn’t until the readings in this class that have helped open my eyes more as to how. So thank you for being a part of the process of my learning.”
  • “Prior to this course, I was nervous about reading the Bible. It always seemed a bit confusing. After I faced my fear, I could not be more proud of myself. Not only was I enjoying what I was reading, I was able to attend mass and grasp what was being read. I feel as though I am more confident in my faith, which is what I was striving for in the beginning…”
  • “I am not going to lie, I was hesitant when I knew I had to take this class, but wanted to keep an open mind going into it. This class has not been easy for me and it has shown that I am weak in certain aspects of the Bible. I have not spent much time in recent years attempting to gain a better understanding of the Bible and now realize I should have… I am only hurting myself, by not taking the time to fully understand it. I know that I have a long way to go, but hope as I continue my religious journey I will be able to share my newfound knowledge with my family and friends. On a lighter note you would be happy to know you had two extra students this week in class my 10 and 7 year old. It was interesting to see their reaction to your teachings and I think you made a positive impact on all 3 of our lives. Thank you again for your help along the way and I wish you and your family the best in the future.”
  • “I am very much enjoying the more thorough break down of the bible and the discussion around it.  I am actually beginning to feel my relationship with religion starting to ignite again. I do not think I have ever lost my faith or relationship with God but in these first two weeks I have felt a stronger interest in attending church again.  I am also finding value in having a stronger relationship with religion so that I can find the sort of worship that works best for me and hopefully pass it on to my daughter.”
  • “I put off taking this course… because I often struggle with faith and I feared this course had the potential to be intellectually and emotional draining.  I wanted to prepare myself for it…I am so grateful that I was able to take this course at this particular time in my life. Gaining a more in depth knowledge of Christianity, God, Jesus, Sin, Suffering, Forgiveness, Grace, etc…. has brought something to my life that I didn’t really know was missing.  It has been especially meaningful while facing the reality of losing my father…
  • I have taken many courses and by the end of them, I have generally been able to see how the content contributed to a more well[-]rounded education by adding professional skills and preparing me for career advancement.  I feel like this course is different (in a good way.)  I can see how the content from this course helps me as a human being and prepares me for flourishing as a human being, living a thoughtful and purpose filled life.  I hope you are aware of how much the work you do matters.”
  • “I got way more out of this class than I have gotten anywhere else. I have not spent the time to go to my church’s Bible study because it is for adults only. So next year when my two year old starts sunday school (at three years), I plan on sitting in on the Bible studies so that I can be better aquainted with the in[-]depth teachings of the Bible.”
  • “I found the class highly interesting as it has been a long time since I have done any reading/studying of scripture… The class has provoked religious discussions at home….”
  • “Last night when I was working on my paper I realized that it would be the last week of class and it made me feel a bit sad. I’m not really sure why since I will continue to have God in my life. But I think it might be because this class brought me closer to God. I usually don’t really have time to read and actually study the Bible, but this class gave me a reason to study it and to see the Bible in a different way.”
  • “This class has opened my eyes to many different aspects of my adult life and will carry things that I have learned in this class with me for years to come. I… am actually even a bit ahead in this class because I am enjoying getting back into the Bible. This has been the little push that I needed. I think my mom is appreciating it the most!”

Are comforted by what they learn from the Scriptures…:

  • “I really like how I am understanding the bible and the lessons more now [than when I was younger]. I feel like maybe I do because I am able to relate to some more? I am not really sure, but it is a comforting feeling.”
  • About three years ago, I was confident in my beliefs.  This has since changed. There are events in life that can shake you to your core and make you question everything, even your own existence.  This is where I am now in my life.  Trying to sort through what I believe to be true and what others want me to believe…. Reflecting on this class I see that it was exactly what I needed at this point in time.”
  • “I think with this knowledge [of Christ] I feel safe. I feel as though no matter what I have God on my side, and that’s the most important thing I can take away from this course. I feel with this knowledge I feel comfortable sharing the Bible with others. For there is nothing for them to lose, except gain a relationship with an ever-loving and forgiving God.”
  • “What I did not realize is that this course would become more than a requirement.  At a time when there is so much chaos in the world I have looked for something to hold on to… through this course I have realized something, I can hold onto God…. This course helped me to reopen a chapter in my life that I thought I knew all about. I am so happy that I took this course and took the time to understand the Bible and Christianity better.”

Even those who do not come to identify with Christianity during the course of the class experience have many positive things to say about the faith….

As one student summed up the atmosphere of her class:

  • “Overall, I really enjoyed my experience in this class. I learned a lot about God, Christianity, and surprisingly a lot about myself. I really like being able to talk about such a sensitive topic in a public setting. So often it seems that discussions related to religion are uncomfo[r]table. I did not feel that in this course. I also really liked the diversity of the class. There were many people who were not Christians and it was interesting to see what kind of questions they had about the faith.”

A married atheist-lesbian student wrote to me:

  • “I have a greater understanding of the salvation Jesus gave when he offered his life as payment for sin. Most importantly, I have a greater respect and admiration of Christianity and the hope and positivity it offers.”

The first week, knowing full well where I stood, she said this to me:

  • “I don’t know for sure if my religious beliefs will change, but I know the Bible has enriched my life. To me that is a good enough reason to keep pursuing it. Thank you for offering this course with such grace and honesty.”

One of my Jewish students, recalling the required church-visit assignment, noted the following:

  • Going to this service was quite an eye-opening experience. Reading the Bible over the past few weeks has been interesting, and reading the commentary in the NIV study bible even more interesting… However, hearing the Bible verses, teachings, and lessons from the Church was a whole different experience, especially when you add the community aspect. I can now see why the Bible states that Church is so important. These words could not be more true: “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17)

An animist student writes:

  • “As someone who knew nothing about the religion, it continues to interest and provide me with a different perspective of certain situations whether around the world, or here at home.  What has st[]uck out the most with me is the love God and Jesus has for human beings… I enjoyed the class and learning about the Christianity faith!  Thank you!”

A man who practiced paganism wrote the following:

  • “Around the halfway point of this course understanding took over. I gained a greater understanding of the Bible, the mindset of the believers, the works of Jesus and why those who work on his behalf do so. I gained a greater appreciation of the Bible and the Christian faith in general. What I respect most about Christianity are the people on the front lines for Christ. As I’ve stated before it’s not the words alone, but the actions of the believers that I give the utmost respect. Professor R[]inne I thank you for your patience and tolerance and for the additional light you shared on numerous topics of the Bible and the Christian faith.”

Atheist students tend not to talk about enjoying the content (e.g. “I certainly haven’t changed my beliefs but It is interesting to pour over this text that I haven’t read since I was young.”), but are nice to me and Christian classmates : ) :

  • “I would like to thank you for an interesting class, for humoring me my inquiries, and your patience in humoring the village heretic.”
  • “Keep up the good work. You are a patient and intelligent professor. I wish you the best.”
  • “I opened myself up to this experience and it has by far been the most interesting and rewarding class I have taken here at Concordia.  I now can understand Christianity from a Christian’s perspective. Previous to this experience, my experiences with Christianity have been from afar, like an outsider looking in. I was intimidated, fearful, and quite doubtful of the validity of the Bible. I now can say that even if I am not convinced the Bible is historical rather than fictional, I am not doubtful of the beauty of believing. To believe in something bigger than you can guide you, keep you sane and honest. Those who believe live happier lives and live with less fear. I used to not understand why when people turn to God they change and it seems to monopolize their lives but I understand the concept, like when you first fall in love and all you want to do is see that person, talk about that person and tell everyone about that person.”

Sometimes, these kinds of comments make me wonder if I am doing my job! : )

What does all of this mean?

In all seriousness, none of the comments you read above from non-Christian students means that there is still not some kind of rebellion vs. God going on in them. It just means that, at some level, they are able to appreciate, respect, and, overall, see some value to the Christian message – hopefully delivered with conviction and love – that they receive.

In other words, there are many, many persons in our country who, when they are exposed to the Bible, are either converted to Christ (but even here, we think about the parable of the sower) or are otherwise transformed in a “civil righteousness” sense. They, even like the “old Adam” that remains even in the Christian, may ultimately be God’s enemy (and hence will re-interpret or dilute in their minds what is clearly there in God’s word), but they also might also have convictions about the beneficial practical effects of Christian faith – and might even be unable to stop – if they wanted to! – the real love they feel for the Christians around them (note God’s goodness to both the righteous and unrighteous in Psalm 145, Matthew 5 and Acts 14, for example).

To conclude, I’ll say “Amen” to this students comments (even as she gives me an “Amen” herself)

  • “The more that I read of the Bible, the more firm and faithful I feel when it comes to God. I have read so many of these passages before but at this time in my life, they seem to be taking a greater effect. I’ve always been a Christian but I am realizing how blessed I am to be a Christian. It really is a faith unlike any other… Kind of like you said it class, that you’re glad Jesus is God.”

FIN

 

[i] “I will be honest with you Professor….this class really tested my time management skills due to the level of weekly assignments. At times I felt very overwhelmed and sometimes found myself scrambling to finish the assignments on time. This class was good and I enjoyed it very much.”

 

 
4 Comments

Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Resolved: Why We Should Recognize, not Emphasize, the Christian’s Freed, New Will

A recent translation of Martin Luther's "On Christian Freedom," retitled, from Lutheran Press.

A recent translation of Martin Luther’s “On Christian Freedom,” retitled, from Lutheran Press.

There is a brutal honesty in the 16th century Lutheran Confessional documents. At one point, we are asked the question:

“Who does not frequently doubt whether human affairs are ruled by God’s counsel or by chance? Who does not frequently doubt whether he be heard by God?”

Still, the God revealed in the Bible ultimately delivers faith and certain hope. In Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness, life and salvation. The sure and full transformation of the world – and we who believe to – is coming! And because God is free (II Cor. 3:17), He makes us free, and we have the beginnings of this now (whether you see it or not! – see II Cor. 3:18).

Therefore, a la Paul in Romans 12:1-2, we are resolved.

And did you, in your Christian liberty, decide to make a New Year’s resolution this year? If not, that is certainly not a problem. A couple of years ago however, Tullian Tchividjian got some major media attention for saying that things like New Year’s resolutions were a part of the problem! He complained thusly:

“….underneath our New Year’s resolutions is the drive to save ourselves by generating our own value, significance, meaning, and security by what we do and by who we can become.” (see here)

I use Tchividjian’s argument, not as a reason to pile on him (as he has certainly had some major difficulties of late, to say the least), but because I think his words can very effectively lead us into reflection on this important issue.

After all, had Tchividjian spoken about the drive that lies underneath many New Year’s Resolutions,[i] he would undoubtedly have been correct. And even if we, through God’s Holy Spirit, resist the impulse that tells us we can stand before God’s throne of judgment by what we have done in our earthly lives, we nevertheless tend to believe that we can at least, through freely chosen actions enacted through the sheer power of our will, be masters of our own fate. A kind of “gorilla mindset”, as a popular bestseller puts it, is all we really need to attain the good…the success…we seek.

And of course, in America in the early 21st century, the idea of human freedom has reached fantastically absurd proportions. It was almost 25 years ago that a majority on the United States Supreme Court (!) said, with a straight face, “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Or, as a Sprint advertisement put it succinctly a few years ago – at least in regards to our digital uploading powers! – “I have a right to be unlimited”! (here)

Luther on gods not strong and free enough to save: “the Gentiles have asserted an inescapable fate…for their gods” who cannot foresee future events or are deceived by events.

Luther on gods not strong and free enough to save: “the Gentiles have asserted an inescapable fate…for their gods” who cannot foresee future events or are deceived by events.

I think it is helpful to think about this concept of the freedom of the human will – and how we certainly can effect change in the world – in a larger context. Led by the West, the predominant themes in the world today – even taking into consideration recent events – are arguably those of progress and destiny (similar to the notion of fate, but with largely positive connotations). This has not always been the case. In the ancient world, the predominant motifs, despite some ideas of order, were those of chaos and fate (which has negative connotations).

Like the Indian writer, Vishal Mangalwadi, I believe that the reason for this shift in attitudes has largely to do with Christian influence. In his book The Book That Made Your World, he writes of the fatalism and determinism that dominated the ancient world and still affects his native India:

“Determinism (and other forms of reductionism) implies that we don’t exist as individual selves but are only products of our chemistry, genes, environment, culture, or language. My professors [in India] couched these ideas in scientific/academic termninology. Did that make these ideas any better than traditional fatalism? Fatalism is a worldview with huge social consequences that I could see all around me: poverty, disease and oppression. Cultures like mine had historically resigned themselves to their “fate.” Western civilization, on the other hand, believed that human beings were creative creatures and therefore could change ‘reality’ for the better. This enabled the West to virtually eliminate many of the ills that still plague my people.” (p. 48)

Christians are the heretics who don't bow to Fate and Fortuna.

Christians are the heretics who, like their God, don’t bow to Fate and Fortuna.

I think that words like these from Mangalwadi are very important. At the same time, there is no doubt that we post-Augustinian Christians look back at the way that the early church defended the doctrine of free choice with a bit of horror. The fact of the matter is that these early Christians, eager to counter these pagan notions of chance and fate, often seem to have severely underestimated the doctrine of original sin!

There is no doubt that the church, through a man like Augustine, needed to counter the excesses and errors of Pelagius, who insisted that man in his nature was capable of meriting God’s approval. At the same time, Augustine would not have been eager to disregard the concerns and teachings of those who had gone before him. As the above quotation from Mangalwadi makes clear, there was a very good reason the early church fathers stood firm in their insistence of human free will over and against fate and determinism. Human beings, created in the image of God, were morally responsible creatures who answered not to the stars[ii], but to the One True God!

And in some sense, in spite of his doctrine of double predestination (where God appoints some to heaven and others to hell), Augustine seems to stand with the early church fathers when it comes to the freedom of the human will not only as regards growth in the Christian life but our becoming Christians as well. As regards both of these, Augustine emphasized God’s initiative. For example, as regards our growth in the life of faith, he said:

“God brings it about that we act. The Psalmist says to him: “set a guard, lord, upon my mouth” [Ps. 140:3 (141:3 rsv)]. This is to say: bring it about that I set a guard upon my mouth. The one who said “I have set a guard upon my mouth” [Ps. 38:2 (39:1 rsv)] had already obtained that benefit from God.” (On Grace and Free Choice, see p. 161 here).

Hart discusses Augustine's influence on American ideas and ideals.

Hart discusses Augustine’s influence on American ideas and ideals.

At the same time, writing to Firmus a man of nobility who had read and appreciated Augustine’s work but had resisted becoming a Christian, he said the following….

“Do not wait until he wills it, as if you were going to offend him if you willed it first. For, whenever you have willed it, you will be willing it with his help and by his working. His mercy, of course, anticipates you so that you may will it, but when you will it, you yourself certainly will it. For, if we do not will when we will, then he does not give us anything when he makes us will.” (Epistle 2*.8 (A.D. 428); in The Works of Saint Augustine, II/4, 236)

This, of course, does not really seem to emphasize the heart and core of the Christian faith: that we freely receive, in Jesus Christ, forgiveness, life, and salvation from sin, death and the devil! Further, it seems to be in real tension with what Augustine writes elsewhere, namely that our initial conversion is something that God does to us, period! (where we are, in truth, wholly passive like infants at their mother’s breast). It was Martin Luther of course, who, in the interest in making this absolutely clear vs. Erasmus (who had attacked Luther’s position), put forth an argument in his Bondage of the Will that, to some, seemed to disregard the human will, and hence human responsibility, altogether.

Erasmus, certainly thought that this was the case, and replied to Luther again in his Hyperaspistes I and II. After this, Luther’s trusted colleague Phillip Melanchthon urged Luther to let him do the responding to Erasmus this time, and he did so (indirectly) in editions of his commentary on Colossians that was popular during the years 1527-1529. As Timothy Wengert notes regarding Melanchthon’s take on the situation (at least in the 1520s!):

“Questions arose which were not edifying for the church, including ‘whether God causes evil things.’ Taken out of context, this point might be misconstrued as an attack on Luther. Instead, as we have seen again and again, Erasmus’s challenge to Luther was the real culprit [for Melanchthon]. To pose the question of the pagans, whether God was the cause of evil, showed an improper understanding of rhetoric and dialectic. Yet this was in fact what worried Erasmus!” (p. 100, Human Freedom, Christian Righteousness).

“…when [God] acts by the Spirit of Grace in those whom He has made righteous, i.e., in His own kingdom, He… impels and moves them; and, being new creatures, they follow and cooperate with Him; or rather, as Paul says, they are led by Him." -- Martin Luther

“…when [God] acts by the Spirit of Grace in those whom He has made righteous, i.e., in His own kingdom, He… impels and moves them; and, being new creatures, they follow and cooperate with Him; or rather, as Paul says, they are led by Him.” — Martin Luther, BOTW

It is important to see a book like The Bondage of the Will in light of Luther’s wider work. For example, Luther himself certainly never would have wanted anyone to believe – as Erasmus implied – that God had intended for Adam to fall (this can be clearly seen by looking at his Genesis commentary, written in his later years). And as is evident in the widely accepted confessional writings of the early Lutherans, they, like Augustine, also did not want to disregard the wisdom of the church’s earlier fathers, but wanted to be attentive to their concerns (see here, for example, in Art. II on Free Will in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord).

In sum, what all of this means is that while the human free will is not something that we should be fixated on (impossible as that often is in our world), it is something that we should assert exists, and that has no small degree of importance.

As I put it in five points from a New Year’s Resolution post last year….

  • The law cannot inspire the obedience it demands – but the Gospel can inspire us to say “Amen!” when we hear the beauty that is God’s law/will![vi]
  • If the Western church is indeed “weak in sanctification”, it is because it is looking to Christ less, not more; for less, not for more.
  • We should not focus on our ability to [weakly] cooperate in sanctification. We should just recognize it, affirm it, and look to Christ for all good things.
  • There is a “positional” sanctification (us in Christ – this goes with justification) and a “deepening” and progressive sanctification (Christ in us).
  • And finally, if you doubt your sanctification, look to Christ whom you are in: for us, He “became perfect” on earth, according to His human nature.[vii]

Ken Miller, in a comment responding to a blog post about Tchividjian’s New Year’s resolution ideas, had some good words with which to close this post:

“I think New Year’s Resolutions are a good thing, provided that they are coming from a place of complete security in the finished work of Christ. The gospel calls us to do good works, not to earn our salvation or even to prove it, but because of our salvation. If our resolutions are intended to make ourselves more lovable or to earn someone’s favor, then they’re misguided. If they are made out of a pure love for God and a desire to put on Christ Jesus, then I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

I would tweak that last sentence a bit, noting that our love for God won’t be pure this side of heaven. That said, the basic thought is right on target. Through the gift of faith which cling’s to Christ’s perfect righteousness, our sincere resolutions to love God and neighbor more are certainly pleasing to him. Even if there is nothing that we are able to do to make Him love us more than He already does!

FIN

 

Notes:

[i] Wise words from Pastor Cooper (I’ve taken six successive tweets he recently made and strung them together): “Let’s not assume that everyone who speaks like Tullian or uses his language are using their own theology as an excuse for sin [as] he did. He reached a lot of vulnerable people who genuinely were beaten up by legalistic backgrounds. Recognize that. However, this should also be an opportunity for those who use the kind of language he did to clarify it, and see the dangers in such talk that downplays the necessity and importance of Christian obedience and daily repentance. From my own talks with him, I thought he was simply unbalanced. He always affirmed third use/ progressive sanctification etc. But simply affirming Biblical doctrine is not enough if we never actually talk or think about it.” (see first tweet here: https://twitter.com/JustandSinner/status/804783343074181120 )

[ii] Again, it is very interesting to note that the God found in the Bible “demystifies the natural world by taking personal benevolence and malevolence out of the account of sun and moon an natural phenomena” – people of the Psalmists day really did worry that the *gods* of the Sun and Moon “might strike you by day…[and] by night”, respectively! (James V. Bachman, “Lutheran Theology and Philosophy”, The Idea and Practice of a Christian University, p. 174).

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Milo Yiannopoulos’s Most Dangerous Bomb Toss, Whether He is Aware of it or Not

No offense Milo, but its true.

No offense Milo, but its true.

He is a Brit, Jewish and Greek in ethnicity, and identifies as both a practicing gay and “bad Catholic”. To be sure, one of the most controversial and colorful characters in the world of right-wing politics and culture today is Milo Yiannopoulos.

He says, however, that there is a method to his madness. He claims that because of his sexual orientation and sexual preferences (i.e. black males), is able to get away with sharing “hate facts” that others cannot say. Shocking people out of their complacency and simple-minded categories he aims to start conversations. This then opens the door for others, who in a more gentle and reasonable way, can persuade those who remain persuadable.

At the same time, Yiannopoulos makes Ann Coulter’s bomb-throwing look remarkably tame by comparison. His talks are laced with profanity, insult and overt and not-so-overt sexual references.

I contend that Yiannopoulos’s most dangerous bomb is also one of his most covert – even though it is presumably the basis for his entire program. Sometimes, he has summed this up as:

Read what you want.
Watch what you want.
Play what you want.
Think what you want.
Say what you want.

Elsewhere, he has claimed that “words only have the power you give them”.

This is Yiannopoulos’s biggest bomb. This is the phrase that should start the biggest conversation. Is he just saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” (even this, we know, is not fully true) – or something more?

Words are connected with all kinds of things. All kinds of things which exert their presence and influence our lives. And if we know – or even just believe – that there are some things in life that endure in our shared sojourn together on earth, then we cannot accept what Yiannopoulos claims. In other words, his words do not only not have enduring power, but ultimately, no real power at all.

And not because we don’t give them power, but because they are untrue. Unreal.

Regardless of what this world’s power-brokers think. Regardless of how much they want to say that truth is power and power is truth and you can just see this by looking at the evidence.

No.

There really are things that are “trans-historical” and “trans-cultural”. There are things that will never fail to impress themselves upon all of us (things like fathers, mothers, joy, tears, food, and animals) and there are things that only have, due to the geographical and cultural limitations of some of us, the potential to impress (like snow and fish).

In sum, insofar as we are human creatures, we cannot avoid speaking about things that exist, that are real, that are true. We cannot avoid saying things that are true (we can only deny so much of the truth).

This is why saying “words only have the power you give them” is not the full story.

To sum things up, as I noted in a past post:

“A person who is conservative… would continue to agree with the words of the late Russel Kirk – or, perhaps, at least want to agree with him: “[conservatives are] all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.” “Conservatives” who say that what Kirk says is “no longer true” or irrelevant are being anything but conservative. After all, if what Kirk says is no longer true, how was it ever more than an illusion to begin with (given that he speaks of the words “constant” and “enduring” as if these terms mean something)?”

What Kirk says is also something that many of the ancient Greek philosophers, Yiannopoulos’s ancestors, would have upheld. It is certainly something that Christians have upheld and should continue to uphold. For if there is nothing that endures among men, the words we pass on cannot endure either…  at least, this is the illusion that begins to colonize our mind.

And then, the Word of God, which endures forever, cannot endure among us.

But the Word of the Lord does endure forever. And, the “hate fact” of the matter is that it doesn’t matter whether or not you think you can ignore it by not “giving it power”.

Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum, or the Word of the Lord Endures Forever is the motto of the Lutheran Reformation.

Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum, or the Word of the Lord Endures Forever is the motto of the Lutheran Reformation.

FIN

 

(for more thoughts on this topic see this post, always open for comment and critique – and for philosophical justifications for the things I say here, see this: http://worldagainstmerages.blogspot.com/2015/10/several-theses-combined-with-some.html)

 

Note: This post was updated for the sake of clarifying the ideas therein on Jan. 28, 2017.

Images:

Milo Y. picture by @Kmeron for LeWeb13 Conference @ Central Hall Westminster – London (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2016 in Uncategorized

 
 
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