Monthly Archives: June 2014

The first “Protestants”: “The churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith”

One of the greatest defenses of the catholicity of the Lutheran reformation.

One of the greatest defenses of the catholicity of the Lutheran reformation.  To see a debate I had on the theme of the book with a Roman Catholic apologist, go here.

About a week ago, Matthew Block, the editor of the Canadian Lutheran (published by the more confessional Lutheran Church or Canada), had a very nice piece that was published at the First Thing’s “First Thoughts” blog titled “Are Lutherans Catholic?: Looking for a Protestant Future? Try the Protestant Past.” (for more on what Matthew Block is responding to, read the first two paragraphs of this piece I did)

Here is a sizeable excerpt from the end of the piece, which I recommend reading in full:

…To be catholic, then, is to be heirs of the apostolic faith. It is to be rooted firmly in the Apostle’s teaching as recorded for us in Scripture, the unchanging Word of God. But while this Word is unchanging, it does not follow that it is static. The history of the Church in the world is the history of Christians meditating upon Scripture. We must look to this history as our own guide in understanding Scripture. To be sure, the Church’s tradition of interpretation has erred from time to time—we find, for example, that the Fathers and Councils sometimes disagree with one another—but it is dangerous to discount those interpretations of Scripture which have been held unanimously from the very beginning of the Church.

This tradition of meditation, of course, cannot invent new dogma—it is “not a source of dogma qua dogma,” as Hearth R. Curtis explains well in a 2005 Lutheran Forum article entitled “The Relation between the Biblical and Catholic Principles.” But it is nevertheless, “the source of apostolic interpretation which norms our interpretation of the apostolic Scriptures.” In other words, Scripture is the sole source of dogma for the Church, but the Church’s tradition of meditation “establishes how that source is to be interpreted.” It is in this sense that the three ecumenical creeds are understood to be authoritative: not because they invented new doctrine (they didn’t), but because they carefully codified truths already present in the Scriptures.

In this way the Church’s tradition of meditation guides us into a proper understanding of Scripture. No Christian denomination, therefore, can reject interpretations of Scripture universally acknowledged by the early Church without impairing its commitment to being the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. For the Church’s tradition of meditation, as a faithful interpretation of the Scriptures, itself becomes a standard to which subsequent interpretations can be measured. And yes, this catholic interpretation extends to doctrines now considered denominational distinctives (for example, the doctrine of the Real Presence). Denominations which reject such catholic teaching therefore, in essence, reject part of what it means to be catholic.

On the other hand, that church body which accepts the Scriptures as the sole source of authority in the Church and further acknowledges the tradition of the Church as a norming interpretive principle in understanding the Scriptures may rightly call itself catholic. It is in this sense then, finally, that Lutherans confess themselves to be heirs of the catholic tradition. “The churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith,” Melanchthon declares in the Augsburg Confession. “There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman Church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.”

Centuries later, Herman Sasse could assert the same: “It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages,” he writes. “The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Ireneaus once belonged.”

So are confessional Lutherans catholic? Yes. And we always will be, so long as we hold fast to the traditions of the Apostles, written in the Scriptures and faithfully passed down to us by the Church. Consequently, I cannot help thinking that those seeking out a “Protestant Future” should in fact be looking to the Protestant Past. Looking for a church which faithfully receives the catholic tradition while clearly proclaiming the authority of Scripture? Looking for a church which is both sacramental and devoted to salvation by grace through faith alone? Looking, in other words, for an Evangelical Catholic Church? It already exists. It’s called Lutheranism. (bold mine)

20th century Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse: "A church without patristics turns into a sect."

20th century Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse: “A church without patristics turns into a sect.”

I must admit that I was a bit surprised that First Thoughts, run largely by adherents of Roman Catholicism, would be willing to publish such a piece. I commend them for doing so!

For those interested in looking into these matters more closely, Block also links in the article to another excellent (and a bit more polemic vs. Rome) piece that he published at the A Christian Thing blog called Too Damn Catholic. In a footnote there, we read this:

The early Lutherans, while asserting the primacy of Scripture, never suggested that we may approach Scripture in a vacuum, apart from the witness of the Church throughout history. Indeed, as John R. Stephenson writes, the “authors of the Formula of Concord sharply forbid any unbridled exegesis of the inspired text;” Christians are bound by the ancient Church’s witness. For more on this, see Stephenson’s article “Some Thoughts on Why and How Creeds and Confessions Exercise Authority over Lutheran Christendom” (originally delivered at LCC/LCMS/ACNA dialogues, recently published in Lutheran Theological Review 25 (2013):60-73 here). (bold mine)

Again, highly recommended stuff – even more so because Mr. Block directs us to one of my old professors, the wonderful and highly illuminating Dr. John R. Stephenson, who I recently heard described as the ideal confessional Lutheran (he is a very charming and holy man!).  Matthew Block’s work here is great food for thought – and I think perhaps a superb vehicle for inviting persons into a deeper consideration of what the confessional Lutheran Church has to offer.


Note: Why “Protestant” in quotes in the title?  See one of my own pieces defending Lutheranism, “As for me and my house, this is not the essence of Lutheranism”.  For another piece I did that is similar to Block’s see my A church within a church?

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 29, 2014 in Uncategorized


What hath Pope Francis in common with Joel Osteen? United in epistemology?

What could these men possibly have in common?

What could these men possibly have in common?


Chris Rosebrough, host of the show Fighting for the Faith, is making senseListen to him on Issues ETC as he talks about Joel Osteen’s recent meeting with Pope Francis:

Is this just two sides of the same coin – just one side for the sophisticated elite and the other side for the un-nuanced rabble?

What, if anything, is wrong with what Rosebrough says?  I agree with his overall critique, even as I would nuance things just a tad.


Image credit:

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 24, 2014 in Uncategorized


The growing influence of Erlangen theology and Gerhard Forde

Gerhard Forde

Gerhard Forde

What is “Erlangen theology”?  My studies at Lutheran seminaries in England and Canada occasioned only a passing acquaintance with names such as Elert and Alhaus, conveniently labeled as “Erlangian” for the students. And yet, in spite of the paucity of references to the school in my own seminary experiences, Erlangen evidently still speaks to many in the church body that I am a part of, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS). It seems many of our theologians remain intrigued with, and curious about, the work adherents of the school produce.

Many conservative Lutheran theologians clearly remain in dialog with this school, not least through the influence of theologians such as Gerhard Forde, James Nestingen, and Stephen Paulson. It seems safe to say that the Erlangen school is the representative “conservative school” in Germany, and therefore it is not overly surprising that some of the works of Oswald Bayer, the current living iteration of the school, are now a staple at both LC-MS seminaries in the United States.

Of course, despite affinities that confessional Lutheran bodies in America might have with Erlangen theology, there are certainly differences in these theologies.  That said, a cursory look at brief expositions of Erlangen theology also gives evidence that real differences are perhaps a bit difficult to pin down.  Judging from the Lutheran Cyclopedia article though, largely reproduced and expanded on in Wikipedia (under “neo-Lutheranism”) one does get the impression that LC-MS types, for example, are static confessionalists / repristinationists who are opposed to “new learning”.  What does this mean?

Years ago, my own pastor described Erlangen theology in the following fashion:

the theologian in academia has two challenges: 1) To teach that which he should; 2) To be taken as intellectually viable. Since the enlightenment, the latter has trumped the former. The Erlangen school is appealing, for while rejecting divine inspiration, it accepts Scripture as a type of God’s Word;while rejecting the knowability of history, it accepts the events described within Scripture as a witness of the church to normative events; while rejecting a quia subscription to the confessions, it accepts the confessional nature of the church;while rejecting a standard hermeneutic of biblical interpretation, it accepts the idea that the church should be the one to interpret Scripture…In short, what Erlangen theologians attempt to do is to maintain some sort of Lutheran theology, based on what the modern intellectual community takes to be fact, or reality.

I am not aware of who in the confessional Lutheran world is an authority on these matters – certainly not myself (though as a Lutheran, I have no trouble speaking authoritatively!). Pastor Jordan Cooper however, seems to be fast becoming an authority on the theology of the late Gerhard Forde, who certainly has some affinities with the school.  And his most recent podcast on some of the issues with Forde’s theology shows that he has done a great deal of reading not only of Forde, but Paulson, Bayer, and modern theology in general.  I think all of this makes for a critique of Forde that is really quite insightful and powerful, in addition to being relatively easy to understand as well.

If you have not had a chance to listen to it, yet, I encourage you to do so.


Here is another post I did on Erlangen theologian Oswald Bayer.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Uncategorized


Exciting news – going to


I have been invited by Pastor Jordan Cooper to regularly contribute over at his newly launched website

If you are not familiar with Jordan Cooper, he is a convert to Lutheranism from Calvinism.  From the site:

Pastor Jordan Cooper began his formal study of theology as an undergraduate at Geneva College. Coming as he did from a Reformed church background, Jordan was acutely aware of the many issues confronting Protestants — indeed all Christians — in this “post-modern” era of American Christianity. After a process of intense study and inquiry, he found sufficient and compelling answers for the greatest of these quandaries in the historic Lutheran Church.*

Thank you Pastor Cooper for the invite.  I am very excited to be a part of the good work he does.

As are others…

Trent Demarest, author of the Lutheran blog pseudepigrapha, is also now getting very involved at  He is also blogging there, as well as doing his own podcast and helping Pastor Cooper with some publishing projects (you can support their work by going to the site and contributing to their Kickstarter campaign).  I became aware of Trent when I found myself commenting with him on a blog post by the Reformed writer, D.G. Hart: “Now Lutherans are Tightening my Jaws”.  I took note.

On Trent, from the site:

“Although he had been a lifelong Lutheran, Trent was frustrated by certain presentations of contemporary Lutheran theology, and he appreciated Jordan’s more historic and catholic perspective. On occasion he would email Jordan questions or comments, sometimes roping the latter into ridiculously picayune theological debates with complete strangers.”

I can relate to this.  This is one reason I appreciate the almost-Eastern-Orthodox-convert Lutheran pastor William Weedon as much as I do (now hear this).  This is also why I jump off of presentations like Pastor Fisk’s “I’m a Lifelong Lutheran but…” and go to town.  It is also why I thank God I ended up becoming a member of a congregation where the pastor, Paul Strawn, had a very real interest in the early church and the confessional Lutheran church’s historical continuity with it.

So… I will continue posting here as well for now.  Also, I would be remiss to point out at this point that some of my Reformation-related posts have been going up at Reformation500, where you can find some very high quality stuff related to the continuing importance of Reformation Christianity in general.  Here, I extend my thanks again to John Bugay – though this time publicly – for inviting me to participate there, in spite of the fact that I regularly do challenge Reformed and Calvinist theology in my posting.

Thanks to everyone who reads here.  I hope to see you over at as well.


*Some things I hope to talk about a bit more next week….  Pastor Cooper has a couple excellent podcasts up now: one that critiques, I think very effectively, Gerhard Forde, and another that better explain the topic of theosis (i.e. the mystical union, or what some have called “Christification”) as confessional Lutherans have historically understood the term.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 20, 2014 in Uncategorized


Sharks and hell

Yes, I will admit hard to imagine in a pre-fall, "very good", state.

Yes, I will admit hard to imagine in a pre-fall, “very good”, state.


“Dad, why did God make sharks so that they eat other animals?”

So my four year old asked me this question out of the blue two nights ago – well, right after asking me if sharks, crocodiles and sea monsters were real.

What would you say?



I said:

Some people just think that this shows God has a hard edge – sure He is loving, but still… in some ways, He is very hard”.

Others say that animals eat other animals because of the curse, and I think they are right.

When Adam and Eve sinned, the creation fell with them. God had given Adam and Eve great power and when they disobeyed Him and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they threw the whole creation into chaos.* They started getting old, and would die. Things started to decay and disintegrate. Animals started to eat one another…

A few weeks ago on a blog, a man known as the GeoChristian linked me to his blog post about animal death before the fall.

Being firmly unconvinced by his post, here is how I replied to him:

Much better... (see here)

Ahh…. Much better… (see here)

I guess I, sensitive guy that I am, am just fundamentally incapable of interpreting God’s evaluation of “very good” in a way that permits carnivorous activity. God said the world, not the garden, was “very good”. You say: “A related passage is Romans 8:20-22, which states that the whole creation groans. Just like in Genesis 3, the passage does not state the nature of that groaning, and it doesn’t necessarily include death” and it is pretty much impossible for me to think that groaning and death do not go hand in hand. Looking at it briefly, Psalm 124:1 “The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God” is not glorifying God because of predation per se, but is glorifying God because all creation seeks their sustenance from him. I Tim 4:4 is simply saying that “everything created by God is good”, which is certainly true – but he does not create that which infects his good creation by the curse of original sin. As for teeth indicating predation, we know that doesn’t work. Kevin, I’m guessing I won’t convince you and you won’t convince me. I don’t consider myself a hard core YEC – I just like to listen widely to the various views.”

In short, I find the idea that God built suffering, death and decay into the original creation – as if this is “very good” – even more disturbing than the idea of eternal punishment. Why?  Death, decay and destruction are not very good and I see no reason, biblically or otherwise, to think they are (am I simply irrationally sensitive, being repulsed and wanting to turn away, for example, from carnivorous assaults as I do?).  On the other hand, it is clear that eternal punishment is not the way it is supposed to be – nor is it supposed to be for men, but for angels.

That’s where I think the accent needs to go. You see, I think God hates eternal punishment more than I do.

Of course, I still believe in it because I think the words of Jesus – kind Jesus – point to this reality. Others these days are calling this into question left and right** – it is certainly something that needs to be addressed and dealt with more.


* So get what this kid – 4.5 years old – asks me last night….  As I laid down with him in bed to tuck him in, he peppered me with theological questions and commentary for what must have been a good thirty minutes or so. I don’t recall the exact words that he used, but at one point I am pretty sure that he basically asked me whether or not the curse was enacted by a direct act of God in response to Adam and Eve’s unbelief or whether it came about by a release of some kind of power from the tree itself, as its true use had been violated. I told him I wasn’t sure, as I said to myself “Why had I never thought about it that way?”

This kind of thing happens more often than one might think (post from 3 years ago on kids asking very hard theological questions)… I feel blessed to know that I have a son who is proud about how he believes in God and wants to share that with me.

** The very gifted and popular Eastern Orthodox blogger Al Kimel has been doing a lot of stuff arguing against the traditional view of hell, and linking to others doing the same, for instance:

1 Comment

Posted by on June 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


In need of a mic: a key to avoiding “ugly religious incidents”?

Go here to watch:

Go here to watch the “Brave German Woman”, Heidi Mund.  Found here.


Warning: statements of epistemological certainty – dealing with the topic of religion of all things! – are made below. If you do not think that religious statements can convey simple truth and be counted as knowledge, you are likely to be offended and/or exasperated by the content of this post.

How can society avoid ugly religious incidents – or at least minimize their occurrences? I think some intelligent things can be said here.

Recently, Jonathan Last, author of the excellent book What to Expect When no One’s Expecting, reported:

Dana Milbank says that a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation turned “ugly” yesterday when a Muslim student named Saba Ahmed from American University tried to defend the honor of Islam:

“We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” she said. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”

Even if the number of 8 million-plus Muslims in America is probably very high – the point Mr. Last contends against – a bigger point needs to be made:

You to Cardinal Dolan?: “You love God, "Arch-conservative" [?] Cardinal Dolan explaining everything in the kindest way?: “You love God, we love God and he is the same God”

“Arch-conservative” [?] Cardinal Dolan explaining everything in the kindest way?: “You love God, we love God and he is the same God” (see here for more)

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther talked about putting “the best construction on everything” – “explaining everything in the kindest way”.  Here, we want to be accurate and honest but also not jump to hasty conclusions – particularly those that confirm our prejudices and biases.*  Romans 12:18 gives us some good advice as welll: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

So – in these discussions plenty of respect (and even affection), nuance, highly intelligent questioning, a willingness to listen, etc. are all needed – and broad brushes should never be applied. No doubt – we don’t no one wants things to get ugly – that is, politically volatile. 

This reviewer: "The myth has been destroyed".

This reviewer: “The myth has been destroyed”.

That said, contra some of the new atheists and other Enlightenment folk it is fallacious to say that religion is the main cause of war. On the other hand, no one should want religious strife of any kind to arise, for religion certainly has and can exacerbate tensions in the conflicts that exist among persons – particularly war – which throughout human history has been a common occurrence.

All this said, there are two more important things we must say here:

a) religions need to be able to say that they think that they are right and others are wrong – and be able to give reasons for that, if they have them,


b) religions should not have to worship together in order to prove that they cannot only respect but “get on with” the adherents of another religion.

This is why some of Pope Francis’ most recent actions – praying in the Vatican gardens with a Muslim & Jewish delegation on Pentecost – are so disheartening (see here** ; no, I am not saying I don’t want peace here – if you are thinking that)

Why?  What is so bad about what he is doing?  What could this possibly encourage?  Well, this incident for one:


As I wrote at the time…..

… There is no doubt that it is easy to criticize the tactless and insensitive actions of some of the members of the Society of St. Pius X(see “A Profanation Protesting Profanation“ at the First Thoughts blog).  Here, [Pope Francis’] words in paragraph 94 [of his encyclical] perhaps should come to mind: “It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity”.  That said, what about more traditional believers who are far less radical? Really, what prevents the Catholic church from having joint worship services with rabbis, for example, as much as possible?  Why not do so if they will simply refrain from condemning out loud the message of Christ?   Why would a refusal to join in worship with them not also be intolerant and divisive – even “aggressive”?

So, what is the answer to this dilemma? It seems to me that Pope Francis laid it out in so many words when he said:

“a facile syn­cretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters…What is not helpful is a diplomatic openness which says ‘yes’ to everything in order to avoid problems, for this would be a way of deceiving others and denying them the good which we have been given to share generously with oth­ers. Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another.” (paragraph 151, talked about more in this post)

These words do sound pretty reasonable to me.  However, one would think that this does not mean that joint worship is in view here – where one assumes that we are worshipping the same God! Joint worship services and even joint public prayers (um, or private, when the impression is given that the same God is being addressed) are simply a place where the Christian cannot go.

Which is why what this woman – who interrupted a Muslim’s prayer in a cathedral some months ago – says about the deception that is taking place is, in fact, correct.  I invite you to listen to this six minute piece which interviews her

No, I do not think that what this women did is something that any of us should get in the habit of doing.  That said, when we do not talk constructively about matters of truth in public – being willing to not only “dialogue” but debate respectfully and civilly*** – it seems that people perhaps feel driven to these kinds of “prophetic actions”.****  Many people, whether they are badly or well informed, are at least well aware of the fact that there are important differences between theses religions – and that should be common knowledge.

As the interview shows, this is hardly some wild-eyed and crazy person. She is a normal, devout Christian woman, who, I imagine, has caused at least a few hearts to question their assumptions.  She has earned the respect of many, and not without reason (here is one particularly thoughtful piece).  She puts the rest of us to shame who are not willing to be faithful – both vigorously and winsomely – in in far less trying circumstances.

It is easy for me to criticize this woman. This was not a joint worship service, I say, but a concert meant to promote good will between Christians and Muslims. But am I really looking for excuses to avoid confronting the obvious? – that is, that those organizing these events likely have absolutely no desire to mention differences over what is true – much less to allow full-throated Christian proclamation!  As such, it seems that one faith is gradually “hi-jacked” by the other, the more vigorous and assertive. 

These are the kinds of questions the devout are going to wrestle with – and why I submit that it is important that there are outlets for healthy public debate – even in publicly funded arenas like public universities.  Debates such as these between intelligent persons of good will – who are both irenic and bold – must not be squelched but rather encouraged.  Pastors who might be particularly capable of doing these things should try and get involved.


NOTE: some sentences in the above post have been slightly revised upon original publication for clarification.

*I submit that considering Luther’s words against Rome and its leaders, we should not jump to the conclusion that Luther was being hypocritical, but, explaining his actions in the kindest way, speak about how strongly he must have thought that the evidence was against Rome and the Pope.

**From the piece I linked to: “Sunday’s prayer event was organised in minute detail and comprised Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers.”

***Where I work at Concordia University – “where Christ is honored and all are welcome” – this is often done in religion classes (where we have very many non-Christian students) – and quite effectively, it seems to me (not so much that we are seeing many conversions, but that persons begin to understand the differences, why they are important, and that we can still be civil and kind to one another even as we disagree about these particularly critical matters of what is true about salvation).

****Incidently, in case you missed it, something similar happened in the American Congress just a few months ago – see here for the initial news report and here for a report on the stenographer who interrupted the session.


Leave a comment

Posted by on June 18, 2014 in Uncategorized


Worship wars conversations: no power dressing, speaking, or singing?

worshipandpraiseiiNote: Today’s post has nothing to do with yesterday’s post: Regular warship time. 

Music in church is on my mind again this morning because it is one of the things that we are discussing in class this week.  Here is, I think, one of my best short posts on the subject:

And then there is the following, which I am quite proud of, and which appeared on this blog a couple years ago in five parts (all five parts are below, bold has been added):

Part I

Also see this post, as this series leaps off from this foundation.

As I was recently preparing for a class, I was reading through portions of the Zondervan Handbook of the Bible (1999 – 3rd ed.).  Commenting on Elijah’s simple dress noted in 2 Kings 1:8, it notes “The prophet’s clothing was rough and basic.  He had no need of “power dressing” to impress his audience.  The message was sufficient” (p. 293)

I had not heard that term before, but I like the picture this non-Lutheran handbook painted there.

And this gets me thinking:  likewise with preaching or the music we play!  With preaching, why should we not, like Paul, fast from eloquence, rhetoric and the felt need to plead, to convince, to impress (PowerPoint and video clips?  Really?)?  With music, why would we not let the words of our simple poetry (which of course makes reading and learning the words of the hymns easier) call the shots – and shun all attempts to produce “the feeling” through just the right musicians, choice of songs, lighting, and of course, the repetition of praise choruses, etc.?

In other words, it is like Gideon’s army being cut to 300 men, lest we forget “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech 4:6)!

We should never think of the proclamation of God’s Word – or prayer to God – in terms of a  “performance” that will be dramatic enough to impact, to move, or to overwhelm the “audience” – whether by us, the Spirit, or both of us.  Whether “new measures” (a la Charles Finney of the 19th century up to today) or old (did you know that the Lutheran orthodox theologians – the non-pietists! – used to argue for “moving” opera music in church?), we shall not be “moved” by these!

Does this mean we don’t “perform” at all?  Well, it all comes down to what we mean by perform.  We should only do this in the sense of simply executing that which we have been given to do – corum Deo (before, in the presence of, God).

It seems to me that really young children just enjoy wearing simple clothes (OK, this is true for boys, of which I have five… and granted, dinosaurs on the clothes are appreciated), listening to simple stories (Bible stories and such, especially about that Jesus guy), and singing simple songs (yes, they do like hymns).  We don’t need to “add power” to these things – these things are already plenty interesting as they are, right?

But alas, yet again, this is something kids get but adults forget.  What we see all around us in the Church is evidence of this fact.



Yes, let me nevertheless play devil’s advocate… for the sake of argument, try to present things from a different perspective.  Not only this, let me try to present what I see to be the best alternative argument in the strongest and most compelling way possible.

This means that you will need to read this post to the very end, because I’m going to sound like a serious contemporary Christian music advocate for a while.  Hang in there.

Part II

Before I jump into my main argument, there are some preliminary issues that I think should be addressed.

Recently, Issues ETC host Pastor Todd Wilken, in discussing the practices of megachurches, said that those who tell people that they are experiencing God in those places – as opposed to experiencing the results of human efforts and manipulation – are charlatans, and that what they are saying here is evil (10/5/12, listener email and comment line)

I think these words are too strong.  After all, more traditional folks would likely not say this regarding those who think that we should use the best art possible in our stained glass windows, sing hymns set to the songs of the best secular composers, preach messages utilizing the best rhetorical techniques, and think that some measure of pageantry and smells and bells are wholly appropriate for worshipping and revering the Lord.  I know that one can argue that those who do these things want to glorify God first and foremost, but does such a person also not think that God will “move” others by using the works and efforts of these human creators?  Do we not experience God and the eternal life that is in His Son through the actions and activities of others?

I will admit that it seems that what happens in the megachurch is more crass, and given over to every excess (and issues involving money can be more clearly linked as well). Nevertheless, how would we, for instance,  somewhat objectively distinguish the efforts to “move” persons that happens in a megachurch vs. a cathedral?  Do we deny that there is any effort on the part of those constructing the cathedral that the “cathedral experience” is something they have in mind at all?  In any case, the argument that I will put forth here does not deal with the megachurch practices per se, but rather, the more “emotional” music of the “folk” variety.

In other words, it seems to me that there is indeed some difference between a black Gospel choir or Gospel songs of the Appalachian bluegrass variety, for instance  – where persons are singing their hearts out to God in a very emotional way – and the megachurch praise band where proper ambiance (perhaps smoke machines and lighting, excessive amplification, a focus on the singers and the excessive “jumbo-troning” that often accompanies this…) and well-played, highly repetitive music all come into the mix (knowing that hymns sung by large traditional congregations can be very moving, I don’t bring up congregation size here).

Why do I go this route?  Well, where the worship of one seems more like the way Paul describes the simple and inner beauty of a godly woman, for example, the other certainly seems more adorned (complex), or, if you are a high culture afficianado, contrived (bread and circuses come to mind).  Nevetheless – and this is an extremely important nevertheless – the roots of most all the music played in the megachurch are largely from more Baptist and charismatic (Pentecostal) contexts.  The real argument here, I suggest, is over what kind of music is appropriate and how God would use music.  After all, not every large congregation that utilizes rather emotional contemporary Christian music (surprisingly, many large Roman Catholic parishes do this – I’ve been to one that did so quite impressively) is given to the excesses found in some of the larger megachurches.

So, this is all preliminary to my argument, which will I will now begin.

Part III

First, a reminder: At this point in the series, I am trying to put forth the most compelling argument that I can think of for the use of emotionally powerful music in worship, which is most often associated with “contemporary Christian music” (kind of a “best construction +” kind of thing).

I said before that we did not need power dressing, preaching, or music.  I said that we don’t need to “add power” to these things because they are already plenty interesting as they are – something little children get but adults forget.  But now: what if all the things that happen when a simple black Gospel choir sings, for example, actually has nothing to do with adding power, but is simply about receiving all that God has to give us and would have us use?

All of this is a theological argument of course.  We know that in the beginning was the Word – the Logos – and yet, this is not simply synonymous with rationality, logic, and the life of the mind, but contains so much more.

Let me explain, starting with more simple things.  First of all, I think we can all agree that the real thing that has the power to transform human hearts is the Word of God.  That said, when God gives us the word for us to speak, He gives us not only the message but also the power to say it rightly (i.e. “gentleness and respect”, the “truth spoken in love”, etc – in other words, with the corresponding attitudes and emotions that properly go with these words).

In other words, God means to fill and move us by His Spirit to do this.  And this of course means that this is not about “adding” anything on our own – like “our passion” for example – but simply receiving all the passion that He means to create in us when we not only hear words from Him but speak words to Him and words of Him to others.   This means that we can “quench” the Spirit’s activity here via our sin – which means that in our sanctification we fail to grasp hold of all God means for us to have.

Now that this has been established, let us add music to the mix.  Here, something similar would occur: God provides some persons – musicians – to accompany His words that are spoken, and the music – like the speaker’s emotions – should be fitting and appropriate to those words.  We can be sure that such was the case when Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon break out into song in the Gospel of Luke (the first musical!), for example.

This statement would seem to be uncontroversial on the face of it, but we can all see where this is going: now we further propose that persons rejecting much (not all) of the more “contemporary” Christian music are rejecting that which God really does mean to give them for their proper use.  In other words, while they are rejecting the music because they consider it too emotional and affective, the reality is that here to, the Spirit is being quenched.  They do not want to consider that God’s words might be “properly enhanced” by emotional music that goes with what, in fact are, very emotional words, and should be recognized as such.

In other words, the Christian says “what do we have that we have not received” while simultaneously recognizing that we do not receive much of what we should due to our sin.  We not only do not ask for things, as James says we should, but we even reject gifts from God he gives to us apart from our asking!

Part IV

Again, there are some who are not even willing to consider that perhaps some contemporary Christian music really is appropriate.  The argument here is simply that those who consider particular songs overly emotional are often wrong about this – simply because they are not comfortable expressing their emotions in that way when they should be.  Yes, they may be the bride of our husband, Christ, who woos His people, but even the idea of singing “Jesus is our husband love ballads” (note: not my boyfriend songs, or ditties) is anathema to them.  God is to be loved – but simply not in a way that is too personal, emotional or “passionate”.

Now, let us take things one step further and ask the inevitable question, and this is where things get more challenging for the proponent of much contemporary Christian music.  If the above is true, might the music itself be able to carry God’s message to us – communicate it to us? (some more liturgical folks actually claim this for Bach, for example – they say that the music itself “preaches the Gospel”!).  Might there be music that, coming from Christians, is actually “Christian” music – even without the words?  (perhaps then, even a non-Christian could pick up and play this music which is distinctively Christian?).  Not long ago, I had the pleasure of teaching an African American woman who came from a charismatic background, and in spite of her clear biblical knowledge, she once told our class that the best worship experiences she had had – those times when she felt the closest to God – were ones that were “wordless” – when only the music was playing. 

Given that we will consider the times we feel closest to God as the source of our strength and security, the practical effect of this view would be that the spoken word (and given the song, this spoken word will be more or less – perhaps much less – in conformity with the Word of God) that the music normally would accompany takes a back seat as the music itself that supposedly “preaches” – comforting, nurturing, encouraging – takes center stage.

Now, all of us might get a bit nervous here when we think about this.  And yet, given what we have talked about above, does not all of this make good sense?  After all, in our lives, so much communication that occurs is non-verbal.  Do we limit the idea of what the Word means – do we take this passage from John too literally?  If we insist only that literal words can communicate God’s message to us – that only they are the Word of God – are we perhaps limiting God’s power and what He desires to do?

So what does this mean?  What if this is true about music being just another way that God shares communicates with us – shares His “Word” with us?  Well here is a preview of where I am going: the problem with this is the “What if?” question itself.  As theologians – especially pastors – we do not operate in this realm, nor should we want to.

Part V

Still , let us go on – so that we can see where all of this goes logically.  Let me concede for the sake of argument that this may indeed be true – that God does share His life-giving Word with us via the “language” – the “emotional language” of music.  The point is simply this – we can’t have certainty about any of this!  We are back with Luther and the “monster of uncertainty”.  After all, we know for a fact that music, being a gift that God gives all of His human creatures, can be used to powerfully affect anyone – Christian or not – emotionally.  How are we to distinguish a simple human experience from music from a distinctly Christian experience, where one can be confident that they are really experiencing a secure relationship with the Lord?  If we feel we are close to God during a powerful worship chorus how do we know that it is really God, and not just the musicians, atmosphere, etc., which is affecting us?  Of course, not everyone will ask these kinds of questions, but there are many people who can’t help but ask these kinds of questions!

And perhaps more persons than you think will ask these questions.  What if your world comes crashing down and then you start asking these kinds of questions?  Am I really connected with God?  Does He really love me?  Does He really forgive me?  Is this really Him that I feel?  In times like that, do we really want our answer to that question to depend on whether or not we get the “feeling” when musicians in Church try to “lead us into the Presence of God”?  Even if we ourselves feel secure in our faith – because perhaps we come into that “worship experience” already seriously grounded in God’s Word – what about our family and friends?  After all, do we not believe that their spiritual growth is predicated on their knowledge – heart knowledge if you prefer – of the Word of God? (incidently, just the other day I heard from a very theologically astute layman that the only theology classes that he had had were the great hymns… I had thought he must have gone to seminary)

Doesn’t the question ultimately come down to what God has promised?  When, where, and how He has given us certainty that He meets and comes to us?  This is the main point, right?  We can have absolute certainty about the Word of God!  For example, when the pastor baptizes, gives the Lord’s Supper, or pronounces absolution, because of the promises that we can find in the Scriptures, we can have certainty that we are “experiencing” God and His presence – even if we don’t really feel like that is the case.  The Gospel is even for people who strongly sense that they don’t – and never will – love Jesus and His people quite like they should.

The Lutheran blogger Scott Diekmann quotes Pastor Jon Sollberger shared his experiences while in a church praise band (from here, at the 31 minute mark).  Its powerful, and is a story I have heard from many others as well:

“This was a couple lifetimes ago, and I was very much involved in the church where I grew up – that church was all about the show and how it made you feel. And so I was a guitarist and I got into that, and we really did the whole thing where we got everyone going via the music, the beat, the feeling, the great progression of the music. That’s how we equated successful worship. And then I took my act out on the road, I traveled all across the country, I did recordings of this so-called Christian contemporary music, I lived it, I performed it, I produced it, I recorded it, and spent a good decade doing this until I actually found out that I was burnt out on it. …It’s a very successful thing outwardly speaking. I mean, all we had to do was show up, plug in, and play, and we had an instant reaction and enthusiasm from all the people, young and old, both, and it was really something. But then you start to – it becomes normal to us, all the music and the generational feeling that it creates – and we started evaluating our worship experience on how the people were reacting to what we played. I mean we could get ‘em up there with some fast paced high energy music, we could get them to be very very mellow and contemplative with some slower, more heartfelt type of music, and when we didn’t get those reactions we didn’t feel that the Holy Spirit was at work because obviously the people weren’t reacting – there was no “success.” After a while you kind of just get burnt out on this sort of thing and that’s when I kind of quit the whole church thing for quite a while and my wife dragged me, kicking and screaming, into a Lutheran church, and I really saw that there was a difference there. I thought it was a cult. I thought it was spare, Spartan. I didn’t think there was any spiritual energy there. I thought it was way too formal, and I could not wait to get back for the next service. And I didn’t know why obviously, but it was because the Gospel had been not only preached, but presented within a context and in such a manner that nothing else got in the way, not my feelings, not how I was doing, not how well dressed the people up front were or anything like that, or how impressive they were to me, but simply the Gospel – that I was a sinner who had been saved by the grace and merit of Jesus only.”

Diekmann sums this up: “This is a powerful quote, because it contrasts the often un-evangelical emotional roller coaster ride that you’re treated to at many “contemporary” church services with a doctrinally sound proclamation of the Gospel, in which the Word does its work.”

It is instructive to see what the Apostle Peter, who really could have assurance that he had felt the positive effects of God’s presence at the Mount of Transfiguration – a “mountaintop worship experience” if there ever was one – had to say his hearers about the sure and certain experience of hearing God’s very words:

…. we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.   And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…”  (2 Peter 1)

Surety and certainty that lasts a lifetime!

Especially for those who remain unconvinced, there is one other matter I must also bring up: we are all to be concerned not to offend those we consider the weaker brother – for the one who feels constrained, or limited in one area or another (perhaps you think this is me – that in spite of my evident concern that God’s people be healthy and vigorous in their emotions towards Him, my concerns are nevertheless overkill, overly scrupulous, or perhaps too intellectual).  Further, in a healthy marriage, both partners will limit their freedoms out of love for the other.  When one fails to do this, the marriage will inevitably weaken, face strain, and be in danger of breaking apart.   I think that this is where we are : some believe that there is an advantage here in using this kind of music that must trump the love and public harmony of the church.


Leave a comment

Posted by on June 17, 2014 in Uncategorized



Regular warship time

Jesus Preaches from a Boat. H. Hofmann, 19th c.

Jesus Preaches from a Boat. H. Hofmann, 19th c.

I am currently grading papers for the online religion class that I teach.

One of my students had said this: “I agree with your paragraph regarding the neglecting of regular warship time.”

My reply:

“regular warship time”

This mistake you made can lead us to some real insight.  Worship is a time for the believers to gather together to hear God’s word, being challenged, convicted, comforted and encouraged in Christ.  Interestingly, we talk about going to church – and we call the buildings themselves church – but in truth, the church is really the believers themselves – perhaps its more that we “have church”.  And the church is of two parts: the church victorious (those saints who have died and are with Christ in heaven now) and the church militant (those believers in the world right now, who are “strangers” and “aliens” in this world, and are asked to be in the watchtower, “stand firm”… to stand in defense against Satan with the Word of God [Ephesians 6]).  We “hold the line” in Him!

Traditionally, the church has been likened to Noah’s Ark.  We are saved by being in this ship!  And this is why in many traditional Western churches the area where persons sit or stand is called a “nave” – which connects with the world “naval” and “navy” for good reasons.

So, I think it is helpful to think about regular warship time.


…to go along with this post:

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 16, 2014 in Uncategorized



Very, very random thoughts on money and greed

"The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them"

“The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”

This is just a post ruminating on an aspect of our sinful nature. There are lots of things coalescing in my mind right now regarding the topics of money and greed. I will admit that I need a lot of help in this area.

The other day Lutheran blogger Gene Veith noted this (here):

“The pope’s right-hand man has essentially declared that free market economics is incompatible with Catholicism.  Speaking at a conference entitled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism,” Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, drawing on statements from Pope Francis, said that the free market economy “kills” and oppresses the poor.”

Among other things, Veith asks what seems like good and pertinent questions here:

“I’m curious about the Roman Catholic cult of the poor, and I hope some Catholic readers will explain it.  Is the goal to help the poor escape poverty?  If so, surely free market policies deserve credit for the improvement of life in the developing nations in the last few decades, including virtually eliminating starvation.  Or is poverty seen as spiritually and morally good in itself, as in the vows of poverty required by religious orders?  In this view, poverty would also become an occasion for the non-poor to exercise the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy, which are seen as good works that can help a person gain merit for God’s grace.  See this.  In that case, poverty is to be treasured and venerated, not treated as something to escape.”

Recently in our local paper, the Star Tribune, there was a rather prescient and harrowing editorial entitled “Diminuendo: the dying sound of stewardship among the ruling class”. Here is a line that will jump out at you.

Hypocritical or not, WASP values are a thing of the past. When the stock market collapsed in 1929, the bankers responsible leapt off buildings in shame and despair. In the aftermath of the 2008 mortgage crisis, banks too big to fail and their too-powerful-to-jail CEOs passed on their losses to taxpayers and sheltered their gains.

Not that men killing themselves over guilt is good, but perhaps capitalism had better effects in the past insofar as it was held in check by commitments to things like faith, family, and the traditional morality that went along with that. Speaking critically of some conservative politicians, Rod Dreher writes the other day in this post:

“The point I’m getting at here is that there is something utopian about libertarian-conservative plans to devolve decision-making and autonomy to people whose lives are so chaotic — in part through their own bad choices, but also because they grew up in a more permissive society that left them particularly vulnerable to their own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of their parents — that they demonstrably cannot handle it. We will always need a paternalistic state to a certain degree. I don’t see how an honest reckoning of our social condition can conclude otherwise.”

He quotes David Brooks saying:

“…conservatives should not be naïve about sin. We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. Moreover, the U.S. economy is increasingly competing against autocratic economies, which play by their own self-serving rules.”

Leaping off of this, Dreher writes, it seems to me quite perceptively…

“Absolutely — and this is a point I made strongly in my book Crunchy Cons. Conservatives find it very easy to see how naive liberals are about Lust and its deleterious consequences for individuals and societies. I’m speaking broadly here, but in general, liberals tend to see no problem with it as long as all parties are consenting, and they tend to frame objections to it as moral fault (e.g., repression, hatred of the body, etc.).

Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be awfully naive about Greed, and its deleterious consequences for individuals and societies. I’m speaking equally broadly here, but in general, they tend to seen no problem with it as long as all parties have freely consented to the economic activity, and they tend to frame objections to it as moral fault (e.g., class warfare).

Both sides, it seems to me, tend toward naivete about power. Liberals are prone to be credulous about the concentration of power in the government, and overly suspicious of power in the hands of private business, and conservatives are the exact opposite. In truth, a just society requires both to check each other. Any time you have a concentration of power, you have the likelihood that it will be abused.”

Of course while most traditional Christians have tended to be politically conservative of course they do see a problem with greed. What is so notoriously difficult about this question though is that it seems so much more subjective. Sexual sins often seem to have a very black and white quality about them – there are some things that we can all agree are evil, based on the external act (even as yes, Christ uncomfortably puts the spotlight on our deepest motives especially here) On the other hand, what about greed? It might seem absolutely clear to us that a particular action is unjustifiable – obviously driven by greed. But then we realize – or at least allow ourselves to be convinced – that it is not…. There is a rational explanation, and one really should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Which then puts me in mind of this comment from Rod Dreher about St. Louis archbishop Robert Carlson and what this means for Rome (yes, I know I am jumping all over here – and no, I really don’t know where this is finally going other than to invite readers to give me some concrete guidance in thinking about all of this):

….moral and spiritual corruption persists in the hierarchy. Remember that in 2012, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City was found guilty of shielding a priest who was discovered in 2010 collecting child pornography. The Vatican continues to allow Bishop Finn to serve. Building a fancy bishop’s palace is grounds for removal, but a conviction for shielding a pedophile priest who photographed the genitals of the laity’s children is not.

I guess it’s nice that the bishop’s palace is seen as a clear example of “going too far” (Abraham and Job were rich – but perhaps they had come upon their wealth through more appropriate means and also were more willing to use it to serve and help others?), but yes, Dreher’s point seems rather obvious does it not?*

futureuscoverBack to the evils of capitalism.  Of course, there is also all the news that has been caused by Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”… I noticed that First Things editor R.R. Reno has read the book and done a series of posts on it (see here for the latest).

And I also noticed that the technology and culture guru Jaron Lanier, the author of “Who Owns the Future” and a man I have come to respect quite a bit, says this about the book (here):

“Yeah, I looked at that book and my first reaction was, I’m too lazy to have done this but I’m so glad he did all this work of gathering all this data. And there was a sense of like, duh, of course, I mean everybody kind of knows this. And yet for those who hold a different belief, they’re gonna henpeck his data and try to find holes in it, and I suggest that’s what’s going on right now to try to create doubt about it.”

In reading Lanier’s book I was amazed at the amount of insider knowledge and insight that he has when it comes to those who exercise power and influence in the world. I highly recommend reading his book – even if his prescriptions are ultimately unworkable, I don’t think many have been able to really question his diagnoses…

And of course technology combines with capital like never before these days – information technology! – to create a very potent mix. You can read more about that in the paper I recently wrote for my library technology presentation (see the last post or here for a bit from that), but I’ll just leave you with this intriguing quote from computer scientist Martin Ford: “…were the Luddites wrong?  Or just two hundred or so years too early?” (p. 48, The Lights in the Tunnel, 2009)

So where’s the theology in all of this? Again, Christ overcomes the world. May He overcome the world in us.


*He goes on to write at the end of the post: “I think about Dante, one of the greatest Catholics who ever lived, who spared nothing in his excoriation of clerical corruption, all the way to the Pope, but who never wavered in his devotion to the Church. Surely one doesn’t have to have the intellect of Dante to understand that attacking the despicable behavior of priests and bishops, and demanding that they be held accountable, does not make one disloyal to the Catholic Church, but can even be a sign of greater loyalty. It is in the interest of the hierarchy to portray all critics as motivated by anti-Catholic bias, but it is not in the interest of the Church, and it is certainly not in the interest of children and families who were victims.”

And of course, there is also this from the Vatican as well. Seriously? Islamic prayers and readings? Oye.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


Salvation and damnation by technology: introducing the MSTM

A different kind of fodder here today.  Jumping off of this introductory post, more from my library technology presentation that has broader appeal to theologians and perhaps a wider public….

Some of Jaquet Droz’s automatons

Some of Jaquet Droz’s automatons


“O had I Father’s gift I would breathe life

Into the lifeless earth, but who are we

To recreate mankind?

-Ovid, Methamorphoses [i]


The Promise and Peril of Automata

Or, perhaps if we are not limiting ourselves to our age of modern science, we could say “automata”, that is, “anything capable of acting automatically or without an external motive force”.[ii] In sum, man has always wondered about creating life – first by means of magic, and in today’s age, by means of science.[iii] The ancient world is full of stories about objects created by man that move and seem to have a life of their own. Sometimes these were imagined as vessels that were used by the gods and other times simply as the servants of man. In medieval times, efforts to create a man were not unknown, and this is even where we get the term golem, that is “the figure made into the form of a human and given life; the creature is then slave to its master’s commands”.[iv]

With the dawn of the age of modern science in the 17th c., men like Jaquet Droz captured the attention of many with his human-like “automatons” (this now being the modern, scientific sense of the term). Men like Descartes and Leibniz even used the automaton as an “emblem of the cosmos”, and this both summed up and fueled what I would characterize as the modern scientific and technological mindset, or MSTM[v] where the boundaries limiting man’s power over nature increasingly were expected to succumb. With all this optimism then, it was perhaps surprising that only a century later that “automata instead represented repression and servitude.”[vi]

According to fantasy and horror author – and literary scholar! – Kang Minsoo, author of Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, automata are fascinating to us for reasons that could be said to be both “essential” and “historically contingent”. I won’t go into detail about this here, but suffice it to say that current fascination has to do with unease as much as awe and wonder.[vii] And no wonder – even as scientists in the 19th c. were themselves idealized as dispassionate objects probing the natural world, machines seemed to burst forth in full color more and more so – as they gradually encroached on the territory that had previously only been man’s domain (more on this later)[viii]

As far as fiction goes, exceptions to the rule….

As far as fiction goes, exceptions to the rule….

We see all of this reflected especially in the genre of science fiction, particularly in the 19th century. H.G. Wells is one of the best known authors here. Of course nowadays we see both positive and negative robots reflected in our fiction, particularly of the kind that comes out of Hollywood. That said, the robots that threaten us loom larger, it seems to me.

“The cheerful and supportive R2-D2 does not accurately reflect the prevailing                                                           interpretation of robots in Euro-American film” – Robert Geraci.[ix] Think Darth Vader.

“The cheerful and supportive R2-D2 does not accurately reflect the prevailing interpretation of robots in Euro-American film” – Robert Geraci.[ix] Think Darth Vader.

Technology writer Chris Baraniuk adds some more insight here. He notes that where early machines or cyborgs in 19th c. literature would struggle with philosophical questions, early 20th century fictional robots were typical silent killing machines, something that he says, “of course, evolved from a specific matter”, namely, the “’mindless mechanisms of Victorian engineering” – “senseless industrial machines that took many lives during that time period”.[x] Since this time, the presentation of robots in [science] fiction has generally become more nuanced, where, as Robert Geraci notes, “fear of technological wrath accompanies the hope of a new Eden”.[xi] In science fiction the MSTM (again, the “modern scientific and technological mindset”) is celebrated, even as man’s technological accomplishments bring peril as well as promise.

“Human beings relations with artificial intelligence parallel their relations with the Holy”-- Geraci[xii]

“Human beings relations with artificial intelligence parallel their relations with the Holy”– Geraci[xii]

Daleks, from Doctor Who: “Exterminate!  Exterminate!  You will be ex-ter-mi-na-ted!”

Daleks, from Doctor Who: “Exterminate! Exterminate! You will be ex-ter-mi-na-ted!”

To many of us, this might bring to mind “Artificial Intelligence” (today the original idea of what AI would be is subsumed in the term “Artificial General Intelligence” or AGI), which I won’t spend too much time on here. Suffice it to say, I have read Our Final Invention by writer and PBS documentarian James Barrat, whose reason for writing the book is to raise awareness of the imminent dangers of “self-aware and self-improving machines”. He worries not so much about a “handover of power” to machines but rather a takeover – something that a few in the Artificial Intelligence community have some real concern about.

Here is the sum of his and other’s concerns about the potential for “Artificial Super Intelligence”, or ASI, condensed in a science fiction horror scenario befitting of a book with the title Our Final Invention:

“Through it all, the ASI [Artificial Super Intelligence] would bear no ill will toward humans nor love. It wouldn’t feel nostalgia as our molecules were painfully repurposed. What would our screams sound like to the ASI anyway, as microscopic nano assemblers mowed over our bodies like a bloody rash, diassembling us on the sub-cellular level?

Or would the roar of million and millions of nano factories running at full bore drown out our voices? (16)… it does not have to hate us before choosing to use our molecules for a purpose other than keeping us alive (18, 19)”

Yes, more typical

Yes, more typical

More mainstream daily

More mainstream daily

I won’t go into detail about my own reasons for not taking these very MSTM-driven ideas of self-aware[xiii] A.I. too seriously (see footnote [xiv]), but suffice it to say, I think this bit from A.I. scientist Eliezer Yudkowsky, expresses well one of the main reasons why many in the A.I. community take it seriously:

“Natural selection is stupid. If natural selection can solve the AGI [Artificial General Intelligence] problem, it cannot be that hard in an absolute sense. Evolution coughed up AGI easily by randomly changing things around and keeping what worked. It followed an incremental path with no foresight.” (p. 199)[xv]

And with that, it seems to me an apropo time to quickly take a look at what some have suggested, after undertaking a historical study, have been some of the various reasons and motives for trying to create automatons. Although there are no doubt some who would consider this a waste of time (not empirical enough, etc.), perhaps thinking critically about these might help us a bit more in our own self-reflection:

  • “the urge for technical control of the environment” (psychologist John Cohen, author of the 1966 book Human Robots in Myth and Science, p. 95[xvi])
  • “the impulse to delve into the mysteries of nature” (Cohen, 95)
  • “robots… [are] incapable of offering the slightest resistance” (Cohen, 95)
  • no need to deal with human servants (Aristotle),[xvii] or to make the make the perfect woman[xviii]
  • “[the desire to] create a man is but a way of challenging the supremacy of the gods” (Cohen, 105)[xix]
  • more[xx]

Curiously, the simple joy that man has in being creative – which I see in my own son all the time as regards his mechanical creations – is generally not mentioned by Cohen or others as a possible reason for the attempt to create automata, to create life. Regarding the themes listed above, as we proceed in our journey, I suggest that they do indeed come up time and again – albeit more implicitly than explicitly.

In fiction, we see recurring themes of fear and fascination, damnation and salvation combined…. [xxxi]

In fiction, we see recurring themes of fear and fascination, damnation and salvation combined…. [xxi]

At this point though, let’s broaden our focus by examining the connection of modern automata and Big data and then by looking at the idea of “technology” in general…


Full paper here.

Droz Automatons: ; C3PO and R2: ; Wall-E: ; Number 5: ; R2: ; Frankenstein: ; Maria from Metropolis: ; HAL 2: ; Darth Vader: ; Forbidden Planet: ; Blade Runner: ; Cherry 2000: ; Matrix: ; A.I. : ; Dalek:

[i] A quote to lead off the Introduction in: Kang, Minsoo. 2011. Sublime dreams of living machines the automaton in the European imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


[iii] This excellent web article from the Danish Council of Ethics does a nice job of covering in some detail some of the most well-known “cyborgs” in early literature, including the Pygmalion (Ovid, 43 BC – 18 AD), Golem (15th and 16th c. Jewish mythology), Homunculus (Paracelsus, 1493-1541) and Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818) myths:

[iv] This is taken from page 48-9 of The Jewish People’s Dictionary of Jewish Words by Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic.

[v] I would characterize the MSTM as being set on overcoming everything seen to be a limit, and being reductionistic and pragmatic in practice. I do not mean to imply that the MSTM was the dominant or most important mode of thinking for most of the early modern scientists (most early scientists were more tempered by competing systems of understanding – particularly religious ones – that would compete against drives such as these) or that it was fully developed in those for whom it was the dominant or most important mode of thinking. More specifically, we can look at the MSTM in this way. It begin with an approach to the world called “methodological (not necessarily philosophical) naturalism” in the 17th century, was upgraded to include “pragmatic utilitarianism” in the 19th century, and has in recent years been upgraded to “systematic iconoclastic world-repurposing” towards man’s desires (late 20th and early 21st century). In some cases of course there were those who were “early adopters” of the upgrades. Again, what this all comes down to (endgame) is that we have behavior that can be described as being reductionistic and iconoclastic (limit and barrier breaking). This may leave us with some “laws of nature”, but also leaves us with moral lawlessness, where the ethical façade of the 19th c. “pragmatic utilitarianism” upgrade collapses altogether. At this point, we can say that there is nothing intrinsic about beauty, justice, and meaning, for example – i.e. beauty, justice, and meaning are only something that I/we (and those we choose to associate with) create / make / determine.

[vi] Truitt, E. R. 2012. “Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination – by Minsoo Kang”. Centaurus. 54 (2): 199-200.

[vii] Automatons are said to be “uncanny” in that they combine both the familiar and unfamiliar and this cause all manner of psychological responses in us. See the footnotes found in the conclusion for more.

[viii] Perhaps this unease has to do with another thing that Kang suggests: like Adam and Even rebelling against their maker, we to wonder if it could happen to us to… The nice robots we know from modern fiction still have to deal with the presence of their perhaps more captivating evil counterparts.

[ix] Geraci, Robert M. 2007. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”. Zygon. 42 (4): 961-980, p. 969.

[x]Baraniuk, Chris, “Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words,” The Machine Starts, last modified January, 2013,

[xi] Geraci, Robert M. 2007. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”. Zygon.42 (4): 961-980. 966

In the abstract of Geraci’s paper, we read: “Science-fiction representations of robots and artificially intelligent computers follow this logic of threatening otherness and soteriological promise. Science fiction offers empirical support for Anne Foerst s claim that human beings experience fear and fascination in the presence of advanced robots from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AI Lab. The human reaction to intelligent machines shows that human beings in many respects have elevated those machines to divine status. This machine apotheosis, an interesting cultural event for the history of religions, may—despite Foerst’s rosy interpretation—threaten traditional Christian theologies….”

Elsewhere, he writes:

“Science fiction is a useful tool for the explication of these modern problems because it is “the most accurately reflective literary genre of our time” (Schwartz 1971, 1043). As a literary form, science fiction bridges the sei- enees and the humanities (Schwartz 1971, 1044), which makes it vital to understanding the religion-science engagement with robotics and artificial intelligence. Moreover, science fiction has been of decisive importance to technological development (Brand 1987, 224-25; Pontin 2007), and this includes robotics and AI (Shivers 1999)….”

More on salvation and damnation:

“In seeking to describe the fundamental nature of the religious experience, [the modern theologian Rudoloph] Otto gives us a coincidence of opposites: the mysterium tremendum and the fascinans. These opposites also characterize twentieth-century technology, which frightens us with dehumanization and extinction while fascinating us with the “salvation” of a leisurely return to Eden…. (965)   Science-fiction depictions of robots demonstrate that a fear of technological wrath accompanies the hope of a new Eden. (966)… Technology promises salvation with one hand while threatening damnation with the other. This coincidence of opposites appears most prominently in depictions of intelligent robots. (967)… In the end, robots in science-fiction movies demonstrate the persistence of the human being; it is through the opening of human emotion that the powers of technology are once again subsumed within human control… These happy endings are rarely secure, however, as the threat of robot dominance never truly dies. Human beings must content themselves with a tentative grip on their self- determination and self-identity, a grip that must be renewed regularly and retained only through constant vigilance. (968)”

Another interesting angle on humans and machine science fiction film: they really explore what it means to be human, and many of them suggest that human beings are cyborg-ian already. Read more in this excellent web article from the Danish Council of Ethics:

[xii] Ibid, p. 966

[xiii] “…by definition ‘generally intelligent systems’ are self aware… these will ‘develop’ four primary ‘drives’” and “self aware [:] deep knowledge of its own design.”   Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, pp. 81, 172.

[xiv] One of the most well-known arguments against classical notions of A.I. is the “Chinese room argument” by the philosopher John Searle. One can hear more about it at and, but in brief, the argument is that understanding syntax is insufficient for understanding semantics. I would actually critique the Chinese room argument as well: it assumes one can somehow conceive of all the possible sentences in a language and compose a reasonable response to these. For the first part, Walt Crawford has argued, using Google itself, that most every ten word phrase on the internet is absolutely unique. As for the answer part, while this might seem to be true in most cases, there are also times where context is absolutely critical to obtaining a correct or sensible answer to a question.

More on Crawford: His observation suggests we should think twice about our abilities to not only identify hard-and-fast patterns (“laws”) regarding such things , but also to develop effective methods to “net” them. Geoffrey Nunberg writes “One salutary effect of looking at word trajectories is that they dispel some of the unreflective philological assumptions that color the way humanists and social scientists tend to think about words.” Nunberg, Geoffrey. “Counting on Google Books.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2010. ; more of the full quote from Walt Crawford: “If you’re suspicious that a clumsy plagiarist has cut-and-pasted without paraphrasing, almost any medium-length sentence may suggest you should check further. It could be entirely innocent. But it seems surprisingly uncommon for the same 10-word string to show up more than once. Our everyday language is more varied and diverse than I think most of us expect.” Earlier, in his article, he had quoted a commenter on a blog who said, “it is highly likely that any given sentence you speak has never been used before, unless the sentence is short and about a common subject. It just seems like the same sentences get reused a lot because our brains are amazingly efficient at distilling sentences down to their core meanings, which do get reused regularly.” In Crawford, Walt. “The Uniqueness of Everyday Language.” Online 34, no. 4 (July 2010): 58-60.

In sum, if someone in the future tells you a machine has “gone rogue” I would be very skeptical. I think it’s a pretty good guess that the machine would not be the rogue.

[xv] In current cognitive science this would mean that our minds would be the software that runs on the hardware of the brain….see Gelonesi, Joe. 2008. Minds and Computers. The Philosopher’s Zone. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC News Radio, January 12. (with guest Matt Carver) for more about this. Discussing the work of James Barrat who made the same point, retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade noted the following In an email message to the author from Jan 2014:

“What is so funny is that the author does not seem to understand that trying to model the thinking of the brain as set of algorithms was what led to the development of the computer. That working assumption was then taken to be the truth about the mind, a truth not to be question and critiqued in search of a better understanding, and thus the mind (not just the model of it) became an algorithm in the thinking of these scientists. And of course that means we can simulate it with computers.

Assumption: Let x=y ; Definition: y = a + b ; Conclusion: x=a + b

But if x does not equal y, then no such conclusion follows. The assumption that the mind was an algorithm was the foundation of computer science from the beginning but to date there is no evidence that the mind is an algorithm machine, only that computers are. The brain works; computers work (sometimes). Ergo, the brain is a computer. A triumph of logical thinking based on faulty metaphysical assumptions.”

This brings some of the following statements to mind: “The reductionist, in asserting that the mental life of man can be wholly represented in terms of a neural automation, denies to him those very qualities which distinguish him from a robot” (Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes, p. 137). And this one as well from C.S. Lewis: “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ for principles. If you see through everything, then everything will be transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” Lewis, C. S. 1996. The Abolition of Man, or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 87.

I am also told that Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason (1976) and Hubert Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do (1992) are worth looking into for further reflection.   Dreyfus also more recently wrote an updated article: Dreyfus, H.L. 2007. “Why Heideggerian AI failed and how fixing it would require making it more Heideggerian”. Artificial Intelligence. 171 (18): 1137-1160.

[xvi] Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes.

[xvii] “If, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants.” Quoted in Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2012. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Mass: Digital Frontier Press.

[xviii] From retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade in an email to me on March 17, 2014: “In A l’image de l’homme, Philippe Breton argued that throughout history in almost every case of attempts to create artificial humans, it was done by men in order to create the perfect slave to replace imperfect women. He shows this in Greek mythology, Chinese folklore (where a man paints a woman and brings her to life by loving her), and many later versions up to the virtual desktop girl. In this man-created world, women obey man in everything to meet his desires, they do not challenge him to grow and change and love.”

[xix] “O had I Father’s gift I would breathe life / Into the lifeless earth, but who are we / To recreate mankind?” – Ovid, Metamorphoses, quoted in Kang, Minsoo. 2011. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines the Automaton in the European Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. introduction. This motivation seems perhaps go hand in hand with the one expressed by AI maker De Garis in Barrat’s Final Invention: “Humans should not stand in the way of a higher form of evolution. These machines are godlike. It is human destiny to create them.” Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, p. 86.

[xx]In what seems to be a nod to more Freudian notions, Cohen says: “The entire world of machinery, as Huysman writes somewhere, is inspired by the play of the organs of reproduction. The designer animates artificial objects by stimulating the movements of animals engaged in propagating the species. Our machines are ‘Romeos of steel and Juliets of cast-iron’.”

He also notes this as a motive: “manifestations of those modes of consciousness which reach out for symbolic interpretation of the world around them in contrast to a factual, literal or scientific interpretation.” Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes, pp. 67, 99

[xxi] Geraci, Robert M. 2007. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”. Zygon. 42 (4): 961-980.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 10, 2014 in Uncategorized