The Hardest Other Culture To Learn From

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After seeing a favorable mention by Andy Naselli, I read a fascinating interview with Tom Nettles, a scholar who wrote a biography of the Baptist leader James Boyce.

The interviewer asked Dr. Nettles, “How would you respond to someone who said he would never read your book for the simple fact that James P. Boyce was from the South and owned slaves?”

As a minister to college students, I was curious to see what he would say. Young people today are often eager to learn from every culture but our own for precisely the reasons implicit in the question. The virtues of earlier American or European leaders are often swamped by their vices, and so college students seem unable to appreciate the other culture that is our past. And they are particularly prone to judge dead Christians harshly.

Dr. Nettles’ answer is amazing:

I would try to resist the production of a long list of insults to the intelligence of one so bigoted, narrow-minded, unthinking and hypocritical as even to think such a thing. Employment of such a principle would shut one off from the study of the Old Testament, virtually all of the ancient cultures, Greek dominance of the intertestamental period, the Roman Empire, the history of England until the first half of the nineteenth century, the history of colonial America, the lives of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the entire ante-bellum South and so forth. If one believes that the union of church and state has brought untold suffering and evil to both church and state as well as society in general (which I do), and feels that avoiding the documents produced in that context is a moral necessity for a Christian and that awareness of their viewpoints on theology, politics, philosophy, and society are reprehensible and unworthy of the intellectual and spiritual life of a Christian (which I don’t), then avoid the study of the German Reformation, the English Reformation and all western medieval culture. Bring to void any benefit from the study of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Know nothing of the City of God, the Proslogion, and the Summa. If one studies history and gains interest in persons and nations simply on the basis of personal moral approval of the subject or the era in which he lived, he probably can find justification for the study of nothing and spend his life congratulating himself that he is ignorant of everything. But if one wants to see the operations of the mind of a highly gifted, intellectually and morally driven person, whose flaws are obvious and will not hurt us and whose strengths are massive and will inspire and help us, then go for Boyce. If one wants to see the way in which theological and biblical commitments transcend the ability of any individual to facilitate the moral, intellectual, and spiritual loftiness engendered in the study of divine revelation, study Boyce. If one want to see how that same commitment, nevertheless, raises a common sinner such as we all are to uncommon heights of self-sacrifice inspired by a vision of the divine glory, study Boyce. If one wants to see how Christian character constantly nourished by increased knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus Christ can interrupt the natural tendency to bitterness and resentment and seething hostility fostered by the crushing destruction and snarling ridicule of deeply-held conviction and unfettered commitment to a cause and transform the soul to the sweetness of a reconciled and reconciling posture of mind, study Boyce.

Emphasis mine.

Wow. So yeah, learn from the past. Even dead slave owners were not without some wisdom and virtue. And remember — your descendants will judge you far more harshly than you imagine.

Half of All Marriages Do NOT End In Divorce

IMG_9474Recently I heard it again, “Half of all marriages end in divorce.”

I wanted to take my laptop and hurl it through a window. It’s hard to be sure what the divorce rate in America is, but it’s not 50%.

Here’s how the misleading notion came about: one year someone noticed that there had been 1,200,000 divorces and 2,400,000 marriages. Not thinking clearly, this person concluded that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. And not thinking clearly, our whole culture agreed.

The error is hard to see, so perhaps an example will help. Imagine that there were 100,000 births and 50,000 deaths in one year. Would you conclude that half of all people die?

Clearly not. And that highlights the problem: although it seems like you’re comparing apples and apples, you’re really comparing apples and apple wedges. The real question is: if 10,000 people get married in 2010, how many will remain married until parted by death? And the answer is: we won’t know until 5,000 people are dead.

For a better perspective on this, see the 2005 NY Times article Divorce Rate: It’s Not As High As You Think. For a contrary view, see the normally reliable Straight Dope which maintains that the 50% figure is reasonable.

I’ll give you a thought experiment just to mess with your mind: suppose I pull in $10,000 a month and that my expenses are $5,000 a month. Half of all my income ends up divorced from my wallet. Am I in good financial shape or bad financial shape? Why is your reaction to this story different than your reaction to a story claiming there are 100,000 marriages in a month and 50,000 divorces in a month? And why do we prefer to say that half of all marriages end in divorce rather than observing that twice as many people are getting married as are getting divorced?

Anyway, that’s what I have to say about that. I have little doubt that American marriages are facing great pressure and that for a number of reasons the divorce rate is disturbingly high — but it’s not 50%.

Every Ph.D. Has A Little Crazy Inside

Straight Jacket GuyPh.D. stands for doctor of philosophy. Doctor is from the Latin doctor which means ‘teacher’. Philosophy is from the Greek (the verb phileo ‘I love’ plus the noun sophia ‘wisdom’). From an etymological standpoint, a doctor of philosophy is one who teaches others to love wisdom.

But etymology is often a misleading guide to reality. Just ask a butterfly or a pineapple.

There’s an old joke that Ph.D. stands for permanent head damage. Humor usually has more truth buried inside it than etymology. I am convinced that most Ph.D.s have a little crazy in them.

You see, to earn a Ph.D. one must convince not only oneself but also a committee that you are one of the world’s leading experts about one narrow slice of reality. Ideally, you convince the committee that you know more about this very narrow problem than anyone else who has ever lived.

And here’s where the crazy comes in: this idea that you are uniquely qualified to hold a certain opinion in a very esoteric area becomes a habit which creeps into other areas of your life. You convince yourself that you are right and the world is wrong about something quite trivial. Everyone does this to a degree, but there is one important difference: the Ph.D. believes something absolutely crazy.

At this point you are thinking to yourself, “Glen, I know several Ph.D. holders. They’re nice, normal people.”

Yes. They are. They are also insane about something unexpected. They have learned through experience to keep their craziness well-masked. You have to dig down deep.

Talk with your friend long enough and you will likely discover that they raise hamsters for food. Or that they have a plan for which stores to loot in which order after the next major natural disaster, and actually have a shopping list secreted about their person at all times for just such an eventuality. Or that they believe in flooding preschools with marijuana smoke to keep the kids calm. Or that they keep a bazooka in the trunk of their car.

And that’s just the way it is. Some things come with accessories — Barbie dolls are one and Ph.D.s are another. You just have to learn to live with it. This is why I have a much higher tolerance for eccentric beliefs in outside speakers for my ministry if they have a doctorate. I expect the crazy. I actually welcome the crazy — it keeps things interesting.

So if you are my friend and are in pursuit of a Ph.D., know that I love you and that I won’t be distressed when you turn crazy in a few years.

And if you already have your Ph.D., just remember that I know. Somewhere deep in the recesses of your brain is an idea. I don’t know what it is. I don’t even know what it’s about. But I know it is so insane that your family has tried to slip pharmaceuticals into your meals on more than one occasion, which is why you only eat foods that are translucent. Which is crazy.

Where Should Prospective Ministers Go To College?

question markC. Michael Patton over at Parchment and Pen (one of my favorite blogs), recently offered some thoughts on entering ministry. He made a statement that has always seemed like common sense to me, but that I know many people find objectionable:

If possible, go to a secular university for undergrad and an Evangelical seminary for your masters. You need exposure to both.

I’ve long been mystified that as a matter of course we isolate prospective ministers from their culture for 4 years (more if they go to seminary afterwards). Surely there’s a case to be made for taking our prospective young ministers and forcing them to solidify their own faith and also minister to their peers in a secular setting. Let them prove that they can be both faithful and fruitful before they invest time and money in education that is useless outside of ministry.

I’m sure a Bible college is the ideal route for some people, but it seems to me that we should highlight secular schools as a viable option. It’s certainly borne good fruit for the Pentecostal movement and the impact in the larger evangelical world is even more impressive (Tim Keller, anyone?).

I suppose the most common objection is that secular colleges are harmful to faith, but that’s just not true. And even if it was, I don’t think it would matter that much. If someone who is planning to enter ministry can’t handle Intro to Sociology or the campus beerfest, then I really don’t want them preaching the gospel. They’re a time bomb waiting to explode and take others with them.

But someone who can thrive spiritually at a secular university and make a difference for Christ on campus… give that person a robust theological education and then turn them loose in the pulpit!

Evaluating Sermons

I evaluate a lot of sermons. I don’t just mean that I listen to sermons and decide whether I like them or not — everyone who goes to church does that. I mean that I professionally evaluate sermons and give formal feedback to the preacher. Some I evaluate in my role as a ministry trainer and others I evaluate in my role on a preaching team (before one of us preaches we preach the sermon to each other and get feedback on how to strengthen it).

So I’ve thought about this a lot. Most sermon evaluation forms you find on the internet and at seminaries are not very helpful because they measure too many things.

These were the top hits when I googled for “sermon evaluation forms”
Calvin Seminary’s (30 questions)
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Form for Ministry Interns (41 questions)
Reformed Baptist Seminary’s (35 questions).

Do all the things these long forms ask about matter? A little. But using that to evaluate a sermon is like evaluating your church’s statement of faith based on its grammar. It sort of misses the point. Of course you want a statement of faith that is grammatical, but if its content is sketchy then every moment spent improving its grammar is wasted time. Sinfully wasted time.

In the same way, focusing on the superficials of a sermon when the underlying content is bogus is ridiculous. I realize that’s not the intent of these forms, but that is what they encourage.

So this is the form I use:

Pointers (what should I change?)

Keepers (what was so good I should be sure not to take it out)?

That’s it — two questions. I sometimes do it on a 3x5 index card. Keepers on the front, pointers on the back (a tip I got from Earl Creps).

And this is the grid I’m putting it through:
1) Was Christ proclaimed clearly?
2) Was the sermon Biblically sound?
3) Was it interesting?
4) Did it ask me to do something appropriate in response?

I try to never give them more than three pointers and three keepers, and I try to be as specific as possible.

There are lots of other aspects of a sermon I could nitpick, but if the person is preaching an interesting, Biblically sound sermon that exalts Christ and challenges me to obey Him then they’re doing fabulous. Why would I nitpick them at that point? To demoralize them? To clone my habits (“at this point I would have told a joke — you should tell a joke”)?

Anyway, this post probably wasn’t relevant to most of you. But for those of you who have to evaluate preaching on a regular basis, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought.

And to those in my ministry, now you know what I’m trying to do when I prepare a sermon: proclaim the good news of Jesus in a way that is faithful to the Biblical text I’m working with in an interesting way that challenges you to wholeheartedly respond. From time to time, be sure to let me know how I’m doing. 🙂

Christianity, China, and College Students

I just read an interesting article

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about Christianity in China. The emphasis of the piece is on the dominance of Reformed theology in Chinese Christianity, but I was struck by the comments on the role of universities in the revival.

And in China, the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation. Wang Xiaochao, a philosopher at one of the Beijing universities, has translated the two major works of St Augustine, the Confessions and the City of God, into Chinese directly from Latin. Gradually all the major works of the first centuries of the Christian tradition are being translated directly from the original languages into Chinese.

All of this is happening outside the control of the official body which is supposed to monitor and supervise the churches in China. Instead, it is the philosophy departments at the universities, or the language departments and the departments of literature and western civilisation that are the channel.

“The [officially recognised] churches are not happy with universities, because it is not within their control. And their seminaries are not at the intellectual level of the universities,” says Dr Tan. “Chinese Christianity using Chinese to do Christian thinking has become a very interesting movement.”


If [May Tan] goes to preach at an official church, she says, “There will be perhaps 1000 people and 95% of them are over 65. So it’s a sunset church. But if I went to house church – there would be 1000 people; perhaps 20 of them in their 50s, and all the rest are youngsters. The older ones will all be professors at the universities. So these are the future of the churches. They have registered pastors, and no access to seminaries: But they have youth, and future, and money.”

And later on

“Very soon”, said Dr Tan, “Christians will become the majority of university students… that could happen.”

May it come to pass.matrix the divx download

My Redeemer Lives Considered From The Standpoint Of Grammar

WARNING: grammar geekiness ahead.

I hate songs with nonsensical lyrics, especially those that purport to be worship songs. The lyrics of a song matter far more to me than their accompanying music: I would forbid a song from being played in my ministry for having bad lyrics but never for having chords which I did not like.

And so I was especially pleased to make sense of some puzzling lyrics in My Redeemer Lives

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in church this morning.

The problematic stanza is

You lift my burdens
I’ll rise with You
I’m dancing on this mountain top
to see Your kingdom come

I was hung up on the word “to”, which I took to mean “I am dancing on this mountain top in order to bring about Your Kingdom’s arrival.” In another language this would be called a dative of purpose. This troubled me, because as Lindsey download the tragedy of macbeth online download drag me to hell dvd download the namesake online

said this morning, “There are few things less likely to bring about the kingdom than dancing on a mountain. How about feeding some homeless people or talking to someone about Jesus?”

But then I realized there were at least two other interpretations of the word “to”. It could be like a dative of instrument (“I am dancing on this mountain top because I get a good view from up here which enables me to behold Your kingdom as it spreads on earth”) or like an ablative of attendant circumstances (“To see your Kingdom come causes me to dance on this mountain top”).

I suspect it’s the latter.

So now I can sing that song.

For the 1% of you who have been similarly puzzled, you’re welcome.

For the 80% of you wondering if I made up the words dative and ablative, check out Wikipedia’s list of grammatical cases.

Ellipses… Make Me Nervous

Chris Tilling helpfully points out download little giant movie

that ellipses can mangle meaning. Consider:

“As for yourself, you shall … come back here … smoking … pot”
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Ellipses can clarify as well as mislead, of course. But an abundance of them makes me nervous. Always ask yourself, “What’s hiding behind those three little dots?”

Even The Opera?

Even the opera is getting in on the multi-site movement

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If you don’t know what I’m referring to, the multi-site movement pathology dvdrip download is a trend among churches to use technology to meet in multiple locations at once.

And now the opera is doing it too.

So what do opera and the church have in common that make them both ideal for a multi-site experience?

The Evolution of Faith

Dr. Collins, a geneticist who strongly believes in Christ, lectured on “God and the Genome” earlier this week. As a geneticist, he strongly believes in evolution. Watching the Christians on campus respond to his presentation has been fascinating.

A few thoughts:

1) I really wish Christians on all sides of this debate would realize that others are doing the best that they can with the knowledge that they have. As they update their knowledge, they update their views. For the most part, people on all sides really do love God and truth. In Philippians 1:18 Paul makes the point that he even gives thanks for false teachers: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” In like manner, learn to rejoice in those who differ from you on this issue.

2) On the Bible side of things, I wish more Christians knew just how many different options there are for interpreting Genesis 1 — google for “Framework Interpretation”, “Gap Theory”, “Day-Age View”, and “Theistic Evolution” to get started. In the end you’ll likely conclude that some of the options are fairly implausible, but they are all worth considering. For the record, I’m fond of the Framework Interpretation. The idea that Genesis 1 might not be a chronology of creation isn’t some sort of knee-jerk reaction to Darwinian ideas. Way back in the 4th century Augustine was looking at the text and saying, “Something complex is going on here.” For a good summary of Augustine’s perspective, read The Contemporary Relevance of Augustine.

3) On the science side of things, I wish more Christians were open to the idea that scientists have good reasons for the things that they say. There is no vast anti-Bible conspiracy. Scientists are looking at reams of data and trying to synthesize it reasonably. That doesn’t imply that every single claim science makes is proven true in the long run, but it does mean that we should take scientists very seriously when they tell us there is overwhelming evidence that the earth is billions of years old and when we discover that there has been consensus within the scientific community about this for a while now. If you’d like to do a little more digging on the science side, these three websites are pretty good places to start: SciBel

is a fun little website with engaging articles, the Faraday Institute

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has some short but stimulating papers on essential topics, and the American Scientific Affiliation has a huge collection of articles from a variety of perspectives.

I’ll wind this down by quoting from an email I sent to my students last night.

1) There are two sources of data for Christians — the Word and the world.
2) Facts from the two realms don’t contradict one another, but the interpretations we use to arrange those facts often do.
3) We’ve almost always got more interpretative options than we realize (this is true of both sources of data).

And while I’m talking about science and faith, I’d like to recommend an article about Galileo’s dispute with the church. The full story is something you’ve likely not heard before: The Myth of Galileo download diamond dogs dvd .