Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Mystery of the Missing Men; or, Where the Boys Are--Not!

It seems to be a new cause du jour: the lack of men in the church, the reasons Why Men Hate Going to Church, and the so-called feminization of evangelical Christianity. David Wayne on Jollyblogger has a list of recent articles about the subject. Some are little more than chest-thumping affirmations of David Murrow's above-referenced book, but there are also those that have a bit more substance.

Among these, Holly Pivec's article, "The Feminization of the Church," notes that the issue is not new--dating back to the Industrial Revolution, according to some theories, or the 13th century, according to others. She cites statistics such as that 57% of evangelicals are women--which seems to me a little less dire than the rhetoric makes out; this means that 43% of evangelicals are men--but also that women are more involved in ancillary ministries of the church than are men. She also notes that worship styles tend toward romantic imagery, service opportunities tend toward traditionally female roles, pastors may be tailoring their messages to their already predominantly female audience, and the ministry itself may be attracting men who exhibit traditionally "feminine" qualities such as gentleness and sensitivity.

I'll confess to not yet having read Murrow's book or any others specifically on the issue. I have mixed feeling-- er, thoughts, yeah, thoughts, on the articles and blogs I have read. I think some points regarding modern worship music are valid, and decor to some extent as well. On the other hand, I've seen some silly stuff trying to show how "manly" Jesus was (mainly by focusing on the confrontation with the money changers and the woes against the Pharisees). And some presentations of the topic appear to be an attempt to repackage the church to target a male demographic, which is another example of the commodification of the Gospel. At any rate, why men say they stay out of church is not necessarily why they actually do. Never underestimate the ability of anyone--particularly men--to rationalize and excuse their behavior. Ask anyone why they stay out of church, and I guarantee you, they'll tell you it's the church's fault.

What disturbs me most of all is the stereotype of masculinity that much of this stuff promotes. I reject categorically the idea that such qualities as kindness and nuturing are inherently "female" and such qualities as aggressiveness and competition are inherently "male." I imagine that the movie Mean Girls (though I haven't seen it) should quell all such ideas. Besides, I'd assert that men are, for example, nurturing--but there is a specifically masculine way to express nurturing. For mothers, it may be kissing boo-boos; for fathers, it's protectiveness and provision. What's more nurturing than providing for a family?

An excellent adverse response to this trend is given by Sean Michael Lucas, who notes that "throughout the history of Christianity from the very beginning, women have had key places in the church and tended to outnumber the men," and asks the very pertinent question,
Could it be that Christianity preaches a Gospel that requires people to view themselves as weak, forsaken, helpless, abandoned, destitute? Could it be that such a message is a stumbling block to males who believe they have strength in themselves to save themselves?
In other words, it might not be how we're presenting Christianity, but Christianity itself that tends to put off men (as it tends to put off the powerful, the intellectual, the aristocratic--cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20-21, 26-29). Lucas also points to the intellectual vacuity of the church (what Pivec calls "touchy-feely pastors giving touchy-feely sermons"). A primarily emotional gospel that is light in intellectual rigor is, on average, going to attract more women than men. (Yes, yes, there are intellectually tough women and emotionally motivated men--I realize this is an extremely broad generalization--but it might help account for a fourteen-percent gap.)

Lucas finally brings home a telling point:
I think another reason some men "hate going to church" is, ironically enough, most of our churches have failed to preach the Gospel. I don't mean the Gospel of "Jesus dying for my sins." But I mean the Gospel--an all-encompassing vision of God's invasion into the world to bring his reign to bear on every aspect of life.
Men are more motivated by mission than by the idea that Jesus really loves you and wants to wrap his arms all around you.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Rilstone on Superman

Andrew Rilstone has a good post on the "Christian symbolism" of the recent Superman movie. A brief excerpt:

Spider-Man, Frodo Baggins, Neo, Leo DeCaprio, Indiana Jones – Hollywood turns all its heroes into Christian symbols. (All except Aslan, obviously.) But do the symbols actually symbolize anything?
Good point. Except that I think Tolkien actually meant for Frodo to be a type of Christ (Gandalf and Aragorn too), no matter what he said about allegory. But for the rest--I think we need to examine what it means for Christian imagery and symbolism to be bestowed on characters who are eminently unworthy of it.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

"Salt" and "Light"
An Exercise in Biblical Allegory

Jesus' metaphorical use of salt and light to describe his disciples in Matthew 5:13-16 is one of the most familiar illustrations in scripture. It is also one of the most mishandled in interpretation, especially in interactive teaching settings. The usual procedure, often spelled out in Sunday school and youth group curricula, is for the participants to offer as many different properties and uses of salt and light as they can think of, then to find a "spiritual application" by way of analogy to each of these properties and uses. The leader is then to encourage the group to exhibit those applications in their own lives.

The problem with this type of interpretation, which amounts to allegorizing, is twofold. First, there is no control on the interpretations allowable. It is usually brought up that salt flavors food, acts as a preservative, was a valuable commodity, etc. But since there is no control--i.e., any property of salt is allowable--we may presumably find a "spiritual application" for the fact that salt is a stable crystalline compound, composed of the two highly reactive elements sodium and chlorine. Light illuminates darkness, makes vision possible, creates heat, etc.; we may again attempt to find a spiritual application for the fact that light acts both as a wave and a particle, and travels in a vacuum at a constant speed of about 186,000 miles per second. It may be objected that during Jesus' lifetime such scientific facts were unknown, but surely divine intelligence knew them when putting the metaphors in the Bible and knew that twenty centuries later we would learn them. At any rate, although such obscure facts usually do not come up in the context of an informal Bible study, the point is that there is nothing in the method to exclude them, precisely because the implied assumption is that everything about salt and light is somehow analogous to some aspect of the Christian life.

This brings us to the second problem with this type of interpretation: it ignores what the author (and in this case the speaker, Jesus) intended by the images used. It is not apparent, or even intrinsically likely, that Jesus meant that his disciples were similar to salt or light in every possible respect. Analogies normally resemble their objects in only one respect, or in a limited range of respects; usually the relationship is made clear by the context of the analogy itself. Therefore, the proper goal of interpretation in this case should be to discover in what way or ways Jesus' disciples are similar to salt and light. This is a point unfortunately lost even in some excellent commentaries.[1]

The first thing that should be noticed is that the examples are parallel. After the analogy itself is made, the point made about both of them is that they can be made ineffectual, and lose any benefit that they may otherwise offer. Therefore, the most reasonable assumption we may make is that both of these analogies are being used to illustrate a single point. If then salt and light are analogous to us in a similar way, they would therefore be similarly analogous to each other. This immediately precludes most of the interpretations we may make based on the properties or uses of light or salt individually--for these two substances are distinctly dissimilar to one another. Jesus is making a single point in these verses, reinforced by using two analogies, but a single point is being made.

That single point is evident by what is done with the analogies: in both cases, the useful property of the element involved is lost or made ineffectual. In verse 13, the salt "loses its saltiness"; in verse 14, the possibility of the lamp being lit and "put under a bowl" is envisioned (in the form of a rejection). Therefore, whatever it is that salt and light do, there are situations in which they are prevented from doing it. That is the point: believers can become ineffectual in this world, and Jesus is warning them against it.

In the case of the salt, losing its saltiness makes it worthless (v. 13). Nothing can be done with it; it can only be disposed of. "How can it be made salty again?" is a rhetorical question; there is no answer. The point is that unsalty salt is useless to anyone--therefore precautions were taken to protect salt from humidity, which would leech it out.[2] Putting a lamp under a bowl (v. 15) similarly makes it useless. No one can benefit from the light of a covered lamp. But everyone benefits from a lamp "on its stand" that "gives light to everyone in the house." It is for this reason--the common need for light--that "a city on a hill cannot be hidden." Jesus goes on in verse 16 to apply the analogy directly to his disciples: "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

Herein lies the key to both analogies: letting one's light shine before people somehow involves letting them see one's good works--not in the ostentatious manner of the Pharisees (cf. Matt. 6:1-18), but in a way that gives glory to the Father in heaven. That is, what we are as believers--the fact that we are believers, and what that means in terms of what God is doing in our lives--must come out, find expression in our daily lives. This shouldn't have to be forced, but should be natural--as natural as a lamp being placed where it gives light, or salt being salty. Yet there is a danger that this will not be the case--else Jesus' warning loses its import.

If there is a difference in Jesus' handling of the two analogies, it would be that while the salt is actually lost, the lamp is only covered (although a covered flame, starved for oxygen, would presumably go out soon enough). Jesus may be saying that a disciple's testimony can be made ineffectual either by assimilation to the world (the salt losing its saltiness) or by hiding it from the world (the lamp covered by a bowl). But if such a distinction is made, it should be made on the basis of what Jesus actually does with the analogies, not on the basis of the intrinsic properties of salt and light themselves.

Examples of such overapplication of analogies are legion, and constitute a common fallacy in biblical interpretation. They have in some circumstances contributed to unbiblical Christian practice. One of the most common examples is that of "shepherd," applied (first metaphorically to Jesus) to Christian ministers. Everything that a shepherd does for his sheep is applied to the work of the pastor: feeding them, protecting them from enemies, leading them to water, etc. "Spiritual applications" can again be found for all of these aspects of shepherding. But careful study of how "shepherd" is used metaphorically in scripture indicates that it is used, in the Old Testament, never of the prophet and priest, but of the king; i.e., it is a leadership quality, not a prophetic and priestly one. In the New Testament, it is used primarily of leadership through teaching. Overapplying the shepherding analogy may be convenient for those parishioners who aren't interested in being anything but sheep, or for leaders who prefer to control every aspect of their people's lives, but it isn't biblical. It contributes to the overwork of pastors, the lack of responsible body ministry, and the general negligence of average Christians to grow into responsible positions of service.

In both academic and pastoral worlds, there is substantial pressure to come up with interpretations that are novel, creative, different. We want to pull out of a passage everything that may be gleaned from it. Unfortunately, we may at times overinterpret, discover meanings that were never intended by the writer, or the Holy Spirit. We need the discipline to distinguish between interpretations that are supported by the text and those that aren't.


[1] E.g., Carson, D.A., Matthew, in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), p. 138-39.

[2] Salt could lose its saltiness if a cake of salt containing impurities had the actual salt leeched out by humidity (Carson, 138). This is relevant to the extent that it makes the image itself understandable to modern people, for whom salt losing its saltiness is not a common occurrence. It would not do, however, to spiritualize the impurities, the leeching process, etc.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

You Got the Right One, Baby

Michael Lawrence (a fellow Gordon-Conwell grad!) writes an excellent piece on marriage, dating, and "choosing" a wife. A quick excerpt:
One of the myths out there is that if you just spend enough time searching, if you can just gather enough information, you'll find a woman with whom marriage will be "easy." The fact is, such a woman doesn't exist, and if she did, she likely wouldn't marry you.
I couldn't agree more.

The reality is that, apart from horrendous and usually obvious mistakes (marrying a nonbeliever is the most common), marriages are made or broken within the marriage, not because of marrying "the wrong person." Ever notice how nobody ever charges that their spouse married the wrong person? When I was at a point in my life that I refer to affectionately as, "single and not very happy about that fact," I had some time to ponder what everyone else seemed to be doing in their dating lives. It seemed to me that everyone was horrendously frightened of exactly the kind of commitment that I wanted, mostly because of the fear of ending up with "the wrong person." It also seemed to me that everyone was focusing on finding the "right person," but almost no one was seriously trying to become the "right person" for someone else. If we spent our time trying to become the "right person" for someone else--that is, trying to become the person God wants us to be in all areas of our lives--we could trust God to bring across our path someone else who was doing the same thing.

The real trick is recognizing that this process does not end at the wedding ceremony. We have to keep on becoming the person God wants us to be, and allow that process to work in our spouse's life as well. I'm convinced that God is in the process of making me right for my wife, and in the process of making her right for me--that that process began long before we met, and will continue for as long as we are on this earth.

Of course, it's possible that I just think that all this works because I found the right person....

For more on marriage, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God

Friday, July 14, 2006

Mildly Roused by Joy

I love the writings of C.S. Lewis. I enjoy the way in which he can use fictional situations to illustrate moral and spiritual truths (as in The Great Divorce or The Screwtape Letters) and the way in which he can begin with an unassuming, simple premise and build his argument into something overpowering and majestic (as in Miracles or Mere Christianity).

Lewis rarely disappoints, which makes it all the more notable when he does. Ever since I read his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, I've felt that the ending was unsatisfying. The passage I mean, on the last page of the book, is this:
But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, since I became a Christian, the subject has nearly lost all interest for me. . . . I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods, the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, "Look!" The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful for the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. "We would be at Jerusalem."
Now, I understand what it is that Lewis is saying: Joy was a tool that God used to bring Lewis to Christ. The tool was not actually the important thing; what it accomplished, where it led Lewis, was the important thing. A vivid but sporadic sense of awe and wonder--without being related to anything specific--cannot possibly have the importance of a developed, concrete faith in Christ. You use a map to get to a destination; once you get there, you stop puzzling over the map and enjoy the place it led you to.

I guess my problem is that I came to the Lord as a young child. I don't have much of a "before" that I can clearly remember. And yet, Lewis's theme of Joy resonated strongly with me. There have been times when I have experienced that sense of awe and wonder, and a lot more times when I longed to experience it and didn't. I know that Joy is a signpost pointing to God; but is it only a signpost? To put it more bluntly, once we come to Christ, do we lose the transcendent experiences that brought us there? Is the experience of glory to be replaced by theology?

I reproduced the quote above the way I did because that's how I've always remembered it--not that I've remembered it word for word, but I specifically didn't recall the section represented by the ellipsis points. I now reproduce that section, because it does make a difference:
I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know . . . .
So Lewis wasn't saying that once he became a Christian he stopped experiencing Joy. He was merely saying that it no longer had the importance it once had for him. He recognizes it as not a goal, but as a signpost toward the real goal. But nonetheless, he did still experience it.

And yet . . . it just seems that once having told of his conversion, Lewis just cuts off the narrative as quickly as he can. What he says about Joy seems merely to be the tidying up of a loose end. One can't help getting the impression that his experience of Joy as an important thing has ended--and to experience Joy is to experience it as an important thing. It's hard to get past the phrase, "The subject has nearly lost all interest for me." I understand that he means the intellectual interest--the attempt to discover where it comes from and why and what it means. He has found the answer in Christ. (That, of course, leads to other questions, but these are not directly related to Joy.) But for someone who longs to feel more of the presence of God than a busy life often allows, it just seems to be a bit of a flat ending.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Scot McKnight's Zealotry Series

A few notes on Scot McKnight's fabulous series, "Zealotry," and the comments he's been getting about it.

What McKnight means by Zealotry is doing what ancient Rabbis called, "building a fence around the Torah"--i.e., creating man-made laws that codify and quantify God's Law. The ostensible purpose is to prevent people from getting close enough to the edge to actually sin; the real motivations are fear and control: fear of the consequences of allowing varying understandings of "how far is too far," control over others to achieve uniformity. Underlying all this is the desire for immunity from criticism: if I am willing to restrict myself beyond what God requires, then I cannot be criticized. I can, however, judge those who are unwilling to go as far as I am in zealousness for the Law.

Some people commenting on Jesus Creed are misunderstanding McKnight's terminology: he's using "zealotry" (I believe) as a means of getting past our knee-jerk reactions to more famiar terms like "legalism." (He distinguishes the two by stating that fence-building--the central component to zealotry--plus judgmentalism equals legalism, but also states that he's never seen a fence-builder who wasn't judgmental or a judgmental person who wasn't a fence-builder, so the distinction doesn't seem to mean much.) In McKnight's terms, "zeal" is generally a good thing, "zealotry" is a bad thing.

Others seem concerned that provision be made for "personal fence-building." In other words, is it wrong for me to choose a more restrictive lifestyle out of concern for my own weakness? It seems to me that we need to deal with the fact that the same Holy Spirit inspired (and the same Paul wrote!) both 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, in which Paul makes clear that he has the freedom to live like a Gentile and to live like a Jew, to live as though under Torah or to live as free from Torah, to live as weak (even though he does not count himself among the weak), in order to win others to Christ; and Galatians 3:10-14, in which Paul makes clear that relying on the law leaves one under a curse, that justification is by faith, and that it is by faith and not by keeping the law that we are justified. Not to mention Romans 14, which is totally devoted to the issue of different Christians having differing convictions, the general upshot being that we need to allow one another to have differing convictions. In other words, Scripture allows for us to choose either a more or less restrictive lifestyle for various reasons. What it doesn't allow us to do is to imagine that a more restrictive lifestyle makes us more acceptable to God, or to impose that more restrictive lifestyle on others. Colossians 2:23 makes it clear that man-made regulations "have an appearance of wisdom," but "lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."

What excites me about all of this is that it reminds me of where I was as a young man, just discovering for myself the truths of God's grace. I recall the excitement and joy I had in recognizing true freedom in Christ, and wanting to share this with everyone. I've lost that along the way, partly out of disappointment at seeing many who spouted anti-legalistic jargon simply using it to justify immorality. But trying to live the Christian life as simply another Law misses the point of life in Christ entirely. Paul says, "Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (Galatians 5:16). The more "in the Spirit" we are, the less we will want to do things that are sinful and destructive to ourselves and others. Neither will we want to construct a new Law for ourselves and for others. We will simply be motivated to do what we can do for our Lord and for His Kingdom. Focusing on what is positive automatically helps us to avoid what is negative.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Check Out Jesus Creed

Clicking on links has finally paid off. It's almost scary how much Scot McKnight's blog Jesus Creed is resonating with me. McKnight is a professor of religious studies at North Park University in Chicago, and is the first person identified with the Emerging Movement who really makes sense to me. He doesn't seem to be simply rejecting rationality, or rejecting more traditional forms of church, or traditional doctrines, but he does seem to want to reach out to people who have been disaffected by the Church.

The first set of posts that caught my eye is his current Zealotry series. Among his many good points is the astute observation that building a "fence" around God's commandments betrays a lack of faith that God's Word is sufficient to keep us in Him. He's got a very interesting series going on Romans, and of course, his Post-Calvinism series is most intriguing.

I think I can learn a lot from this guy. So far, he looks like who I wanted to become when I was in seminary.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A New and Improved Interface You Can Actually Read!

Y'know, considering that Blogger is wildly popular as an entry-level blogging tool and hosting service, their templates stink. It's the extremely narrow column of tiny type running down the middle of the screen that has become ubiquitous in the blogging world. I had to bone up on my CSS in order to fix the style sheet. The odd thing is that it just took simple changes to five lines: increasing the type size and redefining the columns as a percentage of screen width instead of an absolute number of pixels.

Anyway since I tend to blather on and on with large amounts of text, I thought it would be kind to my reader to actually make this thing readable. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Individualism; or, I Am He as You Are He as You Are Me and We Are All Together

I recently blogged about how the notion of "rights" derives ultimately from the dignity of the individual that came as a result of the Protestant Reformation. Many see today a radical individualism and overemphasis on personal rights, and may conclude that the Reformation was wrong on this point, or at least that the ball it started rolling had some seriously unfortunate consequences. This is one aspect of what those who view themselves as "postmoderns" charge against what they call "modernism." (For reasons I don't want to get into now, I find both of these terms as they are used today pathetically inadequate and misleading.) So, for example, we have David Fitch critiquing expository preaching on the basis that it makes Scripture into a commodity that is bought by a consumer-driven, individualistic Christian church. I await his next installment to find out how he believes some other type of preaching would fare better, or how any type of preaching at all can be received by anyone other than individuals. Nonetheless, the assumption that individualism is simply a Bad Thing is worth challenging, or at least modifying.

While the Bible stresses the interdependence of Christians living in community and being the Body, our basic relationship with God remains an individual thing, and has to be so, as long as we understand that faith by grace is the basis for our relationship with God. Faith is not something that is exercised by a community, or a family, or some other social group. It is exercised by the individual. Ezekiel 18:1-20 and Jeremiah 31:29-30 make it clear that even in a culture in which people expected children to be liable for the sins of their parents, God made each individual liable for his own sins. At various points in history God chose an individual--Abraham, Moses, Mary, Paul--to play a pivotal role in salvation history. That role was often for the benefit of or in relationship to a larger group, but God communicated with that individual, often alone and in a unique way, to accomplish His purposes. In
Romans 5:12-21, Paul demonstrates how the actions of two individuals affected the eternal destiny of the entire human race. In Romans 4:4-6, where Paul is describing how justification by faith is actually applied, he refers to an individual--who "trusts God" and whose "faith is credited as righteousness."

None of this is to deny the importance of community in Christian life, or the fact that American Evangelicalism has largely ignored that importance. It is not to deny the interdependence that God intended by the analogy of the Body. It is not to deny that in social and political life, Americans overly stress the individual and individual rights. It is not to deny that the focus on individual gratification results in a consumer mentality that has infected the church. It is merely to say that ignoring the individual results in the loss of an extremely significant aspect of the Gospel. David Fitch critiques expository preaching because it makes the individual the arbiter of what she chooses to accept from Scripture. With all the problems inherent in allowing individuals that kind of autonomy, the alternative is literally the abandonment of the Protestant Reformation. After all, it was an individual--Martin Luther--who challenged the corporate body of the Church, based on his own individual understanding of scripture.

Let's be very, very careful before we abandon that.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Roots of our Rights

Amid the barbecues, fireworks, and summer vacations, it might be worthwhile to reflect for a few moments on what exactly happened to the world on July 4, 1776. For the first time in human history, an attempt was being made to overthrow an existing government and create a new one on the basis of a political theory. History gives the illusion of inevitability, and so 230 years later it seems virtually inconceivable that the grand political experiment might have failed. And yet it might have. Eleven years later, the French had their own revolution, based on largely the same premises as was the American one; that one succeeded in overthrowing its government, but ended in the Reign of Terror and the dictatorship of Napoleon. Other revolutions have come and gone since then, most notably the Russian Revolution in 1917. That of the United States has produced the longest-lasting stable political structure in the world at this time.

The crucial section of the American Declaration of Independence is a mere three sentences:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The average American, if asked to paraphrase these words, would probably offer something like this: "Everybody's basically the same. We all have the right to live and do as we please, and if the government interferes with that, then we have the right to get rid of it and elect another." This represents not merely a dumbing-down of what Jefferson wrote, but a crucial misunderstanding, not least because most people couldn't articulate what it is they mean by a "right" or on what basis it is thought that individuals have them.

Begging to differ with the Founders, these propositions were not in the least "self-evident." The aristocracy and monarchy of England (and the rest of Europe) were based on the assumption that all people were, in fact, not "created equal." The concept of "rights" was invented as a part of the "social contract" political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Rejecting the "divine right of kings," these philosophers went back to a hypothetically original "state of nature" in which human beings coexisted without any sort of governing institutions. "Rights" (i.e., the ability and moral authority to do anything) were inherent to individuals, and to all individuals equally. This was the cornerstone of Enlightenment political thought. Rather than rulers having all the rights, and their subjects gaining only such rights as the ruler deemed permissible, the individuals comprising societies had the rights, which they ceded to the government only insofar as doing so benefitted the individuals in that society. The government has no rights except those ceded by the individuals comprising the society; as a result, proper government is that which derives from the "consent of the governed."

Where, in turn, did Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau get this focus on the individual and the equality of all individuals? It pretty clearly derives from the Protestant Reformation, in which a relationship to God is asserted to be the province of the individual, not a Church hierarchy; the "priesthood of all believers" was asserted in place of a class of priests that took Christ's mediatorial position; and the Bible was translated into the vernacular so that all could read and interpret for themselves. Thus, the dignity of the individual was recognized and the hierarchical nature of feudal society was undermined. If I have the same access to God as the King, then why should the King rule over me, other than by my consent and for my benefit?

It was this dignity of the individual that the colonists were trying to preserve when they came to this continent, fleeing from oppression and religious persecution. This dignity of the individual was what made the rightness of a radical break from England seem "self-evident." It has become all too "self-evident," I fear, to the point where we forget in our political discourses that it is God who grants us any rights we have. Some are radical individualists, and need to be reminded that not anything and everything we desire can be construed as a "right," because we don't have the moral authority to obtain anything we want. But others need to be reminded that ultimately it is not the US Constitution that grants us our rights, and not every right need be spelled out in its text (hence the ninth and tenth amendments). What rights we do have are given to us by God; those of us blessed to live in the United States need to be thankful that we live in a nation whose foundations recognize our dignity as individuals, and prayerful that we can continue to "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Saturday, July 01, 2006

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

"Naturally one wouldn't condemn a dog on newspaper extracts."
--C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

Bob Mitton recently blogged about news and information overload. It seems to me that there are two separate but related issues: the value of "the news," and how to filter information so as to get the best from what is available (of course, this involves defining "best").

I'm ambivalent about the first issue, the value of the news. It seems to me that news could be moderately valuable if it would stick to being actual news, rather than Tips on Beating the Summer Heat, Can Automated Sprinkler Systems Really Kill You, and Recipes to Improve Your Love Life. Even what masquerades as actual news often falls into the categories of manufactured news (usually polls), entertainment news (the celebrity publicity mill), and personal tragedies ("There was a four-car pileup today...."). This last category is particularly odious, partly because it takes precedence over other news ("If it bleeds, it leads") and partly because it has relevance only to the people involved, who don't need to find out about it on the news. Real actual news--events of political or social significance that have a potential effect on the reader or an actual effect on enough other people that the public in general should know about them--is an ever-shrinking piece of the information pie.

But the larger question is to what degree even real, actual news is of benefit, expecially to the Christian. That is, what does it mean to be an Informed Person (or an Informed Christian) and to what degree is being "informed" a Good Thing?

It seems to me that Western technological society is addicted to the ephemeral. It's most obvious in fashion, where clothing styles that just months ago were considered fresh and attractive are now derided as outdated and ridiculous. There is quite obviously no improvement going on; just a marketing system that urges people to replace clothing more quickly than it is worn out. The addiction of some people to the news is very much like the addiction of others to fashion. Very, very little of what is disseminated by AP, UPI, Reuters, and other news-gathering organizations will be of any historical consequence, let alone eternal consequence. For that matter, very little of what gets discussed on talk radio or on blogs will be of lasting importance.

Asking whether a person is informed is rather like asking whether a measuring cup is full. The question is, "Full of what?" Or, "Informed with what?" If we are to be informed with something that is worthwhile, we will have to overcome our cultural addiction to the ephemeral, and stop imagining that the most recent thing published on a topic will also be the most useful, relevant, and important. It's not true. The most important things have been put into writing a long time ago. "It's all there in Plato," as the Professor said to Peter and Susan.

So to answer Bob's question, my problem is not figuring out how to "filter the noise of our information culture to find relevant information," it's rather finding the time and the quiet and the energy and the desire to read the important books that I already know about but have never read for myself. I don't think I need to amass large amounts of extra information; I think I need to delve deeper into what I think I already know. Bob writes, "news has become entertainment rather than information"; I think amassing quantities of ultimately useless information is itself a form of entertainment. And I, like virtually everyone in my culture, am addicted to various forms of entertainment. As Neil Postman wrote (in yet another book I need to get around to reading), we are Amusing Ourselves to Death. What I need to be doing is digging deeper into the well of life.