Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Redeeming Halloween

Julie passes on a great post by John Fischer. She said there wasn't an individually permalinked article, but I think I got one here. Anyway, he pretty much articulates what I think about Halloween. Let's let kids have fun, and stop being afraid of a defeated foe.

Check it out.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Postmodernism, Truth, Bob Robinson, and John MacArthur

Bob Robinson reviews and critiques John MacArthur's book, The Truth War, in a five-part series on the Vanguard Church blog. To be fair, I haven't read MacArthur's book, and I'm no particular admirer or detractor of MacArthur. But Robinson's review highlights the problems that someone such as myself--a relative newcomer to postmodern thought--has with critiques by the emerging movement of more traditional, or "modernist," if it must be termed that way, views of truth.

In the first post of the series, Robinson focuses on MacArthur's view of truth:
MacArthur defines it in a philosophical manner that reflects his modernist, post-Enlightenment mindset. Truth is objective reality; something we can know through objective scientific observation that can be articulated with words that correspond to that objective reality.
Already there is room for objection: MacArthur certainly does label truth as "objective reality," but in the section quoted, there is nothing about "objective scientific observation," and I doubt that MacArthur says anything about scientific observation at all. So why is such a view attributed to MacArthur? Well, speaking from a postmodernist frame of reference, I might suspect Robinson of using "word games" to manipulate his readers into an a priori rejection of MacArthur's point of view. For Robinson, MacArthur is a modernist, modernists think in terms of scientific observation, therefore MacArthur is thinking in terms of scientific observation. QED.

When Robinson gets around to quoting MacArthur's own definition of truth, in part three of his critique, he finds it agreeable, in his opinion, even to "most of those in the Emerging Church conversation." So why mischaracterize and take issue with MacArthur's view of truth in part one? Don't those in the emerging movement often complain that they are not allowed to define themselves, but rather are wrongly defined by others?

Back in part one, Robinson is arguing that biblical references to "truth" come from a pre-Enlightenment view that is "less tied to propositional statements and more tied to relational witness." I'm not sure how postmoderns know this about premoderns, but the example that Robinson offers is less than compelling. Citing John 8:31-32, Robinson argues that "To MacArthur's modern enlightenment mind, the truth of the teachings is what sets you free," and argues instead that premoderns would have understood rather that "Jesus is the one who sets people free," and concludes that "MacArthur's modernist approach to "truth" disconnects the person of Jesus from his teachings." But has MacArthur ever argued that Jesus' teachings, apart from trusting in Jesus himself, is what sets people free? Is it MacArthur who disconnects the person of Jesus from his teachings, or is it Robinson who does so, attributing the result to MacArthur and his fellow "moderns"?

In part two, Robinson takes MacArthur to task for associating emerging movement figures like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren with the heretics condemned in the book of Jude. Robinson probably has a strong point here; it appears that MacArthur is trying to make an analogy between the situation in Jude and the present-day postmodern controversy, an analogy for which there seems to be little support in the actual text of Jude itself. I am, however, a little dubious of Robinson's citation of a number of passages in which Rob Bell makes reference to "truth," as though that settled the issue, or his horror at the suggestion that false teaching within the church, an issue dealt with all over the New Testament, could be attributed to a contemporary figure or movement.

In part three, Robinson offers the oft-cited objection that postmodernism isn't really about the rejection of objective truth and certainty after all, and so modernist critiques along those lines are misdirected. It seems odd to me that Robinson first and most strongly levels an attack against MacArthur's view of truth, then sidesteps the issue of the problematic postmodern view of truth. Robinson helpfully discusses the postmodern view on its own terms; his points boil down to these:
  • Those who claim absolute truth often use violence to foist that truth upon others;
  • Those who claim absolute truth often change that truth over time;
  • Modernity deified reason, and thus sought to prove faith claims by way of logic, thus making faith subservient to reason.
While there may be validity to these claims, it doesn't address the possibility that postmoderns, especially in less guarded moments, haven't swung too far in the other direction. Which leads to part four, in which Robinson contends that "MacArthur’s presumption is that the Emerging Church is filled with hard postmodernists." Once again, I wonder whether MacArthur ever actually said as much. It seems more likely that he is failing to differentiate between "hard" and "soft" postmodernists, as well as "chastened foundationalists," a failure that is easier to comprehend given that those within the emerging movement seem seldom to make such distinctions except in response to criticisms like MacArthur's. Robinson asks,
Why does MacArthur insist that the Emerging Church is full of hard postmodernists? Is it because if he builds a straw man out of the Emerging Church by labeling them hard postmodernists, he can easily burn them down?
It would seem as reasonable to ask, "Why does Robinson insist that the traditional church is full of hard modernists--i.e., those who think objective reality is to be discovered solely by scientific observation, use violence to foist their vision of truth on others, divorce the teachings from the person of Jesus, and make faith subservient to reason? Perhaps most of us are soft modernists, or even chastened subjectivists. If there is a failure to apply distinctions, it is a failure to which we are all subject.

In the last section of Robinson's series, he attempts to apply MacArthur's reasoning to MacArthur himself, essentially claiming that by MacArthur's standards, he himself would also be a heretic because he adheres to dispensationalism, a relatively new form of biblical interpretation. Robinson later retracted much of what he wrote in this final section, but it is worth commenting that Robinson's critique is quite simply predicated on the assumption that dispensationalism is wrong. Truth may be relational and non-propositional, but falsehood is evidently objective and objectively knowable.

I will repeat what I said at the beginning: I haven't read MacArthur's book, and there may be more to Robinson's critique than appears warranted, based on his quotes of the book. Moreover, as an Arminian Pentecostal, I'm not likely to be especially interested in defending MacArthur. I guess my objective is to show how the emerging critique appears to those outside it, and to show that many of the emerging criticisms can profitably be turned on themselves.

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Friday, October 19, 2007


Intentionality seems to be a buzzword these days in church circles. The idea is that whatever we're doing--worship, preaching, evangelism, decor, cell groups, niche ministries--we should become conscious of why exactly we're doing what we're doing and how we're doing it and what it conveys to people so that we can better tailor what we're doing for maximum effectiveness at whatever it is that is our goal.

This would seem to be wisdom, if it weren't for my having read Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions.

Sowell's book has nothing to do with faith or church or theories of evangelism. What it is, is an attempt to explain why the same people group together around various political issues which apparently have little to do with one another. Sowell's theory is that political positions relate to how a person views human nature--as essentially constrained or unconstrained. The unconstrained vision, roughly identifiable with liberal or socialist politics, views humanity as essentially perfectible, and therefore has a more negative view of history and tradition and a greater willingness to embrace change and social experimentation. The constrained vision, roughly identifiable with conservative politics, views humanity as essentially limited, and therefore is more skeptical of the possibilities inherent in experiments in social change, and has a more positive view of history and tradition.

The unconstrained vision regards humanity as on a journey toward perfection. The present generation is therefore farther along on this journey than past generations have been, so present-day ideals and mores are to be preferred to those of the past or of tradition. Moreover, particular individuals are more advanced than the rest, so their views are to be preferred to those of the hidebound majority. It is, finally, by the conscious foresight and will of these enlightened individuals that humanity advances.

The constrained vision regards humanity as limited and potentially dangerous to itself. The accumulated wisdom of generations past, conveyed in its traditions and rituals, is to be preferred to the vicissitudes of present-day innovators. There may be reasons beyond our understanding for some of these traditions. We should be wary of the law of unintended consequences: what we change may have ramifications beyond what can be predicted.

No one is perfectly constrained or perfectly unconstrained in their views. But the constrained view accords more nearly with the biblical view of humanity. Although created in the image of God, we are only an image; we cannot be God himself. And we are fallen. Even redeemed, there is much in our minds and hearts that has not been perfected. And we are not the agents of our own perfection: God is.

The idea that we should be intentional about what we do as believers, individually and corporately, assumes that we can know what the goal of our actions is, or should be, and that we can adjust our methods better to achieve that goal. But that comes from more of an unconstrained view. Can we truly know all of the reasons God calls on us to worship, or to witness to our faith, or to gather together for mutual edification? Is it possible that we may exaggerate one reason and thereby frustrate others?

It appears to me that we have spent the last 20 years or so becoming increasingly intentional about what we do as Christians; we have tried to become more relevant to the world, more understanding, more accommodating. We try to understand how our services and our worship and our language are viewed by outsiders, and we've tried to adjust. But overall, we are losing ground as a percentage of the population.

Is it possible that we are not supposed to be conscious and intentional about what we do in our Christian life? Is it possible that our quest for intentionality is a quest for control, that we simply are not willing to do and be what God told us to do and be, because we think that if we figure it out, we can do it better? Should we perhaps worship in the way that we feel glorifies God best, without worrying about what impact we think we're making on others? Is it perhaps the best way to serve God to focus on Him, and let Him take care of the results?

Just a thought.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

In Lieu of a Real Post (Vol. 3)

I took a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test some years ago, and was astonished at how accurately it pegged me. So recently I took a similar online test, with similar (although not identical) results:

Click to view my Personality Profile page

The MBTI portion assessed me as an INFJ; if I recall correctly, the actual MBTI that I took years ago assessed me as an INFP--but on both tests, the final axis, "perceiving" vs. "judging," was relatively balanced. The test assessment says that INFJ is the rarest personality type. That figures.

The right side of the graph you see involves various types of learning styles; mine are heavily weighted toward verbal and musical, and away from visual and spatial. Which is why I'm mechanically declined.

Anyway, you can click on the graphic to see more about, well, me, which I know you're just dying to do. Plus, as you might imagine, it will give you the opportunity to take your own test and examine your own wierdnesses. If you're into that sort of thing. Which I am. Because I'm that type.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Defining Torture Down

While the US Justice Department claimed in December 2004 to have repudiated torture and to have abandoned the most extreme interrogation methods against terrorism suspects, it issued a secret memo early the next year explicitly authorizing those same interrogation methods, claiming that they do not constitute torture, according to this New York Times story.

In July of last year, "President Bush signed a new executive order authorizing the use of what the administration calls 'enhanced' interrogation techniques — the details remain secret — and officials say the C.I.A. again is holding prisoners in 'black sites' overseas." While we do not know specifically what interrogation techniques are being used, past techniques have included "slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions; or the ultimate, waterboarding," in which a prisoner is strapped to an inclined plane with his head lower than his feet and water poured over his face to induce the feeling of drowning. While Congress has attempted to outlaw "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," by statute, the Justice department secretly issued a legal opinion which "declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard."

May I ask, if these methods do not violate that standard, what does?

Those who support these tactics seemingly think that because we are the "good guys," any methods we deem necessary are automatically acceptable. But what would make us the "good guys" except for a willingness to refrain from actions we would normally attribute to "bad guys"? What would be the outcry if these tactics were used on our own service people?

There is also the argument that "If by extreme measures we could prevent another 9/11 and save thousands of people's lives, wouldn't it be worth it?" Of course, this is begging the huge question of whether "extreme measures" actually do produce the required results, and of whether they are necessary to produce the required results--i.e., would other methods have worked equally well or better? But even accepting the premise, what then? First of all, it obliterates the line between torture and non-torture: wherever we draw that line, you could always apply the argument to just the other side of it. And it assumes that the subject actually has the information we're looking for, which can never be known for sure until the information is actually obtained. Finally, in arguments of this sort, the good to be gained is usually maximized and the methods to be used are usually minimized, as in this exchange between Scott Hennen of radio station WDAY and Vice President Cheney:

Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's a no-brainer for me....
The Vice President went on to say that "We don't torture," but again, the Administration is engaged in defining any method it feels justified in using as "not torture." At any rate, notice how waterboarding is minimized as "a dunk in water" and the outcome is maximized as "sav[ing] lives"? The fact that we have to rhetorically downplay our methods and play up our results says a lot.

I remember reading the Spire comic book adaptation of In the Presence of Mine Enemies, the story of Howard Rutledge, who was a prisoner in North Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. There was a picture of Howard Rutledge, tied to bamboo poles in a stress position, sweating, trying to outlast his interrogators. I certainly thought that that was torture at the time. Now, come to find out, it wasn't torture after all--and my government uses it too.

I really can't see how Christians can support this sort of thing. Whatever else the person in the interrogation room is, he is a human being, created in the image of God, someone God loves and someone for whom Jesus died. What will our actions do to that person? Will we convince him that our way of life is better after all? Or will we reaffirm in his mind that we are the depraved godless infidels he thought we were? What will we do with him when we are done? Because if we don't execute him or imprison him for life, then we will eventually unleash upon the world one more person aimed at hatred and revenge against the Great Satan that did the unthinkable to him. Perhaps that's what he was before we picked him up. But when we're done with him, will we have caused him to question that idea, or reaffirmed it?

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