Friday, May 29, 2009

Christian Education And The Church

... after a quick detour to discuss Ida, I am back to continue the discussion of "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" as it has been predicted by Michael Spencer ...

As a lead-in to a continued discussion of Spencer's reasons why this is going to happen, I cannot let go of the bothersome assertion that evangelicals need to stop being perceived as constituting a "threat to cultural progress." Just this week I ran across a discussion (National Review, May 4, 2009, p. 44) of heroism and the notion that "courage consists in making the right decisions in difficult circumstances." This seems to me to be wholly applicable to the "Offensive Christianity" I spoke about earlier and our call to be bold in the face of a culture that is hostile to our worldview. To do otherwise is, in my opinion, to betray the very core of what we claim to value or, as Charles Peguy once put it:

"It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of looking insufficiently progressive."

In Christianese, this amounts to being both in and of the world. This is not how it is supposed to work but, as Spencer rightly points out, it is exactly the kind of thing the American church (in general) has become ...

3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

4. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself.
There is no denying either of these facts. With encouraging but rare exceptions, I see these trends lived out in many ways on college and high school campuses, and in the pews and Sunday school classes of churches I visit. This is one reason the "New Atheist" onslaught has been so effective. Those targeted by it are unprepared to defend themselves against it -- they grow to believe the atheists have a point. Listen to the confession of a believer-turned-atheist who has since returned again to the faith of his youth:
"I was raised in the church, went three times a week, went to private Christian schools, was active in youth ministry at my church, went to conferences, took nearly ten Bible courses, read my Bible, and attended Bible study regularly for several years, and yet the New Atheism sucked me in. As sad as it is, I think that the New Atheists say a whole lot more about the state and culture of modern Christianity than they do about themselves. As crazy as it may sound, the evidence that they put forward (as weak as it is) was intellectually much stronger than anything I had encountered in the Christian church." (SALVO, Winter 2008, p. 29)
As you ponder that remember; this young man returned but he represents a tiny minority of those like him. Most leave and never look back. And we are woefully unprepared to stop the exodus.

I sincerely hope that those anti-intellectualists out there, who I run into from time to time, are listening. To deny and/or dismiss the intellectual component of our faith is not to exalt ourselves to a "more spiritual" realm. It is to give up on those who desire intellectual fulfillment and ignore the fact that we were, among other things, told to "love God with all our mind." The proof that we have largely abandoned this exhortation is in the cultural pudding Spencer addresses here.

I agree with him. And if the collapse he envisions comes about, I believe this will be the major reason that it does.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

IDA Never Believed It If I Hadn't Seen It Myself

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about Ida (technical name: Darwinius masillae), the latest of the missing links that claims to "prove" the Evolutionary connection between we humans and our earliest ancestors. Because the story has been so big in the news, I feel compelled to pause from the topic I have been pursuing and throw in a comment about it. The actual research report about the find can be read (here) but a quick summary of the scientific facts includes these characteristics that have made her so famous. Ida:
  • has nails instead of claws
  • does not have a "toothcomb" or a "grooming claw"
  • has opposable thumbs
  • has the dental features of a monkey
  • has the ankle bone of a monkey, not a lemur
Ida, in other words, seem to be one of the first specimens of a group known as the haplorrhines which includes monkeys, the great apes and humans, that make her distinct from her lemur "cousins." But even if that is true -- and I have no reason to doubt that it is -- I am no paleontologist or biology expert, but there are obvious discrepancies in the story that make me question the significance of this specimen.

First, Ida is 47 million years old. Even if full-blown Darwinian Evolution were true, her relationship to modern humans could not be described in any way as a "missing link." Even Darwinists seem to agree that modern humans appeared on the scene at most 100,000 years ago. And the oldest hominids that we are presumed to have evolved from date to only 7 million years ago. So simple logic tells us that the missing link would be found between the more recent ancestors (the hominids) and us. Ida is a precursor to both, not a link between them.

Second, Ida is anything but a "new find." She was discovered in 1983, split into two parts, and only recently pieced back together. The hype surrounding this story just happens to correspond with the release of the History Channel documentary about her and a book, "The Link," that was released the same week ("... was $60.94, but you can get both the DVD and book today for just $48.75! ..."). Ida, in other words, is little more than a marketing gimic.

Finally, this just seems to be another in a long line of empty promises about "missing links." Evolutionary theory posits that we should find billions of such links all over the place. So it constantly amuses me when the media makes such a big deal about finding one. If the theory that proposes them is an indisputable fact -- as we are constantly told -- why would finding one of these intermediary fossils demand all the dramatic hoopla? It seems they celebrateth too much. My guess is that Ida will slowly be found to lead down the same path as Lucy -- a find that at least promised some level of hope in demonstrating the human-ape link these folks so want to find -- which was later shown to be a dead end.

I do not want to give the impression that no amount of evidence will convince me that common descent (CD) is true. I am always willing to look at the evidence. But so far, every find that proposes to "prove" CD requires that you assume it in order to see it in the evidence put forth. Beyond that, even if common descent does prove to be true, it does nothing to establish the molecules-to-man, naturalistic theory of Evolution or the design we find in even the simplest living organism.

I'm sure Ida's a nice lady, but she doesn't seem to be too promising as a potential relative.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Offensive Christianity?

Before I attempt any kind of comment on the predictions of Michael Spencer about The Coming Evangelical Collapse, I want to be fair about a few things surrounding the alleged "collapse" he is anticipating. So, in his own words, here are some of the disclaimers he offers to go along with the prediction.
  1. I clearly said that evangelicalism was going to suffer a collapse, not at all meaning it would die. I said that HALF of evangelicals would be something else within 2-3 generations/10-20 years.
  2. I clearly said I am not a researcher or a prophet.
  3. I am all about church planting and new churches.
  4. Megachurch evangelicalism will survive on size, not on fidelity to the Gospel.
  5. Pentecostalism has more energy, not less problems. It is also more cross cultural and open to the work of the Spirit.
With these in mind, I would like to respond to a few specifics about why Spencer believes this is the future that awaits us. First ...
1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.
Frankly, I am about sick of hearing this critique of evangelical Christianity. For one thing, the critique relies on an assumption that "investment in moral, social, and political issues" is a misplaced effort. Why? The Christian life is necessarily filled with moral, social and political aspects. If you doubt it, read Romans (especially chapters 1, 12 and 13 if you want direct evidence regarding these specific topics). The only way to avoid that fact is to somehow (and all too commonly) claim that Christianity is purely a "spiritual" endeavor. But nothing could be further from the truth. If the spirituality we proclaim stands disconnected from the life we live, we are not living the life Christ called us to. That life is a fully-orbed, holistic life of which our physical and social connection to the world is a necessary part. And, yes, this also includes an objectively moral facet that we have an obligation to defend.

This entire issue seems to stem from a fear of exclusivity that, ironically, Spencer seems to indirectly promote later in the piece. I'll get to that later but for now I have to ask why exclusivity is so objectionable? Jesus was an exclusivist -- and he professed exclusivity on exactly this issue when he said he was "The way, the truth and the life." Not a way, or one way.

The way.

Secondly, the specific allegation that we "... have identified [our] movement with the culture war and with political conservatism" is an unavoidable consequence of the first point. The political miscues Spencer alludes to are nothing but a reflection of the reality of the political reality we share. The fact is that the "culture war" is a battle of ideas and political conservatism happens, for the most part, to be on the side of the Christian worldview. This is a far cry from saying that Christianity can only be represented by a single political party. But the ideas that matter are, in fact, on the side of a political philosophy which, I might point out, has not been upheld by any political party as of late.

I have often said that we should be practicing Offensive Christianity and I mean that in both senses. We need to quit apologizing for our faith and start promoting it apologetically. If we believe our faith is true, we would be morally negligent if we didn't try to convince others to agree with us. If we are not willing to do that, it seems to me we don't really believe it in the first place. We need to be assertive and get on the offensive in a winsome, courteous, respectful and charitable manner. If we don't, we're not really being "evangelical" at all.

But I also mean offensive in the other sense. Let's face it, the culture we live in is hostile to objective morality, tolerant of fetal homicide and infanticide, relativistic about the truth, condoning of sexual perversion of all sorts, and sickeningly corrupt on both sides of the political aisle. Should we just accept these facts and be fine with them? I think not. In fact, if these are the traits that define our society -- and if our faith is obviously antithetical to each of them -- then we would be failing if the culture did not find us offensive. I can only hope to be "offensive" in that way.

If this makes Christianity take a stance against "cultural progress" (as Spencer puts it), so be it. We should wear that label as a badge of honor -- no matter the effect on our "relevance" to the culture.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Is The Sky Falling?

The following is the lead-in to an article entitled, "The Coming Evangelical Collapse," that appeared in the March 10, 2009 edition of The Christian Science Monitor. Just as background, the author, a guy named Michael Spencer (the "Internet Monk"), is a well-educated, orthodox Christian pastor and writer of one of the most widely read and highly respected religious blogsites in the world.

If this doesn't pique your interest in discipleship, I'm not sure what will. I would suggest going to read the article but if you don't have time, at least read this intro. My plan is to do a short series in response to this piece. It has been very thought-provoking for me. Here is a summary of Michael's prognostication. Check it out ...

"We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Did You Know?

Though I can't vouch for the truth or significance of many of the claims made in this video, the fact remains that the world is changing faster than any of us could ever imagine.

There will be consequences to our culture and the faith that is inextricably tied to it. Check this out and think about it ... It is relevant to my upcoming discussion of the future of the American church.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Killing Two Birds With One Clone

I recently wrote about the moral questions surrounding organ donation, and the death criteria that have evolved from cold, blue and stiff, to brain dead, cardiac death [re: Salvo, Spring 2009, Issue 8, p. 32]. When considering the morality of harvesting organs, there is a dilemma in play that begs us to consider choosing between offering one -- or several -- individuals a new lease on life through organ harvesting, and taking the life of another by doing so.

These are difficult decisions. At least they have been in the past. But now, thanks to the insight of Sir Richard Gardner of Oxford University, they no longer need be. Gardner has found an ingenious solution to avoid the moral and medical difficulties of organ harvesting by completely bypassing the need to tiptoe along the hazy line that defines death ...
An Oxford University stem cell expert has urged the use of aborted children in organ transplants as a solution to the shortage of available organs. Sir Richard Gardner has called for a feasibility study on the possibility of obtaining organs from the bodies of aborted babies.

He said, "It is probably a more realistic technique in dealing with the shortage of kidney donors than others."

But, as if Gardner's clever solution isn't despicable enough, a careful reading of the announcement shows that there may be a method to his macabre madness and that his outrageous suggestion may be nothing more than floating a trial balloon.

Notice that Dr. Gardner is described as a "stem cell expert."

No doubt he, or someone like him, will soon propose that, in order to mollify the moral objections that the "extremists" may see in using aborted fetuses to harvest body parts, we could avoid all such controversy by creating embryonic stem cells for the specific organs we need to replace. In other words, utilizing IVF embryos or engaging in therapeutic cloning for the purpose of embryo destruction to produce needed organs would be touted as a morally superior option. No ripped up babies! No motivation to abort babies! We'd just be doing "therapy."

This is the place where stem cell research and harvesting organs meet. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that there is a slippery slope here and that we have been on it for many years. Those who have constructed the slope are doing nothing but covering it with grease.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Keynesian Theology

I'm no economist but I am familiar enough with the basics of economic theory to recognize when I'm being sold a bill of goods. My aim here is to point out that the economic solutions that have been rammed down our collective (pun intended) throats over the last few months with the promise of "keeping a financial crisis from becoming a catastrophe" (in the words of a famous politician) are rooted in an outlook that sounds awfully familiar to me. See if it all sounds familiar to you too ...

Let me begin by offering a quote from a real economist and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Mr. Alan Reynolds, whose article on the financial stimuli and bailout programs, "Faith-Based Economics," appeared in National Review's February 9, 2009 issue. This is the pull quote from the piece that jumped off the page at me:
A theory that can explain everything explains nothing. If Keynesian theorists refuse to accept any evidence as contradicting their theory, they are practicing secular theology, not science

Mr. Reynolds' analysis of the economics behind the recent government spending extravaganza centers on the fact that the policies that have been implemented are based on the theorizing of John Maynard Keynes, an interventionist economist who was all the rage in the aftermath of the Great Depression. In the latter half of the 20th century however, when economists began to develop computer modeling and statistical analysis that allowed them to dig deep into the historical actions that were taken and determine the effects of those actions, Keynes' theory -- that governments should fight economic downturns with heavy spending -- were found to be detrimental to recovery and the general economic health of a nation. Keynesian economics it turns out, didn't work the way the experts claimed it did. It was Keynesian economics that led us into the stagflation of the 1970s.

By the 1990s, when our economy was booming, the claim by those who praised our success was that Keynesian "fiscal stimulus" and heavy spending of did not work and should be avoided. Interestingly, some who defended that view (Robert Rubin, Peter Orzag, and Douglas Elmendorf for example) in writing at the time, have since been tapped to be economic advisers, directors and managers in the Obama administration, and are leading the charge to implement Keynesian solutions -- the exact opposite strategy they previously denounced. Some of these individuals, who warned that the sky would fall with deficit spending of well below 5% of GDP under Reagan and Bush, have become cheerleaders for Obama's deficits that will grow to, and rapidly exceed, 10% of GDP!

So if Keynes' ideas have been proven not to work, why have those who had previously rejected them (when it was politically convenient to do so) suddenly seem to have not only reconsidered, but to have begun actively pushing policies that are derived from them? Why have Keynes' ideas found a sudden resurgence in recent months?

Even though economic circumstances have changed, those who desire centralized control of the world ignore or manipulate the story for their own purposes. Historical data becomes irrelevant because their ideology overrides all else. They already know what they want to do and believe -- who are we to confuse them with the facts? The perpetuation of their own power and control is the trump card that anchors their view of the world and the means they use to uphold it. Those who operate this way have elevated the primacy of power and influence into the religious affirmation of their own god-like status. They are the idol they believe in.

In other words, they are practicing theology, not science ... just like the Darwinists.

Darwinism is also a theory that can explain everything and therefore nothing. If gradualism doesn't work, insert punctuated equilibrium. If homology turns out not to explain common ancestry, assume genetics does the job -- even if you have to assume the common descent in order to prove it. If intricately interwoven systems appear in completely unrelated species, call it convergence. If complex biological systems appear to have been designed, attribute the ability to do so to a blind, purposeless process (natural selection) and never miss a beat. After all, everybody knows that Darwinism has to be true.

When human autonomy is your god and the answer to every question, evidence that your worldview defies actual reality becomes an inconvenient truth that is easy to ignore.