Archive for July, 2011

David Bazan: Bless this Mess

You may be familiar with David Bazan; he was one of the interesting characters in Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music and got a sympathetic treatment in Body Piercing Saved My Life, and has had a somewhat uneven career since the breakup of his band Pedro the Lion.

I’m not a fan of Bazan exactly; I think there’s something underimagined about the way he goes about being “a Christian rocker not playing Christian Rock;” it’s almost as if he’s managed to be derivative from something that’s already derivative. But I’m sympathetic toward Bazan and wish him well on his spiritual journey, etc.

Still I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something approaching apostasy when someone writes songs with lyrics like “God bless the weeds in the wheat; God bless the light in the bushel.” There’s a line in there somewhere that shouldn’t be crossed, and I’m not sure if Bazan crosses it here. I wouldn’t call it “apostasy rock” per se (there’s already too much of that, and it’s easy to identify), and I don’t think this is it. But still, etc.


Categories: Media Tags: ,

listening to Alistair Begg and wondering what he means

July 27, 2011 8 comments

When I attended a Calvary Chapel I was always sort of perplexed by the tacit approval John MacArthur enjoyed in Calvary circles. His Reformed positions and his affirmation of some kind of Lordship Salvation put him at odds with a couple of Calvary distinctives. He was also one of the voices on KNKT who couldn’t seem to get through a broadcast without raising his voice. In retrospect I’m inclined to believe that for whatever reason there’s a designated slot or two for angry Calvinists on KNKT, and at the time MacArthur filled that position.

That people who listened to Calvary radio heard MacArthur had a couple of results. One was that people who left Calvary looking for something more left-brain tended to move in a Reformed direction. Another was that MacArthur Study Bibles proliferated with predictable results. I once attended a Bible study where the speaker read a passage of Scripture and asked what was intended to be a thought-provoking question (I think it was one of those “why did Jesus do X?” questions) and someone helpfully piped up with “Well John MacArthur says…”

This is of course one of the difficulties of study Bibles in conservative theological circles generally. They tend to foster the attitude that because we believe the Bible we believe that everything on the pages of the one we hold in our hands is equally trustworthy. The whole experience led me to be suspicious of anyone who wrote (or edited) their own study Bible. And of course to make distinctions between men who suggest that what they personally believe and teach is the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints while at the same time writing new books that explain that faith rather than recommending books someone else wrote that may well do the same thing better. But I digress.

Listening to Calvary radio again (this time on KLHT) I was surprised to hear Alistair Begg partly filling the John MacArthur slot. His Calvinist leanings aren’t as prominent, but he’s still inexplicably angry about something. Or maybe he just sounds that way every time I listen to him. I don’t know.

What struck me while listening to Begg over the course of several days was that his treatment of a text tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern: he reads the text, he explains a couple of key words in the original languages, and he offers up a bland cliche. There may be some additional material on the way to the third step: when I was listening to him he spent a fair amount of time on a story about attempting to ride an old horse named George. But without fail his treatment of the text ended in a cliche as surely and as finally as the Jordan River ends in the Dead Sea.

There are several possible reasons why he would proceed this way, and not all of them reflect badly on him. It could be that he’s struggling to be faithful to the text and at the same time attempting to say something accessible to his audience. He may or may not have been instructed in seminary to preach at a seventh-grade level. It could be that he’s very much in touch with what Paul meant in the original Greek, but entirely out of touch with his congregation, and preaching to an imaginary audience. Preaching is hard work; the bubble around the pulpit is a scary place; etc. But it may also be that he’s speaking out of his depth and is dealing entirely with theoretical knowledge. And having seen this sort of thing before, even or especially from powerful speakers who are careful students of Scripture, I’m inclined to wonder if that isn’t the case.

I don’t necessarily have a recommendation here. We apparently need professional pastors; the Bible is a difficult book; there is more in it than a person can experience and understand. And the underlying problem, that we want a relationship with God but instead settle for a relationship with a Book, is a bigger problem than having to sit through the occasional cliche.


public service announcement

Amazon has been offering a bunch of titles by some authors we’ve heard of (and some we would never read at full price) at half-price or less in their Kindle electronic book format. I picked up a copy of Kyle Idleman’s “Not a Fan” [link] last night for $2.99. I’m waiting for Francis Chan’s book responding to Rob Bell to go on sale.

I am of the opinion that Christian titles in the Kindle format are currently overpriced; I’d take Chan’s book [link] as a case in point. The paperback lists at $8.63 but can be had from a secondary seller for $7.20 new; the Kindle edition is $8.20. By way of comparison, the Susan Collins bestseller The Hunger Games is nearly twice as long, but sells for $4.94/$4.69 [link]; David Miller’s Appalachian Trail book is $10.17/$7.99 and is 25% longer than Chan’s book. Never mind that Miller’s book took 7 years to write and Chan’s shows all the signs of being an instant book.


An anecdote and a question

A friend of a friend works for a legal aid organization in a non-marquee position. Let’s say for the sake of argument that he works for a group that offers something like a legal insurance product in the form of a subscription, but only for a narrow range of services related to a potentially politically charged parenting decision, like say home-schooling. Let’s just say.

I am a big fan of home-schooling as a concept. I believe parents have certain educational obligations to their children; that American public schooling is at best a mixed bag; and I’ve met some stellar products of home-schooling experiences. In practice there are problems with home-schooling, and I don’t always feel I have well-informed opinions pro or con; I know I’m tempted to compare the best elements of great home-schooling with the worst elements of bad public schooling. Etc. Let’s just say I think home-schooling at bare minimum serves its role in the American primary and secondary schooling ecology.

But the concept of offering legal insurance to home-schoolers has always struck me as odd: the people who offer the product are lawyers, businessmen, and activists; the buyers of the product tend to be a mix of the earnest, the pure at heart, the backward, the paranoid, and the control freaks. This looks like a relationship ripe for exploitation of the amateurs by the professionals.

Recently our friend was visiting his friend and asked how the legal aid society made money; in particular, how they could offer legal services, which tend to be expensive and bespoke, when their premiums are relatively low and their product line fairly simple.

“Well,” he said, “it’s mostly a matter of marketing, and most of what we’re selling is fear.” The key to any insurance product, after all, is estimating risk, distributing that risk, and setting the price high enough to cover cost of production, including salaries.

The obvious question of course is whether it is ethical to behave this way. And not in the usual sense of whether the legal profession would consider it disbarmentworthy, but rather whether a Christian should treat another Christian this way. I’m going to leave mostly unexamined questions of whether Christians should buy insurance products, or whether they’re necessarily some modern post-Christian abomination, and overlook the questions that arise regarding the particular home-schoolers involved.

I think I would put it most plainly as follows: should a Christian systematically frighten another Christian for profit?


Categories: Current Events

Oh, *that* Phil Johnson

I am traveling again and posting here will be light this week. I’m just back from traveling, too, and I’m still catching up on various pieces of Christian media. Oh and comment moderation; I’ve got a couple of items in the queue I need to follow up on, where people have called me on things (where I am probably in the wrong) and I need to figure out how to respond, etc.

But let me direct your attention to a three-week-old episode of The Dividing Line [link], where host James White calls in from Alaska, where he’s hanging out with Phil Johnson of Grace To You and Pyromaniacs [link].

Someone with judgment as poor and a heart as dark as mine should take great care before accusing someone else of sins, especially a sin as slippery as gossip, but I am not sure I can tell the difference between the story White tells about his long-time adversary Norm Geisler in the first half of this episode. It’s a pretty unpleasant portrayal of Geisler; it’s rather personal; and it involves appeals to sources unavailable. I suppose the thing to do is to call the person he quotes and ask them whether the story as White relates it is literally true.

Because of course nothing true is gossip. Right?

I have to admit I had completely missed the fact that Phil Johnson, executive director of John MacArthur’s radio show Grace to You, is not only much more than a radio-friendly voice. He’s an ordained minister, a book editor, and a grandfather. And just before the 33:00 mark White mentions that he founded the Pyromaniacs blog. Which I guess goes to show that I can miss even the most obvious of connections.

He (Johnson) says he picked Frank Turk for the Pyromaniacs blog because he admired Turk’s “wit.” I can’t imagine what this is. And I don’t know what it says about Johnson that he thinks Turk is “clever and cute” full of “grace and good humor.” Perhaps I just keep catching Turk on a bad day.

And finally, it turns out Pyromaniacs was started as a response to Johnson being “pilloried” on Michael Spencer’s iMonk blog, and got his comment deleted. He also says that the Internet Monk blog hasn’t allow comments since. Is this the same blog I visited today [link]? Hmm. That blog seems to allow comments, so there must be a different one.

Regardless, I’d love to see the original article; Johnson says it was (wait for it) his response to Spencer’s take on his take on an article by N. T. Wright on the New Perspective on Paul. I’d love to see what that was all about.


the gifts passages as pastoral prism

I’m going to make a hash of this, but I’m going to give it a try anyway.

As I mentioned recently, I got to spend a big chunk of a week on the south end of Maui listening to a Calvary Chapel radio station (KLHT in Honolulu). One of the great things about listening to a Calvary station all day long is that because Calvary has some sort of institutional commitment to teaching through the entire Bible not every sermon will be “another great sermon from Romans 8;” there’s a chance you’ll hear someone try to make sense of Leviticus or Lamentations. I actually heard two different pastors working on different parts of the Mosaic Law, with varying success.

The downside, of course, is that you may hear the text mishandled.

I heard so many sermons that I can’t say who the pastor was, and that’s my shortcoming, because I wish I had the audio to double-check my impressions. Instead I just had my traveling companion’s assessment of what I’m about to relay to you. Pray forgive me.

The source text was one of the Pauline passages on spiritual gifts (so it would have had to have been in Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians [link]) and the speaker was contrasting among other things between “teaching” and “helps,” so probably not Ephesians. And I noticed that when he talked about gifts he considered himself to have, or gifts he considered the domain of the pastoral office (teaching, exhorting, leading, administration) his illustrations were long and lush, and revolved around himself or another pastor he personally knew. When he talked about the other gifts (prophecy, miracles, tongues, serving, giving, mercy, helps) the illustrations were short, to the point, underimagined, and in the case of the more supernatural gifts, historical. Oh and: the use of the gifts in the latter category were without fail for the benefit not of the people in the local church, nor for the people in the surrounding community, but for the organization of the church itself. Especially the ones that could be interpreted to involve giving money.

Let me be clear: I understand the risks involved with opening up a discussion on spiritual gifts, inviting people in the pews to express themselves, etc. I understand that many churches have histories rife with chaos surrounding strong-willed people who decided they had a spiritual gift and took an opportunity to make a power play on that basis. And I understand the fact that Calvary, especially given its organizational distinctives and folk tales of elders and carpets is especially likely to produce pastors who see themselves has being the only people in the local church with a worthwhile spiritual gift.

But I might humbly suggest that the way Paul the Apostle presents gifts functioning within the church, a pastor who is most threatened by other people’s gifts, least appreciative of them, and least experienced with successful churches with gifts being expressed somewhere other than the pulpit, that pastor should be watched most carefully when he handles a text like this.

I wish I could say “if your pastor says X you need to leave” but of course very little is ever that clear cut. But I think I would say something along the lines of “if your pastor thinks he’s the only one with a spiritual gift, consider yourself warned.”

Moczar: Seven Lies About Catholic History

Editorial notice: the subject line above I usually use for books I have read myself; today I am using it for a book I would like to read but haven’t and instead have settled for reading sympathetic reviews and summaries.

Dedicated readers of this blog (all both of you) know that while I come from a fundamentalist Baptist background by way of a stint in Calvary Chapel, I’m more or less a little-em mere Christian. That gets defined as “least common denominator” Christianity, but that’s not how I think of it. I tend to see in different traditions things that are desirable and things that are not desirable, things that reflect defensible values and things that don’t. I read and listen to people from different traditions within Christianity (more conservative than liberal), and I’m always surprised how poorly they understand each other and how badly they misrepresent each other when they are in conversation.

I’m always interested to hear various Protestants answer the question “Why are you not a Catholic?” not least because some people have either thought about the question themselves and have a personal answer, while others have a canned answer they’ve received from someone else. The former tend to be more complicated than the latter; I don’t know if either tends to be better than the other.

There seems to be within every significant branch of conservative Protestant American Christianity an industry of providing canned answers to complicated problems. I don’t know if this is  good or bad; a lot of the products from this industry tend to be pretty poor, but better than nothing.

And apparently Catholics have their own folk apologetics industry too. And as someone who is not (or as some Catholics would say, “not yet”) reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church I’m always interested to see what questions they address and how they address them. Which brings me to Diane Moczar’s 2010 book Seven Lies About Catholic History [link]. Here they are, from the publisher’s page [link]:

  • The Inquisition: how it was not a bloodthirsty institution but a merciful (and necessary) one
  •  Galileo s trial : why moderns invented a myth around it to make science appear incompatible with the Catholic faith (it’s not)
  • The Reformation: why the 16th-century Church was not totally corrupt (as even some Catholics wrongly believe), and how the reformers made things worse for everybody and other lies that the world uses to attack and discredit the Faith

By my count that’s three. This review [link] mentions something about Cortez mistreating Montezuma. This one [link] mentions claims that Pius XII was personally responsible for the deaths of Jews during the Holocaust. That’s five; the title says there are seven so there must be two more.

The latter link summarizes the lies about the Reformation as follows:

Moczar explains that “nearly all the lies discussed in this book, which are truly lies about history, lead back to basic questions about the Catholic faith” and that “most of the lies were originally told by people who opposed the Church,” rather than people who had a legitimate misunderstanding of a particular event.

One of the most obvious examples of this is the set of lies emanating from the so-called Protestant Reformation, the foundational one being that the Catholic Church was so corrupt that its complete overhaul was necessary. This overhaul was carried out by disgruntled men inventing their own religions.

Moczar explains that the Church, made up of human beings, will always have its share of problems and that before the Reformation some of them were schisms and clashes with domineering secular rulers. The “Reformers” exploited these problems in their attempt to discredit the Church and to construct replacements of their own making.

The false doctrines and practices associated with the Reformation brought about not only loss of souls, but civic disunity, poverty and ugliness. The sacking of monasteries and hospitals in England left the poor and sick without the help they had previously received, and an appalling iconoclasm reigned. Works of sacred art that had adorned churches for centuries were destroyed in the name of “reform.” Such actions reveal themselves to be unnecessary and injurious not only on doctrinal grounds, but also on sociological ones.

I don’t know where to start with this; at one level it reminds me of the kind of cut-rate apologetics I hear in within evangelicalism: there’s a bait and switch at the top, suggesting that people who disagree with Moczar’s line on Catholic history aren’t just mistaken, they’re heterodox. And then there’s a portrayal of the Reformation from the Roman Catholic perspective that if I read correctly portrays disestablishment as a net negative and ignores the issue most important to me: the vernacular Scriptures.

I really can’t imagine what it’s like to be a true believer in Roman Catholicism; but I have to admit that when I read evangelicals and other Protestants engaging in this sort of argumentation I’m embarrassed for them, so I have to imagine that Catholics find this sort of thing embarrassing too. Then again, maybe not.

Categories: Books Tags: ,