Tag Archives: Christianity

Upset about gay marriage? American Christianity is the culprit

This brief podcast by The Week magazine makes an interesting argument from the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville:

Why I’m obsessed with Pastor Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism

I explained my obsession with Pastor Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism to someone on Facebook today:

Admittedly it’s a foolhardy endeavor, like spitting in the wind. If enough people like a minister, he can be as dishonest as he wants to be and get away with it, just like our elected officials. So far, Driscoll’s “accountability team” and alleged Christian publishing house Tyndale are A-OK with breaking standards that would get me fired, or get any kid in my classes a failing grade and a permanent mark on his academic record. I shouldn’t be so worked up about it, though, considering in the Roman Catholic Church, priests can rape children and the worst that will happen is they’ll get moved to a new church. So that’s the power of Christian ministry for you: cheat or molest, because either way, your job is secure! Praise the Lord, who must be sleeping.

As it would happen, a little more than 3 hours ago (from the time I’m writing this), NorthlandsNewsCenter.com in Minnesota posted “Bishop Sirba releases names of 17 priests accused of sexual abuse in Duluth Diocese,” which read in part:

Duluth Bishop Paul Sirba has released the names of 17 priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children in the [Roman Catholic] Duluth Diocese.

During a news conference, officials with the Duluth Diocese said the priests on the list have been removed from the church, are under investigation or were deceased before the accusations were known.

Officials also released the names of five other priests with ties to the area who have been accused while working in other ministries.

The Diocese says the the accusations of sexual abuse range from 1950 to 2013.

“The release of this information underscores a sad truth that must be acknowledged: Over the last 65 years, a number of clergy members in the Diocese of Duluth have violated the sacred trust placed in them by children, youth and their families,” says Bishop Sirba.

Read the entire article here.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already seen it, more book publishers and authors might have been victims of Driscoll’s plagiarism.

Andy Crouch’s ideological alchemy: turning facts into abstractions

Updated at 10 p.m. to include quotations from Robert Jay Lifton and Thomas Sowell, plus some rewriting and clarifying.

New allegations of plagiarism are dogging Pastor Mark Driscoll, but the way in which some evangelicals have defended him is equally troubling.

On December 10, Andy Crouch of Christianity Today wrote an article that gave readers the secret knowledge of what was really going on with the scandal surrounding Driscoll’s plagiarism.

The article, entitled “The Real Problems with Mark Driscoll’s ‘Citation Errors’,” revealed a frightening misunderstanding of plagiarism. I say frightening only because the misunderstanding was coming from Crouch, the executive editor of a magazine. He should know better.

The real problem, the article’s subhead told us, was not plagiarism. For the record, I have, and a far better scholar than me has, already argued that plagiarism is indeed a matter of fact in this controversy.

But that’s not the biggest problem, for me or for Crouch. Near the end of the article, Crouch says, “The real danger here is not plagiarism — it is idolatry.”

Stop. Carefully note this rhetorical move.

Crouch has moved us from a fact detectable by our senses (plagiarism) to an abstraction that can only be understood internally (idolatry).

Crouch has also claimed to reveal the inner motivations of Driscoll fans.

This quick, poorly defended move has historical and cultural precedent. It comes with the force of beliefs already firmly held by Crouch’s audience, and the force of assumptions long anchored in Western culture.

Like all good ideologies, evangelicalism depends upon its own special knowledge of inner motivations.

As the Brit historian Paul Johnson has noted, Marx and Freud (not normally heroes in evangelicalism) claimed special insight. Freud, Johnson wrote, “believed in the existence of a hidden structure of knowledge which, by using the techniques he was devising, could be discerned beneath the surface of things.”

Johnson continued to say Marxism “was another form of gnosticism claiming to peer through the empirically-perceived veneer of things to the hidden truth beneath.”

Or, as Thomas Sowell noted in Forbes magazine, Nov. 18, 1996, “Hannah Arendt said that the great achievement of 20th-century totalitarians was to turn questions of fact into questions of motive.”

Ever since, one-upping an opponent has never been easier.

Here’s a hyperbolic hypothetical example: “You don’t even know your own motives — but I do! Because I have the secret knowledge, the insight, the gnosis, and because you haven’t studied this or that theory, I can blindside you, throw you off balance, shut down your point of view with a dazzling insight that feels like argument and slays like hypnosis.”

Is Crouch completely wrong? I would not say so. Is idolatry a real danger? I would say yes, it is.

However, Crouch’s rhetorical move places, in text, evangelicalism’s observable problem of gnosticism.

You see, Crouch suggests the material reality of plagiarism isn’t the problem. To put it another way, the plain, obvious comparisons between the source texts and Driscoll’s texts are not the problem. Our darling young evangelical, our fundamentalist leader with a hipster wardrobe, certainly cannot possibly be the problem.

What’s the real problem? The unseen, abstract, volitional, arguable yet unprovable issue of idolatry in the “heart” is the problem. And it’s a problem we all could have.

And here’s how we could carry-on with that line of feeling:

Since we all could have this problem of idolatry, since we all really do, we cannot throw stones, we cannot situate the hard evidence, we cannot hold this leader accountable.

Now everyone is looking inward, everyone is considering what sinners they are because of these invisible, internal feelings — and no one is looking at facts or evidence or the law.

Gosh darn it, Andy Crouch, you’re right — we’re all sinners! How can I ever point out the evil in the world around me when I ought to be feeling the conviction of my own failings?

Questions of fact turned into questions of motive.

Abstractions are more easily managed than facts.

Consider Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s Criteria for Thought Reform, a tool that has been used to understand “brainwashing” regimes like North Korea during the Korean War, and to analyze groups that seem “cultic.”

A section of the criteria is entitled, “Doctrine Over Person,” and it is in this section that both Crouch’s article and Driscoll’s early handling of plagiarism revelations return a faint echo.

Consider these points from “Doctrine Over Person” (the boldface sections are my emphases):


  • Every issue in one’s life can be reduced to a single set of principles that have an inner coherence to the point that one can claim the experience of truth and feel it
  • The pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or ideology says one should experience
  • If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question — it is always “turned around” on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly
  • The underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience and one must subject one’s experience to that “truth”


For example, go back and listen to the exchanges between Janet Mefferd and Mark Driscoll on the former’s radio show. Mefferd’s the one who kicked-off the big national fuss about Driscoll’s plagiarism. In fairness to Driscoll, he was caught off guard by Mefferd’s on-air confrontation. However, Driscoll certainly turned the questioning back on the questioner, saying she was grumpy and rude and not behaving in a spiritually appropriate manner.

Furthermore, “idolatry” has become a commonplace idea in evangelical and Reformed circles, to the point of becoming a thought-terminating cliche’. The idea has taken on a life of its own, has become everyone’s reflexive answer.

No, I don’t think evangelicalism is co-equal with Freudian thought or Marxism.

Except there’s one crucial way evangelicalism can be like other forms of ideology.

In Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs writes, ” ‘Ideology’ once meant the study of ideas; now it means a shared belief. Ideas become beliefs when people identify with them — when they help define the group itself.”

For a moment, consider a missionary ideology as a specific point of view held by a minority group that wants to convert the entire human race (it could be religious or political or something else).

Because of the lack of foothold this (or your or my) ideology has in this world, and because so few people have recognized The Truth, our leaders have to be right even when they’re wrong.

Our leaders have to be right, or else The Truth won’t go forward. It’s more important that The Truth carry on than the leader’s ethical lapse be properly adjudicated.

The end justifies the means.”

As many others have pointed out, the Soviet Union was for the people so much that it had to kill a few million people to make sure the people succeeded. (I know, right?)

The material reality of those political executions could not overcome the inner beliefs about The Truth of Soviet communism.

Inner beliefs overcame moral reflexes and basic human conscience and glaring, horrific evidence.

Beliefs were strong enough to allow atrocities to continue in the name of those beliefs.

Hey, I know, the Driscoll mess is just plagiarism and copyright infringement. Unethical, possibly illegal, but far from murder.

Crouch simply tried to draw attention away from plagiarism and to something he feels is more important.

Moral equivalence never was my point.

The move from facts to abstractions is treacherous — that’s my point.

Such a move can allow unchecked power to expand.

It’s an evil alchemy that takes place in the mind and causes people to submit, uncritically, to authority. The move from facts to abstractions is a treacherous move in little things as well as big things.

These days, you might argue, evangelicals are more likely to cut loose one of their own than to allow someone to get away with a moral lapse. You know what? You might be right.

(Although, so far, Tyndale House, and of course Mr. Andy Crouch of Christianity Today, and some mystical, so-called accountability bodies seem to be giving Driscoll a passport stamp and a big smile. “Write on, brother, write on!”)

Even so, big problems begin when alchemists turn facts into abstractions, when an iffy inner light, flicked on by presumptuous words, blinds the senses.

Peter Enns agrees with me! OK, seriously, he just might, maybe

I was frustrated with Tim Keller following my exchange with him about textual criticism of the Bible in university classes.

However, in this post from April, scholar Peter Enns talks about the need for evangelicals (generalized) to re-evaluate how they read the Bible.

(I know — the post appeared in April. But my despair about American Christianity steers me from reading blogs that might deepen my despair. One must guard against crippling depression if one is to provide for a family. One can only meditate upon The Sickness Unto Death so many times.)

I’m sure some readers will miss the overlap between the two posts, but at least to my way of thinking, how someone reads an authoritative text, and how someone applies that authoritative text, equally sit at the center of Enns’ post and my post.

However, I don’t approach all this from seminary training.

I speak from 40 years of Christian faith and doubt,

4 Christian schools (kindergarten through 12th grade) of various affiliations,

6 churches of various evangelical and charismatic and mainline associations,

Intervarsity Christian Fellowship small group leader training,

Small group student leadership for NCSU’s IVCF,

Summit Ministries Worldview Camp,

A full term at L’Abri Fellowship in Greatham, England,

10 years in a formerly Knight Ridder-owned newspaper newsroom,

3 years of owning and operating a coffeehouse-used bookstore-performance space,

and now 5 years of teaching in a state university.

But, hey, everyone can show me the abstract mathematical reasons why my previous concerns and warnings were wrongheaded.

In the above-linked post, Enns uses the familiar metaphors of ear to the ground and finger on the pulse to describe Keller’s sensitive awareness of evangelical culture.

Here’s another metaphor for the evangelical situation: You can have complete awareness of what’s going on in your house, you can know it like the back of your hand, you can master interior decorating and all kinds of home repair, and still miss the approaching EF-5 tornado.

Paradoxes for Better Living, 9

Cover of "Orthodoxy"

Cover of Orthodoxy

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors and mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European lances the banner of mystery and chivalry: the Christian courage, which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a disdain of life.” – G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy 


Just some interesting stats I discovered: Apparently, the high-water mark for Episcopalians — or membership in The Episcopal Church USA — was from 1959 to 1967. See the stats here. What’s strange, however, is the number of Episcopalian clergy continued … Continue reading

Kierkegaard versus the Christian apologists: faith and reason in genuine tension

“Religious apologists today might mumble about the power of faith and the limits of reason, yet they are the first to protest when it is suggested that faith and reason might be in tension. Far from seeing religious faith as a special, bold kind of trust, religious apologists are now more likely to see atheism as requiring as much faith as religion. Kierkegaard saw clearly that that faith is not a kind of epistemic Polyfilla that closes the small cracks left by reason, but a mad leap across a chasm devoid of all reason.

“That is not because Kierkegaard was guilty of an anarchic irrationalism or relativistic subjectivism. It is only because he was so rigorous with his application of reason that he was able to push it to its limits. He went beyond reason only when reason could go no further, leaving logic behind only when logic refused to go on.”

– Julian Baggini, in “I Still Love Kierkegaard

Revitalizing liturgical worship: Stephen R. Holmes on history and location

“Because of the doctrine of creation, historical locatedness is something good. The tradition we inherit is part of our location in history, and so in doing theology it is necessary to relate to the tradition.” — Stephen R. Holmes in Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology

Notice the assumptions in the title of the book: Theology is somewhat abstract and intellectual, while tradition is somewhat tangible and embodied.

Also, consider what Holmes is saying, and I’ll put my own interpretative spin on it: even if you don’t believe in “sacred spaces,” you can appreciate that many people have worshipped within a certain place, and you can appreciate that all the symbolism within a place points to Christ or to the Trinity, and you can appreciate that someone, whether the craftsman or just the purchaser, cared that tangible things would be symbols for God, for Christ, and for the glory of God. After all, in Christian belief, the printed word “Jesus” is not the Incarnated God, yet the word stands as a symbol for the Incarnated God. If words can refer to God, than other symbols can, too, and a place with many symbols can be considered special without being considered idolatrous. We don’t fix a flood with a drought, as Thomas Howard said in a quotation I posted the other day.

Why I argue with ministers

“The clarity and cogency that philosophy brings is accordingly something that has a potentially positive role to play in every impartial area of human endeavor, Christianity by no means excluded. No church can exist in easy comfort with its intellectuals and theologians, but no church can be a thriving concern among thinking people if it dispenses with their services.” — Nicholas Rescher, in Philosophers Who Believe

But I don’t think that requires an attempt to wear smartness on one’s sleeve. I’m thinking this through with a few questions: I’m already in my church, but would I join it today? Is my church the kind of place where I would feel comfortable inviting my colleagues? What if answering both of those questions affirmatively did not involve a conference on apologetics or brainy sermons? So what would it involve?

Revitalizing liturgical worship: Loren Mead on fads and worship

“When the new way is considered the only way, there is no continuity, fads become the new Gospel and in Paul’s words, the church is ‘blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine’.” — Loren Mead, in The Once and Future Church

The historical continuity and connections have meant the most the me, regardless of changes in the liturgy over time. The changes within various liturgies are no where near as radical as the changes in approaches to worship. As Mead suggests, emotional highs have taken the place of both the solemnity and the education within the liturgical worship services.

One should ask why emotional highs are important to God, why emotional highs are important to individual spiritual growth, and why (for many churches) worship has become inextricably tangled with emotional highs.

Why is my rock concert experience worth duplicating in church? Why is my Super Bowl experience worth duplicating in church? Our emotions ebb and flow but God remains constant.

Revitalizing liturgical worship: Thomas Howard on idolatry and worship

“The eye that sees the dangers of idolatry is a true one. But to correct a flood, one does not want a drought…. It is false to pit the visible world of solid objects against faith. We never do this in other realms of our experience. Indeed, we cannot, since we are physical creatures and not angels.” — Thomas Howard, in Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament


Liturgy, ritual, imagination, and worship

Thoughts about ritual worship, shared with my friend Danny on Facebook, with updates (and paragraphing !):

As for ritual worship: I used to go to churches with two parts to the services: sing songs and then listen to the sermon. Since I’ve joined Trinity, I’ve been able to memorize portions of the liturgy because they are repeated week after week. These phrases from Scripture and our godly heritage have come back to me in difficult moments and sustained me.

Furthermore, I think the less-liturgical and less-ritualized services ignore the full human being. Our lives are run more by our emotions and our imaginations than by our rational, cognitive faculties.

By imaginations, I don’t mean daydreams but I mean the unique image-based structures of our thoughts and feelings [memories and expectations tend to be associated not with abstract thought but with sensory impressions, whether visual, auditory, smell, taste, touch].

Protestant worship, as noted elsewhere by Thomas Howard, tends to focus on the sermon because of the abstract, cognitive orientation of evangelicalism. The unstated message is, God is for the mind, reality is essentially Mind, and spiritual living is mind over matter. Get the ideas right and, supposedly, everything else will follow. This seems much like Descartes’ famous conclusions following his sensory-deprivation experiment.

When I was at L’Abri Fellowship, surely an evangelical outfit if there ever was one, Descartes took punches for too radically dividing the human being. God made humans as creatures within a Creation, and any part of our Protestant heritage that delegitimizes that doctrine ought to be left in the past. We are promised resurrected bodies, not glowing orbs of souls that float upward to heaven.

So, people try to *will* themselves into good Christian living and worshipful lives, but their feelings and imaginations are saturated with popular movies, music, TV and the never-ending bombardment of marketing and advertising prompts (which in many cases do more to create our assumptions of reality than anything else).

Much worship today imitates mass media instead of providing a counterpoint to it.

The stories of Scripture and sermons can help the imagination enormously, but unfortunately, our short-attention-span culture does not provide meditative time to soak these stories into our “hearts.” The regular ritual helps the meditative process by working good words and good images into our feelings and imaginations. There is really nothing else like it available.

Of course, ritual delivers content — some specific kind of content and meaning, so ritual should be focused around good things: at Christmas, maybe great-grandmother’s recipe; in church, around the Risen God.

All in all, the more I learn about current brain research and breakthroughs in neuroscience, the more I think our liturgical worship is best. Changes in liturgies don’t matter so much as their historical antecedents and the content delivered by the liturgical rituals. The brain makes connections in certain ways. Liturgical rituals correspond to the brain better than rock concert-style worship.

The aggregate of thoughts, feelings, and years

I can stand up for hope, faith, love
But while I’m getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady  — U2

With this blog during the past five years, I’ve tried to make the case that Protestant evangelicalism and its close cousins are intellectually problematic exercises in futility.

The available Reformed and fundamentalist views of God, humans, and the Bible never really work out, intellectually or experientially, without constant guess work and endless, tiny adjustments in the particulars of belief.

Unfortunately for me, this line of argument has been just as futile as evangelicalism.

Even when others have understood specific, concrete stories from my own life, they could not understand what brought me to the point of exasperation.

What can’t be explained is the aggregate of thousands of hours in conversations with friends, ministers, and psychologists.

What can’t be explained is the aggregate of thousands of hours of observations and, later, evaluation of those observations, the mulling over and over of words spoken and actions observed.

In other words, I don’t have arguments for or against evangelicalism. I have a life that offers deep and broad reasons why evangelicalism as a way of life does not work and couldn’t possibly.

When I found a church with candles and liturgy, I thought at least I could continue to believe in God and worship what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” which I took to be the Incarnation. That was the best I could do.

These days I see people going back in the same direction I came from, tempting the darker forces of religion to control congregations. But there is no way to bottle or package my experiences and my perspectives and present them concretely as a cautionary tale. Others are trying to bottle and package their experiences and their perspectives, and they carry more certainty than I do, maybe with fewer years, but with more zeal.

For them, “there’s one size for everyone.”

For me, “this particular size works for no one.”

Which is the more limited point of view?

G.K. Chesterton once contrasted the pagan circle with the Christian cross. The circle is closed, he said, with no expansion possible. The cross, however, extends infinitely in four directions, essentially in all directions.

I am sure my opposites would consider my point of view to be the circle, and their point of view to be the cross. Of course, I see it the other way around. The only thing I can say in response is that the liturgy and the candles — and, certainly, the bread and wine — enabled me to imagine the cross extending infinitely into past and future, while its crux remains firmly at “the still point of the turning world.”

The strange thing about the way sovereignty is assumed among Reformed, fundamentalist, and evangelical circles is this: there’s nothing to imagine. Only precision of abstract doctrine, none of the genuine mystery of the Baptized God and His universe as sensed and intuited by poets, novelists, and artists. Perhaps there’s nothing to imagine because the ministers feel certain they have grasped the mind of God.

The imaginations that drove Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien and Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor were Roman Catholic. The imagination that drove T.S. Eliot was Anglo-Catholic. The imagination that drove Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was Russian Orthodox. The biggest imagination that was close to evangelicalism was C.S. Lewis, who was Anglican. Are there any evangelical,  fundamentalist, or Reformed authors or poets of their caliber in the last 100 years? Perhaps in parts of Europe, but certainly not in the United States or the United Kingdom. I doubt the Reformed, evangelical, or fundamental crowds would claim John Updike or Garrison Keillor — they’re too liberal.

Elsewhere, others have said that our wills fail because the images in our subconscious minds undercut us. The imagination, as most deeply engrained in our minds, as most symbolically woven together with our beliefs, runs on stores of images. Those images must have a basic goodness to them if our wills are to accomplish what our rational minds say we want to achieve.

The Christian imagination ought to be broad and deep and it should buoy our wills toward good ends. The mindset that focuses on doctrinal precision and steps and methods and curricula and numerical growth in congregations only engages the rational mind. This is a failing mindset. As Chesterton said, “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

‘Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World,” or why no one really listens

The late French Protestant leader Jacques Ellul in his book Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World

“They comply unfailingly with the law and the commandments. They are unbending in their convictions, intolerant of any deviation. In the articulation of belief they press rigor and absolutism to their limits. They precisely delimit the frontiers between believers and unbelievers. They unceasingly refine the expression of their belief and seek to give it explicit intellectual formulation in a system as coherent and complete as possible. They insist on total orthodoxy. Ways of thinking and acting are rigidly codified.”

And a quotation from Daniel Taylor: “Legalism is one more expression of the human compulsion for security.”

Differences within doubt, Part 2

1. I can admit I’m a sinner, and I can realize that a Holy God would demand recompense. I can even say I could not do anything to get myself into the presence of Absolute Goodness. I could easily say after my physical death there’s no good reason for my essence to continue on or for my body to return. For those reasons, I could easily say I need a Savior.

2. I can also say lectures, debates, books, and research from psychologists, neuroscientists, historians, and other thinkers seem to offer better explanations of human problems than the available Christian explanations, and better explanations of why Christianity captivates people.

Postscript: Oddly enough, when Christians hold up their hands at available information (see Sources section below) and refuse to wrestle with it, that refusal plays into the theories of social psychologists — in two ways. First, “social proof,” or the testimonies and beliefs of the people one knows, tends to weigh more heavily in decision-making than evidence-and-reason. Second, as research suggests, when confronted with strong reasons for an opposing point of view, people tend to redouble their dedication to their original point of view.

Valerie Tarico cites Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman in her video series; here are two quotations from them:

From Valerie Tarico’s video series.

From Valerie Tarico’s video series


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities by Len Oakes

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena by Daniel Dennett

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

Psychologist Valerie Tarico’s video series, Christianity and Cognitive Science

Michael Shermer’s news feature on religious experiences and the brain, Out of the Body Experiment

Andy Thomson’s lecture, Why We Believe in Gods

Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk here.