Tag Archives: religion

Submit to this question!

How can you submit to an authority before you evaluate that authority?

If a religious authority claims to be flawed and broken and sinful, evaluate the extent and nature of his influence and control.

If an academic authority claims to have the best answer on an issue, ask him about the best points his opponents make.

South Park Eric Cartman

Christ busted




Florence Postcard: Inside the dome of the Florence Cathedral


On the way up 400-plus steps to the top of Florence Cathedral, a loop around a narrow interior gallery provides a closer look at the dome.



Florence Postcard: From the Top of the Cathedral


Is Pastor Mark Driscoll’s leadership at Mars Hill Church unique?

(Updated 2:20 p.m. July 16 to include Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth, a sociologist whose work has been insightful and helpful. The book cover is linked. It appears as the last book on the list below.)

(Updated and edited 10:20 p.m., July 3: I decided to remove some of the books I originally placed in the post because I thought they would distract from the best and most relevant books in the list. However, the books removed from the post are still available on the linked book page; just click any of the book covers below.)

Mark Driscoll and the current situation at Mars Hill Church are NOT unique.

In the U.S., spiritual abuse, toxic religious communities, and narcissistic leadership are substantial problems.

These problems have spurred dozens of books — and who knows how many counseling sessions.

Before I list the books, two blog posts can give you some background on the Driscoll-Mars Hill situation.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read “Hello, my name is Mike, I’m a recovering True Believer” by Mike Anderson, and “A Former Mars Hill Pastor Speaks Out and Why Others Are Afraid: The Mars Hill Non-Disclosure Agreement” by Warren Throckmorton.

Apparently, Driscoll isn’t the only pastor who has caused problems for his congregation and ministerial team, as these books suggest (click a book cover for more information about the book):

Click the image to learn more about the book.

Click the image to learn more about the book.

1112HealingSpiritualAbuse 127ICantHearGodAnymore 121FreedomOfMind 120ByHookOrByCrook 119TwistedScriptures 118PropheticCharisma 117TakeBack 116RecoveryFromCults 115HealingYourChurchHurt 114ToxicSpirituality 113HolierThanThou 111SubtlePower

Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth(Remember, for more information, you can click on each individual book above.)


Websites that give specific accounts of spiritual abuse:

From various people who grew up in particular types of authoritarian churches and homes: Homeschoolers Anonymous

Ongoing coverage of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church in Seattle: Wenatchee the Hatchet

A helpful look “cultic aberrations” in the Roman Catholic Church: International Cultic Studies Association’s Catholic Aberrations Page

That last webpage includes an interesting point, a good thought for the closing of this post:

The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church makes it easier to connect these various movements and organizations to the Church. Protestantism also has many cultic movements; however, there are so many Protestant denominations and so many independent Protestant churches that it is more difficult to associate them with an institution.

Tullian Tchividjian apologized; should Tim Keller and D.A. Carson apologize, too?

The Tim Keller and D.A. Carson blog post of May 21 begs for further analysis.

The purpose of the post was to clarify some changes that had taken place on The Gospel Coalition website: Tullian Tchividjian’s blog had been removed, and the names of C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris had been deleted from the list of Council members.

Here, I want to focus on the May 21 post, not its fallout (Tullian said some angry things in response his blog’s premature removal), or its encouraging resolution (Tullian apologized).

In their post, Keller and Carson write,

In Tullian’s case, it was obvious to observers that for some time there has been an increasingly strident debate going on around the issue of sanctification. The differences were doctrinal and probably even more matters of pastoral practice and wisdom. Recently it became clear that the dispute was becoming increasingly sharp and divisive rather than moving toward greater unity. Earlier in the year our executive director spent two days with Tullian in Florida. Coming out of that meeting, it was decided that Tullian would move his blog. Finally the Council at its meeting last week decided that Tullian should move his blog immediately, and we communicated this conclusion to Tullian. (emphasis added)

And then, in last paragraph, Keller and Carson write,

We commit ourselves to not recount the parting of the ways in such a fashion that it makes us look good and the departing persons look bad…. John Newton’s famous letter “On Controversy” should guide us all at such times. When warning that the “leaven” of self-righteousness exists in the best of Christians, Newton wrote: “Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to suppress this wrong disposition.” Pray for us that moves and changes like these will be marked on all sides by the startling, visible graciousness that should be present in all saved by grace. 

Consider how peculiar it is to accuse someone of divisiveness and stridency and then to say they won’t make “the departing persons look bad,” and then to jump to the moral high ground by warning everyone against self-righteousness with a thunderclap of authority from a John Newton letter.

It’s a great technique: Readers of The Gospel Coalition website naturally will be dazzled by the reference to a Newton letter — plus, they’ll immediately know that self-righteousness is a horrible label we can all agree we’d like to avoid.

So Keller and Carson’s last paragraph pulls the rug over the earlier accusations of divisiveness and stridency, or directs attention away from the accusations. But, whether Tullian deserved it or not, in that post, Keller and Carson have already made him look bad (“strident” and “divisive”), which in turn makes their call to avoid self-righteousness and their commitment to avoid making “the departing persons look bad” seem disingenuous.

The solution disagreement

Sure, we all agree we have a problem. We just don’t all agree we have a solution.
(drawn from Thomas Sowell’s ideas)

Religious liberty and thought crimes

When the mechanism for punishing conscience is established by law, any political power that takes control will use the mechanism to punish those with opposing ideas. The mechanism is neutral, and eventually, you’ll be on the opposite side of the controlling power. You could avoid this by not allowing the mechanisms for punishing conscience to be established by law. Has anyone ever changed another person’s conscience by coercion? Forced underground, conscience eventually re-emerges, angrier and stronger. Beware of well-intended mechanisms that can be turned against you when the center of power shifts. Beware of politically suppressing a group with which you disagree.


A protester wearing breathing gas mask. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

‘Dreamweaver: The Visions of Mark Driscoll’

An excerpt from today’s Warren Throckmorton post on Pastor Mark Driscoll: “On many levels, I find this problematic and more troubling than the plagiarism controversy. The potential for error, trauma and false reports of assault is great…. As a psychology prof, I cringe at this video as well as the other similar material I have found on the Mars Hill website.”

Read Throckmorton’s “Dreamweaver: The Visions of Mark Driscoll” and view the aforementioned video.

‘Instead of calling the police, they prayed the Lord would make it stop’

In the Memphis, Tenn., area, the police did the Lord’s work.

What happened when a 16-year-old girl complained of sexual assault from her pastor?

A reporter says, “The victim apparently told church and other family members about the abuse, but instead of calling police, they prayed the Lord would make it stop.”

Watch the local news report.

When political authorities go bad, we have revolutions. When religious authorities go bad, we pray.

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.

More religion would be good for that other person

Sunday Prayers

Sunday Prayers (Photo credit: Steven Leith)

MSNBC‘s Morning Joe quotes a Gallup Poll:

♦ 77 percent of Americans think religion is losing influence in the U.S.

♦ 75 percent think more religion would be good for the country.

You know what each of those

respondents was thinking? “That person who gets on my nerves really needs to straighten up. Maybe if he went to church every Sunday — while I’m sleeping in.”

Where’s the ‘heart’? The brain’s role in belief, feeling, and decision-making

I remember Bishop Lawrence saying something like this: the heart desires and the will justifies. Or, maybe it was, the heart desires, the mind rationalizes, the will actualizes. Something along those lines. Desire for something comes first, rationalization/justification second, and then actualization.  

This thing called the “heart” in Christian circles — it is not the organ that pumps blood but rather an inner orientation toward something or some things. In Christianspeak, the “heart” is the most crucial part of the person, the desiring element of us, the ultimate guide underneath the surface of belief and behavior.

But that point of view seems less and less of an adequate explanation of reality. Consider the following true story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Elliot had a small tumour cut from his cortex near the brain’s frontal lobe.  He had been a model father and husband, holding down an important management job  in a large corporation and was active in his church. But the operation changed  everything.

Elliot’s IQ stayed the same – testing in the smartest 3 per cent – but, after  surgery, he was incapable of  decision. Normal life became impossible. Routine  tasks that should take 10 minutes now took hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated  over irrelevant details: whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station  to listen to and where to park his car. When contemplating lunch, he carefully  considered each restaurant’s menu, seating and lighting, and then drove to each  place to see how busy it was. But  Elliot still couldn’t decide where to eat.  His indecision was pathological.

Elliot was soon sacked. A series of new businesses failed and a con man  forced him into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The tax office began  investigating him. He moved back with his parents. As neurologist Antonio  Damasio put it: “Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable  to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social  matters.”

But why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had  happened to his brain? Damasio’s first insight occurred while talking to Elliot  about the tragic turn his life had taken. “He was always controlled,” Damasio  remembers, “always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator.  Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the  protagonist …  I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation  with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” Elliot’s friends and  family confirmed Damasio’s observations: ever since his surgery, he had seemed  strangely devoid of emotion, numb to the tragic turn his own life had taken.

Now consider the above: Elliot cannot make decisions because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.” His emotions have been neutralized because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.”

To make proactively good or bad moral decisions, to have good or bad feelings toward God, to decide any number of things related to expressing or living one’s faith — all of these critical elements of spirituality are no longer available to him as a result of a problem with his brain.

These observations should give any believer pause. What do you mean when you say “heart”? Could it be there’s no “ghost in the machine,” no intangible presence attached to our biological organism? Could it be our “spiritual experiences” are tricks of the brain?

If nothing else, Elliot’s story should change the language of devotional life and church communal life. “Heart” should no longer be treated as an intangible part of reality but rather as a metaphor for brain functions.

Furthermore, why are apologetics still grounded in abstract arguments rather than critical assessments of facts? Can we really look at new research without considering its implications? Can we really just make broad-brush statements about “chronological snobbery” and “materialistic naturalism” when Western Christians constantly benefit from medical and technological advances from research based in the naturalist point of view? (Even when there are reasonable, contemporary critiques of that point of view.)

Read the rest of the story about Elliot and comment below.


Travel photos of Matthias Church in Budapest, Hungary

This gallery contains 18 photos.

We visited the Matthias Church, on the Buda side of Budapest, on Jan. 4. Click a photo to begin a slideshow:

Melk Abbey in Melk, Austria

We visited Melk Abbey in Melk, Austria, on Jan. 1 as part of a Viking Riverboat Cruise from Passau, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary.

















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.”

Differences within doubt

It’s one thing to deliver ultimatums (“Do this or I won’t believe”). It’s another thing to acknowledge that evidence and sound reasoning are lacking (“I believe but I see many reasons why I could be very wrong”).

Creating religious experiences in the lab; is your experience of faith all in the brain?

In this video, Michael Shermer dons the “God Helmet,” and neuroscientists explain the experience.