September 22, 2010

Wisdom and Eloquence

Sadness, anger, and hope.  These are the emotions that I experienced as I read Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning by Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans.  The book casts a vision for education that leads students not only to grow spiritually, intellectually, and socially but to foster similar growth in society.  Against the pragmatism of vocational-technical educational philosophy, the authors advocate education that instills in students a love for wisdom and the skill to use that wisdom for the transformation of the culture. 

With regard to the range of emotions evoked  in me by this book, I was saddened because the rich tradition of the liberal arts has been so significantly neglected in favor of contemporary experimentation in educational method.  I was saddened because we do not, as a culture, generally approach education as a means of gaining wisdom but as a means of generating income.  Education has historically been about producing cultural leaders.  And if such leaders are to be produced, they must be educated to think well and speak clearly.  This is the sort of education that produced the men who crafted the American Declaration of Independence.  This is the sort of education that produced the men who forged the Protestant Reformation.  This is the sort of education that produces free cultures, and if it is lost, then freedom is lost as well.

I felt anger because I did not receive such a Christ-centered and classical education.  I am struggling now to gain the sort of education of which these men write because I did not receive it in grade school.  I was not taught the intricacies of language and how to use it with care and precision in a persuasive manner.  I was not taught to identify the fallacies foisted upon me by those who will seek to take advantage.  I didn't learn to diagram a sentence until I took intermediate level Greek in seminary.  Indeed, I learned to diagram in Greek before learning the same skill in English, and my understanding of English grammar at present is a result of the only two options of sinking or swimming in graduate school Greek.  How much benefit I would have reaped had I been trained in these skills from the earliest grades. 

But I also felt hope.  I felt hope because men like Littlejohn and Evans are writing books like Wisdom and Eloquence.  I felt hope because our Lord is raising up a generation of educators who long to give their children what they themselves never received.  I felt hope because Christian parents across the country are taking charge of the education of their children in obedience to Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6.  I felt hope because my own son will perhaps be given the sort of education which I did not receive, which will equip him to shape the world in which he lives rather than be shaped by it.

You have certainly noticed by now that this is not the typical book review in that I've spoken more of my reaction to the book rather than the content of the book itself.  But it occurs to me that the highest recommendation of a book might come in the form of personal testimony rather than a summary of content.  I will say briefly that the authors use the opening chapters (1-4) to establish the philosophical framework for Christian liberal arts education.  The following four chapters (5-8) will be especially helpful to those with little previous exposure to the liberal arts curriculum.  In these chapters, Littlejohn and Evans give an overview of the entire curriculum and make numerous helpful suggestions with regard to objectives and course planning.  The final two chapters (9-10) provide some practical advice for establishing a healthy ethos for a liberal arts school.  Many of these chapters should be read and read again.  The book has some specific strengths, of which I have written previously.  And, as with all published works, it has weaknesses, of which I may write in the future.  At this point allow me to simply commend to you the joy of reading this book.

Wisdom and Eloquence is itself full of wisdom put eloquently.  Every Christian parent should read this book.  It is one with which I will certainly consult with regularity.

September 21, 2010

It Pays to Know Your Figs

More than a few readers of scripture have been troubled by Jesus' cursing of the figless tree recorded in Mark 11:12-14.  Jesus has been accused of being ill-tempered and irrational for cursing a tree because it had not produced any fruit even though it was not the season for fruit.  Is it wise, though, to be so energetically critical of the Christ?

According to F. F. Bruce, such criticism is the product of insufficient acquaintance with fig trees.  In his The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, Bruce points out that, "When the fig leaves appear about the end of March they are accompanied by a crop of small knobs, called taqsh by the Arabs, a sort of forerunner of the real figs." (73).  Peasants and others hungry folks would eat these taqsh, which would drop off prior to the growth of the full fig.  The important point for understanding Jesus' curse of the tree is that when taqsh do not appear along with the leaves, there will be no figs from that tree that year.  Thus, Jesus was not looking for the full fig but the taqsh.  And when he did not find it, he knew the tree would bear no fruit.  As Bruce says, the tree was both "fruitless and hopeless." 

As it turns out, both Jesus and Mark knew a bit more about Palestinian fig trees than do many modern day commentators, which serves as a warning to those who think they know better than Jesus.

September 16, 2010

Secularization and Education

I started reading through Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning by Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans this morning.  Though I've only begun reading, the book has already proven to be stimulating and instructive in a variety of ways.  One statement by the authors was particularly thought-provoking:
"The inevitable effect for Christian schools that adopt progressive ideas uncritically is a de facto dualistic compartmentalization in the curriculum, separating the sacred from the secular.  Though it would be unfair to characterize progressively oriented Christian schools as 'secularized,' still it is a characteristic of un-Christian thinking to separate the sacred and secular.  To the extent that the curriculum structures in our schools do not uphold a consistent, pervasive integration of the sacred into the students' academic and social experiences, we have allowed ourselves to become secularized" (24).
I've heard it said that reactionary, private, and allegedly Christian schools that use the same basic curriculum as public schools but with a Bible class added on remain basically un-Christian schools.  This seemed right to me, though I wasn't sure why.  This paragraph from Littlejohn and Evans explains it. 

Secularization is not the removal of the sacred from society.  It is, rather, the compartmentalization of the sacred within society such that the sacred is no longer allowed to speak in a normative way to society.  This, of course, describes precisely what has happened in the United States.  We are told that it's fine for us to practice our faith on our own.  But we are also told not to think that our faith is in any sense normative for the anyone else, let alone the rest of society.  This is secularization.  The sacred is placed in its box separate from everything else, and there it is to stay.

This is particularly important for education.  Thus its inclusion in Littlejohn and Evans' book on the matter.  Many Christians would be satisfied if public schools added an elective Bible class to the curriculum.  That would ensure that our voice is heard at the table.  But if the sacred text is not allowed to be normative for the rest of the curriculum, then the problem for the Christian is really only compounded.  If the students learn in Bible that God created all that is and that he alone is sovereign over the work of his hand, and learn in science class that they are the product of Darwinian natural selection, then the sacred has not been integrated normatively into the whole.  It is a sideshow, an appeasement.  The message sent to the student is this: what your God says is trivial and has no real bearing on what we do here.  Education is only sufficiently desecularized when the Lordship of Jesus Christ is acknowledged over the whole curriculum.  As it has been said before, Christians should not be satisfied merely with a place at the table; we should only be satisfied when Christ is acknowledged at the head of the table.

September 15, 2010

Wednesday with Wesley: The Character of a Methodist

From "The Character of a Methodist":
"A Methodist is one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind, and with all his strength.  God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, 'Whom have I in heaven but Thee?' My God and my all! 'Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.' He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy, as having in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life, and overflowing his soul with peace and joy.  Perfect love having now cast out fear, he rejoices evermore. Yea, his joy is full, and all his bones cry out, 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to His abundant mercy, hath begotten me again unto a living hope of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, reserved in heaven for me.'"

September 14, 2010

Theoblog Roundup

A few recent and interesting posts from the theoblogosphere:
  • Carl Trueman has two posts on Gregory of Nazianzus, who along with the other two Cappodocians and Athanasius, "were a kind of patristic Led Zeppelin" (part 1, part 2).
  • Justin Taylor has advice from C. S. Lewis on writing well.
  • Justin also has a list of recommended sermons and articles.
  • Here's more on writing well in the form of a panel interview with Kevin DeYoung, Collin Hansen, John Starke, & Justin Taylor (this guy is everywhere).
  • And for your daily dose of controversy, Scot McKnight asks whether the complementarian/egalitarian debate is central to the gospel.

That's enough for now. Enjoy!

September 13, 2010

Looking to be Led by the Blind?

I'm presently reading Why We Love the Church by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.  I'm only in the third chapter, so I'll avoid any sort of full review for the time being.  The book, to this point, is largely a response to the myriad of voices who are frustrated because the church appears unattractive to outsiders.  There are plenty of quotes like this one from Leonard Sweet, "The world is not impressed that people attend church on Sunday morning. If anything, such a habit is viewed as a quaint waste of time."

My initial response to that quote, and the many like it, was to ask: What do you expect?  Why would you ever think that the world would be impressed with the church?  Have we forgotten that "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing" (1 Cor 1:18)?  Do we fail to recall that "the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers" (2 Cor 4:4)?  What would ever lead us to believe that outsiders might find it a good use of their time to habitually gather to worship a God in whom they do not believe and hear a gospel they find to be utter foolishness?  A major point of the power of God for salvation through the gospel is the paradoxical nature of it.  God saves people through the hearing of news that offends their natural sensibilities.  As a rule of thumb, when the world begins to grant approval and accolade to the church, we ought to pause and consider whether we're doing something wrong.  Have we left out the gospel?  Have we excluded an essential element of worship?  Why would we ever allow the worship, structure, or mission of the church to be dictated by those who think we are fools.  Is it not folly to seek to be led by the blind?

September 9, 2010

John Wesley's Vision of New Creation

John Wesley was no amateur when it came to the composition of English prose.  Here's an exemplary excerpt from his sermon on "The General Deliverance."  Considering the question as to the state of creation at the time of manifestation of the children of God, Wesley says,
The whole brute creation will then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigour, strength, and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed. They will be restored, not only to that measure of understanding which they had in paradise, but to a degree of it as much higher than that, as the understanding of an elephant is beyond that of a worm. And whatever affections they had in the garden of God, will be restored with vast increase; being exalted and refined in a manner which we ourselves are not now able to comprehend. The liberty they then had will be completely restored, and they will be free in all their motions. They will be delivered from all irregular appetites, from all unruly passions, from every disposition that is either evil in itself, or has any tendency to evil. No rage will be found in any creature, no fierceness, no cruelty, or thirst for blood. So far from it that "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain." (Isaiah 11:6, &c.)
And further,
Thus, in that day, all the vanity to which they are now helplessly subject will be abolished; they will suffer no more, either from within or without; the days of their groaning are ended. At the same time, there can be no reasonable doubt, but all the horridness of their appearance, and all the deformity of their aspect, will vanish away, and be exchanged for their primeval beauty. And with their beauty their happiness will return; to which there can then be no obstruction. As there will be nothing within, so there will be nothing without, to give them any uneasiness: No heat or cold, no storm or tempest, but one perennial spring. In the new earth, as well as in the new heavens, there will be nothing to give pain, but everything that the wisdom and goodness of God can create to give happiness. As a recompence for what they once suffered, while under the "bondage of corruption," when God has "renewed the face of the earth," and their corruptible body has put on incorruption, they shall enjoy happiness suited to their state, without alloy, without interruption, and without end (emphasis mine).
"Amen. Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev 22:20).

September 8, 2010

God's Love for His Own Glory

For quite a long time I have struggled with the idea that God loves his own glory.  In my thinking, this made God to be self-centered and self-oriented, and that was deeply troubling.  The problem in my thinking was that I was thinking of God more like a really big version of myself rather than one who is transcendent, perfect, and unlike me.  If I were in love with my own glory, it would be narcissistic, a manifestation of my fallenness. Why should it be different for God?  I also struggled to reconcile God's love of his own glory with his self-revelation in Christ on the cross.  The cross seemed to reveal one so perfectly other-oriented and externally focused.  How could one who would suffer for others be consumed with his own glory? 

During some of my reading this year, the Lord kindly allowed it to occur to me that his glory is supremely beautiful.  God's glory is of the utmost perfection, the truest beauty, and the greatest majesty.  Nothing more glorious can be conceived.  As I meditated on the beauty of God's glory, I recalled something that one of my best friends, who is a student of philosophy, shared with me.  If something is beautiful, then it must also be true.  And whatever is not true cannot itself be beautiful.  Reflecting on this, I realized that if God's glory is beautiful, then it must also be true.  And if God is to be true, he must affirm the truth of the supreme beauty of his own glory.  Carrying this line of thought to its necessary conclusion, it was made clear to me that because God's glory is beautiful, and because it is true that there is nothing more glorious and beautiful than God's own glory, then God must love his own glory supremely.  What else could he love more?  If he were to love a lesser glory, then he would be denying the truth that his own glory is the of the greatest beauty.  There would then be fault in God, for he would love supremely that which is not supremely lovely.  If it is true that God's glory is of the greatest beauty, then God must affirm the truth of the beauty of his glory by loving his glory most supremely. 

It should be understood as well that God's love for his glory is not in contradiction with his love for humanity as manifest in Christ crucified.  Human beings were made in God's image to bear the glory of that image.  Christ died to restore the beauty of the image of the glory of God in his human creation.  As a result, the cross is the perfect revelation of God's love for his own glory and his desire for the beauty of that glory to be magnified through men and women made in his image.  The glory of God and the glory of God in man do not stand in contradiction.  Rather, the one is the ground of the other. 

September 5, 2010

Biblical Theology Resources for Pastors

Many pastors may be curious about this fairly new thing they've heard of known as 'biblical theology.'  What is it all about?  Well, the answer will vary depending on whether you are in an academic setting or a church setting.  But the main thing you should know is this: biblical theology aims to read the Bible as a whole.  The discipline looks for the overarching narrative of scripture, especially as it points to Christ. 

This is a significant move from what many pastors have been taught in seminary.  For a long time, seminary students have not been taught to read the Old Testament as Christian scripture.  That is, we have not necessarily been taught to consider how the Old Testament points to Christ.  Fortunately, a good bit of work is being done in this area, and much of it is quite accessible.  Let me recommend two books for getting started.  If these whet your appetite, their bibliographies will point you to more resources. 

God's Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts is a good place to start.  It is not laden with technical terms and provides a very accessible introduction to biblical theology.  Roberts organizes the book around the concept of the kingdom, which he takes to be "God's people in God's place under God's rule and blessing" (21).  The theme of the kingdom is traced from Genesis to Revelation to show how it develops through scripture.  If you're new to biblical theology, start with this book.  It will give you a good picture of what you're going for.

If the Roberts book is a good example of biblical theology, then Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry is a good introduction to methodological issues relating to biblical theology.  This book by Michael Lawrence will introduce you to the tools that you will need on your belt in order to actually do biblical theology in ministry in general and in sermons in particular.  The particular strength of this book is how much Lawrence applies biblical theology to practical ministry situations.  From missions to counseling, biblical theology is, according to Lawrence, the pastor's most important tool.

These two resources will give you a good introduction to the importance of biblical theology for ministry.  Together they will provide content and method for this all-important discipline.  Enjoy!

September 3, 2010

No Need for God?

The latest atheistic rage against God came with publication of Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow.  Hawking is reported to argue that "the universe can and will create itself from nothing."  Self-originating creatio ex nihilo, that is his explanation for the origin of the universe.  I'm hardly equipped to interact with Hawking on the scientific aspects of his argument, given that I have neither been trained in that field nor read his actual argument.  I have, however, been trained in formal logic and the notion that the universe, or anything for that matter, has, prior to its own creation, the power to create itself seems to mock the law of non-contradictions and push the boundaries of credulity. 

The issue I want to take with Hawking, and others who have recently made similar pronouncements (e.g. Christopher Hitchens), is that because the origins of the universe can be hypothetically explained apart from affirming the hand of the divine creator, that belief in God is no longer necessary.  So Hawking, "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."  According to the report, Hawking argues that this "new series of theories [makes] a creator of the universe redundant."

The problem with this statement is that its not an argument.  Who says the only reason to believe in God is because we need to explain the origins of the universe?  Why should we think that an atheistic explanation of origins makes the existence of God redundant?  If I were to take a glass of Dr. Pepper and ask you how the Dr. Pepper got into the glass, and you explained that the Dr. Pepper is in the glass because Tom poured it there from the can in which it was previously contained, and I were to claim that I can explain the presence of the Dr. Pepper in the glass by appealing to the hypothesis that Suzy poured it there and I, as a result, do not believe in this Tom fellow of whom you speak, then you would laugh at me and consider me unworthy of intellectual engagement.

If Hawking's hypothesis is correct (and that is an infinitely big if), then it neither makes God unnecessary nor redundant.  If it were true that the universe actually created itself from nothing (whatever that means), then it merely demonstrates that God did not create the universe.  It hardly demonstrates that God does not exist.*  The difference is enormous, and a man of Hawking's intellect should understand the difference. 

Christians don't believe in God merely because they need a way to explain creation.  This may have been the case for the many pagan religions (e.g. the Greeks as evidenced in their mythology).  But it is hardly the case for the Christian.  Christians believe in God because he has spoken and made himself known, particularly and most perfectly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who presently reigns as Lord of the universe.  It is most certainly the case that the existence of God explains the origins of the universe, but it is not the case that alternative theories of origins make the existence of God unnecessary. 

Christians need to press the atheists on these points.  Their tactic is to use science to influence the general public with lofty speech and technical language, from which are drawn conclusions that do not actually follow from the propositions.  The reality is that Hawking's hypothesis has absolutely no impact on the debate as to whether God exists.  He is using irrelevant evidence to support not an argumentative conclusion but his secularist presuppositions.  His propositions have nothing to say on the matter of God's existence, and, as a good rule of thumb, he ought to avoid speaking about things of which he has nothing to say. 

___________
*Though if God does exist, and he alone eternally, then he is the obvious explanation for the existence of everything else.