Saturday, July 30, 2011

UK Eugenic Abortion Statistics Released

Perhaps the best way to evaluate the generally held ethical and moral commitments of any culture is to observe the way that they treat the most dependant and helpless members of the community. This past week we have been given a sobering glimpse into the soul of at least one important segment of Western culture. The statistics related to eugenic abortions in the U.K. were released and the story they tell is sad though perhaps not surprising.


These numbers that show that thousands of children are killed instead of being carried to term and treated for issues such as cleft lip, club foot, or down syndrome are not welcome by those who try to cast the "right" to abortion as an issue of privacy or mother's health. According to the article linked below "Ann Furedi, the head of one of the UK’s most lucrative abortionist groups, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, has called the campaign to release the statistics an example of the “vindictiveness” of pro-life activists." Exactly why such data would be an example of vindictiveness is unknown since what was requested was simply the data resulting from the policies advocated by Furedi and others. Read more detail HERE


On demand abortion is among the greatest moral tragedies of our age and we should be sure that at the very least those who advocate it must openly address the facts regarding the impact of those policies especially as they relate to the most vulnerable members of our society.  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Technological Narcissism

Many people assume that theology and technology are about as far apart as two things could be. In reality, however, in a broad sense the two are always influencing one another and always have been. Without Romans roads and military technology the early spread of Christianity would have been very different. Likewise the predominance of the Greek language in both East and West which allowed rapid dissemination and use of the New Testament owes much to certain technological advantages of the Greeks and Macedonians in earlier generations. The theological revolution of the Reformation would be difficult to imagine if it were not for the introduction of the printing press and there is no doubt that modern technologies such as voice amplification have had a noticeable impact on the way church is done. Additional examples are virtually inexhaustible.

Since technological developments have a fundamental impact on how people interact and communicate they likewise have an impact on how theological ideas and positions develop and spread. We live in a time of great technological upheaval with regard to how information is processed and disseminated (you are reading a blog after all). We as Christians should therefore be careful about how the technological revolution around us is shaping our spiritual lives and the communities of faith of which we are a part. There are a number of important subsets to this that could (and should) be examined but I would like to focus on just one for now. Technological developments are encouraging a subtle but dangerous narcissism in our culture both inside and outside of the church.

There have been a series of changes to the way that information and entertainment are consumed in the past decades and it is having an impact on how people process the world around them. The changes I am referring to is the trend of ubiquitous customization. Normally we think about an individualized experience as being a good thing and I agree that in many ways it is. The problem, however, is that if not balanced it can be a dangerous thing for us emotionally and spiritually.

Consider for a moment how much has changed. Although there have always been informational and entertainment (infotainment) subcultures the broader culture, at least on a regional level, was more communal. The shared informational and entertainment influences were a more important factor in peoples lives than they are now. One of the reasons was that choices were more limited. Everyone basically watched the same news programs and got the same perspective on what was happening. There were always targeted newspapers but the big regional papers still dominated the news flow. Murrow, Brinkley, Cronkite, and others like them were the gatekeepers for a common set of facts. There were only a few radio and TV options for music and entertainment.

Today each person has the ability to pre-load their ipod with only the music they like or they can stream customized play lists that cater to their preferences. We can get all of our news exclusively from people that agree with our social, economic, and political views without ever having to really be challenged with a strong presentation of facts from an opposing viewpoint. As much as we like to assume that the internet opens up to us a world of unfiltered information that allows us to access our own assemblage of information from the sea of knowledge that is not the case. The websites and search engines we use are continually building a profile of each of us and the search results, advertisements, and options that appear on the internet are increasingly customized to what it is assumed we will want to see based upon our past choices (click here for more on this).

I am not arguing that this kind of customization is always bad. My point is only that it is subtle and develops an almost unconscious bent toward self centeredness. Instead of actually linking people together much of the new technology actually isolates people allowing them to set the terms of their interactions with other people, information, and ideas forcing those interactions through a self-focused grid. Almost without realizing it we become the center of our own little universe. Even though we may be connected to more people than before natural unstructured interaction is actually reduced.

The reason that this is spiritually and emotionally dangerous is because intentionally or not it reinforces a self-centered approach to the world around us. This is antithetical to Christianity at a crucial point. Many other religious and philosophical traditions encourage us to “find ourselves”. They teach that we should “follow our heart”, “seek peace within our inner being”, “get in touch with our true self” etc. The thought is that subjectivism is the key to structuring our experience of the world around us. What really matters is our own self-image, attitude, and contentment.

In contradistinction to this inward, self seeking, approach the bible tells us that apart from grace “the heart is desperately wicked” and “that nothing good dwells within me”. One of the great offences of Christianity is that it boldly overturns any notion that we are at the center of the universe. The scriptures show us that there is a spiritual reality that transcends our “self” and that there is a God who is central to all things and we are not Him. There is therefore an objective truth that is not dependent in any way on our subjective apprehension of it. We are called to determine truth and relevance by a scale completely different than our instincts would lead us to. One of the results of this Truth is that we are to die to self and to serve others. We are called to esteem others as better than ourselves and to forsake our own comforts and even our lives so that others might be blessed.

The information revolution has created many blessings and many useful tools. However, as Christians we need to be aware of the influence that these things have on the culture, the people around us, and on ourselves. We need to recognize that we cannot use these tools without them also shaping us in the process. I pray that we would be sensitive to the fact that our message is likely to be jarring to those who are accustomed to feeding back to themselves their own ideas about themselves and the world around them. I pray that we do not ignore the fact that we are commanded to pour our lives into others so that Christ, who died for us, might be glorified. Let us pray that we would not neglect the means that God has provided for us to build a community of faith, interacting with one another in the Lord and growing in the community of Christ. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pray Out Loud (if you want to)

I have seen few things within the bounds of Christian fellowship that cause as much anxiety (particularly for new believers) as public prayer. There are many who do not feel confident in their ability to pray “well enough” to express themselves in prayer within the fellowship. There may be a number of reasons for this. Some people, for example, do not feel comfortable with any type of public speaking. In fact, in some surveys public speaking is listed as the #1 fear even coming in ahead of the fear of death. If it is true that many people would rather die than speak publicly then it should not be a surprise that there is often a high level of anxiety about praying out loud. My purpose in this post, however, is not to address people who are shy about praying for that reason. I would rather address another reason why some people do not like to pray out loud.

Many people I have met have told me that they do not feel “qualified” to lead a prayer. They are nervous that they don’t know how to do it properly or don’t believe themselves to be spiritually adequate for the task. It is true that there are certain forms and structures to prayer that can be observed from the scripture and are beneficial to imitate. There are certain characteristics that can be identified with mature prayer and we should seek to grow in that way. That being said, however, no Christian should be ashamed of any honest and unpretentious prayer. The basis of our privilege to come before the Lord in prayer, and the basis of His answers to prayer, are to be found within Him and not in our own qualifications or methods.

People who have never read his work often demonize John Calvin as a cold and academic theologian. In reality Calvin’s theology is generally informed by his passionate dedication to his pastorate and his pastoral concerns. In the section on prayer in The Institutes Calvin addresses the widespread neglect of prayer among people, observing that “the generality of men prefer to wander up and down, forsaking the fountain of living waters, and hewing out to themselves broken cisterns, rather than embrace the divine liberality voluntarily offered to them.”  The words of encouragement and exhortation he offers to those who are hesitant to pray in general can be equally be applied to those who hesitate to pray in fellowship due to their self doubt.

“God declares that his ear is open to our prayers, and that he is delighted as with a sacrifice of sweet savor when we cast our cares upon him. The special benefit of these promises we receive when we frame our prayer, not timorously or doubtingly, but when trusting to his word whose majesty might otherwise deter us, we are bold to call him Father, he himself deigning to suggest this most delightful name. Fortified by such invitations it remains for us to know that we have therein sufficient materials for prayer, since our prayers depend on no merit of our own, but all their worth and hope of success are founded and depend on the promises of God, so that they need no other support, and require not to look up and down on this hand and on that. It must therefore be fixed in our minds, that though we equal not the lauded sanctity of patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, yet as the command to pray is common to us as well as them, and faith is common, so if we lean on the word of God, we are in respect of this privilege their associates. For God declaring, as has already been seen, that he will listen and be favorable to all, encourages the most wretched to hope that they shall obtain what they ask; and, accordingly, we should attend to the general forms of expression, which, as it is commonly expressed, exclude none from first to last; only let there be sincerity of heart, self-dissatisfaction humility, and faith, that we may not, by the hypocrisy of a deceitful prayer, profane the name of God. Our most merciful Father will not reject those whom he not only encourages to come, but urges in every possible way.” (Calvin Institutes Book 3, Chapter 20)

Let us focus not on our own feebleness (which is a given) but on His promises. If you are one of those who has felt a burden to join in open prayer but hesitated because of self-doubt I encourage you to step out in faith and to do it. If you are overly nervous about making a mistake (which you don’t need to be) then find a passage of scripture that expresses a truth that is encouraging to you and begin your prayer by reading it. That will help you to overcome the nervousness of getting started (which is usually the most difficult part) and will ensure you have an infallible doctrinal foundation to work from.

If you are a veteran public prayer I pray that you would encourage others who might like to participate but are nervous. May the Lord be glorified through the prayers of His people.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Dignified Translations

I was doing some reading this evening and came across this interesting and thought provoking article by Dr. Andy Naselli and I thought I would share. 


Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Quick Thought on Worship Music

The songs we sing in worship are incredibly important. A well written hymn or song is truly a gift to the church and can often express deep theological truths in a powerful and yet understandable way. As a person who plays music and also studies scripture and doctrine the songs used in worship have always been a source of particular interest to me. I have found through the years that usually the ones that I appreciate the most are the old ones. They seem to reflect a time when the doctrinal content of the songs was deeper and richer. They seem to be more substantial and objective than much of what we hear today.

However, while it may be fun to be a bit of a curmudgeon, if I am going to be fair to modern song and hymn writers I have to acknowledge that there are other variables at play beyond the erosion of theological literacy in the church and culture. For one thing it makes sense that on average the songs that are still played from generations past would be better than the average modern song because through the years many of the less impressive pieces would simply not remain in use. This thinning of the herd takes time so we would expect a higher average for older works than modern ones. The same is true for books, art, etc. The second thing that I have to admit is that there are a lot of old songs and hymns whose theology is just as poor as many modern songs. Perhaps I will post on this at some point in the future but for a couple of good examples you can check out this article on The Gospel Coalition site.

The fact is that though it may take a bit of effort we can still find many people who are writing wonderful worship music. With the permission of Sovereign Grace Music (www.SovereignGraceMusic.org) I would like to share one recent composition that I think is just as beautiful and powerful as most of my old time favorites. For me, this song captures wonderfully the heart of any sinner who recognizes that they are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Though it is new it has become one of my favorites.

video


These simple yet powerful lyrics were written by Jordon Kauflin. It is worth a moment to reflect upon them.

Lyrics

I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still

But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross
And I beheld God’s love displayed
You suffered in my place
You bore the wrath reserved for me
Now all I know is grace

Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life

Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me
Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You

© 2008 Sovereign Grace Praise (BMI)

You can find more information on this song and other Sovereign Grace songs on their website at www.SovereignGraceMusic.org.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Was the U.S. Founded as a Christian Country?

As the 4th of July approaches many Christians will be reflecting upon the founding of this nation. Many churches will particularly emphasize the distinction between the strong influence of Christianity in the nation’s early history and the waning influence that the faith has in our own time. In some congregations particular founders will be held up as examples of faith and piety. We can therefore scarcely blame people for assuming that the country was founded as a Christian nation. But is that the case? Certainly anyone paying close attention to the current debate about the role of religion in our nation recognizes that not everyone is in agreement on the interpretation of that history.

Atheists and secularists often interpret the founders intentions in such a way that faith-informed positions would be eliminated from the public square claiming that the United States was intentionally designed to be irreligious in public discourse and policy. Conservative Christians on the other hand decry what they see as revisionist history and claim that the founders understood Christian faith to be the foundational underpinning of the system of government that they implemented. It seems that everyone from across the spectrum is eager to claim the founders as allies in advancing their own contemporary agenda, but who is right? I believe the reality is more nuanced than either of those alternatives would lead us to believe.

It is true that the U.S. was founded as a nation primarily of Christians but that is something quite distinct from being founded specifically as a Christian nation. The broader cultural assumptions were largely formed by Christianity and though they were being challenged by Enlightenment philosophy they were still normative for the average person and public discourse. That being the case, however, the structure and apparatus of the U.S. government is decidedly religiously neutral. It does not protect, advance, promote, nor hinder, or disadvantage any particular religion or lack thereof.

At the time the U.S. was established it had the most consciously secular governmental foundation in the history of the world. I don’t mean secular in the sense of being anti-religious but rather in the sense of being non-religious. The founders expected that religion would play a part in government but they were unique in disconnecting the governing structure from a religious foundation. Pre-Christian pagan governments of the old world and the tribal governments of the new world intertwined religious elements into the structures that governed their societies. Once Christianity gained political ascendancy it retained a separation of functions between the church and state but they were never conceived as operating independent of one another. After the Reformation the Protestant ideal was the deliberate unification of theological and governmental agendas so that church and state became one. The only serious theological argument for separation of church and state within the Protestant tradition was developed within the Anabaptist tradition and was not widely accepted. The founders intentionally reversed the historical trend. 

Although the culture was saturated with Christian thought and the majority of Americans accepted those beliefs none of the founding documents appeal to Christian theology as their foundation. The Constitution is wholly secular and the First Amendment makes provision that the apparatus of federal government will remain as such. The Declaration of Independence cannot be used to show Christian intent because while it does mention “God” it is not expressly Christian. We know for example that some of the founders, including its primary author did not understand the reference to “natures God” in the way that orthodox Christians do. The language of the Declaration is that of 18th century natural law philosophy. The language in the document is broad enough to be acceptable both to Christians and non-Christian theists.

It is important that we make a distinction between general theism which was used to support public civil virtue from an articulation of particularly Christian theology. Perhaps the clearest example highlighting this distinction is found in the Treaty of Tripoli where we have an explicit statement during the founding generation signed by a U.S. diplomat (11/4/1796), ratified by the U.S. Congress (6/7/1797), and signed by President John Adams (6/10/1797) that plainly states that the U.S. is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion.  Article 11 of the treaty states:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This treaty was published in the major news publications of the time without any apparent negative reaction from either partisans or the public. At this time most of the founding fathers were alive and many were still involved in politics so we would expect that if their intentions were to found a Christian state this language would have elicited a response from at least one of them.

The fact is that the various founders had different religious priorities and differing levels of commitment to those priorities. Some were Christian and some were not but what they produced in our founding documents was a government that was intended to be religiously neutral. The founders clearly did not, however, intend to restrict the faith of individuals from informing their political positions. In fact, many founders believed that a form of public religion was necessary in order to ensure the stability of the nation and some openly expressed their opinion that the ethical standards of the Christian faith were the most conducive to that end. The majority of them would have been horrified by the suggestion that expressions of faith be removed from public discourse.

The founders were clearly not attempting to create a society void of expressions of faith but rather to create a structure whereby each individual’s right to such expression was protected at the federal level. Religious commitment was expected to play an important role in the thoughts and actions of people. Scripture was frequently appealed to in order to support particular positions or actions. Prayer was ubiquitous and laws were passed to make provision for the purchase of bibles and to pay clergy. Protestantism was a driving cultural force and there was no attempt to muzzle its general influence.

The founders recognized the importance of having a unifying ethical system upon which the rule of law could be established. Many of them advocated a form of public religion around Christian ethics without enforcing a shared commitment to more precise doctrinal propositions. They lived in an age where it was assumed that there was a consistent natural order and many assumed that the values expressed in Christianity were the best expression of reasonable conduct governing human relations that had yet been articulated. Even those who rejected much of the doctrinal content of the faith, such as Jefferson, accepted the superiority of Christian ethics.

The onslaught of philosophical & scientific challenges that came in the following generations, however, challenged the notion that Christian ethics were superior or self-evident. As the philosophical eggs of the Enlightenment began to hatch the cultural assumptions that allowed a secular government to operate with Christian assumptions began to erode. The theory that one could maintain a commitment to Christian ethical teaching and yet disconnect it from its doctrinal foundation would, over the next century, evolve into protestant liberalism. After Darwin the intellectual assumption that the creation required a creator was shaken and even the broadly shared theistic consensus began to weaken.

I doubt that most of the founders would have imagined the kind of moral and intellectual relativism that we are dealing with now. They did not, however, establish the U.S. as a Christian country. Any evaluation of their intentions must account for both the many positive statements about the importance of Christian faith in our society as well as their repeated insistence that they did not lay a religious foundation for the political structure. They created a platform that would allow various faiths to compete in the marketplace of ideas. The erosion of Godly government that we see in this country is the result of the waning influence of faith in the culture around us.

This 4th of July we should give thanks to God for the blessings that He has poured out upon our nation. We should thank Him for the freedom we enjoy and recognize it as a protection for us as we enter a post-Christian age. We should also be sure to insist upon our right to make our voice heard in the public discourse (just as the founders intended). As we give thanks for all of these things, however, we must recognize that our primary citizenship is in heaven. Let our focus be on the preaching of the gospel so that we might see revival in our nation. Let us also recognize that the battle to be a God honoring nation is fought in our own schools, homes, churches, and places of work long before it is fought in the legislature or the courts. We should not expect that our faith would be influential in Washington if it is not relevant in our own communities.

May God continue to bless America!