3-leg porridge

When I went to college, it was at a school that had some affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, USA, but for all practical purposes, it was a private secular school with a chapel. It wasn’t as though there was a pervasive Christian atmosphere. Pretty much it was standard-issue multi-cultural liberalism.

A part of the core curriculum to graduate was a class in the senior year on Ethics. Of course, I almost failed.

It was really difficult for me to process their way of gauging right and wrong because they weren’t willing to pin themselves to any particular foundation. It should be pretty obvious that Ethics is the sort of thing that starts from a set of key principles and works the implications out from there. But being the sort of school they were, it wouldn’t do to just assert what these principles ought to be. What if I don’t like your principles?

Instead, they gave us some options. Apparently, it’s a modern pluralist idea to try to present ethics on a 3-legged stool, kind of as a “choose-your-own” morality. So they give you Kant, Mill, and Aristotle to teach Duty, Utility, and Virtue. You’re supposed to choose which system of reasoning best fits the situation and your taste. You’re even told that each form of reasoning has its flaws, so that you have to balance each against the others.

It really got me. Confused the daylights out of me. The problem was that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe in morally gray areas. Still don’t. There are things that are hard to do, but it’s not usually hard to determine the right thing to do. So how did they get this perfectly balanced porridge? It took me years to get an answer, and I wish I’d written down who it was that popped the bubble of my confusion.

It’s actually pretty pathetic. Every system has its flaws so long as man is the measure of all things. If there is no standard to hold to, there isn’t even any way to come to a wrong answer. And if there isn’t any wrong answer, there can’t be a right one either. But the very point of ethics is to determine right and wrong. If you set up the system so that the goal can’t be achieved, then there’s no wonder that no one ever achieves the goal.

Sin is determined to tie up moral knots because that twistedness deflects you from judgment. It takes a Champion to take the sword of authority to cut through those knots with a simple standard. Continue reading “3-leg porridge”

Preferably with Sticks

It always struck me as something of a mystery when I was reading Mere Christianity, how often C. S. Lewis would prefix his thoughts on a theological subject with the disclaimer that he wasn’t a theologian or a pastor, so he couldn’t be precisely sure if his take on a topic was exactly right. On the one hand, I would think, “how humble.” On the other hand, I would think that there was something slightly disingenuous. Here’s an awfully smart guy, well versed in literature and theology, writing about theology. He has a PHD. What prevents him from going that little extra step and getting that theological certification? The fact that he kept stressing how unqualified he was both inspired me with how important it must be to get that training, and it daunted me to think that, if C.S. Lewis isn’t good enough, who then is qualified to teach?

Well, I think I’ve made a discovery. We’re in our new apartment, and I finally have access to all my old books again. What’s more, for the first time in over two years, I have the opportunity to actually read them. So I decided to go through some of my old stuff from seminary and try to read (or finish reading) all the stuff I didn’t get to while I was in school. And I know now why C.S. Lewis didn’t pursue a PHD in theology: To study theology means that a person must spend the fundamental majority of their time reading books by theologians, and theologians, by and large, are very bad writers. C.S. Lewis took his degrees in classical literature, which means he was forced to spend the majority of his time reading and talking about the best written and most uplifting literature known to man.

When you study the classics, most of the bad stuff has been lost or forgotten. But a pastor or a theologian has to spend his time sifting through the current issues of the day, where the unreadable is still somehow being read. So it’s with joy when you come upon a Augistine or a Luther or a Spurgeon, and you cling to those.

I really wanted to make some connection between bad writing and bad doctrine, but I really can’t. George Orwell talked about the tendency to use passive voice in political writing because it allows you to hide the agent doing the action, and of course there was a whole movement in French philosophy, directly after World War II, to work deliberately to undermine clear and powerful writing because of an express desire to destroy the Logos. But the truth is that we’re dealing with a 100-year plus problem, particularly in academia. So I think it has to do more with incentives.

Academic writing used to be read by everybody, and a bad writer could be sniffed by anybody. There was a definite advantage for writing well, and a definite disadvantage to writing poorly. But for 100 years or more, that’s been disconnected. Popular writers still must write well, even if they don’t bother to say anything worth reading, or even anything of substance at all. But an academic writer, though he may be very concerned with his content, he has no apparent motivation to write in a way that is easy or even pleasant to read. So each one presents his ideas with the clarity and precision of a theridiid.

My best hope for academic theology is that we appear to be at the beginning of something like another Great Awakening. And unlike former Awakenings, which seemed to pass from platinum to gold to silver, this movement seems to be an awakening, not merely of piety and religious feeling, but a general groundswell in theology. It may be only in my little niche, but it looks like the layman, in no little thanks to the Internet, is learning to read. He wants doctrine and systematics, not little topical epigrams. Increasingly our superstars are theologians, rather than televangelists. And if that is the case, then for the first time in a long time, a theologian has an incentive to write well.

Because if he doesn’t, even if what he has to say is good and true and Important, on the basis of his bad rhetoric alone, he’ll be thrashed in public.

Why I want to be an Army Officer

Below is the essay I was required to write as part of the application process for the Army Officer Candidate school. The title isn’t mine – it’s part of the guidelines for the essay. Of course I left out certain motivations, such as “to lift up and encourage the saints who are there,” and “we need the money.”

The first time I considered joining the Army was shortly after September 11, 2001. That was the first time it became spotlessly clear to me that every individual and every organization is responsible to God, not on the basis of their capacity, but their potential. Only America could be the “world’s policeman,” so America, by Providence, is – whether we want it or not. And therefore the role of defending civilization planted itself on our doorstep. Applied to myself as a Christian man, I have a responsibility to provide leadership and protection for my family, for my church, and for my country. Continue reading “Why I want to be an Army Officer”

Big Frothy Mess

I continue to be perplexed by the subtleties of the will of God. That’s probably a bad sentence to start on, but the other openers I thought of really weren’t much better.

I’ve just finished reading, at a friend’s request, a book on finding the will of God, and why you shouldn’t. It’s literally titled Finding the Will of God: a Pagan Notion? by Bruce Waltke. But it’s not nearly so bad as it sounds. He’s mostly against something he calls Christian divination – that practice of fumbling about looking for cryptological Providential hints God might have hidden concerning any major decisions – which admittedly sounds more like perusing the horoscopes than any faithful pursuit of God’s plan for your life. He also seems to be against asking God to communicate directly to you about your plans (a point on which I differ), mostly I think because he believes God does that relatively infrequently, and only on His own schedule.

The odd thing has been that, as Waltke pounds out his method of Biblically and theologically ciphering the will of God, he keeps undermining himself. And I don’t mean that he makes arguments I don’t like to support positions I don’t care for. I mean that, in the process of making a point with which I expect to agree, he makes frequent use of non sequitur and choppy reasoning. So by the time he gets to the finale of a point where I expected to agree with him 100%, he’s so bungled it that I end up suspicious of myself for intending to agree with him. It’s made it really difficult to finish the book. But finish I did, all the while dreaming of writing my own book, which says all the things he said, only… better, and in the right order.

Then I turn to the last chapter, an afterward, and everything changes. Continue reading “Big Frothy Mess”

Of dwellings and duty

Hello all. Valerie has commissioned me to write a little review of what’s coming up in the next few months, because interesting times are on us, apparently all at once. Usually, I’m not allowed to write up the family news because I get stuck in the theory of it. It’s not my habit to say anything important without explaining it from the foundation up. I don’t intend to start that kind of thing now, so you’ll have to forgive me for long-windedness. However, even though it’s messy, in order to be kind, I’ll give you the scoop before the cone:

The bad news is that I am not announcing any new babies coming into our home. The good news is that we are laying a foundation for a life that is more condusive to baby-bringing. Two things are about to happen: We’re buying a house, and I’m joining the Army (reserves).

Believe me, they’re connected. The house part, I think, is easy to see as a universal good. How can owning a home be bad? Unfortunately, a universal good is not always uniformly good. For us, buying a house means that our total debt levels rise to the neighborhood of $255,000 – more than a quarter million – which is to say: a lot. And it’s not that we’re buying a mansion somewhere. About 2/3 of that will be school debt, which has been hanging like an anvil from my neck since we quit schooling. As best I can tell, there has been almost no direct financial benefit from all that educatin’. Valerie might have gotten her job as a result of her education, but the return has not been in proportion to the investment.

And this (partially) is where the Army thing comes in. I get a $20K bonus for joining. There is another potential $20K school debt waiver. That money could immediately reduce our payments in the neighborhood of $350 a month. Plus there is the pay during training, which will be greater than what I’m making at my job, and again in the event of active duty. And this is reserves, which means that, while I may be an absent father for a little while, my family stays rooted, which is important to us, particularly in the light of the house we’re about to buy.

For those who worry, my official enlistment in the Army looks to be this Friday, but basic training is likely not to begin before November, so there will be plenty of time to transition into a home before I have to leave for a time.

Now that was the bare bones report. Next comes my dreary reasoning. If all you needed was the facts, read no further; what follows is philosophy.

When Valerie and I first began to pursue a life together, from all appearances, she was the dedicated career woman, and I the hopeless drifter. Her unceasing ambition from childhood had been to become a doctor. She was enrolled in biology, pre-med. I was getting a degree in English, with the nascent idea of becoming a poet, or maybe a fantasy author. I had a memory of a desire to become a minister of some kind, if ever I got the theology figured out. Sappy romanticism was in my blood.

In fact, so romantic was I that the idea of a wife who was permanently chained to her career was ugly to me. So as we started talking about getting married, I started insisting that, if Valerie ever took it into her head to become a stay-at-home mom instead, I’d find a way to make it happen. Though I didn’t know what it meant, I meant it just the same.

Rush forward a few years. We have incurred a mountain of debt and Valerie has made a discovery: At least during the early years, raising children is the most demanding, rewarding, and absolutely vital role a woman could ever fill. (I say “during the early years” because, as children grow older, that responsibility shifts from the mother to the father. As they come into this world, the mother raises them, and the father helps. As they approach adulthood, it shifts to the father doing the raising and the mother who helps.) I ask a question: granted that it’s sometimes financially necessary and can’t be helped, is child-rearing the sort of thing that can be outsourced? Outsourcing is the process of taking relatively low-skilled work and assigning it to a secondary party that can perform it at a reduced cost, thereby freeing up time and resources that can be applied to more vital work. Is it appropriate to give over child-rearing for the greater part of the day to a secondary party so that a mother has the time and resources to pursue a career? Valerie’s answer is that child-rearing is more important for a mother to do than to pursue a career. The only time it’s right for a mom to put her kids in day care is if she has to in order to put food on the table.

That’s the sound of the gauntlet being thrown to the ground. The food on the table bit is my job. In my book, a wife should have the liberty to work because she wants to, not because she has to. Unfortunately, we have a quarter million dollars worth of ‘want to’ that have become ‘have to’ on the sly. And for the last year at least, the elimination of that impediment has been my highest, most consuming goal (save one – the reformation of my soul according to the image of Jesus Christ, the recovery of a deep devotional life. But in my mind, the two are linked considerably.)

I have got to find a way to make more money. But my options for doing so are limited. Now I need a career, and nothings coming to me. Poetry and theology aren’t exactly the big money makers. An MBA or accounting degree involve moving first in exactly the wrong direction. And lo, here is the military siting out with a solution: immediate debt reduction, supplemental pay, and the ability to acquire the sort of experience that can transition into a well-paying civilian career.

Still, joining the Army strikes a lot of people as a sort of drastic decision, especially if you drop it on them all at once. It demands long hours, takes you away from your family for extended periods of time, and then there’s the risk of physical harm. People in the Army can get shot!

It does, and they do, but Valerie and I have discussed these things for some time, and decided that the cause is worth the risk. It’s that important for her not to have to work until the kids are grown. The benefits of joining the military are high, but the diminish with time. The costs of joining are also high and they increase with time. Ten years ago, without a family, I could have joined as active duty with no constraints. Today, I may be to old to become an officer. Another ten years, and I would be too old to join at all.

Joining the army also isn’t only about income. There’s also the issue of patriotism, which I mention quietly, because it’s out of favor lately. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have joined any branch for any amount of money. I loved my country, but not like that. I thought I could love the people and have no respect for their government. I’ve reversed that position now. I had a similar problem theologically: I thought you could love the church without loving churches.

But as I’ve been growing in my theology, I’ve come to the conclusion that God believes in government, because he desires order. He intended man to be the superintendent over all creation, to create networks and systems and economies. God established authority from the beginning, and expects us to submit to it and participate in it’s administration, rather than sliding out from under it through some anabaptist clause. Therefore I have a duty, not just to government in the idea, but to my government. This government to which I have a duty is the same government that is willing to give out generous gifts I really need, in order to fill its ranks with quality men. So it seems that the cause is doubly worth the risk.

I told Valerie that, in light of this line of thinking, I needed to either join the military or serve some time in local politics. Even though I understand politicking is more lucrative, she said she’d rather I joined army.

Church and State

Please forgive my tone in the next few paragraphs. I’ve been reading Puritan preachers lately, and I think it’s garbled up my syntax a bit. Nevertheless:

It is always the business of the true Church to order the secular government around. It is never the business of the governor to order around the church. Both church and state are concerned with government, and their spheres overlap, but it’s the authority of the church that necessarily presides over the power of government, provided that the church is truly the church established by God according to the gospel (with Christ as it’s chief cornerstone, and apostles and prophets as its pillars).

The church has as her weapons (1) the truth, authenticated by the scriptures and by the Spirit of God who confirms truth by conviction in the hearts of men, and (2) the power of the church’s members, given by the Holy Spirit, to humble themselves in obedience to the truth even to the point of death. The government’s only weapon is the sword, which can coerce only those who fear death but do not fear “the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Men who fear God are not afraid of guns and prisons, and in a fight between church and state, the church will always win, unless that church has lost its faith in the truth of the gospel. The church that has lost its faith in the gospel is of course no true church at all, but a bad forgery.

The framers of the US Constitution were wise to ban Congress from attempting to establish a church. Only God can establish the true church, and the government that attempts to establish a false church may in fact disestablish itself when the true church begins to rise. But this is a very different thing from attempting to separate church and state, which is as much nonsense as trying to separate light and air.

It’s a sad indicator of how weak we are as Christians that the above might seem to be a new idea, and that it’s necessary to take the next step toward application and point out that the churches in the West today have almost no authority over the government. Politicians ignore pastors almost completely, and preachers abstain from pointing out which candidate is more Christian than another on pain of taxation. This could only be possible if the church’s understanding of the gospel were so thin as to be almost negligible, like non-alcoholic beer or tobacco-free cigarettes. Or else, we are all false churches, and there is no true church in the West at all.

Has God taken away our lampstand, or is it merely guttering?

Radical discontinuity

My meeting with the Mormon evangelists didn’t go all that great yesterday. I don’t mean that anything catastrophic happened, or that my objections were swatted out of the air like so many flies. I still think I have good objections, but my delivery was weak. I stumbled. Frankly, I think I was too conciliatory and put the ball too often in their court. I didn’t want to attack, but neither did I want to stand “as a man at a mark”. And of course, they had their own agenda they wanted to push through in the conversation. Doesn’t it bother you that there are so many different churches that claim to be right? Actually, no it doesn’t. But adding Mormonism to the mix doesn’t help your argument.

However, in conversation, I came across another Mormon distinctive that undermines their position where they expect to support it. The Mormon “gospel,” that is, the story that they’re announcing, is one of apostasy and restoration. The church lost the plot and God replaced it with the church of Latter Day Saints. Here Joe Smith is taking a page from John Nelson Darby’s Dispensational theology. The concept comes from the biblical concept of dispensations – different time periods in which God has set up different systems for relating to man. For instance you could talk about about five major dispensations: Before the fall, from the fall until Abraham, from Abraham til Moses, from Moses until Christ, and the Christian era.

I’m not a scholar of Darby’s dispensationalism, but I believe he had a system that allowed for seven dispensations before the new heaven and new earth were created. And my understanding is that a key aspect of Darbian dispensationalism is that, whatever system God set up for us, we voilated the terms of the covenant, and then God created another one. So you have this flow: God establishes a new dispensation, the covenant community thrives, the covenant community falls into apostasy, God establishes a new dispensation. It’s the book of Judges writ large.

Now at some level, the concept of dispensations, especially the King James phrase (from Ephesians 3:1) “dispensation of grace”, is completely biblical. But for the orthodox, you have to keep two key concepts in mind, otherwise dispensationalism can lead you straight to heresy. Continue reading “Radical discontinuity”

Mormon Trilemma

I have a meeting this afternoon with a couple of Mormon missionaries who stopped by some time last week and asked to talk with me about their, um, gospel. So I’ve been thinking for the last few days about how to get to the heart of the matter with them as quickly as possible.

The difficulty with Mormons is that they appear so much like ordinary evangelical Christians in their culture and lifestyle that it’s difficult to point out something that is blatantly un-Christian, and at the same time, they have distinctive views on history and biblical texts that make it’s easy to point out errors in their beliefs without ever coming to the issue of the gospel. In other words, it’s easy enough for a committed evangelical Christian to see that Mormons aren’t, and so avoid the possibility of being converted accidentally. But it’s very difficult, in polite conversation, to point out to a committed young Mormon that his religion is different from yours even in its essence, and dangerously so.

Questions of Kolob and ancient Indian civilizations notwithstanding, there are actually two theological errors that Mormons partake in. One is a kind of Arianism, which sees the trinity as three separate entities who are unified only in as far as their personal agreement, rather than three persons of the same substance, eternally experiencing a perichoretic unity. In other words, it’s difficult to explain.

The other error is easier to deal with, because the nature of the gospel hinges on it. The Mormon position is that any human who makes an attempt at self-reform according to God’s law can in time improve to a level of perfection. It is a gospel of self-improvement aided by the power of the Holy Spirit, and God’s gracious repeated revelation of the plan for this self-improvement. In other words, Pelagianism.

Mormon Pelagianism isn’t something that Mormons try to hide, though the true doctrines of grace may escape them. How hard is it, really, to hear that you are saved by God working a heart change in you, to which achievement you yourself make no actual contribution? It’s difficult!

I suppose a more thoroughly indoctrinated Calvinist than I could bring the distinction home through a rigorous application of TULIP, but as for myself, I have a hard time remembering what the letters stand for. And the last thing I want to do is to frighten them by appearing like an enraged madman attempting to throttle them with the gospel.

And besides, I think I have an easier way. Continue reading “Mormon Trilemma”

A Pleasure

One of the most powerful college experiences I ever had happened while I was alone in my room, doing homework. I had just come out of a class on poetry in which the basic rules for the sonnet were introduced, and we were told to try our hands at it. As I was packing up my things, I wrote down a single line of pentameter:

She stood and broke her alabaster box

I had some thought of rhyming “box” with “fox,” and I went back to my room to play around with it. Five hours later, I had finished Memorandum.

I’ve always been pleased with that poem, but the effect on me of writing was profound far beyond the pleasure of a nice bit of verse. The sensation of executing something flawlessly after hours of profound mental exertion was cataclysmic on my psyche. (Rather unlike the previous sentence.) I really don’t know how to explain the rush I got.

The only other times I have experienced a similar sensation have been times of intense prayer, when the very heavens have been opened, or during powerful worship services where God clearly and profoundly made his glory known. And here I had gotten nearly the same sensation from writing a poem. It made me think this was exactly the sort of thing that the character Eric Liddell talked about in Chariots of Fire. “When I run I feel His pleasure.” It is the certain pleasure that comes from functioning in accordance with the nature God has given you.

Judge then, my increasing dismay, as over the next two years I slowly realized how infinitesimal were my chances of successfully embarking on a career as poet. Judge my consternation as I have come to terms with how difficult it is to establish a career as a writer of anything. Judge my surprise at my experiences of the last few weeks: Continue reading “A Pleasure”


I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a mystic. But I’ve discovered that word makes some people, particularly non-charismatic evangelicals, nervous, so let me explain. By “mystic” I mean a person whose devotional life is characterized by intensely affecting spiritual experiences. These experiences may be in the realm of simple theological insight, or they may take more literary forms. At times they may cross over into the realm of prophecy; that is, dreams, visions, words, and phrases laden with theological context.

From a natural perspective, mysticism can come from two sources. It can be personal, or social: On the social spectrum, mysticism can be presented as something to aspire to. Some Christian traditions – the Pentecostals, the Orthodox, some revivalist traditions – present mysticism in such a way that it seems to be the only way to have a properly Christian devotional life. At the other extreme, some traditions, particularly the Reformed and Protestants as a whole, seem to perceive mysticism at best as something useless, at worst as something suspiciously unchristian, smacking of Papism, adding to scripture, even beckoning the demonic. On the personal spectrum, a person could be naturally predisposed to have certain kinds of experiences, or they could find themselves completely unable to do so, or they could be somewhere in between. (Please note that, for the sake of simplicity, I’m lumping what a person thinks about these things in with the social scale.)

The difficulty, of course, comes when a person’s natural predisposition doesn’t align very well with the tradition they find themselves in. Continue reading “Mystic”