Wednesday, July 1, 2015

2015 PEN Hemingway Award

Arna Bontemps Hemenway, a Baylor University writing prof, recently won the 2015 PEN Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. Arna is the youngest person ever to have been accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which Raymond Carver (literary influence on Bret Lott), Flannery O'Connor, and other prestigious writers attended, and where Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and others have taught. Here is Arna's personal website.

Arna's award-winning book is titled Elegy on Kinderklavier, and here is what the judges wrote about it:
In Elegy on Kinderklavier, attention is salvation. These stories are not afraid to stare in unblinking and finely grained detail at the great sad problem of being alive. One is at first anxious when the story does not look away from the tremendous emotional, structural, and physical violence of contemporary life. Then one is thrilled, terrified, and at last comforted, since what is left, when this awesome attention has dissolved everything else, is a sense of goodness in life that's hard enough to break bones.
Here is his acceptance speech from the spring (22:00 - 37:00).

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Charles Taylor's eloquent relativism

In making a good point about the value of multiple perspectives (see Prov. 11:14, 15:22, and 24:6), Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, wanders into the weeds and waxes eloquent about the value of the both/and perspective. (For more on Taylor and waxing, see here.) He says that we can look at the Council of Trent (16c) and Vatican 2 (20c) as two different (and complementary) ways of viewing our place in the immanent frame. "On one hand, we can postulate that what is at stake here is the ultimately and totally right understanding of Catholic Christianity" (752). This statement applies not only to how Trent viewed things, but also to how contemporary Christians view Trent and Vat2: who was right? "The second framework in which we can understand [things] postulates that what is at stake is complementary insights. Neither is simply right or wrong about a single issue, but each brings a fresh perspective which augments and enriches our understanding. The issue is to see how these different insights fit together . . ." (752). Because the universe contains no contradictions, apparently. And the Catholic Church certainly doesn't. Trent and Vat2 aren't in contradiction—they're, um, complementary.

The reason that Taylor's point is so good is that he is willing, kind of, to view weirdos like Jonathan Edwards somewhat charitably, if patronizingly (754). Poor Johnny was just a product of his time and really didn't know any better when he said all that stuff about sinners and an angry God. The reason that Taylor's point is so bad is that he doesn't apply it consistently. He wants to say that Trent's way of viewing the world (in black and white, wrong and right) is really quite harmful, and Taylor's both/and relativism is his way of giving himself permission to toss out the doctrine of Hell, God's wrath, etc., because we can't stubbornly cling to the past and ignore all the lovely contemporary viewpoints. While he weakly acknowledges that our loss of Hell and God's wrath may actually be problematic (753), he has been clear that the loss of God's wrath is mostly a pretty sweet thing (670-71). In fact, claiming that there is such a thing as right and wrong is hurtful, he says. That's too polarizing, and we need to accept multiple viewpoints in our conversation. (No word yet on whether or not we're allowed to land anywhere, after we have this conversation, or if it's just one long conversation with no one ever taking a position on anything.)

Here are just a few examples where Taylor fails to apply his both/and theory, plus my attempts to help him out. Not that I necessarily believe my addenda; I'm simply trying to help Taylor be as ecumenical as possible.
  • "We have to grasp these historical differences bi-focally" (753). Or not.
  • "[I]n one way, we are dealing with right/wrong issues, in which each change is a gain or loss of truth; in another [way, we are dealing] with different avenues of approach to the faith from out of very different ways of life. A total focus on the first can blind us to the second. And this would be a great loss" (753). Or it wouldn't be.
  • "Neither [side] grasps the whole picture" (754). Or maybe one side does.
  • "We will never be without [hermeneutical] issues; the belief that they can be finally set aside by some secure instance of authority, whether the Bible or the Pope, is a dangerous and damaging illusion" (754). Or it isn't.
  • "[T]he Church, as a communion of different peoples and ages, in mutual understanding and enrichment, is damaged, limited, and divided by an unfounded total belief in one's truth, which really better deserves the name of heresy" (755). Or it doesn't deserve that name. Or maybe heresy is fine anyway. Let's be ecumenical, here.
  • "The goal . . . is not to return to an earlier formula . . ." (755). Or it is.
Ravi Zacharias once told a story of his interaction with a philosophy professor who insisted that Ravi was operating from a Western either/or paradigm, and he needed, rather, to accept that Eastern people operate from a both/and paradigm. Ravi, who is obviously more Eastern than Western, as far as ethnicity goes, and who is fully aware of Eastern philosophies and religions, said, "So either I remain in my blinded either/or perspective, or I adopt a superior both/and perspective?" The philosopher replied, "The either/or perspective does tend to emerge, doesn't it?"

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Lord's Supper

From The Reformation Study Bible (p. 1814 in the older edition):
The Lord's Supper is an act of worship taking the form of a ceremonial meal, in which Christ's servants share bread and wine to commemorate Christ's death and to celebrate the new covenant relationship they enjoy with God.
Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord's Supper, to be observed in His church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body (Westminster Confessions 29.1).
The biblical passages dealing with the Supper, on which the above statement is based, are found in Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; and 1 Cor. 10:16-21; 11:17-34. Jesus' sermon (John 6:35-58) about Himself as the bread of life and the need to feed on Him by eating His flesh and drinking His blood, was preached before the Supper was instituted, and is better understood as being about what the Supper signifies, communion with Christ by faith, than about the Supper itself.
At the time of the Reformation, questions about the nature of Christ's presence in the Supper and the relation of the Supper to His atoning death were centers of stormy controversy. The Roman Catholic church teaches that Christ is present by transubstantiation, as defined by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. "Transubstantiation" means that the substance of the bread and wine is miraculously transformed into Christ's body and blood. The bread and wine are no longer bread and wine, though they appear to be. Luther's doctrine, later called "consubstantiation," was that Christ's body and blood are present "in, with, and under" the form of the bread and wine, which in itself remains bread and wine. The Eastern Orthodox churches and some Anglicans have a similar belief. Zwingli denied that the glorified Christ, now in heaven, is present in any way that such words as "bodily," "physically," or "locally" might suggest. Calvin taught that while the bread and wine remained unchanged, the Spirit raises the believer through faith to enjoy the presence of Christ in a way that is glorious and real, though indescribable.
All the Reformers insisted that at the table we give thanks to Christ for a finished and accepted work of atonement. They denounced the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass because in it the sacrifice of the cross was said to be repeated, renewed, or presented again in a way that obscured its sufficiency.
The Lord's Supper has a past reference to Christ's death. It has a present reference to our corporate participation in Him through faith. It has a future reference in that it is a pledge of His return. It encourages the faithful in their daily walk and in their expectation. This service of worship in which Christians remember the suffering that Christ endured for them is a distinctive mark of the Christian religion all over the world.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Sanctification: The Spirit and the Flesh

From The Reformation Study Bible (p. 1806 in the older edition):
According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 35), sanctification is "the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness." It is a continuing change worked by God in us, freeing us from sinful habits and forming in us Christlike affections, dispositions, and virtues. It does not mean that sin is instantly eradicated, but it is also more than a counteraction, in which sin is merely restrained and repressed without being progressively destroyed. Sanctification is a real transformation, not just the appearance of one.
The basic meaning of "sanctify" is to set apart to God, for His use. But God works in those whom He claims as His own to conform them "to the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:29). This moral renovation, in which we are increasingly changed from what we once were, flows from the agency of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 8: 13; 12:1, 2; 1 Cor. 6:11, 19, 20; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:22-24; 1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:!3; Heb. 13:20, 21). God calls His children to holiness, and graciously gives what He commands (1 Thess. 4:4; 5:23).
Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth. In regeneration, God implants desires that were not there before: desire for God, for holiness, and for glorifying God's name in the world; desire to pray and worship; desire to love and bring benefit to others. In sanctification, the Holy Spirit "works in you both to will and to do" according to God's purpose, enabling His people to fulfill their new, godly desires (Phil. 2:12, 13). Christians become increasingly Christlike, as the moral profile of Jesus (the "fruit of the Spirit") is progressively formed in them (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; 5:22-25).
Regeneration is a momentary act, bringing a person from spiritual death to life. It is exclusively God's work. Sanctification is an ongoing process, dependent on God's continuing action in the believer, and consisting of the believer's continuous struggle against sin. God's method of sanctification is neither activism (self-reliant activity) nor apathy (God-reliant passivity), but human effort dependent on God (2 Cor. 7:1; Phil. 3:10-14; Heb. 12:14). Knowing that without Christ's enabling we cannot do good works, but also that He is ready to strengthen us for all we have to do (Phil. 4:13), we "abide" in Christ, asking for His help constantly—and we receive it (Col. 1:11; 1 Tim. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:7; 2:1).
The standard to which God's work of sanctifying His saints is directed is His own revealed moral law, expounded and modeled by Christ Himself. Christ's love, humility, and patience are a supreme standard for Christians (Rom. 13:10; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Pet. 2:21).
Believers find within themselves contrary urgings. The Spirit sustains their regenerate desires and purposes, but their fallen instinct (the "flesh") obstruct their path and drag them back. The conflict of these two is sharp. Paul says he is unable to do what is right, and unable to restrain himself from doing what is wrong (Rom. 7:14-25). This conflict and frustration will be with Christians as long as they are in the body. Yet by watching and praying against temptation, and cultivating opposite virtues, they may through the Spirit's help "put to death" particular bad habits (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5). They will experience many particular deliverances and victories in their battle with sin, while not being exposed to temptations that are impossible to resist (1 Cor. 10:13).

Monday, June 8, 2015

Illumination and Conviction

From The Reformation Study Bible (p. 1801 in the older edition):
Christians' knowledge of divine things is more than a knowledge of biblical words and theological ideas. It is an understanding of the reality and relevance of the works of God testified to by Scripture. The "natural man" (1 Cor. 2:14) who does not have the Spirit, even though familiar with Christian ideas, still lacks this deeper understanding, and is like the blind leaders of the blind (Matt. 15:14). Only the Holy Spirit, who searches "the deep things of God" (1 Cor. 2:10), can bring this understanding to minds and hearts darkened by sin. It is called a "spiritual understanding" because it is an understanding given by the Holy Spirit (Col. 1:9; cf. Luke 24:25; 1 John 5:20). Those who, along with correct instruction from the Scriptures, "have an anointing from the Holy One . . . know all things" (1 John 2:20).
The work of the Spirit in imparting this understanding is called "illumination," or enlightening. It is not a giving of new revelation, but a work within us that enables us to grasp and to affirm the revelation of the bible, as it is read, preached, and taught. Sin clouds our minds and wills so that we miss and resist the force of Scripture. The Spirit, however, opens our hearts so that we understand what God has revealed (2 Cor. 3:14-16; 4:6; Eph. 1:17, 18; 3:18, 19). Illumination is the application of God's revealed truth to our hearts, so that we traps as reality for ourselves what the sacred text says.
Protestant theologians shortly after the Reformation spoke of illumination as an act of grace that proceeds in two stages. The first stage of illumination takes place when one encounters the ministry of the Word. This external illumination prepares a person for the second stage, the internal ministry of the Holy Spirit that leads to salvation. The Spirit speaks through the law, that convicts a person of sin, and the gospel, that conveys knowledge of God's grace and forgiveness (cf. Luke 1:79). It is through the illumination of the Spirit that the ministry of the Word conveys the effectual calling to salvation.
Although illumination by the Spirit begins the process, or order, of salvation (Heb. 6:4; 10:32), it continues throughout the life of the believer. The Holy Spirit leads us to deeper understanding of God (John 16:13), prompting both repentance for the sins that we commit and assurance of God's grace and the certainty of our election. We receive this illumination through the ministry of the Word and through prayer, meditation on God and His revelation, and the struggle to live our lives in a manner consistent with revelation.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Christians and Civil Government

From The Reformation Study Bible (p. 1790 in the older edition):
Civil government is a means ordained by God for ruling and maintaining order in communities. It is one of a number of such means, including ministers in the church and parents in the home. Each such means has its own sphere of authority under Christ, who now rules and sustains creation, and the limits of each sphere are set by reference to the others. In our fallen world these authorities are institutions of God's "common grace" (kindly providence), standing as a bulwark against anarchy and the dissolution of ordered society.
With reference to Rom. 13:1-7 and 1 Pet. 2:13-17, the Westminster Confession explains the sphere of civil government as follows:
God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good; and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers . . . Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (23.1, 3).
Because civil government exists for the welfare of the whole society, God gives it the "power of the sword," the lawful use of force to administer just laws (Rom. 13:4). Christians must acknowledge this as part of God's order (Rom. 13:1, 2). A government may collect taxes for the services it renders (Matt. 22:15-21; Rom. 13:6, 7). But if it forbids what God requires or requires what God forbids, Christians cannot submit, and some form of civil disobedience becomes inescapable (Acts 4:18-31; 5:17-29).
The church's sphere of authority relates to the civil government at the level of morality. The church has the responsibility to comment on the morality of governments and their policies on the basis of God's word, but should not appropriate to itself the power to set such policies. Whereas these assessments may foster political action among Christians, they should act in their capacity as citizens rather than as representatives of the church. In this way the gospel works through moral persuasion and the working of God's grace among citizens.
Christians should urge governments to fulfill their proper role. They are to pray for, obey, and yet watch over civil governments (1 Tim. 2:1-4; 1 Pet. 2:13, 14), reminding them that God ordained them to rule, protect, and keep order.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Election and Reprobation

From The Reformation Study Bible, p. 1784:
To "elect" means to select or choose. According to the Bible, before creation God selected from the human race those whom He would redeem, justify, sanctify, and glorify in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28-39; Eph. 1:3-14; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14; 2 Tim. 1:9, 10). The divine choice is an expression of free and sovereign grace. It is not merited by anything in those who are chosen. God owes sinners no mercy of any kind, only condemnation; so it is a wonder that He should choose to save any of us.
Like every truth about God, the doctrine of election involves mystery, and it sometimes stirs controversy. But in Scripture it is a pastoral doctrine, helping Christians to see how great is the grace that saves them, and moving them to respond with humility, confidence, and praise. We do not know what others God has chosen among those who do not yet believe, nor why He chose us in particular. We do know that we believe now only because we were chosen, and we know that as believers we can rely on God to finish the good work He has begun (1 Cor. 1:8, 9; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23, 24; 2 Tim. 1:12; 4:18). For these reasons the knowledge of election is a source of gratitude and confidence.
Peter tells us that we should be "diligent to make [our] call and election sure" (2 Pet. 1:10)—that is, certain to us. Election is known by its fruits. Paul knew that the Thessalonians had been chosen because he saw their faith, hope, and love, the transformation of their lives brought about by the gospel (1 Thess. 1:3-6).
Reprobation is the name given to God's eternal decision regarding those sinners whom He has not chosen for life. In not choosing them for life, God has determined not to change them. They will continue in sin, and finally will be judged for what they have done. In some cases God may further remove the restraining influences that keep a person from extremes of disobedience. This abandonment, called "hardening," is itself a penalty for sins (Rom. 9:18; 11:25; cf. Ps. 81:12; Rom. 1:24, 26, 28).
Reprobation is taught in the Bible (Rom. 9:14-24; 1 Pet. 2:8), but as a doctrine its bearing on Christian behavior is indirect. God's decree of election is secret; which persons are elect and which are reprobate will not be revealed before the Judgment. Until that time, God's command is that the call to repent and believe be preached to everyone.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

WORLD update (March 2015)

March 7
From Luther to the Internet: "Luther without his printed pamphleteering would probably have been burned at the stake like Jan Hus or declared a heretic like John Wycliffe, with his body exhumed and burned."

Keller on prayer: "Keller critiques most books on prayer as being 'primarily theological or devotional or practical, but seldom do they combine the theological, experiential, and methodological all under one cover.' He helpfully combines all three elements, drawing heavily on the collective wisdom of towering figures such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Although there is not much new here, that's a strength not a weakness. Keller understands that any new insights on prayer tend to go farther from rather than closer to biblical truth. Books on prayer abound, but few, if any, are better than this one."

Writing to sell: "Life as an author means perspiration, quotas, and limits."

March 21
First thing in the morning: "Don’t start your day with the news." I don't usually begin my morning with WORLD, but the day I read this article, I did. Weird.

PC versus PC: "The left-wing ideology enforcers are turning on each other." Reminds me of this meme.

Acronym absurdity: "Remember this LGBT the next time you hear about LGBTQQIAP (and so on)."

The kids are not all right: "After being raised in same-sex households, some children, now grown, are risking the ire of aggressive gay activists by saying the same-sex parenting model is fundamentally flawed."

Shot selection: "A sample of views on vaccination from ground zero of the Whole Foods subculture."

Stirring up a hornets' nest: "Vaccine stories spark intense reactions."

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Friday, April 3, 2015

Lent at a Baptist school

Easter egg
The other day, I got to campus to find Easter eggs covering the campus. I couldn't even open the door to my building without moving some eggs out of the way. I took one up to the office and opened it. Inside was a mini Kit Kat bar and a strip of paper with a note on it. The note said, "John 19:30: 'It is finished.' Finish Lent off strong, and have an awesome Easter in the name of Jesus Christ!"

First of all, it's a nice gesture. Some group put a lot of effort into dotting the campus with the eggs, not to mention assembling the goodies inside, including the paper with the encouragement.

But second, and unfortunately, I didn't buy the connection between the two "finish" comments. The final sacrifice for atonement occurred at the cross . . . and somehow that's connected to my ability to complete a man-made ritual. I guess. Seemed like a stretch.

Third, is it a long-standing tradition to link Lent with Easter candy? "Thanks for giving up stuff for Lent! Keep up the good work! You can do it! You're almost there! Also, have some candy. I hope you didn't give that up for Lent."

When I joked about it with some friends, one of them said, "Sounds like Lent at a Baptist school: It seems like a nifty idea, but we're not really sure what we're doing."