A Theology of Bullying: From the Mouth of a Six Year Old
Tuesday, January 10, 2012, 10:49 AM

The public schools are going all out to stop bullying these days.  My children both attend a public elementary school, so I hear a lot about it.  

Yesterday, though, my six year old daughter put together what she is hearing in school with what she has learned about the Christian faith.  I was astonished and touched by the truth and clarity of it.

Sitting across the kitchen table while I read and she did her homework, she said, "You shouldn't be a bully because God didn't make you to be mean to people. He made you so people wouldn't be lonely."



On the Description of Heaven
Wednesday, November 16, 2011, 12:24 PM

I just read Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo.  A few of my family members recommended it very strongly.  The main attraction is that Mr. Burpo’s son nearly died of acute, misdiagnosed appendicitis and survived to report that he had been to Heaven.  Young Colton Burpo did not simply recover and start telling everyone about his trip to Heaven.  Rather, he said some things in conversation that piqued the interest of his parents.  They eventually began asking him questions and were astonished by what their 4 year old had to say.

The part of the book that was really gripping for me was the account Todd Burpo gives of the year leading up to Colton’s near death experience and his terror at nearly losing a child.  My daughter was very ill during her first two years and I felt some of those fears, but not at the level of crisis which faced the Burpos.  What Colton has to say about Heaven is interesting, but does not give me the sense of powerful revelation.  He saw relatives in their young and healthy forms.  He saw Jesus.  People were wearing bright white robes with sashes.  Jesus had a dazzling rainbow colored horse.  There is a war between heavenly and satanic forces.  The strongest evidence of Colton’s visit is that he was able to identify his great grandfather as a young man in a photo without ever having met him or really having knowledge of him.  He knew who the man was and what he was called.  Overall, though, the description of heaven did not strike me as ultra-surprising for a son of a pastor, even a very young one.  Still, it is interesting.  I read the book quickly and was eager to find out more as I went.

The problem, I think, is that there is something fundamentally wrong with human attempts to describe heaven and/or the things of God.  I’m not saying it can’t be done at all, but it seems to me that other than through full-on revelation (as in the book of that name), the sublimeness of heavenly things can only be approached from the side or seen from the corner of the eye.  A direct confrontation seems doomed to fall short.  I felt that way to some extent about Heaven is for Real (a non-fiction account) and more so about the picture presented of the divine appearing by Jerry Jenkins at the conclusion of the Left Behind novels.  When Jesus arrives in the story, he appears to everyone in exactly the same way with exactly the same message.  It feels like the description of a heavenly voicemail attached to a hologram.

Second Corinthians 12:4 mentions the man who was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things he is not even allowed to mention.  The most powerful sense of eternity I have ever experienced in reading outside of the Bible was in Walker Percy’s Lancelot (a dark book).  A man has had a confrontation with evil which has left him a little insane and obsessed with harsh justice.  He completes his book-long conversation with a priest-psychologist friend from his youth.  During the course of the story, we observe (only in flashes) that the priest-psychologist is returning to his faith and his vocation.  He will take a small parish in Alabama.  His one-word replies (always the same word) to Lancelot in the final chapter made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  He doesn’t describe anything.  But the reader can feel the gigantic, looming reality which will explode forth just as the story ends.  Out of the corner of the eye.  Possibly inexpressible.  The mystery remains a mystery until, all of a sudden, the image clears and we will see and understand and will know as we have been known.  But not yet.

 



Getting Francis Schaeffer Right
Monday, August 22, 2011, 9:30 PM

Lately with all the talk of "Dominionism" and the scary religious right and Frank Schaeffer chiming in, I feel the need to draw attention to a biography of Francis Schaeffer that I think really portrayed him fairly and without the usual political histrionics.  I wrote the following review (which appeared in Themelios) of Colin Duriez's Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life back in 2009.

As a PhD student, I provided research assistance to the Baylor historian Barry Hankins as he wrote his biography of Francis Schaeffer (Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008]). At the time, I remember asking Professor Hankins if the family had been cooperative. They had not. Having read Colin Duriez’s treatment of Schaeffer, I think I know why. The family was cooperating with him, so much so that this book could be considered an authorized biography. Duriez’s portrayal is very powerfully personal, more so than anything I have read save Schaeffer’s own books, which are self-revelatory to some degree.

An Authentic Life features a number of unforgettable scenes from Schaeffer’s life. The reader who has a jaundiced view of Schaeffer as some kind of plastic-mold religious right stereotype will encounter a complex man who had a powerful instinct for justice. As a teenager, young Fran had a job with RCA Victor where he worked in the factory. The women posted along the production line were mistreated and overworked. One day, a woman stopped her work and began calling for a strike. She was soon joined by Schaeffer, who jumped up on a counter, yelling in his piercing voice, “Strike, Strike” (p. 24). This was, after all, the same man who would one day criticize comfortable American Christians for their addiction to personal peace and affluence and their non-compassionate use of wealth.

The pioneer of Christian worldview had a hard road to ministry. His father asked to speak to him at 5:30 a.m. on the morning he was to leave for college and pre-ministerial studies. When they met, his father bluntly told Schaeffer that he did not want a minister for a son and did not want him to go. The young man asked to go pray about it. Tearfully, he tossed a coin three times with each outcome landing in favor of going on to college at Hampden-Sydney. He informed his father, “I’ve got to go.” Just before slamming the door on his way out, his father promised to pay for the “first half year” (pp. 25–26). Time would bring the father to share his son’s beliefs.

Duriez’s book is full of similar interesting vignettes from Schaeffer’s life. One theme stands out very clearly. Francis Schaeffer was a man filled with love for the so-called “little people” who were not valued by the world. While he was still a young minister, we discover that he tutored a young boy with Down Syndrome twice each week and took great delight in every increment of progress. He felt the boy’s forward steps were just as important, in his wife Edith’s words, “as talking to any university student about his intellectual problems” (pp. 50–51). This event perfectly foreshadows his later powerful insistence upon the importance of the sanctity of life, an area in which he was far ahead of the main body of evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Connecting the young Schaeffer to the more famous, older man is a great strength of Colin Duriez’s book. It has become well-accepted to break Schaeffer’s life up into segments and to characterize him as three different people. There is the young, fire breathing fundamentalist eager to “be ye separate” from the impure compromisers; the artsy, compassionate, bohemian founder of L’abri in Switzerland; and then the old man, brushing off his best instincts and returning to his fundamentalist roots to fight for the doctrine of inerrancy and “Christian America.” While it is possible to reach such a conclusion by looking at his early career and then considering the chronological development of his publications, this book rejects that approach by portraying Schaeffer as a consistent personality throughout.

The man who cared enough to tutor a little boy with Down Syndrome is also the man who told his church in St. Louis that he would resign if a black person ever came to his church and felt unwelcome. The budding intellectual who answered the existential questions of college students in Europe is also the agitator who took up the cause of the unborn and became arguably the finest shaper of and advocate for a potent evangelical critique of modern culture. Two sentences in the book make this point about Schaeffer brilliantly: “It was not a new Schaeffer that was emerging. His theology, honed over many decades since the passionate articles of the later forties and early fifties, was that of the lordship of Christ over every area of life—the womb as well as the university seminar room” (p. 182).

If one could ask for anything more from this book, it would be on the subject of Frank (AKA Franky Schaeffer). As Francis Schaeffer’s son has aged, he has increasingly distanced himself from his father’s legacy. First, Frank converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. More significantly, he wrote thinly disguised novels about his family life that were unflattering to his father and then made a massive turn left politically, ultimately supporting Barack Obama despite his laissez faire policies on abortion. One suspects this topic was left alone for two reasons. The first is that, as I wrote above, this book feels like an authorized biography with the family’s full cooperation. They probably did not want this story to include the later years of Frank Schaeffer. The second is that the book very likely neared completion during the time of Frank’s increasing heterodoxy. Regardless, readers hungry for more on this front should look to Os Guinness’s powerful rejoinder to Frank in the journal Books and Culture (March 1, 2008; available at http:// www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2008/marapr/1.32.html).

Duriez’s book is an important contribution to Schaeffer scholarship and will challenge those who have portrayed an interesting Schaeffer with a unique voice who morphs into a conventional Christian rightist over time. Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life deserves a wide readership and may well be the standard in the field for some time to come.

Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism



Another Run at the “Dominionism” Meme
Friday, August 19, 2011, 2:08 PM

In my last post, I rejected the contention by Michelle Goldberg and others that evangelical leaders such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry are significantly influenced by the aims of the tiny Christian Reconstructionism movement.  I tried to make the point that CR has a negligible political influence on evangelicals and that it is not honest to view evangelical office holders and candidates in the light of CR’s aims.  The entire thing, I think, is a tar baby sort of trap in which evangelicals are supposed to come out of their corner talking very seriously about Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism and giving legitimacy to those who have tried to raise it as an issue.

There is a simpler way to get at this thing.  I’ll go ahead and concede to Michelle Goldberg and Ryan Lizza that they are correct in their assumption that it is nervous-making to have someone with different ideas and values than one’s own running for political office.  This raises the spectre of having that person gain power and perhaps make policies with which one would disagree.  But the simple truth is that we are all in this position all the time.

The University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock once noted that he had some concerns about the Christian Coalition gaining political power.  He quickly added that he would be equally concerned about any group with an ideological agenda (such as certain types of feminists or environmentalists) gaining power.  The simple fact is that power is a feature of politics and it is unpleasant to lose and have someone else use power to impose upon you.  This is very much the situation many have been through in the past two years.  A great many people feel that a nationalized health care system would have disastrous effects upon our society.  Nevertheless, they have had to suffer through it because the side that wanted to enact such legislation won the election convincingly.

And here’s the thing . . . It doesn’t matter what Barack Obama’s motive was in pushing for national health care.  It doesn’t matter if he had a religious conviction, a secular principle, a sentimental attachment to the idea, or a desire to be the first Democrat to ever achieve such a thing.  He gained power through politics and enacted his agenda.

There is no difference in anything Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, or any other American officeholder might do.  Indeed, the likelihood is great that any laws they might enact would be far less intrusive than one mandating that every American purchase health insurance.

 



Wringing Hands Over Dominionism
Thursday, August 18, 2011, 8:41 AM

Michelle Goldberg has a column up at the aptly named Daily Beast letting us all know that we really need to worry about something called “Dominionism” which supposedly prevails among Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and folks who support their campaigns.  Reinhold Niebuhr once warned of the dangers of religious illiteracy.  Here we have exhibit A.

Goldberg claims Bachmann and Perry are “deeply associated” with this “theocratic strain” of Christian fundamentalism.  Yes, they are probably so deeply associated with it that neither one of them has ever heard of R.J. Rushdoony (whom Goldberg tags as the father of this theocratic movement).

I have been part of organizations of Christian conservatives for many years and can assure Ms. Goldberg that Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism (making Hebraic law obligatory upon the broader society) exert very little influence.  In fact, I think I can probably argue empirically that Rushdoony has captured the attention of many more liberal reporters with an axe to grind than it has evangelicals.  For those of us who spend so much time thinking about political theology as to even have heard of CR, it is primarily a novelty.  To view standard issue evangelicals in the same light as Christian Reconstructionists would be like taking rank and file Democrats and comparing them to the most extreme and exotic atheistic socialists.

The overwhelming majority position of Christians around the world is that forced religion is a stench in the nostrils of a holy God.  Instead, Christians give their money to sustain people called missionaries.  We support their efforts to persuade those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ that he is the son of God and that they should enter into a relationship with him.  If those people subsequently refuse to believe in Jesus, missionaries pray for them and move on to other people.  Those engaged by missionaries join churches or just keep on doing what they were doing before.  It’s actually a pretty non-threatening business.  This is the Christian idea Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann would endorse, not some fever dream of journalists hoping to bring down candidates for office.

Now, is it true that Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann would like to get elected and attempt to pass some of their aspirations for the good society into law?  Certainly.  This is a process called politics.  It is a feature of democracies.  And I suspect what Perry and Bachmann would like to do is reduce the size of government, which, incidentally, is not all that great a danger to individual freedom.

Of course, both are pro-life and would like to protect unborn children from being killed in the womb.  If that position is so extreme as to warrant exclusion from the political process and raving condemnations in print . . . well, in that case I’m afraid I can’t do much to help.

 



Solomon Kane: A Puritan Pulp Hero
Friday, July 22, 2011, 1:41 PM

I grew up reading both comic books and stories about various pulp fiction heroes.  My favorite in the pulp genre as a kid was Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze.  He traveled with his group of highly capable friends and resolved various terrible threats to humanity.  I recently picked one of the Doc Savage stories up in a thrift store and found that, despite the sentimental value, it didn't hold up all that well.  

Other notable entries in that publishing space include The Shadow, The Spider, Sherlock Holmes (a contender for the greatest), John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, and Zorro. Despite my disappointing return to Doc Savage (maybe I just got one that was subpar), I have enthusiastically continued to read in the genre.  The Amazon Kindle has facilitated the habit marvelously as I now download the stories very inexpensively. First, I downloaded Sherlock Holmes (to discover a character somewhat more interesting than the one I'd seen on television as a child).  Next, I stumbled upon Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane.  Jackpot.

Howard is much better known for creating his most popular character, Conan the Barbarian (and his Atlantean predecessor Kull the Conqueror), but his first big success was Kane.  For reasons no one is sure about, Howard killed himself at a tragically young age upon hearing of his mother's death.  We lost many years of exciting stories and characters as a result, but what he wrote during his short life was highly memorable.

Solomon Kane, to my knowledge, is the only great Christian superhero ever to exist in the popular market.  I call him a superhero, though he theoretically has no super powers, because his strength borders on the superhuman as does his courage, raw toughness, determination, and skill with weapons. He is a tall man, dressed in simple Puritan black, wears two heavy pistols (single shot), a rapier, and a dirk.  Kane also carries a musket, with which he is deadly.  The dour Puritan is almost never without his slouch hat which rests above his stern face characterized by a pallor almost like a corpse.  

His people face religious persecution in England.  Persecution plays a part in Kane's choice to live the life of a "landless wanderer" drawn into many mysterious adventures as though pulled on a line by supernatural force.

As with most great popular entertainments, there is a formula.  Kane typically happens upon some awful injustice and pledges himself to visit vengeance (he feels he is the instrument of God's justice) upon the perpetrators.  At one point, he reassures a frightened woman that "in times past hath God made me a great vessel of wrath and a sword of deliverance. And, I trust, shall do so again." Finding a girl dying in the woods and hearing her story, he comforts her until she passes and simply promises, "Men shall die for this." Part of what makes him so appealing is his single-minded devotion to justice.

A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right and justice. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect – he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.

Wandering through the jungles of Africa, he encounters slave traders callously marching natives to ships on the shore.  Observing their mistreatment, he is almost turned inside out with rage:

The fury Solomon Kane felt would have been enough at any time and in any place to shake a man to his foundation; now it assumed monstrous proportions, so that Kane shivered as if with a chill, iron claws scratched at his brain and he saw the slaves and the slavers through a crimson mist.

Kane is a complex character.  Though he is relentless in his pursuit of evil, he is confounded by the means he is provided to conquer it.  In several adventures, he makes good use of a "ju-ju stave" given him by an African medicine man.  Though he disdains it as a Puritan, he is often forced to employ its power.  Intriguingly, he comes to believe it may once have belonged to the great King Solomon in the remote past.

He is also often left feeling ambiguous after having sated his need to dispense justice.  Upon dispatching one vile villain, he remarks:

God grant all our deaths be as easy. But my heart is heavy within me, for he was little more than a youth, albeit an evil one, and was not my equal with the steel. Well, the Lord judge between him and me on the Judgment Day.

I can't leave the post behind without offering the obligatory remarks about insufficient enlightenment on Howard's part.  Africa is often the setting for Kane's adventures.  It is a dark place where many horrors of the world have been driven by the "growing light of the western world."  While Kane unfailingly treats the natives as human beings deserving of justice and protection, the narrative description often relies upon the type of evolutionary thinking which might place different races at higher and lower points on the scale of advancement.  Kane's own reflection upon one African adventure provides a suitable endpoint and helps give the reader a sense of his own good intentions:

The light of God’s morning enters even into dark and lonesome lands,” said Solomon Kane somberly. “Evil rules in the waste lands of the earth, but even evil may come to an end. Dawn follows midnight and even in this lost land the shadows shrink. Strange are Thy ways, oh God of my people, and who am I to question Thy wisdom? My feet have fallen in evil ways but Thou hast brought me forth scatheless and hast made me a scourge for the Powers of Evil. Over the souls of men spread the condor wings of colossal monsters and all manner of evil things prey upon the heart and soul and body of Man. Yet it may be in some far day the shadows shall fade and the Prince of Darkness be chained forever in his hell. And till then mankind can but stand up stoutly to the monsters in his own heart and without, and with the aid of God he may yet triumph.



Belated Reflections on LOST
Sunday, May 22, 2011, 7:44 PM

I've just seen the entire run of LOST over the course of about two months.  It is time for a few reflections.  To those who intend to watch the show, stop reading now.  There will be SPOILERS.

The show begins with a jet crashing on an island in the Pacific.  The first question is, "Who survives a jet crash, especially one in which a plane cracks in half?"  I thought of that often.  As I watched the program, I wondered along with probably everyone else whether anyone on the show actually survived.  The other possibility is that they are dead and we are watching them move about in the afterlife.  To refine the thought a little, are the characters in purgatory working through their sins?

Things happen in the course of the series to make the viewer think that the characters have not died in the crash.  I know at one point I abandoned the theory entirely.  But by the time I got to the final season, I began to think the matter through again.  By the end, I felt confirmed in my belief.  These people are dead.  They are working out their own salvation.

One thing that sucked me in to the show was the names of some of the characters.  There is a John Locke, a David Hume, a Faraday (scientist), a C.S. Lewis, a Jeremy Bentham, and maybe some others I missed.  For the most part, I think this naming was a display of someone's dilettante-ish learning in the core curriculum at college.  The names didn't correlate to the characters.  C.S. Lewis, for example, is a gorgeous redhead.  She is a Brit, but otherwise doesn't resemble her namesake.  There was, however, one name that seemed to be important.  The most heroic character is Jack Shephard, son of Christian Shephard.  And, indeed, Jack is a man willing to give himself for others.

At one point, some of the characters manage to get off the island (in your face, Gilligan!), but they end up having to return.  They realize (some involuntarily) that they must return.  There is something wrong with them being off the island.  The island isn't done with them, yet.  This part played into the notion of purgatory.  Their leaving is wrong because they have abandoned the work of the soul.  They must return and continue the process, miserable and trying though it is.

In the final season, the characters are living dual lives.  They are living one life on the island and a parallel life back in the civilized world.  What is interesting is that in their parallel lives, things seem to be going well.  Wrongs are being righted.  Problems are being resolved.  Wounds are being healed.  It is as though their suffering and struggles on the island have somehow been redemptive.  Their lives on the island (a place where wounds heal rapidly and cancer goes into remission) is exerting a restorative effect on their lives in some parallel place.

There is also some exposition about the bizarre nature of the island.  We see something like an origin story about two brothers.  It is somewhat reminiscent of Cain and Abel, but hybridized with the tale of Romulus and Remus.  The brother who lives is the more righteous one.  His twin (not identical) is not unambiguously evil.  He is more like a Lucifer who wants to overthrow God (or God's will for his life) because he doesn't understand him (or it).  The dead brother continues on in a supernatural life as something of a monster.  He is the black smoke which has been terrorizing our heroes throughout much of the show.  Certainly,there is a sense of something Edenic which has gone wrong.  The good brother, Jacob, is the protector of the island who is working toward the achievement of some good.

The conclusion of the series centers on the murdered brother living anew in the possessed body of John Locke.  He is determined to leave the island.  It is what he has always wanted.  But we are given to understand that he must not leave.  Somehow, he is evil and must be kept on the island like wine kept in a bottle by a cork.  Ultimately, he must clash with Jack Shephard.

This is the point where I started to see some strong religious themes.  The island has a heart which emits amazingly powerful and destructive light.  Desmond David Hume is the man who can withstand it.  Jack and the monster accompany Hume.  He goes down into the light and removes a stone stopper which is containing it.  This seems to put out the light and trigger the slow destruction of the island.  The monster feels he can now leave the island, which is sinking, but Jack determines the monster has now become vulnerable to physical harm.  They struggle and Jack is able to kill the monster, but not before he is mortally wounded by a dagger in his side.  At this point, one cannot help but see Jesus stabbed the spear in his side.

Jack is dying.  The disruption in the island and his suffering seem to have made victory over the monster possible.  Jack returns to the source of the light to restore the stone stopper.  When he does, the island is saved and the light returns at full strength.  Jack has successfully given himself for all.  His suffering has made victory over evil possible.

Before he died, he made Hurley the new protector of the island.  Though I am not Catholic, what I saw here was Jesus giving Peter the kings to the kingdom and establishing him as the new head of the church.  To me, it looked like the beginning of the papacy!  Benjamin Linus, a man who has been a persecutor of the characters and has been wrongly related to the island's protector, Jacob, steps up to be Hurley's co-laborer in the protection of the island.  Looking at Benjamin in this new role, I could not help but think of Paul.  Linus is very much a Saul-Paul type of figure.  (It helps a little that his name, Benjamin Linus, could be linked to the famous scientist Linus PAULing.)

Ultimately, the characters living in their parallel lives encounter each other and come to an astonishing collective memory of their time on the island.  These scenes are quite beautiful.  They all come together in a church (except Linus who stays just outside).  Christian Shephard and Jack Shephard talk.  Jack realizes he is dead and so, too, are the others.  To my mind, it appears that what has occurred is a triumphant tour through purgatory for them all.  They have been sifted like grain and what is of value is what remains.  Though the stained glass contains a variety of holy symbols from the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian faiths, the dominant imagery is Christian as is much of the narrative.  The characters gather in the pews as pure light spills over them.  They are moving on, presumably, to Heaven where true reality is (e.g. The Great Divorce).

I appreciated the final season very much because I felt it was the kind of story which could prepare people's hearts for Christ.  It was a tilling of the soil.

(One final thing.  What about the DHARMA Initiative?  They are a communal project with researchers and scientists of various types working on the island attempting to pierce its mysteries and perhaps harness its special powers.  In the end, their efforts add up to little of consequence.  Indeed, much of what they do leads to tragedy.  I suspect the story of DHARMA was designed to highlight the instrumental limitedness of science.)

 



Our Lars Walker on Thor
Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 1:01 PM

UPDATE: I just realized Lars already posted this article below here at MC.  So feel free to scroll down and get the whole thing here.  My comments about his insight still represent value-added.  :-)

Lars Walker is a wonderful writer of fiction related to Vikings (and Christianity).  He recently took up his pen, so to speak, to review the new Thor movie.  These lines caught my attention:

To anyone schooled in Norse mythology, the Odin of the movie is almost unrecognizable, except for his long beard, lack of one eye, and possession of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse (which provides an extremely cool special effects moment). Anthony Hopkins' Odin is wise and good, full of benevolence and cherishing a horror of war. He's kind of like a professor of English or some social science at an Ivy League university—wooly-headed enough to throw away the gods' greatest weapon at a moment of dire military threat. 

The Odin of the Vikings was most of all an extremely powerful magician, a wizard—not the nice kind of wizard like Gandalf, though he was one of Tolkien's inspirations for the character, but the old kind of wizard—treacherous and murderous, with lies on his lips and blood under his fingernails. He delighted in war for two reasons—one in order to feed the wolves and ravens that were his familiars, secondly in order to fill his hall, Valhalla, with heroes who would stand with him at Ragnarok, the last great battle. To this end he raised heroes up and then brutally betrayed them. He was also, according to the eddas, a sexual predator and a known deviate. 

The difference between these two Odins, I think, is suggestive of important—and generally unrecognized—elements in western culture. The script writers have confused Odin with the Yahweh of the Jews and Christians. It doesn't even occur to them that a high god could be anything but kind and peace-loving, since we all have so thoroughly internalized Christian suppositions that even people who reject the Christian religion—and I assume that a large proportion of the people who made this movie do—can't conceive of a religion founded on darkness and brute force and the domination of the weak by the strong. 

What Lars is saying here is something we miss when we think about our culture.  So many of our most basic assumptions are formed by Christianity that we confidently declare how good secularism is or will be.  We don't realize that our type of secularism has a source.  And Lars knows what it is.

 



The State of Christian Higher Education: A Response to Allen Guelzo
Tuesday, May 10, 2011, 8:13 PM

UPDATE: You can get Guelzo's piece here.

Many are now taking note of Allen Guelzo's essay in Touchstone on the situation of evangelical colleges in America. He points out a number of troubling issues, such as that few of these schools are selective, alumni are not giving, and many of the schools are in bad financial condition, despite the continued rise in tuition rates.

When I took over responsibility for strategic planning at Houston Baptist University back in 2007, I studied many of these same challenges.  My goal was to get a sense of our position in the market so that we could speak intelligently to donors about what we needed. I discovered the relative lack of high endowments among Christian institutions (and the high reliance on tuition that goes with the lack of such endowments).

In addition, I noted the near complete lack of doctoral programs in areas outside of professional training such as education or counseling. Christian universities are not able to afford graduate fellowships or stipends. If the programs don't generate revenue, we don't offer them. Guelzo doesn't mention that.

Neither does he mention the competitive disadvantage for scholars at our institutions who wish to pursue publication. At many top secular institutions, professors teach only two courses each semester. Sometimes less. Our professors almost always teach four courses per semester, which is a consuming task if you do it well.

I could go on. We have fewer scholarly centers and think tanks, hold less conferences, publish fewer journals . . . You get the idea. We are fighting hard to accomplish our missions, but scarcity is much more real to us than it is to many of our counterparts in state schools whothink they have budget constraints.

All of this is why it was such a galactically big deal when Robert Sloan was in charge at Baylor University and working to make that school into a Carnegie research institution which was simultaneously emphasizing its fealty to the Christian intellectual tradition. When he was forced to resign, many who follow these things closely were despondent.  The worst fears were not realized, though, and Baylor has continued to move forward as a comprehensive (and Christian) institution (which really does carry its weight in the Big 12) and has about a billion dollars in endowment.  Baylor is now a haven for some of the finest Christian scholars on earth. This is a huge accomplishment. Kenneth Starr gives every indication of being the right person to shepherd Baylor's continued flight along this nearly uncharted path. I am somewhat surprised Guelzo would leave the Bears out of his excellent essay.

In addition, Guelzo has missed the ascendancy of some other Christian universities on a smaller scale. For example, just as one Christian school, Lambuth University, announced its closing here in Jackson, Tennessee, Lambuth's longtime sister school, Union University, has enjoyed record enrollments and is receiving some excellent gifts. Union's budget has nearly quintupled over the last 15 years and the school outperforms just about all of its peers in terms of financial health. A study of the percentage of students admitted at Union wouldn't tell the story Guelzo suggests it does. Union likely admits a majority of the students who apply, but that is part of its model. Union sets out to attract applications from students who are a good fit spiritually and academically. Union's selectivity would be better measured by a look at the mean ACT scores of its recent freshman classes, which have been very high.

Just as Guelzo wrote about institutions with which he is familiar, I have referenced some of the ones I know best. I imagine some could come forward with success stories and others with tales of fingernail-hanging survival. I suspect the reality is that Christian universities, as a sector, are undergoing some serious sifting. A wise man once told me several will close in the next decade. I agree with Guelzo that there are very possibly too many and that we would benefit from consolidation. Imagine if we could have Baylor as the research flagship and then 5-10 very strong liberal arts universities.  They would all be cultural gamechangers if they remained faithful.

We don't control these things (the life and death of universities), though, from some central Christian planning office for what we perceive to be the maximum advantage.  Some institutions will fail. Others will surprise us and announce amazing new gifts and innovative programs.

What we can control, however, are matters to which Guelzo alluded. We can hire faculty who care about the mission and not just about their guilds. We can hire presidents with vision for distinctively Christian higher education and NOT for education as a commodity to be sold like gasoline or grain. We can install core curricula which actually help students become well-rounded and well-educated human beings who understand their cultural context, their history, and the interrelationship of the disciplines.

Finally, we can make the case to donors to meet our greatest needs. We need scholarships and scholarship endowments so we can compete with the state universities on price. We need investments in endowed chairs, funded centers, and journals which can provide lighter teaching loads for our productive scholars. Donors, if you are reading this, then understand that the Christian university can provide a tremendous bang for the buck culturally. We educate the student. We provide the student with a spiritual community.  We teach them to put their minds and spirits to work in tandem.  Our scholars can teach, write, and speak into the world conversation. We can convene scholars into networks of influence.

Read Guelzo. Heed this essay. And help us do what only the Christian university can do.

 



John Piper on Ayn Rand
Saturday, April 30, 2011, 8:48 AM

It has gotten back to me that my ambivalent approval of some elements of Ayn Rand's work may not have been ambivalent enough for some.  Along those lines, I think it may be useful to offer readers a chance to see what John Piper has written on the topic.  Here's a clip:

To this day, I find her writings paradoxically attractive. I am a Christian Hedonist. This is partly why her work is alluring to me. She had her own brand of hedonism. It was not traditional hedonism that says whatever gives you pleasure is right. Hers was far more complex than that. It seems so close and yet so far to what I find in the Bible . . .

Cogent Christian responses to Ayn Rand are few. Positive Christian assessments are almost non-existent. I aim for this treatment to be both Christian and primarily positive, even though Ayn Rand was an atheist and outspokenly anti-Christian. I trust I will be forgiven the presumption of stepping outside my own specialty: My field is neither literary criticism nor philosophy but biblical, theological and pastoral. I write this because I take pleasure in extending to others the delight I have had in learning from Ayn Rand.

Read it all here.


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