Thursday, November 20, 2008

When You're On, You're On

On the recommendation of a family member, I recently read Michael Yaconelli's little book, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith. I didn't know quite what to expect. On the one hand, I remember the days when I used to get The Door and the anticipation with which I would read Yaconelli's Back Door columns. They were the most serious pages of a highly non-serious magazine and he could cause you to laugh and think at the same time. On the other hand, I wouldn't have pegged Yaconelli as one who could write a full-length book — he always seemed just a tad too scattered and disconnected to be able to pull that off well. Additionally, the family member who recommended the book has one major theme around which most of what he thinks and reads revolves. In brief, it goes like this: "I love Jesus, but I hate the Church." This sentiment doesn't sit well with me and the increasing frequency with which I am reading and hearing it troubles me. I knew that Yaconelli had to hit on this theme for the book to be on this particular family member's recommendation list. So, with a mixture of expectancy and trepidation, I opened the book.

A glance at the table of contents reveals that some of my concerns were valid. Yaconelli was trying to get the reader's attention with shocking chapter headings and bold statements about what it really means to live a life of faith. Here are the titles, see if you can notice a pattern: dangerous wonder, risky curiosity, wild abandon, daring playfulness, wide-eyed listening, irresponsible passion, happy terror, naïve grace, childlike faith. He seems to have gotten a year's worth of use out of his thesaurus in just coming up with those! And the chapter contents themselves are filled with similarly exaggerated and superfluous statements that don't hold up well under Biblical or theological scrutiny. But, since he likely wasn't writing this as research for a Ph.D. dissertation, I won't fault him too much.

But I do want to credit Yaconelli with hitting the nail on the head with one vitally important point. In context, he is discussing the Gospel of Luke, chapter 7, and John the Baptist's lack of certainty about whether Jesus is really the Promised One that the people of God were supposed to be waiting for. After all of the groundwork that John and his disciples had laid, Jesus' ministry sure seemed to be harvesting mixed fruit. So, with pressure mounting and public opinion turning against this new Jesus movement, he sent some of his own to ask this supposed Messiah what in the world was going on. Here's Yaconelli's brief paraphrase of Jesus' words to a worried John:

"The Jesus who can rescue you is the One you can trust even when you're not rescued." (p. 118)

What a simple but powerfully poignant way to put it! John was eventually imprisoned and beheaded, but he had to trust Jesus anyway. Likewise, Jesus may not rescue us in the ways we think that we ought to be rescued. This doesn't mean that He can't, just that He has a good reason not to. And we have to trust that His reasons not to rescue are better than our reasons for His rescue. I read these words on the way to the hospital the day before Andrei Elijah's birth. I haven’t forgotten them, they are deeply meaningful and they will likely prove to be so whenever me, or a member of my family, faces the darker side of life in this fallen world.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ukrainian Evangelicalism in the Spotlight

For anyone interested in a perspective other than our own about how the Church is doing in Ukraine and Kyiv Theological Seminary's role in the Evangelical movement in Eurasia, read this recent Christianity Today article. On the whole, I find it a positive reflection of what we're seeing God do, even though I would squabble with the author over a few of the details. I don't buy the "all press is good press" line, but this press is certainly good for KTS and the Ukrainian Body of Christ.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Follow-up on Preston

Since I'm still mulling over the interaction contained to the book alluded to in the previous post, I decided to look over Preston Jones' curriculum vitae. I noticed that he has a few articles in First Things and, being a FT disciple, I checked them out. One looked particularly interesting, so I read it. You should too. It is a response to the oft-advanced criticism that evangelicalism has a shoddy and underdeveloped intellectual life. While affirming that evangelicals need to engage academia with integrity and to pursue a robust life of the mind, Jones says that we shouldn't demonize our evangelical brothers and sisters who may not yet be on the bandwagon. In short, we should be charitable to our fellow evangelicals as we all strive, to varying degrees, to love our Lord with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. Thanks for the good reminder, Preston.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Same Questions Through Different Lenses

I'm not all that smart, but I do read stuff written by very smart people. So, when I come across something that is really good and that can make the complex understandable, I try to let people know about it. I assume that mostly family and friends are reading my blog so, those are the people I have in mind when I recommend stuff. That is not necessarily what I am doing with this post.

I just read a book that I think the smart people ought to read. It should prove to be a rousing read for just about anyone but, for the academics, it provides insight that we (and I am using the "we" very loosely) need to be aware of and interact with.

The book is titled, Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism and Christianity, edited by Preston Jones. It contains about 2 years' worth of email correspondence between Jones, a believing history professor in Arkansas and Greg Graffin, lead singer of Bad Religion, who holds a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell. Jones really likes Bad Religion's music and, considering himself a little rebellious within the Christian subculture, decided to engage Graffin in dialogue regarding God and Christianity, science and religion, faith and philosophy, etc.

The discussion is fascinating because, while both hold Ph.D.s and are therefore academics, Jones is not part of the swelling evangelical-philosophical tidal wave of the last 20 years and Graffin, being primarily a punk and not an academic, has not engaged much in the formal academic advance of naturalism. This, and the fact that the dialogue takes place via email and not in a lecture hall, means that all of their thinking is outside of the traditional categories. A huge bonus is that Jones went back and added comments, quotes, notes and study and reflection questions that would make the book useful in a variety of settings, not just for a stimulating read.

But the reason I think the academics should read this book is because it reveals how a dyed-in-the-wool naturalist — particularly one who hasn't engaged with any research of the aforementioned tidal wave — thinks about religion generally and Christianity specifically. There is a certain predictability to the standard debates between the evangelical masterminds and the naturalist and Gnostic gurus of the day. That predictability is not bad but it leaves certain key issues out of the discussion. But in this conversation we get the nitty-gritty. It should cause evangelical academics to assess how they present their material and consider how to better utilize the material they regularly use. So, if you're an academic, and accidentally reading this post, buy this book and think about how you'd answer a punk rocker with a Ph.D.

A few years ago I began compiling an annotated bibliography of Christian apologetic material. Below is the entry for Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?

Preston Jones, ed., Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006).

In this dialogue between historian, Preston Jones, and Bad Religion lead singer and Ph.D. in zoology, Greg Graffin, the reader will find the raw and real interaction of apologetics, rather than the prepared and formal stuff of academic debates. This has its positives and negatives. Negatively, since neither Preston nor Graffin have formal training in theology, philosophy or religion in general, many of the spoken and unspoken ground rules for this type of discussion are completely ignored. This means that questions raised are not addressed and fallacies committed are not confronted. It is clear that Graffin has no training in philosophy or theology, yet he speaks authoritatively of their shortcomings, failing to realize that most of what he says has no basis in the science, of which he is an expert, but is founded upon a philosophy of science which stands behind everything he says. Needless to say, his philosophy of science — a strong scientism claiming that the empirical method is the only way to have genuine knowledge — does not stand up to rational scrutiny and has been effectively criticized by J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig and others. Jones, also due to his lack of theological/apologetic training, misses key opportunities to address Graffin's questions and criticisms of Christianity of which someone familiar to such a discussion would take advantage. Positively, however, because they are expert academics in their fields and very intelligent men in general, Jones and Graffin carry on a very stimulating conversation, it is engaging and interesting on every level. It is amazing that Graffin and Jones were able to carry out such a dialogue for so long via email and that such a haphazard style of communication lends itself to such a good book. In the end both faiths, Christianity and naturalism, are given a fair hearing in a way that will enlighten the reader to new insights regarding how apologetics works (and sometimes doesn't work) in today's world.