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The Gospels and Mythical Legend

Jul 22, 2014 | Justin Taylor

C. S. Lewis:

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. . . .

These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.

—C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” or “Fern-Seeds and Elephants” (1959).

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The Gospel Advance in North Africa: New Documentary for $5 (72 Hours Only)

Jul 22, 2014 | Justin Taylor

WTS is selling their bestselling series on Dispatches from the Front for over half off, and the latest episode for only $5 (sale ends July 25). Here is a trailer:

You can also check out Tim Keesee’s book here.

40 copies of the DVD are being given away, and you can sign up for a chance to enter here.

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Teaching Science to Kids

Jul 17, 2014 | Justin Taylor

noeoThe new Noeo (pronounced no-eh’-o) science curriculum looks look a great way to help your kids learn science:

This science curriculum is designed especially for teaching science at home. Its multiple-textbook structure is best described as a balance between the classical method and the Charlotte Mason approach. In contrast with a single textbook approach, we think the variety of study materials and activities will encourage more interest in science, particularly with younger students. All of these books have been carefully selected by Dr. Randy Pritchard (a practicing veterinarian and homeschooling father of two boys) to guide children into discovery of the complexity, order, and wonder of God’s design.

The Level 1 courses are for grades 1-3, the Level 2 courses are for grades 4-5, and the Level 3 courses are.

You can read an FAQ here.

For some videos, links to sample of the instructor’s guides, and the contents of the kits, see below:

(more…)

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Drinking, Hooking Up, and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Jul 17, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Adelaide Mena and Caitlin Seery La Ruffa, recent graduates of Princeton University, have penned a helpful piece in Public Discourse, arguing that without the “hook-up culture,” the “rape culture” would not have gotten its current foothold in our universities:

First, it creates a setting in which it is very easy for people who want to do bad things to do them undetected.

When somewhat drunkenly bringing someone back to your dorm is the norm, how are bystanders (in a dark, noisy, crowded space) supposed to distinguish good intentions from bad? How can an onlooker see the difference between a young man genuinely seeking to help his friend get back to her room safely and one pretending to be a good friend, only to take advantage of her once there? One of us had the horrible experience—twice—of being witness to a friend’s assault in the very next room and being powerless to do anything, not because of physical inability, but because by all external appearances what was happening looked just like any other weekend night.

Second, a sexual ethic that centers on the pursuit of pleasure and personal gratification and reduces the significance of a sexual act to that of a scrabble game—mere recreation—teaches that persons are means to an end.

We are taught to use each other’s bodies for our mutual satisfaction and to assume that sexual activity does not carry any unintended consequences. But once we get used to heedlessly using one another’s bodies, it is dangerously easy to see using another’s body for our own gratification as unproblematic, even if the other person isn’t doing the same to us. A hook-up culture based on mutual use and lack of consequence can’t help but lead in the direction of unilateral use of another’s body.

Third, the language that we millennials use for discussing sexual boundaries, constraint, and consensual interaction has all but disintegrated.

The domination of the hook-up as the preeminent romantic script has repercussions for all young adults—even those who don’t pursue hook-ups themselves. Over and over, we are told that physical encounters can be casual and fun, because they only have the meaning that we ascribe to them. Context is stripped from a range of sexual expression; even commonly used words lose their meaning. A hook-up, for example, can consist of anything from simple kissing, to petting, to penetration, to a range of other activities limited only by the adolescent imagination. What someone might expect in a hook-up or a romantic relationship can vary dramatically from person to person.

This series of vague and variable sexual expectations clashes dangerously with the carte blanche given to young American adults. After all, boys will be boys and girls will go wild. The selfish individualism expected among adolescents and young adults tells us not to take “no”for an answer. Respect for ideas of sexual integrity—the concept that sex might by its nature mean something more than a game—has gone out the window. With it went respect for the very concept of boundaries.

Those with a strict code of sexual ethics have all the more boundaries to be crossed. Their plight is worsened by our culture’s tendency to conflate sexual continence with repression. At its best, we are told that a chaste lifestyle might be possible for the superhuman or abnormally religious, but not for the average college kid. At its worst, this attitude leads to a disdain for sexual boundaries as backwards, misogynistic, and dangerous—or simply stupid and unworthy of respect.

They also explain why the position of college administrations on this subject remain incoherent:

We graduated only a few years ago, and each of us needs both hands to count the number of friends who were sexually violated in college—and those are only the ones we know about. These are not people we sought out for their traumas or folks who invited any sort of trouble: in the course of what would otherwise be normal college life, people and institutions they trusted betrayed them in one of the most painful ways possible. As often as not, the abusive encounters did not include alcohol, and they occurred in common spaces as often as in the dark corners of fraternity tap rooms. To our knowledge, not one of their assailants has faced any kind of legal or disciplinary repercussions, and barely any have suffered any social fallout—even when publicly accused.

Why, then, when college administrations do so much to drive home the concept of “consent,” do college students continue not to get the message? Because they see from the outset that consent—as it is currently conceived—doesn’t make sense. Out of one side of their mouths, administrators acknowledge the alcohol-fueled hook-up culture with a proverbial shrug of the shoulders, and out of the other side tell students that any alcohol use negates the possibility of consent. By this standard, all sexual activity framed by alcohol consumption is, in some sense, sexual assault. Any college freshman understands that it just doesn’t make sense to say that any alcohol-infused dance floor make-out session could be called assault—at least not when the powers that be are encouraging any and all forms of sexual expression. The standard is viewed as inconsistent and absurd, so it gets shrugged off.

While alcohol is implicated in many cases of sexual assault, it is only a catalyst in a system already primed for assault. On a campus where binge drinking was the norm but the hook-up was not the dominant form of sexual interaction, sexual assault would both be much easier to avoid and much harder to commit.

You can read the whole thing here, along with their follow-up piece offering some modest suggestions of what can be done.

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A Christian Law Professor’s Three Predictions about the Future of Religious Liberty in the U.S.

Jul 17, 2014 | Justin Taylor

gordon

John Inazu (JD, PhD) is an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the well-received academic book, Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly (Yale University Press, 2012). Writing in Christianity Today he offers helpful summary and a sharp analysis of the current cultural and legal landscape regarding religious liberty, exemplified through cases like Hobby Lobby and now Gordon College.

The piece is very well-written, but be forewarned that it is not encouraging.

Here are the three predictions he makes:

Prediction #1: Only religious groups (by no means all of them) will impose restrictions based on sexual conduct.

That is in stark contrast to the many groups that make gender-based distinctions: fraternities and sororities, women’s colleges, single-sex private high schools, sports teams, fitness clubs, and strip clubs, to name a few. It is perhaps unsurprising in light of these observations that views on gender and sexual conduct have flip-flopped. Thirty years ago, many people were concerned about gender equality, but few had LGBTQ equality on their radar. Today, if you ask your average 20-year-old whether it is worse for a fraternity to exclude women or for a Christian group to ask gay and lesbian members to refrain from sexual conduct, the responses would be overwhelmingly in one direction. That trend will likely continue.

Prediction #2: Only religious groups will accept a distinction between “sexual conduct” and “sexual orientation,” and those groups will almost certainly lose the legal effort to maintain that distinction.

Most Christian membership limitations today are based on conduct rather than orientation: they allow a gay or lesbian person to join a group, but prohibit that person from engaging in conduct that falls outside the church’s teachings on sexuality. These policies—like the one at Gordon College currently under fire—are not limited to gays or lesbians; all unmarried men and women are to refrain from sexual conduct. The distinction between status and conduct from which they derive is rooted in Christian tradition, and it is not limited to sexuality: one can be a sinner and abstain from a particular sin.

But many people reject the distinction between status and conduct. And in a 2010 decision,Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court also rejected it, viewing distinctions based on homosexual conduct as equivalent to discrimination against gays and lesbians. I have argued in a recent book (Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly) that the Court’s reasoning is troubling in the context of a private group’s membership requirements. But it is the current state of the law.

Prediction #3: Fewer and fewer people will value religious freedom.

Although some Christians will respond to looming challenges with appeals to religious liberty, their appeals will likely face indifference or even hostility from those who don’t value it. The growing indifference is perhaps unsurprising because many past challenges to religious liberty are no longer active threats. We don’t enforce blasphemy laws. We don’t force people to make compelled statements of belief. We don’t impose taxes to finance training ministers. These changes mean that in practice, many Americans no longer depend upon the free exercise right for their religious liberty. They are free to practice their religion without government constraints.

Additionally, a growing number of atheists and “nonreligious” Americans have little use for free exercise protections. Even though most Americans will continue to value religious liberty in a general sense, fewer will recognize the immediate and practical need for it to be protected by law.

This final prediction is deeply unsettling, because strong protections for religious liberty are core to our country’s law and history. But those protections have been vulnerable since the Court’s decision in the peyote case. And they will remain vulnerable unless the Court revisits its free exercise doctrine.

Read the whole thing here.

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So Heavenly Minded You’re No Earthly Good?

Jul 16, 2014 | Justin Taylor

C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity:

A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.

It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is.

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.

The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.

It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.

Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

John Piper:

Yes, I know. It is possible to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use. My problem is: I’ve never met one of those people. And I suspect, if I met one, the problem would not be that his mind is full of the glories of heaven, but that his mind is empty and his mouth is full of platitudes.

I suspect that for every professing believer who is useless in this world because of other-worldliness, there are a hundred who are useless because of this-worldliness.

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Preaching a Psalm of Lament and a Psalm of Praise

Jul 15, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Christopher Ash at the Truth for Life conference (2014), walking through Psalm 146 (and how Jesus perfectly fulfills these exhortations to praise and enables us to live a life of praise), and then Psalm 74, exploring God’s sovereignty over all evil:

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Pro-Life Efforts in Chinese Churches: An On-the-Ground Report

Jul 11, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Excellent on-the-ground reporting from World Magazine:

CHINA—The smell of steamed rice and stir-fried beef waft into the simple warehouse converted into a church in northern China. Fans mounted on the walls breathe air into the warm room, as gracious hosts hand visitors cups of boiling water, the drink of choice no matter the weather. As two pastors—one American, one Chinese—finished teaching on the sanctity of life, women and men of all ages stood up, sobbing and praying for repentance: “Lord, forgive me for aborting my child; I didn’t know it was murder. Lord, forgive me for shedding innocent blood.”

For most in the room, this was the first time they had seen photos of fetal development, learned about what abortion entails, and studied what the Bible says about the sanctity of life. A middle-aged Chinese woman with cropped hair approached me with a nervous smile afterward. “Where do the [aborted babies] go?” she asked, eyes watering. “I’ve had it done before and was wondering if I’d ever see them again.” I mumble in broken Chinese that the babies go to heaven, telling her the story of King David’s child. “Oh, that’s so good to hear,” she said.

In China abortion is “as common as drinking water,” one woman told me, with the official tally at 13 million babies aborted each year, by far the highest in the world. For many, abortion is viewed as the preferred method of birth control, with ubiquitous ads on buses and billboards touting quick, cheap, and pain-free abortions. Few people, including Christians, are knowledgeable about life inside the womb or understand the abortion procedure, a fact attributed to the government’s desire to continue its population control policies. Yet it’s not just the one-child policy causing women to abort; more and more single women are also aborting as the younger generation’s lax view of sex clashes against traditional stigmas against having children out of wedlock.

In the past few years, Chinese Christians are starting to take a stand for life, both by teaching about abortion from the pulpit, and working with women to find oftentimes unconventional ways to protect life. Some originally hear the pro-life message from U.S.-based ministries, some through the internet or overseas teachings, while others are convicted through reading the Bible. From there, the message has spread to tens of thousands of churches around the country, and resulted in mothers holding giggling babies that otherwise wouldn’t be born, women saved from forced abortions, and churches growing stronger as they repent and help their own.

Yet still only about 1 percent of all the churches in China have heard what the Bible has to say about life, according to the pro-life group China Life Alliance (CLA). And with cultural, governmental, and practical roadblocks hindering their message, the Chinese pro-life movement still has a long way to go.

Continue reading. . . .

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Do You Have Great Expectations?

Jul 10, 2014 | Justin Taylor

CDI am currently reading, for the first time, Charles Dickens’s masterpiece, Great Expectations, and thus far it is exceeding the expectations I had for it. I have been tempted—guilted?—to read the book for some time, ever since I read the following anecdote from Leland Ryken’s Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective:

Had I really heard what I seemed to have heard, or had my end-of-the-semester paranoia made me imagine things? David, a bright and godly student on the verge of graduation from college, had just said to me, “In my last semester in college I could not justify the time it would take to read Great Expectations.”

I said nothing. I was shocked. The chasm between David and me was so great on this subject that it took me a long time to grasp it. How could anyone not justify taking time to read Great Expectations? I wondered. Or Homer’s Odyssey and many other indispensable, life-changing books? What accounts for the difference between David’s attitude and mine? Most obviously, I have acquired a taste for literary classics and David has not. To me they are treasures that I cannot live without. This is an acquired taste only in the sense that people must read these books before they are captivated by them. Once we open ourselves to their beauty and power, they can be trusted to win us. David did not reject the classics because he found them lacking but because he left them unread.

In addition to picking up a cheap version of the print book—along with reading through Leland Ryken’s guide to the book— I’ve also been listened to Simon Prebble’s fantastic narration (a British accent is certainly helpful for a book like this), which Audible.com currently has on sale for $0.99 (I’m not sure how long that lasts).

[Update: Mark Ward clarifies: You can get the 99-cent price if you "buy" the $0.00 Kindle version at Amazon (click here). Once you "purchase" it, you will see an option to add the audio narration for 99 cents.]

Don’t watch the latest movie version till you read the book, but here is a 2012 version which looks good, starring Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as the convict Magwitch:

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A Book J. I. Packer Suggests You Read Three Times

Jul 09, 2014 | Justin Taylor

whitney

Don Whitney’s classic, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life—the most accessible and biblical introduction I know of—has now been published in a revised and updated edition. The original edition has sold around 400,000 copies since it was first published in 1991, and the second edition is even better.

Listen to J. I. Packer’s enthusiasm for what Whitney has produced:

. . .  I can go on record as urging all Christians to read what Don Whitney has written; indeed, to read it three times over, with a month’s interval (certainly not less, and ideally, I think, not more) between each reading. This will not only make the book sink in, but will also give you a realistic picture of your seriousness, or lack of it, as Jesus’ disciple.

Your first reading will show you several particular things that you should start doing.

In your second and third readings (for each of which you should choose a date on the day you complete the previous reading) you shall find yourself reviewing what you have done and how you have fared in doing it. That will be very good for you, even if the discovery comes as a bit of a shock at first.

. . .  The doctrine of the disciplines (Latin disciplinae, meaning “courses of learning and training”) is really a restatement and extension of classical Protestant teaching on the means of grace (the Word of God, prayer, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper). Don Whitney’s spiritual feet are blessedly cemented in the wisdom of the Bible, as spelled out by the Puritan and older evangelical masters, and he plots the path of discipline with a sure touch. The foundations he lays are evangelical, not legalistic. In other words, he calls us to pursue godliness through practicing the disciplines out of gratitude for the grace that has saved us, not as self-justifying or self-advancing effort. What he builds on these foundations is as beneficial as it is solid. He is in truth showing us the path of life.

If, then, as a Christian you want to be really real with your God, moving beyond the stage of playing games with yourself and Him, this book provides practical help. A century and a half ago the Scottish professor “Rabbi” Duncan sent his students off to read John Owen, the Puritan, on indwelling sin with the admonition, “But, gentlemen, prepare for the knife.” As I pass you over to Don Whitney, I would say to you, “Now, friend, prepare for the workout.” And you will find health for your soul.

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Why Is There Only One Way to God?

Jul 08, 2014 | Justin Taylor

David Platt:

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A Simple Old-School Scripture Memory—and Retention—System

Jul 07, 2014 | Justin Taylor

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Blaise Pascal on a New Study Showing Men Who Rather Experience Electrical Shock Than Be Alone with Their Thoughts

Jul 07, 2014 | Justin Taylor

The Washington Post recently summarized a recent study published in Science showing a sad but not surprising result: men would rather experience an electrical shock than to be along with his own thoughts.

Writing in the 17th century, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) made this startling observation:

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft, writing in Christianity for Modern Pagans, Pascal’s Pensees Edited, Outlined, and Explained, says that when he teaches Pascal’s material, his “students are always stunned and shamed to silence as Pascal shows them in these pensees their own lives in all their shallowness, cowardice and dishonesty.”

Kreeft continues

We ought to have much more time, more leisure, than our ancestors did, because technology, which is the most obvious and radical difference between their lives and ours, is essentially a series of time-saving devices.

In ancient societies, if you were rich you had slaves to do the menial work so that you could be freed to enjoy your leisure time. Life was like a vacation for the rich because the poor slaves were their machines. . . .

[But] now that everyone has slave-substitutes (machines), why doesn’t everyone enjoy the leisurely, vacationy lifestyle of the ancient rich? Why have we killed time instead of saving it? . . .

We want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to, we want to. We wanted to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hold in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.

So we run around like conscientious little bugs, scared rabbits, dancing attendance on our machines, our slaves, and making them our masters. We think we want peace and silence and freedom and leisure, but deep down we know that this would be unendurable to us, like a dark and empty room without distractions where we would be forced to confront ourselves. . .

If you are typically modern, your life is like a mansion with a terrifying hole right in the middle of the living-room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hide a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiple diversions.

Douglas Groothuis (Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary) has written wisely on these issues. In his essay “Why Truth Matters Most: An Apologetic for Truth-Seeking in Postmodern Times” (JETS, September 2004) he takes his cues from Pascal:

In the middle of the seventeenth century in France, Blaise Pascal went to great lengths to expose those diversions that kept people from seeking truth in matters of ultimate significance. His words still ring true. In his day, diversion consisted of things like hunting, games, gambling, and other amusements. The repertoire of diversion was minute compared with what is available in our fully-wired and over-stimulated postmodern world of cell phones, radios, laptops, video games, omnipresent television (in cars, restaurants, airports, etc.), extreme sports, and much else. Nevertheless, the human psychology of diversion remains unchanged. Diversion consoles us—in trivial ways—in the face of our miseries or perplexities; yet, paradoxically, it becomes the worst of our miseries because it hinders us from ruminating on and understanding our true condition. Thus, Pascal warns, it “leads us imperceptibly to destruction.” Why? If not for diversion, we would “be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death.” Through the course of protracted stupefaction, we learn to become oblivious to our eventual oblivion. In so doing, we choke off the possibility of seeking real freedom.

Diversion serves to distract humans from a plight too terrible to encounter directly—namely, our mortality, finitude, and failures. There is an ineluctable tension between our aspirations and our anticipations and the reality of our lives. As Pascal wrote,

Despite [his] afflictions man wants to be happy, only wants to be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy. But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop thinking about it.

Pascal unmasks diversion as an attempt to escape reality, and an indication of something unstable and exceedingly out-of-kilter in the human condition. An obsession with entertainment is more than silly or frivolous. It is, for Pascal, revelatory of a moral and spiritual malaise begging for an adequate explanation. Our condition is “inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.” We humans face an incorrigible mortality that drives us to distractions designed to overcome our worries:

Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end. Now what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, tilting at the ring, etc., and fighting, becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.

Pascal notes that “if man were [naturally] happy, the less he were diverted the happier he would be, like the saints and God.” Diversion cannot bring sustained happiness, since it locates the source of happiness outside of us; thus, our happiness is dependent on factors often beyond our control, so that we are “liable to be disturbed by a thousand and one accidents, which inevitably cause distress.” The power may go off, the screen freeze, or the cell phone connection may break up. Worse yet, our own sensoriam may break down as sight dwindles, hearing ebbs, olfactory awareness fades, and all manner of bodily pleasures become harder to find and easier to lose. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes intones, “Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’ ” (Eccl 12:1).

Diversions would not be blameworthy if they were recognized as such: trivial or otherwise distracting activities performed in order to temporarily avoid the harsh and unhappy realities of human life. However, self-deception often comes into play. In the end “we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.” According to Pascal, this condition illustrates the corruption of human nature. Humans are strangely not at home in their universe. They cannot even sit quietly in their own rooms. “If our condition were truly happy we should feel no need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.” Woody Allen highlights this in a scene from the movie “Manhattan.” A man speaks into a tape recorder about the idea for a story about “people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.”

The compulsive search for diversion is often an attempt to escape the wretchedness of life. We have great difficulty being quiet in our rooms, when the television or computer screen offers a riot of possible stimulation. Postmodern people are perpetually restless; they frequently seek solace in diversion instead of satisfaction in truth. As Pascal said, “Our nature consists in movement; absolute rest is death.” The postmodern condition is one of oversaturation and over-stimulation, and this caters to our propensity to divert ourselves from pursuing higher realities.

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