Ed Stetzer on Nuance and Hope in Church Decline

From Christianity Today: "Reports of Christianity's demise in America have been greatly exaggerated. While the main thrust of good research does indicate that the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians is declining, these data are not necessarily a bad thing. If three out of four Americans call themselves Christians, we are in big trouble. Three out of four Americans certainly do not live like Christians. Christianity becomes confused when everyone is a Christian but no one is following Christ. We evangelicals believe that most Americans do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is little doubt in my mind that the cultural expression of Christianity in America is declining. True, Christianity is losing its 'home-field advantage' in North America. At the same time, some trends tell us we are seeing the growth of a more robust Christian faith and commitment. We are seeing some abandon nominal Christianity, and many others retain an authentic Christian faith. Christianity in North America is not going to die out in this generation or any other, even though it is going through an identity crisis of sorts." Read the rest HERE.


On The Barna Group and Bad, Alarmist Statistics

From The Wall Street Journal: "...[W]hen a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation -- even though it was a false alarm. Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church, yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people.

In similar fashion, major media hailed another Barna report that young evangelicals are increasingly embracing liberal politics. But only religious periodicals carried the news that national surveys offer no support for this claim, and that younger evangelicals actually remain as conservative as their parents. Given this track record, it was no surprise this month to see the prominent headlines announcing another finding from Barna that American women are rapidly falling away from religion. The basis for this was a comparison between a poll they conducted in 1991 and one they conducted in January of this year. The reporters who ran with this story ought to have wondered why this change wasn't picked up sooner if it was going on for 20 years. Many national surveys have been conducted during this period -- in fact the Barna Group has been doing them all along. Did the organization check to see if its new results were consistent with its own previous data or with the many other national surveys widely available? There is no sign that it did. If it had, it would have found that its findings about women are as unfounded as previous claims about young people deserting the church and young evangelicals becoming liberals." Read the rest HERE.


A Short Debate on Prayer in Light of God's Sovereignty

Last night on facebook a friend of mine, who has recently converted from Evangelicalism to atheism, approached me with an argument about prayer and how it relates to the sovereignty of God. Here is how the dialogue/debate went (slightly edited):

Friend: It seems to me that prayer is morally wrong if the person who prays understands himself or herself to be submitting to divine omnipotence. If god is sovereign, that means everything that happens is his will. So asking him to change what happens would be against his will, which is the very definition of sin. I do not think that any sort of petition-like prayer to god is consistent with the idea or conviction that he is sovereign. In other words, if god is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good), then prayer is immoral because the goal would be that he changes his will -- and sin is anything that goes against god's will, and specifically in this case, desiring and asking for something that is not god's will.

"The purpose of prayer is not to try to change God's will, but rather that His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven."

Me: Good question. The fundamental error in your account is your view that the purpose of (at least "petition-like") prayer is to change God's will. The purpose of prayer, at least theologically (i.e., this is often not the case in practice), is not to try to change God's will, but rather (as Jesus taught us to pray) that His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:9-13; cf. Luke 11:1-4). Prayer is a fundamental part of God's will and design for how human persons relate to the divine Persons, and so its primary purpose is not to change His mind and will (He is sovereign, after all), but for us to relate to Him and gradually over time to change our characters and wills to express and to be in alignment with His/Theirs. Can persons pray (for) things that go against God's will (I would use the words character and nature instead)? Of course. But God's answer to those prayers is always "no." In your view, is it a contradiction to believe that the only prayers that God answers "yes" are those that already reflect both His moral will and sovereign will? That is my position. (Note that there is more than one variety of "the" will of God -- namely, the crucial distinction between God's moral will and His sovereign will.)

Friend: Now that I think about it, if he is sovereign, he wants people to sin (because they do, but he is in control of everything) so it is not actually against his will to sin. Hmmm...

Me: Not exactly. As I noted above, there is an important distinction to be made between God's moral will and His sovereign will. His moral will (i.e., how He wants humans to live morally) can be (and oftentimes is) disobeyed (even though He doesn't want it to be), while His sovereign will (i.e., His perfect control over history) is unavoidable. This seems like a contradiction at face value, but it isn't. Instead, I would argue that human sin (i.e., disobedience to His moral will) is, somewhat ironically, a part of His sovereign will (i.e., how He has unavoidably decreed and designed human history to unfold).

Friend: Yes, that does seem like a contradiction.

Me: I would say that it is more of an irony than a logical contradiction.

Friend: If god were truly sovereign, how could his sovereign will be separate from his moral will?

"Human sin (i.e., disobedience to God's moral will) is an element of His sovereign will (i.e., how He has decreed human history to unfold)."

Me: That question sounds like a good topic for a doctoral dissertation at a seminary, but here is one possible answer (which I have already stated briefly above): Human sin (i.e., disobedience to God's moral will) is an element of His sovereign will (i.e., how He has decreed human history to unfold). More specifically, it seems possible to me (in the broadly logical sense) that God could have written the unavoidable story of human history such that humans come along, they never sin (i.e., they never do or think anything that runs counter to the nature and character of God), and then everything is fine and everyone can go to Heaven (or "be with God," or "enter the Kingdom," or however you conceive of "the goal.") In other words, God (at least logically) could have created the world such that human sin never entered the picture, and there was never any conflict between the nature of God and the condition of humanity.

...But that seems like a pretty lame story that in fact does not reflect the nature and character of God. Instead, it seems to me that the kind of ultimate cosmic story that the triune God, by His very nature, would write (i.e., His sovereign will) is one that allows for humans to reject Him, one that doesn't treat us as some kind of automata, and one that reflects the moral virtues of grace, compassion, love, and forgiveness (e.g., through the atoning work of Jesus on the cross on our behalf). So, to answer your question in short, God's sovereign will can be (and is) separated from His moral will because of the very nature and character of God Himself. Such a cosmic story is, as far as I can see, the best (or only?) one that reflects not only God's "hard side" (His justice, power, might, and holiness), but also His "soft side" (His love, grace, mercy, and compassion).

Friend: None of this gets around the fact that if he actually wanted people to not sin, they wouldn't.

Me: I am repeating myself here, but it is still my response to your claim. Your claim is that: If God actually wanted people not to sin, then they would not sin. I disagree with that claim, and here is why: God indeed wants people not to sin (i.e., His moral will), and yet they do. The theological explanation that I offered for that scenario is that the violation of His moral will (i.e., human sin) is itself a crucial element of His sovereign will -- because that scenario (i.e., a world in which all persons sin) writes a cosmic story (i.e., His sovereign will) that best reflects His own character and nature. In other words, a world in which God wants no one to sin and yet everyone does sin is a world that allows for and, in fact, makes necessary God's love, grace, and mercy (His "soft side"). In short, part of God's sovereign will is that His moral will is able to be violated so that His full nature -- both His "hard side" (e.g., justice and holiness) and His "soft side" (e.g., love and grace) -- can be manifested, understood, and enjoyed.

Here is a related video from Dr. Bruce Ware:

What are your thoughts?


Thinking someone is wrong doesn't mean you hate them.

From The Huffington Post: "The wordsmithing Brits behind the Oxford Dictionary define 'hate' as 'hostile actions motivated by intense dislike or prejudice.' But words take on new meanings as people speak them, often deriving more from the context of their usage than from their actual definitions. The word 'hate' has become one of many such grammatical casualties as some now use it to describe the positions of any who vary from emerging cultural norms. 

Among offenders are gay activists who increasingly define anyone who believes that marriage should be applied only in the context of monogamous, heterosexual union as anti-gay and hateful. But is a belief in traditional marriage an inherently hateful posture? ...The rhythm of crossfire over marital law has become a staple in America's culture wars. But it does raise questions about the prudence of applying emotional labels to those who disagree with one's position. Are organizations that oppose same sex marriage, and people who associate with them, hate-mongers? Should we assume those who support the traditional definition of marriage are 'motivated by intense dislike or prejudice?'" Read the rest HERE.


Is Pluralism More Tolerant Than Christianity?

From The Resurgence: "Very often people hold to religious pluralism because they think it is more tolerant than Christianity. I'll be the first to say that we need tolerance, but what does it mean to be tolerant? To be tolerant is to accommodate differences, which can be very noble. I believe that Christians should be some of the most accommodating kinds of people, giving everyone the dignity to believe whatever they want and not enforcing their beliefs on others through politics or preaching. We should winsomely tolerate different beliefs. Interestingly, religious pluralism doesn't really allow for this kind of tolerance. Instead of accommodating spiritual differences, religious pluralism blunts them. ...The claim that all paths lead to the same God actually minimizes other religions by asserting a new religious claim. When someone says all paths lead to the same God, they blunt the distinctives between religions, throwing them all in one pot, saying: 'See, they all get us to God so the differences don't really matter.' This isn't tolerance; it's a power play." Read the rest HERE.


Would you like Nietzsche with that?

From The Village Voice: "With the academic job market in free fall, career services at many universities and colleges are working harder than ever to market Ph.D.'s outside the academy. And Ph.D.'s looking for a way out of the 'jobless market' are lining up for advice. 'There were alternative career workshops 10 years ago,' says Trudy Steinfeld, assistant vice president of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at NYU, which provides career-building workshops for both undergraduate and graduate students. 'But not with the same frequency and certainly not with the same number of students in attendance. Students are definitely more interested in this.' The staff at the Wasserman Center meets with 7,000 graduate students each year, up from half that number 10 years ago, Steinfeld estimates. There are fewer jobs out there for everyone, of course, not just for academics. But for the jobs that are available, Ph.D.'s, with their intensive training in research and writing, have a leg up on the competition. Still, they need guidance that department faculty, who may have never worked outside of academia, are not always equipped to provide." Read the rest HERE.


Everyone feels like a monster sometimes.


Spurgeon to Young Men on Patience and Perseverance

"We ought not to be put out of heart by difficulties; they are sent on purpose to try the stuff we are made of -- and depend upon it -- they do us a world of good. There's a sound reason why there are bones in our meat and stones in our land. A world where everything was easy would be a nursery for babies, but not at all a fit place for men. Celery is not sweet till it has felt a frost, and men don't come to their perfection till disappointment has dropped a half-hundred weight or two on their toes. Who would know good horses if there were no heavy loads? ...Work is always healthier for us than idleness; it is always better to wear out shoes than sheets. I sometimes think, when I put on my considering cap, that success in life is something like getting married: there's a very great deal of pleasure in the courting, and it is not a bad thing when it is a moderate time on the road. Therefore, young man, learn to wait, and work on. Don't throw away your rod, the fish will bite some time or other. The cat watches long at the hole, but catches the mouse at last. The spider mends her broken web, and the flies are taken before long. Stick to your calling, plod on, and be content; for, make sure, if you can undergo you shall overcome."

Charles Haddon Spurgeon. 1896. John Ploughman's Pictures. Philadelphia, PA: Henry Altemus. pp. 172-174.


On Therapeuticism in the Church

From SoMA Review: "I had joined the Episcopal Church to worship at the high altar of God. Now I found out that the Episcopal Church was worshipping at the high altar of psychotherapy! I was disgusted. Or, in psychotherapeutic lingo, my scores in the anger category were significantly elevated. But please do not mistake this anger for a general aversion to therapists. As one who has been helped by therapy before, I recognize that psychology has a legitimate place in the church. However, when therapy and not spiritual direction becomes the preferred vehicle of discernment, psychology has overstepped its bounds and the church runs the risk of becoming little more than a therapeutic support group, forsaking her one, defining mark, namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 'Good News,' which used to be the Gospel, becomes self-actualization on a couch. 'Redemption' disintegrates into regular sessions with a shrink, and our savior becomes not Christ but Freud, who viewed religion as nothing more than the projection of deep-seated fears and desires -- the 'universal, obsessional neurosis of humanity.' What if we were to read Scripture through these therapeutic lenses?" Read the rest HERE.


The Downward Mobility of (Nonprofessional) Men

From The Atlantic: "The troubles of the nonprofessional middle class are inseparable from the economic troubles of men. Consistently, men without higher education have been the biggest losers in the economy's long transformation (according to Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, real median wages of men have fallen by 32 percent since their peak in 1973, once you account for the men who have washed out of the workforce altogether). And the struggles of men have amplified the many problems -- not just economic, but social and cultural -- facing the country today. Just as the housing bubble papered over the troubles of the middle class, it also hid, for a time, the declining prospects of many men. According to the Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, since the mid-1980s, the labor market has been placing a higher premium on creative, analytic, and interpersonal skills, and the wages of men without a college degree have been under particular pressure...

"One of the great puzzles of the past 30 years has been the way that men, as a group, have responded to the declining market for blue-collar jobs. Opportunities have expanded for college graduates over that span, and for nongraduates, jobs have proliferated within the service sector (at wages ranging from rock-bottom to middling). Yet in the main, men have pursued neither higher education nor service jobs. The proportion of young men with a bachelor's degree today is about the same as it was in 1980. And as the sociologists Maria Charles and David Grusky noted in their 2004 book, Occupational Ghettos, while men and women now mix more easily on different rungs of the career ladder, many industries and occupations have remained astonishingly segregated, with men continuing to seek work in a dwindling number of manual jobs, and women 'crowding into nonmanual occupations that, on average, confer more pay and prestige.'" Read the rest HERE.


Can the Middle Class Be Saved?

From The Atlantic: "In October 2005, three Citigroup analysts released a report describing the pattern of growth in the U.S. economy. To really understand the future of the economy and the stock market, they wrote, you first needed to recognize that there was 'no such animal as the U.S. consumer,' and that concepts such as 'average' consumer debt and 'average' consumer spending were highly misleading. In fact, they said, America was composed of two distinct groups: the rich and the rest. And for the purposes of investment decisions, the second group didn't matter; tracking its spending habits or worrying over its savings rate was a waste of time. All the action in the American economy was at the top: the richest 1 percent of households earned as much each year as the bottom 60 percent put together; they possessed as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; and with each passing year, a greater share of the nation's treasure was flowing through their hands and into their pockets. It was this segment of the population, almost exclusively, that held the key to future growth and future returns. The analysts, Ajay Kapur, Niall Macleod, and Narendra Singh, had coined a term for this state of affairs: plutonomy. ...Income inequality usually shrinks during a recession, but in the Great Recession, it didn't. From 2007 to 2009, the most-recent years for which data are available, it widened a little." Read the rest HERE.


Secularism and Its Discontents

From The New Yorker: "I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: 'How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life -- beginning with my own, my husband's, my child's, and spreading outward -- is cosmically irrelevant?' In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties -- religiosity on one side, secularism on the other -- and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa. These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them." Read the rest HERE.


An Excellent Review of The Tree of Life

From The Gospel Coalition: "In the world of cinema, there are two basic kinds of people: those who 'go to the movies,' and those who love the art of film itself. For the latter group, the release date of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life in their respective city was tantamount to a high holy day. Malick -- the reclusive director -- has only made four films in the past 40 years before this current release. Each piece has in turn been critically acclaimed. The Tree of Life was certainly no exception to the rule, receiving the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the festival's most prestigious award. This all took place despite the fact that Malick did not personally appear in support of the film at Cannes (although he was there), and refuses to do any publicity. Confession: I believe that The Tree of Life is a masterpiece and a deeply important film. As someone who teaches courses in philosophy of film, and having seen the film multiple times myself, I have repeatedly told all interested parties that this is not a film for the folks who like to 'go to the movies.'" Read the rest HERE.


Does Philosophy Matter? (Stanley Fish Says No.)

From The New York Times: "There are (at least) two ways of denying moral absolutes. You can say 'I don't believe there are any' or you can say 'I believe there are moral absolutes, but (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test, algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.' The person (and I am one) who takes this second position denies nothing except the possibility (short of force or torture and they don't count) of securing universal assent. You might say that he or she is a moral absolutist but an epistemological relativist -- someone who doesn't think that there is a trump-card that, when played, will bring your interlocutor over to your side, but does think that there are any number of cards (propositions, appeals, examples, etc.) that might, in particular circumstances and given the history and interests of those in the conversation, produce a change of mind. But does any of this matter outside the esoteric arena of philosophical disputation?" Read the rest HERE. (And for the record, he is wrong.)


A New Terrence Malick Film: The Tree of Life


College Students Are Selling Sex To Pay Loan Debt.

From The Huffington Post: "Saddled with piles of student debt and a job-scarce, lackluster economy, current college students and recent graduates are selling themselves to pursue a diploma or pay down their loans. An increasing number, according to the the owners of websites that broker such hook-ups, have taken to the web in search of online suitors or wealthy benefactors who, in exchange for sex, companionship, or both, might help with the bills. The past few years have taken an especially brutal toll on the plans and expectations of 20-somethings. ...Besides moving back home, many 20-somethings are beginning their adult lives shouldering substantial amounts of student loan debt. According to Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the financial aid websites Fastweb.com and Finaid.org, while the average 2011 graduate finished school with about $27,200 in debt, many are straining to pay off significantly greater loans. Enter the sugar daddy, sugar baby phenomenon. This particular dynamic preceded the economic meltdown, of course. Rich guys well past their prime have been plunking down money for thousands of years in search of a tryst or something more with women half their age -- and women, willingly or not, have made themselves available. With the whole process going digital, women passing through a system of higher education that fosters indebtedness are using the anonymity of the web to sell their wares and pay down their college loans. 'Over the past few years, the number of college students using our site has exploded,' says Brandon Wade, the 41-year-old founder of Seeking Arrangement. Of the site's approximately 800,000 members, Wade estimates that 35 percent are students. 'College students are one of the biggest segments of our sugar babies and the numbers are growing all the time.'" Read the rest HERE.


Evangelicals Without Blowhards

From The New York Times: "In these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as 'evangelical Christian.' That's partly because evangelicals came to be associated over the last 25 years with blowhard scolds. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discussed on television whether the 9/11 attacks were God's punishment on feminists, gays and secularists, God should have sued them for defamation. ...Partly because of such self-righteousness, the entire evangelical movement often has been pilloried among progressives as reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral. Yet that casual dismissal is profoundly unfair of the movement as a whole. It reflects a kind of reverse intolerance, sometimes a reverse bigotry, directed at tens of millions of people who have actually become increasingly engaged in issues of global poverty and justice. This compassionate strain of evangelicalism was powerfully shaped by the Rev. John Stott, a gentle British scholar who had far more impact on Christianity than media stars like Mr. Robertson or Mr. Falwell." Read the rest HERE.


We Can't Teach Students to Love Reading

From The Chronicle of Higher Education: "While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to. And that's to be expected. Serious 'deep attention' reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level. ...In 2005, Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, sociologists from Northwestern University, published a paper concluding that while there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run. 'We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.'" Read the rest HERE, if you want.


©2009 [theou poiema] | by TNB