Friday, May 14, 2010

Interesting comment at BHT about "Sunday's Coming"/Growtivation

Mark N writes:
The video: I thought it was Hee-larious until I found out that it was made by the the purveyors of circus-nous. Now I’m just confused. Magicians aren’t supposed to reveal their tricks. I guess its supposed to be self-referentially ironic in a post-modernish sort of way. Its like modern art- you don’t understand it unless you’re in on the joke. Even so, Caiaphas did prophecy.

Magicians aren't supposed to reveal their tricks. This explains why what some people see as satire, and others see as an in-joke, still others see as something less amusing and more revealing than either, an inadvertant revelation of the magic trick that attracts people to a particular kind of church.

In public speaking the principle you go by is to tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. What works as the great metanarrative can defuse the power of the sales pitch in making the sales pitch. The person who declares, in whatever way, "I am going to sell you something" has lost the customer who doesn't really want to be sold that something. If what you have to sell isn't in some sense desirable in itself the sales pitch is ineffective. We are not blind to the fact that if we don't want something we can't be sold on it.

The rock and roll concert vibe with the motivational speaker who has all the answers ultimately can't be an inside joke because that's what the role of the rock band and speaker actually is in that setting. There's that song that is supposed to make people cry because it has strings backing it up ... or because it's just so "real" and "authentic" it just hits people where it counts, and also potentially because the sheer volume of the mid-tempo I-V-vi-IV progression through Marshall amps on a Stratocaster tends to elicit that effect when a high singing voice talks about endless love.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

From Tim Challies: Joel Osteen ... or fortune cookie?

I find this one mildly amusing, amusing enough to link to.

By way of self-reference, this reminds me of a poem I wrote based on something that happened to me ...

Today I got a
fortuneless fortune cookie.
Have I no future?

So my spin on Challies point is this: does the fortuneless fortune cookie have more wisdom than the Osteen axiom?

As Heraclitus put it "all is flux"

It is weird when you can't be certain about how things are going to work. You never get used to it. I thought something was going to happen this weekend that isn't going to happen. Then it's going to happen again but that is because something else I thought was going to happen can't happen.

Even without a job one's schedule can be aflutter with the butterflies of chaos carrying the pollen of Fortune or MissFortune along the crags of one's path.

Now that I'm done poorly emulating the rhythms of Krazy Kat I can say that it stinks that I have little idea what I can fit time in for even while I'm unemployed.

From Orthocuban: The Greatest threat to the church comes from sin within

There is virtualy nothing I can add to Fr Ernesto Obregon's observations on the Pope's statement. It IS too easy for us to see the great threats to the church coming from outside. We have, as Obregon points out, found it perilously easy to define "outside" in ways that include all those other Christians than our own confessional niche. Catholics may see the Church as under fire from unfair critics from the outside but if the Pope says, in essence, "We brought this on ourselves and our own sins are catching up with us" how do you defend the Church then?

Of course this is not just a Catholic problem. Every group of Christians eventually faces the horns of this dillema. Non-believers will continue to assert that this is proof of our own wickedness. They could say that all the pedophiles, perverts, child molestors, and obstructors-of-justice aren't the gays or the fornicators who are "living in sin" but the priests and pastors and Sunday school teachers and social conservatives. God has said through the scriptures in the prophets that the Israelites were nastier, more brutish, more perverse, and more absurd in pleading persecution and martyrdom than all their heathen neighbors put together. God's people were described as a hooker so desperate for johns she goes out and PAYS people to do business with her. Even normal hookers at least expect to get paid for their services.

I suppose in a way this is an unexpected part 4, eh?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The book that didn't actually cost a church a thousand members

This link serves as an unfortunate title for the linked article. Nowhere in the article does Driscoll say the book in question cost Mars Hill a thousand church members. The author and the editor of the on-line content never make that statement, so why does the link have this heavily freighted collection of words? I would suggest that whoever wrote that link might want to revise it since it attributes to Driscoll a statement he and the author never make. Web-page designers have copy editors, right?

I was at Mars Hill from roughly late 1999 through to 2008 (up through the Jonah series and feeling a need to excuse myself from Peasant Princess because I didn't want another homiletic rerun from Mark on stuff I'm not sure I benefited from the first time). It would have been beyond me to surmise that 1,000 members somehow left because if everyone's membership was cancelled pending renewal these were not members who quit, they were members who had their memberships cancelled by elder fiat and chose not to renew. It is improbable that those members declined to renew on the basis of doctrinal disagreements.

It seems more likely that members declined to renew because at one point they were told that agreeing with the by-laws was a prerequisite to member renewal above and beyond agreeing with the doctrinal statement (easy, because an evangelical Protestant would agree with it) and a membership contract (oh, wait, "covenant"). I had renewed my "covenant" a few times before this reboot happened. In fact I had renewed it enough times that I began to wonder why I had to keep doing it. What was the point of signing a "covenant" if the terms of renewal were going to come up in two years and my membership could be unilaterally revoked if I failed to give for six months according to the by-laws that were approved in 2007? No offense but if I lost my job and was in some way ineligible for unemployment tithing was not gonna happen.

The reason I didn't renew was because (among many, many other reasons) I had gotten tired of renewing. As I saw it I was not the one who was being a quitter in my committment to the church, the leadership seemed to display a potentially consumeristic approach to its members by forcing the question of "how committed are you?" by rebooting membership rosters every couple of years. At least when you get confirmed in traditional denominations it is in effect until one or both parties agree to cancel it.

On the other hand, I had no interest in resigning. I was actually seeing cases where people were resigning their memberships only to discover that that in itself was considered grounds for church discipline and that meant that their resignations were not accepted because, subject to church discipline, they weren't allowed to just leave. I don't know how that practically meant anything because they left anyway but perhaps their memberships were finally allowed to be ended during the doctrine series or something. The most peaceful thing to do was to simply not renew when the time came up and to step down from ministries I was participating in that were contingent on membership. Not everyone was paying attention or enquiring about this and I was loathe to just say "no" in indisputable terms so I ended up being a moron and let myself get talked into handling a bunch of stuff that led to burn-out. I should have been wiser, more forthright, and more industrious.

Since I am among those 1,000 alluded to in the article I thought I would point out that a lot of us decided to drop out of Mars Hill well before the Doctrine series. Most of us had no quibble with the doctrine but had reservations about things like that would-have-been Ballard campus 2--that whole spending a huge sum of money on a piece of property before adequately investigating the zoning issues. If Driscoll has convinced himself that the 1,000 who left left over doctrinal issues he's welcome to persuade himself of that but I suggest that the reasons people didn't renew are not necessarily related to doctrine or to the raised expectations of membership. The expectations were already really high. I had no problem with the contract or the doctrinal statement but being told via memo I had to agree to by-laws I had never been required to sign off on seemed redundant.

I eventually learned that most people who became members after the Doctrine series had rarely bothered to actually read the by-laws old members were told they had to agree to in order to renew their membership. This even was the case for long-standing members-they didn't actually look through the by-laws but they signed up for membership renewal and were welcomed as "new" members. It turned out that my reservation about renewal was based on the belief that a standard would be enforced that was apparently not very well enforced. Oh well, in light of that that is a post hoc reason to have not renewed.

Again, Driscoll's explanation can be considered broadly true but it begs of us a great deal of correlation that assumes causation. I can't go that far. I grant the correlation. I mean, I was there during that period. But I saw no evidence then or now of the causation. I would suggest that Driscoll is so far above the trenches he probably saw a few howitzer bursts along the trench lines but didn't necessarily see any of the troops getting hit, except maybe if there were troops in there he knew personally. This was around the time Moi's name seemed to vanish from most references in Mars Hill websites.

So I respectfully disagree with the supposition that the doctrine series and raising the bar of membership caused a loss of 1,000 members. It may be partly true but if you say the membership roster was cancelled out and 1,000 people don't renew that's not really your church LOSING 1,000 members. It could be that the 1,000 members who you cancelled from your records got tired of having to renew their membership contracts over and over again. This from the guy who laments consumerism but has three Tivos and two home theaters? Maybe members didn't renew because when they got wind of things like three Tivos and two home theaters they wanted to be at a church where the pastor couldn't make off-the-cuff remarks about stuff like that because the pastor doesn't HAVE that kind of gear.

There are a lot of lives being transformed at Mars Hill and the Lord uses all sorts of churches to further the work of the kingdom. That I am more than a little incredulous at Driscoll's account of the doctrine series doesn't mean I don't think you should read the book. His writing over the years has gotten better and having Breshears help means it will probably even have some more substance to it now. That said, I hope he's done with books and can focus on, I dunno, actually being a pastor to the network of churches. The Luke series seems like a very positive change of direction. 2007-2008 was a very low point in his career in terms of substance. I'm glad that his teaching has largely rebounded from the nadir of Ruth and Nehemiah. For a while I thought maybe 1,000 people were going to bail in 2007 because Driscoll's sermons totally sucked. They did, my opinion, for what little it's worth.

I'm not like Scotteriology who can rip Driscoll apart for dissembling about the actual purpose and content of Targum Neophiti but we might well both agree that someone should keep Driscoll pretty far away from OT books for a while until he can handle texts more responsibly than he did in Nehemiah. Fortunately, God in His providence seems to have inspired Mark to spend several years in Luke. That's awesome. God is good. I've said for a while that somebody has been overdue to tackle a gospel and it's encouraging to hear that happening. Now if he'd just avoid stunt proclamations about Avatar where he lets slip how many Tivos he has after lamenting consumerism ... . I had hoped he would outgrow the spiritual gift of shoving both feet in his mouth.

Meanwhile, I've figured out that since I'm into Reformed Anglican theologians but don't want to be Episcopalian that Presbyterianism is looking like a more natural fit for my theological disposition these days. Plus it's nice that membership with them doesn't have to be renewed every couple of years via contract the way it was at Mars Hill. So in saying all the above I don't wish to give the impression that I parted ways from Mars Hill on particularly bad terms. Far from it. I just sometimes find myself frustrated seeing the official narrative with a feeling that the official narrative doesn't fit what I actually saw in the lives of my friends and family there. Still, I trust the Lord will work things out for good in the end, even the stuff that puzzles me.

P.S. paedobaptists and old-school Reformed folks have been saying for years that Driscoll isn't one of them. 22 comments on the link above were deleted and comments have been closed because the usual back and forth about Driscoll as divider and Driscoll as uniter got under way. For a guy who said in Reformission Rev that the paedobaptist/theonomist types were dead weight holding the church back I think that the hard-core Reformed have a point in saying Driscoll rips on Reformed traditions like infant baptism and then claims to be in the Reformed tradition. Their take is that it would seem more forthright for Driscoll to identify himself as a Calvinist Baptist. Say ... that whole hanging with John Piper thing MIGHT lend some creedance to that assertion. If you look like a duck, walk like a duck, and hang out with ducks you can't get too upset if a bunch of geese think you're a duck. Still, Driscoll is too much of a pragmatist to actually anchor himself down to existing theological traditions that don't appeal to him. Depending on how you parse that it's a weakness or a strength. I see it as both, no surprise.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

from Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk: A sound argument [and a few comments]

Nothing to add, really, just linking. Michael Spenser has gone to be with the Lord but there's still stuff getting posted at Internet Monk.

Denouncing in others the sins in yourself, part 3: "We would never do that" you say, while you're doing just that

Fearsome Tycoon wrote something recently about the contrast between a state deciding what punishments to mete out for crimes against individuals verses crimes against the state itself. I couldn't resist pointing out that the state's view of children and infants reveals this gap. There is nothing against the law with respect to aborting an unwanted child but once that child is allowed to be born and registered as a citizen of the United States it becomes a crime to kill the infant. On the basis of what? That once you permit the child's birth it becomes criminal to change your mind? If it isn't criminal to change your mind and abort the child before it is born why is it criminal to kill the baby?

Well, in one sense the simple explanation is that once the child is born the child is considered a citizen and only the state has the power, in its eyes, to decide what citizens ought to live and die. It also can be considered to make sense that prior to allowing the child to be born the child was in the prospective mother's body and the mother has the right to terminate the pregnancy. However, this whole set of observations highlights that the state can consider it onerous to do in one setting what it permits in another.

The thing is that we are all susceptible to this sort of temptation, to permit ourselves what we deny others or to permit to others selectively what we feel free to do ourselves. The subject of abortion can be construed as part of a larger whole. The question may be seen as the conflict between liberty and loyalty, both expected but not always in agreement.

I have thought a lot over the years about the subject of betrayed trust and about what is involved in the feeling of betrayal. Betrayal of trust varies with loyalty. If you learn something through a newspaper or the internet and the information turns out to be wrong you are hurt but you won't feel that your loyalty has been betrayed. If you hear something from a person and act on that knowledge and that knowledge turns out to be false then you WILL probably feel betrayed because the betrayal of trust has probably stopped being tacit and has been made explicit. This doesn't mean that fraud on the internet or through email or through companies isn't bad, just that the level of emotional damage is different because the emotional weight of loyalty invested into the relationship or (more likely) transaction is not as significant as a betrayal of loyalty from a friend, spouse, or child.

At the risk of stating the obvious, betrayals of loyalty (i.e. also known as trust) hurt because we put our trust in the principle of reciprocity. As we have seen from the indications of recent research, the idea that you should favor those who are favorable and punish those who are not helpers and only look after themselves is, as some propose, hardwired into the brains of babies.

Yet (there always seems to be a "yet" in the human condition) this loyalty can actually be a problem and a means to injustice. Many crimes are committed through loyalty and jealousy. The girlfriend or boyfriend who is worth dying for is, we may presume, also worth killing for. Thus people enlist in the military to kill those who would kill their loved ones. Betraying the ideals of the in crowd is worth ostracizing people for and this is why we ostracize those who betray the ideals of our given community.

What happens when your community or the person you give your emotional loyalty to is wrong? What if you are wrong in the emotional loyalty requirements you place on others? Is it equitable to expect emotional and loyalty sacrifices from others even on the premise that you sacrificed X and Y so that person should sacrifice A through W? We do not all view sacrifices in the same way. Christ Himself said that once his disciples had done all that was required of them they were to say that they were not good servants for they had done merely what was expected of them. That is a little digression of the sorts I have many of. And I just ended a sentence with a preposition. Oh well.

It seems that there are active and passive forms of betrayal. The passive form is to have our loyalty taken for granted, the active form is to actively betray loyalty by ending the cycle of reciprocation. The passive form might be that your boss takes your loyalty to and hard work for the organization for granted. You aren't thanked for anything, your work is never praised, and only discussed when it is in some way a failure. An active form of betrayal might be the boss taking credit for work that you did in a setting where work-for-hire is not explicity agreed upon. Another active form of betrayal might be that your boss fires you for standing on principle. Or, actually, you might feel betrayed even if your boss fires you and with good cause because you got fired for something that the boss hadn't bothered to discipline you for before. The sense of betrayal inheres in your understanding of not just what the relationship has been, or is, but also in what you perceive it ought to be in the future.

Now it probably goes without saying that a relationship in which these forms of betrayal occur will tend to reveal both active and passive forms of betrayal. As the old axiom goes, a cheating spouse in sex was cheating in some way before things got to sex. To feel betrayed there has to, at some level, be a measure in the relationship, a determination of one or more parties to keep score. Betrayal is when the score is considered uneven. Betrayal is virtually inevitable when a score is the point of the relationship.

It could be easy to talk about how unspiritual it is to want reciprocity in relationships, particularly in marriage. While spiritual jargon may have that the two think entirely of each other that giving ensures that each recipient is getting. Reciprocity is still fundamentally at play. The score is considered even if the two participants are devoted to not counting the score for themselves but for each other. By "score" I don't mean "happy", I simply mean that so long as both partners in a marriage work on making the relationship work to whatever degree the relationship can be mutually agreed upon the relationship "works". People who don't like each other but stay together for the benefit of the children have a relationship that 'works' even if the most crucial prerequisite for a "relationship" in this culture, mutual attraction and affection, is absent. In Christianese jargon the phrase may be "pursue your wife" or "honor your husband".

While in marriage score-keeping is a recipe for death score-keeping is, arguably, the essence of the courting process. Despite lip service to how unspiritual it may be to keep score it may be useful to point out that score-keeping IS something that God does. If score-keeping were not in some sense an issue in life itself, to say nothing of the Christian understanding of salvation, there would never be terms like "ransom" or "atonement" or "mediation". I don't care what theories you think you do or don't hold on these issues, the Christian faith posits that through Christ God has settled the score on our behalf instead of on behalf of death. Part of the reign of death is that in this age we look everywhere and can see many cases where the score is not even. People ask of us sacrifices that are not commensurate with the sacrifices they seem willing (or unwilling) to make on our behalf. If you are keeping score you are setting yourself up for disappointment and yet the truth is that we all keep score. Even BABIES, it seems, know how to keep the score in observing helpers and hinderers.

With the sort of background I have loyalty is pretty important. If you sacrifice for someone then though you might prefer to not explicitly cash in on owed favors you might be tempted to mention what you have done in the past as leverage to get something you want now. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the sort of thing that is startlingly easy to lapse into doing yourself without consciously knowing of it while being tempestuously aware of it in other people. It sometimes seems as though it could in some sense be a family weakness, the tacit score-keeping about who does what for whom because one is family. This seems, I think, an essentially normal part of family life.

I am, though I dare to say this foolishly on the internet, what I would consider a pretty loyal person. Once I give my loyalty to someone or something it lasts a long time. I have a friend I still consider a friend after fifteen years even though he has renounced his faith and shifted from being a conservative to a liberal. We are not quite so close now as we were at first for geographical reasons but I still consider him very much a friend. It was he who said of me that I am very loyal and that I have been loyal to him as a friend beyond anything he could imagine someone else putting up with after the crap he talked about religion and politics. For other people, I suppose, having a good friend abandon the shared values of religious belief and a particular branch of political or social thought and the subsequent changes in applied ethics might be a great big deal-breaker. For me it is not. I believe that loyalty means choosing to be pragmatic about expected results rather than the people you connect yourself to.

But not everyone is like this. Some people see people essentially as resources to use. You use the winners and off-load the losers, however you choose to define the nature of the loser. I once heard a pastor state from the pulpit in the plainest possible language that you should do a big inventory of your friends to find out who is helping you meet your goals and who is simply wasting your time, draining your life of energy that should be devoted to pursuing your plan. With God as my witness I'm not making that up. I remember being mortified by the statement but a lot of people, a freakishly large amount of people, didn't seem to bat a single eye.

How do people who have this user mentality about people become pastors? Well, they persuade people like me (i.e. those whose loyalty is driven by devotion to people rather than ends) that their goals are admirable and sanctioned by the Lord. They persuade people like me that though other churches or causes have faltered THIS one is different, THIS one is special, THIS one won't be a grand royale screw-up like all the others that are the majority of human experience. Samaria has gone astray but JUDEA will perservere against all odds and bring about the true nature of the Kingdom of God. I and thousands of other people bought into that.

If I get upset that many people choose the pragmatism of personal loyalty over means that are justified by ends then I have to recognize that my criticism of others reveals my own weakness in this area. Perhaps I can learn from those whose besetting sin is to simply use people and throw them away once they have outlived their usefulness. Perhaps there is a kingdom purpose in that. Perhaps I, too, should make a list of those friends who are wastes of time and who are keeping me back like that pastor did and advised others to do. I don't wish to.

Yet it may be that I have something to learn from that man's example as he has lived it out. A person may claim to be a nobody wanting to tell everyone about somebody in public and then in private just throws his weight around and insists on getting his way or the people who disagree with him are under God's judgment. No, I'm not necessarily talking about someone like Benny Hinn or the "touch not God's annointed" crowd. But a person who makes the public appeal can fall far short of the substance of the appeal in the lived life despite it being a sincere goal.

I, at length, began to realize that though God has His times and purposes this person the person was now, for the most part, a time-waster for me. He ISN'T for other people, let me assure you, but I have learned from his example of trimming back on useless people by recognizing that his role in my life is no longer particularly helpful. I have providentially ended up in a setting where I hear more responsible expository preaching in a setting where there are less impulses to reinvent the wheel.

The person alluded to had an immensely positive influence years ago, and for that I am grateful to the Lord. But the Lord could have used anyone else to do that. The nobody doesn't really grasp what a nobody he is in God's design because a bunch of somebody's take him seriously (as well, I suppose, they either should or simply will anyway despite any contrary suggestions).

It's tough for me to realize the full significance of the knowledge that a strength can often be a weakness. When I feel my loyalty has been taken for granted or has been abused I can get REALLY bitter. It's not pretty. It doesn't look very loud or anything. I'm not a shouter or a screamer. It's more likely to be the slow burn and stretches of silence or sarcasm. There is a quirk about me that I'm not sure even my family members necessarily remember about me--there is a roughly inversely proportional relationship between how close I feel to someone and how often I am likely to tease them. Sarcasm I save for debate on aesthetics and other intellectual activities. Sarcasm at a personal level is rare for me unless I'm dealing with someone who at an emotional level I just can't take very seriously.

During the times when I was angry and upset at people pragmatically placing relationships over principles I was unaware that I have this weakness. Those people who place aims over people upset me, and continue to upset me, but it may be the Lord has something for me to learn from them. Not everything we learn through observation is always what we ought to emulate. In fact a great deal of scripture is written as a warning to us of how NOT to do and be and think on any number of things. Even a Jehosaphat can make dangerous alliances that cost him while not putting his love for God into question. Scripture is full of godly men who despite their good intentions made spectacularly stupid and devastating decisions. David's reign ends, more or less, on the brink of disaster. Why?

Well, to venture a risky summary, David had the same kind of problem I find that I have, pragmatically valuing relationships over goals. This is not the opposite problem in principle to the users of people for goals because whether you use people to obtain objectives or use people to feel better about yourself you are still facing the temptation to use people for your own ends. Sometimes a person can be upset about the sin of someone else without realizing that their own life forms a kind of doppleganger, a mirrored image of the problem in someone else. One side is white and the other black and the two sides may be distributed differently but the mixture does not change in the nature of being mixed. I await, like the apostle, deliverance from these things. I trust I am being delivered from these things now but this process is not complete.


You may have seen it already and seen discussions of it over at Bill Kinnon's blog and other places. I chuckled and smirked a bit because though it might aspire to be a satire of a Sunday-only variation of Christian practice; and though it may also send up forms of emotional manipulation taken up in deference to a mixture of pop culture assimilation and branding; it is, as Bill Kinnon put it, less a satire than an inside joke. It can be taken as a sort of hiding-in-plain sight send up of what a whole slew of churches do and intend to keep doing. The only question is how authentically you appear to be doing what everyone else in that milleu of church practice is doing.

I chuckled when I saw the video because, well, it was more or less a summary of what I had seen in the church I attended for ten years. Even though I by and large do not question the genuineness of either the people or their employment of the methods spoofed in the video I have come to believe that more dangerous than whatever the video ostensibly satirizes or doesn't satirize is my own capacity and the capacity of others to say "Oh, I would never fall for that and I DON'T fall for that."

But you do. That you and I may not have precisely the same formula through which we are susceptible to emotional manipulation and self-congratulation doesn't mean we aren't susceptible ourselves in ways that we find safer to impute to others. Jesus rebuked Pharisees and law experts for saying of their ancestors who persecuted the prophets, "Oh, we would NEVER have done that!" thereby testifying that they are the same sorts of people. This, interestingly enough, gets back to the theme I have been reflecting on lately where we as Christians can find it easier to denounce in others what we are not particularly repentant of ourselves. It is easier to look down on someone else's failures than to see your own failures in their failures.

Projects that have been on the back burner so long they got cold

I have a lot of compositional projects I placed on the back burner over the years.

My first string quartet never has been finished. I completed the first movement and that was even performed, once. The second movement was finished but my teachers said I needed to revise it. My theme was too long to subject to meaningful variations. Some fourteen years later I just never mustered the interest to recompose what was already a completed second movement for quartet. The finale of the first quartet was supposed to be a fugue and that ... well, even back fourteen years ago I knew that composing THAT sort of fugue would be utterly beyond me for at least a decade. It turns out I was totally right. I am only just now attaining a level of compositional skill and skill as a guitarist where I can ever get an exposition of three of the projected final four voices for the exposition taken care of.

My second string quartet was begun ten years ago and I have not finished even the first movement of the projected four. I have the exposition, recapitulation, and coda for the first movement complete but this is a sonata form with a development that presents nearly insuperable challenges. The second and third movements are also daunting. The fourth movement is theoretically the easiest one to finish since it has a slow introduction for a closing rondo but there are some structural and conceptual elements that make even that movement tough.

The most terrifying prospects, however, are the completion of the middle movements. The scherzo has some inherent problems that make it nearly impossible to contemplate and the variation form (perhaps better thought of as a fantasia) could be wonderful if I could pull it off but it would be exceptionally difficult as it relies on a remarkably static folk tune fraught with heavy extramusical symbolism. For now let's just say that the Good Friday movement is gonna be rough but it's possible to finish that. The Easter movement has the easiest prospect of being finished already and the Holy Saturday movements creep me out something fierce, particularly the slow movement.

The third string quartet ... I should have had finished by now but I need to completely revise the final movement to adjust its tonal architecture and the second movement isn't finished. I'm very weak in variation forms. In fact I feel SO weak in variation form I had to approach writing variations forms by way of passacaglia and by way of unusually stringent executions of monothematic sonata forms that eventually turned into more free-wheeling variations.

Of all the projects I have begun that have gone fallow, though, the woodwind quintet is the one that has been dormant for the longest time. After years of slogging away I settled on my exposition and if you've read this blog more than a month you know the exposition I'm talking about is not a sonata exposition. No, of course not. I resolved to write a fugue exposition for woodwind quintet. As I was heavily immersed in the works of Durufle fourteen and thirteen years ago I settled on a slow, solemn lydian subject. The subject was splitting the difference between my immersion in Durufle and my immersion in Duke Ellington.

The result is a languid, introspective lydian tune that becomes the focal point of an exposition with quintuple counterpoint, all the countersubjects also being in lydian. Fully invertible counterpoint in five voices with entirely lydian tunes is no small feat! It's such a freakish musical challenge I have only gotten to the exposition's completion and have not been brave enough to tackle middle entries, episodes, or what the possible end of such a fugue might be. The stretto possibilities alone could be collosal, and there is the possibility of building a second exposition on the first countersubject.

I have been so daunted by just the fugue itself the possibility of other movements in the woodwind quintet has scarcely even crossed my mind.

Are infants innately moral?

This set of studies could be cited as evidence by some that even babies know right from wrong and thus we have free will. As with any research into the demographic demonstrations of moral impulses this will always be a double-edged sword. The same babies who display a desire to encourage or reward the helpful and punish the hinderer are the same babies who are automatically drawn to their own ethnic group over against other ethnicities. If we may say that the impulse in babies from birth is to be moral agents this is both positive and negative. The seeds for empathy and kindness are in babies ... but the seeds for racism and xenophobia are also there.

Most salient of all, as any number of atheists would point out, if babies are instinctively able to discern right from wrong then it's stupid to propose that one must teach them to believe in the existence of gods in order for them to have any morals. Babies, after all, automatically display all the hallmarks of empathy and sympathy to those who are good, right? The truth is that things are not that simple and have never been that simple. The scriptures themselves are not uniform in respect to every aspect of infant and childhood morality. You still have to train up a child in the way that he should go even if Paul can say that those who do not have God instinctively understand what is right and testify against themselves that they should do the right but often do not. But for the atheist the way this gets reformulated is that though your baby may be hardwired to be a good, helpful baby, you still have to train junior to not be a racist twerp when he grows up.

While I respect the usefulness of the social sciences I have a kind of skepticism about them that I don't have for the hard sciences. I think the author above found an apt way of discussing the limitations of even this linked-to research:

Just as critics describe much of experimental psychology as the study of the American college undergraduate who wants to make some extra money or needs to fulfill an Intro Psych requirement, there’s some truth to the claim that this developmental work is a science of the interested and alert baby.

Or, as Stephen Colbert joked to Dr. Zimbardo, that one Canadian ruins the whole experiment. This doesn't invalidate the entirety of the research but does remind us that in the social sciences there are no such things as Newtonian laws. We must keep in mind the warning that within certain limits each generation gets the sort of science that it wants. This becomes even more problematic and pronounced when we want to use it to justify ideological and theological positions.

For instance, years ago while on a certain discussion forum the question about brain disorders and free will came up, as it inevitably would. An example was cited of a man who had a tendency to molest children until a tumor was removed. When the tumor was removed the impulses went away and the man was given medication to manage his cancer. When the man lapsed in taking medication he relapsed and was brought to court again. One fellow in reading this declared that the man had free will and was able to choose not to do things. This is the sort of puzzle that can happen in almost any church setting, a person who affirms one theology in principle while applying another theology in practice. Churches are full of people who affirm what they do not really believe when the chips are down and it's time to make a moral judgment of someone else.

But significant brain damage highlights one of the continuing challenges Christians and others will face in assessing moral actions. Advocates for sexual minorities have been making the argument for generations that their attraction is innate and emerges from their physiology. A Christian who would appeal to the innate morality of babies to know right from wrong then has the option of deciding that if those babies grow up to be homosexuals or pedophiles that they either unlearned that innate morality or freedom of choice ... or perhaps the observation that infant capabilities in empathy and action are nonetheless incomplete. After all, long ago a certain theologian argued that because babies were not born with the stain of original sin there was no need to baptise them and they would of their own free will choose the right thing to do if they exercised their freedom of will. Somehow ... Pelagius' ideas didn't quite catch on.

Even among "normal" babies there have been studies that indicate that infants display a marked preference for their own ethnic identity and that they prefer the prettier people. A baby who instinctively knows the helper is better than the hinderer is also a baby who is primed from birth toward the possibilities of ethnocentrism and to preferring the prettier people. For those who would argue that physical beauty is a cultural construct this is a problem. Even babies seem to have fixed ideas of which males and females are prettiest and to prefer their own ethnicity. Notice how interracial marriages, though more widely accepted, are still not common and there are groups in every ethnicity who see interracial marriage and interracial adoption as immense cultural evils that need to be stamped out. This is something that even secular ethicists and sociologists observe is the two-edged sword of what may be our innate sense of right and wrong from birth.

As the author notes in the close of the article, empathy and impartiality are not at all the same. Infants have empathy but that very partiality that is good and which allows them to learn is not enough for the establishment of ethics in a societal context. Those Marvel fans would never hang out with the DC fans unless there was some compelling reason (imagine one, whatever one you will). Mac users see themselves as smarter and more virtuous than PC users. Greens see themselves as more virtuous than others and vice versa. We need Paul's letter to the Romans to remind us that what we consider not only to be our best individual qualities but our best ethnic, religious, or societal qualities, are still things from which Christ has come to redeem us.

Monday, May 10, 2010

In light of blogs and counter-blogs, a non-random memory of the late William Lane

I went to that little school by the canal, as some people have called it. I also had the plasure of meeting Wlliam Lane, whose commentary on Hebrews I am very belatedly reading since Bill went to be with the Lord more than a decade ago now, if memory serves.

It is a pleasure to read a book written by someone you had an opportunity to meet. I pick another strikingly non-random example, N. T. Wright, who I had the pleasure of meeting at that little school by the canal. I went to that school with the impression that they were namby pamby about anything doctrinal and that I would not necessarily see things the way the religion professors saw things. That was often true.

I had heard, however, about a fellow named Dr. Lane. The first time I enquired as to who this Dr. Lane was when I heard about his reputation at the campus a fellow said without the slightest hesitation, "He's a man of God." I chuckled and asked, "That's great and the first thing I wanted to know ... but how is he as a scholar." "Oh," the guy said with a semi-sheepish smile, "he's a very good scholar, too." I took no small encouragement learning that students who studied with him or knew of him identified him first by the vibrancy of his faith and THEN identified him as a scholar.

When I got to know Bill he explained, in his own low-key way, why this sort of thing can be important. I once asked Dr. Lane's advice on going to seminary and one of the things he warned me about is that seminarians tend to have a mentality that since they study the scriptures day in and day out that they, naturally being immersed in the Bible, have no worries about continued church participation, church attendence, prayer, intercession, public worship or those other things that help define Christian fellowship. In addition to these various omissions he warned that I steer clear of the Ivy League on general principle since they have lost many positive points due to developing what he used to call the "guild mentality".

There were scholars that he said I should keep on eye. Since he knew I had a Pentecostal background he said Gordon Fee would be good to study. He also advised me to read a younger scholar, someone I had never heard of before, N. T. Wright. He said that Wright was doing a lot of work to emphasize the Jewish background of New Testament literature, that this was a welcome change from the assumptions of the previous few generations of scholars that assumed an essentially Hellenistic view of NT literature, and that I should keep my eye on Wright. Wright, so Bill told me, was going to become VERY important in New Testament studies.

I suppose if Bill were with us today he would be happy to report that his prediction seems to have turned out to have at least SOME accuracy to it. More than ten years before theo-bloggers were theo-blogging about whether Wright was a menace to sound doctrine I was advised to keep an eye on his work. I have Dr. Lane's presence in my life to thank for providentially steering me toward Wright's work.

Lane was a surprisingly unassuming and friendly fellow. He was one of those sorts of people who does not necessarily wear his or her vast reservoirs of knowledge on his or her sleeve. He never said of himself what some of his students told me about him, that he had forgotten more about biblical literature than the better-than-average biblical literature student was ever going to know. One of his students said that the time you would begin to learn Lane was twenty times smarter than you was if you or someone else asked a dumbass or rhetorical question to try to prove a point. One fellow tried doing this by arguing that Paul's thought was not REALLY particularly Jewish. What ensued, I was told, was a very warm and friendly juggernaut of scholarly overview replete with Greek variants of Pauline texts written from memory on the chalkboard.

I was also told that Lane's advice to me that if I wanted to learn French then just a summer with parallel renderings of Good News for Modern Man would probably be all I would need to do to get a decent mastery of reading French. He said that German, an inflected language, would require actual formal study but since I had some Spanish under my belt I wouldn't need to insist on formal study of the Romance languages. When I told a student of Lane's this was his advice the fellow's reply was, "Well, that man is a genius. OF COURSE he can imagine that that would be easy to do in a summer." Since I do not consider myself to be a genius, certainly not a genius at languages, I never worked up the nerve to try Bill's suggestion. I do, however, now wish I had put all my foreign language study into German or Russian instead of Spanish.

But I truly ramble here. Reading Lane's first volume is a bit trippy and very much nostalgic for me. Having known Bill for at least a little while I can't read his books without hearing his voice in my head. It has become that way with Tom Wright's books. It has become that way with Joan Didion, though in Didion's case we never had conversations the way I was able to have conversations with Bill, or with Tom Wright (he strongly urged me to pick up a book by Richard Bauckham on the reliability of the gospels. I've got it but must confess I have not read very many theology books since getting laid off from my job).

But I ramble. I suppose in many ways I have always been old at heart even when I was very young. I often found it easier to hang out with older people and Bill was one of those older people I would hang out with when I had the opportunity to do so. He is one of a few people I can look back on as helpful spiritual mentors in my life. As I followed Wright's work I began to realize that what Wright was doing was already accomplishing what I had hoped I would have an opportunity to do. Seeing that Wright was doing so much of what I had hoped to do I realized that what I had to offer was redundant.

I also nearly immediately realized that I am not in any way "called" to any kind of formal ministry and have never had the funds to go to seminary and have largely declined to have any formal denominational affiliation. Or at least I have avoided it for years. My stint at Mars Hill I could look back on as a sort of closeted stint as a Reformed Baptist. Mars Hill is basically Reformed Baptist and has been for as long as Driscoll has been a Calvinist who thinks Calvin was wrong about paedobaptism. Ironically as Lane was once a Calvinist and became Wesleyan I started off Pentecostal (i.e. Wesleyan) and became a Calvinist. I would have to say I have always been a bad sort of Calvinist who has no enthusiasm for claiming that Arminians are heretics or fatally compromise the message of Christ. I suppose my strength and flaw has been that I have been eager and convinced as a moderate. I suppose, in some small way, Bill may have had something to do about that.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

This is a saying that is axiomatic in Christian teaching and the teaching of Christ. The question I have today is whether or not this presents a problem for us. I don't mean precisely "Does this establish a works-based salvation for us?" though the question may be understood that way by some. What I mean is a somewhat more practical question, does this statement, properly understood, indicate how profoundly mediated the love of Christ is in our day to day lives?

As a Christian I certainly wish to affirm all that is unique about Christianity and the identity of a Christian. But there are times when I wonder if we Christians are good at fooling ourselves into thinking we are better than other faiths or non-faiths. WE have our identity derived from Christ alone. Well, we don't, do we? On a day to day basis do we really have our identity wrapped up in Jesus or do we have it mediated in any number of ways? What I'm asking is whether or not we have a Christianese dichotomy between "Christ alone" and other things. As certain Christians in certain camps of the traditions are fond of saying, "he cannot have God as his father who does not call the Church his mother."

One of the ironies of life as I'm seeing it now is that there are some very Protestant, very baptist-style churches that see "adoption" in theological terms as obtaining membership in a local congregation. They would deny vehemently that they are in any way Catholic or Orthodox in their approach to ecclesiology but functionally they would display an essentially episcopal form of government and would define membership in their church as equivalent to discipleship. In other words, in many practical ways we all see the love of Christ for us as providentially mediated. If you are married then your spouse is one means of that providential mediation of Christ's love. If you have children that is another and yet in both cases we would recognize that we ourselves form a conduit of mediation in their lives.

The paradox afoot is that it seems as though we try to have it both ways. We try to affirm that our identity is in a relationship with Christ alone when the truth is that we grasp most of that relation through providential mediation. We can, it seems, belittle the means of that mediation by insisting on saying that the love of Christ is unmediated. It is true, forever, that Christ is our mediator, but it is this Christ who said "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Think of it this way, if you go through the day living entirely by yourself and you are convinced of the love of Yahweh for you and that that love for you is expressed through Christ then at a practical level couldn't it be said that your reflection on God's love for you is not mediated by any person in any direct way? You could, but it could also be the case that you are demonstrating what in secular circles could be called "self esteem". "Your identity is hid in Christ" can still practically end up looking like "you have self esteem" in contemporary spirituality.

This would, however, not be any demonstration of a successful spiritual life. In fact it would be the epitome of failure in spiritual things. If you know that you are loved by God but that love does not prompt you to love and serve others then you have not actually demonstrated a faith that works itself out naturally in a love for Christ's followers. We would know that you CONSIDER YOURSELF a disciple of Christ more than we would know for certain that you actually are one.

John the Baptist said "he must become greater and greater while I must become less and less." Yet John's faith wavered. John was at one point afraid of becoming nothing, of being killed after having possibly pointed to the wrong hope. John needed the Mediator to mediate more than just an abstract expression of general divine good will. Thomas needed more than just reports that Christ was risen. THis is another paradox that seems to be at work, that when we as Christians claim we should find our identity only in Christ we may be selling a falsehood not only to other Christians but to ourselves.