In Search of Ancient Roots - A Review

There have always been some evangelical Christians that decide to swim across the Tiber to join the Roman Catholics. That trickle has, according to some commentators, become a steady stream, especially among younger evangelicals. I’ve met a few people that have converted to some form of liturgical worship, like Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, and their reasons have tended to be similar.

In general, those that convert were involved in pop evangelicalism, which is usually high on hype and low on content. They were often nonplussed by the flashy, non-substantive style of the young, tanned mega church pastors that some people find so motivating. Largely it was concern that many of these forms of evangelicalism had few connections with ancient Christianity, were willing to renovate doctrines or push them to the background in order to draw a crowd, and had more of an affiliation to the dis-ease causing contemporary culture than anything like the pre-modern vision of the world the gospel calls us to. Those that I’ve spoken to that have jumped connected to Roman Catholicism have done it because they recognize that, in many ways, many “conservative” evangelical churches are really only a bad budget year from compromising critical Christian doctrines.

I share many of the same concerns about much of evangelicalism. There are altogether too many pastors that are more modern or postmodern than Christian. There is way too much time spent in trying to run the most efficient church and fundraising campaign, and too little spent asking what holiness looks like. There are streams of evangelicalism that function as moral therapeutic deists. This is true. However, the answer is unlikely to be found in a version of Christianity that claims to have hit peak revisionism 500 years ago, instead of one that is now going through many of the same struggles. (Never mind the more recent evolutions in Roman Catholic dogma.)

Kenneth Stewart, professor of theological studies at Covenant College, is helpful in his 2017 book, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis.  Since one of the arguments that many Roman Catholics use against Evangelical Christianity is that it is a novel invention from about 500 years ago, Stewart evaluates that claim deeply and others along the way to show that while various forms of Protestant Christianity are far from perfect, the claims of novelty and disconnection with ancient forms of Christianity are unfounded.

In Part One, Stewart explores the question of the Evangelical identity crisis. He begins by showing connections between the current Evangelical movement and earlier mini-reformations and revivals that pushed back anti-Christian traditions that confused the gospel. He also begins to wrestle with the question of authority: whether the Bible is authoritative or the interpretation of a select group of self-selected gate keepers. Finally, this section discusses the reality that doctrines have developed throughout Christian tradition; they were not handed down on stone tablets on a mountain. As a result, throughout Christian history, there have course corrections, adaptions, etc. Even within Roman Catholic teaching, there has been ongoing adaption as the Pope or various councils reject former teachings, adapt them, and propose new doctrines (Like the relatively recent addition of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the infallibility of the Pope). A trip across the Tiber is far from a trip toward rock solid connection with the original Christian past.

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The second part explores the use and evaluation of Protestant Christians to pre-Reformation Christianity. With the exception of the modern period, in which much of Protestantism became infected with the same sort of Enlightenment rationalism that much of the rest of the world did, it turns out that Evangelicals have engaged the early Church Fathers fairly consistently. Stewart shows how reliance on the Apostolic Fathers has shaped ongoing Protestant doctrinal debates. As a side note, which is very interesting as a credobaptist, Stewart seems to concede to the originality of believer’s baptism as the norm within the early church, particularly from Scripture. There is more continuity with traditional Christianity among many faithful evangelical Christian traditions that some Roman Catholics will admit.

In Part Three, Stewart defends the Protestant Christian faith, by tracing out the problems with the Apocrypha and its limited authority before the Council of Trent. He also considers the attractiveness of different forms of monasticism, whose contemplative life is another draw for many young Christians. Then, he closes this section by evaluating the history of arch-convert John Henry Newman, whose famous quote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” is used as a cudgel to prove that people who reject the authority and adaptations of the Roman Catholic church are ignorant or the real history of the church. The problem, as Stewart shows, is that this statement comes from a book that Newman had to demur about, because it was written before he converted away from Protestant Christianity. Additionally, Newman scholars continue to show that Newman never left behind his believe in the primary authority of Scripture, which is significantly different than official Roman Catholic doctrine.

The book concludes in Part Four considering whether Christian Unity, which many desire, is dependent on all Christians bowing to the Bishop of Rome as the supreme representative of Christ, or whether some form of unity can be established on those biblical truths are commonly held. Second, Stewart considers whether there can be true unity when the vastly different positions on the question of justification by faith or by works is considered. Finally, Stewart closes with some thoughts on how evangelical churches can be more connected with the global church and the ancient roots of Christianity and thus stem some of the concerns expressed by young evangelicals who are drawn across the Tiber.

This book is helpful because it presents a calm rebuttal to the claims made against Protestantism that often go unchallenged. Many of the reasons people list for converting to Roman Catholicism are, in fact, not as valid as they suppose. This book is a bit dense to hand a young undergraduate caught up in the pomp and smells of a high Roman mass, but it is powerful. Pastors and parents dealing with children drawn to Roman Catholicism may find this a very useful resource for engaging in discussions with information that evidentially rebuts propaganda used to draw people toward Rome.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be - A Review

Sin. It’s one of those topics that we are all skilled in the practice of, but often try not to think about a whole lot. Too often, our concept of sin is narrowed by a set of concerns for personal redemption and our consideration of its devastating power is abbreviated by the belief that our sin has been paid for at the cross by Christ.

This thin conception of sin has devastating effects on Christian engagement in society and the degree of empathy many Christians have for those who commit obvious, flagrant sins. Cheap grace can only abound when the severity and pervasiveness of sin throughout our individual lives and the fabric of society are underappreciated.

The tragedy of much contemporary and theologically orthodox Christianity, particular among evangelical Protestants, is that a faulty definition of sin has led to thin ethics. Sin is sometimes popularly perceived of as something that is paid for by the cross and then entirely behind the Christian. To a degree this is true, Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross provided a path for the elect to be redeemed. Forgiveness for sin is now available for those that repent and put their faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as the hope for eternal life. All of this is true, but it neglects some of the ongoing effects of sin in even the lives of Christians and especially in the world around us.

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Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, is an important book for understanding the nature and effects of sin. The book was originally published in 1995, and won multiple awards. It is both excellently written and exceedingly positive. This is the sort of book that should remain in print because of its enduring value as an accessible and theologically precise systematization of the doctrine of sin.

The key concept for Plantinga is Shalom. The Hebrew term shalom refers to holistic flourishing of the world across multiple dimensions. From a human perspective, shalom entails right relationship with God, non-human creation, and humanity. This flourishing existed only for a short time in the beginning of creation, which we see described in Genesis 1 and 2. We have the promise that it will exist later in the New Heavens and New Earth, as depicted in prophetic passages like those at the end of Revelation and in several sections of Isaiah. We live in a world right now that has had its shalom disrupted.

With the idea of holistic flourishing in view, the concept of shalom becomes both clearer and more complex. Sin is no longer a transaction between God and humanity alone, but a transaction that has implications for a whole web of relationship. Ultimately, sin’s penalty is due to the offence of God’s character (Ps 51:4), but its substance may be primarily disruption of the human-creation or human-human relationship.

When we begin to understand that sin is a disruption of shalom, the cycles of Judges begin to make sense. The people of Israel were oppressed, the repent, God sets them free, they fall into sin. That sin has both personal implications (separation from God) and social implications (disruption of systems and relationships). Thus, we can see that God might be justified in desiring to begin society all over again if “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. . . . For all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” (Gen 7:11–13) Sin isn’t just a personal violation of God’s law, it also entails distortions of all of human relationships.

Plantinga’s book begins from unquestionably orthodox foundations in the Reformed tradition. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be explores dimensions of sin as it is seen in both personal and social dimensions. He approaches the topic by describing sin categorically. It is a form of corruption, which requires a concern for spiritual hygiene. Its corruption permeates life and society. Sin is a parasite on the good in this world. It is an attack on God’s Kingdom and his common grace. Sin finds its way into human interactions and life in unbelievably difficult ways through addiction, a little-considered dimension of sin. (Usually addiction is dealt with as a simple failure in will-power.) Sin can also be a form of flight from the responsibility to deal with faults in shalom and neglecting our call to restore it.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a Christian classic. It’s taken me years to get around to reading it, but it’s a book that is consistently found in the footnotes of other significant texts. The book was named the Christianity Today book of the year for 1996, because of its theological acumen and its clarity. Plantinga’s book is one that is accessible to any reasonably theologically engaged Church members.

If this book were published today, it would likely be viewed with suspicion because it explores the social implications of sin. This begins to sound a bit too much like social justice for some people. If the fear of considering the impact of sin on holistic flourishing of creation by some Christians will have hugely negative influences on the ability of future generations of Christians to appropriately relate to society. We are already seeing this happen as younger generations, recognizing the implications of Christianity for social ethics, are drawn to non-orthodox versions of Christianity because (despite denying central tenets of the faith) they often have a better (or at least more engaged) attitude toward the social implications of Christianity.

The Crunchy Con Manifesto - A Proposal for Actual Conservation of Something

Conservativism is in crisis in the U.S. The term has become altogether too closely aligned with a form of political populism that has little to do with conserving anything of value. For many people on the political left and the political right, conservativism has become largely about listening to angry men in cowboy hats and pretty women in tight t-shirts rail against immigrants, gender revisionists, and “liberals.” Often there is also implicit support for large businesses which are always good for America (especially when they support grifters on the right), except when they lobby for socially progressive policies and for one of the groups that the cowboy hats and tight shirts are angry at. Other than moving society in the United States back to some apparently great condition that is never defined, only reminisced about, there does not seem to be a coherent theme to what passes for conservativism.

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In truth, both conservativism and liberalism, as they are used (but rarely defined) in popular discourse are forms of social progressivism. “Liberalism” focuses on achieving atomistic individual freedom to enable people to pursue whatever sexual goals they have and free them from the economic need to do work that aids society. This is often, seemingly paradoxically, pitched as part of the goal of economic collectivism (e.g., socialism) and moral totalitarianism (e.g., attempts to outlaw Christian sexual ethics). On the other hand, “conservativism” tends to be focused progress toward individual freedom to pursue economic goals and social structures that more closely relate to some earlier ideal, which are rarely defined beyond a desire for neighborliness. The progress of conservativism is achieved through lack of government regulation on the economy and fighting against social outgroups that themselves feel as if they are fighting for a place to exist.

Of these two forms of progressivism, I have a decided preference for the “conservative” form. There are obviously destructive elements in contemporary political liberalism that only willful ignorance of economics, history, and basic philosophical anthropology can overlook. However, similarly obvious blind spots exist on the political right, as well. My chief grievance against political “conservativism” as it is often presented is that there is nothing that it is trying to conserve. It is just progress in a different direction toward a goal that is just as undefined as the goals of the left.

As I’ve been exploring this dilemma of political homelessness, in part through the work of Patrick Deneen, though there are others, I discovered a book that Rod Dreher wrote in 2006 that presents a better vision of conservativism, in my opinion. At least, it forms a different starting place for dialogue about what conservativism ought to be aiming at. His book, Crunchy Cons, is a valuable book for those dissatisfied with where the GOP has gone, but completely appalled at the corrosive politics of the DNC, as well.

There are ten articles in Dreher’s “Crunchy-Con Manifesto” that I will quote in their entirety here. (After all, Dreher is the king of block-quoting other articles online, so he can’t mind too much if I take a couple of pages from his book.)

A Crunchy–Con Manifesto

1.       We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

2.       We believe that modern conservativism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

3.       We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity’s best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4.       We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America’s wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk identified as “The Permanent Things”––those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.

5.       A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

6.       A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract.

7.       Appreciation of aesthetic quality––that is, beauty––is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

8.       The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

9.       We share Kirk’s conviction that “the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. . . . The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10.   Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve it create anew.

Having sent a salvo against mainstream “conservativism” on the beginning pages of his book, Dreher goes on to journalistically explore people living out particular aspects of this manifesto. They tend to be (but are not exclusively) theologically conservative within their faith tradition, live within a large nuclear family, and community focused. Most significantly, the people Dreher interviews are focused on achieving a positive goal, not simply attempting to escape some negative restriction.

For those seeking an alternative response to contemporary political options, Crunch Cons may be the beginning point for future exploration. This is the book in which Dreher introduces the concept of the Benedict Option (I have not yet read his book), which he explored more fully in the hotly debated volume by that name. Although some of the content is dated, this book remains a good counterpoint for the GOP/DNC binary we seem to be stuck with, and may inspire a positive shift toward a conservative movement seeking to actually conserve something important.

Integrated Justice and Equality - A Review

Social justice is a contentious topic among Christians these days. A large reason for that is that the term has many and varied definitions. While the term was originally used to discuss ensuring actual justice within society, it has come to be interpreted as a means to privilege some ideological groups over others, to justify inherently unjust economic systems, and to excuse violence for certain, approved causes.

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 The corruption of the term has led it to be a polarizing phrase between theological stripes of Christians. Progressives who claim faith in Christ recoil when conservatives attempt to use the term to describe their efforts. Sometimes the affirmation of “social justice” leads Progressives to advocate for causes that undermine true justice. Those on the right often repudiate the term, even when the term is meant appropriately. Often the negative reaction to the term “social justice” leads conservatives to reject important works that are biblically warranted.

 In his book, Integrated Justice and Equality: Biblical Wisdom for Those Who Do Good Works, John Addison Teevan sets out “to encourage the good works of compassion that Christians want to do to make the gospel while differentiating between good works and social justice.” He notes that in order to do that, he must begin by disambiguating his terms. Throughout the text, Teevan is arguing for what he calls integrated justice, which is justice built on a traditional, biblical understanding of justice.

 In Chapter One, Teevan argues toward a biblical notion of justice, which is often significantly different than many perceive. Through historical argument, Teeven establishes his position that social justice is a term that originated outside of the church by those who found the work of the social gospel attractive, but liked even the traces of gospel that were left in the movement. He surveys the recent historical discussion, interacting critically with contemporary, conservative Christians. Chapter Two provides a survey in greater detail of understandings of justice, especially in those traditions that have impacted Western culture. In the third chapter, Teevan outlines the historical evolution of social justice, which he argues is largely rooted in Rawl’s understanding of politics. He also develops his critiques of social justice with the notion of a biblical, integrated justice. These two chapters provide the foundation for the rest of the volume.

 The remaining three chapters offer critiques of social justice, arguing it tends to undermine true justice, and bring the book to a close. In Chapter Four, Teevan critiques the notion that economic inequality is inherently unjust through practical examples of perfectly just inequality and the problems associated with attempts to create equal outcomes. The fifth chapter argues against redistributive economic systems designed for “fairness,” which often do not accomplish their stated goals. At the same time, Teevan is critical of capitalism, because he recognizes the limits of the economic system. All economic systems rely upon the virtue of the people. The final chapter brings together the concepts of the earlier chapters to outline specific warnings, conclusions, and practical applications for the reader. What he produces is a call to activism, but an activism grounded and controlled by the norms of Scripture and a traditional understanding of justice.

 This is a volume much more likely to convince the uncertain that to lead to converts. Those longing for a better society but who are repulsed by the gross depravity of much of the social justice movement will find an outlet to pursue true justice in this volume.

 At the same time, Teevan appears to concede the term social justice too quickly. Notably absent from his volume is a discussion of the development of the early Roman Catholic use of the term social justice, which was much more biblical than present parlance. It may be possible yet to redeem the term and turn it to good use.

 Overall, this is a much needed, accessible volume that is both biblically informed and economically accurate. Teevan provides a helpful critique of the social justice and gives a sound justification for his newly coined term. His critiques are honest and forthright. He does not demean, mock, or dismiss, which make this book a useful resource for the church. Additionally, Teevan moves beyond his critique into encouraging practical application, which is necessary to move conservative Christians from theory to action.

We Have Forgotten

We have forgotten that it is possible to be wrong without animus. This is why society is so terribly unforgiving.

We have forgotten that it is possible to disagree without despising. This is why our friendships are so fragile, sparse, and transient.

We have forgotten that it is possible to forgive without retribution. This is why the quest for social justice often turns to mobs and unrelenting abuse.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be correct without being in control. This is why politics has become the supreme interest in society.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be right about some things and wrong about others. This is why the list of acceptable voices from history continues to diminish.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be different without being degraded. This is why attempts to find equality lead to eradication of excellence.

We have forgotten that it is possible for cost and value to be different. This is why conspicuous consumption is still rampant.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be new without being better. This is why our hunger for more goes unabated and ancient books go unread.

Creation and New Creation - A Review

The doctrine of creation has largely been swallowed whole in evangelical and fundamentalist circles by questions of the age of the earth. For example, theology texts like, L. S. Chafer’s Systematic Theology, Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology, and Elmer Towns’s Theology for Today deal with the creation as a question of origins. For Chafer, this discussion is embedded in a chapter about the doctrine of man, rather than in a standalone chapter. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has a chapter on the doctrine of creation, but the questions he seeks to answer are, “Why, how, and when did God create the universe?”

These are not unimportant questions or unworthy of discussion. However, the age of the earth and the exact time that it took God to make something from nothing does not exhaust the depth of the doctrine of creation by a longshot.

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In a recent book published by Hendrickson, Sean McDonough does a masterful job highlighting the importance of the doctrine of creation, especially as it relates to the new creation. He rightly recognizes that God’s first creation project was always intended to simply continue into his future creation project, with ongoing creation (or providence) in the middle.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter One shows how closely the new creation is connected to the account of the original creation. The second chapter deals with the nature of God as creator, since it is vital to understand his nature to recognize the distinctions between him and what he has made. In Chapter Three, McDonough presents various theories why God made the world. In the fourth chapter, the topic of the relationship of time to the created order is considered.

Chapter Five considers the nature of creation ex nihilo, in particular evaluating the relationship of God to his creation. In the sixth chapter, McDonough discusses the influence of Plato’s dualism on the Christian tradition’s understanding of creation. In Chapter Seven, the question of how creation was made is considered. This leads McDonough to consider the place of humans within creation in the eighth chapter. And, in Chapter Nine, the beauty of the world and its value for God and as a testament to God’s goodness comes to the fore.

Creation and New Creation: Understanding God’s Creation Project is largely an expository book. McDonough presents a survey of Christian thinking, digesting theological writing from Irenaeus to Karl Barth. The overall position McDonough presents is well within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, and he handles those on the fringes fairly with appropriate criticism.

The most significant aspect of this book is that it serves as a reminder to Christians that creation is not something that happened at some hotly debated point in the past. Rather, creation began when God spoke all things into existence out of nothing, but it is ongoing as he sustains the world by the power of his word, and will eventually be brought to perfection in the new creation when all things are made new. This has been God’s plan from the beginning and it is so much bigger than an argument over the number of hours in a day, the compatibility of scientific theories of origins, and a discussion of human origins.

Connecting creation to new creation emphasizes the telos of this world. God intended his handiwork of a purpose, and it is trending in a particular direction. His will cannot be foiled. This is a liberating reality. It frees us to delight in the goodness he has created while looking forward to the beauty of the renovated creation, once the sin has been purged. This book is an important one, particularly for evangelicals, seeking to remediate the lack of vigorous treatments of creation in our tradition.

Creation and New Creation is a valuable book. McDonough writes well and demonstrates that he has done extensive research. This is a volume that will be best suited to people with theological training or extensive reading in their backgrounds. Those that are equipped to engage with it will find it well worth their while.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Social Media Justice and the Gospel

One of the common complaints against Christianity—what Tim Keller calls defeater beliefs—is that a good God…a loving God…would not judge sin and wouldn’t punish it if he did. He would just wipe it away and forgive it without judgment. We are taught by culture not to like violence, so we like to believe that a just God would also be non-violent.

Miroslav Volf, a theologian at Yale and a Croatian who had personal experience with the gross injustices of ethnic cleansing and genocide in former Yugoslavia argues that a God who punishes evil through judgment is necessary to keep people from seeking revenge:

If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence––that God would not be worthy of worship. . . . The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God. . . . My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many . . . in the West . . . [But] it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence [results from the belief in] God’s refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die . . . [with] other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Our belief in a God who violently judges sin is necessary to restrain our hearts from desiring immediate and exorbitant revenge on the people that seek to do us harm. This is why Habakkuk calls for the judgment of the Lord in chapter 2 of his short book, rather than trying to settle all of the scores with his own hands.

In fact, in the history of Christianity, some of the worst evils that have been perpetrated in the name of Christ have been caused by people not trusting into God’s justice, but trying to bring about their own version of justice in their own time.

Social Media Justice

As Christians living in a world that celebrates injustice, often presenting it under the cloak of goodness or true justice, we find ourselves given a tool to announce our disapproval of everything bad. Thus, we think, we can stand against real injustice, even if it only via posts or tweets.

This is the mentality of the social media warrior. In fact, in our age, the digital assaults on people’s reputations that are perpetrated in the name of injustice are not much different that murder. The goal of many social media warriors is to destroy the life of their victims, but without the shred of mercy that actually killing them would entail.

An example of this is the recent brouhaha over the interaction between the Native American activist Nathan Phillips and a boy from a parochial school. That case itself has turned into a Rorschach test for your political position, so I will leave that unending debate over who was right (if anyone) in that situation to others.

However, what we should not miss is that there was an instantaneous urge to crush, smash, and destroy by those that hated the look on the boy’s face in the initially miscaptioned photo. To be clear, the opposite reaction could have been obtained from the other side if an activist wearing a charged political slogan had been caught in a pose that could have been represented as disgust, smarminess, or disrespect of one of the political right’s favored populations. The problem is not left vs. right, it is the urge to destroy.

And there were calls for destruction. Based on questionable interpretations of the event, which were driven largely by an inflammatory caption on a photo posted by a bot Twitter account run out of Brazil, people who consider themselves good and just and consistent in their pursuit of justice were calling for assault and even execution of the child in the photo. There were dozens of physical threats made against the school itself. All of this in the name of justice. Again, when the tables are turned, there are voices on the right that are just as nasty in their pursuit of justice.

This is exactly the sort of “justice” that Habakkuk is warning against: Justice that is really unjust because it is brought about in our way by our hands, instead of according to God’s judgment.

Conclusion

I believe in a God of judgment because it is the clear expectation of the authors of the Old and New Testaments. The need for a just God of judgment reinforces my belief in the God described by the Bible. The rise of the social media warrior with his virulent, destructive cruelty in the name of justice reminds me why Christianity must be true, else we have no hope.

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We need a just God who will make the wrong things right. That is part of the gospel. Just as is the fact that salvation is available for all who believe in accept the power of the atonement to cover our sins, and put faith only in that for our final redemption. God is just. Our attempts to force justice in this world will bring about injustice. Thank God that he sent Christ to keep those who receive him, who believe in his name, from bearing the deserved wrath for our sins on our own shoulders. Thank God for being a God who is both just and gracious at the same time.

The Fake Web is Ruining the Internet

Something is amiss in the futuristic, digital wonderland that is the internet.

Among the most obvious problems are the incessant arguments including those caused by trolls and those perpetuated by sea lions. Add that to the sheer magnitude of bots online, and we have a real problem that can lead to misery, confusion, and misdirection away from facts.

The possible paradise of the internet is turning out to be a myth. The democratization of information has made it nearly possible to discern what is true.

Marketplace Distortion

Consider the validity of marketplace ratings. While there are examples of faux reviews that are exceedingly humorous, like the ones for the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer on Amazon, fake reviews make buying decisions harder. And that’s not the way it is supposed to work.

The ideal of online reviews is for people who have used the product to honestly review them. However, anyone who has tried to sort through the reviews on products in a major online marketplace will know that amid the real, honest reviews are dozens that appear to be made up. These often are very high or very low ratings (depending on whether the company or their competitor funded the reviewers) and include gratuitous typos, insufficient information, and information designed to mislead. So, a product may have hundreds of reviews, but the real ones with important criticism may have been diluted by fake reviews.

The prevalence of fake reviews in the online marketplace makes using reviews nearly worthless sometimes. Add that to the ability for sellers to revise listings of old products to newer ones, while bringing along their reviews, and you have a recipe for unhelpful confusion.

Another trend that is unhelpful with the democratization of information is the volume of websites that seem to indicate they are dedicated to product reviews, but which are really dedicated to trying to acquire revenue through affiliate traffic. For example, do an internet search on “best gifts for a 10-year-old boy, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Someone trying to get suggestions for Christmas or birthday may want a blogger’s suggestions that their kids liked, but may only be able to find suggestions in click-through format designed to rake in money from another online marketplace.

Sometimes these offerings are helpful, but they accomplish the opposite of the intended purpose. When someone does a search online for creative suggestions, they are usually looking for something off the beaten path. However, these dozens of “product review” or “product suggestion” websites tend to all “recommend” the same dozen or so products, none of which they have any real knowledge of. (Full disclosure: I use affiliate links at the bottom of my book reviews and sometimes get a little money from them, but that is secondary to the actual review.)

The reality of the internet is turning out to be something less than the promise.

The Web Is Mostly Fake

According to a recent article from New York Magazine, we’ve passed the point where, by some measures, more than half of internet traffic is fake. Given that the next video you watch or next widget you buy may be recommended based on the programmed habits of a bot, this matters significantly. For those, like me, who spend time creating real content online—especially those who depend of traffic from YouTube or other traffic sites—that distortion can be disheartening and financially debilitating.

Because traffic generates traffic as we all chase the next cool thing, this fake traffic is distorting our culture. Is someone’s video really viral, or did they create or finance a bot army to give them clicks, help them trend, and push a somewhat novel but largely inane product into everyone’s feeds? The world may never know.

Given that a fair amount of news reporting—both traditional media and various internet outlets—is now mind-numbing reporting about trends on social media, the power of faking on the internet may have significant social implications. Is anyone really mad about the latest controversy? Or, was some minor infraction by a local official magnified by thousands of bots financed by someone who is either making money off of the clicks or gaining power by fracturing society? This is a powerful question that I don’t have an easy answer to.

One Proposed Solution

I do think, however, that we have the potential to curb some of the worst excesses in our own control by using self-control and changing our habits.

Perhaps the best solution to the problem is to use the internet in an old-fashioned way, with sustained patronage, long time relationships, and word of mouth recommendations. Major branded websites for news and information will likely remain significant, but to some extent we need to rely more on pseudo-social connections rather than search algorithms.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

For example, as a blogger well after the heyday of blogging, I think we need to bring back the blogroll. If someone likes my website, there is a decent chance that they will like the blogs I like, so I can let them know what and who I follow. That also means that I am vouching that I’ve watched/read enough of the content to know that it is real and not bot-generated.

In a world of depersonalized identities, we need to reorient toward personal connections, even if it is only virtually. The possibilities for deception are still higher, but bots are generally identifiable through their patterns of activity, real people are both more predictable and more erratic.

Conclusion

Much of the internet has become, for all intents and purposes, worthless. People are fake. Reviews are fake. Facts are fake. As we try to live life in a virtual age, taking advantage of the real benefits of the internet, we need to begin to reestablish habits that will make our experiences online more benefit than curse.

The Bible is Not Just Another Book

Another year has come. In our culture, that means learning to write a different last two digits when you write checks, sign paperwork, and fill out forms. This is also a time when people set new goals for the year to come, often planning the accomplishments they hope to see complete before we have completed another trip around the sun. Other people, reject the notion and simply continue on as they go.

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What is both most encouraging and disheartening to me is the number of people who commit to reading the Bible through each year and fizzle out long before the end. It’s discouraging to me because often when I talk to the people who have missed their goal, they simply give up when they miss a few days here or there. It’s a hard thing to get into Scripture every day without fail, and even those who regularly finish all 66 books in a year often miss days. At the same time, it is encouraging because people are trying.

There is nothing magical about the New Year. January 1 has no more significance on a cosmic scale than August 15th. But it offers a cultural pattern for new beginnings, for the initiation of attempts at self-improvement or sanctification. Though there is nothing eternally unique about the date, using the culture’s momentum to get moving in the right direction.

This year, if you commit to nothing else, consider committing to reading all of Scripture through.

Why Scripture?

Is the Bible just another book like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Shakespeare’s plays, or a modern novel?

Some would answer yes, but those people are unlikely to be convinced by a blog. And yet, many will respond that the Bible is unlike all other books, but will perhaps be unable to explain why.

The Bible, a volume with 66 books written over thousands of years by dozens of different human authors is a book like no other book because it has one divine author behind every word of every page.

As the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says,

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

Our only hope for salvation is discussed in its pages. It is God’s revelation of himself to us. It is all a testimony of Christ, our only hope. It is the standard by which all our thoughts, beliefs, and actions should and will be judged.

So many of us will confess something glorious about the Bible on Sunday and live like it is just a bunch of fairy tales when Monday comes. This year, make a commitment to treat Scripture like what it is: the very word of God, revealed through the ages, given to us by God’s divine grace, and intended to point us toward holiness in Christ.


From Early Posts at Ethics and Culture

“A Plea for Reading the Bible”
”Bible Reading Plans for This Year”

Start a Tradition of Giving This Year

Now that the wreckage of Christmas morning is now settled into piles of colored paper, with loose scraps skulking in the corners and under the couch, and the food-induced coma from a hefty lunch is beginning to wane, the children—ever energetic—are beginning to come down off their dopamine high from the frenzy of gift opening this morning. The widget that seemed so enticing at 8AM is now, perhaps, stuck in a couch cushion and the thrill of the hunt—the search for the last present under the tree—has faded.

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Before the boredom of the day sets in and the squabbling over taking turns with the gifts of another, consider taking the time to reinforce the power of giving on Christmas.

Of course, in all likelihood, this was planned before hand with kids picking out trinkets for loved ones in the store or helping to wrap the presents for Mom and Dad. But so many of our gifts are from people with much to people that have much. Though there are certainly exceptions, Christmas tends to be a day of excess, where some of that excess flows over in generosity for those with little real need.

To help combat this, several years ago we started a tradition in our family. It certainly isn’t earth shattering or worthy of high esteem, but it is a method to help all of us, and especially the kids, remember that our abundance is far from universal and, within the broader history of humanity, is an extreme rarity.

Our tradition is to assign a certain amount of money to each child for the purpose of giving through a charitable organization. For consistency and because I believe in their mission, we use the Compassion gift catalog.

For those of you who aren’t already on their mailing list, consider clicking here to go to their online gift catalog. Pass the tablet to your children or bring them alongside you as you look through the options.

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Given that the average American household who gives any gifts on Christmas planned on spending $962 this year, another $50 or even $300  that will help those with legitimate needs is not an overly large gift. One practice that I’ve heard commended is giving the amount of the largest single gift for a person or group to some missions or aid organization.

More significant than the actual gift, however, is the act of giving. I think there is power even in clicking on one’s choice of gift for someone really in need, even while the aroma of ham, turkey, and mashed potatoes permeates the space of you abundance.

NOTE: Images on this page are courtesy of the International Mission Board: https://www.imb.org/photo-library/