Addicted to Lust - A Review

If you ask any pastor, they will tell you that pornography is a significant problem in their local congregation among the men. In fact, some surveys indicate there is little to no difference between pornography consumption among self-described Christian men and those outside the church. Many pastors can explain how it is a barrier to having enough men qualified to serve as elders and deacons in the local church.

Additionally, a growing number of people in the U.S. describe themselves as addicted to pornography. There are debates about whether that is possible and whether the changes that some people describe due to pornography have a long term impact, but there is little question that the rise of the internet and especially the smart phone have made pornography much more available and pervasive to people of all ages and walks of life.

Samuel L. Perry’s book, Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants, is a sociological study of the admitted use of pornography by theologically conservative Protestants. His population of interest includes both those that might be described as fundamentalist and as evangelical.

Analysis and Discussion

Perry’s book is revealing in that his data show a huge oversight in many conservative Protestant congregations: specifically, according to his study, women are using pornography nearly as much as men. This is a particularly startling revelation, since most teaching on pornography that occurs within the evangelical church is particularly focused on men. Additionally, given the prevalence of male staff in evangelical churches, this may create situations where a local congregation is ill-equipped to help women struggling with pornography.

Assuming that Perry’s data is correct, his assertions from that data are often unflattering toward theologically conservative Christians. Perry argues that some basic assumptions that evangelical pastors make about pornography contribute to its use among men and the failure to address it among women. For example, the common assertion that men are “turned on” by visual stimulation while other triggers impact women are considered sexist and misogynistic by Perry. The data related to pornography use among women tends to support the argument that visual arousal is not exclusively a male trade, but he fails to adequately support a statement about different in forms of arousal between sexes. This is wound up in a general sub-thesis that Christian understandings of gender differences are incorrect, which is more assumed than argued in this volume.

Significantly, however, Perry notes that identifying pornography as a “men’s issue” is particularly harmful for the women who feel guilty about using it. Their guilt places significant psychological strain on them, which is exacerbated by feeling abnormal to be a female struggling with a “guy thing.” This, I think, is the item that is most significantly illuminating and helpful for pastors reading this volume.

Another significant assertion that is woven through this volume is that evangelicals would be better off to simply embrace and accept pornography usage as normal. He attempts to use data to show that theological conservatives are more likely to face marital difficulties due to pornography usage, not because it is actually akin to or another form of adultery, but simply because it violates the taboos of the evangelical or fundamentalist community. He does this while carefully noting that he is specifically not engaging with the literature that debates the negative sociological impacts on romance, particularly due to heavy pornography usage. Perry’s argument is that the usage rates are identical between conservative Christians and non-Christians, and some progressive Christians feel it enhances their lives, so evangelicals would be better off simply embracing the vice.

A weakness in Perry’s analysis is his engagement with primarily popular-level treatments of pornography. He does a lot of legwork to try to find cringe-worthy exaggerations and inexact statements in books intended for an audience seeking encouragement in their pursuit of holiness, who are already largely convinced of the theological underpinnings of Christian theology. This may illustrate a significant flaw in the body of literature available, since Perry apparently did not come into contact with a robust theology of human sexuality in his research.

Additionally, there are points at which Perry simply misrepresents (I assume because of understanding) the theology of those he describes. For example, by asserting that reformed Christians tend to embody pietistic idealism, which leads them to believe that, “God is chiefly concerned not with a person’s actions but with her motivations. . . . Simply put, for conservative Protestants, the obedience that God demands is not about bodily actions so much as it is about a person’s heart.” (pg 13) This is inconsistent with any reformed thinking I have ever read on sexual ethics. It appears that Perry confuses the emphasis behind motivation in discussions about sexual ethics as reflecting a greater concern (by God!) for motivation. In fact, it is that most conservative Christians already recognize that sinning with their bodies (e.g., consummating adulterous lust) is sin, but often need help recognizing the severity of lust.

Conclusion

As a work of sociology, this is helpful. Perry has done yeoman’s work in interviewing people about a very sensitive subject. Pastors, ethicists, counselors, and lay leaders within local congregations will benefit by reading this book to see what people will tell a sociologist at a state university that they are unlikely to discuss with a representative of the church. This is information worth getting access to and Perry has written a very accessible book.

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

African American Theological Ethics - A Review

The Library of Theological Ethics series from Westminster John Knox Press includes a number of volumes, both reprints and anthologies, that are valuable resources for an ethicist’s library. One need not agree with the contents of the volume to recognize the quality of the collection.

A recent addition to the series, African American Theological Ethics, is no exception to the string of helpful volumes.

This anthology, compiled by Peter Paris with Julius Crump, offers access to a number of voices ranging from well-known figures like Frederick Douglass, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to lesser known authors like Martin Delaney and Peter Williams. The voices are varied in method and chronology, though all of them are taking up the basic question of race from a distinctly African American perspective.

The contents of the volume are organized in six parts of unequal size. Part One includes on essay opposing the doctrine of white supremacy; Part Two consists of nine essay opposing slavery. In Part Three, the editors include nine essays opposing racial segregation. And, in the fourth part, the reader will find six essays opposing racial discrimination. Part Five hold four essays on African American religious creativity. The sixth part offers eight selections that help interpret African American themes and perspectives.

With thirty-seven distinct selections, a point by point discussion of each chapter would prove onerous, but there are multiple valuable contributions that deserve highlighting. First, the book opens with late 19th century author Martin R. Delaney arguing for the genetic unity of the human race. The essay, “The Origin of Races and Color,” deals with the idea that the mark of Ham is the ultimate sign of God’s judgment and sufficient justification for the permanent subordination of dark-skinned humans. Delaney’s plea is for the unity of the human race, who, according to Scripture, share a common ancestor. It is just as interesting which of the now out of fashion racial myths Delaney accepts as his arguments against white supremacy.

Stretching the boundaries of being theological ethics, perhaps, is Barack Obama’s victory speech from his initial election as President of the United States of America. There are some ethical implications in this speech, the occasional reference to theological concepts, but the essay is more rhetoric than significant thought. The editor’s choice of this essay seems to be to highlight the contrast between Obama’s speech and the dream outlined by Martin Luther King, Jr., which famous speech they also included in the chapter that follows.

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Other significant contributions of rhetoric surrounding African American thought have been included, such as James Cone’s essay, “Black Theology and Black Power,” Booker T. Washington’s, “Atlanta Exposition Address, Cornel West’s essay, “Nihilism in Black America.” The reader will find numerous contributions not listed here, but worthy of attention.

The value of this volume is first as a reference volume. It offers easy access to a curated set of sources that will help illuminate the outlines of African American thought through the past two centuries, or so. African American Theological Ethics would also make a helpful supplemental source on an ethics elective on race in the United States, or a similar course.

The weakness of this volume is that, by virtue of its limited scope and particular foci, it enhances the myth that racial minorities think primarily about race. While there is little doubt that the voices of minorities tend to be raised more often than majority voices on the topic of race, many of these thinkers had a great deal more say about theological ethics than this volume offers. Notably absent from the volume are considerations of ethical methodology and ethical reasoning not framed primarily through the lens of race. This is a lacuna that the editor, Paris, takes up in the conclusion of his closing essay in the volume; he attributes it to lack of content, but his critique of African Americans for retaining biblical Christian perspectives on topics like sexual ethics indicate a bias in rejecting non-revisionist contributions as inauthentically black more than an actual absence of material.

This is a helpful resource that should be in the library of ethicists, theologians thinking about applied anthropology, political theologians, and institutional collections. It will provide a place to begin further research, even as it offers an overview of an important topic.

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

Schleiermacher and Sustainability - A Review

Schleiermacher and Sustainability: A Theology for Ecological Living asks the basic question: “Can Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theology be used to support a greener lifestyle?”

In the teeth of what some consider to be a potentially human-species ending climate crisis, this seems to be a vital question, which the five essays of this volume seek to answer. From the start, it should be clear that the question of the book is not whether Schleiermacher’s theology is truly Christian, or whether it is representative of reality. Instead, the question of concern is the usefulness for a given goal. This is a point that is worth returning to toward the end of this brief review.

Summary

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After a short introduction, the book launches into five essays followed by an exhortative conclusion. Chapter One deals with Schleiermacher’s ethics and his understanding of the church. James Brandt deals with the life of faith within the church, concluding that the connection between theology and ethics Schleiermacher draws can be useful for motivating ecological action. An important question in this essay is the function of the church in moving people to live ethically. In the second chapter, Shelli Poe (who also edited the volume) tackles the relationship between economics, the doctrine of election, and ecological concern. Poe recommends significant revision of the arch-revisionist Schleiermacher, expressing particular concern over his fragile and latent belief in some sort of particularity of Christianity. Schleiermacher tended toward universalism, but to be a proper ecological source, his vestigial biases must be overcome to enhance mutuality and openness.

Chapter Thee picks up the important topic of creation from Schleiermacher’s perspective. A key element of this chapter is the summary of Schleiermacher’s belief that God does not act in space and time. This, of course, means that miracles are not possible, but also that human action is the only recourse for preserving the planet. This is deemed as useful for motivating human action for curbing ecological degradation. In the fourth chapter, Annette Hagan focuses on Schleiermacher’s treatments of preservation and divine providence. Again, the focus is on minimizing the active role of God in creation, thus arguing for the importance of human action is causing and alleviating environmental discussions. There is interesting interplay between this essay and the preceding one, because they stating their cases differently. This is a good example of how to put essays with differing views in conversation in an edited volume.

In Chapter Five the concept of social sin comes to plan in an essay by Kevin Vander Schel. Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberalism, was much more concerned with formation and communal sin than individual deviation from the good. Beyond the mere local impacts of so much systemic evil, ecological degradation proves to be the ultimate, far reaching cause that can be seen to prove Schleiermacher’s point. According to Vander Schel, Schleiermacher’s theology is ultimately useful for reformulation human activity around “proper” ecological living.

The book closes with a conclusion by Terrence Tice, which is largely an exhortation to live ecologically. He is a significant voice in Schleiermacher studies. Most of his essay has little to do with Schleiermacher, properly speaking, but is intended to motivate readers to apply the revisionist principals of Schleiermacher to motivate action across any boundaries, since it is of ultimate importance.

Analysis

I believe that the book largely accomplishes its purposes. The six authors make a cogent argument that the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher can indeed be built upon to support a version of the sort of ecological living they deem necessary. Thus, when Tice celebrates both the anti-Christian Lynne White and the misanthrope Paul Ehrlich in his conclusion, there is little question that the celebration of these modern ecological heroes is consistent with the ideas set forth throughout the book.

As an example of focused study on a particular theologian for a particular topic, this is a good book. Though the strange divergence from material relating to Schleiermacher in the final chapter challenges the coherence of the volume. However, that may be explained by accepting whatever product the emeritus professor was willing to provide. This book will likely help some ecotheologians in their study of historical sources for environmental ethics.

Goal Based Ethics

The book also serves another purpose, which is to illustrate the dangers for Christians who pursue theological ethics with a specific goal in mind. In this case, the primary goal is to motivate people to live a certain approved lifestyle, which is deemed green. This sort of book can be useful, but it is a far cry from the pursuit of truth. This is scholarship with an agenda.

Part of the problem of this book is that they are asking a dangerous (and often futile question): “What would Schleiermacher have said about conditions he could not have imagined?” This is very different from the more valid question: “What did Schleiermacher say about the human-divine-creation relationship and is that helpful today?” The second question puts the historical thinker directly in the spotlight of the book. The first question makes the contemporary author and her present problem the focus of scholarship. It seems to me that, at its best, the essence of scholarship is looking beyond one’s self for truth, goodness, and beauty. A certain form of goodness and beauty are assumed for this book, but those assumed attributes are valued so highly that the question of truth is not raised.

Scholarship should always be for a purpose, but that purpose should rarely be a utilitarian one. To pursue an agenda instead of truth is to cut reps in your gym workout. No one may recognize it at first, but over time its going to be pretty obvious that something about your fitness routine is not right.  As such, Schleiermacher and Sustainability is very helpful for understanding Schleiermacher and the given authors better, but it falls short of a faithful attempt at pursuing truth.

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

Becoming a Smarter Digital Citizen

Technology is amazing. In my life, I’ve seen the advancement of personal communications at a pace and to a degree that I would never have guessed was possible within my own life. I scoffed at the people who told me when I was a teen that television would be replaced by videos streamed on the computer. That was incomprehensible to me, since the internet was so limited as a resource then. I still remember having someone from the city (Buffalo) come out to do a demonstration of the internet at my rural school. They showed us ERIC and we were supposed to be amazed. Given that I was young, I didn’t recognize the potential of a database that would index academic articles, and the platform was extremely limited in comparison to contemporary tools.

Fast forward a few decades and now we are surrounded by a sea of digital influences. I read most of my news online and the news that I do read often depends on the people I follow on social media. I too rarely actually go to the landing page of any website, including those sites whose content I regularly consume.

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However, since I get the majority of my content through social media, that makes me vulnerable to manipulations in the algorithms. This is because, in order to keep us addicted to their content, social media platforms distort the way information is displayed on their pages. There are complex calculations running in the background to ensure that you see your cousin’s pregnancy announcement when it pops up, but only get one link to that article that everyone is reading. Also, if they think you will be offended by that popular article, they might just not show it to you.

There is no question that the social media platforms are manipulating the content that gets displayed. That, at some level, might be considered tolerable (since they own the platform) and some might believe it is relatively benign (I do not). But there is a deeper problem: the manipulation of algorithms by people that want to do us harm.

In a multipart series, Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day has researched the manipulation of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube by bots and bad guys. I’m linking here to the series, with a brief synopsis of each video, because I believe that this is content worth sharing and considering as we learn how to live within our present digital culture.

The Art of Digital War

Because of his former day job, which involved working alongside the military on weapons systems, Sandlin was afforded a unique opportunity to engage some experts on the future of war and how cyber warfare will play into the way that wars will be fought or avoided in the coming decades. This video is a key part of understanding why the manipulation of social media feeds is worth the money and time invested in it.

Manipulating the Big Three Platforms

Some of these videos are a little long, but I found them very engaging. What is most helpful is that Sandlin was given access to experts from YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook who are trying to combat the rise of bots and overtly hostile actions. I have my own concerns about how our digital overlords are using their self-granted, self-regulated powers, but it is worth seeing how the algorithms are being manipulated to better understand the world in which we live.

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The Problem with Your Newsfeed

Although this video was released before the three-part series on the manipulation of particular platforms, but it provides a very helpful guide to being a better digital citizen. Sandlin talks to someone who works through a process of validating information before sharing it, and tries to teach us to do the same. If we all followed this sort of process, instead of simply sharing something that made us feel the right way, then false information would not be disseminated so regularly.

Sandlin also recaps why carefully parsing any links that you might share is so vitally important, because so much of the contemporary divisiveness and viral disruption of communities depends on false, or at least biased, information getting out into the main stream very quickly.

Conclusion

I’m writing on a website that has no paper counterpart, so obviously I’m not ready to step out of the digital world. A lot of the views for this website come through social media sharing and from search engines, so it isn’t in my interests to jump ship just yet.

However, we really do need to think about how the new information economy is shaping how we learn, see, and understand the world around us. We need to recognize that even more than the biased, but more benign forms of censorship and self-promotion inherent in commercial media, the rise of the portability of digital tools makes it easy for a relatively small, hostile actor to significantly influence the course of societal debate.

Being a good citizen in a digital world is part of being a good neighbor. Part of being a good neighbor is learning how the bad guys work (and the not-so-bad guys that are just as manipulative) so that we can resist unhelpful misinformation and reinterpretation in a rapidly changing environment.

Squeezed - A Review

Even before the Great Recession and the slow climb out of it, many people expressed angst over their economic situation. As long as I can remember, and likely for all of human history, most people have expressed a sense that they can’t get ahead and that true financial stability is just out of reach. One thing that has shifted in the last few generations, however, is that people have argued that having a family is financially out of reach because of their current economic situation.

A desire for economic stability is leading many young people to delay marriage until their late 20s or early 30s. Then, once couples do get married, they often decide to wait to have children “until they can afford it.” The frequent, repeated news articles that tell people it costs a quarter million dollars or more to raise a child tend to entrench such arguments.

In her recent book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, Alissa Quart attempts to make these arguments in a book length format. She uses a journalistic-style, with supporting statistics interwoven with sympathetic anecdotes to make her case. The style itself is useful for convincing either (a) non-critical readers or (b) those already convinced. For those skeptical that centralized government solutions like UBI are the best solution for people’s feelings of dis-ease, the content of Quart’s book tends to make quite the opposite case that Quart intends.

There are certainly problems within our current economic system. Some of the cases that Quart outlines help to show what those problems are. For example, the injustice of our broken immigration system is evident in Chapter 5 of Squeezed and, in some ways, represents reality. However, what Quart actually shows is that consumerism is a miserable disease and that, in general, life would get a whole lot better for people if they turned off their televisions, got off the internet, and focused on living the life they can afford and loving the people around them.

A couple of the stories Quart highlights show the main problems with Americans that keep them from feeling they can afford a family are (a) a lack of permanent commitment in marriage and (b) covetousness.

The Damage of Impermanent Marriages

Quart begins the book with her own story. She and her husband were freelance writers living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City when they had their first child. She describes the burden of paying $1,500 for the medical care she and her daughter incurred during delivery. Subsequently, they experienced “financial vertigo” because, “We first hired a nearly full-time sitter and most of my own take-home earnings as an editor went directly to her. Eventually, my earnings also flowed to my daughter’s cheerfully boho day care . . .” (pg. 3). The financial pressure they felt was primarily self-induced fear of “tumbling out of [their] class position.” (pg. 4) Contributing to this is the apparent sense that one must maintain one’s career even if it is financially unwise to do so.

Though it is not clearly defined, “middle class” in this book appears to be defined as living above your means without fear of financial repercussions. So, for Quart, it was essential for her to be able to fund a nanny so she could retain professional pride and independence from her husband, no matter what the financial burden or social cost to her offspring.

There are several cases throughout this volume that illustrate that fear of being left or getting divorced is what drives a lot of the financial pressure on her subjects. In other words, when a spouse fears that his or her marriage is impermanent and the spouse and their income may disappear at any moment, then there is terrific pressure to maintain a career at any and all costs. Quart does not identify this fear explicitly, but it is an obvious undercurrent throughout the book for those with eyes to see it. This is why the supposed 70% gender pay gap is so insidious in the eyes of many progressives.

If couples both valued and were committed to the permanence of marriage, much of the angst that Quart describes about finding suitable and cost-effective child care would diminish.

Covetousness

The other major problem illustrated by this book is not injustice, but covetousness. This is apparent in Quart’s story again, as she requires a personal baby sitter and then “boho daycare” for her child.

A more striking example of the problem of economic myopia and covetousness is documented in Chapter 2. Quart describes a case of “modest oppression” of a couple who made a combined household income of “around $160,000” as the department chair at a college (wife) and a part-time music composer, director of a music organization, and church organist (husband). Even given the high cost of living in New York City, it is hard to describe a couple making north of $150K as being oppressed in meaningful sense. Apparent in Quart’s description is that their unhappiness was largely due to the existence of people that appeared to be more comfortable and have fewer financial worries. Absent from Quart’s telling of their story is the idea that they might consider making different decisions (e.g., having the husband stay at home with the kids) that might alleviate the problem and result in better outcomes for everyone.

Similarly, in the same chapter Quart tells the story of an adjunct professor whose PhD was in avant garde poetry. She has a disabled son, conceived in a fling with a member of an indie rock group. There are multiple commendable aspects of the story: the adjunct was willing to work hard and she was committed first to not killing her child in utero and then to seeking proper care for him. The covetousness in this story is apparent because the adjunct believed herself to be entitled to the career of her choice––that is to be fully supported through adjuncting––because she had chosen to get an advanced degree in a particular field. There is some hope in this story because the chapter closes noting that Bolin had decided to pursue more regular employment.

Quart’s telling of these stories is intended to illicit the response that there is obvious injustice in the struggle of both of these families. However, it is clear to the casual reader that the greater portion of the financial distress in both these situations is a desire for something that is just out of reach: the idealized existence as a career advancing professional in the exact job one desires. The underlying assumption is that the world owes everyone their personally preferred lifestyle and existence. As long as people base their happiness on hanging on to social positions that are just above their income level or seeking the perfect working situation, their covetousness is destined to enhance their unhappiness.

Positives of the Book

The general premise of Squeezed is flawed, but there is value in the book.

First, there are multiple anecdotes that illustrate how significant the family and community are for financial stability. Though Quart does not draw the conclusion (instead calling for government intervention at nearly every level), it is apparent that stronger nuclear families and mediating institutions like the local church are essential to the flourishing of society. In many of the examples Quart provides, the reader can see how a strong connection to a local congregation that is functioning as the body of Christ could alleviate a great deal of stress.

Second, as noted above, the permanence of marriage tends to alleviate a lot of cost and stress. Both spouses need not pursue their careers full-bore if they trust each other to remain around. Additionally, the cost of living can be substantially reduced when both parents and children live together in the same house.

Third, in Chapter Ten, Quart highlights the work that television (or other versions of video entertainment) does in making people believe they are not well-off. Supposed “middle-class” families in SitComs are really incredibly rich. Everything on the set is in perfect condition, no one is really struggling for money, etc. The old puzzle about how the characters in Friends were able to live such apparently lavish lives in New York City is still a real phenomenon. Part of the work of the Church, then, should be to disabuse people of the fantasies of contemporary entertainment.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is a popular-level book that will tend to convince the already convinced that a bigger government is needed to fix supposed injustices in the economy. What it really highlights is that much of our ongoing social misery is self-induced. If we readjust our expectations toward reality and focus on enjoying the relative wonders most of us experience on a daily basis, our satisfaction in life is bound to be enhanced.

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

Some Thoughts on Christian Ethics

As an ethicist, I often get asked whether something is good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy. It is more common for me to be able to answer a clear “no” than for an absolute “yes.” In fact, many times my response is a very robust, “It depends.”

Whether something is morally praiseworthy depends on more than the act itself. It also depends on the circumstances and the reason for the action, at least. Processing moral events in our lives through three particular considerations is the start of the ethical decision-making process. We need consider at least the action, the circumstance, and the reason behind it.

Triperspectival Ethics

I believe that some version of a triperspectival approach to ethics is the most helpful. The most prominent advocate for triperpectival ethics is John Frame, but the foundations of the system are built on a much earlier theological tradition.

The Heidelberg Catechism, asks this pertinent question in question 91:

Q. What are good works?

A. Only those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition.

There are three basic elements to this: (1) done out of true faith, (2) conforming to God’s law, and (3) done for God’s glory. For each action we need to consider the action itself, our reason for doing it, and the circumstances in which we do it. For example, eating shellfish is morally permissible, since Christ declared all food clean. However, if you believe you are sinning by eating shellfish because you misunderstand the law, then by violating your conscience you are sinning; your attitude is set against God. Or, if you eat shellfish in the knowledge that it is morally permissible to eat, but you do it to show how spiritual you are or simply out of gluttonous motivations, then you have stepped into sin.

All moral acts have at least these three components: (1) the action, (2) the circumstance, and (3) the reason. The first question to ask is whether the action is morally permissible. If Scripture puts it out of bounds, then it is sin to voluntarily perform the action. This is a fairly simple process, typically, but not always.

The second question is whether the circumstances support that act being just. So, for example, if I kill someone out of self-defense, Scripture makes clear that is not sin. However, if I kill an innocent person, then the same physical act becomes sin. Or, as another example, sex is a morally permissible action, but only with my spouse in the bounds of marriage. Who I am and what the situation is makes a difference as to whether something is morally permissible.

The third question is whether the motive is correct. If I kill someone in what appears to be self-defense, but I’ve really wanted to kill him for years or at that moment I hated him because of whatever he did, then that would be sin. If a couple has sex within the bounds of marriage but the man’s mind is solely on his own satisfaction and not on the glory of God and the good of his wife, then that sexual act became sin for him.

Nearly everything we do is tainted by the reason or motive for which we do it. That is the power of sin in this world and our lives. Repentance and prayer must be an ongoing process, because even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon quickly become tainted by our sinful motivations. Thank God for the cross.

A Case Study

For those still concerned that triperspectivalism is a form of moral relativism, I assure you it is not. However, I will offer a more complete example to illustrate the process.

If a hardworking janitor at the local hospital dresses in scrubs, goes into the maternity ward, and delivers a baby, we would consider that a morally impermissible event. Most of us would nod our heads in agreement if we saw the headline, “Hospital Janitor Gets 25 Years Baby Delivery.” That janitor is not the appropriate individual to perform the function of the doctor.

However, if we simply change the situation a little, the expert cleaner goes from criminal to hero. Consider the alternative situation where the same janitor helps a woman deliver her baby on a remote stretch of highway when her car had broken down. The action was the same, the individuals were the same, but the circumstances changed the situation radically. What would have been deemed a criminal action in the hospital is a heroic action for that janitor when there is no doctor available.

These are the two layers that the law and human society can consider. The action and the circumstances are the only things that we can measure and judge. However, God’s judgment goes a layer deeper, which further enhances Christian ethics.

To be a praiseworthy action, the action must be in accordance with God’s law, supported by the circumstances, and done with the appropriate motivation. If the heroic janitor delivered the baby on the side of the road for his own glory, with a view to getting into the newspapers, then that is a societally beneficial action, but it becomes sin in the eyes of God.

The Pervasiveness of Sin

Moral relativism tends to minimize sin by arguing that circumstances make an otherwise impermissible action permissible. Thus, some argue that killing a human is sin, but there may be circumstances (e.g., self-defense) in which it is permissible. Triperspectivalism takes the opposite approach. It argues that there are many events which may be morally permissible, but that other factors may make them morally impermissible.

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Killing a human is not sin in and of itself, otherwise God would be liable to the charge of sin, because there are unquestionable examples of God ending the life of a human in Scripture. However, killing an innocent human is a sin. Thus, murder is prohibited, while being a combatant is not. And yet, simply donning a uniform is not enough to make killing an enemy combatant morally praiseworthy. If a soldier kills for the joy of it (i.e., selfish pleasure) or out of pure hatred, then that event has become sinful and must be repented of. We must consider the action, the circumstances, and the motivation.

Similarly, sexual intercourse is not inherently sinful. Intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily sinful either, since the victim of rape is not responsible for the action being perpetrated on his or her body. However, willing sexual intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is sinful because the circumstances violate the norms of God. And yet sex within the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily without sin. Even with the correct action and circumstances, if the event occurs out of selfishness (e.g., a concern only for one’s pleasure), then it is morally impermissible and therefore sinful.

The reality is that most of what we do is tainted by sin. Even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon is often done with, at best, mixed motives. Our hearts are idol factories. We often do “good deeds” as much to get noticed or receive thanks as to honor Christ. The God of the universe is a jealous God, he will not share his glory with his creatures (Is. 42:8).

Total depravity is real. Sin taints every aspect of human existence. Aside from our blatant violations of God’s laws, our motives are likely never pure. This enhances the miracle of grace. We must continually repent of our sin and strive to serve faithfully, but ultimately any praiseworthiness of our actions is due to God’s undeserved grace toward us. Much like a child bringing a shaky drawing to a father, our actions are little more than colorful scribbles. Yet, out of love for us as adopted children, he takes messy works done imperfectly from a heart of faith, sees them as good in Christ, and puts them on the refrigerator. This is why Hebrews 11 extols imperfect people who did imperfect things for doing them through faith.

Ultimately, we are incapable of doing good outside of the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Our worthiness is not based on doing good works (though we should strive to do them), because to do so might lead us to believe we should get to heaven. We can’t do truly good works anyway, because of our sin. However, God has called us to live faithfully and to strive to be holy, just like him. That command leads us to reject obviously sinful actions and circumstances and to pursue actions that do not violate clear revelation of Scripture. At the same time, we must recognize that on our best days we are but sinners whose only hope is the substitutionary death of Christ.

Conclusion

Christian ethics is far from a simplistic set of cases where going to movies is bad, but reading the Bible is good. Both are likely to be tainted by sin. The truth is that we are much worse that we like to believe we are. Our sinful actions and attitudes should continually cause us to repent, turn back toward God, and place our hope in Christ for forgiveness of our sin.

Christian ethics should never lead us to be triumphalistic––that is, to look down on others who commit obvious, public sin––but should push us toward repentance. The judgment on those of us who are redeemed, who have been given the Holy Spirit, and yet who continue to be selfish would be much greater than those without that gift, were it not for the cross.

Transhumanism and the Image of God - A Review

Transhumanism is a term that will be unfamiliar to many Christians, but will become increasingly important in the coming years. Transhumanism, simply defined, is “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.”

For some, this term conjures images of Darth Vader, the Borg from Star Trek, or the dystopian world of The Matrix. However, the reality is that transhumanism is around us, is much more pervasive than we often believe. To some extent, all technological innovation leads to changes in humanity, but that pace appears to be accelerating.

Our smartphones are changing the way that we focus, constantly dragging our attention away from more significant things to the trivial. Social media is functionally altering the way that we socialize with one another. We tend to focus on documentable events rather than companionable experiences. The internet and the availability of search engines are modifying how we value knowledge of facts.

In his recent book, Transhumanism and the Image of God, Jacob Shatzer shows that transhumanism is with us now and, to some degree, inescapable. At the same time, it is our responsibility as Christians to begin to ask questions about to what degree we can accept the changes demanded by technology and to what degree we ought to resist them.

At its most radical level transhumanism includes the intentional tampering with the human genome. The groundwork for a radical reimagining of the possibilities for this sort of tampering is being laid in China, for example, where recently human brain genes were put in rhesus macaque monkeys. Or, pig brains have been kept alive––to some degree––after they have died. These are experiments whose long term goal is to push back death for humans, perhaps even leading to eternal life.

Shatzer rightly unpacks some of the potential ethical questions that are folded in questions like these. For example, the ability to tamper with the human genome and “improve” it might have consequences we have not yet anticipated in terms of mutation. It would be rather cruel to modify particular humans into a form that undergoes excruciating pain beginning at age 30 or has increased opportunities for psychoses. These are the sorts of consequences we might not uncover until we have already cursed a generation to such an unfortunate and unnecessary fate.

Even without unforeseen consequences that impact the modified humans directly, such practices raise ethical concerns about how technological mutation of certain humans might leave those who can’t afford the modifications (or are unwilling to tamper with humanity) as a permanent sub-class to the new generation of Supermen. Thought experiments regarding such modification always begin with the “common good” in mind, but history has shown that concern for genetic improvement tends to end poorly for those perceived as second-class humans. Additionally, he rightly notes that, “We in the West spend on Botox while others throughout the world lack mosquito nets to help protect from malaria.”

But the main point of Shatzer’s book is not to raise alarm about some dystopian future but to point out the many ways even Christians within our culture adopt technology and adapt to its demands without ever considering how we are being changed and whether or not the technology is good. We often never ask the question of purpose and value. Instead, we focus on the marginal benefits or novelty of the given technology. As a result, many of the men in the church are addicted to internet pornography, millions of Christians spent hours on their phone pointlessly scrolling and almost no time in prayer or Scripture reading, and we are damaging our bodies through sedentary lives inspired by technology. These are real consequences, right now. These are realities we need to wrestle with.

Transhumanism and the Image of God is a reminder that we need to reconsider what it means to be human. It is a call to reconsider what this life is about and in what ways technology is distorting the created order or masking its goodness. The book is carefully written and simply explained. Although it was published by IVP Academic, it is well within the difficulty range of laypeople who regularly read.

Shatzer’s book deserves a wide reading. This is the beginning of an important conversation; one that Christians cannot afford to sit out. Pastors and other church leaders should read this as they consider the way they are shaping liturgies and the structures of their church programs. Parents should read this book to begin to evaluate what sort of humans we are raising. We cannot afford to drift with the rapidly shifting technological currents, otherwise we will wake up in a few decades unable to recognize the sorts of humans we are and what we have done to the generations that come behind.

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

Warrior Children of the Conservative Resurgence

Every year just prior to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention bloggers fire up their keyboards and social media warriors stretch their thumbs in preparation for a raging, virtual street brawl. This unhealthy fist-fight between brothers and sisters in Christ is usually over second or third order doctrines: shades of difference in soteriology, application of complementarian principles, or the way an entity is applying the gospel to life.

In recent years, for example, there has been concern over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission working for religious liberty in a case in New Jersey. (The primary concern was that this pertained to religious liberty for Muslims instead of for Baptists.) A few years ago, the biggest battle was over “Calvinism” in the SBC and the “Calvinist takeover.” (This is hilarious, because to someone within a denomination in the direct line of the Reformed tradition, no Baptist could ever really be a Calvinist. In contrast a Nazarene friend from Oklahoma referred to all Baptists as Calvinists because of the doctrine of eternal security.)

The reality is that the difference between the two factions in both of these fights is relatively minor, especially when considered by those outside the camp. The tragedy is that the divide is pitched as cause for a winner-take-all battle to the death, where the gospel will be irrevocably distorted if the “right” side doesn’t win right now.

Public Consequences for the Ongoing Civil War

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Even if the substance of the fights is not terrifically significant, the consequences of this infighting are very great.

First, battles over relatively minor differences are often fought in such a way that reconciliation afterward is difficult. Most of the arguments made are not about substance, but about the character of those who do not agree.

Second, an in a related way, these battles tend to polarize the discussion because of the terms of the debate. People will defend their own position bitterly and stridently because they feel like they are personally under attack (and often are), which often pushes them farther away from the center and from their original position. Or, sometimes, it leads people to argue against the position they previously held because they can’t abide the vicious misrepresentations offered by others who hold it.

Third, the battles are conducted in public, allowing the name of Christ to publicly shamed. When people hurl literal slander and unwarranted anathemas at other believers, it is ugly. The public shame of believers arguing in public is, it seems, part of the reason Paul urged Christians not to sue one another:

If any of you has a dispute against another, how dare you take it to court before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Or don’t you know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the trivial cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels—how much more matters of this life? So if you have such matters, do you appoint as your judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame! Can it be that there is not one wise person among you who is able to arbitrate between fellow believers? Instead, brother goes to court against brother, and that before unbelievers! As it is, to have legal disputes against one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves do wrong and cheat—and you do this to brothers and sisters! (1 Cor 5:1–8, CSB)

Fourth, the public nature of the battle, its vitriol, and its pettiness give support to the argument of the so-called Moderates who left the SBC that the fight was primarily over power, not Scripture as it was described. The Moderates point at the present squabbling and, by ignoring the historical reality of the debates during the Conservative Resurgence, say that the earlier battle is the same as these battles: Much ado about nothing.

Is Today’s Infighting like the Conservative Resurgence?

If I were someone outside the SBC, especially someone who believed that the so-called Moderates really had it right and the Conservative Resurgence was all the fault of the “Fundamentalists,” then I would see a whole lot to support my opinion. That would especially be the case if I were ignorant of the actual arguments during the Conservative Resurgence.

The Conservative Resurgence was a battle waged over the nature of Scripture and its place within the church. The Conservatives were those who argued for the inerrancy of Scripture––that the Bible is truthful and, in the original manuscripts, entirely accurate; Scripture is thus authoritative for doctrine and life for the local church. The so-called Moderates espoused a range of views from a non-confrontational inerrancy (i.e., Scripture is wholly true, but there is room for disagreement) to various stages of modernistic denials of the truthfulness and authority of Scripture.

One of the most significant differences between the Conservative Resurgence and the ongoing fight is that there is almost no doctrinal space between those on either side of the debate. For example, in the recent intra-complementarian debate in the SBC, both parties agree that the role of pastor is reserved for males. They disagree about the degree to which women can participate on the platform during congregational worship.

In another fight, there is vitriolic anger being hurled against individuals and groups that argue there is racial injustice in some systems in the United States and that the gospel has implications for fighting against those injustices. The opposite side seems to be most opposed to engaging the topic using language grounded in the Christian tradition and from within distinctly gospel-centric organizations; the major point of contention seems to be the overlap between non-Christian (and sometimes anti-Christian) language about systemic racism and concern that a focus on the implications of the gospel (which may be debated) will overshadow the actual gospel.

There are good concerns on both sides for both of these issues. For example, whether women should preach on Sundays is an important debate to have. However, it would be helpful to have a debate about it rather than simply attacking those that disagree as departing from foundational doctrines of the church without significant evidence. Given that figures like Bertha Smith (who pushed Adrian Rogers to engage in the Conservative Resurgence) and Lottie Moon (who lamented the lack of male missionaries) both were theological conservatives who valued the inerrancy of Scripture and sometimes spoke to churches on Sunday, the issue for the SBC is not as clear cut as it might seem on its face.

It may be that there is a means to gain knowledge from women in a congregational setting without violating the holy writ. However, the debate is being pitched as if the only two options are an absolute denial of the differences between males and females functionally or that women may contribute to congregational worship only as backup singers for the worship band. Both positions are caricatures.

Most of the current debates––whether over the ERLC’s work on religious liberty, the pursuit of a more just society, or a woman speaking in a local church––are about the way Scripture ought to be applied rather than a foundational debate about the nature of Scripture. This is not another Conservative Resurgence.

Double-Talk and the Current Controversies

Another major difference between the ongoing infighting and the Conservative Resurgence is that during the Conservative Resurgence the institutions of the SBC were aligned in positions that were fundamentally opposed to the majority of the individual members of churches aligned with the SBC. This disparity was no more apparent than in the use of Double-Talk by the seminary faculty when speaking in local churches: there was a fundamental difference between the actual doctrine the professors held and what they communicated to the people in the pews who had not been (in their minds) sufficiently enlightened to appropriate progressive doctrine.

There is no question that many of the faculty at SBC seminaries during the middle of the 20th century had abandoned basic biblical doctrines and appropriated a modernistic, progressive form of Christianity. Ralph Elliot, the professor who wrote the Genesis commentary that catalyzed the Conservative Resurgence, has admitted that he and others intentionally obfuscated what they really mean when speaking to congregations. This was called Double-Talk or, in Orwellian fashion, doublespeak.

Recently accusations about the same issue have arisen regarding discussions of social justice at my alma mater, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This was particularly accelerated when a New York Times article was edited in such a way to make it sound like Walter Strickland was using double-talk to import controversial ideas of James Cone into his conservative-sounding teaching, particularly with regard to the idea of liberation within Black Theology.

Strickland wrote his dissertation on different schools of Black Theology, some of which are theological problematic and some of which are not (or at least much less so). As much as James Cone got wrong about Christianity, there are elements in Cone’s approach to race as a distinct social issue that are helpful in highlighting ways the Church (broadly speaking) has failed to appropriately engage in racial reconciliation.

To read the backlash over a quote in a newspaper, it would seem that Walter Strickland must be teaching Critical Race Theory and espousing distinctly progressive doctrines from his lectern each time he leads a class at the seminary. That is distinctly not the case; he and I have had conversations about the topic and, even if we disagree on terms (particularly redeeming the use of the term “liberation theology” in light of the negative connection with a revisionist school of theology), we agree on substance. More importantly, Strickland fully supports the BF&M 2000 and orthodox Christian beliefs about identity and anthropology.

The real substance of concerns over the recent media article is that Strickland might be leading his students to interact critically and thoughtfully with people that espouse theology incompatible to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

However, engaging with other theological traditions in a confessional environment is what healthy denominational seminaries do. It is much better to build a scaffold to understand the distinctions between our understanding of Scripture and other traditions in an environment where expert help is available. It would be tragic to lead people to believe Baptist theology has nothing to say about race. This could leave them to look for a way to deal with racial injustice from sources that undermine Christianity, believing those sources to have the only means to engage the issue. If certain themes from controversial theologians (like Cone) make it into the seminary classroom through men like Strickland, it is almost certainly in the form of “he got this right, but there are some problematic issues over here.”

A critical approach to different theological traditions in the seminary classroom is not double-speak like the bad old days. We become better theologians when we interact with dissenting voices critically, but respectfully. For example, the fact that I have been influenced in some ways by progressive theologians, especially since I write and think about environmental ethics a great deal, does not take away from my criticality when they apply incorrect doctrines to the issues.

Common grace is real. Sometimes non-Christians and even progressive Christians see things in a way that can illuminate our own blind spots. Engaging with them critically is not double-talk, it is the essence of scholarship. That is what good seminary professors are supposed to do.

Proving the Moderates Right

Controversies often draw battle lines in odd places, and they can tend to push people to defend positions they would not otherwise tolerate. In fact, the ongoing bile being spewed against Southern Baptists who lean toward a softer complementarianism has cause me to want to defend the position, even though I do not agree with it. There is a certain dishonesty in the misrepresentation of their position as “liberal” or “egalitarianism.”

As someone who loves truth, I want to step in and clarify the position, because what they are really saying is something less than the error of functional egalitarianism, which denies that God-given gender differences have implications for our roles in embodied service to God. Hard egalitarianism denies the functional differences called out in Scripture (or redefines them as specific to the patriarchal cultures in which the authors of Scripture lived and worked), whereas the current debate merely broadens the opportunities for females to teach within the local church setting under the authority of male overseers. One need not agree with either position to see there are clear differences between them.

The inability of many opponents of this softer complementarianism to deal with the actual arguments being made by those that hold those views is a mark of intellectual laziness and, in many cases, blatant dishonesty.

The so-called Moderates during the Conservative Resurgence argued that Conservatives were (1) reactionary, (2) mean-spirited, (3) anti-intellectual, and (4) more concerned about power than truth. If the ongoing debates are any sign, then they may have been correct, if not about the original participants in the Conservative Resurgence, then certainly about the warrior children of the conservative resurgence.

Truth is a worthwhile pursuit. In fact, I hope my life is defined by the pursuit of truth. However, sometimes the quest for truth is merely a poorly disguised excuse to fight. Once one victory is achieved over one issue it is easy to seek the next fight with the person closest to hand that holds any different positions. The sad result is often perpetual warfare and a continual splintering of formerly healthy alliances.

John Frame wrote an engaging chapter in a Festschrift for Alister McGrath called “Machen’s Warrior Children.” In that essay Frame outlines 21 different schisms that have occurred among conservative Presbyterians. He notes that what started out as a worthwhile battle––the battle over Modernism––morphed into a street brawl over relatively minor theological differences. He also explains that the nature of the debates has been one largely characterized by anathematizing one another when disagreement happens. In other words, Christianity is defined so narrowly that to disagree about anything is to be unorthodox. Frame recounts the sad fact that those who had initially been allied to push back against clear error continued to tear each other apart all in the name of finer and finer points of “truth.”

Right now Southern Baptists are facing their own train of schisms with anathemas hurled over points that should be debated rather than divided. In recent years we’ve seen arguments about the relative role of Calvinism in the SBC, over support for religious liberty beyond Christianity, regarding the need for racial reconciliation, dealing with the possibility of private prayer languages, surrounding the selection of material to sell in the LifeWay stores, and on and on. There have even been pitched battles over the size, complexity, and financial burden of State Conventions.

All of these issues deserve consideration and I have positions on all of them, but none of them actually divide Christians from non-Christians. And, oddly enough, I find myself in agreement with different clusters of Southern Baptists on several of the issues. The problem is not a fairly clear delineation over whether Scripture is true and authoritative for church practice, as it was during the Conservative Resurgence, but over how we live out our mission in the world. Certainly, this is important, but I do not believe it warrants the level of argument currently being offered.

At this point, the warrior children of the Conservative Resurgence are proving the “Moderates” correct: For some people, it’s more about the fight than it is about truth and the furtherance of the gospel.

Concluding Thoughts

If we are to continue as a convention––that is, a relatively loose coalition of churches centered on cooperation for missions––we have to value the gospel over worldly victory.

It might also help if those on either side of the debates took a moment to consider Paul’s words to the church in Corinth:

But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. (1 Cor 5:11)

There are a whole lot of people who have fallen into the category of “verbally abusive” in these latest debates, which makes one wonder if fellowship with them is wise, or, as Paul seems to indicate here, consistent with biblical Christianity.

NOTE: This article has been edited since the original post for clarity and to correct a few typographical errors. No changes to substance or content have been made.

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. 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.