Category Archives: Character

WHAT ARE CHRISTIANS FOR?

Jake Meador’s What Are Christians For? was published a few months ago. Instead of the standard book review, I am going to mention five things I appreciated about Meador’s book:

*Meador is an elegant and lucid writer.

*The author is compassionate and courageous in telling us some harder truths.

*There is a winsome and compelling treatment of how to steward the material world.

* There are beautiful reminders that place and people matter.

*Last, and certainly not least, Meador shows how the Christian faith makes sense of life and is in fact the best way to order one’s life.

 

A RUDDERLESS PROFESSOR

Not just professors are rudderless morally. All kinds of people who do all manner of jobs are rudderless. Highlighting the moral vacuity of a professor is not meant to say the whole profession is rudderless. Hardly.

Here first is Harvard’s Louis Menand:

Reading Weinstein and Montás, you might conclude that English professors, having spent their entire lives reading and discussing works of literature, must be the wisest and most humane people on earth. Take my word for it, we are not. We are not better or worse than anyone else. I have read and taught hundreds of books, including most of the books in the Columbia Core. I teach a great-books course now. I like my job, and I think I understand many things that are important to me much better than I did when I was seventeen. But I don’t think I’m a better person.

And here is Alan Jacobs commenting on Menand’s essay:

Menand is so transparently impatient with the arguments of Montás and Weinstein that he gets similarly confused at several points in his essay. For instance, to Montás’s claim that Nietzsche is “Satan’s most acute theologian,” Menand replied that “Nietzsche wanted to free people to embrace life, not to send them to Hell. He didn’t believe in Hell. Or theology” — or, presumably, Satan. But maybe Montás believes in Satan, which would, surely, be the point.

The chief point I’m wanting to make here is simply this: There’s something rather peculiar about a scholar who proudly disavows using professional teaching and study for personal moral formation and then says, as though he’s clinching a point, that his professional teaching and study have not contributed to his personal moral formation.

 

WHAT ABOUT BIDEN?

Since several friends have asked (and more of you may want to!) why my criticisms are mainly directed towards Trump, it is easy and straightforward to answer.

My teaching and writing are mainly to Christians. 

When I am speaking to someone who hates Trump and his policies, I am quite comfortable saying that I find the progressive left terribly lost. And I have a long list to offer!

But here is my concern…

I don’t hear many Christians talking about our own need for landscaping (see my previous post from Nov. 16. 

Sadly, I mainly hear (and many are glad to bend my ear about it) about how “bad our American culture has become” and little said about personal sin, or the various sins of American Christians. I am grateful for my friends who put their sins on the front burner of their complaints. It reminds me of a conversation with a pastor friend years ago during our lunch. I asked him: “What is your biggest challenge as a pastor?” He said, “Oh that’s easy Dave. My biggest problem is me.”

DO CHRISTIANS STILL BELIEVE IN FREE SPEECH?

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith

I have become skeptical whether many of us self-professed Christians believe in free speech…even in our interactions with one another!

Conservatives, whether that is of a political or theological stripe, like to criticize liberals (a word that I am using in its popular not historic sense) lack of commitment to free speech. We like to crow about the illiberalism of liberalism. I am afraid, however, that we are blind to our own hypocrisy. We are like the owners of a landscape company who lack credibility because our own backyards are full of weeds.

So, I am skeptical whether many of us self-professing Christians truly believe in free speech. You may be skeptical about my skepticism, so let me offer a few examples.

Do Not Discuss Trump!

Christians have told me they have lost friendships with fellow believers because of differences over President Trump. Others have told me that there is a well understood rule to not speak about controversial issues (again, Trump was the dominant reason given) both with friends and family members. Thanksgiving meals got even more challenging these past five years! Consider these alarming words from an eminent historian at Wheaton College:

“A 2017 poll found that one in six respondents had even cut off communication with a family member because of disagreement over the 2016 election…A survey shortly before the 2020 election found that fully two-fifths of respondents didn’t personally know a single individual who planned to vote for the candidate they themselves opposed.”

(Robert Tracy McKenzie, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy, p. 7, emphasis his)

[Doreen and I had a candid conversation with two of our closest friends this past weekend about our deep differences over Trump. We walked away with greater respect and our friendship solidly intact. I am sad to say our experience is rare.]

We are deeply divided yet remain content to hunker down in the silos that protect us from seriously considering opposing views. Interacting with those outside our own tribe is viewed as a sign of weakness, a dangerous step towards waffling on the orthodoxies of our group. The “inner ring” that C.S. Lewis wrote about can be an unforgiving place to plop your tent. There is a way out of the parochial or provincial thinking of such echo chambers, but it is a road as one famous book title described, “less traveled.” Alan Jacobs writes:

“But there are healthier kinds of group affiliation, and one of the primary ways we can tell the difference between an unhealthy Inner Ring and a healthy community is by their attitudes toward thinking. The Inner Ring discourages, mocks, and ruthlessly excludes those who ask uncomfortable questions.”

(Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, pp. 58-59, emphasis his)

I have been present in many Sunday-school classes, small group Bible studies, and other Christian gatherings where an honest question was brushed aside. I have also found that thinly veiled mockery is not just the province of non-Christian gatherings. Believe it or not, I heard professors in both seminaries I attended mock students. I was also once the target of such mockery. This particular professor realized that he was wrong about the facts, so he apologized in his office, but the mockery took place in front of eighty of my classmates.

It seems that the brushing aside or mockery of a legitimate question are due to two main reasons: it is perceived as a threat to the cohesion of the group and/or those doing the brushing aside do not have a satisfactory answer. They do not want to be exposed on a subject they really should know something about.

Is Christian Education Still Available?

Jacques Ellul famously said that propaganda is effective because most of us do not want to consider the far-reaching implications of the truth. The truth stings before it heals. The truth corrects and who is excited about being corrected? It is one reason the ancient Greeks had two words to describe true education: mathein pathein or “to learn is to suffer.” It is painful to learn that you are wrong.

I taught part-time at a rigorous prep school. I taught juniors and seniors. I was encouraged to stoke debate since this was the time in the classical trivium where debate is welcomed. This so-called rhetoric phase is the culmination of the classical model.

I loved teaching and my students appreciated my candor. It is a wealthy school. I broached their socio-economic assumptions about life in both my Bible and apologetics classes. I found out to no surprise whatsoever that this was a ticklish issue to speak about openly. I did not let that influence what I believed was proper wrestling with a critical issue. As time wore on it became painfully clear that there were other important topics that were not allowed to be debated. In no small measure, it was one of the big reasons I left.

I have been doing several interviews on my recent book, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. In one of the first interviews, I was asked a question that included a popular Christian trope: The world “out there” is not interested in the study of history or in being thoughtful. The interviewer then said that this makes it nearly impossible for us Christians to have any reasonable conversation with those who do not know Christ. Lack of thoughtfulness was assumed to be only “out there.” I gently corrected the interviewer by saying that the lack of thoughtfulness is also a big problem among us professing Christians. To his credit, the interviewer retracted his comments.

Whether it is in stifling serious questions or believing that only outsiders lack a desire to think well, we Christians must ponder our own less than stellar example. Do we professing Christians believe in free speech? Some honest reflection about that question seems warranted.

David George Moore is the author of Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. https://www.amazon.com/Stuck-Present-History-Frees-Christians/dp/168426460X

CHRISTIANS HATING ONE ANOTHER

We live in turbulent and divisive times.  

We may be tempted to focus only on the ungodliness of the “culture” in general, but ungodliness is hardly limited to those outside the church. 

Inside the church there is suspicion among Christians, even hatred. Christians have told me that they can’t talk about their differences on important issues…with their best friends!  How much hope is there then to discuss controversial matters with those we don’t know?  Growing numbers seem pessimistic about the prospect.

The gadfly sensation, Jordan Peterson, likes to tell young people that they have no credibility to protest in public unless they first keep their own bedrooms neat and tidy.  It is good counsel and one we Christians ought to take more seriously, even if others don’t.  To change the imagery a bit, I like to say that we Christians regularly want to start a landscape company when the weeds in our own backyard need serious attention.

Consider the following not so hypothetical conversation:

Pro-Life Christian: I can’t believe that people think partial-birth abortion is okay.

Pro-Choice Friend: How come?

Pro-Life Christian: Because it is the killing of a human being!

Pro-Choice Friend: Why do you believe anyone two and younger is human?

Pro-Life Christian: Because the Bible says so!

Pro-Choice Friend: Would you show me a few of those Bible verses?

Pro-Life Christian: Uh, let me see…I know they are in there somewhere…

Whether it is engaging in conversation with those inside or outside the church, we ought first to consider whether we are adequately literate to speak with such confidence and conviction.

The final chapter of Stuck in the Present offers a way forward…

 

WHY LIBERALISM FAILED

Don’t be misled. The liberalism that the author speaks of is the classical variety that undergirds both conservative and progressive liberal thought. The liberalism the author believes has failed is that of Mill and Locke, the latter a big influence on our Founding Fathers.

I heavily annotated my copy of Why Liberalism Failed because it is the kind of book that makes you think in fresh ways about old ideas.

Much ink has already been spilled debating the merits of this book. I won’t go into detail on those since this brief review is designed to say that I find Deneen’s thesis quite compelling. I plan to read more of Mill and Locke so my view could change some, but right now, I find myself aligning with Deneen’s concerns.

 

CONTROVERSY, CRITICISM, AND CHRIST-LIKE CHARACTER

No matter what Christian tradition we align with, or group we associate with, all of us should consider the following questions. Over the years I developed this list to ask myself these kinds of things on a regular basis:

*Am I fearful of speaking up due to the fear of losing my livelihood? As a pastor I regularly reminded myself that the folks at church were not responsible for paying me. They were God’s instruments to be sure, but God was in charge of my well-being. I am glad for a father who instilled in me the virtue of doing the right thing no matter the cost.

*Am I fearful of speaking up due to jeopardizing opportunities for ministry (or business) in certain venues? Much could be said about this, but the reality is that many don’t press important issues over fear of losing out on speaking and writing opportunities. 

Years ago, I talked with a guy who lost his job at a big, Christian publishing house because he protested them accepting a book which contained heresy. The best-selling author stayed and the editor left. It cost him in some significant and very tangible ways, but it did not cost him his integrity.

*Am I fearful of speaking up because I truly like these people and don’t want to lose my “community”? This is understandable as indeed all of these temptations are, but we must ask how good the friends really are if any pushback and challenge is viewed as a threat to the friendship. 

Personally, I don’t mind hearty disagreements and have had them with many friends. I do mind when a lack of respect, not actively listening to one another, setting up straw-man points, ad hominems, or the all too common practice of passive-aggressive behavior takes place. 

*Am I fearful of speaking up because I don’t want to be tagged “a critical spirit”?  Labels can be lethal. I have seen the “critical spirit” label wielded with wicked efficiency. 

To be candid, I have been guilty for labeling some “company men” who may not have deserved it. Others probably did, but that still is not the best way to communicate. We label because as David Dark said so well, we are lazy and want “mental shortcuts.”

In either case, we ought to be willing to be misunderstood, but actively seeking to understand others better. I am absolutely convinced this is greatly aided by proximity. If I don’t know someone it is easy to label them in an unfavorable light. If I do get to know them, we might still disagree, but be less keen on categorizing one another with our unflattering arsenal of terms.

One example is the mea culpa a popular blogger gave over his less than flattering review of Ann Voskamp’s, One Thousand Gifts. Tim Challies candidly registered his dismay over how he treated Voskamp (http://www.challies.com/articles/in-which-i-ask-ann-voskamps-forgiveness). Wonderfully, it was Voskamp’s invitation to Challies and his family for a meal with the Voskamp family which got that ball rolling. So proximity is powerful. Repeat it often!

My go to verses which have helped me better navigate (no perfection achievable this far from Eden!) the choppy waters of simultaneously not fearing man, yet remembering the need to remain a man growing in peace with others whenever possible are:

“Stop regarding man, who breath of life is in his nostrils; for why should he be esteemed?” (Isa. 2:22)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”  (Matt. 5:7)

“If possible, so far as depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Rom. 12:18) while always remembering the balancing verse of “Woe to you when all the people speak well of you; for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way.” (Luke 6:26)

“This you know, my beloved brethren.  But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE TEARS WERE NOT EXPECTED

Late last night, I was overcome with grief. The tears were not expected.

It is impossible to digest properly all that happened yesterday. As I write in my forthcoming book Stuck in the Present, we need the longer view of history for that, so I am heeding my own counsel.

Stuck in the Present: David George Moore: 9781684264605: Amazon.com: Books

Over the years, I have heard warnings to not take the American experiment in democracy for granted. It is sturdy in one sense, but still fragile. I remember hearing that each generation of Americans must commit to it. I thought it was good to issue such a warning but was never too worried. No longer.

Have things been this bad before in America? An argument can certainly be made for that and the antebellum period is the one historians typically mention.

Are our cluster of present problems unique to the more modern period of American history? Again, I think the 1960s offers another example of serious strife and deep division.

My deepest sadness, however, is not over our country’s present chaos and strife.

My deepest sadness is over the state of the Christian faith in America.

For many decades I have witnessed Christians who are apathetic about knowing God’s Word, loving one’s enemies, an unwillingness to suffer for Christ in the most modest of ways, prayerlessness, and much more. 

Most Christians are poorly prepared for times of crisis. We love the church programs that meet our insatiable desires. We adore our celebrity pastors. We are biblically and historically illiterate, but more than willing to offer our superficial opinions on the most vexing issues of the day.  

This sad state of affairs is due to a lack of making long-term discipleship and serious grounding in the Christian faith our priorities. These simply do not take place in many churches (or parachurches for that matter). We have sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. We should not be surprised where we find ourselves.

Things are not going to be any better by avoiding these realities. Things also might not be any better if we face these realities but at least we will have been faithful.

I pray for God’s mercy, but I do not find myself too sanguine. My lack of “optimism” is not because the culture is so bad. Rather, it is because many of us Americans claiming the name of Christ have become dull of hearing.

God’s Word makes it clear that Christians can lose their influence (Mt. 5:13; Rev. 2:4,5). We are kidding ourselves if we think this is not happening right now.

All of us who claim the name of Christ need to ponder and consider Peter’s dire warning:

Indeed, none of you should suffer as a murderer or thief or wrongdoer, or even as a meddler. But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?… (I Peter 4:15-17)

I added this in the reply link, but will also add it here:

Again, to underscore the biggest point of the post: Yes, shock over the events of yesterday, but I am much more worried about the state of Christianity in America. And my concerns go way back before Trump or any other politician.

We must look at ourselves!

 

 

CONTROVERSY AND CHRIST-LIKE CHARACTER

In light of my recent posts, I thought it might be good to offer a few principles that I try to apply when engaging issues where sharp disagreement occurs. These are from my forthcoming book, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians.

First, it is possible that we did not properly understand the other person’s position. We may be jumping the proverbial gun and thus setting up a straw man argument. A great antidote, and one we have noted that is characteristic of humble people, is listening well. We should make certain we are properly tracking on what is communicated. We are told in Scripture to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (Jas. 1:19 NASB)

Some of you may be familiar with the folks from Westboro Baptist Church. They are the ones that like to show up with signs announcing that some person or group is “going to hell.” 

The Christian teaching on hell has occupied most of my adult life.  My thesis then first book was on hell.[i] 

The people of Westboro Baptist think they are being brave by proclaiming the scandalous message that people who don’t trust Christ are going to hell. A few years back, the following illustration came to mind. I think it illumines the folly of approach among those who align with Westboro Baptist.

Most people have not been to either Yuma, Arizona or Dubrovnik, Croatia. I have.  Yuma is a fine place. Some quaint things to see there, but Dubrovnik is absolutely stunning in its beauty. Now let’s say I offer someone an all-expenses paid trip to either Yuma or Dubrovnik.  Most would have to guess which one is better because they know nothing about these places beyond perhaps hearing their names. They have no context for what I am offering. The folks at Westboro jump right to the topic of hell, but there are so many important biblical truths to know before one can even begin to appreciate hell. I have found many church-going folks needing more teaching on the character of God, the nature of sin, and so forth, to better understand Scripture’s teaching on hell. If that is true of regular church-attenders, how much more for those who know little of the Christian faith!

Listening well and making sure others understand what is being said is not a strength of the folks at Westboro Baptist Church.

Second, we may not understand our own position as well as we think. The most secure in any debate are those who have taken time for adequate preparation. Our need here is to dig deeper and see if in fact our position holds up. Spiritual growth, as we talked about earlier in this book, is tied directly to our growth in knowledge. And this comes from recognizing when we really don’t know what we are talking about! We can learn something especially important from the ancient philosopher, Socrates. The Oracle of Delphi said he was the wisest man in all of Athens.  Socrates thought the pronouncement was over the top and so sought to demonstrate that it was untrue. He assumed, rightly he thought, that there were others wiser than he. Like a good interviewer on radio, he sought to interact with various people. It turned out that everyone acted wise but were in fact plenty foolish. Socrates ended up accepting that the “oracle’s declaration was actually correct, for at least he recognized his own ignorance.”[ii]

It is also interesting to note Augustine’s admiration for a non-Christian teacher by the name of Faustus:

I wanted Faustus to tell me, after comparing the mathematical calculations which I had read in other books, whether the story contained in the Manichee books was correct, or at least whether it had an equal chance of being so. I now did not think him clever enough to explain the matter. Nevertheless I put forward my problems for consideration and discussion. He modestly did not even venture to take up the burden. He knew himself to be uninformed on these matters and was not ashamed to confess it. He was not one of the many loquacious people, whom I have had to endure, who attempted to instruct me and had nothing to say.[iii]

Third, we may properly understand the other person’s position as well as our own but give them more importance than they deserve. We typically do this in one of two ways: by making a secondary (or even tertiary) issue into a primary one, or by failing to remember that there are in fact “grey” issues sincere Christians do disagree over (see I Cor. 8; Ro. 14).

Last, we may properly understand the other position and our own, it may be an important issue, but we still need to communicate with grace and truth. Again, having a gracious spirit does not mean there must be a toning down of one’s convictions. It does mean we proceed cautiously ever aware of our fallen and finite state.[iv] 

[i] David George Moore, The Battle for Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evangelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995).

[ii] James S. Spiegel, How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 176.

[iii] Augustine, Confessions trans. by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.7.

[iv] For a terrific reflection of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, especially with respect to our limited perspectives, see David F. Ford, The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014), 56.

MY VOTE…WHILE LIVING FAR EAST OF EDEN

The following represents my opinion, and mine alone. 
In light of my recent posts about our current cultural moment this may come as somewhat of a surprise to some of you, so here goes…  

From my early days as a Christian it made sense to me that the Bible has something to say to all of life. The Bible is certainly not a spiritual cookbook. It is not always straightforward how one should arrive at one’s decision. The book of Proverbs, and the whole wisdom tradition, showcase this sort of nimble discernment. Christians disagree over the proper interpretation and/or implications of the Bible. And those are Christians who agree on the binding authority of the Scriptures!

I continue to believe that is problematic to have Christians who rationalize or diminish the president’s rhetoric. That said, I Tim. 2:1,2 is a significant influence on how (at the present) I will vote. My vote is very much influenced by the person and party I believe that best protects religious liberty.