Archive for April, 2011

Gittin’ Your Edumacation

April 13, 2011

Thanks to Gary, who thoughtfully posted this on his Facebook page, where from I stole it.  Who says Facebook isn’t good for anything?!

This quasi-humorous article from cartoonist Scott Adams makes the argument that since most students aren’t going to be successful in the realm of hard sciences or liberal arts, they should not be required to take mandatory courses in those areas and instead should spend their time learning something useful.  It sounds like a compelling argument.  And as a Scott Adams fan, I’m tempted to agree with it.
The problem is that Adams thinks that the logical fallback education should be in entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneur sounds like a cool thing to be.  It sounds business-y, and successful-ish, and smacks of the rugged individualism that permeates our American culture.  Why be a businessperson when you can be an entrepreneur?  Chicks certainly dig an entrepreneur more than a businessman, right?  
But I find Adams’ argument fairly interesting in that he ends up arguing for the very skills that a traditional liberal arts education is supposed to teach students – but he reassigns these to the realm of business for some reason.  He seems to be missing a critical point – a point that is equally missed by many colleges and most students – liberal arts education has a purpose, and the purpose is not vocational prep for a career, but rather successful functioning as a contributing member of society.  Within that very broad definition (my own, I think), entrepreneurship becomes not the goal, but rather one of many possible and even likely goals along the way.
I have a liberal arts education.  Quite a bit of it, I’d say.  Not nearly enough of it, others would complain.  Be that as it may, the problem I see with the liberal arts education that I received was that there was no cohesion to it.  Nobody ever taught or saw their particular class or discipline as part of a larger process.  My history classes were by and large taught with an eye towards history majors who would go on to become history teachers at one level or another.  My literature classes focused on literature majors who would go on to become literature majors and teach literature at one level or another.  
Liberal arts education has become this huge wink-and-nod sort of venture, where the student is supposed to realize of their own accord, at some point later down the road, how invaluable their liberal arts education was in preparing them to be successful and useful and intelligent members of our society.  Nod nod, wink wink.  The problem is, more often than not, if this realization ever occurs, it occurs well after the collegiate process is finished.  And in the meantime, many students are under the impression that college exists to prepare them for a high-paying job.  They see it as vocational education at best, another hoop to be jumped through at worst.  
Colleges and professors have a huge responsibility to connect the dots for their students.  Unfortunately, too often they’re preoccupied with their own projects and tenure tracks.  Teaching is delegated to TAs and others who have less experience and vision (at least theoretically), and who are also likely to be obsessed over reaching the level of success and security their professors have.  Every professor, in every course, needs to be able to clearly delineate to their students how the skills used in their course contribute to everyday life.  But most don’t take the time to do that – and I’m guilty of that as well in the courses I teach.
What is an entrepreneur, etymologically?  Someone who undertakes a task – and often a task associated with risk.  Gee, call me kooky, but doesn’t that sound like life?  
Adams phrases his argument entirely within the realm of business, but the basic skills he’s arguing for are skills that are necessary for every aspect of life, and skills that traditionally were part of a classical education.  His idea of combining skills is in some ways at the heart of liberal arts education.  By becoming somewhat literate in a diversity of areas and skills, students are better able to know what they are inclined towards or what they might be good at (or not good at).  The ability to integrate a variety of talents and skills is crucial to getting through life if your goal is not to give every penny you make away to people who can and will do the things that you don’t feel qualified to do for yourself.  
Failing forward?  Again, nothing specific to the business realm.  Our Puritan roots as well as our money-obsession and self-reliance fetish have fused a culture that sees any form of failure as some sort of moral judgment.  You weren’t just unsuccessful, you were – in any number of subtle senses – bad.   What are the pariahs, the unforgivables and untouchables in our society?  Not the philanderers and substance abusers and self-obsessed, but rather those who have failed fundamentally.  The homeless.  The people on street corners.  Anyone who wasn’t able to keep their #@$% together.  We avoid these people as though their condition is contagious.  I find that fascinating.  One way that we learn to accept failure as a potentially helpful experience is by engaging in it.  In college, we do this by taking courses across a broad spectrum of topics – not all of which will engage us or will match our particular giftings.  We may get through the courses (barely), but that experience of failure within the safety of the academic world focuses us and prepares us better for handling it in the rest of our lives.
Finding the action – kind of a vague goal if you ask me.  But I would rephrase it more along the lines of being able to understand what the critical issues are, but also being able to see them as part of a larger picture.  Synthesizing information so that one is not merely swept away in an avalanche of data and facts, nor goaded along the primrose path by every emergency or contingency, real or fabricated.  Being able to view current events with an eye towards their historical roots and development, and their possible goals and outcomes is critical.  Even more critical is seeing yourself not simply as a spectator, but as someone with a vested interest in these issues who has something to contribute.  Finding your voice, and placing your skills and abilities alongside others who have similar ideas and understandings.  Life is not simply about a paycheck.  And ultimately, your ability to even earn a paycheck is dependent on larger issues and themes at work in our society.  This sort of analysis and synthesis is traditionally one of the hallmarks of a classical liberal arts education.  We learn to see things not as discrete and unrelated topics, but as part of larger wholes.  Unfortunately, in a culture that seems set on the denial of larger wholes, we are forced more and more to look at everything as hopelessly isolated from everything else.
Attract luck.  Ugh. The things that people will say to avoid saying that there are inexplicable things that happen in the world and in lives and that these things might point towards God.  His category appears to be a reiteration of the previous one, with the acknowledgment that it’s not just your efforts in and of themselves that guarantee success.  A truly classical liberal arts education covered this through theology
and philosophy.  But since those are areas that posit truth and objective reality and things larger than just making a buck, it’s just easier to call it luck.  Ugh.  
Conquer fear.  Huge advice, that.  Once again, classical liberal arts education covered this in part with an emphasis on speech and public speaking.  Rhetoric and the art of persuasion.  Not simply getting used to being in front of people, but being in front of people with a clear sense of purpose and intent.  Not simply for your enjoyment, but in recognition that any time you’re in front of people, you’ve either placed yourself there for a purpose or you have been handed the opportunity based on something you’ve done or said.  It’s not simply about your own personal enjoyment.  Unless of course, you’re an entertainer of some sort.  But even that requires intentionality, and ought to include the understanding that entertainment should never be solely an end in and of itself, that entertainment has parameters and contexts and other things that require faithfulness and skill.
Write simply.  This is one of the core goals of a liberal arts education – the ability to communicate effectively both on paper and verbally.  The laziness of text-messaging shortcuts, the obliteration of grammar rules, these things are rampant in college students.  They aren’t being taught any longer at younger levels, or the effectiveness of such teaching has been marginalized by a culture that refuses to accept that some students should fail (so that they have a chance to learn), while simultaneously continually slashing away at the learning environment through budget cuts that increase class size and place greater loads on teachers.  In reading great literature and studying the different writings of various disciplines such as history, philosophy, natural science, theology – students not only learn the mechanics of writing, they see how it is done well and can craft their own writing accordingly.  How do you do this if you aren’t reading copiously and practicing your own writing by reflecting on the writings of others?  I don’t know.  I’d venture to say that Adams doesn’t either.  Those who complain that the business world has no soul (and much of Adams’ cartoons stress just this point) ought to be clamoring for more required reading and writing, more eloquence and not just the spartan utilitarianism of PowerPoint bullet points.  The ability to write concisely and accurately requires first the ability to write well in general.
Learn persuasion.  This was traditionally dealt with in rhetoric and logic.  Not simply being winsome and attractive, but being able to back your charm with arguments – whether subtle or obvious – that drove your audience towards the thought or belief or action you desired from them.  This is one of the things that the Greeks spent so much time on – to the point where Socrates got ticked off and wanted to remind them all that there was more to life than winning court cases or political positions.  That life matters, and that there are some big questions in life that people should be exploring and thinking about.  Rhetoric and logic for their own sakes can quickly become abusive.  But to assume that these fall under the exclusive realm of business application is short-sighted.
The funny thing is that a good liberal arts education ought to produce not just entrepreneurs, but leaders.  The people who will ultimately end up overseeing and directing the genius scientists and mathematicians and others that Adams relegates (accurately so) to an extremely small percentage of college students.  Classical liberal arts education isn’t a plan B, it’s the plan A, the baseline education that everyone ought to have.  How much of our society’s problems are caused by deficient skills that a liberal arts education ought to address?  How do we assess beauty – and know what sorts of art we should be funding?  How do we think through complicated issues to arrive at a conclusion that is more than mere opinion?  How do we speak and argue to and with one another beyond the quicksand basis of relativistic belief?  How do we quit seeing ourselves as helpless victims of a system, and rather as the rightful owners and directors of that system?  

What to Say?

April 12, 2011

This was the question posed to me yesterday morning in a phone call.  What do you say in a situation where a loved one has died and there’s no strong indication that this person was a Christian?  How, as a Christian, do you attempt to speak and comfort the rest of the family that may consist of both Christians and non-believers?

That’s a hard question.  A painful one.  As Christians, few things are more terrible than the idea that someone dies without faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  That relationship is what we turn to as we mourn the loss of a loved one.  It softens the loss for those who survive the deceased.  But if that relationship is not certain, it’s hard.  And if it’s more than simple doubt, but either a professed or implied rejection of Jesus Christ that the person lived their life in, how much harder still.  
What can or should we say in these situations?  I think it’s important to focus on not saying more than we are called to say, which is exactly the opposite of what we’re inclined to do for the sake of providing that comfort to one another.  Trying to say too much ends up being dishonest in several different ways.  So we say what we can, and place our attention where it needs to be in such a situation – on our condition of faith and the conditions of those others who may be more open during this time of loss to hearing the Gospel.
First off, we don’t try to pretend that the deceased was a faithful Christian if they did not give obvious signs of it.  If they never went to church, never talked about Jesus Christ in any positive way, or if they were openly antagonistic to the faith, now is not the time to try and rehabilitate their image.  Doing so is dishonest to them.  And those who knew them best will know your efforts to be dishonest and will find it offensive more than comforting.  It’s important to also extend this honesty to any pastor or other religious representative who might be asked to conduct services for the deceased.  Claiming to a pastor that Uncle Lewis was a devout believer, when in fact Uncle Lewis spent most of his life bad-mouthing Jesus and the church places the pastor in a terrible situation.  If they don’t have any information to the contrary, imagine their shock if they speak about the deceased’s faith to a gathering of friends and relatives who know the truth!  Trying to make the deceased into a Christian without any external indications of it is never a good move.
This doesn’t mean that you may not have had some meaningful conversations with the deceased over the years where they did privately share their faith in Jesus Christ.  Despite not going to Church.  Despite not appearing to be actively reading the Bible or in prayer.  Those private conversations can be very comforting.  But outside of a deathbed public confession of faith, it’s still best not to overstate things.  
Secondly, we don’t consign the deceased to hell as an unbeliever.  This is not our job.  Scripture is clear that faith in Jesus Christ is the avenue to reconciliation and eternal life with God the Father.  But the fact remains that we don’t know the condition of the deceased’s heart with Jesus (barring some sort of public deathbed proclamation or denial).  As such, if the deceased gave no indication of being a Christian, or gave indications of definitely not being a Christian, we should simply pray that in their final moments, like the thief on the cross in Luke 23, they met Jesus, and placed their trust and hope in Him.  We can’t know that this happened, but we equally can’t know that it didn’t happen.  As such, making statements about Uncle Lewis now being in hell is completely inappropriate and unhelpful in this sort of situation.
So, don’t say more than you can in this situation.  Don’t pretend the deceased was a Christian when making such a claim would seem to contradict collective evidence to the contrary (or at the very least lack of supporting evidence).  Don’t assume the deceased is destined for eternal separation from God, since there’s no way you can know that for certain.  In fact we should pray that the contrary is the case!
What we should be saying in this situation has less to do with the deceased than with those who survive them.  We can’t improve the situation of the deceased, once they are deceased.  Speculation and prayer and any number of other efforts do not have any sort of impact that we have been given Scriptural support for.  We commend the deceased to God’s hands and pray for His mercy.
But to the living, we have a lot to say, still.  Are there members of the family or family friends who have not accepted Jesus Christ?  Now might be an opportunity to talk about the hope that you have in Jesus Christ, what He has done for you that you do not fear your death inordinately.  Soliciting testimonies from Christian friends and family in this time is also helpful.  Recognizing that as Christians we are to approach death as the final, awful struggle of this world – but not the end of our lives.  Be able and willing to share passages from Scripture that give you hope as you look forward to the reality that one day it will be you that others are gathered to mourn.  Make sure that people are very clear on where your faith and hope is placed, and in whom.  Use this as a time to teach children about the importance of our faith in Christ, that we need not fear death.  Likewise, be honest with them using the above guidelines if they ask whether Uncle Lewis is with Jesus or not.  The short answer is, we don’t know, but we pray so.  That’s all most younger kids need to know.  Older kids may desire further conversation on why you say this, as opposed to one of the two other possible statements I advised against above.  
Finally, resolve in the midst of this situation to broach the subject with friends or family members, anyone you know who seems wishy-washy or even adverse to the Christian faith.  Take the time to ask them why, and to pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and wisdom in talking to them, and for their openness to hear what you have to say.  Most of us personally know and care for at least one person who is not a Christian.  What a compelling impetus to broach the subject with them – even if you’ve tried before.  Better to risk sounding like a broken record, than have to deal with the sorrow and guilt as you stand at their graveside.
Oh yes, that’s one other important note.  Guilt.  You knew Uncle Lewis all your life.  Loved him.  Cared for him.  Joked with him and ate pistachios with him.  You should have led him to Jesus, right?  You should have accomplished that.  And since it appears you didn’t, now you suffer intense guilt.  
Don’t do this.  First off, remember that the Holy Spirit works through us – and we place every encounter, ever chance conversation, every opportunity we are given to speak of our faith in the Holy Spirit’s hands.  We are called to share the Gospel.  We are not held to account for whether the other person accepts it or not.  Don’t take the guilt upon yourself – it’s not a load you were intended to carry.  Perhaps you feel as though you should have been more direct, forced the conversation in that direction more often.  Be that as it may, you cannot change it now.  All you can do is pray for the strength and courage and opportunity to be more intentional with the people who remain in your life that don’t appear to be Christian.  In love.  Sensitively.  But intentionally all the same.  Receive the forgiveness of God if you are so racked with guil
t about your lack of evangelism with Uncle Lewis.  Jesus died for this guilt as well – accept His forgiveness and move on.  
This is just a rough thumbnail sketch – intended as much for discussion generation as anything.  I’d be interested to hear your alternative suggestions, or things that I haven’t covered here!


April 11, 2011

Sorry that motivation has been uber-low this past week.  This week will hopefully be a bit more normal.

This story caught my eye this morning as another interesting aspect of the continuing assault (or shirking) of parental responsibility.  It is becoming more common for public schools to prohibit students from bringing their lunches to school.  Instead, they must either not have lunch, or buy the school lunch.  Rationale?  Some kids weren’t bringing healthy lunches, therefore the school decided six years ago to force students to eat the healthy lunches the school provides.  
This is a public school.  While the story seems to imply that many of the students qualify for government-subsidized lunches, I would think that there are some kids who don’t, and this would force their parents to pay $2.25 per day for the school lunch.  A single paragraph in the story addresses briefly the financial aspect of this.  A service provider is contracted to provide the lunches for the school.  The school receives money from the government for each subsidized lunch they provide, and the service provider gets a set fee for each lunch provided.  Curiously, there’s no discussion of how this financial aspect pans out.  Is it a wash?  Does the government provide exactly the contracted amount to the school to pay the food provider, or does the school manage to make a few cents off of each lunch by negotiating a lower per-lunch fee with the provider?  Call me suspicious, but is this in part a way for a school to make a few extra bucks each year?   With education budgets squeezed tighter and tighter, I couldn’t blame them.  And I’m pretty sure that regardless of their benevolent rationales for this policy, if the policy was costing the school money, they wouldn’t be doing it.
But the main issue is that once again parents are being excluded from an aspect of their child’s lives.  I won’t make any argument that there aren’t some (perhaps many, depending on the school district/neighborhood) who either aren’t able to provide their kids with a healthy lunch, don’t know enough about what that means, or just don’t care about it.  Having lived three years in inner-city St. Louis, I know what most of those kids ate, and are undoubtedly still eating.  
I wonder if the school has considered offering seminars to assist parents in making healthier lunch choices for their kids?  And how does one evaluate what an improvement would be in this regard?  For a child used to eating bagged chips and sodas for lunch, switching to Lunchables or some other similar option would represent an improvement.  Yet Lunchables are hardly what many of us would consider healthy eating.  And then how are the school lunches deemed healthy?  It seems clear that not all the students enjoy the lunches, but that’s not exactly news.  I ate home-packed lunches throughout my schooling days – including up through high school graduation.  On the rare times I had a school provided lunch, they were atrocious.  Something needn’t be healthy to be unappetizing!
Similar to banning happy meal toys and other efforts that are gaining more momentum, the focus is not on education or empowering and supporting parents and families, but rather on increasingly reducing their influence by external mechanisms.  At what point do we decide that parents aren’t doing a good enough job of clothing their children, so we demand that all children wear the same school outfit (I’m not against dress codes by any means, or even school uniforms, but more so the possible rationales behind them)?  I would think an even greater concern would be that many parents are unable to spend the time necessary with their kids to ensure they are doing their homework.  Should mandatory after school study sessions be required?  In that case, wouldn’t it make sense to ensure that students received a healthy dinner, and require them to stay for that?  What about children that live in gang-infested neighborhoods?  Wouldn’t it be better to require them to live on campus, boarding school style?
None of these issues or even solutions are bad in and of themselves.  It’s what happens when they cease to be the decision of the parents and become the decision of the state that concerns me.  

Bored to Death

April 2, 2011

Someone – I’ve forgotten who – shared this essay with me a week ago.  It’s a fascinating and short pondering on the nature of our attitude towards the world around us and ourselves, with the assertion that the overwhelming adjective which describes our general attitude is bored.  Nothing in the world holds any particular beauty or value for us, and therefore we approach the world with a rather bored mindset.  Nothing is ultimately really worth much in terms of effort or sacrifice.  The best we can hope for is temporary distraction or amusement or pleasure.

This essay came to mind today in regards to the college course I’m teaching on Ethics.  It’s an introductory course, and having gone through the less exciting work of examining ethics academically and historically and philosophically, I’m giving the students the opportunity to put some of these new intellectual models and skills to work in interacting with current ethical situations.  In other words, they get to say what they think and go through the effort of supporting it and dissecting it ethically.
The first topic I chose was abortion.
They’ve had two weeks to discuss the roots of the modern abortion movement, analyze the core issues in terms of meta-ethical concepts (what does right and wrong mean and who decides those definitions), normative ethics (how do we decide how we ought to act, how we ought to make choices regarding abortion), and then the more common applied ethics (what does all this high-falutin’ stuff look like in terms of policies, laws, standards of behavior, etc.).  They have to submit a paper by tomorrow night talking about all this stuff as well.  And they have to give their opinion.
It’s a small class – only five students.  But only two of them have bothered to state their opinions on the topic – and one of them was not really formally stating his opinion but responding to the other student’s posting on it.  In two weeks, nobody has apparently felt it worth their while to say what their opinion is and to provide the intellectual basis for that opinion.  It disgusts me.
There are many possible reasons for their silence (I’ve asked them to share why they haven’t responded – we’ll see if any of them do).  I tend to think (whether they articulate this or not) that they see no reason to engage in discussion on this matter because discussion implies that there could be Right Answers or Wrong Answers.  And in the relativistic educational climate they have been raised in, they have been  assured that this can’t be the case.  What is right for them needn’t be right for someone else (despite the fact that they are willing to pass or fight laws on a behavior that binds both them and everyone else).  What they consider wrong may not be wrong for another person.   Why bother discussing anything?  All that matters is that you have your opinion.  You needn’t examine it.  You needn’t defend it.  You needn’t attempt to demonstrate to others why your opinion is correct.  All you need is your opinion.
There are probably other more mundane reasons as well – end of the semester crunch, etc.  But behind all of that, I suspect that this issue of relativism is what has driven their silence.  And that frightens me for our future.  We see the seeds planted today, where right and wrong don’t need to be analyzed publicly any deeper than insulting and marginalizing your opponents.  At some point, even that will become unnecessary.  Do you have the power?  Use it.  You needn’t justify it or explain it or defend it.  Your mere possession of it is reason enough.  And expect that, should the tides of fortune shift, you will be on the receiving end of similar treatment.
Fascinating, and horrifying. 
Oh well – Happy Saturday!

Joining the Festivities

April 1, 2011

This essay was forwarded to me (in hard copy) by parishioners & friends of mine.  I love it when people share with me what they are reading, and I read it with interest this morning and thought there were a few things worth talking about.  

However, I always worry about writing or commenting on things people share with me (or at least people who I know are readers of this blog), as sometimes my analysis may come as a shock.  Theology is a complicated business, and as I regularly remind people, it’s best done together.  I subject my theological understanding to public scrutiny every week in my sermons, and more regularly here.  I do that with the goal of being faithful and helpful to people, but also with the expectation that at any time, people can and should stop me if they aren’t sure that what I say is on track.  It’s not just their right, it’s their responsibility.   Anyone who puts their words out in the public arena for examination – and particularly anyone who expects people to pay to hear their words! – should expect critique.  I try never to critique someone simply based on style, but rather, do I think that the meat of their words is on track even if I might have chosen to say it differently myself?
So – thank you for giving me the article, and I’ll hope you continue to do so.   Thanks to all those folks over the years who have sent me grist for the mill, so to speak.  Those  are the moments that are particularly exciting for me because you’ve begun a dialogue with me through someone else’s words.  I hope you know how much I respect and appreciate that, and look forward to many more such dialogues!  

On the surface, this article is a heart-warming reminder of the power of God that exceeds our best intentions and efforts – and that’s something we all need to be reminded of.  But I think there is more at work here that bears closer examination.

The first third of the essay is laying the groundwork, providing the metaphor through which the point of the essay will be made.  I like the metaphor of messiness (struggling with it to a certain degree as I do).  I remember more than a few exhortations from my parents to clean up my room as a youngster!  This metaphor is then applied in the next third of the article.  Messy people are not necessarily bad people, and messy Christians are not necessarily bad Christians.  McBrayer tackles the assumption often found in evangelical and reformed theological traditions that true Christians look and act a certain way.  If you don’t fit the mold, there’s a good chance you haven’t really been saved.  What you need is a little more faith, and then you’ll fit the mold.  
This is a brutal expectation.  It’s full of cultural assumptions as well as theological problems.  While Christians are exhorted to avoid certain behaviors and follow others, it’s also understood that this is a continuum, that lots of variables will affect where one appears on the continuum, and that being in one place rather than another is not tantamount to a condemnation of one’s faith.  We are all works in progress.  We are all unique  creations and new creations through the work of the Holy Spirit.  McBrayer is dead on in his critique here.
The last portion of the essay is a synopsis of a modern parable that is supposed to describe (and condemn) churches and the religious.  This is where things get complicated.
What is the central action of the parable?  The boy’s encounter with Jesus.  But what is the context?  It’s a feast.  A banquet.  In church parlance, this is universally going to be associated with the sacrament of Holy Communion.  This is the feast in which Christ’s believers participate with him in this world, a foretaste of the feast to come.  Since someone who does not know and confess Jesus as savior would not be invited to join the table of believers when Christ returns, the parable must point to the meal we share here and now.  
The words of the crowd member to the boy are very good – Jesus is the host of the feast.  He did open the door to invite us in.  He does love us.  The question is, does the author of the parable understand these assertions in the historical Biblical way?  Does he see it the same way as the historical Christian church – up until the last 200 years or so – has understood it?  I suspect not.  The orthodox Church has always confessed exactly what this parable guest says – Jesus is the host of the feast, therefore, he determines who is invited and who is not.  We do not make this decision, Jesus does.  Participation in the Lord’s Supper is contingent on an awareness of who is hosting the feast and one’s relationship is to Him.  Jesus did open the door through his incarnation, death, and resurrection, but that door is the door to faith itself, through which we gain access to the Savior here and now as well as for eternity.  We have done nothing to receive the blessings of the feast both now and in eternity, and as such, we have no right to impose our standards on them.  Jesus does love us – but love has an objective sense of meaning that is widely lost in popular usage today, even in the Church.  Love is not being nice.  Love is not tolerance.  Love is far bigger and stronger and more radical than sentimentalized, consumer definitions.  Love is obedience.  Jesus loves us, and we demonstrate our love for Jesus in obedience.  Outside of obedience to our Savior, there can be no love for Him.
The parable attempts to marginalize the guest’s actions, even as it gets right the words.  The guest wants to stop the child from entering and joining.  I’m not aware of any orthodox Christian congregation that would require a profession of faith in (or even an intellectual awareness of) Jesus Christ as a prerequisite for attending worship.  This can’t be the point of the parable.  If it is the point, it’s off-base from the start.  The Church has always welcomed unbelievers to attend.  If there are congregations that openly and actively discourage non-Christians from attending worship, they are the exception, not the norm.  But inviting non-believers to attend worship does not demand that those visitors participate in the exact same way or to the exact same extent as those who already profess faith in Jesus Christ.  Simple honesty would preclude that, in fact!
Rather, the parable is criticizing those Christian denominations (and one could easily argue these are the most historically faithful denominations) that welcome non-believers to worship, yet deny them in one manner or another access to Holy Communion.  The parable writer – and McBrayer – is criticizing Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other conservative denominations (such as LCMS Lutherans) who have communion policies that require some shared confession of faith or membership.  
In this parable, the guest is wrong.  The ‘child’ who ignores the guest and continues to the feast meets and recognizes Jesus as the host.  Faith is found, despite the misguided intentions of the guest who sought to bar the child’s access.   The child’s faith is rewarded, the guest’s lack of faith is condemned.  There are several things at play here that we need to recognize.
First of all, 1 Corinthians 11 has a lot to say about how and who should receive communion.  The upshot is that there is a lot going on in communion that has serious ramifications.  It would be very un
loving of a group of Christians who profess belief in the Bible as God’s inspired and revealed Word to ignore this passage.  Which means that any faithful congregation of believers needs to decide what Paul is getting at here and how to address it.  Communion is something we are commanded to do by Jesus Christ, so we don’t have the option of just avoiding the issue entirely.  If we are going to follow His command, we need to also allow Scripture to inform us as to how we will follow it.  
Is it possible that an unbeliever can be moved to faith by partaking in Holy Communion?  Certainly.  The Holy Spirit is free to act in any way He chooses.  Does this render as invalid 1 Corinthians 11?  Certainly not.  The Holy Spirit is free to do what He wants, how He wishes to do it.  He is God.  We are not.  Therefore, we do not operate with the same freedom to supercede God’s Word in favor of our own interpretation and practice.  I cannot claim to be acting in God’s will if I am violating His expressed will in any way.  
I’m happy to listen to and respect any Christian congregation that comes to a policy or way of handling Holy Communion that is informed by 1 Corinthians 11.  I’m also willing to acknowledge that their policies may differ a great deal from mine and from the historic Christian tradition.  I think that this fact ought to give congregations pause in their policy, but there’s certainly some room for interpretation here.  
However to assert that such a faithfulness to the Word is essentially sinful (in that it would prevent or seek to prevent someone from coming to faith in Jesus Christ) is in itself erroneous and dangerous.  If we ignore Scripture’s teachings on Holy Communion in the hopes that more will be brought to faith, what else do we ignore about Scripture with an eye towards drawing in more people?  How wise is it to gut the substance of what you are asking people to believe in?  Why should anyone place their faith and trust in something that a congregation of professed believers is already disregarding for the sake of inclusivity?
The concluding paragraph spells out the author’s ultimate aims more clearly – the religious guest doesn’t know Jesus, but the child now does.  Yes, people meet Jesus in all sorts of ways and situations, certainly as often outside of a congregational worship service as in it, perhaps.  Jesus is amazingly persistent in how he seeks the lost.  However, He is not rewarding the seeker, because the seeker is already being prompted by the Holy Spirit!  If God is rewarding the efforts of the seeker, then how do we explain Romans 4?  If the seeker is being rewarded for seeking, then they are contributing to their own salvation.  This is a form of heresy known as Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, which was condemned by the church hundreds of years ago.  
In reviewing the author’s web site, it seems that he has an ax to grind with church and religion.  His books advocate the ’emergent’, hip theme of Jesus=good, Church=bad.  I’ll happily rail against the blindness that all too often results in congregational life through adherence to local traditions or the corporate world or any number of other issues that place new manacles on the freed children of God.  But to rail against the Church itself, as though it is not the very body of Jesus Christ, imperfect yet still holy, is dangerous.  Jesus instituted the Church (Matthew 16:17ff), and this has to be kept in mind any time we critique it.  Our goal is not to abandon it, but to continually call it back to faithfulness.  That faithfulness has a source, however – Scripture.  
The Church’s traditional teachings on Holy Communion are rooted in Scripture itself.  It isn’t that the modern church has left it’s Scriptural and traditional roots to lock people out of Communion.  Rather, many churches are abandoning Scripture and the historic practice of Christians as far back as we have documentation, in the name of being welcoming or seeker sensitive or any number of other euphemisms.  
I love people.  I love Jesus.  I want every person possible to meet Him.  But there are limits to how I can facilitate that faithfully.  I am called to obedience to those limits, even as I am called to confess that God is free to act outside of them for His purposes.  I admit to having been enamored of certain ideas in the emergent church movement early on.  But the more I see and read and hear, the more convinced I am that while some of the ideas may be on target, as a whole the movement is off-course and moving away from Scripture and tradition, even as it claims to reinterpret these things for it’s own purposes.  

An Essay on Morality

April 1, 2011

Read this essay.   

The focus of the essay is on the issue of morality, and on the Christian assertion that apart from theology, morality has no grounding.  Christians assert that God reveals Himself as the source of morality since He created us.  Notions of good and evil, right and wrong are not arbitrary fashions subject to the whims of fancy, but are actually, objectively true.  We can choose to ignore them, but that doesn’t make them any less right – and given adequate time, humanity will find itself confronted again with that rightness.

Atheists reject this assertion as preposterous.  But they are left with having to explain why we have a very deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong.  How is it that we can describe the actions of Hitler as evil, if morality has no deeper sourcing than our current attitudes and preferences?  
This argument by it’s very nature is not Biblical.  In other words, an atheist does not recognize Scripture as the inspired and revealed Word of God, and therefore the discussion doesn’t center on what the Bible tells us about God or ourselves.  In one corner, Christians assert that God is the source of morality as evidenced in His Word.  In the other corner, atheists ignore the Bible, deny God, and offer up their own explanations for how it is that we can meaningfully discuss the meta-ethical concepts of right and wrong.
I chose to examine this essay because it’s intelligible and readable.  The author has a great sense of biting humor that makes it easy to read (if not particularly fun for a theist).
The first point that seems interesting is his denial of historical examples of atheist armies (practically his own words).  I’m not sure how he’s defining this, but just in the last century alone we’ve seen examples of how the officially atheist armies of officially atheist governments have perpetrated horrendous barbarities against their own people, their fellow citizens.  The horrors of life for those caught behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe (let alone the former Soviet Union), or those who continue to suffer under the communist regime in China ought to be caution enough to Mr. Carrier that the atrocities of atheism are evident (if not fully accounted for) in our own recent history alone.  Clearly, when freed from the moral constraints of some deeper order than the State, people are capable of awful things.  While Mr. Carrier admits that atheists can be bad later a few paragraphs later, he seems to be offering up a dismissal of large scale abuse while conceding the point that individually speaking, there are a few bad apples in the lot.  
I’m also not clear on Mr. Carrier’s assertion that compassion can be proven to be an evolved trait.  I assume that his assertion here is that it can be argued effectively that compassion is helpful in getting along and surviving.  Most of us would recognize that fact.   Relying on the adage that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar certainly seems to be a far cry from demonstrating some sort of genetic link to compassion, but that seems to be what he’s doing here.  
Mr. Carrier’s summary of the Christian argument for morality (“You should be moral because otherwise God will send you to hell”) is about as oversimplified as you can get.  I am not moral because I’m afraid of hell.  I’m moral because God has demonstrated that His morality is far more reliable and better than any morality I have attempted to construe or have heard from anyone else.  I am moral because God’s Word explains the state of my own soul and the world around me and every person in it in a way that is rationally consistent and compelling and unparalleled by any other world view.  If I found that Christian morality functioned contrary to everything I experience in myself and in the world each day, I wouldn’t assume that my response would be to suck it up and believe it anyway out of fear of hell.  My response would be to figure out why this is, and whether or not I’m believing the wrong thing.
Like Mr. Carrier, I’m fond of facts.  We may define facts differently (facts are an interpretation of data, and therefore, as near as I can tell, subject to error in that interpretation and extrapolation), but we all ought to like facts.  I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent.  I’m told in Scripture that this should be my expectation -that God has blessed myself and most every other human being with a brain, and therefore I don’t assume that God will require me to ignore my brain to believe in Him.  Indeed, I sometimes find I believe best and most compellingly when I’m using my brain.  Go figure.  And if Mr. Carrier can make a she-goat talk by moving around “a few amino acids in a cell nucleus”, he ought to be making a huge name for himself in doing so.  I’m no cellular biologist, but I’m pretty sure that this isn’t simple.  Or possible.  
Mr. Carrier seems to evince the typical assertion of atheists that it is our singular inability to point at God and say There He is! or to slip Him under a microscope that generates or requires disbelief.  There is no examination of what God claims to be saying, only that the idea of a God who cannot or will not subject Himself to our scrutiny in an empirical fashion cannot be believed in.  Period.  I find that rather curious.  I tend to think (and yes, I’m biased) that if we examine what is being said, we can have a better idea of the reasonableness or not of the source.  But I’m kinda weird like that.
Mr. Carrier asserts that “thanks to the laws of physics everyone does what they most desire.”  I tend to think this is again oversimplification.  Equating actions to the strength of a neural signal does not explain bravery or courage or self-sacrifice or many of the other amazing things that human beings do at the least opportune or predictable times.  Rarely do the surviving perpetrators of such acts say “What I most wanted at that moment was to be brave”.  Mostly, they talk about not wanting to get killed.  Desperately.  Right before they found themselves leaping out of the relative safety of their foxhole to dodge enemy fire and grenade an enemy machine gun nest.  Or something to that effect.  It seems that often people do things that surprise even themselves, and equating this to “what they most desire” is at best inaccurate or oversimplified, and at worst just plain wrong.
Rather than focus on the fear of hell as a motivating factor, I think it would be far more accurate to talk about Christian moral motivation as the desire to align ourselves as closely as possible with the way things were designed to be.  We live in a broken and jagged world where perfection is not possible by our own means.  Yet we can say that regardless of our ability to make it perfectly so, there is a way that our world ought to be.  To recognize (as every single person does) that things are not  the way they should be, and to seek to live in consistency with how they should be (to the best of our dim ability to understand and perceive this).  
I would agree with the rudimentary maxim (that Mr. Carrier develops for atheists) that “you should be moral because you will be happier as a moral person overall than if you become any other sort of person”.  I tend to think that any moral code has this as the underlying assertion.  It must, because there are times when living by the moral code results in our short-term unhappiness and discomfort, and we must have a greater perspective of things that explains why
we’re unhappy acting morally.  This maxim applies both to the theist and the atheist. It is a result of a moral code, not the impetus for one.  A moral code exists, and we act in accordance with it because of this maxim that we will be happier overall if we do.  
This still misses the mark of the question he started out to deal with.  He hasn’t provided a basis for an atheistic moral code (or even addressed whether such an objective thing is even possible by the basic principles of evolutionary theory).  Rather, he’s demonstrated that if someone doesn’t want to believe in a God, they can still be a decent human being by following basic moral principles.  
But he started out trying to address the issue of whether atheists have a basis for those moral principles.  Is it possible, based on Mr. Carrier’s understanding of genetic predestinationalism and survival of the fittest and what-not, that a few years from now we will have demonstrated the morality of pelting small children with grapefruit?  How can he answer that one way or the other?  What if our genomes have a latent circuit that says that in the event of these specific environmental variables, we ought to find pelting small children with grapefruit morally justifiable?  
It sounds silly, but this is the crux of the issue that Mr. Carrier has humorously sidestepped.  If not something outside of ourselves that defines morality in an objective, always true (if often misunderstood or misapplied) fashion, then can the atheist speak of moral right and wrong with any definitiveness?  Or must the atheist speak of moral right and wrong in a limited fashion.  It is wrong to do this at this time.  Given current situations, this is the right thing to do.  I understand that a few years down the line, these two decisions might be completely reversed.  How do we get anything done if morality is subject to change based on criteria that we don’t even know or understand?  
I can appreciate Mr. Carrier’s distaste for a God who cannot be poked with a stick.  I’d much prefer that sort of substance myself some days.  But the lack of that substance is not in and of itself an adequate rational reason for rejecting it’s possibility or reality.  And if you deny the existence of God and the existence of an objective moral code based beyond our own genomes, psychology, or whims, then what basis can you have for talking about morality in any meaningful context?  How can you sentence someone to execution or life imprisonment if you aren’t sure that the crime they were convicted of is actually a crime, and will continue to be considered as such?  If you have no basis for assuming that theft will always be considered wrong, if you have no assurance that murder (or specific instances of it) will always be considered morally wrong, how do you maintain a culture and society for very long?