Abandoning the Field, and the Need to Redefine the Field

May 14, 2022

The last of my long-neglected articles is this essay by professor (former, now) speaker, thinker and writer Jordan Peterson.

This is a fantastic, no-punches-pulled essay. I believe Peterson has rightly diagnosed an extremely dangerous shift in our culture, one that I’ve been warning about for over a decade. It is not something that is going to go away any time soon. But there are hopeful signs that some leaders are fed up with it and willing to take a stand against it. The best example of this is Netflix, who seemed to be on the ropes last year with employees trying to hold the company hostage in order to force programming and production changes along the lines of what Peterson talks about. But rather than cave (and there was definitely wobbling last year), Netflix has decided that the honesty of artistic expression (and hopefully corresponding capital rewards) outweigh cancel culture. In a memo last week Netflix suggested employees who can’t handle any of the content Netflix produces or sells should consider working elsewhere rather than attempting hostage-techniques to wrest control of the company.

Not surprisingly, media coverage of this memo has been decidedly muted in comparison to the non-stop coverage of a handful of irate employees demanding sweeping changes and control of Netflix content last year. We can only hope more CEOs will follow suit.

It’s tempting to blame Peterson for abandoning the field. After all, if there aren’t holdouts against the rising order, can we ever hope for change? And wasn’t it exactly that tactic of gradual infiltration that ultimately turned American universities into bastions of radical liberal ideology? But I have to admit Peterson makes some good points. The very folks inclined to seek out his mentorship will be rewarded, no doubt, with bright scarlet letters atop their curriculum vitae in any academic HR department or before any hiring committee. He makes a good case that he’s actually doing limited good and by redirecting his efforts he might have a broader impact. Perhaps, within the echo-chamber of existing like-minded people.

But it seems Peterson should do more than lambast his peers who hide and curry favor in order to keep their jobs. Something different is called for, I’d suggest. A turning away from the increasing cycle of more and more years of public education and corresponding radical ideology. What is required is a re-thinking of whether universal university education is an expectation that provides any real degree of value. There will always be a need and place for people who do require advanced or specialized types of training, though I’d argue alternatives could and should be developed still to mandatory undergraduate and graduate degrees for doctors and other professionals. Peterson seems to accept the mandate that has grown unceasingly over the last 40 years – universal university education is a good goal and a benefit to both the individual and society.

But as pressure mounts to eliminate some or all student loan debt, this clearly is a flawed premise. Even when I was in high school in the early 80’s there was already a stigma against vocational education. Maybe more effort should be directed at countering this stigma and providing recognition of honorable work that doesn’t require a degree. While I’m not familiar with and therefore not endorsing everything Mike Rowe might be saying, I do respect his critique of the denigration in American society of vocational training and jobs as somehow menial and non-respectable.

Hopefully Peterson will find that broader platform he hints at. His voice is much needed. But one voice isn’t nearly enough.

Church Authority

May 10, 2022

An interesting – if too vague – article on the necessity of Church authority. By this, the author basically means every professing Christian ought to submit themselves to the authority of a church body – a local Christian congregation. Church membership as a whole continues to decline in the Western world, even as reported rates of theism in America remain very strong. Clearly there seems to be a trend where people believe they can believe in Jesus without being part of a Church. This article – rightly – questions this assertion and boldly questions such rationale.

I like his terminology – theological anarchist – for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ but refuse to submit to the authority of the Church. The typical rationale – the risk of abuse of power within the Church – is not a valid rationale as the author rightly points out. Jesus established the Church not to be perfect but to be the place in this world where the faithful can be fed and nourished (albeit imperfectly) towards their eternal place in the perfect creation that is already inbreaking. Sometimes it is not possible to be connected to a community of believers because of intense risk and danger. However it’s interesting that it is in exactly such conditions the Church seems most resolute and permanent. Not as an institution but as the reality of Christians gathering together to sustain their souls by the promises of God conveyed in the reality of brothers and sisters willing to risk this short, frail, mortal coil to affirm the equal reality of what all believers are supposed to be anticipating. Japanese Christians had to hide for a time but did continue to meet. The same happened in China and the USSR and other places where Christianity and the Church were suppressed or outlawed.

What remains as a rationale for avoiding submission to Church authority is something else, something far more personal. The author’s language is very strong here, offensive even. But isn’t the refusal to submit to Church authority equally offensive? Isn’t the assertion that no congregation is good enough for me offensive, even if the person hasn’t thought about it like that before?

I think the article can be a bit misleading in the title. It led me to expect a discussion about the exercising of church discipline and authority over members as opposed to the need and mandate for submission to Church authority vis a vis membership or attendance or however you want to name serious commitment. Committing to a community of faith is often, tragically, only a commitment of convenience, lasting only as long as the individual happens to agree with what is said and done and asked of them, and terminated when it suits their personal preferences as opposed to for reasons of heresy or theological error.

Of course this is a dominant problem in America and the West where individualism is reaching absurdist heights, and the Church is not exempt from these problems. Good but competing models such as democracy are often absorbed into congregational polity. Sometimes they can be good. Sometimes they can be harmful. But most dangerous is when they are confused with the Church, with the Gospel, with God’s will and work in our lives and world which is only and ever in Christ and not in the well-intentioned creations of any other person or group.

The Church is not -as some insist – part of such a subset of human-created ideas and institutions. The Church is Christ’s command and creation (Matthew 16:18). It is not perfect, but it will be, just as every individual who is part of it is not perfect but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ one day will be. As surely as I am not perfect, no congregation is perfect. That does not excuse me from the necessity of being part of one. To profess an invisible Lord while refusing to submit to that Lord’s visible, though imperfect Church is problematic in the extreme.

As a note, the questions and answers with Biblical citations at the end are from the Westminster Larger Catechism, crafted for use by the Church of Scotland in 1647 and followed by many Presbyterian church bodies. I don’t agree with all of the statements printed at the end of this article (I’m not Presbyterian!), but the author feels they help support some of his assertions.

Hospitality, Meals & Scripture

May 9, 2022

I’ve had a long interest in the intersection of hospitality, meals and Scripture. The Bible frequently uses the language of food and feeding to teach spiritual truths, and hospitality is not only repeatedly described throughout the Bible (Genesis 18, as just a single example), it is also prescribed (Hebrews 13:2 as just a single example and related most likely to Genesis 18).

I finally verified something I suspected for years – I have access to a theological database called Atla (originally short for American Theological Libraray Association). So now I can start to research what others have said on this topic as I continue to draw my own conclusions from the Word.

The first article I read can’t be accessed without paying for it (unless you also have access to Atla). It’s by a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina by the name of David W. Priddy. The essay is entitled Eating with penitence: An essay on the local church eating responsibly (sic) and it was published in the Review & Expositor, a quarterly Baptist theological journal.

Priddy’s thesis deals with what the local church can do towards food reform and agricultural renewal. He posits three key issues. Firstly, a high regard for Word and Sacrament; secondly, examining the role of meals in Scripture (particularly the New Testament) and specifically in association with themes of judgement and a call to humility; and thirdly, the importance of continued remorse over sin (penitence).

Although at times abstruse, Priddy does a good job outlining these key issues, and I concur with most of the ideas he presents. Although we come from different denominational backgrounds I suspect we’d have a lot in common theologically, at least on this particular topic.

The only difficulty I had with the essay was his disdain for the history of some property owned by his congregation. His difficulty reflects modern notions of contemporary remorse (penitence) as well as potentially the appropriateness of some sort of compensation for past injustices (penance) although he stops short of such an assertion here. He relates how a 200-acre plot of land and large home was donated to his congregation well over 100 years ago (perhaps as long as 170 years ago). The problem isn’t the property per se, though Priddy has ideas about how it could be better put to use in food reform and agricultural renewal. The problem is the man who donated it to the church owned at least ten slaves and apparently sired children through at least one of them (and it’s implied that it was far more). The congregation’s fellowship hall is named after this man, something Priddy clearly finds offensive and problematic.

However in the little he says in the essay, it’s hard to know whether Priddy has investigated the donor’s penitence. The life of faith is indeed a constant one of confession and absolution, of contrition as well as accepting the gracious forgiveness of God, something Priddy highlights admirably in his brief discussion of historic liturgical formulations. Yet the presumed damning evidence of the congregation’s benefactor all those years ago leaves little room in Priddy’s words or spirit for the idea of forgiveness either sought or granted, the idea that the offending donor might have in fact been penitent, which may have spurred his donation of land to the church as an act of penance.

Priddy speaks a lot about penitence but very little about absolution and this is most clear in this real-world application. The Church must speak this loudly in the face of rising intolerance in cancel-culture. The irony is that culture has discarded Church, the Bible and God, and with it the only worldly assurance – and demand – for forgiveness and absolution. In lieu of this we are now daily on trial by a culture that rapidly evolves in it’s ideas about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, and that views any past sins of either omission or commission as equally damnable and irredeemable. The psalmist might these days say If you, O Culture, should mark iniquities, O Culture, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, modified). The answer is no one, and unfortunately Priddy conveys a similar unwillingness to accept the possibility of penitence or penance if the sin is great enough, and therefore denies effectively the possibility of forgiveness and grace – certainly in this world and if so, then perhaps in the creation to come.

Pastors and congregations do have an opportunity to encourage members to reflect more on the choices they make as consumers (in this case, specifically as consumers of food products). While I don’t have the basis Priddy apparently does to label the entire food industry as essentially evil, I recognize wholeheartedly there are some major problems that affect land and health. Congregations have the opportunity to read Scripture with an ear towards how these topics are discussed, avoiding the temptation to simply apply Biblically-specific verses and situations to modern-day issues, yet recognizing the Church is continually called to contrition and penitence as well as to joyfully proclaiming the forgiveness won for us in Christ. Failure to do either inevitably leads to darkness.

I’m excited by the prospect of continued research and academic engagement, and grateful my seminary provides this benefit to alum, particularly now that my work has taken me to places where obtaining physical books (including my own professional library in boxes in storage) is either impossible or unreasonably expensive!

Hypothetically Speaking…

May 6, 2022

Let’s assume it was Ellen Degeneres (of 3-4 years ago, before she was tarnished by reports of her conduct towards employees) and not Dave Chappelle. I wonder if the decision would also be to charge the attacker with misdemeanors rather than any sort of felony.

Admittedly, if the weapon was in a bag and not in hand, brandished, or otherwise more readily accessible that might change things somewhat. But still, I’m sure the media outcry would be for a stronger sentence. It might be somewhat cynical to think the decision to charge with misdemeanors instead of something more serious could in any way be due to unpopular interpretations of Chappelle’s comments last year regarding transgender and LGBTQ+ behavior.

But I’ve been called a lot worse than cynical.

The Real Story

May 4, 2022

By now everyone is talking. Likely you are too. Courtesy of Politico, there’s no lack of discussion going on right now about the possibility – or likelihood – the Supreme Court will reverse Roe v. Wade, ending Federally promoted and protected abortion rights and delegating such authority to states.

Fair enough. There’s lots to talk about.

We could talk about whether abortion should be a nationally defended and enshrined right or not. That’s where most of the talk right now will focus. No real difference there – the debate has been heated and the split hardly lopsided since Roe v. Wade was first handed down. Most of that discussion will likely focus narrowly on the Supreme Court’s role in both creating such a right and then modifying it (not eliminating, as this will be spun in most liberal circles). The Supreme Court’s decision will almost certainly not ban abortion, but will repeal it as a Federal matter and open the door for individual states to determine their course of action on the matter.

We could talk about the lopsided insistence of not only allowing but, definitionally, encouraging and legitimizing abortion as a viable method of birth control despite a huge percentage of Americans with serious to moderate reservations on the matter. The press coverage thus far is predictably overwhelmingly in support of Roe v. Wade, condemning the Supreme Court for even considering reversing it and with it 50 years of abortion promotion. Language about women’s rights and privacy predominate coverage thus far. Notably absent in such coverage – as well as in the scientific community – is the reassertion that abortion kills a human being. Absent is discussion on whether the fact that a human being is very, very small negates their human rights in the justification of murder.

But what we ought to be talking about – very seriously – is the fact that we’re talking about these things because some staffer inside the Supreme Court, some law clerk or other person privy to the information, leaked it to the press, and the press decided to publish it. As Politico acknowledges, this has never happened before in the history of the United States. The precedent it sets is monumental and catastrophic. The intent can be none other than the (further) polemical politicizing of the Supreme Court, and to pressure the justices based on selective coverage of public outrage.

If anyone considers this to be a win for justice or reason or democracy, they are grossly mistaken. There is no benefit in this. If it accomplishes the goal of swaying justices away from such a decision, this is not a positive thing regardless of how happy abortion-rights activists might be. It will demonstrate our forfeit of whatever justice remains in our country on the altar of popular (and usually ill- or mis-informed) opinion and emotionalism, disproportionately framed by a complicit media bent on distorting the reality of a truly divided population. Further commentary on these dangers will be whether the offending person can and will be identified, and what penalties they suffer. It’s already a given they will be exonerated by the press, but if they are not dealt with sternly nonetheless, the precedent set will be disastrous. The possibility that such an action could have possibly been encouraged by one of the Justices themselves should also not be overlooked, though the ramifications of such a situation will likely have to be dealt with solely by that justice’s conscience.

Again, there is no scenario in which the events this week can be seen as any sort of win for the Supreme Court, democracy, the much-vaunted and ill-defined concept of privacy so glibly invoked by those wishing to defend the legal status quo, the judicial process as a whole, and by extension the American people. I pray Roe v. Wade is overturned. The number of lives such a reversal might save – even though individual states may still opt to legalize abortion via state law – is hugely important. But the recklessness of leaking this information and publishing it have already inflicted massive damage on American justice, and the reverberations of this will continue to echo in our culture and society long after this set of judges have passed on.

Japan’s Hidden Christians

May 4, 2022

Offered here without commentary, but as an invitation for you to contemplate for yourself. How does this align with traditional, historical Christianity? Does it now? Is it necessary today simply because it was once necessary? Not nearly enough information here to draw strong conclusions on, but enough food for thought to stimulate personal reflection, hopefully.

The brief highlighting of this aspect of Christian history a few years ago was fanned into flame by both the book, Silence, and the movie. I’ve yet to see the movie, and I suspect it wouldn’t add much to the sparseness of the book. A reminder of the costs faith sometimes incurs, and the ways people attempt to deal with those costs.

As a further aside, this looks like a fascinating site for short videos on a variety of intriguing subjects!

An Important Reminder

May 3, 2022

Freedom of religion as a Constitutional creation is not the means by which the Church should protect itself from the world, nor the means by which the Church should push the world to conform. Other religions have and do make those mistakes. For the Christian, we have to be wiser than this, even if it means watching once-taken-for-granted morality basics redefined or eliminated. Seeking to do away with or redefine freedom of religion is therefore not a game we ought to be engaged in. This is a good essay reminding Christians where we profess our hope lies, and encouraging us to align our intellects as well.

A Gift That Keeps On Giving…

May 2, 2022

A bit late for the Christmas gift-giving scene, but perhaps an idea for birthdays or next Christmas? After all, it’s not often you can buy someone the gift of nobility!

That’s right, for an amazingly low amount (with a correspondingly low level of actual royal benefit!) you can purchase Scottish lordship or ladyship for someone. Since seeing this originally I’ve discovered there are other organizations with a similar model. But still, how cool is this?

Catching Up, Philosophically

May 1, 2022

Now that I have reliable Internet for the first time in almost three months, I want to catch up on a backlog of bookmarked articles to share or comment on.

First up (literally) is this article explaining the prevalence of scientism in the West, and noting the fundamental philosophical flaws that render it’s confidence problematic at best, dangerous at worst. If we’re honest with ourselves, all of us as Westerners raised in the 21st century suffer from this to some extent. Living in another part of the world for a while, I begin to realize the extent goes a lot deeper than I’d like to think. The author’s distinction of scientism zealots vs. agnostics is helpful in this regard.

Realizing that even in Christian communities there are a lot of folks who are effectively scientism agnostics even though they profess Jesus as Lord and Savior is complicated, to say the least. Examining our own ideas about things is a good place to start, both towards humble reconciliation with what we claim is Truth, as well as loving care and outreach to others struggling with these two irreconcilable ideas of truth.

Loans and Such

April 29, 2022

I’ll say at the outset I’m opposed to the concept of student loan forgiveness. Part of a loan is learning responsibility for the debt you undertake – primarily the responsibility to repay it. There are few lessons learned in cancelling all or some student loan debt.

That being said, I’m less opposed to focused cancellation of some student loan debt for low-income holders of student loan debt. I’m not heartless. Tragedy can and does strike and circumstances may well encourage the use of limited, specific partial loan forgiveness.

What troubles me is I’ve heard no discussion beyond forgiveness amounts $10,000 or $50,000 of student loan debt (or, as the hard-core proponents would prefer, elimination of all current student loan debt to the overall tune of close to $2 trillion dollars) and possibly the scope of who might qualify. But there’s so much else to think about.

For instance, low-income borrowers who qualify for debt forgiveness at some level – what does that mean? Were they low-income when they initially borrowed the money? Is there going to be some level of scrutiny of student loan processes for low-income borrowers who may well have difficulty repaying in the future? Will that result in lower amounts of loan money directed to low-income borrowers, or more stringent requirements from applicants? That seems quite contradictory to stated goals (which I disagree with) of encouraging essentially universal college education.

Is forgiveness considered based only on current low-income status? For how long? And of what nature? Is prolonged unemployment one form of defining low-income status? Might there be more of an exchange than an outright elimination of debt? Could borrowers desiring some level of forgiveness provide volunteer hours in exchange (particularly if they aren’t working currently)? How does one quantify low-income status? Are we creating incentives for borrowers to lower their earnings right after university to qualify for future forgiveness programs? Is that even possible?

Are defaulters on their loan payments eligible for partial forgiveness? Under what circumstances and rationale? What do we teach to potential student loan applicants in this process?

So many questions. So little reported discussion about them. But if we don’t examine the system as a whole to determine how to avoid problems in the future, this won’t end up being just a one-time buy-off of voters debt forgiveness offer to young people. We’re simply setting the stage for continued, future cancellations of loan debt. Debt, by the way, that is (as I’m sure we all remember) not simply abstract government debt, but debt funded by our tax dollars. It isn’t being eliminated magically – just repayment by the borrower is being eliminated. The rest of us are still on the hook for it, as will be innumerable future generations.

So consider carefully the ramifications of any student loan debt forgiveness program, no matter how limited in amount or recipients. It will still prove to be a useful precedent for future, additional programs.