Liberty without virtue

levin-the_greatOne of the books I’m working through right now is Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. I came across this quote from Burke last night:

But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.

Apropos, no?

What hinders us is not aesthetics

bible-app-by-olive-tree-63513202684_2All snark aside, those looking for a mature reflection on the market milieu of the ESV Reader’s Bible would do well to read this piece by J. Mark Bertrand.

Bertrand’s hope is that the ubiquity of hypertext has created a demand for a purified text. With so much reading tethered to the internet and all the linked distractions that come with it, we may now be ready for books that are “really good for nothing but reading”:

We long for a deeply immersive experience, something so thick and involved that we can’t be easily pulled away. The fear is that all the choices and features and options we’ve given ourselves, though they seemed good at the time, have now become barriers, fatally distracting us from the one thing that matters most. We fiddle with fonts and margins, we zip back and forth through cross-references, always hovering on a busy surface, clicking and tapping, in danger of forgetting there is anything underneath. Pearl divers of old held their breath underwater until they came up with a pearl; we are afraid we can’t stay under long enough anymore.

Breadth of features kills the depth of experience. By trying to do everything, we neglect what really matters. In the case of word processors, that’s writing. In the case of Bibles, it’s to take and read.


I get what Bertrand is driving at and I agree to a point, but distracted reading is not the biggest obstacle to deep Bible reading. The biggest obstacle is us.

Somewhere in our house we have Hillary Clinton’s autobiography (don’t judge, it was a gag gift). I think the book has been in our house for almost a year now and at no time do I ever remember thinking I’d give the old girl a read if only the font was a Trinité No. 2 type set at 12 points, with 15 points of leading. In a ranking desired experiences, becoming immersed in Living History falls somewhere between shopping with the girls and having my ankles gnawed on by a herd of rabid ferrets. The fact of the matter is that no amount of artistry or beautification will draw me to that book.

Maybe today’s pearl divers lack the capacity to go deep. I suspect that many of us just lack the compulsion.


Irreverent musings: 6-volume Bible

esv-reader_6volOn Friday Crossway makes available the ESV Reader’s Bible in six volumes (E-6). If you count yourself among the sanctified bibliophiles you have undoubtedly discovered a righteous desire to acquire the set simply for the joy of reading.

But what about the average Christian who, for reasons beyond their control, find they lack the holy aspiration to plunk down $300+ for a literary work they already own in a convenient single volume edition?

Perhaps you should consider these more pedestrian reasons for acquiring E-6:

1. Read without bias and/or thought. At some point chapter-verse divisions, cross-references, brackets, and differing type settings just becomes too much–two millennia of biblical study notwithstanding. The E-6 signifies (without the arrogant assertion) that you no longer need to stand on the shoulders of those who came before. More to the point, it’s far better to read Scripture like you read the Harry Potter series–as a blank slate with with no help. At the end of the day the cluttered Bibles don’t account for the fact that we’re just smarter and more capable than our Christian forebears. Google it.

2. Solitude is underrated. The ubiquity of interwebs and social platforms is crowding out solitude and quiet reflection. The good news is that without chapter/verse divisions the E-6 makes reading in community (i.e. in a noisy crowd) virtually impossible. We all know the nerve-wrecking effort it takes to follow along while someone reads from the NIV or worse (The Message). Now try to do that without the aid of chapter-verse notations. Get the picture? You needed to spend more time alone with God anyway.

3. No more note taking. Let’s be honest. The reason most of us make notes in our Bibles is because we know that that’s what serious Christians are supposed to do. But with E-6, a clean page is no longer an indictment of your spirituality. For a moderate price you can move from sophomoric to sophisticated.

4. A relevant faith. Ex-nihilo creation. The Israelite exodus from Egypt. Holy wars. A plethora of historically unverified characters & events. Who needs those albatrosses tethered to an otherwise respectable faith? With E-6 you now have the option of minimizing the baggage and making it all about Jesus. Just brand yourself a vol-5 Christian™ and the embarrassments just fade away. Sure, the Jesus in vol 5 affirms all the myths, barbarisms, and bigotries of the previous four volumes (see esp 1-2) but for some reason that doesn’t seem to matter. Christianity’s critics are sure to find your faith much more plausible if you keep the focus on biblical accounts of virgin birth, miraculous healing, apocalyptic preaching, exclusive truth, and a dead man coming back to life before floating up to heaven.

In short, the new ESV Reader’s Bible is for everyone. It invokes status. It’s a  symbol. It’s sophisticated. It’s a sophisticated status symbol.



A. Stanley affirms inerrancy


Stanley has issued a straightforward affirmation of biblical inerrancy. In an article for Outreach Magazine, Stanley explains that the difference between himself and many conservative evangelicals isn’t doctrinal but methodological.

Glad to hear that. Far better, in this instance, for us to disagree on our methods. Case closed.

UNIDENTIFIED CYNIC: Why did Stanley need a co-author for “his” explanation???

Pipe & Pencil (4): Could Jesus have sinned when he was tempted?

Theology is at its best when it takes weighty concepts and makes the connection to Christian life. Consider the debate over Christ’s impeccability. If you’re an eminently practical Christian, jostling over abstractions (Was Jesus not able to sin? -OR- Was Jesus able not to sin?) seems like a huge waste of time. Who cares how you explain it?!? The bottom line is Jesus didn’t sin.

More often than not the problem isn’t that the heavy discussions don’t matter but that we don’t know why they matter. The following passage on Christ’s impeccability is a good example of why seemingly esoteric discussions matter in the day-to-day [emphasis added]:

We may link the subject ‘God’ with many predicates. The Son of God may suffer, may be tempted, may be ignorant and may even die. But we cannot link God with the predicate ‘sin’. God cannot in any situation or for any purpose commit a transgression of his own will. He absolutely cannot be guilty of lawlessness.

It does not follow, however, that when Christ was tempted he was always aware, at the human level, that the Tempter could never conquer him. We know that the devil could, on occasion, put a big if against his consciousness of sonship (Mt 4:3). He would have found it equally easy to question his sinlessness. It would certainly be unwise to conclude that at every single point Jesus was in full possession of the whole truth about himself.

It is helpful to recall here Dr. John A. Mackay’s distinction between the view from the balcony and the view from the road. To the angels on the balcony (as to theologians in their armchairs) it may have been perfectly clear that Jesus could never sin. To himself, engaging the devil on the road, the outcome may have been far from clear. Never once, as we observe him struggle with temptation, do we see him deriving comfort from the fact of his own impeccability. All that we see is his having recourse to the very same weapons as are available to ourselves: the company of fellow-believers (Mk 14:33), the word of God (Mt 4:4) and prayer (Mk 14:35).

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 230.

Engaging the anti-critics

Last week I tweeted a link to Michael Kruger’s response to a recent message by Andy Stanley (AS) in which Stanley asserted that a mature Christian faith can’t be sustained by “the Bible says so” mindset.

Since my massive following on the interweb isn’t a monolithic group of like-minded cynics, critics, and ministerial Luddites, I wasn’t surprised to see contrary opinions toward Kruger’s piece. What was unexpected (but not surprising) was the dismissive stance toward the criticism in general (i.e. the act not the substance).

My purpose here isn’t to rehash any of the details from Stanley’s talk or Kruger’s critique but to offer a different perspective for the anti-critics who seem to fit somewhere within the following cross-section:

  1. The Groupies — Pastor X¹ can do no wrong. In the face of criticism, he is a priori impeccable.
  2. The Ends-Justifies-The-Message — Maybe he shouldn’t say xyz but he’s bringing people to Jesus. God is blessing his ministry so who are you to criticize?
  3. The Matthew 18 Peaceniks — Pointing out the error is just as wrong (if not more so) than the error itself because you haven’t personally spoken to Pastor X.²

Regardless of where the anti-critic finds his motivation I hope these thoughts might lend a new perspective on these friendly skirmishes:

(1) If it’s a conversation then we should converse. AS and North Point don’t “preach” they have “conversations.” All fine and good. But words mean things and a conversation is, by definition, an exchange of ideas. So let’s talk.

(2) Don’t assume the worst in the critic. Yes, there are AS-detractors for whom AS can neither say nor do anything good. Kruger’s critique, however, was a far cry from the irrational rant one would expect from a devoted detractor. His was measured and irenic. Some of us are convinced that AS’s prescription for deconversion will end up doing more harm than good. Should we still keep quiet?

(3) If AS can passionately assert we can certainly tolerate a dispassionate critique. As is true of most effective communicators, AS is passionate in his efforts to win the deconverted. Conviction expressed with passion is infectious. But when a contrary view can’t even be countenanced it’s worth asking what we find more attractive–light or heat.

As a man who is nothing if not hip and relevant, I’m all about continuing the dialogue. Feel free to talk back.

¹Groupies aren’t limited to AS. Every high profile pastor of every theological stripe has his groupies.

²See D. A. Carson’s editorial for helpful clarification and correction on the application of Matthew 18.

Parents, you need to read this book

reset-your-childs-brainIn the introduction to her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time, integrative psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley observes:

In a mere ten-year span from 1994 to 2003, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children increased forty-fold. Childhood psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and tic disorders are on the rise. Between 2002 and 2005, ADHD medication prescriptions rose by 40 percent. Mental illness is now the number one reason for disability filings for children, representing half of all claims filed in 2012, compared to just 5 to 6 percent of claims twenty years prior.

Now consider that this rise in childhood psychosocial and neurodevelopmental issues has increased in lockstep with the insidious growth of electronic-screen exposure in daily life . . . Children aged two to six now spend two to four hours a day screen-bound — during a period in their lives when sufficient healthy play is critical to normal development. Computer training in early-years education–including in preschool–has become commonplace, despite a lack of long-term data on learning and development. And according to a large-scale survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010, children ages eight to eighteen now spend an average of nearly seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen–a 20 percent increase from just five years earlier. (2-3)

Even if you end up disagreeing with Dunckley that Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) is contributing to (if not causing) an increasingly broad spectrum of behavioral and/or developmental disorders, you will certainly benefit from knowing the pitfalls that accompany unregulated screen-time for children. I’ll let the author make the case for herself but as a father of six and a full-time education pastor who regularly interacts with other people’s kids, I have to say that I found this book compelling.

Although not a major focus of the book, parents would also benefit from the counsel that Dunckley provides concerning communication and discipline. A good bit of content is universally applicable. For example:

It’s very easy to get caught up arguing and debating whether there’s a problem and whether this is the right solution–which is exactly what you don’t want. Children will always have more energy than you, so it’s to their advantage to keep you engaged. It’s to yours to keep it short! (164-165; emphasis added)

And my personal favorite:

Who knows, but considering the current trend is wearable computing, the next wave of devices might make today’s screen-time problems seem laughable . . . So be wary when the next new technology comes out and steer clear of adding new devices to the home. It’s harder to have and give up than never to have at all. (240-241; emphasis added)

It may not be a fun read but it’s necessary. So take a look but be prepared: the diagnosis and prescription are not for the faint of heart.

In the marriage debate, we are not like King Canute


I was prepping for some premarital counseling when I came across this gem from Christopher Ash in 2003. With boundary lines constantly changing, this is good counsel:

…marriage (as a part of the created order) exists as a significant institution in the world whether or not societies conform to its free constraints. So when as Christians we seek to persuade society about this moral order, we are not defending the institution of marriage, as though the God-given institution of marriage were under ontological threat . . . it is not within the power of humankind finally to destroy created order. It was given to humankind in creation, it stands above human history and the human will, and finally it will be restored and transformed in the new heavens and earth. No institution that is part of the created order can be destroyed by human disobedience. Human nonconformity leads not to the destruction of the order, but to judgment on human beings. No Christian movement needs to defend marriage: rather we seek to protect human beings against the damage done to them by cutting across the grain of the order of marriage. That knowledge takes a burden off our shoulders . . . we are not engaged in a desperate attempt, like King Canute, to turn back the tides of social affairs.

-Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 81-82

Judas & Peter


Recently heard someone present Judas & Peter as two disciples with a shared experience but different outcomes. Both men walked with Jesus, both men turned on Jesus, & both men expressed remorse; but whereas Judas hung himself, Peter was restored and became a prominent leader.

What accounts for the different results? On this telling, it was that Judas never returned to his fellow disciples while Peter never left. The difference was community.

True, Christian community is a means by which God keeps us from falling away (Heb 3:13; 10:23-25). But “choosing community” doesn’t explain the divergent fates of these two men.

There’s no need for psychoanalysis when Scripture details the difference between the two.

Concerning Judas:

John 6:70 Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?”

John 13:18  “I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘HE WHO EATS MY BREAD HAS LIFTED UP HIS HEEL AGAINST ME.’

John 17:12  “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

Concerning Peter:

Luke 22:31-32  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat;  but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Look to the text.

Pipe & Pencil (3): divine omniscience and human ignorance


When God became man he took for himself “a human mind, subject to the same laws of perception, memory, logic and development as our own.” As the Son of God Christ knew all things, but as Son of Man he had to learn  (Luke 2:52; Heb 5:8). Omniscient in his divinity; ignorant in his humanity.

This human ignorance is attested by Christ himself: “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mk 13:32). How omniscience and ignorance coexist in one person is a mystery beyond my comprehension. And yet the mystery may be a profound comfort. Like us, Jesus walked in darkness. Our Advocate knows firsthand the inner turmoil that accompanies our faith’s obedience as fear & ignorance whisper in our ear:

The other line of integration between the omniscience of the divine nature and the ignorance of the human is that just as Christ had to fulfill the office of Mediator within the limitations of a human body, so he had to fulfill it within the limitations of a human mind. Part of the truth here is suggested by the first of the three temptations in the desert: ‘tell these stones to become bread’ (Mt 4:3). The essence of the temptation was that the Lord disavow the conditions of the incarnation and draw on his omnipotence to alleviate the discomforts of his self-abasement. He could have turned the stones into bread; and he could (perhaps) have known the day and hour of his parousia. But the latter would have undone his work as surely as the former. Christ had to submit to knowing dependently and to knowing partially. He had to learn to obey without knowing all the facts and to believe without being in possession of full information. He had to forego the comfort which omniscience would sometimes have brought. This, surely, was a potent factor in the dereliction (Mk 15:34). The assurance of the Father’s love, the sense of his own sonship and the certainty of his victory were all eclipsed, and he had to complete his obedience as the one who walked in darkness, knowing only that he was sin and that he was banished to the outer darkness. He suffers as the one who does not have all the answers and who in his extremity has to ask, Why? The ignorance is not mere appearing. It is a reality. But it is a reality freely chosen, just as on the cross he chose not to summon twelve legions of angels. Omniscience was a luxury always within reach, but incompatible with his rules of engagement. He had to serve within the limitations of finitude.

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 169.
[emphasis added]