Tuesday, November 22, 2011

True Religion

True religion, the taking care of widows and orphans sort, is the only way to win over a jaded skeptic. Here's a quote from Thomas Cahill's book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills:
Through the history of the West since the time of Jesus, there has remained just enough of the substance of the original Gospel, a residuum, for it to be passed, as it were, from hand to hand and used, like stock, to strengthen, flavor, and invigorate new movements that have succeeded again and again – if only for a time – in producing alteri Christi, men and women in danger of crucifixion. It has also produced, repeatedly and in the oddest circumstances, the loving-kindness of the first Christians. Malcolm Muggeridge, the supremely secular British curmudgeon, who cast a cold eye over so many contemporary efforts and enterprises, was brought up short while visiting an Indian leprosarium run by the Missionaries of Charity, the sisters founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He had always imagined secular humanism to be the ideal worldview but realized, while strolling through this facility, built with love for those whom no one wanted, that no merely humanist vision can take account of lepers, let alone take care of them. To offer humane treatment to humanity’s outcasts, to overcome their lifetime experience of petty human cruelties, requires more than mere humanity. Humanists, he realized with the force of sudden insight, do not run leprosariums.
But it is also true that the West could never have realized some of its most cherished values without the process of secularization. The separation of church and state was achieved in the teeth of virulent Christian opposition, as was free speech, universal suffrage, tolerance, and many other values we would not be without. That these values flow from the subterranean river of authentic Christian tradition points up, once more, the paradoxical validity of the distinctions Jesus made between the religious establishment and true religious spirit.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Impulse and Guilt

There are two human behaviors/emotions that fascinate me: impulse and guilt.  They are at such opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, yet often the later follows the former.

Impulse seems an almost animal quality; by definition it is virtually thoughtless. Sometimes we just get the urge to do something. Often it is to satisfy some particular appetite. But sometimes our impulses seem to have no rhyme or reason whatsoever. "Why did I do that?" we often ask ourselves. And the truth is, there is probably no answer to that question; we just did it - there was no reason. It makes me wonder, why do we have them? Especially the ones that aren't connected to any particular human need (hunger, sex, etc.), why are they there? What purpose do they serve? And why do we find impulses so hard to resist? Do we all have some form of obsessive compulsive disorder?

On the other end of the emotional/behavioral spectrum is guilt. Guilt is both highly rational - we think through what we did, and the implications of those actions; but it is also highly emotional - we feel sorrow or regret. As far as I know, this is a peculiarly human trait. I don't believe animals feel guilt. An intelligent animal, like a dog, will certainly display submission behavior when caught doing something prohibited, but it doesn't really feel bad about digging up your rose bush. It doesn't consider how much you enjoyed those roses, or how much you'll miss them. That tail between the leg just means it knows from the tone of your voice that it's going to get swatted with the newspaper. That's just Pavlovian response. It's been conditioned.

But we've also been conditioned, haven't we? As children we were punished when we did wrong, and like the dog, we developed a sort of reflexive, "Oh no, I'm in trouble" feeling. So to a degree our guilt is learned. But mature guilt also involves empathy. We actually consider how our wrong may have hurt someone else, and we feel bad about it. We put ourselves in that person's place, and feel what they feel. That's something Fido can't do.

I don't think we ever get rid of the conditioned, reflexive guilt. The rational, empathetic side of guilt is just layered over it, making the feeling more complex. But I wonder when that transition from mere conditioned guilt to more complicated, rational guilt takes place? I'm sure some psychologist has figured this out by now, but it was something I was wondering about this morning.

My 19 month old son likes to sit in my lap when I'm working on the computer. Most of the time I don't mind, especially considering I don't get good cuddles as much as his mom does. But here lately he has started having this impulse to put his hands on the computer - slamming his hand down on the keyboard. After repeated warnings, I had to start giving him a spanking when he did it. For the most part, that stopped the behavior. But those impulses are so hard to resist... This morning, he was sitting in my lap while I was checking email, when all of the sudden, he reached his hand out and touched one of the keys. Without me saying a word, he pulled back his hand looked up at me and started crying. It was the first time I've seen him register guilt. I feel sure it was the more reflexive, conditioned variety, but still, the emotion was there. The look on his face said it all - he had no idea why he just did that. I just gave him a hug. I told him, "It's ok son, I know exactly how you feel." Welcome to the human race...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Kingdom of God: Changing the Way We Share the Gospel

Most of my readers know that for the past three years we have been involved in a grand experiment to plant a church in a secular environment. It's been a very humbling experience. It's also been a great learning experience. The basic conclusion that we've come to is that if Christians hope to make an impact in an increasingly secular Western culture, we're going to have to do a few things differently. And one change that must happen is the recovery of the message of the Kingdom of God.

If you read through the gospels, you can't help but notice that Jesus is constantly talking about the Kingdom of God (synonymous in Matthew with the Kingdom of Heaven). It is the central unifying point in all of Jesus' teachings. Most of his parables begin or end with something like "...and this is how it is in the Kingdom of God." At the end of his time on earth, it is clear that Jesus expected that his disciples would carry on this message of the Kingdom - he specifically commanded them to go out into the world and spread his teachings. Given that, it is strange how little you hear Christians speak about the Kingdom of God. It seems we have lost a key scriptural emphasis. There are some historical reasons for this loss - particularly the blending of Christianity and European civilization into a single socio-religious system that we call Christendom. But that's another post for another time. Right now I'm not so concerned about why this has happened, but what the effects are.

With the loss of the emphasis on the Kingdom of God, there is the obscuring of the meaning of much of Jesus and the apostles' teachings. Without an emphasis on the Kingdom of God we often overlook many key features in the New Testament writings in particular, and the general trajectory of much of the Old Testament. This can lead to a partial, or sometimes complete, loss of meaning to many scriptural texts. But perhaps the most devastating effect of not having a Kingdom emphasis is the loss of a clear call to action. The Kingdom of God encapsulates not only an understanding of who God is and what he is doing in the world, but also a call to action for those who call themselves his children. 

Below I have a six point introduction to the Kingdom of God that I've been sharing with my secular friends. I've given it formally in a talk, but I've also been working it informally into conversations about Christianity, spirituality, social justice, or any other subject to which it pertains. My goal with these six points is to both make clear what I'm about, what my hopes are, and what I'm working for in my life, and also to clear up common misconceptions my secular friends have about Christianity. I'm especially concerned about making the distinction between the church as an institution and the church as those who are committed to following the life and teachings of Jesus and the apostles - there are far too many negative things about "Christian" institutions in the news these days not to make that distinction. 

For those familiar with Christian theology, you'll probably notice a few points (even some important ones) that are missing from my six points. This is because my goal is not to give some sort of abbreviated systematic theology, but rather an outline of my belief system that flows from ideas to actions. If you enrolled in a freshman level class at your local university, you wouldn't be expected to complete PhD level homework, and we shouldn't expect people that have little or no familiarity with our beliefs to take in every aspect immediately. I'm hoping that this is a good start. If you have any thoughts on my points, I'd love to hear them. This is a work in progress that I'm tweaking as I go.

This is a call to action.

1. The Kingdom of God is not an institution, a religion, or a culture.

It’s not Protestant or Catholic, it doesn't belong to any particular church, or for that matter, any particular religion. It is God’s will being done on Earth as it is in heaven, just as we hear Jesus pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Whenever and wherever we see God’s will being done, we see people participating, at least in part, in that coming kingdom. That can happen within institutions, but it is not bound to them, and can certainly happen outside of their confines. The Kingdom of God was the message of Jesus, so we tend to associate it with Christianity, but those two things are not synonymous. Neither Christianity nor Western culture which is associated with it, is synonymous with being a disciple of Jesus. Sometimes people will actually have to go against Christianity or Western culture to stay true to the message of Jesus. This is true whether talking about the Crusades of the medieval era, or the out of control consumerism of our modern culture.

2. The Kingdom of God is a movement. Its purpose is to rescue humanity (from ourselves) and heal all of creation.

It’s aim is to spread peace and justice (e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4, Matt. 5:43-48). It also is a movement of morality. Everybody wants justice and peace these days (or at least they talk like they do), but no one wants morality. No one wants to change their personal behavior, no one wants to be corrected when they've done something wrong, or to be held to higher standards. But without personal morality, there can never be peace and justice in society. A society is simply the character of the individuals that make up that society writ large. You can’t have a healthy society if it’s made up of unhealthy individuals. They’re just two sides of the same coin. When Jesus teaches on peace and justice, in the same breath he teaches on self-control, in areas like sexual desire, or anger, or pride. There’s a recognition in the life and teachings of Jesus that you can’t transform the world if you don’t transform the individual. That transformation must start with the self - myself and yourself.

3. The Kingdom of God starts small, looks insignificant, and often moves and develops in unseen ways.

Jesus once told a parable that said that his kingdom was like a tiny seed that would eventually grow into a great tree. He said his kingdom would spread silently and invisibly the way that a small clump of yeast can work its way through a huge batch of dough. He lived this. Many of Jesus' followers hoped that he would defeat the Roman empire's occupation of Israel, but Jesus never raised an army or sought political power. He did however spread a message and way of life that would eventually chip away at the very foundations of that empire. The changes that the Kingdom of God brings happen one person, one family, and one community at a time. It does not require political, economic, or military power. It is more powerful than all of those things combined. Given time, it will subvert the abuse in such systems and break them the way the roots of a tree will gradually split open even the largest of rocks.

4. The Kingdom of God requires commitment.

The Kingdom of God is about changing the world. And to be a part of that change, even in a small way, requires a steadfast commitment. No one ever accomplished anything worth accomplishing, without committing to it first. You can’t scale Mount Everest on a whim. If you want to accomplish something beyond mere existence, if you want to make an impact in the world, it will only come through the giving of time, and energy, and blood, sweat, and tears. And you will not be up to the challenge unless you first commit to "hanging in there" through the tough times that will surely come. I've been trying to participate in this movement for several years now, and I have to constantly shake off fear, discouragement, weariness, and apathy, and recommit myself again and again to doing the hard work of changing – starting with myself (with God’s help), so that I can help those around me change themselves (with God’s help), so that, together, we can join with God in changing the world.

5. The Kingdom of God is under the leadership of Christ.

A movement can’t survive without a leader. Those that knew him best, came to see Jesus as the most remarkable person to ever walk the earth. But not just that, they saw him as more than a person. In him they found the very wisdom of God breathed into flesh and blood. Jesus is the only one qualified to lead a movement of this magnitude. While he may not walk among us as he did those early disciples, his teachings live on in the scriptures, and his Spirit lives on in those communities of people who have decided to take up his challenge to follow him with their lives. To follow Jesus is to become his disciple. Disciple just means “learner;" Jesus calls us to learn from him what it truly means to be human - to be what God created us to be.

6. Those who want to join the Kingdom of God movement should pledge allegiance to Christ.

The way the earliest followers of Jesus did this was through the ancient ceremony of baptism. In baptism a person would be dunked under water and then pulled back up. The Apostle Paul symbolically compared baptism to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. In a sense, that’s what happens to you when you become a follower of Christ. You commit to dying to your old selfish, self-centered life, and you begin a new life devoted to spreading the Kingdom of God under the leadership of Jesus Christ. When you commit to following Jesus, it means you follow him unto death, even if it leads to persecution from those powers in this world who have a vested interest in the keeping the status quo.

If this sounds like something you want to be a part of then you should seriously consider taking the plunge and accepting the challenge. I can tell you personally, that it was the best decision I ever made.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kingdom of God

Update, Oct. 25: I haven't forgotten about the blog, we've just been without reliable internet the past few weeks. Hopefully the problem will be corrected in the next couple of days.

I'm sorry I haven't had more time to devote to the blog lately. It's been very busy the past couple of weeks. Hopefully I'll have some time next week to sit down and type up a proper post. On Sunday, I discussed the nature of the Kingdom of God in a six point manifesto. Here's my six points - I plan to write up a post fleshing out these ideas soon:

The Nature of the Kingdom of God

  1. The KOG is not an institution, a religion, or a culture.
  2. The KOG is a movement. Its purpose is to rescue humanity (from ourselves) and heal all of creation.
  3. The KOG starts small, looks insignificant, and often moves and develops in unseen ways.
  4. The KOG requires commitment.
  5. The KOG is under the leadership of Christ.
  6. Those who want to join the KOG movement should pledge allegiance to Christ.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Failed Prophet?

Here's our latest Food For Thought article:

Your Kingdom Come…

Things will get better when God’s will is done on Earth as it is in Heaven. That is the promise of the Christian scriptures. Jesus message was intended to usher in a new era for humanity characterized by peace and justice. Unfortunately, two-thousand years later, the world still looks like a pretty awful place. Some people, looking at the state of the world, question whether Jesus was a failed prophet. But the real question is whether people have actually followed Jesus’ teachings of loving their neighbors as themselves, or forgiving others, or caring about their enemies? From looking at the daily news, the answer to this question must be a resounding NO. This raises another question - what if everyone did follow Jesus’ teachings? What would the world look like? Would it not be something very close to the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of? If so, is the problem that Jesus was a failed prophet or that we are a failed people?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Broken World

I've got a couple of ideas I'm wanting to write about, but haven't gotten around to them just yet. Until then, here's my article from the paper this week:

A Broken World

We human beings have a tendency to be selfish creatures that pursue our own agendas without considering the needs of others. This creates all manner of dysfunction and suffering in the world. As a species, our behavior is creating major problems. There is no quick fix to these problems. Politicians sitting around talking about policy won’t fix things. A rich philanthropist can’t just throw enough money into charity organizations to make the problems go away. The only way this world will ever get better is if we start the hard work of changing ourselves.

There are resources for this change in the most surprising of places. For two thousand years Jesus’ teachings have been a light to those seeking a better path in life, and yet our modern culture is in danger of losing those teachings altogether. In Australia especially, Christianity may very well become an extinct religion over the next few decades. And it’s unlikely that other religions will fill the gap due to their even smaller numbers. At that point we will have no one to guide our way other than the politicians and multi-national corporations. When that happens, do you think our problems will get better or worse?

Friday, September 2, 2011


My coworker, Jason, and I have been writing short little articles to advertise our Sunday outreach, Food for Thought. We try to share something, in 200 words or less, that will provoke some curiosity from the community. I thought I would post the last couple that we put in.

God’s Not

If God existed, what would God look like?  Perhaps none of us really knows, but at the very least we can probably guess what God would not look like.  If God is the most powerful being in the universe it seems unlikely that he/she would look like the petty gods of ancient mythology.  Such gods reflect the worst qualities in human nature -- envy, deceitfulness, etc. 

Likewise, a cold impersonal god seems an unlikely representation of God since it would mean that a house cat has more personality than the being that spun stars and made life and love possible.  Both options seem unlikely. 

If we were looking for the true God we would expect to find a being that is both personal and universal at the same time -- able to both love us and suffer with us, yet without human pettiness.

Science and Faith

Can science and Christianity enjoy each other’s company?

Imagine if Jesus and Darwin sat down to enjoy a cup of tea. If Jesus put the kettle in the refrigerator instead of on the stove, Darwin would think him strange. This is because he knows scientifically that it’s not wishful thinking that heats the water, but burning gas or electricity. And if Darwin pours the water onto Jesus’ head - to test his reaction - it won’t improve the friendship. Neither party can set traps for one another if they expect to be friends. Relationships have to be experienced through mutual trust.

Science is an amazing tool for learning about the natural world. And the Christian story gives us a lens through which we can understand spiritual realities. Without a lens or framework to explain the spiritual, we only know the mechanisms science reveals to us. We don’t know whether the universe is all about love or all about survival, all random chance or completely determined. Yet with a spiritual lens, we have both a moral vision and the motivation to live in it - to love our enemies, to admit when we’re wrong, and to forgive others.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Blog Post!

Well, I've fallen off the map again. I was doing okay for a while, but my weekly posts have been getting farther and farther apart. Twenty days is a very long week, wouldn't you say? I won't bother to ask my readers for forgiveness, as it is completely undeserved. I've not had anything in particular on my mind as of late, but if I had wanted to I could have sat down and pounded out a few words. Like I've mentioned before, to write on a regular schedule, even the casual stream-of-consciousness stuff I do here, takes discipline. And although I'm generally a hard worker, I'm still have fits of laziness.

And then there's also the problem of boredom. When I started this blog I thought I had lots of ideas I would want to share. But what I've realized is that I tend to think about the same few subjects over and over again. What seems in my mind to be a hundred different ideas turns out to be, on closer inspection, just the same four or five ideas reframed or reworded over and over again. That's one of the things that drives me crazy about other people's blogs. I always grow bored with them because they start sounding like a broken record after a couple of months. And now here I am doing the same thing. And I'm kind of bored with my own blog...how sad.

But I don't think I'm the only one who gets bored with himself sometimes. I guess that's just human nature. Almost all of my friends that blog have started and abandoned blogs, some of them multiple times. Not that I'm planning to abandon this blog - not anytime soon at least. I just need a bit of fresh material. Perhaps I should do some research on the mating habits of crickets, or write a story about space aliens or something.

Or perhaps I just need to accept that a certain amount of boredom is just part of life. Yes, we  think and say and do the same things over and over again, but that's okay. I don't know. I have gotten many compliments from friends who have said they've enjoyed my posts, so maybe I should just keep writing what I think about and not worry about redundancy.

Or maybe I'm over analyzing my blog. I think I am. I'll stop now. Thank you for reading. More and better posts coming soon. Actually, I can't really guarantee that 'better' part...

Friday, August 5, 2011


In a book I read recently, the author suggested that all the things we have in life are just props. It immediately struck me as a wise way of viewing the world. I pictured a large stage with many different scenes depicting a variety of circumstances. Wouldn’t it be foolish if the actors were to look around at the costumes and set pieces and assume they told them something about their true identity? How foolish we would think them if they felt the desire to either gloat or feel ashamed over what they saw around them. “They’re just props!” we would tell them. “They don’t convey who you are!”

Here’s the truth of the matter: whatever the props around us may be, who we really are will be revealed when we step off the stage and into eternity.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Department of Defense?

Shortly after the September 11th attacks, the U.S. government decided it was necessary to create a new governmental department, the Department of Homeland Security. The job of this new department is, of course, to provide security for the homeland.

Wait a minute?! Something is not right here. Isn’t that what the Department of Defense is supposed to do? To secure the homeland, repel invaders, etc. That is what defense means right? I mean that’s pretty much how departments of defense work in every other country on earth. So what’s the problem? It’s not as if they don’t have enough resources to provide security for the homeland; the DOD takes up about a fourth of the federal budget. Think about that - a quarter of all government spending on one organization! So isn’t the creation of a Department of Homeland Security a bit redundant? Well…yes and no. If we look at the DOD’s job description, then the answer is yes; but if we look at what they actually do, then the answer is no.

The truth is the vast majority of the DOD’s money and personnel go into foreign projects, not domestic. When I was in the Marines I spent a year on a base in Iwakuni, Japan. Chances are that unless you were stationed there, or had some relative stationed there, you’ve probably never heard of it. Your average American citizen is virtually clueless about what their own government is doing overseas. I’m sure everyone knows that the U.S. is conducting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. But how many foreign bases do you think the U.S. has, not including those in Iraq in Afghanistan? Would you guess 25, 50, 100, 200? Try 865. Now, they don’t have bases in every country, but still, there are only 193 countries recognized by the United Nations, so that means that the U.S. averages about 4.5 times as many foreign bases as there are countries – again, that’s not even counting the bases in actual warzones. If you are American, that’s why a full quarter of the money you pay in taxes is not enough to defend the homeland. Here’s a map showing how the U.S. military divides up their areas of responsibility:

Unified Combatant Commands map.png

Yep, that’s pretty much the whole world. The COM in the titles is the abbreviation for command. Not surprisingly, there are many who believe that this is going to bankrupt us (presidential candidate Ron Paul for example). I can’t see how it could be otherwise. 95% of the world’s military bases belong to the U.S. The DOD spends around 1 trillion dollars a year. There are plenty of places in the world where that would exceed the budget of entire countries!

My point is that if we are going to have a department of Homeland Security, then we should change the title of the Department of Defense to the Department of World Security. That would, at least, be a better description of what they do. And it would explain why we found it necessary to create a Department of Homeland Security. And it would help people see more clearly why we are going broke. Its not just programs like Medicare that are causing us to go broke – it’s the whole system – an unsustainable juggernaut of spending.

Of course there are other issues that could be raised besides just monetary ones. While the U.S. government allows some of our allies to maintain training facilities on certain American bases, there are no foreign bases on U.S. soil. When I talk to non-Americans they are usually surprised to learn that most Americans never even question this arrangement. That’s just the way things are. But to those on the outside looking in, a country that has complete sovereignty over its own territories, but has military bases in other countries all over the globe, looks like an empire. It used to be said that the sun never set on the British empire. And if you are a student of American history you’ll remember that in the Declaration of Independence one of the reasons the Americans sited for rebellion is that the British were “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.” Now ain’t that some irony…

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Your Primary Identity

Your primary identity is in being known by others. The only ones that really know you are those people that you are in relationship with. Think about it...who really knows you besides your family and friends? I’m not talking about knowing your name. I’m talking about really knowing you - who you are, your personality, your likes and dislikes, your faults and your virtues. Is it possible to be known – to be truly known – by anyone that you don’t have a relationship with?

And yet, so many of us neglect our relationships for other pursuits. It is usually something with status attached - wealth, fame, education, accomplishments, etc. - the so called “keeping up with the Joneses.” Why? What good is it to be successful in your work, but a crappy spouse? Why would you want to be rich, if you didn’t have friends to share it with? That’s madness. When you die, people won’t say, “He was a very successful lawyer,” or, “She was a famous chef,” they’ll say, “He was a great friend,” or, “She was a wonderful mother”…or they won’t say anything at all.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Charismatic Experiences, Part 1

For those readers who are not familiar with the term, charismatic experiences are seemingly super-natural events that may involve strong emotions, and/or hypnotic states. For example, receiving prophetic messages, being “possessed” by some sort of spirit, speaking in tongues, loss of emotional/physical control in worship, etc., would all be charismatic experiences.

I was brought up in a Christian tradition which, for the most part, rejects charismatic experiences. But when I was in my early twenties I had two friends that were members of the same church as me who visited a Pentecostal church and came back reporting that they themselves entered into a state of consciousness by which they could speak in tongues. Both of them were convinced that it was the authentic work of the Holy Spirit. I was curious about these experiences and so I visited that same church and tried to be as open minded as possible. Nothing happened to me. It was a bit disappointing really. I would have honestly loved to have experienced something miraculous.

On a few other occasions, I have been invited by Pentecostal friends to visit their churches. Some Pentecostal churches are fairly subdued, just a few people privately muttering in tongues, or maybe a testimony or two about a healing. Others are just wild. I once visited a church where halfway into the song service the worship leader jumped off the stage and started running around the perimeter aisles of the auditorium screaming like a crazy man, and the pastor started shouting, “That man’s possessed by the Holy Spirit!” A few seconds later, a wave of emotion swept over the crowd and people started falling down on the floor and rolling around laughing or crying, or sometimes both. For the people of that church that may have just been like any other Sunday, but for me it was an incredibly bizarre experience. My friends assured me that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, but I had my doubts.

I confess that I am skeptical that there is anything supernatural involved in these experiences. I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons. For one, as I mentioned before, I grew up in a Christian tradition that is skeptical about charismatic experiences. My father, especially, instilled in me a skepticism towards these events. He often pointed out, I think correctly, the role of emotion in charismatic churches. I am also skeptical about such experiences because I know how easily people can be manipulated. P.T. Barnum famously said, "There's a sucker born every minute." A crass way to put it, but a truer word has never been spoken.

To illustrate this, I’d like to point to the work of Derren Brown. Derren Brown is a British entertainer who specializes in a type of performance known as mentalism. Mentalists use a combination of hypnotism, subliminal messaging, and other forms of subconscious suggestion to manipulate people’s thoughts and emotions. A good mentalist can convince an audience that they have supernatural psychic abilities. And Derren is one of the best in the world. Derren openly admits what he does is strictly showmanship. Even so, after his shows some people are still convinced that he has supernatural powers. You can find all sorts of funny clips on Youtube of Derren doing things like paying for expensive jewelry with plane pieces of paper, or convincing a man who wants a leather jacket that he actually wants a BMX bike - all through the art of suggestion. He always uses real people for his shows, not actors. And he is able to do this for the simple fact that he is very well practiced at manipulating people.

So what does this have to do with charismatic experiences? Well, believe it or not, these same techniques are used by some charismatic church leaders to bring their parishioners into the state of mind in which they have their "spiritual" experiences. It's also the same techniques that psychics and other new age miracle workers use. Derren himself often felt frustrated seeing these people on TV claiming to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, or having psychic powers, when in fact he knew that they were using the same tricks that he uses. He felt that these people were praying on the naivety of others for financial gain. So he decided to do a little experiment to see if he could convince, not just random people, but the experts themselves, that he too has these abilities. He recorded this as a television special in hopes of opening people’s eyes to how easily such “powers” can be faked. He takes aim at several different groups: psychics, people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, people who claim that they can talk to the dead, and, most interestingly, evangelical Christians.

It is both fascinating and disturbing to see how easily such experiences can be produced by someone who knows what they are doing. You can watch the entire special by following the links below. If you are just interested in the Christian portion, watch the first few minutes of clip 1 and then skip to clip 3. It is well worth your time to watch them. If any of my readers are of charismatic leanings, I'd love to hear what you think when you watch this video. I’ll post some further reflections of the value, or nonvalue, of these experiences in a later post. Here's a question for reflection: Do you think charismatic experiences are necessary for faith?

Derren Brown special part 1

Derren Brown special part 2

Derren Brown special part 3

Derren Brown special part 4

Derren Brown special part 5

Derren Brown special part 6

Derren Brown special part 7

Derren Brown special part 8

Monday, June 13, 2011

Just Do It

I hope I can use that title sentence without incurring the wrath of Nike.

Here's an axiom for you: an imperfect course of action is better than no action at all. A friend on Facebook shared the following quote from the blog leadershipfreak.wordpress.com :

I used to excuse my lack of doing with the comfort that I wanted to do something. Passionate sincere wanting without performance is, however, cheap, easy, and self-deluding.

Wanting to do something doesn’t mean much. I’d rather want less and do more.

Talking enhances the delusion of doing. When talking, if I’m not careful, I believe I’ve done something. Nothing could be further from the truth. Talking isn’t doing.

Perfecting things before doing them, in addition, is overrated. It’s better to perfect things while you do them. Most activities don’t require perfection. In the end, it’s the doing that matters.

When I do more and talk less, I want less too. Doing quiets empty wanting.
Jettison your empty dreams of making a difference. Toss out cheap self-delusions and go perform an imperfect act of service. Lift someone. Find a small way to put your dream into action.

Do something; stand on it and do something again. What you do makes a difference not what you want to do.

Can you relate to this? I know I can. I've seen this in workplaces, schools, churches, families, and of course, myself. There is always a temptation to put something off until you are better at it, or have more time, or the stars are properly aligned, or something. It seems we always are able to find some reason why we can't do something right now. And yes, I've heard plenty of self-delusional talking. I've been in churches that talked about being outreach oriented even though they had not made a significant attempt at engaging their community in twenty years. I think they sincerely liked the idea of being outreach oriented, but actual community involvement would have taken a more proactive effort.

Imagine how our personal lives and the institutions we are involved with would change if we adopted this attitude.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New Theory on Reason

I came across a link to this article on another blog. I haven't read the article yet, just the abstract (summary), so I have no idea what evidence the authors present in support of their argument. But what the abstract suggests is that the evidence points towards reason having an effect, not so much on a person's ability to think wisely, but on a person's ability to win arguments. I thought this was interesting in light of my post a few weeks ago on the limits of reason in decision making situations. I suggested that, from personal experience, intuition is usually a better guide. If this "Argumentative theory" is correct, then that would support my hypothesis. Here's the abstract:

Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory

Hugo Mercier 

University of Pennsylvania

Dan Sperber 

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011 

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I've seen the term on homeopathy on products in health food stores for years, but never really bothered to look into it. But today I came across this video of James Randi giving a lecture at Princeton University explaining the philosophy behind the practice. James Randi is a well known investigator, who some may remember as the man who exposed Uri Gellar as a fraud. Here's the video:

Friday, May 27, 2011

Political Oddities

I tend to be pretty cynical toward politics in general and politicians in particular. I’m not a member of any particular political party and probably never will be. I have a friend who has a tag at the bottom of all his emails that says, “In God we trust, it’s politicians we should doubt.” That pretty well sums up my view of politicians. Besides a general distrust of them, I also find their parties to be very odd. I find them odd because their platforms are composed of many differing sets of ideas that often have nothing to do with one another. Nothing. There is no rhyme or reason or logic as to why they have chosen to fold all of the positions they hold into one platform. Instead, their positions are, more often than not, accidents of history that are the result of building political coalitions – bringing together different groups and ideologies under one banner in order to have enough votes to defeat their political opponents. My own country is full of examples of this cobbling together of disparate positions.

For example, what does it mean to be pro-life? In the U.S. it means to be anti-abortion. Now, whether you agree with that position or not, the logic behind it seems fairly obvious:

It is wrong to take innocent human life.
The unborn fetus is an innocent human life.
Therefore abortion is wrong.

What is unusual is the position this issue takes in each of the perspective parties. Democrats are more likely to be pro-choice, and Republicans are more likely to be pro-life (even Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney became pro-life when he decided to run for president). Now, the odd thing about this is that democrats are also more likely to be against things like capital punishment, and aggressive military strategies. And with the Republicans it is just the opposite. Though, of course, you can find exceptions in both cases.

Now I personally believe that these issues are apples to oranges – too different to really be comparable. But what if someone believed that to be truly pro-life you should be against all three? Whether we agree with them or not, we could not accuse them of inconsistency. After all, abortion, execution, and invasion all involve the taking of life. And there really is nothing that says the typical stands that either party have taken on these issues have to be paired together in that particular configuration. A person could just as easily be against (or for) all three, or for and against differing pairs (e.g. against abortion and invasion, but for execution). It all seems rather arbitrary to me.

Another example of odd political pairings, or in this case plain old inconsistencies, comes with most politicians who label themselves as libertarian. To be libertarian means that you want to be free of government intervention and involvement beyond the maintenance of basic services – keeping the roads paved, the mail delivered, basic laws enforced, etc. However, libertarians in both parties apply this principle inconsistently. In the Republican party, libertarians don’t want the government to be involved in things like economics, but typically are happy to let the government make rules and regulations on social issues like gay marriage. Likewise, Democrats that consider themselves libertarians want the government to keep their nose out of social issues, but are happy to let them regulate the economy and redistribute wealth through the tax system. But are either really libertarian? Wouldn’t a consistent libertarian be against government involvement in all areas of life, social or economic? And why do those particular inconsistencies show up so consistently in each party?

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the party in Australian politics that is roughly analogous to the Republican party in the United States is known as the Liberal party. This would be a surprise because Republicans are generally thought of as conservatives. The reason for the seemingly strange parallel is that the Republican party, generally speaking, holds to a liberal economic position. Again, this would come as a surprise to many American voters because in common everyday usage Republican = conservative, and therefore any position that the Republicans take is labeled conservative. But historically, and still today in many places in the world, the economic position that supports an unregulated free market, laissez-faire capitalism, is considered a liberal position. What Republicans are conservative on is social issues - especially Republicans who identify with the religious right. But again, this marriage of the religious right with the economic left seems rather arbitrary. One does not entail the other. It is not far fetched to think that a person could be for increases in both social and economic regulation. Or likewise, that they could be pure libertarians, and be against both.

The more conservative economic position would be a market in which the government places more controls and regulations on the economy through taxes, tariffs, etc. And this is, generally speaking, the position of most Democrats. This also may surprise some people because Democrats are usually referred to as liberals. And they are, just not on economics. They are liberal on social and religious issues. And again, we have this strange pairing of liberal and conservative ideas – only in the exact opposite configuration – they are liberals religiously and socially but conservatives economically.

Am I the only one that sees all this as odd? Wouldn’t it make more sense if there was some kind of unifying center in each of the parties? Wouldn't it seem more natural to have one party that was against the taking of life on dogmatic grounds and the other that left open the possibility on pragmatic grounds? Or wouldn't it make just as much sense if there was a party that was conservative both socially and economically, and a party that was liberal both socially and economically? 

And these are just a couple of examples – you can do this with almost every political issue you can think of. There is no unifying code of ethics, or political ideology, or even a common theme from issue to issue. It is almost as if every time a particular issue came up, the parties each rolled a dice to decide what position they would take (or more likely, took a poll). The end result being that neither party is truly characterized by a consistent position across the issues. Instead, both look like patchwork quilts sewn together by a blind person.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Why Authenticity Fails as a Virtue

There is a phenomenon in our culture right now that goes by the name of “authenticity.” Authenticity is a new virtue. In fact, it is THE virtue. The virtue that all other virtues are judged by. You can find it and its synonyms everywhere these days, from your teenage kids that tell you that that they just want to be “like, for real,” to authors that will help you find your “authentic self.” You can even hear celebrity athletes that talk about “keeping it real on the field,” whatever that means.

Most commonly the virtue of authenticity is found on television and movies. You can see it in the character who, against the opposition of others and perhaps even the oppression of society, stands up to the world and triumphantly says, “This is who I am, deal with it.” And, of course, the typical foil for this character will be some protagonist who is an absurd religious hypocrite. The contrast is intended to leave the audience thinking, “I’d rather be authentic than a hypocrite…especially a religious hypocrite.”

I admit that until recently I bought into the authenticity hype. In fact, our team listed it as one of our core values before we began our church planting ministry. And I have since noticed it on the websites and newsletters of other new church plants. But I’ve discovered there are some problems with thinking of authenticity as a virtue.

First, a little linguistic side note: Even though people have begun talking about authenticity as a virtue, it really isn’t. Authenticity is a value neutral descriptor. Authenticity says something is really and truly _______. It doesn’t mean anything until you feel in the blank. Authenticity can only be used as a virtue because people are using the word as a stand-in for other words. For example, authenticity is commonly equated with openness, i.e. not wearing a mask or being a hypocrite. So when a person says, “Suzy’s authentic,” what they are really saying is that Suzy displays openness. This is not what authenticity actually means, at least not yet anyway. (But definitions do change with custom, so it might very well come to mean this someday.)

The problem with using this new definition of authenticity as a virtue is that there isn’t much genuine value for mere openness. To see openness as being virtuous, we have to make assumptions about the motives of a person’s openness. Because, after all, a person can be open for different reasons. A person can be open about their many sexual exploits because they are in a therapy group for sexual addictions, or they can be open about them because they are bragging to their friends. In both instances they are open, but in one instance they are contrite about what they’ve done and are seeking help from others, and in the other they are proud of what they’ve done and are seeking recognition from others.

Likewise, lacking in hypocrisy (showiness, mask wearing, etc.), is only a good thing if there is something good underneath. If a nice person doesn’t wear a mask, that is only good because we can see the nice person underneath. But if a jerk doesn’t wear a mask, is his situation really improved? Does being open about his jerkiness make him a better person? Not at all, we just see clearly that he is a jerk.

What I’ve found in the real life application of this virtue-that-isn’t-a-virtue is that authenticity becomes a convenient excuse not to change. “This is just who I am,” is given as the final word about someone’s character. Like the people in the movies they are taking their stand. But they are taking their stand so that they don’t have to do the hard work of changing.

I’ve also found that it becomes a celebration of sinful behavior. “With me, what you see is what you get,” is a common statement on the value of authenticity; and it is most often uttered after someone has just said or done something that is completely inappropriate. Anything can be excused under the excuse of being authentic - a dirty joke, a racist comment, a hateful diatribe, anything. “I’m just being real.” And if you buy into the authenticity-as-virtue line of thinking, what can you say to that?

So therein lies the problem with authenticity: it is a value neutral descriptor, improperly used as a virtue, vaguely understood as openness, and more often than not applied to motives that are downright sinful. And, unfortunately, even if being authentic keeps you from being a hypocrite, it doesn’t really make you a better person – which is the goal of a true virtue.

But we need not be discouraged by this, because there is already a virtue that both eliminates hypocrisy and makes you a better person, and that is the Christian virtue of being confessional. The major difference between confession and authenticity is that confession leads to repentance and accountability. Confession isn’t mere openness, confession is brokenness. It is admitting one’s faults, and admitting the need for help. Confession takes place in the context of a community committed to the Lordship of Christ and the fellowship of the saints. Confession is tears and prayers and thanksgiving. There’s no such thing as a hypocrite in confession, just flawed people, admitting their flaws, and striving for an authentic goal – being made into the image of Christ. Genuine change – nothing superficial.

In retrospect, I’m amazed that confession wasn’t listed as one of our values. Sometimes we get too clever for our own good. An “authentic” new church? What about confession?! What were we thinking? Ah, the lessons we learn in life…


Post Script: Ok, so here’s your homework, the next time you hear someone talk about being authentic, ask them, “Authentic what?”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Your Reasoning Stinks

I don’t consider myself some kind of genius when it comes to life. I’m a practical person and I like practical ideas. I’m about to give you one.

Here’s my disclaimer: This isn’t scientific. It’s based on personal experience. It probably won’t sound profound. I haven’t mastered the art of sounding profound yet. And it won’t be right 100% of the time. Life is too complex and complicated for that. But I’m convinced that it is closer to true North than just about anything else I could tell you.

Here it is. Drum roll please…

When you need to make a decision, GO WITH YOUR GUT.

Now let me explain that little bit of advice.

Your gut is that tiny little voice in your head which manifests itself as intuition, conscience, instinct, etc. You need to listen to that voice. Do NOT listen to the loud, obnoxious voice in your head that is commonly called reasoning.

Your reasoning is usually wrong. It gets you into all kinds of trouble because it is always asking the wrong question. When it comes to self reflection, “Why?” is the wrong question. That’s the question that your reason likes to ask. It sounds quite reasonable doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. It’s a stupid question, and you must break yourself from asking it.

The question of why is incredibly difficult to answer. In fact it’s practically impossible if you’re asking it of yourself in isolation to the input of others. The mind doesn’t have direct access to the gut. So when you ask the why question, the mind has to use your so called “reason” to come up with some kind of hypothesis that is, at best, an educated guess, and in most cases just a collection of complex self deceptions.

Here’s an example: Your mind says, “Why do I want to discredit my coworker Cindy? It must be because I’m concerned about her methods and afraid that she might lead others astray.” In reality, she’s been more successful than you and you’re jealous. Your gut knew that all along, but your mind doesn’t have access to that kind of information.

Why am I this way? Why do I want to do this? Wrong questions. Stop asking them. You’ve got a very slim chance of stumbling onto the right answer.

Your intuition is better at answering questions. The question of intuition is, “Is this good?” That’s the right question. That’s the question we want to come back to again and again. Let’s practice with a couple of examples:

“I want to punch Steve in the face. Why do I…”
Stop! Wrong question. Right question: Is it good?
Answer: No
Then don’t do it.

See how easy that is? Let’s try another:

Situation: You’re driving home and you pass a vender selling flowers on the side of the road, you have the sudden urge to stop and buy flowers for your wife.
“Why do I…”
Stop!! Wrong question. Right question: Is it good?
Answer: Yes
Then do it. Do it now.

What difference did it make? Well, your mind might have come up with some stupid theory that explained away your desire to buy your wife flowers. Add in the fact that you are lazy and cheap, and you almost certainly wouldn’t have bothered to stop. But your gut, being much wiser than your mind, remembered that it had heard a slightly stressed sound in your wife’s voice last night and knew flowers would cheer her up. That’s the difference that following your gut can make.

Some, upon reading this, will accuse me of advocating emotional decision making. Let me just nip that in the bud. I’m not. I’m advocating just the opposite. I’m not saying, “Just follow your heart,” or something equally ridiculous. I’m saying follow your intuition. Listen to your conscience. Don’t ignore your “spidey” sense. You need it. It’s there to help you.

If you are a counselor, minister, or anyone else whose life involves working one on one with people and their issues, then what I’m about to say will come as no shock. The truth is, the vast majority of what we call “reason” is actually emotion. That’s right, emotion. Emotion that sounds very logical (to ourselves) but is still, without a doubt, emotion.

In 2004 my wife and I spent a summer in Brazil with her aunt and uncle who have been missionaries there for over three decades. I remember several times her uncle coming in after a long day of work, plopping down onto his favorite chair, letting out a big sigh and saying, “Corey if you’re going to continue in ministry you have to understand something – people are NOT logical.” He must have told me that at least a half dozen times while we were there. At the time, I only half understood what he meant. Seven years later, I understand him perfectly.

If you are someone who sees yourself as intelligent, don’t think this doesn’t apply to you. It applies to everyone. Granted, a simpleton’s false reasoning may be easier to see through, but complex and convincing deceptions are still just deceptions. And there is a good likelihood that your thinking is full of them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate of logic. When I go to my doctor for a check up, he better be using it. When I take my car to a mechanic, he better be using it. But I’m making a distinction here between logic and reasoning. Not on philological grounds - I understand that a thesaurus would list these as synonyms - but just for the sake of clarifying the difference between actual logic and what people commonly call reasoning. I might trust my doctor’s logic, but I wouldn’t trust his reasoning.

I don’t want sound patronizing here, but I’ve met so many people that would swear up and down that every decision they make is based on logic that I’m not taking any chances. Let me just give you a few examples of very basic logic: There are tautologies (in the old rhetorical sense) such as “all bachelors are unmarried men." There’s deduction: All spiders have eight legs; a tarantula is a spider; therefore a tarantula has eight legs. And induction: We’ve observed a thousand different species of spiders; all of them have eight legs; therefore it’s probable that all spiders have eight legs. - All of this is logical. 

Now here’s how people think: “I want to leave my wife. Why do I want to do that? Well, it’s not because I really want to, but because she is forcing me to. She has repeatedly shown that she does not love me or respect me for who I’ve become.”

I hope the difference between these two modes of thinking is obvious. Logic is restricted to a very precise structure. People’s “reasoning,” on the other hand, is complex, hard to quantify, laced with all sorts of judgments (or lack thereof), and most of all, emotion.

Your reasoning stinks. It stinks bad. Trust me. Mine does too. That’s why I’m giving up on it.

Here’s a monologue where intuition is in the driver’s seat:
“I want to leave my wife.
Is that a good thing?
Then don’t do it.
What should I do then?
Maybe I should see a counselor.
Is that good?
Then do it. Do it now.”

And if this was a real life scenario I would say that is the one time when you should ask why - when you get in the counselor’s office. Then you can ask the why question all you want because you’ll have someone with you who’s professionally trained to help you smell your own b.s. - But other than that, don’t even bother.

So that’s it. Follow your gut. It isn’t always right, but it has a heck of lot better track record than your reasoning.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

We Should Look Different from the World

As Christians we should look different from the world around us. And likewise, we should look at the world differently. Justice is a better outcome than injustice...but it is only necessary in a world distorted by sin. The need for justice is a reminder that we live in a fallen world that desperately needs the redemptive love of Christ.

When a Christian says something like "Burn in hell Osama," they mock the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are telling the world that our Father in heaven doesn't desire that all men be saved. They are telling the world that Jesus taught that we should pray for revenge upon our enemies. They are telling the world that the angels rejoice when a soul is lost. That is not the message of the Kingdom of God. That has nothing to do with Christ's mission of redemption in the world.

I don't like Osama Bin Laden. He was a mass murderer. I do not doubt that what happened to him was deserved. But that's the end of the story. His story didn't begin that way. He was a human being made in the image of God. I've read that as a young man he was known for his piety and was a respected member of his community. But somewhere along the way this world twisted him.

I can only feel sadness for what he became and the way his life ended. I'm NOT trying to absolve him for his crimes. I understand why the U.S. government took these measures, and I'm sure the world is a better place without him. But when a human being made in the image of God ends with a bullet through the head, no matter who they are, that should be a sad reminder of the brokenness of our world, not an occasion for celebration.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Vampires, Breast Implants, and the Demise of Western Culture

A few days ago I was online looking at the news stories of the day. In the pop culture section, there was an article discussing the explosion of vampire movies and television shows being produced by Hollywood. It has become quite a phenomenon. There are vampires everywhere these days, and of course, in our consumer society that means all sorts of retail products as well, from books and magazines to clothes and accessories; apparently there’s even a vampire perfume out now - doesn’t that sound lovely?

Just beneath that story was an article about the cosmetic surgery industry, which this year reached the 40 billion mark. Forty billion dollars is now spent every year on breast implants, face lifts, tummy tucks, and the like. The range of products is amazing. All promising to make you look younger and sexier. And that’s when it hit me – I realized that these two seemingly unrelated articles are really just manifestations of the same cultural phenomenon.

There was a time when vampires were disgusting parasitic monsters - blood sucking zombies who were strange and frightening…but not anymore. Now vampires are young and sexy. But not just young and sexy; because of the vampire “curse” of un-death, they are now perpetually young and sexy. And therein lies the obsession. Our culture is obsessed with youth and the fantasy of never growing old. This obsession is the inevitable end point of secularism, which at its core is rooted in naturalism, the belief that the physical world is all that exists.

It’s been said that every culture begins Stoic and ends Epicurean. I’m convinced we are seeing the final stages of this shift in Western culture. For the past two hundred years Western culture has been involved in a monumental cultural shift from a Judeo-Christian worldview to a secular humanist worldview. In secularism there is no God. You can believe in God if you like, but those that know better understand that God is merely a superstition that should be kept out of any serious discussion of history, politics, anthropology, etc. In place of God we have the human being – the highest being in the universe.

Early on, the trade off from God to human looked promising. During the Enlightenment, human beings had not only rediscovered the science of the ancient Greco-Roman world, but had taken that knowledge to new heights. With its new found knowledge the Western mind swelled with pride. Human understanding of the universe, it seemed, would grow forever; eventually, it was thought that man would know all things. “Someday man will be able to do anything” was the common sentiment at the turn of the last century. Human reason was seen as the greatest of virtues and eventually all obstacles would fall before it. Someday human beings would be able to fix any problem, cure any disease, and perhaps even conquer death itself. Once all of humanity embraced a life of wisdom, and they would because reason is not only infallible but irresistible, then human beings would finally lay every enemy to waste and would live in an age of universal peace and reign as gods on the earth.

This sounds ridiculous today, but at that time this was the soup everyone was swimming in – especially in the academy. Even many Christian theologians were taken in by this new messiah and began to reshape Christian doctrine to fit with the secular religion. Such was the gravitational pull of the movement.

But that all began to crumble with the outbreak of World War One. Now the most “enlightened” nations of Europe were doing their best to wipe each other off the map. Human learning and technology proved to be very useful in this regard. Some secularists began to lose faith in humanity. Not all of them though, some said that it was “the war to end all wars,” and when the conflict was over, the new age of human divinity would begin. But we all know how that turned out.

Eventually the secularists would have their hopes fully crushed – stomped out of them as it were. Since they had no real understanding of the depth of human sin, they couldn’t fully explain where things went wrong, but it was obvious to most that their experiment had failed. In the wake of this failure, some academics recovered concepts like sin and idolatry in order to make sense of what had happened. These came to be known as Neo-orthodox theologians. Of course, most Christians had never lost these ideas - it was mainly in the academy that such things had to be rediscovered. It would be nice if the rest of society had followed in their footsteps, but that is not how this story ends. The vast majority of the secular humanists did not return to the religion of their ancestors. Instead they slipped from a hopeful, yet misguided, modernism into a cynical and ultimately nihilistic post-modernism.

Which brings us into the shallow depths of the present. If you accept that the physical world is the entirety of existence, then what’s left when you’ve lost faith in human intellect and human virtue? The only thing left to be impressed with is the physical form itself. That becomes the focus of our energies because that is all that is left.

Now some secularists might object to this characterization (and I admit I'm simplifying things here for the sake of brevity). They might point, for example, to existentialist philosophers who have tried to find meaning in the meaningless and sound a hopeful note for humanity. But the great mass of people in our culture are not existentialists, but rather, body worshipers. If you want to know who those great masses are, just look at the advertisements you find everywhere in our society - that's who they're aimed at.

But body worship is an even more futile religion than the worship of the mind. The human body has a very short shelf life - it is only impressive for a brief period in young adulthood…if ever. And so you end up with the ridiculous spectacle of young people fantasizing about staying young forever, and old people trying to make the fantasy a reality through expensive, and ultimately worthless, medical procedures. In Hollywood, the average 60 year old looks like a piece of cling wrap stretched over a coffee can – a disgusting farce of someone who has grown wise with age.

What does it say about a culture when the dominant religion is the cult of youth? When people worship at the alter of sexual attraction? When you have kids who would be willing to become blood sucking monsters if only they could stay young forever? And when the older members of society see wrinkles as a curse rather than a reminder that our time here is short and that we will soon stand before our judge? It means that you're in the twilight of your culture...pun intended.

I'm no prophet. I have no idea if it will be 25 years from now or 200 years from now. But one need not be a prophet to realize that a hedonistic society has no staying power. That's just plain old historical observation. Sooner or later, a people of greater moral fortitude will take our place. And the age of blood and silicone will be no more.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How Do You Change? Part 2

Before we can move on with our discussion of change we need to address the goal of change. Why do we want to change? Why do we want to fix our problems? I think, if I read our culture right, most people would say, "to be happy." That seems reasonable at a first glance. Who doesn't want to be happy? Everyone does. But there are a couple of problems with having happiness as our goal for change.

First, there's a confusion of meaning. There's two common uses for the word happiness in the English language, one is an emotion, i.e. a positive feeling, and the other is an attitude, which is best described as contentedness. I think we often confuse these two senses of the word. Advertisers frequently and intentionally confuse the two. And the result is that people who desire happiness in the attitudinal sense end up pursuing happiness in the emotional sense. Such pursuits will always end in frustration because it's simply not possible to feel happy all of the time. Sure it happens sometimes, but it's usually short lived. All it takes is the roof springing a leak or somebody running over Mr. Fluffy and those happy emotions go right out the window.  Happy emotions are just brain chemistry, they're the drug addict's goal - constant euphoria. But of course, constant euphoria isn't possible for anyone. A bowl of Chocolate Chunk ice cream can make you feel good for five minutes, but it won't bring you genuine happiness.

The desire for happiness in the sense of contentedness makes much more sense. But it still is not a suitable goal for change for the simple fact that you can't find happiness by pursuing happiness. Happiness is not some substance that exists somewhere out on the horizon that you can go in search for. It doesn't work that way. In fact, the pursuit of happiness is probably one of the greatest causes of unhappiness in our modern consumer culture. Happiness is not a goal, but a result that occurs from pursuing a worthy goal. I've already covered this in my blog post Discontent, so if you haven't read that you can click on the title and it will take you to the post.

To learn the true goal of change I think we have to look to Christ. Jesus is, after all, the wisdom of God in human form. If we can't learn from him, we can't learn from anyone. In terms of the question of change, I think we can zone in on two points of Jesus' teachings that can give us a clear goal for change. First, Jesus said that all of the "rules" of scripture could be boiled down to two things: love God and love people. So the actions that God wants to see coming from us are acts of love. Second, Jesus said that you can identify a tree by the type of fruit it bears. In other words, our actions flow out of who we are. Thorn trees don't produce figs. So putting those two things together, we can see that Jesus' goal for his disciples is for them to have a transformed character that results in an overflow of love towards others. That's the goal of change. That's why I want my problems fixed - so that I can bless others.

Character matters. It matters in this life and the next. There is nothing more important in this life than seeking to be transformed into the image of Christ. Nothing. Our success in all other efforts will be determined by our success in this effort. Do you want to be a better spouse or parent? Seek to be like Jesus. Do you want to do more to combat social injustice? Seek to be like Jesus. Do you want to be a better leader in your business or community? Seek to be like Jesus. That's how you change. All these things flow out of who you are – your character. If your character is not transformed, your efforts in all other areas will always fall short of your goals.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

How Do You Change? Part 1

We all have problems, and we all probably have things we would like to change about ourselves. The question is how does such change occur?

In the publishing industry over the past few years there has been an explosion of New Age books. Walk into virtually any book store, and you'll most likely find an entire section devoted to this kind of material. "New Age" is an umbrella term that spans a wide variety of perspectives - everything from recovering ancient pagan rituals, to the more mainstream spiritualized self-help books promoted by celebrities like Oprah.

There are many good things that could be said about these books. One thing I've noticed is that most of them put a great deal of emphasis on positive thinking. This is probably a reaction to the guilt based "turn or burn" motivation found in many religious traditions. And for the most part I think it's a good move. Guilt is a terrible motivator. I've never seen a person improve their life by telling themselves over and over again that they're scum. It just doesn't work. The New Agers also reject the idea that an institution, i.e. religion, can force a person to change. And again I mostly agree with them.

But unfortunately, in their reaction to the guilt based motivation of authoritative institutions, the New Agers have let the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme by removing all external influences. The one common thread that seems to tie all the New Age books together is that they put the self squarely at the center of the universe - there is no authority outside of yourself, and there is nothing greater in the universe than yourself. Invariably they boil down to "the answer lies within you." You are the agent of change, you are the architect, you are the teacher. "Simply look deep into your own soul and you will find the answer." Some even explicitly say what all of them imply, "you are God."

The problem with all of this is that it sends people on a fool's errand. Reality Check: YOU ARE NOT GOD. If the answer was within you, you wouldn't be shopping for it at Barnes and Noble.

The missing element in the New Age view of the world is something that should be obvious to all of us - the fundamental brokenness of humanity. There are many names given to this brokenness: depravity, sin, iniquity, egoism, selfishness, etc., but they all mean the same thing - we're screwed up. So the message of the New Age, that you have the answers and that you can change yourself, ultimately becomes just another form of self-deception - a comforting lie. If we truly look deep within ourselves what we find isn't a divine perspective but human frailty. There's a deep irony in the New Age's rejection of human institutions and promotion of the human self as an alternative. The problem with human institutions isn't the "institution" part, it's the "human" part. And the problem remains in the New Age alternative.

The New Age perspective is right to emphasize that change begins in the self, but wrongly assumes that change comes from the self. They rightly determine that there must be an internal change before we can expect to see an external change, but they wrongly assume that change comes from our own flawed character. In the Christian tradition, positive change, both in individuals and in institutions, comes only with God's help. God alone, in all of his infinite wisdom and goodness, has the ability to truly change human hearts.

In the presence of Almighty God, we don't come away with a sense of our own divinity, but a sense of our utter helplessness. Either change comes from Him, or our situation is hopeless. Thankfully, God is pleased to come to those who will receive him. Our transformation is his delight.

To be continued...

Part 2, next week

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Beware of black and white, this-or-that arguments - e.g. “you’re either a conservative or a liberal,” etc. There is almost always a third way - and usually a fourth, fifth, or sixth way. The third way usually involves critical thinking, and a rejection of group think (i.e. the prevailing ideologies of the day). This is true of politics, religion, and everything else people like to draw lines in the sand over.

People who are given a narrow form of faith in childhood, are the most likely to loose their faith in adulthood. Once they have left the protective confines of home and are exposed to the broader world with all its ambiguities and unknowns, a faith based on having all the right answers becomes untenable for them. They’ve been set up to fail. Black and white faith is very fragile in a world full of shades of gray. That’s why people who hold such a faith have to work so hard at not listening to any other point of view. Their beliefs are so fragile that any wandering thought could potentially collapse the entire system.

Our faith cannot be in ourselves. It cannot be in our ability to be righteous. It cannot be in our ability to know all the answers. A human based faith is pathetically weak and will let you down sooner or later. The only faith that makes sense is that based on God. He is the only one that is truly righteous. He is the only one that truly has the answers. And we are not him. Faith based on anything but God is idolatrous...and idols are easily toppled.