Sketches Of Belief

NYC Skyline

Who really believes what today?

There is so much that is complicated about that sort of a question. Here is a sketch that might help describe the problem:

The popular TV show Mythbusters set out to test a myth that a penny dropped from a tall structure like the Empire State Building would kill a pedestrian walking on the streets below (watch an abridged version here). Turns out the penny would likely settle on a ledge lower on the building due to the air currents around the Empire State Building and even if it didn’t, the terminal velocity achieved by a penny wouldn’t break skin let alone shatter anyone’s skull. One of the things that seemed to empirically disprove this though was the collection of pennies on the lower tiers of the Empire State Building. Evidently people had been testing this myth without the safeguards employed by the Mythbusters. Did these penny throwers believe this myth? They must have known about it? But were they then cold-blooded killers, no different than someone firing bullets from the top of a city skyscraper? Some Calvinist types wanting to push the total-depravity angle of human nature, might think so, but I doubt that very many people would be in that category. Maybe one or two really thought that they’d kill someone in this fashion, but I suspect that for most of those casting pennies were not out to commit random murders. So they didn’t believe the myth. But then why did they throw the pennies. Did they disbelieve their own belief? (Cf: Mark 9:24?) Were they divided? Were they thinking that this was really a risky, deadly thing they were doing, but denying that it could be so. Are there things that we perform because we *say* we believe them but that our actions suggest that we most likely do not? Thoughts?

It’s Brunch O’Clock Somewhere – And G.K. Doesn’t Mind


Andrew Sullivan posted a snippet of this essay by G.K. Chesterton on the merits of sleeping in. Money quote:

“The tone now commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed is hypocritical and unhealthy. Of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous than the exultation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of eternal ties and tragic human morality. If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.”

I should like to post this here as a way to remind myself that this is pretty much all that needs to be said the next time someone decides to produce another MacArthurian rant about this or that habit or cultural development being a danger in the church. Of course there is much fair discussion that can be had on what comprises “major” and “minor” morals. But there are enough topics where our attitude can safely be something like, “give me break, no one cares” – and we can safely place things like craft beer, fancy coffee, skinny jeans, cycling, cigar smoking, glasses of all sorts, buying loft conversions in the “minor morals” category. Just like Christians in earlier decades gave up on critiquing rock music, rap, baggy jeans, baseball caps, grunge-inspired plaid, men with hair longer than a drill sergeant and so on, I think we can do the same thing with our momentary trends.

The protest will go something like this: “Don’t you see, all these things are connected? People who engage in these minor distractions and enthusiasms are on a sort of downward spiral into vanity/drunkenness/idolatry/sin!” If people develop a major moral deficiency of one type or another, we may of course have to deal with such a thing as it arises. The error here of those who develop a moral panic about this or that minor habit is that they don’t realize that a narrow road has to be narrow on both sides. One might be concerned over someone styling their “hipster hair” (in MacArthur’s lexicon) but one can also clearly pick up on MacArthur’s pride about the fact that he wears a suit to worship God. Pride. Avoid one side of the road and you might very well fall off the other side, and attacking things that we might regard as bad habits is a sure way to ensure that we veer to close to the other side, that of pride.

Is Cessationism Responsible for David Hume?

There are, of course, many positions on modern charismatic gifts in the church. In my previous post, I quoted Robert Mullin who listed four possible kinds of approaches. One of the most popular in the history of Protestantism has been cessationism, which argues that miraculous gifts were limited to the age of the apostles. However, this general approach has contained within it several strategies, rather than just one. More concretely, when the cessationist position came up against claims of contemporary miracles, as in the Roman Catholic apologists, it had at least two possible responses (though in reality, there was at least one other, which I think they overlooked): they could claim the miracles were demonically inspired, or they could question the veracity of the miracle claims.

Earlier on Protestants like Increase Mather opted for the first approach in their response to Catholics; later on, though, the latter approach gained more popularity, with writers like John Locke and Conyers Middleton arguing against the reliability of modern miracle claims. This was useful for Protestants in the dawning age of the Enlightenment, but it’s worth asking if, in retrospect, it might have been a devil’s bargain.

Robert Mullin notes the effects of this position:

The idea of a radically limited age of miracles, and the marriage of a Protestantism and the Enlightenment that it reflected rested, however, on a precarious base, namely the willingness to distinguish between the plausibility of biblical events and that of nonbiblical events. It was precisely this point that David Hume challenged in his famous discussion of miracles in his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). As is well known, Hume’s essay has two parts. In the first he argues against miracles from probability. Because miracles were violations of a law of nature established by the “uniform experience” of humanity, he explained, no testimony is ever sufficient to establish a miracle “unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” It is his second argument, however, that is more important for our purposes. In order to illustrate his assertion about the improbability of miracles, Hume proceeded to put the Protestant argument for a limited age of miracles on its head. He offered three postbiblical miracle stories: healings associated with the Roman emperor Vespasian, the regeneration of the leg of the doorkeeper of the cathedral of Sargossa (Spain), and healings associated with the tomb of the Jansenist Abbé Pâris in early-eighteenth-century France. Middleton had also appealed to the case of Abbé Pâris, for it was widely discussed in eighteenth-century England; but he had used it to discredit the claims of postbiblical miracles. Hume, however, argued that the “evidences and authority” of the accounts of the French miracles surpassed that of any biblical miracle. The evidence was particularly impressive because it included testimony from some Jesuit authorities who were the arch enemies of the Jansenists. Hume’s implication was clear: if the better attested postbiblical miracles were to be rejected, then the biblical ones should be jettisoned. 1

To put a point on it: is cessationism responsible for David Hume?

Smash Your Own Idols


Stop me if you’ve heard this before: an evangelical writer with Reformed leanings heaps together a whole bunch of things about younger people that he finds distasteful and encourages that Christians scorn them. Sounds like something that Carl Trueman could have written when in one of his grumpy old man-moods, or this Charles Bronson parody:

These sorts of posts tend to bother me for their consistent confluence of two things that need not be tied together. On the one hand there is a derision of people who wearing clothes that might be described as “hipster” and bundled in with this there is a derision of anything that might be considered, for lack of a better descriptor, some kind of social cause. The villain in this post dresses in skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses and rides a fixed-gear bike while drinking organic craft beer and denouncing child labour. This is of course the conservative evangelical’s version of the “Commie-Nazis.” This is what I find so noxious about this characterization, there are plenty of people who care about this or that social issue and who are terrible dressers who have no idea what is cool. (And this is from a thirty-something dad, so you know, if I think they can’t dress themselves…) The inverse is even worse, because even though I know a few people who might outwardly be identified as “hipsters” I don’t know anyone at all who would self-identify as such. In fact there is a joke that goes like this:

Q: How do you know if someone’s a hipster?

A: Ask them if they’re a hipster and if they reply “F*** no!” then you can be assured that they are.

So there’s the problem that this critique can be heard by almost everyone and be presumed to be about someone else, “those hipsters over there, yeah, they need to get things right!” So what we have is a sort of meaningless swipe at anyone who is perceived (by someone else again) to be a little to current in their dress and cuisine as well as someone who is clearly a political conservative taking a swipe at causes that he associates with those to the left of him, even if those who dress cool don’t really care about any of those causes. (I thought that caring wasn’t cool, so how the coolest people would also support the most worthy causes is beyond me, but I digress.) Now if the heart is, as Calvin said, an idol factory, I could take this sort of post a lot more seriously if the writer expressed concerned about his own idols. Your sweater-vests and Republican Party membership cards and assorted Reformed ephemera won’t save you, oh I’m sure they’re well-intentioned, but I’d take you more seriously if you junked all those things. See what I did there?

Miracles in Western Culture

Robert Bruce Mullin’s book Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination leads the reader through a fascinating tour of recent history, narrating the ways Western culture has wrestled with the idea of miracles. Here are two quotes from the beginning and end of the book that merit reflection:

Third (and most tentatively), this study suggests that this debate over the miraculous may be one of the principle divisions in religious thought since the mid 1850s, replacing the traditional Protestant-Catholic tension. Many students of late-nineteenth-century religion have noted that something important transpired during these years that altered the religious landscape in a profound way. Within the study of American Protestantism, a split between conservative and liberal–often defined by differences over the authority and inspiration of scripture–usually has been assumed. Indeed when I began this study I took for granted the conservative-liberal model. But I have become convinced that the debate over the miraculous and the spectrum of attitudes outlined in chapter 7 were far more important in transforming religious life than the issue of scripture per se. Finally, as I suggest in the epilogue, this pattern of responses may also help us to make sense of the religious discussion of the late twentieth century, where the issue of the miraculous has reappeared. 3

Second, not only has the debate over the miraculous emerged, but the four views of the interrelationship of biblical signs and wonders and modern signs and wonders… have also resurfaced. As one recalls, these four positions were (1) that the concept of miracle should be abandoned, (2) that miracles occurred during a “limited age,” (3) that “miracles” are important and occur in all ages, and one must use the understanding of the modern spiritual wonders to properly interpret the nature of biblical miracles, and (4) that miracles are common to both biblical times and the present day but one must use the biblical miracles to understand the modern wonders. Over the last few decades each position has found its supporters. Once again “progressive” clergy are calling for an abandonment of the category of the miraculous and are reinterpreting the great gospel miracles, whereas some conservative Protestants continue to maintain the cessationist position. But what seems to characterize the present religious world is the tremendous growth in popularity of positions three and four. Most modern advocates of miracles can be seen as dividing along these two positions. Thus whereas advocates of New Age healing attempt to interpret the healings of Jesus in light of their distinctive metaphysic, individuals like John Wimber and other advocates of sign ministry continue to emphasize the relevancy of biblical categories for the present. 264-265


The Meaning of Secular

Here are nine possible meanings of the word secular that I have devised from listening and pondering. Can you think of others?

(1) Not divine. That is, something that does not inexorably mediate divine will.
(2) Not clerical. That is, something not an expression of, or not under the administration of, an institution whose purpose is to perform “religious” activity (i.e., religious ritual, as Westerners understand it).
(3) Not eschatological. That is, relating to this age, prior to the perfection of all things, and so in some sense participating in imperfection, either moral or else in some sense ontological (e.g., the mortality of human beings).
(4) Not theist. That is, naturalist/materialist/atheist.
(5) Not mono-religious. That is, not of one particular religion (i.e., an institution may be composed of members who represent a variety of beliefs, and so as a body have no single religion).
(6) Not religious. That is, areligious, or religiously neutral.
(7) Not theocratic. That is, not like whatever countries like Iran are.
(8) Not with reference to religious activity. This would be similar to (2), except it would apply beyond relations to religious institutions, to relations to religious rituals in general. So, all activity that’s not a religious ritual would be “secular” in this sense.
(9) Not compatible with God. So, something in fact anti-divine.

One problem with (2), (5),  (6), and (8), is that they rely upon the concept of “religion”, which is itself disputed and ambiguous, and in a Western context usually actually means “something that resembles Christianity”.

Walter White as the (Anti)Christ

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Holy spoilers batman! Don’t go below the fold if you haven’t watched the series finale of Breaking Bad (and still want to).


The Ox Files: The Dumb Ox vs. The Underground Man

Thomas Aquinas

I’m continuing to read more Aquinas’ Summa and it’s more apparent to me that my chief reservation about him lies in his view of what motivates people to act. Here again and again I read him returning this idea that people act rationally toward some kind of final end. This I find flies in the face of what I read when I read Dostoevsky. This is significant because for many Dostoevsky remains one of those authors that can be safely regarded as Christian by just about all Christians (outside of a handful of the most rigorous sectarians). Most notably in Notes From Underground but also in many of his other books Dostoevsky portrays people acting out of very complicated motivations, some of the characters aren’t even sure why they are doing what they are doing it would appear. I would argue that it is precisely this complicated look at human actions and the convoluted psychologies behind them that makes Dostoevsky a writer of world-historical importance.

I don’t get this from Thomas. His view of what moves humans to act seems so tantalizingly simple, yet in trying to understand why people actually do what they do, Dostoevsky’s approach seem, to me at least, to ring more true. And what is that approach? I don’t think I can do it justice in a simple blog post, but it is sufficient to say that Dostoevsky would surely scoff at the idea that our motivations are as simple as wanting that which is for our final end. There are layers of irrationality or self-hatred or pride or spite or frailty that make our motivations constantly suspect. Not only to others but also to ourselves. Reading Aquinas he seems to casually wave all this away. How do Thomists answer Dostoevsky’s apparent implicit critique of their man?

Why Christian Filmmakers Are Not Breaking Bad

I came across this article via Brooks and it pained me because it came so agonizingly close to *getting* why Breaking Bad matters and why Christians shy away from doing similar kinds of work in the arts.

“Unfortunately, (and for a reason beyond my comprehension) Christians have decided that all movies and stories must have happy endings. Perhaps the Christian retail market helped promote that. The Joel Osteen, Oprah, and Chicken Soup books have only helped to perpetuate this false cliché.

The home team doesn’t always win. The husband doesn’t always return to his wife. The person with cancer doesn’t always get healed and sometimes the bad guy gets away. But you wouldn’t know this by watching Christian films, who appear to tell stories which lie about reality and present a world that is just as untrue as it is corny.”

Wow. Dead on. This is why so many Christians have zero interest in Christian fiction, television, movies and so on. Christians are missing the boat, especially now that television seems set to become a new sort of literary canon to replace what poems (ahem, Ozymandias), novels and plays were for the 18th, 19th and early-20th Centuries. But why would Christians tell such bad, unrealistic stories about life? I think the author of the article, Marcus Pittman gives us a substantial clue in the very second paragraph of his own text:

“Walter White, your average Government school Chemistry teacher has a good job, an intact family, and a happy life. Until that is, he finds out that he has cancer.

Desperate for a way to provide for his family and pay the medical bills, Walter White seeks out the help of a former student— now drug dealer and addict Jesse Pinkman—and together they develop a drug empire.”

Did you catch it? Government school. Heh. Posting on a site that is clearly appealing to conservative evangelicals Pittman somehow decides it’s necessary to make it clear that Walter White is not teaching a private Christian institution or homeschooling or whatever The American Vision thinks is better than “government” schools (and let’s be clear, the word “government” is lingering as a slur here). So here’s the subtle little moralizing message, don’t worry, this might happen in those depraved government schools, but it could never happen in a private Christian setting.


Working at a Christian school is not a way to guarantee someone’s faith or their good behaviour or that tragic life events might lead them down a terrible path where they are consumed by their own monstrosity. To be fair I reckon that Marcus Pittman realizes this, yet he still needs to differentiate Walter White and make him other from those who are held up as the ideal educators for The American Vision’s readership. This is the thin edge of the wedge for sentimentality and so I propose that Marcus Pittman has done some young Christian author or screenwriter a favour and unwittingly given them a great idea for a story. Let’s badly break a Christian school teacher. Here’s your story young Christian writer: Respected, oh let’s say… religion teacher at reputable classical Christian school loses faith after a personal tragedy and starts becoming a rising luminary in the New Atheist movement. How do his former students and colleagues react? Let’s not make his former colleagues saintly either, let them get jealous of him, try for petty vengeances. Go.

Don’t chicken out.

Letter From A So-Called Dirty Hippie


Does anyone know what this guy thinks this time around?

Hi there newly-minted war opponents! I welcome your newfound scepticism about the ability of Western military force to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. It was lonely out there in 2003 when I was being told to join with the “sensible” liberals/left-wingers (you know, like Christopher Hitchens) and support the invasion of Iraq to find oil err, the man who tried to kill the President’s dad err, weapons of mass destruction. We were told that this would be a cheap, easy war that would just about pay for itself in oil contracts and other sorts of peace dividends as American troops would be greeted as liberators. Why would anyone be so dumb as to stand with dirty old 1960s leftovers and various Noam Chomsky-type figures (including Noam Chomsky) when someone could do a quick installation of democracy with six easy weeks in Iraq. Why do lefties hate the Iraqi people? And of course most of my conservative-evangelical friends sided with what John MacArthur said here about the war fitting into the Christian just war tradition:

The logic in 2003 seems to have been that war is permissible and even noble under certain circumstances (because it’s used as a metaphor) and therefore that particular war was permissible and perhaps even noble. I want to see how John MacArthur would argue that this is not the case with Tomahawks and JDAMs landing on a few airfields if it was the case for house-to-house fighting in Fallujah or Samara or Tikrit.

I’m also a little surprised at all the concern over the Christian minority in Syria, when it came to the Christian minority in Iraq we were told that the US would protect the ability of missionaries to come in and proselytize and that the ancient Christian communities of Iraq didn’t really count since they were small and in decline and well, ahem, do Eastern Christians really *count* anyway? It would be nice if this represented some kind of growing awareness of a common, ancient, global Christian community that shared an identity across lines of East and West, but I’ll wait and see what happens the next time a Republican ignores the plight of a Christian minority somewhere like that of the Iraqi Christians ten years ago.

Of course I’m sure that this would be the EXACT SAME sentiment that all conservative Christians would express if Mitt Romney/Sarah Palin/John McCain were in the White House and proposing to strike the patrons of Hezbollah who were using chemical weapons on their own people against the wishes of the international community (save Russia). I hope Ian is correct that this represents a lesson learned and perhaps the waning of dispensationalism as a dominant view in American evangelical protestant circles, but I would like to check in the next time that a Republican president proposes military action to see if it is still the case that we need to carefully consider what it means to be a Christian facing the prospect of war or whether we are told to shut up and not criticize a sitting Commander-in-Chief in wartime because our God is bigger than the other guy’s.