Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Godwin's Law

I learned something interesting today: I learned about Godwin's Law. Nearly twenty years ago Mike Godwin observed that, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” That is, inevitably someone in a heated debate is going to call their opponent an emotionally laden name. I had never heard this before and found it most interesting.
I also immediately thought of a corollary when thinking of religious blogging since that is where I spend a lot of my blogging time. I think within very conservative circles that the corollary would be, "As an online religious discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving legalism or Pharisees approaches 1.”
There is also a special corner of the blogosphere where self-identified fundamentalists hang out and it has it's own corollary: "As an online discussion among fundamentalism grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Neo-evangelicals approaches 1.”

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I Love Historical Fiction Except When I Hate It

I love history. The story of the past is fascinating, compelling, gripping, engaging and seemingly endless. How did people live, what did they eat, how did they think about their world? These are the questions that history tries to answer. Right next to history in my interest is historical fiction. Books like Johnny Tremain, Red Badge of Courage, Ben Hur, and Master and Commander bring to life historical events more or less accurately by narrating the historical facts through fictional characters. The thing that separates these two genres is that one purports to give the facts of the event and one sets out to fictionalize around the facts of the event.
In our present age we seem to like to confuse so many things. I recently read a book that alleged to be a historical account of the the War Between the States. As I got into the book I noted that hardly a page was turned where the words, "perhaps, seemingly, supposedly, possibly, maybe or conceivabl" were not used. This "history" book had a lot of reading between the lines, secondary and tertiary sources and speculation. It was not history in any objective sense; it was historical fiction. Don't get me wrong–it was a great read and a compelling story and it may even be a true account of the events. But it was not history. It should not be presented as history nor should it be read as history.
Unfortunately the same thing seems to be happening with Church History. People are writing and reading books that appear to be factual, historical accounts of the followers of Jesus Christ. The problem is that they are fanciful. They rely on hearsay, supposition and fallacies to prove the authors point of view. That point of view may be correct, compelling, verifiable, and true but if it not shown to be that from the primary sources then it must not be portrayed as historical. The first time that I can remember reading something like this was a book I was loaned called "Are Baptists Calvinists." The author proceded by abused logic and selective use of sources to "prove" that baptists are and always have been soteriologically in the reformed camp and to paint all opponents as false baptists and Pelagians! I am sure there is a bizarro twin book that "proves" that baptists have never been calvinistic and that all who disagree with it's author are false christians and hyper-calvinists!
Even further afield are the writings of people like Dan Brown and William Young who claim to be christians and yet deny cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. I think that they use the expression, "I am a christian," the same way I say, "I am a ninja." I am not really sure what it means but it is cool and I want it to be true so I say it!
The New Testament gives warnings about believing and passing on these kinds of fables. 1 Timothy 1:4 and 4:7 and 1 Peter 1:16 along with other passages tell us that christians are to give the truth of the gospel without mixing in unsubstantiated stories and embellishments. Pastors and church leaders need to be careful that what they teach and preach is accurate, factual and logically valid and all Christians must learn to be discerning, able to search the scriptures like the Bereans of Acts 17. The Gospel is built on facts substantiated by logically consistent proof and reasonable experience just like everything true.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Doctrine & Piety

The church has struggled with this for 2000 years: which is more important, doctrine or piety? The struggle comes from our innate human tendency to see things as either/or when it should be both/and. I think this is engraved in our DNA. Everyone seems to struggle with this issue. Some certainly struggle less or overcome it easier but I believe that everyone has this. Part of our schooling is to learn the critical thinking skills necessary to recognize when things are either/or and when they must be both/and. The excluded middle certainly is not always in view and we can often commit the fallacy of trying to steer a middle course where none exists. However, it seems just as common as failing to recognize the need to hold two seemingly opposite ideas in tension.

In my religious background of 20th Century American Fundamentalism there has been a significant struggle with the issue of doctrine vs. piety. Anyone who has spent time in fundamentalist circles has heard the old saws: "Churches are dying by [seminary] degrees!" "We don't need to read all that theology--we have the Bible!" "Calvinism [or some other doctrine-you-love-to-hate] kills evangelical fervor!" Of course no one can be completely without doctrine since doctrine is simply "a set of beliefs held and taught" (Oxford American Dictionary). So even the belief that "we don't need doctrine" would be a doctrine! Doctrine is perhaps best thought of as how we think about our religion.

Piety is a recurrent theme in church history as well it should be. Piety is "the quality of being religious or reverent" and often carries with it the ideas of "devotion, piousness, religion, holiness, godliness,saintliness; veneration, reverence, faith, religious duty, spirituality, religious zeal, or fervor." In other words it reflects in large part how we feel about religion or how religion affects our emotions.

As we look through church history we often find movements or periods or denominations in which a dry doctrinaire attitude has pervaded and characterized the people and assemblies. This is never a good thing. For to paraphrase Paul's letter to the Corinthians: if we understand all the mysteries of God and we have no sentiment it is worthless. Yet the solution cannot be boundless piety.

Pietism has often arisen as a reaction to dead orthodoxy and as such it is very good and even necessary. However, those carried away in spirituality often fail to realize that piety can lead to as many problems as lifeless theology. By rejecting as unnecessary the intellectual pursuit of doctrine as derived from the revelation of God, the zealous often fall into the same kinds of error that the church has been rejecting for 2 millennia. Think about this: most christian cults, from the gnostics to the Branch Davidians, start out at least cloaked in pietism. Mormonism was about purifying a corrupt Christianity. The Watchtower society is renowned for their keeping of the moral law. No one is stricter about allowing God to affect their lives than the 7th Day Adventist. But all of these groups have strayed away from orthodoxy. And what of those who would not be considered cults. Within the accepted bounds of orthodoxy those who reject as superfluous the scientific study of scripture and history lay out a course that quickly steers for the rocks of heterodoxy. This is most evident today in many fundamentalists visceral concern about the "evils" of Calvinism. While I am no calvinist, I do know that calvinism is within the bounds of orthodoxy and always has been. But, those who set out to be not just arminian but outright anti-calvinist quickly stray into open theism. This is natural since the only coherent position to take against the reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God is to posit a "limited sovereignty" that is Open Theism. While no self-avowed fundamentalist would take the label of open theism there are certainly many who sound like Clark Pinnock and his friends.

So, religion is a lot like sailing. You really cannot sail all on one tack. If you want to go anywhere you have to tack back and forth. If you want to sail a fairly straight course close to the wind you often have to tack quite frequently. Some people want to pretend that religion is like a powerboat. The power is doctrine or piety and they want to firewall the engine and point the bow in a direction and go. The reality is that we need correct doctrine. Doctrine that is grounded in the Word of God. Necessarily any doctrine that distinctly departs from the way the church has been reading the Bible for 2000 years is no good teaching. We might arrive at a fuller understanding of the end times than the medieval church had but we cannot derive some kind of idea that Christ is not ever returning since the church has always affirmed the imminent return of Jesus. We also need piety. The biblical teach of the gospel, the good news that God is seeking to correct our dangerous predicament of rebellion against Him by adopting us through the aegis of Christ's perfect life and vicarious death, is something that must move our hearts. God's revelation is not just given to us to address our brains but also to rend our hearts and shake our knees. This is most clearly seen in the Apocalypse of St John when the Lamb is revealed before everyone who has ever lived on the earth. The response is twofold: they bow in perfect pious worship and they verbally affirm the biblical truth that God and the Lamb are who they have revealed themselves to be!

We need to live our lives in expectation of heaven where we will achieve the perfect balance of piety and doctrine.