Thursday, March 26, 2015

Calling Christian Publishers to Account

The most recent Christian Research Journal has an item at the end that offers some particularly disturbing observations about the book The Boy Who Went to Heaven, by Alex Malarkey. I don’t mean revelations that the book’s account of a near death experience by Alex were fraudulent. That’s old news by now. 

The article is written by Hank Hanegraaff, who has been in touch with Alex’s mother, Beth, and reports some of the things she say about the book and its success.  Mrs. Malarkey is extremely regretful about the success of the book, and is doing all she can to erase its influence.  However, one of the saddest reactions she reports is from a pastor who balked at her news, because the book was “blessing” people.

This is not a new sort of reaction. I’ve seen the same thing said of Colton Burpo’s NDE account, and no doubt will continue to hear that about it even if someday Colton steps to the plate and declares that he, too, made the whole thing up. I’ve also seen and heard similar excuses for Hitler’s Cross, the execrable work of Erwin Luzter which badly misreports the truth about Hitler’s religious beliefs.

I wrote Hitler’s Christianity in part to correct such mistaken ideas as Lutzer’s. But the example of what’s happening with the Malarkeys confirms that I shouldn’t expect to see my analysis in print anytime soon. I did have one slight nibble from a reputable publisher, but was told, in effect, that they didn’t want it because they couldn’t see the point of it. That’s nice to know.

When the news about Alex’s story first came out a couple of months ago, it went everywhere. Secular outposts like NPR covered it. And there are some good indications that at least one major retailer knew that the book was false months before that; and that Beth Malarkey was warning the publisher of inaccuracies even years before now. You can see here how a Christian apologist tried to get people at Lifeway to answer some simple questions and got nothing but a stone wall in reply. 

I don’t expect I’d get anything much different if I approached Lutzer or Moody Press about removing Hitler’s Cross from bookstore shelves. But I’ve been inspired by Alex and Beth Malarkey’s gumption, and maybe it’s time I tried, and recorded the results publicly for all to see. It would also be nice to see the evangelical publishing award that Lutzer’s book got rescinded. If we have more people like the Malarkeys who take a stand on falsehoods in Christian publishing, and if we have more embarrassing revelations posted in secular sources, maybe we can get these popular Christian publishers to be less concerned about making a buck and more concerned about fulfilling the Great Commission. And maybe we can also get it so that popular pastors stop writing books about subjects they know nothing about.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Church in the Teapot

Previously on this blog I’ve made note of model church programs at First Baptist Leesburg (FBL) in Florida, the former pastorate of Dr. Charles Roesel (who, for full disclosure, I consider a personal friend, and whose son is my local ministry partner). FBL is a church that I see as doing the Gospel right – acting on the commission we have to not only preach the Gospel, but also help the poor and needy. They have a “ministry village” which includes services for the homeless, a thrift store, and much more.

They’re a church on target with their mission. They’re also dead in the heart of territory here in my home state ruled by those who complain that they have been “taxed enough already.” Many Christians have piled in to this movement for whatever reason; I have observed that in many cases, said Christians are very well off, and have a tax bill that is dwarfed by their expenses in other areas of their personal budgets, including travel and personal entertainments. 

Nevertheless, they say, we pay enough taxes and don’t need to pay more.

The church as a whole doesn’t seem too interested in stressing civic duty, and has all too often acceded to the attitude that government is always a problem. Well, now for FBL, the chickens are starting to come home to roost on that attitude.

A news story here refers to the basics. FBL has hanging over its head the very real possibility that they may have to pay some $55,000 in “fire assessment” fees. That would amount to 1/20th of their current budget.  And although they would no doubt spread the pain around to various programs, there’s no doubt that some of that would have to come out of the budget for the programs that are and always will be Dr. Roesel’s and FBL’s legacy. Other churches, smaller ones, would also have to pay large fees relative to their budgets.

I’ll frame the matter a little more distinctly with a past living example. As I said, the area FBL is in is radical “taxed enough already” territory.  Residents there are so stingy that one fire station had been housed in a motel for years because residents didn’t want to pay the taxes needed to build a real fire station. (More recently, they finally will be building one.)

Other stories of similar nature emerge from that and other counties under the same influence here. In the same county, residents have also been too stingy to fund the construction of sidewalks so that students didn’t have to walk in the streets mere inches from traffic.

I’ve heard of trickle down economics, but I thought it worked the other way.

Here’s the bottom line. One way or the other, essential services like fire protection have to be funded. And now churches like FBL may end up paying for the stinginess of that county’s residents. In turn, the poor and needy served by FBL will pay also, in their own way.

Now note, please, what I am saying and what I am not. 

I am not saying there is not government waste that could be cut. One of my favorite books some years ago was titled The Government Racket by Martin Gross. It was a catalog of outrageous government spending. But waste on the federal level is not a reason to deny funding to a local entity that may or may not need to trim expenses, any more than we refuse to feed one hungry person because another is wasting food.

I am also not saying that the situation is ideal in any event. In a perfect world, citizens would band together to voluntarily fund communal services like fire and rescue, without any taxation. Or, wealthy members of the community would step up and pay for those fire fees on behalf of local congregations. (I’ve been through Leesburg many times. There are citizens there who could wrap fish in $55,000 every year and still live in mansions.)

I’m disturbed by this for more than one reason, including some personal ones I will discuss in some detail later in a forthcoming e-book titled A Church Without Conscience. For now let’s just say that the Tekton ministry almost came to an end as a direct result of the same sort of attitude towards taxation. 

In the meantime, FBL and other churches will be asking for waiver of these fees, according to news stories, and it remains to be seen whether Dr. Roesel’s legacy as a servant of Christ will continue to receive the support it both needs or deserves – or whether the selfishness and stinginess of well-fed citizens will trump that legacy. That includes citizens who claim the name of Christ, but in their daily lives remain insulated from the troubles that Dr. Roesel’s missions were meant to address.

Are we sheep…or are we goats?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Unconditionally Deselected

From the January 2012 E-Block.
As we now move to the critic's treatment of the U petal in TULIP, we find that he has almost totally foregone dealing with the complex explanations I offer in favor of an excuse that he will only select certain foundation beliefs which he thinks undermine my whole argument. Unfortunately, in so doing, he manages to get my views mostly wrong as he tries to pigeonhole them into something with which he is familiar. 

As before, the representation of his replies are in bold, and any quotes from our original U article are in italics. 

You think that people have more of a problem with the idea of election itself than they do the unconditional piece. Actually most people consider “limited atonement” to be the most controversial point.
I don't "think" any such thing, nor do I indicate any such thing. I do say that the U is probably the most controversial point, and I base that on extended observation and discussion with those who oppose it -- and I might add that limited atonement, in terms of a category, merely describes what the election in the U amounts to; so in reality, what people find difficult in L comes of what is in U and is derived from it. So regardless, even if L offends most, it is because of U that it is controversial. 

It is not election that people find offensive, but rather the fact that the basis of election is wholly and entirely located in God, and not some outward work or decision or foreknowledge of some work or decision man makes.
That is merely the expected hyper-Calvinist response, which seeks to lay fault at the feet of human sin (rather than honest questions) for disputing Calvinism. In other words, even if you say it is election you find offensive, as most critics do, the Calvinist of this brand will simply say you are lying because in the evil depths of your heart, you are actually offended by the basis of election lying wholly in God. My experience and study shows that it is indeed election that causes the offense; but of course I will merely be told that every one of my sources is a liar refusing to acknowledge Calvinism's glorious truths.

From here the critic embarks on an extended critique of middle knowledge (Molinism). This was actually a considerable waste of time, because I have been told by several Molinists that my views are not in full accord with theirs. Not that it really matters, for despite my explanations indicating that God is fully sovereign, we are assured by the critic that I really do see the basis for election in human choice -- I just don't see it, or won't admit it. That's not an answer, of course, but once again, merely the same sort of pious hyper-Calvinist dismissal as the one above which simply calls people liars when no other option is available.

It is complained that I need to show how all this works with Romans 9, but apparently the critic failed to search my archives and locate that treatment when writing his critique. Additionally, the concept of free will is criticized under the premise that it is to be defined as "will that is free from any and all external causes." I did not offer any such definition, nor is what I offered in line with such a definition. Rather, I define free will as nothing more than the ability to choose among options. Externals may in some way influence the choice, so I would not say that it means "free from" such externals at all. Additionally, it is also assumed that I hold to the particular Molinist view that God cannot know what a free creature will decide, which I do not. And so the critic ends up criticizing, for an extended period, a view I do not hold.

Also falsely attributed to me is a view that "predestination depends on good works." It is said that I "say as much" when I say:

Is there unrighteousness with God? Hardly. "Why not choose me?" -- Esau. At the very least it may be said in reply, "Because look what happens if you do."

However, this overlooks the much larger picture I painted in the article, in which God has designed -- by His own sovereignty -- persons for specific purposes. It also overlooks the fact that my subject here isn't even salvation, but the larger practical picture of all of the created order and God's purpose in it. In essence, the critic fails to grasp the actual complexity of my thesis, and so tries to force-fit it into categories he understands (or thinks he does) so that he can offer a misdirected critique.

Next up: we approach my minimal treatment of Romans 9 in the U article (not my detailed treatment in a later article). My commentary on high and low context is dismissed as "obscure" (which I suppose to this critic, it would be!), which is unfortunate since it is a point that is quite critical to my explanation. It is then said:

You contend that the Hebrew would have no interest in issues of free will and predestination. I wonder how you reconcile this with the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen writing to a Roman church that had a predominantly Gentile composition with a Jewish minority?

I don't need to, because the point is that the Hebrew resolved this issue by simply pointing out that God acted in history and was real, so whatever solution there might be, there had to be one -- it was trumped, though, by the simple fact that the universe was real, God was at work in it, and so that meant it wasn't our place to act as though it were a problem. That Paul was a Roman citizen did not change this ( how could it??); but this is all of no matter anyway, because Romans 9 is a case of Paul giving precisely this answer, as we showed in detail in our exegesis of Romans 9.

From here, the critic refuses to substantially deal with points I raise from Marvin Wilson, under the premise that Wilson is too biased, has an axe to grind, etc -- which I take to be the argumentative equivalent of a no mas. The critic does try to defuse some of Wilson's examples of block logic, but in so doing, merely unwittingly confirms Wilson's actual points. Thus, concerning both Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and God hardening it, is is said:

There are two perspectives here: God’s perspective and man’s perspective. We see Pharaoh hardening his heart in fulfillment of God hardening His heart. Moses was told clearly that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart.

But this does not defuse the paradox at all; it merely explains it in another way. "God's perspective" and "man's perspective" are just as much at odds and the paradox remains intact. All the critic has done has assumed that if he attaches a "God said so" to the front of it, the paradox disappears. It does not.

Two other examples are offered, but since no citation is given for where these are found in Wilson, I am not able to comment as not enough details are give. In the end, it is no surprise the critic instead find it necessary to resort to loaded language (eg, "Pelagian nonsense"), once again force-fitting ideas too complex for him into categories more familiar to him.

The critic closes with his own extended exegesis of Romans 9, leaving all else I say far behind. Since he has done nothing to address my own detailed exegesis -- not having even looked for it -- our own treatment ceases here as well. 

The critic skips our brief treatment of L, so we will continue with I next time.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Puritan Files: Cotton Mather

From the December 2011 E-Block.


A reader has requested a look at a unique and (for us) obscure topic, that of Puritan theology. Though I very much enjoy studying early American history, I must admit that this is indeed a topic most obscure to me; most of the observations I make here will be fresh, and I suspect many will be naive or even outright wrong. However, we will do out best to evaluate what we read in terms of what I know of Biblical interpretation.

To begin, we will have a look at a small item by Cotton Mather (1689) titled (in short form) Soldiers Counselled and Comforted (hereafter SCC). The particular interest in this work arises from a brief analysis by Susan Niditch, in which she gave a less than positive perspective on SCC as one which related a prejudicial view of Native Americans, and used the Bible in an unjustified way to support militarism.

To begin, it should be noted that most of SCC can be regarded as non-controversial. The bulk of it reads like a devotional, encouraging the soldier to be on guard for their souls and trust God; in that respect, much of it could be retitled (e.g., Plumbers Counselled and Comforted) and read little differently. It is the last third of SCC in which most of the critical theology is offered, and without doubt there is much, qualitatively speaking, about which questions can be raised, though not all to the same degree.

27-8: This section encourages the soldier to be courageous in battle and not entertain cowardice. One might argue that this sort of thing might tend to warmongering; on the other hand, in principle, this sort of exhortation would have its rightful place even in a war that few would deny is just (e.g., at the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, the war against Nazi Germany).

Niditch expressed particular concern about Native Americans being referred to here as "murderers". Mather does indeed use that designation, and calls down vengeance upon them. But it is not clear whether Niditch is objecting simply to the use of such strong language, or whether she is charging Mather with misguided falsehood (Does she think the story is one sided, or exaggerated?). 

Apart from consideration of historical matters outside our scope, we cannot answer this question fairly, though it is easily suspected that Mather was using loaded language to inspire negative impressions about the enemy his readers were soon to be at war with.

32: Here Mather reminds the soldier that "you are fighting for the defence of and succour of the blessed thrones which our David, our Jesus, has here erected for himself." And in this we do encounter some problematic theology, which we see repeated in other ways as well: There is an implication that in some way, God specially represents those for whom the soldier fights -- at this early date, not America as a nation, but New England. Moreover it is said that the soldier fights "that the churches of God may not be extinguished, and the wigwams of the heathen swarming in their room: you are fighting that the children of God may not be made meals or slaves...", and assurance is given that "you have with you, the Hosts of the Lord; the very Angels are your Companions in your present Enterprise." (33)

And so it goes, for the next few pages; a highly dualistic "us vs them" template, matched with "good vs evil" in turn -- to the point that Mather even refers to his readers as the "New English Israel." It is this attitude Niditch made much over, and arguably, some would say, rightly so. And yet as well, I am presently suspicious of too literalist a reading of a text like SCC, especially given that we found Niditch previously taking certain Biblical texts too literally. Are Mather's assurance to the soldiers the manifestations of foaming hatred? Or are they no more than the exhortations of an earnest preacher, speaking in the "trash talk" of his time and place?

If they are the former, then of course, we manifestly have a series of theological problems. Arguing that God is on "our side" in some war is exhortational nitroglycerin. If you think God is on your side, like Mather, then you had best be very, very sure that He is before saying so -- and using that as a rallying point. 

By the same token, if, like Niditch, you think that's inappropriate and that God doesn't take sides, you had also better be sure that He is not before condemning those who say otherwise. The long and short of it is that prudence dictates silence in terms of claiming the allegiance of God, certainly until you know what is what.

I am certainly not here to argue that Mather was right or wrong, or that Niditch was right or wrong to use Mather as a bad example of what she wished to illustrate. Neither of them provide any sustained argument to make such points, and as such, neither fulfills their responsibility to the uninformed reader by themselves.

And yet, two questions arise. One, again, is whether Mather expected to be taken literally and seriously, or whether he is engaging the "trash talk" of his day -- expecting as well that his Native American opponents would likewise exhort themselves with the assurance that their god or gods were on their side, and that all the hosts of heaven would surely fight for them. Second, it should be asked whether a critique like Niditch's misses the point. Let us say that Mather lived in alternate universe where Christianity did not exist. Should we suppose that he would be able to find no other religious or even secular text to validate and assure his readers? Would he not call Native Americans nasty names? A criticism like Niditch's seems to presume that without the Bible to call on, Mather's soldiers would have peacefully extended an olive branch to the local sachem, and all would have been well from then on.

So as we examine Puritan theology further, one thing we will look for is this idea of God being "on our side" -- what justification is given? To what extent is this idea of Mather's readers as an "Israel" defined out and justified? How is the Bible used? Mather's SCC doesn't present so much as an argument beyond "we good, they bad," and we may agree that this isn't enough by any stretch to rationally defend the notion that "God is on my side, especially in these particulars."

In close, I might briefly note something of the concept of a new Israel, as Mather alludes to, but does not define. There are some who have argued for a "replacement theology" in which America is a new Israel. I have rejected that view; the new covenant is not theocratic, but is "signed" with each member of the Body of Christ. While this may have certain implications for how we conduct our daily lives, even in politics and war, it does not mean we can expect to be subject to the Deuteronomic blessings (or curses, for that matter) as a nation. To what extent, if any, later authors we visit offer or defend such notions, remains to be seen.