A Word About College

I entered a rather interesting fray on Facebook yesterday after posting some thoughts about Liberty University.  The long and short of it was that I haven’t been very impressed by the school in the past and would rather see students looking for a Christian college go elsewhere.  Responses were varied, with some frustrated that I would make such a statement while others were heartily in agreement.  A few current and former Liberty students also contacted me to defend their school.  Other parts of the discussion focused on the idea of the Christian college itself and/or the merits of–as one person put it–[gasp] the non-Christian college.

While Providence, parents, students, and the pocketbook have a much bigger say in the choice of college than me, I do feel it was appropriate to share  in this area because of my time as a youth pastor and increasingly involvement in the field of Christian higher education.

A few more thoughts after reflecting on the conversation(s):

  • I believe in Christian colleges, or, as we in the “biz” like the call them, “Christian liberal arts institutions.”  When done well, they can provide an excellent space for young Christian believers to move from childhood to adulthood in a challenging yet affirming way.  Though there is the danger of schools being either too theologically protective and safe (i.e. indoctrinating) or too progressive and challenging under the guise of safety (i.e. misleading), many schools do a great job with this.  I feel that my alma mater Houghton College is one of these schools, as is my current employer Northwest University.  Another choice would be Wheaton College outside of Chicago.
  • Though all schools (Christian or not) have some responsibility to guard their students (the old in loco parentis), some schools go too far in doing so.  As one friend noted, adolescence is already too long as it is.  Do we really need colleges treating young adults like junior highers?  While there need to be some bounds of safety within a Christian community (that can be unfortunately lacking at some public institutions), these need to be of the common sense variety.  For instance: there is a big difference between banning drinking on campus and fining students for not cleaning their rooms.  Or requiring every student to take an introductory theology class vs. instilling a mandatory curfew on nights and weekends.  In other words, schools need to ask themselves whether their rules are motivated out of a tradition and fear OR a desire to see students grow up in a real and complex world.
  • Christian colleges come in all shapes and sizes.  To have heard a little bit about one, or even to have gone to one, does not exhaust the variety and richness that is the scope of American Christian undergraduate institutions.  There are lots of different people out there as well.  I can imagine lots of reasons people might choose to go to a lot of different schools.  There are some people that need to be challenged more, and some that may have more growing up to do and need to be encouraged in different ways.  My own preference: to see students that want a Christian undergraduate experience to be at a place that is “safe” yet challenging and will help further their growth as a person, believer, and product member of society who integrate their faith in all they do.  But, at the end of the day, I do concede that college is what you make it: you can have a horrible experience at a great school or a great experience at a horrible school.
  • I’m not foolish enough to think that every college-bound believer needs to attend a Christian college.  They can be very expensive…and at a certain point, I’m not sure how much the “experience” is really worth.  There can be a certain elitism or even selfishness in spending so much money on yourself…if it is just for yourself.  Moreover, I believe that Christians do have a place in the public sphere.  This oughtn’t to always begin AFTER college, either.  As a former student of mine (and graduate of  a non-Christian college) rightly noted, there are a lot of opportunities to grow and serve and be a witness to Christ at these institutions as well.  Groups like Intervarsity or Chi Alpha do a great job working with and encouraging students all over the country, and as a youth pastor I value their presence and continued ministry.
  • I’d also like to add that youth pastors ought  to work with students and parents as they are making these decisions in their junior and senior years of high school.  I didn’t always do a great job at this, but am increasingly convinced it can be a vital part of twelfth grade ministry and beyond: advising students not only what school they will attend but how to prepare for it, what their expectations are, and what dialogue partners they will have about their experiences.  Important stuff.



When Murder Is The Most Christian Thing You Can Do

Tomorrow night I’ll be hosting a viewing and discussion of the documentary Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister here at Northwest University (HSC 104 at 7pm, if you’re interested).  As for many Christians, Bonhoeffer has become for me a hero of faith and a real 20th century saint.  The fact that he’s German doesn’t hurt either.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a complex man: top-notch and innovative theologian, caring pastor, political protester, and would be assassin.  One of the things for which he is best remembered is, of course, his complicity in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944.  For this involvement he was arrested and executed in the waning days of the Third Reich.

The story of his journey to this point is a fascinating one, but in general I’d like to think that it was his very deep sense of discipleship and identification with Christ that led him to his murderous decision.

Three quotations attributed to Bonhoeffer:

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

“If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

“Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”

As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:

To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). There are two guides for determining the will of God in any concrete situation: 1) the need of one’s neighbor, and 2) the model of Jesus of Nazareth. There are no other guides, since Bonhoeffer denies that we can have knowledge of good and evil (Ethics, p.231). There is no moral certainty in this world. There is no justification in advance for our conduct. Ultimately all actions must be delivered up to God for judgment, and no one can escape reliance upon God’s mercy and grace. “Before God self-justification is quite simply sin” (Ethics, p.167). Responsible action, in other words, is a highly risky venture.

In this way, I see Bonhoeffer’s assassination ethic as one that might be considered supremely Christian.  He quite literally took on sin–sin that he would neither downplay or deny–in order to save his people (and the world) from the terror that was Adolf Hitler.  I suspect that even if Bonhoeffer knew he would be eternally condemned for such sin he would have willing taken the punishment, because it was worth it to save his people.  In serving the will of God in this way, we might literally say he was “beyond good and evil.”  Thus turning the Nietszchean/Nazi ideal on its head, Bonhoeffer became a very different kind of Übermensch.  Indeed, it is quite possible that in that moment he may have been more truly “Christlike” than most of us can ever dream.

I know that there are a host of issues with looking at ethics in this way, not the least of which being that it could lead to the theoretical justification of any action in the name of God.  But all the same, I can’t help feeling that in this one instance, Bonhoeffer modeled Christ is a truly unique way.

Let me know your thoughts.  There’s a lot of room for discussion and disagreement here, but it is a conversation worth having.

Saturday Links

On this (once again) rainy Saturday in Seattle, some links I’ve found particularly enjoyable  for “enterprising distraction:

  1. Blastr:  Where is a nerd supposed to get all his/her genre news?  Look no further, my friends: Blastr is here.  Run by the people at the SyFy Network, an bizarre assortment of news and tidbits from worlds beyond.
  2. Christian Classics Ethereal Library:  A clearing house for scads of public domain written material from the two millennia of Christian history.  Not always the most user friendly, but a good source to start exploring nonetheless.
  3. Mark Halperin’s The Page:  Outstanding and concise comments on the state of American politics.  A must-stop in this election year.  See also the conservative Drudge Report, progressive Huffington Post, and more mainstream politics sites Politico and Real Clear Politics.
  4. Trekmovie: If the only news you care about is the new Star Trek movie, check out this site.  Good stuff about the film and more!
  5. Alternate History:  For historians like me, thinking about what might have happened can provide a break from thinking about what really happened. Check out the “what ifs” of history on this fascinating forum.
  6. Google’s Ngram Viewer:  The ultimate time-waster.  Track the prevalence of a word or words over time by means of their appearance in Google Books.  Take a look at the use of the word “fart.”  Really popular in the colonial era, apparently.  Fascinating.

Calvin: Hero or Dog?

John Calvin.  You probably already have an opinion.  Like certain key figures throughout history, he is a lightning rod for controversy.  Just hear the name and you already know what you think.

Individuals like Calvin are the kinds of people that we have–rather unfairly–heaped all of our hopes or fears, love or hate, admiration or disgust.

This isn’t new.  Stories circulate about how early during Calvin’s time in Geneva, people were so upset with his actions that they named their dogs after them.  His teachings were a big point of controversy in the 18th century evangelical revival of Edwards, Wesley, and others.  More recently, Philip Pullman’s bizarre His Dark Materials trilogy posited an alternate universe where John Calvin became Pope of a heavily oppressive Church.  Ouch.

More positively, others love him.  He is, in their eyes, the final word in theology.  His view of God’s sovereignty is the height of theology, and most everything before or since fails to live up to it.  Calvin, Reformer par excellence, both guards  and caution the believer.  The legal and logical Calvin is never far from his followers, and they will rarely miss an opportunity to argue with you about it.  Go ahead, read some R. C. Sproul.

Of course when I say Calvin, I speak here of Calvinism.  And we all know what that means, right?  It means predestination and TULIP and all sorts of lovely things like that.  That God has chosen some to be saved and others “not to be.”  We hear this and we think we know what Calvin was all about.  What the driving passion of his life, ministry and theology was.  Calvinism, we think, equals predestination.

I’m teaching on John Calvin today in Church History II, and I’m happy to report to you that Calvin’s teaching on predestination only takes up tiny percentage of the lecture.  After all, it only took up a small part of his famous book Institutes of the Christian Religion.  There are lots of other things in there too: sanctification, the Church, government, Scripture, etc.  Because of later developments in history, Calvin has been tied too closely to predestination alone…and that’s unfortunate.

He did teach the doctrine, however.  I disagree with him, but I do not think it is the end of the world that I do.  To someone who wants to argue with me about this, I’d simply say this: so what?  Who cares?  What does it really matter?  People who want to waste time arguing about for or against a doctrine like this ought to realize, as my former college professor once said, that the Reformation is OVER.  It is not the 16th or even 18th century anywhere.  We need to move on.

I recently heard of a professor at a Christian college who was a “closet Calvinist.”  After a while, he announced himself as such and created a lot of trouble and division on campus.  If that was the entirety of the story, I’m dismayed.  I have no patience for any of this.  Neither the professor’s actions nor the college’s forbidding such ways of thinking are helpful to the Christian Church…and for the life of me I can’t understand why they are worth arguing about, especially in our time.

If you want to study Calvin, that is terrific.  But study all of his writings and use Calvin as a dialogue partner in your own faith journey.  Realize that our modern world has things in it that Calvin never conceived…and our job is to take theologically reflect on them, just as Calvin did in his time.

Calvin was not a dog.  But neither was he God.  Quite possibly, he wasn’t even a Calvinist–at least not in the way we understand the term today.

Sex 101

In this third post on the Driscoll’s book Real Marriage,  I’d like to take a look at their chapters that focus on sex.  They are at once theological and graphic.  The level of depth with which they discuss sexual intimacy, while not unheard of in the evangelical world, is certainly notable for such a mainstream book.  For some, this can be a little worrisome.

In general, I feel that his chapters in this area quite acceptable and don’t cross any lines of propriety.  What are we going to do, after all, stick our heads under rocks?  As a pastor to young adults in the Seattle area, Driscoll deals with various (and real) questions about sex all the time.  Surely discussing them openly on a national level is a healthy thing.

Framing this discussion of sex is a chapter entitled “Sex: God, Gross, or Gift?”  Within, Driscoll helpfully rejects our culture’s elevation of sex as the supreme goal to be achieved even as he strongly attacks the pervasive Christian notion that sex is in itself “dirty” or sinful.  As a good gift of God, sex is meant to be enjoyed within marriage.

Other chapters in the “Sex” section of the book include a frank and must-read discussion of the destructive “Porn Path” that leads to so much brokenness for men and women alike, his wife’s discussion of sexual abuse, and direct talk about lovers being “selfish” or a “servant.”  While Driscoll gets a little heavy-handed in the prescriptions he offers in the latter chapter, pairing his discussion with the Bible’s own erotic love song (Song of Songs) helps provide some context.

The last chapter of his sex discussion is potentially the most controversial.  It is called “Can We_____?”  In it, Driscoll addresses numerous sexual practices and behaviors (everything from masturbation to anal sex) and attempts to pastorally answer the question that frames the chapter.  He asks three questions about each practice, and walks Christians through his answers: is it lawful, is it helpful, and is it enslaving?  While sometimes bit of a mechanistic way to answer these questions, as a pastor I understand the need to help provide concrete advice for those who are asking.  For believing readers, consider this chapter a real discussion starter as you work through your boundaries and perspectives in this area.

In closing, I have to reiterate: the Driscoll’s Real Marriage is just that: a frank and honest discussion of their marriage and the various marital situations they have had to reflect upon in their years in ministry.  While I don’t agree with everything about their approach or conclusions, the book’s authenticity and directness make it a good choice for ministers wanting to help couples talk about such issues in pre-marital or marital counseling.  I suspect, with some selective editing, that I might make use of the book in premarital counseling myself one day.

Men, Women, and Mark Driscoll

Today: Part II of my thoughts on Mark & Grace Driscoll’s new book, Real Marriage.  Though there is much to commend the book, I cannot wholeheartedly endorse all of it.  This is mostly due to Driscoll’s traditionalist and masculine approach to theology and gender relations.  While I will admit that it is well within the bounds of Scripture to take the approach he does and he is much more sensitive to the surrounding issues than many would give him credit for, I part company with him in the following areas:

  1. Men need to be more manly and should not be stay-at-home Dads.  Reacting against the growing trend of “indefinite adolescence and a Peter Pan syndrome epidemic where some men what to remain boys forever,”  Driscoll wants boys to grow up and be men.  I understand this.  And make no mistake: he argues against chauvinists even as he does “tender cowards.”  But when it comes to the traditional husband as breadwinner, I aver.  His wife Grace writes, “The man’s curse was providing for his family…if you want any men to respect you, if you want your wife to respect you, if you want your children to respect you, you pay the bills.”  Really?  Is it that simple?  That cut-and-dry?  That black and white?  It think not.  There can be plenty of circumstances where the man is at home and the wife works.  While this non-traditional setup may seem weird or embarrassing to some, this likely has more to do with culture than some eternal biblical mandate.
  2. The wife should submit to the husband.  There’s plenty of biblical discussion here that I don’t want to get into today…but my question is this: how often does this doctrine even matter?  The Driscolls reject egalitarian marriage in favor of a complementarian one.  But even in their model, Driscoll has admitted that his wife is his “functional pastor.”  Real Marriage argues strongly against using male authority over a wife in an abusive way, and even discusses the topic of submission with reference to Ephesians 5:21, which commands “submitting to one another.”  If, as Grace Driscoll writes, “she [the wife] gets to decide if you [the husband] are loving and leading well as the head, and you get to decide if she is respecting and submitting well as the helper,”  why are we contending for headship in the first place?  Just because we feel we have to?  How is the Driscoll’s marriage NOT egalitarian in many ways?  I believe marriage is a relationship of mutual submission…and frankly I’m not sure if in practice even some of the most fervent “male headship” people wouldn’t agree. 
  3. Women in ministry.  Not a major topic in the book nor a major topic for today.  Suffice it to say that Mark Driscoll is against female pastors.  I am not.  For Pentecostals, both our history and the primacy of the Acts 2 passage (where the Spirit is poured out on “all flesh”) help safeguard the place of women in ministry.  From my experience as a seminarian at a mainline school surrounded by a host of men and women preparing for the pulpit, I can tell you this:  one of the most clearly called and gifted ministers I have seen–of any gender–is a woman.  Deal with that.

Tomorrow:  Sex and Real Marriage.

Obama the Populist

Tonight is the State of the Union address.  It is Obama’s last before the election in November, and will likely be the first major broadside against his Republican opposition in the coming contest.  By all accounts, Obama’s will be a populist message to the American people.  In general, populism is defined as “a common theme compares ‘the people’ against ‘the elite,’ and urges social and political system changes.”  Obama has been working on such populist themes for a little while now, even as he’s appeared rather quiet in the face of the continuing tumultuousness of the Republican contest.

America’s been working on its own populist themes, too:  the Tea Party and the Occupy movements.  The time may indeed be ripe for such kind of rhetoric–and action.  Is this, however, just a political move?  Does Obama really hold these principles?  How will they work themselves out in the real world and will they truly benefit the American people?  Will his proposals even be considered by a hostile Congress?  These are the matters that Americans of all political persuasions will have to debate after tonight.

In any case, if Obama is indeed turning his not insignificant campaigning skills (remember 2008?) to this new theme, the Republicans had better be ready.  Unfortunately for them, the two remaining candidates who could most powerfully offe an opposing populist view (Ron Paul and Rick Santorum) have little chance at the nomination.  Ron Paul’s libertarian populism was born for this kind of debate, and Rick Santorum’s modest lifestyle would lend itself well to being “of the people.”

The two leading candidates may be rather ill-suited to respond to populist sentiments.  Newt Gingrich could do it, but his unpredictability, years inside the Beltway, and questionable activities and reimbursement as a (pseudo)-lobbyist raise a lot of questions.  And Mitt Romney?  Well, he is incredibly rich and has an almost pathological inability to connect with the common man and woman.  He’s still likely to get the nomination, but it is somewhat difficult to see how he could ever compete in an election framed by populism and “I feel your pain” moments